The relatively stable equilibrium, which defined British politics and society for a decade, has now broken down. The crisis of the traditional English hegemonic class, under whose rule British capitalism has in recent years so visibly declined, threatens the long supremacy of the Conservative Party. It would be too much to say that socialists were prepared for this, poised for their own participation in coming events. Since its severe defeat at Blackpool in 1961, the Left has taken no major initiatives and launched no great debates. The rapid succession of crises and upheavals which began with the death of Gaitskell and culminated with the resignation of Macmillan, unfolded without any independent intervention by the Left. In two years, there has been a memorable bonfire of values in Britain. The Left did not light it. Will it benefit from it?
In a previous number of this review, I attempted a general explanation of the nature of the crisis in British society today.footnote1 In this article, written before the election, I shall try to answer some questions left open at the end of that analysis. What has been the Labour Party’s response to the present crisis? What is the character of the Labour leadership and programme? Independently of the result of the election, these questions need to be examined by socialists.
Only time will show whether the purely narcotic effects of the prosperity of the fifties have worn off. If this proves to be the case, one of the two great post-war barriers to the advance of socialism in England will have been breached. Affluence will have lost its magic, and become relative and judged.
Meanwhile, the second barrier to socialism in Western Europe, the traditional pattern of the Cold War, has been dissolving. Decolonization in the Third World, the Sino-Soviet conflict, the emergence of Gaullism, the Russo-American entente, have shattered the old bi-partite system of world relations. The new configuration of the Cold War, whatever its repercussions elsewhere, has probably been favourable to the working-class parties of the West. The Soviet Union has lost much of its terrors for Western Europe. France has triumphantly defied America. The classical, simple polarizations no longer operate. There is, at last, a geo-political space for European socialism. Wilsonism emmerged as a precise response to the new situation: the slow crisis of English capitalism and the transformation of the Cold War. In many ways, it has been a creative response, which has made the Labour Party into the dynamic left-wing of European Social-Democracy. But it also bears the ominous hallmarks of its lineage, traditional Labourism. A dialectical judgement is necessary to grasp and relate both aspects.
Wilsonism is, first and foremost, a strategy rather than a simple programme. This is its strength and its novelty. Perhaps for the first time in its history, the Labour Party now possesses a coherent analysis of British society today, a long-term assessment of its future, and an agressive political strategy based on both. The contrast with Gaitskellism is arresting.
The difference between the two can roughly be summed up as follows. Gaitskell, fanatically anti-communist and dedicated to the Western alliance, was fundamentally defensive before the evolution of late industrial capitalism. He and his advisers believed that it was undermining Labour’s electoral support both by providing a high standard of living for the working-class and by eroding the actual numbers of the working class. Obsessed by the two great themes of the theories of ‘embourgeoisement’ of the time, the spread of durable consumer goods and the net shift from manual to white-collar occupations in the population, Gaitskell’s response was one of retreat. The only future he could imagine was an indefinite repetition of the present. British
Wilson’s approach is very different. He shows a relatively acute structural perception of British society. He is convinced that the present crisis of the governing class allows the Labour Party to split the Conservative bloc, detaching from it specific, crucial groups in the population. First and foremost among these is the ‘technical intelligentsia’:footnote2 scientists, technicians, engineers, architects, managers, and professional workers, employed in both private and public corporations. Far from long-term occupational changes undermining Labour’s strength by making ‘less workers’, Wilson is confident that they can increase it by creating ‘more producers’. Thus his immediate target of winning the technical intelligentsia away from the Conservative bloc by playing on its antagonism to a demoralized aristocracy, is married to a long-term aim of including this pivotal, expanding sector of the population within the Labour alliance. Untouched by anti-communist phobias, benefiting by the debacle of the Conservative economy, Wilson makes few concessions to consumer ideology. Instead, he continually attacks social imbalance in Britain, the real impoverishment of collective needs and the artificial inflation of private ones, and appeals to his audience as producers to change this, in the name of ‘a new Britain’. Finally, he offers an altogether new rationale for the degree of social intervention which this implies: instead of a calm, continuous future of ascending material well-being and contentment, he insists on the explosive technological and social upheavals of automation ahead.