For a decade in Britain, under Conservative rule, there was a recognizable and active Left. Now at last there is a Labour Government. But there is no longer, in the same sense, a Left. This paradox must be the starting-point of any consideration of the tasks confronting socialists today. Clearly, the most urgent need is to recreate an independent, combative Left, with its own goals and its own timetable. A condition of success in this is a critical assessment of the Left which has just disappeared. Without such an assessment, it is unlikely that anything durable will emerge in the search for a new strategy. For any future Left will have to learn the lessons of the past. These lessons concern not so much the mistakes of the Left in the Fifties, as its character. It is this which requires a precise and lucid analysis today.
There now seems to be a tacit agreement among socialists to bury the past. The temptation to maintain a discreet silence, to forget old quarrels, to look only towards the future, is understandable. But no attempt to consider the possibilities of the present will be viable unless it starts from some examination of the conflicts and contradictions which led up to it.
There is no need here to recount the course of events in the Labour movement over the past decade, after the fall of the Attlee government in 1951. The rise of Bevanism, the conflict over German Rearmament, the loss of the 1955 election, the accession of Gaitskell to the leadership, the adoption of Industry and Society, the first Aldermaston March, the defeat in the 1959 election, the fight over Clause Four, the bitter struggle over unilateralism, the final victory of Gaitskell, the publication of Signposts for the Sixties, unity in opposition to the Common Market, Gaitskell’s death—all these are fresh in everyone’s memory. Moreover, at this point of time, any full attempt to retrace and synthesize the intricate political struggles within the Labour Party would necessarily fail. However, looking back at the development of the party since 1951, certain permanent themes are clearly visible. It is in terms of them—and the conflicts they engendered—that the analysis sketched below will be made. The remarks which follow will inevitably be schematic. No subject is so contentious or difficult to seize. The focus of the analysis will be, not the political narrative of the period, but the sociology of its actors and the ideology of their interventions. In each case, extremely complex and variegated phenomena will be brusquely simplified and ‘essentialized’ for the purposes of discussion: the requirements of a short article make this inevitable. Within these limitations, what approximate balance-sheet can be drawn up of this anguished, parched decade?
Two problems have dominated the struggle for socialism in Britain from the turn of the fifties onwards: ‘affluence’ and the ‘cold war’. These issues have provided the deepest experience of the European Socialist movement in our time. By the early fifties, Keynesian capitalism had eliminated mass unemployment and allowed a steady increase in the material standard of living of the working-class. It thereby appeared to annul the positive case for socialism that had been made for 50 years by the working-class movement: that capitalism was unable to prevent cyclical hunger and destitution. Simultaneously, the Cold War allowed capitalist régimes everywhere to establish a powerful negative identification of socialism with the political order of the Soviet Union under Stalin—and to mobilize their populations for a suicidal military confrontation with Russia. Full employment and rising incomes rendered the classical socialist solutions—in particular social ownership of the means of production—redundant; the spectre of Russian ‘totalitarianism’ rendered them menacing. An insurmountable, double taboo fell on them. Its effect was to create an ideological barrier which blocked the Labour movement’s outward political advance and dried up its every inner impulse. Socialism was stopped dead everywhere in Europe, while the world slipped towards destruction.
This was the general historical context of the fifties. In Britain, it exploded a dramatic struggle within the party of the working-class, whose enigmatic aftermath we inherit today. What forces were at work? What were their ideas? What is their legacy?
The first skirmishes over public ownership were fought at the 1952 and 1953 Party Conferences. The leadership carried the day fairly easily on both occasions. Challenge for Britain, the 1953 policy document, besides proposing to re nationalize steel and road transport, made conditional promises of selective socialization in medium and light industry (engineering, chemicals, etc). At this stage, however, tactical rather than doctrinal reasons were advanced for the refusal to be committed to anything more than this. No major theoretical debate over public ownership marked these years. It was the Labour Party’s defeat in 1955 which provided the impetus for this. Within a year, Gaitskell had written his pamphlet Socialism and Nationalization and—above all—Crosland had published The Future of Socialism. Both writers directly attacked the idea that social ownership was any longer indispensable to the realization of socialism. Crosland flatly described British society as ‘post-capitalist’, and—while conceding the need for some limited, empirical measures of nationalization—dismissed the traditional reasons for public ownership as anachronistic. It is important to remember what he thought these reasons to be. Basically, they were three: common ownership had been believed to ensure economic efficiency (through increases in technical scale), full employment (through the investment policies of public industries) and redistribution of income (through expropriation of capital). Crosland had little difficulty in showing that further nationalizations were largely irrelevant to increased efficiency (exaggeration of scale can reduce productivity), were unnecessary for full employment (the Conservative Government was maintaining that), and were ineffective for income redistribution (compensation restored with one hand what nationalization had taken with the other). To clinch mutters, he made it clear that, if extended unduly, nationalizations were a threat to political freedom: ‘I at least do not want a chain of State monopolies, believing this to be bad for liberty . . .’ Crosland then set out what he believed should be the main goals of a modern socialist party in a prosperous, fully employed Britain. These were: increases in social welfare, educational equality, and income redistribution. None of them depended on any major extensions of public ownership.
The following year, Industry and Society was drafted, presented and duly approved by a Labour Party Conference at Brighton. It erected into fundamental policy an idea which Crosland had tentatively discussed in his book. It also went further than Crosland had done, either in his analysis or his programme. For the first time in the history of the Labour Party, capitalist industry was formally legitimated as socially responsible and useful. In a famous, ineffable phrase, British firms were declared to be ‘on the whole, serving the nation well’. Instead of taking industries into public ownership, a Labour Government would make public purchases of—non-controlling—shares in private companies on the stock exchange. In effect, the subordination of the market to the State was to be superseded by the incorporation of the State into the market. This solution was probably unique even in the annals of social-democracy.