After 13 years, the biggest and most influential socialist party in the West has returned to power. What are the likely consequences of this event, in Britain and on the international scene? It is obvious to anyone who has followed at all closely the internal battles and evolution of the movement during the last decade that today the Labour Party is in certain ways a new party, a party whose inner balance of forces has changed considerably, a party with political, economic and social attitudes quite different from those imposed by Wilson’s predecessor as leader, Hugh Gaitskell. It is also true that these new elements are still in process of formation. The new balance of power in the Party has still to be consolidated, and might yet be overthrown. However, three main great problems, which mark the course of contemporary history, all appear destined to act positively upon the Labour Party, to stimulate its creative forces and to benefit in return from its influence upon them.
The first of these is the crisis of neo-capitalism, in its specifically British form. The ‘affluent society’ is now an outworn myth, unable to hide the realities of British society; social stagnation, economic decline, a public morality rotten with hedonism, a bankrupt ruling class. Thanks to the avant-garde action of left-wing intellectuals and to considerable pressure from the masses, the country has undergone a phase of self-criticism and is now largely convinced of the need for big changes. The only remedy the Conservatives had was entry into the Common Market; when this failed miserably, they were left defenceless, with neither ideas nor policies. Labour succeeded in identifying itself with the universally-felt desire for change; its chance had arrived. All the conditions therefore existed for a Labour victory more significant and more meaningful than that of 1945. The latter was a revolt against the war and all it had meant, including the man who won it, Churchill; it was a deep emotional reaction which carried Labour to power unexpectedly. Today, on the other hand, the wish for change springs from a more solid basis than the emotions, it is a matter of rational conviction.
The second problem concerns foreign policy. The transition from the ‘Cold War’ to real coexistence has still to occur. Almost everybody agrees on its necessity but so far nobody has produced the solutions that will lead to and guarantee it. The Labour Party put coexistence and economic collaboration among the different world groupings in the forefront of its electoral programme, hence its rise to power should make important new developments possible in this field.
The third problem is constituted by the international socialist movement. The later phases of the Cold War gave rise to two great events, events whose true meaning is only beginning to become clear. One was scandalous and spectacular—destalinization. Much less attention has been paid to the other—that is, to the defeat in Britain of the neo-capitalism incarnated by the late Hugh Gaitskell. Since the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, we have seen ideas and tendencies that seemed hopelessly paralysed by decades of hostility spring into life again. For the first time since the radical scission caused by the First World War, the Communist and Social-Democratic wings of the socialist movement have begun to move together. This convergence has scarcely begun, it is in its very early stages, yet only the most politically short-sighted can fail to observe what is happening. We are living through a process of the greatest importance, the beginning of a whole new historical phase, the leading forces of which are already clear: on one side, the Yugoslav, Italian and Polish Communist Parties (as well as the Soviet Party); on the other side, the British Labour Party and—though in a very different context—the Japanese Socialist Party and the French sfio. This is no short-term, merely tactical convergence like that seen in the thirties, during the Popular Front against Fascism. It involves basic strategy, and its elaboration needs courageous intellectual and theoretical preparation. Given today’s political climate, the Labour Party in power will play an important role in this process.
I happened to be in Britain on the eve of the previous General Election,
How different was the last electoral campaign! The political choice was a clear one, both in domestic matters and in international affairs, and Harold Wilson brought it out in all his election speeches. He spoke of Labour’s ‘alternative philosophy’ to the Conservatives—who ‘identify the national interest with the interests of the money-makers, not with the interests of the wage-earners, with the speculators and not the producers’—and repeatedly stressed that Labour’s objective was socialism, that is a society whose mainspring ‘will no longer be private profit and the accumulation of personal wealth’, a society without classes, a society that will be ‘open, not exclusive, where everyone has the same right to work and to serve, where intelligence is more important than birth and ability is more important than caste’. Gaitskell was careful never to utter the word ‘socialism’. Wilson declares that the inspiration of all Labour policies is ‘the old principle of socialism: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.
Was Wilson justified in emphasizing the radical nature of the choice to this extent? To answer this question properly, we must look as objectively as possible at recent British history, and at the historical character and ideals of British Labourism. Traditional canons of judgement are no longer to be trusted; especially in Britain.