i read “Revolution” three or four times, trying to make out the serious ‘immediate policy’ advertised on the back cover of the New Left Review. But what remains in my mind is less a policy than a political allegory, a Pilgrim’s Progress through the 1960’s. The hero is the Aldermaston Generation: he is discovered, on the first page, smashing ikons—the craven images of Cold War, Affluent Capitalism, Defeatism and Piece-Meal Reform. Here he undergoes his first moral test. He discerns, across a gulf, two idolaters bowed in worship. They turn out to be Mr. Gaitskell and Mr. Crosland. Mr. Gaitskell is too ashamed to speak, but Mr. Crosland attempts to divert Aldermaston with a game of Happy Families, and a recitation of the Sermon on the Mount, Aldermaston scornfully stops his ears with a reading from William Morris, and goes on his way. As he searches for the Breakthrough, he meditates on the Webbs, Harold Laski, G. D. H. Cole, and the Transition to a Socialist Society. (He omits, a little shamefacedly, the constructive additions of Guild Socialists and Syndicalists, Leninism, Stalinism, and post-Keynesian evolutionary theory. But, after all, he is in a hurry to get somewhere.) His attention is soon diverted by Trotskyite Fundamentalists, who try to seduce him with a Cataclysmic Model. But Aldermaston spurns her, leaving her patrons to meditate on the interpenetration of opposites. At this point, his route becomes less clear: he narrowly escapes shuffling along the Evolutionary Path, where entries in a ledger disguise the insidious survival of the News of the World
Well, of course you can always make fun of a writer by mixing his metaphors. And “Revolution” is, besides, the least cogently argued of the three pieces which Edward Thompson contributes to Out of Apathy, and becomes much clearer in the context of the book it concludes. For all that, I think my caricature makes a serious point: rhetorical polemics are dangerously imprecise. They deal in abstractions so general that argument is lost in aspiration and invective, and what should be an immediate policy becomes a remote exercise in the manipulation of a private jargon. The initiated may understand what Edward Thompson intends: but he needs to convince, not the habitués of the Partisan, but the young Coventry motor worker, whose indifference to socialism is so well presented in the same issue of NLR in which “Revolution” appears.
To persuade people out of apathy, you need to understand why they are apathetic, and what they are apathetic about—to meet their indifference on their own terms. But “Revolution” nowhere admits that there is a good case—as well as a defeatist case—against socialism. Even when, elsewhere in Out of Apathy, he analyses the roots of disillusionment, his sources are W. H. Auden and George Orwell, not the workers of Coventry.
The case that Edward Thompson does not really answer has, I think, two arguments. The first is this: our Society has many shortcomings, but we do not need socialism to overcome them. If we want more hospitals and roads, schools and scientific laboratories, more generous pensions, a national theatre, what prevents us voting the taxation that will pay for them? Does a capitalist society really make it impossible for people to vote for such an allocation of the wealth they produce? Again, “Revolution” continually returns to the problems of the Cold War and nuclear disarmament: but unilateral disarmament is not a socialist policy, though socialists may support it. We made hydrogen bombs because we believed that the Russians threatened us out of an aggressive ideology: if now we believe, more and more, that they threaten us chiefly out of fear, and seek to disarm that fear, we are calculating a risk, reinterpreting the motives underlying international tension—it is a problem apart from the viability of a capitalist society.
Now you might argue that this ignores subtler influences against change: that the structure of private industrialism would collapse under the burden of taxation sufficient to sustain an adequate level of public spending, or that it could not adjust to the disbandment of the nuclear weapons industry. Or more simply, that vested interests are too powerful to allow it. But this remains to be proved. It seems more likely that the essential difficulty is to persuade the Labour Party and the electorate that these policies are right. Nor do I think that we are so bemused by advertisers that we would be incapable of such a choice, if it were put before us confidently and insistently.
So the first question to be answered, is whether the socialist revolution is necessary or even relevant to many of the problems on which Edward Thompson himself lays most emphasis. The second question is this: even if there are evils in our society which only socialism can cure, would it not cure them only at the cost of invoking other evils as bad? The ideal of common ownership is crucial to socialist theory, but would it mean, in practice, industrial fellowship, a rational distribution of our resources, production for use, or a stultifying managerial bureaucracy insensitive to the complaints of the public it served?
In the first place, is not the phrase “common ownership” itself a glib evasion of the problems of industrial control? An industry is not like common land: we shall never be free to wander at will in the industries of a socialist society. We shall still have to pay for their products. And we shall have only an indirect and occasional control over their management. Whatever councils we may devise—of consumers, workers, local authorities, elected representatives—to direct or supervise industry, their control will be limited by the time they can give to master its affairs. We will have to leave the day to day running of any industry to its managers, and depend on them for the information on which to take decisions. And it will be virtually impossible to impose on them a decision which they unanimously reject. The managers of industry will largely control it: how then can we avoid the growth of an autonomous industrial bureaucracy?