“groups have never thirsted after truth,” said Freud. “They demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.” If Labour’s electoral losses are seen as the sharp death of an illusion that had gripped a decade—an illusion that electoral success must reward patience and zeal and devotion, and that the nation must surely set socialist logic against capitalist myth—then the General Election of 1959 provides as good a starting-point as any for the analysis of apathy.
But we deceive ourselves dangerously once more if we think that political failure is the only motive which should prompt a search for a “new dynamic”. That way lie the temptations and enticements of Mr. Crosland and Mr. Jenkins and the other sirens of revisionism. If the search for truth in a new social situation is once accepted as merely a means to a 1965 election victory, we shall again be lost in the myths of the collective unconscious and corrupted by the search for an easy route to power.
The need to restate socialist truths on the basis of up-to-date analysis, is, of course, an end in itself. Indeed, there is a considerable acceptance of the view that our present troubles beset us because we lost sight of the urgency of the need for constant reappraisal of a rapidly-changing society between 1945 and 1951. We have good excuses for our intellectual stagnation. It was our misfortune that a Labour government’s economic policies, restricting conspicuous consumption and establishing a social minimum, inhibited the crystallisation of the new economic and social pattern so comprehensively and vividly described by Ralph Samuel and Stuart Hall. Nor could we know until 1951 how far British capitalism was ready to accept Keynsian doctrine to make its system more workable and more acceptable.
Now we accept and urge the need for new social analysis. On this at least Socialist Commentary and Victory for Socialism can agree. Out of Apathy does the movement real service in offering one which is sound in its generalisations and often brilliant in its detail.
Does it do more than this? I am not sure that it intended to answer the question posed by E. P. Thompson in his last chapter, “Revolution”: he asserts the “positives” on which the socialist community is to be built, and asks “How is this to be done?” His only answer seems to be that we must “place the transition to the new society at the head of the agenda,” “make the context” within which Parliament legislates, and organise a breakthrough in foreign policy. With all of this, of course, one wholeheartedly agrees (and I am inclined to believe him right in judging the foreign policy issue to be the most likely early point of breakthrough) but is not seized of any sudden revelation of hidden truth. Perhaps the real truth is that there is little new to be said about how the labour movement is to achieve power. We know it all so well: we know that we must persuade and convince and arouse and that the way is hard.
To this extent, E. P. Thompson’s preoccupations with the distinctions between revolution and evolution is unconstructive, and poses an artificial dilemma. The violent proletarian revolution demands moral indignation on a wide and passionate scale; so does the democratic seizure of political power. “Popular pressures of great intensity” are a precondition of either. If they are absent, to postulate a choice between the two is academic. If they are present, they can act effectively within the framework of western democracy and create the revolution by parliamentary means.
But it is certainly true that “the breakthrough is not one more shuffle along the evolutionary path which suddenly sinks the scale on the socialist side.” The programme on which the parliamentary revolution is based must so take account of the society which has produced moral indignation that it transforms it as dramatically as possible within the time-scale of parliamentary limitations. Because these are important limitations, the need to assess new priorities is acute. And it must certainly take account of many fields of political decision outside Parliament, as E. P. Thompson points out.