Vol. 3 No. 1 · 22 January 1981

Bernard Crick, author of the life of Orwell which is reviewed in this issue, gives his opinion of the Labour Left

3316 words

In one sense, nothing has changed. As we move into the Era of Foot, the Labour Party remains what it always was: a coalition of trade unions, working-class institutions and middle-class intellectuals (or men and women who have become middle-class by rising up).

During the Labour leadership crisis, the political correspondents in the press had to move quickly from the ‘basic threat’ of Benn to the scarcely less frightening terror of Foot. Not just the Times and the popular Conservative press but the Observer and even the leader page of the Guardian demonstrated, once again, how much political correspondents act as if they were part of politics – rather than observers or analysts. Almost to a man, they supported Healey, fearing a vast swing to the left. I remember years ago talking at a New Year’s Eve party to a Scottish journalist who had just come south to join the Times Parliamentary team. ‘What do you think of your colleagues?’ I asked. ‘They’re all politicians manqué.’

After the First Day of Foot, these politicians of the media realised that they had gone too far. Then out came all the old stuff about the Labour Party being a coalition, about the inevitable moderating influence of power (a liberal view that the Manchester Guardian once took when Hitler became Chancellor) and about socialism as the rhetoric of the Labour Party. There was even a hasty attempt to redraw Michael Foot as a moderate, a nice old thing who had had a wild youth, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. This reappraisal, however grotesque, may in part have been motivated by a sudden desire to be analytical and reasonably truthful, after all the intoxicating polemics: but in part, too, it would have involved the prudent, politic fear that if Foot is now leader of the Labour Party he might well be the next prime minister, and that things had been said which, if not retracted, would close doors rather than open them.

The Labour Party is indeed a coalition, and Michael Foot is indeed a moderate: but both terms need defining. A coalition does not necessarily have to be led from the centre: it has to be led, however, by someone who genuinely understands, even if he does not share, the prejudices and interests of other sections. And besides, there is often a great difference in politics between what is acceptable and what is agreeable (Healey probably lost the leadership on that distinction). Self-styled men of the centre do not always tolerate associated viewpoints – sometimes the very contrary: they claim that they themselves represent the consensus of public opinion, so that they have the People as well as Reason on their side, and that all others are extremists, threatening to wreck the party rather than ‘keep it on course’ or ‘hold it down to earth’. Michael Foot is a moderate, but he is a moderate socialist – not a moderate in Rees-Mogg’s and Ronald Butt’s sense. Theirs is a sense which relates to the whole political spectrum. To Moggish minds, ‘centre’ seems to mean ‘right’, and it is only the left they fear.

The words ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ are meaningless unless it is clear whether one is talking within the context of the electorate as a whole or within that of one or other of the political parties. What so often happens is that someone who believes in a more egalitarian society, or believes that all inequalities have to be justified – some can be, many can’t – or who believes in a common system of education, in industry rather than finance, in increasing public investment in and control of industry, in a radically more egalitarian system of wages and a distributionist approach to the inheritance of capital, and who may even talk (like Benn) about workers’ control or co-operatives in industry – that someone who holds such views is labelled ‘extremist’. And quite right too, of course, in one sense, but the implication may be that he is extreme about means as well as ends: totalitarian. This does not follow. To be precise, Michael Foot’s love of Parliament and of Parliamentary procedures is as deep as his radicalism. The vast majority of the Labour movement share this point of view. If there are now many extra-parliamentary forces, they are not necessarily or in the main anti-parliamentary. Parliament has no monopoly of politics, only a predominance when it attracts respect.

The confusion is even worse when, modishly, Moggishly or Buttishly, any radical, alternative programme in the Labour Party is put down to Marxist influence. And all Marxists are, of course or ‘by definition’, extremists. This shows a remarkable ignorance about the development of Marxism since 1956, not merely in the West but in Eastern Europe too. Broadly speaking, ‘revisionism’ – going back to Bernstein’s critique and revision of Marx, and coming to life again in many new forms, notably the revival of Gramsci, the arrival of Euro-Communism and the ‘historical compromise’ of the present-day Italian Communist Party – dominates the contemporary Marxist left. I am not myself a Marxist. But I now see that the identification I suggested in my In Defence of Politics between Marxist theory and totalitarianism needs considerable qualification. Some Marxist discourse is still totalitarian in its implications; some of it is simply irrelevantly abstract; much is abominably badly written – convoluted neologisms come badly (did Orwell live in vain?) from those who profess to think in the interests of the common people. But most contemporary Marxists are now vigorously debating (usually among themselves, alas) the question of ‘the relative autonomy of the political’.

Take Laski’s pupil and disciple, Ralph Miliband. He argued in his Parliamentary Socialism (1961) that the original socialism of the Labour Party (a dubious historical proposition) was fatally compromised by attempting to work through the conventions of Parliament, while in The State in Capitalist Society (1969) he argued that reforms are only tolerated if they serve the interests of the competitive, capitalist market (a highbrow, modish Marxist excuse for avoiding practical political activity). In Marxism and Politics (1977), however, he concludes with a warning ‘not to allow slogans to take over’:

Regimes which do, either by necessity or by choice, depend on the suppression of all opposition and the stifling of all civic freedoms must be taken to represent a disastrous regression, in political terms, from bourgeois democracy ... Bourgeois democracy is crippled by its class limitations, and under constant threat of further and drastic impairment by conservative forces ... But the civic freedoms which, however inadequately and precariously, form part of bourgeois democracy are the product of centuries of unremitting popular struggles. The task of Marxist politics is to defend these freedoms; and to make possible their extension and enlargement by the removal of their class boundaries.

There is nothing here that I cannot accept, though I’d want to enter the caveat that some liberties have been forged and preserved by intellectuals, even by aristocrats, as well as by popular struggles. And, once again, I am not a Marxist; nor is Miliband a member of the Labour Party. Economic determinism I still find (as a left-wing Popperian) intellectually paradoxical and morally repulsive (a denial of the freedom inherent in human behaviour): but there are now, it seems, so few economic determinists left amongst Marxists that the debate almost collapses. The true economic determinists are now to be found on the right, among economic liberals of the school of Hayek, whose influence, via Sir Keith Joseph and Milton Friedman, has produced the astonishing spectacle of a British Conservative leadership acting more dogmatically and ideologically, and more precipitately, than any Labour government has ever done.

Two favourable reviewers of my recent George Orwell: A Life (there were others) have called me a ‘right-wing socialist’ (Michael Foot) and ‘social democratic’ (Peter Sedgwick), perhaps not noticing that I, too, have been on a long journey, affected by Orwell as well as studying him (he does exemplify the non-Marxist ‘English socialist’ tradition, like Tawney, Cole and Foot himself). Many of us have been influenced both by the changing character of the Conservative Party (which has itself chosen to polarise the nation) and by the collapse of the electoral basis for a politics of consensus – a collapse which has been demonstrated by the conservative historian Keith Middlemas in his important book Politics in Industrial Society.

Although its influence has grown, the importance of Marxism in the Labour Party has been exaggerated even by responsible political correspondents. To identify neo-Marxism with the Militant, neo-Trotskyite faction is simply gross ignorance or crude polemics. True, the Militant faction has taken over a few Constituency Parties: but they have yet to produce a single MP. As the spirits of Constituency Parties, left-wing indeed, revive, so, too, will active membership; and the rank and file will not tolerate a totalitarian approach, any more than they will tolerate an attempt to steer the party away from socialism – the attempt on which William Rodgers and David Owen seem to be embarked, and which has led Roy Jenkins and David Marquand to abandon the party. A desperate public cry to Shirley Williams: why have you got so lost in that company, one with ineffable self-confidence but without either a social base or alternative policies – you who once knew the Labour Party as inherently a coalition? I think of my late and lamented friend, John Mackintosh: he did not like talk of ‘alternative policies’ from the left of the party, but he knew and loved the party and would have stayed to fight within it had he lived.

The party in Parliament elects Michael Foot leader as a political response to the party in the country demanding that socialism be taken seriously. With equally political considerations in mind, they elect as his Shadow Cabinet colleagues ‘the best men for the job’, meaning to check and balance him, perhaps imprudently leaving out Benn and Heffer. But the reasons for the original election of Foot remain: the PLP dare not check him too much without risking a confrontation with the party as a whole. The Conference and the NEC have not taken over from the PLP, but they have become relatively more powerful. And why not? Why should Shirley Williams consider that the constitution is in danger, rather than simply her own view of the optimum balance of forces in the Labour coalition.

So back to the coalition. It will be led now from the left, but a Tribune left, not a Marxist left: a Tribune left which is fiercely egalitarian, but also fiercely libertarian, in the tradition of Brailsford, Brockway, Bevan, Orwell and Foot. A left that is democratic in spirit and behaviour, but, I suspect, with a clearer commitment to precise policies than has emerged, so far at least, among either the social democrats or in the speeches and writings of Tony Benn. In his book Arguments for Socialism and in his fascinating dialogue with Eric Hobsbawm in the October number of Marxism Today, all questions about ‘what should be done’ get turned into arguments about ‘how to do things’ – always democratically (always?). But, to be fair, there is far more tangible policy in the anthology compiled by Benn’s friends and edited by Ken Coates, What went wrong. Led from the left, the party will have a sense of direction at last, but it will still be a coalition, and one whose leaders are very well aware that public opinion, in turning against the Government, is not turning socialist (though it may accept many socialist policies). So the Labour Party will proceed rather as the American Supreme Court ordered the progress of desegregation: ‘with deliberate speed’.

This Tribune socialism is not doctrinaire, so much so that at times one wonders if there is an underlying theory of society there at all. A young scholar, Henry Drucker, has argued very convincingly in Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party that ethos was far more important than doctrine. The ethos embodies working-class memories of suffering and mutual sustenance, the experience of fraternity, suffused with hope for a better future – the traditions of which Jeremy Seabrook writes so well and movingly. In Debts of Honour Michael Foot acknowledges his debt to lgnazio Silone, and quotes him revealingly: ‘I cannot conceive of Socialism tied to any particular theory, only to faith. The more Socialist theories claim to be scientific, the more transitory they are. But Socialist values are permanent.’ What are these values? Liberty, equality and fraternity presumably – not any one of these alone, but each balancing and feeding the others. The implications for personal behaviour raise problems, to put it mildly, and for public policy still more so – but soluble problems. Both Marxist and Hayekian, however, think such talk of values hopelessly vague. They share a sense of the dominance of economics, and a nervousness, at best, and at worst a downright callousness, about ethics: rival birds of the same feather can flock together. Equally, there is a broad theoretical cohesion, a kind of Collingwoodian presupposition, underlying all branches of the main stream of the Labour Party. Just as Conservatives are (or were) committed to the theory that the rise and fall of societies is best explained by the experience or skill of traditional élites, just as a liberal is committed to seeing individual initiative and invention as crucial, so a socialist believes that the rise and fall of societies is ultimately explained by the social relationships of the primary producers of wealth, those who do the essential work – in an industrial society, the skilled working man.

There lies the rub. Not the vagueness or incoherence of the theory, but its specificity: the skilled industrial worker. It no longer sounds immoderate and quasi-Marxist to ask what will happen if the needs of productivity in the competitive market continue to entail high levels of unemployment. Economists argue whether we will have two and a half or three million unemployed by next Easter (though it may barely be perceived in the South-East, which currently has 5½ per cent unemployment as against 14½ nationally). In the last election, it looked as if many working-class voters in jobs voted Conservative to retain their jobs: Labour’s concern with unemployment could actually repel such voters. Meanwhile the trade unions find it extraordinarily hard to formulate policies to deal with unemployment which would in any way affect the wage levels of their membership. Workers paying income tax can resent its being spent on the unemployed, preferring to believe that there are two million scroungers. Middlemas the Tory, following Habermas the Marxist, has prophesied that some millions of adults will fall out of the polity entirely, ceasing to be citizens, ignored electorally, ineffective since unorganised and almost unorganisable. A Labour Party that is serious about ending mass unemployment would value fraternity and equality as highly as liberty. A free society could not continue half-employed and half-unemployed.

My belief is that a revived radicalism about policy is being forced on the Labour Party quite irrespective of doctrines and persons – simply by the economic crisis and the behaviour of the Conservative Party, which has put the fight against inflation above everything else, deliberately ignoring the conventional aims of post-war British government: full employment, productivity, and a rising standard of care and welfare. The Labour Party will produce, good or bad, an alternative economic policy, not a return to pragmatism. At the same time, policies and principles are ill-served by the shopping-list language of party manifestos. Indeed the whole Chartist business of having a precise manifesto is a blind alley for socialism – an irrelevance used by Wilson to manage the party and by Benn to challenge him. Nothing fundamental can be changed in the first week or hundred days, or even the first session, of a new Parliament. A sense of time is needed both for the restoration of the economy and for its reform, however hypocritical it may be to use time as an excuse to do nothing but manage the same ill-mixed economy as before. Surely people are fed up with the ‘You did it,’ ‘No, you did it,’ Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee squabbles about rates of fulfilling election pledges that pass for political debate: surely they yearn for a debate about principles and long-term policies?

Crosland’s prescription for socialism relied utterly on economic growth, and for social democrats to pretend that growth exists when it doesn’t, to pretend that redistributivist dilemmas can be avoided, is both theoretically and politically lame, even fatuous. But it is common sense, not hypocrisy, to argue that any change in British society that would be a socialist equivalent of Mrs Thatcher’s revolution would take us decades, starting from where we do, if not generations. There are no seven-league giant boots to be worn. Mrs Thatcher (out of Hayek and the City of London) has ensured, more than has the election of Michael Foot (out of Tribune and the tradition of work), that the economy will swing violently one way or the other: far more planning or far more laissez faire. The old pragmatism is dead. The price of liberty need not be eternal indecision and muddle.

The Labour Party is about to establish a theoretical quarterly. I hope it does not get bogged down in neo-Marxist narcissism, or in disinterring the noble utterances of the noble founders. Above all, it needs to do two things: to define time-scales for social change (what can be done in a Parliament, a decade, a generation), and to define socialist values.

Long before the Fall, in 1931, Ramsay MacDonald wrote in The Socialist Movement:

The Labour Party is not Socialist. It is a union of Socialist and trade-union bodies for immediate political work ... It is the only political form which evolutionary Socialism can take in a country with the political traditions and methods of Great Britain. Under British conditions, a Socialist Party is the last, not the first, form of the Socialist movement in politics.

The last days are not upon us, but they are appreciably nearer. The old secular evangelism, said to be dying in the constituencies by those who have cut their roots, has been able to reassert its influence – less by its own merits, admittedly, than because of the moral emptiness of Wilsonian government and the callous determination of Mrs Thatcher’s.

When Orwell reviewed Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1944, he concluded that in our ‘present predicament’ capitalism ‘leads to the dole queues, to the scramble for markets and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can be somehow combined with the freedom of intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.’ A weird and vague conclusion? I think not. If the unemployed can be discounted by both parties in terms of crude electoral politics, simply because they are massed in seats which are safe Labour seats anyway, it will only be by ‘the concept of right and wrong’ that the Labour Party will appeal to those who are in jobs already to accept restraint and even sacrifice in order to avoid the disasters inevitable in high levels of unemployment. High unemployment might not lead to revolution, but it could well lead to a Clockwork Orange society: ‘meaningless’ violence and delinquency can be the only rational form of protest left to individuals who remain individuals.

Doctrinal debate within the Labour Party has suddenly become much more interesting and important. One would not think so to read the newspapers. But who reads the newspapers for political thought? Even the younger journalists have lost touch with the old Labour movement, remarkably unchanged and remarkably resilient after twenty years of attempts by its Parliamentary leaders to cut out its soul and to restrict its role to that of an alternative government within the tradition of the existing system.

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Vol. 3 No. 3 · 19 February 1981

SIR: Bernard Crick, in his assessment of the crisis in the Labour Party, argues that any socialist change of British society would ‘take us decades, starting from where we do, if not generations’ (LRB, 22 January), and that Labour now needs years to think out what the sacred name of socialism means. He does not explain what the nation is supposed to do in the interval. Put up with monetarism and mass unemployment, spiced by the spectacle of an opposition capable only of opposing itself? If that is the best Labour can offer, and it may be, then it had better get out of Parliament altogether. This is a programme for debate, not for action. And there are millions of us who believe that the case for an incomes policy, electoral reform and a full and wholehearted British commitment to the European Community is too urgent to wait till the 21st century.

George Watson
St John’s College, Cambridge

Vol. 3 No. 4 · 5 March 1981

SIR: George Watson (Letters, 19 February) has deconstructed my text too far. I wasn’t asking for decades or generations for the Labour Party to think out ‘what the sacred name of socialism means’. In fact, I think it has a fair idea of what it means. I was beseeching them to realise that the transformation of Britain into a democratic socialist society would take that long. Such a time-scale would generously allow George Watson plenty of time to emigrate to Australia. For the Labour Party to ‘get out of Parliament altogether’ is the last thing I would want: indeed, I stressed very strongly and seriously Foot’s intense parliamentarianism, Heffer’s too, Tony Benn also – except that he has the not entirely foolish thought (which worries Shirley Williams and her friends unduly) that Parliament is not the only, even if it is the predominant, stage for democracy in this nation.

Bernard Crick
Birkbeck College, University of London

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