Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism 
by John Campbell.
Weidenfeld, 430 pp., £15.95, March 1987, 0 297 78998 8
Show More
The Political Diary of Hugh Dalton: 1918-40, 1945-60 
edited by Ben Pimlott.
Cape, 752 pp., £40, January 1987, 0 224 01912 0
Show More
Show More

As the Labour Party continues to unravel, it becomes more and more obvious that the follies and misadventures which have plagued it during the last few months can be understood only against the background of the betrayals, suspicions and hatreds of more than a generation of civil war. It is not, of course, the only mass party of the Left in trouble. The German Social Democrats – only a few years ago, one of the most competent and cohesive governing parties in the Western world – are also going through lean times. So are the American Democrats. But trouble is one thing: systematic self-mutilation is another. Despite their current difficulties, neither the American Democrats nor the German Social Democrats give off the smell of death. With the possible exception of the French Communists, Labour is the only mass party of the Left which has suffered a prolonged and apparently irreversible haemorrhage of support for more than fifteen years. The reason is that – again with the possible exception of the French Communist Party – no other mass party of the Left has found it so difficult to adjust to the technological and social changes which have robbed its traditional themes of their appeal.

It would be wrong to suggest that these difficulties spring from any single cause. They have to do, among other things, with the nature of British class relations; with the structure and values of the British trade-union movement; above all, perhaps, with the stubborn anti-intellectualism which pervades the whole political culture. But there is no doubt that part of the explanation lies in the decade of fratricide which followed the fall of the Attlee Government in 1951. From the start, the Kinnock-Hattersley leadership has been hemmed in by the legacy of the Wilson Government of the Sixties, and by the even more disreputable legacy of the Wilson-Callaghan Government of the Seventies. It has no incomes policy because it has been unwilling to re-open the wounds left by the 1966 wage freeze, by the battle over ‘In Place of Strife’ in 1969, and by the grievances and resentments which led to the winter of discontent in 1979. It has an incredible and self-contradictory defence policy because its followers are determined not to allow it to repeat Wilson’s perfidy over Polaris. And the Wilson and Callaghan Governments stumbled and prevaricated as they did partly because their followers were haunted by the ghosts of Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan.

To be sure, the Labour Party was an unruly and fissiparous coalition, with an extraordinary propensity to shoot itself in the foot, when Aneurin Bevan was still an unknown backbencher and Gaitskell a university lecturer. As the latest instalment of Ben Pimlott’s magisterial edition of Hugh Dalton’s diaries reminds us, the current leadership’s dismay at the vagaries of the ‘loony Left’ has plenty of precedents from earlier days. To take an example almost at random, here is Dalton on a meeting of the Constitutional Sub-Committee of the Party’s National Executive, held in January 1934 to consider the recent pronouncements of Sir Stafford Cripps:

Cripps seems quite unable to see the argument that he is damaging the party electorally. It is all ‘misreporting’, or picking sentences out of their context. He has become very vain and seems to think that only he and his cronies know what Socialism is or how it should be preached. His gaffes cover an immense range – Buckingham Palace – League of Nations – ‘compelling’ Unions to declare a General Strike – prolonging Parliament beyond five years, unless ... ‘seize land, finance and industry’ (without compensation?) – Emergency Powers Bill in one day, giving ‘all necessary powers’ ...

  I make a violent – perhaps too violent – speech asking that this stream of oratorical ineptitudes should now cease ... It is the number of these gaffes which is so appalling. Our candidates are being stabbed in the back and pushed onto the defensive. Tory HQ regard him as their greatest electoral asset ...

  Attlee says I am like a pedagogue addressing a pupil. I wish the pupil were a bit brighter.

By the end of the decade, the pupil had become even more obstreperous, and the pedagogue even more contemptuous of his ability. In January 1939, Cripps launched the campaign for a Popular Front which culminated in his expulsion from the Labour Party. Shortly before the dénouement Dalton reflected:

This conduct is ... utterly intolerable. The broadcasting of the opinion that we cannot win the next election will tend to spread a miasma of defeatism and discouragement all over the country, particularly in constituencies where the fight is difficult ...

  To start this hopeless campaign just at this moment is to invite Chamberlain to take an election while the Labour Party is engaged in a bitter and weakening controversy. The thing is perfectly timed to create the maximum embarrassment and weakness in the Party ...

  The man has the political judgment of a flea.

Bitter and sometimes ugly though they were, however, the schisms of the Thirties did not touch the core of party purpose and belief. Cripps and Dalton differed furiously, and at the end of the decade irreconcilably, but they differed over means, not over ends. Their most violent quarrels had to do with foreign and defence policy, not with the pace or direction of socialisation at home. Even their dispute over emergency powers concerned the methods by which a future Labour government would achieve its objectives, not the objectives themselves. Each was a socialist, and meant essentially the same thing by socialism. Each went on to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Attlee Government. Though their policies were not identical, the differences were dictated by circumstance rather than by ideology. In any event, Cripps, the sea-green socialist incorruptible of the Thirties, turned out to be, if anything, slightly to the right of the pragmatic and gradualist Dalton. More important still, the same was true of the Party at large. The Left wanted to move faster than the Right, and was more willing – at least in theory – to ride roughshod over opposition. On fundamentals, both sought the same goal.

The schisms of the Fifties were a different matter. To be sure, foreign and defence policy loomed almost as large as they had done in the Thirties. As before, Right and Left couched their arguments in socialist language. Once again, some of the leading left-wingers of the period turned out to be more conservative, when the Party returned to office in the following decade, than some of their old opponents from the right. But, as John Campbell makes clear in this marvellously lucid and moving reassessment of the political career of Aneurin Bevan, the similarities with the Thirties were only skin-deep. This time, the schisms did touch the core of party purpose. Though Left and Right both called themselves socialist, they meant different things by socialism. All they achieved by labelling themselves in the same way was to obfuscate the issues that divided them and – in the long run – to make it more difficult to resolve them.

More remarkably, Campbell also makes it clear that Bevan, the virtuoso of socialist language, was unintentionally the chief obfuscator. For he has managed to rescue his subject from the hagiographic mausoleum which Michael Foot, Bevan’s official biographer, constructed for him, and replaces the edifying statuary of the authorised version with a fallible mortal whose enduring fascination lies in his fallibility. Foot knew and loved Bevan, of course. Partly because of this, his portrait of Bevan, the man, is unforgettably vivid. But he also idolised him, and saw himself as his political apostle. Thus, when he turned from Bevan, the man, to Bevan, the politician, his critical faculties deserted him. Foot’s Bevan was a kind of socialist St Sebastian, a standing target for the arrows of the faint-hearts and manipulators who controlled the party machine, invariably right (except on the one important occasion when Foot disagreed with him) and almost invariably misunderstood.

In all this, Foot’s portrait is, in an odd way, the mirror image of the portrait which the Labour Right painted at the time. For Foot, Bevan was the leonine guardian of the Party’s socialist conscience. For the Right of the Fifties, he was an irresponsible and neurotic egomaniac, crazed with personal ambition. Dalton was by no means a typical right-winger, and had worked quite happily with Bevan in the early days of the 1945 Government. Yet in the middle of Bevan’s speech at the party meeting immediately after his resignation from the Government in 1951, Dalton passed a note to Herbert Morrison comparing him to Oswald Mosley. Afterwards he noted that Bevan had been ‘sweating and screeching and seemed on the edge of a nervous breakdown’. Ten months later, he recorded another party meeting, at which Bevan ‘made a violent speech, of nauseating egoism and sweating with hatred’. In 1955, when Gaitskell and Morrison hoped to expel Bevan from the Party, Dalton differed from them only over tactics: rather than expelling him, he thought, the leadership should provoke him into resigning. At the height of the crisis, he complained in his diary of Bevan’s ‘increasingly evil face, both when silent and when speechifying’. Others went further. According to Dalton, Roy Jenkins described Bevan’s performances at the party meetings following his resignation as ‘sub-human’. If Crossman’s diary is to be trusted, Gaitskell even saw ‘extraordinary parallels between Nye and Adolf Hitler’.

Of course, it would be wrong to take all this at face value. Diaries can yield juicy bones for the quotation-hungry historian, and provide invaluable clues to atmospheres and moods. But moods are evanescent, and politicians’ moods are more evanescent than most. The Palace of Westminster is a theatre of the emotions; in the glare of its footlights, loyalties and hatreds, friendships and jealousies loom larger than life. Even if Gaitskell did tell Grossman that there were parallels between Bevan and Hitler (and we only have Cross-man’s word for it), that was a momentary spasm, not a considered judgment. By the same token, Dalton’s loathing for the ‘evil’ in Bevan’s face sometimes ebbed. On a happier occasion, he was able to record,

Long and affectionate talk with Nye. He drove me home after all night sitting ... He said he and I had always got on very well when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I said I had backed him for National Health Service when Morrison wanted it only municipal. And we had fought on the same side on iron and steel ...

  For a moment there’s a chance of mending the rents, I hope.

Yet when all the qualifications have been made, there is no doubt that the bile behind the diary entries was real. After six years in office, most of them competent and some of them triumphant, Labour went into opposition in 1951 convulsed by a blood feud which has lasted, with only a few unconvincing interludes, ever since. Part of the fault was Bevan’s. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his decision to resign, he carried it out astonishingly clumsily. Having resigned, he behaved with a petulant arrogance that poured salt into all the wounds he had inflicted. More was Gaitskell’s. The rearmament programme which he was determined to finance was inflated and unnecessary. Even if it had not been, there was no need for him to insist on health charges which he knew Bevan would resist. The sum they raised was insignificant; and the escalating health costs, which they were supposed to contain, had levelled out. If the Right had justice in its complaint that Bevan’s post-resignation behaviour wrecked Labour’s electoral prospects, the Left could reply, with equal justice, that the Right had forced him to resign.

In the end, however, such calculations are beside the point. Campbell rightly sees the whole affair as a tragedy, the real meaning of which careful attributions of praise and blame can only conceal.

First there was the long rumbling build-up leading to a false climax and the protracted, unheroic conclusion after the crisis had apparently been passed. Then there is the sense of remorseless inevitability working itself out through a combination of quite minor historical accidents. At the heart of the matter was a real clash of political philosophies; but it found expression in a petty argument over budgetary priorities, based upon assumptions which were afterwards shown to be unfounded. Above all there was the rivalry of two contrasting personalities, with the turbulent hero finally brought down by his antagonist’s cool exploitation of one fatal defect of character: in this respect Bevan’s is a personal tragedy to compare with Antony’s or Othello’s. Finally there is the consequence: the Labour Party riven in two, doomed to waste itself in fractious opposition for half a generation, until both the principal protagonists were dead.

That is only the beginning of the story. Campbell is right in thinking that the quarrel sprang from a clash of political philosophies. Despite the brilliance and passion of the two protagonists, however, their philosophies were implicit, not explicit: intuitive, not intellectual. It is easy to see now that the Labour Right of the early Fifties had already abandoned socialism for social democracy. It no longer accepted the central socialist assumption that social justice is impossible without common ownership; and it stood, in practice, for a mixed economy, not for the Socialist Commonwealth of the founding fathers. But although this is easy to see now, the Labour Right itself did not see it then. Even Gaitskell was not yet a Gaitskellite. Still less were Attlee, Morrison, Dalton and the other right-wingers of the pre-war vintage. Like 19th-century Oxford fellows suppressing their doubts about the Thirty-Nine Articles, they practised social democracy on weekdays while continuing to worship at the old socialist shrines on Sundays. But this made them all the more indignant with the old socialist Left. The fury with which they pursued Aneurin Bevan and his followers was the fury of the heretic who cannot bring himself to acknowledge his heresy.

If this was true of the Right, it was even more true of the Left. Campbell depicts Bevan as a kind of democratic Marxist, and argues that the key to his politics lies in the Marxist intellectual formation which he never outgrew. There is something in this, but not as much as Campbell makes out. Bevan certainly absorbed many of the Marxist assumptions which were spreading through the South Wales coalfield when he was a young man. Even in later life he continued to use Marxist categories when he turned from day-to-day politics to philosophical system-building. But whatever else he was, Bevan was not a systematic thinker.

In practice, his Marxism amounted to little more than a vague sense that History, with a capital ‘h’, ought to be moving towards socialism, coupled with a lazy propensity to use the clichés of the class war as a substitute for thought. The intellectual toughness and discipline which real Marxists bring to their politics were alien to him. Campbell berates Foot for trying to annex Bevan to his own tradition of Nonconformist Liberalism. On this, it seems to me that Foot is right and Campbell wrong. If we want to understand Bevan, we should see him, not as a consistent Marxist, but as a wonderfully articulate, though slightly opportunistic, nonconformist radical, dressed unconvincingly in Marxist clothes.

For Bevanism appealed to the heart, not to the head. It offered emotion, not ideas: Faith, not Reason: reassurance, not analysis. It consisted, in practice, of a series of negations – brilliantly phrased, and sometimes mordantly perceptive – but negations all the same. It was not true that capitalism had changed. It was not true that socialism should therefore be revised. There was no need to whore after the false gods of a meretricious and vulgar affluence. Indeed, there was no need to change at all. What was good enough for Keir Hardie was good enough for the Labour Party of the Fifties. Implicit and intuitive revisionism, in short, was countered by implicit and intuitive fundamentalism. Their struggle for the Party’s soul was a wrestling match of the blind, kicking and gouging all the more savagely because they could not see what they were doing.

For Campbell, the moral of the story is a simple one. Bevan was a magnificent anachronism who could not see that he had become anachronistic – a whale, floundering on the beach of history, left behind by a receding tide. ‘For all the wonderful vigour of his mind; for all the seductive plausibility of his theorising; for all the democratic inspiration with which he humanised and sophisticated the crude Marxism which he imbibed in the South Wales of his youth, sadly it cannot be said that Bevan read correctly the lessons of the 20th century.’ He died a failure because the socialism to which he had given his life had failed.

Once again, there is something in it, but once again, the truth seems to me more complicated. It is true that Bevan failed, but he did not fail because history had turned against him or because he had not learned its lessons. History is indeterminate, and its chief lesson is that if we cannot know how it will turn out. He failed because he refused to see that, although values endure, forms do not: because, having put his faith in History with a capital ‘h’, he could not question the forms of his youth when circumstances changed. Many of his criticisms of the revisionists of the Fifties were valid. Croslandite social democracy has worn no better than Bevanite socialism – partly because, as Bevan sensed, the view of human nature on which it was based was curiously thin and two-dimensional. If only he had been able to harness his passion and imagination to a richer and more sensitive revisionism, the history of the last thirty years might have been much happier. As things are, we can only mourn what might have been.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences