Say not the struggle

J.M. Winter

  • The Labour Governments: 1945-51 by Henry Pelling
    Macmillan, 313 pp, £25.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 333 36356 6

Judged by European standards, the role of intellectuals in the history of the British Labour movement has not been especially distinguished. There are no figures in British Labour history of the stature of Jean Jaurès, Karl Kautsky or Antonio Gramsci, whose theoretical and historical works have been recognised as significant contributions to socialist politics. Furthermore, the debate over revisionism largely, but not completely, bypassed English socialists, most of whom were unconcerned about the status of Marx’s work as a guide to the development of capitalism. Despite the productivity of the Fabian Society in publishing tracts on socialist themes (194 appeared between 1884 and 1920 alone), its members were a polyglot mixture of middle-class socialists, free-thinkers and advanced liberals whose lack of involvement in the organised working-class movement was one of its characteristic features. At the same time, British intellectuals of the Left never had an easy political path to follow. At times treated with contempt by trade-unionists who had an ouvrieriste suspicion of middle-class manners, labour’s intellectuals have throughout this century been more politically isolated in Britain than perhaps in any other country. In addition, their rejection of fundamental aspects of British society was never complete or unambiguous: thus the history of British radical intellectuals has never been the history of an intelligentsia. This is part of the explanation for the weak or non-doctrinal character of labour politics in Britain over the last three generations.

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