Travels on the left

Paul Foot

  • John Strachey: An Intellectual Biography by Noel Thompson
    Macmillan, 288 pp, £27.50, May 1993, ISBN 0 333 51154 9
  • John Strachey by Michael Newman
    Manchester, 208 pp, £12.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 7190 2174 X

In the 1929 General Election campaign, the Labour candidate for Aston, Birmingham issued the following leaflet:

£5 Reward!

DESPERATE TORIES WILD LIE.

Mr John Strachey writes: ‘It has come to my notice that Tory canvassers are making the outrageous statement that I am a foreigner. This is a most serious allegation which the Aston Tory Party, utterly beaten in political argument, has fallen back upon as a last desperate throw. I WAS BORN IN GUILDFORD, SURREY, AND MY FAMILY HAS LIVED OVER 400 YEARS IN SOMERSETSHIRE.

‘I offer £5 reward to anyone giving me the name and address of anyone spreading this lie and leading to the issue of a writ for slander.’

The leaflet signed off with the slogan ‘Strachey is British.’

There is unhappily nothing in the annals of the Birmingham Labour Party to tell us Whether the £5 reward was ever claimed. There was definitely no slander action. No one will ever know the going rate in defamation damages for an allegation of that kind. And in any case was it a defamation? It wasn’t easy to see how Strachey’s enthusiastic support for international socialism and his recent conversion to the works of Karl Marx (one of whose notions was that the workers had no country) could be squared with his jingoistic leaflet. Always a little worried by his long nose and slightly swarthy appearance, Strachey was very sensitive to the ‘outrageous’ conclusion that he was not as patriotic as any other old Etonian from Somersetshire. The text of the leaflet is reprinted in Hugh Thomas’s biography of Strachey published twenty years ago. Thomas told us much more about Strachey the man (cricket, tennis, adoring family, etc) than about Strachey the socialist. This is perhaps because Thomas was wrestling with his own flight from socialism, which was consummated in 1979 with his appointment as chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies.

These two books, by contrast, deal almost exclusively with Strachey’s politics. Michael Newman writes only briefly about Strachey’s private life, though he does reveal that young Charles Strachey, born at the height of his father’s revolutionary fervour, was promptly put down for Eton. Noel Thompson calls his book ‘an intellectual biography’ and ignores the man altogether, as if the politician’s ideas can be cut clean away from the rest of his life. Strachey started out at the beginning of the century in a well-to-do Liberal home, where there was much talk of the Spectator (which his father owned) and God. In his twenties he broke to the left, shocked by the fact that too few workers had enough money to buy the things they produced. If only clever and intelligent people such as he were in charge, the economic system would soon be fixed and this obvious absurdity put right. He wrote a book to show how to do it, called, comfortingly, Revolution by Reason. Then came the General Strike in which Strachey found himself editing the Birmingham strikers’ bulletin. Swept up in the activity, and increasingly puzzled as to why the workers were treated so abominably, he shifted further to the left, read Marx with passionate interest, but still believed he could help change things from the top, which is why he stood for Aston in 1929, and (with or without the help of his last-minute leaflet) won the seat.

In Parliament at the age of 28, he supported Sir Oswald Mosley’s proposals for emergency Keynesian measures to prevent rising unemployment. When the labour ministers refused to budge from their economic polices – five of them indeed joined the Tories in a deal which resulted in a Conservative majority of more than four hundred – Strachey left Parliament and the Labour Party. First, he joined his friend Mosley in the New Party, despite Aneurin Bevan’s warning that Mosley was heading for Fascism. When Bevan’s prediction was almost immediately vindicated, Strachey left the New Party – and teamed up with the Communists. He was not allowed actually to join the Communist Party because the CP leaders were suspicious of his background and his record of U-turns. So he was a ‘fellow-traveller’ from 1932 up to and beyond the start of the Second World War.

The shift was easy to understand. The crisis of 1929 and the impotence of any government, but especially the Labour Government, to soften its dreadful effects, suggested that there was no solution to capitalism save to overthrow it. There was no point in being a ‘currency crank’, as Strachey self-deprecatingly dubbed the author of Revolution by Reason. Between 1932 and 1938 he wrote five books which captured both the excitement and flexibility of the Marxist account. Strachey’s supreme quality was his clear prose style: there was no frill or swank in his writing. He was a great populariser, a great persuader and his books affected a whole generation of socialists horrified by the disaster of 1931. The best of them, The Coming Struggle for Power, wove his explanation of capitalism into a critique of contemporary writing. It sold well over 100,000 copies and was translated into nine languages. Most Labour politicians of that decade had to admit, however grudgingly, that they were inspired by it. The Theory and Practice of Socialism had a good shot at the impossible – predicting what a socialist society would be like. My favourite of the five, The Menace of Fascism, was a sustained blast of invective which ought to be on every school and college reading list. There is no more powerful account in English of what Fascism was like, where it came from and which masters it served. This run of books culminated in Why You Should Be a Socialist, published in 1938, in which year it sold a quarter of a million copies. It went on printing until it became, in effect, Labour’s ideological manifesto in the 1945 election. Its total sale was well over a million.

All this was written under the guidance of the Communist Party leaders, who became Strachey’s heroes and heroines. He repaid them with the most slavish devotion to the party line. No one in Britain defended the Moscow trials more vociferously than Strachey. In the name of the revolution which inspired him, he defended to the last syllable of his glorious prose the systematic slaughter of everyone in the USSR remotely connected to that revolution.

As the Communist Party line changed to fit the requirements of Russian foreign policy, so Strachey changed too. From denouncing all social democrats as ‘social fascists’ or ‘objective agents of Fascism’ he swung sublimely to wooing the same social democrats as ‘allies in the popular front against Fascism’. By 1940 he was back with his ‘currency crankery’. His Programme for Progress restated his original notion that capitalism need not necessarily be overthrown, that perhaps there was some way the workers could be protected from it. The shift in Strachey’s thinking is often accounted for as the usual journey from Thirties extremism to Forties moderation – a journey performed at much the same time by many socialists, including the equally high-born Sir Stafford Cripps. Noel Thompson detects another explanation. Denounced in the New Statesman for being a mere social democrat, Strachey replied testily that if he was a social democrat ‘then the whole of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1935 to 1939 were social democrats also’. In other words, as he put it in a letter to Palme Dutt, ‘if, for good or ill, we have adopted a People’s Front politics, we must have a People’s Front economics.’ It was the violent and unexplained U-turns in the Communist Party line much more than any personal apostasy which explained Strachey’s shift from the strong Marxism of The Coming Struggle for Power to the currency crankery of A Programme for Progress.

Thompson and Newman have both compared the first edition of Why You Should Be a Socialist (1938) with the last (1944), detecting a gradual softening of line, a less determined support for the Kremlin and an increasing uncertainty as to how capitalist society could be changed. By 1945, though he had broken with the Communist Party, Strachey was peddling what by then was also the Communist Party line: that there was a ‘British road to socialism’ through Parliament. Naturally, therefore, Parliament was once more the place to be, and in the 1945 General Election Wing-Commander Strachey was duly elected as one of the Labour MPs for Dundee. Having been a wing-commander, he was obviously well-equipped to be the Labour Government’s first Minister for Air.

Ministers don’t have time to read books, let alone have political ideas, so Strachey’s intellectual odyssey breaks off until Labour lost the 1951 election. This gave him a chance to rethink the Marxism of his youth. The result was Contemporary Capitalism, published in 1956, and held in such high regard by Newman and Thompson that they forced me back to it to see whether my dismissal more than thirty years ago was hasty and/or sectarian. Certainly the book is full of interesting predictions and prophetic warnings. To start with, Strachey consistently argues for public ownership. ‘If socialists lose sight of the cental importance of social ownership of the means of production, they will cease, in a very real sense, to be socialists at all: they will subside into the role of well-intentioned, amiable, rootless, drifting social reformers’ – an admirable description of what has happened to, say, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair. All those Labour shadow ministers who argue now that it will be too expensive to take railways, coal, gas, telephones, electricity and water back into public ownership should read Contemporary Capitalism, especially the chapter on the balance of power between the economic hierarchies and parliamentary democracy. In addition, Strachey, in Newman’s words, ‘recognised the vulnerability’ of the post-war stability and foresaw a counter-attack from the Right, which would gain office by denouncing the state, which it would then fashion into an instrument for the exclusive purpose of strengthening and enriching the strong and the rich. Few, Newman concludes, ‘could have predicted the nature of “Thatcherism” with such deadly accuracy’.

Contemporary Capitalism, both these authors argue, is of a different order from Tony Crosland’s much more celebrated The Future of Socialism, published in the same year. Crosland’s was primarily a complacent book. Economic problems, he asserted, were solved. Labour governments should now concentrate on building more attractive telephone kiosks and open-air cafés. Strachey was more serious, more anxious that Labour should understand the class allegiance of its opponents and plan accordingly.

What of Thompson and Newman’s conclusion that Contemporary Capitalism is very much a book for modern socialists? ‘It speaks presciently to socialists in Britain in the after-math of the Eighties,’ Noel Thompson claims. But does it? Strachey’s central theme is that strong trade unions and political democracy have ‘tamed’ capitalism, taken half of its industry into state hands, forced up wages, and maintained full employment and a welfare state in a way which no Marxist could have predicted. So the very Marxist arguments about class society which previously led to revolutionary conclusions now spoke only for intelligent and purposeful reforms.

The immediate flaw in this argument is that trade unions and elections were not new in 1956. The majority of men were voting in British elections before Strachey was born. By the time he reached voting age, most women were voting too. There was an elected Labour government in 1929-31, which he himself knew from personal experience was utterly incapable of dealing with the capitalist crisis. As for trade unions, they were strong enough even in 1906 to demand and achieve from a Liberal Government laws which gave them legal immunity. The truth in 1956 was not that elections and strong unions had solved the contradictions of capitalism but that a capitalism whose contradictions had temporarily been reduced, chiefly by huge state spending on wars, hot and cold, had just as temporarily given rise to strong trade unions and a sensitivity to political democracy. Strachey saw the symptoms of a booming capitalism and misjudged them for the cause. Today, no one but a fool could argue that capitalism has been tamed by trade unions and elections. For a decade and a half, trade-union leaders have stood pathetically aside wringing their hands while their members have been sacked and de-recognised, and elections have continued to return the party which stands for the very capitalist oligarchies which, Strachey argued, were the mortal enemies of political democracy. Strachey had two major weaknesses. The first was his empiricism. For all his love of argument and ideas, he was inclined, in the best traditions of the educational discipline in which he was brought up, to argue from the facts he saw around him as if they were never-changing. When capitalism seemed to be in an impasse in the Thirties, Strachey argued that there was no alternative to capitalist impasse, that capitalism would never, even for a short time, be able to overcome its difficulties. When, after the war, he saw that capitalism was surviving quite well, he concluded that there was nothing wrong with the system which a little determined tinkering from above couldn’t put right. Interested always in what was going on at the top, he consistently underestimated what the workers would be able to do for themselves. He was wrong about Russia in the Thirties and wrong about Britain in the Fifties and he would almost certainly have been wrong in the Eighties and Nineties too.

The second weakness was intellectual. All through his life he bowed to the influences around him. He bowed to Hobson and Keynes. Then he met A.J. Cook, the miners’ leader, and fell on his face in front of him. When he went to Parliament he kow-towed to Oswald Mosley. When he joined the Communists, he grovelled at the feet of their leaders, not one of whom could write half as persuasively or powerfully as he could. After 1955, his hero was the newly-elected Labour leader. Hugh Gaitskell. He repeatedly warned Gaitskell to include in Labour Party policy a strong commitment to exchange controls. Without such controls, he predicted, correctly, all the plans of the next Labour government could collapse in a single run on the pound. Gaitskell waved him aside. Strachey responded, astonishingly, by dropping from Contemporary Capitalism the chapter which argued for exchange controls.

In the last years of his life Strachey, as old men usually do, moved further and further to the right. In his last books, End of Empire and The Strangled Cry, the style was as clear as ever, but the content reeked of the Central Intelligence Agency, Encounter and the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Strachey outlasted Gaitskell by only a few months. Had he lived, he would certainly have been a right-wing cabinet minister in Harold Wilson’s right-wing government. Ominously, just before his death, for the first time in his adult life he started to read about God. He had travelled full circle.