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New International, September–October 1953


Donald Slaiman

Bevanism During the War

The Background and Subtleties of Bevan’s Approach


From New International, Vol. XIX No. 5, September–October 1953, pp. 283–291.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(The following article is from a chapter in a thesis on The Origins of Bevanism which the author, Donald Slaiman, has given us his kind permission to reprint. This chapter on Bevanism during the war will be concluded in the next issue – Ed.)


THE MARCH OF THE LABOR PARTY, from utter defeat in 1931 to an overwhelming victory in 1945, was, in a sense, interrupted by the war. In another sense, the basis of its victory was laid during those years. On one hand, the period of the war marked the disintegration of the British Empire and the passing of the reign of Britain as a first class world power. On the other hand, it marked the emergence of the Labor Party as a major contestant for power on a permanent basis. It is true that the Labor Party was tied to the Government throughout the war, but opposition to policies of the Government did develop, and it was within the Labor Party that it found the nucleus of its growth.

The outbreak of the war created strong feelings for national unity and as a result, political and class conflicts were suspended at least on the surface. The war could be supported by the most ardent supporters of the Empire among the Conservatives, and by the most vigorous opponents of Fascism among the Socialists. There were exceptions. A splinter of a pro-Nazi group and an equally small core of anti-war Marxists and pacifists existed. To these can be added, for the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Communists and the “fellow travelers.” However, the Chamberlain Government did not receive the same measure of support as the war it led. It fact, it was held in such poor repute that the Labor Party would not dare enter the Government while it was in office.

Between the death of the “Popular Front” movement at the Labor Party Conference in May 1939 and the birth of the war-time “Coalition Government,” there was a hiatus of a year. For Bevan and the amorphous left wing of the Labor Party, it was, in the main, a period of confusion, inactivity, and despair. For a time, Bevan was not only relatively inactive but sick as well. [1]

The Hitler-Stalin Pact was a final blow. The Communists had been an active element in the “Unity Campaign” and the following “Popular Front” struggle. They had not only been the strongest ideological part of the movements, but had been the main bone of contention in the disputes of the left with the Labor Party leadership. On this score, the Party bureaucracy had been vindicated.

The political scene at this time found the Communists almost totally discredited by the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the startling shifts of line by the British Communist Party. At the same time, the I.L.P. was becoming increasingly an isolated and dwindling splinter. The remnants of the Socialist League were not only in a state of despair and defeat but were atomized and left leaderless by the entry of Sir Stafford Cripps into the service of the Government. However, the political turmoil of the previous years had left a residue. There were in the labor movement large numbers of people who considered themselves part of an unaffiliated left. They were more than ever disillusioned with the Communists, antagonistic to the Tories, and distrustful of the leadership of the Labor Party. The I.L.P. had little attraction for them. Moreover, they had no clear direction or any degree of cohesiveness. The majority of them were in the Labor Party.

Bevan was one of the more prominent figures that fell in this shade of the political spectrum. It was this fairly large group of the population that he depended upon for support and to whom he made his appeal. One reason that he had an appeal for them was that he had no clear program of his own and was an eclectic thinker but he had, like most of them, a residue in his ideas that was carried over from political struggles of the past.

During the previous period, it has been noted that the leftward trend of the Socialist League had ended with the “Popular Front” campaign. This did not mean that all traces of leftism had been eradicated from Bevan’s mind. The pre-eminence given to the fight against the Spanish Embargo and for the “Popular Front” did not erase Bevan’s traditional thoughts on domestic affairs. This explains why, at the time, the Communists subordinated everything to their foreign policy line and became the advocates of all measures to strengthen the “Democracies” militarily, Bevan retained his opposition to conscription. He also retained reservations in regard to the coming war in spite of his desires for strong action against Fascism.

Speaking on the conscription issue prior to the outbreak of the war in the House of Commons, he presented a clear explanation of his attitude toward the coming war. He began by stating,

I have never heard anyone in any Labour Party Conference or any Labour leader, industrial or political say that they would cooperate in the preparation for a war, the only purpose of which is the defense of British Colonial possessions. I have never heard it said by any responsible body of the Labour Party that we are prepared to make sacrifices and incur the risks for a repetition of 1914–1918. [2]

This reference to a more radical anti-war position of the past was only a prelude to a formulation for support to the war, but it was a unique formulation that had little in common with a conservative outlook. Rather it was one that would appeal to those of the amorphous left who would like to support the war and at the same time maintain an opposition to their old antagonists. He said,

The Government and Members of the Conservative Party will pardon me if I speak frankly. They have never been concerned about collective security and they have never been primarily concerned with the protection of democracy or British liberties because they have in the last two years connived at the destruction of two democratic states in Europe. But there is a common assumption between us that Fascism was a menace to their colonial wealth and to our liberties; that a new condition of affairs had arisen which distinguished the menace of Germany from the menace of other powers, and that the difference is that it is not merely an attempt to a redistribution of the international swag but it is also a great movement injurious to the political ambitions of the party opposite and at the same time to the things that we hold precious. [3]

From the above, it can be seen that Bevan conceived of the coming war as one with a dual nature. In it the Labor Movement would be in alliance with the Conservatives, but they would be fighting for different reasons and for different goals. He conceived that there would be a struggle on two fronts. The alliance would be in effect on the international or war front but not on the domestic front. Even in the first, he granted no full confidence to his allies.

This conception of the war allowed for the continuation of the left’s old struggle against the Chamberlain Government. It also allowed for the maintenance of ideas accumulated during Bevan’s earlier leftward development. By this time, he was so much a part of the political movement that some distinctive line possessing a continuity with the past was necessary. This formulation did far more. It laid a basis for a continuous opposition to the Government which would maintain as its objective the return to power of the Labor Party after the war. Since the Labor Party leadership could not participate in this activity as it was part of the Government, it laid the basis of a new insurgency within the Labor Party whose objectives could be completely loyal. These goals, which entailed the strong partisanship of Labor’s unique interests while advocating support of the war in a manner that was differentiated from that of the Government, were not open to charges of disloyalty as were those of the “Popular Front” movement.

Although the Socialist League was dead and the movements that had been carried on by its ex-members were equally dead, the Tribune remained. It became the center for Bevan and a small number of M.P.s and intellectuals in the Labor Party. Its main political line at the time of the outbreak of the war was one carried over from the “Popular Front” period. This line could be summed up in the phrase “Chamberlain Must Go.” Less than two months before the war had begun, Bevan speaking in the House said:

... Nothing will satisfy us except that the Government should resign and give way to a Government in which people could believe and to which the defense of democracy could be safely entrusted. [4]

This Tribune campaign was crowned with success not because of its own efforts primarily but because of events. The Nazi sweep through Holland brought the need for Labor participation in the Government. Labor’s price was Chamberlain’s ouster. Churchill took over in time for the fall of France and Dunkirk. With the assumption of the reins of power by Churchill, Labor entered the war cabinet. At first only two Labor men were in the small War Cabinet of five, Attlee and Greenwood; but others were added later. Bevin in 1940, Morrison in 1942, and even Cripps, though technically not reinstated in the Labor Party, played a leading role in the coalition.

Before we enter into the account of the development of political opposition to the War Government and the insurgency in the Labor Party, it seems necessary to present a complete picture of the Tribune. We will take up its origin, function, content, political character and influence. For without a picture of the Tribune, it is impossible to understand the development of Bevanism.

The Tribune was founded in January 1937 as an organ for the Socialist League. Upon the demise of that organization, it became the remaining link as well as the organ of expression for those M.P.s and Labor Party figures who supported Sir Stafford Cripps and the “Popular Front” movement. When he became an active figure in the Government after the outbreak of the war, a small number of his supporters gathered around the Tribune continued to grope for the formulation of policies which would enable them to rebuild a left-wing within the Labor Party in some manner similar to the defunct Socialist League.

Early in 1940, a new editor was obtained for the paper. He was Raymond Postgate, who remained as editor just under two years. When he resigned in December 1941, he wrote,

At the time I was invited to take over, the position was very grave ... the main reason was that the then editor, in spite of the Board of Directors, was pursuing a policy which was to all intents and purposes a Communist Party line. [5]

The problem, then, was not only the collapse of the Socialist League, the failure of the “Popular Front”, and the departure of Cripps from the immediate scene, but one of ideological reorientation for the Tribune and therefore for Aneurin Bevan and his associates in the Labor Party and in the House of Commons.

From 1937 to 1940, the fundamental appeal of the Tribune was based on two conceptions of leftism. The first was according to the traditions of the I.L.P., in the sense of more militancy and more socialism. The second was in the sense of greater proximity to the Communists and had to do with the idea of the unity of all left forces. The Tribune almost broke its back when the latter conception became predominant. The reorientation period under the editorship of Postgate witnessed a reaction. He summed up the principles of the paper in 1941 as:

“1. For the defeat of the Nazis. 2. Its controllers must be members of the British Labor Movement and not under suspicion however faint of being finally responsible to other influence. 3. For Socialism.” [6]

This vague statement of principles indicated a swing towards an anti-Communist leftism but as yet with no clear direction. Upon Postgate’s resignation, it was announced that Aneurin Bevan would become the Treasurer of the Tribune. The paper from this time until the end of the war carried the name of no individual as editor. Instead, there was an editorial board of three of which Bevan was one. He wrote many if not most of the unsigned editorials during the war period as well as many signed articles. It is safe to assume that Bevan devoted a substantial share of his activity to the running of the Tribune and the direction of its policy. It is conceivable that a more open role as main figure was not taken because of his position as an M.P. [7]

IT HAS BEEN NOTED IN PREVIOUS CHAPTERS that it was characteristic of Bevan when faced with a defeat no matter how catastrophic to seek a new avenue of attack. This was as true in 1940 as in 1926, 1931, or 1933. Bevan’s role had now crystalized into that of the leading figure of a political tendency within the Labor Party which had as its main assets merely a weekly newspaper and a handful of MPs, but a potential of becoming the center toward which the amorphous left of the Labor Movement could be attracted. It had a far greater potential too, that of providing the leadership for any dissatisfaction in the Labor Movement or in the country as a whole.

This potential was at least partially understood by the editors of the Tribune. In the same issue that carried Postgate’s resignation, there appeared a statement of “beliefs and aims” the style of which indicates that it was written by Bevan. It introduces the next period for the Tribune as follows,

The Tribune is the organ of no political party and has no association or understanding with any party. It was launched four years ago by a number of people who desired a weekly devoted to the promotion of understanding between and among those who having “left political views” wanted them translated into appropriate action. [8]

Here we find not only a turn from the pro-Communist orientation of the past but a presentation that ignores the fact that it ever existed and an appeal to all left-wingers of the non-Communist variety. In spite of the statement that the Tribune had no relation with any political party, it was the organ of a kind of substitute for a party. It had a leadership or executive committee, a program which though vague was distinctive, and a specific line on all significant events of importance domestically or internationally. It had, moreover, a Parliamentary group and individual supporters in the Labor Party. There remained in existence, in other words, a sort of Socialist League with a de facto leadership but no cohesive body or membership.

Although a weekly paper with no organizational connections or backing, the Tribune was more than able to compete with any possible rivals for primacy among the amorphous left. This was not only true because the Communists were discredited and the I.L.P. isolated but because of the positive assets of the Tribune.

In the first place, there was a demand for a paper expressing left-wing sentiments within the framework of the Labor Movement. Such papers had existed in Britain for over half a century and had become traditional. From the days of Justice edited by Hyndman, Commonweal by William Morris, Clarion by Blatchford, and the Labour Leader by Keir Hardie in the 1880’s and early 1890’s, thousands of British socialists had subscribed to political weeklies which offered opinions to the left of those of the official leadership’s. The Labour Leader, continued as the organ of the I.L.P., received a similar reception for years and had an influence far beyond the strength of the organization.

Next, the paper was well edited and interesting. It had as regular contributors not only capable writers such as George Orwell who had a regular column for years but people with national reputations such as Bevan, Cripps, Harold Laski, H.N. Brailsford, and Jennie Lee as well as a liberal sprinkling of Labor MPs. In addition the Tribune attracted to its columns contributions from a host of well-known figures from the political and literary world. A listing of the famous names whose articles and letters appeared in the Tribune during the war would take far too much space but I will list a few of them to indicate the interest that the paper could have and its standing and importance in the Labor Movement.

From 1941 to 1945, one could find in the Tribune articles or letters from G.B. Shaw, H.G. Wells, G.D.H. Cole, Maragret Cole, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer, Michael Straight, the present editor of the New Republic, Sir Robert Acland, the founder of the Commonwealth Party, John Strachey, Morgan Phillips, the National Secretary of the Labor Party, and many MPs not associated with the Tribune.

While the Tribune always had a definite policy of its own on most issues, it contained a large variety of opinions from its various contributors, and in fact lent itself to the role of being a forum for many unorganized points of view in the Labor and Socialist Movements. All in all, it was a lively, interesting, and informative paper, especially for British socialists of almost any political shading.

However, none of the above assets accounted primarily for the growth in the influence of the Tribune. It was rather the activities of Bevan and his associates in the House of Commons and in the Labor Party that attracted great support to the paper. These activities had their origin in mass desires created by the inevitable disintegration of national unity and the reemergence of the political struggle between Labor and the Tories. This was something that did not happen overnight but took place over a long period of time and entailed a process of development. In the background was the chronic appearance of the class struggle and many incidental discontents from various segments of the population. It was not that the Tribune initiated these desires or started or even organized any movements. What did happen was that Bevan and his supporters played a leading role at the right time in political movements that did develop.

IT HAS BEEN NOTED THAT THE OUTBREAK of the war brought a suspension of class and political conflicts. The form that this took was an electoral truce concluded in 1939 among the three major parties. The essence of this agreement was that there would be no national election until the war was over and that in the case of the necessity of a by-election, the party that previously held the seat would be able to nominate a candidate unopposed by either of the other two major parties. The purpose was to prevent vigorous political controversy in the country during the war. The effect was to freeze the political status quo in parliamentary strength. While originally this was not meant to create a complete political truce, the accession of Churchill and the formation of a coalition government created one for all practical purposes (that is except for back bench opposition).

There had been strong feeling against the truce from the beginning within the ranks of the Labor Party. There were many reasons for this opposition. The poor standing of the Chamberlain Government was the main reason for the initial resistance to the truce. While this was partially wiped out when Churchill came to power, there remained many other factors that created anti-truce sentiment. In the first place, many of the secondary leaders of the Labor Party felt that the political status quo did not accurately measure the Party’s actual strength in the country. They felt that they were being deprived of seats and posts that they could obtain if the truce did not exist. These secondary leaders were among the most active and vocal members of the Party. Among the rank and file this feeling was echoed for other reasons. There was dissatisfaction with the concessions wrung from the Government by the Party leaders inside the cabinet. There was a demand for more open opposition to Tory policies as a means of improving the workers’ lot during the war.

Among the more conscious and vocal elements in the Party, there were further reasons for the desire for some political warfare. They wanted to express to the country various criticisms of the Government’s policies on many scores. Some were for merely ending the electoral truce. Some were for ending the coalition itself. Others had no clear aims but had vague opposition views. The Tribune catered to all of them, but concretely was toward the center of the political spectrum. If it was extremely radical in tone, it was stationed toward the right of the amorphous left-wing when it came to concrete proposals. The Tribune group was made up of practical politicians.

The entry of Labor into the Coalition Cabinet had for a time muted the opposition to the truce, but it had another effect as well. It created for different reasons a situation similar to that of 1931 as far as Bevan was concerned. At that time, his importance increased because of the fact that the number of Labor MPs was so sharply reduced. In 1940, a new vacuum was created not by the absence of a large number of Labor MPs but by the fact that the Labor Party had relinquished the role of being an opposition in the House. It was this new vacuum that Bevan began to fill from the back benches. It was at this time, too, that the Bevan that was known to the American press was born. After more than a decade in Parliament and after many developments and some catastrophic defeats, Bevan moved onto the center of the stage. It was a stage blacked-out with a spotlight on Churchill, but Bevan walked into that spotlight and attracted some attention to himself.

Although he supported the war, Bevan had available a wide field for criticism of the government conducting it. He could criticize the conduct of the war on grounds of being not vigorous enough, on grounds of mistaken policy and on grounds of poor personnel at the helm. He could also criticize the home front. The question of equality of sacrifice existed in Britain as well as anywhere else, and there were criticisms in regard to the organization of the country’s resources to be made. The limitations of civil liberties due to war time exigencies was another difficult problem for the government and an opportunity for censure by Bevan.

His last attack on the Chamberlain Government consisted of a criticism of the organization of the country’s resources for the war. In a speech on the budget a few weeks before Chamberlain resigned, he said:

... but we are entitled to ask why after eight months of war and eighteen months of active preparation, there remains such a very large proportion of unexploited resources in the country ... [9]

... it is a bad business indeed that we should have a budget after eight months of war which discloses so appalling a failure to organize the whole resources of the country. [10]

Churchill came to power in May 1940. On May 30, Bevan employed a debate on export trade to interject his political view toward the coalition:

The personnel has been improved enormously. But the main case we had against the other Government was not merely that they were a poor lot themselves but that they were adopting a poor policy. I would rather have a bad man with a good policy than a good man with a bad policy. Many of my Hon. Friends have crossed the Floor, but that is no good to us unless their principles have crossed with them. We do not want the principles of those on the opposite side to cross over to here. [11]

It can be seen from this that Bevan does not oppose the idea of the coalition nor does he deny its necessity but he does show a distrust of what may result from it. He expresses vague fears and offers himself as a watchdog to see that Labor is not sold down the river by its own leaders. Earlier in the session, he had made it clear that in spite of the fact that Labor was in the cabinet, an opposition would nevertheless exist in the House. [12] He did not wait long before criticizing the government. Directing himself to the Front Bench, he said:

We shall need to put forth immense exertion and energy if we are to win, as win we shall, but we shall not win if we do not put forth that energy. It is no use when talking about the disasters which have befallen us to say that we had disasters in the last war and yet we won, as though disaster points the blueprint of victory. Disaster was never a blueprint of victory. [13]

Bevan did not limit himself to heckling in his speech. He not only found that the government needed to be criticized but that there was need of a fundamental change in its direction of war mobilization. While performing the function of an opposition in the House, he offered a program to effect this change. It was basically to rally the British people by introducing equality of sacrifice among the various classes of the population. To Bevan this meant to begin the introduction of socialist measures during the war. Thus the continuance of the fight for socialism was identified with victory in the war and therefore victory was associated with Labor hegemony. In this he posed not as a doctrinaire socialist but as a practical politician looking out for the country as a whole. Still addressing the Front Bench, he said:

Why not cut through to the people by bold action? The Government have the power, and I am certain that the people outside ... will not tolerate seeing the utilization of our coal resources handicapped through the failure of the Government to use the power which has been given to them. The Government are using the power against Labor, and we expect it to be used against property, but we shall not expect it to be used against property merely because it is desirable to nationalize property. They should consider the matter empirically. They should bring under state ownership at once those basic industries which produce a standardized product and can be easily organized and discuss compensation to be payed after the war is over. [14]

It was not only domestically that Bevan found the need of social action for the winning of the war. In the international arena, he argues, a program with a socialist content is even more important. In the fall of 1940, he said the following while discussing war aims:

This is the moment that our war aims should be stated, and this is the moment when they should be declared. I know that the Prime Minister would tell me that he would like to win the war first. The essence of the matter is that we can only win victory if we inspire the people by having the right aims. It is not enough to offer the people of Belgium, and France, and other countries merely the defense of democracy against Nazi dictatorship, because they recognize that after all it was that sort of democracy that brought Europe to war. If we are to persuade and inspire them with the defense of democracy, the conception of democracy has to be fitted to modern needs. We have to fill it up with a social content. [15]

In a sense here, Bevan was anticipating the “Four Freedoms” although it seems clear that he was demanding more of a program than was to be offered by Roosevelt and Churchill. In reality, Bevan was not making demands on the government as yet but propagandizing a program which telescoped two tasks into one, that of winning the war and continuing the struggle against the capitalist status quo in Britain. From the above two quotations we can infer the outline of a political program which would appeal to a large number of people. It consisted of two main sections. The first had to do with the home front and consisted of demands for equality of sacrifice and the protection of civil liberties. The second concerned itself with the international scene and envisioned a social war against Hitler based on war aims which would have some sort of goal for the post-war world of a socialist nature.

* * *


1. Jennie Lee, This Great Journey, p. 204.

2. 346 H.C. Debates, 5s, p. 2133.

3. Ibid., p. 2134.

4. 346 H.C. Debates, 5s, p. 2140.

5. Raymond Postgate, A Statement of Resignation, Tribune, December 19, 1941, p. 3.

6. Ibid.

7. During the debates on press censorship especially that of Beaverbrook’s paper, Bevan had spoken of himself as the editor of a paper himself. He also has been accredited the authorship of a series of articles written under the pseudonym of Thomas Rainsboro which we will deal with a little further on.

8. Ibid., p. 6.

9. 360 H.C. Deb., 5s, p. 461.

10. Ibid., p. 468.

11. 361 H.C. Deb., 5s, p. 725.

12. 361 H.C. Deb., 5s, pp. 31–32.

13. Ibid., p. 726.

14. 361 H.C. Deb., 5s, p. 728.

15. 365 H.C. Deb., 5.s, p. 346.

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