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The New International, Spring 1957

Owen Roberts

Prospects for the British Labor Party

... Brightened by the Crises in Toryism and Stalinism

(January 1957)


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 81–93.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Eighteen months ago the British political scene was dominated by the figure of a smug, successful and supremely confident Conservative Party. In a comparatively easy general election campaign it had succeeded in stepping up its majority in the House of Commons to the comfortable figure of 60 seats over the combined total of all other parties; a few months earlier it had managed to remove the ageing Sir Winston Churchill from his position as Tory Leader and install in his place the glamor boy of British politics, Sir Anthony Eden. These factors, coupled with an apparent easing of international tension and the possibility of a fairly calm period in the domestic economy, had raised the Tory Party’s morale sky high and given to it a sense of security and satisfaction.

By way of contrast the Labor Party presented a sorrowful picture. Demoralized by its election defeat and the prospects of another five years in opposition-facing a Tory Government which was both numerically and politically stronger than its predecessor – the Labor Party was further handicapped by a lack of positive leadership, a weak policy and a rank and file which was rapidly becoming disillusioned with what leadership and policy there was. The discomfort of the Labor Party was increased by the way in which the entire press of Britain began to probe into its failures and, in many cases, to conduct premature post-mortems on what appeared to be a lifeless corpse. Even newspapers which had given considerable support to the Labor right-wing in the past joined in the examination; as, for instance, the Daily Mirror which in a series of searing articles wrote: “Labor lost the general election because its leaders are too old. Labor’s aged leaders failed to unite the Party. Failed to inspire it. Failed to organize it for victory. The chief architect of defeat was Mr. Clement Attlee.” The right-wing itself, very conscious of the fact that something had to be done very quickly to pull the Party together again, endeavored to focus attention on the necessity to overhaul and reshape the Party’s organizational machinery. But, while doing this, it was forced to admit that the Party’s policy also needed attention. For example, Herbert Morrison – then deputy leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party and leading right-winger on the National Executive Committee – wrote in Fact, the official Party monthly journal: “The Labor Party now faces one of those major tasks which the Party has not hesitated to face in the past ... We must re-examine, not the fundamental principles of the Party, but the exposition of Party policies in the light of modern conditions.”

Now, less than two years later, the British political scene is almost unrecognizable when looked at in the light of what existed just after the 1955 general election. The Tory Party has lost its sense of confidence and security and is in the throes of violent internal squabbles. The Tory Government has fumbled one thing after another and even the most optimistic Tory commentators are now doubtful whether it could command the backing of the voters were the issue put to a test at a general election. On the other hand the Labor Party’s fortunes have swung in the opposite direction. The “aged leaders” attacked by the Daily Mirror are no longer in control; Party policy is being re-shaped – and while it is not necessarily falling into the pattern demanded by many left-wingers it is at least being re-shaped in a democratic fashion which gives ample opportunity for rank and file participation before any final attitude is taken. In the trade union base of the Labor Party, which for years provided the sheet anchor of the right-wing, there is definite evidence of a shift to a more militant attitude – particularly in relation to industrial affairs. The stifling atmosphere of rigid orthodoxy, which only a few years ago cramped left-wing expression and threatened to bring about a major split within the Party, is now clearing and those holding left-wing opinions are now more able to state their case and have it listened to without being treated as alien elements and threatened with disciplinary action on the slightest pretext.

The reasons for this about-face in British politics are many, and to trace their origins and follow their progress in detail would require a major work of political analysis. For the purposes of this brief review only the major points will be touched upon in an endeavor to trace the fortunes of various political tendencies in Britain during the past eighteen months or so.

ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT events which affected the Labor Party immediately after the 1955 general election was the resignation of Clement Attlee as Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party. After holding this position for 20 years, Attlee finally decided to quit in the face of growing demands for such action both within the Parliamentary Party and the national Party outside of Parliament; as he gracefully made his way to the House of Lords – having had an earldom bestowed upon his shoulders – Attlee left the field open for a fight to develop over who should take over his old job. The fight turned out to be a tough one. It not only installed a new Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party but also ended the career of Herbert Morrison, a man who had acted for a long period as Number Two to Attlee as Deputy Leader and who appeared to hold the impression that Attlee’s mantle was his by virtue of long service to the right-wing.

There were three contestants for Attlee’s old job. Hugh Gaitskell – an economist educated at Winchester public school and New College Oxford, ex-civil servant with only ten years in Parliament to his record, one-time Labor Chancellor of the Exchequer and responsible for introducing the 1951 budget which placed charges on the National Health Service and so sparked off the Bevanite resignations from the Government. Herbert Morrison – who after scant elementary education started work as an errand boy in a shop and thence progressed to a telephone switchboard operator in a brewery and by various stages to a full-time job for the labor movement; one time a member of the old Social Democratic Federation and alleged Marxist he had many years earlier turned his back on his past and gone completely over to the right-wing of the Labor Party. The third contestant was Aneurin Bevan – who left school at the age of thirteen to become a miner, was first elected to Parliament on a Labor ticket in 1929, was Minister of Health in the 1945 Labor Government and, after his resignation, focal point around which the various elements of the Labor left-wing gathered.

The result of the elections for the Leader’s job (voting being confined to Labor MPs) caused some surprise. Gaitskell romped home with 157 votes, Bevan followed with 70 and Morrison, thought by many to be favorite, trailed way behind with only 40 votes. Gaitskell was elated by his victory, Bevan was encouraged by the vote he received and Morrison, the most outspoken of right wing propagandists, retired from the scene of Labor’s front ranks and is now seldom seen or heard.

Gaitskell’s election was an event of great importance for the Labor Party for, while by no means a left-winger, his position was such that he was unable to make any fierce attacks upon the left-wing. The position was neatly summed up at the time by The Economist, a weekly journal which describes itself as “independent conservative.” “The decision to elevate Mr. Gaitskell to the leadership is also a risky one,” The Economist said, because it may be the start of “an unprofitable slide to the Left.” Gaitskell, it continued, was “a moderate, sensible and agreeable man,” but he was also a right winger without any large degree of backing and foundation in the trade union movement. The Leader of the Labor Party, according to the article, should be either a middle-of-the-roader or a right-winger able to “whistle up” a faithful trade union bodyguard to control the “wild men” of the left. As he fitted neither of these categories The Economist foresaw that Gaitskell would have to make concessions to the left-wing in order to maintain his position as leader. Gaitskell, it said, “can rule only by persuasion, and persuasion means conciliation.”

To a large extent The Economist’s predictions have been realized. With Attlee in the House of Lords, Morrison sulking on the Labor back benches and Gaitskell poised in his delicate position, the pressure on the left-wing from the right has considerably eased in recent years. One result of this easing of tension between right and left has been the “promotion” of Bevan to one of the most important posts in Labor’s “Shadow Cabinet” in the House of Commons. This body is more or less a duplicate of the Government Cabinet and various Labor members of Parliament are assigned to certain tasks which, in theory at least, they would take over in the event of Labor being returned as the majority party in a future general election. To act as his spokesman on foreign affairs Gaitskell has chosen none other than Aneurin Bevan, and by doing so gave him the job which ranks Number Three in the Labor Parliamentary hierarchy after the Leader and Deputy Leader. Whether or not Bevan acted wisely in allowing himself to be placed in what could become a very difficult position is open to debate, but the point to be stressed here is that Gaitskell obviously feels that his own position is such that he cannot afford to follow the old right-wing tactics of deliberately giving Bevan the cold shoulder when it comes to handing out official functions.

But the way in which Gaitskell is forced to pay careful attention to the general mood of the Party has much more importance than rationing out posts within the leadership; it also means that when issues of policy arise he has to tread very carefully when making on-the-spot observations lest he get out of step with the current mood of the Party rank and file and thus place his own position in great danger. A real, and important, example of just what this means for the left-wing of the Party was contained in the events leading up to the Tory war against Egypt.

THE DAY AFTER NASSER ANNOUNCED that the Suez Canal Company had been nationalized Gaitskell said in the House of Commons that the Labor Opposition “deeply deplore this high-handed and totally unjustifiable step by the Egyptian Government.” He went on to ask: “In view of the seizure of the property of the Suez Canal Company and the vague statement about future compensation, will the Prime Minister bear in mind the desirability of blocking the sterling balances of the Egyptian Government?” A few days later Gaitskell, taking part in a full scale debate in the House of Commons, elaborated on his views. He was not, he said, of the opinion that the mere act of nationalization was wrong; what he was concerned with were three points. First, the Suez Canal Company was not an ordinary concern but was of immense importance to the whole world, and therefore it was a matter of international concern when it changed hands. Secondly, he said that he took strong exception to the arbitrary manner in which the Egyptians had acted, “without discussion, without negotiation, by force.” Thirdly, he could not ignore the political background and the repercussions of the whole episode in the Middle East; and he mentioned with approval Guy Mollet’s statements which likened Nasser to Hitler. “The fact is,” said Gaitskell, “this episode must be recognized as part of the struggle for mastery of the Middle East.”

This line of Gaitskell’s was speedily echoed by the Daily Herald, the daily newspaper which is committed to support the official political line of the Labor Party in its editorial pronouncements and always takes a right-wing attitude for safety’s sake. In an editorial headed: “NO MORE ADOLF HITLERS’,” it said that Nasser was acting like a Hitler in the Middle East and that Britain and other powers should act swiftly to show Nasser that they were not going to tolerate any more Hitlers. “There is no room for appeasement,” bellowed the concluding note of this bellicose editorial. The prospects that the Labor Party would trail along behind the Tory Government delighted the Tories and their press organs. The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper which expresses the views of extreme right wing Toryism, said in an editorial: “Any attempt to describe the Western powers’ firm stand over Suez as further evidence of Tory imperialism has been nipped in the bud by Mr. Gaitskell’s courageous support in the House of Commons.” And it went on to congratulate Mollet and Pineau, “both staunch Socialists,” for also being “consistent advocates of the firmest possible measures to meet the Egyptian challenge.” But the delighted Tories had overlooked one important factor, up to that time only Gaitskell’s voice had been heard – and its echo in the Daily Herald. The left-wing of the Labor Party had yet to express its opinion, and when it did the blast set both the Tories and Gaitskell back on their heels.

The voice of Labor’s left-wing was first heard through the pages of the Bevanite weekly newspaper, Tribune. Gaitskell, it said, outdid the Tories in suggesting ways of putting pressure on Egypt, and his proposal to block Egypt’s sterling balances was indefensible in law or morality. “Mr. Gaitskell’s reactions to the crisis were those of the most orthodox Tory,” said Tribune. “The rank and file, by every means open to them, must speak for Britain. Labor’s duty is clear. It must oppose the hysterical campaign against Nasser and his nation, to which at present some Labor politicians and the Daily Herald are making a disgraceful contribution.” This sharp criticism by Tribune was followed, five days later, by a statement issued over the names of 28 Laborite Members of Parliament expressing opposition to the Tory line on Egypt and opposing the use of armed force to try and settle the matter. Very soon critics of the Party line were making their voices heard in local Party organizations and in the columns of the Party press. As the storm grew Gaitskell began to waver and the first signs of his capitulation appeared when he summoned a special meeting of Labor’s “Shadow Cabinet” which subsequently demanded that the Government recall Parliament, then on summer vacation, to discuss the situation in Egypt. Commented Lord Beaverbrook’s Tory Sunday Express, Mr. Gaitskell “has decided to rally smartly behind his party” since he could not rally his party behind himself. By the time the Labor Party annual conference arrived, a few weeks later, Gaitskell’s conversion was complete and a resolution expressing opposition to Tory sabre rattling was passed after Gaitskell had made a speech during which he sought to prove that he was a much misunderstood man and that he had, in reality, been opposed to the Tory attitude on Egypt right from the very start. The final chapter in this story was written soon after when the Tory Government joined France and Israel in launching an attack upon Egypt: pushed hard by the rank and file the leadership of the Labor Party and trade unions organized mass protest demonstrations against the Tory action. At these demonstrations the full depth of feeling of the rank and file became apparent – such as in London when demonstrators made an unplanned march on the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street – and it seems clear that had the Tory Government not called off its action against Egypt when it did the rank- and-file militants of the Labor Party would have pressed for more drastic action in the form of strikes against the war.

During this campaign against the Tory war in Egypt, Gaitskell, having been more or less forced to lead it by the left wing of the Party, really began hammering the Government- much to the annoyance of many Conservatives who had expected something different from him. In press articles and speeches he hit the Tories where it hurt with the result that his standing went up in the eyes of the average Labor supporter and caused, a Tory Cabinet Minister to acidly comment: “As long as Mr. Gaitskell remains leader of the opposition it will never be possible to return to bipartisanship between the main parties on foreign affairs.”

While Gaitskell, because of his unstable position, has been forced to move temporarily slightly over to the left with the result that the whole mood of the Labor Party has become more militant and aggressive, Bevan himself has been restrained and he has, in fact, moved toward the right. On the Suez issue, for instance, while Tribune and the left wing hit out against Gaitskell’s initial stand and the Tory policy, Bevan shot off at a tangent and devoted most of his comments in the early stages to criticisms of Nasser and to proposals for the “internationalization” of the canal. The correspondence columns of Tribune began to carry letters from readers which, while whole-heartedly supporting Tribune’s stand, pointed out that Bevan himself was taking an altogether different attitude – a fact which led many people to the conclusion that a difference of opinion existed between Tribune editor Michael Foot and Bevan.

ANOTHER MANIFESTATION OF Bevan’s move to the right was his comparative silence at last year’s annual conference of the Labor Party. With debate flowing fast and furious on many controversial matters, Bevan spoke only once during the whole of the conference – and then on a matter which was non- controversial and of only minor importance. His role at the conference was minute when measured up against the part played by others of the left-wing who are centered around Tribune; many rank and file left-wingers – who are unknowns compared to Bevan – made a much more important contribution to the conference. One possible reason for this attitude was the fact that Bevan was once again trying for the job of Party Treasurer – a post for which he had fought on previous occasions against Gaitskell and had each time been beaten. With Gaitskell Party Leader and consequently out of the running, Bevan last year had a new opponent from the right-wing – George Brown – and it was common knowledge that his chances were much improved because of a general dislike (personal as well as political) of Brown. In the outcome Bevan was elected as treasurer and many observers expressed the opinion that Bevan’s silence was a concession on his part in order to pull in doubtful votes which he might have antagonized had he engaged in polemics with the right-wing. His election, in other words, was the reward for his silence.

Such speculations may contain a fair element of the truth, because they are entirely in keeping with Bevan’s big weakness of looking at the right versus left conflict within the Party in personal terms, as they affect Bevan himself. A glaring example of this weakness, and one which caused leftwingers to gnash their teeth in fury, occurred during the election for Party Leader. The contestants, as stated earlier, were Gaitskell, Morrison and Bevan. After the nominations had been made left-wingers were dismayed when Bevan issued a statement saying that he was prepared to withdraw his nomination if Gaitskell did likewise and left a clear field for Morrison to take the position without contest. What motives prompted Bevan to make this fantastic offer are still not known, but his willingness to give Morrison (a far more rabid right-winger than Gaitskell) a walk over victory was a clear sign of his lack of responsibility towards the left-wing forces of the Party as a whole. Gaitskell declined to make the deal offered by Bevan and the subsequent voting figures showed that he acted wisely for Morrison was beaten to the bottom of the poll; had Gaitskell accepted Bevan’s offer the Parliamentary Party would have pushed upon it the least acceptable of the three candidates. Speculation again has it that by making such an offer Bevan hoped to win support and secure the position of Deputy Leader as Number Two to Morrison – and he would have also kept his old enemy of the 1951 split out in the cold. The fact that the Party would have had at its head one of the most unpopular right-wingers did not seem to have entered into Bevan’s calculations, nor did the fact that Morrison would have proved much more inelastic than Gaitskell seem to have been considered by Bevan. For him the whole matter appeared to be one of personalities rather than political principles.

But, in spite of Bevan’s weaknesses, the fact remains that the Labor Party as a whole has adopted a much more militant stance in the past eighteen months and has shifted away from the extreme right-wing position it had held for several years previously. In the trade unions, too, the center of balance has moved over several degrees, due to both a change in the leadership of a couple of important unions and the reaction of rank and file union members to the economic policies of the Tory Government. Wage restraint, having weighed down heavily on the trade unions for some years, has now been officially buried by the Trades Union Congress; on the Suez question the trade unions generally took up a firm stand against the Tories and political issues, having been pushed into the background for a long time by the trade union right-wing leaders, are now coming more to the forefront. Throughout the Labor movement aggressiveness coupled with a desire to push forward is the prevalent mood.

THE CHANGE OF MOOD AND shift of emphasis within the Labor movement is heightened and encouraged by the sorry plight at present existing within the Tory and Communist Parties, both of which are divided by deep internal divisions. While the discomforts and troubles of the Tory Party give encouragement to the Labor Party as a whole, the splitting up of the Communist Party is giving a fresh impetus to the left-wing of the Labor Party and spurring it to fresh efforts in order to win over rank and file militants of the C.P. who have become disillusioned with their Stalinist leadership.

The Tory Party’s troubles have their origin largely in the struggle between those in its ranks who wish to push on with the tougher policies adopted since the 1955 election and those who wish to return to the “new look” Toryism developed by R.A. Butler in order to win over support from the top strata of the working class and to consolidate Conservative support among the middle class. The result so far has been that the “get tough” section has had most of its way and has introduced economic policies which have not only hit the workers but have also created a great deal of dissatisfaction among the middle class. The Suez war, with its economic repercussions, has made things even tougher with the consequence that the divisions within the Tory ranks have deepened and opposition to the Government has grown.

At two important by-elections for Members of Parliament the Government has received clear indications of its falling support – and in both cases the middle-class voters were responsible for a drastic drop in the Tory majorities. At Tonbridge, a traditional Tory constituency in South East England, a by-election last June sliced away the Tory majority from 10,196 in the general election to a mere 1,602. In December a by-election in Melton Mowbray knocked the Tory majority of 10,780 in the general election down to 2,632. In both of these elections the significant feature was the large number of Tory supporters who stayed away from the polling booths; they were not prepared to vote Labor but at the same time they were not prepared to give support to a Tory Government which, in their eyes, had given the middle-classes a raw deal.

The reasons for this dissatisfaction of the middle classes stem from the Tory Government’s policies of credit squeeze, high interest rates on bank loans and similar measures which – although primarily designed to put pressure on industry to create “mobility of labor” – also have an adverse affect upon small shopkeepers, professional men and the like. In reaction to this some sections of the middle class, instead of following the normal pattern of temporarily withdrawing support from the Tory Party, are seeking a solution in other organizations which have sprung up to express extreme middle class feeling and to put pressure on the Tory Party. Two such bodies are the Middle Class Alliance, led by a Tory MP, and the People’s League for the Defense of Freedom, led by a renegade civil service trade union leader. These bodies are presenting general demands for the reduction of taxation on the middle class, a reduction in Government spending, a peg on working class wages to stop inflation and a tougher policy towards trade unions. The People’s League in particular is extremely anti-trade union and consistently seeks to influence the course of industrial disputes and boasts of the machinery it has set up to carry out strike-breaking operations.

These bitter feelings, coupled with clashes of personality, move upwards through the whole of the Tory Party into the Cabinet itself. During the war in Egypt they were, in part, responsible for the fumbling of Anthony Eden and his decision to end the war in circumstances least favorable to his Government. Eden’s resignation, officially due to ill health, doubtless has its real origin in the factions fights of the Tory Party. The Tory Party is now demoralized and completely at a loss as to which move to make next; it would like to send the country to the polls in a demonstration of support but is afraid to because the election would more likely turn out to be a complete repudiation of all the policies at present pursued by the government. It would like to settle, for once and for all, the question of its leadership – but deep seated rivalries make this impossible. And, to further complicate matters, the Tory Party all the time is confronted with a Labor Party which is more militant than for many years past and is ever anxious to take advantage of Tory weaknesses.

IF THE TORY PARTY IS IN A MESS there are no words which can precisely describe the situation of the British Communist Party. Always microscopic – it had around 30,000 members at the last count – the CP has never had a great deal of mass influence on the British working class. It relied instead on capturing points of power within the trade union movement and then using these points of power to influence the course of events within the Labor Party itself. But now the events of the 20th Congress and Hungary have deprived the CP of many of these points of power as members occupying leading positions in the unions have quit. This walk-out of many CP members in the trade unions has been accompanied by similar acts by rank and file members, intellectuals and students in CP groups at universities. Many who violently disagree with the CP line on Hungary are still within the Communist Party, where they say they intend to stay and fight it out, so the full effect of the divisions within the party ranks are yet to be seen.

When the news of the first “revelations” at the 20th Congress reached Britain the CP leadership tried to play the matter down. After a few brief articles and letters had appeared in the Daily Worker the editor appealed to members to forget the “cult of the individual” and concentrate on the more “positive aspects” of the Congress. But the lid had already been lifted and dissatisfied CP rank and filers were not going to be so easily put off. As further news reached Britain, and then the U.S. Government released documents which allowed British Communists to see what Khrushchev had told their Russian comrades, the storm within the British Communist Party grew. First criticism was confined to the way in which the British CP leaders had accepted without question everything they had been told in the past by the Kremlin bosses; but then criticism broadened out and the British CP leaders started coming under fire for their own bureaucratic conduct and the undemocratic practices within the Party. Letters in the Daily Worker complained that discussion in CP branches was stifled; that those who disagreed with the Party line were abused by the leadership and that in general the situation within the British CP contained all the germs from which a full scale Stalinist terror could grow should the Party ever take over in Britain. The 24th Congress of the British Communist Party, held in March of last year, gave elements in opposition a further opportunity to show where they stood and to try to win further support.

The CP leadership, however, had learned a lesson from the 20th Congress, that dealing with the situation disclosed by Khrushchev’s speech, should take place in secret session behind locked doors. But even so several delegates made sharp attacks upon the leaders of the British CP while the Congress was still in open session. Such as the delegate who complained: “When we get a decent branch the leadership comes and beats it down. We are told to go off and form more branches, even though some of them consist of only one man.” The leadership met such criticisms by warning of “Trotskyist” elements within the Labor Party who were seeking to influence the Bevanites and at the same time cause disruption inside the CP.

Some weeks after the Congress the political committee of the British CP published a statement which said that the 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U. was correct in condemning the cult of the individual but at the same time it was regrettable that the Central Committee of the Russian CP had not issued a public statement on the question and as a consequence Communists in Britain and elsewhere had to rely on unofficial sources “hostile to socialism,” and in the absence of an official statement the unofficial text published by the U.S. Government must be regarded as more or less authentic. The evils revealed by Khrushchev, continued the British CP statement, arose out of the period of “abnormal strain” between 1934 and 1953, such as the rise of fascism, the preparation for the Second World War and the growth of the cold war. But, in spite of the grave abuses now revealed, the Soviet people has “established socialism, withstood and defeated the Nazi onslaught, and reconstructed their country after the unparalleled devastation of the war. This achievement shows the superiority of the Socialist system over capitalism and the creative possibilities it opens up for the people.”

After calling for a “profound Marxist analysis” of the causes of degeneration in the functioning of Soviet society and a more adequate estimate of both the “positive and negative” aspects of Stalin’s role, the statement promised: “Within our own party we shall need to carry forward and encourage the widest and most thorough discussion, as already begun, of our political and organizational methods, the functioning of party democracy and the tackling of problems before us, our relations with other sections of the Labor Movement, and the aims of unity.” It warned, however; “The enemies of our party hope that this discussion will weaken the party and open the way for attempts to smuggle anti-Marxist and anti-Communist bourgeois conceptions into the party striking at the roots of Communist principles and organization.” Communists, it said, must conduct the discussion so as to strengthen every aspect of the party’s work and activity.

The CP leaders’ chants about democracy were put to the test soon afterwards when, for the first time in nearly twenty years, an opposition paper began to circulate within the ranks of the British Communist Party. Entitled The Reasoner, it was edited by two Yorkshire university lecturers, John Saville and E.P. Thompson. In its very first issue The Reasoner took to task most of the leading members of the CP. John Gollan, the new CP secretary who had taken over when Harry Pollitt retired because of “bad eyesight” (he had visited Russia 50 times and failed to notice anything wrong until Khrushchev made his speech), was attacked because of his slavish adherence to the Soviet line; George Mathews, the assistant secretary, was accused of trying to cover the cracks in the walls of CP theory with soiled wallpaper; R. Palme Dutt, CP president and chief theoretical apologist for the Kremlin in Britain, was given a broadside because of an article he had written in the CP Labour Monthly and which, according to The Reasoner, did not match the seriousness of the situation by its understanding. The policy of The Reasoner, and those associated with it, was stated to be complete freedom of discussion within the ranks of the CP and it appealed to those of a like mind to support it and stay inside the CP and fight it out with the “monolith.”

The appearance of The Reasoner caused the Party leadership great concern for it presented a focal point around which elements opposed to the line could rally – and were in fact rallying in increasing numbers particularly in intellectual spheres. Thompson and Saville were presented with an ultimatum by the CP leaders that either they cease publication of their paper, and conduct their discussion within the limits of “democracy” defined by the CP leaders, or else they would be expelled from the party. But before the next move in this battle could be made events in Hungary sparked off a fresh wave of feeling and the crisis within the ranks of the CP began to mount.

When the news of the Hungarian revolution broke the British Communist Party showed no hesitation in deciding what line to follow. “Counter-revolution in Hungary,” the Daily Worker told its readers in an editorial on October 25, “staged an uprising in the hours of darkness.” Then, for a few days, the Daily Worker hesitated and began to make plans for a retreat. It spoke of the “justified grievances” of the Hungarian people and criticized the Hungarian Government for not paying attention to these grievances. But when the Russians launched their second onslaught against Budapest the Daily Worker and the British Communist Party immediately drew back and faithfully followed the Kremlin line by denouncing the Hungarian revolutionaries as “fascists” who were unleashing a “white terror.” The repercussions were swift and violent. Five members of the editorial staff of the Daily Worker, including its Budapest correspondent, Peter Fryer, quit in protest. John Horner and Jack Grahl, secretary and assistant secretary of the CP dominated Fire Brigades Union, turned in their Party cards. They were rapidly followed by other leading Communists who were key men in the trade union movement. The CP student group at Oxford University dissolved and area, district, branch officials and ordinary rank and file members walked away from the party by the score. Thompson and Saville, after publishing a searing attack against this latest crime of the British CP leaders in The Reasoner, also quit; but they urged all who like themselves had broken away from the CP leadership, “not to lose faith in Socialism and to find ways of keeping together.”

Many who broke with the CP have followed this advice with the result that in places all over Britain small Marxist Groups and Marxist clubs are springing up composed of ex-members of the Communist Party. Typical of these is a group in Nottingham which was formed when 12 Party members – including four members of the CP area committee, 3 branch secretaries and two members of the district committee of the Young Communist League – walked out and formed a Marxist Group. In a pamphlet they explained that they could not remain members because:

“The Party leaders are no more than agents of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The anti-democratic nature of the Party structure makes it impossible for the rank and file to influence its basic policies or change its leadership. The Party is a despised sect. It is despised not because it is loyal to the principles of Socialism, but because it has betrayed them.”

The indignation expressed by these ex-Communist Party members in this denunciation of the British CP exists throughout the Party. Many holding such opinions are awaiting the outcome of a special congress which has been called and at which they intend to have one final try at turning out the present CP leadership and swinging the policy around. Their chances of doing this appear remote and the most likely course of events is that more members will quit the CP and leave it as a minute and politically sterile sect with only a very small nuisance value to the Labor movement.

THE BIG PROBLEM FOR THE Labor Party is not those who remain in the Communist Party, but those who leave. The official Labor Party attitude is characteristic of the right-wing and was contained in a circular which went to all local Labor Parties advising them not to accept into membership ex-Communist Party members except in special circumstances, and then only after reference to the higher regional bodies of the Labor Party. Needless to say most local Labor Parties, at least those in which the left-wing is dominant, have decided to reject this advice and to follow the usual practice of accepting all who agree with the aims of the Labor Party and who do not belong to a body which makes them ineligible for membership. The job is, however, to get the ex-CP’ers into the Labor Party where they can work in a positive fashion with the left-wing rather than fritter away their energies in isolated Marxist Groups which, by the very nature of things, will be divorced from the main stream of the Labor movement and degenerate into sectarian debating societies exercising no influence on the course of political events.

Some success in this direction has already been achieved. The group at Nottingham, for instance, has joined the Labor Party – notably due to lengthy discussions with members of the Labor Party who are promoting the circulation and influence of the Socialist Review, a monthly journal maintained by various Third Camp currents of socialist opinion. In other instances, too, ex-members of the Communist Party have entered the Labor Party after encouragement by the left wing and, in many of these cases, it is noticeable how they are linking up with the orthodox Trotskyist elements which operate within the Labor Party. This is perhaps an indication that their political education is really only just beginning and that they still hold illusions about the class and social character of Russia. But, this notwithstanding, they are within the Labor Party and as such they cannot possibly remain outside of the constant arguments and discussions which are in progress within the Party and there is the distinct possibility that, given time, the contradictions of orthodox Trotskyism can be explained to them and they can be won over to a Third Camp position. This, in fact, has already happened in some cases where ex-CP members found that they had exchanged the stiffling and bureaucratic atmosphere of the CP for the bureaucratic atmosphere which characterizes the Trotskyist grouping within the Labor Party.

It is easy, in the light of the occurrences outlined above, to see why the Labor Party’s right wing is so reluctant to take into membership exmembers of the CP. It sees them, quite correctly, as potential allies of the left wing. Sam Watson, a leader of the miner’s union and right-wing member of the Labor Party executive committee, is said to have remarked in a private conversation that the worst thing that could happen was for the Communist Party to either collapse or dissolve itself. In such a situation, he is reported to have said, Communists will come into the Labor Party and be absorbed by the Bevanites. The circular advising local Labor Parties not to accept ex-CP members into membership obviously has its origins in the same line of thought, and it has been strengthened by the way in which left wing Labor journals, such as the Tribune and Socialist Review, have been hammering at the CP and doing all they possibly can to widen the split and pull more and more members out of the CP into the Labor Party.

The crisis within the CP is thus likely, sometime in the future, to have repercussions within the ranks of the Labor Party itself; indeed it is already having an effect to the extent that it is propelling the left wing into considerable activity in order to win over people who have broken with the CP. When this first phase of the activity is over, and all those who can be gathered into the Labor Party are established, the second phase will begin. This will consist of trying to clarify the views of ex-Communist Party members on fundamental issues, such as the nature of the Soviet Union and the role of the Labor Party in the struggle for Socialism. Complementing these two phases will be the general clash between the various currents of left wing opinion, such as the Bevanites, Trotskyists and Third Camp Socialists, and the broader battle between the left forces in total and the right wing.

THE CRISIS OF TORYISM WILL also produce reactions within the Labor Party, particularly insofar as they concern the dissatisfied elements of the middle class. About seven years ago, and primarily at the instigation of Herbert Morrison, serious attempts began to be made to dilute the class character of the Labor Party by broadening its program so as to draw in support from the middle class. This meant the playing down of the Socialist content of the Labor Party and the magnification of petty bourgeois tendencies. With a large proportion of the middle class now wavering in its support for Toryism it is very likely that elements of the Labor Party right wing will make fresh attempts to pursue a policy of making the Labor Party what they choose to call a “national party” – in other words a party of liberal reformism which bases its appeal to the electorate on the fact that it is better able to manage the affairs of a capitalist economy than the Tory Party in the interests of “the community as a whole.” Such moves will, naturally enough, meet with strong resistance from the rank and file of the Party which consists to a very large degree of working class elements. Resistance might also be forthcoming from the trade unions because, in order to hold out the carrot to the middle class, the right wing would probably find it necessary to use a stick on the trade unions.

The future for the Labor Party, then, is full of promise if it can but avoid the many traps which are in its path. With the Tory Party’s confidence and prestige shaken the Labor Party can, if it follows the correct tactics and policies, demonstrate to the people of Britain that England’s unstability is not merely the aftermath of Tory incompetence but the result of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism and imperialism. At the same time it can, because of the havoc wrecked upon the CP by events in Hungary and at the 20th Congress, win over the best elements of the CP and allow them to use their energies for Socialism rather than Stalinism. But to follow both of these courses a change is needed in the general outlook and policy of the Party. Over the past few years it has swung over to the left somewhat but still remains many degrees off course. To take full advantage of all its new possibilities the Labor Party must pursue a consistent socialist policy. And not only does the Labor Party need such a policy for its own sake or the sake of the workers in Britain; it needs it also for the whole working class of Europe which, sickened by the latest crimes of Stalinism and further disillusioned by social democracy as illustrated by Mollet’s support for imperialism in the Middle East, is desperately looking for a lead. It is the responsibility of the left wing of the Labor Party to exert all its energies in order to turn the Labor Party into a movement which can provide such a lead.

London, January 1957

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