Britain's Labor Pains



AUGUST, 1946



WASHINGTON IRVING likened the British people to a ship that rides out the worst storm but rolls its masts overboard in the calm that follows. Last year, as war was ending, an allparty British Government was rolled overboard. Labor, representing half the voters, got its first clear majority in Parliament, and British Socialism won five years of absolute single-party power. British politics, however, are always stormier, not calmer, after a war. The ship of state has rolled its old masts overboard, but the storm goes on, and everything aboard is being jury-rigged. Captain, officers, crew, and passengers are sure their ship will make port. It has never yet failed to do so. But none of them feels sure it will be the port for which they were bound a year ago.

At that time many Americans thought of that storm as a European whirlwind bearing Communist or Socialist-Communist governments into power on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Since then, because of the Russians’ international strategy and the tactics of the various national Communist parties, that curtain has become a clear division between Eastern and Western European governmental systems. In France, Italy, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and Britain the Communists and fellow travelers did not tread delicately on unfamiliar ground. It has shifted beneath them. Their plans have gone awry — not because of secret bullets, but because of secret ballots. Western Europe is not a bloc, but it is still a cultural entity; and in its domestic politics it has put Communism on the defensive.

This development is most important in and for Britain. Though there is no “Western bloc,” the new governments and their peoples on this side of the curtain look to British Labor for encouraging leadership. That Britain should save herself by her exertions “and will, I trust, save Europe by her example” is still as much an article of faith in Western Europe as in these islands. That was made plain at Labor’s annual conference, at Bournemouth, in June, the first since its victory last year. It is very important to Americans and American policy. Yet there seems much bewilderment in America over the nature and trends of the national and international forces now operative in Britain and Western Europe.

Britishers expected post-war spasms. But the united effort of the people, as epitomized in the Coalition Government, masked the real costs of war. Workers swelled trade-unions and made great financial gains, even if they had to plow them back as taxes or savings. Labor leaders daringly prophesied a materially fuller life for them after the war, and because of it. This led to the widespread and typically British hope that somehow the spasms would be avoided altogether. That hope has withered in the blast of events beyond British control: for example, a worse food shortage than in wartime, an enduring lack of consumers’ goods owing to the export drive, and a drastic weakening of Britain’s position in the world. During Labor’s first year of government, most Britishers have come to realize that they are being forced to undergo three simultaneous revolutions.

Copyright 1946, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

First there is the domestic social, economic, and political revolution, now in accelerating process of execution by the Labor Government. The second is the inescapable revolution in British foreign, imperial, and strategic policy owing to the sudden, radical change for the worse in Britain’s resources and in her relative position in the post-war world. The third revolution is less obvious, probably more significant, and likely to last longer. It is the revolution inside the British Labor movement as a whole, caused by the impact of the first two revolutions upon its constituent elements. This ferment in Labor comes partly from the Labor Government’s handling of the first two revolutions in domestic and foreign policy; partly from the new social composition of Labor since 1939, expressed in last year’s election; and partly from the unimagined change in the resources and circumstances of the country. Thus the Socialist blueprints, drafted mainly between 1917 and 1939, have to be carried out by the Labor Party of 1945 in the Britain of the post-war era. Hence the spasms.

Pessimists say that Britain’s social, political, and economic convulsions are paralytic strokes brought on in an enfeebled but sound body by the folly of sudden and insupportable overindulgence. Optimists declare they are mere growing pains in a youthful and overvigorous Socialist organism. But careful observers note that they are getting more frequent and severe. They look uncommonly like labor pains. And because, during a change of life, such things as false pregnancies are known to occur, careful observers wait for the climax.

Britain is probably in as dramatic a revolutionary situation as any that ever marked a nation’s history. The British are not used to such things. They find them emotionally upsetting. It is a long time since they had to cope with one revolutionary situation, let alone three at once. Their agelong and hard-won genius for understatement about themselves has deadened their sense of the dramatic in their own affairs; so they think genuine drama is vulgar melodrama; and they put the glass to their blind eye and “really do not see the signal.” Because their revolutionary situation (to use Marxian terms) is British and bloodless, they prefer not to think of it as comparable to the French and Russian revolutions, or to those of 1688 and 1832 in their own history. Yet their situation today is in many respects more revolutionary than those earlier in their history, and in world affairs it may be as epoch-making as the great convulsions of history.

Other British revolutions, including the Reformation, were or could be insulated as domestic affairs. Whatever their causes and consequences abroad, at home they could be worked out in comparative insulation. In 1946 not one of Britain’s three revolutions can be insulated from foreign affairs. They have been caused by, and in turn they affect, the revolutions of our time in British, European, and world power. And because they are being worked out in a land long conditioned to bloodless revolution, the eyes of careful observers in Russia, America, and Western Europe are, with varying motives, fixedly trained upon them.

This article cannot compass the first two revolutions in British domestic and foreign policy, except in so far as they clarify the third revolution: that inside British Labor. They must wait for another occasion. The ferment in Labor is for the time being the most important. For if our present labor pains prove false, if they do not bring forth a new and vital Britain, the revolutionary situation will not result in true, positive, managed, and controlled revolution at all — neither in domestic nor in foreign policy. It will end in chaos. Not the “chaos of preordination” but the chaos of no order. And that would be disastrous to Britain, to Western Europe, and to America. The Western Roman Empire ended that way because it could neither make nor carry out a revolution.


TODAY Labor rules a Britain that has been forcibly reintegrated with the Continent; and no conservative party on the Continent has been able to withstand the pre-war social trends which the war boosted. So the setbacks to Communism on the western part of the Continent and in Britain were delivered under the rule of Socialist or left-wing coalition governments, though Communism, the international secular and materialist religion of our age, is stronger, better organized internationally, and more powerful in the national politics of these countries than ever before. If Britain had had the only conservative government in Western Europe, there would probably have been two curtains in Europe: the iron one, and another at the English Channel. Who would dare say in that case that Communism both in Britain and Western Europe would have had any setback?

Yet even with Labor in power, and even with Britain reintegrated with the Continent, a paradox has emerged. Labor has come to power with hardly a trace of that Marxism which fashioned Continental Socialist parties, because British political practice was insulated for centuries from Continental models. But by being reintegrated with the Continent, Britain and British Labor are having pains.

The British Labor movement differed from Continental Socialist parties in many important ways. Unlike them, it has always been a federal structure embodying many social movements among the people: trade-unions, consumers’ coöperatives, intellectual organisms like the Fabian Society or the Independent Labor Party, and a political party in Parliament (the Parliamentary Labor Party) and in the constituencies wherein all elements were represented. It originated and was inspired by Christian Socialism among the early trade-unions, by the non-conformist churches, and by the severely practical ethics of Victorian England. This Christian origin led to heavier emphasis on liberty and fraternity than on equality. The only elements which did not share the Christian inspiration were the intellectuals; though even there exceptions are to be noted in our own day — particularly the Prime Minister and Sir Stafford Cripps. No charter, no secular materialist dogma, no dialectic, underlay British Labor; and not much logical consistency, either. It had no “theory of the working class.”

Marxist theory, dialectics, and dogma divided Continental Socialist parties — except, significantly, those of Scandinavia — from other classes and parties, and therefore from the entirety of their national life. Their class-conscious separatism and dogma had a logical consequence in the imposition, by their doctrinal leaders, of almost totalitarian methods and discipline on Continental Socialist parties. The party in Britain was typically British in that its organization and direction, its programs and blueprints, were worked out from the bottom up, as in every democratic federation, instead of being imposed from the priestly top downwards. Accordingly its leaders came up from the ranks of its various cohorts, or were assimilated from all other political parties and social classes. Unlike its Continental counterparts, it took less than a generation from 1901 to become the Opposition (the second party), and less than fifty years to become the nation in miniature governing itself. Continental Socialism did not achieve that.

Because it had no exclusive, separatist dogma, British Labor depended much more on personalities, personal loyalties, and the whole climate of national opinion. It could afford to be as illogical, paradoxical, contradictory in program and philosophy, and severely practical as the British people. It could reverse itself as circumstances demanded, and with the natural support of a people famed (or as Continentals would say, notorious) for their unreasonable love of “muddling through” — which, as the war showed, is only an unkind way of saying that the British excel at extemporization. It is another paradox that in British Labor the personal role of the leaders, and the loyalty of the rank and file to them, were stronger than in Continental Socialist parties.


AGAIN, ever since 1901 a slow but sure change has been coming over British Labor. It has taken Labor farther away from Continental Socialism, and after two world wars it has come to a head in the current revolution within Labor itself. British Labor was never “proletarian” in the Marxist sense. The material conditions of British workers have continuously risen; the two wars have made them more bourgeois, men of small property; and social security has enhanced this trend. What was once in Britain — seemingly ages ago — called “the working class” has been thrust by taxation and social legislation into the lower-middle class of suburbanites, villa owners, and residents in new housing estates: they are all as compact, conservative, and conventional in their Laborism as any Victorian bourgeois in Bayswater was in his Toryism or Whiggery.

Thus the real explanation of the Conservative and Liberal debacle in 1945 is not the war, which was only the accelerator of it. It is the invasion and occupation of the famous British middle class by Labor; particularly the growth of the new lower-middle class. This is a vast class of workers, wage-earning or salaried, dependent on the equally swollen commercial undertakings, public utilities and services, central and local government offices, and industrial or financial institutions like the banks, insurance companies, and what are termed “soulless corporations.” As dependents on these, divorced from the skills or crafts of the older tradeunion workers and from any personal identification with the day’s work or output, the “new masses” of the British lower-middle class have proved excellent recruits to the intelligentsia of the Left in the last twenty years. They are ardent, zealous, and scrupulously faithful followers of Professor Laski, Sir Stafford Cripps, and the New Statesman and Nation. They have compensated for their humdrum dependence, and have gained social significance, in Labor. When Britishers explain Labor’s victory last year by the statement that “the middle class went Left” that is what they really mean.

Labor’s victory reflected this change in many ways: the lowest representation of trade-union M.P.’s in the Commons; the overwhelming representation of the novi homines from the new middle class; the striking comeback by the generation between twenty-five and forty, excluded from most Parliaments since 1919; and even a substantial swing over to Labor by many in the upper-middle class. This means a wider, not a narrower and more exclusive, representation of the nation in the Labor Party. It makes the aims of left-wing one-class-conscious dogmatists, whether inspired by Moscow or not, harder to achieve. Labor rules the nation; but it now embodies almost all elements in that nation. So for the first time the “class struggle” itself and all tensions or conflicts between the loyalties in the nation are duplicated with doubled intensity inside Labor. As the trade-unions now make extreme and self-seeking demands on a nation of consumers, they make them on Labor itself, of which they are only a part. Thus the real struggle in Britain is no longer between capitalism and socialism, Conservatives and Labor. It is between the constituent elements intent on controlling this changed and changing Labor Party. It is more intense be cause Labor is in power.

The party’s instrument of political rule in Parliament, the Parliamentary Labor Party made up of the caucus and the rank and file of Labor M.P.’s, dominates the other sections of the national Labor Party: trade-unions, coöperatives, and other federated organisms. The Cabinet has the secrets and must keep them. It must make the hourly decisions. Policy in opposition can be made by all Labor’s elements. Policy in power can’t. That is why earlier pledges, programs, and the observations of the year-to-year chairmen of the entire national Party are scarcely influential when Labor is in power. And that is why, even in a revolutionary situation and with exiguous resources, British Labor in power enjoys moral and methodological advantages denied to its Continental neighbors.

This first crucial year of Labor rule was therefore bound to bring convulsions in Labor. Two thirds of Labor’s M.P.’s are new, representing almost as many new as old Labor voters. The tradeunion M.P.’s have dwindled to less than a quarter of the Parliamentary Labor Party. The Cabinet, made up mainly of the old-line leaders imbued with a Socialism devised for pre-war Britain, has become the political spearhead of the broadest cross-section of the nation. It is a one-party Government; yet it must command almost as much national support in the revolutionary situation of today as an allparty coalition. But the whole people’s aims and ideas, and their movements to realize those aims and ideas, are more numerous, more contentious, and more activated by strange ferments than ever before.

The premium at present is on the older and more experienced leaders: on the Attlees, Bevins, Daltons, Crippses, Alexanders, Morrisons. But with such a weighty mass of new, young, and able backbenchers behind them, in mute and serried ranks, the premium in the slightly longer run is on new men: men now biding their time, learning the ways of Parliament and government, and slowly making up their minds how best to represent — and reconcile — the desires of their old and new Labor constituents.


THE first real climax in Britain’s Labor pains came at the annual conference in Bournemouth in June. Mark one fact: owing to the swing over to Labor in 1945, the Bournemouth conference in 1946, with its 1169 delegates representing 3,289,000 members of the Labor Party proper, left unrepresented twice that number of Labor voters. Yet these other millions are mainly those for whose support in future elections the Party Executive had to angle, while it soothed the urgent and vocal minority demanding a more rapid socialization of Britain and closer relations with Communism and Russia. On the issue of more rapid and thoroughgoing socialization, Mr. Herbert Morrison, who is the nearest approach in British politics to an American party boss, was able to accomplish the soothing.

But the liveliest and most important issues were those which were causing the biggest tugs-of-war within Labor, and which were in turn caused by the revolutionary situation in British domestic and foreign affairs. And naturally into both issues entered the question of Labor solidarity with Russia and Continental, international Communism. On these issues Labor, in unchallengeable power in 1946, faced the old questions of the 1918-1928 period, but they were posed to many of the same Labor leaders in a new and urgent intensity. Was Labor, in power, now to deny its nature and development since 1901, at the behest of a minority of British doctrinaires imbued with Continental Marxism? Was it to become a rigid, dogmatic, totalitarian, one-class-conscious party just when it had become the nation in miniature? This was the struggle going on within Labor at Bournemouth, as it was at Birmingham in 1928; and the answer given was the same as then; but it has not put an end to the pains in Labor’s body.

The motions criticizing Mr. Bevin’s conduct of foreign policy fizzled out at Bournemouth like damp squibs, just as they have always done in the Commons and in the secret conclaves of the Parliamentary Labor Party or its External Affairs Group. Indeed, the debate on June 12 without Mr. Molotov was rather like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark; for despite Mr. Churchill’s tribute to Mr. Bevin in the Commons debate on foreign affairs on June 5, for his share in Labor’s refusal of Communist penetration, to Mr. Molotov more than to anyone else belongs most credit for that decision and for Mr. Bevin’s triumph at Bournemouth. It is Mr. Molotov who has made all the “headway backwards,” to use Mr. Churchill’s words, of British Communism and its fellow travelers, whom Mr. Churchill called “the cryptos, the Communists without the pluck to call themselves by their proper names.” Even the resolution calling for closer relations with Russia was crushingly outvoted at Bournemouth, and this despite the appeal of the retiring Party Chairman, Professor Laski, on June 10 to the Party and to Russia to make their socialisms “generously international,” and also his appeal to Russia that, “having experimented with distrust,” she now “experiment in friendship.”

In view of this preliminary bout at Bournemouth, was the Party’s smashing defeat of the motion to affiliate the Communists surprising? Compared with the evidence a few months earlier it certainly was. Most American correspondents in London prophesied Communist affiliation early in 1946. Professor Laski himself had been publicly for it in 1945 when he became Party Chairman. Two big trade-unions, in whose inner councils the fellow travelers were known to be strong, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Amalgamated Engineering Union, together with many smaller unions, stood pledged to Communist affiliation until a few weeks before Bournemouth. Then, by clever tactics in committee and over the opposition of several fellow travelers, the miners’ regional federations took referenda. These, contrary to the confident views of the fellow travelers, showed smashing votes to reverse the earlier pledges, even in the reddest miners’ districts of South Wales and Scotland. And a few weeks before Bournemouth, Professor Laski publicly invoked the faithful under his chairmanship to reject affiliation.

The Party Executive carried the war into the enemy’s camp by boldly presenting an Executive motion to the conference for a new paragraph in the Party constitution. It deserves quotation in full, for it is as excommunicatory an anathema as was ever pronounced by any sect on any other sect:-

Political organisations not affiliated to or associated under a national agreement with the party on January 1, 1946, having their own programme, principles, and policy for distinctive and separate propaganda or possessing branches in the constituencies or engaged in the promotion of Parliamentary or local government candidatures or owing allegiance to any political organisation situated abroad, shall be ineligible for affiliation to the party.

In opening the debate on Communist affiliation on June 12 by presenting an official statement of the Party Executive, Mr. Morrison charged Communists with forming cells inside trade-unions’ local branches and other elements of Labor, said they were “acting under instructions,” mentioned the “mystery” of the Communists’ “very considerable sums of money,” and declared, doubtless from his own wartime experience as Home Secretary, that in many cases of espionage Communists had figured. He warned Labor against undoing its democratic constitutional leadership by the admission of what amounted to conspirators, and emphasized the grave national risks inherent in giving Communists the right to places in the Cabinet. He was careful to point out that Labor, too, would run risks of losing elections, as it did in 1924 by reason of the Communist scare that swept the country after publication of the “Zinoviev letter.”

Mr. Jack Tanner, president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, widely reputed to be a Communist sympathizer, was so frequently interrupted, when moving his motion for the affiliation, that Professor Laski had to appeal to the conference to give him a hearing. Significantly his speech demanded “unity of the working class,”declared that “a large proportion of shop stewards are Communists,” and suggested that Labor might need to operate “some form of dictatorship over recalcitrant capitalists.” It was the most typically Continental Marxist speech at Bournemouth. Almost as a result, virtually all the delegates voted on Communist affiliation, and the result was more than five to one against it. The Party Executive’s motion to make future affiliations of any such group as the Communists impossible was then put and carried, by the same heavy vote, and without any debate, four to one. One labor climax had been passed with brilliant success.


BUT Bournemouth was not the beginning of the end of Britain’s Labor pains. It was only the end of the beginning. Professor Laski was probably right in his speech at Newcastle on June 2: “Short of a great international crisis we are in power for the next twenty years"; probably right because, if such a crisis arose, the British people would demand a coalition again, and woe betide the Opposition that declined to enter. Apart from such a crisis the only real threat to continued Labor rule is a split in Labor, for the Conservatives, like the Communists, seem incapable of remembering, of forgetting, or of learning new methods. What, then, could cause a split in Labor?

The Communists must now become an active alternative left-wing party to the left of Labor. Their methods never change. They will go on boring within Labor, and mainly in the trade-union branches. They will now intensify this because, since the Government repealed the 1927 Trade Disputes Act, every trade-unionist will effectively, though not legally, be constrained by his union to contribute to the union’s political funds. The unions have always been the chief financiers of Labor. So the most fruitful way the Communists can cause embarrassment to Labor is to play upon the unions’ current inferiority feeling within Labor, which is due to their relative decline in Labor’s Parliamentary and governmental councils.

Already the extreme demands of the coal miners for their twelve-point charter, including a five-day week and an ambitious range of special benefits, show which way the unions most susceptible to leadership by fellow travelers will go. This same union’s objection to the recent appointment of the able young economist, Mr. Hugh Gaitskell, as deputy to the Minister of Fuel and Power, Mr. Emanuel Shinwell, on the grounds that he was not a union man, is also symptomatic. And there are other such unions, other such union leaders, content to fellow-travel.

The Labor politicians foresaw this during the war, when the Communists were making their inroads into the unions and the unofficial shop stewards’ organization. Their prescription was to head off the extremists by going full steam ahead with a formidable program of industrial nationalization, particularly with the two most troublesome branches of unionism: coal, and iron and steel. But as it has worked out, the prescription was faulty. Before Mr. Shinwell’s National Coal Board got to work, the miners, led by the redoubtable Mr. Will Lawther, planked down ultimatums; and after the most spectacular clash of personalities at Bournemouth between him and Mr. Shinwell, the union caucus met and refused to allow a thousand Polish miners to help boost production in Britain’s worst industry unless Mr. Shinwell accepted the twelvepoint charter. In other words, the union was blackmailing the Minister into presenting the new National Coal Board with an accomplished fact. It is a precedent for the other British industries and services due for socialization; and though Mr. Shinwell is the only Minister responsible, as yet, for an entire socialized industry, the omen looms dark above other heads in the Cabinet.

Thus the workers’ unions are the easiest recruiting grounds for the Communists in the austere and revolutionary economic situation. Egged on by shop stewards, who are egged on by the Communists, the unions have been sending up the wagerate index by half a point a month for almost a year. This has given the majority of union leaders, who are well-informed and fully conscious of the inflationary danger to the national interest, their worst headaches. Without an adequate output of domestic consumable goods, the process is inflationary. Hence the unions’ demands on the Government for more consumable goods, even at the cost of exports. As the Government socializes more and more industries, it brings the unions under more direct state control. And that builds up a potentially formidable struggle between the unions’ own federal organization, the Trades Union Congress, and the Labor Party itself. To make matters worse, Sir Walter Citrine has just left the chair he has held at the TUC for over twenty years to join the new Coal Board; and the TUC is also, like the Labor Party, in the throes of reconstitution. Will the Labor politicans continue to favor the unions at the consumers’ expense? Or will they bear in mind the millions of non-unionized white-collar Labor voters who are consumers?

Again, will Labor politicians, still flushed with their national victory in 1945 and their recent victory at Bournemouth, remember that they need the widest national respect and support in handling Britain’s inescapable revolutions in domestic and foreign policy? They defeated Karl Marx at Bournemouth. But to judge by their slapstick, cavalier, and cocksure behavior on the front bench in the Commons, many of them seem to think the only alternative to the doctrine of Karl Marx is that of the Marx Brothers. Britain badly needs light relief; but though the Government, unlike ancient Rome, cannot give the British people both bread and circuses, it surely need not include Parliament in the list of vulgar amusements on which, almost alone today, the public’s cash can be spent.

Enterprises of great pith and moment are treated with scant consideration. Rip-roaring hilarity behind the front bench seems to be accepted as a valid substitute for examination or exposition. Not all the blame attaches to Labor. But because Labor has the power, the bulk of it does. “Magnanimity,” said Burke, “is not seldom the truest wisdom in politics.” After all, Labor only got the votes of half the electorate last year; and to harp on the theme of so scrambling Britain’s economic eggs that no one will ever be able to unscramble them is mighty like Hitler’s remark about banging the door on Europe. You raise devils that way, and they may turn to plague you. Labor leaders have behaved in their first heady year of power as if they knew all the answers. In Britain’s revolutionary situation no one does — and what is more, no one can. It is a perilous time to be cocksure.

The Communists are waiting, watching, and working for Labor to fail. If it fails, as it can, not in the planning but in the execution and administration of its plans, widespread disillusion and despair will not bring back the Conservatives. They will drive the “new masses” over to the party now separately located on the left of Labor; for in Labor’s failure to perform what it promised, the chaos could not be undone by Conservatives. That is the Communists’ logic. And this time it may be right.

Almost the only references to America at Bournemouth were made by Mr. Bevin’s critics, the supporters of Communist affiliation who account for some 15 per cent of the Labor Party. All were rude. The mover of the resolution criticizing Mr. Bevin’s conduct of foreign policy said that the United States with its capitalist system was “a standing menace to any Socialist society.” The mover of the resolution for closer relations with Russia said that America was now in the state of anarchy which Britain was in forty years ago; so the closer we tied up with America, the nearer we came to the rocks of the next world slump. And the Communist Daily Worker borrowed Washington Irving’s phrase, accusing “the almighty dollar” of trying to control British policy.

All those holding and propagating such views have been crushingly repudiated by deliberate design of the Labor Executive, and by a free vote of British Socialists drawn from all Labor’s constituent elements. Americans should note this well. American policy, American attitudes towards Britain and its Labor Government, and thus towards Western Europe by way of British Labor, may easily be decisive for the future. So may the attitudes of American labor organizations towards their own government’s international policy and its execution. Looking at the British Labor record, looking at its current problems, programs, and pains, all Americans can ponder the answer to a simple question: Who would gain from the failure of British Labor? And if perchance some American felt tempted to reply, “America,” or “Capitalism,” he could take a look at what used to be Germany. Whose, indeed, is the gain?