Dreamers, survivors, builders

Mark Perryman argues the need to revisit and reclaim Labour ’45

Bevan 1945 quoteThere is an astonishing moment during Ken Loach’s warmly-received documentary The Spirit of ’45. Winston Churchill is addressing a public rally during the 1945 General Election campaign and he is drowned out by the near universal booing. Not far left adventurists, these were ordinary working class men and women who in Winston saw a great wartime premier trying to turn the socio-economic clock back to the way things were the instant the peace treaties were signed.

There is not much mistaking 1939-45 as an era when anti-fascism fused with a popular internationalism. Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the 1930s let us never forget enjoyed the “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” support of Viscount Rothermere’s Daily Mail and widespread other establishment endorsements too, including many suspect the newly crowned King Edward VIII. To suggest Mosley was on the verge of state power is of course bordering on the fantastical but fellow-travelling with the Nazis and appeasement certainly were widespread on the Tory Right and beyond. At the same time an undiluted anti-semitism was used to stoke up working class support in areas such as London’s East End by exploiting genuine grievances with false and hateful solutions.

This was an era that Eric Hobsbawm famously described as The Age of Extremes. Fascism was confronted by a mass communist party with a genuine working-class base combined with significant intellectual and cultural influence. But on their own, as they would painfully learn during the doomed class-against-class period, even the most militant and heroic of Communists would have been no match for Mosley. Rather they sought the broadest possible opposition both against the Blackshirts and for Republican Spain. A popular anti-fascism which while not enough to decisively shape World War Two for either the combatants and the home front was nevertheless a vital feature throughout. Most important of all was the increasingly evident role of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, the legend that Stalingrad, Kursk and other battles would become, the Atlantic Convoys criss-crossing the North Seas loaded with vital supplies. Campaigning for the second front to be opened to relieve the pressure on the Soviet Union and destroy Hitler via a pincer movement placed the Communists at the core of a sentiment that was a near-universal solidarity. Nowadays we are almost immune to the casual dismissal of the Red Army’s role in the defeat of Nazism, few in ’45 would make that mistake including George VI who replaced as King his younger brother following abdication. On his orders a sword, The Sword of Stalingrad, was presented to Stalin engraved “To the steel hearted citizens of Stalingrad, a gift from King George VI as a token of the homage of the British people.” Was our Royal Family a secret enclave of reds under the regal beds? Hardly, yet the act was indicative of a huge shift in British public opinion that Labour in ’45 was best-placed to take advantage of following VE day in May and the July General Election.

But Labour was bold too, not content to simply campaign on the basis of its outstanding role in the wartime coalition government, nor a sour-faced ‘we told you so’ against the 1930s appearers and apologists still represented in the Tories’ ranks. Win the Peace was the connect to a visionary future Labour made. Rehousing, nationalising the railways, mines and public utilities, comprehensive education, establishing a National Health Service, creating a post-war Welfare State. Today those policies are largely outside of the political mainstream, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn who in Labour’s Leadership Campaign would we identify with this kind of legacy? Yet the two principle architects of Labour’s ’45 plan were Liberals, Keynes and Beveridge, not socialists. The genius of Attlee, Bevan and others was to be part of a process that shaped a majoritarian consensus around a politics which changed the face of Britain for the benefit of the many, not the few and decisively affected the balance of class privilege. The tragedy was that this became a conservative defence of the consensus which mistook the virtues of defending what we had for the necessities to deepen and extend that shift as a permanent evolution. It was the emerging inadequacies that Thatcher by the mid 1970s was able to exploit and in the end with new Labour’s muted assistance break up almost all that remained of the post-war consensus by the end of the twentieth century with nothing close to becoming any better put in its place.

Bevan 1945 t-shirtLook back in hope? Bevan’s three-line philosophy for Labour in ’45, “We have been the dreamers. We have been the sufferers. And now we are the builders” helped to inspire and create most of what was good about post-war Britain, an achievement that should give us every cause both to celebrate and to oppose the enduring ideological assault under the guise of the necessities of austerity. There is no alternative? More than any other single individual in British politics Bevan in ’45 helped proved absolutely the case, there was and is.

The Bevan ’45 We Have Been the Dreamers T-shirt is available from Philosophy Football

54 comments on “Dreamers, survivors, builders

  1. Karl Stewart on said:

    No to EU:
    “Mass communist party” erm are you sure?

    Over 50,000 members, two elected MPs, 200 elected councillors – yep, it was pretty sizeable at that time.

  2. ‘Mass’ well it all depends on our starting point.

    Karl’s isn’t a bad one. Harry Pollitt came within a few hundred votes of making it 3 MPs too.

    Of course the population was considerably smaller then than now.

    All in all the CPGB in the 1940s was the closest Britain has ever come to having a mass communist party and was infinitely larger, with a deep base in a range of working clas communities, to anything that has followed.

    Did it have faults? Yes of course. But any serious account of Labour in 45 should take note of the CP too. Sadly, most don’t, mine does.

    Mark P

  3. No to EU on said:

    Would the Greens qualify as a mass party in our view as there stats are similar. One MP but poss three next GE

    Karl Stewart: Over 50,000 members, two elected MPs, 200 elected councillors – yep, it was pretty sizeable at that time.

  4. Vanya on said:

    #6 No, what would be the required benchmark in your opinion to count as a mass party?

  5. John Edwards on said:

    I would say the CPGB was small but influential rather than a mass party. A lot of left organisations peaked around that time. Even the SPGB reached 1000 members in 1945.

    Didn’t Ian Birchill write a history of the SWP sometime in the 1980s entitled “The smallest mass party in the world”. I think that was intended as a joke.

  6. No to EU on said:

    They key point is it becomes mass when they are not seen as wierdo crackpots like the greens. I can remember the days when Trots were referred to routinely as “wild eyed”. Not that anyone mentions them at all these days. The CPGB were seen as such

  7. A few responses.

    The Greens have the voting, numerical, ideological, and at local council level representative level, electoral, weight to be mass party outside of, and broadly speaking to the left of, Labour. It should go without saying the SNP even more so in Scotland and in many ways across Britai too. But neither are mass Communist Parties!

    Whatever the strengths and weakness the Trotskyites jhave never come anywhere close to the CPGB’s mass presence in the 1940s. Two partial exceptions to this, Militant iin Liverpol, the SSP for a period in Scotland.

    The CPGB in the 1940s were never considered, except by the most embittered anti-communists ‘wild eyed’, rather thet were militant representaives of their class and communities, with Gallagher and Piratin in Parliament, they were part of the ’45 expression of radical intent.

    Mark P

  8. Vanya on said:

    “They key point is it becomes mass when they are not seen as wierdo crackpots like the greens. ”

    No, that’s a subjective measure.

    Even if they had 20 MPs and the 100,000 members you refered to, they would still be seen as wierdos and crackpots by a huge number of other people. Yourself included.

    Of course huge numbers of people see UKIP as wierdos and crackpots while a significant number of others vote for them.

  9. The biggest problem for the CPGB in the 1940s was the Soviet Union. My parents told me that trying to justify the Soviet Union’s foreign policy through the 40s and 50s was consistently impossible.

  10. Karl Stewart on said:

    Michael Rosen,
    That’s a very strange argument, the British CP was at its height in terms of membership numbers and support when the USSR was at its height.

    And the British CP’s decline follows very closely the decline of the USSR.

    So the actual facts indicate the absolute polar opposite of your argument that the Soviet Union was the British CP’s “problem”.

    On a personal level, the furthest back I can remember was as a child in the 1970s, when my parents (left-wing, but not CP members) being generally in favour of the USSR and supporting its policies and actions.

  11. Karl Stewart,

    it all depends on what you mean by ‘decline’, and trying to correlate two graphs – Soviet power (success?) with numbers in the CP takes some doing! My parents’ point (and mine) is that out beyond the ranks of then present and ex-members of the CP and ‘fellow-travellers’, it was nigh on impossible to justify what the Soviet Union was doing in terms of its foreign policy. After all, it was hard enough to justify it within the CP – and thus the double exodus of 1956 (over Hungary) and 1957 (over the Minority Report). But prior to 1956-57, there were other policies proving hard to justify. Or put another way, it was the very fact that a socialist party had to justify the actions of a nation state on the other side of Europe was the problem, let alone those actions themselves.

  12. Andy Newman on said:

    Michael Rosen,

    I think you have a point, but equally it may have been hard to avoid. The period immediately after 1945 was disorienting, with both a mistaken orientation by the cominform, and events such as the forced merger of KPD and SPD, or the Slansky affair, that were hard to reconcile with a fraternal rekationship with Labour.

    But more significatly there were a whole series of provocations by the West, such as the unilateral creation of a new german currency, german rearmament, and formation of Bizonia, and then the BRD. Also civil war in Greece, war in Malaya, provocative conditions in Marshall plan, and formation of NATO.

    This was all combined with the now well documented alliance between trotskyists like Sidney Hook with the most right wing elements of the US intelligence, and formation of cultural fronts in both USA and UK funded by the CIA, but staffed by anti Communist leftists

  13. Andy Newman on said:

    Andy Newman,

    On which, worth reading Hugh Wilford’s book, called something like The CIA, the British Left and the Cultural Cold War.

  14. Andy @16: ‘trotskyists like Sidney Hook’

    I have no wish to defend either Sidney Hook or Trotskyism, but this seems unfair to both, and detracts from a valid point.

  15. Left Lewisham Lawyer on said:

    The problem with giving the CP credit for the achievements of the 1945 Labour government is that the CP didn’t call for Labour to take power at that election. Instead, it supported an anti-fascist coalition with elements of the Tories. Effectively, a continuation of the war time coalition. The CP would not have been among those booing Churchill.

    Eric Heffer referred to this in his autobiography. When as a CP member in 1945 he called for a Labour majority and radical policies a party organiser told him off for ultra-leftism, for that was not the line. This would be the beginning of his disenchantment and eventual breach with the CP.

  16. Ken MacLeod: I have no wish to defend either Sidney Hook or Trotskyism, but this seems unfair to both, and detracts from a valid point.

    I am prepared to stand corected, but I thought that Sidney Hook had been around the group of Trotskyist intellectuals in New York in the 1930s?

    Biographical details aside, Hook was remarkably hawkish, and during the 1940s he felt the need to make strenuous efforts to seek to persuade the US not to make accomodation with Moscow. The parallel political trajectories of say Schactman, Burnham and Sidney Hook are there to be observed

    It would also be plausible to suggest that a number of anti-Communist but leftist intellectuals, like George Orwell and Sidney Hook, were miscategorised both by opponents and some who shared part of their objectives, but not much of their complex political views.

  17. Left Lewisham Lawyer: Instead, it supported an anti-fascist coalition with elements of the Tories. Effectively, a continuation of the war time coalition.

    There was of course a distinction between the pointy-heads in King Street, and the real mass working class base of the CP, a breadth of political views and expereince indcative of a mass party.

    I was talking once to a former CP member who had been a shop steward in a factory in London that (bizarrely) made models of German aircraft (used for training spotters). They had a number of pay strikes through the war, led by local CP militants, rather oblivious of the party’s views about strikes during the war.

  18. Andy @21: I thought that Sidney Hook had been around the group of Trotskyist intellectuals in New York in the 1930s?

    Yes. But he certainly wasn’t a Trotskyist in the 1950s.

  19. Vanya on said:

    #23 In fairness, not a few of the marxists turned cold warriors (conservative, liberal or social democrat) in the USA had initially been Communists or “fellow travelers”. John Steinbeck springs to mind.

  20. nattyfoc on said:

    When i was working on the Morning Star it printed 30000 copy’s of which 20000 were binned straight away all paid for by Moscow!

    And not surprisingly Moscow called the shots on the Editorials.

    Tanky’s was the cry !

  21. Vanya on said:

    #25 And yet it lives, having survived the collapse of the USSR.

    A cause for celebration I would say.

    Interesting how many of the sort of people who would at one time denounced it (rightly or wrongly) as a monolithic mouthpiece for stalinism now write for it on a regular basis and enthusiastically share its articles online.

    A number of great political investments: Subscribe, buy shares, sell!

  22. nattyfoc on said:

    Vanya:
    #25 And yet it lives, having survived the collapse of the USSR.

    A cause for celebration I would say.

    Interesting how many of the sort of peoplewho would at one time denounced it (rightly or wrongly) as a monolithic mouthpiece for stalinism now write for it on a regular basis and enthusiastically share its articles online.

    A number of great political investments: Subscribe, buy shares, sell!

    And so it is but be aware it practices censorship against events within Unions that need airing!

    Its in the hands of its financiers who pull the Editorial strings as well as Murdoch on his publications.

  23. Michael Rosen:
    The biggest problem for the CPGBin the 1940s was the Soviet Union. My parents told me that trying to justify the Soviet Union’s foreign policy through the 40s and 50s was consistently impossible.

    Weird. For a good chunk of the 40s there was massive popular support for the ‘foreign policies’ of the USSR which consisted mainly of liberating country after country and destroying the Wehrmacht.
    I have been doing some work on the massively popular Picture Post magazine which charts the popular surge of support for the Soviet war effort. This was so widespread that the government tried to corral it with Lady Churchill heading a committee to aid Russia.
    Equally, Picture Post charted the ways in which the atmosphere changed as the fifties got under way.
    For an interesting insight into the thinking of our bourgeoise see todays feature article in the Morning Star on the post war plan by Churchill to use the German and Polish armies to spearhead a new war against the Soviet Union.
    http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-0223-OPERATION-UNMENTIONABLE#.VZqmg2A795Y

  24. Vanya on said:

    #28 And that fascinating article is in a paper that’s on sale daily in newsagents all round the country. Brilliant!

  25. Vanya on said:

    #30 Instead of beating round the bush you should say what you mean and mean what you say 🙂

  26. Nick Wright,

    Come on Nick. Wiping out socialists and communists in eastern Europe? Berlin blockade. Handling of Tito. And then Hungary. That was the stuff my parents said that they couldn’t justify.

  27. Michael Rosen,

    ‘through the 40and 50s’ Our experiences differ. My parents and grandparents seemed to have no problems in backing Soviet foreign policy.
    You are collapsing two decades that were quite distinct.
    There was a world of difference between anti fascist unity that gave way to Cold War consensus. Britain’s successive post-war governments – Labour and Tory – restored the reactionary regime in Greece and the colonial regime in Indo China, joined in the Korean war, killed thousands in Kenya, fought a vicious war in Malaya against the heroes of the anti-Japanese resistance – the list of issues on which the Soviets were on the right side and Britain on the wrong side meant that for class conscious workers there was little difficulty in choosing which side you were on although the price paid could be quite high in terms of work denied and political discrimination.
    This whole period was characterised by intensive class struggle on every front – for example Red Army troops were still fighting reactionary armed units in Poland and Ukraine well into the fifties.
    Quite a large number of people left the CP around 56 and 57 after the suppression of the Hungarian counter revolution but by early sixties the numbers had been restored and the YCL in particular had grown very much.

  28. Nick Wright,

    re work denied: indeed, my dad was blacklisted.
    You’ve suggested that if people opposed UK and US foreign policy they had to approve of all Soviet policy. Not necessarily. I can remember people coming through our house – as well as my parents – who could oppose the former, and at the very least had serious misgivings about the latter. For some people, it was ‘too much’, or a ‘last straw’ on the way to 1956/57. If you read the Minority Report of 1957, you can get a sense of exactly how this had welled up by 1957 into a ‘position’ from a significant number of people from within the party – quite apart from (how many?) socialists outside. Of course by then it wasn’t separate from the Krushchev revelations at the Party Congress. Plenty of people felt deceived on both fronts. re ‘counter-revolution’. Well, that kinda poses the problem: when or what was the ‘revolution’? In other words, was the regime in Hungary created out of a popular uprising? Is that what was being defended when the tanks rolled in?

  29. Michael Rosen @34: Well, that kinda poses the problem: when or what was the ‘revolution’? In other words, was the regime in Hungary created out of a popular uprising?

    This way of posing the question owes a lot to Tony Cliff et al. It has an appearance of Marxist and Leninist orthodoxy.

    But even the most fire-breathing Marxist-Leninists (and Trotskyists, etc) have always allowed, if only in passing, that if the situation of the capitalist and landlord classes was completely hopeless, large parts of the ruling classes and their state apparatus would just give up if not go over to the socialist (or whatever) order, and there would be no need for a popular uprising.

    The situation of the old ruling classes doesn’t get much more hopeless than it was in Eastern Europe after 1945. So protracted, complicated and largely peaceful transitions happened. These were genuine social revolutions, even if their pace was often forced and their publicity was often false.

  30. Michael Rosen: In other words, was the regime in Hungary created out of a popular uprising? Is that what was being defended when the tanks rolled in?

    It is not necessary to admire the Hungarian regime of Rakosi, to believe that every citizen of a socialist country subjected to repression was guilty as charged, or to endorse every dot and comma of Soviet policy to understand that, independent of the subjective intentions of all involved, the Soviet tanks were defending the actually existing socialist relations of production.
    Hungary had a socialist economy and when the Soviet guarantee was abandoned by Gorbachov 45 years later it socialist relations of production were quickly supplanted.
    In that very real objective sense the Soviet tanks were defending the revolutionary changes in Hungary that followed the defeat of the Nazi-allied Hungarian government by the Red Army. This is not to deny the very real difficulties that building socialist economy and shaping a socialist consciousness presented in the decade that intervened between Hungary’s liberation and the 1956 defeat of the counter revolution. Or indeed the different difficulties that the following decades produced.

  31. Andy Newman on said:

    Ken MacLeod: These were genuine social revolutions

    Indeed. For an Anglophone reader the most accessible case study is Germany, where there can be no doubt that a social revolution occured, and the more you look at the detail of changes in land and factory ownership, industrial democracy, the legal system and education, we can see how radical and participatory the process was, in what were the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances of an often hostile population, flight of skilled professionals, political and actual sabotage from the West, Werewolf insurgency, etc (and sometimes opaque relationships with the Soviet army during the occupation period)

  32. nattyfoc on said:

    Karl Stewart:
    nattyfoc,
    You’ve never worked on the Morning Star. You’re just a sadlying coward.

    Mmmm we should meet some time Karl!

    anyway i was a regular casual in the press room when it was in William Rust house on the Farringdon Road, although i will plead guilty to spending plenty of time in the Hat and Tun boozer and occasionally in the Metropolitan, at the time one of me mates there was one Bill Freeman who went on to become a National Officer in the GPMU but sadly died a few years ago. after the Morning Star i went onto the Daily Telegraph day staff and went down to the Isle of Dogs printing site on West Ferry Road which is where my printing career ceased …………………………….next stop mini cabbing and the GMB in a Branch i initiated with assistance from me old mucker Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor. NFO!!!!

  33. John Grimshaw on said:

    and the 1956 defeat of the counter revolution.

    TheHungarian uprising was not a counter revolution. Only supporters of Stalinist orientated parties believe that, and then not even all of them.

  34. nattyfoc on said:

    Sounds good to me. Let me know where/when, it’ll be nice.

    County Kilburn any day time your up for it.

  35. Vanya on said:

    #43 Which pub car park is this meeting going to take place in? And where do we buy tickets?

  36. Karl Stewart on said:

    Vanya,
    Well I’m hoping it’s going to be a beer and a friendly chat – and yes please join us.

  37. nattyfoc on said:

    Karl Stewart:
    Vanya,
    Well I’m hoping it’s going to be a beer and a friendly chat – and yes please join us.

    Of course its going to be a beer and friendly chat, mind me normal gargle is a cube libre might i suggest the North London Tavern Kilburn High Road ?

    I find its always good to be able to put a face to a name this e mail lark is very provocative!

    Venya please come along as well it would be nice to meet !

  38. nattyfoc on said:

    Noah: Utter drivel. Many editorials were (rightly or wrongly) very critical of Soviet policies. I suspect that Karl is correct and you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    Many were but many wern’t i will leave others to find various examples Hungary ?

  39. Vanya on said:

    Cool if I happen to be in the Smoke at the relevant time 🙂 Sad about Biddy Mulligans.