While the article “1945 – was it socialism” (Solidarity 3/83) did draw out many accurate criticisms of Attlee’s government, I feel that it failed to get a grip on the real outlook of the people involved.
It gives the impression of a government which was cynically passing progressive reforms merely for the sake of reducing working-class militancy. Rather than genuinely believing in its programme, the Labour leadership was merely trying to “appease its working class base” while in foreign policy it was “freest to serve the interests of capitalism more closely”..
There can be little doubt that the Attlee government made some moves which deserve our condemnation — breaking strikes and maintaining British control of Malaya are clear examples of its conservative, sometimes anti-working class aspect. Attlee and many of his cabinet were bourgeois who were only slightly to the left of the Liberals — they believed in a mixed economy and stemming unemployment.
But to suggest that there was some sort of conspiracy is ludicrous — surely the Labour leadership would not have fought so hard to implement the NHS against the ruling class’ interests if they didn’t really care about it.
Such measures as nationalisation of one-fifth of the economy, and the creation of the “welfare state” and NHS alienated middle-class supporters — why would a government merely seeking to keep itself in power do this? Labour must have seen such measures as genuinely pro-working-class.
In any case, it’s more worthwhile for socialists to criticise figures like Attlee for not being radical enough than to make out that they were just “pretending” to believe in the party's progressive politics at all.
To suggest that a radical reformer like Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health 1945-51) had maintained an elaborate life-long charade of campaigning for working-class interests when “in fact” he was worried about the danger to the ruling class seems strange. Are we really to believe that Bevan, who was instrumental in introducing the NHS, had the same thinking as Liberals who had wished to quell social unrest in the '10s? If so, then why did the Labour party actually take action to create a free health service, while the Liberals forced every worker to pay 4d. a week to get (the very limited) scheme of National Insurance?
It is also hard to see exactly what external pressure the Labour party was allegedly scheming to subdue — the fact that 50% of the country voted for its 1945 programme was a sign of its strength, that working-class people did have real faith in the party even after the Ramsey MacDonald era. The pressure for change was not that of an angry working-class attacking the party, but of the Left within the party fighting for reforms — the party of the trade unions able to implement much of its reforming agenda after years of being a minority in the Commons.
The problem with the party was that the leadership (along with the outlook of the membership as a whole) was dominated by less radical elements, not that the party itself — as an organised section of the working-class — was fundamentally unable to implement change. Such middle-class leaders as Attlee were held in place thanks to the failure of Marxists to transform the consciousness of the workers – nothing better than weak reform could therefore have been expected.
The task of socialists was therefore not to ignore the gains made by a Labour government, or to fight less hard for the Labour party in elections, but to reforge the progressive elements in it into a revolutionary force — fighting to build from a reformist labour movement into one that could effect real change. Of course we can’t expect “socialism from above” — but that doesn’t mean that every element which constitutes the Labour Party is necessarily unable to be involved in a real workers’ government.
David Broder, Guildford