Ernest Bevin

About twenty years ago, at a Trade Union conference, a delegate who is now a member of the S.P.G.B., rose to speak. The problems before the conference, he said, must be examined from the standpoint of the workers’ interests and from no other. He argued that the interests of the workers were opposed to, and irreconcilable with, the interests of the employers: that to view any matter from the angle of national interest, or, the benefit of the industry, was to see it through the employers’ eyes and that would not help to solve any working-class problem.


Mr. Ernest Bevin rose to speak. After a few mildly flattering remarks about the previous speaker he declared that he also, at one time, had held similar views. But, he added, with the accumulated wisdom of passing years, he had discarded such notions until now he regarded them as the immature ideas of his youth.


Ernest Bevin died on April 12th of this year. As is usual when a prominent capitalist politician dies, supporters and opponents joined in voicing their praises of the dead man. Mr. Attllee, the Prime Minister, broadcast a tribute to his late colleague on Sunday, April 15th. He said :-


“But his knowledge of poverty did not drive him into a sterile and bitter class consciousness. He understood and could work with people of all classes.”

(News Chronicle, 16.4.51.)


We are a little nonplussed at the Prime Minister’s reference to sterility. We should have thought that, if the term sterile was applicable in this sense, it would be more suitably applied to class-unconsciousness. Surely, in comparison, class-consciousness is virile. Further, we can assure Mr. Attlee that class-consciousness, especially when it generates a desire to end class society, is not bitter. He will find more bitterness amongst some of his disillusioned Labour Party members than he will find amongst class-conscious socialists.

We will unhesitatingly agree that Ernest Bevin was not class-conscious. As a Trade Union negotiator he was a man of outstanding merit; as a Labour Party politician he had nothing to offer the workers.

Bevin was born in 1881 of working-class parents in the small village of Winsford on the Somerset and Devon border. He was orphaned at the age of six and he worked as a farm-hand in the west of England from the age of eleven to fourteen. He then went to Bristol where he was employed in a restaurant, later as a tram conductor, and finally as a driver for a mineral water firm. At an early age he became interested in social welfare, local politics and industrial organisation. He became secretary of a “Right to Work” committee in Bristol and he led a party of ill-nourished, poorly clothed unemployed men into a cathedral during a service to demonstrate their need for work.

In 1910 Bevin called a meeting of transport workers in Bristol and from this meeting developed the Carters’ Branch of the Dockers’ Union with Bevin as its first chairman. He later became this union’s first full-time paid official at 2 per week and a few months later he was appointed organiser for the South-West of England. In 1920 he became assistant general secretary of the Dockers’ Union with Ben Tillett as his chief. In that same year his advocacy of the dockers’ case during a public enquiry into their wages and conditions of work, gained for him the title of “The Dockers’ K.C.” In 1922 he was largely instrumental in the amalgamation of fourteen unions which became the Transport and General Workers’ Union, with himself as the first general secretary. He held this post until he became Minister of Labour and National Service in 1940.

As a trade union chief Bevin was astute. He was wise to such oft repeated tricks of the employers as threatening a wage reduction in order to forestall and stave off a demand by the workers for a wage increase. He urged the members of his union not to fall for such manoeuvres, but to fight against threatened reductions and press forward with their own demands, not be bamboozled into bargaining their claims against the employers’ threats.

Despite his defence of the workers’ interests on the industrial field, Bevin was not actuated by a recognition of the class nature of capitalist society. His outlook was essentially humanitarian. His political activities are ample evidence of this.

He first stood as a Labour candidate for the Bristol Central constituency in 1918 and was heavily defeated. He became a Labour M.P. for Central Wandsworth in 1940 and why Winston Churchill immediately saw the advantage of having such a popular trade union leader in his war ministry. The workers would accept many things from Bevin that they would resist from another man.

During the early 1930’s Ernest Bevin was mildly rebellious inside the Labour Party. Together with Mr. G. D. H. Cole and others, he argued against the “gradualist” policy of that party. He became chairman of an organisation known as “The Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda,” but the members of that society, Bevin included, had about as much idea of Socialism as a bull’s foot. Bevin and Cole wrote a pamphlet entitled, “The Crisis. What it is. How it arose, What to do.” in which they betrayed their complete lack of socialist understanding. To them, the crisis of 1931 was the result of mismanaged  finances: the remedy was to be found in rigid control of the banks and an abandonment of the gold standard. Nowhere in the pamphlet can we find a glimmer of Socialism. The idea that the financial tangles, like the crisis itself, were the result and not the cause of the capitalist process of production, does not appear to have struck them.

At another time Bevin wrote a series of articles in the New Clarion which that paper published as a pamphlet called “My Plan for 2,000,000 Workless.” Again he did not look beyond Capitalism for his “plan.” All it amounted to was a scheme for raising the school leaving age and paying optional pensions to workers at sixty years of age. This, he anticipated, would remove the very young and the very old workers from industry and leave their jobs vacant for others.

Even on the subject of war he was all haywire. During August 1939, he delivered an address at the Convocation of the Teachers’ College, Columbia University, in New York. This was also published as a pamphlet and called “Forward Democracy.” In it he sees as an obstacle to democracy and peace-

” . . . . the inherent primitive fear of man–fears which have prompted man to exercise his predatory instincts.
“It is understandable how primitive man and pioneers in the development of the world, driven by hunger, the desire to expand, striving for security, fighting man and beast, developed and perpetuated these traits.”

If he really believed this, he failed to observe what many workers in more humble stations in life consider to be obvious—that war is the result of an economic struggle between sections of the capitalist class to gain control of markets and raw materials.

With an outlook like this it is easy to understand how a man like Bevin could undertake office as Foreign Secretary and do the job to the complete satisfaction of the capitalist class of this country. Like his Labour Party predecessors, Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson, he was applauded for his defence of British capitalist interests.

Mr. Churchill once called Bevin a “Working Class John Bull.” Mr. A. J. Cummings re-echoed the idea in the News Chronicle on April 16th. The inference is, of course, that Bevin was a tenacious, determined, strong man. Another writer, Alaric Jacobs, who claims to have observed Bevin at U.N.O. conferences and elsewhere, has a far different view. In his book “Scenes from a Bourgeois Life” he states how, on March 12th, 1947, at the Moscow Conference, Bevin has declared that the principle of reparations out of current production could not be conceded at all. It would ruin Germany and “make her an economic slum in the heart of Europe.” But when Jacobs and other paper men saw him at the British Embassy in Moscow on April 25th of that year, Bevin produced an entirely contradictory argument. He then said that reparations would make Germany too powerful because the flow of reparation goods would help to expand German industry to such an extent that it would be a competitive menace to the rest of Europe.

Alaric Jacobs is most unkind to Bevin. He says of him—

“His is a most plausible demagogue who combines the Simple Simon air of Stanley Baldwin with the tenacity of Snowden, the capacity for intrigue of MacDonald and the shrewdness of J. H. Thomas. Like Baldwin, he can stimulate integrity without possessing it and can make ignorance look like honesty. Enormously vain and self-righteous, he is in the tradition of great English humbugs who are beloved of the people . . .


“Bevin seemed to me to be a bumble whose reputation had been won in too easy a school . . . This is a clumsy fellow, I thought, as I watched him in action. England needs a man with a rapier. She is ill-served by this Shakespearian clown who bats his opponents over the head with a bladder inflated with his own hot air.”


(“Scenes from a Bourgeois Life.”)

Bevin was like so many other labour leaders, full of good intentions and plans for improving the lot of the workers, but failing to learn that Capitalism sets narrow limits to the improvements that can be effected. When in office they find that capital dictates to the politician, not the politician to capital. Then they rationalise their thinking. They consider that they are getting wiser with experience. That accounts for such statements as the one by Bevin mentioned in the opening paragraph. It is not true that they get wiser. They become better trained for the particular job that is allotted to them. They turn from one hopeless plan to another, always trying to make Capitalism work the way it won’t. They never get wise to the fact that the solution to working-class problems lies in the abolition of Capitalism and the establishment of a society without classes, without capital, without wages and without labour leaders and politicians.

Many workers who knew Ernie Bevin were genuinely sorry when he died, for they liked him and remembered him as their trade union colleague and chief. But he is more likely to be written down in history as a Foreign Secretary and in that capacity the measure of  his success as a workers’ advocate can be gathered from the tributes of the workers’ enemies when he died. To be praised by the spokesmen of the capitalist class in no commendation for a workers’ champion. The finest epitaph a socialist could have would be one from his opponents which said. “Thank goodness he is out of the way.”

W. Waters.