Bevan—Reformer, Prophet and Politician

In his book “In Place of Fear” Mr. Bevan states his case in opposition to official Labour Party policy and pleads his alternative. It is skilfully done; clever in the way in which it uses quite a lot of words to say nothing, and in telling the old, old story to make it seem quite new, proposing what are in fact the old reforms but making them appear revolutionary.

Mr. Bevan has been connected with the Labour Party from youth and it is an understatement to say that he knows it very well. He knows the sort of working men and women who make up its membership, and the mixture of ex-working men, capitalists, aristocrats and careerists who lead it. Mr. J. Strachey, reviewing Bevan’s book in the Daily Herald gave it some faint praise, but warned Mr. Bevan of the fate that will overtake him if he splits the party. That would not be forgiven. That, however, would depend on the size of that part of the split that might be behind Mr. Bevan if the split occurred. And there would seem to be little doubt of Mr. Bevan’s opinion of his chances if it did. It could be that Mr. Bevan, who has seen many a previous attack on official policy in the past prove abortive, might believe that he will achieve the changes he desires without splitting the party. The chances would seem fair. Despite six years of Labour governments, discontent and frustration rankle more deeply than ever among members and supporters of the Labour Party. And if Mr. Bevan’s proposals can crystalise this discontent he may find himself leading the Labour Party.

It may be no accident that Bevan opens his book with an emotional narrative of his early days as a worker in the mines. Certainly from what can be judged from some of the many comments in the Labour press this might have a calculated purpose. Knowing the workers it is, of course, not unlikely that Mr. Bevan considers that emphasis on his youthful experience and sufferings as a worker might give him an advantage over the sort of “middle class” uplifter that so often send working-class audiences to sleep. Mr. Bevan was a sensitive young man and learned from the working-class movement. He read, among others, Marx, De Leon and Morris. The evidence from this book is that he learned from them how to clothe his challenge to wealth and privilege in anti-capitalist phraseology without committing himself to Socialism. The intellectual food that came the way of the young aspirant in the Labour movement in Bevan’s day was the sort of food that fed the Socialist. Like others with him, and before him, he stopped short of Socialism, and applied what understanding he acquired to the advancement of Mr. Bevan and the perpetuation of Capitalism.

For there is no mistake about it: there is no proposal in this book which is fundamentally different from the reformism of the Labour Party’s policies for fifty years. There is no proposal which could not be the official policy of any capitalist party if it happened to suit the interests of any one of them. If Mr. Bevan differs it is on a question of degree and not principle. The reviews of the book in the capitalist press show not a little pleasure and relief at his mildness and “statesmanship.” Here is no leader gathering his armies for the final assault on Capitalism. He had seemed much more of a menace in speech than in writing. How right they are.

Here are some of Mr. Bevan’s main contentions. There should be much less private, and much more public, spending. Hence he argues for more controls of investments. And he says, “Once Competitive Society is compelled to serve a general social aim the automatism of the market is interfered with and we are no longer in the capitalist system at all. . . . From this point on, moral considerations take precedence over economic motives. . . . The decision what to do without, or take less of, necessarily places that item of consumption lowest in the order of priorities.” It is sufficient to note that Mr. Bevan considers that the restrictions on production, the controls, and the rationing of the past six years’ Labour Government as “no longer the capitalist system at all.” He would extend that policy. Under his proposals he says “We shall have abandoned selection by competition for selection by deliberation.” This statement epitomises Mr. Bevan’s conception of the function of the State over which he would preside. Social security, that guarantee of working class poverty, would administer to the needs of the poorest of the workers and soften and offset the worst effects of low wages and salaries. He also agrees that the middle class and professional men should have incomes comparable with “status.” There should be more Nationalisation. He says, “Once a larger proportion of industry is publicly owned, a larger part of public spending could be finance out of the surplus which now accrues to private incomes. This would mean compensation at a low rate on gilt edged securities, and more surpluses from these communally owned industries would accrue to the national exchequer and taxation would be correspondingly reduced. . . . . This would not mean that the taxpayer would have more money to spend. As we have seen this could only be done by hurting the recipients of public benefits. But it would mean that more of the whole would be distributed in the form of private income could in the main be privately spent, and the individual would be spared the pain of seeing so much taken from him that he thought was his to spend.”

There it is. Sort it out. Something for everyone. Gilt edged securities for the capitalist. Reduced taxation for the taxpayer. And (touching thoughtfulness) consideration for the recipient of public benefits, sparing the taxpayer (excepting the millions of workers who do not pay income tax and the recipient of the public benefits) the pain of seeing so much taken from them. He continues: “I am not suggesting the abolition of income tax. That would only be possible if all industry belonged to the community.” (Our italics.) Really what box of tricks could produce more.

There is more to come. “ Suppose we fix a date —towards which we should at once begin to work— when a definite percentage of what we are spending on arms shall be set aside for the peaceful development of backward parts of the world.” The reviewers have really fallen for that one. It has really put him amongst the “statesmen.” It seems they are impressed even though he thought of it after General Marshall and after the Labour Government had inaugurated something like it through Colonial Development schemes.

On the question of Russia Bevan spreads himself out. There is an “over assessment of Soviet military strength.” Russia is “less belligerent than some American publicists.” Russia “would have struck by now if she were going to strike at all.” Russia has her own internal problems. The more her industrial economy grows, he argues, the more Russia will develop the need for democratic institutions through which ideas and technical knowledge must find free expression in order to develop. Equally conjectural arguments could be found to deduce conclusions the opposite to Mr. Bevan’s. This part of Bevan’s case, however, is in some part suspect as a rationalisation for his resignation from the Labour Government This was defended on the grounds that the country could not afford the burden of £4,700,000,000. Mr. Woodrow Wyatt M.P., casts some light on this in the News Chronicle (7.1.52).

“It is always difficult to convince the Labour Party of the need for armaments, and I am glad that it should be so. Mr. Bevan was a key figure in securing general Labour support for the defence programme and his achievement in that direction culminated in his brilliant speech in the House of Commons a year ago.
“His concluding phrases on that occasion still echo in my ears. ‘ . . . we do beg that we shall not have all these jeers about the rearmament that we are putting under way. We shall carry it out; we shall fulfil our obligations to our friends and allies. . . .’
“When he withdrew his backing for the £4,700 million programme last April it was understandable that the confidence of many Labour supporters should be shaken. At the same time he said that the earlier and smaller defence programme—£3,600 million over three years—was sufficient.
“Adherence to the smaller programme was repeated in ‘One Way Only’ and maintained until the announcement of the Conservative Government’s defence programme for this year. Then it was disclosed that the balance of payments situation, never anticipated by Mr. Bevan and his friends, had forced a slowing down of the larger programme.
“The speed of rearmament, allowing for rising prices, has been reduced to that of the smaller programme which Mr. Bevan had always said was within our capacity even without American aid.
“Did Mr. Bevan welcome this reduction and support the new programme? No, astonishingly, he attacked again and divided the Labour Party in the House on it.”

Mr. Bevan’s friends say that this book intends to convey a “mood.” It could also be the intention to create a mood favourable to the idea of Mr. Bevan as the “Man of Peace.” That would seem to have quite good political prospects.

And there is no doubt that Mr. Bevan is quite a politician.

H. W.

Leave a Reply