Has Bevan Sold the Pass?

A lot of people who have for years worshipped Aneurin Bevan have now turned against their hero because of his support for the H-Bomb at the Labour Party Conference. Bevan says that he is as strongly against the bomb as ever he was and that his speech and vote at Brighton (decided on “after a lot of agonising thinking”), were only designed to find “the most effective way of getting the damned thing destroyed”: but this a bit too subtle for those who have passionately believed that Bevan was hundred per cent against the bomb and now find that he isn’t.

But actually the disgruntled Bevanites have little ground for complaint for, as it happens, Bevan has changed his politics hardly at all. If any deception has been carried out it is their own self-deception; an obstinate refusal to take note of that Bevan has for years been saying and doing.

If a few of them are genuine pacifists who resolutely refuse to support armaments or war, they are fully entitled to be opposed to Bevan who supported World War II and the Korean War, and conscription and re-armament, but they cannot pretend that Bevan has deceived them about his record of war-supporting.

With others the revulsion of feeling may appear to be more soundly based, but again it will not stand examination. They take the view (like Bevan) that armaments are necessary and that war is sometimes unavoidable and must be supported no matter what the cost in death and destruction. They reject the Socialist view that war arises from capitalism and can only be got rid of by establishing Socialism. They can stomach it all, the millions of dead and maimed, the trench warfare, machine guns and artillery, the bombing raids, the napalm and even the A-Bomb—but the H-Bomb. No! The H-Bomb, they say is horrible, unthinkable, and on account of it they will destroy their beloved reader, Bevan. But they have no serious ground for indignation with Bevan on this count, for he long ago made it clear that in his view he and others supported the second World War and the Labour Government of 1945-51 have no moral or logical case against the H-Bomb.

Writing in the News Chronicle (9/3/1955) he said :-

    “Those of us who concurred in the making of the atom bomb and tolerated the saturation bombing of the last war have no moral or logical case against the hydrogen bomb. All three are methods and weapons of imprecision, that is, it is known they will destroy the civilian population and all the civil installations of the enemy.”

He went on to admit that the addition of the H-Bomb to the weapons of war would only be “carrying the logic of our past behaviour to its furthermost extremities” but put his own view that on practical grounds every effort should be made to get international agreement against the bomb. It is hard to see how those of his followers who swallowed all the other horrors of war making can justifiably wax indignant now because of a minute shift in Bevan’s policy. Yet an irate reader of Tribune can write that Bevan’s action has left “a gaping hole” in all the principles of the Socialist rank and file: “The tender, compassionate heart of our Socialism has been torn out and replaced with a desiccated calculating machine.” (Tribune, 11/10/57).

Socialists, of course, never had any confidence in Bevan, or believed for one moment that he adhered to or ever had any understanding of Socialist principles; and, nobody with Socialist principles would have supported him or the Labour Government or the wars of capitalism that that government had a hand in.

But then Socialists do not believe in leadership, the danger and uselessness of which are well shown by the Bevanite movement. If the Bevanites had been Socialists they would have had their own clean clear conviction that Socialists do not take on the administration of capitalism, and they would, therefore, never have supported the Labour Government. They would have known that the government that runs capitalism has all to do all the obnoxious things that capitalism requires of them, including the waging of war. They would have seen the absurdity of putting a Labour Government in charge of British capitalism and of its war-machine with a mandate to keep it going and of then demanding of them that they behave as Socialists.

But the Bevanites were not and are not Socialists, they were everything and nothing, a motley collection of individuals united only by the leader’s spell-bending oratory:-

    “The Communist, the pacifist, the believer in the innate virtue of the Soviet State, the hater of American ‘capitalism,’ the general do-gooder,” all see something of themselves reflected in the glowing rhetoric of Mr. Bevan.” – (Manchester Guardian, 17/3/55.)   

Well, they have got what they asked for; they laboured to feed his vanity and build his reputation, and now he doesn’t much mind what they do. Will it cure them? That remains to be seen, but there is no evidence yet that they have learned the uselessness of  leadership for the establishment of Socialism.

It might help them on their way to getting a better understanding if they noted that Bevan, whom they think has played them false, had his own ideas on leadership. The leader of the Labour Party ought to be, he said, not someone from “the top drawer of society” (meaning, presumably, Attlee and Gaitskell), but should be drawn “from those who had spent their lives in the Labour and Trade Union movement, and who not only understood Socialism with their heads, but knew it with their hearts.” (Manchester Guardian, 18/6/51). And it all ends with the heart of Bevan and the head of Gaitskell and Attlee, uniting as one on the Labour Party’s H-bomb policy. So little difference does the kind of leader make, and so necessary is it that the workers should learn to think for themselves and not leave their thinking to leaders.

Edgar Hardcastle

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