1970s >> 1974 >> no-836-april-1974

Book Reviews: ‘The Future of the Left – Lincoln and After’, & ‘John Strachey’

A Pair of Labour Bleeders

‘The Future of the Left: Lincoln and After,’ by Dick Taverne. Cape, £2.95 (paperback £1.50).

Dick Taverne’s book is divided into sections. The first reads like an adventure story, where our hero comes out on top having conquered the forces of evil (left wing of the Labour Party). The second part presents Taverne’s alternative for radical politics in this country, with ideas as new and exciting as egg-and-chips.

Taverne’s thesis is that the Labour Party, which according to him has been the only radical alternative since 1929, has become so dominated by its left extremists that those who want to pursue “sensible” policies don’t stand a chance. Successive Labour governments fail to deliver the goods for the left wing: “There were very few measures from the 1966 government which they [the left] could regard as socialist.” He never tells us what measures would be regarded as socialist; hardly surprising, as he states also that terms like “socialist” and “working class” have “no precise definition”. The result is that the militants who tended to be a large section of part workers are disillusioned, the party loses the next election, and Labour-inspired radical change takes a dive.

He then explains his rejection of the left-dominated party machine, and the steps that led to his resignation and his success at a Lincoln bye-election. For his Democratic Labour party he would have preferred the title “Social Democrats”, but felt this was inappropriate for Lincoln. His campaign based on “realism” (opportunism?) claims to be for a society of equal rights and equal opportunities. To achieve it he would require a permanent wages policy; allowing people more say in decisions that affect their working lives; forcing the big companies to disclose their affairs; fairer distribution of wealth; fiscal reform including an accessions tax to replace estate duty; and above all his chief love, the continuance of the Common Market. The package can be summed up in his favourite phrase “Social Justice”. Heard it before?

The book does spotlight the undemocratic nature of the Labour Party (if it needed showing), the way politicians twist and turn at every corner (for example Wilson’s volte-face on the Common Market) , and the fact that “ultra-right” Enoch Powell and “ultra-left” Michael Foot have much in common on major issues. It also shows the author as thoroughly confused about many things, specially economics. For example, he accepts the myth that rising wages cause inflation. The tragedy is that the working class — who, by the way, Mr. Taverne, are the vast majority having to sell their capabilities to live, because they do not own any part of the means of production — are taken in by this sort of confusion.

Taverne’s majority at Lincoln shows nothing and leads nowhere. To make any real change the working class must take the problems surrounding them into their own hands, abolish the system of society based on private ownership, and establish Socialism. When that happens, ideas about instituting “Social Justice” will be placed in a Museum of Muddled Thought from this age.

Ronnie Warrington


“John Strachey”, by Hugh Thomas. Eyre Methuen, £4.50.

Strachey was the political Heinz. His range of allegiances and convictions was not far short of fifty-seven varieties; and each one was found tasty by people whose relish for an easy snack is heightened by thinking it a bore to eat more substantially.

From Eton and Oxford, Strachey joined the Labour Party in 1923 and the ILP in 1924, becoming editor of the ILP’s Socialist Review and in 1926 editor of the NUM’s The Miner. Elected a Labour MP in 1929, he left the Labour Party to help found Oswald Mosley’s “New Party” in 1931 but quickly parted company; later the same year he lost his parliamentary seat and was found “drawing towards the communist party”. On the advice of Communist leaders he never joined the CP, but from 1932 to 1938 wrote books expounding their theory, including The Nature of Capitalist Crises and The Theory and Practice of Socialism. Mr. Thomas tells us that in these books “the most articulate Marxist spokesman in Britain” received the assistance of Dutt, Pollitt and Emile Burns of the CP.

However, he was “appalled” and “staggered” by the Soviet-German pact in 1939. He sold his £1,000-worth of Russian Five Year Plan bonds (and re-invested in General Motors); in 1940 he published A Programme for Progress — “frankly a ‘revisionist’ work”; and dissociated himself from the CP. Thereafter, he served in the war and at the end of it was again elected to Parliament for Labour and was a Minister in successive governments.

In 1953 he wrote three articles called “Marxism Revisited” in the New Statesman. These were expanded into another book, Contemporary Capitalism, in which Strachey rejected old errors in favour of new ones. He wrote to Michael Foot in 1958 that he had “reverted to my ancestral tradition of Whiggery”. His last change of mind, incurring Gaitskell’s disfavour, was over whether or not Britain should enter the Common Market.

Mr. Thomas’s biography is interesting and well documented. It ought to provide lessons in several things. One is the perennial weakness of the Left for “intellectuals” and its readiness to attribute depths to whatever they say. Strachey was fundamentally a dilettante, belonging really with his cousin Lytton in the “Bloomsbury set”. His radicalism and copious writing were founded on a private income and on entrée to circles where thinking-aloud would be readily, over the port, accepted for print.

The other observations to be made is how unchanged the Left is, despite all the alleged re-thinking and rejection of old Communist stuff. Strachey writing in The Miner in 1926 that “the handful of cruel, stubborn and dull-witted reactionaries, who today have the audacity to claim that they ‘own’ the great coalfields of Britain, will be deprived of every vestige of the power which they have so terribly abused” — could be any militant broadsheet-writer today. The theory of The Nature of Capitalist Crises, that the capitalist system was being delivered into the “revolutionaries” hands by the law of the falling rate of profit, is now repeated by IS, WRP and the rest. In the ‘thirties it was a non-runner by Dutt out of Strachey. They never learn.

Robert Barltrop

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