Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis

 Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis

A review by Brendan Clifford

Lord Adonis, who was a Junior Minister in the Blair Government, has written a book about Ernest Bevin.  Bevin was an organiser of working class power.  Blair’s great object was to dissolve working class power in order to free the Labour Party from it.

The Labour Party was formed during the First World War because the Liberal Party—which was the governing Party at the time—split.  It had launched the World War in 1914.  It split in 1916 because, in launching the War, it had bitten off more than it could chew.  The stress of conducting the War was too much for it so it split and the more ‘radical’ Liberals, led by Lloyd George, formed an alliance with the Tories.  Lloyd George became Prime Minister but the substance of the Government was Tory.

A Labour Party was then organised by Arthur Henderson in time to contest the 1918 Election.

The Lloyd George/Tory Coalition won the Election by a landslide but Labour came in ahead of the Asquith Liberals and acquired the title of Official Opposition.

It is possible that, if Lloyd George had not split the Liberal Party, the Labour Party would not have been formed.  Henderson, a Trade Union organiser, had been a Liberal in politics, as had many other Trade Union leaders, until the Liberal Party split.  They would possibly have remained Liberals in politics, if the Liberal Party had held together in running the War it had started.

Until the Liberal split, the Labour and Socialist political organisations had been propaganda bodies lacking either the strength or the will to challenge the Tories and Liberals in a bid for power in the state.

The British electoral system is designed to function as a two-party system.  It inhibits the growth of a third party.  The Liberal split was therefore crucial to the emergence of Labour as the Opposition party—the officially recognised alternative governing party.

Blair saw that 1918 event as a tragic accident.  The way he saw it was that an accident had split the “Radical” movement, and established a limited sectarian interest in its place.  His mission was to heal the rift that had opened up in the Radical movement in 1918.  He would do this by freeing Labour from the vested interests of organised labour and remaking the Labour Party into a free-ranging political party, such as the Liberal Party had been.

The first thing that had to be done was abolish Clause Four of the Party Constitution, the ball and chain that bound it to organised labour.  And then he aimed to dissolve working-class organisation by mass immigration which could be used to subvert restrictive practices.

Blair might be described as Anti-Bevin, in the way that the Pope is described in the Articles of the Church of England as Anti-Christ.  And Blair was outstandingly successful in destroying, around the year 2 000, most of what Bevin had constructed in the quarter of a century after 1920.

It was a virtuoso performance.  But, in the doing of it, the performer drew all the life out of the Party, wrought havoc in the world, and left a Party which is neither the one thing nor the other.  Bevin’s heritage is gone.  And who would think of Lloyd George when they look at Sir Keir?

So why, and how, does a Blairite write a book about Bevin?  The why is possibly that he sees that Blair’s charismatic, irrationalist, influence deprived the Labour Party of specific meaning, leaving it a hulk, and that is not entirely satisfactory.  The how is that he treats Bevin as having been in the main anti-Russian, and he sees anti-Russianism as the coming thing:

“Having seen both communists and fascists close up, Bevin never fell for the left delusion, harboured by Cripps and Bevan, that a common front with communists was the way to deal with the fascists.  In his view they were as bad as each other and fundamentally the same threat to democracy and trade unionism”  (p118).

“Just as Bevin harboured no left-wing sentimentality that communism was on a spectrum with democratic socialism, so he understood that fascism was radically different to conservative nationalism.  Endemic revolutionary violence and totalitarianism made communism and fascism fundamentally similar and equally dangerous.

“The equation of fascism and communism, and the imperative to resist both, was Bevin’s most fundamental and consequential insight as a national leader.  Surprisingly few others saw it this way.  Most on the democratic left saw communism as better than fascism…  Beatrice and Sidney Webb, …amid Stalin’s purges, brought out their infamous book Soviet Communism:  A New Civilisation.  On the right, particularly in Christian movements…, it was vice versa:  communism was morally far worse and more threatening than fascism because of its atheism and hostility to private property.  Moral relativism was indeed deeper and broader on the right than on the left.  Supposedly moderate nationalist and Christian parties promoted the fascist right to an extent that social democratic parties refused to support the communists, most starkly the Catholic Centre Party in Germany, which endorsed Hitler’s Enabling Act.  This was true even when social democrats were in ‘popular front’ coalitions with communists to keep out the right, as in France in 1936 with Leon Blum’s government.  Among truly ‘nefarious practices’, high on the list must be popes Pius XI and Pius XII’s deals, as heads of the Catholic church, with virtually all Europe’s fascist dictators in the 1930s.  Not that this was unique to Catholics among the Christian churches:  a quarter of Germany’s protestant clergy had joined the Nazi Party before 1933.

“None of this relativism clouded Bevin’s judgment, least of all religion.  He saw communism and fascism through the same prism of totalitarianism.  ‘If you do not keep down the communists you cannot keep down the fascists’, he told the 1934 Labour conference…  ‘Our friends on the Continent failed at the critical moment to maintain discipline as we propose to do now.  This is where they went wrong and they got eaten out and undermined.  When they had to take action, half of their members were in one party, half in the other’…

“Bevin had witnessed revolutionary fascism at first hand.  Travelling through Germany in 1932… this is what he saw:  ‘The position in Germany is rapidly approaching one of civil war.  Outside the Volkhaus in one of the towns we saw armed Social Democrats acting as pickets with other members of the Party inside also fully armed protecting their property against the Hitlerites and the Communists…’

“Bevin was more strong-minded and consistent even than Churchill, for he never suffered Churchill’s fondness for Mussolini…  Churchill was impressed by all dictators that he met…  By contrast, Bevin was never overly impressed by meeting dictators, including Stalin when he confronted the communist monster at Potsdam in 1945.

“This is significant because it was Mussolini, not Hitler, who initiated the foreign aggression crises of the 1930s and got away with it.  Churchill prevaricated but Bevin saw the Italian fascist dictator for what he was…”  (p118-124).

Bevin in the 1920s and 1930s was the founder of a Trade Union, and the amalgamator of Trade Unions.  He built up immense Trade Union power on an independent basis and used it with restraint for Trade Union purposes within the sphere of laissez-faire capitalism or something approaching it.

He advocated restraint, but did so on factual rather than moral grounds.  The English working class—or proletariat—inherited from the 19th century was lethargic in temperament rather than volatile.  He was not opposed in principle to the use of force, and he said repeatedly that only force would impress the capitalists, but he knew that revolutionary appeals would be met with indifference.

The Triple Alliance (the Miners’, Railway and Transport Unions) confronted Lloyd George with its potential power in April 1921, Black Friday.  He responded by saying that he commanded no power equal to it, but that, if they used their potential power, they could only do so by taking over the conduct of the state.  Were they ready to do that?  They weren’t, so they accepted defeat without further contest.

The General Strike was a repeat of that event on a larger scale with more serious intent, but the outcome was the same.

After 1926 Bevin sought ways of engaging with capitalists with a view to making arrangements with them.  That approach could be described as corporatist.  And corporatism was seen as the hallmark of fascism.  It was criticised on those grounds by the Communist Party.  The difference, however, depended on how it was done.

A quarter of a century after Bevin’s death a Royal Commission, chaired by his main biographer, Alan Bullock, recommended the setting up of a Workers’ Control structure in industry, in which the organised workforce in an enterprise would have representation in management equal to the capitalist shareholders.  The Communist Party was against it, of course, as class collaboration designed to ward off class revolution.  But so was the non-Communist Labour Left—the Parliamentary Socialists that Bevin despised.  And so was the basic inertia of the working class.  Only a few Trade Union leaders who remembered Bevin supported it.

The Communist Party went into drastic decline about a dozen years later.  And so did the Trade Union movement.

The CP might have exercised a retarding influence on Workers’ Control development, but it was only one of many such influences.  But, apart from that, it was one of the main influences keeping Trade Unionism alive.

The workers under Capitalism do not spontaneously arrive at a sense of class interest.  The working class is the propertyless element in society and property is the basis of cohesion in the other classes.  Bevin appears to have understood this and to have sought to establish a property basis of working class interest, and he had the idea that a job might be established as a form of property.  Blair scotched that notion when he declared that in future nobody could expect to have a job for life.  That declaration was scarcely noticed by the Parliamentary socialists.

The culture of apprenticeship was rooted out of English society by the progressive forces establishing Capitalism, and attempts to restore it have been treated as eccentricities—for example, William Morris and Merrie England, or the Guild Socialists after the Great War.  Free labour was the ideal of Capitalism and it was largely realised in England where Capitalism was founded.  Free labour meant labour which was nothing in itself and which could be shaped and re-shaped according to capitalist requirement.

Bevin noted a falling off in artisan support after the attempt at a General Strike.  Although he was the organiser of general labour in the 20th century, his beginnings were in the socialist groups at the end of the 19th century.  He was aware that early socialist movements in the working class were artisan movements.  I suppose the artisan was to some degree a survivor of the apprenticeship system.

The opportunity came for him in 1945 to try to give some structural effect to his ideas.  But Prime Minister Attlee diverted him away from the sphere in which he had wide experience and great expertise, and made him harmless by giving him the dirty job of holding as much as possible of the Empire that had undermined and disgraced itself in all that it had done between 1934 and 1945 to build up Hitler into dominance in Europe until 1939 and then to break him down by a war that was bungled from the start.

When Bevin “confronted the communist monster at Potsdam” in 1945, it was by grace of the communist monster that he was in a position to do so.  It was nobody but the Communist monster who had broken the power of Germany.

What Britain had done from 1934 to the Spring of 1939 was to facilitate Nazi Germany in breaking the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty by building an Army and a Navy, occupying the Rhineland, and merging with Austria, and after that by taking over the Czech arms industry.  Then, on a sudden inspiration, Britain decided to make war on Germany, but made no serious preparations to wage war.  Poland was left to go under.  

After declaring war it did nothing much for eight months in the way of fighting. 

When Germany responded to the declaration of war on it, it withdrew from the battlefield after a reverse in the first battle.  Then, safe behind the Royal Navy, it kept the war going with pin-pricks.  Its purpose was not to prosecute the war itself but to keep Europe in ferment in the hope that the war would spread.  It did spread.  In 1941 Hitler took on the Communist monster, and suffered his first reverse.  

Three years later Britain was hustled back onto the battlefield by the United States while the German forces were being held and pushed back by the Monster.

The war was fought by two forces between which, to Adonis’s eyes, there was no difference.  Fascism and Communism were the same thing.

His comment on Churchill’s weakness for Mussolini is highly disingenuous.  Churchill was “charmed by Mussolini” because, as he explained in the article from which Adonis quotes a sentence, Mussolini had found the antidote to Leninism which was threatening to spread through Europe and destroy its civilisation.  He said straightforwardly that in Italy he would have been a Fascist, but that “in England we have not had to fight this danger in the same deadly form.  We have our own way of doing things”.  (The full text of the Times report of Churchill’s statement is given in the Aubane edition of Elizabeth Bowen’s espionage reports, Notes On Eire.)

The “danger” was the destructive effect on organic capitalist society of the form of total war waged by Britain in 1914-18, and the punitively ideological peace settlement imposed by Britain at the end of it.  Britain, as victor, imposed revolution on the vanquished, and revolution tends to break society into its elements and set them in conflict with each other.  In Russia Lenin and the Bolshevik Party mastered the chaos and set about establishing a socialist society by directly abolishing private ownership of the means of production, and organising production of goods for use without the capitalist market and the civilisation that went with it.  In the broken bourgeois civilisation of post-1918 Europe Leninism made considerable headway.

Mussolini was a radical socialist before 1914.  In 1914 he added expansionist nationalism to his socialism.  In 1914-15, under British influence, he was instrumental in bringing Italy into the War as a British ally, with British promises of a reward in the form of a large tract of Austrian territory.  He did this against the opposition of both the Socialist Party and the Catholic Church.  The country could not settle down when the War ended, and Britain did not deliver all that it had promised, until Mussolini made his wartime combination of nationalism and socialism into the functional system of fascism, ended the free conflict of fundamentalist parties, and restored State authority.

Churchill, in the early twenties, had written newspaper articles on the question of whether the Parliamentary system of conflicting political parties could cope if the parties in conflict were a Capitalist Party and a Socialist Party.  He concluded that it couldn’t if each party was effectively representative of its cause.

The Parliamentary System of Government and Loyal Opposition could only work if the differences between the parties were slight.  In England they were slight—and the defeated Liberals flocked into the Labour Party in the 1920s to ensure that they remained so.  

In post-1918 Europe they were not slight.  In a fundamentalist conflict of principle Communism seemed likely to win.  That outcome was averted by the fascist movement, which overrode the conflict of parties by drawing from each in a way that kept Capitalism functional.  Democracy was a late addition to capitalist government.  It was suspended when it proved to be politically destructive.  Fascist countries not involved in the 1939 War returned easily to democratic forms when authoritative national states had been consolidated, e.g., Spain.

Countries which underwent Communist development had great difficulty in reverting to Capitalism and its political forms when required to do so.

It is amazing that Lord Adonis, with the experience of the last forty years go learn from, should see Communism and Fascism as being the same thing under different names.

With regard to Trade Union organisation:  Bevin operated in a powerfully-developed capitalist society with a stable political structure.  It was not possible that what was done in Russia after the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy (Britain’s ally) could be done in England. 

And it was not possible that what was done in England could be done in Russia.  There was no ground in Russia for capitalist-democratic Trade-Unionism.  Capitalism did not exist in Russia as a national system.  There were small pockets of it in a vast peasant society.  For there to be a possibility of reformist democratic Trade Unionism, Capitalism should first be let have a few generations of complete freedom to develop itself, with all that this implies.

The Communist Party did not destroy the Tsarist State.  It fell apart of its own accord under the stress of the expansionist war into which Britain had lured it with the offer that it could keep Istanbul if it took it from the Turks.  When the Tsarist State fell apart, the forms of capitalist democracy were not strong enough to take command of the situation.  The Communists took command and by-passed Capitalism in the construction of a socialist economy.  Trade Unions play a very different part in the construction of a socialist economy than they did as forces of resistance in capitalist economy.

When the capitalist world fell into conflict with itself—democratic capitalism against fascist capitalism—the democratic wing proved to be helpless against the fascist wing.  It was not a resurgence of capitalist democracy that broke the power of Fascism, but the fascist assault on Communism.

Bevin organised British society for total war, though the British war effort was less than it had been in 1914, and after June 1940 the outcome depended on others.  The arrangements he made laid the basis for the 1945 Labour victory and were the foundation of the welfare state.  He was then removed from the domestic scene and Labour affairs passed into the hands of the Parliamentary Socialists who had harassed him as a kind of British Stalin during the War.

The European settlement made while he was Foreign Secretary was based on the meeting point of the opposing Armies in the Grand Alliance against Germany, the Russian and the American.  The USA had built up enormous production capacity during the War and it subsidised a restoration of advanced capitalism out of the wreckage the War had wrought in Western Europe.  It did this as an anti-Russian measure.

Lord Adonis seems to have a particular animus against the Catholic Church, and he attributes the formation of the West German state to Bevin.  It was actually brought about by German Christian Democracy in alliance with the USA.  The Christian Democratic leader, Adenauer, had experienced British conduct in Germany after 1918 and was intent on preventing a repetition of it after 1945.

The Catholic Church (enabled by its diplomatic ‘deal’ with the German State) had maintained a mass passive resistance to the Nazi movement, while the Protestant Churches were absorbed into it, and this was the ground for the rapid assertion of German national interest after 1945, as compared with 1918.

As late as 1942 Churchill was saying that he had not prolonged the War in order to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, but that is what he was doing.  By continuing the War after Britain had lost the capacity to wage it with any prospect of success, and by replacing the strategy of fighting the War with the strategy of spreading it, he was handing it over to others.  And neither of the relevant others‚ the Soviet Union and the USA, saw the continuation of the British Empire as being to its advantage.

And in 1941 Churchill hastened the decline by seconding the US ultimatum to Japan and precipitating the Japanese assault.  Japan had been the protector of the British Empire in Asia until Britain, under American pressure, ended its alliance with Japan in the early 1920s.  Ending the alliance marked Japan down as a political enemy.  Backing the American ultimatum in 1941 made it an actual enemy.

Bevin’s first war as Foreign Minister—the war against the Anti-fascists who had asserted Malayan independence from the British Empire, an attempt to retrieve a bit of the Asian Empire that was shredded by the Japanese—is hardly mentioned by Lord Adonis.

In a final chapter, called “Failures”, Lord Adonis brands Bevin as an Anti-Semite.  That deserves an article in itself.

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