Rescuing Bevin from Andrew Adonis

Following on from the review of ‘Bevin, Labour’s Churchill’ in the April issue of Labour Affairs, we reproduce material from The Communist, precursor magazine to Labour and Trade Union Review.

The Communist March 1981  Special Centenary Issue — Editorial


Ernest Bevin is probably the most hated man in the entire history of British Labour politics.  He is hated by the shifting Left of the Labour Party, by the Communist Party, by the Trotskyists, and by every ‘revolutionary’ and every ‘political scientist’ who happens along, and their view has come to dominate general Labour opinion.

Ramsay MacDonald is denounced because he became a traitor.  But, even though he undoubtedly did become a traitor, there is in the denunciation of him a spark of fellow feeling.  Nobody can say that Bevin became a traitor.  On the contrary, it was he more than any other individual who was responsible for making MacDonald’s treason politically ineffectual, and for establishing Labour politics on sounder foundations than those which MacDonald shook.  The Labour left wanted him to become a traitor, and expected him to become a traitor, but nothing was farther from his thoughts.  It is inconceivable that he should have become a traitor, because he simply had no inclination towards any bourgeois way of life, because he did not wear ideological blinkers like Philip Snowden, and because he was not politically squeamish.  On what grounds, then, could he have become a traitor ?

The ideological left was unrelenting in its hatred of him during his lifetime, and has remained so since his death.  The centenary of the greatest politician that the British working class has produced will pass virtually without notice on the left.  The ideological left, which now controls a multitude of publishing outlets, and is the nearest thing to a publishing monopoly which exists in Britain, takes its revenge against Bevin posthumously for all the defeats which he inflicted on the m during his lifetime, by writing him out of history.  Many of them complain about the way that Trotsky was written out of Russian history by Stalin, and apply themselves to writing out or history a man whose contribution to working class development is immensely greater than Trotsky’s.

Historical justice towards losing factions is not to be expected in the politics of revolutionary dictatorships, and least of all was it to be expected in Russia.  It clashes with the revolutionary objectives to which they are committed.  Trotsky, in his years of power, would have put down as a petty-bourgeois romantic anybody was concerned to do justice to Martov. Mensheviks were for shooting.  All things considered, Stalin was remarkably fair to Trotsky after Trotsky had made a political mess of himself.

The case of Bevin is entirely different.  He never had anybody shot for disagreeing with him.  He never even had anybody censored.  The left is not taking revenge against him for having silenced them.  He engaged in open political dispute with them over many years, he never tried to restrict their freedom to operate, and yet he always had his way against them.

Bevin’s unforgiveable crime is that he made democratic socialist politics work.  And is that not a far worse thing than selling out to the bourgeoisie, like MacDonald and Snowden did?

Bevin was a Marxist of a kind that is virtually unknown these days.  Marxism today is an ideology to be preached and lived in.  For Bevin it was a source of information.  He took from Marx the substance of what Marx had to offer —the incomparable physiological description of the capitalist economic process in Capital— and then got on with the class struggle in the way that was most effective in the given circumstances.

Wedgewood Benn likes to refer to the combination of Christian and Marxist traditions on the British Labour movement.  He is a flimsy theologian the alliance with ideological Marxists for whom Marxism is a chloroformed blindfold which induces hallucinations.  Bevin combined the two traditions in a more original and effective way.  He became to begin with a Methodist lay preacher (or was it a Baptist?).  Then he became a member of the Social Democratic Federation.  Finally he became Bevin.  He remained on easy terms with both Marx and Jesus, as one might be with ones’ grandparents.  He asked nobody to believe in either of them or in himself.  He thought out what it was possible to do to increase the power and improve the standard of life of the working class, and he expected people who were socialists either to agree with him or to propose alternative courses of action which were realistic.  His socialist opponents almost invariable engaged in phrase mongering, and he told them, without  attempting to soften the blow, that they were phrasemongers.

Bevin was profoundly egalitarian.  It goes without saying that he looked upon nobody as his better—there is no great virtue in that in the 20th century.  But neither did he look upon anybody as his inferior.  Barbara Castle, in a moment of frankness during a recent Woman’s Hour radio programme, described herself as a member of the middle-class elite.  Barbara always oozed condescension.  It is very difficult for left socialists in the middle-class elite not to ooze condescension.  This has nothing to do with any abilities which they might happen to have—indeed, the less ability they have, the less possible it is for them not to condescend.  They relate to people on their own level and above with spurious contempt and to people below them with condescension.  And it is not possible to condescend and to think as well.

Bevin had no epistemological problems connected with guild and condescension.  It is easy, when you come right out of the bottom drawer, to treat everybody as na equal.  An, amongst equals, if a man behaves like a bloody fool, you tell him so.

Bevin practised no revers snobbery.  When anybody joined the Labour party, he became subject to equal treatment.  The temptation to make allowance for  people of middle-class origin whose hearts bled for the workers and who are therefore incapable of thinking, was never entertained by Bevin.  He dealt with the views of Sir Stafford Cripps on the same basis as he would have done if Cripps had been an unskilled worker.

Having come to the conclusion that very substantial reform in the working-class interest was possible int immediate future, and that the sort of revolutionary development envisaged by the Communist Party was a daydream in Britain, Bevin set about achieving the most substantial reform possible.  He built up an unprecedented accumulation of working-class power, devised a programme of reform, and saw that programme implemented.  Through the movement in which he was a guiding influence between h twenties and the late forties, the working class placed itself in the centre of the stage.  It made itself, to use Marx’s phrase, the subject of history in British society: politics, economics and culture have ever since been preoccupied with problems of working-class development.  And the development which has taken place in the thirty years since Bevins’ death has been a working out of the implications of what was achieved under his leadership.

Why, then, is Bevin hated so much?  Anthony Howard, ex-editor of the New Statesman, set out to answer this question on a Radio 4 programme on March 4th.  He asked why Bevin was ‘not popular’ today.  He suggested what it was partly because he died so long ago that he has simply been forgotten; partly that he ‘believed in the concept of strong personal leadership’ and that such a thing is no longer acceptable; and partly because he would have no time for fads like workers’ control, and would dismiss them with a grunt of disgust.  Manny Shinwell chipped in that Bevin ‘didn’t understand the democratic process’.  Roy Jenkins made some vague criticisms of his foreign policy.  And Abba Eban suggested that Bevin had some dark racist undertones, and has expressed ‘non political ideas’, such as the idea that Truman wanted Jews to be let into Palestine because he didn’t want any more of them in New York.  But all of this is mere waffle.  Bevin is unpopular today despite his Palestine policy.  He understood the democratic process far too well for Shinwell’s comfort. As for workers’ control: if he would oppose it, then so did most of the left in the moment of truth when Bullock published his report.  But there is no reason to suppose that Bevin would have opposed workers’ control.  Bullock’s proposals were entirely Bevinite in spirit, and were made by a man who has been preoccupied for twenty years with Bevin’s doings and sayings.

Bevin is hated because he made democratic socialist politics effective in bringing about substantial social changes, and, in order to make it effective, took it out of wonderland.  He is hated because he was oblivious of the phrase mongering left classifications of him, and proved them all false.  ‘No, in this Conference, Aneurin Bevan, you are not ging to get the flattery of the gossip columns that you get in London.  You are going to get facts.’  To say such a thing; to continue to direct the Labour movement effectively having said such a thing; and not even to become a landed gentleman like Bevan…. How could he not be hated?  The fragile left of today looks for an escape from reality through its heroes, so how could Bevin be its hero?  In the long run Bevan too became too real for them too, but his windy, inconsequent, phrase mongering denunciations of Bevin between the mid-thirties and 1945 provide much material for extasy.


Bevin’s first great crime is that he has in the thirties an anti-fascist policy that was capable of functioning in the real word, and that ensured that wartime alliance against Germany was based on a real political equality of bourgeois and worker, and operated to Labour’s advantage.  The past held to terrors for Bevin.  It did not give him nightmares.  It did not weigh him down like an Alp.  The past was over and done with, and he neither intended nor expected that it would be repeated.  1914 was one thing.  He had opposed the 1914 war when it happened, and so he didn’t need to oppose the next war as substitute for 1914.  The next war would be another thing.

Michael Foot writes in his biography of Bevan: ‘Many on the Left ….  Were swiftly and deeply stirred by the terrible events on the Continent…But why, then, did these men … deny the need for arms to withstand the menace?  That common give of the pre-war years is now exalted as a decisive indictment against the Left.  We are invited, by contrast, to admire the Churchillian wisdom which kept its eye fixed steadily on the changes disrupting the balance of power among the European states… But to ask that British Socialists, particularly those from the depressed areas, should have regarded the issue on this light is to ask an absurdity.  How could they see the tormentors of their people suddenly translated into stout defenders of working-class liberties?  For Bevan, that would have imped a betrayal of a whole lifetime’s experience struggles.  British capitalism, not German Fascism, was the enemy on his doorstep.’  (Vol 1, p 195-6)

An oppressed working class which can think of nothing but its oppression is clearly not fit to exercise political power in a democracy.  It could exert political influence only by refusing to become entangled in representative politics, and by supporting a dictatorial party to act in its interests.  If the British working class in the thirties was as Foot describes it, if it was incapable of thinking coherently about international affairs, why on earth didn’t it place itself under the guardianship of the Communist Party or of Mosley’s Party, instead of indulging in the vanity that it was capable of looking after its interests in a representative democracy?

The truth is that a very substantial part of the working class felt quite capable of looking after working class interests in a representative democracy.  What Foot describes is the condition of socialist intellectuals, with inadequate political conceptions, observing the working class and feeling sorry for it.  The self-confidence of the working class was represented by Bevin.  It made Bevin possible, and it was enhanced by Bevin.

While Socialist thinking stood still—in Soviet Russia no less than in Britain—the world was moving fast.  Way back in 1930 a voice from the wilderness… had given waring to Communists and Socialists alike: ‘Should Fascism come to power in Germany it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank.  And only a unity with Social Democratic workers can  bring victory…’  But that was Trotsky, not Stalin.  Only after the damage had been done in Germany did Communist strategy start to change and give birth to new hope.’  (Foot, p 208)

The trouble about prophets in the wilderness is that they are never specific about the actual policies required to prevent the occurrences which they predict, and even their predictions tend to be obscure.  Trotsky was a power in the Comintern at the time of the first fascist revolution in 1922.  Much was made by him ten years later of the Comintern description of German Social Democracy as ‘social-fascism’.  But in 1922 the Italian Socialists were denounced as social-fascists by the Comintern, with far less justification than in the case of German Social Democrats, and Trotsky, the influential politician, did not demand a change of policy to ward off catastrophe in Italy.

The Italian Socialist Party joined the Comintern.  It was politically in agreement with the Comintern but was divided about the need for a drastic organisational purging.  Because of this disagreement, the Comintern set about splitting eh Socialist Party.  A Communist Party of Italy was formed in 1921, and amidst the war waged by the communist Party on the Socialist Party, Mussolini slipped into power in 1922.

Many years after the first fascist revolution, Trotsky, having given up politics for prophesy and retired to the wilderness, began to warn about the danger of fascism, and to urge working class unity in opposition to it.  Did this imply that the working class unity which actually existed in Italy when the fascist movement began its run-up to power should have been maintained?  Not at all.  Trotsky never suggested that the difference between Communism and social-democracy did  not warrant a political split because there was a danger of fascism.  If Stalin had in 1930 proposed to wind up the  Comintern, and to merge the Communist and socialist movements on a democratic programme and under representative leaderships, it is quite certain that Trotsky would have condemned him as an agent of the bourgeoisie.

Trotsky’s anti-fascist policy was of the kind that looks best when it doesn’t have to be implemented.  And how’s this for prophesy: ‘A victory of fascism in Germany would signify an inevitable war against the USSR.  In fact, it would be sheer political stupidity to believe that once they came to power, the German National Socialists would begin with a war against France, or even Poland… Hitler will need Pilsudski… Both alike will become tools of France.’  (Germany, the Key to The International Situation, November 1931).

Trotsky’s voice from the wilderness urging working class unity against fascism is congenial to Foot, the biographer of Bevan, because it is devoid of practical political content.  The voice within the British working class which not only advocated working class unity against fascism but ensured that it was maintained, is hardly less hateful to Foot than it was to Trotsky.  Bevin saw no sense in splitting the working class and then trying to unite it.  His way of establishing unity was to prevent a split.  And in order to prevent a split he refused to have anything to do with a united front.  In 1934 he replied to an advocate of a united front with the Communist Party of Great Britain: ‘A previous speaker said the Communist Part was an insignificant party.  It would not have been if you gentlemen had had your way: we would have been split like Germany was split.  And if you do not keep down the Communists, you cannot keep down the Fascists.’

Is it not a very curious thing that a socialist intellectual of today should be on the defensive about Churchill’s foreign policy of the thirties, and should be trying to explain away socialist foreign policy by reference to the oppression of the workers making them incompetent to think about foreign affairs?  Bevin made Nazi Germany the focal point of his foreign policy, and began to entertain the idea of a war with Germany, at least as early as Churchill.  He fought an uphill struggle in the socialist movement all through the thirties to prepare it for a war with Germany, as Churchill did in the Tory Party, but with more success than Churchill achieved it before 1939.  The trade union base of the socialist movement was well prepared for the war when it happened, even though the socialist intellectuals weren’t.  It undertook responsibility for the war jointly with the bourgeoisie, it was represented in the War Cabinet equally with the bourgeoisie, and it won the election at the end of the war.

The 1935 Conference of the Labour Party included a particularly dramatic conflict between Bevin and the socialist intellectuals, but this was only spectacular eruption within a conflict that was continuous throughout the thirties.  Foot makes the bewildering comment that ‘Cripps, Bevan and Lansbury… were the hard-headed realists who had put their finder on the kernel of truth.’ (p212).  As for Bevin: ‘a Labour leader was stabbed to political death in the open forum’ by him.

The trade unions had put the following motion on the agenda: ‘Conference calls upon the British Government, in co-operation with other nations represented at … the League, to use all the necessary measures provided by the Covenant to prevent Italy’s unjust and rapacious attack upon the territory of a fellow member of the League’, i.e. Abyssinia.  These measures were economic sanctions, to b e applied by force if necessary, and thus involving the possibility of war. Here is a sample from the debate: 

Sir Stafford Cripps:

‘I cannot rid my mind of the sordid history of capitalist deception.  The empty and hollow excuses of 1914, which I was then fool enough to believe, echo through the arguments of today, the ‘War to end war’, the need to save democracy, the cry to crush the foul autocracy of Prussian militarism, all have their counterparts in today’s arguments…  There is no mand in this Conference who more cordially detests Mussolini and all his acts than I do…  If I could feel that British imperialism had turned over a new leaf and become international Socialism, then my difficulties and doubts would largely disappear…

‘If we believe that capitalism and imperialism can be humanised and organised, then, indeed, we have but weak arguments to support our demand for a change to Socialism.  We have told the workers time and again that within capitalism there can be no cure for the rivalries of imperialisms…  The capitalist leopard cannot change his spots…  I do not believe in the theory of deathbed repentance…  If the attack on Italian Fascism turns to an Italian revolution, as some people hope, our ‘National’ Government will not use its forces to assist the Italian workers to freedom.   I certainly do not and cannot trust the capitalists…  Had we a workers’ Government in this country, as they have in Russia, the whole situation would be different…  Then there would always be the power of recall, because the workers would be in control of the foreign policy and of the military machines…  There can be no order within international capitalism…  I beg that you will not, by your decision, ordain that the Labour Movement shall join without power in t responsibility for capitalist and imperialist war that sanctions may entail, but, instead, let us immediately devote our whole energies to the defeat of that very capitalism and imperialism which is represented in this country by our class enemies masquerading under the title of ‘National’ Government which is, as we know and are convinced, at the root of all war.’

John Marchbanks (N.U.R.) ‘I listened with great interest to Sir Stafford… He says, can we trust this Government, No one is going to suggest that we trust this Government…  But what I ask Sir Stafford and those who think with him is, Can we trust ourselves when we are brought up against realities, when we have to face the issue and give effect to our own decisions, arrived at when there was no danger of implementing the decisions?’

George Lansbury:  

‘I am in a very difficult position today…  I agree with the position of those of my friends who think it is quite intolerable that we should have a man speaking as Leader who disagrees fundamentally on an issue of this kind…  I have never under any circumstances said that I believed you could obtain Socialism by force…  One Whose life I revere,  and Who, I believe, is the greatest figure in history, has put it on record: ‘Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword’.  All history down the ages proves that…  Someone said this afternoon something about armaments.  Do you know that what terrified me in all this business was, we were told that the Germans were little by little rearming.  We were told, somewhere about eighteen months ago, I think, that the Government had known that they were rearming.  Then a panic seized the House of Commons, and increased armaments were demanded…  Do you believe that each country has to pile up more and more armaments in order that we may all be secure?  What a world!  We are told that the only means of defence against air attacks…  is that we should massacre more women and children than those who might attack us…

‘War becomes more bestial, more sickening every day.  Christ said that we had to love one another…  I cannot thing that Christ would have found pouring bombs or poison gas on women and children or men for any reason whatsoever.  Not even in retaliation…  I believe that the first nation that will put into practice practical Christianity, doing unto others as you would be done unto, that that nation would lead the world away from war…  It may be that I shall not meet you on this platform any more (Cries of ‘No!’)…  It may very well be that in the carrying out of your policy I shall be in your way.  It is said that people like me are irresponsible.  I am no more irresponsible a leader than the greatest Trade Union leader in the country…  But one think I know is, that during the last war the youth, the early manhood of my division was slaughtered most terribly, and now I see the whole world rushing to perdition…  I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, ‘This is our faith, this is where we stand, if necessary, this is where we will die.’

Lansbury’s speech was long, emotional and sentimental, and was calculated to influence a meeting looking for a good excuse to evade the issue.  Lansbury had not opposed the recommended policy in the committees which had discussed it before the Conference.  He could not have argued a case in committees, but he might sway the Conference into deferring a decision.  The frontal assault launched by the next speaker completely dispelled the atmosphere worked up by Lansbury.

Ernest Bevin: 

‘I think the Movement ought to understand the TUC position.   Let me remind the delegates that, when George Lansbury says what he said today in the Conference, it is rather late to say it, and I hope this Conference will not be influenced by either sentiment or personal attachment.  I hope you will carry no resolution of an emergency character telling a man like Lansbury what he ought to do.  If he finds that he ought to take a certain course, then his conscience should direct him as to the course he should take.  It is placing the Executive and the Movement in an absolutely wrong position to be taking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what you ought to do with it.’  (The official record says ‘taking’, but there seems to be general agreement that Bevin actually said, ‘hawking your conscience’. Ed) ‘…It is all very well to cheer somebody you like and interrupt somebody you don’t like, but I ask you to hear the arguments.’

Bevin then described how Lansbury had sat through various committee meetings which discussed the issue without raising any objections to the policy that was now being put to Conference.  Bevin himself had raised some objections, and had asked for clarification of relations with the Empire.

‘…we  considered the problem of Empire.  Here is the British nation controlling one-third of the world’s surface.  It is no use telling me our forefathers got it, it is here; and however we got it, a large portion of it has been put under self-government…  Then we asked ourselves, If we go on being merely anti-imperial where does it lead?  It leads to a scramble in the world.  It will lead to wars all over the world…

‘The coloured races of the world have been pacifist, they had nothing to defend themselves with, and we march in.  And while I am the last man in the world to decry Christianity, or any other faith, we have had it for 2,000 years, and you may just as well take Christianity as being ineffective on that ground as the policy we are advocating now…

‘We came finally to this conclusion… , that the 19th century empires cannot last.  The world with modern developments cannot remain static.  What are we, then, to do?  In Socialism & Peace we pursued two lines…  First, wherever we could get peoples and territory and could give self-government we would give it.  Secondly, where it was possible we would move this empire principle over to world organisation to supersede the old empire concept…  we cannot bottle nations up and then expect them to remain peaceful.’


The block votes of the unions could carry the day at Labour Party Conferences, but the activity of the Party was, in large part, carried on by people who did not agree with Bevin and his colleagues.  Bevin frequently repeated  what he said at the 1935 Party Conference: ‘I want to say to our friends who have joined us in this political movement, that our predecessors formed this Party.  It was not Keir Hardie who formed it, it grew out of the bowels of the TUC.’  But, while the TUC could always take the horse to water, the horse could always refuse to do more than dip its mouth in.  The unions leaders, therefore, developed policy apart from the Labour Party.  Bevin’s union Executive always discussed world affairs as well as union business, and Bevin always wrote a political commentary for the TGWU paper, The Record.  Historians tell us about eh foreign policy of the Cliveden Set and the foreign policy of Churchill, but hey mostly overlook the foreign policy of the Transport Union.  And yet there can be no doubt that Bevin exerted greater influence on the course of events than the little group of megalomaniac gentlemen who met at Cliveden on weekends.


Bevin knew that because of what he represented he was one of the great powers in the land.  On joining the Churchill government in May 1940, he called a meeting of all the trade union executives in the country and come to an agreement with them as to how the war economy was to be run.  Then, knowing where the power lay, he advised them: ‘I don’t want you to get too worried about every individual that may be in the Government.  We could not stop to have an election…  But this I am convinced of: if our Movement and our class rise with all their energy now and save the people of this country from disaster, the country will always turn with confidence to the people who saved them.  They will pay more attention to an act of that kind than to the theoretical arguments or any particular philosophy.’ (quoted in Life and Times of Ernest Bevin by Alan Bullock, Vol 2, p. 20)

Individuals in Government are unequal either because of what they represent or of what they are.  Bevin was the most powerful Minister in the Cabinet because of what he represented combined with his personal qualities.  His most persistent enemy in the Cabinet was Churchill’s favourite, Lord Beaverbrook.  Beaverbrook imagined himself to be very powerful because of his newspapers and his influence with Churchill.  But Bevin seems to have ignored him as a minor irritant until provoked into swatting him.  And when Beaverbrook forced a showdown there wasn’t a moment’s doubt about who would have to leave the Cabinet.

Bevin organised the home front on the basis of what he called ‘voluntaryism’.   There were demands for labour conscription as a counterpart to military conscription, and some very good arguments were put up for it, but Bevin stuck by his voluntayism.  He held that the working class was capable of doing voluntarily what was necessary to organise production for the war, and labour conscription would cause such resentment that it would prove to be economically inefficient.  And when it was found necessary to introduce a small amount of conscription later in the war, in the mines, he insisted that it should not be applied especially to miners, or even to workers.  Everybody of the appropriate age should be liable for labour conscription as for military conscription.

Bevin explained his approach in the Commons on November 27, 1940.  Shinwell (an oppositionist throughout the war like Bevan and Sydney Silverman), had criticised the voluntary system as follows: ‘Let us consider the relative position of both sides in this gigantic conflict.  Consider the enemy’s extensive preparations over a period of five or six years, their vast territory, the loot they gained at Dunkirk and elsewhere, their productive capacity, their organisation, their efficient methods, their control, and more particularly, their readiness to resort to compulsion…  The dice are heavily loaded against us’.  Skilled workers move around as if there were no war.  ‘The Government, in short are reluctant to use their powers.  There are too many appeals, too many polite requests… How can we divert labour to assist the war effort, unless a plan is ready?  … Surely, if the voluntary system in connection with training has failed, it ought to be replaced by a measure of compulsion…’

Bevin:  When I took office and these powers were granted—I did not expect them when I took office—I had to consider immediately how and in what way should the Department be handled in dealing with manpower.  Whatever may be my other weaknesses, I think I can claim to understand the working classes of this country.  I had to determine whether I would be a leader or a dictator.  I preferred, and still  prefer to be a leader, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham Harbour (Mr Shinwell) had taken office, having regard to the speech he made this morning, I assume that he would have taken the other road, that of being a dictator.  That is a test which we must apply as to which is likely to produce the best results.

‘I suggest that there is no comparison between service in the Army and service in industry (Hon. Members: ‘Why?’) I will tell you why.  IN the Army you have a personnel trained as officers.  In industry you have never built up or established anything comparable int the nature of management or control.  Is it suggested that the officers of industry should be taken willy-nilly from the directors’ boards?  I suggest that the very incompetence which has been described today is more attributable to the tradition policy of directorates than to anything else.  Therefore, if you had to improvise an Army as you had to improvise the mobilisation of man-power in industry, with men of the same calibre in control without training, I suggest you would have a most unfortunate Army… Had we proceeded  to apply conscription of labour in the manner indicated, I suggest we should have made direct for defeat.’

When universal franchise first began to be discussed as a serious possibility in the late 18th century, there were people who considered themselves to be radical democrats who could not see how a franchise divorced from property could have a progressive political effect.  They could not see how people who laced a stake in society could be guided in their political behaviour by a stable interest: universal franchise would bring a mob to power, and because a mob can exercise power only destructively and momentarily it would result in the establishment dictatorship.

This is not simply a problem that was concocted by reactionaries in defence of privilege, though most of those who call themselves historical materialists nowadays treat it as if it were.  Bevin didn’t wear his historical materialism on his sleeve, but his political behaviour was firmly grounded in it.  At a TGWU delegate conference in August 1941 he commented as follows on the problem of representative democracy and the proletariat: ‘… a civilisation cannot survive if it rests upon a propertyless proletariat.  That is why I have urged  that if our country is not big enough to solve our problems by means of the land, like the peasant countries can, you have got to find a substitute, and the substitute is he vested interest of social security within your own state in which all shall participate.’  (quoted in Bullock, Vol 2, p.77). And, speaking to Dockers’ representatives in February 1942: ‘You have all got your books of rules, you have all got your past customs and practices, and I propose to register them en bloc…; and when the time comes for us to restore them they can be put back without question.  I said in the House of Commons the other day that those things are property rights.  It has taken years to get them—I have spent a few years getting them myself…’ (Ibid, p. 208).

And so workers and capitalists, allies in the war, each gave up certain property rights for the duration of the war.  It was a conception of things which enabled Bevin to act purposefully in the working class interest while his socialist opponents phrasemongered.  And the assumption of an equality of rights for the two classes in every sphere, which he established as a real principle of government, was a very great improvement in the status of the working class.


Aneurin Bevan opposed the Coalition, especially during the second half of the war.  He shared in the general conviction of the Labour left that the bourgeoisie were diabolically clever, and that Labour Ministers, especially from trade union backgrounds, were bound either to be fooled or to change sides.  He never suspected that Bevin had thought more deeply about working class affairs than himself, that he was a more imaginative politician than himself, or that he had a more original mind.

On May 20th, 1943, Bevan said in the Commons: ‘We must say to the Labour Members of the Government, ‘You must bring Government policy more into accord with our point of view, or the Government must be broken up’.  I am satisfied that a Labour Opposition would serve the interest of the nation far better than for Labour Ministers to be hostages.  We would get far more, and the people of this country would have their grievances more immediately redressed.  The political atmosphere would be much more healthy…’

Bevan began to see in Bevin’s voluntaryism the substance of the corporate state.  Bevin was more interested in making arrangements than in making laws.  While he secured the abolition of a number of anti-working class laws, (the household means test, for example), he saw arrangements made outside Parliament as being more relevant to the war effort than laws passed by Parliament.  He did not cease to be a trade unio negotiator when he became Minister of Labour, and he supervised the making of arrangements between unions and employers which considered to be very much in the long term interest of the unions as well as of immediate service to the war effort.  Emergency legislation was passed, giving him extensive formal powers, but he never governed by means of it.

The Bevan-Bevin dispute came to a head in April 1944 after Bevin had headed off a miners’ strike and the Emergency legislation for dealing with strikes was renewed.  Bevin ahd dealt with eht substance of the matter outside Parliament before reporting on it to Parliament.  A Regulation was enacted giving him power to imprison for inctrement to strike.  A number of Trotskyists were arrested.  And trade union representatives were largely exempted from the emergency legislation.

April 28, 1944

Bevan: ‘I have protested, on more than one occasion, about the Government going behind the back of Parliament, and reaching understandings with ouside bodies, and then presenting Parliament with a fait accompli.’  Bevan quoted the Daily Express to the effect that Bevin had gone to the TUC and ‘thought aloud’ about what should be done, and commented: ‘He did not consider it necessary to think aloud for us’.  He also suggested that VEvin was fixing press comment on his dealings.

‘I say that this Regulation is the enfranchisement of the corporate society and the disfranchisement of the individual. It gives status to the organised body, and destroys the status of the individual citizens. It elevates the irresponsible trade union official—and I use the word, “irresponsible,” in the constitutional sense of the term, because a trade union official is irresponsible; he is not subject to election, as we are; he is not exposed to pressure, as we are. George Bernard Shaw said, in “The Apple Cart,” that the person in this country who is in the most strongly entrenched position, next to the King, is the trade union official. Between 7,000,000 and 8,000,000 organised workers and trade union officials are protected under this Regulation, but 13,000,000 unorganised workers have no protection at all.’

I want to ask my trade union friends this question: If Parliament says to the citizen. “Here is your trade union, we are satisfied that it gives you all the protection you need, and if you try to settle grievances in any other way, we will send you to prison for five years,” is not Parliament, therefore, under an obligation to see that the facilities of union are made available to every member of a union? In other words, ought not Parliament to consider all the rules of the unions? The unions are self-governing bodies. Some of them, including the Minister’s own organisation, appoint their organisers from the top.

…  Does the Trades Union Congress want all the rules of every union in the country to be submitted to Parliament and be revised? Of course not; they dare not. Will they have secret ballots? Will they re-organise them all? That is what they should do if this law remains. We should insist on the re-consideration of all union rules before we dare hand over the citizens to the protection of these unions.’

McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston), Independent Labour Party:

 If a member of the Independent Labour Party dares even to support some justifiable action now in order to remedy a grievance, Communists do not call us “yellow” but “Fascist.” We are opposed to the war, but we have never engaged in any form of sabotage in industry, nor have we encouraged it.

I am completely opposed to the war … because I believe it is a purely capitalist war…When anybody says to me “Hitler would not allow you to say that; if you did, you would be in a concentration camp,” I know that they think that I should be in a concentration camp; otherwise they would not say it.’

In Berlin before the war he had been shown a flourishing factory operating under Dr. Ley’s corporate system with the same workforce as before the Nazis cam to power, except for thet removal of a few Communists: ‘Under the system of the Dr. Ley trade unions, the corporate State has grown, and the workers have developed into a corporation. We arc developing along the same lines, without the brutality of the German system.

We are evolving from these sections, the T.U.C., the employers, and the Government, a corporate body, which is going to wield power, and Parliament is going to be subservient to it. That is the greatest danger about these Regulations, not the fact that somebody may get a year’s or six months’ imprisonment for advocating strikes, but the development and the evolution of the corporate State. The British ruling classes have always been very keen on putting across anything of a reactionary character in a completely different way from the way it has been put over on the Continent. The Germans failed completely because of the brutality they used. They put forward a system which would have extended throughout the world, but it was put forward in such a brutal and arrogant manner that it will be their own undoing. I see this not as an isolated case, but as a development of the corporate State, which is not for the good of the people of this country.’


‘I think that I have really no need as an individual to defend myself even before trade unionists…

 I believe that I still enjoy their confidence as much as ever I did, in spite of my present task, and, sooner or later, I will take steps to ascertain whether I do or not. I think that only fair, in view of the charges thrown at anyone holding the job I now hold. It is not an easy one. Making catch phrases is an easier job than directing 24,000,000 people in a war of this character. It was said in the opening speech that I worked up the Press, that I got hold of all the editors, and that I put everything in such a form that I could create the atmosphere for this Regulation. I do not know whether it is Parliamentary, Mr. Speaker, to say so, but that is a lie…’

Mr Bevan 

‘In the first place it is quite un-Parliamentary, and in the second place I said no such thing. All I did was to quote Mr. Garvin from the “Sunday Express” to the effect that the atmosphere had been prepared for the Regulation…’


I am open to withdraw any word that is un-Parliamentary, but unless I am told by Mr. Speaker to withdraw I want it to go on the record that the whole conception was a lie.

Mr. Speaker 

… I fear that the word used was not quite a Parliamentary expression. “It is not a fact” would be better.


I withdraw the word…  During the three weeks prior to that speech to which reference has been made we had been living on an industrial volcano. We made no speech in public at 1121all, in the hope and in the belief that we could ride the industrial storm, as we had ridden so many during this war. On that week-end, the situation had reached a point where we were in danger of stoppages occurring—stoppages resulting from strikes—which would have stopped the production of nearly 3,000,000 people in this country in gas, shipbuilding, engineering and coal…
It happened that I was invited to a lunch. What for? It was a conciliation board, both sides of which had entered into an agreement for post-war; and what was the agreement they were celebrating? To give a guaranteed week in the civil engineering trade, post-war, and to provide for the payment of men for “wet time”…By this ridiculed machinery of conciliation, which I am proud to have played my part in developing in this country—I did not originate it, it was long before my time, but I tried to perfect it—they had arrived at that result, and I am glad of it. I went to that lunch. Instead of the Press being on my side, what did they do? They took care to take a photograph of me with a wine glass in front of me. It was not even mine, and it only had water in it. If my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale had been there, he would have made a speech of protest…They took the photograph, and as I was trying to address the working class on their misbehaviour, the Press—which is all in my favour, we are now told, published that photograph, in order to produce disrepute…

In 1940, when the country did not look quite as safe as it does now, I called every executive of every trade union in this country into conference, to meet me in the Central Hall. I asked them at that meeting, in the same way as I have asked them now—and when the first Regulation was made there was no protest from the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale against consulting the T.U.C.; things were more dangerous then, and silence reigned over a great part of the country that is now vociferous—if they would forgo strikes, and if, in substitution for the strike, they would accept arbitration for the duration of the war. They agreed…  I do not believe that the working classes of this country have lost by that decision.

Every member that sits on my executive, and there are 32 of them, comes straight from the workshop. No official in my union has a vote on a single committee…. It is true that they are appointed as officials; and have they not a right to be? They are employees, and I believe in the employees being in the same position as the Civil Service, and the government of the union being in the hands of the rank and file, through the elected committee. That is what we have always done. These men were not officials, but men from the workshops, the factories, and the fields.

Mr. Silverman 

The right hon. Gentleman has not prosecuted anyone who went on strike.

Mr. Bevin 

I have been careful about prosecution…  Is it now to be held against me that I have not gone round using the big stick and prosecuting people? What do my hon. Friends want? I have tried to administer this law with common sense, and a knowledge of the working class…


Part 2 is here