Centenary _ Part 2

Bevin Part 2 

He was at his ease in the use of power, and since he had never been simply a trade union organiser, but had over a long period thought realistically about possible state policy, he had no difficulty in making the transition from being head of trade union to being head of a Department of State.

The corporate state 

Aneurin Bevan’s vicious attacks on Bevin during the war were based on the assumption that Bevin must necessarily sell out. The wisdom of the ideological left says Labour governments are likely to sell out and that Labour politicians in coalition governments inevitably sell out. The business of the left, then, is to expose the sell out and to prevent itself from selling out by keeping itself in opposition. 

This was the framework of assumptions in which Bevan accused Bevin of laying the basis of fascism, of the corporate state in Britain in 1944. 

The fact that in this particular instance their assumption proved to be unfounded is regarded as an inexplicable accident which does not invalidate the general assumption. The fact that Bevin did not live up to Bevan’s expectations is an embarrassing but insignificant detail. Bevin’s failure to sell out was some kind of Machiavellian trick which it is safer not to think about too much. 

Foot, in his biography of Bevan, glosses over the episode of the corporate state.  He writes that ‘Bevan delivered one of the most devastating speeches of his life.’ (Vol.1, p451).  But he chooses to say nothing about the corporate state allegation.  It is lost in a long quote from Bevan’s speech, and one is left to understand that it meant nothing in particular.  But it meant something.  If it was seriously intended it meant, in April 1944, that the war wasn’t worth fighting because fascism was being built at home; that, unless Bevin was overthrown, the issue between Britain and Germany was merely one of which fascist state should be dominant in Western Europe.  And if it was not seriously intended, it branded the speaker as a man whose words are valueless.

Bevin was accustomed to exercising power in the class struggle, and to making particular deals on the basis of power relationships.  He had not, since he first began to organise trade unions, had any experience of activity in which he did not represent some degree of actual power.  The power which he represented had increased steadily over thirty years.  He was at his ease in the user of power, and since he had never been simply a trade union organiser, but had over a long period thought realistically about possible state policy, he had no difficulty in making the transition from being head of trade union to being head of a Department of State.  Because he used power effectively, and had an aptitude for devising ways and means, power gravitated towards his Department until became the most powerful in the government,  He entered the government before he entered Parliament, and while he picked up enough crude Parliamentary procedure to be able to operate in Parliament as effectively as he had operated in the TUC, he had not interest in elaborate Parliamentary games.

Bevan, on the other hand, was accustomed to playing eh class struggle as a Parliamentary game.  He had become skilled at making an impression on Parliament even though he exercised no power.  All the power lay on the other side.  Bevan had only his eloquence and his nimbleness in using Parliamentary procedure.  He succeeded, as a powerless orator, in cutting a dash in Parliament, and was frequently complimented on his Parliamentary abilities by his class enemies.  He also went down well with the press.  Furthermore, he was a lover of the good life.  He was in many ways a displaced person, and he was acutely aware of temptations to which Bevin was simply immune.

The wartime coalition was essentially Churchill and Bevin. If Attlee or Morrison had been taken away from it nothing much would have changed.  but it is impossible to say how it would have developed if Bevin had been taken away from it. Bevan’s instincts about most of his parliamentary Labour Party colleagues where probably sound enough. They were, like himself, accustomed to failure and unaccustomed to power, and they were inclined to phrasemonger rather than to think. 

Once the immediate emergency of 1940-41 was over , Bevan saw only the dangers of the coalition and the prospects of another 1918. Bevin, on the other hand, saw the wartime coalition as an opportunity. He knew that Labour would do well out of the coalition this time. His confidence caused all of Bevan’s fears to concentrate on him. And he responded by regarding Bevan as a historical intellectual who was unable to cope with the world. 

Bevan’s ‘corporate state’  allegation against Bevin was a serious political opinion, and so far as Bevan was capable of holding a serious political opinion. It was seriously intended at the moment when it was made, but was easily dropped later. Bevan was used to flipping about between ideas. He did not expect his ideas to have any long term viability. But Foot made himself a falsifier of history by his treatment of the episode. (And Foot does not even mention the more considered support given to the allegation by Bevan’s colleagues McGovern—McGovern’s name does not even appear in the book—and Maxton.)

‘Corporate society’ was a fascist idea. In actual practice what it involved was the making of arrangements, under the supervision of dictatorial states, between emasculated trade unions and employers’ organisations.  To apply it to arrangements made between independent and powerful trade unions and employers’ organisations is to trivialise the idea of fascism, and to obscure the difference between it and representative democracy.  (Britain was, even in wartime, a representative democracy. The emergency legislation did not abrogate democracy. And if it was suspected that the government intended to continue the emergency measures after the war in an effort to restrict democracy, the way to prevent such a thing being done was not to denounce it at the moment when it was still generally regarded as having wartime validity. In April 1944 the Allies had not yet landed in France and the Germans were still in Russia. )

Bevin had given ample proof by his conduct of affairs that he was not constructing a corporate state, and had no intention of doing so. And it must be said that he knew what the corporate state was much better than Bevan did. He took international trade union connexions very seriously, and he experienced the establishment of fascism in Austria and Germany as the suppression of a movement of which he was part in a much more concrete way than the ideological left.

On July 22nd, 1942, he spoke in parliament about some of the difficulties involved in establishing industries from scratch in areas where none had previously existed, and where various social amenities required by industry did not exist. From Dunkirk until 1942 the prospect of winning the war seemed remote. Immediate defeat was a constant possibility. The construction of new industries in such an atmosphere provided the ideal opportunity for planting some seeds of the corporate state with the blessing of most of the Labour left. Bevin was very careful not to plant any. Here is one of the seeds he refused to plant:

We felt as a government that one of the first things we had to do was to assume greater responsibility for the welfare of the workers, not merely inside but outside the factory. We did, however, lay down a principle which has worked extremely well. I emphasised to employers and trade unions at the time the need to remember that the worker inside the factory is a different person from the worker outside the factory; that we must not have a kind of industrial feudalism growing up in war, under which firms would take the responsibility of looking after their people even when they left the factories. A person will accept discipline inside the factory, but immediately he is outside the door he becomes a free citizen.’   (July 22nd, 1942)  

Bevan forced a division over regulation IAA and gained 23 votes against the corporate state. These included the Scottish ILP group which opposed the war (Maxton, McGovern, Kirkwood, Stephen etc), Gallacher of the CPGB , D.N. Pritt, a fellow traveller of the CP, and his own little group (including George Strauss, Tom Driberg and Sydney Silverman). The ‘corporate state’ was approved by a massive Parliamentary majority. 

Nor did Bevan’s warnings rouse the country to the danger of fascism from within. The affair made a very bad impression on all sides. The trade unions demanded his expulsion from the party. The national executive proposed a compromise,  requiring him to sign an undertaking to abide by the Standing Orders of the Parliamentary Party.

Bevan himself, at packed meetings in his constituency, said that if he were expelled he would still fight to retain the Ebbw Vale seat for Socialism. He challenged Bevin to hold a ballot vote in the unions on the issue of the Regulation itself, and declared that the real quarrel went much deeper; it touched the whole question of the post war aspirations of Socialism.  ‘Had the Labour leaders fought the Germans as hard as they fought me, he added, the war would have been over long ago.’ (Foot. p. 458).  

To sign or not to sign: it was a wretched choice. He believed that the principles he had initiated about the rights of MPs against the party meeting went to the roots of parliamentary government…   Of course Bevan was never opposed to the institution of the party… but who was to bestow the party label? Was it to be done by a central caucus or by the management committees which selected candidates? If the answer was the first there was a real danger of creeping totalitarianism; if the second, democratic vigour could be recaptured. ‘Either we restore the healthy vigour of Parliament with independence, discussion and criticism, he wrote, or we submit to corporate rule of big business and collaborationist Labour leaders…  It is because I believe that there are elements in the party who wish to continue association with the Tories when the war is over that I refuse to allow myself to be manoeuvred out of the party and thus leave them with a clear field in which to accomplish the ruin of the Labour movement. (Foot. p. 460-61)

So Bevan signed, remained in the party, and became a Minister the following year. But it cannot be said but his antics over the corporate state contributed in anyway to the massive Labour victory the following year, or prevented the collaborationist Labour leaders from collaborating after the war, or caused Ernest Bevin to do anything other than what Bevin intended to do. 

The immediate outcome of the incident from Bevin’s point of view was to put down the Bevanite nuisance. It marked a decline rather than an upsurge in Bevanite capacity to harass. Bevan overreached himself, blustered a bit to save face, and came to heel. 

During the year prior to this Bevan and his colleagues had been developing into something resembling an opposition, and their support in the party was at its greatest. Bevin declared that if they won the party to their policy, and pulled out of the Coalition, he intended to remain in the government representing the trade unions, and doing what they put him there to do. But it didn’t come to that. Bevan miscalculated his offensive—and Bevanism went up in smoke and was never heard of again until Bevin was dead. The ‘most devastating speech’ only devastated himself.

The outlook implicit and sometimes explicit in the opposition to Bevin was doctrinaire individualistic Liberalism of the kind that is found on the fringe of 19th century Liberalism, or in the Hayek – von Mises ideology that was produced in the 30s and that gained a base in the Tory party in 1974. To accord any special status to organised bodies between the individual citizen and the state was tantamount to fascism: so said Bevan in a speech already quoted. Sidney Silverman was also vehemently opposed to according special rights to trade unions. Neil Mclean (Glasgow : Govan) declared that Bevin’s method of bringing in legislation, after having previously insured by consultation with the TUC that it would be effective, was ‘the beginning of fascism in this country’. G. Buchanan (Glasgow: Gorbals) declared fastidiously that Bevin ‘does not know parliamentary work’. (It is astonishing to observe how thoroughly these socialist radicals of the 1918 period had adapted to parliamentary ways, and how disapprovingly they regarded Bevin as a crude intruder from the outside world.)

A stark contrast with the finicky Parliamentarism of the Bevanites of April 1944 is made by a speech in support of Bevin delivered by J.E. Glenville (Consett) who had left the Durham coalfields a few months earlier to enter Parliament. This was his first speech in Parliament, and he made it clear that he would not have spoken at all if he had not been provoked beyond endurance by the Bevanite nonsense. He attacked Bevan for wanting to put down the trade union movement, and went on: 

Why should we be opposed to the Ministry of Labour and the Government arranging a satisfactory settlement in an attempt to solve these difficulties? Why should we be offended if the T.U.C. is consulted so that an agreement can be arrived at which will be satisfactory; because this measure, instead of weakening, will certainly strengthen the trade unions


The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale magnified in high falutin’ language the implications of this measure, but they exist purely in his imagination. This is a wartime measure and it finishes at the end of hostilities. If it is necessary that this House should collect the boys and conscript them to go and risk their lives, it is necessary to exercise severe control over the disrupters, who are preventing the 1114workers carrying on necessary jobs. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale asked what conditions our lads are coming back to. The lads will never come back, unless we see that they get the stuff.

I have been a life-long Socialist… I led pickets in the 1926 strike and I had seven summonses served on me in one day. I have never done any rhetorical flourishing…My record as a local trade union leader in Durham will bear examination… The record of the Minister of Labour will bear examination… Incidentally, when I heard the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale … appealing on behalf of 13 million poor non-unionists… I wondered what the people in South Wales, the miners who sent him here, would think about it. The poor non-unionists’ position is a perfectly simple one—join the unions.’


Foot comments as follows on Bevin’s reply to Bevan: ‘A speech from Ernest Bevin on a major occasion had all the horrific fascination of a public execution. If the mind was left immune, eyes and ears and emotions were riveted. Yet on this day he fumbled the axe. He called Bevan a liar and had to withdraw. He spoke vaguely on the industrial volcano… etc’ (p. 455) 

Foot’s literary style is a sort of ersatz Hazlitt— a mimicry of Hazlitt— Hazlitt reduced to cliches. Hazlitt was a lightweight writer, but his writing has that deftness of touch which is made possible only by some actual thought. What Foot writes is entirely devoid of thought content. The act of writing is in his case entirely disconnected from the act of thinking. The only ideas which he is capable of writing are ideas which don’t need to be thought— which cannot be thought about —which can only be repeated: Fleet Street ideas; Althusserian ideas.

What he says of Bevin’s speeches is a Fleet Street notion, and is wildly inaccurate. Bevin’s public executions were few and far between. Exaggerated invective against individuals , indulged in on the slightest excuse, was part and parcel of Bevan’s behaviour. He scattered his daggers like confetti, and people quickly became immune to them. But Bevin used the dagger very sparingly indeed. He only engaged in public disputes when they were unavoidable. 

When he felt obliged to engage in public disputes— against Lansbury and against Bevan, for example —it was always thought disputing against rhetoric. Foot says that he battered the senses and left the mind immune. In fact it was the mind that succumbed. What was unusual about Bevin was that he reached people through the intellect when their senses and emotions were predisposed against him. (Perhaps people who are accustomed to shouting, to using rhetorical devices, and to appealing to the emotions, feel when they are subjected to reasoned arguments , softly spoken, without rhetoric, that their whole being is being battered in an intolerable way. What is certain is that in a mere shouting match Bevin would have got nowhere against Foot.)

The opening of Bevin’s reply to Bevan and McGovern has already been quoted.  Here is an extract from the conclusion:

I have been a trade union official, but I did not know whether I had really been one or not when I listened to the description. This is a protection for the ordinary member in the branch. …

Somebody said that this was turning the trade union branch into a masonic lodge. I have never been in a masonic lodge, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) is a member of the Catholic faith, I do not know how he knows what it is like. 

I regard the trade union branch jealously as a place of assembly, where no one but those entitled to attend can be present. Whatever is said in that branch is as sacrosanct to me as what a man says in his own home and I am against detectives, police or anybody having the right to go into a branch and use anything that is said, however wise or however foolish, in a police court as evidence against a man. That is where I stand, and in that I try to protect them. I also take the view that what happens in the branch is the property of the union, and that the executive is responsible for discipline in its members and for what occurs in the branch. But if a man goes outside and does something then, while he is outside, he is not a member of the branch. You cannot have this privilege and prerogative of protection in the open street, or in the open air, which you give to persons in their own club by law. Therefore, I have tried to protect everything the trades unions have regarded as sacrosanct right from the Act of 1875 until now and not to minimise it by anything in this Regulation.

I have created no new privilege… I do not know why it has been magnified into the view that I am doing something extraordinary for the trade union official. 

I am not going to elaborate this too much, but I have fought more unofficial strikes than any other man in this country and won, and I have got the largest union in the world to-day, one of the most effective and one of the most efficient, whatever may be said. I know that some hon. Members would rather that the working-class went to hell through chaos, than that they won a victory by organisation. The I.L.P. is a grand example of that, one of the most wonderful organisations in this country brought to nothing by that philosophy…

Let those who would weaken the war effort by the defence of a few instigators, go their way, but let those who are proud of the fact that we have not been left in this country like the working-class of poor Austria, to fight alone and go down,  stand together. When Fascism and Naziism had to be really faced in England—and this is a justification of the National Government—we, at least, did not pick one class to face it as they did in poor Austria; we have stood as a nation against the vile thing. Let us stand united until it is defeated.’


Bevin had opposed the kind of united front advocated by Bevan and Cripps during the thirties. He achieved a quite different sort of united front. Bevan and Cripps eventually got themselves expelled from the Labour Party in 1938 for the way they went about getting a united front with the CPGB. They were in the wilderness when Bevin achieved his national united front with the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. 

Bevan looked upon a united front with the CP as something which would weaken the Labour Party and split the working class. Since the CP had failed to split the working class, there was no need to unite with it in order to unite the working class. To form a united front with it would be to credit it with having split the working class, and recognise it as being an immensely more influential force but it was: and that would facilitate the splitting of the working class. (And what would have happened in 1939, if there had been a united front, and the CP had spread tentacles throughout the Labour Party?) 

In countries where the working class was split, the united front policy did not prevent the rise of fascism (with the partial exception of France). The united front was scarcely ever more than a manoeuvre in a war between Social Democracy and Communism. The kind of united front that might have been effective in preventing the rise of fascism would also have called into question the justification of the split brought about by the Comintern in the years after 1918 .

The Comintern united front policy was designed more to bring about a civil war between the classes than to prevent the rise of fascism. But since fascism usually had a strong base in the working class wherever it was powerful, there is no good reason to suppose but the agreement between the Comintern and the Second International would have brought about an uncomplicated class war situation. 

What would put fascism out of the running would be some sort of national united front against it, whether formal or de facto. That is what was achieved by the Labour movement in Britain under Bevin’s leadership at first in a complicated and tentative de facto away, and later in the clearest possible political form. 

Such things don’t simply happen. They are brought about by a high degree of political understanding and practical political ability. If the Labour movement had been chiefly influenced by Lansbury’s kind of radicalism, or by Bevan’s, it is probable that something quite different would have happened, something much less advantageous to working class development .

In any case, the fact is that Bevan’s policies were consistently defeated by Bevin, and the situation in which Bevan became a very effective Minister was brought about by Bevinite policies .

Bevan held a sort of betwixt and between position on the war, fluctuating between the government and the Scottish ILP opposition to it. On August 24 , 1939, a bill conferring emergency powers on the Chamberlain government was passed. It was generally understood as authorising it to declare war. It was opposed by Lansbury, Maxton, McGovern, Stephen, and by Gallacher of the CPGB. Shinwell and Silverman seem to have abstained. Bevan voted with Chamberlain. 

On September 3, 1939, Lansbury and McGovern opposed the declaration of war. McGovern: 

‘…there are two things that are outstanding at this moment. One is that, after all the false propaganda … that if you were to stand up to Hitler it meant peace, standing up to Hitler has ensured war, and believing that… we have stated all along that as threats would end in war, we would not indulge in idle threats.

The other thing in my estimation which has driven mankind along the path of war has been the defection of Russia…

I look for a world of peace wherein Hitlerism can be eliminated, but the people who can pull Hitler down are the people in Germany…  I cannot support this country in this catastrophe. I do not regard it as being idealistic. I do not regard it as being for freedom, justice and human rights… I regard it on both sides … as a hard, soulless, grinding materialist struggle for human gain.’

On May 13, 1940, a motion welcoming the formation of the Coalition government was opposed by Maxton: ‘because it conflicts with every political belief that I have ever held’.  He ridiculed the ‘belief that by changing a few men round about, something new and strange may happen… The years from 1918 to 1939, … the wasted years, were, in my view largely due to the fact that the then existent parties coalesced and merged their principles, and then, at the conclusion of hostilities, there were left all sorts of individual rancours sapping all party principles, and there was no Government in this country that could face the creation of a new Europe…  It does not require any great courage to attack the late Prime Minister. He was in an awkward spot and the jackals gathered around. It was their night to howl, and they howled, and now we have a new Government—a Government of all the talents—

The function of a political working-class movement is to mobilise that anti-war opinion throughout the world and make it effective in the affairs of humanity. [Interruption.] I could make, if I were sitting there, all these cheap, irrelevant interruptions as well as anybody else, and I regret to say that I have frequently done it, but the fact remains that shouting about Hitler will not kill a single German.’


Bevan must have agreed with Maxton about the dangers inherent in a Coalition, but he abstained on the vote, along with Shinwell and Silverman.

On May 21, 1940 Maxton requested that his group should be accorded the status of official Opposition.  The Speaker ruled against recognising any Opposition.  Maxton replied:

‘If as you say, Mr. Speaker, the Opposition is to be abolished, then we are on the Reichstag level at once.’

He was supported by Gallacher:

‘I ask whether it is not the case that there is in this House at the present time an Opposition to this Government and to the policy of this Government? If that Opposition is to be allowed to grow in order that it may have an opportunity to change this Government and to replace it by a Government which will extricate the people from the tragedy now in front of them, is it not the case that that Opposition must be recognised?’

Bevan supported the Speaker’s ruling:

‘Would it not be a real disaster if, at this time, there was any attempt to define a formal Opposition in this House? Let the Opposition disclose itself in the course of the conduct of the proceedings in this House, before you, Mr. Speaker, are asked to define that Opposition. It would be a disaster … if three or four people were defined now as the Opposition, when real opposition to the Government might in the course of the next few months disclose itself?’


What this amounts to is that Bevan, who did not feel he could oppose the coalition at that juncture, did not want the position of Leader of the Opposition to be taken up by Maxton because he anticipated that it was a position that he would be able to fill before very long. But the opposition developed by Bevan in later years was little more than disorientated dithering. The 23 votes which he got together in 1944 included the opposition which he opposed in 1940. Bevanism lacked the principled coherence of the ILP position and was incapable of development. In 1943, when he was apparently at loggerheads with the government, Bevan went on a secret mission to Dublin to try to get bases from De Valera. 


Part 3 can be read here

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