The Bevin Society had its origin in Irish politics in the late 1960s.
The Irish Communist Organisation established a branch in Britain in order to take account of the overall reality of state affairs. Part of Ireland remained within the British state, and the Irish Republic remained in many ways subject to British hegemony. The Irish Communist Organisation then became the British and Irish Communist Organisation. The B&ICO functioned in three jurisdictions: the Irish Republic, the semi-detached region of the British state called Northern Ireland, and Great Britain. The official Communist movement covered the same ground with three separate parties, none of which could respond adequately to the interconnected political and economic realities of the overall situation.
This understanding of the matter was confirmed as being in accordance with reality when, within a couple of years of the formation of the B&ICO, war broke out in the Northern Ireland intersection between the Irish Republic and Britain.
Histories of Ireland were produced as a matter of course in Britain, by the Communist Party as well as by the bourgeois culture. There were no Irish histories of Britain. BICO saw this as a very great weakness in Irish national culture and set about remedying it. It was this that led it to Ernest Bevin and the renaming of its British branch as the Bevin Society.
Capitalism as a comprehensive social stratum was founded in Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a construct of Britain as an Empire. The last impediment to its unrestricted development was removed by the 1832 Reform Act, which inaugurated the laissez-faire era, the era of Manchester Capitalism. But an effective working class party did not emerge until the 1918 election.
There were protest movements of various kinds in the course of the 19th century, some of them very powerful, but they all subsided, leaving no organised working class structures in place. And, insofar as there was a continuous working class presence in national party politics, it was under the wing of the Liberal Party in the name of “progress”. The Liberal Party was the party of laissez-faire capitalism, and the ideology of Progress was intimately connected with Imperialism. The central progressive event of the 19th century was the Corn Law Repeal of 1848. What this meant was that the working masses in Britain could be supplied with relatively cheap food from the resources of the Empire.
Ireland was the first supplier of cheap food to the British market. The expansion of the military and industrial power of the Empire drew ever-increasing parts of the world into the business of feeding Britain cheaply, thereby stabilising it internally, and further increasing its world power.
The fact of British dependence for its prosperity on Imperialist exploitation of subjugated countries made itself increasingly felt in British social life. It came to be understood that the standard of living of the working class, such as it was, depended on the Empire, and this led to the growth of Imperialism as a popular ideology. On this basis the ruling circles concluded that democratisation of the Parliamentary franchise could safely be introduced.
One of the great socialist writers of the late 19th century was Robert Blatchford. He wrote a very popular book called Merrie England, published a newspaper, The Clarion, and organised Clarion Clubs for leisure activities. Then it struck him forcibly that there was no escape from the horrors of 19th century capitalism backwards into pre-capitalist England. Working class living standards had come to depend on Imperialist exploitation of the world, and the Empire depended on dominance of the world by the Royal Navy. Blatchford then began to campaign for an even stronger Navy.
When Britain made war on Germany in 1914 in order to reinforce its world dominance against the possibility of a potential German challenge to it, the working classes volunteered in great numbers for the fight. Various ideals and slogans were put up as the purpose of the War, but a lurking awareness of a strong material interest in maintaining Imperial naval dominance was probably the driving force.
Lenin described the organised British working class as having become a labour aristocracy living on Imperialist exploitation. It is an accurate description.
The War led to the introduction of compulsory military service in Britain for the first time, and with it the democratisation of the Parliamentary franchise by the Reform Act of 1918, which tripled the electorate. In Russia it led to socialist revolution and the construction of a socialist, non-market, economy by a Communist state.
The War, as fought by Britain, was unlimited in character. It had no declared objective. It was vehemently denied that its purpose was conquest. It was fought in the spirit of a moral crusade, a religious war that was without any actual religious content.
The Protestant religious movement, that had struck roots deep into English society over three centuries, was dying. Blatchford had been to the fore in killing it off in the socialist movement in popular pamphlets published around 1900. But echoes of it remained and these were amplified by the War propaganda evoking a Biblicalist state of mind that was without foundation in actual belief, and hazy visions of a return to Paradise when the War was won. Blake’s Jerusalem was made into a hymn mid-way through the War, giving popular expression to this delusion.
Cynicism blended with the overtones of Christian belief characterised the British mind in the making of the post-War settlement, which Britain dominated. That settlement undermined European political culture and was profoundly unsettling in Britain itself.
There had been disagreements within the socialist movement at the start of the War. Elements in the Independent Labour Party declared opposition to the War, but their influence was negligible. The mass of the workers became enthusiastic warmongers. Bevin decided not to engage in argument about the War and to concentrate on building up Trade Union organisation in the course of it. He was a Baptist by family background, and it seems that, as he became effective in Trade Union organising, he just let religion be.
In the post-War era he consistently built up Trade Union power, independently of socialist ideology—which he saw as being the idiosyncrasy of intellectuals. He did not see it as being his business to easy up on Trade Union struggle when there was a Labour Government in 1924.
He took part in organising the General strike in 1926, and in calling it off in an orderly manner when he saw it could not succeed, and he regarded the whole event as having been a net gain for working class organisation.
He disagreed strongly with both the Communist Party and the socialist intellectuals like Ramsay MacDonald who undertook to lead the working class, insisting that the British working class was incapable of being led. It could only go anywhere by making its own way there.
With regard to the Russian Revolution he insisted that it should be let work itself out without interference, and he took part in action to prevent the shipment of arms to the counter-revolution. He also insisted that what was being attempted in Russian society, which was substantially pre-capitalist, could not be done in the intricate capitalist society in Britain.
After the General Strike he felt his way towards negotiating deals with capitalists beyond normal Trade Union action. This was something that might be called “corporatist”, but it differed from fascist corporatism in that the workers took part in it as an independent force.
In 1940, as the representative of flexible Trade Union power, he became Minister for Labour in Churchill’s Government, though he was not in Parliament. When he entered Parliament he was out of tune with the Labour socialists.
He extended the Ministry of Labour to become the effective domestic Government, and it laid the foundations on which the Welfare State was established after 1945.
He expected to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945, but Attlee diverted him into the Foreign Office—leaving domestic reform in the hands of the Parliamentary socialist Aneurin Bevan with whom he had been in profound disagreement during the War.
From that point on, actual working class power in the conduct of State affairs went into decline.
In the Foreign Office all there was to do was hold onto as much of the Empire as possible (which involved launching a dirty war in Malaya); adapt to American predominance; and take part in establishing NATO against the Warsaw Pact in the formal division of the world on the line of the meeting point of the Russian and American armies in 1945.
When we were searching for an orientation in British politics in the late 1960s, Bevin’s career up to 1945 stood out as the high point in working class power.
Overthrow of Capitalism by Revolution was no more practicable than it had been in the 1920s. Bevin’s strategy of remaking the system from the inside by the purposeful harnessing of working class power seemed to be the only way.
Then in the 1970s Harold Wilson set up the Commission on Workers’ Control, chaired by Alan Bullock, who had published an exhaustive account of Bevin’s activities, and we threw ourselves into supporting the Bullock Proposals—which were defeated by the doctrinaire Socialists, both Communist and Parliamentary.
We did not see NATO as a problem. The world was actually divided on the lines set by the World War. NATO presented itself as a defensive organisation.
In 1990 the Soviet system collapsed, but NATO remained in being and became an aggressive Western capitalist organisation. The Socialists who had opposed the original NATO supported the new NATO. The Bevin Society went in the other direction.