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'The perspective of tomorrow'—Ralph Miliband on 'The Sickness of Labourism' in 1960

Ralph Miliband15 September 2015

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"Jeremy Corbyn's victory means Labour's living dead have been vanquished—and English politics has come to life again". Tariq Ali, writing for the Independent, expresses much of the energy surrounding Jeremy Corbyn's storming entrance to become the next leader of the Labour Party.

In 1960, 
Ralph Miliband, writing for the very first issue of New Left Review, is far more sober about the Labour Party's past, present and future and the battle for socialism. To mark Corbyn's landslide election victory and the promised repositioning of the Labour Party, the Verso blog is publishing 'The Sickness of Labourism' from behind the New Left Review paywall. 

“It is a very difficult country to move, Mr. Hynband, a very difficult country indeed, and one in which there is more disappointment to be looked for than success.” 
Disraeli, 1881.

The last General Election has had at least one beneficial result: it has shocked many more people into a recognition of the fact that the Labour Party is a sick party. And it has also helped many more people within it to realise that the sickness is not a surface ailment, a temporary indisposition, but a deep organic disorder, of which repeated electoral defeats are not the cause but the symptom. What this means is that the sickness would have been as serious if Labour had won the last election. Victory at the polls, given Labour’s recent history, policies and leadership, would only have delayed the crisis, for a while, and given the Labour Party an altogether deceptive appearance of health. This is why a proper diagnosis must take electoral defeat into account, but only as one element of Labour’s condition.

One common diagnosis is that which identifies Labour’s sickness as that of ambiguity. This, it is worth remembering, is a very old story. “The Labour Party”, R. H. Tawney was writing in 1932, “is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants.” Much the same has been said periodically about the Labour Party from the earliest days of its existence, and it could easily be argued that it fits the present situation equally well.

In one sense, it certainly does. But in another, and no less important sense, such a diagnosis misses some important changes which have occurred in the Labour Party in recent years. For, if it is true that the Labour Party itself suffers from ambiguity, its leadership, and particularly its Leader, do not. At the risk of seeming to trivialise great issues, it is therefore with the leadership that one must begin.

Moving tributes have been paid to Mr. Gaitskell’s vigour and forcefulness during the last election campaign. And indeed, it would be ungenerous to deny that Mr. Gaitskell is capable of displaying these and other such virtues. This, however, is not the point. The real question is what Mr. Gaitskell is vigorous and forceful about, and what, more generally, he has been about ever since he became the leader of the Labour Party. The question would matter much less had not Mr. Gaitskell achieved, in a very short time, so real a measure of success in his set purpose of re-educating the Labour Party into his own view of “socialism”. As it is, what he is about matters a great deal. It is true that leaders reflect tendencies. But there are times when leaders can powerfully re-inforce tendencies and greatly help to give them sharp political content. To ignore this in relation to the recent history of the Labour Party is to fall into the crassest kind of determinism. Mr. Gaitskell’s contribution to the re-education of Labour is not, by any means, the whole story. But it is an important part of it.

There is, of course, much resemblance between Mr. Gaitskell’s approach to politics and that of his predecessors. Like him, they were always more concerned to reassure their opponents than to enthuse their supporters. Like him, they always deemed it essential to act, and to be seen to act, on the premise that the creation of a socialist society was an aim distant to the point of invisibility. Like him, they always found a more compelling attraction (to put it very mildly) in programmes and policies of modest social reform than in any policy or action that looked capable of pushing the Labour Party beyond the partial humanisation of capitalist society. (Anyone who has any doubt or illusion on this score should look back to the debates of the 1944 Annual Conference of the Labour Party, when rank and file pressure alone compelled a reluctant leadership to include any nationalisation proposals in the programme with which Labour won the 1945 election).

Even so, there are certain differences between Mr. Gaitskell and his predecessors which are of importance. Those predecessors, however timid, orthodox and hidebound, were not really disposed to argue that the transformation of Britain into a socialist society on the basis of common ownership was not the ultimate purpose of the Labour Party. The view they always took was that this would take an exceedingly long time, and that it would be fatal to rush into anything;—and of course they always conveniently found that the electorate, or the state of the country, or whatever, made advance extremely difficult, not to say impossible. Hence their eagerness “to consolidate” after 1948–9. But they did not, in ideological terms, view the measures of common ownership undertaken after 1945 as marking, for all practical purposes, the end of the process. Mr. Morrison, in this instance, is typical of an older leadership. It was he who ardently spoke for “consolidation” in 1948; but it is also he who now complains, as well he might, that the leadership is too shy about common ownership. On this issue, the traditional quarrel between Right and Left was about the speed of advance, not about the ultimate desirability of advance itself.

Mr. Gaitskell and his ideological friends view these matters very differently. For they do not believe that the purpose of the Labour Party ought to be the creation of a socialist society on the basis of common ownership. On the contrary, they believe that common ownership, as a basic purpose of the Labour Party, is not only electorally damaging, but irrelevant and obsolete.

This, it has been made quite clear, does not mean that Mr. Gaitskell and his friends are opposed, in any doctrinaire fashion, to any kind of extension of public ownership. They easily grant that cases could arise, here and there, in which some firm or even some industry might not be “serving the nation well”, and ought therefore, in the fulness of time and after “independent” inquiry, to come under public ownership or some diluted version thereof. Flexible in all things, they concede, in other words, that there is something to be said for public ownership in terms of isolated, piecemeal and remedial action, mainly designed to increase the efficiency of an economy whose predominantly private basis they do not seriously propose to question. This, incidentally, is also the enlightneed Tory view—or soon will be.

To ask Mr. Gaitskell or Mr. Jay whether they believe in common ownership is therefore to confuse issues and to help them to confuse issues. In the sense defined above, they do, though not in the least keenly. In any sense which entails a view of common ownership as a prime part of Labour’s purpose, designed to replace capitalist ownership and control, they do not. They have, whatever the rhetoric, made their permanent peace with what they hesitate, not surprisingly, to call a capitalist economy, however much they might object to this or that particular feature of it. They might want a Labour government to exercise some greater measure of control over the “commanding heights” of the economy; but this is hardly something that need greatly disturb the present controllers of economic life.

Ever since 1950, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Mr. Attlee’s administration, Mr. Gaitskell has shown, on a multitude of issues, home and foreign, that he finds it exceedingly difficult to give any concrete meaning to the socialism he professes. But in hardly any instance has he demonstrated this more convincingly than in his quite unambiguous insistence that the Labour Party is permanently installed in the so-called mixed economy, not as a matter of expediency, but as a matter of principle. The trouble is that the “mixed economy”, whatever else it may be, bears no resemblance, nor will ever bear any resemblance, to the kind of society which the Labour Party has always said it wanted to see come into being.

This is a difficulty which Mr. Gaitskell, when he became leader of the Labour Party, bravely set out to remedy—by re-educating the Party into a new view, which is really a very old view, despite all the inflated claims of “new thinking”, of Labour’s purpose. The major fruit of these efforts was Industry and Society, the Stockbroker’s approach to Socialism, which represented an important, though still intermediate, stage in the assumption by the Labour Party of an “image” free from tiresome socialist implications. With the endorsement of that document by the 1957 Annual Conference of the Labour Party, Mr. Gaitskell, had he won the election, could legitimately have looked forward to fresh and even greater successes in his reeducational endeavours, not only in relation to public ownership, but on all issues over which the Labour movement might have been tempted to press for the adoption of other than orthodox postures.

However, the attempt to imprison the Labour Party into a purely labourist mould has now been checked, at least temporarily—not, as it should have been, from within, but because not enough voters found Labour’s “image” sufficiently attractive to ensure Mr. Gaitskell’s translation to the premiership, television gimmicry notwithstanding. Defeat has helped to force back on to the agenda a host of fundamental questions concerning Labour’s ultimate character and purposes. The debate is again open.

The new thinkers must now expose their ideas to the clear light of day. And this is a dangerous venture simply because these ideas amount to no more than a plea for Labour’s return to the old days before 1918, when the Party did not have a Constitution which held socialist implications. It is the poverty of these ideas which leads Mr. Gaitskell to try and frighten a Party Conference with the thought that commitment to common ownership means the nationalisation of pubs and garages. It is the same poverty which drives Mr. Healey to plead that Labour drop socialisation in order to help the African people.

The Poverty of Labourism

It would be wrong to suggest that the programme on which Mr. Gaitskell fought the last election (what he himself called “a programme of modest social reform”) was a shocking novelty in Labour’s electoral history. On the contrary, with the exception of 1945, modest programmes of social reform have always formed the substance of Labour’s appeals to the electorate. Mr. Gaitskell was, in this respect, well within the tradition; he only made the tradition more explicit, more emphatic.

Nor, it is equally well worth recalling, was it ever, in electoral terms, a very successful tradition. The way some people now talk, one would think that the Labour Party had marched from triumph to triumph throughout its history, only now to be the victim of an unkind fate. In fact, the Labour Party never won an election, from 1900 to 1945, a record which, in the light of the history of those years, is truly remarkable.

There is, however, a difference between Labour’s pre-war electoral record and its electoral record since 1951. In the earlier period, it made steady gains (save in the somewhat special circumstances of 1931); since 1951, it has suffered slow but steady decline. In between, there were the three elections of 1945, 1950 and 1951. In each of these, it increased its popular poll—indeed, it reached its electoral peak in 1951, after six years of Labour Government, when it obtained nearly 14 million votes, to 48.77 per cent of the total votes cast. The decline began after 1951.

There have been put forward a good many explanations of this phenomenon. Some of these have been very fancy indeed, and have depended on a highly impressionistic kind of political sociology; others have expressed little more than their authors’ particular likes and dislikes, projected on to the minds of the electorate. There are, however, two sets of facts which, though they may not serve as a complete explanation, have yet, it is reasonable to suggest, a great deal to do with one. One of these concerns the Labour Party, the other the Conservative Party.

In an historical perspective, the achievements of the Labour administrations of 1945—51 may well come to be seen as the maximum expression of Labourism in action. Having given substance and form to the “Welfare State”, strengthened the bias to State intervention in economic affairs, completed a programme of marginal nationalisation, and generally brought the discussion of social and economic affairs on to a different plane, the Labour Party was then faced with the choice either of going forward with a programme which, by necessity, would have transcended the traditional categories of Labourism, or with a programme of tinkering empiricism within the framework of capitalist society. The tension between these two choices was best mirrored in the Labour leadership’s doubts and hesitations with regard to the nationalisation of steel and in its evermore shame-faced commitment to that measure. In the event, the choice which was made, and which was given an altogether new, though not yet final, degree of ideological and political precision by Mr. Gaitskell, has deeply affected the life and appearance of the Labour Party in these last years.

Because of that choice, the Labour Party has given the distinct impression that it was less and less sure, not about its ultimate purposes, but that it had any ultimate purpose at all. Because of that choice, it has, both in the country and in Parliament, been hesitant, fumbling, petulant—and boring. The rhetoric of its leaders has not carried conviction because its leaders have appeared to lack the conviction of their rhetoric. Increasingly, they have treated the voters not as potential comrades but as possible clients. The less substantial their programme and policies, the more frantic has been the effort to give them gloss and polish. Neither on issues of home affairs, nor in relation to the H-Bomb, NATO and foreign affairs generally, have the Labour leaders appeared as a clear alternative to the Tories. The reason for this is not that they were unable—somehow—to put over their case. The reason is that they were not such an alternative.

This of course was a great help to the Tory Party. Whoever it is that never had it so good, the Tories never had it so easy. But the Tories, as they have always done in the past, also helped themselves.

The Tory Party has always been a much more complicated and sensitive animal than Labour has made allowance for. It has been, is and will remain, the main political expression of ruling class power—the party of property and privilege. It is also (and in this it really differs from the Labour Party) the political repository of much civilised savagery; a high proportion of its activist rank and file, as indeed of its parliamentary representation, can safely be relied on to express, publicly, but even more, privately, views and opinions which often seem to be part of the domain of psychopathology rather than of politics.

Were this all, the Tory Party would not be the most successful conservative Party in the world; indeed, it would long have ceased to occupy a significant place in political life.

But this is not all. The Tory Party is a deeply class-conscious party, much more so than the Labour Party, and its class-consciousness includes an awareness, however reluctant, however delayed its effects, that if the essentials of the social system it serves are to be preserved, some concessions have to be made to the pressures of the democracy. Thus the Tory Party adjusted itself to an extended suffrage, to trade union growth, to welfare services, to the emergence of the Labour Party as Opposition and as Government, to State intervention in economic affairs, even to the nationalisation of public utilities. It is now well advanced in the process of adapting itself to a mean, half-hearted, messy kind of labourism.

This flexibility at least helps to explain why a substantial proportion of the Tory Party’s electoral clientéle and of its support in the country has always included masses of people who had neither power, nor property, nor privilege.

Inevitably, the bidding has now to be much higher than it was before the War—thanks largely to Labour efforts. The Tory Party must now present more of a Labourist image if it is to be electorally successful. It is at least highly unlikely that it could now repeat its pre-war triumphs (and they were as remarkable as Labour’s defeats) on the basis of a real dedication to “free enterprise”, pure and simple. It is part of its skill that it knows this—or that enough of its leaders know it to make a bastard kind of Labourism part of its appeal.

This is another reason why the Labour Party, as the party of Labourism, now finds it more difficult to present a distinctive view of itself, and appears to be fighting on marginal and not on central issues, as indeed it mostly is. In this kind of battle, the Tory Party starts with immense advantages: it is clear in its purpose; it has money and influence; it can play upon deeply rooted prejudices and rely upon manufactured political illiteracy. On this terrain, Labour is engaged in an altogether unequal contest.

Of course, it may well be that economic crisis, allied to the imperative demands of its special clientéle will, at some point or other, make it much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the Tory Party to continue showing a Labourist image. Accident may bring the Labour Party back to office on the downturn of an economic swing. But it is nonsense to think that a return to office in such circumstances, on the basis of a Labourist programme of “modest social reform”, which is what is entailed by the Gaitskellian perspective, would be sufficient to make another Labour Government more than an awkward and temporary visitor to the ministerial establishment. There simply isn’t enough wind in present-day Labourism to fill the political sails of another Labour administration.

The Labour Party does not now stand at the crossroads. It made a choice, or rather it accepted the choice that was made for it. Electoral defeat has now forced it, as a Party, to pause and ask itself whether the road leads anywhere. It does—to the political graveyard. And it is by no means certain that, as a Party, it will not continue to travel along that road.

On the other hand, it is not inevitable that the Labour Party should continue towards the political graveyard. It is within its power to retrace its steps and dedicate itself anew to the socialist policies which are its only alternative. In terms of programme and in the immediate, local context, this means, above all, a specific and unambiguous rededication to common ownership as Labour’s central and distinctive purpose. Certainly, there is everything to be said for any amount of “rethinking” on the problems which the translation of that purpose into practice does raise, such as, for instance, the problem of organisation and structure, of participation and responsibility, of control and coordination. But what does not admit of “re-thinking”, at least for a party which claims to be committed to the creation of a socialist order of society, is whether common ownership is central to its purpose.

A programme of common ownership does not, obviously enough, exhaust the commitment of a socialist party. But it is not the elaboration of a comprehensive socialist programme which presents the major difficulty. It is the will to have one, and to act upon it.

In this connection, it seems to me altogether wrong for those who wish to see the Labour Party embark upon a socialist course to try and tempt the doubters by asserting that a socialist programme is bound to result in a spectacular Labour victory at the next election. This could well have been said with a real measure of confidence in 1950 or 1951. To say it now, categorically, is to ignore a good deal that has happened in the intervening years. It is, for instance, to forget the fact that the Labour Party and the Trade Unions have not only failed, in those years, to do a job of socialist education, in word and also in deed, but that many of its leaders have, more positively, been powerful contributing agents to the contemporary trivialisation of politics and to the creation of an image of socialism as a mean little experiment in bureaucratic piecemeal social engineering. To take but one example from the last election campaign: pension schemes are important, but they cannot be the showpiece of a serious political party. A party which does make pensions its howpiece at election time is a sick party, immured in a rame of mind which excludes the noise and the bustle, the challenge and the promise, the adventure and the dedication which are at the core of socialism. And they wonder why youth finds them trivial bores!

Whether Labour would or would not win the next election on a socialist programme, no one can tell. But defeat on such a programme, if it were to occur, would not cause the demoralisation which defeat on a Labourist programme must inevitably produce. Nor in any case can election prospects ever be the ultimate criterion of policy. In this respect, the victory of 1945 has had one very bad consequence, in that it has so powerfully reinforced Labour’s ministerialist obsession. There is no inherent virtue in opposition; but it is all too easy to exaggerate the virtues of office, as a thing-in-itself, independently of the real, concrete purposes office is intended to serve. Politics, lots of people need to learn again, are not exclusively electoral.

Nor is the preparation of a programme, however excellent, in the least sufficient. Programmes have to be lived, explained, defended, fought for—not only at elections and not only in spasms of parliamentary rhetoric but, over a multitude of diverse issues, great and small, as part of a continuous challenge to the fatal assumption that we live in a B.B.C. world of minor disagreements.

This said, it would be foolish not to see that, with some exceptions, the Labour and Trade Union leaders do live in a B.B.C. world of minor disagreements with their opponents (their Tory opponents, that is), and that they have no intention of embarking on anything resembling a socialist course. To slur over this fact is to overlook one of the essential aspects of political life. Not to overlook it is to ask what is the role of the Left at the present time.

There are two temptations to which the Left has always been prone: the first is to overestimate its immediate political chances and the second is to underestimate the influence and power it can wield. The first leads to grandiloquent announcements that inexorable forces are about to sweep the old order, including the Labour leaders, into that famous old dustbin of history. The second temptation, which often seizes people who had earlier given way to the first, leads to cynicism, despair and, in one form or another, withdrawal.

The Left in Britain, inside and outside the Labour Party, organised or dispersed, has always fought a minority battle, and has more often suffered serious defeats than known substantial victories. It has never come anywhere near to dislodging the orthodox controllers of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions from their entrenched positions, not even in the worst days of MacDonaldism. But the view that it has therefore had no impact upon the Labour movement is a misreading of history. For the Left, in actual fact, and despite all its defeats, has had sufficient influence to keep alive a vision, an impulse and a demand which Labour leaders, for all their Conference victories, have always been forced to reckon with. Had this not been the case in the 1920’s, MacDonaldism would have finally captured the Labour Party; had it not been the case in the 1930’s, the victory of 1945 would have been translated into far fewer achievements. Were it not the case today, the Labour Party might much more easily be led into the footsteps of the French and German Social-democratic parties. What the Left has always done is to prevent the Labour leadership from giving way completely to its inclinations; and, given the nature of these inclinations, this is something of great consequence. Moreover, what is true of the impact of the Left on the Labour Right is also true of its impact on the Right in general, on issues ranging from civil liberty to nuclear strategy, from industrial relations to educational policy. If the bid has been raised, it is more than anything else, the Left which has helped to raise it.

This, I think, suggests a perspective for the Left in the immediately relevant future. It is not a perspective which offers the promise of spectacular change within the Labour movement now. Mr. Gaitskell will not, it is pretty safe to predict, be deposed for some time to come; the present policies of the Labour Party will not be substantially reversed, whatever verbal concessions may be made to the mood of the activists; the Parliamentary Labour Party, always, as a body, a pliant instrument of orthodoxy, will not become a live and powerful opposition; and most trade union leaders will try to proceed on their traditional and traditionalist course. All this is something that has to be faced, lived with and worked within.

What it suggests, however, is that there is a crucially important job for the Left to do: in educating itself and helping to educate others into the promise and the conditions of socialism in the 1960’s; in pushing back the frontiers of debate and action; in maintaining that continuous pressure which socialists can exercise as part of their service, wherever in the Labour movement they may be situated, against all that is unprincipled and, in socialist terms, corrupt, about the policies and actions of the Labour Establishment, and not only at national level either; in the organisation of permanent protest, which is also permanent affirmation, against the evils and the inadequacies, the crimes and the absurdities of a society sick with the impulse to private appropriation.

The Left is not a sect of the virtuous, lost among a television-moronised multitude which has been finally brain-washed into commodity worship. Notwithstanding electoral appearances, there is, at a multitude of points, a deep unease about the character, ethos and future of this society, and an equally deep awareness that the orthodoxies both of Conservatism and of Labourism provide no answer to its tensions. Socialists can help to give substance, precision and drive to that unease and that awareness. In so doing, they will, in the perspective of tomorrow, lay the foundations for real advances the day after tomorrow. As the Labour Party’s impulse, Labourism has now all but spent itself. But the battle for socialism has barely begun.

Visit New Left Review for more articles by Ralph Miliband.

Ralph Miliband's Class War Conservatism: And Other Essayswas re-published earlier this year with a new introduction by Tariq Ali, which is available to read here

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