Workers Hammer No. 232
On the Bennite left in the 1980s: Labour's Cold War
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader strikes a dramatic blow against the Tony Blair project of severing the party’s historic links with the trade unions. Blair and his successors aimed to transform Labour from a bourgeois workers party, having a working-class base but a pro-capitalist leadership and programme, into an outright capitalist party like the US Democrats.
Corbyn stands in the political tradition of historic leaders of the Labour Party’s left wing, notably Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. The high tide of Benn’s support came in the context of the imperialists’ renewed anti-Communist Cold War directed against the Soviet Union. In 1981, a year after the imperialists launched a furore over the Soviet military intervention against CIA-backed mujahedin in Afghanistan, prominent Labour right-wingers such as David (now Lord) Owen, Shirley (now Baroness) Williams and William Rodgers — the so-called Gang of Three — split to form the bourgeois Social Democratic Party, which later merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats. When Benn challenged the NATO-loyal Denis Healey in the 1981 contest for deputy leadership, his “little England” “socialist” stance threatened to tear the party apart.
Had Benn won the deputy leadership contest, it is likely that Healey & Co would have decamped as well, placing the Bennite left in a position of responsibility where their left pretensions could have been more easily exposed before Labour’s working-class base. At the time, we called for driving the Healey/CIA wing out of the Labour Party, noting that “Labour can betray without the CIA connection”. At the same time we counterposed the programme of international socialist revolution to Benn’s parliamentary reformism.
For Benn and his followers however, maintaining unity in the party was something of an article of faith. Benn endorsed Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who would soon achieve notoriety in the coal fields for his violence-baiting of the heroic miners during the pivotal 1984-85 strike. With the defeat of that crucial class battle, Kinnock in turn paved the way for Tony Blair.
Blair took over as Labour leader in 1994, in the international context conditioned by the destruction of the Soviet Union through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, a massive defeat for the workers and oppressed of the entire world. Blair continued in the Healey tradition of slavish support to US imperialism, joining in its destructive military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to unambiguously supporting the capitalist bosses and City bankers.
We reprint below excerpts from our article “Labour’s Cold War” published in Spartacist Britain (forerunner of Workers Hammer) no 41, April 1982.
For the past year and a half, the Labour Party has been undergoing its most significant internal differentiation and split in half a century, catalysing a major realignment throughout British parliamentary politics. Significant elements of the right-wing leadership have decamped from the labour movement to form the bourgeois Social Democratic Party, taking with them a couple of dozen MPs and a good chunk of the party’s careerist local government officials. Championed by the bourgeois media and buttressed by the adherence of middle-class elements seeking a haven from the class struggle, the SDP in alliance with the Liberals threatens to unlock the Tory/Labour two-party domination of postwar parliamentary politics .
The deep schism in today’s Labour Party is not simply another, typical, case of the party in opposition striving to refurbish its “socialist” credentials among working people alienated by years of betrayal from the Westminster benches. Thus it will not lightly be healed; thus the palpable sense on all sides that the Labour Party cannot go on in the same old way. There is normally a symbiotic relationship between left and right in the party. Together they make a fine team for attacking the working class: while one lulls the workers with airy talk of socialism the other does (or both do) the bosses’ dirty work. This was certainly true in the last Labour government, when Benn played a major role in giving a left cover to anti-working-class betrayal. Today, however, this symbiosis has lapsed.
A distorted and uneven class line is being cleaved in the Labour Party under the impact of renewed anti-Soviet Cold War, between Little England reformists and NATO/CIA-loving “internationalists”, lacking in sharp programmatic counterposition but necessarily reflected in and inseparable from domestic class questions. As we wrote at the time of the SDP split:
“The fragility of the capitalist economy today manifestly leaves no room for reformist manoeuvres and fooling around with social-democratic ‘reflation’ policies;... But it is the international situation which is key to understanding the goings-on in the Labour Party. The imperialist uproar over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan signalled that the Cold War was back with a vengeance; Reagan’s inauguration made it official....
“Above all the ‘Gang of Three’ know that capitalist Britain has no hope except as a junior partner of US imperialism.”
— Spartacist Britain no 30, March 1981
Reduced in status from its hegemonic position to simply the most powerful of several imperialist powers (marked and in part exacerbated by its humiliating defeat in Vietnam), American imperialism prepared itself, with Carter’s anti-Soviet “human rights” campaign, for a course of open military confrontation with the Soviet Union — aiming at a favourable redivision of world markets over the corpse of the Soviet workers state. The international economic crisis, “which fuels this anti-Soviet war drive intersects in Britain a deep, long-term structural decline. To retain their standing as any sort of imperialist power, the dominant sections of the British bourgeoisie see no course other than an emasculation of the trade unions at home coupled with slavish allegiance to the Atlantic alliance.
In this context the contradictions of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers party have been brought sharply to the fore. In its role as a defender of British capitalist interests, the central core of the postwar Labour bureaucracy has been a staunch advocate of the “American connection”, while policing the unions when in office with a combination of reformist carrot and repressive stick.
The politics of the Bennite left — primarily a repudiation of the dismal record of the last Labour government and a utopian unilateralist attempt to pull Britain out of the Cold War vortex — are a reformist dead end from the point of view of the immediate and historic interests of the working class. But they threaten to make Labour an aberrant party in today’s conditions, a party unfit, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, for “responsible” government. Unable to control the rise of Bennism, much of the historical right wing leadership of the party is actively rethinking its need for the trade union movement as a political base of operations, and has undertaken or is considering an open break with the labour movement .
A bulwark of anti-Communism
Social democracy has been a bulwark of anti-Communism ever since the Russian Revolution of 1917 and a faithful handmaiden of its “own” bourgeoisie since the start of World War I. However the present turmoil in the Labour Party and the roots of the SDP split can only be understood by looking at the particular, unashamedly pro-imperialist role played by the Labour leadership — especially Denis Healey and the current leaders of the SDP — in the post-World War II period. Healey, Jenkins, Rodgers & Co are the lineal descendants of the Clement Attlee/Ernest Bevin/Hugh Gaitskell Cold War Labour bureaucracy, stamped into shape by the fight against Communism from Berlin to Rome, from Czechoslovakia to Korea. Under them, the Labour Party in the late forties was established as the bulwark of anti-Communist Cold War “socialism” in the West European labour movement.
During World War II the Labour leaders delivered the workers to the imperialist war effort through the Coalition Government. Then came the sweeping electoral victory of 1945, and the Attlee/Bevin leadership resolved to continue the imperialist bipartisanship on foreign policy established in the war. US Secretary of State James F Byrnes commented approvingly:
“Britain’s stand...was not altered in the slightest, so far as we could discern, by the replacement of Mr Churchill and Mr Eden by Mr Attlee and Mr Bevin. This continuity of Britain’s foreign policy impressed me.”
— Speaking Frankly, 1947
This continued with the onset of the Cold War. Foreign Secretary Bevin was one of the architects and founders of the anti-Soviet NATO alliance. The start of the Korean War in 1950 saw the virtual doubling of military expenditure by the Labour Cabinet. While the Tory Opposition bitterly fought many of the government’s domestic policies (notably the nationalisation of iron and steel), when it came to international affairs Sir Anthony Eden could write:
“I was in agreement with the aims of his [Bevin’s] foreign policy and with most that he did, and we met quite frequently. He would invite me to his room in the House of Commons where we discussed events informally. In Parliament I usually followed him in debate and I would publicly have agreed with him more, if I had not been anxious to embarrass him less.”
— Memoirs: Full Circ1e, 1960
“We can rely on Mr Healey”
Outside Westminster, Denis Healey was one of the key agents of this “CIA socialism”. An ex-Communist, Healey called at the 1945 Labour Party conference for the party “to protect, assist, encourage and aid in every way that Socialist revolution wherever it appears” (quoted in Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism). But he moved rapidly to the right and was soon ensconced as head of the party’s International Department where, under American tutelage, he helped rebuild the Second (Socialist) International along strict Cold War lines. He played an active part in fomenting a right-wing split from the Italian Socialists in 1948 when the [Pietro] Nenni leadership refused to campaign against the Communists. He was a key operator working with the most right-wing, pro-imperialist Social Democrats in Czechoslovakia and other East European countries in the late 1940s, trying to shore up these oppositions and then arranging the flight of many social-democratic leaders to the West after the Communist consolidation of power.
Healey’s 1947 statement, “Cards on the Table”, was an unabashed declaration of support for US foreign and military policies, and was soon endorsed by the party’s parliamentary leadership. He set up a special colonial section at Transport House in order “to help combat the menace of Communist propaganda among African and other overseas territories”. The New Statesman (25 September 1981) quotes a 1948 memorandum by a Colonial Office official recording a discussion with Healey about Malaya, in which Britain was then waging a bitter and bloody colonial war. After the Colonial Office man stated his worries about opposition to the war by elements in the British labour movement:
“Mr Healey indicated that he would welcome collaboration with us to meet this kind of thing.... He said that he would be very glad if I could let him have (a) a complete list of the TU Branches, Trades Councils etc who had written to us..., (b) a list of any communist or ‘fellow traveller’ publications concerned with the Colonies issued in this country.... I am sure that we can rely on Mr Healey to help us in tackling any flare-up of this kind which may happen in future.”
Throughout the Labour government and the years of opposition after 1951, the Cold Warriors and witch hunters continued to “rely on Mr Healey”. A plethora of publications and organisations — Socialist Commentary, Encounter, the American New Leader (for which Healey was London correspondent), the Congress for Cultural Freedom, European Movement, Institute for Strategic Studies, Bilderberg group — carried forward the fight for the Atlantic alliance. A great part of these were launched or sustained with covert CIA conduit funds. Besides Healey, top Labour politicians involved included Attlee’s successor as party leader, Gaitskell, chief party ideologist Anthony Crossland and future SDP founders Jenkins and Rodgers. (See “The Labour Party and the CIA”, Radical Research Services pamphlet, for details.)
Bevanism, Suez, unilateralism
The flagrantly anti-working-class international policies of the party leadership did not, of course, go unopposed. Indeed the major opposition of the 1950s, led by Aneurin Bevan (with support of, among others, a young Harold Wilson and Michael Foot) was in broad political outline similar to today’s Bennite movement. Against the policies of the right-wing leadership they expressed alarm at the effect of Cold War military expenditure on domestic social services, and counterposed a desire for Britain to play an “independent” role in international affairs or, if necessary, to opt out. Bevan resigned from the Cabinet in 1951 not over international questions per se (indeed he had just finished speaking and voting for the leadership line on Korea) but against an attempt to roll back provisions of the National Health Service. But he and his “Victory for Socialism” movement soon became identified with such causes as opposition to Britain’s nuclear weaponry and to German rearmament, and in return were vilified as “fellow travellers” and “commie dupes”.
There was however one major difference between the Labour left of the 1950s and that of today, the reason why it did not have the deep impact of Bennism today or lead to any SDP-style split. Whereas today many of the top union bureaucrats (who have always in the final analysis called the shots in the party) have been neutralised or are in a few cases even pro-Benn, towards Bevan the TUC presented an overwhelmingly solid, hostile front. While British capitalism was already on a rapid downhill slide, there was still a little fat to pay for social welfare reforms; thus unlike [James] Callaghan/Healey of three decades later, Attlee/Gaitskell did not emerge from the 1951 defeat thoroughly discredited and despised. So by the time Bevan capitulated and made his peace with the party leadership in 1956 (leading to his denunciation of the unilateralists a year later), the Bevanite movement had won no real victories let alone come close to taking the party leadership. Later that year the Suez debacle and Britain’s humiliating pullout under American pressure showed all but the blind that Britain’s former great power status on the world stage was definitely gone forever. It might well have been expected that these events would have produced deep divisions but there was no major upheaval.
The following years saw the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), with many of Bevan’s ex-followers associated. CND and the Labour left’s major victory was the adoption of a unilateralist resolution at the 1960 Scarborough party conference despite the strenuous opposition of the leadership. But this was reversed a year later after a major campaign led by [William] Rodgers along with [Roy] Jenkins, [Hugh] Gaitskell and [Anthony] Crosland. The Campaign for Democratic Socialism (CDS), financed by a “large anonymous donation”, took up the twin themes of domestic and international policy, arguing that Labour should drop its formal commitment to socialism at home (Clause Four) as well as returning to pro-American bipartisanship abroad. Its major propaganda offensive in support of the NATO alliance and nuclear weapons swung the union bureaucrats back into line and returned the party securely to the Atlanticist fold a year later. While CDS failed to eliminate Clause Four from the party constitution, by the 1964 election victory Labour was clearly seen once again as a solid and reliable pro-NATO “party of government”. And this situation more or less pertained throughout the two Wilson governments, the [Edward] Heath Tory interlude and the 1974-79 Wilson/Callaghan regimes, with Labour governments consistently backing US imperialism’s genocidal war in Vietnam. Henry Kissinger has written of Harold Wilson:
“He represented a curious phenomenon in British politics: his generation of Labour Party leaders was emotionally closer to the United States than were many leaders of the Conservative Party. The Tories seemed to find the loss of physical preeminence to the United States rankling, especially after what they considered our betrayal over Suez.”
— Memoirs: 1968-1973
Callaghan/Healey and the new Labour left
But with each successive Labour government more flauntingly hostile to the interests of its working-class base than the last, the pressures kept building up. By the late 1960s, the bourgeoisie was increasingly desperate to shackle the unions. “In Place of Strife”, the Wilson government’s 1969 attempt, threatened to provoke a major blowup. Wilson backed down and the Tories returned to power. Heath tried to take on the miners and lost heavily. And with the Tories’ direct attack on the unions a dismal failure, Labour came back in 1974, buoyed by renewed illusions among its working-class base. Throughout the subsequent years of Social Contract, strikebreaking and Lib/Lab coalitionism these eroded more and more. Finally came the trade union explosion of the 1978-79 winter of discontent, shattering the Callaghan government’s credibility in office, particularly in its role of containing the unions.
Faced with a Labour government which had forfeited any meaningful control over its working-class base, the bourgeoisie went back to its traditional preference for a Tory government. Thatcher offered impeccable credentials as an aggressive union-basher and Cold War crusader. And after the Tory victory the settling of accounts in the Labour Party began.
The Callaghan/Healey regime was despised not only by the base of the party, the union membership, but by the lower and even top union bureaucrats who found the unyielding, autocratic imposition of Social Contract austerity without quid pro quo was making their lives a misery. In the face of angry opposition the right pressed on regardless, increasingly giving the impression that it found the traditional ties of the Labour Party leadership, its obligations to the union bureaucracy, to be an anachronistic encumbrance. Perhaps the most remarkable expression of this stance was Callaghan’s defiant election eve statement that come what may, and whether it was with or against the unions, he would continue the wage cutting and strikebreaking if re-elected.
While the right-wing ex-Cabinet remained unabashed, it soon became apparent that Callaghan was more of a liability than an asset, either with the union bureaucracy and party activists or with the general working-class base of support for the party. It was also obvious that Denis Healey, who had been the Cabinet’s hard man Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man most directly responsible for grinding workers’ faces in the dirt, was not a viable replacement.
Tony Benn, who had sat through five years of anti-union attacks and murderous bipartisanship, now moved to the back benches. There he sat for a year, maintaining a particularly noxious near-silence throughout the three long months of the steel strike, which nearly catalysed five years of frustration with Labour treachery and a year of outrage over Thatcher into an explosion that could have toppled this Tory government as well. After its sell-out, Benn more and more pushed himself forward as the champion of “democracy” and “accountability”, seeking to harness the resentment of the base against the party leadership.
Preferring not to get too far into the difficult field of concrete alternative policies, Benn identified the failure of the leadership to carry out conference policy as the key to the disastrous record of 1974-79. In fact at one point or another in the 1970s, most of the policies he now championed had been passed at conference, only to be ignored by the parliamentary leadership. Thus under the cloak of “labour movement democracy” Benn was placing himself at the head of a reaction against the coalition/Social Contract. He early on touched on the “American connection” in taking up the question of the loyalties of the government, posing it in characteristically national-reformist terms akin to his grounds for opposing the EEC. Who should the Labour Party in power be responsible to — the international bankers and IMF a la Healey, or the British labour movement? This was a none too subtle assault on the architects of IMF policies.
What gave this left/right division an historical dimension and took the party to the point of split (and subsequent cold split) was the open resurgence of Cold War. Benn’s “democratic socialist” anti-Sovietism is clear, not least by the NEC’s unanimous condemnation of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and Benn’s own refusal to formally oppose NATO. At last October’s CND demonstration shortly before Solidarność’s counterrevolutionary bid for power was checked he enthused that “The Poles have had the courage to stand up to the Kremlin.” But his fulsome support for and identification with the burgeoning unilateral disarmament movement has been the key issue over which bourgeois opposition to a Benn-ridden (let alone Benn-led) Labour Party and support for the SDP split hardened. Benn is a Little Englander who accepts that Britain no longer rules the waves and would rather see it out of the nuclear crossfire. This may be a utopia, but it is one utopia that the British ruling class is not about to fool with in its aspiring statesmen, given its dependent relation on the American “cousins”. The Economist (5 December 1981) captured a sense of the bourgeoisie’s attitude in its caustic remark that “the Bennites favour precisely the foreign policy that Russia would like Britain to have”.
The deputy leadership contest reviewed
Benn comes from the same reformist-nationalist political mould as Nye Bevan — but the times are different. This time the union bureaucrats didn’t line up solidly against him, because the alternative was equally unpalatable, and instead installed the caretaker [Michael] Foot as leader, a living metaphor for the shambling state of the party and the dilemma of the union chieftains. CND Mark II was on the rise, conference came out strongly for unilateralism, and the party lurched further to the left. The decision of the special Wembley conference in January 1981 to give the unions 40 per cent of the vote in leadership elections was an assertion of the party’s organic ties to the trade union movement and a challenge to the right’s appetite to shed these constraints. Unable to control the inchoate challenge to the twin pillars of coalitionism and the Cold War connection, the right decided it was time to start abandoning ship. It was too late for a rerun of CDS. David Owen flew back from a New York meeting of the Trilateral Commission, the so-called “secret world government” founded by David Rockefeller and including such imperialist luminaries as Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Ball (not to mention Healey, Callaghan and Heath), to officially launch the Social Democrats. Trilateral Commission agents underwrote the first fund-raising advertisements, and the new party was underway.
The election became a major showdown on the key issues tearing the Labour Party apart, albeit expressed negatively: for or against the CIA-loyal exponents of Cold War; for or against the architects of coalition and austerity. Who would doubt that mass defections by the right wing would have ensued had Benn won, leaving behind an unstable, left-dominated party? The situation dictated that a Trotskyist propaganda group which seeks to split Labour’s working-class base from its pro-capitalist misleaders to a revolutionary programme should have extended critical support to Tony Benn — in order to exacerbate and follow through the split begun with the formation of the SDP, drive out the blatantly pro-imperialist CIA-connected right wing and place Benn in a position where his left-reformist politics could be more effectively exposed and combated.