Corbynism or modern day left- reformism can be traced back to Aneurin Bevan who oversaw the introduction of the National Health Service, in the Labour government after the Second World War. That, and a number of nationalisations were brought in by a Labour government led by a right-wing Cabinet.
By Martin Ralph.
Bevan was the leading Labour left winger at that time. Today, the Labour Left and many revolutionary Socialist groups treat Bevan almost as a god, who found the road to Socialism.
Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, Bevan did say that a revolutionary means of struggle including armed struggle could be justified. This separates him from right-wing leaders, Fabian and modern left reformists. But, according to his book In Place of Fear (1952) that type of struggle was for the colonial and oppressed countries and was not applicable to a parliamentary British system. For Bevan, the parliamentary road was the only road to travel in Britain.
He declared that he learnt a lot from Marxism and paid tribute to it, but opposed fundamentally what Marx, Engels, and Lenin said on parliamentary democracy as a fraud behind and through which capitalism maintains its rule. But he believed that parliament could become a weapon of the working class for socialism.
Such a position diverts working class struggle into parliamentary reforms – where possible, and ignore or oppose the working class building direct action and revolutionary socialism. It is the same outlook of Eduard Bernstein, who believed that the gradual introduction of socialism could be achieved by a progressive reform of capitalist property and the capitalist State towards socialism. This is the position of the Corbynist movement today.
Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, on the abandonment of Marxism by the reformist Bernstein, reads like an answer to Bevan. Luxemburg says that only the conquest of political power by the working class can break the resistance of capitalism.
Where did the left reformist struggle of the 1940s and 50s lead?
At the 1949 Labour Party conference Bevan defended what he called “healthy competition between private and public enterprise”.
Under that Labour government, there was great discontent from the working class. There was “widespread anger and opposition in the engineering union in January 1950 to the arrest of and prison sentences on gas maintenance workers, who had taken unofficial strike action for a wage increase. Then came the arrest and trial of the seven dockers who had become unofficial leaders as a result of wages struggle. There were daily stoppages on the docks when they were on trial at the Old Bailey.”
Under the Labour government there was a wages offensive, opposition to the arms budget, struggles to remove the pre-war and war constraints against trade unions, and the imposition of NHS charges. With the introduction of NHS charges for NHS dental services and glasses, Harold Wilson and Bevan re-signed from the Labour government, and that “gave an impulse to the Bevanite movement in the Labour Party, which began to grow rapidly”.
“The left of the Labour Party grew in the 1950s with the growth of opposition in the Labour Party to the military interventions and aggressive threats in which British imperialism was involved. Britain was vainly attempting to preserve its old forms of colonial rule in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, and desperately trying to maintain its dominant relations in the Stirling area and the Commonwealth.” However, “political independence was seized through decades of fierce struggle by the colonial peoples.”
In 1952, 57 of the ‘Bevanite’ MPs and voted against the Tory government’s re-armament policy and broke the Labour whips’ orders to abstain. The Parliamentary Labour Party then forbade the Tribune or ‘Bevanite’ Parliamentary group to meet, on pain of expulsion.
“… in answer to the world recession and acute economic problems in Britain the Tory government cut food subsidies; prices were rising more quickly than wages. Employers and government demanded cuts in the cost of labour and the Government attempted a wage freeze.”
The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, one of the unions that preceded today’s Unite) leaders were continually in conflict with the militant sections of their members, particularly the dockers, who were compelled to form unofficial committees in the struggle to advance their conditions against the unity of employers and union officials. Lorry and tanker drivers, also TGWU members, could only carry through their struggles by unofficial strikes and unofficial committees.
As a reflection of rising class struggle, the Bevanites gained a victory at the 1952 Labour party conference when the constituency Labour Party elected 6 out of 7 of their candidates to the National Executive Committee.
Bevan betrays road transport workers
At this time, the government was trying to force through de-nationalisation of road transport.
Mass meetings were taking place (one with 2,800 delegates in Leicester). “The most popular demand was for a one-day stoppage and a monster demonstration the day the Bill was laid before Parliament.” But the union officials put a significant check on the struggle…with the help of Bevan.
A committee was formed of transport shop stewards that had strong support among drivers. But the TGWU right-wing leaders put pressure on Bevan to call off a proposed meeting in London which had been widely publicised, “thus effectively ruining what surely must have been a mass protest against the Tory transport grab” Socialist Outlook, 17 June 1952 (left Labour Party newspaper under the editorship of Trotskyists).
However, “the transport stewards decided to campaign for a strike against the de-nationalisation and went to see Bevan for his support…He asked them if they realised what it would mean if they stopped road transport. They could paralyse the country, and were they ready for that? He thus added to the pressure of the trade union leaders which prevented a strike taking place.”
Bevan’s reverence for parliament played a reactionary role as was shown by his lack of support for the workers’ struggle against de-nationalisation of road transport. It was never re-nationalised.
“The peak of the Bevanites success came at the 1956 Labour Party conference when Bevan was elected treasurer.” And Bevan stated that the “central direction of the party had moved to the left”.
The left-wing in the Labour Party had gained in support in the unions and the pillars of the Labour Party leadership had been severely damaged. The TWGU “bureaucracy had been forced to adjust… not least, to the prison break of the 16,000 northern dockers.
There was also a movement of the rank-and-file of the National Union of Mineworkers which began to shake its support for the right-wing Labour Party”.
Bevan’s support for the H Bomb
In the latter half of the 1950s, there was an increasing opposition in the Labour party and the trade unions to the manufacture and testing of a hydrogen bomb. This was the issue on which discontent focused itself in the 1957 Labour party conference “and on which the right wing could be defeated”.
“There were over 100 resolutions about nuclear disarmament on the Labour Party conference agenda… those resolutions had been condensed into two composites expressing the two trends of opinion: one, the British Labour government should disarm unilaterally; the other that Britain should not even suspend tests, but merely seek international agreement to ban nuclear weapons.”
Bevan, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, proposed on behalf the NEC the right-wing motion and “he made his infamous declaration that as a future Labour Foreign Minister he did not want to go quote naked into the conference chamber”.
Bevan betrayed his supporters on the hydrogen bomb policy.
“His desertion from his unilateralist position on nuclear weapons meant the effective end of Bevanism as a cohesive trend.”
Little is said on this history.
Bevan, like the Labour left today, was for a mixed economy, but history shows that without putting an end to capitalist big enterprises and remaining in the confines of a parliamentary system capital-ism will always find a way to impose its rule.
Corbyn is, however, politer against Labour’s Right-wing, in Bevan’s day some of his team would say the right-wing has to be destroyed, today Corbyn insists on keeping a broad church.
Unlike Bevan, who at least said it in words, Corbyn avoids dealing with the commanding heights of the capitalist economy and nationalising all the banks and big companies.
Left parties who say Corbyn opens up a road to socialism, like the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party are, after all, following Bernstein’s revisionism of Marxism.
They think Socialism can be brought in from above and are forced to exaggerate Corbyn’s demands and call for the “Corbyn revolution to be completed”.
But Corbyn is not for workers power or a working-class socialist revolution he, like Bernstein and Bevan, call for reforms through parliament.