EVERY time I go on social media I see Clement Attlee. The old Labour prime minister seems to be a common choice of avatar for socialist Twitter users.
You could do a lot worse I suppose — I don’t seem many Twitter accounts represented by the smiling faces of Harold Wilson or Gordon Brown. It must be because the Attlee government of 1945 is such an inspiration to many of today’s activists. But does Labour’s first post-war government deserve this new-found adoration?
Ken Loach’s film The Spirit Of ’45 was certainly well timed. This evocative documentary, released in 2013, perfectly reflected the aspirations of 21st-century austerity Britain and was a welcome contribution towards the current debate about what kind of country we want to live in.
Yet we cannot understand the present without understanding the past. We cannot understand how precious an institution our NHS is without listening to the words of those who lived without it and those that helped create it.
The Attlee government of 1945 had limitations. While this Labour government was perhaps the most radically left-wing British government in our history, it was only radical within the political parameters of the time — parameters defined by capitalism.
It also has the appearance of radicalism in light of what has come since 1979.
Let’s not get too misty-eyed about the past.
We need to examine the achievements of the 1945 government in context.
Britain had just fought a war against fascism in Europe — Loach is quite right in suggesting that the mood of the nation was one of building a society fit for heroes.
In order to achieve the continued “buy-in” of the British people, concessions were needed to be offered to the powerful and demanding working class.
There was also the fact that the Soviet Union had been a decisive player in the war and, although suffering huge casualties, had demonstrated that a socialist country could demonstrate great strength, both militarily and in the power of its ideas.
If British working class did not receive the concessions that they deserved, then perhaps they may begin to look for real alternatives — remember that the Communist Party of Great Britain received its highest ever vote in the 1945 general election and had a membership of around 60,000.
The Labour Party therefore offered the electorate a progressive programme.
Many great gains were made by the working class, particularly in the areas of health, social welfare, housing and public ownership.
These gains should be rightly celebrated and defended, but let’s not confuse these concessions with the final victory of socialism.
The post-war economic consensus founded by the Labour Party was, in reality, the new consensus of capitalism. Its aim was to attempt to manage the economy in the long-term interests of capital, even if that meant tolerating a mixed economy and high levels of taxation and welfare spending.
The new Keynesian order was always due to fail as it was just another phase of capitalism — finally giving way to the neoliberal phase in the late 1970s. We must fairly and realistically assess the Labour Party. Throughout the party’s history it has mostly been dominated by a pro-capital social democratic element — a leadership reconciled with the Establishment and strongly opposed to anything other than reformism.
That said, there has always been a strong socialist strand within the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is arguably a reversal of the usual balance of power within the Labour Party. We must therefore place the Attlee government within this context — the government that gave us the NHS also led us into Nato militarism; the government that gave us social housing was also a keen supporter of Western imperialism; the government of public ownership was also vehemently anti-communist.
This may have been the government of Nye Bevan but it was also the government of Ernest Bevin.
The post-war period should not be seen as a golden age. While this historical period is informative, it is certainly not something to aspire to.
For starters, Britain’s economic and social conditions were vastly different then and it would be unrealistic to attempt to return to this point in the past.
While socialists helped build post-war Britain, the post-war consensus itself was not “socialism” in the full and true sense. The 1945 government made great gains, but let’s be realistic about the limited aims of Attlee and his cabinet. This was no revolution and the reforms of the Labour government were happily accepted by Churchill’s 1951 Conservative government.
In many ways, Corbyn’s Labour has rejected many of the norms founded by the Attlee government — particularly in his opposition to nuclear weapons and his stance towards Nato. Owen Smith’s supporters were quite right to point out that, by refusing to commit to unconditional Nato action, Corbyn was making a break with Labour’s position since World War II — where the Smithites are wrong though is to uncritically accept this tradition of militarism and imperialism.
By all means, look to the past. Learn and be inspired, but do not try to turn the clock back. The ultimate aim of socialism should be the abolition of capitalism — anything less than this is reformism in the service of capital. Socialists may disagree about the pace of transition, or the means of enacting revolutionary change — but their ultimate aim must be the end of capitalism. The Labour Party has not yet seriously challenged capitalism — although it has certainly always had the potential to do so, but that’s a different subject.
It is up to activists both within the Labour Party and other left parties, as well as within organised labour to work together to build a new future, based on our current conditions and with no illusions about the past.