Feedback: 1956 and Labour

Issue: 113

Barry Conway

As a former pupil of Stan Newens in Hackney back in the 1960s, I now know why he gave me such good marks for a talk I gave on the Russian Revolution, despite the mess that I made of it. Given that it was the only time I ever got any good marks from him, I feel pleased I can now respond to his enlightening article on a British revolutionary’s experience of the events in Hungary in 1956 with a fraternity utterly lacking in that grim Victorian classroom, save for that one brief moment.

Firstly, I would have to take issue with Stan that Gerry Healy’s Newsletter group attracted former Communist Party members because Healy’s group were better organised and resourced. More likely they were attracted to a political theory that said that Russia and Eastern Europe were still socialist despite the loss of political control by the working class. This answer as to why Russian tanks obliterated workers’ struggle sat comfortably with people who had fought the bosses all their conscious lives. Accepting a theory of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state, even though wrong, made their own struggles and sacrifices seem worthwhile.

Notwithstanding this disagreement, Stan has highlighted an aspect of shifting loyalties in the 1950s which is often forgotten in discussions today on the trajectory of New Labour thinking.

The Labour Party has always been short on theory. Much of its politics has been pragmatic and chameleon-like, hatched in committees with one eye on the share prices and the other on the polls. Nevertheless, the Communist Party (including its 1956 refugees who joined Labour) had an important influence in the 1960s and 1970s on the formative political education of some of today’s leading Labour figures—John Reid, Charles Clarke, Jack Straw, not to mention Fife MP Gordon Brown, to name but a few. For these people, their initial flirtation with the promise of a workers’ paradise by Stalinist diktat was always wedded to the more ‘realistic’ idea of state-run economies underpinned by productivity deals that would pay for the reforms they felt capitalism needed.

Their complete lack of understanding of the nature of the Russian state as a state capitalist economy exploiting and oppressing workers in order to compete globally, meant they could embrace nationalisation while condemning ‘Communism’ as some kind of Russian nightmare conjured up by Lenin which would never appeal to British workers. Draconian labour laws, camps for dissidents, lack of democracy, token trade unions, militarism, and a strong state manipulated by policemen and bureaucrats, accompanied by ‘socialist’ spin around peace and progress, were features rejected by Labour and trade union leaders. The idea that capitalism could take many forms, shaped by the vagaries of the world system, was simply not on their radar.

What is striking today is the way some of these New Labour leaders have reconfigured their early ideas and transformed them into something palatable for the City. Having given up challenging the private sector with the threat of planning, these people have turned their attention to the one area the Tories could never restructure—the welfare state.

New Labour’s offensive against public sector workers—productivity deals underpinned with draconian leave, sickness, competency and capability policies, often rubber-stamped by trade union leaders, and delivered by tyrannical managers, would probably not have seemed out of place in turbulent Hungary. Neither would the utter contempt displayed by New Labour politicians and their creatures for working class people. Handing over control, as well as billions of pounds worth of the welfare state to capitalists through a myriad of legislation has come as a profound shock to millions of workers who, despite everything, still hold on to a kernel of resistance to a market-driven health and education service. Yet, under the guise of reform and progress, efficiency, initiative and partnership, this is precisely what is being done.

So what is happening? Is this straightforward privatisation when public service workers do not directly produce surplus value? But how do you maintain a nationalised health or education service while satisfying business demands to get their snouts in the trough? Do the billions of pounds ploughed into public services serve the same function as those fat military contracts did in the 1950s and 1960s and stabilise the system? Are today’s Labour leaders following a path of deflected state capitalism with the logical result of imperialist war abroad and fear and terror at home?

It’s a pity that Stan left the Socialist Review Group and subsequently became a Labour MP. Five years after giving that terrible talk in his classroom I joined the SRG’s successor, the International Socialists. It was there that I learned that history-making events like the Hungarian Revolution provide both opportunities and dangers. The opportunities Stan has clearly pointed out (and socialists would not have missed the parallels with today challenges). But there’s something in me that says that the dangers may well have been lying dormant in Stan’s chosen party for the past 50 years.