Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Geoff Ellen on the Attlee Government and strike-breaking

'The principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.'
Clement Attlee, July 26, 1945.

 2015 marks among other things the 70th anniversary of the election of the 1945 Labour Government under Clement Attlee - considered the high point of British socialism by many in the Labour Party - and even by socialists outside the Labour Party - the zeitgeist of collectivism which led to the victory of the 1945 election for example was celebrated recently in the documentary 'The Spirit of '45' by the socialist film-director Ken Loach.  Yet as Geoff Ellen showed in a classic 1984 article in International Socialism journal, Labour and strike-breaking 1945-51, the 'socialism' of this Labour government was highly questionable, to put it mildly:

At the hands of what many workers believed to be ‘their’ government, striking dockers, gas workers, miners and lorry drivers were denounced, spied upon and prosecuted. Two States of Emergency were proclaimed against them and two more were narrowly averted. Above all, the government used blacklegs against these strikes, often with the connivance of the strikers’ own trade union leaders. On 18 different occasions between 1945 and 1951, the government sent troops, sometimes 20,000 of them, across picket lines to take over strikers’ jobs. By 1948 ... ‘strike-breaking had become almost second nature to the Cabinet’...

This year there are lots of conferences and events being held to discuss the legacy of the Attlee Government, such as the one being organised by the London Socialist Historians Group on 28 February - and Ellen's article remains relevant and repays re-reading today. As Ellen concluded,

Attlee’s government has left its mark ... Nuclear weapons, NATO, American bases such as Greenham Common, peace-time wage controls, even attacks on the National Health Service – most of our current nightmares, in fact – can be traced back to the 1945 Labour government. Are these the legacies of a socialist government? Even its record of full employment, a Welfare State, improving standards of living and nationalisation, on which its claim to socialism rested, continued throughout the 1950s under the Tories. No-one has yet claimed that Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan were socialists! 

 Attlee’s Cabinet did what all Labour governments have done – it managed capitalism while using the rhetoric in a way that made reforms both possible and even desirable. But once the post-war boom petered out, the bottom fell out of this strategy. Under the Wilson and Callaghan governments, the carrot gave way to the stick: theirs was reformism without reforms. 

 In other words, the difference between the Labour Party in Attlee’s day and in the 1980s is not one of policies but of circumstances. Capitalism’s greatest boom had given way to its present, protracted slump, but Labour’s commitment to managing the capitalist system is as strong as ever. So is its commitment to parliament, and its hostility to working class struggle as a means of change. The strikebreaking record of the 1945 Labour government shows what Labour’s politics meant when capitalism was relatively healthy. With recession making working class struggle more crucial than ever, we can imagine what it will mean in the future.

 Incidentally, who was Geoff Ellen, one might ask? Well, in the preface to what was to be his last work, The Vote: How it was won and how it was undermined (2005) Paul Foot gave us some sense of this socialist activist:

 In 1972, I joined the staff of Socialist Worker and worked there full-time until 1978. It was, and is, sold as widely as possible by a small handful of agitators. The few full-time journalists on the paper were all my friends, all exceptionally able and engaging people. 

The gentlest and most dedicated of them was a professional sub-editor called Geoff Ellen. He came from Chelmsford in Essex and was, among other things, an absurdly devoted West Ham supporter. He spent pretty well all his spare time organising for socialism. There was not a trade unionist in Essex he had not tried to push or pull into some form of revolt. On Tuesday nights we were kept late at work by the printing of the last few pages, and indulged ourselves in takeaway kebabs and long, heart-searching conversations. 

As the great industrial climax of the early 1970s, to our astonishment, fell back, I began privately to worry that the entire revolutionary project, and the ideas that gave rise to it, were misconceived. One evening, as we waited for the proofs, I blurted out my apprehensions to Geoff. I had joined the staff in the autumn of 1972, at a time of huge convulsions and great hope for the future. If anyone had asked me, I would have said at once that I was hoping for, and confidently expecting, a revolution. By late 1975, however, I complained to Geoff, that change had not come. It was obviously not going to come from Harold Wilson or Dennis Healey, but we had always known that. In the decline of the movement, the issue seemed to have changed. Was the revolution going to come at all? And if not, what was to become of us if our grand aim in life was to be frustrated and even ridiculed? 

 To my enormous relief, Geoff cheered me up with his speciality: a huge all-enveloping grin. "If the revolution doesn't come," he said, "there is nothing much we can do about that. Whether it comes or not, there is nothing for us to do but what we are doing now: fight for it, fight for the workers and the poor." 

 Some years later, Geoff, still a young man, went to bed one night with a headache and died from a brain haemorrhage. All his adult life, he stuck firmly by his advice to me that dark winter evening in 1975. And so, I hope, have I.

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