The Bevin Society was set up several years ago, but lapsed as individual members became involved in other matters – – including setting up Labour & Trade Union Review. It has now been re-founded by some of its original members, and given a clearer statement of aims and objectives. We reproduce them here.
The aim of the Bevin Society is to develop a programme for the Labour Party that will make possible a comprehensive collectivist reform as the framework for a more widely based individualism. The Bevin Society is essentially a development from a group in the Institute for Workers’ Control which actually supported workers’ control when it was a possibility of immediate practical politics: when it was proposed as a radical economic reform by the Bullock Committee.
The leadership of the Institute for Workers Control opposed the Bullock proposals on woolly ideological grounds, as did Neil Kinnock and most of the trade union leaders.
The ‘right to manage’
The “right of management to manage” was the conservative cry of both the left and right of the Labour movement, as well as of the budding Thatcherites. But ‘management’ is not a detached element operating between capital and labour. Management must be an agency of capital or an agency of labour.
Conservatism, or the continuation of the status quo, was not a practical possibility in the seventies. Labour had grown too powerful to enable the existing arrangements to continue. Both the leaders and the militants of the Labour movement lived in a fool’s paradise, believing that the trade union movement could refuse to become the basis of management and yet retain· the power to paralyse the management based on capital.
The status quo was doomed. The only question was whether Labour would become the basis of management, or trade union power would be weakened so that a management based on capital would again be effective. When the leaders of the Labour movement declined to enact a radical reform in the Labour interest, it was only a matter of time before a radical reaction restored the managerial power of capital.
The lost chance
If the Bullock Report had been adopted by the Labour movement it is likely that it would have become a watershed in British history comparable to the Beveridge Report (which established the Welfare State). It would have altered the framework of economics and politics, and opened up an array of new and stimulating conflicts and contradictions.
Because the Bullock Report was rejected by Labour, the Labour movement has ever since been disoriented in the face of successful capitalist reaction.
A static socialism
There were reasons of petty vested interest involved in the rejection of the Bullock Report. But much more important than these was the essentially static character of socialist ideology of all varieties in the movement. Socialism was a vaguely imagined eternal harmony, a secularised version of the state of affairs following the Day of Judgement. Some dreamed of a Leninist revolution as the means by which it would be ~stablished, while others imagined a systematic scheme of reform through social engineering. The Bullock Report was equally unacceptable to both because it was obviously not a recipe for eternal harmony.
A similar approach would have led to the rejection of the Beveridge Report in the 1940s. And there were those on the left as well as the right who rejected it.
Recovering the dynamic
But the Labour outlook in those days was not confined to visionary dreams of a final condition of things, and to empty rhetoric following from those visions. Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee were determined to enact the practical reforms of the day, and to develop through its conflicts while leaving eternal harmony to the metaphysicians.
The Labour movement is now in the doldrums because during the past two generations it has not developed out of the experience of that group of effective reformers who transformed the conditions of working class life when they came to power — and who came to power because they had impressed society with their capacity for radical and realistic reform.
The Bevin Society intends to regain for the present generation the experience of the Bevin/Attlee era, and to develop out of it a capacity for thought and action in place of the slogan and the gesture which are now the stock-in-trade of the Labour leadership.
This item appeared in October 1988, in Issue 8 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.