The British Left Made Thatcher Possible

The headlong flight of Labour furthered

Eric Hobsbawm and the triumph of Thatcherism

by Brendan Clifford

Eric Hobsbawm made an observation in 1978, and that observation has made him famous. His observation is summed up in the title of his Marx Memorial Lecture (which was published in Marxism Today): “The Forward March of Labour Halted“.

I attended quite a few of the Marx Memorial Lectures in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were all exercises in fantasy dressed up as science, so I stopped going. Their function, as far as I could see, was to give consolation to the faithful by interpreting the world in such a way that it was made to appear to be changing in the desired and expected manner.

The fantasy was at its most credible early in 1965, when Jack Woddis elaborated the “non-capitalist” scenario for the Third World, a large part of which was then governed by former members or fellow-travellers of the Communist Party. I recall Woddis describing how on his travels he dropped in on Prime Ministers here, there and the other place, and saw the three volumes of Capital on their library shelves as he took tea with them in their studies and discussed how the world was to be directed. But even when his friends began to topple like ninepins, Woddis did not cease to fantasise. (“Marxist analysis” is possibly the greatest aid to fantasy ever devised.)

Hobsbawm was in those days an unknown quantity, hovering between the Communist Party (of which he reportedly remained a member) and the New Left. Occasionally he made a remark by way of Stalin-criticism which might have been seminal but for the fact that it fell on the barren ground of his own imagination.

Stalin-criticism was a profound psychological malaise masquerading as politics. Stalin was in fact what he understood himself to be – the master craftsman of the system of politics established by Lenin. Stalin-criticism was a debilitating mental condition which denounced Stalin as a means of keeping Lenin sacrosanct. I got the reputation of being a Stalinist because I could not criticise Stalin as a deviator from Leninism, though I always made it clear that I would be happy to criticise him as the finest exponent of Leninism. My Bolshevik affinity was always with the tendency that Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Stalin and Zinoviev showed perfect unanimity in destroying in 1920/21.

1956 brought an end to dogmatic innocence in the Communist Party. 1978 brought Hobsbawm’s revelation that the forward march of Labour was halted. The means by which the Communist movement coped with that loss of innocence was a major influence in bringing the forward march of Labour to a halt.

Until 1956, the Communist movement was the Communist Party. It had a strong influence in a narrow sphere. And Trotskyism was a very esoteric affair, scarcely visible beyond the fringe of political life. The events of 1956 led to a rapid increase in the numerical strength and ideological vitality of Trotskyism. And splits from the Communist Party led to the formation of the New Left.

In the twenty-three years between the 20th Congress of the CPSU – and consequent invasion of Hungary – and the election of Thatcher, the Communist movement in fragmentation was immensely influential in British political life. It consisted of the Party remnant, three or four Trotskyist tendencies, and the New Left, which was a sort of Moscow/Trotskyist hybrid.

The Party set about explaining its past as presented to it in Khrushchev’s secret speech by pleading ignorance of what had really happened in the great events of which it had been so proud until the secret speech. On a commonsense reckoning the plea of ignorance was incredible. But the Comintern had abrogated commonsense, and it is possible to agree that for more than thirty years its leaders did not know what they were doing – provided that one can also say that Saint Just, when he proposed to execute most of the population of France so that Virtue might be made secure, did not know what, he was saying.

To use the footballing expression: it hadn’t sunk in yet.

And unfortunately it never did sink in. For twenty years after 1956 all the magical arts of the dialectic were deployed to prevent it from sinking in.

The mind of the Party, being preoccupied with apologetics for its own past, could not be brought to bear with any degree~ of realism on the business of preparing the Labour movement for consolidating and extending its hegemony of British social life.

The Trotskyist movement was even less attuned to British realities. For where the Party was riddled with suppressed· guilt, Trotskyism was full of historic injured innocence, spun out of ‘The Revolution Betrayed”. The millions who were disposed of before 1924 were effectively hidden by the ‘millions who were disposed of after 1924. And then of course Bukharinism made its appearance with Ken Coates and the Institute for Workers’ Control, for whom the great watershed between Good and Evil was 1928.

From 1956 to 1979 “British Marxism” was a multifarious movement. It was full of vitality – but, as with the frenzied activity of a flight of midges in a country lane on a summer twilight, it was difficult to see any purpose to it.

The tight sect of 1920-1956 fell apart in a dozen directions and all the fragments flourished. Bourgeois ideology was exposed and ridiculed as never before. Bourgeois ideology was refuted in theory and was displaced in practice. The ideological state apparatuses were hegemonized, and right thinking became obligatory in the universities and polytechnics. By the mid-1970s there was hardly a commercial book publisher whose Readers (the people who read material submitted for publication and decide whether to publish it) were not Marxists.

A situation was arrived at in which it was so difficult to find real bourgeois ideologists to chastise that rival Marxist tendencies had to be used as substitutes. By the early 1970s it seemed to me that bourgeois ideology was kept in being in England only as a notion which was necessary to Marxist polemics. When New Left Books connected up with Penguin Books, where were the bourgeoisie?

Now this phenomenon cannot be explained simply by the break-up of the self-limiting sect that Communism was in 1956, and the increased capacity for growth resulting from fragmentation. It was the case that English society was ready for working class hegemony and was waiting to be hegemonized.

Ever since 1688 England has been a progressive state: that is, it has changed through internal development and its public framework of life has been a means of enabling change to occur. In that long process of evolution, social groups have displaced each other from below, and as each new group has come to dominance it has acquired the art of statecraft from its predecessors.

When I came to England in the late 1950s, it was waiting to be mastered by the working class as it had previously been mastered by the bourgeoisie, and before that by the aristocracy.

Evolution is nothing at all like chaos, though revolution often is. The continuous change since 1688 occurred on the condition that at each moment England had some idea of where it was at. (the reason it could not settle down under Cromwell was that it could not understand where it was at under him. He knew that this was the case, but could do nothing about it.)

In the late 1950s England was taking leave of the bourgeoisie and waiting to be given coherence and purpose by the working class. The signs of this were evident in every sphere of life. The post-war Labour Government had produced a lasting social impression of an irreversible shift of power between classes. The bourgeoisie, in the form of the Tory Party, were not fighting back. The society was waiting expectantly for the new form of things to be filled out, and the Tory Party was doing itself a favour by helping to fill them out. The rich are always with us, and the Tories were content to be the rich in an evolving liberal socialism.

In literature, the feeling of being in an interval between epochs was overwhelming. Evelyn Waugh, the last great bourgeois writer, wrote the self-conscious swan-song of the old world. And expectation of the new world hailed Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider” as one of the great master-works of world philosophy just because Wilson had not been to Oxbridge. The theatre was all Angry Young Men, who were hailed as new Shakespeares by Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times. And brittle Yorkshire novels were giving the coup de grace to the Victorian era in English fiction.

I thought the final act of Waiting for Godot captured the spirit of the time rather well. I can remember nothing of the second act. I suppose Godot never came. What England was waiting for certainly did not come.

Matthew Arnold said that a substantial literature can only be produced after a sound critical substructure has been put down for it. German literature flourished on the basis of Kant. Victorian literature flourished on the basis of Burke, Pitt and Tom Paine (between whom there was, despite their quarrels, an enormous complicity). Socialist literature did not flourish on the basis of Marxism.

Bevin made the economic arrangements for socialist Britain. Bevan travestied Bevin’s achievement. And as Bevan was reaching the end of his tether, the Marxist expansion occurred and waged a scorched-earth campaign on all the assumptions that had made Bevin’s achievement possible.

Marxism dominated the intellectual life of England from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Unfortunately, Marxist thought was thought about Marxism. The categories of political economy were memorised and the Introduction to the Critique was meditated upon, and that was pretty well that. Thought was about the relations of concepts. Did theory reflect practice? Or did theory determine practice? And should the two properly be joined together as praxis?

The actualities of English life were vague shadows beyond the concepts, and Marxism had nothing to say about them that was of any use to them.

The forward march of Labour was halted all right. But it was halted by the Communist Party and its offshoots more than by any other influence. The CP/Trotskyist/New Left spectrum took over the generation of radicals who should have been filling out Bevinite Britain and directed them into evasive speculations on the history of Bolshevism and the order and relationship of the concepts of Marxism.

And the halt occurred just ten years before Hobsbawm observed it. He does not mention Barbara Castle and “In Place of Strife“. But the effective CP campaign against Barbara’s Bill is what halted the forward march of Labour.

A working class in social dominance cannot behave in the manner of a proletariat devising elementary means of self-defence. If it does so it will not remain in dominance.

But the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in its form of Leninist ecstasy, dies hard.

Lenin loved to describe the dictatorship as class dominance unbound by law. And, no matter what careful formulations were inserted in “The British Road to Socialism“, the Communist Party never freed itself from that ideal, and the wider Communist movement was reinforcing it with new theoretical discoveries. For example, the great blossoming of law theory in Russia in 1918-1928 was beginning to impinge on British Communist consciousness: and the basic thesis of the revolutionary Bolshevik conception of law (as stated with admirable clarity by its leading exponent, Pashukanis) was that law was bourgeois. Not that particular laws had hitherto been drafted in the interest of the bourgeoisie, but that law as such was bourgeois and would wither away as socialism developed.

And so in the very period when the Communist Party worked hard at the tactic of simulating an adaptation to “bourgeois democracy”, the mind of the Left was being whisked farther away than it had ever been from the actualities in which socialism would have to develop in Britain. The expansion of Marxist theory which had failed Europe in the 1920s did not make waves in Britain until the 1960s. And then after a lapse of half a century it repeated its European achievement in Britain.

It is possible that if the naive Stalinist monolith had remained in place for a further twenty years, a realistic workers’ control movement would have had a chance. Stalin was, notoriously, an empiricist, a meddler in practicalities, and when he achieved supreme power he abolished the abolition of law. (the law may to this day be largely inoperative in the Soviet Union, but in principle the state is governed within a comprehensive framework of law. And, according to Bolshevik: theory of the Lenin period, that should not be.)

But the Stalinist monolith was broken and the minds of millions on the British Left were exploding with the theoretical notions of a cockeyed and leaderless Leninism, which had taken fifty different forms. (The Communist Party itself had become a medley of factions.)

Lenin’s theoretical conceptions are highly stimulating, and if one has not been stimulated by them it can hardly be said that one has lived in the 20th century. But Lenin’s theories were not his guide to action. His nose for power was his guide to action, and his theories were usually things he hit people over the head with. In 1917 he published his magnificent Utopia, State and Revolution, in the disguise of a scientific treatise. For others it remained an enduring vision, but for him it was only an argument to be used in the overthrow of the bourgeois democracy. In 1921 it cost him no agony to dismiss it as one of the illusions needed for the accomplishment of the October Revolution, and as being outmoded.

What Lenin established was a secular counterpart of the Roman Catholic Church, complete with College of Cardinals and Pope: a vast organisation with a collective memory, a capacity for existing coherently from one generation to the next, a grand totalitarian objective to be achieved over a period of time which is unimaginable to the politicians of a representative democracy, and a capacity for flexibility of approach in different circumstances. Both organisations produce large quantities of theoretical material for the purpose of dominating individual minds and moulding them into a collective coherence.

Leninism became Protestant in England after 1956. The pamphlet and periodical material of the 1960s and 1970s is comparable for variety and mental vigour only with the Puritan pamphleteering of the 1640s. And it had a similar tendency towards fragmentation.

But there was no Cromwell to over-ride the logic of the sects and harness the energy of the movement to a development of state. The part of Cromwell could only have been played by a combination of trade union leaders. And the trade union leaders were themselves too much under the influence of the sects to do anything.

And so, when Barbara Castle proposed to begin consolidating working class power by establishing a framework of law for trade union activity, the Communist Party issued the slogan “Kill the Bill” and everybody had a grand time killing the Bill, with Jim Callaghan giving it the coup de grace in the Cabinet.

With the Bill killed the Labour Government became purposeless. It was elected in 1964 because Wilson conveyed to the country the conviction that he would enact a basic structural reform which was widely recognised to be necessary. There was consent that the reform should consolidate trade union power provided it made economic affairs more orderly. And so, with Labour funking the issue, a Tory government was elected in 1970 on a mildly Thatcherite programme.

For two years Heath persisted with the vision of Selsdon Man, the economic automaton who was to become the subject of British history in the 1980s. The trade unions made life very difficult for Selsdon Man and Heath abandoned him in 1972.

In 1972-1974 Heath attempted to establish a comprehensive framework of economic planning within which the trade unions would in practice have been the major power. The mechanism was formally established but the trade unions refused to participate. And they refused to participate because they would not adjudicate on differentials. They wanted to make protests about differentials and call strikes over them, but they did not want to be put on the spot where they would have to say what the proper differential between one job and another was.

Wages drift” was the prevailing theory of those times. It was devised in the 1960s by Tony Cliff, leader of what is now the SWP. It said that if the strongest unions used their economic muscle to maximise their own wages, this would be to the advantage of all because of the phenomenon of wages drift. Wage increases tended to drift downwards.

I had a personal as well as a theoretical interest in this reasoning because I never made it into the aristocracy of labour. The theory struck me as being senseless (because it made no unrealistic assumption about great productivity increases); and personal experience confirmed that it was hokum. In a static economy everybody cannot get more. And the low paid or unemployed were certainly not better off in the early 1970s than they are now.

When the strongest unions got the biggest wage increases they could, that increased their differential with other unions, who then went on strike to restore the differential. Since there was no agreed date on which differentials were what they ought to be, the situation was a kaleidoscope. Everybody could always make out some case about differentials when an argument was needed.

With all this activity going on, wages certainly, went up. But since the value of money went down, the theory of wages drift reflected only the reality of inflation.

For the February 1974 election I wrote a pamphlet in support of the Tories. Since I was living in Belfast, where nobody can play any part in deciding who governs, it made not an atom of difference who I supported. But, in the light of what has happened since then, I can have the satisfaction of saying that if people resident in Northern Ireland were allowed to take sides in British politics, I would have been on the right side in 1974.

Heath’s proposal was in some ways more radical than the Bullock proposals. It would have greatly enlarged the sphere of planning in the national economy, while the Bullock proposals were for workers’ control within each enterprise taken separately. In practice either would probably have led to the other.

The Communist slogan against Bullock was that it was “people’s capitalism“. I did not quibble over that slogan, but said that capitalism without capitalists was at least preferable to capitalism with them, which was the alternative.

It is conceivable that “people’s capitalism” might have developed as a variety of Thatcherism, though I think it improbable that it would. But the enhancement of planning proposed by Heath would certainly have worked its way through to a sort of workers’ control at enterprise level in the process of becoming effective. However, both were equally despised and rejected by the Communist Party and its numerous offspring, and the forward march of Labour was halted.

Because Hobsbawm had no real idea of how the forward march of Labour might have continued, he can give no explanation of why it halted. In place of an explanation there is some impressionistic economic determinism. But basically all there is, is the bare observation of the fact that it had halted. And because Thatcher came to power a year later and has remained in power ever since, Hobsbawm has acquired the status of a prophet.

The feeling latent in the 1978 article is that of the Leninist scheme which Hobsbawm had ceased to hold in any deliberate sort of way. Leninism was a weighty structure, and minds on which it had lain for any length of time bore its impression indelibly. What the man from Mars would. see in Hobsbawm’s mind is a great vacant site, and he would wonder what imposing structure had once occupied it.

The Forward March of Labour Halted?” should have been Hobsbawm’s swansong, the sad if not sweet confession that his life in the Communist Party had been a journey up a cul-de-sac. Instead of which it made him a famous wise man, who really had nothing more to say. And, in this media age, wise men must speak even though they have nothing to say. They can no longer make the world feel better simply by possessing their souls in patience.

And so, ten years later, Hobsbawm contributed to The Guardian (July 11, 1988) an article entitled “The Signs of Recovery“. In spirit it is an encouragement to the Labour Party to carry through its adaptation to Thatcherism. As a piece of reasoning it doesn’t exist, but it says that Neil and Bryan are fine chaps.

Neil’s strategy for Labour is to keep his head down in the hope that Thatcher will eventually do something so appalling that he will wake up one morning and find himself Prime Minister. Keeping his head down means not having a policy.

In two crucial sentences Hobsbawm combines wild rhetorical exaggeration with specific blandness:

“Like Germany in 1945, Britain after Thatcher will be a scene of destruction. Those who will need to rebuild what has to be reconstructed – not necessarily in the same way as before – need a preliminary survey of the bomb damage.”

Why, after ten years of supposedly unbridled capitalism which have made Britain a scene of general destruction, is the forward march of Labour still halted? Surely, since Thatcher has made class war a mode of government, Labour is being forced into battle array?

The fact is that for two terms Thatcher did hardly anything. She just let things happen. She let unemployment have its head, and through the de-selected defector from Labour, Reg Prentice, she made life on the dole easier that it had ever been. The TUC had rejected the Castle, Heath and Bullock proposals, so, when she said the Government had nothing to talk to them about, that could be seen to be a mere statement of fact. In 1978 Labour Left and Labour Right had said, in opposition to Bullock, that management was the business of the capitalists, and she said – So Be It.

With millions unemployed and, more importantly, a Government which made a great show of doing nothing about it, the capitalists recovered the power to manage. With unemployment running free the market had a proper slump, so that in the long run economic activity began to pick up again.

For two terms Thatcher engaged in masterful inactivity. She made the rich richer in pursuit of a spurious economic argument, but the act was effective in the moral sphere. It made the rich feel good about simply being rich. (In the 1960s all too many of them needed to have a pint with a shop steward in order to feel really worthy.) And if capitalism was to flourish again wealth had to regain its Puritan attribute of being an outward sign of inward grace. And she enacted paper privatisations which satisfied the backwoods while having little other effect.

In her third term she is showing signs of gaining the confidence to attempt the basic restructuring which she thought would be accomplished in the first term. She has enacted a trade union Bill designed to undermine, rather than democratise, trade union activity. She is attempting to impel the unemployed into cut-throat competition in the labour market. And she is manoeuvring for position against the NHS, which all Thatcherites know to be the core of the welfare state.

And what Neil and Bryan are doing is working hard at being nice – behind a smokescreen of new pseudo-policies carrying Hobsbawm’s imprimatur.

The most drastic reform currently in hand is the break-up of the national broadcasting system.

The BBC, under the incompetent direction of Alistair Milne, showed an exposed flank in 1985. Thatcher instantly went on the offensive, and has never allowed it to recover.

The BBC was established in 1927 as a public broadcasting service not run by the Government. It was operated independently of the Government on the condition of being a general service to Parliament. Parliament in practice means the governing party and party of opposition. The BBC became independent within the parameters set by Government and Opposition. and in no other way. It is debarred in principle from forming an opinion.

I became aware of the character of the BBC when I set about understanding why in Northern Ireland it never commented on the unique abnormality of the arrangement under which the province has been governed ever since 1921. I do not believe that anybody going there from England could possibly fail to see the abnormality. But BBC personnel cannot comment on it because Government and Opposition agree that a thoroughly abnormal political arrangement is to be considered normal for Northern Ireland.

In 1985 the Northern Ireland Controller slotted a “Real Lives” programme on a Sinn Fein leader (who was a well-known IRA leader in the 1970s) into the network. Thatcher objected. The Director-General dithered. The Governors. nudged by the Government, vetoed the programme. Vincent Hanna led a strike asserting the right of the broadcasters to broadcast.

Now the BBC is certainly not a guild of broadcasters. At its most independent it is in practice the Director-General. Conservative Director-Generals, from Reith to Charles Curran, maximised its independence by knowing its conditions of existence. Milne half went along with Vincent Hanna’s illusion, and put himself out of court. The BBC became in practice what it always was in law – the Governors and, in the last analysis, the Home Secretary. And, since 1986, the Chairman of the Governors (Marmaduke Hussey) has been better known than the Director-General (?), an unprecedented state of affairs.

The fund of independence from Government built up by the skill of earlier Director-Generals in tacking between Government and Opposition survived the collapse of effective Opposition in 1979. And, with the Labour Party routed and demoralised, the BBC ( or broadcasting in general, because BBC and ITV constitute a unit in the public sphere) gave offence by continuing as normal. The Government, becoming increasingly unaccustomed to sharp criticism in Parliament, became increasingly irritated by the criticism of the broadcasters – that is, by the implicit criticism of feature programmes, editorial criticism never having been allowed.

They decided to end this irritation. It was not on to make broadcasting a department of Government. The alternative course of action was to fragment broadcasting into a multitude of channels (in the interest of “freedom of choice”) so that it ceases to have any coherent existence in the life of the nation and thereby loses its power of criticism. The disarray of the BBC which became evident in the “Real Lives” dispute gave them the opportunity for this.

A competent Opposition would have stopped Vincent Hanna in his tracks and supported the Government for the purpose of preserving the established system, which was very much in its interest. Instead of doing that, it encouraged Hanna in his illusions.

Broadcasting of the particular kind developed in Britain has made it possible to be part of society while staying at home. It has brought society into the bedsit. It keeps people at home and yet socialises them. And it has absorbed national culture as a whole into itself.

It seems to me that Douglas Hurd has reckoned that the middle class has a national existence independent of television, that national broadcasting makes the masses too well-informed and undeferential, and that it is possible to restore middle class social dominance by dismantling national broadcasting. The people are to be re-proletarianised by removing from them – by trivialising – this vicarious means of social experience which is subversive of hierarchy.

And all this is conceivable, and is actually beginning to happen, because of the absence of an effective Opposition, an absence which Hobsbawm denies; because Labour’s march was halted years ago for reasons which he cannot acknowledge, and because this march will only ever be resumed when it finally recovers the political orientation of which he has been a life-long enemy.


This article appeared in March 1989, in Issue 10 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see