Notes on the News
By Madawc Williams
Labour and Moscow
In the 1950s, there was a clear and healthy antagonism between democratic socialism and communism. Democratic socialists wanted to improve the existing social and economic system in Britain and the rest of the Western world. Communists wanted to overthrow it and replace it with a new system modelled on the Soviet Union. This division of forces actually resulted in a multiplication of strength. Communists got on with the job of building a new world, confident that whatever suffering they might be causing was justified by the inherent nobility of their cause. Democratic socialists felt an equal degree of virtue – they could achieve the same ends by gentler methods. Even right-wingers found it wise to incorporate many socialist ideas in their programs. MacMillan’s Toryism was basically social-democratic, and most Tories accepted this as the best that could be hoped for in a changed world.
Then came Khrushchev. The whole move away from socialism started with the post-Stalin leadership of the USSR. It was they who first proposed replacing state planning by market forces, at a time when even the Tories had relegated such ideas to the lunatic fringes. Under Stalin, the USSR had become a superpower based on state planning and state ownership. It took three decades of market “reforms” to reduce it to the present shambles.
Worse than that was what Khrushchevism did to democratic socialism. The healthy antagonism broke down, since Labour Party people supposed that the USSR was now moving towards democratic socialism. With naive optimism, they tried to ease the process by being nice to their former foes. But in truth, Khrushchevism was neither a socialist nor a democrat The socialist aspects of the Stalin era were demolished. The whole apparatus of repression and dictatorship was kept in being. The only significant reform was that purged party officials were no longer shot. For the bulk of the population, the system remained exactly the same, except that it was run by greedy cynics rather than harsh idealists.
It was the Labour party, guided by Ernest Bevin, that created NATO. It was Labour that pioneered the strategy of containing the Soviet Empire while ensuring prosperity for ordinary people in Western Europe. But when this strategy finally brought about the non-violent destruction of the Soviet system, it was Thatcher and the Tories who got the credit.
Tories are trying to make a big thing of the links that some Labour politicians had to Moscow. The truth is, all of those links were disastrous for Labour and a free gift to the Tories. Almost all of the advice they gave was wrong, and disastrous for Labour’s chances of carrying through sensible left-wing reforms.
With the decaying USSR gone, socialism can begin a long slow process of recovery.
Early in February, the Sun carried a small item about a “six page diatribe against Kinnock” that L&TUR had supposedly carried “yesterday”. Now this was odd, since our magazine only appears every second month, and had last appeared in January. Even more strangely, the reference seemed to be to the six-page editorial of our November-December issue. They seem to have a peculiar notion of time, over therein the strange Twin-Peaks territory of the Sun.
I say ‘seemed to be’, because two out of three quotes came from that particular article. A striking reference to “high-flying power-mad yuppies” doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. Possibly the phrase wandered in from some other article on the Sun’s computer, while the author of the piece was busy ogling Page Three girls.
Nor would a Sun reader get the least idea of what the article was actually about. The point at issue was the way in which Labour’s leadership are pushing the idea of proportional representation – and doing so without any proper debate or decision by the Labour Party Conference. It argued for “ensuring the long-term survival of the Labour Party as one of the two serious parties in British politics“. Devolution for Scotland and Wales risks losing Labour a large proportion of its safe seats and the lands that produced many of Labour’s best leaders. Proportional representation would make it impossible for Labour ever again to rule in its own right. Some people on the left mostly began pushing electoral reform when Thatcher looked invincible. But with Thatcher gone, and the next election very winnable, it is foolish to go on pushing such notions.
SDLP delenda est
Several years ago, the Protestant paramilitaries had hung up their guns, and even IRA violence was on the decline. A few more years of doing exactly the same thing would probably have forced the Provisionals to call a cease-fire, especially if they had continued to make progress as a constitutional party.
Then came the Anglo- Irish agreement. This enraged the Protestants without satisfying the Catholics. More than that – it was clearly demonstrated that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position could be changed by Westminster without regard to the views of the majority of its population, Even though the IRA denounced the Agreement, the very fact that it had happened gave them renewed hope. Their campaign began to pick up again, and in due course their killings of Protestants reactivated the dormant Protestant paramilitary killers.
Who argued for the Anglo-Irish agreement? The SDLP. Who was it supposed to benefit? The SDLP, in as much as it would help them fight off the electoral challenge of the IRA/ Sinn Fein. This ‘benefit’ of the agreement has been its only solid achievement, and has been of benefit only to the SDLP. All over the world, former terrorist or guerrilla armies have been turning to democratic politics. In Southern Ireland, three out of the five major parties began in just this way. But by listening to the SDLP, the British government threw away this prospect.
or is this the only mess that the SDLP are responsible for. Back in the early 1970s, they wrecked power-sharing by insisting on an ‘Irish Dimension’ despite growing Protestant hostility to the notion. The talk is always of “unity by consent”. But in practice, their notion of “consent” is not all that different from Mike Tyson’s
This article appeared in March 1992, in Issue 28 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.