From Attlee to Corbyn

published by Merlin

Duncan Bowie on Corbyn and the Ethical Socialist tradition

There has been a recent plethora of books on the trajectory of the labour party, many focusing on whether the labour party still is (or ever was) a socialist party. This is one of the better studies. Starting with an extensive commentary of Robert Tressell (Peter Noonan) and his 1914 iconic novelised autobiography The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Beveridge seeks to trace the values of the Labour Party through to the current era.

Beveridge avoids the debates about whether the party had Marxist or Methodist origins or whether the party is a working class or bourgeois party, but returns to what he sees as the basic socialist values within the labour movement of social justice, economic equality, full employment and social welfare. On this record, the Atlee government comes out fairly well (at least in its early years). Harold Wilson’s administration is seen as Fabian revivalism, with Beveridge’s sympathy being firstly with the Bevanite left and then with Tony Benn. Not surprisingly, the “modernisation” of Labour in the Blair era is seen as a retreat from socialist ideals. Most interestingly, the Corbyn era is seen as a return to the ideals of ethical socialism. Beveridge does seem to have a case to argue here and gives a more positive perspective on Corbyn’s political approach than most commentators. Corbyn was never a Marxist and certainly not a Trotskyite in theoretical terms. He nevertheless was (and is) a decent man who shares the basic principles and enthusiasm (though not necessarily the religious fervour) of the early ethical socialists. Fortunately, Beveridge does not bother to spend much space on trying to work out whether Keir Starmer is a principled socialist or not. Beveridge sees the socialist ideal as moving through a trajectory – from a utopian dream of a cooperative commonwealth, through a belief in a statist model of nationalised industries and welfare provision   to one of combining central state with local democratic power. It could however be argued that there is now little left of either a central state or local democratic power. Beveridge ends with a rallying call for a return to socialist principles. A book well worth reading.

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