November 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
Attlee's life was quite a success story. Born in 1883 — the fourth of the eight children of Henry Attlee, a solicitor — he collected honours and distinction for himself. Educated at a public school and Oxford, he was a major in the first world war and had what is known as a "gallant record" as an infantry officer. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1922, became a private secretary to Ramsay MacDonald in the first Labour government and succeeded Oswald Mosley as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1930. By 1935 he was leader of the Labour party and, as such, he became deputy Prime Minister in the war-time coalition. Finally, after the war, he was Prime Minister for the six years of Labour rule up to 1951.
When he died last month, there were plenty of tributes. Harold Wilson summed him up as "one of the greatest men of our generation". Mr. Heath remembered his "political courage"; Mountbatten his "integrity"; President Johnson his "great distinction". Even the Queen said she was sad at his death. All this is quite understandable from a capitalist point of view. The only comment we would add is that Attlee was a cunning and bitter enemy of the working class.
In many ways his progress was typical. Coming from a Tory background, he was upset by the squalor of working class life in the East End where he did some social work as a young man. Like many others of his generation he had a facility for getting worked up about the minor injustices of capitalism and this decided him to join a 'radical' organisation, the I.L.P. Also, like many another, he was completely assimilated into the society which he had once claimed to vehemently oppose. So much so that by the end of his life he was very much a pillar of the establishment — a hereditary Earl in a House of Lords which he had at one time attacked as a citadel of privilege.
He was an opportunist In the nineteen thirties the Labour party was at a low ebb, after its two farcical attempts to administer capitalism in 1924 and 1929. Given the prolonged effects of the slump, and the despair and anger which many workers felt, it was easy to strike a revolutionary pose. In fact Attlee, on a number of issues, was arguing a case similar to that of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. He wrote convincingly against workers supporting capitalist governments:
There are those who, realising the danger of menace of the Fascist Powers, tend to take up an attitude of supporting a Capitalist Government at home as the least of two evils. They tend to underestimate the reality of the struggle between Capitalism and Socialism, and to magnify the differences between democratic Capitalist States and Fascist States. (The Labour Party In Perspective. 1937)
He was fond of stressing that the choice confronting the working class was between a vain attempt to patch up a rotten capitalist society "or a rapid advance to a Socialist reconstruction of the national life. There is no half-way house ..." (Socialism and Peace, 1935). He also called for a sweeping solution to the housing problem:
In the socialists’ plan there would be no little cottages and no large private houses. All would be reasonably well housed, while the only large buildings would be those owned and used by the community, in one of which the villagers would meet to settle their common affairs.
(The Will and the Way to Socialism)
Of course, any thoughtful worker could see that this was so much eyewash. When Attlee indicated how this social revolution was going to be achieved he made it clear that this 'new' society which the Labour party envisaged would merely be an over-hauled capitalism, with working men and women still employed in nationalised, state-capitalist industries as well as privately owned enterprises.
A Labour government, therefore, not only by the transference of industry from profit-making for the few to the service of the many, but also by taxation, will work to reduce the purchasing power of the wealthier classes, while by wage increases and by the provision of social services it will expand the purchasing power of the masses.
(The Will and the Way to Socialism).
Naturally, with the outbreak of the second world war, the Labour party suddenly shed all their hostility to capitalist governments. Attlee, Bevin and Morrison served as ministers under Churchill and helped direct a war in which countless millions of workers were slaughtered. With sickening hypocrisy Attlee supported the use of the atom bomb against the cities of Japan at the same time as he was urging that "there is only one principle that can serve the world, . . . the Christian principle that all men are brothers one of another." (Speech to the TUC conference, 1945).
Also forgotten were those brave words about socialism or capitalism—"there is no half-way house . . . " For, replying to a taunt from Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in 1949, he maintained that Britain was in a transition stage — half-capitalist and half- socialist.
We live in the days of a mixed economy. The Right Hon. gentleman is quite wrong when he suggests that this is a purely capitalist economy. It is neither purely capitalist nor purely socialist, but a mixed economy in a transition period.
(Hansard col. 1633. 27th Oct., 1949).
This then is what the spokesmen of the capitalist class mean by "integrity", "political courage", "a great man". In fact, the most illuminating comment on Attlee was in the Queen's letter of sympathy to his son; "In war and peace he served his sovereigns and the nation (read capitalist class) well." Anyone who remembers the news films of the coronation ceremony, with Clement cringing in the background like a senile version of Uriah Heep, or of Winston Churchill's funeral, with pall-bearer Attlee tottering along, will know what she meant. She might have added that at no time was Attlee of more value to the ruling class than after the second world war when his government launched a massive rearmament programme. There had been a widespread revulsion against militarism following the first world war and this was repeated in 1946. The British capitalist class, however, needed all the strength it could muster if it was to carve out new markets and spheres of influence for itself in the post-war world. In retrospect it seems that only a Labour government could have got away with such an immediate and large-scale development of nuclear weapons.
All this explains why the bourgeois press had nothing but kind words for Attlee in their obituaries — and why Socialists are working for the day when men like Clement Attlee will be nothing more than a nasty memory.