On March 9th, after five and a half years as Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin retired from the Foreign Office. This date was also his seventieth birthday and, therefore, was a traditionally significant date in the life of this man who has spent almost all his life in the Labour Movement. A convenient moment, indeed, to review briefly his commonly accepted success in this field.
From being a worker in the docks and an active trade unionist he eventually became the Dockers’ Leader and General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union—a foremost figure in the struggle of that section of the working-class on the industrial field against the employers, for higher wages and better working conditions. His political allegiance was given to the mouthpiece of the trade unions on the political field—the Labour Party. With the growth of this Party Ernest Bevin grew in political influence eventually reaching in the last World War the position of Minister of Labour and National Service in the National Government. From being in a position of receiving the lash across his shoulders he now held the stock of the whip in his hand.
In the years that had passed there had of course been no fundamental change in the economic basis of the country, or the World, in which he lived. Known to the workers as a strong trade unionist and regarded as one of their best friends in their struggle against the constant pressure of the capitalists to obtain more work for less wages he was chosen as the best person to receive their confidence in the war-time drive for greater production. His work in this sphere involved him in the execution of impositions and restrictions on the working-class so that greater production could be wrung from their sweating hides. He was chosen as the executive officer to give effect to the Churchill doctrine of “blood, tears, toil, and sweat,” particularly the latter half of it. It is of no use to call into question Mr. Bevin’s sincerity; all his life his cherished ideals have been those of a rescuer of the oppressed and downtrodden. Unfortunately the greatest sincerity is not enough—a knowledge of the causes of things is the key to the understanding of them and the solution to any problems arising from them. In particular, knowledge of the cause and development of the capitalist system and of the position of the working-class in this system is essential to any real approach to the solution of the problems that beset the working-class. This Ernest Bevin lacked.
It is not surprising, however, to find an article in the Daily Herald (March 10, 1951) headed “Idealist who had to turn Realist.” It is, and always has been, the failing of reformers to consider the real approach to the solution of the main problems facing the workers, namely, their poverty, their insecurity and their participation in wars, to be that of attempting to remedy the hundred and one various small ways in which these problems manifest themselves on the surface. They never attack the cause of these problems, which is the capitalist system itself, and claim that those who do, as does the Socialist Party of Great Britain, are the idealists!
With the Labour Party’s overwhelming victory at the polls in 1945, Ernest Bevin went to the Foreign Office, apparently still an idealist (according to the Daily Herald.)
In the article mentioned it states that “when he took on the job of Foreign Secretary, he had a clear idea of what he hoped to do. The first job, of course, must be the making of the peace treaties, the settling of the new frontiers, the building of an efficient Four-Power system in Germany. Then there were such problems as Palestine and Anglo-Egyptian relations. In his buoyant optimism he hoped that all this would get tidied up in a few months. Afterwards he thought he could get on with the real work of a Foreign Secretary—not have to worry about “power politics” but give all his mind to international, social and economic co-operation.
As the article later states, “these high hopes were never fulfilled. They all depended on Soviet co-operation in the making and keeping of the Peace.” As is common knowledge, disillusionment came quickly. At times the attitude of the Soviet statesman made him angry because he resented being accused of imperialism; because “his old belief in the democratic and peaceful intentions of the Soviet Government was being shattered.” Despite this frustration of all his hopes he went doggedly on, “still hoping that patience would bring a change.” After the conference in Moscow in 1947 Bevin said, “ It looks as if we may get an Austrian treaty. And if we do. that could be the beginning of an understanding.” This did not materialise, instead came the extended developments of the “Cold-War.”
As the article says, “It was then that Bevin realised that there was nothing for it but to accept and face an ugly situation in a spirit of hard realism.”
What does all this really mean?
This giving up of “ideals” was looked upon as an exception in the days of 1931 when MacDonald, Snowden, and other Labour leaders went over to the National Government in order to deal with the “real” problems. But what was thought, by supporters of the Labour Party, to be the exception in 1931 has certainly proved to be the rule during the intervening twenty years. Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, and other Labour leaders time and time again since 1939 have discovered that they have had to go against ideals they previously professed, or, as they would claim, the day when these ideals can be fulfilled must be postponed because some impediment exists which must be dealt with first.
Before 1914 the Labour Party could be called mildly pacifist, but their decision to support the Kaiser’s War put paid to that ideal for a while. From 1918 to 1939 it again became ideally peace loving but the Nazi “threat to democracy” again upset the apple cart. Since 1945 it has become a peace loving Party (whilst making a noisy clangour with its sabre rattling), but finds that the regime it adopted as its blood brother from 1917, “Socialist” Russia, is acting like a cuckoo in the nest. The pacifist ideal the Labour Party always has to discard when it comes to the conclusion that the only “real” solution to the differences between national groups lies in war. Their support of war is an important matter for reflection for it is in wartime that governments are forced to exploit the workers even more than “normal.” This increased exploitation is brought about by means of lengthening the working day and introducing more efficient methods of production enabling the workers to produce more goods in the same time. At the same time there is a shortage of man-power arising from the transfer of men from production to the armed forces and also the need for greater production. To enable the necessary production to be carried out smoothly it is necessary for the government to introduce all kinds of restrictive measures to prevent the working-class taking advantage of the "nation’s distress.” The most damaging of these restrictions prevents the so-called freedom of contract between employee and employer. Workers are prevented from leaving their jobs without permission, and strikes are made illegal unless the government are first informed to enable them to deal with the matter.
Ideals, such as opposition to conscription and to the maintenance of restrictive practices in trades and many minor reforms, have to be sacrificed on the altar of Mars.
The threat of war to-day is once again turning the Labourites from4 "idealists” into "realists.” This continual turning of the coat cannot be avoided. Their ideals may be the betterment of the working-class but they do not understand that the position of the working class cannot be improved within the capitalist system, nor the problems which this system throws up be solved unless the system itself be abolished. So long as they see no need to abolish the capitalist system, so long will the system exist and continue to throw up all sorts of "scapegoat” problems. Even if one problem is dealt with and seems to have disappeared, it will be found to re-appear in another form. Consequently, despite all their high ideals there will always be a multitude of problems, large and small, which will demand a “realist” approach and prevent the ideals being realised.
Morrison has gone to the Foreign Office in place of Bevin, no doubt with the same ideals as Bevin had when he started, but there is also no doubt that he will leave the Foreign Office a disillusioned and disappointed man. The problem of war cannot be solved in the Foreign Offices of the world. Wars in the modern world arise from the conflict and strife always present in the economics of capitalism. To sell goods capitalist nations must have markets, to produce goods they must have readily available supplies of raw materials: to protect the goods that are produced, the goods to be sold, and the property they own, the capitalist class must use armed forces to protect the strategic routes and supplies in the world. Wars are the struggle for the self-preservation of the competing national capitalisms when they are no longer able to achieve their economic aims by peaceful methods.
Any Foreign Secretary who believes that he can solve this problem, who believes that he can achieve permanent world peace, before capitalism itself is abolished all the world over is bound to fail in his task.
The only solution to the problem of war lies in the understanding of the cause of war. Not, of course, by one Foreign Secretary, but by the majority of the world working-class. Only then will the real problem be really dealt with.