Laboring Fabians

The Fabians

by Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie
Simon and Schuster, 446 pp., $12.95

Nobody can hope to understand modern British politics without some insight into the extremely peculiar structure of the Labor Party; nobody can acquire that insight without looking into the history of the party; and nobody can do that without trying to grasp the part played in it by the Fabian Society, the subject of Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie’s book. Any attempt to describe that part briefly is bound to fail, but it might be useful at the outset to state, very provisionally, that in so far as British Labor is nonsocialist and middle-class, inclined to gradualism and the preservation of the mixed economy, it is so in great measure because of its powerful Fabian strain.

In fact, the party has always been an uneasy coalition of conflicting interests; the right wing predominates, and since every period of office coincides with a crisis that calls for cooperation with private industry and the deferment of socialist programs, Labor moves right when in government and left when in opposition. At this moment, it may be correctly inferred, movement rightward is fast, and accompanied by the usual complaints that the left, by objecting, is rocking the boat.

It is noteworthy that the controversy within the party proceeds along lines very firmly drawn in previous quarrels. The casus belli of the immediate moment is the election of Andy Bevan, a member of the Trotskyite Militant Group, to the post of youth officer of the party. Prime Minister Callaghan opposed this appointment on the curious (but Fabian) ground that the party’s civil servants should be “politically neutral.” Mr. Tony Benn, a leftist member of the cabinet, defended the appointment. Marxism, he explained, has always been accepted as one of the sources of the British Labor movement, “together with, though much less influential than, Christian Socialism, Fabianism, Owenism, trade unionism or even radical Liberalism.” (He could have added more isms to this list, including Henry Georgism.) “All that we require by way of political allegiance from party members or paid officials,” added Mr. Benn, “is that they should accept the policy and program of the Labor Party and thus commit themselves to advancing socialism through parliamentary democracy.” To suspect the motives of Marxists would be no more justifiable than to question those of followers of Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud, or Milton Friedman. And anyway, Benn concluded, the notion that the party is increasingly dominated by Marxists, about to be taken over by a group dedicated to the violent achievement of a one-party state, is simply a Tory delusion.

Tories have always had difficulty in understanding an adversary party which simultaneously believes and disbelieves in the mixed economy, is not Marxist but contains Marxists. Lord Chalfont warns readers of The Times that Mr. Bevan is a “subversive individual” who means to bring about left-wing totalitarianism and social revolution. On the same page of the same issue Eric Heffer, a Labor left-winger no longer in the government, explains to the same middle-class readers that Marxism is not a…

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