What follows is a guest post by Paul Unwin (@UnwinPaul), responding to yesterday’s piece in The Times: “True Socialism always ends with the Stasi” which you can read here.
I don’t dislike Danny Finkelstein but I certainly think his piece in the Times ‘True Socialism always end with the Stasi’ aches with cliché and a sense of hysteria. That it is the oldest argument in Conservative playbook doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. In the current atmosphere with the Conservatives demonstrating a stunning ability to tear up just about everything that one can hold dear about British politics – truthfulness, a sense of decency, the nation-over-Party-good – Mr Finkelstein is taking irony to a new level.
Look at the history of the “Labour=State Controlled Socialism=Stasi” because its revealing. I suspect a guy of Mr Finkelstein’s knowledge knows this, but perhaps his readers don’t, or if they did they have let themselves forget it (as so much about the current political climate).
The National Government that fought the Second World War had Churchill as Prime Minister and the Labour Leader Attlee as his deputy. Ernie Bevin, Hugh Dalton, Herbert Morrison, Ellen Wilkinson, Richard Stafford-Cripps all played significant roles. When after VE day in 1945 the Labour Party broke from the coalition and took Churchill up on his promise of a General Election two things happened: there was real consternation as the war was still being fought and no-one truly expected anything other than a stonking Churchill victory.
From early 1941, there had been discussion about what a post war Britain was going to look like. By VE day there was possibly too little understanding of just how devastating the struggle had been to the country and the Empire. It may not have been seen clearly but peace put Britain at a precipice.
What was certainly true is that Churchill and Attlee and their coalition had learnt to think boldly. They knew about national planning of industry, they understood how to manage large social issues – rationing, evacuation. They also had allowed out of the box thinking. Beveridge’s white paper on the Five Great Evils was a best seller.
It was during his reluctant – and exhausted – 1945 election campaign that Churchill famously said that Labour would need a Gestapo–like police service to carry through their plans to nationalise health, education (in part) coal, rail and steel. It was an ugly use of words that possibly history have made uglier. The true horrors of Nazism emerged gradually.
The Labour Government that was formed with a one hundred and sixty-four seat majority went forward and did, by any terms, extra-ordinary things without the slightest hint of Gestapo tactics. In fact, their achievements are all the more remarkable because they worked so hard to create consensus. Nye Bevan who had learnt his politics in the very tough industrial relations of the mining communities of South Wales was Attlee’s startling but inspired choice to takes over Health and Housing.
Far from the Stalinist bully the right-wing press wanted him to be Bevan coaxed, persuaded and encouraged the health industry that the NHS was the best and only way forward. Now, we all know it to one of the best parts of British social fabric and its creation by socialists demonstrates the complete reverse of Finkelstein’s Stasi nonsense. Bevan was assiduous – he respected the BMA’s voting against nationalisation but went back to finesse his argument and the Government’s position. He negotiated, he compromised – to a fault, he ended up feeling – but he didn’t threaten.
Of course, the fact that Attlee and his gang did not resort to Finkelstein’s dreaded Stasi is true not only that Government. At no time did Wilson, Callaghan, Blair or Brown ever resort to anything approaching Mr Finklestein’s paranoid fantasy; and nor will Corbyn and modern Labour if they gain power.
Frustratingly for the Tories, Labour – despite their failings – have be democratic and reactive in a way that simply is not true of the Tories. Old enough to remember the miner’s strike, living now through the Brexit-wrecking ball it’s obviously not a leftist Stasi we need to fear but an ever more cavalier unaccountable right wing.
On reflection, again, Nye Bevan was right. Finally, certain that he and the Labour Government were going to deliver as least some of the things their election had promised he lost his guile and his good manners and described the Conservatives ‘vermin’ that he had fought all his life.
In the same way socialists in Britain haven’t used wire taps, or the horrors of the Hohenschonhausen in Berlin, we remain democratic, and responsive; so unlike Mr Finklestein’s appalling and feckless party.
It’s a bit rich from the people who were/are new Labour/Coalition/Conservatives fans who have brought in dragnet surveillance without a by your leave and use terror attacks to bring in more surveillance taking place to accuse anyone else of a Stasi likeness.
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I don’t disagree with any of this but it isn’t really a response to Finkelstein’s argument. His point is that the complete replacement of capitalism – i.e. market exchange – with something else requires coercion, and that the ‘never kissed a tory’ attitude highlights this.
Of course Finkelstein’s argument is a bit of a straw-man exercise in itself, since it equate ‘socialism’ with the complete replacement of capitalism. This is at best an extremely narrow definition of ‘socialism’ but on these terms the devlopment of the NHS, the welfare state etc represent reforms of capitalism, not its replacement.
James has it right. Finkelstein is indeed addressing a straw man. Since around 1924 no one in the British Labour Party who has ever been in any position of responsibility has proposed establishing “socialism” in the sense described in Finkelstein’s article. After all we have close on thirty years of majority Labour governments in that time, without any hint of a Stasi.
The reality is that both extreme capitalism and extreme socialism would need unprecedented levels of coercion. A pure capitalism would mean no state welfare services at all, with people left to die on the street if they couldn’t provide for themselves. As people do not tend to die quietly, but tend to steal and riot, you would need a large amount of state coercion to keep them down and keep property safe for property holders (which, would, of course, mean taxing said property holders).
Just that no-one proposes pure capitalism in that sense, no-one proposes pure socialism in Finkelstein’s sense.
Having at his disposal an hour of audience with the president, what topics would you raise and what, in fact, led the conversation?