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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, No. 25. October 8, 1968

Books — Withered Grassroots

page 13


Withered Grassroots

The Right's blunders appall, the Left's depress. It is easier to believe capitalism a blind, sterile and ultimately catastrophic economic mechanism than to accept that the main opposition to its is weak, confused and stupid. May Day Manifesto is frightening because it compels one to realise that every important left-wing initiative in Britain since 1957 has led to a dead end. This is a hard and probably a sectarian conclusion, I would prefer not to believe it. But the Manifesto, regrettably, speaks for itself.

Before letting it speak lor itself, let's make brief comparison betwen the Manifesto and Desmond Donnelly's Gadarene '68, which was quite rightly severely criticised in a recent Salient review. Donnelly is as naive and prejudiced a right-winger as the authors of May Day Manifesto are naive and prejudiced left-wingers. But on so many issues Donnelly is right where the left was wrong; he was right, consistently, about the need for British entry into Europe, when both the left and centre of the Party were wrong; he was right about devaluation where only Kaldor and later Balogh on the left were saying the same. On these two issues it is arguable Britain would be in a far better position than it now is if Donnelly's advice had been taken. On both these two issues Donnelly stood for change while the 'left' stood for the status quo—the Commonwealth connection rather than Europe, the 'defence' of sterling rather than devaluation. The left in the last five years, has simply failed to make the running on the major issues. Yet half of the Manifesto is a complaint about the left being ignored in the Press and politics. It does not seem to have occurred to Mr Williams's friends that they might have earned their irrelevance.

Perhaps the real problem of the post-Wilson left was best expressed by John Morgan in the London Sunday Times: "Dismay (about the prospects of a socialist policy) springs from the knowledge that a good, coherent programme for modernisation existed, even exists, which has been abandoned without even being tried."

The basis of this untried plan is quoted in the Manifesto from Wilsons speech to the 1963 Labour conference:

" … Monetary planning is not enough. What are [sic] needed are structural changes in British industry and we are not going to achieve those on the basis of preelection spurts every four years in our industry, or on the hope of selling the overspill of the affluent society in the highly developed markets of Western Europe. What are [sic] needed are new industries and it will be the job of the next Government to see that we get them … When we set up new industries based on science there need be no argument about location on costly bribes to private enterprise to go here rather than there we shall provide the enterprise and we shall decide where it goes".

This is exactly what did not happen. The Manifesto is right to comment "the very institutions that would be forced to give up their private interests to the will of an elected government were the only institutions through which the economy could be managed; unless of course socialist institutions were created to replace them". This last option Wilson did not take up; but, then, neither does the Manifesto. It rejects the politics of modernisation because "all programmes and perspective are treated instrumentally—not about what sort of society qualitatively is being aimed at". Welfare, it argues, must come before growth. Discussion of how welfare programmes are to be afforded is "penny-pinching". Although "what is evident to all" is "the increasing cultural and ideological penetration of Europe by the US" this is "not, we can only repeat, a conspiracy" even though "the authoritarianism of the sixties does not come with knuckledusters and revolvers but with political sedatives and processing" and "our political and intellectual life has been penetrated in a hundred discreet areas by Cold War agencies like the CIA". We cannot afford welfare because of "the direction of our own economic and political policies, not only by the Americans, but specifically by the international instittuions of monopoly capital".

This kind of paranoid rhetoric obscures the Manifesto's failure to say what socialist planning institutions are necessary to modernise Britain and the fact that it would manage the British economy by protecting the smaller (that is, least efficient) firms to "neutralise" them against "American imperialism" (Yes, you may have read something like this before in New Zealand). The brave new 'socialist' programme comes down, after the routine jeers at Trotskyism, to another prescription for managed capitalism. Faced with a non-democratic central government the left ask for a return to the grassroots away from the centre, not realising the grassroots are not where they were, that the centre is no longer where it was before that democracy has to combine with radically accelerated centralisation to survive rather than retreat to an anti-technological advocacy of de-centralisation, in its implications Luddite. Social democracy is warned off the search for "democracy and personal freedom"—as if these were too easy optionsl

The left is always faced with two responses to economic and technological change; to condemn and contract out, because of the "human cost" of innovation or to reorganise less. The first way is Utopian socialism, the second Marxism. In spite of lip service to Marxist nostrums, the Manifesto finally plumes for Utopianism.

Raymond Williams (ed.): May Day Manifesto, 1968. Penguin, 60c.