Bevanism

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Bevanism was the ideological argument for the Bevanites, a movement on the Left wing of the Labour Party in the late 1950s and led by Nye Bevan. They were opposed by the Gaitskellites, who are variously described as Centre-left, Social Democrats, or 'moderates' within the Party.

Bevanism was influenced by Marxism and traditional labourism. Despite declaring inspiration from Marx, Bevan did not visibly support insurrectionist concepts of proletarian revolution, or the Leninist organisational model of democratic centralism typical of many Communist parties.

He and his supporters instead preferred a strident but pluralist conception of Democratic socialism, tempered by pragmatic sensibilities and practical application.

The Bevanite Group of MPs came into being following Bevan's resignation from the Cabinet in 1951 over charges in the health service and their relationship with the funding of Britain's involvement in the Korean War. Bevanites Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned with Bevan himself. The group in Parliament drew heavily from the previous 'Keep Left' group, which had previously dissented from the pro-American foreign policy of the 1945–1951 Labour government favoured by Clement Attlee, his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and Hugh Gaitskell.

Bevanites organised in Constituency Labour Parties across Britain, and set up local discussion groups known as 'Brains Trusts', also a legacy of the 'Keep Left' group.

Brains Trusts would organise in support of the then newspaper favoured by Bevanites, Tribune magazine, allocating left wing MPs and campaigners to form speaking panels around the country. Tribune itself provided an important print voice for Bevanite politicians and was in wide circulation.

The main Bevanite objectives were:

  • State control of the "commanding heights" of the economy (as opposed to a wholesale policy of nationalisation). Many nationalisations had made up the bedrock of Labour's previous manifestos, such as 'Let us face the future'. Bevanites' views towards nationalisation mirrored those of Vladimir Lenin, in that state control was only seen as necessary in the context of exchange or distribution, as opposed to the total and immediate appropriation of as much private property as possible.
  • A comprehensive and completely free 'cradle to grave' system of welfare, health provision and education.
  • Housing for all.
  • Full employment.

In the early 1950s Bevanites advocated:

  • The nationalisation of the steel industry, contrary to the views of many colleagues.
  • Social liberalism.
  • Contempt for dogma as a modus operandi; an open-minded approach to democratic socialism.
  • Respect for the arts.
  • General unwillingness to yield upon the perceived gains made since 1945, for example, opposition to means testing for social security benefits, and opposition to prescription charges as military spending increased.
  • A complementary ability to drop unpopular policies.
  • Freedom of debate, opinion and criticism within the Labour Party.
  • Scepticism towards most American foreign policy.
  • Anti-fascism, anti-apartheid sentiment, and support for decolonisation internationally.

Later in his political career Bevan began advocating the maintenance of Britain's nuclear deterrent, against those who became associated with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). This split the Bevanites with many, such as his later biographer Michael Foot, continuing to oppose Britain's nuclear weapons.

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