If one believes, as I do, that it makes a difference whether the Tories or the Laborites govern Britain, the outcome of the Labor Party’s 1960 Conference at Scarborough has implications of historical tragedy. Indeed, I feel that Gaitskell’s defeat was a calamity not just for British socialism, but for democratic socialists everywhere. By endorsing unilateral nuclear disarmament, and forcing the Parliamentary leadership to challenge this absurd substitute for a defense policy a motley coalition has in the span of a few short days jeopardized the Party’s accomplishments over a period of sixty years. The impossibilist compulsion, which is latent in all socialist movements, has—at least temporarily—triumphed over the integrating forces of solidarity and common sense. The internal consequences are likely to be disintegration and schism; the external consequence is probably a long period of undisturbed Toryism.
In effect, the Labor party has lost its pragmatic coherence. As the cracked drum of unilateralism beat out the death march, the hard-shell primitives and their odd congeries of allies overpowered the humanistic empiricists who have been attempting to adapt the Party to life in the 1960’s. If they can consolidate their hold by successfully dominating the Parliamentary Labor party, the British Labor party will be destroyed as an effective political instrument. Life in the wilderness may be morally fortifying for the desert fathers of unilateralism, but the political cost of this self-imposed isolation will be permanent conservatism in the society at large.
For the benefit of those readers who may find such a stark focus disconcerting—those who may have dedicated their energies to the quest for Third or Fourth Positions—I should set forth my basic analytical assumption. It is my view that ideological disputes, however esoteric, always in political life come down to a choice between bodies, to a decision to support either X or Y. While metaphysicians and mystics have, of course, the right to evaluate ideologies abstractly, no one in real life has ever found a theory running for office. In fact if one backs a “new course,” he is simultaneously backing a set of “new corsairs” and I insist that the primary concern of the analyst should be the character of the new elite rather than the specific gravity of its ideology. I take my stand with Eduard Bernstein in asserting that the character of the movement is more important than the symmetry or perfection of its goals.