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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 typified by Aneurin Bevan. Also called 'the Old Left', it was named after its dominant personality; however its intellectual direction was given by Richard Crossman and his followers including Michael Foot and Barbara Castle.[1] Bevanism was opposed by the Gaitskellites,[2] who are variously described as centre-left, social democrats, or "moderates" within the party. [2] The Gaitskellites typically won most of the battles inside Parliament, but Bevanism was stronger among local Labour activists. Bevanites split over the issue of nuclear weapons, and the movement faded away after Bevan died in 1960.


Bevanism was influenced by Marxism, with biographer and later Leader of the Labour Party Michael Foot saying that Bevan's "belief in the class struggle stayed unshaken", while acknowledging that Bevan was not a traditional Marxist.[3] Despite declaring inspiration from Marx, Bevan did not visibly support insurrectionist concepts of proletarian revolution, arguing that revolution depended on the circumstances,[4] or the Leninist organisational model of democratic centralism typical of many Communist parties. According to Ed Balls, Bevan and his supporters instead preferred a strident but pluralist conception of democratic socialism, tempered by pragmatic sensibilities and practical application.[5]

The Bevanite Group of MPs, of which there were about 3 dozen, coalesced following Bevan's resignation from the Cabinet in 1951 when the health service started charging for previously free services such as spectacles in order to help pay for Britain's involvement in the Korean War.[6] 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.[7] According to Crossman in December 1951 the group was not organised, and Bevan could not be persuaded to have any consistent or coherent strategy, but they did have a group who met regularly and liked each other and came to represent "real Socialism" to a large number of Party members. Picture Post called them the "Bevanly Host" in April 1952.[8]

Local organisations

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 organised in support of the 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.[9]
  • Cultural 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.

Party role

Historian Kenneth O. Morgan says. "Bevan alone kept the flag of left-wing socialism aloft throughout -- which gave him a matchless authority amongst the constituency parties and in party conference."[10] At the 1952 Labour Party Conference Bevanites were elected to six of the seven places on the National Executive Committee by constituency representatives.[11]

Split over nuclear disarmament

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), saying that without them a future British foreign secretary would be going "naked into the conference chamber".[12] This split the Bevanites with many, such as leading Bevanite[13]Michael Foot, continuing to oppose Britain's nuclear weapons, with Labour's 1983 manifesto under Foot's leadership of the party calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Matt Beech, et al. eds. The Struggle for Labour's Soul: Understanding Labour's Political Thought Since 1945 (2004) pp 7-23.
  2. ^ a b "'Bevanism' vs 'Gaitskellites' Labour Party Divisions flashcards". Quizlet. 26 July 1956. Retrieved 2016.
  3. ^ Michael Foot (2011). Aneurin Bevan: A Biography: Volume 2: 1945-1960. Faber & Faber. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-571-28085-8.
  4. ^ Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds (2014). Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan. I.B.Tauris. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-85773-499-0.
  5. ^ Balls, Ed (25 November 2015). "A visionary pragmatist: why Bevan is a Labour hero". 2011 Aneurin Bevan Memorial Lecture. Retrieved 2016 – via Ed Balls' personal blog.
  6. ^ Kynaston, David (2009). Family Britain 1951-7. London: Bloomsbury. p. 79. ISBN 9780747583851.
  7. ^ "Hugh Gaitskell - 50 Years On | Labour History Group". 24 June 2013. Archived from the original on 27 March 2016. Retrieved 2016.
  8. ^ Kynaston, David (2009). Family Britain 1951-7. London: Bloomsbury. p. 80. ISBN 9780747583851.
  9. ^ "TUC Caution on Further Nationalisation". The Glasgow Herald. 9 January 1953. p. 5.
  10. ^ Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour in Power (1984) p 57.
  11. ^ Kynaston, David (2009). Family Britain 1951-7. London: Bloomsbury. p. 250. ISBN 9780747583851.
  12. ^ "Your favourite Conference Clips". BBC Daily Politics. 3 October 2007. Retrieved 2016.
  13. ^ John Beavan, Lord Ardwick (4 March 2010). "Michael Foot: Writer and politician who rose to become leader of the Labour Party". The Independent. Retrieved 2016.
  14. ^ Vaidyanathan, Rajini (4 March 2010). "Michael Foot: What did the 'longest suicide note' say?". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2016.

Further reading

  • Beech, Matt, Kevin Hickson, and Raymond Plant, eds. The Struggle for Labour's Soul: Understanding Labour's Political Thought Since 1945 (Routledge, 2004) pp 7-23.
  • Foot, Michael, Aneurin Bevan: 1945-1960 (1973) pp 347-449.
  • Foote, Geoffrey. "The Bevanite Left." in Foote, ed., The Labour Party's Political Thought. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1997. 260-278.
  • Jenkins, Mark. Bevanism, Labour's High Tide: The Cold War and the Democratic Mass Movement (Spokesman Press, 1979).
  • Jobson, Richard. "'Waving the Banners of a Bygone Age', Nostalgia and Labour's Clause IV Controversy, 1959-60." Contemporary British History 27.2 (2013): 123-144.
  • Steck, Henry J. "Grassroots Militants & Ideology: The Bevanite Revolt." Polity 2.4 (1970): 426-442.
  • Thomas-Symonds, Nicklaus. Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan (IB Tauris, 2014).

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