Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

By John Callaghan; Steven Fielding et al. | Go to book overview

6

An exceptional comrade?
The Nairn-Anderson interpretation

Mark Wickham-Jones

Since the early 1960s, in a series of articles and books, Tom Nairn has articulated a distinct and challenging interpretation of Labour Party politics. Many of these publications formed part of a wider project, one closely associated with the work of Perry Anderson which examined the trajectory of British political development over the last 300 years.

While there was much overlap with Anderson's concerns, Nairn's central – and initial – contribution to this undertaking focused on a particular account of the character of British reformism. Two of Nairn's publications stand out as especially relevant in this regard. First, in 'The nature of the Labour Party', a paper in two parts originally published in New Left Review during 1964 and subsequently merged as a chapter of Anderson and Blackburn's Towards Socialism (1965), he gave a coruscating overview of the party's failures during the first sixty years of its history. In passing, the reader should note that although these publications are cited by their original titles as papers, where applicable, they are quoted from the volumes in which Nairn and Anderson later republished them. Second, in The Left Against Europe (Nairn 1973), a short book originally published as a special issue of New Left Review, Nairn assessed what he considered to be the British Left's inadequate response to the Conservative Government's application for membership of the Common Market.

Aspects of Nairn's critique of the Labour Party are not original, echoing those associated with other condemnations of 'Labourism'. Taken together, however, his work has provided a distinctive explanation of the difficulties encountered by the party, the failures it has generated and the many disappointments it has induced. His analysis is, moreover, unusual in the emphasis it placed on the need to examine Labour's record within the context of European social democracy. Interestingly, many of Nairn's points echoed those made by Egon Wertheimer, a German social democrat and journalist, one of the first to compare Labour to its continental counterparts. Wertheimer's 1930 Portrait of the Labour Party was, however, a largely descriptive and fairly positive account, whereas Nairn's analysis of Labour politics is a blunt and often scornful evaluation of its weaknesses.

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