Never Mind Churchill, Clement Attlee Is a Model for These Times
Eor anyone with what used to be called “progressive tendencies,” the best, if largely overlooked, book of last year was surely John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee, the leader of the British Labour Party
After the war, Attlee went to work as what would now be called a community organizer in the London slum of Stepney, which remained his spiritual home for the rest of his life. Bew, a professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College, London, reminds us that Attlee came of age at a time when Marx was seen as only one, and not the most important, of the fathers of the socialist ideal.
Attlee, who saw through and rejected the Soviet totalitarian model early, schooled himself on the British alternatives—on the works of William Morris and Edward Bellamy, who dreamed of rebelling against the regimentation that was implicit in the industrialized system rather than of simply switching around the hands that controlled it. William Blake was one of the names that Attlee most often cited. (It was he, as much as anyone, who made Blake’s mystic poem “Jerusalem” the anthem of the Labour Party.)
This vision was in many ways unreal, but the unreality blossomed in practical terms: Attlee saw socialism as the pursuit of a nameably better life, not as a search for another master. “Citizenship” was his key term, and the ideal, as Bew explains, was one in which “the state and the individual needed to serve in the name of a broader democratic community.”
Working his way through Labour’s already madly factional squabbles and splits, Attlee became leader by virtue of his obvious integrity and his ability to talk to all sides.
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