Socialists in Retrospect:
Labour & Trade Union Review believes strongly that an understanding of the history of the socialist movement is essential for the ability to act effectively in the present. Starting with our first issue, we shall be publishing a series of articles reassessing aspects of the history of socialism, including reappraisals of key figures. Today, John Papadopoulos puts in perspective the late Anthony Crosland, whose work “The Future of Socialism” was published thirty years ago.
Labour in the 1950s
The defeat of the Labour Government in 1951 brought about a fundamental reappraisal of where Labour should go next Due to the solid achievements of the Attlee government, most of the practical . aims of Labour’s programme had been realised.
Some leading figures expected a swift return to office at the next election, but others foresaw that the very changes the Labour government had brought out meant that Labour would return to power only if it adopted new policies.
In the resulting debate, it is important to note, it was the Left – the Bevanites – who argued the conservative position and the Right who were the radicals. This conflict can be seen as the forerunner of many in which the Left increasingly came to depend upon a backward-looking, conservative approach to politics; its aim was to defend what it saw as fundamental to Labour’s socialist credentials – principally Clause IV – and to argue for “real democratic socialism” (whatever that was).
The debate crystallised around the question of the importance of nationalisation. Bevan, for the Left, took the view that the point had not yet been reached when a halt could be called to further nationalisation:
“it is foolish of certain Labour men to preach consolidation at this stage. Before we can dream of consolidation, the power relations of public and private property must be drastically altered.” [In Place of Fear, 1952]
The Argument was taken up in New Fabian Essays (1953), edited by Richard Crossman. In his own contribution, Crossman argued that the key question was one of power in society, rather than that of ownership:
“the planned economy and the centralisation of power are no longer socialist objectives. The main task of socialism today is to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of either management or state bureaucracy – in brief to distribute responsibility and so to enlarge freedom of choice. This task was not even begun by the Labour government.”
Among the other contributors to the Essays was Anthony Crosland, who argued that Labour had failed to take account of the way in which capitalism had been transformed, and that the emphasis should now be on equality, not nationalisation.
Crosland developed his argument in what is widely recognised as a seminal work of post-war socialism, The Future of’ Socialism (1956). For Crosland, the old orthodoxies were no longer relevant to the post-war world:
“as society has changed since before the war, so again a restatement of objectives is called for. The matter can be put quite simply. Traditional socialism was largely concerned with the evils of traditional capitalism and with the need for its overthrow. But today traditional capitalism has been reformed and modified almost out of existence, and it is with a quite different form of society that socialists must now concern themselves.”
Crosland identified certain moral values and aspirations which have been common to all schools of socialism:
- a protest against the material poverty and physical squalor of capitalism;
- a wider concern for social welfare;
- a belief in equality and the classless society;
- the idea of fraternity and cooperation;
- a protest against the inefficiencies of capitalism and the tendency towards mass unemployment.
In Crosland’s view, 1. and 5 had lost their relevance in modern Britain, while 4. was so vague that it could not be included in any statement of practical aims. But 2. and 3., which were concerned with a just society, had not been achieved.
The importance of The Future of Socialism was that it restated that equality was the overriding objective:
“socialists seek a distribution of rewards, status and privileges egalitarian enough to minimise social resentment, to secure social justice between individuals and to equalise opportunities – this belief in social equality, which has been the strongest ethical aspiration of virtually every socialist doctrine, still remains the most characteristic feature of socialist thought today.”
The means of achieving this was not more nationalisation but the promotion of economic growth, by the expansion of the public sector and regulation of the private sector.
Crosland’s great achievement was to reconcile two different strands of thought which were normally mutually exclusive in the Labour Party, the outlook of those who placed the ethical claims of socialism first and that of those who regarded themselves primarily as technicians.
The Right had traditionally been seen as consisting of those politicians who got on with running the government but had no overall vision of a better future, but Crosland firmly placed the ethical side of socialism right back in the mainstream of practical politics.
Social policy was to be aimed at bringing about greater equality comprehensive education, the use of public expenditure, higher taxes on the better-off and on unearned incomes, and a capital gains tax.
There should be less emphasis on public ownership, he suggested. The balance of power had so shifted from the private to the public sector that it was no longer necessary to further socialise the private sector.
What strikes one most about Crosland’s analysis is the underlying assumption that the “economic problem” had been solved. This may, with hindsight, appear to have been wildly over-optimistic but it certainly reflected the general optimism of an era of rapidly rising living standards for correctly identified the Labour Left as a conservative force in society. Crosland’s own outlook was always far more radical than that of the traditional Left, but such was the dogmatism of the Left that it was and remains incapable of seeing this.
The split in the Labour Party in the 1950s between the Gaitskellites and the Bevanites tends to suggest that “revisionism” became an issue only then, But this is to overlook that fact that the Labour Party had always been revisionist in practice. ·
It had always accepted that the reform of capitalism was achievable and that socialism could be brought about bit by bit within capitalist society.
British socialism has never been a revolutionary doctrine but a programme for legislative reform, and when the Labour government of 1945-51 had achieved its legislative aims new questions had to be posed.
Crosland’s lasting achievement was that he managed to combine putting forward new practical objectives with a fundamental restatement of socialist objectives (equality).
What really angered the Left was that they believed at they had a monopoly of the ethical side of socialism and could not really accept that this was compatible with a practical programme for government.
This appeared in January 1987, in Issue 1 of Labour and Trade Union Review.