The future of the left since 1884

Finding a new future

Anthony Crosland’s enduring relevance as an intellectual reference point for the British left is hard to dispute. In the wake of the party’s 2015 defeat, The Financial Times insisted Labour had to “reawaken the modernising impulse in the party’s past,...


Anthony Crosland’s enduring relevance as an intellectual reference point for the British left is hard to dispute. In the wake of the party’s 2015 defeat, The Financial Times insisted Labour had to “reawaken the modernising impulse in the party’s past, championed by figures such as Tony Crosland” to re-emerge as a credible governing force.

Yet returning to Crosland’s legacy 60 years after The Future of Socialism might appear incongruous. By the time of Crosland’s death in 1977, his judgement that post-war Britain was on the road to sustained economic growth and greater social equality appeared suspect: conflict between employers and the workforce had intensified; the industries that had been nationalised after the second world war performed erratically; many western nations were experiencing prolonged stagnation. Social democracy offered few obvious answers, paving the way for neo-liberal hegemony in the 1980s and 1990s. Ever since the Callaghan government acceded to the IMF bail-out in 1976, the Labour party has wrestled with the same fundamental question: what is Labour’s answer to neo-liberalism in a global, footloose, international economy?

New Labour’s third way in the 1990s led to an electoral revival, but the ‘new’ revisionism proved deficient: there was a mistaken assumption that capitalist economies were becoming knowledge-based, eradicating the structural antagonism between workers and management. In fact, global capitalism was becoming harder to regulate. The gap between rich and poor increased markedly.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Labour was exposed: just as a social democratic critique of the market was necessary, the moderate left was ‘asleep at the wheel’. Having sanctioned decades of light-touch regulation, delighting in the exuberance of markets which delivered a sizeable surplus for social investment, Labour had become a victim of the ‘Faustian pact’ with capital. British social liberalism and social democracy were premised historically on a radical critique of the market; but as progressives sought to reclaim the market economy in the 1990s to achieve electoral success, any critical perspective was lost at exactly the moment when markets were demonstrably “prone to instability, excess and abuse”.

The prospects for UK social democracy 40 years after Crosland’s death and more than a decade since Labour last won a national election scarcely appear propitious. John Gray and Vernon Bogdanor insist globalisation alongside devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has eaten away at the centre-left’s structural support. The constitutionally unified, indivisible British state that was integral to social democratic politics is no more. Of course, nation states are devising new means of exercising power. As Geoff Mulgan has written: “the basic powers of governments have not diminished . . . the idea that governments have become impotent is an illusion, albeit one that can provide a useful alibi”. States retain their capacity to raise taxes and spend public resources; they resolve collective problems from organised crime to environmental degradation; and states are enhancing their role in relation to challenges from early childhood disadvantage to the demographic pressures of population ageing.

But there can be little doubt that social democracy in Britain faces major difficulties, underlined by the decision on 23 June to quit the European Union, a choice that is unleashing a wave of political and economic shocks with highly unpredictable long-term consequences. So what can be achieved by returning to Crosland’s revisionism in the new political context? It is tempting to dismiss Crosland as a throwback to a bygone era. The revisionist assault on Marxism was undertaken by Bernstein in the 1890s; the post-war society in which Crosland was immersed was a very different age. There was no successor generation of ‘Croslandites’ in British politics: figures who once claimed the revisionist mantle such as Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers defected to the SDP. Those who remained in the Labour party, notably Roy Hattersley and Giles Radice, found Crosland intolerably arrogant and aloof, unwilling to encourage the next generation of revisionists; Crosland “gave them little encouragement in their own efforts to think out new strategies . . . he said at one point that he was ‘too bloody busy’ to rethink his whole philosophy”.

Nonetheless, Crosland’s vision of social justice through collective action combined with personal liberty still offers a persuasive social democratic prospectus. As Raymond Plant has testified, rather than imperilling freedom, an extended role for the state is compatible with liberty, choice and autonomy enabling us to shape lives truly worth living. Crosland was a passionate supporter of the comprehensive reform of legislation governing personal behaviour: Britain in the 1960s and 1970s became a more libertarian, ‘permissive’ society thanks to his influence. Crosland’s view of political economy accepted the primacy of property rights and the profit motive. The aim of replacing capitalism with an alternative economic system was futile: social democracy must reform markets, rather than abolishing them. As such, Crosland’s vision of the enabling state aimed to guarantee every individual access to opportunities and material resources, narrowing the class divide while minimising inequalities in the distribution of wealth, income and power. Finally, Crosland’s vision involved the tenacious commitment to a liberal democratic polity: social problems should be resolved through rational analysis and persuasion rather than prejudice, intolerance and fear. Crosland would have condemned the crude populism of left and right currently threatening to sweep through Europe. For him, Labour must be a party receptive to a diversity of traditions; constitutional politics and parliamentary institutions served Britain well; public service and duty was the fundamental vocation of politics.

What Crosland bequeathed to the centre-left, above all, was a method of practising social democratic politics in a changing society. He emphasised, most famously, the separation of institutional means from ideological ends, the sine qua non of revisionism. And his political outlook was shaped by powerful intellectual impulses of continuing relevance today. Firstly, Labour would never win as a “class-based, socialist party”; it had to build support as a national party in the name of a truly classless society. Secondly, socialism was a moral enterprise that was about more than the production and distribution of material goods; it emphasised quality of life and a public realm that broke down the “distance factors” between classes. Instead of preaching “abstinence and a good filing system”, social democracy must enhance the right to private enjoyment and self-fulfilment. Thirdly, Croslandite revisionism was fiercely anti-paternalistic: the role of collective institutions was to equip individuals with the ‘capabilities’ to lead flourishing lives. As such, it is wrong to label Crosland as an incipient Fabian bureaucrat. He believed that the left and liberty were natural bedfellows, while his deeply felt egalitarian beliefs constituted an attack on “the indefensible differences of status and income that disfigure our society”. Fourthly, the left had to apply its “sociological imagination” to understand the complexity of social and cultural change in Britain; instead of mourning the loss of traditional institutions and political identities, socialism had to positively embrace the post-war world. Fifthly, Crosland eschewed liberal cosmopolitanism having represented Grimsby, a port on the east coast of England; he acknowledged the importance of national and communal attachments that enabled citizens to sustain a sense of belonging and solidarity. Nonetheless, Crosland rejected jingoistic chauvinism: he had no time for “old dreams of empire”; Crosland was an internationalist who believed “we should link our destinies with a dynamic and resurgent Europe”, as he once wrote in The Conservative Enemy.

These are powerful legacies which British social democracy should embrace. Had he observed the contemporary Labour party, in all likelihood (although we cannot know for certain) Crosland would have been dismayed by what he saw: he would have viewed the current leadership’s agenda as merely concerned with reviving socialist policies first proposed in the 1970s, out of touch with the new society. He would also have been unnerved by the emergence of ‘Blue Labour’ communitarianism as a means of reconnecting to the party’s so-called working-class base. Crosland dismissed the communitarian romanticisation of working-class life (and he was especially critical of New Left theorists, notably Raymond Williams), while he did not believe that the commitment to ‘community’ was sufficient as a guiding principle for the left. He sought to put liberty and freedom at the centre stage of Labour’s politics; as the party navigates the treacherous post-Brexit political landscape, Labour will need to reflect on how to rebuild the progressive alliances that swept the party to victory in 1945, 1964 and 1997, against the backdrop of unprecedented fragmentation in the body politic.

60 years since The Future of Socialism, Crosland’s analysis remains “the benchmark” against which Labour’s political thought is measured, and his vision of radical humanitarianism “still contains the seeds of a rich harvest”, as David Lipsey and Dick Leonard attest. The post-war historian Kenneth O. Morgan concurs: “There has been no significant statement of socialist doctrine in this country – perhaps in any country – since Crosland in the mid-1950s”. His strategies and politics remain a critical reference point by which the quality of the party’s ideas and leadership should be judged.

Image: Adam


Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond is professor of public policy at Queen Mary, University of London and director of the Mile End Institute. He is co-author with Giles Radice of a series of pamphlets including Southern Discomfort Again and a monograph: Labour’s Civil Wars (Haus Publishing 2022).


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