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Socialism now

In 1974 Tony Crosland, the leading post-war Labour party intellectual, wrote his last major work, Socialism Now. Three years later he was dead. The title can be meant in two ways. The first is an analysis of socialism (or social...


In 1974 Tony Crosland, the leading post-war Labour party intellectual, wrote his last major work, Socialism Now. Three years later he was dead. The title can be meant in two ways. The first is an analysis of socialism (or social democracy) in contemporary conditions, an evaluation of the recent past and of the best way of moving forwards. This he did with a critical evaluation of the Wilson government of 1964-70 and its lessons for the next Labour administration. But it can also mean an instant demand for socialism. Arguably it is once again the time for socialism now, in both senses of the term. The coalition government appears increasingly right wing, while the leadership of Ed Miliband is now approaching its third year.

We need to make the case for socialism once again. This is informed by the strong belief that ends (values) are the proper basis for means (policies) if the Labour party is to, first, win the next general election, and then to be a radical government. There are three elements to such a reappraisal of socialism. The first is to provide a clear account of socialist values, emphasising its liberal foundations against calls for a communitarian or even a conservative basis. The second is to re-emphasise the importance of the central state as the essential mechanism through which socialism is realised, dismissing localism and arguments about the lack of governing capacity. The final element is that socialism understood in this way is inherently democratic and has implications for the political and electoral strategy of the Labour party today.

Socialist values
As Tony Blair once said, although perhaps came to regret later, governments are rudderless without a clear set of guiding principles. It is the commitment to clearly perceived ends which define radical governments. This was true of the Liberal government of 1906-14, the Labour government of 1945-51 and the Conservative governments of 1979-97. Each had a clear sense of purpose and mission.

One of the striking features when reading Crosland’s work, or that of other leading post-war revisionists such as Hugh Gaitskell or Douglas Jay, is the confidence which they had in their socialist ideology. Since the 1970s socialists have lost confidence in their doctrine in the face of the neo-liberal counter-revolution, despite some very effective work from the likes of Roy Hattersley and Raymond Plant in the 1980s. The third way of Blair and Tony Giddens could be seen as the final capitulation to globalisation and free markets. The banking crisis and recession should now instil a greater sense of belief in socialists having seen neo-liberalism fail so spectacularly.

Crosland pointed out that socialism is not a commitment to certain means, such as nationalisation, but to ends. The principal ends are equality, social justice, rights and freedom. The mechanism: democracy. The objective: individual emancipation. Socialism, properly understood, is a liberating doctrine. It is not about the extension of state power at the expense of individual freedom, nor is it puritanical.

Firstly, equality was the principle which most clearly defined socialists from their political opponents. Without a commitment to equality, socialism had no meaning.  Equality did not mean a complete equality of outcome in which the duke had as much as the dustman, but it did mean more than equality of opportunity where everyone had the same chances to compete for the highest grades and salaries. It involved the radical idea that markets produced unfair outcomes; over-rewarding those who were successful in the market, and penalising those who were not. Since we were not wholly responsible for our position in relation to the distribution of resources then to fail to rectify such inequalities that were created by the market would be an injustice. The most effective way of rectifying these unjustified inequalities was through redistributive taxation. The result was a more just society. The recent arguments about ‘pre-distribution’ – reforming the economy so as to avoid the creation of these unjustified inequalities – is a welcome development but it doesn’t replace the need to redistribute: firstly, to stimulate economic activity in a time of recession; secondly, to remedy already existing injustices; and, also, to ensure that the market continues to act in a way which does not further infringe social justice.

Without the correction of unjustified inequalities then basic rights could not be realised. The disadvantaged would be more likely to under-perform in education, suffer from ill health and die at a younger age. Moreover, equality and social justice were required in order to extend individual freedom. Freedom only made sense in the positive use of that term; that is to say that unless someone had the means to give practical effect to their theoretical freedom then they were not truly free. Some of the privileges of the fortunate may be lost as a result of redistribution but the increase in the absolute and relative position of the worse off would extend their practical freedom.

What is striking about this understanding of socialism is its radicalism compared to the New Labour years, where there was significant redistribution but the gap between the rich and poor widened as increases in salaries and bonuses at the top outpaced the fiscal gains for those at the bottom. New Labour seemed all too willing to accept such inequalities in the name of global competition or economic efficiency. They endorsed meritocracy, whereas socialists had traditionally rejected it.

Also significant is the inherently liberal nature of socialism. The neo-liberal view of freedom – that people are free so long as they are not subject to coercion – fails to provide an adequate understanding of freedom, which only socialists properly grasp: that without equality people cannot be truly free. The aim is emancipation of all citizens within the societies in which they live. Such abstract principles provide the most effective basis for a socialist approach to the major economic and social ills of the day. Appeals to community and tradition – most recently associated with Blue Labour – in contrast, are inadequate and can work against the kind of society socialists wish to create. Blue Labour appears nostalgic in its appeal to working class solidarity while traditions are constantly made and remade in light of changing social and economic circumstances. The emotional and intellectual appeal of liberal socialism is, therefore, far greater than that of Blue Labour.

Socialism and the state
Another popular argument in recent times has been localism. The central state is deemed distant, bureaucratic and authoritarian whereas people can be empowered in participatory local communities.

It should be pointed out that this focus on localism, which has been a feature of Blue Labour and Progress’s Purple Book, is an over-reaction to the ‘big society’ agenda and is futile and irrelevant in many of the central challenges facing Britain today. No doubt the local amateur dramatics society, community association or women’s institute are full of well-intentioned citizens but it is impossible to find ways in which they could resolve the big issues of the day, such as the economic downturn, regulation of the banks, the eurozone crisis and climate change. Only the central state can do this.

This was the argument that I made in a recent contribution to the debate with Roy Hattersley and it still seems incontrovertible to me. At no point did we say that the central state must act in isolation. In some cases the central state should work with regional and local government and in others with international institutions such as the European Union, but act it must. Nor does it mean that centralists oppose democratic reform of the state.

Localists misunderstand the nature of power, which is often less about ‘power to’ and more about ‘power over’. In order to gain power, someone else must lose it. Given that considerable power resides in large-scale corporations, such transfers of power can only be achieved by nation states. By taking power away from private sector business elites, the socialist state democratises economic power in the interests of the many. Crosland argued that such a transfer of power had already occurred in Britain by the 1950s as the capitalist class had lost power to the state, to organised labour and to an autonomous managerial class. Many of these changes were reversed by Thatcherism and it is now necessary to consider such issues once again.

However, some would retort that the state cannot act because it has been hollowed out by processes such as globalisation. This idea, it can be argued, had an important effect on New Labour. The role of the state is limited to maintaining the confidence of financial markets and attracting the inward investment of multinational corporations. We are, according to globalisation theorists, in a borderless world where states lack any power to pursue a different course. However, even a cursory glance at the different state structures which exist today shows all to clearly that we are not in a one-size-fits-all world and there are better models of capitalism which could be followed by a Labour administration than the neo-liberal United States – such as the more welfarist system in Sweden or the German corporatist model with its emphasis on planning and partnership between managers and workers. Both systems have proven to be more resilient in the face of the banking crisis than the British economy, which was dangerously over-reliant on financial services.

Socialism and the electorate
Apparently safe in the knowledge that history was on their side and that the final victory of communism was inevitable, Marxist socialists did not feel the need to convince the electorate of the moral superiority of socialism. However, even as early as the late 19th century, revisionists from Bernstein onwards have pointed out the failure of Marxist analysis to explain developments in capitalism, while the collapse of communism in eastern Europe showed that it was not the final stage of history.

Lacking this faith in laws of history, democratic socialists have had to persuade the electorate that socialism offered the way to a better society and superior form of economic organisation. Socialism, understood in its non-Marxist form, is an inherently democratic doctrine. It involves making arguments to the electorate to gain their support and trust so that socialism can be introduced through the state.  Initially lacking a rigorous economic theory, the Labour party drew heavily on Keynesian analysis in the 1930s and successfully pitched to the electorate in 1945 and again in 1966, with lesser victories in 1950, 1964 and 1974.

Often, however, the Labour party has appeared to lack faith in its own ideology.  This was true for many on the left of the party in the 1950s and early 1980s who argued that it was better to wait in opposition for the inevitable crisis of capitalism when they would be elected to power to introduce true socialism. New Labour, although in every other way far removed from the Labour left, also shared this sense of pessimism that socialism could be popular on a regular basis. There was a trade-off between power and principle and therefore socialism should be abandoned in order to attain office. The 1992 general election was arguably the last time the Labour party presented a socialist manifesto.

It is essential that Labour’s electoral appeal is more ideological given the major economic shocks over the past four years and the nature of Labour’s electoral performance since 1997. The best, if not the only way for Labour to win is to be explicit in its socialist commitment. A determination to match the coalition’s spending cuts, as advocated by some, is not a viable electoral strategy, leaving aside the ethical arguments against such a policy stance.

Between 1997 and 2010 Labour lost five million votes. The biggest loss of votes occurred between 2001 (already down from 1997) and 2005, with four million votes lost under Blair and a further million under Brown. Of these five million, only one million went to other parties. Some went to the Conservatives believing they had genuinely changed, while others went to alternative ‘left-of-centre’ parties including the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Four million abstained. The most likely explanation for this is that many voters became disillusioned by New Labour and would therefore respond positively to a more radical Labour party.

A Blairite emphasis on an appeal to the unmoveable ‘median voter’ and to those suffering from ‘southern discomfort’ on the basis of opinion poll and focus group data is inadequate, both as an electoral strategy and as a socialist belief in the capacity of the democratic transformation of the economy and society through the state. Democracy, as socialists understand the term, is not passive but rather proactive, involving leadership and debate in the belief that socialism can be made relevant and popular and that public opinion responds to political argument.


At moments of upheaval, such as the one we are now living in, there is an opportunity to recast the political agenda. There is no inevitability that political opinion will move leftwards. Indeed, it may move to the right as people look for scapegoats to blame for the current difficulties. It is only by making the case for socialism that we can persuade people that the left offers a better alternative, with more attractive values and sensible policies. Since it offers the only real answers to the major issues of the day it is socialism, as outlined above – democratic; transformative; concerned with real issues, which can only be tackled through the concerted action of the central state; and based on explicitly liberal socialist values – that is the most appropriate basis for the Labour party as it moves towards the next general election and beyond.

This essay first appeared in the Summer 2012 Fabian Review

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