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Home Opinion Crosland and The Future of Socialism

Crosland and The Future of Socialism

Giles Radice - 30 July 2010

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The enduring legacy of this classic text lies in the rich revisionist creed which drove Crosland to bring social democracy up to date for his time

Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, published in October 1956, was arguably the most important revisionist work of the post-war period. Crosland was a leading Labour politician who became an innovative education secretary under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan’s foreign secretary. But it was for his book, The Future of Socialism, that he will be most remembered. It was highly ambitious, but since his early twenties Crosland had wanted to emulate the example of Eduard Bernstein, the German socialist democrat, and write the definitive work on revisionist socialism for his generation.

Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism, published at the end of the previous century, had first refuted Marx’s theory that capitalism was about to collapse. Crosland’s aim was to bring social democracy up to date for his time. He told a friend: “I am revising Marxism and will emerge as the new Bernstein.”

Drawing not only on economics but also on political theory, history, sociology and industrial psychology, he covered the policy areas of education, social welfare, industrial relations, as well as economic and fiscal theory. He saw sociology as particularly important: “I am convinced that this is the field, rather than the traditional fields of politics and economics, in which the significant issues for socialism and welfare will increasingly be found.”

Crosland’s underlying thesis was that the harsh world of the 1930s had been transformed by wartime changes and by the reforms of the post-war Labour governments, led by Clement Attlee. The Marxist theory of capitalist collapse, so firmly espoused by socialist intellectuals before the war, had, in Crosland’s view, been clearly disproved. On the contrary, output and living standards were rising steadily. At the same time, the commanding position of the business class had been reduced by the increased powers of government and the greater bargaining power of labour. Managers not owners now ran industry. The combination of rising living standards, redistributive taxation and welfare benefits had substantially reduced primary poverty.

He argued that, in the new situation, ownership of the means of production was largely irrelevant. “I conclude,” he wrote, “that the definition of capitalism in terms of ownership…has wholly lost its significance and interest now that ownership is no longer the clue to the total picture of social relationships; and that it would be more significant to define societies in terms of equality, or class relationships, or their political systems.”

One of the crucial points about The Future of Socialism was the distinction it drew between ends and means. “Ends” were defined as basic values or aspirations, “means” as describing the policy or institutional methods required to promote these values in practice. According to Crosland, in contrast to the ends, which remained constant, means were open to revision. The revisionist task was to subject means to searching scrutiny in the light of changing conditions. Indeed, uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge, the means (such as nationalisation) apparently most suitable in one generation might be wholly inappropriate in another.

Modern socialism, Crosland argued, was not about public ownership but concerned with improving welfare and providing social equality. “The socialist seeks a distribution of rewards, status and privileges egalitarian enough to minimise social resentment, to secure justice between individuals and to equalise opportunities; and he seeks to weaken the existing deep-seated class stratification with its consistent feelings of envy and inferiority, and its barriers to uninhibited mingling between the classes.”

Over fifty years later, it is easy with the benefit of hindsight to criticise The Future of Socialism. Crosland was too optimistic about economic growth. “I no longer regard questions of growth and efficiency as being, on a long view, of primary importance to socialism,” as he over-confidently proclaimed. His definition of equality has been criticised as being too doctrinaire and rigid, though Crosland sought not an unsustainable or undesirable equality of outcome but to remove unfair and unnecessary barriers. He also ignored racial and sexual equality. He appeared sometimes to be an uncritical supporter of public expenditure (though he later made significant qualifications). He was too complacent about conservative opposition to socialist ideas and policies, ruling out “a wholesale counter-revolution.” Above all, he had nothing to say about the international context in which Labour governments had to operate. Croslandism was “revisionism in one country.” Yet, accepting that it was a tract for its times, its authority, style and mode of thinking have ensured that The Future of Socialism is still read today.

The crucial point about Crosland is that he was a revisionist. The revisionist approach is made up of a number of crucial processes. Analysing what is actually happening as opposed to what a particular dogma says ought to happen; distinguishing clearly between values and methods; subjecting methods above all to scrutiny and, if necessary, being prepared to modify these in the light of changing conditions. In short revisionism is not a doctrine but a radical cast of mind, a critical way of evaluating human affairs and politics, in order to develop strategies and policies which are both informed by values and, at the same time, take account of change. By definition, it is provisional, always open to reappraisal.

The way of thinking behind The Future of Socialism is still crucial for us today. Social democratic parties, under political pressure across Europe and the world and faced by powerful forces, including globalisation, insecurity, immigration, labour market instability, and climate change, need to reappraise their strategies and policies in the light of change. Crosland’s basic approach, if not his precise prescriptions, remain highly relevant to their task.

Giles Radice was Labour MP for Durham North and Chairman of the powerful Treasury Committee until he became a life peer in 2001. His book, "Trio: Inside the Blair, Brown,Mandelson Project," will be published by IB Tauris on 14th of September 2010. His previous books include Friends and Rivals: Crosland, Jenkins and Healey and The Tortoise and the Hares: Attlee, Bevin, Cripps, Dalton, Morrison. He is a former chair of Policy Network.

This is a contribution to Policy Network’s series on The Classics of Social Democratic Thought
This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The limits of nation state social democracy.

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