From International Socialism (1st series), No. 69, May 1974, pp. 29–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Jonathan Cape, £3.95.
ANTHONY CROSLAND made his name as the leading theorist of the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the Labour Party. The Future of Socialism, published in 1956, argued that the economic problems of capitalism had, basically, been solved. It was therefore not necessary to take the ownership and control of industry out of the hands of the capitalist class.
Crosland summarises the ‘revisionist’ position very clearly in the present book:
‘It maintained, contrary to traditional Marxist doctrine, that the ownership of the means of production was no longer the key factor which imparted to a society its essential character. Collectivism, private ownership or a mixed economy were all consistent with widely varying degrees not only of equality, but also of freedom, democracy, exploitation, class feeling, elitism, industrial democracy, planning and economic growth. It was therefore possible to achieve the goal of greater equality and other desirable ends within the framework of a mixed economy ...’
The ‘mixed economy’, of course, means modern capitalism and, in spite of all the pious talk about equality, an honest title for Crosland’s first book would have been The Future of Capitalism. Socialism Now asks ‘whether changes have occurred in the last decade which falsify this (revisionist) thesis.’ The answer given, not surprisingly, is no; nothing fundamentally has changed. Marxism was wrong in the fifties, it is wrong in the seventies.
The fact is that this conclusion was, and is, the ‘revisionists’ starting point. Arguments were, and are, then found to justify it. Crosland and his friends (Hugh Gaitskell, Roy Jenkins and the rest) found themselves in a party, the Labour Party, which was committed, on paper, to the common ownership of the means of production. Since they were never in any sense socialists, and since they saw no other suitable vehicle for furthering their political careers, they wanted to bring the Labour Party’s theory into line with its practice.
This is where they differed from the traditional right wing of the Labour Party. Men like Attlee, Bevin and Morrison (and their successor Harold Wilson) were happy enough administering capitalism but they had no objection to the odd May Day speechabout the promised land. It kept the party workers happy and it had as much effect on their day to day activities as the scriptural injunction, ‘Go, sell all you have and give to the poor’, has on a devout non-conformist manufacturer.
Partly the difference between the old right wing and the ‘revisionists’ was a difference in class background. The old guard contained a fair proportion of ex-working men with a serious experience of trade unionism or local government. They knew it was useful to pay lip service to socialism and their middle class colleagues took their tone from them. The ‘revisionists’ were almost entirely middle class. They were more at home in an Oxford College than in a trade union branch and they simply did not understand the need to soothe and encourage party members with vague socialist phrases. Partly, also, the difference was a product of the power struggle in the party between the Gaitskellites and first Bevan and then Wilson.
In its day the ‘revisionist’ thesis had some superficial plausibility. On the one hand Western capitalism was booming as never before; on the other hand the example of the Stalinist states showed that there was no necessary connection between state ownership and freedom and equality. Now, with worldwide rampant inflation and the menace of a slump universally recognised, the view that capitalism has overcome its contradictions is patently absurd.
Crosland has another difficulty. The 1964–70 Labour government manifestly failed to significantly alter what Crosland himself describes as the ‘extreme inequalities in Britain’ and which he argues can be drastically reduced, if not eliminated, on a capitalist basis. Nor will the present Labour government act otherwise. To make capitalism work you have to accept capitalist priorities, to give ‘incentives’ to ‘industry’ (i.e. the rich). It is no use complaining that ‘extreme class inequalities remain, poverty is far from eliminated, the economy is in a state of semipermanent crisis’ if you support capitalism.
Mr Crosland is worried.
‘The stability of democratic society [he means capitalist society] and the possibility of peaceful reform seem threatened by angry workers, students, squatters and even middle class amenity groups ... Even the rule of law is challenged by some Labour councillors and trade unionists ...’!
He is right to be worried. As the crisis of capitalism worsens, more and more workers will be drawn into industrial and political struggle. This horrifies our ‘revisionist’.
‘For a continuous political activism ...’, he writes, ‘would also ... pose a real threat to the stability of our democracy. Indeed it would mark the breakdown of normal social cohesion.’
Politics, you see, is for the elite, for well-educated persons like Mr Crosland. It would never do if common working men and women were to take matters in their own hands! There you have the measure of Crosland’s ‘socialism’.
Last updated on 4 February 2017