The crisis of Labourism

Despite the remarkable spirit of shared endeavour, there were of course important divisions within British progressive thought. The major divergence since the 1930s remained whether to reform British capitalism to fulfil social democracy’s egalitarian aspirations; or to replace capitalism with an alternative economic system no longer driven by private interest and greed. The age-old division on the Left between reformist and revolutionary politics persisted. Nonetheless, it is plausible to trace New Labour’s ideas and programmes to the eclectic currents of the progressive tradition focused on the multitude of think-tanks and journals on the British Left. During the 1980s there was an intellectual reawakening that acknowledged the need to revise the party’s strategy and ideology even more fundamentally than in the 1950s, despite the bitter doctrinal disputes of that period. The debate about the crisis of Labourism fashioned New Labour’s agenda for national reform and modernisation, and was animated by overarching themes that are elaborated further below.

The ideological crisis: searching for the New Jerusalem

The first theme concerned the ideological crisis of the Left. Labour may have been a pragmatic party that owed more to Methodism than to Marx, the cliche beloved of Harold Wilson. Whether the Labour Party was ever a socialist party had long been a matter of controversy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Labour was a fractious and unstable coalition of ideologies from orthodox

Marxism to ethical socialism to the inheritors of the New Liberalism.55 Antipathy to capitalism and the belief in planning brought about by nationalisation of the productive economy provided the ideological adhesive that bound the party uneasily together. Yet the paradox was that whenever the Labour Party entered government, ministers embraced the realities of markets. Their commitment to public ownership usually softened while private property rights were upheld. This division between principle and pragmatism has continued to structure conflict in the party.

The Labour Party’s ideological agenda was definitively shaped by British ideas, as such largely untouched by the European Marxist tradition. The emphasis in the work of Tawney, Dalton, Durbin and Crosland - the party’s dominant intellectuals - was on working through British political institutions to achieve ‘legislative and administrative change’.36 Durbin wrote that those ‘who believe in democracy, have faith in moderation, and search for agreement in the field of politics, have behind us the long and splendid tradition of British political thought and practice’.57

In so far as Labour had any discernible ideological creed beyond its rhetorical adherence to socialism, it developed during the twentieth century by melding together distinctive traditions.58 The first tradition was the ideology of corporate socialism centred on state ownership of the means of production. The second tradition was guild socialism, emphasising worker’s control and participatory democracy. The third was the Fabian tradition that prioritised the expert-driven centralised state. The fourth tradition was social liberalism according primacy to personal liberty together with the freedoms afforded by government intervention. The fifth was the ‘Tory-socialist’ tradition affirming the communitarian values of the working-class in industrial Britain.59 And there was the related tradition of non-statist ‘socialism from below’ emphasising co-operation, mutualism and neighbourliness forged through ‘gas and water socialism’ at the local municipal level. The status of local government in Labour’s ideology remained tenuous, however, given the proclivity towards centralisation.60

The direction afforded by such ideological traditions was to prove important, given that Labour remained an idealistic party. The commitment to the ideal of the New Jerusalem evoked the utopian desire to create a better world - the belief in ‘heaven on earth’ — leading not only to material improvements in the lives of the working class but wider spiritual awakening: from selfish, acquisitive materialism to a community of fellowship and solidarity. Yet while the Labour Party had a ‘diffuse ethical yearning for socialist utopia’, it still required a practical governing programme.61 The response to the ambiguities of ethical socialism was the drafting of Clause Four in 1918. Clause Four committed Labour governments to enact the socialised planned economy, although ironically the original statement never mentioned the word ‘socialism’. According to the historian Tony Judt, Clause Four gave legitimacy on the British Left to ‘transformational change: the displacement of capitalism with a successive regime based on an entirely different system of production and ownership’.62

Although Clause Four espoused the doctrinaire belief in nationalisation, it was intended to be a pragmatic commitment to the socialisation of industry, diluting the appeal of Marxism and class struggle in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet by the late 1980s, the party’s official socialist ideology appeared profoundly discredited. It had been undermined by:

The almost universal popular identification of socialism with an extension of central state ownership and control. Socialism is generally seen as the nationalisation of industry, rather than other forms of common ownership, and as central state control, rather than decentralisation and local autonomy.

The party was crippled given that socialism was ‘widely and almost exclusively identified as the central state’.63 In the wake of the 1983 election defeat, intellectuals began to ask what it meant to be on the Left when the goal of collective ownership was so widely demeaned? The faith in nationalisation among the working class had precipitously declined since the 1970s. Flow should Labour and the Left deal with the dissipation of long-standing ideological certainties? The party’s failure to clarify a persuasive body of socialist doctrine in post-war Britain created persistent difficulties.

Even reformist social democracy, the politics of accommodation with capitalism centred on harmonising the labour/capital dynamic, was struggling following the decline of the post-war settlement. As Labour emerged from the wreckage of the Wilson-Callaghan years, the issue of what socialism meant was shrouded in confusion and ambiguity. The post-1945 social democratic consensus was decaying. Throughout the 1980s, the ideology of socialism slipped further into disrepute, culminating in the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of ‘actual existing socialism’. This situation provoked a wide-ranging debate about the final demise of socialism. Crosland’s landmark text. The Future of Socialism (1956), had sought to clarify the Labour Party’s ideology in post-war Britain. Crosland insisted socialism meant the pursuit of equality through the welfare state rather than nationalisation and government control of the economy.

By the early 1980s, even Croslandite revisionism appeared exhausted reflecting the Labour Right’s ideological fatigue. Blair believed the arguments of The Future of Socialism were relevant to post-war society rather than Britain after 1979.64 Revisionism distinguished between ethical ideals, the guiding moral spirit of socialism, and means, the technocratic machinery required to take practical action and put policies into effect. While Blair talked of separating means and ends as a Christian socialist, he believed moral responsibility was necessary to achieve social justice. The philosopher A.J. Ayer promoted logical positivism which had won the allegiance of Gaitskell’s generation in the 1950s, Blair was uncomfortable with Ayer’s disregard for ethical principles. Fie was determined to restore the early-twentieth-century precept of moral obligation to the Left’s values. Yet Blair turned to Christian socialism emphasising the reciprocal relationship between individual and society enunciated by his intellectual hero, the philosopher John MacMurray. MacMurray’s idealism led him to espouse Quakerism and pacifism emphasising ideals of fellowship, mutual obligation and community.

Shortly after the downfall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, Blair remarked that the task for socialism was ‘re-establishing the agenda for public action without the old failings of collectivism’.65 Gordon Brown insisted, ‘instead ofHayek’s vision of selfish individuals endlessly competing against each other stands a socialist view of a community of citizens pursuing objectives they hold in common’.66 Influential figures on the British Left from Neil Kinnock to the university academic Raymond Plant envisaged the return to ethical socialism, prioritising communitymindedness over selfishness and consumerism while ending the confrontation with market capitalism. Blair foresaw as ‘social-ism’s’ goal a society of citizens shaped by ‘an ethical and subjective judgement that individuals owe a duty to one another and to a broader society - a Left view of citizenship’.6' In an edited collection of socialist writings, Brown concurred: ‘The most distinctive feature of British socialism historically has been its insistence on the moral basis of politics’.68 This communitarian view diverged from the liberal egalitarianism ofjohn Rawls that emphasised individual rights as the cornerstone of a more equal society. The critique of Rawls was eloquently elaborated in Michael Sandel’s book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) on which Brown subsequently drew.

Even so, having become leader, Blair struggled to articulate a coherent concept of communitarianism as his guiding ideology. It proved fiendishly difficult to define what the Left meant by ‘community’. For many, community remained a conservative idea. Michael Oakeshott believed that ‘to be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown . . . the near to the distant’.69 New Labour’s communitarianism became prescriptive and moralistic in the eyes of scholars, emphasising a socially conservative ethical impulse.70 Moreover, the communitarian belief in decentralising power to localities and communities contradicted Labour’s dominant twentieth-century statecraft, prioritising uniformity and central direction in the name of equality. Having embraced the ethic of community, Blair diluted his commitment in government more conventionally relying on the institutions of the market and state. After discarding Clause Four in 1995, Blair was unable to devise a conception of socialism that went beyond the vague, abstract espousal of the communitarian ideal. New Labour’s emphasis on technocratic governance in the face of globalisation and technological disruption undermined the enduring effort to revitalise the British socialist tradition.

Other thinkers confronted the crisis of British Labourism by emphasising the turn to ‘post-ideological’ politics. 1 The loss of faith in Marxism led to their shift away from ideology, emphasising the virtues of expert technocracy and techno-futurism, a world-view that grew in salience from the late 1950s. New Labour’s ideology sought to reconcile the diverse streams of ethical, Christian and technocratic socialism. Yet for many scholars, any distinctive socialist ideology was all but abandoned. By the mid-1990s, the party was on the brink of power yet it palpably lacked an overarching theory: a governing idea that could propel Labour through the hard grind of achieving political and economic reform in a market society.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >