Commentary Magazine


New Fabian Essays, edited by R. H. S. Crossman

British Socialism’s Dilemma
New Fabian Essays.
by R. H. S. Crossman.
Turnstile Press, London. 215 pp. $3.25.

 

British socialism has long been a stumbling block to European Marxists and American liberals alike. Standing midway between laissez-faire and total planning, critical of capitalism and contemptuous of Communism, democratic and yet (in its Fabian form) mildly authoritarian—it has been something of a puzzle to friends at home and enemies abroad. Of late it also seems to have become a puzzle to itself, and voices are being raised that question whether it is not an unprofitable compromise rather than a successful synthesis. These mutterings have multiplied since the demise of the Labor government of 1945-51, and it was presumably by way of self-criticism that the Fabian Society earlier this year authorized the publication of eight scholarly essays, with a brief preface by Clement Attlee, under the promising title New Fabian Essays.

The contrast between this rather introspective volume and the confident tone assumed by the original Fabian Essays of 1889 has not been lost upon unfriendly critics, and there has been a good deal of comment to the general effect that the new Fabians, unlike their spiritual ancestors, are by no means sure of the road they propose to travel. As against this, simple fairness compels the statement that the new Essays are both clearer in intent and more precise in their use of socialist methodology than the 1889 volume. People who talk glibly of a decline cannot have read the original Essays, which are with one exception-Bernard Shaw’s—remarkably dull and by no means impressive in their intellectual content. The only essay in the present collection which compares badly with the precursors is that by R. H. S. Crossman, who assumes the mantle of Shaw and is duly smothered by a garment fit to be worn only by a genius. Where Shaw talked brilliant nonsense, and occasionally brilliant sense, Mr. Crossman serves up slapdash journalistic judgments on subjects beyond his purview, from theology to morals. But this is the only failure. Denis Healey writes trenchantly on foreign affairs, Mrs. G. D. H. Cole has something valuable to say about education, and Messrs. Strachey, Jenkins, Crosland, Mikardo, and Albu get to grips with economics in a manner which is impressive for its combination of hardheaded common sense and mastery of the technical apparatus. It is no criticism of their ability, but rather of the Fabian approach as a whole, to say that the effect of this important book is nonetheless disturbingly negative.

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The reasons why this is so have to do in part with Britain’s unsolved, and perhaps insoluble, economic problems, and in part with the dominating role of the American economy, which has reduced the socialist experiment in Britain to the status of an interesting but minor phenomenon in Northwestern Europe—more or less on a par with the socialist regime in Sweden which, unlike its British counterpart, has endured uninterruptedly for twenty years and proved an astonishing economic success. This double awareness of partial failure and wholesale decline in status nags at the consciousness of the eight authors, and produces a series of reactions ranging from Mr. Crossman’s and Mrs. Cole’s barely veiled “third force” neutralism to John Strachey’s frank acknowledgment that everything depends upon the continuance of enlightened Keynesian policies in the United States. Mr. Strachey states quite bluntly that there will shortly be a major breakdown in international trade unless masses of capital are moved to the backward countries to step up food and raw material production; and that only the United States can do the job on the requisite scale. And Mr. Crosland, though a shade less pessimistic about the probable impact on Britain of long-term economic changes abroad, is equally emphatic in holding that social stability in Britain depends on economic stability in America. There is little to choose between the general outlook of these writers and that of the surviving New Dealers in Washington, except that the social side of Keynesianism—a well-oiled and efficient capitalist society—makes no appeal to them. They are, however, quite aware that it will for a long time continue to be the ideal of most liberals and labor leaders in America, and Mr. Crosland even suggests American capitalism can function for another century along orthodox lines: “The further transition to statism will either take a century or not occur at all— unless (and these are two crucial conditions) either the cold war and high rearmament persists for twenty years, in which case statism will make a gradual entry, or the United States reverts to pre-war figures of unemployment.” There is nothing in this to which orthodox defenders of capitalism can take objection.

Inevitably—if you are a liberal Keynesian— the question arises why what is good enough for the United States should not be equally good— or perhaps even better, i.e., more urgently needed—for Britain. Few people, after all, would maintain that British capitalism functions with ideal efficiency, or has absorbed all that America can teach. At this point it becomes difficult to disentangle the socialist argument from the national one. Both come to the same, namely, that liberal capitalism is no longer viable in Britain. It is a phase which has passed with the disappearance of the peculiar 19th-century combination of factors that made it possible, and its place is being taken by what Mr. Crosland has the courage to call “statism,” although some Labor ministers and propagandists not long ago maintained, for public consumption, that it was the British form of socialism. “Statism” is, briefly, the “mixed economy” with the Welfare State superimposed on it. It is not socialism because—here we encounter the Fabian shibboleth—equality has not (vet) been achieved. But it is a step on the road, and it depends on the political capacity of the Labor movement whether the next step is shortly going to be taken.

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That, more or less, is the argument. And although it is qualified—especially in Mr. Strachey’s essay—by reminders that the British economy is at the mercy of world forces beyond its control, there is an underlying suggestion that British socialism has already proved viable. The Labor government of 1945-51, it is held, was successful in planning the mixed economy, and it now depends upon purely political—i.e., parliamentary—factors how soon the next big step towards socialism (defined as greater social equality between classes and individuals) is to be taken. We know how to plan. All we need now is a clearer view of what we want the socialist society to be like, as regards such matters as educational equality, income equalization, and workers’ control in industry. Provided no one drops an atom bomb on us, the Garden of Eden is in sight if the boys at the back of the hall will only keep quiet and let us get on with the job. What we seem to lack at the moment is a parliamentary majority, and that is largely the fault of the Liberals, who deserted us at the point where the Keynesian technique had made capitalism viable once more and removed the threat of a total breakdown. Unlike the Liberals, who merely demand that there shall be no mass unemployment, we stand for complete social democracy, and since we know how to plan, and since Britain is a democratic country where the majority rules, we shall eventually get sufficient support.

As against this restatement of the orthodox Fabian position, which has behind it the established political leadership, two different kinds of criticism have made themselves heard within the Labor party: that of the left, which flatly challenges the assertion that Labor has shown itself able to plan, and that of the pessimists among the economic experts who point out that Britain’s problem is not how to become more democratic but how to survive. These criticisms overlap to some extent, and of late they have been fused into a very trenchant and highly effective argument employed by socialists on the right and left wings of the movement—E. F. Schumacher (in Twentieth Century’), G. D. H. Cole (in the New Statesman’), and T. Balogh (in the Tribune).

These writers are all economists of considerable technical repute, and their philosophies range from Christian Socialism to Marxism. About the only thing they have in common is a conviction that the Fabian solution is not only inadequate, but has already failed, and that very radical—and more definitely socialist —policies will be required if the next Labor government is to drag the country out of the economic morass in which it is firmly stuck at the moment. G. D. H. Cole has shocked the readers of the New Statesman by flatly stating that the eight billion dollars obtained since 1945 have been largely misused to maintain a standard of consumption that Britain cannot afford; and while he and Mr. Balogh are sharply critical of the Labor government’s readiness to accept American demands for rearmament, the gravamen of their charge is directed against the failure to underpin the expensive Welfare State with a strictly planned and more efficient economy. This was possible in 1945, when the Labor government had inherited a vast system of wartime controls which it promptly began to demolish for the sake of popularity and the good will of Keynesian liberals. It was possible also because in 1945 the whole country was ready for a radical break with the past. The middle classes were willing to give austerity and socialism a chance provided Labor showed itself able to solve the national problem, which is a problem of insufficient productivity. They have now swung back to their traditional attitude, and so have the workers. The boat, in other words, has been missed— perhaps for good. And it has been missed because those in control were the very Fabians who are now trying to justify their historic failure by calling it an experiment in building up the Welfare State.

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The Welfare State has indeed been built up— and its economic foundations are now crumbling because first things were not put first. But that is the logic of Fabianism, which has always, as a movement, taken British leadership —or at least Britain’s economic viability—for granted. Fabianism is distributist socialism; from the beginning it has been concerned not with production but with consumption. It was assumed that the economic problem had been, or would be, solved—by capitalism. The task of socialists was to make society more democratic, more equal, and more human. Even in this latest volume, issued in the year 1952, there is only passing reference to the world food shortage, the menacing change in the terms of trade, and the need to invest capital in overseas food-producing areas. And just as on the economic side the Fabians have taken capitalism for granted, so on the social side they have taken it for granted that increasing doses of democracy would bring about the socialist way of life.

But what does more democracy mean to a fluctuating mass of people distracted by cinemas and Sunday tabloids, and shortly to be deluged by commercially sponsored television programs as well? More of the same article? But what if public apathy turns out to be the national problem? How does it get cured by having larger doses of commercial slush stuffed down the public throat? “Perhaps the question of commercial broadcasting is more important, from this point of view, than the question whether the cement industry should be placed under public control,” says E. F. Schumacher ironically. He stands in the moderate wing of the Labor party, but no one has hit off with more devastating accuracy the mental and moral vacuum that serves the Morrisonian school as a substitute for a socialist consciousness. That the right wing is getting alarmed may be inferred from the recent sponsorship by Mr. Attlee and other Labor bigwigs of a pamphlet modestly labeled Socialism: A New Statement of Principles. The pamphlet —the work of a group of intellectuals known as Socialist Union—is a feeble enough affair, but at least it raises in a timid way the question what exactly socialists are supposed to believe in, apart from the need to control cement output.

No such problem worries the Fabians. It is of course possible to fall into the opposite error of preaching morals where what is needed is a definite program of action. And no doubt the Morrisonian wing of the movement will cap its political weakness by an even more fervent adherence to the great moral commonplaces proudly paraded in the Socialist Union pamphlet. Ethical preaching can become a substitute for clear thinking. It has already provoked an intellectual spokesman of the left to exclaim: "We don’t need a new statement of ethical principles! They were given to us in the Sermon on the Mount! What we need is a program for socialist planning." No doubt. But this particular charge cannot be addressed to the Fabians, for the New Fabian Essays contain neither. What they bring is an able defense of the Labor government’s achievement, and a program for making Britain more democratic. It is hardly enough, unless one tacitly assumes that the next Labor government, like that of 1945-51, will obtain American subsidies to keep the Welfare State going. It is not an exhilarating prospect.

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