Commentary Magazine


The Conservative Enemy, by C. A. R. Crosland

Visions and Revisions

The Conservative Enemy: A Program for Radical Reform in the Sixties.
by C. A. R. Crosland.
Schocken Books. 251 pp. $435.

C. A. R. Crosland, a former Oxford Fellow in Economics and a member of Parliament, has long been associated with the Right wing of the Labor party, and his earlier book, The Future of Socialism, is generally regarded as the most sophisticated presentation of its case. The essays collected in the present volume bring his earlier arguments up to date and attempt to furnish additional evidence. Since it now seems likely that the British Labor party will win the 1964 elections in Britain and constitute the next government, The Conservative Enemy commands special attention—quite apart from its substantial intellectual merits.

Mr. Crosland considers himself a “socialist.” However, this merely indicates, at least to the American reader, how misleading political labels have become. Were Mr. Crosland in American politics he would almost certainly belong to the A.D.A. rather than to Norman Thomas’s party. His position is a reasonable and moderate one to modernize the British economy and polity. He is aware of many shortcomings, but asserts repeatedly that “We must not, of course, magnify the extent of the problem.” Things are by no means as rotten and evil as some Left-wing socialists would have us believe, and certainly there is no need to “attack this society root and branch”—a practice he attributes to the distasteful abberations prevalent “amongst bourgeois Chelsea literati.” Reasonable men will press for such things as higher death duties, a capital gains tax, and a Galbraithian program of larger outlays for roads, hospitals, housing, and the like. They will demand effective transportation planning, a curb on harmful advertisements, an increase in the rate of economic growth, better social security, as well as libertarian reforms in such matters as the abolition of capital punishment and the persecution of homosexuals. Lastly they will work for major educational reforms, especially the broadening of access to the “public schools” (but emphatically not their abolition) in order to break down the class snobbery and elitist monopolies that often govern the recruitment of men for top positions.

All these, of course, are eminently worthwhile reforms, but they sound, in the main, like a prudent, matter-of-fact program to make Britain into a more efficient and egalitarian modern industrial society, rather than like a traditional plea for socialism. Indeed, in many respects, Crosland’s “program for radical reform” seems to go no further than suggesting it is high time that British Labor helped Britain to become more nearly like the United States. This is, of course, a far cry from the dominant 19th-century traditions of British socialism, such as William Morris’s idea that “Socialism is fellowship.” Certainly, we do not find in The Conservative Enemy any of the passionate outcries at injustice and exploitation which formed the basis of the socialist ethos in the past. Instead, Crosland and his colleagues (compare, for example, Douglas Jay’s recently published Socialism in the New Society) talk like conscientious and high-minded bookkeepers.

This is an interesting phenomenon which deserves some further comment. At present British socialism seems to be experiencing a development roughly similar to that famous “dissociation of sensibility” which T. S. Eliot finds in British literature after the age of the metaphysical poets. In Milton and his successors a cleavage began to appear between feeling and thought, “values” and “facts.” Unlike John Donne or Sir Thomas Browne, who were able to think and feel simultaneously, either in verse or in prose, the later writers were expected, as Basil Willey has remarked, to think prosaically and to feel poetically.

Prose was for communicating facts; poetry was for communicating pleasurable emotions or flights of fancy. Now, in much of the literature of 19th-century socialism, the writer’s emotion and factual descriptions, his moral indignation and critical analysis, were deeply fused—one cannot read Marx’s chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital, for example, without realizing how much his anger contributes, despite his pretensions to dispassionate description. However, in present-day socialism this fusion of sensibility has split apart. Thus we get Messrs. Crosland and Jay arguing that Labor ought to make Britain into a tidy, well-lighted, salubrious, and efficiently managed society, while Raymond Williams and his colleagues on Labor’s Left talk about alienation and the need to recreate community and fraternity, about the meaninglessness and even perniciousness of mass culture in an industrial landscape where traditional working-class culture has been eroded and replaced by nothing better than the greedy pursuit of a room at the top. The efficient social engineers on Labor’s Right regard with a measure of contempt and pity the somewhat disreputable Utopian dreamers on Labor’s New Left with their often rather tenuous hold on the political realities of the moment. Do you really think, they argue, that you ever will get a chance to get elected on the basis of policies and feelings derived from Marx and William Morris?

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I do not wish to suggest that this dissociation is consciously experienced by the average member of the Labor party. Most trade-union M.P.s probably are not even aware of it at all, and men like Labor’s new parliamentary leader, Harold Wilson, are much too clever politicians not to know that their road to power would be blocked were they to associate themselves too closely with either the New Left or the Right wing. Yet, the ideological cleavage is nonetheless real enough, and it marks not only contemporary socialism in Britain but on the continent as well.

Take the New Left and Right attitude toward Labor’s rank-and-file. One of the recent policy papers of the New Left is called Out of Apathy, and, as the title suggests, the writers stake the future of British socialism on a revival of rank-and-file fervor, a renewed sense of mass participation in political life, a rebirth of community. They argue that with the decline of the workers’ participation in traditional working-class activities, “private ambitions have displaced social aspirations” and that the central task of modern socialism must be to combat this process of “privatization.” Contrast this view with Crosland’s dispassionate diagnosis: “the elan of the rank and file is less and less essential to the winning of elections . . . and the traditional local activities, the door-to-door canvassing and the rest, are now largely a ritual. An accent on militancy would leave the Party still more isolated, introverted, and at odds with national opinion—with the fervor of a doctrinaire sect, not of a national party.”

Mr. Crosland is probably right; in modern industrial societies, as distinct from the so-called underdeveloped areas, elections will be won by resourceful “orgmen” whose social visions and aims derive from their having closely affiliated themselves with modern society rather than by socialist prophets, by the inheritors of the Fabian tradition rather than by the heirs of William Morris, by appeals to private gains rather than to communal participation. Yet, one wonders, will not the domination of the socialist orgmen lead to a further disaffection of the young? A socialist movement which is no longer able to stimulate their imagination, which can no longer command their passionate allegiance, might one day find itself in a position akin to that of middle-aged settlement workers helplessly watching angry young men smash the efficiently designed modernistic furniture. . . .

One other matter needs to be briefly taken up: Crosland’s quite inadequate consideration of the facts of power. To be sure, his New Left opponents incline toward a somewhat paranoid fear of the dark conspiracies of the Men of Power. But their simplified slogans do not justify Crosland’s bland social engineering point of view, which tends to assume that since the proper Keynesian instruments from redistributive taxation to fiscal management and planning devices are at hand, one need not worry about the distribution of political and social power. Only give us the tools, he seems to argue, and we will be smart enough to manage things. In general, one suspects that he overestimates the powers of social intelligence—a not uncommon failing of intellectuals. Even the modest goals advocated by Crosland and his friends will require stronger measures than the play of disinterested intelligence and appeals to common decency. British business may have been tamed in the immediate postwar years, but it has regained power in the Tory decade of the 50′s; and those who imagine that vested interests will passively submit to further restrictions will be in for a rude shock. And once the board rooms resound with indignant clamoring about these unsound chaps who wish to impose capital gains taxes and higher death duties, Mr. Crosland’s friends will need to marshal power, not just good will. For only power can effectively challenge power. One need only look at what is happening to Crosland’s Washington friends just now.

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