Commentary Magazine

The Future That Doesn't Work, edited by R. Emmett Tyrrell

Failed Socialism

The Future that Doesn’t Work: Social Democracy’s Failures in Britain.
by R. Emmett Tyrrell.
Doubleday. 208 pp. $6.95.

Many liberals today have an uneasy conscience about socialism, which as an ideal once seemed to be our best hope for overcoming the harshness of profiteering capitalism and cruel individualism. The present volume is especially useful at such a moment, when new questions have arisen about the historical program of social democracy. Three or four of its nine essays are memorable, and none is without merit. Together, they have the virtue of concentrating attention upon a single, recent national experience which, rather than constituting a model for America to follow, seems rather to offer an example to be avoided.

The first seven essays concentrate upon particulars of the British scene: the trade unions (Peregrine Worsthorne); health and medicine (Harry Schwartz); intellectuals (Colin Welch); crime and punishment (James Q. Wilson); the Conservative party (Patrick Cosgrave); economic tensions (Samuel Brittan); and welfare in the welfare state (Leslie Lenkowsky). The last two essays take larger views: Peter Jay’s “Englanditis” and Irving Kristol’s “Socialism: Obituary for an Idea.”

“Alone among the leaders of contemporary Britain,” Peregrine Worsthorne writes, union leaders, “and they alone, have a clear sense of their own value and an unshaken faith in their own function.” Precisely because Great Britain has made non-revolutionary progress toward equality of opportunity, every step of upward success and status generates feelings of guilt among those who move out of their class. Union leaders, however, are not gentlemen and do not have to be; they are carried by the inmost legitimating current of the times. Hence the power they wield in British society, which is the power to bring industry to its knees, is unchecked by moral scruples, by noblesse oblige, or, in some cases, even by social conscience.

Harry Schwartz cites a series of staggering statistics about the condition of health care in England, and quotes David Owen, formerly the Labor minister in charge of the National Health Service (now Britain’s Foreign Minister):

The health service was launched on a fallacy. First we were going to finance everything, cure the nation, and then spending would drop. That fallacy has been exposed. Then there was the period when everybody thought the public could have whatever it needed on the health service—it was just a question of governmental will. Now we recognize that no country, even if they are prepared to pay the taxes, can supply everything.

The desire for health care is as deep as the hope for immortality. Who can supply it? Subject as it is to the immediacies of politics, the National Health Service (NHS) has skimped on long-range capital expenditures. The number of hospital beds per capita is down. Long lines, bureaucratic hassles, extremely ill persons on waiting lists, chronically short and inadequate services, exceedingly low morale among physicians, regional dislocations, severe impersonality, and deteriorating facilities make the NHS, even to the Labor government, appear very sick, indeed.

The essay by Colin Welch is an excellent study of those in Britain who think themselves to be moved primarily by their intellects, and make a living thereby, or else are influenced by those who do. “The fish,” he begins, “decays from the head first.” Most intellectuals in Britain stand “in our recent history predominantly on the Left.” Borrowing from George Orwell, Welch spends considerable time on Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski, John Strachey, R. H. Tawney, and Anthony Crosland, “because Britain is still governed by them, perhaps increasingly so.” This essay is too rich to summarize. Some points: Intellectuals find it hard to understand the nature and role of incentives, competition, time and obsolescence, inflation, scarcity, and the free determination of wants. There are also the inverted snobbery of intellectuals, their envy and their class pretenses, and their disdain for the rationality of ordinary people. By misunderstanding how democracy and capitalism actually work in Great Britain, intellectuals helped to erect the “uniform tyranny” from which the country now suffers. “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” Welch concludes. If you seek their monument, come to Great Britain.

Space permits only a glance at the figures and observations lined up by Wilson, Cosgrave, Brittan, and Lenkowsky. James Q. Wilson documents the growing crime and unrest in Great Britain, a situation which has begun to resemble that in the U.S. to an unhappy degree. Patrick Cosgrave points out that there are tides in the life of nations and ideas, and in Great Britain since 1945 the Conservative party, short on ideas, has been reduced to digging in its heels against the outgoing Labor tide, while being inexorably pulled under. Samuel Brittan exposes brilliantly the “envious, self-defeating” attitudes which come to prevail in the political culture of democracies. The emphasis upon equality causes each citizen to focus on “getting mine.” (In one survey, 80 per cent of those questioned preferred an extra £4 a week in common with everyone else, to an extra £5 if everyone else’s income were to rise by the still higher sum of £6.) The non-productive and the productive receive the same; progress dies. Leslie Lenkowsky concludes his chapter on welfare, statistically the most dense and difficult in the book, thus: “Precisely because the British attached great value to welfare programs, the nation has been a world leader in social policy. Because it continues to do so, Britain will remain less prosperous as well.”

“We in Britain are a confused and unhappy people,” Peter Jay begins his summary essay on “Englanditis.” Jay (the new British ambassador to the U.S.) outlines clearly the inherent contradiction between the political marketplace and the economic marketplace. Through the coercive powers of government, many can get something for nothing: the political leader can promise “more”—for instance, full employment—to more people, but without being held to provide the economic means for achieving it. As for the people, they can vote their desires, but in the short term of the political leader’s career, hard choices and decisions need never be imposed on them. Democracy, Jay concludes, is in grave danger of degenerating into fantasyland. If the critical task of democratic civilization is to combine a high degree of prosperity with a high degree of personal freedom, “Englanditis” consists in the lowering of both.

Irving Kristol’s essay, which might have been called “The Twilight of Socialism,” plays a nice counterpoint to all the “twilights of capitalism” that have been written over the past century. “Social democracy,” Kristol writes, “gives every sign of being intellectually and morally bankrupt.” The original sources of socialist dissent—“utopian” socialism—derived their spiritual energy from a profound dissatisfaction with modernity itself. “The essential point of this indictment was that liberty was not enough,” because men need a “political community,” of which the individual liberties of capitalism deprive them. Where capitalists like Adam Smith thought men could find their deeper values in private, socialists feared “the nihilism inherent in the bourgeois Protestant principle,” feared that the ideal of the good life would become replaced by “life style,” just one more commodity in the marketplace. No spiritual vision, no communal bond, only alienation.

Yet under the cover of “curing alienation” (as Christianity claimed to heal sin), “scientific” socialism has resulted mainly in the growth of state power, and new and more dangerous forms of alienation. “Mixed” socialism, as in Sweden, has demonstrated that organized labor and the state bureaucracy can receive an ever-increasing share of the national income and of political power. Britain is Sweden’s future. And in Britain, “all objective indices of social pathology—crime, juvenile delinquency, corruption, ethnic dissent, emigration, etc.—show steady increases.”



Kristol’s is an important statement, yet there is something missing from it—and from this book. Plainly, the “idea” of socialism generates no historical verification of its claims; wherever it has been put into practice, it has failed to provide what it promises and in a significant number of cases it has exacerbated the disease for which it is supposed to be a remedy. Just as plainly, the idea continues to captivate and to ensnare. In a certain sense, socialism works even more powerfully as a religion (a mystification, one might say) the more it refuses to be translated into successful practice. The more it fails, the more it continues to win passionate adherents.

The idea of socialism provides, perhaps, the most effective contemporary vehicle of ancient Judeo-Christian ideals: the ideal of a meaningful, directed history, the ideal of charity, justice, and equality on earth as in heaven. It is perhaps the subtlest, and potentially the most destructive, Christian heresy to have emerged in two millennia. It inexorably conquers more and more regions of the world, and as one watches the shifts of real political power on this globe, one cannot help but sense that the “obituary” being prepared is not that of socialism. as Kristol suggests, but that of freedom.

Partisans of liberty have need of Cardinal Newman’s advice, cited by Kristol, not yet taken: an erroneous idea can be expelled from the mind only by the active presence of another idea. Socialism gains, “Englanditis” spreads, for want of that idea.

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