crosland’s new social-democratic reformism

28 08 2008

The idea of Gordon Brown writing on the future of socialism will come as a surprise to many, but that is precisely what he invites us to discuss in his foreword to a new edition of Anthony Crosland’s The Future of British Socialism.

Brown describes its publication in 1956 as “a decisive moment in post-war Labour history” and that it should be the starting point for “any serious discussion of the politics of social equality”.
Brown endorses Crosland’s contention that the task of a party that challenges vested interests is to be radical whilst being credible enough for the task. Does Crosland really offer a future for socialism today? We publish below an abridged version of an article by the American socialist Hal Draper from New Politics in 1963 which reviewed the ideas of Crosland, the leading theoretician of the old right-wing of the Labour Party, his assessment is very relevant today.

Chris Ford

The New Social-Democratic Reformism
By Hal Draper

The thesis of this article is that the ideology of the dominant wing of the European social-democracy has, since the end of World War II, visibly become something different from the traditional reformism of the Second International; it has entered a new stage and demands a new analysis, a tentative sketch of which is offered here.

“New” is always relative, of course; there is no doubt that the new ideology is an organic outgrowth of the old, as it claims to be; but it continues so far along the lines implicit in the old that a qualitative change must be registered.

By traditional reformism I mean the political ideology which assumed clearest self-consciousness in the form of Fabianism in England and Bernstein’s “revisionism” in Germany. It looked to the gradual transformation, or metamorphosis, of capitalism into socialism by an inherent process working out through patchwork changes, however minute but cumulative in effect, which would eventually mean that capitalism itself grows into socialism, without any visible break in the continuum of change. Capitalism would not be “abolished,” let alone “overthrown”; it would become socialism. The movement toward socialism was simply the sum of collectivist tendencies immanent in the present system. Reformism’s perspective was the inevitable collectivization of capitalism itself, its self-socialization from above, rather than its change by action from below.

C.A.R. Crosland, the British Labour Party M.P. has systematically set out to formulate the ideology of the new reformism (which he calls “revisionism”); in doing it, he has set himself forth as the theoretical champion of the continental social-democracies, which he counterposes to the “extremist” British; and the continental social-democrats, insofar as they are interested in theoretics, perforce look upon him in this light.
The first distinctive feature of Crosland’s “revisionism” is its enthusiastic satisfaction with the social system which others call Western capitalism. He was of course delighted with the Labour Party’s Gaitskellite statement in 1958 that “under increasingly professional managements, large firms are as a whole serving the nation well.” In the essay which he contributed to The Corporation in Modern Society (ed. E. S. Mason) he used this for all it was worth as his peroration. But this is mild. For as lyrical and uncritical an account of the operation of the present economic system as one can find anywhere left of Nelson Rockefeller, one must read Crosland’s paper at the Dutch conference, keeping in mind that he is presumably not writing only about Britain:

One of the more unusual aspects of Crosland’s lack of inhibition about justifying virtually everything about the economic status quo is his insistence on fiercely defending even the advertising industry, as it exists not only in Britain but also in the U.S., against the kind of far-from-basic strictures made by (say) Vance Packard’s books. He counterposes the hoary myth of “consumer sovereignty.” The present set-up permits the consumer “libertarian judgments” because the individual decides for himself what he wants and registers his opinion by buying it… “

I am trying to underline that there is something new here. All previous differences among socialists have been over differing degrees and forms of hostility to the economic system. Crosland is the first socialist theoretician in history, as far as I know, to take his stand on complete identification with the going system. Insofar as this is accepted as socialism at all, there could scarcely be any more finished exemplar of a socialism-from-above.

It should not be supposed that Crosland’s contentment with the economic system is simply founded on the character of the British situation, where the Labour movement and Labour governments have had a special impact. Another one of Crosland’s sides that brings one up sharp is his insistence on specifically extending his eulogies to the U.S. He sometimes verges on representing the United States as being the country nearest the socialist ideal, with the possible exception of Sweden. “In the U.S.A. the Trade Unions have invaded the prerogatives of management in such a way that we might almost speak of industrial democracy there,” he said in Holland. After claiming that in Britain the trade unions “remain effective masters of the industrial scene” even under the Tories, he has the amazing fortitude to add the note: “This is increasingly true in the U.S. also .” The leaders of the AFL-CIO will be glad to learn about their master over “the citadels of capitalist power .” But then they will be happy to know, also, that Crosland considers the American Labour movement a model in another respect:

Workers who take managerial posts are not condemned as traitors to their class. Trade Union leaders are not thought to be in danger of contamination if they have large cars, and smoke cigars, and draw huge salaries. The Unions are not thought guilty of treachery if they cooperate with management to boost sales or raise productivity, or even accept a wage-cut to save a firm from bankruptcy .

It is inevitable that Crosland should enthuse also over the “convergence of political attitudes” of the contending parties both in the U.S. and England; i.e., in the U.S., the absence of political differences between the Democrats and Republicans. He specifically complements the “mature, educated voter” in the U.S. for making his choice in the 1960 election “on the basis of such issues as … simply the complacency of the existing [Eisenhower] regime.” We, not the Tories, have the right to claim American society for our own, says Crosland:

It is in fact a complete illusion that British Conservatives really want a mobile equal-opportunity society on the American pattern… Their true ideology is poles apart from the restless, egalitarian ideology of contemporary America. This indeed comes much closer, though this is not always understood in England, to the egalitarian ideas of the Left than to the more static, conservative instincts of the Right.

Crosland not only identifies himself with the going economic system, but also strives heroically to identify himself as completely as possible with all of American bourgeois society – viz., the only society left on earth where capitalism is still entirely self-confident and feels the bloom of health. There are, of course, far more numerous elements in British society with which one can identify, and in that country various positive features can be ascribed to the impact of the socialist movement; but in the United States this interpretation is impossible. Crosland draws the inevitable conclusion: he would not be a socialist in the United States; or, in other words, there is no need for a socialist movement in this blessed land – not even a “revisionist” one.
However, the system with which Crosland identifies himself is no longer to be called “capitalism,” naturally; it is a new and better one. At his most definite, he dates this after the Second World War; when – he is a little more vague, it is something that is in process of happening, or is “almost” true.

At any rate this system, which seems to superficial people to be run on the economic side by the impotent jellyfish slaves, is not the old capitalism; and Crosland does not label it socialism as yet. It is merely a new, progressive social order in which all our economic problems have been essentially solved. Crosland once played with the problem of giving it a name: shall it be “the Welfare State, the Mixed Economy, the Managerial State, Progressive Capitalism, Fair Dealism, State Capitalism, the First Stage of Socialism,” he asked? “Differences of opinion about the right nomenclature will partly reflect merely ideological differences,” he mused. To show how true this is, he chose a name which reflected uninhibitedly the nature of his ideological inclination: Statism. He was not unaware of the tactical embarrassment:
The name is ugly, and has too unfavorable a ring. But the most fundamental change from capitalism is the change from laissez-faire to state control, and it is well to have a name which spotlights this crucial change.
Given the triumph of the new progressive social order Statism (if we may continue to use the label properly understood), what is left of the socialist program, and why is something to be called “socialism” still to be pursued at all?

Or to put it another way: if Crosland were not already saddled for purely historical reasons with a party and movement whose members insist on calling it “socialist” and advocating a society called “socialism,” would it ever occur to him that the amiable objectives he now sets forth need still another new social system, and have to be advocated by a sectarianly separate party which arouses antagonism by calling itself “Labour” or “socialist,” and has the unpleasant habit of singing The Red Flag? If he could get rid of the old rubbish any other way, he would not have to bother to write long rationalizations, directed to these historically pointless nuisances, designed to prove that they ought to act as if it were all a mistake to begin with. In this case, why should he ever dream of creating a socialist movement in Britain any more than he sees any need for a socialist movement in America?

Some other remarks in Crosland become less odd. He goes distinctly out of his way to deny that socialists should be concerned as such with the problem of bureaucratism:

He has a program for the cadre of functionaries and incipient bureaucrats – some modest proposals for the further bureaucratization of the Labour Party apparatus:

1. Direct representation on the party National Committee for the parliamentary party – the MPs, who already have too much autonomous power. (It is this group, for example, that now elects the Party Leader, not the party.)
2. “More staff at much higher salaries” at party headquarters.
3. This point requires attention: Crosland has been complaining that the Labour Party’s image is too working-class; it should reflect an all-class People’s Party. The MPs too should be even more representative of “all social classes” than now. Hence, to implement this, “we need first more young Trade Union MPs, drawn partly from the newer industries and occupations and representing the emerge t social groups discussed above…” At first blush there appears to be a contradiction when he complains of an overly working-class composition and then proposes “young Trade Union MPs” to remedy the imbalance. We must understand that he does not mean working-class candidates. By “young Trade Union MPs” he means new rising union functionaries, aspiring bureaucrats, the professional manager types for which he frequently calls in other places; and he looks on these as representing a New Class, or New Class elements.
Then there is a point calling for public-relations experts to be hired by the party; and more attention to youth, since youth give “a more classless air.” (He does not mention that the party leadership regularly expels young socialist leaders and whole organizations, even periodically dissolving the youth affiliate, since the youth tend to be too left.)

The demand for putting the movement into the hands of professional managers – the accent is on “professional” – is one of the most frequent notes in Crosland’s proposals. He denounces “the snobbish anti-professionalism which permeates so much of our national life.” His remedy for the ills of the Co-operative Movement is: higher salaries for the managers; more university personnel; less “interference with management by elected lay boards,” and a stronger, more professional national leadership – a platform which has the indubitable characteristic of being single-minded – and he attacks the Movement’s “supposed interests” of “equality and democracy” which stand in the way of these changes.

Although he tends to lean heavily on “equality” when putting together definitions of socialism that will exclude social ownership, he cannot be accused of being passionate on the subject of equality of reward. He is in fact a loud advocate of bigger and better rewards for managers, in the interest of “efficiency.” He attacks the New Left because they want to bear hard on “those [inequalities] which derive from personal effort,” referring to the managers who really run the corporations, whereas he wants to bear hard on “those which derive from inheritance.” His approach is first to minimize the size of top management rewards in private industry. Then he argues that outsize rewards for managers are inevitable in any economic system.
We have seen that, to Crosland, bureaucratism is not a socialist concern. We can now add that there is little room left in his scheme for workers’ control or workers’ democracy in industry. Crosland does not reject the idea in toto; after all there are always the joint consultation schemes. An article by him on this subject comes out unusually pointless (he does usually say something), with a conclusion about leaving the question to sociologists for research.

However, the major relationship between Crosland’s program and this question does not appear in his explicit discussions. It emerges from the nature of his proposals for the extension of public ownership, in those instances where he is willing to consider such steps. He is for government share-buying:
…the object is not to acquire particular capital assets with a view to their control; it is generally to increase the area of public ownership. There is therefore no need for the compulsory purchase of entire firms or industries; it is sufficient to extend public investment in any direction … Indeed, it would be a positive nuisance to be saddled with control…

What stands out about this method of extending “public ownership” is that it is the one which guarantees completely leaving all management rights and relations undisturbed. It is designed to leave the same bosses in control no matter what level of “public ownership” is thereby reached. Crosland is utilizing the well-known split between share-ownership and management control to introduce the same schism between public ownership and public control. His program for “extension of public ownership” is at the same time a program for maintenance of managers’ control.

If we find heavily bureaucratic-collectivized notions informing the new social-democracy of Crosland, we need not be surprised to find that he is willing to go along with the increasingly popular theory of the convergence of Western society with the bureaucratic collectivism of the East. This has not played a big role in Crosland’s writing up to now, but it is interesting that it makes its appearance in the last chapter of his last book. Douglas Jay plays it bigger.

Now the perspective of convergence of the two societies does not make any sense within the framework of Crosland’s rhetoric. If we in the West are already in a new, progressive, advancing social order, with more democracy and equality than ever, and more coming, then even if Crosland swallows the tales about the coming liberalization and democratization of Russia, the picture that results is not of convergence but of a slow catching-up at the best. The real theorists of “convergence” mean, as they must, that a collectivized capitalism gets bureaucratized while a Stalinist-type bureaucratic collectivism gets “liberalized”; the two systems move in each other’s direction.

Now this is what is actually happening not only with Crosland’s “Statism” but also with the social-democratic theory about what is happening.

It is the historical function of the new social-democratic reformism to act as the ideological formulation of one of the main processes in the bureaucratic collectivization of capitalism and its society. This is the reality behind what Crosland calls the “new progressive social order”—just as, analogously, a finished form of totalitarian bureaucratic collectivism is the reality behind the vaunted “victory of socialism in one-fifth of the globe.”

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One response

29 08 2008

Also worth a read is NEW POLITICS contributor Kent Worcester’s essay on Crosland’s book:


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