"The Future of Socialism" was the last important book written by a Labour politicianby Denis MacShane / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Fifty years ago, Labour produced its only complete work of political theory: The Future of Socialism by Anthony Crosland. It sought, over 500 pages, to create a synthesis of economic and political theory and pragmatic policy proposals in a way that no Labour politician had tried before or since.
Compared to today’s Labour cabinet, which has only one intellectual in it (see News & Curiosities), the Labour cabinets of the 1960s were studded with Oxford dons, serious thinkers and fully qualified economists, of whom Crosland was a star example. In contrast to European social democracy, where sociology was the discipline that held the key to left politics, British Labour in the 20th century remained wedded to economics. Hugh Dalton, Harold Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell and Crosland were all trained economists. Michael Young tried to get the postwar left interested in sociology, but his writing had little direct influence on policy in the 1960s and 1970s, when Labour held office for five-year periods.
The success of New Labour lay in part in its willingness to stop listening to economists and start listening to sociologists like Anthony Giddens. The closest we have to a contemporary Michael Young is Geoff Mulgan, who trained as a structuralist under Colin MacCabe at Cambridge (as, curiously, did the brilliant rightist ideologue, Simon Heffer). Mulgan’s endless sociological curiosity informed much of Gordon Brown’s writing in the key years after 1990, during which Mulgan worked for him. Mulgan went on to run the Downing Street policy unit for Tony Blair. Labour’s success in winning and holding power lies in the triumph of Weber over the Webbs.
Not so in the 1950s. Back then there was still something called socialism, which not only had a future but could be arrived at if the correct policies were followed. Nonetheless, Crosland was cross with militants, quoting Strindberg’s Olof at them in his book: “It was not victory I wanted, it was the battle!” and noting that, “Labour governments… found responsibility harsher and quite different from anything they expected.” Blair and Brown might say “amen” to that, as former cabinet ministers fill the Today programme with appeals to return to battle. In 1956, it was Crosland’s task not to warn of the difficulties of power but to exult in how Labour might advance to socialism. So he devotes hundreds of pages to the need for redistributive taxation and for greater government regulation…