24 OCTOBER 1958, Page 23


Leftover Left to Kill


BY C. A. R. THIS is a good moment to consider the state of the debate on the British Left. Broadly, one may say that the 'revisionist' period is over; that is, the business of giving the Labour Party a policy attuned to mid-twentieth-century con- ditions is more or less complete. On the theoreti- cal plane, this period began with New Fabian Essays and continued with analytical works by Mr. Strachey, the Socialist Union group and myself. On the practical plane, it culminated in the recent series of Labour Party policy state- ments, all bearing the marks of Mr. Gaitskefl's personal influence.

British Socialism now lays much less em- phasis on old-style nationalisation and detailed Physical controls, and much more on economic expansion, social welfare and social equality; While its pristine semi-Marxist analysis of capital- ism has given way to a more subtle revisionist theory of the post-capitalist society. The new emphasis, though still encountering some 'psycho- logical resistance amongst the local activists, is accepted not merely by the party leadership, but also by most (if one may use the awful phrase) Left intellectuals, or at least those in any sort of touch with public affairs. I may add that the Party has been given insufficient credit for this major realignment of its outlook. There have, of course, been other recent in-

tellectual currents on the Left. One is typified by Universities and Left Review, an attractive and encouraging manifestation, splendidly fresh and iconoclastic on all cultural matters. But on Political and economic issues it is simply pre-, or anti-, revisionist; it represents not a new development in Left-wing thinking, but a last- ditch defence of the old ideas, doomed to failure because the reality is against it. We have also had the Left-wing angry young men of Declara- tion. Without doubt they struck an emotional chord in the younger generation. But their politi- cal influence has been negligible, if only because the vehemence of their resentment seemed dis- proportionate to its causes, these being generally trivial in relation to the lives of ordinary people.

Revisionism therefore holds the field. Yet there

remains an uneasy feeling that, sensible and prag- matic though its policies now are, the Labour Party somehow lacks a 'dynamic.' This feeling has prompted twelve young Socialists to produce a book of essays* designed to answer the question : how can British Socialism generate a new intellectual enthusiasm on the Left? We shall certainly search eagerly to see what answers emerge, in terms either of a new electoral appeal Or of a fresh contribution to Socialist ideology.

I divide the essays into four groups according !o their subject-matter (reluctanlly ignoring three cultural' essays, of which that by Mr. Hoggart

IS outstandingly good). The first group deals with foreign and colonial policy. Mr. Mervyn Jones contributes a well-argued statement of the anti- 11-bomb case; Mr. Hugh Thomas a finely written, if sometimes over-simplified, critique of recent * CONVICTION. Edited by Norman Mackenzie. (MacGibbon and Kee, 18s.)

foreign policy; and Mr. Peter Marris an excep- tionally thoughtful and sympathetic study of colonial nationalism. But it is no criticism of the quality of these essays to point out that they say nothing very new. These are matters which have been continuously mulled over in Left-wing dis- cussion in recent years; and the points of view here expressed have already been weighed and considered by most thinking people.

Secondly, we have two essays, in my view the most important in the book, on the social ser- vices. Mr. Abel-Smith describes the squalor and misery which flow from the dreadful state of much of our social capital—the mental hospitals, many of the chronic hospitals, old or makeshift out-patient departments, children's homes and workhouses. Mr. Townsend, in the best essay in the book, humane and compassionate, calculates that one-fifth of the population—to be found amongst old-age pensioners, disabled persons, the chronic sick, mental defectives and young widows supporting large families—are still living appallingly handicapped or poverty-stricken lives. Both writers make urgent pleas for higher social expenditure and a more generous attitude to the welfare services. Their essays are an inspiring contrast to the recent niggling, resentful diatribes of writers who, in Mr. Townsend's words, want merely to 'stand apart from the crowd, to be original, to wear an outrageous shirt, condemn the mass media, and talk of commitment, posi- tivism and free cinema.' These essays are about something real and desperate.

A preoccupation with social welfare is not, of course, a new departure in Left-wing thinking. But these writers (and others who share their debt to Professor Titmuss) are still doing some thing essential when they reinterpret the welfare objective in 1958 terms and demonstrate how complacent we have become about the Welfare State, how irrelevant are the traditional Beveridge and 'national minimum' concepts to present-day social problems and, above all, how much remains to be done. Whether this emphasis on social ex- penditure, with its overtones of high taxation, will be electorally popular, I do not know. I do know that it should have the first priority by any standards of Socialist theory or ethics.

Next, several essayists attack the growing privileges-in-kind of the managerial class in in- dustry. Mr. Peter Shore gives some invaluable details about the use of corporate funds to pro- vide senior executives with generous pensions, cars, housing accommodation, chauffeurs, gar- deners and even free public-school education for their children; and he has no doubt that all this serves to perpetuate, even in the face of high taxation, an excessive degree of inequality. J partially agree, though I become a little uneasy (perhaps on account of having spent three years trying to persuade the Co-operative movement to

grant its managers a more privileged status) when

so much attention is paid to rewards from work as opposed to rewards from inherited property.

But in any event this approach does not repre- sent a new contribution to Socialist thinking; it ia merely an up-to-date version of the old income- egalitarian tradition.

Lastly, a number of essayists concern them- selves with the class system. Of these, Mr. Paul Johnson concentrates on the old, non-managerial, `snob' upper class. His judgments seem a little deficient in humanity—`most public men become, sooner or later, moral invalids, unable to seek treatment because they are unaware they are sick'—and even in knowledge of the real world : 'Lady Violet Bonham Carter exercises more real power than when her father was Prime Minister.' (What on earth over?) He wishes to abolish the monarchy, the House of Lords, the public schools, the regimental system in the Army, the Inns of Court and the Honours List. This may, he concedes, involve a retreat into the political wilderness. He does not say what the cost to ordinary people might be, in terms of standards of living, housing, social services or foreign-policy adventures, of thus retreating; but presumably it lit. would be worth while in order to rid ourselves of debutantes and guardsmen.

Other essayists are more concerned with the emergence (as they see it) of a new managerial elite. Thus Mr. Shore argues that the managerial class in industry is now becoming hereditary and, moreover, that as a consequence of the growing unification of business with administration and politics it is merging into a national 'power elite' of the kind described by Wright Mills. Mr. Mackenzie's essay is spattered with references to 'The Establishment' and the 'faceless men of power.' And Miss Iris Murdoch, most of whose essay consists of a brilliant plea for more systematic Socialist theorising, ends by calling for a return to the Guild Socialist tradition as an antidote to the new 'managerial society.'

Now here I begin to rebel. As Lord Attlee would say, all this simply won't do. It is not that I think the subject unimportant---I devoted a large part of The Future of Socialism to it. But it really cannot be dealt with, as it is here, in vague phrases and broad generalities. We never have more than a bare half-page of sug- gestions as to what might actually be done; and none of the ccintributors shows any awareness of the large volume of sociological work in this field. There is no reference, for example, to the many recent studies of social mobility in general and management recruitment in particular. No one seems aware of the devastating criticism to which Wright Mills's concept has been subjected by American sociologists. And the brief passages about industrial democracy are empty of any references to (I take the examples at random) the work of the Tavistock Clinic, the Michigan Px experiments, the experience of joint consultation, Mitbestimmting in Germany or workers' control in Yugoslavia. The fact is that the short essay is not an adequate vehicle for a serious discussion of such subtle and complicated questions as social stratification or industrial democracy; something more detailed and substantial is needed. But until someone has produced a thorough and docu- mented analysis of the Establishment or the power elite, may we please have a truce on the use of these phrases?

However, I wish to end on a note of praise, for this is a good and encouraging.book. It does not, I think, make a major new contribution to Socialist thought, nor provide the much-sought- after 'new dynamic' (whatever that may mean). But the redefinition of the welfare objective is timely and important; and generally the level of the essays is high—all are readable and three- quarters are thoughtful, open-minded and in- telligent. With people of this calibre in the younger generation, no one need fear for the future of the British Left.