The Financial Express

Future of socialism

| Updated: January 14, 2021 20:15:52

Future of socialism

In 2017, the weekly Economist declared in the cover story, 'Socialism is back in fashion'. Despite proclamations of the end of history, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, the weekly paper noted the 'remarkable growth of popular support for socialism in the midst of growing social inequality'. The paper said, 'socialism is storming back because it has found an incisive critique of what has gone wrong in western societies', adding that 'inequality in the West has indeed soared over the past forty years'.

The growing popularity of socialism referred to  in the editorial in the Economist, was evidenced most prominently in the surge of support for left-wing political candidates, Senator Barnie Sanders and Senator Warren who spectacularly campaigned for their nomination in this year's American Presidential contest. After creating a wave of unprecedented enthusiasm for their socialist agenda, they had at the end to bow out of the race failing to muster sufficient support at the primaries. But both of them succeeded in bringing socialism at the heart of mainstream American politics, offering a possible remedy to the economic ills afflicting the nation.

In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader campaining as a candidate for premiership about the same time, appeared to be within striking distance of No. 10 Downing Street. The manifesto proposed by his party was vintage state socialism going back to early fifties when the Labour party, after wining elections, established the first welfare state in the western world. Many observed that with growing inequality and marginalisation of low income people in Britain, the Labour party's day had come. In the event, the Labour party not only lost the election, it surrendered many of its traditional strongholds to the Conservative party. A befuddled Labour party found that voters had little stomach for the strong brew of state socialism that promised them services and care 'from cradle to grave', the promise that had made them win in past elections with hands down. After all, despite the signs of staging a come back with the original brand of state socialism and the euphoria created by the prospect, what went wrong? Asked many disillusioned Labourites after the results were out.

Surprisingly, for the seasoned members of the party, the answer was seen in a book  written by one of their former colleagues, Anthony Crossland. He wrote the book as far back as 1956. The 2006 edition of the book, 'The Future of Socialism', had an intriguing subtitle: 'The book that changed British politics'. Changed when, in what way and how? Again asked many, some of whom were true  believers of socialism.

Anthony Crossland was the most notable intellectual among Labour politicians who not only won elections with sober promises but wrote incisively about the need for his party to have a new makeover. After two successive electoral defeats in 1956 he started enquiring into the causes for the failure of the party in election after it had successfully introduced the first welfare state in Europe that became the poster image of caring state. Why did the magic of his party's ideological attraction evaporate so soon after its success? He found out that what went wrong was the failure to recognise changes that had taken place in Britain and elsewhere regarding the means to deliver the ends of a socialist state to the people. Anthony Crossland was a firm believer of socialism's basic principles but was flexible enough to change views in keeping with changed circumstances which earned him the nickname of 'revisionist' among hardliners. Not being a doctrinaire socialist, he gladly became a 'revisionist' without any hand wringing or moral compunction.

Anthony Crossland wrote the book at a time when the Labour party had been turned out of office (1955) after being in power uninterruptedly for six years during 1945-1951. The book was written soon after the defeat of the party and was expected to be an act of introspection to dissect the reasons why Labour with its shining socialist agenda that had benefitted so many was rejected by the electorate. He found out that his party lost in the election because of the failure to distinguish between ends and means. Elaborating on this, he wrote 'the worst sort of confusion is the tendency to use the word (socialism) to describe not a certain kind of society, but particular policies which are, or are thought to be, the means to attaining  that kind of society.' Socialism was not about nationalisation and certainly not about state control; it was about the equal rights of each individual and dignity of human beings and the opportunity to realise their own potentials in a supportive community, he argued. Writing at a time when the idea of social equality was not under attack, he did not feel the need to wax eloquent on its merit. But he argued that inequality of too great a degree, threatens social integration and breeds division and resentment. `It offends our sense of social justice if concentration of wealth ends up restricting advantages, opportunities and political power to the few, rather than the many'. He argued that a society without genuine equality is one that is guilty of the 'social waste' of the talents and potentials of its people.

The goal of opportunity for all continues to be the central theme in his book but he believed that the world in which these goals can be reached had changed. So, the policies to realise them should change, too. The change did not require abandoning socialism's basic ideology but merely giving it new policy instruments that would preserve and ensure the 'end'. The role model for this he found in the social democratic system of Sweden where poverty had been eliminated and a wide measure of social and economic equality had been achieved. This, he observed, owed nothing to nationalisation of industries. The achievement was due to the intelligent use of government's general economic power, and in particular, by pushing re-distributive taxation further, than in any other democracy. Anthony Crossland had found his answer to the question of how socialism could be made over to suit the need of time without compromising its basic goal of equality and social justice.

To the extreme left in the Labour Party the most shocking conclusion of 'The Future of Socialism' was the relegation to insignificance of the ownership of industries by the state. To them it was the hallmark of socialism as well as its strength. They ignored the fact that Crossland did not oppose the principle of nationalisation. But he argued that each specific proposal for nationalisation must be justified by the contributions which it would make to socialist objectives. He contended that these objectives could be readily made available in a pluralist rather than in a wholly state-owned economy.

It  was inevitable that the book would make Anthony Crossland an instant hero on the Right and a hate figure on the Left. But not being pragmatic and advocating more of the same, they opposed saving socialism from being made irrelevant. Crossland embraced Democratic Socialism which had become the ideological model of chioce for many countries in Europe. The New Labour under Tony Blair campaigned with this manifesto and won the election. In contrast, Jeremy Corbain, trapped in a time warp, tried to resurrect the old model of state socialism that attracted many in the fifties but have lost its lustre in the changed circumstances of the present. As a result of being outdated and out of touch with the pulse of people, Jeremy Corbyn lost the election miserably. He had failed to sense the 'wind of change' that was blowing all around.

Where Anthony Crossland went wrong in his book is in equating America with Sweden as his role model. He failed to recognise that the apparent equality of opportunity in America was contingent upon having a degree from a renowned educational institution or inheriting a handsome wealth from parents. His strong appreciation of America's openness was so effusive that he failed to see its dark side.

Nevertheless, Anthony Crossland's book is still relevant, particularly now that socialism is trying to stage a come back. As has been written in the preface by way of admission, Labour has been at times radical without being credible and credible without being radical; it has to be both at the same time.  Anthony Crossland's book strives to drive home this point with all the emphasis that he had at his command.

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