Tony Crosland’s Social Democracy 40 years on: a note
Tony Crosland died 40 years ago on 19th February 1977. At the time he was Foreign Secretary in a Labour Government. His politics were hardly mine but two decades after his early death it is perhaps worth asking the question how his politics would have fitted in with the right-wing in today’s Labour Party, since that is very much where Crosland marked his ground.
Tony Benn noted in his diary on Crosland’s death that he had been a good friend, had taught him economics and had helped him get a seat in Parliament. That said he also noted his role as a leading revisionist on the left.
Indeed in the most recent edition of Crosland’s most well-known book The Future of Socialism, Dick Leonard, who was his PPS, records that Crosland had thought himself someone who would be seen in the same mould as Bernstein, the arch-revisionist of German social democracy. History does not seem to have born that out since 60 years on the book is hardly recalled.
Crosland’s book, some years in the writing, was published in 1956 as the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest and I was born…
Crosland was a serious thinker and he paid tribute to Marx who he saw as a towering intellectual figure of the nineteenth century. His point was that Marx had little to offer post-1945 socialists in the way of practical politics. From the perspective of 2017 that doesn’t seem as clear as it might have done to some in the years of the post Second World War boom of capitalism in the West.
The cornerstone of Crosland’s revisionism was around public ownership. He was not he stated ideologically opposed to the idea. Rather he felt that in modern capitalism where managers ran things, ownership was less central. His view was that the State could get what it wanted by other means, since it was the most powerful force in society.
For Crosland socialism was about what might be called having a decent quality of life. That is, broadly, equality and decent public services. Certainly at the time he wrote capitalism could afford such things without being pushed too hard or having to sacrifice any profits.
The 2006 edition of the Future of Socialism, carries a forward by Gordon Brown who notes, correctly (even before the crash of 2008) that Crosland was writing in different times but his emphasis on equality and practical politics was to be welcomed.
I’m not sure whether New Labour, Brown aside, saw Crosland as being an intellectual influence and I’m even less clear that the right-wing of today’s Labour Party does (where they have heard of him).
While, as noted, I was never on the same political page as Crosland, Dick Leonard notes that one of the last things Crosland did before his death was to oppose the scale of Healey’s planned IMF cuts. Crosland argued that the economy needed to grow and this would generate money to deal with debt. Healey’s austerity won the day and I sense its popular still with many right-wing Labour MPs.