British Socialism: Ferment and Polemic

British Socialism: Ferment and Polemic

R.H.S. Crossman, reviewing John Strachey’s Contemporary
Capitalism* last summer, began by observing that British socialists have run out of fresh ideas. This is true, but the explanation lies not, as he seems to think, in their overwhelmingly successful concentration upon practice (“under the Labor Government they were so busy changing the world that they had no time to understand it”), but rather in the exhaustion of a certain intellectual heritage which was never quite as ample as the beneficiaries had been led to suppose. Laborists of varying tendencies continue to write pamphlets and books, but the hard core of scientific analysis is difficult to locate. An exception must be made for the Keynesians; but then, for all the well-meant efforts of the left-wingers among them to pass themselves off as Socialists, no one has yet quite succeeded in demonstrating that socialism, laborism and Keynesian liberalism all come to the same thing in the long run—a demonstration not required, let me hasten to add, in the interests of politics, since the Labor Party is quite happy to accommodate all of these conflicting strains. When one speaks of intellectual doubts one refers to the state of mind now prevalent among the socialists in the Labor Party, i.e., those who still believe that the welfare state and the mixed economy are stages on the road to something less banal.

Mr. Strachey’s book, itself the first installment of a projected major theoretical work dealing with the whole corpus of socialist doctrine, thus comes at the right moment. But before trying to assess its significance, it will be necessary to devote some observations to the prevailing party orthodoxy which he sets out to challenge. This procedure is distinctly unfair to him, as will be immediately obvious to anyone who reads Contemporary Capitalism together with the bulky pamphlet entitled Twentieth Century Socialism. Whatever criticism may be advanced on Mr. Strachey’s work, the professional economists cannot afford to pass him by: he is himself one of them, as well as being that rarest of phenomena, a British socialist who has made a serious study of Marx; whereas it is extremely difficult to think of a specialist in any field who would be likely to benefit from reading Twentieth Century Socialism. Yet there is no doubt which of the two books is the more important politically.


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