An old conservative-minded contention goes something like this: if you start with an egalitarian ethos, you will bottom out at complete leveling. It’s a slippery slope to the end of individuality.
This was not simply a social or economic claim. Once upon a time, especially in Europe, this attitude stymied equality before the law, a liberal norm most of us would now take for granted. Once upon another time, it was used also to forestall universal suffrage, now a democratic norm in any decent political order.
Foes—at least many early ones—of equality before the law or universal suffrage supposed that a society ought to be governed by natural aristocracy. This later became meritocracy for many of them. Surely, this marked considerable improvement, yet meritocracy was often conceived narrowly, with little consideration of how unearned social advantages or disadvantages shape the life chances of most people.
Let me pose this in a way that is not original yet is, I think, revealing. Imagine two girls, both age five, with pneumonia. One, the daughter of well-off parents, lives in a well-to-do neighborhood. The other, daughter of a poorly or modestly paid working family, lives in an outer borough. We can guess who will receive better medical care. But why should the first girl receive better medical attention than the second? Does she “merit” it more than her counterpart does? But how can she if you must do something in order to merit something else? Neither girl can be said to merit her mother and father—or to have chosen them. Parents, whether good or bad, rich or poor, do not, after all, issue from a child’s “free choice” any more than, say, her IQ. Should both girls be told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or should both simply have access to equally good care?
And what, then, of their possibilities for schooling? No, that is not a leap from one matter to another. There is—I borrow from philosopher John Rawls and his followers—a kind of birth lottery with enormous, unavoidable social consequences. Unavoidable? Not exactly. The two girls may not have chosen their parents, but the society into which they are born is, like all societies, a matter of many human choices. Priorities are set by them, and these embody or are shaped by a range of values; they can be sustained or changed politically.
For instance, a government led by the British Labour Party instituted a National Health Service after the Second World War. This transformed the citizenry’s access to medical care by making care a social right. For another, more recent example, Democrats recently legislated important if more narrow reform of the American health system. This came over objections of a Republican minority that hoped to impose its own priorities; and some conservative politicians and pundits warned how this—really every—social reform encumbers “free choice” and skids toward nothing less than totalitarianism.
But why this prelude to address the essay in the title of this article, “Citizenship and Social Class,” by British sociologist T.H. Marshall (1893–1981)? Consider the conceptual terrain touched so far: civil citizenship (particularly the ideas of equality before the law and individual rights), political citizenship (particularly universal suffrage), and social citizenship (the notion that all members of a polity ought to enjoy and to share at least a basic level of social-economic and cultural well-being).
Think now of the institutions and some of the rights linked to each dimension of citizenship: courts (to secure civil liberties); elections to a legislature (political rights); welfare systems (public education and health care). In fact, we’ve arrived at Marshall’s principle concerns in “Citizenship and Social Class.” These concerns were presented with Britain in mind, first as a lecture in 1949 and then in published form in 1950 by this professor at the London School of Economics. The context is evident: the postwar creation of a British welfare state. But the issues and principles entailed have much to say to Americans too. After all, our right wing regularly proclaims its swaggering patriotism while looking askance at social responsibility for fellow citizens—members of their own political community. Why pay a little more in taxes, say for health care and education, when you can wave a tri-cornered hat and a flag?
Marshall spoke of the development of civil, political, and social citizenship as an evolutionary sequence. The rights embodied in the first pointed to those of the second, and the second to the third. Each, in succession, was secured over the three centuries following the 1688 Revolution (when constitutional monarchy was established). Some scholars challenge dimensions of Marshall’s progression. I won’t dwell on these debates, in part because I am not a historian of Britain, and in part because my primary concerns here are the social democratic implications of his argument.
Those social democratic implications derive from Marshall’s proposition that the very concept of modern citizenship is at odds with unmerited inequalities and should be deployed to abate them. Citizenship, he explained, is a “status bestowed on all those who are full members of a community.” Those members share rights, duties, and the protections of a common law. The bonds of modern citizenship grow among them first through the “struggle to win those rights,” and then, once gained, by their “enjoyment.” And so, modern citizenship is born also of “loyalty to a civilization which is a common possession.”
Common. Marshall assumes that people are not simply egos batting about in artificially framed spaces that they happen to call nations or states. There is such a thing as “society”; the social individuals who make it up ought to share a basic notion—and system—of fairness rooted in mutuality. The kind of market fundamentalism that was rehabilitated closer to our times (in the Thatcher-Reagan era) is obviously at odds with this way of thinking.
This thinking does not entail a simplistic negation of the positive accomplishments of classical European liberalism, with its stress on individualism and markets; it does propose that modern citizenship, as a status held by all, expands the domains of equality at the expense of social class, with its vestiges of a pre-modern hierarchy of privileged estates. The persistent enrichment of citizenship rights, thought Marshall, ought to render important powers associated with social differences increasingly less powerful. (This has been challenged from the Left on the grounds that economic inequalities too easily, even inevitably, translate into undue political influence.)
But let’s follow Marshall’s presentation in a little more detail.
Civil Citizenship came first and consolidated the rule of law and equality before the law. Its rights are those “necessary to individual freedom—liberty of the person, freedom of thought, speech and faith, the right to own property and to conclude valid contracts and the right to justice.” Individual civil rights also undid statutes and customs that constricted the “right to work”; working people could now, in principle, move about legally in pursuit of employment. It is a right that also corresponded to the need of capitalism for labor markets.
“Citizenship” and “freedom,” at least individual freedom, appear to have become interchangeable terms, Marshall noted. Yet there is an obvious problem. If you accept equality before the law, must you not also accept equality in choosing lawmakers? In other words, the principle of civil citizenship contains within itself what Marshall calls a “drive” toward further equality—political equality. The logic of civil rights subverts the idea that political rights should be restricted on account of social class.
Political Citizenship progresses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Reform of 1832, by which Parliament expanded in a limited way an already very limited franchise, was the “first infantile attempt” by political rights “to walk.” Steps, then strides, led eventually to universal suffrage. Political rights caught up with civil rights by means of more reforms. The right to vote came to working people and to women. Alongside these developments, a labor movement grew and a Labour Party went into Parliament.
The results of this trajectory are uncontroversial by the standards of liberal democracy. The same is not so for Marshall’s next move, which was to assert that social rights must follow from political and civil ones.
Social Citizenship encompasses a “whole range” of rights, says Marshall, from “a modicum of welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society.” These rights find their institutional home in what, with some variation, has now been characterized as a welfare state. (The term in English seems to have originated with Archbishop William Temple, who meant it to contrast with the “warfare states” of the Second World War.) Social rights mitigate inequalities generated by market economies without abolishing markets.
Here, again, one principle implies another: if every citizen is equal before the law and should therefore be able to choose those who make laws, shouldn’t every citizen also be equipped, knowledgeable, and secure enough to enjoy her or his civil and political rights and fulfill responsibilities that come with them? If yes, then decent education and living conditions must be aspects of citizenship. Without education, a citizen cannot make intelligent choices at the ballot box, and an uneducated citizenry also cannot sustain a minimally sophisticated economy. An educated citizen will be better able to exercise a civil right such as free speech. And so we begin to perceive that social citizenship does not quash individuality, but together with the other aspects of citizenship, fortifies the foundations on which it may flourish democratically; it enables individual citizens to fare well.
HOW SHALL we think about Marshall’s claims sixty years after they were made? One thing to note is that the “slippery slope” argument against thinkers like Marshall is obviously tendentious. Whatever the problems or weaknesses or costs of welfare states, whatever the difficulties in finding equilibrium between political community and markets, or between the state and civil society, or between public initiative and private innovation, this is evident: social citizenship did not abolish political citizenship in liberal democracies. Political citizenship did not extinguish civil citizenship. Think of the American parallels. Did Social Security and the New Deal bring Stalinism to the United States, as trembling conservative voices warned it would? Did Medicare bring totalitarianism and destroy our liberties? Or better health care for older people?
Note, then, that the egalitarian drive of citizenship does not “make everyone the same.” It can, Marshall points out, even increase economic inequalities. If health services are available to all citizens as a social right, members of better-off classes will find their disposable income increased; they can spend in other ways fees they once paid private doctors. “The advantages obtained by having a larger money income do not disappear,” remarked Marshall, but they are limited to consumption. This means that powers derived from economic disparities are undercut. (Again, critics on Marshall’s left would question the political efficacy of this claim.) Neither would markets disappear, but social logic complementary to Marshall’s would suggest that they be regarded as means rather than ends.
Critics from the Right often insist that expenditures on social citizenship are inevitably too costly. This claim seems to me to slope in another slippery, and dangerous, direction. What if someone claimed that fair court systems (and thus civil rights) were becoming “too expensive”? He or she would—quite justly—be treated with scorn. There are, however, untoward occasions when civil liberties are temporarily compromised to a degree in a liberal democratic society—wartime, for instance. So these rights are not always considered absolute. Concessions are demanded occasionally in less exacting circumstances too—if, say, one legitimate civil liberty conflicts with another legitimate civil liberty. It might well be that a free press has to be restricted sometimes in some degree to guarantee that an individual has a fair jury trial.* But these examples differ qualitatively from calculations based on nothing but financial cost.
MARSHALL’S CASE, finally, is that each of the three aspects of citizenship can—indeed should—bolster the others in a decent society. Each may modify the others, but they don’t pile atop or fuse with each other. If they did, the distinct concerns of their specific domains—civil, political, social—would dissolve. Guaranteeing freedom of conscience is not the same as guaranteeing a fair vote or making sure that a sick five-year-old member of your political community gets proper attention (or ensuring that her family will not be ruined financially to obtain it for her).
The point is not to be blithe about expenditures on social citizenship; they are real—as real as, say, taxes. But I do mean to suggest the need for moral wariness, indeed unease, when financial claims are advanced simplistically against the basics of social citizenship. After all, why should a citizenry be any less derisive of the idea that costs should curtail civil liberties than of the idea that social rights—say, those of our five-year-old—are too costly? Nonetheless, a weakness in Marshall’s essay, concerned as it is to show how rights progress from other rights, is its insufficient consideration of conflicts among rights.
If conflicts like these arise, then the worldview of those who grapple with them becomes an urgent matter. Will it be public servants who fret greatly, are even sleepless about such tradeoffs? Or will they be like those (on the Right) who imagine that they have an all-solving paradigm in “The Market”? Or like those (on the hard Left) who care little about civil and political rights because they possess the “scientific” plan for the end of days (rendering “bourgeois” rights uninteresting, even for socially disadvantaged people who might be struggling for social rights).
WHERE SHALL we place Marshall’s essay in the intellectual history of the Left? Most obviously his arguments have their lineage in a tradition associated with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century English “lib-labism.” This reformism looked to reconciliations between liberal and labor-oriented (or socialist) ideas, and it contrasts to Marxism and its offshoots. Marshall’s argument is best situated in a space—call it indeterminate or open-ended—between a liberalized socialism and a socialized liberalism, and this is, I think, as useful a location of “social democratic” thinking as can be found. It points to the vigorous concern for both liberty and equality that marks an intelligent Left for today—a Left that has learned from disasters done in its own name in the twentieth century and that conceives itself as heir to what was best or most useful in liberalism, rather than as its destroyer.
Marshall’s approach must be marked off in at least one additional way in our uncertain age of globalization. Marx proposed that the urban, industrial proletariat was the “universal class” of history—its interests those of humanity, its members foreseen to be the overwhelming preponderance of the world’s population. Nations, Marx imagined, would dissolve as capitalism propelled itself worldwide, class struggle intensified, and revolution brought a utopian future free of states and classes.
In contrast, “revisionists,” even the Marxist kind like Eduard Bernstein at the end of the nineteenth century, were skeptical of this prognosis. They doubted that social classes would relentlessly and simply bifurcate, yielding a reactionary minority and a radicalized, homogeneous majority. Some “orthodox” Marxists, especially in Leninist and Trotskyist mutations, later found a substitute for their vision of the proletariat in fantasies of the third world. Because orthodoxy is, well, orthodoxy, their dogma remained intact even if its historical protagonist changed.
In contrast, “revisionists” looked to the extension of democracy and reform to address social suffering, especially that of workers. Seen in this light, Marshall’s essay effectively turns Marxism on its head by making citizenship rather than a class into the universalizing medium. In fact, he presumes a national context. The state is, in his essay, an expanding vehicle for rights and self-government, and “[T]he social health of a society depends upon the civilization of its members.”
The state has undergone considerable transformations since Marshall wrote his essay. Those whom the birth lottery has placed in the twenty-first century are in circumstances that differ from his in various ways. Among other things, a government’s room to maneuver is narrower due to diverse processes such as “globalization” and “regionalization” (“Europeanization” is one example). When Marshall wrote of the “civilization” of a citizenry, he thought mostly of his own; it was decades before immigration and multiculturalism posed new questions about what citizens hold—or should hold—in common. (This ought also to make us think about the fact that it is a birth lottery that gives most people automatic citizenship in this or that country.)
Challenges are also raised by these same processes to democracy itself; might it not weaken increasingly if political parties run for office advocating a set of policies but, on winning, lack sufficient fiscal tools to implement them? Social democracy’s most important achievements in the twentieth century required the framework of a national state, one which also functioned as a kind of mediator between citizens and the world.
Some contemporary thinkers offer concepts of “global” or “cosmopolitan” citizenship in response to changes of the last decades. These are often as appealing as they are abstract. It is difficult to imagine, however, that they can take meaningful, practical form—especially if we value self-government and are concerned to secure civil, political, and social rights. It is also with these in mind that we ought to reread and reconsider—and still value—T.H. Marshall’s short, elegant classic.
Mitchell Cohen is professor of political science at Bernard Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. He was co-editor of Dissent from 1991 to 2009 and will be CUNY Writing Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2010–2011. This article appears in slightly different form in a series on “The Classics of Social Democratic Thought,” published by Policy Network, a London think tank, and available at
*Again, I expropriate some notions from Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Rawls advocated what he called “property-owning democracy” rather than a welfare state and would have had some differences with Marshall.