A Paradoxical Politician

The Politics of Socialism

by R.H.S. Crossman
Atheneum, 268 pp., $5.95

Richard Crossman
Richard Crossman; drawing by David Levine

No intellectual, Malraux has written, exercises so deep a fascination as the one who is also a man of action. Malraux’s own career has been the subject of several books; the English playwright, John Arden, has dedicated a play set in late medieval Scotland to Conor Cruise O’Brien; yet Richard Crossman, Minister of Housing and Local Government in the Wilson Cabinet, and one of the leading theoreticians of British socialism, aroused only mild admiration among the young. Why is this so?

Crossman’s identity is difficult to establish. Before the war he was a don at New College, Oxford, and the author of a book on Plato. He began his political career in the Oxford City Council, and was elected M.P. for Coventry East in the 1945 Labour landslide. During the war he served as Deputy Director of Psychological Warfare, first in Algiers then at SHAEF. There was nothing remarkable in this; politically minded dons were almost inevitably destined for intelligence work. Soon after the end of the war, he turned up in Palestine, as a member of the Anglo-American Commission—a man of varied interests, a restless temperament, and many abilities. These, more than any of his other qualities, account for his failure to capture the imaginations of young radical intellectuals in Britain. For many years Crossman gave the impression of being just another clever politician with a fertile pen. Only within the last few years has he become clearly identified with a distinctive political philosophy.

The present collection of essays will undoubtedly do much to establish the coherence and relevance of Crossmanism. The book includes his best pieces on the “Re-Thinking of Socialism, 1951-64,” including his now famous contributions to the Left-Right controversy within the Labour Party in 1959-60. The second group of essays, “Problems of the Cold War, 1950-63,” though they are equally entertaining, are perhaps less original and persuasive.

CROSSMAN’S EARLY CAREER in Parliament showed the limits of his radicalism. In joining the Keep Left Group, he challenged Ernest Bevin’s original commitment to a Western Alliance. Crossman wanted a European Third Force. He also called for long-term socialist planning to sustain the waning force of the Attlee Government’s domestic reform program. In 1952 he was elected to the Labour Party National Executive on a tidal wave of Bevanism—a position which did not rescue him from a permanent back-bench role in the Parliamentary Labour Party, in opposition. His personal prospects under the rightist leadership of Attlee and Gaitskell remained bleak. With Gaitskell he shared a common educational background—Winchester and New College—but there the resemblance ended. Whereas Gaitskell had dedicated himself to modernizing the Party’s thinking, as well as its image, and to creating a responsible alternative government, Crossman was hurling one broadside after another against the new leadership’s attempts to come to terms with Keynesian capitalism.

Crossman’s prospects changed with the accession of Harold Wilson. Since Hugh Gaitskell’s death in…

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