The title of this book appears to be deliberately ambiguous. Ostensibly Mr. Crosland, as an ardent Labour Member of Parliament, means “the Conservative enemy,” upper case—i.e., the Tory Party. But in time one begins to feel that his criticism of the Tories, while not quite perfunctory, is primarily designed to validate his credentials as a socialist and thus to liberate him to deal with his main target—“the conservative enemy,” lower case. By this he means conservatism in social thought in general and in British left-wing socialism in particular. His essential plea in the end is to his own party, and his essential argument is that, if socialism is to survive in the modern world, it must undergo a process of modernization.
In Mr. Crosland’s hands, this process is quite devastating. The Conservative Enemy, a collection of magazine pieces, is less systematic than his earlier essay in reconstruction, The Future of Socialism; but it takes up effectively where the first book left off. One can understand the indignation of traditional socialists who wonder what is left of socialism when Mr. Crosland has finished. Thus classical socialism regarded public ownership of the means of production and distribution as the central issue. For Mr. Crosland, little could be less important. He condemns the “defeatist ‘Left-wing’ belief that nothing can be changed without a vast increase in public ownership.” What matters, in his view, is not owning the economy but controlling it; and control, he contends, can be achieved in a variety of ways without saddling government with the hopeless burden of detailed economic decision.
Nor does he regard economic power as the vital problem in a developed society. For years British socialists have urged nationalization in order to capture the “commanding heights” of the economy. But Mr. Crosland regards the “commanding heights of private privilege and social separatism” as “far more commanding than the steel or chemical industry.” The key to equality in England, as he sees it, lies, not in the nationalization of industry, but in the reform of education. “This privileged stratum of education, the exclusive preserve of the wealthier classes, socially and physically segregated from the state educational system, is the greatest single cause of stratification and class-consciousness in Britain.” The first task for British socialism therefore is “to secure a more equitable distribution of educational resources between different classes of the nation.”
Nor does he believe that the future of the Labour Party lies with the working class. The working class, he shows, is shrinking in Britain as in the United States. During the fifties, the number of wage earners declined by half a million while the number of middle-class workers increased by a million; and there is every reason to suppose that this tendency will accelerate. At the same time, the increase in the standard of living has eroded the old working-class psychology. As a consequence, “one can state dogmatically that if Labour continues to be thought of as an essentially proletarian and one-class party, it faces the certainty of steady decline; for ‘in a few years’ time at least half the population will be middle class in occupation and a good deal more than that will be middle class in aspiration.”‘
Nor does he lament the decay of ideological politics. It seems to him quite a good thing that, instead of arguing whether there should be a system of social security, people argue now only about its nature and extent. He does not feel that something essential has gone out of life with the disappearance of the dole and the breadline, or that the working class was somehow better off in times of mass unemployment, fascism and the Spanish Civil War. Of course, “the new situation does pose a real problem for some radical intellectuals, who cannot feel satisfied by arguments about old-age pensions or public housing or by the patient task of social reform, but emotionally need a Cause, a militant Battle cry, an ecstatic Struggle against political evil.” But Mr. Crosland callously dismisses such people as doctrinaires who cling to the stereotypes of the past as against the facts of the present and the needs of the future. Worse, he rejects the traditional socialist infatuation with austerity, hails affluence as a splendid thing and declares, “I rejoice in this as the most beneficial social development in world history; and I detest the grudging reaction of those who have never themselves known poverty, or what it means to scrabble and scrimp and starve and scheme simply to get the basic decencies of life.”
Mr. Crosland even refuses to become excited about such enormities in capitalist society as Madison Avenue. He regards advertising as a nuisance rather than a menace and considers both its waste and its hypnotic power much overrated. As for the notion, still perhaps cherished by traditional socialists, that society would benefit by the nationalization of the means of communication, Mr. Crosland comments, “No democrat of course could countenance for a moment a state monopoly of all the media.”
If socialism does not mean nationalization, or the working class, or impassioned ideological commitment, or the mistrust of affluence, or the hatred of capitalism, what does it mean? The values which constitute the essence of Western socialism, Mr. Crosland would reply, are those “of personal freedom, equality of incomes, the right of the consumer, and the greatest possible diffusion of power.” This is all very well; but at the same time it suggests that democratic socialism, so-called, no longer has any identity. The dilemma of democratic socialism is that, if it means the replacement of the mixed economy by total public ownership of the means of production and distribution, it ceases to be democratic, and that, if it means no more than a changed mix in the mixed economy, it ceases to be socialistic.
Mr. Crosland himself, in the subtitle of his book, calls for a program of “radical reform.” This is correct; for Mr. Crosland himself is, in the British sense, a Radical; he has rejected the antiquated doctrines of classical socialism while seeking new ways to achieve its humane objectives; and his reforms are designed to meet the needs of ordinary people in the 1960s for a decent life in an affluent society. “I have consistently argued,” Mr. Crosland writes,
that once the first entrancement with material plenty has worn off, non-economic issues will come to the forefront. People will turn their minds to questions of education, leisure, culture, and the general back-cloth and fittings of society. It is the function of Left-wing parties everywhere to articulate these more imaginative, idealistic aspirations as they gradually emerge from peoples who, for the first time in history, are freed from the bondage of material deprivation.
This is farewell to revolution with a vengeance; but Mr. Crosland rests his case on Max Weber’s distinction between the two ethics which may govern public conduct: the ethic of ultimate ends, and the ethic of responsibility. He who follows the former has no interest in political power and takes no responsibility for the consequences of his action; his is the millennial obsession. Those who follow the ethic of responsibility hold themselves accountable for the consequences of their actions and accept the limitations of political existence. Their concern is not with their own prophetic utterances but with pragmatic questions of choice and priority and with the need for reconciliation and compromise.
Mr. Crosland identifies himself, of course, with the ethic of responsibility; and no doubt the come-outers in America, the utopians, the millennialists, the all-or-nothing mob, will assail him here as their counterparts did in Britain. Yet Mr. Crosland’s argument is so self-evidently correct in its main thrust—and he develops it, in addition, with such precision, such fine discrimination and such literary grace—that it will be exceedingly hard to refute. Of course, it is easier to be dramatic than to be moderate, to be Kautsky rather than Bernstein; but Bernstein, however lacking in apocalyptic fervor, had a much clearer sense than Kautsky of what was going on in Europe at the turn of the century. Similarly in the case of Mr. Crosland, while his revisionism will outrage classical (i.e., conservative, i.e., left-wing) socialists, it will also do much to restore intelligence and a sense of reality to British socialism. The Conservative Enemy is a stylish and stimulating contribution to the modernization of social thought.
June 1, 1963