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 January 1963, Crossman has always been in sight of his central ambition—to apply his intelligence and his socialist convictions to the practical business of government. Wilson rose from the Left Center, the same sector of the Party that produced Crossman, Barbara Castle, and Anthony Greenwood. Admirers of Aneurin Bevan, they nevertheless tended to balk at the anti-American, anti-NATO postures adopted by Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo, Konni Zilliacus, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Although staunchly opposed to Dulles’s stand of anti-communism, Crossman eventually accepted the logic of Ernest Bevin’s Atlantic Alliance and of Britain’s commitment to “Western defense.”

In his essay “The Cold War” (1950), we find the first paradox or contradiction in Crossman’s thought. He argues here that the main threat to democracy today comes from the new feudalism of the capitalist-managerial “oligopoly” which dominates our society. If this is so, how, then, a fellow-socialist might ask, can we hope to defend democracy by reinforcing the military and armaments structure desired by both the American and British “oligopolists”? Crossman’s answer is a simple one: The Stalinist dictatorship represented managerial elitism in its most extreme and cruel form, a form utterly alien to Labor humanism. He looks, therefore, to a fruitful collaboration between British “welfare socialism” and American “welfare capitalism,” seeing in the American labor unions and “liberals” in Washington the forces which would guarantee the democratic and defensive nature of the alliance.

This position seems to me vulnerable. Crossman’s detestation of Stalinist communism was apparent from his Introduction to The God That Failed (1950). Here he characterized French and Italian communism as simple reflections of the Stalinist superstructure, a view that showed a curious blindness to the social and psychological roots of communism in France and Italy—however compliant to Soviet directives the party leaders may have been. Yet this assumption dominates much of Crossman’s thinking on foreign policy. In the same way, he seems to take it for granted that Stalinist Russia was the only major threat to world peace and stability in the postwar years—a view which he asserts but does not examine, and which I for one do not share. Most important, he fails to demonstrate how the power of the capitalist “oligopolists,” so dominant at home, could be resisted within the international alliance; how, in other words, a defensive alliance against totalitarianism could be prevented from becoming an offensive crusade against socialism everywhere, whatever its national form. Crossman’s repeated attacks on the underlying policy assumptions of the US and NATO in the 1950s (see particularly “Democracy and Foreign Policy,” 1955) suggest that his hopes had not been borne out.


WHAT DISTINGUISHES Crossman’s economic radicalism is its overtly moral basis. The early Continental revisionists, like Bernstein and De Man, in rejecting the historical determinism of Hegel-Marx, and in substituting moral or psychological justifications for socialism, were also reformists. Thus theoretical revisionism almost invariably went hand in hand with practical reformism (Sorel being an exception). In Britain this has not always been the case. The springs of radical protest, from the time of the Chartists, O’Brien and Harney, to the ILP of Keir Hardie and the young Ramsay MacDonald, down to the Bevanite movement in the 1950s, were overtly moral ones. The British Left rarely claims that history is on its side.

Thus Crossman’s position is somewhat paradoxical. In one sense he is himself a revisionist who has criticized (perhaps unfairly) Laski, John Strachey, and the Webbs for borrowing in the 1930s an alien, ready-made Marxist philosophy and for trying to mould the British Labour movement to it. Crossman explicitly rejects the “automatism” of Marx and Wells; he agrees that Keynes and history have undermined the economic case for socialism, and concedes that mass unemployment is no longer likely. This line of reasoning separates him sharply from the “New Left” movement which grew up after Suez and which continues to state its case in neo-Marxist terms.

Yet if Crossman is a revisionist, he is also an anti-revisionist. Late in 1959, after the debacle in which the Labour Party went down to its third successive electoral defeat, he entered the furious debate which was threatening to shatter the Party’s unity. In “The Affluent Society” and “The Clause Four Controversy,” he denounced the new revisionists, particularly his middle-class intellectual colleagues Anthony Crosland, Douglas Jay, and Roy Jenkins, the men closest to Gaitskell. Their case was, essentially, that capitalism had come to stay, that the levers for effective democratic control existed, that the task ahead was to correct injustices and inequalities by using these levers, that the majority of the Party agreed on this, but that a section of it obstinately insisted on clinging like religious fundamentalists to the shibboleth of nationalization. The electorate had rejected nationalization, argued the Revisionists, and thus the Party was needlessly condemning itself to perpetual opposition.

In reply, Crossman strongly pressed the case for a further extension of public ownership. He quoted with enthusiasm J. K. Galbraith’s critique of American capitalism, The Affluent Society, and insisted that the communist East would win the battle for the underdeveloped world so long as the Western economies showed both an inferior growth rate and a profound imbalance favoring the consumer sector at the expense of the public sector. He concluded with the warning that the struggle at home against the managerial oligopoly could be won only by an extension of the public sector. Later he praised Harold Wilson for succeeding in galvanizing the Labour movement where Gaitskell had failed—by reaffirming the traditional moral and political case for socialism in ultra-modern, scientific terms.

THE MIND OF WILSON is very close to Crossman’s. But not close, it seems, in influence. Wilson is a master-politician; Crossman wears his heart on his sleeve and reacts to Party discipline and calls for discretion with boyish rebelliousness. No doubt he hoped that Wilson would give him the Ministry of Education, for which his intellectual capabilities fitted him. However, Wilson, anxious to avert trouble with the teachers and the parents who pay for their children’s education, sent him to the Ministry of Housing. And here, during the past twelve months, the ultimate paradox in British socialist politics has been played out.

By all accounts, Crossman has acted with vigor and tact. He is not by nature an armchair theoretician, but rather an administrator who is also a socialist. In the space of a year the poor have been protected against eviction and exploitation by their landlords; the house-building program has gone ahead, and low-interest loans for local councils are being provided. Yet Crossman’s handling of one major problem seems to confound his whole philosophy, as it is expressed in this brilliant collection of essays. One of the manifest social evils in contemporary Britain has been the imbalance favoring commercial over public building projects. This is precisely the evil which Crossman described in his essay, “The Affluent Society.” Huge property companies have sprung up and made exorbitant profits, while the building of schools, hospitals, and houses has lagged behind. The Labour Party, committed to resolving this problem, was expected to set up a Land Commission with power to force the purchase of land required for housing. This would have been the socialist solution—effective democratic control through public ownership. Instead, Crossman, as Minister responsible, has fallen back on a more empirical expedient, a 40 per cent tax on profits derived from changing land values. Socialists were disappointed and businessmen felt mildly reassured. Crossman, once regarded by the Conservatives as a dangerous firebrand, had lately been treated with marked indulgence by the Tory press. “Richard Crossman,” wrote James Margach in the London Sunday Times two months ago, “has gone a long way towards transforming the Labour Party a stage nearer the model of the American Democratic Party.” Crossman featured prominently on television during the recent General Election, but no word of socialism, as far as I could detect, passed his lips.


Does this imply that a socialist policy of compulsory purchase of selected building land is not in itself a practical measure? Or that Crossman’s principles have silently been jettisoned now that he is in office? Neither theory is convincing. The truth is that the general mood of the Wilson Government during its first seventeen months in office was distinctly, perhaps astonishingly, Gaitskellite. The revisionists, Crosland, Jenkins, and Jay, must have looked back in bewilderment to the time when they strenuously opposed Wilson’s bid for the leadership. Crossman at the Ministry of Housing has of necessity had to conform to the general caution of the Government as a whole. A majority of only three in the House of Commons explains a good deal. Now the majority is almost a hundred. No one is sure what will happen. My own guess is that Wilson will move very gently to the Left in certain spheres where previously he felt the need to placate the Liberals. The Land Commission was opposed by the Liberals. In the months to come we may see rather more socialism from Crossman, perhaps as a Minister of Land; but not so much as many of his admirers would wish for.

This Issue

June 9, 1966