The impact of The Future of Socialism on its publication in 1956 should not be underestimated. Although the left and the right of the Labour Party had been in open war since Aneurin Bevan’s resignation in 1951, Crosland’s text was the most lucid attempt to date to define the purpose and meaning of social democracy. The Future of Socialism, published a year after the 1955 election which was Labour’s second defeat in a row and in which Crosland had lost his South Gloucestershire seat, was immediately lauded by many commentators as a serious reformist case against the left, which was then defined largely by their adamant pursuit of further nationalisations. The response from the Bevanite left was, predictably, one of scandalised outrage. ‘SOCIALISM – HOW DARE HE USE THE WORD?’ blasted one article in Tribune, the house journal of the Labour left.
In a nutshell, Crosland argued that the pursuit of socialism did not necessarily mean more of the big nationalisations that had defined the Attlee government (most notably of coal, the railways, the Bank of England, and, controversially, steel). Championing what was widely known as the mixed economy, he argued that the way to dissolve the class distinctions and finally eradicate poverty was instead to use the powers the government already had – through taxation, social spending, monetary policy, and other economic tools to be found in the hands of the state, relying on wealth created through economic growth. Crosland’s work, sixty years on, remains the most significant and influential work in the canon of British social democracy.
Why should liberals read The Future of Socialism?
Over the next few months, I will be reading The Future of Socialism and, chapter by chapter, blogging a summary of its argument and some reactions to it. There are two main reasons why I find it of interest. One is purely historical – to understand Crosland’s arguments in the context of his time, with its very different political, ideological and economic landscape. That is a good enough reason to read Crosland: if you want to understand the Labour Party of the 1950s and 1960s, his is an invaluable voice. Much of my blogging will probably concern this aspect.
However, I will also be reading The Future of Socialism in light of the politics of today, and specifically as a liberal and a Liberal Democrat. Furthermore, most of the readers of this blog are also liberals, and Liberal Democrats. It seems fitting, then, to explain why I think it’s a book that liberals should read.
Firstly, the Liberal Democrats are a product of a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. Several of our most outstanding figures (Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, and Chris Huhne to name but three) started off in the SDP, and many members today would define themselves as social democrats. However, perhaps because of the predominance of Liberals in the new party, this heritage has been largely neglected. There is an idea promoted, by no means only by those on the right of the party, that the SDP (or at least Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams) were always really liberals who stumbled into the Labour Party by accident, or because of the weakness of the Liberals when they came into politics. This seems to me to be a mistake – Jenkins, for example, although always friendly towards the Liberals, was closely associated with Crosland, Hugh Gaitskell, and other reformists and himself participated almost as actively as Crosland in these debates within the Labour Party. It is my opinion, then, that The Future of Socialism is as important a text for Liberal Democrats as anything by Hobhouse or T.H. Green.
The second reason why The Future of Socialism might be of interest to liberals is because it was written as a critique in response to a resurgent far left. This has relevance for British liberals for two reasons. Firstly, there is the fact that, historically, British liberalism has offered a non-socialist opposition to the Conservatives. At the same time as revisionists like Crosland were active within Labour, the Liberals led by Jo Grimond were also developing a socially progressive politics which critiqued monolithic institutions, public or private. Of course, Crosland came from a different position, seeking to reclaim socialism rather than oppose it, but nevertheless there is an obvious family resemblance. Secondly, there are clear contemporary resonances – for the first time since the 1980s, the Labour Party leadership (and membership) are socialists, and social democrats, within Westminster and in the country at large, find themselves marginalised. It might be good for critics of Corbyn, both in the Liberal Democrats, and Labour, to remind themselves of one of the most eloquent criticisms of the far left.
Thirdly, there is the fact that social democratic parties across Europe, with isolated exceptions, have fared poorly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, losing much of their support to parties of the insurgent radical left and to parties of the populist right. Labour is no exception to this, losing votes to UKIP and the SNP. This phenomenon will continue to shape politics for the foreseeable future, and so it is worth understanding social democracy better for this reason alone. This will not be an uncritical reading of The Future of Socialism – far from it. While the work as a whole has continuing relevance, much of what Crosland wrote now seems naïve or complacent. It is worthwhile reflecting, therefore, on the contemporary weaknesses of social democracy.
Finally, there is my long-standing belief that British liberalism is too inward looking and self-referential. Cross-fertilisation with other traditions is, in my opinion, prevents us from becoming stale and dogmatic. Social democracy is the obvious place to start – although a separate tradition, it is an adjacent one. Yet it is generally poorly misunderstood within the party – partly because of partisan mischief and the anxiety to define liberalism against The Other, but also because it is poorly explained by its adherents. If we learn from, and engage critically with, other ideologies, we will learn more about our own.
A note on the text
I am using a 2006 paperback edition of the text published by Constable, with a foreword by Gordon Brown, an introduction by Dick Leonard, Crosland’s PPS in the early Seventies, and a brief selection of reminisces by his widow, Susan Crosland. Leonard’s introduction is a good appraisal of the argument of the text and a brief biography and historical context; Susan Crosland’s ‘snapshots’ provide a touching insight into Crosland, the man himself. The less said about Brown’s foreword the better – it is more interesting as a product of New Labour c. 2006 and the preoccupations of Brown himself (for instance, it concludes with a rather unsubtle swipe at Tony Blair). All page references will be to this edition, which is available on Amazon from £7.
 Certainly many on the left of the Labour Party argued that Jenkins and Crosland *were* liberals in disguise and should ‘go and join the Liberals’ (does this sound familiar?) But this should be treated as factional abuse rather than serious analysis.