In this guest post, Ben Jackson, author of Equality and the British Left and Lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University, continues Next Left's ideas battle of the blogs with the new 'Red Tory' think-tank ResPublica.
Here, Jackson examines John Milbank's claim that Red Toryism's defence of virtue and champions the authentic egalitarian tradition of the socialist thinker RH Tawney against the 'alien intrusion' of the Fabian influence on the Labour tradition.
The most recent round of the ongoing ideological fracas between Next Left and the Red Tories – Stuart White versus John Milbank on equality – has thrown up an intriguing historical subplot.
Milbank has argued that his defence of inequality ‘in terms of the idea of nobility in its ancient sense’ – that is, as justifiable if it helps to foster a virtuous educative elite – draws on the tradition of socialist thought inspired by R. H. Tawney. Milbank sees this strand of the British left’s ideological heritage as quite distinct from the liberal socialism of Crosland and more generally from ‘the Whig/Fabian legacy that is the alien intruder into the Labour tradition.’ What should we make of this historical analysis?
As far as the debate about equality is concerned, I don’t think Milbank’s interpretation works. Tawney, Crosland and virtually ever other major theorist associated with the labour movement up to circa 1994 shared the same distributive objectives and they articulated similar arguments in favour of them.
One way to think about this Labour tradition is to see it as disavowing the right’s traditional portrayal of the debate about social justice as necessarily polarised between a moderate and socially tolerable ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’ and a radical and socially ruinous principle of ‘equality of outcome.’ Both Tawney and Crosland argued that if the aspiration of equality of opportunity was taken seriously, as the ambition to neutralise the impact of individuals’ social class background on their life chances, then it would in fact require a significant reduction in inequality of condition. As long as privileged elites were capable of greatly advantaging their children in terms of education, financial assets and cultural resources, equality of opportunity would remain a sham, since such inequalities would place citizens from different social classes into vastly unequal starting positions. It would be, as Tawney memorably put it, ‘the impertinent courtesy of an invitation to unwelcome guests, in the certainty that circumstances would prevent them from accepting it’ (Tawney, Equality, 1964 edition, p. 110).
Crosland likewise rejected attempts to conceptualise equality of opportunity ‘in terms of a narrow ladder up which only a few exceptional individuals, hauled out of their class by society’s talent scouts, can ever climb.’ Echoing Tawney, Crosland argued that his ideal of ‘strong’ equality of opportunity would place less emphasis on social mobility and greater stress on ‘an immensely high standard of universal provision.’ This ‘would carry us a distinctly long way towards equality and a socialist society’ since ‘a high degree of equality is a pre-condition of equal opportunity’ (Crosland, The Conservative Enemy, 1962, pp. 173-4).
But, as Crosland’s remarks suggest, in addition to taking seriously the need for ‘strong’ equality of opportunity, the socialist objective of a classless society was also influential on the Labour tradition. That is to say, equality was conceived not only in terms of enabling promising individuals to get on in life regardless of their class backgrounds, but also in terms of fostering social solidarity by reducing the size of the economic gulf between social classes. Social well-being, thought Tawney, required ‘a strong sense of common interests, and the diffusion throughout society of a conviction that civilisation is not the business of an elite alone, but a common enterprise which is the concern of all’ (Tawney, Equality, p. 108). A society focused only on class mobility as a means of improving the quality of the elite, Labour thinkers maintained, would be unbalanced and distorted: it would accord excessive power, massive financial reward, and ultimately greater personal fulfillment to those who were fortunate enough to possess a rather narrow set of skills. Opportunities to rise up the occupational hierarchy, they concluded, must therefore be complemented by greater equality of condition in order to ensure that the majority, and not just the exceptional few, have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives. In short, as Crosland famously put it in The Future of Socialism, the idea of granting every citizen an equal chance to compete within a given hierarchical order of positions and rewards was ‘not, from a socialist point of view, sufficient’ (Crosland, Future, p. 237).
The historical Labour tradition of thinking about equality – say from Tawney to Crosland – is therefore characterised by a consistent and radical anti-elitism. There are of course differences between the various figures situated within this tradition, and between Tawney and Crosland in particular, but what seems more striking in relation to the debate over equality is how much they share in common.
Finally, as good Fabians, we should note that Tawney’s most influential book, Equality, is dedicated to his friends ‘Sydney and Beatrice Webb with gratitude and affection.’ Tawney himself did not feel that Fabianism was an ‘alien intruder’ into the labour movement.
Guest post from Ben Jackson, who is Lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University. He is the author of Equality and the British Left (Manchester, 2007).
Previously on Next Left ...
Stuart White critiqued Red Tory ideas about virtue, expressed in a Phillip Blond and John Milbank Guardian commentary.
Both White and John Milbank then joined Sunder's Next Left thread on equality of outcome and opportunity.
John Milbank responded on the ResPublica Disraeli Room blog (part one and part two, challenging liberalism as values-free and (in part two) opening a new flank by asserting the superior virtues of cricket over football, and proper music over pop and punk, countered by our arguments in that thread for the merits of football and punk.
Sunder Katwala questioned Milbank's account of egalitarian motivations, while Stuart White argued that, in caricaturing modern liberalism, this account contributed to a new strand of Rawlsaphobia in public debate.