In this Next Left guest post Paul Richards, author of the new book Labour's Revival and former Fabian chair, says that the Fabian tradition - though it is often caricatured as purely statist - is also an important reservoir of mutualist and decentralist socialist thinking which should inform debate about both the necessary role and the limits of the state in a free and fair society.
Many of the Fabian publications quoted in this essay can be read online in the Fabian online archive of tracts from 1884-1997, published earlier this year by the LSE. This includes nine pamphlets from GDH Cole (See author index for links).
The great Fabian GDH Cole said that the great cleavages in socialism were between reform and revolution, and between federalists and centralists. The debate between reform and revolution has been settled, at least outside of student circles. The more fundamental debate between federalists and centralisers – whether socialism should be about the central state or local communities – is just starting in earnest.
Socialism in the twentieth century was dominated by theories of the state. Our governing ethos was how the state could be used to help people. The nineteenth-century tradition of self-help, co-operation and self-government within British socialism was subjugated to the statist tradition of centralised organisations and ‘Whitehall knows best’. The irony was, as historian AH Halsey pointed out, that
‘the movement which had invented the social forms of modern participatory democracy and practised them in union branch and co-op meeting, thereby laying a Tocquevillian foundation for democracy, was ironically fated to develop through its political party the threats of a bureaucratic state’.
The Labour movement was founded by people imbued with the ethos of the local co-op, the trade union branch, the socialist society and nonconformist religion. GDH Cole, the great Fabian proponent of decentralised socialism, could declare in the 1950s:
‘I am neither a communist nor a social democrat because I regard both as creeds of centralisation and bureaucracy.’
The party itself was a federation of local groups, building from the bottom up towards representation in Parliament. The statement of socialist aims in Clause IV, Part 4, with its call for common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, was considered at the time a loose definition, encompassing municipal ownership and co-operative ownership, as well as state ownership.
Between the wars, during the global depression, Labour’s interpretation of common ownership hardened into a conviction that the central state must own and direct enough of the economy to be able to make a difference. The Second World War, with state direction of every aspect of British life, cemented the equation of socialism equalling nationalisation. Labour’s 1945 manifesto set out its pledges for nationalising the Bank of England, railways, iron and steel, coal, and the social services. The National Health Service, building on the nationalised wartime Emergency Medical Service, was established as a state monolith, although not until Morrison had fought a doomed rearguard action in Cabinet to have a degree of local authority control over health services.
Socialists’ historical distrust of the state as an organ of class repression was replaced with a view of the state as the essential vehicle for social change, and then by the substitution of any radical instincts or fresh thought with a shopping list of industries that should be state controlled. Following the Attlee government, a critique emerged – not from the right, but from the left – that argued the state was too big, its institutions too remote, and citizens had too little power within either the economy or public services like the NHS, the comprehensive school system, council houses, or care for children, disabled people or the elderly.
By the 1950s, it was obvious that state ownership of nationalised industries such as the National Coal Board (NCB) had done little to liberate the workers. RHS Crossman, later a famous Cabinet diarist, told the Fabian Society in 1955 that:
‘vast, bureaucratic public corporations . . . failed to fulfil the two essential requirements for socialism, namely, that a state-owned industry should be fully responsible to Parliament and give a share of management to its workers . . the growth of a vast, centralised state bureaucracy constitutes a grave potential threat to social democracy.’
In 1963, the Fabian academic Brian Abel Smith, who went on to be a special adviser to Labour Cabinet ministers Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman and David Ennals, wrote a Fabian pamphlet, Freedom in the Welfare State, which argued that ‘Britain’s public services are now a bad advertisement for socialism’. He lambasted the ‘queues and rationing’, the ‘atmosphere of wartime austerity’ and a system where the user of social services must ‘wait your turn and are told what you will have’. [available online: see tract 353]. In 1980 Tony Benn wrote in Arguments for Socialism that ‘nationalisation plus Lord Robens [the moderate erstwhile chairman of the NCB] does not add up to socialism’.
Evan Luard, in a fascinating book Socialism without the State (1979), charts the usurpation of socialism, historically mistrusting of the state and built on local models of mutualism, by state socialism, a system of nationalised agencies, companies and industries. Writing at a time of state control throughout the USSR and China, and before the Thatcherite programme of privatisation in the UK, Luard advocated an entirely contrary approach to socialism. It should be local, the optimum level being the neighbourhood, and based on locally owned and democratically controlled institutions. The jointly run neighbourhood laundry, the neighbourhood bakery, the neighbourhood hairdresser, run not for private profit but for the equal benefit of all who live in the neighbourhood, might give some genuine sense of participation, of sharing, such as has not been provided by most public undertakings until now.
There was a revived interest in the 1970s and 1980s in non-statist socialism. Peter Hain called it ‘libertarian socialism’. David Blunkett and Geoff Green wrote a Fabian pamphlet in 1985, Building from the Bottom: The Sheffield Experience, which saw local socialism as a centre of resistance to the Tory government. In 1984 Anthony Wright could declare in a Fabian pamphlet: ‘We are all decentralisers now, at least in the sense in which a century ago Lord Harcourt could declare that we were then all socialists . . . what “participation” was for the 1960s, “decentralisation” looks like becoming for the 1980s.’
[Available in the LSE's Fabian online archive: see tracts 491 (Blunkett), 496 (Wright et al) and 478 (Luard)].
Within the New Labour government , the decentralist tradition was crushed by those who believed central government (i.e. themselves) could determine what was best for local communities. Failure to pass power to the people, preferring to redistribute it amongst politicians and bureaucrats, is one of New Labour’s great disappointments.
For example, the original concept of Sure Starts was to provide children from disadvantaged backgrounds childcare in centres owned and run by the community. The 200 original schemes, described by their inventor Norman Glass as ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ were an instrument of social justice, with local ownership of the buildings and land, and in-house services such as debt counselling for parents. Their expansion after 2005 left the Sure Start as another arm of the state, in this case the department for children, families and schools (DCFS). There are now 3,600 Sure Starts in England and Wales. The Conservative-led government has announced that Sure Starts can be transferred into the mutual and co-operative sector. This is a return to their roots, and Labour should be wary of opposing the move for opposition’s sake, because it is what the Labour government intended them to be.
Phil Collins defined the paradigm within New Labour in an article in The Spectator as ‘between Alan Milburn’s anger that the council chose the colour of his door and Ed Balls’s centrally issued guidelines for rhubarb crumble’.
Labour’s burst of revisionism in the late 1980s and early 1990s equipped the party with a commitment to (and some would argue over-reliance on) markets. The argument about wholesale nationalisation was settled; calls for state control of industry, even of the public utilities such as water and gas, became more muted. No attempts to re-nationalise British Telecom, British Gas, water companies or rail companies were made by successive Labour ministers.
However, whilst Labour had finally rid itself of its obsession with nationalisation, it continued to view the central state as the primary agency of social reform. As previous generations had fixed on nationalisation as the panacea, so some (but not all) Labour ministers fixed on increased public expenditure and expanding government activity as the solution to social ills. As with nationalisation, Labour runs the risk of confusing ends and means. Increasing public spending, and growing the size of the state, are not ends in themselves. In many cases, for example increased welfare payments, they are a symbol of policy failure. They may be a means to achieving a goal, in line with Labour’s values. Or they may end up creating pointless quangos, regiments of officials, vanity projects, and counter-productive initiatives which bear little connection to Labour’s values.
So what are the limits of the state?
In 1945 the writer Arthur Koestler, pacifist Bertrand Russell, publisher Victor Gollancz and George Orwell attempted to establish a ‘League for the Dignity and Rights of Man’. They failed, although some of the ideas surfaced twenty years later with the foundation of Amnesty International. Orwell, a brilliant writer but shambolic organiser, drafted a manifesto for the new league. He wrote that the main functions of the state should be:
1. To guarantee the newborn citizen his equality of chance.
2. To protect him against economic exploitation by individuals or groups.
3. To protect him against the fettering or misappropriation of his creative faculties and achievements.
4. To fulfil these tasks with maximum efficiency and a minimum of interference.
This provides as good a definition as any of the state in a socialist society. It is not the overarching state, but the enabling state, helping the individual to get on in life, to be creative and fulfilled, but with the maximum of efficiency and minimum of interference.
The mortal danger for Labour in 2010, of which Ed Miliband seems well aware, was that it looked like the party of higher taxes, bigger debts and profligate spending, without winning, or attempting to win, the arguments about why public spending was a good idea. It ended up defending big-budget regional development agencies and quangos, without explaining why.
On this terrain, Labour cannot win popular support, because the British are not natural supporters of a large state. The scale of the cuts being enacted, and the types of body being targeted, by the government suggests that there is hidden ideological wiring running through it. Conservatives favour a small state, lower taxes and fewer government schemes. So do some of the classical liberals within the Liberal Democrats. The talk of a ‘Big Society’ is providing the Tories with cover for an agenda of which Margaret Thatcher would approve. But Labour must not dismiss the ‘Big Society’ out of hand. It should support initiatives which give the citizen real power and control.
Labour must make a different kind of argument about the state: for a state which may be smaller, but which is fully democratic, decentralised and egalitarian, and which enables the individual to prosper. Labour must kill off any lingering attachment to the central state as the primary means for social progress. It may be a hard habit to kick, but whatever the great questions of the age, state socialism is not going to be the answer.
Paul Richards is a former Chair of the Fabian Society. His latest book Labour’s Revival, on which this essay is based, published by Biteback, is out now.