Posts Tagged ‘GDH Cole’

Back to the future with GDH Cole

07/02/2013, 04:44:58 PM

by Jonathan Todd

How much left the room when GDH Cole stormed out of a Fabian executive meeting in 1915? More than you might imagine.

James M. Buchanan was born a few years prior to Cole’s exit and died last month. He tends to be celebrated by right-wingers, enamoured with a small-state, as his work on public choice theory supports scepticism in big government. Unlike Cole, such right-wingers have never been inspired to socialism by reading William Morris. Yet Cole’s doubts about the central state were as vehement as Buchanan’s.

Cole’s was a socialism with as small a central state as possible. Subsequent perceptions have tended to see socialism and the state as so synonymous as to make Cole’s minimal state socialism oxymoronic.

Those who remained in the Fabian executive meeting after Cole had left it would be relaxed about this association. Their aim was to capture the commanding heights of the state through democratic elections and have socialist politicians use the organs of the state to gradually transform society to socialism.

Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956), the great revisionist text of post-war Britain, contained some caustic lines about Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the leading exponents of this dominant Fabian view. He mocked them for spending their honeymoon investigating Trade Societies in Dublin. It was their austere methods that he had in mind when he warned that: “Total abstinence and a good filing-system are not now the right signposts to the socialist Utopia: or at least, if they are, some of us will fall by the wayside.”

Crosland liked a drink and was right to put more emphasis on relaxation, fun and culture than the Webbs did: quality of life, in contemporary parlance. And right also to assert that in the blood of the socialist “there should always run a trace of the anarchist and the libertarian, and not too much of the prig and the prude”. This liberalism justified the reforms enacted by Roy Jenkins, another protégé of Hugh Gaitskell, as Home Secretary in the 1960s and distanced Crosland from the Webbs.

But the break made by Crosland with the Webbs was not as decisive as he thought. While being socially much more liberal than the Webbs, his dominant pre-occupation was equality and creating a more equal society through a comprehensive school system. The Bevanites with whom Gaitskellites, like Crosland, quarrelled in the 1950s put more emphasis on nationalisation, rather than equality, as the end of socialism. In so doing, the Bevanites were as attached to the central state and public ownership as the Webbs were.


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