Back to the future with GDH Cole

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.

Both Bevanites and Gaitskellites, nonetheless, had rather simplistic and passive means of advance towards their conceptions of socialism. Extending public ownership ever further into industry was the preferred method of Bevanites. Rolling out comprehensive schools was the key for Crosland, the leading Gaitskellite thinker.

A worker might be greeted for work by the same incompetent and self-serving manager as had greeted them the previous morning but if the government had bought their firm overnight then, according to the Bevanites, the worker would now be enjoying a new found socialism. If Buchanan and Cole would see this as naively assuming that the state is benign, then Crosland’s belief in comprehensive schools was not without its naivety. All that was required, apparently, to equalise the life chances and engender a fraternal spirit between the sons and daughters of billionaires and the much less affluent was to have them go to the same school.

None of this is to deny the importance of some public ownership and the virtues of the comprehensive model. But the weight placed upon them was disproportionate.

The real dispute between Bevanites and Gaitskellites was about where the locus of unjustifiable, inexplicable hope should reside: in Whitehall or in comprehensive schools. They were both undemanding of those that they wished to lead to socialism, asking only that they vote for Labour politicians. Whether they wanted these politicians to nationalise all industry or make comprehensive all schools depended whether they were Bevanite or Gaitskellite but they asked no more of their electorates. No moral reflection, no shared sacrifice, no mucking in would be required on their part to build the New Jerusalem.

What left the Fabian executive meeting with Cole was a determination to ask and expect more from the people and less from the state. The Bevanites were among the most faithful descendents of the Fabians that Cole rejected but their opponents, the Gaitskellites, took less from Cole than they might have done.

David Miliband heralded Crosland, who continues to be associated with principled reform in the party, as his great hero during the leadership election. And David Butler and David Talbot are amongst a cadre of younger party members with a renewed interest in Gaitskell, Crosland’s patron.

Those who now wish to revise the revisionism of Crosland and Gaitskell, however, should put more focus on the thought of Gaitskell’s Oxford tutor, Cole, than Crosland and Gaitskell themselves did.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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One Response to “Back to the future with GDH Cole”

  1. AnneJGP says:

    A really interesting and thought-provoking article, Jonathan – thank you. A pity no-one has seen fit to add comments.

    You’ve given me some insight into my grandfather’s political journey. He was a child at the time you speak of, but his memories of the Labour party would appear to have been influenced by the strand of thinking you attribute to GDH Cole.

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