Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

No sacred cows

Labour revisionism takes on both leftwing orthodoxy and the destructive potential of capitalism, writes Gregg McClymont

Each generation must overturn the conventional wisdoms of the last. In social democracy this process for more than a century has been called revisionism. Its author, the German Social Democrat politician Eduard Bernstein, observed the failure of Marxism theory in real time. Far from being impoverished by capitalism the German working classes in the late 19th century were enjoying an absolute improvement in economic wellbeing. The market economy showed no signs of collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions – as an economic system it was productive, resilient and adaptable. Revisionism began from this recognition that capitalism was here to stay. The left should therefore focus not on abolishing the market but regulating it. A willingness to challenge established left orthodoxies and the slaying of sacred cows were subsequently part of the revisionist approach.

Tony Crosland was surely the most stylish, especially in The Future of Socialism, his magnum opus, published in the mid-1950s. But there have been other revisionists too. Roy Hattersley’s Choose Freedom sought to apply social democratic revisionism to the politics and society of the 1980s. The same purpose animated Tony Giddens in his third way approach to the 21st century. Most recently, and bringing the wheel full turn, Tony Judt suggested that the social democracy as understood by its architects and revisers is dead – or at least aspects of it are.

As Crosland wielded his pen the British Labour movement stood divided. On one side was Aneurin Bevan seeking to build on the successes of the Attlee government via more nationalisation and economic central planning. On the other side was Hugh Gaitskell, the party leader, sceptical of both. Crosland’s Future of Socialism was the Gaitskellite manifesto.

Central to the theory of The Future of Socialism was the belief that liberty, equality and fraternity were values in tension. It was too easy for Bevanites and others to airily claim that greater equality meant greater freedom and greater fraternity. That might be true depending on the policy in hand. But equally it might not. More equality might come at the expense of personal freedom – say, for example, if private schools were to be abolished by a Labour government. Freedom was a value worth preserving in itself and individual liberty mattered. Since capitalism was here to stay the revisionist must seek out policies which enhanced liberty while encouraging equality.

The most striking example of this aspect of revisionist thinking is found in Crosland’s demand that Labour make the United Kingdom a property-owning democracy. Decades after the term was first coined by a Scottish Tory, and decades before Margaret Thatcher captured it so successfully for the right, Gaitskellite revisionists sought to make the property-owning democracy Labour’s ambition.

The desire to own property was a natural one, Crosland declared – property ownership offered security and independence. But untamed capitalism tended towards the concentration of property in the hands of the few. Social democracy must deploy the power of the state to spread property ownership as widely as possible. Redistribution of property was the ambition, funded by taxes on the wealthy. Thus, and strikingly, stocks and shares should be purchased by the state and distributed among those who did not have access to such assets, while home-ownership should be encouraged by the state. Sixty years ago the revisionists had identified that greater equality of opportunity demanded greater equality of outcome and the latter depended on the redistribution of wealth and assets, not just income.

These days we are all supporters of a mixed economy. Labour supporters can and do disagree about the precise admixture of private and public goods and services – should rail be nationalised or not? What is the appropriate role of private contractors in a public health system? But the questions are of degree not kind. And yet degrees matter. Indeed, for the revisionist, who recognises that values are often in tension, they are crucial. What policies reduce wealth and income disparities so that genuine equality of opportunity becomes possible? What policies achieve this greater equality without sacrificing personal freedom? These are the specific questions which the revisionist asks himself or herself. Details matter and dearly held values can be in tension.

This theoretical approach underpins Hattersley’s Choose Freedom – a book avowedly revisionist and Croslandite in character written by Labour’s shadow chancellor in the run-up to the 1987 general election campaign. Choose Freedom is best understood as a sophisticated contribution (by the standard of the genre) to the literature of pre-election political campaigning. Its twin ambitions were to seek to recover freedom as a Labour value from the clutches of its attenuated Thatcherite version while at the same time placing limits on the amount of equality which should be sought by social democrats. The first was crucial if Thatcherism’s election war cry was to be successfully drowned out; the second was a form of that traditional Labour pre-election strategy – getting the Labour government’s ‘betrayal’ of socialism out of the way before it has even set foot in office. Michael Stewart’s take on Hattersley has never been bettered: ‘While too little equality results in too little freedom, the active promotion of total equality may, he acknowledges, actually inhibit the freedom that greater equality is intended to make possible. The relationship of the two conditions can be envisaged as a curve, with freedom increasing with the promotion of equality up to a point, but then starting to decline. The problem is to decide when the top of the curve has been reached; in Britain, Hattersley thinks, we are clearly well below it.’ Thus the book’s subtitle: ‘what we stand for is freedom … that is the ultimate objective of socialism’, as well as its closing words, uttered, Hattersley reveals, by Crosland himself. ‘Socialism is about the pursuit of equality and the protection of freedom – in the knowledge that until we are truly equal we will not be truly free.’

Hattersley’s book attempts to come to (Labour) terms with an inhospitable political climate. So too does Giddens’ third way, if less successfully. The end of the cold wars and the defeat of the ‘state socialism’ he associates with communism frame the approach. For Giddens the politics of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are much more than simply strategies for winning elections; in their embrace of capitalism they reflect the end of any genuine systematic alternative. Left-of-centre politics must reflect this new reality as well as the rising tide of individualism across these societies. (Harsher attitudes to welfare are one example of this tide). Too credulous about the efficiency of unfettered capitalism and too hazy in his misunderstanding of traditional social democracy’s relationship to the market, Giddens in the end concedes too much ground. His subsequent revisions have been more subtle, especially his treatment of environmental politics – untamed capitalism cannot, he emphasises, see beyond the short-term maximising of returns towards the long-term sustainability of the planet. What is needed, Giddens suggests, is a dose of social democracy recognising capitalism’s destructive as well as creative potential.

Tony Judt’s 2009 essay, The Social Democracy of Fear, is more pessimistic still. The economic stability and social security associated with postwar social democracy have gone, a victim of unfettered capitalism; so too cultural confidence. ‘We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own in reassuring ways.’ But social democratic institutions remain – access to free healthcare, education and social provision for those without work or unable to work – and it is these institutions which must be preserved. Conservative parties are no longer conservative and social democracy must seize its opportunity to define a new left politics of conservation. As Judt rightly said, ‘It is the [new] right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project.’ A century and more since social democracy superseded Marxism, social democracy can now supersede Conservatism as the defender of existing progressive institutions.


Gregg McClymont is member of parliament for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and a former fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford


Photo by Chris Boland /

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Gregg McClymont MP

is member of parliament for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East


  • Interesting stuff. I have thought for a while now that the Conservative Party is under a misnomer – it is anything but. As for capitalism, the Friedmanite uber-liberal model is not the only one, and in many respects it is the least successful in terms of the distribution of wealth and social cohesion. It will eat itself. It is the Ebola of politics, self- destructive, socially useless and inherently corrupting. In his rigid adherence to austerity and acceptance of the neo-liberal model, Ed Balls is at severe risk of sinking the Labour Party as it struggles to differentiate itself from this most incompetent and heartless Government.

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