1950s >> 1956 >> no-624-august-1956

Book Review: ‘Twentieth Century Socialism’

Under the title Twentieth Century Socialism—The Economy of Tomorrow a group calling itself “Socialist Union” have produced a book which is neither about Socialism nor by Socialists. A note inside the cover tells us it is by the group that publishes Socialist Comment and that it has the backing of prominent members of the Labour Party.

In the foreword they say:

“Our aim has been to find a comprehensive and consistent view of the Socialist economy of to-morrow, which combines the idealism inherent in our conception of the good society with the realism essential to bring it about. . .

“We are well aware that what we have to say is not the last word on this subject. But we offer it to our fellow-Socialists as an honest attempt to think out afresh the foundations of a Socialist faith and its implications in the modern world.”

There is no fresh thinking in the book. It consists of the old old “Evolutionary Socialism,” the little by little and bit by bit, which eventually comes back to support of the Labour Party and its nationalisation policy. But unlike the earlier advocates, who at least claimed to be working towards a system of Common Ownership, these fresh thinkers are working towards a system which they sum up as follows:

“The keynote of Socialist realism has always been its emphasis on a transformation of the economic system. This must remain. What has to be rejected is the idea of transformation through total public ownership; that leads only to totalitarianism. The first part of realism today is to recognise this fact and accept its consequences. A Socialist economy is a mixed economy, part private and part public, and mixed in all its aspects. It comprises private spending as well as public spending, private ownership as well as public ownership, private enterprise as well as public enterprise.

“In practice this is already accepted by the British Labour movement.” (Page 146).

All through the book Socialism is envisaged as a system in which there will be buying and selling, markets conflicting economic interests, and a money-economy, plus leadership and the usual complicated paraphernalia of capitalism. The book had favourable reviews from Capitalist newspapers, and no wonder. In spite of a good deal about equality, freedom and fair shares, the authors rail against too much “State intervention” in a way that must go straight to the hearts of defenders of capitalism. The following quotations are examples of their outlook:

“This means that a Socialist economy is not just a planned economy, but a planned market economy. It is through the markets that individuals exercise their freedom of choice. If workers are to be free to choose whether to work for one employer rather than another, and employers to choose which workers to employ, there must be a labour market. If consumers are to decide whether and on what they want to spend their money, there must be commodity markets in which they can make their choice.” (Page 134).

“The principle by which economic power is directed towards Socialist ends may be described as the principle of planning through strategic participation. The state takes over economic power at the key points in the economy— the budget, the Key industries, large property concentration —and uses these as its planning base. How the governments uses its planning powers and what it plans for, will always be under public scrutiny, for in a democracy the state itself is controlled by Parliament and all the normal political processes.

“But political processes alone are not a complete safeguard. They are remote from the daily scene of economic operations, and do not always prove effective in detailed application. This is the significance of limiting the government to no more than a partial participation in the economy. As long as an independent sector remains, it can act as a perpetual and very effective check on the state’s activities. If there continue to be private employers and independent trade unions, and bargaining between them produces good results, there will be no escaping the insistence of the unions on similar conditions from public employers. If public enterprise is less efficient than private, if it gives less satisfactory service to the consumer, the comparison will be there for all to see, and public opinion will not acquiesce for long. If private investment meets the nation’s needs, there will be no call for public investment. At every point the nature and efficacy of state activity can be directly challenged.” (Pages 137, 138).

“These three guiding principles for the control of economic power—the principle of balance of power; the principle of planning through strategic participation, and the principle of social accountability—form an integrated whole. They draw together the threads of our present argument, so that out of the warp of the ends and the weft of the means the pattern of a socialistic economic system can, be woven. It is an economy with a private and a public sector, but where all economic power, no matter what its nature or by whom it is held, can be made subject to effective control. This control may be economic, political, or social. Each of these forms may be applied separately or in combination. (Page 140).

“The private sector of a Socialist economy is not there merely on sufferance, to be tolerated only on the grounds of political expediency, with the Sword of Damocles hanging over it in a perpetual threat. On the contrary, it has a legitimate and necessary function to perform. Within the limits of equality there must be opportunities for people to spend as they wish, to own. to initiate and experiment; they must be able to form associations to further their economic interests. In all these areas the individual must have a chance to act without waiting for the approval of the state.” (Page 147).

We have quoted considerably from the book to show how empty are the authors’ claims to a freshness of outlook, and also because their real outlook is apt to be obscured for the uncritical reader by long and windy dissertations on equality, freedom and fair shares.

The authors take for granted that “full employment” has come to stay and they claim that to-day “the rich are less rich and the poor less poor, and neither has much of a surplus to save out of their incomes” (page 88). As to the position of the rich see the many reports in the papers of the lavish coming out parties (one recently cost £5,000) and the other evidences of lavish spending on the part of the class that owns. But the authors themselves give contrary evidence. They tell us that human needs are taking the place of profit in industry and on page 115 they tell us that “The decline in the influence of the profit motive, even in private industry, has opened the way for change.” Yet on other pages they contradict this view. The following are examples of this.

“It is a remarkable comment on our present society that, despite all the progress made in other directions, Aristotle’s definition of a slave as a ‘living tool’ still remains a far too apt description of the working life of the majority of industrial employees.” (P. 101).

“There are two main reasons why the distribution of incomes is so grossly unequal at the source. The first is the great disparities in the ownership of property; a small fraction of the population own so large a portion of the nation’s wealth that they are bound to draw large unearned incomes simply because of the size of their holdings. The second is that certain types of property, notably the ownership of business enterprise, yield a high return in the form of distributed profits and capital gains. Not only do the owners of the ordinary shares in these private concerns derive substantial incomes from them, but the profits permit the payment of very high salaries to the leading managerial posts and the granting of extravagant allowances in the form of expense accounts. These two reasons for the persistently heavy income inequalities continually reinforce each other on the principle of ‘to him that hath shall be given.’ High profits swell the unearned incomes derived from past accumulations of property, and in turn provide the basis on which new accumulations are built.”

There are many similar statements which would crowd our columns too much to reproduce. It is the common attempt among “intellectuals” to appear impartial. The “on the one hand, and on the other hand” attitude; on the one hand the Capitalists are getting poorer on the other hand they are setting richer—but all the time they are piling up profits, expanding, and getting richer!

The authors constantly refer to what is “just” and “fair” but their outlook is based on levels of ownership and levels of culture with the managerial representatives of capital in the saddle. To them inequalities of this nature are permanent and they pour scorn on the idea that the mass of the population are capable of rising superior to an outlook that they claim is conditioned by capitalism.

Although the book begins with the contention that “Socialists” have lost sight of the end they set out to accomplish and have become bogged down by means to that end, this is exactly their own position except that they have no inkling of a Socialist end. Instead of being concerned with ends the authors are concerned with making capitalism work smoothly. They suggest ways to handle the complicated mechanism of capitalism that is as complicated and dubious as capitalism and, infuse their ideas with that modern disease, sectoritus.

Looking at the past they identify Socialism with public ownership, and Marxism with Russian State Capitalism. With this erroneous outlook this book is worthless from the Socialist point of view, but it may have some value as a guide to making capitalism palatable to the workers. It seems to the present writer that the object of the book is simply to get the Labour Party back into power to pursue its futile policies.

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