Before I first went to university I had a belief, which I still have, and which is probably shared by the great majority of you.footnote＊ I mean the belief that the way to decide whether a given economic period is good or bad economically is by considering the welfare of people in general at the relevant time. If people are on the whole well off, then on the whole the times are good, and if they are not, then the times are bad. Because I had this belief before I got to university, I was surprised by something I heard in one of the first lectures I attended, which was given by the late Frank Cyril James, who, as it happens, obtained his Bachelor of Commerce degree here at the London School of Economics in 1923. When I heard him he was Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, where, in addition to occupying the Principalship, he gave lectures every year on the economic history of the world, from its semiscrutable beginnings up to whatever year he was lecturing in. In my case the year was 1958, and in the lecture I want to tell you about James was describing a segment of modern history, some particular quarter-century or so: I am sorry to say I cannot
I did not hear it because I was busy wondering whether he had meant what he said, or, perhaps, had put the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the wrong places. For though I had not studied economics, I was convinced that high prices and low wages made for hard times, not good ones. In due course I came to the conclusion that James was too careful to have transposed the two words. It followed that he meant what he said. And it also followed that what he meant when he said that times were good was that they were good for the employing classes, for the folk he was revealing himself to be a spokesman of, since when wages are low and prices are high you can make a lot of money out of wage workers. Such candour about the properly purely instrumental position of the mass of humankind was common in nineteenth century economic writing, and James was a throwback to, or a holdover from, that age. For reasons to be stated in a moment, frank discourse of the Cyril James sort is now pretty rare, at any rate in public. It is discourse which, rather shockingly, treats human labour the way the capitalist system treats it in reality: as a resource for the enhancement of the wealth and power of those who do not have to labour, because they have so much wealth and power.
Last year’s speaker in this series (Rudolf Bahro) is justly celebrated for his contribution to the understanding of actually existing socialism. My own theme this evening is actually existing capitalism, and I want to start with the capitalism of the United Kingdom. This capitalism is currently managed by a Conservative government which is engaged in a sustained attack on the living standards, and on the democratic powers, of two huge and overlapping groups of the population: working class people and poor people. It is a government dedicated to the defence of private property, and to the restoration, as far as is thought politically possible, of property rights which Tories think have been eroded by decades of socialistic drift. Like all very large human projects, present Conservative policy is variously inspired. It is, in part, motivated by the structural requirements of contemporary British capitalism. But it also satisfies, or is at least intended to satisfy, revanchiste aspirations rife among the middle and upper classes, many of whom feel that it is wrong for humbly situated people to be as comfortable and as powerful as they are thought now to be. It is wrong for a person who is only an industrial worker, or, worse, unemployed, and therefore not contributing to the national wealth, to pay low rent for commodious living accommodation, and to be freed of anxiety in respect of the education and health of his or her children. Members of the working class, and those below them, some of whom are not even white, expect too much and get too much, and have too much say in the workplace and elsewhere, to the detriment of the income and the authority of their
Now that desire is not the official justification of present government policy, partly because, as Cyril James may not have realised, we live in a democratic age, and policy must be defended before people in general, not just people of privilege; and partly too, because human beings are so constituted that they need to believe, at least from time to time, that what they are doing is morally right. The disposition to generate ideology, and the disposition to consume it, are fundamental traits of human nature. As Isaac Deutscher said, in his book The Unfinished Revolution: ‘Statesmen, leaders and ordinary people alike need to have the subjective feeling that what they stand for is morally right’. Members of ruling classes need to feel that their rule is morally justified, and members of ruled classes need to feel that their acquiescence is morally appropriate. That is why ideology plays such an important part in history, for otherwise encounters between classes would always be settled by brute force. And it was a feature of Isaac Deutscher’s magnificent historical work that, while he was a materialist in the best Marxist sense, he was also a master at portraying the ideological atmosphere in which people breathe and think and live, in which, as Marx said, they become sensible of the structural conflicts between them, and fight them out. I did not know Isaac Deutscher personally, but he entered my life with some force on two occasions. The first was when I was studying Soviet history and politics at McGill University. His book on Stalin was required reading, and many of us were excited by the contrast between it and the merely academic treatments of Soviet history we also had to read. Isaac Deutscher showed us that scrupulous scholarship was compatible with political engagement. The first and only time I saw him was in June of 1965, when he spoke at a teach-in on the Vietnam War at University College London. He did not speak about the war alone, but located it within a much wider pattern of events, and when he finished I felt, as I am sure many others did, that I had, at least for the moment, a deeper understanding of the nature of the world I lived in.
The general need for ideology and the particular demands of a democratic age produce, when combined, a great body of justifying belief, which genuinely animates Conservative theory and practice. Whatever may be its ultimate and secret connection with more visceral springs of action, and with structural requirements of contemporary capitalism, there is a sincere conviction that the protection of private property, particularly in its larger agglomerations, is a good thing, not because it benefits some and harms others, but for reasons which one need not be ashamed to state. Three such reasons are salient in the ideological discourse of members of the government and their supporters. The regime of private property is defended on the grounds that it enlivens production, safeguards freedom and conforms to principles of justice. We can call these the economic argument, the freedom argument and the justice argument.