it would, I think, be a pity if Edward Thompson’s discussion of the possibility of social revolution were to be taken as the authentic voice of the New Left—as right-wing critics of Out of Apathy already seem to be doing. In attempting to avoid the danger of falling between the stools of reformist Fabianism, whose intellectual shoddiness he deplores, and cataclysmic Marxism, whose sterility he rejects, he has had little more success than his numerous predecessors in this difficult enterprise. Mr. Thompson clearly believes in revolution, but in condemning the “explosive negatives of class antagonism” he is cutting the ground from under his own feet. The only really plausible theory of social revolution is precisely the one that depends inextricably on class antagonism. Mr. Thompson is, of course, aware of this central difficulty, but the best he can do is the not very convincing device of a “breakthrough” which, once achieved, will generate its own dynamic. What, then, is to provide the dynamic for the breakthrough?
Mr. Thompson is rightly concerned with the failure of socialist writers to deal adequately with the problems of the transition from capitalism to socialism. This criticism can, I think, be extended beyond contemporary Labour thinking as expressed by Messrs. Strachey, Crosland, Crossman. Socialist theory in general has always suffered from a similar weakness, perhaps because of the relative absence of serious attempts to imagine the nature of the society to which the transition is to take place. In differing ways, this problem afflicts both Marxism and reformism, the latter because it is too ready to take the present social framework for granted, the former because it is interested too much in social revolution to the exclusion of social analysis.
The great strength of Marxism lies not in its “scientific” character, its philosophic profundity, or its sociological accuracy, but rather in its apocalyptic quality. The Marxists, and not the Fabians, are the real descendants of the “utopian” socialists whom Marx and Engels were so sure they had superseded. The withering away of the state which is to take place in the postrevolutionary epoch depends on the elimination of the important social conflicts that make the state a necessity in all societies except those living under primitive communism. It is in the eradication of such conflicts,
This fundamental other-worldliness of Marxism is one of the reasons for its persistent neglect of practically all aspects of the world we live in, apart from a curious brand of teleological economics. Mr. Thompson has not, I think, been able to free himself from this attitude, though his article makes passing references to some sociological questions, and he does attack the orthodox denial of the value of all social reforms. However, it is necessary to go much further. Socialism originated as a protest against industrialisation, which can easily take other-worldly forms, but it also was, and remains, a movement for social and political equality in the here and now. Its chances of gaining a public hearing and of effecting positive changes in the structure of British society depend heavily on its continued activity and success in exposing the manifold and complex inequalities and injustices of our society; some of these, the result of capitalism; some inherent in all industrial communities; and some characteristic of Britain in particular.
Until recently, Socialists have not been particularly concerned to distinguish between these distinct factors.
Yet the need to do so grows more important all the time. For more than two generations, industrial countries have been characterised by a steady increase in bureaucratisation and the steady growth of the managerial function both in industry and in government. Not only has the proportion of managerial personnel grown steadily within each sector, but bureaucratic management has become increasingly typical of more and more areas of organised human activity. The conflicts within these bureaucratic hierarchies, and the relationships between them, are central to the “affluent society” of today, and it is not necessary to accept C. Wright Mills’ exaggerated theory of the “power elite” to believe this.
In particular, the relations between government and industry require the most searching and continuous examination. To leap to the defence of Clause Four is only the most elementary step. To some extent, all political groups nowadays recognise that there is a complex, plural relationship between public and private decisions on economic and social questions. It is the conclusions to be drawn from this that differ so sharply from one group to another, and it is not enough to condemn Mr. Gaitskell’s complacent acceptance of the “mixed economy” as a logical reason for abandoning Labour’s traditional policy on public ownership. Whether we like it or not, some kind of mixture is going to be with us for a long time. In such circumstances, it becomes of the utmost importance not only to press for the occupation of the “commanding heights”, but also to expose the ways in which the mixed economy makes the community vulnerable to manipulation in the interests of private profit, developing new forms of social inequality as well as fortifying old ones. It is this attack on the “new inequality” that is perhaps the most important task of the New Left. Professor Titmuss has already pointed in this direction, but similar points must be made more widely and more loudly.