As traditionally, and—I think—correctly understood, the purpose of socialism may be defined as follows:
“That the government, democratically responsible to the electorate, should assume ownership of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy and, in association with subsidiary agencies of a democratic character, take effective control of the economy as a whole; that it should use the power thus obtained (a) to ensure a rapid development of total productivity in accordance with certain centrally-decided priorities, (b) to redistribute both income and leisure in favour of the ‘under-privileged’ and (c) to place greater emphasis than is possible in a society where the main criterion of economic decision is private profit on the provision of communal facilities designed to raise the general level of material and cultural well-being.”
The adaptation of these principles to mid-twentieth century conditions can be either of two kinds: (1) adaptation to the needs of our time; (2) adaptation to the views, existing or predicted, of the electorate. These two kinds of adaptation do not necessarily coincide. In fact, their coincidence is now becoming not more but less close.
Up to quite recently there was at least no glaring contradiction between vigorous campaigning for Socialism, as thus defined, and the winning of electoral victories. Today, as a result of the very real achievements of “welfare capitalism”, that contradiction is obvious. Ultimately, people judge political policies and programmes on the basis of experience, and to an ever-increasing extent the significant and politically-decisive experience is of the prosperous fifties, not of the hungry thirties. Where comparisons are consciously made, they are between the free flow of consumer goods characteristic of the recent period of Tory rule and the “restrictionism” characteristic of the immediate post-war years when Labour was in office. Both, of course, were periods of almost-full employment, but the first was one of full employment plus rationing, the second one of full employment plus hire-purchase.
This is not to suggest that satisfaction with the record of “welfare capitalism” is almost universal. Clearly, there are many groups of people, such as old age pensioners and families on the waiting list for municipal housing, who have the most obvious reasons for dissatisfaction. The so-called consumer revolution, moreover, cannot develop its full ideological impact in areas where unemployment is well above the national average. Marginal dissatisfactions, however, are a very poor bag of electoral assets.
But if Labour cannot mark these up on the credit side, nor can it count on the much more serious contrast between “private opulence and public squalor”. This offends some of the people (e.g. the radical intellectuals) all of the time, and all of the people (e.g. when they are being educated, hospitalised or mechanically transported) some of the time. But the frustrated plans of educationists, public health experts, town planners and road builders can all too easily be dismissed as “utopian”. The flood of consumer durables is real, and the consumer revolution, as the authors of Out of Apathy have emphasised, is tending to produce an atomised society, peopled by competitively-acquisitive individuals who have ceased to feel a sense of responsibility for communally-provided services. Hence, although they grumble freely about deficiencies of all kinds, they no longer think in terms of collective action to effect or demand improvements, particularly if these would involve higher taxation. But what of equality? The question almost answers itself. You can choose equality, as Socialists understand it, or you can choose the acquisitive society. You cannot choose both. This is not to say that there is no real demand for equality in the sense of “the career open to talents”, nor resentment at obstacles to personal advancement built into our social system. But such obstacles are not all part of the essential nature of capitalism. Capitalist institutions, in fact, might benefit considerably if the “public” schools were abolished, the “eleven plus” discarded, secondary education made “comprehensive”, and the narrow bottleneck of university entrance widened. We should be more like America—that is all—i.e. less “backward” by twentieth-century capitalist standards.
It is far otherwise with the conception of social equality. Of all ideas, this can become the most potent of anti-capitalist forces, once it has gripped the masses; for from it flows nearly everything else that is distinctively socialistic: the abolition of private ownership, the extinction of unearned income, and the extension of freely-available communal facilities. Yet it is precisely this idea that today has almost no electoral appeal. Equality has fared perhaps worse than any other socialist principle in the prevalent “Damn you, Jack” climate of opinion. The current attitude towards the rich and comfortable is one that combines envy with admiration. And the rich themselves, confident that the “levelling” sentiments of earlier years have now evaporated, can again safely flaunt their wealth. This new self-confidence among the rich is the best evidence of the decline of egalitarian aspirations.