The Ruling Servants, by E. Strauss:

Allen and Unwin. 30s.

mr. strauss’ latest book is both curious and interesting: interesting because his interpretation of the history of bureaucracy in France, Russia and Britain is perceptive and illuminating; curious, because his section on theory is nowhere near as good.

If bureaucracy is inevitable, socialism is nonsense: there can be no two ways about it. The debate between Right and Left is then merely a controversy about relative rates of growth, direction of change, about whether to double living standards in twenty-five or ten years etc. The traditional “ethical” ends are merely so much icing on the general economic cake. Amongst socialists themselves the debate goes on—both sides utilise the same terminology, but one assumes bureaucracy is inevitable in any large-scale organisation and poses the problem as being one of controlling that bureaucracy, the other assumes that the “inevitability of bureaucracy” is yet another elaborate rationale of the necessity of the status quo and ought to be rejected out of hand. The debate proliferates over a very wide area, involves an analysis of Russia (is Russia anything to do with socialism at all?), public ownership (is this a socialist issue per se?) and the welfare state (ditto). Bureaucracy itself to the second point of view is only justified as a short-term measure to alleviate the hardships produced in an unequal society: the ultimate aim is to create a society where such hardship just does not occur. Social inequality thus justifies bureaucracy in the short-term until there is equality—but the acceptance of bureaucracy for all times is the acceptance of inequality as permanent, and betrays a fundamental disbelief in people’s ability to run their own lives without interference, the assumption that was a foundation stone for early socialism.

Mr. Strauss adopts the first position in this controversy, posing his attitude clearly in: “Modern man must live with Leviathan, and the question is not how to kill it but how to tame it”. He assumes that the arguments against bureaucracy are all from the Right, but this is not in fact the case. The argument against an indefinite increase in bureaucracy is not just a case against the forces of progress from “the business classes”, interested in defending their right to exploit all equally. On the contrary, the case for bureaucracy is, to an increasing extent, being taken up by just those “classes”. Weber’s hymn to the Prussian Civil Service on the face of it is based on purely technical considerations—“precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal losses”—but in fact, the case as develope involves similar praise for what bureaucracy seeks to achieve, and the people it seeks to achieve it for. Built into the whole scheme is implicit approval for an approach that is based on the manipulation of people, their coercion towards ends considered desirable by the bureaucracy. Changing the master of the bureaucracy does not change the crucial assumption—still people must be made to do things “for their own good” by the machinery.

Tory gentlemen claimed their privileges of their knowledge of the country’s major occupation: agriculture. Aristocrats pointed to the wisdom and knowledge arising from their leisured culture. Business defended its right to rule on the grounds of experience in industry and sheer success. And now, the managers, detaching themselves from a belief in the crude primacy of private property, justify themselves on the basis of knowledge of technique and Weber’s criteria. The case runs that “Science is being used to organise society”. This may be true in certain relatively narrow fields (physics, chemistry, etc.), but the prestige obtained in these fields is borrowed to justify the settlement of openly political problems as if they were administrative or technical ones. Mr. Strauss has accepted the claims of our new masters, without, it seems, looking at them in the sceptical way in which he looks at the other claims of ruling classes. The only example he quote of “scientific management” scarcely supports the weight it is meant to bear: “every official should have only one direct superior (“line of command”), and only a limited number of subordinates (“span of control”). And for the moment, the mystique is laid bare—the mystique of trivia dressed up in jargon and parading as “science”. American Business Schools and status seekers everywhere will be grateful for the opportunity contained in this maxim, the opportunity to masquerade as experts, and therefore, justified in all one does in the name of science.

Mr. Strauss at times recognises the danger implicit in the rationale of bureaucracy—socialists may provide little more than the embryo of an alternative ruling class, operating, as always, in the “name of the people” Also, as he emphasises, problems which are in essence political are posed and answered as administrative ones. However, he does not entirely take his own lesson to heart—his analysis of the Conservative Party excellently shows that the coincidence of views between rank and file membership and leadership, the lack of political divergence, means that bureaucracy is minimal; whereas the Labour Party is heavily bureaucratised simply because of the tendency of th leadership to diverge politically from the membership, and the necessity of disciplining that membership. The example he poses illustrates his ambiguity between the two cases—the ILP did not leave the Party just over “the acceptance of the standing orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party” but this was the pretext for the expression of deep-seated political grievances. The administrative wrangles of a Party are just as much an expression of political controversy as its directly political conflicts.