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Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in
Economic and Political Thought, 1825-1952.(Review)
edited by David Reisman; 10 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 1996,
[pounds]595.00. Distributed in the USA by Ashgate Publishing Company,
Brookfield, VT, $875.00.
There are two ways one might review a collection of this magnitude,
from the perspective of the editor, whose vision of democratic
inevitably informs it, or from the perspective of the reviewer, who
while appreciative of that vision, cannot help but see it in relation
to, and recontextualize it within, a set of problems that the editor
may not have foreseen. While I shall emphasize the editor's intentions,
as far as I understand them, in reprinting these classic texts of
democratic socialism, I shall interject some perspectives from cultural
theory, in the conviction that these ten volumes are, or should be,
of broad general interest. As David Reisman's vision of democratic
socialism is organic, one of continuity and wholeness, I shall also
consider the archive as a whole, not stopping with the Victorian Fabian
Essays. In fact, I shall begin with the end.
The last chapter of the last, tenth, volume is entitled "Democratic
Socialism," the last chapter of Aneurin Bevan's In Place of Fear (1952).
Bevan, the former miner from Wales who established the National Health
Service and a comprehensive system of welfare benefits, begins that
chapter with his compatriot Dylan Thomas's line from "A Refusal to
Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London." (1946): "After the
first death, there is no other." Bevan glosses the line, "The poet
here asserts the uniqueness of the individual personality. If the
imagination can plumb the depths of a personal tragedy, no
of similar incidents can add to the revelation. Numbers can increase
the social consequences of disaster, but the frontiers of understanding
are reached when our spirit fully identifies itself with the awful
loneliness and finality of grief" (X: 199). Bevan regarded the capacity
for empathy with an individual life as "the most significant quality
of a civilised human being" and claimed that it was not achieved '
when limited to people of a certain colour, race, religion, nation,
or class. Indeed, just to the extent that this or that group commands
our exclusive sympathy, we are capable of the most monstrous cruelty.
. . . There is no test for progress other than its impact on the
(X: 200). Like many in its history, Bevan made the needs of the
central to Democratic Socialism, knowing fully that this would cause
it to be called "dull" in the rising age of glamour. Given recent
critiques of all talk of "civilization," "progress," and "the
- clearly key terms, like "socialism," from the nineteenth century
- what might we salvage from the archive? Is the archive itself a
sign of progress, or as irretrievably bound to the Victorian world
as liberalism and free markets? What is the status of such an archive,
as an inspiration and motive for action, or a recherche du temps
perdu, as bittersweet as a novel by Proust?
Given the near obliteration from cultural memory of the historical
projects of socialism on the part of late-twentieth-century mass media,
it may come as a surprise to some that socialism historically implied
a concern for individual development and welfare. Reisman's fine
to the first volume stresses precisely the diversity of the movement.
Some, like Robert Owen and Arthur Penty, were for the small community.
Others, like the Fabians and Harold Laski, were for the large,
State. In reading through the volumes one is impressed by the diversity
of the means proposed for achieving the remarkably stable desiderata
of creative development and welfare. If this were a work of literature,
it would be one of the world's great romances, the pursuit of freedom
for all grounded in equality of opportunity for each.
Reisman begins with the Ricardian Socialists of the 1820s and 1830s.
He calls them "preMarxist" in that they shared a labor theory of value
(William Thompson coined the phrase "surplus value") and a demand
for a subsistence standard, and they perceived a conflict between
wages and profits. They are represented here by Thomas Hodgskin's
Labour Defended and Thompson's Labour Rewarded. Both emphasised the
equal capacity of all individuals to enjoy happiness equally, with
Thompson rejecting the subjectivist view that demand, scarcity, and
satisfaction were value-determining. In An Appeal of One Half the
Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men,
to Restrain them in Political and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery
(1825), Thompson and Anna Wheeler defended the individual rights of
women rather than, as James Mill had proposed, subsuming them under
their husbands', because "the happiness of any individual cannot,
methodologically speaking, be included in that of another" (I: lvii).
Thus, Wheeler and Thompson shared the younger Mill's defense of women'
s liberty and autonomy, but went well beyond John Stuart in their
"joyous sensuality" (I: lvii), which would also characterize later
socialists like William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890). Although
national wealth, as Smith had theorized, might be raised by the
of Thompson's firm, he himself concluded that national happiness was
not measured by gross national product. Reisman, like Bevan, sees
this stubborn concern for individual welfare running back through
the earliest formulations of democratic socialism, although in Volume
Two, including the Christian Socialists Frederick Denison Maurice,
Charles Kingsley, and John Malcolm Ludlow, Ludlow (like Engels)
distinguishes socialism from Individualism, a concept he distinguished
from individual happiness and which he (like Engels) reserved to
"that splitting up of society under a thousand influences of sceptical
and vicious selfishnes . . . through which nations seem to have become
mere aggregation of units . . . without cohesion, like the shingle
on the beach" (II: 273).
In addition to a wide diversity of opinion and commitment on the
size of community, the degree of market regulation, and the extent
of equality, Reisman's archive displays a wide tolerance of rhetorical
forms. His introductions, while not always strictly accurate at the
microlevel of dates and rifles, do make constant reference to Kingsley'
s and Morris's fiction and poetry, and the influence of News as well
as Morris's other prose romances of the 1890s on the Webbs, Coles,
Laski, and Tawney is evident throughout. Although the contributors
to Fabian Essays of 1889 were sophisticated political economists (in
the case of Graham Wallas, a political psychologist and philosopher),
it is clear that Reisman finds Morris's "joyous sensuality" preferable
to, and more compatible with socialism than, the Webbs' austere
on their wedding rings "pro bono publico" and their culture of experts
and bureaucracy. Yet rereading the Fabian Essays today, especially
G. B. Shaw's powerful Jeremiad "The Economic Basis of Socialism,"
one cannot help but reflect on the historical efficacy of disgust
as a motive for redistribution, and most of the Fabian essays share
this, at base, aesthetic impulse. If the Christian Socialists and
Morris liked to believe that they were compelled by love, brotherly
or, in Morris's case, conjugal, there is little doubt that revulsion
against urban conditions of "Over Population" (IV: 20) has played
its part in socialist vision. One might even further speculate that
the aestheticising of that which was formerly held to be disgusting
has been one impediment to the development of socialism - accommodating
the kinds of
conditions that might otherwise have been subjects for political action.
Reisman's predilection for the romantic side of socialism leads
in the remaining and post-Victorian volumes to a near equal division
between the devolutionism like Arthur Penty (Volume Five) and the
state collectivists. Penty, an architect, was attracted to the movement
by Morris. He left the Fabians when they "substituted engineering
for architecture, mechanics for aesthetics" (V: viii). Raised in the
shadow of the great cathedral at York, Penty saw Fabianism as "naked,
empty, ugly, complacent, and arrogant" (ibid). His Old Worlds for
New (1917) followed Morris in his valorization of craft, beautiful
labour, job satisfaction, in short, in a defense of the Guild system.
In 1905, A. R. Orage, the editor of The New Age: A Weekly Review of
Politics, Literature, and Art, came to London and lodged with Penty.
With Holbrook Jackson (lace-merchant, Fabian, and, for some of us,
the author of what is probably the best book to date on the culture
of the 1890s), they began to promote a socialism of taste. As Orage
wrote in his first editorial, "Socialism as a means to the
of man, is even more necessary than socialism as a means to the
of economic poverty" (V: xii). Like Ezra Pound's, Penty's passion
for an aesthetic "intensification of man" ultimately led him to Fascism.
Here it is worth pausing to reflect on these men of 1914 through
1952. For with the exception of Annie Besant among the first Fabians
and Margaret Cole among the second, who published New Fabian Essays
in 1952, the contributors to the second five volumes of Democratic
Socialism in Britain are all men, and for the most part very privileged
men, overwhelmingly trained at Oxbridge. The very compendiousness
of Harold Laski's A Grammar of Politics (Volume Six, 1925), arguing
eloquently for the "permanent absolutes" of liberalism - freedom of
speech, religious toleration, electoral democracy, Enlightened
or, as he calls it, individualism within fellowship - and G. D. H.
Cole's Principles of Economic Planning (Volume Seven, 1935) are
to their ambition and confidence. They are also testimony to a time
- not so long ago, after all - that socialism was not impeded by the
rationalization of knowledge. One of the perhaps unintended consequences
of the archive as Reisman has assembled it is to clarify the role
that the narrowing of expertise in the academy has had on progressive
discourse. Directly opposed to the "elegance" of our contemporary
mathematical modelling in economics, Laski, the Coles, or Douglas
Jay, like the political economists of the nineteenth century, offered
comprehensive and accessible social visions. Today, Jay's critique
of markets, The Socialist Case (1938), seems astonishingly timely
as it grapples with Pareto equality, the "efficiency principle" of
contemporary economic theory. Jay critiqued methodological individualism
in the calculation of "happiness and choice" (VIII: 29) in favor of the
community, whose "representative institutions must exercise the faculties of
rational judgment and deliberate choice" (ibid). He frequently cites F. H.
Knight's Ethics of Competition, especially on the problem of inheritance of
cultural capital, or taste, and the reproduction of class as culture: "Where
the family is the social unit, the inheritance of wealth, culture, educational
advantage, and economic opportunity tends towards the progressive increase of
inequality with bad results for personality at both ends of the scale" (VIII:
277). It is arguable that the intense rationalization of knowledge in the
academy that has taken place in the second half of the twentieth century has
more than one progressive discourse, not least of which is economics.
In the penultimate volume, New Fabian Essays, Richard Crossman accuses
the Labour Party, which had by now become the heir to the traditions,
including the rhetorical traditions, of democratic socialism, of
"needing theory" (IX: 2). Once the government had nationalised a half
dozen major industries, constructed an encompassing social security
system, and a free health service, British socialism - for now in
the texts it is more often called that - seemed to have a failure
of imagination. Crossman attacked the Party whose "stubborn empiricism"
had repudiated socialist theory "as dangerous Teutonic verbiage"
(IX: 4). He recommended studying Russian Marxists on colonial/national
struggles and in line with that recommendation opined that revolutions
were not "willed by 'the people' but by a new social force with a
new philosophy" (IX: 21). Whether or not this neocolonial formulation
leads to New Labour, I leave for readers to judge.
One is left struggling with the immense, manifold project, with
the sense that much was claimed in the name of democratic socialism
and much was done for the welfare of the many, and that, though much
remains to be done, the preservation of such archives as this shows
how little really new needs to be thought. Yet while the practical
advance of the movement may be an intricate political problem, practical
engagement with the texts is materially hampered by the absence of
REGENIA GAGNIER University of Exeter000009276000000036
COPYRIGHT 1998 Trustees of Indiana University
Gagnier, Regenia, Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in
Economic and Political
Thought, 1825-1952.(Review). Vol. 41, Victorian Studies, 03-22-1998, pp
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