Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Looking Back at The Radical Tradition, by Taym Saleh

The Radical Tradition: Twelve Essays on Politics, Education and Literature (edited by Rita Hinden, Penguin, 1964) is a series of pamphlets, speeches and newspaper articles given over a 40-year period, from 1914 to 1953, by RH Tawney, the eminent economic historian, Christian ethical socialist, and Labour intellectual.

The essays cover much ground: the first three are profiles of the nineteenth-century radicals William Lovett, Robert Owen and John Ruskin; four discuss the problems of public school education, and the promises of secondary education reform and adult education; another four discuss the real meaning of economic and political liberty, and how the State and the market relate to true liberty; and the final piece examines the capacity of literature to express the age’s social conditions.

To read it today is to peer into a world where the Left had to justify itself thoroughly, truly had to build something in opposition to the objects of its assaults, for before 1945 the Labour movement lacked the resorts of habitual loyalty, clichés and stultifying habits of mind.

A few choice glances of this volume will, I hope, prove enough to understand some of the differences and continuities in the development of Labour thought between then and now, and between him and us.

In 1919 the government set up a commission chaired by a High Court judge, Mr Justice Sankey, to examine the state of the coal industry. By a narrow majority, it recommended that the industry be nationalised. Tawney sat on the commission, and wrote a pamphlet explaining the case for public ownership.

In describing the iniquities of private management of the industry and the advantages of the alternative, he goes through the usual arguments of exploiting economies of scale and transferring profits from shareholders to consumers and workers. But he also says something else:

‘The difference between its [the coal industry’s] conduct under public ownership and its conduct today is threefold. In the first place, it would be administered, not in order to pay dividends, but in order to provide an economical service of coal for the public. In the second place, each unit would be part of a team, and would not aim at cutting its neighbour’s throat. In the third place, the workers themselves would have a direct responsibility for its efficiency, and sufficient power to make that responsibility a reality.’

The workers would participate in the decision-making processes of the industry and sit on the committees concerned, ‘but not as mere critics, but as men who can translate their ideals and experience into practice, and who bear the liability for making them a success.’

It is unsurprising that an advocate of nationalisation would try hard to counter the wariness of stifling bureaucracy and of the overbearing state. Nevertheless, Tawney’s description of his (and the commission’s) preferred model for a publicly-run industry is striking for modern inhabitants of this post-nationalisation world.

Whitehall is conspicuous by its absence. The government sits in a detached position as a guarantor. The real initiative rests with the Pit Committees, the District and Regional Councils, and the National Mining Council. At each level workers sit with technical experts and managers, with power emanating from the bottom level up.

It is a proposal for state intervention whose objective is not merely redistributive – instead it seeks to engineer a situation in which workers may improve their lot (not just their purchasing power) through their own efforts.

Of course, any serious statist must also contend with arguments that bind markets to political liberty. Tawney’s attempt to do so is recorded in a contribution to The Christian Demand for Social Justice, first published in 1949.

In it, he refers to FA Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and its argument that the Planning and Organising State’s activities must entail an erosion of civil liberties that, if unchecked, will eventually lead to a Totalitarian State.

Much of his criticism of this causal chain lies in rejecting the tendency of Hayek to attribute to the State properties, powers and motivations that exist unchanged regardless of the context of time and place.

Why, in other words, should the Russian State be expected to behave in the same way as the British State, when they are such different creatures living in such different environments? A perfectly sensible question, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But the defence of state economic activity goes further than that, and is, for our present purposes, more interesting.

First, there is the keen awareness of the potential for tyranny within the market economy:

‘It is still constantly assumed by privileged classes that, when the State holds its hand, what remains, as the results of its inaction, is liberty. In reality, as far as the mass of mankind is concerned, what commonly remains is, not liberty, but tyranny. In urban communities with dense populations … someone must make rules and ensure that they are kept, or life becomes impossible … if public power does not make them, the effect is not that every individual is free to make them for himself. It is that they are made by private power – by landlords interested in increasing rents or by capitalists interested in increasing profits. The result is not freedom, but a dictatorship, which is not the less oppressive because largely unconscious, and because those whom it profits regard it, quite sincerely, as identical with liberty.’

The market economy is attacked, and its opposite defended, not solely in terms of providing people with a more comfortable or desirable state of being, as one would be concerned for the welfare of a cow in a barn; rather, as with the nationalisation question discussed above, the motive impulse comes from an altogether better-rounded estimation of the worth of man.

But the most succinct and straightforward defence of government intervention comes a couple of pages later, when he tells us:

‘the State is an important instrument; hence the struggle to control it. But it is an instrument and nothing more. Fools will use it, when they can, for foolish ends, criminals for criminal ends. Sensible and decent men will use it for ends which are sensible and decent. We, in England, have repeatedly re-made the state, and are re-making it now, and shall re-make it again. Why, in heaven’s name, should we be afraid of it?’

I cannot help but find this a little dated. To call its sentiment naïve is perhaps too pejorative; ‘confident’ seems closer to the mark. It is of the same age as George Orwell’s remarks in The Lion and the Unicorn, published in December 1940:

‘What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism … does not work. It cannot deliver the goods. … The lords of property simply sat on their bottoms and proclaimed that all was for the best. Hitler’s conquest of Europe, however, was a physical debunking of capitalism. War, for all its evil, is at any rate an unanswerable test of strength, like a try-your-grip machine. Great strength returns the penny, and there is no way of faking the result.’

It is too unfair to hold the power of 1940s socialism’s pioneering zeal against it. The difference between the statist objectives of the likes of Tawney and those of later times’ less discerning Leftists must not be ignored. But it is still the case that his case required a faith in the viability in the extensive involvement of government in economic affairs, and that faith was rather easier to maintain then than it is now.

Who now, even after the Recession of 2008, can honestly say what Orwell was getting at – ‘the question’s settled now, a planned economy is obviously better than a laissez-faire one’? On the matter of economic organisation, this is perhaps the greatest difference between the Left now and then.

Taking a broader view, however, the key is what we can call the ‘moral dimension’ to socialism, or more tellingly the ‘moral unity’ of Tawney’s socialist world-view.

The best glimpse into the power and nature of this belief can be found in his great history Religion and the Rise of Capitalism – an explanation of the Reformation’s destruction of the medieval attitude to social questions and its replacement by what would later become classical liberalism and rational materialism.

It concludes ‘what requires explanation is not the view that these matters [economic relations and social organisation] are part of the province of religion, but the view that they are not. When the age of the Reformation begins, economics is still a branch of ethics, and ethics of theology; all human activities are treated as falling within a single scheme, whose character is determined by the spiritual destiny of mankind; the appeal of theorists to natural law, not to utility; the legitimacy of economic transactions is tried by reference, less to the movements of the market, than to moral standards derived from the traditional teaching of the Christian Church; the Church itself is regarded as a society wielding theoretical, and sometimes practical, authority in social affairs.’

Now, in his advocacy of the nationalisation of the coal industry and so on, Tawney is not pressing for a return to this particular order as such.

Rather, he asserts the moral quality of man’s existence as immovable and irrepressible, and therefore holds that people must be expected to behave accordingly, whether they are in the counting house, in Parliament, or in the home.

It is especially apt that the believer in these notions should have written so affectionately of John Ruskin, whose slogan in his economic treatise Unto This Last – ‘there is no wealth but life’ – rings in such harmony with them.

Ruskin, as Tawney wrote in an article published in The Observer in 1919, considers questions of art, industry, society and politics not to be compartments, but facets of a whole.

It therefore follows that it is insufficient and a dereliction of duty, when considering economic matters, to dismiss moral concerns regarding human existence as unrelated to the supposedly objective task of discerning the course and product of mechanical human interactions.

While applying this idea to conditions in the labour market, Tawney unintentionally makes a prescient remark on the industrial strife that would later undermine the post-war consensus:

‘when a society by precept and practice has fostered the doctrine that its foundation is the pursuit of personal pecuniary advantage, it will not be able to appeal to men to forgo that advantage when it happens to find the application of the doctrine inconvenient.’

As I said at the beginning, RH Tawney’s was a time in which the Labour movement had no soft bed to relax on, no intellectual shortcuts to resort to. This prevents us from being too sweeping in our didactic comparisons with the present day.

Nevertheless, there is a difference in attitudes that cannot be entirely attributed to this particular difference in historical circumstance.

The chief shortcoming of the modern Left’s attitude to economy and society is most seen in the way in which a proposal to redistribute wealth from one sort of people to another is too readily justified as taking money from the Bad (bankers, corporations, utilities companies, etc.) to the Good (the disabled, single mothers, nurses, etc.).

Some of this can be put down to the reductionist proclivity to sloganeering and clichés apparently innate to most frontbenchers, on both sides.

But the nub of it is, I suspect, related to the instinct to treat public money spent or wealth redistributed as in themselves markers of good deeds done, a little like the way some Calvinists took each unit of wealth accumulated to be a sign of divine favour.

This is not to dismiss the case for state intervention in the economy out of hand – much of it is very good, including the proposed interventions in the rental and energy sectors, but some of it, like tax credits in lieu of wage increases or housing benefits substituting public housing, less so – it is to point out the fragility of the holistic world-view underpinning it.

In modern times the temptation to avoid such questions and to treat GDP or unemployment figures as the bottom line of politics, and politics itself as a great exercise in accountancy, has proven overwhelming.

The antidote for this is not easily found. Just as economics and ethics are false compartments, so are politics and ordinary life.

Answers to such questions as these are not to be found in the policy recommendations of think tanks or government inquiries, but in the full rhythm of thought sustained by the mass of people in their lives.

In our irreligious age the basis for such commonalty is hard to discern. Indeed, the problem may prove genuinely insoluble.

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