Democratic socialism in the 1930s

Is it still possible to think big in western democracies about social and economic change in a way that substantially improves the lives and freedoms of most of society? We see the deprivation and indifference of the economic system that has governed most industrialized countries for the past century and a half, leading to gross inequalities, inequities of human wellbeing, and poverty. And we have seen the terrible nightmares created by Leninist-Stalinist Communism. We value freedom, human equality, and human flourishing, and we value democracy. Is it possible to effect a transition to a different economic structure that complies with the values of democracy, individual freedom, and human flourishing?

This was the ambition shared by the socialist movements of the English socialist groups and parties of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And many of those men and women had a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the complicated tensions that exist between the values of democracy and freedom, on the one side, and fairness and equality, on the side of economic life.

What might we want from a reformed progressive economy — whether it is called social democracy or democratic socialism? Most generally, we would want a set of economic and political institutions that ensure that all members of society are in a position to develop their talents and aspirations, exercise their freedoms, and function as full citizens within a robust democracy. We would want secure protections of the rights of all persons, within a robust system of law. And we would want a public sector that actively works to address failures of the economic system to deliver the prerequisites of these values.

Several key issues stand out as highest priority.

  1. tax policies that constrain wealth and income inequalities to some reasonable level
  2. economic policies by government that work to ensure high employment rates at decent wages
  3. a robust system for universal provision of the prerequisites of productive life in an advanced democracy — education, healthcare, adequate nutrition
  4. robust social arrangements for preventing and addressing poverty in children and adults
  5. strong assurances that the least-well-off members of society are fully enabled to live decent lives, based on a reasonable income floor and provision of public services
  6. strong assurances of equal opportunity for all members of society in employment, housing, healthcare, and access to social services
  7. provisions for disability, unemployment, and retirement security
  8. assurance of effective political equality, including constraints on the power of wealthy individuals, corporations, and foundations to determine the outcomes of policy-making and legislation

(It is striking how many of these issues find a place in Rawls’s theory of justice, including his account of a property owning democracy; link.)

Elizabeth Durbin’s New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism is an excellent and detailed examination of the economic thinking of British socialists in the 1930s and 1940s, including that of her father, Evan Durbin. And it is important reading for our own generation, when a major reshuffling of the economic relations of capitalism currently seems to be off the table. Two intellectual influences were especially important: a tradition of English trade union activism challenging the power and position of the owners of wealth, and the Keynesian revolution that suggested, among other things, that economic institutions could be modified and managed. Whereas neoclassical economics essentially maintained that only complete freedom of action by economic actors (“laissez-faire”) would give rise to “efficient” economic outcomes, these two traditions suggested that regulation of economic activity could be both successful and beneficial for society as a whole — including the working classes (31-32).

The advantage of this analysis was that it opened up the possibility of redistributing a much wider range of ‘unearned’ incomes (not just that from land as Henry George had suggested) without reducing the supply of the factors which received such ‘rental’ payments. The approach also stressed the importance of transferring to the state all those means of production which earned the ‘surplus’, so that it would benefit society as a whole, not just individual owners. (33)

The financial and unemployment crisis of the Great Depression posed intractable problems for Labour Party leaders. What policies could be designed that would both damp down the fiscal crisis facing the British state and reduce unemployment and provide meaningful unemployment insurance for workers? 

The continued and intensifying unemployment problem in Britain precipitated major policy controversies across a broad spectrum of political views. The contradictions between traditional market explanations of unemployment and daily reality were already spurring the exploration of new theoretical constructs to explain the apparent failure of the market system. (70)

The combination of economic depression and political crisis had a profound effect on the Labour party in the early 1930s. The experience stirred deep emotions among Labour supporters, which left no one unmarked. It also raised fundamental questions about the role of the Labour party, for it seemed as though the only choice was between capitulation to the market forces of capitalism or preparation for a drastic take-over of the economic system. (73)

The drastic choices included either communism along the Russian model or massive nationalization of banks and industry (73), combined with extensive economic planning conducted by government ministries. Piecemeal reform and adjustment of the political economy of Britain seemed impossible. The democratic socialist movement and Labour party engaged in substantial study and consultation through 1933, and in 1934 the Labour party endorsed a new plan for reform.

The new programme called for the central planning of key industries, to include the immediate nationalization of the banking system, transport, coal and power, water supply, iron and steel and land and the drastic reorganization of electricity, gas, agriculture, shipping, shipbuilding, engineering, textiles, chemicals and insurance. Plans were also promised to extend social services, to provide medical care, to clear slums, to raise the school-leaving age, to abolish the means test and to give adequate maintenance for the unemployed. (87)

In other words — a fairly detailed plan for a social-democratic welfare state with central economic planning in key industries. Much of this programme formed the core of the Labour party manifesto, For Socialism and Peace.

The question of redistribution within Britain’s contemporary capitalist economy in the 1930s was a central topic for socialist debate.

Cole’s original research design addressed redistributional issues by posing the question ‘How far is it an essential part of socialist policy to promote more equal distribution of incomes (a) by raising real wages, (b) by development of the social services?’ (125)

What Elizabeth Durbin documents in New Jerusalems is essentially an unresolved struggle, conducted by economists and politicians on the left in Britain, to design institutions that might succeed in fundamentally altering the tendencies of a functioning capitalist system to create extensive inequalities, crises of unemployment, and chronically low standards of living and wellbeing for the majority of working class people. And they were adamant in seeking institutional reforms that were feasible within the constraints of a democratic polity — with the implication that their policy recommendations needed to find support from durable electoral majorities. As she puts the point late in the book, “Concern with immediate practicality has always been a trade-mark of British democratic socialism” (186). And in the following paragraph, she reiterates the democratic principle: “Their belief in democratic methods is fundamental to understanding the kind of socialist economic policy which emerged from this process…. They repudiated all Marxist policies and systems which depended upon the dictatorship of the proletariat and were considered by definition undemocratic” (186). What distinguished this tradition from other reformers, she writes, is their ongoing allegiance to the idea of public ownership of major economic assets and subsequent redistribution of income and wellbeing towards the least-well-off. And she believes that by the mid-1930s, British socialist and Labour leaders had accomplished a great deal:

By 1935 the Labour party was far better prepared than ever before to manage the country’s economic affairs, to take control of financial policy and to begin serious planning efforts. Legislation had been drafted to nationalize the banking system; important leaders such as Dalton, but also other NEC members, were well briefed on banking options and policy operations; a loyal group of trained young professionals were eager to make their contributions. (222)

And yet — this program failed during the 1930s. Only after the end of World War II did significant nationalization of industry and banking take place; and these economic changes were not durable. Thatcher’s government of the 1980s reversed almost all the gains of post-war Labour governments.

A valuable resource on the nature and effectiveness of social democracy is the 1992 review article by Gosta Esping-Andersen and Kees van Kersbergen, “Contemporary Research on Social Democracy” (link). The purpose of this paper is to review efforts to evaluate the performance of a range of social-democratic countries in terms of their goals of equity and efficiency, and to try to identify some of the factors that seem to be conducive to successful implementation of the policies of a social democracy. Here is an observation about the centrality of a strong working-class movement in support of social-democratic reforms that seems very relevant to our current time:

Using a variety of different measures of both social democratic strength, and of policy outcomes (from social spending and redistribution to various institutional characteristics), most of these studies had in common a theory of working class mobilization of political power, that is, the social democratization of capitalist societies depends on the degree to which the balance of political power favors labor; in most cases, the political parties were identified as the chief causal agents. (191)

The literature seems to be converging around a common model. Simply put, social democratic parties are more capable of altering the distribution system and maintaining growth with full employment when they are linked to powerful and centralized trade union movement. (202)

This observation is concerning for the prospects of significant progressive reform towards policies leading to greater equity and efficiency in the United States, because the labor movement is at a low point of power and influence, and the mainstream Democratic Party is preoccupied with other issues. The authors pose this problem directly:

Since social democracy’s strength lay in its mobilization of the industrial working class masses, it is an open question whether it will have any capacity for power in a postindustrial society. (203)

(Here are several earlier discussions of the political economy of democratic socialism; linklinklink.)

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