Category: Tony Blair

July 17th, 2019 by geoffhodgson1946

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

The meaning of socialism

The word socialism first appeared in 1827. Robert Owen defined socialism as “the abolition of private property”. Karl Marx took a similar line, and extended the idea of common ownership to the national economy. At least at that time, socialism and communism were virtually synonymous, especially in terms of their shared vision of the final goal. They both meant the common ownership of the means of production, and the end of markets and competition.

Robert Owen

This view persisted throughout the twentieth century, including within the UK Labour Party. George Bernard Shaw wrote with approval: “Socialists are trying to have the land and machinery ‘socialised,’ or made the property of the whole people”. In 1908 the Labour Party Conference passed a resolution, adopting the aim of “the socialization of the means of production, distribution and exchange to be controlled by a democratic state”. In 1924 Sidney Webb summarized his view of socialism as involving “(1) Collective Ownership; (2) Collective Regulation; (3) Collective Taxation; and (4) Collective Provision”.

Similar views were found among Labour Prime Ministers. J. Ramsay MacDonald saw socialism as “a movement to supplant Capitalism altogether, by organising communally the services which Capitalism performs or ought to perform.” In 1937 Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee then approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell: “Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government.”

In my book Is Socialism Feasible? I show the persistence of this view of socialism. I also discuss several attempts to change its meaning, including by Douglas Jay, Anthony Crosland, Deng Xiaoping and Tony Blair. Blair tried to shift the meaning to social-ism, by replacing the goal of common ownership by vaguely-specified “ethical values” and a recognition that individuals are socially interdependent. This attempt to revise the meaning has not made much of a mark.

Deng Xiaoping faced the problem of persuading the Chinese Communist Party to support his enormously successful market reforms. Deng declared:

“The essence of socialism is liberation and development of the productive forces, elimination of exploitation and polarization, and the ultimate achievement of prosperity for all … common prosperity is the essence of socialism.”

Note the subtle shift from property to prosperity. If that is socialism, then few people are not socialists.

But the original meaning endures. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines socialism as “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property” or “a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” This is remarkably similar to the original definitions of Owen and Marx.

How moderates help Corbyn, and socialists help Trump

Among prominent living politicians today, including Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Socialism has retained its original meaning, of widespread common ownership, or at least they have not renounced that original definition.

Bernie Sanders

At the same time, leading Labour Party moderates who support a mixed economy continue to support “democratic socialism”. By doing so they give succour to the full-blooded socialist left, who are much closer to the enduring traditional view of socialism than the moderates themselves. We can pretend that the word socialism has shifted in meaning, but there is little evidence of a major and widely accepted change.

Moderate or otherwise, those using the “democratic socialism” label help to sustain the mistaken idea that socialism (in its enduring and prevalent sense) is compatible with democracy. History and theory both show that a totalitarian concentration of political power flows inevitably from the unmitigated concentration of economic power in the hands of the state that is associated with large-scale socialism.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A similar problem exists in the US, particularly after the recent election of a young group of socialists to congress, including the impassioned and eloquent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Along with Sanders, they are members of the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA) within the US Democratic Party.

The DSA argues for “a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms”. They also argued that “widespread worker and public ownership will greatly lessen the corrosive effect of capitalists [sic] markets on people’s lives”. While, unlike many other socialists, the DSA notably accepts an enduring role for markets, its agoraphobic bias is revealed by the failure to mention the corrosive effects of bureaucracy on people’s lives.

In some statements, leading DSA politicians seem to favour Nordic-style, welfare state capitalism. But they have not made it clear that they support the large private sectors and financial markets that are prominent in all the Nordic countries. Instead, they go along with the abolition of capitalism. They distance themselves from the Communist regimes of the past. But while the experiment with socialism in Venezuela has led to a catastrophic human disaster, they fail to come out in full condemnation of that regime.

This helps Trump. Not only does he mobilise racist prejudices, he also uses their self-declared socialism to describe them as communist. Given that socialism and communism were (at least originally) virtual synonyms, this ammunition is handed to Trump by his most fervent opponents.

The changed meaning of social democracy

When Social Democratic parties were first formed in Europe in the nineteenth century, most were strongly influenced by Marxism. They were fully socialist in its original sense.

Some separation of meaning between socialism and social democracy occurred beforehand, but it was brought to a head by the onset of the Cold War in 1948. Europe as a whole, and Germany in particular, were divided between the Eastern and Western Blocs.

All socialist and communist parties had to choose –  the East, the West, or a plague on both? With Moscow ties in many cases, almost all Communist parties chose the East. Many moderate Socialist, Social-Democratic or Labour  parties chose the West.

SPD Congress in Bad Godesberg 1959

At its Bad Godesberg Congress in 1959, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) made fundamental changes to its aims. It dropped its opposition to capitalism, and it abandoned the Marxist analysis of class struggle. The SPD declared:

“The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.”

The crucial point here is that the SPD moved from (temporary or permanent) toleration of markets and competition, to accepting markets and competition as desirable, alongside strong public enterprise and state regulation where necessary.

This explicit and fundamental change in aims in the world’s largest and most influential Social Democratic Party led to a separation of meanings of the terms social democracy and socialism. But it must be acknowledged that strong residues of old-style thinking persisted, in the SPD and in social-democratic parties in other countries.

The acid test

There is a simple test to distinguish a socialist from a social democrat, according to currently prevalent meanings of those words.

To be a social democrat it is not enough to accept markets and a mixed economy, as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the Democratic Socialists of America have done. After all, a mixed economy could be accepted as a temporary staging post in the transition to full-blooded socialism, as Vladimir Lenin did with his New Economic Policy in 1921.

A modern social democrat must go further. He or she must make a clear and positive case why markets, competition and a private sector are more than a temporary expedient. It must be argued that these things are indispensable, both for economic efficiency and the preservation of freedom. This is the acid test. The SPD in 1959 understood this point and it passed the test.

As far as I am aware, neither Corbyn, McDonnell, Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez have made such a positive case for a permanent private sector. If I am right, then they are socialists, not social democrats. Despite their protestations, they are closer to traditional communism than to modern social democracy, as practiced in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. I would be delighted if they can prove me wrong.

Large-scale socialism is outdated, extreme and demonstrably incompatible with democracy. At least if these declared socialists want to win parliamentary majorities and form governments, then they have to change their terminology, and dispose with outdated and unfeasible ideas.

But while Nordic social democracy remains remarkably successful (as I show in my book Is Socialism Feasible?) the social-democratic brand throughout Europe has declined in electoral support. Although re-naming is necessary, much more than renaming is required. The abandonment of the socialist label is but a first step. But that is another story.

17 July 2019


Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).

Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).

Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).

Democratic Socialists of America (1995) ‘Where We Stand: Building the Next Left’, DSA: Democratic Socialists of America.

Griffiths, Dan (ed.) (1924) What is Socialism? A Symposium (London, Richards).

Jay, Douglas (1937) The Socialist Case, 1st edn. (London: Faber and Faber).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2019) Is Socialism Feasible? Towards an Alternative Future (Cheltenham UK and Northampton MA: Edward Elgar).

Owen, Robert (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings, edited with an introduction by Gregory Claeys (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Shaw, George Bernard (1890) What Socialism Is, Fabian Tract No. 13 (London: Fabian Society).

Posted in Bernie Sanders, Common ownership, Democracy, Donald Trump, George Bernard Shaw, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Liberalism, Markets, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Soviet Union, Tony Blair, Venezuela

April 20th, 2019 by geoffhodgson1946

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

In a recent New York Times interview, the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz declared that Bernie Sanders, “a self-described democratic socialist, wasn’t actually a socialist”. Unfortunately, Sanders shows no sign of dropping the s-word description or of making a clear case for an enduring private sector in a mixed economy. Then Stiglitz went on the say that “socialism … was never the same as communism”. But he failed to define either term.

Stiglitz is wrong. The persistent vagueness and misuse of such words sows confusion. In fact, socialism has an enduring meaning that is virtually identical to that of communism. In this blog I explain why.

The origins of the words socialism and communism

The word socialism appeared in November 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine, published by followers of Robert Owen, where a writer referred to “Communionists or Socialists”. It was used in the Poor Man’s Guardian in 1833 and moved into more frequent usage thereafter. As J. F. C. Harrison noted: “By 1840 socialism was virtually synonymous with Owenism”.

Robert Owen

For Owen and his followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. It also acquired the broader ideological connotation of cooperation, in opposition to selfish or competitive individualism. Communal property was seen as its defining institutional foundation. As Owen argued in 1840, “virtue and happiness could never be attained’ in “any system in which private property was admitted”. He aimed to secure “an equality of wealth and rank, by merging all private into public property”.

In 1840 in Paris, the word communiste appeared in an article by Étienne Cabet and in a pamphlet by Théodore Dezamy and Jean-Jacques Pillot. Influenced by Owen, Cabet was a Christian advocate of utopian communist communities.

Carrying a letter of introduction from Owen, John Goodwyn Barmby went to Paris in 1840 to meet the advocates of le communisme. On his return, Barmby founded the London Communist Propaganda Society in 1841 and established the Communist Chronicle newspaper. Despite his close working links with the Owenites, Barmby criticised socialism because “it wants religious faith, it is too commercial, too full of the spirit of this world, and therefore is rightly damned”. Communism for him was less materialistic and more divine.

With the investment of these idiosyncratic spiritual connotations, Barmby imported the word communism into English. It spread in the UK and the US, where the term socialist was already prominent. The word Kommunist had appeared in German by 1842, when Marx noted its usage.

In 1843 Engels reported to the Owenite journal The New Moral World that there were “more than half a million Communists in France” and that “Communist associations” and individuals describing themselves as communists were plentiful in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere. Engels addressed his Owenite readers as “English socialists” and saw them as having very similar aims to the Continental communists.

In the second (1849) and later editions of his Principles of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill noted another early difference of meaning between socialism and communism. For followers of Saint-Simon or of Fourier in France, communism meant “the entire abolition of private property”, whereas socialism was “any system which requires that the land and the instruments of production should be property, not of individuals, but of communities or associations, or of the government.” Unlike communism, this meaning of socialism would allow for individual ownership of personal possessions. Hence Mill described Owenism as communism, because it upheld the abolition of all private property. But this particular distinction in meaning between the two words was forgotten after the Owenite and other utopian experiments faltered.

Perhaps more influentially, the 1848 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary defined socialism as a “social state in which there is a community of property among all the citizens”, and defined communism as “a new French word, nearly synonymous with … socialism”.

Hence both socialism and communism referred to the abolition of (most or all) private property and the establishment of common ownership of the means of production. Henceforth the two terms became entwined within Marxism, there to perform an entirely different dance of meaning.

Marxism, communism and socialism

Marx and Engels often treated the terms socialism and communism as interchangeable. But occasionally they gave them different nuances. In 1845 they adopted the new word communism as their label for their movement: “Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” When they henceforth started setting up political organizations they adopted and promoted the term communist rather than socialist. But their ultimate goals were the same as most socialists at the time.

Frederick Engels

In 1888 Engels explained why he and Marx had chosen the word Communist for theirfamous Manifesto of 1848. Engels claimed that the word socialism was then too ‘respectable’ and too ‘middle class’. He wrote:

“Yet, when it was written, we could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. By ‘socialists’, in 1847, were understood, on the one hand, the adherents of the various utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them already reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks … in both cases men outside the working-class movement … Whatever portion of the working class had … proclaimed the necessity of a total change, that portion then called itself communist. … Thus, socialism was, in 1847 a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement.”

Engels omitted to note that the self-described communists in the 1840s also had more than their fair share of middle-class devotees, quacks, bizarre utopians and radical clerics.

It is possible that Marx and Engels adopted the term communist partly because it had become more popular in a Continental Europe on the eve of the 1848 revolutions. While socialism remained more widespread in Britain, the Owenite movement, with which it was largely associated, had already passed its peak by 1847. While the younger term communism had already attracted several oddballs in the seven years of its use, socialism had the additional negative legacy of numerous failed utopian experiments in the 1820s and 1830s, in the UK and the US.

Instead of small-scale utopian experiments, Marx and Engels favoured a global insurrectionary strategy. As Engels observed in 1843, the French communists understood the need for “meeting force by force … having at present no other means”. Marx and Engels chose the word communism in the 1840s, not because their goal was different from socialism, but partly because many self-described communists in Continental Europe promoted armed insurrection. The penultimate section of the Communist Manifesto attacks various strands of socialism, not for their collectivist goals, but for their impractical strategies and their failure to countenance the use of force. The final paragraph of the whole work drives the point home: “The Communists … openly declare that their ends can only be attained by the forceful overthrow of all existing conditions.”

But a few decades later, the word socialism was again in the ascendant. In 1880 Engels published Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique in the French Revue socialiste: notably he put socialisme rather than communisme in the title. By 1890 a number of parties describing themselves as socialist or social-democratic had taken root in Germany, France and elsewhere. In 1895, Engels wrote approvingly of “the one great international army of Socialists, marching irresistibly on and growing daily in number”. The earlier emphasis on physical force was also reduced: the possibility of achieving their goal by democratic means, rather than by insurrection, seemed greater than before. One of the major reasons for using the term communism rather than socialism had disappeared.

William Morris was an artist, craftsman and writer, and one of the first English intellectuals to embrace Marxism. Writing in a 1903 Fabian Tract, he saw socialism and communism as virtual synonyms: “between complete Socialism and Communism there is no difference whatever in my mind”. They assert that the means of production and the resources of nature “should not be owned in severalty, but by the whole community”.

Whether they used the term socialism or capitalism, their fundamental aim was clear. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels echoed Owen and called for the “abolition of private property.” They proclaimed an economic order in which “capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society.” Engels repeated in 1847: “The abolition of private ownership is the most succinct and characteristic summary of the transformation of the entire social system … and … is rightly put forward by the Communists are their main demand.” In 1850 Marx and Engels again declared: “Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it”.

This meant the complete abolition of markets. They wanted an end to the “free selling and buying” of commodities. As Marx wrote in 1875: “Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products”. Engels argued in 1884 that “no society can permanently retain the mastery of its own production … unless it abolishes exchange between individuals.” The abolition of markets was seen as necessary for social control.

By emphasizing national ownership, Marx and Engels went much further than Owen and most other early socialists or communists. Marx and Engels welcomed efforts “to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and looked forward to a time when “all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation”. Described as either communism or socialism, this utopia of national ownership and “social” control persisted in their writings.

Phases of communism

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, Marx used the term communism to describe his goal. He considered “the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” Eventually a new order would follow:

“In a more advanced phase of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labour, … when the all-around development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can society … inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”

Hence Marx considered a “first phase” and then a “more advanced phase” of communism. Writing in his State and Revolution in August 1917, Lenin referred to this passage from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme but introduced a different usage. He wanted to defend the planned Bolshevik seizure of power against the criticism that Russia was insufficiently developed economically for a radical Marxist revolution.

Lenin amended the Marxist dictionary and renamed Marx’s “first phase of communist society” as socialism. Under this socialism the means of production would be in public ownership but there would still be a struggle against bourgeois ideas and material shortages. When that struggle was completed, and after the subjugation of ‘capitalist habits’, full communism would be established. “The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory with equality of labour and pay.”

In contrast, Marx and Engels never distinguished the terms socialism and communism in this way. For them, socialism and communism both meant the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production. They wrote of lower and higher “phases” but did not use different nouns to distinguish them.

The Socialist International (also known as the Second International) was a global association of socialist parties, formed in 1889. In 1919, Lenin and the Bolsheviks broke from the Socialist International and formed the Communist International (also known as the Third International). The difference between the Communist and Socialist Internationals was not stated in terms of ultimate objectives. Instead the Communist International was formed because several parties in the Socialist International had supported their national governments in the First World War. There was no declared amendment of final goals, although leaders of the Second International were accused of de facto abandoning socialism.

As I show in my book Is Socialism Feasible? the original meaning of socialism persisted even in the relatively moderate UK Labour Party. It was endorsed by leading members such as Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan.

The failure of revisionism

Especially since the Second World War, there have been a number of attempts to change the meaning of socialism, including by Tony Crosland and Tony Blair. But the resilience of the original meaning is testified by the endurance of the UK Labour Party’s original version of Clause Four from 1918 to 1995. This original version calls for complete “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” and offers no defence of markets or a private sector. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is among those that would like to return to the 1918 formulation.

Jeremy Corbyn

Some writers obfuscate the issues, but the undying commitment on the left to common ownership and the left’s widespread agoraphobia (fear of markets) testify that socialism has not changed much in meaning. Although some communists may differ from some socialists in terms of strategy, in general there is little if any difference in terms of goals.

By contrast, the term social democracy has successfully changed its meaning. It now contrasts with socialism, especially in terms of its advocacy of a mixed, market economy. In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic Party committed itself to a “social market economy” involving “as much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.”

This was very different from the enduring meanings of the words socialism and communism. Politicians like Sanders need to make clear where they stand.

20 April 2019



Bestor, Arthur E., Jr (1948) ‘The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 9(3), June, pp. 259-302.

Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).

Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).

Griffiths, Dan (ed.) (1924) What is Socialism? A Symposium (London, Richards).

Harrison, J. F. C. (1969) Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2019) Is Socialism Feasible? Towards an Alternative Future (Cheltenham UK and Northampton MA: Edward Elgar), forthcoming.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1967) Selected Works in Three Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Marx, Karl (1973) The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings – Volume 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Marx, Karl (1974) The First International and After: Political Writings – Volume 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Marx, Karl (1976) ‘Marginal Notes on Wagner’, in Albert Dragstedt (ed.) (1976) Value: Studies by Marx (London: New Park), pp. 195-229.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1962) Selected Works in Two Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1975) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, Marx and Engels: 1843-1844 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Mill, John Stuart (1909) Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, 7th edn. (London: Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer).

Morris, William (1973) Political Writings of William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Owen, Robert (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings, edited with an introduction by Gregory Claeys (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Posted in Bernie Sanders, Common ownership, George Bernard Shaw, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Markets, Marxism, Nationalization, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Blair

June 1st, 2018 by geoffhodgson1946



Stretching the word “neoliberal” to cover people as different as Deng Xiaoping and Donald Trump has turned it into an absurdity.


Geoffrey M. Hodgson


Once upon a time, the word neoliberalism might have been confined to an extreme form of individualism that eschews state regulation, promotes economic austerity and a minimal state, opposes trade unions and vaunts unrestrained markets as the solution to all major politico-economic problems.

But today the usage of the word neoliberalism is no longer so restricted. I have been told more than once that anyone who is not a socialist is automatically a neoliberal. Any defence of the existence of markets now risks quick rejection with an angry neoliberal stamp upon it.

More frequently these days, a wide range of politicians, from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at one extreme, to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Emmanuel Macron and Tony Blair at the other limit, are all described as neoliberals, despite, for example, hugely varied policies on taxation, government expenditure and the role of the state.

In their book on Neoliberalism, Damien Cahill and Martijn Konings describe the US President Donald Trump as a neoliberal. Yet he is a supporter of protectionism and he has imposed import tariffs: he does not believe in free trade. The word neoliberal is now stretched beyond credence and coherence.

Sneaky Deng Xiaoping was a neoliberal

Guardians of socialist purity have described some errant Marxist or socialists as neoliberals. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, Marxist academic David Harvey described revisionist-Marxist Deng Xiaoping as a neoliberal.

From 1978, Deng supported the reintroduction of markets into the Chinese economy. But he still proposed a strong guiding hand by the state, including centralized management of the macro-economy and the financial system.

Harvey admitted that Deng’s policies led to strong economic growth and “rising standards of living for a significant proportion of the population” but he passed quickly over this ellipsis.

In fact, Deng’s Marxist-revisionist “neoliberal” reforms lifted more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty, albeit unevenly and at the cost of greater inequality. That was about one-twelfth of the entire world population in 2000. With this development, China halved the global level of extreme poverty. The bulk of the poverty reduction in China came from rural areas.

This achievement is unprecedented in human experience. If China’s extension of markets is neoliberalism, then neoliberalism is the most beneficial economic policy in history.

Vladimir Lenin and Josip Tito as neoliberals

But earlier contenders for the title of “the first neoliberals” can be found. In her book on Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism, the sociologist Johanna Bockman found roots of neoliberalism in the experiments in so-called “market socialism” in Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia from the 1950s and in Hungary from the 1960s.

There is no stopping this neoliberal treachery – infiltrating socialism as well as capitalism!

Josip Tito

Adopting the methodology of Harvey and Bockman, I would like to nominate Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as the first neoliberal, for his betrayal of socialist central planning and his introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Soviet Russia in 1921. In this admitted “retreat” from socialism, Lenin re-introduced markets and profit-seeking private firms.

Crucially, in support of this nomination, there is evidence that Deng’s post-1978 reforms drew a strong inspiration from Lenin.

“A brainless synonym for modern capitalism”

Of course, I am being ironic. My point is that, thanks to Harvey and others, neoliberalism as a term has become virtually useless. As Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe put it, neoliberalism for some has become “a brainless synonym for modern capitalism.”

Mirowski also complained that opponents “often bandy about attributions of ‘neoliberalism’ as a portmanteau term of abuse”. But Mirowski did not drop the term.

Geoffrey Hodgson & Philip Mirowski

In his superb history of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Angus Burgin commented critically on the term neoliberalism:

“It is extremely difficult to treat in a sophisticated manner a concept that cannot be firmly identified or defined.”

The word is no longer sound currency. Bad usage has driven out the good. It has become a swear-word rather than a scientific term.

Neoliberalism as a ruling class strategy

Part of the impetus behind the excessive and ultimately destructive use of the word neoliberal is the Marxist belief, expressed by David Harvey among others, that neoliberalism is a strategy serving the interests of the capitalist class.

Following the post-war settlement of 1945-1970, which conceded greater power and shares of income to organized labour, rising neoliberalism allegedly rescued the capitalist class.

Their evidence is that in several major countries from the 1970s, trade unionism declined in strength and the shares of national incomes going to the top five per cent increased.

There is some truth in this. But first it overlooks the fact that levels of public welfare expenditure generally did not decrease after the 1970s.

Second, in several countries, including most dramatically in China, standards of living have increased, even for the lower income deciles. While for many people in the US, real wages have stagnated, this has not been the case in several other countries, particularly prior to the 2008 crash.

Third, the argument may exaggerate the degree to which the capitalist class is united, in terms of their real interests or of their perceptions of them.

Fourth, it is questionable that capitalist interests are best served by declines in real wages, given the powerful Keynesian argument that capitalist prosperity depends on effective demand in the economy as a whole. Higher real wages can increase prosperity across the board, and serve the interests of capitalists and capitalism.

Fifth, there are other, possibility more effective, strategies for countering the power of organized labour and reducing the incomes of many people in favour of the top five per cent. These alternatives include economic nationalism, which can take the extreme form of fascism. Generally these are not free-market, small-state approaches. If they are all labelled neoliberal, and regarded as the grand global strategy of the bourgeoisie, then the analysis becomes dangerously insensitive to the increasingly probable threats of economic nationalism and fascism.

Neoliberalism and the Mont Pèlerin Society

Perhaps the most well-informed and intelligent attempt to give neoliberalism a distinctive meaning is by Philip Mirowski, who associates it, more or less, with the Mont Pèlerin Society.

But the Mont Pèlerin Society changed to a degree, in substance and direction. It began under a different name in the 1930s and was first convened under its current name in 1947. It was then an attempt to convene different kinds of liberals in defence of a liberal market economy, just after the defeat of fascist tyranny, during an expansion of Communist totalitarianism, and while witnessing the rise of statist socialist ideas in Western Europe and elsewhere. Liberalism broadly was on the rocks: it needed its defenders.

As a measure of the relative inclusivity and internal diversity of the Mont Pèlerin Society, consider the testimony of the philosopher Karl Popper, who was a friend of Hayek and a prominent Mont Pèlerin member in the early years. Popper wrote to Hayek in 1947 that his aim was “always to try of a reconciliation of liberals and socialists”.

Michael Polanyi and Wilhelm Röpke

Michael Polanyi – the brother of Karl Polanyi – was a founder member of the Mont Pèlerin Society. He advocated Keynesian macroeconomics in a market economy, alongside a radical redistribution of income and wealth. He rejected a universal reliance on market solutions, seeing it as a mirror image of the socialist panacea of planning and public ownership. He did not mince his words against this “crude Liberalism”:

“For a Liberalism which believes in preserving every evil consequence of free trading, and objects in principle to every sort of State enterprise, is contrary to the very principles of civilization. … The protection given to barbarous anarchy in the illusion of vindicating freedom, as demanded by the doctrine of laissez faire, has been most effective in bringing contempt on the name of freedom …”

Polanyi had drifted away from the Mont Pèlerin Society by 1955, stressing its inadequate solutions to the problem of unemployment and its promotion of a narrow view of liberty as the absence of coercion, neglecting the need to prioritize human self-realization and development.

Michael Polanyi

In its early years, the Mont Pèlerin Society hosted debates on the possible role of the state in promoting welfare, on financial stability, on economic justice, and on the moral limits to markets. Like Polanyi and other early members of the society, Wilhelm Röpke argued that the state was necessary to sustain the institutional infrastructure of a market economy. The state should serve as a rule-maker, enforcer of competition, and provider of basic social security. Röpke’s ideas were highly influential for those laying the foundations of the post war West German economy.

While they received a more sympathy from Hayek, Ludwig Mises regarded Röpke’s views as “outright interventionist”. Mises once became so frustrated with these ongoing arguments in favour of a major role for the state that he stormed out of a Mont Pèlerin Society meeting shouting: “You’re all a bunch of socialists.”

The rise of Milton Friedman

Angus Burgin’s history of the society shows how its early period of relative inclusivity was followed by schisms, departures, and a narrowing of opinion. People like Polanyi and Röpke became inactive. Eventually the primary locus of the Mont Pèlerin Society shifted to the US, with greatly increased corporate funding under the rising intellectual leadership of Milton Friedman.

Milton Friedman

Hence the Mont Pèlerin Society evolved from a broad liberal forum to one focused on promoting a narrow version of liberalism that is more redolent of Herbert Spencer than of Adam Smith, Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill.

This ultra-individualist liberalism entailed a narrow definition of liberty as the absence of coercion, it relegated the goal of democracy, it neglected economic inequality, it overlooked the limits to markets, it saw very limited grounds for state welfare provision and intervention in financial markets, and it stressed self-interest rather than moral motivation.

Perhaps Friedman was a neoliberal. Perhaps Hayek too. But if we add Lenin, Tito, Deng or Trump to the list, then we are in the realms of absurdity – the term becomes useless.


1 June 2018

This book elaborates on the issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018



Bockman, Johanna (2011) Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Burgin, Angus (2012) The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See esp. pp. 57, 80-86, 116, 121.
Cahill, Damien and Konings, Martijn (2017) Neoliberalism (Cambridge UK and Medford MA: Polity Press). See esp. pp. 144-5.
Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press). See esp. pp. 1-3, 120-22.
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Jacobs, Struan and Mullins, Phil (2016) ‘Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polanyi in Correspondence’, History of European Ideas, 42(1), pp. 107-30.
Mirowski, Philip (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London and New York: Verso). See esp. pp. 29, 71.
Mirowski, Philip and Plehwe, Dieter (eds) (2009) The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). See esp. p. xvii.
Pantsov, Alexander and Levine, Steven I. (2015) Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press). See esp. p. 373.
Polanyi, Michael (1940) The Contempt of Freedom: The Russian Experiment and After (London: Watts). See esp. pp. 35 ff., 57-58.
Ravallion, Martin, and Shaohua Chen (2005) ‘China’s (Uneven) Progress against Poverty’, Journal of Development Economics, 82(1), pp. 1-42.


Posted in Donald Trump, Left politics, Lenin, Liberalism, Markets, Michael Polanyi, Neoliberalism, Philip Mirowski, Private enterprise, Right politics, Soviet Union, Tony Blair, Uncategorized

September 13th, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946



Geoffrey M. Hodgson


Many people still call themselves socialists. But rarely is it made clear what they mean by the description. Few seem aware of its original definition, which persisted from the 1830s to the 1950s. Some will argue that the word has acquired a new meaning since then. Words do change their meanings. But there is no consensus on what that new meaning is.

Despite its idealistic connotations of purity and principle, the word socialism hangs around the neck of left parties. It serves as an invitation for infiltration by Marxists and others, who may enter any party proclaiming their “democratic socialism” or their “socialist principles”.

Having being invited by the s-word, they simply have to point to its original meaning to justify their maximalist stances on class struggle and public ownership. The retention of the s-word will always feed the hard left.

Owenites and Marxists

The term socialist emerged in English for the first time in 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine, which was published in London by followers of Robert Owen. It moved into wider usage in the 1830s. For Owen and his followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. It also acquired the broader ideological connotation of cooperation, in opposition to selfish individualism.

Robert Owen

As Owen argued in 1840, “virtue and happiness could never be attained” in “any system in which private property was admitted”. He aimed to secure “an equality of wealth and rank, by merging all private into public property”.

Owen and his followers attempted to establish several socialist communities in the UK and USA. All failed within a few years. The young Frederick Engels attended an Owenite meeting in Manchester in 1843, and was inspired by Owen’s notion of socialism.

In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels echoed Owen and others and called for the “abolition of private property”. In 1850 Marx declared: “Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it”. Marx and Engels proclaimed an economic order in which “capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society”.

Marx and Engels wanted the complete abolition of the “free selling and buying” of commodities. They advocated common ownership of all means of production and the abolition of commodity exchange and markets.

Hence, from the 1830s until the 1950s, socialism was almost universally defined in terms of the abolition or minimisation of private property and some form of widespread common ownership.

Statist socialism

Marx and Engels insisted that markets should be abolished and all means of production should be placed in the hands of the state.

Karl Marx

By emphasizing national ownership, Marx and Engels went much further than Owen. They welcomed efforts “to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and looked forward to a time when “all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation”.

Marx and Engels often used the term communism instead of socialism. But this was primarily to distance themselves from the naïve ideas of contemporary socialists rather than to postulate a radically different objective. For them, communism was a label for their movement, rather than their goal. Thus in 1845 they wrote:

Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Sometimes, as in his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, Marx referred to the “lower” and “higher phases” of communism, instead of socialism.

In 1917 Vladimir Ilych Lenin was writing his State and Revolution, on the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Some left critics had argued that Russia was insufficiently developed for socialist revolution.

So Lenin redefined socialism as a transitional stage (still involving extensive state ownership) between capitalism and communism.

By contrast, Marx and Engels did not use the term socialism to refer to a future stage between capitalism and communism. Their aim was described interchangeably as socialism or communism.

French lessons

Engels’ description of Charles Fourier and Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon as “utopian socialists” is inaccurate because – unlike Owen – they supported private ownership of the means of production. They imagined harmonious communities without poverty or strife. But some of Saint-Simon’s followers moved toward socialism.

Philippe Buchez was inspired by Saint-Simon. He promoted worker cooperatives as early as 1831, and his ideas became prominent during the French Revolution of 1848.

Contrary to most of his contemporary socialists and communists, Buchez and his followers eventually recognized the need for multiple, autonomous, worker co-operatives, each owning property and engaging in contracts and markets.

But this tolerance of markets was too much for Marx. In 1875 he described Buchez’s ideas as “reactionary”, “sectarian”, opposed to the workers’ “class movement”, and contrary to the true revolutionary aim of “cooperative production … on a national scale”.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon

In 1840 Pierre Joseph Proudhon published his What is Property? He used both socialism and anarchism to describe his proposed future society. But, like Buchez, Proudhon proposed a system of worker cooperatives linked by contracts and trade. This enraged Marx and Engels, who relentlessly attached Proudhon’s ideas.

Non-statist versions of socialism endured but were overshadowed by statist variants. From the 1870s to the 1950s the dominant view of socialism involved state ownership and control. To emphasise their dissent, Proudhon and other opponents of statist socialism often described themselves as anarchists.


The idea that private property and markets should be abolished was thematic to socialism and unconfined to Marxism. It pervaded the writings of socialists as diverse as Continental revolutionary communists and British Fabians. At least until the 1950s, hostility towards markets and private property were thematic for socialism as a whole. The founding influences of Owen and Marx were long-lasting.

Beatrice & Sidney Webb

Drafted by leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Clause Four, Part Four of the Labour Party Constitution encapsulated collectivist thinking when it was adopted in 1918:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

This provided for no exception: all production would be in common ownership and there would be no private sector. Although some Labour Party thinkers began to entertain the possibility of some private enterprise, many party members remained resolutely in support of widespread common ownership.

Some Fabian socialists tried to lay out more detail on how socialism would work. The Webbs laid out their ultimate vision of a fully planned and consciously controlled socialist economy where all markets and private ownership of the means of production had been marginalized to insignificance. They wanted private ownership of the means of production to be ended: it was a “perversion”.

They envisaged a massive, complex structure of national, regional and local committees, all involved in decision-making over details of production and distribution. How would these cope with the huge amounts of information and specialized knowledge in modern complex economies? It was simply assumed that this was relatively easy to sort out in some rational manner.

Guild socialism

G D H Cole

The British Fabian G. D. H. Cole is sometimes described as a “libertarian socialist” and as an advocate of “decentralized” or “guild” socialism. But he supported the wholesale nationalisation of industry and the abolition of private enterprise. To his great credit, and unlike most Marxists, Cole did actually try to explain how a future socialist society would work. But his explanation is a failure.

Cole did not show how devolved democracy could function and endure in a society where private property was abolished. His hyper-democratic account of socialism, where individuals make decisions throughout industry as well as the polity, failed to consider the problems of necessary skill in judgment, of obtaining relevant knowledge, and the overwhelming number of meetings and decisions involved.

Cole’s vision of socialism was of an integrated, national system where “a single authority is responsible both for the planning of the social production as a whole and for the distribution of the incomes which will be used in buying it.” Within this “single authority” he also sought devolved worker control. He wanted local autonomy of manufacturing, modelled on the medieval guild.

But Cole was tragically unclear about how the two were to be reconciled. How would the autonomous powers of the latter be protected from the control and centralizing ambitions of the “single authority”? There was no adequate answer. His whole system was unworkable.

Clement Attlee and Bertrand Russell

In 1937, eight years before he became UK Prime Minister, Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee then approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell:

“Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government. … It involves the abolition of all unearned wealth and of all private control over the means of livelihood of the workers”.

Bertrand Russell

Even within the moderate and non-Marxist Labour Party, the word socialism endured with these collectivist connotations, posed in opposition to private firms, competition and markets.

Russell represented an important strain of thinking within the British left. He wholeheartedly supported the notion of a publicly-owned and planned economy, but he rejected “Bolshevik methods”.

But is it possible to promote a state monopoly of economic power, while preventing a central-state monopoly and potential despotism of political power? In no historical case has the first happened and the second been prevented. Statist socialism, with viable democracy, political pluralism and effective decentralisation, exits only in the imagination of impractical idealists.

‘Market socialism’?

In the 1930s the economist Oskar Lange and others claimed that mainstream economic theory can show how socialism could work. Lange and his co-workers argued that managers of firms should be instructed to expand production until marginal costs were equal to the declared market price of the product.

Oskar Lange

But this assumed that marginal costs could be calculated and that the central planners could smoothly and readily assess whether there were surpluses or shortages, and adjust prices accordingly. Lange and others wrongly assumed that such information was readily available.

These proposals for “market socialism” attempted to simulate markets within a planning system, rather than to establish true markets with private ownership and commodity exchange. There was no private ownership and no capacity for firms to make contracts. The models developed by Lange and his collaborators involved a high degree of centralised co-ordination that excluded any real-world market.

Significantly, no attempt has ever been made to implement a Lange-type model in reality. Lange himself made no effort to persuade the post-1945 “socialist” government in his native Poland of the value of the idea.

Hence the use of the term “market socialism” in this context is highly misleading. Unlike the proposals of Buchez or Proudhon, and unlike the system of worker cooperatives established under Josip Tito in Yugoslavia after the Second World War, Lange’s proposal did not involve true markets.

Post-war revisionism

In 1956 C. Anthony Crosland published The Future of Socialism. This began Labour’s slow reconciliation with markets, private enterprise and a mixed economy. Signalling an attempted shift of meaning, Crosland argued that the central aim of socialism was not necessarily common ownership, but social justice and economic equality, and these could be achieved by different means. But although his argument was highly influential, it was widely attacked within the Labour Party and elsewhere.

Hugh Gaitskell

In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic Party abandoned the goal of widespread common ownership. In the same year, Hugh Gaitskell tried to get the British Labour Party to follow this lead, but met stiff resistance. The party did not ditch its Clause Four commitment to the complete “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” until 1995.

Richard Toye noted that the Labour Party assumed widespread public ownership and failed to develop adequate policies concerning the private sector:

“Labour, until at least the 1950s, showed little interest in developing policies for the private sector. During the 1960s, the party demonstrated continuing ambiguity about whether or not competition was a good thing. This ambiguity continued at least until the 1980s.”

Tony Blair and New Labour

But in 1995, after 77 years, Labour’s Clause Four was changed. Tony Blair successfully ended the Labour Party’s longstanding constitutional commitment to far-reaching common ownership. But this was not without opposition. Tony Benn protested: “Labour’s heart is being cut out”.

Tony Blair

The new wording of “Clause IV: Aims and Values” declared that: “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.” But the clause ceased to promote unalloyed common ownership and the full text admitted a positive role for markets and a private sector.

By contrast, the 1918 formulation did not use the word socialism – it had undiluted common ownership instead.

Blair introduced the word socialism in 1995, but he attempted to change its meaning. He promoted “social-ism”, which now meant recognizing individuals as socially interdependent. It also signalled social justice, cohesion and equality of opportunity, within a mixed economy involving both private and public ownership.

Hence, instead of tackling the problem of Labour’s old collectivist DNA more directly, Blair tried to change the meaning of socialism and to airbrush Labour’s history. He failed to promote an adequate alternative vision or philosophy within Labour to replace old-fashioned common ownership. To the traditional left, it appeared as the substitution of purity and socialist principle by fudge and capitalist compromise.

But oddly Blair was responsible for the explicit insertion of socialism in its aims. This inadvertently played into the hands of the party’s enduring, backward-looking left.

Learning no lessons

Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crash of 2008 helped to turn the Labour membership against Blair and his compromises with capitalism. As evidence of the Freudian defence mechanism of regression as a response to severe stress, Labour reverted to an earlier stage of its history, re-adopting its infant ideological comforts of collectivism and state control.

The ghost of Tony Benn emerged. His Campaign Group in parliament moved from the margins to the party mainstream.

Like Benn, the current leadership of the UK Labour Party shows little awareness of the chronic problems of managing a modern, complex, centrally-planned economy. They now accept a “mixed economy” as a transition stage, but fail to promote the virtues or enduring role of the private sector.

Jeremy Corbyn

To take one example, Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 address to the UK Co-operative Party is overwhelming in its blandness and naivety. Therein Corby shows no awareness that viable and meaningful decentralisation of economic power must involve (cooperative or other) firms with the right to own, set prices for, and trade their outputs. He rightly mentions the virtues of worker and consumer participation in decision-making, but shows no awareness of the practical limits of such participation.

Corbyn simply waved the magic wand of “democracy” without any apparent appreciation that it is impossible to involve everyone in more than a tiny fraction of all the complex decisions involved in any modern economy. Corbyn showed no awareness of the practical problems of complex decision-making in large organisations, which are dependent on multiple, localised, skills and expertise.

Withering socialism

Following Labour’s advances in the 2017 general election, the leadership of Corbyn and his allies seems entrenched. Recently they have gained control of the powerful National Executive Committee of the party. For future nominations for the Labour leadership or deputy leadership, it is probable that the 15 per cent threshold of support from Labour MPs will be lowered, making ongoing hard left prominence more likely.

In the 1980s and 1990s the hard left were pushed back with the help of large, moderate trade unions that were affiliated to Labour. Those countervailing forces have gone. The unions are smaller and some are more inclined to the hard left.

With the Brexit vote in 2016, Britain has entered its most dangerous political crisis since the Second World War. The country is governed by an inept Conservative Party that is tearing up the UK constitution and concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of its duplicitous ministers.

Labour’s 2017 electoral advances were partly due to Tory incompetence. In this volatile climate it is possible that Corbyn could soon become prime minister. Subsequently, an obvious danger would be that the concentration of executive power legislated by Tory opponents would prove too tempting for Labour in power to relinquish. After growing authoritarianism from the reactionary right, we might experience a new, collectivist authoritarianism from Labour.

A Labour government committed to dealing with the severe crises in the health, education and housing sectors can bring positive benefits. Substantial state intervention is needed to regulate markets, especially in the area of finance. But such a programme needs to be tempered by heavy measures of pragmatism, pluralism, cautious experimentation and ideological humility that are alien to the current leadership.

They show no sign that they have abandoned their old, statist socialism. There is no recognition that markets and substantial private enterprise are necessary to sustain autonomy and decentralisation. As has become apparent in Corbyn’s favourite socialist experiment in Venezuela, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Conclusion – More French lessons

However outdated, it is difficult to dislodge the core principles upon which any party is founded. France provides an important illustration. Michel Rocard was a leading member of the French Socialist Party and a prime minister under François Mitterand. He long argued that French socialists

Emmanuel Macron

had failed to modernise and to accept the enduring importance of private property and markets.

Emmanuel Macron was a protégée of Rocard. Macron gained presidential power after breaking from the fractured Socialist Party and building a powerful centre force. Perhaps there are some lessons for progressives in Britain. It would not be the first time that the French have shown us the way forward.


13 September 2017

Minor edits: 16, 21 September 2017


This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018



Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).

Bestor, Arthur E., Jr (1948) ‘The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 9(3), June, pp. 259-302.

Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).

Cole, George D. H. (1920) Guild Socialism Re-Stated (London: Parsons).

Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).

Harrison, J. F. C. (1969) Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

Owen, Robert (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Landauer, Carl A. (1959) European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements from the Industrial Revolution to Hitler’s Seizure of Power, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Lange, Oskar R. and Taylor, Frederick M. (1938) On the Economic Theory of Socialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Proudhon, Pierre Joseph (1890) What is Property?: An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government, translated from the French edition of 1840 (New York: Humbold).

Russell, Bertrand (1920) The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (London: George Allen and Unwin).

Steele, David Ramsay (1992) From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court).

Toye, Richard (2004) ‘The Smallest Party in History’? New Labour in Historical Perspective’, Labour History Review, 69(1), April, pp. 83-104.

Webb, Sidney J. and Webb, Beatrice (1920) A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain (London: Longmans Green).


Posted in Bertrand Russell, Brexit, Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Markets, Nationalization, Private enterprise, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Tony Blair, Venezuela

May 21st, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946


Geoffrey M. Hodgson


Although the two biggest UK political parties are very different in important respects, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives under Theresa May have each converged on different forms of pro-Brexit, economic nationalism.

Economic nationalism prioritises national and statist solutions to economic problems. Although it does not shun them completely, it places less stress on global markets, international cooperation and the international mobility of capital or labour. It believes that the solutions to major economic, political and social problems lie within the competence of the national state.

Other countries have turned in the same direction, including the United States under Donald Trump and Russia under Vladimir Putin. Previously, both Soviet-style and fascist economies have embraced economic nationalism. China has continued along this road, even after its acceptance of private enterprise and a market economy.

Economic nationalism has been used successfully as a tool of economic development, by creating a state apparatus to build an institutional infrastructure and mobilise resources. But it brings severe dangers as well as some advantages. Its reliance on nationalist rhetoric can feed intolerance, racism and extremism.

Furthermore, as it concentrates economic and political power in the hands of the state, economic nationalism undermines vital checks and balances in the politico-economic architecture.

As numerous social scientists (from Barrington Moore to Douglass North) have shown, democracy and human rights cannot be safeguarded without a separation of powers, backed by powerful countervailing politico-economic forces that keep the state in check.

From Thatcherism to Mayhem: Tory economic nationalism

Margaret Thatcher

In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher changed the Tory party from a paternalist party of the elite to a more radical, free-market and individualist force, embracing the ideologies of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

A logical consequence of this market fundamentalism was to embrace the European Single Market, which her successor John Major did in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. But this was too much for the Tory nationalists, who were already turning against the European Union and all its works.

The tension grew within the Tories between those that pursued international markets in the name of market fundamentalism, and those who worried that global trade and the free movement of labour were undermining the powers of the British nation state.

A compromise option – widely touted during the June 2016 EU referendum – was to exit the EU but remain in the single market. But a major implication of this was that the free movement of labour to and from the EU would have to be retained. May became prime minister and declared that Britain would leave the single market as well as the EU.

This marks a major ideological shift within the Conservative Party. The pursuit of free markets, promoted so zealously by Thatcher, has moved down the Tory agenda, in favour of nationalism, increased state control, reduced parliamentary scrutiny, and lower immigration, whatever the economic costs.

Forward together: the new-old Toryism

This shift is signalled by a remarkable passage in the 2017 Conservative general election manifesto:

“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism.”

This could be interpreted as a cynical attempt to attract some Labour voters. Probably, in part, it is. But there is much more to it than that. It shows how all the whingeing about “neoliberalism” is now outdated and much off the mark.

Crucially, the Tory Party was traditionally opposed to “untrammelled free markets” and it worried about the destructive and corrosive effects of individualism and greed.

As Karl Polanyi pointed out in his classic book on The Great Transformation, the first fighters for factory and employment legislation, to protect workers from the results of reckless industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s, were from the ranks of the church and the Tory Party:

“The Ten Hours Bill of 1847, which Karl Marx hailed as the first victory of socialism, was the work of enlightened reactionaries.”1

Benjamin Disraeli

Tories like Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, were great nineteenth-century social reformers. The Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli railed against selfish individualism, particularly in his novels. For Disraeli, British imperialism was more important than unalloyed individualism.

May has brought the Tory party back to its pre-Thatcher roots. But, less enlightened than Shaftesbury or Disraeli, she has little appetite for protective legislation or constitutional reform. Instead, she celebrates her own powers of leadership and seeks a mandate to concentrate power in her hands.

She has little enthusiasm for democracy either. If it were not for the heroic efforts of Gina Miller and the decision of the Supreme Court, the triggering of Article 50 – to start the process of leaving the European Union – would have been taken by the executive without a parliamentary vote.

May and her ministers propose in the Great Repeal Bill to further circumvent parliamentary scrutiny over the details of legislation that must replace adopted elements of EU law.

The 2017 Tory manifesto is a maypole for nationalism. “Britain” is one of its most-used words. It says that immigration will be brought down, while existing powers by the British state to read emails and monitor your activity on the web will be increased. She will create an Internet that is controlled by the state. May is developing the infrastructure of an authoritarian nationalist regime.

Bringing the state back in: Labour’s new-old economic nationalism

At least on the surface, there are dramatic differences with Labour’s manifesto, which, for example, contains more measures targeted at the poor and elderly. Labour also gives much more verbal emphasis to human rights and democracy.

But at the core of Labour’s 2017 manifesto is a strong dose of economic nationalism, with Labour’s greatest commitment to public ownership since the “suicide note” manifesto of 1983. There are plans to bring the railways, energy, water and the Royal Mail all back into public ownership.

The 2017 manifesto declares: “Many basic goods and services have been taken out of democratic control through privatization.” But there is little explanation of what “democratic control” would mean under public ownership.

How would it work? Would parliament take decisions on everything? In reality these proposals – whatever their other merits – would enlarge state bureaucracy: there is no explanation how they would extend democracy.

The words “control” or “controls” appear 32 times in the 2017 manifesto. There is insignificant explanation of how “controls” work. The Labour manifesto envisions a concentration of economic power in the hands of the state, notwithstanding its verbal commitment to regional and local, as well as national, public management.

While there are commendable measures to enhance and enlarge an autonomous sector of worker-owned enterprises, there is little recognition of the importance of having a viable and dynamic private sector as well.

Corbyn’s Labour: forward to the past

As May has brought the Tories back to the pre-Thatcher years, Corbyn has brought Labour back to its traditional roots, before the leadership of Tony Blair.

With his 1995 changes to Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution, Blair brought in an explicit commitment to a dynamic private sector. Labour stood for an economy where “the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation”. Corbyn has returned to the spirit of Labour pre-1995 constitution, even if he has not yet changed the wording.

Corbyn has proposed that Britain can be “better off” outside the EU. He argued that EU rules block the kind of state-heavy industrial policy that he favours. But EU countries such as France and Germany already have strong interventionist policies for industrial and infrastructural development. In truth, Corbyn favours repeated doses of statist socialism in one country.

With some Stalinist exceptions in his coterie, Corbyn and his followers are mostly sincere in their commitment to democracy and human rights. But what they do not understand is that their proposed statist concentration of economic power will undermine countervailing politico-economic forces that can help to keep the state leviathan in check.

Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez

These countervailing and separated powers are vital. Especially in times of hardship or crisis, there will be a temptation by some in power (at the local or national level) to abuse rights and undermine democracy. Every single historical case shows this result.

It has been illustrated clearly by the failed socialist experiments of the twentieth century. Today, in Venezuela, the failure of such socialist ventures is being played out before our eyes.

Attempts “to take control of the economy”, even with measures of decentralization and local power, have led to restrictions on press freedom, arbitrary detentions, abuses of human rights, and even famine.

Forward together: economic nationalists take the helm

Further doses of economic nationalism may be possible in a country as large as the United States. In 2015, exports from the USA amount to about 13 per cent of GDP. Hence economic nationalists in the USA can reduce trade without too much contraction of the economy. It may turn further inwards, cut imports and still survive a loss of exports.

But the UK has become a globally-orientated, open economy, exporting 28 per cent of its GDP in 2015. About 45 per cent of these exports go to the European Union.

By exiting the EU Single Market, and by walking away from EU trade deals with non-EU countries that benefit EU member states, Labour and the Tories would threaten the UK economy with a massive downturn. The British economy would fall off a cliff.

In this crisis, rightist economic nationalists will blame foreigners and immigrants, and leftist economic nationalists will blame the rich.

It will be “the few” – designated by their ethnicity or by their assets – who will get the blame. Their rights will be under threat, as so will the liberties of all of us. Whatever variety is chosen, economic nationalism could severely undermine the viability of democracy in the UK.


21 May 2017

Minor edits – 23, 28 May, 29 June

This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018




1. Polanyi was right about this and about several other things, but in other respects his analysis was flawed.



Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

Moore, Barrington, Jr (1966) Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (London: Allen Lane).

North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph and Weingast, Barry R. (2009) Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press).

Polanyi, Karl (1944) The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York: Rinehart). See esp. pp. 165-66.


Posted in Brexit, Common ownership, Democracy, Donald Trump, Immigration, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Markets, Nationalization, Politics, Populism, Private enterprise, Property, Right politics, Tony Blair, Tony Blair, Uncategorized, Venezuela

May 8th, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946



Geoffrey M. Hodgson


This is in part a personal memoir – concerning my role in a minor episode in political history. More importantly, it has lessons concerning Labour’s ideological inertia – the difficulty of modernising the party and bringing it from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century.

Socialism and Labour’s Clause Four

Both Robert Owen and Karl Marx defined socialism as “the abolition of private property”. This kind of collectivist thinking was encapsulated in Clause Four, Part Four of the Labour Party Constitution when it was adopted in 1918:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

This provided for no exception: all production would be in common ownership and there would be no private sector. Although some Labour Party thinkers began to entertain the possibility of some private enterprise, many party members remained resolutely in support of widespread common ownership.

Clement Attlee

In 1937, eight years before he became Prime Minister, Clement Attlee approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell: “Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government. … It involves the abolition of all unearned wealth and of all private control over the means of livelihood of the workers.”

After 1945, the position of many leading Labour Party members began to shift. First the realities of gaining and holding on to power – as a majority party for the first time – dramatized the political and practical unfeasibility of abolishing all private enterprise. Some nationalization was achieved, but a large private sector remained.

In 1956 C. Anthony Crosland published The Future of Socialism. This sought a reconciliation with markets, private enterprise and a mixed economy. In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic Party abandoned the goal of widespread common ownership. In the same year, Hugh Gaitskell tried to get the British Labour Party to follow this lead, but met stiff resistance. Clause Four remained intact.

Richard Toye noted that the Labour Party assumed widespread public ownership and failed to develop adequate policies concerning the private sector:

“Labour, until at least the 1950s, showed little interest in developing policies for the private sector. During the 1960s, the party demonstrated continuing ambiguity about whether or not competition was a good thing. This ambiguity continued at least until the 1980s.”

The Thatcher Revolution

There were Labour governments from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1979. But then Margaret Thatcher came to power.

After this defeat, Labour’s instinct was to turn to the left, in the belief that it could have held onto power if it had held to classical socialist principles. Michael Foot was elected as leader, and Dennis Healey narrowly defeated Tony Benn for the position of deputy leader.

Neil Kinnock

Despite a severe recession with millions unemployed, following the implementation of monetarist austerity policies, Labour suffered a massive defeat in the 1983 general election. Labour’s share of the vote fell below 28 per cent – the party’s lowest figure since 1918. Michael Foot resigned as leader and Neil Kinnock took his place.

Thatcher had boosted her popularity due the Falklands War. One of Thatcher’s most popular domestic policies was to promote the sale of council-owned housing to the tenants. Labour had opposed this policy. The 1983 defeat prompted a rethink, on this and other issues.

Tony Benn

For some of us, this rethink amounted to more than expedient doctrinal trimming. Encouraging home ownership was really a good idea: why should all property be owned by the rich? But while supporting home ownership, we argued that the government should also build more social housing and enlarge the stock available for rent by low-income families.

But these ideas met stiff resistance in the Labour Party ranks, and not simply from Trotskyist entryists such as Militant. The resistance from Tony Benn and his supporters was substantial and even more enduring. It was clear that old-fashioned socialist ideas still had a tenacious appeal for Labour’s membership.

The Labour Coordinating Committee

The Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC) became one of the primary modernising forces within Labour. Its leadership included Hilary Benn, Cherie Blair, Mike Gapes, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and others of enduring fame. I was elected to its executive committee. We worked closely with Kinnock and members of his shadow cabinet, including Robin Cook.

I had written a book entitled The Democratic Economy where I argued that socialists should support a permanent private sector in the economy. The book was published by Penguin in 1984. Another influential work at the time was Alec Nove’s Economics of Feasible Socialism, which also argued for a substantial role for markets.

On 26 November 1983, at the Labour Coordinating Committee AGM in Birmingham, I proposed that Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution should be rewritten to include an acceptance of a private sector and a role for markets. But I was defeated over the idea that Clause Four should be rewritten. This was out of fear of antagonising the Benn wing. Instead, the LCC resolved that Clause Four should be “clarified”.

But a resolution on long-term aims, which I had helped to draft, was passed by a large majority. The resolution called for the Labour Party to draft a new statement of aims, upholding “that socialism involves extended democracy and real equality. Democracy under socialism is extended to industry and the community … and must involve a substantial decentralisation of power.”

Equality meant the “absence of discrimination on the basis of gender and race, universal freedom from poverty, and a widespread distribution of wealth and power, as well as formal equality under the law and universal suffrage.”

There was a commitment to “political pluralism” and to “economic pluralism” involving “a variety of forms of common ownership … and the toleration of a small private sector including self-employed workers and other private firms.” The economy must be dominated by mechanisms of “democratic planning … but also accommodating a market mechanism in some areas.”

There was also a “commitment to internationalism, disarmament and peace” and “a disengagement from the power blocs” of the West and East.

I think that today Jeremy Corbyn and his followers would accept much or all of this, at least as a temporary stopping-point on the road to full socialism. But in the 1980s there was strong hostility to these revisionist ideas from within Labour’s ranks at the time, including from Corbyn and Tony Benn.

Since then my own views have adjusted. See my Wrong Turnings book. But this blog is not primarily about me. It is about what has happened to the Labour Party and how difficult it is to change its DNA.

For a while, the LCC tried to keep the conversation going on the need to revise Labour’s aims. The Guardian newspaper reported the LCC conference with the headline: “Labour breaks taboo on ownership”.

The LCC held a conference in Liverpool in June 1984 on “The Socialist Vision”. But enthusiasm for this discussion fizzled out. Many leaders of the LCC wanted a political career, and they wished to widen their support on constituency selection committees.

By 1985 the LCC’s revisionist initiative had been kicked into the long grass. My efforts to change Clause Four had failed.

From Kinnock to Blair

But to their credit, Neil Kinnock and his deputy Roy Hattersley saw the need for Labour to modernise its aims. I advised them both for a while. Another election defeat in 1987 spurred a rethink. But by then I had become inactive in the Labour Party.

As Richard Toye has recorded, in 1988 Kinnock and Hattersley presented a new document on “Aims and Values” to Labour’s National Executive Committee. But “it was criticised by John Smith, Bryan Gould and Robin Cook as being too enthusiastic about the benefits of the market, and was watered down accordingly”.

Tony Blair

Clearly, even after a third election defeat there was still strong resistance, from both the “soft” and the “hard left”, to the idea of embracing markets and private property.

After the next election defeat in 1992, Kinnock stood down. He was replaced by John Smith, who died tragically from a heart attack. Then Tony Blair became leader, with a firm resolve to modernize the party. Four election defeats had made the majority of members more receptive to his ideas.

Blair’s Revision of Clause Four

In 1995, after 77 years, Clause Four was changed. Tony Blair successfully ended the Labour Party’s longstanding constitutional commitment to far-reaching common ownership. Tony Benn protested: “Labour’s heart is being cut out”. The new wording of “Clause IV: Aims and Values” began as follows:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

The 1918 formulation did not use the word socialism – it had common ownership instead. Ironically, Blair introduced the term in 1995. But he attempted to change its meaning. He promoted “social-ism”, which now meant recognizing individuals as socially interdependent. It also signalled social justice, cohesion and equality of opportunity.

The new Clause Four continued, to make a significant statement in support of competiive markets and a private sector. Labour now stood for:

“A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services …”

The text went on to cover “a just society”, “an open democracy”, “a healthy environment” and “defence and security”.

John A Hobson

Labour’s new aims and values were indistinguishable from the earlier views of radical social liberals, such as T. H. Green, J. A. Hobson and David Lloyd George. And with its endorsement of “the rigour of competition” and “a thriving private sector” it was a hundred miles away from the collectivism of Robert Owen and other original socialists.

Instead of tackling the problem of its old collectivist DNA more directly, Blair tried to change the meaning of socialism and even rewrote parts of its own history. It is unsurprising that the old socialist DNA survived. It remained viable, partly because Labour still declared itself as socialist. Blair made radical changes but also gave succour to the traditional socialist wing of the party.

Blair’s popularity within the party had waned even before his decision in 2003 to support George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Much of this disenchantment was due to his abandonment of wholesale common ownership.

Blair had failed to develop a fully-fledged alternative vision within Labour to replace old-fashioned common ownership. He had made Labour implicitly embrace liberalism in doctrine. But this was unspoken, and masked by the explicit insertion of socialism in its aims. This inadvertently played into the hands of the party’s enduring, backward-looking left.

Labour’s Love Lost

Just as Labour had shifted to the left after losing power in 1979, after its 2010 defeat it shifted slightly leftwards under Ed Miliband. But the new leader had no clear alternative to the economics of austerity. So after another defeat in 2015. the party membership took a massive lunge to the left. It elected the Bennite, retro-Marxist, perennial protestor, Jeremy Corbyn.

But while old ideas within Labour had survived, the structure of the party and its electoral base had changed enormously in the period from 1983 to 2015. Kinnock had relied on the moderating force of the trade unions, to fight the hard left and move the party toward electability. But by 2015 the unions had been gravely weakened and several had moved toward the hard left.

In 1983, both the affiliated unions and the Labour MPs had a major role in the election of any new Labour leader. But by 2015 the power was almost entirely in the hands of the Labour Party membership, and the other moderating forces were much diminished.

Labour’s history shows how difficult it has been to change Labour’s old-fashioned socialist DNA. Those that put their faith in a revival of moderation within must take into account the near-collapse of those internal forces that brought the party back to sanity in 1951-1964 and in 1979-1997.

In 1983 there was still a strong, traditional, tribal, Labour vote, part of it based on surviving industries such as coal and steel. By 2015 the working class was much more fragmented, with skilled, aspirational cohorts at one extreme, and uneducated, demoralized, welfare dependents at the other.

The old tribalism was challenged by UKIP and by a revived working class Conservatism, playing the nationalist card. Labour’s potential electoral base has been transformed beyond recognition. The division of labour has become profoundly political, as well as enduringly economic.

Today, there seems little hope for a party that calls itself “Labour”, just as there is no future for a party that retains the word “socialism” or the goal of widespread public ownership. The socialist experiments of the twentieth century testify to their failure. Labour, in short, is an anachronism.


8 May 2017

This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018


Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).

Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).

Clarke, Peter (1978) Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1984) The Democratic Economy: A New Look at Planning, Markets and Power (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

Nove, Alexander (1983) The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: George Allen and Unwin).

Toye, Richard (2004) ‘The Smallest Party in History’? New Labour in Historical Perspective’, Labour History Review, 69(1), April, pp. 83-104.


Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Markets, Nationalization, Politics, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Tony Blair

April 17th, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946



Geoffrey M. Hodgson


“Bliss was that dawn to be alive.” With Labour’s landslide victory under Tony Blair, the general election of 1st May 1997 ended eighteen years of Tory rule.

The new government set out to implement a series of major reforms, including establishing devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, setting a statutory minimum wage, and injecting much-needed money into the education system and the NHS.

After winning two further elections with large majorities – in 2001 and 2005 – Labour’s period of office came to an end on 5th May 2010, when the Conservatives became the biggest party in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats made the mistake of entering into a coalition with the Tories, and paid the price when they lost most of their MPs in 2015.

So began a period of Tory rule that now seems that it could last for decades. But the Tories rule with the support of less than 50 per cent of the voters. If Blair had implemented electoral reform, then what might have happened instead?

Ending “division among the radicals”

Until the day of polling in May 1997, when the scale of his majority became clear, Tony Blair had considered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the election, He had negotiated with Paddy Ashdown (the leader of the Liberal Democrats) with that possibility in mind. But once Blair’s overwhelming victory was apparent, a coalition with the Liberal Democrats seemed unnecessary.

But Blair still wanted to cooperate with the Liberal Democrats on several issues, including on electoral reform. He insisted that the two parties were natural allies, and they should not have gone their separate ways a hundred years earlier. In his first speech to a Labour conference after his landslide election victory, Blair declared:

“my heroes aren’t just Ernie Bevin, Nye Bevan and Attlee. They are also Keynes, Beveridge, Lloyd George. Division among radicals almost one hundred years ago resulted in a 20th century dominated by Conservatives. I want the 21st century to be the century of the radicals.”

By “division among the radicals” Blair referred to the 1900 decision to set up a party in parliament independent of the Liberals. Blair wished to reverse that mistake and install an enduring radical majority.

Labour’s 1997 promise of electoral reform

Blair wanted Labour and the Liberal Democrats to work together for progressive change, and, if possible, to exclude permanently the Tories from government, at least until they were forced to modernise and to abandon their reactionary, inward-looking nationalism.

A key part of this strategy was electoral reform. Tony Blair entered Downing Street in 1997 having promised in Labour’s manifesto to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons. Labour’s 1997 Manifesto declared:

“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.”

After the election, Blair continued his secret talks with Ashdown on co-operation between their two parties, including on the issue of electoral reform.

But what voting system should be chosen?

One problem was that the two parties found it difficult to agree on what “a proportional alternative” might mean. But a possible compromise emerged with a top-up system called “AV+”.

AV+ would keep single-member constituencies but elect constituency representatives under the alternative vote (AV) system, where candidates are ranked numerically in order of preference, rather than marking the first preference only with a single cross. Under AV, candidates with the lowest number of first preferences are progressively eliminated, redistributing their other preferences to the remaining candidates, until one candidate gets more than half of the votes.

In addition, under AV+, each voter would get a second vote to elect a regional-level representative from a list of candidates for each party. An additional group of MPs would be elected via this route. This “top up” would ensure greater proportionality in Parliament.

Some people dislike AV+ because it creates two types of MP, with not all of them being responsible for a manageable constituency. In addition, AV+ does not satisfy purists who want a more proportional system.

Division of Labour

But the biggest problem with Blair’s strategy for long-term reform was Labour itself.

While leading figures in his Cabinet such as Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, Clare Short and Peter Mandelson supported electoral reform, Blair faced the implacable opposition of Chancellor Gordon Brown, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State John Prescott, Home Secretary Jack Straw, numerous trade union leaders and an energetic campaign against proportional representation from Labour’s ranks.

Reasons for this opposition to electoral reform within Labour were numerous. But perhaps the most enduring argument was that Labour saw itself as a party committed to radical change in favour of working people, which was bound to meet fierce opposition from rich vested interests and the reactionary press.

I can speak with a little authority here, because this was once my own major objection to proportional representation (PR). As loyal and active Labour party members, Peter Hain and I published a booklet in 1982 entitled Proportional Misrepresentation?

We argued that PR would favour parties of the centre, against parties like Labour who represented working people and were committed to radical change. The advantage of the existing system was that Labour could gain power and show piecemeal and in practice how socialist measures could work.

Although we were against PR, Peter and I argued for a change to the alternative vote (AV), without a top-up element. A few years’ later, Peter suggested that we develop our pamphlet into a book.

Thatcher in power

But this was after six years of Margaret Thatcher in power. Her Tory Party had won an overall majorities in 1979 and 1983, in both cases with less than 44 per cent of the vote. After 1983 I came to the view that Labour could not win the next election and the Tories could be power for about 15 years.1

Just as the existing electoral system might be used by a left party for radical reform, it was being used by a newly-radicalised Tory party to divide the country, to undermine the welfare state and to attack the rights of working people.

I had developed serious doubts about our 1982 arguments. So I declined Peter’s kind offer and he published the book in 1986 under his own name, fully acknowledging our previous joint arguments.

Others developed concerns similar to mine, especially as the years passed and the Tories remained in power with minority support. All this gave the impetus for Blair and others to push for PR in Labour’s 1997 manifesto.

But elements of Labour’s class-based tribalism remained strong, as did commitment to an ever-vague promise of something called “socialism” that only a majority Labour government could deliver. Hence Labour internally remained deeply divided on this issue, as it does to this day.

The Jenkins Commission

In December 1997, in line with the manifesto commitment, Blair set up a parliamentary commission under Lord Roy Jenkins, the former Labour minister and then Liberal Democrat peer. The Jenkins Commission would recommend which particular proportional system should be put before voters in a referendum.

The Jenkins Commission reported in September 1998 and suggested the alternative vote top-up (AV+) system. Blair immediately faced intense opposition, from within his own Cabinet, from a large number of Labour MPs, from a large section of the Labour Party in the country, and from several trade unions.

In 1997 Labour came to power with 43 per cent of the vote but won 63 per cent of the parliamentary seats. Any significant move toward greater proportionality would have deprived one hundred or more Labour MPs of their seats. Over one hundred turkeys would have to have voted for Christmas. The political barriers to this reform seemed unsurmountable. The recommendations of the Jenkins Commission were kicked into the long grass.

Several other attempts were taken to revive the project of electoral reform under the 1997-2010 Labour Government. Labour promised a review of the voting system in its 2001 manifesto. In 2003, talks were held between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on electoral reform.

But by 2010, under the new premiership of Gordon Brown, Labour retreated from its earlier promise of moving toward proportionality. Instead, Brown promised a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) without any top-up element. The Jenkins Commission had previously taken the view that such a minor change would not merit a referendum.

In fact, a referendum on AV was held in 2011, under the coalition government. The proposal was defeated by a large majority. This demonstrated the problem of convincing the public of the merit if a more complex system, which cannot be explained easily in one or two sentences. I raise this issue later below.

An alternative future

First we consider what might have happened if the more-proportional system of AV+ had been introduced sometime between 1997 and 2010.

In the 2010 election Tories got 36 per cent of the vote, Labour got 29 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 23 per cent. Under the existing voting system they got 306 seats, 258 seats, and 57 seats respectively. Under a more proportional system they would have got something like 255 seats, 204 seats and 162 seats respectively

Under the existing electoral system, a 2010 coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have had 315 seats, which is well short of an overall majority in a parliament of 650 seats. It would have been a minority coalition government, or other parties would have had to been involved. This was a significant obstacle, which played a part in scuppering any 2010 deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

But if a more proportional system had been in place in 2010, then a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have had something like 366 seats, which would have been a clear overall majority. The Tories could have been kept out of power.

Furthermore, Labour would have been obliged to cooperate with a centrist party, giving weight and prestige to its more moderate wing. Sure enough, there would have been protest on the left, led by a Jeremy Corbyn or a John McDonnell, but they would have probably been kept away from Labour’s levers of power.

As the years followed, all sorts of alternative scenarios might have then unfolded. But a referendum on Brexit would have been unlikely, or it would have taken place under conditions more favourable to the Remain campaign.

In short, if the electoral system had been changed in this way before 2010, then we would not be in this mess that we are now. We could still be on the road to a progressive future, rather than fighting a desperate battle against intolerant bigots and nationalists, who would drive the UK economy off a cliff to satisfy an anti-immigration sentiment fed by years of economic failure.

Winning the battle for electoral reform

Electoral reform is highly unlikely under a Tory government and hence the first objective must be to remove the Conservatives from power. This will require a progressive alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens, which at present does not seem feasible. Also the Tories might remain in power for some time.

But a tiny consolation of this dismal entrapment is the time it gives us to debate the best system, which would offer something closer to proportionality, and would have a chance of convincing the electorate.

Some kind of top-up system based on 400-500 single-member constituencies, topped up with a further 100-200 MPs elected from party lists, seems the best way forward. It is a possible compromise that the parties involved can accept, and it is understandable by the public.

But I have now come to the view that the use of AV to elect the MPs for the single-member constituencies is both intrinsically flawed and difficult to explain to the electorate. A better and easier-to-explain alternative exists.

There were several reasons why the AV referendum was lost in 2011, including the fact that many prominent figures in the Labour Party openly opposed it. Another was the complexity of AV itself. As Tom Clark wrote in the Guardian:

“Leaflets from the electoral commission, which were designed to explain what the reform would mean to every household with meticulous neutrality, ended up making AV look horrendously complex. The blurb summed up first-past-the-post in just three sentences, while describing AV with an excessively complex example election, which required three diagrams and text that spilled over four pages.”

A further problem is that AV itself, even if it can be explained to the public, has serious intrinsic flaws.

Why AV is flawed

The alternative vote (AV) is widely criticised by experts on voting systems. We are concerned with systems designed to elect one person, from a list of candidates, to a single position or seat.

Consider an example of a mayoral election with three candidates Ms Left, Ms Centre and Ms Right. Both Ms Left and Ms Right are pretty extreme, and the electorate is polarised. An AV systems is employed and the candidates get the following first-preference votes: Left 33 per cent, Centre 31 per cent and Right 36 per cent. Under the AV system Ms Centre would be eliminated and her second preferences would be allocated to Left or Right. One of the more extreme candidates would win, in a run-off between Left and Right.

Nicolas de Condorcet

But imagine a local newspaper had run an extensive poll which showed that if there had been a run-off between Centre and Right, then Centre would have won. And if there had been a run-off between Centre and Left, then Centre again would have won. In other words, a majority in all cases preferred Ms Centre to any of the extremes.

Technically this is known as a Condorcet winner – a person who would win all two-candidate elections against each of the other candidates in turn.2 A serious problem with AV is that it can often eliminate a Condorcet winner. More generally, a major problem with AV is that it can often militate against strong and popular compromise candidates.

Why Approval Voting is better than AV

Many voting experts argue that Approval Voting is superior to AV.3 With Approval Voting there is no ranking of candidates. The electorate is simply asked to vote for those candidates of which they approve.

If there were (say) four candidates for a parliamentary seat, then the electors may vote (with crosses rather than numbers) for zero, one, two, three or four of the candidates. The votes for each candidate are added up, and the candidate with the highest number of votes is elected. Simple.

Of course, an elector voting for none or four of the candidates in this case would have no effect on the result, except he or she would be helping to give an overall indication of the overall level of approval (or lack of it) for each candidate.

As well as its technical superiority, a huge advantage of approval voting is that it is much easier to explain and to understand.

My proposal is for an approval voting system for single-member constituencies, plus a party-list top-up in regional units, to move closer to proportionality. I propose Approval+.

Alternatively, there are near-proportional versions of Approval Voting that apply to multi-member constituencies, hence removing the need for a top-up list. But these add some additional complexity.

High stakes

Rising above the technical details, a lot is at stake here. If a more proportional system had been introduced in 1997-2010 then we could have avoided the disastrous prospect of decades of Tory rule, elected each time on 40 per cent or less of the vote.

When asked, the UK public support a more proportional system. A 2015 poll showed that 57 per cent of the public agreed with the principle that “the number of seats a party gets should broadly reflect its proportion of the total votes cast” – compared to only 9 per cent who disagreed.

We need to think about the best and most persuasive system of electoral reform, and set about the task of building a progressive alliance to implement it.


17 April 2017

Minor edits – 18 April, 1, 13, 14 May, 6 June, 14 July, 12 August, 3 September 2017


1. I turned out to be too optimistic: the Tories were in power for 18 years. Using a statistical analysis, I developed my sceptical 1980s view of Labour’s chances while I was on the ruling council of the Labour Coordinating Committee. My assessment was unpopular among budding, ambitious Labour politicians.

2. Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) was a French revolutionary, mathematician, advocate of female suffrage and friend of Thomas Paine.

3. This is a very useful but long video. To cut straight to Approval Voting, the first 36 minutes may be skipped.


Hain, Peter and Hodgson, Geoff (1982) Proportional Misrepresentation? (London and Nottingham: Tribune and Institute for Workers Control).

Hain, Peter (1986) Proportional Misrepresentation: The Case against PR in Britain (Guildford: Wildwood House).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2018) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).


Posted in Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Tony Blair, Tony Blair, Uncategorized

January 5th, 2017 by geoffhodgson1946


“Worth reading to show how Liberals have played their part in the development of much of Labour’s social and economic policies over the years” John Rogan


Geoffrey M. Hodgson



Labour did not win a majority in the 2017 general election. A future majority Labour government seems less likely than a progressive alliance of Labour with other parties.

But as Neal Lawson put it: “Labour’s tribalists, including its leader it seems, simply cannot stand the idea of working with others.” Furthermore, Britain’s unfair electoral system means that, even with 20 per cent of the vote in the new constituency boundaries, Labour could retain about 150 MPs, while the Liberal Democrats would be likely to get less than 50 MPs with the same share of the overall vote.

Labour’s tribalism and self-interest could transform it into a rump party of purists in permanent opposition, rather than as a serious engine of political power that can tackle the pressing problems of poverty, inequality, poor education, declining health services and global warming.

Labour has depended on Liberalism

My purpose here is to argue that such insularity is historically ungrounded. Furthermore, while Liberals too have their sins – from support of the First Word War to endorsement of Tory austerity in 2010-2015 – the very vitality and survival of the Labour Party has been largely due to Liberals and liberalism. Strange but true.

“Nonsense,” you might say: “Labour was built on the trade unions and the organised working class.” True. But what made strong trade unionism possible?

William Ewart Gladstone

Trade unions were made legal in the UK for the first time in 1871, under the Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstone also introduced the Representation of the People Act 1884, which extended the right to vote from roughly 28 per cent (in 1867) to about 60 per cent of adult males.

Liberals also introduced the Education Act of 1870, which established schooling for all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales. (It was already instituted in Scotland.) This widened literacy and political awareness.

Liberalism in the nineteenth century made possible the widespread development of trade unionism and the election of working class members of parliament. Many of these reforms were prompted by the expansion of the industrial working class and fears of riot or revolution. The Lib-Lab dialectic has run both ways.

Gladstone was an individualistic Liberal, advocating low taxes and a minimal state. But from the origins of liberalism in the Enlightenment, there have co-existed welfarist, cooperative and redistributive strains within liberalism.

Thomas Paine

These include the proposals by Tom Paine (1737-1809) for welfare provision and redistributive wealth taxes. John Stuart Mill (1806-1883) supported taxes on unearned income, inheritance taxes, trade unions, worker cooperatives, participatory democracy, votes for women as well as men, and care for the natural environment. Thomas Henry Green (1836-1882) argued that the state should protect the social, political and economic environments in which individuals could freely develop. Liberalism has always fostered notions of social obligation beyond narrow self-interest.

As the male franchise was widened, Liberals recruited working-class candidates, including those financially maintained by trade unions. The first Lib-Lab candidate stood in the Southwark by-election of 1870. The Lib-Labs represented working class interests but remained within the Liberal Party.

But as socialist ideas became more widespread, some working-class leaders began to move away from the Liberals. The Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893 and it put up its own candidates in the 1895 general election. The ILP was involved in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which was renamed the Labour Party in 1906. This was the great schism between Labour and Liberalism.

Liberalism, solidarity and welfare

Gladstone’s resignation in 1894 was partly prompted by his opposition to the proposal by his Liberal chancellor Sir William Harcourt to introduce death duties – a substantial tax on property. These events dramatized the tension between individualist and redistributive-welfarist strands within liberalism. Even after Gladstone’s departure, the Liberal Party remained internally divided on these issues, and it suffered a cataclysmic defeat in the 1895 general election.

Liberals were also divided on the question of Irish home rule, imperialism and war. A faction of “Liberal Unionists” broke away to form their own party in 1886: they entered a coalition with the Tories in 1900 and later fused with them.

But this period also saw the rise of a “new” or “modern” liberalism in both Britain and the United States. It stressed the importance of economic equality, a welfare state and judicious state intervention in a market economy. A key British intellectual involved in this revival was John Atkinson Hobson (1858-1940).

John A Hobson

Frustrated by the Liberal Party divisions of the 1880s and 1890s, Hobson had been in favour of the formation of a new party, but by 1901 he was calling for an alliance between labour representatives such as Keir Hardie and “progressive” Liberals. But Hardie eventually came to the conclusion that his Independent Labour Party had “nothing in common” with the Liberals.

A revived Liberal Party won a huge election victory in 1906, and Hobson returned to working within its ranks. After the 1910 general election the Liberal Party did not have a majority and formed a coalition with 42 Labour Party MPs who had been elected. The Liberal Henry Campbell-Bannerman was Prime Minister until 1908, followed by Herbert Asquith, who was in power until 1916.

Aware of the need to retain and extend support among the working class, the 1906-1914 Liberal-led governments executed a series of major reforms and laid the foundations of the British welfare state. These reforms included the introduction of a state pension, compulsory health insurance, unemployment and sickness pay, an extension of free secondary education, and a reform of the House of Lords. As Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1908 to 1915, David Lloyd George was a key figure in the introduction of many of these reforms.

Liberal decline and Labour gain

Subsequently, the Liberal Party suffered a rapid decline. In his classic diagnosis, George Dangerfield put this down to the crises over Ireland, where the Liberals were unable to prevent violence and revolt, to the rise of the labour movement and industrial militancy, and to votes for women, over which the Liberal Party fatally hesitated. During the war, the Liberal government antagonised progressive support by introducing illiberal measures including conscription and restrictions on freedom of speech.

David Lloyd George

The Liberal Party split again in 1916, when a wing led by Lloyd George entered a coalition with the Conservatives. The presence of the new and vigorous Labour Party on the Left gave a new home to disenchanted Liberals. Hobson quit the Liberal party in 1916, later to dally with Labour. But he always advocated a mixed economy and insisted on the virtues of market competition and extensive private ownership.

The much-diminished Liberal group in Parliament propped up the minority Labour governments in 1924 and 1929.

The Liberal share of the vote slumped, falling as low as 10 per cent in 1931. In the interwar period, liberalism was ground down by the rising, opposed totalitarianisms of Communism and fascism. It had to wait to the 1970s to begin a long, slow and punctuated revival.

The Labour Party was built on the twin pillars of socialist ideology and strong trade unionism. It rose from 21 per cent of the vote in 1918 to 48 per cent of the vote in 1945.

But these pillars are inadequate. Trade unionism is important for the defence of worker’s rights and as a counterbalance to powerful corporate interests. But trade unionism does not a government build. It lacks the hegemonic capacity to unite diverse sectional interests in a fractured and class-divided society.

At the outset, Labour’s socialism offered no defence of a private sector or of private property. From 1918 to 1995, Labour’s Clause Four offered common but not private or mixed ownership.

Clement Attlee

In 1937, eight years before he became Prime Minister, Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell: “Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government. … It involves the abolition of all unearned wealth and of all private control over the means of livelihood of the workers.”

It was possible to advance such views at the time, without much loss of popular appeal. The full horrors of Stalin’s Soviet Union were initially unappreciated and then masked by the Soviet alliance with Western powers in the Second World War. The unprecedented famines and other brutalities of Mao Zedong were yet to come.

Liberalism defined Labour in power

After 1945, the position of many leading Labour Party members began to shift. The realities of gaining and holding on to power – as a majority party for the first time – dramatized the political and practical unfeasibility of abolishing all private enterprise. Some nationalization was achieved, but a large private sector remained. Then the outbreak of the Cold War in 1948 impelled everyone to make a choice between capitalism and democracy on the one hand, and state ownership and totalitarianism on the other.

The twin pillars of trade unionism and Clause Four socialism could not, and never will, sustain Labour in power. Labour nationalized several industries, but hardly more than the Liberal Hobson had proposed as early as 1909.

The greatest achievement of the 1945-1951 Labour government was its massive development of the welfare state, upon the foundations laid down by the Liberals in 1906-1914. In this second round, Liberals still played a major role.

Beveridge, Keynes and social democracy

William Beveridge

William Beveridge (1879-1963) was originally close to the Fabians but, against the prevailing current, he moved toward the Liberals, and was briefly a Liberal MP from 1944-1945. His wartime Beveridge Report (1942) became the foundation Labour’s post-1945 welfare state.

Impelled by a strong vision of social justice, Beveridge proposed a system of universal national insurance, conferring benefits to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed. He argued that this system would provide a minimum standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall”. His proposals were developed in conjunction with the plan for a National Health Service, as developed by the Ministry of Health.

John Maynard Keynes

Near-full employment was pivotal to his system of social welfare. He expanded on this in his 1944 book Full Employment in a Free Society. In developing this goal, Beveridge relied explicitly on the policy approach developed by another great Liberal – John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was instrumental in instating full employment a major policy goal. In his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money he provided the theoretical underpinnings of this policy.

Much of the success of the 1945-51 Labour government depended on Liberal ideas. The bland mantra of common ownership provided neither a theoretical rationale nor a practical grounding for detailed policy.

When the Labour government tackled the problems of poverty, inequality and unrealised human potential within actually existing capitalism, they turned to Liberal thinkers such as Hobson, Keynes and Beveridge, who had grappled with the policy issues for years.

Insofar as Labour became a social-democratic rather than a genuinely socialist party, it has done so by borrowing ideas from liberals. (Socialism today is too-often taken to mean almost anything, but it was originally defined by Robert Owen as the abolition of private property.)

Labour after 1951

The graph of Labour’s share of the vote shows a long decline from its peak in 1951 to the disastrous result in 1983. The Labour governments of 1964-1970 and 1974-1979 had seen major reforms under the premiership of Harold Wilson. From 1974 to 1979 there was a pact between the Liberals in Parliament and the Labour Government.

But the Labour pillar of trade unionism begat the strike wave in the so-called 1978-1979 Winter of Discontent, and Labour’s Clause Four mantra still hung around its neck.

These enhanced the conditions for the victory of Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 general election. With an inadequately-developed alternative ideology sustaining a mixed economy, Labour fell back on its founding twin pillars and lurched the Left. The result was the disaster of 1983 and Labour’s lowest share of the vote since 1918.

When Neil Kinnock became Labour leader in 1983 he pulled the party back from the brink. It took a further 14 years for Labour to recover sufficiently to win a general election.

The coalition that never was

Until the day of polling in May 1997, when the scale of his majority became clear, Tony Blair considered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the election, and negotiated with Paddy Ashdown on that possibility. In his first speech to a Labour conference after his landslide election victory, Blair declared:

“my heroes aren’t just Ernie Bevin, Nye Bevan and Attlee. They are also Keynes, Beveridge, Lloyd George. Division among radicals almost one hundred years ago resulted in a 20th century dominated by Conservatives. I want the 21st century to be the century of the radicals.”

Tony Blair

Blair of course referred to the 1900 decision to set up a party in parliament independent of the Liberals, to represent working people. Blair’s election victory was impelled by shift toward liberalism and an explicit rejection of classical socialism. He tackled the twin pillars of trade unionism and common ownership, upon which Labour was founded.

But Blair’s adjustments on these fronts were problematic and limited, and he did not change the party’s soul. His reputation became tarnished by the Iraq invasion of 2003.

The opportunity of another coalition emerged after Labour’s loss of an overall majority in 2010. But instead, the Liberal Democrats turned to the Tories and formed a coalition with them. One reason for this choice was that the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg had abandoned their Keynesian heritage and accepted a strategy of economic austerity. This mistake cost the Liberal Democrats dearly in the 2015 election.

When Labour suffered a second successive defeat in 2015 it moved again to the Left, ending in 2015 and 2016 with the election and re-election of a hard leftist with little experience in government and a preference for slogans over both theoretical argument and practical details.

Around sixty percent of the membership voted for Jeremy Corbyn on these occasions, showing that Labour had retained its 1918 roots. This has created the conditions for a similar return to Labour’s 1918 share of the vote.

Conclusion: history in reverse

The Labour Party was founded in an era of mass industrial trade unionism and increasing ideological support for socialism, as classically defined. Both of these forces have been gravely weakened and are in dramatic decline. Traditional trade unionism has not simply been undermined by the anti-union legislation by Conservative governments. Trade unions face vastly transformed workplaces with a much more fragmented workforce, often engaged in tasks that require detailed experience and specialist skills. To survive, their role must be transformed.

But the unions have been slow to adapt to this new reality and have declined in strength. Where some disruptive power has been retained – such as on some parts of the railway system – they hasten the demise of their jobs and their replacement by robots.

The ideological appeal of classical socialism has been fatally undermined by the practical experiments in Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. These experiments have without exception undermined human rights and have led to an estimated total of 90 million deaths.

Jeremy Corbyn

From 1945 Labour was unable to rely on the twin pillars of trade unionism and socialism but it retained them nevertheless. Corbyn makes them central once again, but his anachronistic strategy is doomed to failure.

Labour’s problems are exacerbated by internal divisions over immigration, Brexit, defence and NATO (in a time of increasing international tension and insecurity). The Liberal Democrats alone speak for the 48 per cent that voted to remain in the European Union.


5 January 2017

Edited 6-8, 14 January, 1 July


My forthcoming book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

To be published by University of Chicago Press in November 2017



Allett, John (1981) New Liberalism: The Political Economy of J. A. Hobson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).

Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).

Beveridge, William (1944) Full Employment in a Free Society (London: Constable).

Clarke, Peter (1978) Liberals and Social Democrats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Dangerfield, George (1935) The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Constable).

Harrop, Andrew (2017) ‘Stuck: How Labour is too weak to win, and too strong to die’, 3 January (London: Fabian Society).

Hobson, John A. (1909) The Crisis of Liberalism: New Issues of Democracy (London: King).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

Keynes, John Maynard (1936) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan).

Lawson, Neil (2017) “Labour’s poll woes show why we need to do a deal with rival parties”, Labour List, 4 January.

Townshend, Jules (1990) J. A. Hobson (Manchester: Manchester University Press).


Posted in Common ownership, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Politics, Socialism, Tony Blair, Tony Blair

August 16th, 2016 by geoffhodgson1946



Geoffrey M. Hodgson

“This, from the always measured g. m. hodgson, shows Labour’s existential crisis in horrifying detail” – Susan Wilde

“The revolutionary road: excellent sober distillation of Marxism/Leninism/Trotskyism/socialism; rights v insurrection” – Rich Greenhill

“A very good summary of Labour and Trotskyism” – Gerry Hassan

“Another fantastic article!” – Lily Jayne Summers

Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson has produced evidence that Trotskyist groups are joining the Labour Party, or are planning to do so.1 This has created a big internal row. Some Labour members welcome this influx, just as Jeremy Corbyn opposed the expulsion of the Trotskyist group Militant in 1982.

John McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor, is an admirer of Trotsky. Corbyn once called upon the USSR to rehabilitate the Russian revolutionary.2

Corbyn-Tariq-AliTrotskyists are socialists who believe in the common ownership of the means of production. This goal was stated in Labour’s Clause Four from 1918 to 1995, so why shouldn’t Trotskyists be allowed to join Labour?

Trotskyists differ from the devotees of Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin. Trotskyists do not describe the murderous regimes of Mao’s China and the USSR as socialist. They promote themselves as anti-totalitarian, and they might seem much more democratic than other Marxists.

So why shouldn’t Trotskyists be allowed to join Labour?

The Parliamentary versus the Revolutionary Road

There is a prominent negative answer to this question. It raises profound differences of strategy. As Neil Kinnock (who did the party a great service by kicking out Militant in 1985) said in a speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party in July 2016:

‘In 1918 in the shadow of the Russian revolution [Labour members decided] … that they would not pursue the revolutionary road – it was a real choice in those days. They would pursue the parliamentary road to socialism.’

According to this view, Labour members and revolutionary Marxists share the same aim – socialism – but they differ on the method of getting there. Labour follows the parliamentary road; Marxists choose the revolutionary road.

Robert Owen

Robert Owen

There are big problems with a part of this argument. Socialism was defined by Robert Owen and Karl Marx in terms of common ownership of the means of production and ‘the abolition of private property’.

But at least in practice since 1945, Labour has been less and less devoted to this goal. Finally, the goal of ‘common ownership’ was removed from Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution in 1995.

Labour now says that it is a ‘democratic socialist’ party but defines this not in terms of common ownership. Instead there is a goal of social solidarity, believing ‘that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’, and in a society ‘in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few’.

Arguably, such a goal might be achievable in a reformed capitalism. But Trotskyists, like all Marxists, are emphatically against capitalism.

What Trotskyists and the post-1995 Labour Party Constitution mean by ‘socialism’ are very different. The divergences between Labour and Trotskyists concern different ends, as well as different means.

But Corbyn’s election as Leader by over 59 per cent of the membership in 2015 shows that the traditional definition and goal of socialism in the Labour Party is far from dead and buried. Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour could return to its pre-1995 goals.

Tony Blair

Tony Blair

Ironically, by getting rid of the traditional ‘common ownership’ version of socialism in 1995, but retaining the word ‘socialism’ in an attempt to invest it with a different meaning, Tony Blair provided legitimacy for any later attempt by classical socialists – including currently by Trotskyists and Corbynistas – to restore Labour to its original colours.

Within Labour today, because of this legacy, everyone from Trotskyists and Corbynistas at one extreme, through Owen Smith, Neil Kinnock and then on to Tony Blair at the other extreme, is obliged to call themselves a ‘socialist’. But there are massive silences and huge disagreements on its meaning.

Labour becomes less capable of discussing fundamental differences of goal, but clings onto the illusion of the fundamental goodness of something called ‘socialism’. Labour’s problem of entryism will never go away while the s-word continues to cast its spell. The word itself is an invitation for those who propose the common ownership of anything to join.

The Totalitarian Politics of Class Struggle

There are other fundamental problems with Marxism in general, and Trotskyism in particular. First, Marxism rejects the supreme values of the Enlightenment.

For example, Frederick Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, saw these Enlightenment values as ‘nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie’ with its ‘bourgeois justice’, its ‘bourgeois equality before the law’ and ‘bourgeois property … proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man’.

Liberty-Equality-FraternityMarxists do not see the French Revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity as a potential achievement for all, but the rhetoric of the rising capitalist class in the class struggle against the old feudal order.

After playing their progressive historic role, Enlightenment ideas are seen as ‘bourgeois’ ideology, which now serves to repress the working class.

Marx saw socialism as the class destiny of the proletariat, which by overthrowing capitalism would emancipate humankind from inequality and exploitation. Socialism was not validated by an appeal to justice or rights. Instead it was grounded on ‘material’ and ‘economic’ developments within capitalism that were leading to growing internal crises and the rise of the proletariat.

Marx rejected all appeals to rights or justice. He bypassed the issues of morality and justice by focusing on the real social forces allegedly leading to socialism. But neither the driving forces of history nor the supposed destiny of a social class make this socialist future just, or morally right.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

By shelving the discourse on rights, in favour of the scientifically-clothed rhetoric of proletarian destiny, all versions of Marxism – including Trotskyism – are on the slippery slope toward totalitarianism.

When rights are no longer universal, and no-one has the protection of an independent legal system, the any action that is deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’ or ‘against the interests of the working class’ gives the accused no effective defence. The prosecutors monopolise the interpretation of guilt. Arbitrary punishment can follow.

The rights of critics and dissenters have to be protected, by their formal recognition and the autonomy of the judiciary. Unless this is done, any criticism can be crushed.

Trotsky was wrong: the roots of totalitarianism do not lie principally in the personalities of brutal, power-hungry individuals such as Stalin, but in Marxism itself. As Leszek Kolakowski suggested:

‘Marx’s anticipation of perfect unity of mankind and his mythology of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness … were responsible for his theory being eventually turned into an ideology of the totalitarian movement: not because he conceived of it in such terms, but because its basic values could hardly be materialized otherwise.’

Violence versus Parliament and Law

Laws get in the way of revolutionary struggle. Hence, along with their dilution of the notion of rights, Lenin proposed that all laws should be abolished.

20081115Mexico7BellasArtesWriting in 1918, Lenin described the desired ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as ‘rule based directly upon force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.’ Trotsky supported Lenin in this and most other respects.

Consequently, a fundamental problem with Marxism is its failure to support the universality of human rights. Human rights apply to all, as in the majestic 1948 United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Instead, Marxists see social advancement as a matter of ‘class struggle’ where one class must seize power and remove rights from another class. Lenin and Trotsky went one step further: they argued that this struggle for proletarian power must override the rule of law.

The Second Congress of the Communist International took place in Russia in 1920. Under the leadership of Lenin, one of its resolutions mentioned ‘bourgeois parliaments’ and declared:

‘The task of the proletariat consists in breaking up the bourgeois state machine, destroying it, and with it the parliamentary institutions, be they republican or constitutional monarchy.’

198102yMexCit4BellesArtesThroughout his life, Trotsky defended the decisions of the first four congresses of the Communist International, which took place when Lenin was alive and before Stalin seized power.

Trotsky added his own idea of ‘permanent revolution’, involving civil war, even in a parliamentary democracy:

‘Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle, on a national and international scale. This struggle … must inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally to civil wars and externally to revolutionary wars. Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country … or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.’

Conclusion: Hands Tied Behind their Backs

Those in Labour wanting to fight the battle against entryism have two hands tied behind their backs.

Socialism1First, by hanging on to the word ‘socialism’, after abandoning its original meaning, it is difficult to exclude those who are more genuinely socialist in the classical sense of common ownership. Labour’s obligatory (but now shallow) rhetoric of ‘socialism’ is a green light for socialist entryists of all kinds.

Second, Labour has long-ago ditched the politics of class struggle, but it retains a notion of class partisanship in its very name. It was formed historically to represent the interests of the working class. It was built upon the trade union movement. Labour itself is a class party.

Labour_PartyOf course, Labour in practice has put aside the notion that it is speaking for one section of society only. But its name remains a problem, both for broadening its appeal and for barring the more energetic and extreme exponents of working class representation and power.

Of course, to achieve its goals, Labour is pledged to working through parliament, rather than through revolution. This is a very important difference. Many Marxists are still devoted to insurrection. Labour clearly is not. With this one big foot it can kick back. But its two hands are tied.

Labour still has much outdated baggage to deal with. Even if it staves off Trotskyist entryism – which now seems unlikely, at least while Corbyn is Labour Leader – it still will have a number of big problems. It will need to find and package a new identity for itself, which is suitable for the twenty-first century.

Retaining an unconvincing redefinition of ‘socialism’ and calling itself ‘Labour’ will not do.

Labour needs to come to terms with the fact that both classical socialism and class politics are untenable. It has to put democratic and progressive Enlightenment values at its centre, and reconfigure itself for the challenges of the twenty-first century.


16 August 2016

Minor edits: 17-18 August 2016




  1. Note that I refrain in this article from estimating the scale or impact of Trotskyist entryism in the Labour Party. They are not central to my argument here. For evidence of both (and of Corbyn’s links with the IRA) see here. At least currently, entryists into Labour are probably few in number, but it is a well-established fact that a few determined people can influence many thousands.
  2. In 2010, McDonnell attended an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination and has praised the ‘importance’ of his ideas (Riley-Smith 2016a). In 1988 Corbyn demanded from Parliament that the USSR should ‘give complete rehabilitation to Leon Trotsky’ (Riley-Smith, 2016b). Nothing wrong with that, but its shows the way he leans and who he chooses as friends.
  3. Personal note: I was a critical and wobbly Trotskyist from 1968 to 1973. I re-joined the Labour Party in 1974 and left it in 2001. The photograph below shows me (not then a Trot) visiting Trotsky’s house in Mexico in 1981, where he was murdered in 1940. It is a moving and impressive place.





Crick, Michael (2016) Militant (London: Biteback Publishing), esp. pp. xvii–xviii.

Kolakowski, Leszek (1977) ‘Marxist Roots of Stalinism’, in Robert C. Tucker (ed.) (1977) Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation (New York: Norton), pp. 283-98.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich (1967) Selected Works in Three Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart), esp. vol. 3, p. 49.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1962) Selected Works in Two Volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart), esp. vol. 2, p. 117.

New Park Publications (1977) The Second Congress of the Communist International, 2 vols (London: New Park), esp. vol. 2, p. 52.

Riley-Smith, Ben (2016a) ‘Labour Entryism Row: John McDonnell Attended Celebration of Leon Trotsky and Praised ‘Importance’ of his Ideas’, The Telegraph, 14 August.

Riley-Smith, Ben (2016b) ‘Jeremy Corbyn Called for a “Complete Rehabilitation” of Leon Trotsky in Parliament’, The Telegraph, 16 August.

Sparrow, Andrew and Jones, Harrison (2016) ‘Secret Recording of Kinnock’s anti-Corbyn Speech to MPs – In Full’, The Guardian, 6 July.

Trotsky, Leon D. (1962) The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London: New Park), esp. ch. 10.

Watson, Tom (2016) ‘Tom Watson Sends Corbyn “Proof of Trotskyist Labour Infiltration”’, The Guardian, 10 August.


Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Left politics, Liberalism, Nationalization, Robert Owen, Socialism, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Uncategorized

July 10th, 2016 by geoffhodgson1946


“A thoughtful analysis of Labour’s current impasse – back to 1918 in more senses than one”
Niamh Hardiman, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University College Dublin
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn have been pulling Labour in different directions for decades. But under the surface there are some common roots in their thinking. Also Blair created some of the circumstances in which Corbyn was decisively elected as Labour Party Leader in 2015, with 59.5 per cent of the vote.
Both Blair and Corbyn have enjoyed huge support among Labour members. How could this radical transformation of political opinion take place within a large political party, in the space of less than 20 years?
To answer this question we must first briefly examine how Labour evolved from 1945 to 1979, as a mass party based on strong trade unions. Then came the earthquake of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. Labour was defeated in three subsequent elections, before Tony Blair led Labour into power for thirteen years. Blair had help to make Labour electable by combining a reforming momentum with a pro-business image, but he did not provide an adequate political philosophy to replace traditional socialism.
This vacuum, combined with the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Labour’s part in the financial crash of 2008, created the conditions for the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Corbyn turned Labour’s ideological clock back by over half a century and lost its prospect of electability.

Post-War Labour: The Broad Church

After the first majority Labour government was elected in 1945, Labour party individual membership was rising rapidly towards one million and trade union membership began a long upward trend, rising from about 8 million in 1945 to 13 million in 1979. In general elections from 1945 to 1979 inclusive, Labour always polled between 36 per cent and 49 per cent of the vote. Labour was a mass party, built on the pillars of organised individual membership, powerful trade union support, a strong presence in parliament, and the loyalty of over a third of the electorate.

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

Labour’s commitment to widespread common ownership was enshrined in Clause Four of its constitution, which had been adopted in 1918. Before he became Prime Minister in 1945, Clement Attlee had expressed his support for this full-blooded socialist vision of a planned economy with widespread public ownership. But the practicalities of government, and the outbreak of the Cold War in 1948, pushed Labour leaders and intellectuals towards social democracy and a mixed economy. The most important statement of this shift was Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism in 1956.
But, despite the efforts of Hugh Gaitskell and others, Labour’s Clause Four remained unchanged. Labour contained both classical socialist and social-democratic currents. But the socialist wing never achieved supremacy, largely because it had insufficient support among the trade unions that were affiliated to the party. The great union flywheel kept Labour on a social-democratic course. The first-past-the-post electoral system made a party split and a socialist breakaway unviable.

The Thatcher Era: From Multiple Defeats to Recovery

The 1979 defeat of the Labour Government under James Callaghan brought Margaret Thatcher to power and an ensuing 18 years of Tory rule. At first, in reaction to this defeat, the traditional socialist wing of the party made gains under the leadership of Tony Benn. In 1980, Michael Foot, a radical social democrat, was elected as party leader. In 1981, Dennis Healey narrowly defeated Benn for the Deputy Leadership. In frustration with Labour’s shift to the Left and the use of union block votes, a sizeable portion split off to form the Social Democratic Party.
Labour’s 1983 general election manifesto prescribed a good dose of nationalisation, an interventionist industrial policy, unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher personal taxation and withdrawal from the European Economic Community (now the European Union). Tested at the polls, Labour’s vote slumped below 28 per cent, for the first time since 1918.

Neil Kinnock

Neil Kinnock

Then Foot resigned. Neil Kinnock was elected as leader, beginning the long process of making Labour electable once again. Kinnock fought the Marxist entryists in the party, modernised its policies on vital issues such as home ownership, and made it more credible.
Meanwhile, Thatcher continued her assault on Labour’s trade union base. A series of restrictive laws reduced trade union powers. By the time that Labour regained power in 1997, trade union membership had been reduced by more than a third. Today, trade union membership is less than half what it was in 1979, notwithstanding a bigger workforce.

The Blair Revolution: From Socialism to Undeclared Liberalism

The long period in opposition from 1979 to 1997 convinced a majority of Labour members that principle was impotent without power, and that some compromises were necessary to make Labour electable. In this climate, Tony Blair was elected as party leader in 1994.
The term ‘New Labour’ separated the party from its previous electoral baggage, including its original primary focus on common ownership and its antagonism to private business. Blair argued that previous socialists had confused means with ends. The desired end was a society in which all individuals would be valued and had the means of self-fulfilment. If common ownership had been a means that end in the past, then it was no longer appropriate for the modern, complex, global economy.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn

In 1995 Blair successfully removed Labour’s commitment to ‘common ownership’ from Clause Four of its constitution. But from the Left, Tony Benn protested: ‘Labour’s heart is being cut out’. In a sense Benn was right, common ownership had been Labour’s core principle since 1918, even if no leader since 1945 had made it a primary goal.
Blair hyphenated the word as ‘social-ism’ and attempted to change its meaning. It now meant a recognition of individuals as socially interdependent, the promotion of social justice and of equality of opportunity, recognising the equal worth of each citizen. He also used the term ‘third way’ to describe a path that differed from widespread collectivisation, on the one hand, and unrestrained markets, on the other.
While Blair saw a sizable role for the market, he was not a ‘neoliberal’ or a free-market libertarian. The state was still to play a major role in the economy. But redistributive taxation and the reduction of inequality were not major priorities. Blair’s close ally Peter Mandelson declared in 1998 that the Labour Government was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes’.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

While Blair redefined and retained the word social-ism, he moved Labour closer to a version of social liberalism. There is a radical tradition of social liberalism, but it is not socialist in the sense of widespread common ownership. The good of the community is seen as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. This tradition stretches from Thomas Paine through John Stuart Mill to Thomas H. Green, John A. Hobson and others.
From Paine onwards, social liberals raised concerns about inequalities of wealth and power. They appreciated the complexity of decision-making and the potential fallibility of government. Hence they advocated flexibility: there was a need for policy experiments and ongoing appraisals. Institutional checks and balances were required. But for Blair it was all about ‘values’, not structures or institutions.
Labour’s nostalgic devotion to the word socialism was too strong. With or without the hyphen, social-ism had become a zombie-term – a mere badge of identity. Labour was still stuck in its old rhetoric and unable to learn much from the broad liberal tradition.

Blairism as Marxism turned Upside-Down

The relationship between means and ends is important. Marxism famously separates ends from means, claiming that ‘the ends justify the means’. For Marxism, all means are evaluated solely in terms of the ends that they are deemed to serve. But in a complex world, we cannot be sure that specific means will lead to their assumed ends. Hence, contrary to Marxism, means must be placed under moral constraints as well.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Blair argued that the emphasis on common ownership or nationalization confused means with ends. The ends of social harmony and social justice, for example, might be achieved by means other than common ownership. Ironically, by separating means and ends so completely, Blair mirrored Marxism. Blair used a Marx-like separation of ends from means to abandon classical socialist aims.
But means and ends cannot be completely separated. The American philosopher John Dewey pointed out that the pursuit of goal is itself a learning process that can modify our ends. Furthermore, the use of particular means might modify our ends, as we discover unforeseen problems or benefits. Furthermore, the end we uphold is a spur to action, hence also a means of energizing change. Dewey wrote: ‘there is no end which is not in turn a means’.
Blair adopted another dichotomy from Marxism. This is the separation of the sphere of ‘values and beliefs’ from economic structures and patterns of ownership. This is redolent of Marx’s distinction between the ideological ‘superstructure’ and the ‘economic base’. But Blair reversed their importance: for him ‘values and beliefs’ assumed primacy. Adopting the same dichotomy, Marxism was turned upside-down.
This Marxist dichotomy is false. All economic activity involves beliefs, evaluations and value-laden motivations. Values and beliefs are intrinsic to the economy. The economy is not a machine that can be considered separately from the knowledge, beliefs and expectations of the human agents within it.

Blair in Power: From Achievement to Catastrophe

Blair’s highly charismatic and effective leadership led to the electoral landslide of 1997. Labour’s share of the vote jumped from 34.4 per cent in 1992 to 43.2 per cent in 1997. Especially in the early years, his government achieved a great deal. Education and the National Health Service benefitted for large increases in spending.
One of the first major achievements of Blair’s government was the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland. A minimum wage was introduced and devolved assemblies were set up in Scotland and Wales. The Human Rights Act was passed in 1998, but the Blair government was later accused of complicity in human rights abuses abroad. There was important legislation in pursuit of gay rights. Child and pensioner poverty were dramatically reduced. There was continuous economic growth. Many more people were brought into employment.
Blair won another landslide election in 2001. Demonstrably, by a wide margin, he had made Labour electable, after the wilderness of the Thatcher era. But he did not offer Labour a new philosophy or a robust architecture, after the abandonment of traditional socialism and the decline of its trade union base. Even before Iraq, some of his new policies were challengeable.
Blair_Tony_NHSFor example, Blair’s emphasis on ‘values and beliefs’ over institutional structures allowed him to privatize some public services, including parts of the National Health Service. His claim was that the same esteemed values could endure within any system of ownership. But changes to institutional structures affect the habits and beliefs of those involved. Extending the scope for contracts and markets means – rightly or wrongly – that pecuniary and profit-orientated values can become more pervasive, unless checks are put in place.
Consistent with his emphasis on ‘values and beliefs’, Blair promoted a programme of expansion of publicly-funded faith schools. But religious faiths are not simply ‘values’: they are organised enclaves of group self-protection and survival. As already evident from the long experience of segregation in Northern Ireland, institutionalised separation can exacerbate political, ethnic and cultural divisions.
A 2001 report commissioned by Bradford City Council concluded that its communities were becoming increasingly isolated along racial, cultural and religious lines, and that faith-segregated schools were fuelling the divisions. Major riots erupted that year in Bradford and other northern cities.
faith-schoolDavid Bell – the then Chief Inspector of Schools – warned in a January 2005 speech to the Hansard Society that a traditional Islamic education did not equip Muslim children for living in modern Britain. He said: ‘I worry that many young people are being educated in faith-based schools, with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society.’ In another lecture Bell said: ‘We can choose … whether we want to bring our diversity together in a single rainbow or whether we allow our differences to fester into separate cultures and separate communities.’ Yet, even after the July 2005 London bombings by home-grown Islamic extremists, and until his resignation from office in 2007, Prime Minister Blair continued to promote faith schools.1
Blair’s government reduced the number of heredity peers in the House of Lords, but dithered on further reform. Whether the House of Lords should be fully appointed, fully elected, or be subject to a combination of the two remained under dispute. Blair worried that the House of Lords might impair the will of the Commons – institutionalised checks and balances were not central to his thinking.
Then there was the catastrophe of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Blair was over-confident that his ‘values’ could prevail, and President George W. Bush could be persuaded to seek United Nations approval. But these ‘values’ were no match for a belligerent Republican Party.
Of dubious legality, this bloody disaster wrecked Blair’s political career. Deadly strife in Iraq continues to this day, with enduring political reverberations in the UK.
Iraq_War1Blair’s motivation for his decision to support Bush’s invasion will be the subject of many biographies and histories to come. The explanation is bound to be complex, but I guess that Blair’s supreme emphasis on ‘values’ over legalities, structures, evidence, fallibilities and practicalities will be uppermost. How else could someone believe in the possibility that Western democratic ideals could quickly take hold in an artificially-created country with no democratic history, riven by ethnic and religious division and fragmented into countless clans?
Blair was an outstanding politician: he restored Labour’s electability and won three major victories in succession. But when he stepped down from office in 2007 he left an ideological as well as a charismatic vacuum. Labour retained the term socialism, but in substance Blair moved Labour toward an untutored version of reforming liberalism. Largely because of the damage to Blair’s reputation after Iraq, the party was unable to digest this ideological shift.
Blair compounded a problem faced by social democratic parties throughout the world. To a large extent they have lost their way, lacking a well-developed ideology with related, viable goals.

The Corbyn Restoration: Marxism-Leninism Revived

After Blair’s exit, the theoretical, ideological and charismatic void helps to explain why the Labour Party eventually choose the retro-Marxist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.2 Furthermore, the weakened trade unions were no longer a moderating force: the flywheel had been dismantled. Constitutional changes had given them less power within Labour’s structure and the power they retained had been moved by internal changes to the Left.
The financial crash of 2008 undermined Labour’s reputation for sound finance. When Gordon Brown was Labour Chancellor under Blair, he promoted significant deregulation of the financial sector. After the debt bubble burst, and Western capitalism teetered on the edge of collapse, there was a widespread resurgence of Marxist thinking.
Corbyn turned the clock back, returning to socialism in its original meaning. The goal of common ownership was restored. His semi-Marxist, Bennite socialism was combined with a quasi-Leninist foreign policy. Opposed to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the oppressive treatment of Palestinians by Israel, Corbyn’s foreign policy became systematically anti-West. Corbyn turned Marxism the right way up.
LeninAs if oblivious to the enormous changes in world capitalism, Corbyn clings to an ideology made in 1918. There is neither strategy, detail nor appraisal of feasibilty, to his thinking. All that is left is his ‘values’: his outrage and protest against forces from the West that inflict suffering on the world. There is no mention of the many millions that have died under regimes that were ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by name.
Although very different from Blair’s, Corbyn’s ideology faces the same problem of dealing with the potential fallibility of all decisions and policies. Both Blair and Corbyn proceeded as if they had the uncontroversial right answer to any problem. Yet the complexity of the modern world underlines the need for an experimental approach to policy, and for countervailing institutional structures to appraise every move.
Unlike Blair, Corbyn believes that these problems can be solved by large doses of democracy and popular involvement. But he overlooks the problems and dangers of undetailed ultra-democracy. Widespread democratic involvement in the myriad of intricate decisions in a complex politico-economic system is unworkable.
While Blair after 2003 carried the scars of Iraq, Corbyn is on record in his support for terrorist organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA. He has claimed that he was engaging in the peace processes in these theatres of combat. But there was no visible negotiation with the other sides in these conflicts. Corbyn has also given speeches supporting Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi’s regime in Libya and Slobodan Milosevic, the butcher of Bosnian Muslims. Corbyn’s behaviour was more consistent with an ‘anti-imperialist’ and anti-West Leninist than with a broker for peace.
In 1918, Labour first established individual party membership and the ‘common ownership’ Clause Four was first placed in its constitution. Corbyn’s Leninism would take us back to the year after Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. Momentum yes – but backwards in time. Over a hundred years of hard work by millions of activists, building Labour as a political movement and as a party of government, will be reversed.
Corbyn’s political brew has little chance of success. But we should understand the unwitting role of Blair in helping to prepare the ground for its ascendancy within the Labour machine.

Conclusion: Beginning Again

Values are important, but we need more than that. While conservatives can nod in favour of the status quo, radicals must offer a distinctive vision for change – they have to outline the kind of future they want. A movement to change the world must uphold its aims and recruit to its cause.
Changed under Blair’s leadership, the current Labour Party Constitution outlines commendable principles such as by ‘common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’. It laudably aims for a society where ‘power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few’ and ‘where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect’.
But these words are too vague to provide a clear goal. They are consistent with a range of idealistic plans, from statist socialism to egalitarian ‘people’s capitalism’.
The current Clause Four Part One is silent on the question of property, whether it is to be private or owned in common. Reference to ‘a thriving private sector’ is tucked away in Part Two, alongside a mention of public ownership or accountability where ‘essential to the common good’.
This unmotivated melange satisfies neither traditional socialists who see common ownership as a vital goal, nor liberals who regard some private ownership as one of the preconditions of human freedom. Clause Four is inaudible on these vital institutional questions. ‘Values’ fill the vacuum instead.
Clause Four commendably promotes democracy and human rights, but is unclear about the institutional and politico-economic conditions under which they are nurtured. It does not acknowledge one of the major lessons of the twentieth century, that human rights and traditional socialism have never co-existed, and there are good reasons to conclude that they never will.
The institutional aims of the Labour Party are unclear. There is now a battle for the stricken party’s soul. It will be fought out between traditional socialists and social-democratic modernisers. But it will be a fight over an organisation that has already lost its direction and has no clear way forward. Both Blair and Corbyn bear some responsibility for this crisis.
10 July 2016
Amended: 11-13 July 2016, 18 February 2019.

1 Like Blair, Corbyn also supports faith schools (at least Jewish ones).

2 Pressed by Andrew Marr in July 2015 on whether he was a Marxist, Corbyn ducked the opportunity to deny on television that he held to that view.


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Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Left politics, Nationalization, Politics, Socialism, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Tony Blair