On the State of the Left

W.G. Runciman

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the first stirrings of socialist political theory, the intellectual protagonists of the Left have started with a twofold debating advantage over their opponents on the right. First of all, they have been able to present socialism as the repository of ideals to which all right-minded people can be presumed to subscribe. It may be that liberty, equality and fraternity can in some forms be carried to excess, and perhaps there comes a point beyond which they conflict with one another. But to be on the side of the poor and oppressed against the rich and powerful is almost by definition to be on the side of the good against the bad. The protagonists of the Right may retort, as they often have, that good will towards the poor and oppressed is not the peculiar prerogative of the Left and that the attempts of revolutionaries and doctrinaires to realise their high-sounding ends by their chosen means are likely to be self-defeating if not disastrous. But they are then confronted with the second advantage enjoyed by the Left – their ability to reiterate their long-proclaimed conviction that history is, in the end, on their side. Mistakes and setbacks there may have been, but time and again it can be shown what not only should be but has been achieved by organised political and industrial opposition from below to the owners and controllers of the economy and state. The arguments may not be conclusive. Such arguments seldom are. But they leave – or at least they used to leave – the spokesmen of the established order permanently on the defensive. To be sceptical of the goal of a more socially just society is – or at least used to be – to be cast either as a cynic and a defeatist or as a self-interested apologist for an all too palpably unequal distribution of rewards and powers.

Over the last few decades, however, both these advantages have been whittled away. They have been so not because the Right has suddenly started to have the best of the intellectual argument – the most persuasive conservative arguments are still those current since the days of Burke and Adam Smith – but because of what has happened in the world since the Second World War. The various changes which have undermined the presuppositions of traditional socialism are by now familiar enough. But their cumulative effect has taken time to sink in. The failure of existing socialist societies to implement the traditional socialist ideals; the relatively greater success of liberal democracy in augmenting welfare while preserving freedom; the shift in the occupational distribution of the workforce of advanced industrial societies; the lack of difference made to industrial relations by public ownership; the obstinate willingness of working-class electors to vote for parties of the Right; the location of underprivilege in groups and categories of society not definable in class terms; the persistent lack of trade-union solidarity; the effects of wage-inflation on real incomes; the vulnerability of the high-cost industrial economies to competition from low-cost, newly-industrialising ones – all these things have made it increasingly difficult for the self-proclaimed heirs of the socialist tradition to be clear among themselves either what they specifically want or what they seriously hope to achieve.

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