The demand for equality was at the heart of the politics of the Left in the twentieth century, but what did theorists and politicians on the British Left mean when they said they were committed to ‘equality’? How did they argue for a more egalitarian society? Which policies did they think could best advance their egalitarian ideals? This book provides comprehensive answers to these questions. It charts debates about equality from the progressive liberalism and socialism of the early twentieth century to the arrival of the New Left and revisionist social democracy in the 1950s. Along the way, the book examines and reassesses the egalitarian political thought of many significant figures in the history of the British Left, including L. T. Hobhouse, R. H. Tawney and Anthony Crosland. It demonstrates that the British Left has historically been distinguished from its ideological competitors on the centre and the right by a commitment to a demanding form of economic egalitarianism. The book shows that this egalitarianism has come to be neglected or caricatured by politicians and scholars alike, and is more surprising and sophisticated than is often imagined.
This book examines the ways in which the Left in Britain appropriated and developed the nascent economic egalitarianism of the late nineteenth century, including a few episodes in which these theoretical debates exercised some influence over political decision-making or the formulation of party policy. This chapter examines the intellectual history and the British Left, arguments about equality, and the methods and the scope of the book.
This chapter begins with an account of the shared egalitarian outlook by considering the Left's objections to class inequality. Progressive writers and politicians employed a variety of arguments against inequality. By documenting the range of these arguments, this chapter gives an initial indication of the character of the British Left's egalitarian vision. It then asks whether progressives saw the aims of social mobility and meritocratic equal opportunity as able to satisfy their concerns about class inequality. It maintains that a meritocratic distribution was seen as an insufficient realisation of the Left's understanding of social justice.
This chapter establishes that progressives of the early twentieth century based their ideas about social justice on a strong principle of economic reciprocity, and a firm conviction that market rewards took no account of the social character of economic production. The British Left saw economic prosperity as the product of the collective efforts of the whole community rather than as the result of the heroic dynamism of isolated wealth-creators. Although progressives therefore thought that it was fair to make income conditional on some form of social contribution, they did not believe that income should be proportionate to the market value of that contribution.
This chapter looks more systematically at debates about the distribution of income and wealth. It is divided into three sections, each addressing a concept that was fundamental to progressive thinking about this issue: equality, need, and incentive. It shows that the majority of progressives favoured the principles of need and, reluctantly, incentive, leading them to endorse a distributive pattern that was loosely, although not precisely, egalitarian. The final section of the chapter outlines the policies that followed from these theoretical commitments.
This chapter focuses on the dissemination of Marxist theory into progressive thought during the 1930s and its application to theorising about equality. The first section indicates why Marxism achieved such unprecedented prestige in the political debates of this period. The second and third sections of this chapter examine in more detail the materialist critique of social democratic egalitarianism developed by Marxist writers, and the principles of justice they ultimately defended. The final section discusses the partial retreat from this materialist position precipitated by the arrival of the Second World War.
This chapter examines the ideological impact of Keynes and other economists. It considers the ‘mild tempered evolutionary idealists’ and considers the arguments social democrats of the 1930s used to promote egalitarian objectives. An important theme was now given greater prominence and theoretical sophistication in the Left's egalitarian thought: the claim that equality could be reconciled with, and indeed enhance, economic efficiency. In essence, the egalitarian social democrats of this period tried to combine the traditional ethical idealism of writers such as Tawney with the economic theory of Marshall and Keynes.
An important feature of the ensuing debate about the nature of socialism was a renewed engagement with the ideal of equality. This chapter begins by examining the well-known debate in this period about the status of public ownership within socialist thought. It argues that this was primarily a debate about the mechanism that could best realise an egalitarian society rather than a disagreement over the meaning of ‘equality’ itself; there was in fact only minimal disagreement within the Left in this period about the meaning of such distributive principles. In contrast to some widespread perceptions of revisionist ideology, the chapter concludes that they were committed to an egalitarian, non-meritocratic view of justice.
The next chapter shows that while substantial philosophical differences did emerge on the Left in this period, they in fact centred on the extent to which egalitarians should aim to foster a new spirit of fellowship and social solidarity. It could be said that the revisionists neglected the importance of community and therefore ‘attacked socialist ideology at its heart’. This chapter argues that this reformulated criticism does indeed provide a useful diagnosis of the basic ideological difference between certain revisionists and other socialists in this period.
This book has examined the historical development of the ideal of equality and its role in the ideology of the British Left. The overriding theme of this book is the sheer historical durability of a particular kind of social democratic egalitarianism. This chapter notes that it is salutary to recall that the egalitarianism of the British Left was not intended as an exercise in pure idealism. It was aimed at rectifying the demonstrable social injustices of the British class system, and philosophical arguments were therefore ultimately constrained by considerations of political strategy.