Socialism at the End of the Century
By the end of the twentieth century there was a commonly expressed belief that socialism had been demolished as an intellectual and political project. This paper examines the fate of socialism through an assessment of the some of the major changes in the intellectual history of socialist and social democratic thought in the UK during the final decades of the twentieth century. Key changes include the widely adopted move towards more ‘feasible’ or less utopian forms of socialism. This break has often been grounded on epistemological arguments which recognise limits to reason, and which had previously been more often associated with the political right. A second change examined in this paper is the acceptance of aspects of pro-market arguments by socialists and the often implicit consequences for socialist thought that this has for individual freedom. (An example of the introduction of the market into left-wing thought was the revival of market socialism in the late 1980s, which generally advocated the use of the market to regulate competition between cooperatives, coupled with a high degree of egalitarian redistribution). Last, the acceptance of some form of market in socialist thought is linked to the decline of statist forms of socialism, which were often based upon unstated paternalist assumptions in twentieth century British socialist thought. The result, it is argued, is a ‘mutation’ of socialism during the final decades of the twentieth century into the more eclectic and diverse set of ideas that now characterise the left in the UK and elsewhere and which draw upon traditions previously seen as anathema to, marginalised by, or forgotten in, socialist thought for much of the twentieth century.