Socialism through the lens of Alasdair MacIntyre: postwar Labour visions and Blue Labour: Vulnerability and dependence were central to Labour's understanding of socialism after 1945.

Author:McLellan, Chloe
Position::Ess
 
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British socialism can, of course, be understood in a myriad of ways. One standard debate has been to contrast an emphasis on nationalisation and economic issues (one represented by the party's 1918 Clause IV commitment) with a belief in equality. For some commentators, equality is the essence of socialism: Labour's chief goal is to remove unjustifiable large inequalities in society; as such the party's vision is dominated by one of an egalitarian society and socialist policies are justified by reference to a norm of fairness (Shaw, 2007, 21). In the decades since 1945, much less attention has been given within Labour to moral considerations.

In this article I want to examine whether there has been more of an ethical basis to Labour's outlook, especially in the years after 1945. To do this, I draw on ideas from Alasdair MacIntyre's ethical theory, to see if these concepts offer an alternative underpinning for Labour's socialism. I use the theory laid out by MacIntyre in his 1999 volume, Dependent Rational Animals, in which he outlines the importance of developing a particular kind of personal character and communal relationships in order to reflect our condition of vulnerability and corresponding dependence. In such circumstances, socialism would be justified because our inherent vulnerability makes us dependent on others. Such dependency would form the basis for socialism through the development of different relationships and a particular personal character.

Labour's socialism can be defined as consisting of three aims, according to Jeremy Nuttall, comprising nationalisation, the welfare state and what he terms 'mental progress' (Nuttall, 2006, 7). But most scholars have put far more emphasis on the first two of these at the expense of the latter. By 'mental progress', I take Nuttall to mean the moral and intellectual development of individuals (Nuttall, 2006, 1). Such moral progress resonates strongly with MacIntyre's emphasis on personal ethical development, a concept at the centre of his theory. How much weight did Labour place on such matters after 1945? Manifestly, there is potentially an overwhelming amount of subject material on this issue, so to make the discussion feasible I focus on the discussion of Labour Party candidates' addresses at the 1950 general election in order to see what elements of MacIntyre's concepts can be found in their presentation of socialism. These sources give me access to a wide range of material covering the whole party at this point in time: I examine addresses from those on the left as well as the right of Labour, MPs in safe seats and candidates in constituencies where the Labour case was hopeless. One of my cases is a strong Zionist, another is ardently pro-Palestinian. Firstly, I ask how these candidates justify their socialist policies in these pamphlets. Do they focus on either the potential economic benefit of redistribution or on the moral motives of a more equal society? Or do they make use of MacIntyre-orientated values such as vulnerability and dependence? Secondly, I consider how the candidates conceive of Labour's socialist aims: do they emphasise goals such as prosperity and equality? Or do they embody characteristics of MacIntyre's theory such as the capacity of good characters to create valuable communal relationships? Having looked at pamphlets from the 1950 general election, I draw some contrasts (very briefly for reasons of space) with those offered nearly three decades later at the 1979 general election.

More recently, the Blue Labour movement within Labour, largely the project of the academic and member of the House of Lords Maurice Glasman, has placed a renewed emphasis on an ethical dimension to the party's outlook. Blue Labour has proved to be controversial, in part due to its outlook on particular issues such as immigration and nationalism. But it has also involved a distinct focus on certain values and a particular style of politics. In the latter part of this article I note some similarities between MacIntyre's ideas and those articulated by Blue Labour. Certain aspects of MacIntyre's outlook may be found in Blue Labour: take for example a desire to shield relationships from both the state and the market (Sage, 2012, 373).

In a sense, then, Blue Labour's rejection of the post-war Labour Party strategy may be premature. Using MacIntyre's ideas as a framework, both post-war Labour and Blue Labour may share particular values and certain ethical emphasises in their vision of a socialist society. Central to such a shared outlook is the encouragement of communal relationships. By analysing Blue Labour through the MacIntyre paradigm it may be possible to gain new insights into the philosophical grounding of Glasman's project, and perhaps how it should seek to develop and nurture this philosophical base.

My discussion proceeds as follows: first, I outline MacIntyre's theory and how it can be correlated with the principles of socialism and Labour's vision. Then I go on to detail Labour's outlook as presented in pamphlets from the 1950 general election. I discuss whether the contents of these support the idea that MacIntyre's theory is relevant to socialism. Finally, I look at Blue Labour and consider whether, as with Attlee's Labour Party, MacIntyre's ethical theory remains relevant.

Alasdair MacIntyre and the importance of virtue

In his 1999 book, Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre outlines a theory of virtue, one based on the importance of relationships and personal character in view of the vulnerable nature of our existence. MacIntyre's argument is that because we are all at some point in need of the assistance of others, often suddenly and without warning, we are inherently vulnerable and dependent on those around us to help us flourish as individuals (MacIntyre, 1999, 1). By acknowledging such vulnerability, and the dependence that it creates, it is apparent we should structure our relationships to be 'networks of giving and receiving'. Such exchanges of assistance are not based on strict reciprocity: rather we give unconditionally according to need (MacIntyre, 1999, 99). This idea is similar to the notion of 'generalised reciprocity', which differs from direct exchange because 'the transactions are "putatively altruistic", the obligation to reciprocate is vague and diffuse, and the altruism is not conditional upon reciprocation' (Taylor, 1982, 29). Generalised reciprocity shares the notions of unspecific debt and relationships dictated by need that MacIntyre proposes as part of the networks of giving and receiving. These networks will help meet the needs our condition of vulnerability creates, and they create a common good of assurance that we will be given sufficient assistance when we require it (MacIntyre, 1999, 108,124). In order to create effective networks of giving and receiving, and to structure our relationships properly, the individuals in such arrangements need to develop their characters into virtuous ones (MacIntyre, 1999, 120). In Dependent Rational Animals he does not give an exhaustive list of virtues, the main two discussed are 'Just Generosity' and 'Misericordia'. Just Generosity is 'generosity that I owe': an obligation to assist others, but which is generous because it is not a specific amount (MacIntyre, 1999, 120). Misericordia is the virtue of pity as it is what helps us to relate to others' suffering: both inside and outside our community we are able to understand others' distress (MacIntyre, 1999, 125). Therefore by cultivating virtues like Just Generosity and Misericordia the kind of characters that ensure the proper functioning of the networks of giving and receiving are created, and these networks help us deal with our vulnerability and dependence, allowing us to flourish as individuals within a community.

There appear to be good prospects for socialism resonating in some general sense with MacIntyre's theory because some of the central features that underpin socialism, particularly communitarian values, share his outlook. Socialism is often supported by a principle of community which has the fundamental feature of communal reciprocity. This is a relationship of reciprocity in which 'I serve you not because of what I can get in return by doing so but because you need or want my service' (Cohen, 2009, 39) and 'I give because you need, or want, and in which I expect a comparable generosity from you' (Cohen, 2009, 43). The fact that such reciprocity can be indirect and general reinforces the similarity: it could be through a network of relationships within the community ensuring that all needs and wants are met and reciprocated (Cohen, 2009, 44). Therefore, just as MacIntyre's networks of giving and receiving are driven by catering for people's needs, it seems that one potential principle of socialism echoes the same vision of generalised reciprocity.

Some of Labour's traditional values are rooted in ideas similar to those contained within MacIntyre's theory of virtue. Included within such well-established ideas would be the notion of valuing general co-operation as necessary, and condemnation of reciprocity that was driven simply by selfish gain. In this way, instead of atomised individuals, people are conceptualised as 'only able to realise themselves and live meaningful lives in co-operation with others' (Shaw, 2007, 33). Such an idea echoes MacIntyre's suggestion that networks of giving and receiving represent the communal relationships necessary to living 'the good life'. Moreover, Maurice Glasman, Blue Labour's leading thinker, has analysed Labour's tradition in similar terms, where he states:

Labour values are not abstract universal values such as "freedom" or "equality". Distinctive labour values are rooted in relationships, in practices that strengthen ethical life. Practices like...

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