Anthony Wright: Socialisms: Theories and Practices (1986)


At the time Wright wrote this book, he was a lecturer in political studies at Birmingham University. In 1979, he had written G D H Cole and Socialist Democracy and, in 1983, British Socialism: Socialist Thought from the 1880’s to the 1960’s. Wright was elected Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood in 1992 and then represented the new constituency of Cannock Chase from 1997 to 2010, retiring on the grounds of ill health. He was chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration from 1999 to 2010 and chair of the House of Commons Reform committee, popularly known as the ‘Wright’ committee, in 2008-9. On retirement, he took academic posts at University College London and Birkbeck college. He was chair of the Fabian Society in 1999-2000. His 31 books include a biography of R H Tawney and Values, Visions and Voices, an ‘anthology of the socialist tradition’ edited with Gordon Brown in 1995. Wright is joint editor of Political Quarterly.

“It is not enough for socialists to argue that Western societies need socialism. They also have to offer a kind of socialism that the citizens of these societies might be persuaded democratically to want. A socialism of this kind would need to be both attractive in principle and credible in practice. This would seem to imply a number of ingredients: firstly, that socialism is primarily (though not only) a moral theory, capable of generating a set of socialist values that can be articulated and applied in terms of a coherent public philosophy. In particular, this would involve a convincing account of a socialist conception of equality that genuinely enlarges freedom and autonomy, while also promoting community and fraternity. A socialism which takes its stand on this basis could not regard itself solely as the movement of a single class, or define itself simply in terms of the interests of a class, or define individuals only in terms of class categories, since this would be inconsistent with its general humanism.

“However, a credible and attractive socialism would need to have some further ingredients. Above all, perhaps, it would need to demonstrate its possession of a theory of political and economic organisation that avoided mere statism. It would need to show that it knew how to abolish the capitalist forms of the concentration of power and prosperity without thereby inaugurating a new form of socialist concentration. In terms of the economy, this would clearly involve an accommodation between plan and market, in the interests of both efficiency and consumer choice, and with a range of forms of enterprise and social ownership but with a preference for the small scale and the self-managing. In terms of the political system, it would involve the democratic diffusion of power in a system of socialist pluralism rooted in forms of territorial and functional devolution, in addition to effective general mechanisms to guarantee political accountability and civic freedom. Whenever and wherever possible, consistent with general social and economic objectives, it would be an ‘enabling’ state, redistributing power and property in ways designed to strengthen and extend individual and group autonomy.”

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