Evan Durbin: The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940)


Evan Durbin studied economics at University College, Oxford under Hugh Gaitskell. He was a lecturer in economics at the LSE from 1930 to 1945. In 1939 he joined the economic section of the Cabinet Office, working with Lionel Robbins and Harold Wilson. He then became personal assistant to Attlee when deputy prime minister between 1942 and 1945. He was elected MP for Edmonton in 1945 (with Douglas Jay taking on his previous job). He was parliamentary private secretary to Dalton (chancellor of the Exchequer) and then parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Works. He died in 1948 in a drowning accident. He published a number of books and pamphlets on economic policy, including How to Pay for the War (1939), The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) and Problems of Economic Planning (published posthumously in 1949).

There is no biography of Durbin; in 1985 his daughter, Elizabeth Durbin, published New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism, which presents a study of her father’s work as well as that of his circle including Cole, Dalton, Gaitskell and Jay. The historian Stephen Brooke published substantive articles on Durbin in 1991 and 1996. There is also material on Durbin in Jeremy Nuttall’s 2006 book Psychological Socialism. Durbin had a significant influence on the thinking of Anthony Crosland.

“From the evidence of modern psychology… the social life of adult human groups can be largely understood as a conflict within their minds between repressed impulse to violence and cruelty on the one hand, and their love for each other, for constructive achievement and for the common good, on the other… The Marxist and Communist defence of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’… was based upon faulty logic and inadequate empirical evidence… it represented in our day the series of false religions by which the impulse to cruelty and destruction have been rationalised into a reforming zeal and a love of justice and freedom. The only hope for the future appears therefore, to me, to lie in the preservation, if necessary by force, of the system of political democracy from all assaults upon it.

“Many things can contribute to the happiness of us all. Wealth can contribute to it. A rising standard of living will increase leisure, reduce the physical fatigue of labour, bring comfort and health to a growing proportion of our fellow human beings. Wealth, properly distributed, can tear down the slums, drive back the diseases of malnutrition, open the countryside to our people and bring fresh air, sunlight and safety, to those who lack these elementary necessities. It is the honourable task of the economist, the industrial scientist, and the technician to serve ‘the not ignoble end’…. Social equality would certainly increase our joy in living… sense of justice is the necessary saviour to all our happiness in society. For this end the socialist politician honourably strives.

“The grip of a class system that frustrates the search for comradeship between us wastes a monstrously high proportion of our natural talent… Every generation is in part united, and in part inspired, by some conception of a better and more just society… We need not be content with anything less… than a society in which property as a source of social inequality is made to wither slowly away, in which the establishment of a rational central control has restored expansion and created economic stability, in which political democracy is preserved and protected as a method of government, and in which children may grow, free from secret fear, into a sociable and happy maturity. This is what I mean by a more just society. An important, indeed an essential, part of it is the constituent principle of socialism. Within it the common happiness of mankind can be, for a long season, safely established.”

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