Michael Rustin: For a Pluralist Socialism (1985)


At the time this book was written, Rustin was a sociology lecturer at the Polytechnic of North London. He was a contributor to New Left Review and a founder member of the Socialist Society.

The Socialist Society was founded in 1981 by a group of British socialists, including Raymond Williams and Ralph Miliband, who founded it as an organisation devoted to socialist education and research, linking the left of the Labour Party with socialists outside it. The Society grew out of the New Left Review and many of its active members, including Robin Backburn and Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group, the Marxist feminist sociologist Michele Barrett, and Hilary Wainwright as well as Rustin. Other active and prominent members of the Society included Richard Kuper of Pluto Press, John Palmer, the Guardian foreign editor, and the environmentalist Barney Dickson. The Society published a magazine (Interlink, later relaunched under the name Catalyst) and a series of pamphlets.

One of the Society’s key goals was overcoming the division on the British Left between socialists inside and outside the Labour Party. To this end, the Society was jointly responsible – with the Conference of Socialist Economists, Tony Benn and the Campaign Group of Labour MPs – for the initiation of a series of conferences between 1987 and 1992 which were held in Chesterfield (Tony Benn’s constituency), Sheffield or Manchester. The Society was opposed to Euroscepticism and open to green politics, all of which were fairly controversial on the left at the time. Several prominent figures involved in the society, including Miliband and Wainwright, were signatories to Charter 88. Another organisational achievement of note was the founding of the Red-Green Network. The Society was wound up in 1993.

Rustin is now a professor at the University of East London. He is a regular contributor to the Soundings journal. He has written books on psychoanalysis, higher and further education policy and the regeneration of East London. In 1997, Rustin contributed to The Next Ten Years: Key Issues for Blair’s Britain and the Kilburn Manifesto in 2015.

“Socialists have today to be pluralist, and to acknowledge the diversity of interests and lifestyles which political programmes must reconcile. It is a difficult paradox that radical programmes must now be universalist, in seeking a common definition of social rights and obligations, and pluralist in recognizing unavoidable and indeed desirable differences in social values…. Socialists have to take account of the diversification of the social structure, as well as of the grosser phenomena of class subordination and class conflict more familiar to them from the main socialist and Marxist traditions. There is no possible return in democratic societies to simple prescriptive communities of ‘mechanical solidarity’, except as one available choice (e.g. a self-sufficient commune) among many. An important dimension of this pluralism is in the moral and cultural domains. The overcoming of scarcity creates the preconditions for an increasing diversity of life activities, whether expressed in the proliferation of specialized fields of knowledge, the practices of new kinds of participatory sport or expressive art, or the development of distinctive kinds of social community.”

“Such a pluralism need not be merely an anodyne resignation in the face of gross inequities of wealth and power…. Freedom is not only defined in individual terms… choices are socially constructed, and particular ways of life and spheres of value need to be defended from invasion. The one-dimensional values which typically threaten invasion in modern societies are those of capital and monolithic political or religious ideologies… The equation of socialism with monochromatic and coercive uniformity bears little relation to what most people in a modern society now want…. A pluralist approach is necessary in terms of the ‘broad alliance’ strategy required by socialists, as well as for more basic reasons of principle.”

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