Friday, July 8, 2016

Was the Old Left Socially Conservative?

TheIllusionist challenges me in a cutting comment here, which deserves a response.

First, what do I mean by the “Old Left”? I mean the pre-1960s Left dominated by trade unions, socialist organisations, and the labour-based political parties like the British Labour party, Continental Social Democrats or other Christian labour-based parties of the Left.

I happen to think the historical role of Christian socialism has been grossly underestimated by the modern secular Left. For example, on the Continent of Europe there were powerful Catholic social parties and Catholic or Christian trade unions or working class movements, which people in the English-speaking world generally don’t study or know much about.

Even someone like Clement Attlee, for example, was heavily influenced by Christian socialism, as can be seen here.

Secondly, I think it is straightforwardly true that by modern standards this Old Left was, more or less, socially conservative.

But were they socially conservative by the standards of their own time?

TheIllusionist has the following complaint about the Fabians:
“The Old Left – in its Fabian guise in the case of the UK – were culturally radical. But they were culturally radical in the way that radicalism then expressed itself: mainly in the form of a scientistic worldview that ended up promoting eugenics and mass abortion. This was a view of society that should not be dominated by ‘tradition’ or ‘old-fashioned moral principles’ (mainly Christian moral principles) but should instead be run in a pseudo-scientific, technocratic way to ‘better the species’.”
And yet as late as the time of Clement Attlee’s premiership, Britain’s Labour party continued to support the illegality of abortion and homosexual acts, and the government itself did not even abolish the death penalty (despite a movement within the party for the abolition of capital punishment).

Furthermore, the Fabians were only one subset of the Left, and precisely a middle class, elitist wing whose opinions did not necessarily reflect other left-wing political movements or indeed the mass of left-wing people who have voted for reforming Liberals, Labour parties or left-wing Christian social parties down to the mid-20th century.

The Fabians certainly had some odd views. E.g., some of the Fabians supported vegetarianism. But this never became any kind of core belief of the Old Left.

At the same time, the Fabians had some clearly puritan moral ideas, e.g., at various times they disapproved of smoking (Cole 1961: 60) and were involved in the temperance organisations.

And the actual British Labour party of, say, the Edwardian era had a decidedly socially conservative outlook:
“Despite a ‘libertarian’ fringe among the Fabians, leading members of the Labour Party were actively involved in movements for public enforcement of private morals – in the Temperance movement, the Purity movement, and campaigns against betting and gambling. Most Labour apologists in Edwardian Britain unashamedly equated liberty with decency, self-discipline, social control, and active fostering of private and public virtue: as Sidney Ball (citing Plato) put it, ‘Can there be anything better for the interests of the State .. . than that its men and women should be as good as possible?’” (Harris 2000: 22).
And this is before we get to the social or cultural opinions of Old Left Catholic social parties or Christian labour-based parties, which, I am betting, were far from being out of touch even with the social conservatism of their own day.

Harris, Jose. 2000. “Labour’s Political and Social Thought,” in Duncan Tanner, Pat Thane, Nick Tiratsoo (eds.), Labour’s First Century. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 8–45.

Cole, Margaret. 1961. The Story of Fabian Socialism. Heinemann, London.


  1. But these views DID dominate on the left. In Britain they were held in check by the Christian socialists and by Anglicanism more generally. Elsewhere they were not. Extreme eugenics programs were, in fact, initiated.

    This is all part and parcel of welfare state ideology (something Foucault saw with great perspicuity). The left continues to hold these views today and cultural conservatives consider them radical.

    The difference between the scientistic cultural radicals and the cultural conservatives can be stated simply: the conservatives believe in absolute moral principles while the radicals believe that behavior is determined in ways that can be 'corrected' by modern technocratic governmental science.

    Take the question of crime and punishment. For a cultural conservative punishment is punishment for an evil act. That is it's primary purpose. It's secondary purpose is to prevent the individual doing more harm to society.

    The cultural radical's primary aim is reform. They do not believe in the evil of the act per se - 'evil' is an archaic notion for them. Rather they believe that the person who committed the act is somehow 'defective' and must be reformed.

    Do you see the shift in focus here? The conservative believes in moral principles dictating society. Social institutions for them should be formed in line with these moral principles. They argue that these time-tested moral principles are the best primary regulator of human social life.

    The cultural radical's attitude is entirely different. They believe that 'good' and 'evil' are merely concepts that we as a society wrongly apply to defective behavior. Rather than seek punishment they seek reform. For them society should build its institutions in line with trying to reform people so that a greater social good can be achieved.

    These are entirely different views. You are correct that some Christian socialists did indeed hold to culturally conservative principles. But they were very much so in the minority. The Old Left was dominated, to a very large extent, by technocratic social democratic cultural radicals (think Keynes, Myrdal, Robinson etc.) and Communists who pushed such 'social reform' ideas to their end point.

    Today the moral relativists, who were a tiny fraction of Bohemians until the 1960s, have taken over. The Communists have disappeared, as have the Christian socialists. And the scientistic cultural radicals have taken a secondary, though still powerful, role.

    1. (1) But these views DID dominate on the left. In Britain they were held in check by the Christian socialists and by Anglicanism more generally ... Today the moral relativists, who were a tiny fraction of Bohemians until the 1960s, have taken over."

      This is just a strange way of conceding that.. the pre-1960s Old Left had a very strong socially conservative outlook, certainly by modern standards, precisely as I said in the original post.

      Also, to assert that "Christian socialists did indeed hold to culturally conservative principles. But they were very much so in the minority" is weirdly untrue, given how, as I pointed out above, the Old Left has a forgotten and big tradition of Continental Catholic or Christian social parties.

      (2) also, eugenics had its supporters on the conservative right as well. That wing of extreme individualist Classical liberals disliking government intervention, who were hardly cultural conservatives in your sense, has also provided a wing of opposition to extreme eugenics.

    2. (1) Provide me numbers. How many of the Labour Party in the UK were Christian socialists in the post-war era versus how many were from the Fabian and far-left/communist faction. I know what you'll find. But do the research yourself.

      (2) Who on the conservative right favoured eugenics? Please don't say the Nazis. As they were not conservatives by any stretch of the imagination.

    3. There is also a kind of gross cruelty to the extreme cultural conservatives' hatred of basic birth control like condoms or the contraceptive pill, which they cannot evade.

      Forcing endless pregnancies on young women which ruin their health and even shorten their life expectancies or forcing on people children they cannot even look after, as was the case throughout a lot of human history, was a decidedly inhumane thing as well, often justified by the superstition that just because it says "Be fruitful and multiply" in Genesis 1:28 condoms are some evil.

      There is no sense that there is a happy medium, which there is: planned and responsible parenthood allowing reproductive rights, but where people have a love of their communities and nations and replace their populations.

    4. I'm not aware that we were debating the merits or demerits of some cultural conservatives' opposition to birth control.

    5. "Who on the conservative right favoured eugenics?"

      (1) Oh, come on. There were mainstream conservatives of the early 20th century who favoured moderate and sometimes extreme eugenics ideas, e.g., in the US often because of their hereditarian racial views.

      In the UK, Churchill, even when he become a conservative, favoured eugenics:

      "In 1904, as Churchill was crossing from the Conservative to the Liberal benches, A.J. Balfour's Conservative government set up a Royal Commission "On the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded." When the commission reported in 1908 to the Liberal Government which had come into office at the end of 1905, and of which Churchill was a cabinet minister—it recommended compulsory detention of the mentally "inadequate," as well as sterilisation of the "unfit," so that it would be impossible to have children and thus perpetuate what were then seen as inherited characteristics. Until that time only the criminally insane, whom the courts had judged to be a danger to themselves and others, were sent to mental asylums."

      In the 1930s, this kind of thing became popular even within the UK Tories.

      (2) Also, look at the history of the UK Mental Deficiency Act of 1913:

      It passed with "only three MPs voting against it" -- i.e., the Conservatives largely voted for it.

      One of the those who opposed it was the old Liberal Josiah Wedgwood IV (who later joined the Laboru party).

      (3) You also seem totally unaware that the modern Alt Right, undoubtedly REAL "cultural conservatives" in your sense and pretty much as far right as you can get, includes massive support for eugenics.

    6. even in the 70-s we had tories like keith joseph which wanted to limit the amount of children poor people can have.

    7. The Conservative Sir Keith Joseph in 1974:

      "The notion of the "cycle of deprivation" holding down poor people was the basis of his speech. He linked it to current theories of the culture of poverty, especially to the chaotic lifestyle of the poorest people. However he suggested poor people should stop having so many children. In his highly publicised speech at Edgbaston, he reflected on the moral and spiritual state of Britain:

      “A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world.... Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness…. They are producing problem children…. The balance of our human stock, is threatened….”

    8. The Old Left always contained a large socially conservative contingent. Most Christian Democratic parties were Old Left by today's standards as was Old Labour and the New Deal-era Democratic Party in the United States. You had politicians like Giorgio La Pira in Italy who supported job creation through public works:

      Even if some social democrats supported eugenics in the past,eugenics now seems to be a mostly right-wing phenomenon. As LK mentioned, the Alt-Right is very supportive of eugenics and Alt-Rightists tend to be either libertarians or fascists, not social democrats.

      The Alt-Right bases its moral principles on certain extreme hereditarian views on biology.

      Outside of postmodern supporters of the "blank slate," secularists on the Left today take a more nuanced view of biology (see the endless debates over IQ and race) and are generally against eugenics because it does not comport with humanism. The Alt-Right is strongly anti-humanist.

    9. The classification of some of these Christian Democratic parties and Christian Social Parties is admittedly a bit perplexing, but I don't doubt that on economics there was, historically, a strong interventionist and left-wing aspect to many of them even from the 1880s to 1920s, when they promoted was known as "municipal socialism".

    10. True. Some of them may have been closer to national conservatism or right-wing populism (sometimes veering into fascist territory) like the Christian Social Party in Austria.

      There were also differences among post-war Christian Democrats between the more ordoliberal politicians and those more influenced by Keynes, the American New Deal, and Attlee's Old Labour. Then you have Gaullism which also had different factions (Right and Left).

    11. Yes, good points.

      I imagine many of them have been converted to neoliberalism post-1970s, though.

    12. Ludwig Erhard -- of social market economy (soziale Marktwirtschaft) fame or infamy (lol) -- was affiliated with the Christian Democratic Union of Germany.

    13. Please don't say the Nazis. As they were not conservatives by any stretch of the imagination

      Beeee-ess! SO easily debunked:

  2. i have question for both of you

    LK:as i understand aristotelian utilitarianism is different from the modern type of utilitarianism (its based on virtue and mastering your rationality and friutfull hard work) is it correct?

    the illusionist: if i got the concept of aristotle right its make him socialli conservative or modern relative moralist?

    1. Yes. Aristotle’s eudaemonist ethics is "virtue ethics," one of the 2 branches of teleological/consequentialist ethics. Aristotle wasn't a divine command theorist.

    2. See here:

    3. exactly thats my point that i am sure he wasnt bentham style utilitarian and he wasnt a moral relativist as well and yet his philosophy not require divine entity and yet i am sure he was more social conservative than lets say modern postmodernists.

      btw LK what is your opinion about aristotle "virtue ethics"?

      and do you have good books about it?

    4. Virtue ethics holds that morality consists in cultivation of virtue or excellence as the end of our action or moral life.

      That leaves out the need for ethical principles to be conducive to human well being and flourishing of human societies.

      I prefer a type of consequentialism that includes certain human rights as the ends for which we should aim:

    5. well of course its needed but even though i am a deist and a firm believer in a god but i never found the conservative story appealing and i never found hednoistic utilitarianism appealing either but i found the ideas somewhat attractive.

      and thats why if you know can you pls recommend me good books about the subject?

    6. Russell, ed., Daniel C. 2013. The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

      Taylor, Richard. 2002. An Introduction to Virtue Ethics. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

  3. Stalin could certainly be described as a "social conservative". He oversaw the outlawing of abortion which was to promote the role of the family in communism and push up the birthrate. The decriminalization of homosexuality was reversed and there was strict censorship of sexual content in the media. Like Stalin's USSR Romanian and Albania also banned abortions for a period of time though. With the exception of abortions s which were generally seen as fundamental women's rights in Marxist-Leninist states pretty much all of them had social attitudes that could be seen as socially conservative.

    Pornography, prostitution, and the sex industry were banned. Even in modern China someone was arrested for making an adult website and in Cuba you can be put to death for "corruption of the youth".

    Drugs, besides alcohol, were strictly prohibited.

    Violence and obscenity were not allowed in the media either. Sex wasn't discussed publicly expect in limited amounts for educational purposes. They all had strict immigration quotas and it was usually almost as hard to enter the countries as it was to leave.

    It would be pretty hard to deny that most Marxist-Leninist states were not "tough on crime" which is something strongly advocated by conservatives.

    So yes, in general communist party run nations were extremely socially conservative. The only exception was most allowed abortions.

    1. Do you have any good data on attitudes to and laws on divorce in communist countries?

      I understand there was some liberalisation of divorce from the 1960s, as in the West.

    2. well i just can say that my grandma divorced 3 times during her life in the soviet union (in the 70-s and the 80-s) so i think you are right about that.

      sadly i cant find data to confirm it but still its a personal expierence.

    3. Under Stalin divorce was made more difficult and dropped by about 61.3 percent according to Helen Rappaport, "Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion" (1999) page 86. I believe that after Stalin's death divorce was made easier and divorce rates rose.

      As for abortion policy, I believe medical reasons were given for the repeal of Stalin's ban on abortion. The worry was that illegal, underground abortions were causing harm to women's procreative health.

      Even after the repeal of abortion, the Soviet government tried to keep the number of abortions down and was generally pro-natalist and tried to discourage women from having abortions.


    4. LK

      My family was from the USSR. Divorce depended more on the culture of where you were from. Slavic and Baltic people tended to have high rates of divorce and smaller families. My family are Georgians who are very conservative and along with them the predominantly Muslim people of Azerbaijan and the central asian republics tended to have more children and few divorces.

      I once heard on a TV show called "The Americans" that the USSR had the 2nd highest divorce rate i the world, after America.

  4. Yes. Trade unionism placed a high value on the family and the local community. (unions often demanded higher wages for married workers. )This is almost the definition of socially conservative.

  5. Do you know Jean-Claude Michea, a french left-conservative philosopher? I think you can be interest by him!