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.