The future of the left since 1884

In defence of compromise

Sixty years on from the publication of In Defence of Politics, what can Bernard Crick’s great work tell us today? Paul Richards takes a look


Long read

It is 60 years since a 33-year-old professor of politics at the London School of Economics published the work that would make his name, and secure a  place on undergraduate reading lists in perpetuity. Bernard Crick wrote In Defence of Politics as a deliberate attempt to ‘justify politics in plain words by saying what it is’.

The result is a book of staggering power and clarity whose message should be heard and heeded by each generation. Politics, loosely defined as a way of balancing competing demands and settling differences without gunfire, needs defending against different antagonists in each decade. Crick was writing when one-sixth of the planet had governments claiming to be socialist, and plenty in the west believed in an ideology which would end both history and politics altogether. Today, the challenge to politics comes from people who swear by false prophets, faulty evidence, and fake news. Yet Crick’s warnings and remedies remain prescient and pertinent to our current predicament. No wonder In Defence of Politics has remained in print since 1962.

A couple of years after its publication, Crick said the book had been written ‘all in one deep breath’. Seldom does something written with such spontaneity enjoy such longevity, nor something untroubled by endless edits deliver such a straightforward style. The conscious choice of words, syntax, structure and wordcount serve to aid, not bewilder, the reader.

In this, Crick shares the same motive and approach to language as George Orwell. It is no coincidence that Crick produced arguably the best biography of Orwell and founded the prize to honour great political writing which bears his name. They are kindred spirits.

Crick, writing in the early 1960s, felt the need to describe and defend ‘politics’ in a time of Cold War, messy decolonisation, the first fractures in the post-war consensus, and the nascent twitchings of the New Left. Like many of the greats he cites, from Pericles to Hannah Arendt, his book both reflects, and transcends, his own time.

Crick’s targets are as relevant as ever: those who cling to ideology, or proclaim ‘democracy’ without living it, or  avow nationalism, or bow supine before technology, or claim ‘anti-politics’ as a legitimate system of belief. This last prefigures the rise of ‘populism’, the ultimate ‘false friend’.

The book was an instant hit. Isaiah Berlin described it as ‘exceedingly clever and disturbing … penetrating and serious’ at which point lesser men might have hung up their typewriter, knowing no review would ever again feel so sublime. The original 1962 hardback, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, was soon turned into a Pelican paperback, with an appendix aimed at professors of politics, to rally academia in pursuit of honesty and clarity. Crick’s despair at the lack of quality and opacity of academic approaches to politics remained undimmed for the rest of his life.

Twenty years later, in the midst of one of those bitter, internecine struggles that characterise Labour’s history, Crick added A Footnote to Rally Fellow Socialists. Perhaps this 1982 addition is of most utility to Fabians today. It reappeared, or at least a version of it, as Socialist Values and Time in March 1984 as Fabian Tract 495.

Here Crick reminds us that alongside orthodox Marxism, other socialisms are available:

“The decentralist, syndicalist and co-operative tradition of socialism that stems from Proudhon…the managerial or mixed economy version of socialism which emerged from both the German revisionists and the British Fabians…not to forget what I technically call ‘British socialism’…Robert Owen’s cooperative ideas, the cultural vision of William Morris, Methodist conscience, Chartist democracy and revisionist Marxism: libertarian, egalitarian and above all ethical, placing more stress on personal exemplifications of socialist values than on public ownership or class legislation.”

Labour then, as now, needed reminding that those whose worldview claims to have all the answers do more harm than good. Indeed, some only do harm. Far better is a  pluralist, open, non-doctrinaire socialism, with heroes not idols, guiding lights not tablets of stone, which is based on a system of values not a rigid system of economics. Crick further reminded us that to be a moderate socialist is not a  less-valid or somehow less-serious version of a ‘left-wing’ socialist: “Determined political socialists, however revolutionary their long-term aims, have to build up popular support if their measures are to work.”

He identified himself as a moderate socialist: “My goals are extreme and therefore I moderate and measure my means.”

Crick, alongside his friend David Blunkett, developed this theme in a pamphlet in 1988, The Labour Party’s Aims and Values: an unofficial statement, at a time, as now, when Labour was undergoing a policy review and more than a little soul-searching. As an undergraduate, I found its force and lucidity galvanising. It was the antidote to both rapacious Thatcherism and faux Leninism.

They wrote:

“The Labour party from its origins rejected revolutionary socialism. But Labour’s founders had ideals which if applied through free and democratic processes, example and discussion, applied step by step, patiently but with determination, would create a uniquely civilised society with a revolutionary change in social attitudes and values.”

The transforming periods of Labour in government, which now seem as distant as Narnia, Wakanda or Xanadu, bequeath to us no shortage of examples of this revolutionary change, based on civilised values not guillotines or secret police. If we forget how revolutionary the Equal Pay Act was, or the minimum wage, or healthcare free at the point of need, then we shall stumble into the future without a torch to light the way. Worse, if we dismiss Labour’s years in office as no better than the Tories’, we do their work for them. Who, then, is the true revolutionary? The drafter of White Papers or the waver of red flags?

In his original 1962 work, Crick wrote that:

“To think of the growth and survival of British Labour is to be impressed not with the efficacy of a single doctrine, but with the wonder of politics. It was acting politically that bound these forces together into a party of which, all too obviously, an intellectualised socialism was only one part.”

The wonder of politics. This is Crick’s core theme, and life’s work. Messy, frustrating, tiresome, ending inevitably in compromise, dilution or outright defeat, yet ultimately capable of greatness and infinitely preferable to the gulag. For Bernard Crick, conciliation, compromise, and adaptability were great political virtues not vices.

This was a theme Crick developed and amplified throughout his life, in his lectures, books, essays and articles for his beloved Political Quarterly. His brilliant work with Labour education secretary David Blunkett to instil an ethos of citizenship within the school curriculum remains unfinished business. To achieve such a thing, and with it an informed, educated and discerning polity, would be prize worth having.

In the appendix to In Defence of Politics in its 2000 edition, titled accurately as it turned out ‘epilogue’, Crick ended where he began: defending politics. The tumult of the previous 40 years had done nothing to diminish his faith in the power of politics to make things better. The scale of the challenge might be greater (the climate crisis), the process of politics more debased (sleaze), and the teaching of politics more internalised (pretty much every university politics department), but politics remains the least-worst option: “Only political solutions can meet whole world problems.”

Image credit: Philip Halling/Wikimedia

Paul Richards

Paul Richards is a writer and former chair of the Fabian Society


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