What is Tory Socialism?

I have deliberately given my blog what may appear to be a paradoxical, and indeed provocative, title. However, Tory Socialism is not purely a slogan designed to annoy liberals (although I hope it will, of course): it also expresses a real tradition of thought. In this post I am going to try to explain what is meant – or at least, what I understand – by Tory Socialism.

Introduction: Progressive v Tory Socialism

To many, the idea of ‘Tory Socialism’ will seem absurd. Conservatism and socialism are widely supposed to be mortal enemies, embodying totally opposite principles. Socialists, we are told, are ‘progressive’: they believe in equality, social justice and the liberation of individuals from all those institutions of hierarchy, arbitrary privilege and tradition that are held to oppress us (and some of us a lot more than others). Socialism represents, most of its current proponents would argue, true emancipation, via the action of collective institutions such as (usually most prominently) the state. Conservatives, in complete contrast, are decidedly not progressive: they glory in hierarchy and tradition; they believe equality – certainly economic equality – to be a chimera, the pursuit of which is likely to lead to consequences worse than the disease: social disorder, pauperism, and ultimately tyranny. They support free markets and capitalism, not attempts to impose patterns of social justice from above.

One premise of Tory Socialism is that this presentation of the opposition between these two outlooks is vastly overdrawn; highly simplistic; and, in sum, disastrous. It assumes that socialism is necessarily ‘progressive’ – which is false – and it ignores the major tension within conservatism, between its defence of capitalism and its belief in tradition and social stability.

In order to unpack this, we first need to understand why socialism is not necessarily ‘progressive’. The great historian of political thought J.G.A Pocock once remarked (writing in the 1980s):

“Even today, it might not be impossible to classify English Marxist thinkers as either progressive radical Whigs for whom socialism is the rebellious but natural son of liberalism, or alienated Tory radicals who denounce liberal capitalism, instead of praising it for it revolutionary role, as the destroyer of popular community and moral economy.”

I would contend that this distinction is really the key to understanding the difference between two different traditions: Progressive Socialists, and Tory Socialists (who actually are almost never Marxists). These traditions admit of a considerable degree of internal variation, but it seems to me that the basic outlines are quite clear. Let me outline Progressive Socialism as a prelude to a full analysis of the nature of Tory Socialism.

Progressive Socialism

The proponents of this tradition are, as Pocock put it, essentially “radical Whigs for whom socialism is the rebellious but natural son of liberalism”. The two main strands of intellectual influence that feed into this type of socialism are Marxist socialism – whether of a revolutionary or revisionist social democratic variety – and utilitarianism – whether of a cruder Benthamite, or slightly more subtle Millian, variety. It is a very broad tradition, incorporating a whole range of strands of leftism, from out-and-out Marxists (usually Trotskyites), through old-school Fabians, to the pinkest utilitarian reformists of post-war social democrat vintage, including ‘social’ liberals.

One might very plausibly contend that this disparate group of leftists have more to divide than unite them. They disagree on all kinds of issues: revolution versus reform, the extent to which the state should intervene in (or totally eliminate) private enterprise, and so on. This is true.

However, they have an awful lot to unite them.

Firstly, they have inherited the Whig conception of history as inevitably progressive, unfolding towards some desirable teleological endpoint. Perhaps this progress happens slowly (reformist Fabians), perhaps not-so-slowly (Trotskyists), but in any case, the present is only valuable insofar as it is stepping stone to some predetermined destination of benevolent futurity, and the past is something purely to be overcome. There is a related tendency to fetishize the new and the different; the modern and ‘up-to-date’; movement and change.

This leads naturally onto their second characteristic: they are anti-traditionalist, as they tend to see progress as emancipation from inherited and ‘given’ institutions, practices, habits and relationships – most especially the family, religion and the nation – all of which are seen almost solely as chains, as means by which people’s potential for improvement and true ‘self-realisation’ are stifled. Tradition and custom are written off as always and only the accumulated sediments of the superstition, the inherited and unmerited privilege, and the more-or-less cynical means of oppression and exploitation that make up the rock of ages.

This abhorrence of what they deem to be the superstitious and arbitrary gives rise to their third major feature: they are self-proclaimed rationalists. They worship science and technology, and tend to think that the methods peculiar to those areas of human understanding should be applied to morality and politics, the principles of which they therefore think can be ‘tested’, improved and applied in an objective, rationalistic and indisputable manner. Politics is therefore something that can only be left to the ‘people’ if they have been educated to the requisite standards of rationality (which in practice ends up strongly implying rule by experts and technocrats). They think that politics is merely an instrumental procedure for answering a series of questions that have a right and wrong answer, akin to flying a plane or performing brain surgery.

Such rationalism and anti-traditionalism gives rise to a mindset which privileges whatever can separated out from the particular, arbitrary chaos of reality and conceived in terms that are abstract; universal; cosmopolitan. Hence the fourth feature of Progressive Socialism, its disdain towards the particular, the specific and the familiar. A special attachment to one thing over another on any grounds other than superiority in abstractly rationalistic terms is seen as arbitrary. Taken to its extreme, this is well summed up by the Godwin’s mother example. Philosopher William Godwin argued, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, that if one had a choice between saving one’s own mother and the great writer Archbishop Fenelon from a fire, one should ignore any particular connection one might have to the former and choose to save the latter, on the basis that he will make more of a contribution to human intellectual life and truth. Such a mindset not only makes you intensely relaxed about seeing your own mum burn to death, it also lends itself to a disdain for the nation, or even any really meaningful conception of patriotism, and makes internationalism and a bloodless cosmopolitanism inevitable.

The fifth major feature of the Progressive Socialists is that they are materialists: they tend to be atheists, or maybe, at a push, people who accept only a very privatised and modest type of personal religion. They see politics largely – usually solely – in material terms, as question of the production and distribution of wealth, of satisfying people’s animal requirements. They will admit no spiritual dimension to their world or their politics. They are usually utilitarians of one sort or other, but they can vary according to the criteria upon which they think the lucre of materialism should be distributed. Some – usually the slightly less disagreeable type – are Kantians.

The Progressive mindset can be seen very clearly in this classic and much quoted passage of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

This passage can appear to have a form of ambivalence, insofar as traces of nostalgia or sentimental regard for ‘fixed, fast-frozen relations’ and ‘ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions’ can be detected in the text – profaning the holy and melting the solid into air don’t sound particularly pleasant – but the basic tone of the passage is clear: it is one of admiration and excitement. Marx saw capitalism as a great, progressive, necessary and inevitable force, that would clear away the superstitious trash of the past, dissolve all illusions and fantasies, and thereby provide the basis for the ultimate liberation of humankind. Whigs, and later liberals and bourgeois capitalists, are all, in this view, agents of positive and inevitable change, bringing into being necessary stages of historical development without which socialism would be impossible. There is a clear note of admiring wonder in his eulogies to the capitalists, who have accomplished awe-inspiring feats through ‘disturbance’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘agitation’.

The nature of Marx’s social, economic and political thought is a massive subject, and I am not going to get sidetracked by discussing it at great length. But it seems to me pretty clear that Marx was, generally speaking, contemptuous of the idea that there might be anything of worth preserving from history or custom, which was merely a huge back-catalogue of the irrational, the stupid, and the sentimental (always a harsh pejorative in the Marxist vocabulary). In his socialist future, the revolutionary transformation of social conditions would be accelerated even further than capitalism had dared to dream: the family, a bourgeois sham, would be abolished; there would clearly be no place for religion at all; and all nations would be dissolved in the brotherhood of man. We might pity the peasants whose common lands were enclosed, whose traditions of moral economy were shattered, and who were forced into wage labour, but ultimately, all that will turn out to be a price worth paying.

Other forms of socialism bred from the same stable will vary in the extent to which they will consistently follow through on these insights, but they basically share the same tendencies. Modern forms of ‘accelerationist’ techno-utopianism – see Inventing the Future by Srnicek and Williams, or Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, for example – take these elements of Progressive Socialism to a range of new extremes that Marx could only dimly have imagined, extremes that have now been made possible by developments in technology.

In an important sense, therefore, Progressive Socialism in its various forms is merely one logical conclusion of Enlightenment liberalism, in which all sources of irrationalism, of constraint, of tradition are blown away like cobwebs. The major difference is that the Progressive Socialists see collective social, economic and political organisation – usually embodied in its highest form as the state – as the means to the end of true freedom, and see capitalism itself as, ultimately, the last major barrier to full emancipation. But in essence, Progressive Socialism is the tearaway child of Whiggish liberalism, except it tends to change the adjectives and add another stage in after capitalism.

The Tory Socialist Tradition

So what of this other tendency? What is Tory Socialism?

There is much to be said about Tory Socialism as historical tradition. Various figures have, at one time or other, been said to embody it in some sense, either practically or intellectually. Many would invoke 19th century figures like Richard Oastler or the Earl of Shaftesbury, Tories who allied their Church and King loyalism with a zealous desire to protect the poor from the encroachments of capitalist exploitation by opposing the Poor Law Reform Act and campaigning for factory regulation. Some 18th century figures, like the Tory, republican, Jacobite deist – and all-round cad – Viscount Bolingbroke, could even be seen as its progenitors. Leading Tory politicians who were amenable to state action to tackle the social ills produced by unregulated capitalism, like Disraeli or MacMillan, might be invoked. On an intellectual level, romantic social critics and moralists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ruskin would probably be seen to be part of such a tradition – I would include a thinker such as R.H. Tawney too. Some of the elements of the early Labour Party whose roots were more associated with the earthy patriotism of working class Toryism than earnest chapel-going liberalism might also be mentioned, most notably Robert Blatchford –  a tradition that lingered on well into the Party’s later history in the form of figures like Bevin and Attlee. One might trace it back as far as William Cobbett, who combined an agrarian nostalgia and patriotic sensibility with a hearty desire for political and social reform.

I will write about Tory Socialism as an historical tradition more at some other time, but it’s certainly worth saying now that ‘Tory Socialism’ is not a tidy or self-consciously well-defined tradition. Tory socialists have spent more time doing than theorising and are more interested in questions of morality, piety and culture than academic political theory. Within the Tory socialist tradition, there is a lot of variation and many tensions. One might say that some are more Tories than socialists, and others more socialists than Tories. Nonetheless, I want to have a stab at sketching what some of the general features of such an outlook might be said to be, rather than getting bogged down in the historical detail.

At its most fundamental, to go back to the wonderful Pocock passage quoted earlier, Tory Socialists are those ‘alienated Tory radicals who denounce liberal capitalism, instead of praising it for it revolutionary role, as the destroyer of popular community and moral economy.’ Such an outlook accepts the truth of Marx’s description of the tendency of liberal capitalism to sweep away all sentimental or customary institutions and practices and destabilize established social life, but rather than welcoming it and wanting to take it further, Tory Socialists see such a tendency as a deep and terrible tragedy, an appalling threat to human dignity and virtue. They perceive, in the particular, the customary, and the traditional, a set of deep and powerful resources that, as well as potentially being valuable in themselves, can be used to resist the attempts of liberal capitalists to commodify, degrade and profane every place, everything and everyone. Capitalists, in short, know the price of every commodity, but the value of nothing they commodify – and, argue Tory Socialists, the historical alliance between capitalism and conservatism is nothing more than a historically contingent, and highly unstable, compound of two largely contradictory principles.

The Poor Law Reform Act is a pretty good historical example. The legislation, passed in 1834 abolished (at least in theory, the extent to which it was implemented in practice is disputed) outdoor relief paid to the poor, confined poor relief to the context of the workhouse only, and aimed to make the conditions of the workhouse so truly unpleasant that only the most desperate would ever voluntarily enter it. This included separating out different types of pauper into different workhouses, so that no account would be taken of family ties.

This legislation, where implemented properly, had a number of obvious effects. The previous system (which itself was far from perfect) did at least allow terrible wages to be somewhat subsidised and the worst impacts of poverty and unemployment ameliorated during periods of economic distress, and it did allow families to be kept together in tough times. The new system was intended to ensure that workers could only sell their labour at its bare market value (helping finally create a free labour market, crucial to the development of capitalism). If that value was not enough to support a family, then the family would have to be broken up as the price of each individual member of that family staying alive (barely, if they were lucky).

Tory radical Richard Oastler objected to the Act as contrary to his deeply held Christian beliefs. He called it ‘a gross & wicked law’, arguing that, ‘if it was truth, the Bible was a lie’. It was to dehumanise the poor, to treat them like animals. It amounted to the wealthy and privileged abdicating their duty to treat the poor decently. It also had the impact of dissolving the venerable institution of the family and making a mockery of the sacred bond of marriage (as husbands and wives would be imprisoned in different, sex-segregated workhouses).

In other words (although Oastler would doubtlessly have not put it like this), the implicit Tory Socialist critique of liberal capitalism was that it paid no heed to timeless Christian duties of mutual love and care, and it dissolved sacred ties of matrimony and the family unit (it was wryly observed that someone had ignored the famous line ‘those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder’ (contained in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service) when drafting the parts of the bill that meant that married couples would have to be split up when entering the workhouse).

It might be argued that opposition to liberal, free-market economic policies on the basis of the impact it has on tradition is not so much Tory socialism as simple Tory reaction, as many of the traditions, customs and institutions of England before the advent of the unleashing of capitalism were largely oppressive and irrational. One might be able to give a few examples wherein the impact of such policies on customary social bonds and institutions had a detrimental effect on (some) working people, but, broadly speaking, the sweeping away of the welter of irrationalism of European ancien regimes was no bad thing. Just ask the French peasants who, pre French Revolution, were weighed down with customary taxes and subject to all kinds of oppressive manorial rights and dues – or English peasants who were obliged to pay tithes to the Church.

This is to ignore the wider moral and political framework within which Tory socialism (at least on my account) operates. Let me elucidate this.

The Tory Socialist Outlook

To Tory socialists, each human being is an infinitely valuable moral being made in the image of God, in possession of an immortal soul, and deserving of dignity and respect. Hence all human beings require, first and foremost, a context in which their dignity can be respected and protected and they can flourish according to their God-given gifts, in accordance with the duties that morality requires and the discipline of a wider social and moral order. In order to have dignity and be able to flourish, they need to be assured that they will be able to have access to the goods, such as adequate food, housing, decent wages and working conditions, that are a sine qua non of dignity and decency. There needs to be means to prevent wealth and power becoming excessively concentrated in such a way as to make oppression and injustice likely – or perhaps inevitable, given the fallen nature of humankind.

However, human flourishing is much more than a ‘knife and fork’ question. Human beings do not live by bread alone. They are not simply desiccated utilitarian machines burning up units of pleasure like calories, nor are they simply heedless, irresponsible rights-bearers constantly in search only of liberation from the burdens imposed on them by the community and protection against the oppression they constantly suspect others of subjecting them to. They find true fulfilment within a context that is both social, and which they did not and cannot entirely choose; within a web of inherited social relationships and institutions that provide them with the kind of discipline and wisdom they could never uncover for themselves as individuals. This fulfilment requires a social, cultural, spiritual context in which they can find meaning, community, and incentives to live a virtuous and full human life – and such a context implies continuity and the passing of wisdom from generation to generation. It does imply that they will have rights – but it also means that they have social duties, such as the duty to be one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper, to make a contribution to their community and nation, and to look after their family and neighbours. It inevitably means that custom, particularity and tradition must be seen not solely as a burden, or as an arbitrary imposition, but as a precious inheritance which is more likely to be a source of cultural nourishment than simply a source of oppression.

The Tory socialist critique of capitalism is that the rule of markets and profit undermines, and, if allowed to be taken to its logical conclusion, inevitably destroys, this precious and delicate ecosystem of customary relationships, institutions and practices that allows humans to truly flourish in a rounded and full way. Human beings require many goods, but by reducing the measure of all social and economic life to one metric – money – liberalism and capitalism suck the life out of the institutions that sustain many of those other, material and non-material, cultural, moral and spiritual, goods.

One thing that human beings require to truly flourish is an economic and social context which encourages virtuous behaviour – mutual love and care for one another, loyalty, prudence, fortitude, temperance, and so on. The motor of capitalism is inevitably vice. Unrestrained competition and unregulated markets inevitably reward the greedy and exploitative. To increase their profits, many firms need to encourage vicious habits in the general public. They encourage imprudent borrowing, partly because they can make an unjust profit out of usury, and partly because the monies borrowed are then available for people to waste on unnecessary consumer goods that they don’t really need. Capitalism inevitably ends up encouraging speculation and spivvery, the attempt to make money by manipulating prices and glorified gambling rather than honest labour and productive endeavour, often with side-effects that reduce humans to indigence and desperation. Capitalism has no room for loyalty – the loyal consumer is the stupid one, the one who misses out on the best prices because they aren’t constantly switching their custom from one place to another. There is always money to be made out of exploiting people’s worst characteristics – their gluttony, their lust, their fear. If one attempts to introduce the rule of money and profit as the only valid principle, applicable to all areas of life, as capitalism inevitably tries to do, then one inevitably acquiesces in the rule of vice.

Human beings also need a sense of the sacred. Even secular liberals have their own sense of the sacred – they have elevated principles such as their rather odd and Godless conception of human rights to the status of sacred principles (in a totally incoherent way, but that’s another story). In the 21st century, in wealthy western countries, few retain anything like committed adherence to one of the established religious traditions that provide a theological and affective framework for thinking about and worshipping the sacred, but the yearning for the transcendental, the sacred, the holy remains – it cannot be eliminated. Even in a country like the UK, the majority of people would describe themselves in some vague way as religious or ‘spiritual’ – and outside of western Europe, the world is the most religious it has ever been: 75% of the world’s population adhere to one of only 4 religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism), and just 14% are non-religious.

Capitalism either destroys, or more likely perverts, this yearning for the sacred. It encourages the worship of false idols – consumerism, wealth, celebrity. The sacred must be respected – by definition, it cannot be trafficked, degraded, bought or sold – but capitalism recognises no such categories or restrictions: anything can be bought and sold if it is profitable to do so. Most religions recognise, for example, human life itself as sacred. The tendency of capitalism is to attempt to introduce the rule of profit and markets to the realm of even human lives and bodies, through practices such as surrogacy, the organ trade, abortion, legalising ‘sex work’ and so on. This destroys our sense of the sacred and eliminates all human dignity, even unto life itself. The only taboo still recognised is actual chattel slavery, but even that still continues in great numbers under the surface of a globalised capitalist world order.

Human beings also need a sense of place, of rootedness, of stability. Most people can only flourish in a context where they know where they will be, who their neighbours and workmates will be, and in what community they can meaningfully participate tomorrow, and the day after. People develop affections and loyalties to their towns, their countryside, their local environment: they yearn for home and delight in nature. Constant change and movement disorientates people. It loosens the bonds of community, it disturbs the often spatially located habits of virtue, worship and friendship that are gradually built up and developed over time.

Capitalism, of course, has no respect for place, home or nature. If there is a profit to be made by desecrating nature, or rapidly stripping your town of its historic nature and character, then some firm will try to do it. Capitalism relies on mobility and constant change. Firms want people to constantly move about from place to place to suit their needs: spatial mobility, ultimately to the level of the globe, is inherent in the nature of capitalist labour markets. Capital, when unregulated, is footloose and recognises only the need to move to wherever it can increase it return: it has no loyalty to any place. Bosses have to be constantly changing their products, coming up with new gimmicks and fashions, building in obsolescence to make sure we can never get too attached even to the things we buy, in order to maintain and increase their profits.

Human beings also need a sense of community and solidarity. This doesn’t simply mean solidarity as a functional means to an end – like a trade union seen purely as a mechanism for securing higher wages (although that is one of the valid purposes of a trade union). It means community and solidarity as valuable ends in themselves, and as means of pursuing ends the value of which cannot be accounted in pounds and pence. Through association, co-operation and collective loyalty, both to each other and to our institutions at large, we can develop virtues of mutual service, find meaning to our lives, and play our part in the accomplishment of important ends that all human beings needs to flourish (such as health, worship of the sacred, cultural enrichment, education, and so on).

Tory Socialists see in the institutions and practices that we have inherited means of encouraging virtue, respecting the sacred, breeding community and solidarity, and protecting our sense of place. They therefore see these institutions and practices as bulwarks against the tendency of liberal capitalism to encourage vice, profane the sacred, destroy popular community and solidarity, and uproot us in the service of money-grubbing and profiteering.

Perhaps the best way of summarising the Tory socialist outlook on life is this wonderful quotation from Anglo-Catholic socialist intellectual R.H. Tawney:

“All decent people are at heart conservatives, in the sense of desiring to conserve the human associations, loyalties, affections, pious bonds between man and man which express a man’s personality and become at once a sheltering nest for his spirit and a kind of watch-tower from which he may see visions of a more spacious and bountiful land. All decent people are against a creed which tries such things by the standard of ‘utility’ as though there were any end of life except life itself.”

The Partnership in Virtue

In order to understand the way in which Tory socialists defend key inherited practices and institutions, let us consider the notions of ‘practices’ and ‘internal goods’.

Alasdair MacIntyre outlines these ideas in his classic work After Virtue:

“By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

There are thus two kinds of good possibly to be gained by playing chess. On the one hand there are those goods externally and contingently attached to chess-playing and to other practices by the accidents of social circumstance […] in the case of real adults such goods as prestige, status and money. There are always alternative ways for achieving such goods, and their achievement is never to be had only by engaging in some particular kind of practice. On the other hand there are the goods internal to the practice of chess which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess or some other game of that specific kind. We call them internal for two reasons: first, as I have already suggested, because we can only specify them in terms of chess or some other game of that specific kind and by means of examples from such games (otherwise the meagerness of our vocabulary for speaking of such goods forces us into such devices as my own resort to writing of ‘a certain highly particular kind of’); and secondly because they can only be identified and recognized by the experience of participating in the practice in question. Those who lack the relevant experience are incompetent thereby as judges of internal goods.”

He goes onto explain that a crucial difference between internal and external goods is that external goods tend to be individually possessed, and acquiring them is a zero-sum game: ‘characteristically they are such that the more someone has of them, the less there is for other people’. This means that they are usually the objects of competition ‘in which there must be losers as well as winners’. Internal goods are quite different – their ‘achievement is a good for the whole community who participates in the practice.”

Different institutions exist to cultivate different practices, to the end of realizing different internal goods that tend to the real, diverse needs of human beings, and allow the full range of human virtues to be developed. If external goods become the measure and the managing principle of our institutions, then they become corrupted.

Let us take an example. The internal good of the NHS is health. Doctors get paid well, they get social prestige (nurses, sadly, less so in terms of the salary aspect)– but these are the mere external goods of being a good doctor or nurse. The real internal good of the NHS is to make us well, and that isn’t achievable in any way other than doctors and nurses cultivating the practice of medicine. If some members of society are excluded from its remit, then health and healing are not fully realised in our society – hence the NHS’s (socialist) principle of being based on need, not ability to pay. Of course, it needs material resources to do this, and nurses and doctors need decent material compensation, but to introduce any other principle as the rule of the NHS – money, or the discipline of internal markets, or indeed bureaucratic box-ticking unrelated, or related only perversely, to health and healing – is to wreck it as an institution.

The NHS is an institution we have inherited relatively recently, but similar principles apply to older ones. The Church is the pursuit of the internal good of worship and sanctity. Our unwritten constitution seeks the internal good of strong and efficient government under the rule of law. Our monarchy embodies the internal goods of national unity and wide participation in civic honour, glory and magnificence. Marriage is the vehicle for pursuing the internal goods of mutual comfort and society, romantic love, and reproduction. The BBC should be the institutional framework within which the nation can acquaint itself with its cultural legacy, promote learning and new cultural endeavours, and inform itself. And so on. Reforms that allow the mechanisms of these institutions to better pursue the particular internal good they aim at can be welcomed.

These institutions, bound together within a framework ultimately refereed by the state, combine with our natural affection for the places we call home, and the island we inhabit and have learned to love, to collectively form our sense of community and nationhood as Englishmen and women: a collective partnership in virtue, in humanity, and in honour. As Burke put it, society:

“…ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.”

Marketisation, privatisation, deregulation – all of the instruments of neoliberal capitalism – wreck this Tory and socialist conception of the unity and virtue of the nation (a nation whose membership is not, let me emphasize, a function of race, but rather commitment to and participation within its life and institutions over time). Globalization attempts to undermine any sense of particularity, national attachment or local community altogether. The proponents of free market capitalism and neoliberal globalization try, quite literally, to make our society into nothing better than a low and vulgar commercial contract that pertains only to our ‘gross animal existence’.

It is important to expand on this a little and explain in what sense Tory Socialists are necessarily patriots. Human virtue and collective flourishing require contexts that are collective, but also exclusive. The natural affections that we have for our family; our local community; and the clubs and institutions that we join and contribute to – Burke’s ‘little platoons’ – can expand outwards in scale, but they cannot do so indefinitely. As 18th century radical Major John Cartwright wrote,

 “Our family, our parish, our country, are the immediate spheres in which, by the limitation of our faculties and the boundedness of our powers, Providence has required us to perform in an especial manner the duties of Christianity.”

The limitations of our powers as human beings mean that we have to limit the spheres in which we perform our most active and civic duties, and the social context in which we derive meaning and purpose cannot be infinite. The largest meaningful unit in which humans can still retain a sense of their agency, responsibility and participation, and for which they can still have meaningful affection, is the nation state, and so this must be the outer limit of our collective partnership in virtue. This is not to say that we do not still have some important duties – the most basic and fundamental duties that are owed to all human beings – to those from other countries. It does not mean that we need hate or denigrate other nations.  It does, however, mean that we must accept the reality that he who loves the whole of humanity, in practice loves no-one; that he who is a citizen of the world is, indeed, ultimately a citizen of nowhere; that to be a true socialist, one must be a true Englishman (or woman).

Further Reflections

Let me draw out a few further reflections on what Tory socialism means.

Firstly, it clearly is socialism. Although it requires us to respect our historical institutions, it may require reform of those institutions to ensure that everyone can participate in our social partnership of ‘every virtue, and in all perfection’. It may require new institutions to tend to areas of human need that our historic inheritance has neglected – the creation of the NHS in the 40s would be one example, the crying need for decent, humane national care service today would be a contemporary case. A Tory socialist society is keen to ensure that everyone can play their part in helping to realise the internal goods that they are particularly suited to help collectively cultivate – indeed, they would say that playing such a role is the duty of every individual – while enjoying and participating in the other internal goods that they need and are provided by other institutions. Virtues and internal goods within institutions are better cultivated by co-operation and a sense of artisan cultivation and vocation than competition and dehumanising alienation. There can be no virtue in a society in which markets and profit rule supreme.

With regards to material issues and economic equality, a Tory socialist society realises that everyone needs, as well as virtue and culture, the material conditions and external goods that are required in order to flourish and live a decent and humane life, and that the excessive accumulation of external goods beyond what anyone can reasonably need or use tends to corrupt individuals. So, through a mixture of civil society, the state and the institutions that are a backbone of the good society, those goods will be provided to all, and gross inequalities will be trimmed back to ensure that large disparities of wealth and power are impossible. It will, nonetheless, be recognised that perfect material equality is neither possible, nor probably particularly desirable. So long as everyone is given the wider context in which they can flourish and cultivate their talents, virtues and duties, in which their particular affections and attachments can be maintained, and their essential, but differing, needs are met, then obsessing over exact predetermined patterns of equality or social justice is not so important.

This leads to the second major point: Tory Socialists operate in a different moral universe to Progressive Socialists, and utilise the full range of human moral experience. The classic manoeuvre of Progressive Socialists is to outline some abstract principle derived from convoluted philosophical logic-chopping, measure reality against it, and when reality doesn’t measure up to it, attempt to manipulate reality until it does, or at least believe that this is the correct response (they aren’t very good at actually changing reality very much in practice). Progressive Socialists therefore fail to see the value of the elements of reality that simply don’t register to them, because they don’t fit into the very narrow set of categories they have decided to elevate above all other considerations as measuring sticks (utility, distributive justice etc). When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So, if one reads progressive academic leftist political philosophy (as, sadly, I am obliged to for my work), then a very common manoeuvre is to argue that certain features, because they weren’t, or couldn’t have been, chosen by an individual, and are a matter of brute luck, should be corrected for. For example, some people are born in very poor countries; they didn’t and couldn’t have chosen to be born in, say, Eritrea; therefore it is not justifiable to expect them to continue to live in Eritrea. They have an absolute right, therefore, to be able to emigrate to a wealthier country where they will have better life chances. To deny them that would be condemn them to a morally arbitrary disadvantage.

The fact that there might be other things to value about living in such a country, and other means of addressing the issue of economic impoverishment, does not occur to such a mindset. An individual born in Eritrea will have been born into a family there, and (presumably, I know nothing about Eritrea) will be an inheritor of a rich web of cultural meaning, of patriotic spirit, of spirituality and other associations. They may not have chosen it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t derive meaning from it and value it. They might prefer to stay in their country and attempt to contribute to its development – to try to help make it a better country to live – because it is precious to them, because it is theirs. They may very well think that leaving and abandoning their country is a dereliction of duty.

The root cause of this kind of blindness is that the moral register of Progressive Socialists is very narrow, and the diverse range of potential sites of human moral sustenance, belonging and meaning has been narrowed down by them in such a way as to exclude anything considered ‘arbitrary’, ‘irrational’ or ‘exclusive’. But of course, all human life is, in some sense, arbitrary, irrational and exclusive. No one chooses their family, or their language, or their looks, or their hometown or many other features about themselves – such things are always going to be matters of ‘arbitrary luck’ that simply cannot be corrected. Without some degree of exclusivity, life would be pretty grim: being friends with one person rather than another, loving one person and not another, are all examples of ‘exclusivity’. They are unavoidable features of the human condition – indeed, they are positive sources of meaning, joy and life to most of us. People are members of the human race and their material conditions are important – but so are their sense of national identity, their religion, their family ties, and a hundred other things about them. Tory socialists say: why not value the multifarious ways in which people find meaning and navigate their way through life, rather than focus on only a few, and them usually in an unhelpfully rigid and abstract way? Why not appeal to people’s sense of loyalty, of loss, of sanctity – as well as their desire for care and compassion, and their desire for individual ‘liberation’?

Another important point is that Tory Socialists are sceptical about this language of ‘liberation’ or ‘emancipation’ in general, and put at least as much emphasis on the principle of restraint as they do on liberty. A decent society is not simply about liberating people from restraints, stripping away everything about them that is ‘arbitrary’ and freeing them from the burdens placed upon them by the moral standards of society, the duties they owe others, and so forth. If one were to strip away every particular or ‘arbitrary’ thing about human beings – their nationality, their family, their social background, their religion – then one would be left with nothing much at all. The man behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ is no man at all. The only thing that would be ‘liberated’ would be pure, formless, corrosive self-will, a mere empty id.

In contrast, Tory Socialism is about realising that it is within the context of restraint and obedience, within the limits placed on our appetites by community, moral principles and just discipline, that we can truly realise our moral potential, cultivate healthy relationships and virtue and live a truly human life.

Ruskin put this well when in the following passage:

You hear every day greater numbers of foolish people speaking about liberty, as if it were such an honourable thing; so far from being that, it is, on the whole, and in the broadest sense, dishonourable, and an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free as a fish. There is always something that he must or must not do; while the fish may do whatever he likes. All the kingdoms of the world put together are not half so large as the sea, and all the railroads and wheels that ever were or will be invented, are not so easy as fins. You will find, on fairly thinking of it, that it is his restraint which is honourable to man, not his liberty; and, what is more, it is restraint which is honourable even in the lower animals. A butterfly is more free than a bee, but you honour the bee more just because it is subject to certain laws which fit it for orderly function in bee society. And throughout the world, of the two abstract things, liberty and restraint, restraint is always the more honourable. It is true, indeed, that in these and all other matters you never can reason finally from the abstraction, for both liberty and restraint are good when they are nobly chosen, and both are bad when they are badly chosen; but of the two, I repeat, it is restraint which characterises the higher creature, and betters the lower creature; and from the ministering of the archangel to the labour of the insect, from the poising of the planets to the gravitation of a grain of dust — the power and glory of all creatures and all matter consist in their obedience, not in their freedom. The sun has no liberty, a dead leaf has much. The dust of which you are formed has no liberty. Its liberty will come — with its corruption.

Finally, it is worth noting that Tory socialists also have quite a different view of history relative to Progressives. They recognise that there is nothing inevitable about history, and it is always a mixed story of both improvement and decline. The past contains much to admire and learn from, but shouldn’t dictate all our current actions. Decline is always as much a possibility as progress, and technological and material progress does not necessarily imply moral or spiritual progress. We should attempt to preserve what is valuable, and gradually, sensibly reform the elements of our past inheritance that retard, rather than assist with, human virtue and flourishing. However, it is almost certainly the case that institutions, practices and frameworks that have developed gradually in response to real human need, in all of its richness and variety, are likely to contain much that can sustain us and protect us against capitalist degradation.

This does not imply a totally uncritical attitude to all existing traditions and customs. Some traditions and customs are themselves vicious. All good traditions are living ones, that grow and develop and adapt to circumstances, that use their rich inherited framework as an invaluable, but by no means an unchangeable or rigid, resource with which to navigate the challenges of social life. But Tory socialists recognise and respect the powerful conservative insight that good things are easy to unthinkingly tear down and destroy, but they are very difficult to build up. However, they don’t let that insight ossify into the view that all change must necessarily be a corruption, a decline, a falling away from a perfect golden age, and that only venerable and ancient institutions are any good. Good institutions and practices have to start somewhere, after all, and the institutions we inherit may need sensitive reform to make them conduce better to the ends that they are meant to help us pursue.

The final issue, which hangs over everything is: do Tory socialists have to be religious? I don’t want to open this can of worms at length now, but I would suggest that if one sees human life purely in terms of utility and materialism; if you think that we are nothing more than brute beasts of the field, bodily machines that can be treated in an accordingly mechanical manner; and can admit no spiritual or sacred dimension to the human experience at all, it’s probably pretty difficult to appreciate the Tory socialist dimension. It is not a coincidence that most of its adherents have been Christians.


Wherever socialists have let their progressive tendencies dominate, one of two things tends to happen. In a non-democratic or revolutionary context, if they manage to win power, they tend to inflict disaster, destruction and death. Power requires them to encounter and deal with the actual masses, who tend to be rather more attached to their traditions and important elements of their existing social relations than Bolshevik cadres can appreciate, and rather less willing to sacrifice themselves to the dynamic forces of historical progress than their Party masters would like. In this scenario, the workers tend to find their new progressive masters little better than their old capitalist ones. Every October Revolution produces its own Kronstadt.

Alternatively, in a more democratic context, the more progressive socialists become, the more likely they are to simply lose elections.  You may be progressive comrade, but I’m afraid that about 85% of the workers you purport to represent…aren’t.

This is why, in practice, progressives historically never entirely had things their own way within the left. The Labour movement always had strong counterbalances to the progressive tendencies that the Labour Party contains within it: the unions, most of the workers, and crucially, the voters. The Labour Party had strong Tory socialist elements within it.  It was a mixture, and the dynamic tensions between its various wings did, perhaps, have productive results.

The danger is that the Left, and more specifically the Labour Party, is now becoming a Tory Socialist-free zone. They increasingly take Progressive Socialism to ever more extreme lengths, laced with a healthy dose of ultra-divisive cultural identical politics, and ignore the lessons that us disaffected Tory radicals might have to teach them.

I hope that one day they might learn to stop worrying and love their Queen, Church and nation, as well as trade unions, the NHS and the welfare state, all of which are rich parts of our wonderful national tapestry.

I’m not holding my breath though.


8 thoughts on “What is Tory Socialism?

  1. James Conway says:

    Great summation of my own political views and my increasing feelings of alienation from the neoliberal consensus.

  2. grahambc1 says:

    Fascinating and thought provoking read. I am someone who considers themselves a non progressive Socialist. I am a Christian and I agree with your critique of Capitalism. I don’t hold such a venerated view of man made institutions. Marriage and the family are obviously sacred and venerable as is the Church, but by the Church I talk of the body of Christ’s people not the man made organisation. Man made institutions however well intentioned can outlive their use, become corrupt or preserve the wrong things. I believe that the institution of the monarchy is a negative one that preserves wealth and power in too few a hands and contradicts some of your admirable ends.

    I also think that you are too critical of many Socialists. The modern day Labour Party has been infiltrated by Liberal capitalists, whilst many in remainder of the party hold a balance between progressive and community based views.

  3. William MacDougall says:

    Ah no. They are opposites, Tories can be sceptical about capitalism and liberalism, but they can’t be obsessed with equality and state ownership, and they can’t be “progressives” except under very narrow definitions of that word.

    • capellofft says:

      Did you actually read this beyond the first paragraph? I mean, the fact that much of this is devoted to showing that socialism is not necessarily progressive, just to point out the most obvious thing, suggests that you read the first paragraph or two, couldn’t be bothered with the rest of it, switched your brain off and made a comment rehashing your own prejudices about what Toryism and socialism mean.

      Engage properly or don’t bother.

  4. Ross Mackenzie says:

    Having read your Tory Socialist essay, it seems to me economic free market Conservatives and progressive socialists have destroyed what it really means to be a Conservative/Socialist patriot that cares for the nation state and the welfare of its people, believes in the rule of law and liberty (under the law) which are derived from God whilst also appreciating that those rights are inherited from older and more ancient generations which fought and died for such high ideals to pass them on to us. It is also evident to me there has been a disregard for the great institutions (Church/family) that have sustained english civilisation for centuries by both parties along with the collapse of Christianity which served as moral restraints and bonds in English society. I very much subscribe to your way of thinking as it strongly resembles the thought of both Peter Hitchens and Edmund Burke, both people I have great admiration for. I want to say I appreciate your clear way of thinking and expression of such ideals which I have found very difficult to make clear for myself and therefore I am extremely grateful for this well written essay. I subscribe to the ideals of Blue Labour and regard it as a true Conservative movement in England. Finally I don’t subscribe to the world “socialist” as the it should be the role of everyone to care for the welfare of others from a capitalist market, even if your a conservative.

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