Intellectual history Virtual Issues

Class Struggle and the Revision of British Socialism — The JHI in the Early Cold War – Virtual Issue 3.2

By Thomas Holland and Thomas Furse

By Thomas Holland and Thomas Furse

This series began with a provocation: between the 1940s and 1960s, the Journal of the History of Ideas became an “anti-communist laboratory.” Its editorial policy, however, was not simply to create a dogmatic stronghold of “liberalism” in the fight against communism. It also promoted scholarship by authors with normative commitments more analogous to the progressive ideology of the New Deal. In The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order (2022), Gary Gerstle contends that postwar American politics should not simply be interpreted as a drift rightwards in response to the Soviet development of atomic weapons, the Chinese Communist Revolution, and the eruption of war in Korea. America was embroiled in a politics of persecution characterized as the “Second Red Scare.” Yet he questions the popular narratives of historians such as Michael Heale that an “anti-communist consensus” engulfed American public life culminating in the 1950s, or Landon Storrs’ dramatic claim that the Second Red Scare directly “stunted the development of the American welfare state” (Heale, 167; Storrs, 1). Acknowledging the widespread purges of communists among progressive circles, Gerstle counters that the existential Soviet threat in fact forced the Republican Party to uphold fundamental New Deal principles. Remarkably, Eisenhower’s Republican government from 1953 – 1961 actively preserved social security, unemployment insurance, labor laws, and the top marginal tax rate at ninety percent (Gerstle, 45). This continued the unparalleled fall in wealth inequality and reinforced the “class compromise between capital and labor” begun in the 1940s (Gerstle, 25). Crucially, Gerstle targets Republican acquiescence to the Democratic program as the moment when the New Deal movement became a “political order.” In other words, it was the moment when a particular cluster of “ideologies, policies and constituencies” endured past the ordinary cycles of party politics (Gerstle, 1).

The articles selected for this installment advanced measured revaluations of British liberal and socialist political thought, from Robert Owen to the Fabians. Published between 1943 and 1955, they were also, to varying degrees, interventions within postwar ideological debates. Despite working under the constraints of a society arresting university professors suspected as communists (Heale, 186), the contributors were not subject to direct political censorship. Research in the history of ideas has a distinct temporality not immediately tied to the twists and turns of contemporaneous political events. This is partly why “anti-communist laboratory” is an apt description for the JHI at this time. While it would not countenance the direct advocacy of communist ideals, it was open enough to facilitate a spirit of experimental liberal and socialist historical revisionism. Moreover its founder Arthur Lovejoy drew parallels between his methodological approach and that of analytical chemistry. It was the task of the historian of ideas to break down philosophical systems into their “component elements,” or “unit ideas,” and to discern how these determined the evolution of particular patterns of thought (Lovejoy, 3).

It is, therefore, worth asking: Why did the JHI publish numerous articles revising British socialism at this particular juncture? How should we understand these articles as contributions to the history of political thought? And how did they relate to the ideological conflict between anti-communist conservatism, and New Deal progressivism? Limitations of space mean a fully satisfactory or holistic response to these questions is impossible. This installment will instead attempt to provide some answers by focusing specifically upon how each author interpreted the idea of class struggle, or its absence, in the work of British liberals and socialists.


Arthur E. Bestor Jr, “The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary,” Journal of the History of Ideas,, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jun., 1948), pp. 259-302

J. Salwyn Schapiro, “John Stuart Mill, Pioneer of Democratic Liberalism in England,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. IV, No. 2 (Apr, 1943), pp. 127-160

Lewis S. Feuer, “John Stuart Mill and Marxian Socialism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Apr., 1949), pp. 297-303

William Irvine, “Shaw, the Fabians, and the Utilitarians,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr., 1947), pp. 218-231

Mary Peter Mack, “The Fabians and Utilitarianism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1955), pp. 76-88

Ralph Miliband, “The Politics of Robert Owen,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1954), pp. 233-245


When Arthur E. Bestor Jr published “The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary” in the June 1948 edition of the JHI, two schools of American historiography vied for supremacy. The first, known as the “progressive school,” was distinguished by its emphasis upon economic relations and class struggle as motors of political change. In his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), its leading exponent Charles A. Beard asserted that “class and group divisions based on property lie at the basis of modern government” (Beard, 16). Contending the American Constitution emerged through clashes between economic interests over property distribution, Beard wrote in the spirit of the “New Deal Order” and its concern for distributive justice. When Beard died in September 1948, the progressive school was already being challenged.

In that same year, Richard Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition; an early example of what would become known as the “consensus school” of history. This younger generation of historians generally sought to delegitimize accounts of conflict as the primary engine of political change. Figures such as Hofstadter, and Bestor’s supervisor at Yale, Ralph Henry Gabriel, argued that placing class conflict at the center of historical development obscured the “common climate of American opinion” (Hofstadter, vii). Hofstadter and Gabriel echoed Lovejoy’s search for “unit ideas,” by attempting to isolate the common ends, “main currents” of political sentiment, or patterns of “social beliefs” that endured throughout American history (Hofstadter, v, x; Gabriel, xiv). Gabriel shared Hofstadter’s normative conclusion that these deeper trends of American history were “nationalistic . . . individualistic and capitalistic” (Hofstadter, x).

Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934. Between the Teamsters Union and Communist League of America against the state of Minnesota. The governor declared martial law to help end the strike. Wiki Commons.

Under the influence of progressive historian Merle Curti, Bestor combined elements of both traditions while assimilating the anti-conflictual bias of the consensus school. Unlike Curti, he avoided such grandiose themes as The Growth of American Thought. Instead, he successfully recovered a lost strand of Owenite American utopian socialism in his first major work, Backwoods Utopias (1950). The earlier JHI essay “Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary” would be rewritten as that book’s preface. Yet Bestor’s JHI intervention was distinctive as a stand-alone piece. Its aim was to more precisely understand major ideological concepts such as “socialism” or “communism,” by studying their emergence alongside a constellation of rival ideas that failed to gain common currency. Bestor finds as early as 1803, socialista was pejoratively deployed by an Italian writer. It was in the Owenite Co-operative Magazine, however, that “socialism” entered into the European vocabulary in a recognizable form (Bestor, 277). Similarly, it was not the Fourierites, Saint-Simonians or Owenites who coined the word communiste, but a group of “relatively obscure leaders” within Parisian secret societies during the reign of Louis-Philippe (Bestor, 279). At the time of the conversion of communisme into English by the Owenite John Goodwyn Barmby in 1840, a myriad of analogous terms could have been alternatively adopted, including harmonisme, unitéisme, synthesism, associationist, or the English predecessor, societarian (Bestor, 268). Étienne Cabet was still referring to his doctrine as communauté in 1841 (Bestor, 261).

Focusing upon such “paths not travelled” in intellectual history to illuminate the contingency and development of “great texts” would soon become a central theme for linguistic contextualists such as J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner. Bestor shared their cautious avoidance of anachronism. He rejected interpretations of Robert Owen’s community of New Harmony as an early experiment in communism simply because the word did not exist in 1825 (Bestor, 259). Bestor also alluded to the fact that the meaning of the word communism was “justified by the history of usage” (Bestor, 301). This touches upon an essentially Wittgensteinian insight famously developed by J. L. Austin and later by Skinner: that the meaning and illocutionary force of an utterance or text could only be ascertained by understanding its use within its particular linguistic, social and political context (Skinner, 46).

Bestor did not pursue the study of the relationship between meaning and use so far. His focus was overwhelmingly upon lexical ordering and etymological forays into dictionaries such as Noah Webster’s of 1848, rather than interpreting concepts and texts as “speech acts.” Bestor ultimately approximated something closer to the Lovejoyian method: attempting to “describe as a single continuous process the historic development of the socialist vocabulary as a whole” and the “linguistic struggle for existence” between concepts (Bestor, 260). For those hostile to Lovejoy’s approach, there was no such thing as a “whole” or “unit” of socialist vocabulary, nor was it possible to speak with any coherence of a single idea as a “continuous process” across space and time. There was no “struggle for existence” among concepts themselves because ideas do not presuppose agents or “get up and do battle on their own behalf” (Skinner, 11).

It would be hypocritical, however, to dismiss Bestor for failing to fully realize the achievements of a later generation of historians. Understanding his article contextually as a “speech act” gestures towards its rhetorical value. As Cold War tensions escalated after the Communist Czechoslovak coup d’état of February 1948, Bestor targeted an elite American audience eager to avoid the popular drumbeat of McCarthyism with its boorish denunciation of communism, and equipped them with a cooler, more precise historical account. As Bestor concluded, it was necessary to distinguish three contradictory meanings of communism: firstly, it denoted a form of revolutionary rather than gradualistic socialism; secondly, it implied a kind of socialism of property held in common, without individual ownership; and thirdly, it meant reform by “small experimental colonies or communities” (Bestor, 301). As Backwoods Utopias showed, Bestor was concerned with recovering and promoting the latter formulation. Differentiating these terms was, therefore, not an antiquarian exercise but an earnest attempt to avoid falling into grave “popular thinking-confusions” that had arisen now that “Shakerism and Marxism” were being recklessly placed under the same umbrella term: communism (Bestor, 302). Although he would become the conservative doyen of anti-progressive educational policy in the 1950s, these earlier works show a radical openness to the communitarian ethos and a bold rejection of the economic individualism of his mentors and peers, such as Gabriel or Hofstadter.

Almost a year after Bestor’s article appeared, a debate erupted across the pages of the JHI. In his wartime vindication of Mill’s “democratic liberalism” in an article from 1943, historian Salwyn Schapiro had proclaimed that Mill “knew nothing of Marx or of Marxism,” and that he ultimately rejected class conflict as a means of revolutionizing the social order (Schapiro, 147). Schapiro undertook a comprehensive reappraisal of Mill’s social, political and economic ideas. He acknowledged the occasional radicalism of Mill’s approach to landed property and the “unearned increment,” but overwhelmingly characterized his thought as a humane and reasonable “classless liberalism” (Schapiro, 131). For Schapiro, Mill was relatively ambivalent about distributive reforms. On Liberty constituted “his best claim to be considered a great writer,” particularly for its denunciation of the tyranny of the majority and elevation of the power of opinion in advancing human progress (Schapiro, 152). Fifteen years before Isaiah Berlin enlisted Mill as a champion of “negative freedom” against the oppressive “collective mediocrity” of communism, Schapiro similarly sought to revive Mill’s ideal of individual liberty as the “great objective of human striving” (Schapiro, 159).

As revolutionary “anti-liberal” forces clashed in Europe and fascist dictators stood upon “the dead body of liberty,” he concluded that Mill’s arguments were more vital than ever in the fight “to save freedom from total extinction” (Schapiro, 160). His JHI essay was later incorporated within his expanded anti-totalitarian Cold War intervention and most widely read work, Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism (1949). Following in the footsteps of Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Schapiro found the origins of this peculiarly modern form of tyranny within the history of political thought. Unlike Popper, who reached back to Plato, Schapiro more plausibly fixed upon Napoleon as an early progenitor. In doing so, he notably preceded the arguments of 1950s Cold Warriors such as J. L. Talmon, and Berlin. As Samuel Moyn recently showed in his Carlyle lectures, these thinkers blamed the romantic, utopian political theories of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for the modern evil of totalitarianism.

A matter of weeks after the publication of Schapiro’s Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism, as if intending to shroud this occasion in controversy, the radical sociologist and Marxist-turned-neoconservative, Lewis Feuer attacked Schapiro’s earlier portrait of Mill in the JHI. Firstly, Feuer’s article “John Stuart Mill and Marxian Socialism” attempted to refute Schapiro’s claim that Mill was wholly ignorant of Marx and his followers by providing historical evidence for their mutual awareness; and secondly, argued their divergence over the role of class struggle in history amounted to little more than a linguistic “conflict in sociological theory” (Feuer, 302). Feuer used Mill’s letter to Georg Brandes regarding Marx’s program for the International Workingmen’s Association to declare that Mill held an anti-Marxian critique of the movement: that it placed “too much reliance on state intervention,” and provided no indication of how a socialist state would actually function (Feuer, 298).

Given Marx’s authorship, for Feuer this sufficed as an indirect criticism of Marx’s ideas, simultaneously proving Schapiro’s thesis wrong. Yet as Feuer maintained, Marx respected Mill as an advocate for the working classes and his receptiveness to socialist ideas. The two thinkers differed only over the means of achieving a socialist society. Mill was an anti-revolutionary, whereas Marx generally embraced the class struggle and potential violence. This recognition led Feuer to his provocative conclusion, that “one’s linguistic choices are controlled by a recognition or rejection of the primary role of class struggle in history” (Feuer, 302). In the succeeding decades, Feuer became an anti-communist intellectual, but one that nevertheless took Marx and Marxism as serious contributions to American political life.   

Attached as an immediate counterweight to Feuer’s intervention were comments by Schapiro. He animatedly opposed Feuer’s account on three grounds. Firstly, he reinforced his earlier suggestion that Mill had no knowledge of Marx or Marxism. Mill could not even read German! he declared. His engagement with socialism was rather limited to utopians such as Robert Owen and Louis Blanc. Secondly, Feuer’s interpretation of Marx’s concept of revolution was too tame. Marx saw class war and a “cataclysmic vision of the overthrow of capitalism by an uprising of the proletariat” as the only way of establishing socialism. Finally, he retorted that Marx was the great peddler of “authoritarian communism.” No amount of “semantics nor dialectics can make him an intellectual relative of Mill, no matter how distant” (Feuer, 304).

Far from an outdated Cold War battle of ideas, this debate continues to unfold. In her provocatively titled John Stuart Mill: Socialist (2021), Helen McCabe shows how Marx “immersed himself in Mill’s Principles” to an underappreciated extent (McCabe, 292-293). Citing the debate between Feuer and Schapiro directly, McCabe rejects the latter’s suggestion that Mill “knew nothing of Marx” as too definitive. There is now evidence that Mill referenced Marx’s pamphlet “Workingmen and the War.” Moreover, not only through the program of the International Workingmen’s Association cited by Feuer, but also via a pamphlet by Thomas Smith “Letters on the [Paris] Commune,” McCabe proposes that Mill had indeed engaged with Marxian ideas, even without comprehending the importance of Marx’s name (McCabe, 292-293). Has Feuer’s position, therefore, fared better with the test of time?

If the hopeful search for direct encounters between Mill and Marx seemed tenuous, attempting to understand the trajectory of early twentieth-century British socialism through a revolutionary or Marxian lens was equally contested in the JHI. At the height of the Second Red Scare, two interventions chose this moment to appraise the comparatively peaceful, gradualist tradition of socialism that emerged on those islands: William Irvine’s “Shaw, the Fabians, and the Utilitarians” (1947) and Bentham scholar Mary Peter Mack’s “The Fabians and Utilitarianism” (1955). As Irvine observed, it was not Marx, but the ideas of Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, and the Fabian Society that lay behind the Labour Party’s success in the 1945 election. Crucially, their “softened socialist program” intended to “solve the problems of the industrial revolution in terms of the British democratic tradition” (Mack, 76; Irvine, 218). Mack went to great lengths to distinguish them from those “benevolent despots,” the utopian socialists, who sought to recast the aristocratic hierarchies of the “old world” into their “new molds” (Mack, 81).

Both articles ultimately showed how, despite attempts to distinguish themselves from their predecessors, the Fabians possessed a “strong Utilitarian heritage” (Mack, 88). Irvine offered a more convincing account by focusing on the powerful influence of Mill. Rejecting Hegelian abstraction, Marxist advocacy of violent revolution, Comtian dictatorship and class hierarchy, he took the Fabians to have followed Mill’s cautious, evolutionary road to socialism (Irvine, 224).

Aside from promoting a myriad of welfare schemes, Irvine interpreted their approach as crucially having built upon Mill’s radical proposal to target economic rent and to transfer unearned income back to society by nationalizing land and reforming the tax system. This goal was also shared by their Millite New Liberal contemporaries such as J. A. Hobson and L. T. Hobhouse. The extension of democracy from the political to the economic realm was the primary objective for both schools of reform. For Irvine, however, the Fabians failed to move past their utilitarian forebears on two counts: firstly, he surprisingly dismissed their assault upon property as a peculiarly English spectacle of challenging an “eighteenth-century monopoly when the nineteenth-century is nearly over” (Irvine, 231). Secondly, in their rush to attain bureaucratic control over the economy, the Fabian reforms threatened the “principle of individual liberty” (Irvine, 231).

While Irvine’s first critique failed to comprehend the assimilation of the new industrialists’ wealth into an older but notoriously enterprising British aristocratic regime and the problem this posed for the Fabian reform project, his second has arguably proved more significant. John Rawls would later reformulate a similar warning about the threat of liberty posed by the utilitarian approach. The principle of utility, Rawls contended, failed to “take seriously the distinction between persons,” prioritizing the interests of the greatest number at their expense (Rawls, 24). Rawls’ theory was instead conceived as a means of discovering what principles of justice would be consented to by each and every individual. In characterizing the Fabians as unable to escape the utilitarian moral framework specifically because of its disregard for individual autonomy and interests, Irvine arrived at an admittedly cruder form of this conclusion through historical research, rather than ideal theory.

By now it should be clear that Mack’s disparaging citations of Fabian contempt for the “mere Utopians” were not responding to an editorial policy in step with heightened anti-communist tensions. Even the “repugnant” utopian socialist Owen had been given a fair hearing in the JHI just a year earlier (Mack, 76). The final article, Ralph Miliband’s “The Politics of Robert Owen” carefully explored an underacknowledged tension within his thought: that despite being known as the “father of British socialism,” throughout his life, Owen was astoundingly “cautious and conservative” in his approach to politics (Miliband, 233). Since 1949 the young Miliband had been assistant lecturer at the LSE, while still completing his PhD on “Popular thought in the French Revolution” supervised by Harold Laski. An émigré like the authors in the first installment of this virtual issue, Miliband had narrowly escaped the horrors of the Nazi regime; a fact which perhaps led him to adopt a comparatively moderate socialist stance. He was also critical of the Communist Party, for example, and at the time of his JHI article, was a “sceptical supporter of the Bevanite left in the Labour Party.” Yet Miliband was not concerned with reviving Owen for a particular ideological purpose, nor did he follow Bestor in displaying a particular enthusiasm for Owenite communitarianism. Surprisingly, for the contributor in this installment who would eventually make the most impact upon socialist political thought as the author of Parliamentary Socialism (1961), Miliband’s essay was also one of the most historically perceptive accounts.

Robert Owen’s “School for Children” (1817) which cared for and educated the workers’ children at his New Lanark mill. Creative Commons.

As the owner of New Lanark mill, south of Glasgow, Owen implemented path breaking social experiments such as radically reducing the workday to eight hours, offering daycare for workers’ children, and providing them with adequate housing. This experience inspired his first major work, A New View of Society, or Essays on the Formation of the Human Character (1813). This contained the most comprehensive articulation of the paternalist principle driving his lifelong reform proposals, that: “Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means; which means are to a great extent at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men” (Owen, 10). After the book’s success, Owen soon acquired the wider ambition to structurally transcend the harsh realities of industrial Britain. He aimed to philanthropically create cooperative institutions to educate the working-class, and gradually establish a new form of harmonious society. As Charles A. Madison’s anarchist genealogy from the first installment had already outlined, Bestor showed how Owen’s doctrines became popular enough for him to briefly attempt the establishment of his utopian New Harmony community in Indiana, which ultimately collapsed in 1827. The visionary scale of his projects, equaled only by the schemes of his French contemporaries St. Simon and Fourier, led Miliband to give Owen the title of “social revolutionary” (Miliband, 233).

The importance of Miliband’s intervention, however, rested upon his central argument about the peculiarly stark contrast between Owen’s revolutionary social doctrine and his extremely restrained political views, which was “so pronounced as to merit closer attention” (Miliband, 233). Despite the radicalism of his utopian ideals, Owen was a latter-day advocate of eighteenth-century style enlightened government, or benevolent despotism. His theory of political change was a politics of persuasion and piecemeal experimentation (Miliband, 235). For Owen, the “condition of success lay in gaining the ear of men in power,” and throughout his life he tirelessly petitioned Parliament to fund and implement his various social schemes (Miliband, 235). Miliband fruitfully explored the conflicted relationship between Owen and working-class movements. His popularity in such circles “peaked with his work as leader of the Grand National union coalition,” which disbanded in 1834 (Miliband, 240). Workers were understandably offended by his condescending references to the lower orders, and his reactionary fear that the “ignorant and debased” mob could be dangerously stirred by advocates demanding immediate constitutional transformation (Claeys, 63; Miliband, 238). This enduring fear caused Owen to become a permanent defender of the political status quo until his death in 1858 (Miliband, 233). Miliband observed the paradox of a man who was profoundly convinced by the potential of “ordinary men,” but who simultaneously held “such a pessimistic view of their present capabilities” (Miliband, 245).

Feuer’s now unfashionable claim about class might readily apply to Owen: his choice of language was determined by his rejection of the fundamental role of class struggle in history. Owen was averse to “all forms of social conflict,” and his proposals, argued Miliband, were essentially anti-revolutionary (Miliband, 238). Owen saw them as the surest and only “guarantee” against such an upheaval (Miliband, 236). Gareth Stedman Jones’ recent interpretation of Owen goes some way to explaining his anti-conflictual linguistic choices. Although dressed in the grandiose late eighteenth-century garb of a “new science” of human nature, he compellingly argues Owen’s thought extended the millenarian tradition of rational dissent (Stedman Jones, 211). Recovering this Christian heritage sheds some light upon Owen’s depiction of a harmonious “Co-operative Commonwealth,” founded upon “goodwill and charity,” that will lead to a “universal union and peace with all men” (Miliband, 238).

While Miliband did not engage with the religious roots of Owen’s ideas, his main argument that the utopian socialist was essentially anti-political nonetheless partly inspired the most authoritative contextualist account of Owen’s political theory, Gregory Claeys’ Citizens and Saints: Politics and Anti-Politics in Early British Socialism (1989). Outlining numerous mid-twentieth century studies of Owen, Claeys notes how he has been described as everything from anti-democratic, to conservative, and even aristocratic (Claeys, 64). Partly motivating Claeys’ work was an attempt to show how labels such as “democratic” or “conservative” are fundamentally imprecise, and that the character of Owen’s thought can only be discerned by situating him within the rich linguistic framework of his own time. Despite casting him as an offender of such imprecision, Claeys specifically praised the subtlety of Miliband’s JHI article: above all, for his influential characterization of Owen as a “Social Revolutionary” to whom “forms of government were immaterial” (Claeys, 64).

Thomas James Holland is a PhD candidate in Political Thought and Intellectual History at King’s College, University of Cambridge. His thesis explores political theories of inherited wealth between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Rawls, questioning how these can inform contemporary debates about distributive justice.

Edited by Thomas Furse

Featured Image: New Harmony, Indiana illustration. Creative Commons.