Foot personified the socialist tendency in the Labour Party, which Tony Blair successfully erased when he won power at the head of a business-friendly, interventionist “New Labour.” Yet Foot remained a respected, even revered, figure.Michael Foot may have been the most serious intellectual ever to head a major Western political party. He wrote biographies of Labour politicians Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, and of H.G. Wells, and a 1988 book on Lord Byron, “The Politics of Paradise,” and he edited the “Thomas Paine Reader” in 1987. So when you asked Michael Foot what socialism was, you could expect a deeply informed answer. And that’s what the Washington Post got in 1982, when they asked the Labour Party leader for an example of socialism in practice that could “serve as a model of the Britain you envision.” Foot replied,
“Michael Foot was a giant of the Labour movement, a man of passion, principle and outstanding commitment to the many causes he fought for,” Blair said Wednesday. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair’s partner in creating “New Labour,” praised Foot as a “genuine British radical” and a “man of deep principle and passionate idealism.”
The best example that I’ve seen of democratic socialism operating in this country was during the second world war. Then we ran Britain highly efficiently, got everybody a job. . . . The conscription of labor was only a very small element of it. It was a democratic society with a common aim.Wow. Michael Foot, the great socialist intellectual, a giant of the Labour movement, a man of deep principle and passionate idealism, thought that the best example ever seen of “democratic socialism” was a society organized for total war.
And he wasn’t the only one. The American socialist Michael Harrington wrote, “World War I showed that, despite the claims of free-enterprise ideologues, government could organize the economy effectively.” He hailed World War II as having “justified a truly massive mobilization of otherwise wasted human and material resources” and complained that the War Production Board was “a success the United States was determined to forget as quickly as possible.” He went on, “During World War II, there was probably more of an increase in social justice than at any [other] time in American history. Wage and price controls were used to try to cut the differentials between the social classes. . . . There was also a powerful moral incentive to spur workers on: patriotism.”
Collectivists such as Foot and Harrington don’t relish the killing involved in war, but they love war’s domestic effects: centralization and the growth of government power. They know, as did the libertarian writer Randolph Bourne, that “war is the health of the state”—hence the endless search for a moral equivalent of war.
As Don Lavoie demonstrated in his book National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, modern concepts of economic planning—including “industrial policy” and other euphemisms—stem from the experiences of Germany, Great Britain, and the United States in planning their economies during World War I. The power of the central governments grew dramatically during that war and during World War II, and collectivists have pined for the glory days of the War Industries Board and the War Production Board ever since.
Walter Lippmann was an early critic of the collectivists’ fascination with war planning. He wrote, “A close analysis of its theory and direct observation of its practice will disclose that all collectivism. . . is military in method, in purpose, in spirit, and can be nothing else.” Lippman went on to explain why war—or a moral equivalent—is so congenial to collectivism:
Under the system of centralized control without constitutional checks and balances, the war spirit identifies dissent with treason, the pursuit of private happiness with slackerism and sabotage, and, on the other side, obedience with discipline, conformity with patriotism. Thus at one stroke war extinguishes the difficulties of planning, cutting out from under the individual any moral ground as well as any lawful ground on which he might resist the execution of the official plan.National service, national industrial policy, national energy policy—all have the same essence, collectivism, and the same model, war. War is sometimes, regrettably, necessary. But why would anyone want its moral equivalent?