Riding to rescue the left while sparing the bourses

The Third Way and its Critics

June 2, 2000

A central theme of the 20th century was the death of socialism - both in its communistic variety and in the more moderate social democratic forms pioneered in the West. In Britain, the frontal attack on socialism led by Margaret Thatcher took social democrats by surprise, while in France, Australia and New Zealand, social democrats actually took the lead in implementing policies of neoliberalism pioneered by their opponents.

Social democracy, then, must be radically revised if it is to prove a more successful philosophy in the 21st century than it was in the 20th. In that revision, Anthony Giddens has played a leading part. His book, The Third Way , published in 1998, was a global bestseller. It was translated into 25 languages and gained the attention not only of Tony Blair, but of other leaders of the moderate left such as Romano Prodi, now president of the European Commission, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president of Brazil.

In this new book, Giddens seeks to answer those critics who claim that the third way is either empty, the academic equivalent of a soundbite, or a surrender to neoliberalism, or merely a reversion to the ethical liberalism of the beginning of the 20th century, owing more to political philosophers such as L. T. Hobhouse and T. H. Green than to any specifically socialist inspiration.

Giddens insists, against his critics, that he is charting a new philosophy for the left, to be distinguished both from the statism of the old left, and the worship of the market characteristic of the new right. The central concept distinguishing the new left from either of these philosophies is that of responsibility. The old left, Giddens believes, was too little concerned about making government properly responsible, while the new right supposed "that no responsibility needs to be taken for the social consequences of market-based decisions". Yet, for Giddens, "markets can't even function without a social and ethical framework".

Moreover, the old left was far too sanguine about issues of personal responsibility and so lacked adequate policies to deal with crime and the breakdown of the family. The old left favoured economic regulation but moral laissez-faire , while the new right favoured strong moral controls, but was perfectly prepared to tolerate economic anarchy.

"Neither combination," Giddens insists, "makes much sense." Far from favouring the negative state of the neoliberals, an accusation often directed at the third way, Giddens believes that the state has a crucial role to play in rendering both the economy and individual behaviour responsive to the wider interests of society.

Moreover, both the old left and the new right, with their emphasis on the relationship between the state and the individual, underestimated the importance of the third element in the triad, community.

The third way owes much to communitarianism and, in particular, to the work of Amitai Etzioni, but is to be distinguished from it by being more aware of the potential for authoritarianism and exclusivity in communities,and its greater emphasis on toleration. The task of government is in fact to secure a balance between government, the economy and the community, so that each contributes to the common good.

Giddens also argues, rather more shakily, that there is a burgeoning international community and that the European Union, as "a pioneering response to globalisation", symbolises that community. The left, however, seems to have taken up the European Union as a socialist cause, just when popular opinion has become distinctly Euro-sceptic, and Giddens does not tell us how this trend is to be reversed.

Giddens makes a powerful case when he argues for a new public philosophy of the left. But the crucial weakness of the third-way philosophy remains its high degree of abstraction. It seems not to connect with specific policies, except perhaps for the welfare-to-work approach of Bill Clinton and Blair. Unlike, for example, the Fabians or Anthony Crosland in The Future of Socialism (1956), Giddens does not translate his philosophy into a practical programme for a government of the centre-left. That, perhaps, is why the main achievement of Blair's first administration seems to lie more in constitutional rather than radical social reform. If Blair's second administration is to confront the difficult social issues, then Giddens and the other new philosophers will have to translate their abstract principles into practical and tested policies.

The Third Way and its Critics is a significant work, which lays the foundation for a revival of socialism. But, unless Giddens and his colleagues succeed in building upon these foundations, the 21st century could prove as barren of achievement for social democrats as the century just gone.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

The Third Way and its Critics

Author - Anthony Giddens
ISBN - 0 7456 2449 9and 2450 2
Publisher - Polity
Price - £25.00 and £7.99
Pages - 180

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