As the state swelled in the 1940s, political theory retreated into the shadows. Jose Harris explains why.
A striking feature of political life in Britain from the mid-17th to the early 20th century was the wide range of intellectuals, scholars, and practitioners of high politics who engaged in philosophical thought about what we call "the state" (but which earlier generations more commonly referred to as the commonwealth, or government, or the body politic). From Thomas Hobbes to L. T. Hobhouse, from John Locke to Harold Laski, Englishmen debated in theoretical terms, not merely what the state should do in particular instances or at particular moments in time, but what were its general functions, purposes, sources of legitimacy, and the limits of its powers.
Over the centuries, opinion was profoundly divided about whether the state had a high moral purpose or merely a utilitarian one; whether it was the creation of its subjects (who were thus the authors of their own subjection) or whether its powers came from elsewhere; whether it was the partner of, or wholly separate from, private morality and organised religion; whether it was the indispensable buttress or the deadly foe of personal and civil liberties.
How far, if at all, such debates influenced the web of "real politics" is a matter for dispute; but no one can deny that discourse about such issues, from the English civil war to the heyday of the Edwardian empire, was a very powerful feature of day-to-day political culture. In the early 20th century the growth of state "intervention" had been closely intertwined with, and legitimised by, the theoretical arguments of new liberals, democratic socialists, positivists, and protagonists of "national efficiency". At every point, the expansion of education, pensions, social insurance, and health care had been supported or thwarted by principled discussion of the role of the state; likewise, state interference in economic matters had been firmly hedged about by widely held beliefs and preconceptions about what it was possible and desirable for the state to do.
All such preconceptions were thrown into the melting-pot by the impact of the second world war and its aftermath: a period which saw an immense expansion of the role of the state in all areas of social life (with the conspicuous exceptions of religion and private morality). Between the late 1930s and the late 1960s Britain's governors waged a world war against one totalitarian state and a cold war against another. They withdrew from control of a global empire, but left behind them elaborately conceived state structures for many of Britain's ex-colonial possessions. They engaged for the first time in large-scale fiscal and monetary management, nationalised (and denationalised) major industries, introduced mass compulsory secondary education, centralised and bureaucratised many traditionally local and voluntary services, replaced the private patron by public funding of culture and the arts, and set up a welfare state designed to protect citizens against want from the cradle to the grave. In no other period of British history were the powers of central government so radically extended and re-defined; in no other period were the roles of state, citizen, economy, community, and private voluntary associations more drastically re-moulded.
Yet, contrary to what the earlier character of British political culture might have led one to expect, there were strikingly few attempts to analyse, explain or justify these new powers and functions in terms of political theory. During the second world war there were some rearguard attempts by theorists of an older generation to explain the enhanced role of the state in "organic" or "idealist" terms; but in the postwar years no political theorist in the English language successfully did what had been commonplace only a few years before - namely, put forward a systematic defence of the expanded role of the state, either as a medium of common ethical goals or as an indispensable practical adjunct of life in a crowded multi-functional industrial society. Theoretical writings by reformist politicians like R. A. Butler, Tony Crosland and Douglas Jay assumed large functions for the state but were disappointingly silent about the wider implications of enlarged state power. Scholarly articles about political thought (except of a purely historical kind) largely vanished from academic journals of philosophy. Analytical works about the powers of the state in this period were almost non-existent; and the few that there were tended to portray the modern interventionist state in highly critical and negative terms - either as the sinister negation of personal liberty, or (slightly later) as a barrier erected by capitalists against desirable revolutionary change.
The peculiarity of this phase of British intellectual life did not go unnoticed at the time. Isaiah Berlin in 1961 remarked upon the "strange paradox" that political theory was leading "so shadowy an existence", just when the central questions traditionally posed by political theory seemed more universally pressing than at any previous period in history.
How can this curious gap in the history of political thought be explained? The answer appears to lie partly in the history of philosophy (the anti-normative, anti-speculative thrust of 1940s linguistic positivism); partly in the largely instrumental, "problem-solving" character of the new social sciences; and partly in the peculiar political and social circumstances of the second world war and its aftermath (a period that once looked like a temporary deviation).
The war was a great watershed in practical and technical ideas about policy; but, as many contemporaries testified, it had the incidental effect of making political "theory" seem largely pointless. This was not because people were too busy to theorise (on the contrary, large numbers of people spent much of the war think-tanking about the future of society); it was rather that the imponderable questions debated over many centuries by great political philosophers - classic problems about personal liberty, equitable distribution, and the boundaries of state power - either dwindled to insignificance in the face of the totalitarian enemy, or were converted into purely technical problems of expertise and planning.
This sense of the democratic redundancy of political theorising survived into the postwar era, and curiously dovetailed with the crisis of confidence in the whole enterprise of classical political thought among academic philosophers. The consequence was that, in marked contrast with earlier eras, the continued expansion of the role of the state in the post-war years took place with curiously little reference to general principles. The sheer size and scope of the new social services meant that "welfare" increasingly rivalled the traditional spheres of defence, property and public order as a fundamental purpose of the state's existence. Yet any serious attempt to explore and defend the legitimacy of these new roles was conspicuous by its absence. Awkward questions raised by Oakeshott and others about the sheer capacity of the organs of the state to devise rational solutions to societal problems went largely unanswered. Normative and exhortatory language ("fellowship, service, altruism") still played a prominent part in policy debate, but rarely within any coherent philosophic framework. Even the language to discuss systematically such a framework appears to have been lacking.
This lack of a coherent framework of political thought probably made little difference to the day-by-day evolution of policy; nor, in the short term, did it affect the legitimate functioning of the British political system. Nevertheless, it contributed to a great deal of complacency, sentimentality and confusion about the role of the state after the second world war. It fostered the illusion that certain fundamental problems had been solved for all time; and it left the welfare state and the public services in general peculiarly vulnerable to theoretical attacks from both right and left when eventually public spending fell into popular disfavour - and when, concurrently, critical philosophic discourse about the fundamentals of state power began to revive.
Jose Harris is reader in modern history at the University of Oxford.