George Walford: Alive or Equal?

Would you rather be alive or equal? The right wing tend to think it an achievement that five thousand million people should be alive, regarding equality as certainly unattainable and probably undesirable. The reformers and revolutionaries tend to pursue equality (or the suppression of socially-imposed inequality), taking the maintenance of the population for granted. In the TLS for 27 May 88 Jeremy Waldron reviews Socialism by Bernard Crick (Milton Keynes, Open University Press). The reviewer agrees with the author on the points to be raised here, and we do not distinguish between them. This is the crucial passage:

Reducing inequality can seem like a mere arithmetical fetish until one realizes that in modern Britain the mortality rate among unskilled adult workers is still twice that of the professional classes, and the neo- natal mortality rate actually five times as high.

That is happening, as Waldron remarks, in the ninth year of Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain. It is also happening, as he does not remark, after more than a century of effort by people and movements seeking to reduce social inequality.

Crick’s book has been written for the Open University, and is intended for a wider audience than the one aimed at by¬†‘the academic and party dogmatists who have dominated the recent literature on the subject.’ Crick thinks it ‘sad and comic’ that so much socialist literature cannot be understood by the workers, and the remark carries the implication that a more popular style would enable the reformist and revolutionary movements to grow strong enough to achieve their aims. The evidence does not support this view. In recent years works like Das Kapital, Anti-Duehring, and the Communist Manifesto, which were certainly not for the simple-minded, have been supplemented by Marx for Beginners and other comic-strip presentations, but without noticeably increasing the number of reformers and revolutionaries.

Other bodies, also, have changed to a more demotic approach in the hope of widening their appeal, the Roman Catholic Church abandoning the Latin Mass and the Anglicans choosing to exchange the glories of the Authorised and Revised Versions for the semi-literate barbarities of the New English Bible. These changes have done little to halt the decline of either church, suggesting that the root of it lies deeper than the use of a particular style or even a particular language.

The decline of these churches has coincided with their movement away from concern almost exclusively with the spiritual condition of their flocks towards an attempt to reduce social inequality. It has also coincided with the growth of other churches or church-like bodies which have not sought to reduce social inequality but rather to increase it, sometimes to the extent that their leaders have been suspected of exploiting the faithful.

The experience of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, socialists, communists, anarchists and recently-flourishing unorthodox communions becomes comprehensible on the assumption that the general body of the people tend to support movements maintaining or increasing socially-imposed inequality rather than those trying to reduce it. The main result of opposing this tendency has been to deprive those who do so of the support they need in order to reduce mortality rates among the unskilled.

from Ideological Commentary 35, September 1988.