Journal Article

Socialist Political Economy in an Age of Affluence: The Reception of J.K. Galbraith by the British Social-democratic Left in the 1950s and 1960s

Noel Thompson

in Twentieth Century British History

Volume 21, issue 1, pages 50-79
Published in print January 2010 | ISSN: 0955-2359
Published online January 2010 | e-ISSN: 1477-4674 | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwp052
Socialist Political Economy in an Age of Affluence: The Reception of J.K. Galbraith by the British Social-democratic Left in the 1950s and 1960s

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The article considers the impact of the political economy of J.K. Galbraith on the British social-democratic Left in the 1950s and 1960s. It argues that Galbraith had much to offer the Left but that his work was unpacked in ways that were determined by the ideological predilections of those who engaged with it. In the case of Crosland there was an empathy with the notion of private affluence and public squalor as something which could be used against those who opposed investment in public services. At the same time Crosland reacted against Galbraith's conception of the malleable private consumer, which he saw as reinforcing a tendency on the Left to privilege public over private consumption. Crossman applauded Galbraith for just that reason, while lamenting his seeming unwillingness to embrace public ownership and planning as a way of rectifying the public/private imbalance which he had identified. The New Left similarly warmed to Galbraith's portrayal of a private consumer prey to corporate manipulation, while regretting his failure to engage critically with the fundamentals of capitalism. For Strachey, Galbraith strengthened his argument that fundamental tensions still existed in contemporary capitalism: tensions in particular between democratic governments and growing corporate power which could only be resolved by the exertion of control by the former over the latter. If not all things to all men, Galbraith was many things to many on the Left and the way in which his work was assimilated and used reflects this.

Journal Article.  12983 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Contemporary History (Post 1945) ; British History

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