Richard Overy
The Morbid Age

'There is literally no way,' he announced in a lecture given in 1937, 'to use our means of production under capitalist ownership.' Strachey favoured public ownership and planned production. Capitalism had to be abolished before there set in 'a new collapse of civilisation like that of the Roman Empire.'

Strachey was among the most successful of the young generation of intellectuals in reaching a wide public on the alternative of Marxist planned economy and social ownership, but the appetite for books on Marx in the 1930s was a large one. A Handbook of Marxism published by Gollancz in 1933 sold 33,000 copies. During the 1930s Maurice Dobb found himself in demand regularly for lectures and discussions on the future of communist economics. Dobb, like Strachey, was convinced that after the slump he was witnessing the final and general crisis of capitalism. In a lecture to the British Association in 1932 he welcomed the opportunity provided by the Soviet Five-Year Plan to test Western theories about planning—'a veritable "busman's holiday" for the economist'—and argued that the age of bourgeois 'Political Economy' was now to give way to an age of 'Planned Economy.' In another lecture on 'Britain without Capitalists,' given in Leeds in 1937, he contrasted the feeble efforts of capitalism to use 'fascist' planning to escape from crisis (by oppressing the labour force) with communist planning, which would oppress capital instead by expropriating without compensation all large-scale capitalist business, followed by the planned expropriation of small farms and shops, which Dobb thought would be compensated in some form. Communist planning carried risks, Dobb continued, but it was better than 'the slow stagnation and spiritual and material decay' of contemporary 'gangster' capitalism. Even if it were planned, Dobb wrote in a workers' educational pamphlet, capitalism could still only produce more capitalism.

Dobb may well have been the 'well-known economist' responsible for editing the anonymously published volume with the same title as his lecture, Britain Without Capitalists, which appeared in July 1936 with the sub-title 'What Industry in a Soviet Britain Could Achieve.' In the preface the authors distinguished their argument from the conventional literature on economic planning by insisting that Soviet-style planning was only possible with working-class control of the state and workers' economic institutions. The case for Sovietization in the context of capitalist crisis was, it was argued, 'unanswerable and true.' British Soviets were the 'pre-requisite of any social planning.' There followed detailed analysis of all the major industries, including building and agriculture, with recommendations on how they might be planned for social use. The Lancashire cotton industry, for example, would under workers' control plan to produce 'the most wealth with the least toil' by modernizing and rationalizing the tangled web of small producers and the financial anarchy prevailing in the trade. The book was a logical if fanciful expression of the wide belief that capitalistic anarchy should make way for socialist order. The same year G.D.H. Cole, who was not a communist, told an audience that when it came to planning, the Soviet Union had supplied the only successful model. He had published his own 'Plan for Britain' in 1933, in which he called for 'complete control' over the economy, planned imports and exports, and a balance between what could be produced and what could be consumed. In a lecture in 1935 Cole deplored attempts at capitalist planning as a plan for enforced scarcity, worse than the 'chaotic Laissez-faire' of the previous century, and embellished his original planning proposals by advocating sweeping nationalization of heavy industry, commerce, land and banks, together with state control of trade, new investment and the supply of credit.

Among progressive opinion in Britain after the slump there was an unspoken assumption, not necessarily Marxist, that capitalism meant chaos while planning equalled progress. Planning in this sense was not confined to the economy. In 1934 the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals, centred on the fashionably progressive London suburb of Hampstead, began publication of a monthly journal under the title Plan. The Federation was set up in 1932 by Cyril Joad, after he had abandoned Mosley, and consisted of the Hampstead Ethical Institute and a number of smaller associations, with Joad as its president. In its stated aims the group deplored the 'drift to catastrophe' heralded by the failure of an obsolete economic system 'totally unable to distribute for the good of all the potential wealth that science has made available.' The programme of action called for the rapid 'socialisation of the collective economic affairs of mankind' and a scientifically planned economic environment, but also the planning of education, law, landscape and population. In the first issue of Plan Joad announced that 'Economic breakdown and international anarchy threaten to destroy civilisation' and called on all progressive intellectuals to rally round the rational planning of the future. The vice-presidents of the organization represented a roll call of progressive opinion—among them Vera Brittain, Leonard Woolf, Cyril Burt, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Kingsley Martin, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and Rebecca West. Joad was succeeded by the journalist and writer Gerald Heard, and then by Barbara Wootton. The journal and the Federation had a limited appeal, with never more than 600 members, but the corps of leading intellectuals and writers who participated had an influence well beyond the confines of a Hampstead discussion group. The central conviction, stated in an editorial in 1935, of the 'bankruptcy of Capitalism' was something to which most progressive opinion-formers subscribed.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.