Evan Durbin

Evan Durbin

Evan Durbin, the son and last child of the Revd Frank Durbin and his wife, Mary Louisa , was born in Bideford on 1st March 1906. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother was the daughter of William Mottram, a well-known Congregationalist minister and temperance campaigner. (1)

The Durbans were ardent supporters of William Gladstone and the Liberal Party. Evan later recalled that "as a child I was seriously confused about the distinction between God and Mr. Gladstone." (2)

Durbin was educated at at elementary schools in Plympton and Exmouth. During the First World War his father became a pacifist and became involved in the anti-war movement. Durbin was brought up in the Nonconformist tradition and was described by one friend as "a bit of a prig and a puritan". (3)

In 1924 he won an open scholarship to New College to study zoology but but laboratory work failed to inspire him and he transferred to study philosophy, politics, and economics. While at university he came under the influence of his economics tutor, George Douglas Cole and joined the Labour Party and became a committed socialist. Apparently, his mother "never really recovered from her sorrow that her beloved son had renounced his belief in the Lord Jesus." (4) Despite his "rebellious religious and political views he was strongly influenced by family traditions of community service." (5)

Durbin became a great friend of Hugh Gaitskell: "They were very different, and Gaitskell loved teasing Durbin about the contrasts... Durbin reputedly lazy, Gaitskell energetic; Durbin rooted in the values of the lower-middle class, Gaitskell in revolt against those of the upper-class; Durbin a product of the radical-liberal tradition, Gaitskell a rebel against the Tory ethos; Durbin supplying the common sense ballast and applying with assurance a clearly thought-out philosophy, Gaitskell more tolerant but intellectually not so solidly anchored. Their friendship began in innumerable intellectual discussions, but soon concentrated on political thought and action." (6)

During the General Strike, most Oxford undergraduates helped to run trains and man the docks, Durbin and other members of the Labour Club such as Gaitskell, W. H. Auden, Colin Clark, Michael Stewart, John Betjeman, John Parker, John Dugdale and Willam Hare. (7) As Gaitskell later pointed out: "The impact of the strike was sharp and sudden, a little like a war, in that everybody's lives were suddenly affected by a new unprecedented situation, which forced us to abandon plans for pleasure, to change our values and adjust our priorities." (8)

Durbin also worked as a Workers' Educational Association tutor. This involved him to teaching in mining districts. It was his first involvement with the working-class. Durbin later wrote that he found his own "spiritual home" as a WEA lecturer in the north, and particularly in the Potteries, to which he travelled once a week throughout the 1930s." (9) George Douglas Cole commented that "WEA tutors were in many respects the true missionaries of today - doing the kind of job which at one time the churches used to do." (10)

Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, the former mistress of King Edward VII was converted to socialism by Robert Blatchford and held conference weekends at her house, Easton Lodge. Evan Durbin was one of many people invited to these gatherings where he met H. G. Wells, George Lansbury, Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps, Ernest Bevin, William Mellor, Ellen Wilkinson, Richard Tawney, Frank Horrabin, John Strachey and Elizabeth Harman. (11)

With the support of his economics tutor, Lionel Robbins, Durbin was awarded the Ricardo scholarship in 1929 to study underconsumptionist theories at University College. In autumn 1930 he was appointed to a lectureship in economics at the London School of Economics (LSE). Durbin rejected the Marxism of the Soviet Union and was attracted to the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes. However, he wanted to translate his economic theories into a strategy for socialism. (12)

Durbin described himself as a "militant moderate" socialist. Edmund Dell was one of Durbin's supporters suggested: "He (Durbin) was an unrepentant centralizer and nationalizer. Durbin's object was to demonstrate that socialism could be achieved by democratic means through a series of cautiously calculated measures taken in more than one Parliament. Durbin's argument for socialism was not founded in class hatred or jealously. The problem, as he saw it, the reason that capitalism was in such trouble, was that it was no longer able to sustain the burdens placed upon it by democracy. It was a democracy that had made socialism a practical necessity. In a democracy, the demand for greater equality and greater security was bound to force the hands of the government." (13)

John Maynard Keynes

During the Great Depression Durbin believed that the Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald should have increased public spending rather than reducing it. On 24th August 1931, with his cabinet unwilling to support the economic policies favoured by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, MacDonald formed a National Government with the support of the Conservative Party. On 8th September 1931, Snowden's programme of £70 million economy programme was debated in the House of Commons. This included a £13 million cut in unemployment benefit. All those paid by the state, from cabinet ministers and judges down to the armed services and the unemployed, were cut 10 per cent. Teachers, however, were treated as a special case, lost 15 per cent. Tom Johnson, who wound up the debate for the Labour Party, declared that these policies were "not of a National Government but of a Wall Street Government". In the end the Government won by 309 votes to 249. (14)

John Maynard Keynes, one of the government's economic advisers, spoke out against the morality of cutting benefits and public sector pay. He claimed that the plans to reduce the spending on "housing, roads, telephone expansion" was "simply insane". Keynes went on to say the government had been ignoring his advice: "During the last 12 years I have had very little influence, if any, on policy. But in the role of Cassandra, I have had considerable success as a prophet. I declare to you, and I will stake on it any reputation I have, that we have been making in the last few weeks as dreadful errors of policy as deluded statesmen have ever been guilty of." (15)

Durbin had great respect for Keynes although he was deeply suspicious of his "Liberal palliatives". (16) He later wrote: "He wrote a series of books, all of first-class quality... In the second place, he had the larger and more elusive gift of imagination. He was not only a mathematician and an economist. He was also an artist, in temperament and sensibility. He could, above all, understand the men and the forces of history by which economic policy is administered and formed.... Few men have done more to undermine and ultimately to destroy the economic dogmas of his youth." (17)

To gain support for his policies MacDonald called a General Election. Evan Durbin was selected as the Labour Party candidate for the Conservative safe-seat of East Grinstead. In a speech made during the campaign, Durbin argued that unemployment was a disease of the world capitalist system. "The Labour Party stoood for equality of opportunity and economic freedom. First and last, it stood for the cure of injustices springing from economic inequalities. It believed that the more equal society could only be secured if there was some kind of social control over the means of production and distribution." He attacked the Conservatives for calling itself the "National and patriotic party. Who constituted the majority - the newspaper proprietors and the mine-workers, or the working masses, who represented over 16 millions of the 20 million income earners in the country?" (18)

Evan Durbin was easily defeated at East Grinstead by Henry Cautley who won 87.2% of the vote. However, he was acknowledged as being one of the leading economic experts in the Labour Party. Durbin's socialist views were explained in a series of books, Purchasing Power and Trade Depression: A Critique of Under-Consumption Theories (1933), Socialist Credit Policy (1934) and The Problem of Credit Policy (1935). Ben Pimlott argued that Durbin was an important economist and philosopher who wrote several books "that related political and economic thought to socialist objectives." (19)

Evan Durbin married Marjorie Green, the daughter of Charles Ernest Green, a teacher, on 29th July, 1932. According to his biographer, Catherine Ellis: "He thrived on family life, enjoying the company of his wife and their three children, two daughters and one son. His openness and capacity for enjoyment attracted a wide circle of friends, among them historians, sociologists, and political scientists. He loved the countryside and the cinema, enjoyed playing racquet sports (though with little skill), and had a passion for detective stories." He once remarked to a friend, "The three greatest pleasures in my life are food, sleep and sex". (20)

Vaughan Berry, an investment banker in the city, was also a socialist and established what became known as the XYZ club: "I invited a few men to dinner to discuss the possibility of forming a small group which would meet regularly to discuss financial problems from a socialist point of view, and be ready to offer its help to the Lanour Party... I had been horrified by the Labour Party's ignorance of the City's machinery and their complete lack of contacts with the banking world... In the course of business, I had met dozens of bank managers, I knew none who admitted to the mildest Labour sympathies." (21)

Evan Durbin, Hugh Gaitskell, George Strauss, Douglas Jay, Francis Williams, John Wilmot, and Charles Latham all joined the group. Senior members of the Labour Party such as Clement Attlee, Hugh Dalton, Stafford Cripps, Frederick Pethick Lawrence and Hastings Lees-Smith were invited to meetings. Williams later wrote: "It (the XYZ club) has indeed, I think some claim to have exercised in a quiet sort of way more influence on future government policy than any other group of the time and to have done so in the most private manner without attracting publicity to itself." (22)

Ernst Wigforss

Evan Durbin was also influenced by the Swedish economist, Ernst Wigforss: After the Wall Street Crash the whole of Western Europe was impacted by the Great Depression. This was true of Sweden and by 1931, industrial production had declined by 10.3%. Wigforss argued: "We socialists cannot accept a system... where up to 10% of the workers must be unemployed, and during worse times, even more. We refuse to admit that this is necessary and natural despite how much people come armed with theories stating that this must be so." (23)

In the 1932 General Election, the Social Democratic Party won 41.7% of the seats. The minor left-wing parties, including the Independent Socialist Party (5.3%) Communist Party (3.0%) agreed to form a minority government with the SDP leader, Per Albin Hansson, as prime minister. Although they did not join the government the Farmers' League agreed to keep them in power in return for support for their agriculture policy. (24)

Hansson appointed Ernst Wigforss, as his finance minister. After leaving the Gold Standard he devalued the Krona, reducing the price of Swedish exports. Wigforss proposed a public work program designed to put unemployed back to work even if this meant budget deficits. This was a radical departure from the policies of previous governments. A balanced budget had always been the main objective. Usually, government loans were only used for investments that were expected to generate future profits such as postal services, railroads or electric power supply. (25)

The first unbalanced budget proposed by Wigforss for the years 1933 and 1934 was criticized for causing inflation and "depriving businesses of capital necessary for their development". To counter these arguments, the Social Democrats moved away from financing public work programs through deficits and proposed an inheritance tax used to finance their plans. The policies of deficit spending and government intervention in the economy, began the creation of the Swedish Welfare State. Wigforss argued for creating "provisional utopias... tentative sketches of a desirable future... They served as a critique of existing social conditions and as a guide to present action, yet could be revised with future experience." (26)

During the Great Depression some people became attracted to the communist system being used in the Soviet Union. For example, Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb visited the country in 1932. Although unhappy with the lack of political freedom in the country they were impressed with the rapid improvement in the health and educational services and the changes that had taken place to ensure economic and political equality for women. When they returned to Britain they wrote a book on the economic experiments taking place in the Soviet Union called Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935). In the book the Webbs predicted that "the social and economic system of planned production for community consumption" of the Soviet Union would eventually spread to the rest of the world. (27)

Durbin disagreed and thought that there were similarities between communism and fascism and that Joseph Stalin was little better than Adolf Hitler and the system he created in Nazi Germany. "Durbin emphasized the affinities between Soviet communism and European fascism, insisting that both Germany and Russia were dictatorships characterized by similar types of cruelties and injustices against their people. He pointed to the Russians' brutal treatment of kulaks, for example, and likened it to the mass persecution of German Jews... Durbin insisted, however, that communism, just as much as fascism, was incompatible with the commitment to democracy, social justice, and personal freedom that lay at the heart of British socialism." (28)

In February 1936, Evan Durbin, Eileen Power and Hugh Gaitskell paid a visit to Beatrice Webb and tried in vain to shake some of the misconceptions of his hostess. That night she wrote in her diary: "Gaitskell is said to be one of the rising young men in the socialist movement. Like Durbin he is... self-complacent; clever, no doubt, but not attractive." She claimed that Durbin and Gaitskell were "contemptuous" of Stafford Cripps and "followers" of Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton. She explained why these young socialists were so anti-communist: "What is wrong about this group of clever and well meaning intellectuals... is the comfort and freedom of their own lives; they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by the peaceful continuance of capitalist civilisation." (29)

Durbin believed strongly that economics should not be studied in isolation. His most original ideas were informed by broad reading in psychology, sociology, history, and political science. One of his closest friends, was the psychologist, John Bowlby. In 1938 the two men wrote Personal Aggressiveness and War. The book surveys the literature on aggression in higher mammals drawing parallels with human behaviour. They argued that this information might be used to understand and ultimately to prevent the tendency among adults to wage war: "Take the child away from the fire, deny it a second piece of cake, but avoid being angry or hurt or disapproving if a scream of rage or a kick on the shins is the immediate consequence of thwarting a child's will to happiness. To permit children to express their feelings of aggression, whilst preventing acts of irremediable destruction is, we suggest, one of the greatest gifts that parents can give to their children." (30)

The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940)

David Kynaston has suggested that Bowlby's ideas on social psychology were incorporated in his most important work, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940). (31) Durbin and Bowlby "blended their economics with ethics and the creed of fraternalism" and the "intruments of planning were designed for democratic and ethical ends". Durbin believed that socialism meant not just a more productive society, but a living world in which "men and women may sing at their work and children may laugh at their play". (32)

Durbin argued: "Although wealth, physical health and social equality may all make their contributions to human happiness, they can all do little and cannot themselves to be secured, without health in the individual mind. We are our own kingdoms and make for ourselves, in large measure, the world in which we live. We may be rich, and healthy, and liberal; but unless we are free from secret guilt, the agonies of inferiority and frustration, and the fire of unexpressed aggression, all other things are added to our lives in vain. The cruelty and irrationality of human society spring from these secret sources. The savagery of a Hitler, the brutality of a Stalin, the ruthlessness and refined bestiality that is rampant in the world today - persecution, cruelty and war - are nothing but the external expression, the institutional and rationalized form, of these dark forces in the human heart." (33)

Edmund Dell, the author of A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) has described the book as "one of the foundation texts of British democratic socialism, exceeding in eloquence, conviction and depth of thought anything from other contemporary British source". (34) Durbin had pointed out that laissez-faire capitalism had been extremely economically successful during the 19th century, when Britain was not a democracy. However, it was also a cruel system that did not look after the poor, the unemployed and the disadvantaged. As Durbin pointed out: "Expansion is... the great virtue of capitalism; inequality and insecurity are its greatest vices." (35)

Durbin believed that the democratic demand for greater equality, and the higher and differential taxation required to satisfy the demand, had implications for the success of the capitalist system. Progressive taxation "strikes heavily at the funds available for capital accumulation and economic progress". Property in private hands had lost its single justification. "With the withering away of the savings of the rich, the only rational justification for inequality in the distribution of property had finally disappeared. The propertied classes are now parasitic in the final sense that their income is purely a distributive share, and contributes nothing to the increase of production." (36)

Evan Durbin in 1947
Evan Durbin in 1947

Durbin criticised the theories of Karl Marx as "we are more complicated than the Marxists have us believe." (37) He rejected all Marxist policies and systems which depended upon the dictatorship of the proletariat and were considered by definition undemocratic. Durbin argued that the "primary political goal was to get a Labour government elected with plans for the first stage to establish a socialist society in Britain; the next goal was to get re-elected to complete the transition." (38)

As Catherine Ellis has pointed out: "Evan Durbin rejected, in particular, the idea of a universal historical dialectic that excluded all but economic factors. He observed that other variables such as nationality, government, social relationships, and religion were ignored by Marxists in their pursuit of a growing conflict between two distinct classes." He was influenced by the ideas of Richard Tawney: "Durbin both drew upon and reinforced the indigenous British tradition of democratic socialism. He presented a blend of ideas influenced by ethical socialism in the tradition of Tawney, by the Fabian interest in efficiency, by liberalism, and by advances in economic thought since 1931." (39) David Marquand described Durbin's theories as a "marriage between Keynsianism and Fabianism". (40)

According to Durbin, the growth of democracy was undermining laissez-faire and with it was undermining capitalism. The rate of growth must, though, be expected to diminish at a time when faster economic growth was required to meet the needs of the people for a higher standard of living and for greater equality. There was a need for a new system of society the success of which was not dependent on laissez-faire and which could cope with demands for greater equality and greater security. Socialism was to be a remedy as much for the problems thrown up by democracy as for the evils of capitalism.

"We wish to use the power of the State to establish expansionist policies within the growing socialised sector of the economy; to restore and maintain a high level of active accumulation; to moderate insecurity still further; to curb the cyclical oscillations of economic activity by a control of the income and investment position of the community; and to secure much greater equality in the distribution of the product of industry. It is only possible to do this by the supersession of private property as the seat of industrial control, as distinct from property as a form of personal reserve." (41)

Durbin agreed with John Strachey that powerful trade unions had to some extent succeeded in creating monopolies in certain types and categories of labour and so in obtaining monopoly prices for it. (42) Durbin was always concerned that the self-interest of trade unions was in conflict with the interests of society generally. "It was implicit in Durbin's argument that the battle for socialism could involve a battle with the unions. In that prospect lay the possibility of conflict between the trade union movement and a Labour government." (43)

In his book, Durbin attacks the ideas of the modern representatives of the classical school such as Friedrich Hayek and Lionel Robbins, for their wish to use the power of the state to free enterprise, to protect competition and so to restore to capitalism its earlier elasticity and power of spectacular expansion. He thought that this policy was not compatible with the maintenance of political democracy as it would increase inequality. Durbin believed that once a Labour government increased the taxes on the rich, it would be very difficult for the Conservative Party to reverse this decision. (44)

Evan Durbin made it clear that he was not advocating the type of communism that had been installed in the Soviet Union. Durbin argued that the Soviet Union was not socialist because it was not democratic. In Durbin's view, there was no socialism without democracy. "The democratic method is not only essential for the achievement of socialism, but it is part of that achievement. In so far as we are democratic we are already, in some degree, socialist; and to betray democracy is to betray socialism... It is not that democracy is the pleasantest, or more efficacious, or more certain method of achieving socialism, but that it is the only method." (45)

Durbin attempted to provide an alternative to the way that nationalised industries were run in the Soviet Union. He believed that any future Labour government would have to consider the democratic forms of incentive and control. He suggested that managerial efficiency would require decentralized administration to provide responsibility and a central inspectorate to assess efficiency, to guard against bureaucratic red tape and to ensure accountability. Durbin "believed in a comprehensive system of consultation, an extension of the works councils... however, he was adamant that on all cost matters of common social concern, such as wages, hours and the mobility of labour, the last word must rest with the representatives of society - and not with the sub-groups of economic interest within it." (46)

Durbin rejected the claim of Marxists that Britain only had a "bourgeois democracy", that is, by implication, democracy only for the rich. Although they were able to use their control of the media to distort the democratic process, some important gains had been made by the masses. "For this reason, in defence of the democratic principle, to outlaw those parties which, if they achieved power, would deny the benefits of democracy to their opponents. Only those who were committed to the preservation of democracy had the right to participate in the democratic system." (47)

Durbin was fully committed to democracy and was totally opposed to revolution. "Durbin was clear that, if socialism required the violent overthrow of the existing democratic system of government, the costs would be greater than any possible benefits. He knew that, if there was civil war, democracy would perish and the essence of socialism would perish with it. Even if the socialists won, socialism would have died with the war because, in all probability, democracy would have died with the war.... Durbin employed arguments of realism as well of principle. He insisted that revolution was neither practical nor in the interests of the working class. With the working class becoming richer, and with the stabilizing fact of a growing middle class, revolution was an impractical policy for a socialist party." (48)

Durbin warned about the irrational motivations of social groups and concluded that "the categories of rational thought and conscious purpose are not sufficient by themselves to make social behaviour intelligible or the choice of policy well grounded." (49) He finished the book with the words: "There is no easy road to social salvation, no gate around the corner that we may simply unlatch, and walk into a garden of peace. We can only deal with each social problem as it arises, and try to preserve the circumstances within which democracy may survive, and the slow but curative processes of a new emotional education bring men nearer to the full stature of their rational humanity." (50)

1945 General Election

During the Second World War Durbin was seconded to the Economic Section of the War Cabinet Secretariat, where he worked with a group of economists including, Harold Wilson, Lionel Robbins, Alec Cairncross, James Meade, Norman Chester, Peggy Joseph and Richard Stone. There were "seventeen members in all, of whom Wilson - barely twenty-four - was by far the youngest." (51)

In 1942 Durbin appointed Personal Assistant to Clement Attlee, Deputy Prime Minister. This enabled him to explain the ideas contained in The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940). Attlee was impressed with Durbin and agreed to speak for him at public meetings in Edmonton where he had recently been selected as Labour's parliamentary candidate. (52)

While working for Attlee he published What Have We to Defend? (1942). In the book he explored the connection between British socialism and national identity, and to evaluate the potential for economic and social change offered by the war. He believed that patriotic socialists were not defending the British social order, but rather protecting British values against external aggression. He urged the British people to dream of a better world, a strong and safe society free from poverty, unemployment, and class divisions. "This society does not yet exist, but only because we do not see it". (53)

The 1945 General Election took place on 5th July, 1945. When the poll closed the ballot boxes were sealed for three weeks to allow time for servicemen's votes (1.7 million) to be returned for the count on 26th July. It was a high turnout with 72.8% of the electorate voting. With almost 12 million votes, Labour had 47.8% of the vote to 39.8% for the Conservatives. Labour made 179 gains from the Tories, winning 393 seats to 213. The 12.0% national swing from the Conservatives to Labour, remains the largest ever achieved in a British general election. Durbin won his seat at Edmonton with a 28.8% swing to Labour.

Daily Herald
Daily Herald (27th July, 1945)

Evan and Marjorie Durbin set up home with John Bowlby and his wife, in York Terrace, in London. He was immediately appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Hugh Dalton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, he was disappointed as he expected a post as a junior minister. This was a result of Attlee's policy of only appointing men with considerable political experience. The youngest member of the government, was the 48-year-old, Aneurin Bevan. (54)

In September, 1945, Evan Durbin was asked to contribute to a conference organized by the Fabian Society entitled "The Psychological and Sociological Problems of Modern Socialism". Several leading left-wing intellectuals, including John Bowlby, G. D. H. Cole, Richard Tawney, Michael Young and Frank Pakenham were invited to speak. The main purpose was to explore how society at large might become "socialist". (55)

Bowlby argued: "In our enthusiasm for achieving long-sought social aims, we should not overlook the private concerns of the masses, their predilections in sport or entertainments, their desire to have a home or garden of their own in which they can do what they like and which they do not frequently have to move, their preference in seaside resorts or Sunday newspapers." Given the undeniable fact of these "private goals", each of which had not only "the attraction of being immediately and simply achieved" but also "the sanction of tradition behind them".

Bowlby asked how it would be possible to ensure "the understanding and acceptance of the need for the inevitable controls required for the attainment of group goals such as, for instance, full employment, a maximising of production by reorganisation and increase of machinery, or a maximising of personal efficiency through longer and more ardous education and other social measures". His solution was a mixture of democracy and psychology: "The hope for the future lies in a far more profound understanding of the nature of the emotional forces involved and the development of scientific social techniques for modifying them." (56)

Evan Durbin in 1947
Evan Durbin in 1947

Tawney disagreed with Bowlby and argued that "the common people had enormous resources of initiative and ability that were hardly used at all". Bowlby appears to have been right as a public opinion poll in December 1947 found that 42 per cent thought the Labour government had so far been "too socialistic", 30 per cent "about right", and a mere 15 per cent "not socialist enough". Durbin wrote that the "British people are not socialist" and "the political future is not hopeful." (57)

Death of Evan Durbin

Evan Durbin was on holiday in Bude, with his wife and three children, Jocelyn (11), Elizabeth (10) and Geoffrey (2) in the summer of 1948. On 3rd September, 1948, the family were on the beach at Crackington Haven when Jocelyn got into difficulties in the sea. Durbin raced in and saved his daughter from drowning. He then returned and brought out another young girl, Tessa Alger. A doctor on the beach reported that after "placing the child safely on a rock" he returned to save other children in difficulties. Unfortunately, he was caught in a strong current and swept out to sea. (58)

John Bowlby was devastated when he heard the news. Jeremy Holmes claimed that "Durbin's death was the most overwhelming loss of John's life, and certainly influenced his interest in the themes of grief and loss which were to figure so centrally in his work." (59) Clement Attlee issued a statement on the death of Durbin: "The tragic death of Evan Durbin has come as a great shock to me, as I had a great admiration and affections for him. He gave unstinting service to the movement generally and, during a period when I was a member of the War Cabinet, he gave me not admirable service, particularly in relation to many economic matters... He had a brilliant academic career at Oxford. His writings reveal wide knowledge and, in my view, great wisdom. He was an admirable exponent of democratic socialism. He was showing great promise in his work as a Junior Minister and would, undoubtedly, had he been spared, have attained high office." (60)

Hugh Gaitskell also found it difficult to deal with Durbin's death: The feeling I most had was one of cold, as though I had something stripped from me and was exposed much more than before to the elements... Grief affects people very differently. For me it is sort of chemical in its action. I find it impossible to control my tears. I still cannot get it firmly into my head that he has gone. Every now and then I think about it again. I suppose one's personal loss declines as time passes, at least one will feel it less frequently. But the full loss to his friends and to the country will be there, sure enough. There is... nobody else in my life whom I can consult on the most fundamental issues, knowing that I shall get the guidance that I want." (61)

At the time of his death, Durbin was working on a companion to The Politics of Democratic Socialism, provisionally entitled The Economics of Democratic Socialism, which built on his post-war concerns about the efficient working of a planned economy, labour relations, nationalized industries, and the steps still required to take Britain from a managed capitalist economy to a fully socialist society. Eleven of his most influential articles were posthumously reprinted as Problems of Economic Planning (1949). (62)

Primary Sources

(1) Evan Durbin, speech at the Women's Institute Hall, Burgess Hill (14th October, 1931)

It was an international, not merely a national crime to force an election at the present time. What the Conservative Party has chosen to do has been done with a view to snatching a victory for their party and their old programme, which the country had rejected again and again, of protection and tariffs, and then they dared to call themselves a National and patriotic party. Who constituted the majority - the newspaper proprietors and the mine-workers, or the working masses, who represented over 16 millions of the 20 million income earners in the country?

The use of the word "National" must be exposed for the hypocrisy it was. The Conservatives wanted to disguise from the workers of the country the fact that what was called the National Party was really the Conservative Party under another name... The Labour Party stoood for equality of opportunity and economic freedom. First and last, it stood for the cure of injustices springing from economic inequalities. It believed that the more equal society could only be secured if there was some kind of social control over the means of production and distribution.

(2) Catherine Ellis, Evan Durbin: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

By the mid-1930s Durbin had become committed to economic planning as the most effective means to achieve socialist ends. He believed that a fully planned economy was a precondition for socialism, and his work was increasingly directed towards implementing this idea. But those who knew him best observed that he was a man of conviction who possessed a great deal of what Gaitskell termed 'moral courage'. He was not afraid to take an unpopular line and his ideas often set him apart from the labour movement at this time. In particular, he emphasized the affinities between Soviet communism and European fascism, insisting that both Germany and Russia were dictatorships characterized by similar types of cruelties and injustices against their people. He pointed to the Russians' brutal treatment of kulaks, for example, and likened it to the mass persecution of German Jews. To compare communism to fascism in this way was brave at a time when Soviet-style communism enjoyed much support among prominent British socialists such as Harold Laski, John Strachey, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Durbin insisted, however, that communism, just as much as fascism, was incompatible with the commitment to democracy, social justice, and personal freedom that lay at the heart of British socialism. The defence of these values was central to Durbin's anti-Marxism, and his views both set him apart in the 1930s and early 1940s, and proved to be highly influential long after his death.

Durbin diverged from his colleagues in other ways as well. Almost alone among his friends, he endorsed the Munich agreement in 1938. His support for Chamberlain originated not in pacifism, but—like so many of his ideas—in patriotism, because he was convinced that Britain did not yet have the strength to fight. Foreshadowing the frustrations of the Labour government in the late 1940s, he also insisted upon the need for trade unions to recognize the community's interests in efforts to plan the economy, especially in areas such as wage controls. While many other economists in the Labour Party were eager to evaluate Keynes's ideas in a socialist context, Durbin found Keynes's indifference to the moral claims of socialism unacceptable and distrusted his liberal roots. Finally, he was critical of Jay's and Hugh Dalton's economic criteria for socialism when economic theory, for Durbin, was primarily a vehicle to convey social and ethical imperatives within a socialist society.

Durbin believed strongly that economics should not be studied in isolation. His most original ideas were informed by broad reading in psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, history, and political science, and the combination of these fields with his economic research resulted in a formulation of democratic socialism that was both distinctive and influential. Durbin joined a study group on psychoanalysis and he urged greater communication and co-operation among social scientists. His work focused increasingly on evaluating the relationship between economics, psychology, and equality, which he believed to be central to the realization of a socialist society. He criticized economists' reluctance to depart from their belief in the unproven benefits of inequality, and he exhorted the profession to reconsider the ethical implications of the assumption that inequality promoted a more efficient economic system. The clearest example of his wide-ranging interests was Personal Aggressiveness and War (1939), which he wrote with the child psychologist John Bowlby. Here Durbin argued that new research into the origins of aggressive behaviour among animals and children by, among others, Solly Zuckerman and Susan Isaacs, might be used to understand and ultimately to prevent the tendency among adults to wage war.

(3) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940)

Although wealth, physical health and social equality may all make their contributions to human happiness, they can all do little and cannot themselves to be secured, without health in the individual mind. We are our own kingdoms and make for ourselves, in large measure, the world in which we live. We may be rich, and healthy, and liberal; but unless we are free from secret guilt, the agonies of inferiority and frustration, and the fire of unexpressed aggression, all other things are added to our lives in vain. The cruelty and irrationality of human society spring from these secret sources. The savagery of a Hitler, the brutality of a Stalin, the ruthlessness and refined bestiality that is rampant in the world today - persecution, cruelty and war - are nothing but the external expression, the institutional and rationalized form, of these dark forces in the human heart.

(4) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940)

It is, in our view, the supreme social duty, the one enduring achievement, so to think and so to act that men and women may sing at their work and children laugh as they play.... There is no easy road to social salvation, no gate around the corner that we may simply unlatch, and walk into a garden of peace. We can only deal with each social problem as it arises, and try to preserve the circumstances within which democracy may survive, and the slow but curative processes of a new emotional education bring men nearer to the full stature of their rational humanity.

(5) Evan Durbin, The Daily Herald (22nd April, 1946)

Lord Keynes - better known as John Maynard Keynes - who died yesterday, was one of the most brilliant men of his generation, a first-class mathematician, the most famous living economist, a man of deep culture and a patron of the arts.

He wrote a series of books, all of first-class quality, reaching the peak of his fame in 1936 with the publication of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. In the second place, he had the larger and more elusive gift of imagination. He was not only a mathematician and an economist. He was also an artist, in temperament and sensibility.

He could, above all, understand the men and the forces of history by which economic policy is administered and formed.... Few men have done more to undermine and ultimately to destroy the economic dogmas of his youth.

(6) Clement Attlee, The Daily Herald (6th September, 1948)

The tragic death of Evan Durbin has come as a great shock to me, as I had a great admiration and affections for him. He gave unstinting service to the movement generally and, during a period when I was a member of the War Cabinet, he gave me not admirable service, particularly in relation to many economic matters...

He had a brilliant academic career at Oxford. His writings reveal wide knowledge and, in my view, great wisdom. He was an admirable exponent of democratic socialism. He was showing great promise in his work as a Junior Minister and would, undoubtedly, had he been spared, have attained high office.

(7) Hugh Gaitskell, diary entry (20th September, 1948)

The feeling I most had was one of cold, as though I had hyad something stripped from me and was exposed much more than before to the elements... Grief affects people very differently. For me it is sort of chemical in its action. I find it impossible to control my tears.

I still cannot get it firmly into my head that he has gone. Every now and then I think about it again. I suppose one's personal loss declines as time passes, at least one will feel it less frequently. But the full loss to his friends and to the country will be there, sure enough. There is... nobody else in my life whom I can consult on the most fundamental issues, knowing that I shall get the guidance that I want.

Student Activities

The Middle Ages

The Normans

The Tudors

The English Civil War

Industrial Revolution

First World War

Russian Revolution

Nazi Germany

References

(1) Catherine Ellis, Evan Durbin: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Evan Durbin, letter to John Lawrence Hammond (27th March, 1940)

(3) Philip M. Williams, Hugh Gaitskell (1979) page 39

(4) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 83

(5) Elizabeth Durbin, New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism (1985) page 3

(6) Philip M. Williams, Hugh Gaitskell (1979) pages 39-40

(7) Margaret Cole, The Story of Fabian Socialism (1961) pages 211-212

(8) Hugh Gaitskell, Oxford in the Twenties, included in Asa Briggs and John Saville, Essays in Labour History (1960) pages 6-19

(9) Elizabeth Durbin, New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism (1985) page 96

(10) Hugh Gaitskell, Oxford in the Twenties, included in Asa Briggs and John Saville, Essays in Labour History (1960) page 15

(11) Elizabeth Durbin, New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism (1985) page 96

(12) Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants (1987) page 113

(13) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 62

(14) Tom Johnson, speech in the House of Commons (8th September, 1931)

(15) John Maynard Keynes, speech made to a group of MPs in the House of Commons (16th September, 1931)

(16) Elizabeth Durbin, New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism (1985) page 152

(17) Evan Durbin, The Daily Herald (22nd April, 1946)

(18) Evan Durbin, speech at the Women's Institute Hall, Burgess Hill (14th October, 1931)

(19) Ben Pimlott, Hugh Dalton: A Life (1985) page 216

(20) Catherine Ellis, Evan Durbin: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) Vaughan Berry, XYZ: The Early Days, unpublished manuscript written in February, 1962.

(22) Francis Williams, Nothing So Strange (1970) page 112

(23) Sheri Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century (2006) (2006) page 170

(24) Karl Molin and Klas Amark, Creating Social Democracy: A Century of the Social Democratic Labor Party in Sweden (2000) pages 139-140

(25) Sheri Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century (2006)page 170

(26) Sheri Berman, The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe (1998) page 49

(27) Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935)

(28) Catherine Ellis, Evan Durbin: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(29) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (15th February, 1937)

(30) John Bowlby and Evan Durbin, Personal Aggressiveness and War (1938) page 42

(31) David Kynaston, Austerity Britain: 1945-51 (2007) page 38

(32) Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants (1987) page 114

(33) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) pages 330-331

(34) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 62

(35) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) page 44

(36) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) pages 103 and 135

(37) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) page 182

(38) Elizabeth Durbin, New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism (1985) page 186

(39) Catherine Ellis, Evan Durbin: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(40) David Marquand, The Progressive Dilemma (1989) page 56

(41) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) page 147

(42) John Strachey, The Coming Struggle for Power (1933) page 144

(43) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 65

(44) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) pages 357-360

(45) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) page 271

(46) Elizabeth Durbin, New Jerusalems: The Labour Party and the Economics of Democratic Socialism (1985) page 277

(47) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) pages 275-278

(48) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 67

(49) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) page 70

(50) Evan Durbin, The Politics of Democratic Socialism (1940) page 361

(51) Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (1992) page 73

(52) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 192

(53) Evan Durbin, What Have We to Defend? (1942) page 34

(54) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 356

(55) David Kynaston, Austerity Britain: 1945-51 (2007) page 129

(56) John Bowlby, Fabian Society Conference (15th September, 1945)

(57) David Kynaston, Austerity Britain: 1945-51 (2007) page 129

(58) The Birmingham Daily Gazette (4th September, 1948)

(59) Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory (1993) page 23

(60) Clement Attlee, The Daily Herald (6th September, 1948)

(61) Hugh Gaitskell, diary entry (20th September, 1948)

(62) Catherine Ellis, Evan Durbin: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

John Simkin