Forgotten favourites - Politics of aspiration. T H Green was the first philosopher of social justice. Today's cabinet ministers would do well to read him, writes Roy Hattersley

T H Green and the Development of Ethical Socialism

Matt Carter

<em>Imprint Academic, 234pp, £25<

Contempt for philosophy is a defining characteristic of British socialism. Even G D H Cole - an original thinker of a sort - congratulated Labour for being "so undefined in its doctrinal basis as to make recruits readily amongst people of quite different types". That was fine, between the wars, when the party could simply identify itself as "the broad party of the underdog". But when the number of underdogs diminished to a level that could no longer sustain a political party, Labour (according to Richard Crossman) "lost its way not only because it lacked maps of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers". As in 1951, so in 2003.

In all of the 20th century, only two men - R H Tawney and C A R Crosland - ever painted a convincing picture of the good society. Both wrote compellingly about what they hoped socialism would achieve. And Crosland added a practical prescription to his diagnosis of modern capitalism's failure. Each inspired the generation for which he wrote and they remain a standing reproof to Labour politicians who, in Tawney's words, "seek not a social order of a different kind but a social order of the same kind in which money and power will be somewhat differently distributed".

But neither Tawney nor Crosland was (or wanted to be) a methodical system-builder who carefully, and sometimes laboriously, constructed a theory of moral values, piece by piece. One such philosopher - a man whose ideas have not been diminished by time or change - did produce a huge body of work that is still directly relevant to every decision taken in Downing Street. Earlier this year Matt Carter (who gave up philosophy to become a Labour Party organiser!) wrote T H Green and the Development of Ethical Socialism for Imprint Academic. Green's rehabilitation is long overdue.

Green was a philosopher ahead of his time. He anticipated John Rawls's theory of agency by writing in his lecture "Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract" that liberty is "a positive power, a capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying". Not only did he reject the notion that freedom is the absence of restraint, he dismissed utilitarianism - the basis of classical liberalism - as the debasement of human nature. "Man does as he pleases, but so does a horse out of harness." He replaced the pleasure principle - Jeremy Bentham's view that "push penny is as good as philosophy if it produces the same satisfaction" - with the belief that thinking man could project his imagination into the future and visualise what was possible in an improved society.

His theory could be called the "politics of aspiration". He thought that it was impossible for individuals to improve their own condition in isolation. His ethical socialism was based, in the words of one of his disciples, on the conviction that "there is some intrinsic bond (an organic unity or a general will or common good) connecting the individuals of which society is composed".

Green's view that the interests of disparate individuals can be united in the pursuit of the "general good" needs to be treated with some caution. It was at least in part a product of his "Christian socialism" and is open to the criticism that it is the result of faith rather than of empirical study. Class interests are more likely to clash than to coincide. But two elements of his philosophy have the hard edges of proper analysis. They concern government intervention and equality.

I came to T H Green via the Irish Land Act 1870 - a measure which, William Gladstone told Cardinal Manning, was intended to prevent the landlord "using the terrible power of undue and unjust eviction" and would in consequence "also extinguish unjust augmentation of rent". In Benthamite terms, that was an "infraction" of both the tenant's and the landlord's liberty. But freedom of contract means nothing when one party has much more power than the other. Green had no doubt that the government had a duty to intervene on behalf of the weakest signatory to the enforced bargain.

Green, anticipating Rawls's insistence that in a democracy, governments must "adjudicate" between "conflicting liberties", has to justify that contention against the notion of the "general good". He does so with the assertion that "every injury to the health of the individual is, so far as it goes, a public injury". That is Christian sentimentality. The "injury" done to Rupert Murdoch by reducing his power and wealth could be of global benefit. But Green's general conclusion about the government's obligation to act on behalf of the dispossessed and disadvantaged is substantiated with a logic that gives egalitarian socialism a rational as well as an ethical foundation.

Professor the Lord (Raymond) Plant - mercifully spared the futility of an under-secretaryship, and therefore able to continue his unparalleled contribution to socialist thought - has (pace Tony Crosland) defined three variants of that essential socialist objective. Equality of opportunity is the classic liberal aspiration. Equality of result (or outcome) requires constant (and perhaps oppressive) government action. Democratic equality allows discrepancies in power and wealth as long as they benefit the whole community. Green's support for the third category - "a more positive equality of condition" - again anticipates Rawls, whose "difference principle" requires redistribution up to the point at which the intended beneficiaries cry: "Enough!"

Green and Rawls are part of the same intellectual movement. And Carter has done a great service to the Labour movement by attempting to bring Green back into the mainstream of socialist thought. That the two major philosophers of social justice both called themselves "liberals" might even reconcile some cabinet ministers to their ideas. That does not mean they will read either Green or Carter's excellent study. It is not that sort of government.

Roy Hattersley's most recent book is A Brand from the Burning: the life of John Wesley (Little, Brown)