Squandered opportunities – the New Labour years
Looking at the state of today’s left, several words spring to mind, none of them very complimentary. Words like incoherent, fragmented, fractious, useless, unserious, even irrational come naturally to anyone acquainted with the various sects that, when they are not engaged in all out ideological warfare, try desperately to outmanoeuvre each other on the organisational terrain. This is the secret of many an otherwise incomprehensible split in some campaigning initiative that springs up for a worthy objective. For instance, the presence of three competing initiatives all aimed at fighting the cuts of the Con-Dem coalition government. The three campaigns: Coalition of Resistance, Right to Work Campaign and National Shop Stewards’ Network Anti-Cuts Campaign, are simply initiatives of different organisations of the revolutionary socialist left.
I won’t go into detail of the precise nature of these groups; that would be both tediously anal-retentive and serve to emphasise, in a somewhat discordant way, something that really needs to be overcome, but it is common knowledge in left politics that this is the case. Whether it is all-out ideological warfare, openly waged between competing groups of socialist newspaper sellers haranguing each other (and the public), or the manoeuvring that leads to competing ‘broad’ campaigns, that often engage the same people but take great offence when the other party treads on their ‘turf’, the problem becomes clearer.
Anyone familiar with the history of attempts to form a new, broad left wing party, a new working class political expression, over the past two decades will likely come to the conclusion that there is little hope of success. The destruction of the Socialist Alliance, finally consummated during the 2003 Iraq War, was in fact pre-figured when one large left group, the Socialist Party/Militant, walked out of the SA after the 2001 General Election because they objected to the simple democratic position that each member of the Socialist Alliance should have equal membership rights, particularly over such elementary things as votes on policy and action.
The SP’s objection was not to the principle that all members of a left party should have equal rights (!!!), but rather because they believed that this would mean that in practice their main factional rivals in the SA, the Socialist Workers Party, would be able to outvote them because they have a larger membership. In this dispute the SWP were formally in the right, in upholding basic democracy. Yet in a way the SP did have a point, it was subsequently proven, in the 2007 split in Respect, that the SWP has exactly the same aversion to broader forms of democracy in a putative left-wing party as the SP. Both the SWP and the SP regard themselves as ‘the Party’: the Socialist Alliance, which as elections showed many more working class people put their hopes in than these ‘parties’ could have mustered had they stood under their own ‘party’ names, was for them simply a milieu from which they hoped to recruit to the ‘real’ party.
Later, when faced with the necessity to transcend narrow factional interests when serious differences emerged among the leaders of Respect about the SWP’s de-facto running of the organisation, the SWP instead declared war on their critics in Respect, and tore the organisation apart. But this time they were not declaring war on a rival far left faction, but virtually the entire ‘broad’ component of this broad party that had actually gained some measure of electoral success in getting an MP elected to Parliament under its own banner, as well as a number of quite prominent councillors.
This is only a very brief summary of some of the events that led to the squandering of a key political opportunity for the socialist left in the UK: to create an organisation of the politically advanced layers of the working class movement as an alternative to the Labour Party. Labour has always supported and propped up capitalism, but in the Blair/Brown years it governed as a party of privatisation and imperialist war without even any fig-leaf of a reference to any kind of ‘socialist’ aspirations. Labour governments in the past have attacked the working class, but limits were placed on just how far Labour was prepared to press this by its considerable base of working class support that to a degree embodied the diluted socialist aspirations expressed in the old Clause IV, demanding a society based on common ownership. This was replaced in 1994 by a different clause IV that committed Labour to promoting ‘the rigour of competition and the market’.
The decade of Labour government dedicated to this overtly Thatcherite political shift away from social-democratic reformism to overt capitalist reaction, should have been grasped as the perfect opportunity to hole Labour and labourism below the water-line, and create a genuine broad working class political party, led and staffed by a genuinely socialist, rooted working class cadre, counterposed to the thoroughly bourgeois ‘workers party’ that the Labour Party is and always was. The biggest obstacle to that proved to be not the professional middle-class Labour bureaucracy, but the deeply ingrained penchant for sect warfare almost for its own sake that is rife on the would-be communist left.
These factors played probably the most important role in squandering the potential of first the Socialist Alliance, and then Respect. The result being the current dire situation, with a discredited Labour Party very feebly being forced to posture marginally to the left of the grotesque neo-liberalism and authoritarianism of New Labour in order to compete for votes with part of the thoroughly bourgeois coalition government that replaced them.
The scale of the problem – false responses
The root cause of this is the failure of social democracy to offer an alternative to capitalism in a situation where the political and economic resources of world capitalism are becoming distinctly threadbare. And of course, the historical mission of social democracy is not to offer an alternative to capitalism. It is rather to offer an alternative to an alternative, to foster the illusion that you can achieve the basic goals of the socialist movement in terms of social equality and political emancipation without getting rid of capitalism, by organic and incremental modifications of the way it works, so that it can evolve, in the rarer, most left-wing interpretations, into some kind of socialist society. But the idea of capitalism organically evolving towards socialism looks completely remote today. And once such illusions wither, the appeal of social democracy also withers.
One might expect that this would offer an enormous opportunity to the genuine, full-blooded socialist and communist left to make serious gains and to emerge again as a competitor to social democracy for the allegiance of politically conscious working class people. But it is not as simple as that. As well as living in the period of the atrophy of social-democracy, we are also still living in the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. To the popular consciousness, this meant and still basically means that socialism is seen as dead, as something that has been defeated and discredited.
This is a pretty deep-going problem, difficult to overcome and to fight against. Two false responses to it are manifested among many people who have a serious commitment to socialist ideas, but cannot see beyond this problem. One is propagandist purity, trying to ‘preserve’ the essence of a revolutionary socialist position or programme in the hope that when ‘better times’ finally arrive, their ‘socialist’ boat will re-float on a new tide of working class radicalism and … lo, the ready-made revolutionary leadership is still there and ready to lead the masses. Needless to say, those socialist groupings that practice this idea, increasingly resemble religious sects.
As a perspective, it is self-defeating, because socialist politics is not a scriptural vocation. Any political organisation only obtains the capacity to lead political struggles by attempting to do just that. Even if failures are suffered, at least valuable political experience is gained which can be put to use in the future. Political authority is also gained in a negative sense – the memory that “this group of people may have been defeated, but at least they tried to do this …” is something that again can be of use in some future conjuncture that might be difficult to foresee right now.
In a way, though there are some notorious extreme examples of this on the fringes of the far left who take this idea to its logical conclusion, this kind of thinking is actually quite widespread. In political terms, it is what is behind the sect wars, the belief that some narrowly defined group is the bearer of ‘the truth’, or at least enough of it to make it qualitatively better than the alternatives that are on offer, and therefore it can therefore treat others with a lower level of understanding of ‘the truth’ in a high-handed and manipulative way, short-circuiting more rational and productive political methods in favour of what is in fact sect discipline.
Indeed, it was the circumstances of the rise of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s, and then after the Second World War, the decades-long confrontation between the degenerated ‘Soviet’ bloc and the Western capitalist powers, that produced this widespread sect-isation of the revolutionary socialist left in the first place. In conditions when the movement was under pressure from huge military-bureaucratic machines that had both power and authority among the mass of the workers, were utterly hostile to genuine socialism, plus the complexity of many of the issues involving the nature of Stalinism and therefore the possibility of radically different analyses, all this gave birth to different schools of thought in a situation when ossification into a beleaguered sect defending an ‘orthodoxy’ in the face of ‘events’ in the real world, was all too easy.
The other, symmetrical error to this is ‘movement-ism’. Involvement in activity for its own sake, without doing anything, however modest, to build the kind of socialist instrument that is necessary. It is perfectly possible for socialists to immerse themselves in the day-to-day minutiae of a wide variety of things, trade unionism, environmental campaigns, international solidarity campaigns (such as over Palestine) , women’s rights, gay rights, or many other issues. Many of these struggles are very worthwhile and useful to the cause of the working class, and those involved in them are an indispensible component of a future working class party. It remains the case, however, that without solving the question of conscious socialist politics, all this activity ultimately is ineffective and no matter how it pushes at the margins of this society, by default accepts its basic framework.
It is also common to find groupings that combine both errors, mixing the most banal, seemingly almost apolitical ‘mass activism’ and hostility to political debate as a supposed diversion from ‘real’ activity, with the most crass sectarian manoeuvring and invective against perceived rival left-wing currents that get in their way. In order to find a way forward to building a healthy socialist movement that can re-arm the working class movement for the future, is is necessary to recognise that all these are in fact the deep-rooted problems of our movement, they are what cripples us politically and make it doubly or triply difficult for the left to make progress. We live in a difficult political situation, only a couple of decades into the post-Stalinist era; there is no doubting that. But what is damaging the left is not simply the objective situation, but more importantly political diseases that are products of that past era. We need to find a cure for those diseases as a matter of urgency.
Which brings me to the main point of this article. Pointing out the problems of the contemporary left is vitally important, not for its own sake, but in order to formulate some solutions. These problems exist at two main levels – the level of political programme, and the level of mode of operation. And there is a complex, interactive, reciprocal relationship between the two.
Programme and organisation, or the chicken and the egg
First of all there is the question of political programme and analysis. Through the decades when Stalinism dominated the left and labour movement internationally, political currents broadly identified with Trotskyism kept alive the flame of revolutionary socialism by fighting courageously against the stream. There is no doubt that the various analyses of Stalinism that they formulated and fought for contain considerable elements of truth. And indeed on many other questions a variety of revolutionary tendencies formulated views that were often both thoughtful, and at times, guides to action on those occasions when despite the generally unfavourable balance of forces, revolutionary struggles became possible.
There is however no hegemonic, authoritative analysis of Stalinism that can be pointed to by most revolutionaries as the key to understanding this enormously important chapter in history. What there are instead are various competing analyses of the former Soviet bloc states, that in most cases despite considerable and powerful insights, do not illuminate much for the simple reason that they have become badges of honour in decades-long campaigns of warfare between different left-wing sects.
This essay is not the place for a lengthy exposition on the nature of Stalinism. However, it is worth making a couple of brief points about how both of the main trends among post-war left-wing opponents of Stalinism have huge holes in them. Those trends on the far left who were completely dismissive of the importance of the USSR for workers and oppressed peoples in struggle, who considered it to be no better than US imperialism, are confronted with a situation when its fairly sudden disappearance has, in the consciousness of many, made a major difference. It is almost a truism that when the USSR existed, the United States in particular, had to tread carefully and could not simply rampage around the world as it saw fit. As it has certainly seemed able to do with relative impunity since the collapse of the USSR. It is also superfluous to note that this is a fairly unique phenomenon: the demise of competing colonial empires after the Second World War, for instance, did not lead to the defeated ones being missed by oppressed peoples as some kind of counterweight to a rampaging super-imperialism.
This, among other things, poses something of a problem for that kind of “Neither Washington nor Moscow’ analysis. A powerful illustration of this was when during the lead up to the Iraq war, some elements on the anti-war left movement were even reduced to begging Chirac’s France to start acting as a counterweight to US ambitions. Wishful thinking and fantasy of course. But indicative of something.
The other pole of this argument traditionally has been the orthodox Trotskyists, who faithfully upheld the notion that the USSR, and other similar states like China, were deformed remnants or by-products of a workers revolution that are doomed to collapse and be subjugated again to the imperialist ruling classes of the West without a new workers (political) revolution within them combined, with classic working class revolutions in the advanced countries. Failing that, no ‘deformed workers state’ stood a prayer against the power of imperialism in the long run. Market socialist experiements, like under Gorbachev, could only be the prelude to a renewed subjugation to the major powers of world capitalism.
And then there is China… A ‘deformed workers state’ according to the post-WWII, orthodox Trotskyist way of thinking. Its state structure is still largely intact and its Stalinist party still has a monopoly of power. But it has gone well beyond mere ‘market socialism’. Full blooded capitalism is its line of march, albeit guided by the ‘proletarian’ state in a manner that probably has not been seen since the industrialisation of Germany under Bismarck. Only the proportions are even greater. It is not only the second largest capitalist economy in the world, but it is also the main creditor of the biggest, the United States, which is now undergoing as a result of the biggest capitalist financial crisis since the 1930s, a very serious debt crisis that is likely to erode its world economic clout even more. China, the ‘deformed workers state’ that started from a much lower level of economic development than Russia in 1917, is breathing down the Americans’ neck in the race to be the world’s number one. It looks highly likely that in a decade or two, the US will be down to number two. Orthodox Trotskyism, in other words, has proved not to be a very good guide to understanding the world either.
In part two, coming soon, I will lay out some solutions to some of these issues, how we go about constructing an organisation that is capable both of using the tools of revolutionary communism, i.e. Marxism, to give it a personal name, and at the same time embodying a broader, inclusive and democratic ethos that consciously breaks with the dead-end antics of the sects. An organisation that has the potential to be both radical and indeed revolutionary, and at the same time draw in the many activists and intellectuals who are being driven away from Labourism by the obvious incapacity of its cadre, and yet are repelled by sect warfare and self-serving cliques and splits. Stay tuned.