Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Some early thoughts on Ed Miliband's victory

The victory of Ed Miliband - 'the candidate of the trade union bureaucracy' as Socialist Worker put it, against his brother David, 'the candidate of the New Labour bureaucracy' is remarkable - and certainly to be celebrated as a victory over all the very worst rotten pro-capitalist pro-war reactionary elements of the Labour Party (as well as leaving a nice amount of egg on the face of one time leading Labour left-winger Dennis Skinner) . Whichever Miliband won the election would have had - and Ed now has - a very good chance of being the next Prime Minister, but clearly the majority of grassroots Labour activists understood Ed Miliband would be a better bet to rebuild the Party itself than his brother - who as a former Foreign Secretary who fervently supported the criminal and disastrous imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would hardly be ideal to try and remove the stench of corruption and clean up the stains of blood left by the Blair-Brown years.

In his speech, Ed Miliband accordingly made the following pledge:

"The Labour Party in the future must be a vehicle that doesn't just attract thousands of young people but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of young people who see us as their voice in British politics today...Today a new generation has taken charge of Labour, a new generation that understands the call of change...Today's election turns the page because a new generation has stepped forward to serve our party and in time I hope to serve our country. Today the work of the new generation begins."

I have no doubt lots of young idealistic people will indeed now rally behind a Ed Miliband led Labour Party, particularly given the growing moral and political bankrupcy of the Tory Boys currently running the Lib Dems. But whether young people who take the idea of socialism seriously should now join the Labour Party is another question - and one that for an answer people could do far worse than read the thoughts of the great Marxist Ralph Miliband - Ed's father. In 1966, Ralph Miliband, commenting on Harold Wilson, noted that 'when Mr. Wilson so unexpectedly became leader of the Labour Party, many people on the Left thought that their situation had been drastically changed, and that left-wing voices would at long last be effectively heard at the highest reaches of Labour policy-making.'

Such illusions were soon to be proved wrong - not least after Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964. But for Ralph Miliband, the idea of 'parliamentary socialism' itself through the Labour Party was a flawed strategy - and socialists would be better off trying to build up a socialist alternative to the Labour Party from below:

'It is absurd to think that the men who now rule the Labour Party, and who will go on ruling it, will ever want, or would agree under pressure, to push the Labour Party in socialist directions, and to show the resolution, single-mindedness and staying-power which such reorientation would require. Carthorses should not be expected to win the Derby. To believe, against all the weight of accumulated evidence, that the Labour leaders can, for instance, be made to adopt a “socialist foreign policy” if it is presented to them in sufficiently alluring terms is pure delusion, on a par with Robert Owen’s hope that Metternich would act on the plan for a Co-operative Commonwealth of Europe which Owen presented to him at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818...It may be that the Labour leaders lack the knowledge to apply socialist policies: but what they lack even more, and irremediably, is the will.

What this amounts to is that the Labour Party is and will remain as much of a non-socialist party as it has ever been, with its leaders providing a Lib-Lab, non-socialist alternative to the Conservative Party. This does not mean that the two parties are now “the same”. They are in fact very different, in terms of the kind of people who mainly vote for each party, in terms of their membership and the aspirations of their activists. But the parliamentary leaders of the Labour Party (and the point applies, though to a lesser degree to the leaders of the Conservative Party) have always been able to attenuate the political expression of these differences to the point where they do not, in concrete terms, endanger the “neo-capitalist” framework which both party leaderships now accept as permanent.

However, even this common acceptance of “neo-capitalism” as permanent does not eliminate all differences between the two party leaderships; there remains plenty of room for political divergence and controversy over economic and social policy. Even the task of strengthening British capitalism, to which the Labour leaders are dedicated, is not one that can be pursued, particularly by a Labour Government, without arousing hostility on the part of many interests well represented in the Conservative Party.

This reproduces, though at a different level, a situation which endured for the best part of the nineteenth century as between the Tory and Liberal parties. These parties were not by any means “the same”; but, as Lord Balfour noted in a famous Introduction to Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution, their “alternating Cabinets, though belonging to different Parties ... never differed about the foundations of society”. It was at one time thought that, with the emergence of the Labour Party as the main opposition, the confrontation had assumed an altogether different character and that what now divided the parties did concern “the foundations of society”.

It may be difficult for socialists inside the Labour Party to accept that this was a mistaken interpretation, and that there is no genuine likelihood of it ever coming to correspond to reality. It is the more difficult to accept this in that the Labour Party remains the “party of the working class”, and that there is, in this sense, no serious alternative to it at present. This, of course, has always been the central dilemma of British Socialism, and it is not a dilemma which is likely to be soon resolved. But the necessary first step in that direction is to take a realistic view of the Labour Party, of what it can and of what it cannot be expected to do. For it is only on the basis of such a view that socialists can begin to discuss their most important task of all, which is the creation of an authentic socialist movement in Britain.

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At 11:50 am, Blogger Shalom Patrick Hamou said...

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