Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Some early reflections on 'One Nation Labourism'

Or, how can socialists challenge the 'new conservatism' of Ed Miliband?

The official British labour movement is supposed to be marvelling at the intellectual genius of Ed Miliband this week - for a) doing what anyone involved in acting at any level can do, i.e. learn the lines of a speech written for him and deliver them in public, b) noticing there is a paternalistic historic political tradition called 'One Nation Toryism' dating back to Disraeli (that along with 'Old Labour' died something of a death when British capitalism stopped growing from the 1970s onwards and so making some meaningful positive reforms to benefit the poor was no longer easily done), and c)  noticing that no previous Labour leader has tried to invent a new tradition of 'One Nation Labourism' (perhaps because if anyone else before him had tried to raise this banner many people might have thought 'Hang on, isn't "One Nation Labourism" a bit too close to, er, "National Socialism"?' - something  Ed Miliband can just about get away with because of firstly Disraeli's own Jewish heritage and secondly Ed Miliband's own Jewish heritage and the experience of his family fleeing the Nazis).  Miliband's 'One Nation Labourism' looks as if it is basically 'Blue Labour Re-loaded' - but with less stress on appealing primarily to a 'white [supposedly racist] working class' up North and more stress on trying to win a [supposedly] nationalistic middle class in the South of England.  In other words, the solution for Ed Miliband is not only to adopt Tory policies (acceptance of cuts, public sector pay freeze etc etc) but now also use Tory rhetoric about how Britain is really apparently 'One Nation' (an 'imagined community' if there ever was one at the best of times but a sick joke at a time when inequality is at a record level in Britain) - as well.    So what is to be done, aside from building the fight back by marching for 'a future that works' on 20 October and trying to build a new tradition of political trade unionism independent of Labour among the rank and file of British trade unionists by supporting initiatives like Unite the Resistance?  Here I think we can learn something from the late Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband - Ed's father - in an article he wrote in 1987 for Socialist Register with Leo Panitch on 'Socialists and the "New Conservatism"'.  Speaking of the social democratic parties like Labour (this is before the rise of New Labour - so his criticism applies doubly today), Miliband senior noted that:

These parties, or at least their leaders, offer at best a return to the days of the Keynesian/welfare state, a reflationary fiscal policy and corporatist-style relations with the trade unions. In effect, they boast of a ‘new realism’ which promises an even more thorough accommodation with capitalism than before. A cloudy rhetoric mingles some of the catch-phrases of the new conservatism with the theme of ‘social compassion’. Thus, Neil Kinnock offers ‘efficiency, individual liberty, wealth creation, patriotism’ as the guiding tenets of the Labour Party, and then adds ‘justice, compassion, and equality’ for good measure. This is supposed to ‘reassert democratic socialist values as an effective body of values for modern needs rather than a ghost from the past’. (The Future of Socialism, Fabian Tract no.509, 1985) But this verbiage, and the policy proposals which accompany it, leaves altogether untouched something which is not ghostly at all, namely the existing structures of power, property and privilege of ‘late capitalism’, and the structures of domination which it is the purpose of socialism to dissolve.

This is why an essential task for socialists is to conduct a sustained, principled and informed critique of social democratic leaders, the result of whose endeavours is not to advance socialist transformation but to retard it. Making this critique presents many problems in the light of diverse electoral and political considerations; and there is always the danger that such a critique will turn into ineffective vituperation. Nevertheless, the socialist case has to be affirmed and developed if it is not to be lost in a fog of obfuscating rhetoric.

The difficulty of the task is underlined by the fact that socialists in Britain have to support the return of a Labour Government; and American socialists, presented with no alternative in many states, may even have to vote for Democratic candidates. In the constricted choice offered at the present time, it is clearly of great importance that the most reactionary bourgeois politicians [e.g. Cameron, Clegg today - Ed] should be driven from office. But socialists have long been aware that elections alone do not determine public policy. The outcome of elections has certain effects, and that is a virtue of capitalist democracy. But the reforms that may flow from electoral outcomes are limited and vulnerable. This is why the purpose of political action for socialists must not only be the achievement of immediate defensive victories, but the widening of the basis of support for reforms which open the way for more fundamental transformations.

We are under no illusion that the institutions of capitalist democracy provide the mechanisms of a smooth achievement of such reforms. Even if a government pledged to radical changes of policy at home and abroad were to be brought to office on the basis of a substantial electoral and parliamentary majority, we have no doubt that it would meet fierce resistance from conservative forces, international as well as national. But this is not the issue before us today in the countries of advanced capitalism. On any realistic assessment, the coming to office of such a government is not an immediate prospect, to say the least, and this makes speculation on the likely ‘scenario’ when such a government does gain office not very relevant to the immediate tasks facing socialists in these countries. Speculation on the degree of opposition even to the re-establishment of something like the Keynesian/welfare state might be more in order.

In this connection, we note that there are many people on the Left who believe that the goal of the Left today should be to establish a Swedish or Austrian-style social democracy in countries like Britain or the United States. Even if this were the appropriate goal for socialists to pursue, it is our view that this fails to address the structural factors which prevented the emplacement of a hegemonic social democracy in the past. It was not that the leadership of the British Labour Party did not look to and admire Sweden; this was always the ‘beacon’ of even right wing social democrats. But the structural position of British capital in the world economy, the leading role of financial capital, the international function of the currency, all underwrote capital’s opposition to anything more than the tepid Keynesianism which the British Treasury practised in the postwar decades. The same factors account for capital’s successful opposition to effective trade union involvement in economic decision-making and the extensive ‘decommodification’ of services of the kind seen in Sweden and Austria. What is true of Britain in these respects is a fortiori true of the United States.

It was precisely such factors which rendered the advances that were made so vulnerable to the attacks of the ‘new conservatism’. In this view, those people on the Left who do want Swedish or Austrian-style social democracy, but who reject a confrontation with capital as too ‘extreme’, are simply refusing to face reality. In the conditions of ‘late capitalism’ in these countries, radical reform inescapably entails such a confrontation.

This means that socialists have to take a long-term view. Two closely related issues are involved. How do we go about convincing more and more people that there are socialist solutions to the shortcomings and derelictions of capitalism? And what are the agencies which will enable socialists to contribute collectively to the advancement of specific struggles, to the spread of socialist ideas, and ultimately to the struggle for power? 

...Social democracy, for all practical purposes, has long given up any such project. When forces within social democratic parties have arisen – and they repeatedly have – to push their leaders to the left, these forces have sooner or later been defeated, among other reasons because leaders under challenge could always claim that the Left was not only unreasonable, unrealistic, etc., but also that its challenge must be fatally damaging to the electoral chances of the party, given the spectacle presented to the electorate by a divided and squabbling party. Electoral considerations, in this respect as in many others, are inevitably of great help to party leaders, since these considerations push followers to want a ‘unity’ which is of great advantage to those who are in control of the party. Social democratic parties will long remain major actors on the political scene of capitalist democratic regimes; and as we have already noted, they are always to be supported against conservative parties. The important point, however, is that on all the evidence that has accumulated over many decades and in many countries, these parties cannot be expected to address seriously and effectively the task of education, mobilisation and struggle which any party truly committed to socialist transformation must undertake.

 There are many people on the Left today who strongly feel the need of a party free of the various shortcomings which have burdened the socialist movement in the past. At present, the will to embark on such an undertaking is stymied by the thought of past failures and disappointments, and by the sense that what matters above all is to support the existing parties which, however inadequate they may be, offer a chance to get rid of reactionary governments. But it is perfectly possible to give such support and yet to envisage the coming into being of new socialist formations that would seek to fulfil the many tasks that now go largely by default.

There is, however, a different sort of inhibition which has in recent years prevented many socialists from thinking seriously about socialist alternatives, in this and in other realms, and to which we have already made reference. This is the loss of confidence and even belief that the socialist project is more than a utopian vision; and with this goes a great deal of self-flagellation and breast-beating about the sins of omission and commission with which the Left charges the Left. Self-criticism is of course very necessary; but much that goes on in this vein is not so much self-criticism as self-indulgent political masochism, accompanied by further retreat from socialist purposes and policies.

All this will pass; and the crying need for new agencies of socialist transformation will sooner or later come to be seriously addressed.  In large measure, it is the deficiencies of social democratic and Communist parties which have produced the ‘new social movements’ of the last two decades – movements whose focus is sexual and race oppression, ecology and peace. These movements have undoubtedly enlarged and enriched the meaning of socialism. All such movements are an essential part of the coalition of forces on which a socialist movement must depend.

However, no such ‘new social movement’ can obviate the need for a socialist party (or parties). Nor can they replace organised labour as the main force on which a socialist movement must rely. Here, and in the actual or potential support of the working class in general, is where the main strength of such a movement has to be found. The ‘working class’ in advanced capitalist countries includes some three quarters of their population – blue collar, white collar, service and distributive workers, men and women, black and white, skilled and unskilled. The task of a socialist party is to afford a degree of coherence to a class which is inevitably fragmented and divided, and to do so without any pretension of achieving a necessarily artificial and imposed ‘monolithic’ unity.

In the coming years, two tasks are in this respect critical. The first is to persuade those workers who have moved electorally to the Right that the new conservatism [ie. Miliband  - Ed] is their enemy. The second task is to persuade those many members of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ working class who have never supported the Left that their interests and aspirations are bound up with the struggle against capitalism.

This is the necessary perspective for anyone committed to the task of socialist transformation. Any other perspective exposes those who harbour it to disillusion, despair and retreat. But long-term though the perspective is, it is not ‘millennial’: for the socialist project is solidly grounded in the growing awareness of vast numbers of men and women that the system cannot deliver on the promises which its apologists so generously dispense. The central problem for socialists is that this awareness is not accompanied by the conviction that there exists a socialist alternative to capitalism. It is this which must be overcome; and it can only be overcome if the socialist case is articulated and developed in a mode of thought and speech which is rigorous, fresh and accessible...

We are well aware that nothing which has been said here provides a blueprint for the solution of the many practical problems that socialists have to resolve if they are to make headway with the socialist project. Our justification, if one is needed, is that at this point of the struggle for socialism in the countries of advanced capitalism, there is need for more than a concentration on the nuts and bolts of the enterprise. At least as important, and in some ways more important, is a clear perception of the structure which the nuts and bolts are intended to keep in place. In other words, what is also needed and badly needed, is a reaffirmation of the principles and values which make up the socialist project, and an insistence that there are radical, rational and feasible alternatives to the ways of life dictated by a system whose own needs are ever more sharply in conflict with human needs.

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