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We need to start talking about Socialism

I’ve written enough posts bemoaning the genius of the right in transforming a private sector crisis into a crisis of overspending, Yes, it sucks. I’ve also whinged about the failure of the Labour leadership to offer a coherent alternative to the Tories’ attempt to re-order society even further in the interests of the wealthy than it already is. That sucks too. But both problems have a common source: the disappearance of the left as it was traditionally understood.

We need to talk about socialism. No, I don’t mean the “socialism” that made a guest appearance during the Labour leadership debate, when (to caricature slightly) the contenders defined it as people basically being nice to each other. I mean the vision of a different society to the one we currently have – one organised in the interests of working people. For generations, that’s what motivated large numbers of Labour activists – as well, of course, as addressing the basic bread-and-butter issues of the people the party exists to represent. The “vision thing”, if you like.

Times have changed so dramatically that to even talk about “socialism” risks being dismissed as a fringe nutter. In large part, that’s because the left was caught up (cliché alert) in a perfect storm. In the 1970s, capitalism was – like today – in crisis, but, as Peter Oborne puts it:

For a while, it was wholly unclear which side would win, and indeed for long periods it appeared that the Left was in the ascendancy.”

Then Thatcherism swept all before it; the Labour opposition fractured; the trade union movement – the backbone of the left in the broadest sense – was pummelled; and then the Soviet collapse unleashed a tidal wave of capitalist triumphalism that swamped even democratic leftists who abhorred Stalinist totalitarianism.

The combination of these factors appeared to rule out even the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. And – because it all happened when the neo-liberals were the ascendancy – it seemed to write off even the cuddlier welfare capitalism established in the rubble of World War II. As author Mark Fisher puts it:

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Even after three years of perpetual capitalist crisis – a crisis that remains without any obvious end – that simply has not changed. Capitalism can collapse all it likes, but there does not seem to be any apparent alternative to nip in and take its place.

It’s easy to explain the long-standing existential crisis of socialism. But why do we even need a Labour left? Well, I’d argue that it’s even in the interests of those Labour activists who don’t place themselves on the left of the party. It would help drag the whole political consensus to the left. And it could give the Labour leadership political space it simply does not currently have.

It’s easy to attack Ed Miliband over, for example, buying into the caricature of welfare scroungers. But accusing him of betrayal is pointless, because there is no mass movement to betray. Where is the grassroots movement making the case for the unemployed in modern Britain? The truth is that he is simply tapping into a prejudice that is widespread – including (and in some cases particularly) in working-class communities. If you are in a low-paid job you don’t particularly enjoy and just scraping by in life, the idea of so-called “welfare scroungers” often annoys you more than anyone else.

If there was a strong Labour left, it could make the case about so many people being on benefits because (radical idea here) there aren’t enough jobs to go around; that benefit fraud is exaggerated (costing £1.2 billion compared to £70 billion lost through tax avoidance); and that it is an often complicated phenomenon.

When a business lobby group rounded up 20 right-wing economists to sign up to a letter urging the scrapping of the 50p tax band for those earning £150,000, a Labour left could have counter-attacked by demanding the threshold was dropped to £100,000. It would have transformed the debate.

But of course a socialist wing of the Labour party would not simply jump on bandwagons, or be purely defensive. It would have to outline a coherent vision of a different society – just as the neo-liberals do.

It would need to make that relevant to people’s everyday lives, of course. In truth, most people do not think in terms of left and right: they think of issues that need to be addressed. The right have been so successful that, for many, “the left” simply means taxing them more individually, and subsidising minority groups that aren’t them. A socialist left would have to communicate in everyday, commonsense language, and addresses people’s basic concerns. That would mean socialist answers to issues often abandoned to the right – like crime and anti-social behaviour of which (after all) working-class people are more likely to be victims.

It would have to demonstrate that it could marshal support, too. Blairites are successful at marginalising the left because they portray them as an electoral liability: as self-indulgent radicals who would keep the Tories in office. That’s in part how Tony Blair managed to get away with so many violations of traditional Labour principles: those who experienced 18 years of Thatcherism were desperate to get rid of the Tories, whatever the cost. I remember that desperation among my own (ex-Trotskyist activist) parents. A socialist movement would have to build and demonstrate mass appeal and support.

The actual substance could not just be a regurgitation of 1970s Labour leftism, because British society is completely different. Its starting point would be challenging a society organised around the profit principle. The answer to that isn’t old-style nationalisation, which was bureaucratic and top-down, and didn’t involve either workers or consumers. Instead, it could build a model of social ownership – where representatives of workers and consumers helped manage, say, the railways or the energy companies. It would mean economic planning, but it would be democratically organised – not run by a bunch of bureaucrats in Whitehall, as happened in the past.

It would have to think in international terms. Capitalism has globalised at a dramatic speed, and it has stripped national governments of autonomy over their own economy. That means the threat of de facto strike action by capitalism against policies that challenge it – through capital flights, for example. This has to be answered by a globalised labour movement – and socialists have to be at the forefront of fighting for it.

I’ve been intentionally vague, because it would be arrogant of me to draw up a detailed agenda for a new socialism. But a new socialism is what needs to be debated. It would be good for Labour and it would be good for working people. And – above all – it would offer an optimistic future, instead of the gloomy austerity being promised by neo-liberalism.

This first appeared at http://www.labourlist.org/we-need-to-talk-about-socialism


3 Comments

  1. Syzygy says:

    Tristan Learoyd left this comment on Labourlist and I thought it was deserving of being repeated here:

    ‘In terms of a new agenda, there is an emerging movement that surrounds the democratic economy work on the left which represents is a break from the pure nationalisation agenda. It’s an extension of John Restakis’ thinking in Humanising the Economy and uses collective co-operation. It is also a very simple concept that works on the doorstep.

    We tried to move the agenda on the posts below on think left:

    http://think-left.org/2011/07/24/co-operative-keynesianism/

    http://think-left.org/2011/08/10/keynes%E2%80%99-missing-piece/

    Sadly, experience tells us that we don’t get as many readers of left wing material with the new directional stuff as we do when we bash the banks/corporates!

    Electoral liability:

    The electoral liability of the left is increasingly becoming a bit of a myth in this century. Many leftwing Labour MPs saw their majorities increase in 2005 and/or 2010 (or at least go against the swing), and leftwing Labour councillors frequently make unexpected ward gains – even in supposed middle class areas and – even when Labour takes a hit nationally.’

  2. Sean Swan says:

    “That means the threat of de facto strike action by capitalism against policies that challenge it – through capital flights, for example. This has to be answered by a globalised labour movement – and socialists have to be at the forefront of fighting for it.”

    All a bit Trotskyist – I mean it sounds more like ‘Permanent revolution’ than ‘Socialism in one country’. But what do we do while we await this international socialist movement? The problem of foot-loose capitalism is a serious one for any serious socialist project. An obvious, though less than perfect, solution would be to simply say, ‘right, you’re going to withdraw your capital, factories, etc and produce in more ‘business friendly’ countries. Fine, but don’t expect that you’ll be able to sell here without having to pay a heavy import tax’. The UK is too small on its own to do this – it effectively means the end of globalisation – but the EU as a whole is big enough.

    This is the real ‘Third Way’ – neither the utopian internationalism of ‘permanent revolution’ nor the ineffective nationalism of ‘socialism in one country’, but the continentalism of a social democratic EU – sort of an updated version of what potentially existed in the 1970s.

    Socialism doesn’t have to be too complicated, it just provides a floor and a ceiling – the floor being a basic minimal standard of living for all regardless of income, and the ceiling being a limit on how much influence an individual or corporation can wield regardless of how much money they have.

    Not sure I exactly see what the problem with nationalisation is, the idea that it’s bureaucratic sounds like an echo of attacks on ‘big government’ – which is basically an attack on democracy. ‘Workers’ control’ of industries is not necessarily any better than capitalist control, it is not the same as democratic control.

  3. Syzygy says:

    I do not mind what types of organisation are adopted or what they’re called. The important thing is that their priorities are not shareholder profits or fat bonuses for the management.

    For me, the left is really failing to address the major threats of Climate warming and Peak oil, both of which become critical around 2015. As John Bellamy Foster, the Marxist ecologist, has demonstrated Neocapitalism cannot address these crisis.

    Seemingly, the best that the left can come up with, is a vague reliance on the nuclear or ‘clean’ coal models of centralised power production which are effectively ‘business as usual’ for the ‘Big Six’ providers. The timeline for both nuclear and ‘clean’ coal are insufficient (2020-2050). Furthermore neither are good solutions and seem to be ploys by the City to avoid change, leach tax payers’ money and enhance oil recovery from depleted oil fields.

    http://think-left.org/2011/10/03/‘clean-coal’-another-financial-device-for-the-city-2/

    ZCB2030 and Desertec both provide detailed, evidenced plans for implementing a safe secure power supply within a decade, which could start to be put in place immediately… but the left don’t seem to be interested, or buy into the City spin that renewables cannot cover the gap.

    It is ridiculous to claim that renewables are unable to provide our need. Making electricity is easy….”6 hours of sunlight falling on the world’s deserts could provide enough power for an entire year of the world’s current need”… Yes 6 hours.

    http://think-left.org/2011/07/27/the-feasibility-of-renewable-energy-with-specific-reference-to-the-establishment-of-hvdc-power-grids/

    Even better, investment in ‘powering down’ and linking renewables together by a HVDC grid would create jobs and new manufacturing… and economic growth.

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