Friday, October 27, 2006

The crisis of modern socialism - sorted

Several recent posts on this website have highlighted the seeming inability of all sections of the current UK left to modernise socialist politics. But what would a credible twenty-first century left reformism look like?

Most socialist thinking remains stuck in the ideological paradigms of the second half of the twentieth century. It's all 'renationalise this!' and 'rebuild that!'. There is far too much nostalgia for sundry icons ranging from Clement Atlee to Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili.

Little consideration is given to a dramatically changed political landscape, from the environmental crisis to the collapse of communism, from the emergence of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies to the rise of Islamic radicalism.

For those who define socialist utopia as something more than a renationalised gas industry, it is high time policies were developed that go beyond what is essentially a demand to return to the Britain of the early seventies. Those of us who remember it will testify that it certainly wasn't a workers' paradise, anyway.

It is also necessary to think beyond the 'wait for the revolution' project espoused by almost all the fractured forces of the far left, which have little to say on the subject of immediate political demands.

And - wakey, wakey, comrades - we need take at least a large swathe of the general public with us. That necessitates policies that would prove electorally popular.

So, purely in a back-of-a-fag-packet Friday afternoon kind of way, I'd like to offer a few bullet points for discussion. Not a Marxist programme. Not transitional demands. Just weedy updated social democracy for mass consumption. Here are some of the ideas I'd like to see in the platform of my fantasy Labour left:

Social ownership

Britain in the post-war period has tried both Morrisonian nationalisation and neoliberal privatisation. There are massive drawbacks to both models.

But inefficiency, fat cattery and the death toll from cutting health and safety corners has seen private enterprise in the transport and utilities sector discredit itself more thoroughly than any amount of agitprop ever could. There is certainly no public appetite for further private involvement in the NHS.

However, the left needs to come up with practical schemes for public administration - offering greater employee and user involvement - as part of our strategy for a return to public ownership.

We also need to rethink the seventies experiments with worker ownership and industrial democracy for smaller concerns.

Union rights

Trade unions are voluntary organisations, reliant on the efforts of full-time officials and lay activists. They cannot be 'decreed' into better health. The emancipation of British trade unionism will largely be an act of the trade unionists themselves.

There is currently a thoughtful article by Bill Mullin on the Socialist Party's website, making the case that regeneration is inseperably bound up with the fight for a new political vehicle. It's well worth a read.

But British unions are currently hampered by what Blair openly boasts is the toughest employment legislation in Europe. Reforms along the lines of the TUC's proposed Trade Union Freedom Bill are long overdue.

The ideas the TUC is canvassing include better protection from dismissal for those taking part in lawful industrial action; simplified ballot procedures; and a restored right to solidarity action.


Racism in Britain right now is predominantly focused on the Muslim population. Politicians of all stripes exploit this to what they see as their electoral advantage. Straw and Reid happily play dog whistle politics, while the Respect slates even rational secularist criticism of the Islamic faith as 'Islamophobia'. Another section of the left - many with the political training to know better - have given currency to the shockingly politically illiterate term 'Islamofascism'.

The secular democratic left should combine a strong positive argument in favour of assimilation into secular democratic society with an equally strong defence of the right of religious observance. The socialist project is ultimately for the breakdown of all barriers between humanity, including not just barriers of class but of race and religion too. At the same time, we recognise that it is not the role of the state to force the process.

Ultimately, we would be working with the grain on this one, if the experience of the Jewish side of my family is anything to go by. Assimilation will happen. We should advocate it.

The working class

The working class remains the only realistic agency for socialist change. But New Labour's adoption of neoliberalism has weakened Labour support in working class communities to the point where political apathy has already made massive inroads. So has the fascist right, thankfully to a lesser extent.

A key task for a modern left is reconnection with our traditional base. Our politics have to promise tangible goodies for working people of all ethnicities, with social housing and job creation being the most obvious places to start.

A libertarian social agenda

In the sixties and seventies, the left was often the driving force behind initiatives on issues such as women's rights and sexual freedom. These days all three mainstream parties try to annexe such ground. Most of the right legislation - from the Equal Pay Act to the Civil Partnership Act and an equal age of consent - is in place, even if it not adequately enforced. It's seemingly only the SWP that wants to backpedal on this.

The environment

Trotsky once remarked: 'If you conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective along with much else.' And unfortunately the shit could be about to hit the fan on that one.

But the best the EU is offering is the gradual extension of the carbon trading scheme. The left should develop policies for tough immediate action, perhaps starting with immediate Europe-wide legislation forcing all industries to adopt the best-available technology to reduce pollution in all their operations. At their expense. Now. As with social ownership for basic utilities, such a demand would prove massively popular.


This is an area where the left should have something meaningful to say, but by and large doesn't. The problem with brandishing placards with the slogan 'Bush is the real terrorist' is the implication that Osama bin Laden isn't.

Of course citizens want to be protected from terrorism of all stripes. New Labour has taken this as the starting point for a sustained assault on civil liberties, with the de facto introduction of house arrest and internment without trial.

And of course the left needs to lead the fight against such reactionary measures. But that does not absolve us of the need to develop positive proposals of our own.

Foreign policy

For me, Rwanda marked a turning point in my political thinking. Humanitarian intervention is sometimes justified. That's something John McDonnell explicitly recognises in his stance on Darfur.

The problem here is that the words 'humanitarian intervention' are all too frequently advanced as a justification for blatant imperialism. The democratic left needs to think through it's criteria on the subject. Who intervenes? Under whose auspices?


You can still find sections of the left calling for 'immediate withdrawal from the bosses' common market'. But the project of a united Europe that transcends nation-states is clearly historically progressive. The struggle is to ensure that the united Europe has a social content.

An immediate priority should be co-ordination between the social democratic parties, giving them the leverage to co-ordinate social democratic policies in periods when they hold office in the main EU member states.

There you go. The crisis of contemporary leftwing politics sorted. Easy, eh? Still, I expect some of you will be churlish enough to disagree with me. The comments box is open.


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