Old debates, new situations

Ralph Miliband lecturing in Canada in 1978.

In an effort to understand the phenomenal rise of Jeremy Corbyn following his entry into the Labour leadership race, I’ve been reading Ralph Miliband’s book on parliamentary socialism.

I’ve yet to finish, but one of the most striking features of the Labour Party’s history is the change in the nature of the debate between the right and left of the party, and especially the change in the ideology of the Labour right.

The old debates of the early twentieth century were oriented to the question, do we get to socialism by gradual reform through parliamentary process, or through violent revolutionary rupture with the bourgeois status quo? Importantly, the question was posed at a time when revolution was a very real prospect.

This is a dichotomy that some on the left still cling to.  British Trotskyists sagely attribute the defeat of Syriza to its pro-European reformism whilst writing editorials on why reformist politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, aren’t the answer. The campaigns against austerity are seen as radicalisations, opportunities to promote a revolutionary anti-capitalism amongst the masses.

These characterizations are wrong. It’s not that people have radicalized. It’s that the traditional leaders of social democracy have. To the right. Whilst the method of the early leaders of the Labour Party, such as Macdonald or Henderson, has remained the same – the cultivation of an air of bourgeois respectability, policy “triangulation”, and concessions to the right framed as an attempt to occupy the political “centre-ground” – the content has changed dramatically.

Orwell’s observation in Animal Farm – that sooner or later the pigs who speak and act like humans become humans – is true. The stated aim of the early Labour Party was to bring about socialism through parliamentary reforms, now Blair has said he wouldn’t want to win on such a platform. As David Wearing writes both tragically and humorously , ‘promises from frontbench leadership candidates that getting into government would allow them to “put their values into practice” become not a source of inspiration, but of dread.’

The last twenty years has seen an acceleration of the process. Many in the Corbyn campaign dismiss his opponents as ‘Blairites’. They’re wrong; the new Labour right are much worse. Now, neither Burnham nor Kendall will defend New Labour’s economic record and they are joined by Cooper in saying that the party “got it wrong” on immigration. These positions put these candidates to the right of Blair, and all in the space of only one new generation of Labour politicians.

That these are Blair’s successors is to be expected. The New Labour government was brought to power on a wave of anti-Tory sentiment at the beginning of a global commodity boom. It was possible to be relaxed about ‘people getting filthy rich’ at the same time as the economy grew and living standards improved.

But now the rising tide that lifted all boats has gone out, leaving the Labour right like fish on the shore gasping for breath. Burnham and Cooper flail about looking for a coherent economic policy; Kendall finds one, but it belongs to the Tories. It’s time for the exiled Jeremy Corbyn, our bearded Prospero, to have his day.

Because the stick only bends so far without breaking. Bereft of their  social democratic leaders, what’s a social democrat supposed to do? Well, get angry of course. Contrary to how some of the commentariat have described it, Corbyn isn’t running a ‘hard left’ campaign (indeed, the New Economics Foundation’s, James Meadway, puts Corbyn to the right of the SDP). The backers of his economic plan aren’t Marxists, but stalwart Keynesians, fed up of listening to the nonsense emitted from their more likely allies. No wonder people have flocked to him.

What, then, of reform versus revolution? There’s no rush to the barricades or, if there is, the protestors aren’t carrying placards that read ‘all power to the soviets’. The demands are either in the negative (‘no to cuts’) or thoroughly social democratic (‘tax the rich’, a demand that, strangely, has gained traction on the revolutionary left). Revolution isn’t on the agenda but extensive reform certainly is.

In this context, to speak of revolution is an abstraction; to speak of ‘the limits of reformism’ is only to point to the political horizons of the present conjuncture. Whilst I don’t agree with the wording of Yanis Varoufakis’s formulation, that we should ‘save capitalism from itself’, socialists should harness all forces to defend the living standards of the majority threatened by the economic crisis. If that means picking up and running with the demand for reforms, then so be it. These are the times in which we’re living.

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One thought on “Old debates, new situations

  1. Pingback: The (real) crisis in the Labour Party | The Retrofit Lefty

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