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International Socialism, Summer 1967



The Loneliness of the Left


From International Socialism, No.29, Summer 1967.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The succession of disasters that has overtaken the Labour Party – the county, the borough and municipal elections – might suggest that Wilson will leave an indelible impress on the Labour Movement: namely, the complete destruction of social democracy and political Labour as a popular movement. Not since the trauma of 1931 have such defeats taken place. Apparently immovable monuments, London and Ebbw Vale, have moved; the landscape is in dissolution.

But one must also recognise that this rejection of Wilson is negative. It is not an affirmation of socialist opposition, so much as marginal resentment among the few (a shift to voting Conservative) and, much more, a gigantic yawn in the face of the gimmicks, the lies and the games played in irrelevant institutions. The market towns have stayed put; the big cities have moved against Labour. But for the solid block of the working class, the change is relatively slight – the reality of local government has at long last begun to overtake the myth, and the Labour Government has only accelerated a process long in train. It will take very much longer for the reality of parliamentary government to approach the myth, and we may well see the Labour vote sustained in future general elections even though dying at the local level. Again, the emerging pattern is reasonably clear – tiny political cliques, isolated from any popular movement whether or organised in local parties or trade unions, elected in a five-year ritual that means no more than an individual’s meaningless reaffirmation of some residual sense of citizenship: and as the old get older, perhaps the young will not even want to make that slight gesture. Within the ritual, the cliques themselves serve as no more than a gloss on the bureaucracy, the public relations aspect of an independent state administration. All this has been much more clearly evident at the local level than the national – many councillors have long been no more than the façade to city administration; the rise of the city bosses, Newcastle’s Dan Smith, is one acknowledgement of the real state of affairs.

Perhaps Wilson will be saved at the next general election. The tired tactic of taking the brake off the economy so that a little synthetic boom colours an atmosphere of generalised gloom may still do the trick in four years’ time, particularly if a new European authority looks like superseding even Westminster and food prices have not escalated.

But if the days of the Parliamentary Labour Party are far from ended, those of social democracy as a movement, the party militants, do seem numbered. This second process has long been urged by the ‘quality’ newspapers as the secret of a successful parliamentary party – devalue the party conference, ignore the militants, assert ‘strong leadership’ and demonstrate the Prime Minister’s first responsibility to the ‘nation’ not to some ‘sectional interest’. A Labour Government was required to accelerate the trend so rapidly. Constituency parties are slowly dying, delegates cannot be found for routine conferences, general management committees shrink as wards disappear (dramatically so where there is a Labour MP), just as trade-union branch attendance has shrunk. Council candidates cannot be found to fill the list, and council Labour groups operate even more as cliques independent of local parties, the attack from the Left has to be pitched from outside the party since, within, there is no viable context to make such an attack meaningful. The dreary old issue of entrism or non-entrism is being solved by erosion, the Party is dying around its militants, leaving unfettered power in the hands of professional organisers. The national party itself acknowledges the trend by its own proposals for a ‘reform’ of local government – namely, by creating properly undemocratic bodies, experts or ‘representatives of local interests’ to supersede local authorities through regional government. Rationalisation both acknowledges the drift, and puts another nail in the coffin.

Thus, with so little at stake for the ordinary voter, his garden becomes more interesting; for the working-class voter, voting Tory becomes a possible way of expressing resentment. This seepage of popular interests affects the Communist Party as much as Labour, both equally wedded to the existing institutional structure of misrepresentation, and it is this seepage, rather than the immediate electoral defeat, which is the direct cause of the gloom and isolation of the traditional Left. It was a central thesis of social democracy that each extension of state power by the Labour Party, given effective parliamentary democracy, was an extension of popular power, and took place at local and national levels as well as in industry through the trade unions. But if the basic condition for this extension – namely a popular movement behind the Labour Party, acting through the electoral machinery – fails, what is left? Merely the extension of the state, the purposes of which can no longer be identified automatically with popular interests. The State has become autonomous, not merely the instrument of the popular will, nor even ‘bodies of armed men,’ but the supreme expression of the status quo and independent of the ritual of party politics. Each past crisis of socialist thought has embodied an immense change of gear in the nature of capitalism, and the current crisis arise from the emergence of state capitalism within the formerly private capitalist countries. Thus, the slogans of the past – extension of State power, nationalisation, planning and so on – have two meanings: the first, when such slogans were pitched against the greed and anarchy of private capitalism; the second, when such slogans became the declared aims of a developing state capitalist regime. The first embodied popular revolt. The second embodies the new status quo, for it lacks any popular basis to make it meaningful in socialist terms, it lacks at the national level, decisive democratic determination, and at the industrial level, workers’ control. ICI, General Motors, the Pharoahs and Eichman all ‘plan;’ but it is the purpose to which the plan is devoted that concerns socialists. Nationalisation without workers’ control means, not socialism, but state capitalism.

Thus, the problem for the traditional Left is not just the lengthening list of errors and omissions by the Labour government – an ‘unfair’ incomes policy, curbs on the trade unions, failure to help the poor, brutality in Aden, betrayal in Rhodesia, subordination to the purpose of US capitalism – but the whole meaning of social democracy in the absence of a popular movement. This makes the loneliness of the Labour Left much greater than ever before. Then they could argue, rightly or wrongly, that forces existed within and around the party that, if only given control of the leadership, could create a new society. But there are no forces there pressing for the new society, and the Left becomes no more than the people of which it is composed, and precious few of them.

Any exit from this dilemma requires a complete reappraisal of the old assumptions about what socialists are trying to do and, indeed, what socialism itself means. Dogmatism and revisionism provide alternative cul-de-sacs for socialists who want to survive while still pursuing the original vision. Some will give up the popular elements of the theory, accepting state power (including, for a few, high office) as a convenient and tangible substitute for the intangible and inconvenient pursuit of popular support – consolation comes from marginal changes in welfare provisions, building new roads, supporting the UN, and so on. Others will accept the dilemmas and head-on, accept a prospect of increasing gloom, and perhaps withdraw, condemning mankind’s corruption as they go. Some may devote themselves to welfare work, a campaign on poverty and community action, under the illusion that they are ‘really doing something instead of just talking.’ yet others, a very few, may cling to the false optimism that has in the past provided such a convenient disguise for reality – for the social democrat, things really are getting better and better all the time for there is a Labour government in power; for the Communist, the perspective is the same, for Russia launches Sputniks and even her enemies accept the Soviet Union now. But none of these methods effectively re-links the reality that faces us and the original purposes of socialism: one or other end of the equation, reality or socialism is violated. To restore that equation requires scrapping the false consciousness, ‘Marxist’ or otherwise, that has inhibited socialists trying to grapple with the real world.

The class struggle is not over, the battle of the proletariat is not finished, the fight to achieve popular power, socialism, is not complete nor redundant nor ‘old-fashioned.’ But it is not taking place between embattled cliques on high, trade-union leaders versus employer’s confederations, Labour versus Tory, Moscow (or Peking) versus Washington, but rather down on the ground where it always was, in a thousand places, each at this stage with its own different characteristics. If one is looking for great forests, they have all gone to the timber yards, but if one is searching for the new generation of young saplings, there are many to be seen. And it is here where socialists, whatever their origins should be, and where they will learn that hope is possible, but only when firmly rooted in real mean in real struggle.

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