Socialism in the 21st century

Issue: 100
Posted: 4 October 04

John Rees

Socialism is about working people being willing and able to fight for a society free of exploitation and oppression. If socialism is not about creating a society without oppression and exploitation then it is merely another word for capitalism. And if working people are not willing or able to fight for such a society then, no matter what meaning we give the word, socialism is unattainable.

These seemingly straightforward ideas are in fact highly contested.

For many in the Labour and social democratic tradition the idea of a total transformation of capitalism and the creation of a classless society seems desirable but impossible. Socialism, therefore, can only mean reformed capitalism. The institutions of the existing society must be the means by which such reforms are achieved. Working class struggle should be bent towards achieving access to and influence over these institutions. The most obvious method is through elections. Even extraparliamentary forms of struggle, strikes and demonstrations, must culminate in altering society through established channels.

This ‘reformist’ strategy has a very long pedigree in the working class movement. Decades before the rise of stable working class political parties similar ideas were present in the very first mass working class movement, the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s. Then radicals divided between ‘physical force’ Chartists and ‘moral force’ Chartists, between those who thought in terms of revolutionary change and those who thought in terms of pressure brought to bear on existing institutions largely within the framework of the law.

In every working class struggle since the Chartists, in every decade and on every continent, the same polarity has arisen. It arose in the First International in the debates that followed the very first successful working class insurrection, the Paris Commune of 1871. And when mass socialist parties arose internationally in the last quarter of the 19th century the same debate dominated the life of the institution that brought them together, the Second International. The great rift in the socialist movement created by the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Third International in opposition to the discredited Second International, took place precisely over the issue of reform or revolution.

This thunderous debate rolled on through the most decisive moments of the 20th century: the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the liberation struggle in Italy and Greece at the end of the Second World War, the general strike in France in 1968, the rise of Solidarity in Poland in 1980, the East European revolutions of 1989, and the fall of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s.

On each and every occasion the same unavoidable question recurred. Should we merely work to pressurise the existing state, to reform it, and eventually to take positions within it? Or should we seek to overthrow it and replace it with institutions, often workers’ councils, arising directly out of the struggle itself?

This debate recurs because it arises from something absolutely fundamental about working class experience under capitalism. Indeed it arises out of the very condition that defines the working class: workers are those people who have to sell their labour in return for a wage. Working for an employer gives workers a dual consciousness. Firstly there is an unavoidable sense of subordination to a hierarchy that begins with the supervisor and the manager and runs right to the top of society. Secondly there is the sense that the people who do the work have the right to control that work and, at least potentially, the numbers to enforce their views. How does this situation arise?

‘The dull compulsion of economic facts’, as Marx described the process of selling labour power, means that on a minute by minute basis workers surrender to their employers the most basic control over their immediate environment. Employers control when workers clock on and clock off, how intensely they will work, what they will produce and how they will produce it, when and for how long they will break for food, and, often, what they will wear and what their appearance should be while at work.

When workers have finished their tasks the employers will take away the finished product and will then determine what price workers will pay, and what quantity they will be allowed, when, as consumers, they confront this same product in the marketplace. Moreover, the very commodities that workers produce seem to have the power to determine the shape of working class life rather than the other way round. ‘Market forces’, as impersonal and as unalterable as the force of gravity, determine who will have a job, for how long and how much they will be paid for the work.

This loss of control over the work process inherent in wage labour involves what Marx called the ‘alienation’ of human beings’ ability to control their own world. And Marx called the notion that commodity markets control the fate of human beings ‘commodity fetishism’ because it reminded him of the way in which religious worship attributes the power over human destiny to inanimate objects such as the cross or the totem pole.

The necessity to sell one’s labour power, and it remains a necessity in the 21st century every bit as much as it was in the 19th century, has profound political and ideological consequences. The loss of control over the work process at the heart of capitalist society produces among workers a more general sense of atomisation and helplessness. It provides the soil in which both traditional and media-inspired notions of deference and hierarchy take root. It encourages us to continue to believe that there will always be ‘the rich man in his castle’ and ‘the poor man at his gate’, that ‘so things are, so they will always be’. It feeds political apathy and passivity.

But such ideas are not simply generated in the workplace and absorbed by inhalation. They have to be transmitted, rationalised and marshalled by individuals, organisations and institutions. The mass media, the education system, government departments, churches and councils all perform this function.

This, however, is only one side of the story. If it were the whole story capitalist society would be like the world pictured by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four—a monolithic ruling class able to determine every last thought in the minds of the ‘proles’. But in capitalist society this is a contested process. And the contest begins in the workplace as well.

The imposition of capitalist control over the work process is never complete. Labour power, the commodity that the worker sells to the capitalist, is not like other commodities. Its owner, the worker, must always accompany the commodity he sells and remains constantly able to renegotiate the terms on which it has been sold. The worker remains able to struggle over the cost of the labour, the wage, and the amount of labour, the length and intensity of the working day, that he has sold to the capitalist. ‘Why is it that every time I hire a pair of hands I get a human being as well?’ said Henry Ford, bemoaning exactly this paradox. And so it is that class struggle is written into the very foundation of capitalist society.

This struggle also breeds its own ideology. Notions of resistance, of the need for organisation and solidarity, and an understanding of the mechanisms of exploitation and oppression that confront workers all grow out of this soil. And like pro-capitalist ideas this class consciousness is not simply carried on the breeze like pollen. Such ideas also require individuals, newspapers, organisations and institutions to propagate and sustain them.

From these facts we can see that working class consciousness is never simply either wholly pro-capitalist or wholly anti-capitalist. Individuals or even whole groups within the class may sometimes be said to have a more or less homogeneous consciousness, whether progressive or reactionary. But, taken as a whole, working class consciousness is always a ‘contradictory consciousness’.

This contradictory consciousness, described best by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, is composed of two broad streams. One is what Gramsci called ‘common sense—the day to day ideology of the bourgeoisie’. This is the inherited ideology of the existing society, notions of deference and respect for the rich and famous, prejudice towards women and ‘foreigners’, individualism, worship of the cash nexus, conservative ideas about the family and religion and so on. The other is ‘good sense’. These are the received and learnt ideas of solidarity, resistance, comradeship, equality, democracy, unity in struggle, and organisation that form part of the culture of the labour and socialist movement.

Good sense is largely the accumulated intellectual inheritance of the history of working class struggle and its generalisation in the form of socialist theory. But since most workers, most of the time, are not engaged in active and general conflict with the system good sense always exists in an amalgam with common sense.

Reformism is a particular amalgam of good sense and common sense. It encourages the diffusion of some notions of resistance and solidarity but, ultimately, seeks to reconcile these with the continued existence of the system. Reformism raises the prospect of a better life for working class people without the necessity of transforming the whole system. It is these deep roots in the experience of working people that make it quite wrong to assume that the persistence of reformist ideas among workers can be reduced to the fate of the political parties that embody them at any one time. They can persist even without taking an organised form and they can arise rapidly and fill out an organisation where none previously existed, as happened in the 1970s in post-Franco Spain. For long periods reformism can appear the ‘natural’ resting point of working class consciousness.

But capitalism itself is never at rest. The competitive dynamic at the heart of the system abhors all fixed routine. No sooner has it established one method of production, and the labour discipline necessary for it to function, than it uproots it in favour of a more profitable alternative. In the process whole industries can disappear, once prosperous cities and regions are devastated, new sections of the population dragooned into greenfield workshops. Patterns of work, and the patterns of housing, childcare, health, diet, education and transport dependent on them are summarily abandoned and replaced.

From this it follows that outbursts of struggle, of strikes, political mass movements, riots and revolutions are just as ‘natural’, if not as long lasting, as periods of passivity in the history of capitalism. And it also follows that, equally suddenly, the ‘naturalness’ of reformism can evaporate and give ground to more radical ideas.

The knack of advancing the struggle for socialism, and of understanding the balance of the argument between reform and revolution, lies in defining exactly in what proportions good sense and common sense are combined in the consciousness of workers at any given time. Do we live in a time of storm and stress or of passivity and quietude? If we can determine the balance of this contradiction then we can see how we can best act to strengthen good sense and marginalise those notions that will ultimately reconcile workers with the system.

That is why it is important to see not only that, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are once more confronted with the debate between reform and revolution but also to see that we address it in circumstances very different to those faced by any generation of socialists since the Russian Revolution.

The rise of Stalinism in the late 1920s divided the opponents of social democracy. Labourism could not fail to be strengthened by the division among its opponents. While many of the best militants in the international working class movement remained within the Communist tradition, many more were driven back into the arms of social democracy by the fact that the main alternative on the left was associated with the tyranny of Stalinism. Moreover, in the period after the Second World War the most important Communist parties in the West increasingly came to share the same political trajectory as the social democratic parties. ‘Eurocommunism’, as it became known, was a political strategy indistinguishable from the parliamentary road as understood by the reformist left. Thus the enormous prestige of what was seen as the dominant part of the Marxist left was used to mobilise workers behind a reformist project.

This division ceased to exist when the Stalinist states themselves ceased to exist in 1989. There are still serious disagreements over history, methods of organisation, strategy and tactics, but there are fewer that involve questions of principle. In some countries the divisions on the left seem to persist in something of the old form, for instance between the orthodox Trotskyist LCR and the still highly orthodox Communist Party in France. But in others a realignment has taken place in the space to the left of the traditional reformist organisations, for instance with the development of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy.

But the first fruit of this new situation has been the birth of new movements rather than the realignment of the left organisations. The broad anti-capitalist movement encompassing the whole left save for the social democratic defenders of neo-liberalism would have been inconceivable in the Cold War. In that era the first question asked of any ‘anti-capitalist’ would have been, ‘So does that mean you are pro-Russian?’ The movement would have divided in response to that challenge. Now it no longer does. Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall would leave liberal capitalism as the unchallenged victor of the Cold War. In the event the end of the Cold War has raised the prospect of uniting the previously divided opposition to ‘free market’ capitalism.

A second contemporary development has struck at the heart of the reformist case. For reformism to be an effective strategy it must be able to deliver reforms. For this to be possible the capitalist system must be in sufficiently good health to reconcile the competing demands of the working class for higher living standards and the ruling class for ‘acceptable’ profit levels. In the long post Second World War boom this condition was met. Since the 1970s it has not been, even in the advanced industrialised countries. Growth rates have been halved and year on year working class living standards and welfare provision have been under attack. The leaderships of the Labour and social democratic parties internationally have accepted, often enthusiastically, the neo-liberal economic consensus that has replaced the welfare-capitalist model for which they once stood.

Part of the neo-liberal ideology is that the state must stand aside and let the market do its work. For Labour and social democratic leaders to accept this argument is tantamount to abandoning a very large part of what many workers see as essential to the reformist case: the belief that collective public provision will protect them from the worst ravages of the free market. Worse still from the point of view of the Labour leaders, the practice of neo-liberalism is that the state only steps back from intervening in the market on behalf of the working class but continues to vigorously intervene on behalf of the employers.

This process has now run for more than a generation and its cumulative effect is to undermine not only social democracy but also the wider belief in parliamentary democracy on which reformism depends. Let us examine this process in greater detail.

The condition of the working class

What is happening to the lives of working people? How do they feel about their work? What do they think are the chances of their family and friends enjoying a life that is, at the very least, financially secure? Do they think that they have a chance of a better life than this, a life that is happier and more fulfilling? It is the answers to these questions that ultimately determine the balance of the argument between reform and revolution.

It is often the case that economists judge workers’ standard of living by two measures, unemployment and real wages. In Britain wages are said to have risen in the 1990s, although tax changes under New Labour are now cutting real wages. And while the unemployment rate is low, the way these figures are now calculated does not give a true picture of the employment situation. As one comparative study notes, ‘Once we allow for all forms of non-employment, there is little difference between Europe and the US: between 1988 and 1994, 11 percent of men aged 25-55 were not in work in France, compared with 13 percent in the UK, 14 percent in the US and 15 percent in Germany’.1

But, important as they are, figures for unemployment and real wages do not tell us some of the most important things about working class life. Similar indices, of those possessing certain consumer durables for instance, are also important but still limited in what they tell us about working class experience. They tell us nothing, for example, about the intensity of work or the security of a job. They tell us little about the social wage and the provision of welfare. And, perhaps most important of all, they tell us nothing about the level of inequality in society. Let us look at some of these factors.

One of the great changes that has taken place between the welfare consensus era and the neo-liberal era is the way in which working class people provide for a roof over their head. The sale of council houses and the virtual end of council house building have transformed the way in which people house themselves. In 1945 most people in Britain rented their accommodation. Home owners were only 40 percent of the total. In 1981 that figure had risen to 56 percent. In 2003 the figure for home ownership is 68 percent.

A full quarter of the population in Britain are defined as poor by the government’s Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey. In terms of housing the poor are concentrated in the rented sector. But because of the sheer size of the home ownership sector it is now the case that half the poor are either outright home owners (18 percent) or paying a mortgage (32 percent). Those who are poor and in rented accommodation are more likely to be manual workers, to be single, younger and suffer physical ill health. The ‘new poor’ of home owners are more likely to be office workers or skilled manual workers, to suffer poor mental health, be older, from black or other ethnic minority backgrounds, and to be in families with children.2

On top of this already considerable burden has been added the failure of endowment mortgages—mortgages that depend on investment in the stockmarket to pay off the money borrowed. More than half endowment mortgages are now showing a shortfall according to the insurance industry. More than 6 million people, one in ten of the population, now depend on endowment policies to pay off their mortgage. A report in 2002 noted that ‘in the last two years, some 500,000 people have been sent letters coded “red”—a warning that their policies are likely to be worth too little to pay off their mortgages. A further 2.5 million households have received “amber” letters warning them that the policies are in danger of falling short’.3

One result is that young people and workers simply cannot afford to buy houses any more, certainly not in city centres. The average salary for first time buyers has risen from £19,740 in 1996 to £32,328 in 2003. This 64 percent increase is a full 37 percentage points higher than the rise in average wages. It puts buying a house beyond the reach not only of the poor but also beyond the reach of, for instance, many teachers, rail workers, firefighters and NHS staff. And the amount of the cost of a house that the mortgage covers has declined from 90 percent in 1997 to 76 percent now—leaving borrowers to find an average £27,000 deposit.4

Increasing numbers of these young workers will already be carrying debt accumulated from their time as students. The financial situation of students in higher education is now unrecognisable compared with that of students in the 1960s and 1970s. Then poorer students could claim a full grant, additional payments to cover fares to and from college at the beginning and end of each term plus unemployment benefit when not at college. Now students borrow to pay for grants and tuition fees. They work both in term time and between terms. The courses are narrower and more vocational and many more students continue to live at home while they go to college. At the end of their college lives they are still saddled with many thousands of pounds of debt.

The impact on working class consciousness of this change in access to higher education should not be underestimated. It is still true, as it was throughout the welfare consensus era, that only a small minority of children from working class families ever got a degree. But the hope was there. It was a way out that seemed to depend on merit. Now it seems to depend much more on money. And this visible degrading of one of the primary aspirations of working people for their children has an ideological effect far beyond the numbers that it directly affects.

The same picture emerges if we look at how working people try to look after themselves in old age. Financial security after retirement is a crucial issue for most workers. Fully 80 percent of the half a million extra people who plunged into poverty between 1997 and 1999 were pensioners primarily dependent on state welfare provsion.5 The catastrophic decline in the level of the state pension has led to the mushrooming of private and company pension schemes—essentially the privatisation of pensions. Private pensions depend, like endowment mortgages, on stockmarket investment. And they have suffered an equally disastrous shortfall. Company pension schemes have often either been reduced or raided by companies in one of the greatest frauds of the last two decades.

Every area of working class life that we could choose to examine would show the same deterioration over the last 25 years. The provision of public transport, of healthcare, of pre-college schooling, of social service care for the old—they all show the growth of private provision over public provision. Consequently, they all show that the wealthy are looking after themselves, and the majority, not some underclass but the majority of workers, are suffering a decline in the quality of their lives. There is one index that demonstrates this general situation more clearly than any other—the growth in inequality.

The original income of the top fifth of households is now 18 times greater than that of the bottom fifth, according to the government’s own figures. Even after tax and benefits the top fifth of households are still four times better off than the bottom fifth. Yet despite being 18 times better off the top fifth of households only pay twice as much of their gross income in tax as the bottom fifth (24 percent as against 12 percent).

Moreover, inequality has grown significantly in Britain in the last 20 years. Government figures for disposable income show a sharp rise in inequality in the second half of the 1980s, a slight decrease in the mid-1990s, and a rise under New Labour to the previous high of the Thatcher years. This is in ‘complete contrast to the position in the earlier part of the post-war period. From the 1940s, average income had been rising, and until the late 1970s it had been rising fastest for those in the bottom income groups’.7

Inequality is as important in assessing the stability of society as levels of absolute poverty. If it were only absolute poverty that resulted in high levels of social resistance there would never have been any general strikes or revolutions after the first years of industrialisation. But few people in modern Britain rise in the morning to face a new day and content themselves with the thought that at least they are not living like a 19th century weaver. They ask themselves different questions. Is my child’s life going to be harder than mine? Are we, the people who do the work, getting a fair share of all the wealth that we see around us in this society? It is therefore, as Marx pointed out, not the absolute poverty level but the socially relative poverty level that counts. This is an essential point because many sociologists believe they can prove the class struggle is over so long as they can show that workers now own fridges or cars that they didn’t 50 years ago. But this misses the point: it is relative poverty, the level of inequality, and the intensity of exploitation, that is as, if not more, important.

In a peculiarly Marxist moment the government’s Office for National Statistics has given us a snapshot of relative poverty at the start of the 21st century. In interviews with panellists selected from the General Household Survey it drew up a list of items regarded as ‘necessities’: a bed, heating, a damp-free house, the ability to visit family and friends in hospital, two meals a day and medical prescriptions.9

The study found that 4 million people do not eat either two meals a day or fresh fruit and vegetables. Nearly 10 million cannot keep their homes warm, damp-free or in a decent state of decoration. Another 10 million cannot afford regular savings of £10 a month. Some 8 million cannot afford one or more essential household goods like a fridge, or carpets for their main living area. And 6.5 million are too poor to afford essential clothing. Children are especially vulnerable—17 percent go without two essential items and 34 percent go without at least one.

We should not imagine that these conditions merely exist for a small ‘underclass’. As the 21st century dawned the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that at some point over a six- year period 55 percent of people in Britain had experienced poverty. Even when benefit payments were taken into account the figure remained 40 percent.10 These figures are percentages of the whole population and so include the middle and upper classes. If we were to recalculate the percentages so that they showed the proportion of the working class that experiences poverty (the only class that, in a general sense, is affected by poverty) we would have to conclude that a substantial majority of workers are, at some point over a six-year period, poor.

There is, however, more to it than how much the working poor get to spend at the end of a shift. The intensification of work and the insecurity of working life are now part of the combustible material accumulating at the base of society. The end of the welfare state consensus, the decline of the public service ethos and the rise of the market-led consumerism of the Reagan-Thatcher era have had a profound effect on the regime within many workplaces. The defeat of the trade unions in the 1980s reduced the degree of day to day control that many workers had enjoyed over their working environment.

Short term contracts, part time work, flexible shift patterns, mushrooming ranks of middle managers and supervisory staff, constant testing and assessment, punitive disciplinary codes, long working hours, short holidays and relentless ‘downsizing’ have materially and dramatically worsened the experience of going to work for many people.

What does all this mean? Just this: that for more than a generation the lives of working people have become harder, coarser, more difficult. It is a simple thing to say. But its political consequences are profound, especially when at the other end of society something very different is happening.

The private world of the upper classes

The ruling class and the upper ranks of the middle class have had a very different 25 years. They have become considerably wealthier. Just as we entered the 21st century government figures revealed that Britain’s biggest earners were enjoying their largest share of national income since the Thatcher years. The wealthiest fifth of the population controlled 45 percent of all disposable wealth. Senior executives in Britain’s largest companies have seen their salaries rise by 92 percent in the last ten years, more than double the increase in average wages.11 Not only are the rich richer, but they are getting richer faster under New Labour. In the last two years of the Tory government the rich saw their incomes rise by 4.3 percent. But in the first two years of the New Labour government they rose by 7.1 percent.12

An important cultural change has flowed from this situation. Its most obvious face is the end of the public service ethos that was espoused, at least publicly, by the governing classes in the welfare consensus era. The now dominant free market ethic has given rise to an undisguised worship of wealth. One report notes that ‘the redistribution of national wealth to the benefit of a narrow privileged elite has led to a “Roaring Twenties” mentality among this layer. Ostentatious consumption is de rigueur; the men’s magazine Arena reports sales of champagne, cocaine and luxury sports cars have never been higher in the UK’.13

But more important than the conspicuous consumption of the middle and upper classes is the isolation from the rest of society that they now cultivate. This is an inevitable consequence of growing inequality. From the houses burglar-alarmed and watched over by the unblinking eye of CCTV, out from the gated communities, drive the Volvos, Saabs, Audis and 4×4s, dropping the kids in schools increasingly segregated on class lines even when they are not fee-paying. Or they board trains at ‘peak times’ for which even the second (sorry, ‘standard’) class fare is beyond the means of any person on the average wage. They holiday two or three times more regularly than working class people, dreaming of early retirement and a second home abroad. While the real welfare state declines, the welfare state for the rich—the share options, pensions schemes, golden parachutes, travel allowances, private health plans, subsidised travel and accommodation—goes from strength to strength.

This way of life is validated for the rich in a thousand ways—in films and TV shows, in the Sunday newspaper supplements and the lifestyle magazines now divided into subsets for their houses (interior and exterior), gardens, holidays, cars, physical exercise routines, clothes, restaurants and cookery. And to help them in these arduous tasks there has reappeared, long after the decline of domestic servants, a new breed of casual domestic labour—cleaners, nannies, child minders, au pairs, tutors, home helps, cooks, gardeners, personal fitness trainers, drivers and secretaries. Indeed spending on domestic service almost quadrupled to £4 billion annually between 1981 and 1998 and ‘much of this was concentrated in households at the top of the income ladder and in London’.14

Many of those above the level of the upper middle classes now no longer meet a working class person in any other capacity than as a subordinate in the workplace, a sales assistant or someone employed to work for them in their home. They move from one air-conditioned and socially controlled environment to another. Their knowledge of working class life is scant and they increasingly see the rest of society as a potentially threatening mob. The problems of workers—poverty, unemployment, bad housing, poor health, educational underachievement—are of their own making. Social policy is no longer about treating the conditions that give rise to these problems, but about coercing and containing the people who suffer from them.

New Labour inherited this mental world from the yuppie boom of the Tory years. But it has accepted it with only minor rhetorical amendment. Indeed Tony and Cherie Blair stand proud at the very apex of the modern middle class pyramid. Their joint income, more hers than his, exceeds £300,000 a year. They worried that they would ‘fall off the housing ladder’ by having to sell their Islington home and move into Number 10 (well, Number 11 actually—more room for the children). Their children travel across London to attend the ‘right’ school. Their son cannot be expected to undergo the difficulties of student life without his parents indulging in a bit of property speculation to ease his path. Cherie is, much more than Margaret Thatcher, the archetypal career woman right down to the ‘new age’ spiritual adviser.

This gulf between the governing classes and the rest of society produces among them an extreme ‘social Darwinism’. They think themselves better than others simply by virtue of being at the top of the pile. It is their own intelligence, savvy, flair, good taste, and eye for a bargain or an opportunity that have got them where they are. The rest, those who suffer from ‘social exclusion’, must be helped to help themselves. No handouts, mind you. Tough love. Encouragement for those who will help themselves. Scroungers with a ‘dependency culture’, ‘bogus asylum seekers’, those who refuse to ‘modernise’ and the enemies of ‘reform’ must be swept aside. In other words, Victorian paternalism has returned as the dominant ideology of the governing classes. But, since the world doesn’t work like this, the inevitable counterpart of Victorian paternalism has also returned—Victorian hypocrisy.

This ideology is fairly universal in the ruling class but it is not universal among the middle classes. The less well off sections of the middle class cannot rely wholly or mainly on private provision for such essentials as healthcare, pensions, education, care of the environment and transport. They too depend on the welfare state. Some heads of department and heads in schools, lecturers, middle-ranking civil servants, managers in local councils, regret the passing of the public service ethos even as they preside over its destruction. Their work has become subject to some of same modern- day Taylorism that blights the jobs of workers.

This is one reason why scepticism about neo-liberal economic and social policy has reached so deeply into the general population.

The world market and the state

In 1945 a great cycle of social change was inaugurated which lasted until the 1970s. A 25-year period of sustained economic growth, the longest in the history of capitalism, underpinned the creation of the welfare state, the extension of civil liberties and the rights of women, and a sympathetic Keynesian culture of public service. In the years since the 1970s this edifice has been systematically undermined. It has been replaced by the economic doctrine first known as monetarism and later as neo-liberalism.

The recovery of the international economy during the post Second World War boom, the basis on which the new global economy stands, was always likely to affect the British economy particularly sharply. The British economy has long been an internationalised economy. The legacy of empire, historic links with the US economy, the large number of multi-nationals based in Britain and its primacy as an international financial centre have all ensured that the British economy is less locally oriented than most European economies.

This openness to the world market became important once the post-war boom ended. The arms spending in the US and, to a lesser but still important extent, Britain sustained the recovery of the global economy in the 1950s and 1960s. But as international trade and production increased, the size of the world market became so great that it outstripped the ability of arms spending to stabilise it. Moreover, those countries that were least involved in arms spending grew most rapidly during the long boom. In Japan and Germany, to mention only the most important cases, capital was not being invested in arms production. Instead it was invested in rebuilding industries that were then beginning to take markets from US and British producers.

The opening up of world markets by the US state after the Second World War—an essential move if US economic interests were to enter the protected markets created by British and other European colonial empires—was now being exploited by the competitors of US capital. The effective ending of this ‘permanent arms economy’ presaged a new period of both economic instability and intensified global competition.16

The policy that came to embody the ruling classes’ response to this new situation was neo-liberalism. But Margaret Thatcher did not invent it. The preceding Labour administration under James Callaghan deserves that credit. It was the Labour government that accepted the terms of the austerity package proposed by the IMF in 1976. The main condition of the IMF loan, insisted on by the US Treasury, was that the government deficit must be reduced by cutting demand. Interest rates were raised and government spending was reduced. Wage, job and welfare cuts were the hallmark of the ‘social contract’ agreed by the unions to bail the government out. As Colin Leys notes:

From 1976 onwards Labour accordingly became ‘monetarist’. Its leaders accepted that full employment could no longer be achieved by government spending but must be sought through private sector growth. For the necessary private investment to take place, prices must reflect real values, and this in turn required ‘squeezing’ inflation out of the system and permitting the free movement of capital. In 1978 Treasury officials began preparing to abolish capital controls.17

Margaret Thatcher came to power in the aftermath of the bitter rearguard strikes of the Winter of Discontent. She immediately removed controls on the international movement of capital and dramatically increased interest rates. She used both the law and mass unemployment as weapons in a series of titanic battles aimed at breaking the power of the unions. In the course of this offensive she also marginalised the old ‘one nation’ grandees of her own party. The result was the destruction of the liberal, welfare state consensus of the preceding decades.

The actions of the Callaghan and Thatcher administrations were fundamentally a response to the collapse of the long post-war boom. But their policies, and their American equivalents during the Reagan years, also helped bring into being the deregulated world of globalisation. As Colin Leys argues, ‘The global economy was thus the creation of states, led—or pushed—by the US and the UK, but as soon as it took shape and gathered weight the market forces developing in it had greater and greater impact on the economies of those states.’18

These changes were political as well as economic and social. When the work of the Thatcher and Major administrations was complete there had been an important change in the British political system. The adaptation of the British state to the work of promoting a deregulated economy required a considerable alteration in its structures. Power was more centralised, the democratic space within the state reduced and direct role of major corporations in the running of society significantly increased.

This change is not just to do with the extensive privatisation of nationalised industries. Nor is it only to do with the massive deregulation of markets that has reduced the degree of state control over the economy. It also reached into the core operations of the state proper:

In 1975 the civil service was still…led by a small corps of patrician public servants dedicated to prudent socioeconomic management and the gradual adaptation of policy to evolutionary social change. By 2000 it had been broken up into a set of small, central, policy-making ministries, led by civil servants promoted for their entrepreneurial style; and a huge range of national and local executive agencies, whether hived off from ministries, like the Prison Service, or the oddly named ‘quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations’ (‘quangos’) such as the Office for Standards in Education (‘Ofsted’) or the regional health authorities, organised on business lines with chief executives on performance-related pay.19

Moreover, in 1975 local government had considerable discretionary tax-raising and spending powers, and ran the schools, social services and long-term residential and nursing care. By 2000 these responsibilities had been removed from local elected representatives.

Those wanting to protest at such changes not only faced the most restrictive trade union laws in western Europe but a barrage of new legislation restricting civil liberties: the Public Order Act 1986, the Criminal Justice Act 1994, the Security Service Act 1996, the Police Act 1997 and the Terrorism Act 2000.

This centralisation of the state and restriction of its already limited democratic aspects are not just a function of the impact of neo-liberal economic policy and of globalisation. These have certainly required a state that functions more openly and brutally to corral the domestic population for the purposes decreed by the global market. But the change in the nature of the international imperial order in the last decade, the birth of the new imperialism, the succession of military conflicts in which the British state has played a role second only to the US, has also accelerated this transformation in the state’s inner constitution.

The growth of international corporations and their close association with national states are both aspects of an imperial system, as the Russian Marxist Nikolai Bukharin realised in the early years of the 20th century. And both these aspects of imperialism tend to hollow out the parliamentary system as power is drawn upwards into the executive and non-elected parts of the state. The modern ruling class is a less a hybrid of different elements and more concentrated in its largest economic powerhouses even before its will is collectively expressed by the state. As Bukharin put it:

With the growth of the importance of state power, its inner structure also changes. The state becomes more than ever before an ‘executive committee of the ruling classes’... It is true that state power always reflected the interests of the ‘upper strata’, but inasmuch as the top layer itself was a more or less amorphous mass, the organised state apparatus faced an unorganised class (or classes) whose interests it embodied. Matters are totally different now. The state apparatus not only embodies the interests of the ruling class in general, but also their collectively expressed will. It faces no more atomised members of the ruling classes, but their organisations… This is one of the main causes of the so called crisis of parliamentarianism… Parliament at present serves more as a decorative institution; it passes on decisions prepared beforehand in the businessmen’s organisations and gives only formal sanction to the collective will of the consolidated bourgeoisie as a whole. A ‘strong power’ has become the ideal of the modern bourgeoisie.20

Bukharin may have underestimated the degree to which competition, even between very large multinational capitalist firms, still produces divisions among them when they confront the state but he is nevertheless pointing to an important shift in the power relations between the modern state and multinational corporations.21

One important political consequence of these changes in the relationship between the state and multinational capital has been to heighten the sense of alienation from the huge bureaucratic structures that dominate the lives of ordinary people. This political alienation, always a feature of modern capitalism, is now magnified by the sheer scale of the institutions, state and private, that confront working people.

The proportion of people having ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of trust in parliament fell from 54 percent in 1983 to 10 percent in 1996, the last full year of the Tory reign. It has only recovered to 14 percent under New Labour. Trust in the civil service shows a similar pattern. It fell from 46 percent to 14 percent in 1996 and has recovered to 17 percent under New Labour. Only 22 percent of the public tend to trust big business while 65 percent do not.22

There seems, for most of us, no way to ‘get at’ these bodies, no way in which complaint or protest, never mind real influence, can reach them. Pollution occurs, fatal rail accidents take place, in hospitals lives are lost and injury caused, savings disappear, working conditions are unilaterally altered and the path of individual redress begins and often ends with the automated answering services of the great bureaucracies. The ‘best’ that most complainants get is to eventually talk to another human being on whom they can vent their frustration. This person is, without exception, another worker and not the manager, let alone the senior executive, whose decisions are ultimately at the root of the matter. This frustration has reached such epidemic proportions that in those services where the staff have to confront the public they either have to be physically protected by screens, as now happens in social security offices, or notices have to be posted warning the public of the dire consequences of assaulting staff, as now happens on London buses and tubes.

All this is further aggravated by the ridiculous market-inspired jargon that seems to promise exactly the opposite of this frustration. Trains now carry customers, not passengers. Nurses tend clients, not patients. Bewildering consumer choice is offered by the same few large corporations. Customer charters offer irredeemable rights. The near universal mechanisms supposedly designed to provide accountability—regulation, inspection, target-setting and audit—are in fact making things worse: ‘Changes supposed to make them more accountable to the public in practice only make them more subject to central control. Far from increasing public trust, they often had the opposite effect’.23

This alienation, fused with the larger alienation caused by growing inequality, the intensifying demands of the work process and the erosion of welfare provision have now begun to find a political expression.

The reckoning: anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism

The long, deep hurt in working people’s lives first began to find an organised expression in the 1990s. The first great signal that something was changing came with the public sector general strikes in France in 1995. In the wake of those strikes new social movements grew—the refugee movement and the coalition demanding a tax on international financial transactions, ATTAC. And the same spirit flowed into the demonstrations of millions that greeted fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s vote in the first round of the presidential elections in 2002.

By the time of those anti-fascist demonstrations France was no longer alone in seeing huge mass mobilisations. The Seattle demonstration at the end of 1999 had given a name—anti-capitalism—to a new movement. And in a succession of mass mobilisations—in Washington, Los Angeles, Quebec, Melbourne, Millau, Nice, Prague, Davos, Porto Alegre, Genoa, Florence, Evian—the movement acquired a genuinely international character. The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence and many other regional gatherings brought together tens of thousands of activists who, whatever their many differences, were developing a critique of market-driven societies more radical than anything since the 1970s.

This movement faced a challenge in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. Some, like Financial Times journalist John Lloyd, argued that the anti-capitalist movement would be unable to respond to the renewed chauvinism promoted by the US and British governments. In the US the movement did take time to respond, disconcerted by the wave of nationalism orchestrated by the Republican right and supported by the Democrats. But in Europe the anti-capitalist movement became, directly and without pause, the foundation stone of an even larger anti-war movement.

Before the attack on the World Trade Centre the Genoa demonstration of July 2001 was, at 300,000, one of the biggest of the anti-globalisation mobilisations. But as the anti-war movement grew through the Afghan war and in response to the threat of an attack on Iraq such figures became routine. In Britain, Italy and Spain those protesting began numbering their demonstrations in millions. On the international day of action on 15 February 2003, planned and co-ordinated at the ESF in Florence the previous November, some 10 million people protested in 600 towns and cities on every continent.

The point here is not to restate a general analysis of this movement but to trace its impact on the prospects for socialism.24 The anti-capitalist movement and the anti-war movement have recreated an activist, oppositional mass culture. A movement on such a scale can only arise if it has tapped into something deep in the social structure. These movements would be unthinkable if they did not rest on the wider and more diffuse rejection of the neo-liberal model, the fat-cat culture and the privatisation mania of the last 25 years. It is this deep resonance in the wider society that has given these movements their durability. It is also what gives them their ability to combine breadth of involvement with radicalism in ideology.

It has been axiomatic on the left since at least the defeats of the 1980s that if a movement was to involve a wide spectrum of political forces it must narrow the number of ideas that it campaigns around. And if a movement was to take on a radical critique of society it could not involve broad political forces. But the radicalised consciousness that underpins the new movements has given them the potential to be both radical and broad. This fact has facilitated the far left’s ability to provide political direction for these movements. But for all this they remain protest movements—they are a reaction to capitalism and imperialism.

To go beyond critique and protest means to advance a specific strategy based on a vision of the kind of society that we see as an alternative to capitalism. Another world is indeed possible—but what does it look like and how do we get it? These questions can be and are debated in broad movements. But they can only be answered by political organisations that are more precise and defined than the movement as a whole. And it is this debate that is now being hotly pursued by political organisations and political currents within the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Moreover, the impact of these movements is producing similar debates in organisations that are at one remove from the movements themselves—NGOs, traditional social democratic parties and trade unions.

In Britain this debate is developing especially intensely because the Iraq war has left the Labour government in such disarray that even mainstream commentators are now speculating about what the political landscape will look like after Tony Blair has gone.

The left after the war

‘Political Instability in Britain’ is the title of a section of a recent report by Strategic Forecasts, the private analysts close to the US security establishment. Commenting on the death of Dr David Kelly, the scientist named by the government as the source of the BBC report claiming the government had exaggerated the military threat posed by Iraq in the run-up to war, it argues, ‘David Kelly’s death has unleashed a storm of allegations and charges as thick and tenacious as the armies of midges that plague the British summer.’ And it continues:

Prime minister Tony Blair’s approval ratings were hardly stellar before Kelly disappeared 17 July. Now they are downright dismal. The Iraq war was hugely unpopular in Britain, and now Blair faces a general revolt from within his own party. It is too early to make a call on Blair’s future but the effect on the markets has been stunningly swift. The pound sterling dipped to a three-month low on 21 July… The pound will confront the dark prospect of a systematic hammering in the markets due to political uncertainty.25

Strategic Forecasts may have an inaccurate picture of insect life in Britain but they are right about the politics: the Blair government is now in a deep crisis. The war has left a bloody and costly occupation behind in Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction have been found. And the trail of lies and deception used to try and persuade the population to back the war is now reaching back into the heart of the government.

None of this would be having the impact that it is without the scale of the mobilisation achieved by the Stop the War Coalition. Governments can survive unpopular wars and ride out accusations of dishonesty so long as discontent remains atomised and passive. The Stop the War Coalition ensured that opposition was, and remains, active, engaged and highly politically conscious.

The result is that the anti-war movement struck the whole governing system with a blow of such magnitude that its aftershocks are still reverberating through the corridors of power. The government, the BBC, the Ministry of Defence and the secret services are now daily involved in attempting to lay the blame for the war, and the lies that were told to support it, at each other’s doorstep.

Tony Blair may have won the military war, but he is losing the political war. The Tories and the right wing press now sense blood in the water and, despite their own support for the war, are using the government’s unpopularity to try and end the wilderness years they have endured since Labour’s first victory in 1997.

On the left senior union leaders now openly speculate that Blair will be gone within 18 months. The not so awkward squad—Tony Woodley of the TGWU, Kevin Curran of the GMB, Dave Prentis of Unison—are campaigning for an end to the Blair regime and for a return to the kind of relationship with the union bureaucracy that used to exist under ‘Old Labour’. Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Peter Hain are all, in their different ways, positioning themselves for the post-Blair era.

The vast majority of the left has now learnt the lesson that Blairism is a failure. That is why no union leader can be elected if he proclaims himself a Blairite. But many supporters of the moderate wing of the new left leaders, and those who support the Campaign Group of MPs, argue for reclaiming the Labour Party from the Blairites.

The difficulties with this project are threefold. Firstly, the Blairites have so transformed the internal structures of the Labour Party, and so marginalised the forces of the left, that it is difficult to see how the Labour Party can be easily reclaimed. Even the 175-strong selection meeting for the Brent by-election, open to all Labour Party members, chose the pro-war, pro-Blair MEP Robert Evans over the only ever so slightly less right wing Shahid Malik. No anti-war candidate even made it onto the shortlist.

Mick Rix’s failure to win a second term as leader of Aslef also points up the dangers for the ‘reclaim Labour’ awkward squad. Making this the best-known part of his political platform narrowed the base on which Rix stood. The far left and many rank and file members are sick of Labour and find the reclamation project unrealistic in anything but the longest term. New Labour supporters and those Aslef members further to the right don’t want to reclaim Labour anyway. So two out of three potential groups of supporters are undermined by this stance.

Other factors, crucially the lack of any rank and file campaign, are important. But union elections in the current climate are as much determined by politics as by anything else. Brady, Rix’s right wing challenger, put out five leaflets. Three were right wing populism. But two others were along the lines of, ‘Rix says he’s left wing so why is he supporting Labour?’ Brady thus attempted to hit Rix on two vulnerable flanks simultaneously.

Secondly, at a national level the most likely alternative leader to Tony Blair is Gordon Brown. Gordon Brown is Tony Blair with the interesting bits removed. He is the Iron Chancellor, author of the Labour government’s ‘prudent’ neo-liberal economic policy and its attendant privatising drive in the public services. He never dissented from the war and has never criticised Labour’s support for US imperialism. Brown might treat the unions more politely but their members would see little difference in their lives.

Finally and most importantly, any possible leadership of the Labour Party, including Robin Cook or Peter Hain, would support the neo-liberal economic model. It is now the unchallenged economic orthodoxy. No dissenting voice is to be heard from any point on the establishment political spectrum. And this silence has deep roots in the social and economic structure of contemporary capitalism. It is not just a policy foible of the Blairites.

As we have seen, economic expansion allowed a welfare state consensus to emerge among the various parties after the Second World War. Labour nationalised most, but so did the Tories. Labour extended the welfare state, but the Tories didn’t try to dismantle it. But we have now seen more than a generation of growth rates that are half those of the 1950s and 1960s. Now governments around the world, whether Labour, Social Democratic, Liberal or Tory, all favour privatisation and cuts, union-bashing and the erosion of civil liberties. New Labour will, therefore, remain New Labour long after its current leader has fled the stage because neo-liberalism is the spirit of the age.

Except, that is, for the majority of the population. Here exactly these same policies that are unchallenged among politicians and pundits are rejected with increasing ferocity. Most people if they vote, and they do so in fewer numbers than ever before, vote for the least bad alternative. And they do so reluctantly. Many find political expression in extraparliamentary movements.

How should the left respond?

The left has a primary duty to sustain those movements of protest. The Stop the War Coalition and the international anti-capitalist movement have proved in practice that they have the allegiance of hundreds of thousands of supporters. Their initiatives continue to draw in and politicise more people than any other political organisation, including the Labour Party, in the country. But there remains the question of providing a general political alternative to New Labour.

The anti-war movement has transformed this issue. The aftershocks created by the war are still reverberating through the left just as surely as they are through establishment political institutions. The issues raised by the war are redividing the left on lines different to those that existed before the war. The war created three broad camps on the left.

First there was a pro-war left. There weren’t many of them but they were vocal and given prominence by the pro-war camp because they were supposed to carry more weight with the anti-war movement than the normal run of the mill imperialist. Clare Short played this role at the decisive moment, whatever her later Damascene journey. John Prescott was wheeled out to do his almost exhausted ‘trust me I used to be a left-winger’ routine. But the real core of the pro-imperial left was the journalists Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Christopher Hitchens.

Secondly, there is the left that backed the Stop the War Coalition. This was by far the biggest section of the left. It included the SWP, the Communist Party, the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Green Party, the Labour left, the left in the trade unions, CND, Globalise Resistance and many Muslims. It was on this foundation that the truly spectacular movement stood and still stands.

Thirdly, there were a small number of left sects and individuals, some of whom were in the Socialist Alliance, who opposed the foundation of the Stop the War Coalition or, though nominally supporting it, actually opposed it at every turn and certainly took no active part in building it. Some of these organisations and individuals objected to working with Muslims.

The task for the anti-war left is now to create from among the forces opposed to the war the largest possible alternative to New Labour. The Socialist Alliance represented the largest possible grouping of the left in the period before the war. But the war has greatly increased the potential reach of such a project.

The RMT’s decision to democratise the political fund is one important development. The detestation of New Labour in the FBU is another. Andy Gilchrist, a reclaim the Labour Party loyalist, signally failed to stand up to the government during the firefighters’ strike. If the FBU leaders were not refusing to hold the union’s annual conference there is little doubt that the FBU would also vote to democratise its political fund. But this mood exists to a greater or lesser degree in every union in the country—witness the clean sweep by the left in the PCS executive elections, including the election as one of the vice-presidents of the union of a Socialist Alliance supporter, and the decision by Bectu to re-examine its political fund.

There is a palpable desire among those Muslims who participated in the Stop the War Coalition to find a viable alternative to New Labour. Muslims are, in their majority, working class. They are, in the majority, a bedrock of Labour support in many inner cities. This is why talk of ‘cross-class alliances’ by a minority within the Socialist Alliance is so wrong. Of course, a minority of Muslims are middle class. But they too are on the receiving end of Labour government attacks both about ‘asylum seekers’ and about ‘terrorism and fundamentalism’. Some of these have been radicalised by the war, and by the effect on them of racism bolstered by the war and government policy. This has made them open to working with and being influenced by the left.

The left should welcome this development and seek to extend it as far as possible. It would be as stupid of the left to turn its back on the radicalised Muslims, including the local and national leaders thrown up by the anti-war movement, as it would have been for socialists at the turn of the 20th century to ignore the Jewish community in the East End of London.

Neither is it true that most Muslims are supporters of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. In fact only a tiny minority of Muslims in Britain are followers of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ or so called ‘political Islam’. Those groups on the left who talk as if all Muslims were fundamentalists are simply engaging in an unacceptable form of prejudice.

And the critics of the Socialist Alliance strategy who claim that all Muslims are anti-gay or anti-women are speaking from a similar ignorance. They simply assume that they know the political views of a Muslim because they know their religion—a form of prejudice that would never be acceptable if it were applied to Catholic or Church of England workers despite the equally reactionary views of religious leaders from those communities.

Muslim women have in fact been at the forefront of the anti-war movement in many towns and cities. If this development is to be furthered the left needs to extend its links and common work with Muslims. Many Muslims may, as a matter of theological belief and personal preference, not share the attitudes of the far left on issues of sexual politics. For some this may prevent them joining with the left in a common electoral platform. But many Muslims are happy to defend other people’s choices in terms of sexual politics. They are certain to be defenders of the right to self determination, since they, quite correctly, expect this right to be defended by others when it comes to the right of religious observance.

Indeed, this was always the basis of co-operation between the left and Muslims in the anti-war movement. The far left is secular and atheist. But it also defends the equally important principle of freedom of religious worship—especially for those who are under attack by the government and the right wing.

One final word on ‘cross-class alliances’. There is no cross-class alliance being proposed for the future of the Socialist Alliance. But is it in any case absolutely ruled out that socialists could enter such an alliance?

Were such an alliance proposed between socialists and political representatives of the ruling class then this would of course be impossible since it could only undermine the forces capable of fighting the system. But what about an alliance with sections of the middle class, or the petty bourgeoisie, to use the Marxist jargon?

It is instructive here to recall the full name of the body that made the Russian Revolution—the Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. In other words it was an alliance between the socialist representatives of the working class and the representatives of the peasantry, a classical petty bourgeois class. The key question was not whether there was an alliance but whether it was the working class and socialist elements, both in the working class and the peasantry, that determined the political direction of the alliance.

In Russia of course the socialist and radical elements led an alliance, including representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, and so maximised the force driving against the old order. The fault of the Popular Front was that it subordinated the radical forces to the political priorities of the most conservative forces in the alliance.

Every political movement, even those far short of revolution, throws up similar issues. The Stop the War Coalition faced just such a test and passed it with honours. It is now time for those who want a real political alternative to New Labour, at both a national and local level, to cast aside those who put sectarian purity before reshaping the political landscape around them. There are larger forces moving in society than any of the existing left organisations. We must either cut a channel that can allow these forces to rebuild a new left or we will, perhaps not many years from now, be looking at a resurgent right arising from the ashes of the Blair administration.

What sort of socialist alternative?

There is a need, widely recognised on the far left and among many in the unions and anti-war movement, for a broad socialist organisation to fill the vacuum created by Labour’s move to the right. But there is still considerable discussion about the best organisational form in which the revolutionary left can combine with other socialists who are not revolutionaries.

This discussion is at the heart of recent exchanges between members of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Workers Party.26 Murray Smith has made a valuable contribution to this discussion in a recent issue of Frontline, reproduced in this journal. There is much common ground in our analyses.

We agree, as the preceding sections of this article make clear, that there has been a profound decline in the ability of the capitalist system to grant systematic reforms since the onset of a renewed period of instability in the 1970s. We agree that this has transformed the policies of Labour and social democratic parties internationally in line with the neo-liberal orthodoxy. We agree that this has opened a chasm between the needs and expectations of these parties’ working class supporters and the party leaders. And we agree that changes in the internal structure and profile of the Labour Party membership make it much harder for the left to wield any real influence.

These changes certainly do create the space in which a socialist alternative to New Labour can be built. On this we also agree with the SSP. But does all this add up to an alteration of the Labour Party into an entirely bourgeois party, the New Tories?

Firstly, it obviously makes it more difficult for a reformist party to hold the loyalty of its supporters if it cannot deliver many significant reforms. But it is not impossible. Many workers retain their faith in traditional reformist organisations long after the ‘objective’ capacity of the system to grant reforms has been curtailed.

Another critical issue here is the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions. The Labour Party is the creation of the unions and it has always relied on its relationship with the trade union bureaucracy both politically and financially. This relationship is under strain but it still holds at the moment. The reason that the New Labour leadership appears to have fallen completely into the arms of big business is that the union leaders allowed this process to go unchallenged. John Monks, Sir Ken Jackson, Barry Reamsbottom, Roger Lyons, Rodney Bickerstaffe, Lew Adams, Sir Bill Morris and Jimmy Knapp were supporters of the New Labour project and conspired in their own marginalisation.

The election of more left wing leaders is beginning to change this situation. The more left wing leaders—Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka—are in favour of democratising the political fund. This provides an opportunity for the left to reshape the trade unions’ relationship with the Labour Party. But we need a little humility about our own forces and some realism about the forces still ranged against us.

The biggest and most important unions in the country—the TGWU, GMB, Unison—still have leaderships wedded to support for Labour, even if they are critical of Blairism. They are actively campaigning to ‘reclaim the Labour Party’. The question is not whether we think that such a project can succeed or whether it can ultimately break with the neo-liberal agenda. The question is, what resonance do we think this will have with rank and file trade unionists and Labour voters?

If the Labour Party were really a New Tory party we would surely dismiss such moves as of little interest to trade unionists. But a moment’s consideration shows us that this is not the case. Socialists need to take these moves very seriously and to marshal our case for democratising the political fund and building an alternative to the Labour Party irrespective of who leads it. Superficial analyses that brand the Labour Party as New Tories mislead us about the depth of attachment to Labour by millions of workers and allow us to believe that Blairism is all there is to the contemporary Labour Party. We need to see that the roots of reformism run much deeper in working class experience. And although there is no necessary link between this day to day reformist consciousness and particular forms of party organisation in Britain 100 years of loyalty to the Labour Party will have to be reconstructed in favour of socialist organisation by patient argument and experience of common struggle.

This is precisely why the united front remains a critical issue for socialists. The united front is the location where common struggle and patient argument with Labour Party supporters can best be organised. Murray Smith argues that the ‘radical and revolutionary left…can “skip over” the traditional parties of the working class, which means that the united front is not posed in the form that it was in 1922, and indeed much later’. And he gives the Stop the War Coalition as an example of this because it ‘was largely led by the far left, especially the SWP, whereas in the past the Labour left and the Communist Party would have played an important role’.

This analysis is wrong in theory and in fact. The link between organised workers and the Labour Party is, even when all the damage done by Blairism is taken into account, stronger now than it was in 1922, before Labour had formed its first government, or later, say in 1929 when Ramsay MacDonald split the party by joining a Tory government. Today the Stop the War Coalition shows a greater degree of participation by the traditional organisations of the labour movement than anything the far left has ever initiated. The chair of the coalition, Andrew Murray, is a Communist Party member and was the press officer for Aslef. He has provided a vital link with the ‘awkward squad’ of trade union leaders and helped the coalition to gain the active support of the general secretaries of most major unions in Britain. The offices of the coalition are at the Natfhe headquarters and the affiliation of very nearly all the major unions has now been secured by votes at union conferences. The launch of Labour Against the War by the Campaign Group of MPs was an initiative consciously organised under the Stop the War Coalition banner, and Labour Against the War is affliated to and has a representative on the steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition. Moreover, the coalition simply would not have had the mobilising power that it has without the active participation of left wing Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, Alice Mahon, George Galloway, Alan Simpson, Bob Wareing, Harry Barnes and Diane Abbott.

If this unity between the SWP, the Communist Party and the Labour left had not existed it would have been considerably more difficult, if not impossible, to build the wider unity that embraced CND, large sections of the Muslim community, the Green Party and many others. It is precisely this experience that confirms both the continued loyalty of many workers to the Labour Party and the unique mobilising capacity of the united front. Within this framework it has been possible for the forces of revolutionary socialism to grow in numbers and influence and for the broader project of a socialist alternative to the Labour Party to get a hearing from a wider audience than would be available by any other method.

Murray Smith rejects this approach because he believes that it counterposes the building of a revolutionary party to building a broad socialist party. But it does not. It simply insists that it is possible to do both. In fact it is the SSP model that counterposes the two by insisting that the only correct strategy at the moment is for revolutionaries to abandon building an independent revolutionary organisation in favour of building a broad party. Murray hopes that ‘building a broad socialist party today may in fact be the best way to advance towards a mass revolutionary party tomorrow’. Perhaps this is one path, and SWP supporters in Scotland joined the SSP to work with others towards such a goal. But it is a path strewn with difficulties. The experience of the far left being a part of other organisations in the hope that a revolutionary party will later emerge with greater forces at a later date is not a happy one—as former Militant supporters know better than most.

Precisely because reformist organisation can outlive the capacity of the system to grant reforms it is able to restrain workers even at very high levels of class struggle, indeed even during revolutions—the German Revolution of 1918-1923 being the classic case. This is why the existence of revolutionary organisation cannot be taken for granted. The independence and organisation of a revolutionary party is not easily won, or easily recreated once lost. And all of our experience of workers’ revolutions, positive or negative, show us that revolutionary organisations do not simply appear by command at the necessary moment. They have to be created, tested and developed over a prolonged period.

The SSP model has important strengths. Its electoral success and its ability to communicate broad socialist ideas to a mass audience are among the most notable. Some of this success is due to the foresight of its leaders and some is due to favourable conditions like the existence of proportional representation in the elections for the Scottish Parliament. But in some respects the SSP model is not as strong as the one advanced by the SWP. The ideological profile is, by definition, weaker, and this is evident in Scottish Socialist Voice and the weakness of the SSP’s publications in general. Nor does the SSP have any equivalent of the annual Marxism conference, the biggest event of its kind in Europe. Implantation in industry and the ability to organise the left in the unions is weaker than that of the SWP and the work it does with rank and file papers. The Scottish Coalition for Justice not War did not have the range of forces involved, nor the mobilising power over time, that the Stop the War Coalition has attained.

The point of these criticisms is not to dismiss the SSP experience but merely to argue that as revolutionaries approach a radically new situation we need to be carefully attentive to its peculiarities. We have a lot to learn from each other even if we disagree on some important strategic issues.

Prospects for socialism

The first years of the 21st century confront us with this prospect: a working class suffering from over 20 years of neo-liberal attacks on its standard of living; the loyalty commanded by Labourism at a post-war low; and an increasingly radical anti-capitalist and anti-war consciousness arising from the largest mass movements in a generation.

It is these conditions that give socialists the best chance they have had since the 1970s to rebuild a movement that can challenge the existing system. But further success depends on us carefully measuring both the opportunities and the obstacles that face us. Both the Labour Party leaders and their supporters among the trade union bureaucracy remain significant opponents of fundamental social change. They continue to have serious, if weakened, support from millions of workers.

Many of these same workers, however, are willing to participate in struggles alongside socialists. Both the conduct of these struggles and the aims they wish to achieve will pit them against the Labour and trade union leaders. The central task of socialists is to constructively engage in common struggles with Labour supporters, both at rank and file and leadership levels, to advance these struggles. The greatest force dissolving the ties between Labour and its working class supporters is the success of struggles from below. These successes demonstrate better than anything else that the power to change society lies in the self activity of workers themselves.

But even successful struggles do not automatically lead to those involved drawing socialist conclusions even though they provide the best possible conditions for this to happen. For this reason socialists need to advance their own vision of how society can be transformed even as they engage in common struggles. The history and traditions of the left and the working class need to be imaginatively recalled for a new generation. Where new analyses of neo-liberalism and imperialism have come forward socialists need to both learn from them and demonstrate where they coincide with and depart from earlier socialist theories. An alive and engaged socialist tradition of this kind can shape the future of the working class movement and bring the prospect of socialism closer than it has been for decades.


Notes

  1. R Layard in the Financial Times quoted in J Gray, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (Granta, 1999), p113.
  2. ‘Home Ownership and Poverty in Britain’, extract from R Burrows, Poverty and Home Ownership in Britain (Policy Press, 2003) on www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/ findings/housing/113.asp
  3. N Hodge, ‘Britain: Endowment mortgages showing massive shortfalls’ (21 September 2002). See www.wsws.org/articles/2002/sep 2002/mort-s21_prn.shtml
  4. C Swann, ‘House Market Stability Threatened As first Time Buyers wait For wage rises’, Financial Times, 26-27 July 2003, p4.
  5. S Wheelan, ‘New Data Reveal Rising Poverty under Britain’s Labour Government’, at www.wsws.org/articles/ 2000/jul2000/pov-j27_prn.shtml
  6. Office for National Statistics, ‘Household Income’, at National Statistics Online, www.statistics.gov.uk
  7. D Pilling, ‘Engels and the Condition of the Working Class Today’, in J Lea and G Pilling (eds), The Condition of Britain: Essays on Frederick Engels (Pluto Press, 1996), p19.
  8. Office for National Statistics, ‘Income Inequality, gap widens slightly from mid-1990s’, at National Statistics Online, www.statistics.gov.uk
  9. H Thompson, ‘New survey shows widespread deprivation in Britain’ (27 September 2000), at www.wsws.org/articles/2000/sep 2000/pov-s27_prn.shtml
  10. As above.
  11. R Wachman, ‘Top bosses’ pay doubles In A decade’, The Observer, 27 July 2003.
  12. S Wheelan, as above.
  13. As above.
  14. See C Leys, Market Driven Politics: neo-Liberal democracy and the public interest (Verso, 2001), pp48-49.
  15. As above, p43.
  16. For the original account of the effect of arms spending on the western economies see T Cliff, ‘Perspectives for the permanent war economy’, in T Cliff, Collected Works Volume 3: Marxist Theory After Trotsky (Bookmarks, 2003), M Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War (Pelican, 1970), and M Kidron, Capitalism and Theory (Pluto Press, 1974).
  17. C Leys, as above, p41.
  18. As above.
  19. As above, pp38-39.
  20. N Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy (Bookmarks, 2003), p135.
  21. For some further remarks on the strengths and weaknesses of Bukharin’s analysis see J Rees, ‘Nikolai Bukharin and modern Imperialism’, the foreword to N Bukharin, as above, pp5-6.
  22. B Groom, ‘As Accusations Fly Between BBC And Government, Is There A Deepening Crisis Of Trust In British Public Life?’, Financial Times, 26-27 July 2003, p11.
  23. Onora O’Neill’s Reith lectures, paraphrased in B Groom, as above.
  24. For some recent analyses see J Rees, ‘Anti-capitalism, reformism and socialism’, in International Socialism 90 (Spring 2001), S Ashman, ‘The anti-capitalist movement and the war’ in International Socialism 98 (Summer 2003), and A Callinicos, An Anti-capitalist Manifesto (Polity Press, 2003).
  25. See www.stratfor.com
  26. See M Smith, ‘Where is the SWP going?’, N McKerrell, ‘The united front today’, and J Rees, ‘The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front’, all of which appear in International Socialism 97 (Winter 2002), and A Callinicos, ‘Regroupment, realignment and the revolutionary left’, International Socialist Tendency Discussion Bulletin, No 1, July 2002.