Socialism for today

by Robin Thorpe

“It is necessary and possible to create an altogether different society in Britain, a society whose organising principles will be co-operation, fellowship, democracy and egalitarianism…a society free from every form of domination and exploitation, of class, of sex and of race”.

That statement is hard to argue with. However, when one realises that these are the words of Ralph Miliband speaking at a socialist conference in the mid 1980s, then the statement becomes more controversial. Following 30 years of neo-liberal dogma and 60 years of anti-communist propaganda, the term socialism carries such pejorative connotations that no mainstream politician would dare mention it. Yet I think that the core of socialist philosophy has a lot to offer contemporary society even if the methods of implementing such a paradigm shift have yet to be determined.

The three principles of socialist international are freedom, justice and solidarity. They define the goal of democratic socialism as “to achieve a peaceful world where these basic values can be enhanced and where each individual can live a meaningful life with the full development of his or her personality and talents and with the guarantee of human and civil rights in a democratic framework of society”. The fundamental difference between the various political groups is the emphasis on individual and collective rights. Liberalism and its modern mutation neo-liberalism value individual freedom over justice and solidarity; by contrast the communist movements claimed to have created an equal society but sacrificed individual freedom. The conservative right espouses both stronger communities (in a nostalgic, village green kind of way) and the freedom of the individual. During the 80s the Conservative government even started their very own revolution; a revolution of ideas that has all but removed the notion of “class” from public discourse.

The weapons of choice of this right-wing administration were increasing home ownership and promoting individualistic consumerism; both heralded under the banner of aspiration. They may have had some revolutionary zeal but they did not, in my opinion, embark on this project with the intention of removing boundaries to equality. Instead they hoped to enable individuals to break through social barriers. The objective was to change people’s attitudes towards their social standing and, as a crucial by-product, to increase control of the labour process. In the paper “Education, Training and the Labour Process”, Frith found that changes in the labour process typically flow from problems of labour control resulting from class struggle. It follows that the ideological objective behind the fragmentation of labour was not merely to increase the revenue available from the capitalist labour process but to divide the traditional working class society and in doing so curtail the power of the unions. The socio-political outcome of this has been that people no longer see themselves as belonging to an order of labourers. The politics of aspiration require that people avariciously chase bigger homes and better cars and are willing to exchange collectivism and solidarity for individual gain.  The conservative right failed because although they valued individual freedom and at least claimed to value communities, they failed to appreciate that this must be balanced with social justice and equality.
While the New Labour project may have recognised that this occurred, statistics show that they ultimately failed in their quest to conquer the political centre ground. A British Social Attitudes Survey from 1983-2005 showed that the proportion of people who considered their personal politics to be ‘left of centre’ had peaked at 64% in 1994 and declined to just 44% in 2005. The proportion of people who believed in redistribution of wealth had dropped from 51% to 32% in the same period. Perhaps more significantly, the effect on Labour identifiers was greater; the proportion who described themselves as ‘left of centre’ changed from 81% in 1994 to just 51% in 2005. The shift in policy that Blair had presided over in an effort to control the centre ground has seemingly resulted in shifting the centre ground further to the right.
The same weapons that the Conservative administration used in the 80s and 90s were continued by New Labour in an attempt to reach out beyond their traditional support. This has resulted in a population less equal and less inclined to seek equality. Leo Panitch describes Blairism as priding “itself on not conceiving its project as a strategy for labour at all, but rather a strategy for explicitly distancing itself from the labour movement.” The objective may have been enabling social reform but the increase in inequality clearly shows that the experiment was not an unqualified success. I believe that what the Labour Party must do now is to reconnect with labour; one way in which this must be done is by redefining labour power in the twenty first century. Whether the work is manual or mental, the control manifested in the relationship between employer and employee is still unequal; in selling his labouring power to an authoritarian employer a worker finds that his freedom of speech and assembly are considerably attenuated. The work of the Labour Party must be to engage all people in recognizing that the working people, although not homogenous, are a distinct entity. The Labour Party should be embracing these disparate communities and uniting them as the vanguard of a new twenty first century labour movement. Leo Panitch describes solidarity as a process that “has always been about, not ignoring or eliminating, but transcending working-class diversity—and this has meant gaining strength via forging unity of purpose out of strategies of inclusiveness rather than repressing diversity”. Only through rediscovering this solidarity can any left of centre democratic party hope to gain a large enough mandate to bring about meaningful reform that will positively impact on all members of our society (this means not ignoring the underclass created by Thatcher and sustained under the last Labour government).
The other challenge of course is to maintain that social democracy is a vehicle for aspiration; money in the pocket and a secure home are most peoples only objective in life. By being the party of the people Labour must ensure that the ability to earn money based on one’s own merits and the right to spend it how you see fit is not eradicated. I support the basic premise that Labour must present itself as electable to the public in time for the next election, but it must not substitute principals for power.
To paraphrase Roy Hattersley – the ends of socialism are equality and justice, everything else is just means. The humanisation of capital is not going to achieve this end; nor will statist socialism be the a means. People resent over-zealous central government interference, which can and often does manifest itself as authoritarian. Co-operatives and small scale mutual ownership can bring equality, justice and financial security. To bring about any such structural reforms, a dialogue is required between groups of workers, unions, parliamentarians and local governance; the objective of any debate must be to promote worker consciousness. Alas, the swing to the right of the majority viewpoint has rendered this an uphill struggle. Indeed, is change possible at all?

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8 Responses to “Socialism for today”

  1. swatantra says:

    The only things I’d agree with are the first paragraph and last paragraph. R Milliband was correct but even he would acknowledge thta the ideas of the 80’s or 50’s or 30’s have no or little relevance. We need to reinterpret socialism and make it meaningful to a generation brought up on twitter.
    R Millband makes no sense neither does Tony Crossland if they’ve ever heard of him nor does Roy Hatersley.
    But the last paragraph going back to the Rochdale Pioneers does strangely make sense. Its about individuals taking responsibility for themselves, and not the socialism of Milliband Crossland or Hattersley.

  2. Nick says:

    That statement is hard to argue with.

    It’s easy. You’ve missed off the largest villain.

    Where is the state in this?

    Co-operation or coercion? With the state its the latter. You are forced to work for the state. They will turn up like any feudal landlord and take the proceeds of your effort for their consumption.

    Democracy. Look at the referenda on Europe. Promised by all. Denied by all. No one bar a handful of elected and unelected (lords) get to make a decision. The plebs aren’t allowed to make any decision, bar which thief gets into Westminister.

    Exploitation. Look at Labour. If someone works hard, makes money, then Labour come along and say you are rich we are going to milk you for cash. If you want services in return, then the response is your rich, pay for it. If you don’t like it, f-off to another country. Repeated said by members of the Labour party.

    What else is missing?

    Debt bondage. You’ve put children into debt bondage to pay off your profligate spending and Ponzi frauds. Why doesn’t the state pension appear on the books? Ah its spending, which means its an optional item, so we don’t have to book it.

  3. figurewizard says:

    You mention ‘solidarity.’ Solidarity with what and who decides what it should be? As for ‘co-operatives and small scale mutual ownership;’ ever heard the one about the committee that set out to design a horse?

  4. Amber Star says:

    Here’s the dichotomy… the more successful a Labour government is in legislating for minimum wages, equality in the workplace, health & safety, maternity/ paternity leave, paid vacations & other workers’ rights, the less need there is for working people to join a Union &/or organise themselves.

    By cutting out the Unions/ organised Labour & conferring benefits directly on the entire Uk workforce over 13 years in power, of course the workforce’s motivation to organise itself & collectively demand workers’ rights was greatly reduced. And once the motivation is gone, the skills & structures needed to underpin organised labour antrophy & disappear.

    So, we have arrived at a situation where the workforce have no personal history of activism; no skills, experience or knowledge of the available structures with which to organise themselves.

    New Labour, despite a whopping majority, did nothing to strengthen its own structures – it did the reverse, don’t you think? Working people were given what was good for them, rather than being seen to participate in the process via their Unions or other, similar structures. New Labour hid from the media almost every interaction with the people & structures which supported the Party. Now ‘the workers’ have very little knowledge of what structures exist or how to access them!

    So let’s hope the lesson has been learned: Stand up for your own. Take pride in what’s yours. Publicly strengthen & widen your own base, regardless of whether such actions are popular with the right-leaning media or not.

    I’d also like to add: In a small but important way, Ed Miliband has begun to fight back. At PMQs Cameron made what he thought was a jibe: Miliband is paid for by the Unions.
    Better that we are paid for by millions of working people than a wealthy individual like Lord Ashcroft, Ed replied. Bravo, encore etc. The Labour Party may have taken a small but definite step on the road back to real power!

  5. Roger says:

    ‘While the New Labour project may have recognised that this occurred, statistics show that they ultimately failed in their quest to conquer the political centre ground. A British Social Attitudes Survey from 1983-2005 showed that the proportion of people who considered their personal politics to be ‘left of centre’ had peaked at 64% in 1994 and declined to just 44% in 2005. The proportion of people who believed in redistribution of wealth had dropped from 51% to 32% in the same period’.

    Isn’t a much simpler explanation that New Labour’s abandonment of the very language of redistribution and egalitarianism removed from that entire generation of Thatcher’s children a countervailing narrative.

    People did not abandon these ideas – old lefties died and new cohorts of voters reached adulthood having been fed their entire lives a narrative in which the ideas of the left were either demonised, mocked or most damaging of all simply removed from the media.

    In the 1970s left-wing ideas were well-known enough to spawn popular TV sitcoms gently poking fun at them – now they are so absent from public discourse that you have to laboriously explain the most basic terms to even supposedly well educated twenty-somethings.

    Still good to see someone on the right seriously engaging with the likes of Miliband senior and Panitch (although links would have been nice…).

    And in your penultimate paragraph you surely mean: principles not principals!

    (Although the number of times I’ve seen this error recently – including from professional journalists – is itself indicative of the radical impoverishment of our political language: principles is clearly a word which we no longer use frequently enough).

  6. Roger says:

    And looking at the statistics we see that over most of the past 40 or so years live births and deaths have both been in 600,000 to 700,000 range p.a.

    So every year 600,000-odd mostly elderly people die and 600,000-ish new voters join the electoral register.

    So in percentage terms roughly every year 1.5% of electors die and are replaced by new voters to the same level.

    The British Social Attitudes Survey indicates that the number of people identifying as left of centre fell 20 points between 1994 and 2005 (which are incidentally the years in which New Labour dominated our politics and topped every political poll – funny that….).

    So as the starting percentage was 64% a drop to 44% can largely be accounted for by natural churn if the older dying electors were more likely than not to be left of centre (as IIRC the BSAS data from 1994 they were) and if the new electors had been brought up in a society where every significant voice from the media from Thatcher, Major and Blair downwards was telling them that greed was good.

    And there is our fundamental demographic problem – not a mass abandonment of left values in the older population cohorts – but a whole lost generation born in the seventies, eighties and nineties who are now bringing up their children in their own image.

    We tried engaging with them through the ‘New Labour project’ but this only confirmed and deepened their thralldom to possessive individualism.

    So now we must begin over again as if the last 100-odd years never happened.

  7. swatantra says:

    The ‘Committee’ got it right when it came to the ship of the desert.

  8. Nick says:

    Look at the unions. The only unions left are the citizen versus the state.

    LTDA (taxi drivers) versus the state
    Fathers for Justice – versus the state
    Unison – versus the state

    Parking tickets
    Fuel prices.

    Any collective is now citizen against the state.

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