Socialism without Socialism

Peter Jenkins

Mrs Thatcher’s two election victories have prompted a debate on the left at the bottom of which lurks the question: is socialism dead? There are several prongs to the case put forward by the ‘new revisionists’ who, in contrast to the Gaitskell-Croslandite revisionists of the past, are not right-wingers seeking to save the Labour Party from socialism but, for the most part, Marxists who have found it necessary to make a fundamental reappraisal of the socialist project. Their writings appear chiefly in Marxism Today, the Communist Party’s maverick intellectual journal, and the most celebrated of the ‘new revisionists’ is Eric Hobsbawm, whose Marx Memorial Lecture ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ became their seminal text.

Strictly speaking, the new revisionism preceded ‘Thatcherism’. Hobsbawm’s lecture was delivered in September 1978, before the winter of discontent and before the Conservatives’ coming to power. Hobsbawm drew attention to the decline of the working class, the erosion of its old solidarity, and the accompanying decline of the Labour Party’s electoral support since 1951. ‘We cannot rely on a simple form of historical determinism to restore the forward march of British labour which began to falter thirty years ago.’ This may not seem a very startling conclusion, even for 1978: the thesis that Labour was in electoral decline had already been well documented by Ivor Crewe and his colleagues at the University of Essex, while others of us, sympathetic to the radical right wing of the Labour Party, already had the despairing sense that the Labour Party was past serving as a viable vehicle for the social democratic approach. Nevertheless, it was Hobsbawm’s lecture – subsequently reprinted in Marxism Today – which, coming from an eminent Marxist historian, and a member of the Communist Party, stirred the Left from its intellectual torpor and gave urgency to the question of the future of socialism.

Since then, the new revisionism has been refined and developed and may be summarised as follows: 1. The working class has refused to play the role allotted to it by Marx and shows no sign of doing so: or, as Engels put it in 1867, ‘once again the proletariat has discredited itself terribly.’ 2. ‘Actually existing socialisms’ do not inspire confidence either as models of economic efficiency or as vehicles of human liberation. 3. Organised labour is incorrigibly given to sectional and instrumental goals. 4. Socialism is impossible in one country – even Keynesianism is impossible in one country. 5. In any case, the working class is in decline and, on a simple numerical reckoning, no longer able to play its role as the agent of capitalism’s destruction. 6. ‘Thatcherism’ represents a new and malevolent development whose populist appeal to the working classes has resulted in a probably permanent re-alignment of political forces at the expense of the Left.

The last four of these points are the most relevant to the British case. In France, where the socialist tradition is predominantly Marxist, the revisionist thrust has gone to the very heart of the Marxist historicist credo, and has also, quite unlike what has been happening here, taken a sharp anti-Soviet and pro-American turn: indeed, for the first time since the French Revolution the intellectuals appear to have no left-wing project of any kind. In Britain, where Marxist intellectuals are accustomed to addressing themselves to the fact of the Labour Party, the debate has taken a more practical, and even tactical, form. Its broad conclusion seems to be that ‘class politics’ have had their day, that pluralism is the characteristic feature of late-capitalist society and that progress towards socialism, if any, will depend on the formation of progressive alliances which transcend the frontiers of class.

Linked with this conclusion, and especially evident in the writings of Stuart Hall, is a revised view of the state, which, no longer the monolithic agency of capitalist exploitation and repression, is itself a part of the pluralism, in that the Labour movement, through its institutions and the apparatus of the Welfare State, is itself a part of the power structure of capitalist society. Finally, there is a third set of ideas concerned with the feasibility of socialism which address themselves to the, scarcely deniable, superiority of market forces over all forms of statist allocation yet devised by man. By this means the new revisionists approach ‘socialism without socialism’.

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