On the State of the Left

W.G. Runciman

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the first stirrings of socialist political theory, the intellectual protagonists of the Left have started with a twofold debating advantage over their opponents on the right. First of all, they have been able to present socialism as the repository of ideals to which all right-minded people can be presumed to subscribe. It may be that liberty, equality and fraternity can in some forms be carried to excess, and perhaps there comes a point beyond which they conflict with one another. But to be on the side of the poor and oppressed against the rich and powerful is almost by definition to be on the side of the good against the bad. The protagonists of the Right may retort, as they often have, that good will towards the poor and oppressed is not the peculiar prerogative of the Left and that the attempts of revolutionaries and doctrinaires to realise their high-sounding ends by their chosen means are likely to be self-defeating if not disastrous. But they are then confronted with the second advantage enjoyed by the Left – their ability to reiterate their long-proclaimed conviction that history is, in the end, on their side. Mistakes and setbacks there may have been, but time and again it can be shown what not only should be but has been achieved by organised political and industrial opposition from below to the owners and controllers of the economy and state. The arguments may not be conclusive. Such arguments seldom are. But they leave – or at least they used to leave – the spokesmen of the established order permanently on the defensive. To be sceptical of the goal of a more socially just society is – or at least used to be – to be cast either as a cynic and a defeatist or as a self-interested apologist for an all too palpably unequal distribution of rewards and powers.

Over the last few decades, however, both these advantages have been whittled away. They have been so not because the Right has suddenly started to have the best of the intellectual argument – the most persuasive conservative arguments are still those current since the days of Burke and Adam Smith – but because of what has happened in the world since the Second World War. The various changes which have undermined the presuppositions of traditional socialism are by now familiar enough. But their cumulative effect has taken time to sink in. The failure of existing socialist societies to implement the traditional socialist ideals; the relatively greater success of liberal democracy in augmenting welfare while preserving freedom; the shift in the occupational distribution of the workforce of advanced industrial societies; the lack of difference made to industrial relations by public ownership; the obstinate willingness of working-class electors to vote for parties of the Right; the location of underprivilege in groups and categories of society not definable in class terms; the persistent lack of trade-union solidarity; the effects of wage-inflation on real incomes; the vulnerability of the high-cost industrial economies to competition from low-cost, newly-industrialising ones – all these things have made it increasingly difficult for the self-proclaimed heirs of the socialist tradition to be clear among themselves either what they specifically want or what they seriously hope to achieve.

Against this background, a public heart searching by the Old and/or Far Left is of both academic and topical interest. The contents of, and reactions to, the Marx Memorial Lecture given by Professor Eric Hobsbawm in 1978 testify to a mood of doubt amounting to despair which would have astonished and dismayed a similar audience a generation ago. The Forward March of Labour has stumbled to a halt, and not in order to regroup for a final triumphant assault on the bastions of capitalism. The commanders don’t any longer know quite where the objective is, and many of the troops don’t want to go there anyway. There has been a trahison des roturiers which has not only led to working-class votes being cast for Margaret Thatcher but might, even now, lead to their being switched to Roy Jenkins instead of Tony Benn. It is true that the record of an internal debate among the committed is not to be read as a prospectus for potential converts. But the cries of disappointment and betrayal, the denunciations of the media, Harold Wilson and the IMF, and the assumption that the answerability of Parliamentary representatives of the Left to a party executive dominated by constituency and trade-union militants is truly ‘democratic’, are not likely to persuade anyone not persuaded already. When this volume is read by the research departments of the Conservative Central Office and the SDP/Liberal Alliance they will find in it not just what they expected but all that they could desire.

It consists not only of Hobsbawm’s 1978 lecture but also of a modified transcript of an interview of Benn by Hobsbawm in July of 1980, plus a series of comments on Hobsbawm’s lecture and two separate rejoinders by him. The 16 commentators are all impeccably of the Left, but by no means all are intellectuals. There is not only Professor Raymond Williams but Bernard Dix of NUPE and Jack Adams, Convenor at BL, Longbridge; not only Martin Jacques, editor of Marxism Today, but Peter Carter, UCATT regional organiser; not only Royden Harrison, professor of social history at Warwick, but Jack Jones and Stan Newens MP; not only Robin Blackburn of New Left Review but Mike le Cornu, shop steward at Heathrow. They all, with remarkably few reservations, agree with Hobsbawm not only that there is a crisis of capitalism but that the apparent ineffectiveness of the Left is, therefore, all the more disconcerting. ‘Crisis’ is a term which here, as often, needs more precise definition than it gets: if capitalism is now in crisis, then so has it been for most of its existence; and so likewise are Maoism, Islam, pan-Africanism, OPEC, the Society of Jesus and English football. Benn, indeed, is at pains to remind Hobsbawm that ‘if we are talking about the crisis of political structures, we must also include the crisis of bureaucratisation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.’ But just because institutions fail to work as those who created them hoped that they would, it does not follow that a transformation for either the better or the worse is at hand. Suppose that there is, whatever it means, a ‘crisis’ of capitalism in this country. What exactly do the Left of the present-day Labour Party and its Communist or Trotskyist allies hope to persuade the electorate to put in its place?

Hobsbawm himself offers them no comfort at all. He is unequivocal in his view that the Labour movement has suffered a serious and not merely temporary loss of support both electorally and industrially. Historical determinism cannot be relied on to restore the forward momentum. The old calls for socialism have lost their resonance. Trade-union militancy is internally divisive as well as externally unpopular, and the capture of constituency parties by well-organised activists carries no guarantee whatever of victory at the polls. In his final summing-up, he remains unrepentant in the face of his commentators, and it is not hard to see why. Where are the arguments which will convince the ‘ “progressive” middle strata’ (the inverted commas are Hobsbawm’s) that the extension of state ownership of industry and tax-subsidised protectionism are the answer to economic decline, that the unions should be given a price freeze at the same time as a free-for-all in the ‘wages struggle’, that direct-action campaigns by sectional pressure groups will turn Labour back into a truly popular party, that Benn’s ‘democratic socialism’ can somehow reconcile ‘a bigger role for the state’ with ‘diffusion of power’, or that social democracy is a ‘non-starter’ because it is pronounced so? Whatever the chances that a Bennite government may one day be formed – and it could, of course, happen under circumstances not impossible to envisage with very much less than a majority of the popular vote – Hobsbawm is surely right in supposing that it will not be swept into power by ‘great surges of hope for a better society’ such as increased the Labour vote by about 50 per cent in 1945. Benn assures Hobsbawm that he is against sectarianism and that ‘what the left is now saying is that we want a very broad church.’ But part of what Hobsbawm is trying to tell Benn is that the state of the Left is now such that this is no longer possible. There is no conceivable Manifesto to which all British electors who would still like to think of themselves as both socialists and democrats could possibly subscribe.

It is, to be sure, arguable that this is in large part because of the actions of Benn and his adherents themselves. Perhaps, without Benn, a united Labour Party would now be waiting confidently to return to power on a Manifesto still able plausibly to invoke the traditional ideals of the Left and thereby effectively to appeal, as Hobsbawm puts it, ‘not only to working people but to all who need such a better and fairer world’. But the predicament which Hobsbawm depicts is not a function simply of the schismatic effects of Benn’s particular amalgam of naive-sounding doctrine and sinister looking support. The truth is that it is no longer possible to formulate a ‘radical alternative’ which can coherently reconcile the traditional set of socialist but still democratic objectives. Conflicts of priorities have arisen of which earlier generations of the Left could remain serenely unaware, and they are not just those which divide the unashamed authoritarians from the rest. Once upon a time, all of those whom Hobsbawm has in mind as ‘we’ were agreed on being on the side of planning, education, social welfare, trade unions, toleration of minority opinions, aid to the Third World (not yet so-called), collective ownership, fair shares for all, parity of esteem, participation in economic and political decision – making, and production not for profit but for use. There was always a difference between the Communist and non-Communist Left, which meant, as now, not only a different view of how the Soviet Union treats its subjects, but also an acceptance or rejection in principle of a centrally-directed economy and a one-party state. But it seldom if ever occurred to the readers of Tawney, Laski and Cole that the proclaimed objectives of British socialism might turn out to be seriously irreconcilable with one another.

Yet they are, or have become so, to a degree that can no longer be fudged either at the hustings or in the seminar-room. Do the protagonists of the Left now stand for greater equality even if it means that less resources in total are available for social welfare? Do they stand for free collective bargaining even if less well-organised groups of workers are priced out of jobs thereby? Do they want unions directly involved in the management of individual enterprises even if this means that more profit would be channelled to immediate consumption than to reinvestment? Or do they want industry to be answerable to party or Civil Service officials even if less efficient decisions are taken as a result? Do they want protection of the domestic economy at the expense of employment in the Third World? Do they or don’t they approve in principle of direct action by organised extra-Parliamentary groups in support of minority political aims? Do they believe in freedom of speech, or would they like to put the media under party control? Do they seriously disapprove of profit as ‘exploitation’, or do they seriously want the economy to grow? Do they or don’t they mean by ‘democratic’ socialism the abandonment of the principle of one person, one vote? All these questions are raised in the reader’s mind by the contents of this volume, but none of them are answered by it clearly, if at all. Nor does Hobsbawm himself offer any constructive suggestion beyond observing that ‘the French Socialist Party won an absolute majority with a programme to the left of anything so fat suggested by the British Labour Left’ – which may be so, but is doubtfully relevant at best to Hobshawm’s own diagnosis of the British Labour left’s predicament.

What is interesting about that predicament is not just its electoral implications, but its ideological ones. If Hobsbawm is right, then the whole notion of a ‘Labour movement’ with a more or less coherent common set of recognisably left-wing objectives may be a thing of the past. It is not that the traditional difference between Left and Right has lost its significance. There will continue to be, as there have always been, electors who will want to vote for a party which seeks to achieve the old left-wing goals until forced by expediency towards the right rather than for a party which will pursue the old right-wing goals until forced by expediency towards the left. But where and to whom are they to turn, when the broad church has fallen into irreparable schism and the conflicts of priorities have to be faced squarely? Some will go off the end of the spectrum altogether into de-industrialisation, communes, ecology and anarchism. Some will sign up with Benn at what others will regard as the risk of falling into the clutches of Militant Tendency. Some will cling to what Hobsbawm calls ‘the great illusion of the 1970s, that militant unionism is enough.’ Some will revive the ‘revisionist’ socialism of Gaitskell and Crosland about which Benn is so contemptuous and disapproving. Some will seek solidarity behind an avowedly face-saving compromise in the hope that the priorities will sort themselves out when power has again been won. And some will follow the ‘exitists’, as Benn calls them, and join the SDP. On this, Hobsbawm’s view provides no more cheer to the comrades than any other part of his message. As he says, it is no good dismissing as good riddance a man who almost wins one of the solidest Labour constituencies in England at a time when an exceptionally reactionary government is deeply unpopular, and that despite being personally associated with the EEC and not even pretending to be able to put forward a coherent alternative policy. Voters, to be sure, are fickle creatures, and mid-term by-elections may be portents of nothing at all. But there is no denying the possibility, for the first time in British political history, of the emergence of a New Left which is to the right of the Old.

These are early days, and it would be rash to prophesy that the ideological mould has been so broken that the two traditional debating advantages of the Left will be picked up, not by ‘democratic socialism’ as preached by Benn, but by ‘social democracy’ as preached by the Gang of Four. But when a distinguished Marxist historian who has spent a lifetime on the Old Left says the things that Eric Hobsbawm is now saying, it is worth taking notice. There can be nobody in the country for whom this volume will make more enjoyable reading than Roy Jenkins, and it is difficult to predict which passage in it will give him more pleasure – Hobsbawm’s reference to his performance at Warrington, or Benn’s admission, after being pressed by Hobsbawm to say concretely ‘how democratic socialism comes in’, that ‘it is difficult to invest that policy with something that looks philosophically credible in answer to an academic’s question.’