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’.

The whole thrust of the new revisionist writing, as I read it, is towards the increasingly inescapable conclusion that the socialist project is now forlorn, the age of socialism over. The editors of the Socialist Register would, I think, agree with me, not that the socialist idea is obsolete, but that the logic of the new revisionists leads to the conclusion that socialism is now virtually impossible of achievement. This year’s edition of the annual Register – which is a bumper edition intended to serve for 1985 and 1986, and I can well imagine it taking two years to read – consists of a critique of the new revisionism in the form of a polemic against the idea of social democracy. The target is not the social democracy of David Owen and the SDP, an explicitly non-socialist politics of the left, but social democracy used in its proper historical sense to encompass all the non-revolutionary and non-Communist socialist parties of the industrial world, or what in the classical Marxist lexicon is known as ‘reformism’ and, sometimes, as ‘collaborationism’.

The new revisionism, for these hard socialists, represents a further degeneration of the socialist idea into the futility and defeatism of social democracy. Chief exponent of this view, the keeper of the fundamentalist tablets, is the veteran Marxist Ralph Miliband, one of the editors of the Socialist Review since its inception in 1956 as part of the ferment which surrounded the 20th Party Congress of the Soviet Union and the quelling of the Budapest uprising. Miliband is a mysterious guru figure who appears to have had a considerable influence on successive generations of Marxist students and teachers, first at the LSE and then at Leeds University. I don’t remember ever seeing a photograph of him or reading an interview with him. It is said that when the LSE was occupied by its students in the late Sixties he called upon them to evacuate in the name of revolutionary discipline. An uncompromising dogmatist, Miliband has never set store by the Labour Party or the Labour Left as instruments of socialism, and has cast fundamental doubt on the feasibility of achieving socialism by parlimentary means.

In an essay in this volume, and, more elaborately, in an article in New Left Review (March-April 1985), Miliband puts the Hard Left’s indictment of the new revisionism. He denies that the working class is in decline and argues, rather, that it is going through an ‘accelerated process of recomposition’; this new working class will be just as capable of class-consciousness as its predecessors, he insists; meanwhile class retains its primacy over gender, race or sectional groupings. The struggle for socialism will go on for as long as there is capitalism, and the agency of that struggle will remain the working class: no other has the ability to serve as the gravedigger of capitalism. Nor has the state changed its spots: it remains the immensely powerful instrument of capitalist exploitation and repression and can be relied upon to resist the advent of socialism with all its might. ‘Thatcherism’ is a particularly vigorous manifestation of this ‘class struggle from above’, but the new revisionists are wrong, says Miliband, in the emphasis they put on its positive appeal to workers. The triumph of ‘Thatcherism’ is to be attributed chiefly to the negative appeal of the Labour Party, which should be blamed not only on the betrayals of Wilson and Callaghan but also on ‘a whole political orientation, namely social democracy and its will to manage a capitalist social order without ever seeking in practice to bring about a radical transformation of any of its basic features’.

Miliband accepts it now as ‘very unlikely’ that a revolutionary moment will come to enable a vanguard party, organised on Leninist lines, to lead the working class to the overthrow of the bourgeois state. All the same, he rejects the social democratic alternative and argues for a strategy which he calls ‘revolutionary reformism’: this does not reject parliamentary activity as an aspect of the broader struggle, but does not rely upon it as the means to a smooth and peaceful transition to socialism. The model he has in mind is the French Communist Party in contrast to the Italian party with its social democratic tendencies, towards which Hobsbawm leans. In the run-up to this week’s National Assembly elections in France the PCF, incidentally, stands at below 10 per cent in the opinion polls.

At this high level of abstraction, the argument between revisionist and fundamentalist Marxism is circular and barren, and nothing very new on the subject has been said since Bernstein and Kautsky. The controversy can be resolved quite simply by any sensible outsider: Miliband is correct to suggest that Hobsbawm and his friends will not through their pluralism achieve ‘socialism’: but Miliband and his friends in their reductionism will not achieve anything at all. Indeed, one wonders, reading this grey literature, why such Promethean endeavours go into the task of fitting the world around the socialist idea. What makes it necessary to believe that socialism remains a relevant and viable project in spite of the disappearance of the working class, in spite of its refusal to play the role which history is supposed to have allocated to it, and in spite of the resilience and success of welfare capitalist societies? Perhaps it is necessary to believe something. Since the Enlightenment, transformational ideas of one kind or another have dazzled the political imagination. Even if most political behaviour – voting, for example – is based on incremental expectations there would seem to be a need as well for an over-arching frame or Manichean dichotomy. Political man will not live on pragmatism alone and, in this century, we do not recognise the moderate as hero.

For more than a hundred years the idea of socialism has held the field, and as yet we have no alternative project to put in its place. For some, capitalism is so repugnant that it must have its moral opposite: Andrew Gamble remarks, in one essay in the Register, that ‘capitalism makes socialism feasible. But it doesn’t bring it any nearer.’ A good deal of socialist exegesis is concerned with reconciling other values, such as freedom or democracy, with the value put upon economic equality; hyphenating the words ‘democracy’ and ‘socialism’ will not do for this, and it is the suspicion that socialist hatred of inequality is an overriding passion which gives rise to doubts and fears about their concern for liberty. In early times socialism was a rationalist creed: Sidney Webb and others dreamt dreams of municipal efficiency and, in the Thirties, the idea of planning inspired the enthusiasm of a generation of intellectuals. Today policy-making consists largely in devising saleable compromises between the ideological imperatives of socialism and both the practicalities of governing and the prejudices of the electorate.

The enthusiasm for socialism since the late Sixties among predominantly middle-class intellectuals and others who owe their employment chiefly to the state does not seem to relate to what Marxists would call ‘objective’ developments in society; the socialist idea has not revived among the working classes, rather the opposite. The classes of ’68 and ’73 were moved, perhaps, by class guilt, and also by Western guilt towards the Third World aroused by the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. It may have been that the manifestations of ‘post-materialist’ or ‘post-industrial’ politics which in Germany, for example, took an environmental direction were in Britain channelled in a socialist direction by our peculiarly polarised class society and party system. However, the activists of the Seventies were driven by interest as well as ideology. They were a growing class, excluded from conventional power, comprising an expanding nexus of university and polytechnic, town hall, the Welfare State bureaucracies and the publicsector trade unions – all of them the growth industries of the Seventies.

The new revisionists were among the first to see through the hollow triumphalism of the Left’s march through the institutions of the Labour movement. Beginning in 1973, this reached its furthest point in 1981, when Tony Benn failed by only a hair’s breadth to win the Deputy Leadership in an election conducted within the new electoral college which has wrested power from the Parliamentary Labour Party. The apotheosis of Bennite socialism was achieved in 1983, when he rejoiced at the eight million votes cast for ‘socialism’ in a general election which resulted in Labour’s worst performance since 1904. Hobsbawm was no admirer of Benn and some of the new revisionists were openly critical of what they regarded as his increasingly infantile leftism.

However, this crisis in the Labour movement was partially obscured by the advent of Thatcherism. The new revisionists – particularly Stuart Hall – have been at great pains to analyse and come to terms with Thatcherism: nevertheless it suited them to build it into an elaborate construction which would at the same time discredit social democracy and make both imperative and plausible the advance to socialism by another route. In a 1979 essay, published before the election of that year, Hall attributed the rightward shift of politics to ‘the contradictions within social democracy’, but he went on to make a mostly conventional left-wing critique of Labour governments for forsaking transformational politics in favour of managerial reformism. But the failures of the Wilson and Callaghan Governments were precisely managerial: they did not govern well largely because of the sectional interests and, to a lesser extent, the ideological lumber of the Labour movement. Because of this, they were unable to practise the mode of social democratic politics which had succeeded so well in Germany and Austria and, in different form, in Scandinavia.

Mrs Thatcher captured the Conservative Party by a stroke of opportunism in 1975, and in 1979 came to power in the slush of the winter of discontent. As is usually the case, that election was not so much won by the opposition as lost by the government of the day. (In 1983 Labour achieved the unique feat as an opposition party of losing to the government of the day.) To be sure, Mrs Thatcher has some simple and clear ideas about how to govern the country. Her anti-socialism, her Little England nationalism, her anti-bureaucratic rhetoric, her emphasis on law and order and school and family discipline, and her pledges to reform the trade unions, all went down well north of the Trent. Hall likes to call this ‘authoritarian populism’, by which he appears to mean a kind of constitutional fascism by consent, but to me it is much more recognisable as the small-town, shopkeeper conservativism amid which I grew up not long after Mrs Thatcher and in much the same part of the world. I don’t believe, as Hall does, that Thatcherism represents a permanent realignment of political forces towards the right; I suspect that both Thatcherism and Bennism will turn out to have been transitional traumas brought on by the end of the Long Boom in 1973 – but to be explainable chiefly in terms of the decline of the Labour movement. Since she came to power, Mrs Thatcher has seldom been popular – really only in the aftermath of the Falklands victory has she been that. She may be respected and admired for certain of her characteristics, but she has never been much liked. Today it is doubtful whether ‘that woman’ remains an electoral asset. The dominance of ‘Thatcherism’, which may now be coming to an end, owes more to the negative appeal of the Labour Party, the still more negative appeal of left-wing socialism, and to the consequent splits and divisions on the left of politics, notably the SDP breakaway, than it does to intrinsic popular appeal.

The pluralistic concept of the new revisionists implies the politics of coalition. Hobsbawm is accused by his left-wing enemies of advocating a coalition or alliance between the Labour Party and the SDP and Liberals. I am not aware that he has actually proposed this in terms, but unless he is talking merely in vague Gramscian fashion of some anti-Thatcherite hegemony, that would seem to be the implication when he points to the existence of an anti-Conservative electoral majority. But so is there an anti-socialist or anti-Labour majority. On what terms would such a broad front coalesce against ‘Thatcherism’? Why make historic compromises when socialism is on its deathbed? If a diminishing and unwilling working class has made socialism virtually unachievable, why should other sections of society, at this late stage, lend themselves to so forlorn and alien a cause? The argument rests on the assumption that ‘Thatcherism’ is an overriding evil which transcends class and sectional differences. But, plainly, a large number of people regard Mrs Thatcher as the lesser evil. The most salient feature of British politics today is that despite unemployment, despite the Government’s misdoings and unpopularity, despite everything, the Labour Party remains stuck in the opinion polls at a level which suggests that it cannot win a general election. And if what people most don’t want is socialism, why should the SDP and Liberals hope to prosper on a prospectus for saving Labour from the fruits of its decline?

The Labour movement is not going to go away in a hurry. It will remain a powerful electoral force within its regional base with, under the present voting system, a substantial and disproportionate Parliamentary presence. The electoral system makes almost anything possible with three parties in the field, and a fluke Labour victory cannot be ruled out. Nor is it impossible that the transition may even yet be made to an explicitly non-socialist form of social democracy on the Continental model. However, the immobilism of the Labour Movement, the institutional interlock between political party and trade unions, the decision-making apparatus of the Conference, the organisational strength of left-wing activists in the constituencies, and the cumulative effects of a long decline, which have made the Labour Party an insignificant force in large parts of the country, would all seem to make that belated transition inherently improbable. Moreover, even German-style social democracy is not without its problems, as contributors to the Socialist Register are pleased to point out. As has happened with the Labour Party, middle-class post-industrialist politics – in the German case, neutralism and environmentalism – have helped to alienate traditional working-class support. And, everywhere, social democratic parties face the difficulty of how to serve their core constituency of working people and trade-unionists while obtaining from them the increased productivity required to sustain the burgeoning superstructure of the Welfare State. It could be that with faster economic growth once more, brought about by cheap energy, the Sixties formula will once again become viable. But it seems to me more likely that the contradictions of social democracy will have to be resolved by further decoupling the creation and the distribution of wealth. Socialist and social democratic parties have shown themselves generally incompetent at increasing production, except in so far as they have been prepared to preside over liberal economic regimes. In the post-socialist age, politics will once more come to be about freedom and justice.

To speak of the death of socialism is not to pronounce a premature obituary on all of the values or hopes accumulated under that umbrella, many of which preceded the socialist era and will survive it. The pursuit of equality does not require the abolition of wage labour or the nationalisation of the gas industry. Nor need liberty be the prisoner of economism, or fraternity defined in collectivist terms. There is not much of it to be found on council estates, for example. The socialist versions of these ideals, expropriated from the liberal tradition, are rooted in a 19th-century vision of a capitalist society replete with the seeds of its own destruction. Obstructing the emergence of a non-socialist and post-socialist Left is that huge encumbrance of vested interests, ancient rivalries, centres of petty power and pride, deadweight tradition and false hopes which we call the British Labour movement. Correct thinking will not remove it. Nevertheless, some responsibility attaches to the priesthood of the corrupt church of socialism, revisionist and fundamentalist alike, who, by preaching salvation after their fashion, blind eyes to the possibilities of human advance in a world without socialism.