The assessment by Ben Selwyn, an English correspondent for the Canadian socialist e-letter The Bullet, is typical: Labour’s great mobilisation on 8 June “placed socialist ideas firmly back on the political agenda... let the proverbial genie of class politics out of the bottle”. Even conservative commentators interpret the Grenfell Tower fire as showing how working-class people are abused in an unequal society. The word “socialism” comes up more in workplace discussions.
Paradoxically, Labour’s 8 June manifesto nowhere uses the words “socialism”, or “socialist”, or equivalents. It nowhere uses the word “class” to mean sections of society defined by economic conditions. Labour manifestos have never used the word “class” that way, or referred to “workers” as a social category with class interests which Labour will promote. The nearest approximation was in February 1974: “Make power in industry genuinely accountable to the workers and the community at large”.
Labour manifestos from the 1920s right through to 1987 did state the aim of socialism as a new society. It was always vague. Sometimes ridiculously so, as in the 1924 manifesto’s call for a “Socialist Commonwealth, in which there shall at least be opportunity for Good Will to conquer Hate and Strife, and for Brotherhood, if not to supersede Greed, at least to set due bounds”. In the 1950s, and again in the 1980s, “socialism” receded from being a name for a new society towards denoting “values” or “ethics” admixed to society. Neil Kinnock, in 1992 — not Blair in 1997 — removed “socialism” and “socialist” from Labour manifestos, and they have not yet come back. Specific policies to tax the rich, to restore free education and the NHS, and bring in a £10 minimum wage, do more to shift perceptions of what’s possible, and open up discussion about changing society, than a few vague words about socialism as a distant star or a desirable value.
Voters listened more to the tune of Labour’s pitch for 8 June than to the detail of the lyrics, and the tune they heard was socialist. That’s good. The question posed for the future: is doing good by stealth a workable strategy for socialism? To change society, doesn’t the working class have to go beyond being what it is, and maybe nods and winks (“by ‘the many’, we mean the working class, but it sounds nicer as ‘the many’”), to openly naming itself as a collective force?
Throughout the history of the left, the reformists, the Fabians, the ostentatious “pragmatists”, however much sometimes they boost themselves as “democrats”, have always argued for the manipulative, softly-softly approach, the idea that society can be made to “grow over” into socialism despite itself. Marxists have argued that socialism means the majority taking over the means of wealth and controlling it democratically, and there is no way to win democratic control other than the organised and self-aware way.
“The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”, as Marx put it. Or as Engels put it: “The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for body and soul”.
The nature of the socialist aim disqualifies a “good by stealth” strategy. So does the nature of the obstacles to overcome. Syriza in Greece, in government since 2015, is the only the latest of many left-wing parties who first retreated to a “good by stealth” strategy, then found that, on the terrain of stealthy intrigue, established power was much stronger.
The Workers’ Party in Brazil, in the 1980s, was a lively, democratic, party, openly revolutionary socialist. Over the 1990s its leaders curtailed its party democracy and pushed it to a strategy of amassing votes by vague formulas (it won the presidency in 2002 on the slogan “love and peace”), and then manipulating the system to make it more socialist. The Workers Party leaders were not cowards or careerists. They had been underground activists under the military dictatorship. They had organised illegal unions and strikes. Dilma Rousseff, Workers Party president of Brazil from 2011 to 2016, stuck to the struggle despite being tortured in jail. The Workers Party made reforms while Brazilian capitalism was buoyant. Then as crisis struck it became more and more conventionally neoliberal. After winning re-election in 2014, Rousseff adopted the Brazilian right’s economic policies wholesale. When she was removed from the presidency in 2016, on puffed-up corruption charges, there was almost no grassroots Workers’ Party organisation left to regroup and resist.
In times when capitalism is buoyant enough to allow leeway — and, despite everything, now is such a time — a Corbyn-McDonnell government with the 8 June manifesto could make serious reforms. But it would leave much undone. And probably those reforms would be fried at the next crisis. To go further, and probably even to make the manifesto reforms, the Corbyn-McDonnell government would need pressure on it from the left, from a lively, radical, explicitly socialist, democratic labour movement, to counterweigh the enormous pressures from its right. Those pressures would come from the Labour right, from the House of Lords, from the courts, from the civil service and Bank of England hierarchy, from possible “strikes of capital” such as turned round the leftish government in France in 1983, even before they came from the military machine.
Capitalism is a resilient system. Its entrenched logics cannot be conquered by a well-meaning mechanic who goes into the system, spanner in hand, assuring the people that she or he is only adjusting the settings, and yet hoping that the successive tweaks will produce a socialist surprise.
The Labour Party now has an organised left wing, Momentum. Yet Momentum never proclaims itself socialist or even left-wing, never states a position to the left of Corbyn. When Momentum still had democratic structures, and they voted for example for freedom of movement in Europe, the Momentum office would not speak up to sustain Jeremy Corbyn’s rearguard efforts to stick with freedom of movement, efforts which finally collapsed, in part because groups like Momentum would not support them. Then the “coup” carried out by its office in January 2017 abolished Momentum’s democratic structures.
Since 2015, at the same time as it has turned left, the Labour Party has also carried out the largest purge of left-wingers, by the most bureaucratic methods, that it has ever done in its history. We know 618 members were “auto-excluded” during the 2016 Labour leadership contest. “Auto-exclusion” means no notice of charges, no hearing, no appeal, no possibility of readmission within five years. Hundreds of others were “auto-excluded” in the 2015 leadership contest and in between times. Almost all “auto-excluded” have been left-wingers. Many on Labour’s soft left don’t like this purge, but don’t speak out against it, for fear of being purged themselves. That is just the “good by stealth” strategy at one remove: the idea that the movement can do without those who will speak out crisply for socialist aims, for unashamedly working-class politics, for strategic policies like public ownership of the banks, because the more cautious, more diplomatic, more soft-spoken types can wriggle through.
As Trotsky commented on similar ideas: “Live and let live. Aphorisms of this type cannot teach an advanced worker anything worthwhile; instead of courage and a sense of responsibility they can only instill indifference and weakness... Revolutionary ardour in the struggle for socialism is inseparable from intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth.”
In 1886, in one of the episodes of labour history which prefigures the current Corbyn surge, the United Labor Party and Central Labor Union candidate won 31% of the poll for New York mayor. The candidate, Henry George, was seen as a socialist. It was one of the biggest political breakthroughs for socialist politics in the history of the USA to date. The comments of Marx and Engels give us a guide on how to relate to the “socialist-but-doesn’t-dare-so-say” Labour surge of today. The election result, wrote Engels, was “epoch-making”.
“The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. And this step has been taken, far more rapidly than we had a right to hope...
“That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils... The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement” in which they can debate and correct ideas.
In fact the United Labor Party and the Central Labor Union both soon broke up, and larger-scale socialist politics did not rise in the USA until 15 or 20 years later. But Engels’ general approach was right. Marx appreciated George’s work and “the sensation it has made” as “significant because it is a first, if unsuccessful, attempt at emancipation from the orthodox political economy”. At the same time he explained that “theoretically” George was “utterly backward”, and if George’s ideas were considered logically they were no more than “a last attempt — to save the capitalistic regime”.
The combative socialists then in New York were almost all German émigrés. Engels counselled them to do two things. Firstly, to educate themselves better in their socialist theory. Second, to make themselves an organised lever in the movement.
“The Germans have not understood how to use their theory as a lever which could set the American masses in motion; they do not understand the theory themselves for the most part and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way, as something which has got to be learnt off by heart but which will then supply all needs without more ado. To them it is a creed and not a guide to action...”
“It is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation, and I am afraid that if the German Americans choose a different line they will commit a great mistake”.
That should be the guideline for socialists today.