To shun “partisanship” — that, according to a new book, is the way to success for Labour. And the proof is Joe Biden’s win in the US presidential election.
The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master, by Chris Clarke, is published by Penguin and has been puffed on LabourList. The author is the son of Charles Clarke, who was Neil Kinnock’s chief of staff in the 1980s, then a minister under Blair. The book was first published (under another title) by a think-tank led by Peter Mandelson.
The author tells us he is a sort of ultimate antithesis to the “Corbyn surge”. He grew up Labour-by-default, never attended Labour meetings, but worked as press officer for a couple of Labour candidates. Then Corbyn’s success in the 2017 general election prompted him to quit Labour, just as tens of thousands of others were joining.
But maybe some people will see the “bipartisan” line as a way for Starmer to move forward from his “small target” tactics of this year (say as little as possible) and map out a “new way”.
Some objections are obvious. Considering the discredit Trump had brought on himself by his blather in the pandemic, and the increased turnout on 3 November, Biden did badly, not well.
Some voters said they’d backed Trump because of talk by some Democrats about socialism, or about “defunding the police”. But they stuck that to Biden despite him saying nothing of the sort: a candidate who argued positively for socialism, or for police reform, might have convinced some of them.
“Bipartisan” politics in the USA belonged to the long era in which Democrat and Republican party labels overlapped a lot ideologically (many Republicans were to the left of many Democrats), and legislation (good or bad) was done by issue-coalitions in Congress. It has little grip today or in Britain.
The “Dark Knight” of the book title is about left-wingers allegedly attributing social evils to morally-bad individuals; the “Puppet Master”, about us seeing social life being decided by behind-the-scenes plots and conspiracies.
The book charges us with a third bad habit: setting aims in terms of restoring a past “Golden Era”. Clarke seems to see that mostly in pro-Brexit, “anti-globalisation” left-wingers.
It’s odd to hear calls for pluralism, respect and patience in debate, and so on, from an admirer of the notoriously “control-freak” and bullying Labour regime of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, or from a probable supporter of the current regime of suspending members just because they have discussed other suspensions.
But the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that in polemic we must rise above knocking down “the stupidest and most mediocre of one’s opponents or… the least essential and the most occasional of their opinions”. “One must be fair to one’s enemies”, in the sense of tackling their arguments at their strongest. At least “if the end proposed is that of raising the intellectual level of one’s followers and not creating a desert around oneself”.
Likewise Pierre Broué notes of Lenin that in polemic he fought always “to convince”, not to advertise virtue, or to shout down, or to “come across well”.
A Marxist who is a workplace rep, for example, learns to deal respectfully with right-wing workmates. We even learn how to negotiate with bosses politely (though militantly).
Marx himself wrote in a preface to Capital: “I do not by any means depict the capitalist and the landowner in rosy colours… [But] my [historical materialist] standpoint… can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he remains”.
Bosses act badly in class struggle because of capitalist structures, not because they are personally “bad people”. Seeing capitalism as a matter of “bad” individuals does indeed lead to diversionary conspiracy theories.
Some on the left could learn from Gramsci and Marx in the way they dispute. And especially on social media. Possibly Clarke’s picture of the left as all demagogic shriekers is genuinely picked up from knowing the left only from social media, not from meetings or in workplaces.
But the bottom line in Clarke’s argument, always assumed, never argued, is that now we are out of the “era where conflict [was] the route by which most change took place”, or when there was “divide… between the workers and the ‘boss class’”; that the “days of picket lines” are gone; that “appetite for struggle” is outdated; etc.
Trump knows we haven’t entered an age of general conciliation. So do the Tories. And our employers. And the Labour right wing. We must fight political battles on as “high ground” as we can reach, but we must fight them no less vigorously.