Eleven years on from 2008, inequality is spiralling, the signs are that we’re heading for another crash, and mainstream ruling-class politics is veering away from neo-liberalism only towards the nationalist right.
The working classes of the world need a political movement which fights for socialism as working-class self-emancipation, as a full-scale change of society to social ownership and democratic control of productive wealth.
It needs socialists who focus on agitating and educating positively for socialist ideas, not merely on nay-saying and reactive opposition to day-to-day bourgeois policies.
Who fight for consistent democracy and accountability, and a culture of free speech and open debate, both in the labour movement today and for society in the future.
Who are consistently democratic and internationalist on an international level, arguing for open borders, free movement, and self-determination for all nations. On Brexit, that means a fight to “Remain and Rebel”, resisting the drive to break up the EU on the basis of nationalist reaction (while also, of course, opposing neoliberalism in the EU as elsewhere). It means a consistent advocacy of the right to self-determination of all national groups (a two-state settlement in Israel/Palestine, guaranteeing an equal right to self-determination for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and self-determination for oppressed national groups such as the Kurds, Western Sahrawis, Tamils, Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and others).
The main political beneficiaries of the consequences and echoes of the 2008 financial crash have been far-right nationalist movements of various kinds: Trump in the USA, Modi in India, Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Netanyahu in Israel, Bolsonaro in Brazil. The Brexit movement is also part of this global nationalist trend.
There have been exceptions to this pattern – left-reformist surges like the Sanders movement in the USA, the Corbyn influx in the Labour Party in Britain, and the Syriza movement in Greece.
But those have had their limitations, or even, in Greece, capitulations. The sober fact is that the decade since the crash has seen the left remain marginal, and right-wing, “identitarian” nationalist forces grow and strengthen. Beyond the left, the wider labour movements are also weak. Almost everywhere, workers’ industrial struggles is at a low ebb – in the case of Britain, at an all-time low.
History has never guaranteed the easy arrival of working-class confidence as and when we wish for it. No serious socialist today can take any but a long view on our work of transforming society.
Yet there are things that the socialist minority can change now and at will. It is urgent we do so, because the climate crisis poses the alternative of “socialism or barbarism” on a short time-scale.
And generally the gains of the political right do not reflect any great shift to the right in popular opinion. On LGBT rights, obviously, and on many other issues, in many countries the opinions of young people in particular have shifted to the left.
The right has gained because it has been able to pull together its core demographics into a dynamic force to sweep along the undecided better than the left has.
Regroupment and realignment within the socialist minority can give even small forces better political levers to begin to shift politics on the large scale.
We have fallen behind because the left has generally been in disarray. The toxic legacy of Stalinism continues to poison our movement.
From that legacy much of the left inherits a statism; a casual attitude to democracy, in society and in the left’s own organisations; a deference to leaders and lack of a critical intellectual culture; a belief that states and movements which declare themselves to be “anti-imperialist” are necessarily progressive, regardless of their actual social programme vis a vis the working class; and, all too often, a susceptibility to conspiracy theories and an antisemitism.
Developments inside the Labour Party show both the potential and the limitations. The votes for free movement, for radical policies on climate change, and for the repeal of all the anti-unions at the recent Labour conference showed the appetite at the grassroots of the party for a transformative political programme.
The brazen insistence since the conference of Labour leaders considered to be left-wing, and even with a left-wing past, that they will ignore the vote in favour of free movement, and continue to pursue an immigration policy based on work visas, highlights an ongoing democratic deficit. Likewise their refusal to promote socialistic “Green New Deal” policies voted through by the conference.
In the era of high Stalinism, it was surely misleading to regard “the left” as a single spectrum, debating sharply maybe, but within a largely shared framework. The Stalinists called themselves “left”, but were the main oppressors of the workers and of democracy in many countries, and in other countries would break strikes or foment chauvinism if Russian foreign policy required.
Despite the disappearance of the USSR, we are in a similar situation today of the term “left” being claimed by widely different or even opposing forces.
In the Labour Party today, for example, for some, the key metric is not whether you are for workers’ power, social ownership, and radical democracy – but how vigorously you defend Chris Williamson against accusations of antisemitism.
We have self-proclaimed leftists who back Brexit, or even Johnson’s or “no-deal” versions of Brexit. Or who focus their efforts on policy-adviser jobs, think-tanks, and NGOs, and inside the Labour Party put “support for the leadership” above all else. Who oppose free movement. Who give credence to, or even promote, conspiracy theories, sometimes antisemitic conspiracy theories. Who support some or all of Xi Jinping, Putin, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Assad.
There is also a “left” based on demagogy, personality-cultism, and conspiracy-theorist politics, and a left that emphasises internationalism, class struggle, and a culture of critical inquiry and democratic debate.
There are grey and blurred areas in between, and neither of the two blocs is uniform or homogenous, but the urgent job today is to cohere as much as possible of the rational, internationalist, worker-oriented left into an effective force.