In Defence of Radical Politics

Politics is in my blood. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the political process in general and working-class politics in particular. The fundamental challenge raised by the founders of the Labour movement in the 19th Century remains as vital today as it was then – how to combine working-class representation with a programme that is unambiguously directed to the creation of a post-capitalist economy.

The extraordinary achievement of those pioneers was to construct an intellectual and organisational framework for socialism through the trade union movement and a mass political party. But parliamentary representation was never the ultimate objective. Labour governments could provide significant evidence of progress but they served as nothing more than weigh-stations towards the complete transformation of industrial society and an end to capitalism. Economic power had to rest directly and irreversibly with working people through the common ownership of land and the means of production. All necessary work would be evenly shared, liberating time for individual and social creativity that was the essence of the human spirit.

By those standards, the experience of 20th Century and early 21st Century politics has been an abject failure. Democracy has been swamped by a rapacious, globalised capitalism run by a corporate elite that dominates Western political and economic institutions. The social-democratic contract that claimed to balance capitalist accumulation with improvements to the lives of working people has been exposed as a sham. Neo-liberal capitalist ideology rules supreme, while the fabric of the welfare state and workers’ rights has been systematically ripped to shreds.

The sum of political ambition should not be to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalist exploitation. Instead, that original vision on how to transform working-class lives beyond the narrow confines of representative politics has to be re-asserted and directed to the fundamental challenges of the 21st Century – the massive economic and social inequalities between rich and poor, and the global, environmental catastrophe caused by capitalist forms of production.

I was brought up in Hull in the 1960’s. My home was on a newly-built council estate on the outskirts of the city where support for Labour was fierce and tribal. (If you see a Tory, kick it.) Both my parents were Labour supporters and my dad was a docker and a strong trade unionist. By an early age I remember being completely comfortable with the broad argument that Labour advanced workers’ interests and that the Conservatives protected the power of the wealthy and privileged few. I was never quite sure how the Liberals fitted in other than as a slightly less offensive version of conservatism.

Although my dad was a very shy man, I saw real anger and passion when he talked about casual labour on the docks and the need for nationalisation to secure employment rights. Here, loyalty to Labour was tempered by bitterness at the poor representation provided through the official trade union, the TGWU. He supported the unofficial shop-stewards committee, part of a national shop-stewards movement, that was prepared to challenge the bosses for better wages and conditions through strikes and other forms of industrial action.

I also began to understand the strong anti-trade union bias of the media and the attempts to demonise working people who stood up for their rights. In the early 1970s, the dockers were carrying out various forms of industrial action to bring private wharves into the national dock labour scheme. After one of their pickets, the Daily Express printed a large photo under the banner headline, ‘Face of the Mob’. Certainly, there was anger and fist-waving aimed at the police but what the report omitted was that the dockers were penned in and pushed back on a hill with a steep drop. I knew that because the ‘mob’ included some of my dad’s mates, good people who were being prevented from carrying out a peaceful picket.

By the time I went to university in the mid-1970s, I had a broadly socialist perspective but with no strong party affiliation. In the context of national elections, voting for Labour was a necessary but hardly sufficient condition if radical political objectives were to be achieved. Parliamentary labourism always represented an uneasy compromise between a social-democratic wing working to a reformist agenda and a socialist wing that looked to the broader Labour movement as the driver of a radical programme based on industrial democracy and disarmament.

That tension can be traced back through Labour’s parliamentary history as the number of its MPs grew over successive elections in the early 20th Century, to the time where it could form a government in 1924, albeit a minority one under the leadership of Ramsay Macdonald. In office for less than a year, his administration did manage to carry out some limited reforms but was at pains to re-assure the political establishment that, far from being the vanguard of a socialist radicalism that might lead to a Soviet-style revolution, Labour would act in what was described as the national interest.

By the time of the first majority Labour government in 1929, it became very clear what Macdonald meant by the national interest, as the country faced an economic crisis caused by the world-wide depression after the Wall Street Crash, leading to a slump in production and mass unemployment. The Labour leadership accepted the Treasury orthordoxy of reduced public expenditure, including deep cuts to welfare payments, as the means of balancing the books, despite strong opposition that further cuts would simply make the economic situation worse.

An early form of Keynesian economics had already laid the foundations for a an alternative strategy through increased public expenditure to stimulate demand and private investment, boosting the overall level of economic activity. However, the threat of devaluation and loss of the currency’s international status proved more powerful to the leadership than the fate of millions of working people living in poverty.

A brutal cost was extracted for this failure, when Macdonald and other Labour leaders split the party to form a national government, effectively dominated by the Conservatives. The 1931 election saw Labour decisively beaten by national government candidates leaving it seriously weakened. The Party was still successful at the local, municipal level with councils using their own, admittedly limited powers, to carry out improvements such as slum clearences and house building. But for many working people, the over-riding emotion during the 1930s was one of betrayal felt against the national leadership and a sense of abandonment by many working-class communities.

This is why the legacy of the Attlee administration continues to be so important to the Labour movement as a radical break with pre-war politics and evidence of the transformative potential of Parliamentary government. Faced with the aftermath of a devastating war following its decisive victory in 1945, it managed the extraordinary achievement of demobilising millions of men and women from the armed forces, as well as the transition from arms manufacture to civilian production in a post-war economy that effectively provided full employment. Despite severe budgetary and debt constraints, it was also prepared to use government expenditure on social priorities, including the establishment of the NHS, free at the point of use, and a national council housing programme, both of which brought clear and material benefit to millions of working people.

But the momentum for radical change was dissipated as the leadership mapped out its direction for economic and industrial policy. Certainly, through nationalisation, the government provided much-needed investment to modernise whole sectors of the economy including mining, the railways and aerospace. However, instead of nationalisation being seen as the vanguard for democratic control of industry, power was centralised around management bureaucracies many of whom had held senior positions prior to nationalisation.

The Attlee government also began the process of re-armament in support of the United States’ invasion of Korea at the beginning of the Cold War. Essentially, the UK became a US military subsidiary, ‘America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic’. Military expenditure increased, diverting billions of pounds from productive areas of civil R&D and manufacturing, while welfare spending was cut and charges introduced for NHS prescriptions.

By the 1960s, the pattern of parliamentary labourism was well established. Under Wilson, the rhetoric of radical change, reflected in terms like the ‘white heat of technology’ to transform an aging manufacturing base, was never matched by the reality, as the government focused on wage restraint rather than improved productivity through investment. And, despite a manifesto commitment to cancel Polaris, the first-generation ballistic-missile submarine programme, Labour continued both nuclear and conventional re-armament in line with its support to the United States.

For me, as a politically active young person during the 1970s, there seemed to be an exciting intellectual dynamism in the movement and a sense that concrete, tangible progress could be made through a combination of political organisation, education and agitation in a way that the Parliamentary party would find hard to ignore. Trade union activists were leading campaigns like the Clyde sit-in to challenge redundancies, while the Lucas shop stewards put forward a detailed plan for socially-useful work when faced with cutbacks to military contracts.

To some extent that radicalism was reflected in the second Wilson government, during the mid-1970s, with its commitment to nationalisation and serious consideration of industrial democracy, or at least worker representation at board level. My belief was that the Labour left’s intellectual framework, analysis and debate could provide the momentum for radical change around issues like workers control, withdrawal from NATO and nuclear disarmament. Certainly, I contrasted this with my experience of University politics and various left groupings embroiled in byzantine ideological disputes with little relevance to working people, and that only led to bitter secterian splits taking on an interminable life of their own.

With the benefit of hindsight, such an analysis may look naive but it was far from clear that the demise of Labour radicalism would play out in the way it did. The key period was after the 1979 election defeat, blamed on the trade unions for the ‘winter of discontent’, followed by the confrontation between the main wings of the party that led to the split by leading social democrats. Labour was hopelessly divided and faced inevitable defeat in the 1983 election.

Since then, the over-riding objective of a new generation of parliamentary Labour leaders has been to carry out what, until recent events, was a remorseless elimination, both intellectually and organisationally, of any semblance of radical politics within the party. The diagnosis is well-known, that class identity no longer provided the bedrock for political affiliation because of the collapse of manufacturing employment, and that only by appealing to the centre-ground could Labour form a government. This reached its zenith during the New Labour regime, from the time Tony Blair became leader in 1994 to the Blair/Brown premierships between 1997 and 2010.

For all the rhetoric of a radical centre and a ‘Third Way’ of providing public services through partnerships with business and through social enterprises, the reality was a form of creeping privatisation, a distancing from the trade unions, and an even closer attachment to an aggressively militarist United States under the neo-conservative leadership of George Bush, symbolised by Tony Blair’s criminal role in the invasion of Iraq.

On a personal level, I came to the conclusion by the late 1990s that the scale of the Blairite regime’s deconstruction of Labour made any left agenda simply unattainable through the party. I joined the Greens where a broad political programme including nuclear disarmament, support for co-operatives and renewable energy reflected priorities that had either been disowned or marginalised by New Labour. The liberal perspective of many Greens and the lack of an ideological bedrock in working-class politics were obvious problems, but such reservations were outweighed by the need to be in a party that clearly had a left perspective and one willing to challenge the neo-liberal orthordoxy, in which New Labour was hardly distinguishable from the Conservatives.

The crisis of 2007-08, when many of the largest global financial institutions came close to bankruptcy after a grotesque orgy of speculative trading, represents a sea-change in politics. Only massive government intervention, both directly in the bank bail-outs and indirectly, through quantatative easing to maintain liquidity, saved the economy from a 1930s-type depression. But the subequent recession and low-growth recovery have been used for a comprehensive, neo-liberal onslaught on what remains of the social-democratic contract, including further erosion of trade union rights, reduced public expenditure for government services and welfare, and accelerated privatisation.

All this has been done, of course, in the name of austerity to restore the public finances after accumulating debt through the crisis period. In effect, governments enhanced the asset value of the capitalist elite while punishing the working classes through stagnating wages and declining public services. The legacy of New Labour was to legitimise austerity politics and undermine the attempts by trade unions to campaign against privatisation and the decimation of local government services, affecting some of the most vulnerable members of the community. Here, the role of both Labour and Green local government councillors was especially disheartening. In effect, while nominally opposing cuts, they were instrumental in carrying them out rather than leading the campaign to fight them. I resigned from the Greens in protest at the inaction of my local Green councillors as the cuts budgets were implemented from 2010 onwards.

But the need for working-class politics has never been more important in my lifetime. The crisis of 2007-08 was significant precisely because it created both an extra-parliamentary and a global opposition movement. For the first time in generations, the focus was on the fundamentals of class relationships that lay at the heart of capitalism. Through the Occupy Movement spreading, initially across the United States and into Europe, millions of people came together to challenge the legitimacy of a system that had extended and accelerated the accumulation of wealth and power by a corporate elite at the expense of ordinary working people.

Although the contemporary movement is more diverse, including a range of interest groups around environmental issues, community housing and welfare rights, there has not been such an overtly radical agenda since the emergence of the original mass movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This very diversity and the reluctance to be channelled into a party political programme gave Occupy its strength to embrace new ideas and concepts of political activity around democratic participation, But it also exposed serious weaknesses, as the difficulties of maintaining momentum without clear and tangible gains led to the gradual dissipation of energy and a loss of direction.

However, the legacy of Occupy should be acknowledged, both through its practical applications and its broader influence on left politics. Many grass-roots actions stemmed from the experience of direct democracy, such as volunteer support in New York and New Jersey for communities affected by flooding after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the Spanish anti-eviction campaign, Plataforma de Affectados, which spread across the country using civil disobediance and direct action to prevent thousands of families from being evicted.

Those radical energies have also been directed to the growth of anti-austerity parties such as Syriza in Greece, Front de Gauche in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain, all of which have fundamentally challenged social-democratic orthordoxy. The most successful in electoral terms has been Syriza. In the space of a few years it effectively replaced Pasok, the traditional centre-left party, and formed a government in 2015 winning 36% of the vote in the general election. The commitment to renegotiate the crippling debt repayment regime was endorsed by a referendum later in the year with over 60% support.

Despite a clear democratic mandate, the Syriza leadership, when faced with the threat that future loan facilities would be withdrawn by the troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, simply caved in The inevitable outcome was a new series of austerity measures that further punished the working classes through reduced pensions, cuts to funding for public services and privatisation. The economic outlook is little short of appalling, reflected in the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of young and well-educated people who should be making a positive contribution to Greek society but have now become part of the European diaspora.

In the UK and the United States that power struggle has been played out internally through the Labour Party and the Democratic Party respectively. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to re-align their parties around social justice and anti-austerity policies, drawing on the sheer energy and enthusiasm that emerged from the Occupy movement. Sanders, after an extraordinary campaign based on grass-roots support and funding, ultimately failed to gain the nomination but challenged the establishment consensus in a way that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.

After the failure of Labour to win the 2015 election under Ed Miliband’s leadership, with its half-hearted attempt to project a radical vision while proclaiming Labour’s continued support for fiscal orthordoxy over limits to public spending, the party faced another grim episode of retrenchment by a social-democratic leadership instructing its supporters on how to win elections from the centre. But because of the vagaries of the leadership election process that allowed Jeremy Corbyn to scrape in with the nomination of just thirty five MPs, some of whom made it very clear that they did not even support his canditature but felt the left should be nominally represented, a whole avalanche of discontent against New Labour was unleashed.

For the mass of ordinary members, and those encouraged to participate as supporters with voting rights, the virtual extinguising of a radical alternative by the Labour elite was intolerable in the face of the crisis facing working class communities. Corbyn’s was an authentic alternative voice that represented how they felt about issues like austerity, privatisation and disarmament. In effect, the Labour movement was attempting to take back the power, through the leadership campaign, that had been lost during the Blairite years with the neutering of party constituencies and conferences, as well as the fracturing of the relationship with the trade unions.

Even though he won a clear majority, the social democratic MPs in the Parliamentary party simply refused to accept the legitimacy of the result. And it has to be said, with good reason. Corbyn and the rump of the left MPs from the 1980s like Diane Abbott and John McDonnell held a symbolic and paradoxical role. They provided some reassurance to the Labour movement that its concerns were being represented, despite the direction of travel ever further to the centre-right by New Labour. At the same time, their continued presence was exploited by the Labour leadership to demonstrate how marginalised their views were and how the ‘hard left’, or the ‘Bennite left’, or whatever dismissive terminology suited, could be stigmatised as the last vestiges of a discredited extremism that had no place in the party.

By definition then, a Corbyn leadership was intolerable to the Parliamentary party and could only be interpreted as electoral suicide, when the over-riding objective had been to deconstruct Labour as a radical alternative. Grounds, however spurious, had to be found for his removal. Firstly, they hoped a vote of no-confidence by a majority of Labour MPs could trigger his resignation but when that failed, a direct challenge was made by Owen Smith, nominated as the anti-Corbyn candidate. All of this had become very personalised but the fundamental issue is still an ideological one. The social democrats see the Corbyn leadership as the re-establishment of a form of left politics that can only lead to a terrible defeat at the next general election, while Corbyn supporters see him as the symbol, or even for some, the embodiment of a radical renaissance.

Labour is a civil war masquerading as a political party and it can never heal these irreconcilable differences. What the outcome will be is as yet unclear. Corbyn’s victory could see wholesale resignations by MPs, or a social-democratic grouping within the party to set out an alternative agenda to the Corbyn leadership. In turn, this may lead to a grim process of deselections as constituency parties attempt to replace rebel MPs. However it maps out, the party cannot be seen as anything but hopelessly divided, probably on a larger scale than in the early 1980s.

Even assuming a successful consolidation of the Corbyn leadership up to the next general election, there will be a period of extraordinarly painful conflict and futile efforts to superimpose a diluted radicalism onto the shell of a social-democratic party structure – a shatteringly disappointing end to a thoroughly dispiriting process.

Instead, as across Europe, there is the need for a new party of the left, combining the traditional strengths of Labour with the new politics of participatory democracy and embracing a range of social movements. Many activists, both those who have a long-standing alliegiance to the Labour Party and newer members energised by the Corbyn agenda, will see this as a form of treachery, abandoning the best hope for many years of working-class political representation and even government.

It has to be acknowledged that breaking out of the self-imposed shackles of the Labour Party in order to win power represents as great, if not a greater challenge, than the one facing the Labour movement in the early 20th century. Unlike the conditions then of a mass trade unionism that was the bedrock for political mobilisation and affiliation, the new politics will have to bring together both organised labour and workers without any trade union representation in the precarious world of zero-hour contracts and self-employment; as well as attract left-wing members of other parties like the Greens and the SNP, and the many millions of working people who have become so alienated from politics that they simply don’t vote.

Any truly radical party will face an ideological onslaught from the capitalist establishment, institutionally entrenched at the highest levels of politics and the media. But perhaps the greatest obstacle is the poisonous legacy of social democratic revisionism and the attempts from within the Labour Party to expunge radicalism as anything other than an aberration from a respectable trajectory to Parliamentay representation and centre-ground politics – a centre that with every realignment further reveals itself as an agressively ideological capitalism implacably ranged against working-class interests. A symptom of this internal malaise is how even the Corbyn leadership projects left politics as simply ‘common sense’ and ‘practical’ rather than having any ideological framework, in a vain attempt to make it palatable to social democrats and to a hostile mass media.

A radical agenda is not the rantings of the ‘hard left’, but the voice of the authentic left that can trace its roots back to the Levellers in the 17th Century, the Chartists in the 19th Century and onto the trade unions socialists and syndicalists of the 20th Century. This is a confident left, where its political representatives are in tune with the broader movement, where there is active engagement between grass-roots campaigning and parliamentary politics, and where the bastions of received opinion are challenged both through the traditional media but also by utilising a range of alternatives receptive to radical politics.

In essence, this party will be rebuilding a world-view that was second-nature to past generations, steeped as they were, in a culture of working-class radicalism. They would have witnessed the latest crisis as further evidence that capitalism as a system, only survives by further extracting the surplus value of labour through profit, and they would have looked at the legacy of social democracy as, at best marginal and fragile, and at worst, by embracing much of the neo-liberal economic agenda, a capitulation to the power of capital.

Finally, they would have been disgusted by the behaviour of the New Labour elite who used their status as senior politicians, only gained through the support of the labour movement, to secure lucrative directorships and consultancies with the very corporations that have benefited from privatisations decimating public services and eroding workers’ pay and conditions. At the very least, they would have expected their political representatives to reflect the ideals and values of the broader labour movement.

There has never been a better time for organising around a new radical programme. Over recent years, grass-roots initiatives such as community renewable energy projects, co-operative housing schemes and local food networks have provided signposts, albeit on a small scale, of how the economy might break free from the tethers of capitalism.

On a theoretical level, recent work has focused on the new phase of capitalist development and on key issues like automation and the distribution of work, as well as the accelerated exploitation of non-renewable resources by global corporations leading to potentially irreversible climate change and environmental breakdown. How can we develop a social wage to reconcile new technologies with the loss of traditional work, or how can we achieve a no-growth economy with zero-carbon emissions that restores the integrity of planetary eco-systems and diversity of life while still providing a material base that benefits all working people?

Campaigns like the Green New Deal and the Just Transition movement have brought together trade unions and environmental groups in support of just such radical programmes. But the challenge is to embrace the very diversity of these ideas and approaches in a way that can mobilise mass support for radical politics and create a common ground based on a strong ideological vision of a post-capitalist society. This can only be achieved through a vigorous but also generous debate on political and economic priorities, such as on the balance between parliamentary representation and extra-parliamentary action. A vibrant and confident political movement with a strong ideological base and sense of purpose can achieve precisely that.

Some core elements are clear in the short-term such as public ownership of major utilities and the railways, the reversal of privatisation in the NHS and local government, accelerated  council house building and renewable energy programmes, and nuclear and conventional disarmament. However, individual policy areas should only be seen as part of a medium to long-term strategy for a fundamental redistribution of power to working people through devolution and economic democracy leading to a post-capitalist society.

For example, the democratic consensus might be to create a decentralised energy infrastructure based on renewable energy and community ownership. By having increased control over the means of production, working people will be able directly to assess the merits of any economic activity, weighing all issues including employment and environmental factors. If the balance of the argument is that quality of life considerations lead to the rejection of a particular form of production, this can done in the knowledge that public investement is taking place across a range of socially-useful activities and that necessary work is being equally shared. The traditional threat of unemployment without destructive and wasteful capitalist development will be consigned to history where it belongs.

If parliamentary endorsement is still required, working people can be confident that their representatives will honour their decisions rather than sell out to the interests of corporate power. But they will be equally comfortable with the idea that, at some stage, when a post-capitalist economy is achieved, any useful role for parliamentary representation will have been served and democratic politics can move to its next phase of development.

My own interpretation of the legacy of the radical left has remained the same throughout my lifetime, that it is impossible for working people to realise their own creative capabilities without removing the shackles of capitalist exploitation. Fundamentally, post-capitalism isn’t about a form of economic rationality but human creativity. The utopia of shared work and the emancipation of time to realise the full potential of every human being is worth any amount of struggle in the face of grotesque inequalities and environmental breakdown that could, if we let the capitalist elite prevail, lead to the destruction of all life on the planet.

Steven Schofield

October 2016