Limits of Labourism

Ben Lewis reviews Labour Representation Committee's 'A people's agenda: a pamphlet for the general election 2010'* pp12, donation

The Labour Representation Committee has been stepping up its activity for the election. A campaign of the Labour left whose most prominent leader is John McDonnell MP, the LRC is unsurprisingly calling for a Labour vote across the board to ‘keep the Tories out’. However, it is simultaneously putting out its own message in the elections. In January it drew up a list of Labour candidates it deemed worthy of active support. More recently it published a short pamphlet outlining an alternative programme to that of the New Labour leadership

The LRC boasts 150 affiliated organisations, six national trade unions and around 1,000 members and the Marxist left must take it seriously. We in the CPGB will certainly be doing what we can to ensure that comrade McDonnell, together with other LRC candidates who oppose all cuts in public services and call for an immediate withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, gets elected.

Like the far left, though, the Labour left is in a profound state of organisational and theoretical disarray. The LRC certainly seems to be bending over backwards to be generous in the list of candidates it deems particularly worthy of support. However, even with the inclusion of ‘socialists’ like Michael Meacher and Diane Abbott, the LRC list amounts to a mere 23 candidates. Although there was an increase in interest in the LRC when comrade McDonnell tried to challenge for leadership of the post-Blair Labour Party, his bid was easily quashed by the bureaucracy and he did not even make it onto the ballot paper.

Encouragingly, A people’s agenda states that it is “designed to generate a debate about how we organise society - a debate that will be lacking from the party political pantomime of the election campaign” (p12). In his introduction to the pamphlet, comrade McDonnell also calls for “your ideas and responses” for “the society we want” (p2). It is in this spirit that I offer my criticisms - not just in relation to the society we want, but the organisational vehicle we must forge to get there. Indeed, the left’s current malaise makes an honest and sharp debate about strategy and perspectives more urgent than ever.

A populist agenda?

The rather short pamphlet consists of a brief commentary on different policy areas that the LRC has highlighted in order to offer an alternative to the “prescription” of “the three major parties”: “cuts to your local services and to your pay - and quite possibly to your job too” (p2). The headings of the various sections - ‘An economy in whose interests?’; ‘Public services, not private profit’; ‘Care’; ‘The world of work’; ‘Politics for all’; ‘Treasuring our environment’; ‘Peace’; and ‘Freedom for all’ - give a good indication of the LRC’s remedies: ie, fairly standard left Labourite fare.

The main thread running through the pamphlet is the theme of ‘us and them’. The front cover shows a banner reading “We won’t pay for their crisis’ in front of Big Ben, and throughout the text the attacks on our pay, jobs, conditions and services are contrasted to the profits of the banks and big corporations.

However, in the absence of any commentary on the dynamics of the capitalist system and its ripeness for a higher form of society, the pamphlet risks falling into the trap of left populism. Thus many supportable demands - free, secular education, nationalisation of the banking sector, a massive council house-building programme, repeal of the trade union laws, decriminalisation of drugs, etc - sit alongside platitudinal statements, beginning “we need”. We need “a decent standard of living” (p8), an (unspecified) “living wage” and “a society which guarantees meaningful employment for everyone”, where “everyone participates and feels like they have a voice” (p9).

This populism is also evidenced in the discussion of the crisis, which is blamed not on the destructive capitalist system of reproduction itself, but the “global financial institutions and the subservient governments that deregulated the world over” (p3). The reader is reminded: “You didn’t cause this recession, you didn’t fail to build enough housing for the past 30 years, you haven’t cut taxes for the wealthiest and increased inequality” (p2).

Maybe the economic crisis might have been averted if the UK government had not “operated predominantly in the interests of global capital” by “liberalising markets, deregulating and privatising” (p3), or if it had made “big business pay their fair share” (my emphasis, p4). However, just how any British government operating as part of the current global order and subservient to the US imperial hegemon could have invested “not in speculation, but in the goods and infrastructure our society needs” is not dealt with.

Instead, we are offered catch-all statements like “The economy we want cannot be detached from the society we want. The only way to deliver social justice is through an economy driven by delivering for people, not for profit” (p3). Neither capitalism as a system (let alone its declining laws and the conscious turn to finance capital in the 1970s) nor the socialist alternative (or the means to achieve it) is specifically named.

In the absence of this, the pamphlet appears to suggest that the alternative lies in the good old days of the social democratic consensus, welfarism and a “Real Labour Government” managing British capitalism to “deliver the changes we need for our society” (p2).

‘Real Labour’

All of the demands in the pamphlet could technically be achieved by a left Labour government at the helm of the British monarchical democracy. But can we really hold up the Attlee government of 1945 as an example of ‘socialism’?

Indeed, this is the very most that social democracy was able to achieve: state capitalist management of the economy from on high: welfarism to limit and regulate the capitalist law of value. All this was done not as a way overcoming that law, but of upholding it.

Moreover, if that is the perspective of the LRC, then it seems to be stuck in a Keynesian time warp These are not the halcyon days of the 1950s, when it was strategically necessary for the capitalist classes of Europe to adopt the social democratic consensus, when the state negatively anticipated some of the measures that would be taken in socialist society in order to fend off the influence of ‘socialism’ in the USSR and its satellites. Although the state still plays an enormous role (and has continued to do despite Thatcher) in propping up capitalist pseudo-markets, this era is over. There can be no going back.

We are now going through a period in which the capitalist class is gearing up for an enormous attack on the remaining vestiges of the economic and political gains made by our class in the last century. We are in for a long period of stagnation, if not slump. So a more likely scenario than the LRC’s “Real Labour Government” à la Clement Attlee is an administration resembling the national government of 1931-35, when Labour’s Ramsay McDonald, in alliance with Conservatives and Liberals, joined forces to defend their system against the working class.

This underlines a more general point. At a time when the perversion of capitalist accumulation and expansion for expansion’s sake stands exposed, the left should not be harking back to a time when it could hope to administer capitalism more ‘fairly’. We should be patiently arguing for a solid alternative vision of society, where democracy flourishes and the prerogatives of the market are consigned to the dustbin of history. Such a vision requires a radical democratic programme acting as a dynamic road map to achieve it.

This is the pamphlet’s main shortcoming. Whilst making the correct observation that “democracy should mean more than signing away your vote every four or five years” (p9), there are no concrete demands to address this deficit at all, such as the age-old Chartist demand of annual elections, or the call for MPs to be instantly recallable and receive only the average skilled workers’ wage. There is some stress on local democracy, but again this is restricted to sound bites: everyone “should feel a sense of ownership about the decisions made in our workplaces, in our communities and in our nation” (p9). The absence of high politics really underlines the narrow vision being outlined. Can we talk of socialism coming into existence through the existing state machinery of the British military-bureaucratic apparatus - the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the monarchy, MI5/MI6, the standing army, etc? To ask the question is to answer it.

Internationalism and peace

The LRC has quite a good record in terms of international solidarity campaigns, having played a positive role in campaigns like the Iraq Occupation Focus and Hands Off the People of Iran. This is reflected in some of the very good demands in this pamphlet - the immediate withdrawal of occupying troops from Afghanistan, reparations to both Iraq and Afghanistan (a demand I think the workers’ movement should take more seriously than looking to jail Tony Blair) and the scrapping of Trident.

The main flaw in the ‘peace’ section is that it does not mention imperialism as a phenomenon necessitating war, sanctions and aggression. So, while it is quite correct to comment that “Our society should not be launching wars of aggression” (p10), this appears to overlook the fact that there is something intrinsic to “our society” and the way it is organised which is inexorably bound up with wars of aggression: the hierarchy of states, or imperialism.

This is why it is dangerous to talk of promoting a “foreign policy based on human rights, cooperation and justice” (p10) without breaking from the imperatives of the system. Maybe the LRC comrades think that a “Real Labour Government” would be able to do this. History begs to differ though. Every Labour government, even in the heady times of the late 1940s, loyally served British imperialist interests.

The European Union is only once fleetingly mentioned, and here only in relation to immigration legislation that enables foreign workers to be paid less for doing the same work (p8). But Europe as an issue needing more serious discussion - what should we say about the EU parliament, the commission, etc? Is it really possible to conceive of road to socialism within Britain alone? The absence of a call to scrap all immigration controls - a precondition of effective class unity - is also disappointing.

Overcoming Labourism

All in all, while A people’s agenda leaves a lot to be desired, it contains numerous demands which intersect with ours, and clearly it is in the interests of our movement to engage with the LRC campaign and urge a critical vote for those Labour candidates who meet our conditions on cuts and Afghanistan. But the pamphlet lacks any viable vision of working class rule and socialism. There again, given that it is written by left Labourites, this is hardly surprising.

What is surprising is that purported ‘Marxists’ and ‘revolutionaries’ ape these utopian perspectives, seeing it almost as their god-given duty to stand on variants of these politics. The platforms of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are almost identical in their outlook: a standard shopping list of economic demands that vary in their radicalism, but next to nothing on what has traditionally been a hallmark of orthodox Marxist programmes - a set of demands that challenge how we as a class are ruled, both in the workplace and community and at the level of the state apparatus.

Worse, our forlorn ‘Marxist’ comrades in Tusc labour (pun intended) under the same illusions as the LRC that it is possible to establish a ‘real’ or old Labour Party capable of serving working class interests. Even if the Tusc campaign for a Labour Party mark two stood a chance of getting anywhere (it does not precisely because the actual Labour Party still exists - and could even swing far to the left after a period of opposition), then it will end up going exactly the same way as the Labour Party of the 20th century. Unless you begin with a programmatic commitment to overcoming capitalism, as opposed to managing it, you will set off along the long and winding road which culminated in the party of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown.

Our task is to overcome Labourism through joint work and patient argument aimed at programmatic unity within a party of Marxism (and in my experience the LRC has been a slightly more responsive environment than projects like Respect). We should not sow illusions in Labourite perspectives, but make clear that it is a project which reduces the working class programme to demands for a ‘fairer’ share under a capitalism presided over by her majesty’s imperial Labour government. The ‘clause four socialism’ of old Labour was always a mere sound bite aimed at keeping in check a British working class inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The ruins of the Socialist Alliance and Respect highlight the folly of Marxists pretending to be Labourites. Tusc will go the same way. It has to. The left has to live up to the enormity of the tasks ahead, get its act together and offer a viable, qualitatively different, programmatic alternative for our class.

This is the debate we need. And we need it now.

* LRC pamphlet available here: l-r-c.org.uk/news/story/lrc-launches-a-peoples-agenda