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Death of Socialism

Martin Kettle

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A hundred years ago, John Locke's position at the head of a still vibrant British liberal tradition seemed utterly secure. Since then, the liberal tradition has declined, faltered, and has even seemed to have spent itself. For much of the 20th century, socialism appeared to be the philosophy and programme of the future, a stronger weapon to achieve wider social justice. In those circumstances, Locke inevitably appeared a more distant and less relevant figure. More radical and obscure 17th-century icons, like the Digger Gerrard Winstanley and the Leveller Thomas Rainborough, seemed to have more to say to our times.

But socialism has failed. Even the era of the labour movement is passing inexorably away. We inhabit a world that has passed through the industrial socialist era and is emerging on the other side of it, dazed, disorientated and in search of new and more relevant signposts towards modern social justice and liberty. Capitalism has won the economic battle, albeit in a form that no 19th-century capitalist would easily recognise. Socialism has become a religion not a programme. And liberalism, which to socialists seemed for so long to be merely temporising and cowardly, has outlasted socialism.

Which is why, in turn, it is time to return to Locke and the tradition at whose head he still stands. Liberalism without social justice is not a political programme in the democratic age. But nor, we should have learned from the 20th-century experience, is social justice without liberalism. The things that Locke thought were important - government by consent, the parliamentary system, civil liberty, freedom of thought and religion, the rights of minorities, an education that is more than functional, the rule of law - have never seemed more modern than they do today. Disregard for these principles has marked every instance of the failed socialist experiment. And it is also perhaps the most lasting - and least excusable - of all New Labour's failings too. To the politics of the future, as of so much else, Locke still holds the key.


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  • 4 weeks later...

The spectacle of a Labour prime minister becoming the water-carrier, mouthpiece, bed-fellow and intimate of the most rightwing president of the United States in the last half-century is hard to believe: indeed, five years ago it would have been unbelievable. Harold Wilson, to his great credit, resisted the deployment of British troops in Vietnam during the height of the cold war when the west was the west and the enemy was manifest. Blair has kept in step with the United States in a quite different context, namely the unilateralist turn in American foreign policy and the rupture of the west as we know it. Even more bizarrely, he is still in situ; worse, there has been no major challenge to his position from within his own party.

Of course, the idea of Blair exploring the outer limits of his Labour belonging - and beyond - is hardly new. It has been his stock-in-trade ever since his election as Labour leader. "Think the unthinkable" was the message - though it never amounted to more than entertaining what previously would have been regarded as too rightwing. Neoliberalism became the new commonsense, privatisation was embraced with ardour, the notion of equality banished from the lexicon. This is all familiar territory. Yet we need to be reminded of it because, by any pre-97 yardstick, it is extraordinary. Apart from a very limited attachment to the state, this prime minister, by that old yardstick, does not belong to the left; he lies to the right of every Tory prime minister since the war bar, of course, his political lodestar, Mrs Thatcher.

Yet notwithstanding all this, his position has never come under the vaguest threat from within his own party. Any previous Labour leader would have found himself isolated, beleaguered and probably banished. But not Tony Blair. Why? In 1994 the party turned to him, an outsider, an alien even, because it was desperate after 15 years in the wilderness. And it remains grateful for the fact that he has given the party two thumping election victories. But electoral gratitude is not the main factor. The underlying reason is that there is no serious, ideologically based opposition to Blair within the party. The left - in the broadest sense (most certainly including the likes of Roy Hattersley and Denis Healey) - has disintegrated. There is Gordon Brown, of course, but it has always been monstrously difficult to tell him and Blair politically apart: hence a conflict invariably described in terms of personalities.

The reason for the collapse of the left could not be clearer - or more fundamental. Its parameters, its confidence, its mode of organisation, its narrative, its very being, depended on the existence of the labour movement. And it is the latter that has effectively disappeared. The trade unions are a shrunken and wizened version of what they were, pushed to the perimeters of political life, while the party itself has, in its New Labour guise, been reconstituted, such that in style, funding and apparat, it looks much like what a modernised Tory party might be. Labour has been shorn of its roots and meaning.

The collapse of the labour movement is not just a British phenomenon, but one shared with much of Europe. There are two underlying reasons for its demise. The first is the loss of agency, the decline of the industrial working class and its consequent erosion as a meaningful and effective political force. It was the working class - in terms of workplace, community, unions and party - that invented and gave expression to the labour movement. The second reason is the collapse of communism. Of course, the mainstream labour movement in this country never subscribed to its tenets, but both the social democratic and communist traditions shared, in different ways, the vision of a better society based on collectivist principles. It is that vision that was buried with the interment of communism. For over a century, European politics was defined by the struggle between capitalism and socialism: suddenly, capitalism became the only show in town, both in Europe and globally. The result was the rapid deconstruction of the left such that it now exists as but a rump of its former self - not just in Britain, or Europe, but everywhere.

There is also a specifically European dimension. Europe was the intellectual and political birthplace of socialism. It was the home of the modern labour movement. And it was from Europe that the idea was exported - to the US, Russia, China, Latin America and around the globe. The worldwide socialist project was a product of the expansiveness and self-confidence of Europe. But the latter has turned into the opposite.

Europe itself is a declining continent, squeezed between the overweening power and influence of the US and the irresistible rise of east Asia. The latter, in their different ways, embrace very distinct values, cultures, histories and institutions from those of Europe. The global contraction of European influence has served to accelerate and deepen the crisis and confusion of the left.

And yet, when all is said and done, there is something profoundly paradoxical about this story. The left may have been marginalised - but the imperatives that gave rise to it and which it sought to address are now more glaring and insistent than at any time since the second world war. Inequality, at both a global and national level, has been steadily increasing, an integral product of the neoliberal model of globalisation that has dominated the world order over the last quarter-century. And the consequences of this inequality have played a crucial role in helping to shape the present phase of global politics, namely Arab Muslim grievance, terrorism and American unilateralism.

And then there is the other imperative - imperialism. It is ironic that a term, a concept, nay a phenomenon, so deeply associated with the left, should have returned with such a vengeance - in its most naked form since the collapse of the European empires - so soon after the demise of the left and when so many New Labour-style witchdoctors were declaring the old to be dead and history to be bunk. Welcome to empire and colonialism: history is back in town. And to think of those left-inclined writers, whose names we are familiar with, that rushed to bury the last remnants of their own history, by declaring the US to be a force for good in the world, the saviour of the developing world. In their rush to dance on the grave of the left they have dug their hole on manifestly the wrong side of history.

The left, as history knew it, will not be reborn. But one can be sure that its concerns will find expression in new forms, albeit in a world where Europe counts for far less and ethnicity for far more. It is not, after all, as if the world has somehow got better since 1989 - or 1997, for that matter. On the contrary, a new kind of barbarism is now afoot in the world and one fears the consequences. The optimism of the postwar decades seems like a bygone age. If the left is dead, the concerns that gave rise to it are as powerful and urgent as ever.


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The spectacle of a Labour prime minister becoming the water-carrier, mouthpiece, bed-fellow and intimate of the most rightwing president of the United States in the last half-century is hard to believe: indeed, five years ago it would have been unbelievable.

Hard to believe only if one has a blind spot to the well documented betrayals of all previous Labour Prime Ministers.... actually no more "challenging" than having to read the contorted and highly amusing mental gymnastics of a former "communist" (Ha!) banging on about family values.

The spectacle of the appalling Jacques now bemoaning a lack of ideological coherence or commitment from the grass roots of the Labour Party in the obsfucatory language of a born again (if slightly confused) "nay" totally confused post modernist is really too much to stomach.

I believe Martin Jacques is a very short step away from being the very worst kind of reactionary.

Any one with any sense and indeed any sense of history knew what Mr Blair was before he revealed it so crassly on the world stage.

The "unthinkable" for the likes of Jacques and his ilk is the plain truth that the Labour Movement has never been a progressive force in British society.

Deep down I believe that he and the bourgeios coterie he represents is rather pleased and comforted that this is the case.

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