Saturday, June 02, 2007

Towards A Socialist Perspective (Part 3)

What Is Now To Be Done?

In Parts 1 and 2, I attempted to analyse the significance for democratic socialists of the impact of technological change across the world and inside Britain. I also indicated that there are three possible socialist responses based on a deep seated pessimism, which we should try to avoid. These are (a) a surrender to New Labourism, (b) a fight directed at the overthrow of western imperialism which associates itself (however loosely) with various new forms of fascism who have set their face against what they see as the great Satan and (c) a retreat into apathy or into isolated single issue campaigns.

Although I am not a wild-eyed optimist, I feel that socialists should align themselves with those who seek to further democratic freedoms and display socialist values of mutual help and assistance. To me, this involves a recognition that the world is highly complex and that in particular situations there will be a need to seek to overcome the powers and influences of new forms of fascism, whilst at the same time tackling the impacts of modern capitalism and imperialism. In conflict situations where, say, fascism and imperialism face each other and we can't meaningfully tackle both at once, then we may be called upon to make difficult choices. Yet we will have plenty of insights from the past. George Orwell, for instance, faced up to both totalitarianism and imperialism.

What follows can not be logically watertight conclusions drawn from my analysis, for that would turn my whole work into some lengthy tautology. My suggestions which follow are I feel consistent with my arguments - although some may feel that whilst they are consistent they are not convincing.

Ten Suggestions - Not Ten Commandments

1. Socialism and Democracy

For democratic socialists, the commitments to the concepts of democracy and socialism only make sense if they are intertwined and reinforce each other. Democratic provisions in which everyone shares in decision-making, are both a means of building socialism and are part and parcel of the form of socialism we seek to establish.

We can, of course, be placed into circumstances where even elementary democratic arrangements are absent, as in totalitarian societies. Then we can face problems in societies where mass forces abuse democratic methods by using its openings to destroy its very safeguards. There are no prior answers to determine how we should respond in such problematic situations, apart from saying that whatever means are followed they should be pursued in ways that will not destroy the very ends we seek. We have too many lessons from the Soviet Union of the opposite.

Luckily in the UK today, no such limiting factors currently apply and there is no reason to find substitutes for the democratic method - in the way for instance Sinn Fein did over the armed struggle in Northern Ireland.

2. Classless Appeals

Everyone needs to be given the opportunity to share in the democratic arrangements of their society and to be encouraged to seek its democratic advancement. Likewise, the case for social justice needs to be given a similar universal appeal.

This presents a problem for those socialists who seek to direct their case exclusively to the interests of working people and their families. The impact of the technological revolution has, however, seriously dented the plausibility of such a tactic. For the working class no longer has the cohesion and homogeneity it experienced in the past. As a class, workers should no longer be seen by socialists as holding the "efficient secret" to unlocking the way forward to social and socialist change.

This does not mean that socialists should abandon demands for a whole range of social improvements for the more deprived in a society. Instead such appeals should be directed towards everyone on the basis that they are humane objectives and are necessary for the furtherance of the social bond.

Likewise, of course, our case should not be distorted as under New Labour so that middle England and the middle class as prioritised. We also need to appreciate that the making of a generalised across-the-board appeal has its difficulties in today's societies which are fractured into many bits and pieces and display a wide mix of loyalties.

3. Economic Democracy

A major shortcoming of normal democratic arrangements is that they are generally limited to establishing elected chambers from which different levels of governing personnel are appointed. Democratic Socialism should seek widespread participation in the operations of society, but not only in what are normally perceived as legitimate areas for political activity.

Whole aspects of our lives are shaped by economic influences over which we have little or no say. Trade Union negotiating rights can give their members a limited impact in this sphere. But democratic arrangements in the running of our economic life via avenues such as co-operative forms of production are also necessary for the advancement of serious areas of participation. Yugoslavia under Communism operated a form of economic democracy that was undermined by its absence of a viable political democracy. It is where political forms of democracy are firmly established as in Britain, that the condition for economic democracy could (if adopted) best be guaranteed.

Yet there is a problem with such forms of economic democracy (even just the limited form of having better Trade Union rights) which we need to be aware of. Specific Trade Unions and Co-operatives can themselves come to absorb the loyalties of their members and create sectional interests. This can run counter to the appeal to the general good that I stressed the need for in point 2 above.

It is only in a climate of mutual respect, social equality, sharing and with an intellectually alive population that such potential conflicts can satisfactorily be resolved.

4. Market Socialism

Whilst it will be seen from the above that I view co-operative forms of ownership as a key part of a vision for the operation of a feasible form of socialism, I don't wish to use their advocacy as a new "efficient secret" for the means by which societies can be transformed. However, co-operatives of consumers and producers can play an important role in the furtherance of socialist practices and can give us a vision for the future. They also illustrate that market forms of socialism have a considerable relevance to our understandings.

Without developing the concept of competitive forms of socialist markets, we are driven into an advocacy of centralised forms of state operations. As we should have learnt from the history of the Soviet Union this advances extreme forms of bureaucratic abuse.

And whilst market forms of socialism have the sectional dangers I have already mentioned, there are means of squaring the circle. For just as Keynesianism demand management was used in the post-war mixed economies to override market pressures of the twin evils of inflation and unemployment, so can more direct controls of socialised economic levers ensure that socialist market economies aren't distorted by the equivalent of co-operative oligopolies.

5. Free Opinion Formation

We also need to recognise that having the freedom to exercise votes and express opinions is only one side of the democratic coin. We also need to be able to form our attitudes free from duress and manipulation.

Whilst everyone's opinions are influenced and shaped by their environments, we need to appreciate that there is a distinction between influences which are stultifying and those which are liberating. A culture which is educative in the sense of broadening minds and leading to inquisitiveness and questioning, enables the exercise of freedoms which propaganda and sophistry can't.

The quality of our democratic input is as important as its quantity.

6. Inner-Party Democracy

The democratic project as outlined in the above points, is essential for the operation and functioning of the institutions of the Labour Movement. If we are ever to begin to make the case for democratic participation in our own society, then the internal life of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Trade Unions, Labour's Annual Conference and that of the wider extra-parliamentary Party will need to act in conformity with the views we propound. Otherwise we will be seen to be guilty of hypocrisy.

Indeed in terms of where we should now concentrate our efforts , then a concentration in the internal life of the Labour Party is probably our key and most practical starting point.

7. The New Trade Unionism

Trade Union membership has declined and displays changed internal characteristics which go beyond that of the growth of amalgamations. It has a changed form of membership, with a significant rise in the percentage of women and of the middle class. This means that some of the characteristics of its appeal and its operations are under change. The cross-class appeal of the form of democratic socialism which I have outlined can fit in well with these alterations, rather than a "workerist" approach.

It strikes me that there is a Trade Union appeal which could make a considerable impact upon the best aspirations of the general public. This relates to their work in the international sphere. This is not just a matter of our Trade Unions furthering their own negotiating links, but of giving practical and moral support to brothers and sisters who are involved in harsh overseas struggles to gain the most basic of Trade Union rights.

The TUC and various individual Trade Unions have a solid record in such areas. These are actions which have the potential of a wide area of appeal to many young people and to those who share humanitarian aspirations.

8. Popular Taxation

There is a great deal of empathy (especially amongst young people) for the well being of the world's poor and exploited. It finds life in campaign's such as "Make Poverty History", tackling climate change and in opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia. We need to show that democratic socialism can knit these aspirations together and can further practical programmes to tackle these concerns.

One area in which the Labour Movement could take a valuable lead would be in the advocacy of an international tax on rampant currency speculation (a matter I dealt with earlier). It could both help to dampen down the harmful impact of this activity and/or raise massive resources to begin to lift the impoverished of the world out of their plight. It would be a popular tax on an unpopular activity and is generally known as the Tobin Tax.

9. What Is Left Of The Left

I have indicated roles that the Labour Party, Trade Unions and Co-operatives can play in advancing democratic socialist aspirations. But in furthering such an agenda, what can the Left itself do?

In British circumstances I see no plausible avenues outside of the Labour Party; yet the Left within the Labour Party will be ineffective if it suffers from illusions about its strength and possibilities. Let us look at two alternative groups and their approach.

(a) The Socialist Campaign Group and its related bodies seem to me once more to be at a crossroads. They are suffering from disillusionment as a result of John McDonnell's failure to gain sufficient nominations to enter a possible Labour Leadership contest. They are, however, seeking to continue to press ahead with the demands John set out. These are reflected in the impossible set of 118 proposals which he came forward with in his last alternative budget proposals.

Each Leadership campaign the Group pursues, leads to a loss of its Parliamentary membership. For instance, a minority of the current Group did not go along with the tactic of John seeking to challenge for the leadership, favouring an outsider's challenge. So it looks as if they will again fail to influence the mood of the rest of the Party by failing to re-connect with it.

(b) Compass is developing a left-wing form of New Labourism. From a democratic socialist perspective, their shortcoming is to fail to put their views within a framework of there being an eventual need to replace the dominations of capitalism. An advance would be for them to take on board some of the rhetoric of democratic socialism in formulating their sets of recommendations. This is, for instance, open to them in relation to an equality agenda they are currently pressing.

Currently, however, Compass is open enough to provide a meeting place for other current and specific interest groups on the Labour left. This approach should be encouraged and made use of in order to encourage dialogue.

10. Political Education, Not Politicking

For those of us who wish to spread the types of socialist viewpoints I presented here, then I feel that we should concentrate with the Labour Movement upon encouraging debate and discussion. The priority should be upon forms of socialist political education and the making (and re-making in some cases) of democratic socialists. Inner Party activity should be seen in this light, rather then in manoeuvring people into office or politicking to win the day at poorly attended meetings - well I can say this now I am no longer a Labour MP!

An Acknowledgement

"The ILP, Independent Labour Publications, was formed in 1893 as the Independent Labour Party. It was a co-founder of the Labour Party. Today the ILP is an educational trust, publishing house and pressure group committed to democratic socialism and the success of a democratic socialist Labour Party"

From : "A Socialism For Our Times - The ILP Perspective" (ILP 2003).

The ILP are due to hold a week-end discussion around the reasons for the decline of socialism and whether there are hopes for its resurgence. They are looking at these matters in the light of key characteristics about the modern world and how Britain has respond to these. Their analysis as contained in the above 2003 publication will also be under examination.

I can't make the discussions as I have a prior commitment. So I wrote this 3 Part analysis instead and I am forwarding it to them.

When I retired from Parliament in 2005, I joined the ILP's Friends' Network. Whilst for 12 years prior to my becoming an MP in 1987 I worked closely with them, as I shared their overall approach to democratic socialist politics. In the Commons in 1993 I helped to host a centenary celebration of the ILP's initial formation as a political party by Keir Hardie and others.

Whilst I feel that I share many of the current ILP's horizons and believe that what I say relates closely to their perspective, what appears above is my own viewpoint and is a contribution to their discussions. The ILP are more than capable of speaking for themselves and they do that.


Tom said...

A couple of extremely minor points aside, I largely agree with your series of articles; especially the prescriptive elements.

As usual, your contribution is thought provoking and valuable.

Harry Barnes said...

Thanks. It is nice to know that someone has had a look at it - and especially yourself.