The social democracy of fear

John Gray on Ralph Miliband.

In my recent piece about Ralph Miliband, Marxist intellectual and late father of David and Ed, I quoted his erstwhile collaborator and former student Leo Panitch, who observed that it is a "great irony that people are saying of David and Ed that they are the inheritors of Croslandism in the Labour Party."

As Ed himself has said, "in the household in which [we were] brought up, [Anthony] Crosland and his ideas were not popular -- his critique of Marxism, his views on public ownership".

The New Statesman's lead book reviewer, John Gray, echoes this in a piece about Ralph Miliband in the Guardian today (which doesn't appear to have made it on to their website yet):

He would surely have appreciated the curious dialectic through which it has fallen to his sons to defend the social democracy he so fiercely attacked.

The thrust of Gray's argument is that Croslandite social democracy, not to mention its New Labour descendant, is based on the assumption that capitalism has been tamed definitively and that steady and continuous economic growth can be taken for granted. Crosland's model was undone by the oil shocks of the early 1970s, just as the latest global financial crisis has done for the "happy conjunction of neoliberal economics with social democracy on which New Labour was founded".

In Gray's view, neither David nor Ed has grasped the extent to which Ralph's pessimism about the future of social democracy looks as if it being vindicated. They are "harking back to Crosland . . . at a time when Crosland's thinking is no longer applicable". Both brothers, he thinks, are in thrall to a social-democratic illusion their father spent all his working life trying to puncture, namely that "government [is] capable of controlling market forces":

Rather than controlling or reshaping capitalism, a Miliband government would find itself struggling to preserve Britain's social-democratic inheritance in the face of capitalism's renewed disorder.

What moral should we draw from Gray's characteristically gloomy prognosis? Perhaps it is that, after the crash of autumn 2008, 21st-century social democracy will, at best, be what the late Tony Judt called a "social democracy of fear" -- that is, social democracy minus the Croslandite optimism about progress and growth.

"If social democracy has a future", Judt declared in his now celebrated 2009 lecture on "What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy",

it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the 20th century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.