The New Statesman Essay - Meet Blair, the libertarian socialist

Peter Hain reconnects the PM to Levellers, syndicalists and other very old leftists

Because his real audience is the television viewer and the tabloid reader, Tony Blair makes few, if any, concessions to the traditional discourse of the labour movement. But I believe that his Third Way can be seen as a modern extension of the "libertarian socialist" tradition. It is a tradition that goes back to the origins of socialism but, to the left's great historic disadvantage, it lost out to something very different.

This was the statist, or top-down, vision of socialism; it was shared by Marxist-Leninists at the revolutionary end of the spectrum and social democrats at the reformist end. The state, in this view, would bring about change - dictatorially, according to the revolutionaries; bureaucratically, according to the reformists. Such centralism left little or no scope for individual empowerment and local control; on the contrary, the state socialists saw these as obstacles to the grand design of a better society and its noble ideal of equality.

Libertarian socialism, by contrast, emphasises decentralisation, democracy and popular sovereignty and it refuses to accept that collectivism means subjugating individual liberty. Its pedigree goes back to the English civil war and to the Levellers, the Agitators and the Diggers, the radical activists of that era, who argued for the abolition of the House of Lords, the democratic reform of the judiciary and the army, workplace democracy and common ownership. Such ideas were later taken up by the early trade unions, the co-operatives and the friendly societies - examples of working people combining collectively from the bottom upwards. In the period just before the first world war, syndicalist ideas, emphasising direct action and industrial democracy, were widespread in the trade union movement.

In 1917 G D H Cole observed that the greatest evil in society was not poverty, but slavery. In other words, powerlessness is the overriding issue for socialism. Neither equality nor freedom can be achieved without empowerment. Paternal government, however well-intentioned, is insufficient because it breeds dependence.

Yet from the first world war onwards, the movement was towards state control and state ownership. Even the municipal socialism of Bernard Shaw and the young Sidney Webb became suspect. As far as both the Labour and Conservative parties were concerned, local authorities, instead of being autonomous agencies for "bottom-up" democracy, were conduits through which the state dispensed services efficiently. By 1942, the political scientist Joseph Schumpeter could write: "What may be termed centralist socialism seems to me to hold the field so clearly that it would be a waste of space to consider other forms."

Not until the 1960s did the "new left" revive libertarian socialist ideas. At the same time, amid growing British trade union militancy, and especially shop steward power, we also saw a revival of interest in workers' control. Feminism offered a further challenge to male-dominated centralised control. And in the 1970s municipal socialism came back, absorbing many of the "extra- parliamentary activists" who were children of the new left.

The Labour left, however, lost its way in the 1980s and a recovery of the broader libertarian socialist tradition is now imperative. Today's libertarian socialists believe that, without decentralisation of power, it becomes impossible to achieve either individual liberty or greater equality. If we are to have economic justice and a broadly egalitarian society, each citizen must be empowered - at work, in the home, in the neighbourhood and as a consumer. The British system offers only a limited form of democracy; the libertarian socialist wants a "participatory democracy" in which there is the greatest possible involvement of citizens. Similarly, in the Third Way devolution of power stems from a pluralist conception of democracy. Unless democratic power is dispersed, socialism cannot take root.

Libertarian socialists, in contrast to classical liberals, want not just participatory government but also a participatory economy and a participatory society. In this respect, the focus on the state was actually counterproductive. When you have centralised public provision (whether under capitalism or communism), people's obligations to the state increase and they lose their obligations to their neighbours. They become clients of the state, rather than autonomous citizens, passive recipients rather than active co-operators. That is why we have run-down, untidy council estates, with urine-ridden lifts, graffiti and disputatious neighbours.

High-quality public provision remains a priority for socialism. But it should complement rather than replace individual autonomy. That is why the government wants a welfare culture that is based not on dependency but on empowerment, and that is the thinking behind the New Deal and the working families tax credit.

But power can only be spread downwards if we have a fair distribution of opportunities, resources, wealth and income. This is where socialism becomes the essential counterpart to a libertarianism that could otherwise be right-wing. It means trying to spread resources more evenly between prosperous and poor regions and areas, between the dominant and subordinate classes, between rich and poor, men and women, white and black, able and disabled. Hence the case for minimum levels of public provision in housing, transport, social services, daycare, home helps, and so on. Hence, too, the case for a minimum wage - a matter partly for the law, but partly also for enforcement through trade union pressure. That is another example of the Third Way: empowerment from below through support for trade unionism.

Again, the Third Way recognises that capitalism too easily allows small groups to control or even rig markets. Instead of getting the goods and services they want, people have the products that suit the interests of private capital thrust upon them, as happened with private pensions under the Tories. If choice and aspiration are to be real for the many, not just for the privileged few, we need active government to intervene and curb market excess. But the old left syllogism that markets equal capitalism and the absence of markets equals socialism is utterly simplistic. Where markets offer the best way, they should operate. That is why a Third Way Labour government works in partnership with business to invest in the skills and modern infrastructure that market forces alone cannot provide.

That is also why Labour is legislating for fairness and rights at work. But partnership needs to go further by encouraging industrial democracy. This is one of the keys to the high productivity, investment and wealth needed for economic success, because it helps generate the team-working and commitment that are so important in complex modern production systems.

In 1952 Aneurin Bevan argued: "Industrial democracy is the counterpart of political freedom. Liberty and responsibility must march together. They must be joined together in the workshop as in the legislative assembly." At that time, such criticism of nationalisation was not popular on the left. But Bevan was simply echoing the call, made 40 years earlier by the South Wales miners, for industrial democracy under public ownership. Today, the only successful mine under workers' self-management, Tower Colliery, is in the South Wales coalfield.

That is one example of what I call the Welsh Third Way. In the 1984-85 miners' strike, the South Wales valleys maintained the strongest cohesion, self-discipline and support of any across Britain. The whole of Wales helped the mining communities create an alternative welfare state, a resistance movement which was not defending the past but, as Raymond Williams suggested, trying to build a new, more humane social order. There is, too, a strong commitment to community enterprise in the old mining valleys - for example, Amman Valley Enterprise and the DOVE workshop in the Dulais Valley, both of which sprang from the women's support networks around the strike. Antur Teifi, which promotes local enterprise in rural west Wales, is one of many examples of how the Welsh "social economy" has revived the spirit of Robert Owen's co-operative movement. And the partnership principle works much better in Wales than in England, where the culture of community and co-operation has traditionally been weaker. That is why inward investors have found Wales so attractive.

This is the context for the National Assembly. Devolution is not - or rather must not be - a nationalistic imperative. I would otherwise have no interest in it. As a Pretoria boy turned Neath man, how could I be a "nationalist"? The doctrine of nationalism is anathema to a socialist and is, in any case, redundant in the modern age. The very notion of separatism is incomprehensible in an era of global economic forces and global regional markets such as Europe. Nationalism (as opposed to pride in the common culture of nationhood) is inherently narrow, parochial and backward-looking.

So the ideological imperative for devolution is not nationalism but the notion of a new common citizenship. Libertarian socialists want Wales to be a model "participatory democracy" that engages all its citizens. The strong Labour culture in Wales was founded in close communities and a style of politics that interacted comfortably with the local rugby club, the pensioners' club or the Labour club. All these remain relatively strong, but they are under challenge from more modern, individualistic lifestyles, the fragmentation of community life and social stress. People do not go down to the welfare hall for bingo as much as they did. Saturday night in the rugby club lounge is no longer the weekly meeting place for the whole village. So Labour must change, linking more effectively into other groups in civic society, such as school governors, and making more efforts to reach individuals through newsletters and house visits.

Labour will only continue to prosper in Wales if it charts a distinctive Welsh Third Way. That means adopting a positive libertarian socialist platform that works in partnership with interest groups such as business, the trade unions, the voluntary sector and environmental organisations; that enhances rather than diminishes the role of local government and community councils; that is tolerant rather than tribal; and has a vision of a modern, self- confident Wales with a dynamic, high-quality economy and a culture that is proud of its past but not trapped in it.

If we can move in this direction, then not only will Wales succeed, but we could also help reinvigorate the Third Way and give it a fresh impetus and greater popular legitimacy across Britain.

The writer is under-secretary of state for Wales. This article is based on "A Welsh Third Way?", a Tribune pamphlet published next week, £2.50 (inc p&p) from Tribune Publications, 308 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8DY

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour cabinet minister

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis