Labour’s radical left must fight the rise of a new machine politics

In the face of the NEC's bureaucratic elitism - and the nightmare legacy of Stalinism - the democratic and humanist left needs to be more assertive. 

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One of the highlights of last year’s Labour Party conference was Chris Leslie MP’s claim that Marxism has “no place” within the party. Delegates gleefully pointed out that in 1947, in advance of the centenary of The Communist Manifesto, the party had it reprinted, with an introduction by party chairman Harold Laski. “The Labour Party,” wrote Laski “acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement”.

Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, was described by his biographer Michael Foot as “a convinced Marxist”. In 1910, Keir Hardie authored a pamphlet on Marx, citing his thought as justification for the actual formation of the Labour Party. Latterly, even Tony Blair was radicalised by reading Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky biography. So Marxism has been a legitimate current within Labour since its foundation.

But events ahead of this year’s conference should force us to ask: which Marx? Put more generally, if there is a guiding political philosophy behind Labour’s programme of fiscal stimulus, state-guided investment, democratisation and redistribution, what is it?

The decision by a left-dominated NEC to create a new PLP and trade union veto over candidates in future leadership elections, combined with their rejection of the right of local parties to select parliamentary candidates in open primaries, combined with bureaucratic machinations to avoid a conference vote on a second Brexit referendum, all speak to the survival of “machine politics” even inside a left-led Labour party.

And all students of the 20th century know where the impetus towards bureaucratic elitism backed by left phraseology comes from: the nightmare legacy of Stalinism and its destructive reach into western Labour movements, where it strangled workers’ democracy and attempted to impose thought control.

The truth is, you can achieve a lot without an underlying political philosophy. The people who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 warned us not to ask for a philosophical justification. There were too many competing theories – religions, moral philosophy and natural law – for agreement to be reached. Better just to write down the rules on paper and get them voted on.

In a way, that’s what we’ve had to do in first three years of Corbynism. But as a result, when it comes to the political education programme everybody agrees Labour needs, nobody can answer “which Marx?”, still less which other thinkers the party’s practice will be guided by. Blair at least had the writings of Anthony Giddens to draw on, even if he cherrypicked their conclusions. To adapt a line from The Big Lebowski: you can say what you like about Blairism but at least it was an ethos.

If we are going to resist, on principle, the new left membership becoming footsoldiers for the top-down and bureaucratic conception of socialism doggedly advocated in the Morning Star for decades, we are going to need a more active discussion about ideas.

By my count, there are at least four ideological tribes among the new left membership who have flooded into and transformed Labour since 2015.

First there is Bennism, mirrored by the rank and file trade unionism of the 1970s and 1980s which, if you are looking for a person to name it after, would be Scargillism. When I campaigned in working class constituencies in the 2017 election, there was always a distinct group who’d been involved in the 1981 “Benn for deputy” campaign and the miners’ strike.

The second tribe includes all forms of anti-authoritarian Marxism, ranging from the remnants of post-68 Trotskyism, to the anarcho-syndicalism of the new, small organising unions and people involved in various anti-imperialist struggles. Though smaller than the first, this group contains at least three generations of people committed to socialism “from below” and traditionally scornful of inner-party machinations.

Third is the Broad Left tradition in the trade union movement. Allied to this trend are various survivals of the orthodox communist tradition itself: the Morning Star, Cuba Solidarity, the various Turkish communist groups etc.

Finally, there is a new generation of activists drawn into left politics through the environmental, anti-racist and social justice movements of the 2000s and 2010s – many of whom have studied left political theory and economics at university. But within this demographic there are two distinct thought-architectures: that of autonomist and horizontalist politics influenced by figures like Antonio Negri, Naomi Klein, David Graeber and (to a certain extent) myself; and then people influenced by the intellectual offshoots of Gramscian Marxism - groups such as Compass, and titles such as Red Pepper, New Formations etc.

Up to now, the issues we’ve been divided over tended to be foreign policy. The third group includes a few apologists for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a few people who continually parrot disinformation from the Kremlin, and others who see the 100+ motions from CLPs asking Labour to consider a second referendum on Brexit as a bourgeois plot.

The Tory press, of course, is up in arms about the mere existence of this current inside Labour. But I am not. I see it as a legitimate, though misguided, element of the left, which is capable - so long as there is party democracy and freedom of speech – of being drawn towards a radical, social democratic programme.

If the conditions of the 1930s - hierarchy, statism and centralised information - facilitated Stalinism, then the conditions of the 2010s militate against it. This generation organises through networks, horizontal activism and independent media. Despite the moral debt we owe to the Soviet Union in the Second World War, and the lasting prestige of the Cuban Revolution, we have irrefutable historical knowledge of the crimes Stalinism committed.

But now we have started to get left justifications for a new machine politics inside Labour, it is time for the horizontalist, democratic and humanist left to be more assertive in outlining a political philosophy that can underpin the party’s project.

Paradoxically, the source for such politics in the past was always Marx: Marx as taught to a generation of syndicalist radicals by his daughter, Eleanor, in the 1890s; Marx as taught at Ruskin College to the miners and railworkers who led the Great Unrest of 1911-13; Marx as studied by George Orwell, as he fought in Spain in a left-wing militia which the communist Daily Worker, described as “fascist”.

The Marx revered by Bevan, Foot, Hardie and Benn was a philosopher of humanism, self-organisation and grassroots revolt. Labour’s left-wing giants framed Marx’s materialist conception of history as justification for a project of gradual, democratic socialism delivered by an educated and politically organised working class. All more or less explicitly rejected Marx’s fatalism about the bourgeois state being an irreformable tool for the capitalist class  – with Bevan famously arguing that parliamentary democracy was a “sword pointed at the heart of property power”.

But in the 21st century, faced with new dynamics of exploitation, the atomisation of the hierarchies that shaped the old class struggle, rising struggles over gender, ethnicity and sexuality and the urgent issue of climate change, Marx is not enough.

If you scan the programme of next week’s The World Transformed festival, to be held alongside the Labour conference in Liverpool, you can see the potential sources for a radical, democratic left political philosophy. You could reduce them, basically, to “the three Antonios”: Gramsci, Negri and Benn.

From Gramsci we are learning to prepare a new kind of Labour government for power, which will take on the elite structures that lie beyond the formal machinery of the state, through cultural struggle, and struggle within civil society. TWT itself, with its drama sessions, football tournament, wargames and music events, is testimony to how well the organisers have understood Gramsci’s plea for the left to fight for “cultural hegemony”.

From Negri (and many others in the post-68 anti-authoritarian tradition) we have learned that exploitation takes place across the whole of society, not just the workplace. The struggles of housing co-ops, or young women against sexual harassment, or environmental groups against fracking can be as devastating to the functioning of the exploitation system as a mass strike.

From Benn we learned that state intervention, redistribution and direction are doable. And that the project of socialism in Britain is not alien, but has deep roots in the concept of economic rights beginning with Magna Carta, and ranging through the Peasants’ Revolt, via the Levellers and Chartism, to the anti-globalisation movement of today.

I could cite other sources within the Marxist orbit: Chantal Mouffe on left populism, Hilary Wainwright on the practice of left government, or David Harvey on the struggle for urban space, for example. All three will be on the platform at TWT. A fourth source, not present, might be Kimberle Crenshaw, whose pioneering thought on intersectionality informs the activism of many of the TWT speakers on struggles against racism, women's oppression, transphobia and homophobia.

In discussing their ideas, the aim should not be to come up with a new monolithic doctrine that everybody signs up to, but to provide what we have not so far done: a resilient and supple thought architecture for radical social democracy.

It should explain to politicians, activists and voters what the project is; how we are likely to act under pressure; what our measure of success would be, and our measure of failure. The added bonus would be that a revived form of Stalinism does not begin to insinuate itself in the absence of anything more coherent.

If we are talking about which Marx belongs at the heart of the British labour movement, Edward Thompson is worth rereading. Surveying the rise of an anti-humanist Marxism in the 1960s, pioneered by the French philosopher Louis Althusser, and the beginning of its transformation into postmodernism, Thompson wrote bitterly that there were “two Marxisms”: “The first is a tradition of theology. The second is a tradition of active reason,” he wrote.

Thompson believed that the Marxism baked into the British labour movement by Marx himself, by the artist William Morris and by the union organiser Tom Mann, had been a libertarian, democratic and self-questioning tradition. Surveying the crimes of the Soviet regime, he asked:

“Could Marx, or Morris, or Mann, have recognised any of the theory or practice of Stalinism, and acknowledged these as having even a notional relation to ‘the Left’? Does the suppression of reason, and the obliteration of the imagination, have any place on ‘the Left’?”

After 1989 many on the British left hoped these would become dead questions. And as a new practice of “altermondialisme” arose in the 1990s, it seemed all surviving forms of 20th-century Marxism would be subsumed within the framework of “one no, many yeses”. But we’re approaching power now.

And while outright anti-humanist Marxism of the Althusser variety remains niche, postmodernism has been the orthodoxy in left social science for three decades. History as a “process without a subject”, humans without selves or universal rights or the capability to achieve freedom – these are distinctly non-niche concepts, even among the young generation of activists joining Labour.

We should scorn the jibes of the right-wing hacks - that Labour intends to create Maduro’s Venezuela. We do not.

But we, the Labour activists, have a duty to outline by what political logic we will resist the tendency of all previous Labour governments to become bureaucratic, top-down, prey to interest groups, slothful, over-centralised and ineffective. And in a world prone to geopolitical fragmentation, we need to demonstrate to the electorate that a left-wing Labour government knows how to avoid being manipulated either by the US State Department or the Kremlin.

This is not merely about defining “Corbynism” – it’s about joining in the debate raging across the Europe and the Americas about what it means to be left in the 21st century. The bureaucratic procedures being proposed by Labour’s NEC mean that any leader who comes after Corbyn is likely to be more acceptable to the trade unions and the PLP than the to mass membership.

What Labour politics and activism look like in 2030 will depend on whether we can fuse the politics of the “three Antonios” into something coherent, persuasive and inspiring, which can last beyond the present.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.