Blog post

Socialism or Democracy

One lesson drawn in General Election post-mortems by many on the left is the need for greater democracy in the Labour Party. But, as John-Baptiste Oduor argues, in the absence of working class mobilisation democratisation has served to further distance the Party from its working class base.

John-Baptiste Oduor10 January 2020

Socialism or Democracy

Tony Benn once remarked that any attempt to democratise society would first require democratising the Labour Party. A Labour Party under the democratic control of the working class could, so Benn’s formula suggested, present itself as a united front capable transforming society as a whole. For a large span of British political life, Benn’s wisdom has seemed self-evidently, or at least plausibly, true. It was the undemocratic leadership of the Labour party which ushered in the Iraqi war,  despite there being mass and ferocious opposition to the campaign. And if there had been a tighter relationship between the Party and social movements, the 2011 student protests would have transformed the Labour party from the inside. So, when Ed Miliband changed the party’s rules from an electoral college system, in which 40% of the vote was made up by unions and a third by members, to a one-member one-vote system, it felt as though a generation was being given the chance to put Benn to the test.

And initially, it did seem like the election of Corbyn was proof of the correctness of Benn’s adage. The democratisation of Labour and the democratisation of society was a singular project with two distinct but continuous moments. Corbynism could, the hope was, give voice to the new social movements and a new multi-ethnic and urban working class that had arisen in Britain’s sprawling metropolitian centres. This coalition would then be combined with the traditional working classes which constituted Labour’s base for over a century, tying together the old and the new as theorists such as Stuart Hall hoped for in the 1980s. The glue holding this coalition together would be economic redistribution, green reindustrialisation, and a general ethic of anti-racism.

Programmatically, this tactic made sense. On paper the policies found in Corbyn’s Labour party’s two manifestos seemed to cater to the material interests of each section of the coalition. What the failure of Corbynism to win this election has shown, however, is that appealing to people’s shared interests with a grocery list of social democratic policies and demands, is barely enough to build a political coalition. Politics, unlike marketing, is not an attempt to aggregate people’s assumed preferences. Politics, socialist politics, should engender in political agents the feeling that they are participants in a collective struggle, and not just passive bystanders. 

The increase in the membership following Corbyn’s election to leader suggested that Labour had equally found a viable path from democratisation to collective emancipation. These members were, however, disproportionately concentrated in urban city centres. They were also disproportionately middle class. As Labour MP Jon Cruddas argued in his paper on 'The Left's New Urbanism', this demographic shift within Labour formed a continuum rather than radical break from the professionalisation and urbanisation of the party under Blair. The danger of this shift is that ignoring the progressive dilemma of building an alliance across class and geographical boundaries in order to win power will lead to focusing on one section of the party’s base over another. Inevitably, the political realignment which centred the downwardly mobile urban middle classes was also one which marginalised the working classes.

The most glaring example of this was Brexit. Despite the fact that over 60% of Labour seats voted to leave, the party failed to support the decision of the referendum. Instead, Brexit was reduced to a culture war issue by sections of the left, and an implicit expression of racism by the centre. Such Pavlovian dismissals were not particularly surprising from the centre. What was surprising, however, was the extent to which this strategy was mirrored by the left. This could be seen in the call, by sections of the left, to embrace Corbyn’s strategy of productive ambiguity – this would, it was thought, serve as a way of cutting through the supposedly non-political issue that was Brexit by shifting the discussion to one about inequality and exploitation.

With hindsight it is difficult to understand this strategy as being anything more than a patronising stance. The left appeared to be saying:  ‘Oh, so you think you care about democracy, are you sure you don’t mean the NHS?’ The assumption underlying this position was that the demand for political agency could be subordinated to demands for economic redistribution and interventionism. But how, one might reasonably wonder, could a Party which refused to take seriously the former be trusted to implement the latter?

One way of thinking about this limitation in Corbyn’s project is that it attempted to give the working classes liberation without emancipation. Or, it attempted to offer them freedom from oppression without agency. Of course, a great deal of any socialist, or social democratic, political project has to have as its aim the alleviation of human suffering. No caring person can look at the misery that abounds within society and not feel an urgent need to make it stop. We can now watch every movie and listen to every song ever recorded, but still millions of British children go to bed hungry every night. The very thought of these children going hungry, the thousands that are left homeless, and countless numbers of people who die crossing borders around the world provokes in most a combination of sadness and anger.

As important as these life or death issues are, they are, fortunately, exceptions rather than the norm. For most people the horrors of capitalism is not something that plays out so dramatically. Instead, the hardship of daily life exists in the slow withering away of hope, the dissolution of agency.  It was, however, very common to read and hear people measuring the differences between a Labour and Conservative victory in dead bodies. This catastrophising account of the stakes of politics does not chime with the experience of most people for whom what is at stake in politics is not life and death, or other biopolitical phrases, but the possibility of believing, for once, that politics is worth participating in. A call to arms from the mortuary misses this fundamental point. What the starving child, the dying cancer patient, and the refugee have in common is that they are too weak, too downtrodden, to stand up for themselves. They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.

The demobilising effect of Corbynism on working class politics was nowhere more present than in the party’s slogan, ‘for the many’ (emphasis my own). This phrase, which came to represent the Corbyn project, created two strategic problems. The first is one is that socialist politics, in contrast to its bourgeois variant, is confronted with a unique dilemma.  This dilemma is that the working class is often in direct conflict with the middle class progressives with whom they have often shared a party. Adam Przeworski discussed this problem in his classic Capitalism and Social Democracy. .

socialists must choose between a party homogeneous in its class appeal but sentenced to perpetual electoral defeats and a party that struggles for electoral success at the cost of diluting its class character.

The Corbyn project’s strategy was clearly to choose that latter option: replacing, in typically, populist fashion, the working classes with the masses up against a minority elite. The cost of this compromise was the demobilisation of the working class.

The second problem that Corbynism faced was one of priority.  Or, after conceiving of the class which it aimed to mobilise as the many, it faced a dilemma of organising the hierarchy within its broad coalition. Who would be at the head of the coalition? The great strength of Corbynism as a project was that it recognised that there was a need for a cross class coalition, that there was no viable road to power without an alliance between the working and middle classes. No political coalition can escape the question of hegemony. The solution that Corbynism chose was to treat the middle-class recruits to the Corbyn project as the vanguard. As a result, Labour’s platform often conjured up an image of charitable concern, from the middle-class senior partners of the coalition to their working-class subordinates.  The role of the state in this model was that of the “armed wing of Oxfam” (Richard Tuck), rather than a tool with which the oppressed could fight for their collective emancipation.

This philanthropic dimension of Corbynism came across strongly to anyone who spent time canvassing in one of the London marginals. It was also not exclusive to the Northern working class, which has garnered so much attention. Even in boroughs with large working-class populations and a healthy stock of council housing, the urban working class, so central to the confected imagery of metropolitan Corbynism, was conspicuously absent. In many constituencies with large working-class communities, it felt almost like an achievement that Labour had managed to fill rooms with so many members of the professional class. This does not, of course, mean that working-class people did not vote for Labour under Corbyn. But it does suggest that they were passive rather than active participants in the Corbyn project.  

Key to this passivity was that the rhetoric that went along with Corbynism. This all too often addressed the working class as recipients of the good-will of the middle classes rather than actors in their own right. Combined with the overwhelmingly middle-class nature of the grass roots campaign, Labour took on the appearance of a group of charity workers knocking on the doors of their rich and conservative parents asking them to, please, consider the starving kids who need us and vote Labour. Although the policies were of the radical left, the campaign itself felt like an attempt to appeal to middle class centrist. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the obsessive belief, held by sections of the Labour party, that their biggest competition for voters were the Liberal Democrats. 

The most distressing aspect of this middle-class dominated campaign was that it was the result of the so-called "democratisation of the party." It was, of course, the membership of the party as well as Momentum which supported motions for a second referendum, against the instincts of many on the left of the party. The grassroots membership, which had previously been a radicalising force, here served to commit the party to a thoroughly undemocratic position disproportionately favoured by the urban middle classes.

This debacle should give us reason to pause over the left-wing mantra that Benn’s saying has become. In the absence of any social movements with an actual foothold in working class life, or an active and strong union movement, democratising efforts have nowhere to draw their ranks from other than the same professional middle classes that Blairism fought so hard to empower.  The Corbyn project attempted, and failed, to conjure up a multitude when the political sphere had already been hollowed out. Much like the peasantry that Marx discussed in the 18th Brumaire, the Corbyn crusade took on the appearance of a sack of potatoes tumbling through the void: loosely joined together by a leadership which had to represent them because they could not represent themselves. It was this ungrounded amorphousness, and not a shift within the political landscape, which allowed the party to embrace such radical positions without any base in working class life.

Attempts to resolve the present crises by shifting more power to the members is in no way a panacea. Recent reports point out that the man most favoured to be Corbyn’s successor will be Keir Starmer, now polling at a steady 60% with members. Like all polls, such signals are to be taken with a healthy degree of scepticism. But a trend is becoming apparent. Himself a staunch Remainer, Starmer was instrumental to orienting Labour away from the societal sectors that cherished Brexit as a chance at agency. The dead will not die.

Some tough lessons can be extracted from this experiment. The British left must confront a real crisis, not the one projected by a London-centric media which only visits Northern and coastal towns on an ‘authentocratic’ safari. This is one in which all of the institutions which allow for political life have been decimated. Central to confronting this problem head on is rejecting the Anglophone left bromide that we are living in a time of the left’s ascendency. Accepting this fact should give us a more modest, as well as honest, approximation of our strength as a movement and our task going forward. We should, instead, complicate Benn’s formula, as well as the way that we think about democracy.  Rather than the socialist left’s belief in the natural democratisattion of the party as a gateway to a further societal democratisation, we should instead ask ourselves what social forces would be needed to give power and legitimacy to Labour’s democracy in the first place. Any serious attempt to ask this question has to come to terms with the need for a re-centring of the role of the only intuitions capable of fighting for workplace democracy. Without an attempt to put work-place democracy at the heart of Labour party democracy, attempts to radicalise the party moving forward are doomed to having no base in everyday life. Perhaps the tragedy of Corbynism was that it attempted, on a large scale, a project of societal transformation which, because of the weakness of the traditional left, had nowhere to draw its legitimacy from other than a cadre of the downwardly mobile middle classes.

John-Baptiste Oduor lives in London and is currently writing a PhD in Philosophy