Saw this on Facebook today and read the comments underneath and it made me realise that in the UK we cannot even agree about definitions anymore, let alone strategy, tactics, policy or even our common aims and objectives!
The argument in the comments was about whether the description on the left is of Democratic Socialism or of Social Democracy. This might seem an arcane argument to some but it actually indicates an argument of some substance that is at the core of much of the political confusion of the last 5-10 years.
For the last 100 years to be ‘left wing’ was to be anti- capitalist, or at the very least critical of capitalism. ‘Left-wingers’ are anti-capitalist because they believe that all humanity is part of one family and that we are all born equal with a mutual responsibility to each other and that capitalism inevitably creates a privileged elite who become unjustly wealthy by exploiting the labour of others. Whether you are a Communist, Socialist, Anarchist, Social Democrat, Democratic Socialist, Revolutionary Socialist or Libertarian Socialist, the one thing you have in common is that you are anti-capitalist… or at the very least critical of capitalism.
Liberalism on the other hand, is the belief that capitalist markets are the only route to ‘freedom’ and prosperity for all; that unregulated markets provide a genuine equality of opportunity that interfering, inefficient, governments never can. Liberals often share with the left a believe in our common humanity and a desire for equality of opportunity but they believe that capitalism and free markets are the route to achieving those ends.
For many liberals equality before the law IS equality and as a result we often end up in the liberal world of Identity Politics, which is the idea that progress will be achieved by each identity group fighting for its own liberation… within the current capitalist system.
This is a profoundly liberal rather than a ‘leftist’ project yet with the profound shift to the right of UK and US politics in the 90’s, liberal identity politics is what many now regard as ‘being left wing’, although in and of itself it really isn’t because although the freedom for women, homosexuals and people of colour to be equally exploited by capitalists is progress of a kind, it is not what socialists are fighting for.
Perhaps we better look at some definitions:
According to Wikipedia “socialism is a political, social, and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management of enterprises.”
The word ‘socialism’ is often associated with the economic theories of Karl Marx who described ‘socialism’ as not an end in itself but merely as a stage on the road to communism, although he never concisely defined the difference between the two.
But the word was actually coined a generation before Marx by Henri de Saint-Simon and the first self-conscious socialist movements developed in the 1820s and 830s (Fourierists, Owenites and Saint-Simonians). Indeed, in the 19th Century other non-Marxist anti-capitalist movements developed most notably Social Democracy and Anarchism, and these various groups came together in 1864 to form the First International. Thus despite what the Tories and the media like to tell us not all socialists are Marxists. Indeed, across the world the vast majority of people who self-describe as socialists are in fact definitely NOT Marxists.
There were a number of key ideas that united the Marxists, socialists, communists, anarchists and social democrats who formed the First International:
- A recognition that the logic of capitalism has built into it significant economic, moral and social injustices and that governments must take conscious and purposeful actions on behalf of their citizens to at least mitigate those injustices, if not eradicate them.
- That human beings are first and foremost social animals and that human society is a cooperative and collaborative enterprise involving mutual responsibilities.
- That equality and fraternity should be the primary values of society rather than individual liberty.
- That freedom from constraint was not the full extent of freedom, that to be meaningful ‘freedom’ had to include an equal opportunity to make choices. The ‘freedom to do’ something is as important as the freedom from restraint. Under liberal capitalism it is theoretically true that all people regardless of race, creed, gender or sexuality are free from any restraint regarding the choices of employment they might make. Theoretically ANYONE who is able can be a lawyer, or a doctor or start a business, or travel the world, or whatever… but in the real, lived-world of human experience in a capitalist world these choices are clearly NOT equally available to all.
However, the First International was also riven by factionalism from day one and there were serious and important differences that created the splits. I would summarise the key differences between the various groups as:
Marxists (either Communists or Revolutionary Socialists) believe that historical forces will inevitable lead to a popular revolution that will lead to the end of capitalism as a system, to be replaced with an economic and social system in which the means of production will initially be ‘owned’ by the state on behalf of the people (socialism) but in which the state itself will eventually wither away leaving the ownership of the means of production in the direct ownership of the people through workers co-ops etc.
Democratic Socialists seek the same aim as revolutionary socialists but they fear that the process of ‘revolution’ will inevitably lead to totalitarianism so they seek to achieve ‘socialism’ through the ballot box, i.e. they believe that in a representative democracy the voters will eventually vote for legislation that will in effect bring about the public ownership of the means of production… but without a violent or even rapid revolution.
Anarchists, sometimes described as Libertarian Socialists, do not believe that ‘the state’ can ever act on behalf of the people because “power corrupts” in all situations and all circumstances. Thus in a way they seek to jump straight to communism in which the state has withered away and the ownership of the means of production is in the direct ownership of the people through workers co-ops etc. [Note: Anarchists and ultra right-wing Libertarians often share a dislike of the institutional power both commercial corporations and governments, except that right wing Libertarians see ‘freedom from restraint’ as being the only freedom and see ‘free’ capitalist markets as a liberating alternative to institutional state power. Anarchists see the ‘power of the market’ as being just as oppressive as any other form of power.]
Social Democrats recognise that capitalism and markets can have positive outcomes but seek to restrain the self-destructive excesses of capitalism and channel the Government’s use of tax money into creating opportunities for everyone. Social Democrats believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not only to make profits for a few. A Social Democrat does not want to destroy private corporations, but does want to bring them under greater democratic control. Social Democrats believe that representative democracies are the best method of governing in the post-industrial world and that the democratically elected government could (and should) use regulations and tax incentives to encourage companies to act in the public interest and to outlaw destructive activities such as exporting jobs to low-wage countries and polluting our environment.
Liberals believe first and foremost in personal liberty, i.e. freedom from restraint and regulation and in the 19th Century it was credible to understand liberal, capitalist, individualism as being ‘progressive’ compared to the Aristocrats and Monarchists of the old Tories. The basic tenets of what became known as ‘Liberal Democracy’, i.e. free markets, free trade, equality before the law, representative democracy and freedom from constraint based on class, gender, sexuality etc, were undoubtedly improvements on monarchism and feudalism… but only if you looked away from the inhumane horrors brought about by capitalist exploitation, industrialisation and globalisation.
The conflation of liberalism (and particularly radical identity politics) with ‘the left’ is in my view at the core of many of our current political confusions.
This confusion was exacerbated by Blair’s reinvention of centrist liberalism as an alternative to traditional Labourist Social Democracy. Blair’s ‘Third Way’ was a theoretical justification for dumping all political principle and simply responding to voters wants as a commercial advertiser would do. Blair retained only the Old Labour ‘values’ that he thought were attractive to voters, but abandoned the traditional Labour Party social democratic critique of capitalism. This was symbolised by the removal of Clause 4 from the LP constitution.
As a result many on the Nationalist Right came to regard ‘the left’ as being synonymous with centrist, liberal, ‘politically correct’, radical, identity politics and many on the ‘soft left’ having little understanding of the distinctions and history described above make the same assumptions that the right do, i.e. that to campaign for identity rights is by definition to be ‘left-wing’. But part of my argument here is that to campaign for identity group rights without critiquing capitalism is not to be ‘of the left’ but is to be a liberal, which is not ‘of the left’ in any meaningful sense.
The Brexit debate was a prime example of this confusion. Globalisation is the Liberal mirror image of Socialist Internationalism. Both recognise the common humanity of people across the world but one seeks to allow them the ‘freedom’ to operate ‘freely’ in ‘free’ markets, the other seeks to unite workers of the world against capitalist exploitation.
Thus on the issue of the EU many economic liberals were Remainers because they see market-led, globalisation and membership of free-market trading blocks as ‘progressive’ in and of itself; some social liberals and right social democrats saw the EU as a statist source of protection for workers rights against capitalist exploitation in Europe and many socialists and left social democrats were opposed to the EU because they see it as an institution of oppressive globalised capitalism.
Yet particularly within the Labour Party, the debate was often portrayed as if to be ‘of the left’ you had to be a Remainer and to be anti-EU was by definition to be a racist, anti-immigration, right-wing Nationalist. During the debate I was often baffled how people who claimed to be ‘socialists’ could also be such vehement supporters of the EU, which from where I sit is manifestly an institution of an exploitative system of globalised capitalism.
So even within ‘the left’ there is immense confusion about what we are supposedly fighting for. Some think the aim of ‘the left’ is to simply ‘not be the Tories’. These people say things like,”Any government is better than the Tories” or “there is only one aim – to get the Tories out of power.” This only makes sense if you assume that simply due to ‘not being a Tory’ you automatically become a ‘good guy’… whatever actual policies you promote, i.e. “we are the good guys”, so if we are in power it will obviously be better than the Tories, whatever we do or say.
But that attitude got us to the position whereby millions of ‘left-wingers’ voted for and in some cases, fought for, a New Labour government that deregulated the stock market, introduced University fees, Academy Schools, Public/Private Partnerships and the outsourcing of NHS services to the private sector AND launched an illegal war against Iraq. Yet without the Labour Wall and the votes of many on the left, Blair, Mandelson, Campbell et al could not have won power. Is it true to say that Blair was ‘the lesser of 2 evils’ compared to John Major?
As Malcolm X famously said, “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”
These days many people seem to know what they are against i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia, climate change etc, but very few seem to have a clear idea of what they stand FOR.
Many seem to be fighting for the system we have now except without prejudice, ignorance, violence, inequality, poverty, stress, bullying, overwork, exploitation and carbon emissions. But maybe with the system set up as it is now those aspirations are simply not achievable? Maybe it is the system itself that has to be changed?
By the way for what it is worth I regard myself as reformist, “left social democrat”.
I am a Rooseveltian New Dealer, a Sprit Of ’45, Old Labour, Keynesian. I am healthily sceptical of ALL institutions of power and all sources of authority but I am not a cynic and believe that a well-educated and healthy democratic citizenry could and should, be the source of all government and private corporate power.
I do not accept that capitalism is ‘natural’. Human beings have always ‘traded’ with each other and for possibly 5,000 years have sold things to each other for a ‘profit’ using money. But those earlier forms of exchange are NOT ‘capitalism’. Capitalism is a system that legally seperates the ownership of the means of production from the people who actually undertake the production. This system had to be ‘invented’ in the 16th and 17th centuries and is an entirely legal creation.
In previous historical eras Aristocratic elites were maintained by the exploitation of slaves, serfs and peasants at the point of a sword. In the capitalist era elites are maintained by the exploitation of EVERYONE at the point of the sword of unemployment. Under capitalism workers are legally ‘free’ in a way that slaves, serfs and peasants were not but in reality the fear of poverty and unemployment mean workers are in effect ‘wage slaves’.
I reject statist solutions along with the revolutions that might bring them about, but I also reject free markets and unfettered capitalism. History shows us that violent revolutions almost always replace one set of psychopathic bastards with another set equally as bad. But history also shows us that unregulated capitalism inevitably gives rise to Dickensian London or the slums of Mumbai. I nonetheless recognise that commercial entrepreneurialism can have progressive outcomes and that in a managed, mixed economy, some form of commercial entrepreneurialism could be of use to humanity.
I also believe that the theoretical structure of liberal democracy in which government of the people is undertaken by the people and for the benefit of the people and in which the power blocks of the government, capital and the people (as represented by trade unions, pressure groups, civic society etc), act as checks and balances on each other, is potentially a good one, but one which unfortunately has never yet been fully realised due to the dominating power of capital.