The Failure of Left-wing Imagination

“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”
Fredric Jameson, “Future City”

Over the course of the last year North America and parts of Europe have seen the left return to a prominence that it has not had for decades. One aspect of this newly ascended left that has particularly struck me has been how limited its socialist imagination has remained. In the United Sates we find the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders to be the most popular politician in the country. In the United Kingdom, a committed socialist in Jeremy Corbyn is the apparent next prime minister. Meanwhile socialist organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America quintupled its membership in the matter of a few months. A majority of voters under the age of thirty-five express support for socialism and hold a negative view toward capitalism. Yet, despite this change in fortunes that few would have predicted even a couple years ago, many of the most prominent members of the left remain unable to imagine a socialism that goes beyond an idealized version of Scandinavian socialism.

Rather than demand radical anti-capitalism, many prefer a pragmatic fight for a few tangible goals such as universal healthcare or the $15 minimum wage. These are important causes in that they offer material improvements to the lives of millions and thus should not be discounted just because they are inadequate; however, the entirety of the socialist ambitions cannot be limited to recreating 1950s-60s social democracy. A defense for the current narrowness of left-wing imagination is that, as a friend put it to me on twitter, we have to work within the “window of possibility.” In other words, radical socialism is not possible at the moment and, therefore, we need to moderate our ambitions and focus on immediate, pragmatic goals. Social democracy dominated much of Euro-America until the 1980s and the social democratic policies like medicare/Medicaid remain extremely popular despite decades of conservative attacks. Thus, the revival of social democracy appears to be eminently practical. Social democracy did not come into being because it was the furthest left option available. It was, in fact, a rather weak compromise that sought to protect the core interests of capital against the socialist threat.

As I argued in a recent article about the right flank of the British Labour Party from the 1950s through to the present, pragmatism is the guise under which the centrist obscures anti-left ideology. In the case of Labour, its right-wing members persistently made the argument that the British are inherently conservative in nature; therefore, it was necessary to ease them into socialism. The British people might be amenable to specific socialist policies (for instance, the NHS, once it became established was, and remains, enormously popular), the argument went, but they had no truck with radicalism. Thus, socialism must be presented in a moderate package and doled out piece-by-piece so that people would have time to get used to the idea and not be overwhelmed by too much change all at once. In practice, however, the result of such an incremental approach is primarily to undermine socialism. Instead of working slowly toward ever greater socialism, the so-called moderates are unceasingly intransigent in their resistance to socialist objectives. Thus, the Labour right made significant contributions to the conditions that resulted in Thatcherism and once Thatcher was elected consciously took actions that ensured she remained in power.

It is not the moderates who affect left-wing change or get things done. Instead, the moderates are the ones who inhibit real change as they seek “pragmatic” “compromises” and “bipartisanship.” Their real objective is to protect capital against a left-wing “populism.” The consequence of this is that capital and the bourgeoisie maintain their positions of power and are able to undermine and undo leftist gains. The process by which social democracy has been undone by neoliberalism over the past forty years is one obvious example. A more rapid example can be seen in the speed by which the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has acted (with the support of the US) to break apart the important social gains achieved by the Bolivarian revolution.

We can see a possible alternative unfolding right now in Portugal. For years the country has been ruled by alternating centre-right and centre-left governments and the Troika was able to impose its austerity economics on the nation. However, recently the Portuguese left has gained enough political power to force the centre-left away from its neoliberal norms and toward more leftist, anti-austerity policies, which have been highly successful in the immediate term at improving the material conditions of the Portuguese people. It is essential to recognize that this would not have happened without the constant pressure of the Portuguese communists whose objectives are considerably more radical and whose imagination is far greater than simply reducing destructive, cruel and economically disproved austerity policies.

As Daniel Finn has recently explained in the New Left Review:

From the French and Italian communists to Denmark’s Socialist People’s Party, erstwhile radicals have been repeatedly drawn into service as impotent appendages of the centre left, and paid a stiff political price. By resisting the temptation to enter Costa’s government, and extracting modest but tangible concessions in return for external support, the Left Bloc and the pcp have steered a path between sectarian closure and political neutralization, and still have the opportunity to put more radical solutions to Portugal’s distress on the table when the next Euro-crisis intervenes.

The example of Portugal, then, provides a tangible example of the importance of a greater socialist imagination than just Scandinavian social democracy. It is only by constant, persistent pressure from a strong and committed radical left that meaningful leftist reforms will take place. As the Democratic Party has shown over the past few months, the corporate centrist will expend considerable effort and accept significant political cost in order to impede the implementation of a leftist agenda.

The Nancy Pelosis and Chuck Schumers of the world are not allies of the left and should not be expected to act as such. However, the self-identified left possesses a fairly broad range of views from the revolutionary communists to the socialists to the social democrats and it is crucial to recognize that part of what separates the Marxist-Leninist from the social democrat is the boldness of their imagination. The social democrat cannot imagine a world without capitalism and, therefore, considers it futile to try to achieve such a world. Because they lack a grand vision, social democrats are left to seek small victories within the confines of capitalism. Yet, as I have argued in this short piece, even these limited ambitions will not be accomplished without a robust radical left. Even if one believes that the path to socialism is through small, incremental gains over time, it is clear to me that these moderate gains will only occur under heavy pressure from the far left. Thus, it is essential that we do not limit our imagination of what can be achieved to merely Scandinavian social democracy.

There’s No Such Thing as Absolute Free Speech

The American Civil Liberties Union has once again thrust itself into controversy. This time the furor was caused by its plan to defend white supremacist and failed author Milo Yiannopoulos over the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s refusal to allow ads for his book be displayed on public transit. The ACLU has a long history of defending Nazi free speech and the case is consistent with their general purview. Indeed, it’s actually rather tame as far as the ACLU goes. Nonetheless, coming as it does at a time when fascism and white supremacy is more visible than has been the case since at least the 1960s, the ACLU appears highly misguided to many on the left.

The debate has tended to be framed as one side arguing we shouldn’t defend Nazi speech because it is hate speech and does real harm and the other side arguing in support of an ideal of absolute free speech. Glenn Greenwald, for example, takes this line in his discussion of the controversy. He summarizes the absolute free speech position in this way:

If you’re someone who cares about the free speech attacks on radical leftists, Muslims, and other marginalized groups, and tries to defend those rights in court, then you’re going to be genuinely afraid of allowing anti-free speech precedents to become entrenched that will then be used against you when it’s time to defend free speech rights. The ACLU is not defending white supremacist groups but instead is defending a principle.

Essentially, then, we must defend them because in doing so we also defend our own right to speech.

Unfortunately, I find the ACLU and Greenwald’s position on this issue to be hopelessly naïve at best and completely out of touch with the actual reality in which we live. Greenwald goes on to say:

It’s always those whose views are deemed most odious by the mainstream that are the initial targets of censorship efforts; it’s very rare that the state tries to censor the views held by the mainstream. If you allow those initial censorship efforts to succeed because of your distaste for those being targeted, then you lose the ability to defend the rights of those you like because the censorship principle has been enshrined.

There are two assumptions supporting this argument and, unfortunately, neither is true. The first is that fascism and white nationalism is marginal and politically irrelevant, which clearly does not correspond to reality. The fact is, the state does not discriminate equally against the right and the left. Under capitalism power will always favour the far right over even modest leftism because the far right does not undermine capital. The second problem with Greenwald’s argument is that it depends on the right to act in good faith. Unfortunately, in the real world the right does not care about protecting free speech or democratic values if doing so interferes with advancing right wing political objectives.

Moreover, free speech is already incredibly circumscribed and there will always be functional limitations to speech whether these restrictions be social, economic or legal. The ACLU argument is concerned only with defending against legal restrictions and does nothing to address the far more significant economic barriers to speech. As a socialist, what is far more important than defending absolute free speech is to focus on capitalist power structures and recognize whose speech is most vulnerable. Instead of expending resources on defending Nazis we must continue to attack the power structures that enable fascism. The reality is that attacking capitalist power includes denying speech to fascists. When Greenwald writes, “this overflowing naïveté is what I’ve always found most confounding about the left-wing case against universal free speech: this belief that state authorities will exercise this power of censorship magnanimously and responsibly,” he essentially misses the point. The state is an instrument of capital and these fights are not happening in the context of state power. The leftist opposition to fascist speech has little to no expectation that state authorities will be on our side. Indeed, the capitalist state is irredeemably the enemy.

To summarize, absolute free speech is not possible in the real world, which means there will always be certain factors impinging on individual free speech. Often this is a good thing because it is part of the basic social norms on which day-to-day social interactions depend. However, speech is also limited according to more problematic factors such as economic means. For instance, a wealthy person has greater resources to make their views known and less personal risk in doing so. Thus, the more important concern is to undo economic barriers as part of the primary socialist objective: destroying capitalism and establishing a classless society. We have to acknowledge that a classless society does not inherently mean a society with absolute free speech. There will almost certainly continue to be some degree of social, and likely legal, restrictions on speech, just these restrictions will no longer be defined by the interests of capital. The argument that we must defend Nazi speech because otherwise our speech is at risk too is absurd because left-wing and minority speech is already deeply circumscribed. Moreover, the entire argument depends on the good faith of the right when in reality the right does not give the slightest shit about protecting the left’s right to free speech. Ultimately when you are expending limited resources defending Nazi speech you aren’t defending free speech, you’re just defending Nazis.

It’s a Big Tent and You’re Not In It: A Short History of Labour Moving to the Right

A bit ago Tony Blair’s chief whip Hilary Armstrong was on the BBC talking about Jeremy Corbyn. She claimed that while Blair was Prime Minister he had protected Corbyn from being kicked out of the Labour caucus despite Corbyn regularly voting against the whip because Blair appreciated the different point-of-view that Corbyn brought to the table. The point of this story, for Armstrong, was to argue that the historical strength of the Labour Party, and especially under Blair’s leadership, was that it was a “broad church.” By rejecting dogmatism, the Labour Party was supposedly able to accommodate a diversity of political positions that reflected the UK as a whole. According to Armstrong, Corbyn’s personal leftist convictions have undermined this broad church coalition. Thus, it is imperative that Corbyn make room for so-called moderate Labour MPs and give them the same freedom to register their convictions that Blair supposedly gave Corbyn. Of course, this ignores that Corbyn spent his first year as leader trying to appease opposition from the right by members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who responded to Corbyn’s efforts by attempting to force him out as leader. One rather doubts that Blair would have been so ecumenical toward Corbyn if he had actually represented a threat to Blair’s leadership. Instead, Corbyn spent the entirety of the Blair administration relegated to the backseats and far from any actual position of power or influence.

Tony Blair, of course, was one of the leading practitioners of triangulation. Like Bill Clinton, his political ideology was based on the conviction that the electorate is essentially conservative in nature and for a left-wing or liberal party to succeed it needed to find the perfect goldilocks position. According to the triangulators of New Labour, Labour needed to cast-off its far left radicalism and move to the political center in order to win. When Blair won a sweeping victory in 1997 the theory seemed to have been proven. While Labour has been in decline ever since, those such as Hilary Armstrong who endorse Blair’s approach continue to maintain what Labour needs to do is adjust to the right to find the current vertex on the political triangle. There is, however, a long history of this debate between the left and right factions in left-wing parties (for example, look up the Mensheviks) and the notion that Labour needs to move to the right in order to win electoral victories was not invented by Tony Blair. Indeed, the debate has been raging for the entirety of the party’s history.

In 1945 and in the aftermath of the Second World War, Clement Atlee’s Labour Party shocked the British establishment by crushing Winston Churchill’s Tories in the 1945 General Election. Labour won nearly 50 percent of the vote and went from 154 to 393 seats in Parliament, resulting in a majority of 196 over the Conservatives. Labour took advantage of this substantial mandate to initiate an ambitious program of social democratic reforms. Major industries were nationalized and a public housing program was initiated in response to the deplorable slum conditions and widespread housing shortages faced by the poor. Most significantly, the National Health Services (NHS) was established in 1948 under the direction of the committed leftist Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. The Atlee Labour government’s achievements were substantial and significantly changed the shape of Britain for the better. However, Britain remained under the shadow of the Second World War and continued to be deeply constrained by debts. In 1950, five years after the war, war rations had yet to be lifted. Meanwhile, the benefits of Labour’s initiatives were yet to be fully realized. Thus, the nearly two hundred seat majority of 1945 was reduced to just five seats in the 1950 General Election. A year later Labour lost to Churchill’s Tories in an incredibly closely fought election that saw the Tories winning the majority of seats despite losing the popular vote.

Once the Tories got back into power they accepted the large part of Atlee’s reforms, adopting what was termed the Postwar Consensus. In doing so, the Conservatives managed to co-opt the popular elements of Labour’s program while also benefiting from coming into power as the UK finally began to recover from the strains created by the Second World War. Thus, Labour found itself stuck on the outside and the Conservatives looked to be securely ensconced on office for the foreseeable future.

During the Atlee administration there had been significant tension between the left and right factions of the Labour Party, which was divided into Bevanites (after the leader of the Labour left Nye Bevan) and the Gaitskellites (after the notable representative of the Labour right, Hugh Gaitskell). The tension between the Bevanites and Gaitskellites particularly began to build when Gaitskell, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced charges for NHS dentures and spectacles. As this violated the NHS’s principle of free treatment on which it had been founded, Bevan and Harold Wilson (the President of the Board of Trade) resigned in protest. After Labour lost the 1951 election, the tension continued to mount as Gaitskell and other members of the so-called moderate faction argued that Bevan and his supporters risked leaving the Labour Party irrevocably tainted with the stain of far-left radicalism—especially sensitive considering as Cold War tensions grew in the 1950s.

In the political climate that followed Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous secret speech in which he denounced Stalin and revealed the extent of Stalinist purges in the 1930s, Gaitskell and his supporters directly tied Bevanite radicalism to totalitarianism. For instance, Gaitskell claimed, “There are extraordinary parallels between Nye [Bevan] and Adolf Hitler. They are demagogues of exactly the same sort…There are minor differences but what is striking is the resemblance.” (Thus, the centrist claim that the far left and the far right are actually the same is nothing new, but simply the continuation of an old theme). Meanwhile the young Gaitskellite MP Roy Jenkins saw Labour’s 1955 defeat to the Tories, now led by Anthony Eden, as further proof that Bevanite radicalism was toxic to the majority of Britons. According to Jenkins, “the electorate is extremely Conservative-minded and we can never win except with the kind of attitude represented by the right-wing leadership.” Jenkins comments came in conjunction with Atlee’s resignation as leader following his defeat in the 1955 election.

For Labour to return to power, Jenkins believed, it would need to turn to its right flank and choose Hugh Gaitskell as leader. Jenkins’s position prevailed in the ensuing leadership contest and Gaitskell was chosen over Bevan. Despite widespread expectations that they would form the next government, Labour lost the 1959 general election to the Tories, now led by Harold McMillan (who had replaced Eden after Eden resigned in ill-health in 1957 following the humiliation of the Suez crisis).Tellingly, Gaitskell blamed his loss on Labour’s failure to depart “sufficiently from its old ‘working-class attitudes’” as the British people were ‘radical’ but not socialist and wanted a “‘left of centre radical party’ which would make social changes without being revolutionary or authoritarian.” Somehow for the centrists it is never their politics, but their party’s far left that is to blame for defeats.

In 1963 Gaitskell died suddenly at the age of 56. Led by the more left-wing Harold Wilson Labour was finally able to return to power after thirteen years when they achieved a narrow victory in the 1964 general election. Labour would form the government from 1964-1970 and again from 1974-79. After Wilson resigned in 1976 Labour was led by James Callaghan who lacked Wilson’s personal popularity. Meanwhile, the country was faced with economic crisis as inflation topped twenty-three percent in 1975. Efforts to combat this inflation strained relations between Labour and the trade unions and further exacerbated already high unemployment. Between by-election losses and defections with the breakaway Scottish Labour Party, by 1977 Callaghan was reduced to a minority government. After widespread union unrest through the winter of 1978-79, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives delivered a crushing defeat to Labour in the 1979 election.

Thatcher’s Tories represented a complete repudiation of the postwar social democratic consensus. As such, she set about to undo as much of Atlee’s welfare state as she could manage with the same determination as Bevan et al had shown when setting it up. Faced with such a comprehensive defeat Callaghan resigned and was replaced by grandee of the Labour left Michael Foot. Foot was seventy-seven years old and had first been elected to Parliament in 1945. Foot had not just been a committed Bevanite when Bevan was around for the term to mean something, but was Bevan’s biographer. The Labour right, who had been largely quiet during the electorally successful Wilson years, roared back to the fore in protest of Foot’s selection as leader. Foot, they bellowed, was a dinosaur of the past and was wholly unsuited to dealing with the present. Thatcher’s election demonstrated that the electorate had shifted significantly to the right and that the welfare state was failing. As they always do, the so-called moderates argued that Labour needed to move to the right if they were to have any hope of returning to power. As the voters had shifted right, so must Labour.

In this battle between the right and left, the right demonstrated their commitment to maintaining Labour as a big tent. A group of four prominent members of the Labour right, including our old friend Roy Jenkins, left the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party on the grounds that Labour had become infiltrated by Trotskyist factions and was too left wing. This so-called Gang of Four was eventually joined by twenty-eight Labour MPs. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party before the 1983 election and received twenty-five percent of the vote—only two percent less than Labour’s 27.5 percent; however, Labour won 209 seats to the SDP-Liberal Alliance’s 23 and the bulk of the 1981 defectors lost their seats. The principle accomplishment of the SDP, thus, was ensuring that Thatcher was comfortably re-elected and able to continue to dismantle the welfare state.

Despite the obvious role played by the SDP defection, Foot’s 1983 loss was seen as a repudiation of the left-wing manifesto on which Labour had run. Strongly socialist, the manifesto had advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes, more interventionist industrial policy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the nationalization of the banks, and the exit from the European Economic Community. Gerald Kaufman infamously called the 1983 manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history,” a sentiment that effectively summed up how it was received by the so-called moderates and the British establishment. Having lost the election, Foot duly resigned and the more right wing Neil Kinnock took his place. The SDP-Liberal Alliance held long enough to contest the 1987 election, but saw their support decline significantly. While the Liberals won the same number of seats as in 1983, the SDP were reduced to only five. As a result the SDP and Liberals merged in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, despite Labour’s shift to the right under Kinnock, Labour was unable to defeat Thatcher in 1987. There was one last gasp by the Foot wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1988 when a faction of left wing MPs, led by Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Kinnock’s leadership. In the ensuing leadership contest Corbyn and his supporters put up another old grandee of the Labour left, Tony Benn (first elected to Parliament in 1950). Kinnock comfortably defeated Benn’s leadership challenge as he received the support of nearly ninety percent of the vote in Labour’s semi-democratic leadership contest. Corbyn took his defeat gracefully stating that, “What we have achieved is a degree of activity and discussion of socialist values which would not have happened without the leadership contest” and that he believed would “result in stronger socialist policy in the long-run” for the Labour Party. With Kinnock’s leadership more firmly entrenched and Margaret Thatcher pushed out as Conservative leader, Labour went on to lose to John Major’s Tories in the 1992 general election. It was not until 1997, under the leadership of the Tony Blair, that Labour finally managed to defeat the Tories and end nearly two decades spent in the opposition.

For the Blairites, his 1997 election and subsequent re-elections in 2001 and 2005 proved the right flank of the party correct. It was Blair’s careful calibration of centrist policies designed to appeal to the widest swath of the electorate that led to Labour’s victories. Of course, when Blair won his first election the Tories had been in power for eighteen years. Considering that in an even moderately health democracy one party rarely holds office for such a long period of time, it seems rather more likely that rather than Blair’s political strategy being particularly transformative, the country was simply tired of the Tories and ready for an alternative. Regardless, Blair’s premiership meant that the Labour right, which had been fighting for dominance since Hugh Gaitskell was comparing the left-wing Nye Bevan to Hitler in the 1950s, had finally triumphed over its left flank.

Over the next thirteen years Labour largely governed like moderate Conservatives and continued to follow the neoliberal policies of deregulation, free trade and privatization initiated by Thatcher. When Labour lost to the Conservatives in 2010 the Blairites did not undergo any deep soul-searching about their policies; instead, they continued with the same old lines about the general conservatism of the British electorate and the need to follow a moderate path so as not to alienate swing voters. The rank-and-file membership saw things differently and after the mediocrity of Ed Miliband they chose the unabashedly left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Running on a left wing platform for the first time since 1983 (when Corbyn was first elected to Parliament), Labour refuted the expert prognosticators who saw Corbyn’s leadership and their left-wing manifesto as a repeat of Foot’s so-called suicide note. Instead, Labour achieved its largest gains since Atlee in 1945.

Far from on death’s door, Labour now sits as government-in-waiting. Tony Blair and his acolytes have responded to Corbyn’s leadership with constant opposition and direct challenges to his leadership. Going into the 2017 election, Tony Blair urged would-be Labour voters to instead vote for the Liberal Democrats or pro-European Union Conservatives rather than support Corbyn. Despite Corbyn’s electoral success the Labour right continues to challenge his leadership. Meanwhile Blair has begun to suggest a move reminiscent of Labour history, if the Labour right is unable to remove Corbyn as leader he and a collection of wealthy pro-EU donors like Richard Branson (who became a billionaire profiteering from Thatcher’s privatizations) have floated the idea of starting their own party. This despite the notable failure of the SDP the last time this was tried, despite Blair’s enormous unpopularity in the UK and despite the fact that a fiscally moderate, socially liberal, fervently pro-EU party already exists in the form of the Liberal Democrats and that platform managed only eight percent of the votes and twelve seats in the just completed election. But then, Blair’s ploy, like the SDP, is a power play than an electoral strategy. The Labour right is more interested in protecting their corporate friends and the cosmopolitan center of world finance which they have helped to transform London into at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom than they are concerned about defeating the Tories. Indeed, the Blairites have more in common with Theresa May than with Jeremy Corbyn.

So much for a big tent.