Thursday 20 August 2015

If You Seek a Revolution ...

Busy at the moment so no time for blogging, which is a touch annoying considering what's happening. Here then is another guest post, this time from Robin Wilde. Robin is from Sheffield and is backing Andy Burnham for leader, but he comes here not to proselytise but to let new members know (warn?) about the traditions they're likely to encounter.

With 300,000 people having just signed up for the Labour Party, I’ve come to wonder if they all know what they’re getting themselves in for. I don’t say that to be unkind or tribal - I want as many people as possible to belong to the Labour Party, to get involved with its campaigns and its culture. But I want them first to understand what it is, and why it might not be what they think it is.

On the continent, the main parties of the centre-left find their history in the revolutions of the 19th century. The Parti Socialiste in France can trace its lineage to the battle lines of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the German SPD hails from Marxist groups in the 1860s. The Partito Democratico in Italy is a descendent of the Italian Communists.

Noble histories, all. The first fighters for liberty, equality and fraternity marching their way through fraught periods of crackdowns, war and dictatorship and emerging on the other side of that treacherous pass to found new post-war nations of economic strength and relative levels of social justice and equality. They made lives better.

But just as it would be wrong to denounce their history, it would be wrong to co-opt their history as part of our own.

In the words of Morgan Phillips, the Welsh mineworker who served as Labour’s General Secretary during the 1950s, Labour “owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.” From our roots in the Liberal-Labour pact of the 1880s onwards, we have never been a revolutionary party, nor sought to become one.

We were always a radical movement, but radical in the sense of wishing to extend opportunity and liberty across the board. We founded working men’s libraries to give education to those denied it. We founded trade unions - fought for them, died for them - but not to flip the country on its head. We did it to extend a hand to management they did not always want to grasp, to work with them, be recognised and respected as equals in our labour - “by hand or by brain”, in the words of the old Clause IV.

Dan Hannan, perhaps the most radical of Conservative Eurosceptics, and a man with which few in my party will find many points of agreement, said this in a 2012 Telegraph article:
The proudest achievements of the British Left, down the years, have involved the dispersal of power from closed elites to the general population. This high-minded ambition led to religious toleration, legal rights for women, the extension of the franchise, universal education.
He is right. Our greatest achievements have been to liberate people from forces which held back their potential. We freed millions from the crippling poverty of old age. The worry and stress of healthcare paid through the nose. The indefensible practice of legal gender pay segregation.

But we didn’t do that by being angry - though anger and radicalism are powerful tools - we did it by being respectably high-minded, by never talking over those who opposed us, but by responding to their arguments with reason and with passion, and not giving way. The best way to get what we wanted wasn’t to smash them out of the way, but to get them to agree.

Labour members have traditionally been, with notable exceptions, a small-c conservative body. They are not wholly devoted to the party or to politics, and that reflects itself in the party’s culture at the lower levels. These are people who’ve got through the last century in a socialist party running raffles, sharing photos of their cats, taking their kids to Scouts meetings and attending impassioned speeches after which nobody takes to the barricades, but everyone goes to the pub.

These are not people without belief or compassion. It is their compassion for the rest of humanity that makes them members, that has them out traipsing through mud and driving rain to deliver immediately-binned leaflets for a by-election to an unwinnable ward on the borough council.

It used to be a source of mockery for the socialist city council in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that they were ‘sewer socialists’, more concerned with their excellent drainage system than fighting the class struggle. We took that attitude, of gradual, understated but meaningful improvements in the living conditions of the majority, and turned it into a virtue. A very British kind of socialism.

We look now like we’re about to take a path never before trodden. It will be only the second time in our history that the most left-wing option has won a leadership election - and the first time, with Michael Foot, put an established cabinet minister and academic into the post. We are in territory unknown, and about to put to the electorate the most radical platform seen in 30 years. Come what may, I know that the members will stand by it.

That program will excite a lot of people. But from a party of kindly schoolteachers with five cats, idealistic students discovering politics for the first time, gruff trade unionists playing darts in the pub, eccentric scientists with bald patches and odd socks, don’t expect it to look like any progressive uprising you’ve seen before. A party of passion and principle and camaraderie, yes. But if you seek a revolution, look elsewhere


BCFG said...

The utter contempt that the Blairites show for even mild social democracy is truly staggering.

What is more staggering is the utter contempt the Blairites have for Corbyn's supporters, who they clearly view as deluded cretins and fools who are ruled by emotion rather than the logic.

Oh and by the way your laughable and short 'historical sketch' of labour party history wouldn't fool a child just arrived from Mars. And don't give me this 'we' bollocks, I was wearing vote labour stickers before you were born.

We think it is time for the Blairites to go, we don't want revolution we just want our party back please.

Igor Belanov said...

There must have been a lot more to British left-wing politics than you think, because that lot wouldn't get anyone out of their armchair.

And I'm not going to thank you for trotting out all the old cliches and contrasting British pragmatism with Continental Marxism. Most of the Western European parties were just as reformist and gradualist in practice as the left has been here, and Chartism, even of the Moral Force strand, was still an essentially revolutionary aim at the time.

malesocfem said...

What on earth is the point of this letter? I mean, this isn't the 1980s. There isn't, unless I'm overlooking something, some sizeable contingent of Trotskyist entryists looking to take over the Labour party and turn it into a revolutionary vanguard organisation. Indeed, as far I know, the remnants of Labour's Trotskyist wing, nowadays organised around Socialist Appeal magazine, remain as enfeebled as they have been for the last quarter-century or so.

Does the author of this letter know something I don't? Because it strikes me as very odd that a Labour party member would go to the trouble of penning a letter bloviating about how Labour is a reformist party and cautioning against wannabe revolutionaries joining its ranks when, at least as far as I'm able to discern, there doesn't seem to be anything to justify it.

Johnnyf said...

I think he goes too far , there may me a few far left types enthused by recent developments but I would suggest that the majority would fit perfectly with the parties values . I can only speak for myself as a long standing member I had become increasingly dismayed by the way that the party had moved and how it was managing its affairs . The positive way in which policies and principles have been received in this election from one candidate has felt like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the bland patronising approach of the other three who still seem to suggest that the comfort of a few more crumbs from the top table following an election win on conservative policies to be acceptable politics .

I hope that whatever the outcome we end up,with a much stronger opposition to neo liberal economic policies , promotion of a greater level of political awareness in our communities and seek to become a party that empowers people rather than one run by elites . Hopefully that is not too revolutionary

Chris said...

"It will be only the second time in our history that the most left-wing option has won a leadership election"

What about 1963? Wilson was to the left of Callaghan and Brown.

Igor Belanov said...

When you consider that all the leadership elections before 1983 only involved the PLP, it's not comparing like-with-like anyway.

Phil said...

"Extending a hand to management"? My grandfather was a miner; he struck in 1926 and stayed out for ten months, until management starved them back to worse terms than those they'd struck against. Tell him about wanting to work with management; tell my father, who never forgot the humiliation of being fed at soup kitchens. That's our history - that's where the unions came from. And they didn't get from there to beer & sandwiches at number 10 by being more reasonable, they did it by staying angry (oops, staying passionate), keeping a firm hand on the Labour Party and building up their strength.

The organised Labour party has always been to the Right of its base, and the leadership has always been to the Right of the party. Blair pushed that model to its limit, denouncing the party Right as excessively left-wing and severing any links to the base which got in his way. Now, the base is making itself heard - and with no convenient Tory collapse to exploit, the Right and the leadership have little to offer to counter it. Interesting times!