Talk to Socialist Society AGM 21.3.1992
Refounding the Left. Is there a role for a new party?
I am not sure that we are not asking the wrong question here. Why are we talking about a party when we should be talking about socialism? Refounding a party is not about re-founding the Left, it is about re-founding the party – a new-style, democratic, non-vanguardist party of course, but a party nevertheless.
It is to start out the wrong end, to work from the top down. It is to preoccupy ourselves with the mechanics, the logistics of organisation – of getting power even, parliamentary power – whereas our task is to create a political culture, a political movement which, in the process, would throw up the relevant political organisation, even a political party.
It is not the Labour Party that threw up the labour movement but the labour movement that threw up the Labour Party.
There may be a certain comfort in looking back to the past for guidance, for continuity. But the past is over, gone, done with. We are in the midst of a seismic social and political revolution brought about by a qualitative leap in the productive forces brought about by micro-electronics, computers, robots, lasers, optical fibres – brought about by a whole technological revolution. And all the signposts, guidelines, certainties, orthodoxies, dogma are all gone.
We’ve got to build socialism all over again – from the ground up – facing up to the changes that have taken place, however unpalatable they are, however much they go against our socialist grain. And what these changes say to us is:
1. That the working class as we used to know it – the industrial, factory-based working class – is no more. It has de-composed, de-constituted, dispersed – displaced by CADs, and CAMs and robots and lasers. In Japan there is a whole factory run by robotics and computers.
2 That the working class is not present in the same large numbers on the same factory floor or in the same industry anymore.
3 The industries that employed them in such vast numbers – the iron and coal and shipbuilding industries – are being wound down and/or exported to the newly industrialising countries where labour is cheap and captive.
4 The majority of the working class today is not in the industrial but in the service sector – which is the most difficult to organise.
5 The working-class movement does not have the same organisational force or the same economic clout that it had before.
6 Technology has made Capital more flexible, its plant more mobile. It is no longer at the mercy of the domestic workforce. It can take up its plant and walk to any labour pool anywhere in the world – and set up global assembly lines stretching from the Silicon Valley in California or Silicon Glen in Scotland to the free trade zones of Sri Lanka and Singapore.
Consequently, Capital is not as vulnerable as before to the exigencies of domestic labour or the strictures of the domestic labour movement.
All this does not mean that there is no working class anymore or that there is no exploitation anymore – but that the centre of gravity of exploitation has shifted to the Third World, that the most oppressed and exploited sections of the working class are in the Third World. That is where the depredations of Capital have moved to – that is where it extracts absolute surplus value from the work force, debases and degrades women and children and pollutes and devastates the environment.
The decomposition of the white working class does not mean the disappearance of the working class as a whole. (The working class is alive and well or not so well – living in the Third World.) But this change in working class fortunes is something the left has not been prepared to accept partly because of its crass Eurocentric blindness and partly because it cannot bear to part with the notion of a revolutionary industrial working class for its own ideological comfort and certainty.
There was a time when the left fancy-feathered its very nest with slogans and inspiration from Ho Chi Minh and the Sandinistas – but today when imperialism tramps untrammelled through our countries the left remains silent.
7 The release of Capital from Labour, the comparative emancipation of Capital from Labour has left a moral vacuum in the heart of post industrial society which is itself material.
All the bourgeois freedoms of industrial capitalism – freedom of speech, and of assembly, freedom to withhold one’s labour – came out of the tension, the hostility, between Capital and Labour. The Factory Acts, the Education Acts, the Public Health Acts – all the gains of the period of industrial capitalism were the creative outcome of social contradictions. The welfare state was its apotheosis. But the weakening of the working class movement and of the working class – the weakening of those valiant forces that fought for human freedom and human worth – has loosened those socialist values and socialist morality from its tethering post and universalised the values and morality of grocer capitalism instead.
Our first task as socialists is to combat that culture of individualism and selfishness, of greed establish instead the communal values of socialism. But this time we will have neither the mortal combat between Capital and Labour in which those values were forged nor the working-class movement to which those values were tethered. We will have to forge them instead on the smithy of our socialist souls and tether them to our socialist conscience.
It is almost as though we have been thrown back on free will – and have to choose to be socialists, live as socialists, become socialist men and women even before socialism. And this is not to be metaphysical. For in the epoch of the information society – in the age of information, of communication, of ideology – the battle for values, for morality, for communal values, for socialist morality is as material as poverty.
8 On the other side of the balance sheet, however, the use of new social forces – such as the women’s movement, the blacks, the gays, the greens, etc. – have restored the balance of justice, of equality, of democracy to the socialist project. That is not to say that the new social forces are socialist per se, or that they are, as the post-marxists would have it, the new agents of social change – but to say that within them are the seedlings of democratic organisation and mobilisation that pre- figures the new socialism. The quality of life that African-Caribbeans, and Asians have fought for, for instance, and the way they have mobilised their communities, jointly and separately over particular cases, turning them into issues and creating, in the process, whole communities of resistance, are pointers to the new socialism.
9 Finally, there are whole groups of people all over the country who are organising and protesting and demonstrating over issues that immediately concern them. They too may not be socialist but they are the leaven of socialism. And it is the business of socialists, of the socialist movement to be of service to these groups and advance their causes, and connect to other groups and other causes – to serve them, not instruct them, to connect them, not direct them. That is socialist pluralism.
10 One last point. Along with the talk of a S.P. there has been talk too of how such a party would gain representation through proportional representation. But this, in my view is the most defeatist thing we can do. It is to say that we would settle for a share in power, not take power (to change society). It is to accept the status quo with slight modifications, not to have the power to alter it radically. That, for me, is not socialism. It is to accept the prevailing political culture as given and to tinker with it to gain representation. Our task as socialists is to create a political culture, a socialist culture, over a period of time,
Through the good things that have come down to us from the labour movement, such as loyalty and solidarity and camaraderie and unity.
Socialism is both the process and the goal.