What we should talk about when we talk about socialism

By Daniel Randall, railway worker and RMT rep (and socialist)

The Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto was its most radical for a generation. Its policies offered a real clawing back of wealth and power from the richest in society, and some of them pointed towards a far greater degree of social ownership, advocating the renationalisation of the railways, postal service, and some utilities, and pushing the market and private sector out of healthcare. These policies suggest a different type of society: Labour MPs frequently talked during the election of an “alternative to austerity”, or an “alternative to neoliberalism”. The manifesto did not, however, and nor did many Labour MPs, talk about that different type of society in explicit terms. Few would describe their aim as “socialism”, and even the main Labour left group Momentum does not refer to itself explicitly as “socialist”. John McDonnell is one of the few Labour MPs who does talk explicitly about socialism; this article is an attempt to draw out what it might mean to name the Labour Party’s aim in those terms, written before the election following a rally in Liverpool.

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While in Liverpool for a union conference, I was able to attend a Labour Party election rally, where the “star turn”, as compère Peter Dowd, the MP for Bootle, called him, was Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

The rally was packed with an enthusiastic and boisterous crowd, which gave McDonnell a standing ovation practically the minute he appeared. John’s speech was stirring, and consisted mainly in setting out Labour’s key policies – on health, on housing, on education, on wages, and workplace rights. Towards the end, he used a rhetorical flourish I’ve heard him deploy a few times before: “We want a society that’s radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic”, he says, then asks the crowd, “what do we call that society?” “That’s right,” John finishes, repeating the calls that have inevitably come from the audience, “we call it ‘socialism’”.

The little motif is powerful. It is a deliberate break with the Labour Party’s immediate past, where “socialism” was a dirty word, and a defiant statement from its new leadership that Labour is once again prepared to talk about social transformation. It drew warm applause from the crowd at St. George’s Hall.

And John is right, of course: socialism would certainly be “radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic” than the society we have now. But plenty of societies could be “radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic” than our current one, and still not be socialist. With a leadership at least ostensibly prepared to encourage, rather than stifle, discussion of socialism within the party, and faced with an election that acutely poses the question of what kind of society we want to live in, this is as good a moment as there’s been for generations for Labour Party members and activists, who call themselves “socialists” as a matter of political reflex, to discuss what “socialism” actually means.

Some caveats to what follows: this article is not intended as a pedantic quibble that what McDonnell is proposing isn’t “really” socialist. Nor is it intended to dismiss or trivialise the overwhelmingly positive impact that Labour’s current policy programme, if implemented, would have on the material conditions of life for millions of working-class people. A choice between socialism and capitalism is not, with the best will in the world, on the ballot papers on 8 June. A choice between a Tory party that will continue to govern unashamedly in the interests of the rich, and a Labour Party that will govern, at least to some extent, in the interests of working people, is.

This article presupposes that a Labour Party that calls itself “socialist”, and talks explicitly about building a socialist society, is a good thing. It is intended as a contribution to a discussion about what the content of that “socialism” should be.

John McDonnell is perhaps the most Marxisant Labour MP since Eric Heffer, prepared to acknowledge Marx, Lenin, Trotsky as political influences, much to the horror of the right-wing press. His long years of service to the labour movement make clear that he understands the centrality of workplace organisation and workers’ struggle. But his stated point-of-reference for the government he and Corbyn would lead is the Labour government of 1945: a great reforming government, without a doubt, but was Britain a socialist society between 1945 and 1951?

Any combative, socialist Labour Party should have a programme for radical reforms, but socialism must be more than an aggregation of reforms. Notwithstanding this, however, dogmatically recapitulating the “reform or revolution?” debate that has historically divided the socialist movement is not the best starting point for this discussion, and would miss the point, at least at this stage.

I am a revolutionary: I do think any attempt to build a new society will require a decisive confrontation with the capitalist state, which has strong self-defensive instincts that kick in whenever its power is meaningfully threatened. But it is not my immediate aim to advocate that Labour should include a commitment to forming workers’ militias its manifesto. What I want to convince fellow activists of in the immediate term is that socialism must be a genuinely different society, with the rule of capital decisively broken, not merely tempered or hemmed in by social-democratic policy reform, and that organised labour is the key agency for affecting that change.

Minimally, breaking the rule of capital must mean widespread social ownership of industry. The Corbyn-led Labour Party has, so far, shied away from advocating widespread nationalisations, perhaps in part out of a legitimate and laudable desire not to be seen as advocating an “Old Labour” state-capitalism often seen as lumbering and bureaucratic. But there is more than one model for how nationalisations might work, and for how nationalised industries might be organised.

Labour’s current policies for the energy sector, for example, talk of regulating prices and breaking up the dominance of the “Big Six” energy companies (which McDonnell referred to in his Liverpool speech as a “cartel”), and setting up publicly-owned regionally-based energy companies to compete with the private giants, but stop well short of advocating that energy provision, or even just the “Big Six”, be nationalised. Labour wants to set up a “National Investment Bank” to fund communities, but won’t advocate public ownership of the banking sector as a whole. For sure, nationalised industry does not in and of itself equal “socialism”, or even, necessarily, something inherently better than private industry. But genuine social ownership – collective, democratic ownership of the means of producing and distributing wealth in society – must surely be a bedrock of any socialism worth the name. Can a policy platform that leaves, for example, the provision of utilities, and the vast amounts of wealth generated by the finance sector, in private hands meaningfully be called “socialist”?

McDonnell, rightly, says that socialism will be “radically more democratic” than the current system, and it remains to be seen what proposals for democratic reform will make it into Labour’s manifesto. Socialism must surely mean a radical deepening and extension of democracy, removing power from the unelected and unaccountable, and implementing rights of recall to transform the role of our political representatives from technocratic specialists administering an essentially plutocratic system into delegates who are genuinely accountable to those who elected them.

Underlying the whole issue is the question of agency: who is socialism to be made by? The implied perspective of the current Labour leadership is that “socialism” will be established almost by default when a Labour government is elected and implements its programme of radical reforms. This somewhat improbable scenario implicitly renders the likes of Chuka Umuna and Wes Streeting as part of the socialist vanguard; perhaps, then, we need to look elsewhere for our agents of socialist transformation.

If socialism means breaking the rule of capital, it must be broken at the point where it is most fundamentally exercised: the workplace. If socialism means genuinely democratic social ownership of the “means of production”, to use an old-fashioned phrase, that social ownership must be administered by those engaged in the process of production. The agency for socialist change, in other words, can only be the organised working class.

Labour’s commitment to repeal the Tory anti-union laws is welcome, and essential, but must go further. Rolling back the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act is a start, but it has long been McDonnell’s stated aim to scrap all anti-union legislation, not just the most recent. That must be pushed forward in government. Freeing workers to effectively organises against our bosses is, in a profound sense, a prerequisite for the rest of Labour’s policy platform. Even a moderate social-democratic reform programme is likely to require action from a militant and assertive labour movement to defend its implementation from employers eager to find ways to circumvent, undermine, and sabotage it. Labour needs to anchor workers’ struggle firmly at the heart of its political agenda if it is to meaningfully talk about socialist transformation.

At the Liverpool rally, Liverpool Walton MP Steve Rotheram, Labour’s candidate for the newly-created Liverpool City Region mayoralty, began his speech by invoking the memory of the 1911 Liverpool transport strike, during which many demonstrations took place on St. George’s Plateau, next to St. George’s Hall.

What he did not mention, and what no-one on the platform at the rally mentioned, was that a group of local transport workers had in fact been on strike rather more recently than 1911 – that very day, in fact – and had been picketing across the road from St. George’s Hall at Lime Street station until a few hours before the rally began. Northern Rail workers had been striking against the imposition of “Driver Only Operation”; if Labour is serious about empowering workers to stand up for their rights, why not have one of them address the rally? Why not, at least, mention their strike? Labour is, after all, committed to renationalising the railways. It was a perfect opportunity to connect Labour’s policy to a live struggle.

The presence of striking Northern Rail workers would undoubtedly have embarrassed certain local Labour figures. Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, and Rotheram himself, have been at best lukewarm, and at worst outright hostile, to Northern Rail, MerseyRail, and other railworkers’ strikes. This is an irreconcilable tension; Labour cannot be both a party of socialism and a political home for people who are hostile to the self-assertion of the necessary agents of socialist change.

For the Labour Party to contribute to the socialist transformation of society, the Labour Party itself must be transformed. McDonnell and Corbyn could do worse than to increase their efforts to make the party “radically fairer, radically more equal, and radically more democratic” than it is now.

A discussion within the party, and wider movement, about what we mean by “socialism” cannot be put off to some future point where we may have more “time”. The general election is being fought on unfavourable terrain, in circumstances not of our own choosing. But despite the unfavourable conditions, the election nonetheless represents an opportunity for the Labour Party, and wider labour movement, to assert an alternative political vision.

There will be some pressure within Labour’s campaign not to initiate wider discussions, but to focus on the hard graft of electioneering in the hope of defending seats and kicking out the Tories. But even in sheer electoral terms, winning a Labour government requires people to believe in, to be persuaded of, Labour’s political narrative, and to have at least some degree of conscious ownership over it, in the sense of understanding what it would mean in their own life. That requires, above all, political discussion and education.

Labour’s vision is one that, for the first time in a generation, the leadership of the party is not ashamed to call “socialist”. All of us who share that political aspiration have a responsibility to discuss what we mean by it. Only through that discussion can we hope to thrash out a political strategy that can make the vision a reality.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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