Issue 200 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature Article: Socialism since the seventies

Lindsey German

The first issue of Socialist Review appeared over 18 years ago. It was an important time to launch a new socialist monthly. We were four years into a Labour government which had been elected on the back of a wave of class struggle, but which had failed to live up to any of its promises.

Those were years of crisis, of a Social Contract between government and unions, of falling real wages and the first substantial cuts in public spending for decades. They were also years when the fascist National Front grew to frightening proportions, threatening to replace the Liberals as the third party electorally in parts of London, the Midlands and Lancashire. Those who tried to confront the nazi threat on the streets also found themselves up against the police who defended the fascists' 'right to march' and Labour leaders such as Michael Foot who denounced the left as no different from the nazis.

It was a testing time for socialists. The left had been reborn internationally through the great struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In country after country the old values and ways of doing things had been challenged and a new mood of change had arisen. It seemed, as one of the slogans of the time put it, that everything was possible.

But the promises of the first half of the decade were not fulfilled in its later years. The mood of revolutionary or radical change was replaced by attempts at compromise between the capitalist class and the representatives of the working class ­ the trade union and labour leaders saw no alternative but to accept what little was on offer from a crisis ridden capitalism. This led to a change in the working class movement. In Britain the confidence and strength which had marked the early 1970s was being dissipated. The trade union leaders moved to the right, to the extent of even sanctioning scabbing on strikes in certain situations. Strikes became much more defensive rather than offensive, and shop stewards' organisation ­ which had formed the backbone of the upturn in struggle of the early 1970s ­ was seriously eroded.

So Socialist Review was launched against a background of crisis; the crisis of reformism internationally. As Tony Cliff argued in our first issue:

'if the job of trade unionists is to get benefits within the framework of capitalism, then the sicker the capitalist system the more concessions the workers must make to the system. This is the reason why left reformists who were ready to fight when capitalism was doing well will not fight when capitalism is doing badly.' (April 1978)

The reformists had grown as a result of the struggles of the previous decade. When those struggles subsided they found themselves and their organisations well placed and established to give a lead to young militant workers in a way that the revolutionaries still could not. They tended to channel the aspirations of these workers into electoral politics, arguing that electoral changes would bring the sorts of reforms that were wanted.

But the crisis of reformism also became a crisis of the revolutionary left, as those who had looked to street fighting and student vanguards in the late 1960s looked to manoeuvres with the electoral parties to make advances. Chris Harman debating with Tariq Ali in the Review in 1978 argued that revolutionaries were too influenced by the Eurocommunists, as the new 'democratic' Communist parties called themselves, and that, 'for these people the failure of the last ten years is a failure of revolutionaries to dilute their ideas in the direction of various reformist currents, not a failure to fight reformism in the factories through the building of a revolutionary party.' (May 1978)

Yet diluting their ideas in the direction of various reformist currents was precisely the course which many revolutionaries and former revolutionaries were taking. The idea that the only advance in a period of working class retreat could be made through electoral change became more dominant. This was coupled with increasing criticisms of those who attempted to build revolutionary organisation. Such criticism came from some who had always criticised this strategy ­ the Communist Parties, for instance, whose own recent history had been rigidly Stalinist but who now claimed revolutionary organisation as 'dogmatic' 'rigid' or 'sectarian'.

It also came from the 'movements', especially members of the women's movement, who counterposed their own 'autonomous' organisation to socialist organisation. A group of Hackney socialist feminists claimed to:

'have been grappling with questions relating to organisation, within or without the left groups. Many of us have been, at some time in our lives, in left groups for years and some of us were socialists before we were feminists! We are now feeling towards a balance between the spontaneism of the women's movement and the old bourgeois centralist hierarchies we've experienced and have witnessed in left groups.' (November 1978)

This splintering of the left and the inward looking approach which developed took acute forms in some countries ­ especially in Italy where the once flourishing revolutionary left collapsed. In Britain the process was accelerated by the election of a Tory government under Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

The bitterness and sense of betrayal felt by many workers at the disastrous policies of the Callaghan government was reflected in the move to the left inside the Labour Party. The Labour Coordinating Committee, set up in the dog days of Callaghan's administration, was an umbrella grouping of the left around Tony Benn, the most prominent left figure. The left called for an alternative economic strategy ­ of more public ownership, state intervention, industrial democracy and import controls ­ plus a democratisation of the Labour Party to make its leadership more accountable to the members.

Winning constitutional changes inside Labour became of paramount importance for the left over the next two years. Those who argued that the real struggle lay elsewhere were regarded as irrelevant. And because of the defeats inside the workers' movement (for example that of the steel strike in 1980) the activities and campaigns which did take place tended to reinforce the argument about joining Labour and winning electoral change, rather than generating rank and file organisation from below. So the huge demonstrations in various cities against unemployment and the movement against the missiles which grew up in response to the new Cold War in 1980 tended to strengthen the Labour left.

The feminists too were moving towards the Labour Party. Beyond the Fragments, an influential book by three socialist feminists which came out in 1979, argued that there needed to be an alternative to traditional left wing organisation ­ one based on pulling together the various local groupings and fragments in the 'community'. However, the main point of the book, as Sue Cockerill pointed out at the time, was to polemicise against Leninist and other socialist forms of organisation. 'The politics of its authors are defined negatively in the main, as a reaction against the revolutionary left rather than a positive political strategy.' (May-June 1980)

The truth of this statement was borne out as the local community campaigns became subsumed into a rush towards the Labour Party ­ encompassing eventually at least two of the authors of the book itself.

So the left which was large and varied in the 1970s came under increasing pressure to abandon any independent existence and become part of a Labour Party whose left was promising good times just around the corner in the form of constitutional reforms and electoral success: a left government. The Labour left and their enthusiastic new recruits forgot that Labour's manifesto on which it fought the 1974 election had been as left wing as anything it had produced; the problem there was that Healey and Callaghan were not accountable. This time it would be different.

It is difficult now to remember the mood of euphoria which swept so many of the left, and the difficulty that revolutionary socialists had in maintaining their argument that elections changed little and that it was struggle from below that really mattered.

The sense of unreality which gripped the Labour left was most dramatically illustrated in its response to the special Labour conference at Wembley in January 1981, when left constitutional changes won. Virtually all the left was jubilant, despite the warning of Chris Mullin in Tribune that the final outcome of the vote combined 'brilliant tactics on the part of the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, pigheadedness on the part of some right wing union leaders and a fair dose of good luck' (Tribune, 30 January 1981). Militant described it as a 'great victory. The block vote will become a vital transmission belt for the demands of an aroused and mobilised working class' (Militant, 30 January 1981). 'Wembley was a famous victory for the labour movement' wrote the 29 January 1981 issue of Socialist Challenge, paper of the Fourth International. Our lead article was entitled 'an illusory victory' and made the point that little had changed. It went further: the centre and right of the party would regroup to defeat the left. Already the defection of the 'gang of four' to form the SDP was being used as a means of enforcing discipline on the left and moving the party to the right.

This was an argument which few wanted to hear. Years of frustration, of defensive struggles and of first right wing Labour government and now an aggressive Tory one led most of the left towards seeing electoral change as the most open to them and the most 'realistic'. Building independent socialist organisation had been hard and was likely to get harder; surely it was better to join a ready made Labour Party where the left had been revitalised and was growing?

The Labour left was also greatly boosted by the election of François Mitterrand as president of France in May 1981. Tribune described his election as the 'first salvo in the attack to drive back the madness of monetarism which has affected so much of the Western industrial world.' (Tribune 15 May 1981)

Looking back to the legacy of Mitterrand ­ mass unemployment, austerity, corruption, attacks on immigrants, the growth of the fascist Le Pen ­ it seems almost incredible that the French revolutionary paper Rouge could write:

'An immense hope is born. The French workers have just won a substantial victory. It needed the general strike of 1968, then years of struggles and battles, often fought under difficult conditions, to lead to the defeat of the bourgeois parties and the opening of a new period. The victory of François Mitterrand is not only evidence of the rejection by a majority of the policies carried out for seven years by Giscard and the employers, it is also the expression of a victory, of a will for radical change, a will to get rid of a society which exploits and oppresses the workers.'

Such talk was characteristic of much of the left in the early 1980s, and created dangerous illusions in what could be achieved through electing 'left' governments. Not only did they give the impression that the logical conclusion of the big struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s was the election of such a government they also suggested that the most important thing revolutionaries could do was help elect such a government.

In Britain this fervour reached its peak in the Benn for deputy campaign, where Benn stood as deputy leader of the Labour Party against right winger Denis Healey. Huge enthusiasm greeted his candidacy, and he attracted very big audiences of Labour supporters all round Britain.

Such was the attraction of Labour that our summer issue of 1981 had as its lead article 'The case for keeping out of the Labour Party'. In it we described that what characterised the early years of the 1980s was a political upturn ­ growth in the Labour Party, the creation of new Broad Lefts in the unions, the movement of Bennism itself ­ coupled with an industrial downturn. Unless at some point the working class struggle began to recover to match the political upturn, then the political upturn would itself decline towards the level of industrial struggle.

Again, this was very much a minority view. Many of those most identified with revolutionary politics flocked to join Labour, seeing the movement around Benn as one of the biggest threats to the capitalist system. So Tariq Ali, writing in this Review in December 1981 in an article entitled 'Why I'm joining the Labour party', stated that 'Benn's programme of reforms will meet fierce resistance from the capitalist class and its state bureaucracy' and that it could 'throw the bourgeoisie on the defensive'.

Even when Benn lost the deputy leadership by the narrowest fraction, many on the left considered this only as a temporary setback. They believed that one final push could win. But the final push never came. The autumn of 1981 in reality represented a turning point and from then on they were increasingly on the defensive in what was a long retreat from the heyday of Bennism.

The leadership offensive inside the Labour party was reinforced by the electoral success of the SDP. The gap between the political upturn ­ 2,000 turned up to hear Michael Foot in Glasgow's Hillhead by-election in early 1982, another 2,000 to hear Benn ­ and the reality of the general level of passivity and demoralisation inside the working class was dramatic, as Labour lost ground from its 1979 election showing and came third with the SDP victorious.

Michael Foot and the Labour leadership blamed the defeat on the left and by the autumn ­ the left further weakened by Labour's jingoism during the Falklands War ­ the Labour conference showed how far the party had shifted within a year.

The right wing won a majority on the party NEC, courtesy of the trade union block vote, and launched a witch hunt against Militant. Benn had agreed earlier in the year under the 'peace of Bishop's Stortford' engineered by union leaders including Jack Dromey today a Blairite of the TGWU not to stand for the leadership election. As the next election loomed so the humiliation of the left got worse, culminating in the defeat of left candidate Peter Tatchell in a by-election in solidly working class Bermondsey at the hands of the Liberal candidate.

We argued that there was no short cut around the fact that the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class: 'Especially there is not the short cut of the tiny minority of those of us who are socialists now trying to cover up our weakness by simply trying to capture an electoral machine.' (March 1983)

Labour's vote in the 1983 general election was disastrous. Labour lost working class strongholds such as Medway, Swindon, Southampton and Slough. The general debacle led to the resignation of Michael Foot and his replacement by Neil Kinnock who accelerated the move to the right and continued the witch hunt against left wingers in the Labour Party. The response of the left was twofold: some argued that the election result was the sign of an all triumphant Thatcherism, whose right wing individualist politics fitted with a society where the working class was in decline and where workers saw themselves as consumers above all else. This view was most identified with those around the Communist party magazine, Marxism Today. Others adopted a spurious optimism, claimed that there was no real problem, that the witch hunt could not destroy socialist ideas and that the left would rise again. This view was identified with Benn himself and with Militant.

While this view was preferable to the super-pessimism which increasingly came to dominate the left during the 1980s, both tended to ignore the real balance of class forces and therefore drew quite wrong conclusions about what could be done to build socialist ideas. In June 1983 we wrote: 'The outcome of Thatcher's second term of office depends, as did the first, on how much the working class is prepared to put up with and how far it can fight back.'

Very soon after the election it became clear that despite the industrial and political defeats of recent years militancy was growing again. A rash of strikes had taken place in 1983 among car workers, dockers and engineering workers. After the election the employers, backed by the government, went on the offensive. This led to a wave of struggle first by the NGA print union against Eddie Shah's union busting in Warrington. Then in early 1984 the ban on unions at the GCHQ in Cheltenham led to widespread strike action and in March that year the 12 month miners' strike against pit closures began.

The strike and its outcome was to dominate the left for years to come. In the short term it revitalised the left, with a movement developing in its support, a polarisation of 'official' politics and a climb in the polls for the Labour Party. But the strike was increasingly defensive ­ faced as it was by a hostile Labour leadership, a TUC which did little to build support, and an NUM leadership which failed to build on the support which existed among millions of trade unionists.

Colin Sparks wrote at the beginning of the strike that support had to be concrete:

'Intervening in the class struggle at present means organising the minority of the class who want a real fight against the government so as to enable them to begin to lead the passive majority. Collections for the miners play an absolutely vital role in that. Such collections begin to pull together the active minority and to draw behind them some of the more passive majority to [lay the ground for] more active forms of solidarity.' (April 1984)

The argument of Militant supporting MP Terry Fields at the time was quite different:

'When people say take collections for people on strike, we put an alternative. We say take the wealth of the City of London and give it to the working people.' But such abstract calls for socialism only left people more isolated as the strike went down, precisely because of the failure to build solidarity to a sufficient level. However, the strike bacame a rallying point for the left, with collections and support groups springing up. But once the strike was defeated so right wing Labour ideas became more dominant. It was accepted that the strike failed because there had not been a ballot, or because workers were in a minority, or because Thatcherism was all powerful.

An article in the May 1985 Labour Party magazine New Socialist entitled 'Bennism without Benn' pointed to a left realignment, where much of the left who once supported Benn were moving to embrace Kinnock to 'try to detach him from the embrace of the parliamentary right'. In practice this meant abandoning Benn himself (who stuck to his politics of the early 1980s) accepting the witch hunt against Militant and compromising with Kinnock.

Alongside this went an abandonment of the jewel in the Labour left's crown: the use of local government as a platform against Thatcher and Labour's right. The GLC leader Ken Livingstone led the capitulation by nearly all Labour authorities to the Tory policy of ratecapping. Even Militant dominated Liverpool followed suit by the following year. This was the end of the GLC as the left's practical alternative ­ now all they could argue was to wait for a Kinnock government in 1987 or 1988 and hope for the best.

Paradoxically, the supposedly invincible Thatcherism was undergoing its own crisis. The victory over the miners had been bought at tremendous cost both economically and politically and now the government found itself with problems. Labour shot ahead in the opinion polls (despite the received wisdom that strikes were unpopular), the Tories were beset by crises such as the one over Westland and seemed to have run out of steam. They had won many of the battles against groups of workers but they had not won the war. It was much more the weakness of the left and its own capitulation to right wing ideas ­ not the invincibility of Thatcher ­ that rendered it powerless. Events in the next few years were to bear this out.

The move to the right inside the Labour Party, the capitulation of the left over ratecapping, was all part of a developing political outlook which accepted that nothing could be as it had been in the past. The working class was now dead. A notorious New Statesman article in 1987 identified the Sun page three model Samantha Fox with the aspiring working class and declared that this section of workers was leaving the poor and dispossessed far behind. Thatcher's third election win in 1987 reinforced this view.

In a different way, so did the changes taking place in Russia and Eastern Europe. The left developed tremendous illusions in the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, as when Fred Halliday wrote in Marxism Today (November 1987), 'who would have guessed that in 1987 the best thing happening for the left would be in Moscow?' Tariq Ali even claimed that Gorbachev's reforms were at last addressing the problems of the regime which Trotsky had pointed to in the 1930s! This was the political revolution awaited by him and his co-thinkers for so long.

When Gorbachev's supposed revolution failed, when the various Eastern bloc regimes collapsed, this further fed the view among those who had equated the Eastern European regimes with socialism that socialism itself was dead. And their substitutionist politics, seeing left governments or various spontaneous movements as the alternative to working class self activity, meant that they were unable to take advantage of what was a new mood among workers in the early 1990s. By the late 1980s the dominant view on the left was that socialism had failed and there was no alternative to the market, that liberal democracy was the natural form of government, and that the Cold War was over.

Much of this Review was dedicated to arguing against all these propositions. We said that the market could not deliver and that only a democratic, planned economy could achieve equality and better living standards; that liberal democracy was far from representing the mass of people and that in areas such as eastern Europe it would be hard to achieve; and that the world was becoming more unstable following the collapse of the USSR and we were entering a new and more dangerous period.

The 1990s have proved us right. The crisis which began in 1989 revealed the misery of the market and the depth of bitterness and unhappiness among workers around the world. The Gulf War, the collapse of former Yugoslavia, the horror afflicting huge parts of Africa, all point to greater instability. And the supposed strength of rulers such as Margaret Thatcher was exposed by the revolt against the poll tax which led to her departure in 1990.

How has the left responded to these changes? The contrast between deep pessimism and facile optimism which we pointed to throughout much of the 1980s is still there. Dominant among the Labour leadership, the former Marxism Today crowd and the right wing inside the unions is an acceptance that the market has won, that all the left can do is ameliorate some of the worst excesses of capitalism. What were firm tenets of even right wing Labourism a decade ago ­ full employment, a welfare state, decent pensions ­ are now abandoned. Those who oppose this view all too often fall into the trap of simply stating that socialism will triumph without spelling out how toget there.

The crisis of recent years has seen huge struggles, most notably in France at the end of last year, where workers' anger has been evident enough, but where the passive and electoralist approach has left them disarmed. This has allowed the growth of the far right, most notably in France.

However, there is another approach which we have argued consistently in the pages of this Review: that the market creates the problems we have, rather than solves them; that the only answer to these problems ­ poverty, war, famine and inequality ­ is socialism based on workers' control and production for need; that now is not the time to abandon socialist ideas and join the retreat of so much of the left.

The illusions in Labourism and Stalinism have led a whole generation of revolutionaries throughout the world away from such an understanding and towards looking for substitutes for working class self activity. The women's movement, for example, moved in the 1980s through the mystical politics around Greenham Common to trying to change the Labour Party to virtually total inactivity. When these substitutes failed, they abandoned the whole project. It doesn't have to be like that. In recent years hundreds of thousands have demonstrated against the poll tax, fought against the Nazis on demonstrations like in Welling, opposed pit closures and the logic of capitalist 'rationalisation'. There has been a growth of working class anger. Those who run our society have no answers to the problems that they have created.

That is why after 200 issues Socialist Review is more successful and widely read than ever ­ and is able to make a small contribution to building the socialist organisation which is so desperately needed as an alternative to Blairism.


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