HM2015: Where is Britain going?

Joe Sabatini summarises three sessions about Britain at Historical Materialism conference. He concludes that there are opportunities for revolutionaries in the rest of Britain to follow those in Scotland, and shape debates about how we fight for reforms.

Fence in shape of a union jack
Photo: Gavin Clarke, flickr

This article is a report based on three sessions at this year’s Historical Materialism conference that covered the situation in Britain from three perspectives. The first session was called ‘Alternative Strategies for the Left’ and was sponsored by Left Unity, the second session sponsored by Socialist Register was called ‘Beyond Parliamentary Socialism? Corbyn’s Labour Party’ and the last session was ‘Scotland’s Social Movement, Britain’s Crisis State’, which had two speakers from RISE and a speaker from Salvage.

The reason for bringing all three sessions together is two-fold. Firstly, British politics was not an explicit theme of the conference, and yet here was enough meat for a serious half day conference on the topic if they had been put together. Secondly, having attended all three I was left with the sense of debates that are needed about where Britain is going.

For most part my aim here is to provide a report of the sessions, and to end with a few general reflections.

Alternative Strategies for the Left

The subtitle of this session was about posing strategies today in the light of past theoretical debates, and was delivered by three members of Left Unity: Pete Green, Ed Rooksby and Susan Pashkoff.

If I was to characterise the whole session it would be that all three speakers see the electoral process and parliamentary democracy as inescapable, and that anyone on the revolutionary left who seeks to by-pass this route through workers’ councils, dual power, insurrections and the like are destined to being marginalised by the real movement of things.

The subtext for me though, was around what aspects of revolutionary politics need to be compromised when the aim is to get left governments into power. That said, I felt all three were committed to the same ultimate vision of socialism from below, and were trying to figure out the tensions in their own political strategy through a reflection on the works of Laclau, Mouffe, Hall, Gorz and Poulantzas.

The first paper was Pete Green’s ‘The Use and Abuse of Gramsci by Theorists who have influenced Podemos’, which had two themes. On the one hand it interrogated Podemos’ use of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Stuart Hall to develop their political project, while on the other saying they were wrong, but had a point in critiquing the traditional Leninist model of revolutionary change.

Given his usual, and enviable, clarity in explaining complex ideas, the talk was both entertaining and provided for continuing to engage with these theorists as part of a further debate on strategy.

The main focus was an article by the Podemos intellectual Inigo Errejon, which had been published in the Trotskyist online journal Viewpoint in 2014. In the paper Errejon sets out the argument that Podemos wanted to develop a project that tapped into people’s ‘floating discontent’, and used notions of the people, citizens and the caste to create popular unity from above – i.e. via television. In this they drew on the ideas of Laclau and Mouffe, and in particular the key words ‘floating discontent’ and ‘popular mobilisation’, which did not have a specific location in the way terms like class struggle do, but could be used ‘flexibly’.

For Errejon the deeper strategic reason for making this move was a critique of the social movement approach, and also the Marxist critique of charismatic leadership. Rather, Errejon was making the case for a short-cut, in which charisma, populism and non-class discourse (as well as denials of the left-right spectrum and essentially socio-economic arguments), could be wedded to an electoral project, and catapult a new government into office.

Pete also discussed another Podemos activist who had used Stuart Hall’s work to develop the notion that populist parties should be challenging common sense (again using TV), and that while wanting to keep concepts of capitalism and exploitation, he saw these as being a small part of the wider populist discourse – challenging the caste, we are the 99% etc. Unlike Errejon, he acknowledged that this ‘Gramscian’ approach was a result of the defeats of the 1980s, and that this leaves critical questions open, such as whether people as a category are a closed group (he used the case of the Swiss case of the people using plebiscites to impose strict immigration controls), and whether ‘the people’ is at best a liberal concept – about the rights to protest etc. (as opposed to notions of the liberal/neoliberal state).

The talk segued into whether the rise of Corbyn and the Scottish Referendum can be seen as other instances of the short-cut, and what this might mean for a strategy for power. The question was left hanging, and was picked up from a similar perspective in the next paper by Ed Rooksby.

However what was clear from Pete Green’s conclusion was that Laclau and Mouffe’s orientation on the electoral process ignores the economic power of the 1%, and this is the rock on which every serious left reformist government has foundered.

In the second paper – ‘Andre Gorz, Nicos Poulantzas and the question of “structural reform”‘ – Ed Rooksby began with a clear position of strategic intent. It was that the key gains and losses of the left in the current period have centred on political forces that have tapped into popular social movements and then oriented themselves on government.

He then critiqued the view he ascribed to Leninism, which saw Syriza’s failure as inscribed in the very form of its politics from the outset – identifying with Popular Unity as a potential model.

Having made these basic position statements, he went on to quote Sassoon, in his One Hundred Years of Socialism, to state that there is a contradiction within socialist movements between immediate aims and long-term goals. In particular he pointed to a dead-end position, between the reformist who kicks the final goals into the long grass, and the revolutionary who refuses to engage at all with the existing state apparatus.

He came to his key point, which is that we are facing a structural crisis but not a revolutionary one. He pointed to the formal similarity between the current period and the 1970’s, with the prospect of forming left governments back on the table.

Rooksby’s rationale for turning to Gorz and Poulantzas is that they were active during this previous conjuncture, and he wants to see what lessons they have for today.

He began by describing the postion of Poulantzas who saw the formation of a left government as a precondition for a revolutionary situation. In his final work ‘State, Power and Socialism’, Poulantzas made the case that the state is a relation of force, a condensation of the relations of production, so that state institutions can be pulled leftwards or rightwards. However they cannot be surrounded from outside, but rather the left must infiltrate state institutions, beginning with a democratically elected socialist government.

He went on to discuss Gorz, who saw reforms as a way to push for measures that further polarise society, and so set off a chain reaction of cascading reforms (if they are successful). Gorz focused more than Poulantzas on the workplace as a location at which such reforms could be enacted, so that, for instance, a relaxation of trade union restrictions opens the door for workers to take on their employers and even start the process of extending workers’ control and autogestion.

The most successful Left organisations in recent times have been those oriented on gaining power within capitalism, which brought him to Clara Zetkin’s proposal, at the fourth Congress of the Third International in 1921 for a ‘workers’ government’ within capitalism to push things to the left and put workers’ power on the agenda. Rooksby’s concluding point was that the Left has to get away from what he called ‘processes of disavowal’ and we should not just criticise negatively from the left.

It is difficult to argue with Rooksby, in that the establishment of a revolutionary socialist system will not come about magically, a mass movement that challenges capitalism won’t succeed without a revolutionary government taking power and that such a government has to have policies. However a lot also seems to depend on whether the initial reforms can be made that would have such a catalysing effect, or whether the institutions themselves are barriers – to me this was the unaddressed question, which becomes acute when looking at the discussions around Corbyn and what is happening in Scotland.

Another key gap in this paper lay in how mass movements come into existence, and that rather than talking about left reformist or workers’ governments in the abstract, we should be see how each arises on the back of a concrete mass movement. The manner of a left government’s coming into existence is key to the way it conducts itself an whether it pushes the cascading changes Gorz theorised, or backs down as Syriza has amply demonstrated. This means that the movement and the government’s trajectories are intimately connected as we shall see from the Scotland papers.

Before moving onto those it is worth touching on Pashkoff’s paper, ‘The Debate Over Alternative Economic Strategies and Persistent Unemployment in Capitalism.’ It was an analysis of the Alternative Economic Strategy of the Labour left at the end of the 1970s and the way it has been used as a starting point by Left Unity’s economic policy commission.

The paper was interesting in terms of developing policies that a left government would put into its programme, and in particular it was important to hear a perspective which foregrounded questions of social reproduction. That said, as soon as specific a policy was discussed – 24 hour crèches   – it provoked a heated debate, which would be a valuable contribution in its own right to the debates about social reproduction, the family, the economy and childcare (an area with massive implications for any left government that gets lost in the usual left discussions of strategy).

She also looked at other ways in which economic policy/strategy for a left government today would differ from the forms it took in the 1970s. She touched on renewables, a critique of the petro-chemicals industry and what I call the nuclear industrial complex.

That said, I felt that Left Unity are not tapping fully into the moving front of ecological Marxism, where revolutionaries are connecting questions of workers’ control to issues of the transition from oil based economies. I think more engagement here would also open up a more revolutionary strand of thinking about strategy which centres on the question of control over resources, ecological, infrastructural and productive, which would combine the techniques of occupations, strikes and  grassroots networks. Such an anti-capitalist focus is getting a hearing in the ecological movement, and it seems that the perspectives in these talks were not engaging with these developments.

I was also left with the feeling of a lack of a joined up strategy on how to tackle the trade union leadership’s integration into defence, nuclear power and the whole petro-chemical complex. If we are to develop the strategic questions that are posed here of left government, this issue will become paramount. A left government that fails to foreground these issues will fail not just for the usual ‘Leninist’ reasons, but because this is where there is a nexus between finance, capital, state bureaucracies and the trade unions themselves.

A speaker from the Philippines summed up a common feeling about the session – that we have all arrived inside a train station, but no-one knows what to do with the trains or which direction we are going in.

Overall, my reflections were that it is right to explore Poulantzas, and to seriously discuss left governments, however we have to map the terrain. The shifts in the capitalist mode of production following the banking crash and the ecological crisis are opening deep fissures that will provide longer term shifts in society, and also in terms of where workers and communities who depend on wages and benefits can seize control. Until that work is conjoined, the question of left governments is at risk of repeating the mistakes of the 1970s.

Beyond Parliamentary Socialism? Corbyn’s Labour Party

Whereas the Left Unity session encompassed a critique of the ‘Leninist’ model using a detour via 1970s theory and policy development, this session mounted a similar argument from the standpoint of the Corbyn victory.

The three speakers were Andrew Murray from Unite, who has played a strategic role in the Corbyn campaign, Jon Lansman, who had been critical during the Benn campaigns from the 1980s (and is instrumental in Corbyn’s campaign) and Hilary Wainwright, who has been arguing for various attempts to reconfigure left politics over the past few decades. It should be noted that Jon Lansman was substituting at the last minute for Seamus Milne.

Before describing the content of their talks, and making a brief political evaluation, it is worth stressing the importance of hearing key supporters of Corbyn elaborating on their strategy unfiltered by either an anti-capitalist lens or via the bourgeois media. That said, it throws into sharper relief the limitations of their perspective.

Andrew Murray spoke first. He began by describing the media frenzy around Milne and Corbyn, before elaborating on the laziness among those seeing in Corbyn a replay of the 1980’s and the Bennite left.

He developed the point by setting out a number of differences between the 1980s and the present. While in the 1980s the Benn campaign had the support of well entrenched structures (mass union membership, constituency Labour Parties with cadres, left wing local councils etc.), the movement today consists of sudden upsurges – first seen with the Stop the War campaign – which mobilise larger numbers and demobilise just as quickly (I felt he did not theorise this difference in terms of structural changes, history of defeats etc).

Elaborating on this difference, he describes the situation as one where people are class focused rather than class rooted, and that there are three drivers for this: 1) opposition to austerity, 2) international solidarity and 3) doing politics differently.

He then moved on to say that this leaves one big question unresolved while settling others. So while the question of whether socialism can be achieved through parliament remains open, the following are resolved: 1) Labour is not moribund, 2) there are no electoral alternatives to Labour and 3) the other parties of the left lack a strategy.

Having set out the lines of debate, he then discussed the tactical challenges facing Corbyn, which are well known to all (Parliamentary Labour Party, hostile media etc.), and the fear that is among the Blairites and large sections of the ruling class inspired by the fact that someone like Corbyn actually exists in such a high profile role.

Then, going back to the lines he established earlier, he went on to draw a few more when sketching out the strategy and challenges: 1) to support and stabilise Corbyn, 2) to develop a plan for winning the 2020 elections (and for a plan for modern socialism) and 3) to perform the latter in the face of an imperialist state.

Finally he ended by stating that the stakes are high and the risks higher. Labour could get in and capitulate, leading to a massive defeat, or they stand firm and all get killed. So there has to be a third way.

By not elaborating on this third way, I was left with the impression that the whole Corbyn project is running scared of the power they are seeking (and I was left wondering if any deep assessment has taken place of the history of left governments from Allende to Syriza has taken place, or whether we seeing a case of here we are now jump!)

John Lansman’s talk began with a rendition of the Corbyn story and the surprise and joy it generated. His opening brought to mind Pete Green’s challenge over whether Corbyn is a short cut in the way anticipated by Errejon. However immediately we could see the danger of the short-cut, in that it can catapult Corbyn into the leadership while leaving unchanged the Parliamentary Labour Party. So while Syriza faced a hostile state and international bourgeoisie, Corbyn faces organised hostility from his own party (before we even touch on the state, the ruling class, the Tories and everything else).

Having situated Corbyn’s vulnerability, he went on to outline a strategy for survival which was identical to Murray’s but with more detail about internal party reorganisation, educating members, and building Momentum as a way to bridge the gap between the Labour Party and the social movements.

Apart from that there was little else that differed or built upon Murray’s presentation.

Hilary Wainwright’s talk again began with the surprise she felt at Corbyn’s victory, and went on to focus on the new kind of politics that Corbyn tapped into, and how this was in contrast to the more internal focus of the Benn campaign. She stressed that many of the 17,000 volunteers for Corbyn’s campaign came from the Greens, Climate Camp, UK Uncut and the student movement. She also stressed the changing discourse around inequality and corporate tax avoidance, which built up a position in society from which Corbyn could launch his campaign.

She stressed how this relationship will continue to be important, and that Corbyn had always treated parliament as a resource for the social movements, and his role as a back bench shop steward for the social movements within parliament (arguably a role that is continuing with his approach to Prime Minister’s Question Time).

In order to grasp the full extent of the situation she elaborated on a history of what she called the new politics. This has had three phases.

In phase 1, social movements linked to the anti-apartheid struggle, the growing ecological movement, and a host of other movements converged on Seattle, and began the process of entering into governments, which failed when the Rifondazione Communista joined a government that backed the Iraq War.

Phase 2 can be characterised by the rise of Syriza and Podemos, who had worked alongside social movements against austerity without trying to lead them, and had reached a point where the question of an anti-austerity government was on the agenda.

Phase 3 is the current phase which is taking place in the full light of Syriza’s failure and Podemos’ stalling. Yet this is the phase in which Corbyn has emerged.

She concluded that there are two types of logic that will be decisive during this phase – a logic that pulls towards winning elections and one which pulls towards social transformation in the hands of movements. Corbyn will need to learn from Occupy, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) in Scotland and UK Uncut. A challenge here will be around how Corbyn maintains direct lines of contact with these activists.

She also ended on an adjunct that turns out to be central, which is whether John Trickett can learn from, and engage with Scottish movements, in developing new forms of popular assemblies, which can channel the social movements.

The talks sparked a number of debates and challenges, including what stance to take on Trident, especially due to the trade unions supporting it, and whether to stand against anti-austerity candidates like Caroline Lucas. There was also an international challenge about the insularity of the whole discussion, and a lack of clear policies, while the question of the EU, the eurozone and migration hangs in the balance. There were also questions about the state, and the deep state which is already militating against Corbyn.

The question of Scotland, and the state of the UK was also left hanging, and it was not clear what kind of strategy Corbyn could offer north of the border.

Scotland’s Social Movement: Britain’s Crisis State

The session on Scotland in many ways began where the questions left off in the previous talks.

The first two sessions had focused on left parliamentary strategies, and the contingencies of the Corbyn movement. This session shifted attention onto the actuality of a crisis in the British state and what this means when radical social demands are wedded to a movement of nation-state break up. What was also clear listening to this session was the sense of victory and momentum that has been built up by the referendum, and RISE’s political strategy which is very much actualising what Hilary Wainwright sketched out in the abstract (under phase 3 of the new politics).

The first speaker was Neil Davidson on ‘Scotland and the Actually Existing Crisis of the British State’. He rooted his discussion in debates going back to the 1960s over the adaptability or historical and structural weakness of the British state.

To develop this theme he outlined five genuine crises that have engulfed the British state: 1) the Jacobite rebellion up to 1745, 2) the crisis around the time of the Reform Act in 1832, 3) the period 1910-14 with the emerging labour movement and the suffrage movement, which continued in the immediate post-war years, 4) 1968 and the period up to Thatcher, which was also marked by decolonialisation and the rise of black politics and feminism and 5) the present crisis which has erupted over the Scottish referendum and its aftermath.

The current crisis has taken a two-fold form, with Scotland forming one wing, and the EU forming the other, and both should be taken together, and treated as the basis for an assessment of politics in the UK in the current period.

He elaborated on the nature of the crisis with Scotland, which is an internal crisis. Key components of Britain are made up of colonialism, but also the post-war welfare state settlement, which turned large areas of Scotland into Labour Party controlled areas. What has been striking is the degree to which this historical construction of Britishness has been destroyed north of the border, so that on the day after the referendum, the only people displaying pride in Britishness were fascists in George Square, Glasgow.

He also set out some of the ways in which the independence movement grasped their strength in a disintegrating Britain, and illustrated this by showing that submarines that house Trident missiles can only be docked in deep waters (which Scotland’s sea lochs are unique for). In other words, Trident cannot be housed outside Scotland.

He also discussed the Barnett Formula and how that has masked the actual transfers of wealth south of the border in terms of oil revenues, which despite low oil prices still gives Scotland actual economic power that the independence movement understands.

He also showed how this has turned around the neo-liberal strategy of devolution, which has to be seen as the mirror image of the de-politicisation of the commanding heights of government (i.e. monetary policy in the hands of unelected central bankers). Here devolution, which is being carried out by Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, is about passing cuts to lower tiers of government. Scottish devolution was engineered at a time when austerity was not a driving force, and has given the Holyrood government space to resist cuts that are taking place in the NHS, schooling and local government south of the border – and Scottish people grasp this.

He concluded that these factors have made the prospect of Scottish independence a serious radical demand, and that the left has to engage this process.

The second paper was from Cat Boyd on Radical Scotland and the Neoliberal Centre. Cat, like Neil, is from RISE, and provided a more personal view, that showed how the socio-economic backbone of Labour’s supporters has been broken. Her talk centred on how deep this break has been and why Labour supporters and strategists (like Murray and Lansman) need to engage far more deeply with the shifts that have taken place in Scotland (I was struck by their Anglo-centrism when listening to Cat Boyd).

She described the breakdown of Labour in Scotland as resulting from the failure of the extreme centre following the banking crash. In Scotland, Labour moved towards the centre ground during the Blair years, but unlike much of England, it took its power bases in Scotland for granted. So when 2008 struck and the Labour Party in Scotland could offer no principled opposition to austerity, the scale of the disappointment was the greater. Once the prospect of independence was on the table and Labour led the No campaign, it fate in Scotland was sealed.

She then went on to discuss the SNP and how it moved from being a petty-bourgeois party to a largely social democratic one because of the political strategies adopted by the left in the face of the independence campaign. By focusing organisational efforts on practical grass roots campaigning to get working class voters to register and turn out to vote Yes, RIC were able to pull the entire Yes campaign to the left. This meant that rather than stressing low corporation taxes and following the Irish neo-liberals, the SNP were bounced into opposing austerity (in principle) and adopting foreign and defence policies which put them on a collision course with the British state.

She ended on a number of reflections which pose serious challenges to the Left south of the border. Firstly the Scots saw themselves as electoral cannon fodder for the Labour Party and broke with the party, while the People’s Assembly in England and other groups are at risk of throwing everything behind Corbyn and having no strategy if he loses (a point we could see behind the startling conclusions from Andrew Murray’s speech the day before).

Her second challenge was that Scottish independence is a greater likelihood than a Corbyn government. This means that strategically it should not play second fiddle to the Corbyn campaign and is in danger of being seen to be so south of the border (a point that is amplified by the fact that the crisis brought on by Scottish independence is a UK crisis).

Her third challenge was that the overwhelming weight of the Labour Party lies in its commitment to the extreme centre. We have seen Corbyn being bullied over the national anthem, wearing poppies and relegating discussions around race, gender, homophobia and above all else the future constitution of the UK.

Her conclusion was that the left should be ‘cheery’ (I think that was the most upbeat thing I heard at the whole of Historical Materialism!), that we should reject the playbook of the extreme centre and retain intellectual integrity.

Finally Jamie Allison spoke about Project Fear and the use of imagery during the 2015 UK general election to redraw the relationship between England and Scotland.

At the heart of his presentation (which included telling visuals) was that the Tories are effectively destroying the relationship between England and Scotland, while drawing in a majority of English voters. So while maintaining the union they are destroying it and deepening the crisis of the British state.

In marginal constituencies the Tories used hoardings showing Alex Salmond dressed as a cat burglar stealing money out of someone’s back pocket (with the English voter primed to see it as an English back pocket). This was to present the SNP as beyond the pale, as if they were not a legitimate or legal party.

While this had the tactical aim of ruling out a supply and confidence agreement between Labour and the SNP (which most people thought would be the outcome of the 2015 election), it has exceeded its aim.

The signs of crisis he detected here was a vulgarism of the ruling class, and its willingness to create hostility towards Scotland and images of the Scottish people. He also saw in this a real sense that the ruling class lacks a strategy for holding the UK together.

Like Cat Boyd he sees in this the result of the hollowing out of institutions under neo-liberalism, so politicians no longer mediate the public, but speak to society. This takes the form of faked photo-ops where a politician like Osborne pretends to be speaking to a large audience, when he is in fact at an out of town warehouse (or some other liminal non-place) speaking to a selection of party activists who stand-ins for the real public.

The flip side of this faked up model is the demonization of any political force that steps out of line. So unlike Cat Boyd he did not end up on a ‘cheery’ note, but demonstrated from the standpoint of ideology, the same structural crisis that was outlined and developed by the previous speakers.

General reflections

I wrote this up because I felt that all of these angles needed to be brought together into a debate on the state of the left and political strategy in Britain. It was not on the agenda at Historical Materialism but emerged nonetheless.

Firstly, I was struck by the absence of revolutionary socialists shaping and framing the terms of the debate on discussions about left governments and Corbyn, while doing precisely this for Scotland.

Secondly, I think that there is a danger of over simplifying the terms of debate between a ‘Leninist’ model that consists of dual power + party = revolution, and a one-size fits all left reformism, which amounts to Allende + Syriza = death or capitulation (I felt Murray actually backed himself into this corner).

I felt that the first two sessions were at risk of being trapped within this binary opposition, while the Scotland discussion was operating in a space beyond – while I should note that this is not the same thing as blurring the fundamentals of reform and revolution.

Thirdly, I think we need to challenge an implicit model of British left history that I felt we were being presented in the first two sessions. The juxtaposition of Benn in the 1980s and Corbyn today, leaves to many gaps. I felt that history existed up to 1981, then stopped then started again in 2003. For example I noted a silence on the Poll Tax, which involved many of the mass mobilisation dynamics of Stop the War – but was far more confrontational and won! In some ways the Poll Tax campaign displayed what revolutionary politics should be about in a non-dual power situation (as could be said for the ANL in the 1970s). My fear is that these moments are being lost in the way the debate is being framed.

Fourthly, I was struck by the degree to which questions of social reproduction and ecological transition being developed elsewhere at the Historical Materialism conference, where not being integrated (bar the discussion on 24 creches) into strategic questions about state and power. If anything the whole crisis around tax credits shows this to be an area we need to theorise concretely in relation to questions of left governments, Corbyn and the breaking up of Britain. I also think that we are more likely to see in these areas real innovations that could inform policies, beyond the standard left Keynesian formulae.

Finally, I was really struck by Andrew Murray’s discomfort around Len McClusky and Unite’s stance on Trident. To me this is not a contingent issue, but strikes deep into the heart of things, showing how the Labour Party and above all key layers of the trade unions are too embedded in that aspect of the British deep state which most concerns me – the complex that links together arms production, nuclear power and dirty energy.

This is where foreign and defence policy intersects with climate change and devolution, and here I feel that revolutionaries can make a contribution that goes beyond the static binaries I have raised just above.

The talks were most illuminating when seen as moments in a wider debate, and can help us to develop our ideas about the role of left governments and how revolutionaries relate to the nature of the period.

I would like to thank John Walker who was also at this session and sent me his notes.


  1. Very illuminating report, Joe (and John for his notes.) Thank you. I would write more…but moving in 24 hours and that ain’t ‘cheery.’ I would add one thing: for Left Unity to pronounce on such topics seem rather presumptuous given its own tortured history and lack of political ‘success.’ [ I write as a former member.]


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