What is the’ democratic left’
Compass has styled itself as ‘direction for the democratic left’. There were other descriptors we could have gone for; progressive, centre-left, social democratic or democratic socialist. So why did we chose this one?
In part because we felt it was less loaded. Progressive is too weak as is centre-left. Defining and separating social democrats (especially given the SDP) from democratic socialists is too problematic. So what does the ‘democratic left’ mean and where does the term come from?
What follows are two takes on the term. The first is from David Purdy who was once in the Communist Party but through its reform wing ended up in an organisation called The Democratic Left. David worked on the Alternative Economic Strategy in the 1970s and is working hard now on the Compass manifesto. Paul Thompson is editor of the Labour journal Renewal and was the Chair of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee – the soft left organising body.
Their articles show we come from a tradition, that we have a history that is both inside and outside of Labour. Compass is in part an attempt to unite these traditions into a force that can build on this history to create a more equal and democratic future.
We are also pleased to publish a complementary article by Andrew Pearmain called Gramsci and Us which explains the contemporary relevance of probably the greatest socialist strategist ever, the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.
Most of you reading these articles will be Labour Party members. Hopefully, some of it will be new and interesting. What you will get from all three is a sense of the way in which the democratic left inside and outside of Labour compliment each other. Those outside think more expansively about issues such as politics and culture. Those inside focus more on power and state politics. We can and must learn from each other. It is a fusion that links Gramsci, Hobsbawm and Hall to Cole, Tawney, Crosland, Kinnock and Cook.
The rejection of vanguard politics, the belief that a small elite can change the world for the benefit of all, whether it be revolutionary Leninism or reformist Labourism (often referred to as parliamentary Leninism) provides a common platform for future thinking and activity around a new democratic left that Compass is helping to shape.
More than anything Compass is the recognition that democracy and equality are two sides of the same coin. We can’t have a democratic society that isn’t equal because people give up on democracy if they are not equal citizens. It is no coincidence that the high points of equality and democratic participation coincided in Britain from the 1950s to the 1970s. Democracy is the means by which people can mange their world by doing it together. The more liberal, equal, green and solidaristic society we want to create is only possible through democracy – there is no perfect society, we never arrive we just keep going on a journey to extend democracy and embed equality. There can only be a left that is democratic – this is our compass.
1. Between Labourism and Communism: Precursors of the Democratic Left in Twentieth-Century Britain
Under the impact of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the Second Socialist International, which had managed to maintain a fractious unity since its foundation in 1889, split into two irreconcilable camps: one committed to electoral-legislative politics within the framework of liberal democracy, the other dedicated to defending the Soviet Union and promoting world revolution. Until the collapse of communism in 1989-91, this schism became a basic reference point for the whole of the left. No socialist or ‘labour’ party and no conception of socialism – whether as a form of society wholly ‘beyond’ capitalism or as a transforming presence within it – could avoid defining where it stood in relation to social democracy and Soviet communism, just as in an earlier era Christians had to choose between Catholicism and Protestantism.
This was just as true in Britain as in other countries, though the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) never posed a threat to the Labour Party’s electoral and parliamentary predominance. Indeed in the 1920s, dutifully heeding Lenin’s strictures against ‘infantile leftism’, the CP made repeated attempts to affiliate to the Labour Party, each of which was firmly rebuffed. One barrier to left unity was that the Labour Party was a broad church in which committed socialists who aspired to build a classless society beyond capitalism were no more than an influential minority. Another was that social democrats and communists disagreed about the strategy for achieving socialism, the former favouring a gradualist parliamentary road, the latter insisting on the necessity for a revolutionary transfer of class power and the creation of a workers’ state.
Yet many socialists in both parties continued to believe that these were different routes to the same ultimate goal and that, whether the transition was gradual and seamless or involved a sharp – and possibly violent – break with the old order, socialism could not be established without bringing the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership, replacing the profit motive by production for use and substituting central planning for market forces. More generally, both dominant formations of the left were statist and party-centred: neither paid much attention to the problem of rooting the process of social transformation in the institutions and norms of civil society, bringing it closer to the relationships and routines of everyday life. Thus, in principle, there was room for an alternative political project combining the characteristic socialist commitment to equality and human solidarity with the civic republican ideals of positive freedom and democratic self-government.
The first attempt to create a form of self-managing socialism in Britain was the Guild Socialist movement that sprang up during the later stages of the First World War and flourished briefly until it was undermined by the collapse of the post-war economic boom in 1921. Inspired by the example of soviets in Russia, there were similar, equally volatile experiments in ‘council communism’ elsewhere in Europe during these years, including the factory councils movement in Northern Italy, in which the future leaders of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, won their political spurs.
For the Guild Socialists, the really damning indictment of the capitalist system was not that it subjected workers to material deprivation, but that it reduced them to servitude. The unequal relationship between waged workers and the organisations that employed them was a major obstacle to economic democracy. And there was no reason to suppose that nationalisation and state socialism would do anything to remove it. In advocating workers’ control, the Guilds sought to transform the workforce – including its managerial, technical and white collar strata – into an active body capable of taking responsibility for production and investment, not just within each enterprise, but across the economy as a whole. They envisaged that as impersonal market forces were gradually supplanted by democratic social control, the pursuit of profit would give way to the satisfaction of human need as chief aim of economic activity. This in turn, they believed, would make it possible to reconcile the consumer’s interest in product quality with the worker’s interest in job satisfaction.
The Guilds’ chief theorist, G.D.H. Cole (1917), argued that progress towards economic democracy would be greatly accelerated if all citizens were paid a tax-financed ‘social dividend’, pitched at subsistence level, adjusted to take account of special needs such as disability, and distributed independently of people’s other sources of income. The institution of a citizen’s income would, he believed, make workers less dependent on the employing class, diminish the divisive consequences of organisational hierarchy and, more generally, foster a spirit of social solidarity. Likewise, the notion that a new distributive regime could not suddenly displace the old, but would have to be introduced gradually, fitted in well with the Guilds’ evolutionary strategy of ‘encroaching control’.
Guild Socialism was short-lived and contained much that was wildly impracticable. Moreover, like the labour movement as a whole, it was gender-biased, focusing entirely on the male preserve of paid employment and paying no attention at all to the unpaid work of women within the household. Nevertheless, the Guilds produced ideas of lasting significance: the vision of economic democracy, the concept of citizen’s income, the importance of the workplace as a social institution and the distinction between useful work and useless toil. These ideas disappeared into the political underground once the post-war conjuncture passed away, and had to be rediscovered by later generations searching for a flexible, decentralised, democratic, popular and vital form of socialism that would, in Gramsci’s words, attend to the urgent problems of the present, while sowing the seeds of the future.
The Popular Front
At its Seventh Congress in 1934, the Communist International (Comintern) gave its approval to the strategy of the united popular front as an attempt to re-unite the left and reach out beyond the industrial working class to the middle class and the professions, in order to rally a broad popular alliance around the objectives of defeating fascism, defending democracy and promoting social reform. The best known cases were those of Republican Spain and France, where communists and socialists joined forces with anti-fascist liberals, though in both countries the resulting alliances were ultimately defeated. More successful instances of popular mobilisation and alliance-building were the social bloc that sustained Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US and the strategy pursued by the Swedish Social Democrats who, after winning a watershed election in 1932 and forming a coalition with the Agrarian Party, pioneered the use of deficit-financing to overcome the prevailing economic depression and laid the foundations for what was to become the world’s most advanced welfare state.
The main lesson to be drawn from these various episodes is that in a democratic society with a complex social structure, entrenched civil liberties and competing political parties, major shifts in the balance of power and the direction of policy need to be backed not just by a majority, but by an overwhelming majority of citizens, for measures which are passionately opposed by powerful minorities can only be implemented if they enjoy extensive popular support that cuts across the boundaries of party, class and cause. Even then, as the experience of the post-war Labour government shows, once the foundations of a new political settlement have been laid, a reforming government may stall, especially when its conception of politics is rigidly electoralist and statist, its room for manoeuvre is limited by military and foreign policy commitments, and the social bloc on which it depends starts to disintegrate under the impact of conflicting sectional demands.
The New Left
The decades that followed the post-war settlement saw renewed efforts to devise a left-wing alternative to Labourism and Leninism that was at once radical, democratic and popular. What Michael Kenny (1995) calls the ‘first New Left’ emerged in response to the dramatic events of 1956: Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, the Suez imbroglio and the suppression of the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination. Hungary, in particular, was a devastating blow for the CPGB. The party, whose membership was already 50 per cent down from its wartime peak of 60,000, lost a further third of its members, including most of its leading intellectuals. Some of these regrouped around the New Reasoner, a journal edited by Edward Thompson and John Saville, who set out to develop a humanised and thoroughly English socialist politics, imbued with home-grown traditions of radical democracy, freethinking communism and the practical virtues of the self-taught and self-activating northern working class. Other left-wing intellectuals, who leaned more towards the Labour Party and were based in Oxbridge and London, reacted rather differently to the international conjuncture. This group, which included Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Mike Rustin, saw the turn of events as an opportunity not only to break out of the frozen postures of Cold War politics by campaigning for nuclear disarmament and positive neutrality, but to rethink the entire socialist project in the light of post-war experience. Two developments in particular concerned them: the record of socialist governments, both East and West; and the emergence of an affluent, consumerist society in which class division, though still a prime source of social inequality, was neither the sole nor even the main source of social consciousness.
These issues were explored in the pages of Universities and Left Review (ULR), a journal that anticipated the themes and ideas taken up by Marxism Today in the 1980s. The Review covered much the same ground as Anthony Crosland’s classic ‘revisionist’ text, The Future of Socialism, but its approach and conclusions differed sharply from his: notably, as regards the significance of the Keynesian revolution in economic policy, the separation of ownership and control in the modern corporation, and the need to make the nationalised industries and public services more democratic and accountable to their employees and users. In Britain at this time, the work of Gramsci was little known: a representative and decently translated selection of writings from his Prison Notebooks was not published until 1971. Nevertheless, in retrospect it is clear that the terms in which contributors to the Review sought to engage with the predicament of the British left resembled the key concepts that Gramsci had developed as he struggled to understand the rise of Italian fascism, the defeat of Italian communism and the fate of the Russian Revolution: the distinction between state and civil society; the role of hegemony or moral and intellectual leadership in winning and retaining political power; the difference between a slow-moving war of position and a volatile war of movement; and the conception of the revolutionary party as an ‘organic intellectual’ whose task is to integrate diverse and fragmented forms of opposition to the prevailing social order into a cohesive social bloc.
If all this sounds heavily cerebral, it should be recalled that the first New Left was a cultural and artistic movement as well as a forum for theoretical and political debate. New Left clubs sprang up in most major British cities, providing a meeting place for political activists, intellectuals, the cultural avant-garde and popular musicians and entertainers. Indeed, in 1960 when the New Reasoner and the ULR merged to form New Left Review (NLR) with Stuart Hall as editor, it was envisaged that the new journal would become the organ of the clubs, voicing their ideas and co-ordinating their activities. This hope was never realised, partly because of personality clashes between leading participants, partly because of underlying tensions among the diverse groupings which the journal was intended to serve – which stretched from anarchist advocates of civil disobedience to communist shop stewards schooled in the mores of workplace bargaining – and partly because of the sheer difficulty of navigating a ‘third way’ between or beyond the gravitational fields of labourism and communism.
For a while, NLR moved into the orbit of the Labour Party, sensing hegemonic potential in Harold Wilson’s bid to apply the “white heat of the technological revolution” to Britain’s antiquated polity and ailing economy. In Towards Socialism, an anthology published in 1965 as the newly elected Labour government was getting into its stride, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn produced a bold and original account of the peculiarities of British history, the pre-modern nature of the British state and the anti-intellectual proclivities of the British labour movement. But these attempts to engage with Labour’s political leadership were abandoned after 1966, as the government, wrestling with Britain’s mounting economic problems, embarked on a collision course with the trade unions.
The growing rift in the labour movement prompted a sharp response from members of the first New Left, who revived the network of local discussion groups and produced the May Day Manifesto. This was a spirited, but sober statement which carried forward the movement’s earlier analysis of modern capitalism and Cold War politics and outlined a democratic socialist alternative to the policies of the Wilson government. The first version of the Manifesto, jointly edited by Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson and Stuart Hall, appeared in 1967. A second, expanded version, edited by Williams alone, was published as a Penguin Special in May 1968, just as French students and workers were taking to the streets in a direct challenge to the government of General De Gaulle. Here, the story of the ‘second’ New Left merges with that of the more general mutiny against the post-war order that erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with mass protests against the war in Vietnam, near civil war in Northern Ireland, industrial strife on a scale not seen since before the First World War, widespread student revolt and the emergence of new social movements organised around gender, sexuality, race and the environment.
As an attempt to rally the disparate forces of the left against the rightward drift of the Labour government, the May Day Manifesto must be considered a failure. It did manage to organise a National Convention which, despite fierce sectarian in-fighting, came out in support of the Vietnamese NLF and in opposition to the proposals for trade union legislation contained in the government’s White Paper In Place of Strife. But the standing Co-ordinating Commission set up by the Convention, to which nearly all socialist groups sent representatives, fell apart as the 1970 general election approached. Some groups argued that however bad Labour had been, the Tories would be worse, while others wanted to run Left Alliance candidates in opposition to the Labour Party. As Raymond Williams (1979: 375) remarked drily, “A strategy of common activity could survive anything except an election.”
The Final Years of British Communism
The CPGB was always much more than an outpost of Soviet communism. That it survived at all after 1956 suggests as much and subsequent events confirmed that despite its small size, the party was not only rooted in the traditions of the British labour movement, but was also responsive to, albeit bewildered by the new social movements. From 1964 to 1977, the party underwent an unexpected renaissance and for a few turbulent years, as British capitalism foundered and the post-war settlement collapsed, it came to play a minor, but significant role in the British trade union movement and, to that extent, on the wider stage of British politics. During these same years, it also served as a repository for the hopes and energies of many radical students, feminists and intellectuals. The party thus found itself hosting two antithetical political projects which Geoff Andrews (2004), in his recent history of its final years, calls militant labourism and British Gramscism, respectively.
From 1966 onwards, British capitalism began to show signs of deep dysfunction as economic growth faltered, real take home pay stagnated, profits were squeezed, inflation accelerated, unemployment rose and, despite the devaluation and later depreciation of the pound, the balance of payments remained in persistent deficit. This dismal performance was the result of two interacting forces: the defensive strength of organised labour and the competitive weakness and complacent insularity that were the legacy of Britain’s imperial past.
The most pressing economic problem was inflation. This was not so much because of its narrowly economic consequences, though these were serious enough once the rate at which prices were rising ceased to be low, steady and tolerably predictable and became high, variable and worryingly uncertain. Rather, the recurrent distributional conflicts that drove and were continually reactivated by inflation threatened to destabilise society and provoke a right-wing backlash. As the Swedish social democrats had warned in the 1940s and as subsequent events confirmed, “inflation is the deadly enemy of socialism”. If the left and the labour movement failed to acknowledge that trade unions were involved in causing inflation and failed to take responsibility for controlling it, the only feasible alternative was for government to abandon the commitment to full employment that had formed the centrepiece of the post-war settlement, institute an old-fashioned deflationary purge and allow unemployment to rise to whatever level was necessary, as Marx once put it, to “curb the pretensions of the working class”.
The CPGB, whose industrial department orchestrated campaigns to defeat both “anti-trade union” laws and successive incomes policies, maintained that these policies were an attempt to force the working class to pay for the capitalist crisis. This position was condemned as intellectually bankrupt and politically irresponsible by a small group of economists on the party’s economic advisory committee who advocated a “socialist social contract” in which pay restraint would be traded off against structural reforms aimed at democratising economic decision-making: within the enterprise as well as at the macro-economic level; in private firms as well as in the public sector; and with respect to strategic issues, such as corporate investment and product development, not just the day-to-day management of the workplace. A democratic alternative economic strategy along these lines offered a way of combining the creative energy of the new social forces with the disciplined strength of the industrial working class in a hegemonic bid to tackle Britain’s economic crisis and prefigure the socialist future.
Students, feminists and others who had imbibed the politics of Gramsci welcomed this approach as a shining example of how to conduct the war of position, which should be emulated throughout the party’s work. The party leadership and most ‘industrial comrades’, however, wanted no truck with ‘capitalist’ incomes policies, insisting that trade union militancy was the royal road to socialist consciousness – a proposition that would have outraged Lenin – and disinterring the old syndicalist idea that, sooner or later, if the workers remained united, refused to be co-opted by the state and screwed up social tensions to breaking point, the capitalist system would be brought down and a new age would dawn – a proposition that was blatantly at odds with the gradualist, democratic logic of the party’s programme, The British Road to Socialism, and had more in common with the views of its Trotskyist detractors.
Neither this specific controversy nor the wider ideological divide from which it sprang was ever resolved. The fate of incomes policy – and, indeed, of traditional social democracy – was sealed by the gradual decay of the Social Contract, the catastrophic blows suffered by the Labour government in the winter of 1978-9, the victory of the Conservatives at the subsequent general election and the neo-liberal counter-revolution for which this paved the way. The fate of the party was to remain deadlocked as the embattled camps waged an increasingly bitter and costly civil war which culminated in a de facto division of the party’s remaining assets: the Gramscians took control of Marxism Today; the party officials retained control of a hollowed-out party apparatus; and the proponents of ‘class politics’ held on to the Morning Star and the party’s declining industrial base. In effect, the party was over long before the formal decision to disband was taken at a special conference in 1991.
This is not quite the end of the story, however. In the final part of his book, Andrews (op. cit.) reviews the death of militant labourism, with the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984, and contrasts it with the outstanding success of Marxism Today which was transformed by its editor, Martin Jacques, from a rather worthy and obscure theoretical journal, little read outside the CP, into the house magazine of the British left, with a circulation of around 10,000 and a reputation for cutting-edge analysis and debate that sometimes reverberated in mainstream politics and the mass media. Apart from its fresh design and breezy style, the appeal of Marxism Today lay in its twin central concerns: the historic decline of the British left and the emergence of a neo-liberal new right in the form of Thatcherism, which had succeeded where the left had failed in building a broad popular alliance and was using its command over the state to push through a programme of regressive modernisation. Though the magazine operated at arms’ length from the party, despite receiving a hefty subsidy, its themes and arguments prompted a final attempt to replace the British Road to Socialism with a programme that reflected the sweeping changes that were taking place in the world economy and in the social structure and political landscape of Britain. The result was The Manifesto for New Times, which performed the obsequies on militant labourism, appraised Thatcherism as a hegemonic project and outlined a Gramscian approach to the task of building a new, democratic left. Appearing in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of communism, this document became the party’s swansong.
There is an obvious sense in which socialism, whether as a popular movement, a form of society (real or imaginary) or an approach to public policy, was the chief political casualty of the twentieth century. Whether there is a future for the democratic left is another matter. Certainly, in each of the four historical episodes reviewed above, the traditions of labourism and communism hampered efforts to renew the visions and strategies of the left. Now that these traditions are dead or dying, the democratic left may come into its own. This can only happen however, if those who reject New Labour’s neo-liberalism, but have no desire to return to the old religions are willing to learn from the past.
Socialists were mistaken in assuming that workers are fundamentally a homogeneous class who share a common interest in improving their material conditions under capitalism and, in the long run, are destined to become its gravediggers. All but the most primitive human societies contain multiple, intersecting social divisions and political behaviour is never pre-ordained. Far from being inscribed in the social structure like parts in a play, social interests are formed through social interaction over long periods of time and although, once formed, minds are not easily changed, the possibility of change is ever present as people acquire new experience and encounter new ideas.
The perpetual ‘battle for hearts and minds’ takes on particular importance in democratic states where winning or retaining political power, whether in defence of the status quo or in order to challenge it, depends not on the use or threat of force – though the state’s monopoly of legal violence remains a factor in any situation – but on the relative capacities of rival political actors to persuade or induce sufficient numbers of people to support them. And while spin and deception play some part in this process, the dark arts matter far less than the interplay of ideas and policies. To be sure, the playing field is not level and political outcomes are affected by structural bias, vested interest, institutional inertia and unequal resources. But these are handicaps that opponents of oppression and injustice have always had to contend with and are best countered by seeking to extend and strengthen democratic institutions and norms, not by resorting to coercion.
At any given time, then, those who wish to see a fairer, greener, happier, less divided and more democratic society must find ways of rallying a broad alliance of social and political forces around these objectives or, to be more precise, around ideas and policies that encapsulate them. Here it is important to distinguish between short-term policy programmes and long-term projects: the former are tailored to the changing circumstances of day-to-day politics and typically follow the electoral cycle; the latter seek to make sense of the past, identify the problems facing society in the present and propose a general strategy for tackling them, incorporating guidelines for developing policy and deciding tactics. To be effective, any political formation needs both these things – flexible policies and a firm project – but the latter is vital for two reasons: it provides a sense of direction and purpose which is essential for maintaining morale in the face of unavoidable compromises, setbacks and defeats; and it serves to integrate diverse and potentially conflicting interests, values and views into a cohesive social bloc. Of course, in the long run, history moves on, projects have to be renewed and some of us, at any rate, will be dead. In the meantime, to paraphrase Bernstein: the final goal is nothing, the project everything.
2. Labour’s Democratic Left
The democratic left, as David Purdy shows, has shown emerged from fault lines within and between social democracy and communism. My focus is on the former and takes its starting point from more recent events.
Where to start then? My view is that the most pertinent event to return to is Labour’s landslide defeat in the 1983 general election. Up to that point the left of the party had been relatively united. It had tried to come terms with Thatcherism, but preferred to believe that the solution was to change the party’s leadership and policies rather than come to terms with changes in society and culture. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, supported by the vast majority of the left, won a variety of measures designed to create a structure of mandates and accountability (such as mandatory re-selection) that radicalised structures and policy – leading, amongst other things, to the eventual SDP split.
The proof of the pudding, however, was not to everyone’s taste. A left wing leader and manifesto managed 28% of the vote. The left split. Benn and his hard left followers saw nothing wrong with the policies and were determined to carry on their campaign to impose a Leninist structure on the party. The rest of us came to our senses and the fault lines were on organisation and policy. Now shorn of most of its more leftist components, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee accepted much of the new forms of accountability, but increasingly focused on the policy of one member, one vote and an outward looking, campaigning mass party. With CLPD opposing OMOV and defending only the rights of activists willing to dedicate their lives to revolutionary socialism and attending endless meetings, the contrast was clear. A crucial turning point in the ensuing civil war was the realisation by most Labour members that Militant really was an entrist, anti-democratic party that deserved to be expelled.
From this crucible of a struggle against vanguardism, the term democratic left began to be used within and beyond the LCC. However, the term also had an ideological content. The left also divided on whether Thatcherism represented a new political project that both reflected and created significant social change. For large sections of the left, Thatcherism was business as usual and socialism did not need to be rethought and revised. Amongst their lines in the sand were a defence of nationalisation and state planning, and of what was dubbed ‘class politics’. The LCC began to re-thing key policies after the 1983 debacle. It argued that Labour was now massively out of touch with the electorate and society. Socialism had to make a clearer pitch to the individual, to democratic rights and the environment.
Whilst at this point it was more about ideology than policy, at least the politics of this emerging democratic left became more coherent. Based on a Labour Activist (the house journal of the LCC) that set out a wide-ranging ‘Strategy for the Democratic Left’ which was debated and supported at the 1987 AGM. The conference noted that the ‘Hard left had ‘no project for building a popular majority in society’ and said that the ‘shallowness of their perspectives, gesture politics and authoritarian methods have helped set back the socialist project’.
The new perspective argued that Labour’s approach to power in the past was based on welfare state paternalism and corporatism, whilst the record of previous Labour governments on issues of civil liberties was ‘scandalous’. The left needed an approach to power based on an extension of democracy and individual freedom, including citizenship rights, an extension of civil liberties and equal opportunities. Policies on the extension of democracy and the decentralisation of power drew from the more innovative practise of Labour councils, such as neighbourhood offices and consumer-influenced services.
This may all sound mundane now, but it is difficult to grasp from 2006 just how much as break such ideas were with existing left thinking. Together with other Labour groups such as Clause Four and Chartist, an attempt was made to set out a Third Road between Leninism and old-fashioned labourism. Whilst this was many degrees to the left of later attempts to carve out a Third Way, it brought together a number of key themes. In particular, it embraced the ‘firm belief in a pluralist society with respect to parties, organisations in civil society and forms of ownership’ and the need to ‘create forms of popular participation, extending political, industrial and social citizenship’ (from Labour Activist).
There was an attempt to influence early policy reviews initiated under the Kinnock leadership. LCC’s shadow groups did some innovative work, particularly on the democratic agenda. Such thinking ran in parallel and in some senses converged with what was emerging from within the reform wing of the Communist Party and its journal Marxism Today. It was becoming clear that the divide was wider than hard and soft left within labour. The new labels were fundamentalist versus democratic left. Such a formulation was explicitly accepted in the LCC ‘Strategy for the Democratic Left’ document. Each of the ‘wings’ had its own battles to fight and were more likely to work together in new ‘broad lefts’ within trade unions than on general political terrains. But the ideological commonality was unmistakeable – anti-vanguardism, a critique of statism in its Leninist or labourist forms, and of the need to recognise a variety of social divisions and identities that went beyond a simplistic ‘class politics’.
What had produced this ideological mix was not just a combination of Labour left revisionists and Euro-Communists. The democratic left was influenced by a third current that had its roots in the new left that emerged from the struggles and social movements of the late 1960s and 70s. Turned off by their experiences in or with the far left, many had joined Labour, but as genuine seekers for a radicalised social democracy rather than as entrists. They added a much more libertarian ideology and experience of community politics and building from below into that mix.
This combination of democratic left ideas and experience was present in the LCC, in the journal Renewal, and even more so today in Compass. Most of these forces inside and outside Labour supported the Blair revolution, some more sceptically than others. Labour had to change, we were prepared to be part of a modernising coalition and Blair was the necessary catalyst. But given the origins and ideology of the democratic left, the seeds of differences were always present.
In 1993, LCC put out a pamphlet – Modernising Britain. – that has a now familiar ring. Modernisation had become devalued by becoming a mere shorthand for dumping supposedly unpopular policies. Real modernisation was about actually changing things – a stakeholder economy, a new constitutional settlement, electoral reform. Blair and New Labour were irredeemably scarred by the wilderness years and saw Britain as an inherently conservative country. We also discovered along the way, that New Labour’s commitment to a democratic politics and organisation was decidedly skin-deep.
In sum, there is a growing need for a democratic left, one that is inside Labour, but can reach out to wider social movements and campaigns, and one that has a modernising left project. Compass is part of the history of the democratic left and has the chance to make some history of its own.
Anderson, P. (ed.) (1965), Towards Socialism (London: Fontana/ New Left Review)
Andrews, G. (2004), Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence and Wishart).
Cole, G.D.H. (1917), Self-Government in Industry (London: Hutchinson)
Crosland, A. (1956), The Future of Socialism (London: Cape)
Kenny, M. (1995), The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence and Wishart)
Williams, R. (1979) Politics and Letters (London: New Left Books)