There are many calls for people on the left in Britain to engage with many things.
Some people always argue we should look to the right so Labour can win elections. Others seem to be clinging onto something that used to be called Eurocommunism. Writing at its height of popularity in 1980s in Britain, Alex Callinicos defined this as,
“1: the labour movement is in serious crisis as a result of its decline
“2: capital is, by contrast, on the offensive, and has succeeded in establishing a new form of class rule, ‘authoritarian populism’, involving both direct ideological appeal to the masses and greater reliance on coercion.
“3: the left’s only hope of recovery from its present travails lies in the construction of a broad democratic alliance against Thatcherism, which is the political expression of authoritarian populism.”
Replace Margaret Thatcher with Boris Johnson and you have what now passes for this kind of thinking coming from a chunk of the British left.
These kind of ideas come from a belief that the working class can’t or won’t fight.
Now, as then, people say the working class is not so much dead, but its consciousness has changed so much that the left must transform itself. The cleverest of the Eurocommunists, Stuart Hall, argued, “The left must be able, with its own project, to engage the society as a whole, to generalise itself throughout society, to bring over strategic popular majorities on the key issues, to win converts.”
During the Falklands war the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who started a lot of this, warned the left, “It is dangerous to leave patriotism exclusively to the right.”
The long fight for reclaiming something or other for the left has gone from searching for People’s Music to wearing an England football shirt.
But Socialist Worker argues that the failure of Labour demonstrates the need for an independent revolutionary party.
This party relates openly to workers when they are involved in struggle and therefore most ready to listen to socialist ideas.
It is possible to draw the opposite conclusion and think that all we need is a few moves towards where people’s ideas are now.
The theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe complained about “classism—that is to say, the idea that the working class represents the privileged agent in which the fundamental impulse of social change resides”.
Socialist Worker on this definition remains a class act.
Laclau and Mouffe had the decency to argue for a break with class politics.
That today’s noise is from people who are grouchy about the hobgoblin of “identity politics” is admittedly a little odd.
It is vital and necessary to win wide support for socialist ideas.
But this can only be achieved through active participation in and support for workers’ struggles.
A battle of ideas is being counter-posed to class struggle. If you think that class struggle is at best unlikely, then only a culture war—so to speak—is possible.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called this “political criticism of a minor, day-to-day character, which has as its subject top political leaders and personalities”.
He added it was a “conjunctural phenomena which was of little lasting significance”.
The clever people around Eurocommunism provided a theoretical backing for the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock. This time there is a desire to do the same for Keir Starmer or sections of the union bureaucracy.
As Marx said, “As Hegel somewhere said, history repeats itself. What he omitted to mention was the first time as tragedy the second as farce.”