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An interesting discussion has been taking place about the routes of New Labour’s illiberalism. In a piece limited by an evident lack of understanding about the history of the Labour movement or of British marxism, Francesca Klug argued that traditional Marxist influences in the party were to blame. (Francesca says that Marxists were uninterested “in the state as a potentially oppressive force” until Ralph Miliband in 1969. LOL.” Lenin’s tomb hit back with a well worth reading piece arguing that the strong state ironically is routed in Neo-Liberalism. Meanwhile Guy Aitchison at our kingdom has written a thoughtful piece once again emphasising the significance of Marxism in stimulating New Labour’s disregard for liberty.
Where Guy is correct is in identifying a tendency within old labour which emphasises ends over means and which justifies restrictions on liberty on the basis of social welfare. An ex -ide to Gordon Brown once said that the best way to convince him of anything was to put up an oOHP with a graph showing the worst off in society getting better off. There is most certainly a tendency with old labour which says that “real freedom is bread on the dinner table” – a tendency which at its worst treats the working class as though they want nothing more than to be fed and watered.
But the analyses of Guy Aitchison and Francesca Clug are undermined by their unnuanced perception of old Labour and the labour left. It is worth remembering sometimes that Bevan – the ex miner, the radical, and the father of the welfare state – was fiercely anti-communist. At its inception the labour party was characterised by a struggle between ideological socialists – many of them Marxists – and trade unionsts who were concerned, sometimes exclusively, with pay and conditions and living standards and who regarded the first group as dangerously ideological. It was a tension that continued right through the history of old Labour. And it is these bean counting social democrats – not the Marxian influence within the Labour party – whose tradition has shaped the authoritarianism New Labour. It is in this tradition that the Labour Party lined up behind the smoking ban, on the grounds that any level of intrusion and interference could be justified on the basis of improved life expectancy.
What New Labour also draws upon is a tradition of well meaning technocracy. 21st century policy wonkery is in many ways infused with the spirit of 1920s bloomsbury. It is infused with the spirit of those like the Webbs who seemed to believe that the masses could effectively be bypassed and that a few clever people – equipped with powerful state machinery – could put right societies moral and material failings. Equally their good friend Keynes – hero of the old Labour soft left and an anchor point of post war social democracy – was sometimes forthright on the need to insulate the management of the economy, and other aspects of policy, from democratic pressure.
Clugg and Aitchison, meanwhile, offer no explanation as to why those members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who appear closest to Marxists traditions and politics – such as Jeremy Corbyn and John Mcdonnell – have been amongst those most opposed to New Labour’s attacks on civil liberties. Klug argues that there was an “intellectual tradition which never really saw the problem with the state – provided it was in the right, or rather left, hands” – yet Marxists more than anyone have understood that gaining elected office does not in itself alter fundamental aspects of the state and the way it operates. As did my comrade Tony Benn who entitled one of his memoirs “Office Without Power”.
Drawing a straight line between a caricatured vision of Marxism, and the policies of a decidedly non-Marxist new labour government illminates little. But Klug nonetheless has done us a service by raising important questions about the relationship between socialism and liberty.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org