Leftwing filmmaker Ken Loach has launched a movie and corresponding campaign in the UK called “Spirit of ’45”. Already avidly promoted by the usual union and Labour left figures, the purpose of the movie is to have working people speak on behalf of the social-democratic achievements of the 1945 Labour government, and what these meant for them. This was the government that radically expanded and restructured the British social system, transforming it from a country of austerity conservatism into one of the main bulwarks of social-democracy – the pinnacle of course being the introduction of a healthcare system wholly free at the point of use, unprecedented then as it indeed still is now. Many left-leaning British people understandably have a certain pride in these accomplishments, and the Labour Party has been coasting on them in its claims to working class loyalty for practically all of the postwar period (“party of the NHS”). The purpose of the corresponding campaign is to revive this sense of pride and loyalty towards social-democracy, presumably in the hope that this will strengthen popular resistance against the attempts by the current conservative-liberal coalition to privatize swathes of the NHS, reduce or abolish elements of the ‘welfare state’, and generally to force market exchange where there was redistribution.
As a purely defensive campaign to mobilize for genuine reforms away from the basis of capitalist social relations, that is the mediation between working people through ‘free’ markets, and in favor of some manner of organized and collective solidarity, this is fair enough. Yet the spirit of ’45 is a ghost which, once conjured up, may turn out to do more than haunt the conscience of the coalition. The spirit of ’45 is first and foremost the spirit of nostalgia, a nostalgia for an idealized past of Labour governments and miners in caps speaking at union rallies. This makes it, as many of the commentators on the right promptly pointed out, little more than an extended political broadcast for the Labour Party. And this shows its limitations: not only would the Labour Party of Ed Miliband probably unrecognizable to the members of Attlee’s cabinet, but anyone whose political horizon is wider than that of Labour has little reason to be enthused by this.
But that is the least of the problems. More importantly, the Labour left’s nostalgia is itself a falsification of history, and one whose lies by omission are just as dangerous as the lies by commission of the defenders of austerity. The spirit of ’45 is no doubt a friendly one to those who imagine their ideal politics as ‘cradle to grave’ redistributionism decided by senior foremen in the TUC building. But it is more of a sinister spectre for many other people. Why would women, who now form a majority of the UK’s few remaining union members, be so excited about the spirit of 1945, when in 1945 marital rape was legal, women employed in public service were paid considerably less than men, when women had effectively no say in union activities, were kept out of workplaces, could not even sit in the House of Lords? The Married Women’s Property Act, for the first time in the UK allowing women to own their own property out of the ‘allowance’ given by their husbands, was passed in 1964. Why would this nostalgia be at all appealing to them?
Or what would this spirit of ’45 mean to the many immigrants who form the backbone of the working class in the larger cities of the UK? When the red rose of Attlee turned the winter of our discontent into glorious summer, most of their ancestors had not yet moved to the UK. And, in fact, the spirit of ’45 was a truly terrifying creature for the victims of the imperialism of the postwar period, enthusiastically supported by the perennially pro-NATO and pro-colonial Labour Party – including the great Attlee and his right hand, Ernest Bevin, the epitome of the 1945 union leader. It was Attlee’s government that repressed the Communist anticolonial uprising in Malaysia, that attempted at all cost to frustrate real Indian independence, that supported the Americans in the Korean War, and so forth. It is easy to create vast schemes of worker improvement if the bill is presented to millions more workers in subjugated countries.
This is always, everywhere the guilty conscience of social-democracy. If one looks beyond the immediate borders of the British Isles, the spirit of ’45 should be something akin to Dickens’ ghost of Christmas past: reminding us of the essentially chauvinist, divide-and-rule nature of social-democracy in the 20th century, a welfare state for what in Victorian times was called the deserving poor. It is exactly this ability to present the welfare state as something granted from on high by the state’s wise politicians, on the basis of the merit of some and the irrelevance of others, that makes it so easy for the current government to use this same strategy of divide et impera against the country’s workers and their supposed representatives. The spirit of ’45 was never one of real universality of solidarity – not simply because such a thing is always more an aim than a reality, but more damagingly because it was from the start founded on a dishonest portrayal of its own base.
Of course, this does not mean buying into the conservative-liberal argument of the ‘burden of the welfare state’ as some kind of boulder that threatens to crush the society under its unbearable weight. As Anwar Shaikh and many others have demonstrated, most of the welfare state in the West has always, proximately, been paid for by the taxes and contributions from the same people who benefited from them – in the US, there has even been a net transfer from the population paying in to the state, rather than the reverse. Most social-democratic countries, including the model Sweden, were virtually transfer neutral. The arguments of the right are not the issue here – they are transparent frauds. It is the arguments of the left I am concerned with.
What further weakens the resistance against the government in this conjuring trick is the weakness of nostalgia itself as a political strategy. As I have mentioned before, it is inadequate for any left politics to present itself as an essentially conservative one. It is understandable that in the case of an onslaught of austerity like today, the first instinct and need is a defensive one. However, this defensiveness is not contingent and temporary, but a quasi-permanent feature of social-democratic politics today. I have argued elsewhere that this is, I suspect, because of the historical obsolescence of Western social-democracy as a world-historical phenomenon. I need not repeat this argument, although I think it is crucial to understand the impossibility of the Labour left’s strategy even if there were no problems with the ‘spirit of ’45’. But as my argument does not depend on accepting this analysis, let us assume that the Labour left’s defensive strategy is in the short term justified. Even so, nostalgia is destructive.
As the classical generals said, the best defense is eventually the offense. Nowhere is this more true than for socialist politics. The demoralizing effects of forever battling to preserve what one has against the grain of history should not be underestimated. It is not in the preserving that socialism is strong, but precisely in change, such as revolutions and mass movements. The sense of unstoppable momentum in the 19th century that caused Marx and Engels to jubilate about the ‘inevitability’ of socialism was not because everyone was unionized or because there was such a strong welfare state or because the various monarchies had been stopped in their tracks. In fact, it is easy to forget just how much worse off, politically, economically, and legally, the working class and its organized bodies were before WWI compared even to now. Rather, it was because armed with socialist ideas, the working class was on the move, was, in their view, inaugurating the future society, was the party of hope rather than the party of despair. Nostalgia is precisely the opposite of this: it is the last refuge of the reactionary and the romantic. “Communism”, Marx said, “is the real movement that abolishes the present state of things”. Nostalgia is the real movement that attempts to return to a previous state of things. It cannot be the basis for a politics of the left. We must therefore exorcise the spirit of ’45, and conjure in its stead the spectre of communism.