The errors of the giants of revolutionary thought, who sought to raise, and did raise, the proletariat of the whole world above the level of petty, commonplace and trivial tasks — are a thousand times more noble and magnificent and historically more valuable and true than the trite wisdom of official liberalism, which lauds shouts, appeals and holds forth about the vanity of revolutionary vanities, the futility of the revolutionary struggle and the charms of counter-revolutionary “constitutional” fantasies.
Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 12, p. 378.
I am not usually fond of the obligatory Lenin quotes in socialist articles, but this particular phrase stood out in the context of what has been called ‘the defeat of the left’, and the struggle between social-democratic and radical responses to it. Lenin is dead; but the question of political strategy and socialist potential is alive. Unusually for members of the committed and serious left involved in Labour Party politics and activism, Owen Jones actually took the trouble, about a year and a half ago, to write an argument why the left should be in Labour. Of course, many such appeals for Labour get written by fake leftists, careerists, right social-democrats and think tank idiots from time to time, but such appeals make ‘the left’ into such an amorphous entity that these hacks can pretend there is a commonality of viewpoint and tradition between Emma Goldman and Luke Akehurst. The Labour left in the proper sense – those who are committed in one form or another to a substantive socialist vision opposed to capitalism and who are serious about the possibility of achieving it – rarely write such apologetics. That is a shame, because it is an argument worth having. Between the old, ossified clichés of the various ‘three letter parties’ on the Marxist left and the blatant opportunism of those using Labour as a vehicle for ‘achieving aspiration’, the arguments for party strategy are currently not well developed. Yet this is a crucial decision in theory as well as practice, and goes beyond a mere immediately tactical choice. It concerns the question of what you consider the core of what ‘the left’ should be about, for it to be worthy of its name and accomplishments.
In such a fundamental question, there are inevitably going to be both objective and subjective arguments involved. By this I mean: partially it can be debated in terms of arguments that are universalizable and general, and would apply in any similar situation for anyone, and partially it is a matter of personal commitments, priorities, and theoretical ‘intuition’, which may not wholly escape the boundaries of personal experience and idiosyncrasy. It seems fair then that in this reply I shall produce both, and I emphasize that I speak only for myself and my own considerations in this; ones which may of course change over time, besides. The question is made all the more complicated because, as anyone who has ever engaged with radical left micro-sects is aware, much of it depends or appears to depend on the reading of history in one particular way or another, and therefore it quickly gets mired in historiographical quicksand. This can’t be entirely avoided, but it is important in my view to be able to tell the difference between analytically major and minor issues. On the left altogether too much strife and confusion abounds simply because of an inability on the part of many writers to clearly state what to them is a premise and what to them is a conclusion. Explicating this will not necessarily lead to more agreement, but can make disagreement at least more productive and perhaps clear some old obstacles off the path. Continue reading “Why Not Join the Labour Party? A Personal Reply to Owen Jones and the Labour Left”