Is it not strange and a bit disquieting that the parliamentary left, or more precisely, the Labour Party, is all at sea with regards vision? The vision of the left…the only vision there is for the left… is the same now as it always was. So why is the Labour Party struggling to articulate a vision? We know that the labour Party has lost touch. And we know that people are more or less disengaged from parliamentary politics. Why this should be isn’t very difficult to figure out. How to rectify the situation isn’t very difficult either.
But first, it might be useful to point to where it all went wrong for the parliamentary left. Many people think that the 1980’s marked a parting of the ways for Labour and its core values and support base. I don’t think that’s correct. I think the wrong step was taken years before that.
Across the English speaking world, Labour Parties adopted a platform that was underpinned or informed by something distinctly anti-left. That doesn’t mean they didn’t enact policies that led to vast and laudable improvements for many people. And it doesn’t mean those policies didn’t express or contain some genuine leftist sentiments. But the basic contradiction of espousing leftism from an anti-left platform meant that the parliamentary left was never going to be able to bring any leftist programme to full fruition. And with the benefit of hindsight it becomes fairly clear that the parliamentary left was always set on auto destruct.
And this is why. By 1921 the Russian Revolution had been well and truly defeated and the promise of a socialist revolution had degenerated into the nightmare of a dictatorship. Where socialism had sought to empower ordinary people in their daily life through the establishment of democratic workers councils, community councils and the like, by 1921 the Bolsheviks had laid waste to nascent structures of empowerment and secured themselves in a position of absolute power. It was they who claimed, through the Party structure to express the true will of the people. And so to speak against them was to be marked down as a counter revolutionary and punished accordingly.
And it was that Bolshevik model of socialism (if the term can be meaningfully applied to Bolshevik rule) that the Labour Party looked to for inspiration as it sought to bring about socialist transformations here. Put simply, the Labour Party view was that the state would provide and the matter of a bureaucratic dictatorship was quietly swept under the carpet.
I don’t mean to suggest that Labour Party leaders secretly nurtured fantasies of having dictatorial powers, the like as exercised by Lenin or Stalin. But there was an article of faith operating for many people of the left; a belief that things would improve in the USSR and a belief that the state would somehow (magically?) wither and a socialist world appear in the space formally occupied by the state. And that belief might go someway to explain the fact that there were apologists by the truckload in the broader left ready to justify or explain away such events as Stalins treacherous interference in the Spanish Revolution, his peace treaty with Hitler’s Germany, the invasion of Hungary and so on and so on.
What we know is that when the dictatorial edifice that was the USSR crumbled, it was the market that rushed to fill the vacuum. And we also know that across the English speaking world, many professed leftists lost their point of reference and succumbed to market ideology too.
Prior to the collapse of the Bolshevik dictatorship, there existed a tension between state and corporate dynamics in some ‘western’ countries. That led to a mixed economy and allowed social democracies to develop in the years following WW2. Suffice to say, given the realities on the ground, compromise was the order of the day for both sides and we, ordinary people, benefitted from policies emanating from the tension generated between the two antagonistic poles of political/economic attraction.
But even with one of those poles gone now, we are getting on close to a hundred years of much of the left adhering to the notion that the rightful repository of power, from a leftist perspective, is the state. One effect of that misguided notion is that the only other possible repository of power is somewhere within the private or corporate sector. And so the left today withers because socialist aspirations cannot be developed when corporate/private sector control is accommodated. And the left has felt compelled to accommodate the corporate/private sector ever since its ‘one trick pony’ of state control was discredited with the death of Bolshevism.
But as I said at the beginning of the post, Bolshevism – or state control – was never an authentic expression of leftism and was in fact what brought the socialist revolution in Russia to a dead halt.
So what are the options for the parliamentary left today? On the one hand they can continue to merely slow the rate of the ascendency of private/corporate control if and when they gain a parliamentary majority. Or they can espouse the only vision there ever really was for the left and use any time in office to devolve the power of the state to the hands of the ordinary citizen.
At present, huge chunks of the state are being consumed or appropriated by the private/corporate sector. And with the parliamentary left adrift and lost, it’s only a matter of time before we arrive at the point where a ‘zero welfare’ state exists as a tool under the guiding hand of the private/corporate sector. And that’s not going to be nice. A brief glance at history – at Italy or Germany during the 1930’s – should give us distaste enough of that possibility.
So it’s incumbent upon any parliamentary presence that deserves to be identified as ‘of the left’ to play its part in offering and developing an alternative to that scenario. To be really clear, the sun is setting on the vestiges of the ‘old left’ – the ‘traditional left’ of this past 100 years – and I don’t believe for a second that I am the only one who perceives something very unpleasant on the horizon.
And so it is no longer of any use for the parliamentary left to say that it will not privatise ‘a, b or c’ if it gets into power. And it’s also pointless for the parliamentary left to promise to round off the more egregious edges of already enacted right wing policies. Because when the right gets into power it can get its hands on ‘a, b and c’ and privatise it anyway. And those blunted edges can be honed all over again. Also, when the right gouges state assets or services and places them in private hands, it takes longer (if ever) to reverse the privatisation process than it did to implement it. And so our society drifts ever further into a corporate future. And to halt or reverse that drift, the only worthwhile strategy available to the parliamentary left is one that will move assets and services beyond the reach of ‘the right’. And that means removing those things from state control.
It’s past the time when the parliamentary left should have got over the habit of investing power in state bureaucracies. It’s past the time when the parliamentary left should have faced up to the fact that strategies that focus on empowering the state are ‘dead as dead ducks can be’. And it’s past the time for the parliamentary left to use what time it might have in power to invest in a genuinely empowering and resurgent left through enacting policies that devolve power and decision making to ordinary people in their daily lives as citizens and workers.
Politics is about the exercise of power. And although it’s devoid of substance, Whanau Ora provides a signpost to some parliamentary possibilities. The reality of Whanau Ora is that funding and expertise will be channelled to private providers and so nothing much will change in relation to where power resides. But there is another model for community health care that contains substance. And there is no reason why that model can’t be looked to and no reason why Whanau Ora can’t be pushed in that inclusive and empowering direction. The Venezuelan state launched a programme called Barrio Adentro. Unlike Whanau Ora, Barrio Adentro provides for (among other measures) full and free medical training to people from the communities where the services are located and places the power for managing the services squarely within the communities.
And it’s not the only community based programme the state is encouraging. Across the social spectrum, the state is empowering individuals and communities by developing parallel, community controlled structures to stand alongside the ‘traditional’ bureaucratic state models and existing private models
And that, for the parliamentary left, is the whole thing in a nutshell. Either it acknowledges that the old power dichotomy of private versus state was a false one and encourage the development of a new ‘pole of attraction’; one that is based on an empowered citizenry. Or it accepts its complicity in the formation of a corporate/private fascism and its place on the receiving end of any backlash that may be unleashed.
Sadly, to date, it would seem that the parliamentary left in the form of the Labour Party, is taking the second option and hiding behind a fig leaf of protestation that would declare the world void of meaningful leftist vision. Which is odd, because as said, the leftist vision – the vision that would empower ordinary citizens, was and is the only vision the left ever had. And that vision is at least as relevant today as it ever was (perhaps more so) and, what’s more, far easier to translate into reality now that the stone wall to progress on the left, the presence of the Bolshevik dictatorship, is no longer around and the ideas it espoused so thoroughly discredited. I find it difficult to believe that the Labour Party is so blind to leftist history as to claim there is nought but a vacuum where vision should be. But then, maybe Labour politicians (or should I say ‘careerists’… as surely only a party of careerists could be as ignorant of political history as the current Labour Party appears to be) are happy enough to play handmaiden to a corporate agenda and pocket the proverbial 30 pieces of silver for their troubles? Who knows.