The ILP and social change

The ILP’s Weekend School took place in Scarborough at the beginning of May. BARRY WINTER outlined the ILP’s perspective and explained why it had to change.

There are four major points that need to be made about the ILP’s perspective.

First, in the early 1990s we came to recognise that we had to remake our socialism in a changing and highly charged political environment. We also realised that the left’s notion of ‘crisis’, rather overused when applied to capitalism, was a better description of the condition of the left itself.

The irony was that, as socialists who want to change the world and who expect most people to change their lives accordingly, it was really us who needed to change our thinking. We needed to rethink some aspects of our politics in fundamental ways – and this presented a real challenge, one that wasn’t without cost. It would have been easier, and perhaps more tempting, to cling to what we knew rather than face up to what was really different about the situation. But, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued, the key to a relevant political strategy is grappling with the new.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, for example, this meant recognising that the recently-elected Tories were, in many respects, very different from their predecessors; that they posed a particular kind of threat. At the time, we argued this to a Labour Party which simply assumed that the situation would not last. Many party members argued that the Tories would not be in power for very long and that Labour would soon be back in office, which was a tragic and costly mistake.

In more recent years, we identified the need to understand the complex political character of Labour’s new leadership, given nearly two decades of new Right politics which had opened the floodgates to free market forces.

Communist demise

Another crucial reason for the need to undertake a major political rethink was the demise of actually existing communism in eastern Europe and the crumbling of Communist parties in western Europe. It was, to borrow a phrase, the end of the affair, for even though many of us were among the strongest critics of this system, it left us with some very hard questions to answer – mainly, how to avoid building into our version of socialism any of the elements which led to the failure of communism.

Of course, we had been asking these questions before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But perhaps the challenge to answer them gained in intensity. In particular, we needed to rethink the role of the state and economic activity, while ensuring that a commitment to democratic practice was embedded in our politics

For these reasons, the ILP undertook a taxing review of its political perspectives. In Gramsci’s words, we had to violently confront our own ideas. There was no room for half measures. We had to be as honest as our always-limited understanding of society allowed us to be. To build upon inadequate intellectual foundations, to duck the difficult issues, would be to undermine the political project from the outset. In politics, as perhaps in life, one’s flaws have a rather cruel way of finding you out at crucial moments.

Of course, changing your ideas lays you open to the charge of selling out, of abandoning your principles, of betrayal, of having gone too far. That is always possible but it is a risk that had to be taken.

Class, and all that

Secondly, we recognised that, while capitalist society is run primarily in the interests of various élites, traditional notions of class were not particularly helpful. The idea that a conscious and unified working class was the main agent or motor of socialist change seemed to be inadequate. This was not a denial of class structure; still less a denial that the capitalist world is fundamentally divided between the many and the few. According to the World Bank, the global labour force doubled in size between 1966 and 1995 and now numbers 2.5 billion men and women.

But our new perspective does question the category ‘working class’, and its traditional position as the privileged site of struggle. The idea of the ‘working class’ no longer conveyed sufficient meaning, or had a broad enough appeal, to carry the fight for a new society. Central as class has been in socialist thought, it had arguably become more of a religious icon than a practical means for changing the world. Many of us knew of the theoretical attempts to salvage ‘class’ as a politically workable concept, but we were finding such efforts unconvincing.

For some of us, the arguments began to resemble those medieval, monastic disputes about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – they neither resolved the problem of definition, nor responded adequately to contemporary social and political developments. There were too many movements emerging with dynamism and relevance that did not fit into the category of working class but which embodied strong and relevant critiques of capitalism.

Once you de-centre the idea of a politicised working class as the vanguard  of social change (and, of course, the belief in a political group which is the vanguard of the vanguard and the possessor of the correct ideas), you can re-value other political, economic, social and cultural forms of resistance.

Instead of measuring them against a working class yardstick and finding them wanting in some ways – at best, useful but subordinate allies in the true class struggle – or seeing them as merely means to your ends, you begin to see (and participate in) these new forms of resistance as partners in a process of social change.

Of course, many of us were already doing something rather like that in practice without being sufficiently clear in our theory about how or why. By violently confronting our earlier understandings we were recognising that we had, in many respects, already gone beyond the old model but had not been sufficiently aware of it.

Of course, to question the centrality of class in the struggle against capitalism raises an important issue. To cite Gramsci once more: “Whoever desires the ends must desire the means to that end.” And if the means to that end is not the working class, as traditionally understood, then what is it?

Democracy and a new agenda

We now began to see that the need to construct a democratic agenda was central to any challenge to capitalist hegemony, an agenda that links into many and varied groups of people. In the world itself this was already happening – new alliances were being forged by people seeking a non-nuclear world, sustainable environments, healthy lifestyles, and so on. For us, the foundation on which to confront anti-democratic capitalism was democracy itself – democracy on a variety of fronts, at many different levels, and taking many different forms.

We see, for example, that the opposition to GM foods includes peasants in India, indigenous Indians in Ecuador, eco-warriors in Britain, and the Women’s Institute.

A democratic agenda means democratising existing institutions, as well as creating new forms of democracy, particularly at the base of society, often to act as a counter to existing institutions. In other words, the basis for radical socialist transformation involves the creation of a democratic culture to be found in a myriad of forms and places – and among a wide variety of people.

Of course, that base will also need to be regenerated from time to time by renewing the democratic processes. Democracy is not so much a thing to be achieved but a continuous process that has continually to be re-won – and this highlights one of the weaknesses of liberal or representative democracy.

The novelist, Norman Mailer, once wrote: “Every moment of one’s existence one is either growing into more or retreating into something less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit.” He was applying this argument to individuals but I think that it can be applied to politics too. Every moment in our politics, as in our lives and work, we are either growing into more or retreating into something less; living more or dying a little bit.

At the centre of growing into more, politically, is the need to participate, to question, to debate and to decide – the living democratic process itself. One of the hidden injuries in our society is not being able to participate effectively in our lives: it amounts to a denial of what makes us as human beings; it dulls and depresses the senses. Marx argued that to be human is to be creative and that capitalism denies us by depriving us of our essential creativity. He was focusing primarily on work but I think that it applies to all aspects of our lives.

We are, therefore, not so much retreating from the idea of class, as one author suggested, but transcending the term. We are enriching and expanding the struggle of the many against the privileged few, taking it into all aspects of people’s lives.

The Labour Party

It was against this background that we reconsidered our attitude to the Labour Party, to Labour governments and to parliamentary democracy itself. Having been critical of the traditional politics of the Labour left, which we often saw as not only self-defeating but self-destructive, we had sought, but failed, to implant a longer-term view of social change.

We were also aware of the weight of the arguments that claimed there was no parliamentary road to socialism, which referred to Labour’s often dreadful historical record in office. From the 1970s onwards we had been saying (in an earlier and largely forgotten notion of the ‘third way’) that parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics needed to be combined if we were to transform society.

In practice it is becoming increasingly clear, and significant, that unless the two processes are bound closely together, there is no viable strategy for social change, certainly not one that is likely to appeal to a broad swathe of understandably wary people. People want to look before they leap and, given the risks entailed in rapid social upheaval, who can blame them?

Once this is recognised it is clear that we need to understand the political character of the current Labour Party leadership, not in order to denounce its ‘betrayals’, but to see what could reasonably be asked of it at particular times. Instead of asking for the impossible, demanding that Labour deliver more than is possible in the circumstances, we should focus the political debate on what it is possible to deliver in relation to the wide goals of the democratic agenda.

This is not the old argument about being either for or against the Labour Party, it is saying that while it exists and has political significance, we cannot simply ignore it. It may sometimes provide a political forum and be a way of seeking progressive social change, greater democratic control of society. If we want greater control of international economic processes, for example, then that demand needs to be channelled through the party and Labour governments. Who else is going to be able to cancel third world debt, seek a decline in ‘global warming’, and so on?

We have to keep asking, to keep up the pressure. Our search for reforms are a means to open up the process of reform itself. We should be asking Labour to increase democracy, to create opportunities, great and small, for more people to control their lives.

If we are to connect with people’s desires for progressive social reform we have to be able to respond to them at the point where reforms are possible, where the potential exists. And, of course, when circumstances are suitable, we should press for changes in the party that allow greater democracy – not for short term gains but to allow for an increasingly democratic culture to find reflection within it as well as outside it.

Economic relations

Fourthly, equipped with a democratic agenda we can tackle the dominance of capitalist economic relations themselves, and the common-sense ideas which uphold them. It is when they consider the power of capital that many people feel that little or nothing can be done; while others argue that if enough of us protest we will somehow bring the beast to heel, even slay it.

Any economic strategy of change is also a political strategy, or is inseparable from a political strategy. It involves a struggle for power. Capitalist society works by separating out, differentiating various spheres of life, not least the political and the economic. We have to argue for greater control of those massive economic enterprises that dominate the markets, but we have to do more than seek to bring them to heel.

We also have to create space for other kinds of economic relations to grow and flourish. Here we are not talking about what must be done sometime in the future but what can be done here and now by creating new forms of cooperative and mutual associations which can produce goods and services that people need – and become an alternative to the power of corporate capital. These organisations involve new kinds of working relationships, skilling rather than deskilling, and new kinds of relations between producers and consumers.

In putting this into practice we need to rework the political history of socialist and cooperative activities, learn from their failures as well as their successes. Networks of self-organised activity were fundamental to the development of the labour and socialist movement in Britain – and important among these were the self-help, friendly and cooperative societies, and trade union branches. They provided the soil from which a more radical movement grew. When they declined so did the radical politics that they nourished.

We need equivalent forms of activity today. Without those networks, there are too few means for people to participate in society – too few routes open to greater politicisation, education and participation. Through these networks, people can develop self-worth and self-esteem, while learning the value of collective cooperation.

A new culture

Such organisations raise questions about how people who are not rich in material resources can live: what sort of goods can we consume?; what sort of food can we eat, and how good is it for us?; what sort of employment can we have, and how might it be organised?; how might people travel?; what sort of homes can we live in?; what sort of family and social arrangements can we choose?; how can children best be looked after?; what forms of entertainment do we want?; how do we want to learn new skills?; and, not least, what demands might we make of governments to provide better conditions for these relationships to succeed?

In other words, we are talking about creating a new, democratic, political and economic culture, a new intellectual framework for living. In some ways it already exists, but it needs expanding and to gain a wider social currency. Of course, there will be failures as well as successes. Experimentation involves risks and that means there will need to be safety nets. But, hopefully, the more successes there are, the greater the appetite for extending these processes will be.

Creating new spaces for new forms of politics and economics to live and breathe is the challenge that we now face. What we ask of Labour is that it fosters such developments. It can redirect resources that can make a major difference.

At first, this project might seem far less ambitious than the goal of bringing down the capitalist system and replacing it overnight with a new society. Perhaps it is, but, in the long run, it is also less dangerous.

I would argue, however, that it is no less visionary. Yet it is vision grounded in experience, an ambition kept to a human and a manageable scale. It may not satisfy the microscopic forces of the far left but I think that it offers a means to social change which can involve and engage with real people rather than call on imaginary armies.

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  1. Autumn 2001 - ILP
    22 October 2010

    […] democracy Stephen Yeo argues that cooperative politics can help to address the democratic deficit. The ILP and social change Barry Winter outlines the ILP’s perspective and explains why it’s had to change. Collective […]

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