Lessons of the May Day Manifesto

The British New Left had a critical approach towards neoliberal and authoritarian models of modernisation, ideas shared by more recent political  trends, says MICHAEL RUSTIN in this his talk to the British New Left and Labour seminar held in London in June 2012.

This presentation focuses on the political current which first defined itself as the  New Left, and which emerged in Britain from the  co-incident crises of the invasions (by Britain, France and Israel) of Suez, and by the Russians of Hungary, in 1956. It does not discuss another political tradition invoked in the seminar, that which describes itself as Blue Labour, which was a central  focus of discussion  on the day. There is perhaps an interesting future debate to had about the readings which can be given of the different  traditions which might be valuable in the reconstruction of a viable and creative political left, and of the relations between the currents described by Maurice Glasman and other ‘Blue Labour’ founders and those of the early New Left itself. However neither that engagement, nor the different and interesting history of the American New Left sketched out in the seminar by Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent) are  the subject of this presentation.  What is clear is that all three of these traditions have in common an antipathy towards the neo-liberal, utilitarian, and authoritarian  elements of  what has long disguised itself as a programme for  ‘modernisation’, and which has constituted a dominant tendency in British politics for a generation.


Reflections on the Recent Past

The May Day Manifesto, to which this title refers,  came out in May 1967,  and in an expanded version  as a Penguin Special in 1968. It was edited by Stuart Hall, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, each founding figures of the ‘first new left’ of the mid-1950s, the immediate product of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Suez Crisis of 1956. Various (then) younger people, such as Terry Eagleton and myself, contributed, in particular to the activities which followed the two launches, including the founding of May Day Manifesto groups in various places, which followed the example of the earlier New Left Clubs.

Its main interest, looking at it now, was its argument that a holistic analysis of the then state of capitalism was necessary,  and that without a grasp of the nature of the whole system and its interconnections, specific policies and reforms would fail. Indeed it was held in 1967 that they were already failing. The 1967 Manifesto was an expression of disappointment in the activities of the 1964 Labour Government, which was already retreating from is own programme (for example for a National Plan) in face of the economic difficulties which culminated in the enforced sterling devaluation of November 1967.

Some of the themes of the Manifesto of 1967 remain  current today – for example its  arguments about the persistence of  poverty and inequality now have a renewed relevance.  The critique of the excessive weight of the financial sector in the economy, and the weakness of British manufacturing – reflected in that pre-North Sea Oil era in chronic balance of payments problems – remain constants between these two periods. Neo-imperialism also remains an issue throughout this entire epoch, with recurrent  military  interventions from the Falklands to the Iraq wars,  Afghanistan, and Libya. The Manifesto writers were concerned with a growing divergence  between what one can call single-issue, ‘post-class’ social movement campaigns, and a more traditional, Labourist  ‘working class’ politics, and one of its main hopes was to see a reconnection of these ‘new’ and ‘old’ kinds of political movement. Its interest was in attempting to develop a unifying political narrative which took account of social and political diversification, while still remaining essentially socialist in its framing of the issues.  One could say that its project was to show that new and old forms of oppression still  had capitalism as their primary cause. The Manifesto’s  insistence on a socialist frame of reference is a reminder of how the terms of debate have changed since 1967.

In fact these different kinds of politics did soon become reconnected in reality, but in  much more turbulent ways, after 1968 and through the 1970s, than the May Day Manifesto authors had anticipated.  (Indeed the Manifesto was rather swept away by this tsunami.)   Both ‘new’ and ‘old’ forms of political action on the left became much more vigorous, with the industrial tensions  of the 1970s,  the anti-Vietnam War campaign, disturbances in the universities, and many other lines of emergent conflict,   including those of gender and race.

These brought  considerable social unrest during the 1970s, and indeed some saw in this unrest  the spectre of ‘ungovernability’ .  The father of the Miliband brothers, Ralph, memorably described this as a ‘state of desubordination’.  The ‘corporatist attempt to resolve these tensions during the 1960s and 1970s, via income policies, trade union reforms, indicative planning, social contracts and the like –  essentially a last attempt to prolong and preserve the post-war class settlement –  failed, finally breaking down in the Winter of Discontent of 1979.  It was succeeded not by a renewed left  –  which the Manifesto had argued for – it had in fact been arguing against a ‘corporatism’ whose failure one might now regret given what followed its failure – but instead by a renewed right, inspired and led by Mrs Thatcher.

Politics became ‘harder’  in its texture than it had been in the early CND-dominated and utopian  days of the early new left.  In terms of ideas, New Left Review and its book publishing programme brought about a new theoreticism and a strongly Marxist inflection to political debate.  This had significant benefits, in greatly expanding the intellectual resources available to socialists (and others), though at a cost to the separation of ‘academic’ from more everyday ways of thinking. (One beneficiary of this theoretical development was Charter 88, whose argument for a written constitution was  influenced by the Anderson-Nairn thesis in New Left Review that Britain had failed to  achieve a bourgeois revolution, which was in orthodox Marxism terms a necessary stage on the road to  socialism.) Troyskyists of various kinds became the dominant tendency outside the Labour Party, and some factions pursued entryism within it. This political culture of neo-Leninism was a departure from that of the earlier New Left – it seemed  regressive to it in many ways – but it made possible organisations with a greater tenacity and staying power than the New Left  ever achieved, although of course CND had earlier provided it with a popular base.

Both these theoretical and the organisational developments had lasting legacies. A left intellectual culture developed, based in the expanding universities,  but rather distant  from locally-based political activity. Many of its adherents were more attentive to what was happening in Paris than to life in Leeds or Birmingham. This  contrast between a flourishing left culture and a dominant right wing politics Perry Anderson  once memorably  described as a ‘culture in contraflow’ .

The experiences of left penetration of the Labour Party brought, in reaction to it in the 1980s, a  determination to ‘purge’ the Labour Party of  radical elements, and of broader democratic practices besides.  My memory is that there had been  closer links between Labour  politicians  – like Tony Crosland, Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle, Peter Shore et al –  and political intellectuals and academics in the earlier days  than has been the case since the 1980s. Sometimes these early links were formative for policy, as with the work on poverty and welfare of Richard Titmuss, Peter Townsend, and Brian Abel-Smith, sometimes they took more the form of ideological argument,  with new leftists such as Raymond Williams,Edward Thompson  and Stuart Hall. (Such links had been  even stronger in the previous period of radical resurgence – see Paul Addison’s The Road to 1945 on the coming together of many radical and reforming currents in the making of  Labour’s 1945 programme.)   From the 1980s the Labour Party sought to become an ideology-free zone, with the GLC under Livingstone, and as I was reminded in the discussion at the seminar in some other Labour cities such as Sheffield, as something of an exception. New Labour proclaimed that it wanted to replace ideologies, while itself of course being one. Once New Labour took office in 1997  it firmly shut the door on the new left  intellectuals of Marxism Today (whose writing had not been without value for its development, not least in their  critique of left fundamentalism) unless they were prepared wholly to identify with its project.   There was little room under New Labour for constructive dissent.


Thinking about the Present

Well, this was all  a long time ago, so what has it and the New Left got to do with where we are now?

The most relevant contribution of this New Left tradition lies  not only in its commitment to connected analysis of a ‘whole system’, but also and in particular to its interest in the nature of system crises or ‘conjunctures’, in Gramsci’s terms.  Stuart Hall and his colleagues  analysed  the crisis of the post-war class settlement, and of its last corporatist phase, during the late 1970s, in this theoretical  frame.  The power of its analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ arose from its understanding of the contradictions – the rising pressure of demands on capital and social hierarchy – to which the new right offered a decisive political resolution.  Hall analysed the later phase of this development, in his  description of  ‘New Labour’s Double Shuffle’  as a politics which combined adaptation to a new  world of globalised markets with its  rhetorical  self-presentation as the defender of popular interests and aspirations. www.lwbooks.co.uk/new/journals/articles/nov03.html

This tension between the pressures from organised capital and the need somehow to hold on to Labour votes brought New Labour’s conspicuous addiction to politics as public relations – ‘spin’ –  enthusiastically followed by Cameron, reportedly  one of Blair’s greatest admirers.  Even though there were more tensions within  the New Labour system than Stuart Hall was inclined to allow  – for example the Brown – Blair battles were about real issues as well as personal ambitions –  nevertheless the analysis of New Labour as essentially an adaptation to a neoliberal world was correct.

But now we have the latest stage of this systemic development, which is the deep self-induced crisis of this entire system, following the near financial meltdown of 2008.  The  crisis of the 1970s had been the outcome of intensified class and other social conflicts, brought about through the strengthened position and demandingness of organised labour,  arising from conditions of prosperity and full-employment.  This was  a struggle over ‘who governs?’  of where does social hegemony  lie.  But the financial crisis of 2007-8  was of a different order.  This was an implosion of a financial system which had become decoupled from the productive needs  of the real economy.  This was not a response to organised opposition to capital, since this had been largely defeated. As industries decamped to the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), and working and middle class living standards stagnated,  resources were gambled in real estate markets and other forms of speculation. This is in part a crisis of  underconsumption and insufficient economic demand, papered over by speculative  borrowing and lending, in both public and private spheres, variably by nation.  The withdrawal of government from economic planning and regulation led to economic weakness – the greater the deregulation, the greater the problems.  (Where banks were more fully tied into their industrial functions, as in Germany, or where government  retained more economic responsibility, as in France,  competitiveness was better retained.)  In Spain and in the United States, the banking crisis was fuelled by speculation in housing that no-one could afford.   Although welfare expenditures obviously  have to be kept in line with the capacity for an economy to pay for them,  the reduction of social protection, and of expenditures on such activities as health and education (themselves productive activities in their own right) will not restore the competitiveness of economies such as  Britain’s.

The New Left tradition’s most relevant contribution in this crisis is its capacity to address the fundamental dysfunctionality of the system we now have, and the need to reflect on and map out the changes that are needed at a deep level. (Soundings has been developing this analysis in recent years in The Neoliberal Crisis http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/ebooks/NeoliberalCrisis.html. )  Just as the crisis of the 1960s and 1970s was a prolonged one, with successive  governments failing in turn to resolve the structural problems, so it seems possible that we now be in a crisis of a similarly prolonged kind. The main political risk  may be less one of the Tories or the Coalition entrenching themselves in  power, but  more that Labour or a Labour-Lib Dem Coalition may get  returned to office within two or three years, but will then find themselves once again in government, but unable to act or even think outside the limits of present orthodoxies.

The short-term problems for Labour – maintaining a position in the polls, getting elected, avoiding a run on the pound etc. – are real ones, and must  be respected as such. But there needs to be a different kind of debate going on in parallel with these tactical political and electoral concerns.  What will this economic and political system have to become, if it is be viable in twenty or thirty years time?

For example:

  • What would a socially-accountable banking system look like, and how would it be owned and governed?
  • How can the productive capacities of this society be described and mapped in such a way that an adequate  ‘industrial policy’  becomes even conceivable?  (One cannot have an industrial policy if we lack even a map of the industrial and other productive economic sectors we have).   This needs to be a model in which the activities of health provision, education, tourism,  film and music-making, professional services of various kinds, for example,  count for as much as ‘manufacturing’, in the inventory of what is ‘produced’.  The traditional social democratic trade-off between a manufacturing and financial sector largely left to the ‘free market’, to generate wealth which can then be partially ‘consumed’  by the welfare system, has to be abandoned.  On the one hand, the ‘productive sectors’ cannot be left to fend for themselves in a free market (most of Britain’s remaining  competitive economic sectors are already heavily dependent on their links with government, and a ‘free market’ hardly exists), and on the other we have to think of health, welfare and housing systems as themselves generators and not merely as consumers of wealth.
  • Inequality is an increasing problem, not only for reasons of ethics and comparative well-being, but also because if one prevents large numbers of citizens – obviously especially young citizens – from achieving their potential, in work and in other spheres, one depletes the capacities of society as a whole. This should not be seen as it usually is as the goal of providing more opportunities for social mobility for selected individuals, but of ensuring that adequate opportunities and rewards are available for all.  It is only in relatively equal societies that both ‘upward and downward’ mobility for individuals (one cannot by definition have one without the other) becomes possible.
  • It is obvious that environmental constraints have to be taken as central to the future of the society, with ‘well-being’; and ‘prosperity’ redefined in ways that are consistent with a long-term ecologically-sound future.
  • The issue of democracy and democratisation is another fundamental dimension of ‘the good and sustainable society’  we should be thinking about.  Here it is not just a question of constitutional adjustments, (Proportional Representation, House of Lords Reform, and the like), but of a conception of democracy that goes ‘all the way down’ into the governance of public and private enterprises, and into the workplace. It needs to become a matter of teaching and learning democratic ‘habits’, of norms and practices of democratic leadership, as well as of laws and rules. (On this see Michael Rustin and David Armstrong, ‘What Happened to Democratic Leadership’, Soundings 50, April 2012) . It seems likely that we will need to envisage parallel processes of both the devolution of powers, to local spheres of governance, and of their integration at a broader international level.  The current process of default to restored national sovereignties seems likely to give rise to the worst of all worlds.

It seems to me important that a broader thinking and mapping process should be going on (as happened during the decade or so before the Labour Government of 1945 took office) which aims to influence and inform the immediate political process, without trying to take it over or become identical to it. This is why initiatives like ‘Blue Labour’  (whether or not one agree with all or some of its  specific politics) are valuable.

A particular ageing fragment of the New Left tradition by which I was formed are intending to make our contribution to this debate in the form of a Manifesto by monthly, free, on-line  instalments, beginning in September. It will be edited by Stuart Hall Doreen Massey and me, and will be called, after two of our long-term places of residence, the Kilburn Manifesto. We hope these arguments will be further developed there.

Michael Rustin: m.j.rustin@uel.ac.uk