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Socialism: The Past or the Future?

According to Jeremy Corbyn, in his closing speech to the Labour Party conference of 2017, ‘Nothing has changed. It’s as if we’re stuck in a political and economic time-warp.’ His solution is ‘our unifying socialist message’ of re-nationalisation, creating ‘a new and dynamic role for the public sector’ as ‘a publicly-owned engine of sustainable growth’.How should one interpret this resurrection of a doctrine that was so widely thought to be symbolically buried by the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev? Was its obituary not written by Leszek Kolakowski in his classic Main Currents of Marxism (1978)? Is its revival Corbyn’s intellectual achievement?

Hardly. Corbyn, despite his talents, has published no books of theory. His rise offers no evidence for the heroic view of history that attributes great developments to crusades by great thinkers. Corbyn attracts sympathy for other reasons, like his seemingly otherworldly but harmless consistency across his career. At last, he finds himself in the right place at the right time. But why, exactly?

Not because voters have disinterred a doctrine from its graveyard. British general elections are usually too complex to demonstrate voters’ conversion to any single ideology: even ‘Thatcherism’ was unknown in 1979. Elections merely allow the victors to claim a mandate for their beliefs. And although socialist ideas tenuously survive, the world has moved on.

Consider just two changes. Labour’s electoral gains in 2017 showed the powerful confluence of two new things: a resurgence in Labour’s heartlands, the former manufacturing districts, by peaceful and prudent older voters who (thinking Brexit a done deal) affirmed preferences for public spending on social care of the elderly, with, secondly, the antinomianism of the inner city young: that sometimes violent defiance of authority expressing itself in a counter-culture premised on a rejection of prudent lifestyles. These two things are wrongly seen as a contradiction disabling Labour. They are components of a new politics.

Both find new expressions as society changes, but new analysis of them lags behind. Neither is, strictly, a demand for, or explained by, socialism. This is understandable if socialism, like conservatism, was rarer in reality than in rhetoric. British politics since 1945 typically saw only centre-left Keynesianism confronting centre-right Keynesianism.

From time to time (not just in the Thatcher years) some people claimed that a consensus had been broken and discarded. But little new analysis was developed to take Keynesianism’s place: Conservatives hardly theorised conservation (but were a party of moderate reform, with less state spending); Labour hardly theorised the predicament of labourers (but were, similarly, a party of moderate reform, with more state spending). Nationalisation went only so far: Keynesian pragmatism kept Tony Benn at bay. Corbyn’s platform, then, is not a revival of something even recently feasible.

Now, the electorate – for reasons other than a conversion to socialism – may hand power to a man exemplifying these inner-city culture wars. But would there be a new intellectual rationale to make effective the old socialist policies that Corbyn and his allies would implement?

This is difficult to argue. Nationalisation of the means of production and exchange would mean much less than it did, and would have much less engagement with the lives of working people. Today the public partly sympathise with it (as over the railways), but in hope of greater efficiency rather than of social revolution (in any case, driverless trains will soon end this branch of the aristocracy of labour). In Britain, the old debates about the inner structure, processes and trajectory of capitalism have almost wholly disappeared. Socialism in this old sense really is dead. I recently asked a distinguished and open-minded ex-Labour MP: very well, I am pragmatic about state ownership; but if we re-nationalised Royal Mail (or the other denationalised industries), how exactly would that help the poor? He had no reply.

Inequality of course remains; but it is increasingly experienced differently, and has a different logic. The new driver of the egalitarianism at the heart of inner-city defiance and manufacturing-district state dependency alike is perceived as a protest against inter-generational inequity. Today it is less the labourers in factory or mine who think themselves immiserated by the system, more the young and the elderly as such.

Two issues have come to dominate debate, neither easily solvable: the debt burden on the young, for whom expensive education is the ticket of admission to insufficiently-rewarded jobs, and the inadequacy of social care of increasingly elderly cohorts, for whom a Keynesian-funded National Health Service cannot foot that bill. Unremarked, these are aspects of the same problem: inter-generational inequity. Socialism only obscures their solution. The French socialist Thomas Piketty’s Capital, as close as our decade has got to a political classic, dismisses the idea of ‘the substitution of generational conflict for class warfare’ as ‘largely illusory’.

If so, Corbynite policies would damage the economy at large without solving the new problems of its disadvantaged groups: policies like a disregard for the consequences of the partial confiscation of invested wealth by overriding PFI contracts, imposing rent controls, levying robot taxes, and introducing the regulation of the private ownership of houses. A Labour ministry might ‘compulsorily purchase’ them, said Corbyn (‘houses should be homes for the many not speculative investments for the few … As Ed Miliband said, “Use it or lose it”’). Capital flight overseas would quickly raise interest rates, so impacting the indebted many rather than the mortgage-less few, as well as raising the cost of government borrowing. Added to these things, the far higher taxes needed to fund nationalisation would have to be levied on the many, not just the few; and the many would include those already generationally disadvantaged. There is no agreed definition of where taxation becomes expropriation, but we may again explore it.

These consequences would be immediate deterrents were it not that inter-generational inequity is the grievance of the two most educated and most leisured sections of the electorate. Successive ministries sanctioned mass immigration, holding down the wages of the uneducated young. The financial devices of all parties after the crisis of 2008-9 increasingly inflated asset prices out of reach. The elderly poor, who failed to board the property bandwagon in time, own insufficient resources to fund their social care. Today, Keynesianism can hardly help: in all developed economies, it massively overspent.

Significantly, ‘the system’ is no longer represented by images of coalowners or industrialists, but bankers. A hard Left ministry targeting bankers would do financial damage, but would not be effectively countered by invoking socialism’s record in the 1970s. The damage would not be to the mines (metaphorically, replaced by wind turbines) nor to the shipyards (metaphorically, succeeded by the internet), but to the knowledge economy. Corbyn was wrong to say: ‘Nothing has changed.’ Much has changed.

The young cannot remember that bankers were not the villains in the 1970s, and the old (like Corbyn himself) will remember (with advantages) their cultural Utopia in that decade. Under the distracting banner of the new socialism, expect the biggest impact of a Corbyn ministry through their attention to things that socialists like Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson largely ignored: ceremonial, authority, hierarchy; the rule of law, the police, the armed forces; free speech, independent universities, parliamentary democracy. The democracy of the streets is not socialism.

A Chancellor of the Exchequer like John McDonnell would re-fight the battles of the 1970s and re-nationalise. In that decade, it could (just) be argued that state ownership of the means of production and exchange was a route to a better social order. Today, such a policy would reward the few (like train guards) and immiserate the many (like passengers); it would overlook the new problems of inter-generational inequity. But beneath these old banners, the cultural protests of the inner city would have their day at last. Its leaders would merely invoke a distantly relevant slogan. Long live socialism!


Professor Jonathan Clark

Jonathan Clark is an historian of Britain, Europe and America. He has been a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge and has held the Joyce C. and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professorship of British History at the University of Kansas. His publications include A World by Itself: A History of the British Isles, (ed. and contrib.) From Restoration to Reform: The British Isles 1660-1832  and Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution. For Politeia he co-authored Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017) and History in the Making: The New Curriculum: Right or Wrong? (2013).

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