What is to Be Done?

Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn

Verso, 320pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781788738347

reviewed by Neil Dawson

Why isn’t Britain a democratic socialist country — or rather, why hasn’t the Labour New Left prevailed over British state and society? These are the questions that the academics Leo Panitch and Colin Leys seek to address in Searching for Socialism. They contend that the New Left has failed because the British working class has been prevented from becoming a ‘class-for-itself’ by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and ‘the mainstream media’. There are a number of problems with this argument, but the main one is its narrow focus. Complex challenges facing the New Left (and Labour generally) — such as the resurgence of nationalism and the difficulty of building a winning coalition — are simply not dealt with by the authors. The book is salvaged somewhat by its discussion of the origins and development of the New Left, which is where Panitch and Leys begin.

The New Left emerged as an intellectual discourse in Britain in 1956. According to Panitch and Leys, the aim of its proponents — figures such as Marxist academic Ralph Miliband — was to ‘transcend the ever more apparent problems’ of Soviet communism and west European social democracy. The authors don’t specify what it was about the Soviet model that New Left intellectuals opposed, but given that 1956 was the year the Red Army crushed the Hungarian Uprising, we can infer that it was its autocratic nature. They are, however, more explicit about the New Left’s critique of social democracy. This approach was seen, they write, as amounting to little more than the ‘pragmatic management of capitalism’; its policies of Keynesian demand-management, a mixed economy and state welfare were considered elite-driven and unambitious. Against the autocracy of the USSR and the staidness of social democrats, the New Left promoted a ‘democratic-socialist alternative’, a politics that would be both popular and radical.

By the 1970s New Left ideas had gained traction among activists and politicians within the Labour party. As Panitch and Leys show, there was initially some scepticism amongst New Left thinkers as to whether Labour could be an appropriate vehicle for advancing democratic socialism. However, the realities of Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which imposes high barriers to entry for new parties, led them to conclude that Labour was the only viable option. The authors suggest that as the New Left moved from the realm of ideas to the political sphere, its ambitions became more tangible. They state, for instance, that the ideal of democratic socialism was converted into calls for ‘the socialisation of capital and the democratisation of the economy’. Yet beyond these broad brushstrokes, Panitch and Leys offer few clues as to what democratic socialism would actually look like.

The authors are more forthcoming about the obstacles the New Left face. They assert that the New Left can only win if its goal is ‘popularised . . . among workers’; that is, if there is a ‘popular base for democratic socialism’. But as Panitch and Leys repeatedly demonstrate, a major difficulty with this proposition is that British workers haven’t been that keen on the New Left. Only 6% of this constituency supported the Labour New Left when Tony Benn was its de facto leader in the 1970s. And under the New Left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour haemorrhaged working class support. For Panitch and Leys, then, the New Left must overcome its distance from British workers if it is to succeed. The question is, how to do this?

Logically, the first step would be to identify the reason or reasons for this gap’s existence, which is how Panitch and Leys proceed. Yet the explanation they settle on isn’t derived from a careful exploration of British workers’ circumstances and attitudes — indeed, these are barely looked at — but rather from materialist dogma. The authors claim that the disconnect between British workers and the New Left stems from a failure of class formation. Specifically, they contend that a paucity of ‘political education’ has prevented workers from becoming conscious of their real class interests. So, to close the gap, the New Left must ‘educate public opinion’ and turn ‘workers into a class’.

Given that this aspect of Panitch and Leys’ argument isn’t exactly novel — it has been around since the publication of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847 — we might ask why the New Left hasn’t tried to educate workers already. The authors’ response is that it has tried, but it has been blocked by two further obstacles: the PLP and the media. The PLP has always been a conservative force, Panitch and Leys maintain, due to its proximity to state power. As such, it has consistently obstructed party activists and politicians seeking to transform Labour into an ‘agent of political education’. The media has also vetoed socialist pedagogy by disseminating bourgeois values and vilifying New Left spokespersons.

There are at least four problems with Panitch and Leys’ argument about the barriers to a New Left victory. Firstly, it denies any agency to British workers – their real preferences are materially determined and their longstanding distance from the New Left stems from false consciousness; they exercise no choice. Secondly, the authors’ stance exculpates the New Left: it isn’t responsible for the failure of democratic socialism in Britain, rather this is due to the obscurantism of the PLP and the media. Given that the New Left has just presided over Labour’s worst election result in over 80 years, it’s not unreasonable to expect some self-reflection from the authors. Thirdly, while it’s quite possible that the PLP and the media have weakened the New Left’s message, the only ‘proof’ Panitch and Leys offer is that British workers aren’t avid socialists. In other words, they ask us to accept this point on faith. Fourthly, and most importantly, their argument delineates a strategy that is far too narrow; it basically states that the New Left should concentrate on defeating the PLP — party democratisation, in the authors’ parlance — and nullifying the media. But this excludes many pressing issues from serious analysis, not least the resurgence of nationalism and the difficulty of building a winning coalition.

Nationalism’s resurgence is arguably the most significant challenge that the New Left faces. Over the last decade, Labour has lost vital support in Scotland and in provincial England, and in both contexts this trend has been largely driven by a nationalist revival. The SNP has supplanted Labour as Scotland’s dominant party, and English nationalism, manifest primarily as support for Brexit, has led many traditional Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives. If Labour, and by implication the New Left, wants to be a serious party of government, it must reverse these losses, and that requires that it engage with the question of nationalism’s appeal. For instance, is this ideology potent because it can respond to our ‘basic’ desire for ‘particular solidarities’, as the sociologist Craig Calhoun suggests? And if so, does that mean the New Left must accommodate nationalism, or try and defeat it with an alternative conception of belonging? These and other such questions aren’t even raised by Panitch and Leys.

Moreover, as Labour’s support has declined in Scotland and provincial England it has grown in big cities, particularly among students, university graduates and ethnic minorities. Culturally, these groups tend to be cosmopolitan in outlook, a position that places them at odds with the types of voters that Labour needs to win back. Another crucial question, therefore, is how can Labour retrieve nationalist voters whilst holding on to those with a more cosmopolitan disposition? The Corbyn leadership tried desperately to hold these two constituencies together, as shown by its prevarications over Brexit. But ultimately it failed to bridge this cultural divide, illustrating just how difficult it will be for Labour and the New Left to rebuild a wining coalition. Panitch and Leys make passing reference to this divide; at times they even hint that its roots run deep. Yet at no point do they engage with the question of how it will be overcome. For them, it’s all about class consciousness, the PLP and the media.
Neil Dawson has a PhD from King’s College London and teaches Politics and History.