Words, Words, and the Meaning of Socialism

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Words, Words, and the Meaning of Socialism

During Thatcher years, the word socialism was blackened by the press, and it became a dirty word in Britain, and in the US. That is how the propaganda machine works. Indeed the meaning of the word has evolved since its inception.

Socialism’s meaning can be said to go back to early religious sects of the ancient world and was taken up by religious dissidents in mediaeval times. Words attributed to John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 capture its meaning very well: “My friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever, until everything shall be held in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord and all distinctions levelled, when lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.” (Socialist Party, Words)

Words are unhelpful if they are ambiguous. What is important is building a fairer society in which people  hold the power and make decisions, share in the wealth derived from their labour and not governments who represent ruling classes. The confusion and  misinformation and miscommunication which is caused by focusing on an ambiguous word to describe our philosophy and our aims, holds back progress as emphasised in Words, from “Socialism or your money back“. While it  inspires unity and solidarity for some of us, others are turned away. So,  ironically, the words socialism and solidarity are dividing us, yet our philosophies are much the same.

In winning the argument – leading to the defeat of  capitalism, and building a better society, clear unambiguous terms, and a shared vocabulary are necessary, as Julijuxtaposed points out in the article, Take Socialism., full article here. Juli emphasises the priority is to transform society, and is appalled that differing vocabularies prevent this.

“.. Few have ever moved away from the emotional knee-jerkery of old, pre-conceived, received and doggedly fixed propaganda. It’s of no more practical help than it ever was, unless you like popping human nature into simple boxes.

Take Socialism. This is described as Anarchism, Communism, Libertarian, Democratic, Marxist, Religious, etc, etc. (Not forgetting, of course, that Anarchy, Libertarianism and Religion function equally well under fascistic systems.) Socialism is touted as a 19th Century concept – by virtue of a bloke adding ism to a previously perfectly understood word. Social: from Middle English which is from Old French, which is from the Latin:socialis, meaning ‘allied’ and socius, meaning ‘friend’. We all know what it means to be ‘social’ – to engage, participate, accommodate, include, share… It is a concept which is at once, both commonly understood and subjectively experienced.”

Opponents to socialism are rabidly irrational in their disdain: to even the most benign and rational form, they having nothing but sneers and smears. They have strongly seeded notions of a totalitarian community in which every one stays at the same level of banality and that the price for this is the sacrifice of a person’s individuality. This is amusing when you think of how the last few decades have shown that socialism is not the culprit in this – unless, of course you count the welfare of self-preservation in the upper tiers but that is a satirical distraction from the world of the masses in spite of its ironic reality. Rabid advocates of markets (free or manipulated) and private money as the answer to all our ills hold the idea of ‘big’ government in contempt and yet, has any government ever been so nannying, moralising and prescriptive as this one? This is something they conveniently overlook as they insult our intelligence.”

The State is us – why the bloody hell should shrinking it be part of the equation? Necessity, efficiency and competency are the instruments by which it should be measured.

When I think of socialism, I don’t assume authoritarianism, race to the bottom, death of innovation. Hell, I don’t even think death to the markets. What I envisage is a place where the State is the People; where the people are beneficiaries in common; where the land that should be, infrastructure, public services and resources are of the people, by the people and for the people as much as is practically possible. That’s it. It doesn’t have to negate a free market, private wealth, personal assets, creativity, entrepreneurialism, innovation, culture, progress or individuality. And it certainly doesn’t destroy liberty. On the contrary: it frees us. I can be both an individual and a citizen participant in a socially conscious country and world just as easily as I can be English, British and European. Personally, though I have a big problem with profiteering, I’ve no issue with the profit-seeking private sector, so long as it is incapable of undermining the collectively common and basic good. Both private and public serve a social purpose and so both have their economic places. What we have now, however, is a form of anarchy; economic and social nihilism, even. The consensus is growing that we should collectively own, control and maintain the essentials upon which we all depend, as a matter of economic and social common sense. Let the rest (the capitalist/private sphere) purchase its place in the gaps if it is sufficiently viable to do so. And it will. For that, we need a State which serves our best and vested interests not vested interests which serve themselves best and leave us in a state. Whether this view has a label or even ten labels; whether it is called Socialism or something else, I really do not care.

Yet for some, it remains, though, a word worth fighting for, for its history, for its associations of co-operation and mutuality, and because it describes something positive, a situation to be aimed for – a just state of society. Socialism remains a good word to put our arguments across. Because of our different understanding of it, people are surprised by our answers and perspectives, and become genuinely interested, broken out of the stale old left-wing right-wing arguments. And just as words such as “queer” have been wrested from negative senses to have positive meanings, thus can socialism , with all its history and associations be wrested back as well. (Words) .

It suits the ruling classes that the people remain divided, whether it is by words, by fear, or suspicion of one another. Consider the term “working class”. Many are proud of a working class heritage, while others need to separate from the memories and association. In the 1990s many accepted  idea of New Labour, as they were weary from successive Tory governments, and failure General Elections. The Tory press had won the day, and Margaret Thatcher claimed it as her great success. Ironically,  was nothing “new” or “Labour”  about New Labour, and now stands as an example of how the misuse of words leads to confusion. In the aftermath of New Labour, many “socialists” left the party, to look for alternatives. Some looked to the LibeDems, only to find them support a Tory Coalition. Others looked to the Green Party. Undoubtedly, environmental issues are a global priority – or should be – yet the Greens are being torn apart by political polarisation within their ranks.

For the future, we must put aside terms which divide us. We  must not be afraid of change. Where coal was our heritage, green is our future. Coal miners  may have helped  built the Labour movement, but a return to coal mining is not going to save the planet. And we must progress together, as we are ineffectual divided by party titles, and misunderstood words.

Tony Benn describes himself as a socialist, and remained within the Labour Party while many did not. 

In Labour Governments we did our best to make capitalism work in a civilised way. And we failed. It never can work. It will always exploit and oppress the people.’ ‘Whether you win or lose in a campaign is not the point. Were you there? Did you join the fight for justice? Those are the questions to ask.’ ‘Looking to the future, we have to choose between socialism and barbarism. I’ve made my choice.’ ‘My job is to give people hope. Without hope they’ll give up.”

More than once he said, ‘When Margaret Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement was she answered “New Labour.” Nevertheless, “we should stick with the Labour Party: it’s the only instrument we have for making the world a better place.” No – we should not be disillusioned about parliament: “if we convince the people, the MPs will have to listen.”   

Benn says the  most revolutionary idea is democracy. If you have power, you use it to meet the needs of your community. As Tony Benn explains here  ”People who are poor, demoralised and frightened are easy to control.” This is how the very rich exert control – ensuring people are so downtrodden, so much ridden by debt, misery and pessimism, they have no desire to vote. “If the poor were to turn out and vote for people who represented their interests, that would be a real, democratic revolution.

Revolution is the word of the day,  but  not a violent, bloody destructive change, but organisation of the opponents to neo-liberalist system. Capitalism is clearly flawed, and accepted as such. An organised opposition, non violent civil disobedience and protests, a united Labour Party – it’s time to take  parliament back to the people. This is about a real democracy, about  people governing themselves, leading to a real social democracy, where the land and resources are owned by us, the people and where wealth, opportunities and participation are shared – that is what socialism is to me. 

David Miliband Is Wrong. The Tories Can’t Win the Next Election

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If Michael Burke’s projection is correct, Ed Miliband can afford to be braver, adopt socialist policies, and reject the Austerity policies and the Deficit Lies which are currently being touted.  If it is fear which is preventing the Labour leadership announcing policies which the people would be so pleased to hear – for example renationalisation of railways and utilities, then he can be reassured, and silence the Blairites preventing Labour’s move leftwards. On the other hand, if he is ‘keeping his powder dry’ and waiting for the right time to attack the Tories and present socialist policies, like in 1945, then, I hope we don’t have long to wait to hear.

 David Miliband Is Wrong. The Tories Can’t Win the Next Election

By Michael Burke (Socialist Economic Bulletin) 

Miliband’s parting shot before leaving Britain was an interview with Andrew Marr where he argued that the Tories can win a majority at the next general election. At the same time, serious forces inside the Conservative Party argue that they have no hope of winning in 2015. They can’t both be right.

SEB has argued over a prolonged period that the Tory Party is in decline. In 2009 and 2010 articles published here correctly forecastthat the Tories would be unable to gain an overall a majority, even though they had recently been running very strongly in the polls. From the same analysis it is possible to predict that the Tory vote will fall below the 36% secured at the last election and indeed the Tories will have difficulty in gaining substantially over 30% of the vote in 2015. As a result David Miliband is completely wrong, the Tories will be unable to form a majority government.

The analysis of the Tory decline is based on long-established trends. These trends reflect changes in British society and its role in the world. In effect the Tory party expanded beyond its strongholds in the shires – especially in the South and South-East excluding London – as Britain expanded its role in the world. As Britain’s imperial role declined and society altered, so too did the electoral support for the Tories, with some time lag. Tory electoral support is being pushed back to its original heartlands in the south outside of London.

The full basis for this analysis first appeared in 1983 in John Ross’sThatcher and Friends. This can now be found in its entirety on this blog here. The chart below shows the declining trend in Tory support in actual general elections rather than opinion polls.

This key fact, so routinely ignored by innumerable political commentators now including David Miliband, was first identified in 1983. 30 years later it still holds true. If the Tories vote in 2015 were strictly on trend, and they suffer an electoral defeat, it will fall back to 30.3%.

The siren song of David Miliband, and others on the Labour right, that the Tories are most likely to win in 2015 is coupled to an argument that they only way to prevent this is for Labour to adopt Tory policies. This is entirely false. The consistent decline of the Conservative votes shows that Tory policies have been unattractive, not attractive, to voters. It has been Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, and the Liberal Democrats, that have gained votes. Labour’s recent swing towards Tory policies has therefore completely foreseeably led to no increase in support at all – but will demoralise a significant number of potential Labour supporters.

Miliband and the Labour right’s argument are pitted against not just the current opinion polls but against the whole post-war trend in Tory support.

Why the Left needs to back Labour

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Why the Left needs to back Labour

by Christine Clifford

“I will never vote Labour again.”

How many times have you seen this in online forums or said face to face? I know I have had it up to here!
Moral indignation about the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, the excision of Clause 4, student loans. You name it there is someone who feels betrayed, let down, abandoned by New Labour and who will take revenge by never , ever voting for Labour again. Any reformation of the Party, any new leader will make not a jot of difference. People are angry and unforgiving.

I was listening to just such a person, educated, and very self-righteous who could not and would not be swayed. We were in a reading group, talking about the book, ‘ What money can’t buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’, by Michael Sandel.

This left me thinking about the moral limits of righteous rage. Where does your moral line in the sand lie? It is about your feelings, your anger? Or do we need to set aside our own position and look at the wider social need?
If I don’t vote Labour and millions won’t, there is an increased chance that this coalition of misery on our brothers and sisters in the country will continue. If we vote Labour, if we lobby Labour, agitate, press, persuade, convince Labour of our cogent arguments about the things we care about, then I hope we will have a government that will redress the wrongs we are seeing. That may not be simply restoring the things that have been cut or repealing bills. It could involve new things, better in the long term for the future of all of us.

I am a pragmatic optimist. Am also long enough in the tooth to know there will be compromise. We can’t all have what we want. The coming together of the People’s assembly was a good step. All those splinters of protest coming together under an anti-austerity banner. It needs to go further. But we need to decide what we want in 2015 and it needs to be achievable. I believe that needs to be a Labour Government, it will not be perfect but it will not be New Labour either.

Guardian Review: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/25/money-cant-buy-sandel-review
The People’s Assembly http://thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/

Building a Movement from Below: The People’s Assembly

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The People’s Assembly: Building from Below:

  • What does this really mean?
  • What are the Implications?
  • Where does Labour Stand?

By Luke Cooper on this Saturday’s People’s Assembly Against Austerity previously published here:

The People’s Assembly

The People’s Assembly has resulted in a considerable bout of energetic debate on the British left, ranging from the super-supportive, to the cynically-critical, and those, on the money perhaps, who are supportively critical. But no one is seriously downplaying the size or scope of the event. With over 3,500 people set to converge on Westminster Central Hall it is clearly going to be the biggest ever gathering against austerity in Britain. It would be foolish to not see this as a big step forward in its own right. Bringing together a grand coalition of trade unionists, grassroots campaigners, socialists, Greens, pensioners, disability rights activists, and maybe a fair few regular people who want to turn their anger into action, is a big step forward for the left and shouldn’t be sniffed at.

This is a particular achievement seen in the context of divisions that have blighted the anti-cuts movement since the Tories came to power. Those of you who have not yet experienced the fractured socialist left, will be shocked to hear that campaigners against austerity have had not one, not two, but three competing anti-cuts campaigns, none of which can seriously claim to have a strong, organic relationship to grassroots organisations.

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It’s an all too familiar example of the infamous Life of Brian sketch that satirically depicts the infighting of the left. What makes that scene so farcical isn’t that people are arguing. The farce lies in how the myriad of groupuscules all have ostensibly the same ideas. In much the same way there has been barely a rizla paper to separate the competing anti-cuts campaigns politically. The People’s Assembly does create the possibility of unity, but it also poses sharply a question of how to unite in a way that maximises democracy and participation.

To kick off an argument about how to do this doesn’t mean doing yet another Life of Brian rendition. It’s not about ‘splitting’ for no good reason, or having huge rows over nothing, because debate is what the People’s Assembly should be about.

There is no shortage of things to discuss and there have been too many left wing conferences over the years when everyone says the same thing, no one dares disagree with one another, and the audience is left bored. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other constructive critics, here are three things that deserve some critical attention. The last one is the most important – what comes next and how it’s organised to maximise democratic participation – because it’s here that the opportunity to build a really powerful anti-austerity movement might be lost.

1. Unions

First off, there’s the unions. It’s excellent that the People’s Assembly has won the backing of the major public sector unions. They are an essential part of the fight against austerity. But there is no getting round the fact their existing leaderships have failed to deliver the action we need to start to the turn the tide on austerity.

When millions went on strike in November 2011 it testified to the enduring power of organised labour. But hopes that this might be a new dawn for workplace radicalism were soon dashed. The strikes were called off. And many of the union leaders who will grace the platforms of the People’s Assembly were central to delivering a rotten pension deal when there was still all to play for. The People’s Assembly will have failed the very people it is seeking to represent, if it doesn’t provide a platform for trade unionists that feel let down by leaders whose pay packets far exceed those of ordinary members and who, for this reason, don’t feel the pain of austerity.

Unison, as the biggest public sector union, has big questions to answer. Not only did it lead the retreat from the pensions fight, but, worse still, its leadership have for many years witch hunted activists out of the union on trumped up charges, with bullying, intimidation and bureaucratic measures becoming the norm. It’s a classic example of an entrenched bureaucracy not wanting an activist union and doing everything in their power to keep the membership atomised and passive.

And this at a time when the Tories are on the offensiveAs Labour MP John McDonnell has put it in admirably undiplomatic terms:

“… In order for free market policies to flourish, for wages to be held back, for privatisation to continue unopposed and for workers to be made to pay for the crisis in the economy then it is equally necessary for the organisations of the workers, our parties, our trade unions, to be made impotent. One way to do that is to clear out fighters and militants. That is what this is. Unison’s leadership are doing the bosses a favour.”

It is little wonder that many Unison activists find their blood boiling when their leaders talk the talk, as they no doubt will at the People’s Assembly, only to the very next day carrying on doing nothing to fight back. It’s right that the unions are involved, but there needs to be be a voice for the grassroots in the hall too.

2. Labour 

Secondly, the major union leaderships all have a strategy: to do everything in their power to ensure Labour wins the next election. If Labour were presenting a powerful and coherent alternative to austerity, this strategy might well look appealing. But what if – as is obviously the case – Labour have no intention of turning back the cuts and, in a stream of recent announcements, have even expressed their commitment to many of the Tory spending and welfare policies.

It’s tempting to see recent policy announcements on welfare as falling into line with Tony Blair, who back in April took a swipe at Miliband’s leadership and warned against Labour becoming a ‘party of protest’. But these announcements have been long prepared for. Labour are happy to vote against the government today, but everyday make it crystal clear they stand for austerity-lite tomorrow.

These facts pose big questions to all of us who want to see a real alternative to austerity. And its one recognised by many Labour Party supporters of the People’s Assembly. Independent columnist Owen Jones, who has gone up and down the country rallying support for Saturday’s meeting, is the first to admit that Labour has offered no alternative. He sees the Assembly as ‘giving Labour some real competition’ because ‘finally, the left is entering the ring’. Jones might sound convincing, but think it through for a moment and the logic starts to unravel.

The People’s Assembly might, hopefully, become a powerful social movement (more on which in a moment). But the Labour Party has long been unresponsive to those – remember the Iraq War when millions marched to say no to Bush and Blair’s crusade? Despite funding the party to the tune of millions, even the unions have no say over policy. But Labour is not entirely immune from pressure. Ultimately it is accountable to a working class electorate that it arrogantly takes for granted. What would start to shift Miliband and co is a party to the left of Labour eating away at their electoral support: a party doing the same to Labour as UKIP is doing to the Tories.

A debate has to take place at the assembly about Labour and the possibility of alternatives. Its one the unions aren’t keen on because it challenges the very heart of their strategy: to sit on their hands, wait for 2015 and hope for a Labour return. To go away from the Assembly having not talked about Labour, and having not had the opportunity to subject its leadership to trenchant criticism for not putting up an alternative, would be a terrible waste. This is especially so when an exciting call has been put out by filmmaker Ken Loach for a new party of the left, one that has already been signed by over 8,000 people. So, Labour has to be at the centre of the discussion. Loach, who is speaking at the Assembly, can use the platform to inspire a debate on a political alternative to the pro-austerity parties. There is far too much at stake for it to be otherwise.

3. Unity

Finally, there is the democratic deficit in how the People’s Assembly is organised that others have highlighted. A statement will be put to the Assembly that neatly side steps the first two big issues – Labour and the union leaders – and can’t be amended by conference participants.

This might seem reasonable. After all, with over 3,500 people set to turn out what if they allwanted to amend the statement? Chaos would indeed ensue.

Benefit-Justice-Campaign-BrumBut it’s not as simple as that. Imagine if the local people’s assemblies that took place all over the country had discussed the statement. Imagine too if they had been able to submit amendments that could then have been composited into the main debating points. Even then perhaps not all of them could have been taken but the most popular amendments could then have been put to a vote. The base at the bottom would have then had a genuine say about the outcome at the top.

Unfortunately, this isn’t set to happen – the statement will only be amendable by local people’s assemblies in the run up to a conference in… 2014. Not only that but it doesn’t appear that the organising group will be elected at the conference either. Despite the many workshops on excellent subjects – a refreshing difference from the day-long-rally-conference – the People’s Assembly risks being a top-down affair, when the movement we need has to be a bottom-up one.

This is intended as an entirely constructive criticism. Because at the very least it’s worth reflecting upon how this new People’s Assembly Movement – which I certainly hope is here to stay – can be organised democratically after Saturday.

A big problem with how the left in Britain does things can be summarised as ‘the cult of the next big thing’. The huge spectacle of the grand conference. The next major protest and demonstration. It is all too easy for activists on the left to jump from one thing to the next without laying down proper roots in communities.

If the People’s Assembly is to play the role that Owen Jones clearly wants it to play – a mass social movement, rooted in localities and built from the bottom up, promoting an alternative to austerity – then it needs to develop a democratic structure that grassroots groups can relate to.

There is no great mystery in how this might be organised. If the wide variety of local and national campaign groups and unions that will all be there on Saturday are able to affiliate to a People’s Assembly Movement, then they can send delegates to a conference to represent their views. The organising group can be elected by and accountable to this delegate conference. Delegation sizes can be suitably weighted from different organisations to make it appropriately democratic. Local People’s Assemblies can be convened to channel proposals into the next huge conference – which should should aim to be 10,000 strong. The People’s Assembly, with this structure, would soon be transformed from a meeting into a real movement.

It’s good that ‘building from below’ is becoming a new mantra on the left. It’s a sign of a cultural change in thinking we are only slowly coming to terms with. But it’s equally important that we start to take it more seriously. That we don’t just let it become a phrase divorced of all meaning. If the People’s Assembly kicks off a debate on what ‘building from below’ looks like in practice – as material prescriptions, and not just vague aspirations, then that will be really welcome. The People’s Assembly is already a success as a conference. The question is what comes next?