Starmer and the Strange Death of Social‑Democratic England

The Labour Conference reflects a historic shift in world politics, argues Neil Faulkner.

 

More notable than the predictable vacuousness of Starmer’s speech to the Labour Conference was the reaction of the audience. You only needed to skim the Labour leader’s recent Fabian Society pamphlet The Road Ahead to know the man is utterly hollow. The really shocking thing was the audience behaviour.

Well done everyone who heckled, including my old friend the irrepressible Carole Vincent, who grabbed some media notice. But the hecklers seemed to be a small minority. The majority in the hall seemed to be breaking into applause every few sentences. Each one of Starmer’s dull platitudes earned enthusiastic endorsement. Nothingness was what they wanted to hear. Most of the conference delegates were obviously braindead.

The speed with which the Left has been purged and marginalised by the apparatus is now beyond doubt. Despite the fact that Starmer is a grey neoliberal technocrat devoid of vision, ideas, and policies, the Labour Right is in triumphalist mode. Behind closed doors, they are discussing ditching him for someone who looks and sounds more interesting. But in the short run, he is the public standard-bearer of their decisive victory over the Left.

It is time for intelligent activists to stare reality in the face and develop an appropriate way forwards. Labour is not going to be transformed in the near future, or, in my view, ever. This is not just about Starmer – a sort of charity-shop Blair. It is about social democracy.

Each one of Starmer’s dull platitudes earned enthusiastic endorsement. Nothingness was what they wanted to hear.

The Dangerfield thesis

In 1935, George Dangerfield, an English-American journalist and historian, published a book called The Strange Death of Liberal England. It is brilliant and every socialist should read it. It describes the degeneration of the Liberal Party during its long period of government between 1906 and 1914.

The Liberal Party had emerged in 1868 as the party of the industrial bourgeoisie and the big cities. It carried out a series of reforms designed to modernise the state and provide basic infrastructure during the late 19th century.

In the early 20th century, the party made a turn to social reform. In government, it is credited with laying the foundations of the welfare state. Reforms included free school meals, basic health provision, unemployment benefit, and old-age pensions, paid for in part by higher taxes on the rich. This was the ‘New Liberalism’ designed to win the votes of the working class.

It did not last. Dangerfield shows how the Liberal Government’s radicalism crumbled in its confrontation with three popular forces: the Irish struggle for independence, the women’s struggle for the vote, and the worker’s struggle against poverty.

Limited reform from above was one thing. Concessions might sometimes be granted by the ruling class in the interests of social peace. The self-activity of the working class and the oppressed in pursuit of their own emancipation was quite another.

We might add that the Liberal Party, while less jingoistic than the Tories, was always a party of imperialism. It had smashed an Egyptian nationalist revolution in 1882 in the interests of Anglo-French finance. It invaded the Sudan in 1884 and again in 1896. It launched a naval arms race with Germany in 1906. It took Britain into the First World War in 1914. It pushed a huge expansion of the British Empire after 1918.

Today’s Liberal Democrats are direct descendants of the old Liberal Party. They ceased to be a party of moderate reform in the early 20th century. Yet they have survived, an organisational fossil, for more than a century. In practical terms, they are an alternative Tory Party – as they demonstrated so clearly when they formed part of the vicious austerity government of 2010-2015.

Another strange death

Social democracy is dead in the Dangerfield sense. This seems counterintuitive. A left-led Labour Party took 40% of the popular vote in the 2017 general election. A radical social democrat almost got the Democratic Party presidential nomination in the States in 2016. Social democrats hold power in a raft of European countries.

So let us drill deeper. The movements around Corbyn and Saunders – like earlier movements around Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain – were really insurgencies inside the framework of mainstream liberal-parliamentary politics. Each evoked ferocious hostility from the ruling class, the political elite, and the mass media.

The Syriza Government was destroyed by European finance-capital – represented by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (‘the Troika’) – and its own reformist cowardice in the face of it. The Podemos never won an election, but has since morphed into a more conventional parliamentary party willing to form a coalition government with right-wing social democrats. Corbyn was destroyed by the right-wing Labour apparatus, helped by a media smear campaign, and Saunders suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Democratic Party apparatus.

The Corbynista movement was treated as an insurgency even though Corbyn’s programme was more moderate than the programmes on which Labour had contested and won general elections between 1945 and 1974. Not only the Labour Left, but also the Labour Right campaigned for real reforms in that period. Labour was transformed into a neoliberal party of counter-reforms (privatisation, low taxes on the rich, anti-union laws, etc) under Blair in the 1990s. That is now its basic character.

By Social Democracy we really mean a number of different things. It is the political expression of the interests of the labour bureaucracy, a layer of union officials and professional politicians who head up working-class organisations and whose job it is to mediate the relationship between the capitalist system and the working class.

It is also the political expression of the reformist consciousness of the mass of the organised and more progressive-minded working class as a whole – their sense that the system is flawed, even downright pernicious, but their hope that things can be made better by improvement within the system, as opposed to radical action to overthrow the system.

Reformism without reforms

But Social Democracy in the past meant something more: a programme of progressive reform, backed by real intention, and sometimes, to some degree at least, actually implemented. The 1945 Labour Government really did create the NHS – in the face of fierce opposition from the Tories, many doctors, and the right-wing media. The 1966 Labour Government really did create the comprehensive system – in the face of fierce opposition from defenders of middle-class educational privilege. And one could cite numerous other examples.

Neoliberalism involves the unravelling of the gains of the working-class in the immediate post-war period. Those gains were made in a specific set of circumstances.

One form or another of state capitalism was dominant across the world. Most large corporations still had a well-defined national base. Governments ‘intervened’ in the economy to build infrastructure, nationalise key industries, regulate private interests, and sustain aggregate demand. The world economy was growing relatively fast, living standards were rising, so the scope was there to redistribute wealth and fund reform. The working class, moreover, was highly organised and combative, so the pressure was on to maintain social peace by granting concessions. The state-capitalist era was the era of Keynesian interventionism and the welfare state.

We live in a very different era. The dominant fraction of world capital today is transnational capital – global mega-corporations with production, distribution, and marketing spread across dozens of different countries, often with actual production outsourced to myriad sub-contractors. This kind of capital is ultra-mobile – financialised, digitalised, globalised – and this mobility has shaken apart the social order. The working class is now precarious and atomised in a way that would have seemed inconceivable in the heyday of trade unionism in the 1960s and 1970s.

When the Stalinist counter-revolution was launched in Russia in the 1920s, the slogan of the emerging party-state bureaucracy was ‘socialism in one country’. This was a logical impossibility – as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, and many other leading Marxists knew – because capitalism is a world system. One way or another, the world system would eventually destroy any radical transformation confined to one country.

We must now recognise that ‘social democracy in one country’ is also a logical impossibility – because the national economic and social foundation on which it rested has been dissolved by the vast financial flows of transnational mega-corporations in the neoliberal era.

The only solutions to the ecological and social crisis we face are international and revolutionary.

We are left with reformism without reforms: the organisational corpses of social democracy remain, sustained by the self-interest of the labour apparatus and the limited consciousness of the mass of progressive workers, but this is form without content, for neoliberalism has closed down the space for national programmes of social-democratic reform in the interests of working people.

The only solutions to the ecological and social crisis we face are international and revolutionary. Starmer smells of death – the strange death of social democracy. That smell of death pervades the Labour Party. We need new activist networks founded on the concept of red-green revolution from below – democratic, egalitarian, ecosocialist, international, and driven by the idealism and energy of radical youth, rooted in the modern multicultural metropolises of the neoliberal order.

To find your way to the politics of the future, you have only to contrast the stale establishment platitudes of Starmer’s conference speech this week with the passion and vitality of Greta Thunberg’s ‘blah, blah, blah’ speech the day before.

‘Build back better, blah, blah, blah. Green economy, blah, blah, blah. Net-zero by 2050, blah, blah, blah. Climate-neutral, blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called ‘leaders’. Words; words that sound great, but so far have led to no action.’

Quite. World revolution has become an existential imperative, and social democracy has become as irrelevant to the crisis of the early 21st century as liberalism was to the crisis of the early 20th.


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Neil Faulkner's latest book is Empire and Jihad: the Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920. He is the joint author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.

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