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A Critique of Susan Watkins – New Left Review – on “After Brexit”.

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Let Brexit Be Done!

 

“Holloa, my republican friend, d—n it, that’s a nasty lick you’ve got, and from one of people too; that makes it harder to bear, eh? Never mind, he’s worse off than you are.” It was, 1814, the time of the French Restauration. London had been celebrating a visit by His Sacred Majesty, the Bourbon King Louis the 18th. Zachariah Coleman a Dissenter and Radical, had not doffed his cap as the French King appeared. Hit by a burley Drayman’s fist, saved by the intervention of the above Major, the hero of The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane (1887. Mark Rutherford, W.H. White) could stand for the left after the blow of December’s General Election. We are still reeling as the People have cheered, or at least, voted, Boris Johnson into office.

In Britain’s Decade of Crisis, Susan Watkins talks of this present-day “restoration”. “The Tories are back in office with their largest majority since the 1980s, thanks to the long-ignored northern working class”. Like the Bourbons, the PM’s “ traditional ruling-class persona” gave the trappings of “decisiveness, vitality, enjoyment”. Rolling these phrases the Editor of New Left Review sees no cause to revise her judgement on the Leave victory in the 2016 Referendum. “Critics of the neoliberal order have no reason to regret this knocks against it, against which the whole global order establishment – Obama, Merkel, Modi, Junker, to Xi – has inveigled.” (1)

In another return to the old order New Left Review clutches at Tom Nairn’s portrait of British capitalist development. The “rising bourgeoisie was absorbed into the existing aristocratic state and civil structures”. “The world dominance of the City of London served to divert investment away from the northern industrial regions: higher returns were to be found overseas.” To cut a long, and contentious, story short, the country ended up with this: “While London remained the financial capital of Europe, ‘outward-orientation’ in the era of bubblenomics was above all Atlanticist.”

In other words, leaving the EU was not a knock to the neoliberal global order, or to “southern-based financialised capitalism”. Those gaining from “bubblenomics”, some of the funders of the Leave movement, show that much. The multinational state, Nairn’s bugbear, which he calls by the laborious name of Ukania, may be under strain. Watkins cites the ‘Scottish Rebellion’. She does not mention the sage’s speculation that “the breakup of Britain will be accompanied by the dissolution of its heartland or Southern nationalism into a larger European entity”. (2)

UKIP’s ‘National Independence” movement.

A belated English national independence struggle, led by UKIP, and with wider roots in the Northern Rust Belt, fuelled the demand for Leave. “England without London”, the alliance of the “disaggregated” working and middle classes who backed Leave, the ignored “will of the working class” given voice in Tory support is the result. But like the former mining and industrial districts of Northern France that have turned to Marine Le Pen, this is an alliance of the less-well off with their betters, the traditional reactionary wing of the right. French and British legitimists may add colour to the bloc; former mining families, self-pitying pathos. Racism, xenophobic, the germs of popular base for national populism, could be cited. They are not. One equally suspects that Simon Kuper is onto something when he talks of the “middle class anti-elitist” as the vanguard of Leave support, not the working class and poor ‘left behind’. (3)

Britain’s Decade of Crisis skirts over the movements against austerity that grew after the 2008 Banking crisis and state cuts. The People’s Assembly, run at the top by the small left group, Counterfire, funded by trade unions, such as UNITE, it galvanised and brought together grassroots protests. Prefiguring the election of Jeremy Corbyn, anti-austerity campaigns brought together left activists, local councillors, trade unionists and a big slice of community groups. Many involved joined the Labour Party – actively encouraged by the unions, and the transitional stage of supporters’ membership – under the new leadership. Some saw this as the basis for Labour insurgency, a challenge to “capitalist realism” in civil society. Yet, paradoxically or not, the anti-austerity movement began to fade the moment Jeremy Corbyn was elected and Momentum was floated as the new ‘social movement’. There is little doubt that placards and demos can only go so far when confronted with Council budgets and the Fortress of the DWP. (4)

Labour, Corbyn and the Media.

Watkins jumps to the challenge “from the Labour Left under Jeremy Corbyn: an appeal to redistribute wealth and recast foreign policy, distancing the UK from NATO’s wars.” We learn little about how Labour’s team prepared to turn these policies into a digestible form and the criticisms they faced, up to, and during the election about the unintelligibility and volume, of their plans Indeed the difficulties that the ‘Corbyn project’ faced are externalised.

We hear a lot about how the Parliamentary Party tried to frustrate Corbyn, and a great deal, a very great deal about the media’s hostility to Labour. The “Labour leader came under an unprecedented three-way assault—from the establishment intelligentsia, from his own parliamentary party and from opponents of his anti-war foreign policy.”

Nobody pointed out, that blaming foreign wars, with barely audible qualification, for the Manchester bomb attack – mass murder – was factually and politically doubtful. Nobody questioned Labour’s failure to give more than tepid support for Syrians killed by Baathist, Russian and Iranian forces, or do anything to back the Kurds, to back democrats against Assad, was reflected the ethically bankrupt ‘anti-imperialism’ of key Corbyn advisers. Nobody mentioned it in New Left Review!

Instead the issue of anti-semitism loomed over all others. She concludes“… given the scale and toxicity of the establishment onslaught, besides which the concoction of the Zinoviev Letter in 1924 appears the work of amateurs, the first duty is to salute the moral integrity of Corbyn and his courageous Jewish allies.” This no-holds, no concessions, defence offers little to resolve an over-commented issue. It is hard to credit that Corbyn supporters who reacted with as much vitriol as their critics helped resolve the issue, or that the way some treated the Labour Party as  a place to play out their absolute anti-Zionism, was not the best way to deal with a predictable attack from this quarter, helped. 

“The media’s anti semitism campaign represented a damaging assault on Corbyn’s Labour from above.” Far from the only one, but Watkins is eager to go for the next issue. “Brexit hurt the party from below—dividing it from an important section of its historic voter base.” Again, without surveying the influence of those called the Corridor Cabal, who backed Brexit even more enthusiastically than Watkins, or the turn outs on some of the biggest mass demonstrations ever seen in Britain, for remaining in the EU, she concludes, “ Instead of proposing an alternative solution to the crisis, as in 2017, Labour was the main force blocking the implementation of the popular vote, in a defence of the status quo—aligned with the Supreme Court, the House of Lords, the ‘Remainer elite’.”

Let Brexit be Done!

Any attempt to stop Brexit was not only doomed, it frustrated an alternative. “Corbyn could have avoided this position by giving Labour mps a free vote on Brexit legislation in 2019, ‘according to their conscience’, as Harold Wilson had done on the divisive 1975 referendum on the UK’s entry into the Common Market. With the ‘northern group’ voting for the bill and two dozen Labour abstentions, Johnson would have been denied the chance to make electoral hay out of the obstruction of Brexit, and the prospect of combating a much weaker Tory administration would have lain ahead at the next election.”

In other words, Labour should have let Brexit pass. The Northern patriots would have been appeased, Johnson, his key policy given the green light, his own remain opponents tossed aside, and pro-EU protesters rattled, would be in a mess. Or “much weaker”.

With the blessing of hindsight  Zachariah Coleman should have tipped his hat to the Bourbon King.

Having cheered him on his way, the Dissenter would only have to wait till 1830 to see the elite gone, and a fine musical, Les Misérables, written to celebrate it.

What now for Labour and the Left. Momentum, according to some reports, has frazzled out. Long-Bailey looks unlikely to hold the Corbyn candle. The pro-Corbyn left is fragmenting.  “The new left keeps open the prospect of taking the fight to the terrain of the future with bold solutions for inequality, climate change and the international order, as the Corbyn leadership tried to do” states Susan Watkins towards the conclusion of the New Left Review Editorial. This looks like a rerun of the alter-globalisation folk politics of the past, without any prospect of power.

What constituencies should the new left and Labour address? Reworking the themes of the Somewhere and Nowhere people, the Metropolitan and the Periphery, the political and electoral cartography stands as this: For Paul Mason, the progressive alliance of the future lies squarely with the ‘internationals’, the young metropolitan professionals of the Remain camp. For Wolfgang Streeck, the national level offers the only effective basis for democratic accountability, for calling the ravening forces of capital to order.” Paul Mason, internationalist, opponent of right-wing populism and “national neoliberalism”. Wolfgang Streeck, star writer for New Left Review, member of the alliance between left sovereigntists and Brexit Party supporters, the Full Brexit, the man who thinks national borders are the “last line of defence”…. The Editor leaves little doubt about where her support goes….(5)

*****

  1. Susan Watkins. Casting off? Editorial. NLR No 100. 2016.
  2. Page 391. The Enchanted Glass. Britain and its Monarchy. Tom Nairn. Radius 1988.
  3. Simon Kuper. The revenge of the middle-class anti-elitist. Financial Times. Feb 13th. 2010. Most British Leave voters lived in the south of England, and 59 per cent were middle class (social classes A, B or C1), writes Danny Dorling, geographer at Oxford University.
  4. Exiting the Vampire Castle. Mark Fisher. 2013. “One of the things that broke me out of this depressive stupor was going to the People’s Assembly in Ipswich, near where I live. The People’s Assembly had been greeted with the usual sneers and snarks. This was, we were told, a useless stunt, in which media leftists, including Jones, were aggrandising themselves in yet another display of top-down celebrity culture. What actually happened at the Assembly in Ipswich was very different to this caricature. The first half of the evening – culminating in a rousing speech by Owen Jones – was certainly led by the top-table speakers. But the second half of the meeting saw working class activists from all over Suffolk talking to each other, supporting one another, sharing experiences and strategies. Far from being another example of hierarchical leftism, the People’s Assembly was an example of how the vertical can be combined with the horizontal: media power and charisma could draw people who hadn’t previously been to a political meeting into the room, where they could talk and strategise with seasoned activists. The atmosphere was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but refreshingly free of the paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog.
  5. From the Demise of Social Democracy to the ‘End of Capitalism’: The Intellectual Trajectory of Wolfgang Streeck. Jerome Roos. 2019 HISTORICAL MATERIALISM 27(2): 248-288

As an example of how the pro-Corbyn left is splintering this could not be better:

 

Here

Comrade Paul Mason Backs Keir Starmer; on Starmer’s ‘Socialist Alternatives’ background.

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Starmer has a proud Left-wing background.Paul Mason writes today

Clive Lewis and Keir Starmer are the candidates who understand how Labour must change

You can criticise Starmer for many things: the compromises he made as director of public prosecutions and his resignation during the chicken coup. But you cannot say he is not left wing. From the miners and print workers’ strikes onwards, even if you leave aside co-editing a Trotskyist front magazine in his 20s, Starmer has been of the humanist and socially-liberal left. As someone who stood in the way of the same mounted police charge as he did, at Wapping in 1986, I can tell you it didn’t feel very centrist at the time.

In an era where personality matters, Starmer has a lot going for him. The raw 12 minutes he spent bossing Andrew Marr in the studio last Sunday felt like a revelation after the months we’ve spent wincing during Corbyn’s live appearances. He also connects with working-class people better than Corbyn did – though that is not a differentiator in this contest: all of the candidates do. By this I mean real, undecided or hostile voters, not the bussed-in faithful at Labour Roots rallies.

Finally, Starmer has worked and lived in the world of professional competence. Corbyn surrounded himself with amateurs: strategists who didn’t care about the polls, office managers who could not manage.

This aspect of Stamer’s background  has been followed up: Keir Starmer used to edit a radical socialist newspaper

Keir Starmer is often portrayed as a “moderate” candidate in the race to become Labour Party leader, but it seems that these suspicions are slightly misplaced.

Writing in the New Statesman today, left-wing journalist Paul Mason pointed out that Comrade Keir was in fact the co-editor of a radical left-wing publication, in his early 20s.

Indeed, it appears as though Starmer was the co-editor of “Socialist Alternatives” magazine – a publication so left-wing that Mason describes it as a “Trotskyist front”.

The far right media has already got that one.

Keir Starmer’s chilling explanation of Labour election defeat exposed

KEIR STARMER explained why Labour would lose in a general election in a throwback editorial for a socialist newspaper, it can be revealed.

Starmer was active in the new left Socialist Society some of whose leading figures, Hilary Wainwright and John Palmer have been active on the present pro-European internationalist left.

The journal Socialist Alternatives (SA) was set up by a small group active within this body, and was also part of the broad current known as the ‘new left’.

The key idea was ‘the alternative’, a term used in France by the Fédération pour une gauche alternative (FGA)  an alliance of leftist groups, including trade unionist supporters of self-management, and some councillors during the 1980s.

The objective was to find alternatives to traditional socialist and social democratic parties, and SA can be read as strongly influenced by Green politics and social movements.

It was strongly opposed to ‘actually existing Communism’.

It would be misleading to call it  ‘Trotskyist’ although SA was directly inspired by the French current known as ‘Pabloism’. This was originally Trotskyist but by the 1980s had dropped Trotsky as their main reference point. They were only one current within the broader bloc, or ‘cartel’ as it was known.

I was active in the group which inspired many of these themes, the FGA, and campaigned with them.

To indicate our politics, I was one of the groups’ delegate to the committee which organised a demonstration following the Chernobyl distaster.

Our own local committee in the 17th and 18th arrondissements of Paris had a councillor for the 17eme, elected as a member of the PSU in alliance with the Parti Socialiste.

It was hardly ‘trotskyist’  in the conventional sense.

There were  the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), like Jean-Pierre Lemaire, who are opposed to participation in the government and gathered around the Left Self-Management trend , as well as some observers of Trend 3 of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). Some Pabloites ( Maurice Najman , Gilbert Marquis , Michel Fiant ) and other extreme left activists ( Jacques Archimbaud , former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) (PCR), and Patrick Petitjean, a former member of the Communist Organization of Workers (OCT)) are also part of the rally, as well as some members of the French Communist Party (sociologist Philippe Zarifian ).

Dans la Fédération pour une gauche alternative se rassemblent des militants du Parti socialiste unifié (PSU), comme Jean-Pierre Lemaire, opposés à la participation au gouvernement et rassemblés autour de la tendance Gauche autogestionnaire, ainsi que quelques observateurs de la tendance 3 de la Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR). Quelques pablistes (Maurice NajmanGilbert MarquisMichel Fiant) et d’autres militants d’extrême gauche (Jacques Archimbaud, ancien membre du Parti communiste révolutionnaire (marxiste-léniniste) (PCR), et Patrick Petitjean, ancien membre de l’Organisation communiste des travailleurs (OCT)) font aussi partie du rassemblement, ainsi que quelques membres du Parti communiste français (le sociologue Philippe Zarifian).

Alternatives writing in the journal included  Frieder Otto Wolf  who was  from 1984 to 1989 and in 1994  a leading member of the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen in the European Parliament.

A a key figure helping create the group in the UK (apart from ‘Harry Curtis’) was Maurice Najman.

Maurice Najman ,born onn Paris and died onin Paris 1 ,was  a journalist having worked in particular in the newspaper Liberation and in the monthly Le Monde diplomatique. Active on the extreme left , a libertarian Trotskyist passionate about the underground , he was one of the figures of the protest movement of May 68 , having notably co-founded the action committees of high school students or CAL in 1967.

Maurice Najman (who spoke Yiddish ) came from a Polish Jewish family . Her father was a communist activist and her mother, Solange, daughter of a cousin of Rosa Luxemburg , Maria Luxemburg was a survivor of Auschwitz .

His flat, in Belleville, was situated in historic Jewish quarter of the Paris.

Maurice was greatly loved.

When he passed away the French press was full of respectful tributes.

Mort du journaliste Maurice Najman. Militant gauchiste; il avait travaillé à «Libération».

Comrade Paul Mason is right to say that our left was and is, “humanist and socially-liberal”.

There is nothing obscure about Keir Starmer’s new left background, nor anything to hide.

I was also part of the Socialist Society when I returned to the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s when SA were part of the body.

 

Written by Andrew Coates

January 8, 2020 at 5:15 pm

The Brexit Left and the Legacy of the 1970s Alternative Economic Strategy.

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Image result for State Intervention in Industry. A Workers’ Inquiry.

A High-Point of the AES years.

The Brexit Left and the Legacy of the 1970s Alternative Economic Strategy.

“…the AES represents a transitional strategy, capable of mobilising working class struggle around immediate issues within an overall and coherent framework of advance towards socialism.”

London CSE Group. 1979. (1)

After the Brexit Referendum result, in the middle of the “birth of a post-neoliberal order” in which right-wing forces are on the rise, we were informed that the left needs a “progressive vision of sovereignty”. For some, to adapt Walter Bagehot, the dignified part of this new socialist Constitution, lies in left-wing populism. To “excite and preserve the reverence” of left-wing thinkers, there is the prospect of a collective will arise from a federated People uniting resistance to neoliberal hegemony. This will be capable of standing up to the “post-democracy” of international oligarchs. For others, the efficient mechanisms of nation states, by which this “works and rules” there is popular sovereignty to create, “democratic control over the economy, full employment, social justice, redistribution from the rich to the poor, inclusivity and the socio-ecological transformation of production and society…” (2)

To combat right-wing national populism this left must be, it is said, itself national. Tying these two strands together, standing for the “little people” against “neo-liberal internationalism” and “cosmopolitan identitarianism”, Wolfgang Streeck chooses “the reality of national democracy imperfect as it may be, over the fantasy of a democratic global society.” A key element in such an approach is said to be a break with austerity, based on command of a sovereign currency. Some, standing out perhaps from Continental left-populists who are often  guarded about sovereignty, and reluctant to leave the EU,  claim that  Brexit offers the terrain on which to offer a “radical break with neoliberalism”. Chiming with the People’s Brexit cry this should be “a radically progressive and emancipatory Brexit narrative”. Modern Monetary Theory” (MNT), has, William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi consider, is the key to such a Labour Party strategy, its financial motor, if adopted within an efficient national framework. This, they hope, may offer the prospect of Karl Polanyi’s ‘organic rationality’ to counter the logic of markets. They are among an array of writers, some with long standing hostility to the European Union, predating any views about currency, that hector doubters about the radical democratic prospects of national sovereignty. (3)

Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts made some wide-ranging criticisms of this approach. They detect a coalescence of right wing and left pro-Brexit strategies based on will and the nation. Corbynism mirrors the obsession with ‘taking back control’ which underpinned the vote for Brexit, with the two movements even agreeing on the political agent needed to wrench back that elusive control – the nation-state. Both claim to be able to free society from the necessity of living through the economic forms of capitalism through the building of national barriers. Apparently different but strangely resonant, each shows the Janus-faced indeterminacy of populism in an era of democratic crisis.” (4)

Brexit.

This is where the issue of Brexit enters. Plans based on MMT require sovereign states and sovereign money. If there is one thing that the EU is, it is a limit to such schemes. Yet, is this theory about to take earthy form? A large group, including Labour policy makers, and many who have attended talks on the matter, may be unwilling to base an anti-austerity strategy on a theoretical picture of the Production of Money. An adviser to John MacDonnell has gone so far as to comment that, “MMT is just plain old bad economics, unfortunately, and a regression of left economic thinking. An economy with its own currency may never run out of money but that money can become entirely worthless (5)

Is Labour moving in the national populist direction outlined, either positively by left theorists Mitchell and Fazi or negatively, by Bolton and Pitts? There is little sign of rage against “the moral failings of the international financial elite,” when we get down to the details of plans for an overhaul of taxation to increase revenues within a more equitable system. Nor are pondered proposals for “new models of ownership” a sweeping attempt on behalf of society to assert “social self-protection”. Indeed if anything Labour has been too cautious to offer a worked out reform of the Universal Credit system. They have preferred to float improbable limited experiments for a Basic Income – at least a more equitable idea than MNT’s “job guarantee programme” which leaves many more questions open – rather than a wholesale reform of social security.

A larger group nevertheless considers that freedom from European treaties and institutions is essential for some programmatic pillars: re-nationalisation programme, taxation and control over the financial sector and some direction of the movement of capital. Others contest that Labour’s public ownership proposals, investment and anti-austerity plans, are challenged by membership of the EU. This is strongly contested by many, above all by writers for Another Europe is Possible’s publications. Many will now point to the turbulence of the process of “transition” to Brexit. The prospect of a Hard Exit to trade on WTO rules, demanded by the Communist Party of Britain amongst others, leaves the country open to international markets, transnational companies, and states, headed by Trump’s US. Is this an escape from capitalist domination? It would seem that the principle of ‘sovereignty’ does not translate easily from political theory and Constitutional law into the world of economics and global politics. (7)

The “transition to socialism” is an uninvited guest in modern left debate about populism, Brexit and Europe. Yet there was a moment, a long moment, in the 1970s, when there appeared to be feasible plans in Britain – paralleling French Socialist, Communist and other continental European left parties’ strategic policies – that claimed to lead in that direction. The Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) was at the centre of discussion, “The AES formed the philosophical core of Labour strategy, culminating the 1973 Programme” writes Simon Hannah, “which stands as crowning moment of Labourite anti-capitalist thought.” It “was a declaration of struggle against capitalism”. Labour governments of the 1970s, it is claimed, thwarted the left’s socialist thrust. Today it is said that Brussels would play the role of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, the Parliamentary and media Right, Business, cautious trade union leaders, the IMF, and markets, all combined to face down efforts to shift power away from capitalism to ordinary people. (8)

The Rise of the Alternative Economic Strategy.

The Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) can be said to have originated in Labour policies developed after the 1970 election defeat, reflected in the 1974 election Manifesto. Elected in 1974 the Labour Party faced an economic crisis with a radical programme, including plans to nationalise 25 leading companies and the creation of the National Enterprise Board committed to “extending public ownership into profitable areas of manufacturing industry” and “industrial democracy”. The left, with Tony Benn as Minister of Industry, Eric Heffer as his Minister of State, and Michael Meacher as his Under-Secretary, and advisers, Francis Cripps, Stuart Holland Frances Morell as advisers, had a strong, though not decisive,  presence.

Harold Wilson ignored proposals to bring companies into public ownership. After Britain voted to continue to be part of the European Economic Community in 1975, which the left had opposed, they lost their toehold in the Cabinet. The age of ‘Bennery’, best remembered as support for workers’ co-operatives Triumph Motorcycles, KME and the Scottish Daily News, to replace failing companies, had ended. Industrial strategy elements, such as the National Enterprise Board (NEB) and “voluntary planning agreements” floated around in limbo until Labour lost power in 1979. Famously Labour, faced with pressure on public expenditure, presented as severely as possible by Treasury forecasts, and the failures of income policies, gave in to a variety of interests demanding austerity. The swingeing cuts in state spending culminated in agreement to terms for an IMF loan, in 1976, which is considered the start of a shift from Keynesian economics to Monetarism.

This turn helped the development of the AES as a distinct counter set of policies. “By 1976” John Callaghan summarises, “the AES envisaged a programme of reflation and redistribution of income defended by import controls, and an extended sector of public enterprise, planning agreements and industrial democracy designed to boost investment and productivity.” In this shape the AES became the programme, of variable geometry, of the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, many trade unionists, stressing variously the manufacturing or public service aspects, and a variety of left-wing ‘think tanks’ such as the Institute for Workers’ Control, the Conference of Socialist Economists and the Cambridge Political Economy Group. It enjoyed wide backing in Constituency Labour Parties, and influenced many of the incoming ‘New Labour left’ members, including Marxists, inside and outside the party. Despite (or because of) this, Prime Ministers, James Callaghan adds, it was “effectively ignored”, amongst efforts by Tony Benn and his allies, to give some tangible ideas life. (8)

Stuart Holland began from these premises “In both domestic and international policy the modern capitalist State is plunged increasingly in the dark by the simultaneous trend to monopoly domination and home and multi-nationalism abroad. Keynesian policies are increasingly eroded both by the increased market power and self financing of the big league at home, and by their capacity to thwart government taxation, monetary and exchange policies.” The economy was weakening. The alternative, “industrial regeneration” lay in forthright measures. John Callaghan summarises, “urgent action was needed to assume control of the strong points of meso-economic sector, including its financial institutions, so that the state could a adopt new planning instruments. “The alternative was a crack down on union power and workers’ rights by a government adapted to decline by attempts to increase profitability at wage-earners’ expense.” Holland’s version of the AES focused on new public enterprise as a countervailing force to multinationals and planning through formal agreements and industrial democracy. (9)

The AES resonated widely on the left. Over the following years the AES inspired a variety of radical visions. For the London CSE Group, on the eve of Thatcher’s victory, the radical aspects of the AES offered a means to “impose greater working class political control on each of the forms of capital” and (without defining clearly what this meant) a rise in “socialist consciousness”. In their view, “the policies proposed represent a challenge to the control by capital of the internationalism of its commodity, money and productive forms, and in particular to the role of British imperialism in the world economy.” Geoff Hodgson had already argued in 1977 that that, despite Holland’s “weak” position on the state, “the only effective strategy of advance”. Core proposals, on Planning Agreements and a real National Enterprise Board, “can encourage a powerful interaction between mass struggle and legislature advance”. Hodgson continued throughout the decade to see “the Alternative Economic Strategy is a means of mobilising the working class for socialist ends.” The AES allowed many ideas to flourish. Mike Prior and Dave Purdy followed a curious byway. They proposed to develop a “socialist” social contract, based on wage and price restraint, as part of the alternative strategy to expand trade union influence and “impose conscious social regulation” on capitalism. (10)

In 1980, in the pages of International Socialism, the SWP theoretical journal, Bob Rowthorn talked of “the implementation of this programme as the first stage in a revolutionary process characterised by intense conflict and struggle.” It was both democratic containing, a “number of measures for extending the influence of the working class and its allies, and for exerting social control over the direction of the economy” and national “based primarily on changes within Britain itself, and does not consider the wider question of how to overcome the present crisis in world capitalism.” For Rowthorn, this involved “withdrawal from the Common Market”. By 1981 with Thatcher in charge, Rowthorn believed, writing in the pages of Marxism Today,  “A real challenge to capitalist power, as envisaged in programmes like the AES, can only succeed if either (1) the Left has overwhelming support in civil society — in which case the old military apparatus will disintegrate if the bourgeoisie seeks to overthrow the legitimate government by force; or (2) the Left has a strong foothold in the armed forces — in which case the Right, and its foreign allies, may be frightened to sabotage the economy, for fear of provoking a conflict which they might lose. Others had already pointed to the absence of a committed “revolutionary party” able to fulfil the promise of the AES and ward off such threats. Holland, however, had other obstacles in mind and had warned against “go it alone” Labour policies, without the backing of left parties in France and Italy, a view he was to develop in the 1980s. (11)

For some, writing after the AES had disappeared from sight in the 1980s, the strategy was bound up with the fate of efforts by Labour’s ‘transformative’ left to change the party. It marked the high-tide to, in Tony Benn’s words, “to build a bridge which links democracy with socialism and merges the arguments for one with the arguments for the other.” Inside the party it paralleled, in this view, attempts to bring together grass-roots inner-party control with a wholesale transformation of the state and economy. Yet Labour governments in the 1970s neutralised its radical thrust before, in the eyes of the left, democratic change – that is, the socialist left’s advance – inside Labour was, in the 1980s, first thwarted, and then driven back. The inability of these efforts to make headway coincided with the Callaghan government’s turn to Monetarism, described retrospectively as a “key moment in globalisation”. The strikes and party infighting that followed fuelled, it is said, the rise of Margaret Thatcher before ‘authoritarian populism’ appeared on the horizon. In response to the fall of the Labour government in 1979 and “left wing capitalism” Stuart Holland wrote of the failure “to defend their nominal autonomy” and their “capacity to command support for an autonomous development.” (12)

The issue remains, what kind of socialism was offered by this autonomous path? Government legislated planning and nationalisation, are, tradition has it, is not a socialist panacea. Benn believed that “capital” should be made “accountable to the people it employs”. “Planning agreements were to make the power of the major companies subject to the assent of the people who worked within them, without putting workers on the board.” The Trades Councils who produced the report, State Intervention in Industry (1980) pointed to the key role of “workers themselves being actively involved in formulating the policies”. Did this actually happen? Their report indicated that in practice, “The NEB distanced the government even further from shop floor representatives.” (13)

By contrast, Andrew Glyn suggested, in line forms of co-operation already existed within capitalism, ready to be taken over and perfected by social ownership Aligned to Militant at the time and critical of many aspects of the AES he stated, “As Marx pointed out in Capital, the same people who extol the organisational excellence of capitalist factories and businesses and the sophistication of the planning techniques available to the individual capitalist enterprise, also deny the possibility that the same techniques can be applied to the co-ordination of production between the different giant enterprises which dominate the economy.” Glyn continued, “why could not a workers’ government in Britain apply the same systems to planning the British economy?” (14)

This insight, awakened from the dead Engels’ Socialism Scientific and Utopian (1880). Marx’s comrade, noting the increasing “socialised means of production” and “socialised producers” at odds with private ownership. For Glyn, in today’s conditions, one could unleash the potential of these forms by a smooth ‘technical’ transition, by a legal change of ownership, to socialist relations of production. The Militant economist accomplished the not inconsiderable feat of ignoring decades of left thinking on the way the capitalist labour process meant deskilling and domination by management’s “organisational excellence”, not to mention the wishes of groups represented in the Trades Council’s Report. (15)

Despite the interest of important sections of the trade union movement, often organised through inter-union bodies such as Trades Councils, there was no mass movement inspired by the trade union leadership (anxious to negotiate with the Labour government), and only a minority interest from the rank of file, for this aspect of the AES, or for the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy (1977). Many unions, and some on the left, saw collective bargaining as the horizon of their democratic input. Holland has since pointed out that he never channelled management’s right to manage. Workers’ rights were to remonstrate, debate, to get redress for grievances, but not to legislate over business plans or company accounting. This is an understandable pragmatic approach, but falls short of the hopes of radical AES supporters. Only in the calm of political marginalisation would prominent AES backer Geoff Hodgson write an account of how an economy might correspond to the Workers’ Inquiry’s aspirations. (The Democratic Economy. 1984)

The AES and Socialism.

How radical was the AES? Donald Sassoon wrote in his history of the European left, “to anyone willing to brush aside the fog of rhetoric …an industrial policy that is based on planning agreements and a stakeholding company is, in fact, a policy of coexistence and partnership with the private sector, aimed at improving the latter’s performance.” He observes that the AES was one of the “very few attempts by British socialism to develop an industrial strategy aimed at making capitalism more profitable.” A more balanced judgement would hold that the strategy was an effort to expand the scope of political action to change economic relations, within the boundaries of the possible. Yet, Sassoon also adds, this was not necessarily realistic: “economic independence” between countries could not be waved away. The plans were not thought through. One aspect of this stands out. What were the measures kept in reserve to prevent capital flight and financial movements that resisted attempts to “harness of the market power of big league firms”? Bob Rowthorn’s warnings about military intervention, and implicit call for a socialist armed forces strategy, aside, the example of the IMF loan, and the campaigns against ‘Bennery’ indicated that the scope for radical change within the institutions might have been narrow. (16)

It is not only historians who have poured cold water over the prospects of the AES. “It is simply not possible to make a mixed economy work in a socialist way.” wrote David Coates in 1981, “while the size of the private sector remains large and in the control of a class that is hostile to Labour radicalism, and at a time when the development of class forces has already produced serious problems of profit realisation and capital accumulation.” In other words, Britain was capitalist and had a capitalist state.

Coates developed this theme, pointing to the lack of instrument to transform this, , “…the Parliamentary Left prefer to meet the threat of the multinationals by using the power of one national state and its associated national trade unions, in spite of the vast evidence that the nation-state is less and less able to play that role effectively, and without considering that the Left’s purposes might be better served by attempting to build international linkages both within each multinational (between the workers at each plant) and between the different national trade-union centres and socialist and communist parties—linkages made possible and necessary by the interlocking nature of the capitalist economies, the similarity of the problems faced by the Western European working class, and the emergence of similar programmes to the AES in left-wing parties across the continent.” This leaves open the issue of what exactly the workers were to do to show solidarity. Yet it has the merit of pointing to the need for those who had elaborated these left programmes to work together. This has in fact happened, through the existence of the structures of the European Union, by legally empowered pan-Continental Works’ Councils, and the creation of political blocs inside the European Parliament. Open to criticism, far from solid or powerful, without a doubt, these moves are under threat by Brexit.(17)

Europe.

What of the Common Market, the European Economic Community, as the European Union was known at the time? Sassoon, and many others, observed “a staunch defence of the nation-state as the best instrument for the development of ‘socialist’ planning was part and parcel of the AES.” Looking back over the decade Stuart Hollande wrote on the “New Communist Economics” of the still substantial Communist Parties in France Spain and Italy, and noted moves, which extended to the French Parti Socialiste, towards programmes for “political and industrial democracy”, and planning embedded in the “democratisation of the economy”. Could their projects be coordinated with the UK Left? At the time European Parliamentary blocs were out of the range of sight. But alongside talk about the “transformation of capitalism” Holland did not fail to mention the need to “stem a national decline.” As Paul Auerbach underlines, behind the AES was the “implicit assertion of the possibility of economic renewal thorough unilateral national action”. (18)

Francis Cripps wrote in 1981, “The Alternative Strategy seeks to counterpose democratic national self-government against the anarchic pressures of a global market system.” “The mere fact that the Strategy is national in its scope is not sufficient to condemn it out of hand. Indeed, if successful, it would provide a progressive model for other countries with similar social and political institutions.” Leo Panitch and Colin Leys have claimed the “national policy autonomy” or national sovereignty..” “some degree of collective control over politics and society, and in particular over the flows of capital, trade and people” are pillars of left politics. (19)

There is much to say on what confronts the left today. It is clear that very few people would find much in common with the starting points for the AES. In Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe’s influential British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze (1972) the historical decline of British decline and its profitability crisis needed a left response. Based on “converting the fight for the rights and conditions of the workers” it should lead to a “revolutionary political strategy inside the labour movement.” (20)

Instead the minds of some of the radical left today are focused on how terrible the European Union is. This is more sophisticated ways than Tony Benn’s description of Britain as a “colony” that should be “liberated” from Brussels. From the Left’s Senate, pours forth the icy realism of one of its oldest members. Waving, as one likes to imagine, his long fingernails, from the arch-conservative Paleo-Marxist bloc Perry Anderson fulminates: the EU is, “an oligarchic structure ever more indifferent to expressions of the popular will, even to legal appearances.” Economically it is a de-regulating body, the plaything of globalisation, and a facilitator of privatisation and market competition.” This space approaches the neo-liberal ideal of an economy protected from politics – the popular will. The Euro-Zone is a means to enforce not just fiscal discipline, but in the case of countries burdened with debt, headed by Greece, sell-offs and, more widely, austerity. Stuart Holland wakes up and concurs, “an anti-democratic disaster” that stands in the way of my “entrepreneurial state” ! (21)

Blue Labour fellow travellers William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi. The Socialist Workers Party imagines another Europe, but Callinicos warns, this “will be achieved through breaking the autocratic, neoliberal structures of the EU, not by pursuing the Utopia that they can reformed.“ (22)

And yet, Europe itself cannot be said to be Nowhere. “What makes the EEC a constraining power at the moment is not any directive from the Commission but Britain’s de facto integration in and dependence on the European Economy.” Left populism, from a splintered Podemos to a La France insoumise, dropping to 8% or less, in the polls,  is in crisis. The  demand  sovereignty resonates only  on the national populist right.The internationalists’ call to reform the institutions goes on, the march, together with our comrades in the rest of Europe, continues, through the political institutions governing this economy and above through alliances of the left and unions.  There is only one Brexit, with dreams of restored Imperial sovereignty, Popular Sovereignty, a People’s Brexit, attached. That is the only possible Brexit, one that leaves us without any hook into directing the continent, floating, as a directionless buoy, in the oceans of the world neoliberal economy. (23)

*****

  1. Crisis, the Labour Movement and the Alternative Economic Strategy. London CSE Group. Capital and Class No 8. Summer. 1979.
  2. What Is Needed Is A Progressive Vision Of National Sovereignty. Thomas Fazi. Social Europe. 19th of May 2017. Page 4. The English Constitution. Walter Bagehot. Oxford University Press. World’s Classics. 1928. Chantal Mouffe. For a Left Populism. Verso. 2018. Reclaiming the State. A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi Pluto Press. 2017. The Return of the Repressed. Wolfgang Streeck. New Left Review. 104/2. 2017. 
  3. William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi Op cit. The authors claim to be on the radical left. Their use of Polanyi draws on Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman see: The Great Deformation Maurice Glasman. New Left Review. No 205/1, 1994. 
  4. Page 54. Corbynism: a critical approach. Matt Bolton. Frederick Harry Pitts.Emerald Publishing 2018.
  5. Cited in, Pete Green Is Labours economic policy really neoliberal? Open Democracy. 14th August 2018. See the various plans for finance and macroeconomics in The Corbyn Project. Robin Blackburn. New Left Review, 2018. 111/2.
  6. THE LEFT AGAINST BREXIT – AN INTERNATIONALIST CASE FOR EUROPE. : Britain should leave the EU on WTO terms’, Communists propose.Page 145.A Party with Socialists in it. A History of the Labour left. Simon Hannah. Pluto. 2018.
  7. Pages 57 and 59. The Retreat of Social Democracy. John Callaghan. Manchester University Press. 2000. See also: Chapter 5. The End of Parliamentary Socialism. Leo Panitch & Colin Leys. Verso. 1997.
  8. Page 32. Strategy for Socialism. Stuart Holland. Spokesman. 1975. Page 59 John Callaghan op cit.

  9. Crisis, the Labour Movement and the Alternative Economic Strategy, London, CSE Group. Capital and Class No 8. 1979. Pages 156 – 157 Socialism and Parliamentary Democracy Geoff Hodgson. Spokesman 1977. Geoff Hodgson. Britain’s crisis and the road to international socialism: a reply to Jonathan Bearman. International Socialism, 2/7 1980. On a Socialist Social Contract see: Out of the Ghetto. Mike Prior and Dave Purdy. Spokesman. 1979.

  10. Bob Rowthorn. The Alternative Economic Strategy.International Socialism. Spring 1980. Bob Rowthorn The Politics of the Alternative Economic Strategy Marxism Today. January 1981.The Eclipse of Politics: the Alternative Economic Strategy as a Socialist Strategy. Donald Swartz. Capital and Class. No 13. 1981.

  11. See The Impasse of Social Democratic Politics. Leo Panitch. Socialist Register. 1985/86. Merlin. Page 244 Stuart Holland. Capital, Labour and the State. In: What Went Wrong, Explaining the Fall of the Labour Government, Edited by Ken Coates. Spokesman, 1979.

  12. Pages 90 to 91. Tony Benn. Interview with Eric Hobsbawm. In The Forward March of Labour Halted? Eric Hobsbawm. Verso. 1981. Page 9. Pages 96 and 157 – 8. State Intervention in Industry. A Workers’ Inquiry. Coventry, Liverpool. Newcastle N. Tyneside Trades Councils. 1980. Russell. 

  13. Andrew Glyn. Capitalist Crisis: Tribune’s ‘Alternative Strategy’or Socialist Plan. Militant Pamphlet, 1979. Stuart Holland said in 2017. “One of the main claims about my proposals in the 1970s was the allegation that I wanted civil servants to run industry. I didn’t and I don’t. They’re not qualified, not up to it. You need professional managers (my emphasis) in holding companies with a strategic remit from the government. I made that argument in shaping the case for the National Enterprise Board, submitting that the NEBshould have such a remit for six main roles, including regional development, gaining direct information on the cost and profit structures of big business, using this to counter transfer pricing by multinational companies, locating more R&D in the UK, as well as long-term innovating investment not influenced by the short termism of stock markets.” Martin O’NeillStuart Holland Hope amidst despair?Renewal. Col 25. 34.

  14. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific Friedrich Engels. Various Editions.

  15. Page 525. One Hundred Years of Socialism. Donald Sassoon. Fontana Press. 1996.

  16.  Labourism and the Transition to Socialism. David Coates. New Left Review. 1/129. 1981.

  17. The New Communist Economics. Stuart Holland. In Eurocommunism. Myth or Reality?Paolo Filo della Torre, Edward Mortimer, Jonathan Story, Penguin 1979. Paul Auerbach. The Left Intellectual Opposition in Britain 1945 – 2000: the Case of the Alternative Economic Strategy. Socialist History Society Conference. September 26-7 2003.

  18. Francis Cripps. The British Crisis—Can the Left Win? New Left Review 128/1 1981. Page 170. The End of Parliamentary Socialism. Leo Panitch & Colin Leys. Verso. 1997.

  19. Pages 215 – 6. Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze . Penguin. 1972.

  20. Page 539. The New Old World. Perry Anderson. Verso. 2009.  Martin O’NeillStuart Holland Hope amidst despair? Renewal. Col 25. 34.

  21. Why the Left Should Embrace Brexit. Thomas Fazi and William Mitchell. Jacobin. 29.4. 2018. The Internationalist case against the European Union. Alex Callinicos. International Socialism No 148. 2015.

  22. Vol. 2. Page 284. Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today. Antony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst and Athar Hussain. Routledge. 1978