Wednesday, 29 April 2015

What to do with the EU?

Willie Thompson writes:
Despite the fact that British withdrawal constitutes the centrepiece of the UKIP election campaign, the other parties involved have been surprisingly reticent about discussing the question at any length or in great detail. No doubt this is due to a state of uncertainly and embarrassment, plus a suspicion that a referendum would be likely to result in a vote for exit, which none of the others would wish to commit themselves to, since they retain the conviction, with various degrees of enthusiasm, that membership is a ‘good thing’. Odd to think that in the referendum of 1975 the Labour Party was in the main on favour of withdrawal, now, next to the Lib Dems it is the one most committed to opposing not merely exit but even a referendum.

Indeed there are plenty of reasons for wanting to be quit of this institution. It is consummately corrupt and unmitigatedly undemocratic, a gravy train for its bureaucracy and high officials; the meadow to which dubious politicians who have overstepped the mark, such as Peter Mandelson, are put out to grass. It may be remembered that voting publics in particular states such as Ireland, when referenda returned votes against innovations thought by the elites to be very important, the citizens were made to vote again until they produced a majority for the favoured outcome. It has worked in every case except Norway, but even there the national economy is nevertheless closely tied to that of the EU.   

Although the butter mountains and wine lakes are now in the past, the bureaucrats of the Commission continue to make rules which result in serious inconvenience to ordinary citizens or even wreck entire industries such as the British fishing industry. Marketisation is at the heart of its agenda and it was specifically designed in the 1950s to entrench capitalism and present a high obstacle to a socialist programme in any of its member states even if their electorate should have the impertinence to democratically decide upon such a thing, as more than half a century down the line the Greek example has demonstrated with unmistakable clarity. The ultimate aim, clearly stated from the beginning, is political unification; an absurdity in any modern state institution with the degree of language difference inside even inside its previous borders, while its parliament, except as a platform for political publicity, is a farce with no meaningful powers.

Although it is not a sovereign state, its elites have nevertheless has developed aspiration to conduct foreign policies. When these have had any effect, they have proved catastrophic. The EU in the main has acted as the economic arm of the US empire in Europe, an economic and would-be political coalition of vassal states, and if not all its members are not enrolled in NATO, the overwhelming majority are and the two institutions are closely aligned. The nature of this alignment has become especially clear in recent years in the military and political sphere so far as the Ukrainian crisis is concerned, while in the Mediterranean, thousands of refugees are being condemned to death by drowning on account of the decisions of the politicians who run the institution and constitute the final decision-makers.

To some extent tensions and stains within the EU derive from the fact that when it was created its originators assumed that the Soviet bloc would last at least far into the twenty-first century; it was intended for the western Europe of the previous one, and its unforeseen growth deep into Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with notions of admitting even Turkey and regions yet further afield, has turned its structure of governance into a rickety mess.

What attitude to take?
Naturally the EU has attracted hostility in different degrees of intensity, some of it unrelenting, and given it character and practice this should not surprise anybody. Would its breakup, if that were to occur, therefore deserve celebration and applause? If a referendum were to go ahead in 2017 should the British public vote to depart? The answer, surprisingly it might appear, in view of what has been said above, is ‘No’.

Although there are not many of them, even in its present form the institution does have some positive features. Its social regulations at least pose some restraint on the worst features of predatory capitalism, which is the principal reason that there is a lobby, albeit a minority one, among some sectors of British capital, in favour of withdrawal. The traumatic economic effects of uprooting from such a lengthy and deep integration into the structure as Britain has developed, is of course evident.

The principal objections to leaving however relate to none of these aspects, but to consideration of the political forces which would gain from such an outcome. These are the right-wing reactionary populist movements which infest nearly country in the Union and thrive on its deficiencies, often supported by toxic tabloids such as, in the UK, the Daily Express. Breakup would put rockets under their political prospects and energise them to no end. They are all racist in their presuppositions although their leaders may try to deny it and expel members who are too vociferous in these matters. Some, primarily in eastern Europe, nevertheless are even open in their fascist nostalgia.

There are some on the left as well who would, understandably, like to see the end of the European Union (I have a degree of reactive sympathy with them) but the situational reality has to be the decisive consideration and the institution’s collapse, or  British withdrawal, has got to be countered and argued against strongly. Nevertheless, unless the EU is reformed root and branch and designed to be primarily for the benefit of its citizens and not its moneybags, hatred and resistance can only increase, with political reaction harvesting the gains.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

UKIP and Labour: Anyone for “Social Fascism”?

Andy Pearmain writes:
The concept of “social fascism” has got a very bad name. It was coined by the Communist International in its “third period” of the late 1920s to attack social democracy. The communists were competing with the reformist and labourist political parties for the allegiances of the working class across the industrialised world. This was the time of the Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression, of mass unemployment and hyper-inflation. In the heightened tension of capitalist crisis, which pitched “class against class” in a global struggle for supremacy, the social democrats were cast by the communists as “the left wing of the bourgeoisie”, delaying the historically inevitable onset of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Further, they could not be relied upon to resist the blandishments of the ruling class, and would always betray the interests of the proletariat for the sake of their own governmental, parliamentary, municipal and trade union careers. Practical examples were not hard to find, from the SPD's role in suppressing the German revolution of 1918/19 to the 1929/31 National Government in Britain led by “turncoat” ex-Labourites Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip Snowden. 

But there were several problems with this line of thinking. In its strategic perspective of “class against class” it was hopelessly “economistic”, in that it reduced all analysis to simple polarities between capitalism and socialism, bourgeoisie and proletariat, reform and revolution. It privileged the economy as the sole determinant of history, and relegated culture and ideology and even politics to the status of irrelevant sideshows. It pitched actual and potential allies on the left into sectarian squabbles and feuds, turning them in on themselves and against each other and away from the broader struggle for socialism. Above all, it downplayed the emergent threat of actual Fascism and Nazism, already in control of the state in Italy and well on the way to it in Germany, and the much greater threat they posed to the “grand old cause” of international socialism and eventually world peace.

In the ensuing local controversies over “social fascism”, trade unions, cooperatives, cultural and propaganda organisations were riven with factional dispute. Real physical violence was widespread, in the form of street fighting and targeted attacks. The Communist Parties themselves, previously ascendant and basking in the “borrowed prestige” of the young Soviet Union, were confused, divided and distracted. Anyone suspected of deviation from the party line was summarily expelled, an early warning of the purges which would destroy an entire generation of “old Bolshevik” intellectuals and activists in the darkest years of 1937/8.

In reality, “social fascism” had far more to do with the vicious infighting inside the Communist Party of the Soviet Union than with the grand project of world communism. It provided the “theoretical basis” for Stalin's “left turn”, the vanquishing of former collaborators on the right (most notably Bukharin) who had worked with him to defeat Trotsky and the mid-1920s “Left Opposition”.  The substantive issues – the pace and scale of industrialisation, policies towards the peasantry and the middle classes – were less important than the imposition of the central authority of the “great leader”, who could tack to the right or the left as it suited him.  From then until his death in 1953, “Uncle Joe” would be the undisputed figurehead of Russian and worldwide communism.   

In the meantime, the ultimately embarrassing concept of “social fascism” was quietly dropped. The Popular Fronts of the mid-1930s saw considerable revival in the political fortunes of the left, including relatively stable and successful governments. Once actual Fascism and Nazism had been subdued by military conquest, forms of “left unity” provided the political basis for post-war reconstruction and the welfare state, adopted with varying degrees of radicalism by all the victorious powers, including the Soviet Union, Western Europe and even the USA. Even the prolonged stand-off of the Cold War tended to favour the domestic politics of left-wing social democracy and right wing communism in an undeclared but highly effective alliance right across Western and Eastern Europe.

Now, with the “post-war social democratic consensus” pretty much vanquished by Thatcher and Reagan and their disciples (including much of what remains of social democracy), and the almost total hegemony of neoliberalism and its project of capitalist globalisation, is it time to rehabilitate the concept of “social fascism” to explain the almost universal rightward shift of the centre of political gravity? In particular, does it aid our understanding of the new right-wing or nationalist “populism” which is taking social democracy's place across Europe and elsewhere as the primary vehicle to resist, protest or ameliorate the ravages of global capitalism?

We are struggling to understand it in any other terms, not least because it poses an all-round electoral threat to traditional parties of both left and right. Let's look at our own national example, the peculiarly British (or more exactly English) United Kingdom Independence Party, which looks set to attract around 15% of the vote in the forthcoming general election, and may gain sufficiently more in some constituencies to win 5 or 6 seats. What exactly are UKIP's politics, beyond its signature themes of opposition to Europe and immigration (not forgetting its denial of climate change)? In traditional political party terms, where can we place it?

Well, like all classically Fascist political movements, it doesn't fit easily into any single point of the political spectrum, and can be identified as much by its temper and style as programme or principle. What can be seen of its central leadership beyond Nigel Farage is almost entirely ex-Tory, based in London and the Home Counties, and disillusioned with their former party's apparent disavowal of full-blooded Thatcherism. They are viscerally disgusted by the more modern, socially liberal, “politically correct” Conservatism espoused by David Cameron and his metropolitan friends in the Notting Hill set (or have they all now decamped to the Cotswolds?).

But to their evident surprise, these traditional, dry as dust Thatcherites are drawing support from disillusioned segments of tribal Labourism, especially in the midlands and the north. The more far-sighted UKIP-ers are working towards a “2020” strategy, whereby second place to Labour in the 2015 general election in around 100 constituencies will pave the way for a concerted effort to win those seats five years later, and displace the Labour Party as the “true” voice of working class England. The loss of even a quarter of those northern English seats, on top of the massive losses expected in Scotland this year, would be utterly disastrous for Labour. Where else, apart from (weirdly) inner London, with its enclaves of white middle class hipsters and their multinational service-class underlings, would Labour then be able to call its own?

We are in murky waters here. The British proletariat, even at its late 19th century zenith when manual labour occupied fully two-thirds of the whole population, was never clearly politically identified. Rather, it was collectively organised in the workplace through trade unions, with their “economistic” focus on squeezing better wages and conditions out of the capitalist bosses, and practical neglect of broader social and political concerns. In its “spare time” the working class was most passionate about essentially non-political pursuits like gambling, spectator sport, music and other forms of light entertainment, and emotionally focussed on the immediate concerns of family and street community.

Labour could never count on their unconditional support, even at elections. For much of its history since universal suffrage, large chunks of the working class voted Tory and sustained a culture of popular Conservatism with strong strands of unionism and imperialism. Its less respectable cousin British Fascism – real, declared fascism in the form of Mosley's blackshirts and the National Front and most recently the British National Party – has been largely a working class movement led by toffs; an alliance of the “top and bottom drawers” which has always set itself most stridently against the middle class enlightenment and liberal philanthropy of “progressive politics”.  

For all the self-serving triumphalism of the metropolitan liberal left – determined that “in the twenty first century there can be no place” for racism, sexism, homophobia and every other nastiness – these ideological impulses are all still there, successfully tempted out of the regional English undergrowth and coalesced by UKIP into a new historical bloc. UKIP has provided a contemporary and very plausible political vehicle for what I have elsewhere called “the fascist possibility”, always lurking like a bad smell on the margins of British political culture. With its appeal to disillusioned old Labour, it has taken on a “social” dimension which previous, predominantly business-orientated and ex-Conservative fascist movements never quite managed. Hence, the label “social fascism”.

Finally, if we are to fully grasp what all this means, we need a better understanding of what actual Fascism is and was, beyond the foul insanities and perversions of Hitlerism and the comic buffoonery of Mussolini. These were real social and political movements, which managed over decades to mobilise genuine historical grievances and popular aspirations. They won majority support, at least in their own countries (though they were also widely admired elsewhere, including the UK). While setting a firm profile towards the future, they also aimed to recreate an imagined, much better past. Their core support was the lower middle class and upper working class, elements of the petty bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy. They were impatient with the niceties of the law, and contemptuous of the messy compromises of democracy.

Their political style can be described as “authoritarian populism”; their political project as “regressive modernisation”. These were terms commonly applied in the 1980s to Thatcherism, which was also described by some as a form of fascism (not very helpfully, because Thatcher unusually took over an established political party rather than creating her own; and by then the concept of fascism had been devalued by decades of caricature and name-calling). Above all these movements were angry, to the point of violence when necessary, but otherwise prepared to vent their anger through established legal and political channels if it got them their way. On all these measures, UKIP is fascist, and just possibly the most successful British incarnation yet of “the fascist possibility”.    

Andrew Pearmain's latest book 'Gramsci in Love', a novel set in Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy, is out now.   

Monday, 6 April 2015

Willie Thompson writes:

Back in the days soon after the 1997 election, when our eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Blair, I wrote that the Labour Party had the opportunity of dismissing the Tories from power for evermore, provided that the new government acted energetically on behalf of ordinary citizens rather than the financial sharks and vultures that had flourished under the regime of Thatcher and Major – but at the same time I doubted if we would see any major initiatives other than devolution and the minimum wage. What was not expected, even in our worst nightmares, was that New Labour would out-Tory the Tories and make Edward Heath look like a leftie and Harold Macmillan like a raving Bolshevik.

Fast forward to early 2010, and we find the New Left Review editorial declaring that in view of the government’s record and character we shouldn't spill any tears over Labour losing the forthcoming election, and several years previous to that Andy Pearmain was arguing that ‘Labour Must Die!’ I thought at the time that such views was a bit excessive though I could appreciate and understand them – the record was appalling and the Labour leaders a bunch of lying scoundrels, total strangers to the truth, with a war criminal in charge until 2007 and then succeeded by the only minister who had been in a position to stop him but who had failed to do so and was continuing all the essentials of Blair’s policies.

It was a question of how you judged matters when you thought about the alternative, but in the event the 2010 outcome for a few days did not look too bad – the Tories had failed to  gain an overall majority, and Caroline Lucas had won a seat in Brighton. Perhaps the Lib Dems would support a Labour government while vetoing its more nefarious endeavours. Before 1997 I had even suggested that it  might not be a bad idea if Blair teamed up with the Lib Dems, as that could possibly  shift Labour a fraction to the left.

It hadn’t occurred to anyone following the 2010 result that the Lib Dems would commit the treachery of joining in a formal coalition with the Tories who most evidently, when their coalition partners had exhausted their usefulness, would then throw them away like a used condom – as they had done twice in the past to the Lib Dems’ predecessors in the Liberal Party; and yet the calamity came to pass. The Tories got what they wanted and the Lib Dems destroyed themselves in the process. If they’d had any sense the latter would never have entered the coalition in the first place, but might have had some chance of amending their error by immediately breaking it up once they failed to get proportional representation. However the bauble attractions of government office proved too tempting. So far as Labour was concerned, despite losing the election its parliamentary party was in quite a strong oppositional position and soon presented with an endless succession of political open goals, all of which it contrived to miss. 

Now this forthcoming election is supposed to be a multi-party one in a manner that has never previously been seen in British politics, but Cameron is right at least in his statement that there are only two possible prime ministers in the offing, either himself or Miliband. So can Labour recover some of its lost ground and its credibility? On the face of things there should be no problem and Labour several kilometres ahead in the polls. The Tory administration (which it has been, forget about coalitions) between 2010 and 2015 has not only acted as Robin Hood in reverse, but systematically gone about destroying the country’s social infrastructure – and it’s material one in addition.

A dirty trick
Nevertheless the signs are not hopeful. It is revealing that Miliband immediately jumped on a manifestly bogus accusation that Nicola Sturgeon had wished for a Tory victory, without paying  any attention to her vehement denial. The lack of principle here almost equals anything that New Labour might have attempted. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in Scotland the SNP are the majority party, and the reason for them being in that position is the abysmal failure of the Blair/Brown governments during the Labour period in office. As Caesar is supposed to have said when surveying the corpses of his defeated opponents, hoc voluerunt (they asked for it).

It was not the fact that Labour opposed Scottish independence – there were meaningful arguments against separation as well as ones in favour, and if the Labour Party had campaigned independently for a No vote it would have been a position that could be respected even if not accepted. The spectacle, though, of the Labour Party acting in collusion with the hated Tories and treacherous Lib Dems was repellent beyond description and very likely does a lot to account for the enormous leap in SNP membership that has taken place since the referendum.

What could be done?
If the Labour leadership had any sense they would take that as a very significant signal and, instead of banging on about the demerits of the SNP, begin to seriously ask themselves why they have been replaced in the affections of the Scottish electorate. Ed Miliband would do well to remember the injunction of his admirable father Ralph in his masterpiece volume Parliamentary Socialism, that serious politics is not polite conversations between gentlepersons but civil war by other means. Miliband senior demonstrated irrefutably with chapter and verse the truth of the statement by the Tory leader Balfour after his overwhelming electoral defeat in 1906, that whichever party was in office the Tories would continue to rule the country, and that in the words of the Red Flag anthem,  ‘to cringe beneath the rich man’s frown’ has been indeed the default posture of the Labour Party throughout the century-plus of  its existence.

In present circumstances it’s not as though an imagined Labour government with, at best, a very narrow majority or in informal collaboration with the progressive nationalist parties and Greens could immediately set about implementing a Bennite agenda. As things stand, the socially conservative English culture would not accept it and the US would never tolerate it. Nevertheless, Miliband and his cabinet could consider the Scottish experience. In 1955 the Tories won an absolute majority of votes in Scotland. Look at them now: popular outlooks can be changed, for all the toxic tabloids can do. The Labour leaders could then work to reinvigorate their party on the ground as a campaigning organisation, take lessons from the SNP administration in Scotland and begin trying to copy it. Electorates seeing an honest and socially progressive government committed to the common good, can be persuaded to line up behind it.

Is there any possibility that this could happen? About as likely as Sunderland, where I live, winning the English Premiership in the next football season. The most probable outcome is that Labour will have to be replaced, most likely by the Green Party, though evidently that will be a very challenging undertaking.