“Wrenching Labour out of its Traditions” – Learning from Leo

Michael Calderbank considers the work of Leo Panitch, who sadly died a few days ago, on the relationship between socialists and the British Labour Party

Like his great mentor Ralph Miliband, Leo Panitch, the Canadian socialist intellectual and analyst of the British Labour Party, was a “democratic socialist” in the emphatic sense of both terms.  Labour would also come to embrace this description of its own political outlook, but as Miliband had shown, its commitment to democracy has always been in the highly attenuated form of “Parliamentarism”, while “socialism” was retained as a largely rhetorical fig leaf to justify a practical agenda of (at best) social democratic gradualism.  

In order to better appreciate the perspective from which he began to critique the traditional Labourist philosophy, we should recall that Panitch arrived in Britain as a student of politics in 1968.   Famously, this was a time when students across the West erupted into mass revolt at the stifling (small-c) conservatism and complacency of social and political institutions, with protests against US imperialism coinciding with the emergence of Black Power and the Women’s Liberation Movement.  

Labour was the “very last place” that most radicalised young people would have chosen to go at this time, Pantich later recalled, since the victories under Harold Wilson in 1964 and 1966 which had attracted significant support from younger voters soon gave way to disillusion.  Labour’s Atlanticist alliances prevented the party from leading open opposition to the invasion of Vietnam, while the new social movements grew up outside, and often in opposition to, the structures of formal Parliamentary politics.

At the same time, through the late sixties and early seventies, a rising tide of trade union militancy was growing, with a new generation of shop stewards emerging to lead agitation against the employers.  Yet Barbara Castle, long associated with the Tribunite left of the party, was charged with introducing the paper In Place of Strife, proposing measures by which a Labour government would curb the power of the trade union movement and interfere with the principle of free collective bargaining.  This violated the traditional separation whereby the union leaders largely left political decisions to the autonomy of the Parliamentary Labour Party in return for Labour governments respecting the prerogatives of union leaders in the field of industrial relations and collective bargaining. 

 Ultimately, In Place of Strife would be withdrawn, but the underlying tensions behind the clash were left unresolved.   Panitch set about thinking through the pressures between social democratic governance and trade union militancy, and the institutional role of the Labour Party and trade union structures in mediating the tensions.

Of course, the Labour Party was famously the creation of the trade union movement, formed to give Parliamentary representation to working class people.    But that by no means suggests that Labour sought to get involved in siding with the working class in engaging the class struggle.   At its founding conference of the original Labour Representation Committee in 1900 (from which the Party would emerge), a motion from the Social Democratic Federation arguing for the explicit recognition of class conflict was decisively rejected.   Similarly, the drafting of Clause IV itself – often taken as the symbolic touchstone of Labour’s commitment to socialism –  was drafted by the Fabians, and did not make clear how the “full fruits” of the workers’ industry were to be “secured”, leaving open the interpretation that this could be done by incremental reform.

Labour did indeed seek to draw on, mobilise and advance working class interests within fixed limits. But instead of taking sides in class conflict, by promising to “govern in the national interest” it sought to integrate certain gains for the working class in the context of maintaining and perpetuating the existing framework of socio-economic and political relations.  By 1976, in Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy (the revised and published version of his PhD thesis), Panitch writes:

“The function of the Labour Party in the British political system consists not only of representing working class interests, but of acting as one of the chief mechanisms for inculcating the organized working class with national values and symbols and of restraining and reinterpreting working class demands in this light.  The Labour Party, in other words, acts simultaneously as a party of representation and as a major political socialization and social control agent, mediating between nation and class… acting to maintain values to which the working class has already been exposed, and usually absorbed, from other agents of political socialization such as the family, the educational system, the Church, the media, or even the Conservative Party.”

This understanding of what the Labour Party as an institution aims to achieve radically reorients a socialist understanding of why its interventions and effects have taken the form they have.   Where traditional left critics have been quick to blame the cowardice, treachery or betrayal of the leadership for their failures to have fought for the working class more effectively, when judged from the perspective of the integrationist understanding, the party has already effectively succeeded on its own terms in allowing the debate to be framed in this way.   The very terms of these complaints demonstrate how the working class has been encouraged to regard its own interests as “sectional” and to rely on the good faith of representatives to deliver more effectively on their behalf.

Despite the sometimes stormy factional rhetoric, many shared operational and ideological assumptions – dubbed “Labourism” by Miliband and other New Left thinkers – were held in common across the party including by those on the traditional (Tribunite) left.   Both sides accepted the party’s received wisdom that “socialism” (however understood) was to be achieved primarily through the election of Labour MPs to Parliament where they could form a government under a majoritarian electoral system; that the role of Labour party members and supporters was essentially limited to putting in the spadework for electoral success and cheering on the efforts of Labour MPs, and that Labour would “govern in the national interest” and encourage agreements to be brokered to that end between trade union unions and employers.

To be sure, this left room for sometimes heated debate and disagreement, for example about how far and how fast commitments to public ownership and planning agreements should go.   But the Tribunites cast their opposition to the Gaitskellite “modernisation” and threat to Clause IV in terms of fidelity to the party’s traditions.   Even the Labourist conception of socialism and public ownership were predicated on a largely centralised and bureaucratically driven notion of what “control of industry” might look like, together with a largely passive working class which would yield the benefits of electing the better sort of Labour representatives.     

The Tribunite left cut a sorry shape in the wake of the failure of the Callaghan government, since despite their occasional “regretful protests”, they had come to accept the necessity for pay restraint under the Social Contract, and continued to support a government which accepted the IMF’s monetarist loan terms, including cuts to public spending.  Rather than swing behind the Alternative Economic Strategy of Tony Benn and Stuart Holland, Michael Foot prioritised calls for “unity” behind a strategy more acceptable to the capitalist interests in the British establishment. Effectively his “left” reputation helped to keep the union leaders on board, despite the increasingly obvious breakdown of the old “corporatist” arrangements of post-war Keynesianism.   

By 1979, Panitch saw no reason to contest Miliband’s judgment three years earlier that “the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an effective instrument of socialist policies… is the most crippling of illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone”. 

At the same time, neither commentator held this as a point of dogma.  Nor did they underestimate the challenges facing socialists attempting to build a viable alternative socialist vehicle in opposition to Labour.  Many of the forces claiming a Marxist inspiration were content to unthinkingly recycle old vanguardist assumptions simply transposed from the Bolshevik struggle against Tsarist Russia without attending to how socialist strategy might need to be recalibrated in relation to the specificity of the state in British society in relation to the development of capitalism over the intervening decades. Too much avowedly “Marxist” practice represented little more than empty sloganizing and abstract theorising. 

Neither Miliband nor Panitch opposed electoral intervention on principle, but rather criticised the specific centrality that Parliamentarism held for Labourist ideology:

“Rather than attempting the difficult task of securing working-class support by undermining those values of national unity and moderation which encapsulate class subordination, it has chosen the easier route of engaging working class allegiance by associating with those values.   The problem with the Labour Party is not that it has sought to bring the working class to power by peaceful means.  Rather the fact that it has not seen its task as bringing the working class to power has determined the kind of parliamentarism which it practises.”

Other forms of Parliamentary intervention are thinkable for socialists, and – in a way they hadn’t foreseen – became the subject of debate and struggle within the context of the Labour Party itself -in the movement associated with Tony Benn, which would be renewed in a post-Blair context by Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s Panitch again:

“Whereas the old Tribune left tended to see its project as returning the party to its traditions, when the party was allegedly more socialist, the new Bennite left came far closer to defining its goals in terms of wrenching Labour out of its traditions, of breaking definitively with the class harmony orientation that from the inception of the party determined the integrative kind of parliamentarianism and the non-transformative kind of reformism that Labour practised.”

The significance of socialist activists engaging in Labour party activity not in the small-scale entryist recruitment tactics engaged in by self-proclaimed vanguard parties, but precisely by seeking to involve and mobilise a radicalised mass membership to give a qualitatively different expression to the philosophy of “democratic socialism”, represents an altogether different kind of challenge and opportunity, as Panitch (and Miliband) were ready to acknowledge.

In stark contrast to traditional Labour leftism, this would entail a vision of mass participation in politics outside and in addition to the electoral cycle. It would mean developing new forms of democratic policy-making and structures of accountability in a new era of democratic planning and industrial strategy to boost socially useful production; advancing industrial democracy and public ownership under workers control; democratically overhauling and transforming the state –  and that’s just for starters!     

There can be no denying either the scale of the ambition involved here, or of the resistance that socialists will face from those still deeply invested in the integrative vision of Labourism.  Leo Panitch watched the Bennite and Corbynite struggles in the party not as a detached observer but as a sympathetic if critical ally – the findings of which he wrote up with co-author Colin Leys in Searching For Socialism. 

 He was only too cognisant of the difficulties involved, but enthusiastic that new generations of activists were being drawn into the struggle to make socialism a reality.   He enjoyed the irony of Tribune magazine being relaunched with a politics which – despite the iconography – often thankfully owed more to Benn than to Bevan, Foot and Castle.  His emphasis on political education was not a theoretical talking point but a lived commitment, from which many of us have benefited.   We still have much to learn from him.    

Michael Calderbank is a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

Image: Leo Panitch at The World Transformed 2018 in Liverpool. Source: Leo Panitch. Author: Kevin Walsh from Preston Brook, England, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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