The word socialism
first appeared in 1827. Robert Owen defined socialism as “the abolition of private property”. Karl Marx took a
similar line, and extended the idea of common ownership to the national economy.
At least at that time, socialism and communism were virtually synonymous, especially in terms
of their shared vision of the final goal. They both meant the common ownership
of the means of production, and the end of markets and competition.
This view persisted throughout the twentieth century, including within the UK Labour Party. George Bernard Shaw wrote with approval: “Socialists are trying to have the land and machinery ‘socialised,’ or made the property of the whole people”. In 1908 the Labour Party Conference passed a resolution, adopting the aim of “the socialization of the means of production, distribution and exchange to be controlled by a democratic state”. In 1924 Sidney Webb summarized his view of socialism as involving “(1) Collective Ownership; (2) Collective Regulation; (3) Collective Taxation; and (4) Collective Provision”.
Similar views were found among Labour
Prime Ministers. J. Ramsay MacDonald saw socialism as “a movement to supplant
Capitalism altogether, by organising communally the services which Capitalism
performs or ought to perform.” In 1937 Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of
capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of
life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee then approvingly quoted the words
of Bertrand Russell: “Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital
together with a democratic form of government.”
In my book Is Socialism Feasible?I show the persistence of this view of socialism. I also discuss several attempts to change its meaning, including by Douglas Jay, Anthony Crosland, Deng Xiaoping and Tony Blair. Blair tried to shift the meaning to social-ism, by replacing the goal of common ownership by vaguely-specified “ethical values” and a recognition that individuals are socially interdependent. This attempt to revise the meaning has not made much of a mark.
Deng Xiaoping faced the
problem of persuading the Chinese Communist Party to support his enormously
successful market reforms. Deng declared:
“The essence of socialism is liberation and development of the productive forces, elimination of exploitation and polarization, and the ultimate achievement of prosperity for all … common prosperity is the essence of socialism.”
Note the subtle shift from property to prosperity. If that is socialism, then few people are not socialists.
But the original meaning endures. The Merriam-Webster
Dictionary defines socialism as “a system of society or group living in which
there is no private property” or “a system or condition of society in which the
means of production are owned and controlled by the state.” This is remarkably
similar to the original definitions of Owen and Marx.
moderates help Corbyn, and socialists help Trump
Among prominent living politicians today, including
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie
Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Socialism has retained its original meaning,
of widespread common ownership, or at least they have not renounced that original
At the same time, leading Labour Party moderates
who support a mixed economy continue to support “democratic socialism”. By
doing so they give succour to the full-blooded socialist left, who are much
closer to the enduring traditional view of socialism than the moderates themselves.
We can pretend that the word socialism has
shifted in meaning, but there is little evidence of a major and widely accepted
Moderate or otherwise, those using the “democratic
socialism” label help to sustain the mistaken idea that socialism (in its enduring
and prevalent sense) is compatible with democracy. History and theory both show
that a totalitarian concentration of political power flows inevitably from the unmitigated
concentration of economic power in the hands of the state that is associated
with large-scale socialism.
A similar problem exists in the US, particularly
after the recent election of a young group of socialists to congress, including
the impassioned and eloquent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Along with Sanders, they
are members of the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA) within the US Democratic
The DSA argues for “a vision
of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and
market mechanisms”. They also argued that “widespread worker and public ownership will greatly lessen
the corrosive effect of capitalists [sic] markets on people’s lives”. While, unlike many other socialists, the
DSA notably accepts an enduring role for markets, its agoraphobic bias is
revealed by the failure to mention the corrosive effects of bureaucracy on
statements, leading DSA politicians seem to favour Nordic-style, welfare state
capitalism. But they have not made it clear that they support the large private
sectors and financial markets that are prominent in all the Nordic countries. Instead,
they go along with the abolition of capitalism. They distance themselves from
the Communist regimes of the past. But while the experiment with socialism in
Venezuela has led to a catastrophic human disaster, they
fail to come out in full condemnation of that regime.
Trump. Not only does he mobilise racist prejudices, he also uses their
self-declared socialism to describe
them as communist. Given that socialism and communism were (at
least originally) virtual synonyms, this ammunition is handed to Trump by his
most fervent opponents.
meaning of social democracy
When Social Democratic parties were first formed
in Europe in the nineteenth century, most were strongly influenced by Marxism.
They were fully socialist in its original sense.
Some separation of meaning between socialism and
social democracy occurred beforehand, but it was brought to a head by the onset
of the Cold War in 1948. Europe as a whole, and Germany in particular, were
divided between the Eastern and Western Blocs.
All socialist and communist parties had to
choose – the East, the West, or a plague
on both? With Moscow ties in many cases, almost all Communist parties chose the
East. Many moderate Socialist, Social-Democratic or Labour parties chose the West.
At its Bad Godesberg Congress in 1959, the
German Social Democratic Party (SPD) made fundamental changes to its aims. It
dropped its opposition to capitalism, and it abandoned the Marxist analysis of
class struggle. The
“The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary.”
The crucial point here is that the
SPD moved from (temporary or permanent) toleration
of markets and competition, to accepting
markets and competition as desirable, alongside strong public enterprise
and state regulation where necessary.
This explicit and fundamental change in
aims in the world’s largest and most influential Social Democratic Party led to
a separation of meanings of the terms social
democracy and socialism. But it
must be acknowledged that strong residues of old-style thinking persisted, in
the SPD and in social-democratic parties in other countries.
There is a simple test to distinguish a socialist from a social democrat, according to currently prevalent meanings of those
To be a social democrat it is not enough to accept
markets and a mixed economy, as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the Democratic
Socialists of America have done. After all, a mixed economy could be accepted
as a temporary staging post in the transition to full-blooded socialism, as Vladimir
Lenin did with his New Economic Policy in 1921.
A modern social democrat must go further. He
or she must make a clear and positive case why markets, competition and a private
sector are more than a temporary expedient. It
must be argued that these things are indispensable, both for economic efficiency
and the preservation of freedom. This is the acid test. The SPD in 1959 understood
this point and it passed the test.
As far as I am aware, neither Corbyn, McDonnell, Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez have made such a positive case for a permanent private sector. If I am right, then they are socialists, not social democrats. Despite their protestations, they are closer to traditional communism than to modern social democracy, as practiced in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. I would be delighted if they can prove me wrong.
Large-scale socialism is outdated, extreme and
demonstrably incompatible with democracy. At least if these declared socialists
want to win parliamentary majorities and form governments, then they have to
change their terminology, and dispose with outdated and unfeasible ideas.
But while Nordic social democracy remains remarkably successful (as I show in my book Is Socialism Feasible?) the social-democratic brand throughout Europe has declined in electoral support. Although re-naming is necessary, much more than renaming is required. The abandonment of the socialist label is but a first step. But that is another story.
17 July 2019
Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The
Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).
Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism,
Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).
Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).
Democratic Socialists of America (1995) ‘Where We Stand: Building the Next Left’, DSA: Democratic Socialists of America. https://www.dsausa.org/where_we_stand.
Griffiths, Dan (ed.) (1924) What is Socialism? A Symposium
Jay, Douglas (1937) The
Socialist Case, 1st edn. (London: Faber and Faber).
Despite the disastrous record of self-described “socialist” regimes, socialism (whatever it means) is remarkably popular.
According to a 2017 survey of American adults, 37 per cent preferred (what they described as) socialism to capitalism. Among millennials (meaning those reaching adulthood in the early twenty-first century), 44 per cent preferred socialism over capitalism. This survey broadly confirmed previous American polls from about 2015, which showed a surge of support for socialism, especially among younger people.
Polling in the UK found that 39 per cent of adults have an unfavourable view of capitalism, while 33 per cent were favourable. Also in the UK, 36 per cent viewed socialism favourably, compared to 32 per cent negatively. Germans were reported as even more positive about socialism, with 45 per cent being favourable and 26 per cent unfavourable.
These polling figures are remarkable, especially when we take into account that regimes describing themselves as socialist led to over 90 million deaths in the twentieth century. Socialism has captured the ethical high ground, despite the poor record of socialist regimes in terms of human rights.
Somehow today’s socialists evade this legacy. They argue that these regimes were not really socialist. Or they were corrupted by bad leaders. Or they suffered largely because of antagonism from the capitalist West. All these arguments assume that a humane socialism is feasible and that there are not congenital flaws in socialism that lead it to dictatorship.
Mainstream Economists are tainted too: they often favour markets and assume individual self-interest as an axiom. Socialism will subdue markets, private profits and other spurs to greed, and through common ownership create a system that encourages people to cooperate together and act unselfishly.
So the argument goes. But the evidence tells a different story. The socialists, the “greed is good” defenders of capitalism, and believers in our total selfishness are all wrong.
Theory and evidence, from Darwin onwards, show that evolution has provided humans with a mixture of selfish, cooperative and moral capacities, which can be stunted or developed according to different cultural and institutional settings.
There is also strong evidence that market or trading relationships can enhance sentiments of fairness and reciprocity. The notion that markets always make people greedy, selfish and amoral has been refuted. The moral high ground claimed by socialism is challenged not simply by the misdeeds of socialist dictators, but also by extensive evidence about human nature and how it is affected by markets or other institutional circumstances.
Small-scale societies have relied on sentiments of cooperation and moral solidarity that have evolved within groups over millions of years. Solidarity within tribes or bands helped them survive in competition over resources with their rivals. But unfortunately evolution has not disposed us to be nice to outsiders.
The modern world has built up citizen loyalty to nation states, but the downsides have been hostility to foreigners and belligerent nationalism. In the modern world, institutions are needed to encourage mutual understanding and reciprocity on a global scale.
One of these institutions is the market. There is impressive evidence that, on balance, international free trade can reduce the risks of war between nations. In larger-scale systems, despite market competition, trade can build bonds and reduce conflict.
While the complete commercialisation of family and community life could undermine trust and altruism, wider trade on a larger scale increases mutual interdependence. As Thomas Paine, Richard Cobden, John Hobson and several others argued, markets can help to build solidarity within and between nations.
If socialism is “obvious”, then how do we explain the failure of other intelligent people to get on board? If they are not stupid, then they must be acting out of personal malice or greed. They must have sold out their principles in some way. Or they are just plain nasty.
When socialism is seen as “obvious”, its opponents are regarded as stupid or evil. Because the solution is “obvious” there can be no doubt. There is no need to look at evidence, to experiment, to seek wise counsel, or to listen to critics. Those that deny the obvious are deluded, corrupt, or in the pay of those that gain from the existing system.
Hence the claim that “socialism is obvious” encourages a remarkable intolerance of those that take a different view.
Modern economies are highly complex, and to pose any system or solution as “obvious” is a dangerous populist naivety. Precisely because something called socialism has now become popular, we are entitled to ask more precisely what it means.
Socialists compare an imaginary “obvious” world with the real world, with all its poverty, inequality and other problems. They simply assume that their imaginary world of love and cooperation will work. They assume that much can be decided democratically, ignoring the fact that it is impossible to make more than a small fraction of day-to-day decisions democratic. They ignore the problems of incentivizing work and innovation, and of ensuring functional autonomy without private property. All these problems became apparent in real-world socialist experiments in the past.
Socialism and dictatorship
A major problem with large-scale socialism is that a large concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state undermines the economic foundations of countervailing power and empowers totalitarian forces and outcomes. These problems are illustrated by developments in Russia, China and Venezuela.
Such a centralization of economic power requires and promotes a strong executive, unburdened by checks and balances. When this concentration of economic power is achieved, it reinforces political centralization in the absence of countervailing interests and powers.
The argument that “good” leaders will avoid these pitfalls is spurious. Without checks and balances there are strong temptations to cut constitutional corners. Eventually a “good” leader will be succeeded by someone worse, who will have less scruples about abusing executive power.
The conclusion is that democracy and human rights require countervailing power and a market economy with a much smaller public sector. Countervailing interest groups, with their own access to resources and an ability to check or influence the state, are necessary to prevent democratic abuses and over-centralization.
Ignoring this powerful argument, in the face of extensive historical evidence in its support, is morally reprehensible. It betokens a moral irresponsibility in the light of ample evidence to the contrary. The socialist tenure of the moral high ground is illegitimate.
Instead, the moral high ground should be conceded to those who understand that:
– modern economic systems are highly complex and cannot be largely planned from the centre
– genuine autonomy requires rights to private ownership
– the existence of democracy and the protection of human rights require countervailing politico-economic power
– mixed economies have the best economic performance
– a welfare state is necessary to protect the poor and needy
– instead of chasing unicorns, we should follow the example of those capitalist countries that have the lowest levels of inequality.
18 February 2018
Published January 2018
Boehm, Christopher (2012) Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame (New York: Basic Books).
Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert (2011) A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Courtois, Stéphane, Werth, Nicolas, Panné, Jean-Louis, Packowski, Andrzej, Bartošek, and Margolin, Jean-Louis (1999) The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
Darwin, Charles R. (1871) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols (London: Murray and New York: Hill).
De Waal, Frans B. M. (2006) Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Haidt, Jonathan (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (London: Penguin).
Henrich, Joseph, Boyd, Robert, Bowles, Samuel, Camerer, Colin, Fehr, Ernst, Gintis, Herbert and McElreath, Richard (2001) ‘In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies’, American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings), 91(2), May, pp. 73-84.
Henrich, Joseph, Boyd, Robert, Bowles, Samuel, Camerer, Colin, Fehr, Ernst, and Gintis, Herbert (2004) Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press).
Henrich, Joseph, Jean Ensminger, Richard McElreath, Abigail Barr, Clark Barrett, Alexander Bolyanatz, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Michael Gurven, Edwins Gwako, Natalie Henrich, Carolyn Lesorogol, Frank Marlowe, David Tracer, and John Ziker, (2010) ‘Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment’, Science, 327 (5972), pp. 1480-84.
Hirschman, Albert O. (1982) ‘Rival Interpretations of Market Society: Civilizing, Destructive, or Feeble?’ Journal of Economic Literature, 20(4), December, pp. 1463-84.
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2013) From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics without Homo Economicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Many people still call themselves socialists. But rarely is it made clear what they mean by the description. Few seem aware of its original definition, which persisted from the 1830s to the 1950s. Some will argue that the word has acquired a new meaning since then. Words do change their meanings. But there is no consensus on what that new meaning is.
Despite its idealistic connotations of purity and principle, the word socialism hangs around the neck of left parties. It serves as an invitation for infiltration by Marxists and others, who may enter any party proclaiming their “democratic socialism” or their “socialist principles”.
Having being invited by the s-word, they simply have to point to its original meaning to justify their maximalist stances on class struggle and public ownership. The retention of the s-word will always feed the hard left.
Owenites and Marxists
The term socialist emerged in English for the first time in 1827 in the Co-operative Magazine, which was published in London by followers of Robert Owen. It moved into wider usage in the 1830s. For Owen and his followers, socialism meant the abolition of private property. It also acquired the broader ideological connotation of cooperation, in opposition to selfish individualism.
As Owen argued in 1840, “virtue and happiness could never be attained” in “any system in which private property was admitted”. He aimed to secure “an equality of wealth and rank, by merging all private into public property”.
Owen and his followers attempted to establish several socialist communities in the UK and USA. All failed within a few years. The young Frederick Engels attended an Owenite meeting in Manchester in 1843, and was inspired by Owen’s notion of socialism.
Marx and Engels wanted the complete abolition of the “free selling and buying” of commodities. They advocated common ownership of all means of production and the abolition of commodity exchange and markets.
Hence, from the 1830s until the 1950s, socialism was almost universally defined in terms of the abolition or minimisation of private property and some form of widespread common ownership.
Marx and Engels insisted that markets should be abolished and all means of production should be placed in the hands of the state.
Marx and Engels often used the term communism instead of socialism. But this was primarily to distance themselves from the naïve ideas of contemporary socialists rather than to postulate a radically different objective. For them, communism was a label for their movement, rather than their goal. Thus in 1845 they wrote:
Sometimes, as in his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, Marx referred to the “lower” and “higher phases” of communism, instead of socialism.
In 1917 Vladimir Ilych Lenin was writing his State and Revolution, on the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Some left critics had argued that Russia was insufficiently developed for socialist revolution.
So Lenin redefined socialism as a transitional stage (still involving extensive state ownership) between capitalism and communism.
By contrast, Marx and Engels did not use the term socialism to refer to a future stage between capitalism and communism. Their aim was described interchangeably as socialism or communism.
Engels’ description of Charles Fourier and Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon as “utopian socialists” is inaccurate because – unlike Owen – they supported private ownership of the means of production. They imagined harmonious communities without poverty or strife. But some of Saint-Simon’s followers moved toward socialism.
Philippe Buchez was inspired by Saint-Simon. He promoted worker cooperatives as early as 1831, and his ideas became prominent during the French Revolution of 1848.
Contrary to most of his contemporary socialists and communists, Buchez and his followers eventually recognized the need for multiple, autonomous, worker co-operatives, each owning property and engaging in contracts and markets.
But this tolerance of markets was too much for Marx. In 1875 he described Buchez’s ideas as “reactionary”, “sectarian”, opposed to the workers’ “class movement”, and contrary to the true revolutionary aim of “cooperative production … on a national scale”.
Pierre Joseph Proudhon
In 1840 Pierre Joseph Proudhon published his What is Property? He used both socialism and anarchism to describe his proposed future society. But, like Buchez, Proudhon proposed a system of worker cooperatives linked by contracts and trade. This enraged Marx and Engels, who relentlessly attached Proudhon’s ideas.
Non-statist versions of socialism endured but were overshadowed by statist variants. From the 1870s to the 1950s the dominant view of socialism involved state ownership and control. To emphasise their dissent, Proudhon and other opponents of statist socialism often described themselves as anarchists.
The idea that private property and markets should be abolished was thematic to socialism and unconfined to Marxism. It pervaded the writings of socialists as diverse as Continental revolutionary communists and British Fabians. At least until the 1950s, hostility towards markets and private property were thematic for socialism as a whole. The founding influences of Owen and Marx were long-lasting.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Drafted by leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Clause Four, Part Four of the Labour Party Constitution encapsulated collectivist thinking when it was adopted in 1918:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
This provided for no exception: all production would be in common ownership and there would be no private sector. Although some Labour Party thinkers began to entertain the possibility of some private enterprise, many party members remained resolutely in support of widespread common ownership.
Some Fabian socialists tried to lay out more detail on how socialism would work. The Webbs laid out their ultimate vision of a fully planned and consciously controlled socialist economy where all markets and private ownership of the means of production had been marginalized to insignificance. They wanted private ownership of the means of production to be ended: it was a “perversion”.
They envisaged a massive, complex structure of national, regional and local committees, all involved in decision-making over details of production and distribution. How would these cope with the huge amounts of information and specialized knowledge in modern complex economies? It was simply assumed that this was relatively easy to sort out in some rational manner.
G D H Cole
The British Fabian G. D. H. Cole is sometimes described as a “libertarian socialist” and as an advocate of “decentralized” or “guild” socialism. But he supported the wholesale nationalisation of industry and the abolition of private enterprise. To his great credit, and unlike most Marxists, Cole did actually try to explain how a future socialist society would work. But his explanation is a failure.
Cole did not show how devolved democracy could function and endure in a society where private property was abolished. His hyper-democratic account of socialism, where individuals make decisions throughout industry as well as the polity, failed to consider the problems of necessary skill in judgment, of obtaining relevant knowledge, and the overwhelming number of meetings and decisions involved.
Cole’s vision of socialism was of an integrated, national system where “a single authority is responsible both for the planning of the social production as a whole and for the distribution of the incomes which will be used in buying it.” Within this “single authority” he also sought devolved worker control. He wanted local autonomy of manufacturing, modelled on the medieval guild.
But Cole was tragically unclear about how the two were to be reconciled. How would the autonomous powers of the latter be protected from the control and centralizing ambitions of the “single authority”? There was no adequate answer. His whole system was unworkable.
Clement Attlee and Bertrand Russell
In 1937, eight years before he became UK Prime Minister, Clement Attlee wrote of the “evils” of capitalism: their “cause is the private ownership of the means of life; the remedy is public ownership.” Attlee then approvingly quoted the words of Bertrand Russell:
“Socialism means the common ownership of land and capital together with a democratic form of government. … It involves the abolition of all unearned wealth and of all private control over the means of livelihood of the workers”.
Even within the moderate and non-Marxist Labour Party, the word socialism endured with these collectivist connotations, posed in opposition to private firms, competition and markets.
Russell represented an important strain of thinking within the British left. He wholeheartedly supported the notion of a publicly-owned and planned economy, but he rejected “Bolshevik methods”.
But is it possible to promote a state monopoly of economic power, while preventing a central-state monopoly and potential despotism of political power? In no historical case has the first happened and the second been prevented. Statist socialism, with viable democracy, political pluralism and effective decentralisation, exits only in the imagination of impractical idealists.
In the 1930s the economist Oskar Lange and others claimed that mainstream economic theory can show how socialism could work. Lange and his co-workers argued that managers of firms should be instructed to expand production until marginal costs were equal to the declared market price of the product.
But this assumed that marginal costs could be calculated and that the central planners could smoothly and readily assess whether there were surpluses or shortages, and adjust prices accordingly. Lange and others wrongly assumed that such information was readily available.
These proposals for “market socialism” attempted to simulate markets within a planning system, rather than to establish true markets with private ownership and commodity exchange. There was no private ownership and no capacity for firms to make contracts. The models developed by Lange and his collaborators involved a high degree of centralised co-ordination that excluded any real-world market.
Significantly, no attempt has ever been made to implement a Lange-type model in reality. Lange himself made no effort to persuade the post-1945 “socialist” government in his native Poland of the value of the idea.
Hence the use of the term “market socialism” in this context is highly misleading. Unlike the proposals of Buchez or Proudhon, and unlike the system of worker cooperatives established under Josip Tito in Yugoslavia after the Second World War, Lange’s proposal did not involve true markets.
In 1956 C. Anthony Crosland published The Future of Socialism. This began Labour’s slow reconciliation with markets, private enterprise and a mixed economy. Signalling an attempted shift of meaning, Crosland argued that the central aim of socialism was not necessarily common ownership, but social justice and economic equality, and these could be achieved by different means. But although his argument was highly influential, it was widely attacked within the Labour Party and elsewhere.
In 1959 the (West) German Social Democratic Party abandoned the goal of widespread common ownership. In the same year, Hugh Gaitskell tried to get the British Labour Party to follow this lead, but met stiff resistance. The party did not ditch its Clause Four commitment to the complete “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” until 1995.
Richard Toye noted that the Labour Party assumed widespread public ownership and failed to develop adequate policies concerning the private sector:
“Labour, until at least the 1950s, showed little interest in developing policies for the private sector. During the 1960s, the party demonstrated continuing ambiguity about whether or not competition was a good thing. This ambiguity continued at least until the 1980s.”
Tony Blair and New Labour
But in 1995, after 77 years, Labour’s Clause Four was changed. Tony Blair successfully ended the Labour Party’s longstanding constitutional commitment to far-reaching common ownership. But this was not without opposition. Tony Benn protested: “Labour’s heart is being cut out”.
The new wording of “Clause IV: Aims and Values” declared that: “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.” But the clause ceased to promote unalloyed common ownership and the full text admitted a positive role for markets and a private sector.
By contrast, the 1918 formulation did not use the word socialism – it had undiluted common ownership instead.
Blair introduced the word socialism in 1995, but he attempted to change its meaning. He promoted “social-ism”, which now meant recognizing individuals as socially interdependent. It also signalled social justice, cohesion and equality of opportunity, within a mixed economy involving both private and public ownership.
Hence, instead of tackling the problem of Labour’s old collectivist DNA more directly, Blair tried to change the meaning of socialism and to airbrush Labour’s history. He failed to promote an adequate alternative vision or philosophy within Labour to replace old-fashioned common ownership. To the traditional left, it appeared as the substitution of purity and socialist principle by fudge and capitalist compromise.
But oddly Blair was responsible for the explicit insertion of socialism in its aims. This inadvertently played into the hands of the party’s enduring, backward-looking left.
Learning no lessons
Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the financial crash of 2008 helped to turn the Labour membership against Blair and his compromises with capitalism. As evidence of the Freudian defence mechanism of regression as a response to severe stress, Labour reverted to an earlier stage of its history, re-adopting its infant ideological comforts of collectivism and state control.
The ghost of Tony Benn emerged. His Campaign Group in parliament moved from the margins to the party mainstream.
Like Benn, the current leadership of the UK Labour Party shows little awareness of the chronic problems of managing a modern, complex, centrally-planned economy. They now accept a “mixed economy” as a transition stage, but fail to promote the virtues or enduring role of the private sector.
To take one example, Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 address to the UK Co-operative Party is overwhelming in its blandness and naivety. Therein Corby shows no awareness that viable and meaningful decentralisation of economic power must involve (cooperative or other) firms with the right to own, set prices for, and trade their outputs. He rightly mentions the virtues of worker and consumer participation in decision-making, but shows no awareness of the practical limits of such participation.
Corbyn simply waved the magic wand of “democracy” without any apparent appreciation that it is impossible to involve everyone in more than a tiny fraction of all the complex decisions involved in any modern economy. Corbyn showed no awareness of the practical problems of complex decision-making in large organisations, which are dependent on multiple, localised, skills and expertise.
Following Labour’s advances in the 2017 general election, the leadership of Corbyn and his allies seems entrenched. Recently they have gained control of the powerful National Executive Committee of the party. For future nominations for the Labour leadership or deputy leadership, it is probable that the 15 per cent threshold of support from Labour MPs will be lowered, making ongoing hard left prominence more likely.
In the 1980s and 1990s the hard left were pushed back with the help of large, moderate trade unions that were affiliated to Labour. Those countervailing forces have gone. The unions are smaller and some are more inclined to the hard left.
With the Brexit vote in 2016, Britain has entered its most dangerous political crisis since the Second World War. The country is governed by an inept Conservative Party that is tearing up the UK constitution and concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of its duplicitous ministers.
Labour’s 2017 electoral advances were partly due to Tory incompetence. In this volatile climate it is possible that Corbyn could soon become prime minister. Subsequently, an obvious danger would be that the concentration of executive power legislated by Tory opponents would prove too tempting for Labour in power to relinquish. After growing authoritarianism from the reactionary right, we might experience a new, collectivist authoritarianism from Labour.
A Labour government committed to dealing with the severe crises in the health, education and housing sectors can bring positive benefits. Substantial state intervention is needed to regulate markets, especially in the area of finance. But such a programme needs to be tempered by heavy measures of pragmatism, pluralism, cautious experimentation and ideological humility that are alien to the current leadership.
However outdated, it is difficult to dislodge the core principles upon which any party is founded. France provides an important illustration. Michel Rocard was a leading member of the French Socialist Party and a prime minister under François Mitterand. He long argued that French socialists
had failed to modernise and to accept the enduring importance of private property and markets.
Emmanuel Macron was a protégée of Rocard. Macron gained presidential power after breaking from the fractured Socialist Party and building a powerful centre force. Perhaps there are some lessons for progressives in Britain. It would not be the first time that the French have shown us the way forward.
13 September 2017
Minor edits: 16, 21 September 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Attlee, Clement R. (1937) The Labour Party in Perspective (London: Gollancz).
Bestor, Arthur E., Jr (1948) ‘The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 9(3), June, pp. 259-302.
Blair, Tony (1994) Socialism, Fabian Pamphlet 565 (London: Fabian Society).
Cole, George D. H. (1920) Guild Socialism Re-Stated (London: Parsons).
Crosland, C. Anthony R. (1956) The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape).
Harrison, J. F. C. (1969) Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul).
In terms of basic assumptions, Marxism has more in common with some prominent versions of so-called “neoliberalism” than is generally understood. Obviously, Marxism is opposed to a market economy. But some core ideas by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels are remarkably similar to those of some so-called “neoliberals”. For example, Marx’s definition of property resembles that of Ludwig von Mises.
But the parallels go much further, and are disturbing in their consequences. They concern the independence of the legal system and the nature and legitimation of democracy. They also concern the viability of civil society and the autonomy of personal and social life.
The argument here shows that liberalism – both historically and currently – is very different from some modern versions of “neoliberalism”. This “neoliberalism” is theoretically closer to Karl Marx than to Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill.
Marxism undermines the autonomy of politics and civil society
The Marxian analysis of capitalism treats law and the state as an expression of class interests, which in turn are grounded on “economic relations”. Hence, for Marx, law and the state “originate in the material conditions of life“. They are part of the “superstructure” built upon the “economic base”.
The Marxist analytical reduction of everything to economics does not stop there. Consider the notion of civil society.
Civil society generally connotes a realm of free, partly self-organising, property-owning citizens, who interact under the rule of the state and its laws. In most accounts it includes private business and markets, but it is not reducible to them. It also embraces many forms of social association (including recreation, religion and philanthropy) that are not driven by business interests.
Distinctions between civil society and the state, and between civil society and the narrower world of trade and business, were developed by Enlightenment liberal writers such as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Paine, Alexis de Tocqueville and others. They are crucial for modern liberal theory.
In its analysis of capitalism, Marxism made the state, law, politics and civil society all analytically subservient to markets and business.
These may be regarded as extreme formulations within Marxism. Certainly there are more sophisticated treatments by Marxists of civil society and the state, not least by Antonio Gramsci. But Marxism is severely impaired by the words of its founders.
The above extracts concern the Marxian analysis of capitalism, not its vision of an ideal society, which of course is strikingly different from that of (neo)liberals. While the Marxian analysis of capitalism undermines the conceptual distinction between civil society and the state – by making them both subservient to economic relations – Marxian politics also dissolves it in practice.
In his early tract On the Jewish Question, Marx argued that civil society and political society should become one and the same. In practice, under socialism, once much of the economy becomes a state bureaucracy. With private association under restriction, the scope of civil society is much diminished.
The reclamation of civil society by Eastern European dissidents
Long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, underground opposition groups had developed in several Soviet Bloc countries. After the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, and after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, opposition to the Marxist party-state became most developed in Poland.
In 1971 the Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski wrote his Theses on Hope and Despair. These were circulated illegally in his home country.
Kołakowski complained that the Soviet-style regime had “monopolistic power” that impelled “the atomization of society and the destruction of all forms of social life not prescribed by the ruling apparat.” He called for a pluralist society with genuine freedom of information, discussion and association.
Subsequently, other Eastern European intellectuals such as Jacques Rupnik called for “the rebirth of civil society”. After the formation of the mass trade union movement Solidarity in Poland in 1980, still more voices were added. The Hungarian Andrew Arato wrote in 1981 of the new dissident wave:
“one point unites them all: the viewpoint of civil society against the state – the desire to institutionalize and preserve the new level of social independence.”
Before its unexpected elevation to political power in 1989, Solidarity saw itself as essentially a movement for the “self-defence” of civil society against totalitarian power.
But while the dissidents drew on Enlightenment and liberal thought, their political philosophy was often underdeveloped. After 1989, many former dissidents became influenced by extreme forms of market libertarianism. But given the parallels – explored below – between this “neoliberalism” and Marxist thought, there was more continuity in their thinking than immediately meets the eye.
To understand the connection between “neoliberalism” and Marxism we need first to address a much broader phenomenon within social science.
There is a widespread tendency to use the language of trade and markets to describe phenomena that are neither traded nor markets. I gave some examples in my Conceptualizing Capitalism book. I here call it market universalism.
Consider the notion of a “market for ideas”, which can be found in the writings of Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase. He did not refer to intellectual property but to conversation and freedom of expression.
Douglass North, another Nobel Laureate, wrote of “political markets”. He was not referring to vote-buying (in countries like India) or political bribery, but to the general process of multi-party competition in a democracy.
In a paper published in 1988, Bruce Benson and Eric Engen envisioned “the legislative process as a market for laws” where interest groups “pay” legislators for laws as “products”.
By minimal criteria, none of these is a market. Rules concerning contracts, enforcement and property rights are lacking.
For example, the ordinary communication or debating of ideas does not involve enforceable contracts. Generally, conversation is not an intentional transfer of property rights.
Similarly, if we vote for a politician or a party that does not typically amount to an enforceable agreement. Competition between politicians or parties for votes or power is not a contest for contracts under any established system of contractual rules.
Likewise, with the supposed “market for laws”, in reality there are rarely any enforceable contracts between interest groups and legislators.
There is a further problem. What would be the system of rules under which these supposed “contracts” between legislators and interest groups are formed and enforced? Hence a “market for laws” would require supra-legal institutions with their own (legal or other) rules. We would need markets for markets-for-laws, or markets for meta-rules.
This reveals a problem of an infinite regress, showing that not everything can be placed on a market. My Conceptualizing Capitalism book gives further reasons why markets cannot be universal. There will always be missing markets.
Market universalism and “neoliberalism”
Although market universalism may be dismissed as the harmless use of metaphor, it contains dangerous policy temptations.
Making everything a market denies the autonomy of law and politics: everything is subsumed within the market zone. All forms of association are regarded as market-like or contractual arrangements. Legal and political relations or rights are reduced to the “economic” facts of possession or control.
The temptation is to downgrade all non-commercial justifications for democracy, law or social life. Everything is forced into the conceptual straitjacket of property and contract, and evaluated in terms of profit and loss.
Previous liberal thinkers had defended rights to private property, other human rights, plus institutions such as democracy. By contrast, market universalism can highlight control over property first, on the grounds that it is the foundation of all other rights and liberties. Property moves from being a necessary but insufficient condition of liberty, to being necessary and sufficient for the same.
This transforms the Enlightenment argument that the government must be legitimated by representative democracy, rather than by tradition or divine rule. The “political market” makes democracy a market, and market-like criteria become the overriding source of legitimation for everything.
Furthermore, democracy may be seen as secondary or expedient, especially when property or markets are perceived as being under threat. By treating democracy as another market, a temptation is to regard markets and property as generally more important or supreme than democracy.
Consequentially, market universalism enables something very different from other forms of liberalism, and it involves a radically modified conceptual foundation. One may be tempted to call it neoliberalism.
This is the label suggested by Philip Mirowski, who addressed what he called the Mont Pèlerin “thought collective”. In a perceptive essay on this influential intellectual movement, which involved Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and others, Mirowski identified several of its traits including the following:
“Skepticism about the lack of control of democracy is offset by the persistent need to provide a more reliable source of popular legitimacy for the neoliberal market state. Neoliberals seek to transcend the intolerable contradiction by treating politics as if it were a market and promoting an economic theory of democracy.”
We can now see what Marxists and market universalists have in common. They all look upon capitalism as system where everything is reducible to a market.
For Marxists, this means that civil society is nothing more than the sphere of business and individual greed. In addition, the political and legal spheres are simply reflections of these business interests.
A policy consequence – after the socialist revolution – is to destroy civil society and absorb it into politics and the state. This forms part of the Marxist foundation for totalitarianism.
Of course, for “neoliberals”, markets are always beneficial. But the problem is much more serious than their ever-familiar agoraphilia.
Through notions such as “political markets” and “markets for laws”, market universalist “neoliberals” reduce the state and its legal system to a grand marketplace. The state and law become additional markets alongside others. The policy temptation is the practical marketization of the state and the doctrinal denial of the autonomy of politics.
Once politics and all civil society are seen through the lenses of trade and markets, then the basic elements of property and contract become supreme. Instead of being a necessary but insufficient precondition of liberty, property becomes both necessary and sufficient.
This transforms the Enlightenment argument that the government must be legitimated by representative democracy, rather than by divine rule. The “political market” makes democracy a market, and this becomes the overriding source of legitimation.
Consequently, democracy becomes secondary or expedient, especially when property or markets are perceived as being under threat. By treating democracy as another market, a temptation is to regard markets and property as generally more important or supreme than democracy.
Leading “neoliberals” like von Mises and Hayek have been described as classical liberals. But their views are a departure in important respects from the Enlightenment liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and from other more recent currents of liberal thinking. In some important respect they are closer to Karl Marx than John Stuart Mill.
Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet
Their supreme emphasis on property rights explains why some “neoliberals” have dallied with dictators. For example, in a book originally published in 1927, von Mises praised fascism as “an emergency makeshift” that “has, for the moment, saved European civilization”. Hayek was notoriously silent about the human rights violations in Chile under the dictator Pinochet. These fascist or dictatorial regimes were seen by them as saviours of private property.
Conclusion: liberalism is not “neoliberalism”
Despite their opposed policy stances, Marxism and the type of market-universalist “neoliberalism” discussed here have similarities at their theoretical foundations. While Marxism reduces the analysis of civil society and politics to an economistic world dominated by self-seeking egoists, this “neoliberalism” does exactly the same.
Within this version of “neoliberalism”, everything is legitimated by free contract in unfettered markets in all spheres of human interaction, including within the state itself. Like Marxism, it reduces everything to economics.
This entails a radical break from other forms of liberalism, and from all other doctrines that recognise the relative autonomy of the political and legal spheres from the economy and from civil society.
2 September 2017
Minor edits – 8, 10 September 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Arato, Andrew and Cohen, Jean (1992) Civil Society and Democratic Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Benson, Bruce L. and Engen, Eric M. (1988) ‘The Market for Laws: An Economic Analysis of Legislation’, Southern Economic Journal, 54(3), January, pp. 732-745.
Caldwell, Bruce J. and Montes, Leonidas (2015) ‘Friedrich Hayek and his Visits to Chile’, Review of Austrian Economics, 28(3), pp. 261-309.
Cohen, Jean (1982) Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory (Oxford, Martin Robertson).
Keane, John (ed.) (1988) Civil Society and the State (London: Verso).
Keane, John (1995) Tom Paine: A Political Life (London: Bloomsbury).
Keane, John (1998) Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions (Cambridge: Polity).
Kumar, Krishan (1993) ‘Civil Society: An Inquiry into the Usefulness of an Historical Term’, British Journal of Sociology, 44(3), September, pp. 375-395.
Mirowski, Philip and Plehwe, Dieter (eds) (2015) The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, paperback edition (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press). (Quote from p. xvii.)
Mises, Ludwig von (1985) Liberalism in the Classic Tradition. Translated from the German edition of 1927 (Irvington, NY: Foundation for Economic Education).
Polan, Anthony J. (1984) Lenin and the End of Politics (London: Methuen).
The world is full of injustice and poverty, while the rich protect their wealth by manipulating the system of power. Consequently, many of the informed and intelligent are lured like moths to the lights of socialist revolution, promising social justice for the many not the few.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a blazing light in Russia a century ago. Many intellectuals were attracted to his Soviet regime. Lenin is said to have coined the term “useful idiot” to describe the naïve among them (but no evidence has been found to support that attribution).
But in 1913 Lenin definitely did quote the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This was unwittingly self-referential and rather prophetic. Lenin’s post-1917 Bolshevik regime became a hell, in part of his own making. The good-intentioned (with sufficient means or influence) were invited from abroad to visit the young Soviet Republic.
Venezuela – “another world is possible”
But first let us consider the current case of Venezuela. Its experiment in radical socialism began in 1998 when Marxist Hugo Chávez was elected as President. Using the plentiful oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.
Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. He whipped up popular support against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States. But constitutional checks and balances slowed down his radical reforms. Criticism from the private press and political opposition countered the populist movement.
So in 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power.
The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.
In 2002 Chávez was briefly deposed in a coup, which probably had support from the CIA. But Chávez was restored to power by the army and popular mobilisations.
Chávez then seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.
Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. His supporters were persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the “socialist revolution” against its enemies. Since 2004, “defamation” of the government, including “disrespect for the authorities”, has been a criminal offence.
Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The state-centred economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse.
Venezuela’s descent into hell
In a state-run economy, business corruption is encouraged by bureaucratic failure. Political corruption is facilitated by the gathering of powers in the hands of the ruling party and the state machine. The Venezuelan government became one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged.
“There’s no food”
Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.
In 2015 and 2016, blaming internal “fascists” and US intervention for the severe shortages, President Maduro declared two states of emergency. These gave him powers to intervene in the economy. Arbitrary detentions of dissidents became more common.
The regimes of Chávez and Maduro wasted and misspent much of the money made in the oil boom, while over-extending the powers of their corrupt governments. The private sector was hobbled. The ultimate outcome of Venezuela’s experiment with populist socialism has been authoritarianism, destitution and starvation.
Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward dictatorship. Press freedom is limited and critical journalists and opposition leaders are jailed.
Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse, and will probably continue to do so.
But the major cause of economic stagnation in Cuba and Venezuela is the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.
“we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.”
Corbyn has since been challenged to come out against the hellish Maduro regime. Maduro’s government has been accused of arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings and torture.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
Having managed to dupe many people with the mantra that he was a “peacemaker” in Northern Ireland (rather than a supporter of the IRA), Corbyn tried the same trick with Venezuela.
First he removed all mention of “Venezuela” from his website. Then, in an August 2017 interview, he condemned the “violence done by all sides”.
The Venezuelan opposition includes both rightist agitators and defenders of human rights. By simply condemning violence, Corbyn appeared as morally neutral between the regime and its diverse opponents. He ignored the politico-economic conditions that had given rise to the violence, and the previous actions of the Chavistas in creating them.
I wonder if Corbyn could be taken back in a time machine to the 1793-94 Terror of the French Revolution, or the Soviet Great Terror of the 1930s, or the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, and be asked to condemn with detached neutrality the “violence done by all sides”.
In the same interview Corbyn called for respect for “the independence of the judiciary and … the human rights of all”. He failed to note that Chávez and Maduro were primarily responsible for undermining both.
Questioned about his support for Maduro, Corbyn fudged:
“I gave the support of many people around the world for the principle of a government that was dedicated towards reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people.”
He omitted to mention that that same socialist Venezuelan government was now responsible for widespread starvation, rampant corruption and mass emigration.
But Jeremy of Islington is in search of socialist sainthood. He does not want the blood of any regime on his hands. He wants to go down as a peacemaker. He left it to his Corbynista Praetorian Guard to make a more forceful case for the Chávez-Maduro regime.
Over to the Corbynistas
Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted on 11 August 2017 that the violence in Venezuela is “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy, not saving it”. Unlike Corbyn, this blamed all the violence on the opposition. It also overlooked the fact that Chávez and Maduro had been more effective in undermining democracy in Venezuela than anyone else.
Chris Williamson MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP
On the following day, Williamson Tweeted: “The US and global corporations are indulging in economic sabotage in Venezuela to bring down the government”. To a degree this may be true. But the statement ignores the greater part played by Chavista populism and its power-grabbing statist socialism in bringing about the economic and political catastrophe.
Other pro-Chavista idiotas útiles include Alexis Tsipras the Greek Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon the leftist French presidential candidate, Pope Francis and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.
The erosion of civil liberties and human rights has its roots in the concentration of economic and political powers in the hands of the state, whatever the “good intentions” that originally motivated the leaders and their supporters.
Stalin the Fabian and the Stalinist Fabians
Sadly, this is an old pattern. The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union in 1931 and met Joseph Stalin. Shaw declared that Russia was becoming “a Fabian society”. This was at a time of mass famine and forced collectivisation.
George Bernard Shaw
In the preface to his 1933 play On the Rocks, Shaw defended the Russian secret police’s “liquidation” of detainees who could not give satisfactory answers to queries about “pulling your weight in the social boat” or “giving more trouble than you are worth” or had not “earned the privilege of living in a civilized community”.
In a letter published in the Manchester Guardian in 1933, Shaw and others dismissed reports of famine in the Soviet Union as “slander” resulting from a “lie campaign” against the “Workers Republic of Russia”. In fact, from 1932 to 1933, about six to eight million people died there from hunger.
Shaw subsequently attempted to justify the extermination of the Russian peasantry: “For a Communist Utopia we need a population of Utopians. Peasants will not do.” In 1936 Shaw defended Stalin’s purges and mass executions. In 1948 he declared that Stalin was “a first rate Fabian”.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were highly influential intellectuals in the British Labour Party. In 1932 they made a three-week visit to the Soviet Union. Their generally favourable impressions were reported in 1935 in their massive two-volume study, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? In the 1937 edition the question mark was removed from the title.
Their assessments of the Soviet Union were more cautious than those of Shaw, but they also denied the existence of a famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933 and they opined that the liquidation of rich peasants (kulaks) may have been necessary to collectivize agriculture and increase its productivity. Their book received favourable reviews from left writers and it played a role in nurturing sympathy in the Labour Party for the Soviet Union, at least until the onset of the Cold War in 1948.
“Humane” Mao and the “Korean miracle”
Communism achieved another victory when Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949. Professor Joan Robinson was a leading Cambridge economist, influenced by both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. An enthusiastic supporter of Mao, she visited China several times.
Despite this first-hand experience, she failed to acknowledge that Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 had been an economic disaster: it had led to catastrophic famine and about 40 million deaths. In defiance she wrote: “the Great Leap [Forward] was not a failure after all, but the Rightists were reluctant to admit it.”
In the 1960s Robinson lauded the Cultural Revolution, approving of attempts by Mao and the Red Guards to root out “capitalist roaders” within Chinese society. She praised Mao’s “moderate and humane” intentions. In fact, the Cultural Revolution led to at least half a million and perhaps as many as two million deaths.
Violent struggles ensued across the country and paralyzed the economy for years. Many more millions of people were persecuted at whim by the Red Guards: they suffered public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture or execution. Countless more died when the army tried to re-establish order. In China’s totalitarian system they had no refuge or legal protection.
As late as 1973 Robinson opposed “market socialism” and advocated a centrally-planned economy. She wrote of the “success of the Chinese economy in reducing the appeal of the money motive”. After extolling the virtues of Mao’s system, she reported that “Chinese patriotism and socialist ideology are pulling together”.
But a few years later, shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country overturned the anti-market policies that Robinson had celebrated in her writings. After accepting markets, Chinese growth took off.
In 1964 Robinson visited Communist North Korea and extolled the “Korean miracle” in its economy. She attributed its claimed success to public ownership and central planning.
But, within fifteen years, capitalist South Korea was surging ahead of its Northern neighbour. By the 1990s North Korea was experiencing mass famines. By 2010, GDP per capita in the South was about 17 times greater than in the North.
The “human face” of Soviet Communism
E P Thompson
The historian Edward P. Thompson left the British Communist Party after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and subsequently played a major part in the formation of the New Left Review. But as late as 1973 he had sufficient residual sentimentalism for the Soviet Union to write of the
“times when [Soviet] communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s, and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946.”
Leszek Kolakowski’s response to these rose-tinted words was devastating. He asked what Thompson might have meant by the “human face” of the Soviet Union during these years. Did it mean the “attempt to rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger with uncountable victims, in several hundred peasants” revolts, all drowned in blood”?
“Or do you mean the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments …? Or do you mean the dispersion by soldiers of the only democratically elected Parliament in Russian history …? The suppression by violence of all political parties, including socialist ones, the abolition of the non-Bolshevik press and, above all, the replacement of law with the absolute power of the party and its police in killing, torturing and imprisoning anybody they wanted? … And what is the most human face in 1942-46? Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims … ? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies?”
Kolakowski searched for an explanation of Thompson’s incredible description of these events as “a most human face” of Communism. Perhaps this phrase is being used “in a very Thompsonian sense which I do not grasp”? A commentator on Kolakowski’s response wrote: “no one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”
Another “distortion”: the killing fields of Cambodia
Robinson and Thompson were not the only top-rank academics to be deluded by ideology. Consider the most important linguist of the twentieth century. Noam Chomsky loathed the American war in Vietnam. For him, to hide its own acts of oppression and mass murder, the West had duped the masses with its slick corporate propaganda. The West was fascism, with a fake mask of democracy.
But when reports emerged that the Communists were also capable of mass atrocities, he suspected an American conspiracy to exaggerate and to draw attention away from their own crimes. Then the evidence emerged of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979. Chomsky accused the publishers of the evidence of “extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions”.
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields
We now know that the Khmer Rouge obliterated about two million people – a quarter of the Cambodian population – in the pursuit of their Communist utopia. Chomsky’s reputation as a political thinker has never recovered.
Conclusion: what can we learn?
The first lesson is that thousands of highly intelligent people can be political idiots. We know that unintelligent people can be idiots (and even become presidents) but the task at hand is to explain intelligent idiocy. All it takes is a good dose of utopian idealism, combined with the view that the existing system is beyond reform.
Then when the likes of Lenin, or Mao, or Kim Il-sung, or Castro, or Pol Pot, or Chávez raise the red flag, the utopian intellectual flies to the light. A dose of reality may burn the wings. But the light of intellectual hope is so important that it must remained undimmed. Consequently, events as big as famines are based on the dark capitalist forces outside, or their devious agents within.
Many intellectuals are not practical people. They have lingered in their ivory towers. They know little of running organizations or state bureaucracies. Because of their well-motivated discontent and their search for hope, they can be attracted to Corbynism and other versions of leftist populism. But those lights are dangerous. They are ignited by opposition: without practical experience or feasible solutions.
Given such centralized powers, even well-motivated leaders will be tempted to curtail dissent and bully minority interests, in the name of the many against the few. Once on this slippery slope, human rights are eroded and the politico-economic system slides toward totalitarianism.
Instead we need to look to ways to making capitalism more egalitarian and inclusive, rather than chasing the dangerous dream of its abolition. Intelligent dreamers need to use their intelligence more wisely.
14 August 2017
Minor edits – 16, 20 August 2017, 27 September, 13 December 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Barsky, Robert F. (1997) Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Hollander, Paul (1998) Bernard Shaw: A Brief Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Jones, Bill (1977) The Russia Complex: The British Labour Party and the Soviet Union (Manchester: University of Manchester Press).
Judt, Tony (2006) ‘Goodbye to All That?’ New York Review of Books, 21 September 2006.
Kolakowski, Leszek (1974) ‘My Correct Views on Everything: A Rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski”’, Socialist Register 11. See pp. 4-5. Available at http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5323/2224#.VXBUKrFwYy8.
Minney, Rubeigh J. (1969) The Bogus Image of Bernard Shaw (London: Frewin).
Robinson, Joan (1969) The Cultural Revolution in China (Harmondsworth: Penguin). See pp. 19, 35-36.
Robinson, Joan (1973) Economic Management in China 1972 (London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute). See pp. 4, 13, 37.
Shaw, George Bernard (1934) Prefaces by Bernard Shaw (London: Odhams Press). See p. 341.
Thompson, Edward P. (1973) ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, Socialist Register 10. See p. 77, emphasis added. Accessible on http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5351#.VXBrZLFwYy8.
Turner, Marjorie S. (1989) Joan Robinson and the Americans (Armonk NY: M. E. Sharpe). See p. 90.
Webb, Sidney J. and Webb, Beatrice (1935) Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (London: Longmans Green).
Although the two biggest UK political parties are very different in important respects, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives under Theresa May have each converged on different forms of pro-Brexit, economic nationalism.
Economic nationalism prioritises national and statist solutions to economic problems. Although it does not shun them completely, it places less stress on global markets, international cooperation and the international mobility of capital or labour. It believes that the solutions to major economic, political and social problems lie within the competence of the national state.
Other countries have turned in the same direction, including the United States under Donald Trump and Russia under Vladimir Putin. Previously, both Soviet-style and fascist economies have embraced economic nationalism. China has continued along this road, even after its acceptance of private enterprise and a market economy.
Economic nationalism has been used successfully as a tool of economic development, by creating a state apparatus to build an institutional infrastructure and mobilise resources. But it brings severe dangers as well as some advantages. Its reliance on nationalist rhetoric can feed intolerance, racism and extremism.
Furthermore, as it concentrates economic and political power in the hands of the state, economic nationalism undermines vital checks and balances in the politico-economic architecture.
As numerous social scientists (from Barrington Moore to Douglass North) have shown, democracy and human rights cannot be safeguarded without a separation of powers, backed by powerful countervailing politico-economic forces that keep the state in check.
From Thatcherism to Mayhem: Tory economic nationalism
In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher changed the Tory party from a paternalist party of the elite to a more radical, free-market and individualist force, embracing the ideologies of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
A logical consequence of this market fundamentalism was to embrace the European Single Market, which her successor John Major did in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. But this was too much for the Tory nationalists, who were already turning against the European Union and all its works.
The tension grew within the Tories between those that pursued international markets in the name of market fundamentalism, and those who worried that global trade and the free movement of labour were undermining the powers of the British nation state.
A compromise option – widely touted during the June 2016 EU referendum – was to exit the EU but remain in the single market. But a major implication of this was that the free movement of labour to and from the EU would have to be retained. May became prime minister and declared that Britain would leave the single market as well as the EU.
This marks a major ideological shift within the Conservative Party. The pursuit of free markets, promoted so zealously by Thatcher, has moved down the Tory agenda, in favour of nationalism, increased state control, reduced parliamentary scrutiny, and lower immigration, whatever the economic costs.
Forward together: the new-old Toryism
This shift is signalled by a remarkable passage in the 2017 Conservative general election manifesto:
“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism.”
Crucially, the Tory Party was traditionally opposed to “untrammelled free markets” and it worried about the destructive and corrosive effects of individualism and greed.
As Karl Polanyi pointed out in his classic book on The Great Transformation, the first fighters for factory and employment legislation, to protect workers from the results of reckless industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s, were from the ranks of the church and the Tory Party:
“The Ten Hours Bill of 1847, which Karl Marx hailed as the first victory of socialism, was the work of enlightened reactionaries.”1
Tories like Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, were great nineteenth-century social reformers. The Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli railed against selfish individualism, particularly in his novels. For Disraeli, British imperialism was more important than unalloyed individualism.
May has brought the Tory party back to its pre-Thatcher roots. But, less enlightened than Shaftesbury or Disraeli, she has little appetite for protective legislation or constitutional reform. Instead, she celebrates her own powers of leadership and seeks a mandate to concentrate power in her hands.
She has little enthusiasm for democracy either. If it were not for the heroic efforts of Gina Miller and the decision of the Supreme Court, the triggering of Article 50 – to start the process of leaving the European Union – would have been taken by the executive without a parliamentary vote.
Bringing the state back in: Labour’s new-old economic nationalism
At least on the surface, there are dramatic differences with Labour’s manifesto, which, for example, contains more measures targeted at the poor and elderly. Labour also gives much more verbal emphasis to human rights and democracy.
But at the core of Labour’s 2017 manifesto is a strong dose of economic nationalism, with Labour’s greatest commitment to public ownership since the “suicide note” manifesto of 1983. There are plans to bring the railways, energy, water and the Royal Mail all back into public ownership.
The 2017 manifesto declares: “Many basic goods and services have been taken out of democratic control through privatization.” But there is little explanation of what “democratic control” would mean under public ownership.
How would it work? Would parliament take decisions on everything? In reality these proposals – whatever their other merits – would enlarge state bureaucracy: there is no explanation how they would extend democracy.
The words “control” or “controls” appear 32 times in the 2017 manifesto. There is insignificant explanation of how “controls” work. The Labour manifesto envisions a concentration of economic power in the hands of the state, notwithstanding its verbal commitment to regional and local, as well as national, public management.
While there are commendable measures to enhance and enlarge an autonomous sector of worker-owned enterprises, there is little recognition of the importance of having a viable and dynamic private sector as well.
Corbyn’s Labour: forward to the past
As May has brought the Tories back to the pre-Thatcher years, Corbyn has brought Labour back to its traditional roots, before the leadership of Tony Blair.
With his 1995 changes to Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution, Blair brought in an explicit commitment to a dynamic private sector. Labour stood for an economy where “the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation”. Corbyn has returned to the spirit of Labour pre-1995 constitution, even if he has not yet changed the wording.
Corbyn has proposed that Britain can be “better off” outside the EU. He argued that EU rules block the kind of state-heavy industrial policy that he favours. But EU countries such as France and Germany already have strong interventionist policies for industrial and infrastructural development. In truth, Corbyn favours repeated doses of statist socialism in one country.
With some Stalinist exceptions in his coterie, Corbyn and his followers are mostly sincere in their commitment to democracy and human rights. But what they do not understand is that their proposed statist concentration of economic power will undermine countervailing politico-economic forces that can help to keep the state leviathan in check.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
These countervailing and separated powers are vital. Especially in times of hardship or crisis, there will be a temptation by some in power (at the local or national level) to abuse rights and undermine democracy. Every single historical case shows this result.
Attempts “to take control of the economy”, even with measures of decentralization and local power, have led to restrictions on press freedom, arbitrary detentions, abuses of human rights, and even famine.
Forward together: economic nationalists take the helm
Further doses of economic nationalism may be possible in a country as large as the United States. In 2015, exports from the USA amount to about 13 per cent of GDP. Hence economic nationalists in the USA can reduce trade without too much contraction of the economy. It may turn further inwards, cut imports and still survive a loss of exports.
But the UK has become a globally-orientated, open economy, exporting 28 per cent of its GDP in 2015. About 45 per cent of these exports go to the European Union.
By exiting the EU Single Market, and by walking away from EU trade deals with non-EU countries that benefit EU member states, Labour and the Tories would threaten the UK economy with a massive downturn. The British economy would fall off a cliff.
In this crisis, rightist economic nationalists will blame foreigners and immigrants, and leftist economic nationalists will blame the rich.
It will be “the few” – designated by their ethnicity or by their assets – who will get the blame. Their rights will be under threat, as so will the liberties of all of us. Whatever variety is chosen, economic nationalism could severely undermine the viability of democracy in the UK.
21 May 2017
Minor edits – 23, 28 May, 29 June
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Moore, Barrington, Jr (1966) Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (London: Allen Lane).
North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph and Weingast, Barry R. (2009) Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press).
Polanyi, Karl (1944) The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York: Rinehart). See esp. pp. 165-66.
There are several different kinds of populism, emanating from both the left and right. But they have in common a view that some powerful minority group are clearly to blame for the ills suffered by a majority. As Julian Baggini put it, in his excellent article on Corbyn’s populism:
‘Populism is … a way of doing politics that has three key features. First, it has a disdain for elites and experts of all kinds, especially political ones. Second, it supposes that the purpose of politics is simply to put into action the will of the people, who are seen as homogenous and united in their goals. Third, it proposes straightforward, simple solutions to what are in fact complex problems.’
Rather than enter into a discussion over political problems and details, populists accuse those who fail to support them as collaborators of the exploiting elite. They believe that the elite is the main obstacle to progress, and solutions will appear once the elite is removed. They are suspicious of experts and dissenters. They are typically vague about their own objectives: their primary aim is to unite the bulk of the population behind a leader, against the elite.
The Great Crash of 2008 undermined confidence in existing elites. For this and other reasons, populism is now on the rise, in both Europe and the USA.
Populism on the Right
The campaign by UKIP to quit the European Union was populism incarnate. Its leader, Nigel Farage, complained frequently that the elites have gained too much power over hard-working ordinary people. Furthermore, elites at the national level had allegedly handed over power to unaccountable rulers in Europe, who have allowed mass immigration and robbed the UK of its sovereignty.
Because of his focus on a nationalist solution, and his identification of foreigners as a primary problem, Farage is an example of a right populist. By championing ‘ordinary British people’ against the establishment, and relying more on sentiment than on reasoned argument or expert advice, he is populist to the core.
After his success in the Brexit referendum, Farage flew across the Atlantic to show his support for Donald Trump. At his August 2016 speech at a Donald Trump rally in Mississippi, Farage celebrated that Britain ‘chose not to be ruled by unelected old men in Brussels’. He drew parallels between the US and Britain, saying ordinary people everywhere had been ‘let down by government’. He was greeted by rapturous applause.
Trump’s rhetoric has much in common with that of Farage. Both blame immigrants for the problems in the country. Trump adds his rabid hostility to Muslims.
Corbynism as Left Populism
There are important differences between populists on the left and right. Left populists place less emphasis on the role of immigrants or foreigners: they are more inclusionary. Left populists also tend to favour greater state involvement in the economy. But elements of right populism can find their way into left movements, and vice versa.
Labour has always been more pragmatic than ideological. Although Corbyn has some Marxist theoreticians close to him, including within his Momentum Praetorian Guard, he has relied much more on populist sentiment rather than Marxist theory.
The recent growth of left populism has been triggered by the crisis within social democracy, the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, increasing economic inequality within leading economies, unaffordable housing, cuts in the welfare state and high rates of unemployment, especially among the young.
Corbynism vaguely promotes ‘socialism’, but there is no apparent agreement on what this means. There is a general suspicion of private enterprise, as well as a justified concern about the excessive power of some large corporations. When difficulties appear, public ownership is typically seen as the simple and obvious cure.
Like all populists, Corbyn rails against the elite. For him it is the rich minority and the large corporations. Like Farage, he identifies an elite that is bolstered by powerful friends abroad. But for Corbyn the most important foreign allies of the despised British elite are in Washington DC. With its anti-West foreign policy, Corbynism is Marxism-Leninism in populist clothing.
Corbynism Undermines Parliamentary Democracy
To public ownership is added the populist Corbynista slogans of ‘democratic control’ or ‘democratic management’ of enterprises. Without any detailed explanation of how this would work, it nevertheless reassures the left-populist followers that they, and not the elite, will somehow be in control. This left-populist slogan of ‘democratic control’ is seen as the obvious and straightforward way to ‘put into action the will of the people’.
Some extension of worker and community participation is desirable. But it cannot be a substitute for managerial discretion and leadership. Corbyn’s ultra-democracy is infeasible. When it threatens parliamentary democracy it is dangerous.
The Corbynistas want to shift power away from Parliament. They want MPs to follow ‘the will of the people’, which means, in practice, the implementation in Parliament of the resolutions of their local constituency parties. Inadequate heed is taken of the diverse views and interests of the electorate, and the need for expert deliberation and debate to make policy feasible and effective.
Instead of careful, empirically-grounded debate among diverse viewpoints, aimed at developing viable policies to deal with complex economic and political problems, Corbynistas are suspicious of dissent from their official line.
Instead of pluralism and extended debate, Corbynism treats the party resolution as the correct line, which all are instructed to follow. There is little appreciation of the complexity of modern politico-economic systems, and the consequent fallibility of all decision making.
Parliamentary institutions have evolved to deal with real-world complexities. They provide some mechanisms to challenge and scrutinise legislation. By moving from representative to delegate democracy, Corbynism would corrode the basic institutions of parliamentary democracy.
Any leader of any political party committed to working through parliament would resign when 80 per cent of his or her parliamentary representatives passed a vote of no confidence in his or her leadership. When this happened, Corbyn did not resign: his primary focus is not on parliament but on the populist ‘mass movement’ outside.
Totalitarian Dangers of Populism – The Example of Venezuela
The record of both left and right populism in power is abysmal. There is an important example of left populism in power, and it is close to Corbyn’s heart.
He has always had a romantic soft spot for Latin American revolutionaries. He wrote in 2011: ‘What the Cubans and … Che Guevara were preaching in the 1960s has an even greater resonance today’. This suggests that armed insurrection is appropriate, even in those Latin American countries that have become democracies.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
In 1998, the Marxist politician Hugo Chávez was elected as President of Venezuela. Using the high oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.
Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. His ‘Chavista’ populism emphasised the ‘will of the people’, against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States.
Chávez created new ‘democratic’ institutions at the base to bolster his power. In 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power. The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.
Chávez seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.
Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. The high pre-Crash oil revenues were used to address some basic needs and to buy the support of the people. These supporters were then persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the ‘socialist revolution’ against its enemies.
Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse. His government had become one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged. Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.
But Corbyn’s enthusiasm for the regime was undiminished. As late as 2015, when Venezuela was in ever-deepening crisis, he remarked:
‘we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.’
Populism in general, and the left populisms of Chávez, Maduro and Corbyn in particular, are profound threats to any enduring and viable democracy. Using Chávez as a prime example. Kurt Weyland wrote:
‘Determined and politically compelled to boost their personal predominance, populist leaders strive to weaken constitutional checks and balances and to subordinate independent agencies to their will. They undermine institutional protections against the abuse of power and seek political hegemony. Correspondingly, populist leaders treat opponents not as adversaries in a fair and equal competition, but as profound threats. Branding rivals “enemies of the people,” they seek all means to defeat and marginalize them. Turning politics into a struggle of “us against them,” populists undermine pluralism and bend or trample institutional safeguards.’
“There’s no food”
The tragic example of Venezuela is a warning to us all. Like Corbyn, Chávez started with a fairly modest economic programme, closer to social democracy than Marxist orthodoxy. But to bolster his power, Chávez extended state control. Maduro further undermined freedom of speech and put opponents in jail.
Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward despotism. Currently it retains some semblance of democracy, but press freedom is limited and critical journalists are jailed. Since 2004, ‘defamation’ of the government, including ‘disrespect for the authorities’, has been a criminal offence.
Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse. But the major cause of economic stagnation in both places is the hobbling of the private sector, and the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.
Populism must be Defeated
Although it is unlikely that either UKIP or Corbyn’s Labour will ever win power, they can do serious damage to public debate and the functioning of a parliamentary democracy. In particular, by neutering Labour as a parliamentary force, the UK is deprived of an effective opposition to the Tory government.
Consider the example of the EU referendum in June 2016. After the result, Corbyn took it for granted that Britain should leave the EU and immediately trigger Brexit, irrespective of the outcome of Britain’s negotiations on the terms of leaving. Like his fellow-populist Farage, Corbyn accepted that ‘the people had spoken’. For him, the expression of popular will was the end of the matter.
After the June 2016 vote to leave the EU, Britain is probably in its worse political crisis since the Second World War. It faces years of political and economic uncertainty, with no obvious resolution. In these circumstances, popular frustration and deprivation can feed populism. Left populism has its own dangers, and we know from history that left populists can shift to the right. In turn, right populism can feed fascism.
All populisms, including Corbynism, pose a serious threat to representative democracy. As Baggini put it:
‘Our tradition of representative democracy rests on a rejection of all three pillars of populism. It accepts that a well-run society needs specialists and full-time politicians whose judgments often carry more weight than those of voters who put them into power. It accepts that the “will of the people” is diverse and contradictory, and that the job of politics is to balance competing demands, not simply to obey them. It follows that there are few, if any, easy solutions and that anyone who promises them is a charlatan. Making the case for representative democracy therefore means telling the electorate it doesn’t always know best, a truism that populism has turned into an elitist heresy.’
Populists do not understand that political checks and balances, safeguarded by countervailing politico-economic power, are necessary to help protect democracy and liberty. With confidence in their ‘obvious’ solutions to complex problems, they treat criticism with disdain and close down reasonable discussion. All must ‘unite behind the leader’ who is revered for saving the masses from the enemy elite.
For these reasons Corbynism must be treated as a dangerous ideological threat to a liberal democracy, and not as an infantile, reversible outburst of ultra-leftism.
No-one has a feasible strategy to turn Labour back to its previous form. History offers no clear example of the internal undoing of populist fanaticism. It has always been defeated from outside. Labour is now irretrievable: there is no way of reversing the populist entrenchment within.
Corbyn’s Labour is a danger for the British political system as the Tories are for its economy and for its social fabric. Corbynism is a threat to liberal, pluralist democracy.