In and Against the State

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1692 ... October 24, 2018

In and Against the State

Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin

Just a few years ago, it would have seemed most unlikely that developments in the British Labour Party would attract widespread international attention among those looking for the renewal of socialist possibilities in the 21st century. That this is the case today is a credit to the enthusiasm and creativity of a new generation of socialist activists in Britain and the political perseverance and dedication of a coterie of long-committed socialists around Jeremy Corbyn. Yet if the election of a Corbyn government in Britain is not to be quickly followed by profound disappointment on the left internationally, as was the case with Syriza in Greece, British realities need to be kept in sober perspective.
It is important to appreciate the very limited extent to which socialist commitment has, so far, taken shape as socialist strategy inside the Labour Party. At best it might be said that socialists in the leadership and at the base are engaged in trying to shift the balance of forces inside the party, and outside it in relation to the unions and social movements, so as to bring the party to the point that a serious socialist strategy might be developed.

Labour’s 2017 election manifesto, with its radical articulation of an economic programme ‘for the many, not the few’, represents a conspicuous turn away from neoliberal austerity and the accommodation of New Labour governments to the Thatcherite legacy. Although not official party policy, the stress the party’s Alternative Models of Ownership report put on the role of municipal public ownership and procurement policies to nurture worker and community co-operatives was designed to encourage broad discussion of new socialist strategies. Also revived was the concern, voiced by the Labour left since the nationalizations of the 1945 government, to avoid the replication of top-down corporate management in publicly-owned enterprises by encouraging new forms of industrial democracy as well as accountability to ‘diverse publics’.

Yet this clearly falls well short of representing a strategy for achieving a transition from capitalism to socialism, whether as conceived in the old Clause Four commitment to ‘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’; or as it was later more vaguely put on the Labour left as taking over ‘the commanding heights of the economy’. No less important, proposals for the expansion of co-ops and workers’ control at the enterprise level, while legitimately raising the potential transformative contribution of workers’ collective knowledge, underplay how far workers’ actual capacities have been constricted under capitalism. Moreover, the emphasis on decentralized forms of common ownership usually skirts the crucial question of how to integrate and coordinate enterprises, sectors and regions through democratic economic planning processes, which are necessary to avoid reproducing the types of particularistic and dysfunctional competitive market behaviour that socialists want to transcend.

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