The Limits of Professional Socialism

There have been many third way ideologies, but Rowan Fortune argues that they all have their origins in the same political impasse and compromises.

9 May 2020


Much of life under lockdown has been taken up in a series of Zoom meetings on socialist theory. One of the more interesting I have attended, organised by local Momentum activists, took on the ideas of the Labour right; not superficially, as a rebuke, but to understand this perplexing ideology and how it comes to be. One comrade, who also provided an extensive and useful reading list, usefully posed the question for us on the left, ‘Why is it that so many left-wing socialists move to the right as they rise to more influential positions?’


A quite direct answer to this is supplied by Rad Shiba in the YouTube video ‘COVID-19 and the Left’, released on the 3rd of May, 2020. It is notable that this takes as its departure not the third way that emerged from neoliberal rule, nor even the social democracy of the Godesberg Program of the SPD (1959), which broke from the aims of Marxism prior to the third way, but with Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), who still conceived his agenda as broadly cohering with the aims of Marxist socialism. Drawing on Rosa Luxemburg’s contemporaneous revolutionary critique of Kautsky, Shiba’s video outlines the conditions for the rightward drift we continue to observe:

Kautsky at one point was at least a partial representative of the left, but as his power grew his rightward shift solidified. By the time 1909 rolled around, Kautsky was firmly opposed to the leftwing of his own party. In his words, socialism could only come about through ’the slow accumulation of forces.’ Which to him meant the growing power of state and union bureaucracy, which professed itself dedicated to socialist aims. For professional parliamentarian socialists the power of the working class can mean nothing other than the power of themselves, the supposed representatives of the working class. In the name of expanding working class power, these so-called socialist representatives increasingly set aside the interests of the working class themselves in favour of the interests of their own careers. Since preserving their position in government is the same as preserving working class power in their eyes.

In summary, professional parliamentarian socialists (many MPs, Union bureaucrats, councillors and officers within social democratic parties) confuse their caste interests, which can quickly come to lie in preserving a status quo that elevated them to an influence embedded in liberal capitalism’s institutions, with the class interests of workers, which lie in overturning capitalist society wholesale. They conflate their goal (‘the slow accumulation of forces’) with socialism.


That they do not act in bad faith, as many on the Labour left imagine, does not make the situation any easier. As with many Tory MPs such professionals probably wish to do good within the parameters of their careers and the institutions from which they securely operate, but for them their influential positions are constitutive of socialism in action and the maintenance of such positions is ultimately dependent on the maintenance of capitalist social relations. In short, for professional socialists, achieving socialism often means sustaining capitalism; to square that circle, a certain degree of sophistry is then required.


Professional politicians and their apologists have often tried to justify themselves as socialists. These justifications are variously embraced or rejected by socialist activists inside and outside of social democratic parties, dependent on the historical context—as this essay will go on to explore in more detail. It is helpful to examine some examples of such self-justification, the ideology of the different third ways of professional parliamentarian socialists. And not to do so as a moral analysis that aims to uncover the secret vices of such ideologues, but rather to grasp why these ideologies assume the positions, trajectories and outcomes that they do.


From Kautsky to Blair


Even when the project of social democracy meets with success, it is within the scope of what is permissible to the capitalist establishment, i.e. it maintains the private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. This, and not any change in the moral bearing of socialist politicians, explains the key difference between different types of third way, for instance between Butskellism and Blairism (more on each later). So while historical examples of social democratic success are often lauded as the accomplishments of socialism, Simon Hannah in his history of the Labour Party, A Party With Socialists In It, notes that the truth is more complex:

It would be wrong to portray Attlee’s government as simply a labour victory over the capitalists. The economic and social changes were not Labour’s alone; they enjoyed broad support across the establishment. The Beveridge report of 1942 was written by a Liberal. The Tory MP R.A. Butler had already introduced wholesale reform in school education in 1944. The sweeping state ownership of key industries needed for the air effort demonstrated that in times of crisis relying on the market to deliver efficiency was impossible, which made Labour’s nationalisation agenda seem far more like common sense. Planning had been necessary to ensure that production was orchestrated in such a way as to have any hope of victory against one of the most formidable war machines ever established. Public ownership was no longer seen merely in terms of class war, but as a new form of socialism that was beneficial to both workers and capitalists—all part of the national good. This consensus, known as Butskellism, was what really allowed the Labour Party to manage the state effectively.

None of this underestimates the pressures from below that propel social democratic victories. The postwar consensus had to contend with a social solidarity built through a cataclysmic world war. That solidarity was nationalist in essence, but channelled strong social demands (for healthcare, for welfare, for better working conditions), which the establishment could not easily ignore and had the means (in the form of a postwar economic boom) to comfortably permit. Butskellism, however, somehow eroded that support base; e.g. by creating an atomised, property owning middle strata that found its interests in lower taxes and marketisation of the economy, such that working class power could later be so completely dismantled by Thatcher. Moreover, and more crucially, it met with the contradictions of capitalism itself in the form of an economic crisis. Those contradictions were answered from the mid-seventies until today by what is often dubbed neoliberalism, which is currently taking on a more reactionary and nationalist bent as it now contends with further capitalist contradictions and therefore economic and ‘natural’ crises.


In his book Socialism (1988), Bernard Crick exemplifies the tendency of professional parliamentary socialism to retreat to abstract platitudes to reconcile its tensions. A gifted academic author, he tries to unify four currents of non-Marxist socialism (syndicalism, managerialism, Christian and anarchism) into a single, albeit non-comprehensive definition, which reveals a ‘common ground’, finding in this ‘tradition’ (it is a range of incompatible traditions, neatly shorn of historical context) similar ideas as those of the ‘Christian tradition and in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant’. The definition Crick gives is rooted in liberal egalitarianism and the motto of the French revolution. Echoing Crick, Michael Newman’s Socialism: A Very Short Introduction, likewise emphasises egalitarianism as the sine qua non of socialism; this conflation of socialism and equality is a common trope. For Crick:

socialism has both an empirical theory and a moral doctrine. The theory is that the rise and fall and the cohesion of societies is best explained not by the experience and perpetuation of elites (which is conser­vatism), nor by the initiatives and inventions of competitive individuals (which is Liberalism), but by the relationship to the ownership and control of the means of production of the primary producers of wealth—in an industrial society, the skilled manual worker. The doctrine asserts the primacy and mutual dependence of the values of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, and it draws on the theory to believe that greater equality will lead to more cooperation than competition, that this will in turn enhance fraternity and hence liberate from inhibition, restriction and exploitation both individual personality and the full productive potential of society.

In the breadth of Crick’s references he displays a depth of analysis. When he writes of Marx, he demonstrates sensitivity to the radical insights that motivated the German philosopher: ‘Marx was much closer to both the classical and humanist traditions and to the French Enlightenment than many of his most famous disciples.’ Unfortunately, it is on platitudes and slogans Crick’s democratic socialism rests: ‘Liberty, equality and fraternity are the specifically socialist cluster of values’. Consequently, we find the usual tangle of negative and positive liberty, equality of outcome and opportunity.


Marx rightly had little time for such abstractions, regarding them as the empty sloganeering of the ruling ideology. The fact that equality or freedom, when not applied to a concrete social problem, gives rise to such confusions and airy subdivisions is unsurprising, and should show the error of basing socialism on reified vagaries. In texts such as The Critique of the Gotha Program, we see Marx taking on the socialists of his day for such empty posturing. But the reasons for that posturing, as Luxemburg understood, were rooted in the caste interests of the socialist professionals themselves.


I Can't Believe It's Not Socialism


In ‘Socialism’, a pamphlet by Tony Blair in 1994, the soon-to-be British exemplar of the latest third way demonstrates again the limits of this politics. He begins with what looks like a dialectic. He identifies three periods: the postwar Keynesian period when the state needed to restrain the market, the neoliberal period when state power came into conflict with the needs of the individual, and his approaching third way when the market ought to be constrained by the values of ‘social justice, cohesion, equality of opportunity and community’, but without a return to the first period. Blair goes on to identify two strands within the Labour Party: Marxist economic determinism, dependent on centralised state control, and ethical socialism, which he favours. He finally argues that the postwar context exemplifies three changes: 1. globalisation; 2. the growth of the service sector and consumerism; 3. women’s role in work, the erosion of jobs for life and the development of flexible working. He argues that in this context, education for an increasingly skilled-based economy is central to raising standards of living, as well as modernising the state (restraining welfare) and developing partnerships between the state and private sector.

As Daniel Bensaid notes in ‘How Left is the Left in Europe’, the third way is not only oblivious to class forces, but is the project of the very social class that socialism in the past seeks to overcome. As with Butskellism, the third way is a project with adherents from across the capitalist establishment, in an attempt to meet problems for the national capitalisms that take it up:

Given the lack of substance of the European proto-bourgeoisie, undecided between its national roots, its transnational alliances and its European interests, social democracy has taken on the role of promoting the neo-liberal Europe of Maastricht and Amsterdam. Since the traditional parties of the European right are in crisis, it operates a power of attorney (by default, and perhaps only temporarily) over the new European imperialism. […] Europe’s middle classes are preparing for an imminent intensification of competition with Japan and the United States. Their priority is to reorganise the labour market, even if it means using “palliative measures” such as in-house training contracts and youth employment projects as a way of avoiding too sudden a deterioration in domestic markets.

In Blair’s analysis we see what happens when professional socialism collides with the limits of capitalism, armed only with the platitudes outlined by Crick and led by a section of the capitalist class rather than a self-emancipated working class. Rather than seek to understand the historical forces at play, such a ‘socialism’ tells itself a fairy tale in which postwar Keynesianism reflected only the limits of the market (ignoring that this, in its turn, was already a third way) and neoliberalism simplistically champions an abstract individual. Blair puts aside that Keynesianism worked to preserve capitalism, and that when it could not prevent a capitalist crisis it was rejected by an establishment that formerly embraced it. Blair ignores the struggles of class and caste forces in this history, because coming after the defeat of the working class he cannot see how his moment emerged out of that very defeat. He accepts a standard misreading of Marx as an economic determinist, and sees no worthwhile critique of capitalism.


Third Ways & Third Positions


Anthony Giddens’s The Third Way is a more serious attempt to ground the ideas of those who wished to marry the insights of neoliberalism with the Keynesian social democracy of Butskellism. It is strange just how proximate Giddens’s arguments for his third way are to the arguments for the fascist (‘socially regressive, economically leftist’ as the incoherent formulation goes) third position, which grappled more with the collapse of the Soviet Union and similar regimes rather than the collapse of Butskellism. Although obviously the third way and third position settle for contrary conclusions, like the third position advocates going back to so-called left-fascists (Julius Evola and Gregor Strasser), Giddens starts from a shared set of observations: that we are now met by a radical right, a defensive left, the collapse of tradition (or, for Giddens, social solidarity) and the problem of the anthropocene. Giddens turns to a poorly defined hybrid of neoliberalism and Keynesianism, whereas the third position to the typical fantasies of the far right: the unification of classes under a fatherly ethnostate.


Giddens’s third way wishes to make the ‘values and ideals’ of Marx ‘count where the economic program of socialism has become discredited.’ As with Crick, the emphasis is again on a set of values, but as with Engels and Marx’s analysis of the ‘present state of things’ in The Communist Manifesto, Giddens emphasises that we need to begin with ‘what sort of society we would like to create and the concrete means of moving towards it.’ Unfortunately, the type of society that Giddens would like, and his means of achieving it, is nothing more than the managerial socialism of the past hundred years, aligned with the goals of a ‘progressive’ section of the capitalist class: i.e. a paternalistic liberal state mitigating the worst of capitalism, unaware of the contradictions that produce capitalist crisis, while continuing along Kautsky’s plan of ‘the slow accumulation of forces.’


Such gradualism has now met with a crisis it cannot answer: nothing ‘slow’ (let alone with a history of abject failure) can contend with the mere ten years the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) insist we have left until climate disaster, the emergence of new reactionary forces from the right and an economic collapse that can only be met, on capitalist terms, by the merciless and socially destructive exploitation of workers. During the last few years, a Quixotic attempt at a neo-Butskellism or New New Dealism (the Keynesian programs of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively) emerged that ran contrary to the current interests of capital; the parliamentary parties it sought to utilise—plus a hostile capitalist media—predictably crushed neo-Butskellism. One wonders if at some future point the left could be reduced to advocating neo-Blairism in the face of something worst!

Sanders and Corbyn’s project nonetheless was still relatively radical because it contradicted the needs of capitalism (their attempt to reverse four decades of declining capitalist profitability by squeezing working people) in favour of the needs of certain exploited sections of two relatively wealthy societies. Moreover, for that very reason it would have suffered contradictions had it succeeded, and most serious socialists who became involved therefore saw it only as a potential wedge, one which could hopefully accomplish certain radical policy objectives (on opposing borders, private education, neoliberalism). Additionally, this old third way would have faced the resistance of the state apparatus on which it depended (especially a civil service now committed to neoliberal continuity), while also raising yet more people into the position of influence enjoyed by Kautsky and Blair.


Accumulation of Failures


So we might now have come to a new point at which all third ways (all ostensibly humane capitalisms) are foreclosed. It is outside the scope of this piece to examine the point in more depth, but to reiterate, capitalism faces a crisis that is historically unprecedented, one that could render the planet uninhabitable to human life, or at least unable to support advanced forms of economy. Moreover, as differently outlined and empirically demonstrated by Marxists such as Michael Roberts, Andrew Kliman and others, this comes when capitalism’s characteristic versatility and robustness seems exhausted and the means by which it is likeliest to revive (the kind of capital destruction that breathed life back into it after two world wars) would only accelerate climate catastrophe to possibly extinction levels. Given the threat, we must be prepared to think beyond Kautsky, Attlee, Blair and even Corbyn or Sanders.

We must, that is, give up on the professional seriousness of abstractions and platitudes, and be ready again to think through the living tradition of Marx, the humanist revolutionary who best described our capitalist crisis and the need to transition to something wholly other. The challenge before us—a deeply atomised, alienated society with historically weak working class power and all revolutionary traditions withered and neglected after the catastrophic failures of twentieth century—means that humility must be maintained in the face of rival solutions, but humility does not mean ignoring the catastrophic failures of every third way, from Kautsky to the Godesberg Program to Butskellism to Blairism to Corbynism. If the left insists on reenacting this history, it will amount to no more than the slow accumulation of failures.

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