What Now for the Left?

Updated: Feb 12

Neil Faulkner argues that the Lexit Left is now collapsing into nationalism and we must build a New Left based on internationalism, climate revolution, and solidarity with the oppressed.

31 December 2019.

When I heard that the Remain motion had been defeated at the Labour Party conference in September 2019, I emailed a small group of close political friends to say, ‘We have just lost the general election.’

I now think I was wrong: I now reckon the damage at that point was already beyond repair. I think the Left suffered its decisive defeat in the EU referendum of June 2016.

Until then, the argument was that Brexit was the project of the Far Right – specifically, the project of Farage and UKIP, and of Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg, and the Tory Right. It was the British expression of the wave of nationalism and racism sweeping the world; a wave represented elsewhere by authoritarians such as Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Orbán, Salvini, and so many others.

The rampaging corporate power, the grotesque siphoning of wealth to the top, the stagnation in living standards, the screwing of the poor, and the decay of public services unleashed by the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s – ratcheted up since the 2008 crash – has hollowed out the political centre. The response of the Right has been a post-2008 political turn to nationalism and racism – in crude terms, an attempt to deepen the split inside the working class, so as to prevent the struggle for social reform achieving critical mass in the context of chronic capitalist crisis.

A far-right coup

This has been an astonishingly successful operation. It is an alliance of billionaires and bigots to capture the allegiance of millions of ordinary people for a reactionary programme that is not in their interest. Its effect is to stabilise a deeply dysfunctional world economic system, and secure the property, privilege, and power of the international ruling class.

Why do I now think the 2016 referendum result was decisive? Because afterwards, the Brexiters could argue that they had a democratic mandate, and that attempts to overturn the result simply confirmed the contempt in which working-class voters were held by a conspiracy of pro-Remain Brussels bureaucrats, Westminster politicians, liberal metropolitan elites, and ‘politically correct’ leftists.

Brexit was no longer simply about nationalism and racism: it was now copper-bottomed by a proto-fascist ‘people against Parliament’ populism. The split in the working class – between an essentially progressive, internationalist, outward-looking, multicultural, more youthful Remain bloc, and an essentially reactionary, nationalist, white, ageing, ‘left behind’ Leave bloc – was consolidated around a fake populist argument about ‘democracy’.

Managed democracy

Their ‘democracy’ is, of course, the managed democracy of the press lords, the spin doctors, the shady think tanks, the online conspiracy theorists, the algorithm wizards, and their multi-millionaire funders. It is not the democracy of self-organisation from below, of independent working-class activity, of a mass social movement. It is a process of ideological manipulation acting upon an alienated but atomised, passive, disempowered mass.

The Johnson regime now joins the legion of other far-right regimes across the globe. The Tory Party has been purged of what Thatcher used to call ‘the wets’ far more thoroughly than she ever managed. They were effectively sacked and then smashed by official candidates in the general election. Johnson is the leader of a Tory Right that is now absolutely dominant in the party.

The rundown of public services, the sell-offs to private contractors, the unleashing of corporate power, the further enrichment of the very rich: all this will now be on fast-forward. The reactionary mass base will be appeased by dog-whistle racism: police round-ups of migrant workers, high-profile border stunts, criminalisation of travellers, Islamophobic framing of stories about ‘terror cells’ and ‘grooming gangs’, and much more.

The 2019 general election will probably turn out to have had as much significance as that of 1979 – representing a sharp qualitative shift to the right. How the Left responds will be critical. And that will depend on how the Left understands what is happening.

Organisational conservatism

Political organisations rarely admit fault. They are built around a set of ideas and a routine of activities. Their members are shaped by these ideas and activities, with the more committed members and those in leading positions more definitely shaped than the rest. In short, political organisations are inherently conservative.

An ideological trajectory, once launched, has its own momentum; it is exceptionally difficult for a political organisation to change course mid-flight. Too much is at stake: confidence in the leadership, in ‘the line’, perhaps in the whole raison d’être of the organisation. It is hard for an individual to admit fault, harder for a leader, hardest of all for an entire organisation of leaders, activists, and members to do so.

The Lexit Left got things hopelessly wrong at the time of the 2016 EU referendum, arguing that a ‘Left Exit’ from the EU was possible at a time when: a) the working-class movement was perilously weak; b) Brexit was transparently a project of the Far Right; and c) a wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism was sweeping the world.

As we now know, the Leave vote in the referendum led first to a Brexit Party surge in the 2019 Euro elections, then a Tory victory in the 2019 general election. Leavers voted first for Leave, then for Farage, finally for Johnson: this was the electoral mechanism by which the working-class vote was split so as to deliver a far-right government.

Towards a New Left?

But the Lexit Left is incapable of learning any of the lessons of the last three years. And because it compounds instead of correcting a central political mistake, it finds itself on a political trajectory away from internationalism, anti-racism, and solidarity with the oppressed towards some form of nationalism. It is, in short, collapsing rightwards.

It does this in a contradictory way, with stops and starts, with caveats and backtracks, but the direction of travel is clear – towards some form of British socialism (as if any such thing is remotely conceivable in the early 21st century), towards an abandonment of free movement in favour of immigration controls (with the implication that migrants are the problem), and towards de-prioritisation of international solidarity (with the Palestinians, for example) and the climate crisis (the supreme example of an issue beyond any meaningful solution within the framework of the nation-state).

This is a broken Left fit for nothing but its own dissolution. But the political degeneration of the organisations of the Old Left compels us to face the task of building the organisations of a New Left.

Organisation is the mediation between theory and practice. The ideas of internationalism, of consistent anti-racism, of a global anti-fascist struggle, of the worldwide unity of the oppressed, of a global struggle for equality, democracy, peace, and, not least, sustainability, these must be embodied in organisation to take effect.

Above all, to save humanity and the planet, we are going to need to build an international mass movement to overthrow the system, terminate the process of competitive capital accumulation, and rebuild the world on the basis of popular power, zero growth, wholesale redistribution, and green energy.

The collapse of the Old Left into Brexit nationalism could hardly be more absurd and irrelevant.

Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist, historian, and author of A Radical History of the World.

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