Why Labour must embrace a new revisionism

Karl Pike

Social Democratic revisionism has, as the name suggests, a history of challenging older doctrine. From Eduard Bernstein’s criticisms of early Marxism, to Tony Crosland’s objection to public ownership as the sole route to socialism, revisionism has always challenged old solutions and put forward a new political philosophy.

Crosland’s Future of Socialism – which built on work was first outlined in New Fabian Essays – was like music to the ears of many. His reinterpretation of socialism was integral to Tony Blair’s own Fabian essay on ‘Social-ism’, which put forward a pluralist ethical socialism. Revisionism has pedigree within the Labour movement and has always acted at least as a catalyst for debate – yet in truth, social democratic revisionism stopped years ago.

Since the 2008 financial meltdown, social democracy has been in crisis. This is closely tied to a stall in revisionism. When the crisis hit, social democracy was in pole position, just as it had been in times of plenty. The then Labour government led the way in responding because it knew instinctively that fiscal policy had to adapt to avert depression. Labour responded quickly and imaginatively, and steadied the global economy. To be radical was to be Labour. But then – having bravely appraised the banking failure itself and led the world in its response – social democracy stopped thinking.

In the absence of revisionism, social democrats across Europe seemed to lose their sense of mission. Social democracy was too hands-off with the market when it should have been pushing for a new deal and stronger rules in the aftermath of the crash. The centre-left was both too slow in publicly recognising the challenge of deficits and too weak in defending how best to deal with them. Since then, the European centre-left has appeared rudderless. Denying the need to bring down the deficit post-crash has resulted in the odd short term electoral success followed by long term and dangerous disenchantment, as is happening in France.

Having won the crisis, social democracy seems to have lost the aftermath. It has not shown the necessary imagination to reform capitalism post-crisis. The answer to the question of how social democrats can radically reshape our society at a time when money is tight hasn’t appeared, and people have become tired of waiting for it. The financial crisis had many victims, and the centre-left is one.

Having suffered electorally, the debate the left is currently having needs a healthy dose of revisionism to be worth its salt. One that is intellectually rigorous, grounded in an analysis of the time and challenging to multiple audiences. Labour’s thinkers must rediscover the party’s revisionist tradition. But what does that mean today? Crosland had to explain at length why “the verdict must go against the traditionalists, and in favour of revisionism”. Lulled by the obvious success of New Labour, that had been taken as a given. That is no longer the case, but there are characteristics of the revisionist mind-set that can guide us still.

The first is the criticism of confusing means with ends. It has been suggested the inclusion of the original Clause IV was part of a deal limiting the influence of the Independent Labour Party, seen then as the vehicle of the far left. That deal, however, saw the means to something – in this case public ownership to create a more equitable economy – confused with the ends of a good socialist society. One mechanism for state involvement in the economy came to be seen by many as the definition of socialism. Revisionists put the case for why it wasn’t for nearly half a century. Any new revisionism would need to make the case again for prioritising social democratic ends over means.

Second, revisionists argue for a wider application of socialist values. In the words of Tudor Jones, the revisionism of Crosland, Douglas Jay and Hugh Gaitskell ‘demythologised’ ideas that restricted socialist goals to certain parts of the economy and society. Today the challenge may stem from ‘populism’ – though it seeks to represent the underrepresented, it in fact risks leaving behind other sections of society. The journey to the ‘classless’ society today is through a majority in the country, not a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

And third, revisionists argue from the present. David Blunkett told me that too often it has seemed like Labour is always fighting the last election. Revisionism gambles on a vision of the future and tries to put its politics ahead of the curve. Crosland’s take on capitalism has since been thoroughly critiqued, but even by the late 1990s it had stood the test of time. Revisionism today must consider such things as inequality in the new economy, like barriers to access technological learning, and how we harness modern capitalism as a tool for social justice.

Labour has much of what Tony Judt called ‘usable past’, one that delivers clear lessons about when Labour can win and deliver. For too long revisionism has been criticised for appearing to offer a purely electoral message – ‘you must do this to win’ – but across Europe, that criticism is flagging. It sounds woefully thin because it is. A rediscovery of revisionism in fact offers the potential for a full and frank debate about the future of Labour.

Karl Pike is a research student in the department of politics and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is a former advisor to the shadow home secretary and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets on @p_ikek.

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