Two sessions in the Momentum fringe event — The World Transformed — at Labour Party conference (24-28 September) discussed major strategic questions.
In a debate on “parliamentary socialism”, Leo Panitch gave a polished exposition of Ralph Miliband's theory on the question.
Miliband argued that Labour was unlikely to win socialism because it was “dogmatic” about remaining within the limits of the existing state structures. Panitch qualified that by saying that the problem is not so much a specific Labour dogmatism, but can be seen also in the records of Syriza in Greece and the Workers' Party in Brazil. The core issue is simply that overthrowing capitalism is so very “difficult”.
He dismissed “insurrection” as a copying from Russia in 1917, unworkable in advanced capitalist societies, and recommended “revolutionary reformism”, which would transform the state bit-by-bit alongside transforming the economy bit-by-bit.
Of the other platform speakers, Hilary Wainwright and Max Shanly did not really address the issue. John McDonnell made a crowd-pleasing speech, but with little precise in it other than, oddly, a call for PR.
I said from the floor that to choose “parliamentary” socialism, in the sense of a reform effort which refuses to challenge the entrenched, unelected powers that constrain and neutralise parliament, is not to choose a safer or more democratic road to the same socialist goal. It is to scale down and abandon the socialist goal itself.
The first task in the Labour left is to reinstate that goal — to talk about expropriating the banks, for example, and not just a national investment bank.
And “insurrection”? To exclude that is to assume that the capitalist tiger can be skinned claw by claw without crises in which it strikes back violently, or is forcibly disabled from doing so.
The short time for discussion from the floor, and the lack of a sharp clash of views on the platform, left me with little sense of audience opinion in that debate. In the packed debate on a “progressive alliance”, I think the majority was for it.
The chair, Neal Lawson of Compass, who also spoke substantively, defined the “progressive alliance” as an electoral deal by Labour with the Greens, SNP, and “some” Lib Dems.
Some saw the “alliance” as an agreement in first-past-the-post seats to have one of the allies represent the “alliance” in that seat, and presumably also for coalition government; others saw it as depending on PR and thus being deals for exchange of second preferences and for coalition government.
Many speeches, though, were made as if the only question were relations between Labour and the Greens. Jon Lansman of Momentum, speaking against the “progressive alliance”, had dealt with that by saying that Labour should invite the Greens to merge, maybe by adopting a semi-autonomous status within the Labour Party similar to what the Co-operative Party now has.
That was right, I think; sadly, Lansman followed up by saying that, though he was against purges, he was for no similar opening to the left, claiming that “Momentum has shown Trotskyism to be more irrelevant than ever”.
Actually, people close or relatively close to the Trotskyist left made the most “relevant” speeches. Rida Vaquas, from the floor, said that Labour's distinctive quality is its roots in the working class, and that should not be deflected by an alliance such as Lawson proposed. Rhea Wolfson was the only platform speaker who defined what “progressive” must mean if we are to use it as a criterion in politics: socialism!
Michael Chessum of Momentum took the floor to say he disagreed with Lansman and favoured a “progressive alliance”. Afterwards, Chessum told me that he meant only cooperation between Labour and Greens; but then he should have said it was Lawson he disagreed with, not Lansman.
Caroline Lucas got a warm reception speaking for the “progressive alliance”. She presented it mostly in general terms of pluralism and inclusive approaches, and was silent on the SNP and the Lib Dems.
Clive Lewis, one of Corbyn's chief Shadow Cabinet allies, was due to second Lucas, but didn't make it.
If high-ranking shadow ministers, and much of the audience at such a meeting, favours “progressive alliance”, then socialists need to insist that the debate is pursued and clarified.