Letter: The “strategist-dilettantes”

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 20 November, 2019 - 11:19 Author: Stuart Jordan
Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’s poll ratings will be important in convincing those who argue that we should support the candidate most likely to beat Trump (see Eric Lee’s article Can Sanders win? ).

But Sanders’s success will also require winning over the “anyone but Trump” tendency to more principled socialist politics.

The “anyone but X” tendency is a longstanding feature of left politics the world over. The argument that we should pick policies and personnel solely because they appear most likely to defeat the right is a corrosive force in working-class politics, and in recent years has been electorally disastrous.

Independent working-class politics requires policies and spokespeople that can build working-class power, not just win on any basis. Its a subtle distinction, but one that needs to be sharply drawn if we are renew socialist politics.

In his autobiography, Trotsky describes how in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution the party became flooded with “strategist-dilettantism”. It is a neat phrase that describes a dominant trend of triangulation and vote-chasing within the left today. In Britain, it defines the political DNA of Blairism, but is also a powerful trend amongst Corbyn’s supporters.

Strategist-dilettantism elevates strategy above all political principles. Its unthinking assumptions are that principled working-class politics are unpopular; tactical manoeuvres, triangulating, and vote-chasing are more popular. This method implies it is not possible to win political arguments and change people’s minds (or at least our capacity to do this is limited).

The start and end of political wisdom is some ill-defined supernatural power to divine public opinion. Unsurprisingly, whichever strategist-dilettante you happen to be talking to, it is they who possess this supernatural power. Political debate between these people is often simply competing claims about what “ordinary working-class people” think.

Corbyn and Sanders have had successes when they have ignored this tendency and argued for principled politics. In more recent years, the strategist-dilettantes in the Corbyn camp have got the upper hand, as evidenced in the triangulated position on Brexit and immigration.

Defenders of the leadership line only ever argue on the basis of strategy, never from political principles. There is no principled position that justifies Corbyn’s Brexit stance. Yet apparently, anything other than the leadership’s promises to negotiate a soft Brexit and increase immigration controls will lose votes.

There is an implicit acceptance that this approach is failing as Labour attempts to redefine the political terrain of this general election to talk about “anything but Brexit”. The fact that the same people who argued for the current Brexit position now argue we should shout about other things shows the vacuity of this strategist-dilettante method.

The experience of Labour’s policy on Brexit and more strikingly, the fate of many European social democratic parties, suggests that the strategist-dilettantist approach continues despite overwhelming evidence that it is failing. It seems likely that as parties slip further and further into electoral oblivion, the tendency hardens, as a dwindling number of activists scramble for the magic formula of popularity.

For socialists, strategist-dilettantism is a tricky tendency to confront. Those of us arguing for principled working-class internationalism can easily be portrayed as those who are least interested in winning power and least interested with the realities of working-class opinion.

It is difficult to argue with people whose can only justify their politics by repeated assertions that their politics are popular (often despite evidence). It is difficult to argue both that triangulated politics are unpopular and that a political strategy that is purely about winning power, is the least likely to be successful.

A full-throated socialist message is likely to be more popular but even if it was less popular then it remains the only way of making socialism. It is not that socialists are indifferent political strategy, to mass political opinion or to winning power. It is that strategy should be secondary to politics, rather than vice versa.

We do not have a good description for this tendency which infects even the best militants at times and is a conduit for bourgeois politics into the workers’ movement. The old Marxist label of “opportunism” does not quite capture it. Trotsky’s phrase is clunky but may be worth reviving.

In the next few months in Britain and the USA, the left will be drawing up a balance sheet. It seems to me that we will be in a better shape if we can better define “strategist-dilettantism” and draw out the distinctions between this tendency and the politics that can rebuild working-class power.

Stuart Jordan, London

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