Comment: Neither Corbyn nor Blair, but global social democracy and Left internationalism

Alan Johnson argues the democratic Left should be for a radical re-balancing of power and resources.

This is the first in a series of articles on the future of the British Left. To read a different view, click here.  

What if they are both wrong? What if both the social neo-liberalism of Tony Blair and the ‘Stop the War’ anti-Westernism of Jeremy Corbyn are both inadequate responses to the exhaustion of social democracy in the West from the late 1970s, and the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ in the East a decade later? Such, at least, is the intuition of some of us who will launch a new journal of the democratic Left later this year.

Beyond Corbyn

A ‘Stop the War’-shaped foreign policy is at best a useless pose and at worst a sell-out of our natural allies – democrats, liberals, feminists, free trade unionists, two-staters. Yes, ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is a good foreign policy maxim; yes, we should reject ill-conceived neoconservative interventionism of the Iraq kind.

But we remain internationalists and we do not walk by on the other side. Cheering on proxy Islamist forces as Corbyn and Livingstone do is a betrayal of our deepest values – democracy, liberty, anti-totalitarianism, gender, sexual and racial equality, national self-determination, internationalism and human flourishing.

Corbyn says the Islamist terror gang Hezbollah is ‘an organisation that is bringing about long term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.’ That is shameful of him. Actually, Hezbollah is currently propping up Assad and starving Syrians to death in the town of Madaya. The warmed-over Stalinism of the pro-Putin Seumas Milne, or Diane Abbott’s rose-tinted apologias for the mass-murdering Chairman Mao, are no better.

Instead, we need a democratic, anti-totalitarian and internationalist Left that fights with the democrats against the Islamists, not, like Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn, with the Islamists against the democrats. One that enables the human rights campaigners fighting for their lives against authoritarians, not, like Corbyn’s Stop the War, denying them a platform.

We Left-wingers need to accept there if a ‘responsibility to protect’ and we need to forge international alliances with governments and civil society actors so that we can make good on that commitment without ‘doing stupid stuff’.

We need a Left that will revere the French anti-Nazi and pro-European socialist Leon Blum, not the vicious antisemitic thugs of Hamas. We need a Left that reads Michael Walzer’s essay ‘What is Left Internationalism?’, not Socialist Worker and Mao’s Little Red Book.

Beyond Blair

But the Corbynistas get something right. And it’s something existential, for any democratic Left. Simply put, the results are now in: ‘social neo-liberal’ or ‘third way’ economic and social policies have failed to offer a genuinely progressive response to the ills of neo-liberal global capitalism.

Namely: deregulation, the unshackling of anti-social corporate power and spread of environmental degradation; financialisation, a new age of greed, the banking crisis and austerity; privatisation, the decay of the public realm, the collapse of social housing, the spread of social cruelty, the spectacular rise in inequality and the fraying of the commons; the assault on trade union and workplace rights; and the rise and rise of a crass bottom-lineism, a possessive individualism that is slowly coarsening the culture, creating a one-dimensional world in which our potential for rich individuality and co-operative sociality is strangled.

Faced with those ills, Corbyn’s supporters are crying out: ‘Let us be Social Democrats!’ But are the rest of us really listening? If the democratic Left is not for a radical re-balancing of power and resources – global social democracy – then it will die and it will deserve to die.

There is simply no meaning to a Left today that does not – as the inheritor of the promise of the enlightenment and the democratic revolutions, and as universalists standing for the ‘planetary humanism’ of Primo Levi and Paul Gilroy – believe in a radical economic policy that challenges the untrammelled and destructive power of global capitalism.

Global social democracy

An open online journal of ideas for people who want to explore a terrain beyond Blair and Corbyn will open its pages to serious thinking about two big ideas: Left internationalism and global social democracy.

We believe these two ideas should form the political horizon of a renewed social democracy in the 21st century. It’s a long term intellectual project, (the journal won’t be commenting on the latest sacking from the shadow cabinet).

Yes, these two big ideas are no more than signposts on the way toward a serious social democratic alternative to neo-liberalism and ‘Stop the War’-ism. Granted. And building an electoral coalition able to deliver them will be hugely difficult. Of course. But as I wrote in World Affairs last year:

“we democratic Leftists now know more than enough about the two roads travelled by the Left in recent decades – one marked ‘social neo-liberalism’ terminated in us being ‘intensely relaxed’ about people getting filthy rich, the loss of millions of working-class votes [and the victory of Jeremy Corbyn, we can now add]; and the other, marked ‘anti-imperialism’, ended in a reactionary cult proclaiming ‘We are all Hezbollah now!’.”

The road we have not taken is global social democracy: democratic, egalitarian, internationalist, and liberal. We should take that road, even if, like the poet, we cannot yet look down it far.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom and works for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM)

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32 Responses to “Comment: Neither Corbyn nor Blair, but global social democracy and Left internationalism”

  1. Mike B

    A sane response to the rantings we are being subjected to. As Michael Foot said There is no democracy without socialism and no socialism without democracy.

  2. Jacko

    By moving from the centre to the hard left, Labour has adopted a mathematically losing proposition at election time. You simply can’t win elections by appealing to minority sections of society, because there just aren’t enough of them.

    It’s van drivers from Luton that decide elections. It’s plumbers from Basildon. They’re not going to vote for nuclear disarmament. They’re not going to vote for people who quote Chairman Mao. Who want to abolish MI5 and disarm the police. And they’re not going to vote for people who’ve praised the IRA. It’s never going to happen.

    The people who will vote for Labour are immigrants, welfare-dependants, students, various social-worker types and lifelong Labour voters. I reckon it adds up to about 27-30% at election time. The people who voted for Blair in ’97 like myself are lost forever. And without us, you can’t win.

  3. Matthew Wilson

    I’m sorry but if you look at the political compass Labour haven’t been centre-left since 1983. Now I’ve been loyal to the party all my life, despite that, is it really that hard to ask that of others.

  4. Roger

    But if the alternative is Blairism masquerading as Social Democracy there isn’ t a lot of point really, it’s Tory or Tory Lite. Eventually the British voters will get the point and vote for Socialism, 2020 most likely after 5 more years of these gangster like muppets!

  5. Guy

    Absolute poison, mis-stating the position of all his opponents and using straw men fallacies to support the tory narrative. Deeply contemptible.

  6. Brad JJ

    Working for BICOM is a politically suicidal move.

  7. NHSGP

    The problem is that you are lost. You’ve not got a clue as to the mess that all the political parties have created in the UK.

    For example, the UK state owes 9,200 bn [present value] just for pensions. PFI, borrowing, nuclear clean up, guarantees, … all on top.

    400K of debt, rising rapidly, per taxpayer in the UK.

    All hidden and not talked about.

    So until you own up to where the pension money has gone, [It’s been redistributed along socialist principles], and that you can’t pay it, you’re toast. You’ve misidentified the cause.

    Similarly, until you work out what people could have got from investing and owning their NI, you won’t identify the cause of wealth inequality.

    But the problem is clear. You would have to admit to ripping people off, and its far easy to talk fairy tales.

  8. NHSGP

    So look at JC.

    We have red on red warfare.

    We have JC and co deciding what others should do, and that they shouldn’t rebel. Something he’s been very keen on.

    Meanwhile, the state carries on screwing people because of those debts, on and off the books.

  9. Mike B

    I agree. Having been in the party 32 years I don’t expect us all to agree on everything so importing authoritarian behaviour as is happening now is unacceptable. One huge aspect of our current arguments is having our leadership aligning itself with far right groups from around the world. In Syria as an example the tactic of trying to starve civilians by groups JC has bent the knee to is sickening. To quote a much misused phrase ‘Not in my name’.

  10. Graham Coupe

    Tosh. You Blairites are finished. No matter what the future holds for Labour it is not tinted with Blair.

  11. David Coats

    Oh dear, as usual the comments thread is populated by Tories and ignorant Corbynistas.

    I agree with much of what Alan has to say, although I think he is neglecting the important revisionist tradition in the Labour Party – which also draws inspiration of course from Edward Berstein’s exchanges with Rosa Luxemburg in early C20 Germany (no doubt Jezza is a big Luxemburg fan).

    The task, it seems to me is to find a synthesis between the new politics of the democratic (“new” soft) left that Alan describes and the views of those people (perhaps few in number today) who draw intellectual inspiration from the pre-Blair Labour right.

    It’s important to make clear that social democracy is philosophically concerned with extending the liberties available to most citizens – what Amartya Sen would call giving people the capabilities they need to choose lives that they value. Labour’s historic preoccupation with income equality has distorted the lens a bit (other inequalities may be just as important) but the general objective ought to be clear. Greater equality is an instrumental goal – we place a high value on it because it enables more people to enjoy healthier, more fulfilling and hopefully happier lives.

    The pre-Blair right were just as suspicious of untrammelled free markets as those of a more soft-left persuasion. Witness for example the Jenkinsite SDP’s critique of Thatcherism in the early 1980s and David Owen’s current views about the reform of the NHS. What the old intellectual right lacked (and now needs) was a comprehensive critique of capitalism that was itself not anti-capitalist. It makes no sense to suggest that a Labour government would do away with large corporations, investment banks or international trade, but it is equally wrong to suggest (as the New Labour position implicitly accepted) that filing the rough edges off the pre-crisis status quo was the best that we could do.

    It’s not as if figures outside or on the margins of the Party haven’t been making these arguments for years. What after all was Will Hutton’s “The State We’re In” all about? More recently, both John Kay and Adair Turner have offered radical critiques of the current orientation of economic policy. In the US both Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have exposed the limitations of the pre-Keynesian thinking that as captured parties of the right. Yet all of these thinkers are in favour of broadly capitalist economies. Or to put it differently, capitalism may have been financialised, but financialisation is a result of deliberate policy choices, not a necessary characteristic of capitalism.

    The Corbynistas don’t have much to say about any of this and probably won’t engage in the discussion, seeing it as irrelevant. For the rest of us, however, there is scope for a rich and fruitful conversation that could put the Party back on the road to recovery, assuming of course that we can persuade enough of Labour’s selectorate that Corbynism is simply defrosted Bennery minus the elements that made Tony Benn interesting.

    Good luck with the new journal. It’s desperately needed.

  12. Gerry Downing

    Some of us are pleased to see the back of narrow minded bigots like you.

  13. Cole

    And didn’t they do well in 1983? Took till 1997 to recover from that previous bout of
    Bennite self indulgence.

  14. Cole

    I suppose you’re another selfish Corbynista. Hope you’re enjoying yourself making Labour unelectable. Of course Corbynistas are just the Tories little helpers.

  15. Cole

    So these van drivers (don’t you love the Corbynista snobbery?) voted Tory in May because they really wanted Corbynism. That’s insane.

  16. Guy

    Another closed mind!

  17. Cole

    Good thoughtful post. Thank you.

  18. Cole

    Another Tory enabler.

  19. Jacko

    On the contrary, I’m broadminded. I voted Labour in 97 and 01. Lib Dem in 05. Tory in 2010 and 2015.

    So I’m one of the people who decides elections. So if you’re glad to see the back of me, you’re glad to see the back of government. Have fun indignantly waving those placards and shouting in the street whilst others run the country.

  20. Len

    Thank you Alan
    I listened to your speech and spoke to you afterwards when you visited Brighton, during the run up to the last election and as I said to you then, I wish your voice was louder countering the Tory lies and half truths.
    Now having read this your latest, you have again hit the right note with me and millions of others.
    Keep them coming and maybe our view of the direction of Labour will prevail,
    As for some of the stupid comments on this reply page just forget them they have not read your statement .

  21. Faerieson

    God help us all! So we have to cater for people who ‘think’ like you do, do we? Abandon any pretensions of progress then. That is unless you think that these respective parties offered the best alternatives in 97, 01, 05, 10 and 15.

    Why would we bother at all?

  22. David Coats

    I think you have confused your Alan Johnsons. The author of this article is not Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP.

    BTW in the 1980s and early 90s I spent far too many hours preventing the lunacies of London Labour Briefing – of which Jeremy Corbyn was a prominent member. I think you will find that the Labour tradition is too complex to be reduced to “Blairites” and “Corbynistas” – there are lots of other currents of opinion out there, which is the point this article is making. I, for one, have never been a “Blairite”, but I have always been on the centre-right of the party, I am no supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, desperately want to see a reforming Labour government and plan to stay exactly where I am.

  23. Mike Stallard

    It is all very well having great ideals.
    But how are you going to pay for them when there is the huge welfare bill, the NHS, the education system and all the other things that the left likes to gift to their vulnerable people?
    And remember we spend £84,000,000,000 on servicing the debt

  24. Jonathan

    “…deregulation, the unshackling of anti-social corporate power and spread
    of environmental degradation; financialisation, a new age of greed, the
    banking crisis and austerity; privatisation, the decay of the public

    Nothing wrong with deregulation, where regulation is stifling growth. “Anti-social corporate power” — free markets help to ensure that companies cannot act in an antisocial way. “Privatisation” – nothing wrong with that, where private enterprise delivers more efficiently. “Austerity” – where deficits are excessive, they need to be cut.

    Labour is stuck with Corbyn until they are annihilated in 2020. His replacement may be no better. That’s the way it is.

  25. ElstonGunnn

    Maybe you can explain what it means to be on “the centre right of party” David. What policies, for example, do you favour that Corbyn, and others on the left of the party, do not?

  26. David Coats

    See my post below or my article on responsible capitalism on the Progress site.

  27. OneHipNinja

    As a yankee who finds himself very distressed by the various schisms and infighting on the left, I appreciate the work going on, here. I would like to ask for a bit of clarification, and add a few comments though, in no particular order. 1) What’s wrong with Socialist Worker? 2) Aside from his apparently confused views on Islamism, what’s wrong with Corbyn? 3) What I’m seeking, essentially, is a left that respects empirical reality, is internationalist and dispenses with moral relativism in general, retains as a fundamental goal the transition to a post-capitalist/egalitarian/”small-l” libertarian/radically democratic (and decentralized) society while dispensing with poisonous and counterproductive postmodern identity politics. Is that incongruous with the stated mission, here?

  28. Janice duffy

    You’ve got it in one

  29. TN

    It’s people of your mindset that have led Labour down this path to self destruction, just because you’re obsessed with ideological purity. Thus alienating moderate voters.

    Tell us then, do you admire Chairman Mao? Do you think it’s acceptable to engage with hard left Islamist apologists like Seumas Milne?

  30. TheJustCity

    It would need to be a socialism which vigorously reaffirmed the need for secular conformity: faith schools should be closed, special pleading (like altering exam dates) for religious festivals should not once be considered. It would also have to be a socialism which stepped back from the chaos of the divisive multi-cult programme which has been instrumental in the rise of identity politics. What would need to be reestablished is a system of justice and law under which its laws are applied to all, equally – with no moral relativism or exceptionalism for certain block voters.

  31. Keith M

    Labour has not moved to the hard left it is in the process of becoming a Labour Party again after years of slavishly following neo con policies.

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