Why the “New Socialism” is wrong to be top-down


12:31 pm - December 3rd 2010

by Don Paskini    


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John Harris and Neal Lawson have written a very long article on the Compass website claiming that it is time for “The New Socialism”.

After painting a gloomy picture of the current situation, they write:

“So where is the light? It comes from two places: from leaders, and from people. Both tell us that it is both feasible and desirable to renew social democracy – socialism even – but that renewal must be truly transformative. It cannot be about a change of direction, but a paradigm shift to a very new form of left politics.

Let’s start at the top.”

No.

If you want to talk about a New Socialism, then absolutely and fundamentally you do not “start at the top”. Apparently “among writers, thinkers and activists outside parliament, a new socialism has been cohering for the best part of five years”. What Harris and Lawson don’t realise is that this is the problem, not the solution.

After paragraphs of praise about how imaginative they and their friends have been, with a bit of sucking up to Ed Miliband, Harris and Lawson don’t discuss how ordinary people have been involved in the development of the new socialism, beyond an anecdote about how managers and cleaners alike would like to get home from work in time to read bedtime stories to their children.

This article, and Lawson and Harris’ entire approach, could do with a big dose of “show, don’t tell”. They tell us about how the New Socialism will be an alternative to the crisis of social democracy, but they don’t show any evidence for this.

Jon Cruddas, who has been involved in developing all this stuff, was in a tough re-election campaign earlier this year. The logic of Harris and Lawson’s analysis is that his campaign should have been about an alternative to materialism which emphasises caring and sharing, action on climate change, electoral reform, user involvement in public services and making the tax case for the public sector.

Suffice to say that none of these were major features of Labour’s campaign in Dagenham and Rainham.

The process of grassroots campaigning, of trying to persuade people, involving them and reshaping ideas and policies in line with their priorities, is absolutely vital. Rather than being a top down project, where a few influential people persuade the leader of the Labour Party to adopt their ideas, New Socialists need to get out into neighbourhoods across the country – building from the roots, getting their power by persuading people to vote from them, rather than from pamphlets.

No one should take seriously claims that the “New Socialism” is a better electoral alternative to social democracy/New Labour/Labourism until leading “New Socialists” actually make use of these supposedly popular arguments and win elections with them.

I’m sympathetic to some of the ideas which Harris and Lawson put forward. But until the New Socialism is shaped by people at the grassroots, rather than just being a project of “writers, thinkers and activists”, then it is at best irrelevant and at worst harmful.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Reader comments


How about taking a look at anti-collectivist and anti-statist forms of socialism e.g. anarcho-syndicalism?

Excuse my cynicism Dom but, even if they did cut and paste a couple of bits where they say they’re taking on board a couple of things “people at the grassroots” said, I still think it would be purely a presentational matter.

I think given the current state of affairs the best idea I’ve heard in the last 5 months has been Ed Miliband’s endorsement of the “Living Wage”. Funny though how so little has been said about it since he became Labour leader. Then again he’s probably overworked with twitter messages about inviting people to stay warm?

3. gastro george

@1

OT, and not wanting to be a pedant, but anarcho-syndicalism is anything but anti-collectivist, seeing as one of it’s main proponents was the giant Spanish CNT trade union.

Don,

Whilst I tend to agree with you that top-down is not the best way to determine a political philosophy, is it worth me pointing out that most socialist philosophies are in fact top-down in origin? They are generally developed by the thinkers and then adopted (albeit the thinkers may pick up on practices they have encountered). This is just another example of the left-wing tendency to try to retreat to re-envisioning the project whenever there has been a reverse (to be fair, right-wingers, liberals, libertarians, anarchists and the Tooth Fairy (probably) are all guilty of the same thing to some extent).

5. gastro george

I think that Don is jumping the gun a bit. John Harris is anything but a top-down bloke – he’s one of the few voices that actually gets out to the population and reflects what he’s hearing.

It strikes me that the article is more an argument for the development a new ideology – but that doesn’t have to be top-down. In fact Don takes his quote “Let’s start at the top” out of context. It immediately follows: “So where is the light? It comes from two places: from leaders, and from people.” So the quote doesn’t infer that everything should be top down, but that the approach needs both, and this is just the first of two items to discuss.

I’d agree with 1 taking on board Gastro George’s correction at 3: anarcho-syndicalism isn’t anti-collectivist – otherwise the ‘syndicalism’ bit is meaningless.

Getting people elected at local level isn’t ‘grass roots’ enough – its still only selecting leaders who make decisions that have more consequence upon others than themselves.

My comment on #2 was prior to reading the whole piece.
On balance I do think the “let’s start at the top” was taken totally out of context.
I also agree with gastrogeorge that John Harris has long been one of the few pro-Labour writers who’s strived to keep in touch with people’s real problems throughout the Blair years.

an alternative to materialism which emphasises caring and sharing, action on climate change, electoral reform, user involvement in public services and making the tax case for the public sector.

Yep, that’s top down thinking all right. But it’s an agenda that might appeal to the odd Islington vegan not a recipe for reconnecting with Labour’s core constituency.

Of course, if it had really come from the bottom up, the agenda would be stopping immigrants from stealing jobs, ending multiculturalism, punishing criminals properly and letting people smoke in pubs again.

If you feel like disputing this, I suggest you rerun Gillian Duffy before you do.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14f3aOC929w

I agree with @1’s suggestion of anarcho-syndicalism, but it needs a snappier name (I’m afraid) if it’s going to catch on in any way.

“New Socialism” is doomed for the simple reason that people associate “New” with the failed Blair project and “Socialism” with what our pals at the Mail call the loony left.

Words are important.

“, is it worth me pointing out that most socialist philosophies are in fact top-down in origin?”

Its more the other way around, the original thinkers were very much in favour of workers control, co-operatives etc, but then it evolved to be instead of advocating “workers control”, to advocate nationalisation so the state would run things on behalf of the workers. Which is also the point in which it became nasty.

As for me, I’d drop the label. If you invented a new drug for morning after sickness, you wouldn’t call it “new thalidomide” would you?

But aside from branding, I agree with this approach – it needs to be grassroots and bottom up. But I suspect Pagar and I have different views as to what that actually means……….

11. Marcus Warner

Compass’ problem is more fundamental than the latest thinkpiece. Ultimately it should de-couple from the Labour Party and genuinely be a centre left movement for all parties and those of none.

It was hugely frustrating as a lapsed member of Compass and now Plaid Cymru member to see Compass hardly mention the fact that Plaid were going into the general election with Compass policies. The problem is that Compass’ defines it ideology against New Labour, this is turn makes them appear radical. The fact is that for many of us centre left but not Labour, Compass’ ideas and general themes are normal, not part of the ‘the left’.

Compass should be using examples of other parties in Government bringing in policies they believe in.

I am not saying it should ignore Labour – but it is wrong of them to ignore the Greens, SNP, Plaid etc despite them actually bringing Compass like policies into Government. It will also surely highlight the very progressive aim of pluralistic politics and voting.

Compass won’t improve until it stops being defined by New Labour.

12. Marcus Warner

““, is it worth me pointing out that most socialist philosophies are in fact top-down in origin?””

Guff. Decentralised socialism, syndicalism etc is the opposite to that.

Marcus, completely agree. I’d go further and argue that a grassroots movement needs to be de-coupled from political parties, and simply use political parties as tools to achieve specific goals and more generally changing political culture and the rules of the game in which parties operate. i.e. advocate tactical voting against authoritarian, anti-science MPs, conduct strategic campaigns for de-centralisation of the UK (it is far easier to influence a local or regional decision maker than a national one) , and be involved in several single issue campaigns.

3 & 6 – agree that anti-collectivist was probably the wrong term. I suppose I meant anti top-down.

Marcus/Planeshift,

Please note my use of the word most. I am aware that socialism has grass-root movements as well.

But as a philosophy, socialism (as opposed to collectivism) rarely developed on the factory floor or in the field, but rather in the drawing room and the ivory tower. The framework that working men suggested was elaborated into theories by the thinkers.

A way to look at this is to answer this question. How many of the original strands of socialist thought come directly from the unions rather than from someone who supported their aims? As a philosophy (but not a movement) socialism is as elitist as any other movement – perhaps by definition, for if their is a need for socialism, those who stand to most benefit from it are those most likely not to have the education or time to engage in philosophical discourse on politics. And therein lies the central paradox – if Don was to be taken to be saying (and this is not my reading) that he believes the future form of socialism should be determined by those it seeks to serve, would not the successful production of a philosophy indicate that it was likely that socialism had already succeeded?

Planeshift @13,

You have (up to the point when you started getting specific about policy) just advocated creating the Tea Party you realise?

And I would suggest that a grass-roots movement that was engaged against anti-science MPs would either be in a much more scientifically literate future or would perhaps be rather selective about which grass it was representing. Are you seriously telling me the burning issue for many people on the streets is MPs with an anti-scientific bent? For all getting rid of Nadine Dorries would be enjoyable…

” just advocated creating the Tea Party you realise?”

Hardly, the tea party isn’t decoupled from political parties, but merely the grass roots arm of the republicans that started getting uppity.

“would perhaps be rather selective about which grass it was representing.”

Well yes, in the sense that no movement can encompass people that disagree with it. You are right that anti-science MPs are not a burning issue at the moment, as Evan Harris found out – it is a disadvantage. But the point is surely to grow a movement to make it significant – if we were currently politically significant enough to get rid of dorries there wouldn’t be a need for this discussion would there?

Planeshift,

Hardly, the tea party isn’t decoupled from political parties, but merely the grass roots arm of the republicans that started getting uppity.

That ignores the fact that just under a fifth of members self-identify as Democrats and more as independents. Also, in the US being registered with one party or the other is not the same as being a member in Britain, so you have a much wider range of people. And the key point was that the Tea Party was not organised within the Republican Party, but rather outside it, and it was Republican party insiders who were the first victims (Sunny may like to portray the fact that many Tea Party candidates lost their elections as a defeat for them, but remember that they had already displaced establishment Republican candidates in exactly the way you advocate doing – they were not concerned with winning outright so much as defeating at least some of the establishment and getting their anger across).

And I would support a movement to promote scientific knowledge amongst MPs (and also the essentials of non-scientific knowledge – the historical and sociological ignorance of some MPs upsets me, and to be honest and élitist, I despair about some MPs literacy and numeracy (OK – that might be scientific…)). Although maybe it would be better to promote MPs who can think without the help of the Daily Mail or the teachings of some old, possibly bearded, man? The problem with this is though that it would be an obviously élitist grass-roots movement and might serve to motivate the luddites and the ignorant (and their front men) to campaign the other way. Which would make for some mutually unsatisfactory debates…

I’m afraid that I don’t think it’s a good idea to take notes on a new socialism from the media. It looks to me as if the entire discourse of that piece is led by right wing ideology.

Don’t worry (about economic growth – that’s so *yesterday*), be happy…

Hmmmm…good luck with that, Compass.

” fifth of members self-identify as Democrats and more as independents”

Thats actually LOL territory. A bit like immigrants voting BNP really. It may well be the case that a fifth of them are too stupid to realise the political party they self-identify with is largely opposed to the goals of the movement, but by and large the tea party is the equivelant of an attempt to put right wing republicans in. I doubt the tea party has ever, or will ever, tell its supporters to vote democrat.

Think of it like the trade unions funding left wing labour party candidates. What I’m arguing is that the grass roots movement I’d like to see tactically supporting candidates of whatever party is closest to their views – which may mean lab, lib dem, plaid cymru, green who-ever.

“obviously élitist grass-roots movement ”

And the winner of oxymoron of the year is…….

22. gastro george

@17, 18

Isn’t the Tea Party much less than that? It’s a lot of Littlejohn/Clarkson types with a rather wide ranging and often incompatible set of complaints who have been picked up by a couple of billionaires and Fox News and turned into celebrity politicians.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    What's wrong with Compass' "New Socialism" http://bit.ly/eTMub0

  2. Don Paskini

    RT @libcon: What's wrong with Compass' "New Socialism" http://bit.ly/eTMub0

  3. Rory Macqueen

    I see Neal Lawson is still talking self-regarding shite http://bit.ly/eTMub0

  4. Robot J. McCarthy

    Commie Chameleon RT @jeff_wode I see Neal Lawson is still talking self-regarding shite http://bit.ly/eTMub0

  5. Robot J. McCarthy

    Ra Ra Rasputin RT @libcon What's wrong with Compass' "New Socialism" http://bit.ly/eTMub0

  6. Tom Davies

    RT @jeff_wode: I see Neal Lawson is still talking self-regarding shite http://bit.ly/eTMub0

  7. Rachel Hubbard

    Why the “New Socialism” is wrong to be top-down | Liberal Conspiracy: http://bit.ly/ffbANu via @addthis

  8. Rachel Hubbard

    Why the New Socialism is wrong to be top-down | Liberal Conspiracy: http://bit.ly/ffbANu via @addthis

  9. MS

    Why the “New Socialism” is wrong to be top-down | Liberal Conspiracy http://bit.ly/h7iF02 — Keeping Watch





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