With the decline of the radical and revolutionary left, many on the left assumed political parties had had their day. The goal then was to get in amongst, build and direct social movements – whether they be anti-war, student, anti-capitalism, pro-independence etc ones. But, as it often does, history has its revenge. Party membership is now back in vogue – first with the SNP rising from 25,000 before the 2014 referendum to some 125,000 today. Then Labour membership began to rise after its defeat in the 2015 general election and has continued to rise under Corbyn’s leadership campaigns and party leadership. It is now over 500,000. Both parties also received post-Brexit boosts. The Greens in Scotland have also experience similar relative sizes of growth although not in absolute terms.
So the party is back. Guardian journalist, Owen Jones, has come in for much criticism for his snide attacks on Corbyn. But he is right on one thing. Mass ranked numbers of members do not of themselves make for mass parties if, by mass parties, it is meant active members where the centre of gravity is amongst the members and the members through debate and discussion decide and help implement policy. In the case of Labour, this is clearly a work in progress and if Corbyn, McDonnell and their allies win the day, then Labour will return not just to something of its former self in terms of party democracy and processes but hopefully something more innovative and better. Smith promises change to but this is harder to take as a genuine, long-term commitment. The SNP has long mirrored ‘new’ Labour in its managerial tightness of party organisation. Whether that will be shaken up politically and organisationally remains to be seen after the conclusion of the election of a new depute leader. The two left candidates laying out their respective wares – in response to a set of questions – in this issue both hope for change here.
But there is something more fundamental in the relationship between parties and movements. We can say for certain that political parties do contest public office through elections and social movements do not. Instead, they seek to put pressure upon the economic and political elites from without. Contesting elections does dictate a certain dynamic and way of operating (like having members, constitutions and rules). But after that, the differences between the two are somewhat illusory for political parties, if they are to be mass parties, must take on some the qualities and activities of social movements (as Labour used to be and as Corbyn no doubt wishes). That is why the Labour Party was part of the labour movement or labour and trade union movement.
Organisational forms cannot be separated from the political decisions that give rise to them but it is also worth noting that political parties are broader than social movements (even where social movements are not single issue movements) in political terms. At the same time, political parties are usually narrower than social movements are they organise around an ideology. But what both have in common is that they are collectives whose main modus operandi is mobilization of people (activists/members/supporters in the case of parties, activists/supporters in the case of social movements). This is what has to be understood if Corbyn and others are to make good on their laudable slogan of ‘people powered politics’.
Corbyn is a socialist but he is not putting forward arguments for socialism or advocating socialist policies. Instead, he is putting forward arguments for socialism democracy. Social democracy is about ameliorating the outcomes of the market through state intervention. This involves a certain amount of state regulation as well as state ownership. Social democracy can make capitalist society better but it cannot and will not do away with the capitalist system that gives rise to the vast inequalities in wealth, power and life chances. So, social democracy is not about ending or abolishing the market whereas socialism is. Socialism is the rule by majority of citizens – namely, workers – of a society built in their image and for their benefit. It is not a society run for ‘the benefit of all’ as this currently includes capital and bosses. Society would then be based on ‘need’ and not ‘greed’.
Is this splitting hairs? Is this getting ahead of oneself in an ultra-left fit of pique? Maybe, given how far the left has been forced to retreat in the last forty years and given the continued dominance of neo-liberalism. And, maybe, in terms of the practical task of having to build a bridgehead from where we find ourselves now.
But there needs to be intellectual clarity on this (as on the aforementioned relationship between political party and social movement). The relationship between reform (social democracy) and revolution (socialism) is straightforward in theory and less so in practice. To get to revolution, we need reforms (over and above the fact that they make lives better) because they are potential staging posts to revolution – and struggling for them builds capacity for going further. There are dangers here, however. Sometimes reforms can become the end in themselves and socialists are often not fully open about their visions and strategies (like whether reforms are part of a longer transitional or a bigger transformational project). These are issues the socialist movement has had to confront since its beginnings in the early nineteenth century. They were not resolved by the splitting of the socialist movement into reformist and revolutionary camps in the run up to and after the October 1917 revolution in Russia.
Despite proclaiming to be socialists, and in a similar vein to Corbyn, Bernie Sanders in the USA and Podemos in Spain, the most that was offered by them was social democracy (and not socialism). In his article, Gerry Friedman makes the argument that by Sanders not offering more, this held his campaign and levels of support back. This echoes one of the longstanding beliefs on the radical left, namely, more than piecemeal reforms are needed to inspire and motivate citizens and workers. The argument usually then moves to when is or is not the most appropriate time and place by which to raise such truly radical demands.
Returning to the subject of the SNP, at least Labour is advocating social democracy (although with Owen Smith there are doubts about the veracity of his commitment). With the SNP, it’s case of it proclaiming to be social democratic but not acting as such. Since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister, the only examples of state intervention to change market outcomes have been temporary ownership of Tata steel and the proposal to take £100m of council tax revenue from the richer areas and give to the poorer areas. The latter is a particular dubious example given how underfunded councils are and that much of this is a result of SNP policy to restrict how much councils can raise by this tax. Currently, the SNP seems to talk an awful lot in order to hide that it’s doing very little on this score. Some have suggested the SNP can only play this game for a few more years before people start seeing through it.
So, and as has been argued before in editorials and articles in previous editions of Scottish Left Review, the SNP represents ‘neo-liberalism with a heart’ and not social democracy. This is why not only is the depute leadership contest significant but so too was the launch of SNP Socialists on Saturday 20 August at the STUC in Glasgow. One of the founders, Rory Steel, explains what they seek to do in this issue. Until the left organises itself in the SNP, the party will remain centralised, top-down and not even social democratic.
Lastly, we promised more Brexit coverage in this issue. We have only one dedicated article this edition because it is still not clear yet what Brexit will look like in terms of immigration levels and controls, the free movement of labour, security and trade deals (not just with the EU but all other nation states/economies) and so on. We shall return to these issues when appropriate. But in the meantime, and given the option was ‘stay’ or ‘leave’, there is an arguable case to have another referendum on whether there is support for the negotiated terms of exit with the EU given that these could vary so much. If there was a rejection of these terms, it would be an open question of whether there should be a return to negotiations to gain terms that are sufficiently favourable to be put again to a referendum or whether there should be another ‘in/out’ referendum.