Bring back the Institute for Workers’ Control
Corbyn’s leadership could open up space for a much broader political conversation, especially on economics, than has been possible in the UK for many decades. In his first conference speech as Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell pledged that Labour would ‘promote modern alternative public, co-operative, worker controlled and genuinely mutual forms of ownership’ (McDonnell, 2015). At precisely the point when it appeared at its weakest historically, the Labour New Left has been granted an unexpected afterlife. It is greatly to be hoped that this does not devolve into a simple reprise of conventional Keynesianism, already tested to its limits in far friendlier conditions and found wanting.
Just as dangerous is the bandwagon, already rolling, that seeks to rehabilitate the so-called ‘soft left’ as a means of managing Corbynism and returning Labour to ‘electability’. This manoeuvre depends upon a bait-and-switch by which the historical ‘hard left’ is first marginalised by reducing a variegated and broad-based political movement to a cartoon of the Militant Tendency while a refurbished pluralist ‘soft left’, built around Marxism Today and trendy cultural theory, is proffered in its stead. Although it made a few interesting conceptual advances, the ‘soft left’ outside the Labour Party was a mash-up of post-Fordism and postmodernism amounting to, in one succinct verdict, ‘either futurology or bad history … Analytically erroneous, it was strategically divisive' (Elliott, 1993, 150-1). Somehow retrospectively granted exclusive rights to Gramsci and to social movements, in practice it took quiescence as its watchword, seeing hegemony as something to be ‘endured, not forged’ (Ibid, 151). Inside the Labour Party, the soft left’s record was still worse. As two close observers of the mafia politics of the Kinnock era noted, Labour’s own ‘Great Moving Right Show’ would hardly have been possible without:
the acquiescence of a sizable chunk of the rank and file, whose demoralisation and disorientation in the wake of successive defeats was skilfully exploited by the Party leadership. A key layer of activists, those former supporters of the “Bennite” insurgency, who came to be known as the “soft left”, proved themselves ready, willing, and able to make any compromise and abandon any principle as and when it suited the interdependent requirements of the leadership and their own personal interests. (Heffernan and Marqusee, 1992, 2)
It would be a final grim irony if, granted an unexpected afterlife, the political heirs of the Labour New Left were themselves to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by either falling back into the arms of the Keynesianism against which they originally defined themselves or succumbing to the same ‘soft left’ blandishments that previously delivered over the party, bound hand and foot, to its real enemies within.
I would like to thank James Doran, who first planted the seed for this article, and Martin O’Neill for his helpful comments on an earlier draft.
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1. Alexander Bogdanov appears to be enjoying a mini-revival: he also has a walk-on part in Paul Mason’s latest book. See pp. 218-21 in Mason, P. (2015) Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, St. Ives, Allen Lane.
2. Although the Institute for Workers’ Control is sadly defunct, IWC publications are still available from Spokesman Books at: https://www.spokesmanbooks.com/acatalog/Institute_for_Workers_Control.html. Many IWC pamphlets are freely available on the website of Socialist Renewal at: http://www.socialistrenewal.net/node/121.
3. Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, gave the inaugural Ken Coates Memorial Lecture at the University of Nottingham on 3 June 2015. Audio of the lecture is available at: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cssgj/centre-activities/conferences-workshops/ken-coates-memorial-lecture.aspx.