Is the Left opposed to Politics?

Ian Bullock looks back on earlier socialists’ idealised view of the end of politics and that view today

People sometimes stare at me in total disbelief, wondering whether I’ve finally succumbed to madness in old age, when I say that since the very beginning of the socialist movement one of its deepest flaws has been its frequent lapse into an anti-political stance. Who, they ask, could be more ‘political’ than the earnest left-wing activist – past or present? So how on earth have I arrived at such a view?

Consider first, the beginning of the chorus of the former Communard Eugène Pottier’s L’Internationale of 1871: “C’est la lutte finale (It’s the final struggle)”. Is there ever going to be a final struggle? The notion lurking here seems to be that “come the Revolution” all conflicts, all problems, will miraculously be resolved.  The early English version is no better: “the last fight let us face”. The Billy Bragg version from 1989 is in this respect a great improvement: “For the struggle carries on”.

Fast forward two decades to the early 1890s and William Morris’s News From Nowhere. It’s not that, famously, the Houses of Parliament  has in the imaginary future been turned into a manure store. It’s perfectly possible to envisage an alternative – indeed a more democratic – system than that represented by the Palace of Westminster. But Chapter 13, ‘Concerning Politics’, is by far the shortest one in the book. The time traveller asks his guide ‘old Hammond’ how they “manage with politics?” in this utopia. Hammond responds that “we are very well off as to politics – because we have none”.

Hostility to politics, given how dodgy it often is, is not at all difficult to understand. Many would prefer to flee to the hills rather than get too involved in it. People tend to agree that ‘politics is a necessary evil’ and leave it at that. OK as far as it goes. But we should stress the ‘necessary’ part much more and to constantly bear in mind that the only known alternative to politics is violence in some form – suppression of dissent, insurrection or civil war. Is that an exaggeration? Hardly. And they all rarely if ever end happily.   

Consider where what I’ve called the anti-political stance can lead. Before the 1930s no one would have thought of those Fabian intellectuals, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, as hostile to politics. Yet  Kevin Morgan, in the second part of his Bolshevism and the British Left trilogy which deals with the Webbs’ attitudes towards the USSR, surely got it right when he characterised their Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation as demonstrating an ‘aversion to politics’. Pat Sloan quoted them approvingly in his 1937 book Soviet Democracy. It now seems incredible that at that time he (or anyone) could write – or Victor Gollancz publish, in the Left Book Club format – a book with that title given what was going on in the USSR at the time. Could Sloan have seriously believed that some form of democracy was flourishing under Stalin’s brutal dictatorship? I suspect he did.

Sloan denied that one should “treat democracy and dictatorship as two mutually exclusive terms”. In the Soviet Union “the democracy was enjoyed by the vast majority of the population, and the dictatorship was over a small minority”. Protected by Stalin’s dictatorship, Sloan saw an essentially apolitical ‘real democracy’ flourishing in the soviets and in all social institutions from schools to trade unions. He wasn’t the first to argue for this unlikely co-existence of democracy and dictatorship. I traced it, (if I may be allowed a plug) in Romancing the Revolution to articles by Morgan Phillips-Price, the Manchester Guardian journalist, and in Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, The Workers’ Dreadnought in 1919. The “two great social institutions” of revolutionary Russia were, he told readers, “the political soviet and the economic soviet”. The role of the former was to protect ‘the new social order’ – just like Sloan’s ‘dictatorship’ –  and under its protection the non-political economic soviet would ‘build up’ and eventually be left in sole charge. To be fair to Phillips-Price, the evolution towards a totalitarian state was a lot less evident in 1919 than when Sloan gave much the same account.

So, we can see where ‘anti-politics’ can lead. But what of now? Minor stuff in comparison, no doubt. But it’s worth us all thinking hard about the implications of committing to (democratic) politics and the continuing influence of a persistent flaw in left-wing thinking.

Ian Bullock

Ian Bullock is a member of Brighton Labour Party. His most recent books are Romancing the Revolution: The Myth of Soviet Democracy and Under Siege, a history of the inter-war Independent Labour Party.