Andrew Coates looks back on the innovative thinking of a left current involving Keir Starmer
The Socialist Society was founded in 1982. Independent of the Labour Party, although many members were active within the party, it was committed to radical socialism. Members included Raymond Williams, Ralph Miliband, John Palmer, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright. Committed to “socialist education and propaganda”, in Empowering the Powerless (1983) the society called to “counteract the ominous rightward drift in British party politics” which was under way in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. The last meeting of the Socialist Society Steering Committee was in 1993.
In 1987, the Socialist Society joined with the Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Conference of Socialist Economists to convene the Socialist Conference in Tony Benn’s constituency, Chesterfield. In 1989, the Socialist Policy Review was published in the Society’s journal (Interlink No. 13) for discussion at the Third Socialist Conference (held in Sheffield). It offered an alternative to what it called “Labour’s hopeless behaviour” in government, and looked beyond the just completed Party Policy Review, to a “living, vibrant politics and a renewed vision of socialism for the 1990s”. The Judiciary and the legal system by Keir Starmer and Robin Oppenheimer was, Interlink noted, incorporated into the main strategy document, which had a long section on a new democratic constitution and human rights.
Negotiating the Rapids is prefaced with a quote from Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution (1961), calling for socialism to have a “sense of an alternative human order”. The introduction reflects on the end of the “long night of the Cold War”, hoping that the division of Europe, and that the “creation of a just and peaceful international order”, might seem a “realistic goal”. Yet socialism had been discredited by the “authoritarian bureaucracies of post-capitalist societies”, the “mixed economy” had failed to deliver the goods, and social-democracy, “and by association, socialism”, was in crisis. The success of a “neo-liberal political economy” under the “Thatcher regime” anticipated the “triumph of reaction elsewhere.”
From the “ruins of consensus”, Negotiating the Rapids argued against the New Times perspective developed in the pages of the journal Marxism Today. This combined a “monolithic analysis of Thatcherism”, an “emphasis on novelty” and “hegemony”. The new model Labour Party ‘realism’ was an adaption to neoliberalism and the efforts of the Conservative government to create a “new consensus”. Nevertheless, the Socialist Society did not dismiss the new conditions brought about by post-Fordism. This “mode of deregulation” transformed forms of production, while a globalised paradigm of accumulation, the collapse of traditional manufacturing, and loss of trade union membership, marked the economic and social landscape. The biggest change had been the “qualitative increase in the power of transnational corporations over labour and democratic political institutions”.
If the traditional proletariat was declining, those who depended on waged labour and state payments remained the “vast majority of the British population”. Reflecting debates during its drafting, the pamphlet looked to “new trade union thinking” and “new cultures of resistance” linking up with social movements. “Anti-capitalist class struggle cannot be workerist or exclusively workplace based”. As part of feminist, gay, black and other self-organised bodies, socialists had a role to play renegotiating universalist socialist and working class politics, a current distinct from those who promote “identity, values and culture” – “identity politics”.
Negotiating the Rapids sought to promote democratic and participatory socialism by political reform. It drew on the campaign for political reform, Charter 88, for a “democratic programme for the transformation of the UK’s political system” and the “unitary centralised state”. One advance would be the “introduction of a genuinely proportional electoral system”. In the international sphere, the goal of a “socialist United States of Europe” was needed to “reply to the offensive of transnational capitalism with a transnational trade union and social strategy.” Dismantling the “barriers between European socialists” instead of withdrawing into “glorious isolation” was the way forward to contest the “emerging European space”.
The Socialist Society was conscious of its role within the Socialist Movement, founded through the Socialist Conferences. In Negotiating the Rapids green issues, the “eco-blind development of capitalism, imperilling the planet itself”, are presented with the way the “ecology movement has recently proved central to re-defining socialism, especially in Europe”. Committed to the “politics of ecology”, the pamphlet states “the Socialist Movement must be preparing the ground for an eco-socialist party”. In Steering Committee meetings the Socialist Alternatives group (to which the present leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, belonged) argued for a more immediate formal structure for this “alternative”.
The radical red and green magazine, Red Pepper, launched in 1995 with the support of the Socialist Movement and, edited by Hilary Wainwright, is a successor to the Socialist Society. Many of the distinctive ideas in Negotiating the Rapids – an internationalist stand on Europe; democratic left politics; Green politics; a supportive but not uncritical view of what is now called “intersectional” issues – have an influence across the left.