Get back on the barricades. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

January 16, 2024   5 mins

The Labour Party has a bad habit of losing elections, but its overall success can’t be doubted. Historically speaking, one of its functions has been to defuse working-class militancy by channelling it into parliamentary forms — and at this, Labour has proved to be a past master.

If the British working class was more reformist than revolutionary, it was partly because of the lessons it drew from its social superiors. In France, a bloody revolution in 1789 helped to inspire the Paris Commune of 1871, in which butchers and bakers took over the running of the city. If lawyers, merchants and bankers could oust the nobility, then working people could overthrow these people in turn. The French government’s response to this social experiment was to slaughter large numbers of its participants.

In Britain, however, we do things rather differently. Here, the middle class seized political power without the need for an eye-to-eye confrontation with the aristocracy. On the contrary, it was shrewd enough to make use of that patrician culture to consolidate its own power. Church, monarchy, country estate, hierarchy and tradition weren’t so much abolished as appropriated, so that Penny Mordaunt could walk in stately fashion before the king at his coronation. Hence the image of the nation as wedded to compromise, moderation and the middle way. When in doubt, the British think of a pendulum. If truth exists at all, it exists somewhere in the middle, pitched prudently between extremes. If we change to driving on the right hand side of the road, we shall do so gradually.

And yet, there was nothing in the least moderate about the Highland clearances of the 18th century, the brutal industrial exploitation of Victorian England, or Britain’s later attempts to crush nationalist uprisings in Asia and Africa. But it suited our rulers to see themselves as temperate, pragmatic types, in contrast to the insurrectionary fanatics across the Channel. Extremists are always other people.

Unlike its French counterpart, then, the British working class inherited no revolutionary legacy from the middle classes. Even so, it wasn’t always as docile as some might have wished. When industrial agitation broke out on Merseyside in the early 20th century, gunboats entered the river Mersey with their weapons trained on Liverpool. The years surrounding the First World War were awash with working-class rebellion, a current which survived at least as far as the miners’ strike of the early Eighties.

Generally speaking, however, there is some truth in the claim that the British labour movement inherited a distaste for insurgency from those perched above it. If France had the Paris Commune, we had the Fabian Society. Mutiny in Britain sprang not so much from workers as from women. It was the Suffragettes, and the feminists who followed in their wake, who sustained the radical traditions of the nation. While socially ambitious workers were becoming respectable trade union officials, the Pankhursts and their progeny were being force-fed in prison and denounced as whores in the press.

It wasn’t that trade unionism was an easy option. The ferocity with which the British state tried to destroy such resistance makes for chilling reading. There were plenty of occasions when demanding a living wage meant risking serious injury, victimisation, deportation or even death. No doubt there are some Right-wing oddballs who would rejoice to see Mick Lynch carted off to Australia like the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Today, when TV journalists report on a strike, they begin not by asking about the issues at stake but about the disruption it might involve. They still haven’t learnt that to complain of industrial action causing inconvenience is like complaining that rain is wet. Nor do they note that the only real weapon that the working-class movement has in its armoury is an essentially negative one: the withdrawal of one’s labour. The governing class, by contrast, has a formidable array of means to curb dissent, and has just pushed through an anti-protest law which constitutes a dire threat to democracy.

Yet trade unions are still essentially defensive institutions, and as such are as much part of the landscape of capitalism as flood barriers are part of the natural landscape. The task of both is to contain potentially destructive excesses. What does trade unionism defend itself against? One could do worse than answer: class war. And how is it faring? Throughout the world, an increasing number of states are demolishing public services, selling off public assets, imposing draconian cuts in public spending, systematically spying on their citizens, abandoning regulations that protect working people, restricting civil liberties (not least the right to strike), and dispensing with constraints on profit-hungry corporations. These are not matters which can be rectified by the Starmers of this world.

At the same time, trade unions depend on the capitalist economy; they simply want its fruits to be shared more equitably, and are reluctant to make moves which might deprive them of golden eggs by killing the goose that lays them. Such institutions aren’t constituted to bring about radical change, and neither are social democratic parties such as Labour, which began life as the political wing of the labour movement.

The Labour Party has always numbered socialists in its ranks, but despite the lurid protests of some of its critics, it has never been a socialist party. Over the years, the clause in its constitution that committed it to public ownership became as decorative as a fairy on a Christmas tree. Labour leaders have therefore had to invent more and more persuasive ways of placating their Left-wing members while simultaneously selling them out, one of which is to insist that you can’t change the world unless you can grasp the levers of power. The problem with this logically impeccable case is that grasping the levers of power usually involves abandoning the vision which makes it worth doing so. Labour leaders like Keir Starmer are like men trying to manoeuvre a parcel of precious goods through a narrow door. Frustrated by the effort, they end up throwing the parcel away and step through the door with a triumphant cry of “Task accomplished!”.

As for Tony Blair, he wasn’t a renegade. He had absolutely nothing to betray. Nobody ever imagined that he was a socialist, or even at times a social democrat. Instead, as a sheep in sheep’s clothing, he remained true to his lack of principles from start to finish. Hugh Gaitskell, by contrast, was a man of conviction; it was just that he clung with commendable passion to a set of anti-socialist beliefs. Harold Wilson started off Left of centre but ended up to the Right of it, a typical Labourist trajectory. Keir Starmer, a natural-born petty bourgeois, has retreated from one Left-wing policy after another and would ban his own MPs from breathing if he thought that it might imperil his entry into Downing Street.

“You can peel an onion layer by layer, but you can’t skin a tiger claw by claw,” was R.H. Tawney’s view of reformism. What, though, is the alternative? Surely you have to start where you are, in an actual world rather than an ideal one. Otherwise you may end up as an ultra-Leftist, a syndrome which Lenin described as an infantile disorder. Ultra-Leftists regard any truck with the existing political system as a squalid compromise. Parliaments, political parties, trade unions, social reforms and civil society all become fatally contaminating. In the Seventies, when the Left was riding high, some Left-wingers used to test the purity of each other’s commitment by asking such questions as “Would you write for the bourgeois press?” or “Would you use the bourgeois law courts if your partner was murdered?” The true ultra-Leftists were those who were able to return an unequivocal “No” to the question: “Would you call the bourgeois fire brigade?”

Yet the choice between reformism and ultra-Leftism is surely false. All revolutionaries are reformists. Just because you believe in a thoroughgoing transformation of market society doesn’t mean that you don’t see the point of civil marriages or a minimum wage. Besides, what bridges the present and a potential future is the working-class movement itself. Its values of co-operation rather than competition, solidarity rather than selfish individualism, and mutual responsibility rather than individual self-interest need to be extended into social life as a whole. In this sense, the future is not some fuzzy utopia parachuted arbitrarily into the present, but something which is active there already, in however shadowy and imperfect a form. You can’t adequately portray the present without taking account of what it might become.

When asked what the future might look like, one postmodern thinker replied: “The present — with more options.” But an eternal present is an image of hell, however many options may distract us from this horror. With a few judicious additions and subtractions, this present is Keir Starmer’s sterile conception of politics. It will take more than this to end the class war currently being waged against the working people of the world.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.