by James Bloodworth
Wednesday, 10
March 2021

Momentum’s vapid ‘socialism’ is not fit for the 21st century

The pressure group's four-year plan is little more than a woolly affectation
by James Bloodworth
It’s unclear what a ‘new kind of politics’ actually is. Credit: Getty

Socialism has undergone something of a resurgence in recent times. After years of drift on the political margins, doctrines that fell out of favour in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall are enjoying something of a renaissance. Momentum, the Left-wing pressure group that powered Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to win power in 2017 and 2019, has recently published its four-year strategy for the Labour Party — over which it no longer wields the same leverage now that Corbyn has departed — setting out its vision of what the East Germans used to call ‘realised socialism’.

Those looking for a thick theoretical document will be disappointed; Momentum as an organisation mainly concerns itself with campaigning. But its record in this area contains some modest victories: Labour’s impressive share of the vote at the 2017 election was partly down to Momentum’s ability to mobilise activists to knock on doors. Thus the group’s four-year strategy document mainly focuses on things like “organising to win selections and elections, politically educating, running campaigns and reaching out to create broad alliances for socialism”.

But as with similar releases by organisations seeking to take socialism into the mainstream, there’s a giant elephant in the room: what would socialism look like in the 21st century? The details remain vague and imprecise.

According to the document, the pressure group is “committed to a fundamental and irreversible shift in wealth and power to the working class in all its diversity“. Its socialism, it says, “means the democratic transformation of society and the economy to serve human need and flourishing, not profit”.

There is much more in this vein. And to be fair, I agree with a lot of it. But to call myself a socialist, even though I continue to adopt the label in the company of fellow ‘socialist’ comrades, feels like an affectation. The imprecision and fogginess of much of what constitutes contemporary socialist thought — epitomised by Momentum’s output — is one of the reasons I feel this way.

In a brilliant essay on the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, whose three-volume history of Marxism represents the gold standard of Marxology, the historian Tony Judt made the following observation as to the wider repercussions for the Left when the Berlin Wall came down:

With Marxism have gone not just dysfunctional Communist regimes and their deluded foreign apologists but also the whole schema of assumptions, categories, and explanations created over the past 150 years that we had come to think of as “the left.”
- Tony Judt, Goodbye to all that?

And yet, three decades on from the wall coming down a state of denial prevails on the Left as to the nature of this historical predicament. The 30-year free market settlement may be in a state of morbid decay, but policy space to the Left of social democracy was vacated by most thinking economists decades ago. For example, mass nationalisation — an idea the British Left remains temperamentally wedded to — is an archaic throwback with a chequered history rather than a revolutionary economic panacea.

The western Left has never properly reckoned with the twentieth century experiments conducted in its name and it shows. When socialism is not a synonym for communism — or for a mixed (market) economy in which the railways are nationalised — it functions as little more than a fashionable appellation to signal that one hates the Tories and is passionate about worthwhile causes.

Momentum’s latest rallying cry to the faithful is more of the same. ‘We have to convince people that another world is possible,’ it loftily proclaims.

And yet, as the twentieth century socialist experience demonstrated, there are many alternative worlds that it is possible to bring into being; some of which are even less desirable than the present one.

Join the discussion

  • what would socialism look like in the 21st century?
    It would look like it has always looked, with the same results that have always been generated.

  • Socialism in the 21st century, having failed democratically, will seek to discredit democracy and resort to direct action. As the “mostly peaceful” Antifa driven riots of the American summer of 2020 have shown, socialism in the 21st century will look a lot like anarchy.
    You don’t need a long-winded manifesto of plans and pledges. You don’t need dutiful party workers knocking on doors and persuading the voters to make a effort.
    Far more effective will be an ideology seething with moral indignation, urging “those who care” to destroy the oppressive capitalist system. Now that can really set the adrenaline pumping – much to the dismay of those who like to think that politics is about reasoned debate between principled opponents.

  •  learn from the countries that organise things better than we do?

    Good point, Paul. However, pretty much all those countries who organise things better than we do, have certain elements in common: one of them being the rejection of mass-migration from the thirdworld. Probably the most crucial one, affecting not only the economy but everything else (housing, healthcare, infrastructure, education / justice systems, security, even the covid fallout – you name it). Can you imagine the outrage if someone in power suggested that we learn from those countries? The ensuing cries of blue murder?

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