by James Bloodworth
Wednesday, 10
March 2021
Reaction
17:31

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.

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Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

The best thing Momentum can do if they want a left leaning government is to disappear into the sunset.
The best thing Labour can do if they want to win power is to campaign on better wages, working conditions, housing and public services. Leave all the identity politics nonsense to student protest groups.

Hugh R
Hugh R
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

‘disappear into the sunset’

The Red Wall just did that to very poor effect at the polls.

Are you innumerate?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh R

What is your point? They were decisively rejected at the election, yet here they are still attempting to influence Labour policy, hence why I suggest they disappear.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh R

??

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

No, keep them. Momentum will keep Labour unelectable for many terms to come. They serve a good purpose.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Allons Enfants

A decent opposition is important for keeping the government honest. If we become a one party state it will descend into corruption and cronyism

gillian.johnstone
gillian.johnstone
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

You could have used the present situation in Scotland as a good example of this. Corruption and cronyism indeed and no sign of a decent opposition emerging so far.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

A sensible analysis, although I would describe Momentum’s objectives as ‘rabid socialism’, not ‘vapid socialism’. This socialism was not even fit for the 1970s, never mind the 21st century.
Fortunately, even those with little or no interest in (economic) history are dimly aware that all forms of Marxism/socialism have led to economic disaster and, quite often, corpses as far as the eye can see.
Of course, it is certainly the case that the present economic system is appalling in its morality and, all too often, its outcomes. But for all its awfulness it is, as the writer says, more desirable than the world that Momentum would bring into being.

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

That rather depends on how you define “all forms of socialism”. Leaving aside all this “marxism” that practically nobody in the mainstream left has advocated for as long as I can remember, what exactly is it about a publicly run NHS (or railway system), or even a modest degree of redistribution in the tax system, that leads to “corpses as far as the eye can see”?
Or are you conflating two quite different things, for whatever reason?

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Leaving aside all this “marxism” that practically nobody in the mainstream left has advocated for as long as I can remember

I’m a doctorate student at an east coast college. Marxism is openly preached there. It’s also one of the central tenets of the BLM movement.

 that leads to “corpses as far as the eye can see”?

In one of my courses we were given a text to read about the spilling of white blood. Admittedly, it wasn’t encouraged, but explained as an inevitability of restorative justice.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

East Coast Colleges (whatever they are) don’t count as mainstream in downtown North London. On a more serious note, nobody should be being preached to on a doctorate (if that means PhD) course. Doesn’t sound as though you’re getting your money’s worth.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

Open preaching of marxism happens in democratic societies, but that doesn’t mean marxism is in any way part of the political mainstream – particularly in the USA where both main parties are on the right.
Not sure if restorative justice was the cause of the corpses that litter the history of communist states – or even if it’s an inevitable result of “bringing those harmed by crime or conflict and those responsible for the harm into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward” – to use a definition from the UK’s Restorative Justice Council.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Surely you are conflating the mere fact that an institution is run by the government with socialism. The Medicare system in the US is not socialist, nor is NASA. Neither is the NHS.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

There’s Socialism and theirs Social Democrats. A lot of Western Europe seem to understand this – particularly the Scandinavians. In the US/UK both the left and right seem to not see the difference.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

“a publicly run NHS (or railway system)”

State run. The public doesn’t run anything. Marx perpetrated this deflection of equating ‘state ownership’ with ‘public ownership’. Maybe he just didn’t realise, which makes him rather clueless.
Try telling the NHS when your appointment must happen, or else. You’re part of the ‘public’. Any chance they will accede to your instruction? Of course not.
In that sense capitalism is actually run by the public, since they all strive to please their customer, to stop them deserting them for rivals. The NHS has no such worries.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

I suppose the obsession about who runs things, irrespective of any evidence on what works best in any situation is a major part of the problem of the post Marxist Left, along with the obsession with identity politics. This is what the New Labour governments were attempting to tackle. We have a state run NHS already. It isn’t the best health service in the West by most measures. Railway infrastructure has been in the hands of the state for years, not that the majority seem to be aware of this!

I’m not ideological about the issue, but there is always a tendency for nationalised services to become producer led.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

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.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Aren’t you being a little hysterical, for one who ostensibly advocates “reasoned debate between principled opponents”?

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

My bad. If you weren’t advocating reasoned debate — and apologies for tarring you with that brush 🙂 — then your hysterical parody of socialism is not at all inconsistent or hypocritical. Such rhetorical devices may be effective – though their benefit is probably confined to those predisposed to agree with you. You’re right about the prevalence of heated debate rather than reason – notably of late in the US but increasingly in the UK too. An attempt to impose ones morality on opponents is part of this. However I still feel that some degree of reasoned debate may be more persuasive to those who have not prejudged everything.
I’m not sure Antifa are representative of the mainstream left’s critique of capitalism as it operates today. However unfortunate their methods, their concerns seem to lie elsewhere. And, since you raised BLM, nor are Antifa representative of the broad range of people who took part in the ninety-something percent of BLM protests which were peaceful. If you’re interested, you could check out the figures and analysis over at the US Crisis Monitor.
So back to socialism in the 21st century, I fully expect the mainstream socialist politicians to continue to use a combination of reasoned and heated debate, rhetorical tricks, and an attempt to resist the framing and distracting tactics of the right. If they are sensible, they will avoid being drawn too deeply into divisive and futile debates like trans-fundamentalist definitions of gender. I don’t expect them to suddenly become violent revolutionaries or to rise up and “destroy the oppressive capitalist system”.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul N
Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago

We have to convince people that another world is possible,”

Well, yes of course “another world is possible”. A horrid, dystopian world i wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. (I was born into / lived half my life in one of those countries.)

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
1 year ago
Reply to  Allons Enfants

Yes, there’s North Korea for a start. Things are certainly different there. They could also of course go look at 20th century history, much of which is captured on film, for some other examples other worlds created by socialism. Best case scenario with socialism is that the unfortunate other world is absorbed into a prosperous capitalist one next door. The other options appear to be old-school kleptocracy like Russia, or fascism like the PRC.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Allons Enfants

The experience of the rest of the world shows that things can be worse than the UK, or better. Why don’t we stop with “but Venezuela” or “but North Korea” – or “but the USA” – and learn from the countries that organise things better than we do?

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul N
Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

 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?

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
1 year ago

It’s constantly amusing to me that Marxism is now so popular among those who have the most to lose, all the while congratulating themselves of their moral superiority over others. Douglas Murray wrote a wonderful line in The Spectator last week about all fanatics being of only partial intelligence. I think it applies.

Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago

No form of socialism is fit for any century. Ever.

what would socialism look like in the 21st century?

Just look at any 21st century socialist country: North Korea, China, Venezuela. Same as in the 20th century. In China’s case with imperialist undertones (or overtones as well). That’s what socialism in the 21st century looks like.
Not a good look.

Last edited 1 year ago by Allons Enfants
Alex Hunter
Alex Hunter
1 year ago

Momentum is having a conversation with…itself. Outside of some of the more fringe journalists at the Guardian, Morning Star etc literally nobody cares.
I suspect this includes the current leader of the Labour Party who, I imagine, probably shudders every time Momentum opines on a subject.
That said, wouldn’t it be refreshing for us, as voters, to have an alternative to the Conservatives? In falling down the rabbit-hole of identity politics the Labour Party appears to have given up any pretence of being a government in waiting, the Lib Dems stand for nothing.
This, to me, seems unhealthy. Few would argue that Johnson is a great PM but the choices simply aren’t there. Whatever Momentum is muttering about on any given day isn’t the answer.

Paul Hale
Paul Hale
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Hunter

It’s much too soon to know whether Johnson is a good PM, never mind a great PM. He’s a gambler. If he gets one really important bet right, he may be seen as a great man unappreciated in his own time.

Hugh R
Hugh R
1 year ago

Momentum don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are, Marxists. There always was a broad church of such ideas, no matter how nutty they sounded to the rest of us.
New Blairbour and Beelzebub Campbell put an end to plurality and dissent…..the result is consensus by patronige and death struggles everywhere.
And I remember feeling bliss when that bunch, who turned out to be fatuous toerags, were elected. So we are all to blame.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh R

Concur with that last paragraph!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

The article says nothing special. For me the problem is lack of choice.

BJ cultivates the image of muddling through problems from day to day. But are we actually going anywhere?

Momentum/socialism will never appeal to the majority. An article in this week’s New Statesman complains that we have cut aid to The Yemen. We still give more than EU countries. Momentum supports membership of the EU. Confusion.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

It is possible to believe that EU membership is a good thing on balance while believing they (or even the member states) should provide more aid to the Yemen, or indeed that the EU should change other policies. No organisations are perfectly right in all matters.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

Socialism has undergone something of a resurgence in recent times.

Coincidentally, I’m sure, we are exactly one whole generation from the demise of socialist totalitarianism in Europe.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

Hmm. 16 in 1989 – 48 now. 16 in 2008 – 20 now. By your reckoning it’s going to get a lot more popular.

Vóreios Paratiritís
Vóreios Paratiritís
1 year ago

Great article. I agree wholeheartedly. When the physical manifestations of proletarian scientific socialism (aka communism) ended in Russia and China, the ideological kernel of the Red Faith did not die; it simply slithered back to its home and origin – the minds of Western Intellectuals. The final battle against communism will be won or lost within the minds of the West, specifically the minds of Western Intellectuals, once communism is defeated there it will truly be dead. The western Reds have won the first round for sure but in their messy cultural triumph one can see the seed of their overcoming.

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
1 year ago

Problem for the left is that the “Conservatives” appear to have stolen from them all the more attractive things they offer, and are providing them with less of the chaff. Hard to see where they go from here to be honest.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago

A friend, who was an educational psychologist, once grumbled to me that when children were referred to him by schools the explanation of the problem frequently lacked verbs and nouns. He would be told that a child had problems with maths: “Well,” he commented, “So do I. I can’t cope with quantum physics.” Basically he wanted know at what point the child encountered a problem. Was the child able to add together numbers totalling less than ten, but unable to add together numbers totalling more than ten? Perhaps Momentum’s programme should be seen in the same way: imprecise and therefore just prelapsarian sentimentality.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago

I was always under the impression Momentum were Utopian Socialists so they didn’t need to articulate a coherent alternative.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopian_socialism

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
1 year ago

Well, at least their ‘manifesto’ is clear about one thing. How ever vague it might be and how ever full it might be of grand but rather elusive aims, Momentum is a ‘socialist ‘ movement. It should establish itself as a separate Socialist Party or run the risk of decades of Labour in opposition . Just like the last election and ones before, a Labour Party that is divided or takes on the trappings of socialism, will never win elections. Momentum needs to identify its ultimate aim: to take over the Labour Party or to get a left wing Party in Government? Momentum rather glosses over the disaster of the last election and dismisses the reasons for the loss as complicated.

eugene power
eugene power
1 year ago

who is this working class ? miners ? trawlermen?
teachers / town hall clerks ?

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  eugene power

Miners
Steetworkers
Lecturers in feminist geography
Intersectional artisanal mushroom foragers
Transgender bloggers

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

I suggest re-jigging the title to: “Vapid Momentum is not fit for the 21st century”.
There, much better.