The pressure group's four-year plan is little more than a woolly affectation
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”.
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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:
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.