Is Corbyn’s Labour Socialist? You judge….

As the Labour Party Manifesto for the 2017 appears how are we to judge it?

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters clearly want this to be seen a red-blooded socialism – “there will be a reckoning” in his recent apocalyptic rhetoric.

Oddly, his opponents agree – both his Tory opponents and those within his own party who wish to drag it back to its social democratic tradition. Corbyn’s prospectus will be ‘socialist’.

But will it?

The problem here is how do we judge?

Let’s start with some simple, I hope not too simplistic, definitions.

‘Socialists’ aim for the collective ownership of ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy – and in modern British socialism that generally means state ownership.

But within the ‘socialist’ camp there are two broad strands – revolutionary and reformist.

The reformists are gradualists and, largely, parliamentary – they see socialism as coming about through the democratic system, gradually and supplemented by ‘extra-parliamentary mobilization’ (i.e. demonstrations, strikes, etc). Step by step the state will take over the main sectors of the economy until the market is eliminated, or at least marginalized.

Revolutionary socialists have an apocalyptic vision in which the ‘ancien regime’ collapses in a crisis and an upsurge of popular anger sweeps away the old institutions and ushers in the socialist future.

Social democrats – at least the modern version since the 1950s – are not socialists in the sense they do not believe that collective ownership is the best and only solution to human problems. They believe human societies fare best with a balance of collective and private interest solutions to how we organize ourselves – what we used to call the “mixed economy”. As the German SPD concluded in 1959 society needed a balance between social and private interests to thrive. That means promoting both markets and private enterprise on the one hand and social and collective welfare provision on the other.

Of course none of the above distinctions are clear-cut – they are mostly ‘fuzzy’ and overlapping. But one important point to note is they are asymmetrical. Whereas socialists – revolutionary or reformists – would generally balk at ever supporting reforms that promote markets and private enterprise social democrats would not. However all three would, under certain circumstances, support ‘socialising’ reforms – hence the asymmetry.

Which leads us to one further caveat before we proceed – context. ‘Nationalisation’ may seem to be a uniquely socialist policy, but of course it is not. British Liberals nationalized the nascent telephone system at the beginning of the 20th century for ‘strategic’ reasons. British Tories effectively supported many of the post WWII nationalizations until the 1980s privatizations, again, in many cases for strategic reasons.

To take a contrary example, the Bolshevik government of Lenin and Trotsky reintroduced markets in the Soviet Union in 1922 with their “New Economic Policy. (Incidentally they would probably be denounced today by many leftists as “neoliberals” for doing so).

So – how do we judge the Labour manifesto?

Very crudely, it would be ‘socialist’ (reformist or revolutionary) if it only promoted social, collective, ownership and does not in any way promote markets, private enterprise and ‘capitalism’.

On the other hand it would be broadly ‘social democratic’ if it includes proposals to bolster both markets and private enterprise and social welfare and collective solutions.

The reality is of course it will probably be a fudge – mostly ‘socialist’ but with some nod towards enterprise and capitalist entrepreneurship.


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