In November of 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in the Russian Empire. After years of exile, splits, terrorist plots, propaganda, and generally being a nuisance to the Tsarist government, their time had come. Bolshevism had won the day. However, it wasn’t simply a crazy left-wing project. In Lenin’s time, there were many socialist parties. Some participated in the provisional government which Lenin and the Bolsheviks overthrew; all were eventually banned and liquidated under one Communist party. Ultimately, what made Bolshevism stand out was its strategy for a gaining and holding power.
The tenants of this strategy were simple. Conspiracy, espionage, and propaganda. To build Utopia, you must establish an elite vanguard of full time revolutionaries, convert your workers political views, and when the time comes use their support to violently seize power. As a strategy for gaining power in revolutionary Russia, Bolshevism worked. The comrades ruled Russia, well into the 20th century, but giddy on this success communists believed the same Bolshevik methods of gaining power would work everywhere. The method for building upon socialism had been discovered and Marxist parties around the world duly sought to imitate Lenin’s vanguard.
What emerged was a mix between historical re-enactment and political dogma. While civil rights and anti-nuclear protest broke out around them, Marxist parties bickered over factional disputes and sold copies of The State and Revolution. Communists quoted Lenin as scripture while dismissing the culture wars of 1960s as a hobby for middle class trendies. In short, communists tried to replicate Lenin in Britain and thus found themselves religiously sticking to a strategy that only worked in early 20th century Russia. By choosing Leninist dogma over a strategy that embraced the spirit of their time British communism doomed and continues to doom itself to irrelevance.
Following this is may seem bizarre to turn to New Labour, a project which consolidated the reforms of Thatcher and erased Clause Four. Like the communists of the 1980s though, those on the Right of the Labour Party are trying to relive past victories through rose tinted glasses. Despite glaring evidence that the Labour party’s core vote is abandoning it by droves, Blairists continue to urge Labour not to deviate from middle ground politics. The problem is things have changed since 1997 and Blair’s strategy is now hopelessly outdated.
In hindsight we can see that New Labour won elections because it appealed to middle class voters, while not having to work for the votes of ordinary people who had no real choice but to stick it out with Labour. Now the working class has choices. It can desert to nationalist parties, the Greens or UKIP, and Labour needs a bit of radical flair to win their support. The Right of course see Labour’s core leaving but, like Michael Foot blaming the longest suicide note in history on the party not being socialist enough; it blames any electoral stalling on deviations from The Third Way.
Escaping this kind of dogma will be difficult for the Labour Party. New Labour is a big part of its culture. Seasoned activists have fond memories of Tony Blair; in my local branch they even drink tea from 1997 election mugs. More worryingly, many of those in the party who believe it should offer an alternative to neo-liberal compromises have lost touch, choosing anti-cuts and trade union campaigns over party work. This of is understandable, but it also gives Blair’s true believers a free hand to dominate policy.
Even with these challenges it isn’t too late for the Labour Party to regain its relevance and purpose. One Nation Labour after all is an attempt, though half-hearted, to define the party around something nobler than nostalgia for the 1990’s. More than this, with wages falling and financial deregulation failing it is, every day, more difficult to defend the neo-liberal status-quo of deep structural inequality and social immobility.
Now more than ever progressives in the Labour Party must challenge Third Way dogma and demand the radical programme which will win back the working class and undo the damage of Thatcher by embracing the dissenting spirit of our time. The Left of the Labour party can save it from the dustbin of history and the country from oblivion.