James Foley

James Foley

The Great 1997 Re-Enactment

Labour is once again summoning the undead spirit of Tony Blair, which speaks to the desperation of the party's centrist leadership. However, argues James Foley, many post-Corbynistas are themselves at risk of re-inventing failed Third Way philosophies.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Marxism is often associated with teleological claims about historical progress and the inevitability of revolution. But it was Marx, more than any other intellectual, who taught the world that politics can regress into loops of absurd historical re-enactment. “A whole nation… suddenly finds itself set back into a defunct epoch,” he observed in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “and to remove any doubt about the relapse, the old dates arise again – the old chronology, the old names, the old edicts, which had long since become a subject of antiquarian scholarship, and the old minions of the law who had seemed long dead.”

Defunct epochs, old dates, long dead minions: we could be forgiven for thinking these words were written today, of Britain’s opposition party. Having renounced 1997 under Corbyn, Labour today summons it from the ashes. Critics of this unabashed restoration might be tempted to reduce New Labour to its most dismal consequences – indebtedness, inequality, Iraq – and pronounce the matter closed. But Starmer’s flurry of 1997 memorabilia and promotional videos testifies to a wider problem: Blairism, in retrospect, is not just a failed experiment or a passé novelty but also Britain’s settled paradigm of political change. Indeed, given the enfeeblement of Scottish nationalism, Britain’s actually-existing left (the Guardian, the New Statesman) have lost the capacity to imagine any other transition from Conservative rule. 

Defunct epochs, old dates, long dead minions: we could be forgiven for thinking these words were written today, of Britain’s opposition party.

1997 re-enactments are partly about the annihilation of Corbyn’s era. But Blairism’s relationship to the left is too complex to simply make this a story of defeat. In retrospect, Corbynistas were naïve in imagining that theirs was the real Labour tradition whereas Blair was an alien being grafted onto an otherwise healthy human host. New Labour was always less about the left’s defeat than the realisation of its shifting social base, which explains why a certain Blairism endures despite the endless practical setbacks. 

Symptomatically, many left-leaning intellectuals who begin by denouncing the Blairite inheritance end up reinventing ideas that bear a remarkably similar genealogy, not just in foreign policy but also in domestic governance. Of course, many leftists resisted Blairism, as many now reject Starmer; but many did not. Critics tempted to dismiss Blair as a right-wing aberration thus run the risk of failing to learn crucial lessons about incorporation into the mechanics of capitalist reproduction.

New Labour and Leftism

In assessing New Labour’s genealogical link to the left, we can find clues in the biographies of its leading figures. Notably, few New Labour cadres started from a principled commitment to free markets or American imperialism. More commonly they emerged from the battle-hardened ranks of socialist organisation: indeed, almost every New Labour cabinet minister of note had a factional training on the far left. 

Alistair Darling, Britain’s chancellor during the onset of the Great Recession, received his political education selling Trotskyist newspapers on the streets of Edinburgh. Jack Straw, by contrast, reacted vehemently to accusations of being a former Trotskyist: instead, he insisted, his inheritance was more properly called Stalinist. “I have been consistent in my opposition to Trotskyism and the false consciousness it engenders,” he joked. “I was first taught to spot a Trot at 50 yards in 1965 by Mr. Bert Ramelson, Yorkshire industrial organiser of the Communist Party.”

Stalinism is a common theme in New Labour biographies. John Reid was reared in the classic mould of a Lanarkshire CP henchman. Peter Mandelson was a Young Communist who sold the Morning Star; while Charlie Whelan and David Triesman were more than just fellow travellers. Conversely, Stephen Byres was a Militant cadre; David Blunkett was leader of the self-proclaimed Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire; Alan Milburn, later regarded even within Labour as the “epitome of Blairite centrism and moderation”, ran a New Left bookshop called “Days of Hope” (locals called it “Haze of Dope”). 

Blair himself admitted to “toying with Marxism” after reading Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, was the editor of the Red Paper on Scotland, which Neil Davidson has called the “volume that in many ways represents the climax of the process by which Gramsci’s ideas were received in Scotland”. And naturally, for every ex-Marxist, there were Second Wave feminists and other assorted activists who made their peace with capitalism at its most predatory. Even those with no official socialist background cut their teeth in the factional world of leftist student bickering, before putting their “skills” to more estimable purposes.

None of this was peculiar to British politics: writing of Europe, Perry Anderson has observed that “Neo-liberalism has in general been less a principled conviction than a pragmatic tacking to regime change, whose practitioners have mostly been professed socialists”. But, given the strength of New Labour’s commitment to the post-Thatcherite order, the ubiquity of this trajectory is especially striking. Moreover, the biographies of cabinet ministers are arguably less important than the underlying culture of intellectuals. New Labour’s accommodation with Thatcherite economics and American militarism was anticipated in a bubbling cauldron of think-tankery, issuing from journals like Marxism Today alongside more traditionally liberal sources like the Guardian.

History Repeating?

None of the above absolves the New Labour legacy. Quite the contrary: rule by these self-proclaimed socialists deepened the worst of Thatcherism and, what is worse, killed off the hope of anything better. But it does suggest that New Labour was not simply a product of right-wing takeover. More importantly, it proves that youthful good intentions and flirtations with leftism are no guarantee against presiding over the most extreme trends that capitalism has to offer. Indeed, Blair’s cadres arguably had a far more radical upbringing than any of today’s shadow cabinet – or even Corbyn’s.

Youthful good intentions and flirtations with leftism are no guarantee against presiding over the most extreme trends that capitalism has to offer. Indeed, Blair’s cadres arguably had a far more radical upbringing than any of today’s shadow cabinet – or even Corbyn’s.

Which raises the question: have Britain’s self-styled leftists learned any lessons from New Labour’s intellectual, spiritual and economic bankruptcy? While a cohort surrounding Starmer’s leadership dust off their bucket hats and seek to re-enact 1997, the younger Labourist intellectuals seem convinced that they are too sceptical to repeat the well-trodden neoliberal path of Boomer/Gen-X leftists. They reassure themselves that Millennial and Zoomer cohorts are too climate conscious, too caring, too conscientious in their internationalist pieties to brook the type of capitalist boosterism that prevailed in 1997.

But there are grounds for querying this generational logic. Undoubtedly, many younger Labourists sincerely desire to redistribute income and enact progressive policy. But, as a rule, they are equally sincere in believing that the globalisation embodied in the European Union is morally and practically immutable. Not coincidentally, these are precisely the contradictions that led to Gordon Brown’s economic model, which combined technocratic accomplishments on poverty statistics with indebtedness, privatisation, radical deregulation, skyrocketing inequality and pervasive alienation.

They are thus locked on the horns of the same dilemma that generated New Labour policy. Gordon Brown’s social democratic values were also meant in sincerity: while Blair was a born chancer, and made his post-leadership millions servicing dictators, Brown’s later life has been one of quiet dignity. His values are not in doubt. Yet it was Brown, more than Blair, who was guilty of the central delusion, that Christian altruism could be reconciled with the post-1980s mode of capitalist globalisation. 

Doubtless, much has changed after more than a decade of stagnating incomes. But, far from making social democracy easier, the chaos of capitalism today makes it more complex: it is far easier to reconcile market openness with redistribution when the economy is booming. Brown’s economic agenda – which, lest we forget, ended in bank bailouts – would be infinitely harder today. But his successors, and the younger cohort of pro-EU leftist intellectuals, still cleave to Third Way pieties of cosmopolitan order.

Foreign policy is arguably an even sorrier story. The War on Terror seemed to mark the termination point of Blairite military adventurism, as symbolised, only recently, by NATO’s chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan. But subsequent months have seen a regression to the most uncritical Western alliance liberalism, with the left side of politics (honourable exceptions aside) occupying the advance guard against any criticism of US-UK-NATO foreign policy. 

The Russia-Ukraine war suggest how little was learned from decades of disastrous interventionism. On matters of war and peace, an elementary category error endures, which consists in assuming that one should not make peace with sinners. But peace is peace among evildoers, or it is nothing at all: it is Nixon and Mao, not Gandhi and Mandela. Making peace thus means tempering moral outrage at a Putin, a Bin Laden, a Milosevic or a Hussein with a more honest history of Western foreign policy. In this respect, it was really Corbyn who was the hard-headed, worldly realist, while Blairites and liberals occupied the space of moralised foreign policy fantasy, with epically disastrous consequences. Little was learned, because Iraq was submerged, and younger left-liberals took only the crudest lessons from our debacles in the Middle East.

After New Labour

The New Labour inheritance is equally pronounced in areas like social class. This point should be emphasised, because it is here that post-Corbyn intellectuals most proudly announce their distance from the Blairite era. But the vocabulary for articulating Labourist class politics bears the genealogical stamp of nineties and noughties social policy. There is the focus on “marginalisation” and “social exclusion”. There are the endless communitarian invocations, which are likewise importations from American academic liberalism combined with peculiarly British nostalgic fetishes. What this vocabulary symbolises is a politics of pity from a standpoint of alienation: we do things for them. Sometimes, this involves middle class job creation (Darren McGarvey’s “poverty industry”); more often, and arguably worse, it involves making middle class people doing good to make themselves feel better, or class politics as therapy.

In one sense, these contradictions are as old as working-class politics. Marxism has always been about the struggle to free the left from moralism, utopianism and do-gooderism. But what has been lost is the capacity to imagine socialism in any other register. “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody,” noted Oscar Wilde.

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism—are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence…it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.

The peculiarity of New Labourism was that altruism was channelled into reproducing a social order that had swept away real working-class autonomy – or rather reduced it entirely to the consumer realm – after Thatcher’s crushing of the miner’s strike. Yet in many respects Labour leftists are ancestors of New Labour’s altruism, insofar as they presume the hobbling of actual working-class agency. Symptomatically, many Labourists reacted with abject horror (or condescension) when the communities of England, Wales and Scotland did, indeed, express a “voice”, in the 2014-16 referendums. Which neatly expresses Wilde’s point that emotional sympathy with suffering is far easier (and far shallower) than sympathy with thought. It is likewise easier to amplify voices that express the pain of poverty than to listen when “communities” think for themselves.

Emotional sympathy with suffering is far easier (and far shallower) than sympathy with thought. It is likewise easier to amplify voices that express the pain of poverty than to listen when “communities” think for themselves.

Finally, the greatest irony is that our collective failure to transcend New Labour is most pronounced in Scotland, precisely the nation where Blairite Labour, under Jim Murphy’s leadership, received its most brutal punishment beating. Thanks to 2014-15, Scottish politics possesses a certain hauteur, imagining itself as a haven of social democracy, insulated from Westminster’s neoliberal nastiness. 

But Margaret Thatcher wisely adduced that her biggest political achievement was Tony Blair. Thatcher’s (perfectly correct) point was that the truest sign of hegemony is when your apparent enemies have adopted the essentials of your worldview. In this sense, Scotland’s Sturgeon-led coalition is surely the truest evidence of the ongoing relevance of Blairism. New Labour has been rightly seen as the pinnacle of delusional British nationalism; the SNP wishes, in theory, to dismantle the British state. Yet strip away these substantive aims, which rarely have serious practical implications, and little separates the two: intellectually, Sturgeon’s coalition is an unintentional tribute act to Third Way governance. It is increasingly “Blairite” in the one area where Scottish nationalism was most clearly differentiated from New Labour, namely foreign policy, having reacted to the last two world crises by outflanking NATO from a position of hawkishness.

Are we doomed to repeat the past? Perhaps not. The ultimate lesson of Eighteenth Brumaire is the limit of simply coating new political circumstances in the garb of old glories. Actual re-enactment is impossible because the circumstances are not of our choosing. The premise of nineties nostalgia is a false one, given that we now occupy an era of ongoing capitalist stagnation. Still, sickened by ongoing Conservative rule, layers of Britain’s progressive intellectuals are desperately summoning the Blairite golem, and they are not inclined to hear the pessimistic prognoses.

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