Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Does socialism need a new name?

Socialism. The word used to strike fear into the hearts of the rich and privileged. It is the patient insistence that everyday people would someday seize the excess of the wealthy few and spread it around more fairly. It has been the foundation of nations and political movements. Leading right-wing politicians and economists have spent enormous amounts of effort convincing the poor they would be worse off if the wealth was distributed more evenly. Socialism was a banner under which large sections of the left were happy to assemble.

Today socialism has little traction. Few, if any, British politicians openly identity as socialist and not even the most easily rattled elements of the right wing press feel the need to argue against it. No one seems to take socialism seriously anymore. If someone identifies as socialist it gives the impression of either being chronically out of touch with current political debate or being a generational throw back who is still fighting the miners’ strike.

This seems strange if you read the news. Unemployment is high, The gap between rich and poor is widening, class mobility is at an all-time low, private utility companies are making huge amounts of money while ordinary people are having choose between food and warmth. Global inequality is reaching crisis point, as the 85 richest people in the world now own more wealth than half the population. Oxfam has expressed concern about the massive inequality of wealth.

The current situation appears to be the perfect breeding environment for socialist ideas. 
However, the political establishment is yet to be rocked by hordes of people assembling outside parliament singing Billy Bragg songs and demanding the renationalisation of the utility companies. Instead politicians continue to cut benefits and the media stereotypes the poor as criminals and scroungers on shows like Benefit Street.

So if we accept that the time is right for socialism but nothing is happening is the problem socialism itself? Does the public feel the socialism has been given its time and has failed? Given a low level of interest in socialist ideas it is a plausible explanation. This means that ideas of wealth redistribution and public ownership could be revived under a new banner, one which brings in modern ideas of environmentalism and multiculturalism and combines them with old values like full employment and progressive taxation redistributing income.  

Giving the old ideology a fresh coat of red paint and send it back out into the world to frighten the rich all over again is a tempting course of action. The problem is this has not happened. No new movement has emerged as a successor to socialism. Occupy packed up and went home. The trade unions occasionally try and launch a new left-wing party but nothing comes from it. Even the Green party can barely get a representative on the news despite having more MPs and more supporters than UKIP.

At this point is helpful to take a look at feminism, the only left wing ideology making any form of progress right now. Campaigns such as No More Page Three or Lose the Lad Mags are getting media attention and have genuine grass roots support from activists. On top of that there is the growth in feminist groups at universities and colleges, successful social media campaigns such as Everyday Sexism and young rising star MPs such as Stella Creasy openly identifying as feminist. It would be nice if socialism had this level of exposure.

However, it was not always this way. In 1998, Time magazine proclaimed that feminism was dead. Feminism had a poor public image and was losing support amongst young politically engaged women, the key group it needed to be successful. It was argued that the word feminism was too inflammatory and had the wrong image. It was said that women’s rights needed a new movement to reach out to young women and get them interested in gender politics. This did not happen and eventually the old movement rose again with young feminist thinkers of today drawing their ideology directly from the last hey-day of feminist activity in the 1960s.

So what happened? Mainly a core group of activists remained loyal to the ideology and continued to work hard keeping the movement alive. Feminism adapted to a new political environment and used modern resources such as social media to unite a divided movement around important, clearly stated goals such as making The Sun drop Page 3. Successful campaigns have built momentum and encourage others to be active in the movement. The evidence is against dropping the old ideology and reinventing. Stay true and wait for the world to take notice again.

The good news for socialists is that there are places where this already happening. The US has seen a growth in socialist movements as liberal voters becoming increasingly dissatisfied with how similar the two main parties have become. It seems unlikely that America could the basis of a socialist revival, a country where the mere accusation of being red can ruin political careers. Although socialists have yet to have any impact on the political establishment there has been a growth in Marxist and left leaning journals such as the New Inquiry. As the notion of liberalism is watered down in America, the genuinely progressive need somewhere else to go.

A political party with a commitment to socialism in the UK seems a long way off, but that does not mean socialism is dead. A revival will come, partly because the current state of the economy and the growing wealth inequality proves that the ideas are still relevant. Socialism does not need a name change, what it needs are activists that can keep the struggle going  and adapt to new opportunities as they come along. The sun does not set on ideologies; they just go out of fashion temporarily before being popular again.

1 comment:

  1. I certainly hope the left doesn't need to rely on the formation of a feminist party - the exact same limitations apply to it as apply to the Green party; that is, it is (perceived) as a narrow sectional interest party.

    Communitarianism was having a bit of a brief come back around 2009/2010 but the Tory's lip-service adoption of Philip Blonde has rather buggered it up.

    Personally, I hope that the Lib Dems implode and that a party which is actually as left-wing as its (mostly former) supporters believed it to be rises to replace it. That is rather optimistic though.