Confessions of a Centrist

By Mike Cowley

Some of the extreme language that is used on the Left actually frightens people who would otherwise want to back us. Attlee was known for speaking of ‘workmanlike plans’ to justify revolutionary proposals such as the creation of…the NHS, whereas if he had shouted his head off about the need to ‘smash the state’ it might have put people off…a society that peacefully opted for policies that put people before profit, and won a majority for this, would be infinitely more revolutionary in its impact.

Tony Benn, ‘After New Labour,’ 2002 

The British Left has long sustained an implacable defence of the right to confront the state’s monopoly of violence. To demur, it is argued, is to concede the battle before it has been joined. No ruling class has ever recoiled from the mobilization of the state’s ‘armed men’ in defence of its interests. Socialists, while declining to relish the call to arms, nonetheless defer to the inevitability of violent, even armed insurrection as a means of prosecuting a vision capable of the overthrow of a system none too fussy about the human toll incurred by the defence of its privileges. No serious analysis of revolutionary strategy ever discounted a recourse to meeting force with force. It was a given, the Left’s default setting, an invisible, assumed meme untroubled by critical eyes.

Beyond Left orthodoxy, specifically within that tradition exemplified by Martin Luther King’s philosophy of militant nonviolence, we can of course identify consistent attempts to codify strategy based on a refusal to emulate the state’s impassive might. It is this position that I hope to recommend, if not in its totality then at least in principle and as an option to Socialists for whom such considerations may still represent the equivalent of raising the white flag alongside the red.

Given King’s very personal experience of US state aggression – police brutality, wrongful arrest, official indifference, even collusion with racist thuggery – his strategic and philosophical rejection of physical force as an effective means of confronting racism, poverty and segregation can hardly be accused of articulating an easy option available only to those who find themselves in historically propitious circumstances. King was not attempting to shy away from the barricades, nor circumvent head on conflict. In fact at any one point of the 1950s/60s high point of the civil rights movement, US prisons incarcerated hundreds of activists. Beatings were commonplace, and murder a real and ever present threat. But King’s pacifism, evolved and honed in the heat of battle, became a tightly argued principle of the movement he led. It sprang from a religious conviction, and in that sense can be considered a matter of personal and spiritual faith. King’s beliefs though were in essence primarily political, not theological, and he was obliged to defend their merits against those sections of his community – the Student Non Violent Co-ordinating Committee, the Nation of Islam and latterly the Black Panthers – who regarded their application as limited, even self-defeating.

King was determined to face down the dominant power structures by disarming them ideologically. In struggle black people would not conform to racist stereotype, but would conduct themselves with discipline and dignity, peacefully and militantly staring the agents of white supremacy down. It would be Jim Crow, frothing at the mouth and swivel eyed with atavistic rage, who would blink first. The nobility of a people in revolt would be exemplified, and sharply contrasted in the public mind with the racist demagogues of the US states.

In addition, if racial justice and solidarity were to be secured the terrain upon which it would take root had to be sown with love, with a vision of shared humanity. Revolutions should be redemptive; victories won on the basis of superior force – at the ‘end of a barrel of a gun’ – were doomed to failure as fractured, embittered and grieving polities refused to buy into the victor’s dreams, and instead prepared for retribution. 

There are parallels here with traditional, long established and widely deferred to Socialist theory. 

Marx and Engels regarded Britain in particular as a model of Socialist potential. With its educated, unionised working class and advanced industrial and technological capacities, British capitalism had unwittingly but inevitably created its own ‘gravediggers.’ Nations where these variables were either absent or at earlier stages of maturation offered their domestic Left less traction with which to foment rebellion. Historical circumstances would oblige them to await uprisings in nations where the material conditions were more suited to successful prosecutions of proletarian initiative and agency.

The parallels in this regard are clear. Where King saw violence as begetting only violence, so Marxists have regarded backward, under-developed nations as capable only of reproducing their essential material characteristics in the unlikely event of a revolution, irrespective of what ideological choreography the victors might rehearse. Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’ attempted to circumvent the material realities of an under-developed Russian society by accelerating development under the revolutionary oversight of a cadres of intellectuals. But in doing so the moral and political ground for sanctioning violence as the primary tool of state hegemony was established, bequeathing Stalin unequivocal license to escalate ‘the Red Terror’ in the name of human liberation.

Beyond legitimate critiques of the ‘individual terrorism’ of the self-appointed men of action, the uses of political violence have otherwise evaded serious theoretical reproach. So much so that, curdled and neglected, it has become fetishized by parts of the Left, its virtues un-reflexively extoled. Our rhetoric talks of ‘smashing’ things, of ‘tearing the heads off the Tories,’ our collective persona too often conforming to hegemonic type. We step obligingly into a straitjacket designed by those we seek to unseat. We gift power confirmation of their dominant narratives, fatally bleeding our capital amongst the very people we aspire to mobilise.

Whether politically or during union activity, many of us still indulge a fetishist’s relish for intemperance and affected polarity. We reject nuance, strategy and humility, apparently terrified of even the appearance of ceding ground, instead declining to profile the very attributes which might secure us the mass support we need. The sediment of Bolshevism clings to us still; the beleaguered revolutionaries of Petrograd, in attempting to build a system predicated on reciprocity and mutual solidarity, instead generated a ruptured labour and socialist movement, social vengeance and retribution. Given the circumstances perhaps there was an inevitability about the revolution’s fate. We do ourselves little credit however, by unwittingly alchemising virtue into necessity.

Though immediate victories might be secured, the more resentment and fracture we leave in our wake the less likely our deferred goals of entrenched Socialism become.

The anti-capitalist movements - UK Uncut, Occupy – certainly offended the palates of the traditional Left, often justifiably so. But their inclusiveness, rejection of vanguardism and sectarian pedantry constitute strengths rather than weaknesses. Their project is unfinished, their evolution rudely abbreviated, but if we are to root transformative politics in our diverse and multi-experiential communities, the centralist models of Socialist organisation ought at least to be open to interrogation.

Creating – and critically, sustaining, even in the teeth of counter revolutionary aggression – the Socialist transformation of society will require courage, patience and humanity. Marxist educationalist Paulo Freire asked ‘What can we do today, so we can do tomorrow what we can’t do today?’ How we prepare for tomorrow, what ‘trenches’ we seek to occupy, the increments we identify as ground made on a system rotten to its curdled heart must all articulate a consistency between means and ends. A crisis of example – where Socialists could point out lived, vivid examples of collectivist living in the real world – has frequently served to compromise our efforts. That is why political conduct, where Socialism is exemplified in our own practice is often all we have to demonstrate its worth beyond the abstract. 

Martin Luther King regarded the ‘arc of history’ as ‘long,’ but ‘bending towards justice.’ How we claim ownership of that continuum, its trajectory and destination must now be the subject of a creativity which is as much a demonstration of our ultimate goals as it is strategy.