Paul Anderson, review of Negotiating the Rapids: Socialist Politics for the Nineties by the Socialist Society (£2.95), Tribune, 27 October 1989
And now, after all the military metaphors – the “forward march”, the “war of position”, the “fight back” – something that really fits eighties Britain.
Yes, we’re canoeing. It’s unclear whether this is some local government-funded youth-club scam or the real thing, self-managed by autonomous creative subjects, but the Socialist. Society is out for adventure in the mountains, paddling dynamically through the white water of our political predicament.
It certainly makes a change from the rooms filled with smoke and fat trade union fixers, and the pacifist in me cannot help but applaud the scrupulous avoidance of the left’s traditional rhetoric.
The metaphor is telling none the less: canoeing down mountain streams is virtuoso stuff, and for most people something to be admired from the riverbank, even if the canoeist insists that it’s easy really and everyone ought to join in. If the canoeist shows all the signs of being about to capsize or founder on rocks, of course, it’s much worse than that.
Which is not to say that most of us could not do with a breath of invigorating libertaian fresh air, and there’s plenty here: denunciations of “the exhausted traditions of the Second, Third and Fourth Internetionals”; assertions that socialism is “a process of collective self-emancipation, deferring to no established authority”; insistence that any future socialism ‘ must be green.
But the canoeist’s approach to the hostile stream is unreliable. The dangers of deep right-wing social democratic currents are systematically overestimated: those of Leninist boulders are ignored unless than can be labelled “Stalinist”. The possibility that “new-look” Labourism might have just a few features that make it significantly better than Wilson-Callaghanism (its policies on the environment, transport, health and decentralisation of power, for example) is not seriously considered. Nor is the possibility that it might just be worth continuing to keep up the libertarian left pressure on the Labour leadership from within the Labour Party.
Meanwhile the near-total failure of vanguardist politics in Britain – not just Arthur Scargill’s handling of the miners’ stirke, Militant in Liverpool and Ted Knight’s Lambeth debacle, but also the way that the Trotskyist sects’ hyper-activism and megalomania have turned off thousands from any sort of socialism – is simply overlooked.
I get the feeling that, if the Socialist Society were to succeed in its long-term aim of creating a green left party, it would be immediately swamped by the 57 varieties. Then again, given that a green left party could thrive only under proportional representation, and PR is at best unlikely in the foreseeable future, perhaps that’s the sort of problem that need not exercise us overmuch.
So, although there is much sense in Negotiating the Rapids (and I’ve not mentioned some excellent critical passages on identity politics, environmentalism and Ireland), it finishes the course badly holed. The Socialist Society might be going in the right direction, but it still has a lot to sort out before its practice and its rhetoric of left renewal are fully integrated.