By Adam Stromme
With the landslide election of Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour party arising coterminously with self-ascribed Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders’ rise in the polls over Hillary Clinton, it has become apparent that some important internal shifts are occurring within the organized Left. Owing to the fragmentation of the right-Labour Blairite consensus in Britain and rising distrust of the liberal-elite dominated Democratic establishment in the United States, faith in a third way “politics as usual” approach to the establishment Left appears to be waning. The consequence of persistent attacks upon organized labour and other traditional strongholds of the Left by ostensibly Left-wing parties, a resurgent brand of political anti-establishmentarianism against the previous party leadership has begun to take hold.
What has been occurring all across the political landscape have been attempts to empower government by giving it a strong democratic mandate; thus, leaders of contemporary Left-wing movements aim to restructure the base from which power in government is derived, giving greater voice to union leaders, civil rights groups, and other progressive forces. Such an approach to managing government stands in stark contrast to the ruling consensus of these two parties, Labour and Democratic, over the course of the last twenty years. However, it is well in line with the historical tactics of the Anglo-American Left. Understanding why this grassroots reaction is taking place within the historical parties of the left is therefore essential before we can begin an assessment of the present political climate all across the British and American Left.
During the 1980’s, both the United States and the United Kingdom led the Western world in the euthanasia of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and the effective dismantling or downsizing of important elements of the welfare state. Despite the intricacies of each historical circumstance, the trend that leads on to the present can be regarded as more or less different elements of the same phenomenon. Whether it is the PATCO strike or the Coal Miners strike that broke the unions, or Thatcher’s appeal to privatization for a “property owning democracy” versus Reagan’s disastrous record amongst vulnerable communities, Margaret Thatcher and Reagan, Thatcherism and Reaganism, were more or less identical ideologies meant to repress labour and scatter the growing civil rights movements.
As a result of the smashing success of Thatcher’s conservatives to these ends, a Conservative government remained in power for the next 18 years despite “strikingly low” poll ratings. This waning support for the Conservatives gave them an altogether monochromatic look as privatization and deregulation, often against the public interest, continued.
In the United States, however, a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, was swept into office following the ineffectual reign of Bush senior. In practice however he differed little in substance from John Major an ocean away; signing into law trade policies that were disastrous for workers, brutally suppressing inter cities crime and poverty via a “tough on crime” approach, and even demonstrating a willingness to compromise on social issues in order to advance what amounted to a comparatively conservative agenda even by American standards.
Thus, Clinton and Blair— whose election was seen as a decisive shift in British politics away from the Conservative agenda— largely continued the policies of their predecessors. The crushing and demoralizing impact of the 1980’s left a significant impact upon the base of Labour, both in the United States and Great Britain well after the fact. As a result, the attempts of New Labour and the Clinton-Democrats to hold the mantle of the political Left despite radically reconstituting the base of their support away from traditionally Left-wing demographics now appears to be backfiring. The new leadership is becoming increasingly pressured to account for the disparity between action and rhetoric; leaving many liberal and progressive voters to ask the prescient question:
Who is really “Left”?
With this background we are brought back into contemporary events. Bernie Sanders, himself a veteran of the civil rights movement, is campaigning on a platform of “political revolution” and, at least as regards the financial and organizational constitution of his campaign, this is hardly an overstatement. His style of politics appeals broadly to the civic activism of the 1960’s and the need for consistent political stances are firmly within the American mainstream, despite routine distortion in the mainstream media.
Corbyn hails from a similar vein, with the only difference being that there exists a larger history of organized Left wing agitation within Britain’s Parliamentary system than in the United States. Even as late as the 1980’s, the Trotskyist “Militant” movement was sending waves throughout the British polity for their stubborn resistance to Thatcher’s sweeping reforms. But Corbyn’s policies are far more moderate than those of the Marxist overtures that inspired the Militants; in effect, they amount to little more than a reversal of many of the more disastrous or ineffectual privatizations and a demand for greater resources to be diverted towards British families.
For representing what amounts to a return to classical Left-wing politics (albeit in a more diluted form from their heyday) both Sanders and Corbyn have been vigorously opposed by representatives of the very same parties which have shifted away from their traditional constituencies. Their chief crime? That their mandate has shifted away from those of elite opinion.
Hence the curious irony emerges: for all the allegations of idealism, it is in fact the party, and not the politicians, that have forgotten the old horizons of the political Left.