Book Review: False Distinctions

 Left or Right: The Bogus Dilemma by Samuel Brittan (Secker and Warburg, 25s.)

For quite different reasons, Samuel Brittan, Economic Editor of the Financial Times, argues two points we have been making for years. First, that the left/right distinction is virtually useless for analysing political views. Second, that the Labour/Tory struggle is, in his own words, ‘shadow boxing’ and a ‘sham party war’ in which differences are exaggerated or manufactured while what they agree on is obscured. Labour and Tory are Tweedledum and Tweedledee and ought, says Brittan, to recognise this.

The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ go back to the meetings of the States-General in France in 1789. The nobles sat on the king’s right while the commoners sat on his left. The two sides were divided on the issue of the powers of the king. Throughout the nineteenth century in France and some other European states the left/right distinction was that between republicans and monarchists. Only later did it acquire its present vague meaning as a distinction between the opponents and supporters of capitalism, and it is only since the 1920’s that the terms have been used with reference to politics in Britain.

Confusion has arisen because most of those who claimed to be socialists in fact stood either for reformed capitalism or for state capitalism. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always refused to be tagged “leftwing” because of the term’s links with reformism and state capitalist Russia. We are socialists and opposed to those who call themselves the Left. Now others too are realising that the view of the British political scene as the forward line of a soccer team—with the Communists on the Left Wing, Labour at Inside Left, the Liberals at Centre Forward, the Tories at Inside Right, and the fascists on the Right Wing—is irrelevant and silly.

Brittan is concerned that this confusion helps obscure the real issues facing British capitalism. He lists a number of trivial matters like devaluation, the Common Market, East of Suez and planning on which, in his opinion, party shadow boxing delayed the necessary action. He reveals himself as a floating voter unable to choose between Labour and the Tories (though he has probably always voted Labour). We are concerned that this confusion helps obscure the real issue facing the workers: capitalism or Socialism?

Adam Buick