Between the Lines: ‘Neil Kinnock and Tomorrow’s ‘Socialism”
BBC2 has given former Labour leader Neil Kinnock an opportunity to expound his views on socialism in a two-part series shown on February 5th and 12th.
In Tomorrow’s Socialism—jointly written by Kinnock and political commentator Peter Kellner—an attempt was made to assess the relative success and failures of allegedly socialist movements both in Britain and abroad. This was on the basis that the key to understanding the problems of today partly lies in an intelligent understanding of the past.
To this end Kinnock began with the undoubtedly correct statement that the very idea that socialism has had its day is strongly associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure of the Soviet system was amply illustrated by a visit to a Russian city still suffering the effects of state capitalism. It was cast permanently under a cloud of thick black smoke belched out by factories producing low-quality goods for wage-slaves who could afford little better. Conditions were grim indeed, and Kinnock concluded that the “Soviet” system had been a disaster whose totalitarianism and notorious inefficiency had sullied the name of socialism.
After rightly dismissing the USSR as a viable model of socialism, Kinnock then turned his attention to the reformist parties of the Western industrial nations such as the British Labour Party and the German SPD. Kinnock claimed that their record in power was much more successful. The statist interventionism was based on a certain pragmatism rather than on “ideology” and they had, by working “in partnership” with the market, contributed to the overall well-being of the working class in a way that the Leninists had only dreamed of.
What Kinnock didn’t address was why, if these parties had run affairs to the general benefit of the working class, as he claimed, did they lose so many elections? Are the workers simply ungrateful swine? Or is it the case, perhaps, that workers’ memories are rather better than Kinnock’s?
Kinnock maintained that his own “life chances” had been drastically enhanced by the actions of past Labour governments. What he didn’t mention was that he spent most of his formative years under the Conservatives, or more importantly, why the “life chance” he spoke of, such as a university education, grew apace during the entire post-war era across the industrialized countries, whether they had a Labour government or not, due to the particular requirements of developed capitalism for a more skilled workforce. Neither did he explain how the “life chances” of the working class were enhanced by Labour’s development of the British atom bomb, or its support for the Korean and Vietnam wars.
While Kinnock claimed success for Labour in the past, he realizes changes are now necessary. Convincingly Kinnock explained why much of Labour’s earlier economic programme, based on state planning and nationalization, is now obsolete. He argued that the inter-connectedness of world production and the growth of multi-national corporations had rendered Clause IV of the Labour constitution meaningless. What was needed was a new direction to meet today’s changed situation.
Back to the future
Kinnock labelled his recipe for socialist renewal “ethical socialism”. In attempting to define what he meant by this term he mouthed some platitudes about the market and “sound responsibility” and listed a series of re-hashed policy proposals on “earmarked taxation” and of “worker directors” that even Bill Clinton or David Owen could feel comfortable with.
The abiding impression given by this tame stuff was that if this is the future for socialism, then its future is as black as the clouds over Russian factories. While Kinnock seems to have well understood why yesterday’s capitalism became today’s capitalism, and how the Left became isolated and confused as the world changed around it, his vision of “Tomorrow’s Socialism” amounts to little more than capitalism with a human face, giving an impression of fairness where none really exists. In truth, Kinnock’s vision is little different from sad John Major’s dream of warm beer and village cricket on a Sunday afternoon. It is capitalism without its rough edges, capitalism without crime and unemployment, war and famine, a rose-tinted and soft-focus view of a society that breeds social discontent like its going out of fashion. Not Tomorrow’s Socialism at all, in fact, but a politician’s dream of today’s dreary old capitalism where the life chances of the many are, as always, subordinated to the privileges of the few.