Workers' Liberty #53  


The "three Ls" of charlatanry

Chris Reynolds finds some echoes of the past in two new 'saviours'.

Two new hopes are brightening the spirits of those who hoped that John Prescott, Robin Cook, and Margaret Beckett would quickly push Tony Blair aside and show that Labour reformism was still alive and vigorous.

Over one horizon they see Oskar Lafontaine, the new finance minister of Germany, spearheading a revival of European governmental leftism which must surely sweep Britain along with it. Over another, they see, or they hope they see, an army of British Labour and trade union anti-Blairites gathering behind the popular banner of Ken Livingstone for Mayor of London.

As we canvass support for the unprecedented alliance of the left (AWL, SWP, Socialist Party, Independent Labour Network, Socialist Outlook, others) which has rallied to fly the flag of working class political representation in the June Euro-elections in London1, the most common response from those trade union and Labour activists who demur is: this is not the time. Wait. The balloon will go up when Ken stands for Mayor. Then we'll have something much broader than your left alliance.

The problem with this scenario is not that Blairism - neo-Lib-Lab-ism, Third-Way-ism, the ideology of converting Labour into a "pro-business" party with a slightly more liberal slant than the Tories and without trade-union links - is all-powerful, or "old Labourism" defunct, ideologically. In The Independent of 31 December, David Aaronovitch contends that "there is precious little ground for the kind of political division we have seen in the past". There is a "continuum" of views on "the left-of-centre", mildly liberal and social but rejecting public ownership and taxation of the rich. All but cranks, asserts Aaronovitch, share these views in one shade or another, and "the 'Third Way' is simply an attempt to find a name for this continuum". Thus there will not, cannot be, a "return to old Labour".

Aaronovitch's Blairite consensus may well exist around his dinner table. It does not exist in the working class, or even in the Labour Party. The best opinion surveys show that public ownership, taxing the rich, and the idea that there is a class struggle which has to be fought, are more popular today than before, rather than less so. Livingstone is popular with many working class activists, as a Labour MP with some pretence of thinking independently of Blair.

The trouble is that to mobilise those sentiments into confident, convinced action will take leaders and politics of quite another stamp than Lafontaine and Livingstone. Neither Lafontaine nor Livingstone claims any commitment to class struggle. To sustain one's hopes by wishfully reading class struggle significance into their mildly-leftish announcements is to repeat the despairing illusion that speeded the rise of Blairism in the Labour Party. As Tory victories multiplied, so the class struggle road against the Tories came to seem harder and harder, and so activists increasingly went for the "second best", aiming for a Labour government which would be no sort of workers' government but at least a "lesser evil".

They were increasingly willing to tolerate a right-wing Labour leadership, in the hope that the right-wing leaders could at least win over middle class voters, and then working class interests could be brought back onto the agenda at a later stage.

It was a self-destructive illusion. So too is the idea that Blairism is so bad, so all-stifling, that direct working class challenge to it is an ultra-left folly, and instead we should promote some "lesser evil" sort of class-collaboration politics.

We should cherish and develop every stirring of real working class revolt, however limited, and campaign broadly on elementary working class "first steps" - the welfare state, trade union rights. We should not separate those "first steps" from the aim of a workers' government, nor place hope in charlatans.

For charlatans is what Lafontaine and Livingstone are. Lafontaine is a traditional "fake left". He makes speeches against the financial dictatorship of the Bundesbank and about the need for government intervention to create jobs, yet evades any real struggle and submits to the discipline of a German Social Democratic government firmly dominated by the right-wing leadership of Gerhard Schroder and preaching an "alliance" (with the bosses!) "for jobs".

Livingstone is not even a real "fake left". He is anything and everything - "95 per cent" Blairite, to use his own words, one minute; semi-Marxist the next; "cynical soft-sell" politician (his own words again), all the time.

He promises Blair that Millbank can have full control over his London Mayor campaign, and that as Mayor he will not oppose the government, while hinting to the left that it's all "tactical". At the same time he gives a nod and a wink to the New Labour establishment to tell them that his occasional left talk is not too serious. He poses as a man of the people, but uses the bourgeois press to denounce the Socialist Party's call for "workers' MPs on a workers' wage" as puritanical.

German communists used to celebrate "the three Ls" - Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxemburg. Livingstone and Lafontaine could be linked to Ferdinand Lassalle to make "three Ls" of charlatanry in labour-movement politics - three Ls which show a descent from tragedy through banality to farce.

Lassalle was a tragic figure. He took part in the 1848 revolution in Germany and, according to Marx, "knew the Communist Manifesto by heart". In 1863 he became the founder of the modern German workers' movement. Yet Marx and Engels - long exasperated by Lassalle's evident desire to be, as Marx put it, a "workers' dictator" - eventually had to break with him because, dissatisfied with the necessarily slow progress of the infant labour movement, he started trying to cut deals with Prussia's semi-autocratic ruler Otto von Bismarck. Lassalle died - in a duel! - in 1865.

Eduard Bernstein, when he was still a Marxist, wrote an excellent critique of Lassalle. "Three months after its foundation", Bernstein reports, "the General German Workingmen's Association numbered scarcely 900. In itself this would have been no mean success, but Lassalle... did not want to be the leader of a propagandist society, but the head of a popular movement... "He... tried to win over all sorts of notabilities to the Association, and was not very particular in his choice. But the main thing - the agitation among the masses - he left severely alone..." Eventually this led to deals with Bismarck because of "Lassalle's tendency to win success on which he had once set his mind, at any price... his reckless temperament and his enormous self-esteem".

In private letters Lassalle saw the central event of the coming German workers' revolution as being his own personal entry into Berlin, riding on a white horse and cheered by the crowds. But the days are gone when workers could or should wait for heroes on white horses. Especially when the hero is not the genuinely impressive Lassalle, but the clown-figure of the future Lord Red Ken.

  1. See Uniting the left? in this issue.

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