Chartist, May-June 2011
'You call yourself a libertarian socialist,' said my girlfriend the other day. 'But what does it actually mean in practice?'
All right, I'd left some washing-up undone – quite a lot, actually – but I was stumped. 'Er,' I replied hesitantly. 'So I'll do the washing-up when I feel like it?' She laughed, but I was embarassed. Thirty years ago, I'd have had a comprehensive answer on the tip of my tongue.
Back in the early 1980s, I believed that the working class could and should seize power for itself in a revolution, that it didn't need a revolutionary party to guide it, and that a self-managed socialist society based on democratically controlled workers' councils was a realistic and desirable objective. It might not happen immediately, but it certainly could in the next 10 or 15 years. Over-optimistic? Not at all. Remember Paris 1968! The washing-up can wait! I wasn't exactly an anarchist and wasn't exactly a council communist, but no one outside Britain's tiny revolutionary libertarian left milieu – 'milieu' was a word we liked – could have told the difference.
I was a member of a small national group, Solidarity, that had been the British affiliate of the French revolutionary socialist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1960s, and I was a big fan of the founders of S ou B, Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort. There was space on my book shelves for plenty of others, however: the Situationists, the Italian workerists, the Frankfurt School , Gyorgy Lukacs, Anton Pannekoek, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, Henri Lefebvre. Then as now, I liked reading.
You could say that my politics were a highbrow version of the TV sit-coms Citizen Smith and The Young Ones – and many of my closest friends made just that point. There was an embarrassingly massive gap between my theory and my practice. I read a lot about revolutions and working-class self-organisation, but my everyday life in the early 1980s, though bohemian in many respects, was far from revolutionary. I did demos and squats and no end of meetings, and was involved in a couple of minor industrial disputes. But nothing came close to Paris 1968. The sex and drugs and rock'n'roll were great, but the revolution existed only in my imagination.
Slowly and unsurely, I adjusted to reality. The landslide Tory victory in the 1983 general election made it clear that the post-war social-democratic welfare state settlement was rather more fragile than I had assumed. A year later, I got a job working for European Nuclear Disarmament, the part of the 1980s movement against nuclear weapons that was least enamoured of the Soviet Union , and found myself mixing more and more with people on the soft left of the Labour Party, with whom I had surprisingly few disagreements. The debacles of the 1984-85 miners' strike and the 1986-87 Wapping dispute finally disabused me of the notion that the class struggle at the point of production was the key to socialist advance. I succumbed to Kinnockite reformism. In 1986, I was hired as reviews editor of Tribune, and soon after that joined the Labour Party. I suppose I've been a Labour reformist libertarian socialist ever since.
But what, as the girl asked, does it actually mean in practice?
Let's start with the negatives. Libertarian socialism entails taking a stand against any strand of authoritarianism anywhere in the world. Leninist mountebanks, New Labour spin-doctors, foreign dictators, Islamist bigots, Christian fundamentalists, CIA assassins, Tory racists, BNP fascists – all are enemies that must be relentlessly tracked down, exposed and never appeased or excused. Every state needs to be monitored constantly on freedom of expression, freedom of organisation and prison conditions – and any state must be denounced loudly whenever it censors its critics, imprisons its writers and trade unionists or tortures its prisoners in dingy cells. Much the same applies to capital: the line is no-holds-barred antagonism to exploitation everywhere in the world.
That, though, is the easy bit. The positives are more difficult. Yes, libertarian socialists can support all the usual liberal good causes, from proportional representation to libel reform, and they can rail against the capitalist system. But there's more to what we stand for than that.
Or there should be. Unfortunately, there's not a lot going on right now in austerity Britain that gets the libertarian socialist juices flowing. The whole political class is enthusing about self-organisation and civil society, but – UK Uncut and student protesters notwithstanding – the popular mood is more sullen and apathetic than at any time in living memory. When you're broke and worried about your job and about keeping up the rent or the payments on your house, you retreat from engagement with politics. David Cameron's 'big society' is nothing more than fraudulent ideological cover for cutting public spending to pay for the bankers' gambling debts. Working people are facing a quite extraordinary squeeze because the big players of finance capital cocked up.
This is where libertarian socialism gets problematic. In an ideal world, I'd like to see co-ops running the local buses and democratic housing associations controlling most rented living spaces – but in the absence of a revolution, which isn't on the agenda, the only context in which it could happen would be a big, generous, redistributive social-democratic state that taxed the rich and used the proceeds to forge a more equal and democratic society. I want that state, I want it now, and I want it more than I want my windows cleaned by a profit-sharing workers' collective.
So although I'm all in favour of do-it-yourself socialist initiatives, I can do without them for now. Like it or not, the priority today is the battle to prevent the destruction of state services by the coalition government, and it's backs-against-the-wall. Maybe that makes me a very unlibertarian orthodox left social democrat – but that's the way it is. Now for that washing-up...
Cross-posted from Chartist.