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Class struggle: any place but the Labour Party

The Blair project represents a belated modernisation revolution on the part of the British ruling elite, argues Don Flynn.

Future historians will look back on the events of our times and remark on the strange fact that an epoch so rich in revolutionary movements and upheavals should have gone so far with the abandonment of revolutionary politics. During the last fifteen years the world has been transformed by movements which 19th century revolutionaries and insurrectionists, from Buonarotti through to Marx would have recognised as a part of the landscape of their own times. Old regimes have outlived their usefulness; economies have ground to a halt; social crises have paralysed the will of the establishment; and the working masses have swamped the streets with their militant demonstrations and desire for change. From the eastern half of Europe through to southern Africa - and across to the Far East, which remains convulsed by radical movements to this very day - revolution remains firmly on the agenda.

In every case, serious political commentators acknowledge the class forces that are at work in the barrios and workplaces which fuel mass strikes and community-based struggles. From Gdansk to Seoul working class grievance has provided the dry tinder of radical social movements; yet in very few cases has a working class politics been generated capable of dictating the terms of change. In a rather academic summary of the dilemma of modern-day class struggle, Erik Olin Wright has written:

"... class structures... constitute the most fundamental social determinant of limits of possibility for other aspects of social structure. Class structures constitute the central organising principles of societies in the sense of shaping the range of possible variations of the state, ethnic relations, gender relations etc, and thus historical epochs can best be identified by their predominant class structures." (Classes, 1987)

In less opaque language, similar sentiments were reproduced on numerous occasions during last year's one hundred and fifty year centenary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and on many occasions by right wing opponents of Marx's schema for international revolutionary class struggle. Capitalism is a system engendered by conflict between its key constituent classes; its existence does promote periodic crisis; and there are permanent barriers to social mobility across class lines, which will always ensure that the poor remain poor and the rich, rich. Capitalism thrives on such tensions - and so, Long Live the Class Struggle!

Politicians against class struggle...

Paradoxically, it is just when the universal character of class society and class struggle has been accepted by the academics, historians and the best of the political commentators that working class politicians have given up on the concept, and have embraced the 'radical centre', proclaiming the possibility of social harmony between workers and capitalists. The rejection of old-style class-conscious politics has been a key part of the Blair project since its very earliest days. This was the true symbolic significance of the campaign to erase the old-style 'the world for the workers' Clause IV from the constitution of the Party. Calls for mutually beneficial co-operation between trade unions and employers have subsided over the years into naked enthusiasm for the thrusting, get-ahead aggression of entrepreneurial capitalism as against the sluggish, undynamic public sector. Politics is no longer about struggle over principled positions: it's about 'networking' and the effective use of the new gold standard - wondrous bits of information. Whilst from every other perspective the evidence of class interests, class action, and class struggle seems plain, from the standpoint of politics it has vanished into thin air to be replaced by the insubstantial and apolitical 'project'. What exactly is going on here?

Blair's class project

Much will be revealed about these matters if we insist on our right to view Blairism as the class project of our times. As all students of the power of ideology from Gramsci onwards will know, the ability to dictate the dominant terms of social and political discourse is the ability to function as a ruling class faction. If one group in society struggles to a position of ascendancy in society and is able to maintain to most people's satisfaction that 1) it is not ascendant, and 2) that it never ever struggled to get there, then it has succeeded in covering the tracks of its own personal class struggle. A joke told by socialists in the United States makes the point well:

Questioner: What is the secret of the American ruling class?

Reply: I didn't know there was an American ruling class.

Questioner: That's its secret.

Blairism represents, for the time being, a successful attempt on the part of an elite section of British society to organise itself behind a credible political programme and to push ahead with designs for modernising reform in its own class image. It has not abolished the class struggle, but has waged it with a remarkable degree of proficiency on its own terms and in its own way.

The need for the project, perceived by a fraction of British society transformed in its social and economic standing paradoxically by the transformations brought about by Thatcherism, can be simply stated. The change in the fortunes of the different fragments of British society during the 1980s, brought about by the shift in the balance between industry and finance capital, and within finance capital by the sweeping changes in the way capital markets were run after the City's 'Big Bang', ushered to the forefront new 'meritocratic' classes as big time movers and shakers. To some extent grateful to the Thatcher reforms for the upturn in their fortunes, they nevertheless could not be easily integrated into a Conservative political elite which itself was resistant to change in key areas. Amongst these were its attitudes to the archaic nature of the British state structure (the over-centralisation of power, the domination of English interests in the UK state, continued support for ossified and outmoded institutions like the House of Lords), and a negative and chauvinistic approach to Europe. Traditional Conservative attitudes on issues of sex equality were also an important obstacle to the assimilation of the new elite - a high proportion of whom were female achievers in the meritocratic professions of City finance, the law, and medicine.

The emerging elite needed a new vehicle for the advancement of its modernising political programme, and by the end of the 1980s there were signs that this would be best achieved through an alliance with the Labour Party. The signs were fortuitous in a number of respects. Radicals had long led this Party from bourgeois social backgrounds and their presence in its ranks was not considered incongruous. It was also in an advanced state of turmoil, with its own traditional elites bogged down in dogfights with critical fractions of the rank-and-file. In such a situation there were few obstacles to the relatively rapid advancement of talented individuals who were prepared to work hard. But perhaps most importantly, the new elite classes found within, paradoxically, a fragment of the socialist left's ideological legacy, ideas and propositions they could closely relate to. This might be summed up as the 'missing bourgeois revolution' thesis pioneered by New Left thinkers - most prominently Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn - in the 1960s.

The missing bourgeois revolution

Anderson and Nairn developed a remarkable analysis of British society over the years which held that the root cause of the British malaise was the failure of its ruling elites to produce a genuinely bourgeois transformation of the country's political culture. Around two hundred years previously, British ruling class fractions had done a deal which preserved the essentially aristocratic character of the British state, on a bed rock of modern commerce and finance. In the modern period, this failure to produce a thoroughgoing bourgeois revolution had translated into a national state apparatus that was chronically ill adapted to handle the pressures of the new ways of life. Minority nationalities suffered under the yoke of English imperialism; grassroots pressure for decentralisation away from Whitehall and Westminster went unheeded; newly emerging elites, despite their self belief in their own merit, were unable to negotiate their ways into the real centres of power and decision-making; and perhaps most crucially, the implications of the rise of Europe were unable to penetrate the brains of a traditional ruling class which assumed the Empire/Commonwealth, the financial power of the City, and the special relationship with the US represented the UK's permanent claim to be a world power.

It is now very clear just how this New Left agenda from the 1960s has powerfully influenced the core ideals of those who adhere to the Blair project. So strongly in fact that it is reasonable to regard the march to power of the new Labour meritocracy as th.e very bourgeois revolution, some two hundred years too late, which Anderson and Nairn lamented for its absence. Rather than representing the transcendence of class struggle, new Labour represents little more than one of its episodes, and its projects can be scrutinised even now for signs of the tensions and internal conflicts which will inevitably pull it apart.

New Labour tensions

Some of this looms even now. Current debates about the consequences of neglect of 'core' supporters; clear signs of unravelling of the famous private finance initiatives which were to replace taxation as the basis for funding public enterprise; the rottenness of foreign policy based on the power of NATO and dirty deals with other ostensibly modernising national elites, all point to an inauspicious future for the Blair project in the years ahead.

The tensions both within the Blair project and in its place in contemporary society are strongly influenced by the dimension of class struggle. New Labour is permanently affected by its situation within - or at least around - the labour movement - as the current debate about its problematic relationship with its 'core' supporters is showing. The success of the project depends, in the short term at least, on modernisation being achieved in key areas (education, the health service, transport). Blair is required to struggle for a degree of autonomy from direct parliamentary accountability and does this by such strategies as the appointment of high profile administrators of the Chris Woodhead variety, who clearly have far greater influence over policy decisions than the ministers they are supposed to serve, or by breaking up departments (transport, the environment, local government) into fragments which cannot be held together by even the most strong-minded of ministers. All the time he works to secure a social and economic base for the project that lies outside the democratic arena altogether - amongst ritually-praised entrepreneurs, reform-minded magnates, and investors strapped into the project through commitments to PFIs.

It is certainly the case that, during its hard-line anti-Tory phase, there was a coincidence of interests between proponents of the Blair project, with their desire for reform in the interests of a modernising elite class, and a working class-based movement for social and economic change. To some extent this continues - particularly in relation to Europe, where the triumph of the project over the reactionary, nationalistic impulses of Hague's Conservatives is one of the most urgent tasks of the current moment. But in many other areas of politics and social policy, Blairism is pulling hard away from working class interests. In key areas - the maintenance of a strong, well-financed public sector, and its basic commitment to democratic accountability, the project has moved into an area of politics that has been maintained and occupied throughout the ages by the most patrician of the elite classes.

In this way the ground is being marked out for the next phase of the class struggle. Somewhere, from deep within the bowels of society, forces will be assembled with class interests that bind them closely to the maintenance and development of democracy and a non-market public and social space. The big question is whether this movement will benefit from the focus and political leadership which Blair and his group have provided in promoting their belated revolution of the UK bourgeoisie.