Book Reviews

Wherefore Art Thou Socialism?



A Review of Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys

Matt McManus

Department of Sociology, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, (2020) Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, London: Verso.


What the [United States] was much more concerned about, even in the wake of the election that brought Mrs. Thatcher to office clearly representing a powerful neoliberal response to the crisis of the 1970s, was the apparent persistence on the Western European Left of radical socialist political alternatives. This was expressed in the strength of the Bennite call for economic democracy inside the Labour Party in the early 1980s…Panitch and Gindin 2012, p. 196.

— Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire

There are many kinds of Marxist theorist out there. Some follow the path laid out by Marx the young Hegelian, diving into the twisted Hades of contemporary philosophical debates in the hope of rising high to Empyrean insights. There are those who dedicate themselves to the critique of ideology and contemporary culture, writing big books with mysterious titles like Valences of the Dialectic andLess Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. Some turn to Marx the journalistic firebrand who delighted in his ability to take pot-shots at bourgeois sanctimony and sacred cows. And, finally, there are those like the late Leo Panitch who write equally big, but more sober-minded books that continue the Marxist critique of political economy through a hard-edged look at concrete events on the ground. Panitch’s 2012 opusThe Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, co-authored with long-time friend and collaborator Sam Gindin, became an immediate classic in this field with good reason. It was an incisive and penetrating look at how twentieth-century capitalism spread across the world under the auspices of American state power.

Interestingly, Panitch and Gindin resist the common urge to wax nostalgic about the social-democratic heyday of the mid-century, often subject to golden-age style ruminations by many non-Marxist leftists.See Piketty 2014. Panitch and Gindin insisted that we understand social-democratic welfarism and the Bretton Woods system of monetary stabilisation as phases in the ascendancy of America’s capitalist empire, through which radical dissent was pacified and many post-colonial states brought into the fold. This, of course, reflected a lifelong wariness of social-democratic compromise on Panitch’s part, which still has many lessons for us today. He criticised social-democratic parties for becoming hierarchically organised bureaucracies, which, at best, sought to channel working-class agitation through establishment mechanisms, and at worst overtly tried to temper them.See Maher 2020. This contributed to the failure of social-democratic parties to actually construct new civil-society and activist groups and institutions that could permanently shift power in society away from the top and towards the bottom. This would have calamitous consequences. When the political window for an even more muscular form of capitalism opened, we got the temporary but pronounced triumphalism of the neoliberal era which last until the collapse of the global economy in 2008.

Panitch and Gindin flirted with the possibility that these forms of economic precarity and hardship might lead to the renewal of genuinely radical politics, observing that the ‘aspiration for a world beyond capitalism is once again [broadly] extant today’, but also recalled Perry Anderson’s sound advice that one of the ‘basic axioms of historical materialism [is] that secular struggle between classes is ultimately resolved at the political – not the economic or cultural – level of society’.See Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, quoted in Panitch and Gindin 2012, p. 340. In other words, crisis was the herald of change. But contra vulgar Marxist teleologies, while this change might be progressive it can also be reactionary. Much depends on how the moment is framed and seized by political actors, and whether the left can harness the anxieties and yearning for transformation unlocked by crisis and austerity. Often it is the political right that will benefit by channelling these energies into a nationalist and revanchist politics of resentment.See McManus 2019 and 2020 for my own take on these events.

            Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn is a fascinating book that navigates a number of these haunting possibilities in the chaotic days of the post-Blairite era. This was a time of profound realignment in British politics, as the hegemony of Thatcherite austerity and muscular nationalist cosmopolitanism gave way to instability, Brexit, and more instability. Panitch and Leys trace how the radical left under Jeremy Corbyn seized this moment to advance a genuine democratic-socialist alternative to the status quo that successfully gained nominal control over the Labour Party and made a serious and (for a time) seemingly popular bid for power. But as is well known, by 2019, the bloom was decidedly off the rose. Corbyn and his allies decisively lost the key general election that cemented Boris Johnson and the Tories’ decade-long grip on power, thus ensuring that a combination of hard Brexit and kitschy British nationalism was to be the order of the day. This was obviously a stinging defeat for many of us who were optimistic that Corbyn’s initial electoral success heralded a new dawn for the political left generally, and Panitch and Leys are admirably blunt about the gravity of the defeat.

They also spend a great deal of time ruminating on the lessons Corbynism has for radical movements going forward. Their most important argument is that we should not overestimate the tractability of elites and institutions in the post-neoliberal centre-left parties. While Panitch and Leys claim it could be possible to elevate them into vessels for radical change, it would entail a far more thorough transformation than a merely nominal change in leadership. Moreover, they also highlight that the sometimes-myopic focus on parties and electability can distract from the need to build more enduring civil-society and activist groups on the ground that can serve as an enduring counterweight to the political and cultural power of capital.

Now, to some extent, I think Panitch and Leys understate the importance of parliamentary politics as an explanation for Corbyn’s defeat specifically. He was undeniably handicapped by both an intransigent party and the need to effectively rebuild mass left-activist groups linked to Labour from scratch. But Corbyn’s principled ambivalence about Brexit and its consequences – the issue that has by now dominated UK politics for the better part of a decade – also played a role: in particular, the inability to bring together the two major factions of the left that often split on this issue: the mostly northern working class, and cosmopolitan social progressives centred in big urban spaces like London. In this respect, Panitch and Leys’s own focus on one of these factions is problematic, and occasionally even nostalgic for an earlier time when the industrial working class was conceived as the primary or even sole motor for progressive change. Any future effort will face similar problems and have to do better. These lessons are all-important as we internalise the ever-vital Beckettian lesson to ‘fail, fail again, fail better’.

When Is a Labour Party Not a Labour Party?

Through the mid twentieth century, the Labour Party was held up as the standard-bearer for a kind of reformist parliamentary socialism capable of winning elections within a liberal framework and enacting vital reforms. Its most notable triumph was the introduction of the NHS in 1948, which remains so popular that subsequent Conservative leaders have not only refused to challenge it but have even postured as its most stalwart defender. As Jeremy Gilbert put it in his excellent Twenty-First Century Socialism:

Most modern societies contain at least some important institutions that have a more or less socialist character. A famous example is Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) which provides full healthcare for all citizens. This healthcare is directly funded by central government and is free at the point of use … Apart from the fire brigade, it is the most popular and trusted institution in the country. Most British people simply regard the fire service as utterly heroic (without knowing that the Fire Brigades Union is one of the most consistently radical unions in the country); but everybody knows that the NHS is a politically distinctive institution.See Gilbert 2020, pp. 35–6.

This story is well known to many on the left, and is often held up as an example of overtly redistributive and socialist measures being not simply popular but defining features of societies where they are introduced. But Gilbert reminds us that, in fact, the path to the NHS never ran smooth. Many in the Labour Party initially resisted the introduction of what was to become their signature initiative, it primarily having been the project of ardent radicals such as Aneurin Bevan, and his supporters among the British working class. This wariness about going too far within Britain’s premiere ‘left’ party, even when at the height of its prestige and power, is a recurring theme in Panitch and Leys’s book, and indicative of the ways in which social-democratic parties generally remained embedded in capitalist relations of power. It also reflects Panitch’s longstanding argument about the tendency of social-democratic parties in general to mollify the creative thrust of working-class activism through channelling or moderating it via bureaucratic management. This, in turn, meant leaving the foundational power structures largely intact, meaning the modest egalitarian reforms achieved by social democracy were extremely vulnerable to roll-back in the event of long-term Conservative electoral success and a shift in political culture. Panitch and Leys argue that only a few forward-thinking radicals like Tony Benn were aware of this problem and actively sought to do much about it, thus making Benn’s side-lining by the Labour establishment appear rather tragic in hindsight.

            For Panitch and Leys, the key decade where these tensions firmly came to a head was the 1970s, when the party was torn between the conciliatory approach of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and the radical democratisation of party, state, and economy put forward by Tony Benn. The long strikes of 1978–9 – infamously dubbed the ‘Winter of Discontent’ – led to Margaret Thatcher’s sweeping victory in 1979. This was coupled with the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States, leading to a prolonged period of conservatives confidently marching from political victory to victory across much of the Anglosphere. Initially, the Labour Party moved partially to the left to counter the Tories, issuing a progressive platform that was arguably its most egalitarian for some time. But Labour badly lost the subsequent general election, seeing its vote-share decrease to its lowest since 1918. This led later commentators to describe its quasi-socialist 1983 electoral platform as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Many took this as a sign from heaven that Labour needed to moderate itself further, though Panitch and Leys decisively disagree. They hold that, in 1983, ‘nothing could have defeated Thatcher’Here, I think Panitch and Leys spend too little time focusing on how the appeal of Thatcherism itself played a major role in ensuring her victory, in part due to her singular ability to refashion the political right in more radical and insurrectionary terms. Thatcher’s charisma lay in her ability to present her revanchist and anti-egalitarian policies as an attack on calcified and comfortable elites who benefitted from statism and the alleged economic domination of trade unions. Indeed, Thatcher sometimes even appropriated overtly left-wing rhetoric about the desire to achieve a classless society, just one that would happen to have even more stratified classes. This would be achieved through erasing political protections for vulnerable and elite groups alike, compelling them to compete within the dominant sorting framework of the market. Thatcher’s own status as a firebrand up-and-comer within the traditionally staid Conservative Party gave credence to this mythologisation, as did her uncanny nose for mobilising nationalist sentiments during an economic crisis to direct animosity away from her party and towards a shared opponent. These political gifts, coupled with a Machiavellian instinct for self-preservation that often kept her from going too far by attacking institutions such as the NHS, all ensured Thatcher’s continued success in spite of the tremendous damage caused by her policies. As did her ability to appropriate the rhetoric of left-radicalism for the purposes of conservatism, a talent many conservatives have shown again and again. See Robin 2018. coming off the high of victory in the Falkland Islands war, and certainly not a divided party that was torn between pronounced socialist and moderate wings.See Panitch and Leys 2020, p. 111. Whatever the cause, Labour’s defeat in 1983 ensured that the right’s initial win was no fluke, and opened the door to a smooth and disastrous continuation of Thatcherism well into the next decade.

            The right’s strident political victories through the 1980s, coupled with the collapse of the major Soviet bloc states in the early ’90s, immeasurably increased the prestige of neoliberal capitalism while seeing socialism reduced to its lowest ebb. This was the time of Francis Fukuyama’s famous ‘end of history’ thesis, where it seemed for a time that any prospect of a comprehensive and appealing alternative to capitalism emerging was as remote as the United Kingdom abruptly becoming a hockey superpower.See Fukuyama 2006. Labour responded with a long period of soul-searching and the gradual marginalisation or outright banishment of its left wing. Initially these seemed to bear ripe fruit when in 1997 ‘New’ Labour under Tony Blair won a gigantic victory against the now very-long-in-the-tooth Conservatives, who had been in power for almost 20 years. At the time, this was held to be a staggering upset. Blair won 43 per cent of the vote through simultaneously promising to sand off the harsh edges of Thatcherism while largely adhering to its economic and political outlook. But things were not nearly as bright as they seemed. A mark of hegemony is not just the capacity to impose your political will on the population, but the ability to compel the opposition to move in the direction you want them to. Seen from this perspective, Blair’s victory seems less a repudiation than an affirmation of the political right’s programme. As Margaret Thatcher herself put it in 2002, when asked what her greatest achievement was: ‘Tony Blair. We convinced our opponents to change their mind.’ But as it turned out not everyone’s mind was so changed, and with good reason. As Panitch and Leys rightly observe:

After Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997, the modernisers – rebranded as ‘New Labour’ – had thirteen years in which to put their vision to the test, backed by large majorities in the Commons and sympathetic treatment from the media. By 2010 the project had failed comprehensively. It was clear that there was in fact no ‘third way’ for ‘hard-working people and their families’ to lead stable and satisfying lives within the dynamics of neoliberal globalized capital. Yet many MPs, particularly those who had been recruited by the modernisers, and a majority of party officials, remained opposed to any significance change of direction in party policy.See Panitch and Leys 2020, p. 132.

This transition to ‘third way’ neoliberalism with an allegedly human face is rightly ridiculed as a disastrous concession to the power of capital, and compounded the corrosion of the working-class civil-society and activist groups that once provided a vital counterweight to its uncontested hegemony. However, even here, Panitch and Leys’s analysis is somewhat one-sided in not acknowledging how the kind of socially-liberal policies backed by rainbow coalitions, and embodied in figures like Clinton, Blair and Obama, did in fact achieve (modest) gains for women, people of colour, and LGBTQ figures. The biggest flaw in defences of social liberalism is that these could only be bought at the cost of permanently side-lining confrontations with capital,This was often the implicit position of self-identified post-Marxist figures like Chantal Mouffe through the 1990s, though she has since transitioned to a more economically radical stance. See Mouffe 2006. leading to the vulgarities of ‘woke’ capitalism so depressingly ubiquitous today.And persisting in the politics of figures like Hillary Clinton and Emmanuel Macron. But recognising this transition is crucial to understanding the twenty-first century make-up of both Labour and the global left generally, and explaining the tensions that continue to hold us back. Panitch and Leys’s analysis would be slightly richer had it engaged with some of these points.

The Rise and Fall of Corbynist Radicalism

The reason for the collapse of support for New Labour and other forms of ‘third way’ politics – so integral to the Spice Girls era’s image of ‘Cool Britannia’ – comes down to two factors. The first, and, in hindsight, most baffling, was Blair and other war criminals’ decision to support the Bush-led war on Iraq. Panitch and Leys rightly point out that it was a colossal mistake for the Prime Minister to effectively offer the Americans a blank cheque early in the War on Terror, which quickly mutated from an effort to halt Al-Qaeda into a massive exercise in classic imperial hubris and post-modern fantasies about how easily Western violence could remake the world. Blair’s decision to back Bush erased any remaining goodwill he might still have enjoyed from progressives, and the Iraq war was becoming the noose from which a strangulated New Labour was unable to extricate itself. The second reason was the fantastic spectacle of a party nominally committed to labour responding to the great recession by giving billions to the major banks while implementing austerity measures for the rest of the country, with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer promising to cut ‘deeper and tougher’ than Maggie herself would have done.See Elliott 2010. Unsurprisingly voters decided in 2010 that if they wanted a Conservative in charge they might as well vote for the real deal, and that year David Cameron took office. The result was to throw Labour into an ongoing existential crisis that in many ways continues to this day. Initially the response of the rank and file was to crown social democrat Ed Miliband the new leader of the party. Panitch and Leys are notably warmer towards Miliband than his predecessor, acknowledging his lukewarm but still real effort to tilt the party back towards the left and above all to democratise its increasingly kleptocratic and insular machinery. One mistake was an unwillingness to look beyond the party to the construction of broader working-class movements, which likely contributed to Miliband’s meagre support in the 2015 election. Quite surprising, coming off years of austerity politics that contributed to the 2011 UK riots.

After Miliband’s defeat in 2015, there was widespread expectation on the part of party elites that the new leader would carry on with business as usual. But a combination of growing anger at austerity, deepening anxiety about the lack of genuine political alternatives, and a surge in youth participation – much of it driven by social media – eventually won Jeremy Corbyn the crown instead. This was immediately condemned by many within the Labour Party, who characterised the election of an overt radical as a form of political suicide. This was in spite of Corbyn’s indisputable capacity to inspire grassroots activism for his democratic-socialist policies and a surge in party membership that made Labour the largest political party in Europe. The insistence that Corbyn would be toxic to voters proved misguided when he increased the party’s seats and vote share in the 2017 election with a popular manifesto promising to scrap tuition fees, renationalise major industries and push for more affordable housing. Emboldened by this surge, Corbyn advanced an even-more stridently left platform in 2019 in the expectation of the first democratic-socialist party being elected in decades. It was not to be, of course, and instead the Tories, under the stridently pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson, received an enlarged mandate to govern. Moreover, much of the discourse around Corbyn himself had turned ugly, with the truly nasty accusations that he was antisemitic and soft on terrorism swallowing up the public’s initial goodwill. For many centrist commentators, this affirmed what they had been saying from the very beginning: that Corbyn and the left were too radical, too irresponsible, and too scary to ever be trusted with leadership of a major political party. The Labour Party even took the remarkable step of throwing Corbyn out of the party itself, as if to exorcise once and for all the possible futures he had raised.

Why Did the Left Lose?

Corbyn’s loss was devastating to many on the left. All the dominoes seemed aligned for the neoliberal consensus that had dominated British politics since the 1980s to fall. The Tories had mismanaged the country for close to a decade, implementing unpopular austerity measures and then dragging the nation through the (ongoing) pain of Brexit. Rather like Trump’s vain claim that Mexico would pay for his border wall, it turned out that Johnson and Nigel Farage’s claims that Brexit would be a painless and proud assertion of British sovereignty against a cowed EU were misleading. The country is suffering from fuel and food shortages of the sort that wouldn’t be out of place in wartime. Tensions in Northern Ireland have sparked again for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, and there is more than a small chance that Scotland could hold a second referendum and declare independence. Coupled with a huge base of grassroots support, and with an energised youth vote on his side, there seemed no reason why Corbyn could not just brush Johnson aside and implement his ambitious agenda to reform the British neoliberal state.

            For Leys and Panitch, the roots of Corybn’s defeat have to be understood on several levels. The two most important are what I will call the structural and electoral levels. Firstly, one needs to grasp the increasingly long history of the Labour elite’s animosity toward the party’s left flank. This persisted even, and in part because of, Corbyn’s capacity to bring in new supporters and centres of power. This was perceived as threatening the moderates’ hold on the party, and worse still making that permanent should Corbyn succeed in being able to carry through the Bennite project of democratising its core institutions and re-establishing horizontal nodes of power in activist movements and what remains of unions and workers’ organisations. As a consequence of these factional animosities, Labour never truly rallied around Corbyn in a manner analogous to Eurosceptical and Europhilic Tories alike falling behind Johnson, or the Republicans lining up with Trump.

Here, I think Leys and Panitch correctly diagnose the limitations of a myopic fixation on party and parliamentary politics at the expense of other forms of organising. One could add that the political left might benefit from learning from the history of the global right. In the 1960s, many predicted that the colossal electoral defeat of Barry Goldwater signalled a permanent shift to the left in American and potentially world politics. In fact, the modern right’s early efforts to construct well-funded and enduring think tanks, civil-society groups, and a permanent activist base to serve as a vital complement to party politics bore dark fruit with the paradigm-shifting election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.See Lowndes 2009. This was an effort decades in the making, and it was not one that would be obvious to superficial commentators steadfast in their belief that the post-New Deal consensus which shaped both Democrats and Republicans would persist indefinitely. The left would benefit from learning from these efforts, and perhaps paradoxically drawing some optimism from the fact that if they did it, we can as well.

Secondly, despite initial appearances, Corbyn in fact faced a very difficult electoral landscape in both 2017 and especially 2019. Part of this can be chalked up to the relentless efforts by opponents, media, and not a few in the Labour Party rank and file, to paint Corbyn as a dangerous antisemite. Leys and Panitch spend a lot of time discussing this, and rightly so. But more important still was Corbyn’s inability to navigate the very narrow path on Brexit open to him, and here I think Panitch and Leys’s analysis could use a touch up. Much of their attention is directed towards describing Labour’s betrayal of its working-class and provincial/industrial constituencies, which were consequently gobbled up by Tories promising both higher wages through decreasing levels of immigration and the restoration of more proximate sites of political power through renewed national sovereignty. Leys and Panitch are right to analyse this development, and to condemn Labour’s inability to appeal to its traditional working-class base. But as mentioned previously, they also do not pay enough attention to the other side of the story, and what it says about the left. In some respects, they remain too enamoured of the monological class-minded interpretation of left-wing activism and politics which defined the pre-70s era. This is unusual, given the pronounced anti-nostalgia of Panitch’s other work analysing the heyday of social democracy and criticising its conciliations with capital.Panitch and Gindin 2012.

Since the Blairite transition, the Labour Party’s electoral support base had become increasingly urban and cosmopolitan. In some respects, this has resulted in a transition to looking to white-collar, middle-class voters for support. However, even if many of the activists who supported Corbyn did not necessarily work in traditionally blue-collar occupations, they were nevertheless well aware of both the impact of austerity on their lives and schizophrenia-inducing neoliberal precarity. This was the group that found Corbyn’s 2017 promise to end ‘zero-hours’ contracts, to reduce tuition-fees, and to be militant on behalf of women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people electrifying. Many in this group were not opposed to progressive economic policies, but their primary commitment was to a politics of left-liberal toleration and cosmopolitan openness. For these voters, the often xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric surrounding Brexit made it non-negotiable. This put them sharply at odds with many in Labour’s industrial base, who may have an instinctive distaste for the Tories but found their promises on wages and economic renewal more convincing in spite of – or even because of – its nativist packaging. In his problematic book The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left, the journalist John B. Judis makes a case for this position:

The young British left was squarely in the ‘remain’ camp, benefiting above all from their post-industrial metropolitan location at the centre of globalized finance. Their analysis betrayed a contempt for British nationalism. It attributed support for Brexit to imperial nostalgia or anti-immigrant racism. There was no support for restrictions on immigration to protect workers from low wage competition.See Judis 2020, p. 110.

Judis’s contemptuous dismissal of the ‘young’ cosmopolitan left’s positions is misguided for a number of reasons, not least because the kind of narrow nation-state socialism he proposes is both indifferent to the universal aspirations of radicals to achieve justice for all and, more strategically, ill-equipped to respond to the global dynamics of an integrated twenty-first century society. But Judis does accurately highlight an electoral divide within the Labour Party’s base that Leys and Panitch do not spend sufficient time interrogating. This is because they are occasionally too stubbornly committed to classical materialist analysis based on class interests. This ignores the fact that any modern left party will have to manage the very difficult task of reconciling a cosmopolitan and pluralistic wing motivated by the inclusion of marginalised groups and the breakdown of nationalist borders with a more traditionalist faction that may be all for economic radicalism but sees the exclusionary nation-state as the primary locus for advancing change for the population. Creating long-term coalitions that speak to both wings and can achieve electoral success is entirely possible, as the pro-migrant examples of Podemos and Syriza indicate. Indeed, to the extent that the left is committed to egalitarian redistribution of power on all fronts, it is entirely consistent to simultaneously demand both greater respect for minorities and non-nationals and the pursuit of economic democracy. Nation-state socialists like Judis often miss this principled point in their lurching for strategic advantage. But there has yet to be a knock-down example of a left party which successfully achieves so integral a synthesis between the two, and where the result is not fracture and discontent around election time. Achieving this requires a careful combination of intellectual synthesis and contextually sensitive grassroots activism, which ideally will complement one another.

And, unfortunately, all these more immediately political issues played a big part in Corbyn’s loss, in addition to the more structural issues discussed earlier.In terms which are more determinative, I do think Panitch and Leys rightly stress the latter. But, in the long-term, creating a viable political and cultural synthesis between the different factions of the British left is a requisite step to engaging in the kind of structural transformations endorsed by Panitch and Leys, and ensuring they are both enduring and impactful. Panitch and Leys are at their best in describing how challenging it was to simultaneously affirm the razor-thin results of the Brexit referendum to Labour’s dwindling number of Leave voters, while placating Remainers for whom Euroscepticism was inseparable from a kind of cringeworthy nationalism at best and outright xenophobia at worst. In some respects, Corbyn’s proposal to negotiate for a soft Brexit with the EU before pitching the resultant deal to the public alongside the option to stay was the most democratic route. But the right thing to do is not always great politics, and, in the end, a sufficient number of people were captivated by Johnson’s promise to get Brexit done one way or another. It is sadly indicative of the retreat from complexity that defines post-modern politics that the straightforward and wrong so often triumphs over the complex and right. Perhaps one consolation is that, for the moment, Corbyn and the left’s attacks on neoliberal policies, coupled with the massive economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic, do appear to have forced a more populist Conservative Party to move towards the centre on issues like wages and quality of life for labourers. In this sense Corbyn can take some satisfaction in knowing he helped shift the Overton window on neoliberal economic hegemony.

Conclusion: Remembering Leo Panitch

The early mass socialist parties were organizing the workers movement, they were not representing a pre-existing, already-made class. Those parties were crucial agents in the making of the modern working class. One of the reasons the US working class was so underdeveloped ideologically, organizationally – so likely to call itself ‘middle class’ – was precisely that after 1896 workers were largely expelled from the political process without having a mass socialist party behind it, whereas the mass parties that arose in other parts of the world were engaged in developing workers’ capacities to think of themselves as workers. What the new generation will have to be engaged in, as it is engaged in electoral politics, is also a struggle to remake the working class.

— Leo Panitch, ‘The Long Shot of Democratic Socialism is Our Only Shot’.See Panitch 2020.

Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn is an enjoyably down-to-earth and focused read that showcases its authors in a surprisingly nostalgic mood. It is not hard to see why. The trajectory of Labour politics in the United Kingdom over the past 50 years tells the story of gigantic defeats for the left, sell-out efforts that paradoxically made the party less appealing, of partially restored hopes, and fully restored disappointments. It is a book full of hard lessons for progressives, not least of which is the sheer challenge of trying to mobilise functionally conservative and elite-driven parties for radical purposes. If there is anything constructive to take away from the momentary Corbynist revival of democratic socialism in the United Kingdom, Panitch and Leys stress the twofold need to build mass political movements active on several fronts and then mobilise their energy to democratise first the party apparatus and then the state. This was Tony Benn’s dream, and Corbyn’s electoral success in 2017 proved it can be a route to political success. But I would argue that, until the left finds a way to put aside its factionalist divides and unify behind a project that is both inclusively cosmopolitan and economically transformative, it will always be too weak to truly defeat the enormous powers brought to bear against us.

            Finally, I would like to end by taking a moment to reflect on Leo Panitch’s tragic passing in 2020. This likely makes Searching for Socialism the last major work we will see from a titan in the field; and, fortunately, it is an honourable and rich swan song replete with the canny intelligence and wisdom gleaned from decades advocating for a better world. Deeply aware that one of the left’s most important tasks is the education and politicisation of the marginalised, he was both an acute intellectual and a tremendously clear and incisive commentator. His books and articles were models of analytical precision and empirical rigour. But Panitch never gave into the temptation of writing exclusively for the kind of hyper-educated audience for whom litigating the technicalities of the Deleuze–psychoanalysis debate is the height of radical intervention.

One of the few forms of prejudice, even elitism, still permissible in twenty-first century left spaces is intellectual. One negative consequence of the left’s retreat from the mainstream and into the arts and academia has been its adoption of many of the ugliest sides of those cultures: a snobbish fixation on being the smartest and most in vogue, coupled with a yearning for enough countercultural social capital to make other left-wing writers green with envy. And, worst of all, the anti-materialist tendency to increasingly conceive of political radicalism on purely aesthetic lines; increasingly in terms of what is creative and novel rather than emancipatory for the marginalised and wretched of the earth. Panitch was never like this. He was always willing to write for the working class and speak directly to their anxieties, happy to share the academic spotlight with a myriad of co-authors and contributors, and never demanded of anyone what he was not willing to do himself. As someone who graduated from York – where I completed my PhD –, he was legendary for pushing his students to express themselves more precisely and carefully, while being supportive of their individual and unique perspectives. The left is much the poorer without him, and the wisdom and insights throughout Searching for Socialism testify to the impossibility of replacing him. But Panitch would be the first to encourage us to carry on, since the struggle for justice is in the end what is most important. The greatest testament we can pay to his life is for all of us to try and follow Panitch’s remarkable example.




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