‘Cranks’ v the ‘internationalist left’: Explaining the Labour left

A Socialist Campaign Group of MPs meeting

This is a conversation which has cropped up a few times, not least when that meme setting out the different Labour factions (sorry, I can’t find it) did the rounds. It’s a conversation which touches on a fundamental truth that anyone who’s been active in the Labour Party will be aware of: that there’s a difference between the politics of people like Len McCluskey and people like Nadia Whittome, both of whom can nonetheless be accurately described as being on the left of the party.

Jeremy Gilbert’s Guardian piece The Labour leadership contest has exposed new factions in the party stepped into this argument, and attempted to define the two schools of thought as the ‘orthodox’ and ‘radical’ left. He argued that these were new factions within the left.

I genuinely have no real opinion on the newness of these factions (insofar as they can properly be described as such), but I do feel that in this article all he was essentially doing was renaming two existing political viewpoints. Those viewpoints are those of the liberal/libertarian left and the authoritarian left. Explaining these viewpoints, and how they relate to Gilbert’s article and the concepts in it, can both explain my view of Gilbert’s article and help explain the different parts of the Labour left more broadly.

The basic framework

Before we plough on, it’s worth defining the basic framework used to create the concepts of the authoritarian left and the liberal/libertarian left. This graph can provide a useful jumping off point here (this particular example was created around the 2019 election platforms):

Social issues can be defined as meaning not-primarily-economic issues. The two most prominent strands of this are views on non-primarily-economic political policy issues (e.g. LGBT views, views on abortion) and views on how to achieve change (with authoritarianism defined in this regard as minimising the numbers of those in control and restricting partners based on who they are (insofar as these two things are separate), and libertarianism/liberalism defined in this regard as maximising it, i.e. spreading control, and being more open to working with people with whom there is difference but with whom common ground can be found (e.g. see Paul Mason’s support for a progressive alliance, insofar as Mason can be described as being ‘on the left’)).

(We should be clear that by ‘social’ and ‘economic’ we mean what is widely held (amongst the broader politically aware public and, to perhaps a slightly lesser extent, the left) to mean social and economic in popular debate rather than the factual actuality, whatever that might be; e.g. you could argue that at least some some elements of racism are to an extent rooted in the economy).

You could certainly dispute the usefulness/accuracy of these two axes as a meaningful framework; all of my conclusions here are valid only insofar as we assume that it is a meaningful framework. The core of the rationale of this framework is that it holds that economic issues should be thought of as being on a distinct spectrum. My own views on this are not fully formed; perhaps all I can really add here is that there does seem to be a certain common instinct underlying individuals’ views on social political policy and views on how we should bring about change — a common instinct which could perhaps be described as ‘openness’.

This framework in relation to the case at hand

The reason I have the view I have on Gilbert’s article is that the distinctions between the radical and orthodox left outlined by Gilbert in the article closely fits this dichotomy — the one between liberal/libertarian and authoritarian.

From the original article -

‘Democratic’ fits in with the idea of difference in how we bring about change.

If we take ‘internationalist’ as I think it’s intended — to mean backing working with states whose political leadership we are not necessarily aligned with where appropriate (e.g. EU membership), as opposed to only backing working with avowedly socialist countries — then this can also relate to the authoritarian/liberal framework, with on the one hand an open, radical(/liberal) left looking to work with other countries wherever possible, based largely on the issues, and on the other hand an orthodox(/authoritarian) left looking to restrict who it works with here based on political identity.

Green issues are discussed below.

Putting aside concepts already discussed, ‘pluralistic’ is about how we bring about change and ‘libertarian’ simply explicitly fits our framework.

This ‘vision’ is clearly closely in step with ideas of difference existing between the two groups over how we create change.

Gilbert then touches on the Brexit issue. The Orthodox left was more likely to view the economic issues at stake here as a matter of being able/aiming to build socialism in one country, whereas the radical left was more likely to prefer to see the issue in terms of continent-wide transformation. This disagreement could either be viewed as simply strategic or as a result of the radical left placing relatively high value on open international collaboration; the latter explanation would clearly mark this out as a disagreement with an underlying dichotomy of authoritarian/libertarian instincts.

Furthermore, in general, the orthodox left tended to minimise (or even take a more authoritarian stance on) the relevant social policy aspects of the issue (absolutely most prominently, migration), whereas the radical left tended to read things more broadly. This minimisation is clearly an act which could be seen as relatively socially conservative (although even if it is, this aspect of the debate is not necessarily conclusively instructive as to the correct course of action on Brexit).

All of these themes have been covered above (or below, in the case of green issues).

Green issues are possibly the exception here, with this being a non-social issue (in terms of popular conception) that the radical left appear generally markedly more radical on. Insight as to why this is might arise from the fact that it, in popular conception, does not fall neatly into either primarily social or primarily economic issues — it may well be that it fits in between them, or simply cannot really be placed on a spectrum between the two. If we understand this we can understand that this difference on green issues this in fact falls in line with the authoritarian/libertarian framework explanation for the radical/orthodox left; being a somewhat social issue, even if this simply insofar in that it is not purely a classic economic issue, there is some additional radicalism here from the radical left here.

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