I remarked the other day – and it’s by no means an original point – that the British Labour Party “needs to decide what it wants to be; a democratic socialist party or a social democratic party.” In other words, is it a Corbynite quasi-Marxist party, or is it part of the mainstream centre-left?
But because the first of those options is a great deal less popular than the second, its supporters need to obscure the issue. So take, for example, Jonathan Cook at Middle East Eye:
Anti-semitism has turned out to be the most useful – and damaging – weapon to wield against the Labour leader for a variety of reasons close to the hearts of the holdouts from the Blair era, who still dominate the parliamentary party and parts of the Labour bureaucracy.
Perhaps most obviously, the Blairite wing of the party is still primarily loyal to a notion that Britain should at all costs maintain its transatlantic alliance with the United States in foreign policy matters. Israel is a key issue for those on both sides of the Atlantic who see that state as a projection of Western power into the oil-rich Middle East and romanticise Israel as a guarantor of Western values in a “barbaric” region.
Corbyn’s prioritising of Palestinian rights threatens to overturn a core imperial value to which the Blairites cling.
I think there’s some truth in this. There really is a worldwide effort to equate all criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and it’s important to push back against that. The problem comes with the assumption that there is no middle ground between Blairite militarism and defence of war criminals on one hand, and Corbyn’s far-left anti-western views on the other.
In reality, centre-left (and some centre-right) parties across most of the world manage to fit comfortably within that middle ground. I suspect that’s where most Labour voters would like their party to sit as well.
It’s not just Britain, though. Australia’s Labor Party has clearly made its choice; it’s a social democratic party, firmly anchored in the mainstream. The Greens, however, are another story. There the argument is in full swing.
Hence Hall Greenland, from the hard left in the New South Wales Greens, was given space* in Crikey yesterday to defend his view of the party. He sees it in terms of the “Sanders/Corbyn” wave of radicalisation,
which rehabilitated a critical attitude towards capitalism and sympathy for “democratic socialism” as the alternative. … This was always bound to play out in Australia in the Greens because the Labor Party lacks anyone remotely able to play the Sanders or Corbyn role.
But this running together of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn is deeply misleading. Corbyn (like Greenland) really does want to overthrow capitalism; there is no place in his ideal society for the free market or private control of capital. But Sanders, who this week announced that he is again seeking the Democrat nomination for president, appears to have given up any such ambition.
Sanders still calls himself a socialist, but that just reflects the general American carelessness with political labels. In Europe, he would be clearly identifiable as a mainstream social democrat. Nor is there any evidence that his supporters are very different in their views from other Democrats.
As Jon Chait explained yesterday in a typically intelligent piece, it’s true that there has been an influx of actual socialists – the sort that Corbyn or Greenland would identify with – into the Democratic Party. But their numbers and influence remain small.
The entrance of far-left policy demanders in the Democratic Party is a very notable development that might lead to important changes over the long run. In the short run, the party is mostly the same.
And given the increasing distance between the Republican Party and anything resembling free market policies, Donald Trump’s attempt to use “socialism” as a campaign weapon is more than a little incongruous:
It is strange that Republicans are excitedly sharing 30-year-old clips of Bernie Sanders lauding aspects of the Soviet economy when Donald Trump is praising the North Korean economic model right now.
In all three countries, the moral is the same. The hard left, the people who really do want to destroy and replace capitalism, desperately need to present themselves as the only alternative to the right. To do that, they need to erase the whole category of social democracy. (And, for that matter, liberalism, but that’s another story.)
For both conceptual clarity and a sensible future for politics, it’s important that they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.
* At least I assume it was a gift. Since it reads like an advertisement it would be more appropriate if he’d had to pay for it, but there’s no evidence of that.