Is democracy working? It didn’t work if you were a family living on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower. Those families, those individuals, 79 so far and there will be more, were murdered by political decisions taken over recent decades”.
You know those police dramas, where the detective stares at a clue for ages before suddenly realising he was looking in the wrong place and missing the real story? I experienced just such a moment while pondering those remarks by John McDonnell at Glastonbury.
At first, like everyone else, I thought the most important part of his statement came at the end, with his use of the term “murder”. And then it came to me. The most important part of what he said was at the beginning.
The shadow chancellor didn’t question if austerity is working. Or if capitalism is working. Or if the government is working. His attack instead is on democracy. The deaths, the “murders”, happened because democracy isn’t working. This, I think, is the key to understanding his approach and that of Jeremy Corbyn.
Let’s begin at 12.15 on Thursday April 11, 1974, an important moment in the history of modern socialism. Sir Anthony Part, permanent secretary at the department of industry, has come to see his secretary of state, Tony Benn, relatively recently appointed to his post. In his diary, Benn records his version of their exchange. Part “hummed and hawed a bit and then said, ‘Minister, do you really intend to go ahead with your National Enterprise Board, public ownership and planning agreements?’.”
When Benn, who regarded himself as the author of these policies, responded, “Of course”, Part pressed him on whether he was serious. Because if he was, he could count on a massive confrontation with business, a campaign of resistance. And with that, Part tabled a paper suggesting ways in which his policy might be relaxed.
The encounter took its place in the left’s mythology as Benn cited it in many speeches over the following decades. It symbolised the way in which a socialist programme would be resisted by the establishment, by the institutions that controlled the system. Jeremy Corbyn, who regarded Tony Benn as his intellectual father and was one of his closest political friends, will have heard the tale many times.
The programme that Part, acting “simply as a mouthpiece for the CBI”, was attempting to obstruct was one that Benn regarded as truly democratic. At its core was control of industry by the people who work in it and the direction of strategic investment by the state, acting on behalf of the working class. The real expression of democratic will was not through parliament and the government but on the shopfloor and on the street.
The Bennite idea was to borrow to invest in the shares of strategic industries. The government would then use this ownership, and other laws, to conclude planning agreements between the state, the unions and management. These agreements would direct investment, and meanwhile government would assist those workers who wished to take over their companies, some of whom would simply occupy their workplaces.
The Bennites also advanced the notion of industrial democracy, going beyond the German model of participation on supervisory boards, insisting instead that executive boards should have more than 50 per cent worker representation.
Democracy is not parliament voting on laws after an election every few years, it is control by working people of their own lives, of the means of production, of the management of their workplaces and of the capital invested in businesses. It is always democratic to insist upon these rights, even if it involves breaking laws made by parliament.
So when John McDonnell calls on a million people to rise in protest on the streets and force Mrs May out of office, he regards it as baffling that anyone should suggest this is undemocratic. Because the demand by protesters that the establishment should yield power can never be undemocratic. And the idea that a government that controls central institutions and governs in the interests of capital can ever be truly democratic he regards as laughable.
It is wrong to argue that he wants violence. Violence is what he thinks the controllers of the state and capital use in order to enforce their domination. What he wants is a surrender to democratic ideas and forces, without anyone having to use violence.
I don’t think this is a caricature of his position. It is not intended as such. It is an attempt to understand and explain the things that he and Jeremy Corbyn say and believe.
The support Mr Corbyn shows for people like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, his appearances hosting phone-ins on Iranian state-funded television, or his dealings with Hamas and Hezbollah are much easier to understand when it is recognised that he doesn’t see Britain as a real democracy. The voices of protest and resistance are what he regards as really democratic.
This grassroots socialism was the brainchild of intellectuals of the New Left, people like Ralph Miliband and Robin Blackburn who linked up with Corbyn and Benn in the 1990s through the Independent Left Corresponding Society. It replaced the centralisation of orthodox communism — which they saw as leading to Stalinism — with a pluralistic society of street-level democracy.
What Labour is building now through a mass party and social media should be seen as much more than a formidable election machine. The New Left has always believed that the party should “prefigure” the society it is trying to create. So the anarchism and equality of social media and the enthusiasm of crowds enjoying rock festivals is a model for the sort of society Jeremy Corbyn wants to create.
I can’t pretend that I see this as anything other than hopelessly naive. I believe it will impoverish us all, the vulnerable most of all. I think it will be more tyrannical than democratic. I think it would collapse in lawless chaos. But I also accept it is a powerful and radical idea that deserves to be explained and debated. And if Mr McDonnell and Mr Corbyn would rather not, we must demand that they do.
To consider Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge as being merely on the levels of spending or corporation tax is to miss the point entirely. As Mr Corbyn put it when speaking to his constituency party: “Our job is not to reform capitalism, it’s to overthrow it.”
If we are going to have a big public argument about Corbynism let’s at least ensure it’s on the right topic.