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January 17, 2010


Splintered Sunrise

Well, as long as we don't go from the valid bit of what Nick says to his rather odd conclusions about dhimmitude and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and so on...

But the Marxism Today crowd really are an open goal, are they not?

Paul Sagar

Hmm, bit quick to move from the feminist (whatever that means; "feminism" encompasses a very wide range of things) contention that the personal is political to the view that statism is at all times appropriate.

Good blog overall, but the need to be brief causes some unfortunate reductionism at points, I think.

Also, you can't just blame the failures of Marxism, from whichever angle you choose to describe that failure. You also need to take account of the successes of the New Right and (neo) liberalism.


Isn't all politics identity politics? "Working class" is an identity too.

Once the left come up with a response to neoliberalism that isn't 'pretend Thatcher never happened while openly pining for the Golden Age of beer & sandwiches at Number 10' we might be getting somewhere.

Larry Teabag

Good post, but your appeal to the dreadful Nick Cohen is rather unhelpful.

I don't deny that there is a worrying "tolerance of reactionary beliefs as long as they are expressed by non-whites" on parts of the left.

But Cohen sees it absolutely bloody everywhere (e.g http://www.nextleft.org/2009/03/fact-checking-nick-cohen.html
). Especially, of course, among people who express disapproval of bombing said reactionary non-whites.


No I don't think is "working class" is an identity. Or at least it didn't used to be. Social classes are - or were - primarily economic phenomena - they are defined by a shared economic interest around the relationship to property.

Being working class was about being a low-paid wage worker. If you worked as a coal miner or a factory labourer, it didn't matter what you wore, what newspaper you bought or what you drank you still shared an economic interest with your co-workers - higher wages, better working conditions, job security. Yes those economic groups also had strong shared cultures but it was their shared interests that made them a class.

In a way, the crisis of the Labour party is the death of their traditional constituency - the organised working classes who used electoral politics as a tool to further their shared interests. As this class fragmented, the shift to a politics of identity left the Labour party without a clear agenda for social change.


Basic definitions have to apply here. I'll give you your first two disastrous consequences, but the third – "refusal to think about class, especially when combined with a tendency to cringe before the rich and powerful" – surely marks the point where the people you're talking about stop being part of "the Left" at all?


"it’s my generation, the one that came to political consciousness in the 1980s, that is responsible for the Labour’s intellectual disarray."

Well the timing works a lot better. 1960 was half a century ago!


My take is that 'working class' is an identity rather than an economic or power grouping.

I prefer the libertarian class theory of the productive and political classes.
The working classes are generally members of the productive classes, and the bosses members of the political classes (their earnings being so often dependent upon legal privilege) but it isn't necessarily the case (managers and even owners could exist on a freed market, they would just not benefit from the legal privilege which gives them so much power).

I suppose this could be put in terms of the exploited and the exploiter - today the Labour Party is firmly on the side of the exploiter (but given its a political party and politics is the art of exploitation that is not surprising)

The Great Simpleton

You are right, the 80's did define the left, but in ways you haven't mentioned.

My take on it is that Labour and the left became so wrapped up in hating Thatcher they forgot to think about their own position and what they were for. Yes, they did claim to be on the side of the working class but then opposed many of the things the hated Thatcher did, even when they were popular with the working class - council house sales (rightly or wrongly) for instance, out of blind spite.

Another case was the EU, they went from being anti EU to very pro, in part because Thatcher was being so anti EU. This despite the working class having many suspicions about EU.

This is where their many minorities ideas came from, if they couldn't win the working class they would go with anyone else who claimed to be anti Thatcher, whether they agreed with their stance or not.

They are still suffering a hangover from that despite nearly 13 years in office as they watch the poor working class drift to the BNP.

Your point about economics follows on from this - Thatcher says something, the Left's against it. No economic argument, just its wrong because Thatcher's doing it, therefore we are against it.


An interesting idea, though you missed out the bit where all the future architects of (and key players in) New Labour abandon even identity politics in pursuit of raw power.


Your comments are extremely informed and interesting, however one criticism just as so many things British they are lacking in one respect - acknowledging the outside world. By the end of the 80s the Reagan/Thatcher tandem won an epochal victory against the USSR and the Eastern block. The disintegration of communist societies showed how Utopian and unworkable a socialist/Marxist ideology.

This in Labour's case I think created 2 things - an old-guard fringe still driven by the workers and Marxist contexts you are discussing and a much larger and ruthlessly practical 'third-way' Blairist core.

The latter used all kinds of rights, multi-cultural society, education and correcting any type of social woe as part of their political program just because it works.

From all of those you mention arguably the best thing they have done for the UK is the EU.

Trevor Brown

I can think of no society that doesn't resemble a pyramid.

Is it possible to build a better pyramid? This is what all the chattering is about.

Of course it will still be a pyramid after the horse trading and salami slicing.

The discussion ought to be about how to become a society which looks lîke an upside down pyramid.

But that's not going to happen because then the chatterers would have to move.


I agree with Trevor.

We need to radically re-align our political system so that it understands that it is there to serve and help and not to mirror hierarchies of power.

John Terry's Mum

"Is it possible to build a better pyramid? This is what all the chattering is about."

Well there are different kinds of pyramid, different proportions of top, middle and bottem, plus different degrees of steepness (the flatter the better in my opinion).

The top of the current UK pyramid has been shooting skyward, the middle getting thinned and the bottom becoming bigger and bigger.


This is worth a read...



I think this is a great post, and timely. Coincidentally - or perhaps not, given the new found appreciation of the Left's need to 'return to class' (Meiskin Woods etc), there's a similar debate emerging in the comments at http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com/2010/01/gramsci-intellectuals-and-class.html


Whatever the problems there may be with "identity politics" - and I recognise little of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-heterosexism in that phrase - this sounds a lot like a call to reinstate base and superstructure, the economic and the "merely" cultural. Maybe Althusser didn't influence you enough. I hope we're not returning to that kind of left conservatism. But the emphatic rejection in your Glyn quote certainly makes it sound like it.

And the claim that *feminism* brought about an explosion in government regulation is comical.


Erm, what's wrong with anti-Marxism? And why should anti-Marxism necessarily lead to new Labour? Where'd social democracy go?


Gorn, tell us how we need to condemn those Muslims more. Tedious Nick Cohen bollocks.

Will Davies

A very pertinent analysis. But to be academically perdantic, this doesn't entirely absolve the 60s generation. What dribbled into sociology, policy and management in the 1980s & 90s was the direct legacy of the emergence of the New Left and cultural studies in the 1960s.


"Social classes are - or were - primarily economic phenomena - they are defined by a shared economic interest around the relationship to property."

I think that used to be the case, but the fact that there's less and less correlation between people's income, property situation, hobbies, etc and what class they claim to be suggests that, these days, it's an identity thing. Class has been turned into "settee" v "sofa", and "dinner" v "lunch", rather than something related to people's economic interests.

The old ABC1 criteria no longer hold. It can be pretty galling for graduates in white-collar jobs earning £15K a year and living in shared houses to be told that they're the despicable bourgeoisie, while a plumber who earns £70K and owns two houses and three cars is apparently the proletarian salt of the earth.

Maybe we need a new system based on criteria that are relevant today - property owner v renting, permanent job v temporary, etc.

Nicole S

Inequality is no longer clear-cut. The poor include low-paid workers and the long-term unemployed, and their interests do not coincide at all. Does anyone know what a return to class politics entails?


One generation has passed, those who remember are fewer and some ideas try to come back from the grave.
As long as someone has bothered to, marxism has been proven time after time intellectually useless and politicaly pernicious. That the paranoia and cosnpirational theories that have taken their place in the left are more ridiculous doesn't make marxism any better.


This is quite excellent Chris, and distils a lot of what I've been thinking about for some time.

All I would add to your analysis is a point I made on a CiF blog by Yvonne Roberts the other day, which is that it is very easy for the political & media elite to stand firm against racism, sexism, homophobia and religious bigotry. They (we) invariably have friends, colleagues, family who are gay, black, Asian, whatever. If you're a Fabian stalwart or a Guardian columnist you can point to your gay friends and black colleagues and pat yourself on the back as to how right on you are.

But the (genuine) working classes are an alien species. They don't know how to pronounce 'ciabatta' and they don't read the Guardian. Frankly they're a bit embarrassing.

Once upon a time, Labour MPs included those who had come up through the unions, who still had the callouses on their hands. Journalists included those who had worked their way up from apprenticeships aged 15, who drank in the same pubs as the hot metal printers. Not any more.

The left, in all its forms, both within and outwith the Labour Party, is every bit as middle class as the right these days. It not only doesn't understand the working class, it actively fears and despises it.

Stephen H

I think this was right about 3 years ago.

Presently however the parties have split along a classic economic fissure which pit the interests of financiers against workers, inflation against jobs, Keynsianism against 80s style monetarism.


Oh god, I've never disagreed with a Chris Dillow post so much.

Will write a response later, but just to point out - it's always unwise to rely on the Daily Mail for stories about Muslims. If you read further down you'll see its a policy that also affects Christians, home-schoolers etc. The Daily Mail just picked up on the Muslims bit as if they were being exclusively favoured. They're not.


"I fear the answer originates in the Left’s reaction against orthodox Marxism in the 1980s... many on the Left gave up on the idea of the working class as a revolutionary force, and looked instead to what they called “new social movements”: women, blacks and gays (yes - to many the three were somehow homogenous!) Allied to this was a growing lack of interest in economics, and a rise in interest in cultural theory."

Fair enough. But what you describe did not start in the 80s. It started in the late 60s/early 70s with the postmodernism and poststructuralism of the Parisian soixant-huitards: the renouncing of the grand narratives (such as Marxism) in favour of identity studies.

The problem of the left is that it has taken postmodernism far too seriously and not come up with anything better to replace it.

Solomon Hughes

Your points are well made but I am not sure I agree with the conclusions. While it is true that one strong trend in the Labour Government has hung onto "identity politics" but effectively jettisoned class, I don't think it follows that the rise of the former caused the latter. After all, the most recent height of concern about class in the Labour Party - Bennism - was also a high point of concern about "identity politics". The Bennite left, which was substantial, were a very big part of the support network for the miners strike - as basic a class issue as you could want. They were also the driving force behind what you call "identity politics" - issues of race and sex and sexuality . Now some of the New Labour crowd might have hung on to caring about "identity politics" but abandoned class, but I don't see that one caused the other. Rather they saw the working class being defeated (the Miners strike lost, and for many the fall of the Soviet Union was percieved as a defeat for the workers), and decided to try and jump on the bankers coat tails instead, only retaining "progessive" views about "identity". (Incidentally Iwould be wary of Denham's turn to "class" as he is treating it as another "identity" - to be bought off with a few meritocratic schemes, rather than ,say, more better social housing , better workplace laws , strengthening the unions)


Hobsbawm later extended the essay for publication in a book and in that form it is better than you suggest here. He talked about the decline of working class homogeneity and the necessity to appeal across a fragmented working class. That did not mean trying to appeal to a range of identity groups, but to speak for common interests at a time of crisis - health, welfare etc, rather than pursue identity politics.

As for the 80s, we are all inclined to blame our youthful follies, but I am afraid that many of those debates were had in the 1880s as well. There is little new - other than the vacuity and lack of conviction of a hollowed out Labour Party.


1. I think it might have been a bit more gracious if you'd recognised that (particularly when compared to, say, Militant or the trade unions), that part of the left which adopted the cause of gay, black and female equality was *massively successful*. In the period in which the position of gay people has gone from Section 28 to "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy", what have the class warriors achieved? Much, much less than naff-all is the answer. A lot of the ennui of the left at present reflects the fact that it has won nearly all of its important battles (see how the environmentalists have gone from fringe irrelevance to complete hegemony). If these were "disastrous" effects, we could stand more disasters.

2. It's really, really glib to suggest that the concern of socialists and liberals for interfering in the private life of the working class has anything to do with "the personal is political", which was hardly much more than an applause line anyway. On the specific issues of child development and temperance, there is a tradition on the left going back more than a hundred years.

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