/ 31 August 2012

New left must find its heart in justice for all

University of California students protest against the university’s business ties with the apartheid government in 1985.
University of California students protest against the university’s business ties with the apartheid government in 1985.

In South Africa politics is taken neat. Like Prince Harry or the most widely reproduced work of South African art in the nation's history, politics is either full frontal or it is nothing. As the head of the British Labour Party's delegation to the congress of Socialist International, returning to South Africa after a two-decade absence is a reminder of why the best and the worst of politics happen here.

In the 1980s it was the worst of politics as apartheid rulers clung to power. But it was the best of politics as young South Africans, black, coloured, Indian and white, Presbyterian and Jewish, lawyers and trade union organisers worked with comrades from Europe and North America to forge a new democratic union of hope with the ANC and all progressive forces.

The first book I wrote was on Solidarity, Poland's independent trade union, whose working-class members dug the grave into which European communism fell. I was arrested for taking money to the union and briefly imprisoned. Two years later the same thing happened in South Africa and I went back to Europe to write a book on how the independent black trade unions were the grave-diggers of racist rule.

Socialist International is gathering soon after the massacre of mineworkers at Marikana sent shock waves around the world. There are questions here that South Africans have to answer. But, in the wider international context, the left faces questions as grave as any in its history.

Socialist (or Second) Inter­national was founded in the late 1800s by trade unions and political parties that accepted much of Karl Marx's social analysis, but refused the communist vision of eliminating freedom in the name of the proletariat. Lenin set up Communist (or Third) International in 1920 in opposition to the democratic left. This split handed power to the right. Once ­fascism was eliminated, conservative parties dominated European politics. Only in Nordic nations, where the communist presence was driven out of trade unions, was it possible to create an enduring historic compromise between capital and labour, which allowed open market economics to co-exist with social justice. In Britain, it was only when the Labour Party made it clear it would not tolerate left-led trade unions to dictate policy that the electorate started trusting Labour with the nation's destiny.

Separation of power
For the democratic left, there has to be a clear separation of power between trade unions and democratic left parties. Comradely and fraternal relations, yes. Unions deciding what a democratic party does, no.

Equally, a party of government cannot afford a proliferation of rival trade unions. Inter-union rivalry divides and demoralises the left. That is one clear lesson as the 21st-century left tries to find its bearings. Another is the need to expand economies as fast as possible. The left only does well when the economic cake is getting bigger. Trying to cut into ever-thinner slices a cake that remains the same size or is shrinking is a recipe for permanent conflict.

The left also has to stand for human rights or core democracy. The new world divide is not so much North-South or East-West. It is between the nations and parties that respect democracy and human rights and those that do not. In Russia, former KGB functionaries now work with oligarchs to create a fusion between communism and capitalism. The press is muzzled and critics of the regime, such as the Pussy Riot punk-rock girls, are flung into Putin's new-style gulag. In China, the merger between communism and capitalism is even more grotesque as communist ­cadres become the richest men in the market economy of the People's Republic. There are no social services, no pensions and no socialised healthcare and thousands of miners die each year in unsafe working conditions without independent unions to defend them. In China, the nation's Nobel peace prize laureate, Liu Xiabo, rots in prison.

Around the world there is a rise of new xenophobia – the hate against immigrants expressed by the Tea Party Republican right in the United States, or the hate against Jews expressed by the extreme right in Europe or by 21st-century Islamists. In much of Asia, racist political cultures treat foreigners or immigrants as inferior and equal rights for women are challenged.

To be sure, the core challenge to the left remains the growing split between the rentier rich, the just-about-surviving middle classes and the proletariat and new poor. This gulf exists within nations and between nations.

Populist cries of "confiscate!" or "nationalise!" play well to the gallery, but have shown themselves in the past to be dead-end politics. A new politics of partnership and an end to finding scapegoats is needed to make sure a Marikana never happens again – and to ensure that, in this century, the world can grow on the basis of justice.

Socialist International and its proud but at times complacent parties from all over the world have to leave their comfort zones of old thinking and off-the-shelf condemnations. They must take on their own conservatisms if they are to have a 21-st century future.

Dr Denis MacShane is a British Labour MP. Among his recent books is Globalising Hatred: The New Anti-Semitism, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He is a guest speaker at the Jewish Board of Deputies conference on September 2