The history of the Labour Party does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn — the recently published book by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys — provides a history of the New Left within the Labour Party that is long enough to identify some common themes. Questions of internal party democracy, of policy, and of relationships with unions and wider social movements have animated socialist parliamentarians and activists for many decades. But one part of this project stands out above others and provides a key source of continuity among socialists within the Labour Party since its inception: the struggle to expand our collective conception of the possible.
When reading Searching for Socialism, I was struck by the way in which, from one generation to the next, the project of the Labour Party’s right continuously manifests itself through attempts to establish objective limits on what is and is not possible. These limits may come in the form of public opinion, the will of the markets, or the geopolitical balance of power, but they are always used in the same way: to dismiss those fighting for a better world as, at best, naive and, at worst, dangerous.
The constraints constructed by the Right do not, of course, come out of nowhere; the balance of class forces does create real limits on what a Labour government might be able to achieve when in office and what it can conceivably demand while in opposition. But the Labour right has often uncritically reproduced an ideology that delimits the scope of action much more narrowly than what might be expected, given the objective conditions at any one time. This ideology reflects both the power of neoliberalism on the right of the Labour Party and the proximity of its members to various elements of the ruling class — notably financial and business interests and various elements of the British state. Many on the party’s right genuinely do believe that it is impossible (and, indeed, undesirable) to challenge the dynamics of, for example, neoliberal globalization — a view that is consolidated by their proximity to the UK’s highly internationalized capitalist class.