From Signs of the Times to Signing the Times

Mark Perryman

For many thirtysomethings who found themselves on the left through the downturn of Thatcherism the upturn of Blairism has proved immensely disappointing. Under Thatcher and Major the question of agency, the ‘what is to be done’, was relatively straightforward. The objective was a Tory defeat, and the result obvious, and we thought hopeful too, a majority Labour government. Just about the only argument of any significance around this happy-go-lucky scenario was whether a coalition with the Liberal-Democrats might add a more radical gloss to the conservatism of Labour in office. If one is a critic of new Labour though the question of agency is more, much more complicated, what would we put in its place? Under the present first-past-the-post system for General Elections giving up on voting Labour means willing their defeat, and in the short term at least helping a Tory victory. In this lose-lose situation is the idea of any kind of alternative to new Labour so ludicrous that all we can hope for is that the party dance number, ‘things can only get better’‚ proves to be more than something to tap your feet to?

Coming to politics through the eighties we thought, surely, that things would certainly be better. And different too, to the particular model of modernisation that new Labour has constructed. Rock against Racism, for all its undoubted inadequacies, was one of the first mass endeavours to fuse politics with at least one branch of popular culture. It had a very clear purpose, to break any embryonic connection between a disaffected white punk youth with the symbolism and practice of organised racist and fascist politics. In this, at least, it was spectacularly successful and in its time just as ''new‚ as new Labour ever was or is. Similarly the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ; popularising a political issue, mixing old forms of organisation with the ''new‚ of direct action. An avowedly European movement, the first and most successful continent-wide campaign of our recent history, connecting the extra-parliamentary with committed supporters within parliament. Hugely idealistic in its objectives, yet deeply practical in its form. Autonomous, CND was a movement with a life and culture of its own.

The Labour led Greater London Council experimented with new forms of local democracy, economic strategy, cultural policy and most significantly pluralising the city state. While the 1984/85 miners strike inspired a level of solidarity taking a vast variety of forms which was very much about connecting an old class politics with new ideas of what constitutes solidarity. From the rap record The Enemy Within to Women Against Pit Closures, and Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners via food collections on the High Street and twinning urban communities with faraway pit villages the different, and occasional contradictory ‘fragments’‚ of the new were as much here as any heritage the frankly ahistorical Blairism is unlikely to claim for itself.

But a politics, a critical politics, that just depends on reinventing the past for its future self will be doomed from the oustet. Simply revisiting a history without accounting for what has been lost and owning up to a sense of mourning is fatal in terms of any prospect of ensuring the critical speaks to the contemporary with a creative voice.

The nineties began with the defeat of the poll tax yet this apparent first victory after a decade of defeat and decline marked in fact a retreat. The Poll Tax was dumped by the Tories for purely tactical, electoral reasons. The campaign of opposition was of course widespread, the non-payment initiative bold, the Trafalgar Square riot momentous. Yet this was a campaign that had lost the culture, the connections, the strategy and autonomy that had given a strength to the movements that had preceded it. The issue, the poll tax, was so huge that the eventual victory was in many senses in spite of the campaign, not because of it. This is a pessimistic reading, but it was confirmed by the increasingly marginalised opposition inspired by the Criminal Justice Bill, the Gulf War, the Kosovo Crisis and the occasional reappearance of Fascist parties. If one of the defining characteristics of a revolutionary politics had for revolutionary democrats been a mass politics then our politics, for all the occasional bouts of frantic campaigning activity was continuing in the freefall of decline that had begun long before.

The landscape for an ‘open left’, neither Labourism nor Leninism but the libertine, has changed immeasurably since the 1980s. The Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party has no obvious successors, the ‘soft’ left‚ of the Labour Party has made such huge compromises to immerse itself within Blairism to have robbed itself of any independent existence. The magazines, Marxism Today most notably but also New Socialist , the libertarian left The Leveller and others, Spare Rib and Race Today , are all gone with little coming in their place. The bookshops, the debates, the organisations, the events and conferences that gave this literature of ideas a life of its own, an identity, are largely gone with them. Of course some new movements of radical ideas have emerged. Most importantly the ‘Do it Yourself’‚ direct-action, eco-protest movement but for all its vibrancy and dynamics there is something lacking in its hugely heroic endeavours. One doubts its capacity alone to renew and remake the radical. Though any such process that ignores what is the single most significant domestic symbol of active dissidence would be profoundly mistaken.

The era of ambiguity is at an end. A critique of Blairism demands quite different answers and actions to what opposition to Thatcherism asked of us. The question of agency cannot be ignored, if it is then the evolution of a critical politics will be simply a process of perpetual motion never able to come to the conclusion that would take the argument forward.

By asking questions about agency we can begin to understand how particular new Labour’s model of modernisation is. And specifically how different it is to models inspired by the magazine Marxism Today and its late 1980‚s analysis of ‘new times’‚. For the first time in the hugely influential debates that Marxism Today pioneered the question of agency was addressed, and the conclusion incorporated in a new strategy for the Communist Party which, in a perhaps understandable orgy of self-pity after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, promptly then dissolved itself. The argument was that the political left had failed for six reasons, namely -

"Firstly, the expansion of the realm of politics. Secondly, the expansion of politics in society has contributed to changing the role of the state. Thirdly, politics and power are becoming increasingly internationalised. Fourthly, the depth and force of new times changes require radical new thinking. Fifthly, social upheaval has been accompanied by the fragmentation of old political constituencies and social allegiances. Sixthly, the transition to new times is creating a sharp new political cleavage: between those who have shifted on to the terrain of the new era and those who still hanker after the familiar past."

- The Communist Party, Manifesto for New Times, London 1990

These six prescient observations were made seven years before Tony Blair‚s new Labour was elected to office. Blairism asked broadly the same questions, that is the measure of its achievement, the disappointment lies with the answers that, to date, it has proffered. We are yet to see or experience a political formation that both asks these, and no doubt new questions too - the future of the nation-state, the viability of a ‘humanitarian’ war‚ and environmentalism amongst others - and has the will to offer different answers.

One expectation current on what calls itself the ‘modernising’ left‚ - New Times , the Fabian Society, Renewal and others - is that the ‘only’ game in town‚ is new Labour. The hope is that ‘things can only get better’‚ and any change that we can realistically expect will come from within. The spectre of Brown, Prescott, Cook and Short breaking free‚ from the limitations of Blairism is the one big idea on offer from these quarters alongside the hope for a renewal of ‘radical’ grassroots activism‚ amongst local Labour parties . But waiting on the good guys, and gals of big bad Labour has been the fairy story that sustained almost the entire postwar history of the outside left, of both revolutionary and reformist vintages. Is the horror story that we've invariably been served up really all we have to look forward to for the first part of the next century?

The pressing need to answer this question of agency is the conclusion we are forced back to. If a cultural politics - a mix that is essential to any potential agency - is to mean anything then agency cannot be ignored: if it is there is a gaping hole at its centre and nothing will ever be concluded. Similarly if critique cannot get beyond the very necessary level of theory to connect with politics then it will remain hopelessly abstract. What kind of formation then might underpin this emergence of a critical politics for dissenters in waiting?

Signs of the Times emerged in the aftermath of the closure of the magazine Marxism Today and the dissolution of much of the intellectual culture that had at least partially grown up around the magazine; events, discussion groups, the sense that being an MT reader was an important part of your political identity. The impetus was not only to find ways of developing the ‘new times’‚ analysis but also maintain those connections between intellectual and political cultures that had been so vital to MT’s success. Signs of the Times represents very much a live, physical space for debate. In a mediated age where cyberhood is increasingly taking over from neighbourhood the opportunity to meet relatively like-minded people, put faces to writers, ask questions, socialise are all precious experiences. This is not to underestimate the liberating potential of the internet and most things information-superhighway but it is to reaffirm that the intimacy and contact of human forms still has some life left in it too.

Signs of the Times is purposefully a loose association: its strength, and occasionally its weakness, is all down to 'weak power'. A generalised commitment to open minds, against dogma and for the innate value of intellectual debate, with a progressive sense of purpose combined with a broadened understanding of what we would think of political. Prefigurative too, if you are aiming for a radical tomorrow, your practice has to be radical today too. The group has attracted, and in some ways helped to develop, a core group of writers who may not agree on very much but can be grouped together by a common commitment to the need for open-ness in politics, this may not appear to amount to very much but anyone who has survived all the limitations of a politics obsessed with following the line - a trait common to labourism, old and new varieties, and Leninism - may feel that this kind of operational value-system has a worth well above what it might at first seem to posses. Signs of the Times seeks to make an intervention beyond simply those who come within its space at a seminar or conference. By publishing, making connections with other groups, operating always in the public arena it seeks to constantly broaden its audience. Signs of the Times is increasingly at ease with a critical edge to its debates, though the focus for the criticism can shift, occasionally alarmingly, from the immediacy of Blairism to the far horizons of modernity. One without the other will be the weaker at best, vacuous at worst, maintaining a sense of perspective as this focus shifts remains a difficult balancing act.

Signs of the Times in many ways is a product of that previous era of ambiguity over both Labour’s potential as the Tories‚ replacement and no perceived need to consider alternative agencies. The attraction of a loose association form for Signs of the Times was founded on our experience of ''party' politics‚ as unduly restrictive, disciplinarian even, spending inordinate amounts of time and energy maintaining forms of democracy of no obvious relevance to the organisations we were a part of. The focus of party politics is almost exclusively electoral, the membership in most instances declining, ageing and unrepresentative of the constituencies it purports to represent.

But a party does also offer a space where debate matters. There is a conclusion and a consequence to any argument or dispute. There is an affiliation to an organisation, a heightened level of identity, loyalty and sacrifice. The purpose of the politics is clear, to challenge a power structure, in cases apart from revolutionary parties, to win representation at a local, national or European level.

At some stage, perhaps even in the near future, a party may emerge to claim the space that is most easily described as ‘to the left of new Labour’. Some would suggest there is already a party to new Labour’s left: the Labour Party! While others would point to the successes of the Scottish Socialist Party and The Green Party in securing representation under PR. While at a local level The Socialist Party and independent Left candidates are beginning to pick up Council seats.

The emergence of any such party, or the growth of existing parties - the Socialist Workers Party whilst not widely contesting elections remains the single largest organised Left group and has undoubtedly enjoyed some growth under new Labour - is a process that is likely to unfold then over the next few years. But the space that is radical, yet not new Labour, is for the moment much broader than this. The space is characterised more by a will to be a dissenter, the ambition to work out the general shape of a critique rather than sticking with the labels, ideologies and motivation that most of us are more accustomed to. The process of identifying what it is to be dissenter, articulating a critique, giving some sense of belonging to those who would broadly identify with such sentiments and ambitions; all of this would be disastrously foreshortened if the question of agency was limited from the outset to a new party. If an intent is shared to develop this space then any such intent can only work itself out through a period of an exploration of all the possibilities, engaging in huge leaps of the imagination if we are not to be left with simply the surviving elements of an old politics.

Dissenters will be in the minority. New Labour will continue to dominate the electoral, the political, landscape. But the effective silencing of these dissenting voices over much of the recent period has meant the eclipsing of any sense of hope that there might just be an alternative. Without such formations of dissent the politics of the future will be characterised by an admission that we are powerless to effect change; that those we hoped might deliver from inside new Labour let us down; and an inability to respond to a mounting crisis of political legitimacy as turnout plummets and any remaining oppositional politics is pushed further and further to the margins of frustration and anger.

Mark Perryman helped found Signs of the Times in late 1991. From the mid 1980's he was a member of Marxism Today's Editorial Board until the magazine closed. Mark has edited all three of the Signs of the Times books.

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From Signs of the Times to Signing the Times By Mark Perryman