by Maurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford
We read your essay on Corbynism and Blue Labour with interest. Your focus on the issues of sovereignty, the people and the nation are all critical terms in the debate around Brexit. They are central to our times. The populism fueled by unequal economic growth, a loss of trust in our public institutions and unprecedented demographic change will continue in the years ahead. It will be to the detriment of both major political parties. Three in five voters say that no individual or political party represents them. After a long hibernation the political has returned. This is a debate worth having.
First we want to address the words and phrases you use to define Blue Labour’s politics. Your definition of Blue Labour determines the rest of your argument about sovereignty, nation and the political. It also influences how you view Blue Labour in relation to the loose coalition of groups around Jeremy Corbyn. And it provides the contrast against which you present the anti-positivist, critical Marxism which you argue is an alternative to both Blue Labour and Corbynism.
What is Blue Labour?
Blue Labour was a critical response to New Labour’s managerialism and its favouring of state administration over democratic politics. It developed a critique of New Labour’s liberal market economics, its support for financial capital, its uncritical embrace of globalisation, and its irresponsible approach to large-scale immigration. But it was equally critical of the left’s reliance on the state as an instrument of reform and its condescending attitude that it knew better. Blue Labour pointed to the Labour Party’s increasingly exclusive socially liberal culture and its growing estrangement from its traditional working class vote. The party was losing touch with the country at large. Blue Labour from its beginning was thus always framed by questions of democratic politics, class, culture and nation.
However throughout your essay you narrowly focus on the latter and describe Blue Labour as advocating a kind of naturalistic, organic order expressed through a nationalist politics. You argue that Blue Labour believes in ‘the organic culture’ of a ‘primary’ or national community. The term ‘primary community’ is used a number of times and extends to your view that Blue Labour supports an ‘isolationist nation-state’.
This sets a political tone. Blue Labour sees ‘the world in essentially national terms’. The nation-state is ‘the horizon for all dreams old and new’. You suggest that national cultural forms are given a ‘pre-political’ normative status in Blue Labour thinking. Blue Labour mistakes sovereignty for a thing ‘which can be passed back and forth, salvaged or lost’ and then ‘ripped from its historical context and turned into an abstraction’. And again, national sovereignty is an ‘abstract’, but also a ‘cure for all social ills’. It represents ‘an innate and inextricable unity between national state and its people’. And to achieve this kind of unity Blue Labour actively seeks to ‘liquidate antagonism in an abstract national people.’
In your understanding, Blue Labour reduces the people and nation to an organic whole. In fact you say its politics is specifically designed to bring this about. You then carry your viewpoint over into the realms of the political. Here Blue Labour ‘claims to retrieve a Labour tradition of mutualism in which, “a concept of a ‘concrete common good’ takes priority over universality and equality”. You define this common good as ‘pre-political’. It emerges ‘naturally from the cultural traditions of a particular national community’. And at the same time you suggest that Blue Labour regards its own cultural constituency as the sole custodian of this ‘common good’. And if that is not enough, it also relishes the downfall of liberalism and the end of liberal society. Blue Labour you conclude is an ‘anti-modern English socialism’ that misunderstands the nature of capitalism and romanticises work. It is a utopian scheme of national or popular renewal.
Our reaction to these descriptions is that taking each alone, none accurately describes Blue Labour politics, and taking them together they present Blue Labour as a reactionary nationalist politics. It’s true that some involved in Blue Labour use the term ‘post-liberal’ but this does not mean anti-liberal. You use liberalism as the yardstick against which to measure the deficiencies of Blue Labour, but you don’t define this liberalism. Nor do you recognise Blue Labour’s politics of paradox which draws on conservative and radical dispositions inherited from both Labour’s own traditions and from English modernity.
Blue Labour’s philosophical roots lie in the Eighteenth Century British Enlightenment and the debates around moral sentiments and the relationship of human beings to one another and to society. It shares this social ethic with the conservative liberalism of Edmund Burke and the New Liberalism of TH Green and Leonard Hobhouse. ‘Society’ wrote Hobhouse in 1898, ‘exists in individuals… its life is their life, and nothing outside their life’.1 One can argue that Hobhouse’s liberalism is inherited from Adam Smith and his Theory of Moral Sentiments. It differs from the liberalism developed by John Stuart Mill which promotes the individual over society and is aligned to utilitarianism.
Blue Labour has an affinity with the former but is critical of the latter’s individualism and its excesses, particularly in its utilitarian, identity and market based forms. It is these individualistic forms of liberalism, particularly in mainstream economics and identity politics that predominate today. A more general criticism is the tendency in liberalism to subordinate democracy to the economic and the legal realms which constrain political decision. It can be argued that the liberal tradition lacks the intellectual resources to resolve the challenges of modern global capitalism and we try and explore this.
Words and phrases
To begin with the words and phrases, no Blue Labour writers use the term ‘organic culture’. This is associated with the literary criticism of F.R. Leavis who contrasted a corrupted industrial, popular culture with an idealised, authentic folk culture. We argue for a common culture, the sense taken from Burke (but present also in the work of sociologist Norbert Elias), that society is a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.2 Culture has a history. It is an inheritance of meanings, symbols, customs and rituals which the anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes as ‘the raw material of which the individual makes his life’. Without a culture ‘no individual can arrive even at the threshold of his potentialities’.3 It is part of the human condition. It does not mean an organic culture. Cultures adapt and change.
On the left Raymond Williams has addressed the idea of a common culture in Culture and Society4 He doesn’t resolve what it means and in The Long Revolution, following the work of Benedict, he develops the idea of ‘ways of life’ which are expressed in a ‘structure of feeling’.5 E.P.Thompson criticises this conception of a common culture for the absence of class struggle.6 Nevertheless Williams holds on to the idea because it is a vital one. In his essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’ he argues that every human society has its ‘own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings.’7 These are shared but they are also contested. Living traditions are ongoing arguments over their meaning which are extended through generations.
The contemporary left, influenced by identity liberalism, dismisses culture as meaning that is created in local places and through longstanding practices. It rejects tradition, cultural inheritance and the idea of belonging as backward looking, nostalgic or intrinsically prejudiced against a multi-ethnic society. In doing so it ignores the necessity of a culture of shared meanings and values in providing the foundation of society and a political nation. What it offers instead is a liberal culture that transcends particular places and time and which becomes a deracinated and standarised mono-culture that serves the interests of a mobile professional class. It has also proved to be a ground clearing exercise for the expansion of liberal market capitalism. In rejecting the particular and the historical in favour of the abstract and universal, the liberal left has helped to strip away the social and cultural defences against commodification. It has been a contributory factor in the rise of nationalist populism.
We do not hold to the idea that national cultural forms have a ‘pre-political normative status’. They are shaped by ongoing argument through generations, and by political struggle. Popular culture too, is alive to the ongoing and contested meaning making of the often radically different social experiences of groups and individuals living in a class society. Parliament, the Common Law, welfare and educational institutions, even the landscape, are products of a struggle between interests which is historical.
No Blue Labour writer, as far as we know, talks of ‘primary communities’. It is difficult to know what a ‘primary community’ means. It’s not Benedict Anderson’s imagined community8 and it must exist anterior to a national democratic polity. Is it a polite term for blood and soil? It has innuendos of Vichy. If so it would fit your use of the term organic culture and apparent view of Blue Labour. None of this is Blue Labour’s language nor does it belong to its politics. In England Blue Labour is for England and the union. In Scotland it is for Scotland and the union. Blue Labour is patriotic in its politics, but that is not the same as believing the nation state is the repository of all dreams. Europe’s history of ethnic violence, mass deportations and genocide has proven it can turn into a nightmare. Blue Labour has always pointed out that unlike the more ideological and progressive social democratic parties on the continent, the Labour Party in Britain kept the working class united against both fascism and communism.
Which leads to your claim that Blue Labour supports an ‘isolationist nation-state’? Opposition to membership of the EU does not mean isolationism. A belief that the democratic nation state and its rule of law remains the best means of safeguarding the rights and freedoms of humanity does not exclude cooperation with other nation states, nor that some states tyrannise and murder their people. Arguing that the nation state is still the best political unit to manage globalisation in the interests of a democratic polity, does not exclude trade and international relations. We hold that there is a distinction between internationalism and globalisation and that distinction is profound. Blue Labour is internationalist and European. There has never been enthusiasm for the EEC or EU in England, but neither has there been an appetite for isolationism. We have been a multi-national union connected to the world by global trade and ties. The Labour Party has always been an internationalist party, supporting decolonisation and giving international solidarity.
But Blue Labour is not globalist, nor universalist, nor cosmopolitan in outlook. People come from places and they have a culture, language and history. Out of these we make an identity that anchors us in the world and which forms the basis of our connection to wider humanity. Humans need a sense of belonging. We are social and parochial beings with homes and attachments to places. The boundary making this involves need not exclude an openness to beyond and to a dialogue with the other. But without it one is left in a state of cultural insecurity and provincialism.
And so also in the political realm Blue Labour argues for the necessity of sovereignty for a democratic polity. Sovereignty is not ‘merely a particular social relation of power’ as you describe it. Sovereignty is the source in time and place of the agency that constitutes a political system and underlying this agency is a ‘we’, a community of people. For Blue Labour the ‘we’ is not homogenous but a plural that must be brought together in a participatory and representative democratic politics of the common good that draws upon a diverse range of political, ethical and religious traditions.
The vote to leave the EU has thrown open the question of sovereignty. Who or what is sovereign in our parliamentary democracy and who decides the answer? While national sovereignty can be shared for example in NATO, parliamentary sovereignty, or more accurately the Crown in Parliament, is absolute. Parliament either legislates as it wishes or it doesn’t. But inside the EU, sovereignty is qualified by a law making body superior to parliament. Britain for example is legally prohibited from deciding if and how it wishes to control immigration from the EU.
Some would argue that Parliament remains sovereign because it has allowed for this qualification. However it would be more accurate to say that the EU has triggered a constitutional revolution in which the question of sovereignty in the British Constitution has been put into question. The European Communities Act 1972 which gave statutory effect to Britains membership of the Common Market introduced the principle of the sovereignty of the people into the British Constitution. In 1975, Harold Wilson opted for a referendum to avoid a split in the Labour Party over membership. There was also a wider view that a decision taken by Parliament alone would not secure the legitimacy of membership. As Vernon Bogdanor has argued the referendum as a democratic instrument provides the people with protection from a sovereign parliament on major constitutional changes that people do not want.9
And so in 2015, for the first time in British history, popular sovereignty overruled parliamentary sovereignty. The people instructed the government and members of parliament – the establishment which had overwhelmingly supported remaining in the EU – to leave. With the outcome still uncertain, sovereignty is a contested term. Where does the agency that constitutes our political system lie, with parliament incapable of making a decision, or with the people? Perhaps the final outcome of Brexit will tell us. What sovereignty does not mean is an absolute power to control all things. It refers to the authority of decision making within an institutional system. We think there is also much to be said for the balance of power rather than their separation.
Your suggestion that Blue Labour supports Brexit because, ‘it allows the exploration of a romantic, anti-modern English socialism wherein the capacity to take decisions over national life will help constitute the national community it desires’, ignores the complexity of the issue. And why is opposing the EU which is a hybrid of Napoleonic state and laissez faire capitalism ‘anti-modern’? And who should decide questions concerning the nation if not its citizens?
Your argument that Blue Labour seeks a ‘restored and secured sovereignty’ misses the constitutional predicament. There can be no return to a pre-EU British constitution. Sovereignty is not simply about people ‘taking back control’ of their lives. It is about re-establishing the necessary source in time and place of the agency of our representative democracy in which people have lost trust. One in three ‘almost never’ trust the government. There is a political and cultural faultline dividing the governing elite from large parts of the country. The rise of populism, ongoing devolution, and the increased presence within the constitution of the principle of the sovereignty of the people are indicative of the constitutional revolution taking place. There is no ‘innate and inextricable unity between national state and its people’. There never has been in the history of this country. It has no relevance to anything that Blue Labour thinks, just as there is no basis in the idea that Blue Labour wants to ‘liquidate antagonism in an abstract national people’. It is something we could never even think due to the priority of pluralism and the necessity of political negotiation.
The democratic practice of the common good
The ‘we’ in Blue Labour’s politics is constituted in pluralism and the democratic practice of the common good. This practice is an agonistic politics. Conflict and difference will always be present. Issues get decided in a temporal, revisable way through democracy. An election is not the will of the people, it is a national political decision that is legitimate until the next election. The only rule is that you have to do it again.
There is no sense in which the Common Good is ‘concrete’. It is a tradition of negotiation between estranged interests that has its roots in Machiavelli’s Discourses and in Catholic Social Thought. The Common Good is not pre-political. There is nothing about the Common Good that flows ‘naturally’. It does not exist prior to politics. It is constructed through politics itself. Different groups and classes that constitute a polity have interests that require negotiation and an exploration of the possibility that there is a common good. Sometimes conflict takes the form of class, sometimes of religious and ethnic communities, such as the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Northern towns and cities.
We are witnessing the return of politics. What Bernard Crick describes as ‘ethics done in public’.10 It is argumentative, angry, divisive. Consensus has to be worked for. It requires political skill. In a politics of the common good democratic decision has force. It is possible to lose politically. This does not affect your legal status as a free and equal citizen but it does affect your power and it can defy your own conception of the good. This happens in a democracy. As the Brexit vote indicates, it can hurt people’s feelings. None of this means that society subsumes political institutions. There is nothing ‘innate’ about reciprocity and association in cultural traditions, as you suggest. These have found a durable form in some aspects of the English polity and they are to be nurtured because they are central to democratic political practice.
Blue Labour does not stand for the ‘natural desires’ of its ‘chosen community’, whatever these may be. Blue Labour has never used the words ‘White Working Class’ if this is what is meant. There is no class blessed by history, no history unfolding to human perfection, and no singular community that is the custodian of the common good. Blue Labour is rooted in a British enlightenment tradition that foresaw the terror of the French Revolution and rejected the fantasy of universal citizenship. It promotes the reality of pluralism, local place and shared institutions as a starting point of political association. It values the parochial because it is about the task of dwelling in the world and learning the social virtues that govern our everyday lives. Belonging is the commitment to this task. Membership of specific solidarities is the entry point into humanity. It is why Blue Labour has always sought a broad based coalition with immigrant communities rather than identity politics and it is the reason for the emphasis on faith.
Capitalism and work
The misunderstanding of the common good is carried over into how you describe Blue Labour’s view on capitalism and work. It does not view the political realm as subservient to a ‘corporatist’ structure of work. It pursues a vocational system embedded in a competitive labour market and the representation of workers on boards of companies. They are then able to negotiate their own interests with capital at the level of the board. Blue Labour does not understand capitalism as an abstraction. A national economic system is a cultural and material set of mutual institutions that govern a national economy. It is the result of political struggle, it is open to amendment and discussion. There is nothing abstract about it.
We also do not accept that Corbynism represents the material and Blue Labour the ideological. Commodification is a ‘material and economic trend’ as well as an ideological force. It generates a degree of isolation and loss of meaning that is inhospitable to the social nature of persons for whom meaning is found in love and relationships as well as work and politics. These require sympathy, reciprocity and acts of labour and sacrifice towards others. The market is inhospitable to this kind of life. Capitalism constantly appeals to vice in order to privatise those activities previously performed through mutual obligation. For example the care of children and parents, and the responsibility to contribute to the education and well-being of other people’s children and parents. E.P Thompson speaks of a ‘moral economy’ held by working people in the storm of commodification during the industrial revolution and their appeal to a previous human status as part of this ‘moral economy’.11 What is remarkable is the extent to which it has been retained and refined in resistance to commodification. Resistance to commodification is part of democratic modernity.
You describe Blue Labour as romantically retrieving work ‘as a human purposive activity from its alienation as labour’. On the contrary, the retrieval is of the concept of labour itself, which is the name of our party. There is dignity to labour, and that applies as much to cleaning, to caring, to guarding, to cooking as it does to writing, consulting and managing. There are good ways and bad ways of doing your work and there are good ways and bad ways of treating people. A society is defined by the way people treat each other and their environment (which is partly a comparative judgement) and the meaning that they give to this as meaning seeking beings. Meaning and necessity are entwined.
Both the material reproduction of society and the reproduction of the species through child birth and care are to be found in the concept of labour. It is hard to think of a more necessary concept. Commodification is the owning and defining by money of these fundamental human activities. The extent of commodification is the means by which we can conceptualise the extent to which the market economy has become a market society. Blue Labour has never opposed the cultural to the material. In its political economy it has tried to invent a concept of ‘cultural materialism’ which conceptualises the relationship between labour and meaning.
Liberalism and utopia
Blue Labour disputes the domination of liberalism, the way it prioritises the individual over the social and its unquestioned snobbish progressivism, but never the ‘sacred’ status of liberty and the equally distributed freedoms of association and expression. The limitations of liberalism are all too obvious in your quoted comments by Michael Walzer that the task of the left is a defence against the dangers to ‘liberal society as a whole’. The threat is not just to ‘liberal society as a whole’, it is to society itself. The kind of liberalism that predominates on both the left and right today cannot conceive of a legitimate ethical order beyond its own moral reasoning. Nor can it develop an analysis of capitalism precisely because it cannot see people as the bearers of a history that includes the memory of injustice.
Blue Labour is concerned by the threats to liberty and democracy and resist their diminishment. It also recognises that they can come from liberalism. Unlike liberals Blue Labour recognises that democracy and liberty function as a contradictory whole and that the result of this is political rather than exclusively legal. For example immigration is a political issue which was hived off into the legal and constitutional order. Free movement is not a right. There is no human right to live wherever you please. Legal rights are always a political achievement. They must be backed up by a political community. They can be lost and that requires a strong democratic movement.
What Blue Labour is trying to do is secure liberty in a democratic society. It stands for a democratic modernity built upon free people and free institutions. The coalition required to achieve this will include people of a more conservative disposition than liberalism is comfortable with. There is a liberal threat to free speech for example that needs to be fought. A progressive alliance in defence of its own sometimes censorious values is too limited. Change is not, in itself, a good. It is necessary and the role of politics is to shape it.
Your comment that Blue Labour seeks to draw the world as it wishes it would be, is entirely wrong. As we hope we have made clear, Blue Labour is resolutely anti-utopian. It begins with the world as it is and how to move it to the world as we would like it to be. This requires a politics of negotiation in which those who are excluded from the benefits of capitalist modernity can participate and achieve some power to change their conditions of life. The political focus is on the internal conflicts and estrangements within society and the strengthening of common civic institutions through which they can be mediated and negotiated. We do not believe there will ever be an end to human suffering, pain and heartbreak, but it can be better or worse, and some meaning and redemption can be found in politics, music, writing, television, football as well as work. A democratic polity is a condition of that comparative superiority.
The aim of your essay is to define the flaws in the competing philosophies of Corbynism and Blue Labour, identify their similarities, and dismiss them both in favour of a third undefined philosophical alternative of ‘critical Marxism’. This alternative would be capable of ‘holding the centre’. We would be interested to know more about your critical Marxism. Our criticism of your argument is that it is based on a caricature of Blue Labour and that, further, Corbynism is not a coherent political philosophy. The hard left politics of Jeremy Corbyn and his allies bear little relation to the agonistic politics of Blue Labour.
Some of your arguments and criticisms of Blue Labour are rehearsed in an earlier paper you cite, written by Harry and Paul Thompson.12 It suggests a politics that deepens both democracy and liberty within a framework of shared civic institutions. The aim of its democratic and ethical socialism is to redistribute power and constrain the domination of both market and state. It has much in common with Blue Labour.
With regards, Maurice and Jonathan
1. Hobhouse, Leonard, Social Evolution and Political Theory, Columbia University Press, 1922
2. See Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Penguin, 2004; and Elias, Norbert, The Society of Individuals, Continuum, 1991, p43
3. Benedict, Ruth, Patterns of Culture, Routledge, 1968, p.181-182
4. Williams, Raymond, Culture and Society, The Hogarth Press, 1982, p319-338
5. Williams, Raymond, The Long Revolution, Pelican 1971, p64
6. Thompson, EP, ‘The Long Revolution (Part1)’, New Left Review, issue 9, May-June 1961; and ‘The Long Revolution (Part II)’, New Left Review issue 10, July-August 1961
7. Williams, Raymond, ‘Culture is Ordinary’ (1958) , in Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, Verso1989
8. Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Verso 1983.
9. Bogdanor, Vernon, Learning from History? The 1975 Referendum on Europe, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BijWSNYPSn8&t=1714s
10. Crick, Bernard, In defence of politics, Continuum,
11. Thompson EP, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, Past and Present 50, 1971, p 76-136
12. Thompson, Paul, Pitts, F.H, Perspectives for Open Labour : A politics of radical pessimism, 2017