Flow of Ideas
Socialism is not dead, and fifth rate journalism also lives

Glenn Rikowski, London, 31st January 2007

An article in The Guardian by Martin Kettle on 27th January is one of the worst I have ever seen on ‘socialism’ and its future in the UK. It is unsound on so many counts. Its annoyance rating, for me, flies off the chart! So, why is it so pathetic?

The article is a critique of some of the arguments in Nick Cohen’s latest book, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost their Way (2007). At the heart of these arguments is Nick’s point that the liberal Left here in the UK would have been better off supporting Iraqi trade unionists and other progressive forces in Iraq rather than being so against toppling Saddam Hussein. I’m not sure that Kettle really grasped the basic point made by Cohen on Iraq, and I’m not going to discuss directly Cohen’s arguments in his book here. My criticisms of Kettle are much broader.

First, the title is hopeless; though perhaps that was some Guardian editor’s fault more than Kettle’s. Kettle seems to be suggesting that the socialist project is dead, but that socialists remain. I would say the opposite is truer: there aren’t so many real socialists left (i.e. those wanting to abolish capitalist society and replace it with socialism) as compared with the 1960s and 1970s, but the socialist project is certainly not dead. It will never be dead as an alternative to the rule of capital; capitalism generates its own gravediggers, as Marx noted. Furthermore, the social drives of capital are incorporated into our personhoods, and its contradictions within our souls, our selves. The effect of this is that we are driven, as a peculiar form of social being incorporated within capital’s social universe (individually and collectively), to seek solutions to our predicament. Socialism is such a solution. All this is explained in more detail in Rikowski (2002 and 2006b).

Secondly, Kettle shifts between talking about ‘liberals’, the ‘liberal tradition’, ‘the Left’, and ‘socialists’ as though this does not matter. Now, maybe in the US, in some journalistic circles, the term ‘liberals’ incorporates ‘socialists’ too, or is a proxy term for ‘socialists’. But Kettle is writing about the UK. Are these ‘liberals’ the infamous Hampstead liberals, or the liberals of Guardian, Observer or Independent reading ilk? To be fair, Kettle talks more about the modus operandi of “the Left” here in the UK than he does about ‘liberals’. But he never pins “the Left” down. Who are and what is this “Left”? We are left to ponder, and Kettle’s negligence regarding defining the “Left” in the UK is in spite of his assertion that:

“It is one of the weaknesses of Cohen’s book that he never quite pins down what “the left” is. Discussions of the book risk reproducing the fault.”

Absolutely! Thus: Kettle sees the problem but is too indolent, uninformed or incompetent to address it! He never pins down socialism either; in fact he never really tries. There is no attempt to discuss the differences between revolutionary socialists and those who take the reformist route [1]. Neither do we know whether the Labour Party is remotely, or in any sense, ‘socialist’ in Kettle’s world. Hence: socialism’s death is announced without any real understanding or outline of what it is that has apparently died.

Thirdly, Kettle appears to endorse some of the arguments of Cohen’s book – but for no really good reason, and in a way in which begs really crucial questions. After noting that if left-wing Britons in 2007 have a clearer view of their situation than they in fact do have (presumably, a view much more crystalline than Kettle has) then they would see:

‘…what the leftwing Britons of 1907 would have grasped – that much of what the left of a century ago yearned for has actually been achieved, imperfectly and incompletely to be sure, but unmistakably achieved all the same.”

What did leftwing Britons of 1907 actually want? Did Sidney and Beatrice Webb want the same as John Maclean? Did communists and socialists want the same? Kettle provides no subtlety, evidence or even recognition that there might be problems in what he is saying. Once again, the rift between revolutionary socialism and Parliamentary socialism or reformism, are glossed over. Revolutionary socialists – which still exist today – would not just want reforms within capitalist society, but its overthrow. That must have passed us by in Kettle’s meandering account! His second argument is that:

“… while its [the left’s] agenda has triumphed, the left itself has in most respects wholly collapsed.”

Again, as we do not even have a simple list of what points constitute the “left agenda” of 1907, then readers have to take Kettle on faith. Furthermore, evidence for the ‘collapse of the left’ is not specified either. What might Kettle have in mind? Declining Labour Party membership, trade union membership, strike statistics, drooping student radicalism, diminishing left cultural attributes (book clubs, meetings, etc.), the paucity of protest and marches? Is it the fact the ‘the Left’ now has little impact on government policy? Kettle does not feel the need to inform us. He also contradicts himself within the same paragraph when holding that the Left’s agenda has triumphed but that in the early 21st century parties of the right have ‘more purchase on politics’. Some triumph, then.

Fourthly, moving on from commandeering the bits of Cohen that meet his approval, Kettle hits the reader with the following argument: although parties of the right are taking the leading role in current politics:

“That doesn’t mean there is no one left on the left. Self-evidently there are lots of people, even if they are neither as numerous nor as influential as the rightwing press imagines. But they lack anything remotely resembling a programme that all of them agree on. With nothing to say to the rest of the world, the left tradition has taken cover in single issue campaigns, in inertia, or in the gesture politics of so-called defiance. Socialism is dead. There remain only socialists.”

This is gold plated rubbish. There are lots of programmes in socialist parties, in writings of individual socialists and in pamphlets and even in some academic writings coming from a socialist direction. It depends on what you mean by a ‘programme’, but if it is a set of socialist principles backed up by an outline of a strategy regarding how they are to be realised practically, then there is no shortage of programmes! But Kettle is correct about there being a lack of agreement amongst socialists, or amongst the left more generally. There never has been such agreement. Neither has there been on the political right, come to that. He needs to explain why this is a weakness. If the socialist movement was monolithic in the UK, no doubt Kettle would belabour his readers with stories of its conformism, dinosaurial plodding and overbearing power. Socialists and the Left have loads to say to the world, and are indeed saying it – if only Kettle’s head would rise from the sand and get itself along to a few socialist meetings, read a few Left journals like Capital & Class, Historical Materialism, the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Public Resistance or The Commoner. He should also spend some time reading socialist and communist web sites; both party and non-party based ones. There are lots of ideas around, and folks on the Left have plenty to say to the world. Kettle’s ignorance is unbounded when socialism is the topic! He ends on abuse: ‘gesture politics’ and ‘inertia’ on the Left, are all he surveys.

Finally, Kettle ends up with simply belittling the work and dedication of those on the Left in the UK, for:

“Most people who think of themselves as leftwing are not hypocrites. They want to live an ethical life. The trouble is they are waiting for a call that shows little sign of ever coming.”

From my own experience, there are many, many thousands of people on the Left in the UK who are fighting, in a myriad of ways, against capitalist social reality. They do things; they to not just wait for a Promethean Call to arms. In a multitude of campaigns, protests, meetings, writings, media appearances, social scientific works, alternative journalism and other media, blogs, MySpace groups and much more, the Left in the UK are not just waiting! Kettle’s patronising perspective on what the Left is actually doing in the UK doing is a dung heap of misrepresentation. Furthermore, where is Kettle’s Call to come from? From some Left guru, perhaps? Some strong geezer or gezeeress who can bang Left heads together and forge some rock-hard unity? Will some great tome be written around which all good Left folk in the UK can rally? Basically, Kettle’s project of quietism and passivity whilst waiting for the Call for the UK Left undermines, makes small and denigrates all that Left and anti-capitalist folk (these are not necessarily the same) are actually doing. He belittles their efforts. It takes guts, dedication, willingness to take risks and be hammered by representatives of capital to challenge the rule of capital in our everyday lives.

Kettle’s flirtation with the writings of Robert Burns at the beginning and end of his article does not fool me! He needs to go back to the drawing board regarding his understandings of liberalism, the Left in the UK and socialism in general. Maybe he should join an evening class, or something. Or better still, go to one of the educational sessions run by the News & Letters Corresponding Committee, or attend the ‘Marx, Individuals & Society’ meetings [2], or hang out in the Marx Memorial Library! This guy needs educating on socialism and related issues! No mistake!


[1] For my own take on socialism and the role of education in the transformation of capitalist into a socialist one see Rikowski (2004 and 2006a) and Gibson and Rikowski (2006).

[2] There are three or four meetings each academic term.


Cohen, N. (2007) What’s Left? How Liberals Lost their Way, London: Fourth Estate.

Gibson, R. & Rikowski, G. (2006) Education for a Socialist Future: An E-Dialogue, Information for Social Change, Issue No.23, online at: http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/C1%20Rich%20Gibson%20and%20Glenn%20Rikowski.pdf

Kettle, M. (2007) Socialism is dead. There now remain only socialists, The Guardian, 27th January, p.35. Online at: http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/politicsphilosophyandsociety/story/0,,1999810,00.html

Rikowski, G. (2002) Education, Capital and the Transhuman, in: D. Hill, P. McLaren, M. Cole & G. Rikowski (Eds.) Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, Lanham Md: Lexington Books.

Rikowski, G. (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future, Policy Futures in Education, Vol.2 Nos. 3 & 4, pp.565-577: http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=pfie&vol=2&issue=3&year=2004&article=10_Rikowski_PFEO_2_3-4_web&id=

Rikowski, G. (2006a) Education and the Politics of Human Resistance, Information for Social Change, Issue No.23 (summer), at: http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/B3%20Glenn%20Rikowski.pdf

Rikowski, G. (2006b) Ten Points on Marx, Class and Education, a paper presented at the Marxism and Education: Renewing Dialogues IX seminar, University of London, Institute of Education, 25th October, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Ten%20Points%20on%20Marx,%20Class%20and%20Education

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