Britain: storytelling, ‘culture wars’, and the Left – a reply to Paul Mason

British journalist Paul Mason recently released an essay titled 'The Left, the Party and the Class', clarifying his positions on the future of the left. His ‘new narrative’ exposes the bankruptcy of his politics. Mason is nothing but a left cover for the Labour right's agenda. There is no future for the left on the basis of such reactionary ideas.

Postmodern fixation on ‘newness'

Mason has seemingly changed his tune in just a matter of months. In December 2019, in a pamphlet entitled 'After Corbynism, Where next for Labour?,' we were told that “the central issue we have to face is class”. Now, however, we are assured that ‘values’, not class, are the “dominant political frame”.

In reality, however, the author’s latest musings are a continuation of his earlier work. As we replied at the time, all the same misguided focus on ‘culture’ over class was present in his previous contribution.

The truth is that Paul Mason abandoned a class-based approach long ago. As we have reported elsewhere, Mason has been a vocal advocate of the idea of a ‘popular front’ between Labour and so-called ‘progressives’. And he was literally leading the liberal charge to ‘defend democracy’ (i.e. defend the establishment) at the time of the prorogation of Parliament last year.

Mason’s latest essay, however, is unambiguous. In his lengthy article, the supposedly ‘Marxist’ journalist subordinates the question of class to a matter of secondary importance. Instead, he lays primary emphasis on cultural and social identities.

Quoting Claire Ainsley, ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer’s head of policy, we are told by Mason that many workers no longer “define themselves through work at all”. Instead, due to the ‘neoliberalism’ of the last forty years, there is a ‘new’ working class – one that is "more disparate, more atomised". 

But is there any profound insight to be found here? Conditions of workers have certainly undergone dramatic changes since the beginnings of capitalism. If anything, however, these have only intensified the class divides within society. There is no ‘new’ working class, but one that is more thoroughly exploited, forced to pay the price for the death agony of a system that has nothing more to offer.

Abandonment of class analysis

Dodging death for Image Socialist AppeakMason says the working class no longer exists. But the surge of worker militancy in the last period undermines him / Image: Socialist Appeal

Up until the 1970s, Mason claims, the working class was “easily defined because work was the dominant method of exploitation”. But now, since exploitation is “multipolar” [?!?], we are told, our understanding of the dynamics within society must be through the lens of ‘culture wars’ and so-called ‘narratives’.

Mason even goes as far as to suggest that “work is no longer the primary venue for class conflict”.

One would be forgiven for asking where he has been for the last few years. Despite the draconian anti-trade union laws, for example, we have seen an impressive display of militancy by precarious workers – a growing layer that trade union bureaucrats once dismissed as ‘unorganisable’.

The idea that exploitation has changed is certainly true. It has become ever-more burdensome and assures workers more misery. But to suggest that this has nothing to do with the nature and conditions of work is to explain nothing at all.

This is a shining example of where abandoning a class analysis lands you: playing around with words, without any real interest in the factors at play; blind to the working-class struggles taking place every day around us.

‘Intergenerational divide’

Boris Brexit Image Socialist AppealMason dismisses the so-called traditional working class, whom he characterises as racist Brexit obsessives / Image: Socialist Appeal

Mason goes on to paint a very glib picture of a working class, which he claims is now fractured into the ‘new’ and the ‘traditional’. The ‘traditional’ working class, we are told, is “increasingly defined against the progressive cultural values of younger, more diverse, city-dwelling workers”.

His verdict on Labour’s 2019 defeat is that this was due to the former segment – the ‘traditional’ working class – being put off by left-wing policies such as “the defence of human rights” [!], “universal welfare policies”, and most of all “anti-militarism and anti-imperialism”.

Instead, Mason suggests that the left should give up on demands to scrap NATO or tackle institutionalised police violence; in essence, that Labour should try to outdo the Tories on questions such as the police, the military, and ‘national security’.

The idea that Labour lost the election because the majority of the electorate are hawkish blood-thirsty fanatics is as insulting as it is ignorant. And yet this is the mire where this so-called analysis leads.

Unfortunately, such dismissive attitudes of the working class are not uncommon in the bubble of journalism. Elsewhere, for example, we see Guardian writers suggesting that the reason Labour lost the 2019 election was its inability to 'one up' the Tories in this ‘culture war’.

Mason suggests that the central question to ask is: “Does it help tell a story of hope to an electorate that has become terrified of change?”

Yet even the framing of this question shows how out-of-touch journalists like Mason are from reality. He and his cosseted ilk have completely failed to understand the events that have taken place in Britain and internationally in recent years.

Far from being “terrified of change”, the vote for Brexit was a desperate attempt by those left-behind by capitalism to break with the failed status quo.

The class-based politics of Corbyn seen in the 2017 general election found a powerful echo precisely because they tapped into this mood. (And, it should be noted, Labour’s campaign would have assuredly triumphed were it not for the Fifth Column inside the party.)

It was not a ‘cultural shift’ to ‘nativism’ that ensured Brexit, but a vote against the establishment and a cry for change.

In the same vein, it was not Corbyn’s ability to tell nice stories that led to his popularity. Rather, it was his anti-austerity programme, presented as a genuine alternative to the much-hated triangulation and betrayal of New Labour and the Liberals.

Brexit and bad witnesses

We must remember: this ‘deeply fractured’, ‘value-orientated’ working class that Mason has imagined in fact voted en masse for Labour in 2017.

Here we run up against the limits of Mason’s reactionary and divisive ideas. The prominent role that he himself played defending the EU in the Brexit debate – perhaps considered his most central ‘cultural antipathy’ – can only make one laugh.

This ex-left renegade was afforded hours of airtime on the television. And the only thing he would obsess over is…overturning the Brexit decision!

Yet now Mason has the audacity to spend his time finger-wagging at the 'fractured' working class and soul-searching for the future of Labour. All the while cosying up to the main architect of this abysmal establishment Remain position: the former shadow Brexit secretary and now Labour leader, Keir Starmer.

“Popular Frontism with all progressives,” Mason exclaimed was needed last summer, as Remainer hysteria reached its zenith.

But this was in fact the strategy Ed Miliband’s Labour was committed to going into the Scottish independence referendum in 2014: jumping in bed with the Liberals and Tories – in a word, with the establishment. This proved to be extremely short-sighted for Labour, however, with the party subsequently wiped out north of the border by a left-leaning SNP.

Now history has repeated itself with Labour’s loss of the ‘Red Wall’ seats to the Tories. And yet still Mason is unable to see further than his own nose. Eyes and ears bear bad witnesses for those that refuse to see or hear.

Class analysis vs identity politics

ImperialismRobberBarons Image public domainMason’s whole approach is a convoluted way of not just abandoning the class analysis, but the working class itself / Image: public domain

The logical conclusion from this ‘culture war’ position is a capitulation to identity politics. “Collective identity is less possible” is the disappointingly dull conclusion drawn, since workers are apparently no longer exploited in the same way under ‘neoliberalism’.

Instead, “cultural fragmentation” pervades, and we can bridge this by accepting our shared feelings of ‘powerlessness’.

Mason’s whole approach is a rather convoluted way of not just abandoning the class analysis, but the working class itself.

It reflects the deep pessimism of a renegade who has no faith in the power of the working class to change society along socialist lines, and who is erratically trying to explain away his consistently fatal lack of judgement. This process involves dismissing the revolutionary-potential of the working class, and draping reactionary conclusions in high-sounding phraseology.

Typical of a petit-bourgeois, in Mason’s view, class is reduced to being nothing more than an increasingly irrelevant component part of a person’s ‘self-definition’.

But clearly class is more than just an individual ‘identity’. Rather, it is a concrete material relationship – one that shapes consciousness all the more sharply at this time of extreme precariousness for workers, with the economy in freefall and the livelihoods of half the world’s workforce at risk.

In fact, a class analysis is our sharpest tool, precisely because it unifies the exploited and oppressed majority on the basis of their economic position within society. Most importantly, it offers a viable solution and way forward for workers: that is, a mass class-based struggle for a root-and-branch transformation of society – for socialism.

As Marxists, we understand that class is an economic relation that subjects workers to the caprices of the market. It is not simply something we ‘identify as’, or ‘opt into and out of’, as Mason seems to imply. It is a very concrete and crushing reality that the ever-increasing majority of society face every single day.

The “world beyond work” that Mason suggests we now live in is nothing but a fantasy land inhabited by petit-bourgeois types like himself.

We must be firm that anything that seeks to divide the working class is reactionary and must be rejected. This is precisely what Mason’s ideas do.

There is not a trace of class-based politics in his essay; no attempt to raise the collective consciousness of the working class to the level demanded by history. Instead, we are left with trendy Guardian tedium, sowing illusions in identity politics, culture wars, and storytelling.

‘Economism’ today

Mason retorts that there are no longer ‘single class identities’ or ‘raw economic interests’. Unless we accept this reality (read: fiction), we stand little chance at winning back the progressives (read: liberals) that are apparently the only way of ensuring a Labour government.

The author even invites a comparison between ‘economism’ and the strategy used by the left under Corbyn. But this is a rather superficial comparison – one bound to backfire.

‘Economism’ was a label used by Lenin to describe the prejudice held by certain ‘lefts’ that workers either cannot understand or do not care for theory. The conclusion of these crude naysayers was that socialists should confine themselves simply to economic slogans, immediate demands, and minimal reforms.

In Lenin’s book What is to Be Done?, the great revolutionary leader sharply criticises the Economists for wanting to subordinate the movement to “eclecticism and lack of principle”.

Further, he rejected the idea that the struggle should be solely one of fighting for better terms and conditions for wage labour, without any attempt to broaden the vision to the fight for a socialist society. Lenin insisted:

“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

Where, we must ask, are the revolutionary ideas of Mason? We can see that all his sound and fury amounts to nothing but eclecticism and mealy-mouthed ‘pragmatism’. He should maybe take the time to reread the classics, rather than casually – and incorrectly – name-dropping revolutionaries for clout.

Mason was very happy with the Corbyn wave, while it was fashionable, of course. But now, when it has been defeated for reasons he refuses to understand, he throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Writing in the Spectator, for example, he was happy to throw RLB under the bus. But then, when speaking to a Novara audience, he claimed to regret Starmer’s decision to sack her. Such zigzagging and extraordinary leaps are those of a petit-bourgeois devoid of any theoretical anchor, swayed anywhere the wind blows.

Mason would have us believe that those who do not cower to the enormous pressures of identity politics are reducing everything to economics. But the barrenness of his ‘economism’ just confirms that he has abandoned a class perspective entirely.

What is his alternative? Telling better ‘stories’ to the working class? Seeking a broader coalition with liberals? This is what the faux radicalism of ‘new narratives’ boils down to. As Lenin would have said, the working class are not to be fed on such a thin gruel. This drivel is not fit for children, nevermind anyone wanting to fundamentally change society.

Fashionable preaching and liberalism

Since class politics has clearly been jettisoned, what are we left with? A half-baked rant against ‘neoliberalism’, and a claim that ‘social justice’ must be the core idea of our movement.

There is a bitter irony to Mason’s arrogant assertions. At the end of the day, his attack on neoliberalism dissolves into an open endorsement of…liberalism.

Mason even cites John Rawls, the poster boy of contrived liberal ideas at universities. Evidently he is bereft of ideas. A rehashing of liberal ideas – which have clearly worked so well for workers up until this point! – as the story we tell to workers, however, marks a nadir.

His ramblings bring to mind Lenin’s criticism of Karl Kautsky in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. The latter would proudly declare himself a ‘Marxist’, while forgetting about the class struggle and speaking as a liberal professor would.

The opening chapter of Lenin’s polemical pamphlet was entitled “How Kautsky transformed Marx into an ordinary liberal”. Similarly, today, Mason attempts to cloak his liberalism by quoting Marx, Trotsky, Gramsci, and Comintern policy out of context.

All of this guff is nothing but dust being thrown into the eyes of the movement, intended to confuse and disorientate socialist activists – and, ultimately, to hide the real liberal, reactionary, bourgeois class content at the heart of Mason’s thesis.

In reality, Mason – like Kautsky – has lost his head. But at least the latter had a head to lose in the first place.

Pseudo-Marxism has no place in our movement

There is nothing radical to be found in Mason’s apologia for liberalism. Indeed, there are no positive suggestions for the left at all.

Most notably, in Mason’s (30-plus minute read!) essay, there is no mention of the need for the left to fight for mandatory reselection; to reverse Blair’s legacy; or to kick out the bureaucrats and careerists that have conspired against a Labour victory.

Instead, Mason has gone on record recently to defend Starmer – the right-wing Labour leader who is opening waging war on the left on behalf of the establishment, attempting to reverse all the gains of the Corbyn era.

This is a telling and textbook case study of where you end up if you abandon a class approach. The ideas of ‘culture wars’, postmodernist ‘narratives’ based on ‘values’, and popular fronts are a dead end for the movement. It is only the genuine ideas of Marxism that can unite the working class and offer a way forward.

Originally published 6 August by socialist.net |