News from Nullspace

Tim Cowlishaw's blog

About me | Twitter | Github

Our politics is utopian or it is nothing

It’s not often that I find anything Boris Johnson says to be particularly prescient or remarkable, but his denouncement of “Left-wing misery-guts” (within a risible bit of shilling for TTIP, with which I fervently disagree) struck a nerve.

Boris’s characterisation of us left-wingers as ‘misery-guts’ could be dismissed as a predictable bit of clichéd ad-hominem, where it not for the fact that, well, it can sometimes be true. And it’s not just the right who are pointing it out; Emma Burnell, writing for LabourList writes eloquently about how a Labour party which campaigns in the style of Harold Wilson’s ‘moral crusade’ might well alienate many of those it seeks to represent.

This isn’t just a question of public perception however, it is also, crucially, one of identity. The idea that being left-wing must necessarily mean being ascetic and humourless is directly opposed to my own experience of being of the left, and my reasons for identifying as so, and I’m certain that many of our comrades feel similarly!

One of my own favourite pieces of socialist writing, and one that was instrumental in my transition from seeing myself as a liberal social democrat to a socialist proper is William Morris’s News from Nowhere - a utopian sci-fi short story in which William Guest - an avatar of Morris - wakes up in a post-revoulutionary Marxist Britain, and sets out to learn all he can about this new society, in which toil, want, and war have been abolished. The only anger or disapproval Morris shows is directed towards iron bridges and other architectural carbuncles - his vision of the future society is one of unalloyed optimism. It was at this point that I realised that socialism isn’t about the miserly bean-counting task of allocating resources in the most equal way possible, but about the far more important struggle to ensure that every human has the right to happiness, health, leisure and creative fulfilment. This is echoed in Marx’s own analysis of the working day - which makes it clear that Marxism is, in the limit, the struggle for mastery over our own time.

News from Nowhere was written over a century ago; and over that time socialism has evolved both in substance, and perception, and not always in a way that has been desirable. It is obvious, I think, that as a movement, we could not but emerge from the century that gave us McCarthy, Stalin and Thatcher, unscathed. Much has changed over those 125 years, and our ideas and tactics must therefore change too. What is a constant, however, is the fact that, fundamentally, we’re fighting for the happiness, health and self-determination of every person, and that this is a fundamentally optimistic vision. When the right talks about aspiration, we must make it clear that this is not synonymous with acquisition, which is only a means to an end. To her credit, Liz Kendall partly makes this case, even though her statement that “most people want […] somewhere to live, something to do, something to look forward to and someone to love” fails to mention the freedom to spend our time as we please, and and to assert all these desires as universal rights. (It should be obvious that I fundamentally disagree with her proposed means of achieving this, too).

As socialists, we must continue to make this case, and do so in an optimistic, utopian way, and in so doing, reclaim the language of freedom, security and a good life for everyone as the preserve of the left.