Pretending to be someone else

Politically speaking, I don’t generally get along with Leninists of any stripe, but I have to admit they do come up with the odd razor sharp political category. One that came to mind recently was “substitutionism” — a concept invented by Trotsky whereby the party substitutes its own activity for that of the working class itself. In 1904, Trotsky addresses himself to Lenin (rather prophetically as it turned out), warning that this Bolshevik Party he was founding, because it saw itself as the historical consciousness of the proletariat, would end up acting as a proxy on the latter’s behalf regardless of what working-class people actually thought or did.

The application of this category in the history of the Soviet Union is fairly obvious, in that the Communist Party eventually came to exercise domination over the Russian working class. However, in terms of British politics I’m more interested in how it’s historically been flung around as an inter-Trotskyist insult. It was usually employed as follows: Every time the British far left got together to form some sort of coalition together, whichever group got left out accused everyone else of substitutionism. The argument ran roughly as follows: The largest single groups in all of these projects (the Socialist Alliance, Respect, TUSC) were Trotkyist parties, but since they were all designed to be populist left parties appealing to the wider working class they needed to adopt non-revolutionary programmes so as to address themselves to wherever their target audience were at. This led to the peculiar spectacle of Leninist parties voting against their own formal policies at conference, in order to artificially produce a party platform likely to be more successful. That is, they had to pretend they were a minority in the hope that their populist platform would attract enough “normal” people to make it so, at which point they could behave like a revolutionary minority again and start working on turning these normals into revolutionary cadre.

Their Leninist opponents, bending the concept slightly, then accused them of substitutionism not on the grounds that they were taking their own formal positions as a proxy for working-class opinions, but on the grounds that they were inventing said opinions and then pretending to hold them in order to gain support.*

What got me thinking about this version of “substitutionism” was the repeated accusation from a number of different quarters that people prepared to advocate for or represent their own politics were on some level engaged in a complacent act of betrayal against those who needed the Labour Party to defend their interests. Sarah Ditum’s piece for the New Statesman being a particularly egregious example.

Rather than get bogged down in arguing over whether Corbyn’s support is or is not middle class, I’m going to skate on past the un-evidenced assertions here and assume that this depicts a real phenomenon — middle-class Corbyn supporters whose comfortable material situation means that Labour being in government is not a matter of life and death. What is being called for here is an act of substitutionism. That is, your complacent middle-class Corbyn supporter is being asked (ironically in a highly moralistic way) to suppress their own political views in order to serve a greater good — to adopt a political position that mimics that of the electorate and thus enables a Labour government to come to the rescue of those less fortunate than themselves. To save the working class, the middle-class Corbynite must substitute their own ideas for those that they imagine the former to have.

Now, I suspect the prospects of success for such a centrist endeavour have fallen through the floor in the last few years. In any case, it would be difficult to find a political formulation that was more dismissive of the ability of the working class to engage in politics. Not only does it assume a political project in which the poor are to be saved by the Labour Party (eugh), it, as a matter of course assumes that this saving will take place courtesy of the middle classes coming up with the right political programme on their behalf. Moreover, since we all know that ending the “madness” of Corbynism means pivoting back towards mostly middle-class swing voters, this makes it likely that the pitch is for the working class to be saved by middle-class people convincing other middle-class people that their grievances are real.

Whatever you think of Corbynism, and it certainly has substitutionist qualities of its own — the selectorate standing in for the people being its main one - this formulation (of the complacent middle classes abandoning the poor to the Tories) has little respect for the political abilities of working-class people. Because if you believe a party of the centre left is a necessity for survival for so many people, then surely it will get (re-)built? Before that, surely the people who need it would flock into the Labour Party to ensure that it wasn’t left to these irresponsible middle-class carpet-baggers? After all, didn’t the workers build the Party in the first place? And in an age of greater poverty (both in time and money) and poorer communications, no less. If Keir Hardie and pals could make a party of left-wing parliamentary reform with pamphlets and handbills, surely it could be done in the era of smart phones, Snapchat and Whatsapp?

Hidden beneath the outrage at the Corbynites’ apparent disinterest in the serious business of winning power is the fear that the answer to all those questions is “no”. The fear that those things won’t happen, not because people lack the ability but because too few share the belief that a serious party of the centre left is necessary for their survival, because not enough happened under the last Labour government to convince them that it was. Regardless of what you think of Blair’s achievements and policies, they don’t seem to have been enough to win even £3 worth of approval from even a fraction of the people who benefited from them.

Hence the need to call for substitutes. In a world where working-class people are imagined as passive spectators in the world of politics, the people who “need a Labour government” will not come to the party’s aid, so those who think they know what’s best for them must be browbeaten into taking their place. The frivolous, political day-trippers should mimic an imaginary constituency of moderate, patriotic centrists, in order to appeal to the inert masses. Repress your own political dreams and desires, leave it to the sensible, to the experts, to divine the popular will.

*A note for Leninologists and Trotskyists, feel free not to offer an intensely pedantic refutation of my terminology or memory of past Trotskyist spats below the line. No one cares.