The Burner Episode #231: Lessons in Winning, Right-Wing Leninism?

As the left wonders how to make a better world out of the crisis, Aaron Bastani asks: are there lessons we can learn from how the right does politics? Plus, James Butler on the politics of freedom.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Tuesday May 5, 2020. We are still in lockdown.

Italy’s lockdown was slightly relaxed yesterday with 4.5m people permitted to return to work. Restrictions on how far it’s possible to leave the house while taking exercise were eased. Masks are mandatory in public transport and in enclosed public spaces and the Italian government will be distributing 12 million masks a day, rising to 24 million a day by August.

This is particularly telling for those of us in the UK and a reminder that, as we hear about lockdown lifting or being eased in a number of European countries, in many cases, its being eased simply to a level comparable to our own. It’s also frankly a reminder that it doesn’t look like the British state is anywhere near being able to distribute such a quantity of masks on its own.

The first stats on the government’s economic intervention are out now. They revealed that 6.3m jobs have been furloughed, with 800,000 employers taking part in the job retention scheme. The value of claims so far now sits at around £8bn pounds. That number is certainly just going to grow as more companies take advantage of that scheme.

Those numbers lead to this morning’s Telegraph front page, which claims more than half the adults in the UK are now paid by the state – although that’s a number they reached with some slight of hand by adding that scheme to those on universal credit, to those in the public sector and those receiving a state pension. But even without those additions, it’s still a quarter of PAYE employees – a huge and significant number for the first month of the scheme.

But it is, as I’m sure some of you are feeling, a curious moment in the lockdown; when we in Britain are in a kind of holding pattern as we wait to hear this coming weekend about what measures might be taken to ease the lockdown here, and when; [as well as in a moment when we’re] trying to see what’s happening elsewhere or looking at the news from across the Atlantic… With dread.

One thing that’s worth doing in this time is thinking about how to respond to the crisis. One difficulty the left has had after its recent defeats is even thinking about what political action might look like over the next few years in any context; whether that’s changed or unchanged by the pandemic.

Are there examples on the right, which could teach us anything?

Here’s our Aaron Bastani

AB: One of the curiosities of the post-Cold War era is how parties on the right are increasingly directed by small ideologically committed groups, who overtly see themselves at adhering to a Leninist form of politics.

This might sound hyperbolic, but it shouldn’t. What’s more, while such ideological formations are only now beginning to exert real political control, this form of organisation goes further back. It was very much a conscious response to the ascent of Keynesian, and perceived socialists, to Germany after 1940s.

With defeat of both the Sanders and Corbyn projects and the assent of Trump, Johnson and Brexit, the claim, we’re told, is for the left to make an alliance with the centre. And yet, what if, in some respects at least, the objective should be the very opposite of that.

Here, I think, there are lessons for those of us on the left about how to shape politics more broadly.

In the aftermath of WWII, with central planning and social democracy ascendant, the ideas of classical liberalism faced an existential crisis. It was around then, in 1947, that Antony Fisher would encounter Friedrich von Hayek at the London School of Economics. There he asked the Austrian what he could do to stem the tide of socialism, to which Hayek responded, according to Fisher, that the decisive influence in the battle of ideas and policy was wielded by intellectuals whom he characterized as second-hand dealers in ideas.

It was the dominant intellectuals – from the Fabian’s onwards – who had tilted the political debate in favour of growing government intervention, with all that followed. That conversation inspired Fisher, who in time would become extraordinarily wealthy as a result of adopting until then uniquely American methods of chicken farming and production.

With the advice of Hayek and the profits of his personal business empire, Fisher started at the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955, a think-tank which left its indelible mark on Thatcherism and exists to this very day.

In 1971, Fisher founded the international Institute for Economic Research, which went on to spawn both the Atlas Network in 1981 and the International Policy Network in 2001. Through these operations, Fisher provided financial and operational support for a huge number of fledgling think-tanks, most of which would not exist without his influence.

By 1984, Fisher was watching over 18 institutions in 11 countries. As of 2017, Atlas supports and works with nearly 500 free-market think-tanks in over 90 different countries. Fisher was, as a market fundamentalist, an ideological zealot, an activist extraordinaire.

Decades later, Arthur Seldon was fond of using military analogies to illustrate his argument as to how the IEA functioned and how it influenced politics more broadly. The IEA would be the artillery firing the shells, ideas; some would land on target, the intellectual duel, [while] others might miss. But the Institute would never be the infantry engaging in short term face-to-face grappling with the enemy. Rather, its artillery barrage would clear the way for others through the work of the infantry later on. The IEA would show why matters had gone wrong and set out broad principles, while others would argue precisely how matter should be put right.

The organisation that would hone in on the specifics would be the Centre for Policy Studies, founded in 1974 and the think-tank that prepared policy ahead of Margaret Thatcher becoming prime minister in 1979. In 1975, The New Statesman would write: “It is the IEA which has to take the most credit for years of patient work in bringing economic liberalism to a new level of renewed pre-eminence”. The Times would write the following year in 1976 how, to most economists, the analysis of Hayek, Friedman and other IEA authors had taken on a new relevance, as it has [for] the chancellors and shadow chancellors alike.

But there was also an attendant political analysis. As a growing strength, the IEA and those around it had little faith in the centrist politics of Ted Heath. The reason being [that] they knew that he and moderate Tories alike were clinging to a Keynesian orthodoxy which had had its day.

For anyone who thinks Corbyn had it rough, consider this: when Margaret Thatcher ran for her Party’s leadership in 1974, a single member of the shadow cabinet endorsed her candidacy, IEA and CPS’ favourite, Keith Joseph.

This is a quote from Keith Joseph in 1975: “Talk of coalitions and PR is a form of escapism. It is an attempt to find instant solutions for our problems without digging into the causes. It that ignores political history, economic theory, and experience.

“The ‘middle’ in both parties have in fact set the tone of politics and policy for the past 30 odd years. They cannot deny paternity for their child. This is at the root of our problems.”

Instead, Sir Joseph argued, there was a pressing need for a new consensus, a new common ground for people who shared the belief that Britain had been increasingly led astray in recent years, that something wasn’t quite right.

This was the point of the CPS, and it was the foundation upon which Margaret Thatcher would transform the country.

This was something that became painfully obvious to Labour over the course of the 1979 election campaign, as Bernard Donoughue, head of the Number 10 Policy Unit from 1974 to 1979 recollects towards the end of that campaign: “As we drove around Parliament Square toward Whitehall and Downing Street, I drew Mr Callaghan’s attention to a recent improvement in the opinion polls. Remarking that, with a little luck and a few policy initiatives here and there, we might just squeak through.

“He turned to me and said quietly: ‘I should not be too sure. You know, there are times, perhaps every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. Then, it does not matter what the public wants and what disapproves of. I suspect now there is such a sea change and is for Mrs Thatcher.'”

He was, of course, right. And to an extent that’s the world we still live in. Of course, this wasn’t only happening in Britain, but [in] the United States as well. No surprise, given Hayek not long after his encounter with Fisher would emigrate across the Atlantic and teach at the University of Chicago.

There is a rich ecology of right-wing, classical liberal thinking, which began from the 1950s. In 1961 Murray Rothbard, [the] godfather of anarcho-capitalism, wrote: “We can learn a great deal from Lenin and Leninists, and emphasize the overwhelming importance of the intellectuals and scholars informing a libertarian cadre.”

Rothbard, perhaps more than any other figure on the right, had a Leninist theory of the state and of action. Even to the extent that he echoed Lenin’s Nostrum on cadre-building “better fewer but better. It’s become an effective force. He claimed that American libertarianism needed a movement, and for a movement, it needed a cadre. This is from Rothbard’s Toward a Strategy for Libertarian Social Change.

We came to realise, as the Marxian groups discovered in the past, a cadre with no organisation and with no continuous programme of internal education and reinforcement, is bound to affect and melt away in the course of dealing with far stronger allies.

Rothbard, alongside others like James M. Buchanan and the Koch brothers, was a leading figure in a network of organisations, think tanks, groups, enterprises and branches that have comprehensively transformed American life.

Now, that’s not to say the left can simply imitate such Leninist actions and activism – we don’t have billionaire backers like the Koch, or even millionaire backers like Anthony Fisher, but it does demonstrate how the new right has a much better theory of change and the state than the centre-left.

If socialists are serious about power and transforming society, they should take notes. After all, [it] is the tradition of the Fabians that the right extensively borrowed from in the first place; the very Fabians who helped found the Labour Party, with Sidney and Beatrice Webb having authored the original clause for.

The centre and centre-left meanwhile appear eager to learn none of these lessons. They want to take office, even if it means not taking power; ruling by someone else’s orthodoxy rather than creating a new one.

This is one reason, among many, that centre-left parties are struggling across Europe. They view themselves instead as best placed to administer the status quo, even if that status quo increasingly commands little consent among the public at large.

I suspect this default is the result of two things.

One, they like being in charge for the sake of being in charge. Two, creating a new consensus like the early 20th century socialists, or the neo-liberals of the 60s, 70s and 80s, is extraordinarily difficult.

This is consistent, however, with the fact that the centre are indeed the best administrators – albeit if increasingly sporadically. See Bill Clinton running budget surpluses in the 1990s, Gordon Brown socialising the losses of various banks in 2008, or Barack Obama dealing expertly with the fallout of that same crisis. More recently, there’s Pedro Sanchez in Spain.

This in Britain is now the pitch of Keir Starmer and it’s highly plausible. It may, even win. No evidence suggests that’s unlikely. But is it the appropriate political response in an era of crisis, which will only intensify? What political forces can it muster to change society for the better for working people?

Because when that politics of a holding position fades – like with the Democrats after Obama had served a second term – the older issues remain; inequality, falling living standards, an absence of collective mission fit for the 21st century.

In America, that meant Donald Trump. If the left is serious about re-forging a new politics rather than at best administering the apparatus of yesterday, they should imitate Rothbard – who in turn mimic the left of the early 20th century. [That is] understand the scale of the problem, understand the complexity of the state and how best to engage with it and – unlike the James O’Briens or Nick Cohens of the world – don’t be seduced by easy answers. They rarely, if ever, work.

So do all of that; join an organization and ask yourself how your politics will prevail, not just tomorrow, but in 10 or 20 years. That, I think, is increasingly the timespan upon which the left should be thinking it.

And ask yourself another question, what Antony Fisher or Murray Rothbard do? After all, it’s their world we’re all living in.

JB: There’s so much in there that’s worth thinking about and responding to. And my thanks to Aaron for that.

And, of course, this apprehension of the right as Leninists of a kind – if it doesn’t stretch the term beyond reasonable or meaningful use – is also shared by Philip Mirowski, in some of his rather gloomy predictions about the outcome of the pandemic crisis; that it will be neo-liberalism on steroids.

Now, Mirowski is, I think, a useful corrective to naive optimism. But I don’t think anyone could accuse me at least of that particular sin. Many other sins perhaps.

But perhaps there’s also something useful in thinking about Lenin, as much as some of the political practitioners of the neoliberal rights, in a way that will offend many Leninist but which is nonetheless true and pertinent.

By reflex, lots of disciples of Lenin like to think of him as a kind of Titanic genius, having bent the great weight of his mind to forming a clear analysis. And from that analysis, a plan. But Lenin was at least as much a great practitioner of opportunism and contingency as anything else. Seeing opportunities in front of him for what they were, turning on a pinhead, understanding in an utterly unsentimental manner what he could drop or change and what he couldn’t, which parts of the state or the people were movable, and which as yet weren’t.

A little more of that nimbleness, which relies first on actually seeing the issues in front of you for what they are, rather than you’d like what you’d like them to be. A little more of that would be very welcome indeed.

As Aaron also suggests, it’s not always easy to simply read across political lessons from the right to the left. That’s not only in terms of funding, but also simply in the relationship between means and ends, or the availability of certain political roots which are available and viable for the right – but very much not for the left.

Not least in the most obvious sense: the left commitment to popular mass democracy. There are therefore limits to a kind of politics initiated, led by and administered by small bands of elites.

But, equally, there are methods of whipping up popular energy, resentment or the designation of particular social enemies, which are, or perhaps rather ought to be, off-limits to the left. Does that mean any attempt to direct popular discontent against ruling elites is always doing to be less easy, less available than say racism and xenophobia? Maybe.

Certainly, the pattern of thought is more generally socially available in wider circulation. And maybe this is one of the limits of so-called left populism.

I don’t know, however, that it is easy to draw so hard and fast a rule. What I’d say instead is that it actually calls for a theory of politics and a theory of the political itself. There’s lots to say here and I don’t want to bore on for too long.

A sort of anti-intellectual cringe on parts of the British left make it difficult to talk about a theory of anything without being accused of navel-gazing or ethereal otherworldliness. In practice, this anti-intellectualism emerges as a rather bovine and docile attitude, both to the nature of the British state and its democracy and how politics is done.

So, we get instead the triumph of psephological vacuities like the Mondeo man and the [inaudible] mind.

But if you actually want to change things, rather than simply administer them, and maybe turn some spending taps on – which have been locked off for a little while – if you want to do more than that, then you need to think about the thing that you want to change and how you want to change it. That requires a theory of politics and a theory of the state.

A theory there needn’t be a big and scary word. After all, etymologically it just means really reflection and thought. But I might add, and maybe controversially, there’s such a theory of politics would require understanding the political as its own field, with rules and practices that can’t simply be ignored or circumvented or bent without significant effort.

That, by the way, is why I don’t agree with those on the left who think you can overcome the political, either by leapfrogging over it, by trade union activity or activity at the direct point of economic exploitation, or simply by a rhetorical force or intensity – simply calling everyone you oppose a bastard is not political strategy. However true it may be.

Certainly though, the right are beginning to sense that one political dividing line in the post-Covid-19 state is going to be around freedom. However, loosely defined.

That’s why Matteo Salvini, for instance, having been thrown into disarray around the outbreak of the pandemic, is gradually repositioning the Lega in Italy as a kind of party of freedom. In a recent interview in La Stampa, he bemoans all the kind of form-filling and bureaucracy of the lockdown. He tries to gather people to him by articulating, for instance, the need to go hug your grandpa without filling out a form.

That’s Salvini trying to find a way through politically. But if you’re seeing him simply as a cynic here, if you’re seeing only his hypocrisy – the most obvious and frankly irrelevant of political sins – then you’re missing something important and perhaps powerful.

Salvini is betting that the restrictions will begin to chafe very substantially. And that’s something that should be clear to the left when people feel that their freedom is restricted however voluntarily – that feeling cannot endure for very long.

It’s also not a position unknown to the Lega, although Salvini himself has made gooey eyes at the policing arm of the state in recent years and he has all these kind of very unpleasant photo ops with the Carabinieri.

The roots of the Lega are, at least nominally, purportedly anti-systemic. It’s deeply entwined with kind of hatred of bureaucracy or hatred of state interference; [it’s] very suspicious and distrustful of the police in almost all of its forms. Whether that vein – which once characterised the party under its hilariously corrupt anti-corruption crusader (and Lega founder) Umberto Bossi – emerges again will be very instructive.

More on freedom, the pandemic and politics of the state tomorrow.

Headlines today

On our radar today, however, chief scientist Patrick Vallance and deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, will be in front of the health committee this morning. There are many, many questions for them about the government’s handling of the response to the pandemic; and perhaps [some questions] on the makeup of Sage, perhaps on the shifts in strategy, or on Harries’s early assertions that Britain doesn’t need to test. But, I think especially, and perhaps above all, on the sheer number of excess deaths in Britain likely, as everyone is now saying to be the worst in Europe.

That will be especially clear this morning because the ONS also releases its figures for the excess deaths, just as those two sit down in front of the committee. And just as it gets rolling at 9:30am this morning, that’s likely, I’m afraid, to make very, very miserable reading – perhaps more miserably as it seems to slide off a kind of Teflon-coated government.

Those numbers of course are pre-digested by a nodding, incurious and compliant media, unwilling to ask those most difficult of questions on government strategy above all – with changes in [strategy] which have never been adequately explained, or even really adequately pursued.

The massive public relations giant Edelman published its annual trust survey this morning. That finds trust in government has risen more in Britain than in any other countries since the coronavirus outbreak began. It’s up from 36% in January to 60% today. Trust in UK government leaders has also jumped up 25 points, that’s up to 58%.

The journalists, I’m afraid, come off less well – there’s been a bump though to traditional media.

The left does like to look for reasons that this kind of burst in support might be temporary or fragile; it’s a reasonable thing to want to reach out, not at least because it can be comforting. Though it can mean underestimating how significant the task facing the left actually is. There is popular support for the government, though digging into the Edelman numbers, it looks like that support is heavily pegged to the economic support package and the numbers who think the government are doing well on, for instance, testing or on distribution of medical resources, or PPE ,is much, much lower.

As things shake out, as perhaps questions about the consequences of the treasury measures begin to bubble up, and perhaps as questions around medical supplies become more and more pressing, that may well prove the root into unpicking that support.

Although, like I’ve said before, the question is what happens when the tide goes out and how far it withdraws. Suddenly, that’s what will cause just a little bit of caution on the Tory benches when reading those numbers this morning.

Some of the other numbers in that report maybe suggest other routes in as well. For instance, the UK is one of the highest, at 73%, on preferring to save lives rather than get the economy rolling again. It’s very different of, course, to the priorities of both Tory backbenches – for instance, the ludicrous Steve Baker – as well as the billionaire owners of much the British press.

But perhaps a little comfort for journalists… The public at least rank CEOs beneath us. That’s something.

Keir Starmer continues to push, somewhat soporifically, a towards a national consensus on the exit from lockdown.

But perhaps sharpest news this morning on the left is the reaction of union leaders to leaked government documents on what the end of lockdown might look like, including a traditional Tory deference to big business and profit making at the expense of workers. Those documents suggest very heavily that government advice will be non-binding, leaving all measures basically in the hands of employers. Not good enough, nowhere near good enough at all, but perhaps indicative of exactly where those government and conservative priorities lie.

Lastly, over in the United States, there are really bleak numbers revealed in a new US government document, which projects another surge in coronavirus deaths leading to 3,000 a day by the end of this month (May). Even as some states continue, even now, to lift the restrictions.

More on the United States later this week as well.

But that’s all for this morning. As ever, do get in touch on [email protected]. Let me know what you’re seeing and what you’re thinking, and what you’re worried about.

Otherwise, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t be a prick.

That’s it. This is The Burner. I’ll see you tomorrow.



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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.