The Spectre of Corbynism
Is #JeremyCorbynforLabourLeader the way forward for the Left?
A spectre is haunting British politics – the spectre of Corbynism. Not the spectre of Communism as such – but merely of social democracy – which was supposed to have been killed off and left for dead amidst the triumph of Thatcherism ('There is no alternative') and then Thatcher's greatest achievement - Blairism – now its suddenly back from the dead thanks to the campaign for Labour leader of Jeremy Corbyn MP.
No wonder Blair and the Blairites are so angry and taking this so personally – his whole project and that of his supporters looks as if it is heading towards the 'dustbin of history'. Ironically it was Ed Miliband’s changes to way of electing the Labour leadership – which was supposed to have been about reducing trade union influence in the party – the same influence which saw Ed Miliband triumph unexpectedly against the odds over his brother – that is making the Corbyn victory seem possible. Ed Miliband's idea here was essentially a Blairite one – be more like US Democratic Party – sign up lots of supporters – the thinking is these supporters will be ‘ordinary people’ who are not left wing troublemakers but believe the everyday common sense views of the bourgeois Daily Mail – and so Labour will ensure it gets a more ‘electable’ leader –one more acceptable to the right wing owners of the corporate media.
This strategy almost worked out fine for the Blairites, as in the immediate aftermath of the election the discourse of the corporate media was highly depressing – hammering Miliband's Labour for somehow being too 'left wing' – and there was a narrative and consensus in play about the need for Labour and British politics in general to move further to the right. Andy Burnham made his first major tactical mistake here in the run for Labour leader - he could have tacked a little Left at this point (instead he tacked right appointing the Blairite Rachel Reeves to a key position in his team), so opening the door for the unexpected triumph that was Jeremy Corbyn getting onto the ballot paper representing a clear voice against austerity, racism and war. As Corbyn put it in a recent interview:
'And my strong view is that we lost in 2015 particularly, but also in 2010, because essentially we were offering people slightly less hardship than the other side was offering people. It wasn’t very attractive to a lot of Labour voters. Compounded by the vote on the welfare bill, this has put Labour on the wrong side of the feelings not just of the people on benefits or who might be on benefits but a lot of other people who think, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of poverty in our society, which the Labour Party should be concerned about.’”
So many bourgeois commentators (and those supposedly on the pseudo left - the Guardian / New Statesman types) have written off the material experience of the working class – the poverty and inequality and insecurity affecting the vast majority of British society - the working class – they just can’t explain the popularity of the Corbyn phenomenon at all – its all a bit like the Bob Dylan song – Ballad of a Thin Man - ‘Something is happening here/ But you don't know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?’
Instead they just give repeated patronising lectures like Labour members and supporters are little children - get sober, get realistic, get a heart transplant etc etc - but for those on the receiving end of the austerity and billion pound cuts of the Tories – and with working class struggle so low and so people not feeling confident about fighting back themselves through strike action etc - it is not surprising that Corbyn's campaign is seen as source of hope. Hence the incredible and exciting level of support for Corbyn among trade unionists (and even more reluctant trade union leaders)- winning the backing of UNITE – UNISON – CWU – and most constituency Labour parties etc. The huge swell of support for Corbyn - seen at the mass rallies he is currently speaking at around the country - is potentially the most exciting thing to happen to the Left in Britain for about 30 years –and opens up all sorts of fascinating questions about possible realignments on the Left – will everyone on the Left flood back to the Labour party now if he wins (as George Galloway predicts) – even in Scotland, does a Corbyn win mean Labour will have the chance to rebuild?
Remember - according to some on the Left, for example Richard Seymour - Labour is supposed to be dead, 'Pasokified' etc - and we are all supposed to be at our most miserable and pessimistic about things right now - yet everyone you meet on the Left is at the moment more optimistic and excited about the prospects of a Corbyn victory than they have been for ages. This is partly of course because of the personal Corbyn factor – without the charisma and oratorical powers of a Galloway or a Benn, but with consistency, courage and a lack of egotism which is very refreshing - and his tireless activism together with the fact he is one of the most principled socialist Labour MPs means everyone on the Left should hope for his win, which would be inspiration and symbol of hope and resistance for many millions of people.
At a time when David Cameron's racist scapegoating of the ‘swarm’ of refugees at Calais is sickening anti-racists everywhere - see Frankie Boyle's brilliant recent column about this in the Guardian - , you know that Corbyn's record of not only anti-imperialism but also anti-racism means that he will always stand out against such filthy rhetoric and defend the rights of refugees. Electing Corbyn - the current president of the Stop the War Coalition - leader would be just about the only thing Labour could do to wash off all the blood stains left because of Blair’s warmongering – at one fell swoop they could win back millions of voters who could never stomach voting Labour again because of their war crimes. And indeed what we are seeing primarily with the Corbyn campaign is the five million Labour voters and 200,000 odd Labour members which Blair and Brown lost from 1997 to 2010 with their privatisations and warmongering coming back around Labour. Andy Burnham, a former Blairite who described Blair as ‘my mate’ in 2006 is trying to pretend he is some sort of Left wing figure now, but as Tony Benn once said of Jack Straw, 'he is like a little weather-cock – he blows with every wind’. Burnham’s possibly fatal error for someone who was supposedly somehow left recently was to follow Harriet Harman’s call for abstention in the fact of the Tories attack on welfare – redistricuting wealth from very poorest in society to their rich friends – followed by the other two Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall and four fifths of Labour MPs.
So the battle is now on as it were for the ‘soul’ of the Labour party – and the possibility of civil war inside of Labour if Corbyn does win. Labour has 232 MPs, and only nine are members of the Socialist Campaign Group to which Corbyn belongs. Corbyn only got onto the ballot paper with help of right-wingers, many of whom now regret giving their support to him. The weakness of Labour Left - compared to what it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s around Bennism is palpable. Only 9 Labour MPs in Ed Miliband's Labour Party opposed his Libya war – even less than the 12 under Brown who called for an inquiry into the Iraq war. Only 7 Labour MPs I think voted for Diane Abbott for Labour leader last time around. So should socialists - like myself, a member of the SWP - who are currently outside the Labour party now join or rejoin to play their part in the struggle to 'reclaim Labour'?
I think there are some basic points to make:
1) Only a sectarian idiot would not welcome the mass Corbyn campaign as a sign of support for left ideas and the potential for resistance – and the revival of the Labour Left as an organised force again - even if this means things are in a sense more difficult for those of us on the revolutionary left trying to build a socialist alternative to Labour in things like TUSC and Left Unity.
2) But we have to say some other things as well, which hopefully explain why SWP members like myself are not going to join the Labour party now to vote for Corbyn ourselves. Without wanting to 'pre-write' history (which is what I may will be accused of doing anyway), as Marxists - who aim to theorise and generalise from the historic experience of the working class - we can it seems safely make some points of warning here, given the Labour Party has been around for over 100 years. There are incidentally some clear parallels here - when thinking about reform or revolution - with the situation in Greece around Syriza - we in the SWP were denounced for stressing the importance of maintaining organisational independence from Syriza in things like Antarsya (I was personally denounced for writing 'stark morality fables' by Seymour for not cheerleading the Syriza leadership's every twist and turn), only to be vindicated somewhat when the reformist strategy of trying to work within the neoliberal capitalist prison of the EU failed and Syriza's leadership ended up implementing austerity and cuts despite being officially 'anti-austerity'. Given this - the main problem it seems to me around Corbynism is the question:
3) How would Corbyn actually implement his moderate programme of social reform and end austerity? Already just by his being ahead in the leadership polls, he has increasingly come under pressure from the right inside the parliamentary Labour party- and in the face of this pressure his strategy at the moment is to compromise and equivocate rather than offer resistance. For example over the EU where Corbyn was initially ambivalent but is now more clearly situating himself in the 'Yes' camp to stay and try and reform it (ala Syriza) rather than arguing for a 'Left Brexit' (which would worry the big sections of the British capitalist class even more than his campaign is already doing). He has also called for Labour Party Unity and offered to give Blairites positions in his Shadow Cabinet to try and avoid the danger of (perhaps inevitable) internal civil war. All this he has done - and he has not yet even won the position of Labour leader yet!
If he won, these pressures to be ‘electable’ – moderate his programme - would grow and become more intense – as would the general pressures to compromise – and to not have a fight and try and clear the Blairite bureaucrats out of the party apparatus or reselect etc not have campaign to try and reselect the worst of the right wing Labour MPs. Perhaps he will try to 'reclaim Labour' in his own way, and try to challenge the right inside Labour - but ultimately Corbyn is a Labour Party man – that’s his party – and I think ideally he would want to be a 'unifier' as leader – not someone who went on the offensive and tried to drive out the Blairites in the ruthless manner that they would need to be purged. Incidentally, there has never been a mass purge of the right wing of the Labour Party in any organised fashion in its history - only ever expulsions of the Left.
For Corbyn to resist the right and stay on track would need a counter-veiling pressure to his Left which is as strong or stronger than that on his right (the Blairites and corporate media). Only mass collective struggle on the streets and more importantly in the workplaces could provide such pressure. The student revolt of 2010 and the mass strikes and marches of 2011 gave momentum to an anti-Tory mood in Britain. Workers’ sense of solidarity and confidence grew. But the choking off of the strikes by trade union and Labour leaders eroded the feeling of collective revolt, and in its place came the pressures of individualism and hesitation about following a Labour Party that seemed scared of any real change – that ultimately was a large part I think of why Labour lost earlier this year.
But even say that Corbyn victory triggered a rise in confidence and militancy on the streets and at work - and every socialist has to sincerely passionately hope that it does, which would help to make the TUC demonstration in Manchester on Sunday 4 October at Tory Party conference mammoth – and the trade union leaders can no longer hold back the latent anger at what the Tories are doing that they had to lead and organise a serious fight back – and then a Corbyn–led Labour did win in 2020 – what then?
Here we return to the main problem with all forms of left reformism – putting parliament – or as the Labour Left MP Eric Heffer once put it – the 'class struggle in parliament' – first – and the class struggle at the point of production, or the movement on the streets, below that somewhere. Corbyn himself is of course an activist – but remember when the anti-war movement was at its height – he could have left Blair's Labour Party and joined with Respect and Galloway, then stood for his old seat as a socialist with much more room for manoeuvre to build the extraparliamentary movement and freedom to criticise the Blairites – but he didn’t do this. I don't know why not, but my guess is that there was always the chance that by doing this he would lose – so he put being MP and being in parliament first. That’s fine and respectable in its own way – that’s because his vision of change is socialism coming through parliament from above - fine, but lets not try to pretend he is some sort of revolutionary. As he himself made it clear on the Andrew Marr show, the Labour Party is not a 'revolutionary party'.
Still, a Corbyn led government on the face of it now would still be amazing – it would be the best chance of breaking the cycle of every Labour government since 1945 being worse than last one because of their commitment to imperialism abroad and making cuts at home - and making ordinary people pay for the wider crisis of British capitalism. The problem of course is, if he won, Corbyn would be in office as PM – but not in power, because power does not lie in parliament - and he would still have the wider capitalist crisis to content with. As Charlie Kimber pointed out in Socialist Worker recently, 'The state structures of the police, army, judges, prisons and spies are wholly insulated from democracy. They exist to thwart change, not enable it. The unelected and unaccountable owners of capital will use their financial and social power to block reforms that threaten business. They will use global institutions to bully governments, they will engineer currency panics, choke off credit and funds or withdraw investment and close factories. And if none of that works [and it usually does – look at Syriza in Greece] they will use violence to defend their rule. Only by tackling the system at its roots can such blackmail be defeated. The history of Labour is a history of betrayed hope because the party seeks change without challenging capitalism or the state.'
The dilemma was well summed up by the German trade union leader Fritz Tarnow at the height of the Great Depression in 1931:
‘Are we sitting at the sick-bed of capitalism, not only as doctors who want to cure their patient, but as prospective heirs who cannot wait for the end or would like to hasten it by administering poison? We are condemned, I think, to be doctors who seriously wish a cure, and yet we have to retain the feeling that we are heirs who wish to receive the entire legacy of the capitalist system today rather than tomorrow. This double role, doctor and heir, is a damned difficult task.'
As Tarnow makes clear, Labour governments and their counterparts elsewhere have always resolved this dilemma by acting as doctors of capitalism, trying to rescue it at the expense of their working class supporters. As Tony Benn used to put it, 'the Labour Party is not a socialist party – but it always had socialists in it - like there are some Christians in the Church of England' - instead, it is as Lenin put it, a ‘capitalist workers’ party’, which emerged as a political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, and which pursues workers’ interests so long as they are compatible with the well-being of capitalism. As Lenin once put it, Labour is tied by a thousand threads to capitalism.
Even if Corbyn cut some of these threads- or threatened to do so - he could not change the fundamental nature of the party as a whole, and would in all likelihood end up a prisoner of it - trapped and unable to manouevre by the Labour right (who may also split off to form a new SDP type party to try and stop him ever become elected).
Ed Miliband's dad Ralph Miliband – the great Marxist thinker and author of the classic work Parliamentary Socialism – analysed and dissected the resulting ideology of Labourism – which he noted was something distinct from socialism. As Ralph noted in Parliamentary Socialism (1961), -‘of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of the political behaviour.’
In 1976 in his essay ‘Moving On’, Ralph Miliband stressed the need for building a socialist alternative to the Labour Party – as he wrote: ‘my own view, often reiterated, is that the belief in the effective transformation of the labour party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone’ – Those who had hopes of capturing and reclaiming the Labour Party for socialism were to be disappointed – as he noted ‘the obverse phenomonen has very commonly occurred – namely the capturing of the militants by the labour party’ - ‘people on the left who have set out with the intention of transforming the labour party have more often than not ended up being transformed by it, in the sense that they have been caught up in its rituals and rhythms, in ineffectual resolution-mongering exercises, in the resigned habituation to the unacceptable, even in the cynical acceptance and even expectation of betrayal’.
There is a real danger that Corbyn’s campaign can turn people back to the worm-eaten project of transforming Labour, reminding one of the Leonard Cohen song First We Take Manhattan, ‘they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom – for trying to change the system from within’. The reformist road ultimately does not lead to socialism, albeit at a slower and more genteel pace, but it leads somewhere else entirely - trying to defend and manage a failing bankrupt capitalist system.
Again Ralph Miliband, in his 1972 postscript Parliamentary Socialism, with which I shall conclude: 'The Labour Party … is a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly and by now irrevocably rooted. The system badly needs such a party, since it plays a major role in the management of discontent and helps to keep it within safe bounds; and the fact that the Labour Party proclaims itself at least once every five years but much more often as well to be committed not merely to the modest amelioation of capitalist society but to its wholesale transformation, to a just social order, to a classless society, to a new Britain, and whatever not, does not make it less but more useful in the preservation of the existing social order. The absence of a viable socialist alternative is no reason for resigned acceptance or for the perpetuation of hopes which have no basis in political reality. On the contrary, what it requires is to begin preparing the ground for the coming into being of such an alternative: and one of the indispensable elements of that process is the dissipation of paralysing illusions about the true purpose and role of the Labour Party’.
We need to build an alternative to Labour - and a mass revolutionary socialist party. This is how Ralph Miliband put it in his Socialist Advance in Britain (1983):
''Socialist work means something different for a socialist party than the kind of political activity inscribed in the perspectives of labourism. I have noted earlier that political work, for labourism, essentially means short periods of great political activity for local and parliamentary elections, with long periods of more or less routine party activity in between. Socialist work means intervention in all the many different areas of life in which class struggle occurs: for class struggle must be taken to mean not only the permanent struggle between capital and labour, crucial though that remains, but the struggle against racial and sex discrimination, the struggle against arbitrary state and police power, the struggle against the ideological hegemony of the conservative forces, and the struggle for new and radically different defence and foreign policies. The slogan of the first Marxist organisation in Britain, the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1884, was ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’. It is also a valid slogan for the 1980s and beyond. A socialist party could, in the coming years, give it more effective meaning than it has ever had in the past.''
Edited to add: A recent interview with Jeremy Corbyn and a piece by Alex Callinicos on What will happen if Jeremy Corbyn does win?