Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Arise, Sir Keir!

Leaving Coronavirus and its consequences to one side, let us register that in terms of official British politics once again there is stillness and calm after the recent disturbance of the force.  Order has been restored to the British political galaxy.  The Labour Party - an avowedly democratic socialist party - has ended its experiment with having a sincere democratic socialist for leader and moved on from 'Corbynism'.   Trying to change the system in piecemeal Fabian fashion, boring from within in the most boring fashion imaginable, can recommence with Sir Keir Starmer at the helm, picking up from where Ed Miliband left off.  The bosses of the CBI and media barons can relax and breathe easy, as Labour no longer offers the threat to profit margins they once feared it might.  

When Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader back in 2015, I wrote a piece, 'The Spectre of Corbynism'.  Sadly - tragically given the hopes, energy and time invested by so many in so few - it only remained a spectre - not a reality.  On the day of the 2019 general election itself - 12 December 2019 - before the result was known - I wrote the following notes to myself as part of a meeting I spoke at earlier that evening:

'A spectre is haunting British politics — the spectre of Corbynism.  All the powers of the old order have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre:  Republican American President Donald Trump and former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, from Rupert Murdoch to the BBC, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to serving generals who would consider mutiny if necessary to Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6 who has declared Corbyn a threat to national security who is not suitable to be Prime Minister.

Two things result from these facts:

1 Corbyn is the most left-wing leader of the Labour Party ever – there are some parallels with George Lansbury in the 1930s but unlike even Lansbury Jeremy Corbyn has remained on the radical left of the party throughout his whole career and has not had previous experience of government office.  Corbyn unlike Lansbury has managed to survive the attempts by the Labour right to remove him before he has had the chance of fighting not one but now two general elections.

2 He has a chance of actually becoming Prime Minister – and the prospect of a socialist as prime minister terrifies the British and international ruling class – just as it gives hopes to millions suffering under austerity and wanting another more sustainable, just and humane world.  

He represents 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 Jeremy Corbyn MP and the movement around him.

I first saw Corbyn speak at a tuition fee demo organised by NUS in the late 1990s – warning that once fees were introduced by the Blair government they would go up as happened in Australia.  His record of anti-war activism, anti-imperialist activism and anti-racist activism speaks for itself.

But there is a problem of base and superstructure – politically and intellectually Corbynism was in many ways great and put the principles of working class struggle and the ideas of socialism out there into the mainsteam - but it lacked an 'economic base' underpinning things - there was just not a socialist movement (or wider mass movements on the streets fighting in defence of the NHS or housing, or mass movements against racism and war and for Palestine and so on)  – nor a sense of a working class confident of acting for itself – but instead just a sense that we could get change by passively voting for Corbyn - reflecting the decades of defeat the British working class have suffered since Thatcherism.

It took 17 general strikes in Greece to elect an anti-austerity government in Syriza – the recent UCU strikes in higher education for 8 days were something but not quite this.

The Labour right have repeatedly tried to grind him down and crush Corbyn - 'Project Anaconda' – it was dubbed – he fought this off to some extent but compromised with the right – eg over Trident nuclear submarines  / Brexit / Palestine / and so on - and so by 2019 he is a much weakened leader....'

That was some of what I felt back in December 2019 - but I felt Labour would do better than expected because of the working class anger that is out there and goes unrecognised by the middle class Guardian commentariat  -and so I thought perhaps Labour would get enought to ensure a hung parliament and form a coalition with the SNP or something - it was as we know not to be.  Charlie Kimber has written a long piece for International Socialism  on why Labour lost that terrible night in December 2019 - and how that working class anger managed to be tapped into by Boris Johnson's Tories as a result of Labour's liberal and elitist position on Brexit - so I am not going to repeat this general argument.

What it means now though is that the so called 'parliamentary road to socialism' is firmly closed.  Sir Keir Starmer - with the support of the Labour right and some useful liberal idiots on the Labour left - played his part in helping close that road above all by leading the charge for Labour to adopt a pro-EU position and disregard the referendum of 2016.  The Labour right and Starmer knew that Labour taking a remain position would either work electorally - in which case they have helped Labour once again become a party that loyally serves the interests of British big business by getting Britain back into the EU - or if it didn't work electorally - which anyone could have guessed would have been the more likely option - then Corbynism would be finished and the period where the hard Left were in control of the commanding heights of the Labour Party would be over.   The latter proved the case - and now the right will let the Starmerite soft left do their work disciplining the hard left, making Labour more 'electable and respectable' and making the party safe for Blairism and capital and empire once again - and then when Starmer fails in the next election - the Labour right will be in prime position to ensure a Blairite retakes the leadership.

That the revolutionary road to socialism still remains open for those willing to embark on it is no doubt small comfort right now for the tens of thousands of socialists in Britain who have seen their dreams and hopes of a Jeremy Corbyn government dashed and now smashed.  But we should take an international perspective at moments of defeat - and look at the recent revolutionary movements across the Middle East and elsewhere - as well as the mass strikes and protests that have rocked Macron's neo liberal government in France over the last couple of years - to see how hope lies not with trying to win internal battles inside the Labour Party anymore - real power lies outside parliament - and building the kind of social solidarity that we are seeing emerge amid the Coronavirus pandemic - and the wider fightback and working class resistance against Johnson's useless and disastrous Tory government.

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