Will ye no come back?

Amidst rumours of Jeremy Corbyn being set to launch a new party, Derek James asks why so many on the left are still in thrall to Corbynism

We can gauge the current state of the Labour left by the reaction, over the last few weeks, to rumours that Jeremy Corbyn was about to launch a new party. The response on social media was overwhelmingly positive, with many activists warmly welcoming the supposed initiative. One writer in the Morning Star spoke for many when she bemoaned the loss of energy, creativity and hope amongst the Labour left that followed Corbyn’s defeat and the election of Keir Starmer. Supporting the idea of a new party, Chelly Ryan argued that the possibility of any fight within Labour was now over:

The prospect of building slowly from within the Labour Party is now entirely defunct. We don’t have time for slow movement-building. And we don’t have the heart for it either. We are all spent from five years of internal warfare, defending one of, if not the, best leader the Labour Party ever had, from sabotage by the PLP and party staff.

… Starmer is sitting there, rubbing his hands in arrogant glee, knowing all he has to do is not cock up too badly and his time will come. And when it does, he will claim it was his purge of Corbyn and the “hard” left that won it. Then it will be business as usual. Fuscia Labour will tweak the status quo but they won’t change it dramatically This revolving door of not much changing can only be challenged by a new party and that new party has to be headed by Jeremy Corbyn. [1]

For these comrades Corbyn still remains the prince over the water, the rightful leader who, they hope, will one day return to claim his own and lead his followers to victory. He is, they say, the most unifying and inspiring figure we have had for generations, with the political weight and credibility to “light that spark” the left so urgently needs to revive.[2] Similar hopes are entertained elsewhere. Former left Labour MP Chris Williamson’s organisation – Resist: movement for a people’s party – welcomed the possible move, as did those who have always seen Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project as the nucleus of a new party-in-waiting.[3] However, before everyone gets too excited, it seems that the rumours were just that – rumours. It appears that the source of the stories were a number of articles in the right-wing media and briefings from sources close to the Labour leadership.[4] Whether these speculations were part of a deep-laid  Machiavellian plot to force the Labour left’s hand into formally breaking with the party, a simple misreading of yet another fairly innocuous Peace and Justice Project initiative, or a distorted echo of  the party bureaucracy’s plans to select a new parliamentary candidate for Islington North, remains to be seen.[5] However, it is the left’s rather excited response to the  reports that is the important issue here.

The reaction to this ‘news’ by comrades like Chelly Ryan shows that many are still clutching at straws and hoping that the Starmerite tide can be turned. This is illusory for two reasons. Firstly, such hopes fail to really account for the political  failure of the ‘Corbyn project’ and the treacherous role that the Corbyn leadership played in appeasing the pro-capitalist Labour right during the anti-Semitism smear campaign against the left. Remember that the purges and witch-hunt began under Corbyn, who not only stood idly by when genuine socialists were expelled, but, along with John McDonnell, was quite willing to throw long-standing comrades and close allies under the bus in what proved to be an ultimately fruitless attempt to preserve their position. Not only was it a cowardly response to the attacks from the Labour right and the capitalist media, but it actually proved to be worse than useless as it only further demoralised and weakened the Labour left. Let’s have no more illusions – this particular prince and his politics should remain firmly over the water. Corbyn’s rotten strategy of appeasement does not deserve a second outing, and his warmed-over Keynesianism and limited tinkering do not at all constitute a real socialist alternative to capitalism.

The second fallacy is that the rank and file of the Corbyn movement can be easily recalled to the colours and that the clock can be turned back to 2017 or 2018. Many comrades on the Labour left talk as if the 150,000 or so who have quit since Starmer took over are just waiting behind the lines in reserve, ready to be called back into the battle. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. This left has scattered to the winds: some have joined single issue protest campaigns or now focus their attention on trade union militancy, others have joined one of the confessional sects, but the vast majority have simply dropped out of politics altogether, disillusioned with the abject failure of the Corbyn project.

Yet many on the left cling to the idea that some kind of revival of these politics of the past is not only possible but is actually desirable. Some examples of this misplaced optimism were on display at what was, in effect, the foundation meeting of the Socialist Labour Network (LAW and LIEN) on January 14. Regular readers will remember that this group has emerged following the liquidation of Labour Against the Witchhunt through its merger with the Labour in Exile Network. The main impetus behind the new group appears to be an attempt to rally the confused and disoriented forces  and begin some kind of fightback. But despite the righteous indignation and the opposition to what has happened in the Labour Party since the election of Starmer, the initial meeting of this new grouping shows that it lacks coherence and a unifying strategy. The basic division within the SLN is between those comrades who still orientate towards the Labour Party and those who believe that it is now both possible and necessary to build some new project primarily outside of Labour. While the new group has yet to agree its aims (that will be the first task of the newly elected steering group), both the composition of that committee and the discussion on January 14 shows that this is a fundamental, if as yet implicit, faultline.

How exactly these divisions will play out remains to be seen. For example, what will be the response of those members who are in effect Labour left loyalists to election candidates who stand against Labour? On past experience, some of the leading members will want to support the next electoral outings of, say, George Galloway or his ilk, or advocate that trade unions disaffiliate from Labour, while others still hope that Labour can be saved by the revival of Corbynism. Perhaps such minor ‘tactical’ problems and political differences can be temporarily papered over, but the real issue of the direction of this type of project cannot be ignored by the principled and serious left.

A significant and leading minority of the leadership of the SLN claim to be Marxist. Yet, rather than advocating a Marxist programme that seeks to replace capitalism by building a Communist Party and a conscious movement for the self-emancipation of the working class, these comrades play at being left reformists, proposing instead the ‘transitional’ economistic politics of the half-way house. Arguing that such timid, essentially reformist politics can build a bridge to the masses, they see the new network as a way to gradually win the Labour left to Marxism. However, when push comes to shove on significant matters of programme, this approach badly falls down and our bold ‘Marxists’ stick to the commonplace reformist banalities of the Labour election manifesto or the Fabian certainties of the    old Clause Four.

These concessions to Labourism and compromises with reformism may ensure that the SLN limps on for a few months or so, but both its internal dynamics and the state of the wider left do not augur well for its long-term future. Instead of pretending that the Corbyn movement was the zenith of real left politics, the authentic, militant left needs to settle accounts with the past and completely break from what is now  clearly a project whose time has passed. Corbynism is dead, but the struggle for principled Marxist politics and a revolutionary programme continues l

[1]. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/why-im-hoping-corbyn-launches-new-party.

[2]. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/why-im-hoping-corbyn-launches-new-party.

[3]. creatingsocialism.org/resist-welcomes-rumoured-new-corbyn-party.

[4]. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10386125/Jeremy-Corbyn-launch-new-Peace-Justice-Party-losing-Labour-whip.html; www.newstatesman.com/politics/labour/2022/01/why-a-new-left-party-led-by-jeremy-corbyn-is-a-bad-idea.

[5]. www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2022/01/09/jeremy-corbyn-could-establish-party-hopes-fade-reinstated-labour; leftfootforward.org/2022/01/tory-press-stirs-speculation-that-jeremy-corbyn-is-considering-launching-new-party; www.facebook.com/TheCorbynProject; www.islingtongazette.co.uk/news/local-council/jeremy-corbyn-islington-mp-could-face-labour-challenge-8616308.

Something serious is needed: confronting Tony Greenstein

It is clear that Tony Greenstein has abandoned any pretence of adhering to class politics: that is, the class politics of the working class. Jack Conrad defends the Marxist programme against those who advocate yet another broad-front halfway house

Replying to Tony Greenstein’s shameful accusation that those who resigned from Labour Against the Witchhunt’s steering committee have resorted to the same “big lie” tactics as Joseph Goebbels is unnecessary (‘Not a liquidation?’ Weekly Worker December 9 2021). The long record of Tina Werkmann, Jackie Walker, Kevin Bean and Stan Keable speaks for itself. They are honest comrades holding honest views.

So has LAW been liquidated? Comrade Greenstein pleads that “nowhere in the successful resolution” was there any mention of “liquidation” or “closing down” LAW. True, but this is clearly a pedantic attempt to pull wool over eyes.

In politics, as in other walks of life, context is all. Comrade Greenstein is on record as saying that the fight in the Labour Party is over, that trade unions should disaffiliate, that voters in the July 1 2021 Batley and Spen by-election should support George Galloway and not Labour’s Kim Leadbeater. Many attending the LAW members’ meeting expressed similar views and, no less to the point, that is also the case with the leadership slate comrade Greenstein got installed on November 27. So, while the words ‘liquidation’ and ‘closing down’ did not appear in motion 1, only someone who wants to cover up, to obfuscate, to hoodwink, would object to such an assessment.

Indeed, presumably working according to the motto, ‘Attack is the best form of defence’, we find comrade Greenstein himself making accusations of liquidationism:

If anyone has liquidated LAW, it is its steering committee. For the past two years it has done very little, even against the Corbyn witch-hunt. Against Starmer’s witch-hunt it has been paralysed. What it has done, like the picket of Labour’s HQ in protest at the proscriptions and the Not the Forde Inquiry at the Resist at the Rialto has been done with LIEN [Labour In Exile Network].

This is simply childish. LAW has done very little, has been paralysed even, but despite this paralysis has maintained a professional looking website, gained members, picketed Labour Party HQ, organised Not the Ford Inquiry at the Resist event at this year’s Labour conference in Brighton. Of course, these actions have been organised with a range of others and not only LIEN (there were the Labour Left Alliance, Labour Campaign for Free Speech and Labour Party Marxists too). And all in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, social mixing restrictions and two lockdowns, remember.

It is perfectly understandable why in practice comrades want to abandon the fight in the Labour Party. Many have been shamefully expelled or suspended, their reputations trashed and besmirched. The official Labour left has proved spineless, ineffective and treacherous. After all, under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby the witch-hunt was actually ramped up. Disgracefully, in a futile attempt to appease the right, they stayed silent, while, one after another, their own close comrades and friends were thrown under the bus. And now, making matters even worse, Sir Keir is firmly in the saddle and riding high in opinion polls.

Frankly, while we were disappointed by the November 26 vote at the LAW members’ meeting, we were not surprised. An unprecedented reactionary tornado is ripping through the Labour Party and those who naively counted on Corbyn, those who lack strategic moorings, those who have little or no understanding of class politics are swept away, left desperately clutching at anything with appears to offer hope.

If comrade Greenstein and co were committed to, had their sights on, a serious party, it would be another matter entirely. We would still disagree with abandoning the Labour Party as a site of struggle – for us that is like abandoning the trade unions. But what is being proposed lacks any credibility: variously a Corbyn movement without Corbyn, a rainbow coalition, a classless people’s party or more commonly a Labour Party mark two. Taking their cue from Ken Loach, this undefined melange is what the successful motion 1, moved by Tony Greenstein and Esther Giles, and carried 47:27 on November 26, takes as its “starting point”. A recipe for confusion, disunity and one micro-split after another.

Strategy

Let us move the argument on by quoting comrade Greenstein once again. He claims that we have never had “any analysis of the Corbyn movement: still less any strategy worthy of the name”. Well, I know the comrade is a regular reader of the Weekly Worker, even an occasional contributor, but obviously not an attentive one. Maybe he is becoming forgetful? Who knows.

Either way, he is talking rubbish. Our attitude towards the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party was worked out in advance: that is, well before his actual election, and with far greater foresight, and with far greater worth and precision, than any other campaign, committee, group or party on the left. Why? Because we have a fully worked out strategy.

Labour needs be refounded as a united front of a special kind and politically armed with a Marxist programme and put under a tried and tested Marxist leadership. Such a perspective can only be realised, of course, through the struggle for a mass Communist Party. Needless to say, we envisage once again opening up the Labour Party to the affiliation of leftwing groups and parties – crucially the affiliation of the CPGB. So this is a twin-track strategy, with the main emphasis on the struggle for a mass Communist Party.

Corbyn got into the leadership by a historical accident. Naturally we, and many others, agitated at a constituency level to persuade Labour MPs to ‘lend him’ their vote. Much to my surprise, this actually worked. The ‘morons’ allowed him to run. Once he was on the ballot, we were convinced he would easily win. Not just because of the £3 supporters, but because of the deep well of discontent within the then existing ranks of the Labour Party membership.

What about the mass influx? Did we leave it unanalysed? Of course not. The suggestion is laughable. Corbyn appeared as a vehicle, a focus, a saviour for hundreds of thousands. It was not merely a rejection of Ed Miliband’s austerity-lite politics, as comrade Greenstein suggests. An older generation who had left the Labour Party in disgust over Tony Blair and the Iraq war returned. A younger generation who felt betrayed over student loans, the commodification of education, the lack of affordable housing, low wages and job insecurity – well, they flocked in. But what was notable about them – especially, sad to say, the younger generation – is that they were not politically determined, not politically educated and therefore did not fully engage. They voted Jeremy Corbyn against Owen Smith, but had not much of a clue when it came to national executive elections. Tens of thousands joined Momentum, but, with the connivance of Corbyn and his Straight Leftist advisors, they were relegated to mere spear-carriers … though a select few carved out lucrative political careers for themselves. Today, of course, Momentum is not only much reduced: it is an empty husk.

Bizarrely, comrade Greenstein says we write off these people and are “happy” to see 150,000 of them “disappear”. Nonsense, yet again. No, comrade, we do not dismiss them and nor are we happy to see them go. We want them educated, we want them organised. But this will not happen if we attempt to do the impossible and follow them to their 150,000 different destinations.

Showing a rather sad lack of self-awareness, comrade Greenstein likes to boast of his amazing powers of prediction. This is him in full flight: “On April 20 2017, shortly after the general election was announced, when everyone was predicting disaster, I wrote: ‘Labour can win if Corbyn is bold – the key issue is poverty and the transfer of wealth.’” He goes on: “And then on June 3: ‘General election – is Labour on the threshold of victory?’” Well, what was the result? Against a hapless Theresa May, Labour experienced a tremendous surge in support in the last week or two of the campaign and secured 262 seats. But that still left the Tories with 317 seats. So comrade Greenstein got it wrong. Nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to brag about either.

What of ourselves? We never expected the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government. Neither in 2017 nor in 2019. After all a clear majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party was ranged against him. To become prime minister he would have to secure a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. Only if he could be assured of that would the queen graciously call him to Buckingham Palace.

There was, though, an extraordinarily remote possibility of such a scenario. Say a million to one. However, what was important was not the odds. It is what the rank and file of the Corbyn movement thought and believed. In their minds they saw Corbyn soon entering the famous black door of No10 as prime minister and then realising all their hopes and dreams.

Hence our two warnings.

Firstly, the “bold” promises contained in For the many, not the few or It’s time for real change were, in reality, very timid … and they were not going to be delivered. True, the Corbyn leadership was committed to reversing austerity, increasing the economic role of the state, repealing some anti-trade union laws and introducing some minor constitutional reforms. But at best that amounted to an illusory attempt to run British capitalism in the interests of the working class. Meanwhile, wage-slavery continues, Britain remains a monarchy, subject to judge-made law, one of the ‘five eyes’, a core imperialist power, a member of Nato and armed with US-controlled nuclear weapons. To call such a programme ‘socialist’ – and the Labour Representation Committee was not alone in this – is inexcusable.

Secondly, what would the capitalist class, the political establishment and the deep state do in the event of a Corbyn-led government? Despite the manifesto being far from radical, there would be a run on the pound, sabotage by the Labour right, a constitutional coup, an army mutiny, US ‘pushback’, etc. Even with a crisis of expectations, given the suffocating hold of constitutionalism and narrow trade unionism, popular resistance would prove to be feeble and ineffective, and end in a crushing defeat. Maybe a few dozen of us would be killed ‘resisting arrest’, a few hundred more would be detained at her majesty’s pleasure … but widespread demoralisation would inevitably follow.

In others words, while we soberly assessed the situation, others on the left blithely urged on a crushing defeat. They wanted a “bold” Corbyn government running a nice capitalism, while we, on the other hand, seek to establish an explicitly socialist opposition that stands against the existing constitution, that educates and prepares the working class to become the ruling class, that positively avoids the temptation of forming a government when there is not the least chance of delivering what we Marxists call the minimum programme (ie, the maximum that can be achieved under capitalist conditions). Back in the late 19th century this was ABC common sense in the workers’ movement: nowadays it is regarded as odd, strange, almost unhinged – testimony to a general degradation of our political culture.

Going nowhere

Comrade Greenstein believes that going for a mass Communist Party is hopeless – well, certainly under present-day historical circumstances, which, to say the least, are hardly revolutionary. “Unsurprisingly”, he says, “this project has gone nowhere.” His reasoning is philosophically revealing: “You cannot from existing levels of consciousness and organisation leap to a revolutionary consciousness. You have to have something in between. Revolutionary fish need a sea in which to swim.”

Well, beginning with the last statement, we agree with the fish and the sea analogy (presumably knowingly borrowed from Mao Zedong). With students, big strikes and protests around the climate emergency, we find a ready audience for our ideas. But the key is political organisation and one of the seas we swim in is the historically established Labour Party, with its hundreds of thousands of individual members and millions of affiliated members.

And here, precisely because it matters to the ruling class, because it needs a trustworthy second eleven, a safe alternative party of government, we have the ongoing ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt and the Starmer leadership proscribing LAW, LIEN and Socialist Appeal. And here, precisely because of the instinctive, stubborn, often wonderfully creative resistance put up by the rank and file, we have an elemental clash of class against class. That explains why LPM is committed to staying and fighting in the Labour Party, including, of course, alongside those suspended and expelled members, not seeking refuge in yet another rickety, broad-left lifecraft.

What about the claim that one “cannot from existing levels of consciousness and organisation leap to a revolutionary consciousness”? The claim that one “must have something in between”? This speaks to a deep-seated bourgeois ideology. Basic dialectics tells us that things develop quantitatively and then at some point leap qualitatively from one state to another state. Once the temperature rises above 0℃, water – ie, H2O – leaps from ice to liquid. The same goes with water turning from liquid to steam (gas). It happens at a definite moment: 100℃ (at sea level).

Understandably bourgeois ideology mortally fears the qualitative leap – precisely because of its revolutionary implications. So, yes, in biology, classical Darwinism posits an endless series of intermediary forms and stages. Charles Darwin specifically warned against the leap in his Origin (1859) because of his dread of a revived Chartism. Yet radical biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge have shown that his gradualism was mistaken, false – yes, rooted in a bourgeois fear of social revolution. There is speciaisation, the leap. The same goes for the other sciences. Did physicists need an intermediate stage between the steady state theory of the universe and the theory of the expanding universe? There were futile attempts to establish such a halfway house, but none of them stood up to serious examination. Nowadays the expanding universe is simply taken as a proven fact. Certainly the halfway house theories were not needed in order to arrive at the truth. They were diversions.

Marxism itself represents a qualitative leap from the contemplative materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach. On a more prosaic level people can and do go from holding racist/national chauvinist views to almost in an instant seeing the light. Ricky Tomlinson comes to my mind. There are countless other examples that could be given. But let us suffice with just two. There is religious conversion and conversion from religion. There is reformism and being won over to Marxism.

However, what comrade Greenstein understands by establishing a mass Communist Party is yet another repetition of the half-crazy confessional sects that he has known from first-hand experience and has rightly learnt not to love. Even then, though, he gets things wrong. In his account the confessional sects only speak to those “who agree with you”. No, not even true with the CWO ‘left’ communists, the SPGB and the Northite WSWS. They are quite prepared to talk to all manner of people who disagree with them: eg, on demonstrations. But the reality is that most confessional sects only speak to organisations safely to their right – that is the certainly the case with the SWP, CPB and SPEW. Does that apply to the CPGB? Surely not. We have a proven record of debating with organisations both to our left and to our right … but – and this is vital – throughout, militantly, resolutely, undeviatingly, defending a definite political programme.

Not revolutionary

Comrade Greenstein confidently announces that a “precondition for forming a socialist party is a mass socialist movement”. If by a “socialist party” he means a revolutionary Marxist party and if by “mass socialist movement” he means mass socialist consciousness, well, that would provide ideal, almost perfect conditions. But a “precondition”? No.

Did the formation of Germany’s Social Democratic Party in 1875 require a pre-existing mass socialist consciousness? There was a certain interest in socialistic ideas, that is true – not least because of the success of workers’ education associations. But the mass socialist movement, mass socialist consciousness, including mass trade unions – that came after 1875, through the SDP and its MPs, press, libraries, clubs, choirs, local branches and the production and wide dissemination of Marxist literature. That was the general pattern for the Second International and the Third International … especially in the colonial and semi-colonial world of the 1920s. Eg, the Communist Party of China, formed in July 1921, had 50 founding members. By 1925 membership had risen to 2,428 and there was rapid progress in influencing the urban working class. By 1927 the pro-CCP militia controlled Shanghai.

What needs to be understood is that socialist – ie, Marxist – parties, are built top-down, not bottom-up. What is primary is the programme: ie, theory. It is from there to the masses and in the process, of course, theory is enriched, concretised, taken to new heights. It should also be understood that Marxist parties do not require revolutionary conditions in order to grow. They can grow in peaceful, seemingly almost uneventful, conditions. And the fact of the matter is that such parties, because of their tenacity, cohesion, discipline and theoretical and political training, are far better at obtaining economic, social and democratic concessions than explicitly reformist parties or routine trade unionism. Certainly if we wait to form a revolutionary party till there is a revolutionary situation, then it will be too late … we would have already lost.

According to comrade Greenstein, we in the CPGB “write off anything bar the formation of a revolutionary Marxist Party”. He calls it an “all or nothing” approach, out of which “you are likely to get nothing”. A neat line. But there is a little problem: it is simply untrue. Leave aside our vastly disproportionate role in various unity projects compared with our numbers – the most promising being the Socialist Alliance in the early 2000s (which was wrecked first by SPEW and finally by the SWP). We do not write off campaigns around runaway climate change, Palestinian solidarity, student grants, the trade union movement, the Labour Party or for that matter the many and various organisations of the existing left. We simply say that they are inadequate if we are going to empower the working class and ready it for state power.

So, yes, we do say that the key question today is the formation of a Communist Party. We in the CPGB have the name, but we fight to make the name a reality. The Communist Party must be made into a part – the leading part – of the working class. To begin with, in embryo, that might, in present-day British conditions, consist of just a few thousand; maybe brought together through a series of splits and fusions within the existing left (including those in the Labour Party). But to become real it must go on to organise hundreds of thousands, millions.

Comrade Greenstein discounts this strategic perspective. Why? Because “we are not living in revolutionary times”, because “the class struggle is at an all-time low”, because “the working class has been atomised as a result of globalisation and the Thatcherite attack”. Of course, a class that has been atomised is no longer a class: it is merely an amorphous mass. That aside, he goes on: “The Russian Revolution” happened “over a hundred years ago”. Nothing controversial here – we can count too. But he has a point to make, a big one: “There must be political and material reasons why there has been no repeat. Should we not examine them?” Leave aside the 20th century being a century of wars and revolutions: from Russia, Germany and Austria to China and Vietnam, from Yugoslavia and Cuba to Portugal and Afghanistan. The notion that we, and numerous others, have not tried to get to grips with the century of the unexpected is frankly risible. We might be totally wrong, we might be near getting it right, but, yes, we have provided answers. Comrade Greenstein, seems altogether oblivious – sad, what a pity.

In the same short-sighted, philistine spirit he blunders on:

The working class as an agent of revolutionary change in the west is open to question. Especially in the light of working class support for the rise of parties of the far right in Britain and Europe, which the vote for Brexit and Ukip represented.

So, if it is not the working class that is the “agent of revolutionary change”, what force does comrade Greenstein look to? Throughout modern history – that is, under conditions of something like universal suffrage – people, including working class people, have voted for all manner of reactionary parties and candidates: based on notions of common nationality, common religion, etc. Meanwhile, capital remorselessly extracts surplus value and the class struggle is fought out every minute, every hour, every day, every week, every year … workers resist, fight back, organise together to limit competition and improve conditions and thereby spontaneously generate a tendency towards collectivism and a readiness for the ideas of Marxism and joining the fight for international communism. That outcome is not automatic, but it does explain why the Marx-Engels team thought that only the working class “is a really revolutionary class” (Communist manifesto).

What is clear is that in the west comrade Greenstein has given up on the working class as the “agent of revolutionary change” (ie, the advanced, core, capitalist counties). Hence, if he really thinks revolutionary change and socialism are possible in a country like Britain, which is seriously open to question, then his only realistic option must be some sort of ethical socialism, which, beginning with his tailism of David Cameron, Peter Mandelson, Caroline Lucas, Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry and the thoroughly bourgeois remain campaign, inevitably entails a haughty, arrogant, thoroughly stupid, contempt for leave voters and a casual dismissal of the basic tenants of Marxism. A rerun of Eduard Bernstein, Fabianism and Eurocommunism.

Living contradiction

Hence we find comrade Greenstein rubbishing the paradoxical Marxist category, bourgeois workers’ party – first coined by Fredrick Engels, elaborated and defended by Vladimir Lenin and given useful historical background by Theodore Rothstein in his classic study From Chartism to Labourism (1929). Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein use the term, “capitalist workers’ party”, in their The Labour Party – a Marxist history (1988). Presumably they did not think their readers could cope with a difficult ‘foreign’ word such a ‘bourgeois’ (which in point of fact is not the direct equivalent of capitalist). Beside that, The Labour Party is one of the worst books I have ever read. But for comrade Greenstein, whether it is a bourgeois workers’ party or a capitalist workers’ party, it is binned as a “meaningless slogan”.

Meaningless? A slogan? No, it is a concept, the result of insightful, indeed profound, thinking. And, if the Labour Party is not a bourgeois workers’ party, then in class terms what the hell is it? Only if you have abandoned class politics – that is, the class politics of the working class – does the concept of Labour being a “bourgeois workers’ party” appear to be a “meaningless slogan”, a Marxist “shibboleth”.

The living contradiction that is today’s Labour Party can be negatively resolved – in favour of the dominant, bourgeois, pole. Tony Blair attempted to do just that, but failed. He wanted to end the historic split with Liberalism. Maybe Sir Keir has the same aim in mind. He certainly wants to fulfil his youthful, Pabloite, dream of becoming prime minister and is willing to sacrifice the left to demonstrate his loyalty to the system. But the trade union link? We shall see.  But as well as the negative there is the positive. The contradiction can be resolved by driving out the bourgeois careerists and the triumph of the working class pole. In other words, “refounding the Labour Party as a ‘united front of a special kind’”.

Predictably, dumbly, once again for comrade Greenstein, this too is meaningless. Why? Because “there never was such a united front”. Why? Because “the Fabians, a wholly bourgeois organisation, were one of those founders”. So why, in 1907, did Karl Kautsky – and following him Lenin, albeit it with some revealing reservations – strongly advocate that the Labour Party be accepted as an affiliate to the Second International? It was not really a party, nor was it a straightforward trade union federation. As to the leadership – not the right opportunist Fabians, but the centrist Independent Labour Party – well, despite their socialistic pretensions, they ensured that the Labour Party remained a mere tail of the bourgeois Liberal Party. Similar, politically, in other words, to comrade Greenstein’s “transitional” formation and the likes of himself constituting a mere tail of the bourgeois remain campaign.

Nevertheless, despite all of its many flaws and limitations, the Labour Party represented a real step forward for the working class movement in Britain – at the time, potentially the most important component of the international socialist movement. No less to the point in terms of this argument, all working class organisations – including the Social Democratic Federation and, after it, the British Socialist Party – were unproblematically accepted as affiliates. Indeed the SDF was given two automatic NEC seats along with the ILP … compared with a single seat for the Fabians. Hence, with the encouragement of the Second International’s leadership, the continued spread of Marxist ideas and through concerted political struggle (not least in the trade unions, where the left had a strong presence), there existed the possibility of the Labour Party becoming a fully working class organisation.

Dismissing the original Labour Party as a “united front of a special kind” because of the presence of the Fabians, is not to see the forest for a single tree. One might as well dismiss the soviets in Russia as “meaningless” because of the presence of delegates from Georgi Plekhanov’s very small national chauvinist faction. No, the soviets were a “united front of a special kind” (Trotsky), because they united all working class trends, factions and parties – not merely ephemerally, but permanently (well, until the right and the centre minority finally walked … after the Bolshevik seizure of state power – carried out, of course, in the name of the workers, soldiers and peasant soviets).

Shuffling further to right

Derek James assesses Sir Keir’s new shadow cabinet, the cowardice of the official left and the danger of both Corbyn and McDonnell being expelled

While Keir Starmer’s reshuffle of his shadow cabinet was surrounded by the usual political speculation and gossip about who was in and who was out, the re-emergence of a number of figures from the Blair era is significant in showing the direction that Starmer is going.

It also shows how tightly he now controls both the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party machine – that and the weakness and demoralisation of the Labour left at all levels. Cat Smith – former Socialist Campaign Group member and shadow minister for democracy and young people – presumably jumped before being pushed. She was the last ‘leftwinger’ on Labour’s front bench. Clearly, though, Sir Keir’s whole approach, and not only when it comes to the shadow cabinet, is designed to win the next election.

Arguments coming from not a few that Starmer is so fixated on rooting out the Labour left that he is prepared to destroy the party and risk yet another electoral defeat are plainly nonsensical. As a dedicated careerist, Sir Keir understands that his route to Downing Street can only be achieved with the support of the bourgeoisie and its media. He must prove that he is a safe pair of hands that can provide a reliable alternative government when the first eleven, the Tories, are no longer able to do the job. Hence his pledge, once safely elected as Labour leader, to continue the attacks on the left under the guise of rooting out the so-called scourge of anti-Semitism. Hence his eagerness to ritualistically sacrifice Jeremy Corbyn. Hence his reshuffle. All designed to show Sir Keir’s hostility to any hint of socialism and prove his commitment to the Atlanticist consensus and support for Israel, US imperialism’s most important asset in the Middle East.

The reshuffle moves the Labour leadership still further to the right: given her role in the Blair government and acceptance of the Cameron government’s austerity strategy after 2010, the presence of Yvette Cooper alone would justify that description. However, high-profile appointments, such as David Lammy as shadow foreign secretary and Wes Streeting at health, confirm the shift. Then there is Jonathan Reynolds taking over the business brief from Ed Miliband. While the latter made some vague and clearly unacceptable suggestions about ‘public control’ of energy supply, Reynolds is on record as supporting ‘market-led solutions’ to the energy crisis. Lisa Nandy is now shadowing Michael Gove on the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. She has clearly read the Blue Labour playbook and argues that Labour must position itself as a “patriotic and responsible” party to win back the ‘red wall’ voters who deserted the party during the Corbyn period.

The return of Blairite veterans and the complete takeover by the right was warmly welcomed by many media commentators and added to the momentum Starmer gained following his fawningly pro-business, ever so grown-up speech to the November conference of the Confederation of British Industry – which was positively contrasted with Johnson’s incoherent Peppa Pig ramblings. The continuing headlines about sleaze, government incompetence over Afghanistan, outright lies about Christmas parties and the tearful resignation of Allegra Stratton have all helped to boost Labour in the polls. A Labour government can no longer be discounted, that is for sure.

The carefully calculated snub Sir Keir administered to his deputy, Angela Rayner, in announcing the reshuffle at the same time as she gave a major speech only goes to show the commanding position that the Labour leader now enjoys. As a directly elected deputy, Rayner cannot be removed, but she can be sidelined and humiliated, as the occasion requires. From Starmer’s point of view, the politics behind this are relatively simple. She is yet another symbolic target, who offers an opportunity to prove both his domination of the party and his electoral credibility.

Others, however, see her differently. In a series of interviews and media interventions Rayner has played up her background and life story to position herself as the voice (quite literally) of the Labour heartlands and the working class. In reality she is a former trade union bureaucrat and political opportunist of the first water, using her union contacts to climb the greasy pole and to quickly abandon the Corbyn project when the tide turned. She is so blatant a careerist that even the most gullible party member should be able to see through her rather threadbare act.

But no! Even if they are not really taken in, some on the left claim to see her as some type of leftwinger, perhaps mistaking her demotic rhetoric and personal spat with Starmer for principled opposition and socialist politics. If they genuinely do see her in this light, it just shows how far the Labour left has degenerated politically – and if they are only pretending, it truly reveals how desperate and opportunist the official left has become.

Demoralisation

The official left, in the form of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and the leadership of Momentum, have cut a sorry figure throughout the witch-hunt. Their policy of compromise and keeping heads down has not only been unprincipled: it has proved to be singularly ineffective. Their pathetic little careers are what really matters to them.

Given the complete abdication of leadership from the official left, the mood amongst its rank and file in the Constituency Labour Parties is one of demoralisation and confusion. As we have reported on several occasions in the last few months, the organised left does not know which way to turn in the face of the witch-hunt. In fact, with ever more comrades being expelled, with nothing approaching an agreed common strategy, it is going in all sorts of contradictory directions.

For example, the Labour Left for Socialism initiative – ie, the Chatham House left – has run out of steam and is effectively dead, while Labour Against the Witchhunt has been liquidated into yet another grouping which has a definite trajectory away from the fight in the Labour Party and into the useless, ineffective and utterly ridiculous territory of Corbynism without Corbyn. But whether it is in the Labour Party or out of the Labour Party, the left is incapable of learning from its repeated failures. It remains trapped in Labourism.

All this was on display at Expulsion Rebellion – an online meeting held on Sunday December 5 to celebrate those members who had been expelled or suspended. Chaired by Crispin Flintoff of Labour Grassroots, the event had an upbeat feel with speeches by purged comrades, along with video clips, poetry and songs. Speakers outlined their various experiences of the witch-hunt and some offered their perspectives on the way forward.

For Graham Bash, the purge of the left was a form of class war inside Labour, carried out by a leadership that feared the membership more than the Tories. He argued that this was the greatest crisis the Labour left has faced in the entire history of the Labour Party – no exaggeration. Instead of advocating giving up on Labour, he called on comrades to stay and fight. There were still more socialists within Labour, he said, than outside. This, of course, depends on what defines a socialist, but it is certainly the case that Labour remains a party with a mass working class base in terms of members, trade union affiliates and voters. Correctly, comrade Bash stressed that there was no hierarchy of those expelled and suspended, that it was vital to stand by and speak up for not only Jeremy Corbyn, but all victims of the witch-hunt, including, by implication, those thrown under the bus when Corbyn was Labour leader and Jennie Formby was general secretary.

Similar points were made by Pam Fitzpatrick and two members of Jewish Voice for Labour, Leah Levane and Richard Kuper. They also conclusively nailed the Starmer leadership’s lies about anti-Semitism and exposed the Kafkaesque situation, where expelling Jewish members was described as ‘dealing with anti-Semitism’ in the party! However, whilst there was a degree of unity in opposition to the injustices of the witch-hunt, no speakers proposed a clear way forward. Expelled Labour councillor Jo Bird, for example, expressed her relief at being purged and suggested the totally futile strategy that other councillors in her position should stand for re-election as independents and thus build a grassroots campaign. Such an approach represents a political dead-end, a recipe for individualistic gestures, and has no chance whatsoever of long-term success.

As to the meeting overall, while it is good to be defiant and positive in the face of Starmer’s purge, we need much more than speeches of solidarity – we need a militant strategy and a clear alternative to seeking unity with the pro-capitalist leadership of the Labour Party. Many who attended this meeting, along with others who were part of the wider Corbyn movement, still look to the official left to provide some kind of fighting lead.

So it was with some anticipation that the meeting awaited the messages received from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. When they were read out by the chair, the disappointment was palpable. Corbyn restated his commitment to Labour principles and his own continued membership of the party. His focus was on the need for party unity to fight the Tories. Likewise, John McDonnell reiterated his original statement in support of Graham Bash, but there was no explanation of why the witch-hunt was being carried out and no calls for solidarity with all those who have been expelled. Corbyn and McDonnell probably hope that they said enough to reassure the rank-and-file left that they remain on their side, whilst at the same time saying nothing that would justify action against them from the party machine.

What happens next remains to be seen. It is, though, far from impossible that Sir Keir and the Victoria Street apparatus will see an opportunity to prove themselves to their masters yet again by expelling both Corbyn and McDonnell. After all, they sent messages of support to a meeting ‘celebrating’ the contributions of people who have been expelled. Nowadays a heinous crime.

Merging into a cul-de-sac

Derek James argues that this is no time to give up on the fight against the witch-hunt. Nor will the attempt to form an amorphous socialist movement get anywhere

The decision to close down Labour Against the Witchhunt represents a step backwards in the fight against the Labour leadership’s attacks on party democracy and freedom of speech.

The proscribing of four organisations, the expulsion of long-standing leftwinger Graham Bash and the return of open Blairites to the shadow cabinet are just the most recent examples of how the right’s offensive is being intensified. Unfortunately, at a time when Keir Starmer and the party bureaucracy are stepping up their attacks on the left, the so-called merger of LAW and the Labour In Exile Network is likely to produce a total much less than the sum of its two parts. So, just when the need for a determined fightback by the left has never been greater, the possibility of it actually happening seems less likely!

The LAW all-members’ meeting on Saturday November 27 was presented with two sharply opposed motions that posed very different perspectives about the future direction of the campaign. The first, submitted by Tony Greenstein and Esther Giles, called for the merger of the two groups. It took as its starting point the argument made by Ken Loach that “democracy was dead in the Labour Party” and that there is now a political vacuum which presents the biggest challenge to the left in a generation. Quoting directly from comrade Loach, the motion said:

… we do need a new political movement, across the whole left, inside the Labour Party and outside; it’s got to be ready to become a party when the time is right … Otherwise we fragment … At this critical moment, when you have this mass of people just driven out of the party, where are they going to go? If we miss this opportunity, it is a very black outlook.

After calling for a merger – or a “consolidation”, as comrade Greenstein described it – the motion went on to define its strategy as one of working or joining forces with other “like-minded organisations, including the Labour Left Alliance, Labour Representation Committee, Resist and Defend the Left”. Significantly a section of the original motion was deleted. This would have committed the merged group to:

both fighting the witch-hunt in the Labour Party and the politics of Starmer and bringing together socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party to build a socialist movement [and seeking] to work with grassroots mass movements such as over climate change (XR) and racism (BLM).

It was deleted as a result of an amendment moved by a leading member of LIEN, Norman Thomas.

The second motion, moved by LPM supporters Stan Keable and Andrew Kirkland, opposed the merger of LAW and LIEN, and argued that the focus of our campaign should remain on Labour and not the formation of a new group outside the party. The motion located the witch-hunt and the continuing battle inside Labour in a wider political context, by arguing that “reasserting rightwing domination of the Labour Party is of great importance to the UK establishment in guaranteeing the loyalty of its alternative capitalist government to the US world hegemon and its ally, Israel”.

The motion rejected the view that the struggle against the Labour witch-hunt is over, and that LAW has outlived its usefulness. Comrades Keable and Kirkland believed that the merger of LAW and LIEN would not only liquidate LAW, but would add to the widespread demoralisation and disorientation that already exists on the Labour left. Far from giving up on this fight, the motion stated that LAW still has a specific job to do in fighting the ongoing witch-hunt.

Thus it outlined a concrete set of campaigning proposals, such as intervening in all layers of the Labour Party and continuing to campaign at a grassroots level: working to build opposition to bans and proscriptions in the trade unions; winning the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, etc to adopt a militant and unambiguous stance against the witch-hunt; deepening links with those outside the Labour Party who are being subjected to the bogus ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign – pro-Palestine activists, academics, students, trade unionists, journalists, writers, artists, comics, film-makers, etc – and joining together with those internationally who are fighting back against the witch-hunt: eg, in the US, Germany, the Netherlands and France.

Consolidation?

Although both motions were moved, the meeting agreed by 49 to 41 to only vote on motion 1. Thus, if motion 1 was agreed, motion 2 would then automatically fall. In the event, it was indeed motion 1 favouring the merger that eventually passed with 47 votes in favour, 27 against and 12 recorded abstentions – although, with some 100 members present online, another 14 participants did not record a vote.

Both in moving the motion to merge and during the subsequent debate, the supporters of liquidating LAW argued that the current attacks on the left were “unprecedented” and that there was no real possibility of continuing the fight in Labour. Trade unions are breaking their links with the party and a slow “one-sided split” was underway. Comrade Greenstein said that there was little that LAW could do to resist the witch-hunt and that the immediate task was to build a socialist movement that could keep together the 150,000 party members who had left Labour since Starmer had become leader. In due course, when the time is right, he suggested, this would lead to the formation of a new party. But what sort of party and programme are we offered?

Here the real political weaknesses of the merger project were revealed. Although some of the comrades supporting this new initiative self-define as Marxists, all that they could offer us was yet another warmed-up halfway house or a Labour Party mark two. This oh-so-new project is in fact based on Labour’s 2017 and 2019 general election manifestoes, whose timid, managed capitalism is impossible to dignify even with the title ‘left reformism’, much less ‘socialism’. When the essentially pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist nature of these manifestoes was pointed out, all these comrades could do was to warn us not to scare the horses – the Labour left would be frightened off by too radical a project! Take it easy! Gently does it!

The transition towards socialist consciousness is a gradual one, we are told, showing that our rather Fabian Trotskyist comrades really lack confidence in winning the working class to the cause of socialist revolution. Instead, in this new organisation we can be sure that these ‘Marxists’ will hide their revolutionary light under a bushel and play the part of loyal Corbynites, whose only aim is to return to the glory days before the 2019 election defeat: no socialist politics or Marxist programme here, you understand; just an attempt to revive the Corbyn moment and its inchoate slogans, albeit this time sans Corbyn.

However, when reminded that the recent history of the left is littered with many such attempts to build broad fronts, such as the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and Left Unity, and that all they produced were futile political cul-de-sacs, we are assured by these comrades that this time everything will be different. What justifies such confident hope after this often bitter story of the left’s political failure? Why, it is the experience of ‘the Corbyn movement’ itself and the belief that the missing 150,000 members can be quickly recalled to the colours by the new broad socialist movement that will emerge from the “consolidation” of LIEN and LAW.

While we wish the comrades well, it is not only past attempts to unite disparate elements in halfway-house projects that fail to inspire confidence about the future of this new initiative – which means, in effect, the absorption of LAW by LIEN. The plain fact is that the Corbyn moment has passed and no amount of ghost dancing is going to bring it back. The 150,000 lost members are not sitting around waiting for a call to arms to join a new initiative. They will not be so easily scooped up. Some have joined the numerous small groups outside the Labour Party, such as Chris Williamson’s Resist; others have turned their attention to renewed activity in the trade unions or thrown themselves into activism and protest politics, such as XR; while many more have simply given up – disillusioned by the dismal failure of the Labour left and its leaders.

Disgrace

The leaders of the official, licensed left in the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and Momentum have compromised and surrendered to the Labour right all along the line. They are a disgrace, having squandered opportunity after opportunity to advance the politics of the left in the party. They have been prepared to throw good comrades under the bus and join in the attack, as socialist militants are smeared with false accusations of anti-Semitism.

The continued failure of Corbyn, McDonnell et al to rally the left in the face of the witch-hunt has only added to the demoralisation of the left, which is now in a full, disorganised retreat. Attendance at meetings has fallen dramatically and there is a widespread pessimism in many Constituency Labour Parties. Indeed, many left activists are keeping their heads down and their powder dry, hoping for better times ahead somewhere in the distant future, and only breaking cover to take part in Twitter storms and sporadic conference rebellions against the leadership.

In this period of defeat, it is essential to keep a cool, strategic head. Despair is no help whatsoever. If the comrades were proposing an organisation, a movement, which had half a chance of leading to a serious Marxist party, it would be another matter. Meanwhile, it is clear that the fight in the Labour Party is far from over. Like the trade unions it remains a vital site of struggle.

Despite the seriousness of the current witch-hunt and the dire position in which the left now finds itself, the present situation is part of a wider pattern. Just look at the history of recurring witch-hunts against the left from the 1920s onwards. Bans and proscriptions, expulsions and suspensions are nothing new.

Neither is the bourgeois nature of the party’s leadership and pro-capitalist right, irrespective of their individual social backgrounds. Who can tell me that trade union leaders turned Labour politicians like Jimmy Thomas and Ernie Bevin did not further the interests of capitalism within the workers’ movement? Many comrades in the 1990s argued that Tony Blair’s apparent total victory meant that Labour had become a completely bourgeois party. In the main the various halfway house projects and ‘new workers’ parties’ that developed in this period were predicated on that assessment, yet failed to break through – even when they watered down their ‘Marxism’ and presented themselves as the real inheritors of the ‘old Labour’ tradition.

The politics of the Labour leadership from the foundation of the party have always been bourgeois, in that they seek to integrate the working class into capitalism and the constitutional status quo. Given the party’s origins as a sectional representative of ‘labour’ and a party of the trade unions, which attempts to bargain with the ruling class, the development of this type of limited politics, focused on obtaining concessions within the framework of capitalism, was inevitable. The absorption of individual Labour leaders into the ruling class and the creation of Labour as an acceptable alternative party of government from the 1920s were simply a corollary of this structural process of incorporation.

Starmer and Blair are particularly egregious examples of this, but, in their acceptance of capitalism and the rules of the political game, they are just the same as earlier Labour leaders. Characterising the leaderships of Blair and Starmer as somehow uniquely ‘bourgeois’ not only obscures the historical nature of the Labour Party, but also sows illusions in those Labour leaders, like Jeremy Corbyn, who use left rhetoric to cover their compromises with capitalism.

However, whilst Labour retains the affiliation of significant trade unions, maintains an electoral base amongst working class voters and remains a potential focus for those who define themselves as socialists, it still can be seen as a bourgeois workers’ party. So, despite and perhaps because of the witch-hunt, Labour under Keir Starmer is far from dead: it remains a bourgeois workers’ party that the ruling class are determined to keep under their control and thus it is still an important site of struggle for socialists.

History repeating

Our critique of the as-yet-unnamed merger project is both political and strategic. The leadership of LIEN includes comrades who are uncritical supporters of Corbyn, do not understand his treacherous role and will not countenance a word said against him, whilst others who support the merger are openly and correctly critical of Corbyn’s surrender to the right during the witch-hunt. Hardly a recipe for harmony.

Likewise, there are similar political fault lines about the strategic direction of the new group. Whilst for many the merger is simply a case of huddling together in a cold and hostile political environment or continuing the headless-chicken ‘politics’ of ‘action, action, action’, others have a more clearly defined aim. Although it appears that, in arguing that the new initiative should work or join forces with other “like-minded organisations”, options are being kept open. In practice the general line of travel into a new broad-front grouping and political dead-end outside the Labour Party is clearly signposted. The two lines of ‘action’ and ‘fusion’ are, of course, not incompatible and can easily coexist and cooperate within one organisation for a certain period. But, taken as a whole, they do not make for long-term political coherence and a clear organisational strategy.

Our opposition to the liquidation of LAW and our call to keep its focus on Labour is not the result of any blind Labour loyalism or of clinging onto the routine certainties of party membership and activity. LPM recognises both the historical and contemporary place of the Labour Party in British society and working class politics. It also understands that this position is not immutably fixed for all time and that it could change in the future: like other social democratic parties in Europe, it could undergo a process of decline and Pasokification. The electoral collapse of Labour in Scotland and the undermining of the ‘red wall’ is a warning of how that might happen in Britain as a whole.

However, Labour is not dead yet. Just as the obituaries pronounced in the 1990s were proven to be premature by the unexpected development of the Corbyn movement and the growth of a mass left in the party, so the continued witch-hunt shows that for the ruling class and their collaborators on the Labour right the party remains too valuable a tool to be abandoned to the left and working class militants. If the ruling class thinks the battle is still worth fighting, then so must we.

LPM has a serious strategic orientation towards Labour. We call not for the abandonment of the party, but its refounding as a united front of a special kind, open to affiliation by all working class and socialist organisations. We recognise that Labour is not a ready-made instrument for achieving socialism: that requires a party armed with a Marxist programme of working class self-emancipation, as opposed to electoralism and participation in bourgeois governments. The development of such a party and such a programme is absolutely essential. This is not a Labour Party mark two, or a broad-left party with a Marxist vanguard.

Deserting the fight

Plans to close Labour Against the Witchhunt and form yet another amorphous broad-left outfit are not only, by definition, unprincipled: they are bound to fail, writes Paul Demarty

As I write, things are looking up for Keir Starmer.

The government has succeeded in putting itself on the back foot, by the traditional means of open political corruption, which has given Labour a lead in some polls – how sustainable remains to be seen. It is certainly taken, in the Labour leader’s office, as a green light to rerun Tony Blair’s mid-1990s act. Blair seized upon a series of scandals in John Major’s government while discreetly building ties with various big capitalists, notably Rupert Murdoch. So we also find Starmer making toe-curling overtures to the Confederation of British Industry, whom he assured (in the light of Boris Johnson’s famous “fuck business” moment) that “the only F words I will be using are foreign investment, fair trade, fiscal policy and fiduciary duty”.

The flipside to such brown-nosing is, naturally, further assaults on the left. We will merely mention the recent case of Graham Bash, editor of Labour Briefing and Labour member since time immemorial, whose signature on a Labour Against the Witchhunt petition several years ago was considered grounds for expulsion, despite the fact that LAW has only very recently been proscribed by the Starmer regime. Natural justice matters as little to Starmer and friends as does seeming to be remotely human.

In this rather chillier environment, it is not terrifically surprising that – among the Labour left organisations that put up any fight at all against the slanderous accusations of anti-Semitism in the last few years – the question of future strategy looms large. The most concrete proposal to have emerged is an effective merger of LAW, the Labour In Exile Network (LIEN) (which organises those expelled on such charges) and the Labour Left Alliance. On first examination, the merger idea is not entirely stupid – after all, there is some overlap in the groups’ memberships and activities; and unity is, all things being equal, preferable to division.

The basis on which unity is proposed, however, has gone from being a rather pointless attempt to rearrange the deckchairs, as we originally feared. Instead, we have a call to abandon ship. This constitutes the effective basis of the motion, presented under the names of Tony Greenstein and Esther Giles, which will be debated at LAW’s all members’ meeting this Saturday. It begins with a quotation from Ken Loach – also recently offloaded from Labour for the crime of unconditional solidarity with the Palestinians:

Democracy is dead in the Labour Party … This is a political vacuum, this is the biggest challenge to the left in my lifetime. We do need a new political movement, across the whole left, inside the Labour Party and outside. It’s got to be ready to become a party when the time is right … Otherwise we fragment. People are leaving and we will fragment. At this critical moment when you have this mass of people just driven out of the party, where are they going to go? If we miss this opportunity it is a very black outlook.

Supposing an agreement to merge is obtained, “the steering committees of both organisations should meet as the new steering committee of the consolidated organisation”, which will be replaced in due course with a properly elected committee of the combined membership. The political basis of such a merger is not spelled out, but the kind of activity is:

The focus of the organisation should be both fighting the witch-hunt in the Labour Party and the politics of Starmer and bringing together socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party to build a socialist movement. We should also seek to work with grassroots mass movements such as over climate change [Extinction Rebellion] and racism [Black Lives Matter].

Weight

There are a number of problems with this proposal.

The most serious is that, despite the claim to have a “focus” on fighting the witch-hunt, that is precisely what will be ended – fighting the witch-hunt in the Labour Party. To produce a combined organisation for general political activity out of LAW and LIEN is to accept that there is no longer a need for a campaign focused on that priority. Remember that LAW is already committed to fighting to transform the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind – of all trade unions, working class partisans, socialist groups and parties. For unity to be worthwhile, for unity to be a net good, it would have to be on a serious basis that would supersede the otherwise separate existence of its components. That seriousness is partly a matter of immediate practicality and partly of principle.

To take the practicalities first: it is worth pointing out that, so far, the history of the Labour Party left has had a certain cycle to it (I hedge my bets, because political cycles can change dramatically – as happened, for instance, with the liquidation of the Italian Communist Party and the Tangentopoli scandals in the early 1990s, and may be happening now in post-Brexit Britain, but I do not propose to discuss this question here). It is striking to read Ken Loach’s words, only because he might have used exactly the same ones after the total bureaucratisation of the Blair years, or Kinnock’s purges of the entryists and marginalisation of the Bennites, and so forth.

Comrade Loach has been around a long time, and having turned his back on Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, he embraced the politics of broad leftism and, as such, he has participated in at least two of these cycles; but it seems he finds it easier to expand his film-making aesthetic than his political thinking. Supposing that we are still in this cycle, then such regroupments on the basis of vague broad leftism – as per comrade Loach’s last great such initiative, Left Unity – will flounder and fail, because the Labour Party is a real party, and the grab-bags of sects and eccentrics that we saw in LU (and more recently at Chris Williamson’s Resist event) do not add up to such a thing.

In the absence of social weight, the only possible distinguishing feature of such a regroupment would have to be at the level of political programme. 150,000 people have left Labour, apparently, since Starmer’s triumph in the leadership election – but the idea that there is some real shared political basis uniting these individuals is fanciful. Green Party successes in recent local elections presumably reflect an influx in that direction; some have been absorbed into the existing sects; some will simply be demoralised. I do not pretend to know the proportions here, but my guess is the latter group is the largest.

So what political programme would unite them in the short term? The answer surely has to be: none. The various versions of ‘Continuity Corbynism’ touted around for this purpose are among the least plausible. They went and put their cross on a ballot paper in December 2019 for such a programme: the very sign under which their dreams were shattered.

Having mentioned Graham Bash at the outset, we are reminded again how often we would hear at meetings of his Labour Representation Committee (cited by the proposers as a potential partner) in the pre-Corbyn days that (say) Ed Miliband was committing electoral suicide by not adopting the ‘socialist’ policies of nationalising the railways, etc, etc, which had huge support in issue-by-issue polling. Owen Jones, then still a leftwinger, would tell us that the left had to concentrate on ‘working class’ issues like these and not ‘middle class’ ones like internationalism and so on.

Nothing has been so thoroughly tested to destruction as this perspective since the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge. To revive it less than two years after its obliteration in the face of political reality is enough to make one suspect that we have all died and been sent to the hell of endlessly repeated humiliation. The motion would not commit us to such a limbo state, but would commit us to unspecified further unifications with people who have ineradicable commitments to such politics; and on a political basis little clearer than ‘Starmer equals bad’.

Failure

Why did Corbynism fail? In the concrete, the ruling class successfully cornered Corbyn into a ‘remain’ position, which drained Labour’s support in parts of its heartland. This particular contingency reflects a fundamental flaw with the strategy: to wit, it assumes that adopting some popular policies will of itself force the political debate onto that favourable terrain. But the political debate is in the hands of the media, which is to say the class enemy; and so it actually took place on the bundle of anxieties represented by Brexit. When LRCites recounted the levels of popular support for more council houses, nationalisations of this or that industry, and so on, one very clear preference was always mysteriously forgotten: stricter border controls.

Even on that issue, however, the working class is sharply divided, as illustrated by George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain, which, with its fruity political combination of Blue Labour and Yezhovism, is founded on the basis that an extremely pro-Brexit position of nationalist-socialist autarky is the solution to the problem; nice try, comrades, but, had Corbyn taken a ‘leave’ position, he would have handed London over to the Greens and Liberal Democrats on a silver platter.

Labour Party Marxists argues for a fully worked-out Marxist programme with the open aim of communism and, prior to that, international socialist revolution; LPM does not suppose that this is an answer to the question of reuniting 150,000 atomised, demoralised Corbynites in time for the next electoral challenge, but a hundred votes for such a programme is worth 1,000 for For the many, not the few. It is a very different way of posing the question: around what we need, in the light of which we can take stock of what we have.

So what do we have? A Labour Party which still commands a large membership, which still unites the bulk of the union movement for political purposes, which has a substantial parliamentary fraction (though composed almost entirely of careerists and traitors) and is one of the two parties realistically contending for government in our woefully undemocratic electoral system. Within that, we have a subset of the Labour left – some who have been expelled, some still flying under the radar – who so far have been prepared to fight the witch-hunt. It is those organisations that we propose to merge on an as-yet undecided (but likely minimal) political basis.

The drafters of this proposal do not say it, but what they are calling for amounts to the liquidation of LAW and giving up on Labour as a site of struggle – particularly stupid with the witch-hunt finding ever new victims and the signs that Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others of a similar ilk, might, at last, be willing to put up some kind of fight (note the excellent December 5 ‘Expulsion Rebellion’ initiative of Defend the Left). Organising ‘inside and outside Labour’ is simply smoke and mirrors, which blows away and shatters as soon as it is tested by the elementary questions of trade union affiliation and electoral choice. Do we, as comrade Greenstein has, call for trade unions to disaffiliate? Do we, as comrade Greenstein has, call for a vote for George Galloway? And to what point? Backing candidates of the nationalist Scottish Socialist Party, affiliating to Tusc, supporting the ‘left’ version of Brexit and immigration controls?

The likely result is a further political degeneration into the British left’s worst habits: the substitution of piecemeal activism ‘in the movements’ for high politics (the only vaguely concrete political basis offered is the unqualified affirmation of XR and BLM). Decades under the influence of this particular drug have left us entirely unable to cope with the attacks of our enemies, because we have lost our instinct for the importance of mass political organisation and institutional strength.

We had just the barest reminder of what that might look like in the Corbyn years. The capitulations of the Corbyn movement’s leadership are therefore all the less forgivable – and so would be the effective abandonment of the field of struggle by those few who ever saw the need to fight.

Time for a Rethink

Derek James rounds on John McDonnell for his pusillanimity and the official left for its silence over the expulsion of Graham Bash

News that veteran Labour left activist Graham Bash has been expelled by Labour for supporting Labour Against the Witchhunt had been long expected and was met with a predictable and entirely justified wave of protest from the left.[1] The fact that a Labour member of over 50 years standing, editor of Labour Briefing and a leading figure in organisations such as the Labour Representation Committee and Jewish Voice for Labour could be expelled for the ‘offence’ of signing a LAW petition before it was proscribed is Kafkaesque – but sadly not at all unusual nowadays.

That this form of retrospective charge, which runs counter to any democratic principles or sense of natural justice, can be so widely used by the Labour bureaucracy shows just how firm a grip they now have. While the usual suspects on the left vigorously protested about the expulsion of comrade Bash, the other usual suspects who claim to be on the left – the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, for example – kept to their now customary vow of silence. However, one valiant member of the SCG, John McDonnell, a long-time comrade did manage to tweet about his treatment:

I’ve known and campaigned alongside Graham Bash for over 40 years. He is one of the finest socialists I have met. I do not believe it can be just to expel someone from the Labour Party based upon actions or associations with an organisation before it has been proscribed.[2]

Given their political association within the London left in the late 1970s, and more recently through the LRC and Labour Briefing, for which McDonnell once wrote a regular column, these comforting words are the least that he could do for an old comrade – but they are not nearly enough. It might seem churlish to criticise this gesture of support: after all, given the vehemence of these attacks on the left should we not be grateful for even this rather lukewarm expression of solidarity?

No, we should not! This type of hand-wringing ‘support’ is simply not good enough, given the scale of the witch-hunt we now face. Leaving John McDonnell’s personal feelings aside, his tweet is not only woefully inadequate in defending comrade Bash, but is worse than useless in fighting back politically against the attacks of the Labour leadership. The type of statement McDonnell should have made would not simply have defended Graham Bash’s character and political reputation, nor would it merely raise a query about the ‘justice’ of the charges and procedure of his expulsion. What we need is more than a muted ‘condemnation’: the situation demands a political defence of party democracy and free speech and a real explanation of why Keir Starmer and the right are using trumped-up accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ against the left.

However, as the last five years have shown, what the situation requires and what we get from the leaders of the official left are two very different things. Thus, John McDonnell’s rather tardy apologia on behalf of comrade Bash runs very much true to form in its oh so faint criticism of his expulsion. It also sheds light on the political duplicity and slavish compromises with the Labour right that characterise the politics of the official Labour left. So, McDonnell is concerned about the shabby treatment of his erstwhile comrade and rails, albeit sotto voce, against the terrible injustice that has been done to him. Comrade Bash is one of the finest socialists John McDonnell has ever met, so he tells us, and we agree that the expelled comrade is a genuine socialist who has been grotesquely smeared. But Graham Bash is not alone in facing persecution by the right: many other Jewish socialists are currently being attacked in this way. The question is: aren’t these and other leftwing comrades equally worthy of McDonnell’s support? Why the silence about the thousands of others who have been expelled? Are they not also ‘fine socialists’ who have been treated unjustly? Why no outcry about the reintroduction of bans and proscriptions?

The answer is that McDonnell is rather selective in whom he offers support to and who he is prepared to sacrifice when the right demands it. In conceding to the right that the left does have some form of anti-Semitism problem, as he did recently in Solidarity, the paper of the pro-witch-hunt Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, he is simply preparing the ground for yet more attacks and expulsions.[3] He ceded similar ground to the Labour right during the Corbyn leadership that only acted to undermine the left and embolden the witch-hunters.[4]

In this period he perfected an ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. So, when activists were pushing to deselect rightwing anti-Corbyn MPs, McDonnell equivocated, offering a degree of public support for party democracy and the accountability of MPs to their Constituency Labour Parties, whilst at the same time privately urging restraint and attempting to broker compromise at every turn. John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn both acted behind the scenes to hold back the left in the CLPs. McDonnell in particular traded upon his left reputation in the CLPs: he was very active in personally persuading them that it was clever strategy not to move against rightwing MPs in a vain hope that such concessions would buy peace and secure the cooperation of the Parliamentary Labour Party. We all know how well that worked and where it ended up, don’t we?

Pointing out the contradictions and the failures of this strategy, and the disastrous role of the official left since 2015, is not simply point-scoring or a personal attack on McDonnell. Rather the failure of the Labour left – both during the Corbyn leadership and since – has not even been really discussed, much less understood, by the left. We know how those on the official left like McDonnell failed and continue to fail, both in taking the fight to the right and in really defending leftwingers like Graham Bash. For all his fine words, John McDonnell is quite willing to throw even his closest comrades under the bus.

This is not simply a flaw in his character or a personal betrayal. The fault lies not in the stars, but in the politics and the strategy of the official left and its inherent Labourism. Put simply, the sole strategy of this ‘left’ is to pursue ‘socialism’ (in reality a managed and reformed capitalism) through the election of a series of Labour governments and utilising the existing state to bring about the ‘transformation’ of society. Such a ‘strategy’ places a premium on the continued existence of Labour as an electoral force and a potential government and is in turn quite fundamentally predicated – in fact and ‘theory’ – on the essential unity of the left with the Labour right.

Maintaining that unity as a matter of course necessitates that the Labour left must make concessions and thus make itself completely subservient to the pro-capitalist right. The whole history of the left has been one of subordination to capitalism, the existing constitutional order and the Labour lieutenants of capital on the Labour right. Corbynism was no exception to that rule, as its failure and continued disintegration shows. However, until we understand these inherent historical and political flaws, and why it produces a completely useless strategy, the Labour left will continue to remain enchained by both its own politics and its trust in duplicitous ‘left’ MPs like John McDonnell.

Sadly those who fail to learn from their mistakes will be doomed to repeat them .

Notes

[1] www.thecanary.co/uk/analysis/2021/11/07/graham-bash-tells-the-canary-the-labour-witch-hunt-will-not-stop-until-it-guts-the-party.

[2] twitter.com/johnmcdonnellMP/status/1456923121215320070.

[3]www.workersliberty.org/index.php/story/2021-10-19/trade-union-struggle-and-political-struggle-interview-john-mcdonnell.

[4]www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-45035341.

Feeding the revolving door

Andrew Byrne, Gerald Wiley and Derek James report on an all too carefully choreographed event staged by the Socialist Appeal comrades

Last weekend’s Revolution festival, organised by Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency, provided a good snapshot of the politics and the state of the contemporary left, both inside and outside the Labour Party.

The IMT put on a tight show and talked a good talk: in contrast to many on the Labour left, the tone was buoyant, if downright apocalyptic, and morale seemed high. The casual observer who wandered in might easily have concluded that this was a group that was really starting to take off. Certainly, the leadership and committed members of the IMT must have been happy with both the turnout and the tenor – an overall attendance of 400-500, mostly young, people, who listened intently and, when the occasion demanded, warmly applauded the calls for revolution and the overthrow of capitalism. What’s not to like?

The mood was set by Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal, at the opening rally. He argued that “this is an age of convulsion, an age of turmoil and an age of crisis”, which will only “intensify, because it is rooted in the impasse of capitalism”, the “anarchy of the market” and the “capitalist system”. The result of this pressure on the working class, he predicted, will be a social explosion: a wave of strikes and “Titanic battles” on the horizon. For comrade Sewell, there is “enormous disenchantment in society, especially amongst young people”. The ruling class is “forcing down the lid, but this pressure is continually building up and building up …”

Having set the scene for this impending crisis, he then reviewed the recent history of the Labour left and Corbynism. Here comrade Sewell went over familiar and, for us, uncontroversial ground about the failure of the Corbyn leadership and the official left to take the fight to the right on open selection, along with the disastrous compromises and concessions it made during the witch-hunt against the left. He argued that such compromises and retreats were inherent in Labour left reformism, but did not explain the structural reasons why such conciliationism is inevitable. This was strong, barnstorming rhetoric and correct condemnation, but no analysis whatsoever, beyond ‘Corbyn movement good, left reformism bad’!

The culmination of the peroration went to the heart of the IMT’s politics and current strategy. Because there can be no lasting reforms during a capitalist crisis, the Labour right and trade union bureaucrats will crumble, since they cannot deliver anything for the working class, we were told. In the coming period the workers will look towards the industrial front to defend their living standards rather than the Labour Party and “we will be with them”. But the crisis will also produce radical changes from which, comrade Sewell assured the meeting in his conclusion, a new, stronger, more determined left will emerge. However, these developments, in and of themselves, were not enough to produce a socialist revolution:

We still need the forces of Marxism in order to steel it and direct it. Our task, surely, is to … be there … with the right ideas. We have to build our force of five or 10 thousand Marxists. At the moment we have about a 1,000. We have to get to 5,000, we have to get to 10,000. Then we can become a factor in the situation … we can provide not just the backbone, but also the ideas and perspectives. And these ideas can grow and develop on the basis of the events themselves.

Consciousness will change. It will be transformed. And the ideas of Marxism will become more and more attractive, despite the attacks of the right wing. We stand for the idea of socialist revolution … But it depends on us, no-one else … our task is to build the forces of Marxism and prepare for the future, lead a successful revolution in Britain as the stepping stone for a successful world revolution in the coming period (our emphasis).

Mechanistic

Whether discussing historical materialism or the lessons of the Paris Commune, variations on these themes would be heard in the various sessions throughout the weekend. This theory of crisis and the idea of spontaneous, economistic transformation of consciousness “on the basis of events themselves” has been very much the common currency of Trotskyism since the late 1930s at least and is all too familiar as a guiding strategy for many on the left today. Its combination of passivity produces a sense of inevitable determinism: for these comrades Marxist political consciousness is either generated spontaneously simply by the mere fact of exploitation in work or by “events”.

This mechanistic schema of how the consciousness of the working class will be transformed and thus produce the desired revolutionary outcome has now become the common sense of far too many of those claiming to be Marxists. As we see here with the IMT, paradoxically it is often combined with a heightened sense of urgency, agency and activism, which substitutes the building of a mass party of millions committed to the self-emancipation and self-activity of the working class with an enlightened group of a few thousand leading the bovine masses towards ‘revolution’.

This emphasis on ‘building the revolutionary party’ was the central theme and the main purpose of the whole event. It was clear from both the opening contributions and resulting discussions that the Revolution festival was part of a process of what one leading IMT comrade described as “building a revolutionary and theoretically trained cadre who could intervene in the struggles ahead and lead the masses to victory”. However, the ‘theory’ on offer was pretty thin gruel and ultimately rather unsatisfactory if you wanted more than the familiar slogans and appeals for action.

Thus, the session on ‘The life and ideas of Lenin’ was a rather potted and distorted account of Lenin’s politics and the development of Bolshevism during the Russian Revolution, which emphasised “the rapid growth of the party” in a few months from a small minority to a force capable of taking power. Similarly, ‘How to build a revolutionary party’ , although ranging far and wide over the history of revolutionary politics in the 20th century, just repeated many of the same canards about the nature of these parties and why they succeeded – or, in most cases, failed. The lesson was that “cadres are the bedrock of the revolutionary party and the key to a successful revolution” rather than the conscious hegemony of the class acting as class for itself. So the message here was loud and clear: “We need a party of thousands”, so, join, join, join!

Given the IMT’s origins in the old Militant Tendency, we were not surprised to see Militant’s historical economism rear its ugly head in a complete lack of serious analysis of the important political question of the state and constitution. In sessions whose topics ranged from the climate crisis to the monarchy, we found the same unMarxist formula, “the market dictates to the state, and not the other way round”. Whilst the IMT comrades were drilled well on the need to abolish the monarchy, the state, standing army, etc, speakers and chairs were vigilant in reminding listeners that such demands, whilst relatively popular now, should not be made in the current context, as such institutions can “only be overthrown by the socialist revolution”.

Thus, the IMT not only finds itself at odds with over 170 years of Marxist tradition: it also adopts a position with its own internal contradictions. The comrades simultaneously recognise that in times of revolutionary crisis state institutions like the monarchy are given “unlimited and unchecked power”, yet at the same time characterise it as a mere “reactionary relic” – something that is not really worth dealing with now. As one of the comrades put it, “We’re not going to abolish the monarchy under capitalism and, to be honest, abolishing the monarchy under capitalism wouldn’t change anything.”

As an event, this was all about recruitment and consolidating the IMT’s periphery, especially the students around the Marxist Student Federation, as well as getting existing members to “step up” and commit themselves fully to the group. It was not really designed for the seasoned cadre and made no attempt to engage with the wider left, who were frequently disparaged as mere discussion circles. Most of the sessions were ‘introductions’ to the relevant topics and seemed to assume quite a low level of prior knowledge. Moreover, the sessions were clearly highly choreographed, and scripted in a rather obvious and crude way.

Thus, in the session on the revolutionary party seven IMT comrades, one after another, were called in to the ‘discussion’ simply to amplify the main points addressed by the speaker. How do we know this? Because the chair called them by their first names and they read from prepared scripts, which was a feature common to the other sessions as well! In the sessions where we were successful in getting into the discussion, our contributions were curtailed by the chair and our very polite, democratic heckles were regarded as disruptive interruptions to the smooth running of the event!

Despite these limitations, it was worthwhile. But where were the rest of the left? Shouldn’t we be talking to each other about the way forward? In the corridors and outside during the breaks we engaged with many of those who attended, distributed copies of the Weekly Worker and had many interesting conversations with some genuinely friendly comrades. If we are going to build a genuine Marxist party, refusing to talk to, debate and work with those who already identify themselves as Marxist is not going to be the way to go about it.

On this showing, in its calls to build a revolutionary party, Socialist Appeal has moved to the left and away from its previous unremitting Labour loyalism. However, if this new focus on working outside the Labour Party has meant some changes in orientation and demands, the underlying political assumptions about the nature of crisis as a trigger for the growth of revolutionary consciousness have remained the same as the Militant forebears of the IMT over half a century ago.

What has changed? Simply, a new round of recruits has entered what is too often a revolving door!

Refound Labour as a permanent united front of the working class

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