Dead not resting

James Harvey looks at the origins, politics and ultimate demise of Labour Briefing

The news that Labour Briefing has ceased publication, in both physical and online format, marks in many ways the end of an era for the Labour left.

Founded in 1980 as a “bulletin board for Labour Party activists”, the journal was a product of the growth of the left in the party’s ranks in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[1] Although Labour Briefing did have something of a national profile, its main base was in the London left and amongst those activists who would become prominent in the municipal politics of the Greater London Council in the Livingstone period. The politics of this current grew out of Trotskyism – either in the form of organised groups such as the Chartist minority or various ex-members of the various groups.[2] By its own lights, Labour Briefing reflected these differences and made a virtue out of eclecticism. As Chris Knight, one of the journal’s founders, puts it, “instead of propagating a particular ideology, we acted on the basis that class unity comes first and information is power”.[3]

However, behind this ostensible pluralism Labour Briefing was tied body and soul to the Labour Party and thus left reformism, which continues to reflect the wider ‘common sense’ politics of important sections of the Labour left up to the present day. In the 1980s this produced a municipal strategy of confronting the Thatcher government and supporting Bennite left reformism during Labour’s internal battles, whilst during the Blairite counterrevolution of the 1990s and 2000s it meant hunkering down and hoping for better days to come again.

Thus in 2012 Labour Briefing was ‘transferred’ to the Labour Representation Committee – a Labour left group formed around John McDonnell.[4] This gave rise to a split led by former Labour NEC member Christine Shawcroft. The politics behind this bust-up are thoroughly obscure and mixed with personality clashes. Despite brave attempts to have a full and honest debate, both sides preferred to listen to the latest witterrings of Owen Jones. The minority, having lost the vote by a pretty sizable margin, went on to produce their very own version of Labour Briefing – the so-called original Labour Briefing.[5] Somewhat bizarrely the minority blamed the CPGB for the split – we had two comrades at the meeting!

Of course, the LRC presented itself as the potential nucleus of a revived Labour Party, should the Blairite project completely overwhelm Labourism and sever the party’s links with the trade unions. In practice, the LRC was simply a vehicle for the dwindling careerist ambitions of left councillors and would-be councillors, combined with acting as a lifeboat for beleaguered activists trying to keep what remained of the Labour left together.

However, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the influx of a new mass left membership, combined with the return of a layer of former left activists to the colours, would have been expected to provide both Labour Briefing and the LRC with something of a fillip. Given Corbyn’s personal and political links with both Labour Briefing and the political milieu from which it emerged, to the comrades on the editorial board it must have seemed that, following his election as Labour leader, their day had indeed finally come.[6] Strangely, it didn’t. The LRC membership remained static and nothing could prepare them for the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt, which began, of course under Corbyn’s leadership, and continued even after Jennie Formby took over as general secretary.

Neither Corbyn nor McDonnell raised a peep of protest. All they did was appease, appease and appease again. To its credit Labour Briefing did fight back against the witch-hunt. To its discredit Labour Briefing refused to denounce the treachery of Corbyn, McDonnell and co. The dream was always of getting Corbyn into No10 and McDonnell into No11.

Whatever the specific and immediate reasons for the demise of Labour Briefing, its political trajectory from the 1980s reflects that of the official Labour left as a whole. Following the 2019 general election and the acceleration of the witch-hunt under Sir Keir, the official left fell into demoralisation and decay. The surrender of the official left in the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, the business-as-usual passivity of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the gutting of Momentum and the failure of broad left outfits such as the Labour Left Alliance illustrate the depth of the crisis now facing what remains of the Labour left. There has been initiative after initiative. All have come to nothing.

Necessity

The demise of Labour Briefing reflects the failure of the Labour left to develop the politics and strategy needed to mount any kind of fightback. We in Labour Party Marxists have long argued that the sorry fate of the official Labour left is not simply about individual betrayal and careerism (although these characteristics play an undoubted role), but rather can be found in the fundamental premises of the official left’s politics and its understanding of the nature of the Labour Party.

Throughout its history Labour Briefing argued that ‘transitional politics’ were the way to develop the socialist consciousness of the working class and that demands predicated on the election of a left Labour government were key in that process. Although framed in the insurrectionary language of ‘Labour take the power’ (with its self-conscious echoes of Lenin’s ‘All power to the soviets!’), this differed little in form from the usual Labour left reformism and electoral politics found in the old CPGB’s British road to socialism or the pages of Militant in the 1980s.

Whilst the politics of Labour Briefing from the beginning recognised the pro-capitalist nature of the Labour right and the roadblock that this leadership presents for socialists, they failed to even challenge, let alone break with, the reformism of the Labour left. Their politics remained essentially confined within the framework of Labourism and so continued to suffer the fate of the Labour left as a whole. Whether tail-ending the municipal left in the 1980s or excusing Corbyn’s retreats in the face of the Labour right in the late 2010s, Labour Briefing often provided a left cover for further accommodation and concessions. The result was that in the aftermath of the Corbyn moment, like others on the Labour left, the supporters of Labour Briefing could offer no real explanation of what went wrong – beyond Corbyn’s tactical misjudgements or some mild criticisms of his personal and political failings.

To really come to terms with the failure of Corbynism would have required a thorough rejection of their previous positions and developing instead a truly militant stance: namely that Labour cannot be understood as a ready-made instrument for the socialist transformation of society and that the self-emancipation of the working class requires revolutionary consciousness, not so-called transitional reformism.

It is not enough to simply note the passing of Labour Briefing and think of its demise as the end of a song. The type of politics it espoused and the illusions it fostered have deep roots in the workers’ movement: the closure of a journal does not liquidate the politics which it embodied. The left reformism of Labour Briefing and its like on the Labour left is a real barrier, which must be overcome if we are to develop a programme and build a party that can lead the working class to power.

Moreover, the spurious eclecticism and speculative discussion with which Labour Briefing identified itself are luxuries we cannot afford. Not developing clear and definite positions is criminally irresponsible for Marxists and amounts to an apolitical betrayal of the cause of the working class.

Given the growing threats of war and the serious political and economic crises that face the working class internationally, reforging authentic, militant, working class politics is not a choice, but an urgent necessity.

[1]. labourbriefing.org/blog/about.

[2]. The history of the British far left in this period – especially of the groups that entered the Labour Party – still remains to be written. Militant received considerable attention at the time, but there were other currents which also influenced the Labour left in this period and have been overlooked in the standard accounts.

[3]. labourbriefing.org/blog/about.

[4]. After the transfer, the editorial board of Labour Briefing was elected by LRC members, although Graham Bash and other founder members remained the driving force behind the journal.

[5]. This version of the journal still continues to be produced. See LB Archive – Labour Briefing Co-operative: labourbriefingcooperative.net/lb-archive.

[6]. By way of illustrating this relationship, the Labour Briefing website has a 1980s picture of Graham Bash and Jeremy Corbyn together at a demonstration: labourbriefing.org/blog/about.

The biters bitten

James Harvey asks why the AWL has been proscribed when it has given such unstinting service to the right in promoting the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie

The recent decision of Labour’s national executive committee to proscribe the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty almost makes you feel sorry for the average AWL member, who must be asking: what have we done to deserve such shabby and ungrateful treatment at the hands of the Labour bureaucracy? How dare they lump us in with such left groups as the Labour Left Alliance and the Socialist Labour Network, who were also proscribed at the same NEC meeting on March 29.[1] After all we have done, and continue doing, in support of Labour’s pro-imperialist leadership, they now turn on us and discard their faithful servants without so much as a second thought. Truly there is no gratitude left in the world!

It must all be very distressing for the AWL to find itself out in the cold and so shamefully abandoned. Worse still, it now shares the same fate as Labour left groups that the AWL accuses of being anti-Semitic and acting as useful idiots for Putin during the Ukraine war. Such pain was evident when a leading AWL supporter, Peter Radcliffe, put the group’s case when he appeared recently on Not the Andrew Marr show. The presenter, Crispin Flintoff, asked, why proscribe a group so close to Labour leadership positions on Ukraine, a second referendum on the European Union, and purging the left through (false) accusations of anti-Semitism? Radcliffe was hard put to produce a coherent response.[2] The core of his defence was a standard Labour loyalism and the AWL’s long history of campaigning for a Labour government as the only alternative to the Tories.

According to the faithful Peter, it seems that Keir Starmer does not know what is in the party’s best interests: he is worried, it appears, about the potential strength of the AWL’s influence within Labour’s ranks. So, despite being on the same page as Starmer on so many issues, Radcliffe asserted that the AWL is now under attack because it is the most credible opposition to the Labour leadership’s attempts to ensure total conformity within the party![3] For anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the AWL’s complicity in the witch-hunt and the cover it provided for the most outrageous attacks on the authentic left, such an utterly self-serving explanation is risible. Such attempts at self-justification are also very revealing about the bankruptcy of AWL politics.

Its new-found opposition to bans and proscriptions and demands for freedom of speech within Labour have also provoked some wry amusement amongst those of us who defended such principled positions from the very beginning of the Labour right’s onslaught.[4] Where was the AWL when Labour Against the Witchhunt was proscribed and supporters of Palestinian rights were smeared as anti-Semites and hounded by the media? Did they support the pickets and protests at the Labour conference and outside NEC meetings in opposition to bans and proscriptions? Not only was the AWL absent from Labour movement demonstrations and meetings in favour of free speech, but it actively lined up with the right and joined in the attack. The role of individual AWL supporters in the constituencies in collaborating with the Labour bureaucracy by targeting leftwingers for expulsion is well-known.

All of this scabbing is not simply an accidental lapse in judgement: it is all of a piece with the AWL’s wider social-imperialist politics and practice since the 2000s.[5] Its current support for US imperialism and the aims of Nato expansion in Ukraine only builds on its earlier backing for imperialism’s ‘progressive’ wars of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and the AWL’s active defence of Israel, and despite the inherent racism, expansionism and bellicose nature of the whole settler-colonial project.

This is why it is important to look at why the Labour leadership has now imposed these bans and proscriptions. The AWL’s own explanation – that it represents a real challenge to Starmer that has to be removed – does not really stand up. Having proven to be such ‘useful idiots’ for the Labour right throughout the witch-hunt, they are no threat at all to the party leadership. Perhaps the real explanation lies in the dynamics of a witch-hunt, which quickly takes on a momentum of its own – especially in such a bureaucratised, top-down, managerial-style party as Labour.

The party apparat has regained secure control once again after the temporary disruptions of the Corbyn period. As was all too apparent under his leadership, Labour MPs and full-time officials – both at the party’s HQ and in the regions – still retained considerable power, which they successfully used to undermine the left and democratic accountability within the party. Furthermore, we know how Corbyn and the rest of the official left compromised, thus failing to take the fight to the Labour right, and the political disaster that resulted. This weakness and acquiescence gave the bureaucracy a safe space from which to attack the left – an offensive which has continued to this day.

It may be that these party bureaucrats lack the political finesse to understand the valuable role the AWL has played for the right. To these hacks the AWL is just another bunch of Trots who need to be purged like all the rest. Apart from the tendency of purges to quickly get out of hand and embroil new victims far beyond the original targets, this latest move might have a more direct purpose in further weakening the soft left. If they can even go for such collaborators with the Labour right as the AWL, then even the mildest of critics are not safe.

Through its role in Another Europe is Possible and now the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, the AWL has developed clear links with some soft left MPs and trade union bureaucrats. It is thus possible that behind this move against the AWL the real aim is to further muzzle even this hitherto accepted ‘left’ current. However, whatever the exact circumstances, the proscription of the AWL clearly points towards the direction that Labour is taking under Starmer. Even the most lukewarm of criticism cannot be tolerated and will be suppressed, irrespective of how useful a role its perpetrators may have played in the past.

Given the group’s poisonous, social-imperialist politics, few on the militant, genuine left will naturally have much sympathy for the AWL. With such an appalling record it would be easy to indulge in a little Schadenfreude and derive just some small pleasure from the way that the AWL biters have now themselves been bitten. However, that misses the point.

Despite our vehement opposition to the openly pro-imperialist politics of the AWL, we must, at this present juncture, oppose its proscription in the name of defending what remains of free speech in the Labour Party.

[1]. labourlist.org/2022/03/exclusive-awl-among-three-more-groups-to-be-proscribed-by-labour-nec.

[2]. www.youtube.com/watch?v=O93Orer7rXQ1.

[3]. www.workersliberty.org/index.php/story/2022-04-05/ban-means-narrowing-labour.

[4]. www.workersliberty.org/index.php/story/2022-04-05/model-motion-labour-ban-workers-liberty.

[5]. The Weekly Worker has an extensive archive of articles outlining how the politics and role of the AWL have developed from the 2000s onwards. For just a couple of examples of these processes, see ‘Matgamna’s chauvinistic tirade’ (October 31 2013): weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/984/awl-matgamnas-chauvinistic-tirade; and ‘Those who side with imperialism’ (October 23 2014): weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1031/those-who-side-with-imperialism.

Spineless response to the Ukraine war

Its response to the Ukraine war shows the official Labour ‘left’ is sinking ever further into the mire, writes James Harvey

Sir Keir Starmer is having a ‘good war’, but, then again, we would expect nothing less from this trusted servant of British imperialism and its American masters.

For months Sir Keir has been setting out his stall as an alternative prime minister and a safe, reliable pair of hands, who can be trusted to enter Downing Street and ‘govern’ in the interests of capitalism. Defence of Nato and the interests of US imperialism are central to the British state, and in his job application Starmer has made his support for this strategic status quo a central theme. Until last autumn this had something of a platonic character: true, it was politically and symbolically important in demonstrating loyalty to the state, and a good way of drawing a clear line between himself and his notoriously unreliable predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, but there was no immediate political crisis that necessitated a choice.

Then came Ukraine and Sir Keir relished his opportunity to trumpet his loyalty to Nato and show that, when called upon, he could take an even harder line than the most rightwing jingoists on the Tory back benches. Whether it was calling for even tougher sanctions or standing fully behind the Ukrainian state, Starmer was always on hand to provide the statesmanlike rhetoric and necessary support for the Nato line.[1] As war fever swept the House of Commons and the media, he enthusiastically joined in and, like the rest of the capitalist class, was willing to fight to the last Ukrainian in defence of western values and freedom against the Russian autocracy.

If Sir Keir acted his part to perfection, the official Labour left too has been playing its own rather ignominious role during this crisis. If truth is the first casualty of war, for the parliamentary left principled politics comes a very close second. Just when you thought what passes for a left wing in the Labour Party could not fall any lower, leading left MPs sink even further into the mire and prostrate themselves before the pro-imperialist leadership of Starmer.

Apart from the unashamedly pro-Nato Paul Mason, the openly pro-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the confused Mandelites of Anti-Capitalist Resistance and the fellow-travellers of rightwing Ukrainian nationalism in the Ukrainian Solidarity Campaign, the dominant moods on the left are a species of social pacifism, reflected in the statements of the Stop the War Coalition. These oppose the war, criticise Nato expansion and urge diplomacy and negotiation as a solution to the crisis. In line with the popular-frontism of its leadership, they seek to build a mass movement in alliance with progressives and other bien pensants of the liberal bourgeoisie.[2] Hence, they stick to righteous indignation at the horrors of war and avoid the complexities of great-power politics. Above all, they do not link the struggle against war to the capitalist system that spawns it or pose a specifically independent working class politics that links fundamental questions of war, peace and the importance of fighting the real enemy – the ruling class at home.

It was to a statement of this type of social pacifism that 11 Labour MPs (plus Jeremy Corbyn and Claudia Webbe) added their names on the eve of the war – only to retract them when Starmer threatened to withdraw the whip or even possibly expel them from the party for daring to be even mildly critical of Nato![3] This was followed by an even more cowardly retreat, when John McDonnell and Diane Abbott pulled out of speaking at an StWC meeting following yet more reported threats from Starmer.[4] To compound McDonnell’s cowardice, it appears from reports that Starmer only said that “ the party would be looking closely at what was said about Nato and the war in Ukraine” rather than pronouncing an explicit anathema on McDonnell’s attendance per se. However, McDonnell has always been good at sniffing the wind and knew exactly what Starmer expected of him.[5]

Abbott went even further in her abject recantation and gave explicit backing to Nato as a “defensive alliance”. Having a debate around Nato strategy is one thing,” she said, but “attacking Nato is another. Everybody in the Labour Party supports a defensive alliance” (my emphasis).[6]

Sir Keir has made Stop the War a particularly symbolic and political target, and his attacks on this social-pacifist campaign have grown as the crisis has unfolded.[7] As he drove the point home and denounced even the muted critical politics of the Labour left, these bold leaders simply collapsed and grovelled at the leadership’s bidding.

Betrayal

This betrayal by what remains of the official Labour left is all the more stark because of the long histories of McDonnell and Abbott in opposition to Blair’s imperialist wars, and their personal connections with Jeremy Corbyn in those campaigns. In this instance the wounds and the sense of treachery truly are personal. Given McDonnell’s role in conniving at the witch-hunt and attempting to placate the Labour right during the Corbyn era, we should not be at all surprised by his abject surrender to Starmer and his vow of silence, when it comes to criticism of Nato and the strategy of the British state. Moreover, he continues to support the USC and thus give a ‘left’ cover to pro-Nato politics. So bold John is now effectively amongst the cheerleaders for greater support for the Ukrainian state and is laying the ground for even more direct intervention in the war. But, before we pass on to the bigger picture, let us consider McDonnell’s specific defence of his recantation of the StWC statement and withdrawal from the protest meeting. Beginning with the argument that “people are dying on the streets of Ukrainian cities”, McDonnell goes on to say:

This is not the time to be distracted by political arguments here. Now is the time to unite and do all we can to assist the people of Ukraine desperately seeking asylum and to do all we can to bring about peace. Nothing is more important at this time. Nothing should distract us from that. So I won’t feed into that distraction by going tonight.

I do think many Labour Party members will want clarity over the Labour Party’s attitude to attending demonstrations organised by Stop the War or by them jointly with other groups. My final comment is that, in the wider context of securing a socialist Labour government, and possibly inspired by my team Liverpool at Wembley at the weekend, I do believe it’s important for socialists to stay on the pitch for as long as it takes [my emphasis throughout].[8]

This rather brief statement reveals the utter bankruptcy and rotten core at the heart of the official Labour left, and the complete lack of any authentic or determined leadership amongst its MPs and trade union bureaucrats. As the official Labour left continues its demoralisation and disintegration, this is the type of compromising ‘leadership’ that remains behind to further disillusion and disorientate honest left activists. Now is not the time to be distracted by political arguments!

As if questions of war, peace, imperialism and great-power strategic rivalry are not issues for political argument which demand a socialist, working class response to the war in Ukraine. Rather than develop our own politics and make the voice of independent proletarian internationalism heard amidst the clamour of war, demands by the likes of McDonnell that we unite and do all we can for peace really mean that workers in each country are being asked to effectively line up behind their ruling class.

The reasons why McDonnell and co fail this vital test is not just moral cowardice or careerism, although they have their part in these betrayals of the official Labour left. At the root of these politics is the original sin of the Labour left since the early 20th century: namely compromise with capitalism and a lack of confidence that the working class can rise to the challenges of both war and peace, and overthrow capitalism internationally. The official Labour left’s road to socialism lies not through the conscious self-emancipation of the working class, but through the parliamentary road of “ socialist Labour governments” and gradual modifications of capitalism. Any hint of principled politics is jettisoned in subordination to that goal, which requires endless compromise with the pro-capitalist Labour right and constant retreat on even the semblance of socialist politics.

War and peace are fundamental questions for society and the working class internationally. Wars have historically exposed the nature of imperialist and great-power rivalry, and the reality of class society. The war in Ukraine is no exception, showing the strategic competition between the US hegemon and its Nato clients, and a regional power, Russia (and, behind it, a major challenger to US hegemony, China).

The voice of the left and independent working class politics is at its weakest since the 19th century, but that does not mean we must meekly surrender to capitalism and imperialism like the official Labour left. Our forces are as yet too weak to turn this colonial war by proxy into a civil war of workers against the bourgeoisie, but we must continue to adhere to that programme of independent working class action.

Unlike traitors such as John McDonnell, for the genuine partisans of socialist and internationalist politics the main enemy remains at home. In time of war there is no other position: here we stand – we can do no other


 

[1]. www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/08/zelenskiy-invokes-churchill-calls-on-uk-do-more-help-ukraine.

[2]. morningstaronline.co.uk/article/being-anti-war-does-not-make-us-apologists-enemy-or-anyone-else.

[3]. www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/feb/24/labour-mps-drop-backing-for-statement-criticising-nato-after-starmer-warning.

[4]. www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/mar/02/john-mcdonnell-and-diane-abbott-pull-out-of-stop-the-war-rally.

[5]. labourlist.org/2022/03/exclusive-john-mcdonnell-will-not-attend-stop-the-war-event.

[6]. labourlist.org/2022/03/diane-abbott-we-could-even-support-stop-the-war-under-tony-blair.

[7]. www.newstatesman.com/comment/2022/03/by-repudiating-stop-the-war-keir-starmer-has-reclaimed-labours-true-history; www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/feb/10/keir-starmer-says-stop-the-war-coalition-gives-help-to-authoritarians-like-putin.

[8]. labourlist.org/2022/03/exclusive-john-mcdonnell-will-not-attend-stop-the-war-event.

Cosying up to Sir Keir

Derek James reports on the split in the Socialist Campaign Group and the prospects for the ‘insider’ strategy

Another day, another initiative on the Labour left. However, this time rather than a new ‘rank and file’ initiative, it seems that a group of 11 Campaign Group MPs and one member of the Scottish parliament are forming a new parliamentary caucus. Reports on social media and blogs like Labour List and Skwawkbox are still somewhat sketchy, but even at this early stage the main outlines of the project seem clear enough.[1]

In what seems to be a carefully planted leak, the group’s ‘strategy coordination document’ outlines the political and organisational basis of the new group, and its relationship to the current Labour leadership. Whilst much social media attention has been on its funding by a levy on MPs, proposals for a full-time staff member/researcher and ideas for more high-profile parliamentary interventions modelled on the US Democrats’ ‘Squad’, it is the broader political orientation of the as yet unnamed group that is of the greatest interest.

The putative group identifies itself, of course, as being on the left, but this is a ‘new left’, you understand. It is distinctly different from the old left represented by Corbyn and the socially reactionary elements of old-style Labourism, because it is “pushing the Labour leadership to do better on its economic approach, and social and environmental justice issues”.[2] We can surmise what this might mean by looking a little more closely at some of the names currently in the frame. They are said to include backbenchers Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Clive Lewis, Nadia Whittome, Rachel Maskell, Dawn Butler and Kim Johnson, along with frontbenchers Sam Tarry and Olivia Blake. Apparently other MPs were asked to get involved, such as Paula Barker, Beth Winter, Nav Mishra and Rachel Hopkins, but they declined for various reasons.[3] On the face of it this motley collection of very soft-left Labourites has little in common. Although they largely represent a new generation of post-Corbyn MPs – that is, people who were elected since 2015 – this group of careerists and opportunists come from different backgrounds and political positions.

Thus Clive Lewis, who is likely to be the leading figure if this project ever gets off the ground, has been a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and was a possible leadership candidate in 2020. Resigning from the shadow cabinet in 2017 over Labour’s support for triggering article 50 to leave the European Union, he is still strongly identified with the remainers.[4] Lewis has also made something of a name for himself amongst Labour activists by ‘campaigning’ for liberal approaches to race, immigration and asylum issues, and presenting the ‘Green New Deal’ as a radical alternative economic strategy. He is the very model of a modern, moderate, post-Corbyn ‘leftist’, who can get a good write-up in The Guardian and space in Tribune, alongside an undeserved reputation as a leftwinger in Constituency Labour Parties. Whilst others on the list, such as Nadia Whittome and Lloyd Russell-Moyle, share a similar pedigree on the soft left, some members of this putative caucus, including Kim Johnson and Dawn Butler, have their roots in other types of activism in local government, community groups and the trade unions.

Invertebrate

However, there is one trait that they all share to a greater or lesser extent – a refusal to publicly oppose the attacks on Corbyn and complete silence on the witch-hunt. If the response by the SCG in general to the onslaught of the Starmer leadership has been pathetically supine, then the record of this subset of individuals has been positively invertebrate. Despite their protestations of leftism, MPs like Nadia Whittome and Kim Johnson have joined in attacks on the left in their CLPs or discreetly worked with the party machine to undermine any challenges to the Starmer leadership.[5] This combination of political characteristics and individual careerism finds its nadir in the approach of the new caucus towards the leadership of Keir Starmer. This goes beyond the cowardice and compromise that is the hallmark of the ‘official left’ to complete capitulation.

Our bold ‘leftists’ can read as well as anyone and throughout their distinguished political careers have developed a very keen sense of the way the wind blows in the Labour Party. So the strategy outlined is one of tacking between what remains of the left amongst party activists and snuggling up to the Starmer leadership.

Alongside “conventional parliamentary tactics”, we are promised some really dramatic action to spice things up for their potential audience in the CLPs and “capture media attention”, such as “calling Boris Johnson a liar, actions involving dresscodes, knee in the chamber, etc”.[6] There is a fine heroic, historical tradition of working class tribunes using the platform that parliaments can provide to denounce the ruling class and mobilise a mass movement against capitalism. But what even these MPs admit are puerile parliamentary stunts are certainly not that!

While this publicity-seeking might catch the eye of the media and get a few headlines, their real attention is focused elsewhere on what, significantly, the new group defines as its “insider strategy”. These “tactical approaches” aim to put “pressure on Keir Starmer off and on his front bench” by “working alongside Starmer and trying to steer him rather than resist or remove him” (emphasis in original).[7] This strategy of surrender is couched in the fashionable language of “an alliance between GND (green new deal) and new/progressive economics”, representing little more than some warmed-over Keynesianism, elements of modern monetary theory and worthy green projects.[8] Like Labour’s 2019 election manifesto, this represents nothing more than a modified, regulated capitalism, albeit with a green-wash makeover. However, given what we have heard from the Labour leadership about its pro-business credentials, it is likely that even these timid, ‘progressive’ reforms will get short shrift from the oh so responsible shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves.[9]

It does not take a political genius to predict that this new group is unlikely to get very far. It clearly represents something of a split to the right by some elements in the rather quiescent and actually quite moribund SCG. At all levels of the party former leftists have moved on from keeping their heads down to now actively making their peace with the Starmer regime. This should not surprise us, given the experience we had throughout the witch-hunt when supposed leftist MPs and activists either stood mutely aside or – even worse – joined in the attacks on the genuine left in the Labour Party. This new initiative is really just the logical extension of that approach.

Will anyone be convinced by this ‘insider strategy’? Starmer and his allies will not be impressed. Although they already have enough useful idiots recruited from among former leftists who abandoned the cause, a few more are always handy. However, for all the fine talk of a new strategy, it will be the leadership that is calling the shots: all this new group will be doing is providing a mildly left cover for Starmer, while trying to persuade Labour activists to concentrate on the main issue: unite behind the leadership and focus on ‘getting rid of Johnson’.

It is possible that some left activists might be persuaded to go along with the politics of this putative split from the SCG. In the wake of the defeat and disintegration of the Corbyn movement, the failure of the official left to offer any sort of lead has disorientated and demoralised many. So some might clutch at these straws of bizarre parliamentary stunts and making your peace with the leadership for want of anything else. But if they do they will surely find themselves simply acting as bit-part players, mere voting fodder supporting the careers of political opportunists.

The politics of this new group, however, point to something more fundamental than just individual failings and venal parliamentary ambitions. This tendency towards compromise is inherent in the Labour left: it is an original sin that flows from their focus on achieving ‘socialism’ through the election of a left Labour government, which in turn is predicated on the necessity of unity with and political surrender to the pro-capitalist Labour right. The whole history of the official Labour left is made up of these types of compromise, which end up ultimately as major betrayals and defeats for the working class.

In its timidity and complete surrender to Starmer, the politics of this new group of MPs is just the latest iteration of this thoroughly discredited and putrid tradition


[1]. labourlist.org/2022/02/revealed-new-left-group-sparks-debate-over-divisions-among-left-mps: skwawkbox.org/2022/01/29/exclusive-new-left-socialist-campaign-group-mps-form-new-separate-eco-group.

[2]. skwawkbox.org/2022/01/29/exclusive-new-left-socialist-campaign-group-mps-form-new-separate-eco-group.

[3]. labourlist.org/2022/02/revealed-new-left-group-sparks-debate-over-divisions-among-left-mps.

[4]. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-bill-latest-clive-lewis-resigns-jeremy-corbyn-labour-party-three-line-whip-brexit-bill-norwich-a7570416.html.

[5]. ‘Careerism on the Mersey’ Weekly Worker March 11 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1338/careerism-on-the-mersey.

[6]. skwawkbox.org/2022/01/29/exclusive-new-left-socialist-campaign-group-mps-form-new-separate-eco-group.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-60068222.

A rapidly sinking ship

Clive Dean reports on an organisation in sharp decline, politically at sea and now lacking any strategic perspective

At its height just 82 people attended the zoom call for the AGM of the Labour Representation Committee, held last Saturday
February 5. Far less than would attend the ‘normal’ face-to-face meetings in London’s Conway Hall. But nowadays it is dangerous to even appear on the same computer screen as those who have been expelled … and spies from Labour’s Victoria Street HQ were undoubtedly recording and readying new lists of those to be ‘investigated’. The AGM had been postponed from October last year, presumably in part out of fear of the witch-hunters, but also due to the pandemic and toll that has taken in terms of human resources.

There was a full agenda, but, thankfully, the non-appearance of billed guests Apsana Begum MP and Unison president Paul Holmes allowed some space for questions and debate. Exactly what the LRC leadership ‘normally’ seeks to avoid by packing the agenda to the rafters.

Having said that, potential time was still taken up by the rally-style guest speakers – Neda Abu Zant from Palestine and John Lister from SOS NHS. Then there were the constitutional amendments and policy motions to consider, but these contained nothing at all controversial, just tidying up the rules, affiliating to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and updating policy on housing, local government cuts and open selections.

An emergency motion on the Russia/Ukraine tension would have been in order, given the imminent threat of war and the LRC’s affiliation to the pro-imperialist cat’s paw, the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. It draws an equals sign between “western imperialism” and “Russian imperialism” but gives the game away by championing “Ukrainian self-determination”. Nato expansionism and the Russian question within Ukraine is brushed over. But no, the nearest we got to a contentious vote was on the proposal to open up the zoom chat feature (lost 29:25).

Time given over for questions and debate featured in the morning session, both following Jeremy Corbyn (originally billed as a panel speaker) and around the LRC executive’s political statement. These were by far the most interesting, well, to be honest, the least boring, parts of the proceedings, so I will concentrate on the issues that came up.

Jeremy Corbyn’s contribution contained some unexpected points – he began by expressing his solidarity with those who have been suspended and expelled from the Labour Party. Does that include those witch-hunted under his watch? He asked the question, “Did we make mistakes while I was party leader”, and replied, “Yes, plenty”. He defended his efforts to mobilise the 400,000 who joined the party during that period and his attempts to transform the party into a campaigning organisation.

He lamely criticised the current party leadership for concentrating on suspensions and expulsions rather than organising against the Tories. He mentioned the tension over the Russia/Ukraine border, but went no further than calling for peace (perhaps he was aware of tensions within the LRC). He did, though, alert us to the non-danger of Boris Johnson attempting a Falklands-style engagement to save his failing premiership.

Ask Jeremy

Chairing, Matt Wrack asked for questions for Jeremy – not something I’ve encountered before!

Tina Werkmann was first to seize the opportunity and asked him to elaborate on the mistakes. Agreeing with his assessment that anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had been overstated for political reasons, she asked if he agreed that calling for zero-tolerance of anti-Semitism was a mistake, and that education was a better response. She also asked if it would have been better to face down the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party rather than compromising, as the right were part of a class war against the Labour left.

Nick Wrack also thought it was important to look at what went wrong. For him the key issues were the failure to mobilise the mass membership and the retreat from open selections. Looking forward, he considered it vital for the left to be clear on the questions of “What is socialism?” and “How do we get there?” Managing capitalism was not the answer: the profit system had to be abolished.

Other contributors steered clear of ‘mistakes’, though Alison McGarry thought that a Corbyn victory in 2019 would have faced a coup, something the left was totally ill-prepared to rebuff, she said.

Some of Corbyn’s responses were illuminating – apparently he is preparing a book about his time as leader, which will include self-criticism. He told us that at his first prime minister’s questions he was aware that in the PLP seated behind him he had the support of barely 15 MPs. While his leadership was able to garner strong support using social media, dealing with the mainstream media had been a big failing. As if the mainstream media was ever going to come over to support a Corbyn-led government. Corbyn agreed that discussing ‘what socialism means’ is important, and his Peace and Justice Project will be inviting everyone on the left to contribute 500 words on this subject – not exactly a recipe for clarity.

Unfit

Amazingly, the LRC executive’s political statement was exactly the same document that was due to be presented back in October, with a small appendix added that covered the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban take-over. Hence some of it was painfully out of date. For example, the pledges to build support for Cop26 events in Glasgow. The slogan for the AGM was ‘building the resistance’, and this seems to be the ‘positive’ course for the LRC projected within the statement. In fact, the LRC’s old strategy of backing left MPs and getting Labour into office as the road to socialism has been completely exposed as utterly illusory. Indeed the LRC has no answer about how to fight the ongoing anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism witch-hunt. Hence, in the absence of anything approaching a viable strategy the LRC leadership clutches at “the trade unions, climate change protests, Black Lives Matter, in solidarity with the Palestinian people, defending asylum seekers and migrants, resisting violence against women or discrimination against disabled people, fighting Universal Credit and the cut in its uplift, parts of the mutual aid movement and many more”.

In moving the statement, Graham Bash sounded the alarm for the LRC, which, along with the rest of the Labour left, had failed to stop the witch-hunt. He rightly agued that the Starmer purge was class war, and that over 200,000 members had already left the party. He urged those remaining not to give up and noted that alternative electoral ventures usually failed miserably. He urged the LRC to rise to the “challenges” – tailing existing protest movements? Otherwise the LRC was no longer fit for purpose – which is clearly already the case.

At least 15 members joined in the discussion, though many were oblivious to the stark warnings from comrade Bash, and some were totally off beam. Predictably there were voices calling for a new non-Marxist broad left to bring together all the left groups within Labour, united around ‘a dozen points we all agree on’. Ironically such unprincipled unity can only encourage further demoralisation and disintegration – because it is bound to fail. Others endorsed the suggestion to divert efforts into supporting broad movements outside the party – again a route away from socialist politics. Many gave examples of the crisis of democracy within the party and how it is damaging the prospects for left candidates. But throughout there was an undercurrent of despair, summed up when Nick Wrack asked “What is the LRC for?”

In reply to the discussion, comrade Bash declared that this time the fight within Labour was different, and the party we know may not survive. On supporting those standing against Labour he recalled backing Ken Livingstone and Dave Nellist in earlier struggles, and would support Corbyn should he be forced to stand outside Labour. His blunt answer to the question “What is the way forward?” was that he didn’t know – the struggle will provide the answers. Surely a declaration of strategic bankruptcy.

No contest

The unhealthy spirit of hopelessness also affected other areas of the AGM. Nobody felt the need to question the treasurer’s report, despite an ominous loan for £5,000 which appeared to be funding an ‘organiser’. The 18 officers and the new executive committee were all elected unopposed, though nominations for some posts were only received on the day, and at least one post remains unfilled. Only five of the candidates deigned to submit a personal statement, so perhaps it is just as well there were no votes. A look at the attendance record for the retiring executive reveals that at least one third of them had resigned part-way through their period in office.

A new editorial board was elected for the LRC’s ‘monthly’ journal, Labour Briefing. But there was no comment on its non-appearance since September, and no update on the email received in November, advising members: “We are pausing production while we re-organise and hopefully relaunch.” The talk is that when the relaunch comes it won’t be printed anymore, but will be just another one of those worthy but largely pointless online publications, that no one organises to support and very few go to the bother of reading.

When it ‘normally’ appears, Labour Briefing proclaims that “The LRC is a democratic, socialist body working to transform the Labour Party into an organisation that reflects all sections of the working class.” A thoroughly dubious formulation. No, we should seek to drive away, overthrow, the labour and trade union bureaucracy, not reflect, let alone promote, their narrow sectional interests and self-serving careers. But that is exactly what the LRC has been all about, and look how it has ended. Failure, complete and abject failure.

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).

Refound Labour as a permanent united front of the working class

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