A serious accounting for the failures of Corbynism cannot be avoided any longer. Our perspectives must go beyond capitalism. We have had enough silly initiatives and attempts to close or limit debate. Labour Party Marxists has submitted this contribution to the Labour Left Alliance’s January 30 conference
Labour’s December 2019 general election defeat and the subsequent election of Sir Keir Starmer as leader exposes the strategic bankruptcy of the official Labour left and all those who fixedly put a left Labour government at the centre of their strategy for socialism. With Jeremy Corbyn they had their “inspiring” leader, with John McDonnell they had their “inspiring” shadow chancellor, with It’s time for real change they had their “inspiring” manifesto. And yet Labour went down to a demoralising defeat.
Labour’s results were in parliamentary terms on a par with 1935. Except, of course, then Labour faced a national government. And in 1935 Labour’s share of the vote increased. In some ways the 2019 vote should have been expected in 2017. The reasons for the comparatively good results in 2017 can be guessed at:
propaganda directed against Jeremy Corbyn proved largely ineffective: eg, he is a Marxist, pro-terrorist, part of the metropolitan elite.
Corbyn genuinely enthused some sections of the population – he appeared to many, especially younger voters, as a ‘man on a white horse’.
Brexit was not then the overriding issue it was to become.
However, what happened in December 2019 was no surprise. Opinion polls always showed a clear Tory margin. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings skilfully played the election as being about ‘Getting Brexit done’. The Brexit Party’s support crumbled and predictably went over to the Tories. Labour lost votes in the north and the midlands. While its share of the poll was greater than in 2010 and 2015, nonetheless, compared with 2017, the vote dropped by 8%.
Boris Johnson swept to power in the Tory Party with the promise to deliver on the 2016 referendum result. He subsequently showed a ruthlessness utterly alien to the dithering Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s step-by-step adoption of a hard ‘remain’ position, its call for a second referendum, the humiliating parliamentary defeats inflicted upon Theresa May’s government, crucially with the help of Labour MPs – all this ensured that Labour was never going to retain Brexiteer voters. Quite the opposite. They felt cheated, betrayed, by a Labour Party stupidly pledged to uphold the referendum result.
For many, Brexit served as a substitute for class politics. Needless to say, like Scottish nationalism, Brexit is a form of bourgeois politics. The same, of course, goes for ‘remain’. Hence the working class was unnecessarily split and placed under the influence of either ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ demagogues. Labour should have forthrightly rejected David Cameron’s referendum from the start. Labour should have organised an active boycott. Labour should, as it did from its foundation, reject referendums as a matter of principle (it was the arch-opportunist, Harold Wilson, who broke with that tradition in 1975).
Labour’s poor performance in 2019 is not only explained by Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn faced unremitting hostility from a mainstream media which did everything it could to feed, fan and impose the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ campaign. But to have expected anything else would have been naive. The mainstream media “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function” (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky). Without a powerful alternative mass media in the hands of the labour movement, Corbyn was forced to undergo trial by the bourgeois establishment’s newspapers, radio and TV stations. He was never likely to win.
Would adopting a Lexit position have won the election for Labour? Hardly. Votes kept in the north and the midlands would have been lost in London. Nor would Labour have won the general election if Corbyn had organised open-air rallies, called for a general strike against austerity, opposed the witch-hunt, etc, etc. All such nostrums are illusory. Of course, opposing the witch-hunt would not only have provoked rebellion on the right, but also amongst the latest crop of cowards and traitors on the left too. Look at the disgraceful role of John McDonnell, Jon Lansman, Laura Parker, Paul Mason, Owen Jones, Novara Media, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, etc. The odds were always heavily stacked against a Corbyn-led government.
What if, against the odds, there had been a Labour government? Such a government would not have been able to deliver even the very modest promises contained in It’s time for real change. 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. At best that amounted to an illusory attempt to run British capitalism in the interests of the working class. Meanwhile, wage-slavery would continue, Britain would remain 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” is to turn commonly accepted socialist language onto its head.
But a Corbyn-led government was never a prospect that the ruling class was prepared to countenance. Economically its programme was seen as irresponsible. It could, it was feared, trigger a crisis of expectations. More than that, Corbyn and his close allies were considered totally unreliable, when it came to international politics.
Because of all this, the left should have combined raising sights beyond the narrow horizons of capitalism with issuing sober warnings: expect an organised run on the pound, obstruction by the PLP right, MI5 sabotage, an army mutiny, US ‘pushback’, a royalty-blessed coup, etc.
While the chances of a Corbyn-led government were always slim, that cannot be said of the Labour Party’s rules and structures. Whereas Tony Blair carried out a (counter) revolution, all that Corbyn managed to achieve was a few tinkering changes. That need not have been the case. With a strong, determined, politically clear-sighted left, there really could have been a revolution in the party.
However, the left is organisationally and politically weak. Too often there was a determination to simply tail Corbyn, and Corbyn was determined to maintain unity with the openly pro-capitalist right in the trade union and labour bureaucracy. That meant dropping the open selection of parliamentary candidates, leaving Blair’s clause four untouched and refusing to confront, to call out the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ campaign.
Not only did Corbyn refuse to protest, as one friend, one ally, one honest, anti-racist Labour Party member after another was thrown to the wolves. Corbyn and his regime became agents of the witch-hunt. The big lie that the Labour Party has a real problem with anti-Semitism was accepted. Instead of taking the fight to Zionist forces, such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poale Zion), and defending the Palestinian cause through promoting the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign, there was a concerted drive to increase the number of expulsions and suspensions. Shamefully, disgustingly, to deny that the Labour Party has a real problem with anti-Semitism itself became a disciplinary offence under the Corbyn-Formby regime.
Not surprisingly, with the December 2019 general election defeat, many confused former supporters of Jeremy Corbyn variously concluded:
that Labour can never be changed and therefore dropped out of active politics.
that the fight for social change lies not in permanent organisations and patient education, but in ephemeral street protests, economic strikes, tenant campaigns, etc.
that there needs to be a safe, acceptable, suitably centrist leader who can reach out to the Labour right, unite the party and “rewin the trust” of the so-called Jewish community. That always meant Sir Keir Starmer fully accepting the EHRC report, externalising disciplinary processes and carrying out an historically unprecedented purge of the left using the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie.
Other than getting himself into No10, Starmer has no master plan. He is no latter-day Tony Blair. Fawning before the Murdoch press, Blair committed himself to accepting Thatcherism, when it came to privatisation and anti-trade union laws, reuniting liberalism and breaking the historic link with the trade unions. Starmer is driven by prior forces – most notably the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt – not of his own making. Conceivably, though it is far from certain, that could see him succeeding where Blair failed. That would probably lead Labour not to electoral unbeatability, but rather to the near irrelevancy it has achieved in Scotland, thanks to being completely outmanoeuvred by David Cameron in the 2014 independence referendum. By fronting for the Tories’ Better Together campaign, Labour brilliantly managed to present itself as a party of red Tories. Once a dominant force, Labour now counts as the third party in Holyrood.
The marginalisation experienced by ‘official’ communism and ‘official’ social democracy alike in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria and other European countries serves as an object lesson. Even historically established parties can become history.
Under conditions where a declining capitalism is running up against ecological limits, where the threat of nuclear war is increasing, where lasting, meaningful reforms that benefit the working class can no longer be gained, where, as a consequence, reformist programmes of transforming capitalism into socialism through winning a parliamentary majority are replaced by the ever more hopeless perspectives of a nicer, a kinder, a fairer capitalism, it is clear that humanity faces the stark choice posed by Frederick Engels: socialism or barbarism.
We must explain in materialist terms the failures, the cowardice, the treachery, the constantly repeated pattern of the official Labour left becoming the official Labour right. It cannot be put down to individual oddity, personal weakness or some congenital tendency to betray. The official Labour left is still the natural home for many trade union militants, socialist campaigners and those committed to working class liberation. But Labour’s position as the alternative party of government means that the official Labour left is also a breeding ground for careerists, who, starting off with good intentions, slowly or speedily evolve to the right. The lure of elected positions, generous expense accounts, lucrative sinecures, sly backhanders, mixing with the great and good and eventually entry into the lower ranks of the bourgeoisie all smooth the way.
The official Labour left serves to keep hopes alight that Labour can be won for socialism, and that the next Labour government will actually introduce socialism. Meanwhile, the right puts forward what is acceptable to the capitalist class – and its media – in the name of forming a government that ‘really makes a difference’. As long as the left does not cause too much trouble, as long as the right is firmly in command, there is a symbiotic unity. The official Labour left is useful to the official Labour right because it fosters illusions below, while above it supplies a steady flow of high-profile converts to (capitalist) realism.
Both the official Labour left and the official Labour right share a common sense that politics are about winning elections. Therefore, policies are put forward because they can be ‘sold’ to the electorate. Ultimately it is, though, the press, the mainstream media, that decides what is sensible and what is to be dismissed as sectarian craziness. Anything that appears to get in the way of winning elections must therefore be avoided like the plague. Hence it is not only the Labour right which attempts to restrict, muddy and segment debate, impose bureaucratic controls and sideline awkward minorities. The official left behaves in exactly the same anti-democratic manner.
The Labour Party, as presently constituted, is not a “true mass organisation of the working class”. Doubtless, Labour still has a mass membership and relies on trade union finances and working class voters. But, in the last analysis, what decides the class character of a political party is its leadership and its programme. The election of Corbyn as leader did not produce fundamental change here. Neither For the many, not the few nor It’s time for real change questioned the monarchical constitution, judge-made law, the US-dominated international order or the system of wage-slavery. So, even under Corbyn, Labour was neither a democratic nor a socialist party. It was, and remains, a bourgeois workers’ party, which objectively serves as one of capitalism’s many defensive walls. Indeed, given the urgent necessity of superseding capitalism, Corbyn and Corbynism acted to divert mass discontent away from what is objectively needed.
We must draw the sharpest line of demarcation between the socialist, the Marxist, left in the Labour Party and the official Labour left. The socialist, the Marxist, left, must stand for extreme democracy, the only realistic road to socialism. There should, therefore, be no falling into line with nor reliance on ministerial/shadow ministerial ‘socialists’: ie, those who, in pursuit of their pathetic, middle class careers, sit in a capitalist, or a shadow capitalist, government. No-one who calls themselves a socialist should sit in a capitalist … or a shadow capitalist government. No-one who calls themselves a socialist should call for ‘socialist’ representation in, or reinstatement to, a capitalist government or shadow government. Those who do so betray the cause of socialism.
Despite the failure of Corbyn and the election of Starmer, we remain committed to the complete transformation of the Labour Party, forging it into a permanent united front of the working class and equipping it with solid Marxist principles and a tried-and-tested Marxist leadership.
However, such a perspective can only be realised through building a mass Marxist party – a party that can, if necessary, operate within Labour despite the rules, a party which seeks to transform Labour, but a party which does not rely on Labour.
Without making that goal our main, our central objective, we are doomed to suffer one Sisyphean defeat after another.
Refound Labour as a permanent united front of the working class