Disputation on the self-defeating common sense of governmentalism and the illusions of broad left alternatives
1. The December 2019 general election defeat and Sir Keir Starmer’s subsequent leadership victory shows the bankruptcy of the reformist strategy for socialism. With Jeremy Corbyn they had their ideal leader, with John McDonnell they had their ideal shadow chancellor, with It’s time for real change they had their ideal manifesto.
2. Labour’s poor performance in 2019 is not only explained by ‘getting Brexit done’. Jeremy Corbyn faced unremitting hostility from the mainstream media, which did everything it could to feed and promote the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign. But to have expected anything else would have been naive. The mainstream media “carry out a system-supportive propaganda function” (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky). In the absence of a full-spectrum mass media in the hands of the labour movement, Corbyn was forced to undergo trial by the bourgeois establishment’s papers and journals, radio and TV stations, and news and blog sites. He was never going to win.
3. A Corbyn-led government was not a prospect that the ruling class was prepared to countenance. Economically, they deemed its programme grossly irresponsible. It could, they feared, trigger a crisis of expectations. More than that, they considered Corbyn and his close allies totally unreliable when it came to international politics. So, if by some fluke a Corbyn-led government had taken office, their response would have been such tactics as an organised run on the pound, wrecking operations by the Parliamentary Labour Party right, MI5 subversion, an army mutiny, US ‘pushback’, a royal-blessed coup, etc.
4. While the chances of a Corbyn-led government were always exceedingly remote, that cannot be said of the possibility of making changes to the Labour Party’s rules and structures. Yet, whereas Tony Blair carried out a (counter) revolution, all that Corbyn managed to achieve were a few tinkering reforms. That need not have been the case. With a more determined, more politically clear-sighted left, there really could have been a revolution in the party.
6. However, the left is politically weak. Too often it was determined to simply tail Corbyn, while Corbyn was determined to maintain unity with the openly pro-capitalist right in the PLP. That meant dropping open selection of parliamentary candidates, leaving Blair’s clause four untouched and refusing to confront and call out the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign.
7. Corbyn did not protest, even as friend after friend, ally after ally, was thrown to the wolves. Instead of taking the fight to the Zionist forces, such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement (formerly Poale Zion), and championing the Palestinian cause through promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, on his watch there was a concerted drive to increase the number of expulsions and suspensions. The Corbyn-Formby regime itself became an agent of the witch-hunt. To even deny that Labour has a real, a significant, a widespread problem with anti-Semitism became a disciplinary offence in its own right.
8. Not surprisingly, with the December 2019 general election defeat, many disorientated former Corbyn supporters variously concluded that: there needs to be a safe, acceptable, suitably centrist Labour Party that can ‘rewin the trust’ of the so-called Jewish community; that Labour can never be changed; that the fight for radical social change lies not in permanent political organisation, but in ephemeral street protests, economic strikes, tenant campaigns; etc.
9. Also not surprisingly, Starmer – former member of the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency and editor of Socialist Alternatives – stood for leader promising to remain fully committed to It’s time for real change. A cynical lie designed to pull wool over gullible eyes. Apart from getting himself into No10, he has no master plan nowadays. The latest round of the witch-hunt under Starmer owes nothing to defeating, finally seeing-off the left, that is for sure. With Corbyn gone, Rebecca Long-Bailey soundly beaten, David Evans as general secretary, a rightwing NEC majority, the PLP overwhelmingly dominated by the right and the three big union affiliates, GMB, Unite and Unison, unlikely to rock the boat, he has a controlling grip on the Labour Party.
10. No less to the point, the left in the CLPs is much reduced and organisations such as the Socialist Campaign Group, Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy are cowardly and display not the least appetite for a concerted fightback. Self-serving careerism counts for far more than the principle of solidarity: there is, for example, still a steadfast refusal to call out the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie.
11. No, the suspensions and expulsions under Starmer are a matter of display. He wants to prove to the capitalist media, big business, the City, the establishment, the armed forces and the US state department that, as prime minister, he would be trustworthy, utterly loyal to the constitution, the UK state and its international alliances. That is why Starmer promises to “uproot” anti-Semitism, why Jeremy Corbyn remains suspended from the PLP, why Labour Against the Witchhunt, the Labour in Exile Network, Resist and Socialist Appeal have been banned and why Ken Loach was auto-expelled.
12. The failures, the cowardice, the treachery, the constantly repeated pattern of the official Labour left becoming the official Labour right has to be explained in materialist terms. It cannot be put down to individual oddity, personal weakness or some congenital tendency to betray. The Labour left is still the natural home for many trade union militants, socialist campaigners and those committed to radical social change. But Labour’s position as the alternative party of government also makes the official Labour left a breeding ground for careerists, who, often 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.
13. Both the official Labour left and the official Labour right share a ‘common sense’ that politics are about winning elections. Therefore, policies are limited to what can be ‘sold’ to the electorate. But it is the mainstream capitalist media that, ultimately, decides what is to be regarded as sensible and what is to be dismissed as sectarian craziness. Anything that gets 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, and impose bureaucratic limits and measures to sideline awkward minorities. The official Labour left behaves in exactly the same anti-democratic manner.
14. The Labour Party, as presently constituted, is certainly not a “true mass organisation of the working class”. Doubtless, although it is down by a hundred thousand, Labour still has a mass membership and relies on trade union money and working class voters. But, in the last analysis, what decides the class character of a political party is its leadership and its programme.
15. The election of Corbyn did not produce fundamental change here. Neither For the many, not the few (2017) nor It’s time for real change (2019) questioned the monarchical constitution, the standing army, judge-made law or the US-dominated international order, let alone 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 has its place in capitalism’s many defensive moats, ramparts and walls.
16. 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.
17. However, this positive perspective for Labour can only be realised through the struggle to unite the left inside and outside the Labour Party – but not into a broad front based on soggy, middle-ground compromises, like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Left Unity, Respect or the Socialist Alliance. Sadly, all these have been wasted opportunities. No, we need to unite in building a mass Marxist party – a party that applies to affiliate to Labour, but can operate within the party despite bans and proscriptions.
18. Without a mass Marxist party, the left is doomed to suffer one Sisyphean defeat after another.