Category Archives: Labour structures and programme

Eighteen theses on Labour

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.

Labour as a united front

Once all working class and socialist organisations were welcome – obviously no longer. James Marshall looks at the past, present and future

We are in the midst of a terrible witch-hunt – a witch-hunt fully backed by the Labour right, the capitalist media, the courts, the Israeli embassy and the forces of the deep state. Three examples:

  • Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party in October 2020, thereby preventing him from standing as a Labour candidate in the next general election. Why? He dared tell the truth: “accusations” of anti-Semitism have been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”.1 Constituency Labour Party chairs and secretaries who allowed debates on, or resolutions protesting against, his treatment faced suspension or expulsion.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands, have been purged, many charged with anti-Semitism, and predictably a hugely disproportionate percentage of them are Jewish: eg, Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein and Moshé Machover. Their real crime is opposing the Zionist colonial-settler state of Israel … and Labour’s pro-capitalist right wing.
  • The July 20 national executive committee banned Labour Against the Witchhunt, Resist, the Labour In Exile Network and Socialist Appeal. Anyone deemed a member or supporter of one of those proscribed organisations faces auto-expulsion. Amongst the first to fall foul of the new rule was celebrated film director Ken Loach. He refused to renounce support for LAW.

It is all too clear what Sir Keir Starmer and general secretary David Evans are up to. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in September 2015 owed much to historical accident; little or nothing to the strategic acumen, ideological hegemony and organisational strength of the official left. With his ill-judged resignation following the December 2019 general election and the resounding defeat suffered by the hapless Rebecca Long-Bailey in the April 2020 leadership contest, the Labour right has been firmly back in the saddle. The witch-hunt is no longer about undermining Corbyn, driving him into complicity, forcing him to sacrifice one friend and one ally after another and ensuring that he never enters No10 Downing Street as prime minister.

No, the witch-hunt is about Sir Keir demonstrating his unquestioning loyalty to the UK state and its international allies – crucially the US and its most important strategic asset in the Middle East. Bans, expulsions, character assassination and riding roughshod over basic democratic norms have a potent symbolic value. They show that Starmer is worthy of the establishment’s trust. That way, he hopes to ingratiate himself with the capitalist media, boost Labour’s poll ratings and calm the fears of the army top brass, MI5, the City and the US state department. If – and it is a big if – Brexit comes to be commonly regarded as a Boris Johnson-driven car crash, then Sir Keir has the distinct possibility of getting that summons to Buckingham Palace and being asked to form a government by her majesty the queen.

Class against class

Labour Party Marxists has actively joined with those many others fighting the suspension and expulsion of socialists, trade union activists and anti-Zionists. All of them, without exception, should be immediately reinstated. There is surely nothing uncontroversial about Marxists making such a demand. After all, what is going on inside the Labour Party is a clear and unmistakable manifestation of the class struggle.

What then should we make of those self-declared ‘leftwingers’ who have turned a blind eye, excused, complied with or even promoted the witch-hunt? Painful though it may be for many, the fact of the matter is that it was under the pro-Corbyn regime of Jennie Formby that Labour HQ ‘fast-tracked’ expulsions. ‘Denialism’ – ie, what Corbyn was charged with – first became a crime with general secretary Formby (denialism, in this context, being a refusal go along with the big lie that Labour has a widespread, politically significant problem with anti-Semitism).

Yet, as the witch-hunt ripped through the ranks of the Labour left, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs maintained a studied silence. None of them defended Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Pete Willsman or Marc Wadsworth. The principle, ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’, became an alien concept. The Guardian’s house-trained Owen Jones was little different. Nor did Momentum lift a finger. Indeed Jackie Walker was surgically removed as its vice-chair.

Then there is Dan Randall and the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty outfit. They might as well be paid agents of the foreign office. Perhaps, though, the most revolting of all is Robert Griffiths, leader of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. He actually wrote to the Labour Party’s witch-hunter-in-chief, Iain McNicol, asking him to name the names of any members of his who had entered the Labour Party “or engaged in any similar subterfuge”, so that “action can be taken against them”.2 Not to leave a shadow of doubt, Griffiths signed off: “With comradely regards”.

Exactly how Griffiths’ sorry excuse for a communist organisation arrived at its ban on Labour Party members joining the CPB and the ban on CPB members joining the Labour Party need not concern us here. Its roots, though, surely lie in the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain and its turn to the cross-class politics of the popular front, sanctioned by the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935 under Stalin’s direct command.

Despite CPB claims to be the unbroken continuation of the CPGB going back to its foundation in 1920, nothing could be further from the truth. A fundamental break occurred. The same goes for the Labour Party.

Beginnings

From its beginning Labour was a federal party, which sought to unite all working class and socialist organisations. It was a united front of a special kind – special because, as with the soviets in Russia, unity was not tactical, fleeting or episodic. True, especially at first, political aims were decidedly limited.

JH Holmes, delegate of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, moved this historic resolution at the 1899 TUC:

That this Congress, having regard to its decisions in former years, and with a view to securing better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons, hereby instructs the Parliamentary Committee to invite the cooperation of all cooperative, socialistic, trade unions and other working class organisations to jointly cooperate on lines mutually agreed upon, in convening a special congress of representatives from such above-named organisations as may be willing to take part to devise ways and means of securing the return of an increased number of labour members in the next parliament.3

His resolution was opposed by the miners’ union on the basis of impracticability, but found support from the dockers, the railway servants and shop assistants. After a long debate the resolution was narrowly carried by 546,000 votes to 434,000.

The TUC’s parliamentary committee oversaw the founding conference of the Labour Representation Committee in February 1900. The 129 delegates, representing around 500,000 members, finally agreed to establish a distinct Labour Party in parliament, with its own whips, policies, finances, etc.

An executive committee was also elected. It would prepare lists of candidates, administer funds and convene an annual conference. Besides affiliated trade unions, the newly formed NEC would also include socialist societies. In fact, they, the socialist societies, were allocated five out of the 12 NEC seats (one for the right-reformist Fabians, two for the centrist Independent Labour Party and two for the openly revolutionary Social Democratic Federation). Given the diminutive size of these socialist societies compared with the trade unions, it is obvious that they were treated with considerable generosity. Presumably their “advanced” views were highly regarded.4

For Keir Hardie the formation of the Labour Party marked something of a tactical retreat. He had long sought some kind of socialist party. However, to secure an alliance with the trade unions he and other ILPers were prepared to programmatically limit the Labour Party to nothing more than furthering working class interests by getting “men sympathetic with the aims and demands of the labour movement” into the House of Commons.5

SDF delegates proposed that the newly established Labour Party commit itself to the “class war and having as its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production and exchange” – a formulation rejected by a large majority. In the main the trade unions were still Liberal politically. Unfortunately, as a result of this vote, the next annual conference of the SDF voted by 54 to 14 to withdraw from the Labour Party. Many SDF leaders came to bitterly “regret” this sectarian decision.6

As might be expected, this was part of a wider pattern. For example, faced with the great industrial unrest of 1910-14, Henry Hyndman, the SDF’s autocratic leader, rhetorically asked: “Can anything be imagined more foolish, more harmful, more – in the widest sense of the word – unsocial than a strike?”7

Of course, it is quite possible to actively support trade unions in their struggles over wages, conditions, etc, and to patiently and steadfastly advocate republican democracy and international socialism. Indeed without doing just that there can be no hope for a mass socialist party here in Britain.

Nonetheless, the SDF is too often casually dismissed by historians. Eg, Henry Pelling describes it as “a rather weedy growth in the political garden”.8 True, its Marxism was typically crude and, with Hyndman, mixed with more than a tinge of anti-Semitism. For him the Boer war was instigated by “Jew financial cliques and their hangers-on”.9 Yet the SDF was “the first modern socialist organisation of national importance” in Britain.10

Karl Marx disliked it, Fredrick Engels despaired of it, William Morris, John Burns, Tom Mann and Edward Aveling split from it. But the SDF survived. The various breakaways – eg, the Socialist League, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party – either disappeared, remained utterly impotent or could manage little more than regional influence. Meanwhile, the SDF continued as the “major representative” of what passed for Marxism in this country till 1911, when it merged with a range of local socialist societies to become the British Socialist Party.11

The first conference of the newly formed BSP voted, by an overwhelming majority, to “seek direct and independent affiliation” to the Second International.12 In other words, not through the Labour Party-dominated British section of the Second International. Despite that, however, the BSP began to overcome its Labour-phobia. Leading figures, such as Henry Hyndman, J Hunter Watts and Dan Irving, eventually came round to affiliation. That was vindication for Zelda Kahan and the internationalist left. Withdrawal from the Labour Party, she argued, had been a profound mistake. Outside the Labour Party the BSP was seen as hostile, fault-finding and antagonistic. Inside, the BSP would get a wider hearing and win over the “best” rank-and-file forces.13 Affiliation to the Labour Party was agreed, albeit by a relatively narrow majority. Efforts then began to put that into effect. The formal application for affiliation was submitted in June 1914. And in 1916 – things having been considerably delayed due to the outbreak of World War I – the BSP gained entry into the Labour Party. Almost simultaneously, in Easter 1916, the BSP in effect expelled the pro-war right wing. Hyndman went off to form his National Socialist Party.

Communist affiliation

The October revolution found militant and unstinting support in the BSP. A number of its émigré comrades from Russia returned home and took up important positions in the Soviet government. Bolshevik publications were soon being translated into English: eg, Lenin’s State and revolution. Money too flowed in.

The Leeds conference of the BSP in 1918 enthusiastically declared its solidarity with the Bolsheviks and a wish to emulate their methods and achievements. And under the influence of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc, the BSP adopted a much more active, much more agitational role in the Labour Party and the trade unions. In the words of Fred Shaw, instead of standing aloof from the “existing organisations” of the working class, “win them for Marxism”.14

Needless to say, the BSP constituted the main body that went towards the historic formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain over July 31-August 1 1920. Given BSP affiliation four years earlier, and the fact that in 1918 the Labour Party introduced individual membership, there can be no doubt that the bulk of CPGBers were card-carrying Labour Party members. Dual membership was therefore the norm, as with the Fabians and ILP.

However, instead of simply informing Arthur Henderson, Labour’s secretary, that the BSP had changed its name, the CPGB, following Lenin’s advice, applied for affiliation. Lenin thought the CPGB was in a win-win situation. If affiliation was accepted, this would open up the Labour Party rank and file to communist influence. If affiliation was rejected, this would expose Labour leaders for what they really were: “the worst kind of reactionaries”.15

With 20:20 foresight it would probably have been better for the CPGB to have presented itself merely as the continuation of the BSP. True, that would have tested to the limits the CPGB’s own unity. Its First Congress had a surprisingly large minority opposed to Labour Party affiliation: eg, the Communist Unity Group.

Nevertheless, securing a divorce is undoubtedly far harder than turning down a would-be suitor. The Labour leadership would have had to expel a renamed existing affiliate rather than reject a brand new prospective affiliate. Note, the BSP was allowed to affiliate in 1916, despite its long established commitment to Marxism, and, as far as I know, there were no moves to expel the BSP because of its newly adopted opposition to the ongoing inter-imperialist war – a position shared, of course, by Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald and the centrist ILP.

After World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution, however, Labour’s grandees were determined to distance themselves from Bolshevism. The revolution had put terror into the soul of the bourgeoisie. Their system was mortal. In defence of their system of exploitation they reinvented capitalism as ‘democracy’, while the communists, in defence of the isolated Soviet republic, championed ‘dictatorship’. A strategic blunder. A gift. Arthur Henderson therefore replied to the CPGB’s first application for affiliation by counterposing democracy and dictatorship. The principles of the communists do not accord with those of the Labour Party, he flatly declared. To which the CPGB responded by pointing out that:

… it understood the Labour Party to be so catholic in composition and constitution that it could admit to its ranks all sections of the working class movement that accept the broad principle of independent working class political action, at the same time granting them freedom to propagate their own particular views as to the policy the Labour Party should pursue and the tactics it should adopt.16

A good many local Labour Parties, particularly in London, forthrightly rejected Henderson’s characterisation of the CPGB as, in effect, mad, bad and dangerous to know. Nonetheless, Labour’s apparatus experienced no difficulty in marshalling crushing majorities. Eg, in June 1921 there was an overwhelming 4,115,000 to 224,000 conference vote against CPGB affiliation.

A minority Labour government was now a real prospect. Towards that end Labour had to be made acceptable to the Liberal Party, the capitalist press, the army high command, the City and George V. Britain and its vast empire of exploitation, pillage and extermination would be safe in Labour hands. That was the essential message that the Labour and trade union bureaucracy wanted to convey by rejecting the CPGB.

Lenin had, in 1908, optimistically called Labour the “first step towards socialism and towards a class policy”.17 As it was, Labour took one step forward in 1900 and one step back with its support for British imperialism in World War I … and still another step back with its refusal to accept communist affiliation. The united front of the working class was thereby disunited. The Labour Party dishonestly continued to call itself by that name, but in reality Labour was sabotaged as a party going towards socialism and a class policy. It continues, of course, but akin to soviets without Bolsheviks: soviets subordinated to the capitalist state; soviets as a career ladder for colourless, clueless, professional politicians.

Bans and defiance

Not that the CPGB could be easily seen off. Affiliation might have been rejected, but there remained dual membership. In 1922, two CPGB members won parliamentary seats as Labour candidates: JT Walton Newbold (Motherwell and Wishaw) and Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North).

Subsequently, Labour’s NEC was forced to temporarily drop its attempt to bar CPGB members from being elected as annual conference delegates. The June 26-29 1923 Labour conference had 36 CPGB members as delegates, “as against six at Edinburgh” the previous year.18 Incidentally, the 1923 conference once again rejected CPGB affiliation, this time by a narrower 2,880,000 to 366,000 margin.

Nonetheless, the general election in December 1923 saw CPGBers Ellen Wilkinson (Ashton-under-Lyne), Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea North), M Philips Price (Gloucester), William Paul (Manchester Rusholme) and Joe Vaughan (Bethnal Green SW) stand as official Labour candidates, while Alec Geddes (Greenock) and Aitken Ferguson (Glasgow Kelvingrove) were unofficial Labour candidates, there being no official Labour candidate in either constituency. Walton Newbold (Motherwell) and Willie Gallacher (Dundee) alone stood as CPGB candidates. Despite a considerable increase in the overall communist vote, none were elected.19

A ban on CPGB members standing as Labour Party candidates swiftly followed. Yet, though Labour Party organisations were instructed not to support CPGB candidates, this was met with defiance – not the fawning compliance nowadays personified by the miserable Robert Griffiths. In the run-up to the October 1924 general election, Battersea North Labour Party overwhelmingly endorsed Shapurji Saklatvala, Joe Vaughan was unanimously endorsed by Bethnal Green SW CLP and William Paul similarly by the Rusholme CLP executive committee. And Saklatvala was once again elected as an MP.

The 1924 Labour Party conference decision against CPGB members continuing with dual membership was reaffirmed in 1925. And, going further, trade unions were “asked not to nominate communists as delegates to Labour organisations”. In response, in December 1925, the National Left Wing Movement was formed. Its stated aim was not only to oppose bans on communists: it also sought to hold together disaffiliated CLPs. Basically a model which today’s LIEN seeks to emulate.

The NLWM insisted it had no wish or thought of superseding the Labour Party, but, instead, it sought to advance the generally held aspirations of Labour’s leftwing militants. In this it was considerably boosted by the newly established Sunday Worker. Despite being initiated, funded and edited by the CPGB, the Sunday Worker served as the authoritative voice of the NLWM. At its height it achieved a circulation of 100,000. The NLWM’s 1925 founding conference had nearly 100 Labour Party organisations sending delegates.

Following the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, the Labour apparatus and trade union bureaucracy wanted the movement to draw the conclusion that the only way to make progress would be through cooperating with the capitalist class in the national interest – Mondism. As a direct concomitant of this miserable class-collaborationism there was a renewed drive to exclude communists. Yet, despite these assaults on the Labour Party’s founding principles, at the end of 1926 the CPGB could report that 1,544 of its 7,900 members were still individual members of the Labour Party.

The struggle proved particularly sharp in London. In the capital city around half of the CPGB’s membership were active in their CLPs. And despite claiming that it was the communists who were “splitting the movement”, the labour leadership palpably strove to do just that. Battersea CLP was disaffiliated because it dared to back Saklatvala and refused to bar CPGB members. Similar measures were taken against Bethnal Green CLP, where the communist ex-mayor, Joe Vaughan, was held in particularly high regard.

Yet the Labour leadership’s campaign of disaffiliation and expulsion remorselessly ground on. The NLWM therefore found itself considerably weakened in terms of official Labour Party structures. Hence at its second annual conference in 1927 there were delegates from only 54 local Labour Parties and other Labour groups (representing a total of 150,000 individual party members). Militant union leaders, such as the miners’ AJ Cook, supported the conference.

However, external factors came into play – negatively. With the counterrevolution within the revolution in the Soviet Union, the CPGB was, in many ways willingly, reduced to being a slave of Stalin’s foreign policy. The CPGB’s attitude towards the Labour Party correspondingly wildly zigged and zagged. During the so-called ‘third period’ leaders such as Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme Dutt denounced the Labour Party as nothing but “a third capitalist party” (shades of Peter Taaffe and Hannah Sell and their Socialist Party in England and Wales).20

As an integral part of this madness, in 1929 the Sunday Worker was closed down and the NLWM was wound up. In effect the CPGB returned to its SDF roots. Ralph Miliband comments that the CPGB’s so-called new line “brought it to the nadir of its influence”.21

Third period left sectarianism could only but spur on the Labour right’s witch-hunt. In 1930 there came the first proscribed list. Members of a whole variety of organisations became ineligible for individual membership of the Labour Party, and CLPs were instructed not to affiliate to proscribed organisations. Needless to say, most of them were associated in some way or another with the CPGB.

Latest round

What began as a witch-hunt against the CPGB in the 1920s nowadays not only includes LAW, LIEN and Socialist Appeal. There is the catch-all ban on “racist, abusive or foul language, abuse against women, homophobia or anti-Semitism at meetings, on social media or in any other context”. The Victoria Street thought-police can, at a whim, expel anyone. Members live in fear. They silence themselves. They keep their heads down. They fret, worry and sometimes experience profound mental distress over nothing more than past Zoom appearances, social media posts, likes and dislikes. Naturally, often they simply despair, and leave in disgust. They scatter to the four winds and turn to social dust.

However, there is a growing fightback. Twelve NEC members have declared the ban on the four proscribed groups “unfair”.22 The SCG even summed up the courage to organise a statement, signed by 20 Labour MPs and five Labour peers, urging that Ken Loach be reinstated as a member.23 In a similar fashion a range of groups have united as Defend the Left to oppose the bans and proscriptions – whatever the many political faults and inadequacies, a positive development. Even better, there are those now committed to the “refoundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind open to all socialist and working class organisations” (LAW).24

Here a really valuable lesson has been learnt. Yes, comrades, to fight against the witch-hunt we need a clear vision of what we are fighting for. The struggle continues.


  1. The Independent October 29 2020.↩︎
  2. Morning Star August 12 2016↩︎
  3. BC Roberts The Trade Union Congress 1868-1921 London 1958, p166.↩︎
  4. Ibid p167.↩︎
  5. Quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1960, p17.↩︎
  6. M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p97.↩︎
  7. Ibid p230↩︎
  8. H Pelling Origins of the Labour Party Oxford 1976, p172.↩︎
  9. M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p159.↩︎
  10. Ibid p8.↩︎
  11. Ibid p8.↩︎
  12. Ibid p8.↩︎
  13. Ibid p248.↩︎
  14. Quoted in M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keel 1994, p281.↩︎
  15. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p258.↩︎
  16. Quoted in J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, London 1968, p168.↩︎
  17. VI Lenin CW Vol 15, Moscow 1977, pp234-35.↩︎
  18. JT Murphy, ‘The Labour Party conference’ Communist Review August 1923, Vol 4, No4: www.marxists.org/archive/murphy-jt/1923/08/labour_conf.htm↩︎
  19. J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, London 1968, pp361-62.↩︎
  20. N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 London 1985, p5.↩︎
  21. R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1960, p153.↩︎
  22. labourlist.org/2021/09/labour-implementing-ban-on-groups-in-unfair-way-say-12-nec-members.↩︎
  23. labourlist.org/2021/08/socialist-campaign-group-of-mps-urges-labour-to-reinstate-ken-loach.↩︎
  24. www.labouragainstthewitchhunt.org.↩︎

Between a rock and a hard place

The candidates in the Labour leadership election reflect the self-inflicted defeat of the Labour left under Corbyn’s leadership, argues Carla Roberts

Six candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to become the next leader of the Labour Party, but we can safely presume that, in the end, it will be either Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey. Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry could well drop out, whereas Lisa Nandy may not even make it onto the ballot paper. Jess Phillips might have been the popular go-to person for the anti-Corbyn press looking for a nasty quote. But coming out, all guns blazing, in favour of ignoring the result of the Brexit referendum has ensured that most of the media have now turned against her. And she has no chance with the membership anyway. Barry Gardiner briefly “considered” throwing his hat into the ring, and we will have to see how he is positioning himself politically. While he was better on the anti-Semitism smear campaign than most MPs, he is also a member of Labour Friends of Israel and voted for the Iraq war.

Before we start, we should point out how poor all these candidates are. All of them are way to the right of what Jeremy Corbyn stood for in 2015. While Corbyn was a symbol of the victory of the left against all the odds, the current candidates, including Rebecca Long- Bailey, are the living embodiment of the defeat the left has now suffered.

The real sense of hope that hundreds of thousands of people felt after the 2015 election of Corbyn has all but evaporated – for now. By not standing up to the right, by appeasing them over and over again, Corbyn and the rest of the leadership helped to decimate and, crucially, depoliticise and demobilise the left in the party. Instructing Len McCluskey to use his Unite contingent at the 2018 Labour conference to vote against the democratic demand for mandatory reselection of all parliamentary candidates was, perhaps, the most vivid example of Corbyn’s political climbdown. But it was his decision not to tackle the ongoing anti-Semitism smear campaign which really damaged the left in the party. He stood silently by as one supporter after another was sacrificed – all in the vain hope that at some point, surely, enough concessions would have been made to stop the attacks. Needless to say, the opposite happened: for every step back by Corbyn and his allies, the right took two steps forward.

Eye on the prize

This was all justified by the need to ‘keep our eyes on the prize’ – ie, finally getting the keys to No10 Downing Street. We might have to sacrifice this or that political principle and we might have to pretend that anti-Semitism is a huge problem in the party – but at least we can convince enough rightwingers to stick with us. Then, once we’re in government, we can finally show what we’re really about.

That has been the recipe not just of Corbyn, John McDonnell and their inner circle – it is the long-standing ‘strategy’ of much of the organised Labour left: Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Socialist Action have been the most blatant in applying this method, which the Labour Representation Committee and much of the rest of the Labour left are also guilty of, albeit to a lesser degree.

We have now seen where this recipe leads – to disaster. From this reformist perspective, we had the perfect leader with the nearperfect social democratic programme – and we still did not make it into government! And no, it wasn’t just Brexit wot did it. The fact that the leadership never stood up to the right in and outside the party meant that the entire established media were able to portray Corbyn and the bulk of the party as a bunch of deranged anti-Semites, racists and crazies. And it stuck – of course it did.

Unfortunately, Chris Williamson was the only MP who stood up against the witch-hunt and campaigned for the democratisation of the party. And we know how that ended for him. Every other Labour MP kept their mouth firmly shut. That includes Richard Burgon, who is running for deputy leader and is probably the best of the whole bunch of candidates. Like Ian Lavery, who briefly considered running for the top job, Burgon at least did not actively participate in the witch-hunt against Corbyn and the left – which is more than can be said of the six candidates for party leader.

That is probably one of the main reasons why Lavery could not gather the required 21 nominations from his fellow MPs. We fear that Burgon – despite, or maybe because of, his endorsement by John McDonnell – will also fail to jump that hurdle.

There is a massive pressure and temptation now to move the party to the right in order to finally become ‘electable’ again. This would, however, mean that we had learnt nothing from the last five years. In truth, the party hardly moved left at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of new members joined since 2015. But most of them never participated in their local branch or CLP meetings. And, when they did, they were understandably shocked by how bureaucratic, dull and apolitical meetings are. Almost no structural democratic changes have taken place under Corbyn – he did not even dare to touch the now pro-capitalist clause four, which was rewritten by Tony Blair. The so-called Corbyn Review was nothing but a damp squib.

But these are exactly the issues that should be at the heart of our struggle: the democratisation of the party; restoring power to the members and making conference truly sovereign; and we should even discuss getting rid of the position of leader altogether. Instead, the party should have a truly democratic, accountable and transparent leadership. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if we could see minutes of national executive committee meetings?

Empowering the members is part and parcel of fighting for a genuine socialist government and working class power – not pursuing a strategy of trying to introduce socialism from above, one step at a time. The biggest problem with this strategy is simple: it does not actually work. Real socialism is the self-liberation of the working class, from below. Otherwise it quickly turns into its opposite.

What a set of candidates

Keir Starmer, the preferred candidate of the ‘moderates’ and Blairites, is posing, somewhat entertainingly, as the Corbyn continuity candidate, in a rather obvious attempt to attract some of the softer lefties. He says he supported the miners in 1984-85 (not many miners remember that one) and even used to be a Trot once. In 1986- 87 he wrote for the short-lived Socialist Alternatives magazine, mainly on trade union matters. Despite its affinity to the Pabloite tactic of deep entryism into mass Labour and communist parties (in anticipation of World War III), the basic character of the journal was closer to the reformism and the identity politics of the Eurocommunists. But have no doubt: this man is today’s Tony Blair.

No doubt, most of the organised left will come out for Rebecca Long-Bailey – bar, perhaps the wretched Alliance for Workers’ Liberty – who, we hear, are even considering support for Keir Starmer (though remainer Clive Lewis is no doubt on the AWL list too). But it is palpable how very little enthusiasm there has been for RLB among the party membership, despite her having been groomed for the position by John McDonnell and Momentum owner Jon Lansman for the last two years. It is easy to see why there is so much hesitation and scepticism about her: she has made a huge effort to distance herself from the left and to be seen as anything but the Corbyn continuity candidate.

There was her underwhelming article in The Guardian on December 29, in which she promised to pursue a policy of “progressive patriotism”. Presumably that was supposed to show that she will not be a US ‘special relationship’ puppet. But in the process she had to resort, rather pathetically, to claiming that the internationalism of the Lancashire cotton workers during the US civil war – the second revolution – was exactly the opposite. A rather entertaining article on The Struggle blog puts her right:

the boycott of southern cotton was not ‘patriotism’, but an act of internationalist working class solidarity with the workers in the northern states and the slaves held in chains in the south. To dress this up in a Union Jack is to disgrace the sacrifice – all too literal – of the Lancashire mill workers.

Then there is her promise that she would be prepared to press the nuclear button, albeit reluctantly: “If you have a deterrent, you have to be prepared to use it,” she told the BBC. “Any leader and any prime minister has to be clear that the security and the protection of the people that they represent comes first, above all else, and they would do anything it takes to ensure the people of this country are protected.”

Or you could, you know, campaign for nuclear disarmament. It used to be very popular on the Labour left to oppose the nuclear obliteration of large sections of humanity. Jeremy Corbyn was admittedly ‘hazy’ on the question and refused to continue to campaign for the abolition of Trident once he became leader. But he never went as far as to say that he would actually use nuclear weapons.

We are also less than impressed with RBL’s running mate – and flatmate – Angela Rayner. They seem to want to recreate the ‘dream team’ of Neil Kinnock and his deputy, Roy Hattersley, which ostensibly was supposed to unite the left and the ‘centre’ of the party – and, of course, ended with Kinnock turning against the left, expelling the Militant faction, etc. The civil war of the last five years has shown clearly that there cannot be any ‘unity’ with the right.

Worst of all though is RLB’s political weakness, when it comes to the witch- hunt in the party. In June 2019, she met with the vile witch-hunter, Stephane Savary of the so called Jewish Labour Movement, and agreed with the JLM that Chris Williamson should be expelled from the party.

She also agreed that anti-Semitism complaints should be handled by an “independent body”. That sounds ever so ‘progressive’, but is actually an absolutely disastrous suggestion. Who should decide if a Labour Party member should be expelled, suspended or otherwise disciplined? The Jewish Labour Movement, perhaps? Or the Jewish Leadership Council, made up chiefly of Tory supporters? Of course not. Members should be judged by their peers. It is an ongoing injustice that employees of the party, chiefly recruited by witch-hunter general Iain McNicol, are dealing with complaints and preparing disciplinary reports – reports which are then briefly discussed by the disciplinary panel of the NEC, often in less than five minutes per case. The legal and governance unit – formerly the compliance unit – should be abolished and replaced by an accountable body democratically elected by Labour members.

After that meeting, she tweeted that “any comments made by anyone linked to the Canary or any other publication, which are anti-Semitic, or perceived to be – I condemn” – exactly the line that the JLM has been pushing for years: if they perceive a comment to be anti-Semitic, then that’s what it is! Any kind of rational definition would go out of the window. A rule change along those lines was quite rightly rejected by the NEC, and then by conference, in 2018.

Left pressure

And RLB is hardly an experienced militant. In 2015, for example, having just been elected an MP, she had to ask a Zionist audience what the BDS movement was.

This makes it all the more important that the Labour left finally gets its act together and starts to put some real pressure from the left on the leadership. The only pressure in the last five years has come from the right – and it has showed. Uncritical support for RLB is even more misplaced and dangerous than the messiah cult we witnessed around Corbyn.

This leadership battle presents the left with an excellent opportunity to do so. Rebecca Long-Bailey has already ‘tweaked’ her campaign quite a bit since her Guardian article, perhaps recognising that members have been less than impressed with it.

Earlier this week, she declared on ITV News that she “would give Corbyn 10 out 10, because I respect him and I supported him all the way through”. Corbyn, incidentally, has “declined” to say how he will be voting in the leadership contest.1)Daily Telegraph January 8 We suspect that has more to do with his ongoing efforts to try and appear neutral than any political problem he might have with RLB.

In her official election platform, published in The Tribune on January 6, she discusses how the party “has been too close to the establishment we are meant to be taking on, whether cosying up to Rupert Murdoch or joining forces with David Cameron in the Better Together campaign in 2014”.

She also discusses the democratic deficit in today’s society and that “the people across these islands are sick of the British state’s distant and undemocratic institutions”. While discussing the need for “a vision for a new democracy”, she writes: “We must go to war with the political establishment, pledging a constitutional revolution that sweeps away the House of Lords, takes big money out of politics and radically shifts power away from Westminster.” Labour’s 2019 election programme talked, much more tamely, about ending “the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and work to abolish the House of Lords in favour of Labour’s preferred option of an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions.”

That might still be what RLB means, but it does show she can shift. So let’s try and shift her! Before CLPs start nominating her to become leader of the Labour Party, members could, for example, ask RLB some of the following questions, each of which goes to the heart of today’s civil war in the Labour Party:

  • Will you campaign for Labour to support the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign?
  • Will you campaign for Labour to fight for the abolition of Trident and for unilateral nuclear disarmament?
  • Will you campaign for the mandatory reselection of all parliamentary candidates and the further empowerment of Labour members?
  • Will you issue an apology to Chris Williamson and ask him to rejoin the Labour Party?

References

References
1 Daily Telegraph January 8

Labour Party manifesto: Our alternative perspective

James Marshall critiques the ‘defence and security’ section of the 2019 manifestoApart from a few tweaks here and there, the ‘official’ Labour approach to what is euphemistically called ‘defence and security’ is an unmistakable continuation of the Tories’. True, the 2019 manifesto, It’s time for real change, complains about the reduction in “trained army personnel” (ie, professional soldiers) from 102,000 to just over 74,000, the below-inflation pay rises and how members of the armed forces and their families are obliged to live in substandard accommodation.Similar comments have, though, come from the mouth of General Lord Richard Dannatt. The former head of the army decries the “smallest navy, army and air force we have ever had”.1)Sunday Express November 24 2019 What about pay and conditions? A few years ago we find him saying that “pay was the most important issue facing the armed forces” and that the “appalling” accommodation has to be improved.2)The Daily Telegraph June 5 2008

Needless to say, there is nothing remotely radical about Richard Dannatt, a GCB, a CBE, a MC, a DL as well as being a Lord. Though nowadays sitting as a cross bencher, revealingly, breaking normal army conventions, he served as David Cameron’s advisor on military affairs when he was leader of the Tory opposition.

As for socialists, while we should criticise low pay and bad accommodation in the armed forces, a shrinking standing army is surely another matter entirely. In principle, we cannot object.

It’s time for real change condemns the fact that Boris Johnson’s government “refuses to publish the report into possible foreign interference by Russia in UK democracy”. Nevertheless, Dominic Grieve, Jo Swinson, Financial Times Europe editor Tony Barber, even Hillary Clinton, have said the exact same thing. So, once again, nothing controversial in bourgeois terms.

Police

Perhaps the most contentious proposal contained in It’s time for real change – well, at least when it comes to ‘defence and security’ – is the suitably vague promise to “consult on creating a representative body for the armed forces, akin to the Police Federation”.

Trailed earlier this year, inevitably the proposition resulted in lathering condemnations: Corbyn is a threat to army discipline, a friend of terrorists, a hard-line Marxist, etc. Needless to say, though, there is nothing remotely Marxist about the proposal. The Police Federation model is a giveaway.

Established by the 1919 Police Act, it replaced the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, which – and this is crucial – in August 1918 and June 1919 organised nationwide police strikes. The government put infantry and tanks onto the streets. Yet a “combination” of economic concessions, repression, political manoeuvring, union blunders, police divisions and the failure of organised labour to support the police “ensured the failure of the 1919 strike”.3)O Jones, ‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next? No31, November 2007

Liberal Party prime minister David Lloyd George saw the defeat of the 1919 strike as a decisive “turning-point in the labour movement, deflecting it from Bolshevist and direct-actionist courses to legitimate trade unionism once again”.4)Lord Mayor of Liverpool Archibald Salvidge, quoted in O Jones, ‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next No31, November 2007 His Liberal-Conservative coalition proscribed NUPPO and made sure that strikers were summarily fired and then blacklisted – a cruel act of revenge, which faced only “half-hearted” opposition from the Labour Party in parliament.

Unlike NUPPO, the Police Federation is barred by statute from affiliating to the TUC. No less vital, it represents all ranks, from ordinary constables to chief inspectors, and is legally forbidden to take strike action. With good reason, the Police Federation has been described as “amounting to a sort of company union” (Owen Jones – writing when he was a leftwinger).5)Lord Mayor of Liverpool Archibald Salvidge, quoted in O Jones, ‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next No31, November 2007

Nato

Showing that a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would act fully within, not against, the US-dominated world order, there is the pledge to “maintain our commitment to Nato and our close relationship with our European partners”.

Nato is an unmistakable product of the cold war. A US-sponsored grand alliance designed to anathematise the Soviet Union, hegemonise the fading British and French imperiums, incorporate West Germany and serve as a bulwark against mass communist parties in Italy, France and Greece. US bases were established throughout western Europe. Simultaneously, counterrevolutionary institutions were embedded and the social democratic settlement promoted.

Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, US strategy underwent a significant change. Out went social democracy and containment; in came neoliberalism and “rollback”. Hence the feeble complaint that Nato membership locks Britain into “American superpower manoeuvres” and makes it “impossible to pursue a principled international course” (Peter Hain – writing when he was a leftwinger).6)P Hain The democratic alternative: a socialist response to Britain’s crisis Harmondsworth 1983, p96

Following the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – and with it the US victory in the cold war – “was the obvious time for Nato to have been disbanded” (Jeremy Corbyn, 2012). 7)J Corbyn Morning Star May 23 2012 Instead, Nato expanded to Russia’s very borders: a violation of the “host of assurances” given to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that Nato would not go beyond what had been the German Democratic Republic.  So no protective buffer zone. And eyes are set on further eastern expansion. Ukraine and Georgia have been in Nato “membership action plan” (MAP) negotiations. A recipe for war.

The Labour leadership’s Nato pledge is clearly designed to appease. Donald Trump, the largely undiminished Labour right, big business, the City, the capitalist media, the generals, need not worry about the next Labour government … “Jeremy has been on a journey” (Emily Thornberry, 2018).8)Daily Mail September 12 2018

Then there is the commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on “defence”. This was demanded by Barack Obama back in September 2014; he wanted all Nato members to take a greater share of the “burden”. David Cameron’s government eagerly agreed. In his financial statement of July 8 2015, George Osborne promised to meet the 2% target “not just this year but every year of this decade”. So, when it comes to ‘defence and security’, what It’s time for real change says comes straight from the Tory songbook.

To leave not a shadow of doubt about the class nature of the “next Labour government”, we read this truly disgusting passage: “Labour supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.” Naturally, this goes hand-in-hand with pieties about global peace, the UN, “multilateral efforts”, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and creating a “nuclear-free world”. But the same can be said of every modern UK government. Against left demands to unilaterally abandon nuclear weapons – Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn – Tory and Labour prime ministers alike claimed that they were multilaterally working towards a ‘nuclear-free world’.

Suffice to say, each of the four Dreadnought submarines being built under the Trident renewal programme (total cost – some £40 billion) will carry 12 Trident II D-5 missiles. Each missile has eight independently targeted warheads, each with an explosive power of some 100-475 kilotons – or, put another way, more than five to 25 times the A-bomb that levelled Hiroshima in August 1945. Without a doubt, Trident is an “indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction” (Jeremy Corbyn, July 2016).9)The Daily Telegraph July 19 2016

There are those who somehow still manage to pass themselves off as leftwing, who give this dismal narrative a radical, anti-capitalist spin. Speaking at one of Momentum’s World Transformed events, Paul Mason outlined his case for a “battle of rational ideas”. Basically, what his rationality boils down to is Labour striving to prove its “economic competence” and promising that there will be an “essential continuity, that there’s going to be an army, nuclear weapons and a police force”. In other words, a Labour government which will seek to manage capitalism better than the Tories and do nothing to take the “toys” (Paul Mason’s word) from the top brass boys. Yes, he calls the weapons that killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and between 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki “toys”. Obnoxious. So, at least when it comes to ‘defence and security’, it is clear that the advice offered by this repentant Trotskyite has been accepted.

It is, of course, completely useless denouncing It’s time for real change from the sidelines – the position of dilettantes, dogmatists and brittle sects. No, Marxists must learn how to lead masses of people, even if at the moment most possess only an elementary level of class-consciousness.

Not to actively take part in the “real workers’ movement”, not to even to try to push the struggle being fought out in the Labour Party to the point where Marxists transform it into a united front of a special kind, and thereby secure a commanding control over CLPs, the NEC, the PLP, etc, is not merely foolish: it is criminally irresponsible. The immediate task of any worthwhile leftwing group or trend is to engage with the Labour Party’s rank and file at the closest possible quarters. Marxists must win the real “battle of rational ideas”. In the context of this article, we seek to convince this hugely expanded mass that we not only need a genuine socialist economic programme. We need a genuine socialist military programme too.

War

Despite Donald Trump’s sanctions and bellicose threats, China’s imperial Belt and Road initiative, the defensive expansionism of Russia and Emmanuel Macron’s call for a common European arms budget and common armed forces, there is no immediate prospect of an all-out World War III. With the certainty of mutually assured destruction (MAD), who would fight whom and why?

Nevertheless, there is the obvious danger of a regional conflict sucking in rival big powers with all manner of unpredictable consequences: Iran, Venezuela, Israel-Palestine, North Korea, Ukraine, Syria, Taiwan and the South China Sea all spring to mind. A direct clash between the US and Russia or China could quite conceivably rapidly escalate. Even a limited nuclear exchange would exact an almost unimaginable human toll.

However, what distinguishes Marxists from others on the left who oppose the danger of war is that we emphatically reject all varieties of pacifism. And, when it comes to the left, there are all manner of daft nostrums on offer. A few representative samples.

The Labour Representation Committee touchingly suggests appointing a “UK minister for peace”, and a Labour government which will “progressively withdraw the UK from the international arms trade”. 10)LRC Programme for a real Labour government no date or place of publication Banal gloop, which obviously has nothing in common with socialism.

Will gushing praise for the UK’s “worldleading” defence industry and the promise to “continue to work with manufacturers, unions and export partners” cause a change of heart? Unlikely. The LRC has constituted itself as a fan club for the existing Labour leadership, not a principled critic. Hence, at the time of writing, the LRC’s complete silence over the ‘defence and security’ section in It’s time for real change. Instead, the LRC heaps fatuous praise on Labour’s programme for the NHS, broadband, housing, universal credit, etc.

Nor can any decent leftwinger agree with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s studiedly vague “Cut arms spending” formulation. The AWL is a social-imperialist outfit and typically adopts a ‘who are we to oppose’ attitude towards US-UK led operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc).

Nor can Left Unity’s slightly less craven call for a “drastic reduction” in military expenditure be supported. What exactly is the drastic reduction envisaged by the Kate Hudson, Andrew Burgin, Felicity Dowling groupies of Syriza, Podemos, Die Linke? Needless to say, a comprehensively failed perspective.

The same goes for the nudge-down pleas of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain to “cut military spending to average European levels”. Ditto the Scottish Socialist Party’s formula of reducing “defence spending” to no more than the per capita level of the Republic of Ireland. Short-sighted, timid and, when it comes down to it, a banal cost-cutting exercise.

Our military programme does not champion either a 2% or a 1.5% version of the existing armed forces in the name of securing a capitalist peace. Despite the factional variations, that is what the LRC, AWL, Left Unity, CPB, etc actually advocate.

In contrast, Marxists – real Marxists that is – know that wars are inevitable while society remains divided into classes. We recognise that the struggle for international peace is inextricably linked with the class struggle at home – crucially the struggle to raise the working class, so that it becomes the ruling class.

That explains why Marxists stand by the time-honoured demand of arming the working class and disarming the capitalist class. A demand that educates minds, encourages the first tentative steps, till the goal is brought to full fruition. Hence – and this needs emphasising – the demand for arming the working class and disarming the capitalist class is about the now. It is not a demand only to be raised in a revolutionary situation. If we do that, it is too late – far too late. We would already have been crushed, defeated, killed.

Naturally, opportunists instinctively recoil from the very notion of arming the working class. Like the Weimar social democrats, they are infected with constitutionalism. Certainly the case with the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the CPB.11)See Weekly Worker May 21 2009 But, symptoms that begin with a reformist chill and a shiver, if not treated, end in complete breakdown. Confronted by the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 and the formation of hit squads, the Marxism Today Eurocommunists and their ilk condemned ‘macho violence’. They offered, instead, the mystical, women-only pacifism of Greenham Common. Come the ‘war on terrorism’ – ie, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – not a few of these former peaceniks were to be found in the ranks of the Bush-Blair warmongers: eg, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Francis Wheen, Norman Geras, Christopher Hitchins and other such types eagerly put their names to the notorious Euston manifesto.

By contrast, we Marxists are convinced that the bourgeois state machine must be broken apart, demolished, smashed up, if we are to put an end to war. So, concretely, in today’s conditions, that not only means scrapping Trident and all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction – indiscriminate and therefore inherently inhuman. We should also be arguing for the scrapping of all standing armies.

To state the obvious, nor will peace be realised through the UN, a commitment to Nato or even an armed forces “representative body”. Paradoxical though it may seem, peace has to be fought for. Specifically, towards that end, the working class has to develop its own fully armed militia. An idea that is not spun out of thin air. No, workers’ militias grow out of the needs of the day-to-day struggle: protecting picket lines, defending Muslims from fascist thugs, guarding our local offices, meeting places and demonstrations, etc. And, of course, with a genuinely powerful workers’ militia it becomes a realistic possibility to split the state’s armed forces. Fear of officers, sergeant majors and court martials can thereby be replaced by the rank and file’s readiness to disobey orders. Yes, a mutiny, or a strike. Certainly, army units, air force squadrons and naval crews declaring for our side provides us with the military wherewithal necessary to safeguard either an expected or a recently established socialist majority – in the House of Commons, European Parliament, House of Representatives, etc.

Programmatically the workers’ movement should therefore champion these demands:

  • Rank-and-file personnel in the state’s armed bodies must be protected from bullying, sexual harassment, humiliating punishments and being used against the working class.
  • There must be full trade union and democratic rights, including the right to form bodies such as soldiers’ councils.
  • The privileges of the officer caste must be abolished. Officers must be elected. Workers in uniform must become the allies of the masses in struggle.
  • The people must have the right to bear arms and defend themselves.
  • The dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a citizen militia under democratic control.

Background

Strange though it may seem to the historically ill-informed, here Marxists draw direct inspiration from the second amendment to the US constitution. Ratified to popular acclaim in 1791, it states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Those who made the American revolution – above all the urban and rural masses – saw a standing army as an existential threat to democracy. Eg, in her Observations on the new constitution (1788) Mercy Otis Warren – the mother of the American revolution – branded the standing army as “the nursery of vice and the bane of liberty”. At great sacrifice the common people had overthrown the rule of George III – some 70,000 Patriots are believed to have died – and the camp of democracy was determined to do the same again, if faced with another unacceptable government.

Naturally Marx and Engels considered the second amendment part of their heritage. Clause four of the Marx-Engels Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1848) is unequivocal:

Universal arming of the people. In future armies shall at the same time be workers’ armies, so that the armed forces will not only consume, as in the past, but produce even more than it costs to maintain them.

The Marx-Engels team never wavered. Read Can Europe disarm? (1893). Here, in this pamphlet written by Frederick Engels, 10 years after the death of his friend and collaborator, we find a concrete application of Marxism to the dawning epoch of universal suffrage and universal conscription.

Engels concluded that the key to revolution was mutiny in the armed forces. His pamphlet outlined a model bill for military reform in Germany. Engels was determined to show that the proposal to gradually transform standing armies into a “militia based on the universal principle of arming the people” could exploit the mounting fears of a pending European war and widespread resentment at the ruinously costly military budget. For propaganda purposes, Engels proposed an international agreement to limit military service to a short period and a state system in which no country would fear aggression because no country would be capable of aggression. Surely World War I would have been impossible if the European great powers had nothing more than civilian militias available to them.

Not that Engels was some lily-livered pacifist. He supported universal male (!) conscription and, if necessary, was quite prepared to advocate revolutionary war on the model of Napoleon’s grande armée. Needless to say, his Can Europe disarm? was not intended to prove the undoubted military superiority of a militia over a standing army (it can fully mobilise very large numbers with incredible speed, provides defence in depth and is, therefore, capable of successfully surviving a whole series of initial defeats). No, Engels wanted a citizen army within which discipline would be self-imposed. An army where rank-and-file troops would, if necessary, turn their guns on any officer tempted to issue orders that ran counter to the vital interests of the people.

Subsequent Marxist writers took the militia idea for granted. Though marred with various reformist assumptions, Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) elaborated upon the whys and wherefores of a militia system in his L’armée nouvelle (1910). Work and military training had to be brought close together, full-time army cadre would be confined to instructors, etc. 12)As far as I am aware, L’armée nouvelle remains untranslated into English. An abbreviated translation was published in 1916 and can be found on the excellent Marxist Internet Archive, though I think the 1907 dating given is mistaken. See www.marxists.org/archive/jaures/1907/military-service/index.htm

What went for Marxist writers went for Marxist parties too. Eg, the 1880 programme of the French Workers’ Party, the 1891 Erfurt programme, the 1889 Hainfeld programme of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, the 1903 programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, etc.

In the ‘political section’ of the programme of the French Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier), authored jointly by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde, we find the demand for the “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people” (clause 4). A proposition faithfully translated by the Germans: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army” (clause 3). The Austrians too are adamant: “The cause of the constant danger of war is the standing army, whose growing burden alienates the people from its cultural tasks. It is therefore necessary to fight for the replacement of the standing army by arming the people” (clause 6) 13)I am grateful to Ben Lewis for his translation of the Hainfeld programme. Then we have the Russians: “general arming of the people instead of maintaining a standing army” (clause c9).The newly formed Labour Party in Britain too: in its first general election manifesto in 1900, there is this call: “Abolition of the standing army, and the establishment of a citizen force”. 14)I Dale (ed) Labour Party general election manifestos 1900-1997 London 2002, p9

With the word there came the deed.

Amongst the first decrees of the 1871 Paris Commune was the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the national guard – “the bulk of which consisted of working men” (Marx). By actually constituting a new state, based on a repressive force that did not sit outside the general population, the Commune opened a new chapter in global politics. And Russia took what happened in Paris to new heights. Formed in April-March 1917, the Red Guards proved crucial to the success of the October Revolution. Red Guards, and increasing numbers of army units, put themselves at the disposal of the Military Revolutionary Committee – a subdivision of the Bolshevik-led Petrograd soviet. On October 25 (November 7) 1917 the MRC issued its momentous declaration that the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky “no longer existed”. State power has passed into the hands of the soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies.

The are many other instructive examples.

In 1919 we find Leon Trotsky – effectively the founder of the hybrid Red Army – presenting a set of theses to the 9th Congress of the Russian Communist Party “on going over to the militia system”. Here he proposed the founding of a “Red Workers and Peasants Militia, constructed on the territorial principle”, and bringing the “army close in every possible way to the process of production”. 15)L Trotsky How the revolution armed Vol 2, London 1979, p190 The inspiration provided by the 1848 Demands and the 1910 L’armée nouvelle is all too evident.

Shortly afterwards, beginning in the early 1920s, the two main workers’ parties in Germany built their own non-state militias. The SDP dominated the soft-left Reichsbanner, while the Communist Party formed the much more militant Rotfrontkämpferbund (at its height it boasted 130,000 members). In Austria, despite its 1923 founding statutes emphasising ceremonial paraphernalia, marches and band music, the Schutzbund served as a kind of “proletarian police force”.16)M Kitchen The coming of Austrian fascism London 1980, p116 When it came to strikes, demonstrations and meetings, this workers’ militia maintained discipline and fended off Nazi gangs. Though hampered by a dithering social democratic leadership, the Schutzbund heroically resisted the February 12 1934 fascist coup.

Workers formed defence corps during the 1926 General Strike in Britain. American workers did the same in 1934. There were massive stoppages in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis. In Spain anarchists, ‘official communists’, POUM, etc likewise formed their own militias in response to Franco’s counterrevolutionary uprising.

Then, more recently, in 1966, there was the Black Panther Party. It organised “armed citizen’s patrols” to monitor and counter the brutal US police force. Even the “non-violent” civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, included within its ranks those committed to “armed self-defence” against the Ku Klux Klan and other such terrorism.17)See CE Cobb This non-violent stuff’ll get you killed New York NY 2014

Corbyn

Imagine that a Corbyn-led Labour Party wins a general election majority on December 12. Supposedly because it is constitutionally inappropriate for serving officers to “intervene directly in matters that are of political dispute”, are we really expected to believe that the armed forces will idly sit by and behave in a thoroughly trustworthy manner? 18)Jeremy Corbyn quoted in The Mirror November 8 2015 That would be parliamentary cretinism of the highest order – a disease that infects reformists of every stripe and variety with the debilitating conviction that the main thing in politics is parliamentary votes.

Even given the limitations of It’s time for real change, it is easy to envisage a crisis of expectations. Masses of Labour members and voters are instinctively far to the left of the manifesto. The actual election of a Labour government could quite conceivably set them into motion as an elemental class force. Through their own efforts Labour’s electoral base would seek to put into practice what they think a Corbyn-led government really stands for. Defy the hated anti-trade union laws. Win substantial pay increases. Free the migrants imprisoned in detention centres. Occupy empty luxury properties and solve the homelessness crisis at a stroke. Arm with rudimentary weapons to ward off police attacks.

Any such scenario would inevitably provoke a corresponding reaction. It is not so much that the ruling class cannot tolerate a Corbyn-led government and its present-day programme of abolishing tuition fees, ending tax benefits for private schools, aiming for net zero emissions by the 2030s, introducing some form of rent controls, repealing the latest (2016) round of Tory anti-trade union legislation, nationalising water, the railways, electricity and other utilities, progressively transferring a minority percentage of shares to workers and establishing a national transition fund. Tinkering, safe and, in fact, amongst Keynesian economists, all perfectly reasonable.

No, it is the enthusiastic reception of Marxist ideas, the rejection of capitalism, the dominant position of the pro-Corbyn left amongst the mass membership and the distinct possibility of a yanking, further shift to the left, and consequent mass self-activity, that causes ruling class fears. And, have no doubt, fearful they are.

Hence Tony Blair’s much touted ‘neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn’ call, but a more “suitable candidate” for prime minister, who will head a government of national unity. 19)Financial Times November 25 2019 Failing that, and a Corbyn-led government, expect other, illegal, or semi-legal, methods. Mike Pompeo’s “push-back”, a politically motivated run on the pound, civil service sabotage, bomb outrages organised by the secret state – even a military coup of some kind.

Say, following the advice of Paul Mason, the Corbyn-led government stupidly decides to leave MI5, MI6, the police and the standing army intact. Frankly, that would present an open door for a British version of general Augusto Pinochet. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were tortured, were killed, and who knows how many, including US citizens, were ‘disappeared’. The September 11 1973 military coup overthrew the Socialist Party-Communist Party Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende. That, despite its studiedly moderate programme and repeated concessions to the right. CIA fingerprints were all over the Pinochet coup. 20)See P Kornbluh The Pinochet file: a declassified dossier on atrocity and accountability New York NY 2004

There have been plenty of warning omens. Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, labelling Corbyn “a present danger to our country”, who would not “clear a security vetting”. He also singled out Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne – former Straight Leftists and now close Corbyn advisors. They have “denigrated their own country and embraced the interests of its enemies and opponents”.21)Mail on Sunday November 24 2019 Then there is rightwing Tory MP Graham Brady, who said: “We must do everything possible to stave off the risk of a Corbyn government.” 22)Daily Telegraph May 25 2019 The Financial Times too ominously states that Corbyn’s leadership damages Britain’s “public life”.23)Financial Times August 14 2015 The Economist likewise lambasts Corbyn as a member of the “loony left” and “dangerous” to Britain.24) Editorial The Economist June 3 2017 Sir Nicholas Houghton, outgoing chief of the defence staff, publicly “worried” on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show about a Corbyn government. 25)The Mirror November 8 2015 Then there was the truly sinister statement made to The Sunday Times by a “senior serving general”:

There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny … Feelings are running very high within the armed forces. You would see a major break in convention, with senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital, important policy decisions such as Trident, pulling out of Nato and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces. The army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.26)The Sunday Times September 20 2015

The army is an agent of counterrevolution, almost by definition. An inability to understand that elementary fact represents an elementary failure to understand the lessons of history.

Legally, culturally, structurally, the British army relies on inculcating an “unthinking obedience” amongst the lower ranks. 27)NF Dixon On the psychology of military incompetence London 1976, p244 And it is dominated, run and directed, as we all know, by an officer caste, which is trained from birth to command the state-school grunts.

Of course, the British army no longer has vexatious conscripts. Instead recruits join voluntarily, seeking “travel and adventure” – followed by “pay and benefit, with job security.”28)M (Lord) Ashcroft The armed forces and society: the military in Britain – through the eyes of service personnel, employers and the public London May 2012 Yet, because they often live on base, frequently move and stick closely together socially, members of the armed forces are unhealthily cut off from the wider civilian population and, hence, from the growth of progressive and socialist ideas in the Labour Party. Far-right views appear to be very common – eg, see Army Rumour Service comments about that “anti-British, not very educated, ageing communist, agitating class-war zealot”, Jeremy Corbyn.29)The Guardian January 25 2016

The best known exponent of deploying the army against internal “subversives” is still brigadier Frank Kitson with his Low intensity operations manual (1971). The left, trade unionists and strikers – they are “the enemy”, even if their actions are intended to back up an elected government. 30)F Kitson Low intensity operations London 1991, p29 Legally, the “perfect vehicle for such an intervention” would be an order in council. 31)P O’Conner The constitutional role of the privy council and the prerogative London 2009, p20 After consulting the unelected privy council, the monarch would call a state of emergency and invite the army to restore law and order.

Remember, army personnel swear an oath that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors”, and that they will “defend Her Majesty … against all enemies”. And, as made crystal-clear by Michael Clarke, director of the United Services Institute, this is no mere feudal relic: “The armed forces don’t belong to the government; they belong to the monarch,” he insists:

And they take this very seriously. When [the Tory] Liam Fox was defence secretary a few years ago, for his first couple of weeks he referred to ‘my forces’ rather than Her Majesty’s forces – as a joke, I think. It really ruffled the military behind the scenes. I heard it from senior people in the army. They told me, ‘We don’t work for him. We work for the Queen.’32)Quoted in The Guardian January 25 2016

In the late 1960s and early 70s there were widespread press reports of senior officers and ex-officers conspiring against the rightwing Labour government of Harold Wilson. Many were unhappy about Rhodesia, many branded him a Soviet mole. However, their pathological hatred was directed squarely against leftwing Labour MPs, such as Tony Benn, Irish republicans, communist trade union leaders, striking workers and protesting students – the background to Chris Mullin’s novel, A very British coup (1982).

If Jeremy Corbyn makes it into Number 10, there is every reason to believe that threats of “direct action” coming from the high command will assume material form. That is why we say: put no trust in the thoroughly authoritarian standing army. No, instead, let us put our trust in a “well regulated militia” and the “right of the people to keep and bear arms”.

References

References
1 Sunday Express November 24 2019
2 The Daily Telegraph June 5 2008
3 O Jones, ‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next? No31, November 2007
4 Lord Mayor of Liverpool Archibald Salvidge, quoted in O Jones, ‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next No31, November 2007
5 Lord Mayor of Liverpool Archibald Salvidge, quoted in O Jones, ‘The “spirit of Petrograd”? The 1918 and 1919 police strikes’ What Next No31, November 2007
6 P Hain The democratic alternative: a socialist response to Britain’s crisis Harmondsworth 1983, p96
7 J Corbyn Morning Star May 23 2012
8 Daily Mail September 12 2018
9 The Daily Telegraph July 19 2016
10 LRC Programme for a real Labour government no date or place of publication
11 See Weekly Worker May 21 2009
12 As far as I am aware, L’armée nouvelle remains untranslated into English. An abbreviated translation was published in 1916 and can be found on the excellent Marxist Internet Archive, though I think the 1907 dating given is mistaken. See www.marxists.org/archive/jaures/1907/military-service/index.htm
13 I am grateful to Ben Lewis for his translation of the Hainfeld programme
14 I Dale (ed) Labour Party general election manifestos 1900-1997 London 2002, p9
15 L Trotsky How the revolution armed Vol 2, London 1979, p190
16 M Kitchen The coming of Austrian fascism London 1980, p116
17 See CE Cobb This non-violent stuff’ll get you killed New York NY 2014
18 Jeremy Corbyn quoted in The Mirror November 8 2015
19 Financial Times November 25 2019
20 See P Kornbluh The Pinochet file: a declassified dossier on atrocity and accountability New York NY 2004
21 Mail on Sunday November 24 2019
22 Daily Telegraph May 25 2019
23 Financial Times August 14 2015
24 Editorial The Economist June 3 2017
25 The Mirror November 8 2015
26 The Sunday Times September 20 2015
27 NF Dixon On the psychology of military incompetence London 1976, p244
28 M (Lord) Ashcroft The armed forces and society: the military in Britain – through the eyes of service personnel, employers and the public London May 2012
29 The Guardian January 25 2016
30 F Kitson Low intensity operations London 1991, p29
31 P O’Conner The constitutional role of the privy council and the prerogative London 2009, p20
32 Quoted in The Guardian January 25 2016

No pacts, no coalitions

James Marshall warns that, while Boris Johnson may well hanker after an illiberal democracy, calls for a caretaker government and a second referendum are worse than useless

Labour has successfully been manoeuvred into supporting a second referendum. Frankly, that neatly dovetails into the Boris Johnson-Dominic Cummings game plan.

Having established a firm grip on the executive arm of government, Johnson and Cummings still envisage token talks with Brussels, riding roughshod through the EU (Withdrawal) (No2) Act – the Benn Act – and then, “do or die”, finally delivering Brexit on October 31. A ‘people versus the elite’ general election would quickly follow.

Meanwhile, unless 11 Supreme Court judges decide otherwise, both Commons and Lords are not only prorogued till October 18. The remain camp is hopelessly divided and seems incapable of doing anything decisive to stop Johnson and his Brexit. Symptoms of what Karl Marx famously called the incurable disease of “parliamentary cretinism.”[1]

Jo Swinson has switched the Liberal Democrats from ‘second referendum remain’ to ‘general election revoke’. Jeremy Corbyn has been dragged into adopting a second referendum after a general election position. As de facto leader of Labour’s rightwing backbenchers, Tom Watson insists on a second referendum before a general election. As for the Scottish National Party, it supports a second EU referendum call, but with a beady eye to holding a second independence referendum for Scotland.

Amongst the many desperate ideas, one is to install Jeremy Corbyn as “caretaker” prime minister.[2] Of course, that will require gaining support from the SNP, the Lib Dems and the gaggle of former Labour and Tory MPs. It also opens the door to another “caretaker” candidate – if the Lib Dems, SNP and former Labour and Tory MPs find Corbyn unacceptable. Step forward a Ken Clarke, a Harriet Harman or a Keir Starmer. After all if stopping a no deal Brexit is the most important question facing the United Kingdom, surely Corbyn is obliged to do his patriotic duty. Make way for someone else for the sake of queen and country. But, no, Corbyn as “caretaker” prime minister, is “non-negotiable”, insists shadow chancellor, John McDonnell.[3]

It is highly unlikely that there will be a second referendum. Boris Johnson will not go for it … though he is doubtless delighted that Jeremy Corbyn has fallen into the elephant trap.

Yet imagine, for one moment, that the remain camp overcomes its paralysis and succeeds in getting a government committed to holding a second referendum. What would the result be?

While opinion polls show clear majorities wanting a “say” on any final Brexit deal, a remain victory is far from certain. YouGov (September 4) has 46% remain and 43% leave; Panel base (September 6) 52% remain and 45% leave; and Dextral (September 7) 46% remain and 40% leave.[4] The sort of margin we saw at the beginning of the June 23 2016 referendum campaign.

Because things are too close to call, the likes of Tony Blair and Justine Greening have proposed a three-option referendum (obviously in order to guarantee their desired result). Through perpetuating such a blatantly dishonest trick, argues David Jeffrey, a lecturer in politics at Liverpool university, it is theoretically possible for just 34% of voters to decide the “winning option”.[5] With the right questions placed on the ballot paper, such a referendum would see two bitterly opposed leave camps and a comparatively aloof remain campaign.

If a preferential vote is added into the formula, then the least popular option would be eliminated and there would be a count-off between the last two questions … and, so remain would, so goes the calculation, emerge the winner with over 50% of the vote.

Even barring such transparent forms of cheating, say remain narrowly won in a straightforward two-option referendum, what do we expect the 49% (or whatever) – ie, those who vote leave – to do? Sit on their hands? Cosily unite with remainers in the national interest? Hardly.

No less to the point, Labour, presumably, will be squeezed in a general election, held either before or after any such second referendum. If they play their cards right, Johnson and Tories can count on mopping up the Brexit Party vote and maybe, as a result, capturing a few seats in the English midlands and the north: seven in every 10 of Labour’s constituencies voted leave on June 23 2016. And having been shunted into the remain camp, Labour has to fight the resurgent SNP in Scotland and the resurgent Lid Dems in London and the south east. Not a good position.

Jeremy Corbyn could conceivably pull off another miracle, as he did in 2017. But, unless the ongoing trigger ballots have seen a thorough going purge of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the majority of sitting Labour MPs will continue to be an enemy within. They will continue to disrupt, sabotage and smear.

Popular front

Much of what passes for the left is utterly confused, is utterly disorientated: eg, Boris Johnson is a “pound shop Mussolini”, who on September 9 carried out a “coup” and an “assault on democracy” (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty). No, Johnson acted entirely within the existing semi-democratic monarchical constitution. That said, the prognosis offered by these social imperialists is not entirely wrong.

Brexit points towards a low-tax, low-regulation, low-rights economy. The working class can only but suffer. But their cure amounts to cyanide: “a strictly single-shot caretaker government which will send the Brexit-extension letter to the EU and call a general election.”[6] Okay, the PM might possibly be Jeremy Corbyn … or a Ken Clarke, or a Harriet Harman, or a Keir Starmer. But who will be the chancellor of the exchequer? Who will be home secretary? Who will be minister of defence? Etc, etc. Unmistakably a recipe for popular front negotiations to be crowned by a government of national unity.

Another, strange, proponent of this line is Paul Mason. Though he’s made the long march from Trotskyism to wizard wheeze techno-reformism, he cannot, surely, have forgotten the history of the 1930s, that he once treated as an article of faith when he was a member of Workers Power. Anyway, here is what he wrote in The Guardian:

The popular front tactic has deep antecedents in the very political traditions the modern Labour left emerged from. In 1935 the Bulgarian communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, single-handedly manoeuvred the Communist International into supporting calls for a ‘popular front’ against fascism. This was about formal electoral pacts with centrist socialists, left nationalists and liberals – and it paid off within six months. In Spain, to the fury of conservatives, who had formed their own electoral alliance with the fascists, the popular front took power in January 1936.[7]

Mason’s argument is, in fact, so absurd, that his good faith must be called into question. Either he has suffered some kind of brain storm, that or he is baiting his old comrades. Clearly Mason relishes his new found role as a ‘blue skies’ thinker for the bourgeoisie, but presumably he cannot resist scandalising the old-fashioned Trotskyites who inhabit the deeper reaches of the Labour Party. As for the rest of his audience. He presumably holds it in such contempt that he does not even expect the most cursory Wikipedia fact-checking exercise.

With the least investigation Mason’s account of the Spanish popular front and popular fronts in general, proves to be entirely bogus. Behind the figurehead of Georgi Dimitrov there stood Joseph Stalin. It was he, Stalin, not Dimitrov, who ‘single-handedly’ manoeuvred the Communist International into supporting popular fronts. Paul Mason does not want to tell this inconvenient truth. His Guardian readers would be repelled. But then there are the unrepentant Straight Lefitsts – Seamus Milne, Steve Howell and Andrew Murray – serving as Jeremy Corbyn’s principle advisors. Maybe they, as good Stalinites, welcome Paul Mason’s conversion to popular frontism. Maybe elevation awaits?

Historically the Communist International (and before it the First and Second Internationals) championed working class independence. In other words the project of socialism as opposed to the project of a reformed capitalism. A united front between working class parties was considered legitimate. This tactic involved presenting reformist socialist and social democratic parties with a package of campaigning demands with a view to advancing the interests of the working class.

Primarily though, this approach was designed to win over the mass of the working class to the Communist Party. The calculation being that the leaders of the socialist and social democratic parties would either fight half heartedly, that or they would prefer unity with the bourgeoisie to the unity of the working class. It should be stressed that Comintern’s tactic involved real parties of the working class. Not miniscule sects such as the SWP, SPEW, the Morning Star’s CPB, etc, etc.

Taking seats in a bourgeois cabinet, supporting one (lesser evil) bourgeois party against another (greater evil) bourgeois party was explicitly ruled out. Needless to say, Stalin definitively broke with that tradition in 1935. Under irresistible pressure from Moscow, the world’s communist parties were instructed to support ‘progressive’ capitalist governments (potential diplomatic allies of the Soviet Union). Naturally, towards that end, all notions of proletarian social revolution had to be put on the back burner.

The ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain encouraged the Labour Party to join with it an anti-fascist popular front alongside an assorted mish mash of soft conservatives, liberals and well meaning pacifists, actors and vicars. The Independent Labour Party and the Socialist League was drawn to that perilous orbit, not least due to the prestige of the Soviet Union and the palpable threat of Hitler fascism. However the Labour Party itself steadfastly resisted: ironically in the name of working class independence.

Likewise it appears to escape Mason’s notice that the Spanish republic was defeated in a civil war. Its partisans were butchered on an industrial scale. As many as 200,000 are thought to have been killed after the war had finally finished. General Franco wanted revenge.

In fact, the political compromises necessitated by the popular front directly, inescapably, contributed to the horrendous defeat. Eg, the ‘official’ communists opposed colonial independence movements. Stalin did not want to upset ‘anti-fascist’ imperial powers. In Spain crucially that meant opposing independence for Morocco, the main base of Franco’s mercenary army. Rather than appeal to the Moroccan masses and win them to the fight against Francoism, the Spanish republican government loyally upheld the constitutional order.

The logic had to be counterrevolutionary. Those seeking, albeit often hamfistedly, to push things forward to a full blown social revolution, were branded enemies of the people, even a Francoist fifth column. Thousands of anarchists and POUM members were tortured and executed. In short, the ‘official’ communists in Spain acted not like Bolsheviks in October 1917, but like the rightwing of the Menshevik Party who joined the February 1917 Provisional Government.

Reaction

A popular front that stops Brexit would undoubtedly unleash a storm of reaction. Chauvinism, xenophobia and imperial nostalgia will not easily surrender. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson, the DUP, Britain First, the Football Lads Alliance can only but be expected to loudly bang the great betrayal drum. Their message well rehearsed. The leave campaign won the June 2016 referendum fair and square. The votes of 17.4 million people have been ignored, treated with contempt. Britain remains shackled to Europe because of a dastardly conspiracy hatched by Brussels bureaucrats, George Soros, Whitehall mandarins, the self-serving political elite, the City, big business, trade union bosses … and their leftwing allies.

Amplification will be provided by The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, The Express and the buzzing swarm of alt right websites and bloggers. One can easily imagine discontent spreading to the army. Note, in 1914 the Tories, Ulster Unionists and the army high command effectively supported the Curragh Mutiny which derailed home rule in Ireland. Army officers staged mass resignations while the Ulster Volunteer Force imported 24,000 rifles.

Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow foreign trade minister, has warned for some time that a second referendum would boost the far-right and could lead to “civil disobedience”.[8] In a similar vein, Andrew Duff, a former Lib Dem MEP, claims that another referendum might “even pitch the country into a revolutionary situation”.[9] Such fears are not entirely groundless.

Could it happen here?

Back in 1935 Sinclair Lewis chose the ironic title It can’t happen here for his bestselling novel. His plotline has a charismatic and madly ambitious American politician, Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, cynically promoting traditional Christian values, winning the trust of the wealthy, denouncing Jews, fuelling hatred for Mexicans and promising impoverished electors instant prosperity. In short, America will be made great again.

Buzz easily defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential race and goes on to establish a horribly autocratic regime: Congress and the Supreme Court are emasculated. “Irresponsible and seditious elements” are physically crushed by the Minute Men, a ruthless paramilitary force, acting under the direct command of the president. Many thousands are interned and many more flee north to Canada.

Could it happen here? Following a script carefully crafted by the master of the dark political arts, the election ‘guru’, Sir Lynton Crosby, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – otherwise known by the mononym ‘Boris’ – skilfully blew the anti-establishment, anti-EU, anti-Muslim dog whistle: “letter box” and “bank robbers” all in the context of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations.

With his narrative of Muslims as other, Brexit betrayal and the magic of post-Brexit free trade, he was bound to win the Tory contest to succeed the hapless Theresa May. He remains hugely popular and not only amongst the “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” who make up the Tory rank and file. According to opinion polls, a Boris Johnson-led Conservative Party that has been thwarted by the Westminster elite over Brexit, would be well placed electorally.

Johnson would promise to restore national honour, freedom and prosperity, a global Britain closely aligned with Donald Trump’s USA. But, in the short term, sacrifices will be needed. And that requires discipline. Law and order.

After all, the EU refuses to play fair; its Labour, Lib Dem and SNP collaborators continue to betray the national interest. Strikes, street protests, uprisings staged by the ‘usual suspects’ – ie, trade unionists, leftwing activists, students, etc – objecting to the roll back of social, workplace and democratic rights. They will be dealt with using the full force of the law. Boris Johnson’s ‘police speech’ on September 5, backdropped as it was by a phalanx of new recruits, comes straight off the pages of Sinclair Lewis. There is more than a whiff of Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Undemocratic

Not that our objection to a second EU referendum is based on short term considerations.

True, the popular support base enjoyed by the Brexiteers has to be won over. It is stupid to dismiss the 51% who voted ‘leave’ in June 2016 as a single reactionary bloc. Equally, in their own way, the same goes for the 49% who voted remain. They do not constitute a single progressive bloc.

No, we Marxists reject referendums as a matter of principle. By their very nature they are undemocratic. Referendums bypass representative institutions and serve, in general, to fool enough of the people, enough of the time. And yet referendums have the great virtue of appearing to be the epitome of democracy. That explains why Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron have all used them.

Complex issues are simplified, drained of nuance, reduced to a crude choice that cuts across class loyalties. Hence, today, one half of the working class are leavers. The other half remainers. Tragic, but not surprising.

Our objections to referendums are long-standing. Marxists opposed the ‘Vote for the crook, not for the fascist’ presidential election in France in 2002. That amounted to a referendum. Before that, Marxists urged an active boycott of Tony Blair’s 1997 referendum in Scotland. Then the 1998 Good Friday referendum in Ireland and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Both offered a bogus choice. An unacceptable past versus an unacceptable future.

Hence, in June 2016, Marxists called for an active boycott. Admittedly our results were very modest – 25,000 spoilt ballot papers. Nonetheless, it is crystal clear nowadays. David Cameron’s objective was not to give power to the people. On the contrary, he calculated on outflanking Ukip, wrong-footing Labour, satisfying his frothing Europhobes … and hanging on as prime minister. No reason, whatsoever, to give him support.

John McDonnell claims he is “inspired” by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci.[10] Well then, let us cite him, on referendums. He writes this in June 1921:

The communists are … on principle opposed to the referendum, since they place the most advanced and active workers, who make the greatest sacrifices, on the same plane as the most lazy, ignorant and idle workers. If one wants direct, individual consultations, then this must take place in assemblies, after an organised debate, and a vote must presuppose knowledge of what is at stake and a sense of responsibility.[11]

The communists are … on principle opposed to the referendum, since they place the most advanced and active workers, who make the greatest sacrifices, on the same plane as the most lazy, ignorant and idle workers. If one wants direct, individual consultations, then this must take place in assemblies, after an organised debate, and a vote must presuppose knowledge of what is at stake and a sense of responsibility.[ii] Well then, let us cite him, on referendums. He writes this in June 1921:

It ought to be emphasised, however, this general principle does not translate into automatically refusing to call for a referendum vote under all circumstances. Nor does it translate into a general principle of always responding to a referendum organised by our enemies with a corresponding call for an active boycott. To vote this way or that way, to set about an active boycott campaign, etc, is always a tactical decision.

Eg, Marxists urged a ‘yes’ vote in Ireland’s May 2015 referendum on gay marriage, the same with Ireland’s May 2018 referendum on abortion. And, in the UK, while being critical of the Liberal Democrat proposal for reforming the parliamentary voting system, Marxists called for a ‘yes’ vote in the May 5 2011 referendum. Despite the glaring inadequacies, our judgment was that, on balance, getting rid of the ‘wasted vote’ syndrome would be a “small gain” and provide better conditions for the left to develop than the first-past-the-post system. Needless to say, we are programmatically committed to a thorough-going proportional representation system, party lists and the right of the party to recall MPs, MEPs, councillors, etc.

The Lib Dems wanted an alternative vote system. Voters would be asked not to opt for a single candidate, but tick candidates off in an order of preference – 1, 2, 3, etc. Faced with an election held under such a system we would advise voting along strict class lines: no vote for petty bourgeois or bourgeois parties. True, calling for a ‘yes’ vote lined Marxists up with the Lib Dems, the Greens, Ukip, Sinn Féin and Plaid Cymru. Labour adopted no official position, while Respect, the SWP, SPEW and the Morning Star’s CPB supported the Tory ‘no’ campaign.

However, our principled opposition to referendums stands. They are not a higher form of democracy than the election of well-tested working class representatives, Marxist politics and extensive public debate. Referendums, on the contrary, tend to divide the working class, weaken its party spirit and produce the strangest of bedfellows.

In terms of our tradition, things unmistakably date back to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The Marx-Engels team knew all about the undemocratic nature of referendums, given the bitter experience of Louis Bonaparte and his ‘self-coup d’état’ in 1851, and then his self-elevation to emperor in 1852 (each autocratic power-grab being legitimised by a referendum). Bonaparte went on to impose press censorship, restrict demonstrations and public meetings, savagely repress political opponents (mainly red republicans) and force thousands into exile – amongst them the celebrated writer, Victor Hugo. Initially a supporter, Hugo furiously denounced Bonaparte’s referendums as a means to “smother men’s minds”.[12] In the same defiant spirit, George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), damned them as “an infamous snare”.[13]

Marx and Engels, along with their co-thinkers, Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, presented their alternative to the post-1871 third republic – in essence a reformed version of Bonapartism – in the minimum section of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Here it is explained that the creation of a workers’ party “must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”. The party will fight for the confiscation of church wealth; remove restrictions on the press, meetings, organisations, etc; and abolish the standing army and replace it with the “general arming of the people”.[14]

The Marx-Engels position opposing referendums became the common sense of the Second International, including both its far left and its far right. Arturo Labriola, the Italian syndicalist, wrote his Contro il referendum in 1897. He castigated referendums as a cruel trick. In 1911 Ramsay MacDonald, Labour leader and future prime minister, came out in similar terms: referendums are “a clumsy and ineffective weapon, which the reaction can always use more effectively than democracy, because it, being the power to say ‘no’, is far more useful to the few than the many”.[15]

The still widely venerated constitutional theorist, AV Dicey, promoted an all-UK referendum in the 1890s as a means to scupper Irish home rule – Ulster Unionists ran with his referendum proposal and demanded that it be integrated into the constitution; in 1910 Stanley Baldwin included the promise of a referendum over tariff reform in the Tory manifesto, and challenged the Liberals do the same with Irish home rule; in 1911 Lord Balfour tabled his ‘people bill’ in the House of Lords, allowing 200 MPs to petition the crown for a referendum and thereby potentially block unwelcome government legislation; in 1913 Lord Curzon floated a referendum as a democratic way to prevent the extension of the franchise to women; and, as the reform bill giving women over 30 the vote was passing through parliament in 1918, 53 peers wrote to The Times urging a referendum.[16]

However, there were those useful idiots on the left who were attracted by the idea of referendums and the right of the people to initiate referendums. Karl Kautsky, the celebrated pope of Marxism, chose Moritz Rittinghausen, a German social democrat, as his main polemical target over the issue.[17]

Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy (1893) was designed to shoot down referenda nostrums and uphold the strategic perspective he outlined in his hugely influential commentary on the Erfurt programme, known in English as The class struggle. Even if referendums could replace existing representative institutions, as extreme ‘against elections’ advocates still want, this would represent, not a step forward for democracy, but a step backward.

Kautsky fields three main arguments.Firstly, Kautsky stresses that there are very few situations where there is a simple binary choice in politics. Eg, even assuming that there is a straightforwardly ‘right thing to do’, it is rarely obvious what the right thing to do is. Very frequently, there is not a choice to be made between option 1 or 2, but options 1 to 7 and within these options, 1 (a) (i), 1 (a) (ii), 1 (b) … and so on and so forth. To reach a decision, then, it is necessary to reduce the range of options. That is, of course, why Kautsky advocates extending representative democracy and the process of debate, motions, detailed votes and binding legislation.

Secondly – and this is no less important – Kautsky wanted to strengthen the system of party politics. In the transition period between capitalism and communism, it is, he said, vital for the broad mass of the population to think about, to organise around and to vote for competing party outlooks. That has the advantage of bringing to the fore class divisions. Referendums, on the other hand, have the disadvantage of blurring, overriding, deflecting, the fundamental conflict in society between class and class, and the respective conflict between party and party: precisely the opposite of what Marxists want to see.

Thirdly, Kautsky stresses the point that Marxists strive – particularly through their emphasis on a working class party – to bring about a situation in which the state is as weak and the people are as strong and organised as possible. He draws a vital distinction between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ as an unorganised mass who do not think about national or global issues in a coherent fashion, and ‘the people’ organised into, or by, a workers’ party. One is to be the perpetual victim of lies, fraud and humbug. The other readies itself as the future ruling class.

Memory loss

The reason why the left has largely forgotten the history of opposing referendums in the name of extending representative democracy surely stems from a number of factors. Above all, though, it must be the general decline in our political culture. A working knowledge of Marxist theory, socialist literature and the history of the revolutionary movement can no longer be taken for granted. There is certainly no common understanding of the necessity of a minimum programme and emphasising the battle to win democracy.

Once there were mass Marxist parties: now we have bottom dwelling confessional sects. They produce little or nothing worthwhile in terms of ideas. True, Labour has some 500,000 members, but while the Labour Party has always had plenty of socialists in its ranks, the Labour Party itself has never been a real socialist party. Disgracefully, we are still lumbered with the managerial guff Tony Blair substituted for the old clause four in 1995. And though, given the chance, LPM delegates to the Brighton conference will vote to restore the old clause four, there should be no forgetting that it is socialist in name only. Agreed in 1918, Sidney Webb’s clause four was socialist in name only. What this gilt-edged Fabian produced was a recipe for a British empire version of state capitalism: colonial peoples would remain nationally oppressed, workers would remain wage slaves.

Sadly, an unacknowledged Fabian socialism survives in the form of Momentum, the Labour Representation Committee, Labour Briefing (Original), Campaign for Labour Democracy, etc. Take the all too frequent claim that a Labour government can deliver full employment, an equal society and an economy that works for all. Impossible, of course, without abolishing the capitalist system.

And, as can be seen with The World Transformed event, there are soppy good intentions, the fostering of illusions, activist training … and turning a blind eye to what is going on. Hence, no place for debating how to combat the on-going witch hunt, the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism lies, how to reverse the backtracking on Trident, how to guard against the dangers of coalitionism, let alone how to transform the Labour Party.

We in the LPM are absolutely clear. Our goal is a Labour Party that, in the words of Keir Hardie, can “organise the working class into a great, independent political power to fight for the coming of socialism”.[18] That quote comes from the time when he was under the influence of Second International Marxists such as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Vladimir Lenin.

We certainly need to campaign for the affiliation of all trade unions, the automatic reselection of MPs, a radical democratisation at every level and a rule change which would once again allow left, communist and revolutionary groups and parties to affiliate – as long as they do not stand against us in elections, this can only but strengthen Labour as a federal party. Nowadays affiliated organisations include the Fabians, Christians on the Left, the Cooperative Party and, problematically, the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Business. We say encourage the SWP, SPEW, the Communist Party of Great Britain, Left Unity, Socialist Appeal, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, etc, to join Labour’s ranks as affiliates

[1].  K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 11 London 1979, p161.

[2].  www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/secret-plans-make-jeremy-corbyn-20065296.

[3].  BBC Radio 4 Today August 19 2019.

[4].  whatukthinks.org/eu/questions/if-a-second-eu-referendum-were-held-today-how-would-you-vote/..

[5].  www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44847404.

[6].  Solidarity September 9 2019.

[7].  www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/02/labour-boris-johnson-progressive-pact-greens-lib-dems.

[8].  BBC Radio 4 Today August 21 2018.

[9].  www.libdemvoice.org/the-dangerous-nonsense-of-the-peoples-vote-58261.html.

[10].

[11].

[12].  G Sand The letters of George Sand Vol 3, New York

[13].  NY 2009, p192.

[14].  www.marxists.org/archive/marx/ works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

[15].  See L Morel and M Qvortrup (eds) The Routledge handbook to referendums and direct democracy Abingdon 2018.

[16].  See V Bogdanor The people and the party system: the referendum and electoral reform in British politics Cambridge 1981, pp9-94.

[17].  See B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014; K Kautsky, ‘Direct legislation by the people and the class struggle’ Weekly Worker March 31 2016.

[18].  Independent Labour Party Report of the 18th annual conference London 1910, p59.

 

Out with the new, in with the old

David Sherriff says that, while it is right to vote for the old Fabian clause, the task of Marxists must be to win the Labour Party to Marxist socialism

Clause four – rewritten under Tony Blair in 1995 – carries a totemic status for partisans both of the right and left. But while it is correct to support the rule change proposed by Rochford, Southend East, Doncaster Central and Wallasey (which would reinstate the old Fabian 1918 clause four), we need to be far bolder, far more radical about our vision for the future.

Strangely the moving spirit behind the restoration of the old clause four is Socialist Appeal, the British section of the International Marxist Tendency. Its Labour4Clause4 campaign has garnered support from the likes of Ken Loach, the leftwing film director and MPs Karen Lee, Dennis Skinner, Ian Mearns, Chris Williamson, Dan Carden and Ronnie Campbell. Alongside them there are like-minded trade union leaders such as Steve Gillan of the POA, Ian Hodson and Ronnie Draper of the bakers’ union, and Mick Cash and Steve Hedley of RMT.

A bit of history

Our February 1918 conference agreed a new constitution. Clause four (objects) committed the Labour Party to these aims (subsequently amended in 1959):

  1. To organise and maintain in parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.
  2. To cooperate with the general council of the Trades Union Congress, or other kindred organisations, in joint political or other action in harmony with the party constitution and standing orders.
  3. To give effect as far as possible to the principles from time to time approved by the party conference.
  4. To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
  5. Generally to promote the political, social and economic emancipation of the people, and more particularly of those who depend directly upon their own exertions by hand or by brain for the means of life.
  6. To cooperate with the labour and socialist organisations in the commonwealth overseas with a view to promoting the purposes of the party, and to take common action for the promotion of a higher standard of social and economic life for the working population of the respective countries.
  7. To cooperate with the labour and socialist organisations in other countries and to support the United Nations and its various agencies and other international organisations for the promotion of peace, the adjustment and settlement of international disputes by conciliation or judicial arbitration, the establishment and defence of human rights, and the improvement of the social and economic standards and conditions of work of the people of the world.

These formulations – crucially the fourth – are too often celebrated as being a defining socialist moment. Yet, when first mooted in November 1917 – amidst the slaughter of inter-imperialist war – Sidney Webb, its principle author, Fabian guru and social climber – had no thought, no wish, no intention of promoting genuine socialism. Parliament, the courts, enlightened civil servants and the liberal intelligentsia provided his road to a reformed British empire. Webb wanted a government of magnanimous experts whose decisions would be no more than ratified in elections: even referendums were ruled out as impeding the will of the educated elite.

Top leaders of the Fabian Society – eg, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Annie Besant, Sydney Olivier, HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw – considered themselves social engineers of the highest order, intellectual princes, prophets of the future. The role of these ever so clever people was to slowly, patiently, courteously persuade the great and the good of the benefits of ‘socialism’ … hence their organisation’s chosen name (taken from Quintus Fabius, the Roman general who avoided pitched battles with Hannibal’s superior Carthaginian army and instead pursued a strategy of attrition).

No surprise, Marxists have long considered Fabianism to be the crassest expression of opportunism. Fredrick Engels showed particular contempt for this “well-meaning gang of eddicated middle class folk.”[1] True, he credited them with enough wit to realise the “inevitability of the social revolution.” But the Fabians could not possibly entrust this “gigantic task to the raw proletariat alone.” Engels concluded that “[f]ear of revolution is their guiding principle.[2]

The real class war was denounced by the Fabian ladies and gentlemen. The underlying social contradiction in society, according to them, was not between labour and capital, but the idle rich and the industrious masses … of all classes. Managers and entrepreneurs provide an invaluable service to society. As long as they honestly paid their taxes, fat profits and fat salaries are fully justified. In other words original Fabianism amounted to nothing more than a form of bourgeois socialism.

The Fabian Society was not only elitist. Their leaders were thorough-going eugenicists too. Friedrich Nietzsche provided a warped inspiration. HG Wells urged the death penalty for those suffering from “genetically transferable diseases”. Defective men, women and children were to be dealt with by the means of a “lethal chamber”.[3]

As for the “swarms of black, and brown, and dirty white and yellow people” who did not match his criteria of intelligence and efficiency: “they will have to go”. It is their “portion to die out and disappear”.[4] With that noble end in mind Shaw demanded that “[e]xtermnation must be put on a scientific basis if it is ever to be carried out humanely and apologetically and well as thoroughly”.[5] Meanwhile, the working class was to be lifted out of their ignorance. The more stubborn sections herded into “human sorting houses” to be trained for work. Those who refused would be packed off to semi-penal detention colonies.

The Fabians were committed pro-imperialists too. According to their Fabianism and empire (1900) tract, Britain needed to get its fair share of the spoils from the division of the world:

The partition of the greater part of the globe among such [great] powers is, as a matter of fact that must be faced, approvingly or deploringly, now only a question of time; and whether England [sic] is to be the centre and nucleus of one of those great powers of the future, or to be cast off by its colonies, ousted from its provinces, and reduced to its old island status, will depend on the ability with which the empire is governed as a whole, and the freedom of its governments and its officials from complicity in private financial interests and from the passions of the newspaper correspondents who describe our enemies as ‘beasts.’[6]

Fabian socialism valued politeness and good manners on all occasions, even in the midst of a voracious imperialist war of conquest. Over the years 1899-1902, as good patriots, the Fabians backed Britain’s war against the Boer republics: the “native races” must be “protected despotically by the empire or abandoned to slavery and extermination.”[7]

The British empire was portrayed as a benevolent bringer of democracy to the white dominions and a saviour of the ‘lower breeds’. The best interests of ‘black, brown and yellow’ peoples lay in being ruled over by young men fresh out from Britain’s public schools. Under their guiding hand they would eventually be led to “adulthood.”[8]

Interestingly, as an aside, the Fabians thought that the South African war demonstrated the “superiority of a militia” system over the professional army.[9] An idea that much of the contemporary left refuses even to contemplate.

Naturally, come the 1914-18 great war, the Fabians did their best to serve the imperial cause. Europe had to be saved from the Junkers and Prussian militarism.

However, as the war dragged on and the corpses piled up, any initial popular enthusiasm turned into discontent. The February 1917 revolution in Russia galvanised the hopes of many. Workers, including those in the munitions industry, took strike action. Demands for a negotiated peace grew and amongst sections of the ruling class there were serious worries that Britain stood on the edge of revolution. Reports came of mutinies in army base camps and the killing of military policemen. June 1917 saw a big labour movement conference in Leeds. Famously delegates called for a national network of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets on the model of Russia. Then came the October Revolution which shook the whole capitalist world to its very foundations. Bourgeois politicians rushed to make concessions. Hence, Sidney Webb and the drafting of clause four.

By cynical calculation he had three goals in mind.

Firstly, his clause four socialism could be used to divert the considerable rank-and-file sympathy that existed for the Russian Revolution into safe, peaceful and exclusively constitutional channels. Not that that stopped prime minister David Lloyd George from declaring, in his closing speech of the 1918 general election campaign, that the “Labour Party is being run by the extreme pacifist Bolshevik group”.[10]

Secondly, by adopting clause four socialism, the Labour Party could both distinguish itself from the exhausted, divided and rapidly declining Liberal Party and please the trade union bureaucracy. Since the 1890s the TUC had been drawing up various wish lists of what ought to be nationalised: eg, rails, mines, electricity, liquor and land. Clause four socialism also usefully went along with the grain of Britain’s wartime experience. There was steadily expanding state intervention in the economy. Nationalisation was, as a result, widely identified with efficiency, modernisation and beating the Austro-German foe. It therefore appealed to technocratically minded elements amongst the middle classes.

Thirdly, clause four socialism had to be implicitly anti-Marxist. Webb well knew the history of the Social Democratic Party in Germany. And, of course, Karl Marx savaged various passages in its Gotha programme (1875), not least those which declared that every worker should receive a “fair distribution of their proceeds of labour” and that “the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society”.[11]

Contradictory and vacuous, seethed Marx. What is fair? What about replacement means of production? What about the expansion of production? What about those unable to work? More than that, Marx explained these and other such woolly formulations as unneeded concessions to the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle. His Workers’ programme (1862) called for “an equal right to the undiminished proceeds of labour”. Obviously Webb wanted to give clause four a distinct Lassallean coloration not out of admiration for Lassalle, but because he wanted to distance the Labour Party from Marxism.

Red ribbon

Almost needless to say, clause four was mainly for show. A red ribbon tied around what was Labourism’s standing programme of social liberalism. In parliament Labour supported Liberal governments and their palliative measures of social reform. Because of its alliance with the Liberal Party, the party even found itself divided over the abolition of the House of Lords and the fight for female suffrage. While a minority – eg, George Lansbury and Keir Hardie – defended the suffragettes and their militant tactics, the majority craved respectability. As Ramsay MacDonald wrote, “The violent methods … are wrong, and in their nature reactionary and anti-social, quite irrespective of vote or no vote.”[12]

Yet, even if it had been put into effect, clause four socialism remains antithetical to working class self-liberation. Capitalism without capitalists does not count amongst our goals. Railways, mines, land, electricity, etc, would pass into the hands of the British empire state.

Capitalist owners might well be bought out – eased into a comfortable retirement. But, as they vacate the field of production, a new class of state-appointed managers and supervisors enters the fray. In terms of the division of labour, they substitute for the capitalists. The mass of the population, meanwhile, remain exploited wage-slaves. They would be subject to same hierarchal chain of command, the same lack of control, the same mind-numbing routine.

Marxism, by contrast, is based on an altogether different perspective. If it is to win its freedom the working class must overthrow the existing state. But – and this is crucial – in so doing the proletariat “abolishes itself as a proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and antagonisms, abolishes also the state as state”.[13]

Capitalist relations of production and the whole bureaucratic state apparatus are swept away. Every sphere of social life sees control exercised from below. All positions of command are elected or chosen by lot and are regularly rotated. Hierarchy is flattened. Alienation is overcome. What is produced and how it is produced radically alters too. Need, not exchange, is the ruling principle. And alone such an association of producers creates the benign conditions which allow for the full development of each and every individual.

Doubtless, the old 1918 clause four resulted from progressive political developments. Opposition to the horrors of World War I and the inspiration provided by the October Revolution have already been mentioned. But there is also the formation of the Socialist International, the world-wide celebration of May Day, the considerable influence of the socialist press, the increased size of trade union membership, the formation of the shop stewards movement and the election of a growing body of Labour MPs. Then there was state intervention and regulation of the economy. Capitalism was widely considered abhorrent, outmoded and doomed. Socialism more and more became the common sense of the organised working class.

By contrast, Fabian socialism meant arguing against unconstitutional methods, slowly expanding the provision of social welfare and persuading all classes of the benefits that would come to the nation, if the commanding heights of the economy were put in state hands. In other words, the Fabians consciously sought to ameliorate the mounting contradictions between labour and capital … and thus put off socialism. Rightly, Lenin denounced Fabianism as the “most consummate expression of opportunism.”[14] And, needless to say, the years 1918-20 witnessed colonial uprisings abroad and a massive strike wave at home.

Revealingly, before 1918, attempts to commit the Labour Party to socialism met with mixed success. The 1900 founding conference rejected the “class war” ultimatum tabled by the Social Democratic Federation.[15] Despite that, conference voted to support the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The next year a socialistic motion moved by Bruce Glasier was defeated. In 1903 another socialistic motion fell, this time without debate. Two years later conference passed a motion with the exact same wording. In 1907 the previous endorsement of socialism was overturned at the prompting of … Bruce Glasier. The same conference agreed to set the goal of “socialising the means of production, distribution and exchange”.[16]

The explanation for the seesawing doubtless lies with electoral calculation. While most in the party leadership considered themselves socialists of a kind, they were mortally afraid of losing out in the polls. What appeared acceptable to likely voters – in other words, the popular press – set their limits. So, instead of fearlessly presenting a bold socialist vision and building support on that basis, Sidney Webb, Arthur Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald and co, chased the vagaries of popularity. With the growth of militancy and radicalism, socialist declarations were considered a sure way of adding to Labour’s ranks in parliament.[17] Forming a government being both a means and an end.

Accept

Nevertheless, the Blairising of clause four in 1995 was hugely symbolic – the ground having been laid by the Eurocommunists and their Marxism Today journal. Socialism was declared dead and buried, the working class a shrinking minority. Only if Labour accepted capitalism and reached out to the middle classes would it have a future. Neil Kinnock, John Smith and finally Tony Blair dragged the party ever further to the right. Out went the commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, out went the commitment to comprehensive education, out went the commitment to full employment, out went the commitment to repeal the Tories’ anti-trade union laws, out went the commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

By sacrificing the old clause four in the full glare of publicity, Blair and his New Labour clique sought to appease the establishment, the City, the Murdoch empire, the global plutocracy. Capitalism would be absolutely safe in their hands. A New Labour government could be relied upon to not even pay lip service to a British version of state capitalism. Leftwingers such as Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone protested, trade union leaders grumbled, but the April 1995 special conference voted by 65% in favour of Blair’s clause four.

Needless to say, his version is stuffed full of managerial guff and classless nonsense. Just what one would expect from the architect of New Labour. After all, one of Blair’s big ideas was to replace ‘socialism’ with ‘social-ism’. Another was communitarianism. But, of course, the media glowed with admiration. Crucially, Rupert Murdoch agreed to unleash his attack dogs. Within a few months John Major was almost universally derided as a total incompetent, heading a sleaze-mired government.

Riding high in the opinion polls Blair inaugurated a series of internal ‘reforms’. Conference was gutted. No longer could it debate issues, vote on policy or embarrass the leadership in front of the media. Instead the whole thing became a rubber-stamping exercise. Then there were the tightly controlled policy forums, focus groups and the staffing of the party machine with eager young careerists (most on temporary contracts). Blair thereby asserted himself over the national executive committee … considerably reducing its effectiveness in the process.

Calls for a return of the old clause four are perfectly understandable. But having done that, we need to persuade members to adopt something far more radical. This is the formulation championed by LPM.

  1. Labour is the federal party of the working class. We strive to bring all trade unions, cooperatives, socialist societies and leftwing groups and parties under our banner. We believe that unity brings strength.
  2. Labour is committed to replacing the rule of capital with the rule of the working class. Socialism introduces a democratically planned economy, ends the ecologically ruinous cycle of production for the sake of production and moves towards a stateless, classless, moneyless society that embodies the principle, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. Alone such benign conditions create the possibility of every individual fully realising their innate potentialities.
  3. Towards that end Labour commits itself to achieving a democratic republic. The standing army, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the state sponsorship of the Church of England must go. We support a single-chamber parliament, proportional representation and annual elections.
  4. Labour seeks to win the active backing of the majority of people and forming a government on this basis.
  5. We shall work with others, in particular in the European Union, in pursuit of the aim of replacing capitalism with working class rule and socialism.

Reclaiming

Real Marxists, not fake Marxists, have never talked of reclaiming Labour. It has never been ours in the sense of being a “political weapon for the workers’ movement”. No, despite the electoral base and trade union affiliations, the Labour Party has been dominated by career politicians and trade union bureaucrats: a distinct social stratum, which in the last analysis serves not the interests of the working class, but the continuation of capitalist exploitation.

Speaking in the context of the need for the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain to affiliate to the Labour Party, Lenin said this:

… whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers, but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat.

Regarded from this – the only correct – point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns [the German social chauvinist murderers of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – JM].[18]

Despite all the subsequent changes, this assessment remains true. Labour is still a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Of course, once Corbyn was formally announced leader of the Labour Party, on September 12 2015, things became more complex. Labour became a chimera. Instead of a twofold contradiction, we have a threefold contradiction. The left dominates both the top and bottom of the party.

Corbyn is not the equivalent of George Lansbury or Michael Foot – an elementary mistake. They were promoted by the labour and trade union bureaucracy after a severe crisis: namely Ramsay MacDonald’s treachery and James Callaghan’s winter of discontent. Corbyn’s leadership is, in the first instance, the result of an historic accident. The ‘morons’ from the Parliamentary Labour Party lent him their nomination. After that, however, Corbyn owes everything to the mass membership.

That gives us the possibility of attacking the rightwing domination of the middle – not least the councillors and Parliamentary Labour Party – from below and above. No wonder the more astute minds of the bourgeois commentariat can be found expressing profound concern over the prospects of Labour being dominated by leftwing socialists, militant trade unions and Marxists.

Not that Jeremy Corbyn is a Marxist. Politically, he is a run-of-the-mill left reformist, albeit a left reformist with an enduring commitment to workers involved in economic struggles, campaigners for democratic rights and liberation movements in the so-called third world. Inevitably, not least given his Straight Leftist advisors, he is more than prone to compromise with the PLP right and trade union bureaucracy. Indeed his strategy amounts to seeking out allies on the soft right, while attempting to neutralise the hard right. He fears going to war against the right. He therefore seeks to hold back rank and file self-activity against the right. The ‘big idea’ is to concentrate on bread and butter issues, ie, ending austerity.

The result can only but be a series of rotten decisions. We have already seen the tacit backing of Jon Lansman’s bonapartist coup in Momentum, the retreat over Trident renewal and the disgraceful silence that reigns over the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt.

In other words, it would be fatal for the leftwing majority at a grassroots level to content itself with playing a support role for Corbyn. No, the left needs to fight for its own aims and its own principles

[1].  K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 48, London 2001, p449.

[2].  K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 50, New York 2004, p83.

[3].  D Stone Breeding superman Liverpool 2002, p115.

[4].  HG Wells Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and scientific thought London 1902, p317. See – https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19229/19229-h/19229-h.htm.

[5].  GB Shaw quoted in J Carey The intellectuals and the masses London 1992, p63.

[6].  https://archive.org/stream/fabianismempirem00shawuoft/fabianismempirem00shawuoft_djvu.txt.

[7].  https://archive.org/stream/fabianismempirem00shawuoft/fabianismempirem00shawuoft_djvu.txt.

[8].  G Foote The Labour Party’s political thought London 1985, p29-30.

[9].  AM McBriar Fabian socialism and English politics: 1884-1918, Cambridge 1962, p130.

[10].  Quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1973, p64n.

[11].  K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p83.

[12].  Socialist Review August 1912 – quoted in R Miliband Parliamentary socialism London 1973, p25n.

[13].  K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p267.

[14].  VI Lenin CW Vol 21 Moscow 1977, p261.

[15].  Though it had two guaranteed seats on the LRC’s leading body, the Social Democratic Federation disaffiliated in August 1901.

[16].  See RT McKenzie British political parties London 1963, pp465-71.

[17].  Labour gained 15 seats in the December 1918 general election, making it the fourth largest party in parliament after Bonar Law’s Tories, Lloyd George’s Coalition Liberals and Sinn Féin. It had a total of 57 MPs.

[18].  VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, pp257-58.

 

Our Europe, their Europe

Marxists are by definition internationalists. Therefore we are opposed to nationalism in all its variants, whether it be the classic Little-England type or the ‘left’ version of socialism in one country (national socialism) – something normally associated with Stalinism.

How does this impact on the Brexit debate? For a very large part of liberal opinion, and the left which tails it – such as Another Europe is Possible -, the actually existing European Union has become an emblem of everything that is progressive – the cherished ideal of anti-racism harmony in marked contrast to the increasingly rancorous nationalism of the UK Independence Party, the European Research Group (headed by the weird retro-Victorian Jacob Rees-Mogg), the desperate Boris Johnson, etc. A social democratic refuge from the onslaught of neo-liberalism and the market.

Does that mean Marxists are enthusiastic about today’s EU or would consider voting ‘remain’ in any possible future referendum? The answer to both these questions is no. In reality, the bloc is committed heart and soul to market values, for all of the flummery about “human dignity”, “tolerance”, “fundamental rights”, and so on. The whole project marches according to the rhythm, requirements and restrictions imposed by capital. Indeed, the EU constitution is a paean of praise for the market and the virtues of competition.

Then remember how the European Commission – in cahoots with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – imposed a regime of savage austerity upon Greece for daring to defy its diktats, driving millions into penury, homelessness and even suicide.

However, it does not follow that Marxists call for the UK to pull out of the EU because it is a “bosses’ club”, or because it is not “socialist” – silly and also a criminal desertion of internationalism. One might just as well suggest pulling the working class out of the “bosses’ club” of Britain. Or is the pound sterling more socialistic than the euro?

Capitalism and the capitalist state, as it historically presents itself in the here and now, is where the socialist project starts – in this case, the EU. The idea that the working class and the fight for socialism would be collectively strengthened if one or two of our national battalions aligned themselves with this or that faction of the bourgeoisie with a view to forcing a Britain, a France, a Spain or an Italy to withdraw from the EU displays a complete lack of seriousness. Disastrously, we would be weakening our forces.

Instead, Marxists argue for a positive programme. A Europe without unelected bureaucrats, technocrats, monarchies, and standing armies. Communists strive for working class unity within, but against, the existing EU – ultimately we want to overthrow it, just like the British state. Winning the battle for democracy in the EU and securing working class rule over this relatively small but strategically vital continent is the best service we can do for our comrades in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia – as opposed to building “Fortress Europe”.

In other words, we are for a republican United States of Europe. Armed with a continental-wide programme, the United Socialist States of Europe can be realised – the “bosses’ club” is replaced by a workers’ club. In turn, such an internationalist perspective directly points to the necessity of organising across the EU at the highest level – crucially a revolutionary Marxist party covering the entire European Union.

No to a second – or any – referendum

Referendums, by their very nature, are undemocratic. At first, this might sound paradoxical or counter-intuitive – you get to vote in an act of ‘direct democracy’, after all. But, whilst referendums have the great virtue of appearing to be the epitome of democracy, the reality is quite the opposite. They bypass representative institutions and serve, in general, to fool enough of the people enough of the time. Often complex issues are simplified, drained of nuance and reduced to a crude choice that cuts across class loyalties. Hence today, thanks to Brexit, one half of the working class is found in the ‘leave’ camp – the other half is with ‘remain’. That is hardly a situation to be celebrated.

There are very few situations where there is a simple binary choice in politics, and that can be illustrated by what followed the referendum. Yes, a relatively small majority voted ‘leave’, but on what terms – hard Brexit, soft Brexit, Brexit-in-name-only? If there had been a ‘remain’ victory, as most people had expected right to the wire, we would have been confronted by the same conundrum – ie, how to interpret the result.

Furthermore, what about the long-term validity of that result? For example, many of those who argue against a second referendum today claim that ‘the people have spoken’ and so their verdict must be regarded as final. But in fact the 2016 poll was itself the ‘second referendum’ on the subject. In 1975 Harold Wilson called one to decide whether Britain should remain in what was then called the ‘European Community’ (or ‘Common Market’), even though it had only joined two years earlier. There was a substantial 67% majority to stay in the EC. Clearly people can change their minds.

The problem is that referendums are totally inadequate compared to representative democracy. The latter is based on the election of well-tested working class representatives, who must be made accountable to those who elected them. Under such a system we should trust those representatives to take the necessary decisions – and ensure that they face the consequences if they embark on a path that is not in our interests. Referendums, on the contrary, tend to divide the working class, weaken its party spirit and produce the strangest of bedfellows. For example, in 2016 committed socialists were urging the same vote as the far right, while others were aligned with the liberal establishment. Now we find Nigel Farage on the same side as George Galloway.

In 1911 Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald called referendums “a clumsy and ineffective weapon, which the reaction can always use more effectively than democracy, because it, being the power to say ‘no’, is far more useful to the few than the many”. Yes, a couple of decades later he completely sold out by agreeing to lead a national government with the Tories, but in 1911 he was totally right.

The Labour Party should be opposed to referendums as a matter of principle.