What will revive the left in Britain?

December 14, 2017

The discussion continues at SocialistWorker.org over Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his impact, actual and potential, on the fortunes of the left. Colin Wilson's article "Is business warming to Jeremy Corbyn" was followed by a Readers' View response by Barnaby Raine titled "If not Corbyn, then what?" and then three more comments in compiled View headlined "Reform, revolution and Jeremy Corbyn." Below are more contributions to the discussion.

Barnaby Raine

An unfortunate contrast between "struggle" and "the electoral arena" defines some of the responses to my article--unfortunate because my argument was that in Britain at this moment (notwithstanding mentions of Greece and Egypt in some replies), electoral politics is the likeliest spur for heightened class consciousness and struggle.

Witness events in Haringey for instance, where opposition to gentrification has seen residents flood Labour meetings, successfully depose the offending local Labour politicians and replace them with socialists. An attempt at social cleansing might now be halted in its tracks by a surge of grassroots organizing tied to a party form. Corbyn's economic strategy, I argued, offers some small hope of rejuvenating class politics on a bigger, national scale. Counterposing reformism to mass mobilization and class antagonism misses this connection entirely.

The desire for "self-organized" battles "from below" is laudable as an aid to reforming ambitions, but there is nothing intrinsically revolutionary or anti-reformist about it. Frequently, their participants have not seen such struggles through the same lenses as Leninist observers, and it is not always clear that Leninists had the better lenses.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

None of the examples Colin Wilson gives in his comment in response to me (see "Reform, revolution and Jeremy Corbyn") are cases of revolutionary socialist mass movements, still less successful ones, and three (in Eastern Europe, the MENA region and South Africa) sought insurrection only because reform was aggressively closed off as a political possibility by repressive power. His other examples are street movements born in hostile reaction to the inadequacies of mainstream electoral parties. We make politics not in conditions of our own choosing, and in Britain now, it is Labour that breeds mass politics, rather than closing it down.

This is not to share in a view that all the best politics happens on the streets. Often, mass movements end miserably. Venerating them above all else speaks to an implicit image of real victory as a moment of insurrection, parties in city squares, all the wine stolen from the Tsar's wine cellar: my argument is that we lack any clear map today for translating that dream into a political strategy.

I do not know how capitalism might realistically be overcome. I don't think any of us knows, though some claim greater predictive powers than I do in this regard. Right now in Britain, there may be road maps other than just demonstrations and strikes that offer resources for hope.

Jen Roesch (see "Reform, revolution and Jeremy Corbyn") associates Rosa Luxemburg's world far too closely with ours when she depicts Reform or Revolution as demonstrative of a steadfast commitment to a distant, vague revolutionary possibility. In fact, Luxemburg thought capitalism was close to collapse, hurtling towards an imperial catastrophe where only revolution could pull an emergency brake to save the human race--this is the view underscored theoretically in The Accumulation of Capital--and, like Lenin after 1905, she saw around her plenty of instruments of proletarian power that could birth a new order.

We face different times. In navigating them, we would do well to remember Lenin's warning: "Whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is."

One last point: I am glad to have encouraged a debate I consider urgently necessary among socialists. Of all the many things I admire in the particular corner of Trotskyism that politicized me, the International Socialist tradition, one is its history of vigorous, sharp, sometimes blunt debates conducted at a high intellectual level.

My motivation, including in querying some of the central tenets of that tradition, has been to work towards a better understanding of what socialist advance might mean in our contemporary world. I hope others do not share Jen's sense that my criticisms have been "sectarian."

Dave Renton

WHILE, FOR those of us who have been in left organizations, it's useful to start there, in the grand scheme of things, it's the just wrong way around to expect the tiny revolutionary left to justify itself.

It's the Labour Party that does and will have the opportunity to shape millions of people's lives. If Barnaby is right, and the present Labour Party leadership does have a strategy to enable it to govern differently from the Labour Party of the past, then the starting point should be: Will it succeed? If it will, then we don't even need to consider the virtues or failings of the far left, since we won't even possibly have any justification for continuing on. Every effort should be made towards helping that project.

As it happens, I read Barnaby's piece while in the middle of doing detailed research in the National Archives about particular aspects of the last Labour government. By which I mean 1974-79, of course! ;-) I was looking at the record of the Home Office. Here in front of my eyes were examples of Old Labour ministers, working closely with some of the most right-wing and violent parts of the state, while you could trace--on a decision by decision basis--the ways in which they were covering their tracks, lying about themselves and their role, and making it look like other people were to blame.

To say that Labour ministers were making people's lives worse is not to invent a mass trade union alternative that could have replaced them (in 1974-79, the unions were in a very rapid retreat...all the Lucas plans and so on were moves to rebadge that weakness); it's to stare reality in its face. When a Labour Home Secretary meets with senior police officers, that Home Secretary only has a certain amount of power, and it's a persuasive power at its best, even if they really intend to be better than those that went before.

It's in that context that I evaluate Corbynism: Does it have a policy for treating the state differently, and therefore for breaking from Labour's uninspiring record in office?

Yes, Corbynism has opportunities. Brexit is the most interesting one--in fairness to Colin, I believe Barnaby misread his piece, which was pointing out how Brexit has tended to reduce the antagonism between Labour and the city. The piece was not about maintaining some orthodoxy, but about how politics does not always follow "the script."

Then, of course, there is the antagonism between voters under 40 and neoliberalism. That, too, will help Corbyn be elected and seem new. Although the other side of this is the willingness of over-40 voters to switch to the Conservatives (look at the result in Mansfield...)

But what Corbynism doesn't have is any sort of coherence. See Brexit--the most importance political issue of the day--where even now, Labour ministers are making up policy day by day, disagreeing with each other without even seeming to notice that they are, and inventing the policy anew for each interview they do. You can get away with this when dealing with our debased press (and when the polling figures are up). Where you can't do it is in a real negotiation situation, as the Tories are now finding out, to their cost. It means you lose. And for a left Labour in office, every day is a negotiation.

In the place where you do get coherence, the true picture is sometimes a little better than the politics of the 1970s (for example, employment policy and housing, issues where the movements have helped) and at quite a few points worse (for example, foreign policy, where the relationship between Corbyn and the left has been absolutely toxic, over Iran, Syria, Russia...).

All of these problems are tolerable in opposition where failure is without consequence, and it's open to people to project onto the Labour Party their hopes. In power, they will be exposed. If I had to summarize this in a sentence, it's this: While Barnaby is right to say that Corbyn will have an effect in spurring and protecting new struggles in future, his party will also have a demobilizing effect--and since the struggles are already at such a low ebb, that part of the story can't just be ignored.
Adapted from Facebook

Bill Crane

GREAT BRITAIN seems these days to be the home of the highest hopes, at least in the developed world if not the world generally, for a radical break with austerity and neoliberal capitalism. Jeremy Corbyn's rise reminds us that the current wave of right-wing populists and racists now governing in the U.S. and many countries can be driven back.

What's even more important in my view is that Corbyn demonstrates how the right is defeated--not with squishy centrism of the Clintons or the radical, vaguely left populism of Podemos in the Spanish state--but with a strong, uncompromising commitment to socialist politics and their anti-war, anti-racist and anti-austerity corollaries.

I lived in Britain for three years before returning to the U.S. last summer. This now seems poorly timed as I left Britain too soon see many of the effects of what is now a genuine left-wing challenge for power there, but I arrived in the U.S. with plenty of time to see the foreclosure of any radical hope during the Democratic primaries, the hideous campaign season and then, of course, the election of Trump.

It's for this reason that I've followed online debates on the nature of the Labour Party and the Corbyn phenomenon among British revolutionaries with much interest. I was thus quite pleased to see a discussion emerging from Colin Wilson's rs21 article, reposted by SocialistWorker.org as "Is business warming to Jeremy Corbyn?" and to which Barnaby Raine made an important and provocative response ("If not Corbyn, then what?"). For reasons I'll get to, this discussion has serious implications for the future of the left and revolutionary politics, not only in the UK, but here in the United States as well.

For me, there are three questions to be answered in relation to the Corbyn phenomenon and our strategy towards it:

1. Is Corbyn's political project a conventional social-democratic one?

2. Can the Labour Party serve as a vehicle for the renewal of the radical left?

3. Should revolutionaries become Labour Party members and activists?

Each of these has a tension with and relative independence from each other, which should be the basis of a socialist inquiry into the prospects of Corbynism. Assessing whether Corbyn is a social democrat does not tell us the character of the Labour Party more generally. And regardless of whether a renewal of the left is happening inside Labour, there are some good reasons why, despite this, we may want to remain outside it.

In regards to the first, Barnaby disputes that Corbyn's Labour policies represent social democracy in the way Marxists have thought of it. He writes:

The grandest spending in Labour's 2017 manifesto was reserved for McDonnell's National and Regional Investment Banks, the pinnacle of a vast project to rebuild something like the Fordist worker-consumer of old...Labour's commitments to environmentalism and to post-work politics in the face of automation, beyond previous full employment utopias. The futurist, like the technocratic side of McDonnell's politics, is frequently ignored.

Reformism that does actually reform would be a welcome break with the recent past. But Labour's proposals in opposition won't automatically translate to concrete policies once they are in government. In this regard, Colin is quite correct.

The potential of social democracy to carry out meaningful reform during the current period of neoliberal crisis is, at best, untested. In Britain, as in most other countries of the developed world, neoliberal reforms have been made permanent and economic power taken out of potential control by even the deeply mediated and compromised form of democracy represented in the British Parliament.

Neil Davidson has aptly referred to the miserableist analysis of social democracy coming from the left as "conjugating the verb 'to betray.'" They have betrayed, they are betraying, they will betray. But the idea of inevitable reformist betrayal is not sustained by history or an assessment of its current potential. Although rare, the 20th century did show examples of a radical reformist government based in and pushed forward by mass movements--the French and Spanish Popular Fronts, and many of the left-wing populist governments in Latin America.

However, neither knowing the character of Labour's strategy nor the obstacles that are presented to it answer the two other questions I posed. Determining answers to these gets us closer to a revolutionary strategy towards Corbyn's Labour.

Barnaby argues that success of Corbyn-McDonnell strategy will be decisive if there is to be any kind of future for the left or working-class politics. This is surely what he means when he says that Corbin's policy of full employment can "re-create...that collective political agent a proletariat für sich [for itself]."

For people who see the emancipation of the working class as the act of the working class, this is an extraordinary claim--essentially that legislation plays an equal if not greater role than the decades or centuries-long fight to make this class conscious of its historical mission, as well as fit to rule.

The fact that the claim is extraordinary does not mean that it is incorrect. But it does require more than the usual justification. Barnaby has not done the work to answer the significant objections to it.

Barnaby argues the reconstitution of the left in Labour is of such significance that socialists must not be left out of. But I think there are at least several other spheres where socialists could make an intervention, one perhaps more decisive than we could in Labour, which already has a strong bureaucracy noted for its intolerance towards independent revolutionary groups.

Clearly thousands of people, many of them young and eager to push socialist politics forward, have signed party cards, and this is a key audience we should be relating to. But there may be just as many who have joined the party and have no intention of getting active in it. On the flip side, some of the same constituency voted for Labour and even campaigned for it enthusiastically, but don't want to be party members.

Even if it is granted without qualification that Labour is the most significant site of left renewal currently, there are conceivable reasons why a revolutionary may choose to stay out.

For instance, with exit from the EU looming, perhaps the key task of the day is to defend freedom of movement and residence for continental Europeans living in Britain. Migrants cannot join the Labour Party; membership is restricted to British citizens. Membership may not help an activist for free movement whose main allies are migrants themselves.

To me, the question isn't why not join the Labour Party, which is implied by Barnaby's question "what else?" but the reverse: Why? What is actually there?

Most revolutionaries who have joined Labour signed up as as individuals. The temptation to join is understandable. If you canvassed for Labour, it is a short step to membership. If you have close comrades, friends or family who have joined, it often seems like you should be with them.

Perhaps most importantly, given the crisis of major revolutionary organizations in the recent past and the long time many socialists have spent in the political wilderness since then can engender a strong and completely justifiable desire to be part of something big, exciting and relatively new, all criteria that are met by Corbyn's Labour.

The decision of whether to join the Labour Party, for individuals and organizations, should be based on these tactical considerations such as how many people we can reach, how can we draw them into social movements outside the formal framework of the party and win them to a vision of socialist politics with a horizon beyond parliament, how we can intervene in the simmering confrontation between Corbyn's followers and the right wing of the party.

Jeremy Corbyn, at least in the past, has insisted that transforming his program from nice-sounding words to government policy will depend on the strength of social movements outside parliament. The old Eurocommunist slogan was "one foot in parliament, a thousand in the streets," which seemed to split the difference between resisting and governing, revolutionary strategy and reformism.

If these claims are taken at face value, then revolutionaries within the Labour Party should be trying to broaden the political horizons of rank and file Corbynists beyond the constituency parties, canvassing and the voting booth. Instead, the opposite process seems to be happening, in which one-time revolutionaries begin to limit their horizons to these.

As Corbyn and McDonnell seek compromises that allow them to present themselves as a government in waiting, comrades in Labour have followed them by moving to the right on some of the most important issues for socialists in Britain today: defense of European freedom of movement, renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine program and Palestinian liberation.

Many Labour leftists in Unite, the largest British union, opposed rank-and-file socialist Ian Allinson's campaign for union secretary out of fear that it could endanger Len McCluskey, the current secretary of Unite and a key Corbyn ally.

A revolutionary member of a reformist party would face these pressures under any other circumstances. The best protection would be a tightly organized revolutionary formation with set goals and a strategy for achieving them.

Revolutionaries can only approach the Labour Party question if we have such an organization--a group that can centralize intellectual and activist experience, win new people to Marxism and begin to think through the nature of the current period and its prospects for the left. This is the key precondition for joint work with the radicalizing constituency, whether inside or outside Labour, which can move the political center of gravity further left.

No such organization exists in Britain today, nor is one being built. This is deeply unfortunate, as Corbyn represents the best opportunity to revive mass socialist politics in more than a generation. The reasons why this is not happening are complex. But for as long as it is avoided, the steady drain of revolutionary activists into Labour will continue, and if it has any impact, it will be a conservative one.

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