Signs of desperation
The largest organisations of the far left still cannot get their heads around the Corbyn campaign, laments Paul Demarty
There are many features of the Labour leadership race that make it beautiful to watch.
The most obvious, of course, is simply the outright humiliation possibly (probably?) looming for the rightwing candidates, who, according to the latest YouGov poll, will not even make it to the second round. They remind us of the Australian cricket team: in theory, a tough bunch of heavyweights, but, in practice, skittled out for 60 before lunch. Jeremy Corbyn is making his rivals look like idiots, by bringing into action the large rump of left-leaning people in this country so persistently disdained by Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and their ilk. He has done this more or less by merely existing. So who is ‘out of touch’?
For those of us involved in the cut and thrust on the far left, however, there is the additional spectacle of seeing a lot of nonsensical perspectives put dramatically to the sword. Indeed, though we expect that in the medium term Corbyn’s strong showing will create a political environment more hospitable to the far left than presently exists, there cannot be many left organisations in the country who have not been wrong-footed to some extent or another.
Some have got off more lightly than others. It is true that the core leadership of Left Unity embarrassed itself somewhat by blithely signing up as Labour supporters without making any attempt whatsoever to cover their tracks, and subsequently were outed by The Times as ‘hard-left infiltrators’. Yet at least they were ‘early adopters’, much to the chagrin of other factions - in particular those whose objective is to bring Left Unity into the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
It is the principal forces in Tusc who have been most thoroughly Corbyned, however. The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales have, in different ways, spent the recent period pursuing perspectives that have now been thoroughly demolished by that most remorseless of polemicists, life. There is no shame in that in itself: we all make predictions, and we are all liable to be wrong. The problem is the contortions employed to make it all fit together - the old strategy and the new evidence.
To take the SWP first, it is worth reminding ourselves of the overweening focus of all its activity - encouraging acts of ‘resistance’, by which they mean strikes and demonstrations. It is the experience of directly confronting the bosses, or the government, or the state, outside of electoral politics, that sets in motion the transformation of consciousness needed for socialism.
This almost mystical obsession with ‘action’ leads, inevitably, to a rather crude distinction being drawn between ‘good’ activity (strikes and demonstrations) and activity that, while not ‘bad’, must serve the former sorts of activity in order not to become a dangerous distraction. Principal among these latter dangers is that of electoral intervention.
This peculiarly narrow world view leaves the comrades, alas, unable to deal with mass movements directed very obviously at electoral politics, such as that which has sprung up around Corbyn’s candidacy in the last month or two. We have, first of all, a Socialist Worker piece by national secretary Charlie Kimber “wishing Jeremy well”, but not pledging support. After all, Labour is a dead end - a proposition for which he offers four reasons, the first two being that “its leaders traditionally bow towards the bankers” and its “hold on working class votes” has been declining for decades.
Reason number three should surprise nobody: “struggle is more fundamental than slick political campaigning. People’s views are shaped by experience.” (Apparently, following the course of a political argument does not count as an experience, but whatever.) Finally, Labourites do not realise that “power does not lie in parliament”, and thus the capitalist class can frustrate well-meaning left governments: “They will use global institutions to bully governments, they will engineer currency panics, choke off credit and funds or withdraw investment and close factories. And if none of that works (and it usually does) they will use violence to defend their rule.”
Thus we need a “revolutionary” party, by which comrade Kimber means - wait for it - “a party based on struggle - not elections”. So, while “we hope all Corbyn’s supporters come to the Manchester demonstration at the Tory Party conference in October”, obviously “the future is outside Labour” (July 28).
In this context, some of the more obviously weird arguments in Kimber’s articles make some kind of sense, if you really squint. It may seem peculiar that he simultaneously talks down the significance of the Corbyn campaign, while promising that SWP members in affiliated trade unions will fight to get official nominations for him; but in the topsy-turvy world of the SWP, it is to be expected. A union membership that fights for a leftwing nominee for Labour leader will be more likely to go out and fight in the ‘real struggle’, by striking more often and for longer. Thus support for Corbyn can be advocated when it is entirely instrumental in the cause of something else entirely, but not otherwise.
Of course, the trouble is that it is straightforwardly nonsense. The whole basis of the SWP’s strikes-and-protests fetish is that the latter activities increase people’s confidence to act in their own name and thus their openness to radical politics. Are people more or less confident now that there is a leftwing candidate within a sniff of the leadership of a purely electoral party, comrade Kimber? Does anyone in the SWP really believe that the fight over the Labour leadership is less important than some routine protest in October?
It is hardly the only recent example, moreover. Most pertinently, Syriza opened serious cracks in the Greek austerity consensus, not by endlessly shouting for more and more strikes, but by offering a serious political alternative, in the form of its electoral proposition. The point is not to endorse Syriza’s actions, nor to kid ourselves about what a Corbyn government would mean in practice; merely to point out that, if the whole point is to get people excited, then surely these phenomena (both of which have felt the sharp side of SWP tongues) are just straightforwardly good.
The problem is that any revival of interest in the Labour left is a threat to the SWP, because it has the potential to be permanent - not in the sense of lasting for all time, but for providing a venue for people to work out their politics and conduct activity in the long term. The SWP objects merely to the fact that this venue is other than the SWP. Forget Labour! Join the “revolutionary party”! Build the really important demonstration against problem X at place Y on date Z!
Things are moving quickly, however, and they are dragging the likes of the SWP with them. This week’s Socialist Worker carries an article by Alex Callinicos, wondering “What will happen if Jeremy Corbyn does win?” This is somewhat more upbeat in tone; still, Callinicos points out, drawing on his immense erudition and theoretical intelligence, that Corbyn will be isolated within the Parliamentary Labour Party. “It’s the extra-parliamentary movement that has grown up around him that will remain his source of strength,” he concludes (our emphasis) - a notably strained use of the phrase “extra-parliamentary”, but we fear that this is about as anchored in reality as Callinicos is prepared to get these days (August 11).
Similar problems afflict Tusc’s leading lights, the Socialist Party in England and Wales. When Corbyn first entered the race, SPEW’s sleepy weekly The Socialist said only that he most likely would not get on the ballot paper, and thus “all [his] efforts must turn to building a new mass workers’ party” (June 10). When he scraped on, it was declared that he hadn’t a hope of winning, and so when he lost, “he should draw the obvious conclusion and break from historically obsolete Labour and help to found a new mass force” (June 19). Notice the pattern?
Six weeks later, much has happened - notably, SPEW has been dragged into the spotlight by the bourgeois press, desperate to pin the blame for Corbyn’s success on ‘infiltrators’. And if we’re making up stories about ‘infiltration’, who better to blame than the artists formerly known as the Militant Tendency? Having been thus forced to take a side in a less passive-aggressive way, SPEW comment has become slightly more favourable.
There remains a problem, however. The comrades should have no issue welcoming the level of support Corbyn is receiving - and, indeed, they do welcome it. Yet this is an organisation that has based itself for almost a quarter-century on the idea that Labour is a spent force for the working class, that the pro-capitalist right has definitely seized control and all intervention in it is futile. On that basis, as we have seen, they expected little from Corbyn’s campaign initially; indeed, on that basis, the campaign that has taken place simply should not be possible.
The author of an editorial in The Socialist - presumably taking dictation from leaders Peter Taaffe, Hannah Sell, Clive Heemskerk and co - solves this riddle ingeniously, by declaring that Corbyn’s victory would “inevitably” provoke an immediate and final showdown with the right, and thus “would mean, in effect, the formation of a new party”. The Labour Party suddenly ceased to be a workers’ party in 1990 or so, when Militant was finally purged; it will just as suddenly spring back into existence should Corbyn prevail. Thus, by a momentous act of Sorelian revolutionary will, do comrades Taaffe, Sell, etc reshape the post-cold war history of Britain around their little theories!
Seriously now, comrades. It is one thing to get a political perspective disastrously wrong. It is quite another to desperately buttress that perspective with successively more asinine sophistries even after life has proven it definitively to be false. Taaffe and his lieutenants are an embarrassment to the mostly diligent and hard-working comrades they mislead - if they had even the slender sense of honour obtaining among bourgeois politicians, they would resign immediately. Frankly, they would backdate their resignations by at least five years.
I suppose, however, that would be to ask for one miracle too many.