Nuclear buttons and dark mutterings
Team Corbyn’s gradualist approach cannot work, warns Eddie Ford
He may only have been leader for a few weeks, but Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy is quite clear - maintain party unity up to the 2020 general election by having a continuous ‘dialogue’ over controversial issues (Nato, European Union, Syria, etc). In other words, talk the language of peace and conciliate with the right in the hope that civil war can be averted.
Unfortunately for comrade Corbyn, the Blairite right have not become peaceniks. Rather, it seems, they are following the advice of Lord Mandelson to “hold fire” and prepare for the “long haul”. That is, wait until Corbyn fails at next year’s local and mayoral elections before striking against his leadership.1 Already there has been a whole series of compromises and retreats - like over Trident, for instance. Thanks to the extraordinarily sectionalist (what about our jobs?) and frankly pro-imperialist positioning of unions like the GMB, working in cahoots with the overwhelming anti-Corbyn Parliamentary Labour Party, the anticipated debate over Trident was kept off the agenda - just 0.16% of trade union delegates and 7.1% of constituency delegates voted in favour of discussing the issue. Indeed, conference on September 28 voted unanimously for the ‘Britain in the world’ policy report, which included a paragraph committing Labour to supporting a “continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent” - ie, Trident renewal by any other name. Overjoyed, the neo-Blairite group, Labour First, sent a crowing email to supporters saying: “If the rules are applied properly, this issue should not be considered by conference again until three years have elapsed!”2
Nevertheless, Corbyn’s remark on the BBC, that he would never press the nuclear button if he was prime minister, has caused hackles to rise. Maria Eagle, shadow defence minister, haughtily dismissed what he said as “unhelpful”. Meanwhile, other rightwing shadow cabinet ministers were talking privately about resignations - Corbyn’s stance will make Labour unelectable in 2020. Certainly the top brass in the armed forces will find such an idea completely unacceptable. There has already been dark mutterings of a coup or a state of emergency if a Corbyn-led Labour Party gained a parliamentary majority.
Trying to show that a Labour government would not be economically irresponsible, John McDonnell told us that “another world is possible” - although he will be sticking to the Tory government’s fiscal charter that absurdly makes it a legal requirement to ‘balance the books’ over the ‘business cycle’. In the words of comrade McDonnell, Labour will always ensure that the country “lives within its means” - like Gordon Brown, he will be prudent. But in contrast to the Tories, he added, Labour will not “tackle the deficit” on the “backs of middle and low earners and especially by attacking the poorest in our society” - by imposing austerity. Doing things differently, Labour will “strategically invest in the key industries and sectors” that will deliver the “sustainable, long-term economic growth” this country needs - which requires ending the tax cuts for the rich and addressing the scourge of tax evasion and avoidance.
Obviously, this is a an attempt to avoid the Tory charge of being “deficit deniers” - that the Labour government allowed deficits to run out of control and thus caused the economic crisis. But this accusation is total nonsense. The facts speak otherwise. When in government, Labour generally ran lower budget deficits than the Conservatives. Anyway, as many a Keynesian will point out, what is so wrong with the government running up a budget deficit? It might even be beneficial. By using such language, comrade McDonnell is conceding ground to the Tory narrative (and not even being consistent in his Keynesianism).
Nor should we forget the ongoing farce of whether Corbyn will kneel before the queen in order to join the privy council or sing the damned national anthem at official events. The comrade claims to be a republican. In which case, he should militantly refuse to do anything of the sort: indeed, he should openly demand the abolition of the privy council - together with the entire constitutional-monarchical system.
In some respects, the approach adopted by team Corbyn is reminiscent of the old British road to socialism peddled by the leadership of the liquidated ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain.
The BRS was essentially predicated on the idea that the ‘socialist camp’ and those countries aligned to it (Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc) was becoming inexorably bigger and stronger, whilst US imperialism was on the defensive. That allowed the labour movement in the west - inside and outside of parliament - more space to push for progressive change. This would have the effect, BRS theory went, of relentlessly moving the Labour Party further and further to the left, as it filled up with increasing numbers from the Tribune group and suchlike. In turn, almost like clockwork, there would be a Labour government committed to a (Keynesian) Alternative Economic Strategy that would be forced further and further to the left, and perhaps be strengthened by the appointment of senior Communist Party members as ministers. Eventually, this Labour-communist government would legislate in … socialism.
Of course, with the disappearance of the ‘socialist camp’, logically the ‘official communists’, and Labour lefts who followed their lead, ought to have recognised that the BRS is now dead (not that it was ever a realistic strategy, of course). But, alas, the gradualism has remained: if you tilt things a little bit to the left, then you can tilt them a little bit more the next time - and so on almost indefinitely. At some ineffable and imponderable point, capitalism would become socialism.
Nevertheless, the BRS was based on a fundamental illusion, as proved by the record of every Labour government there has ever been - including the 1945 Attlee administration. Yes, it may have produced the NHS and the welfare state, but the bourgeoisie as a whole was committed to that programme. True, wages more than doubled, but that was to a large extent due to the role of the unions, and particularly militant shop stewards, in winning concession after concession from the bosses. In reality, Attlee tried to force pay restraint on the working class. Furthermore, his government conducted a whole series of vicious colonial wars and secretly built the atom bomb - which was concealed even from ministers. Or go back further to the very first Labour governments, which likewise attacked the working class abroad and at home - ditto for the Wilson and Callaghan governments, which saw a massive explosion of discontent against the ‘social con trick’ and proposed anti-union laws.
The plain fact of the matter is that if Corbyn became prime minister with a view to managing capitalism, he would be forced by the system’s own logic to attack the working class. Capitalism, is, after all, based on exploitation and the necessity of realising an average profit. As a consequence, Labour’s voting base would become demoralised: its supporters would either switch to another party or stop voting altogether. Totally contrary to BRS expectations, what results is not ever lefter governments, but rather Tory ones. Communists cannot envisage Corbyn breaking that dreary cycle.
Which does not mean, it goes without saying, that we think the election of Corbyn as leader represents business as usual - quite the opposite: it is hugely significant. For the first time ever, Labour has elected an explicitly leftwing leader against the wishes of the party’s establishment due to a massive wave of new and returning supporters. Comrade Corbyn is no shoo-in of the party’s grandees, unlike Michael Foot or George Lansbury. But at the same time we have absolutely no illusions in the Corbynite strategy of gradualism, party unity, dialogue, piecemeal reforms, etc. It has never worked before and will not work this time round.
As for the new leader’s conference speech, it was a predictable mixture of the good and bad - though the overall direction was towards gradualism and conciliationism. Or, as comrade Corbyn put it later, he was “setting out some general philosophical ideas” rather than policy details.3 No arguments there.
Hence underneath the podium banner proclaiming “straight talking, honest politics”, he heaped emollient praise on his defeated leadership rivals, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham. He also singled out his predecessor, Ed Miliband, for his “courage and dignity”. Rather cringingly, Harriet Harman too was glorified for her “courage and determination” in fighting for equality and the rights of women - the Equality Act being “one of many testaments to her huge achievements”, it transpires.
Uncomfortably, we had to sit through a steady drizzle of vacuous phrases about a “caring society” and “kinder, more inclusive” politics based upon a sense of “fair play for all”, which for the comrade are “shared majority British values”. That is the “fundamental reason”, he said, “why I love this country and its people” - maybe not quite the flag-waving, ringing patriotic endorsement some in the press were looking for. Naturally, Corbyn wants a new, “modern left movement” which can be harnessed to “build a society for the majority”, to challenge inequality and austerity, to “protect our workers” and to put “people’s interests before profit”. There was also a near compulsory eulogy to the “wonderful Scotsman” and pacifist, Keir Hardie - who marked the last time Labour had a bearded leader, quipped Corbyn.
On international politics as well, there was a goulash of the generally progressive and the really bad. So there was a condemnation of the Iraq war (though no apology - the comrade legalistically arguing that it did not “help our national security when we went to war with Iraq in defiance of the United Nations and on a false prospectus”). No mention of the fact, regrettably, that the UN is a den of thieves - using VI Lenin’s description of its precursor, the League of Nations. In fact, Corbyn believes in “working with and strengthening” the UN - not to mention “supporting the authority of international law and international institutions”, as opposed to “acting against them”. Of course, in reality, ‘international law’ is an instrument of bourgeois rule - not an “authority” we respect or value. Inevitably, though slightly depressingly, Corbyn called for a “strong, modern military and security forces to keep us safe” - which is why he has asked Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, to “lead a debate and review” about how “we deliver that strong, modern, effective protection for the people of Britain”.
As a lifelong member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, comrade Corbyn wanted the UK to take a “lead in making progress on international nuclear disarmament” and “honour our obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty”. He took a sideswipe at Guantanamo Bay and condemned the traditionally “fawning and uncritical support” to regimes like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - which “abuse their own citizens and repress democratic rights”. The comrade also directly challenged Cameron to intervene “personally” over Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Shia activist who faces beheading and crucifixion in Saudi Arabia for allegedly taking part in an anti-government protest when aged 17.
Unlike his predecessors, Corbyn did not genuflect before big business or ‘wealth creators’, but made statements in favour of small business and individual “entrepreneurs” struggling to get by - the Tory government is “clobbering” them with tax credit cuts and universal credit. Instead, suggested Corbyn, he would consider “opening up” statutory maternity and paternity pay to the self-employed, so that “all new-born children can get the same level of care from their parents”. Other schemes, or promises, included a plan to make every school accountable to local education authorities (effectively ending free schools and academies, as currently structured); an active building programme for 100,000 new council and housing association homes a year; and bringing private rail franchises into public ownership, as they expire.
Perhaps the most interesting comments came at the end of the speech, when Corbyn spoke of the contrast “since the dawn of history” between “some people who are given a great deal and many more people who are given little or nothing” - the people who have “property and power, class and capital, status and clout, which are denied to the many”. Time and time again, the comrade continued, these people tell the many to be “grateful to be given anything at all” and say the “world cannot be changed”. These days, the comrade went on, this attitude is “justified by economic theory” - we are living in a global economy whose “terms cannot be changed”, and so those at the bottom are supposed to “accept the place assigned to them by competitive markets”. However, declared Corbyn, “you don’t have to accept prejudice and discrimination, or sickness or poverty, or destruction and war” - neither do you “have to be grateful to survive in a world made by others”. That has “always been our Labour Party’s message” - namely, “you don’t have to take what you’re given.”
As it happens, sections of this passage had been written several years ago by the author and former political advisor, Richard Heller - who had sent it to Ed Miliband in 2011, and had offered versions of it to every leader since Neil Kinnock.4 Unsurprisingly, they declined to use it. Ever generous, Heller was “delighted” that the passage had been used and that Corbyn “appreciates great rhetoric” - adding that the Labour leader is welcome to “call on me for other uplifting and memorable tropes”. We shall wait and see.
Actually, Corbyn/Heller’s “dawn of history” comments are plain wrong from an anthropological point of view - just read Engels, for example. It seems overwhelmingly likely that for over 90% of the time in which humans have inhabited the planet their societies were those of ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ communism (ur-communism). Meaning that class and class distinctions are not natural, but recent - therefore can be abolished. At least, this is what you would expect to hear from someone who has expressed their “admiration” for Karl Marx.