I found the two articles on Corbyn and the Labour Party in last week’s Weekly Worker to be curiously lacklustre and essentially passive in the their analysis and direction - and in stark contrast to the more hard-hitting and motivational articles on the same subjects the previous week.
Eddie Ford is surely completely wrong to say the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership strategy is “maintain party unity up to the 2020 general election by having a continuous ‘dialogue’ over controversial issues ... and conciliate with the right in the hope civil war can be averted” (‘Nuclear buttons and dark mutterings’, October 1).
Well, seeking party unity and allowing a full and open democratic debate are surely signs of strong and mature political leadership, but Corbyn has also made very clear this is not open-ended: the expectation is the party membership will ultimately take decisions on all these matters, sooner rather than later, and all MPs and especially shadow cabinet members will then be expected to fight for them.
Many commentators have noted that delegates to this year’s conference were largely elected before the Corbyn surge and landslide, so this was essentially a pre-Corbyn conference (a bit like the constituent assembly elected on pre-October 1917 election lists?).
Most MPs did not vote for Corbyn (although a number of these are showing some greater fire in their bellies and seem to be responding to the new mood in the party), so a degree of caution by Corbyn and McDonnell was clearly required just two weeks after the extraordinary election result and the effective complete transformation and expansion of the Labour Party membership base.
Tim Keene (of Labour Party Marxists) is equally passive and fatalistic, concluding “a sword of Damocles is hanging over Corbyn’s leadership”. He gives the strong impression that the new leadership (and renewed party membership) is fearful and trembling and just waiting for the vengeful right to strike and remove Corbyn and the left (‘Both sides are still unsure’, October 1).
Where is the dynamic, the dialectic, the analysis of the contradictions? Where is the sense of optimism, achievement and progress (tempered with realism, of course), given the extraordinary transformation achieved by Corbyn and the left in just a few weeks and months?
Neither Eddie or Tim offer any analysis or explanation of this extraordinary turnaround, and therefore seem almost to regard it as a random chance occurrence, which is very likely to be reversed, and which doesn’t really change our attitude and approach to the Labour Party.
Peter Manson’s article the previous week was much more accurate in characterising the new situation in the Labour Party as of “three levels of contradiction - the left is in the ascendancy at the top and amongst the mass of members and supporters, while in between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the apparatus are dominated by the right” (‘Pursuing our strategy’, September 24).
It seems really clear Corbyn is now emphasising the primacy of the party membership in determining policy and leadership and direction, as expressed by the democratically elected annual Labour Party conference. This was briefly the case at the height of the previous left (Bennite) ascendancy between 1980 and 1983, and is surely how a democratic, working class party should operate and function.
Similar measures of democratisation advocated in 1979 are also required today to ensure the PLP reflects the will of the party membership and conference, such as mandatory reselection of Labour candidates before each council or parliamentary election, and the elected national executive committee to have the right to determine the Party’s election manifesto, based on policies discussed and agreed by conference.
The former will obviously take time to be proposed and implemented and for it to start to have an effect in narrowing the current gap between the PLP and the membership, and to avoid unnecessary splits, breakaways or defections. No-one wants or expects a bloodbath or a purge, but the beneficial impacts of greater and regular accountability of elected representatives to the party base will surely be increasingly seen over time, and will itself further invigorate and expand the membership base.
In a modern world of ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ it is surely not too much to ask that candidates for elected office should face a competitive reselection exercise to ensure they continue to have the support of the party members they represent and they are still the best person for the job.
Eddie’s crass and cack-handed attempt to ‘have a go’ at the Communist Party and the British road to socialism also falls flat on its face and just smacks of sectarianism. No version of the BRS has ever contained the fantasy dream-world schema described by Eddie. Most editions I have read and remember do call for the election of a Labour government and on the basis of policies which are genuinely in the interests of working people and their families, and which therefore of necessity have to make inroads into the wealth and power of the capitalist class.
They see the struggle to win the Labour Party to such positions, the struggles to pressure a Labour government to implement such policies and to go further, as the case and need arise, and to simultaneously undertake deep political, constitutional and structural reforms, including of the state apparatus, to anticipate and help nullify ‘unconstitutional’ capitalist class and state obstruction of a progressive government, as central to the development of advanced and then revolutionary consciousness by the working class and labour movement.
Ultimately, of course, it is the working class movement - conscious, organised, disciplined and prepared - which will remove state power from the hands of the capitalist class, and will use the new democratic and working class state power to effect the transition to socialism.
If Eddie was trying to make a point (I don’t think he was) that at some points in its BRS history the CP did not sufficiently make the ‘basic case’ for socialism as a system of society to replace capitalism, alongside the advocacy of more immediate demands and reforms, with some arguing it was ‘sectarian’ to raise the need for socialism, then I might agree with that.
But in more recent history, that particular debate was resolved, probably over 15 years ago, and we see today’s CP constantly making the ‘basic case’ for socialism in most of its publications, publicity and campaigns, and demonstrating how we can ensure today’s struggles and immediate aims connect and contribute to the future society we need and want.
(I understand there are similar debates within Trotskyism, in that some advocate ‘transitional’ demands to ‘entice’ workers ‘step by step’ away from reformism, making each subsequent demand steadily more ‘revolutionary’, but be careful not to mention the S or R words too soon ... Others equally in Trotskyism are very happy to openly advocate the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and socialism as a democratically planned economy.)
Eddie writes off the whole struggle for a renewed Labour Party and for a progressive Labour government as guaranteed to fail - Labour governments must inevitably and always result in even more rightwing and reactionary Conservative governments. So, is Eddie (the Weekly Worker? Labour Party Marxists?) seriously arguing against working for the election of a Labour government?
Let me get this right. In recent weeks and months, the Weekly Worker has clearly been in the process of reversing its previous approach to the Labour Party and Left Unity, by starting to indicate that with the Corbyn surge the Labour Party is the only real game in town - indeed it was quoted on the Andrew Marr programme as wanting to “convert the Labour Party into a workers’ party that serves the working class and the cause of socialism” - and implying that Left Unity (and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition et al) are now irrelevant diversions.
But another part of the Weekly Worker (Eddie’s article) at the very same time claims the whole notion of electing Labour to office is completely pointless and will always be completely counterproductive. But the very purpose of the Labour Party is to get Labour candidates, workers and socialists elected to governmental (local and national) office, to remove representatives of the capitalist parties from such offices, to win elections and to utilise these democratic institutions as far as may be possible to protect and advance the interests of the working class and labour movement.
If the Weekly Worker group is going to pull out of Left Unity and ‘intervene’ in the Labour Party with such a confused and contradictory prospectus, half of which is completely negative, passive and hostile to the purpose of the Labour Party, then good luck, comrades - you will need it.
Interestingly, comrade James Quinn criticises Labour Party Marxists for giving the media an opportunity to launch a scare campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
He writes: “The word ‘Marxist’ has negative connotations for millions, who don’t understand it. If you don’t go away, if you continue to give photo-opportunities to the Daily Mail, if you persist in attempting to attach yourself to a movement which has never been nor will ever be a Marxist one, you will ruin everything that has been achieved this summer” (Letters, October 1).
Surely the comrade is aiming at the wrong target here. It is the rightwing press at whom he should be firing. It is the likes of the Mail who constantly misinform, smear and muddy the waters - and it really doesn’t matter what we on the Labour left do, whether we call ourselves Marxists or not. They will continue to do everything they can to undermine comrade Corbyn and our party - they don’t really need an excuse! If it wasn’t LPM, it would be someone else.
Yes, “the word ‘Marxist’ has negative connotations for millions” - I agree. So has ‘socialism’, ‘working class’ and even ‘trade unions’ and ‘strikes’. That is because we on the left have given the rightwing press a clear run - failing to forcefully counter their smears and even retreating, ‘moderating’ our choice of words and in doing so implicitly accepting the validity of their lies.
Instead of retreating - a tactic which only encourages the rightwing media in their attacks - we should stand our ground and launch a concerted counteroffensive. We should stick to our ground and patiently explain the liberatory power of Marxism, not accept the enemy’s terms of argument.
The Labour Party needs its own press to state our case - let us hope comrade Corbyn takes this up as a matter of urgency. In the meantime we in Labour Party Marxists will continue to stand firm against the reactionary onslaught.
Labour Party Marxists
The CPGB has been one of the leading practitioners of ‘halfway house’ (HWH) parties, and Left Unity, for all its limitations, is the best we have achieved so far. By HWH party we mean a social democratic-communist (or Marxist) united front party with some form of social democratic programme. The CPGB was one of the groups at the founding conference helping to launch LU. It set up a communist tendency, essential in an HWH. Members of the CPGB were elected to the national leadership.
If CPGB practice can be commended in some respects, the CPGB’s HWH theory is a piece of left sectarianism. So now with Corbyn we can look forward to the CPGB being hoist by its own petard. The CPGB resolution to Left Unity conference says that in the light of Corbyn victory “All halfway house projects … have been exposed, wrecked or left high and dry.” It goes on to urge that “Left Unity commits itself to the project of transforming the Labour Party into an instrument for working class advance and international socialism.”
This is a misreading of the situation. It is true that Corbyn poses a serious challenge to all Labourite HWH parties, such as Tusc and Left Unity. But if Labourite LU is holed below the waterline, republican LU is not. Corbyn Labour is no threat to republicanism. So the CPGB is right to pronounce the death of Labourite LU, but wrong to see this as the end of HWH as such, rather than a new beginning or new stage in its advance. The theory of a social democratic-communist united front party is alive and well. In practice the example of Left Unity will only survive if it embraces republicanism in a serious way. It has yet to do so.
Labour is not an HWH party. It is a broad church, or popular front, party of liberal democrats, social democrats and a few communists/Marxists. (I am using this term ‘social democracy’ not for the right wing of the Labour Party, who, as liberal democrats, are not socialists of any kind.). It is a capitalist workers’ party, loyal to the constitutional monarchy. Jeremy Corbyn declares himself a republican, but assures the Labour bureaucracy and the crown he will do nothing about it.
This brings me back to my election campaign in Bermondsey, where I openly attacked unionism. It is impossible to be a serious militant republican if you are wedded to the British union. This is just as true of Glasgow South LU as the CPGB. We only have to see the Weekly Worker line in the general election to prove my point - not an inch of republicanism nor an ounce of anti-unionist internationalism.
LU republican anti-unionist
In a quite cynical attempt to make a claim for the Tory Party leadership once David Cameron stands down, home secretary Theresa May has used her party conference to peddle out a series of lies and half-truths about immigration to try and win the support of her party’s right wing.
Theresa May claimed immigrants are taking people’s jobs, making people poorer, ruining our country and dividing communities. This is downright dishonest and inflammatory.
Last year, May’s own department, the home office, published a report into the impact of immigration on employment in the UK since the 1990s (‘Impact of migration on UK native employment’, March 2014, occasional paper 109). Amongst its findings were:
Evidence from government departments also confirms that immigrants make a net contribution to our economy rather than making us poorer, as Theresa May claims. The treasury, for example, says immigration adds 0.25% to annual growth as measured by GDP. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) states that the economic deficit is smaller than it otherwise would be because of the taxes paid by immigrants. A number of studies have shown that immigrants bring a net gain to the British economy, making Britain richer. The Organisation for Economic Organisation and Development, an international think-tank backed by the world’s main governments, concluded in 2013 that migrant workers make a net contribution to the countries they move to, including Britain.
Nor is it true that immigration has divided communities. The opposite is the case, especially in areas migrants have settled in reasonable numbers. The cultural diversity that results is a positive, enriching our lives. Rugby, like the rest of Britain, is generally a cohesive and tolerant society. The UK has managed to integrate almost three million newcomers since the turn of the century without serious conflict, despite some rightwing attempts to stir it up.
All Theresa May will achieve by her speech is to confirm the unfounded worries and prejudices some people have, especially those with little experience of living or working with people from other countries and cultures. Such people may have a perception that immigration is a problem without knowing the full facts - and Theresa May will have fuelled such erroneous perceptions.
May’s speech was inflammatory, deceitful and divisive. Her only aim was to score points in the Tory leadership race that is about to unfurl. That is despicable, and Tory politicians should ensure that she immediately withdraws her false claims.
There’s a popular idea on the left right now that if we can only change people’s language we can change society. Let me give you an example of what I mean from an unproductive interaction I recently had on an internet discussion group. I know - stop right there. Productive discussions generally aren’t to be had on the internet. But I think this example highlights a growing tendency amongst leftists.
Someone - let’s call her Jill - was declaiming the use of ‘ablist’ speech, which she said included not just clearly offensive terms like ‘retard’ or ‘cripple’, but words like ‘crazy’ used in an innocuous context. I chimed in that I had a history of mental illness, and didn’t find ‘crazy’ to be offensive. If you’ve had any exposure to the online left in recent years, you can probably guess what happened next. I was quickly administered the third degree and denounced for propagating oppressive systems - in this case, stigmatisation of the mentally ill.
Now, bear in mind, as a result of my disorder I’ve been in multiple lockdown psychiatric wards, an intensive care unit, and swallowed more liquid charcoal than I care to admit. But for Jill none of this mattered. There was a good, forward-thinking side of this diction debate, and I was on the wrong, reactionary one. She knew so and so, who didn’t like such and such a word, and thus we must all alter our vocabulary to cater to this one person, who appeared to desperately seek out offence.
At first, this made me want to bang my head against my desk. If anything was discourteous in the discussion, it was Jill’s assumption that I, and people like me, were such delicate flowers we might be thrown into an emotional tailspin by someone using a term like ‘crazy’ in a way clearly not intended to be demeaning. But then it got me thinking. Where did this idea come from that, if we could just change people’s language, we could change society?
After all, as socialist writer Freddie deBoer reminds us, in classical Marxist theory, base determines superstructure. What this means is that, for much of the left, since Marx’s death in 1883 culture - presumably including language - was influenced by the means of production and the relationship of competing classes to production, not the other way around.
So, obviously from a Marxist standpoint, you can’t fix economic inequality by demanding the rich be less snobby. Similarly, one must assume a Marxist wouldn’t believe you could end the stigmatisation of mental illness by excising certain words from our vocabulary. You have to address the underlying, economic factors that create inequality and stigmatisation of the mentally ill.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is no benefit in trying to change problematic language. But I think the amount of energy the left currently places on this pursuit is wildly disproportionate. We should remember that when we focus on language we’re treating symptoms, not the disease. As deBoer points out, that seems to be a truth the modern left has forgotten.
I find Commissaress fresh-minded, unbridled and vital (‘Kids and the alternative’, October 1). In response and in return, maybe I can invite her to join me and all other such genuinely leftwing ‘oldies and wrinklies’ in glancing back over our shoulders at the decade upon decade - indeed at the generation upon generation - of similarly fearless, equally hopeful and non-compliant folk: those who also adopted socialism as their both considered and central reaction to feelings of utter disgust and outrage.
Yes, together look back towards those multiple others who have recognised the socio-scientific analysis of Marxism alongside the practical and organisational pathways defined by Lenin and Trotsky to be the only full and proper answer to the disgracefulness and obscenities of capitalist society. To be the only solid resolution of the atrocities and bestiality thrown up by an imperialism-driven world, within which they found themselves born and then reluctantly forced to exist.
The simple but crucial point I’m trying to make here is this, Commissaress: as revolutionary socialists we are one entity, and as such we should operate and perform as a single/unified force. That being the case, whatever relatively minor or purely circumstantial differences exist between us. For instance, whether we are blessed with being on the younger and groovier end of life’s scale or, in superficial distinction, we find ourselves located at its “wizard/white witch” and anyway grey-haired other.
So I would extend or expand upon what you say in your most recent article. I would suggest that young, middle-aged and old together can change this world of ours; indeed, that’s how socialism is most likely to prevail. Of that fact this unwaveringly leftwing ‘old codger’ and ongoing death dodger is certain. That being said (and actually just like Lenin in his rare pessimistic moments), I can only hope that I live long enough to experience for myself those upcoming days of reward, victory and vindication; whilst on the other hand, by virtue of your much younger age, you stand a far better chance of being there in the flesh, Commissaress.
In the meantime, don’t let either the bastards or the true believers and American dreamers get you down, eh? After all, the establishment and its various elites regard the demoralisation and disorientation or general whittling away of resolve and determination amongst any unshackled/freethinking citizens as being essential elements of their cynical, toxic as well as both dehumanised and dehumanising strategy. (In other words, that scurrilous strategy of theirs for system perpetuation via intellectual/cultural, not to mention spiritual, subjugation.)
In other words, persevere with your admirable and precious work of encouraging, enlightening, informing and educating as many people as possible from amongst your own generation with those urgently required Marxist principles. And, most importantly of all, carry on with pushing for their active engagement with modern-minded, connected, focused, disciplined, realistic and sensible Marxist/Leninist organisation - (as self-evidently you consider the case to be with the CPGB.)
So we have reached the stage in our debate on dialectical thinking where Rosa Lichtenstein is demanding definitions of words such as ‘quality’, ‘leap’ - perhaps also ‘change’ and ‘different’ - while questioning the law involved (Letters, October 1).
The law in question is pretty basic, but does direct our attention to an entry point into discussing change. Engels frames it this way: qualitative change “occurs by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion …” (Dialectics of nature, chapter 2). But then what is ‘quality’? Would it be controversial or mystical to use the simple definition Hegel gives in the Science of logic? Quality is what makes something a “determinate being” - that is, one thing rather than another: in “losing its quality it ceases to be what it is” (chapter 7).
Of course, he goes on to say that “in determinate being there is involved an element of negation”: that is, something is also what it’s not: difference. A minor subtraction or addition, a ‘more’ or ‘less’, makes something a little different, a pony rather than a dray horse, but if the thing loses its quality, if there is too much subtraction or addition, it changes its determinate being. A human being can have a different coloured skin or be disabled, but if they lost their nervous system, and specifically the human brain, they would lose the quality of humanness.
How then do we tell when something is qualitatively different - a ‘leap’, a break or shift? I would describe a difference of quality as that which alters the effects and uses of the thing. I don’t see why we should limit this to the atomic level. There are certain effects that H2O as a fluid can have in the world that mist cannot. This is the practical side of scientific investigation and also recalls Einstein’s principle that it depends on the relation of the observer. Difference is that which matters to the observer or to what is affected: water irrigates or drowns, mist rises in the air.
This doesn’t mean that everything is obvious. We need evidence, debate and theory, especially when considering whether Stalin’s USSR made a shift to capitalism or something else. We need testing by practice, but still require a way into examining change, or otherwise all we have, as socialists, is a reductionism of physics and moral lectures on how wonderful it would be to have a better world.
Art and freedom
Rex Dunn poses “teleology” against “accident” in support of “essentialism” (Letters, October 1). But this neglects that, according to Hegel, Geist, as the “self-moving substance [essence] that is subject”, is the expression of the unfolding and development of freedom. Art is certainly geistig activity, but is not itself Geist. Hegel’s telos is not posed as a future, but rather in the present: the present as a necessary and not accidental result of history.
The telos is not the future in the present, but what Hegel called “the eternally present in the past”. We cannot judge humanity according to an as yet unrealised potential ought - what could and should be - but rather we are tasked to find the actuality in what is. Not where is the present headed, but how does it point beyond itself? This means that what appears as humanity’s “essence” is an expression of necessity in the present - the necessity of the present. We should not assume that such necessity will not change, for that would prematurely foreclose possibilities we cannot see now. We are not serving the future, but are failing the present - and the past.
Schiller wrote of the “play drive” that unites freedom and necessity, in Homo ludens. But even Schiller didn’t think that art should replace all other human activity. Play may express freedom, but it is not itself freedom. Beauty is the symbol, not the realisation, of freedom. Our goal is not a beautiful society, but a free one.
Marx and Adorno, following him, dismissed the idea that work was to become play. Rather, from “life’s prime need” it was to become “life’s prime want”: that we will work because we want to do so, out of a sense of social and individual duty, and not capitalist compulsion. Our task is not to realise human play, but rather to actualise freedom. According to Adorno, art, like everything else in capitalism, expresses necessity - the necessity of freedom. But it is not itself freedom. Nor will it become that as some final end. Freedom is not the end of necessity in play, but the transformation of necessity - giving rise to new necessities. Freedom is not a state of being, but a process of becoming. More specifically, it is the movement of that process. Human “essence” is not art, but freedom. There is no reason to believe it will ever end - without an end to humanity. We do not know freedom’s end, but only its need, its next necessary step. Art in capitalism points to that, the next stage of history, not its end.
As Adorno put it, in the last line of the concluding chapter of Aesthetic theory,on ‘Society’, “... what would art be, as the writing of history, if it shook off the memory of accumulated suffering?” The history of art, as that of Geist, expresses the history of freedom. We suffer not from lack of play, but from the task of freedom.