Grappling with new situation
Peter Manson reports on the December 4 meeting of members of the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists
Last weekend saw comrades gather in London for a regular members’ aggregate. The items on the agenda related to the two dominant issues in global and British politics: the election of Donald Trump; and the ongoing battle between left and right in the Labour Party. An understanding of the significance of both is crucial for the development of a communist strategy, of course.
First up was the US presidential election, introduced by Paul Demarty, who reminded us that the US ‘electors’ were now supposedly “thinking very carefully” about who to name as president. But not only does the whole world know who the electoral college will nominate on December 19, despite Hillary Clinton’s lead of over two million in the popular vote: many members of Trump’s cabinet are also already known.
And Trump’s likely team says a lot about the type of policy he wishes to pursue - much to the continued disquiet of the US establishment, whose candidate was Clinton. Even Ted Cruz, although hated by liberals, would have been acceptable to the establishment, said comrade Demarty. But Trump himself is “just not fit” politically or personally. However, unfortunately for the elite, many US voters chose to believe his lies rather than those of the other side.
Comrade Demarty pointed to some of the reasons why Trump was elected. The life expectancy of whites has been declining slightly, for instance. Social disaggregation - particularly in the rust-belt states - is hitting them badly, and suicides are also up amongst them. In this situation Trump’s chauvinist, anti-immigrant spin appeared plausible and there was a small swing to him in those states, while many expected Clinton voters decided to stay at home.
As for Trump’s likely policies, there is, of course, already surveillance of Muslims and deportation of immigrants - but now these will be stepped up. Conflict in the Middle East appears more likely under Trump, although obviously the opposite is true in relation to Russia. As for Europe, we can expect a greater degree of European Union internal solidarity in response to the new US president (assuming, of course, there is no surprise victory for Marine Le Pen on May 7).
Although the US Democrats seem to be tacking slightly to the left following Bernie Sanders’ campaign for nomination, in a few years’ time we could be back at the beginning of the Democrat-Republican cycle, predicted comrade Demarty. But the job for the US left is, of course, to break that cycle, he concluded.
In the following discussion, Mike Macnair stated that it was unclear how much of Trump was just demagogy and how much would be as before - although it looked certain that there would be tax cuts for the rich. As for the increase in alcoholism, etc, he thought it was a “similar narrative” to what had happened in the USSR before its collapse.
In his view, the jobs of US workers were not threatened by migrant workers in America itself, but by migrant workers (from the countryside to the cities) in China. In other words, by the free movement of goods and capital, rather than of workers themselves. Although under Clinton we could also have seen more “boots on the ground” in the Middle East, the fact that Trump has asked two ex-generals to serve in his cabinet ought to tell us something.
Jack Conrad said the election of Trump had exposed several weaknesses on the left - from those who stupidly claimed he was a “fascist” to those who were “clutching at straws”, seeing US anti-Trump demonstrations as giving some kind of lead. In reality such demonstrators were “disappointed Clinton voters” - those who wanted to opt for the ‘lesser evil’. He warned that it was wrong to conclude from the election that “America thinks X” - Trump actually won a minority of the popular vote.
However, the Trump victory had been part of a “larger picture” - the sweeping away of the post-war social democratic consensus internationally. Unfortunately the main response had been a nationalist one. Potentially there could be a big shift in international politics, whereby China, not Russia, would be seen as the main threat. And, of course, unlike the US establishment, Trump is pro-Brexit. How would Germany respond? Would we see a “smaller EU, but a ‘bigger’ Germany”?
Tarzan Kamangar agreed that the international situation looked very dangerous, not only because of Trump, but because of rightwing gains in many parts of Europe. And now the Iran nuclear deal looked certain to collapse. This was linked to capital’s economic problems - following the retreat on neoliberalism, there appears to be no systemic solution.
Responding to the debate, comrade Demarty said that the “drive to the right” was not a recent phenomenon. He recalled the ‘anti-social behaviour orders’ introduced by Tony Blair as an example of a response to social disaggregation. In the US, drug addiction was no longer so much an “inner-city black problem” as a suburban white problem. However, Trump represents a shift from “quantity into quality” in relation to that drive.
Comrade Conrad introduced the session on Labour and Momentum by noting that the real backing amongst Labour members and supporters for Jeremy Corbyn is far higher than his second victory shows, once you take into account the thousands of suspensions, invalidations, the £25 supporter’s fee, etc. But we have to say that the right is far better organised than the left inside the party.
However, it is very unlikely that there will be another coup attempt in the near future. We are now in a pre-election period and members of the Parliamentary Labour Party will not jeopardise their careers by emphasising the internal divisions, thus risking a Conservative landslide. Similarly the Corbyn left will not push for changes to the party’s constitution in order to disempower the right during this period.
However, comrade Conrad predicted that a Labour defeat would see renewed attacks by the right, who would blame it all on Corbyn, and there could possibly be a good number of trade unions withdrawing their support from him. As for Theresa May, she is looking for an excuse to call an early election - she knows full well that a general election in a few months’ time would almost certainly see the Tories re-elected with a hugely increased majority.
But most of the left, inside and outside the party, is in denial over this. Furthermore, the left groups have responded to Corbyn’s victory in a totally untheorised manner. The Socialist Workers Party and Communist Party of Britain claim that the real battle is ‘on the streets’, not inside Labour, while the Socialist Party in England and Wales and Socialist Resistance have refused to engage in any self-criticism over their previous writing off of Labour as a site for struggle.
However, although the rise of Corbynism has made them think again, the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership is hardly inspirational - all they can manage are phrases about ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’, while McDonnell’s idea of ‘socialism’ seems to be limited to a totally impractical form of Keynesianism.
Turning to Momentum, comrade Conrad talked about the absurd myth that it is just like the old Militant Tendency, operating as a ‘party within a party’. It is actually marked by extraordinary inertia, arising from the desire of Jon Lansman to do Corbyn’s bidding and play down the differences between Labour’s left and right. There is also a left and right within Momentum, but the left’s vision of ‘socialism’ is often based on something like the 1945 Labour government’s programme.
Comrade Conrad noted that the Momentum national committee, meeting the previous day, had decided by a single vote to retain the current Lansman-led steering committee - no doubt Corbyn and McDonnell will be pleased. Although the left won most of the other contentious issues, the reality is that comrade Lansman, as Momentum’s sole director and virtual dictator, represents the exact opposite of ‘empowerment from below’, despite the farce over votes on policy for atomised individuals and places on the leadership for unaccountable ‘representatives of liberation groups’.
Comrade Conrad was scathing about the decision of the Lansman wing to campaign to “take back control” in relation to Brexit. Who decided Momentum should promote such a rightwing slogan? When did we ever have control? He ended by restating the necessity for the left to develop a fully-formed programme for transforming the Labour Party, linked to the recognition of the centrality of a revolutionary party.
In the discussion that followed Vernon Price pointed out that SPEW was now making the correct demand that all working class organisations should be allowed to affiliate to Labour, so it does seem to have rethought things.
In reply to this, comrade Conrad said that SPEW had not engaged in any re-examination of its position on Labour - it had gradually “rowed back” into a “not so stupid” position. But for SPEW it was all about preserving its own organisation, not arriving at the truth. I added that for almost 20 years SPEW had insisted that Labour was now a bourgeois party, just like the Tories and Liberal Democrats, and it still refuses to admit it was wrong on that.
For his part, comrade Demarty turned his attention to Socialist Resistance. While it was true that some SR members had now re-orientated towards Labour, the group’s statement on the question was bereft of any class analysis. SR seems to have a “19th century definition of socialism” in opposing poverty and calls for a “progressive alliance” with the likes of the Greens.
Comrade Macnair stated that, while the Labour right was certainly not thinking of another coup right now, the purging of Corbyn supporters is continuing - without any objection from the leadership, it seems. He agreed that the Labour right is expecting an electoral defeat, as demonstrated by the contention that there are “no safe seats any more”.
Despite this, Sarah Stewart reminded comrades that at the recent annual general meeting of the Labour Representation Committee John McDonnell had claimed that Theresa May might well be “forced” to call a general election! She agreed with comrade Conrad that McDonnell combines rhetorical phrases about ‘socialism’ with appeasement of the right.
Comrade Tarzan Kamangar feared that, if (by a miracle) Labour won an early general election, that could easily result in a “serious defeat” for the Corbyn left, which would surely continue such appeasement - Corbyn himself is now in full retreat even over foreign policy, which had previously been his strongest area.
William Sarsfield stated that, although the Momentum left had made some gains at the previous day’s NC meeting, these could easily be undermined. After all, Jon Lansman is still the owner of Momentum and he could insist that he had the right to overrule decisions of the NC. Comrade Sarsfield also reported on the “leadership split” within Momentum’s affiliate, Welsh Labour Grassroots.
Stan Kelsey, however, thought that Lansman could not realistically ignore NC decisions - he stated that we should not “look forward to a split in Momentum”. Comrade Lansman does not say, “I’m in control”: he promises “democratic governance”.
In his reply to the debate, comrade Conrad disagreed with comrade Kelsey. He reminded the meeting that Labour leader Harold Wilson had openly stated his contempt for both the party’s annual conference and its national executive (in the days when both in theory had substantial decision-making powers), and he was sure that comrade Lansman was just as capable of ignoring votes that did not go the way he and the current leadership wanted. In fact, if Momentum was considered by Jeremy Corbyn to no longer fit in with his plans, he would not hesitate to close it down.
When it comes to a general election, we should insist that Labour must stand on a principled platform that was worth voting for - not restrict our aims by imagining that any Labour government must be better than the Tories, as was “second nature” for so much of the left.
The fight within both Labour and Momentum had to be stepped up, but the main task is to win comrades to such principled politics, whatever the manoeuvres of the leadership and its Momentum loyalists.