Labour and the left
In supporting Jeremy Corbyn, groups like Labour Party Marxists share some of the illusions of the right, argues Efraim Nashe of the Platypus Affiliated Society
In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it … even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious (Walter Benjamin Theses on the philosophy of history, No6).
A recent panel event on ‘Corbyn, Labour and the radical left’ at the Oxford Radical Forum1 put forward a number of symptomatic propositions. The panel description suggested that with Corbyn the far left feels triumphant and the Labour Party is more socialist than any time since the 70s. But what would it mean for the left to triumph? And what is socialism? The left’s reorientation towards Labour raises the issue of Labour’s history. This article relates this history to the history of Marxism from 1848 to World War I, particularly the ‘revisionist dispute’. On the ruins of this history appears the apparent plethora of ‘left’ orientations to Labour today.
Bonapartism and reformism
In their respective criticisms of revisionism in the revisionist dispute of the Second International, Luxemburg and Lenin argued that the revisionists had regressed to pre-Marxian socialism, to liberalism and petty bourgeois democracy, liquidating the need for socialist leadership. Lenin and Luxemburg sought to advance beyond the impasse by returning to the high point of consciousness in Marx’s recognition of the lessons of the failed revolutions of 1848. Unlike the revisionists they did not have a linear-progressive view of history.
The 1848 revolutions failed to deliver the ‘social republic’. As Marx wrote, the bourgeoisie were no longer able to rule and the proletariat not yet ready.2 The state had to intervene to manage the self-contradiction of bourgeois society: that is, capitalism. Louis Bonaparte filled this vacuum of power by appealing for support to the discontents of all classes in society and expanding state institutions of welfare and police as tools for controlling contradictions. So Bonapartism led the discontents of the masses to politically reconstitute capital through the state. This was an international phenomenon, affecting all the major capitalist countries, including the United Kingdom.
For Marx, the lesson of 1848 was the necessity of the political independence of the working class from petty bourgeois democracy - or the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the absence of this independent political leadership, the masses would be led by the right, as they were by Bonaparte.
In Reform or revolution, Luxemburg argues that social reforms do not socialise production, leading piecemeal to socialism, but socialise the crisis of capitalist production. The workers’ bourgeois demands for work and justice needed a proletarian party for socialism to “achieve the consciousness of the need to overcome labour as a commodity, to make the ‘objective’ economic contradiction, a ‘subjective’ phenomenon of politics”3 - “to take its history into its own hands”.4 In Lenin’s terms, the revisionists ‘tailing’ of trade union consciousness dissolved the goal into the movement, liquidated the need for the political party for socialism.
In the failed German revolution of 1918-19 the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) liquidated the working class’s struggles into a bulwark of capitalism. Or, as political scientist and Rosa Luxemburg biographer JP Nettl put it, the SPD became the “inheritor party” of the German Imperial Reichstag - for which it appeared to posterity to have been preparing all along.5
It is in the context of Bonapartism, the critique of the revisionist dispute and the problem of socialist leadership that we need to place the Labour Party and the left’s relationship to it.
Creation of Labour
The last great act of the Chartist movement was to translate the Communist manifesto in 1848.6 By this time it had already exhausted itself politically. In the second half of the 19th century working class politics found expression in trade unions, which sought the amelioration of their working conditions and to consolidate these gains via the Trade Union Congress (formed in 1868), pressuring the Liberal Party into parliamentary reforms. The trade unions sought to defend the interests of labour within the framework of capitalism. As in other advanced capitalist countries post-1848, Britain’s state was Bonapartist, appealing to multiple discontents in society to form the political constituencies for the state’s administration of capital. This included the simultaneous growth in the UK of welfare, labour reform and the police state. Disraeli’s “one nation” conservatism is a good example of this.
In 1899, the Labour Representation Committee was formed. As well as trade union affiliates, there was the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society. These groups had little influence, but sought to connect to the working class. The LRC became the Labour Party in 1906.
This was the extension of trade union politics into parliament. In this sense the Labour Party was no break with bourgeois politics. It sought to do the job of the Liberal Party in representing the interests of labour, only better. Could we say, in JP Nettl’s terms, that Labour was to be an inheritor party to the Liberals in managing the capitalist state? It certainly seems that way from posterity.
It is no coincidence that the development of the Labour Party in this manner paralleled the revisionist dispute in the Second International. Lenin pointed out as much in What is to be done?, when he elucidated the international character of revisionism, from Bernstein in Germany to Millerand in France, from the economists in Russia to the Fabians in England.
Like Bernstein the leftwing ILP thought that the achievement of trade union reforms in work, legal status and political rights would gradually lead to socialism. But for Marxists, like Lenin and Luxemburg, the ILP’s attempt to use the existing state as a forum to abolish the inequalities and injustices of capitalism could only deepen the crisis of capitalist production. In the absence of socialist leadership for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the discontents of the working class could only constitute the political support for the state’s administration of capitalism, no matter who was in government.
Writing in 1917, British Marxist William Paul explained how a false conception of socialism had misled workers:
Any demands, such as the reduction of taxes, the extension of tramway car systems, opening of municipal pawnshops and burying-grounds, have been advocated as ‘socialistic’ legislation … a modern statesman could say, ‘We are all socialists nowadays’.7
In 1918, in response to working class support for the Bolsheviks in Russia, Labour adopted clause four, to try and offer an anti-Marxist alternative to the British working class. In the ILP, “class consciousness” was replaced by “community consciousness”.8 As Marx wrote of Lassalle’s “state socialism”, this was in fact state capitalism, or Bonapartism. The Labour Party’s “community consciousness” was already a parallel to Disraeli’s “one nation”. Labour Party state socialism reconciled the working class to capitalism.
Many on the left today justify their activity with reference to Lenin’s call for the Communist Party of Great Britain to enter Labour in 1920. But this needs to be understood in the context of a number of factors: ultra-leftism internationally, the relative youth of the Labour Party and the existence of a completely independent Communist Party and the Third International. The idea was to expose the bourgeois politics of the Labour Party to its mass base - as Lenin put it, “so that the masses may be more quickly weaned away from their last illusions on this score”.9 The aim was to win workers en masse away from Labour in order to build an independent working class party.
But there has been no independent movement for socialism since the failure of the Russian Revolution to spread and Marxism self-liquidated in Stalinism in the 20s and 30s - as Trotsky put it, generations thrown into discard.10 In such an absence, critical support turns out to be uncritical support for Labour.
In the 1930s, the Labour leadership moved further away from its working class base, through the liquidation of working class politics into ‘national solution’ politics. Recall again Disraeli’s Bonapartist “one nation”.
In the inter-war years, clause four became a promise for better management of capitalism, like Roosevelt’s New Deal. This set the tone for the “spirit of 45”, in which the Labour government’s welfare state restructured the economy in the post-war global realignment under American hegemony. Conservatives and liberals recognised a need for the state to take on a greater role in administering capital. Thus the left could feel like its watchwords of welfare and nationalisation were being realised, but all the while change was being led by the right. The welfare state was the new political consensus.
This was to leave Labour trailing in the 1950s boom. As the Socialist Party of Great Britain wrote after Labour’s election defeat in 1959, “When the pioneers of the Labour Party dreamed of placing themselves at the head of a grateful army of electors by enacting social reforms, they never thought of a possibility of a Tory Party that beat them at the same game.”11
There was no socialist leadership to grasp how such reforms actually deepened the socialisation of the crisis of capitalist production. There was no goal to constitute the class struggle.
As Labour tried to adapt under Gaitskell, the Labour left, despite appearing opposed to Gaitskell, only disagreed on the ratios of distribution and tax and the degree of nationalisation, because fundamentally it agreed that ‘socialism’ was an issue of state administration. After the defeat of 1959, the Labour left fought to retain clause four, against Gaitskell’s attempts to ‘modernise’. The left was successful … in defending that which had been introduced to draw workers away from revolutionary politics. Small Trotskyist groups, like those around the journal Labour Review, sought to break up the Stalinist Communist Party, so that its members who “desire to fight as real communists” could enter Labour and “gain powerful support from the rank and file”.12 After all, the Labour Review editors wrote, “the day-to-day experiences of the working class are continuously vindicating Marxism”. Therefore, they thought they could struggle within the Labour Party to win the rank and file “for Marxist ideas”, to form a new Marxist leadership and to “open the way for the development of socialist policies within the Labour Party”. But, as has been the case for nearly a century, the Labour Party used the radical left rather than the other way around.
In the 1960s, in the absence of any real efficacy, the left of Labour turned more and more to issues of foreign affairs, anti-colonialism, anti-nuclear and social justice, etc, on which they could either have no real impact or on which ‘progressive’ policies could be implemented by the right. The movementism of the 60s new left was taken up by Trotskyist groups like the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party) aiming to push Labour to the left, from inside and/or outside the party. The victory of the Labour left in retaining clause four in 1960 signalled its defeat. Under these circumstances arose the disintegrated antinomy of parliamentary and non-parliamentary work. The most astute observation in Ralph Miliband’s essay, ‘The sickness of Labourism’,13 is his choice of epigraph: “It is a very difficult country to move, Mr Hynband, a very difficult country indeed, and one in which there is more disappointment to be looked for than success” - Disraeli, 1881.
‘Parliamentary’ and ‘non-parliamentary’ work would need to be mediated by a mass working class socialist party, in which theoretical disputes could be conducted in a dialectical relation to practical tasks, in which the demands of workers for their bourgeois right, for reforms, could be used to educate the working class in the necessity of its political independence, of taking power in the dictatorship of the proletariat - only then could the struggle for socialism begin. We are a long way off.
For nearly a century, the Labour Party has used the radical left to preserve and reproduce itself in crises. In 1978 the Revolutionary Communist Tendency critiqued the left’s orientation to Labour and attempts to ‘fight the right’ through Labour, arguing that, in the absence of an independent alternative,
… far from being an alternative to Labour, militant activity can actually sustain illusions in reformism … The radical left fails to understand that … the working class will not spontaneously reject the reformist programme.14
Spiked Online maintain that Labour has become anti-working class, arguing that today we need something totally new.15 However, today the impetus towards a non-Labour alternative has slipped away - for example, in Left Unity’s virtual dissolution - and most groups on the left attempt variously to orient their activities towards the Labour Party. The disintegrated antinomy of parliamentary and non-parliamentary work is reproduced. There is no break with Labour on the horizon.16
Post-SWP groups like Counterfire and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century continue to advocate protest movements - eg, anti-austerity marches - to support Corbyn from the outside. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has taken a more hands-on approach within Momentum, and now Grassroots Momentum, where interesting fissures have appeared over democracy and organisational structure between leftwing community activists and Marxist groups trying to organise within the party. Given the general consideration on the left that Blairism had put an end to the long chapter of the left’s struggles within Labour, what has changed with Corbyn? And what if the apparent change masks continuity between old Labour, New Labour and the present?
Many on the left saw Blair’s transformation of Labour and abolition of clause four as a qualitative change from a contradictory ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ to a pure capitalist party, in which no such contradiction existed.17 For example, Workers Hammer argued that Blair’s Labour was not the kind of “mass reformist workers’ party” to which “revolutionaries can consider extending critical support”.18 Thus, many on the left ‘critically’ supported or tried to work within Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, which split with Blair in 1996 over clause four - an all but forgotten episode in the left’s history with the Labour Party.
Twenty years later, Corbyn seems to have reversed the spell with his talk of “socialism, trade union rights, immigrants’ rights and opposition to Nato”.19 Although by supporting ‘remain’ in European Union referendum Corbyn failed to represent the interest of working people,20 in the fight against the Blairites, he is said to represent “the grievances of the working class, minorities and the impoverished”.21 There is a “class war” within Labour, in which Marxists should have taken Corbyn’s side.22 If the Blairites can be driven out, the hope is, Labour will be transformed back into a “parliamentary socialist Labour Party”23 with Corbyn at the helm.
However, before Blair, in Tony Benn’s 1988 leadership contest against Neil Kinnock, Workers Hammer advocated “no support for either side”.24 It is worth quoting the argument in full:
Benn’s campaign has been portrayed by the bourgeois press and most of the ostensibly socialist left as a David and Goliath battle for the ‘socialist soul’ of the party against Kinnock/Hattersley’s overt scabbing and ‘new realism’. But the Labour ‘lefts’ indulgence in the time-worn reformist rhetoric of the parliamentary road to democratic socialism, ‘unilateralism’, non-alignment, disarmament and nationalist ‘little England’ protectionism is no alternative to Kinnock’s more reactionary agenda for class peace in Thatcher’s Britain. Indeed, this contest reflects the classic and historic symbiotic relation between the Labour ‘left’ and right that has maintained the party for decades as the primary obstacle to proletarian revolution on these isles.
The Leninist also observed the dangers of communists supporting the Labour left against the right. Shortly after Benn’s defeat, Jack Conrad argued that the Labour left serves simply to divert popular protest into “safe parliamentary channels”. He warned: “We must never let the heat of these arguments obscure the fact that ultimately the relationship between the Labour left and right is symbiotic - they both need each other. This is the absolute and general law of Labourism.”25
If Corbyn successfully wins control of the party and removes the Blairites, then will his party be “a mass reformist workers’ party [that] stands independently of bourgeois parties, and ostensibly in the interest of working people”?26 Or does Corbyn’s struggle represent the “historic symbiotic relation” between the left and right of Labour?27 At least one thing is clear: as in 1988, Corbyn’s contest is “portrayed by the bourgeois press and most of the ostensibly socialist left as a David and Goliath battle for the ‘socialist soul’ of the party”.28 It seems Blair dissolved the “historic symbiotic relation between the Labour ‘left’ and right that has maintained the party for decades as the primary obstacle to proletarian revolution”29 to such an extent that the recrudescence of some version of the old Labour ‘left’ constitutes a ‘class war’.
Labour Party Marxists similarly argue that “the civil war raging in the Labour Party is a highly concentrated form of the class struggle” and therefore “an unparalleled historic opportunity” to refound the Labour Party as a genuine “political party of the workers”.30 They see their task as the democratisation of the Labour Party to create the conditions for a Marxist section to affiliate to Labour and struggle within to develop a Marxist leadership and implement a new Marxist (not the old ‘state socialist’) clause four.
James Marshall of LPM bases his argument on Lenin’s speech regarding affiliation to Labour in 1920, in which the characterisation of a party is said to be dependent not on its working class base, but on the politics of its leadership. For Lenin, this meant that the Labour Party was
a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns [the executioners of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht].31
This analysis still applies, argues Marshall, but with a difference:
Instead of a two-way contradiction between the leadership and the membership, we now have a three-way contradiction. The left dominates both the top and bottom of the party.
That is, Corbyn’s leadership is not a bourgeois-reformist leadership, attached to a workers’ base, but rather both are “left”. The hated PLP is the ‘bourgeois party’ imbedded within. It is the PLP, and not Corbyn’s leadership, Marshall argues, to which Lenin’s assessment of Labour’s bourgeois political leadership still applies.
But what does it mean to say that a base or leadership is “left” with regard to Lenin’s argument? If the PLP is “bourgeois”, what does that make Corbyn? Can Lenin’s concern with bourgeois v socialist leadership be so easily assimilated to contemporary, or even historic, ‘left’ v ‘right’ divisions within Labour?32 For nearly a century, the Labour Party has used the radical left rather than the other way around. What would it mean for it to be otherwise today?
In the present, capitalism is reconstituting itself politically through change. Corbyn’s leadership and the membership swell are, of course, phenomena of this moment. But it is hard to tell how exactly they relate to the wider changes we are seeing. The latest YouGov polls show Labour in third place amongst working class voters, with whom the Tories poll nearly twice as high as Labour.33 Trade union activity is at a historic low.
Workers Hammer has argued that revolutionaries should defend Corbyn because the “capitalists” could never agree to his proposed reforms on infrastructure, manufacturing and “putting the population back into productive work”.34 But this supposes that Corbyn’s policy is so far-reaching as to be a fantasy that could never be implemented within the capitalist state. Bonapartists have successfully implemented deep reforms to better manage capital and discontents in the past, always amidst political opposition.
Hillel Ticktin has argued recently in the Weekly Worker35 that, as capitalism is changing, there is actually greater scope for reforming in the interest of capital. Moreover, Corbyn is far less radical than Trump, or May, in terms of what he is proposing: “While Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell both talk about socialism, they are not even very radical, let alone socialist.” The Labour right, however, stigmatises McDonnell’s meagre policies as ‘socialist’. Ticktin notes: “… this shows the nature of rightwing Labour - it does not understand the system it is supporting.”
What does it show about the left today that they share the same fantasy?
1. Oxford Radical Forum 2017, held at Christ Church College, Oxford, March 3-5 2017. The panel description in question read: “When Corbyn was first elected leader of the Labour Party, it was largely viewed as a moment of triumph for the far left, and an opportunity for socialists, anti-racists and peace campaigners to begin building a national movement capable of wielding influence in parliament itself. Hundreds of thousands of new members poured into Labour, and several socialist tendencies which had previously campaigned against the party now committed to supporting it under Corbyn’s leadership. One and a half years on, the far left has achieved a greater degree of influence in party politics than it has for decades, in a Labour Party that is clearly more socialist than any since 1983 - and perhaps even earlier. On the other hand, however, Corbyn’s Labour has slipped in the polls, appeared to compromise on principles such as free movement, and failed to properly challenge the liberal bureaucracy present under Blair, Brown and Miliband. This leaves open the very real possibility that Corbyn will leave his post, having achieved nothing, and bequeath a party which in no meaningful sense differs from the one so vociferously opposed by the left from 1997-2010; albeit now with a much diminished chance of election. In this panel we will debate whether the left has been right to place so much hope in Corbyn, and whether or not we must now turn to pursue socialism by non-parliamentary means.”
2. K Marx The civil war in France 1871.
3. C Cutrone, ‘Sacrifice and redemption’ Weekly Worker July 14 2016.
4. R Luxemburg TheJunius pamphlet 1915.
5. P Nettl, ‘The German Social Democratic Party 1890-1914 as a political model’ Past and Present No30, 1965, pp65-95.
6. D Black, ‘The elusive “threads of historical progress”: the early Chartists and the young Marx and Engels’ Platypus Review No42, December 2011-January 2012: platypus1917.org/2011/12/01/elusive-threads-of-historical-progress.
7. W Paul The state: its origin and function 1917.
8. “The watchword of socialism is not ‘class-consciousness’, but ‘community consciousness’” - Ramsay MacDonald Socialism and society 1907.
9. VI Lenin, ‘Theses on fundamental tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International’, 1920.
10. L Trotsky, ‘To build communist parties and an international anew’, July 1933.
11. ‘Future of the Labour Party’ Socialist Standard No664, Vol 55, December 1959.
12. Editorial, ‘Labour and leadership’ Labour Review 3:1, January-February 1958.
13. New Left Review No1, January-February 1960.
14. M Freeman and K Marshall Who needs the Labour Party? Revolutionary Communist Pamphlets, No3, 1978.
15. T Slater, ‘Who can save Labour? No-one’ Spiked Online September 12 2016.
16. ‘Labourism rebooted’ 1917 Journal of the International Bolshevik Tendency September 28 2015: www.bolshevik.org/1917/no38/ibt_1917_38_10_labourism_rebooted.html.
17. See, for example, ‘Spartacist League statement’ Workers Hammer No156, May-June 1997.
19. ‘Class war in the Labour Party’ Workers Hammer No233, winter 2015-16.
20. ‘Brexit: defeat for the bankers and bosses of Europe!’ Workers Hammer No234, summer 2016.
21. ‘Class war in the Labour Party’ Workers Hammer No233, winter 2015-16.
23. ‘Let Jeremy Corbyn run the Labour Party’ Workers Hammer No236, autumn 2016.
24. ‘Kinnock, Benn: no choice’ Workers Hammer No98, May-June 1988.
25. J Conrad, ‘Build the communist alternative’ The Leninist No71, November 1 1988.
26. ‘Spartacist League Statement’ Workers Hammer No156, May-June 1997.
27. ‘Kinnock, Benn: no choice’ Workers Hammer No98, May-June 1988.
29. ‘Kinnock, Benn: no choice’ Workers Hammer No98, May-June 1988.
30. J Marshall, ‘After Corbyn’s second victory’, September 24 2016: labourpartymarxists.org.uk/after-corbyns-second-victory.
31. VI Lenin, ‘Speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party’, Second Congress of the Communist International, August 6 1920.
32. “Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is - either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology). Hence, to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology. There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology, to its development along the lines of the Credo programme; for the spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism, is Nur-Gewerkschaftlerei, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie” (VI Lenin What is to be done? 1902).
34. ‘Corbyn landslide, Blairite backlash’ Workers Hammer No232, autumn 2015.
35. H Ticktin, ‘Confused reformism’ Weekly Worker November 24 2016.