Waiting for Zola
The April 8 joint CPGB/Labour Party Marxists aggregate had two agenda items - the battle in the Labour Party and the danger of war in the Middle East. William Sarsfield reports that there was plenty to think about
John Bridge kicked proceedings off with an item on the Labour Party. The comrade gave us a useful summary of the battle that has unfolded in the Labour Party since Corbyn became leader in September 2015. He emphasised that the historic
opportunity to transform Labour was not the result of the traditional symbiotic relationship between left and right wings in the party; this was a chance development, delivered to us on a plate by a gaggle of right wing “morons”, as they accurately designated themselves.1
Their agonies continue and are gratifying, of course. However, the comrade emphasised that the background of the situation in the Middle East - and Gaza specifically - “shines some sort of light” on why the bourgeoisie is still aggressively hostile to any idea of a Corbyn government. As you would expect of the man, his take on Gaza has been relatively mild, but still a clear moral stance against the actions of Israel and in solidarity with those gunned down by its soldiers. A stark contrast to foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s invisibility on the issue.
There are also domestic reasons. The Confederation of British Industry has warned that Corbyn’s programme of nationalisation (comrade Bridge paused at this point and wondered aloud - “what programme of nationalisation?”) would be “worse than a hard Brexit”. He observed that “to equate a Corbyn government” - with its insipid proposals for some limited renationalisations here and there - with the rupture of Brexit indicates the real fear amongst big business.
Of course, there is more to it than this. “It is Corbyn’s past, his statements against Nato, his stance on wars like Iraq” and - crucially, the comrade emphasised - the perception of the ruling class that the election of a government led by the man might well spark a “crisis of expectations”. The comrade’s assessment is that a great deal is being projected onto both Corbyn as an individual politician and a future Labour Party led by him. “The scare tactics” deployed by the bourgeois media and its friends in the Parliamentary Labour government - which have included Corbyn’s links with Hamas, the IRA, the spectre of his “Marxism” - have just not worked and the ruling class is rattled by the “danger” of a Corbyn victory.
So we have seen the serial leaks from the Labour right wing, open rebellion culminating in shadow cabinet resignations and the 172-strong PLP no confidence vote against him, the second leadership contest with McNicol’s disenfranchisement of thousands of potential Corbyn supporters (including one Catherine Starr, who was suspended for writing “I fucking love the Foo Fighters”), etc. Comrade Bridge noted that although this squalid guerrilla warfare was “surreal and quite clearly a fix directed against Corbyn”, the press chimed in with the basic mantra of the right - Corbyn was out of his depth, he was incompetent, he would lose the next general
elected and lose it badly.
Comrade Bridge reminded us that he too had expected a Corbyn-led general election campaign would see big losses for Labour. Like many commentators, he admitted, wrongly.
Complacency and the sentiment that ‘peace’ needs to break out in the party is a dangerous illusion, however. “In my view”, he underlined, “the civil war began well before Corbyn was elected, and until Corbyn is totally tamed and the left is purged from the Labour Party, this civil war will not stop.”
Before the right of the party laid hold of the extremely effective anti-Semitism provocation, they tried out others. What was interesting about this, the comrade noted, was that they were often “laying hold of the weapons of the left to use against the left.” Eg, a window broken at Angela Eagle’s office was rebranded as “homophobia”. Implausibly, her Constituency Labour Party was “rife with homophobia”, we were told.
Anti-Semitism trumps them all, however. Labour is now “awash” with this foul prejudice, we are meant to believe. In fact, it is “extremely marginal” and the comrade reminded the meeting that, when we have encountered anti-Semitism, we have dealt promptly and firmly with it.2 Of course, he observed, this was an utterly “cynical” campaign by the establishment, given its fetid history of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution.
Corbyn’s placid, yielding demeanour in the face this onslaught is his tactical/personal choice, comrade Bridge underlined. But “with every concession he gives, with every blow he takes without retaliation, every apology he issues for some imaginary ‘offence’” the rest of us are tainted. It is clearly not his conscious intention, but his Christ-like appetite for submission to suffering and passivity “opens the door for anyone to be charged with causing ‘offence’ or with the extraordinarily elastic category of ‘anti-Semitism’”.
Where are the voices of sanity in the mainstream media, comrade Bridge asked? “I really am waiting for our equivalent of Emile Zola”, he said. “Where is our great public intellectual, who can dissect this nonsense and nail this provocation, to say ‘J’accuse ...?”3 The last thing the venal Labour right and their allies in the mainstream media want is a rational, sane debate on this issue. If it happened, “they would lose and lose very badly”, the comrade bluntly stated.
Winding up, comrade Bridge suggested we need to ring the alarm bell against complacency in the Labour ranks. For the reasons already stated, the notion that the ruling class would be sanguine about Corbyn causally strolling into No10 Downing Street in the event of a Labour victory in the next general election is foolish.
The majority of the PLP remain implacably hostile and will remain so even if he delivers them a victory. The constitutional monarchy system requires the leader of the biggest party in the Commons to assure the monarch that they can command a parliamentary majority. It’s not too hard to imagine that - against a media barrage of hysteria over the prospect of a ‘Marxist’ in No10 - others might step forward to side-line him. Who? “How about Keir Starmer?” Comrade Bridge speculated. It would not be too fanciful to imagine a figure like him getting the support of ‘left wing’ Tories, Lib Dems and perhaps the Scottish National Party? The ongoing nightmare of Brexit then disappears along with the Corbyn bogeyman. The comrade underlined that “I’m not saying that will happen, but the left ought to be conscious” of the danger.
The future is uncertain - full of dangers and possibilities. It presents huge tasks for the left - sections of which, stupidly, remain outside the Labour Party - “voluntarily”, he pointedly noted.
In the discussion, comrades took up three broad themes.
First, anti-Semitism. Comrade Moshé Machover - a guest at the meeting - commented on the fluid nature of the definition of ‘anti-Semitism’. This ‘new anti-Semitism’ is “not a recent invention” of pro-imperialist groups like the Alliance for Workers Liberty and “not even an invention of the local enemies of Jeremy Corbyn.” The comrade flagged up as important a developing “crisis” between Israel and Jews throughout the rest of the world. This was something that we should recognise as “one of the motives” behind the witch-hunt in Labour.
James Harvey reported on the situation in his local CLP where Momentum members are consciously avoiding any serious discussion of anti-Semitism. It’s “too difficult a topic”, people are told. He notes a “chill factor” on the left’s ability to even talk about it. The problem does not just stem from the right and its bellicose campaign; the left’s notions of “offence” and “identity politics” issues have contributed.
Second - rationality. Mike Macnair pointed out that part of this process involved the stage by stage abolition of freedom of speech. There is an implication in that movement that “war is not far off”, a confirmation of the adage that “truth is the first casualty.” So, this furore in Labour is intimately “linked to developments in the Middle East.” The really “scary thing” however is the connection to “a lot of bellicose noises against Russia”. A confrontation that implies a great power war.
I backed up comrade Macnair’s point about the authoritarian irrationality and the restrictions on people’s ability to think and speak critically. The attacks of the right wing are often not simply “an attack on people’s rights, on their freedom of speech - they’re an attack on rationality” itself, I said. An expression of the fact that the right are aware that they cannot win in an open and honest debate.
Stan Keable mentioned the circular from Jennie Formby informing comrades that while discussing issues - concretely, the anti-Semitism controversy - you “mustn’t criticise anyone” or be “unhelpful” by calling out peoples’ motives for raising the issue. This sort of hypersensitive irrationality is endemic in Labour, and not simply on the right.
Third - political independence. I commented that we needed to get “a sense of urgency” about this question of the political independence of the working class and - more concretely - the independence of the left from Corbyn and Corbynism. Not an easy task, I thought, given its “endemic tailism”. I get “moans in the pub” after meetings; no “notion of a coherent organised platform” that would support Corbyn when he is supportable and draw a hard line against him when he’s not.
Comrade Keable suggested that the Achilles heel of the Labour left as far as political independence goes is the obsession with “electability”. In pursuit of this the left will accept stringent restrictions on itself and its ability to take an independent stand.
Comrade Macnair pointed out that this was an incredibly hard task, given that our movement “has so much lost elementary forms of class political independence” in general. That said, the mere fact of Corbyn’s leadership victory “opens up in the Labour Party and the labour movement … a fluidity, a chaos period” where a great deal can be achieved.
The second agenda item - on the Middle East - was introduced by Yassamine Mather and was an expansion of her article in last week’s paper.4 “We live in uncertain times”, she observed - primarily because the Trump presidency has divested itself of all the “sane” people, as the Democrat opposition had dubbed the departees. Her opening looked at the convulsions in the White House, the unstable nature of the Trump administration as evidenced by tensions and friction between individual rivals, and the consequences of recent changes in personnel.
A theme running through all of this is the question of the nuclear deal with Iran, so the comrade took some time to explain national security advisor Bolton’s vision for that country - “just as he had a vision for Iraq”, the comrade pointedly commented. While his appointment does not make an attack on Iran certain, it adds to the uncertainty in general, she said.
The comrade spent a considerable amount of time on the ‘Bolton vision’ - shared by Trump - for a post theocracy Iran, and then answering questions and comments on this from the meeting. What is this alternative? “It’s a cult”, she told us. “It’s called the Mujahedin-e-Khalq” - a perverse and greatly diminished sect kept half-afloat by Saudi money and living, weirdly, in a tower block in Albania.
The key points comrade Mather made were that the MEK are simply not a viable alternative to establish a regime in Iran (or anywhere on the planet, frankly). The US can wreak havoc in Iran or anywhere else in the Middle East - with or without nuclear weapons. In the aftermath of the defeat of Iran, a project might be the break-up of the country into national entities. But comrade Mather illustrated the problems involved with this, given the inter-penetration of the peoples of the area and the reliance of local elites on Tehran - an enormously complex picture.
The Iranian regime has shown that it is capable of retreating. But it faces a government in Washington “that is not into nation-building”, she said. “It is actually in favour of break-ups and destruction.”
“Uncertain times” indeed.
1. As characterised by Margaret Beckett MP.
2. ‘No place for anti-Semitism’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014.
3. ‘J’accuse...!’ (‘I accuse...!’) was an open letter published in January 1898 by the writer Emil Zola, accusing the French government of anti-Semitism over the jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army general staff officer imprisoned for espionage.
4. ‘Triple alliance piles on pressure’ Weekly Worker April 5 2018.