Critical not unconditional
Peter Manson reports on a lively internal debate that centred on a backsliding Jeremy Corbyn
The April 27 aggregate meeting of comrades from the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists discussed a motion, proposed by the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, on the precise attitude the left should take towards the Labour leadership. The background to this is, of course, the ongoing strategy of accommodation to the Labour right adopted by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
Introducing the motion, Jack Conrad reiterated that Corbyn is unlikely to head a Labour government. It is true that he could become so tamed and compromised that some would regard him as having defected completely to the side of the establishment. On the other hand, there could be a “mass accident”, whereby a large number of rightwing Labour MPs were deselected. But that is so unlikely, obviously - whatever happened to the new trigger ballot procedure that Labour’s national executive committee was supposed to implement?
Leaving those possibilities to one side, comrade Conrad stated that he still remained of the view that Corbyn was regarded as completely unreliable by the ruling class, because of his previous opposition to imperialist wars and association with the working class movement, that he could not be trusted to head a government. If Labour was the biggest party after an election, he thought the monarch would be advised that he would not be able to command majority support in parliament and someone ‘more suitable’ - from the Labour right - would be called to Buckingham Palace instead. And the possibility of a cross-party national government remains on the cards.
However, the motion was about our attitude to the Labour leadership, comrade Conrad continued. It was, after all, not what we had hoped it would be under Corbyn. Of course, For the many, not the few was not Labour’s “most radical” ever manifesto, as some seemed to believe. It was, well to the left of those we had seen under Tony Blair, but that is hardly saying very much. Nevertheless, there remains a fear of a Labour government amongst the establishment - not, in the main, because of possible increased taxation on business or limited renationalisation, but because of the “crisis of expectations” that the election of a Corbyn-led government might produce in the shape of mass militancy on the part of the working class.
Despite that, the leadership’s strategy of retreat and accommodation is so all-embracing that Corbyn cannot bring himself to speak out against the right-led witch-hunt against his own supporters using false accusations of anti-Semitism, while, for his part, McDonnell is in denial - there is no witch-hunt, he claims. Back in the days of Neil Kinnock’s drive against the Militant Tendency, a dozen or more Labour MPs could be relied upon to speak out against it. But today only Chris Williamson has done so - and then, after he was suspended for saying Labour had been “too apologetic” over accusations of virtually non-existent anti-Semitism, he himself issued an apology for having said something that was essentially correct. Meanwhile those who make blatantly false accusations - such as Margaret Hodge, Tom Watson and Ruth Smeeth - are not called to account, let alone disciplined.
Corbyn can no longer be included in the “socialist left”, as many insist, said comrade Conrad. He is clearly now committed to running capitalism, no matter how much he and McDonnell claim that their government would implement reforms that favour workers. Yes, we must continue to defend Corbyn against the Labour right, but we must attack him for his retreats, not “criticise him as a friend”.
We must continue to fight for a Labour Party with a Marxist leadership - that is what is necessary to transform it into a united front of the entire working class. Because you are surrounded by traitors, concluded comrade Conrad, that does not mean you have to become a traitor yourself. A Marxist would use the position of leader to appeal to the rank and file, not become a prisoner of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
In the debate that followed, first to speak was a non-CPGB/LPM guest, Marilyn Sterne. While she agreed with much of what comrade Conrad had to say, she wondered how she should now work within her Labour branch. We have to explain that we cannot collaborate with the capitalist system, she said, yet we also have to reckon with the leadership’s shift to the right.
Next to speak was Carla Roberts of LPM. She pointed out that some on the Labour left were becoming demoralised with the leadership. Many would like to openly criticise his appeasement, but there was a fear, in the current climate, that such criticism might lead to their own expulsion. Much of the left has, for instance, stopped pursuing the question of trigger ballots, she thought, but we must continue to fight to push comrades to the left and Labour Against the Witchhunt had a key role to play in doing that.
In his contribution Bob Williams talked of the totally uncritical attitude towards the Corbyn leadership he had come across at Momentum meetings. We should be “100% behind the leader” - that was the attitude. Some were now saying there were “more important issues” than combating false claims of anti-Semitism, which they considered now to be a lost cause. But he stressed that the fight for democracy was our greatest weapon against the right.
I pointed out that the press was continuing to target Corbyn - for example, over his remarks in favour of ‘leftwing dictators’ and ‘terrorists’. In other words, there was no sign that Corbyn is viewed as an acceptable prime minister.
Next up was Mike Macnair - like comrade Conrad a member of the CPGB’s PCC. He reminded us of the common argument we encounter amongst those in the Labour Party who consider themselves to be socialists or even Marxists: above everything else we need a Labour government and therefore we have to “manage the media”. This, of course, only encouraged the appeasement of the right. Comrade Macnair noted that for the right allegations of anti-Semitism were now regarded as proof.
Mick Hurst criticised the PCC motion from the left. He said Corbyn was fast becoming a “normal Labour leader” and Momentum was a “very conservative organisation”. Corbyn and McDonnell can no longer be classified as ‘left’, so we must prioritise LPM and LAW and expose Corbyn and McDonnell for what they are. He proposed deleting point 9 in the motion, which talks of the need to “defend the Labour leadership” against the right. We should reject “auto-Corbynism”, he said - our task was to “empower the working class”. He also queried the CPGB position on the European Union elections. We cannot support every single Labour candidate. We should abstain.
He was followed by Farzad Kamangar, who said that, while Corbyn and McDonnell had lowered themselves to the level of the right on many issues, they are still regarded as left leaders by those like the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales. But it was important to “strike a balance”, she said, between expressing strong criticism and attempting to defeat the right.
Stan Keable of LPM thought it was important to be clear on the extent to which Corbyn and McDonnell had changed. It was important to establish exactly how they should be classified now, especially in the context of the call for a new organisation of the Labour left - such unity would require a struggle for the correct position, he said.
William Sarsfield contended that the motion, including point 9, was “timely”. He thought that in general the opposition of the Labour rank and file to the false ‘anti-Semitism’ charges was healthy, but there was a feeling that ‘we’ve lost this one’ and so we should look for ‘more fertile ground’ on which to fight. However, one act of surrender would lead to others and he urged comrades to seriously address how LPM could take things forward.
Vernon Price agreed that many thought the struggle to democratise Labour had been lost and so there now needed to be a differentiation on the left. But how should this be given organisational form? We should also look at how to take forward LAW and discuss the motions put forward by the steering committee for the May 4 meeting, he said. Like other comrades Phil Kent was in favour of retaining point 9. The idea was to “create space” to take on the right, he said, while at the same time opposing Corbyn’s retreats.
Responding to the debate, comrade Conrad said that after Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 he had expected that Labour Party Marxists would soon be exercising a “huge draw”. Its message is indeed popular, but very few are ready to act along the lines LPM recommends. The day he was confirmed as Labour leader, Corbyn went out of his way to address a left-led demonstration rather than appearing on the Andrew Marr show. Unfortunately, however, he soon learnt to be ‘sensible’ and now cuts a rather different political figure.
He reiterated that Corbyn does not have any “ambitious programme” to transform Labour - indeed Tony Blair was more ambitious (and successful) in this regard. Nevertheless, the establishment still fears that Corbyn cannot be relied upon - the queen would perhaps call someone like Tom Watson rather than Corbyn to form a government.
However, he disagreed with comrade Hurst’s argument that we should no longer defend Corbyn against the right. After all, in doing so we are defending the space in which we can fight for Labour’s transformation. So our support needs to be critical, most definitely - but not unconditional. It includes the need to make demands on the leadership. So he rejected comrade Hurst’s implication that point 9 was an example of “auto-Corbynism”.
He pointed out that Labour’s membership had doubled and there were many thousands who are beginning to think. Our task is to engage with the ideas and programme of Marxism. Certainly the Labour Party is at the moment a key site of struggle - and we should certainly advocate that organisations such as the Morning Star’s CPB, the SWP and SPEW join us in fighting for a good Labour vote in both the local and EU elections.
After this full debate, the motion was put to a vote. Comrade Hurst’s argument was clearly rejected by most comrades and he withdrew his amendment. The motion itself was agreed unanimously.
Following the main debate, the aggregate was addressed by comrade Yassamine Mather on the possibility of an imperialist-led war in the Middle East. This focussed on Iran, following Donald Trump’s dubbing of the Revolutionary Guards as a “terrorist organisation”, but also dealt with, among other things, the situation in Syria and Israel/Palestine, and the enduring power of Islamic State, which, she contended, had “not been defeated”.
Comrade Mather pointed out that the RG were in reality incorporated into the Iranian army and so Iran itself was being labelled terrorist. It looked as though the Trump administration was hoping to provoke Tehran into “doing something stupid”, which would then be met by an Israeli military response. If that happened the US would insist it had to ‘defend its ally’.
Comrade Mather warned of the likely response of some on the left, who would offer the Islamic regime unconditional and perhaps uncritical support. That is why the left needs to build Hands Off the People of Iran, which opposes not only any imperialist intervention, including sanctions, but also the Tehran regime itself.
It was a fascinating talk, which the Weekly Worker will shortly be publishing.
Attitude towards the current Labour leadership
1. Our position on the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party was worked out in advance - that is, well before his actual election - and with far greater foresight and precision than any other campaign, committee, group or party on the left. We are committed to the complete transformation of the Labour Party, forging it into a permanent united front of the working class and equipping it with solid Marxist principles and a tried and tested Marxist leadership.
2. Whatever the idiot rightwing press, Tory ERGers and Tom Watson’s Future Britain say, Corbyn is no Marxist. He is, in fact, a sincere, but weak, badly advised, dithering left reformist. True, Corbyn and his closest allies have a record of opposing imperialist wars and adventures, standing in solidarity with striking workers and voting against Tory attacks on migrants, democratic rights and public services.
3. However, since his election it has become abundantly clear what the class character of a Corbyn government would be. The Corbyn leadership is committed to reversing austerity, increasing the economic role of the state, repealing some anti-trade union laws and introducing a few minor constitutional reforms. At best that amounts to an illusory attempt to run British capitalism in the interests of the working class. Meanwhile, in the name of For the many, not the few, wage-slavery continues, Britain remains a monarchy, subject to judge-made law, one of the Five Eyes, a core imperialist power, a member of Nato and armed with US-controlled nuclear weapons. To call such a programme “socialist” is to violate the commonly accepted language of the left.
4. At present, even such a modest change of course is totally unacceptable to the capitalist class. The biggest fear is that a Corbyn-led government would trigger a crisis of expectations and unleash a wave of class struggles. The Labour right would therefore act to prevent the formation of such a government. Associated with that probability there lies the possibility of the monarch calling another candidate for prime minister for an audience at Buckingham Palace. That could result in the formation of a national government.
5. Nonetheless, a Corbyn-led government cannot be categorically ruled out. But, if it happened, we should expect constitutional and anti-constitutional moves by the privy council, the army, the deep state, etc. Those on the left who downplay such threats, whatever their subjective intentions, constitute themselves as agents of a criminal complacency.
6. Conceivably, the ruling class could reconcile itself to a Corbyn-led government. But only if: (a) it further denounces its own past and further waters down its own programme; and/or (b) in the event of a dangerous upsurge in popular protests, a major downturn in the world economy or a crash caused by a no-deal Brexit, which temporarily necessitated a left Labour government to serve as the best means of mass deception.
7. The collapse before the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt in the Labour Party is a telling warning sign. The appeasement of the Labour right, the failure to challenge blatant lies, the willingness to see good socialists investigated, suspended, sacked, expelled and publicly traduced cannot be excused. And, where Jeremy Corbyn has been silent, John McDonnell has actually given succour to the witch-hunt. Then there is the truly appalling role played by Jon Lansman and his Momentum organisation - praised by the Zionist Jewish Labour Movement. Note: to their everlasting shame Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott supported Lansman’s anti-democratic coup in Momentum.
8. If the Labour leadership is unable to show elementary solidarity with those targeted by a totally cynical witch-hunt, if the Labour leadership calculates that the bigger cause is served by taking such a course, it has betrayed not only its past: it has betrayed its future. Giving them a platform in the left press, treating them as prestigious sponsors, calling such people ‘comrades’ is no longer in any way acceptable.
9. We should defend the Corbyn leadership against Tom Watson and Future Britain, the liberal and rightwing media, the Tories, the deep state, etc. By that we mean, first and foremost, defending the conditions in the Labour Party which allow for the rooting of socialist consciousness and the further spread of Marxist ideas.
10. Our task is to fully empower the Labour Party’s mass membership, open eyes as to the real nature of the Corbyn leadership and bring about the circumstances whereby the Labour Party is thoroughly purged of the pro-capitalist right and the leadership is won by real, not supposed, Marxists.