Jack Conrad states that the Provisional Central Committee of the CBGB has called on Marxists to vote Labour with no illusions in the forthcoming UK elections (‘Our attitude towards a Corbyn government’, November 7). These illusions include the belief that the Labour leadership will stay true to policies that improve the conditions of the working class in the UK. However, the call for a Labour vote reproduces one of the greatest illusions of all: that Labour is or could become a socialist party.
Already the leadership is backing away from recent conference commitments. Once a Labour government is in power, free movement of labour, state intervention to prevent climate change, abolishing private schools and nationalisation will no longer be priorities (See ‘Labour likely to water down radical plans in manifesto’ Financial Times November 12). The leadership appears desperate to gain support from the ruling class. This will mean abandoning the compulsory aspects of Labour’s £300 billion employee ownership scheme. For such a scheme to win the approval of employers, workers must be free to sell the 10% of shares they are allocated. Conversely employers must be free to allocate shares to their workers.
The ruling class is increasingly concerned about the survival of capitalism in the current period. There is an awareness that concessions need to be given to workers. The problem is one of control - how can concessions be granted without raising workers’ expectations? The best solution would be to channel these within national frameworks and privilege a section of the working class over others internally and internationally. Preferably this can be done without resorting to trade and real wars.
Austerity has proved an insufficient means of control. The attempt to restore the functioning of the global industrial reserve army of labour has been only partially successful. Collective opposition continues to erupt worldwide, despite economic atomisation. We therefore see the rise of right and leftwing forms of nationalism. These reinforce divisions within the working class at the local, national and international levels. Both raise expectations in order to shatter them with forms of repression, capitulation and decomposition. Constant defeats engender despair and cause social and political disintegration.
Neither left nor right forms of nationalism ensure stability. This is why the ruling class encourages them only as a last resort, when crises get out of hand. But both are preferable to socialist or communist revolution. They function in different ways to prevent socialism or communism coming into being. Rightwing nationalism demonises Marxism and is actively hostile to socialists and communists. Leftwing nationalism glorifies past struggles in order to justify class-collaboration and the bureaucratic management of class division in the present. Both promote Keynesian programmes of limited expansion.
Put in the context of the UK election, which is the lesser evil - Johnson or Corbyn? Ruling class self-interest might suggest Johnson. A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster, but the loss of £30 billion in annual revenue is less likely to inhibit the process of capital accumulation than a state that threatens to redistribute £300 billion worth of shares to workers.
However, in the long term, Corbyn might be a safer bet. Recent Greek history has shown that, regardless of its support for general strikes and demonstrations, a leftwing government can be successfully coopted. The class struggle was confined within a Greek national framework and policies were justified according to the national interest.
Like the leadership of Syriza, the present Labour leaders once claimed to be anti-capitalist. However, unlike Syriza, the Labour leadership has been coopted before coming to power. I can conceive of a Labour government supporting a general strike against austerity or climate change but, when there are no Marxist parties with a membership capable of disabling the state and the political and economic establishment, there can be no political or social revolution and the ruling class will remain in power. As the crisis reasserts itself, a Labour government and the trade unions will play an important role in guaranteeing stability, policing dissent and maintaining order.
It is highly unlikely that Labour will lead the working class in overthrowing capitalism and establishing a globally planned society worldwide. Clearly there is an argument for joining Labour in order to attract individuals to Marxist organisations outside the party, but the notion that Labour is or could become a socialist party is entirely illusory. It is an idea promoted more by sections of the ruling class that support austerity and rightwing nationalism than most individuals and parties on the left.
If I am right, an electoral victory for Labour will foster illusions in leftwing nationalism and class-collaboration. If Marxists are to challenge these illusions, they should be discussing creating a political climate within which Marxist parties with a mass working class base can emerge.
Paul B Smith
In my article last week, I said: “it appears that capitalism is not yet ready to embrace [a Green New Deal type of] ‘offer’, because it is afraid [that such a massive state-led reinvestment programme] would lead to a repeat of 1968 …” (‘Sinking, but not yet sunk’, November 14). I may be forced to eat my words, come the December 12 election.
Not that it matters, because we have all been taken by surprise. It would seem that the leaders of British capitalism have undergone a radical change: ie, they have done a monumental volte face on economic policy, not seen since the rise of Thatcherism in the 1980s. Indeed they appear to be ditching the latter (aka neoliberalism) for a return to Keynesianism. If one can’t go forward, then one must go back. Just how this will affect neoliberalism, I will leave for others to decide. But, like the proverbial weather vane, the mainstream media has quickly followed this volte face on the part of the leaders of British capital; that is, if the events at this year’s CBI annual conference has anything to do with it.
In its coverage of the latter (November 18), Channel 4 led with these words: “All fixed relations are swept away. All that is solid melts into air” - and even acknowledged the quote! It showed a clip of Boris Johnson being put on the back foot by Jeremy Corbyn - yet again. He had to be held back by the conference chair; but, when he did speak, it was only to say that the Conservatives are withdrawing their promised cut in corporation tax, so that the existing tax revenue could be spent on the NHS. The door was open for Corbyn to present Labour as the party of big business, despite the fact that under a Labour government Britain will see borrowing like never before. At the same time, Labour says it will renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union along the lines of remaining in the single market, a new customs union; whilst it would ensure that regulatory alignment would continue. By so doing, Corbyn has managed to subordinate Brexit to his new vision for a Britain based on the needs of “the many, not the few”. Suddenly this is music to the ears for large sections of the CBI delegates.
In response to Corbyn’s speech, CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn criticised the Tory Party, saying that Britain’s top business people want a proper deal with the EU, as opposed to the continuing threat of a no deal. At the same time she did not criticise Labour’s promise of a high-investment economy, not even the promise of nationalisation; although she is worried that the latter might lead to an investment freeze. Not to be outdone, Liberal Democratic leader Jo Swinson seized another chance for self-promotion, boasting that, under her leadership, the Lib Dems are the “natural party of big business”, because they don’t want Brexit at all! But, like the Tories, the Lib Dems can’t match Labour’s spending plans.
Next Channel 4’s regular reporter, Gary Gibbon, turned our attention to the front page of the Financial Times. It ran a single headline which boldly stated that “capitalism needs to be reset”! When Gibbons asked FT editor Lionel Barber whether his paper is “challenging the central nostrums of capitalism”, he replied that there is “something wrong” with the system and that “we need to do things better”. Former commercial secretary to the treasury Jim O’Neil opined that neoliberalism has failed; no, capitalism hasn’t failed, but he believes that it’s “dysfunctional” rather than “broken” and “it needs urgent repair”.
The CBI’s annual conference could not be more timely. It has seized the opportunity to show that ‘old’ money plus a few hedge-fund managers in the City of London have ‘taken back control’; and they think that Labour could become the party of business after all, if not its leader. For the time being, the Blairite right is united behind Corbyn’s bold announcement of a free broadband policy - Labour’s fifth nationalisation pledge, which is part and parcel of its promise to double government spending on infrastructure (while not committing Labour to a Green New Deal.) Big business seems to be telling the Blairites to move to the left! Let’s rely on Corbyn to get Labour into power. (We can always find a way to remove him later, given his dodgy foreign policy.)
Then there was another economist, Graham Turner, who is also chief advisor to John McDonnell: “The British state needs to take lessons from an economic superpower - and it’s not the United States.” Read China. Echoing the FT, he added that “we need to reset the economy”. He was asked, “Does that mean five-year plans?” and replied: “I would prefer to use the phrase, ‘vision’.” Cue shots of Labour meetings from the hustings, showing Corbyn addressing the faithful, in which Jeremy’s use of words like “revolution”, not forgetting “socialism”, are echoed by a crowd of loyal supporters.
Channel 4 wrapped up its item on the CBI conference, wherein “All fixed relations are swept away” and “All that is solid melts into air”; ie, there is a growing consensus that, as the FT says, “capitalism needs to be reset”.
It is a question of whether on December 12 Britain can get back to the old class relations, whence the electorate will decide that the only choice (for now) is to vote Labour rather than Conservative, as opposed to a four-way split. But this depends on whether the mood of the country has changed, wherein ‘the people’ no longer believe the lie about ‘Take back control’ that was perpetrated by the representatives of corporate greed: ie, a majority of hedge-fund managers who have captured the leadership of the Tory Party, to which Johnson has nailed his own hopes for Churchillian glory. Hopefully, instead, he will be written out of history as the most short-lived prime minister in history, and the Tories will suffer irreparable harm. If this proves to be the case, then, in spite of his fence-sitting a là Brexit, Corbyn’s class-based slogan, “For the many, not the few”, will strike the strongest chord with the masses. That is the only way in which Britain can climb out of the mire of Brexit tribalism and so end this particular nightmare. Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done”, even if it means no deal, is not an option. The bourgeoisie knows it would mean disaster for everyone.
If Labour does win, then this election would be truly historic. It will reveal that British capitalism has finally bitten the bullet: ie, it has embraced the ‘offer’ that reformism is holding out to it once again (cf 1945). This time it has looked into the abyss of the rise of rightwing populism and nationalism, as a consequence of its own strategy of permanent austerity and rising inequality, combined with atomisation and a divisive social agenda - not forgetting the existential threat of climate change.
Thus after being holed by an iceberg called rightwing populism, the ship called Neoliberalism will be rescued and able to carry on its voyage - at least for the time being. But this is still a big ask, given the level of fragmentation and despair among “the many”. If it does happen, then I will be forced to eat my words, albeit grudgingly, in the full knowledge that a socialist revolution led by a mass Marxist party is the only answer.
I thought Corbyn did well against ‘All Mouth and No Trousers’ in the Great Debate. He had the best one-liner about suffering nine years under the Tory “coalitions of chaos”. We nearly went ‘all constitutional’ when Johnson said the institution of the monarchy is above reproach and Corbyn said it needs improvement. Both swore to defend the union by opposing another Scottish referendum. Johnson will never allow it and Corbyn kicked it somewhere into the long grass and nobody quite knows where.
Republicans call for the monarchy to be scrapped and support Scotland’s right to self-determination. The Scottish people must have the right to decide if they want a referendum on independence. It is not for a Johnson or Corbyn government to deny people their democratic rights. Republicans should oppose leaving the EU, but as democrats recognise the referendum result and as socialists recognise the significance of a divided working class.
Republicans understand the mandate from England and Wales to leave and Northern Ireland and Scotland voting to remain. Nobody voted to leave the single market or the customs union. There is no mandate for that. Listening to how people voted and delivering it leads to a ‘Denmark-Greenland’ (one state-two nations) deal. This or any deal must be put to the people in a ratification referendum, which allows all resident EU citizens and all 16 and 17-year-olds to vote.
Corbyn has not adopted the republican position on the EU (or the monarchy or Scotland), but is not far away. He was weakest on the EU, where he lacked a clear answer. On Brexit he has a good story to tell. He is a ‘remain democrat’, who campaigned for ‘remain’, but accepted that the majority (in England and Wales) voted to leave. As a socialist he is right to make the issue of a divided working class central to his position. He has fought every Tory Brexit - the May deal, no deal and the Johnson deal - and played a major role in stopping the UK leaving on March 29 and October 31.
If Johnson wins a majority and can get his deal through the Commons, then the demand for a ratification referendum is a valid democratic demand. Republicans should continue to oppose a second referendum or a ‘remain’ question. If Corbyn wins a majority then Labour has a mandate to negotiate a soft Labour Brexit and then offer a referendum with a ‘remain’ question.
Corbyn appears to be boxed in by a hypothetical question of how he would vote if he became PM and then negotiated a softer Labour Brexit. He cannot simply say ‘remain’, since this would destroy the credibility of his negotiating plan. But he should say he intends to negotiate a ‘great deal’, which can win a majority in the country. Then he will recommend voting for it as the best way to unite people.
However, if it turns out he only achieves a ‘moderately good’ deal, he can tell the people to vote against it. That is what trade union negotiators can do. Once a deal is done and the fine print is clear, any honest trade union negotiator could urge workers either to support it or reject it, depending on how good it is. Hence Corbyn can say what he will recommend - either the deal or ‘remain’ - which cannot be known until the negotiations are complete.
Neither this TV debate nor even the royal crisis over the ‘Prince and the paedophile’ is the most significant event this week. The most important is the heroic struggle by young democrats in Hong Kong. They have put up a brave and tremendous battle against the violence of the Hong Kong police, who are fully armed with gas and guns and every possible weapon.
It has been inspiring to see their revolutionary democratic struggle against overwhelming force. It looks like they have been defeated. However, it seems they have kept the continuing support of the majority of Hong Kong people, who are still coming out on the streets in solidarity and bravely shouting at and abusing their brutal police. Hong Kong workers are the key to victory. What starts in Hong Kong cannot stay there. The Tories sold Hong Kong to China without democracy and the right to vote. This has become a ‘crisis of democracy’ on the brink of a democratic revolution, which needs actions by millions of working people to win.
Gerry Downing from Socialist Fight is completely delusional about Bolshevism, which, with Lenin and later Trotsky at its head, fought against a democratic approach to socialism from October 1917 (Letters, November 8). Bolshevism was a product of the backward conditions in tsarist Russia, Lenin’s intolerance and Marxist support for dictatorship instead of the democratic rule of the working people. Both Lenin and Trotsky created a totalitarian police state, which Stalin later made ample use of. Had Lenin and Trotsky not created such a state, it is highly unlikely that Stalin would have come to power. We need to remember that Stalin did not destroy socialist democracy in the Soviet Union. Lenin, with Trotsky’s help, destroyed socialist democracy.
Stalin’s power was not purely administrative. Without a powerful political narrative no administrative advantage could have raised him into power. The Stalin group provided this by using Lenin’s strategic retreat of socialism in one country, which Lenin had turned to after the Brest-Litovsk peace with German imperialism - a possibility which he raised even before the revolution (see his 1915 article on ‘United States of Europe’ slogan).
While Stalin recognised the objective isolation of the revolution, the Trotskyist, semi-ultra leftist element, continued to prate on about world revolution in a period of revolutionary ebb-tide. This helped to ensure Stalin’s victory. Stalin was probably the right man for the job, in so far as he posed less danger to the existence of the Leninist regime than Trotsky and similar individuals. Trotsky was feared in the party, especially since his militarisation of labour campaign, in which he demanded the right to execute workers for persistently undermining labour discipline. Wanting to shoot workers for persistent absenteeism rather than sacking them or cutting their wages brought on him well deserved censure from many party members - and rightly so - particularly from trade unionists. A man like Trotsky, who wanted the right to shoot workers for indiscipline, is not a man we should would want to lead a socialist state. And so his defeat by Stalin was understandable, although the latter accentuated the negative features of the Leninist, totalitarian police state, which Trotsky played a leading role in creating.
Leninism led to a totalitarian form of socialism and many people on the revolutionary left have been thoroughly deceived by Trotsky into believing that everything started to go wrong after Stalin took over the leadership, when in fact both Lenin and Trotsky were the principal creators of this anti-democratic state in the first place - by seizing power in a backward country with little initial understanding about how to bring about socialism under backward conditions, without support from revolutions in the more advanced countries. This problem was made worst by Lenin, who, although a student of dialectics, failed to recognise the difference between contradictions within the revolutionary camp and the contradictions between the revolution and its enemies. This meant that the Leninists tended to view all opposition to their monopoly of power as counterrevolutionary. Even Maxim Gorky, a critical supporter of the revolution, was warned by Lenin.
Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all defended the idea of socialism and for this they deserve credit. But all three deserve censure for the way they went about trying to realise the socialist idea. The problem with Robin Blick’s critique of Leninism in The seeds of evil, which Downing refers to, is that for Blick criticism of Leninism leads automatically to support for Menshevism. However, Blick is quite right to expose the fact that Lenin, with Trotsky’s help, destroyed socialist democracy and created a totalitarian police state in its place. It is completely mendacious and hypocritical for Trotsky and his supporters to try and give the impression that it was Stalin who destroyed socialist democracy, when the true culprits were Lenin and Trotsky.
Trotsky continued to support the Leninist police state until he lost power. It was only after losing power that Trotsky began to demand the democratic socialist society which he and Lenin had fought against. All the top Bolshevik leaders, including Zinoviev and Bukharin, supported Leninist totalitarianism and opposed, at one stage or another, the development of a democratic socialist society. Stalin in fact played a minor role in the destruction of soviet democracy, although he benefited the most from it. Like Lenin, he treated the contradictions within the revolutionary camp as a contradiction between the revolution and its enemies.
Downing is right to expose the anti-democratic internal regimes of organisations like the Socialist Workers Party, but they only mirror Leninist anti-democratic behaviour. Another mistake of Blick in The seeds of evil is that he forgot to mention that Marx called for a dictatorship, which Lenin defended as rule untrammelled by any law. By calling for dictatorship Marx opened the door to tyranny and the abuse of political power, which, of course, happened in the Russian Revolution under Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. So Marx must share some of the responsibility for what went wrong in the Russian Revolution.
Indeed, Leninism was so alien to the idea of democratic socialist society that up until the collapse of the Leninist regime in 1991, Gorbachev had no idea how to lead the Soviet Union towards a democratic, socialist society - a failure which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Twenty-eight years after the collapse of the Leninist regime in the Soviet Union, most of the Leninist left has learnt nothing from this event. They continue banging on about Leninism without realising that the choice we face on the left is between a democratic socialist society and Leninist totalitarianism.
Rate of profit
I agree with Michael Roberts that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (LTRPF) is fundamental in understanding capitalist crises (‘Marx’s double-edge law’, November 14). LTRPF has been a subject of debate going back many decades. Whilst the Socialist Workers Party has an orthodox Marxist agreement with Michael Roberts view of the LTRPF (he attends their annual Marxism), the same cannot be said of the rest of the left.
I can remember a debate about the LTRPF within the Revolutionary Socialist League (better known as the Militant Tendency) in the early 1980s between the late Andrew Glyn and Mick Brooks (representing the RSL central committee). Glyn was on his way out of the RSL and had come up with the idea that the cheapening of the units of fixed capital (dead labour) in relation to variable capital (living labour) would allow capitalism to overcome the LTRPF.
Over the last decade the debate over the LTRPF has come back to haunt the Socialist Party in England and Wales (the successor to the Militant Tendency) and Socialist Appeal (a split from the Militant Tendency in 1992). Peter Taaffe, SPEW general secretary, has argued against the LTRPF, pointing to the huge increase in the mass of profit in the last two decades, and argues against the ideas of Michael Roberts and the likes of Andrew Kliman, that the LTRPF was the cause of the 2008 credit crunch. Taaffe argues that those who support the LTRPF and dismiss the rise in the mass of profit are falling into the trap set by the theoreticians of capitalism that a cut in the share of surplus value going to workers is necessary to boost the rate of profit and hence get capitalist economies moving again.
Then there are the ideas of Socialist Appeal theoretician Alan Woods, who in his speeches often makes a dig at former Socialist Appeal member Michael Roberts, by talking about what Woods calls the “falling rate of theory” (Socialist Appeal believes that capitalist crises are caused by an overproduction of consumer goods, not the LTRPF).
As Michael Roberts in his article points out, the LTRPF eventually influences the mass of profit, which leads to a downturn or recession in the economy. Before that occurs, there is usually a tipping point, caused by a rise in the amount of surplus value going to workers in the form of wage rises. The recent fall in the level of inflation, together with the coming rises in the minimum and living wages proposed by both Boris Johnson and John McDonnell, will lead to a fall in the rate of profit - which will eventually lead to a fall in the mass of profit, to be followed by a new recession or even a collapse in the British economy.
The so-called recovery of the Anglo-Saxon economies since the credit crunch of 2008 has been the weakest recovery in the history of capitalism. The causes of this were clearly analysed in the book Zombie capitalism by the late Chris Harman (economics guru of the SWP). Even today, we still have zombie-banks and zombie-corporations - the latter especially present in the retail sector. The real cause of Thomas Cook’s collapse was a mass of debt that it took out to buy a smaller competitor in 2015. The only thing that is keeping similar zombie-corporations afloat is the very low rate of interest (many are just servicing the interest on debt and not paying back any of the capital borrowed).
As Michael Roberts has explained on his blog - the possible trigger of a new downturn or recession could be the huge level of private corporate debt. A rise in the level of interest rates, possibly triggered by Brexit, could lead to the collapse of debt-heavy corporations, as Thomas Cook clearly shows.
Marxists must prepare for the coming downturn/recession - caused, as always, by the LTRPF.
Divide and rule
Yassamine Mather in her article in last week’s Weekly Worker correctly, in my view, refers to a “general plan of divide and rule” in the occupation of Iraq (‘Met with maximum force’, November 14). She points out further that “war and occupation paved the way for sectarianism and the subsequent horrors of the jihadi ascendency to statehood”.
I recall thinking at the time of the invasion, and in the first few days and weeks after, that all the statements and reports from the US, the generals, the ‘embedded ones’ and so on referred to Sunnis and Shias over and over rather than Iraqis; or Ba’athists or even, in their sublime arrogance, insurgents.
Since, apart from a few opportunist diversions, the policy of the Ba’ath party and of Saddam Hussein was largely secular, this was imposing, forcefully, a not necessarily relevant layer to the conflict. Sunnis and Shias hated Saddam and neither wanted the US and its allies hanging around.
A few years later I read Mark Kukis’s Voices from Iraq: he, working for Time magazine, tried to get something like a representative cross-section of ‘Iraqi voices’. This was not easy, as he couldn’t get around much without getting killed and his interviewees were not keen on being seen talking to an American journalist; nevertheless, he got some very interesting ‘voices’ (I’d be interested to hear of anything better, by the way).
A constant theme, reiterated in many of the interviews, was the fear of looting. Given the deliberate collapse of the state, it wasn’t just museums and palaces that suffered this fate and, given the destitution caused by years of sanctions, it was desperate and widespread. One respondent said that he and his neighbours had to initiate their own patrols to protect their mutual properties - houses and shops.
In forming such a group they had to have a high degree of mutual trust and the people they thought they could trust most were those from their own mosque. This was, I’d guess, a further and unsurprising source of sectarian separation.
There was more to the sectarian divide than that, of course, but the policies of the invading and occupying forces ramped up sectarian grievances and gave the occupiers a ‘divide and rule’ for their short-term advantage and for everybody else’s long-term sorrows. They don’t stop or care, do they? India, Rwanda, Cyprus …