Sad to say, Andrew Northall does not grasp the Marxist approach to politics (Letters, December 19 2019). Leave aside his reactionary belief that referendums are some sort of pinnacle of democracy (they aren’t): it is his abstentionist attitude towards the Labour Party that really concerns me - crucially because it is shared by too many other good comrades on the left.
Whereas Marxism emphasises potential, movement and change, comrade Northall appears to be wedded to fixed-category reasoning. Perhaps this explains the nonsense he sometimes writes. He claims that the “great majority of the socialist and revolutionary left” in Britain “seems to have been completely disorientated by Mr Corbyn and Corbynism”. He includes what he hilariously calls the “Weekly Worker Group” in that “great majority”. Well, I don’t know what he’s been reading over the last decade or so, but the idea that the CPGB was “completely disorientated by Mr Corbyn and Corbynism” runs so completely against the facts that it almost amounts to a barefaced lie. It is because I don’t think the comrade is being deliberately dishonest that I am forced to treat him as a mere naive.
The fact of the matter is that the CPGB has had a long and entirely consistent position on the Labour Party. Look at our 17 theses on the Labour Party from 2004. We were crystal-clear: the Labour Party came onto the historical agenda because of the decline of British hegemony and the perceived failure of Lib-Labism, as far as the trade union bureaucracy was concerned. Despite Blairism we were convinced that the Labour Party remained a “bourgeois workers’ party”. That is why we condemned the “right sectarian” approach of the dominant forces in the Socialist Alliance, when it came to the Labour Party. We urged active engagement. The theses concluded as follows: “Our overriding goal is to organise the advanced part of the working class into a Communist Party. Obviously that involves a whole series of stages and associated political struggles. The fight for a Communist Party is inseparable from conducting an organised intervention in the Labour Party” (Weekly Worker January 29 2004).
We have successively refined, developed and concretised our approach. Our November 2010 aggregate of CPGB members agreed a set of 24 theses, which include this formulation: “The Labour Party can be made into a real party of labour. By that we communists mean establishing the Labour Party as a united front for all pro-working class partisans and organisations. Undemocratic bans and proscriptions should be rescinded and all communist, revolutionary socialist and left groups encouraged to affiliate.”
In this spirit, the CPGB has given unstinting political support to Labour Party Marxists since its launch (see Labour Party Marxists No1, November 2011). Needless to say, LPM has found an ever growing audience for Marxist ideas.
So relevant was our agreed approach that we further developed it prior to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader (Weekly Worker June 16 2015). Ergo, the suggestion that the CPGB found itself “completely disorientated by Mr Corbyn and Corbynism” is a self-evident absurdity.
Nor did we lose our critical faculties when Corbyn was finally elected in September 2015. Of course, he was never more than a dithering left reformist, nor was his programme in any way socialist. Hence a Labour government with Corbyn as prime minister would not mark a change in class power. As our April 2019 aggregate theses state, “At best [Labour’s approach] amounts to an illusory attempt to run British capitalism in the interests of the working class” (Weekly Worker May 2 2019).
Nonetheless, to their credit Corbyn and his small circle of allies had a record of opposing imperialist wars and adventures, standing in solidarity with striking workers and voting against the Tory assault on migrants, democratic rights and public services. This is what sent the US state department, army generals, MI5 chiefs and Blairite MPs into a frenzy.
Corbyn’s election as Labour leader greatly increased the intensity of the class struggle being fought out in Labour’s ranks. Where the reformist left has sought to appease, has backtracked, the Labour right attacked with cynicism, viciousness and an unprecedented ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign. However, the Labour left now dominates many Constituency Labour Parties and is increasingly open to Marxist answers.
To stand aside from this huge struggle, to merely comment on it from the sidelines, to belittle its importance has nothing to do with Marxism. It is to aid the Labour right and the bourgeois establishment.
Comrade Northall continues: collectively “we” seem to have “bet the entire farm on Mr Corbyn becoming prime minister and bringing about a socialist transformation of the state and economy. Yet another failure by the Labour Party to win a general election is treated as a disaster for the whole class and the left.”
Well, that diagnosis might apply to soft-left organisations such as the Labour Representation Committee, Momentum and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. But the CPGB? Hardly. Programmatically we do not look to a left-reformist Labour government as being a necessary stage in the struggle for socialism. Indeed we have warned of the danger of a left Labour government being elected under conditions where the working class has not yet been cured of its illusions in reformism, electoralism and peaceful constitutionalism.
Comrade Northall says that the Labour Party was “founded by trade unions in order to elect to parliament and other assemblies trade union and working class representatives to press for legislative changes to benefit working people in this country.” A statement which is true in so far as it goes. But his conclusion is undialectical and in practical terms utterly useless: Labour’s role “is to win elections and then use those elected representatives to press for changes. Its inherent purpose and function is to achieve reforms within capitalism.”
Presumably, the comrade means by “inherent” what it says in the dictionary: ie, something which is defining, permanent or essential. If we applied that approach to trade unions and the trade union movement, what would be the result? Trade unions are collective organisations of workers, whose “inherent” purpose is to bargain with employers in order to improve pay and conditions. Well, true ... but.
Treating trade unions as a fixed category gets us nowhere. The idea of transforming them into a “school of communism” (VI Lenin ‘Leftwing’ communism) would seem to be a complete fantasy. Trade unions, tenants associations, co-ops and the Labour Party constitute what Marx called the “real movement of the working class”. Hence, when trade unions in Britain broke with Lib-Labism and formed the Labour Party back in 1900, this was something wholeheartedly welcomed by the leading authorities in the SecondInternational.
Karl Kautsky moved the successful resolution supporting the affiliation of the Labour Party in 1908. Remember, while the working class movement in Britain was politically backward, in terms of history, numbers and organisation, it was the most important national contingent globally. Gaining the affiliation of the Labour Party represented a huge prize, which had to be grasped with both hands.
Kautsky frankly admitted that the Labour Party had not formally committed itself either to socialism or the class struggle. However, or so he claimed, it accepted the class struggle “in practice”. This latter formulation produced an amendment from Lenin. He supported Labour Party affiliation. Despite that, he argued, in practice the Labour Party does not pursue a “fully independent class policy”. Lenin presented his own assessment. The Labour Party is “taking the first step towards socialism and a class policy of the proletarian mass organisations” (VI Lenin CW Vol 15, Moscow 1977, p235).
Lenin’s amendment failed. That did not stop him, on behalf of the RSDLP, voting for Kautsky’s resolution. Nor did it stop him from roundly criticising the delegates from Britain’s Social Democratic Federation, the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party and the revolutionary wing of the Bulgarian socialists, who all voted against Kautsky.
It is an “elementary” sectarian error for Marxists “not to link themselves with the unconscious but powerful class instinct of the trade unions”. Those who do so turn Marxism into a “dogma”, when what it should be is a “guide to action”.
The Labour Party is a federal party with hundreds of thousands of individual members and millions affiliated through the unions. That cardinal fact, not time restraints, is why the CPGB opposed all the silly attempts at forming a Labour Party mark two.
Only a fool can fail to recognise that socialist ideas are growing in the Labour Party, that socialism has the possibility of becoming a mass movement in Britain. To counterpose the perspective of transforming the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind against building a mass Communist Party is sectarianism. Indeed it is sectarianism of the worst kind.
Andrew Northall’s letter on Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election is pure ultra-left cynicism. The truth is that the importance of the Labour Party goes beyond winning elections. Labour still has 203 seats in parliament. The working people still have a voice. The left groups outside the Labour Party don’t even have one seat in parliament, so those who are quick to criticise “Mr” Corbyn should show more humility.
The primary role of the Labour Party at this time is defending the interest of the working people under capitalism. The introduction of a national health serviceisagoodexample.Labourhas done a good job in pushing Britain to a more social form of capitalism than would otherwise be the case. For instance, when people fall sick, they don’t have to pay to get better, if they decide to resort to mainstream medical care. So we need a party which can defend the interest of the working people under capitalism, until such time as capitalism loses enough support to make a socialist transformation of society possible. It is quite possible that the Labour Party can lead the process of socialist transformation. At least it is not impossible, as comrade Northall seems to believe. One of the factors, and possibly the most important one, which would lead to capitalism losing mass support, and thus giving the Labour left a chance, is the inflationary consequences of peak oil, followed by the global oil production decline, if no cheap energy replacement to oil becomes available. In other words, an oil crisis could undermine support for capitalism in the middle classes, isolating the elite, and making the socialist transformation of society possible. This is only one possible way things could play out.
As for the socialist transformation of society in an advanced society like Britain, with a long history of parliamentary democracy, we are faced with a different situation to that which Lenin and his Bolsheviks faced, both objectively and subjectively, with the latter being related to the question of Marxism, which most of the radical left still base themselves on.
One of the fundamental mistakes of Karl Marx and his followers is the wrong teaching that socialism comes from dictatorship rather than democracy. The idea that socialism needs a dictatorship is a flawed idea, which confuses state coercion with dictatorship.
The Marxist view that dictatorship is necessary to bring in socialism opens the door to the abuse of political power, and is an idea which has done a great deal of damage to the struggle for socialism. Many on the left have blamed all the negative aspects of the Russian Revolution on Stalin, but what the left needs to understand is that most of these negative features are related to Marx’s theory that socialism needs dictatorship. Dictatorship is the central idea of Marxism and Lenin wrote that a Marxist was someone who recognised the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dictatorship, Lenin argued, was rule untrammelled by any law. You don’t need a university degree in political science to see the potential for political tyranny contained within Marxism. Yes, Marx was on the side of the working people, but his theories were flawed. And the theory that we need dictatorship to bring in socialism is flaw number one.
Northall’s assessment of Labour’s defeat in the general election suggests to me that he belongs to Marx’s dictatorship camp. But replacing bourgeois democracy with Marxist dictatorship is not a step forward. The step forward is replacing capitalism with a democratic socialist society - an idea which Trotsky belatedly understood after he lost power, although he was not able see that the Marxist teaching that socialism comes from dictatorship is wrong, dangerous and backward.
I agree with Andrew Northall’s conclusion that the place for all Marxists and socialists is not in the Labour Party, but in building a mass Communist Party.
It is very sad that the CPGB Provisional Central Committee has decided to dissolve the CPGB into the reformist Labour Party. The CPGB PCC is following in the footsteps of Joe Stalin’s 1953 British road to socialism, which saw a parliamentary road to socialism in Britain. As such the PCC is copying the mistaken 40 years’ deep entryist work of Ted Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist League (better known as the Militant Tendency) within the Labour Party.
Communists, as advised by Lenin in his pamphlet ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder, should not touch the bourgeois Labour Party with a bargepole. Trotsky also wrote in his 1925 book Where is Britain going? that it is necessary for revolutionaries to build a Communist Party independent of the Labour Party.
The International Socialist Organisation in the USA has gone the same way as the CPGB has now done in Britain and dissolved itself after large numbers of members voted with their feet and joined the Democratic Socialists of America. At the same time, the Committee for a Workers’ International this summer experienced its biggest split yet after its leader, Peter Taaffe, led their members down the garden path. The same can be said about the PCC’s leadership of the CPGB.
In my opinion, the common strand in all these developments is the failure of revolutionary organisations to recognise the swing to the right amongst the working class across the globe. This is clearly shown by the election (and likely re-election) of Donald Trump in the USA, together with the election of far-right politicians in countries as far apart as Brazil and Hungary. This swing to the right made itself felt in Britain, when Boris Johnson was elected prime minister in the ‘Get Brexit done’ landslide of December 12.
In my opinion, only the Socialist Workers Party has the correct position when it comes to the Labour Party and the mistaken so-called parliamentary road to socialism, which unfortunately has now been embraced by the CPGB PCC. The bookies’ favourite to be the new Labour leader, Rebecca Long- Bailey, has reassured the capitalist state that she is “willing to push the nuclear button”. She’s also reassured the Jewish Labour Movement that she won’t readmit expelled former Labour MP Chris Williamson to the party. By doing so, Rebecca will become just a younger, female version of Jeremy Corbynism’s reformism.
Age of Populism
Jeremy Corbyn did not lose the December election. Boris Johnson won. Nationalism (Johnson) always overlays class (Corbyn). For rightwing populists like Boris Johnson it is all about nationalism. Focusing on the ills of Jeremy Corbyn in post-election discussions fails to make one see the wider picture of what is really happening. With Boris Johnson’s win we have truly entered the Age of Populism.
At the beginning of 2020 and with the exception of a few smaller countries (eg, New Zealand, Denmark, Iceland, etc), most democratic countries are either governed by rightwing conservatives (Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Greece, Australia, several South American countries, etc) or by rightwing populists (the UK, the USA, India, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Israel, Poland, etc).
The fact that the right wins elections is nothing new. Their winning during the Age of Populism comes with rafts of new communication technologies. Historically, every epoch had its own communication technology. Fascism grew with the radio. Post- war conservatism (1950s and 60s) and neoliberalism (1970s-90s) had television.TheAgeofPopulismhasthe internet with the clear domination of Facebook, but also Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, WeChat, Instagram, etc. Older people still read newspapers like Murdoch’s Sun and watch commercial TV.
Young people between the age of 15 and 25 hardly watch TV and they do not read newspapers. It looks like they never will. They get their news from the biggest global propaganda machine the world has ever seen, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has written. Facebook reaches 2.2 billion people - nobody else can muster that. Facebook brings targeted disinformation. Cambridge Analytica and Russian troll factories are most known for that. Often unintentionally, Facebook also spreads misinformation. It is a polarising machine. At Facebook, the most sensational information travels faster and further. The debunking of fake news almost never reaches those who read such misinformation and disinformation in the first place.
Today, Facebook is the place for fake news and conspiracy theories like Pizzagate - no, Hillary Clinton did not run a child pornography ring from the basement of a Washington pizza shop. Together with YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, WeChat, Instagram, etc, they decide what news people get. Just imagine Donald Trump without Twitter - a sheer impossibility. In the Age of Populism, Facebook and its entourage influence people. They shape attitudes and eventually elections. It is no surprise that the rise of the Age of Populism is paralleled by the phenomenal growth of anti-social media. All this means two things: firstly, Jeremy Corbyn did not lose the election - he never had a chance in the first place. Secondly, worse is to come.
Get it done
Theresa May in the first session of this parliament - in making a back-handed swipe at the outcome of this election in contrast to hers in 2017 - pointed out that at that time Labour had promised to respect the outcome of the referendum. That’s why they did so well and she did so badly.
She is right, traditional working class voters had drifted away from Labour to either mass abstention or Ukip, as it started flying ‘remain’ colours. Labour’s 2017 manifesto, however, had promised to respect the ‘leave’ decision. Corbyn told us on numerous TV interviews that this meant leaving the customs union and the single market. The tide turned sharply toward him. Traditional proletarian northern, Welsh and Midlands voters were not turned off by either him or a radical leftist social democratic programme; on the contrary, now that Brexit was out of the way, the class lines were clear again and they embraced the new left Labour with enthusiasm.
What changed this time is only too clear: the liberal left and Labour activists were warned - not least by vulnerable MPs in ‘leave’ constituencies - what was happening. The writing was being writ large on umpteen walls. At the same time the Blairites, in cahoots with the press from liberal to rabidly Tory TV channels, and the anti-Corbyn Zionist campaign, were throwing up a shit storm of anti-Semitic allegations. Not that this was something previously on the lips of traditional voters, but Corbyn’s complete collapse in the course of it started to present him as someone with something to hide - a guilty man, an apologist cringingly grovelling before interviewers like Andrew Neil and talking in that stupid little voice he started to adopt.
His performance started to make him a problem when previously it had hardly featured. When it was time to make the bold and determined fight on the meanings of words, political positions, principles and address the class war being fought out in the party and the nature of the politics behind the politics, he crumbled publicly. The same was true over the ‘terrorist’ allegations: he and McDonnell yielded the pass on Ireland and the Middle East without any attempt to explain the situation, how it arose, and what forces were involved with what interests.
The anger and outrage at Labour in traditional areas was deep and real. People feel ignored, deceived and treated with contempt. Mind you, I had no idea that it was so deep the utterly unthinkable would happen and miners and traditional steel and coalfield areas would actually vote Tory. But let’s be clear: these roots were ripped up by the ‘remain’ Blairites and bright young liberal leftists, who thought they had painted traditional working class communities into a corner, not being able to vote for a ‘leave’ party, and the choice would be abstain or Labour left as the only options. They badly overplayed the loyalty card and once uprooted it’s a hard tree to replant - not that these communities have become Tory by any stretch. But if someone keeps challenging you to punch them on the nose, believing whatever they do you never will, they are inviting a painful bluff call.
Despite this, comrades in this paper are still casting their pearls of wisdom to the masses about how they have carefully studied it and, honest, we would be better off in the European Union, coz there will be even more of us and bigger is better. Never mind the lack of democracy and control - feel the width. Others are confidently relaunching the second referendum campaign; for god’s sake, give it up! How many times do you need telling, we do not want to be part of this EU proto-superstate - a creature, from its inception, of globalisation and the World Bank. But almost worse than its substance was the lack of respect for us and our views that continues yet to rankle.
So the so-called inquest into what went wrong is to be headed up by Blairite remainers and MPs who lost their seats mainly because they or the party were remainers in leave seats. Who is now running for the leadership? The same people who steered this calamitous course onto the rocks and mutinied against the captain, who frankly had by then his telescope the wrong way round.
If you want any chance of regaining the loyalty of the heartlands area, the new leader should not be a remainer, should not be a Blairite or an occupant of the London bubble or middle class liberal elite. Someone like Ian Lavery would fill the spot and take the party by the scruff and put it back on a socialist, working class course. Whatever comes of that, the self-declared left must now stop this temper tantrum over losing the bloody referendum and accept that we are out. Let’s deal with the political situations which now develop, some of which are hugely progressive - the prospects for a 32-county Ireland, and successful border poll for a start. I’d be happier with a truly independent Scotland free of the UK and the EU, but that will be an exciting debate coming up.
The first major clash with a major industrial union since the miners is shaping up between Boris and his new government and the rail unions, over the essential service provisions - meaning all-out rail stoppages will be illegal. Before anyone tells me this shows we should have stayed in the EU, you should know this is an EU regulation applicable across the rest of Europe!
Into the new year of struggle, comrades.
Faragean or not?
In response to Dave Vincent (Letters, December 12 2019) I will first briefly identify the issues of dispute: (1) Relationship to Corbyn Labour. (2) Attitude to ‘remain’, ‘leave’ and ‘Farageism’. (3) English and Scottish nationalism. (4) Is reforming the EU possible? (5) Indigenous rights over immigration. In this letter I will deal with points (1) and (2).
Corbyn’s socialist Labour is not a republican socialist party. This much is obvious. So, in England, what should republican socialists do? Adopt a united front approach - standing with Corbyn against the Tories, whilst criticising Labour’s social-monarchist programme and other political failings (on Zionism, for example).
During this election Corbyn was under siege from the Tories, the BBC, his own MPs, the Tory press and the billionaire class, etc. In the heat of battle, of course, Labour’s failure to use democratic weapons must be criticised, but in the context of defending the Corbyn movement against the barrage of lies and slanders. We are not leftwing allies of the Tories trying to prevent Corbyn’s ‘socialist-Labour’ winning the election.
I alleged Dave had accidently slipped into that kind of leftism. He denied this. He suggests a short letter on the failings of Corbyn did not represent the full spectrum of his views. He cites a proud record of opposing the Tories as a working class activist. I have no reason to doubt any of that. Indeed it strengthens my case.
Dave marched on 117 protests, most of which were opposing the Tories. How many marches were directed against Corbyn? Probably none. So why, when the election happens, switch all your fire against Corbyn? It does not make sense. Dave’s words should reflect his own protest actions against the Tories rather than seeming to imply that Corbyn was the main problem for the working class movement.
Dave’s second line of defence is that it is a short letter and there is only time or space to criticise Labour. I could see that is a fair point if he had accepted or endorsed a united front with Corbyn against the Tories and hence accepted my comments as a welcome corrective. Instead he reinforces his original standpoint that Labour has abandoned the working class. This is while the Tories claim to become the working class party by getting Brexit done!
Dave’s main point is making the case for another party with more working class MPs and less benefits offered for the middle classes and he links this to leaving the EU. Republican socialists have long argued that the working class movement needs a republican socialist party rather than Labour’s broad-church, liberal-socialist party. A republican perspective applies to the rest of Europe as much as it does to England.
I did not criticise Dave for being in favour of leaving the EU (although there is a case to be made). My criticism was more specific. I accused him of adopting a Faragean interpretation of the result and that is significantly different. Any democrat recognises that England and Wales voted to leave the EU. This does not mean leaving the single market or the customs union. Nobody voted on that, because it was not on the ballot paper.
I fully understand why the Tory right and the Brexit Party want to seize the political advantage of their victory and refashion the meaning of ‘leave’ in their class interests. They will take the whole of the UK out of the EU and the single market and the customs union, so they can bring in harsher anti-working class immigration controls and do free market deals with the US. They will not allow working class people, like Dave, to vote on whether they endorse the May-Johnson deal or reject it. This is undemocratic.
Dave thinks leaving the EU is progressive and cites the support of Benn, Crow, Scargill, Galloway and Skinner. ‘Remain’ democrats think they are wrong, but that it is better to accept the result - although not in the anti-democratic and anti-working class way the Tories and Farage have defined it. That must be opposed. There is no reason to support or give credence to the Tory-Faragean version of ‘leave’ either on grounds of class interest or democracy.
So my original charge stands. Dave wants England to leave the EU, but has been won over by the Tory-Faragean con-man unionist interpretation of it. What Dave has never done is defend the right of the Irish and Scottish people to remain in the EU or the right of all working class people to vote on whatever dirty deal the ruling class offers.