The great moving right show
Characterising the Johnson government as ‘fascist’ provides some sections of the left with the excuse they need to collapse into broad frontism and class collaborationism, Mike Macnair presents his case
In my article just before Christmas on the general election result, I made the point that by creating an oppositional voice in mainstream politics the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader had achieved real gains from the Tories; but that the Corbynistas’ aspiration to achieve a government at the next general election had contributed to Labour’s actual defeat,1 and thereby to the prospect of this voice being extinguished by a new rightward lurch by Labour - no doubt to be accompanied by a purge of the left.
Twelve years ago now, in 2008, I pointed to the underlying dynamic in the book Revolutionary strategy. The repeated aspirations of the coalitionist/‘reformist’ left to go for government, rather than creating an effective oppositional voice, have promoted a dynamic in which there is a ratchet to the right: in the UK, Heath to the right of Macmillan and Home, Thatcher and Major to the right of Heath, Cameron (and May) to the right of Thatcher and Major, and now Johnson to the right of all of them; similarly, in the Labour Party, the Wilson and Callaghan governments were to the right of Attlee, Blair (obviously) was to the right of Wilson and Callaghan ...
The dynamic is not unique to the UK. In Greece, polling shows a further increase in New Democracy’s support and decline in Syriza’s since the latter’s defeat in the June general election. Parties further left have not benefited.2 The Italian left is in utter disarray and the present Democratic Party/Five Star coalition looks likely to be a mere antechamber to a far-right government.3 In Spain, the Socialist Party in the November 2019 election held on but lost ground, with the far-right VOX group coming in ahead of the left-populist Podemos; Podemos’s decision to go into coalition with the Socialists is likely to lead to further movement to the right.4 In spite of the strike movement in France, polling for the 2022 presidential election still shows the bankster-Bonapartist, Emmanuel Macron, and the far rightist, Marine Le Pen, running neck and neck, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise far behind on 12%, while the traditional Socialist Party is on 3% and the Trotskyists of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste and Lutte Ouvrière on 1% each.5 In Germany, the SPD’s role as a junior partner in the grand coalition with the Christian Democrats has reduced its poll support to 13%, behind the far-right Alternative für Deutschland on 14% (and the Greens on 21%). Die Linke’s aspiration to respectability by internalising the ‘anti-Semitism’ defamation campaign - which began in Germany well before the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership - has not allowed it to climb beyond 8%.6
And so on; these are merely examples of a general trend now far clearer than it was 12 years ago. The ‘broad democratic alliance’, or, for that matter, the alliance with ‘national capital’ against Brussels, is not a road to the left, but further to the right.
As I pointed out in my December 19 article, the ‘parliamentary struggles’ over Brexit in 2018-19 and the decision to give Johnson his snap general election provided a very immediate example: the conduct of the Liberal Democrats and Tory remainers and of the Scottish National Party showed that all these parties preferred preventing a Labour government to stopping Brexit. Liberal Democrat ‘progressive’ politics were most clearly illustrated in the 2010-15 coalition, both by ‘austerity’ as a cover for privatisations and by Vince Cable’s wizard wheeze to abolish employment rights by stealth, by raising tribunal fees to make access to justice unaffordable. If the Tories are still the party of Taff Vale and the Aliens Acts, the Lib Dems are still the party of the ‘New Poor Law’, the workhouse and the prosecution of the Tolpuddle martyrs.
The ‘realism’ of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ and all its variants is thus actually unrealistic. Concessions to the working class under the banner of the ‘people’s front’ certainly happened in the cold war period; but their background was threats to the power of the capitalist class - now removed with the end of the Soviet bloc and the collapse of the mass communist parties.
Leftist to ‘realist’
As long as the left does not break with broad-frontism and the immediate aspiration to form a government, the dynamic is likely to produce within the Labour Party victory for some form of ‘realism’. Rebecca Long-Bailey starts as the ‘left favourite’ but could well turn out to be the 2020s’ Neil Kinnock.
The current overall favourite in the polls, Keir Starmer, is the inheritor of an older tradition of ‘left realism’. In 1986-87 he was an active writer for the ‘Pabloite’ journal Socialist Alternatives.7 In spite of its links with the widely demonised ex-Trotskyist, Michel Raptis, aka Pablo, the main line of this journal was Eurocommunist, arguing for reconstructing the left as a coalition of democrats and social movements, deploying Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Forward march of Labour halted’.8 The main outcome of Eurocommunism in this country was ‘left’ and not-so-left versions of Blairism; there were in the 1980s a great many attempts to construct left versions of the Eurocommunist project, of which Socialist Alternatives was one - all ending either in incorporation in Blairism or in marginality. Starmer - the criminal defence and human rights lawyer after his 1987 call to the bar, appointed as director of public prosecutions by Lady Scotland AG under the Brown government in 2008 - is an example of incorporation.
The transition from leftist to ‘realist’ can take a variety of forms. German socialist Georg von Vollmar was in the 1870s an advocate of general strikes and insurrection, but by the later 1880s had become an advocate of coalition with ‘state socialists’ and with liberals, and in his 1891 ‘Eldorado’ speeches launched what became the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the German Social Democratic Party. The pattern has been followed more recently by Paul Mason, from his youth in the dogmatic-Trotskyist group Workers Power, through his semi-anarchist 2012 book Why it’s kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions, to his November 2019 New Statesman article ‘How the left could save Nato’ (an organisation whose explicit purposes include preventing revolutions).9
Another road is to move into nationalism. Benito Mussolini - radical direct-action leftwinger before 1914, founder of fascism after 1918 - is a classic example. German ‘national Bolshevism’ provides another; a third, that the Swedish Bukharinists (right splinter off the Communist Party) became so anti-Soviet in the 1930s as to accept Nazi support.10 With their move from Murdoch-backed neoliberalism to Brexiteering demagogy, something of the same sort seems to be happening to Spiked, if not as grotesquely.
It is in this general context that it is necessary to read several of the diagnoses of Labour’s election defeat. In particular, two pieces on the Socialist Resistance website, by Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse, and by Ian Parker, present the post-election political situation as ‘creeping’ or incipient fascism.11 Thus Faulkner and Hearse remark: “... it is clear that ‘one-nation Conservatism’ has acquired a new, darker, more sinister meaning - one with echoes of 1930s-style fascist plebiscites.” They say that “the rightward turn of conservatives like Johnson is mainstreaming the politics of the far right”. And that “We face climate catastrophe, creeping fascism and corporate power.”
Similarly, Parker writes:
The first-past-the-post system tipped the Tories into power, and the real danger lies in what they will do now to hold onto it. That will include the mobilising of quasi-fascist motifs to energise their own supporters, the ‘patriots’, and a clampdown on those who oppose them. There will, as a consequence, be a stepping up of Islamophobia across Britain, and an increase in anti-Semitic hate-crimes.
Remember that fascism never came to power through victory of the ruling class and its ideology, but through and upon the defeat of the working class and the oppressed. What we are seeing of fascism now in Britain follows the same pattern, the same logic.
The problem with formulations of this sort is what they imply in the way of a guide to action.
Jack Conrad has helpfully in the December 12 issue of this paper written on the history of fascism and of theories of fascism, appending a set of theses on the issue.12 I am not going to repeat this story. But it has practical implications. The point, in essence, is that the emergence of a real and serious fascist movement implies that the workers’ movement needs to create armed and effective defence squads to defend its meetings and activities (and those of ethnic minority, etc, groups who may be targeted by the fascists) against the actual physical attacks of fascist gangs.
This requires practical unity of the workers’ movement, in spite of the sharp political differences between left and right; but not the subordination of the task of practical self-defence to the ‘defence’ of the constitutional order in alliance with the liberals; which leads to the victory of fascism, as in Spain, France (with a delay between 1938 and the French army leadership’s military sabotage in 1939-40) and so on.
These tasks are not presently posed. The Football Lads Alliance and English Defence League could have morphed into a serious fascist fighting formation, but did not. The defeat of Brexit by some constitutional manoeuvre, if it had happened, might have triggered a growth of far-right terrorism beyond the 2016 assassination of Jo Cox, and the (actual) revival of low-level racist attacks on people of south Asian appearance (identified as ‘Muslims’) to around 1970s level. But there has not been such a radical development of far- right terrorism.
There is a systematic attack on freedom of speech and assembly, under the aegis of the ‘anti-Semitism’ defamation campaign and witch-hunt; but, though the far-right group, Britain First, has played a certain information- gathering and intimidation role in this witch-hunt, the attack on freedom of speech and assembly is mainly run through the national media and pressure on venues to refuse space for meetings. In this sense it is a reversion to early 19th century Tory tactics of endeavouring to suppress dissent by control of spaces for meetings and so on.13
Defence squads would be of no assistance with this problem. What is needed is for the labour movement - however much weakened in the past period - to begin to restore its own meeting and social spaces and its own independent press and publications. These historical conquests of the 19th and early 20th century have been abandoned by the willingness of Labour, the trade union leaderships and most of the left (led by the Eurocommunists in the 1980s) to try to ‘manage’ the advertising-funded media (including social media) rather than recognising that all such advertising-funded media are institutions of the capitalist class.
Back to Faulkner’s and Hearse’s claim that “... ‘one-nation Conservatism’ has acquired a new, darker, more sinister meaning - with echoes of 1930s-style fascist plebiscites”. In reality, Disraeli’s ‘one- nation Conservatism’ was in Disraeli’s own time nationalistic and illiberal in its implications, and immediately linked to British imperialism as a political project.14
The underlying problem with Faulkner’s and Hearse’s argument - and more generally with claims that Johnson represents a far-right takeover of the Conservative Party - is the assumption that the Conservative Party is historically a ‘centre-right’, or European Christian Democrat, party. The reality is that it remains the old Tory Party which has a record of mobilising xenophobia, going back to campaigns against French Huguenot refugees in the 1680s, against the naturalisation of Jews in the 1750s, and so on. Similarly, it is a party which has always aspired to one-party status. It is a far-right party which has from time to time included centre-right elements. Cameron’s breaking with the European centre-right European People’s Party bloc to form a far-right group (promised in 2005, delivered in 2009) was an unusual piece of honesty. The failure of overt far-right parties to take off in Britain has been precisely because the Tory Party stands halfway into their potential political space. The 1950s-60s League of Empire Loyalists, and the later Monday Club, were based within the Tory Party.
Turning from the possibility of a fascist movement to Parker’s suggestion that what we see is an incipient fascist government, the tasks which would be posed to us in this event would be very different. We are not in a position analogous to that of the Austrian Social Democratic Party in 1933, which had a mass militia and which Trotsky urged to fight immediately against a Bonapartist government before they were disarmed.15 Rather, our task would be to make arrangements for printing a paper overseas and smuggling it into the UK, for sending some people into exile for the purpose, and for ‘safe houses’ and clandestine distribution networks.
Are we in this situation? Again, to pose the question is to answer it. In the first place, we are perfectly obviously not presently facing mass arrests, the banning of our organisations, and so on.
Secondly, suppose that we were in this situation - we would be in an extraordinarily weak position to do anything about it. Some groups (Socialist Resistance included) have organised international links which could perhaps form the basis for overseas publication. But the dependence of the Labour left on social media, and the division of the far left into rival bureaucratic- centralist sects, means that it would be astonishingly difficult to construct the means of clandestine distribution of our own media if our access to the web was suddenly shut down.
We are entering into a world in which there will be more controls on speech and association than there have been in the recent past. This was the situation of Britain in the inter-war period, and of much of Europe before 1914. A significant chunk of the new controls will be on the basis of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘safeguarding’ based on the almost entirely spurious allegations of ‘anti- Semitism’ - but also allegations of those below ‘bullying’ their superiors. The left has contributed to this atmosphere, and the large majority of the left has still not broken from ‘no platforming’, even when the left is itself being no- platformed by the state operating in the name of the Zionists.
But even if we break from ‘no platforming’andadoptacleardefenceof freedoms of speech and of association, we will still need an organisation which is capable of operating effectively under semi-legality. That requires us to overcome our voluntary choice to be splintered into multiple competing groups by bureaucratic centralism, and create an actual communist party.
Neither Faulkner and Hearse nor Parker are really trying to ‘sound the alarm’ about an actual present danger of either a mass fascist movement or a fascist government. They simply are not proposing the tasks which would arise if that was the actual situation.
Indeed, they are not proposing the taskswhichareposedbytheneedto prepare for a future in which freedom of speech, association and assembly will be increasingly restricted - or one in which Brexit failure might produce arealmassfascistmovement.These are the tasks of creating an actual communist party, which could organise semi-clandestine operations, in the way in which the current British far left clearly cannot.
Their silence about this issue means that their use of the language of ‘fascism’ actually plays the same role as it has played in the ‘official’ communist parties over and over again since the 1930s, and in the Socialist Workers Party’s several projects, beginning with the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s (most recently Stand Up To Racism). That is, to justify an alliance in which the left subordinates defending any clear socialist perspective in favour of a mass ‘anti-fascist’ movement whose political limits are set by the liberals - a people’s front.
Socialist Resistance’s version of the people’s front is the continued defence of ‘remainism’ and ‘freedom of movement’ on the terms set by the liberals: that is, without simultaneously fighting for the overthrow of the treaties, the sovereignty of the court of justice, and hence of Viking and Laval. The ‘fascism’ of which they are complaining is merely Brexit itself and the reversion to pre-1972 Tory British nationalism.
This assessment finds some support in the echoes of Hobsbawm’s ‘Forward march of labour halted’ in the explanation Faulkner and Hearse offer for Labour’s defeat. They begin, legitimately, with the ‘demonisation of Corbyn’,the‘failureofconciliation’(of the Labour right) and the anti-Semitism smear.
All true stuff, but it indicates merely - as I argued on December 19 - a ‘Zinoviev letter’ on a larger scale (not something radically new in politics), and hence shows that Labour cannot expect to win an election, on any platform other than the wishes of the City, without a prolonged period of building up its own organisation and face-to-face campaigning, and its own media and mass distrust of the advertising-funded media and other aspects of the constitution (judiciary, etc) - a process which will take more than one election campaign.
They move next into ‘The Brexit fudge’, arguing that “The Labour leadership should have adopted a pro- ‘remain’ position, with a clear stand on free movement and for international working class solidarity. The attempt to ‘unite the class’ by fudging the argument failed totally.”
It should be perfectly obvious from the election maps that Labour largely held its ‘remain’ vote - and lost its ‘leave’ vote. A clearer pro-‘remain’ position would therefore have merely meant ... the result which actually happened.
It should be said, by the by, that it would be equally futile for Labour to have tried to neutralise the Brexit issue by committing clearly to ‘leave’: in this case. it might well have saved parts of the north and Midlands at the price of losing ‘remain’ constituencies. In reality, Labour could only have neutralised the issue by denouncing the whole referendum operation as a scam. Faulkner and Hearse are in this respect rather late to detect in December 2019 “echoes of 1930s-style fascist plebiscites” in the politics of Cameron’s referenda. To denounce the Brexit referendum as anti-democratic would probably not have saved Labour’s bacon without a process of reconstructing the party to give it independence from the advertising-funded media; but it would have helped the position.
There is a case for ‘remain’ on the ground that the working class, to be able to offer a chance of breaking out of capitalism, needs to do so on a European scale.EUmembershipthereforeoffered the possibility of coordinated working class political action in relation to the EU institutions. But this possibility was thrown away by the left prioritising popular-front projects, either - like Syriza - by defending the EU, complete with its neoliberal constitutional order; or - like the Morning Star - by lining up behind the nationalist ‘exiteers’ of their own country.
What there is not is a case for ‘remain’ on the ground that the EU defends freedom of movement of labour and that freedom of movement is a principle for the working class. Reason, the EU is, and has been throughout this debate, busily drowning migrants in the Mediterranean and imprisoning them in concentration camps in Turkey, on Greek islands and in the Balkans. It allows free movement of labour only for EU citizens. Further, Viking and Laval - and other rules - mean that free movement of labour is not accompanied by freedom of association, the effective right to organise to defend wages and working conditions against undercutting.16
It is perfectly reasonable to defend ‘remain’ as a tactic on the basis of explicit rejection of the treaties and all the rest. It is not reasonable to expect working class people to vote for ‘remain’ on the basis of tailing the liberals - which is what the Labour leadership did in parliament, and what Socialist Resistance, like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, defended.
Faulkner and Hearse - and Parker, though only in passing - think of freedom of movement as a most elementary point of class principle. Hence, they think of working class votes for Brexit in 2016, and hence for the Tories in December 2019, as evidence of a catastrophic loss of class-consciousness: “Voting for the enemy”. This loss of class-consciousness then falls to be explained by large fundamental processes of decline of class formation, organisation and consciousness: that is, by echoes of Hobsbawm’s ‘Forward march of labour halted’.
The argument runs that in general “old parties are in decline. Electoral blocs are fragmenting” and so on, just like Stuart Hall’s and Martin Jacques’s New Times (1988).
“From the late 19th century up to the 1980s, trade unions were the primary expression of class identity in modern capitalist societies,” say Faulkner and Hearse - a stunningly Anglo-American- centric perception of 19th-20th century class politics. Hence, “the hollowing- out of union power - the decline of the working class as an organised industrial force - has meant that the social foundations of Corbynism have been much weaker than, say, those of Bennism in the 1980s, or Bevanism in the 1950s.”
This ignores the centrality to class politics of the pre-1914 German SPD and other social democratic parties, and of the mass communist parties in France and Italy, in both cases related to much weaker trade union movements. For that matter, these two comrades coming from the Trotskyist tradition ignore Leon Trotsky’s fundamental point in the 1938 Transitional programme that
Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labor movement.17
Trotsky’s point looked odd from the perspective of the cold war period. While Hearse grew up in that period, Faulkner was a student in the late 1970s and was trained in the SWP - an organisation which radically adapted its Marxism to fit cold war conditions and has never really reconsidered what the endofthoseconditionsimpliesaboutits theoretical conceptions.
The reality is that the ‘new conditions’ - of fragmented labour forces, mass unemployment and under- employment,radicallyweakenedtrade unions, and so on - are not so different to the conditions in which the mass social democratic and communist parties were built; or, to push further back, those in which Chartism in the 1830s-40s, or the suffrage movement and the First International in the 1860s, were built.
The fundamental difference is not objective conditions: it is subjective demoralisation. This results from the fall of the Soviet bloc and the failure of any working class ‘political revolution’ to materialise in that fall. And it results, less forgivably, from the failure of the left to draw the fundamental lesson of that defeat and break with bureaucratic centralism (and with the false alternatives to it: anarchist ‘networks’ and ‘horizontalism’, and Labourite legalistic forms of bureaucracy).
Identifying the class movement as such with large-scale industrial trade unions, and then seeing that these have declined, and hence inferring that class and socialist politics should be replaced by the broad democratic alliance, rainbow coalitions, and so on, was broadly how ‘The forward march of labour halted’ and ‘New Times’ constructed their arguments in the 1980s. For most Trots back then, we had heard a whole different set of arguments for the ‘broad democratic alliance’ already, and this stuff just sounded like another set of rebranding of the people’s front and the British road to socialism. In fact, it turned out, it was rather more serious: the road to the liquidation of the old Communist Party, which with all its catastrophic faults was the spinal core of the Labour and trade union left and deeply committed to the cooperative movement, workers’ education, and so on.
Without the commitments to independent class politics and socialism, meaning the overthrow of the capitalist class regime, the process of actually rebuilding the workers’ movement at the base cannot begin. The consequences of the loss of the ‘official’ Communist Party - with what is left behind merely a wilderness of sects - should have made that clear by now. The movement has to be built under capitalism, not just by a succession of street protests and strikes; but in antagonism to the capitalist state, the capitalist parties and the capitalist media. And that means that the movement needs at its core a party which constantly challenges and seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the constitutional order, and which poses the alternative of socialism.
Faulkner and Hearse do not think in these terms. They conclude:
Millions are protesting across the world against austerity, corruption and dictatorship. On one side are the rich, the corporations, the police and the fascists; on the other, the mass of ordinary working people, led by the radical youth, black and white, women and men.
We face climate catastrophe, creeping fascism, and corporate power. We face the nationalism and racism of Brexit. We face a regime of speculators, privatisers and landlords.
So we must organise, mobilise and fight.
What is on offer is a politics of protest and some sort of rainbow alliance.
Neither Hearse nor Faulkner is likely to have enough time left to pass through the 30-year evolution of a Keir Starmer from 1980s left Eurocommunism linked to Pablo, through a long march through the institutions, to the mainstream Labour Party centre-right. But their analysis of the general election issimilarlyaprocessofmovementto the right. The lessons of the history of the last 30 years - leave aside any other period - are that this Eurocommunist broad-front policy leads only to the political ratchet to the right.
‘Corbynism is over’ Weekly Worker December 19 2019.↩
Five issues online at https://britishpabloism.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/first-blog-post.↩
Marxism Today September 1978; reprinted as the lead essay in a book of the same title edited by Martin Jacques and Francis Mulhern (London 1981).↩
National Bolshevism: a variety of illuminating material collected by Maciej Zurowski at https://zuriz.wordpress.com/; very summary account at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Bolshevism. Swedish Bukharinists: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Party_(Sweden,_1929).↩
N Faulkner and P Hearse, ‘Britain: 2019 election analysis - a victory for the far right. A crisis for the left’ (December 22); and I Parker, ‘British Conservative Party tacks right’ (December 30).↩
‘Brandishing old ghosts’ Weekly Worker December 12 2019.↩
See K Navickas Protest and the politics of space and place, 1789-1848 (Manchester 2015); also her website on the issue at http://protesthistory.org.uk/#6/53.797/-1.544.↩
Eg, F Harcourt, ‘Disraeli’s imperialism, 1866- 1868: a question of timing’ Historical Journal Vol 23 (1980), pp87-109.↩
‘Austrian Bonapartism’ (March 1933): www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1933/03/austria1.htm.↩
Compare the Second International resolution on migration, which we published under the headline, ‘Border controls: reactionary by nature’ (Weekly Worker April 4 2014), and reprinted November 9 2019.↩