Lessons of Corbynism’s defeat
How to overcome the impediments to communist consciousness? Rex Dunn takes issue with Mike Macnair.
While I agree with much of the detail in Mike Macnair’s article, ‘Corbynism is over’, I disagree with its general thrust (Weekly Worker December 19 2019). As I see it, he is in danger of overestimating the potential of social democracy to transform itself. The rise of Corbynism represents the last gasp of social democracy as an “actual opposition”, able to “give a voice to those silenced by New Labour and its support for free-market solutions”. It failed, because the Labour left, like the Labour right, is unable to break with parliamentarism.
But this analysis does not go deep enough. He fails to explain why there was a split between the small town/so-called traditional Labour vote - which went Tory - and the big city/so-called middle class vote - which remained Labour; along with the fact that Labour lost the three million voters it had picked up in the 2017 election. This was despite the fact that Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto offered a rational way forward, at least in the short term: ie, it promised a radical reform of capitalism, which would end austerity as well as tackle the existential threat of climate change.
To answer these questions, we need to go deeper. This defeat also reveals the perennial problem of how capitalism’s ‘mind-crippling’ division of labour stultifies the thinking of many working class people - which is exacerbated further by digital media. At the same time, we are also living in an epoch of capitalist decline. As Hillel Ticktin argues, this occurs when the system finds it “increasingly difficult to deal with its contradictions and so crises”.1 Although the managerial bureaucracy which runs capitalism is being forced to undermine the law of value (eg, by ‘quantitative easing’), the transition to socialism and communism has to be a consciously-led process. Meanwhile, in the absence of the latter, capitalist ecocide continues.
But let us first consider Mike’s analysis of Labour’s defeat. Firstly, he is right to argue that the main weakness of Corbynism is its obsession with the ‘governmental question’. As a result, it fell into the hands of the right: The latter were “campaigning for a Tory victory since 2015 through endless attacks on Corbyn” in order to “regain control of the party”. This included pushing for a “statesmanlike” ‘remain’ policy: “The right’s victories in moving Labour towards ‘remain’ were decisive in returning Tory MPs in traditional Labour seats.” He links this to Corbyn’s failure to confront “the effective monopoly of the advertising-funded and hence corrupt media and the state’s BBC” and adds: “The very late production of the manifesto - some of it quite good - and the accompanying efforts to use the ‘new media’ to get the message across, were too little, too late.” At the same time, the leadership lost the “‘anti-Semitism’ defamation [campaign] by trying to divert attention”, in the hope that “any issues except the NHS and ‘austerity’ will go away”. Finally, Corbyn allowed himself to fall into the remainer’s trap of “seeking and demanding an early general election”, which even the Tory remainers eschewed, so that he ended up
stringing along with these initiatives, [which] presented themselves over months, as a mere tail to the parliamentary cretinism of the Tory and Lib Dem remainers. The denouement [came] when the SNP and Lib Dems backed Johnson’s call for a general election, forcing Labour’s hand and producing an election at Johnson’s preferred time and on Johnson’s terms.
That said, I have three objections.
Firstly, Mike appears to be sowing the illusion that under a leftwing leadership Labour might be capable of an “actual opposition” to the Blairite right wing and its commitment to “free market solutions”, which must also include “threats to the constitutional order” (abolishing the monarchy, dismantling the standing army, etc). But, instead of attempting a major reform of the party structure, Corbyn merely tinkered with it. Hence he failed to get rid of the right wing by means of deselection, whilst seeking to transfer power to the grassroots of the party. He allowed the latter to be turned into election fodder under the personal fiefdom of Jon Lansman (who also deserted him during the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign). At the same time, Corbyn sided with ‘left’ trade union leaders: eg, Len McCluskey of Unite and Mark Serwotka of the PCS, both of whom are left Brexiteers like himself.
Therefore Corbynism was shackled by a chauvinist ideology, as well as being congenitally incapable of breaking with parliamentarism. So much for the left’s strategy to “transform Labour” into a united front with a Marxist leadership. Clearly Corbyn’s defeat opens the door to the return of the Blairites. Thus the need to struggle for a new “mass communist party” cannot be delayed.
But Mike’s response to Corbynism’s defeat is ambiguous. On the one hand, he warns the left against the danger of creating a new party, especially if it fails to “draw the lesson of breaking with the Corbynites’ governmental illness”, because that would lead to “a new Syriza at best - the road to another episode of demoralisation”. On the other, he concludes, “what is needed and missing is a party disloyal to the constitution: a Communist Party.” Let us hope that the left inside the Labour Party are not demoralised by this defeat as well.
In a letter to the paper (December 19 2019, Andrew Northall is right to ask: “Has the Weekly Worker group … really got the time, capacity and energy both to be part of the Labour Party and to seek to ‘transform Labour’ into a united front with a Marxist leadership and build a single, united, ultimately mass Communist Party?” Given the group’s small resources, it can’t do both. As long as this two-pronged strategy is pursued, the future does not look bright. Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists in his article, ‘Unworthy crew’, in the same issue appears to confirm this: he reminds us that the leadership election process is not exactly loaded in favour of the left. As if that were not bad enough, only an “unworthy crew of potential candidates is on offer. [But] None has stood up against the false anti-Semitism claims, as Chris Williamson did; none has shown solidarity with its victims.”
My second objection concerns Mike’s claim that “Cameron’s project” to “take a sharp turn to the left” has finally been achieved “under Boris Johnson”. I have argued previously that May represented the manufacturing wing of the Tory Party, whereas the opportunist and self-seeking Johnson finally came down on the side of the right wing: ie, the European Research Group. The latter represents the short-term interests of hedge-fund managers in the City, who are willing to play fast and loose with the British economy in pursuit of their own narrow interests. If Johnson continues to follow the lead of Rees-Mogg and co (which offers him a handsome financial reward into the bargain), then he will stick to his promise of a hard-Brexit after all: ie, divergence from the European Union, not convergence, even though the latter is the most sensible policy from the standpoint of British capitalism as a whole. If he does go down this route, he would take Britain towards a more deregulated economy, new trade deals with America and China - albeit to the detriment of those capitalists who invest in manufacturing at home. But in order to do this Johnson would have to sell off the national health service to the US pharmaceutical industry, which is not going to be easy. It could also lose him the votes that have just been ‘lent’ to him by Labour’s traditional working class supporters in the north and east of England. If that does happen, the British economy might tip into a deeper recession.
Mike is also unclear about whether we should take the Tory claim seriously that May’s “austerity is over”. He correctly describes the latter as “a policy of privatisations and redistribution towards the Tories’ favoured groups”. But he seems to be saying that Johnson has abandoned “the rhetoric” about austerity; because now “concessions” have to be made - even if this only amounts to the “announcement of major infrastructure spending in the north”. Therefore he will try and keep his new ‘blue Tories’ on board via an “explicit rejection of Brino [and] proposing a hard deadline on trade negotiations with the EU. Thus Johnson is still, even after his election victory, continuing to push Brexit-based populism” (my emphasis). This hardly represents a turn to the left! Yet I have also heard comrades argue that the rise of ‘nationalist populism’ has forced the ruling class to make concessions to the working class. If this is borne out, consider the cost: a further erosion of workers’ rights, whilst chauvinism continues unabated (cf fascism, which also made concessions to the working class). Still Johnson’s new-found enthusiasm for public spending may not be enough to satisfy those workers who have ‘lent’ him their vote. It will take years for infrastructure spending in the north to bear fruit. He will not be able to fix the health service either. In a few years time these blue-collar workers might return to the Labour fold; but by then the Blairites would have regained control of the party.
My final objection is that Mike has left the ‘remain’ question hanging in the air. On the one hand, he is right to argue that the Corbyn leadership ended up “manoeuvring itself into a position where it would be seen as a remainer party”, which played into the hands of the right: ie, in order to get a Brexit deal on the ballot paper, he was forced to include the ‘remain’ option. As Mike says, this resulted in Labour losing the election, because its traditional voters wanted Brexit. Feeling betrayed, they held their noses and voted Tory.
But some did not! Many voted Tory, simply because they did not like Corbyn. In terms of a dearth of class-consciousness, this is an even bigger worry for the left - the fact that the masses are willing to vote on the basis of personalities rather than programme. That is why Johnson was able to get away with ‘Let’s get Brexit done’ (ie, an oversimplification of what is really possible). As a result, we have ended up with a Tory government based on the support of ‘nationalist populism’.
The question remains: if Corbyn had mounted a sustained campaign, would the mass of ‘blue-collar voters’ in those northern towns have supported his manifesto, despite the obstacles of the “advertising-funded and hence corrupt media and the state’s BBC”? As for Brexit itself, would it have made a difference if he had stuck to the argument that Labour would fight to transform the EU parliament into a democratic institution, which would allow leftwing delegates to promote socialist solutions, not just in their own country, but right across Europe (not forgetting the need to protect the environment)?
Leaving aside its reformist limitations, Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto offered a set of rational proposals designed to create a fairer society, which would also tackle climate change. In the 2017 election, under the same leader and a similar programme, Labour picked up nearly three million extra votes and nearly toppled the Tories. (The only difference was that then it pledged to negotiate Brexit based on the need to protect jobs and living standards.) But in 2019 the opposite happened.
Was this because of Brexit and Corbyn’s failure to provide leadership? This was certainly a factor. On the one hand, he adopted a stance of ‘studied ambiguity’, which drew opposition from both the Brexit and ‘remain’ side among Labour supporters. Corbyn was also found wanting when he failed to deal with the anti-Semitism smear. But did his inability to deal with the question of alleged anti-Semitism in the party alienate Labour’s traditional voters? Not really: rather his failure to do so reinforced their perception of him as weak and untrustworthy. On the other hand, Brexit was a spur to English nationalism, or the British form of rightwing populism, wherein millions of workers blamed the EU for 10 years of austerity. Corbyn should have been hammering home the message that neoliberalism is the cause, not the EU per se. (See below.) Hence the demand for Brexit or the demand to ‘take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’ cut through Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ like the proverbial scythe.
Prior to the election, when Newsnight reporters interviewed people in traditional Labour seats about their voting intentions, many said that they did not like Corbyn, so they were switching to Johnson.2 Thus Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto, It’s time for real change, was irrelevant. It could not be taken seriously, even though it included a pledge to end the privatisation of the NHS and ensure that it was adequately staffed; a pledge to end zero-hour contracts and restore workers’ rights; a pledge to nationalise the railways in order to make them more efficient and reduce fares; along with utilities like energy; a pledge to spend money on insulating people’s homes to save energy, to subsidise the use of solar panels; a pledge to allow councils to build hundreds of thousands of homes at affordable rents.
Millions of workers rejected all of this and voted for Johnson instead, despite the fact that these policies are not difficult to understand! On the other hand, was the working class aware of the more sophisticated criticisms levelled at Corbyn’s manifesto by the broadsheets? For example, the Financial Times attacked his proposal to increase state spending, because it was too modest: ie, it would merely bring the UK into line with Germany and France. Did Labour’s traditional voters reject Corbyn’s spending plan to borrow £250 billion for a green transformation fund to pay for electric car loans, a mass household insulation programme and a fleet of state-controlled offshore wind farms, because it was too ambitious? Did they vote against Corbyn because his plans would allow the rich to find ways to avoid paying more tax on capital gains: ie, they would still be able to pass the extra costs on to their customers and their employees? Were these workers bothered by the fact that Corbyn had reneged on scrapping Trident, along with getting rid of private schools? I don’t think so.
Were they bothered by the claim that Corbyn is ‘weak on the question of national security’? My guess is that they were not concerned about sophisticated arguments, such as the claim that the defence of Britain’s ‘national interest’ is not safe in Corbyn’s hands (despite the fact that he has endorsed the billions of pounds required to revamp Britain’s nuclear defence); or because he is opposed to disastrous imperialist wars in the Middle East. It is more likely that workers abandoned Corbyn, because they see him as ‘unpatriotic’: ie, he does not say that he is proud of the armed forces who defended Britain’s ‘interests’ in Afghanistan and Iraq (regardless of the human carnage which unfolded).
Was Corbyn defeated because he put forward a programme to reform capitalism - ie, to get rid of neoliberal economics by means of a liberal dose of Keynesian economics - instead of a socialist one? Again, I don’t think so! Rather we have to see this in the context of capitalist decline (see below). After the financial collapse of 2008, governments - on the left as well as the right - continued to seek a way out via free-market solutions. Yet economic growth has continued to flatline. The situation was made worse by the fact that, in order to pay for the trillions of dollars which had been plucked out of the air, governments were also forced to step up their attack on the living standards of the working class - they imposed even greater austerity. It was this which led to the rise of populist movements against the political establishment on a scale not seen for decades.
This is what I call the great disruption, which has deepened the crisis of neoliberalism. By the end of 2016, it led to the Trump presidency in the United States and the Brexit crisis here. The Trump version of the great disruption is based on his attempt to appease nationalist populism by means of protectionism: ie, a promise to invest in America’s ageing infrastructure, as a means to bring jobs home and to “make America great again”. But he has not delivered on either.
As for leftwing populism, this has been short-lived. The American left suffers from the same dilemma as Corbynism: ie, the working class as a whole has not been responsive to rational plans to reform the economy and to tackle climate change. This is a huge problem which we cannot simply brush aside. In 2018 there was a brief flourishing of the left inside the Democratic Party, which took the form of a demand for a return to Keynesianism: ie, an ambitious plan for a Green New Deal, that would have required the US government to borrow trillions of dollars over a 10-year period in order to finance new green technology and to create hundreds of thousands of new, better-paid jobs. Although eminently reasonable, this proposal did not win the support of the American working class. But in today’s topsy-turvy world Trump is to the left of the Democrats on foreign policy, because he wants to have better relations with Russia and, ultimately, China, whereas the Democrats want America to resume its role as the world’s policeman and go back to something like the cold war!
Here in Britain, the great disruption of nationalist populism has led to a similar situation. Brexit has split the working class (especially in the north of England). Therefore it languishes within an ideological fog of chauvinism, epitomised by its support for Johnson’s demand to ‘get Brexit done’. This has led to another topsy-turvy situation, whereby the ruling class has been usurped by its own version of Trump, which it does not really want, because Johnson might veer further to the right by dancing to the tune of hedge-fund managers in the City. Therefore the ruling class - or the more grounded sections of it, as reflected in the FT - flirted with the idea that a Corbyn government might be the best option, assuming that he would stick to his 2017 manifesto. But, when he came out with a manifesto which was more Keynesian-heavy than light, they were stunned. Thus almost overnight, the FT took fright and reverted to the status quo.
For a moment the ruling class paused, then passed up the Corbyn opportunity to alleviate the capitalist crisis, which neoliberalism is unable to solve, as well as do something about the existential threat to its own future, let alone the majority of humanity and the environment. Bourgeois instrumental reason prevailed: ie, “a specific form of rationality which focuses on effective means to an end [the need to accumulate capital based on a mind-crippling capitalist division of labour] and not, as other forms of practical rationality do, on improving living conditions, promoting reasonable agreement, or human understanding”.3 The ruling class is always comfortable in its alienation, whereas the working class is not. Hence it is prone to other forms of false consciousness, such as chauvinism, etc, in its search for a solution.
A bit of theory
The first post-election YouGov poll revealed that 70% of older men who voted Conservative did not have a university education, and that they mostly came from small towns in the north, despite the fact that this is where 10 years of Tory austerity had its greatest impact: eg, plant closures, zero-hour contracts, attacks on unemployment benefits, along with cuts in public services. On the other hand, the Tories drew a blank in the big cities, especially in London, where their vote stagnated. Given its cosmopolitan way of living, here the working class is less amenable to Tory lies.
This raises another question - ie, the “heterogeneous aspects of alienation”, which leads to false consciousness. As István Mészáros points out, Marx in his Economic and philosophical manuscripts distinguishes between ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ mediations. Apropos the first, he means the “ontologically fundamental self-mediation of man with nature”, which has existed since humanity’s emergence as a ‘species being’. In ancient times, man was alienated from his productive activity at an individual level, yet he remained a “communal being” (cf primitive societies today). There was much less scope for “the production of artificial appetites” and “the alienation of the senses”. But, with the rise of the capitalist mode of production, second-order mediations emerge: ie, private property - exchange - division of labour. However, “Labour (productive activity) is the one and only absolute factor in the whole complex”. Therefore this distinction provides the possibility for overcoming alienated labour, even though it now takes the form of wage labour.4
Marx goes on to explain that, on the one hand, we have the fetishism of commodities; on the other, the worker is reduced to a commodity; hence we have a “definite social relation between men [and women] that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things”.5 These second-order mediations may also be described as impediments (my term) to the attainment of socialist/communist consciousness (especially on a mass scale). But the bourgeois division of labour is the main obstacle to unblocking the others, because, for the bourgeoisie, the only rational way to accumulate capital is via a division of labour, whereby “the worker becomes more and more uniformly dependent in a particular, very one-sided and machine-like type of labour … [which depresses him or her] both intellectually and physically to the level of a machine …”6
In the period of late capitalism, we also have technological advances in the mass reproducibility of text/image/sound in the form of entertainment and the mass media, as well as mass production of human practical needs, within which “the production of ‘artificial appetites’” plays an increasing role.7 Therefore we have to add two more mediations/impediments to those which Marx mentions.
Firstly, we have what Adorno calls the culture industry, or the various forms of “commercial entertainment in capitalist society” - ie, distractions (cf Marx’s “artificial appetites”), which Adorno describes as an adjunct to “the mechanised and rationalised labour process”. To underline this, he adds: “In a communist society work will be organised in such a way that people will no longer be so tired and so stultified that they need distraction.”8 Secondly, we have Debord’s “society of the spectacle”, which is “the very heart of society’s real unreality”: ie, “news or propaganda, advertising or the … consumption of entertainment … which serves as the total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system ... [and which] governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself”.9
Both of these impediments to communist consciousness can and must be overcome. But this is virtually written off by today’s critical theorists, who argue that commodity fetishism has become an all-pervading form of social domination. The subjective factor and history itself are omitted. Like Adorno, they ignore events in the historical and socio-political sphere, such as the betrayals of social democracy in the run-up to 1914. That laid the basis for the imperialist counterrevolution from without in Russia during the civil war; which almost destroyed the October revolution (although it laid the basis for the Stalinist counterrevolution from within, which was to have lasting consequences for the international revolution). On the other hand, Adorno was “highly critical of the way communist parties have transformed Marxism into a dogmatic ideology”.10 On the other hand, situationists like Debord argue that, under the exigencies of the civil war, the Bolshevik Party degenerated into a bureaucratic class. Therefore “Stalinism was a reign of terror within the bureaucratic class”.11 Thus he falls back on a spontaneist theory of revolution, which is a fallacy. As Lenin points out in What is to be done?, socialist consciousness can only be brought to the workers from the outside:
The history of all countries shows that the working class, solely by its own forces, is able to work out merely trade union consciousness … The teaching of socialism … has grown out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories that were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied classes - the intelligentsia [along with advanced workers !].12
In this epoch of capitalist decline, the left urgently needs to work out a strategy that is able to overcome all the ‘impediments’ to adequate consciousness as a whole. This has to begin with existing society, as well as continuing through to the post-revolutionary period: ie, the transition to socialism and communism. In practical terms, the struggle for a new communist party is paramount, based on the need to educate, so that all have a grasp of Marxist theory, to a greater or lesser extent, as well as being able to articulate this to others. Otherwise we will end up with theory being the hands of the leadership, whilst the rank and file do all the practical work. The nucleus of the revolutionary party should also reach out to key sections of the working class: eg, tech workers, who refuse to work for the defence industry and have already formed a new kind of trade union movement. On this basis revolutionaries could then raise the transitional demand for a Green New Deal, which would require the training of hundreds of thousands of skilled new workers.
It might sound histrionic to some, but Corbyn’s defeat has to be seen in the context of capitalist decline. Because the system finds it increasingly difficult to deal with its contradictions and crises, it is compelled to undermine the law of value - an important aspect of the transition to socialism. But such a transition also requires a conscious revolutionary class: ie, the proletariat. On the one hand, this is necessary for the future of humanity and its place in a properly managed ecosystem; but on the other, it is not guaranteed - either socialism or barbarism.
As I see it, we now have five symptoms of capitalist decline:
1. Neoliberalism - the ultimate attempt to control the system - is failing in its bid to mediate its constitutive contradictions. Hence the bourgeois state is disintegrating. Apropos the democratic process, at least a third of those eligible do not bother to vote in elections. The two-party system is not only undemocratic: it is becoming more unstable. Skewered by Brexit, in just three years, Britain lurched from a hung parliament to a Tory landslide.
Stable rule from the centre is being undermined; hence we end up with topsy-turvy coalition governments between Conservative - and even far-right parties - and the Greens: eg, in Germany and now Austria. At the same time, private enterprise is incapable of dealing with capitalist ecocide, for which there can only be a socialist solution. The multinational state is also disintegrating, as constituent nations threaten to break away, in the blind belief that this will provide them with a way out.
2. Endless war in the Middle East, where the political tectonic plates are in constant collision. Starting with the world hegemon, when in doubt about one’s popularity at home, bourgeois leaders dream up some new excuse to provoke a new war, even though they have no plan; such behaviour, of course, leads to unintended consequences. Meanwhile the masses in Iraq and Syria, already divided by sectarianism, are subjected to terrible suffering.
3. Capitalism fiddles whilst the world burns (eg, Brazil and now Australia). But the climate extinction movement has no answers.
4. An atomised - and distracted - working class is unable to grasp the need for a socialist alternative, which only it can provide.
5. The more austerity and inequality, the more people need the distractions of the culture industry, facilitated by technological advances and fuelled by mass addiction to gaming and social media, not forgetting the destructive effects of opiates and other drugs (cf Marx’s idea of the way in which capitalism produces “artificial appetites”, which exacerbate the “alienation of the senses”13).
The dilemma of the bourgeoisie is that it has to choose between two equally unpalatable alternatives. In order to maintain the system in some shape or form, as well as hold onto power, the next logical step would be to adopt the Chinese model of an authoritarian state and a regulated market. But that would undermine a key weapon in their ideological armoury. Or they could go back to a massive Keynesian economic stimulus, in order to end neoliberal austerity, as well as tackle the ecological crisis. But this would lead to another 1968 within a decade or so. So they have decided to muddle on instead.
Time is of the essence. Thus Andrew Northall is right when he says that “the Weekly Worker group” has to choose between its aim to “transform [the Labour Party] into a united front … with a Marxist leadership” and “the need to build a united, mass Communist Party”. Clearly we must focus on the latter, before it is too late, beginning with educational work - which is already being undertaken by small groups of workers and intellectuals up and down the country - but intervening in the class struggle wherever possible.
At the same time, we have to develop a strategy to deal with the capitalist division of labour; ie, get rid of the main impediment to communist consciousness, because it is the key to unblocking the others.
1. H Ticktin, ‘Decline as concept’ Critique No39, Vol 34, 2006.
2. Newsnight December 10 2019.
4. I Mészáros Marx’s theory of alienation Brecon 1970, pp78-79. The above work also dispels the notion that there should be no discrepancy between the ‘young’, humanist Marx and the ‘mature’ Marx of Capital.
5. K Marx Capital London 1992, p32.
6. K Marx, ‘Economic and philosophical manuscripts’ Marx’s early writings London 1975, p285.
7. I Mészáros op cit p78.
8. Quoted in E Lunn Marxism and modernism Berkeley1984, p156.
9. G Debord Society of the spectacle New York 1995, p13.
11. G Debord op cit p74.
12. VI Lenin What is to be done? London 1963, p80.
13. I Mészáros op cit p78.