Reformism, Corbynism and CPGB
Repeating the arguments of the 1920s ‘left’ communists, Rex Dunn says the Labour Party is a quagmire for the left
Reformism - or parliamentarism - is dead. Its life was only extended for a time by Stalinism and the cold war, wherein the idea of ‘democratic socialism’ acquired new resonance. Reformism has also contributed to capitalist decline, which hastened its own demise. Blairism is its Frankenstein monster - constructed from old body parts - which wants to create a new bourgeois party, whilst Corbynism plays the role of zombie: a vain attempt to give new life to left reformism, circa the 1980s.
Hence the former needs to kill the latter off. But this is a diversion from the class struggle, such as it is. Mike Macnair argues that the struggle inside the Labour Party is a “class battle”.1 Even if that were true, the Labour left is too small to have any influence.
The CPGB has lost the plot, because it has turned Lenin’s 1920 position on the Labour Party into a raison d’être (despite his proviso, “We must test this by experience”).
This reveals two important mistakes. Firstly, it amounts to an ahistorical approach to the problem of how, under today’s conditions, to build a Marxist party, which is able to displace Labour. Today is very different from 1920. If Lenin were to return, he would argue that we should not be “reiterating formulas”. Rather we need to study “the specific features of the new and living reality”.2 Secondly, he would focus on capitalist decline: the “parasitism and decay of capitalism”, which began with the rise of imperialism. Today this finds expression in atomised bourgeois society, so that the working class lacks the necessary consciousness to take control of the situation - even if the conditions are “rotten ripe” for the transition from capitalism to socialism and communism.
Lenin’s speech to the Second Congress of the Third International3 may be summarised as follows:
1. The British Labour Party is “a thoroughly bourgeois party with reactionary leaders, who act in the spirit of the bourgeoisie”. While it also has a mass working class base, the role of its bourgeois leaders is to “dupe the working class”.
2. The newly formed Communist Party is small. Therefore, in order to grow, strategy and tactics are important. Here Lenin sided with Sylvia Pankhurst, who argued that the CPGB should participate in elections and affiliate to the Labour Party. At the same time, she privately informed Lenin that, “if we were real revolutionaries, then these gentlemen will expel us”. To which Lenin responded: “That would not be bad at all. Our resolution says that we favour affiliation in so far as the LP permits sufficient freedom of criticism.” For the time being, given the special nature of Labour, it is possible for a group of revolutionaries to “describe certain leaders as traitors”, who are “the agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement”.
3. Whilst Willie Gallacher was right to argue in 1920 that these agents are “more powerful than in any other country”, he was wrong to assert that, by advocating affiliation “we shall repel the best elements among British workers”: eg, the shop stewards movement.
4. Once these elements realise that “our aim is to fight against the old reformism and opportunism”, the finest of them, who are “dissatisfied with the slow progress” being made, “will come over to us”.
5. Meanwhile, comrades should strive to revolutionise the masses, but at the same time strive to build a real working class political party.
6. Lenin qualifies his position as follows. Ten thousand delegates attended the founding conference of the CPGB - at which affiliation was also agreed - and comrade Gallacher was able to organise huge meetings in Glasgow. So that would make it easier to bring into the Labour Party ten thousand who are “better versed at working among the masses”, in order to fight the rightwing chauvinists and centrists and strengthen our goal, which is the “transformation of the old party in the sense of bringing it closer to the masses”.
The tide of world revolution post-October 1917 had yet to recede; hence the existence of thousands of revolutionary elements in Britain at that time: eg, the shop stewards movement, which was leading the struggle against the trade union bureaucrats and the Labour Party reformists. But today we do not have the “ten thousand” - just a few revolutionary elements organised in tiny left grouplets. The Marxists are split horribly: they do not have the necessary “material force” to smash reformism, as well as build a mass Communist Party.
Whereas the Corbynistas number more than “ten thousand”, they are not revolutionaries: they confuse socialism with the radical reform of capitalism - via parliamentary means. Most of them are also atomised individuals who use social media, which makes it more difficult to radicalise them within the confines of the party.
So the CPGB’s strategy to “transform the LP into a united front of the left” is misplaced. Meanwhile, its supporters fall victim to a Labour witch-hunt. In a period when the class struggle is at its lowest ebb, the struggle is taking place within wider society: ie, among the younger generation; albeit at an atomised level. This is where Marxists should be working - but also in new ways, which are able to address the problem of atomisation.
Taking his cue from Marx, Lenin addresses the question of capitalist decline in his book on imperialism (1916). In his 1920 preface, he reminds his readers that in the run-up to August 1914, the threat of an impending imperialist war was clear to the leaders of the Second International.
But these ‘heroes’ - led by Karl Kautsky, the leader of German Social Democracy - chose to ignore the Basel manifesto, to which they had agreed just a year or two before: they refused to see that an imperialist war could only be prevented by proletarian revolution. Instead, when the crunch came, they supported their imperialist masters and voted for war. ‘Kautskyism’, had become an “ideological trend”:
on the one hand, a product of the disintegration and decay of the Second International, and, on the other, the inevitable fruit of the ideology of the petty bourgeoisie, who, by the whole conditions of life, are held captive to bourgeois and democratic prejudices [ie, chauvinism and parliamentarism].4
A few pages later in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism they are described as a “stratum of bourgeoisified workers, or the ‘labour aristocracy’”, whose role is “to prop up the bourgeoisie”.5 At the theoretical level, Lenin attacks Kautsky, because his view of imperialism is “bourgeois reformism instead of Marxism”. For Kautsky, imperialism was not a “stage of economy”: rather it is “a policy … ‘preferred’ by finance capital” - although “capitalism will yet go through another phase”: namely, “the extension of the cartels to foreign policy, the phase of ultra-imperialism”.6
By contrast, Lenin argues that the conflagration of 1914 came about because capitalism had reached the “highest stage of development (imperialism), which at the same time, marks the onset of ‘the parasitism and decay of capitalism’”. Now a handful of individuals within the “exceptionally rich and powerful states” are able to
plunder the whole world simply by clipping coupons [cf today’s electronic mechanisms. What follows is crudely put; nevertheless it is still correct]. Out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own’ country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy.7
Thus we have the social - and historical - basis of reformism, which would lead to further betrayals, and finally its own demise. What follows is an attempt to update Lenin’s concept of capitalist decline today.
Parasitism and decay
1. Neoliberalism is the current expression of finance capital.
2. Under its rule, capitalism as self-expanding value is growing weaker. “In the evolution of value into finance capital … we see the fundamental form of the decay of value”. Finance capital is a “short-termist, parasitic on productive capital … transforming itself [instantly] from money to capital to fictitious capital”.8 It has created obscene levels of inequality in the process. Because finance capital feeds off productive capital, the latter is not keeping pace with the needs of humanity.
3. A worldwide slump is being “driven by an investment strike … the refusal by the private sector to invest”. The cut in interest rates is “unlikely to have any material effect. Firms are saving, not borrowing.”9 The result is low growth in terms of capital investment as a percentage of gross domestic product. In 2018 the world average was a mere 24.5%. According to the International Monetary Fund, this has led to “a sharp deterioration in manufacturing activity and global trade with higher tariffs, prolonged trade policy, uncertainty damaging investment and demand in capital goods”. There is a “synchronised slowdown”, which is “downgrading growth for 2019 to 3%, its slowest pace since the global financial crisis”.10
4. A Green New Deal based on massive state-led investment could provide a solution. But in 2018 the US Senate voted 57-0 against such a move (the Democrats abstained, including ‘socialists’ like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).
5. World poverty is a driver of population growth, which is expected to peak at about 10 billion by 2050. Poverty persists at an unacceptable level: 23% of the world’s population - nearly one billion people - are living on less than $1 a day. 40% - 2.5 billion people - are living on $2 a day. 10% of the world’s population account for 54% of the world’s income. Nearly one billion people were affected by hunger in 2015.
6. At the same time as rising inequality, we are living in a period of capitalist ecocide: CO2 emissions and global warming, adverse weather, mega-firestorms, deforestation, water shortages (especially in megacities), soil erosion, loss of essential ecosystems, due to mono-agriculture and pollution. The latter killed an estimated nine million people in 2019, due to chemical contaminants. There is also the mass extinction of plant and animal species.
7. FANGS (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) are now worth in total $250 billion. The disconnect with real life in favour of virtual interfacing affects young people in particular.
8. Given the overwhelming evidence for all of the above, the capitalist class and its managerial bureaucracy is behaving in a totally irrational and irresponsible manner from the standpoint of humanity.
9. The longer the socialist revolution is delayed, the decay of capital will continue, leading to the disintegration and decay of society as a whole. At the same time, capitalist ecocide continues.
Death of reformism
The death of reformism is an aspect of this decline. Therefore we need to retrace the events which led to its demise.
In historical terms, as the 20th century wore on, reformism - along with technology - helped pave the way for the atomisation of the working class. The problem with Labourism (as it is known in Britain) is that it separates the economic struggle from the political struggle. The latter, of course, is limited to winning parliamentary elections and forming a government that is subservient to the rule of capital (as opposed to a socialist strategy, which stresses the need to organise the class struggle independently, by means of a programme that goes beyond economic demands: ie, these have to be linked to a political struggle, whose goal is to overthrow capitalism and its state). During the 1970s, Labour governments presided over a period of rising prices and falling wages - ‘slumpflation’ - accompanied by factory closures due to foreign competition. This led, in turn, to rising unemployment. Whilst the trade union bureaucracy tried to rein in an increasingly militant rank and file, workers resorted to unofficial strike action, which culminated with the ‘winter of discontent’. Given the separation of the economic from the political struggle, helped by a hostile media, Thatcher won the 1979 election with the slogan, “Labour isn’t working”. Thus began 13 years of Thatcher rule.
Worse was to come. Thatcherism also marked the beginning of neoliberalism, based on globalised markets, deregulation of labour relations and so on. At the same time, capitalism made full use of the new technologies: firstly, the mechanisation of production; secondly, deindustrialisation or outsourcing of the manufacturing to other countries. The coal industry was wound down in favour of importing gas to supplement the decline in North Sea oil. All this led to the physical and mental atomisation of the working class. This was exacerbated by new technologies in the entertainment and communication industries: eg, the DVD, digitalisation, the internet and social media. On the one hand, video games and social media operate mainly outside the workplace, as a leisure activity. On the other, they are addictive and constitute a huge distraction from the reality of the day-to-day class struggle. Hence we see a plethora of single-issue struggles. In addition, atomisation is a spur to social disintegration: it leads to fears about the loss of individuality; hence the rise of 1980s consumerism and the obsession with style, followed by identity politics. As a result the working class is fragmented even further.
Thatcher won a landslide victory in 1983, helped by the ‘Falklands factor’, or an upsurge in chauvinism (cf Brexit). She was also able to win over better-off workers to the Tory Party with the offer to let them buy their council houses. Some of this stratum would later go on to become second-home buyers and live off the rent. However, the working poor and the unemployed became so demoralised that many do not bother to vote at all. A wedge is being driven between the better-off workers and those below them. This split helps explain why Labour’s traditional Labour voters in the north and east decided to jump ship and vote for Johnson in the 2019 election.
To return to the 1990s and Blairism: given that the latter is obsessed with the governmental question, in order to win power Blair decided that Labour must adapt to the atomisation of the working class - along with the rest of society - which reformism/Labourism had helped bring about. At the same time New Labour could make the party more attractive to the ruling class. So it embraced neoliberalism: ie, the free market, deregulation of finance capital, public/private investment to bolster education and welfare, globalised markets, hobbled trade unions, and so on. At the same time, it focused on an alliance between the better-off workers and the middle classes (the so-called ‘middle ground’), especially in the metropolitan areas, on the assumption that its traditional Labour vote would hold up in the north and east of England.
The goal of such a strategy is the transformation of the Labour Party from a “bourgeois party with a working class base” into a bourgeois party, which would distance itself from the trade unions by removing the block vote. But, given its historic links with the unions, Blair could not do this all at once - it had to be done in stages. After all, the trade union bureaucracy, as part of the ‘aristocracy of labour’, had brought the Labour Party into existence in the first place. Blair began the process by attacking reformism at the ideological level: this is the end of the 20th century, therefore clause four in Labour’s constitution is redundant, because it commits the party to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” (even if this is to be achieved by parliamentary means). In came the idea of the ‘social market’ and the nostrum of a ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism, which was a more ‘realistic’ means of creating a fairer and more equal society. Of course, the opposite happened.
Next came constitutional reform: ie, a move to the principle of ‘one member, one vote’ (Omov) within the party. In order to keep the trade union bureaucrats onside, Blair decided to call a halt for the time being, even though the job of transforming Labour was only half done. But the logic of Blairism is to follow the trajectory of the New Zealand Labour Party, which was already ahead of the game.11
Corbynism is a zombie, which arose from the corpse of left reformism in a vain attempt to give it new life (unlike Bennism, which arose before the latter had expired - and before atomisation had become entrenched). Socialism is synonymous with the reform of capitalism in order to save it, via Keynesianism, involving a high level of borrowing - whilst keeping tax rises to modest levels - as a means to finance a Green New Deal.
This could save the planet in the short term. But it would mean rolling back neoliberalism: it would require massive state borrowing, on top of quantitative easing - which has already soaked up many trillions of dollars - in order to rescue the banking system. So this would undermine the value form even further. On the other hand, Blairism wants to carry on building the Frankenstein monster: ie, it wants to dismember and reassemble the corpse of reformism, in order to create a bourgeois centrist party, New Labour - a project which it had started in the 1990s. It also has to try and stop the law of value from eroding further, via public/private partnerships: eg, to tackle ‘climate change’ (aka capitalist ecocide). But this is not nearly enough to confront the existential crisis, while, at the same time, Blairism also means perpetuating the process of atomisation.
Ironically, Corbyn was twice elected as party leader under the new Omov system (the second time with an even bigger majority). Simultaneously, membership grew to more than 500,000 (which makes Labour the biggest party in Europe). But size is not everything. To reiterate an earlier point, the majority of these new members - the Corbynistas - joined online, as atomised, passive individuals. Then there is Momentum, Jon Lansman’s personal fiefdom, wherein those Corbynites who are activists have been turned into election fodder. Whilst they only constitute a small minority of MPs, the Corbynites control the party at the constituency level (although they have not been able to introduce mandatory reselection of MPs, as a means of making the party more democratic). The Blairites also have to contend with the fact that, in the 2019 election Labour was able to hold its own in the metropolitan areas of the country, which at the moment are pro-Corbyn, whilst it lost heavily in the towns in the north and east of England (the heartland of the old working class, the so-called ‘left-behinds’).
With the campaign to elect a new Labour leader, the Blairites were engaged in an all-out fight to take back control of the party. This can be seen in the recent upsurge in membership at the constituency level. But, this time round, it is clear that most of these were backing the centrist, Keir Starmer. To make things more difficult, the Blairites also have to smash the Corbynist ‘Politburo’, the national executive committee.
So Corbynism cannot be defeated overnight. But, given Labour’s traditional commitment to parliamentarism and its ‘governing illness’, which is shared by both left and right, the problem of making Labour electable once again is the key weapon in the Blairites’ armoury. On this basis, with some compromises along the way - in order to win over the waverers in the middle - they hope to reconquer the party; no doubt with the help of further constitutional changes to Labour’s structure.
To sum up: the Labour Party is a quagmire for the left. The funeral rites of reformism were presided over by Blair in the 1990s and that coincided with the birth of New Labour. But Blairism was only able to transform Labour into a halfway house between a “bourgeois party with a working class base” and a bourgeois party pure and simple. On the other hand, on the key ideological question, the Corbynistas have only talked about reviving clause four, but that is all. Similarly they failed to bring about significant reform within the party - especially the mandatory reselection of MPs. For the mass of Corbynistas, socialism simply means the pursuit of radical policies, in order to reform capitalism. But most of them are atomised individuals: ie, online Labour members.
Will Corbynism remain the zombie arising from the corpse of reformism, or will Blairism, the Frankenstein monster, come back to full vigour and force the zombie out into the cold? If the latter happens, ironically, there might be scope for a CPGB-type strategy!
Corbynism wants to breathe new life into the old Labour left. At the same time, it persists with the nostrum that ‘socialism’ can be secured by parliamentary means, so there is no need to overthrow the state. Yet after 10 Labour governments, only one - the 1945 Attlee administration - did anything to significantly improve the lot of the working class. But this was based on a consensus with the capitalist class, given the fact that British imperialism was in decline (which was further exacerbated by war), as well as a fear that the working class might finally rise up. So there was an urgent need for social and economic reconstruction (so much for the left reformist nostalgia for ‘the spirit of 45’!). On the other hand, under today’s conditions, the Blairites are the realists: ‘It is we who have to change and become a party of government, not a party of protest.’ But, when they do recapture control of the party, it is the Blairites who will be doing the transforming: ie, completing the transformation of Labour into a bourgeois party, which is ‘centrist’, not ‘socialist’. The fact that Labour lost its ‘red wall’ in the 2019 election puts them in an even stronger position.
Paradoxically, however, Corbyn’s Green New Deal offered a lifeline - not just to capitalism, but also to the future of humanity - even though it would have been under the control of the existing state (compare that to Marx’s vision, whereby “the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature more rationally”, etc). But at least it would have given us a breathing space.
The problem for us all is that, because society is becoming so atomised, the Labour Party has become the main focus for the CPGB. But it cannot ignore this process either. This situation favours the Labour aristocracy more than it does the left. So, compared to 1920, the left is faced with an even bigger challenge. Once again, it would seem that the CPGB has not made an adequate assessment of the period that we are in.
On the other hand, it can feel vindicated, because, right out of the blue, we have the emergence of the Labour Left Alliance. But in his article, ‘Two alternatives’ (Weekly Worker February 6), James Marshall does not explain who these forces are, where they sprang from or why now. They are not Corbynistas - maybe they are old Trots, who realise that the ‘barricades’ are about to be breached and have decided to spring into action, before all is lost? Corbyn’s defeat means that the Blairites are poised to win back control of the leadership and, like the CPGB, the LLA perceives a need to transform the Labour Party into a united front of the left. But now the chances of achieving this are even more inauspicious.
The immediate dilemma for the left is how to deal with the question of parliamentarism. Hopefully, the putative LLA will be able to unite around the correct programmatic and organisational positions, which would enable Labour Party Marxists to come onboard. Even so, the forces of the LLA would still be very small in relation to the mass of atomised young people, most of whom are either passive online Labour members or Momentum activists: ie, they are outside the reach of the left. At the same time, the left is being sucked into a fight to defeat the Labour aristocracy (both the left and the right). Comrades will seek to maintain the link between the correct political strategy (the fight for socialist ideas) and the organisational form which is required to achieve this (cf the demands of the Communards). But all the Labour aristocracy has to do, given that it is in control of the levers of power, is to find ways to expel the leadership or even disband the LLA.
The problem remains: how to change the consciousness of these atomised masses. The latter were animated by Corbyn’s 2019 Labour manifesto, which promised radical change via a Green New Deal, etc. But they continue to harbour the illusion that this can be achieved by means of parliamentarism. The LLA needs to be able to organise these atomised masses into a material force, which is able to overthrow the Labour aristocracy as a first step to transforming the party into a united front of the left. But, as I see it, they are not in a position to do this. Therefore the LLA will become isolated and prone to factional struggles: ie, the same old, same old!
Yet it is undeniable that the younger generation - in particular, educated layers of the working class and middle class - are attracted to the idea of the need for radical change, centred around a Green New Deal, with or without the Labour Party. Therefore the Labour left needs to take a bold step outside the corpse of reformism (perhaps leaving a foot - maybe a toe - inside!). It needs to climb out of the quagmire: ie, seek the best elements and work out a strategy that is able to convince the atomised masses that capitalism is at the root of the problem. Therefore we need a socialist revolution, which means an end to parliamentarism. To this end, Marxist education has to play a leading role, wherein the social media can be used in a positive way. In this regard, the CPGB has the expertise.
The reality today is that we have to start this struggle at the molecular level of consciousness - before it can advance to the collective level, when revolutionary ideas “become a material force”. At the same time, the Weekly Worker has to try and persuade the rest of the left to follow it.
The spectre of an imminent ecological catastrophe is haunting the planet. If the left insists on putting its own sectarian interests before this, then Marxism is finished.
1. ‘Revolution and reforms’ Weekly Worker September 20 2019.
2. VI Lenin, ‘Assessment of the present situation’ April theses Moscow 1970, p13.
4. VI Lenin Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism Peking 1969, pp6-7.
5. Ibid p10.
6. Ibid pp 111-12.
7. Ibid pp8-9.
8. Hillel Ticktin: https://libcom.org/library/decline-concept-its-consequences-hillel-ticktin.
9. The Guardian August 4 2012.
11. See DC Webber, ‘Trade unions, the Labour Party and the death of the working class in NZ’: https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/handle/10092/8343.