Myths of unity and disunity
The EHRC report demonstrates the bankruptcy of the official Labour left’s appeasement of the right, argues Paul Demarty
Perhaps the only upside to the scandal that has followed upon the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report into Labour’s supposed ‘anti-Semitism problem’ is that it is just rewards for the behaviour of the various leadership cliques during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure in the top job.
It will be necessary to recount this whole sorry history. It was no surprise that, after the euphoria of Corbyn’s crushing victory in the 2015 leadership election subsided, he and his people were under relentless attack in a party that had comprehensively marginalised its left wing over decades. What began with the purges of ‘entryists’ in the 1980s continued through the Blair and Brown years with the centralisation of policymaking in the leader’s circle of ‘special advisors’ and pollsters, the evacuation of conference’s powers (which were always pretty nominal), relentless interference by head office in MPs’ selections, and so on. The overwhelming majority of Labour’s parliamentarians were horrified by Corbyn’s victory; the same seems to be true of the party’s full-time staff, up to and including Iain McNicol, then general secretary (or Baron McNicol of West Kilbride, as his official headed notepaper reads these days).
The Labour Party had become something of a shit sandwich. At the bottom, there was a rejuvenated mass membership, more than doubled in size. At the top, there was Jeremy and his ‘special advisors’ and the like. In the middle was a proportionately small layer of careerist politicians and officials, but with outsize influence (we shall discuss later on from whence such influence springs). Given this political topology, there were essentially two options for the new leadership. The first was to mobilise the mass membership to purge the reactionary elements; the second was to find a compromise with the reactionaries.
Corbyn chose the second option, which is hardly surprising, given his own political extraction and the politics of much of the Labour left pre-2015. Most of its component groupings, though not all, kept to the strategy associated with Vladimir Derer, co-founder of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. This held that the Labour left could never win power alone: it had to come to an accordance with elements of the centre, in order to marginalise the pro-capitalist right. That would form a solid enough basis for Labour to campaign effectively for government on a modestly leftwing programme.
So when, early in 2016, a concerted campaign began in earnest to smear the Labour Party with allegations of anti-Semitism, the only response available was to hurl people to the wolves. The first significant scalp was Ken Livingstone, whose comments in defence of MP Naz Shah have now preposterously been found to constitute “unlawful harassment”! Others followed, of course - Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth and many more. In no cases did the Corbynist left defend the victims of the smears, because in the end that would immediately scupper any attempt to gather together a parliamentary coalition that could go into a general election with some semblance of unity. Of course, it proved impossible to satisfy the appetite of Corbyn’s tormentors for the blood of further ‘anti-Semites’. The leadership capitulated again and again, even when new levels of Kafkaesque absurdity were reached, with the doctrine that even disputing allegations was itself evidence of anti-Semitism.
It is no surprise that Corbyn himself has been ensnared by such allegations, given that Labour (on his watch) signed up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s tendentious ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism, and under its rubric any number of speeches he has given from Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity platforms constitute murderous Jew-hatred.
Still the project for unity with the centre, and the appeasement of the right it demands, refuses to die. The CLPD might be taken as an emblematic case here: more or less founded to make MPs answerable to their constituency parties by means of mandatory reselection, it resisted any such demands so long as Corbyn’s office was waving olive branches around in increasing desperation. Even now it does not budge from its absurd unity-mongering. Its model motion calling for the rescindment of Corbyn’s suspension declares: “We believe that unity, not division, is important for the party to make progress and effectively challenge racism, fascism, anti-Semitism and harassment in whatever form this may take.”
The failure of the left to fight back at all resulted in the shameful absence of solidarity, and ultimately in defeat and further purges. It is for this reason that we say that Corbyn’s suspension is ‘just reward’, even if it must be resisted no less urgently for that. With the right happy to crush its enemies, and the left loath to do the same, the outcome is inevitable. It is one thing to bring a knife to a gunfight; quite another to bring an acoustic guitar and break into ‘Ebony and ivory’.
The question remains as to how this disjunction arises. Faced with a difference between one faction (or set of factions) - the left, which makes suicidal sacrifices for unity; and another, the right, which makes ultimatum after ultimatum and revenges itself on the recalcitrant - we need an explanation. We cannot be satisfied merely with the view that the right consists of psychopaths, any more than we are satisfied with the various clever tactics of the left’s unity-mongering over the last few years.
Here we must remind readers that it is not a new problem. Vladimir Lenin’s characterisation of Labour as a “bourgeois workers party” is well-known among communists, and has held up remarkably well so far. His argument was that Labour was composed of working class organisations and individuals, but led by bourgeois reactionaries - indeed the worst kind of bourgeois reactionaries - since their role was specifically to demobilise independent, proletarian class-consciousness. In fact, however, the immediate issue here is not directly a function of the Labour Party’s peculiar structure; indeed, Lenin and Grigory Zinoviev put their finger on the matter in 1915, discussing the Second International parties’ support for their countries’ respective war efforts:
Opportunism has ‘matured’, is now playing to the full its role as emissary of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement. Unity with the opportunists has become sheer hypocrisy, an example of which we see in the German Social Democratic Party. On all important occasions (for example, the voting on August 4 [for war credits - PD]), the opportunists come forward with an ultimatum, which they carry out with the aid of their numerous connections with the bourgeoisie, of their majority on the executives of the trade unions, etc. Unity with the opportunists actually means today, subordinating the working class to ‘its’ national bourgeoisie, alliance with it for the purpose of oppressing other nations and of fighting for great-power privileges, it means splitting the revolutionary proletariat in all countries.1
What Lenin and Zinoviev here call ‘opportunists’ are the same social layer as the “worst reactionaries” of the Labour Party a few years later, and indeed the rightist union bureaucrats and zombie-Blairite MPs of today’s parliamentary party. That layer gains its power and influence - is able to press its agenda and obtain ownership of ‘party unity’, even as it purges, libels and vilifies - because it is effectively an arm of the state. It is the mechanism by which the bourgeois state intervenes in the labour movement precisely to disrupt its unity if such unity is on even the most trivially ‘disloyal’ grounds, such as the cloying peacenikkery of Jeremy Corbyn and co. If there must be a Labour Party, nothing less than its total captivity to the bourgeois state will ever do.
Of course, there need not be a Labour Party at all in the establishment view. Far preferable would be the competition of two parties of capital, allowing the ruling class to pivot when necessary without any real danger of plebeian insurgency at all. Whether through ruinous litigation or political purging, this prospect is real today in a way it has not been at any point in Labour’s history to date. Behind the EHRC scandal and the suspension of Corbyn lies the contradiction between the bourgeois, state-loyal politics of the Labour Party and the real interests of the working class.
A left that remains paralysed by its commitments to unity with elements of the right will not have much effect on the outcome of this crisis. But in fact the stakes are higher, if that is possible. Fighting back against the right means exposing the corrupt links between the state, the media and bourgeois politicians - including ‘our’ bourgeois politicians - which means exposing the class character of the state and constitutional regime (Corbyn’s republicanism being yet another item tossed onto the bonfire to keep his enemies onside). It is this underlying reality that makes the capitulationist policy of the Labour left so disastrous.
What is needed, first and foremost, is a party of extreme opposition - a Communist Party - that can shift the terrain of struggle in the wider labour movement.
marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/s-w/ch01.htm (emphasis added).↩︎