What Keir created, Keir can destroy
With the official left suffering from Stockholm syndrome, Jack Conrad argues that, while the struggle in the Labour Party is important, it is far from central. This is an edited version of an opening given to the November 8 Online Communist Forum
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report into alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is just the latest stage, the latest upping of an ongoing witch-hunt. Naturally, the mainstream media, the Labour right, the Jewish Labour Movement and Board of Deputies have basked in vindication. And, of course, Jeremy Corbyn responded by declaring that, though it was certainly true that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism, it has been “dramatically overstated” and used for factional purposes by internal and external opponents.
According to deputy leader Angela Rayner, “... while that might be true, it is completely unacceptable to not understand the hurt and the distress that people are feeling today”. In other words, it may be true, but you just cannot say it - which I think is precisely the point. The fact is that in any organisation of 500,000 and more, there will be all sorts of weird and wonderful (and not so wonderful) ideas. The real question, though, is surely this: ‘Is the Labour Party awash with anti-Semites? Is it committed to an anti-Semitic programme?’ And the answer is obviously ‘No!’ Have the cases, whether genuine or not, been used for factional purposes? Again, you ask the question, and you know the answer: ‘Yes, they have!’
As a result of his truthful statement, Corbyn was duly suspended. We do not know whether that suspension will be lifted after a certain course of time or whether he will eventually be expelled. What we expect, though, is that large numbers of others will be expelled from the Labour Party.
Mercifully, the EHRC report is nothing like as long as the leaked report from Labour Party headquarters, which went to something like 800 pages. The EHRC report, by contrast, is short, precise and easy to absorb … and, consequently, easy to critique.
This report offers only two individual examples of alleged anti-Semitism - by Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley. According to the EHRC - a government appointed, government financed body - these two examples amounted to “harassment” by the Labour Party - because, at the time, Ken Livingstone was a member of the national executive committee, and Pam Bromley was a Rossendale councillor. Apparently holding such positions made them “agents” of the Labour Party.
Let us have a look at Ken Livingstone’s case. It is certainly a fact that he defended Naz Shah MP, who was accused of being anti-Semitic because she shared a cartoon map of the United States with a little Israel superimposed on top of it, along with the words: “Problem solved”. I take the message to be simple. Israel is an artificial creation and today acts as the main US policeman in the Middle East. Well, highlighting the artificiality of Israel might be offensive to those Zionists who want to forget the real history of Zionism as a colonial project. Originally Zionism did not use the language of national liberation: no, for good reasons it used the language of European colonialism. Anti-Semites and Zionists alike considered the Jews an alien people in European society who should leave and go find a home elsewhere.
Amongst the potential places in the British empire the founders of Zionism considered setting up their colony was, for example, Uganda. The idea of Britain sponsoring a “little loyal Jewish Ulster” (Sir Ronald Storrs) in the Middle East was something that came with the Balfour declaration of 1917 and the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire. Obviously, for Zionism, Palestine - and especially Jerusalem - has a particular appeal. It chimes with the myth of the Jews having been expelled by the Romans and a return of the diaspora to their ancestral lands. But the Jews were never expelled by the Romans. Over the course of history many Jewish people established themselves as merchants. They constituted a people-class throughout medieval Europe and the Middle East. In Palestine itself, while some Jews remained Jews, most became Christian and then Muslims. So, ironically, in order to pursue their particular form of settler-colonialism, it is necessary for the Zionists to remove this native population from their ancestral land.
Looking at the case of Pam Bromley, I do not know all her posts or all her forwardings. But nothing I have read indicates she is an adherent of an anti-Semitic world outlook of the kind maintained by the likes of Martin Luther, Mikhail Bakunin, Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler. But say she did make a claim, a remark, a reference that could be regarded as anti-Semitic. In that case something ought to be done. If someone has racist attitudes towards people from southern Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, etc, that is not a nothing. But in the vast majority of cases it ought to be dealt with through education and debate - and crucially through joint, united, militant struggles against capitalists, against the state. Experience is the best teacher. Zero tolerance, even if sincere, is entirely the wrong approach.
Clearly though, there are those who have a political interest in branding what is not anti-Semitic as ‘anti-Semitic’. Recently Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, was accused of anti-Semitism - because he talked about Peter Mandelson, a minister under Tony Blair and famous for saying he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. McCluskey said that Mandelson was “not interested in ordinary working people”, so “I would suggest Peter goes into a room and counts his gold and not worry about the Labour Party.” I did not know - and I suspect that Len McCluskey did not know either - that Mandelson had any Jewish connections at all. But, even if he did, so what? Unless he was saying that Peter Mandelson was involved in some global Jewish conspiracy to dominate banking and undermine western civilisation, to me the remark fits, precisely because of what Peter Mandelson is famous for politically: being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.
Anyway, the main point I am making is that this report bases its conclusions on just two (absurd) cases. When that inconvenient fact was pointed out, Caroline Waters, interim chair of EHRC, responded with the claim that “it’s the tip of an iceberg.” So, if it’s the tip of an iceberg, why not present the proof, why not provide concrete examples - cases that actually do involve anti-Semitism? Well, of course, no evidence is presented because there is no iceberg. If you examine the most well known cases of alleged anti-Semitism, what is striking about them is that, whereas the initial charges included references to anti-Semitism, when it came down to actually kicking them out, those particular accusations disappeared. Take Marc Wadsworth: anti-Semitism was dropped in favour of ‘bringing the party into disrepute’. What did he actually do? He called out Ruth Smeeth, a Labour MP (who happened to be Jewish) at the launch of the Chakrabarti report in June 2016 for collaborating with the rightwing media. Wadsworth wanted in particular to promote a leftwing version of black identity politics, not anti-Semitism.
The EHRC report is not honest, it is not balanced. It has nothing to do with combating anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, because there is no actual ‘anti-Semitism problem’ within Labour. So, what is it really about? Fundamentally, it is about the relationship between Britain and the United States, and its most important, most reliable ally in the Middle East. The question of the Corbyn leadership is far from irrelevant, of course, but it is secondary.
What I am arguing is this: now that the right has succeeded in getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and is now even taking disciplinary action against him, that does not mean that the witch-hunt will end. Indeed, in the United States - though I do not know what things will be like under Joseph Robinette Biden Jr - there are clear signs of this campaign being turned against mainstream liberal institutions: for example, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Human Rights Watch. So, even if Corbyn ends up being expelled, this witch-hunt looks set to grind on.
In reality the whole campaign is aimed at the anti-war movement that emerged in particular against the invasion of Iraq. It is about delegitimising opposition to imperialist wars in the Middle East, which are nowadays conducted, even if only in part, to save Israel from another holocaust. But there is an even more important target. Here in Britain the Tory government has moved to delegitimise socialism and opposition to capitalism. In the name of combatting extremism, racism and anti-Semitism, schools have even been instructed not to use material from organisations that uphold anti-capitalism. That would have included the Labour Party before Blair gutted the old clause four, and it certainly includes the Communist Party of Great Britain.
So how has the official left - ie, the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, left trade union general secretaries and Momentum - responded to the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn? He is someone who had previously been regarded as a hero because he not only won the leadership, but then went on to be re-elected after the most almighty campaign to bring him down. Bizarrely, there has been praise for the EHRC report as being fair, balanced and reasonable. The only objection is that Jeremy Corbyn’s remarks have been “misinterpreted”. Meanwhile, there are pathetic calls for Corbyn to be reinstated so that the whole party can unite with Keir Starmer in the fight to defeat anti-Semitism. The desperate clutching at unity means that there is no critique of the EHRC report, but an acceptance of all its recommendations, which include outsourcing discipline when it comes to cases of ‘anti-Semitism’. I do not know who would make up any ‘independent’ disciplinary body, but it would have to be acceptable to the Jewish Labour Movement, Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and Board of Deputies: ie, so-called “Jewish stakeholders”. In other words, rabid Zionists have a veto.
Looking at other sections of the left, I would argue that they have been equally supine, equally discombobulated. Opposition to racism, including anti-Semitism, is something that runs very deep in the culture of the left and to have accusations of racism directed against them results in many responding in a self-doubting manner. To be accused of being anti-Semitic is something unexpected, disturbing, disarming. In effect, the establishment has taken hold of the anti-racism of the left, turned it on its head and then directed it against the left.
With much of the left in thrall to identity politics, surrender is often the result: ‘it’s up to Jewish people to determine what is anti-Semitism’. The Zionists are used as a trump card. All they need do is say, ‘I’m offended by what Jeremy Corbyn has said, what Naz Shah has said, what Ken Livingstone has said ...’ and that then defines what is anti-Semitic. So what we have with the official left is a culture that champions zero tolerance rather than debate - a culture that has now been turned against the left.
I do not think that those who concocted, financed, staffed and initially pushed this witch-hunt would have believed how successful their campaign would turn out to be. What they have achieved with the official left is collapse all along the line. Rather than countering with the truth that this is a big lie, we have had appeasement. John McDonnell seems to believe if you say sorry often enough things will be alright again. It is the same with Diane Abbott, Rebecca Long-Bailey and the rest of them.
Not that the Zionist movement and its imperialist sponsors will ever be satisfied. We already have the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism saying, ‘It’s all very well suspending Jeremy Corbyn, but what about the rest?’ The CAA named 15 other MPs, who they say ought, at the very least, to be suspended. Even Angela Rayner has been targeted. She is a former Corbyn fan. And you can inexorably carry on, using this logic. If they want, there is Keir Starmer too - after all, he served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
Those who surrender before their persecutors are easily recruited to become persecutors themselves. Karie Murphy, chief of staff under Corbyn, boasts about how she feels proud of the role of the Corbyn leadership, and the regime under then general secretary Jennie Formby, in dealing with ‘anti-Semitism’. What about Momentum? Its initial reaction was just appalling. Co-chair Andrew Scattergood said Corbyn’s suspension should be “immediately lifted in the interests of party unity” and fighting ‘anti-Semitism’.
So why is the official left behaving in this way? My explanation is that, in part, it is down to pure careerism. Most of the official left are interested in getting, or holding onto, the perks and privileges of office. If they do, well, there is the House of Lords as a well paid retirement home. So, in pursuing their life’s ambition, they do not want to get into a big argument with the media, they do not want to ruin Labour’s chance of forming a government and thus furthering their blessed careers. In that sense we have an official left that merges with the state: ie, they have ministerial ambitions and are obviously committed to working within the existing constitution. They claim to believe, and I am sure they really do, that that way they can win pro-working class reforms.
But there is also something else. In psychology there is the ‘Stockholm syndrome’. This describes the phenomenon of people who are held captive, who are abused, who are persecuted, starting under these horrible conditions to identify with their abusers and persecutors.
To begin with Corbyn had to put up with a rightwing general secretary, Iain McNicol. We all thought that, once he had been replaced by a leftwinger in the form of Jennie Formby, the suspensions, the bogus charges, would come to an end. The campaign itself would not, of course. But, as Karie Murphy proudly boasts, far from that being the case, what has happened is that the suspensions and expulsions continued. In fact, they increased - under the Corbyn-Formby regime. Doubtless, there were cases of genuine anti-Semitism that the rightwing bureaucracy deliberately sat on in order to discredit Jeremy Corbyn. But they were few and the accusations and suspensions were many under general secretary Formby. With the full blessing of Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, the NEC, etc, expulsion followed expulsion.
The Stockholm syndrome also explains the official left’s response to the EHRC report. Instead of branding it a state-sponsored attack, we are told that it is fair and balanced, that its recommendations should be speedily implemented. By inference those falsely charged with ‘anti-Semitism’ are branded ‘anti-Semites’. That not only includes those expelled and suspended … but the hundreds, the thousands, who have simply resigned in disgust.
The official left is persecuted but wants to join the persecutors in persecuting. The Socialist Campaign Group pleads for unity with Starmer in fighting ‘anti-Semitism’; trade union general secretaries talk of unity with Starmer in fighting ‘anti-Semitism’; Momentum too - it wants unity with Starmer in fighting ‘anti-Semitism’.
We can defend Abbott, Long-Bailey and Corbyn against the witch-hunt. But a clear line of political demarcation must be drawn. The official left are not misguided friends, leaders who have gone astray. No, they are enemies of the worst kind because they still pass for friends and leaders of the left.
Let us take a step back. The Corbyn leadership presented the official left with the best opportunity in a hundred years to transform the Labour Party. True, Corbyn was elected due to an historic accident. It was the votes of the ‘morons’ which took him over the line and allowed him to become a leadership candidate. Once there, it was the one-member-one-vote system of election, plus the £3 supporters - all introduced by the right - which swept him to victory. So the left had the leader of the party and a huge and growing mass base.
What did the official left do with that historic opportunity? It refused to change the Blairite version of clause four with a truly socialist formulation that demanded republican democracy, working class rule and an end to capitalism’s ecologically disastrous cycle of production for the sake of production. It refused to end the undemocratic ban on communist and socialist organisations affiliating to the party. It refused to countenance the demand that sitting MPs be subject to reselection. It refused to take disciplinary measures against the right wing, as they openly sabotaged, fed rumours to the capitalist media and plotted with MI5, the Israeli embassy and the CIA.
Instead the official left turned against the left. With the blessing of Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott, Jon Lansman carried out his coup in Momentum which stopped the membership exercising any control and reduced the organisation to a useless appendage.
Whereas Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings acted with utter ruthlessness against their opponents in the parliamentary Tory Party, Jeremy Corbyn sought to appease, sought to keep the Labour right on board … even if that meant throwing former friends and comrades to the wolves.
There are still those who think Starmer is some kind of prisoner of the left because he committed to the 2019 election manifesto. Well, first, the 2019 manifesto is hardly radical. Everything in it is predicated on the existing constitution. Yes, there are calls for rail nationalisation, higher wages and benefits; but Nato, nuclear weapons, the monarchy, the standing army, judge-made law - all these go unquestioned. There are plenty of lies too: the interests of workers and bosses can be reconciled; peace can come under capitalism; capitalism can be made ecologically friendly; etc.
And, of course, Starmer will introduce changes. He will cite new circumstances, new facts, new realities. The official left might grumble. But they too are committed to the ‘next Labour government’ as some sort of holy grail. In reality, if there were a Labour government in 2024 or 2025 it would not deliver substantial reforms, it would not represent a necessary stage in the struggle for socialism. No, a Starmer government would seek to serve capitalism and that necessarily means the exploitation of the working class and the imperialist robbery of the so-called third world, not least through the City of London. And to get into government, to get into No10, Starmer knows that he has to make the Labour Party safe, acceptable, even attractive, as far as the capitalist class is concerned. Therefore, he has to court finance capital, the military-industrial complex, the mainstream media, the secret state, the judges, the big legal firms.
Whether that means purging the Socialist Campaign Group, cutting the trade union link and expelling tens of thousands in the CLPs is an open question. Having the official left and the trade union bureaucracy on board gives the Labour Party much of its organisational and social weight. But the pressure is on him and the logic of ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ is remorseless … and could easily lead to the deLabourisation of Labour and even the virtual oblivion already seen in Scotland. Everything will be decided, of course, by the class struggle inside and outside the Labour Party. And it should be admitted, at this present juncture, that the working class movement is organisationally weak, politically confused and suffers from a cowardly, treacherous, largely pro-capitalist (mis)leadership.
So, there is at the very least the possibility that the Labour Party could self-destruct. To use a phrase: ‘What Keir created, Keir can destroy’. The Labour Party was created as a united front of the whole working class in 1900 under the leadership of Keir Hardie from the Independent Labour Party. Hugh Gaitskell and the revisionist right tried to deLabourise the Labour Party in the 1960s. They failed. Tony Blair and the ‘third way’ modernisers tried it in the 1990s. They got rid of the old clause four and weakened the trade union link. But they failed to deLabourise the Labour Party.
Keir Starmer, who is named after Keir Hardie, has no established political agenda for deLabourising the Labour Party. Not because he is a former editor of Socialist Alternatives and remains, in his heart, a good Pabloite. No, he is a typical member of the soft left who has, year by year, slowly, steadily drifted to the right. Examples from history are legion: Ramsay MacDonald, James Maxton, Manny Shinwell, John Strachey, Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle, Gordon Brown, etc, etc. These people were carried to the right by a combination of careerism and events. Careerism and events could quite conceivably take Keir Starmer to the conclusions of Gaitskell and Blair. After all, he desperately wants to be prime minister and we are in the midst of an unprecedented witch-hunt.
Marxists should always strive to locate what is new, what is changing and what dynamic is involved. Nothing is fixed, nothing is permanent. It is, therefore, a profound mistake to believe that the Labour Party is an historic fixture. It came into existence at a particular historic juncture and can quite conceivably disappear, given the balance of class forces. So we do not have a Newtonian system, where things move but never change.
The Labour Party came into existence with the rise of the organised working class, the extension of the suffrage, the growth of Irish republicanism and the decline of the Liberal Party, which in the late 19th century relied on trade union and Irish support. Labour was a step forward for the working class movement, but was willingly incorporated into the capitalist state; hence Lenin’s famous definition of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers’ party - the leadership being corrupt, servile and reactionary; the base being proletarian, but often looking for no more than crumbs gained from the imperialist exploitation of the British empire.
That empire has long gone, Britain is now a decidedly second-ranking power, and capitalism, as a system, is in decline. On top of that we nowadays face the Covid-19 economic slump and the ever growing likelihood of the earth’s climate reaching a deadly tipping point. Meaningful, substantial, sustainable pro-working class reforms are no longer on the agenda. Quite the opposite. So the Labour Party, because it is institutionally tied to capitalism, could face terminal decline, perhaps extinction.
We have already seen the once mighty Communist Party of Italy die, the Communist Party of France reduced to almost nothing and the Soviet Union collapse. Social democracy has followed a not dissimilar course. Pasok in Greece is a shell of its former self, the same with the Socialist Party in France and the SPD in Germany.
The Labour Party remains a site of struggle … for the moment. There are, of course, those who disagree. It is a matter of judgement. The problem is, though, that many who dismiss the Labour Party as dead, or nearly dead, have as their project not the creation of a mass Marxist party, a mass Communist Party - no, what they are offering is a broad party with a soft-left programme.
There have already been more than a few attempts in this direction: Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect, Left Unity. All began with high hopes; all produced abject failure. The fates of Communist Refoundation in Italy, Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece ought to be instructive. But too many want to keep making the same mistake again and again. And the fact of the matter is that soft leftism, political broadness, does not bring political strength and durability. On the contrary, soft leftism and political broadness leave the door wide open for coalition governments, accepting the dictates of the capitalist market, merging with the capitalist state and the mass demoralisation and demobilisation of the base.
Objective conditions demand the creation of a working class party that can come to power and break up the capitalist state and begin the transition to communism. Our best model is the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and its Bolshevik leadership. Today we urgently require such a party - one that organises the working class on the basis of a clear, principled programme, operates according to the principles of freedom of criticism and unity in action. Such a party is not only required in Britain - it is required in every country. Socialism is internationalist or it is nothing.
So, while the struggle in the Labour Party is important, it is far from being central.