WeeklyWorker

28.01.2021
Vacuous platitudes

Going nowhere fast

If 2020 was a year of bitter disappointment and demoralisation for the Labour left, then 2021 is shaping up to be no better, writes James Harvey

The questions that many party members began asking in the aftermath of the December 2019 election defeat, Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader in April 2020 and the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn in October 2020 continue to be unacknowledged, let alone answered by Labour’s official left. As the witch-hunt against the left intensifies, the silence of those MPs and organisations expected to lead the fightback remains deafening. This de facto complicity and failure of leadership, combined with reports of large-scale resignations and growing inactivity, suggests that the demoralisation and the disillusion of the Labour left in Constituency Labour Parties has reached crisis levels.

It was in this atmosphere that many on the left eagerly awaited Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project. Expectations had been raised in the weeks leading up to the formal launch that this initiative would at last be a real rallying point for the Labour left and a chance to turn the tide against Starmer’s attacks. However, these hopes were dashed when details of the project were announced last December. Instead of a statement of coherent politics and consistent strategy, all we were offered was a rather nebulous think-tank prospectus, replete with the pious platitudes of a liberal NGO or a worthy Christian charity. The project, we were told, “would provide a platform for campaign work with social movements and trade unions, commission research on ‘solutions to common problems’ and build networks for international progressive change”.1 Moreover, its aims were very ambitious, with a focus on “combating poverty, inequality and unaccountable corporate power and promoting peace, global cooperation and climate justice, self-determination, democracy and human rights”.2

All very laudable, but no mention of how these great aims could be achieved beyond creating “space, hope and opportunity for those campaigning for social justice and a future that works for the many, not the few”.3 No mention of capitalism, the working class or the programme we need to transform society either - it was just more of the same managed capitalism (“popular socialist policies”, according to Corbyn) that Labour offered in its 2019 election manifesto.4

These serious flaws were confirmed by the online launch of the Justice and Peace Project on January 17.5 As is now traditional at meetings of the Labour left, this was very much a rally with top-table speeches from ‘big names’, walk-on cameos for activists and no contributions from the floor. The rhetoric of the speeches and flavour of the whole event were also very familiar to anyone who had attended the various public rallies and conferences in support of Jeremy Corbyn since 2015. But, in repeating the old tunes, another theme could also be clearly heard amidst the muted excitement - the unmistakable sound of a movement whose time has passed. Like ghost dancers, it was as if the speakers were trying to summon up the hope and enthusiasm that characterised the ‘Corbyn movement’ at its height, when tens of thousands rallied to what they thought were socialist politics and believed that Labour could be transformed.

While Corbyn himself acknowledged that there had been setbacks for the left, he sought solace in the emergence of new social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, and took comfort in a homely dialectic - “history is a funny thing. It doesn’t flow in straight lines” - rather than any serious analysis of the failure of the Labour left.6 Len McCluskey’s contribution showed an even more shaky grasp of the recent past. Jeremy had “changed the Labour Party forever”, he told us, claiming that all three candidates in the Labour leadership “ran on socialist programmes, although we have to keep reminding Keir”.7 Given the continued witch-hunt and Starmer’s openly pro-capitalist politics, this upbeat assessment is more than misleading - it is absurdly wrong and seriously damaging. Whatever they try to pretend, for Corbyn and McCluskey, hope and history simply did not rhyme. However, this failure to face up to the scale of the defeat of the Corbyn leadership is not simply a minor oversight or an understandable attempt to draw a veil over some small personal embarrassment. Nor does the failure to accept the nature of their defeat arise purely from stupidity, careerism or personal weakness. Rather it is deeply and historically rooted in the politics of the official Labour left and its understanding of the nature of the Labour Party and Labour’s historical role in capitalist society.

Dead end

The Peace and Justice Project reflects these original sins of the Labour left, albeit refracted through the personal politics of Jeremy Corbyn.8 Its mission statement echoes all the themes that we heard repeated in campaign speeches or read in the manifesto commitments.9 Its tone is of a ‘campaigning’ movement or an NGO lobbying group, like Christian Aid or Oxfam, commissioning reports and “bringing people together for social and economic justice, peace and human rights, in Britain and across the world”.10

These aspirations might initially appear rather noble, if somewhat naive. Who can disagree with “social and economic justice, peace and human rights”? Certainly not the liberal left and other shapers of ‘public opinion’ in developed capitalist societies. Along with official multiculturalism, intersectionality and the identity politics of gender, race and ethnicity, these ‘demands’ are virtually the official slogans of contemporary capitalism. Far from challenging capitalism, the politics of “social and economic justice, peace and human rights” can easily accommodate itself to - and, in turn, be accommodated by - the political status quo. All that we were offered here is a very limited tinkering with the most egregious and newsworthy abuses of capitalism.

These politics of recognition and lobbying are a dead end. Beyond “working” with labour and social movements and “providing platforms to those campaigning for change for the many, not the few”, the project offers no clear strategy or perspective about how capitalism can be overthrown.11 This project offers no prospect of building a mass movement to transform society and it holds out no hope whatsoever of developing a real socialist alternative to capitalism. It simply repeats the now rather passé slogans and strategic failures of the Corbyn era.

So, if it is a political cul-de-sac, can’t we simply ignore it? Won’t it just fade away into obscurity, producing worthy reports, like the Joseph Rowntree Trust, that occasionally get written up in The Guardian or the Morning Star, but with little real political impact? Although this project is unlikely to revive the Corbyn moment, it is still far from harmless. By keeping the flag flying for Corbynism and failing to seriously account for its failures the Peace and Justice Project will simply recycle these failed politics and divert socialists from the key struggles, both inside and outside the Labour Party.

Corbynism is much more than a mere diversion from serious socialist politics: in fact, it is a major ideological and strategic obstacle to building a principled and coherent Marxist current in the Labour movement. It must be unsentimentally criticised and exposed as a roadblock and a snare for those who are serious about rebuilding a socialist movement. Ten thousand people viewed the launch and many more have shown an interest in the project online. For many Corbyn will always remain ‘the king over the water’ and, although no-one believes he can return from exile, there is still a hope that his politics can live on in some form. As long as the left fails to learn the political and strategic lessons from the defeat of Corbynism and clings on to these illusions, it will continue to go down to defeat after defeat.

The main strategic flaws in the Peace and Justice Project are its ‘broad front’ politics, and a belief that ill-defined, inchoate movements are an effective form of socialist struggle. This simply repeats the long-established patterns of left activism which reduce ‘politics’ to mere protest, replacing serious mobilisation which raises the socialist consciousness of the Labour movement with endless lobbying, demonstrations and campaigns. In practice, this form of ‘socialist politics‘ frequently ends up jumping on any passing protest vehicle and accommodating to the latest fashionable cause à la Socialist Workers Party. By tailing behind these movements, this type of leftism not only fails to raise the level of any given protest campaign, but also only succeeds in actually lowering political understanding, by accommodating its politics to the lowest common denominator of ‘the broad front’.

Marxism

Paradoxically, this worship of spontaneity and grassroots movements often produces its supposed antithesis - the type of top-down, undemocratic and managerial politics which we saw in Momentum. It is also frequently combined with the forms of charismatic leadership and direction that characterised the wider Corbyn movement and which still largely frame his Peace and Justice Project. Instead of conscious and politically developed cadres, this movementism produces mere followers awaiting the word and leadership from on high. The historical experience of Marxism from the 19th century, let alone the current crisis of the Labour left, shows the utter bankruptcy of these politics and the serious dangers they pose for our movement.

In the case of the Labour left these weaknesses flow ultimately from their strategic orientation towards the Labour Party and their emphasis on the election of a left Labour government as the route to achieve ‘socialism’ in Britain. Whether they argue that calling for a socialist Labour government is a ‘transitional demand’ that mobilises the working class and exposes reformism or, more prosaically, suggest that any other demand would simply not be understood by the class, the end result always remains the same: the official Labour left, and their outriders on the semi-Trotskyist left, will always remain confined within the politics of Labourism and the capitalist constitutional order by their strategic focus on the election of a Labour government. Even the best leftwingers will tie themselves up in knots in order to maintain the current political and organisational configuration of the Labour Party.

All the time they remain self-imprisoned within this framework, the official left will continue to compromise with the Labour right ‘in the interests of party unity’ and electoral politics. Despite the hype, the Peace and Justice Project is not a new departure: it is just another iteration of the tried and failed broad front politics that have defined the Labour left for over a hundred years. This explains why Corbynism failed to really take up the fight and so criminally wasted an unexpected opportunity to drive the pro-capitalist Labour right out of the party. Corbyn’s new initiative - along with the rest of the official left in the Socialist Campaign Group, Momentum, the Labour Representation Committee, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy et al - still refuse to confront these issues and learn from the disastrous retreats, compromises and defeats of the last five years.

The very limited politics on display at the launch of the Peace and Justice Project show that such an honest stocktaking and debate has not been undertaken. By turning their eyes away from these failures and stopping their ears to any criticism, this official Labour left will ensure that these mistakes will be repeated, and the ground prepared for further, yet more disastrous defeats in the future.


  1. ‘Resolute Corbyn sets up new project for peace’ Morning Star January 20.↩︎

  2. Ibid.↩︎

  3. Ibid.↩︎

  4. Ibid.↩︎

  5. youtube.com/watch?v=XRfJRuL_4K8.↩︎

  6. thecorbynproject.com/news/jeremy-corbyns-full-speech-to-peace-and-justice-project-launch.↩︎

  7. Ibid.↩︎

  8. The project’s web address is the corbynproject.com and his name is prominently displayed on the site’s home page.↩︎

  9. thecorbynproject.com/mission-statement.↩︎

  10. Ibid.↩︎

  11. Ibid.↩︎