Blind leading the blind
With Sir Keir in complete control of Labour, the left faces a crisis of perspectives - a crisis which finds full expression in three recent articles. Whatever the nuances and subtle differences, says Mike Macnair, they all remain trapped in possibilism
On July 12 the Morning Star published a significant think-piece by Andrew Murray: ‘Eyes left: even the right hopes for a better left’. July 22 provided a slightly longer offering of a different analysis by Kevin Ovenden: ‘Back to the 90s with Starmer?’ And on July 25 Vince Mills offered a ‘Labour left’ perspective on the same issues in ‘Out of apathy - where next for Labour and the left?’
The common thread of these articles is the problem of perspectives for the left, which is faced with the complete domination of the Labour right after the Corbyn episode and the very ambiguous out-turn of the recent strike movement. The perspectives they try to offer are different; but they are all characterised by a focus on what the authors think is possible, rather than considering to any significant extent what is needed. The focus on the ‘possible’ in fact - contrary to the authors’ imagined realism - leads to ineffectiveness.
Andrew Murray’s article starts with the July 2 article in The Sunday Telegraph by Nick Timothy, former chief of staff to Theresa May: ‘Capitalism as we know it has failed. Not even the Tories can defend it’. Timothy’s article, in turn, starts with the arguments of American ‘democratic nationalist’ Michael Lind1 that globalisation has enriched ‘elites’ and impoverished the ‘western’ (and especially Anglo-American) working and middle classes, essentially by wage suppression. Timothy can hardly offer the obvious solution (abolish all the anti-union laws and criminalise any judicial attempt to reinvent them). He argues for some sort of limited regulatory interventions, and attempts to make these persuasive to Telegraph readers by concluding that
Conservatives should accept that to criticise capitalism is not to succumb to socialism, but turning a blind eye to the failures and excesses of capitalism - especially the crony capitalism we have brought on ourselves - makes defeat to leftwing parties more likely.
Murray makes this his starting point. For the next general election “no leftwing party is standing, at least not one with any chance of forming a government”. Starmer has made it clear that his leadership offers no substantive differences from the present government. In particular,
By ditching any idea of taxing the rich and big business they have foresworn the obvious means of addressing any temporary deficit ameliorative measures would entail. At this point, it is game, set and match to the moneyed Establishment …
So the next election will not offer a choice of programmes, only of executors …
The common response to this on the left is to say that the struggle must then move to the streets or the workplaces. That is absolutely true as far as it goes, which is somewhere - but not far enough.
Murray correctly points out that Enough is Enough (whatever it was) “secured the email contacts of around 700,000 people in the enthusiasm surrounding its launch”, but that it “seems to have stalled for want of a discernible strategy beyond supporting disputes which will eventually come to a conclusion anyway”.
This point is not merely a matter of Enough is Enough, which is a typical example of ‘mass campaigns’ designed round apparatus control, and therefore turned on and off by the apparatus as it is convenient, with demobilising effects. The focus on street and strikes as an alternative necessarily involves the Bakuninist general strike strategy: that is, of escalating and joining together the strikes till the point at which they merge in the creation of workers’ councils and a challenge for power. The conception is radically false and repeatedly disproved in practice.
Murray, however, does not get the point that the workers’ movement needs a political alternative: as Marx put it, “a movement of the class, with the effect of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general socially coercive force”.2 What Murray sees as missing is “the movement against austerity”, and the anti-war movement; but both of these were campaigns of lobbying and demonstrations. And the anti-war movement precisely recoiled from enforcing the interests of the class in a general form, when it drew back from campaigning against individual pro-war MPs who had political allies within the movement, for fear of splitting the ‘broad movement’ on political lines.
Murray argues that “The strikes underline there is no lack of working-class combativity; the 2017 election showed that left policies can be popular, and the initial response to Enough is Enough demonstrated that masses of people want to fight for a different future.” All of these are about the apparently possible; not about what is needed.
And the strikes remain protest actions, not actual effective coercion of the employer. So they show combativity, but of a limited kind, which at most is mitigating radical wage cuts inflicted through inflation.
The 2017 election showed that the appearance of a left alternative can be popular if the right is temporarily caught out (the actual policies were much less important than the image of Labour as an alternative). By 2019 the regime had regained its footing, and the aspiration of the Corbynistas to form a government and their consequent inability to break with the Labour right (and hence their inability to fight back against the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign or against Starmer’s commitment to an illusory alliance with Tory ‘remainers’ in parliamentary manoeuvres to defeat Brexit by undemocratic means) prepared the ground for Johnson’s smashing election victory and hence Starmerism. Finally, 700,000 clicks is a big number, but Murray himself points out that the project “has stalled” - as did People’s Assembly and all such bureaucratic initiatives.
What positive alternative? Murray, who spent years in Unite’s bureaucratic apparatus, which included a seconded stint in the equivalent apparatus of the Corbyn leadership, roughly endorses Sharon Graham’s line in defending the union’s affiliation to Labour:
Unite leader Sharon Graham, successfully urging her union to remain within the Labour Party rule book, told its Rules Conference that “Labour must be Labour and the union must push them into that position ... We must make them take different choices.”
There certainly isn’t an obviously better strategy on offer, but, like any other plan, it needs to show results to remain credible. There will be the rub.
That, of course, is no more than a possible line for the full-time officials of the unions, who effectively control their organisations’ funding of Labour and votes in its institutions. It is a line which is highly unlikely to be implemented in practice: since what the unions want from Labour is a government which will be less hostile than the Tories, even if it will not make life any better. It is not a line for the left at grassroots level. And here Murray has something to say, but still thinking in bureaucratic apparatus terms and very minimally: “A modest start in assembling the jigsaw of hope would be for the different campaigns, groups and organisations on the left to talk to each other with a view to reaching a workable unity behind a political alternative.”
Yes, but what sort of political alternative? And how much use would it be for the result to be just another People’s Assembly or Enough is Enough?
Murray’s remote background is in the Straight Left faction of the old ‘official’ Communist Party, which was committed to a Labour Party strategy; he defended this line against ‘Left Unity’ in 20133 and appeared vindicated when Corbyn won the Labour leadership in 2015. The defeat of Corbynism is the defeat of Murray’s whole long-term strategic perspective, since it is hard to imagine better conditions for a perspective of winning a ‘left Labour government’. Hence without making a radical self-criticism, which he does not, all he can propose is to keep running on thin air like Wile E Coyote after running over a cliff-edge.
Kevin Ovenden’s background is different: as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, he took the ‘Galloway side’ and was expelled from the SWP in the 2007 split in Respect. In 2015 he was an enthusiast for the Greek Syriza and wrote a book on the issue - finished (perhaps unfortunately) shortly before the Syriza government’s political collapse into implementing EU-mandated ‘austerity’. He has been a fairly regular contributor to the Morning Star for some years. But, as is apparent in his July 22 article, he remains a fan of ‘broad front’ left electoral initiatives to try to “break Labour’s monopoly hold of electoral representation of the working class” (as Robin Blackburn put it in International Marxist Group internal documents in 1973-76).
The argument of his July 22 article begins with Starmer’s July 18 panel with Blair and the comparisons which are inevitably being made between the present and the run-up to the 1997 general election. But Ovenden draws a sharp distinction: the Blairites offered a ‘modernising’ transformation of Britain (like Harold Wilson in 1964); Starmer offers merely the repudiation of Corbynism. He argues:
It is for this reason that the process of starting to challenge Starmer-Labour from a left that is not restricted by party membership is under way. It is stronger than in 1995, when the launch of the Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill suffered from bad timing.
It took three years into the Blair government for a major schism to occur electorally in the shape of Ken Livingstone’s win against the official Labour candidate for mayor in London. An indication of Labour’s faith-breach with voters in that election is that Frank Dobson came third with only 13%.
There is now the possibility of a left independent - Jamie Driscoll in the north-east of England - winning a major mayoralty before the general election and a probable Starmer-led government.
This analysis involves Ovenden being optimistic to the point of displaying a misty optic. He assumes that there is a good chance that Driscoll will win and assumes similarly that Jeremy Corbyn will stand as an independent and can win in Islington North. Both are possible, but relatively unlikely in an election which will probably display significant tactical voting to get the Tories out - seen in both Selby and Somerton in last week’s by-elections. He even drags into the argument the Tory victory in Uxbridge:
But the Uxbridge result also showed how a significant number of people can use the instrument of a standalone election to send a powerful signal about a particular grievance or feeling of not being listened to.
Previous elections - from Blaenau Gwent to Tower Hamlets - have shown how local opposition to rule by remote party machine can act as a catalyst for an insurgent political campaign.
At one level this argument is true enough. At another, as Uxbridge shows, it is utterly useless for the left. While it is perfectly understandable that voters in outer London should oppose the Ulez expansion, decisions of this sort about how to deal with systemic pollution created by the transport system have to be taken at an all-London level. Indeed, all-UK or all-European or even global decisions on emissions controls would be better. To insist on a local veto is merely to give a veto to the advertising-funded media and the ‘news management’ of related ‘political operatives’.
The objective dynamic, Ovenden argues, is for there to be “left ruptures” from Labour, albeit “on a highly localised basis” and in a “patchwork process”. And:
Therein lies the coming rupture of Starmer-Labour with a real Labour sentiment that is much wider than the radical left.
Now is not the time for the radical left to flatten all these developments into ‘It’s all reformism’ or to issue exposure demands and ultimatums. Now is the time for the left in and out of Labour to be an organic part of these developments …
A more united, radical left can aim to help bring political clarity and to show why a systematic focus upon developing the movements of struggle is crucial to winning things now and to bettering the prospects of serious left electoral advances that can answer the cynical Starmer calculation that people have nowhere else to go.
It was the retreat from that orientation that proved a major weakness of ‘Corbynism’ - despite, ironically, Jeremy’s victorious campaign for Labour leader in 2015 coming directly out of the mass movements.
OK, so “be an organic part” of which competing initiative? The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition? The Workers’ Party of Britain? The latest offer, Transform - a coalition of Left Unity, the Breakthrough Party, the People’s Alliance of the Left and Liverpool Community Independents? Or any one of the various other initiatives which aim to organise the supposedly existing “real Labour sentiment that is much wider than the radical left”? And, for that matter, who are the “radical left” comrade Ovenden addresses his arguments to?
Keep hold of nurse?
“Always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse” (Hilaire Belloc). This was, in substance, the line of the Labour left through the Blair years - ‘nurse’, of course, being the Labour Party. Both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband offered slight illusions of leftward movement; then the ‘morons’ letting Jeremy Corbyn onto the shortlist for Labour leader in 2015 temporarily created a semblance of transformation. But at the core of the party, the Corbynites’ continued managerialism and failure to promote real political democracy left the right in control. And now what remained of the left after Blairism is even weaker and more timid. But the message of “always keep a hold of nurse” is still with us, and reflected in Glasgow Labour leftist Vince Mills’ July 25 article.
Mills begins: “It is a difficult time for the left in the Labour Party, in Scotland as everywhere else.” After elaborating on this a bit, his nearly immediate next step is to attack all ‘new party’ ideas:
We can neither ignore it, nor adopt the approach of the ultra-left which seems to have come straight out of Blackadder goes forth - a mad assault on enemy positions over open ground in the certainty of mass slaughter.
Perhaps those advocating such an approach do so on the assumption that a new workers’ party is about to bring salvation to abandoned socialists, so that expelled Campaign Group members could represent “a real socialist party” for a year before losing their seats in the 2024 election.
If so, then surely they recognise that the likelihood of that scenario has at the very least been postponed. The decision by Unite last month to reject disaffiliation from the Labour Party overwhelmingly is a good indication of where the organised working class in England, Scotland and Wales is …
Add to that the local government elections last May. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Tusc), put forward 254 candidates in 247 wards across 65 local authorities in England, plus two mayoral candidates.
Their results ranged from a high of 231 votes (10.5%) in the Newton Abbot ward to a low of 18 votes (5%) in the Mansfield ward.
What alternative, then? Mills argues that the “socialist left” needs to build alliances: within the Labour Party with the Fabians and Compass, and with the trade unions, around party democracy and around certain policy issues, like the two-child limit in child tax credit. ‘Beyond the party’ the Scottish Labour left should be backing Mercedes Villalba’s “campaign on land justice”; the Scottish TUC’s ‘Scotland demands better’ campaign for higher taxes in Scotland (back to Andrew Murray on taxing the rich); and ‘Scotland’s not for sale’ campaign against privatisation, together with left independence supporters. Like Murray’s, this is merely a framework of single-issue lobbying campaigns. Nothing else is possible while hanging desperately onto ‘nurse’!
Possibilism was a trend in the late 19th century French socialist movement which rejected the focus of the Marxists on political power for the working class. Instead, the workers’ movement should focus on the ‘possible’: this might be small improvements, or radical changes, depending on objective circumstances. Central Possibilist leader Paul Brousse had been an anarchist at the time of the split in the First International, and there was an element of Bakunin’s critique of Marx in Brousse’s criticisms of the Marxists and opposition to the ‘minimum programme’ (meaning the 1880 programme of the Parti Ouvrier) as tending to separate the party from the immediate aspirations of the workers.4
Brousse’s transition from Bakuninism to reformism has been repeated more than once. Georg von Vollmar, a general-strikist in the 1880s, in his 1891 ‘Eldorado’ speeches in Munich advocated a turn to gradualism and reforms.5 More recently, Paul Mason, former activist in Workers Power and later author of Why it’s kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions (2012), is today an advocate of British rearmament within Nato.6 There are many others in the times between …
Our three authors are all, in very different ways, possibilists. They assume that socialism in some extremely general sense is desirable; but then frame their ‘what is to be done’ entirely by what looks practical in the very short term. But the result in all three cases is practical unrealism: none of these prescriptions are likely to produce anything other than ‘more of the same’ - meaning a labour movement dominated by the right and a left splintered into little pieces, each of which pursues its own ‘possible’ tactics.
To be possibilist means in practice to be dragged behind one side or another of capitalist politics: either the liberal defenders of anti-discrimination, the judicial power - and the free market and institutionalised corruption; or the nationalist defenders of collective provision - and also of protectionism and social conservatism.
Moreover, many approaches are in principle, or at least appear to be, possible. Hence one of the effects of the pursuit of the ‘possible’ is the practical inability of the left to unite. As a result, what the broad mass of voters - or, for that matter, of union members or of strikers - see, is the choice between, on the one hand, Starmerite Labour, which is in with a chance of forming a government, and, on the other hand, the People’s Front of Judea competing with the Judean People’s Front (Monty Python’s Life of Brian!). The larger organisations, like the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the Morning Star’s own Communist Party of Britain, cannot escape from this framework.
If, instead of starting with the possible, we start with what is objectively needed, and then approach the possible - not in terms of the opportunities for mass influence, but in terms of how we may be able to insert what is needed in the political discourse - we have a chance of escaping from the gerbil-wheel: the phenomenon of the left doing the same thing over and over again, with ever decreasing success, which is what all our three authors offer us.
The starting point is that the workers’ movement needs a political voice independent of the capitalists’ political framework. It needs this because, as we saw in the Corbyn defeat, attempts at leftwing ‘news management’ through the state and the advertising-funded media just do not work. And, as we are seeing in the strike wave and the political responses to it, that same state and advertising-funded media work patiently and tirelessly to undermine strikes and solidarity, and to pretend that efforts to minimise wage cuts are unjustified demands for wage increases.
The evidence of our history is that the capitalists have made no general concessions to the working class merely on the basis of the carrot. There has always been a threat to the constitutional order, whether it was of late Chartism at the time of the Ten Hour Day Act, or of trade union involvement in the First International at that of the Second Reform Act and the legalisation of the trade unions - leave aside the obvious cases of concessions in 1918 and 1945.
As the defeat of the Corbyn movement also shows, for the working class to create an independent political voice, this voice has to be disloyalist towards the existing nation-state. National loyalism implies ‘British competitiveness’.
In this respect, Murray’s and Mills’ arguments for higher taxes are exemplary of why the trade unions and so on failed to defend Corbyn. Murray is right to point out that the Starmerites are scared by the fate of the Truss administration, rapidly crushed by “the markets”. The problem is that they are right to be scared of this outcome. The UK imports around 46% of the food consumed in this country, so if these imports were cut off lots of people would starve. These imports are not paid for by the export of manufactured products: the UK’s quarterly deficit in trade in goods to March 2023 is £55 billion. This deficit is compensated by a surplus in ‘services’ of £40 billion,7 leaving an overall deficit of £15 billion, which is, in essence, borrowed. This is the underlying reason why ‘spooking the markets’ was disastrous for Truss.
It is the same reason why Syriza capitulated to austerity and why the Hollande government in France in 2012-13 was forced to abandon very limited reform proposals. That Britain is much bigger than Greece does not make the country any less vulnerable.
The consequence is that the workers’ movement needs, in order to have a voice which can be independent of capitalist control, not to aim immediately to construct a broad coalition for government, but to construct a fully-independent party, whose aims go all the way to the overthrow of the plutocratic constitutional order and the construction of working class power and socialism - and all the way to common action of the class on at least a European scale. That is needed in order to break out of the chains of the financial markets by creating the beginning of planned production on a European scale.
To start from this perspective requires us to aim to unite the ‘radical left’ - that is, the various forms of communists - without making the involvement of ‘broader forces’ a pre-condition for unity. This sort of unity could have a snowball effect, reaching broader forces and making a profound impact on what is thinkable in politics. On the other hand, pursuing the ‘possible’ ‘broader forces’ will lead nowhere.
In Hell to pay: how the suppression of wages is destroying America Brentford 2023. On Lind’s political evolution see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Lind.↩︎
See the discussion at weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/988/supplement-left-unitys-contradictory-aspirations.↩︎
For a sympathetic account of Brousse and the Possibilists, see D Stafford From anarchism to reformism: a study of the activities of Paul Brousse 1870-90 Toronto 1970. The 1880 draft programme in English at www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm; the French text actually adopted as of 1882 at materialisme-dialectique.com/pdf/dossier-1/Le-Parti-Ouvrier-Francais.pdf.↩︎
For Ben Lewis’s English translation go to marxismtranslated.com/2022/10/georg-von-vollmar-eldorado-and-social-democracys-next-tasks-1891-part-I; and marxismtranslated.com/2022/10/vollmars-eldorado-speeches-part-ii.↩︎