Workers Hammer No. 232
Corbyn landslide, Blairite backlash
Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the Labour leadership election, and the campaign that achieved it, have opened a new chapter in British politics. For the first time in decades, a Labour Party leader describes himself as a socialist and has declared himself on the side of the working class, oppressed minorities and all those striving for social justice, to the horror of the bourgeoisie and their political creatures, including those in the Labour Party itself. In his acceptance speech to the party grandees on 12 September, Corbyn repeated proudly that Labour is “organically linked” to the trade unions. He proclaimed his determination to fight the Tories’ anti-trade union bill which aims to further shackle the unions.
Two decades ago, Tony Blair declared his intention to “modernise” the party by dumping the union link, thus to transform Labour into an outright capitalist party like the US Democratic Party. This process has been protracted, not least because the party tops wanted to keep the trade union donations which remain the party’s main source of funding. Meanwhile, the pro-capitalist leadership of the unions clung to Labour under Blair and his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Finally, in March 2014, a special party conference voted to disaffiliate the trade unions over a period of five years. For some years, Labour has been moribund as a reformist party of the working class. Now that is changing, as hundreds of thousands have signed up or rejoined the party in order to support a party leader who unambiguously upholds the trade union link. In a delightful irony, the new members were eligible to vote for the party leader courtesy of new rules adopted at the 2014 conference.
Corbyn trounced his opponents — Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper — winning nearly 60 per cent of the vote. In so doing, Corbyn has delivered a body blow to the Blair project and has reawakened working-class expectations towards Labour.
The day after his victory was announced, bourgeois newspapers headlined “Red and Buried”, “Bye Bye Labour”, and “Leader Nightmare”, predicting “extremism”, mayhem and ruin for the Labour Party, and for the country if Labour were to win the next general election. From Tory prime minister David Cameron came the none too subtle warning that Corbyn’s victory means Labour is now a “threat to our national security, our economic security”. In other words, Corbyn is not committed to NATO or to continuing Britain’s slavish military support to US imperialism. Furthermore, he does not kowtow to the City of London financiers. Corbyn’s appointment of Labour leftist John McDonnell as shadow chancellor is for the Financial Times, mouthpiece of the City, an outrage against the sacred right to private property: McDonnell’s “cavalier disregard for property rights”, they rant in a 15 September editorial, “violates basic tenets of natural justice”.
Corbyn’s opponents in the Blair-Brown wing of the party — the majority of MPs, and party leaders past and present — have likewise been screaming their heads off about a Corbyn-led Labour Party becoming “unelectable”. Doubtless the coming period will see multiple bitter clashes between these two camps. The schism within the Labour Party mirrors the two opposing classes in bourgeois society. Corbyn has consistently emphasised his commitment to party unity, but those MPs who are deeply hostile to Corbyn’s politics would be only too willing to see him ousted. While the major trade unions all backed Corbyn, some elements of the union bureaucracy are leery of his left-wing politics and could easily join with those who would depose him.
The vast majority of Labour MPs in July refused to vote against the Tories’ latest welfare-cutting bill, which increases the immiseration of the poor. Tom Watson, the newly elected deputy party leader, like the majority of Labour MPs, supported the invasion of Iraq, wholeheartedly supports NATO and opposes Corbyn’s stance of scrapping the Trident nuclear missile system. Within one day of Corbyn’s victory announcement eight shadow cabinet ministers had resigned their posts, one tweeting his resignation as Corbyn concluded his acceptance speech.
Chuka Umunna, a key Blairite, resigned from the shadow cabinet the next day, citing Corbyn’s hesitation over whether Labour should campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union (EU). Corbyn has since made it clear that he is not likely to support a British exit and promotes the illusion of the EU creating a “social Europe” in which workers rights are protected. The EU is an inherently unstable bloc aimed at improving the competitive edge of its dominant members, chiefly Germany, vis-à-vis their imperialist rivals, centrally Japan and the US. The EU has always been a mechanism for the capitalist rulers to maximise the rate of exploitation of the working class. We oppose the EU on principle from an internationalist perspective, as opposed to the nationalist, chauvinist opposition of UKIP. We call for working-class struggle in every European country against the bosses. In the planned referendum asking if Britain should stay in the EU or exit, we would vote for Britain to exit.
The Spartacist League welcomed the Corbyn campaign, distributing a 12 August leaflet to campaign rallies around the country (see page 2). The leaflet noted that Corbyn addresses issues that are in the interests of working people. At the same time we said that although the campaign’s chief demands are supportable, the fundamental issues facing the exploited and oppressed cannot be solved within the framework of Corbyn’s old Labour parliamentary reformism, which has always upheld the capitalist system.
The state — organ of class rule
Corbyn opposed the US/British invasion of Iraq — for which Blair remains widely despised — as well as the occupation of Afghanistan. But what really makes him unfit to lead Her Majesty’s Opposition, never mind to become prime minister, in the eyes of the British (and US) capitalist rulers is Corbyn’s history of opposing the US-led NATO military alliance. Corbyn is chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, a campaign initiated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which seeks to persuade British imperialism not to automatically support the US in its wars and occupations. This was summed up during the Iraq war in the caricature of Blair as “Bush’s poodle”.
Britain’s staunch military support to US imperialism is a product of British imperialism’s long decline to the level of a decrepit third-rate power which has little choice but to act as a junior partner to the US. The City of London, a world centre of finance capital, is a haven for US (as well as German and Swiss) investment banks and plays second fiddle to Wall Street. Imperialist militarism and the dominance of finance capital will not be held to account by legislation in Parliament. It will take socialist revolution to rip the wealth out of the hands of the capitalists and bankers and overturn their system based on production for private profit.
Behind the governmental apparatus in all capitalist countries is the machinery of the state — cops, courts, and military. Its function can be seen in the police brutality meted out to racial minorities, the deaths in state custody, disproportionately suffered by black, Asian and immigrant detainees. The capitalist state wages the “war on terror” which targets Muslims and serves as a pretext to enhance its repressive powers. Governments come and go, implementing policies dictated by the capitalists’ political and economic demands, but the machinery of the state remains. Its purpose is to preserve, ultimately through organised violence, capitalist class exploitation of the working people. All past experience of class struggle shows that fundamental change in the interests of the working class cannot be achieved by pressuring the “Mother of Parliaments” while leaving the capitalist state intact.
As Marxist historian Ralph Miliband, whom Corbyn hails, wrote in Parliamentary Socialism (1961), “Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic — not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system.” The idea that socialism can be achieved through Parliament rests on the illusion that exploiter and exploited, rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, all have an equal vote in how society is run. But it is not the working people and minorities who control the mass media, the economy, or for that matter the cops, courts and military.
For example, Corbyn argues for reindustrialisation of the country, which indeed is necessary, as is regenerating Britain’s infrastructure wholesale, rebuilding its rusting manufacturing base and putting the population back into productive work. But finance capitalists will not opt to forgo the cool billions made through banking deals in favour of unknown returns on investment in reindustrialising the north of England. The bottom line for the capitalists is to invest where they can get the highest rate of return, and this cannot be changed through enacting legislation in Parliament.
The Westminster Parliament embodies the privileged status of finance capital afforded London and the southeast of England by the capitalist rulers who are contemptuous of the de-industrialised areas of northern England as well as of Scotland and Wales. As Marxists we oppose the so-called United Kingdom which incorporates the Orange statelet in Northern Ireland. Down with the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established churches! We support the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales. Our programme is for a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles within a Socialist United States of Europe.
What kind of party does the working class need?
Thousands of youth throughout the country, previously alienated by the cesspit of mainstream politics, were drawn to Corbyn’s campaign. As a young supporter quoted by Seumas Milne in the Guardian (5 August) explained: “People say he is an old leftwinger or an old Marxist but to my generation his ideas seem quite new.”
Corbyn is not and does not claim to be a revolutionary Marxist. His victory represents a welcome upheaval in British political life, opening up a political debate into which Marxist revolutionaries can intervene. Yet in a “Letter to a Jeremy Corbyn supporter”, the SWP’s Charlie Kimber commented that: “The real danger is that Corbyn supporters are plunged into internal party struggles rather than struggles at work and in working class areas”, adding that “the crucial question is to march, protest, occupy and strike together against the Tories” (Socialist Worker, 12 September). Contrary to Kimber’s “fight the right” philistinism, we Marxists see a longed-for opportunity for political struggle and debate — about socialism, and the means to achieve it.
The fundamental question posed in Britain today is: what kind of party is needed to represent the interests of the working class and oppressed, independently of and in opposition to the capitalists? The Labour Party was founded at the beginning of the 20th century by the trade union bureaucracy in order to gain a voice in Parliament. Born out of the class division in society, the party’s formation was an expression, at the organisational level, of working-class independence from the bourgeois Liberals. Yet despite its base consisting of the organised working class, the programme of the Labour Party was pro-capitalist. As such, the Labour Party exemplified what Russian Revolution leader VI Lenin termed a bourgeois workers party, having a working-class base saddled with a pro-capitalist leadership and programme. Lenin stressed that the Labour Party was not the political arm of the trade union movement, but the party of the pro-imperialist trade union bureaucracy. In a 1920 debate in the Communist International, Lenin said:
“Regarded from this point of view, the only correct one, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.”
This was an apt description of then Labour leaders such as Arthur Henderson, who had helped line up the working class in support of British imperialism during World War I.
The Labour Party’s claim to be “socialist” was belatedly introduced in 1918, with the adoption of Clause IV. This was an attempt to deflect the radicalising effect of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, consoling the workers with the illusion that the British road to “socialism” was through standing for elections to Parliament. The parliamentary road assumed collaboration — open or covert — with the capitalist ruling class on matters of “national interest”. Loyalty to the monarch was taken for granted — witness the hysteria over whether Corbyn will kneel before the Queen so that he can join her secretive Privy Council, and sing “God Save the Queen” on state occasions.
In the period following World War II, when the Labour leadership again supported British imperialism, Labour’s formal commitment to “common ownership of the means of production” came to be associated with the nationalisation of industry under capitalism and the introduction of welfare measures such as the National Health Service. Far from an attempt to introduce “socialism”, the nationalisations of coal, steel and other basic industries by the Clement Attlee Labour government were in reality giant capitalist bailouts designed to help British capitalism compete in the world market. In that sense they were no more “socialist” than the bailout of the banks carried out under Labour prime minister Gordon Brown following the 2008 banking crisis.
The traditional Labour Party that Corbyn seeks to reconstitute prided itself on being a “broad church”, meaning that it had room for a wide spectrum of political currents and opinions. In practice this meant that the right wing predominated, while the left bowed to it for the sake of unity. In today’s terms, reconstituting the “broad church” means Corbyn’s supporters will co-exist side by side with the Blairites including Tony Blair himself, who many regard as a war criminal over Iraq. Within the Corbyn camp, the “broad church” means that while Corbyn himself is a defender of the rights of immigrants, his deputy Tom Watson wants the party to pander to ex-Labour voters who turned to UKIP. This can only mean making concessions to UKIP’s vile anti-immigrant racism. In the old Labour Party, bloc affiliation by the trade unions meant that the most advanced layers of the class were submerged into the most backward ones. Mass reformist parties are inevitably tinged with chauvinism, based on the dominant ethnic grouping and tied to the defence of the interests of its own ruling class.
A Leninist party, by contrast, consists only of the most politically advanced, class-conscious elements of the working class and oppressed which can translate the historic interests of the proletariat into the fight for socialist revolution. Such a party would champion the cause of the multiethnic working class and fight against all manifestations of oppression — racism, discrimination against women and all forms of chauvinism.
The Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, which led the Russian proletariat to power in the October 1917 Revolution was a party of a new type, sharply breaking from the European social-democratic parties of the time. Cohering the advanced elements of the proletariat together with declassed intellectuals, the Bolshevik party acted as a “tribune of the people” taking up the struggles of all: workers and the unemployed, women, the poor peasantry, the millions composing the downtrodden national minorities. The Bolsheviks’ purpose was to render the working class conscious of its historic task — the seizure of power through proletarian revolution and the establishment of a workers state. They saw their fight as part of the necessary worldwide revolution, to bring about the international socialist order that Marx and Engels envisioned.
Jeremy Corbyn believes that the poverty, injustice and degradation inflicted on whole swathes of the population are not necessary, and he is right. But to eliminate those ills requires not a government based on the bosses’ parliament, but a government based on workers councils, which expropriates the bourgeoisie as a class. A revolutionary workers party must be rooted in the understanding that only through mass mobilisation in struggle can the workers fight for their own interests and act in defence of all the oppressed. Socialist revolutions especially in the advanced capitalist countries including Britain will establish rationally planned economies based on an international division of labour. The development of the productive forces, ripped out of the clutches of the capitalist bloodsuckers, will open the road to the creation of a classless, egalitarian socialist society.