Defeating Corbyn: This Party is Just Getting Started, Victor Conti, reproduced from issue 3 of the journal
Taken at the level of their stated aims, the success criteria that the Labour Right apply to their shenanigans remain somewhat mysterious. Does it count as a success if the candidate you put up to lose subsequently loses? If you succeed in lowering poll ratings to levels that make Labour look unelectable, does this mean that your battle to make it electable again is succeeding?
The double-think and blue smoke is a good sign that the capitalist class is busy manoeuvring to retain its control of the Labour Party. Corybn’s re-election with nearly 62% of the vote in September 2016 indicates that their struggle is becoming more desperate. But remember, the capitalists never really set out to win that vote. The right wing is playing a longer game.
Marxist World has steadfastly backed Jeremy Corbyn in the struggle against the right wing despite our criticisms of his economic programme. We’ve called for an unconditional vote for Labour candidates and we’re active within the Labour Party. But instead of celebrating his victory and simply demanding that he goes further, this article considers the conditions for his defeat. It asks: what is at stake for both sides of the battle, what is the material basis for these ideas and how can an independent revolutionary programme emerge?
Corbynism and capitalism
Why exactly do the capitalists and their politicians oppose Corbyn so vociferously? Corbyn supporters say that his programme is no more ‘left wing’ than the accepted economic models of Germany or Sweden, a comparison made at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London by MP Kelvin Hopkins. At the same event Shadow Cabinet Member, Cat Smith, along with former Labour MP, Chris Williamson, repeatedly argued that Corbynomics is simply ‘common sense’.
It’s just common sense to reduce inequality and stop privatisation, the argument goes. Businesses will benefit from his plans for massive state-led investment directly and, in turn, be encouraged to invest themselves, improving productivity and their own profits. The government just needs to do what, for some reason, the capitalists will not, and we all win. Many members, new and old, subscribe to this ‘common sense’ argument. So, if his programme is so fundamentally ‘sensible’ then why won’t at least some of the more forward-thinking capitalists get behind it, and with them, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP)?
But the Blairites are not against Corbyn because they are neoliberal ideologues – stuck in some kind of pre-2008 time-warp – who have never visited Germany or Sweden. They are against him because of what they are told by businesses that a Corbyn government would mean for the economy.
Politicians resemble a caste of specialised lawyers who must rely on elections (or, at least, access to safe seats) to do their jobs. Like most lawyers, in the name of the people who elect them they seek to represent and protect the ‘greater good’ of the rule of law, the state and above all, private property (and, all too often, the lesser good of specific companies and industries). It’s a simplification, but you could label this philosophy ‘liberalism’.
And Corbyn’s reformist programme – if we take his 10 pledges as an example (Wales Online 2016) – poses serious problems for the greater good of capitalism and its liberal supporters. This is especially true now, when, as Michael Roberts wrote in our last issue, corporate profit rates are falling.
For example, the new trade union rights and mandatory collective bargaining for companies with more than 250 employees he wants to introduce will lead to shorter hours, more employee benefits and, above all, higher wages. Wages are the main expense of most businesses, so this will eat into profits.
Corbyn also wants to reverse privatisation across the board. Privatisation is not just an ideological choice as reformist commentators suggest. It is intended to assist the private sector and it succeeded in boosting profit rates at the beginning of the neoliberal era. Now, the capitalists are counting on the ongoing privatisation of health care, via continued decentralisation, for an extra boost (as an aside, decentralisation will also bring Britain’s healthcare system into line with most other European countries). His plans to reverse all this privatisation directly threaten what are now significant industries and entrenched interests.
Most fundamentally, Corbyn wants to borrow or print money (depending on which way you look at it) to enlarge the public sector. Although he says they will benefit, he’s not proposing to hand this money over to banks or dole out big contracts to the private sector. And he’s not talking about building state-owned enterprises like the profit-making Deutsche Bahn (commonly misunderstood in the UK to be a wholly public body). He means organisations funded by public money and under direct state control. The capitalists know that, in the medium term, everything in the public sector must ultimately be funded out of taxation. In other words, it must be paid for out of profits.
So when pro-capitalist Labour politicians say that all this is a bad idea that’s because – from their perspective – it is. Businesses would face lower profits at one end and higher taxes at the other. Against the backdrop of an economic depression, the brave new world of ‘Corbynomics’ makes Brexit look like a walk in the park for big businesses and many medium-sized ones. For many Labour MPs, to cravenly endorse Corbynomics would mean personal and professional ridicule.
On the other hand, for much of the working class – as they suffer the predations of exploitative employers, job insecurity, cultural oppression and collapsing public services, gazing all the while at the spectacles of capitalist inequality – this programme does indeed seem like ‘common sense’.
And there’s now no doubt that the British working class is re-entering the Labour Party en-mass to make that common sense a reality. They have seen in Corbyn the possibility of attaining a better future for ourselves and our children – no matter how ‘impossible’ that may seem to Labour MPs.
The labour aristocracy
But as long as the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are against Corbyn his legitimacy will be continually questioned, Labour will struggle in the polls and there will be more leadership challenges. If the rebels retain their positions they will eventually succeed in defeating him. The liberals must either be won over, which in most cases is impossible, or removed via reselection.
Despite how it seems, these MPs don’t exist in a vacuum. There is a material basis for right-wing ‘labour’ policies within the workers’ movement which ideologically aligns with the interests of capital. This rests on what Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky referred to as the ‘aristocracy of labour’.
The aristocracy of labour is a section of the working class who have had their material and social status lifted above the majority of workers through concessions, perks and privileges. They have been wined and dined by the ruling class (meant metaphorically, but sometimes literally!) and convinced that a policy of class collaboration is preferable to one of class struggle.
Their bastion has primarily been in the full-time apparatus of the trade unions, the Labour Party and the higher-paid sections of the public sector. But it includes the political expression of managerial and skilled technical personnel in professions and trades open to those from modest backgrounds, such as engineering, IT and business administration. They supported much of what Blair stood for.
But since the 2008 crisis and the subsequent depression, much of the labour aristocracy have seen their conditions eroded. This has taken many forms, such as mass public sector unemployment (whereas previously the state sector offered fairly secure jobs and pensions), pay freezes and cuts, longer NHS waiting times, oversubscribed schools, the marketisation of education and so on.
Now, this economic and social crisis is manifesting itself as a crisis of the labour aristocracy.
On one side, Corbyn’s leadership and a large chunk of his support derives from the left-wing and ex-labour aristocracy, along with the more traditional working class. They’ve rejected Blairism and are endorsing what has been described by Andrew Kliman as the ‘good capitalism’ argument. This is a ‘common sense’ narrative in which it makes perfect sense to reverse neoliberalism and return to the period of expanding state intervention during the post war era: when it had the support of many capitalists and when a sustained upturn in profits made high taxes feasible. The left-wing and ex-labour aristocracy, hurt by austerity but still supportive of the capitalist system, now believes these conditions can be recreated with enough political will. These conditions are described as ‘socialism’.
Opposing them, pro-capitalist challengers to his leadership such as Angela Eagle, Owen Smith, and future potentials like Chuka Umunna, derive their support not just from the more privileged and pro-capitalist wing of the labour aristocracy but also those members without any class analysis of society who are simply concerned about electoral credibility and the need to build a broad alliance.
Ironically for those supposedly worried about winning democratic mandates, averting Brexit has now become the main political platform of the privileged labour aristocracy in an alliance with the liberal capitalists. Many workers voted Remain and that makes the Brexit issue a potent liberal weapon to turn some parts of the working class against others. It’s just the thing, along with some left posturing, to save a Blairite’s skin in a selection battle for a parliamentary seat.
Owen Smith did not achieve nothing by harping on about Brexit and posing as a softer form of ‘socialist’ more closely aligned with liberalism: he won over 190,000 votes. But electoral credibility and averting Brexit are the outward political manifestations of his economic objections to Corbyn’s programme. What he really meant when he called him a ‘lunatic’ was that there is no basis for successful Corbynomics in British capitalism. It’s why Corbyn’s erstwhile economic advisors, David Blanchflower and Simon Wren-Lewis, came out for Smith instead of him (Guardian 2016).
This is disregarded by Corbyn’s supporters, who suggest that political choices determine economic conditions rather than viewing politics as ‘a concentrated expression of economics’ (Lenin 1921).
The conflict in the Labour Party is therefore rooted in a crisis that has broken out within the labour aristocracy and created two versions of Labour Party class collaboration. Corbyn’s version is described as socialism and feared by the capitalists (but not because it is actually socialism, as explained). The other version – most recently represented by Owen Smith – has been dragged to the left like the rest of political discourse, but remains far more similar to business as usual: the liberalism traditionally supported by the labour aristocracy.
What is propelling Corbyn and forcing the liberals to put on socialist airs is the masses of politically-engaged workers and intellectuals who have entered the Labour Party, representing the potential forces of the revolutionary working class. They are both energised by the prospect of a Corbyn electoral victory and themselves making that prospect more likely.
This mass movement poses a more general threat to the prerogatives of the capitalist establishment, and what began as a crisis in the politics of the labour aristocracy has broken out to encompass all the classes in society on the political plane. We can say that, in this conflict, the politically-engaged working class has, to a degree, been co-opted into supporting Corbyn in lieu of their own independent revolutionary programme. To stop him and them, the Labour Right are working hand in glove with the media and wealthy donors. The main battleground is inside the Labour Party.
Corbyn’s tactical challenges
Inside the Party, Corbyn’s partial basis in the rebel faction of the labour aristocracy, initially his main source of strength, is now his primary weakness. This is because there’s a large grey area made up of those longstanding members who are wavering between the two positions – just as the recent leadership election shows. This will also influence the wider masses involved. The most ardent Corbynistas are often also ardent Brexit-averters, for example.
The class collaborationists who are just about on his side, with all their ties to the existing Party apparatus, act as a brake on the new workers coming in, especially when the battle takes the form of a technical rule-book matter. This is why Corbyn has been unable to prevent the conference voting to add new right wing representatives of Scotland and Wales to the NEC. And Corbyn must take and retain control of the NEC – which controls rules and procedures – to win back the rest of the party and its elected positions.
Next, what about Labour’s 7,087 councillors? Whilst undoubtedly a significant and increasing number represent the working class, the majority are composed of either the labour aristocracy or worse, landlords, business owners and middle class professionals. Only 600 were willing to sign a letter calling for Corbyn to step down in August, but this hardly means they are mostly Corbynistas. It’s more likely that they are biding their time and riding out the storm.
But many of them will also need to be won over or dislodged to change the Labour Party back into a truly anti-austerity party that doesn’t implement cuts and privatise services at a local level. The current mechanism – selection for by-elections when someone steps down – is too slow. Too many of them will still be around by 2020.
Finally, the Right is in control of Labour’s head office apparatus. These are unelected employees. It’s not easy to sack them for political reasons. The only way to get rid of them may well be to pay them off. The apparatus will carry on acting as internal saboteurs even if a) the NEC comes under Corbyn’s control, b) the Left gains meaningful control of the local parties and c) the Left gains the strength to push through mandatory reselection. And though the prospect of reselections triggered by boundary changes in 2018 is promising, criteria a) and b) must still be satisfied before c) is possible.
So despite Corbyn’s victory against Smith, the odds of the organisational battle are stacked against him. Additionally, if the political argument remains one that is conducted between two versions of pro-capitalist class collaboration (albeit one describing itself as ‘socialism’) then it’s always possible that the more radical version might merge back into a slightly changed version of the status quo if he starts to lose. But these two sides do not by any means exhaust the possibilities of this situation. As the conflict has spilled over into society as a whole, a much larger group of workers has got involved.
The new generation of workers getting involved face systemic job insecurity and growing alienation. They aren’t materially inclined to class collaboration. Instead, these thinking workers are open to Marxist ideas and Marxist economics (they are also looking for any ideas, including more utopian reformist ones). They are more likely to question the logic of the Corbynista ‘good capitalism’ argument explained above.
This is because they have no experience of the supposedly good times being referred to, are better educated than earlier generations and they often encounter explanations about how profits are made and lost in their working lives. Against the backdrop of Brexit, this force has an appetite for a revolutionary rupture of some sort and so, just as in last summer’s leadership contest, the wider group of more politically-developed workers will determine the fate of both Corbyn and his opponents.
What is the Left doing?
What is the Left doing with this force and its potential? The Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP) focuses its propaganda on imagining the ideal circumstances for its own party-building activity. Its call to be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party and for Corbyn to restore a greater role for trade unions (presumably because of its limited influence amongst certain Left bureaucrats) is delusional (The Socialist 2016). Only an ultra-loyal party member could imagine that anyone close to Corbyn is taking this seriously. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) vocally supports Corbyn whilst also hinting at the need for a movement independent of Labour (Socialist Worker 2016).
Both are looking less and less relevant. For years these parties have attempted to substitute themselves for a mass reformist movement, relying for prestige on unprincipled alliances with class-collaborationists in the union bureaucracy or petty bourgeois elements and fetishising their own organisational structures. They appear as ‘anti-austerity’ parties, not Marxist forces. Their references to socialism outside of historical material or, in the case of the SWP, theoretical articles, are usually confined to a vague sentence or two about public ownership and democratic control.
Now that a genuine mass reformist movement, armed with Momentum’s pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, is on the scene, the atrophied, abbreviated centrism (that is, opportunistically treading the line between revolutionary and reformist politics) of the SP and SWP has become insufficiently distinct from normal reformism for most people to perceive any difference.
Inside Labour, entryist groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) are to some extent sources of embarrassment for Corbyn. They are playing a valuable organisational role in the battle to defeat the Right, but they will continue to be hounded by the Labour apparatus. Corbyn would probably rather be rid of them. He is certainly not going to ride to the rescue when the expulsion letters arrive.
On the other hand, whilst they remain outside Labour and Momentum, the SP and the SWP – the bulk of the British ‘Marxist’ Left – cannot play an effective organising role inside it. Even as street campaigners, their forces are now insignificant compared to the thousands of reformist workers and intellectuals who have returned to or entered the struggle.
Class independence and Marxism
Assuming it survives, a left-wing Labour Party under Corbyn or his successor may well be defeated in a General Election between now and 2020. If instead, as we hope, Labour gains power, then reformism will face a different sort of challenge. Under the pressure of international capital and embroiled in the fresh economic downturn which is likely to begin between now and then, a Labour government will not be stable enough to carry out much of Corbyn’s programme (although that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be some lasting worthwhile gains, like ending tuition fees).
In either case, there is the possibility of a political defeat for the leadership, Labour’s (re)transformation into a fully capitalist party and the dissipation of the movement. Alternatively, and probably via several intermediate steps, the scenario is that state power is seized as an instrument in the hands of the revolutionary subject of capitalist society: the working class. Which way it goes depends to some extent on the battle underway now: the relative strength of the independent working class movement which is emerging and the nature of its revolutionary character.
If things get very difficult for capitalism in future, then the utopian-reformist ideas that will be used as crucial weapons to defend it are already being discussed now. Primarily, this is the proposal for a universal basic income (UBI) combined with the ideas set out Paul Mason’s ‘postcapitalism’ (which Steve Dobbs critiqued in the previous issue of Marxist World).
Just like Corbynomics, Marxists should rigorously dismantle these ideas instead of attempting to trade on them. Right now it’s easy to do this whilst remaining in a united front with Corbyn and Momentum. We will hardly get expelled from the Labour Party for dismantling UBI as a reactionary idea, or for re-introducing Marxist economics and revolutionary strategy. That is, discussing the labour theory of value, the system of commodity production, the state and class struggle.
Discussing economics and theory strengthens the independent force which will determine this struggle’s outcome. Marxist ideas are quite hard to learn, teach and communicate – that’s why much of the Left only pays lip service to them. But these concepts are transformational in terms of their effect on political consciousness. Finally, to convince workers of the viability of the future we want them to build, we need to develop an articulate vision of what communism would actually looks like. What does a world without capitalist value-production mean in practice?
It’s because we are committed to winning the battle within the Labour Party that Marxist World is also prioritising these tasks.
Lenin. 1921. ‘Once Again On The Trade Unions, The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Buhkarin’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/jan/25.htm
Guardian, 2016. ‘Economic advisers to Corbyn back rival for Labour leader’ https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/31/economic-advisers-jeremy-corbyn-cant-win-next-election-owen-smith
‘Corbyn victory another step to transforming Labour’, The Socialist, 24 September 2016. http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/23625/24-09-2016/corbyn-victory-another-step-to-transforming-labour
‘Corbyn’s victory: the Labour right are fuming, we’re cheering’, Socialist Worker, 27 September 2016. https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/43420/Corbyns+victory%3A+the+Labour+right+are+fuming%2C+were+cheering
‘Here are Jeremy Corybn’s pledges to “rebuild and transform” Britain’, Wales Online, 4 August 2016. 2016.http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/politics/here-jeremy-corbyns-10-pledges-11703311