Losing Momentum: Corbynism in the Rear-View Mirror

Losing Momentum: Corbynism in the Rear-View Mirror

The authors of this text are three young people who have been, at various times and various degrees, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party under his leadership, and, having broken completely with the capital-L Labour movement, wish to share our critique thereof, in the hopes that some of our comrades and friends will follow us. Our position is formed in part on the basis of our reflection on the Labour Party’s role as reconciler of the working class and capital, and in part on our reflections on our own experiences in the Corbyn movement.

Our generation is one that grew up under various versions of “neo-liberalism” and at times brutal austerity measures. We sympathised with the demands of the student movement and the wider resentment of “Tory austerity” (what we didn't know was that the first round of austerity was brought in by Callaghan back in 1976, he was the first to announce that you cannot "spend your way out of a recession"), and we all knew we wanted change, but we didn’t know what we wanted to replace the way things were; between the classless, clueless soft-capitalist utopianism of the Greens, and the dismal, equally-classless non-opposition of the Labour Party, we were desperate for “something worth voting for”. Jeremy Corbyn, with his supposed track record of principled activism for working class and anti-racist causes, seemed like the answer to our calls into the abyss, which we had yet to recognise for what it was.

This illusion of Corbyn as a principled activist for oppressed people was based on a combination of his long history in the Labour Party and that one photo of him getting arrested protesting Apartheid. It is pertinent therefore to look into what the Labour Party was doing while he was in it. Corbyn joined the Labour Party when he was 16 years old, under Harold Wilson in 1965 (like some of the authors of this text he spent part of his time as a member living abroad, but remained a member and a supporter for that time).

In 1966, in power at the time, Wilson’s Labour announced a wage freeze, and in 1969, it came up with In Place of Strife, the white paper that set the precedent for later laws that would curtail the right to strike. In 1974, still under Wilson, Labour introduced the Social Contract, a voluntary wage restraint by the unions. Under pressure from the IMF’s report in 1976, Callaghan’s Labour borrowed from the IMF in 1976 and brought in austerity, leading to the winter of discontent in 1979 and eventually costing them the election. Throughout all of this, Corbyn remained in the Labour Party.

During Thatcher’s premiership, Labour councils and the TUC acted to isolate and suppress strikes – that is to say, they did their jobs. Meanwhile, certain Labour councils in Liverpool attempted to do the bare minimum of what they had been elected to do and rebelled against the austere budgets imposed upon them, attempting to set “deficit budgets” with the intention of spending more than their income under the slogan “break the law, not the poor”. The Labour Party expelled them, and punished the councils and their working class communities; Corbyn remained inside it.

The 1980s ended and the 90s began with the introduction of the Poll Tax, and, once again, doing no more nor less than its job, the Labour Party enforced it on a local level. Then came what Thatcher herself called her “greatest achievement” – New Labour and Blair. With production increasingly being outsourced to capitalism’s peripheries where labour power was cheaper, Labour’s rhetoric veered away from talking about the working class and towards entrepreneurship. It was under Blair that the Immigration and Asylum Act and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act were introduced, the policies condemned as a “draconian” development on those of the Tory party that would in turn form the basis of what we now know as “May’s hostile environment”. Corbyn remained in the Labour Party.

Then the Labour Party helped invade Afghanistan.

Then the Labour Party helped invade Iraq.

Corbyn remained in the Labour Party.

Then came the financial crash of 2007/8, and Labour – not the Tories, as people seem to wish were the case – bailed out the banks. Just as under every financial crash before (and indeed the one towards which we are currently hurtling), the ruling party, which happened to be Labour, saw to it that the working class bore the brutal consequences of the ruling class’ crisis. And, as ever, Corbyn remained in the Labour Party. That one photo of him getting arrested for protesting Apartheid suddenly looks far less significant against this backdrop of unwavering party loyalty.

But that one photo, “critical” support from various “socialists” and a bunch of tepid rhetoric about “working class people” were enough to convince those of us who didn’t know better and who were desperate for “something worth voting for” that Jeremy Corbyn was it. During his campaign for leadership of the Labour Party, we were led to understand that although, yes, the Labour Party had been rubbish recently, it was supposed to be the party of the working class, and Corbyn would make it that once again. What’s more, if we joined the party to get him elected, then we the members would control the party from the ground up, making it a “socialist” party once again and pushing it further left.

As we discovered during our time in the Party, nothing could have been further from reality. “Grassroots democracy” turned out to mean getting involved with the Party at the lowest level possible and spending years debating motions with pithy centrists, outright Stalinists and shameless opportunists who smelt a potential career in leftism. These motions were generally a mixture of meaningless bureaucratic measures and wildly optimistic ideas for policies aimed at “pushing the party further left” that would change literally nothing about what the party is. But without any political framework to help us analyse its role in capital as essential to the functioning of the British state, we threw ourselves into campaigns like “Labour for Decrim[inalisation of Sex Work]” and “Labour for Freedom of Movement”.

However, we eventually came to realise that as a reformist project, Corbynism wouldn’t be any more worthwhile a use of socialists’ time even if it did manage to “push the party left”. When we got involved in the first place, it wasn’t because we thought that Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister would mean socialism had been achieved. Rather, it was a combination of the idea that it would be the start of a process that would eventually end with socialism being achieved, and the idea that in the “meantime” between now and socialism, we could “alleviate the material conditions of the working class in the immediate term”. The Labour left’s broad plan for this primarily consists of nationalising various sections of industry, which in our confusion we saw as tantamount to bringing them under workers’ control. Obviously, as we now know, when control of a section of industry is transferred from the hands of private capitalists to those of the state, at no point does the working class take it under its own control. This illusion among others is one that the Labour left sows particularly keenly because it lets them pretend that socialism is something that can be achieved if the working class just leaves everything up to them.

What’s more, as we came to realise, pushing for specific reforms is still a fairly pointless exercise unless you want to be reminded to be careful what you wish for (as well as needing to be utterly delusional to expect debating motions at the Party’s annual conference to translate to real influence over what it would/will do in power – again, the invasion of Iraq despite enormous opposition from Labour members serves as a grim reminder of this). Flexible working, once a demand of the working class, has been warped against us into zero hours contracts and casualisation. The national minimum wage, rather than solving the issue of low pay, became a legal minimum for capitalists to hide behind (not even near what the Living Wage Foundation deems to be the minimum to meet the cost of living), and resolutely failed to combat the growing impoverishment of the working class. The apparent victory of Equal Pay for Equal Work has translated simply, naturally, to a more equal rate of exploitation. It does not take too great an imagination to see how “Freedom of Movement” will become “...for capital and labour”, and “Decriminalisation of Sex Work” will translate to equal rights for bosses in this industry as any other (and not, as some argue, greater ease of workplace organising).

This is why our task as communists is not to suggest demands for specificities in the ways in which we are exploited, but to get involved in struggles with workers and point to the future beyond these demands. Some more “critical” supporters of the Labourist movement justify this with the argument that these demands are merely symbolic. But as it is, they are made inexorably literal by the nature of the Labour Party, “struggles for symbolic demands” become no more than debates about policy ideas, and confused would-be socialists start to actually believe that a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn would implement these in a way that was somehow beneficial to the working class.

That is not to say that certain reforms haven’t made life easier generally for the working class – nobody would argue that certain aspects of healthcare being free at the point of service in the UK is something we could do without, for example. However, we made the mistake of thinking that we had the benevolence of Labour governments to thank for these reforms like the NHS, when in fact they were introduced specifically because they feared revolution at a time when they could afford to spend massive amounts on the welfare of the population in order to keep the post-war social contract intact. In other words, it was for the express purpose of countering the threat of a working class uprising that the major reforms of the post-war Labour government like “our” NHS, so celebrated by the "socialist" Labourist movement, were introduced, on the recommendation of Beveridge’s liberal plan to keep the working class relatively content after the war. Hence Harold Wilson would go on to reflect that the successes of that government were chiefly responsible for "the virtual elimination of Communism as an effective political force in Britain."

Moreover, as we have seen, the idea that the working class would be better off under a Labour government has throughout the party’s history been demonstrably false. The choice is not one between greater or lesser evils, but rather, between two different versions of “better in some ways, worse in others”. For example, if he manages to magic up the money for it after a decade of financial crisis, Corbyn may well roll back some of the welfare cuts to the poor if he becomes Prime Minister. However, in his promise to act as a “responsible custodian” of the British state, he also pledges to put 10,000 more police officers on the streets and reverse cuts to border controls. It is crucial that socialists stop falling for the lie that a Labour government will be better for the working class, like we did at the time, simply because “austerity is killing the most vulnerable” – vulnerable people do not get less killed by more cops on the streets.

At the end of the day, though, any version of reformism is fundamentally unsocialist in nature because, despite what Stalinists and some Trotskyists might claim, we (whether one means the class, as we do, or the nation, as a worryingly increasing number of young “socialists” do) cannot simply reform our way to socialism. There is no remotely meaningful way to oppose capitalism and to fight for socialism through gradualism or parliamentarism; we cannot hope to simply “redistribute wealth”, “mutually aid each other” or (as is perhaps most alarmingly argued) “nationalise everything” more and more until one day the capitalists turn around and realise that they’re beaten, as in the “hard left's” ludicrous grandmother’s-footsteps-esque fantasy (not least, in the case of the latter option, because as we already said, to nationalise any company or industry simply means to place it in the hands of the capitalist state rather than private capitalists).

The change from capitalism to communism is a qualitative one rather than merely a quantitative one, and therefore requires a revolutionary rupture. What the working class needs for this is not a caricature of a representative in the ruling class' pantomime of "democracy", but its own independent, international party. Furthermore, since capitalism is an international system, the transition to communism through revolution can only be international too; there is no national solution to a global problem. In coming across the Communist Left, we found a tendency which appears increasingly to be the only one (still) saying this – most claim to be saying this and some even believe themselves to be, but the “internationalisms” and “anti-capitalisms” of Trotskyism, Stalinism and all shades of left liberal reform inevitably carry with them an asterisk. The small print it takes you to seems always to justify this or that camp in this or that war, and support for this or that parliamentary candidate on the grounds that it may ameliorate the conditions of that poor helpless creature, the proletariat, maybe even enough so that it may finally fight for itself. Having come to the positions of internationalist communism, we support no war but the class war and we don’t fuel illusions in parliamentary smoke-and-mirrors. Anything less would mean fighting for capitalism to be made slightly more bearable. Which is an understandable desire, and Labourists are going the right way about it. But while in theory it might make life a little easier for people and tweak some of capitalism’s more brutal features, a Corbyn government would do nothing to change the mode of production, nor would it address any of capitalism’s inherent contradictions and inevitable crises. It would not stop the capitalist drive towards economic contractions, international wars and climate disasters. We are communists, and we are not remotely interested in giving capitalism a facelift; we want it torn from its roots by social revolution.

Tinkotka, Atticus, Andrew
October 2019

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Internationalis...
Nov 1 2019 09:32

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R Totale
Nov 3 2019 14:30

Thanks for writing this, and congratulations on leaving Labour, I suppose. Am always interested to read more attempts to evaluate what the Corbyn project has actually meant in practice. Having said that, I thought all of this bit:

Quote:
In 1966, in power at the time, Wilson’s Labour announced a wage freeze, and in 1969, it came up with In Place of Strife, the white paper that set the precedent for later laws that would curtail the right to strike... And, as ever, Corbyn remained in the Labour Party. That one photo of him getting arrested for protesting Apartheid suddenly looks far less significant against this backdrop of unwavering party loyalty.

Was pretty much a waste of time: the Corbynist argument isn't "everything Labour did in the last 50 years was good", it's "it was worth being in Labour in order to be able to fight for its transformation into a radically different party". Which I still don't agree with, but is obviously a line that looks a fair bit more plausible than it did in 2014. And reducing Corbyn's history to "one photo of him getting arrested for protesting Apartheid [and] unwavering party loyalty" is taking the argument onto territory that's far more favourable to Corbynism, it seems to invite the reply "oh, would you like a photo of Corbyn opposing the Iraq War? Here you go. You want to know what Corbyn's position on the 2002 Immigration Bill was? Here..."

I suppose the key argument of the smarter/more interesting end of Labourism, the people around New Socialist and the like, would be that, since we all agree a new/revived working-class movement is needed, they'd claim that Corbynism is a better starting point for that process than anything else on offer at the moment, and I think that's the argument we really need to engage with. On that note, if you feel like writing anything further on the subject, I'd be interested to know more about the pros and cons of what being a Labour leftist was like in practice - do/did any of you live in areas with Labour councils, and what was your relationship with the council like? Did you do anything more "outward-looking", or was your energy pretty much just focused on internal Labour stuff? What does the practical activity of “Labour for Freedom of Movement” look like, and how would a communist struggle against the border regime differ? Etc.

ajjohnstone
Nov 4 2019 11:35

Graphic by Peter Rigg of the SPGB

Dyjbas
Nov 11 2019 19:07

Below is the reply to R Totale from Tinkotka who's been unable to register (received no email to set up a password, can one of the admins look into it?).

Tinkotka wrote:
Hi, thanks for your comment. Tinkotka here, one of the authors.

On your first point - the purpose of that section was to highlight all of the things that Corbyn didn’t leave the LP over. That Apartheid arrest picture has been used as proof of how “principled” a politician Corbyn is; but as we show that’s not the full picture, he’s been quite happy to remain in and work for a party that e.g. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan when in government, even if he personally opposed such actions.

To your second point - when I was in the LP I was in a Trotskyist organisation and lived in various Labour councils (moved around a bit as a student). Being expected to participate in CLPs and local Momentum stuff was key to my getting fed up with it, because neither had a thing to do with class struggle – as we say, all we did was help least-worst-option candidates into positions of power, and debate motions that sounded “radical” that a) strengthened the illusion in the LP as a "working class party" and b) were usually outright ignored by the leadership – all the while the Labour council was implementing austerity. I feel sorry for my former comrades who pushed through free movement at Labour Conference this year only to get slapped in the face with “managed migration” today. The thing about LP activity was it was always inward-facing (except for canvassing, which I never did), because the idea was that the way to “bring about real change” was to agitate within the party for the “pro-working class” or “pro-migrant”, etc., policies. As communists we now recognise that even if the party took up some of these policies and carried them out in government (however unlikely), it would still remain a party operating within the British state, which in turn would still be operating within international capitalism. As far as I know the practical activity of “Labour for Free Movement” basically consists in agitating for the LP to take up free movement as a policy that it’d implement if elected to government, which it would never do because open borders isn’t a possibility under capitalism (unless they just mean freedom of movement for labour and capital, as within the EU). On the other hand, struggle against the border regime is an inherent facet of international class struggle, and that communist struggle is the only meaningful way to go about it. The border regime being inherent to capitalism, the idea that we can destroy it first without overthrowing capitalism is utopian.

R Totale
Nov 17 2019 10:49

Thanks for that reply - if I recall right I had some trouble registering as well and had to email the libcom email address before my account would work as well, so your comrade might need to do that.
On the first point, I'm still not that convinced, I think trying to portray Corbyn as being somehow soft on Blair's wars, for example, is a pretty difficult and unfavourable line of argument to go down. I think there's still very valid critiques that we can make of the post-2015 Labour Party - for instance, as you've helped document, some of the most heroic struggles of the working class on these islands in recent years have been specifically against Labour councils - but reusing ones from the pre-2015 era don't seem like they'd have that much effect, because Momentumers or whoever can just reply "yes, those people and policies are indeed bad, but we can fight against them most effectively from inside the Labour Party."

As for the second bit - yeah, that's pretty much what I expected. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm still kind of interested in how, if at all, anti-austerity Labour Party members relate to struggles against austerity enforced by Labour councils... but obviously that contradiction's not a problem for the authors of this text anymore, if they've resolved it by leaving.

Noah Fence
Nov 17 2019 14:30

I started a thread asking the following question but an answer here would do equally well...

So, does anyone know how many members of the Blair/Brown administration are candidates in this years election?