The following article is the text of the introduction to the first ever CWO public meeting held in Oxford on 26 October 2019.
Most of those attending either already considered themselves part of the Communist Left or were en route to accepting its basic premises. However, as expected, there was also dissent from our overview. The disagreement was largely along the usual schizophrenic line of those who realise that although a revolution in social relations is needed this is not likely in the short term. Therefore, in the meantime, “Corbyn is better than Boris Johnson”. The meeting responded that this is exactly what the ruling class (of all parties) want us to conclude. They want us to believe there is “hope” (Corbyn’s key pitch in the election) somewhere in the system, and they spend a lot of money to ensure our participation in those elections. This, despite all the experience which shows that when the left alternative wins those who voted for it soon find their “hope” is disappointed since capitalism still remains. Indeed the “left” is little different from the Right (just look at the fate (creeping privatisation) of the National Health Service under both Labour and Tory since 1948). Any vote is a vote for capitalism.
However, not voting is only a negative gesture. Most people who don’t vote are not doing so for revolutionary reasons. This led to a more serious discussion around the question of our alternative: the need to create a revolutionary party. As someone asked, “How do we do this at a time of class retreat?” In short, with difficulty. The wider objective situation on which depends the rise of an anti-capitalist consciousness is largely beyond our control. If many years of austerity do not provoke this, especially if the capitalist class can divert workers into believing that Brexit (and getting rid of “foreigners”) will magically change their lot, a handful of revolutionaries cannot change this. But our position has remained the same. Whatever the objective situation revolutionaries don’t abandon the field of battle that is the class war. We may get little response, but we do all we can to keep in touch with any element of struggle and pose the long-term solution for the working class (and humanity) that only the overthrow of the system can halt the road to destruction which capitalism is taking us down. And unless there is the core of a revolutionary political organisation, ready to act and point the political way forward when the working class decides it really has had enough and is ready to fight on its own account, then we are doomed to repeat the defeats of the past. Thankfully, there has been plenty of evidence in last two years that not only are workers across the world beginning to rediscover their collective ability to fight back but are even looking towards old historically-discovered forms of class organisation. This has had an impact on a new generation who have come to us in greater numbers than ever before allowing us to take part in struggles more widely and hold meetings like this one in towns where we never have before. It seems that the revolutionary cause is now developing a “momentum” of its own!
The Corbyn Phenomenon
Corbyn was re-elected Labour leader in September 2016 with over 60% of the votes of Labour Party members. Many young and old, and a whole phalanx of the left from the social democratic supporters of the CPB Morning Star, the various Trotskyist groups, even the likes of the SWP; radical unions such as the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, and even individual members of the supposedly revolutionary Class War have all thrown themselves into supporting Corbynism.
Why have so many rallied behind the Corbyn banner? We have had 40 years of capital restructuring in which Labour became indistinguishable from the Tories, lauded the virtues of globalised capital, and let living standards for workers slowly spiral down. All this has been accelerated by the financial collapse of 2008, the worst capitalist crisis since 1929, which led to a Labour bail-out of the banks which, in turn, workers are having to pay for via austerity and further pay cuts. Corbynism thus seems to offer a vague hope that something might change for the better.
So what will the Corbyn team do for the working class? In the forthcoming election we will hear a lot about Corbyn’s “Socialist Vision of Britain.” What does this amount to? More state intervention and state ownership, higher wages and better welfare, better healthcare – in short a kinder capitalism, a capitalism which benefits the exploited class at the expense of their exploiters. All this is pie in the sky. It cannot be implemented in a world of globalised capitalism. Attempts to do so would result in capital withdrawal and watering down of these proposals. John McDonnell is already aware of this and is now trying to appease “small businesses.”
The Corbyn phenomenon has its echoes in Spain with Podemos and Syriza1 in Greece. Both have either abandoned their “anti-capitalist agenda” and/or ended up implementing the dictates of international capital. In the case of Greece, this was the exact opposite of what Syriza promised, and the exact opposite of what was voted for in a referendum. There can be little doubt a Corbyn government would do much the same.
Corbynism is, in reality, nothing more than a rehash of Labour’s role in the past but proposed for a world where a specifically British Capital no longer exists. However even if the Corbyn programme could be implemented it would amount only to state capitalism. Nationalisation of parts of the British economy does not mean an end to exploitation. Russian, Chinese, North Korean, East European and Cuban workers can all testify to this. Capitalism remains. Exploitation remains. Production for profit remains (even if it all goes into state coffers). The Corbyn agenda cannot in any sense be called socialism. Yet the need for a socialist, or communist, world has never been more urgent than today.
Need for a Communist World
Capitalism is driving humanity to disaster. For the majority of the world’s population, the future promises destitution, starvation and war. The natural environment is being trashed to the extent that large areas of the planet are becoming uninhabitable. And food production is becoming more difficult leading to massive waves of migration. For the working class, the future is austerity, greater exploitation, unemployment, reduced benefits, and ultimately either recruitment as cannon fodder in the wars or as civilian “collateral damage” which will inevitably follow from the ruin which capitalism is bringing upon us all.
All this results from the internal workings of capitalism itself. It comes from the system of wage labour, the need to produce for profit and the necessary accumulation of capital which demands continual growth. It is the system of production itself, which is creating this catastrophe. And it follows that the only way this can be avoided is by ending capitalist relations of production. This means ending wage labour, ending production for profit, and ending the accumulation of capital and the need for continual growth.
In place of capitalism, a global system of production for human need must be created. This will have as its watchword “from each according to their ability to each according to their need.” Such a system will need to be controlled and planned by a global system of workers’ councils operating on the principle of direct democracy. Money will be abolished as will the present system of nations and frontiers. We call such a system communism or socialism. Such a system can only be created by the world’s working class, through a global struggle coordinated by a global political organisation of the world’s workers. Communism has never existed anywhere in the world so far. The various countries which have called themselves socialist or communist, have just been varieties of capitalism. They are simply capitalist states marked by greater state control or ownership of capital and have nothing whatsoever to do with socialism.
Corbynism has precisely nothing in common with any of the things we have just mentioned, nor is it a route to them. However, since it still seems to be a widely accepted that Labour is, or at least was, a genuine workers’ party and that the unions defend workers’ interests it is worth briefly considering Labour’s history and the route to Corbynism.
The Labour Party was not founded with a socialist perspective like the European Social Democratic Parties. Instead, Labour was created by the trade unions to combat legislation against their interests through representation in Parliament.
In 1900, the TUC formed the Labour Representation Committee. Some socialists joined it but its driving force remained trades unionism and non-conformist Christianity. It has always been a champion of “fairness” under capitalism rather than fighting for a new society. Its first leader, Keir Hardie was a Methodist lay preacher.2 He realised that trades unionism was too narrow a basis for an electoral party. He threw open the door to a wider “Labour Movement” and Socialists in the Independent Labour Party and various other organisations affiliated to it. However, its reformist credentials can be seen from the fact that its main thinking came from the intellectually elitist Fabian Society.3
With the outbreak of imperialist war in 1914, the Labour Party did what almost every other social democratic party in Europe did, it supported the imperialist war. Immediately on Britain’s declaration of war, the Labour Party made it clear that it would not obstruct the war effort. On the 7th of August its leaders in Parliament voted for special war grants. Both the Labour Party and the TUC proclaimed an “industrial truce” for the duration of the war and agreed to end all labour disputes. By mid-August they had fully lined up behind the British bourgeoisie’s war effort and had agreed to help in its recruitment drive. In 1915, they entered the coalition government. In return for their support, the leaders of the Labour Movement demanded a greater say in the running of the war. And union officials, already well integrated into the state apparatus, took on the role of ensuring production in the factories and disciplining the working class in the name of the war effort. And later, they helped to administer conscription through their role in the tribunals hearing the cases of conscientious objectors. In this way the Labour Party and the trade unions cemented their place in the national capitalist state.
Ironically the famous “socialist” Clause 4, calling for the “nationalisation” of the “commanding heights” of the economy, was added to the Labour Constitution in 1918 by the Fabian, Sydney Webb. Basically an effort to appeal to the more radical sentiment in the working class after the Russian Revolution, its aim was to undermine support for the emergence of a real communist party in the working class, which would look to revolutionary Russia. It was a master-stroke and remained a useful carrot to dangle before workers right up until it was watered down by Blair in 1995.
More pro-capitalist action was to follow from the Labour Government elected in 1924. Ramsay MacDonald and the TUC leaders opposed strikes and sabotaged the General Strike in 1926 because they feared its possible revolutionary consequences. Labour also betrayed the working class in the Great Depression of the 1930s when instead of confronting unemployment, MacDonald decided to confront the unemployed. By imposing the hated “Means Test” he and his Tory allies cut the few benefits the unemployed received at the time. Labour split over MacDonald's “treachery” but the rump party did not reverse its course towards class collaboration in the “national interest”.
In the Second World War, Labour once again supported British imperialism and joined the Churchill wartime cabinet. But this time it hid behind the “progressive” notion that this was a war against Fascism. Long before the war ended it was clear that a new radicalism was developing in the working class. This was one of the chief reasons why the British ruling class came up with the idea of an extensive welfare state in the shape of the Beveridge Plan, so-called after Sir William Beveridge, a Liberal civil servant. His plan to bring in a health service, a welfare state and plans to maintain full employment appealed to all those who remembered the joblessness, poverty and squalor of the 1930s. With red flags going up over barracks across the British Empire in July 1945 Labour won its first outright governing majority.
The Myth of 1945
Today the myth of 1945 is one of the sustaining features of Labourism. Claimed as a step towards socialism, it was in fact the very opposite. It was a reform of capitalism in order to save the system and Labour was the ideal instrument to carry this out for the capitalist class. The National Health Service was started and the state took on responsibility for the welfare of its citizens “from the cradle to the grave”. The famous nationalisations of mining, electricity, railways and steel production etc. amounted to the state rescuing bankrupt industries run down by war production and lack of investment. The nationalisation of the Bank of England gave the state greater control of the economy precisely for this purpose. The entire operation represented a coherent strategy to restore profitability to vital sectors of British capital and provide capital with healthy workers. It was a strategy in the interests of the national capital as a whole. But this did not end class struggle. The post-war years were full of strikes, factory occupations and squats. The Labour Government still did not shirk its responsibilities to the capitalist cause and used troops on at least 17 separate occasions to break strikes (a record that still stands). Under Clement Attlee, Labour also started development of the first British atomic and hydrogen bombs.
The Road to New Labour and then Corbynism
The destruction and devaluation of capital in the war laid the basis for increased profitability of capital and hence the reconstruction period which followed the war. At the end of the reconstruction boom in the 70s, workers started to fight more widely against the effects of wage cuts brought about by increasing levels of inflation. Apart from the brief and ineffectual interlude of the Heath Government in the early 70s, Labour were in power for 11 of the 15 years from 1964 to 1979. However, Labour could no more solve the economic crisis than the Tories, and when it bowed to IMF pressure to make cuts to the welfare state, the response of the working class intensified. It was Labour, not Tories, who delivered the first dose of austerity in the 70s. Workers’ struggles against austerity culminated in the Winter of Discontent that spilled over into 1979. For the British ruling class there was no point in having Labour in power if it could not convince the working class to accept cuts. Labour narrowly lost the June 1979 election and the Tories under Thatcher came to power.
Whilst Labour had been unable to confront the issue of restructuring due to workers’ resistance, that resistance began to crumble with the new fear of job losses imposed by the Thatcher regime. Militancy began to decline, as did union membership, and this opened the way for a general restructuring of British industry. Only the miners stood in the way and their isolated fight was sabotaged by both Kinnock’s Labour Party and the TUC.
By now, Labour accepted the Thatcher agenda, and began to make itself a more credible capitalist alternative by getting rid of the Trotskyist entryists of the Militant Tendency, which had dominated the Party’s youth wing. Labour now espoused deregulation of the financial sphere and all the neo-liberal economic agenda of the capitalist Right. The election of Blair as Party leader, saw the abandonment of Clause Four and any other pretence that implied the party had anything to do with socialism. And just when years of Blairite support for the joys of capitalism seemed to have finally unmasked the real class character of the Party, it once again re-invented itself as the champion of the anti-austerity movement under Corbyn.
Partly this was possible due to the belief amongst many on “the Left” that, whatever control the Blairites have over the Parliamentary Party, there is also a wider “Labour Movement”, which anyone could belong to through their trade union. Indeed the Trotskyist and Stalinist left saw winning votes to become union officials as the way to get influence in the Labour Party. Some were deluded enough to believe that they were trying to build a base for the future when the working class would become more “radical”. Then they could turn the Labour Party into a real workers’ party. And with the advent of Corbynism, the so-called “hard left” have received a real confidence boost.
But what about entering the Labour Party to try and convert its members to communism? This has been a tactic of the left for nearly a century. The CPGB encouraged its members to join the Labour Party from 1922 and from 1934 the Trotskyists did the same. It is a continuation of the errors of the Communist International which started with the “united front”. For left communists the seriousness of this move cannot be sufficiently emphasised. It amounts to uniting with the very social democracy which had supported the war and murdered revolutionary workers in Germany and central Europe to save capitalism. It represents a complete betrayal of everything which had been achieved from the Zimmerwald Left to the Comintern up to 1921. Trotsky’s 1934 “French Turn” in which he ordered his followers to join the social democracy produced a complete break between our political ancestors in the Italian left and Trotskyism. From then on they saw Trotsky as a “renegade in borrowed plumes.”
Apart from the political betrayal this represents, the tactic has also proved useless. Working with or joining the social democratic parties serves only to give them credibility and political cover. If revolutionaries join these parties workers can only conclude that these parties are in fact organisations where their problems can be addressed and solved. That is they are at some level workers’ parties. This, of course, is completely untrue. Workers need to break politically from the social democratic parties. These parties need to be exposed for what they are – bourgeois parties, supporters of capital, strike breakers and, when the crisis demands, butchers of the working class.
What has nearly a century of entryism achieved? As we have shown the Labour Party remains a party of capital and the militants who enter it simply help it control the working class and camouflage its capitalist nature. We urge militants who joined the Labour Party in search of the anti-capitalist road to leave it. We have published a text on our website by 3 young militants who were persuaded to enter the Labour Party to create a socialist Britain and have subsequently seen through the whole deception and moved towards left communism.
We have briefly outlined what we mean by communism. How can it be achieved? Communism is a total transformation in economic, social and political relations where the mass of the working class actively takes control of their own lives. It can only be achieved by international struggle against capitalism, which becomes a positive struggle for communism based on the communist programme. A programme which is the outcome of past working class experiences and struggles, and is developed by a global political organisation of the working class through the mass action of the world’s workers. They will become active controllers of their own lives through participation in a system of workers’ councils. Decisions will be made collectively, and passed to higher councils through elected and instantly revocable delegates. The entire working class will be drawn into making the decisions and running the system.
It can only come about through millions of people rejecting old ways and old institutions in practice. It is only in a revolution that workers can shake off the muck of ages and make themselves fit to found society anew. Revolutions transform people’s thinking, their consciousness, so that they embrace new ideas and take new actions. What was unthinkable before becomes perfectly normal. Workers become able to create an economic system where the production for profit is replaced by production for the satisfaction of human needs. To achieve this we need to build a global political organisation of the working class and anchor communist militants in today’s struggles of workers to lead these struggles towards a communist goal.
- 1In Spain Podemos refused to enter a coalition with the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) but in a new election lost seats to them. They are now in coalition government with the same PSOE! In Greece Syriza did the heavy lifting for the Greek ruling class by keeping the class calm whilst they implemented the anti-working class policies of the IMF and EU. Once they had done their job they quietly ceded power to the conservative New Democracy Party last July.
- 2Keir Hardie was the first Independent Labour Party MP. He blamed immigrants for driving down wages of Scottish workers and accused them of stealing and of failing to adhere to proper standards of hygiene. In an article written for the journal The Miner in 1887, he criticised the owners of the local Glengarnock ironworks for using “Russian Poles”. (CWO note: they were actually Lithuanians but everyone called them Poles then.)
"What object they have in doing so is beyond human ken unless it is, as stated by a speaker at Irvine, to teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers,” he said. In a speech to a meeting of miners the same year, he said: “In former years if a slave escaped in America and crossed to Canada he was a free man, but here we have a batch of men sent from their homes into our midst for the purpose of bringing you down, if possible, to their level. The authorities are at fault to allow it in view of their filthy habits."
In 1889, three years before becoming an MP, he complained to a Commons select committee about 3,000 foreigners working in Scotland in Glasgow, Ayrshire and Leith. From a review of Henry McLeish and Tom Brown’s book Scotland: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Luath Press, 2009) thetimes.co.uk
- 3The Fabian Society was founded by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Against workers’ own initiative they (and many other Fabians like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells) were eugenicists. Beatrice Webb declared “eugenicism ... to be the most important cause of all”. Their idea of the welfare state (also followed by the liberal William Beveridge) was to stop the poor from breeding or soiling the gene pool. Whilst opposing the Russian Revolution they did write a paean of praise for Stalin’s Russia in Soviet Communism — A New Civilisation (1936) which was simply a work of fiction. State capitalists love Big Brother!