Some of those who support Corbyn’s Labour do so with the idea that “it’s the least worst option” but many more actually believe that Labour can reform capitalism in favour of those who create the wealth that is enjoyed by a minority. This article is mainly directed at their distortions.
The Impact of Corbyn
The capitalist media expressed astonishment at the rise of a left-leaning Labour Party which appeals more to the young than anything since Blairism when it first appeared. In reality, the Corbynite phenomenon is not hard to understand. After decades where wages as a share of national income have continuously fallen and after almost a decade of austerity in which the rich have got richer, it is not surprising that many workers voted for a party which promised to “tax the rich”. The young in particular, who face a miserable future, rushed to support Corbyn, both within the Labour Party and among the electorate in general (where 1.7 million under 25s registered for the first time). Some of those who support Corbyn’s Labour do so with the idea that “it’s the least worst option” but many more actually believe that Labour can reform capitalism in favour of those who create the wealth that is enjoyed by a minority. However behind all these are those who claim to be “socialists” and “revolutionaries” but who in their cynical manoeuvres belie both terms. This article is mainly directed at their distortions.
In the last few months the CWO has intervened in this debate, distributing material explaining the case for revolutionary abstention and urging, with those who were ready to discuss the fact, that Corbynism is a dead-end and part of the ruling class order. We have carried articles on our web site and in our publications1 and intervened on social media. We also distributed copies of our broadsheet “Aurora” on picket lines and University campuses as well as in our customary venues.
Some of the less politicised people we met argued in line with the standard bourgeois argument about democratic rights and duties. Others echoed the desperate hope that somehow electing a Labour Government would provide some relief from the cuts, crap prospects in work, cuts in benefits and crumbling welfare services. For many of those who we met the latter was a “straw they were clutching” in response to a lifetime of attacks seeing our class unable to sustain any adequate resistance. We did not agree and put counter-arguments but we're able to understand the desperation as the crisis appears to grind forward remorselessly and all the scattered “direct action” resistance to it has no focal point around which to rally.
On the other hand, there was an inexcusable flood of phoney arguments from the leftists and even a few anarcho-Corbynists who we encountered. On more than one occasion these supporters of the “democratic illusion" (some more recent converts than others) defended themselves by explaining that voting only took 10 or 15 minutes. On that basis, voting was at worst only a minor aberration on a par with dropping a chocolate wrapper or breaking wind in a crowded lift. Of course such a facile defence dodged around the issues that centres on the leftists ongoing nurturing of false and corrosive ideas over many months or even years rather than a few minutes of delinquent behaviour.
At the core of all the arguments of the “organised” Corbynists was the desire to support key falsehoods. These regularly included nonsense about the Labour Party being a “Workers Party”, nationalisation or state intervention being a step towards socialism and the ability of well-meaning MPs to be the vital agents of change. Overall, the whole panoply of justification for a reformist view of the world was expounded in the finest traditions of Second Internationalism2 .
As the ruling class’s crisis has deepened the lack of any readily available economic solution has, at least since 2015, become dramatically evident in the political “superstructure”. Obvious examples of the bourgeois political machine not producing intended results include the near clean sweep by the Scottish Nationalists in the 2015 General Election, the 2016 referendum vote for Brexit which was not the preferred choice for the majority of the ruling class and the 2017 General Election which failed to deliver a “strong or stable” government of the right or left3
Of course, the left of the political establishment was not immune from the series of unintended consequences. The changes to the internal voting practices in the Labour Party opened the way for Jeremy Corbyn to become the leader despite opposition from the majority of Labour M.Ps.
That last unforeseen quirk in the politics of the parties which present as options for being safe governments for capitalism resulted in further ripples. In Britain, for many decades, the various splinters that emerged from Stalinism and Trotskyism4 had seen their influence gradually decline. In Corbyn’s unexpected rise they saw their chance.
The re-emergence of Left Labourism as a significant sector in British politics breathed life into the spectrum of counterfeit Communists all vying to implement the politics of the past like the United Front and “transitional method”. Those approaches were spawned in the degenerating Communist International after the defeat of the revolutionary wave in the early 1920s. By the 3rd Comintern Congress in 1921 the revolutionary essence was increasingly being replaced by adaptations to the capitalist order. Those are the politics which symbiotically unite the epigones of the revolutionary wave with the re-emergent left Labourism and its layers of new, often younger, activists.
The spreading of confusion by the Left
Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been busy predicting imminent Armageddon for their whole history, the leftists see in Corbynism the living fulfilment of decades of leftist prophecies. Starting from Lenin’s confused and confusing description of the Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers party”, many generations of leftists have aimed for a left-leaning Labour Party as the key to a “British Road to Socialism” 5 (BRS).
Despite Labour’s defeat, the outcome of the General Election in June has given the Corbynite movement an extended lease of life. The beloved leader has to deliver nothing better than well-meaning words while all the ills of the system can be left at the door of the Tory Party or the Prime Minister. Hyping up a demand for another run of the General Election pantomime in the next 12 months 6 , Momentum and the other camp-followers will bang the electoral drum to their heart’s content. Their case will also thrive in a battle against “the enemy within” as the majority of Labour MPs remain open to the charge of not being true followers of “the beloved leader”.
In the previous section we referred to the British Road to Socialism, the name of the pre-1991 Communist Party of Great Britain’s Programme. The position of the 2017 successors in the CPB and their “Morning Star” is encapsulated on their web-site. At the end of June their site still displayed their election propaganda, summed up by a a poster-like front page entitled “Unity!”. Half of the page is taken up with a picture of Corbyn and the words, “Labour to Win”. Towards the bottom CPB call their supporters to “Vote Labour everywhere for a left-led government.”
Before dealing with more fundamental arguments, we can comment on the grotesque illusions about a left-led government. Even if the most far-fetched leftist fantasies had been realised and 326 Labour MPs had been elected then the CPB propagandists knew full well that this would have been a Parliamentary Labour Party indistinguishable from the previous version. The political backbone amongst the riders on the gravy train would actually have been the same factions who had tried to remove Corbyn and forced him to face re-election by party members in 2015.
An outcome requiring a lesser leap of faith, but still more than the Labour Party could actually deliver, would have been a minority Labour Government supported by the Liberal Democrats and/or the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists. Such a prospect would have the leftists salivating as every disappointment would then have been blamed on the other parties restricting Corbyn’s ability to perform miracles.
Even if a “left-led Government” had been a feasible electoral outcome it is our duty, as revolutionary Marxists, to explain why we would not campaign for such a development.
At this point we have to reassert the basics that the cheerleaders for Corbyn have long since stopped presenting. The Stalinists, Trotskyists and even certain self-styled Anarchists abandoned the need to spread such basic analysis, as they tried to encourage those who would listen that voting Labour is the path to a better future. Before the end of June a gathering called by the “Psychedelic Bolsheviks” in Sheffield heard its young supporters proclaim the need for a further push for more “young people and workers” to be drawn into the next Parliamentary exercise.
That endemic Leftist opportunism illustrates precisely why the organisations that operate as part of the left wing of capitalism have long been lost as potential parts of the proletarian revolutionary movement. If capitalism is to be overthrown – the only road to a sustainable human future – then the essential first step is the proletariat taking control of society via its own organisation and activity. That model will be based on mass involvement via assemblies and organisations such as Workers Councils (“Soviets” in Russian).
The politics of left reformism/Corbynism are separated from that perspective by at least two vast gulfs. Firstly assemblies and structures based on open participation with all representatives being accountable and recallable is totally different from bourgeois electoral structures. In the latter atomised individuals vote in their secret ballots for institutions all of which are designed to help the bosses’ system of power and control to keep running.
Secondly, the critical process by which the working class achieves our potential as “the gravediggers of capitalism” depends on the maturation of our class consciousness from “a class in itself” to “a class for itself”. That process crucially depends on the material reality of class struggle and the uneven manner by which sections of the class reflect on the process, absorb lessons and develop analysis 7 It is crystal clear that the leftists who encourage false beliefs in the nature of the bourgeois state and the usefulness of reformist strategies serve to block and divert the necessary steps towards clarity.
In the next section we will look at how these rogues advocate electoral reformism even where their inner circles still have a grasp of certain fundamentals. With a profound contempt for those they can persuade, such charlatans play with “transitional” politics where the few are entitled to understand but their followers are encouraged to remain ignorant and be loyal voters – the identical role allocated by the bourgeoisie to the whole of the working class.
The transitional method – Trotskyist doublethink
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” When Orwell wrote “1984” there is a suggestion that he was apparently influenced by the political positions adopted by Max Shachtman and what was to develop into a strand of critical Trotskyism that become known as “the third camp”. It is ironic that one of the most blatant exercises in “Corbynism” doublethink has been carried out by a Trotskyist trend that also has sympathies for the third camp8 .
On the one hand, the initiates and inner circle may still maintain a Marxist analysis of the Labour Party. For example it is still possible to find the following on the “Workers Liberty” web site.
THE LABOUR PARTY IS A BOURGEOIS PARTY
The Leninist position is that the Labour Party, judged in its role and function, and despite its origins and special connection with the trade unions, is a capitalist, a bourgeois workers' party. Judged politically it is not a workers' party with deformations, inadequacies (its 'inadequacies' amount to a qualitative difference), but a bourgeois party with the special function of containing the workers - actually it is a special section of the bourgeois state political organisation. The Labour Party is the main instrument of capitalist control of the workers; the organisation formed out of an upsurge of the workers, but an upsurge in which the workers were defeated ideologically and thus in every other field, is now the means of integrating the drives and aspirations of the workers with the capitalist state machine. It is not a passive reflection but an active canaliser of the class - against itself, against the proletariat's own interest. (From “What we are and what we must become” – still described as a “founding document” of the ancestral organisation of the AWL).
The description above was written in 1966. Perhaps the AWL leading lights believe that during the last 50 years the Labour Party ceased to be “the means of integrating the drives and aspirations of the workers with the capitalist state machine”. If so, then they could choose to explain a) the process and b) what is the class nature of the Labour Party. However, that’s their business not ours.
What is absolutely clear is that the AWL has been very active in the Corbynite movement and in the factional struggles within Momentum. Indeed there were weeks and months when at least one of their activists regularly appeared on national TV. Never did any of them take the opportunity to explain the analysis written in the epistles of the founding parents. Why not? Simply because they were only focussed on attracting new layers who would help build, join and vote for the Labour Party.
The doublethink is as clear as it is sickening. While the “cognoscenti” may understand the world, they deliberately and consciously avoid explaining the nature of reformism and parliamentarianism to their followers. Only the organisation, or perhaps its core, are allowed to understand while the Corbyn cult followers are treated as gullible vote fodder left in a state of abject confusion and false hopes – a situation which will inevitably lead to disillusion and the belief that people who call themselves Marxists deal in nothing but lies and illusion.
Lest all the other 57 varieties feel left out, the AWL is of course only one of many playing the same game. Peter Taaffe, long standing guru of the Socialist Party of England and Wales (once know by the name of its journal as “The Militant Tendency”) was also granted his 15 minutes of fame to argue that the Labour Party should review its decision from the early 1920s and allow his party to affiliate. The representative of the Workers Revolutionary Party, Frank Sweeney, appeared on BBC’s Daily Politics to explain that the problem was that Corbyn would not be able to implement his (Corbyn’s) programme. The fact that there was a large grain of truth in that was clearly by accident rather than design in that Mr Sweeney’s recommended solution was to vote for the WRP in the 5 constituencies where they had candidates.
For others, half-forgotten folk memories of when their political grandparents played in the Labour Party were awoken. The plethora of factions within and around Momentum is evidence of this common method of swimming with the stream of bourgeois ideology and maximising the practice of opportunism.
Parliament is not the state
There is another seriously harmful dimension to the leftists’ encouragement of participation in elections, whether in favour of Labour or their own groups or coalitions.
The pretence that the election of more well-intentioned politicians could actually replace the capitalist system is part of the mystification circulated by, and on behalf, of the ruling class. They are fully aware that elected representation up to and including the “Executive” (Prime Minister and her/his Cabinet) is only the window-dressing. The state in modern society actually exists to maintain the domination of the ruling class.
Beyond, the layers of elected representatives lies the real power vested in entities such as the civil service, the armed forces, the police and the secret and semi-secret state and not least the controllers of the majority of the national capital.. These are replicated beyond the national boundaries in the kaleidoscope of transnational institutions including the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation, military alliances such as NATO and, of course, the European Union and other regional trade organisations such as NAFTA.
That whole range of state institutions would still exist and exercise overwhelming power even if the UK population were allowed to elect 650 Corbyn clones.
The leftist organisations, in their inner circles, very probably, understand that full well. Similarly they understand that the state functions exist to maintain the control over every aspect of our lives that flows from the means of production being owned by firms, trusts, companies and conglomerates and in some cases by states themselves.
The pretence that electing MPs can counter those interests is a cruel deception. In most cases it only serves to help strengthen the grip of bourgeois ideology. In other cases such as Chile in the 1970s it meant death, imprisonment and torture for those working class people who had been persuaded that there was a “Parliamentary Road to Socialism”.
Leftist illusions or the difficult path to the overthrow of capitalism
It does not surprise us that layers of “radical” young people including some workers have been dragged into the Left Labourist swamp. The fact that the capitalist system has offered the vast majority nothing substantially positive for decade after decade is the background to that desperation. During that time the working-class has not displayed a fraction of our potential to struggle to defend ourselves and then to overthrow this rotten system. Consequently, Corbynism/Momentum has appeared, offering bogus promises based on the leftist recipe book for maintaining capitalism in an imaginary “fairer” style. Without a visible alternative based on working-class self-organisation and struggle, Corbynite Labour has been able to strike a chord. That explanation is clear and as Marxists we fully understand secular belief in salvation. This pie in the sky hope is just another expression of “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world” (Marx, from the introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right).
We recognise that revolutionaries have a duty to engage with those fooled by the false promises of reformism, of either the left or right varieties. However we will not condone, let alone join with, those corruptors of youth who encourage belief in illusions and build false expectations that will end in disillusion and confusion. Being “where the class is at” for the leftists involves sowing and encouraging illusions and encouraging falsehoods and confusions that cannot advance awareness of the need and possibility of the working-class taking power. That revolutionary reconstitution of society is the only viable path to put an end to a system that is very evidently breeding war, misery, famine and ecological destruction across the entire planet.
Internationally Corbynism has other parallels which clearly demonstrate where support for a parliamentary left party gets you. In Greece the financial implosion brought a supposedly very left new party (Syriza) to power in opposition to austerity imposed by the IMF and EU. The result is that Syriza has “managed” the introduction of the very policies they were elected to oppose. This has been, and remains, the function of the capitalist and reformist left everywhere.
The logic of the leftists decayed political method in Britain is seen where they line up against each other in favour of a capitalist UK in or out of a capitalist European Union or in favour of Scottish Independence or the existing state structure in Great Britain. Their politics of “lesser evilism” do not end there – while wars and massacres spread across the world the left chooses which side to cheer on. The same applies when we look at the historic atrocities in the Balkans such as the Kosovan separation from Serbia, or the current sufferings caused by the struggle between Ukraine against Russia and its supporters, or even the Kurdish nationalist YPG military campaign now openly part of a US-backed coalition. Wherever decaying capitalism generates conflict and misery the leftists cannot resist choosing sides while the working class suffer.
The cause of the working class only suffers when it's false friends helps lock their followers into capitalist structures and ideology such as the Labour Party and the reformist falsehoods that are peddled. Of course, it is easy for those dressed in pseudo-Marxist shreds to foster illusions in reformism or, as is their current practice, to join the Labour Party and increase the confusion of those who are finding conditions unbearable.
Genuine Communists will not be part of those exercises in deceit. Corbyn is not a new alternative but just a return to the same old programme of the past. For the present, we will continue to explain that there is no quick fix to capitalist exploitation and austerity. On the contrary, the road to a better future lies through the working class rediscovering its confidence and combativity. This can only be achieved when workers on the ground actively shape and expand their own resistance to the thousand and one attacks which amount to a historical reversal and decline in living standards as the crisis of capitalism grinds on, whichever party is in Westminster. This is qualitatively different from the headless chicken activism for activism’s sake or the short-term perspective of “getting the Tories out”. There is a way for would-be revolutionary militants to help build up workers’ resistance to capitalism. It lies, not in promoting a particular character or faction inside any of the established parties, but in helping to promote the long term movement of resistance to capitalism and ultimately a political organisation of the world working class. The CWO and our comrades in ICT are organised to maintain and spread that theory and practice. We invite all those who share our understanding to discuss with us in the struggle towards a truly human, classless and stateless future.
June 23 2017
- 1 See leftcom.org, leftcom.org, leftcom.org, leftcom.org, leftcom.org, leftcom.org, leftcom.org, leftcom.org.
- 2 The Second International drew together erstwhile Socialist Parties from its foundation in 1889 until its political collapse in 1914 when the deep-seated abandonment of a revolutionary Marxist understanding led to its large majority supporting their national bourgeoisie in the First World War. Parties such as the Labour Party, SPD in Germany and PS in France continue to stand in that counter-revolutionary tradition.
- 3 In fact a most obvious short-term effect of the loss of a few seats by the Tories is that the Government may have to work out how to transfer some millions of pounds to Northern Ireland “infrastructure projects” i.e. In the direction of the Democratic Unionists and other politicians and their “business associates”. Since this article was drafted it became clear that the number involved would be at least a million pounds.
- 4 Examples of Stalinist or Trotskyist organisations in Britain that have not hitched up to the Corbynite bandwagon are few and far between. Two that have “bucked the trend” are the Revolutionary Communist Group and the Socialist Equality Party. The former prefer to devote their cheerleading to the state capitalist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. The latter has in 2017 given up its previous habit of legitimising electoral illusions by standing its own candidates as part of its own interpretation of the Trotskyist Transitional Programme.
- 5 The name of the programme adopted in 1952 – issued the previous year - by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the supporters of the state capitalist Soviet Union. It has hardly changed since despite many rewrites.
- 6 The Byzantine nature of the democratic smokescreen means that the Tories would gain party political advantage – albeit slightly less since the 2017 results - by not calling the next General Election until the constituency boundaries have been redrawn to their advantage. This is scheduled to take place in 2019.
- 7 For exploration of this see our publication “Class Consciousness and Revolutionary Organiasation”
- 8 See “The Lost Marxism of Critical Trotskyism” in Internationalist Communist 17. Still available £4, including postage, from our addresses.