Hundreds of thousands of people marched through London, Liverpool and Glasgow on 20 June in defiance of the recently elected Tory government, displaying an anger that has not been seen on the streets for many years. Just a few days earlier, Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn had surprised supporters and critics alike by gaining enough nominations for a place on the ballot for leader of the Labour Party. The explosion of support for Corbyn that followed was unanticipated, providing a vehicle for simmering anger and frustration. A week after his resounding victory on 12 September, the Tories pushed through legislation to hobble the legal ability of trade unions to take effective strike action and slashed the tax credits which many lower income families, in and out of work, rely on to survive.
Labour Party membership swelled during the leadership race, and tens of thousands more have joined since Corbyn’s election. The militancy of the June demonstrations, with no follow-up plans offered by the organisers, has been channelled in the direction of parliamentary social democracy. While his candidacy filled a vacuum left by decades of New Labour betrayals, Corbyn’s politics ensure that those who hoped for a real break from Labour’s history of consistent accommodation to the ruling class will be bitterly disappointed.
We pointed to Labour’s contradictory class character in a statement published prior to the May general election:
‘Marxists recognise that Labour’s continuing connection to the trade unions means that it remains a bourgeois workers party. In circumstances when such a party turns to the left and projects a willingness to fight for the rights of the poor and exploited, revolutionaries could consider offering ‘critical support’ – calling for a vote to Labour in order to exploit the contradictions between the illusions and hopes of its working-class base and its pro-capitalist programme.’
—‘Spoil your ballot! No choice for workers in 2015!’
Corbyn’s calls for tax reform, renationalisation of the railways, a programme of house building and rent control, increased funding for the NHS, a ban on zero-hour contracts and increased access to childcare and education are well within the historic mainstream of Labour Party policy. They seem radical only in the context of how far two decades of neoliberal Blairism has pushed the party to the right. The late Tony Benn, for example, the long-time leader of the Labour left who almost won the post of deputy leader in 1981, clearly opposed NATO (ie, the main military alliance of British imperialism), a question on which Corbyn hedges. And despite his Labour loyalism, Corbyn has also indicated openness to work in some sort of cross-class coalition with the bourgeois Scottish National Party or Greens.
Corbyn’s campaign and prominence as leader bring the contradictions of Labour further into the open and put the question of what sort of politics are necessary to advance the interests of working people. Class politics are once again being discussed in the mainstream media – usually in the context of ridiculous attempts to paint Corbyn as a dangerous radical, which he most certainly is not. Rather, Corbyn’s role and aspiration is to restore the image of the Labour Party as a credible alternative to capitalist rule, when in fact it has an unblemished record of loyally supporting the British state, at home and abroad, on every important issue.
Arguments that the groundswell of support for Corbyn constitutes the long-awaited mass movement against austerity are founded rather more on hope than on analysis. Although Labour branches at ward and constituency level are experiencing increased attendance as well as a rise in membership, this is not matched by corresponding workplace militancy.
When railworkers on London Underground and the national network took strike action during the leadership campaign Corbyn was photographed visiting picket lines and generally expressed support for the right to strike, but at no point has he advocated serious strike actions (ie, hitting the bourgeoisie where it hurts) as a strategic path for defeating austerity. While he calls for the repeal of the Tory anti-union laws (retained by the Blair/Brown government for 13 years) and opposed the current even more draconian Trade Union Bill, Corbyn has never encouraged workers to defy these laws – an absolute necessity in order to carry out effective strikes.
In a largely hostile episode of the BBC’s Panorama shown shortly before his election, Corbyn was pushed to comment on whether he supported unions breaking the law and he replied hypothetically that ‘There are ‘circumstances where people legitimately defy the law. I fully understand that and I would support them in doing that.’ This is a testament to growing pressure from the ranks for unions to actively resist the Tory legislation, reflected in increased left talk on this issue from Len McCluskey, head of Unite. Speaking to the TUC Congress the day after the Tory’s Trade Union Bill passed its first reading, Corbyn posed the issue as one of civil liberties rather than an overt class attack on workers, and promised to repeal the laws in five years’ time:
‘When we have been elected with a majority in 2020, we are going to repeal this Bill and replace it with a workers’ rights agenda and something decent and proper for the future.
‘…. by calling into question the right of free association of trade unions they are actually in contravention, in my view, of Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights.… We have got to fight this Bill all the way, because if they get it through it’s a damage to civil liberties and for everybody in our society.’
—Labour List, 15 September 2015
Rather than waiting for Corbyn to come and save the day in parliament five years from now, the union movement must destroy this legislation with industrial action as the first step to overturning the entire Tory/Blairite austerity programme.
Most of the major trade unions are still affiliated to the Labour Party, providing substantial funding and constantly encouraging their members to vote Labour. The Blairite right wing of the party would like to weaken this influence and break the contradiction at the heart of Labour, turning it into something more akin to the US Democrats. In response to Labour’s record of serving the bosses, some smaller left-wing unions such as the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) began distancing themselves from the party, but their support to Corbyn’s campaign has brought them back in line with the Labour-backing mainstream unions such as Unison and Unite. For these latter unions, endorsing Corbyn was a matter of simple self-preservation, given the dissatisfaction of the ranks. For the RMT and FBU, he appeared to represent what they had wanted all along – a shift to the left within the party. The membership, who have seen little serious resistance to austerity from their unions, are hoping the new Labour leader will step into the breach.
Corbyn’s first move on being elected – a speech at a mass demonstration in support of refugees – was a sharp counterpoint to David Cameron’s grudging offer to take in a mere 20,000 refugees over five years, while negotiating with French authorities to build bigger security fences at Calais and supporting efforts to militarise European Union borders. But Corbyn has really proposed remarkably little concrete policy. Socialists welcome refugees to Britain and advocate full citizenship rights for all who arrive, while consistently calling for the defeat of Britain, the U.S. and other imperialist powers whose military excursions in the Middle East precipitated this crisis in the first place – not, as Corbyn put it on Panorama, for an alternative policy that does not ‘put British troops in harm’s way’.
Corbyn is deeply loyal to the party, seeing Labour as the natural home of workers and the oppressed, despite all its betrayals. During the campaign he said that those who wanted to vote for him should only join Labour ‘if they are genuine supporters and become genuine members of the party’ (Guardian, 28 July 2015). While his selection of positions in the shadow cabinet indicate that he is consolidating key allies around him, such as shadow chancellor John McDonnell, it is also clear that he has attempted to build as broad a coalition as possible by including leadership rival Andy Burnham and retaining the posts of Hilary Benn and Lord Falconer, both of whom served under Blair.
It is evident that Corbyn will have to compromise if he wishes to retain his leadership. Already there are reports that shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was persuaded to remain in his post with assurances that the Trident nuclear weapons would not be scrapped or Britain withdrawn from NATO, despite Corbyn’s long-held opposition to both (Telegraph, 18 September 2015). Corbyn has been clear that he intends to operate strictly within the bounds of parliamentary legality. Like his Labour left allies he is comfortable with the existing British state which defends social privilege, exploitation and private ownership of the means of production. The Corbynites do not pretend to much more than wanting to establish a more equitable distribution of income.
In recent decades there has been no reason for socialists to advocate any sort of electoral support, however critical, for Labour, as working-class illusions in its socialist pretensions have worn increasingly thin. During this time we have advocated that unions and Labour activists should break with Labour in the process of building a party committed to really fighting for the interests of the working class. While Labour cannot and should not be ignored as a site of struggle, particularly when it periodically lurches to the left, the faults of the British left, in the main, lie in accommodation to Labourism, rather than too little engagement.
Most of the ostensibly revolutionary left launched itself with enthusiasm into Corbyn’s campaign, but this was little more than business as usual for many of these groups. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Workers Power, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), to name a few, have regularly called for votes to Labour through all the years of Blairism, votes to a party lead by those who Workers Power now denounce as ‘the careerists, the cowards, the traitors whose past crimes in government and present capitulation to austerity condemns them in the eyes of millions’ (Workers Power, 15 September 2015).
Workers Power is perhaps the most skilful of the auto-Labourites at putting a left face on class compromise and adaptation. While offering some pro-forma criticism of Corbyn’s overt reformism, they cast Corbyn as a potential threat to the ruling class:
‘The fact that Corbyn’s campaign has such support has unsettled the bourgeois establishment; its toleration for a government elected on Corbyn’s programme would be virtually nil.’
—Workers Power, 29 July 2015)
They advocate that ‘all socialists should join the Labour Party, defend and promote Jeremy’s progressive demands, and work to extend and deepen these policies in a revolutionary socialist direction’ (Workers Power, 15 September 2015). In the extremely unlikely event that Labour on Corbyn’s watch does move left and dares to ‘extend and deepen’ his reformist programme, Workers Power anticipates ruling class resistance:
‘The great economic power of the capitalist class and the repressive power in the hands of its state cannot be successfully defied, let alone broken, by electoral mandates alone.
‘Only the huge numbers and organisations of the working class and the youth, rallying to our side any progressive sections of the middle class, can match and master the power of business and the state. The working class can win and exercise control over production, distribution and via the banks finance and the exchanges. We can organise mass self-defence against the state forces when they repress strikes and demonstrations, let alone when they threaten a coup, as they would undoubtedly do against a radical Labour government.’
Of course Corbyn and his friends in the Labour left would flatly oppose any talk of such measures. He wants to improve conditions for working people under capitalism and, like all left-talking social democrats, believes he can best do so through accommodation with the ruling class – he does not dream of attempting to ‘match and master’ them. Workers Power, in its excitement at Corbyn’s ascent, sketches out a scenario of virtual dual power via mass mobilisations and self-organisation, omitting the need fora revolutionary party:
‘By creating democratic bodies for mobilisation, councils of resistance at local and national level, by creating instruments of workers’ control of production and services, we can not only shorten the life of this Tory government. We can create the basis for a new type of government altogether: not just a parliamentary Labour government encircled by the institutions of capital, but a workers government determined to break the power of the bosses, the bankers and the generals for good.’
Labour Party loyalists of left and right will ensure that it cannot serve as any sort of revolutionary instrument, even in a period when the working class is intent on forming soviets. Breaking the power of the bosses requires the wholesale rejection of Labourism with its pro-imperialist reformism and deference to Britain’s parasitic elites. But instead of posing the necessity for a political break from Labourism, Workers Power is talking as if they really believe that, with enough left pressure, Corbyn and his crew of Labour Party devotees may somehow be capable of creating ‘a workers government determined to break the power of the bosses’.
While Corbyn’s rapid ascent reflects a real appetite for struggle among working people, his role, like other left-talking Labourites before him, is to channel and contain threats to the bosses, not to ‘break the[ir] power’. The role of Marxists therefore is not to celebrate Corbyn, but to expose the pro-capitalist logic of his politics and thus begin to prepare the ground for a future left-wing break from Labourism.
One group which has been caught particularly flat-footed by Corbyn’s surging popularity is the Socialist Party, which in the 1990s pronounced that Labour no longer had a significant working class connection and had been transformed into an outright capitalist formation, a change that ‘will not be easily reversed’ (Socialism Today, September 2015). This apparent metamorphosis coincided with the purge of supporters of the Militant Tendency (the Socialist Party’s predecessor) from their decades-long entry in the Labour Party. In order to switch strategy and stop voting Labour, they had to declare it a bourgeois formation. This is only the flip side of the view expressed by many ostensibly Trotskyist groups that because Labour has an organic connection to the mass organisations of the working class, it is therefore necessary to support it electorally. In both cases, this misses the conjunctural character of the Leninist tactic of critical support, which is as much about when and how to withdraw support as when to give it.
The Socialist Party has compared Corbyn to Bernie Sanders, the left-posturing candidate who is doing surprisingly well in the US Democratic presidential primaries, supported by their American co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). Similarly, they equate Labour with the Democrats as ‘an out-and-out "pro-business" capitalist outfit’ (Socialist Party, 19 June 2015).
What the CWI in the US are entirely missing is the class line – the Democrats are simply one of two capitalist parties seeking to manage American imperialism. The Labour Party, because it remains organisationally separate from the British bourgeoisie, still represents, in deformed fashion, the principle upon which it was founded by the trade unions over a century ago – that workers need their own political party separate from those of the bosses. Sanders is nothing more than a left-talking bourgeois politician whose job is to keep American workers locked into supporting the Democratic Party of racism and imperialist war.
Corbynmania also seems to have infected the normally insular and vitriolic Spartacist League, which has uncharacteristically ‘welcomed the Corbyn campaign’ for striking ‘a dramatic blow against the Blair project of severing the party's historic links with the trade unions’ (Workers Hammer, Autumn 2015, no. 232). This requires a hasty reversal of their analysis, reasserted only a few months previously at their national conference that Labour ‘does not act like a classical social-democratic party. New Labour today is moribund as a reformist party of the working class’ (Workers Hammer, Summer 2015, no. 231). Although presenting a mild caveat that ‘While the demands posed by the Corbyn campaign are supportable, they cannot be achieved through old Labour parliamentarism’ ‘(Jeremy Corbyn: Tony Blair's Nightmare’) and a pro-forma call for revolution, the Spartacist League appears to be so delighted with ‘a welcome upheaval in British political life’ that it does not want to spoil the mood by focusing too much on the limitations of Corbyn’s brand of overtly pro-capitalist reformism.
It would be foolish to deny that Corbyn’s meteoric rise reflects the social tensions generated by a growing polarisation of British society and a desire by a large section of the working class to strike out in a radically different direction from the Blairites. This is an important development and potentially sets in motion a process that could lead politically advanced sections of the working class to seriously engage with revolutionary ideas, and begin to break from the political straightjacket of social-democratic reformism. The elementary duty of Marxists at this moment is to point out that Corbyn’s project of advancing the interests of the victims of capitalism while rigidly adhering to the rulebook written by the exploiters is doomed to fail. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class is a zero sum game and to come out on top working people need to recognise that their interests are antithetical to those of the bosses. Corbyn preaches exactly the opposite.
The enthusiasm and conscious self-identification of the working class as a class with its own interests that have spontaneously surged up around the Corbyn campaign will soon be dissipated if contained within the framework of Labourite parliamentarism. Rather than wait five years in the hope that Corbyn might win an election, it is in the urgent and immediate interest of the workers’ movement to engage in mass industrial action to smash Cameron’s reactionary union-bashing legislation. Such a step, which is well within the realm of immediate possibility, would represent an important step in the direction of the working class acting for itself. Instead of prioritising such a perspective, most of Britain’s self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists are seeking to ride the Corbyn wave, hoping to push it a bit further to the left. Workers who have illusions in the possibilities of Corbyn’s left-wing Labourism can potentially be won to the understanding that what is necessary is an entirely different sort of political organisation – a party with a revolutionary programme that rejects social-democratic accommodation with capitalism, on the road to destroying capitalism itself.