Jeremy Corbyn has been under constant attack from Labour’s right wing, backed by the Tories and the mass media, ever since he won the party leadership election on 12 September 2015. Immediately after the EU referendum, 23 shadow cabinet members resigned in choreographed sequence while 172 Labour MPs supported a motion of no-confidence in the leader. Corbyn has become the target of these reactionary forces because he is seen as a threat to the status quo from which they benefit.
With the backing of a clear majority of party members, Corbyn sees no reason to go, and now finds himself in a leadership race against Owen Smith, a nonentity posing as a ‘unity candidate’ but actually a representative of the right wing of the party. Corbyn has gained nominations from a significant number of Constituency Labour Parties and the support of most of the major trade unions, but an estimated 130,000 new members who joined after 12 January 2016, likely Corbyn supporters, have been undemocratically barred from voting in the leadership election by the National Executive Committee (NEC). In a breathtaking display of chutzpah, the right wing complain about being bullied by an influx of ‘Trotskyists’. Not content with the mass disenfranchisement of Labour supporters, the party bureaucracy has also been banning individual members from voting for the most absurd reasons. Despite endorsements from high-profile figures such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, no one actually expects Smith to win. The leadership contest is likely to confirm that the right wing holds the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) while the left wing has the majority of the membership. It is not clear whether the PLP majority will respond to a Corbyn victory with further sabotage or simply walk out.
Smith, sensing the way the wind is blowing, has presented a set of policies that, on paper, are not too different from Corbyn’s. But there is a widespread understanding – among supporters and detractors alike – that Smith doesn’t actually mean it. Corbyn, on the other hand, has advocated the same brand of traditional social democracy for decades. Last year we summarised his role in our article, ‘Labourism Rebooted’:
‘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.…
‘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.’
Corbyn’s ascension has highlighted the profound contradiction in the pro-capitalist workers’ party he leads – it is organically tied to the trade unions, the mass organisations of the working class, while also thoroughly committed to the bourgeois order. Corbyn and Smith represent a choice between traditional social democracy and not-so-closet Blairism, the modern manifestation of neoliberalism in the Labour Party aimed at severing Labour’s surviving connections to its working-class origins. A vote for Corbyn is widely seen as a statement against austerity and in favour of preserving these working-class links (ie, Labour’s character as a bourgeois workers’ party).
While revolutionaries seek to defeat the politics of Labourism by winning a majority of the working class to class-struggle politics, we have a side with Jeremy Corbyn in the current contest. The polarisation created by the right wing’s ‘coup’, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of new members with illusions in Labour’s ‘socialist’ potential, mean that a Corbyn victory is likely to bring the class contradictions to the surface, providing an opportunity for revolutionaries to demonstrate to his supporters that social-democratic reformism is an obstacle rather than a path to the socialist future.
However, the fact that Corbyn is to the left of most of the Labour establishment does not rule out the possibility that he may take up proposals from supporters to ally with non-working-class forces such as the Scottish National Party or the Greens. So far, Corbyn’s lifelong loyalty to Labour has meant he has not done so, but his commitment to capitalism makes an alliance with these petty-bourgeois organisations a distinct possibility if it became a route to holding power. If this happens, it would negate any fundamental difference between Corbyn and the party’s Blairite right, and leave no grounds for support.
For both workers and bosses, capitalism is a zero sum game – one side benefits at the expense of the other. Social democracy is premised on the fairy tale that state intervention in the capitalist economy can eliminate poverty, oppression and exploitation. Corbyn’s programme seeks to reconcile the counterposed social interests of workers and capitalists, modifying rather than uprooting the system. His open opposition to austerity, whether Blairite or Tory, is the basis for much of his support, but the Corbyn camp is ever mindful of ‘fiscal credibility’ and ‘discipline’. In a speech on 11 March 2016, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest ally, promised to ‘ensure that Labour eliminates the government’s deficit in a fair and responsible manner’. While Corbyn would prefer to finance expenditure by raising taxes on big business (and other sectors), his commitment to balancing the books of the capitalist state is a signal to the bourgeoisie that he would be a ‘serious’ and ‘responsible’ prime minister.
Indeed, the best indication that a Corbyn government is likely to sorely disappoint his supporters is his attitude to situations where Labour already holds power in local government and is expected to implement cuts imposed via central government budgets. In December 2015, the Labour leadership instructed councils to offer no resistance to Tory austerity measures to avoid ‘action against councillors under the code of conduct, a judicial review and, more significantly, intervention by the secretary of state’ (Guardian).
This capitulation derives from a desire to conciliate Labour’s right wing. As we pointed out in ‘Labourism Rebooted’, ‘Corbyn is deeply loyal to the party, seeing Labour as the natural home of workers and the oppressed, despite all its betrayals’. This is what led him to invite his opponents into the shadow cabinet, failing to face up to the depth of the divisions. Unlike the right wing, he will put the unity of the party ahead of his stated political principles, and this will lead to more concessions in the future.
The recent publication of the Chilcot report, with its mild but clear rejection of Britain’s role in the Iraq War under the premiership of war criminal Tony Blair, theoretically puts Corbyn in a position of strength. He opposed British intervention in Iraq from the beginning, as he has other military adventures of British imperialism. However, Corbyn allowed MPs a free vote on whether to bomb Syria, demonstrating that his opposition to imperialist slaughter won’t lead him to split the party.
Owen Smith’s attempts to match Corbyn in opposing military intervention are belied by the endorsement he has received from Blair’s political heirs, as well as his own parliamentary record. Although he voted against Syrian air strikes in November 2015, Smith was in favour of them in Iraq in 2014 and supported a no-fly zone in Libya in March 2011. He now claims to have opposed the Iraq War in 2003, when he was not yet an MP, but he did in fact endorse the intervention at the time (Wales Online).
Another difference between the two is on the question of Trident. In July, Smith voted for renewal of the nuclear weapons system and Corbyn voted against it, although the BBC reported that the Labour leader has indicated he would be open to keeping the submarines without nuclear warheads. Corbyn deludes himself into imagining he can soften British imperialism, whereas Smith is openly in favour of unleashing the full power of the military – including the lunatic use of nuclear ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – if he judges it to be in the interests of Britain’s ruling class.
Labour is the historic mass party of the British working class. Marxists advocate the political independence of the working class and oppose attempts to smash its left wing and transform the party into a purely bourgeois institution akin to the Democrats in the United States. At the same time, Labourism is the greatest political barrier to revolutionary consciousness in Britain today, a fact demonstrated in the reflex support to Labour in election after election by most of Britain’s supposedly socialist organisations, regardless of the circumstances.
These organisations have flocked to Corbyn’s side with enthusiasm, tending to whitewash his faults or demand that he suddenly transform into something he is not. Red Flag are typical in lauding McDonnell’s Keynesian economic policies because he has ‘come out more clearly in support of stimulating the economy, even if there is highly likely a recession coming.’. Marxists are not interested in ‘stimulating’ an economy based on the exploitation of labour, but instead propose a plan of action for workers to improve their conditions and eliminate oppression by taking matters into their own hands and moving outside the capitalist framework.
Even the Socialist Party (SP), which until recently regarded Labour as simply a bourgeois party, now wants to affiliate to Labour and has resumed its advocacy of a parliamentary road to socialism via the Labour Party. SP leader Peter Taaffe told Channel 4 News in August that a revolution is ‘a mass movement of working people organising to take power, and to take the resources of that society into their own hands.’ But when challenged by fellow interviewee Neale Coleman, Owen Smith’s chief policy adviser, Taaffe explained that this could all be achieved through parliamentary activity:
‘Coleman: Peter, unlike me, doesn’t believe in a parliamentary road to socialism.
‘Taaffe: That’s not true.
‘Coleman: He believes in a Bolshevik type party that will take power for [sic] a revolution.
‘Interviewer: OK, do you [Taaffe] support taking power through the parliamentary..?
‘Taaffe: Of course. We stand for the election of a socialist and Labour government that would introduce measures in parliament to take hold of the 100 monopolies that control 80/85% of the economy.’
Corbyn’s popularity exposes widespread anger with the status quo and eagerness for some sort of left alternative. Yet, while his working-class supporters may see him as a leader willing to fight for their interests, his reformist politics ensure that his essential role will be to contain social struggle within bounds that are acceptable to the ruling class. As we noted in ‘Labourism Rebooted’: ‘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.’
Corbyn’s anti-austerity and anti-war message has resonated with millions of working people, but poverty, social inequality and imperialist war are inevitable features of capitalist rule. They can only be eliminated by expropriating the capitalist class and bringing production and distribution under the control of the working class organised as a new state power. The only way to realise this objective is to build a revolutionary workers’ party armed with a consistently Marxist programme, diametrically opposed to social-democratic reformism.