When she was a communist Sylvia Pankhurst wrote that “[t]he only school we learn at is history” and since 1920 we have had a lot to learn. The Soviet Union and its satrapies fell into barbarism and were eventually dissolved by the insurgent masses. Capitalism has bounced back from crises through wars, innovation, the proletarianisation of most of the planet and the immersion of our desires into the system. Living standards have risen across the planet and with the growth of a truly world market and global production chains commodities and luxuries have become cheaper and more accessible. For example, in 2014 the number of mobile phones overtook the number of humans on the planet. In China from 1995 to 2007 the percentage of households with fridges jumped from 7% to 95%. This jump coincided with China’s aggressive opening up to the world market, seeing production move from the West to China and also the far-east.
At home living standards also increased, cancer survival rates have doubled in the last forty years, personal car ownership has increased by over four million in the last fifteen years and those attending university has risen from 5% in 1950 to 43% in 2010. Beyond this, and despite the downward trend since the crisis, workers have a greater disposable income than at almost any time in post-war Britain. All this must of course be tempered by the fact that millions have been left behind or written off. Homelessness in Britain has risen by 49.5% from 2010, the number of foreign holidays by British nationals has fallen by almost 20% and the majority of those under-35 now live in rented properties with precarious contracts and protections.
For Mario Tronti, our defeats and the strength of capitalism meant that a whole generation “saw red. But it wasn’t the red of a new dawn, rather that of the sunset.” That is, the project to overthrow capitalism that coloured every struggle in the 20th century had now come to an end. How could he be wrong? The Berlin wall has fallen, China is capitalist and even Vietnam is enmeshed within the world market. The parties of the official communists, the Trotskyists, the anarchists and everything in between have collapsed or fallen into sectarianism or reformism of one form or another.
Capitalism has taken a knock however, nothing fatal but enough for the triumphalism of the 90s to become a very distant memory. The increasing living standards that most people benefitted from in the UK during the Blair governments were brought to a severe halt and then decline after the crisis broke out in December 2007. To deal with the strain governments of Gordon Brown and then David Cameron shifted the burden onto the poorest. A savage austerity drive was unleashed, a humiliating campaign against the disabled and long-term sick was thrown together and crucial services, from women’s refuges to libraries, were closed. Labour was to blame so the Tory line of attack went. The Tories cemented the idea that Labour’s programme of building hospitals, schools and spending was somehow not fixing the roof whilst the sun was shining. The SNP have run riot over traditional Labour heartlands in Scotland thanks to the independence referendum blowing apart the last sinews between the party and its base north of the border.
It is within this context that we have seen the re-birth of left Labourism as a serious political force within Britain. The unlikely victory of Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015 has seen a doubling of the Labour Party’s membership. With it the sharp end of working class struggle has shifted within the party producing an internecine civil war and regicidal campaign by the displaced old guard. The left is now firmly sweating under the spotlight, having been on the fringes for decades, it is now having to plot a political alternative that can balance the social democratic hopes of the Labour left with pragmatic stewardship of the British state and capitalism. The results thus far have been uneven to say the least. Yes, we have had good statements on higher education funding and investment in infrastructure. Corbyn and his team have moved the party into open support for workers in struggle, for refugees fleeing war and the women facing the brunt of the austerity onslaught. Clear daylight now exists between the neo-liberal centre and the Labour Party in Britain. We also have had odd statements such as wanting to build nuclear submarines without the nuclear weapons ever being loaded, continual embarrassments over fringe views and anti-Semitism and awkward steps to re-assure big business that a Labour government will not hurt their interests.
Status-quo socialism and building an alternative
I consider the offer from the insurgent left within Labour to be status-quo socialism. Why? Firstly, its political approach leaves the British state and capitalist relations almost entirely intact. There will be nationalisations of rail franchises, a bit more money for healthcare and other services and a step-back from the aggressive military adventures in the Middle East and North Africa. In the expanse of history this is a minimal adjustment to the position of Britain within the metabolism of capitalism. Secondly, this is sold to us as both pragmatic and radical by those who staff and support the bodies of the insurgent left. Carrying on the tradition in Britain where the left drapes mediocre reforms with radical language.
On top of this we are given two long-term tropes for the British left to centre its current struggle on. The first is the reliance on the ethereal masses and the political self-conceit that they will back you. Deeper than this, the second trope is the imagined history of the Labour Party as a socialist party and a tool for constructing a socialist future. The former trope is dangerous for the left because it allows activists to give primacy to immediate battles and building the broadest front possible in order to achieve short-term goals. A construction that may work in keeping a swimming pool open but is too amorphous to lay out a coherent political alternative. We have seen numerous examples of this since 2010 such as Occupy in the United States or UKUncut in Britain. It also allows the left to seemingly ignore facts on the doorstep, poll ratings and electoral results. The latter leads us into a political quagmire where the left spends its time motion mongering, putting positive spins on retreats and fighting over the rule book with the right. Worse, socialist change is enunciated as a pragmatic and Keynesian political alternative. Our political memories must stretch back far enough to remember the widespread disenchantment with Harold Wilson to recognise much of the left is heading down the same path.
Paul Foot wrote on the death of Wilson in 1995:
“The universal feeling on the left – all sections of the left indeed, including many principled people on the Labour right – was that Wilson moved not too fast, but too slowly; that his stand was not too principled, but wholly unprincipled; that he was not ‘too robust’ with capitalists, judges and senior civil servants but too obsequious to them; and that his central failing was not his idealism but his pragmatism.”
Already we have the new pragmatists laying out the limits of a potential Corbyn government. We allow the drink sodden generals to keep their nuclear weapons but we build some council houses. We give tax breaks to high tech industry but we fund the NHS properly. We get lots of nice tinkering around the edges but the fundamentals stay the same. This is not so much rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic but more lipstick on a pig politics. It’s not radical; it’s just the return of the status quo socialists.
Am I about to argue that there is no real difference between the Tories and the Labour Party? No. What we have with Labour tacking left is a return to the notion of the state having a vigorous intervention into the economy to ensure economic expansion and stability. This appears as a radical break and for many novel. Yet, for most of Labour’s history the commitment to a mixed economy where the Labour Party is a better steward of British capital was common fare. It was only with the fall of the left at the hands of the traditional right and the Blairites that the commitment was junked. In many ways the return is most welcome under current conditions. For far too long we have had a Labour Party that could not adequately ameliorate the vast inequalities in Britain. For instance instead of lancing the poisonous boils of poor social housing provision it fed them. House building dropped to historic lows and remains far below what is needed making very few very rich, a great many depend on high house prices to fund retirements and decent living standards and those locked outside of the system clambering for a reducing pile of what is left. A Labour government could lance this by ensuring dignity in retirement for all, safeguarding pensions, massive house building programmes, rent controls, long term rental agreements and legislation to ensure building projects that are privately funded ensure a significant proportion of homes are affordable in a real sense.
So the problem communists have with status-quo socialists of the Labour Party is not the positive social impact a real Labour programme will offer but that it doesn’t mark the beginning of a wider transformation that will upend the system. Those comrades who become indignant and flabbergasted at Labour clinging to a reformist agenda but expect social democratic state interventions to bring around radical change to the character of British society are not working within the realms of reality. In many senses the “radical” voices on the Labour left are much worse than the traditional left who at least seek to grasp and understand British society as it currently exists not just as they wish it would in their heads. Here you get a disconnect between the Labour left that has fought on throughout the right’s dominance and those returning or joining for the first time. The former are harder on policy and less rigid in how immediate social ills can be overcome. Many social democrats will have defended tuition fees and the higher education reforms of the Blair era as a way to open university level education to millions of working class youth. The latter are flabbier, sometimes a rabble but more radical and uncompromising than others on the left. What they have over all other factions in the Labour Party is numbers, energy and an opening to shift the national debate to the left thus making life very uncomfortable for the Tories and their Labour opponents.
The traditional right, the Blairites and the soft left will fight like hell to stop a real attempt to make socialist policy political common sense within Britain. The campaign against Corbyn can only be understood as an assault on the broad labour movement. After electing Corbyn who has spent his entire political career being shoulder to shoulder with those on the receiving end of cuts, jobs losses and brutality he has become the avatar for a political tendency long since kept out of power. It was no wonder that hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, socialists and Labour members seized the opportunity to dislodge the fag-end generation of New Labour. Their response, their launching of a civil war in Labour and the outright sabotage makes political sense from their perspective. Whatever nice words about patience and unity come from either side everyone knows that this is a fight to the death.
The Labour Party occupies a contested space within the British political system where at times the working class has been able to impose its demands and achieve real gains. The opening up of the Labour Party with the election of Jeremy Corbyn opens such a period where not only is Labour’s political future at stake but the line of march of the British state between the two poles of neo-liberalism and left-Keynesianism. If the left is successful and manages to cohere an alternative that garners real support then life for many in Britain will be improved. Whilst we can support such developments communists must not build illusions in such politics, we have to be clear that what is on offer is not a fundamental shift in social relations within Britain but the consolidation of British capitalism around a high-tech export driven economy away from finance and services allowing for the strengthening of the welfare state. Alongside the domestic changes Britain would withdraw from its aggressive international endeavours a pivot no Labour government has ever achieved or ever won an election on.
So the fight is on, the fight to see off the fag-end generation of New Labour who have nothing to offer but grey managerialism and boredom. The fight is on to ensure representatives of the labour movement are under the control of the labour movement. The fight is on to convince the unsure, the sceptical and the hostile that socialist policies will improve their lives. And, when the dust has settled from the election campaign the fight is on to shift the movement away from status-quo socialism towards a thoroughly modern and democratic communist programme.