Rethinking Labour: More of the same or change of course?

Rethinking Labour: More of the same or change of course?

The following article is one in a series of personal viewpoints offered by members and supporters of the Independent Socialist Network, assessing the new situation brought about by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. As is to be expected given the fast pace of developments, the views of any given author may have developed since these pieces were written; and none of them necessarily represent the collective view of the ISN. The collected series can be found on its own page.


The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is a game changer for left-wing politics in Britain. It is forcing all thinking socialists to rethink their strategy, their orientation and their tactics. Or at least, it should do. Inevitably, there are some who see no need for reflection and simply carry on as before.

In this article I aim to address the questions posed for Marxists by Corbyn’s victory and, more importantly, by the enormous response to it. Hundreds of thousands of new members and registered supporters have signed up for the Labour Party. It is part of the European mood for an alternative to austerity. This is a movement wanting change, searching for something different. Moreover, it is a movement that has by-passed the established Marxist left. Nobody in the Marxist left, either inside the Labour Party or outside, anticipated such a development. But now it has happened how should Marxists respond?

Questions posed

The positive response to Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader and his victory in the election is something that everyone should welcome. Corbyn and his ally John McDonnell both call themselves socialists and their policies reflect broadly how many people see socialism. His election opens up a massive opportunity to discuss and debate socialist ideas, an opportunity that we’ve not had for a long time. Marxists should throw themselves into this debate. What do we mean by socialism? How can it be achieved? Is the programme of Corbyn adequate? How can he implement it?

How and where should Marxists participate most effectively in these debates; how to strengthen and advance the movement around Corbyn and to curtail and defeat his opponents within the labour movement, both in the Labour Party and the trade unions?

Socialism or social democracy

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there is a huge difference – a vast chasm – between what is called social democracy and socialism or communism. I use socialism and communism as synonyms for a system that is based on a complete transformation of society, breaking with the present capitalist system and the exploitation of labour to make profit. Socialism is a society based on democratic common ownership of the means of production – land, factories, transport, technology and science. It is a society based on production for social need rather than for private profit.

Marxism argues that this new society cannot emerge gradually from a process of evolution within capitalism, such that the profit system metamorphoses into its opposite. The new socialist society can only be brought into existence by a revolutionary break with the existing society, carried out by the working class – the majority class in society. It will be a truly democratic revolution, inaugurating the rule of the majority. It would have to be international; it would have to destroy all the old undemocratic institutions and organs of repression; and it would have to create new truly democratic forms of organising production and defending the new society from counter-revolution. Marxism argues that a society based on democratic common ownership – socialism, or communism – is incompatible with private ownership of the means of production.

There is another dominant trend within the worker’s movement that also uses the description of ‘socialist’ and aspires to ‘socialism’. But this trend of thought and practice rejects the need for a revolutionary or fundamental breach with capitalism and is marked by a nationalist rather than an internationalist outlook. It seeks to accomplish its aims – the betterment of the conditions of life for the majority – by gradual change, by piecemeal reforms. In so far as socialism as a system is ever envisaged, it will be achieved through evolutionary rather than revolutionary means. For the most part, the end goal of socialism is not really envisaged or contemplated at all and what remains is simply a movement to accomplish reforms within the existing capitalist system. This trend of thought within the workers’ movement is best described not as socialist but as social democratic, or reformism. Marxism does not oppose reforms. On the contrary, it consistently supports all movements for reform. But it does not believe that reforms are enough. It always keeps its eye on the ultimate goal.

These two incompatible political ideologies – revolutionary socialism-communism versus reformist social democracy – have existed in opposition since the second half of the 19th century. The abject bankruptcy of social democracy was demonstrated in the starkest form when the reformist leadership of the majority of the Social Democratic parties in the Marxist Second International voted to support the imperialist slaughter that began with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Instead of opposing the war and taking a working-class and internationalist position, they fell in line behind their respective national capitalist class to protect the profit system at the cost of 18 million dead. The Marxists renamed themselves ‘communists’ and created a new Communist International.

The goal of socialists-communists is to assist the working class change society, and for that we need a socialist-communist party. It is not the duty of socialists-communists to build support for the ideas of social democracy. It is not the job of socialists-communists to build support for social democratic figures or parties, without explaining the limitations of their programme and the need to go much further. In a previous article I argued for a Marxist party. This is the same as building a socialist or communist party. That must be the overriding objective for all Marxists because without such a party, organising millions, we cannot hope to challenge capitalism and bring about socialism.

Defend Corbyn – Fight for socialist policies

Having said that, there is an enormous battle taking place now within the Labour Party and the Trade Unions. This battle is going to intensify over the next year. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are principled social democrats. They do not, in my opinion, put forward a programme for overthrowing capitalism or for establishing a socialist society. But they are sincere and honest supporters and defenders of the working class and its interests. They support workers on strike; they support workers in protest; they stand up for the poor, the migrant and those on welfare. Arrayed against them is the whole of the capitalist class, the media and their echoes in the Labour Party and trade unions.

Marxists cannot stand aside in this battle and say, “It’s nothing to do with us.” Marxists participate in all aspects of the class struggle. Marxists must do everything we can to defend Corbyn and McDonnell, while engaging in a thoroughgoing criticism of their programme. We must defend Corbyn and McDonnell but fight for socialist policies. I do not have the space here to develop details points of programmatic criticism but fundamentally the issue boils down to what Corbyn is attempting to do differently from Syriza. How can Corbyn succeed where Tsipras failed? In my opinion, the weaknesses of the Syriza approach are present in Corbyn’s programme. How can we alter this to strengthen the movement for change?

I spelled out some aspects of disagreement in an earlier article. I think that both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have already made too many concessions or compromises, in a vain attempt to appease their opponents in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where they are in a small minority. They cannot hope to win the battle they face in the Labour Party on the basis of the PLP. It seems that they have understood the need to base themselves on their support outside the PLP and have set up Momentum to organise that support. Momentum has to develop into a genuinely democratic organisation in which its members can influence policy and tactics.

Corbyn and McDonnell face great difficulties and need time to consolidate their positions. At present their right-wing opponents are circling but not yet mobilising decisively to oust them. But Corbyn and McDonnell have to make the most of the short time they have. That means sticking to the policies that made Corbyn so popular. Instead of retreating on the singing of the national anthem he should have explained in his calm, reasonable tone, that he is a republican and does not sing the national anthem. He does not avoid criticism in the media by saying he is now prepared to sing it. By explaining his republican politics he will win new friends and raise an important topic for debate. Society cannot be changed without challenging the unelected and undemocratic monarchy.

Why has John McDonnell backtracked on removing the ‘independence’ of the Bank of England? The whole finance sector, including the Bank of England, has to be taken into democratic public ownership. The ‘independence’ of the Bank of England is a fiction. It is a servant of capitalist interests of big business. A socialist government must run it in the interests of the working class.

On rail renationalisation the policy they now advance is that rail franchises will be renationalised only as they come up for renewal. The rest will remain in private, profit-making, hands. Why not simply announce that the next Labour government will take all rail back into public ownership, to be run democratically in the interests of passengers and staff?

Why have they both ruled out mandatory reselection of MPs? They must both know that to retain their positions they have to change the make up of the PLP. Corbyn’s ally Ken Livingstone has rightly called for the de-selection of MPs who oppose Corbyn. Perhaps there has been an agreed division of labour, with Corbyn and McDonnell attempting to placate his opponents by reassuring them that they will not be challenged, while their supporters such as Livingstone agitate for de-selection. If so, it is a dangerous strategy. Corbyn’s supporters want a clear lead. They want to know that if they join the Labour Party they can have a say over its direction, policy and who will represent them. The more compromises that are made, the more is the danger that it will disorientate and demoralise his supporters. I hope to return to this issue of programme and tactics in a future article.

Myopic Marxists

The Independent Socialist Network has long argued that the conditions exist for at least the embryo of a mass socialist party to be created. We have argued that there are a large number of people in Britain who would be attracted to a democratic party calling for socialism and we have participated in attempts to create such a party. The support for Corbyn demonstrates this.

But an essential requirement for this to happen is for the various Marxists groups to begin the process of unifying. The leaders of these groups all know the history of the communist movement and know that Lenin argued that the different competing revolutionary organisations in Britain should unite into one united communist party. Lenin had behind him the authority and prestige of Bolshevik party and the first successful workers’ revolution, and the British communists followed his advice. Today there is no such authoritative external force to bang heads together. But one has to wonder at the myopia of the various revolutionary leaders who would rather pursue their own narrow interests than seek unity with their ‘competitors’. Such an attitude is a million light years away from what is needed, particularly when faced with the economic crisis we see now. I doubt that anything is capable of forcing these ‘leaders’ to ever contemplate what is really necessary, that is the unification of Marxists into a single organisation.

This approach has marred every attempt to build a serious alternative to the Labour Party, from the Socialist Alliance to the Trade Unionist Coalition and Left Unity. In each attempt the various socialist groups have sought to limit the nature of the project to essentially reformist policies, while presenting themselves as the ‘real’ socialists.

In TUSC neither the Socialist Party nor the Socialist Workers Party are prepared to contemplate going beyond an electoral coalition. Neither is prepared to discuss forming a party, let alone a Marxist party because neither is prepared to give up its claim to be the one true socialist party. In Left Unity, Socialist Resistance and other non-aligned Marxists actively prevented clear socialist aims and principles being incorporated into the party constitution, preferring to blur the distinction between socialists and social democrats because they don’t want to put anyone off.

This narrow self-interest and lack of vision marks all the various Marxist sects. There is no strategic thought or discussion about how a few thousand Marxists can grow to become a force of millions, as we need. Married to their bureaucratic methods and the absence of genuine internal democracy within them, together with their failure to comprehend the necessary first steps towards creating something that could become a pole of attraction to radicalising working class activists, especially young people, has consigned them to an irrelevancy in the recent developments around Corbyn. Those flocking to the Labour Party or to Momentum have simply ignored the existing Marxist groups. TUSC is irrelevant in part because the Corbynistas couldn’t join it even if they wanted to.

We have considered it worthwhile participating in TUSC and standing candidates against Labour in the hope that this could be a springboard to the formation of a new party. However, that is clearly not going to happen. It puts a negative over the whole project, even more so now that Corbyn has won the leadership of the Labour Party. TUSC will obtain even worse votes in the short term and standing to obtain risible votes cannot even be justified with the argument that it is to lay the basis of building a new party. In these circumstances it is time, in my opinion, to draw a line in our participation in TUSC.

A similar situation exists now with Left Unity. Left Unity has politics no different from Corbyn, so why would any of them join it? Why join a party of 1,500 when you can join a party of hundreds of thousands, with millions of affiliated trade unionists? Its perspective for any meaningful contribution to the socialist cause is minimal, if that.

The end is nigh

There is little point it its continuation as a small party with policies indistinguishable from those of Corbyn. Its continued existence is questioned by most of its leadership, some of whom have already left to join Labour. Others call for its dissolution. The central pairing of Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson are advocating its continuation only so it can be the British franchise of the European Left parties – a singularly unconvincing reason. Those European Left parties are simply variants of left-wing social democracy. The experience of Syriza should be enough to demonstrate that. Unless Left Unity were to turn itself into a party based on the principles and programme of Marxism, there is no reason for it to continue to exist.

Given the inadequacy of both TUSC and Left Unity there is no prospect of building the Marxist party through them. The only thing that would change that would be if the SP and SWP were to announce a commitment to working with other Marxists to create a new socialist party with a programme for fundamentally changing society.

If Marxists were to begin to act collectively, one of the first issues to be decided at this time would have to be the attitude to the Labour Party. There would have to be a serious orientation to the Labour Party, including a serious consideration of joining Labour. In my opinion, such a step would have to be done openly and honestly, meeting any obstructions to membership with a campaign for the right to participate. It cannot be done on the basis of clandestine work, secretive entrism, with pseudonyms and other such cloak and dagger methods. That, in my opinion, would be counter-productive. Socialists-communists should declare openly and proudly what they stand for and fight for the right to put their ideas forward.

New direction needed

For all these reasons I am now of the opinion that all Marxists should, at the very least, join Momentum. We can play a key role in helping to defend Corbyn and defeating the right. Where possible, therefore, Marxists should also join Labour. This is best done as an organised group, rather than as individuals. The purpose of joining is two-fold: to strengthen the forces in defence of Corbyn and against the rightwing in Labour and the trade unions and to argue for a Marxist ideas in the mass movement around Corbyn. There is no knowing how long this battle may last or what the outcome will be. Those coming into Momentum and into the Labour Party will include thousands of people who simply want change. But many will have no clear idea of what that change should be or how it can be accomplished. Marxists have to engage with the debate. What change? How can it be achieved? What programme is necessary?

We will continue to discuss this in the Independent Socialist Network up to our Annual General Meeting on 5 December. At that AGM I will propose that ISN members should join Momentum if they have not done so already and where possible join the Labour Party as well. For some, there might be barriers to Labour Party membership. The ISN will seek to organise all independent socialists in and out of the Labour Party who want to fight for Marxist ideas in the labour movement and we will work with all who see the need ultimately to build a mass united socialist party based on Marxist ideas.

There are 4 comments Join the conversation

Join the conversation

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *