Nick Rogers’ excellent article in this issue describes the massive and unexpected impact that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for leader of the Labour Party has had.
From only getting onto the ballot paper with the nominations of some of his political opponents in the parliamentary Labour Party – the so-called ‘morons’ – his campaign has erupted into a mass movement inside and outside the Labour Party. He is now expected to win. No one predicted this.
However, we in the Independent Socialist Network have long argued that there is an enormous reservoir of support in society for socialist ideas. There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of older people who grew up with socialist ideas who have been disappointed by their absence from public discourse and practice over the last thirty years. At the other end of the generational spectrum there are tens of thousands of radicalised young people, horrified at the effects of Tory and Labour austerity politics and of capitalism. All of this latent support has been looking for a way to express itself.
It should be remembered that left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell failed to even get on the ballot paper for the leadership contest in 2007 and that in the 2010 leadership ballot Diane Abbott was eliminated in the first round with only 7.4%. So to be talking about the possibility of Corbyn winning in the first round on this occasion is a remarkable turnaround.
It can only be explained, in my opinion, by the combination of frustration at Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election and the support for anti-austerity parties in the UK and abroad. There was already an influx of new members to the Labour Party following the election defeat and before the leadership ballot was announced. Many people, especially young people, wanted to do something to prevent a further Tory victory. Applications to join the party increased once Corbyn obtained enough nominations to get onto the ballot paper. This wouldn’t have happened if the Labour right had not extended the right to vote to ‘supporters’ in the new ‘primary’ voting set-up, a step that has backfired massively. The success of the SNP with its ostensible opposition to austerity clearly had a huge impact, despite the fact that the SNP is implementing austerity policy in local government. Many, no doubt, saw the opportunity of doing in England and Wales around Corbyn what the SNP had achieved in Scotland.
Corbyn’s support must be seen in the context of the SNP surge, support for Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain and discussions about socialism around the Bernie Sanders campaign in the USA. It is reflective of a growing global desire for an alternative after decades of being told that there isn’t one.
With the abandonment by the Labour Party of any serious working-class politics over the last thirty years and its enthusiastic adoption of neo-liberalism and austerity politics it should have been possible to build an openly and unashamedly socialist party of a substantial size. The objective obstacles in accomplishing this have been the monolithic dominance of the Labour Party in the labour movement and, consequently, in elections. Unlike France, Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries, Britain has no tradition of having two large workers’ parties, one social democratic, one Communist (Stalinist), making the idea of standing candidates against Labour seem outlandish and divisive. This has been reinforced by the British electoral system, with its ‘first past the post’, making it almost impossible for a small socialist party to make any headway.
These problems have been compounded by self-destructive traits within the British socialist left. The attempts to build a socialist party to the left of Labour have repeatedly stumbled, for a variety of reasons. These include the refusal of the biggest socialist organisations – the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party – to allow the development of anything that they couldn’t control; the reluctance of many Marxists to argue for their own ideas; the internecine hostilities prevalent in the Marxist left. Consequently, each successive attempt to build such a party has floundered and then failed. It is now quite possible, if not likely, that Left Unity and TUSC will follow suit.
Into the Labour Party or not
There are some who will remind us that they have always argued the impossibility of building anything of significance independent of the Labour Party. I don’t agree with that. The Labour Party has never been a socialist party and so cannot be reclaimed for socialism. Nor do I believe that the Labour Party can be won to socialism. That would mean a complete break with its entire history, which shows that it has always been an unsavoury mixture of liberalism and reformist socialism. This form of socialism was expressed either as something that would emerge out of gradual reforms to the present capitalist system leading to its transformation into its opposite (this version at least had the positive feature of aspiring to a different form of society), or stayed at the level of seeking reforms within capitalism and seeking to manage it in a ‘fairer’ way. Inevitably the former always collapsed into the latter. Over the last thirty years most Labour leaders didn’t mention socialism at all – none aspired to end capitalism. The Labour Party remains a workers’ party with a long history of advocating and implementing capitalist politics – a capitalist workers’ party.
The enthusiastic response to the Corbyn campaign will give added resolve to those who argue that Marxists should abandon their ‘ridiculous’ and ‘unachievable’ aim of creating a socialist party independent of the Labour Party. It may lead some Marxists to agree with them and sign up to become Labour Party members. We certainly need a thorough debate on the Marxist left about the tasks that face us. I do not agree, even at this time of widespread enthusiasm for Corbyn and his anti-austerity programme, that the role of Marxists is to build the Labour Party. I think that it remains and must remain the building of a socialist party. By that I mean a party that commits itself to the goal of socialism, breaking fundamentally with capitalism. It means a party based on the ideas of Marxism – not its Stalinist or euro-communist bastardisation but a genuinely democratic and open party in which debate, discussion and controversy about the unfolding events can flourish.
Those who are active Marxists in the Labour Party or who will now join it must have a clear political and collective task not only to defend Corbyn and his supporters against the attacks from the right but also to advocate a clear Marxist programme in contrast to Corbyn’s left social democratic platform, so that a large body of organised socialists emerges from this process. In this Marxists both inside the Labour Party and outside can and should collaborate. The emergence of mass support for an anti-austerity politics is something to be excited and enthused about. It must be defended, supported and encouraged. But the thousands who have rallied to Corbyn have done so because they want an effective alternative to austerity. Marxists have a duty to point out the inadequacies of ‘Corbynomics’ and of the rest of his programme. We must, therefore, engage sympathetically but critically with Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.
It is clear from any reading of Jeremy Corbyn’s policy documents, his speeches and media interviews that he has a left-wing programme that will resonate with millions of ordinary working class people. My own view is that if Corbyn is elected leader then Labour will perform better in the local elections next year and possibly beyond, up to the 2020 general election. It is for this reason that the right-wing media and the right wing in the Labour Party are apoplectic with fear of the consequences. They are petrified of an electrified electorate voting for an end to austerity, an end to making “the poorest and most vulnerable” pay for the economic crisis, an end to British involvement in wars, cancelling Trident and to renationalise British Rail and the energy companies. All of this could lead people to want more of the same: and so Corbyn must be stopped.
But it is equally clear that Corbyn’s programme is inadequate. His programme owes a lot to the old Alternative Economic Strategy of the late 1970s and early 1980s, to Bennism and the old Tribune group. In fact, it isn’t perhaps even as radical as the AES. It isn’t as left-wing as the 1983 Labour Party manifesto, which was famously but wrongly denigrated by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as being “the longest suicide note in history’. They argued, for example, for more extensive public ownership than is being advocated by Corbyn and a more radical progressive taxation system to make the richest 100,000 individuals “make a proper contribution to tax revenue,” along with “capital taxes to reduce the huge inequalities in inherited wealth”.
More relevant is perhaps to compare it with Greece. Syriza’s initial programme, called for a cancellation of the national debt, the nationalisation of the banks and a reversal of the privatisation programme. All of this ended in complete capitulation to the European Troika earlier this year when, despite the Greeks voting 60% to reject the imposed austerity, Syriza’s leader and Prime Minister Tsipras led his party to vote with the right-wing parties to accept it. Syriza is now embarking on a massive privatisation programme[i]. This capitulation can be understood only if it is recognised that Tsipras and his supporters in the leadership of Syriza were exposed with no programme, and no resolve, to break fundamentally with capitalism. They relied on their negotiating skills rather than on the Greek working class. As the English proverb has it, “Fine words butter no parsnips”. Deeds count.
Is Corbyn ‘extreme’?
It is interesting to note that there is no critique of capitalism in any of Corbyn’s policy statements. There is criticism of austerity and of privatisation as being ‘ideologically driven” without recognising that these policies are driven by capitalism itself. The words ‘socialism’ and ‘socialist’ do not feature on his leadership campaign website[ii].
There are plenty of mainstream economists who argue that Corbynomics are not ‘extreme’ but, like themselves, ‘mainstream’. And they are right. Corbyn himself writes, “Opposition to austerity is now mainstream economics, and even supported by the IMF.”[iii]
Of course, there are differences within the international strategists of capital. The IMF has been critical of some of the austerity measures imposed by the European Troika on Greece. It has argued for some debt relief. But the fact that Corbyn can point to the IMF and mainstream capitalist economists for support shows how much his programme is one to manage capitalism, not to end it.
It is naïve in the extreme to believe that anything that the IMF does or advises is for any other reason than to protect the capitalist system it is designed to defend and manage. The IMF has had no difficulty in imposing horrendous austerity packages on different counties around the world in the interests of its imperialist patrons. If it criticised the harshness of the austerity imposed on Greece it was only because they realised the danger that its creditors would get nothing if the Troika pressed too hard and Greece was forced to default entirely. Better to ease up, get something, than press too far and get nothing at all. The IMF is no friend of the working class in Greece or anywhere else.
Corbyn argues for “a strategic approach in which business, the state and the population work co-operatively to create wealth; and for that wealth to reach all sections of society and all regions and nations of our country”.[iv] He states that “wealth creation is a collective process between workers, public investment and services and, yes, often innovative and creative individuals”.[v] He goes on to say, “We all want the deficit closed on the current budget, but there was no need to try to do it within an artificial five years or even the extra five years George Osborne mapped out (in his Budget of 8 July 2015)… (I)f the deficit has been closed by 2020 and the economy is growing, then Labour should not run a current budget deficit – but we should borrow to invest in future prosperity”[vi]. “Labour will close the budget deficit through building a strong growing economy that works for all.” This will be achieved through the creation of a National Investment Bank, clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion and ‘quantitative easing for the people instead for the banks.”[vii]
Firstly, there is much that is positive in Corbyn’s programme[viii]. Socialists support any and all policies that throw the burden of the crisis onto business rather than onto the working class. But Corbyn clearly anticipates the continuation of a role for capitalist business, working co-operatively with government and the workforce to produce wealth. This is simply a reversion to the social democratic ‘mixed economy’ of the post-war period, without acknowledging the changed economic circumstances now. More fundamentally, it fails to acknowledge that business exists solely to make a profit, which it does by exploiting its workforce. There can be no co-operation with the capitalist class by the working class in its own exploitation. The wealth produced by this exploitation is the property of the capitalist, not the worker who simply gets her wages in order to carry on being exploited the next week. Socialists should not be advocating any such collaboration or co-operation. Instead, we should be calling for an end to the exploitative capital-labour relationship entirely and the creation of genuine cooperation on the basis of democratic common ownership of society’s productive resources.
Corbyn’s reference to closing the deficit accepts that the deficit must be closed. But he criticises Osborne’s unnecessary haste in doing so. Corbyn does not commit to restoring the cuts made over the past twenty or thirty years by both Tory and Labour governments. He seems to accept that the national debt must be paid off. He looks to the private banking/financial sector to lend money to a future Labour government. Much of the deficit is interest payments to the banking sector for government loans, along with capital repayments. Why should the majority in society continue to accept this? Why should we all be paying to the capitalist financial institutions when they have been fleecing us for decades, in not centuries? They have had their time and their enjoyment – at our expense – for far too long. These institutions should be taken into public ownership, without compensation, and the national debt should be abolished – putting an end to the repayments once and for all.
Instead, Corbyn seems content to retain a (smallish) holding in the Royal Bank of Scotland and possibly in Lloyds. The rest of the banking system will remain unchanged, i.e. in private hands, ready to encourage and participate in the mass exploitation of the global working class in the interests of their small group of owners.
Corbyn’s reliance on ‘quantitative easing for the people’ is another mirage. Quantitative easing as practised by the capitalist banking system amounts to printing money to pump into the banking system in the hope that it will be borrowed by capitalists to invest in new production. Corbyn’s twist on this is to try prime the system through a state National Investment Bank, which would be similarly financed by the Bank of England buying government bonds (possibly also buying bonds from local authorities and similar institutions). Unlike QE as presently operated the investment would be directed to specific projects of benefit to the public. But private companies will still be required to fulfil the contracts and will only do so if they can be guaranteed a ‘reasonable’ profit. So the government’s NIB will be used to subsidise profit for the private sector. And at some stage the bonds will have to be repaid, with the burden falling on national and/or local taxpayers.
The US Federal Reserve, the UK Bank of England and other state central banks have resorted to quantitative easing to try to kick start their domestic and the global economies since the crash of 2008. It hasn’t worked. As Marxist economist Michael Roberts has repeatedly argued[ix], quantitative easing may have stabilised the banking system but it has signally failed to reboot the economy.
It doesn’t matter how much money the banks have to lend to business investors if those investors don’t see any possibility of a profit sufficient enough to pay off the loan and have enough left for further investment and personal consumption.
Why should it be different if the government pumps money into projects itself? Businesses may take advantage of government paid contracts, but only if they can extract a good price out of which they can make a profit. And once the contract is finished, why should they continue to invest unless the possibility of a profitable project again appears.
The Corbyn strategy relies on the state rebooting the economy, rather than private capital. This, in itself, is a recognition of the historical bankruptcy of capitalism. If it cannot sustain production capitalism must be consigned to history and a new system established. Capitalism is now an impediment to the creation of wealth. Look at the 25% unemployment in Spain or Greece (50% of young people); at the billions globally who do not work or do not work regularly. Capitalism has squandered that productive capacity. It is lost forever.
Why compensate the leeches?
Instead of proposing a National Investment Bank and partial public ownership of one or two banks, why not propose to take the whole of the banking and finance system, including pensions and insurance, into democratic public ownership, with no compensation? Likewise, the construction and supply sector. Why pay money to private companies to do what could be done in the public interest by the public, if everything was publicly owned and run. Cut out the private sector altogether.
There is a similar reticence in respect of transport and energy. Corbyn rightly calls for the renationalisation of the rail network. But he would look to compensate those who would be ‘bought out’. Similarly with the Big Six energy companies. But why compensate any of these individuals or institutions who have benefitted in unimaginable terms from their ownership of these privatised entities? They have been more than adequately compensated and these institutions, along with the rest of big business should be taken into democratic public ownership. Public ownership would have to be genuinely democratic, run in the interests of all, rather than bureaucratically run in the interests of the private sector, as in the past.
The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is a massive drain on the NHS. NHS trusts are collapsing under the burden of debt. Corbyn rightly wants to end this situation but his solution is to buy them out “which might cost a fortune but that might save money in the end”[x]. His proposal is to create a fund to pay off the PFI debt. How will this be achieved? This only passes the debt from one part of the government books (the NHS) to another. Where is the money to pay off this enormous debt going to come from? Ultimately from you and me, as taxpayers. As with Rail and Energy and the National Debt, the PFI debt should simply be expunged. The NHS leeches have sucked enough life blood out of our healthcare system. They should get no more. Only in this way can society be relieved of the massive burden of debt, allowing the resources of the economy be utilised for what we need, not to finance debt that goes to a tiny handful of individuals.
We need a system that utilises all the productive forces on the planet to produce the wealth that we need to raise living standards across the world and to enjoy life. Only the democratic common ownership of all the productive forces would enable them to be organised and planned for need. It would allow new technology and innovation to be used to liberate humanity from endless hours of (mostly meaningless) labour, by sharing out necessary work among everyone, cutting the working week dramatically.
Instead, Corbyn envisages not an economy freed from capitalist private ownership but one in which (capitalist) business and finance continue to play the decisive role.
The inevitable consequence of this refusal to break with capitalism will be that the government will be forced, notwithstanding its best intentions, by the capitalist system to make that system work better, i.e. to make more profit for the capitalist class. Take a look once more at Tsipras and Syriza. I am sure they didn’t want to be implementing austerity. But that is what they are doing.
We will end up back where we started. To enable the capitalists to make a profit more easily governments have to create the conditions to encourage investment. That means outsourcing, privatising, de-regulating, implementing cuts – in short, austerity or just plain capitalism. It will mean allowing greater exploitation of labour by lengthening the working day, and by allowing cuts to wages, pensions and other beneficial working conditions. It means weakening the labour movement by denying rights to workers and unions.
All of this, of course, is the complete opposite of everything that Jeremy Corbyn stands for now and has advocated as an MP for over thirty years. But a refusal or reluctance to confront and break with capitalism has an awful logic. This is the lesson of every social democratic party in the world throughout history. This is the lesson of the most advanced social democratic countries in Scandinavia. This is the recent lesson of Greece. Unless you stand firm for a complete break and a change to a new society based on need not profit, you end up implementing policies you previously opposed.
Still need for a socialist party
So, we must support Corbyn in so far as he espouses an anti-austerity programme, and support every policy that protects the working class and puts the burden for the crisis on the capitalist class. But we must ensure that there is a thorough discussion about the programme our class needs to end austerity. Ending austerity, I argue, means ending the system that demands it. It means advocating socialism and breaking decisively with capitalism to achieve it.
We need a party to do this. We still need a mass socialist party, based on the ideas and principles of Marxism. This should be the aim of all socialists – to break with capitalism and to establish a new society based on common ownership and the utmost democracy – including complete economic democracy. This must be the goal of Marxists and socialists inside the Labour Party as much as it is for those outside. We must find a way of working together to discuss the programme required for change and the practical tasks to build support for that programme.
For these reasons, whilst agreeing overwhelmingly with Nick Rogers’ article I disagree with him on two of his conclusions.
Firstly, Nick argues, “Marxists should encourage all those who have signed up as affiliated or registered supporters to join the Labour Party but with the intention of organising collectively to support both a Corbyn leadership and the transformation of the Labour Party.” Secondly, Nick argues that if Corbyn wins, “(t)hat must mean a moratorium, other than in exceptional circumstances, on fighting elections against Labour.”
In respect of the first point, I have already expressed my doubts about the possibility of transforming the Labour Party. I believe that Marxists should support Corbyn against the right but that does not mean joining the Labour Party. A battle royal inside the Labour Party can be supported by political arguments from the outside. Nick is mistaken to suggest that this is to remain ‘aloof’. The main task is to build a Marxist party – bringing together as many serious Marxists who are prepared to put aside their sectish loyalties in favour of a united, democratic socialist party. Marxists should be appealing to those looking to Corbyn to engage in a political discussion and debate about the merits or otherwise of his programme and the possibility of the Labour Party being a vehicle for socialist change, rather than encouraging them to sign up to Labour. Articles, pamphlets, meetings, conferences can all assist in the process of political and organisational clarification.
Secondly, there is no doubt in my mind that a Corbyn victory will make things much more difficult for Marxists outside the Labour Party who want to stand in elections. How Marxists react to a Corbyn victory in terms of next May’s local government elections and beyond is a tactical question that requires a lot of discussion. But Nick’s conclusion is too sweeping. It could imply that Marxists should never challenge Labour if Labour has a left-wing socialist candidate. What would that mean if a viable socialist party with a good candidate and record wanted to stand? There is a world of difference ultimately between the programme of social democracy (managing capitalism) and socialism (breaking with capitalism). Marxists cannot give up the right to contest elections where they think it appropriate.
There remains an important omission or silence in Jeremy Corbyn’s policy statements. Whilst expressing his opposition to cuts, he says nothing about a strategy for local government where Labour is in charge. Should Labour councils implement government cuts, with all the misery that will ensure, or should they defy central government and refuse to do so? This is an important issue for next May’s local government elections. A clear No Cuts electoral option is needed. Whilst a Corbyn victory in the leadership election will make any electoral intervention by TUSC harder in May 2016 and will probably obtain even fewer votes than in 2015 it remains an important tactical issue which will have to be discussed seriously. But the tactic cannot simply be repudiated at this stage.
I agree with Nick that a Corbyn victory “would be potentially transformative for British politics”. It would put anti-austerity politics at the centre of the national political debate. It would encourage the idea of change. It would create a huge space for Marxist ideas to find an echo. It would also place a question mark over other political formations, from the SNP to the Liberal Democrats, from the Greens to TUSC and Left Unity.
Left Unity was set up to provide an alternative to Labour, but did so on the basis of an eclectic reformist programme laced with some pseudo-Marxist phraseology. Even those who head it don’t seem to know what it is exactly. Many members left in the Green surge. Others have left to join Corbyn’s campaign. This process reinforces the argument that any small party that wants to exist to the left of Labour has to clearly define itself as a socialist party. Otherwise the inevitable consequence will be that a shift to the left in the Labour Party completely undermines the necessity for that party. What remains the point of Left Unity if Corbyn is championing its programme in the Labour Party, with its trade union affiliations and multi-million electorate? A serious existential debate is required in Left Unity.
A related problem exists for TUSC. Under the direction of the Socialist Party the TUSC project was predicated on its federal structure and the perspective (never very realistic) that other trade unions would (at some unspecified stage) break with Labour and join the RMT on the TUSC steering committee. There was no evidence to back up this perspective but it was a useful argument for the SP to utilise against those who wanted TUSC to develop into a membership-based socialist party, rather than remaining simply an electoral coalition. In fact, the developments around Corbyn have meant that the direction in the trade unions is in the opposite direction. It is quite possible that the RMT will break with TUSC and rejoin Labour if Corbyn wins. The FBU may also end up re-affiliating to Labour.
What is still required is for the SP and the SWP (the other big organisation in TUSC), along with the ISN to open up discussions with others about the creation of a small but significant Marxist party. This is what we need. Such a party would have to engage in debate and discussion with Corbyn supporters. But that can be done equally well from outside the Labour Party as from within.
The support for Corbyn’s candidacy reflects a growing frustration at the lack of any serious anti-austerity movement in Britain at the present time. We have to find a way of building support for a socialist programme and new socialist party out of this unexpected but tremendously encouraging development.
[iii] The Times, 28 August 2015. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article4540370.ece
[v] Jeremy Corbyn, The Economy in 2020, page 2. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/jeremyforlabour/pages/70/attachments/original/1437556345/TheEconomyIn2020_JeremyCorbyn-220715.pdf?1437556345
[vi] Ibid, page 4.
[vii] Ibid, page 4.
[x] FT podcast. Interview with Jim Pickard, 24 August 2015. Jeremy Corbyn on banks, Nato and the rise of the left. 2015http://podcast.ft.com/index.php?sid=29&pid=2924Print This Post