Corbyn and class: opportunities for socialists in the anti-austerity movement

The success of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership has thrown up a series of questions over what might happen if he wins. Jen Wilkinson argues that Corbyn will need support and pressure from an independent movement, based in workplaces and communities, that stretches beyond the ranks of the Labour Party.

The audience at a Corbyn rally in west London last month – picture by Steve Eason.

The audience at a Corbyn rally in west London last month – picture by Steve Eason.

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership has been extraordinary. He has hosted some of the biggest political meetings for decades in towns and cities across the country. The audience he’s attracting is young and diverse. Socialist ideas are back on mainstream news channels. If you are not excited by all this, you are definitely a miserable cynic.

We can’t predict what will happen next, of course, but we can start to think about what the Corbyn campaign could achieve. What would count as success for socialists?

Most answers to this question focus on the internal affairs of the Labour Party, or on what might happen in parliament. But I’d argue for a different set of criteria. Corbyn’s campaign should be judged by its ability to break the neoliberal consensus and build a credible anti-austerity movement. And closely linked to this is the question of to what extent the Corbyn campaign feeds into building working class confidence and organisation, in the workplace and on the streets.

With this in mind, let’s look at the challenges the Corbyn campaign faces, the state of play in the Labour Party, and the political balance of forces more widely in this country. I’ll analyse each of these in turn before coming to some general conclusions about what the Corbyn campaign means for revolutionary socialists.

Five hurdles for the movement

The mainstream media has flipped from writing off Corbyn as a joke to panicking over what they see as his inevitable victory. But Corbyn will face significant challenges if he wins. And these will pose important questions for the wider movement. Here are five of them:

  1. The influx of members into the Labour Party is happening at a time when the internal contradictions within the party are intensifying to breaking point. A fierce battle is underway for the soul of Labour. What will happen to the new people being drawn into this? Will they be pulled by Labour or will Labour be pulled by them?
  2. The economy is not in good shape, in Britain or globally. The ruling class will not accept the kind of reforms that Corbyn is proposing without a fight. So pushing through those policies will necessitate a confrontation with the ruling class. Will the movement be ready for it?
  3. One of our criteria for success is Corbyn’s ability to popularise anti-austerity. But there is a danger that anti-austerity debate will get subsumed by the debate within Labour. How do we ensure that the reference points for this debate don’t get locked into a narrow reformist framework?
  4. What is the actual audience for the debates? Is Corbynmania confined to the existing left, or can it reach people who have so far bought into the Tory narrative? Will Corbyn be able to mount a serious challenge for power in 2020?
  5. The level of class struggle outside the Labour Party is clearly a significant factor in all this. Our side isn’t looking too healthy at the moment. How can we use the Corbyn campaign to change that? And how would a higher level of working class struggle feed into the political battles ahead?

Some 20 years ago Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein analysed the failure of Bennism in their book The Labour Party: A Marxist History. They argued that the political upturn around Tony Benn coincided with an industrial downturn. It reflected a lack of confidence in taking on employers directly in the workplace. People were unconfident to fight at the grassroots, so looked for a political solution outside the workplace.

This resonates with what is happening today – but with one important difference. Seven years of austerity has been met with weak resistance compared to the scale of the assault. The TUC and the unions have shied away from serious action. Communities have mobilised against cuts, but this has been partial and failed to coalesce into a unified campaign. The mainstream political establishment offers only differing concentrations of austerity.

Corbyn is a breath of fresh air in this context. He represents a widespread hope that something can be done to challenge austerity, while at the same time reflecting a lack of confidence in other forms of struggle.

From the sofa to the gym

The crucial difference, however, is that Bennism failed when the working class was in retreat and a major rightward ideological shift was taking place. We might have less muscle than the working class 30 years ago – but they were heading back to the sofa, and we are thinking about starting at the gym.

The ideological shift is important. In the post-war years there was an essentially reformist political consensus around full employment, a mixed economy and an expansion of welfare – so called “Butskellism”. But by the 1980s the political mood had started to crystallise around Margaret Thatcher and what we now call the neoliberal consensus.

The Labour Party began to accommodate to changing conditions and moved rightwards, and has continued in that direction. You just have to look at Labour’s pathetic inability to contest the Tory economic narrative at the general election, or their horrific stance on migration. This is what years of following the Labour right has led to.

So the campaign around Corbyn is moving left ideologically, but doing so in worse general conditions than the 1980s. And these general conditions matter. The economic context plays an important role in shaping the capacity of reformism to deliver. The 1945 Labour government could to deliver reforms without sparking major confrontations with the ruling class and the system. By the 1980s this was no longer possible and the Labour Party argued the need for compromise. This found its strongest expression in Blairism and his arguments for a “Third Way” between Thatcherism and reformist socialism.

Capitalism today has not recovered from the 2008 economic crisis. Any attempt to push through reforms will necessitate a battle with the ruling class. The Greek situation illustrates how fierce this confrontation can be – and the capacity for even radical reformists to sell out. The Syriza government had the benefit of a massive strikes and protest movement, as well as a referendum result giving them a mandate to stand firm against the European Union. Yet the pressure on Syriza from the ruling class was enough to ensure that they caved in.

What does all this mean? If we are to win, we need to get organised for a confrontation with ruling class. This is why the strategy around Corbyn matters. If Corbyn becomes Labour leader, these macro debates will play out through the prism of the Labour Party. A reformist strategy orientated on winning the 2020 general election would channel itself through a struggle within Labour – to “reclaim” the party, to rebuild local Labour groups, to pass resolutions and motions moving the organisation in a progressive direction.

Corbyn speaking at a campaign rally in west London last month – picture by Steve Eason.

Inside the Labour Party

The Labour Party is stratified. At the top of the organisation is the Parliamentary Labour Party, currently made up of 232 Labour MPs. Then there is the national organisation, the party machine. Below that is local government – Labour councillors, some in power and some not. And below that there’s the constituencies: local Labour members and their local activity, which is typically geared around elections.

Over the years the balance of power has shifted between these constituent parts, away from the base of the party and towards the party machine. This will create problems for Corbyn’s supporters in the party. If you want to change policy in your area around, say, cuts to the local community centre, you will come up against a layer of people in your constituency Labour Party who will tightly control the local group. Of course an large influx of new people into local groups might loosen their hold. But changing Labour policy at a national level is a much bigger challenge.

So the pressure on a Corbyn leadership from the PLP and the party machine will be intense. The Labour right is already threatening rebellion. But if Labour fractures over this, it could make them unelectable in 2020. So there are also enormous pressures to keep the party united. Corbyn has already said he wants a broad shadow cabinet, and indicated he is willing to compromise on policy with the rest of the party. But what that compromise looks like will depend on the wider balance of power around the debate.

Let’s start with their side. The right of the Labour Party is dominated by Progress. Solomon Hughes wrote a useful summary of this faction’s history in the Morning Star recently. Progress was set up using the money left over from Tony Blair’s 1994 Labour leadership campaign. One of its key backers his Lord Sainsbury, who withdrew his funding for Labour and transferred it to Progress when Ed Miliband became leader – he considered Ed to be be too left wing. Other Progress sponsors include: the British Venture Capitalist Association (which campaigns for NHS privatisation); Lexington (a lobbying firm whose clients include Goldman Sachs); and Bellenden Public Affairs (which represents Serco and Care UK among others).

Progress is the openly pro-privatisation, anti-union, pro-business wing of Labour. But the influence of the right stretches more widely than them. One example Jon Cruddas MP’s analysis of why Labour lost the general election. He argues that it was because of Ed Miliband’s anti-austerity politics cannot win elections. This position is strongly shaped by the economic climate and the trajectory of Labour since Neil Kinnock in the 1980s.

The Labour left

What about the left? In parliament there are just nine MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group which Corbyn is a member of. Around 60 MPs have links to trade unions, representing a broader left within the PLP. At the base of the party there is an influx of new members which polls suggest are mostly pro-Corbyn. And then there is pressure from outside of the party.

The unions also have accommodated to changing economic and political conditions. In 1983 the TUC began arguing for “new realism” – the world has changed, it is no longer possible to secure gains through working class struggle, so we need to talk to the government. This went alongside growing bureaucratisation of unions and a widening gap between leaders and members. This is a serious problem today. The unions are in a far worse state than they were in the 1980s. Unite has mobilised behind Corbyn, but this doesn’t contradict its general emphasis on the political as opposed to the industrial wing of the struggle.

The character of the Labour left as informed new members will also be a factor. How many people will move from voting for Corbyn to getting actively involved with the Labour Party? What is the class composition of the new members? How many have been radicalised through issues such as the war, racism, sexism and so on?

In the 1980s the new Labour members were drawn largely from the political middle class. Their experience was of working class struggle going downhill – and so they turning away from that towards a more limited political fight centred on parliament.

This isn’t the case today. There is a new audience for socialist politics that is not scarred by the historic betrayals of Labour and the unions. Their reference points are Syriza, Podemos and the SNP, not post-war reformist social democracy. But it remains to be seen if these new activists will be drawn into seeing the political fight inside Labour as their focus, or whether they turn outwards towards building workplace and community organisation to campaign against austerity.

Corbyn as opposition leader

If he wins, Corbyn will play hugely positive role as a leader of the opposition. We will at least see the Labour Party articulating anti-austerity politics in some form. But how big will his audience be? Corbynmania has to reach beyond the left if it is to transform popular consciousness in a way that matters.

Revolutionaries and reformists are likely to have different views on how to go about this. In an interview on Novara Media, Corbyn argued that the government could use a legal framework to set the agenda around social issues such as combatting sexism. He similarly emphasised legal solutions – regulating the banking system, statutory accountability measures for international corporations – when asked what he would do to stop big business from blocking his reform plans by threatening a market meltdown.

In contrast, revolutionaries place more emphasis on how experience transforms people’s ideas, politics and confidence. The persistent attacks on Corbyn in the media will get worse if he wins the leadership. But people don’t necessarily believe media scare campaigns. The extent to which they will do this has less to do with whether Corbyn’s economic policies are “sound” or “credible”, and more to do with people’s experience of anti-austerity struggles. This is yet another reason why the strategic emphasis has to be on that wider struggle.

Finally, if we are testing to what extent Corbyn can popularise anti-austerity politics, we also need to ask what type of anti-austerity is taking hold. Corbyn is arguing for a Keynesian approach: investment-led growth, corporate accountability, regulating the financial sector etc. But the sheer scale of the ongoing capitalist crisis will raise questions over whether this approach can deliver the social reforms we need.

Revolutionaries also have a different analysis of power and the state from the Labour left. Even the most radical Labour figures place an emphasis on winning elections because they see parliament and the state as the key site of struggle to bring about socialism. Revolutionaries, however, emphasise workplace and community organisation, because parliamentary power – political power – is fundamentally circumscribed by economic power.

Unless the working class has both, the ruling class will use its economic power to subvert or destroy progressive policies that threaten their profits or their dominance. Although parliament can be used a platform to advance socialist ideas, revolutionaries don’t believe that we can use the structures of the existing state to bring about socialism.

The big question

If these debates are important, then how we take part in them also matters. The big question is whether we should be in or out of the Labour Party. This is a tactical question, not a point of principle. Anything which strengthens working class organisation requires consideration. I remain, however, to be convinced about joining Labour.

For the reasons I’ve outlined, the internal battle inside Labour is likely to be complicated and prolonged. You might argue: all the more reason to pile in and strengthen the balance in favour of the left. But the social pressure that exists outside of Labour will also be a crucial factor. The key argument will be over where Labour members concentrate their energies: on the internal fight, or on the movement. Even though this debate will start inside the Labour Party, it will spill over into the wider movement – and I would rather spend my energy building that and arguing there.

It also remains to be seen how many people will be drawn into Labour. If hundreds start attending local Labour Party meetings then I might pause and reconsider. This possibility can’t be ruled out – but there is a big difference in the level of commitment required to vote Corbyn and that required to become an active Labour member.

Above all we have to grasp that protests against exploitation and austerity will not be sufficient if they are combined with or hemmed in by an acceptance of the capitalist system. Five years of Corbyn at full strength, or even 18 months of Corbyn at half-strength, will make a massive difference. It will transform the fortunes of the left and put an alternative to austerity firmly on the agenda.

But there is a difference between Labour in opposition and Labour in power. Challenging austerity will mean taking on the ruling class and hitting their profits. The capitalist crisis is ongoing and the willingness of the ruling class to make sufficient concessions is unlikely. This means class war. Reformists inside the Labour Party and revolutionaries outside can work fight that war together. But we can only win it if we collectively strengthen our side – from the ground up.

There are 23 comments

  1. Peter Woodward

    Not convinced with Jen’s reading of Cliff and Gluckstein, a number of points from the conclusion to their book are relevant here and are at variance with Jen’s posing of the big question: “Whether we should be in or out of the labour party”. Cliff and Gluckstein argue (1) The labour party is..an agent of capitalism within the working class movement (p. 390) (2) Reformist consciousness – the ideas of the ruling class modified by the experience of exploitation and oppression – is not dependent on the actual prospects of winning reforms…so reformist beliefs comtinue (p.390) (3) The necessary starting point [to win workers from reformist ideas] is an independent Marxist party…To do so effectively it must be outside the Labour Party. (p. 392)

  2. Graham Campbell

    Peter you are correct as to the conclusions laid out in the Gluckstein/Cliff book – however the SWP understanding of what an independent Marxist party is – is no longer our vision. Firstly because many in rs21 support the more critical and inclusive democratic centralist structure for a revolutionary workers party as actually practiced by Bolsheviks at their best prior to 1921 – not the Stalin-Zinoviest Comintern version inherited by Trotskyists including by those in the IS under Cliff’s leadership. The model the SWP has been operating based on Gluckstein’s analysis – has patently failed to actually work in terms of successful building a meaningfully rooted and socially working class based party. (see Neil Davidson’s work in rs21 Magazine issue No 3)

    Thirdly, the reason that reformism has traction is not simply because of ‘false consciousness imported by the ruling class’ or due to bad subjective trade union or political leadership (although workers continually experience both of these as truths). It stems from the ‘natural’ ‘common-sense’ process of gaining incremental reforms or concessions within the fragmental, flexibilised labour process itself. This is the best insight of the Cliff/Gluckstein tradition which is rather underplayed in this particular book is that about the roots of reformist are not only coming from outside or from above but from within the very structures of the labour-capital relationship itself. These structures which condition workers to accept the owenrship and control of capital and labour power, surplus value etc by the ruling class unquestioningly. In this inherent reformism lies the secret of successive Labour party machines and Labour governments to control and dampen outbreaks of workers struggles. Cliff/Gluckstein spend rather too much time in that book ‘proving’ Labour is not a real socialist party – something which in the 1980s was obvious even to the socialists still in the Labour Party. There is an inherent low-level reformism which developed during the neo-liberal period from 1973-2008, where confidence in workers self-capacity to fight for gains, confidence in their political leadership and in their/its ability to extract concessions. This occured in a wider context of historically ultra-low levels of industrial and less political class struggle from the late 1980s until the present day. The restructuring of the working class by the neo-liberal causualised labour processes, has meant greater fragentation of workers at the point of production, more estrangement from each other. The advantage – if there is one – is that trade union bureaucrats don’t control the class struggle the way they used to. The downside is just how much bosses control it. Corbyn’s calls for a reawakening of trade union struggle threatens to unleash the genie of class struggle against the ruling class in the state and versus the party political elites.

    Before the conditions are going to be ripe for the emergence of a fully fledged ‘revolutionary party’, surely there needs to be at least a significant – if not extended – period of the emergence of a fully-fledged mass movement bringing a renewed class conciousness in society? Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has precisely hit that raw nerve of frustration and anger against the Tory austerity programme and his interventions have began to polarise society around those two opposing class viewpoints. Essentially we are pickign sides for our teams before we go into battle.

    For revolutionaries to ‘win workers from reformist ideas; those workers would at least need to have some developed set of reformist ideas as part of their political make up. Trade unionist reformist consciousness was merely a given when Cliff and Gluckstein wrote this. Today so many people – the vast majority of workers under 30 especially – do not have the lived experience of an active and successful reformist trade unionism which would be a considerable advance on what levels of consciousness we have now. 35 years of neo-liberalism has had a devastating impact on levels of workers organisation and class consciousness. Yes the Corbyn movement is developing on a reformist (and ultimately illusory) basis when you look at his programme for office. But when JC talks of building a ‘mass social movement against austerity’ – he is helping to unleash the very social power that workers have lacked the confidence to use over many decades to the fullest extent possible. Imagine that? a Labour leader who actually supports trade unions! That was nearly unthinkable pre-Benn and totally off the agenda post KInnock.

    Without the re-flexing of those long under-used political muscles within a mass movement over the foreseeable period by the working class, it is unlikely that any seriously-rooted reformist political project – never mind a revolutionary force – could have had the political space to emerge. For JC it was the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon’s anti-austerity stance which open the gates for him. It was Labour’s Harriet Harman’s betrayal over beenfits cap that pushed Corbyn right through the door. In a situation as complex and fluid as this one, an old book cannot be expected to function as a guide to action and intervention. Revolutionaries will get nowehere fast other than being part of and seeking a significant split within that very same mass movement. We’ve already seen in Greece with the surrender of Syriza goverment and the sudden emergence of Popular Unity how quickly such a thing can indeed materialise. Cliff and Gluckstein could not have foreseen these scenarios but for such a thing to happen in Britain and for a ‘party’ with any politcal clarity or organisational coherence to emerge, Marxists outside Labour will have to coordinate their forces with radicals and socialists inside the party, openly linking their anti-austerity political programmes to create a broader revolutionary tendency in society. One that goes well beyond Corbyn’s programme.

  3. RayB

    Arguing for a revolutionary strategy rather than a reformist one to intervene in local and national struggles isn’t, “pickign sides for our teams before we go into battle.” It’s developing a strategy that should have been integral to the radical left’s relationship to Syriza in Greece. The consequences of the radical left in Syriza not having such a strategy was vacillation over Tsipras’ betrayal (even to the extent of minimising his compromises as Troika bullying) and is a recipe for demoralising workers when reformism inevitably compromises with capital.

    The claim that Cliff or Gluckstein couldn’t have foreseen the current situation at the time they were writing consequently discrediting parts of their analysis of reformism is like accusing Marx of being old hat because he isn’t around today. Certain RS21 members were arguing on this forum that we need to follow the lead of anyone but revolutionaries before we can intervene until Corbyn came along arguing for many of the reforms revolutionaries campaign for and receiving popular support. The argument appears to be that, as bankrupt “Stalinists”, revolutionaries must take a back seat and let the autonomists and sundry reformists (who have shrunk in size and influence far more catastrophically over the past 20 years than the SWP for example) determine the agenda regardless of the contradictions in their politics. That model is exactly the recipe that let Tsipras off the hook at a time when the radical left needed to unite to defend the gains brought about by Greek workers. Let’s not make that mistake again!

  4. ihbirchall

    Sorry about previous incoherent contribution posted by mistake. Please delete or ignore.
    This is what I wanted to say:
    “the autonomists and sundry reformists (who have shrunk in size and influence far more catastrophically over the past 20 years than the SWP for example) ” (RayB) This is one of the most bizarre arguments I have ever seen. “We have shrunk but others have shrunk more – so join us.”
    Let’s start with the reality. The SWP is half the size it was when Cliff wrote his book on the Labour Party (I don’t want to quibble about figures, but it’s certainly not bigger).
    For 47 years since 1968 IS/SWP has called for the building of the revolutionary party. (I’m not scoring points because for 45 years I participated actively in that call.) Over that time the SWP has taklen some excellent initiatives – ANL, Stop the War etc etc – and has recruited thousands of activists and given them a Marxist education. All credit to them for this, but in terms of the central strategic aim of building a revolutionary party they have achieved nothing. (Cliff was aways clear that a revolutionary party would have to be numbered in hundreds of thousands.) The SWP has called for building a revolutionary party in a range of objective conditions – economic boom and economic crisis, upturn and downturn in class struggle, but the gains have been minimal. The SWP’s position seems to be – we are not the revolutionary party yet – but join us and we will grow until we become it. How long before you have to rethink. Another 47 years?
    As for “accusing Marx of being old hat because he isn’t around today”, of course Marxism provides a basis for our analyses. Buit that scarcely means we can ignore what has happened since Marx died. As Cliff used to say: “If we stand on the shoulders of giants we see much further – but if our eyes are closed we don’t see much at all.”
    That is the spirit of the Cliff i learned my Marxism from fifty years ago.Cliff at his best (which he wasn’t always) was incomparably superior to the shallow sloganising which is all the SWP seems capable of nowadays.
    Now of course I don’t have a neat formula for building the revolutionary party, but at least I recognise that there is a real problem, which requires comradely debate and exchange of vierws. No current on the left, neither the SWP nor RS21 nor anyone else, has a monopoly of the truth and there are real questions to which we need to find answers.
    In the eyes of history I suspect the Corbyn episode (important though it is at the moment) will be only a very small part of a complex process from which a genuine revolutionary party could emerge. Could. If it doesn’t, the more likely scenario is barbarism.

  5. RayB

    I’m criticising the tendency to take the development of the SWP out of context from the general fate of the left in Europe. Are you seriously arguing, Ian, that the SWP should number in the hundreds of thousands when, across Europe in the last 30 years (apart from a few spontaneous exceptions), the left in social democratic parties, let alone revolutionary organisations, has shrunk catastrophically under the onslaught of neoliberalism? I’ve listened to Cliff hundreds of times and it would be a cold day in hell when he argued that a revolutionary organisation can side step these conditions. The “Leninism” bad – new social movements good dichotomy proposed by some here is a very poor diversion away from the real causes of this phenomenon. That’s not what Cliff would be focusing on at this moment and I suspect you know that so calling up his name as some kind of yard stick to beat each other with is unhelpful.

  6. ihbirchall

    I’m not trying to “beat” anybody with anything, and it would help if comrades responded to what I think is a real question rather than becoming defensive and treating every discussion as a point-scoring debate.
    What Cliff would be saying if he were still alive I’ve no idea, and since he would be 98 years old it might not necessarily be correct. I wrote a book in which I called Cliff “A Marxist for his time”; what we need now are Marxists for OUR time. In the 1940s-1950s Cliff rethought aspects of Marxism to deal with a changed world; who is doing that today?
    Of course the SWP’s decline can be explained by objective conditions (though some very bad leadership a few years back didn’t help). The question is: in what conditions could a revolutionary party grow? As far as I can see, the SWP answer is simply to go on doing what it has been doing for the last 47 years and one day the objective conditions will be favourable. Maybe I’ve misunderstood – if so please explain to me.
    I’m not proposing a ‘“Leninism” bad – new social movements good dichotomy’ (though I think there are some questions to be asked about what “Leninism” means today). And I’m not trying to score points off the SWP – as far as I can see what they’re saying about the refugee crisis, for example, is very positiver and good luck to them. And RS21 don’t have a neat way forward, though the comrades do seem to me a lot more open-minded than the SWP.
    But if we could recognise that there is a problem and that none of us have all the answers, it would be a step forward.

  7. Michael Rosen

    This is a very interesting discussion. One aspect of the present state of affairs on the left is that I’ve sat in many a meeting with Corbyn (or another Labour Left), an SWP presence along with others. I will admit that I have thought on these occasions (I regret this) that the Labour Lefts were in some kind of way add-ons, that they had been ‘recruited’ by tougher more wily hard-nosed marxists and campaigners. Even the way the meetings had gone, the passionate, campaigning speeches seemed to come from the marxists and the Labour Lefts present had been ‘on message’ (sorry about the lingo) but not 100% wholehearted. Ahah, I thought, they were watching their backs…and anyway, some of them are not always that convincing. I remember asking the organisers on occasions why had they bothered…did the campaign need the underwriting of an MP? Or why was the meeting in one of the meeting rooms at the House of Commons? Didn’t that give the wrong focus for things anyway? (I’m not saying that any of this was ‘correct’ or ‘right’. It’s just how I felt on occasions. Anyway, i had a sense that somehow in campaigns, we were the dog and the Labour Lefts were the tail.

    Then along comes Corbyn and I think we can all say hand on heart that none of us predicted this. If it had been Benn or a Benn-like with all the wit and charisma and wisdom and experience that he had, we might have wondered if there was space for a Benn revival. But Jeremy? And this is in no way to disparage him. But that ‘but Jeremy?’ is precisely why he is succeeding. It is quite clear that many people on the left and centre left for that matter are utterly pissed off with decades of wall-to-wall toryism, wall-to-wall newspaper agreement with wall-to-wall toryism whether it comes from Labour, LibDems or Tories! Corbyn won’t play the game. At a deeper level he is articulating two key messages anti-war and anti-austerity. Millions who believe these things to be true have been disenfranchised.

    Now, the question for those of us who are marxists have to ask, is why wasn’t the way we articulate those messages not able to draw in the thousands (I’m not going to exaggerate) that Corbyn is bringing in? I think the answer is ‘political’ in the narrow sense of the word. Many, many people over the last five years have said to me, why don’t I stand for parliament? (It’s OK, I’m not going to!). People who are ‘left’ but not members of marxist groups believe that parliament and elections is how we are ‘political’. Even those who take part in strikes and campaigns come back to the political structures of the day, of the epoch. I am not saying this because I have ‘illusions’ that this is the way real socialism is going to come about but at the same time it’s clear that none of us could have put together that sequence of meetings with those numbers that Corbyn is putting together. It’s because people believe that he can and will represent them. He is already an MP. He could be a leader of a party. He will be in the HofC. Newspapers have to talk to him. How many times do the newspapers have to talk to any of us? Only the comedians (Hardy and Steel) and occasional campaign leaders. So, it appears that Corbyn ‘can-do’.

    Now, we might say he can’t. He will be dragged rightwards by the party machine – that is already retreating from its non-co-operation stance. It knows now that the way to defeat Corbyn is by allying with him! Machiavellian but true. The only way that Corbyn-ism – anti-war, anti-austerity – can be sustained is if those populist meetings can be backed up by real organising and real action. We know that. I don’t think that’s about getting the right line from a revolutionary party. I think that’s about thinking back to – yes – syndicalism, civil rights movement, occupy, sit-ins and more. I’m not a member of the labour party and am not about to join. However, I will work with people who will try to support the anti-war, anti-austerity work of Corbynism.

    This would or should cause a major rethink for revolutionary parties who have for the last 40 years been trying to put themselves at the front of the movement. Now, there’s another front and my old patronising view of dogs and tails doesn’t hold. There’s no escaping the fact that if revolutionary parties turn up to Corbyn meetings they are the tail. We are running to keep up with what’s going on. You might have thought that marxists would ‘get’ this…and they would think very carefully (as Ian is suggesting) why and how we haven’t been listened to in the way that Corbyn is being listened to. Could it just possibly – just just possibly – be anything to do with how we have been organised, how the shape and structure of our organisations have not been right for the time?

  8. RayB

    I have utter respect for Corbyn and other principled members of Labour but as Ian points out it’s a matter of politics and I think Corbyn’s strategy (reformism) is wrong. That doesn’t preclude allying with him and wishing him every success in the leadership campaign.
    Two recent events that I think have boosted Corbyn’s campaign have been the Labour leadership’s utter and conclusive capitulation to austerity and the rise of the anti-austerity SNP vote. There has also been the long and arduous campaigning by activists on the left against cuts and attacks on wages and working conditions; the campaigns opposing UKIP and racism; and the defend housing and disability rights campaigns to name but a few. None of which have prevented revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries working together very successfully in some cases.
    The success of Syriza and then its capitulation may have also hardened workers attitudes against austerity. Syriza’s capitulation might once have even further demoralised many who were more politically involved in the past and dropped out over the years but I think in this case it did the opposite. Possibly because the naked aggression of the Troika together with the frothing of the mouth of the European establishment, including the Tories and Labour leadership, disgusted many people (just as the establishments attitude to refugees has done) and became the straw that broke the camel’s back.
    Across Europe the rev left has failed to grow. Considering their diversity organisationally and strategically why single out the SWP? Apart from Spain and Greece this extra-parliamentary curse afflicts all of the left so why single out revolutionaries? Corbyn’s success isn’t inexplicable and his appeal in contrast to the revolutionary position isn’t either. Why hasn’t this happened before in the UK? Because, apart from Galloway, over the last 20 years no leading Labour members broke away to form a left opposition to New Labour. Unless the labour movement including its representatives move to the left and give this a voice it’s highly unlikely that revolutionary organisations will achieve this single handedly. Historically, I can’t think of a single example of a revolutionary organisation radicalising a whole labour movement all on its own without workers becoming radicalised themselves in all manner of ways. Corbyn offers an alternative to the bankruptcy of Labour at a time when austerity propaganda is becoming more and more toxic like no other time since the crash. There are a number of reasons for this which I have attempted to highlight none of which are the sole responsibility of the SWP or under its control.
    Whether Corbyn can sustain and nurture this support is the responsibility of the whole left and in every area of the campaigns I’ve mentioned the SWP has been actively involved so I fail to see how, strategically and organisationally, it has failed or continues to fail. Others may disagree and in that case we need specific suggestions about how to improve, not vague generalisations about organisation and inclusiveness which are unhelpful in formulating a strategy. The more important question for RS21 is why, despite rejecting the SWP and claiming to offer an alternative, it hasn’t grown while Corbyn is the one capturing the zeitgeist. Possibly Counterfire are pondering the same question…and Left Unity too. I suspect that presently, the growth of the whole left is contingent on the level of struggle rather than on the decisions of a small revolutionary organisation in the UK.

  9. ihbirchall

    I have no desire to “single out” the SWP or to claim it has “sole reposnsibility”. I mentioned the SWP because I assumed RayB was an SWP supporter. If i were debating with someone from another far left tendency I should ask similar questions. (Jen’s excellent and thoughtful article did not even mention the SWP.)The whole revolutionary left (of which I consider myself a member though I am not currently in any organisation) is weak and we all share the responsibility. Of course the development of a revolutionary alternative depends on what happens in the class struggle as a whole – the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. But what we do does have some importance – otherwise there would be no point being in an organisation or debating strategy.
    So how is the SWP relating to Corbyn? As far as I can judge from “Party Notes” it is organising paper sales at Coprbyn’s rallies. The results have been significant but not spectacular. This is entirely positive – anything which develops and extends the circulation of socialist publications – print or on-line – is highly desirable. (If SW were a more imaginative paper, more open to debate, as it was in the 70s and 80s, even better.) Then, presumably, there is contact work; following up sales, getting names, trying to draw readers to meetings. The numbers, at best, will be a few hundred.
    Now the likelihood is that either Corbyn will be gradually pulled to the right, or his opponents at some point will stab him in the back. (The other possibility, rather remote, of Corbyn leading a Labour government which introduces a major set of genuine reforms, would open up a whole new political epoch.) The reuslt will be demoralisation among his followers. Most will return to private life or more localised activity. If the revolutionary left does its work right, combines comradely cooperation with principled argument, then a small minority – at best a few hundred – may be recruited to the SWP or other far left groups. Again that is entirely positive, but it is still a drop in the ocean. All RayB has to offer is
    a) carry on doing what we’ve been doing for the last 47 years and one day there will be an upturrn
    b)the SWP, because of its correct politics, will be best placed to take advantage of that upturn.
    My response is:
    a) I’ve been waiting for that upturn ever since I heard Cliff give his downturn speech at Skegness in 1979;
    b)for many years I believed this – now I’m not so sure.
    Finally RayB reproaches me: “we need specific suggestions about how to improve, not vague generalisations about organisation and inclusiveness which are unhelpful in formulating a strategy.”. Either we produce a complete alternative strategy or we shut up and carry on as before.
    Unfortunately you can’t have answers till you ask the questions, and when the questions are asked the answers don’t necessarily follow immediately. “Specific suggestions” won’t be plucked out of my ageing skull, but will need the input of many activists and an extensive debate. What worries me is that tone of RayB’s contributions tends to close off that debate rather than opening it up.

  10. Michael Rosen

    I’m not even sure, Ian, that ‘recruitment’ is much use either! Recruiting people to organisations which can’t explain why they’ve not been successful for the last 47 years, or explain (with the same depth that they can explain everyone else’s failings) why their own internal processes were not socialist enough to handle members’ alleged wrong-doings, is hardly going to move socialism on.

    1. ihbirchall

      I know a lot of people who were recruited to the SWP over the last fifty years. Some are still in the SWP, many have moved on. But a surprising number remain activists in one area or aniother, and they have a Marxist education they would have found it hard to get other than in a far left group. So I persist in thinking that such recruitment plays a positive role.

  11. RayB

    My original response was to Graham Campbell who caricatures the SWP as Stalinists. As an SWP member I reserve the right to object to such caricatures. But when someone in the SWP engages in debate and challenges such offensive caricatures Ian rushes in to defend Graham’s freedom of speech as if any challenge to his narrative is an act of suppression. That isn’t engaging in debate – it’s setting someone up so you can, in a very crude way, confirm your argument. SWP members become defensive when labelled Stalinists therefore they must be Stalinists. This is a rhetorical device rather than a political argument.

    Waiting for an upturn profoundly misses the politics of the SWP and is exactly the opposite of what I believe. Engaging in the activity of building campaigns and struggles in the work place isn’t waiting for anything. Corbyn’s campaign, let alone revolutions, aren’t buses that come along every now and then, sometimes annoyingly three in a row. Engagement isn’t done on behalf of workers like bus conductors issuing tickets but actively involves them. The SWP is pretty flexible in its approach to these campaign even though it retains core principles and methods of engagement. Unless RS21 or anyone else on the far left offers a credible alternative that produces a more successful outcome (those specific suggestions that successfully put theory into practice) then who is actually stuck with their heads in the clouds? Dogma comes in all shapes and sizes including idealism.

  12. ihbirchall

    “Ian rushes in to defend Graham’s freedom of speech as if any challenge to his narrative is an act of suppression. That isn’t engaging in debate – it’s setting someone up so you can, in a very crude way, confirm your argument. SWP members become defensive when labelled Stalinists therefore they must be Stalinists.”
    I don’t think this discussion is going anywhere or achieving anything so this will be my last contribution.
    I haven’t accused anyone of “Stalinism” – I haven’t used the word. I actually think that Graham Campbell is quite mistaken to refer to the “Stalin-Zinoviest Comintern version inherited by Trotskyists including by those in the IS under Cliff’s leadership.” I certainly wouldn’t have been a member of the IS/SWP for fifty years if it had been Stalinist. To say that Trotskyism inherited elements of Zinovievism, and that some of these survive in the SWP is quite a different question.
    A great deal of what the SWP does in terms of “the activity of building campaigns and struggles in the work place” is very valuable. All I argued is that there are questions as to how such activity relates to the long-term strategic aim of building a revolutionary party. I don’t think the SWP has a complete answer to such questions, and I think the whole left has to try to answer them, at the same time as getting on with its short-term activity.
    However, I am very impressed by the fact that RayB knows what a bus conductor is. He must be nearly as old as I am.

  13. Michael Rosen

    The reason why the SWP acquires adjectives like ‘Stalinist’ is not because anyone seriously thinks that it does what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did, nor even what the CPGB did in justifying Soviet policies. It’s a crude and not very useful way of describing a) how its own version of democratic centralism works and b) more recently, how it handled (or didn’t handle) an internal problem with one of its senior veteran members. If you have a structure which has the outcome of putting at the leadership the ‘slate’ then that does indeed follow the CPGB’s problems of the 1950s. instead of party democracy being alive and vigorous it becomes a a matter of acceptance. Others have written more eloquently than me on it. RayB is unable to explain the ‘corridor’ effect of marxist parties. People pass through them. Blaming prevailing conditions is really rather tatty. Then, when it came to b) the non-handling of the senior member – the issue here is that not only was it incompetent and dubious but that the very system of organisation can’t come up with a marxist explanation for why and how the procedures in place at the time weren’t marxist! The buzz word for that is a failure in ‘reflexivity’. Survey of marxist parties of the last 50 years will find that there is a pattern to this. These moments are symptoms of ranks-closing, and ossification. Marxism deserves better. RayB’s justfication on the grounds that no one else has done or does any better is bizarre. It also precludes discussion of whether there are, or could be, or indeed were, alternatives.

    ps I like Ian’s ‘spot’ re bus conductors….a bit of a giveaway.

  14. RayB

    As a child of the 60’s I’m not quite as old as you both but in my experience age does not always confer wisdom and youth is often wasted on the young. While I agree that the SWP is quite probably NOT going to be the revolutionary organisation in power it’s essential to continue to have one now rather than waft about in the wilderness hoping that some transitory social movement will reinvigorate the left and allow space for revolutionaries to organise. The fate of the UK left is not dependent on a crisis in the SWP or its organisational model. Neither the SWP nor any other organisation outside Labour were in a position to stem the demoralisation that accompanied some of the biggest defeats UK workers have experienced. That’s not an excuse but the conditions that the left as a whole had to contend with. Corbyn’s campaign may offer a sign that this is changing but he will be forced to compromise as the majority of those who control Labour will fight him tooth and nail. In that context, if we don’t offer an alternative to the compromises recommended by the likes of Owen Jones because we want to appear inclusive then this will only make it harder for Corbyn to resist moving to the right.

  15. Michael Rosen

    ‘wilderness’ ???? Otherwise known as the ‘swamp’, I think. Boy, I can assure you it surely don’t feel like a wilderness or the swamp out here. That’s just an illusion that members of parties and groupings tell themselves that that’s what it’s like out here. The description bears no resemblance to what it’s actually like.

  16. Graham Campbell

    It’s interesting RayB’s that your response to my contribution to this thread is to go on a tangent claiming I called the SWP Stalinist when I did not. What I said was Trotskyists had inherited a Stalin-Zinovievist (meaning Comintern-style) party structure in which minorities were habitually repressed, silenced and expelled even when they made sensible criticisms of either ultra-leftism or opportunist tactics practiced by their parties. That organisational culture describes accurately how the SWP was at its worst, as it does many other Marxist and left parties. Ian you may not recognise what was the IS/SWP as Stalinist – I don’t think it was in 1970s especialy it was an open free-thinking tendency – but you were a feted founder member of the tendency which affected by the 1980s downturnism had become a large ideological sect in its own right. Within it you had a degree of intellectual and political freedom that the average member, student or full-timer certainly did not have. It was my experience of opposing the SWP in the 1980s and 1990s and then during 4 years of membership from 2009-2013 – that the behaviour of party loyalists was always slavishly hive-minded. As a conference delegate I openly and vocally challenged the hierarchy by raising my opposition to the slate election system and refused to vote for ‘approved lists’ of self-selecting CC candidates as this method is dicatorial and anti-communist in practice and Zinovievist Cominternist in origin – utilising by Stalinists and narrow-monded Trots as the disciplined model of party. My challenge to you is to find anywhere references in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin or even Trotsky that justifies the manner in which your party is organised. It is a relevant issue in that a working class dmeocracy which we as socialists are meant to represent, cannot be served by any party that has a dictatorial structure. No such party with that structure could ever recruit or be trusted by the masses, never mind contain the variety of revolutionary forces and tendencies which such a party needs to unite in order to overthrow British capitalism.

    I do not know where your comment on autonomists and sundry is motivated from – but if it helps any – rs21 are neither autonomists nor sundry movement-ists. We do carry forward Marxist politics within those movements we are involved in and put forward our views – modestly yes – but firmly when necessary. My points in the original post was not to blame Gluckstein/Cliff for failure to grow but to recognise that there were objective reasons why their party failed ot growth, indeed these were not reliant on their form of organisation, but their recruitment and retention of cadre was certainly hindered by it and contributed to its degeneration into a sect.

    I became active in 1983/4 period of CND, anti-apartheid and miners strike actions. My experience of Marxism was as a ultra-leftist youth from the inner city – I wanted Thatcher gone yesterday with a general strike because I felt an immediate threat to my current existence and to my future – as many from the Black community did, Truth is only striking miners communities and the Irish had any idea how we felt or had any experiences similar. The vast majority of working class people had other ideas and lacked the political consciousness and solidarity to hang together with us mainly because of reformism’s impact on people’s thinking. From Labour that their control of the state would solve everything once they got elected, from the Tories that we’ll sell you bits of the state industry and buy yoru council house and accept the ‘management’s right to manage’. This was a key mantra being driven into workers consciousness at a time when state-control was deeply inefficient and many workers were won to the view of accepting capitalist restructuring for the sake of keeping some form of job in the downturn.

    Ray B I notice you had nothing to say of course about the substance of my post – namely that the reality of reformism and it;s continuing grip on workers and how Gluckstein/Cliff book on Labour’s failure to integrate Cliff’s interesting insights into reformism into their analysis of the Labour party or to the prospects for analaysing correctly the circumstances in which a revolutionary party might arise (whether from a struggle within or against the Labour). The parallel grip of reformism we see now is how people reacted to 2008 crash and the period of mass job losses since and enforced restructuring. Despite our best efforts to get a mass anti-austerity movement going between 2008-2010 (I was on the SWP-led march on the City of London headed by Right to Work) much of the ideology of the necessity of austerity was accepted by many workers without anything like the fightback there was back in the 1980s where whole communities, towns, regions, and nations mounted stiff resistence to Thatcherite restructuring.

    Although we had the Millbank student protests and then 2011 summer uprisings we did not see any serious break with reformism. While there was a catastrophic loss of confidence in capitalism’s fairness as a system amongst many – most people clearly have retained developed illusions in a fairer form of more regulated capitalism. In that context it is no surprise that anti-capitalist forces have had difficulties growing until the full impact of first the Coalition and now the Tory counter-reform programme have been felt. It should be therefore not be a surprise to Marxists that there is growth in support for left reformism. Either way our form of organising has a bearing on hiow successful our interventions can and will be. If the far left failed to grow during a period of prolonged and deep crisis of the market system as we have had for 7 years – then in what circumstances would it grow? I’d argue that greater success will come with a much better understanding of the nature of reformism in all its varieties (Labour, SNP or Green) and the possibilities of its fracturing at the point of production and at the point of social reproduction would be crucial to this task.

    As Ian rightly points out, 47 years of trying the same party-building tactics and those organising methods having epic-failed, ought to lead to a re-appraisal of both strategy and tactics towards reformism by those Marxists applying it. As Michael Rosen rightly said – you have to be asking the right questions to be able to come upo with the right answers. That’s what we are trying to do in rs21 by asking the questions. I appreciate that tied up in your orthodox Marxist-Leninist party structure that you will not be able to see the wood from the trees – after all epxressing doubt in the indefatiguable infallability of the Central Committee is a no-no inside the SWP just now….but if you are reading this website there is at least hope RayB….Come outside, “break on through to the other side” … the real world is here…… waiting!

  17. Graham Campbell

    Hi Michael Well I think some have done, most seem to have only applied for the affiliated supporter status – as I recommended to comrades. Not many have gone for full memebrship though. I always used to joke with my Labour pals I would never rejoin Labour unless Tony Benn became the leader! Well JC winning is one step beyond that – he’s even more left wing…..However today’s rs21 National Meeting apparently discussed and roundly rejected my draft proposal for controlled partial entry. That is allowing a minority of members to join Labour but doing it under collective discipline and control of the group as a whole staying outside as an independent organisation – a sort of ‘suck it and see’ test period. This was so overwhelmingly rejected – I like to think – mainly because I wasn’t there to make the argument as I was on the refugee solidarity demo! But mainly because you need a great deal of confidence in your own politics as a revolutioary to withstand the pressures to confirm to reformism within Labour. The fact is most ex-SWP or current rs21 members have never done Labour membership in their poltical lifetimes and don’t yet see the merit of it given the still moribund nature of most Labour branches. This means it’s beyond their capabilities for intervention for now. As I am one of a very few with direct experience of doing entry work as an open Marxist, I can speak with authority that there’s nothing to fear about it, as long as you keep to your principles. Most people seem relunctant to adopt the tactic at all. I think many of our readers and supporters may well want to join and a few will actually join Labour now Jeremy is leader. We need to take account of that sense of feeling part of a mass Corbynite wave which must be turned into a real anti-austerity movement and say to people if they do join that they argue for the same kind of revolutionary politics they would argue for outside Labour, thus we maintain our political independence.

  18. ihbirchall

    “Ian you may not recognise what was the IS/SWP as Stalinist – I don’t think it was in 1970s especialy it was an open free-thinking tendency – but you were a feted founder member of the tendency which affected by the 1980s downturnism had become a large ideological sect in its own right. Within it you had a degree of intellectual and political freedom that the average member, student or full-timer certainly did not have.”
    Graham’s memory of things diverges rather substantially from mine:
    a) I may look decrepit, but I was not a founder member of the tendency – I was ten years old in 1950.
    b) I have no recollection of being fêted and my intellectual and political freedom was severely limited – when I wrote a mildly heretical article it was promptly suppressed – http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/1988-ideology-racism-and-the-party/
    c) The Comintern experience certainly requires study – and the simplistic stereotypes found in much SWP literature are far from exhausting the subject. But I think the causes of degeneration of the SWP are rather more complex than Graham suggests. I have attempted an analysis at http://grimanddim.org/political-writings/2014-so-sad/

  19. RayB

    Corbyn is a member of a moribund political organisation that lost the last election and got wiped out in Scotland when traditional Labour supporters deserted it in droves because it stood for austerity, warmongering, cronyism and the leadership showed complete disregard for internal democracy and its trade union affiliated members for the last 20 and more years. Yet hundreds of thousands voted for Corbyn who won a decisive victory. If the success of the left over the last 30 years was predominantly or even partially dependent on the SWP’s alleged organisational mistakes whether that’s its internal or external approach then how has Corbyn managed to transform a politically bankrupt Labour Party in such a short space of time? While the groundswell of support for Corbyn may not have translated into a vote for the left outside of Labour there was certainly no indication that Corbyn would become the focus for an anti-austerity campaign before he stood for election.
    While I don’t subscribe to a Stalinist/reformist stages theory of political change (despite what Graham claims) it was always going to be very difficult to offer an alternative to Labour when the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell refused to break with it even during it’s most reactionary turns. So in light of their disappointing decision the enterist strategy suggested by Graham would be disastrous at a time when there needs to be an alternative to Corbyn’s inevitable (if reluctant) concessions to capital.

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