The contradictions of Corbynism

With growing memberships across the world, many political parties of the left are claiming the popular appetite is for radical change. Neil Davidson situates these claims in a historical context, examining the mainstream shift across the years. In this new configuration, support to mainstream parties of the left must be made tactically alongside work to organise a mass revolutionary party. This article is reproduced with permission from New Socialist, first released here

Mobilised young protesters. Photo: Jozef Doyle

The debates currently taking place in Canada over Niki Ashton’s bid to lead the New Democratic Party (NDP) have parallels elsewhere in the developed world, as several contributors to the New Socialist discussion have pointed out. The most obvious, and the one which offers the greatest hope to Ashton’s supporters, is Jeremy Corbyn’s almost totally unexpected election as leader of the British Labour Party in 2015 and his re-election with an enlarged majority in 2016, followed by the party’s relatively strong result in the 2017 General Election – a result which also took the majority of media commentators completely by surprise. Even if Ashton wins, the NDP is unlikely to be in a position to form a government after the next federal elections in 2019; but taking a longer view, should revolutionaries support Ashton’s attempt and even join the NDP as part of a strategy to strengthen the left and perhaps transform it as an organisation? The reflections on recent British experience which follow may suggest some new opportunities, but also familiar problems in common.

It would be absurd to argue that revolutionaries should never be members of Social-Democratic organisations: there were several periods over the last century when they had little choice but to do so. During the 1930s, when virtually everyone seeking a left alternative to Social Democracy would have been drawn to the by-now Stalinized communist parties, Trotskyists in Britain had no choice but to join the Labour Party simply in order to find an audience prepared to listen to them and not automatically denounce them as counter-revolutionaries. Different considerations prevailed during the post-war boom, at least down to 1968, but there was similarly no possibility of building independent revolutionary organisation outside of the Labour Party.

These examples, however, refer back to periods of political defeat or capitalist boom. We are now in a situation where substantial sections of the working class have been turning left since the economic crisis of 2007-08, particularly since the social upheavals of 2011, and are seeking organizations capable of offering a solution. These have tended to be whichever were available, regardless of their specific form. In Spain and Greece, Podemos and SYRIZA either emerged as or were turned into viable electoral organisations by the ‘Movements of the Squares’; but in other contexts existing parties were the beneficiaries. In Scotland, for example, the intense radicalization of the last nine months of the independence referendum campaign (January-September 2014) led to an extraordinary growth in Scottish National Party (SNP) membership from 20,000 to 120,000. Yet the SNP is a classic social neoliberal formation (quite similar to New Labour in many respects), which is nevertheless currently able to deploy the rhetoric of Social Democracy more effectively than the ailing Scottish Labour Party.

The situation of the Labour Party in England is obviously different; but the impulses which led to its resurgence under Corbyn – membership has increased from 317,000 to 500,000, making it the largest Social Democratic party in the world – are part of the same phenomenon. Many of these new members would in a Spanish context have been attracted to Podemos, and in Scotland they have joined the SNP or the Greens rather than Labour. Under neoliberalism, politics has moved so far to the right, in economic terms at least, that policies such as nationalization, which 40 years ago would have been virtually mainstream, now appear to be the height of radicalism. Corbyn’s programme is closer to mainstream Labour policies c. 1974 than many of his supporters realize, but many of them – especially young people, who were highly mobilized during this campaign – have simply never heard these arguments before and find them extremely attractive. This is not, in other words, a traditional Labour left, which makes the dynamic at play now quite different from the 1980s, for example, when Corbyn himself was part of the Bennite wing of the party (named for Tony Benn, longtime Labour Party MP and self-identified democratic socialist).

The question is how the radical left, outside of the party, is able to work with these young, very motivated people and build a relationship with them, which has not been an issue since the 1980s. One way is of course for activists on the left, individually or in groups, to join the Labour Party, which always involves two political dangers: one is that revolutionaries may hide their real politics in order to ensure continued membership of the reformist organisation; the other is that revolutionaries may begin to adapt to their environment, finding reasons to argue first that the party can be transformed, then that the capitalist state could indeed be reformed out of existence. These cases are not imaginary. What it comes down to is whether the Labour Party can become an organization that allows people on the radical left to organize openly; the historical precedents are not promising, even under a left-wing leadership, and Corbyn has already begun to compromise with Labour’s right wing on freedom of movement for workers outside the UK and on membership of the EU Single Market.

I suspect that the reality or possibility of left-wing leadership is only one of the reasons why the option of joining Social Democratic parties has begun to look like an attractive proposition. The other is the failure of anyone, anywhere, to successfully build a mass revolutionary party since 1968, through a variety of different periods and situations. Given this failure, it is understandable that some socialists have begun to regard it as impossible, and to draw organizational conclusions. I think that conclusion about revolutionary parties is wrong, and stems from the conflation of two separate issues: one is the need for revolutionaries to operate together in a common interventionist organisation; and the other is the construction of a mass revolutionary party. The problem, in my view, is that while the first is possible, the experience of the last half century suggests that the latter is not, outside of a revolutionary situation, and imagining that it is has led to some of the difficulties we currently face. I am not opposed in principle to joining the Labour Party, provided revolutionaries who do so can be open about their politics, but until we resolve the central issue of revolutionary organisation, this can only be a tactical issue.

Neil Davidson lectures in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. He is a member of rs21 in the UK, and of RISE and the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland. Neil is the author of six books, including the Deutscher Prize-winning Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003) and, most recently, the abridged version of How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (2017)

There are 2 comments

  1. DaveInBrighton

    A good piece, but I would love it if revolutionaries could try and give a practical lead to socialists in the Labour Party.
    Neil is clearly wrong when he says “What it comes down to is whether the Labour Party can become an organization that allows people on the radical left to organize openly” as there are various radical left organisations within Labour. It is within those groups that revolutionaries need to be organised.

    However, I was most disappointed to read this, as Neil is usually clear and practical about what we should actually do – wheres this definitely isn’t:
    ” I am not opposed in principle to joining the Labour Party, provided revolutionaries who do so can be open about their politics”.
    Its quite easy to be an open revolutionary in the Labour Party – and pose the question “does power lie in parliament/could 327 Corbynista MPs bring about socialism?”. People are receptive to such discussion.

    What is lacking from Neil’s piece is
    1 – should socialists join Labour, yes or no?
    2 – should trade unionists argue that their union affiliates to Labour ? (I’m gobsmacked by the stupidity of those socialists who claim to back Corbyn from outside Labour but then aid the Labour right by opposing left unions affiliating)
    3 – What should socilaists, and specifically revolutionaries actually do within Labour? There seems to be a total lack of strategy from absolutely everybody.
    It seems to me that what’s missing from all discussion is the need to organise Labour members in their workplaces to rebuild the unions. This is both about building socialism from below, strengthening unions – imagine hundreds of thousands of new, left workplace activists!!! – and (for me the bonus, for reformists the key) it would undermine the right-bloc in the unions that defeats the Labour left at many levels in Labour now despite Corbyn’s victory.

  2. neildavidson2015

    Dave – the article was an invited and relatively short comment for an ongoing discussion in a Canadian socialist journal; it wasn’t meant to be a detailed intervention in the debates over what socialists in the UK should now do in relation to the Labour Party. (These will be different here in Scotland than in England anyway.) I know there are revolutionaries in the Labour Party, but how much influence they have (or can have) is another matter. In any event I agree that the subject needs to be debated at length, but this wasn’t an attempt to start the discussion. I’m sure the editors of the rs21 website would welcome a contribution on this theme though…

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