If not Corbyn, then what?

Barnaby Raine offers a viewpoint on left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

This article was originally published on the US-based Socialist Worker website, which belongs to the International Socialist Organisation (ISO).

Corbyn revolutionary socialism

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn | Flickr/Chatham House

These are disorienting times for those who call themselves “revolutionary socialists” in Britain. The rest of the left is joyous in the age of Jeremy Corbyn, with people flocking to a mass party that talks of socialism and hopes to win elections.

A new challenge arises for inveterate militants beyond Labour’s ranks: how to distinguish themselves from the “left reformists” with whom they marched and picketed against war and privatization under Tony Blair? How to justify staying out of the Labour Party?

A recent article by Colin Wilson (published at the UK-based rs21 website and republished by SW under the title “Is business warming to Jeremy Corbyn?” represents an erudite attempt to tackle this demon.

It is unfortunately timed. Colin fears the specter of a moderating, vacillating Corbynism collapsing in the face of novel overtures from Labour’s right and from business. In the days since he wrote, we have witnessed a wave of fright and fury from the Labour establishment over assertive attempts to transform the party by Corbyn supporters, and Corbyn has responded with relish to Morgan Stanley labeling him a “threat.”

Worries about wholesale Corbynite conciliation are a little premature. It is quite right that we should treat Corbyn critically and not engage in blind adulation, but four fetishes guide and limit Trotskyist approaches to reformism.

The first two are the paranoid tropes: about betrayal, where parliamentary leaders are always imagined as treacherous sellouts-in-waiting; and about capitalist brilliance, where the possibility of a crisis in which dominant social forces might be uncertain and even trip up is occluded. Business leaders clapping for Corbyn is a terrifying sign on this view, and the Kaiser sending Lenin back to Russia surely was, too; the thought that war and Brexit confusion might skew ruling-class radars is elided.

The last two fetishes are calcified images of real politics: as eschatological and extra-parliamentary. The politics that matters, on this view, come with a single, final bang to abolish capitalism, and it happens on the streets.

This is to identify a coherent standpoint–often only implicit, and not usually so crudely phrased–from which “revolutionary” critiques of the Labour Party proceed. Each of these four stances is a fetish in the sense of freezing once-valid, but contingent, historical observations, and making universal truths of them. We need better ways of talking about reformism.

A useful starting point would be to acknowledge that the choice “reform or revolution” announced in 1899 by Rosa Luxemburg has so rarely been a live political choice.

Fittingly, Luxemburg fell as a martyr to that very battle in 1918, slaughtered by reformists whose mission really was to suppress revolution. Perhaps in France in 1968, both paths were again on offer, and reformists were again enemies of freedom. But in Tahrir in 2011, and–so Leninists have frequently claimed–in Petrograd in 1917, revolution triumphed precisely because reform was absent from the range of likely political possibilities, ruled out by existing powers.

In Britain today, that situation is flipped. Put simply, there is no Corbyn vs. Trotsky choice. It is not only that self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists are weak, and they lack the material forces necessary to make a revolution. We lack even the vision of what socialist revolution would mean in contemporary Europe.

Lenin’s April brilliance identified the three most significant demographic groups in the Tsar’s empire and tied them together in a single counter-hegemonic bloc that articulated the distinct interests of each with the slogan: “Peace! Bread! Land!” He identified an extant form of counter-power capable (he hoped) of helping to manage insurrection and its aftermath and said, “All Power to the Soviets!”

It was in this world that Luxemburg felt able to pose her reform/revolution choice. Revolution was an “actual” guiding star, in Lukács’s terms. The contrast with our present is cruel and sharp. Revolutionary socialism as a global project in the 21st century is an abstract, almost an ethical commitment to a regulative ideal without any detailed sense of its agents, instruments, targets or tactics.

The picture looked only marginally less bleak for reformist socialism until recently, but the team around Corbyn and John McDonnell have achieved a breakthrough in vision and not only in votes; by treating age as a deflected barometer of class interests and targeting rents as a crucial mode of capital accumulation in Britain today, they have summoned a carefully delineated social base and a coherent if embryonic set of policy demands to mobilize that base.

We are, as John McDonnell has put it, finally escaping the cultural and intellectual “stasis”that gripped the whole of the left for so long. Corbyn, McDonnell and their fans in Momentum can reasonably claim to be the only people on the British left now in possession of a strategy. Reviving political economy as a mode of politics by assembling debtors and workers into a coalition against rentier capitalism is their grand strategy for election victory.

The question without a good answer from Trotskyists and other leftwing Corbyn-critics is: What else is there?

The Corbyn-McDonnell strategy in office seems twofold.

First, they want to save British capitalism from its structural crises of uneven geographical development and low productivity, as well as its more recent, austerity-induced problems of suppressed aggregate demand. Insofar as these fetters are each linked to financialization, tackling them means confronting “the City”–which goes some way to explaining the hostility from Morgan Stanley so soon after Corbyn’s sympathetic hearing from the Confederation of British Industry.

This has always been the radically technocratic, almost therapeutic side to Labour’s aspirations utterly overlooked by popular scaremongering about McDonnell as a flamethrower; clearly he sees himself partly in the old mold of the visionary heretic whose cures become necessary to save orthodoxy from itself.

I submit that there is a second side to the strategy, even less talked-about than the first. The grandest spending in Labour’s 2017 manifesto was reserved for McDonnell’s National and Regional Investment Banks, the pinnacle of a vast project to rebuild something like the Fordist worker-consumer of old, with stable, long-term, well-paid employment in every corner of the country.

This is not at all a postwar re-enactment club. That is amply demonstrated by Labour’s commitments to environmentalism and to post-work politics in the face of automation, beyond previous full employment utopias. The futurist, like the technocratic side of McDonnell’s politics, is frequently ignored. It does seek, though, to recreate that collective political agent made easier by stable employment: a proletariat für sich.

Brits should remember (we almost never do) that the postwar consensus ran aground but did not have to end in Thatcherism–that the 1970s were generative years of crisis that might have broken to the left rather than to the right. And it was the union behemoths forged by Keynesian corporatism that came to provide the most powerful political subject underpinning those more radical possibilities, pitted frequently against Labour governments, of course. Labour’s plan to remake capitalism also hopes to resurrect its gravedigger.

Failure is by far the likeliest end to this story. Trotskyism has a long memory, and its foot soldiers are often highly astute in warning of land mines ahead that euphoric reformists forget in times like these.

Their slippage, though, lies in imagining that problems of concentrated class power sap reformist possibilities, but leave the revolutionary alternative untarnished. If Corbyn, like Mitterrand, might face capital flight in office, the Bolsheviks faced it, too, on an unprecedented scale; if SYRIZA was isolated and strangled, red Russia was too, and experienced the more violent asphyxiation of civil war; if SYRIZA leaders betrayed their initial anti-austerity credentials and Venezuelan reformers eventually brought inflation and corruption, The Revolution Betrayed in Russia invented the gulag.

We all know this, but it is tempting sometimes to talk as if it were not so–as if we can lambast the shaky and uncertain strategies pursued by others in the name of a purer project. There is no clean course free of obstacles for socialists to navigate in seeking to change the world. All we have are supremely unlikely wagers, some more immediately accessible than others.

Colin’s essay longs for mass class confrontation, not the channeling of political energies into parliamentary battles alone. It misses two things.

First, the electoral plane is by far the dominant field of politics now–the place where people overwhelmingly think politics is most likely to happen.

Nostalgic socialists in Britain remember the late 1970s and early 1980s, when waves of industrial militancy sputtered into Tony Benn’s failed battles to shift Labour leftwards. Others remember alter-globalization stirrings in the late 1990s and enormous antiwar marches in the early 2000s, and so they conceive politics only slightly more broadly than the emphasis on industrial antagonism, to celebrate the street and not just the factory.

This time, though, there is no widespread politics of the barricade or the workplace quashed or diverted by conniving or foolhardy reformists – newspaper headlines speak on one page of record Labour membership and on the next of record lows in days won to strikes, in union membership–so the turn to electoralism comes as much “from below” as “from above.”

We might think that regrettable. Certainly if we share the questionable aspiration to Make 2017 1917 Again, we are bound to find it regrettable. But these are the conditions we face, the conditions that generated Corbynism, and fortunately, the second point missed by the “revolutionary” critique should cheer flag-waving spirits ever so slightly.

It is this: if there is to be an insurgent political subject again, perhaps even an eschatological, revolutionary one, Labour now stands more chance than anyone else of creating it.

There are 2 comments

  1. David

    Yes political re-engagement and the growth of working class confidence may come through the process of a regenerating Labour Party. But what follows?

    Firstly I reject the idea that Revolutionary Socialists are not sufficiently joyous at Corbyn’s rise. I can assure you that personally I am over the moon about it. But can we please have some balance. Staying politically motionless and then being catapulted into leadership by a combination of youth frustration and a catastrophic tactical error by the centre right of the party is not in itself strategic genius. Effectively mobilising the youth through savvy use of IT online media and effectively accumulating the best available produce of the Neo Keynesianism and also popular elements of euro social democracy (and even centre right state intervention) is the best one could hope for of Corbyn/McDonnell. But let’s be sober. What is on offer is left social democracy much of which would not be out of place under a Merkel or Hollande. Utterly necessary when schools are failing and people sleep rough on the streets, but not socialism.

    This is not economic democracy being offered but the chance to elect Chuka Umunna to Parliament for 5 years in the hope he will stay loyal enough to the centrifugal force of power to implement some of the social democratic programme.

    The challenge for revolutionary socialists is to encourage self-activity and organisational structures that are independent of state and capital. The challenge for the left labour party member is invariably to get someone else elected in the hope they can make some headway against the privileges of class and the power of capital.

    At present the World Transformed and a Corbyn rally may be the most attractive proposition for British leftists. I am not saying for a moment that this is not a crucial and important transformation taking place. But if they have an itch socialists can easily scratch it. Revolutionary socialist must support and defend this transformation but unless an individual thinks that their skill set is being a good talking head on an electoral platform I don’t see the attraction of being one more person whose read the Marxist classics expounding their version of socialism within the broad church of their local LP branch.

    I would prefer, modestly and humbly, to seek to maintain forms of socialist organisation independent of a party that is structurally accommodated to British nationalism and Capitalism.

    If comrades seriously think that the very organisational character of the LP is up for grabs I would be very interested in hearing their new strategy. Bearing in mind that the LP has never had a sovereign conference since its inception.

  2. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch)

    I don’t think the issue is whether Corbyn vacillates – he certainly has, e.g. he says councillors must set legal budgets (i.e. make cuts). I think the question is not, ‘If not Corbyn, then what?’ It’s more, ‘Is there anything at all, at present?’

    Bennites were weak in many ways, but some of them – and Militant – went, almost, to the wall opposing cuts. The past has gone so I’ll just make one more comparison. Compare now to the 80s when various ostensibly revolutionary socialist groups had some sway, controlled many Constituency Labour Parties and got their candidates in position.

    Now sure that all went wrong but there appears to be a fundamental degradation of the Labour Party between then and now. There have been various groups of revolutionary socialists who now work again in Labour. You look at their websites, or Twitter accounts, and they have very little traffic or have gone dormant.

    The Labour Party has never had more real members (not paper members, affiliated by trade-union bosses) and people joined usually because they support Corbyn. But the ground-level anger with the Right isn’t there. Corbyn and Momentum (which he never criticises) aren’t pushing for compulsory reselection. There is only news of about one council in a city – Haringey – where the (temporary) Left seek to replace the Right. Once, all city Labour councils had that fight. Why aren’t the Corbynistas in Newham, Nottingham and Newcastle fighting so?

    You can analyse this anyway you want (I’m yet to see a Left ‘thinker’ say ‘I don’t know’, they always have ‘the answer’). It’s a riddle.

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