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Don’t abandon Labour, embrace the class struggle

Labour’s right wing would be only too happy to see the mass suicide of its left — we cannot encourage that; the alternatives are not in new overnight parties but intervention in the growing wave of genuine class struggle, argues NICK WRIGHT

FREE ADVICE is on offer. The latest comes from those impeccable sources of guidance, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Telegraph and George Osborne’s London Evening Standard.

These disinterested and impartial authorities are bigging up the idea that Jeremy Corbyn should start a new party.

This despite the fact that the former Labour leader has expressed no such intention and no other Labour MP has endorsed the idea.

However, there are thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of people, who would find such an idea worth considering and are, with varying degrees of desperation, looking for viable course of action that is consistent with a new politics of the common interest.

Elements on the Labour right think the damage it might do to Labour’s chances of forming a government is a price worth paying to rid the party of its left wing.

It is unlikely that even a self-induced purge will do the trick. Remember that when the notorious right-wing “Gang of Four” split to form the Social Democratic Party (and temporarily stymie the election of a left-wing led Labour government) the likes of Tony Blair remained Labour members.

Even with a purged membership constrained by a coercive disciplinary regime, with members’ rights to shape policy and elect the leadership circumscribed — and with the left’s parliamentary representatives marginalised — left-wing ideas cannot be indefinitely suppressed in conditions of capitalist crisis.

For the Labour right, elections are only worth winning by appealing to the middle ground of swing voters in marginal constituencies and any political action which compromises this strategy is to be squeezed out of party life. Blair made this explicit when he argued that he would not want Labour to be elected on its 2019 manifesto.

The Labour left could scarcely have anticipated the full scale of Starmer’s attack, although I am told that Corbyn’s comms chief Seumas Milne chastened his more trusting colleagues with the unsettling and entirely accurate prediction that Starmer would shock and awe the party with his counter-revolution.

Starmer’s repudiation of the policies upon which he won the leadership election put the left on the back foot.

Momentum came up with a creditable programme of action to elect socialists and win support for radical policies. This was coupled with a call to support struggles in communities and workplaces and scale up political education. But it is worth noting that while a more or less united list got most votes in the election to the party, Labour’s basic organisations at local level are at a low ebb and — on the national executive committee — the right wing’s grip seems secure.

To the loss of individual party members is now added a growing tendency for trade union affiliated members to drop away from internal party activity. The encouraging response to this by unions is to ramp up their own campaigning, education and organisation.

More recently, writing for Momentum, the left-wing academic Jeremy Gilbert made the compelling point that while Starmer has made himself the political enemy of anyone who is even vaguely on the left of the Labour Party, “it is a pretty basic principle of political strategy that we don’t give our enemies what they want unless we are forced to do so.”

True — but what we need to do goes way beyond holding the line in the Labour Party machinery.

Nothing succeeds like success and many competing and contradictory trends were pulled in by Corbyn’s runaway victory. But it wasn’t easily consolidated and the subsequent organisational and political defeat — imposed with ferocity by Westminster Labour, a big part of the party machinery and aided by a dose of self-delusion — has resulted in retreat, fragmentation and disunity.

The very success of the Corbyn revival obscured the extent to which Labour’s class appeal and class consciousness generally had been weakened, not simply by the Blair and Brown years but by the neoliberal reordering of the economy manifested in deindustrialisation and the creeping passivity that came packaged with illusory hopes in the EU’s “social chapter.” To this was added the effects of the anti-union laws that Blair and Brown conspicuously failed to repeal.

Alongside its enormous enthusiasm and boundless energy, the Labour revival was weakened by a lack of experience in organised struggle and trade unionism and poor political education.

It was infused with a strong if untheorised feminism, powerful anti-war sentiment, deep anti-racism, anger at austerity and exploitation — and profound illusions about the neoliberal EU and its imperialist foreign policy.

The interregnum between 2017 and 2019 saw the Labour left divided and diverted by a concerted attack by the ruling class aided by the media, state and a Labour right wing that is the instrument of ruling-class ideas in the labour movement.

The reality is that Labour’s “broad church” is the site of class struggle at a very high level — ideological, organisational and political — in which the state and the ruling class are active elements.

By 2019 the attractive power of Labour’s manifesto was offset by confusion about priorities and once the drama of the election was over Labour’s membership became increasing vulnerable to the ruling-class counter-offensive.

In addition to a disastrous ambiguity over the EU every emanation of divisive identity politics was encouraged. A specious campaign to negate Corbyn’s moral stature by branding him an anti-semite consumed enormous energy and diverted efforts to deal with anti-semitism as it actually exists.

A strong critique of Britain’s peculiar economy of “financialisation” and the distinctive factor of “fictitious capital” has grown on the left but is insufficiently understood. Downplaying the real-life consequences of inflation, the effects of currency devaluation, higher export prices, higher interest rates and lower investment in a still-dominant capitalist global economy, allowed a wave of wacky ideas — the misnamed Modern Monetary Theory in particular — to breed illusions about the ease with which capital can be thwarted.

Labour’s attractive economic programme was undermined by fanciful proposals to overcome the crisis by expanding the money supply and — without addressing the structural causes of the crisis — by ignoring the relationship between price and value and by underestimating the present day character of Britain’s evolving relationship with US and EU capital.

Post-2019 Labour has seen the appearance of any number of revived fundamentalist sects — born-again advocates for a “new mass party of labour” and daft proponents of all manner of short cuts to socialist advance.

There is even now a vocal current promoting the old idea that socialist advance can only come about through an outright assault on Labour “from the left,” a campaign to persuade people to stop voting Labour, bringing about the destruction of the party and its election prospects.

Where this finds an expression in the disaggregated fragments of Britain’s Trotskyite and Maoist movements — as they seek to revive their shared delusion that the road to working-class advance lies through a competitive increase in their ranks — it appears no more attractive today than previously.

There is an irreconcilable contradiction between the desire of Labour’s new leadership to convince the ruling class and its media that they are an unthreatening alternative for whenever the Tories, the principal party of capital, loses electoral credibility and fails in government and — on the other hand — the unquestionable desire for progressive policies that crosses every political boundary.

Where this is unsatisfied by Labour it will find an expression elsewhere — and strategies which seek to revive our past glories exclusively on the terrain of Labour’s perennially barren internal structures will be as unprofitable as the many attempts to create overnight a quick-fix, off-the-shelf, new “party of the left.”

Corbyn’s victories were contingent on a particular moment — and the circumstances which created them will not reoccur in the same way.

The mood of that moment was the product of a tactical error by the right in opening up the election process, disdain for the limpid reformism and the outright embrace of neoliberalism by most contenders for Labour’s leadership and by the reality that the anti-austerity and anti-war mass movements of the preceding years had created a new current of thinking and action.

The fallout from the Covid crisis, the mounting immiseration of six million families facing desperate fuel and food poverty, raging price rises, escalating energy costs and the long pent-up demand for higher wages, are all factors which will fuel a revival of possibilities for the left — if it can find the requisite unity and organisation.

Mass movements are made up of millions of initiatives. The “Toothless” campaign originating in East Anglia, the willingness of people to confront, as in Glasgow, immigration snatch squads, or fight off bailiffs when families face eviction, topple the statues of slavers and — as shown in recent weeks — the mounting strike wave, are signs of what is coming.

Each one of these struggles, as Lenin said of the thwarted 1905 revolution, discloses to the exploited class “the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.”

It is frivolous to act as if there is no role for socialists within a Labour Party that has a proven capacity to respond to deep shifts in popular consciousness. But there is perhaps an immediately more productive one in the Communist Party.

I make this point if only because by committing its modest reserves to support Labour’s most recent progressive turn, the Communist Party helped strengthen the widest unity of the left. To the extent that other individuals and organisations played a part in this process, they too have earned a hearing.

The long tradition of working-class political education, theoretical clarity, and disciplined, centralised organisation with a cadre of serious socialists that the Communist Party embodies cannot be created overnight. Important though electoral struggle is, it has only ephemeral value unless connected to a profound shift in political and class consciousness among millions that can only come about in sharpening the class struggle in which the working class shapes a new world.

Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com.

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