Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Nature of the New European Left: Britain

This is the continuation of part 2 of the series on the rise of the New Left in Europe.

                                                A Discussion Paper

                                The Nature of the New European Left

Keir Hardy, founder of the Labor Party

by Stephen Morgan

85) With the election of the left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, the swing to the left in Europe has taken on a very different character in Britain. For historical and cultural reasons, it has manifested itself “inside the Establishment,” so-to-speak, with a sudden and unexpected shift to the left inside the British Labour Party. Unlike the rest of Europe, no new autonomous left-wing movements, coalitions or parties have arisen in the UK. Moreover, the Communist party in Britain is a tiny group without any popular support and there has not been any left-wing splits from the traditional party of the working class since the 1930s.

86) The British left-wing groups have never been able to create alliances and attract substantial support, the left groups in Britain have never been able to unite into anything of political significance. Where independent left groups have stood in elections they have received derisory results averaging 1-2%.

87) Nearly all the small left groups had written off the LP as the traditional party of the working class, saying it had become an irredeemable and unreformable “bourgeois party.” To prove their arguments they pointed to the Blairite victory, the emptying out of the LP party membership, the suppression of internal democracy, the dumping of the socialist Clause 4 of the constitution and pro-Imperialist policies, as proof that a qualitative change had taken place and the LP was no longer a workers' party. It was just another capitalist party in Britain, we were told, no different in essence to the Tories and Liberals. Unions should disaffiliate from it, they said, and party members should leave and workers should stop voting Labour.

88) Consequently, these left groups were speechless when the movement around Corbyn exploded. Because of their false analysis, they were caught totally unaware and wrong-footed by events. The new left activists just swept past them, not giving a second thought about becoming involved with these tiny groups on the fringes of the labour movement

89) None of the left groups in Britain have been able to capitalize on the favorable objective circumstances. They remain frozen in time and splintered by extreme sectarianism. And while the UK has some history of independent mass movements, such as the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Chartists and the anti-Poll Tax struggle under Thatcher, none of them have resulted in the creation of new, mass left-wing organizations.

90) The small left groups have been battling away for decades to build their own mass revolutionary parties with abject failure. There is no precedent in the history of the British Labour movement for the development of mass independent revolutionary parties. Although, that doesn't mean that it couldn't come about under very special circumstances, it is highly unlikely to be the way in which a revolutionary movement will develop in Britain.

91) Britain is a deeply conservative and traditionalist country. It is reflected in such things as the monarchy, its ingrained culture of parliamentarianism and the embedded, orthodox reformism of its Labour movement. Of all the countries of Europe, it is probably the one with the least heritage of revolutionary upheaval. Of course, in certain exceptional circumstances, all of that can be reversed, but it would be very unwise not to take these features into account when analyzing how British society could be transformed along socialist lines. It should not be surprising then, that the new left movements in society have found their reflection inside the Labour Party in Britain.

92) The underlying cause for the shift to the left in the Labour Party is the same as elsewhere – the
economic crisis, austerity measures and disillusionment with former, right-wing Labour governments. While on paper, the UK is a prosperous country, there are extreme disparities in income. 1 in 5 people live below the poverty line and many depend on handouts from food banks to survive. The youth have been hit hardest and are considered by many to be a “lost generation” with 15% of them unemployed and most of the rest working in low paid jobs with poverty wages. Furthermore, starting with the Labour government in power during the 2007-2009 recession, the working class has faced harsh austerity measures and swinging cuts in public spending, now continuing under a new Conservative (Tory) government.

93) The right-wing, pro-capitalist policies of the “New Labour” Blair-Brown leadership hit the working class hard and the LP paid for it in terms of popular support. The LP fell from 355 seats in Parliament in 2005 to 232 in the 2015. It was wiped out in Scotland, suffering a PASOK-style catastrophe, in which it lost 40 of its 41 MPs. 

94) It has been said that the working class in Britain is like an elephant, powerful, but very slow to move – until it begins a charge. A contradiction of the British Labour movement is that under the right conditions, its traditional inertia can be suddenly broken in an extremely dramatic way. This is exactly what happened with the election of Corbyn. The anger and disgust with the LP right-wing leaders and the plight of working people had been building up over a long period of time, until suddenly the dam broke.
Jeremy Corbyn

95) Once just a glimmer of hope for changing the LP arrived in the form of Corbyn's candidacy, Labour supporters pounced on it with both hands. A huge movement of workers and youth began from below, and with the full support of the majority of unions, Corbyn was suddenly lifted up on an unstoppable wave that aimed to return the LP back to its fighting socialist roots.

96) The left movement towards the LP took on a Podemos-style scale. A half a million people became  involved in the campaign to get him elected – 99% of whom were not in the LP to begin with. Within days of his victory, tens of thousands signed up to join the party, taking its paid-up membership to over a third of a million.

97) From nowhere, a new left-wing youth section of the Labour Party – Labour Young Socialists – sprung up and adopted a socialist programme. At its founding conference it declared its aims and goals;

“We want to see capitalism replaced by socialism: a society whose guiding principle is no longer profit, but solidarity; where common ownership and democracy guarantee a good life for all.”

A position more clearly socialist than anything in the programme of either Podemos or SYRIZA.

98) At the same time, the unions have begun to recover from the long boom from 1990 to 2007, when class consciousness and combativity were thrown back and union membership declined. Rank and file members of the unions and grass root activists, furious with the relentless attacks on the working class, are shifting to the left, as the class consciousness, political understanding and militancy revives. Given the pivotal role of the unions in the LP, it was inevitable that, at some point, this would find its expression in internal developments within the party. 

99) Consequently, the size and power of this movement around Corbyn has left the right-wing paralyzed. Not that this will last. They will bide their time until they think it is favorable to launch a counter-offensive against Corbyn and a witch hunt against the left. But they will have to take on the might of many affiliate unions, who have backed him and the enthusiasm of a huge new layer of left-winger members. The entire history of the Labour Party is a relentless battle between the left and the right for the leadership, and, even if the right succeeded in driving back the left temporarily, that wont stop the process. Corbyn's election is just the beginning of a protracted struggle between the pro-capitalist right-wing and a working class left-wing inside the Labour Party.

100) The same arguments about “bourgeoisification” have been made about all the traditional workers parties in Europe, so it is worth making a deeper analysis of the British Labour Party and its history, as a yardstick to evaluate how other socialist parties in Europe may develop. They all have a history of struggle between the left and right, and although this may evolve in different ways to the specific course taken by the British Labour Party, there will be a great many similarities.

101) To do that, we first need to get an overview of the history of the British Labour Party. If you don't understand the past, you can't possibly know how to orientate in the present or what to expect in the future.

The Labour Party : A history of relentless left/right struggles

102) Speaking at a meeting of the Labour Representation Committee way back in 2004, (an organization inside the LP set up years ago to fight for internal democracy and left policies) – at which Jeremy Corbyn also spoke – the veteran socialist leader and former Labour MP, Tony Benn said:

“Things may seem very bad in the party, but if we can survive Ramsay MacDonald, we can survive New Labour. I urge people to stay and fight in the Labour Party.”

Even though it took another decade for this perspective to be vindicated, Benn's insight and conclusions proved to be far more correct than all the “theoreticians” of the far-left..

103) The whole history of the Labour Party is a history of swings from left to right; of struggles between its pro-capitalist elements and left-wing socialists; of gross betrayals of the working class and progressive reforms –  leading to the successive emptying out and filling up again of the membership. This has always been set against a background of alternating economic crises and capitalist booms, and the influence of international events of both a progressive and reactionary character.

104) From its very beginnings, The Labour Party has been a broad, but fractious, coalition of right-wing and left wing currents from the nominally Marxist SDF, to the right-wing Fabians, the left-wing ILP and the trade unions. It was begun by the left-wing, ex-miner and workers' leader, Keir Hardy, but it was joined in parliament by former Liberals, who became its pro-capitalist agents.

105)More than any other socialist party in Europe, the LP is characterized by the unions' direct role in creating it, as the political voice of the working class and their continuing powerful influence in the structures and policy-making apparatus of the party. Consequently, this organic link with the unions has defined the LP's fundamental character as the traditional party of the working class, which has never been broken – not even under Tony Blair. The trade union link with the LP is a seal with seven seals, which cannot be broken.

106) As Benn suggested by mentioning Ramsey MacDonald, the betrayals of Blair are far from unknown and perhaps not even the worst which the Labour Party has faced in its history. MacDonald, who led the first Labour minority government of 1924 was just as much a shameless servant of big business and finance capital as Blair was. He publicly denounced the 1926 General Strike, invoked emergency powers to break industrial disputes, carried out severe austerity measures and cuts in workers' living standards in the interests of capitalism. 

107) In 1929, while leader of a second Labour government, during the greatest capitalist crisis of all time – the Great Depression – he opposed any economic measures to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Quite the opposite, he actually cut unemployment benefit, in order to avoid any budget deficit.

108) When the Liberals proposed a government programme of public works to give jobs to over half a million unemployed through projects such as new roads, building council housing, and the expansion of telephone and electrical services, MacDonald rejected this in favour of draconian right-wing policies austerity measures, which made the working class pay for the banking and financial crisis. At the time, the left-wing in the LP described MacDonald's Labour's administration as a “Wall Street Government.”

109) Facing opposition from the left, MacDonald decided to break with the Party and head a National Government in order to carry through his Tory policies, and along with other right-wing traitors in the Shadow Cabinet he formed “National Labour” to enter into a coalition government with the Conservatives. It was a staggering betrayal of the working class, when Labour was needed most to protect people from the ravages of the Depression. Then, to top off his career as a traitor to the working class, MacDonald accepted the position of Lord President of the Conservative Cabinet.

110) In the subsequent 1931 General Election, the massive disillusionment with the Labour Party caused by MacDonald's treachery, led to a crushing defeat for the party. The ILP (a left group in the LP) then drew the conclusion that the Labour Party was finished and that they should break away. Large numbers of workers had drawn revolutionary conclusions from the experience of the capitalist crisis of 1929 and the ILP believed the shift to the right in the LP presented an ideal opportunity for them to build a new independent workers' party. Moreover, the ILP had a strong base amongst the working class, far more than the current far-left groups do. It could boast 100,000 supporters and the nominal affiliation of 140 MPs. Consequently, they split from the party in 1932.

111) But, the tactic proved to be a disaster. Within 3 years it was left with just 4,400 members. They had completely misjudged the situation, because, while they were leaving the party, the workers were moving back into it. Instead of rallying to the ILP, the mass of workers turned once more towards the LP and the party shifted to the left again.

112) The Labour Party then elected the left-winger George Lansbury as leader. Lansbury had supported the Russian Revolution and traveled to meet Lenin and Trotsky not long after. He also published his own ideas for achieving socialism, which combined both reformist and revolutionary methods.

113) Following this swing to the left, all the right-wing Labour MPs who had served in MacDonald's National Government, were expelled. Consequently, from 6,500,000 votes in the 1931 elections, the LP share of the vote increased to 8,300,000 in the 1935 general election.

114) International factors in the 1930's also had a bearing on the shift to the left in the party. The victory of Hitler in Germany rocked the Labour movement. Secondly, in spite of Stalinism, the rapid economic development underway in Russia seemed to prove that an alternative system based on a planned economy was feasible, and, most importantly, revolutionary developments in Spain were moving towards a Civil War.

115) But, with the defeat of the working class in Spain at the end of the 1930s, and the growing threat of war, the LP shifted back towards the right again. When war started, not only did Labour support the war, its right-wing leader, Clement Attlee led the LP into another National Government and became Deputy Leader under Churchill.

Tony Blair, war criminal and Bush ally
116) Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq was a scandalous, Imperialist action. However, Blair was far from alone in the Labour Party on such issues. Right-wing leaders of the Labour movement supported both World Wars, helping to send more than one million British workers to their death and provoking the slaughter of tens of millions of others around the world. What greater betrayal of the working class is there than that?

117) Despite this, workers again poured back towards the LP at the end of the war, giving Labour the largest electoral victory in history on a radical socialist programme, which led to the nationalization of 30% of the economy and the creation of the free National Health Service.

118) It would take too much time to go into the whole history of the post-war period, suffice to say, that once again the LP shifted back to the right in the post-war boom of the 1950s-1970s, much like it did later under Blair during the boom from the mid-80s to 2007. It remained in the grip of the right-wing for decades, led by people like Frank Chapple of the Electricians Union and Labour Deputy Leader, Dennis Healey, and there is plenty evidence to suggest that both of them, and many others worked for the CIA and the British secret service.

119) In the 60's and 70's, two right-wing Labour governments under Wilson and Callaghan went into a political alliance with the Liberals (the Lib-Lab pact) and carried out a massive series of attacks on the working class with policies of cuts, wage restraint and anti-TU laws. This coupled with the world economic recession of 1974 led to a huge strike wave called the “Winter of Discontent.” Callaghan brought in the army to run emergency services during the firemens' dispute, and made plans to call a state of emergency involving the mobilization of 13,000 troops to break the lorry drives' strike.

120) As a result of this betrayal by the right-wing Labour leaders and a world economic crisis in 1974 similar to 2007, the LP shifted to the left again. International political factors also played an important role.  A left-wing wave had been sweeping across the world beginning with the revolution in France in 1968, the uprising in Czechoslovakia and the huge anti-war movement in the US. In Southern Europe, the last dictatorships fell under the revolutionary pressure of the masses. 

121) Consequently, after 25 years of right-wing domination, a huge new left-wing developed in the LP in the 1970s and 1980s. A whole new layer of left activists from among youth and workers poured into the LP. Around that time, Tony Benn ran for Deputy Leader of the LP and narrowly lost the vote by a margin of only 1%.

122) The ensuing battle between the left and right in the Labour Party lasted 20 years, until changes in the objective situation turned the tide against the left again, empowering the right-wing to take back control. The defeat of the miners' strike in 1986 (in some ways similar to how the defeat of the 1926 General Strike helped MacDonald) and the beginnings of the new economic boom, (similar to the post-war boom), plus the collapse of Stalinism all strengthened the right-wing in the Labour Party once again. The subsequent witch hunts against the left and Militant, then prepared the ground for Blair to carry out a far-reaching counter-revolution inside the LP and another 25 years of right-wing control followed – until now when finally the tide has turned back in favor of the left again.

123) Looking back across the history of the Labour Party, it is clear to see that Labour has constantly swung left and right under the influence of developments at home and abroad. To cite Blair's policies as a unique historical turning point, never before seen in Labour's history looks pretty feeble when set against the treachery of previous Labour leaders.

124) The combination of the betrayals of right-wing Labour governments, economic crisis and international events have always created the conditions for a swing back to the left in the LP, while, on the other hand economic boom, a lull in the class struggle and reactionary developments abroad have always provided the backdrop to swings to the right. Now, the combination of favorable objective factors has laid the basis for the shift left in the Labour Party again, with the election of Corbyn and the massive influx of youth and workers trying again to transform the LP into a real, mass socialist party.

125) Even if the right is able to launch a successful counter attack against the left, it won't matter. The shift to the left won't come in one single wave, but in multiple surges. There will be victories and defeats for the left as the class struggle ebbs and flows. There could even be a left split-away similar to the ILP in the past and some on the left expect this to come soon, when the right-wing begins a counter-offensive.

126) Such a development is not ruled out, but it wouldn't be anywhere near the size of the ILP in the 30s and like the ILP it would rapidly disappear off the political map. Even if Corbyn led it, it would end up in the wilderness. But it is unlikely he would. Corbyn is probably too shrewd for that and he understands what has been happening on the left outside the party. The right-wing probably wouldn't be able to expel him, and he has been in the LP for the long haul and will probably continue to do so. Any break away without such a figurehead would be even more likely to sink like a stone.

127) Some in the left outside the LP hold out the perspective that the new left movement around Corbyn is really “a new independent workers' party in the process of formation.” This is simply rubbish. In the event of mass expulsions the majority of new activists would probably become demoralized and drop into inactivity, with only a handful joining the small left groups.

128) However, the objective conditions for the right-wing are not favorable. Any victory it has over the left would be a pyrrhic and temporary one. Reasserting an iron grip over the LP could only be done if there was a long period of economic boom, capitalist stabilization and a downturn in the class struggle. That looks highly unlikely.

129) The current recovery is very shaky and shows signs of slowing down. It could quite quickly be replaced by a new recession. It appears that the capitalists don't have any more economic cards up their sleeves. Unless, they are able to conjure up some magical new strategy, we are in for a protracted period of economic and social instability. This will be reflected inside the Labour Party with a long period of right/left battles pushing the left-wing further and further towards the ideas of revolutionary socialism. The political manifestation of the class struggle is now taking place inside the Labour Party at this moment. This is exactly the right time for socialists, who are now outside the LP, to drop their sectarian stance and join the party.   

Part 1
Part 2 a

1 comment:

Paul said...

The UK is OK with Sir Jeremy Corbyn. We need a revolution in Europe, a Royalist revolution to join the UK commonwealth. English will be the language and Socialist Royalism the doctrine. We will of course all be on friendly terms with the Russian Bear, in the UK we call the Bear Paddington Bear, he is a member of the RMT UNION of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers.