Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 17, 2019

Why Jeremy Corbyn lost

Filed under: Britain,Corbyn,Labour Party — louisproyect @ 9:45 pm

In reviewing articles about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn over the past two days, I was struck by the similarities between British and American politics. With all proportions guarded, Corbyn and Boris Johnson are the counterparts of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Since I regard the Labour Party as qualitatively different from the Democratic Party in class terms, I was much more open to Corbyn’s electoral ambitions than I am to Sanders’s. This would be apparent from the reviews I wrote of two books: Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics” and Simon Hannah’s “A Party With Socialists in It: a History of the Labour Left”. Hannah’s book helped me understand that despite Lenin’s business about the Communists supporting Labour like a rope supports a hanging man, it is still a working-class party. Or at least it was until Tony Blair got a hold of it. If it was still in New Labour’s clutches, there would be not a dime’s worth of differences between the DP and Labour.

Starting with New Labour, you can say that—dialectically speaking—it was responsible  for the emergence of Corbynism in the same way that Clinton/Obama were responsible for the Sandernistas. By the same token, New Labour’s neglect of working-class interests helped fuel the Brexit campaign and Johnson’s election in the same way that the post-LBJ Democratic Party paved the way for Donald Trump.

Beneath all these political convulsions was the economic transformation of the UK and the USA. With Reagan and Thatcher’s neoliberal turn, the class compromise between the capitalist class and the labor unions came to an end. Reagan’s crushing of the airline controllers strike and Thatcher’s of the miners marked an open season against not only the trade unions but everybody below the ruling and middle classes. Even when the two arch-reactionaries were replaced by “liberals”, the war against the working-class and the poor continued. Through trade agreements like the WTO and NAFTA, it became easier for corporations to take grow wings and take flight. In the case of the EU, open borders allowed labor to escape the misery of post-Communist Eastern Europe and enjoy a higher standard of living in the West. That was the main impetus behind Euromaidan. Ukrainian workers understood that being a plumber or an electrician in England could provide a wage denied in their homeland.

In both the UK and the USA, a rust belt developed in the decades after Thatcher and Reagan. The Midlands of England and the American cities, where steel and auto factories once thrived, now bled jobs. When you combine this long-term tendency with the financial crisis of 2007, you end up with a population looking for radical solutions, sometimes on the right. In the UK, this meant working people lining up behind the nativist Brexit campaign that offered the same kind of demagogic appeal as Donald Trump’s MAGA election campaign. There’s a big difference between the UK and the USA, however. In the UK workers did vote for the rightwing while in the USA they mostly stayed at home, finding Hilary Clinton’s campaign so devoid of incentives that would make a difference to them—the kind that Sanders and Corbyn offered. Does Corbyn’s defeat mean that Sanders faces the same fate? I certainly can conceive of him defeating Trump in the general election but his hands will be tied once in the White House, I’m afraid.

Despite the fact that the Tories were happy with the EU and its predecessors like the European Economic Community, there has always been a nationalist element that ran contrary to any sort of continent-wide political and economic integration. Enoch Powell, a Tory member of Parliament from 1950 to 1974, was dead-set against joining the EEC. He made a “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 that warned against immigrants flooding England. It resembled a Donald Trump speech, if on a 300 percent higher reading level:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century.

Eventually, Powell left the Conservative Party and moved to Northern Ireland where he became an Ulster Unionist party member and a bitter enemy of the Irish struggle. Unsurprisingly, the Ulster Unionists are major supporters of leaving the EU.

Nigel Farage considers Enoch Powell to be a major influence and even unsuccessfully requested his backing in 1994. Ukip later twice asked Powell to stand as a candidate for the party.. Farage was formerly a Tory but left in 1992 after the party signed the Maastricht Treaty that led to the formation of the EU. A year later he co-founded Ukip and remained one of its top leaders for well over a decade. As the leading voice of Euroskepticism, Ukip was responsible for placing the question of Brexit on a 2016 referendum. The same newspapers that told lies about Corbyn in last week’s election also helped to line up people for a “Leave” vote in 2016. Chief among them were two tabloids: the Daily Sun and the Daily Express. In March 2016, the Sun reported on Polish immigrants, who are to England as Mexicans are to the USA. The headline of an article was “How to Be a Pole on the Dole.” (The dole is a term for welfare benefits.) In enlightened London, someone surreptitiously posted leaflets with large letters: “Leave the EU/No more Polish vermin”.

Alan Sked, who was once the top leader of Ukip, regards his replacement Nigel Farage as a racist. In a 2014 Guardian article, he recounts a conversation the two once had:

But even if Farage’s recent statements about not wanting to live next door to Romanians suggest he is xenophobic, is there any proof he was racist when he and Sked worked together in the mid-1990s? Sked laughs at the question and recalls an incident from 1997 when the two men were arguing over the kind of candidates that Ukip should have standing at the looming general election. “He wanted ex-National Front candidates to run and I said, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ and he said, ‘There’s no need to worry about the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us.'”

Like Steve Bannon and others who have broken with the old-school John McCain type of Republicanism, you can find people moving in the same direction in England besides the Ukip. One of them is the European Research Group that despite its innocuous name is quite toxic. Unlike think-tanks in the USA that get funded by Koch, the Coors Foundation, et al, the ERG relies on tax-payer funding as a result of its ties to the Conservative Party. It was headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who despite the P.G. Wodehouse name and upper-class mannerisms, is pretty scary. In 2006, Rees-Mogg opposed David Cameron’s attempt to increase the number of ethnic minorities running as Tories. Rees-Mogg argued, “Ninety-five per cent of this country is White. The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”

This year, Steve Baker took over as ERG head. Despite the fact that both he and Rees-Mogg have worked in finance, they strongly opposed the pro-EU stance of other bankers. They may be opposed to “globalization” but they certainly aren’t opposed to capitalist profits. In addition to being a hard-core Brexit advocate, Baker is also a born-again Christian, gay marriage opponent and climate change skeptic. He is also a member of the Cornerstone Group that operates as a Tory party club. It considers the Church of England, the unitary British state and the family as its “cornerstones”. Alan Duncan, a Tory MP, has called it a “Taliban Tendency” inside their party.

Like Bannon, Trump, Stephen Miller, Billy Graham Jr. and company, the Brexit wing of the party has taken over and reshaped the Conservative agenda along the lines of right-populist parties everywhere, from Hungary to Austria. Gone are the commitments to Anglo-American hegemony based on the dollar and NATO. The emerging program has much more to do with racial purity, family values, deregulation, and fossil fuel dependency.

So what would make a former coal miner in the Midlands decide to vote for anything they favor?

The main explanation is that the Labour Party no longer has organic ties to its former social base. Like Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown, they focused on getting votes from people living in large cities and who had decent-paying jobs in the technical, financial and health industries. Like most DP presidential candidates, they assumed that the people living in the rust belt would continue to vote for them as a “lesser evil”. That was until Jeremy Corbyn came along.

Corbyn and his chief adviser John McDonnell were elderly members of the Labour Party who never bought into New Labour politics. They identified with Tony Benn who, like them, was a leftwing stalwart. It was only as a result of a procedural change that loosened up Labour Party membership that Corbyn came into prominence.

In 2015, Ed Miliband, the Labour MP with Tony Blair type politics, proposed that the party adopt new membership rules. Instead of trade union officials having the right to use bloc voting on behalf of its powerless rank-and-file, there would be “one member one vote” with the public allowed to take part for a £3 fee. In hoping to weaken the trade union officials, Miliband did not anticipate that this measure would open the door to millions of young people with non-union jobs and radical politics. In essence, it was the same kind of demographic that provided the backbone of support for Bernie Sanders.

For Corbyn, the hope was that by running on a program that would reverse the neoliberal policies of both Tory and New Labour he would be able to become the Prime Minister in last week’s election. Considering the dismal state of those parts of England where coal mines, steel mills and auto manufacturing had disappeared, his hopes seemed reasonable.

Considering the fact that the 2016 Brexit referendum favored the “leavers”, there had to be worries that this would not be a guaranteed victory especially when well over a third of Labour Party members voted to leave. Indeed, the line-up on Brexit did not coincide with predictable party affiliations. The most ardent supporters of “remain” were New Labour politicians who found themselves agreeing with Tory MP David Cameron, a financial industry insider. It was mainly Ukip that pushed for leaving with many rank-and-file Labour Party members lead astray by rightwing demagogy. A July 5, 2016 NY Times article titled “Wigan’s Road to ‘Brexit’: Anger, Loss and Class Resentments” captured the mood:

After jobs as a garbage man, a bakery worker and now a packer at a canned food factory, Colin Hewlett, like most people in Wigan, a gritty northern English town, takes great pride in his working-class credentials. He plays snooker and drinks pints at the Working Men’s Club across the road from his red brick rowhouse, and at every election that he can remember, he has voted, like his father before him, for the Labour Party.

The governing Conservative Party, which last won a parliamentary election in Wigan in 1910, is “for rich sods and second raters on the make,” he explained.

On June 23, however, Mr. Hewlett broke with the habits of a lifetime and bucked the Labour Party line. Ignoring its stand that the European Union is good for Britain, he voted to bolt from the European bloc, along with 64 percent of the population in a town that, according to Will Patterson, a local Green Party activist, would normally “vote for a cow if Labour put one up for election.”

The overwhelming vote here in favor of “Brexit” — much higher than the 52 percent who voted to leave nationwide — delivered a stinging rebuke not only to the Labour Party leadership in London but also to the party’s local politicians. They hold 65 of the 75 seats on the Borough Council and campaigned, albeit with little zeal, for the Remain camp.

The Conservative Party, whose leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, also campaigned for Britain to stay in Europe, got kicked in the teeth, too, as did President Obama and legions of other prominent figures in Britain and abroad who urged voters like Mr. Hewlett not to rock the boat.

But rocking the boat, no matter what the risks, was precisely what he and millions of other Britons — who, regardless of their real economic situation, see themselves as members of a downtrodden “working class” — wanted to do. To them, it was a last, desperate effort to restore a lost world of secure jobs and communities that was far harsher in reality than it is in recollection.

Their votes were stark evidence of how working-class resentments, driven by feelings of being ignored and left unmoored in a rapidly changing world, are feeding nationalism and other efforts to reclaim a sense of identity, upending ideological assumptions and straining ties to political parties and other institutions.

With such sentiments lingering on, Corbyn had an uphill battle that was made even steeper by a concentrated attack from the Tories, the tabloids, the nominally-independent BBC, the rightwing Zionists obviously tied in to the Israeli state, and his own failure to respond effectively.

Even before the election, there were signs that Corbyn was not up to the task. In the July-August 2019 New Left Review, Daniel Finn alluded to some worries in an article titled “Crosscurrents: Corbyn, Labour and the Brexit Crisis” that is both critically important and not behind a paywall:

The Labour Party itself is far from being a reliable instrument in Corbyn’s hands: while the leader and his allies have strengthened their position since the electoral breakthrough of 2017, they still face unremitting hostility from the party’s right wing, to supplement that of their Tory opponents and the mainstream media. Labour’s programme of social-democratic reform may be modest in historical perspective, but it represents enough of a departure from established orthodoxy to provoke fierce resistance from business and the state machine—especially if Corbyn also tries to recalibrate British foreign policy after taking office. Before it can reach that point, Labour has to navigate an issue—Britain’s departure from the eu—that cuts through the heart of its electoral coalition and has no precedent in post-war British experience. Brexit has thrown the whole political field into confusion, and Labour will struggle to achieve a majority in parliament after the next election, even if it emerges as the largest party. The conditions of its likely coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, could include the extinction of any distinctive Corbyn project.

Just as crucial a read but behind a paywall (contact me for a copy), Colin Leys’s article in the 2019 Socialist Register titled “Corbyn And Brexit Britain: Is There A Way Forward For The Left?” has the same mixture of enthusiasm for Corbyn’s uphill battle and wariness about its success. Leys, like fellow SR editorial board members Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, is skeptical about social democracy’s viability. However, he at least sees Corbynism as a current worth supporting, if for no other reasons that it can galvanize a leftwing opposition movement into a force capable of resisting a deepening of inequality—either from Boris Johnson or from a resurgent New Labour.

Leys describes the tensions between the two wings of the Labour Party, one traditional and trade union-based; the other, urban, young and often either student or professional:

A final problem is Brexit. In opposition Corbyn was able to avoid taking a very clear position, but Labour was no less divided on the issue than the Conservatives. Any eventual agreement with the EU that permitted continued unlimited immigration of EU workers to the UK would likely cost seats in Labour’s old heartlands, which had voted massively ‘leave’, while the young voters whose support had been so important in 2017, and educated middle-class Labour voters in general, were predominantly ‘remainers’. Fashioning a policy on Brexit, above all on immigration, that would not cost votes with both groups of supporters looked extremely difficult. The prospects for socialist advance through the post-EU thicket were, to say the least, hard to envisage.

In addition to this thorny dilemma, Leys pointed out other deficits in Corbyn’s program. Despite his personal opposition to nuclear arms and power, Corbyn could not include any anti-nuclear planks in his otherwise commendable program. This was a result of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite, hoping to maintain its members’ jobs in the nuclear industry. Also missing was any kind of deep engagement with ecological issues. As Jeremy Gilbert has pointed out, his manifesto does not recognize that “what is required to avoid ecological catastrophe is a radical reorientation of economic priorities away from the industrial capitalist obsession with economic growth”. In many ways, fudging the nuclear and ecology questions is a sign that this updated version of the Labour Party still had ties to its productivist past.

But the biggest problem in Leys’s eyes was the failure of the Corbyn’s socialist project to deal with the most pressing issue facing British society, namely how to democratize the state.

There was no suggestion that there should be a written constitution, to make the electoral system more democratic, or to end the exercise of unaccountable executive power through the ‘royal prerogative’ and other archaic institutions. There was nothing on ending the corporate capture of the state – the downsizing of the civil service, the rampant influence of unregulated corporate lobbying, the ‘revolving door’ between the senior civil service and private corporations, or the corporate-style ‘executive boards’ that had been set up for each government department, largely filled with private sector personnel. There was no proposal to end government reliance on management consultancies whose main clients are corporations, or on the undemocratic nature of the BBC, nominally a politically neutral public service but in practice a key component of the capitalist state system. There was no suggestion of ending subsidies to private schools through which the rich constantly renew their dominant positions in the state and corporate elites.

Unlike the self-assured leader of the SWP sect in England Alex Callinicos who took advantage of Corbyn’s defeat to remind his readers of the dead-end of social democratic politics, Finn and Leys (and I) saw value in a Corbyn victory. That being said, the left is caught on the horns of a dilemma that goes back to the 1920s.

Looking at the record of Labour and Social Democratic Parties, there is not much hope that socialism can develop out of their electoral methods. Either they will be thwarted from being elected by dirty tricks as is now the case with Corbyn or once in power thwarted from moving ahead with a redistributionist program, as was the case with Mitterand in France.

So what are we left with? Join Alex Callinicos and sell copies of Socialist Worker to college students? Because of the sectarian character of “Leninist” groups, they will never be afforded the opportunity to make good on their goals. Standing aside from the mass movement, they act as its pedagogues. This might be useful in peeling off some activists into the ranks of the sect but it will never reach the critical mass necessary to overthrow the capitalist system. What’s needed is a party that can reach people on the basis of changing the world but not on the basis of when the USSR became capitalist. Come to think of it, if the Bolsheviks had made taking a position on the Girondist/Jacobin differences an ideological litmus test, there never would have been a revolution in Russia.


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