|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 218 May 2018
Corbynism and some lessons from 1968
The events of recent weeks have displayed again the undiminished hostility of the ruling class to Jeremy Corbyn’s continued leadership of the Labour Party. They have given a glimpse of how ferocious, vile and unscrupulous the opposition of the capitalists’ state, political and media establishment will be – including that from their agents within the Labour Party – in the event of a Corbyn-led government coming to office.
Most significant was the government’s refusal, for both the Skripal poisoning affair and the build-up to the bombing of Syria, to give the same access to intelligence reports to Jeremy Corbyn as David Cameron gave to Ed Miliband over Syria in 2013 and other Labour leaders have had before him. "He is the leader of the opposition; he is not the government", the Tory security minister Ben Wallace intoned, trying to justify the different treatment of Corbyn. He does not have "the responsibility of protecting at the moment – and I hope he never does – the security of this country". (The Guardian, 6 April)
This is an echo of the response of senior military figures when Corbyn was first elected Labour leader in September 2015. The then chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, said he would "worry" if Corbyn’s views were "translated into power", while the Sunday Times quoted a serving general warning of "an event which would effectively be mutiny".
Six weeks before his comments on security briefings the same Ben Wallace had joined in the fantastical smear campaign alleging that Corbyn had been a 1980s Czech secret service asset, comparing him in a tweet with the notorious USSR spy Kim Philby. It was clearly not the formalities of the office that shaped the stance on intelligence access but the person who held it and the class forces which, however tangentially, Jeremy Corbyn represents.
Even though the political and organisational legacy of Tony Blair’s New Labour is far from being fully overturned within the party, Labour with Corbyn at its head presents a latent danger for the capitalists, a potentially unreliable tool. The situation now is not completely analogous but closer to that in the 1960s, when Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was compelled to refuse the US appeal for British troops in Vietnam for fear of the repercussions within the labour movement, than the 2000s and New Labour’s supine backing of George W Bush’s Iraq adventure.
But if we have had sight of the capitalists’ bared teeth in recent weeks what can we say about the response of the Corbyn movement?
The ‘left-wing antisemitism’ card
With Corbyn’s position strengthened after last year’s general election, Labour’s capitalist establishment wing had been forced to bide its time. Watching with quiet fury as Corbyn supporters made some gains within the Labour Party – unseating the Blairite general secretary Iain McNicol, wining a majority on the national executive committee (NEC) at the start of the year, and installing a director of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group Christine Shawcroft as head of the party’s disputes sub-committee – the right broke cover over the Skripal affair.
Thirty-six Labour MPs signed an early-day motion in direct opposition to Jeremy Corbyn, "unequivocally accepting the Russian state’s culpability" and "fully supporting" Theresa May’s parliamentary statement. This was tabled on 14 March. Days later one of the signatories, Luciana Berger, launched a public attack on a two-line Facebook comment Corbyn had made – six years ago, in 2012 – suggesting he opposed the removal of an arguably anti-Semitic mural in east London.
On cue the reactionary leaders of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council jumped in, organising a protest outside parliament against alleged left-wing antisemitism which was joined by 50 Labour MPs and peers. Then the Daily Mail published a leaked email revealing that Christine Shawcroft had opposed the suspension of a local council candidate for an apparent anti-Semitic Facebook posting – which she hadn’t seen – because she suspected other factors were at play. Forty MPs and peers, and the director of the Blairite Progress group, called for her removal from the NEC. "It has been a week in which Labour’s post-election truce has been shattered", wrote the Guardian newspaper, having also done its bit for the destabilise Corbyn campaign with a string of hysterical articles.
Initially, Christine Shawcroft stood firm. As an Isle of Dogs Tower Hamlets councillor she had faced down the neo-Nazi British National Party when it won its 1993 breakthrough victory there, showing her personal resilience. She had been on the NEC for 19 years, often as a lone opposition voice against the Blairites. "This whole row is being stirred up to attack Jeremy, as we all know", she said. Then, suddenly, she resigned, replaced by the celebrity Blairite Eddie Izzard. The capitalist establishment had scored a victory.
Limits of Momentum
This defeat for the Labour left has shown the severe limitations of the Momentum leadership, firstly of its idea that it is possible to co-exist with the pro-capitalist right within one party.
The capitalist system is based on the exploitation of the majority – above all, the working class – by a small minority. That minority, and their hangers-on, will use every method possible to divide the majority in order to sustain their rule, with racism a most powerful weapon. By using manufactured accusations of antisemitism to attack Corbyn they are also attempting to divide and weaken the labour movement. Not one inch should be conceded to them. That, unfortunately, has not been the approach of the Momentum leaders who, for example, still continue to oppose a campaign for the mandatory reselection of the Blairite MPs.
The setback also revealed the inadequacies of the organisational conceptions of the Momentum leaders. Who agreed that Christine Shawcroft should resign and allow another Blairite to sneak onto the NEC? It should not have been left to an individual to decide, or a narrow group of ‘directors’, under pressure from the baying media mob.
But Momentum, with a claimed membership of over 35,000, operates on a plebiscitary, ‘online democracy’ model, more equivalent to Spain’s Podemos or Italy’s Five-Star Movement – dominated by ‘charismatic’ personalities – than the methods of representative democracy of the workers’ movement. Momentum’s Members’ Council, for example, is composed of individuals drawn randomly by lot. Is this really the way to support a workers’ representative to resist the onslaught of the capitalist establishment or, more broadly, to prepare the movement for the struggle to change society? Even long-term proponents of similar ideas in the anti-capitalist movement are beginning to question their adequacy for that task, as Sarah Wrack explores in her review of Naomi Klein’s most recent book, No is Not Enough.
In relation to the Labour Party the goal must be to transform it into a mass socialist, working-class party, with a revitalised trade union movement involved at its core through democratic, representative structures.
Why 1968 still matters
These are not new issues for the workers’ movement. May marks the 50th anniversary of the great general strike in France, the high point of a year of revolutionary shockwaves which we commemorate with an overview article by Peter Taaffe, first published in 2008.
As we explain, 1968 inaugurated "a period of colossal experimentation" in the arts, music and culture in general, "which held out the prospect of liberation for the new generation that was impossible within the rigid confines of capitalism" – and also a questioning of political norms. Rebelling against the deadening limitations of established parties and organisations there was a "great swirl of ‘autonomous’ movements, groups and organisations", with significant "layers of young people who were looking for a clear road in order to change society".
This was at a time, with the long post-war boom still under way, when the capitalist system appeared to be able to deliver improved conditions. The age of austerity, in contrast, is also the age of profound political fluidity.
But the determination of the capitalist class and their state, political and media establishment to hold onto power is as firm today as it was then. Still the most important conclusion from 1968 is that the absence of a mass working-class party with a clear socialist programme to overturn the old society and begin to construct the new allowed the French capitalists to derail the revolution. And that, without the creation of such a force, favourable opportunities will be lost in the future too.