SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 221 September 2018

A division of Labour

A Party with Socialists in It: a history of the Labour left

By Simon Hannah

Published by

Pluto Press, 2018, £12.99

Reviewed by Tom Costello

In a 2006 Today Show interview the late Tony Benn remarked that "the Labour Party has never been a socialist party, but it’s always had socialists in it". The quote forms the basis for Simon Hannah’s book, documenting the highs and lows of Labour’s various left-wing movements throughout the decades. Hannah provides a brief history of Labour’s socialist movements, from the foundation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 to the general election of 2017, in which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was strengthened by its surprising electoral advance.

Hannah’s central argument is that, in line with the Benn quote, the Labour Party is fundamentally caught between two warring factions: what he calls ‘integrative’ and ‘transformative’ tendencies. The integrative wing seeks to ensure that the party upholds the "existing state and social structures for the purpose of incorporating the interests of the labour movement into the establishment". The transformative wing, on the other hand, wants to make it an organisation that will unleash a barrage of social reform to "challenge the existing power relations within society" (page xiv).

As a short and accessible reference text to understand the bare facts of Labour’s internal struggles, there is useful information in Hannah’s book, including on the witch-hunting and expulsions of Militant supporters during the Kinnock era. However, a number of features are quite seriously mistaken.

A prime error lies in the title, and how it is informed by Hannah’s own ‘transformative-integrative’ analysis. The idea that this represents the Labour Party’s most fundamental divide could, perhaps, be expected from bourgeois media outlets. For a history of Labour that seeks to provide a socialist or Marxist understanding, however, this analysis is inadequate and superficial.

For one, it contains some quite obvious inconsistencies. Hannah argues that Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is representative of the ‘transformative’ faction. Yet in 1945, Clement Attlee’s leadership campaigned on a general election manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, which included open declarations in favour of the creation of a ‘Socialist Commonwealth’, alongside pledges for the nationalisation of iron, steel, transport and a raft of industries. It led to the nationalisation of roughly 20% of British industry.

Such terminology is absent in Jeremy Corbyn’s programme, and his pledges for now look considerably milder than the ones proposed by Attlee. Yet Attlee was firmly on the right of the party. Does this make Attlee a ‘transformer’ and Corbyn an ‘integrator’? The confusion this causes indicates just how unsatisfactory that analysis can be.

So what is the alternative? To socialists, the starting point for analysing the Labour Party should be to consider the class forces operating within it. What is the class structure of the party and what does this mean for socialists as they try to develop a method for approaching it?

In order to answer this question, the ideas provided by the great Russian revolutionary VI Lenin are more appropriate for 21st century Marxists. Lenin’s analysis was essentially that Labour was a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, torn between a working-class base and a capitalist leadership. This serious class analysis of the forces in the Labour Party is infinitely more fruitful than Hannah’s vague distinction.

This is clearer when we look at past ‘Marxist’ thinkers who have failed to adequately appraise the class character of the Labour Party. One of the best known left writers on Labour’s history was Ralph Miliband (father to Ed and  David). His work, Parliamentary Socialism, advanced the argument that the Labour Party had, in effect, become utterly corrupt and was a hopeless terrain for socialist organising.

This perspective had been formed through Miliband’s horror at seeing the Wilson government’s support for US imperialism’s war in Vietnam – although Wilson was forced to refuse US appeals for British troops to be deployed, for fear of the repercussions within the labour movement.

The weaknesses in Miliband’s views on Labour are, in fact, pointed out by Hannah. While Miliband predicted that Labour would fall further to its ‘bourgeois tendencies’, the reality was the opposite. Labour became a battleground for working-class politics from the 1970s to the late 1980s, with socialist ideas undergoing a "renaissance" as Hannah puts it (p137).

Nonetheless, Hannah and Miliband both employ the same mistaken methods of analysis. They fail to start with a class approach that can allow socialists to appraise the party. As a consequence, the only substantive difference between their works is that Miliband wrote his in a period when it was fashionable on Britain’s ‘New Left’ to dismiss Labour.

In Hannah’s conclusion, he sets out to discuss how Corbynism fits into the dynamic of the ‘transformative-integrative’ split (p240). Here, Hannah’s misguided ideas about the state of the Labour Party and Corbyn movement become more obvious.

The Socialist Party has often raised that, even though Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party, this does not herald the end of the fight against Blair’s legacy. The Blairite faction, still dominant within the Parliamentary Labour Party, represents a serious and existential threat to the future of Corbyn’s progressive, anti-austerity movement. Moreover, that Corbyn and many of his allies, to a significant degree, have pursued a false tactic of seeking peace and ‘unity’ with the forces of the Labour right wing.

This was revealed at its most ridiculous when, in June 2016, a long-time left-wing, anti-racist activist, Marc Wadsworth, was suspended from the Labour Party under bogus allegations of ‘antisemitism’. He had, in reality, accused the Blairite MP Ruth Smeeth of collaborating with a Telegraph journalist to smear Jeremy Corbyn.

It was only in April 2018, after Hannah’s book was published, that Marc Wadsworth finally received a hearing from a Labour Party kangaroo court and was expelled under the catch-all charge of ‘bringing the party into disrepute’. Unfortunately, Corbyn remained silent throughout and, in the process, allowed the Blairite wing to set the agenda in the Labour Party to a worrying degree.

Anyone seeking to understand current events must grasp the fact that courting the Labour right in the hope that they will be quiet is a recipe for failure. It violates a basic principle: there can be no compromise with pro-capitalist forces, inside or outside the Labour Party. However, Hannah makes no mention of this. In fact, if readers took his book at face value, they would be led to believe that the Blairites pose no serious threat to the Corbyn movement at all.

A similar weakness is Hannah’s tendency to use unclear language when describing the current limitations of Corbyn’s programme. He does point out that, if Corbyn was elected, his programme would lead a Labour government into a situation of "directly confronting the power of capitalism" (p241). Yet there is very little about the policies that Corbyn would have to adopt if this was to happen.

The Socialist Party has consistently argued that a mass mobilisation of the trade union movement would be needed to support an anti-austerity government led by Corbyn. However, we also explain that Corbyn must radically extend his programme if it is to overcome capitalist sabotage. This would have to include the nationalisation of the banks to prevent capital flight, and the swift nationalisation of the dominant sectors of the economy under the democratic management of the working class.

The absence of any such demands, allied with Simon Hannah’s lack of a class approach in analysing the Labour Party, means that his book falls drastically short as a guide to action for socialists today – in or out of the party.

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