Last week, something significant happened in the world of politics: Britain’s once moderate and reformist Labour Party elected an anti-monarchist, Trade Union backed socialist as their leader, who aims bring key industries back into state control, leave NATO, and create a socialist United Kingdom (/Republic). Given that this was the party which, only eighteen years previously was advocating a kind of social capitalism, it’s possible that they’ve never had a leader this radical.
Can you imagine the kind of fuss this will cause if he wins the General Election? The western left has become so moderate in recent years, with even capitalistic centrists like Barrack Obama having been accused of ‘socialism’, that it’s as though there’s no longer a place for the Corbynites of this world. The USA (a country not only less-to-the-left, but more-to-the-right as well), is an even better example. If J.C. rose to President in America, there’d probably be a second Civil War!
However, in the midst of all this, it’s important that Marxist left remember something: Corbyn is not as radical as you may be inclined to believe. OK, maybe in a country like the United Kingdom, where former party leader Ed Milliband qualifies as a ‘f***ing communist’ (courtesy Noel Gallagher), his views could be seen as extreme, but this is only in comparison to what we’re used to; not socialism, but watered-down capitalism.
Corbyn lies between the two, and this, I think, presents a problem. He’s no Milliband, but nor he is he Marx. In the words of his deputy, Tom Watson, ‘Jeremy Corbyn is not a Trotskyist’ and ‘Liz Kendall is not a Tory’, and in the same sense that the reluctance of his former opposition is certainly noted and perhaps exaggerated, so are his ideas, perhaps to the point where the radical left could mistake him for ‘one of them’. In reality, I’d say he’s more of an in-the-middle leftist, a political island between social-democracy and communism; a radical moderate. And as a result, I believe he’ll do more harm than good. Here’s why:
There is a certain side to the British left which is largely destructive. The trade-unionist movement is an example, for, unlike those of genuinely radical socialists, their ideas aren’t scientific, they don’t stand on concrete principles, aren’t guided by a clear motive of socialism, and are, in a way, directionless. Devoid of a clear plan, these movements criticise, attack, threaten and whine about the way things are, and they do so marvellously, but what do they contribute? As far as I’m concerned, not a great deal. OK, minor alterations have been made to the economy as a result of their existance, yet, as these movements are still intertwined within the capitalist system, I’d still see their role as a counterproductive.
Corbyn falls in this camp, as do those who elected him, for they attack capitalism yet won’t commit to a communist alternative. It’s a bit like igniting a revolution but refusing to build a solution to the society you destroyed, which begs the question ‘why revolt?’ True, Labour will likely plan to transform the economy in certain ways, such as the re-nationalisation of industry, yet firstly, simply because an institution exists under state control doesn’t necessarily make it any less exploitive, and secondly, any attempts they does make could easily be undone by whoever replaces them.
If that day comes around (if he’s voted in in the first place, which he won’t be), Corbyn, the ‘extremist’, the ‘Trotskyite’, the ‘revolutionary’ etc., will leave office in a country just as capitalistic as it was before, yet with an economy in shambles and a reinforced hatred for socialism.
It doesn’t need saying that, irrespective of whatever views you may have, neither will do us any good.
“Such categories as ‘commodity’, ‘money’, ‘wages’, ‘capital’, ‘profit’, ‘tax’, and the like are only semi-mystical reflections in men’s heads of the various aspects of a process of economy which they do not understand and which is not under their control. To decipher them, a thoroughgoing scientific analysis is indispensable”. – Trotsky
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I’d like to start by saying that I really love your blog, and since I was introduced to it a couple of weeks ago I have been working back through your posts. They are filled with a huge amount of insight and are impeccably argued.
I would like though, to argue against a number of points you make in this post.
Firstly, you attack the trade union movement as an example of a part of the British left which is ‘purely destructive’. How can you ignore the vast contribution that trade unions have made to our society in the past century. Everything from abolishing child labour over a century ago to forcing the Labour party into the minimum wage in ’97 are down to the unions as well as contributing to the enactment of the welfare state and NHS, equal pay for both genders etc. Now the obvious response to this is to say that in the past unions were helpful but now the unions are merely a nuisance which has not won anything since Thatcher. Certainly the trade union movement (as with all of the British left) is going through a tough time with less members that the past, but this does not mean that unions cannot fight for workers rights. Over the past five years unions have won and lost but there have been significant gains for some workers like the Ritzy cinema staff, tube drivers, UCL cleaners (sorry those are all in London, it’s because that’s where I’m based), the list goes on. What makes you think that unions have a detrimental effect on society? They may not be in a good place at the moment, but it is far better that they exist than if they didn’t.
Obviously, unions are mediators between workers and capitalism, so in the event of a revolutionary struggle they would have to give way to a revolutionary party or other organisation to organise the workers, but under capitalism they provide a huge benefit to working people which we cannot simply ignore because occasionally they annoy us by not fighting their cause enough.
I would also like to challenge your assertion that Corbyn is destructive to the left. Let us be clear about what Corbyn is and what he represents. He is not, as you say, against capitalism, he is against neoliberalism, and the solution he is presenting (not socialism, you are correct) is social democracy. Although he may be further to the left that the policies he is presenting, the policy platform he is putting forward or has put forward so far is about making capitalism kinder to the poorest.
Yes, this is not revolutionary, and I don’t think that he is going to cause a revolt and then be left with a smouldering country and no alternative. The British left has got to take these things one step at a time, shifting debate slowly to the left until we find ourselves in a revolutionary situation. This is a slow process, and we are certainly not ready for revolution just yet in the midst of the hegemonic neoliberal project. We need to begin by getting away from this extreme strain of capitalism, and the first step of this is to move to a more reformed version of capitalism. That is what Jeremy Corbyn is providing us with. It is an opportunity to move one step leftwards to change the debate around the neoliberal shrinking of the state and austerity.
He may not be the next Lenin, but we’ve got to support him.
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I really like your argument, and understand the point you made about the unions (I agree that they’re not purely destructive and have edited that part of the post), but still think that they lack clear direction and ideological aim, and thus don’t serve a productive purpose in the way of ending exploitation (I think I explained that better in the section I edited).
It think this is perhaps the main reason why we disagree on Corbyn, because I’m looking at this from a Marxist perspective and am talking of building communism in a permanent and revolutionary sense. This is why I’m very cautious to embrace Corbyn’s ideas, because I believe capitalism cannot be eroded away through a gradual process, and that, by reforming our economic system we may well only be prolonging it. If it was a choice between reformed capitalism or neoliberalism, I’d choose the former, but I uphold that a third, communist alternative is achievable, and that compromise will not help us in that regard.
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Sorry it has taken me a while to reply to this, I really appreciate you taking the time to reply-
Surely you believe though that we are not currently in a revolutionary situation. If you agree that the revolution is not going to happen (in the UK at least) in the short term, then we have to consider how we (as the left) move to this revolutionary situation. One of the best ways, in my opinion, to do this is through repeated wins within capitalism- if we keep on demanding better and better conditions and less exploitation within capitalism, then at some point we encounter a limit. It is at that point, when we can no longer better our lives within capitalism that we then overthrow capitalism.
In addition, it is only through education and politicisation and the politics of socialism becoming more talked about that we can achieve a class consciousness which is necessary for revolution.
Surely then, Jeremy Corbyn is the first step in both of these ongoing goals for the left, which will eventually result in a revolutionary situation.
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