The Struggle that Lies Ahead
by Dan Evans (@Dai_alectic) on March 24, 2019



If today Britain’s Labour Party has perhaps the most radical leadership in its history, the Left has long debated its viability as a vehicle for socialist advance. This was a particularly hot topic among the burgeoning New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, notably expressed in a series of polemics appearing in Socialist Register. In these exchanges, revolutionary thinkers like Ralph Miliband, John Saville , Perry Anderson and Leo Panitch all highlighted the party’s structural limits.

Miliband forthrightly denied Labour’s usefulness as a tool to transform society, arguing that “The belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone”. Still today, his Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and The State in Capitalist Society (1969) are seminal critiques of the Labour Party and its record in power.

With the failures of successive Labour governments, this group’s views hardened. They argued that the Labour Party was an active impediment to socialism, and indeed that it would have to die before any real socialist movement could emerge in the United Kingdom. John Saville argued that “the destruction of the illusions of Labourism is a necessary step before the emergence of a socialist movement of any size and influence becomes practical”.

Across Europe today, we are finally seeing the demise of traditional social democratic parties. As Miliband and co. predicted, the death of these traditional parties has in many cases been followed by the emergence of a new generation of more radical leftist movements, unencumbered by the institutional conservatism and timidity of the parties that they have replaced (and in some cases usurped).

In the United Kingdom, however, Labour has avoided this fate, with ‘socialist renewal’ occurring within the traditional social-democratic party rather than outside it. Last summer, in fact, Jeremy Corbyn nearly won the UK general election. His anti-austerity platform and bold manifesto promising, amongst other things, wholesale nationalization of public services , energized millions of people- particularly the young, who have been especially impacted by the Conservative Government’s punitive austerity doctrine. Corbyn achieved the highest vote swing to Labour since 1945. Labour now has half a million members and is comfortably the largest political party in the UK and one of the largest left-wing movements in Europe.

Although Labour narrowly lost last year’s general election, the fact that so many people saw there was an alternative to austerity was viewed as a symbolic victory in itself. ‘Jeremy Corbyn is the prime minister!’ was the joyful refrain last summer , and indeed in many ways, denying the Conservatives a majority was a real victory of sorts and has changed the dynamic of British politics significantly, preventing the Tories implementing some of their dystopian manifesto.

But there has been little analysis of what would actually have happened if Jeremy Corbyn had won the general election. It still feels like many people believe he will seamlessly implement his manifesto and that will be that – we will all live happily ever after. This reveals a worrying ignorance about the historical limitations of Labourism and the terrifying scale of the challenges that a social-democratic Labour government would face as it attempted to implement its manifesto pledges.

The likes of Miliband and Saville wrote rich and hugely important works exploring the limitations of Labourism and the nature of the British state, analyses which used to enjoy a prominent place on the British Left. Corbynism possesses a strong intellectual, theoretically informed fringe clustered around this publication, Novara Media, and events like The World Transformed, which has engaged with pressing issues like postcapitalism, the future of work, automation, and new forms of industrial democracy. Nonetheless, despite this unprecedented intellectual vigour, ‘classic’ critiques of the limitations of Labourism and the nature of the state form remain marginal at precisely the time when they they should be front and centre within the British labour movement, with the party within touching distance of power.

It is absolutely vital that Labour and Corbyn’s supporters understand what they are up against politically before they take power. They must learn from the huge mistakes made by previous Labour administrations and the plights of other socialist governments worldwide. A movement which understands the limitations that the capitalist system places on them will be better equipped to overcome them. Socialists therefore have to plan not to just take power (i.e., to win the next election) but how to exercise and hold onto it.

Dissecting the tragic coup against the socialist Allende government in Chile, Miliband gravely noted “it is by way of electoral victory that the forces of the Left will find themselves in office. The really important question is what happens then.”

History Matters

The challenges facing a Corbyn government - and indeed socialist governments and candidates across the world – are not new, although the sense of urgency facing the left is more acute than in previous generations, given the march of fascism around the globe and the looming environmental crisis.

Ralph Miliband, primarily regarded as a theorist, was acutely aware of the importance of history for socialists, particularly the need for a cold, dispassionate reading of Labour’s record in power. Understanding the lessons of history will allow Labour to avoid making the same mistakes that they have made in the past.

Unfortunately, however, the British labour movement has always possessed a cadre of intellectuals who have romanticized and overstated their movement’s historical achievements. These hagiographic interpretations of Labour’s record in government, intended to confer legitimacy on the movement in the present, are dangerous and self-defeating. By obfuscating the disappointing reality of Labour’s record when in power, romantic histories gloss over the nature of political power in the UK and the huge challenges a socialist Labour government would face if it took office today. They essentially prevent Labour learning the lessons of the past.

Symptomatic of this problem is the persistent nostalgia for the ‘spirit of 45’ Corbyn’s manifesto and programme for government is continually favourably compared to the welfare state and the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee. The Attlee government came into power promising to nationalize the bank of England, coal, gas, electricity, rail, cable and wireless, and the iron and steel industry. This period saw the creation of the NHS, the mass building of affordable social housing, and delivered, for a very short period of time, tangible material benefits to millions of working class people. Given the historical failures and weaknesses of the left in the UK it is perhaps unsurprising that the very limited social reforms instituted in this moment have taken on mythical status within the British labour movement.

Yet rather than being something to aspire to, the Attlee government should be seen as a warning from history.

The failures of the Attlee government.

Parliamentary Socialism (1961) was first and foremost an eviscerating revisionist history of the 1945 Labour government. This history formed the bedrock of the subsequent analyses as to why Labour continuously disappoint in government.

Returning to Miliband’s analysis of the Attlee government is vital for Corbyn supporters. Of all Labour’s failures whilst in government over the course of the twentieth century (and there are many), they are most acutely observed in the 1945 Labour government, precisely because this was an era with such huge potential. Attlee’s party in those years was far more united, open and confident in its socialism than Corbyn’s Labour is today; it was backed by a huge organized labour movement and widespread sympathy for socialism. It won a huge parliamentary majority in the 1945 British election, entering government with an overwhelming popular mandate to reform society.

The Attlee government was ultimately in a far better position than Corbyn is now to implement a socialist programme of government. Yet within five years, this ostensibly radical government had collapsed, its leaders utterly exhausted and broken, and the limited gains it made were soon reversed. Understanding why this happened can help Corbyn’s Labour prepare for power.

Miliband argued that whilst the experience of World War II had radicalized the labour movement in the UK, the war’s impact on the Labour leadership was very different from the impact it had on their supporters. The majority of the post-1945 Labour leadership had been part of the wartime national coalition government, alongside their peers in the Tory party. The experience of the wartime coalition had eroded many of the ideological differences between the Labour leadership and the opposition. Indeed, many of the Labour Party had become close personal friends with the British ruling establishment during the war and found that they had much in common. Before even being elected, then, the Labour leadership began to dramatically water down its plans for nationalisation and state control of industry, instead replacing these visions with vague notions that core industries would be guided by state policy rather than publicly owned.

Despite pressure from rank and file and trade party and union activists to be more radical, the 1945 Labour manifesto, Let us Face the Future was, according to Miliband, ‘a mild and circumspect document which marked no advance on Labour’s Immediate Programme of 1937’ . Thus once Labour were elected in 1945, the majority of British industry and finances ultimately remained in private hands.

Moreover, the Attlee government refused to countenance any form of ‘industrial democracy’ (i.e., worker control) within the industries which were nationalized. In most cases, the industries which were nationalized either retained the old bosses, or simply drafted in bosses from the private sector, retaining the same practices and management structure of the private industries. This mode of organization outraged Bevan. Stuart Hall later argued that this distaste for worker control eventually led to the welfare state later being perceived by the people it served as bureaucratic, cumbersome and unresponsive, something which was done to people, rather than done for them. He argued that this undemocratic legacy was a failure which allowed Thatcher’s neoliberal arguments of ‘individual freedom’ to take root in the UK.

Although Attlee is remembered for paving the way for independence for India, Pakistan and Burma, in foreign policy in particular, the Attlee government generally maintained the aggressive foreign policy favoured by the Tories. Tory ministers loved Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, because they agreed entirely with his imperialism. Virulently anti-communist, the foreign office under Bevin clung grimly onto much of the British empire, becoming embroiled in colonial wars; secretly began to develop an atomic weapon; and ultimately laid the groundwork for a British foreign policy that positioned the UK as a junior partner of the nascent US empire, where it has stayed ever since. As well as being obviously immoral, militarism and imperialism has always had a retarding effect on the British labour movement. As George Padmore suggested in 1944, the UK’s dogged imperialism also meant the structural incorporation of the British working class (or at least its industrial and political leadership) into British capital and the state. “Empire unites labour and capital”, he wrote, “the reforms desired by the Labour leaders for the working-class in the metropolis derives from the spoils of Empire, these Trade Union leaders have, willy-nilly, been forced into the role of junior partners in the imperialist concern”.

Faced with a financial crisis in 1947 (facilitated in no small part by its militarist foreign policy) the Attlee government ended up preaching austerity and, with the blessing of a supine TUC, implemented a pay freeze for workers in 1948. The government attempted to use its allies in the top of the trade union movement to prevent the embarrassment of a Labour government facing strikes. As Padmore had predicted, the aims of the political and industrial leadership of the Labour movement “have been to wring concessions from the ruling class, and they have come progressively to the point of view that if the capitalist class is to be in a position to accede their economic demands, that class must have their support whenever its position is threatened”. Although they could not prevent this entirely: in the 1948 dockers’ strike, (during which Bevan nearly ruined his reputation ) the government called a state of emergency and even used troops as scab labour.

Throughout the post-war Labour government (and indeed throughout the twentieth century) the Labour left- always a minority in the parliamentary Labour party (PLP)- was disorganized and weak, and effectively marginalized and disciplined (in many cases literally, as far left MPs were expelled from the party). The party leadership effectively gerrymandered the internal party structures- including the trade union hierarchy- to neutralise protests from the more radical rank and file. However, the left in the PLP were fatally weakened by the fact they could always ultimately be relied upon to loyally prioritise ‘party unity’ over their socialist principles. As Miliband and Saville point out, ‘party unity’ in reality means one thing: capitulation to the right wing.

After winning the 1950 election, Attlee called a snap election in 1951, which he lost. The Labour government went out with a whimper, not a bang. The Attlee Government should not be celebrated by today’s Labour party activists but viewed as an abject failure. It should be held up as an example of the huge obstacles faced by socialist governments and the deep rooted problems inherent to Labourism.

The pathologies of Labourism and Parliamentarism

Why is it, mused John Saville, that “those who win elections with socialist phrases on their lips…and most are not conscious hypocrites…proceed to administer a capitalist society, which they have previously denounced?” In other words, why are Labour so disappointing in power? Why do they continually renege upon their promises?

The key thing to understand about the left criticism of Labourism and parliamentary socialism is that this is not about individual integrity or a lack of political will, which is the focus of much casual debate regarding Labour politicians. Instead, it is about structures of power.

For Miliband, two interconnected features explain the failure of the Labour party in power. One is internal, related to the pathologies and contradictions of the labour party itself (pathologies encapsulated by the term labourism). The other is external, and related to structural, societal constraints imposed on socialists who take office.

The theory of Labourism has been developed over the years by new left critics of the Labour Party such
as Tom Nairn, Perry Anderson and later, Raymond Williams . Both Nairn and Anderson argued that the unique historical development of the British state and the lack of a real bourgeois revolution had given the British state and Labour movement a profoundly conservative character, defined by an underlying British nationalism derived from imperialism (something also consistently pointed out by Marx, Engels and Lenin) and relatedly, an anti-intellectual empiricism. Nairn also argued that the left of the Labour party existed solely to provide a veneer of moral or socialist cover for a profoundly reactionary party. Leo Panitch later drew attention to Labour’s integrative function within the British capitalist state, acting to neutralise the revolutionary potential of the working classes by helping to inculcate it with reactionary nationalistic and militaristic values which militated against the creation of a revolutionary class consciousness.

Each of these analyses are undoubtedly true. For now, however, the core of Labourism is Labour’s parliamentarism: the Labour party’s unwavering belief that parliament is the seat of all power in society. This is something which has been the central tenet of Labour politics and the party’s attitude towards power ever since its forerunner, the Labour Representation Committee, entered parliament in 1900.

Throughout its history, the Labour party and its adjunct, the trade union movement, has channeled all protest and political agitation into the lawful politics of the ballot box. For early working class MPs like Keir Hardie, this was perhaps understandable: parliament is where decisions were made: if you can get in there and take it over you can control society. Take power electorally and the rest will surely follow easily. This belief in parliamentarism is something that the left of the Labour party believe in as much as the right.

The state is not neutral

Ultimately this unswerving commitment to parliamentarism condemns the Labour party to remain a permanent hostage to existing structures of power- both within parliament itself and throughout wider society- and to be doomed by the limitations these inevitably place on socialists, both in government and beyond.
Miliband threw himself into theorising these societal structures in The State in Capitalist Society after identifying and describing them in Parliamentary Socialism. Miliband’s critique of parliamentary socialism hinges on the belief that Labour’s conception of power is ultimately flawed.

The problem with parliamentarism is that it represents a belief that the state is neutral. At the core of Labourism is a belief that parliament, and the rest of the state apparatus (the courts, the judiciary, the police, the army, civil society) is simply a tool that a Labour government can use to re-shape society in their image. They believe that if you control the state and parliament then you control society, that the state apparatuses will serve each new master equally with no prejudice. For Marxists, the state is not neutral but rather a tool of capital, and this is why it must be smashed and replaced with a new state.

For Saville and Miliband, Labour’s view of the neutrality of the state represented a ‘state of innocence’ about the true nature of power and influence in the UK. Far from being located solely in parliament, power is in fact diffuse, spread throughout society. Like C Wright Mills’s parallel analysis of power in the United States, Miliband and Saville argued that a power elite, united by a shared class background and a deep ideological conservatism, are spread throughout British society, controlling all aspects of it, not just parliament. Thus the tory party, the judiciary, the media, the education system, the armed forces, the civil service, the police, and so on are all ideologically united and vehemently opposed to socialism and a Labour government. They therefore cannot simply be used as tools of the Labour government, for these state apparatuses will in practice actively push back and attempt to sabotage any changes to the status quo and undermine the government.

The historical experiences of Labour administrations, in particular the Attlee government, allow us to predict the institutional obstacles which would confront a Corbyn government.

Negotiating the bureaucracy.

Lenin argued that the state bureaucracy was an impediment to the successful prosecution of the Russian revolution.. He bemoaned the fact that the state apparatus the Bolsheviks inherited was not theirs, and that try as they might, they could not dislodge or reform the bourgeois and tsarist nature of the state machinery, which continually frustrated their reforms. A famous passage by John Saville, which highlighted the conservatism of the British civil service- the administrative body tasked with implementing labour’s manifesto- is illustrative of the realities of power in the UK. It is worth here quoting it at length:

When a Labour administration takes over the Government, they inherit a large bureaucratic apparatus that is continuing to administer the affairs of the country. The first thing a Labour Government does is to carry on, using the accepted and traditional practices and procedures. Its ministers slip into the seats just vacated by their Tory predecessors, and are served by the same Civil Servants whose social background is attuned to Conservative traditions. Assuming that the Government has some reforming intentions, the complicated processes begin of drafting new legislation and then getting it accepted: first, from within the Civil Service and then by Parliament. The pressures on a Minister from his Civil Servants, from outside vested interests, from the Tory opposition in Parliament are intense and continuous; and the more radical the measure the greater the weight of opinion and interest with which the Minister responsible will have to contend. In the case of legislation that is genuinely reforming in intention the pressures to narrow its scope and limit its application will be unceasing and unrelenting: and the reform when it finally appears as an Act of Parliament will be a good deal more orthodox and limited than when it began its passage as a draft measure. There is, indeed, a general law of social change which can be applied to social and political reform measures in Britain. It is a law of delay, for to the conservative interests in society delay means life and an abundance of opportunities to trim, modify and limit reforming measures as they continue their long journey through political life.”

The Attlee government struggled to get its plans and legislation passed through the state’s bureaucratic machinery. However, this did not take the form of outright sabotage, as the left feared would happen. Whilst the civil service was staffed by men who were ideologically conservative and hostile to Labour’s economic plans, it also contained “those whose enthusiasm for a planned economy was as great as that of its keenest advocates in the government”..

The problem, then, was not the conservatism of the individuals within the state bureaucracy, but the internal logic and dynamics of the bureaucracy itself, which was “a rigid and innately conservative institutional view formed by decades of established practice” . The civil service was simply structurally not able to implement the process of nationalization: the departments were too autonomous and disorganized, and there lacked an overarching method for uniting them for the purpose of implementing the labour government’s planning strategy..

The Tories often have their policy plans blocked by the civil service. A Corbyn government therefore cannot expect to seamlessly implement its manifesto, but should instead expect to face obstruction at every turn as legislation and plans filter through the administrative process and get watered down and amended by senior civil servants. As argued in Tribune by an anonymous civil servant, their hostility and the wider functioning of the civil service, “represents an important threat to a Jeremy Corbyn government.”

The civil service has also been stripped to its bones under austerity, and so even if it is not openly hostile to the ideas contained in the manifesto, it would certainly be unused to and unprepared for the detailed, organized planning required by such radical societal reform. The House of Lords also tried to block the 1945 Labour government’s plans for nationalizing iron and steel, and this unelected branch, unless dealt with by Corbyn, would also certainly be used to slow, if not completely block, the legislation which Corbyn’s manifesto requires. Tony Benn’s experience in government, and his noting of how “the Civil Service can frustrate the policies and decisions of popularly elected governments”, prompted not only his turn to the left but a sharpened interest in questions of the state, which have often been absent from Corbynism, a point noted by Robin Blackburn.

Attacks from the media and big business.

Nationalisation inevitably creates a reaction and backlash from capital and its allies. Attlee’s plans to nationalise public services were mercilessly attacked by advertising and PR campaigns paid for by the businesses he threatened. Miliband notes how, in response to Attlee’s proposals to nationalize sugar, the sugar giant Tate & Lyle mounted a huge PR offensive against these plans, setting up 400 anti-nationalization committees, on which worked 4,000 employees all canvassing to undermine Labour’s plans. The steel giants also launched similar campaigns. All these counter-offensives were better resourced and backed by a far greater propaganda machine than Labour could ever wish to possess.

Jeremy Corbyn has faced unprecedented media hostility, precisely because he represents such a threat to the established order in the UK. In power, he would face this tenfold. Rail operators and other groups would mount huge PR campaigns against his plans, and the British corporate media would be mobilised like never before to defend capital.

Corbyn has already faced a taste of this in his conflict with Richard Branson and Virgin Trains, who mounted a smear campaign against him, enthusiastically promoted by the media. The offensive against the manifesto would take the form of tv adverts, paid advertorials and front page adverts in the national press, and relentless news coverage focusing on the inefficiency of nationalisation, and so on.

Under Attlee, industries that were nationalized also paid huge, crippling amounts of compensation to the private companies that formerly controlled them. Such amounts seriously dented Labour’s efforts to reform society. Labour’s current plans for nationalisation are unclear about compensation for shareholders. Whilst John McDonnell is bullish about it, he alludes to the fact that any settlement would have to go through parliament, which would itself be fraught with difficulty. If the Labour government do agree compensation deals, these could be incredibly costly, and could potentially hamper their overall programme. Moreover, the smallprint of the current nationalisation plans states that the nationalisation of key industries could be a very gradual process, which would provide ample time for a huge counter-offensive by big business.

Undoubtedly, big businesses affected by nationalisation would attempt to sue a Labour government. But beyond legalistic reaction, capitalists would actively attempt to sabotage a labour government. The first phase of the counter-attack would be ‘capital flight’ where, faced with the prospect of clawed back businesses taxes and increased workers rights, foreign capital and big businesses like Google and Amazon would simply move their businesses and investment out of the UK overnight, causing job losses, panic and a loss of morale. Labour would be accused of committing economic suicide and would face huge pressure to reverse their plans or to placate these multinationals. This instability would likely cause international investors to become nervous, potentially causing a run on the pound.

Beyond capital flight, capital and its allies have an unerring ability to drive a wedge between class fractions and existing fissures in the working class, preventing socialist hegemony, which requires effective leadership that overcomes the tensions between allied classes. Lessons abound. The 1980 FIAT strike in Turin was famously undermined and broken by a counter demonstration of foremen, middle management and moderate workers. In the UK, Thatcher’s right to buy scheme effectively peeled off swathes of the working class It is highly likely that Corbyn will come up against sections of the labour aristocracy who will be bought off and manipulated into opposing his reforms. It is not impossible to imagine businesses organizing sector wide strikes or protests, offering incentives to workers to stay loyal and side with the company over the government, mirroring the scab unions cultivated by Thatcher in the miners’ strike.

Dirty tricks and meddling by the security services

Despite the fact that the British security services have systematically targeted leftists throughout the twentieth century, the young left (outside the trade union movement ) generally still exists in a state of naivety about the danger the repressive state apparatuses pose to a Corbyn government. This is a byproduct of firstly, Labour’s history of militaristic nationalism and British exceptionalism, which paints the UK as a uniquely stable democracy and the British armed forces and police as innately capable and noble; and secondly (and primarily) because Labour in government have never once represented a threat to the aggressive foreign policy favoured by the British military establishment (quite the opposite in fact). But discussing the threat posed by this arm of the state should not be dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists. Indeed, previous leftist MPs such as Tony Benn were well aware of the threat faced by even moderate socialists. Corbyn, who has already been a target of the state, will also realise this, as will Seamus Milne, who authored the iconic book The Enemy Within, which documented the campaign by the British security services against Arthur Scargill and the NUM.

The Attlee government, perhaps the last Labour government to even think about deviating from an interventionist foreign policy, faced huge pressure from the military establishment. The 1945 Labour manifesto promised to “apply [a] Socialist analysis to the world situation”, and it was expected by the rank and file that the Government would adopt cordial relations with the Soviet Union, begin to pull out of empire, and so on. Immediately, Attlee was pressured by the British military elite not to abandon military spending plans and was bullied by the military into reversing his plans to cut the length of military conscription. Miliband notes that it was quite clear in exchanges between the military and the Labour government that the government knew their place. Attlee’s initially progressive plans for an independent foreign policy were crushed by pressure from the defence staff and his fanatical foreign secretary, Bevin We also now know that in the 1970s, a military coup against Harold Wilson- who represented nowhere near the same existential threat to British capitalism as Corbyn does- was openly talked about by senior British officers culminating in the armed forces taking over Heathrow airport on the pretext of a counter-terrorism exercise against the IRA as a show of force to Wilson.

Jeremy Corbyn, a committed pacifist, represents an unprecedented threat to the UK’s militarist foreign policy and the military industrial complex which is so central to the British economy and indeed to the UK’s sense of nationhood. Even in opposition, Corbyn has faced talk of a military coup were he to take power. Recently it has been alleged that a foreign office-linked organization, staffed with military intelligence specialists, has been orchestrating online smear campaigns against Corbyn, in collusion with certain British journalists. In power- if he can implement his foreign policy plans without them being blocked by the committed militarists in his own party (these elements have already caused him to water down his views on Trident)- he would undoubtedly be targeted in some form by the British security services and military establishment. On top of merciless, co-ordinated attacks in the militaristic press, this could involve an outright coup or state of emergency, or the use of proxies as perfected in northern Ireland to undermine the Labour government and wider Labour movement.

Informal pressures from the Conservatives and the threat from within

Outside the aforementioned formal structures of power, it is worth mentioning that Labour’s behaviour in government has traditionally also been constrained by the ferocity of the Tory opposition. Much is made of Aneurin Bevan’s quip that the Tories are ‘lower than vermin’, but what is often ignored is the class hatred that flows the other way: for conservative party MPs, Labour MPs in the cabinet represent the lowest of the low, interlopers who have upset the natural order of things.

Miliband reminds us that the Conservatives, used to power, were a formidable opposition who attacked the Attlee government relentlessly. One junior minister remarked “I have not forgotten the tension of rising to answer questions or conduct a debate under the cold, implacable eyes of that row of well-tailored tycoons, who hated the Labour government with a passion and fear which made them dedicated men in the determination to get it out of office and limit the damage it could do to the world which they saw as theirs by right”.

The hostility Corbyn would face in the House of Commons as Prime Minister would be unprecedented. The attacks he has suffered in the house as leader of the opposition would intensify, he would be jeered and deafened at every appearance by the braying aristocrats who have spent their lives being groomed for power. This atmosphere would certainly test the resolve of any ministers who are not entirely committed to socialism.

The intensity of this atmosphere demands discipline and unity within the parliamentary Labour party. Following Corbyn’s defeat of Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership election, there were naïve calls from Corbyn supporting journalists for ‘unity’, for everyone to get behind Corbyn, to ‘focus on what unites us rather than what divides us’, and so on. These calls for unity have recently been repeated by figures on the left of the PLP following the cynical defection of the ‘independent group’. This represents an ignorance of the nature of the Labour right. Miliband’s historical analysis of the myriad barriers faced by socialists within Labour provides today’s leftists with a clear understanding of the nature of the Labour right and allows us to place their current wrecking tactics within their wider historical context. The labour right are a vital pillar of the British state and, as the liberal voice of capital, represent as big an obstacle to socialism in Britain as the conservatives.

The Labour party in Government therefore does have to be entirely united, but this does not mean the ‘unity’ of the past, which simply meant the left coalescing and giving into pressure from the right. It means that the PLP and indeed every scale of the Labour party has to be run by committed socialists. The extent of the offensive and hostility Corbyn would face from the opposing benches and from capital and the state means that would be self-sabotaging for the Labour Party to go into Government without the left first controlling the PLP and the rest of the party structures (such as the NEC); and without disciplinary measures such as mandatory reselection being put in place to remove non-socialist elements of the PLP if required. This is not about ‘ideology’ per se: controlling these internal structures would facilitate the strict internal discipline which is so necessary when going into such a hostile environment and crucially prevents attacks from within. Quite simply, Labour will struggle to implement their manifesto even if they enter parliament as a united, socialist government. If Corbyn is elected without first expelling the wreckers in the Labour right, he will have no chance.

Whilst the ‘Independent Group’ represent the most obvious manifestation of the anti-socialist faction within Labour, they are in some ways a red herring: these non-entities should not detract from the fact that far more powerful and determined wreckers still remain at large within the PLP. As the New Socialist editorial makes clear, the exodus of right wingers is to be welcomed and encouraged: it is an absolute prerequisite for implementing Labour’s manifesto. However, we should not understate how the threat of further defections is being used to strengthen the right and anti-democratic forces within the Party.

The potential of the current moment

Despite the scale of the challenges the Labour government would face, this is also a moment of huge potential.

After a lifetime of socialist agitation which included vociferous calls for a new socialist movement outside the Labour Party, towards the end of his life Ralph Miliband seemed to concede that Labour was the only viable vehicle for socialist transformation This was not an endorsement of Labour, but rather, like so many leftist thinkers (including the recently departed and similarly brilliant Erik Olin Wright ), a darkly pessimistic assessment of what could feasibly be achieved by socialists within liberal capitalist democracies absent an actual, armed revolution.

Ralph Miliband was sceptical that militant socialists like Corbyn and McDonnell could ever ‘slip through the net’ and become influential within Labour. But not only are they the most consistent socialist MPs the UK has ever had, they are, incredibly, leading the Labour movement. There have been radical MPs before- most notably Tony Benn- who have attempted to dramatically change the Labour party, but they never managed to take power within the party as Corbyn has done.

John Saville talked about Labour’s ‘state of innocence’ when it came to the challenges facing them in power. Yet as Ed Rooksby brilliantly points out, not all leftists within the Labour party can be condescendingly dismissed as naïve. He argues compellingly that many within radical parliamentary socialist movements are all too aware of the structural limitations they face, and in fact are continually working to overcome these.

Indeed, what makes Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell so exciting and unique is they are (perhaps far more so than their wider movement) acutely aware of the limitations to Labourism and the barriers they will face in power. They have spent their whole careers being marginalized in parliament and bumping against the state apparatus and indeed against the dominant forces within their own party. For this reason it appears that, unlike the Attlee government, they are preparing for the barriers they will face before they take power. McDonnell has prepared for a run on the pound; and has stated on numerous occasions the challenges that Labour would face in Government. Labour have openly begun to experiment with new forms of worker ownership and control. This is a vital step in not only avoiding the failures of the welfare status apparatus put in place by Attlee which so alienated the working class, but also as a way of facilitating genuine working class control of the economy. One of the other failures of the Attlee government was the failure to bring in talented experts to assist them as they attempted to negotiate the capitalist economy. McDonnell and Corbyn have gathered around them a team of extremely talented left wing economists.

Miliband noted that the potential strength of the British Labour party lay in its close links with organized labour and with the working class. To hold power, Labour has to completely invert its traditional relationship with the working class and trade union movement. In the past, the Labour party has actively retarded the revolutionary potential of the working class and the trade union movement, acting in a ‘policing role’, as a release valve which neutralizes the potential of the working class. For Labour to succeed in overcoming at least the immediate short term barriers they will face, they need to channel and harness the radical potential of the rank and file, rather than neutralize it. As Tony Benn put it, Labour must facilitate the bubbling up of socialism from below, not rigidly and paternalistically impose socialism from above McDonnell, as ever, recognizes this.

Some progress has been made thus far. The ongoing democratic reform of the party’s internal structures at the local and national level will ensure that the energy of grassroots members and activists can be channeled rather than blocked. Whilst many trade unions have been career vehicles for Blairites and the right in recent years, the leftward shift in the Labour party leadership is gradually being mirrored in the union movement.

This is promising, although there is much to be done. For all the talk of building a mass working class movement, as yet the Labour party is not this. Momentum is essentially an election winning machine- a body capable of mobilizing activists to campaign in marginal seats and to bring pressure to bear on local councils, and so on. This is extremely useful of course, but it is not enough. In addition, trade union density in the UK is low and falling. British trade unions have been largely gutted of their militancy since being crushed in the 1980s, and have been poor at responding to the changing nature of work and the challenges of organizing in the modern workplace. Organizing in precarious sectors has instead been led by small, anarchist unions such as the IWGB. It is vital that union membership grows significantly, not as an end in itself, but for very practical reasons: socialists must brace themselves for the open conflict with capital which will accompany the election of a socialist government. A mass popular front made up organized labour, as well as all leftist parties and their supporters, will have to be ready to hold counter-protests against the reactionary elements which will be mobilized by capital; they must be ready to break bosses’ strikes, to take over the running of factories and other key industries if necessary.

Above all, to become hegemonic, Labour cannot afford to solely focus their efforts on parliament, on traditional ways of ‘doing politics’, but must instead focus on acting in arenas outside ‘formal politics’. Destroying neoliberalism will mean not only undoing its concrete manifestations such as privatisation, but displacing neoliberalism as a set of social relations and a way of thinking about society. This means working to colonise the institutions of the state (if they are not going to be smashed); but also becoming dominant within ostensibly ‘non-political’ arenas of civil society (including popular culture ) in order to reform the very soul of society. This will require a dramatic culture change within the party and a better understanding of the real nature of power within society.


author

Dan Evans (@Dai_alectic)

Dan Evans is a former academic, now a writer and support worker. He is based in Cardiff.

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