“Last illusions”: The Labour Party and the Left

Efraim Car­le­bach
Platy­pus Re­view
№ 97
, June 2017

In every era the at­tempt must be made anew to wrest tra­di­tion away from a con­form­ism that is about to over­power it… even the dead will not be safe from the en­emy if he wins. And this en­emy has not ceased to be vic­tori­ous.

— Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Theses on the Philo­sophy of His­tory

Since Jeremy Corbyn took lead­er­ship of the La­bour Party in 2015, he and his party have been the North Star for many on the Left. This re­ori­ent­a­tion has raised old ques­tions about the Left’s re­la­tion­ship to the La­bour Party. At the Ox­ford Rad­ic­al For­um in March the de­scrip­tion for a pan­el on “Corbyn, La­bour, and the Rad­ic­al Left” put for­ward a num­ber of symp­to­mat­ic pro­pos­i­tions. It re­gistered the fact that “sev­er­al so­cial­ist tend­en­cies which had pre­vi­ously cam­paigned against the party now com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing it un­der Corbyn’s lead­er­ship” and that Corbyn’s elec­tion to lead­er “was largely viewed as a mo­ment of tri­umph for the far left.” But what is the Left? And what would mean for it to tri­umph? It sug­ges­ted that the Left has “a great­er de­gree of in­flu­ence in party polit­ics than it has for dec­ades.” But what is a polit­ic­al party for the Left? The de­scrip­tion wor­ries about what will hap­pen if Corbyn loses in a gen­er­al elec­tion. The hopes for trans­form­ing the La­bour Party seem in danger. Ral­ph Miliband is un­con­sciously in­voked: Should the left “pur­sue so­cial­ism” by “par­lia­ment­ary” or “non-par­lia­ment­ary” means? Solace is taken in the thought that the La­bour Party is “clearly more so­cial­ist than any since 1983 — and per­haps even earli­er.”1 But what is so­cial­ism?

As the Left, in vari­ous ways, rushes to em­brace La­bour, the his­tory of the La­bour Party rises up be­hind it. This art­icle relates that his­tory to the his­tory of Marx­ism from 1848 to WWI, par­tic­u­larly the “re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute.” On the ru­ins of that his­tory ap­pears the ap­par­ent pleth­ora of “Left” ori­ent­a­tions to La­bour today.

Bona­partism and re­form­ism

In their re­spect­ive cri­ti­cisms of re­vi­sion­ism in the re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute with­in the Second In­ter­na­tion­al, Lux­em­burg and Len­in ar­gued that the re­vi­sion­ists had re­gressed to pre-Marxi­an so­cial­ism, to lib­er­al­ism and petit-bour­geois demo­cracy, li­quid­at­ing the need for so­cial­ist lead­er­ship. Len­in and Lux­em­burg sought to ad­vance bey­ond the im­passe by re­turn­ing to the high point of con­scious­ness in Marx’s re­cog­ni­tion of the les­sons of the failed re­volu­tions of 1848. Un­like the re­vi­sion­ists they did not have a lin­ear-pro­gress­ive view of his­tory. The 1848 re­volu­tions failed to de­liv­er the “so­cial re­pub­lic.” As Marx wrote, the bour­geois­ie were no longer able to rule and the pro­let­ari­at not yet ready.2 The state had to in­ter­vene to man­age the self-con­tra­dic­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety, that is, cap­it­al­ism. Louis Bona­parte filled this va­cu­um of power by ap­peal­ing for sup­port to the dis­con­tents of all classes in so­ci­ety and ex­pand­ing state in­sti­tu­tions of wel­fare and po­lice as tools for con­trolling con­tra­dic­tions in so­ci­ety. So Bona­partism led the dis­con­tents of the masses to polit­ic­ally re­con­sti­t­ute cap­it­al through the state. This was an in­ter­na­tion­al phe­nomen­on, af­fect­ing all the ma­jor cap­it­al­ist coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United King­dom. For Marx, the les­son of 1848 was the ne­ces­sity of the polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence of the work­ing class from petit-bour­geois demo­cracy, or the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at. In the ab­sence of this in­de­pend­ent polit­ic­al lead­er­ship, the masses would be led by the right, as they were by Louis Bona­parte.

In Re­form or Re­volu­tion, Lux­em­burg ar­gues that so­cial re­forms do not so­cial­ize pro­duc­tion, lead­ing piece­meal to so­cial­ism, but so­cial­ize the crisis of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion. The work­ers’ bour­geois de­mands for work and justice needed a pro­let­ari­an party for so­cial­ism to “achieve the con­scious­ness of the need to over­come la­bour as a com­mod­ity, to make the ‘ob­ject­ive’ eco­nom­ic con­tra­dic­tion, a ‘sub­ject­ive’ phe­nomen­on of polit­ics3 — “to take its his­tory in­to its own hands.”4 In Len­in’s terms, the re­vi­sion­ists’ “tail­ing” of trade uni­on con­scious­ness dis­solved the goal in­to the move­ment, li­quid­ated the need for the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism.

In the failed Ger­man re­volu­tion of 1918-1919 the So­cial Demo­crat­ic Party of Ger­many [SPD] li­quid­ated the work­ing class’ struggles in­to a bul­wark of cap­it­al­ism. Or, as polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist and Lux­em­burg bio­graph­er J.P. Nettl put it, the SPD be­came the “in­her­it­or party” of the Ger­man Im­per­i­al Reich­stag, for which it ap­peared to pos­ter­ity to have been pre­par­ing all along.5

It is in the con­text of Bona­partism, the re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute, and the prob­lem of so­cial­ist lead­er­ship that we need to place the La­bour Party and the Left’s re­la­tion­ship to it.

The La­bour Party

The last great act of the Chartist move­ment was to trans­late the Com­mun­ist Mani­festo in 1848.6 By this time it had already ex­hausted it­self polit­ic­ally. In the second half of the nine­teenth cen­tury work­ing class polit­ics found ex­pres­sion in trade uni­ons, which sought the ameli­or­a­tion of their work­ing con­di­tions and to con­sol­id­ate these gains via the Trade Uni­on Con­gress (formed in 1868) pres­sur­ing the Lib­er­al Party in­to par­lia­ment­ary re­forms. The trade uni­ons sought to de­fend the in­terests of labor with­in the frame­work of cap­it­al­ism. Like in oth­er ad­vanced cap­it­al­ist coun­tries post-1848, Bri­tain’s state was Bona­partist, ap­peal­ing to mul­tiple dis­con­tents in so­ci­ety to form the polit­ic­al con­stitu­en­cies for the state’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of cap­it­al. This in­cluded the sim­ul­tan­eous growth in the UK of wel­fare, labor re­form, and the po­lice state. Ben­jamin Dis­raeli’s “one na­tion” con­ser­vat­ism is a good ex­ample of this.7

In 1899, the La­bour Rep­res­ent­a­tion Com­mit­tee (LRC) was formed. As well as trade uni­on af­fil­i­ates there was the So­cial Demo­crat­ic Fed­er­a­tion, the In­de­pend­ent La­bour Party (ILP), and the Fa­bi­an So­ci­ety. These groups had little in­flu­ence but sought to con­nect to the work­ing class. The LRC be­came the La­bour Party in 1906.

The Brit­ish La­bour Rep­res­ent­a­tion Com­mit­tee in 1906, which went on to form the La­bour Party the same year. Among those pic­tured are La­bour Party found­ing lead­er Keir Har­die; Ar­thur Hende­r­son; the first La­bour prime min­is­ter, Ram­say Mac­don­ald; Dav­id Shack­leton, and Philip Snowden.

This was the ex­ten­sion of trade-uni­on polit­ics in­to Par­lia­ment. In this sense the La­bour Party was no break with bour­geois polit­ics. It sought to do the job of the Lib­er­al Party in rep­res­ent­ing the in­terests of labor, only bet­ter. Could we say, in J.P. Nettl’s terms, that La­bour was to be an in­her­it­or party to the Lib­er­als in man­aging the cap­it­al­ist state? It cer­tainly seems that way from pos­ter­ity.

It is no co­in­cid­ence that the de­vel­op­ment of the La­bour Party in this man­ner par­alleled the re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute in the Second In­ter­na­tion­al. Len­in poin­ted out as much in What is to be Done?, when he elu­cid­ated the in­ter­na­tion­al char­ac­ter of re­vi­sion­ism, from Bern­stein in Ger­many to Miller­and in France, from the Eco­nom­ists in Rus­sia to the Fa­bi­ans in Eng­land.

Like Bern­stein, the left-wing ILP thought that the achieve­ment of trade uni­on re­forms in work, leg­al status, and polit­ic­al rights would gradu­ally lead to so­cial­ism. But for Marx­ists like Len­in and Lux­em­burg, the ILP’s at­tempt to use the ex­ist­ing state as a for­um to ab­ol­ish the in­equal­it­ies and in­justices of cap­it­al­ism could only deep­en the crisis of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion. In the ab­sence of so­cial­ist lead­er­ship for the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at, the dis­con­tents of the work­ing class could only con­sti­tute the polit­ic­al sup­port for the state’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of cap­it­al­ism, no mat­ter who was in gov­ern­ment.

Writ­ing in 1917, Brit­ish Marx­ist Wil­li­am Paul ex­plained how a false con­cep­tion of so­cial­ism had misled work­ers: “Any de­mands, such as the re­duc­tion of taxes, the ex­ten­sion of tram­way car sys­tems, open­ing of mu­ni­cip­al pawn­shops and bury­ing-grounds, have been ad­voc­ated as ‘so­cial­ist­ic’ le­gis­la­tion… a mod­ern States­man could say ‘we are all so­cial­ists nowadays.’”8 In 1918 in re­sponse to work­ing class sup­port for the Bolshev­iks in Rus­sia, La­bour ad­op­ted Clause IV to try and of­fer an anti-Marx­ist al­tern­at­ive to the Brit­ish work­ing class.9 In the ILP, “class con­scious­ness” was re­placed by “com­munity con­scious­ness.”10 As Marx wrote of Las­salle’s “state so­cial­ism,” this was in fact state cap­it­al­ism, or Bona­partism. The La­bour Party’s “com­munity con­scious­ness” was already a par­al­lel to Dis­raeli’s “one na­tion.” La­bour Party state so­cial­ism re­con­ciled the work­ing class to cap­it­al­ism.

Last il­lu­sions

Many on the left today jus­ti­fy their activ­ity with ref­er­ence to Len­in’s call for the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain to enter La­bour in 1920. But this needs to be un­der­stood in the con­text of a num­ber of factors: ul­tra-left­ism in­ter­na­tion­ally, the re­l­at­ive youth of the La­bour Party, and the ex­ist­ence of a com­pletely in­de­pend­ent Com­mun­ist Party and the Third In­ter­na­tion­al. The idea was to ex­pose the bour­geois polit­ics of the La­bour Party to its mass base — as Len­in put it, “so that the masses may be more quickly weaned away from their last il­lu­sions on this score.”11 The aim was to win work­ers en masse away from La­bour in or­der to build an in­de­pend­ent work­ing class party.

But there has been no in­de­pend­ent move­ment for so­cial­ism since the fail­ure of the Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion to spread and Marx­ism self-li­quid­ated in Sta­lin­ism in the 1920s and 30s — as Trot­sky put it, “gen­er­a­tions thrown in­to dis­card.”12 In such an ab­sence crit­ic­al sup­port turns out to be un­crit­ic­al sup­port for La­bour.

Ad­min­istered state

In the 1930s, the La­bour lead­er­ship moved fur­ther away from its work­ing class base, through the li­quid­a­tion of work­ing class polit­ics in­to “na­tion­al solu­tion” polit­ics. Re­call again Dis­raeli’s bona­partist “one na­tion.”

In the in­ter­war years, Clause IV be­came a prom­ise for bet­ter man­age­ment of cap­it­al­ism, like FDR’s New Deal. This set the tone for the “spir­it of ’45” in which the first La­bour gov­ern­ment’s wel­fare state re­struc­tured the eco­nomy in the post­war glob­al re­align­ment un­der Amer­ic­an he­ge­mony. Con­ser­vat­ives and lib­er­als re­cog­nized a need for the state to take on a great­er role in ad­min­is­ter­ing cap­it­al. Thus the Left could feel like its watch­words of wel­fare and na­tion­al­iz­a­tion were be­ing real­ized, all the while change was be­ing led by the right. The wel­fare state was the new polit­ic­al con­sensus. This was to leave La­bour trail­ing in the 1950s boom. As the So­cial­ist Party of Great Bri­tain wrote after La­bour’s elec­tion de­feat in 1959, “When the pi­on­eers of the La­bour Party dreamed of pla­cing them­selves at the head of a grate­ful army of elect­ors by en­act­ing so­cial re­forms, they nev­er thought of a pos­sib­il­ity of a Tory Party that beat them at the same game.”13

There was no so­cial­ist lead­er­ship to grasp how such re­forms ac­tu­ally deepened the so­cial­iz­a­tion of the crisis of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion. There was no goal to con­sti­tute the class struggle.

Dress­ing up de­feats

As La­bour tried to ad­apt un­der Hugh Gait­skell, the La­bour left, des­pite ap­pear­ing op­posed to Gait­skell, only dis­agreed on the ra­tios of dis­tri­bu­tion and tax and the de­gree of na­tion­al­iz­a­tion, be­cause, fun­da­ment­ally, they agreed that “so­cial­ism” was an is­sue of state ad­min­is­tra­tion. After the de­feat of 1959, the La­bour left fought to re­tain Clause IV, against Gait­skell’s at­tempts to mod­ern­ize. The left was suc­cess­ful… in de­fend­ing that which was drawn up to draw work­ers away from re­volu­tion­ary polit­ics. Small Trot­sky­ist groups, like those around the journ­al La­bour Re­view, sought to break up the Sta­lin­ist Com­mun­ist Party so that its mem­bers who “de­sire to fight as real com­mun­ists” could enter La­bour and “gain power­ful sup­port from the rank and file.” After all, the La­bour Re­view ed­it­ors wrote, “the day-to-day ex­per­i­ences of the work­ing class are con­tinu­ously vin­dic­at­ing Marx­ism.” There­fore, they thought they could struggle with­in the La­bour Party to win the rank and file “for Marx­ist ideas” to form a new Marx­ist lead­er­ship and to “open the way for the de­vel­op­ment of so­cial­ist policies with­in the La­bour Party.”14 But, as has been the case for nearly a cen­tury, the La­bour Party used the rad­ic­al left rather than the oth­er way around.

In the 1960s, in the ab­sence of any real ef­fic­acy, the left of La­bour turned more and more to is­sues of for­eign af­fairs, anti-co­lo­ni­al­ism, anti-nuc­le­ar and so­cial justice, etc., on which they could either have no real im­pact or on which “pro­gress­ive” policies could be im­ple­men­ted by the right. The move­ment­ism of the 1960s New Left was taken up by Trot­sky­ist groups like In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ist Group (IMG) and the In­ter­na­tion­al So­cial­ists (IS) (later the So­cial­ist Work­ers Party) aim­ing to push La­bour to the left, from in­side and/or out­side the party. The vic­tory of the La­bour left in re­tain­ing Clause IV in 1960 signaled its de­feat. Un­der these cir­cum­stances arose the dis­in­teg­rated an­ti­nomy of par­lia­ment­ary and non-par­lia­ment­ary work. The most as­tute ob­ser­va­tion in Ral­ph Miliband’s es­say “The Sick­ness of La­bour­ism”15 is his choice of epi­graph from Dis­raeli in 1881: “It is a very dif­fi­cult coun­try to move, Mr. Hyndman, a very dif­fi­cult coun­try in­deed, and one in which there is more dis­ap­point­ment to be looked for than suc­cess.”

“Par­lia­ment­ary” and “non-par­lia­ment­ary” work would need to be me­di­ated by a mass work­ing class so­cial­ist party, in which the­or­et­ic­al dis­putes could be con­duc­ted in a dia­lect­ic­al re­la­tion to prac­tic­al tasks, in which the de­mands of work­ers for their bour­geois right, for re­forms, could be used to edu­cate the work­ing class in the ne­ces­sity of its polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence, of tak­ing power in the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at — only then could the struggle for so­cial­ism be­gin. We are a long way off.


For nearly a cen­tury, the La­bour Party has used the rad­ic­al left to pre­serve and re­pro­duce it­self in crises. In 1978 the Re­volu­tion­ary Com­mun­ist Tend­ency cri­tiqued the Left’s ori­ent­a­tion to La­bour and at­tempts to “fight the right” through La­bour, ar­guing that, in the ab­sence of an in­de­pend­ent al­tern­at­ive, “far from be­ing an al­tern­at­ive to La­bour, mil­it­ant activ­ity can ac­tu­ally sus­tain il­lu­sions in re­form­ism… The rad­ic­al left fails to un­der­stand that… the work­ing class will not spon­tan­eously re­ject the re­form­ist pro­gram.”16 Spiked! on­line main­tains that La­bour has be­come anti-work­ing class, ar­guing that today we need something totally new.17 However, today the im­petus to­wards a non-La­bour al­tern­at­ive has slipped away — for ex­ample, in Left Unity’s self-dis­sol­u­tion — and most groups on the Left at­tempt vari­ously to ori­ent their activ­it­ies to­wards the La­bour Party. The dis­in­teg­rated an­ti­nomy of par­lia­ment­ary and non-par­lia­ment­ary work is re­pro­duced. There is no break with La­bour on the ho­ri­zon.18

Splits from the So­cial­ist Work­ers Party, such as Coun­ter­fire and RS21, con­tin­ue to ad­voc­ate protest move­ments, e.g. anti-aus­ter­ity marches, to sup­port Corbyn from the out­side. The Al­li­ance for Work­ers’ Liberty have taken a more hands-on ap­proach with­in Mo­mentum, and now Grass­roots Mo­mentum, where in­ter­est­ing fis­sures have ap­peared over demo­cracy and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al struc­ture between left-wing com­munity act­iv­ists and Marx­ist groups try­ing to or­gan­ize with­in the party. Giv­en the gen­er­al con­sid­er­a­tion on the Left that Blair­ism had put an end to the long chapter of the Left’s struggles with­in La­bour, what has changed with Corbyn? And what if the ap­par­ent change masks con­tinu­ity between Old La­bour, New La­bour, and the present?

Many on the Left saw Blair’s trans­form­a­tion of La­bour and ab­ol­i­tion of clause IV as a qual­it­at­ive change from a con­tra­dict­ory “bour­geois work­ers’ party” to a pure cap­it­al­ist party, in which no such con­tra­dic­tion ex­is­ted. For ex­ample, Work­ers’ Ham­mer ar­gued that Blair’s La­bour was not the kind of mass re­form­ist work­ers’ party to which “re­volu­tion­ar­ies can con­sider ex­tend­ing crit­ic­al sup­port.”19 Thus, many on the Left “crit­ic­ally” sup­por­ted or tried to work with­in Ar­thur Scar­gill’s So­cial­ist La­bour Party, which split with Blair in 1996 over Clause IV, an all but for­got­ten epis­ode in the Left’s his­tory with the La­bour Party. 20 years later, Corbyn seems to have re­versed the spell with his talk of “so­cial­ism, trade uni­on rights, im­mig­rants’ rights, and op­pos­i­tion to NATO.”20 Al­though by sup­port­ing Re­main, Corbyn failed to rep­res­ent the in­terest of work­ing people, 21 in the fight against the Blair­ites he is said to rep­res­ent “the griev­ances of the work­ing class, minor­it­ies and the im­pov­er­ished.”22 There is a “class war” with­in La­bour, in which Marx­ists should have Corbyn’s side.23 If the Blair­ites can be driv­en out, the hope is, La­bour will be trans­formed back in­to a “par­lia­ment­ary so­cial­ist La­bour Party”24 with Corbyn at the helm.

However, be­fore Blair, in Tony Benn’s 1988 lead­er­ship con­test against Neil Kin­nock, Work­ers Ham­mer ad­voc­ated “no sup­port for either side.”25 It’s worth quot­ing the ar­gu­ment in full:

Benn’s cam­paign has been por­trayed by the bour­geois press and most of the os­tens­ibly so­cial­ist left as a Dav­id and Go­liath battle for the “so­cial­ist soul” of the party against Kin­nock/Hat­ters­ley’s overt scab­bing and “new real­ism.” But the La­bour “lefts’“ in­dul­gence in the time­worn re­form­ist rhet­or­ic of the par­lia­ment­ary road to demo­crat­ic so­cial­ism, “uni­lat­er­al­ism,” non-align­ment, dis­arm­a­ment and na­tion­al­ist “Little Eng­land” pro­tec­tion­ism is no al­tern­at­ive to Kin­nock’s more re­ac­tion­ary agenda for class peace in Thatch­er’s Bri­tain. In­deed, this con­test re­flects the clas­sic and his­tor­ic sym­bi­ot­ic re­la­tion between the La­bour “left” and right that has main­tained the party for dec­ades as the primary obstacle to pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion on these isles.

The Len­in­ist also ob­served the dangers of com­mun­ists sup­port­ing the La­bour left against the right. Shortly after Benn’s de­feat, Jack Con­rad ar­gued that the La­bour left serves simply to di­vert pop­u­lar protest in­to “safe par­lia­ment­ary chan­nels.” He warned: “We must nev­er let the heat of these ar­gu­ments ob­scure the fact that ul­ti­mately the re­la­tion­ship between the La­bour left and right is sym­bi­ot­ic — they both need each oth­er. This is the ab­so­lute and gen­er­al law of La­bour­ism.” 26

If Corbyn suc­cess­fully wrests con­trol of the party and re­moves the Blair­ites, then will his party be “a mass re­form­ist work­ers party [that] stands in­de­pend­ently of bour­geois parties, and os­tens­ibly in the in­terest of work­ing people?”27 Or does Corbyn’s struggle rep­res­ent the “his­tor­ic sym­bi­ot­ic re­la­tion” between the left and right of La­bour?28 At least one thing is clear: As in 1988, Corbyn’s con­test is “por­trayed by the bour­geois press and most of the os­tens­ibly so­cial­ist left as a Dav­id and Go­liath battle for the ‘so­cial­ist soul’ of the party.”29 It seems Blair dis­solved the “his­tor­ic sym­bi­ot­ic re­la­tion between the La­bour ‘left’ and right that has main­tained the party for dec­ades as the primary obstacle to pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion”30 to such an ex­tent that the re­cru­des­cence of some ver­sion of the old La­bour “left” con­sti­tutes a “class war.”

La­bour Party Marx­ists sim­il­arly ar­gue that “the civil war ra­ging in the La­bour Party is a highly con­cen­trated form of the class struggle” and there­fore “an un­par­alleled his­tor­ic op­por­tun­ity” to re-found the La­bour Party as a genu­ine “polit­ic­al party of the work­ers.”31 They see their task as the demo­crat­iz­a­tion of the La­bour Party to cre­ate the con­di­tions for a Marx­ist sec­tion to af­fil­i­ate to La­bour and struggle with­in to de­vel­op a Marx­ist lead­er­ship and im­ple­ment a new Marx­ist (not the old “state so­cial­ist”) Clause IV. James Mar­shall of LPM bases his ar­gu­ment on Len­in’s speech re­gard­ing af­fil­i­ation to La­bour in 1920, in which the char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of a party is said to be de­pend­ent not on its work­ing class base but on the polit­ics of its lead­er­ship. For Len­in, this meant that the La­bour Party was “a thor­oughly bour­geois party, be­cause, al­though made up of work­ers, it is led by re­ac­tion­ar­ies, and the worst kind of re­ac­tion­ar­ies at that, who act quite in the spir­it of the bour­geois­ie. It is an or­gan­iz­a­tion of the bour­geois­ie, which ex­ists to sys­tem­at­ic­ally dupe the work­ers with the aid of the Brit­ish No­skes and Scheidemanns [the ex­e­cu­tion­ers of Rosa Lux­em­burg and Karl Lieb­knecht].”32

This ana­lys­is still ap­plies, ar­gues Mar­shall, but with a dif­fer­ence. “In­stead of a two-way con­tra­dic­tion between the lead­er­ship and the mem­ber­ship, we now have a three-way con­tra­dic­tion. The left dom­in­ates both the top and bot­tom of the party.” That is, Corbyn’s lead­er­ship is not a bour­geois-re­form­ist lead­er­ship, at­tached to a work­ers’ base, but rather both are “left.” The hated Par­lia­ment­ary La­bour Party [PLP] is the “bour­geois party” im­bed­ded with­in. It is the PLP, and not Corbyn’s lead­er­ship, Mar­shall ar­gues, to which Len­in’s as­sess­ment of La­bour’s bour­geois polit­ic­al lead­er­ship still ap­plies. But what does it mean to say that a base or lead­er­ship is “left” with re­gard to Len­in’s ar­gu­ment? If the PLP is “bour­geois,” what does that make Corbyn? Can Len­in’s con­cern with bour­geois vs. so­cial­ist lead­er­ship be so eas­ily as­sim­il­ated to con­tem­por­ary, or even his­tor­ic, “left” vs. “right” di­vi­sions with­in La­bour?33 For nearly a cen­tury, the La­bour Party has used the rad­ic­al left rather than the oth­er way around. What would it mean for it to be oth­er­wise today?


In the present, cap­it­al­ism is re­con­sti­t­ut­ing it­self polit­ic­ally through change. Corbyn’s lead­er­ship and the mem­ber­ship swell are, of course, phe­nom­ena of this mo­ment. But it is hard to tell how ex­actly they re­late to the wider changes we are see­ing. In Feb­ru­ary YouGov polls showed La­bour in third place amongst work­ing class voters, with whom the Tor­ies poll nearly twice as high as La­bour.34 Trade Uni­on activ­ity is at a his­tor­ic low. Work­ers Ham­mer has ar­gued that re­volu­tion­ar­ies should de­fend Corbyn be­cause the “cap­it­al­ists” could nev­er agree to his pro­posed re­forms on in­fra­struc­ture, man­u­fac­tur­ing, and “put­ting the pop­u­la­tion back in­to pro­duct­ive work.”35 But this sup­poses that Corbyn’s policy is so far-reach­ing as to be a fantasy that could nev­er be im­ple­men­ted with­in the cap­it­al­ist state. Bona­partists have suc­cess­fully im­ple­men­ted deep re­forms to bet­ter man­age cap­it­al and dis­con­tents in the past, al­ways amidst polit­ic­al op­pos­i­tion. Hil­lel Tick­t­in has ar­gued re­cently in the Weekly Work­er that, as cap­it­al­ism is chan­ging, there is ac­tu­ally great­er scope for re­form­ing in the in­terest of cap­it­al. “While Jeremy Corbyn and John Mc­Don­nell both talk about so­cial­ism, they are not even very rad­ic­al, let alone so­cial­ist.” The La­bour right, however, stig­mat­izes Mc­Don­nell’s mea­ger policies as “so­cial­ist.” Tick­t­in notes, “this shows the nature of rightwing La­bour — it does not un­der­stand the sys­tem it is sup­port­ing.”36 What does it show about the Left today that they share the same fantasy? |P


1 The pan­el de­scrip­tion can be found at <ox­fordrad­ic­alfor­um.files.word­press.com/2017/03/orf-pro­gram.pdf>.
2 Marx, The Civil War in France.
3 Chris Cutrone, “Sac­ri­fice and Re­demp­tion” Weekly Work­er 1115 (14 Ju­ly 2016).
4 Rosa Lux­em­burg, The Ju­ni­us Pamph­let: The Crisis of Ger­man So­cial Demo­cracy (1915).
5 Peter Nettl, “The Ger­man So­cial Demo­crat­ic Party 1890-1914 as a Polit­ic­al Mod­el” Past and Present 30:1 (1964), 65-95.
6 Dav­id Black, “The elu­sive ‘threads of his­tor­ic­al pro­gress’: The early Chartists and the young Marx and En­gels” Platy­pus Re­view 42 (Decem­ber 2011-Janu­ary 2012).
7 R.C., “The Ori­gin of ‘One-Na­tion’ Polit­ics” The Eco­nom­ist.
8 Wil­li­am Paul, The State: Its Ori­gin and Func­tion (Glas­gow: So­cial­ist La­bour Press, 1917).
9 Clause IV of the La­bour Party’s 1918 con­sti­tu­tion, writ­ten by the Fa­bi­an Sid­ney Webb, com­mit­ted the party to “the com­mon own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­bu­tion, and ex­change.” Its de­fense be­came a ral­ly­ing cry for the left of the party in the 20th cen­tury, but it was fi­nally changed by Tony Blair in 1995.
10 “The watch­word of so­cial­ism is not class-con­scious­ness but com­munity con­scious­ness.” J. Ram­say Mac­Don­ald, So­cial­ism and So­ci­ety, Sixth Edi­tion (Lon­don: In­de­pend­ent La­bour Party, 1908 [First edi­tion 1905]), 144.
11 V. I. Len­in, “Theses on Fun­da­ment­al Tasks of The Second Con­gress Of The Com­mun­ist In­ter­na­tion­al” [1920].
12 Le­on Trot­sky, “To Build Com­mun­ist Parties and an In­ter­na­tion­al Anew” [1933].
13 “Fu­ture of the La­bour Party” So­cial­ist Stand­ard 55:664 (Decem­ber 1959).
14 “La­bour and Lead­er­ship” La­bour Re­view 3:1 (Jan-Feb, 1958).
15 Ral­ph Miliband, “The Sick­ness of La­bour­ism” New Left Re­view I/1 (Janu­ary-Feb­ru­ary 1960).
16 Mike Free­man and Kate Mar­shall, Who Needs the La­bour Party? (Lon­don: Re­volu­tion­ary Com­mun­ist Tend­ency, 1978).
17 Tom Slater, “Who Can Save La­bour? No One” Sp!ked On­line Septem­ber 12, 2016.
18 “La­bour­ism Re­booted” 1917: Journ­al of the In­ter­na­tion­al Bolshev­ik Tend­ency 38.
19 “Sparta­cist League State­ment Work­ers Ham­mer 156 (May–June 1997).
20 “Class War in the La­bour Party” Work­ers Ham­mer 233 (Winter, 2015-2016).
21 “Brexit: De­feat for the Bankers and Bosses of Europe!” Work­ers Ham­mer 234 (Sum­mer, 2016).
22 “Class War,” op. cit.
23 Ibid.
24 “Let Jeremy Corbyn Run the La­bour Party” Work­ers Ham­mer 236 (Au­tumn 2016).
25 “Kin­nock, Benn: No Choice” Work­ers Ham­mer 98 (May–June 1988).
26 Jack Con­rad, “Build the Com­mun­ist Al­tern­at­ive” The Len­in­ist 71 (Novem­ber 1, 1988).
27 “Sparta­cist League State­ment.”
28 “Kin­nock, Benn,” op. cit.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid.
31 James Mar­shall, “After Corbyn’s Second Vic­tory” Weekly Work­er 1112 (Septem­ber 24, 2016).
32 V. I. Len­in, “Speech on Af­fil­i­ation to the Brit­ish La­bour Party” [1920].
33 “Since there can be no talk of an in­de­pend­ent ideo­logy for­mu­lated by the work­ing masses them­selves in the pro­cess of their move­ment, the only choice is – either bour­geois or so­cial­ist ideo­logy. There is no middle course (for man­kind has not cre­ated a ‘third’ ideo­logy, and, moreover, in a so­ci­ety torn by class ant­ag­on­isms there can nev­er be a non-class or an above-class ideo­logy). Hence, to be­little the so­cial­ist ideo­logy in any way, to turn aside from it in the slight­est de­gree means to strengthen bour­geois ideo­logy. There is much talk of spon­taneity. But the spon­tan­eous de­vel­op­ment of the work­ing-class move­ment leads to its sub­or­din­a­tion to bour­geois ideo­logy, to its de­vel­op­ment along the lines of the Credo pro­gram; for the spon­tan­eous work­ing-class move­ment is trade-uni­on­ism, is Nur-Gew­erkschaftlerei, and trade uni­on­ism means the ideo­lo­gic­al en­slave­ment of the work­ers by the bour­geois­ie.” Len­in, What is to be Done?
34 Rachel Roberts, “La­bour Now Third most Pop­u­lar Party Among Work­ing Class Voters, Poll Finds” The In­de­pend­ent Feb­ru­ary 13, 2017.
35 “Corbyn land­slide, Blair­ite back­lash” Work­ers Ham­mer 232 (Au­tumn 2015).
36 Hil­lel Tick­t­in, “Con­fused Re­form­ism” Weekly Work­er 1132 (Novem­ber 24, 2016).

2 thoughts on ““Last illusions”: The Labour Party and the Left

  1. The last great act of the Chartist movement was, surely, the Labour Parliament of 1854 – https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/groves/1930/03/marx.htm / https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1854/03/09.htm

    The fate of the parliamentary Labour party is a lot less interesting than the hundreds of thousands of people outside of parliament that Corbyn has enthused. There is the basis of mass politics and a revival of a broader socialist culture which is surely a precondition for any more radical left-wing project. Corbyn’s project is worth supporting because it points beyond itself, not because anybody has illusions in the PLP.

Leave a Reply