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 politics”3 — “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.
Kolektivně proti kapitálu October/November 2016 . .
The idea of holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU began as a promise by then Prime Minister Cameron to the “Euroskeptic” right wing of the Tory Party in January 2013.1 The Tories won the general election in May 2015 with an overall parliamentary majority so they had to go through with it. On 23 June 2016, a majority of UK citizens who turned out to vote (certainly not a majority of registered voters, much less a majority of the adult population), 52%, voted in favor of leaving the European Union.
The most important thing to understand is that nobody expected the Leave vote to win, least of all the “Brexiteers” themselves! Britain’s major political parties were not prepared for it, and neither were most big companies (despite the modern focus on “business continuity” and “disaster recovery”). The consequences of this are that the Tory Party, the Labour Party and even UKIP (the party whose whole raison d’être was Brexit) were thrown into crisis and the economy is sinking as uncertainty delays investment and complicates terms of trade.
The Leave vote can certainly be seen as a kind of “protest vote” — this was clearly demonstrated by the fact that the “Leavers” didn’t expect to win and had no idea what to do when they did! It can be seen as part of the rise of “right-wing nihilism.” In the 1970s it was punks, hippies, and anarchists who said “fuck the system” without caring too much about what to replace it with — now it’s disaffected nationalists and social conservatives. Antiglobalization is the modern “socialism of fools” (as leading German Social Democrat, August Bebel said of antisemitism).2 It’s an ideology which really grew to prominence among the liberal left in the 1990s, but now it’s increasingly the right — Trump, Putin, UKIP, Front Nationale, etc. — who are its standard-bearers.
On a global level, victory for the Leave campaign is part of a wider tendency towards economic protectionism and isolationism (accompanied by bigger or smaller doses of racism and xenophobia) facilitated by a rise of political “populists”3 — “populist” in the sense of just spouting a collection of crowd-pleasing slogans with no concrete program addressing either the material concerns of their followers or the problems faced by capital accumulation.
The EU migrants’ ordeal and the limits of direct action
We begin this article with a case dealt with by Brighton Solfed (SF) and CASE Central social center — the story of an EU migrant in Brighton.
At the end of 2015, L., a Spanish hospitality worker, sought help from SF. She had worked in a restaurant for more than a year but, as soon as she fell ill, her employer sacked her with a flimsy excuse, in order to avoid paying Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Receiving SSP would have been this worker’s right under both domestic and European Union (EU) legislation. However, the employer insisted that she left her job voluntarily, and refused to re-employ here.
One then claimed a sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). As an EU worker, she should have been entitled to equal rights under EU legislation, and to ESA. However, the state refused the benefit: they said that, due [to] a “gap” between the end of her job and her claim, she was no longer a “worker” when she claimed ESA. A benefits advice group helped with an appeal, but the state refused to reconsider. L. was in a desperate situation, with no money and far from her family, and was tempted to move back to Spain. This would amount to economic deportation — not imposed through physical force, but through extreme hardship.
Back in [the] 1970s the UK’s membership of the European Common Market was opposed by left-wing militants, as the Common Market was seen as a neoliberal club designed to prevent the advance of socialism, or just the implementation of Keynesian policies. Continue reading →