“Last illusions”: The Labour Party and the Left

Efraim Car­le­bach
Platy­pus Re­view
№ 97
, June 2017
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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

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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

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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.

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