№ 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 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.