“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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Richard Seymour: Flipping a coin

Christo Coetzee, “Janus”

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Corey Ansel blogs at The Chair-Leg of Truth — the title of which I still don’t understand, admittedly. He is also a former member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, having resigned shortly after I did back in May. Our reasons for leaving were largely the same; obstinacy and authoritarianism from the top, combined with outrageous and extremely irresponsible rhetoric both toward other groups and its own members. Ansel is by temperament more inclined toward the contemporary Spartacist League, the only group I see as really representative of Trotskyism once was (back when the Fourth International was still somewhat relevant), at least more so than I am. My own intellectual predisposition is toward critical theory and historical Bolshevism up to the period of the Left Opposition, though somewhat beyond.

This isn’t the first time Corey has taken aim at Seymour, however. Back during the SWP rape coverup scandal, he wrote an article which I republished here called “The Fools on the Hill.” Not long thereafter I published a brief response, perhaps too cleverly titled “No ‘True’ Trots, Man,” where I took issue with his quest for an “authentic” Trotskyist (or even Marxist) movement against which to contrast the phony organizations of today. In my view, such  quest is vain. Stylistically, Ansel comes closer to the Sparts, who themselves seek to mimic Trotsky’s own rather bombastic prose. If you’d like, you can read back to those articles or just continue to the piece below. James Heartfield has also just published a follow-up, “Further Adventures in ‘Intersectionality’,” which I’ll be reposting shortly.

Corey Ansel
The Chair-Leg of
Truth (1.29.14)

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Those working in comics or film certainly couldn’t construct a better Two Face character — you know, from Batman — than Richard Seymour. In recent months, the poster child of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) opposition has been testing his luck with the forces of political chance. Formerly coming out of the corner of the British Cliffites, the self-described author decidedly changed his tune during the second period intermission. Those of us who have been long-time observers of the political zig-zags in the reformist camp weren’t surprised to see Seymour duck the punches of his former mentors in the SWP while he abandoned ship on the organization he had religiously defended up and to that point without any peep of protest. While the notion that the SWP magically became a bureaucratically warped organization seemingly overnight due to the mishandling of rape allegations within the organization might seem outlandish, it was no laughing matter to those who would go on to form the International Socialist Network (ISN), from which Seymour and his cohorts have now resigned. Making a career out of aligning with identity politics and “intersectionality,” Seymour seemed to have hoped that the coin would continue to fall heads’ side up. And it had, until now.

This time, fate had his number. A recent debacle took place on the Facebook page of a leader of the ISN. The instrument that had reaped so many rewards for these latter-day rebels proved to bury those who lacked prowess in handling the fairytale that is online politics. Ideologically, Facebook allows pseudo-Marxists and all of their hanger-ons to perpetuate allegedly open arguments that are actually structured to their benefit, flowered with all the language of “safe spaces” that have become so popular these days at the expense of any real political integrity. Whereas those attending political meetings that tend to be breeding grounds for interventions from the Spartacist League could traditionally only sing a tune with their fingers in their ears, now the “unfriend” button has become the fundamental object and means of criticism. This supplements the discussions on left unity that have become so rampant in the United Kingdom, with an organization titled by the same name and precious talks between fragmented opportunist organizations like Workers Power, which are actually just farces in the making. Just like sects across the globe seek to latch on to the movement and broad struggles of the day, so have these latter-day reformists jumped the wagon regarding talks of unity on the left, seeking to intersperse their generic brand of orthodoxy which will inevitably lead to more crying, but certainly not political clarity.

Building upon this house of cards, Workers Power and their phony League for the Fifth International (L5I) have all but begged Seymour’s ISN and the broad umbrella Anti-Capitalist Initiative to lend credibility to their tiny, irrelevant sect. However, in an article titled “Revolutionary Unity Must be Built on Firm Foundations,” the ostensible Trotskyists of the L5I utterly fail to question the social basis of women’s oppression, let alone discuss the shortcomings of bourgeois feminism and pressure politics. Instead, liquidationism is the slogan of the day. Whereas intersectionality becomes the clarion call of the ISN’s cohorts, Workers Power sings a tune of watering down political differences. For Marxists, phony unity is not the means of advancing the class struggle and the battle against oppression, but instead political clarity is paramount. No amount of veneer can hide this fact from both groups, including Workers Power that is quite fond of using the language of Marxism in asking questions about the revolutionary party, program and the socialist transformation of society. However, this veil is exposed as ripped and torn when it becomes apparent that the L5I has no interest of making a critique of the reformist political history of the SWP or the ISN, but instead seeks to accommodate to their capitulationist sloganeering. They wouldn’t dare raise a peep to offend those they need so desperately to continue treading the path of phony unity on the left amongst utterly different political projects, visions and structures for a post-capitalist society. Continue reading