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The Labour Party: No use to British Capitalism: Never any use to the Working Class
Since the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as leader there are many who maintain that this will bring about a new direction for the Labour Party. Depending who you talk to the expectations for this new direction take many forms. After years of declining real wages some simply hope it will defend the working class from the latest austerity cuts. Others will tell you that Labour is going back to its roots in the old trades union movement and shedding the “New Labour” nonsense that made Labour indistinguishable from the Tories for so long. Some even claim that a Labour Party under Corbyn will do more than unite the Left but will at last revive its “socialist past”.
The last description flies into the realm of fantasy. For over a hundred years the Labour Party has performed a useful function for the capitalist class. As its name suggests, it claims to be the representative of the working class to give workers a voice inside the system. Unlike the Social Democratic Parties on the continent, it made no claim to be socialist. It has never wanted to lead a fight against capitalism but, at best, merely against some of the worst consequences of exploitation.
With the meltdown of Labour in Scotland and a split between the Blairite Parliamentary party and the vast majority of the membership, the Labour Party faces an existential crisis. However Corbynism, whether it succeeds or (more likely) fails, is the latest product of a sound Labour tradition - that of attempting to save British capitalism.
Labour: Bastion of British Capitalism
Let’s just remind ourselves of how Labour arose to perform a century of sterling service to the British state and British imperialism.
The enormous development of capitalism in the nineteenth century forced the British ruling class to adapt to the social change it brought in its wake. One adaptation was the emergence of modern political parties as electoral machines. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Liberal Party arose largely as the representative of urban industrial capital whilst the Conservatives still mainly represented the landed interest (although they too were moving more towards the “new money”).
As Britain became increasingly industrial and urban the incongruity of a system of representation which had not changed much from medieval times became obvious. As social struggles (like Chartism) were developing towards political aims outside Parliament it became clear to those that ruled that, if they wished to retain their economic and political control, the extension of the franchise could not be postponed for ever. However the notion that you were not entitled to vote unless you owned a considerable stake (i.e. property) in the “nation” did not die easily. The 1832 Reform Act only extended the franchise to the urban middle class.
It took until 1867, and more especially 1885 reform, before the vote was extended to some male workers. The reduction in the property qualification brought some of the better paid workers into the electoral system. The ruling class was extremely nervous of this but counted on two things. One was to use jingoism and pride in the British Empire to undermine class solidarity and the other was that the reform was hardly radical. Only about a quarter of all males over 21 had the vote until 1918 and, of course, no women of any class had the vote until then. However this was enough of an opening for the most organised workers in the trades unions to consider entering the capitalist political arena.
This is the background to the formation and rise of the Labour Party. Labour’s history is totally different to that of left parties elsewhere. The Labour Party was not founded by those who had adopted a socialist perspective like the Social Democratic Parties on much of the continent of Europe. Labour came into being at the behest of the trades unions. The unions came to recognise that the best way to combat legislation against their interests was to get representation in Parliament and they began by supporting any MP who would resist anti-union legislation. At first this meant they supported Liberal (so-called Lib-Lab) candidates (and some trades unionists like George Odger were Liberal MPs) but as the class struggle against capitalism stepped up the demand for an independent party of the “Labour Movement” became more strident.
In 1900 the TUC formed the Labour Representation Committee. Some socialists joined it but its driving force remained trades unionism and non-conformist Christianity. It has always been a champion of “fairness” under capitalism rather than a new way of living. Its first leader, Keir Hardie, a Methodist lay preacher, realised though that trades unionism was too narrow a basis for an electoral party. He threw open the door to a wider “Labour Movement”. Socialists in the Independent Labour Party and various other organisations affiliated to it. However, just to reinforce its reformist credentials, its main thinking came from the intellectually elitist Fabian Society. For these middle class intelligentsia who supported eugenics “gradualness” was the order of the day.
Ironically the famous “socialist” Clause 4 calling for the “nationalisation” of the commanding heights of the economy was added to the Labour Constitution in 1918 by a Fabian (Sydney Webb) but you have to ask why. It was an effort to appeal to the more radical sentiment in the working class after the Russian Revolution. Its aim was to undermine support for the emergence of a real socialist party in the working class which would look to the Soviet model. It was a master stroke as it remained a useful carrot to dangle before workers right through until the 1990s.
However Labour and their trade unions had already proved their loyalty to British Capitalism PLC by supporting British imperialism in the First World War. True some Labour figures like Ramsey Macdonald opposed the war on pacifist grounds but this was hardly revolutionary (as Lenin pointed out). As for the unions they agreed to suspend all industrial action (i.e. all class war) until the war was over.
More was to follow. Ramsey Macdonald and the TUC leaders sabotaged the General Strike in 1926 because they feared its possible revolutionary consequences. Labour also betrayed the working class in the Great Depression of the 1930s when instead of confronting unemployment Ramsey Macdonald decided to confront the unemployed. By imposing the hated “Means Test” he and his Tory allies cut the few benefits the unemployed “enjoyed” at the time.
In the Second World War Labour once again supported British Imperialism, joining the Churchill wartime cabinet, but this time it hid behind the “progressive” notion that this was a war against Fascism.
The Myth of 1945
Long before the war ended it was clear that a new radicalism was developing in the working class. This was one of the reasons why the British ruling class came up with a plan for an extensive welfare state ñ the Beveridge Plan, so-called after Sir William Beveridge, a Liberal civil servant. His plan to bring in a health service, a welfare state and plans to maintain full employment appealed to all who remembered the joblessness, poverty and squalor of the 1930s. With red flags going up over barracks across the British Empire in July 1945 Labour won its first outright governing majority.
Today the myth of 1945 is one of the sustaining features of Labourism. Claimed as a step towards socialism, it was in fact the very opposite. It was a reform of capitalism in order to save the system and Labour was the ideal instrument to carry this out for the capitalist class. The National Health Service was started and the state took on responsibility for the welfare of its citizens “from the cradle to the grave”. It did not end class struggle. The post-war years were full of strikes, factory occupations and squats as the problem of homelessness had increased dramatically due to wartime bombing. The Labour Government still did not shirk its responsibilities to the capitalist cause and used troops on at least 17 occasions to break strikes (a record that still stands).
At the same time Attlee also looked after the national interest by amply compensating the owners of the mines, railways and steelworks that were nationalised as well as secretly paying for the atom bomb at a time of national austerity. To pay for defence spending the original National Health scheme of everything free at the point of need was watered down with the introduction of charges for prescriptions, dentures and glasses.
Labour’s reforms were so radical that they were accepted by the Tories who were fortunate enough to win the 1951 General election as the post-war boom was really about to begin. The Labour Party had nothing more radical to offer and the capitalist system had no need of its services to save it from the working class.
The Road to New Labour
Labour only came to power again after 13 years when the post-war boom began to peter out. In un-restructured Britain the crisis that would hit the world in the 1970s came early. Workers started to fight more widely against the effects of wage cuts brought about by increasing levels of inflation. Apart from the brief and ineffectual interlude of the Heath Government (1970-74) Labour were in power for 11 of the next 15 years. However it could no more solve the economic crisis than the Tories and when it bowed to IMF pressure to make unnecessary cuts in the welfare state the response of the working class intensified. It culminated in the Winter of Discontent that spilled into 1979. For the British ruling class there was no point in having Labour in power if it could not convince the working class to accept cuts. Labour narrowly lost the June 1979 election and the Tories under Thatcher came to power.
There is a current myth that the Thatcher regime had a plan to deal with the working class and the crisis, and that it succeeded. This does violence to the facts. The Thatcher regime was actually fairly clueless to begin with. Inflation and unemployment reached record levels in the first two years of her Government. Had it not been for the Falklands War, and the nationalist hysteria that followed, the most unpopular Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain would have got the order of the boot in 1984. The one great success of the Government was the defeat of the steel workers’ strike (helped by the compliant union leadership of Bill Sirs) in 1981. A similar attempt to attack the miners led to a humiliating climb down for Thatcher in the same year.
The greatest weapon the Tories now discovered was unemployment. Whilst Labour had been unable to confront the issue of restructuring due to workers’ resistance that resistance began to erode with the new fear of losing your job. Militancy began to decline as did union membership and this opened the way for a general restructuring of British industry. Only the miners stood in the way and their isolated fight was sabotaged by both Kinnock’s Labour Party and the TUC.
By now Labour accepted the Thatcher agenda and began to make itself a more credible capitalist alternative. Getting rid of the Militant Tendency which had dominated the Party’s youth wing, Labour now espoused deregulation of the financial sphere and all the neo-liberal economic agenda of the capitalist Right. The election of Blair as Party leader saw the abandonment of Clause Four and any other of the postures that Labour adopted to pretend it might have anything to do with socialism.
In fact it became such an enthusiastically pro-capitalist Party under Blair, it is a miracle that the Labour Party is still regarded by so many as anything to do with the working class. And just when years of Blairite support for the joys of capitalism seemed to have finally unmasked the real class character of the Party it once again re-invents itself as the champion of the anti-austerity movement under Corbyn.
Partly this is due to the belief amongst many on “the Left” that, whatever the control the Blairites have over the Parliamentary Party, there is also a wider “Labour Movement” which anyone could belong to through their trades union. Indeed the Trotskyist and Stalinist left saw winning votes to become union officials as the way to get influence in the Labour Party. Some laboured under the self-delusion that they were trying to build a base for the future when the working class would become more “radical”. Then they could turn the Labour Party into a real workers’ party. The one thing they kept quiet about was the need for socialism (not that they understood the real meaning of the word). Manoeuvring in smoke-filled rooms (until recently!) was more their style than conducting the open and honest fight for real socialist ideas in front of the working class. And with the advent of Corbynism the so-called “hard left” have not changed in their parasitic attachment to Labour has just received a confidence boost.
The Corbyn Phenomenon
Re-elected leader with over 60% of the votes, there is no doubt of the “momentum” behind Jeremy Corbyn. It does not just come from hundreds of thousands of young people who are alienated from a system which offers no alternative. Many older workers who have supported “the labour movement” for years but basically felt that under Blair and Brown’s drive to win “Middle England” it deserted them, have also rallied to the Corbyn banner.
In addition the whole of the left from the social democratic supporters of the Morning Star (the CPB) and the various Trotskyist groups, to the IWW etc as well as individual members of the supposedly revolutionary Class War have thrown themselves into worshipping at the new shrine. This said, there is also much cynicism in all their genuflections in front of Corbyn since many simply hope to just recruit new members from the inevitable dÈbacle to come.
Young people looking for change across the country report that their mates of all political persuasions have abandoned their earlier views and signed up to the Labour Party to support Corbyn. It’s not hard to see why. We have had 40 years of capital restructuring in which Labour became indistinguishable from the Tories. Both lauded the virtues of globalised capital, and ignored a working class that has seen its standard of living slowly spiralling down.
But the financialisation of capital was always an illusion built on speculation and unprecedented debt levels. The financial collapse of 2008 led to a bail-out of the banks which only made things worse for workers. The bail-out has led to high levels of government debt which we have been paying for in cuts right across the board. This heaped misery on millions and now after the Brexit vote they tell us it was unnecessary anyway.
It has all been futile since the debt continues to soar and the new Tory regime has now announced that since Brexit balancing the books (“living within our means” Theresa May called it before she became Prime Minister) is no longer an issue! All those who suffered from the likes of the bedroom tax will no doubt be comforted by this u-turn which will do nothing to alter their plight.
In addition, for the young, their economic present and future offers them only casual and precarious employment under increasingly appalling conditions. Corbynism thus seems to offer a vague hope that something might change.
The Corbyn phenomena has its echoes in Spain (Podemos) and Greece (Syriza) but both movements have risen on the back of the collapse in confidence for their traditional “labour” parties, the PSOE and PASOK. Corbynism, however, has arisen from within the old Labour Party itself. Since both Syriza and Podemos, in or out of power, are failing to live up to the hopes they inspired, Corbyn supporters may take some comfort from the fact that they have captured a traditional social democratic party. And in the unlikely event of a Labour victory under Corbyn some things for workers might even get a little (but not a lot) better. So why should real socialists refuse to jump on this bandwagon?
Because Corbynism is actually just a rehash of Labour’s role in the past. It is a barrier to the emergence of a real socialist movement. Labour has never been a socialist party. If it has nationalised parts of the British economy in the past, having the state running capitalist enterprises does not end exploitation as Russian, Chinese, North Korean, East European and Cuban workers can all testify. Capitalism remains. Exploitation remains. Production for profit remains (even if it goes into the pockets of the state). The opposite of capitalism isn’t statism and the left of capital is still capitalist. Socialism means a great deal other than that.
What is Socialism?
Socialism is about a total transformation in economic, social and political relations where the mass of the working class actively take control of their own lives. Capitalism relies on the apathy of the ruled. It is daily trying to break what solidarity the exploited class ever exhibits. Individual precarious contracts are just the latest in a long line of such tricks to reduce us to mere “citizens” in the face of exploitation.
Moreover it goes deeper. Under capitalism the bulk of the citizenry have no say on how decisions are taken except for voting once every 5 or so years for one or other party which supports the capitalist system. An MP gets elected as a representative who goes to Parliament and votes (usually) how their party decide. The electorate have no control over the process. The very act of voting is an individual act in the secrecy of the voting booth. There is no class solidarity there, no discussion and the immediate issues come to dominate decisions on where to place a cross. The passivity of the working class here is the basic condition for the dictatorship of the minority capitalist class.
Contrast this with workers’ councils where representatives are not elected for a fixed term in office but delegates are mandated. They have to operate within the mandate of those who elected them or face immediate recall. This leads to an active direct democracy which draws all into the process of making decisions. The abandonment of this model was one of the factors in the way the Russian Revolution declined into Party dictatorship in the 1920s.
The fact that socialism is a result of a mass movement also explains why it cannot come about through parliament. It can only come about through millions of people rejecting old ways and old institutions in practice. It is only in a revolution that workers can shake off “the muck of ages”. Revolutions transform people’s thinking (consciousness) so that they embrace new ideas and take new actions. What was unthinkable before becomes perfectly normal. They are then in a position to create an economic system where the capitalist pursuit of profit is replaced by one in which the satisfaction of human needs is the driving force.
Clearly that’s not on the agenda just yet. But many signing up to the Corbyn project think that his victory as Labour leader is a step in the right direction. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s our duty to tell them this is not only a gross error which lends support to the very system that creates their misery, but an experience which will eventually lead so many would-be socialists to demoralisation. In fact by resurrecting Labour as a genuine “democratic socialist” (i.e. left capitalist) party Corbyn is reviving the function of the left party under capitalism. This is to give workers the false idea that the system does have something to offer them.
Having a left capitalist party perpetuates the capitalist lie that this is a “free society” in which you can vote for what you want. But under capitalism some people are more free than others. Those who are rich control the media, the advertising and the state. They set the agenda and the limits of debate. So any genuine workers’ party trying to get a hearing starts with an enormous disadvantage. The grandparents and great grandparents of many today voted election after election for the Labour Party in the vain hope it would bring about something different. However, as described above, when it got into power it always reneged on most of its promises.
Even as a reformist capitalist party Labour has failed time after time. Any attempt even at mild redistribution of income came up against the threat of the capitalists to take their money out of the country and a run on the pound would follow. Ultimately Labour could not even get elected until it dropped its pretence of “socialism” and eventually became New Labour under Blair. It wasn’t just the speculative bubble which burst in 2008. So did Blairism and New Labour.
The crisis of Blairism led to tinkering with the rules for leadership elections which let in the Labour Left despite having only 22 MPs behind it. In some ways the cock-up of the Blairites and Brownites here mirrors the cock-up in the Tory Party over Brexit. The ruling class have no real solution to the economic crisis and, as a result, are losing their political grip in all sorts of ways. This is a global phenomenon which has brought about the rise of so-called “populism” of both left and right.
There are some bizarre elements involved in the current infighting in the Labour Party. One of them was the Blairites’ attempt to unseat Corbyn because he had not been sufficiently enthusiastic about the Remain campaign in the Brexit vote. The Blairites were the ones who were keen on Europe. They were the ones who presided over the speculative bubble and collapse of the financial sector. They were the ones who had been in power for 18 years whilst average earnings for the lower paid fell and many sectors of the working class were “left behind”. If these working class voters rejected the EU because of this then surely the Blairites were the ones who had lost the vote for Labour?
Indeed so obnoxious are Corbyn’s Labour detractors that the sympathy for Team Corbyn can only have increased. But this should not blind anyone to the fact that the 'socialism' which is on offer from the Corbyn-McDonnell stable is not even as radical as that of 1945. Advised by a former IMF banker, the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, they have nothing to offer but the promise to nationalise the railways, fiddle with tax rates, invest in a little infrastructure and set a higher “living wage” than the Tories are offering. It’s hardly radical stuff. In fact we now (with UKIP and the Tories) have three parties claiming they are for the “working class” (where did this suddenly appear from? Haven’t they been telling us for decades that the working class no longer exists?).
In fact even if the Labour Party can unite the Parliamentary Party with the mass of the membership the signs are that Labour will be marginalised at the next election. The Labour meltdown in Scotland, the shift in parliamentary boundaries and the total confusion of what Labour might or might not stand for (something Corbyn seems to lack the ability to clarify) all suggest that it is increasingly irrelevant to even capitalist politics. The Blairites destroyed its purpose for the capitalist class but Corbyn’s confused mixed messages don’t look like undoing that damage.
The Real Alternative to the Capitalist Crisis
Beyond all the manoeuvring, the fundamental thing Corbynism won’t solve for either the capitalists or workers is the economic crisis. By this we don’t just mean all those headlines about the falling pound, but what lies behind the fact that globally there has been virtually no economic growth 8 years after this latest stage in the crisis opened. Debt burdens continue to spiral but investment is low. There is low investment because there is insufficient profitability. In order to revive the economy (and not just in little old Britain) massive amounts of capital will have to be written off. The capitalist class everywhere ducked out of this in 2008 when they decided to bail out the banks (they had to save capitalism after all) but the issue won’t go away. If they persist as they are, eventually the one sure way to devalue capital, via a massive imperialist war, will become more and more likely.
The only alternative to this is socialism or communism but not the fake parliamentary socialism of the Labour Left under Corbyn or anyone else. This will only come about when all those who are currently uber-exploited recognise the system for what it is and that they are part of the solution. It will take time but we, as communists, are doing our bit to agitate for this and to create the conditions for a genuine party of struggle which is not a party of government but a nucleus around which revolutionary workers can organise. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves and it won’t come through parliamentary chatter or via government decree.
10 January 2017
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- 1800: Industrial revolution
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