Martin Thomas, author of Corbynism: What Went Wrong?, responds to the reviews of the booklet by Mike Davis and Urte March in this issue of Solidarity and earlier ones by Richard Price and Andrew Coates online.
Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty work to transform the existing labour movement, not to create “our own” labour movement alongside it. We do our work by organising and educating for the battles of today, which, as yet, perforce, are “reform” struggles.
That far we agree with Mike Davis — that nine-tenths of the work for the socialist revolution is “in the womb of the existing society”, and we have to push through the “institutions created by the working class and its allies... Labour Party and trade unions”. Or with Andrew Coates: “a serious reform minded Labour government was worth campaigning for”.
But the pushing requires an organised “we” to do it. “We” see every little edging-back of capitalist aggression in terms of its building-up of the potential of the working class to overthrow capitalism outright. If we limit our horizon to the little edgings-back immediately visible, then we progressively lose sight of the longer-term realities.
“The fundamental problem with Corbyn’s tenure as leader was the failure to reproduce the intense campaigning of the 2017 general election... over a sustained period of time”, writes Mike Davis, and it is some of the truth.
After that election the Labour right was demoralised. The Corbyn leadership could have built up an active labour movement, starting with anti-cuts, pro-NHS campaigning and expanding as the working class responded. It didn’t. Instead its public message was dominated by its floundering and equivocation on Brexit and antisemitism.
Urte March’s claim that Corbyn’s fault was always to seek unity with the Labour right doesn’t fit the facts here. His Leader’s Office replaced Iain McNicol as General Secretary by the Corbynite Jennie Formby, and put its people into the Compliance Unit (renamed Governance and Legal). Tom Watson’s attempt to organise a “Future Britain” faction of right-wing Labour MPs collapsed. Watson himself resigned.
Richard Price is nearer correct to suggest that Corbyn’s most damaging compromises were with the unions (and in fact when Urte cites specifics, they are usually of compromises with Unite, whose political links were shown by its Chief of Staff being also, part-time, a leading figure in the Leader’s Office). The canker was within the Corbynite core.
To move the unions quickly would surely have been difficult. But the best chance was through campaigning. Campaigning that was not just vote-for-us, but also demonstrations, support for strikes, building youth movements, so as to bring forward new activists in workplaces and revitalise older ones.
Labourism and Stalinism
To put the problem down just to “Labourism”, as Urte March does, is too general. Of course the tone of Corbynite Labour was electoralist and reformist. It emerged through the rallying to a reformist figure of older leftists ground down by 30 years of doldrums, and younger leftists who had grown up with NGOs as their most visible reference point for left-wing contestation.
Future left surges in Britain will surely be initially “Labourite”, too. To look for a new mass movement, revolutionary-Marxist from the get-go, to emerge pristine and unhampered by the ideological dead weight of the past, is to look for miracles rather than do politics.
The question is not why we did not get that miracle, but why the left developed so little in the Corbyn years, out of Labourism but inevitably from “within” Labourism, in the way of political education and democratic organisation, especially of young people?
Some of that, and my booklet says so, is down to the weaknesses of ourselves, the Marxists. Some, I also wrote, to new difficulties created by the rise of social media and the smartphone (though no reviewer has commented on that).
The going was made harder for us by Stalinism at the top of the Corbyn movement. Many “Labourites” who wanted something more left-wing, and so might have moved, through discussion and experience, towards revolutionary ideas, were short-circuited. Stalinists were in pole position to offer them an alternative which was radical-looking but less demanding, one which told them that change could be made “from above”, through the Leader’s Office, through union and MPs’ backrooms. The circles round the Leader’s Office saw little need to organise young Corbynites, and probably were scared of what would happen if they allowed scope for democratic organisation there. Stalinism was the hinge through which the generous impulses of Corbynites, their wish for something more radical than routine Labourism, became soured, crabbed, or dispersed.
To blame Stalinism, writes Urte, is to “let social democracy off the hook”. On the contrary: to excuse the actual political operators who manipulated, cramped, and diverted the movement, in favour of blaming epochal generalities which could hardly be jumped over anyway, is to let everyone off the hook.
Stalinism is not just an episode of the 1930s. For decades it was the great “actual existing” alternative to capitalism. Today many think that Cuba is “actually existing” socialism, and they have politics based on that (more demoralised, more incrementalist, than “high Stalinism”, to be sure). The strength of those political forces is based on large-scale democratic working-class action seeming remote, but is also a factor to perpetuate that remoteness.
I blame the Stalinistic Leader’s Office for tying Labour to discreditable floundering on Brexit and antisemitism.
Brexit and antisemitism
Only Richard Price disputes my indictment of the Leader’s Office over Brexit, but his alternative (“Norway-plus”, or such) was opposed by the Leader’s Office just as much as our straightforward anti-Brexit stance. He gives no argument why anti-EU people would be convinced by a programme of unchanged compliance with EU economic and freedom-of-movement rules, with only this difference, that they would now have no even notional democratic input to the rules.
Was it just “the right’s antisemitism smears”? Was the real aim to outlaw criticism of Israel within the Labour Party? Well, as its supporters boast, the motion on Israel-Palestine passed by Labour conference 2021 was more anti-Israel than any passed in the Corbyn years.
The Labour right used the antisemitism issue against Corbyn, of course. That was because they had a real issue to use. In April 2016 Ken Livingstone (speaking as a recently-promoted Corbyn deputy) went on TV to justify Naz Shah’s social media post about “solving” the Israel-Palestine conflict through “relocating” Israel into the USA by exclaiming that “Hitler supported Israel in 1932”.
Richard Price chimes in by referring to a Gestapo report in 1934 on its “efforts... oriented to promoting Zionism as much as possible”. Richard got that from David Cesarani’s The Final Solution, p.96. In 1934 the Nazis were worried that 1933’s flight of Jews from Germany was petering out. A few Jews facing difficulties where they had fled were even returning. Within the Jewish community Reichsvertretung the Gestapo used its manipulative powers on the side of those who advised Jews to flee Germany, against German nationalists who talked up hopes of liveable adjustment to the Nazi regime. Whatever that proves, it is not that Zionism is “hereditarily” Nazi-like.
Richard exclaims that Ken Livingstone must have been a “secret antisemite”. Nothing secret about it. Livingstone was suspended from office as London mayor in 2006 for antisemitism. In the early 1980s he collaborated with Gerry Healy’s WRP and Labour Herald, widely exposed as having been paid to be antisemitic by Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Richard knows that, since he was in the WRP at the time. In any case, to damn Israel’s Jews today by concocted “inherited sin” from 1932-4 is to operate in terms of good and bad peoples, not democratic politics.
Richard and Urte also adduce “inherited sin” from 1948. Zionist forces committed crimes and drove people to flight in 1948. By now coverage of that is even in Israel’s high school syllabus.
It was a war. The other side committed crimes too, and if fewer only because they conquered less territory for it. Most nation-states have been defined and consolidated by war. Nations still have the right to self-determination, whatever their great-grandparents and grandparents did.
Urte charges us with “refusal to fight for the right to self-determination for all nations”.
Yet Urte is for the right to self-determination for all nations except one, the Israeli-Jewish one. The exception comes, she writes, because “this ‘self-determination’ necessarily denies self-determination for the Palestinians”. It does not. There is (and has been for generations) a part of the pre-1948 British Mandate territory which is 80% Jewish, and a part which is over 80% Palestinian Arab. Practical and economic arrangements for the two neighbouring peoples both to thrive are difficult, but the political answer on national rights is straightforward: end the occupation! Grant the Palestinians their right to a state alongside Israel!
Nothing other than military subjugation of Israel can suppress the Israeli Jews’ right of self-determination. To aim for that suppression is no help to the Palestinians, since it condemns them to hopeless waiting on Iran or some such military power to conquer the territory. And to support it on grounds of “inherited sin” passed down through Jewish inheritance from 1932, or 1934, or 1948 is, like it or not, antisemitic.