The following is an extract from the Spartacist League National Conference document.
From the moment Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership elections to his eventual demise following the 2019 elections, the task of revolutionary Marxists was to show concretely through the course of events how Corbyn’s programme was inherently incapable of addressing the needs of the working class, motivating the need for a Leninist party armed with a Marxist programme. This necessarily required a correct understanding of the dynamics behind Corbyn’s initial astonishing rise as well as the factors which caused his equally spectacular collapse. The initial articles the Spartacist League wrote about Corbyn were jubilant, the later articles were critical. But since the section never broke from its Labourite capitulation, it was never able to give a programmatic explanation as to why Corbyn was initially so successful and why he failed so miserably. The explanations given as to why Corbyn was “defiant” or “capitulated” necessarily fell on personal characteristics and actions instead of programme and class forces.
Corbyn won a landslide victory in Labour’s 2015 leadership race, surprising everyone including himself. How did an MP who had spent his entire career being a marginal backbencher manage to win? There was huge accumulated discontent in the working class and in particular in the base of the Labour Party against the decades of austerity and military interventions. In Where is Britain going? (1925), Trotsky explained the reason behind the success of the Independent Labour Party after World War I:
“Behind the democratic pacifist illusions of the working masses stand their awakened class will, a deep discontent with their position and a readiness to back up their demands with all the means that the circumstances require. But the working class can build a party out of those ideological and personal leading elements which have been prepared by the entire preceding development of the country and all its theoretical and political culture.”
Given the reactionary nature of the last decades, the leaders available in 2015 to channel this discontent were particularly feeble and incompetent. Neither Corbyn himself nor his programme had anything exceptional; he just happened to be the lightning rod which was available at the time to channel the huge, built-up social pressure.
To paraphrase what the SL/B wrote in “Labour’s Cold War” (Spartacist Britain no 41, April 1982), the 2015 leadership elections became a major showdown on the key issues tearing the Labour Party apart, albeit expressed negatively: against the Blairites, against the architects of military interventions and austerity. While a wave of young people supported Corbyn, crucially he was also able to rally the support of a sizable part of the trade union bureaucrats. This was to evacuate pressure from their base on the one hand and was driven by frustration at not having been given a “seat at the table” under the Blairites on the other.
As long as he was an irrelevant backbencher, Corbyn could afford to denounce the government for its austerity, its nuclear weapons, its wars; he could denounce the EU for being neoliberal and support Palestine against the Zionist state. His liberal-utopian programme of “peace on earth” and “ending poverty” was never a threat and provided in fact a thin cover for the blood-drenched Labour government of Tony Blair. But this changed when he became leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
In Where is Britain going? Trotsky explains the rapid transformation of Ramsay MacDonald from pacifist oppositionist to the war to social-chauvinist in government, building “light cruisers in anticipation of the day when he will have to build heavy ones”:
“The Independent Labour Party [of MacDonald], as has already been said, could not have been better adapted to the role of an irresponsible centrist opposition which criticizes but does not cause the rulers great damage. However, the Independents were destined in a short time to become a political force and this at the same time changed their role and their physiognomy.”
While Corbyn was never a centrist, his winning of the leadership of the Labour Party had a similar character. The minute he won the leadership contest his function and role changed and he started to be ripped apart by the contradictions of his new position.
Not only did Corbyn have to provide concrete answers to the problems of the day, but people cared about what he said. In the context of the British imperialist strategic dependence on the US and the international austerity offensive following the 2008 crisis, Corbyn’s positions on a series of questions (NATO, Ukraine, the “war on terror”, Trident, nationalisations) were not acceptable to the bourgeoisie. This is what gave him broad popular support and what provoked a major reaction from the bourgeoisie as well as an ongoing insurgency from the Blairite wing of the party. The only options were to frontally confront the ruling class or to capitulate. But given that Corbyn’s bourgeois programme was not based on the material interests of the working class but vague notions of “peace” and “justice”, he had no firm ground to stand on and quickly capitulated on one question after the other.
Moreover, due to the fact that Corbyn was elected only on a negative programme of opposition to Blairism, his supporters were fractured and divided as soon as concrete questions came up: the EU, Russia, “anti-Semitism”, etc. Corbyn’s programme of parliamentary socialism also meant he approached every question in terms of electoral success, making him sway according to changes in public opinion and tying him to the Blairite majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. As though this wasn’t enough, at the end of the day it is the trade union bureaucracy that calls the shots in the Labour Party. Whatever Corbyn did needed to be acceptable to the conservative, pro-capitalist leaders of the trade unions. All of this taken together gives a clear picture of the utter impotence of left Labourism.
The role of Trotskyists in this situation was to explain that the fundamental problem lies with Corbyn’s programme. In “Opportunism and the collapse of the Second International” (1916) Lenin explained the continuity between the programme of prewar reformism and open support to the ruling class during the war:
“Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of British liberal-labour politics, of Millerandism and Bernsteinism.”
Applied to the context of Corbyn, what we needed to explain is that Corbyn’s support to British imperialism, his defence of the EU, his English chauvinism towards Scotland, his support to the lockdowns are the direct continuation and consummation of his left-Labourite programme. When push comes to shove, there is no middle ground between a proletarian and a bourgeois programme. Imperialism cannot be managed “peacefully”, the capitalist state cannot “serve the people” and the ruling class won’t be voted out of power. Only a communist programme fought for by a Leninist party can provide the path to fight capitalist misery.
At the tactical level, taking a side with Corbyn against the Blairites could have been a way of exploiting the contradiction between the aspirations of the masses which were driving Corbyn’s rise and his utter incapacity to fulfil these aspirations. There is no fundamental programmatic difference between the left and the right of the Labour Party. It was not Corbyn’s programme which was driving the class war in the Labour Party but the aspirations of the base which ran against the policies of the leadership. The Blairites were open advocates of anti-working-class policies and the main targets of the anger. This pressure from the base could have led to the Blairites being driven out despite Corbyn’s best efforts. Such an outcome would have made it clearer that the real obstacle to the aspirations of the masses wasn’t the right wing but the bourgeois programme of Labour, including of its left wing. It would have been easier to illustrate concretely the need for a revolutionary party and to polarise Labour along class lines.
In his remarks at a May 1981 SL/B Central Committee meeting, comrade Jim Robertson noted that there is a cyclical quality to British political life in regard to the Labour Party. Since at least 2015, the SL/B has been consistently tailing left Labourism and simply following the rest of the left around this cycle: revulsion for Blair, enthusiasm for Corbyn, back to revulsion with Keir Starmer. In the recent period members of the SL/B CC, just like the rest of the reformist left, have argued that there are no illusions in Starmer’s Labour Party, that Keir Starmer is transforming Labour into a bourgeois party and that Labour is basically reactionary through and through.
Keir Starmer is now attacking the left in the party in order to restore Labour’s “respectability” and has done so relying heavily on the trade union bureaucracy. While the reformists have been whining and complaining about Starmer, on the main question of the hour — the pandemic — the Labour lefts have no major difference with Starmer and utterly support the devastating policies of the bourgeoisie. While the tactical approach currently appropriate is to “throw rocks” at the Labour Party, our fire needs to be aimed at the whole Labour Party, particularly at its left hangers-on who play up the credentials of “left” bureaucrats inside both the party and the trade unions.