In response to the austerity demanded by the capitalist crisis, the proliferation of imperialist wars, terrorism on the streets, and the dismal prospects offered by the continuation of capitalism, there is much dissatisfaction. This discontent can be expressed in many ways, not embracing any solutions but expressing unhappiness with a reality that’s not understood.
In the UK Referendum on membership of the European Union millions voted to leave without any clear idea of what the consequences might be. Some were concerned about immigration, some were worried about a distant EU bureaucracy having control over their lives, some believed the propaganda about the economic prospects for the UK, and some were just expressing a negativity about the existing state of things. Elsewhere people have been attracted by other expressions of populism, like Trump in the US, Le Pen in France or the ‘Alternative for Germany’.
But it’s not just right-wing populism that people have turned to. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US have all offered a ‘new radicalism’ on the Left. It’s in this context that we can begin to appreciate the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
For the Left Corbyn is a hero. For the SWP (Socialist Worker 27/9/16) “His success is a clear sign of the feeling against austerity, racism and war. His victory can be a launchpad for increased resistance in the workplaces and on the streets.
We look forward to continuing to work with Corbyn and his supporters against the disastrous Tory policies that threaten to destroy key public services, deepen poverty, whip up racism and plunge British armed forces into more imperialist wars.”
And yet in the same salute they show how Syriza also “sent hope across the world” before “implementing a worse round of austerity than those imposed by its … predecessors.” They present Corbyn as something positive, but when you read the small print the SWP says (International Socialism 152) “the detail of his economic programme is standard post-crash social democratic fare—a £500 billion programme of infrastructure investment, an industrial strategy overseen by a new National Investment Bank, support for cooperatives, a National Education Service…” And when you see the policies of deficit reduction and borrowing for investment in infrastructure McDonnell lines up with his Labour predecessors with much talk of “fiscal credibility” and “discipline”.
For the Right Corbyn is an ‘extremist’ who, with allies such as McDonnell and Abbott, will raise taxation, increase debt, reinforce state intervention in the economy, be soft on terrorists, undermine defence by not renewing Trident and stifle the ‘initiative’ of private enterprise.
For a typical right-wing take on Corbyn try the Daily Mail’s (29/9/16) report of his speech to the Labour. “Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to spend more than £100billion a year creating a socialist state was condemned yesterday as a blueprint to bankrupt the nation.” He apparently plans to “spend more on everything from education to housing.” There would be investment to increase employment, build homes, keep down rents, ban zero hours contracts, ease the pressure through immigration on public services, provide free education, move to a low carbon economy, renationalise railways, and increase taxes. There would be a “new National Investment Bank to spend cash on better broadband, railways and energy infrastructure.”
The Express (26/9/16) was a bit less hysterical. Mr McDonnell was reported as promising to work with the “wealth creators in the private sector”…He said: “We think we can get the economy growing very quickly and it will then pay for itself.” As the SWP would say, this is ‘standard social democratic fare’ – promises to increase the role of the state when the tendency towards growing state capitalism is one of the dominant trends of the last hundred years, an expression of capitalism’s economic crisis, not a solution to it.
The appeal of leftism
So, while the Corbyn/Sanders/Syriza left –wing version of capitalism has no capacity to improve the quality of people’s lives, any more than the right-wing plans of Trump or UKIP, it has a big appeal to some workers.
In the history of the workers’ movement there have always been currents that emphasise that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself, that the self-organisation of the working class is not only a strength of the struggle, but the basis of a future society based on relations of solidarity, a society where the state has become an anachronism. However, in the period leading up to the First World War the idea grew in social democracy that the capitalist state could provide social order, could eliminate the excesses of capitalist competition, and could guarantee social welfare. In fact this had as much to do with socialism as Louis XIV’s centralised state or Bismarck’s ‘state socialism’.
Today, despite the experience of a century of state capitalism in all its political forms – social democratic, Stalinist or fascist - the idea that the state can somehow be neutral still has enormous appeal. The ‘enemies’ of ‘ordinary people’ are typically deemed to be bankers, hedge fund managers, tax avoiders, multinational corporations, ruthless companies, exploitative bosses, and all the rest. Against this, the state is portrayed as being a force above classes that can curtail malevolent greedy individuals who are trying to rip off the rest of us. This personalisation, which in the past would dwell on a bloated capitalist in a bowler hat, now focuses on those who, behind closed doors, make decisions that affect the jobs, lives and living conditions of millions.
So, the Labour Party in the UK, while doing badly in opinion polls, is still putting forward the sort of ideas that others have to imitate. When Theresa May became Prime Minister she indicated her intentions: “The Government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by you. We won’t entrench advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything to help you go as far as your talents can take you. We must fight the burning injustices. We must make Britain a country that works for everyone” (Daily Telegraph, 13.7.16).
The parties are united in their opposition to privilege and injustice, but, in practice, the Labour Party is seen as being more authentic. In research published in August 2016 by the House of Commons Library, figures were given for membership of political parties. It suggested that the Labour Party’s 515,000 members were more than all other political parties in the UK put together. And Labour members are far more likely to be committed activists than the members of other parties. They think they have identified what is wrong with the world and what needs to be done. A conservative, by definition, wants to preserve those things which they think have proved their value over time. But for the Labour activists, whatever their initial motivations, the solution to society’s problems lies in the explicit intervention of the state.
The role of Corbyn’s Labour Party is to present an alternative plan for the management of capitalism. At present there is no particular call for Labour to be introduced into government; the Conservatives will do their best to try to navigate Britain out of the EU with as little damage to the national capital as possible. The differences in the Labour Party, in particular between Corbynists and the heirs of Blair and Brown, are genuine and we can envisage continued and deepening conflict in its ranks. This in itself will make demands on the energies of activists as different factions try to ‘save the Labour Party’. The bottom line for workers to remember is that Corbyn’s programme, far from being a fresh innovation, is a programme for the running of capitalism, not its destruction.