In this final extract from How the Establishment Lost Control Chris Nineham outlines why a radical extra-parliamentary movement is needed to secure decisive change
Chris Nineham, How the Establishment Lost Control (Zero Books 2017)
The struggle between the right embedded in Labour’s apparatus and the parliamentary party, and the growing, radicalised membership, is the contemporary expression of a long-term contradiction at Labour’s heart. The party has always been shaped by the aspirations and the anger of working people on the one hand, and on the other by the fact that it is focused on gaining office, working with and within the institutions of the British state.
It is important to recognise though, that the metrics of this contradiction change over time. In the boom years the Labour party had some leeway to make reforms, especially when under pressure from below. In these circumstances, some kind of left/right accommodation was possible, if not always comfortable. As British capitalism has weakened, the room for compromise and manoeuvre has narrowed.
The insurgent nature of Corbyn’s rise expresses the fact that the rejection of Labour’s recent past is taking place in circumstances in which a change of course would involve a monumental challenge to the status quo. Demands for nationalisation of utilities, an improved welfare state, more progressive taxation and so forth, which could be reluctantly conceded in boom times, imply a more profound confrontation with the structures of class power at a time of sclerotic growth and a worldwide race to the bottom in search of shrinking profits. One outcome of this is that Corbyn is still up against a Labour right that has made its peace with neoliberalism and is no mood to change the course of British society. This struggle, shaped as it is by Labour’s position in society and its historical role, cannot be resolved in our favour solely at the level of parliamentary politics.
An exclusive focus on electoral change carries risks in general. The project of trying to win power through the ballot box by appealing to a more or less passive electorate creates the temptation to bend to public opinion – or a caricatured version of it – rather than actively campaigning to try and shape it. This pressure, combined with relentless attacks by Labour’s right, has already taken its toll. It has encouraged some on the soft left to try and sound the retreat on ‘controversial’ policies like scrapping Trident, opposing foreign wars and defending freedom of movement. These are mistakes that can come back to haunt the left.
Any effective movement for change needs to work relentlessly to raise people’s understanding of the sources of oppression and, in particular the links between racism, nationalism and militarism. If it doesn’t it will always be vulnerable to calls to order. The anti-war arguments that have been won by the movements, and were courageously reiterated by Jeremy Corbyn during the June 2017 election, were crucial to blocking Theresa May’s attempts to generate a wave of reaction after the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge.
Most fundamentally though, events of the last two years have raised the question of where power in society really lies and what constitutes a counter-power. The Labour right’s campaign of subversion has been aided and abetted by much of the media and other parts of the establishment. Sections of the media have become organising centres for anti-Corbyn manoeuvres. Anti-Corbyn politicians and senior establishment figures have regularly been given air time to explain why Corbyn can’t be trusted with power. One unnamed General told an Observer journalist that there would be a mutiny in the armed forces if Corbyn was elected, unless he learnt to love NATO and the nuclear bomb. The efforts at obstruction and sabotage that we have seen at the time of writing will be mild compared to the kind of campaign that will be unleashed if Corbyn gets anywhere near office with a radical programme intact.
The array of forces lined up to defend the status quo, the depths of the crisis faced by the capitalist class and the sheer scale of the resulting assault on working people underline the fact that no electoral project could possibly deal with the task of changing the direction of society on its own. New left electoral parties have emerged recently in many countries in Europe, notably in Portugal, France, Germany, Spain and Greece. They have played an important role in popularizing progressive policy, channeling discontent leftwards and pushing back the right.
The intervention by Jean Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise in the recent French presidential elections was looked decisive in slowing the advance of the fascist Front National for instance. In Spain Podemos has helped to give popular expression to the values and concerns of a wide range of social movements. But in some quarters strong claims are being made that these kind of parties are sufficient vehicles for popular control of society. Among many others socialist writers Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin put them at the centre of ‘a democratic socialist strategy for entering the state through elections to the end of transforming the state’.
But a strategy that is based primarily on trying to implement socialism through parliament – even with mass support – faces a tangle of problems which Panitch and Ginden themselves describe well:
The contradiction for any radical government that would be engaged in this process will include responsibilities for managing a capitalist economy that is likely in crisis while simultaneously trying to satisfy popular expectations for promised relief, and yet also embarking on the longer-term commitment to transform the state.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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