As Jeremy Corbyn's campaign for Labour leader gains seemingly unstoppable momentum, John Rees looks at some of the debates on the left at the time of the formation of the Labour Party
Jeremy Corbyn's leadership bid looks set to dramatically transform the politics of Britain for some time to come. It is popularising socialist ideas to an audience larger than for many years. It is already a huge internal crisis for the Labour Party. It has given a political focus to a widespread mood of discontent with establishment politics that has been building for some 15 years now. In Britain this process has previously been about the opposition of social movements to the political elite, most notably over war and austerity. But the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum and the consequent electoral triumph of the SNP marked a new turn which gave a shape to this mood within the parameters of party politics, not only movement politics. We analysed this first in an article called 'The return of the Party member' and also in this speech.
Jeremy Corbyn's campaign has, for the first time since Bennism in the 1980s, revived a debate about the Labour Party and the left. Many of us who are enthusiastic supporters of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign will not believe that Labour can be captured by the left or achieve socialist advance by parliamentary means. One useful historical point of reference for this discussion, and at the moment it badly lacks such historical depth, is the debate among socialists at the time when the Labour Party was adopting its modern form in the first decades of the 20th century.
Lenin was a keen observer and occasional commentator on these developments, and his views are a valuable contribution to understanding Labourism in Britain. Moreover, although there are many differences between the situation we face today and that faced by socialists in early phase of Labour's development, there are also some interesting similarities. The revolutionary left in Britain at the time was relatively weak and scattered among several organisations. The elements that would form the Labour Party were heterogenous. They ran through a spectrum ranging from revolutionary socialists to the much more influential right wing of parliamentary opportunists and Fabians who were often unwilling to break with the Liberals.
The twin pillars of Lenin's approach
Lenin's essential attitude to Labourism contained two seemingly contradictory poles. The first was to welcome every development, however partial, that would mean an advance for the class organisation and class consciousness of the workers. The second was to insist on the need to construct an open and independent revolutionary organisation. These elements remained constant from his engagement in the debates of the Second International in the first decade of the century to his later interventions in the debates among British socialists in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Let's take a look at these two positions in greater detail.
Lenin took as his initial starting point Marx and Engels criticism of the socialists in England, especially those in the Social Democratic Federation, as too isolated from the labour movement. In 1907 Lenin wrote that there 'runs like a thread' through Marx and Engels writing the accusation that British socialists 'transformed Marxism into a dogma, into a "rigid orthodoxy", that they regard it as a "symbol of faith" and not a guide to action'. Such is their sectarianism they are unable to 'envisage the theoretically helpless, but vital, mass, powerful, labour movement that is marching side by side with them'.
Lenin goes on to quote Engels letter of 27 January 1887 in which he asks 'Where would we be today, had we from 1864 to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who proclaimed themselves adherents of our programme?'.
These points were made in conditions where no independent mass working class party existed. Engels point (and Lenin's) was that the construction of such a party, even on a reformist basis, would be a step forward for working class consciousness and organisation and, therefore, it was sectarian idiocy for revolutionaries to stand aside from such a project.
But even much later, in 1920 in the debates in the Third International that followed the Russian Revolution, and when the Labour Party in Britain had been established, Lenin returned to the same themes. Faced now with revolutionaries, including the impressive figures of Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallagher in Britain, who wished to use the existence of the Russian Revolution as a reason for not participating in elections or for refusing to have anything to do with the Labour Party, Lenin revisited his previous arguments about relating to partial movements towards class organisation. He wrote:
'It is not difficult to be a revolutionary when the revolution flares up....It is much more difficult-and much more useful-to be a revolutionary when conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle have not yet matured, to be able to defend the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organisation) in non-revolutionary bodies and even reactionary bodies, in non-revolutionary circumstances...'.
In reply to Sylvia Pankhurst's comment 'that England needs more "Lefts"', Lenin remarks 'I replied that this was absolutely true, but that one must take care not to be too "Left".' To this end Lenin recommended that the newly formed Communist Party should be affiliated to the Labour Party. At this point the Labour Party had a federal constitution which enabled organisations, whether Fabian, Co-operative, or revolutionary, to affiliate to Labour without dissolving themselves as organisations.
And there's the rub. For all Lenin's insistence on avoiding ultra left sectarianism, he was only in favour of affiliation as long as the Communist Party had complete organisational and political freedom to attack the leaders of the Labour Party. The British Socialist Party, one of the forerunners of the Communist Party, Lenin pointed out, remained in the Labour Party but retained its own press 'in which Labour Party members can freely and openly declare that the leaders of the party are social-traitors.' Lenin's opponents said that if the Communist Party attempted to affiliate they would be driven out by the right wing. Lenin replied that this would be a very good thing. And indeed, this is eventually what happened.
Lenin thought that this approach was necessary because of the 'very peculiar' nature of the Labour Party. It was made up of 'all the trade unions, which now have a membership of about 4 million, and allows sufficient liberty to all political parties affiliated to it'. But at the same time the Labour Party is led by bourgeois elements who are social traitors: 'From this point of view, which is the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is not a political workers party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that...'.
Lenin's whole tactical approach to this problem was designed to put the revolutionary vanguard of the class into a dynamic relationship with the rest of the class. From this vantage point it would be best able to break the hold of the reactionary leaders of the Labour Party over their supporters:
What we get here is co-operation between the vanguard of the working class and the rest of the workers-the rearguard. This co-operation is so important for the whole movement that we categorically demand that the British Communists should serve as a link between the Party ie the minority of the working class and all the rest of the workers. If the minority is unable to lead the masses, to link up closely with them, then it is not a party and is worthless, no matter whether it calls itself a party...
Of course there was a danger in Lenin's twin track approach, a danger he recognised. It was that opportunists would emphasise the co-operation and non-sectarian elements of his approach and ignore his fierce opposition to reformism and his insistence on independent revolutionary organisation. As he wrote, 'We see clearly depicted before us two lines of Engels' (and Marx's) counsels' which were for socialists to 'merge with the labour movement and eradicate from their organisations the narrow and conservative sectarian spirit'. But they also 'persistently taught' socialists to 'have no mercy on philistanism, "parliamentary idiotism" (an expression Marx used...) and petty-bourgeois opportunism of the intellectuals'. But he went on to warn that some of his critics 'raise a clamour about the counsels of the first order and shut their mouths and ignore the counsels of the second order'.
But this danger could only be met by operating a really effective opposition to reformism while working with and alongside reformist workers, not by sectarian denunciation and abstentionism.
What is relevant in Lenin today?
The most obvious difference between the Labour Party of Lenin's time and the Labour Party today is that open affiliation is no longer possible. The Communist Party were effectively driven out by the 1930s and post-war efforts by the Militant and other Trotskyist groups at 'entryism' have involved attempts to 'take over Labour' rather than to build an open, independent revolutionary organisation. These attempts were, in essence, an accommodation to Labourism, not an alternative to it. Ultimately, the Militant too were expelled from Labour under Neil Kinnock. As we can see from the hue and cry about the 'far left' registering to vote for Corbyn there is no chance, even under a left leadership, of revolutionary organisations being able to openly affiliate to Labour today.
But Lenin's overall designation of Labour as a party composed of workers but led by bourgeois reactionaries is as relevant as ever. Blairism might be taken as the modern apogee of this. Under Blairism Labour's relationship with trade unions and workers was weakened. This fact should be acknowledged, but not over-stated. Talk of Labour being 'the same as the Tories' was always exaggerated by concentrating on policy, where there was little difference, rather than the social forces which constituted the party and its voting base. But the Corbyn campaign is simply unimaginable in a 'Tory' party, and this underlines the still existing working class composition of Labour. No doubt if Corbyn fails there will be another cycle of decline in Labour, but the conditions under which this might happen, and its consequences are not yet decided.
The general outline of Lenin's tactical approach is also still relevant: support for any project which advances class organisation and class consciousness combined with fierce criticism of the Labour leaders and a commitment to building revolutionary organisation.
Corbyn's campaign undoubtedly breaks with a generation or more of New Labour's neo-conservative, neo-liberal dominance. It is enthusing hundreds of thousands. But the real battles lie ahead. The Blairites and others in the centre left are the British ruling classes' agents of influence inside the Labour Party. They will oppose Corbyn at every step in both the short and long term. In doing so they will have the support of the entire ruling elite. 'Unity' will be the blackmail used to try and bring the left to heel. But unity only means something to those who are resisting. Used to dull, blunt, or compromise resistance it is a trap for the left.
The failure of Syriza, a party formed further to the left than British Labour and with a stronger left wing, serves as a warning about the realities of a parliamentary socialist project...or, more accurately, even a project to resist austerity by parliamentary means.
In these circumstances revolutionaries should work enthusiastically for a Jeremy Corbyn victory. We want to end the all too long rule of the Blairites within the Labour Party. We long for political representatives that really represent the anti-capitalist and anti-austerity mood that has been frustrated by the democratic deficit for over a decade. We believe, as Jeremy Corbyn has said, that this must be a social movement of resistance. The campaign is popularising left wing ideas and giving confidence to everyone who opposes austerity, and it can help build the mass movements.
But we do not underestimate the force that the political establishment, which includes the Labour's right and centre, will bring into play to defeat the challenge that Jeremy Corbyn represents. Nor do we believe that Labour can be 'reclaimed' for socialism (actually 'claimed' since it never has had a socialist leadership). Neither do we believe that even a more limited project of resisting austerity can be successful unless it is based on mass, extra-parliamentary mobilisation. It is our task to win these arguments within the movement that has sprung up to support Jeremy Corbyn.
'Marx and Engels', wrote Lenin, 'taught the Socialists to throw off their narrow sectarianism at all costs and to affiliate to the labour movement in order politically to shake up the proletariat'. That too is our task. The more extensive the organisation of revolutionaries, the easier the task will be and the movement as a whole will be more capable of avoiding pointless and costly disappointments and defeats at the hands of Labour's right and centre and their allies in the ruling class.
All the quotations in this article can be found in V I Lenin, Lenin on Britain (Lawrence and Wishart, 1941).
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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