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  • Published in Theory
Parliament. Photo: Pikist

Parliament. Photo: Pikist

In the sixth part of a series of socialist explainers, Morgan Daniels looks at the prospect of achieving socialism through Parliament

Part One: What is socialism?
Part Two: Does human nature make socialism impossible?
Part Three: Can economic planning work?
Part Four: Does a biased media make change impossible?
Part Five: Why class matters
Part Six: Can socialism come through parliament?
Part Seven: Is a society without oppression possible?
Part Eight: What went wrong in Russia?
Part Nine: Is revolution possible in the twenty-first century?
Part Ten: What is Imperialism?

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 brought great hope.  More than 300,000 people joined Labour as a result, inspired by a socialist with an impeccable record of fighting oppression, war, and austerity. Hundreds of thousands more heard Corbyn’s message of change at rallies up and down Britain. Yet Corbynism would be defeated through a mix of relentless smears; sabotage at the top of the Parliamentary Labour Party; and a series of retreats and compromises, most damagingly over the European Union.  

Was this defeat foretold? Is it impossible to achieve socialism through parliament? And what happens when left wing governments are elected?

What is fundamental here is that the state is not some neutral entity which can be harnessed for alternately left or right wing purposes, depending on who is in power. This is because it mostly comprises unelected bodies which are bent towards maintaining a capitalist status quo: the police, the army, the civil service, the Bank of England, MI5, the judiciary, the media, the House of Lords, and so on. The Labour Party itself is a key cog in the state, with a majority of its MPs committed to preserving capitalism.

The half-decade of Corbynism taught us precisely what the state thinks about the idea of an anti-war, anti-austerity government. Civil servants briefed the press on Jeremy Corbyn’s unsuitability as leader. The media went into hyper drive, churning out endless lies about Corbyn as a person and ridiculing his fantastical socialist principles. A military general warned of a mutiny in the army if Labour won a general election, whilst British soldiers used a photo of Corbyn for ‘target practice’. 

The full weight of the state bears down on left wing governments that do win elections.  Harold Wilson’s Labour, for instance, was elected on a radical ticket in 1974, pledging to bring about a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power in favour of working people’. These plans were met sharply by all sorts of stately shenanigans. MI5 leaked intelligence about senior Labour politicians to the papers. The civil service stymied plans for nationalisation. Bankers led multiple runs on the pound. By the end of the 1970s, Labour was implementing harsh austerity policies.

All this was deployed against Labour governments or leaderships that were simply attempting to make the existing system fairer! Given the obstacles, even these attempts at radical reform could only have been pushed through with massive mobilisation of working people on the ground. The socialist project of democratising the economy and ending big business's stranglehold over society will require much higher levels of popular participation. It can only plausibly be achieved by a revolutionary movement from below.  

None of this means that we should ignore progressive currents within parliamentary politics. A Corbyn-led government would likely have delivered significant improvements in the lives of the working class and given enormous confidence to activists up and down the countryand even internationally. It would certainly have put the question of fundamental change on the agenda. For these reasons the Corbyn project received continued support from socialists outside of the Labour Party. 

It is important though that we draw some conclusions from the fact that even that prospect was too much for those that hold power in modern capitalist society. While parliament remains important as a political forum, we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that politics is confined to Westminster. Every strike, every protest, every popular campaign is intensely political and opens up the prospect of a much more participatory form of mass politics that can generate movements with massive power. The left needs to focus on how popular resistance can be transformed into a force for fundamental change.

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