Saturday, December 5, 2020

Not a LOTO Fun (2020)

Book Review from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire. (Bodley Head 2020. £18.99)

This is billed as the ‘inside story of Labour under Corbyn’, which says exactly what’s inside the proverbial tin. It is at times insightful, gossipy and scandalous – and as such is hugely entertaining. That the Corbyn project was something of a train wreck by well before the 2019 General Election is now received wisdom and this book shows why. Always an uneasy amalgam of leftist forces (from quasi-Stalinists like Seamus Milne to Bennites, Trotskyists and single-issue campaigners), the surprise was more that the unique circumstances of the 2017 election had enabled them to do so well against the odds. But as one commentator put it, the soufflĂ© never rises twice.

Much of it centres on the machinations of the Leader Of The Opposition’s Office (referred to internally as LOTO) and the internal factionalism that developed there enveloping all else, and their parallel and persistently difficult relationship with the official Labour HQ at Southside, still jam-packed with Blairites and Brownites. To say that policy-making and strategic decisions were made on-the-hoof (when they were made at all) is an understatement. What strategy did emerge – including Labour’s eventual and painful drift towards Remain – was often at the behest of the ‘grandfather’ of the Corbyn project, namely former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, but this was frequently in the face of opposition from other faction-fighters, including Corbyn’s Chief of Staff Katie Murphy, Unite chief Len McCluskey, and Milne.

Over time, Corbyn himself cut an increasingly sad figure in many respects, exhausted and irritated by the job in almost equal measure, and especially unable to understand the furore over anti-semitism in the Party. A backbench campaigner at heart, this attitude never really left him. It was an irony that the backbenchers in the Parliamentary Labour Party, some of whom were to defect to Change UK and/or the Liberal Democrats, ended up being as much a thorn in his side as he had been to Blair and Brown under New Labour – if not more so.

The book also covers the plotting and dynamics behind the succession of Keir Starmer as leader over Rebecca Long-Bailey in the wake of Corbyn’s 2019 election defeat and is telling in its analysis:
‘… on no subject was [Corbyn] more stubborn that his own sense of identity. The painful compromises inherent in the unusual lives of holders of high office – the encroached privacy, the punishing schedules, the relentless demand for executive decision-making and swift judgement – never felt within his command… Unable to rewrite the rules of the game as he had promised, he preferred to ignore them… By 2019, Corbyn had created a vacuum for others to fill. Keir Starmer in particular has reason to be grateful for Corbyn’s squeamishness with power. The Project not only squandered its inheritance from the membership, but left its children without any meaningful bequest’ (p.357).
There is a fair chance Starmer will lead Labour to their next election victory, despite his Trotskyist origins, but clearly more as a latter-day Brown from the Party’s ‘soft left’ than as a Bennite like Corbyn. Plus la change…?

Labour’s Internal Conflicts (2020)

From the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The suspension from the Labour Party of its erstwhile leader Jeremy Corbyn initially appears to be of little note for socialists. There can be sympathy for the hounding of an apparently decent man, , but hey-ho that’s capitalist politics for you.

But actually, this is a little more serious. While Corbyn does not in any sense meet the criteria set out in our principles of what is required to be a socialist, he is identified throughout the media and in the popular consciousness as just that. Indeed he probably self-identifies as a socialist.

During the lead up to the 2019 general election, in a number of BBC Radio 4 vox pops he was frequently cited as the reason for Labour voters of many years standing insisting they would not vote for the Labour Party. Corbyn was too extreme, to the point of being denounced as a ‘communist’. As socialists who state that socialism and communism are synonyms, that the Labour Party never was, is not and never will be a socialist party, such prevalent sentiments as expressed in those vox pops are of concern.

Capitalism’s defenders are none too discerning when it comes to identifying perceived socialist threats. The faintest whiff of red smoke and any vaguely smouldering embers are to be stamped on. If possible the word socialist, never mind the concept, is to be anathema.

Socialist understanding of the Soviet Union from its inception is that it was state capitalist and not socialist/communist in any sense. Yet there can be little doubt that Lenin, who thought himself a socialist, found himself through circumstance as head of a ruling regime that had no way of pursuing socialism.

Thus the compromise of state capitalism proved to be no pre-emptor of socialism as perhaps Lenin hoped. However, it did allow for an ideological claim of communism in the making, an iron curtain indeed behind which the ruling nomenclature became the capitalist class spawning the oligarchs of Putin’s non-Soviet Russia.

By posing as communist for over 70 years, the Soviet regime has been responsible for considerable ideological damage that actual socialists have to deal with. Present-day inheritors of Lenin’s legacy continue to serve to obscure the ubiquity of capitalism throughout the world, be it ‘free market’ or state capitalism.

This serves ‘free market’ capitalism particularly well politically as those state capitalist countries who continue to don the communist mask tend to the brutally authoritarian, thereby confirming the popular conception.

There is, though, a risk in all this for capitalism in that the concept of socialism may be traduced, but it continues to exist and where that may lead is unpredictable. For example, while the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 could not of itself have led to socialism, had the idea inspired the working class around the world to seriously consider what was possible for it to achieve, then capitalism would have had a problem.

Therefore, any hint of socialism succeeding, however erroneous, must be pilloried and, where possible, crushed. Even politicians who are merely trying to ameliorate the worst effects of capitalism without challenging capitalism itself must be thwarted and shown to fail. All the better if those politicians self-identify, or failing that can be branded, as socialists/communists/Marxists.

Thus the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party takes on a significance of sorts for socialists. On his being elected leader a whole machinery of vilification was slipped into gear. It was his declared support for a beleaguered Arabic people, Palestinians, which ultimately led to his downfall, branded a denier of anti-Semitism.

As a case study in character assassination, it should serve as a warning as to the opprobrium that will be manufactured and freely distributed to the public should anyone appear to be gaining influence contrary to capitalism’s well-being. The synthetic outrage produced through blending anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has proved to be powerful. It has placed a brand of aggressive ultra-nationalism beyond criticism and forged a potent political weapon to strike down opponents, leaving them apparently morally, as well politically, compromised.

The wider impact is to identify anti-Semitism with socialism. It doesn’t matter that Corbyn really isn’t a socialist, just another would-be reformer of capitalism. If this is indicative of action that can be so vigorously pursued against a reformer, what can people expect who do wish to replace capitalism with socialism through the agency of a self-aware working class acting on its own behalf?

Once the working class is so motivated, then such a political weapon will be blunted. But until then, those who have accepted the task of propagating socialist ideas need to take heed of what could be the personal consequences of becoming more influential.

There is the further, perhaps more important, point concerning democracy. Socialists do not advocate the suppression of ideas, rather they should be brought out into the open and subjected to scrutiny. Through debate erroneous notions can be exposed and correct ones clearly identified. This does not preclude individuals continuing to expound erroneous ideas, the safeguard being their dismissal by the majority. That is democracy.

This most definitely applies to socialists. If some, or even all, we advocate can be demonstrated objectively to be wrong, then so it must be. It would be utterly pointless finding some mechanism whereby such a demonstration could be suppressed. This applies to all bodies of ideas and ideologies. Any agency working to frustrate this for self-serving purposes is opposed to democracy.

The Socialist Party was vigorously opposed to Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of the Labour Party. However well meaning, his ideas would not have brought the benefit of socialism to the working class. This for the very good reason that socialism is not something that can be conferred, it must be achieved by the working class itself.

This opposition was open and political, not personal. His subsequent vilification though the media, and by many of his own backbenchers, has most definitely served the interests of capitalism by casting guilt by association, however vague and erroneous that association may be, with socialism. The juicier story is proving to be the ongoing, and rather laboured (pun intended) anti-Semitism row. If there is a strand of anti-Semitism running through the Labour Party it would be one of the threads of racism sown into all societies based around national identities.

Zionism is but one manifestation of this and it is quite possible that those who take a specifically anti-Zionist stand slip into expressions of anti-Semitism without recognising they are doing so. While the world continues to be divided by national boundaries, so will the curse of casual, as well as intentional, racist comments and behaviour.

Suspending Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party not only won’t cure the problem, in a sense it deflects from the root cause. It would well serve those who are celebrating Corbyn’s predicament to examine their own attitudes as to whether they can honestly acquit themselves of ever having had a racist thought. To quote a statement attributed to a Jewish teacher, ‘Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone’.

Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn will now take stock and come to realise that the best interests of society are to be served through pursuing actual socialism, not some reformist parody. In which case he may come to realise suspension, perhaps expulsion, from the Labour Party is a blessing, even if initiated by dark deeds.
Dave Alton