Corbymania, British Labour and NZ Labour

Corbymaniaby Phil Duncan

Despite – or perhaps partly because of – the virulent opposition of the bulk of the mass media in Britain, including liberal publications like the Guardian, veteran left MP Jeremy Corbyn romped home to win the leadership of the British Labour Party.  Corbyn defeated his right-wing party machine rivals overwhelmingly, taking 59% of the vote; his closest rival received a mere 19%.  His votes came from the rank-and-file of the party, among them the several hundred thousand new members, most of whom seemed to have joined specifically to help him win.  Of the Labour MPs, however, only 20 voted for him, while 210 voted for his rivals.  The vote in the parliamentary party is an indication of the success of Blairism of killing off state-socialism in the organisation and creating a parliamentary party in his own image.

While we’re politically opposed to Labour parties – they are all utterly committed to managing capitalism and can never be anything more than an alternative management team for capital – the Corbyn victory does have a positive aspect.  Of course, it also has a negative side.

Despite a few miserabilist sectarians on the left who chose to pretend that Redline is a negativist mouthpiece, we always like to try to find some positives in the usually debilitating trends and developments we analyse.  So we’ll start with the positives about the Corbyn campaign – and they are significant positives.

Firstly, as the folks at spikedonline have noted, what drove the political establishment in Britain, including its liberal-progressive component to attack Corbyn so strongly, was that he stands for something.  As Brendan O’Neill, the contrarian blog’s editor put it last month, “Corbyn is the new Nigel Farage, setting the chattering classes’ teeth on edge, causing handwringing everywhere from Tony Blair’s clique to Polly Toynbee’s Twitterfeed. Why? Because, like Farage, he dares not to occupy the middle ground. He has the temerity to believe in something beyond getting elected. He has principles and he isn’t very big on compromising them. And these are tantamount to crimes, or at least to recklessness, in this era of Third Way unpolitics, when to be ideological is to be suspect, and to refuse to shave off your political edges in the name of winning a seat is to be viewed as sectionable.”

What he stands for may only be a return to old state-capitalism.  Indeed, on August 22 the Guardian ran a letter from 40 economists who pointed out that Corbyn’s economics were not radical.  The letter stated, “The accusation is widely made that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have moved to the extreme left on economic policy. But this is not supported by the candidate’s statements or policies. His opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics, even backed by the conservative IMF.”

But even Old Labour economic policies put him outside the great mushy centre ground which has exercised hegemony over British political life for the past several decades, just as it has in New Zealand.  Everyone, these days, is supposed to stand in the centre politically and quibble over fine details.  No-one is supposed to have strong opinions –left or right – and there is to be no vigorous clash of ideas, of competing views about the organisation of society and, most particularly, about the organisation of the economy.

In Britain, as in New Zealand, both the ‘Tories’ and ‘Labour’ are parties that administer a clapped-out capitalism that can only lower horizons and narrow choices.  Into this lowest common denominator, comes a pensioner-age bearded leftie, veteran of countless left campaigns over many decades, gate-crashing – albeit on his bicycle – the cosy consensus to which the liberal-left and the liberal-conservatives are committed.  In place of the bland middle-ground, Corbyn actually has some alternative ideas.  (As spikedonline also notes, the political mainstream don’t like the right-wing UKIP for the same reason – they actually stand for something other than simply being in power in order to be in power.)

Confirming that he is different to the mushy centre ground, just a few hours after his victory Corbyn joined tens of thousands on the streets of London demanding the British government open the doors to far more Syrian refugees.

Corbyn has clearly tapped into a wider sentiment in British society – sections of the working class, and young people in particular, are sick of ‘business as usual’.  They want more than the watery milk that has been dished up to them as ‘politics’ since the 1980s.  And Corbyn’s sudden rise from decades of leftish obscurity to the top job in the capitalist Labour Party isn’t the only sign.  The response to the Syrian refugee crisis, especially the big marches for opening the borders more –at least 30,000 in both London and Copenhagen on Saturday and many thousands more in other European cities – suggest a more open attitude to anti-establishment ideas.

However, there is a major downside to Corbymania, too.  At the end of the day, however ‘radical’ his social democratic ideas might be, they are still social democratic.  Corbyn is committed to the institutions of the British capitalist state; he wants them to operate differently and holds out to his supporters the idea that they can be made to operate in the interests of the majority.  And he puts forward the view that the Labour Party is the key institution for radical social change.

In reality, the verdict is in on the British Labour Party, just as much as its counterpart here in New Zealand.  Labour is an institution of the capitalist system.  It plays several roles in performing this essential task.  One is that its historical connections with the working class – while weaker today than in the past – allow it to get away with things in government that the open Tories of the British Conservative Party and the New Zealand National Party would find it harder to get away with.  When not conducting its own slash and burn assault on workers, Labour governments soften up the working class for assaults by the next openly Tory government.  Sometimes they do slash and burn and soften up the working class for the next round of Tory assaults – the fourth Labour government and the Blair/Brown regime in Britain are good examples.

Another crucial role played by Labour parties – and the British one has been more successful in this role than the one here – is to soak up, blunt and destroy potential left opponents.  In New Zealand, the anti-capitalist left have stayed outside the Labour Party, although politically many of them are still tied to it in the sense of illusions in it.  But in Britain, the LP has soaked up a plethora of ostensibly Marxist groups.  These groups decided to delude themselves that Labour could be changed or that working class radicalisation would inevitably turn to Labour and that a future mass revolutionary party would arise out of a split as such a radicalisation created unresolvable contradictions within Labour.  After 80 years of peddling this deluded dogma, these groups are still waiting. . .

And what of the British state which Corbyn also believes can be made to serve the masses?  The state is the necessary instrument of class society.  In the period of slavery it served the interests of the slave owners and kept the slaves down.  In the feudal era it was the instrument of the monarchy and the mechanism for settling disputes within the ruling class – between monarchs and the aristocracy – and holding down the peasants.  In capitalist society the state mediates between the different fractions of capital and maintains the interests of capital in general over the interests of the working class.  The capitalist state can’t free the working class.  Only the working class can do that.

And, because Labour is dedicated to maintaining the existing order, the last thing it wants is a stroppy working class.  It is only useful to capital as long as it keeps the working class in line, through lowering workers’ expectations and, when necessary, going for the jugular of the working class.  Labour is completely parasitical on the working class and needs to be removed from our body if we are to be healthy and to free ourselves of capitalist exploitation.

So what will happen to all the new young people who have taken Jeremy Corbyn to their hearts and joined Labour?  They are certainly in for some major disappointments and, ultimately, disillusionment.  Corbyn himself will likely retire in the not-too-distant future.  Indeed, he isn’t even sure he’ll lead Labour into the next election, which isn’t due until 2020.  And when they do get disappointed, why on earth would they bother turning to left groups that actually encouraged their illusions in Corbyn?  Shouldn’t these groups, supposedly possessed of the considerable political capital provided by the tools of Marxism, know better?

Lastly, is Corbymania of any relevance to New Zealand?

Well, it’s a telling comment on the wasteland that passes for politics in NZ that British Labour got Jeremy Corbyn and NZ Labour got David Cunliffe.  Corbyn has been a left social democratic political activist for decades who has genuinely fought many good fights – for troops out of Ireland, in support of the miners during their epic battle with Thatcher, in opposition to apartheid before such opposition became fashionable, in opposition to the imperialist invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, against cuts in the public sector and against the assault of the Thatcherites, Blairites and now Cameron’s Tories on the working class.  His politics may be woefully inadequate, but he has fought long and hard for some sort of progressive politics on many issues.  By contrast, Cunliffe was part of the economic right-wing consensus in the NZ Labour Party for years.  Then sensing that ground was rather full and needed a point of difference, he tacked opportunistically (and very briefly) very slightly to the left and was then talked up by people ranging from Chris Trotter to members of the International Socialist Organisation, who should have known better.  One ISO leader even called on workers in Labour-affiliated unions to vote for this cynical hack in his bid for the leadership of the outfit when they should have been calling on those workers to get their unions disaffiliated from this rotten party.

The New Zealand Labour Party is so utterly rotten and so totally devoid of principle, even traditional social-democratic ones, that none of their MPs bears even a passing resemblance to Corbyn, a genuine left social-democrat.  Nor is that about to change.  No-one who wants fundamental social change is attracted to Labour in this country – or certainly not for more than the briefest visit – it’s the party for cynical, self-regarding opportunists, careerists and chancers.  More now than ever, in fact.

Having said that, this country’s Labourites must be looking somewhat jealously at Corbymania and its ability to attract a substantial number of keen young people, something that NZ Labour has not been able to do since the early 1970s – and all that layer either left or ended up as establishment politicians like Helen Clark and Phil Goff.

When the closest Labour ever had to an organised left walked out of the party in 1989 and established the NLP/Alliance, Labour was gutted of active members.  It has been a shell party ever since.  And, in these days of presidential and professionalised party politics, when the parliamentary parties’ incomes depend on leaching off the state – the vast bulk of their funding comes not from their members and civil society supporting organisations but from the state – they don’t need a mass membership.

So Labour here doesn’t need a Corbyn.  I’m sure, however, they would like to draw in some more young people and devour their souls.  So there might be a few nods in the direction of Corbyn (and his success in drawing more young people into the graveyard of radical dreams that is British Labour).  So watch out.  If you see Labour coming your way, load up the silver bullets, hang the garlic on your door and get the stake ready.


  1. Respectfully (this phrase almost always guarantees a lack of respect), I find this analysis overly-simplistic and a tired retreading of the idea that the State is *always* the instrument of the capitalist class. Social actors, the State included, are not monolithic, but constructed of innumerable competing and often contradictory elements. While I agree that the capitalist State, as currently conceived, is primarily dedicated to the maintenance of the capitalist system, that doesn’t mean that it can’t still serve radical, anti-capitalist causes, if ‘captured’ by those of anti-capitalist principles.

    A Corbyn-led Labour party is not going to bring about socialism, but as I’ve always argued, we would be mad not to recognise the opportunities for making incremental advances in accordance with our principles. There appears to be a feeling amoung some of the Marxist left that engagement with ‘conventional’ politics is pointless, and that we must await the right socio-economic conditions before a mass, spontaneous revolution will be launched by a group of highly-educated working class Marxists. Maybe this is true, but any such radical change will only be successful if it has fertile ground in which to grow. Otherwise it is little more than Blanquism, or the stagnant determinism of Orthodox Maxism.

    I’m not advocating for social democracy, far from it. I’m advocating for socialist policies that might make their way onto a Labour platform, and open a wedge in the capitalist hegemony to allow other progressive causes to grow. Admittedly his economics at this stage was weak, but even Marx argued for such incrementalism (radical though it was at the time) in the Communist Manifesto – a ‘heavy progressive or graduated income tax’, abolition of inheritance, free public education, etc. I would actually start with restructuring workplace relations – zero tax on co-operative structures perhaps? I’m riffing now. But more than what Corbyn can do via State action – think of the wider movement it has inspired, and the potential for non-State actors to ride the wave of this enthusiasm. And just because it is a youthful, theory-lite enthusiasm, doesn’t invalidate it.

    I’m not deluding myself – Corbynmania is not Marxism, and it isn’t likely to go that way. But it might be a strand of a wider generational movement to bring about change. At the very least, it might move us closer to the achievement of real socialism than all the competing sectarian Marxist faux-parties put together.

    Phew. Rant.

  2. Peter, it’s a pretty basic part of Marxism that the state represents the dominant class. That, of course, isn’t to say that the state can’t be forced to make reforms which are worthwhile – but the state will not make inroads into the property rights of the capitalist class *as a class*.

    Also, the state represents the interests of capital *in general*. So it can easily act against particular capitalists or even fractions of capital – it will do this when necessary to protect the interests of the class as a whole, or the the interests of the bulk of the class.

    Revolutionary anti-capitalists support all kinds of incremental gains – the 40-hour week, the vote, rights for oppressed minorities like gay people or ethnic minorities.

    Most of us at Redline have spent decades fighting fights that either defended what the exploited and oppressed majority already had or for incremental changes, like abortion rights, gay rights, Maori rights, better pay and working conditions and so on. So we don’t need to be told how to suck eggs by people who have yet to participate in such struggles.

    But the lessons of incremental struggles are also clear. Leftists often get so caught up in incremental struggles that they forget the goal. And the goal is not incremental; it is the sweeping away of capitalism and the liberation of humanity. If just half the energy that’s been put into incremental change over the past 100 years or more had’ve gone into challenging *the system itself*, we’d be in a helluva lot better position than the left is now.

    On Marx and the Communist Manifesto you are mistaken. For some strange reason, it is very common for people to read those points by Marx and Engels about heavy progressive tax, free public education etc and ignore what comes just before that list.

    It is not a list of demands to be placed upon a *capitalist* government or on reformist parties. Here’s what Marx and Engels say *immediately before* that list of ten points:

    “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

    “Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

    “These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

    “Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.”

    Isn’t that pretty clear?

    Marx and Engels are talking about what the working class – in 1848! – would need to do *immediately after* it wrestled power from the capitalists. They’re talking about revolution, not what demands leftists should place upon capitalist parties like the British Labour Party.

    I don’t know why leftists who cite that ten-point programme have such a strong tendency to misunderstand what Marx and Engels are saying, when M&E are very, very clear. It’s not like there’s room for misunderstanding.

    I tend to think that leftists are so hegemonised by the idea of incremental reform that they simply blank out the revolutionary process M&E are talking about and read it as some kind of set of demands for reform to be placed on the capitalist state and capitalist parties.

    “Socialist policies” won’t make their way onto the Labour platform. This is the lesson of 100 years of Labour parties around the world. Not learning that lesson is simply a form of dogmatism. (I’m not claiming that stuff that might have sounded socialist never got onto Labour platforms – sometimes it did, but it was never meant seriously, never to be actually implemented.) I find it odd that after all this time chunks of the left still don’t *really* – ie in practice – understand what the Labour Party is for.

    Corbyn’s role – and it’s not deliberate on his part; I think he’s a genuine left social democrat – is to draw in a whole heap of new blood into the Labour party where it will sucked on by the vampiric party apparatus, leaving the poor naive victims wasted and cynical.

    The job of Marxists is to warn against this, not encourage it.

    At the same time, we have pointed out the positive side of the Corbyn phenomena. It shows there is an audience for some kind of left principles and all the years of the TINA consensus haven’t reconciled everyone to the extraordinary, ridiculous idea that a thing (the market) knows better than the combined intelligence of humankind.


Comments are closed.