The recent suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, argues John Molyneux, exposed in dramatic fashion an underlying truth about the Labour Party in Britain: its unshakeable support for the institutions of the British state.
The Labour Party in Britain is, and always has been since its inception in 1900, a reformist party. Its aspiration, at best, has been to form a government – they tend to call it getting into ‘power’ – by winning a parliamentary majority and using that position to enact policies and pass laws that improve the lot of ‘the many’, primarily the working class.
Since the dominant consciousness of the British working class during the same period has also been reformist and it has largely voted for the Labour Party it has seemed to many people, including many Labour members, that the Labour Party has reflected and represented the British working class.
In so far as the party has had weaknesses, e.g. failed to enact socialist change or lapsed into racism, sexism or support for reactionary wars, this has supposedly been a reflection of what its working class supporters wanted. Indeed on this view if the Labour Party becomes too left-wing or too socialist, or even too anti-racist, it will alienate its working-class base and not win elections.
In fact this ‘correspondence’ between the actions of the Labour Party and the consciousness of the mass of workers is more appearance than reality. There is a profound difference between the reformism of the mass of workers and the reformism of the people who lead and dominate the Labour Party, namely MPs and Ministers.
Most working class people have what Gramsci called ‘a contradictory consciousness’. They reject aspects of capitalism, especially its effects which they experience, but accept other features of it. In particular they ‘accept’ capitalism because they lack confidence in their own ability to challenge or overthrow it and therefore look to ‘leaders’ – in Britain, mainly the leaders of the Labour Party – to make things better for them.
The leaders of the Labour Party, as a collective group, however, positively support and embrace capitalism; and in many cases develop serious material interests in it by working for capitalist businesses, serving on company boards etc.
There is a difference here between the right and the left of the Labour Party, though it is a very fluid difference. The Right, which would include the likes of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown, going back to Callaghan, Healy, Wilson, Gaitskell, Ernest Bevin and even Ramsay McDonald – it simply believes that it can manage capitalism better than the Tories.
The Left – Corbyn, McDonnell, Benn, the younger Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan and so on – sees itself as anti-capitalist, in that it is a critic of big business, often supporting the trade unions and strikes, and hopes that while managing capitalism it can also seriously modify it and gradually transform it in the direction of socialism.
Support for the British State
But on one point the Left, virtually unanimously, and the Right have agreed: support for the institutions of British state. By this I mean not only Parliament, though this has been crucial, but also the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the civil service and even the monarchy.
They have believed that this state somehow represented the interests of the British nation and would be the instrument they would use to bring about the changes they sought. And this support for the British State has led them, whether they intended it or not, into support for capitalism, for imperialism and for imperialist wars. The historical instances of this are so numerous that I can only cite a few examples here.
For the early period of the Labour Party the figure of Ben Tillett can serve as representative. In 1889 Tillett was a militant trade unionist associated with the great Dockers’ Strike of that year who later became a Labour MP. In relation to World War I he wrote, “Despite our former pacifist attitude, the forces of Labour in England have supported the government throughout the war,” and summed up his attitude as follows, “in a strike I am for my class, right or wrong; in a war I’m for my country right or wrong”.
The Attlee Government
Perhaps the most telling case of how this played out was with the Attlee Labour Government of 1945-51. This government is the high point in the history of the Labour Party and the stuff of Labour legend, largely because of its introduction of the NHS and its development of the welfare state – reforms which brought real benefits to working people.
These achievements were possible because capitalism had begun its long post-war boom and because substantial sections of the Tory Party, and the ruling class more generally, essentially accepted the need for reform, including a degree of nationalisation.
But at the end of six years of Labour Government, mostly with a huge majority, not a hair on the head of the British State had been touched: not the armed forces, not the police nor the judges, not MI5 or MI6, not the civil service, not the monarchy and not even the House of Lords. Moreover, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been endorsed, the atom bomb had been manufactured (secretly), British forces had crushed uprisings in Greece and Malaya, Britain had fully supported the US in the Cold War and British troops sent to fight in Korea, and apartheid had been backed in South Africa.
Tellingly the government invariably backed the forces of the State against striking workers, invoking two States of Emergency and deploying troops as strike breakers on no less than eighteen occasions. The result was that when the Tories returned to office in 1951 they were simply able to resume business as usual and run British capitalism for the next thirteen years, while Clement Attlee was elevated to the peerage.
And all this was done with the more or less total acquiescence of the Labour Left, including the sainted Nye Bevan. The deal seems to have been: give economic reforms for British workers and we will turn a blind eye to imperialist policies on a world scale. The extent to which this remains the case is shown by the universal reverence for the Attlee Government in Labour ranks.
Over the next 60 or more years the loyalty of the Labour leaders to the British state remained unabated.
When, following a series of mass demonstrations by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the 1960 Labour Party Conference passed a resolution in favour unilateral nuclear disarmament the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, declared he would ‘fight, fight and fight again’ to ‘save the party we love’, from the CND threat, to the general applause of the media and doubtless widespread clapping in Whitehall and the Admiralty.
Needless to say neither the Wilson Government of 1964-70 nor any subsequent Labour government has made any move to enact this resolution. On the contrary, Wilson and his government gave clear support to the American War in Vietnam.
Inevitably this translated into craven support for the actions of the British army and secret state in Northern Ireland. Roy Mason, who started work as a miner and ended up in the House Lords, served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1976-9. He was renowned for his hard line approach, sending the SAS into South Armagh and telling the 1976 Labour Conference that:
“Ulster had had enough of initiatives, White Papers and legislation for the time being, and now needed to be governed firmly and fairly… and, crucially, with republican terrorism treated as a security problem, and nothing else.”
This was the language of Margaret Thatcher during the Hunger Strikes, but five years earlier.
In 1981, Labour leader Michael Foot first called for, and then supported, Thatcher’s Falklands/Malvinas War and in 1990-91 his successor Neil Kinnock and Shadow Foreign Secretary, Gerald Kaufman, supported the US-led first Gulf War.
In short, when Tony Blair took Britain into the Iraq War in 2003, in the face of massive public opposition and on the basis of outright lies about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’, it was not some aberration; he was in fact acting in a long Labour tradition of support for the British state and its imperialist wars.
This history has a major bearing on what has happened to Jeremy Corbyn. When Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015 the British political establishment and the British ruling class was confronted, for the first time, with a potential Prime Minister whose loyalty to the British state, and thus to capitalism, could not be relied upon.
This is not to say that Corbyn himself had thought all this through – he had not – but his long record of socialist and anti-war, anti-imperialist campaigning often alongside the extra-parliamentary left made him very dangerous in the eyes of the establishment. They reacted with apoplectic fury. I described this response at the time:
His victory was greeted with a storm of media attacks on his family, his personal life, his dress, his choice or not of tie, his supposed anti-semitism (an utterly false allegation based entirely on his support for Palestine), his failure to sing the national anthem and whether or not he would kiss the hand of the queen.
There was a coordinated attempt to destroy or permanently damage him at birth as it were. And while much of the assault was just gutter journalism and drivel (“did he have an affair twenty years ago?”) some of it had a sharp political edge, probing the issue of his ‘loyalty’ to the British State.
This creates a difficulty for Corbyn. He will be surrounded by advisors telling him to accommodate to all this stuff, because he will fear the affect on public opinion of challenging the traditions and rituals of the British monarchy and imperial State and because, at bottom he hopes to use that State to bring social change to Britain…
Then there is the problem created by his own party. Very few – twenty at most – of the MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party actually support Corbyn or his policies. Many of them are implacably hostile. Most of them won’t say this openly at the moment but they will work to undermine him and have already started doing this.
When this generalised assault on Corbyn failed to destroy him – he was re-elected Labour leader by an overwhelming majority in 2016 and then came close to winning the General Election of 2017 – the establishment and the Labour right changed tack to focus specifically on the charge of anti-Semitism.
Equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism enabled them to depict the Labour Party as riddled with anti-Semitism because it had some high profile defenders of Palestinian rights, including Corbyn himself, and this was relentlessly pursued and weaponised.
Here it is necessary to understand that the British State’s consistent support for Israel has nothing to do with opposition to anti-Semitism. It is based on the fact that Israel acts as an outpost of Western imperialism in the Middle East and, crucially, has always been backed by the US. Slavish support for the US has probably been the single most consistent strand in British foreign policy, regardless of who was in government, since the Second World War.
There were a number of factors that made this weapon effective against Corbyn. First, a crucial role was played by certain right-wing Zionists in the Labour Party, like Margaret Hodge and John Mann (now Lord Mann), who were more than happy to mortally damage the Labour Party to defend Israel and get at Corbyn.
Second, they could exploit the fact that in a mass party like the Labour Party it was inevitable that there would be certain instances of real anti-Semitism, especially as the level of political education in the Labour Party is not high, even though the number would be much less than in the Tory Party.
Third, that same low level of political education in the Party meant that there was not a high degree of understanding of the issue of Palestine among many members who were thus not clear what was going on and how to resist it.
Fourth, the anti-Semitism charge dovetailed with another key feature of the Labour Party, its ‘electoralism’, which had required, by long tradition, that Corbyn resign as leader when he lost the ‘Brexit’ election in 2019 and rendered him vulnerable to Starmer.
This ‘electoralism’, which goes hand-in-hand with the commitment to the State, is so central to how the Labour Party works that it merits further explanation. By ‘electoralism’ here I do not mean the practice of contesting elections, which is essential even for revolutionaries. I mean the idea that success in parliamentary elections is overwhelmingly the top priority in politics, trumping not only extra-parliamentary struggle in all its forms, but also the question of what you are trying to win elections for.
The truth is that many in the Labour Party – not all but certainly many – come not only to focus on elections but to regard virtually every principle as something to be sacrificed if in any way it might be an obstacle to electoral victory.
If some of the working class who you want to vote for you are racist, you should shut up about anti-racism and ‘listen to their concerns’. If the jobs of some of your of potential voters are linked to the nuclear weapons industry or Trident there should be no talk of nuclear disarmament, and so on. If they believe Starmer is more likely than Corbyn to win then that in itself makes them support Starmer and dismiss Corbyn as a ‘loser’. And yes, some of them do use that Trump-like language.
This fixation on parliamentary elections relates back to the fundamental features of the Labour Party as a reformist party referred to at the beginning of this article. Partly it reflects the lack of confidence of working people who hope for someone on high to enact change on their behalf, but it also corresponds to the careerism of the party’s upper echelons, their aspirations for parliamentary seats, ministerial jobs and ultimately elevation to the ranks of the establishment.
Crucially, it is a fatal trap for the Left in the party. Time and again, for more than a hundred years, it has meant that the Labour left has surrendered to the Right in the name of ‘unity’ to defeat the Tories and there are already signs that this may be going to happen over Corbyn’s suspension. But from Ramsay MacDonald and Ernest Bevin to Tony Blair and Sir Keir Starmer, it is a willingness to compromise that is never reciprocated , precisely because the Right are far more loyal to the State and the system than they are to either the Labour Party or the working class.
This is why, no matter how left-wing the party’s rhetoric or how sincere the intention of the bulk of its members, the British Labour Party has always proved an obstacle to the struggle for socialism in Britain.