“I was there in 1984 standing alongside the miners,” [Corbyn] recalled, “and judging by the appearance of some of you, you were there with me. Welcome back!”
The current Labour leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith is being framed by Smith and his supporters as the ‘competent, pragmatic, socialist versus the ‘incompetent, ideological, socialist’ Corbyn.
What is fascinating here is that – for Smith’s supporters at least – they are both “socialists”.
(Interestingly, Corbyn’s supporters are more likely to view anyone they disagree with in Labour as a ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Blairite’ neoliberal).
In this article I set out to show that it is the chasm between the fantasy of Labour’s ‘socialism’ and the reality of its ‘social democracy’ that has opened the door to ‘Corbynism’.
I go on to argue that the ‘Corbyn’ project is not about turning Labour into a ‘movement’ but about turning a vague movement of ex-Trots, ‘socialists’, greens, ‘occupiers’ and others into a ‘new model Labour Party’.
Clause 4 and ‘socialism’
Let’s start with a definition of “socialism”. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics defines it as “a political and economic theory or system of social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Most people would accept that as a pretty accurate definition.
On the above definition Labour was a ‘socialist’ party according to the old Clause 4 of the Party constitution (before it was reformed by Tony Blair):
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
In his excellent history of “Parliamentary Socialism” the historian Ralph Miliband famously chronicled how in practice Labour – in its practical policies, programmes and especially in its Parliamentary and Government incarnations – had at best been a reformist social democratic party.
(Miliband saw this as a criticism, which makes his analysis even more powerful testimony that Labour was never in practice a socialist party).
Many think that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown finally made reality and rhetoric come into line when they reformed “Clause 4” more than 20 years ago. The new Clause include a commitment to:
“A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services where those undertakings essential to the common good are either owned by the public or accountable to them.” (emphasis added).
That does not sound at all like “social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Rather, it is what we used to call a “mixed economy” or could be more usefully called a social democratic economy.
Crucially though Clause 4 also still stated “the Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.”
Blair and co sought to suggest that “socialist” did not mean “social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” but it was just a set of values about equality, democracy, etc. which “socialists” held to.
Most objective observers would call a party which supports democracy, a mixed-economy, liberal social policies, social, health and educational provision by the state and equality as a “social democratic” rather than a “socialist” party.
But as Miliband analysed, throughout its history Labour parliamentarians have relied on a vague “socialism” to mobilise working-class support and that segment of British politics who seriously believed in “social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” to support Labour.
This in part explains why Britain never developed a mass Communist movement to the left of the Labour Party – most ‘socialists’ were attracted into Labour’s ‘broad church’.
However, for over a century there has been a small but significant ‘socialist’ movement outside of the Labour Party (as well as within it).
Most prominent amongst this external socialist movement was the Communist Party of Great Britain (until its demise in the early 1990s). The CPGB never grew beyond about 50,000 members but its influence, especially in heavy industry and the Trade Unions, was much greater than simple numbers suggest.
But, especially since the 1960s, there was also a significant ‘New Left’ – mainly composed of 57 varieties of Trotskyist groups. Foremost amongst these were Militant (inside Labour until the 1980s), the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Revolutionary Party and others.
The total membership of all these groups probably never exceeded more than 50,000 in the 1970s. But what is significant for the current state of the Labour Party is not their absolute number at any one time but their turn-over and influence.
Although the core leaderships of the various groups remained quite stable, the churn rate in members was phenomenal – I would guess at something approaching 50% per annum. If you take that over a couple of decades, it means there are probably now hundreds of thousands of middle-aged ‘ex’ comrades from the far-left glory days of the 70s and 80s.
[A this point I have to say I am one of them – I was a member of one of the smaller Trotskyist groups – the IMG – from 1972 until 1982, so I have some insight into how they and the rest of the far-left operated].
Most of the ‘ex-comrades’ simply drifted out of far-left politics and got on with ‘real life’ – having kids, careers, mortgages and all that stuff. Most probably drifted politically towards more reformist, middle-of-the-road politics.
But a lot still probably had a Che t-shirt at the bottom of the wardrobe, bored their kids with stories about their ‘demo’ days and played “Street Fighting Man” at full volume when drunk. They still thought of themselves as ‘socialists’ and maybe even went on the odd-demo.
Others drifted off into various other forms of protest politics – environmental, ant-cuts, human rights, poverty, and so on. Here they linked up with newer generations who tended to be more interested in single issue campaigns than the earlier generations obsessions with Marxism, socialism and revolutionary parties.
Few of the ‘ex-comrades’, I would suggest, ever really settled intellectual accounts with their ‘revolutionary socialist’ flings. They voted overwhelmingly for Blair in ’97 and tolerated the ‘Third Way’, to the extent they thought about it at all between school-runs, but not enthusiastically.
It is this mass of vaguely ‘socialist’ middle-aged ex-Trots – and there are an awful lot more of them than they or anyone else probably realized until recently – that might explain a lot of the ‘Corbyn’ phenomena. Disillusioned with Blair (mainly over one single issue – Iraq), despondent of Labour ever winning again anyway, they have turned to Corbyn as the political equivalent of going out and buying a Harley.
Turning Labour into a Movement or a Movement into Labour?
So we come back to Clause 4 and Labour’s “democratic socialism”. The reason for the absolute fracture inside Labour now is simple: its has seen a massive influx of people who think it is, or can be, a genuinely “socialist” party when most of its MPs and long-standing activists know that is fantasy politics. Labour, as a Parliamentary and Governmental Party has always been social democratic, not socialist.
John McDonnell, the real mastermind behind the ‘Corbyn’ craze, keeps talking about turning the Labour Party into a ‘movement’ rather than ‘just’ a political party. The truth is the other way around – what they have done is turn a vague, amorphous, movement of aging nostalgic lefties and enthusiastic youngsters into a ‘new’ Labour Party.
When some analysts say that ‘there are not enough Trots’ for this to be all about ‘entryism’ they forgetting history and just how long these small groups have been churning out ‘ex comrades’ who retain a vague attachment to their socialist pasts.
The old, in practice social democratic, Labour Party is now dead. I think the Parliamentary Labour Party – the only force that could have rescued it – have missed their opportunity to do so. All there is to do now is wait for the burial at the next General Election – which will probably be sooner than 2020.
[I have not gone into the role of the Trade Unions in all this – that is a whole other story].
For information here is the current Clause 4 of Labor’s Constitution
Aims and values
- The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
- To these ends we work for:
- A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services where those undertakings essential to the common good are either owned by the public or accountable to them
- A JUST SOCIETY, which judges its strength by the condition of the weak as much as the strong, provides security against fear, and justice at work; which nurtures families, promotes equality of opportunity, and delivers people from the tyranny of poverty, prejudice and the abuse of power
- AN OPEN DEMOCRACY, in which government is held to account by the people, decisions are taken as far as practicable by the communities they affect and where fundamental human rights are guaranteed
- A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT, which we protect, enhance and hold in trust for future generations.
- Labour is committed to the defence and security of the British people and to co-operating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all.
- Labour shall work in pursuit of these aims with trade unions and co-operative societies and also with voluntary organisations, consumer groups and other representative bodies.
- On the basis of these principles, Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern.