The Corbyn Project

A Case Study in Social Democracy

30 January 2021

Jeremy Corbyn

Text and audio of a presentation by an IBT supporter to an online meeting on 23 January 2021

Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the British Labour Party for five years between 2015 and 2020. This period saw a vast increase in membership and a renewal of interest in left-wing ideas such as significant wealth distribution and international solidarity. In the general election of 2017 and again in 2019 Labour stood on a manifesto that for once was significantly different from their Tory opponents. It was not a revolutionary programme by any means, but a list of significant reforms — higher wages, higher benefits, better and cheaper education and healthcare, and nationalised gas, electricity and transport. Corbyn also advocated an international policy that opposed many of Britain’s imperialist interventions abroad. All this opened up a space within the party to discuss how change on this scale — and much much more — could possibly happen.

That time is now over. New leader Keir Starmer has signalled clearly that he wants to renew the business-as-usual two-party system. In this cosy arrangement, the electorate is given two slightly different flavours to choose from, but essentially the meal is the same. Meanwhile the internal life of the party has lost its mojo, focusing on competition for positions between left and right. Younger activists are notably less present; attendance at Momentum meetings is down.

Corbyn’s programme was never a mortal threat to capitalism, but it was seen by the ruling class as something of an inconvenience. It was always clear that he would never be allowed to put it into practice. If the electorate had been irresponsible enough to elect a government led by Corbyn, the bourgeoisie would have various means of persuading him to water down his programme — there were hints at everything from capital flight to military intervention.

Of course, it would be much easier for the ruling class if none of that was necessary, if Labour under Corbyn never became the government at all — and that is in fact what happened. With the help of the right-wing of his own party and most of the media, the establishment ran an extremely successful smear campaign to paint an anti-racist campaigner as an antisemite. Combined with the poisonous debate over Brexit that could only benefit one or another wing of the ruling class, this was enough to deliver Boris Johnson’s Tories into Downing Street — who are currently killing tens of thousands of people with austerity and mismanagement of the Covid crisis.

As revolutionaries who study history, we know that Corbyn’s programme of social-democratic reform within a bourgeois parliamentary system will not fundamentally change inequalities in society — because it does not fundamentally change capitalism. We need to convince the hundreds of thousands who flocked to Corbyn in the hope of change that he (or the Labour Party in any form) is not the instrument we need to deliver it. We don’t do this by sitting aside in some kind of revolutionary citadel and lecturing from afar, but by supporting any progressive proposals and advocating a Labour vote so that the party can be tested in power. This will reveal how Corbyn’s programme falls short of being able to secure real and permanent gains for the working class. We call this critical support. Lenin described it as support in the same way that a noose supports a hanging man. Its objective is to replace social democracy with a communist movement that can overthrow capitalism.

Labour before Corbyn

We need to go a long way back in time to find an example when revolutionaries called for Labour to be tested in power, and it was tested — back to 1974. The Labour programme at this time was in some respects to the left of Corbyn, for example, in calling for widespread nationalisation of industry. It had a relationship with a trade union movement that was very militant by today’s standards. That Labour government proceeded to betray the workers that had believed in it. It formed a popular-frontist pact with the Liberals, it negotiated a social contract with the union leaders to damp down worker militancy, and it attempted to set limits on wage increases in a time of extremely high inflation.

Critical support is a tactic, not a permanent strategy. More often than not, we in the International Bolshevik Tendency argue against a vote to Labour in elections.

Trotskyists call Labour a bourgeois workers party — a contradictory thing that is capitalist in programme, but working class in composition and in its links with the trade unions. The revolutionary approach to bourgeois workers parties is to highlight these contradictions. We give critical support when the party appears to move in the direction of supporting the working class against the capitalists and many supporters have illusions that it will bring about real gains. More importantly — we withdraw critical support when they don’t.

A prime example of this is the period when Labour was led by Tony Blair. Blair made no pretence of supporting workers against the bosses, so at that time we emphasised the need for workers and trade unionists to break from Labour. We either called for a spoilt ballot or for critical support to smaller parties that showed some trajectory to the left, such as the Socialist Labour Party founded by Arthur Scargill.

Most left-wing organisations in Britain, even those that call themselves revolutionary, always vote Labour regardless of the direction of the party — this Labourism is the biggest obstacle to building revolutionary consciousness in the British working class because it focuses on improving Labour, not on building what we actually need. Or, a few organisations never vote Labour — again regardless of the direction of the party. Neither of these is the approach advocated by Lenin and Trotsky — we have written about this in our article “Marxism & Bourgeois Elections”.

Corbyn stuck with Labour throughout the Blairite period, often voting against the government, but not openly challenging it. In the 1997 election I happened to live in his constituency, Islington North, but I didn’t vote for him — the party under Tony Blair provided no significant alternative to the Tories and Corbyn was a representative of that party.

Blair’s successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband did not significantly break with the Blairite approach. During this time, no one who called themself a socialist really had much hope that Labour was anything but a lesser evil — and not really that much lesser. Meanwhile, the Tories returned to power in 2010 — in the wake of the ’07/’08 crash — and viciously attacked the poor and the working class. There was demand for an opposition party that provided a real alternative.

Corbyn’s Labour

This led to Corbyn’s surprise victory in the leadership contest in 2015, which reflected anger against austerity and was immensely popular. Not just the leadership but the composition of the party changed. Membership more than doubled from 200,000 to over half a million members — it was younger, more radical and had great expectations. The IBT supported Corbyn against the leadership challenge from Owen Smith, and advocated a Labour vote in the 2017 and 2019 general elections.

We were also very critical. We highlighted how Corbyn’s focus was largely in parliamentary channels, not in workplaces. He visited picket lines and protests but never advocated or supported actually defying the anti-union laws that made going on strike extremely difficult — and defying these laws is the only way of winning a strike. His promise to repeal some of them once he was in power years in the future was not enough for already struggling workers. He had close ties to trade union leaders like Len McCluskey — the role of the trade union bureaucracy is to manage worker militancy and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.

We argued that Corbyn’s programme was radical only in the context of the Blairites that had gone before him and was even to the right of the Labour left of the past, such as Tony Benn. In our first article after he became leader, “Labourism Rebooted”, we warned that “Corbyn’s project of advancing the interests of the victims of capitalism while rigidly adhering to the rulebook written by the exploiters is doomed to fail”.

The Labour manifesto of 2019 contained many supportable demands, and raised many expectations. It promised to “rewrite the rules of the economy, so that it works for everyone”. Let’s look at what an economy that works for everyone would actually mean. Quite simply, this would necessitate that all the resources created in society should be used for the benefit of all. Those resources are currently held in the hands of an eye-wateringly small group of people, who (not coincidentally) also control the media, the police and the army. The idea that these inequalities can be legislated away in any fundamental sense is a fairy tale. Simply not possible under capitalism.

I mentioned earlier the things the bourgeoisie might do to stop a Corbyn programme being actioned. But ultimately, the brakes would be applied by Corbyn himself. Taking resources from the wealthy and powerful means a fight — strike action, picket lines, protests, organising workers on the street to defend any gains and take more, without waiting for legislation and approval. There is nothing in Corbyn’s history to show he would encourage or even condone this.

We saw a small taste of this in December 2015, when the Labour leadership instructed local Labour councils to offer no resistance to Tory austerity measures and budgets. Presumably — rather than fighting — they had to wait for a Labour victory at the next general election, then scheduled over four years later.

That Corbyn became leader at all refutes those who say (as the Socialist Party used to) that Labour is a fully bourgeois party with no contradictions. In calling for higher wages and benefits, nationalising transport and power, Corbyn led working-class Labour voters to think that they might actually get something from a Labour government for a change. We called for this to be put to the test of power — with the objective of highlighting Labour’s contradictions and its inability to fulfil these promises. In those contradictions we can see why, over a hundred years ago, communists realised they had to break with social-democracy and form a party aimed at smashing capitalism and replacing it with collective ownership and planning. That has not changed.

Antisemitism Smear Campaign

The irony is that the right-wing of the party recognised the contradiction within Labour much better than Corbyn and his allies, and moved quickly to suppress the side of the contradiction that threatened the smooth working of capitalism. Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet appointments attempted to cross this divide, to rule a broad church, as a way to maintain his position. The right wing responded very quickly with attacks, orchestrated resignations and a leadership challenge.

When this didn’t work, they tested a few other potential weak spots like his clothes or his gardening on his allotment, or exaggerating his connections with the IRA. But, fairly quickly, the forces ranged against Corbyn settled on accusations of antisemitism as the best weapon they had, based on his lifelong support for the plight of the Palestinians.

Like all good smear campaigns, it contained an element of truth. In the IBT, we recognise that the territory of Israel/Palestine is home to both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The solution to the oppression and apartheid faced by the Palestinian people is joint class struggle against the Israeli state and the establishment of a bi-national workers’ state as the only means by which to fairly guarantee each people's right to self-determination. Of course there is a huge disparity in the situation of the two peoples and the immediate practical task is defence of Palestinians against the Israeli state. But we are opposed to all nationalism, whether Israeli or Palestinian. Under capitalism, self-determination of two peoples cannot be attained separately on the same territory.

However, many on the left react to the need to fight Palestinian oppression with a softness on Palestinian nationalism. This can slide from opposition to the Israeli state and ruling class, which is correct, to the false idea that even working-class Israeli Jews are oppressors or that Jews in Britain or the US are universally privileged and ideologically tied to Israeli. This suppresses the reality of the Jewish working class inside and outside Israel, and weakens the possibility of a united class fight by Palestinians and Israeli Jews against the Israeli regime.

Occasionally this line of thought can cross into antisemitism, such as blaming Jews as a whole for Palestine. Like the rest of society, the Labour Party is not entirely free of antisemitism or any other kind of racism. But it is not, as the accusations say, “rife with antisemitism”. Corbyn is not an antisemite. After several years of avoiding the question, he finally described this campaign as what it was: the degree of antisemitism in the Labour Party was, he said, “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”. For that he was temporarily suspended from the party and lost the Labour whip.

The smear campaign, which continues to be used against the left, has two objectives: first, an assault on an internal movement seen as a threat to the British ruling class; second, a defence of the foreign policy of British imperialism and its allies, who find it convenient to support a Zionist apartheid state in the Middle East.

This opposition comes not just from the Labour right and the Tories, but deep within the establishment — the media, the military, etc. We must defend Corbyn against this. Unfortunately, he didn’t do a very good job of defending himself. Afraid of being called a racist, he fell into a trap. He apologised. He compromised. He threw some of his supporters under the bus. He played down the threat the campaign posed to his own position and the promotion of left politics within the Labour Party.

Labour under New Management

So Corbyn’s opponents won. After losing the 2019 election, he was replaced by a man keen to demonstrate that the party is under new management. Keir Starmer — Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath — has attacked the left of the party, excluding Corbyn himself from the parliamentary Labour Party and expelling left-wing Jews for antisemitism. The Labour machine has issued instructions that local branches cannot even discuss these so-called disciplinary issues — at risk of being disciplined themselves.

Starmer follows instructions from Jewish establishment organisations outside the party, while ignoring his own Jewish members in groups such as Jewish Voice for Labour. He praises “fiscal responsibility”, and instructs his MPs to “pragmatic” abstentions on Tory legislation, such as the “spy cops” bill allowing undercover cops to commit crime. Instead of addressing the racist foundations of British society, he dismissed Black Lives Matter as a “moment”. He entirely failed to support the recent stance taken by the NEU teachers’ union on safety in schools.

Many local authorities are up for election in May. Many left organisations will no doubt call for a Labour vote. Unless there are major changes to the trajectory of the party, we will not be joining them. Individual Labour councillors cover the spectrum from the far left to the far right of the party and some on the left are doing useful work on the local level, such as supporting food banks and helping to house the homeless, in an effort to address the effects of the double hit of austerity and the pandemic — but all are working within the constraints of the national party without much hope it will move left in the near future. Even Corbyn told them not to rock the boat. Being better than Boris Johnson’s Tories is no basis for an electoral strategy. Labour under Starmer will make no attempt at fundamental change. Unlike Corbyn, he will not even pretend he can.

Responding to the Covid Pandemic

I pointed out earlier that the Tory victory in 2019 led to the disaster of a response to the Covid pandemic that we see before us. It’s an obvious question to ask whether this would have been any better under Corbyn.

Well, it’s certainly not difficult to imagine a better government response. And the Tories have been forced into implementing measures that sound suspiciously like the Labour manifesto, such as increasing Universal Credit benefits (albeit temporarily). Corbyn was ridiculed for suggesting free broadband for all — including by some of his supporters. With online schooling highlighting inequalities in access to technology and the internet, it doesn’t seem quite so silly now. It is likely that Corbyn’s Labour would have tried to implement a non-privatised version of test and trace, provided better support in the areas of housing and work conditions and increased sick pay, benefits and other support. Marcus Rashford might have had more time to concentrate on football rather than campaigning for hungry children.

We wanted Labour to win in 2017 and 2019 because we wanted to expose Labour in power, to demonstrate whether they would fulfil their promises. Because that didn’t happen, many today have illusions that if Corbyn had become prime minister we would now be seeing a socialist response to the Covid pandemic. But Labour would have faced the same dilemma as the Tories: What about the economy? How do we protect the functioning of capitalism? They would have come under intense pressure to channel funds to subsidise business and allow businesses to function — even when not safe for their workers.

What we need immediately is a huge transfer of resources from the rich to the poor, and massive state intervention to organise healthcare, test and trace, education and other infrastructure. This would pose a serious threat to the capitalist status quo — something Corbyn has never shown a willingness to do. Ultimately, only a workers’ government committed to human need, not corporate profits, can guarantee such a programme is implemented. The grassroots mutual aid that has started up all over the country provides necessary relief to the symptoms of capitalism, but unless it is funded and centralised under the leadership of the working class it will never be able to address the causes.

For a Revolutionary Workers’ Party

Whatever proportion of the Labour manifesto the ruling class might have allowed to pass into law, it would barely have touched the surface of the crisis we face in 2021, nowhere near restoring the losses the working class have suffered over the past year, and longer, nowhere near providing resources to care for all the sick and to feed and educate all the children. The Covid pandemic has shown beyond all doubt that the capitalist system is broken. Waiting for Labourite saviours will only delay what is really necessary — a society run by the working class in which wealth is used for the good of all — in good times and in bad times.

There was some hope on the left that Corbyn losing the Labour whip would lead to the formation of a new party that might do some of this. Instead he has created something called the Peace and Justice Project. I listened in to the launch meeting last weekend and I heard very little class politics. It threatens to act like an NGO or think tank; it has no membership structure or way for supporters to affect policy. It is not working class and it is not a party — we need a revolutionary workers’ party.

The experience of the Corbyn project has stress tested the limits of social democracy. We must learn from this. We have seen that the ruling class will not enable even a mild threat to its wealth via parliament — let alone the wholesale expropriation that is actually required.

We need a party that goes way beyond Corbyn’s nicer form of capitalism. We call on Corbyn supporters and socialists inside and outside Labour to begin the process of discussing what kind of party we need. The IBT fights for a party that will work in the present against austerity and racism; for health, jobs and education. We want these struggles to be led by militant trade unions using the weapon of the strike. We want millions of workers to learn in the process of struggle that our needs will only be met by destroying capitalism, claiming the value of our labour and setting up a society that uses it for the good of all.

Related articles:
Marxism & Bourgeois Elections: Principles & Tactics (1917 No.42)
Put Labour to the Test! Antisemitism, Smears & Social-Democracy (1917 No.42)
Labourism Rebooted: Jeremy Corbyn & Class-Struggle Politics (1917 No.38)