Friday, September 18, 2015

The Assault on Corbyn

The Assault on Corbyn

The assault on Jeremy Corbyn by the establishment and their media is clearly a coordinated attempt to destroy him. It is to be hoped that people will see through it and it will backfire.

Many of the attacks will be gutter journalism at its worst and many will be easy for the left to rebut with sarcasm and humour on social media. But the ruling class are not fools; they have long experience and a killer instinct in these matters. We on the left need to understand what they are doing.

The issues of will Corbyn sing the national anthem or wear a red poppy or kiss the Queen’s hand  may seem trivial but they chime with Cameron’s tweet that Labour’s new leader is a ‘threat to national security’. What the ruling class are saying to Corbyn is ‘Are you loyal to the British State?’ And they are daring him to say he is not and demanding that he prove he is.

But if he IS loyal to British state lots of things go along with this. Not just the monarchy and innumerable ceremonies ( which are not there just for decoration but as important symbols of loyalty and subordination) but also ‘support for our boys’ in war, ‘defence of the realm’ via the armed forces – including MI5, MI6 etc, support for ‘our’ police and ‘our’ justice system, backing ‘British’ business and so on.

A number of things make this difficult for Corbyn. First, the issue will not go away. Even if the current feeding frenzy fades, it will always be there in the background to resurface in new tabloid headlines in the future. Second, he will be surrounded by Ministers, MPs, trade union leaders and ‘advisers’ telling him he HAS to go along with this stuff to be ‘electable’ and they are likely to back their advice with threats of resignation etc., because many of them really are loyal to the British state – a lot more loyal to it than they are to Corbyn or the Labour Party come to that.

Then there is the deeper problem that this is probably an issue which Jeremy Corbyn has not through himself. Certainly this is the case with the Labour Left historically and with left reformists generally (and internationally). Their whole project, their whole strategy, is based on the idea of USING the existing state to transform society. It is on this basis that they achieve their popularity, saying to working people ‘Support us and we will form a government that will run the country more in your interests’. They don’t say to working class people you should rise up, overthrow the existing state and create your own state. They say vote for us.

History shows that this is a question on which the Labour Party has repeatedly fallen down, ranging from support for the First World War, to the Attlee government’s manufacture of Britain first nuclear bombs and backing for the US side in the Cold War. Michael Foot (a lifelong member of CND) was repeatedly crucified on this issue – and I don’t mean his ‘donkey jacket’ at the Cenotaph, I mean nuclear weapons. As Labour leader he was never able to give a clear answer to the question, ‘Will a Labour government get rid of Britain’s nuclear deterrent?’ and as a consequence was reduced to incoherence.

Of course it is possible that Corbyn could come out fighting and say I reject any allegiance to the Royal Family, the Armed Forces and the State as a whole – they are instruments for holding down and oppressing the working class. But this seems unlikely. And if he does try to prove his loyalty to the British state he is likely to be trapped in an endless series of damaging concessions which will gradually eviscerate a lot of his radicalism.

I know this is a grim scenario when everyone on our side is rightly delighted with Corbyn’s stunning victory which has undoubtedly opened up a huge space for political debate and given an impetus to struggle from below. But the historical experience on which it is based is also grim. And if Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party prove me wrong it will be wonderful.


Ian Birchall said...

As usual, John, you are right and you make your point clearly and effectively. The more difficult question, however, is left open. What is the alternative?
As I understand it from Party Notes, the (British) SWP strategy towards Corbyn is to turn up at his rallies and sell Socialist Worker. Perhaps 2 per cent of Corbyn's supporters buy a paper - once. Those who buy it a second time, let alone regularly, will be far fewer.
For 47 years the IS/SWP's declared goal, through boom and crisis, upturn and downturn, has been "build the revolutionary party". So what is the alternative to Corbyn - join the SWP and wait another 47 years?
I know your fondness for scoring debating points, and you will doubtless respond that I have no elaborated alternative. Indeed I don't. But you can't get an answer until you ask the question.

lawrence said...

Building a left wing support for Corbyn to remain 'true' to his curriculum vitae - not kneeling - complements building the SWP. It would be even better, of course, if Corbyn would 'poll' his supporters, explaining the connectedness of the gesture of kneeling, obeisance to NATO, and Stopping Wars. Corbyn going to Manchester should make for a bigger protest. It would be further change, and mobilising, if Corbyn acknowledges that extra parliament complements parliament. Revolutionaries should argue that extra parliament is more important than parliament. In these 47 years, we have seen the end of Stalinism and apartheid. The horror of migrant deaths in Europe connect in everyday opinions the wars 'over there' and 'home'. In 2011, after three years of Cameron, we witnessed the revolts of the student intellectuals, the riots of the unorganised, and the coordinated strikes of working class. There was no breakthrough. This time round, the fire has been lit six month's after Cameron's victory. I can assure Ian that he does not have to wait 47 years for another fire to rage. He should rejoin the SWP because how much and how far the fire will burn is connected to how he uses and surbodinates his talents.

Spectralis said...

Corbyn will vacillate precisely because his politics can't pose an alternative to capitalism. Ian wants an answer to a question that he's too afraid to pose because this means taking a position that might challenge reformism. Like Corbyn who may indeed compromise because he wants to maintain a broad church, including the establishment, Ian appears to want a broad church of the left even if this means accepting Cold War tropes about "Leninism" and some of the worst aspects of sectariana that have been directed at the SWP over the years. A broad church of a special kind then. His Neither Reformism Nor The SWP stance is all very well but in practice what does it amount to? That's the question without an answer.

Huynh Pham said...

I love this commentary and Critical Reading. Well done! And, yet, there is a big question, continuously put forthward, left unanswered. It might be wishful thinking, but now is the time for new People, in UK and in Europe as well, Rousseau's word, and that new People would critcally acknowledge Socialism as one practical alternative, recognise some elements from the past, say Soviet, as desired establishment. And if so, one question emerges from that answer whether that new People is being young or infantry?

Michael Douglas said...

Hi Ian

How would Tony Cliff answer the question you have posed? You knew him better than most of us.

Ian Birchall said...

Spectralis's comments are typical of the dishonest point-scoring style of argument encouraged by the current Callincos leadership of the SWP and utterly alien to the International Socialist tradition I grew up with. S/he accuses me of a range of positions I have never put forward. I am apparently willing to accept "Cold War tropes about 'Leninism'". Evidence??? It is alleged that I want a "broad church of the left". On the contrary, I should like to see an effective revolutionary organisation designed to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. I just don't think the SWP is that organisation, or likely to become it. This style of mud-slinging means that even fewer people will take the SWP seriously.
Lawrence, I think, has missed my point. The fire will undoubtedly rage. Capitalism condemns millions and millions to oppression and misery; there will be revolts and rebellions, some of them of an unpredicted and unprecedented form. Of that we can be confident.
But since 1968 there have been many potentially revolutionary situations. Those described in Colin Barker's book "Revolutionary Rehearsals" and a number since. But the SWP has always insisted that the crucial factor in transforming a potential revolution into a real transfer of power is a revolutionary party. See the final section of John Molyneux's piece on Egypt on this blog for an example. Now over those 47 years the SWP has done many excellent things - the ANL and Stop The War above all, and much more. But in terms of its central goal, the SWP has made no progress at all - it is smaller and less effective than it was in 1969. In those circumstances it might devote a little bit of its energy to rethinking the form of organisation that is needed today, and whether it should be the same as was adopted in 1968. Instead Callinicos tells us that we must maintain the organisational forms adopted in a very different world in 1968, because any change would be an abandonment of "Leninism". This is "Leninism" as religion and not as serious politics.
As for what Cliff would say, I think this is a false question. Human beings live in specific times of history, and are shaped by their time. We can't ask what Aristotle would think of the internet. If Cliff were still alive, he would be 98 years old, and probably past his best intellectually. In his later years he did tend to retreat into defending the "tradition" rather than innovating. But Cliff's greatness in the 40s, 50s and 60s was to look at reality, to preserve what was essential in the revolutionary tradition, but to have no scruples about discarding what was ouitdated or misleading. The question is to apply that method today. I subtitled my biography of Cliff "A Marxist for his time". What we need now are "Marxists for OUR time". I'm afraid we won't find them in the SWP.

Michael Douglas said...

Hi Ian
Alex is one voice amongst many. You can have specific criticisms of him, or John, or Cliff, or anybody. But when you dismiss the entire party you lose me.

Ian Birchall said...

It was not my intention to "dismiss the entire party". The SWP remains part of the small and fragmented British far left. I'm happy to work with it where possible - thus I accepted an invitation to speak at Marxism this year. But the SWP is only a small part of the revolutionary left, but all too often it presents itself as the only authentic revolutionary organisation. Thus during this year's general election, Socialist Worker focussed almost exclusively on SWP members who were standing for TUSC. A reader of SW would scarcely have known that there were many other TUSC candidates. And of course that leads to people like Spectralis arguing that because I don't accept the SWP's version of "Leninism", then I must have capitulated to Cold War anti-communism.
I don't spend all, or most, of my time studying the SWP (there are many more entertaining things in life), so I can only give my impression, but I think that over the last few years the level of argument in the SWP has deteriorated sharply. And I think the dishonest and bullying style adopted by Callinicos during the 2013 faction set the tone for that deterioration.
I set out my view of the SWP's decline last year at and I won't repeat my points here. Unfortunately I don't think Callinicos is just "one voice among many" - and he is certainly far too arrogant to think so. But if there are SWP members who are dissatisfied with the course he has set, then hopefully they will manifest themselves during the pre-conference discussion.

Michael Douglas said...

Hi Ian
Acknowledged. You have spoken at party events and that is a starting point for rebuilding a political relationship. Reducing SWP strategy and tactics to “the course Alex has set” is not recognizing his role in the party so much as wiping everyone else out of history that has contributed to those democratic decisions. But enough criticism lets aim higher in conclusion. In 27 years of varying degrees of activity I have noticed comrades that align with, and resign in, a factional atmosphere are often to be found refighting those factional battles on the same terrain long after the terrain has changed and events have moved on. Let me also add that leadership in a factional atmosphere requires not just articulating the majority position but taking up and fleshing out the views of the minority, no matter how confused or contradictory, so they too feel represented. One could do worse than keeping these lessons in mind in the lead up to conference, and generally.

Anonymous said...

I have absolutely no interest in "refighting ... factional battles on the same terrain long after the terrain has changed". I directed my initial point at the SWP since John's is an SWP blog (and John tends to give reasonably honest and intelligent responses when he finds the time). But my point applies to the whole of the revolutionary left - since 1968 all the assorted currents have had a declared aim of "building the revolutionary party". They have all failed, over a substantial peiod of time (roughly the same as that between 1917 and 1968). The Corbyn victory merely further marginalises the whole revolutionary left and puts it on the defensive. Yet generally the response seems to be - carry on as before. I'm asking a question not answering it, but if comrades in the SWP and other revolutionary grouplets will start asking the question, perhaps some answers will emerge.

Ian Birchall said...

The above is by me - Ian Birchall. I clicked the wrong space. Apologies for technophobic ineptitude.

Spectralis said...

Ian's comments about Callinicos are exactly the kind of nondescript, apolitical generalising of which I'm critical. It doesn't offer a political alternative to Corbyn which is the main thrust of the blog post and the tired argument used by virtually every sectarian group since the formation of the SWP that it's not the historic revolutionary party is hardly a revelation considering no one in the SWP has ever argued this and none of us own a crystal ball revealing future left formations. But that doesn't make it redundant to building the left and anti-austerity campaigns in the here and now. If anything the onus is on Ian to offer a revolutionary alternative if he thinks the SWP has failed. Which brings us right back to my main point of criticism.

Ian thomas said...

our strategy in the SWP Britain re corbyn is not to simply turn up and sell papers,here in the rhymney valley in wales we are engaging with corbyn supporters old and new and working with them in a variety of ways, the prerequisite for any organisation is democracy and this is where ian birchall and others have fallen down in my opinion, at the end of the day if you can't accept being on the losing side of a vote and continuing to battle for your ideas and views that speaks volumes by the way does the various group let's that split from the SWP still exist? Also it is my experience that the internal culture within the SWP is better now than at any time in my twenty five year membership certainly better than that of Bambery, Rees and German era,also ian birchalls recollection of the factional dispute is very different from mine and the behaviour of some of the people in the faction was reprehensible and nothing in common with the tradition of the SWP.