Matt Bolton, in sharing his latest critique of ‘Corbynism’ on Medium, promised that it would be the last piece he would write on the subject. Equally, I had hoped that I would not feel compelled to again hammer out a blog about the Labour leadership election. However, this latest critique, “Corbynism without Guarantees”, is an attempt to refine what was presented quite haphazardly (as Matt himself has pointed out) in his earlier piece, “The Terrifying Hubris of Corbynism”, into a self-consciously Marxist criticism of the movement (if it can be called that) around Jeremy Corbyn, and as such merits a response. I hope to be concise and, like Matt, for this to be my last piece on the topic.
For the sake of brevity, I will just discuss what I see as the most important arguments contained within “Corbynism without Guarantees”. There are a number of additional points which I think are worth interrogating (e.g. the link made between Occupy and Momentum, the prominence given to Paul Mason’s view of what Momentum should be), but hopefully that can be done by somebody else. I understand Matt’s main points as the following:
- Corbynism has a “personalized” understanding of the capitalist system, and economic policy suggestions insufficient to deal with the crisis
- Corbynism is based on a “two-campist” approach which Marx himself was preparing to abandon, and which is less appropriate now than ever
- Corbynism expresses a willingness to permit the collapse of the Labour Party and its replacement by a social movement, “without guarantees” that this will occur
All of these points contain a kernel of truth, and none more so than the first. Matt draws upon the work of Michael Heinrich and the ‘Neue Marx Lekture’ to critique the trend to discuss capitalism in “personalized” terms: nasty bosses and “the Establishment” conspiring to end the Keynesian Golden Age and usher in a weakly-understood era of “Neoliberalism”.
As Matt elucidates, this is not a good way of understanding capitalism. Exploitation doesn’t occur because capitalists are bad and greedy, but because the operation of the capitalist system throws everyone into a struggle to reproduce themselves. Matt- and this is a concern common to NML thinkers- rightly worries that this “personalization” and “mystification” of capitalism risks straying into the territory of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and so on.
(For a useful and critical discussion of Michael Heinrich’s work on value theory, which this draws upon, see Matthijs Krul’s review of his book “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital”.)
These are all criticisms which I am concerned about, and largely agree with. I do not believe that the left-Keynesian policies so far advanced by McDonnell and Corbyn are really sufficient to “solve” the problems currently afflicting capitalism. I believe that a socialist government would have to move quickly to bring the largest banks under public control, to put together a programme which doesn’t just “manage” but transforms and moves beyond capitalism. The critique of “Corbynomics” by Michael Roberts remains important , and we need to learn from the experience of SYRIZA in Greece.
But none of these very accurate criticisms preclude support for Jeremy Corbyn. It is very rare indeed that Marxists can say they agree with the policies of a social-democratic leader; it is equally rare for our ideas to be perfectly understood and applied by a mass of people! The task confronting us is to understand the significance of misconceptions like the “99%” and to gently correct them from a position of sympathy. It’s a “powerful slogan” because it touches upon a legitimate resentment about inequality which- believe it or not- is a component (but not the whole!) part of a Marxist understanding of capitalism. The famous demand “Peace, Land, Bread” during the Russian Revolution undoubtedly did not really imply a deep understanding of capitalism, but that didn’t do Lenin any harm!
Mao has useful advice on these questions in “On Methods of Leadership”:
“In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily “from the masses, to the masses”. This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.”
Yes, it is concerning that such a large number of people seem confined to “conspiratorial” and “personalized” understanding, and there is a danger that these could be hijacked. But they also represent an opportunity for those ideas to be developed and improved, if only we Marxists will get our hands dirty and try to develop and improve them!
It was disappointing that a number of the advisory team around Corbyn have chosen to resign, but I would hope that it provides for the possibility of leftist economists critical of Keynesianism to become more involved. As a starting point, as Marxists who have spent a considerable amount of time in education (often studying Marxism) we should be offering to help organise political education within our CLPs and communities.
(I am reminded of the interesting pamphlet “How to Overthrow the Illuminati”, which I think does a decent job of engaging with an extremely widespread conspiracy theory from a perspective which is sympathetic)
The second point made by Matt is probably the boldest theoretically, and can be broken down into three further points. Firstly, Matt describes Corbynism as infected by a “two-campist” approach echoing the Communist Manifesto’s famous dictum; the proletarian camp is at war with the bourgeois camp, and communism is contingent upon the victory of the former with the tools of the latter.
I will begin by saying that this seems an unusual point to make about Corbynism. Undoubtedly there is an us-and-them/99% discourse present, just as there are speeches drawing upon the tradition of “the worker’s movement”, but there are also many voices saying exactly the opposite (or at least straining the 99% metaphor so widely as to encompass pretty much everyone). I would hazard a guess that at a Momentum meeting you will find more people agreeing (rightly or wrongly, and perhaps in simpler terms) with the statement “class dominates capitalists as much as it does workers” than with anything which sounds ‘divisive’ or denounces the hallowed small business owner!
Next, Matt claims that the “two-campist” approach was actually moved away from by Marx in his later works, and again draws upon Heinrich and the NML to thoroughly critique the standpoints. I will not summarise it again, as Matt has done a good job of outlining the central argument.
In many ways, the problems with this line of argument can be linked to the problems with the NML as discussed by Matthijs. It sets up a strawman of its opponents, easily knocks them down, and then rather patronisingly claims the mantle, ‘correct interpretation of Marx’. Whilst I have sympathies with the bulk of the argument- class does indeed dominate us all, though not equally, and of course working class people sometimes feel compelled to e.g. buy a house or break a strike- it begins with a philological point which is inaccurate.
Whilst it may be true that in his later works Marx adopted a more nuanced notion of class which avoided the pitfalls of the “two-campist” Manifesto, Marx remained a committed supporter of class struggle throughout his life. It would be unusual for someone who did not believe in the “‘victory’ of the working class in a struggle between ‘two camps’” to have so much time (and encountered so much risk) in organising groups which campaigned for precisely that.
In Marx and Engels’ own words (in 1879, way after the supposed conversion in 1867!) to the leaders of the German SDP:
“For nearly 40 years we have raised to prominence the idea of the class struggle as the immediate driving force of history, and particularly the class struggle between bourgeois and the proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution; hence, we can hardly go along with people who want to strike this class struggle from the movement.”
Marx’s letters in the early 1880s tell a similar story: preoccupation with the path of the class struggle, advice on the seizure of political power by the working class.
Setting aside the Marxology, however, there is a bigger argument here; Marx is being used to justify a claim about modern capitalism, and the argument can still be made if you say “Marx is no longer correct because” or even “Marx was always wrong because”. Matt is concerned about the “defeat of the worker’s movement”, arguing that Corbynism is essentially waving its arms around grasping for a form of class politics which no longer exists.
In this section of his piece, Matt makes a lot of points which are largely correct. As he says, “The classical form of the ‘workers’ movement’ was not ‘the’ identity of the working class, and nor did ‘class’ as a social relation disappear with its defeat ”; he is also right to highlight contradictory pressures on the working class, and that Corbyn’s attempt to invoke “the people” is unsatisfying.
There are also discrepancies. Matt says that “the working class is capable of being both reactionary and revolutionary, traditional and experimental”; this is true of members of the working class, but not of the working class as a class. Saying it was “formed during a particular historical period, as a response to particular conditions” gives too much credit to impact of capitalist industrialisation and not enough to the creative action of the working class themselves, as shown by Thompson. If socialism “entails the destruction of the very concept of ‘working class’ altogether”, it should also be understood that (and this is the beauty of contradiction!) it forms a part of the creation of that concept in the first place. That is, the working class both makes itself and then destroys itself along with class society.
Pointing out that the working class has always been fragmentary, always buffeted by contradiction, can lead to a conclusion dramatically different to that reached by Matt. The circumstances which saw the greatest strength of the working class movement were not just arrived at through the motions of capital; they were the outcome of profound struggle, with many setbacks and difficulties, which created a workforce which could shake capitalism until it teetered on the brink of revolution. You might see Corbynism as harking back to the charismatic socialism of the 1830s, and many of my criticisms would be the same, but that too contained the seed of something much greater.
The third point is probably the least rigorous, and has been most frequently challenged elsewhere, because it was the basis of Matt’s previous essay.
Corbyn stands accused of threatening the continued existence of the Labour Party. Matt clearly understands that this has “much more to do with the failure of Keynesianism and the destruction of the classical ‘workers movement’ than it does with Jeremy Corbyn”, but alleges that Momentum would be willing to see the death of the Labour Party (understood as defeat at the 2020 election) in return for the creation of a counter-hegemonic social movement.
This is not completely wrong. A realistic summation of the challenges ahead must begin with the recognition that turning Labour into an election-winning party by 2020 is a tall order. Even the prospect of a major economic crisis in the next few years is unlikely to improve things much; as Matt knows, that can just as easily swing the other way. But in the average Momentum meeting you can barely move for all the people expressing, quite sincerely, their desire to avoid a split at all costs. The “soft left” in the PLP can be reassured that we take our places in the Labour Party quite seriously, and Momentum is doing their utmost to maintain decorum and avoid expulsion.
The prospects for the next election look pretty bleak whoever winds up in the top job. Yet there is not a single question which Owen Smith- the only alternative to Jeremy Corbyn in this election- can answer more effectively than our current leader.
Who is better placed to respond to Theresa May’s economic policy? Not the man who only just cottoned on to anti-austerity. Who is better replaced to respond to the next crash? See the previous answer! Who is most likely to organise a grassroots campaign to counter an inevitably hostile media? Not the man who can’t fill a room.
Who is most likely to reinvigorate Labour’s relationship with the trade union? Who is most likely to win over both sides of the Brexit debate? Who is most likely to tap into the widespread (“personalized”, etc etc) frustrations with neoliberalism and ‘the Establishment’?
I understand Matt’s worries about the possibility of losing Labour “without guarantees”. That’s understandable; I want real political change, but I don’t want my life to be uncomfortable, I can imagine buying a house, and so on.
But as Marxists we need to be prepared to support action without guarantees of success. None of our forebears in the working class movement had any guarantees of success when they first started organising trade unions. No anti-imperialist movements ever felt absolutely certain of victory. There has always been the prospect of serious defeats accompanying any action, even the most meagre.
Someone who can appreciate the limits in Corbyn’s economic programme, though, should also understand just how limited the protection offered by a parliamentary opposition is- and the protection that was offered by the EU, for that matter. It is perfectly understandable that people in Momentum would view this as a risk worth taking- and certainly better than the risk of succumbing to the cowardice of a Smith leadership and losing regardless.
Lenin (in his “Letter to American Workers”), in circumstances incomparably more dangerous than our own, had a number of things to say on this theme:
“A revolutionary would not “agree” to a proletarian revolution only “on the condition” that it proceeds easily and smoothly, that there is, from the outset, combined action on the part of the proletarians of different countries, that there are guarantees against defeats, that the road of the revolution is broad, free and straight, that it will not be necessary during the march to victory to sustain the heaviest casualties, to “bide one’s time in a besieged fortress”, or to make one’s way along extremely narrow, impassable, winding and dangerous mountain tracks.”