Defeat is an under-rated experience in political life.
During the US Civil War, Charles Eliot Norton wrote on the ‘advantages of defeat’, noting that an early setback at Bull Run was not only deserved but needed: it corrected a bad strategy early enough for it to be rectified.
As Enzo Traverso’s upcoming book, Left-Wing Melancholia, points out, socialism is a politics of the vanquished, its history one of crushing rebuffs. Marxism is a science of defeat, and the secret resources that can be found in it. If we think about defeat in this way, then we are more likely to respond to it productively.
Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party, against all odds. He leads, not on account of leftist strength, but in spite of the left’s weakness. He has risen to the top of a party whose mechanisms of self-reproduction are broken, a party in grave and potentially terminal crisis. And whereas New Labour represented an early attempt to deal with the incipient crisis of social democracy by mutating it into social liberalism, Corbynism represents the first attempt to deal with the crisis from the left.
Understanding this, and the stacked odds against his success, is vital if we are to respond to the inevitable setbacks with aplomb.
The origin of British social democracy itself lies in defeat. Out of the wreckage of 1848 and the eclipse of a ‘heroic era’ of the British proletariat, there emerged a labourist, cooperativist culture in the ruts and foxholes of working-class life. In the stabilised imperialist British capitalism of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the survival strategies of a politically defeated working class slowly incubated a new challenge.
A string of defeats for the trade unions, culminating in the anti-union Taff Vale judgment in 1901, and the inability of labour movement politicians to gain any headway within the existing Liberal Party establishment led to the formation of the Labour Party. Labourism, in this phase, was an attempt to concentrate the forces of ‘the advanced wing of Liberalism’ (as Ramsay McDonald called it) to influence the Liberals more efficiently.
Labour emerged embarrassed by its own social roots, abjuring with displays of civilised horror the very outbreaks of mass industrial action that strengthened it, and enthralled by the prospect of absorption into the British state. Although Labour was a class party, the ‘national community’ – as the perceived basis for ethical socialism – always took precedence. In practice, this meant the ‘national community’ as condensed in the British state in its extant form – crown and empire included.
Labour was decisively formed as a modern party by its participation in two world wars. The experience of the First World War, with the defeat of socialist internationalism signalling its onset, and the electrifying revolutionary wave announcing its conclusion, led to the formation of a parliamentary leadership integrated into the state. The party constitution of 1918, while committing the party to socialist objectives, also entrenched the structures that ensured it would never have to try to implement them. The dominance of the trade union block vote was used to ensure the unchallenged dominion of the parliamentary leadership in the party. The Second World War further consecrated this status quo, bringing about an alliance between Labour’s leaders and the more far-sighted, modernising wing of the civil service bureaucracy – many of whom brought a paternalistic ethic accumulated in the management of the British empire.
In class terms, social democracy has a mediating role. And in the UK context, that process has been structured and limited by unquestioning loyalty to the British ancien régime. Labourism has done more, through its statist quietism, to impede and undermine the initiative of its organisers and activists, than to develop and empower them.
The question, given this context, is not why Labourism has always been so conservative, but why we should expect it to be anything else. And the history of Labourism has far more often been one of failure than of success.
The failed governments of the 1920s were far more characteristic of Labour’s role in capitalism than the aberrant postwar period. In economic matters, the party tended toward orthodoxy. Chancellor Phillip Snowden sought the approbation of the rich for balanced budgets without ‘drastic impositions on their class’. In the face of a global recession, he protected the City’s matchless competence in the governing of ‘highly delicate and intricate matters’ of the financial system, against parliamentary oversight. In the sphere of foreign policy, Colonial Secretary J H Thomas ensured there was ‘no mucking about with the British Empire’ and proved his mettle by sending the RAF to bomb Iraq. In policy terms, New Labour was not so innovative.
Consistently, moreover, the party’s parliamentary right has demonstrated that it would rather split than challenge the distribution of class power. The austerian split of 1931 saw the leadership – with an attitude of martyrdom familiar in today’s self-immolating centre-left politicians – line up with Conservatism to manage capitalist crisis. In the era of many ‘grand coalitions’ between social democratic and conservative parties, often to implement spending cuts, we see the logic of this up close. Social democracy’s leaders are state managers before all else. They would rather destroy their electoral base than pursue any agenda that, from the point of view of parliamentary action, is hopelessly utopian.
Reformist socialism having failed, found wanting a strategy, the detour of capitalism’s ‘golden era’ provided conditions for a new mutation. The lineaments of modern social democracy were decisively formed in the postwar boom. This was the one period in which sections of the capitalist class and state personnel were willing to agree that there was an alternative to ‘the rigours of the market’: a limited area of decommodification. It was also the one period in which corporate profitability was robust enough to sustain social spending and wage rises. Social democracy could hitch its wagon to ascendant capitalism, using the proceeds to pay off all ‘interests’.
The gains of this era are far from negligible, even if they were contained within the broad purview of capitalist politics: universal healthcare, social housing, expanded education, nationalised utilities. But the class consensus was only as stable as capitalism itself proved to be. The warnings signs of decline in the late 1960s, the attempt by Ted Heath’s Conservatives to tighten up market discipline and reduce incomes, and the global meltdown heralded by the OPEC crisis, indicated that social democracy would never have it so good again.
The turn to the left in the trade unions and Labour’s constituency branches in response to this challenge was linked to a wave of strike action of a scale not seen since 1926. This broke the Conservative government. But such militancy, being tied to the Labour Party, whose left wing was never in any serious danger of gaining power, led to the desultory denouement of the ‘social contract’: a Labour government using its special relationship withthetradeunion bureaucracytosuppresswageclaimsatatimeof soaring inflation. Real incomes rarely fell as fast as during the latter half of the 1970s, eventually causing the social contract to collapse amid wild-cat strike action. Business, hitherto supportive of Labour, swung behind the Conservatives. The losses in popular support incurred by social democracy in this period redounded to the benefit of Thatcherite neoliberals, offering market discipline as an answer to an unavailing corporatism.
The right-wing split from Labour in March 1981, to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), called into question the very essence of Labourism. It was not just a matter of policy, but of the very idea of having a party based in the organised working class. The splitters, leading figures in the crisis-ridden Wilson/Callaghan era, blamed the trade unions and left-wing militancy for destroying the post-war settlement. And they argued that a party beholden to one class for its support could not address the problem. By splitting, they sought a political realignment that would marginalise the hard left and trade union militants with the goal of securing a broad centre, but contributed to a long reign in office for a Conservative Party that had been colonised by middle-class reaction.
In the long run, Thatcher achieved what the SDP could not, destroying every major quarter of left-wing power, one after the other: the miners, the print workers, left-wing councils, and the Greater London Council. Redeploying the state along authoritarian ‘free market’ lines to transform class relations, they undermined the social basis of an already crisis-ridden Labourism.
Labour responded – under Neil Kinnock from the soft left, then Tony Blair from the hard right – by becoming what the SDP had always wanted: a party in which not only was the hard left marginalised, but the traditional role of the trade unions was diminished. In place of the mass bureaucratic party of haut social democracy came the electoral-professional party dominated by spin doctors, focus groups, and party managers. In place of extended public ownership, regulation, and redistribution, came Thatcherism with a dimension of moral reform to mitigate its worst effects.
The scale of the defeats inflicted on the left and labour movement in this era ensured that any incoming Labour government would govern much as their predecessors in the 1920s did. New Labour had distinguished itself by running against the traditions of Labourism, anchoring itself to the hard, pro-market, Atlanticist Right. And when it governed from this position, there would be no British version of Lafontaine, or Mélenchon.
Far from reversing Labour’s long-term decline, however, New Labour exacerbated the crisis. The loss of three million mainly working-class voters in the first term alone, before the ‘war on terror’ or the credit crunch, indicated that the major response of voters was to withdraw from the electoral system rather than seek alternative left-wing parties. These losses were, however, acceptable. In first-past-the-post electoral systems, the emphasis on shifting a few hundred thousand swing voters meant that losses among heartland voters could be shrugged off. A crisis in electoral participation, with turnout falling below 60% for the first time since the Second World War, was accompanied by a precipitous drop in party membership and identification. But a contraction of the working-class electorate, leaving the electoral system to the affluent, suited those on the Labour Right.
As long as they could keep control of the party.
Ironically, the crushing defeats inflicted upon the Labour Left during the 1980s made Corbynism possible. Had the Left had the support, social depth, and confidence to organise a split from Blair, it would have had no chance of taking over the Labour Party.
Defeat played a productive role in other incidental ways. For example, it allowed Blairites to impose reforms of the party structure that while reducing the trade union role actually made the party more democratic in other ways. Without such reforms, the parliamentary leadership’s traditional right to rule could never have been challenged by a left-moving membership.
This perspective is only possible in retrospect. No one, least of all Jeremy Corbyn, anticipated that he would even make it onto the leadership ballot, let alone that he would be able to lead the Left to victory.
The hard left has never been anything but marginal in the Labour Party, certainly never close to power. It has never held the support of a majority of constituency members, nor the trade union affiliates, let alone the union leadership. As I have already argued, the historical role of the trade union leadership has been to support the parliamentary leadership, usually on the right or centre of the party.
But the decay of social democracy created opportunities. Corbyn’s campaign intelligently exploited a crisis of legitimacy and organisation for the traditional party management. This was a crisis born of disaffection with New Labour, the defeats of 2010 and 2015, and particularly the electoral wipe-out in Scotland following the independence referendum in 2014, in which the party leadership positioned itself to the right of the pro- independence Scottish National Party. Here, Labour went well beyond its traditional Unionism and commitment to British imperialism, to attack the SNP from the right on spending cuts. Scotland, formerly a heartland of Labour’s old right, became its graveyard.
The crisis was also rooted in the secular decline of the trade unions. On every index – membership, strike rates, industrial impact, and political clout – the trade unions had been in a steep fall for a long time. Their political exclusion in the New Labour era left them with little of their traditional clout for reversing the decline, and they increasingly had to take on a political role in themselves. At the grassroots, members increasingly moved to the left in response to attacks from a Labour government – supposedly their government. By 2015, the loyalty of union leaders had been tested to destruction, as even the supposedly union-friendly leadership of Ed Miliband had sponsored an attack on trade union clout in the party. They had been unable to do anything about austerity policies decimating their membership, unable to defend their role in Labour, and faced the prospect of Americanisation: reduced to clients of a rightward moving centre party. In this context, it made sense for them to take radical action, by supporting Corbyn’s pro-union leadership.
One other factor that ironically contributed to Corbyn’s victory was the left’s ideological weakness, gauged by the standards of traditional media penetration. It was by means of a smart social media campaign putting pressure on Labour MPs that he was able to win the nomination to be on the leadership ballot. But to win, he had to attract new layers of people to the Labour Party. In both the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections, Labour’s electorate was dominated by a coalition between a radicalising minority of young people whose prospects had been trashed by crisis and austerity, and long dormant leftists returning to activity. Neither group was inclined to look to print or broadcast media for guidance. If anything, the more they attacked Corbyn, the more popular he was among Labour’s growing membership. In 2015, some 57 per cent of the members depended on social media rather than news for their campaign information, and Corbyn’s campaign used this to contest media representations of him and amplify the values of a social left long excluded from the media spectrum.
In short, Labour’s old guard relied on influence and networking within the state apparatuses, connections to the media, and support from lobbyists, think-tankers, and PR professionals, for their career advancement. Corbyn, having never enjoyed this kind of career success, was forced to the Left’s alternative advantages: numbers, organisation, and a degree of ideological clarity that was singularly lacking in the blank soundbite-generators that constituted his opponents. But these alter-strengths saw him to victory, both in 2015 and against the attempted leadership coup in 2016.
Given its historical context, the left’s revival must be adjudged very weak, and the odds against its long-term success reckoned very high.
The germinal nature of the revival, and the constrictive nature of the machinery through which it is being reconstituted, raise serious questions about the strategic orientations of Corbyn’s base. Above all, can it transcend Labourism? If it is not to simply collapse into a left version of the same, in which the goal of electing a Labour government takes precedence over all else, it needs an alternative conception of political power.
On the terrain of conventional electoral politics, Corbyn is weak. He polls well among core Labour voters, alienated by Blairism. He communicates with a radicalised minority in British society, who have always inclined to the left. But he does poorly among that small strata of swing voters who decide electoral outcomes in a first-past-the-post system. And in addition to having the enmity of his backbenches, the opposition of the Conservative Party, the contumely of the entire media spectrum, and even the tetchy antagonism of the military establishment, Corbyn will struggle to persuade business of his agenda.
Even were Labour within reach of winning the 2020 general election, that is where Corbyn’s problems would begin. Capitalism is not generating the revenues with which to fund a left-wing programme, even one as comparatively moderate as Corbyn’s. Corbyn would need business, which is currently hoarding capital, to invest in new production. He would have to persuade businesses that his growth strategy for capitalism is better for them in the long run than a low tax regime. Even if shadow chancellor John McDonnell can persuade academics, journalists, civil servants, and voters of the viability of his strategy, British businesses are not known for their long- term, enlightened thinking.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign invoked, against electoralism, and as a supplement to traditional trade union-oriented class politics, the social movement. Indeed, he ran his campaign very much along the lines of ‘movement’ politics, relying on mass meetings and grassroots activism. But that, even if it resembles our reified concept of what a social movement is, is not a social movement. And one cannot summon movements into existence by a vote. These things take time and patience, more time than Corbyn has.
There is also the monumental challenge of the national question, through which almost all of the major issues of social spending, democracy, militarism and racism, are being refracted. Whether it takes the form of Scottish independence, or British exit from the European Union, these national solutions aim at reorganising class relations and politics in fundamental ways. What strikes one about the Corbyn leadership in relation to both independence and Brexit is its aimlessness. One senses that, with everything else Labour has to fight for, they would prefer not to have to deal with this.
Unfortunately, this will seriously weaken Labour, as a coherent answer to the national question is no longer an optional extra. Labour may be able to equivocate on Brexit, but it can no longer simply default to Unionism. If it wishes to be a Unionist party, it has to develop a coherent rationale for it in terms of its programme, and it will have to explain how it can recoup its losses in Scotland, where constituency parties have neither the ability nor the desire to attract new layers of left-wing activists, most of whom gravitated to the SNP long ago.
Above all, Corbyn is caught between conflicting imperatives. He can rebuild Labour’s core vote, but seemingly not without losing centre-ground voters. He can push the ideological agenda to the left, but not without constantly losing the battle over media coverage. He can work to empower activists within Labour, but not without having constant, damaging rows with the party establishment.
The question, given all this, is what do we do with defeat? If we live in denial, in a bubble of positive thinking such as is encouraged by much of the internet left, we will be blind-sided. If we are ready, we can respond creatively to setbacks. This, as always, is the challenge for the left.