“It is the duty of the activists within the Labour Party and Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory to fight alongside the public sector workers”, wrote Jeremy Corbyn during the “Winter of Discontent”, the great wave of public sector workers’ strikes towards the end of the 1974-9 Labour government.
Corbyn is now the left candidate for leader of the Labour Party. Back in 1979 he was a young union official and a left-wing Labour councillor in Haringey, north London.
He was writing in the first regular monthly issue of Socialist Organiser. The core people in the production and promotion of Socialist Organiser were the forerunners of today’s Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty.
We produced it with a broad coalition of Labour left-wingers and with much debate in its pages. Socialist Organiser was also a campaigning paper. Its broad coalition subscribed to much clearer and more radical ideas than the general “broad left” of the labour movement, which in those days was dominated by the Communist Party and its influence. It called for “working-class action to raze the capitalist system down to its foundations, and to put a working-class socialist system in its place... to make the decisive sectors of industry social property, under workers’ control”.
The coalition around Socialist Organiser broke up in 1980 over choices for left-Labour councils (then numerous) facing Thatcher’s Tory government.
We argued for them to use the town halls as platforms to mobilise for confrontation. Others argued for them to “gain time” by increasing rates (local property taxes) to offset cuts in central government finance.
The core rate-raisers were another group within the Socialist Organiser coalition from a Trotskyist background, then called the Chartists and previously Revolutionary Communist League. The main document in which the Chartists laid out their basis for splitting from Socialist Organiser was signed by their leading people and one other person, Jeremy Corbyn.
The Chartists went off to produce Labour Briefing (two rival journals of that name continue today). Corbyn was less factional about the split than the Chartists were, and remained open to working with Socialist Organiser. Some of his supporters may be offended by the criticisms of his politics which we will make in this article, but I would expect Corbyn himself to take them as legitimate debate.
In 1983 Corbyn became Labour MP for Islington North. He has been a consistent rebel in Parliament against the Labour leadership. His local record of support for workers’ and community struggles, including against local Labour council adminstrations, is excellent.
But Jeremy Corbyn’s broader politics have changed. Today he writes regularly for the Morning Star, the paper linked to the Communist Party of Britain, which bills him as “a friend of the Star”.
People voting for Corbyn for Labour leader will be voting to support battles against cuts, to solidarise with immigrants, and to uphold the right to strike.
That’s good. But to build something solid out of it, we also need broader political ideas. And, there, the ideas and the spirit of the Morning Star will undermine us as much as in 1979.
If we don’t formulate and push our own socialist “big ideas”, then we will be held back by the influence of the “big ideas” promoted every day by the ruling class.
Jeremy Corbyn is surely a socialist. But in his articles for the Morning Star he rarely or never says that. He calls for a “popular movement against cuts”. He advocates “raising taxes for the very richest, collecting tax from corporations”. But not social ownership of industry. Not expropriating the banks. Not workers’ control.
Corbyn has lauded “the great left peace campaigner Konni Zilliacus” (Morning Star, 9 October 2014). Zilliacus, a Labour MP 1945-50 and 1955-67, was the leader in his time of Stalinism within the Labour Party. He was an unorthodox Stalinist: he backed Tito against Stalin, and condemned the Slansky show trial in Czechoslovakia. He presented himself above all as a “left peace campaigner”. As a reviewer of a biography commented: “one can find precious little indication [in Zilliacus’s writings] of any recognition of the idea of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class”.
Zilliacus politics were no basis to build a left, and Zilliacus politics 70 years on, minus the USSR or Tito, even less so.
When Corbyn wrote about Ed Miliband in the Morning Star, it was usually to praise something Miliband had just done, then to bemoan its limits. Even when asked to comment on Blair’s record, he started by saying there were two sides to it, and praising the “positive” side before bemoaning the “negative”.
Corbyn rarely uses the word “socialist”, but he has commented on Chavez’s Venezuela, Evo Morales’s Bolivia, and Castro’s Cuba as if they are, more or less, models of a future society.
That model of a future society is one to which workers in a country like Britain could never be won. Or, if they were won to it, it would be a grievous sidetrack, similar to the winning of millions of French and Italian workers after World War Two to the USSR as a model of future society.
On some issues publicly (and possibly on many privately) Corbyn is better than the Morning Star. He supports Tibet’s national rights, he opposed Russia’s seizure of Crimea and “Russian militarism” in Ukraine. In the Independent (10 June 2015) he wrote: “There are strong arguments for staying in the EU”, while making reasonable criticisms of the EU as it exists. But on international politics, mostly, he limits himself to deploring military moves by the US and its allies and appealing for peace. So, for example, he expresses “concern over human rights in Iran”, He notes the “appalling human rights record of the Syrian regime”. He opposed Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel, and seems, though it is not clear, to support a two-states settlement in Israel/ Palestine.
The result is as with the more-or-less pro-Stalinist left of the era between the 1960s and 1989-91. Repression in the Stalinist states? Reprehensible invasions? Bad. But they would shrug sadly at those things, rather than denouncing them loudly, because, they said, to denounce might help the “cold warriors”. Never be “anti-Soviet”!
In truth socialists needed to oppose US and British imperialism, and simultaneously denounce Stalinism with vigour, and some did. The “sad shrug” approach only compromised and discredited the leftists who took that line, and increased demoralisation after 1991. We should not copy the approach with Hamas in place of the USSR.
Corbyn has spoken out for migrant rights. But his case is addled and warped by his repeated insistence that the only cause of migrant flows is “Western wars”.
Eritreans are fleeing Eritrea, for example, or Syrians fleeing Syria, for other reasons. And they need our solidarity even so.
In the Morning Star of 30 October 2013 Corbyn criticised Cameron’s plans for celebrating the anniversary of World War One. Rightly. But on grounds whose blandness summed up the problem: Cameron ignored “the enormous anti-war movement that existed on both sides in 1914”.
There had been enormous anti-war agitation before August 1914 by the socialist labour movement. Because the agitation wasn’t sharp and clear, it collapsed like a punctured balloon within days of the outbreak of war. The “anti-war movement” was reduced to a brave few.
In face of the great bourgeois offensive against socialism of the last quarter-century, we need the spirit of those brave few: Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, John Maclean, Karl Liebknecht, not mealy-mouthed attempts to smuggle in socialist ideas under cover of advocating no more than “peace” and respect for “enormous movements”.
The Corbyn campaign can help us win people to that spirit, but only if we carry that spirit into it, in debate with Corbyn supporters as well as with the right wing.