Luke Wilson, a Labour Party and Unite the Union member, examines the programme and position of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour MP, whose campaign for the Labour leadership is gathering momentum on the basis of his anti-austerity, anti-war stance. How do we really fight the cuts and campaign against oppression and war internationally?
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.
With these immortal words, the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley issued a rallying cry to the workers of 19th century England, shortly after the butchery of the Peterloo Massacre had seen men, women and children cut down by the cavalry for daring to demand basic democratic rights. Whilst the present Tory government does not (yet) send in the gendarmes to slaughter peaceful protestors, many of the problems faced by those workers in 1819 are easily recognisable today. The end of the Napoleonic Wars saw a severe depression, with unemployment rising and wages plummeting - phenomena all too familiar to today's workers.
Whilst the workers who gathered at St. Peter's Fields had never seen a Labour Party, 200 years later we face one with a leadership that, over the past 20 years, has often seemed barely distinguishable from the Tories, and which prostrates itself before big business and international finance. The utter wretchedness of those who would lead the working class has left many feeling powerless to stand up to the few.
After its electoral humiliation, the Labour Party has thrown itself headlong into the quest to find a new leader. The first few candidates to declare interest had the look of a rogues gallery, as they fell over themselves to flaunt their pro-business, anti-worker credentials. There were rumblings of disaffiliation in the unions. Had the Labour Party become a chain, to be shaken to earth by an awakening working class?
Step forward Jeremy Corbyn. The MP for Islington North, committed socialist and veteran of over 30 years in parliament, has thrown his hat into the ring, at a stroke transforming the contest and rousing interest in the Labour Party that hasn't been seen for decades. The last time a self-declared socialist appeared on the ballot paper was in 1988, when Tony Benn challenged the godfather of New Labour, Neil Kinnock. That Corbyn made it onto the ballot paper is testament to his supporters' hastily-organised social media campaign, which contacted dozens of MPs and raised Jeremy's profile in the media, thereby bringing enough pressure to bear on wavering MPs to nominate Jeremy.
Jeremy has won much support for his principled stance against Tory austerity. His longstanding involvement in the anti-war movement could also broaden the appeal of his campaign, drawing in layers of youth that would otherwise take little interest in an internal Labour Party election. These broader layers can now vote in the election, even if they are not members of the Party, thanks to the new system of 'registered supporters'. Mimicking primaries in the US, the system was meant to strengthen the right-wing, by disenfranchising the unions and giving votes to non-members who would supposedly take their cue from the capitalist media. But this change could blow up in the Blairites’ faces - now Jeremy has made it onto the ballot paper, his supporters, and, crucially, the unions, could lead a campaign to sign up supporters to vote for him. Given the lack of enthusiasm for the other candidates (who have been booed at some hustings), and the relative weakness of the Labour Party and its right-wing membership, there is even a possibility that Jeremy could win.
Another world is possible - but how?
When he stood, Tony Benn called for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic control and management. Jeremy Corbyn has yet to call for anything quite so radical, but his programme does include many things every socialist should support, such as reversing the Tory cuts and privatisations, scrapping Trident, and defending the right to strike.
Many on the left, including Jeremy, have argued that these cuts and attacks are the result of an 'ideological' obsession with 'neoliberalism'; and whilst it is certainly true that the Tories (and right-wing Labour leaders) are ideologically committed to defending capitalism, the brutal nature of the attacks internationally has been dictated by the severity of the crisis, with the 99% forced to pick up the bill left by the 1%.
In light of this, it's worth looking at Jeremy's programme, and discussing how it might be put into practice. Whilst the campaign is yet to publish an official manifesto, Jeremy has written a number of articles outlining elements of the programme he will campaign on.
"Jobs, homes and hopes"
Key planks of Jeremy's campaign are the twin problems of unemployment and housing. Youth unemployment currently stands at 16.1%, and those in work face the proliferation of poverty wages, zero-hours contracts and bogus 'self-employment' (where big companies hire contractors instead of permanent staff, thereby denying them many of their employment rights). And even those with relatively secure, well-paid jobs will struggle to get on the housing ladder - a report by KPMG showed that a first-time buyer in the UK would need a minimum income of £41,000 a year, rising to a staggering £77,000 in London. Jeremy is absolutely right to highlight these issues as the most immediate facing workers and youth today.
Jeremy argues that, "House prices and rents are too high because we haven't built enough housing or stopped speculators buying housing as an investment instead of as a home. Building the homes to meet the need would create thousands of skilled jobs and offer thousands of young people high quality apprenticeships."
We completely agree. The first of these jobs could go to the 3000 construction workers denied work through Ian Kerr's blacklist. Jeremy has a long history of arguing for building more council houses, and has condemned the recent Tory proposals to extend their disastrous 'right to buy' scheme. It is clear that the 'free market' has utterly failed to provide decent homes for people. Speculators have hoovered up much of the housing stock, creating artificial shortages and driving up prices. It is a damning indictment of the degeneration of capitalism that such skulduggery is what passes for 'productive investment' these days. A national plan for housing, implemented by local authorities with the funds they needed, could go a long way toward giving millions a better life.
Jeremy is less clear about how he intends to create the millions of skilled jobs he talks about. In his general election address, he calls for "real investment in apprenticeships, a roll-out of the London Living Wage for all workers and an end to exploitative zero-hours contracts." Of course, we support all of these demands. But they raise a number of questions: how will apprenticeships help if the jobs aren't there? To create these jobs would require a massive programme of investment, something the private sector has manifestly failed to deliver. (Investment as a proportion of GDP in Britain is amongst the lowest in the Western world.)
Taxing the rich and the 'planned economy'
Jeremy has rightly railed against the tax avoidance (and even outright evasion) practiced by big corporations and wealthy individuals. "We're all in this together," the Tories tell us, but Jeremy exposes their rank hypocrisy:
"Dennis Skinner and others in Parliament pointed out that anyone accused of not paying council tax, overclaiming benefits or not paying small amounts of tax owed to HMRC gets pursued to the umpteenth degree and some even end up in prison.
"The very largest companies and taxpayers are allowed to negotiate their way out of the problem and avoid any sanction. For all the estimates of the money owed by the 7,000 British bank account holders in HSBC Switzerland, only 1,100 have had any level of investigation and only $135 million (£88.5 million) has been paid back.
"The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists estimates that the total amount banked by these customers is £20bn. There is the scandal of corporations relocating to low-tax environments by claiming that their entire turnover is in that jurisdiction rather than Britain. Thus Amazon, Starbucks and Boots pay far less tax than they should for their operations."
Former tax accountant and current tax-justice campaigner Richard Murphy runs a popular blog dedicated to exposing the tax-dodging of the elite, and the complicity of the political class. Marx's description of the government as "a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" has never seemed so apt.
Jeremy has repeatedly called for a 'rebalancing of the economy', and has argued that money should be raised through increasing corporate and income tax, clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, and creating a Europe-wide agreement on corporation tax. Again, these are all demands we support; but how can they be implemented?
The first question to ask is, can the current British state, in particular HMRC, be trusted to collect the unpaid tax? It has a notoriously poor record in this regard. Murphy details the revolving-door that exists between the tops of HMRC and tax-avoiding corporations, with bosses of the latter frequently going to work as heads of the former, and vice-versa. Is it any wonder that the state so slavishly serves the interests of big business, when they so frequently share the same management?
It is clear to us that the capitalist state is completely incapable of collecting this unpaid tax, or clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion in any meaningful way. We argue that these corporations should be forced to open their books to the trade unions, shop stewards' committees and other workers' bodies, which could then scrutinise them with the help of experts from the labour movement, such as Richard Murphy (who works for the TUC). Any company found to be avoiding tax should be forced to pay up or face being expropriated and placed under the democratic control of these workers' organisations.
Jeremy actually spoke about a 'planned economy' in the first televised leadership debate, and we believe opening the books of the big corporations would be a step towards that aim, putting power in directly in the hands of the workers and their organisations.
Under the heading 'Fighting for a democratic economy', Jeremy praises the last Labour government for taking the banks into public ownership, and elsewhere sharply criticises the Tory plan to sell off RBS. According to Jeremy, "many jobs were saved" and we "avoided a deep recession such as the one in the 1980s." But we must ask the question: in whose interests were RBS and the other banks nationalised? Did New Labour under Brown use this public ownership to direct or stimulate public investment; or was it simply a bailout, designed to save capitalism by transferring the enormous private debt to the public sector? The Financial Times certainly leans towards the latter:
"Gordon Brown came to save capitalism, not to bury it. Paying £37bn to part-nationalise some of the commanding heights of the economy may not be many people’s idea of what free marketeering governments do, but the prime minister has taken bold steps to save the financial system and – with it – the real economy. The model he has set out for rescuing banks is a good one, and is now being imitated across Europe and in the US...
"So, does this rescue mean the end of private financial capitalism? Of course not. Although the size of the crisis requires an exceptional response, this is but the latest in a long line of banking crises and state rescues. Nationally owned banks seem likely to be a reality in many countries for a decade. In the next great financial crisis – rest assured, there will be others – bank rescues with equity purchases may be a first step rather than a last resort. But stakes in banks will, eventually, be sold back to private investors. Governments – rightly – will regulate to avoid further crises. They will fail, and then be forced to act to pick up the pieces. There is no alternative."
In a surprisingly honest way, this mouthpiece for the British establishment acknowledges the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism, and the necessity that the state step in periodically to rescue it. In his seminal work Anti-Dühring, Engels explains the tendency for the state and big corporations ('joint-stock companies' in his terminology) to merge, and for the social function of the capitalists (i.e. the management of the capitalist economy) to be taken on by salaried employees and the state:
"This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognised, forces the capitalist class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialisation of great masses of means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies. Many of these means of production and of communication are, from the outset, so colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of capitalistic exploitation. At a further stage of evolution this form also becomes insufficient: the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into state property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.
"If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.
"But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces." (Our emphasis.)
There is no doubt that government control of the banks could have been used as the first step towards implementing a ration, democratic plan of production - to initiate a massive programme of investment, creating millions of jobs in construction, renewable energy and manufacturing. But that was never the intention of Gordon Brown, nor the other capitalist politicians who supported him.
Jeremy certainly recognises this, and rightly to links the question of public ownership of the banks to public control of them. How could this public control be managed? Jeremy's criticism of excessive executive pay hints at the problem: like HMRC, the banks are stuffed full of people who could not in any way be relied upon to carry out any government-mandated investment programme.
We argue that the only solution is to place the banks under democratic control and management, making them directly accountable to the workers' organisations, with pay in line with other skilled industries. This would be an enormous step towards the planned economy Jeremy advocates, as it would now be possible to plan investment on a national scale.
Internationalism, peace and the working class
Jeremy Corbyn is an instinctive internationalist, with a long history of involvement in various solidarity campaigns, including those for Cuba and Palestine. He drew criticism in the 1980s from the right wing for advocating direct negotiations with Sinn Fein and inviting Gerry Adams to London to speak. He played a leading role in the Stop the War Coalition during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, opposes the renewal of Trident, and calls for a nuclear-free world.
Jeremy is absolutely right to link the struggle for socialism in Britain to an international struggle against war, oppression, and exploitation. Capitalism is international - resistance to it must also be international. Where we differ from Jeremy is in our emphasis of the role the class struggle has to play. Advocating negotiations with Sinn Fein was an incredibly brave thing to do in the 1980s, at the height of the IRA's bombing campaign. Yet these negotiations turned out to be a trap for the Irish republican movement, assimilating its leaders into the British state, where they now sit beside the hated Unionists carrying out cuts. James Connelly, a fierce critic of Sinn Fein, famously remarked:
"If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs."
Negotiations between the republican leaders and the British state were never the answer. A mass struggle, drawing in the masses of the six and the 26 counties, could lay the basis of a united socialist Ireland, bringing freedom and prosperity to millions of people.
Jeremy's consistent support for the Palestinian cause should also be replicated by all socialists; but again, he somewhat neglects the important role of mass, collective action and class struggle. He sees the solution to the problems faced by Palestinians in negotiations between the West and Hamas, and calls for external pressure to be brought to bear on Israel through boycotts and sanctions. But the bodies that would presumably apply these sanctions - the US, EU, and UN - are not 'neutral' - they represent definite class interests: primarily those of US imperialism and the European capitalists. Israel is still a key part of Western imperialism's strategy to divide the Arab masses. In any case, the weakness of US imperialism means it now has little control over Israel, as Netanyahu's open snub of Obama demonstrates. No amount of appeals to 'do the right thing' will persuade these representatives of capital to go against their interests.
On the other hand, the Arab Revolution of 2011, and its enormous echo inside Israel, point the way forward for the downtrodden people of that region - not negotiations between imperialist leaders, but the common struggle of the people - of all races, religions, and nationalities - for an end to occupation, war and suffering.
Social movement - and revolution!
Perhaps Jeremy's most important demand has been for the Labour Party to become a social movement again, as opposed to the electoral machine it represents today. Here we see the crucial point: austerity, and the capitalist system that underpins it, can only be defeated by the mass mobilisation of workers, youth, and the unemployed - that is, by the 99%.
Political figures from Bernie Sanders in the US to Russell Brand here in the UK have called for a 'revolution' - but what exactly is a revolution? According to Trotsky, "The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime... The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."
In effect, that is what Jeremy is calling for. If his "social movement" is to challenge austerity, it will have to challenge capitalism by mobilising the masses against it, and that has revolutionary implications. The very term 'austerity' is a euphemism - an Orwellian invocation of war-time spirit to disguise an eye-watering upward transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich; from labour to capital.
As the leadership of Syriza is finding out, it is impossible to fight austerity and carry out a social programme by appealing to the compassion, or even the rationality, of the ruling class. Jeremy Corbyn's campaign offers enormous possibilities for the masses to organise, but he must boldly take up the call to smash not only austerity, but the crisis-ridden capitalist system that demands this austerity. That means nationalising the banks and big monopolies under the democratic control of the workers and their organisations. It means abolishing the anarchy of the market and replacing it with a socialist plan of production. It means using this control to drive a national programme of investment in public works, housing, manufacturing and technology, creating a society to be proud of. It means a revolution.