When Jeremy Corbyn, among the most left-wing MPs in the British Labour party, announced his candidacy to succeed Ed Miliband in June, it was universally assumed that this would be another effort in the honourable tradition of token leadership bids from the ever-dwindling Labour left. It was to be, at best, an attempt to promote some level of debate and internal criticism within the Blairite leadership. Indeed, few thought that Corbyn had any chance of even making the ballot paper, much less posing a credible threat to any of the ‘serious’ leadership contenders. Over the summer, however, he gathered an extraordinary surge in support, and eventually won the contest outright with 59.5% of the vote.
For many who identify as being on the left, the Corbyn moment has been seen as something of a turning point. We have endured seven years of financial crisis and economic ruin, for which working people have been forced to bear the cost. Yet, despite what many reasonably expected at the outset of the crisis, there has been no major step forwards for the anti-capitalist movement, or even any political success for those arguing for an alternative strategy for dealing with the crisis to the austerity policies implemented throughout the continent. 2015, first with the election of Syriza in Greece and now the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, has renewed hope for many that the left has a fighting chance of victory.
The Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) is a political society on campus which places itself in the tradition of the revolutionary anti-capitalist left. We argue that the socialist transformation of society is achievable not through the existing institutions of parliament and so on, but only by a revolution of working class people themselves. We believe anyone looking for an alternative to the political and economic establishment should take heart from the rise of Corbyn, but be aware of the limitations of such a project. Corbyn’s victory opens up opportunities for the left, as well as posing difficult strategic problems.
Corbyn shatters the mould of the right-wing Blairite MPs who now dominate the Labour party. His candidacy and the massive popular support he has received stands in defiance to the legacy of Tony Blair and his efforts to modernise the Labour party. This was in fact a campaign to extinguish any remaining flicker of credible left wing opposition within Labour to the neoliberal agenda enshrined by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party.
The leadership campaign demonstrated the extent to which the Labour elite wears Thatcher’s legacy on their sleeve. A recurring trope recycled time and time again by Corbyn’s opponents and their backers in the media is that Corbyn’s policies are a product of a bygone age, and would make the party thoroughly unelectable. This is, of course, an ideological claim. It presupposes the existence of a political centre ground which politicians must seek to capture, lest they alienate an essentially centre-right thinking public. It assumes that the electorate will inevitably be horrified by outdated promises of re-nationalisation of key public services and an end to state-sponsored misery in the form of austerity budgets. This is classic neoliberal ideology. It seeks to manufacture consent for the privatisation and deregulation of the capitalist economy.
Corbyn’s overwhelming victory in the leadership election refutes this theory. It was not just the scale by which he brushed aside the centrist candidates, but the manner in which he won – drawing hundreds of supporters, sometimes thousands, to his campaign rallies – which highlights the appetite for an alternative to austerity. As columnist Laurie Penny pointed out during the campaign: “The argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is being made by three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn.”
Alternative to austerity
The media and the party’s right-wing were reduced to total desperation. New Labour luminaries such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Miliband were wheeled out to warn against the dangers of electing Corbyn. This stunning lack of self-awareness only served to shine a spotlight on what Labour has been missing, in sharp contrast to Corbyn’s campaign. The most striking aspect of Corbyn’s rise was, perhaps, how utterly powerless the ruling class was to prevent it. The media machine went into overdrive, culminating in a headline which must surely be considered peak Telegraph: “Jeremy Corbyn must be stopped”. Beneath was an article which compared Corbyn to Zimbabwean autocrat Robert Mugabe and attempted to shackle him with links to Hamas, the IRA and anti-Semitism. All this because he advocates relatively moderate centre-left economic policies which have received backing from a wide range of mainstream (pro-capitalist) economists.
What is at stake for the ruling class, however, is not a life and death battle between socialism and capitalism, for Corbyn is demanding much less. Rather it is a threat to the ideological myth that there is no alternative to neoliberalism. Thatcher and her Blairite heirs had a long march over the carcass of the trade union movement and Labour left to achieve this consensus. Now it is in peril. The spectacular impotence of the right-wing anti-Corbyn propaganda and the way in which it only seemed to inject his campaign with further momentum, represents a significant breakdown in the ideological authority of the ruling class.
This, in itself, marks an opportunity for anyone on the left looking to organise against the capitalist system. Corbyn’s victory, the language that he uses, the policies he advocates and his principled rejection of Tory policies all open up a space in which socialists can organise – including those of us who consider ourselves far to the left of Corbyn and any movement attempting to reform the Labour party. One of Corbyn’s strengths is his ability to pose the questions of austerity and challenging the political establishment in class terms. He has awakened and helped create a movement which aligns itself with working people, against the rule of the rich in the form of the Tory government. He cuts through ideological myths such as “We’re all in this together” and “We need to cut the deficit in the national interest”. Austerity is a political and economic strategy designed, not necessarily to restore the health of the economy as a whole, but to secure the interests of the rich. It is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is a capitalist crisis paid for by working people.
This is the reality of Conservative Britain, and Fine Gael/Labour’s Ireland, that Corbyn is helping to expose. This is a very useful point of departure. If austerity is a class war waged by the elites against the working class, then we must consider our options for counter-attack. How can we secure our own interests and reorganise society on the basis of democracy and solidarity? Is the answer to elect a left-wing Corbyn-led government to challenge the rich and shake up British capitalism? The recent experience in Greece, and numerous examples throughout history, suggests that this is not the case.
A similar sense of optimism and hope for a breakthrough in the battle against austerity was felt earlier this year with the election of radical left party SYRIZA in Greece. SYRIZA promised to take on the EU elites and bondholders sucking the lifeblood out of the Greek working class. Yet within months of that election victory, the slippery path towards compromise and ‘pragmatic government’ was followed. SYRIZA was forced into successive climb-downs on its anti-Memorandum (the austerity programme signed up to by previous governments) position and ultimately forced to agree to as harsh an austerity package as has been implemented in Greece since the crisis began.
These defeats, unfortunately, follow a clear pattern throughout history and lessons must be drawn to prevent their repetition. The success of trying to implement left-wing reforms in government is largely contingent on the willingness of our ruling class to allow them, or often, their stubbornness in obstructing them. Corbyn and his supporters often hark back to past Labour governments such as that of Clement Attlee, Britain’s first post-war Prime Minister. This was the government responsible for the establishment of the NHS and a welfare state charged with protecting its citizens “from the cradle to the grave”. Of course, this was during the post-war boom, one of the longest and most sustained periods of growth and profitability in the history of the capitalist system. The health of the capitalist system, and the determination of working people to fight for those reforms, meant it make strategic sense for British capitalism to implement them.
Compare this to the current situation. Global capitalism is emerging from a major crisis and is already tipped to slide back into deep trouble in the next few years. SYRIZA’s efforts to implement an anti-austerity strategy in government run contrary to the interests of capitalism, and unlike in 1945, they cannot afford to allow us to win. The ritual humiliation of the SYRIZA government and the aggressiveness of such concessions tells us all we need to know about the willingness of the capitalist system to engage with the concerns of ordinary people. SYRIZA had no Plan B to their goal of pressuring capital to give in – does Corbyn? What would a Corbyn government do differently when confronted with the same economic terrorism that SYRIZA were?
The problem with trying to pursue left-wing policies in government is that we are fighting the battle on their terrain. While economic power remains in the hands of a tiny elite, the election of a left government may amount to a tactical retreat by the ruling class, but it does not represent the conquest of democratic power by working people. The working class gave SYRIZA a mandate to fight for their interests – but the system cares only for its profits. Any left government in Britain, here in Ireland or anywhere, will run up against this fundamental problem.
If we are serious about changing the world and achieving some kind of real, democratic alternative to capitalism, then these are the strategic questions that we must consider. The rich are organised, centralised and have a clear strategy to make us pay for their crisis. We too must be organised and astute. We have seen how aggressively they respond to defeat, whether it be the election of SYRIZA or Jeremy Corbyn. These events represented an encroachment of explicitly working class movements into the political sphere. If the rich are not willing to allow this, then we have to go beyond their terrain and shape our own. Electing a new government to manage capitalism is not enough – working people have to organise and carve out a new system based on democratic control of society’s wealth. Our word for this is socialism, and for this, we need a working class revolution.
Rory O’Neill is auditor of the Socialist Workers Student Society.