The crisis in British politics (2) – the mess on the left

Kier Starter, leader of the British Labour Party, flagging his alterrnative (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Where does the current political crisis put the left?  I can’t remember a time when it has been so divided, not only over the causes of a crisis but what to do about it.  Brexit, Covid lockdowns and the Ukraine war have all contributed, as have years of printing money.  Yet many on the left have supported Brexit, demanded more severe lockdowns, supported war and western sanctions, and it even has its fair share of proponents of Modern Monetary Theory.

Even the minimum of policies raises division: against austerity includes opposition to energy price increases, which can be solved by ending support for war and removing sanctions. Opposition to the threats to workers living standards, and attacks on democratic rights opened up by the threats of removing EU laws, can be advanced by opposing Brexit.  This means giving focus to the awareness of the majority that Brexit has failed, by explaining the purpose of re-joining the EU.  

Photo: Morning Star

The Labour Party isn’t going to fight for these because it has, like some on the left, supported all the steps that got us here.  Some on the left have therefore said that it is better to face a weakened Tory government than a stronger Labour one committed to more or less the same agenda, so we shouldn’t call for a general election.

There are things wrong with this, although it has the merit of admitting that the left is chronically weak.  This should give it pause to recognise just how close, or rather how far away, it is to leading any revolutionary change, and to considering just what the preconditions for this would be.

Opposition to the call for a general election may reveal the belief that your alternative is weak but the weakness of your enemy will not make up for it.  Labour support for ‘balancing the books’, and therefore austerity, can easily permit their implementation by Sunak if he introduces the odd seemingly ‘fair’ implementation of pain, which would also prevent Labour from shouldering the blame. The effect of further Tory mistakes and division could either be to encourage opposition to austerity or usher in a Starmer government essentially wedded to the same project.

Calls for a general election to kick out the Tories should not be opposed but since we know that it’s not nearly enough the left should concentrate not on this but on what Marx would have called the momentary interests of the working class as well as its future.

This means supporting and generalising the strikes workers are taking to defend their living standards. It means politicising them, including with the demand to bring down the Tories with the purpose of also setting the expectations that will be placed on any alternative Government, including a Labour one.  It means organising in the trade unions to make them more democratic, which is easier to do when workers are engaged in union activity, and building the grounds for longer term rank and file activity.  It means similar activity in the Labour Party, and since this is mainly a defensive struggle against the leadership, it means defending existing rights and supporting the very few potential candidates who will get to stand in an election that support working class action.

If it is argued that the Labour Party is dead then such a view must be tested by the activity that can be organised within it; by the possibility of activating members and recruiting others through the strikes that are taking place, and some proof that the lessons of numerous attempts to organise a party outside it have been learnt.  It’s not enough to say that numerous battles have been lost if it is not clear to thousands of Labour members that the war inside it is over and definitively lost.  It’s not enough to propose some party that does not exist to something you claim is dead but will in some way have to be recognised as very much alive for millions who will vote for it.

Unity on the left is not enough.  There is no point blindfolding ourselves to Brexit, which cannot, like Starmer hopes, simply be parked, but has to be opposed.  Those who have supported it show no sign of recognising their mistake when it stares them in the face.  Likewise, what is the point of demanding protection from the enormous increase in energy prices while supporting war and the sanctions that make it inevitable?  The political struggle against these disastrous positions must continue.

The left, both in Britain and Ireland has put forward actions that the state must implement to address these problems: through nationalisation of energy companies, windfall taxes or price caps, increased state spending and taxation of the rich.  All of these rely on the state doing what the working class needs to do itself, and the state doesn’t exist for this purpose.  We have all just been given a huge lesson on who really controls society and what they are prepared to do even to a pro-capitalist Government that doesn’t play by its rules.

Nationalisation will not gain control over the supply of gas and oil so nationalising retail companies (known as suppliers in the industry) will not reduce prices; and you can’t nationalise companies in other countries.  This is also the case in Ireland, where much of the industry is already nationalised. You certainly can’t nationalise Russian gas, but you can pay a lower price for it, if you argue it’s generally good practice to buy from the cheapest supplier.

You can’t continue to increase workers income from state payments to make up for inflation when the financial markets won’t even support unfunded tax cuts for the rich.  While it’s an acceptable propaganda demand to increase taxation on the rich you won’t be able to make this the answer to the crisis. The underlying weakness of British capitalism is set to continue worsening, especially outside the EU, and redistribution of the tax burden isn’t going to change this.

The Tories have already overturned proposals to reverse corporation tax increases and there comes a point where significant increases would simply amount to a form of state capitalism, and one that is to the benefit of workers!  That’s not the society we live in, or one that could possibly exist.  Income taxes on the rich require a government to legislate it; require a capitalist class to accept it without shifting its incomes abroad, and a state willing to implement it.  The British tax authorities have proved time and time again their willingness to indulge tax avoidance and evasion by corporations and the rich. Tax incentives are as much a part of the code as levies and these always apply to the rich; workers don’t need an incentive to work since it’s the only way they can afford a tolerable or decent standard of living.

The recent crisis of the British state’s creditworthiness was caused not by proposed tax cuts for the rich but by increased debt caused by income payments during the pandemic, and early predictions of a £150 billion bill for energy supports to energy companies in lieu of consumers paying.  The idea that the financial markets will accept lending money to fill any gap left after screwing Britain’s rich, so that the incomes of the working class can be protected, ignores the political interests of the players involved in these markets. At the very least increased interest rates would be demanded if steps along this road were taken, which means they would get their pound of flesh one way or the other.

It makes no sense to offer alternatives that depend on actions by the state when you also argue any possible government won’t introduce them.  To paraphrase Marx again, the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.  So must the fight against austerity, the defence of living standards and against war.

Under capitalism the place of the working class is determined by its absence of property ownership – the means of producing goods and services.  If you create these by your labour but don’t own them, you can’t expect to receive the revenue arising from them, and especially from a state that is there to defend existing property rights.

This means that the income of the working class comes overwhelmingly from wages and if these are being reduced through inflation the correct response is to increase them, including through strikes.  The working class in many countries is now in the fortunate position of being in a period of low unemployment where it can take advantage of its position in the labour market to organise, demand wage increases and fight for them.  The longer term perspective is to take ownership of the means of production, and thus of the goods and services produced, so it can determine the distribution of the incomes derived from their use and sale.  In this it will obviously come up against the state determined to defend the rights of existing ownership.

It should be axiomatic for the left that the benevolence of the state is not the answer.  It takes the workers’ own money and then decides how much of it to give back, to whom and for what purpose.  It also borrows, then taxes workers to repay the borrowing.  In all this it buys the goodwill of workers with their own money, pretending it is that of the government.  The problem of lack of income then becomes one of demanding that the state gives you more, in the form of lower taxes, higher welfare and pensions, payments for not working (as in Covid) or subsidies to pay energy bills.

This analysis derives from very basic understandings derived from Marxism that many of its adherents accept in theory only to forget in practice.  The failure produces a phenomenon not unknown to Marx.

It produces an inverted reality in which workers seek salvation in actions by the instrument of their subordination.  It illustrates the grain of truth in accusations of the right that welfare dependency creates a culture of dependency, of which the politics of much of the left is a demonstration.  It is indeed ironic that the right often betrays a better appreciation of the role of the state than many self-described socialists.

This state-centred socialism has resulted in support for Brexit because it is believed that somehow the British state can be relied upon to be more progressive than any European one, and can become the vehicle to introduce socialism.

It fuelled demands for more stringent lockdowns during the pandemic because the state can miraculously give people money to buy goods and services it then prevents them from making and providing.

The Left’s “zero-COVID” strategy in operation in China (Chinatopix Via AP)

It now results in support for a notoriously corrupt capitalist state and its armed forces because it supposedly embodies the interests of Ukrainian workers; indeed the workers of the world, even while it acts on behalf of the most powerful states, together forming what is customarily called imperialism.

The Left joins supporters of the Ukrainian state who just happen to be fascists Photo:NurPhoto via Getty Images: veterans of the Azov volunteer battalion attend a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 14, 2020

From all this we can see that the task of the left in assisting the British working class in the current political crisis needs some work itself.  A lot of work.

Back to part 1

3 thoughts on “The crisis in British politics (2) – the mess on the left

  1. I must remind you that the focus on supporting and encouraging strikes as been tried before and has not only failed to advance the cause of socialism but has actually hindered it. Strikes can be defeated for a whole raft of reasons, not least by the intervention of the State acting on behalf of the employers. The Unions would prefer a Labour government if it only repealed some of the anti-union legislation and did nothing else of benefit.

    The fact of the matter is that it is has become embedded in the customs and consciousness of workers of a hundred years or so that a general social reform must come about through the wining of elections to a democratic Parliament. It is more than just a tactic or expedient to think along those lines it is a principle of fairness. Workers have a deep suspicion of vanguard style actions, even ones undertaken by well intended activists who wish only to take control over the firms they work for.

    Personally I would recommend a focus on abolishing landlordism and providing ‘free’ housing for the masses right now. The economist Michael Hudson is very good at identifying how the city landlordism as opposed to the land based landlordism of the past is responsible for much of the social and economic ills of capitalism. The
    classical political economists, those that Marx read and learned from were broadly in favour of abolishing the land based landlordism, this to be undertaken by the liberal State. This never happened, the chief institutions of capitalism, namely the banks are no better than the eighteen century absentee landlords from out of the past. Michael Hudson has a lot of interesting things to say about the new city based landlordism that for historical reasons are largely absent in the books of Marx.

    Marx seemed to posit a close connection, maybe even fusion between industry and the banking and commercial system, it seems to be a deduction based on the theory of surplus labour extraction being the engine that drives capitalism in general. However, looking at the empirical evidence, there is very little connection between the banks and the commercial system, the banks overwhelming lend to property investors i.e. bloody landlords, or they lend money to Governments for a guaranteed return. I don’t know if the surplus value from labour time resulting in profits can account for this state of affairs, I don’t really care if it does, for that is something for scientists who like to be able to deduce all apparent economic things from first hidden or disguised first premises.

    • Its quite right that strikes can be defeated, and as Marx and Engels point out, most of the time they are. That is why, ultimately, syndicalism/economism can offer no solution, and instead we need a political solution, which requires class struggle, via a revolutionary workers party, not industrial struggle. However, at times strikes can and do win, and currently is one of those times. Most of the strikes taking place are not even being reported, because workers take action for a few days, and employers concede. Its mostly the state and firms closely tied to it where bosses are resisting. In many places, the shortage of labour means workers are getting higher wages even without threatening strike action.

      In addition, as Lenin pointed out, in opposing economism, strikes do not represent class struggle – other than in the case of a mass General Strike for political reasons – but only industrial struggle, however, hey are a school for class struggle, the means of mobilising workers, and for Marxists to intervene in those struggles, to draw them into wider political activity as those very limitations of industrial struggle are pointed out.

      We have very limited human resources and so what we have has to be used efficiently, and that efficient use currently means relating to spontaneous industrial action by workers, not passive electioneering, in which our tiny voice will be drowned out by that of the two main reactionary petty-bourgeois parties amplified by the mass media who will give no space to any other voice, as happened in the EU referendum.

      Labour is not going to pass pro-union reforms. Blair didn’t, and Starmer is way to the Right of Blair. Blue labour sacks Ministers, and gets them deselected just for supporting workers on picket lines. Rather than any such reforms, Starmer will be the vehicle for imposing austerity, mostly in the form of attacks on public sector wages and conditions, pensions, benefits and so on.

      Its not the banks that are the problem, and source of interest-bearing capital, it is the ruling class that owns its wealth in the form of fictitious capital, of shares and bonds, i.e. of money-capital they loan to businesses. It is mostly that, as Marx describes that is an antagonistic relation to real capital, i.e. of socialised industrial capital. Banks are simply a channel, and centralising mechanism for credit.

      Of course, its surplus labour that accounts for that capital, whether it takes the form of first the profits appropriated by industrial capital, the rent appropriated by the landlord out of the profits of the industrial capital, or the interest of the money lending capitalist from the profits of industrial capital, or the taxes appropriated by the capitalist state out of those same profits.

  2. An excellent piece as normal. I agree with 99%. So, then to the 1%.

    I think it is necessary, currently, to oppose calls for a General Election. Here’s why. It will demobilise the existing direct struggles, as happened, in May ’68, in France, when the French Stalinists backed such calls. That not only demobilised the action, but even led to De Gaulle winning the election. In the 1980’s, the whole approach of the Kinnockites was that the left and even soft left had to keep their heads down, so as not to scare the voters, because everything depended on Labour winning he election. I remember in 1984, in the Council elections parties were told not to raise the issue of the Miners Strikes, for fear of alienating scabs and other opponents of the strike! As a Left, we were much stronger then inside and out of the LP.

    Look at how Reeves makes the same argument and Starmer not only sacks Ministers for turning up on picket lines, but uses the right-wing machinery to deselect them too! Just look at how unions called off strikes for several weeks just because the Queen, the symbol of our class enemies and the ones before that, had died. Can there be any doubt that pressure would be applied – especially in conditions of one-day, rather than all-out strikes – to have strikes postponed, or cancelled during any election period?

    If we were in a position like that of the late 70’s, or early 80’s, I might say, yes, bring on an election, because we could mount a political campaign based upon all out political support for the strikes, and combining the industrial and political struggle. We would turn LP branches out to the actions in their area, and pull new militants into the political struggle – which is what Marxists should be doing now – and it would be possible as with the Socialist Campaign For Labour Victory in 1979, for a strong Left to use the election and the ongoing activity to present its own clear programme around which to mobilise in opposition to that of the LP and TU bureaucracy. But, we are not in that position!

    First, there is no large communist party to use the election to present political solutions. But, nor do we have a Left capable of undertaking anything similar to the SCLV either. Even setting aside the divisions you list, if all of those were removed the sum total of the Left does not amount to a hill of beans in terms of the visibility and impact it could have. It would be an irrelevance, and the whole election would simply be a platform for two reactionary petty bourgeois parties to present their own program of why the working-class must pay. Even the Liberals would be squeezed out of the spotlight by the media with its usual fascination only for sensationalism.

    There is not any revolutionary Labour MP’s, and even the left social-democrats like McDonnell have shown themselves utterly bankrupt and compliant in the face of Starmer’s assault on them, even in respect of Corbyn’s suspension. They know that were they to take part in some left election campaign like the SCLV they would go he way of Corbyn, Tarry et al, and it would just be an excuse for Starmer to expel them along with tens of thousands of members, close down CLP’s etc. Its not a credible option in current conditions. If an election is called, and the Tories might do it as Sunak’s government also goes into crisis, we would have to make the best of it, but it should not be something we support, quite the opposite.

    As the strike wave develops, if we can turn the branches out, and draw in the new ranks of militants to a political struggle inside the LP, then that conditions may change. We clearly can’t count on even Left TU leaders, because where were they at the last LP conference, for example. If conditions change, then rather than simply arguing for a General Election to kick out the Tories, the focus should be a positive one, based around a clear programme that amounts to a demand for a Workers Government. But a Workers Government requires first you have the material in parliament to form one. That requires deselecting all the current ones, and replacing them with at least reformist socialists and centrists (in the Marxist sense of that term). We are a million miles from any of that currently.

    I have never understood the argument about electing a labour government in place of the Tories in order not to let it off the hook, to expose it and so on. Workers already know what Labour governments look like, this is not the 1920’s! Workers only learn the lessons of what Labour is if Marxists are also there in sufficient weight to go through those struggles with them each day, and explain what is actually going on. That of course is why they should be in the LP and not engaged in fantasy party building adventures, as you say. The only point of electing a Labour government is for Marxists to be able to go through that process with workers in struggle, and, thereby, build the materials to replace it, including using the organic links between the party and the unions etc. But currently, our forces are much too weak to have any impact in that regard. Its necessary to build those forces first, before considering such a strategy, and the best way of doing that, currently, is not to allow the current strikes to be demobilised. Even in the 60’s, it was touch and go as to whether Wilson would get In Place of Strike, through, and in the 1970’s, they did get The Social Contract through. If they could do that given the strength of the left, and level of class consciousness, how easy do you think it would be today to simply roll over workers and the left? Already people like Paul Mason are calling for liquidationsim and total subordination to Starmer, who is not even the kind of social-democrat as Wilson or Callaghan, or even Blair or Brown. He’s not a social-democrat, but a right-wing, reactionary, petty-bourgeois English nationalist, as is Blue Labour!

    “Under capitalism the place of the working class is determined by its absence of property ownership – the means of producing goods and services. If you create these by your labour but don’t own them, you can’t expect to receive the revenue arising from them, and especially from a state that is there to defend existing property rights.”

    As I’ve said before, workers DO own them. Corporations are socialised capital, which is collectively owned by the associated producers (workers and managers) within it. Its not a question of ownership any longer, as Marx describes in Capital III, Chapter 27, but of control. The associated producers are denied control over their collective property, and the law instead gives control over it to shareholders – not even to all creditors, such as bondholders etc., but only a specific type of creditor). Its that control that enables the workers to be denied the revenue they should expect from their collective ownership of that capital.

    Its that which characterises the transitional and contradictory nature of the regime, and of the state. The state should defend and promote the dominant form of property, but that form is that of socialised capital, the collective property of the working-class. To do that, the state would pursue policies that facilitate the development and accumulation of capital, and in part, it does, which is why it supports the EU and so on. It supports macro-economic planning and regulation etc, which you would expect from a social-democratic state. However, precisely because the workers do not exercise control over their own collective property, and have not risen to take the position as ruling class, the state acts in the interests of the actually existing ruling class, whose property does not take the form of that socialised capital (though it is ultimately dependent upon it for its revenues) but of fictitious capital 9shares, bonds, property), and as Marx sets out in Capital III, Chapter 23 et sub, the interests of this interest-bearing capital are contradictory to those of industrial capital, indeed it is towards the latter that fictitious capital stands in opposition not to the working-class.

    Given that, in the last 30 years, the ruling class has seen its interests dependent, not even upon revenues from its assets, but on never-ending capital gains on those assets, itself dependent upon low rates of interest, and ever increasing injections of QE by central banks to inflate those asset prices, the actions of the state to slow economic growth, to hold down interest rates have been geared itself not to the interests of the dominant form of property (socialised industrial capital) and its development and accumulation, but to the short-term interests of the ruling class to inflate asset prices by slowing economic growth, and the need for capital accumulation!

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