July 10, 2020

Sentenced to Hard Labour: A Commentary on the Labour Party, Reformism & Revolution

The Labour Party, like any left-wing party, is a trap for revolutionaries. Fight with them and you fight with the state.

Sentenced to Hard Labour: A Commentary on the Labour Party, Reformism & Revolution

In 2016 I joined the Labour Party as an ambitious, if not slightly naive, revolutionary, inspired by Jeremy Corbyn and hopeful for the future. Four years later I left it, fed up of what I came to realise were a set of inherent and irredeemable failures in not only the Labour Party itself, but in party politics as a whole. I am writing this article now not just for anarchists or libertarians (many of whom, I expect, would not have fallen into the electoral trap anyway), but to all revolutionaries, to whom I wish to argue two main points:

  1. The intention, purpose and effect of the Labour Party has never been and will never be revolutionary.
  2. That the Labour Party exists to contain the revolutionary imagination, and that revolutionaries who toil in it are sentenced to tiring, unfruitful hard labour.

The Creation of the Labour Party

To begin, it is important to establish that the Labour Party was not created with the intention of being a revolutionary party, certainly not in the Leninist sense, nor even in the Marxist social-democrat sense. Though primarily a combination of the Independent Labour Party, a socialist society set up in 1893, and the Labour Representation Committee, a child of the Trade Union Congress built in 1900 that intended to support working-class candidates in elections, the Labour Party signalled no serious intention to depart from capitalism when it was formed in 1906. Forming an early pact with the liberals in 1903 and later entering into government with them in 1924, the party found itself quite capable at fitting in with British parliamentary politics. As noted by the historian Martin Pugh, the party:

not only adapted to the status quo, but leading figures like Jimmy Thomas and Herbert Morrison rather venerated the British constitution. For most of its life Labour supported the Union with Scotland and Wales, and endorsed the electoral system; it quickly dropped its original idea of abolishing the House of Lords; and it was enthusiastic, especially its working class members, about the monarchy and empire.

And as he further states:

But many typical politicians who played a central role in the movement combined left- and right-wing values in a consistent and coherent fashion, championing their class and socialism on the one hand along with class collaboration, patriotism, imperialism and authoritarianism on the other.

Current discourse amongst hopeful radical members of the Labour Party focuses too heavily upon radical parliamentarians (Bevan, Benn, Corbyn etc...) who, if not just advocating for social-democracy, consist of only a moderately sized wave in a sea of centrism. Even under the leadership of Corbyn, when Labour policy was perhaps at its most radical, the party could get past the barrier of centrists and blairites from ages past and was barely able to function without heavy resistance from that barrier. This should not be surprising. Labour's "broad church" is almost a electoral necessity in a two-party system, where a desire to appear electable will ultimately mean including a wide range of political figures and beliefs. We have seen this effect described already by Martin Hugh, but it is also picked up in a critical history of Labour, Labouring in Vain, in which they cite the following example:

Arthur Greenwood, the Labour Lord Privy Seal, said at the time [of the Attlee government], ‘I look around among my colleagues, and I see landlords, capitalists and lawyers. We are a cross-section of the national life, and this is something that has never happened before.’

The Labour Party had begun as a combination of a socialist society and a trade union congress, came into fruition with an alliance with the Liberals, and then settled itself in as a 'cross-section' of all political classes, exploiter or exploited. In consideration of this, it should not be a shock that such a party would be accepted by, and later act in line with, the political mainstream.

Labour in Government

Fall prey to the belief that Labour is, at heart, a revolutionary party, and you will be tricked into believing that Labour, once in government, will work towards or try to inspire a revolution. In reality, the party's actions whilst in government clearly communicate the exact opposite.

As noted by Pugh, and reiterated by Arthur Greenwood's comment, the Labour Party is not afraid to show its support for the British state, its constitution, or to its most elitist symbol: the monarchy. Again, this is excellently illustrated by the essay Labouring in Vain, which highlights the authoritarian actions of Labour's first government, MacDonald's, which invoked the 1920 Emergency Powers Act to force dockers, tramway workers and railways unions into calling off their strike. Mentioned also is the infamous 'Winter of Discontent' (1978-79), a battle between James Callaghan's Labour and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) over inflation during the coldest winter for 16 years. Thatcher's election victory that year rode off of the back of Labour's declining popularity, an event which would soon lead to the heavy restriction of trade union powers. It is these moments in the Labour Party's history which led the essay to comment that the belief in the party's revolutionary potential:

rests on the illusion that Labour is basically on the side of the workers and anyway ignores the reality that Labour is usually elected at times of rising class struggle - but is elected with the purpose of containing that struggle!

This is equally believed, for the possible Marxist-Leninist reading this, by Lenin himself, who asserted the following:

From this point of view, which is the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is not a political workers’ party but a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although it consists of workers, it is led by reactionaries and the worst reactionaries at that, who lead it in the spirit of the bourgeoisie .... they systematically deceive the workers.

Even from the position of an authoritarian leftist, it is clear that the Labour Party has always committed itself to defending capitalism, and that, at its very best, it will only achieve social democracy. The Labour Party is a compromise, an equalising force that holds back the revolutionary power of the people.

So the Labour Party is equally able to wield its domestic state power against the workers as its conservative counterparts, but it is also equally able to wield its imperialistic state power. As already mentioned, Labour was comfortable enough supporting the Empire, and although they spoke with the intention of helping the colonised, they often acted with a high-brow paternalism that treated the oppressed as incapable of caring for themselves. One internal memorandum circulated in March 1942 on the African colonies encapsulates this attitude well. In it, they express that they administrate the colonies:

as a trust for the native inhabitants, the principle object of administration being the well-being, education and development of those inhabitants. (...) these [colonial] people will not be ready for self-government and European peoples and states must be responsible for the administration of their territories.

When those inhabitants got out of line, the Labour Party was also not shy in putting down dissidents with force. Malaya, for example, saw a range of brutal suppression when liberation forces pushed for independence. In 1948, twenty-four unarmed Chinese civilians were massacred and 4500 people arrested by Attlee's government after an attempted communist insurgency. Whatever radicalism Labour expressed at home was not to be found in the colonies where it was nothing but business as usual. We also cannot forget, of course, Labour's disastrous treatment of India, where the country can still feel the effects of partition today, nor can we forget the Iraq War, for which Tony Blair has not seen the consequences despite the many innocent lives he has taken.

There are a litany of other examples that show Labour's bourgeois, imperialistic attitudes, both within the United Kingdom and outside of it. I would recommend, for one, this thread by Libcom. If you thought Labour was a revolutionary party, it only takes a brief look at its history to realise you were wrong. Years of Labour governments in the first half of the century and what did we get? The Thatcher government, Blair's Labour, and years of austerity. The political project that is Labour did exactly what it was always meant to do, contain the labour movement and contain revolutionary, people-led action.

Attitudes in the Party Today

Now it has been a long time since the creation of the Labour Party and its historic periods in government, so what does the party look like today? Well, to understand that you would have to understand Blairism, the personal ideology of Tony Blair and those who followed him; and New Labour, the party under the auspices of Blair and Brown from the mid-1990s until 2010. If, in our look at Labour Party history, you have been shocked by its lack of commitment to socialist values, then you will simply be deeply saddened by that lack of values continuing into recent periods.

Looking to expand their "electability" after four consecutive defeats to both Thatcher and Major, New Labour "modernised" itself with a set of moderate, reformist policies that sought to achieve social justice goals within the framework of a market system. It was these policies that, whilst making strides in improving LGBT rights, also spearheaded the private finance initiatives (PFIs) and privatised public services, steering the party away from almost a century of supporting nationalisation. What they created was later remarked by Margaret Thatcher as her 'greatest achievement', and recognised by Blair to be the natural result of her free-market individualist ideology. He later admits, in an autobiography published in 2010, that he believes Britain needed the reforms of the Thatcher-era:

In what caused much jarring and tutting within the party, I even decided to own up to supporting changes Margaret Thatcher had made. I knew the credibility of the whole New Labour project rested on accepting that much of what she wanted to do in the 1980s was inevitable, a consequence not of ideology but of social and economic change. The way she did it was often very ideological, sometimes unnecessarily so, but that didn't alter the basic fact: Britain needed the industrial and economic reforms of the Thatcher period.

It is almost unbelievable that these words came out of the mouth of a Labour leader, but not entirely unbelievable considering the malleability of state politics and the party itself. Despite having a "traditionalist" image that Blair wanted to ditch, the Labour Party has always stuck true to its "broad church" approach, taking in those from many sides of the political spectrum.

We can see this today by taking a brief look at the party's overall attitudes, and by pointing out some specific examples of rather alarming positions taken by Labour Party MPs. Here are some handpicked examples:

  1. The 'EdStone', a stone tablet unveiled by Ed Miliband during the 2015 General Election, a subject of almost universal ridicule. It was marked with 10 pledges, one of which, in an attempt to "out-UKIP" UKIP was: 'Controls on immigration.'
  2. In 2018 the former Labour MP Frank Field wrote a rather positive piece on Enoch Powell. The 'Rivers of Blood' speech, a racist rant against immigration, is described as just a 'political mistake'.
  3. In 2016, Rachel Reeves MP warned that Britain could 'explode' into rioting similar to the 2011 London riots if it does not end freedom of movement.
  4. In 2015, 184 Labour MPs abstained from the conservative's welfare bill which cut child tax credits, abolished the legally binding child poverty targets,  and cut housing benefits for young people. The Labour leadership officially recommended that MPs abstain from the bill as a whole.
  5. The nightmare that is Kate Hoey, a former Labour MP who hung out with Farage and Rees-Mogg, is pro-foxhunting, and has a worse record on gay rights than 120 Tory MPs.

These are just a few of many examples, but they are all indicative of the Labour Party's institutional problem, that being: it is not a socialist party. Despite having a seemingly radical manifesto in the previous two General Elections, Labour's left-wing leadership was stuck in a constant struggle with its own ranks. Even if you believe that a Corbyn led Labour could have aided in the socialist cause (which, in consideration of his socdem policies, probably would have not), it will mean a long, tiring, and most likely fruitless fight to get there.

So... What is to be Done?

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Right now it might seem like I am being all "doom and gloom" whilst also acting like a bit of a bitter old man. This could not be further from the truth (well, maybe not the old man thing). Understanding the futility of electoral politics can feel like a breath of fresh air, not just because you can be done carrying the cumbersome weight of electoralism itself, but because you can now open yourself up to the full breadth of revolutionary possibility. There are now multiple possible futures laid out in front of you.

The anarchist David Wieck notes: 'In other cases the evil can be modified, but its most destructive features persist', and he is very much right. You might improve working conditions, but the worker must still sell their labour. You might improve the prison, but it will still dehumanise its inmates. You might improve the police, but it will still be used to punish the poor and ethnic minorities. As Wieck also writes:

'Reform has failed because each of these evils fulfils an essential function in our society (or is bound up with an essential function), and none can be arbitrarily ripped out of the total pattern. In the best cases, the evils can be mitigated only by the pyramiding of bureaucracy. In the worst cases, not even this relief is possible.'

You might be thinking: 'but can we not fight for both reformist policies in the short term, and revolutionary policies in the long term?'. You can indeed campaign for material improvement in the short term, and you should, but I would argue that you cannot both fight for reform in state politics and also fight for revolutionary power outside of it. The more attention you pay towards electoral reformism, the more you are sucked in.

That is why, whatever we do, we must ditch the way of reform and stick to revolution, to use Luxemburg's famous dichotomy. This is not to say that we cannot fight for immediate gains, but that we must not make immediate gains our primary goal to the point where we ignore the revolutionary potential of our actions. Indeed for Luxemburg, not taking a stand on anti-capitalism, and capitulating by focusing on the immediate practical results of the struggle, can lead to 'disillusionment' and the death of that struggle. As she writes:

The direct consequence of this [a focus on immediate gains] will be the adoption by the party of a “policy of compensation,” a policy of political trading, and an attitude of diffident, diplomatic conciliation.

If you are, or were once, a Labour Party member, then you are probably familiar with the tiresome and unrewarding nature of internal politics, diplomacy, and infighting within the party ranks. Much like our modern, bureaucratic trade unions, Labour seeks 'conciliation' with capitalism and 'compensation' for its subjects, but neither the end of capitalism or freedom for the workers.

For anarchists, and really for any serious revolutionary who wants to liberate humanity, we must, as a people, take what we want, not beg for it. To take back power from the state, we must, as a people, learn that we do not need that state to provide for us. The core issue with reformism, in this regard, is that it breeds a reliance on the kindness of our rulers, rather than spreading the idea that we do not need those rulers. As explained by Errico Malatesta in Towards Anarchy:

The problem lies in knowing how to choose the road that really approaches the realisation of the ideal and in not confusing the real progress with hypocritical reforms. For with the pretext of obtaining immediate ameliorations these false reforms tend to distract the masses from the struggle against authority and capitalism; they serve to paralyse their actions and make them hope that something can be attained through the kindness of the exploiters and governments.

If we were to fight for immediate gains through direct action, such as in the form of striking, protest, or say, the creation of mutual aid organisations that counter the state, then we are demanding exactly what we want, rather than entering into a mutual exchange with the state and bargaining for it. Even the Bolsheviks, who were in essence a state party, built the revolution on the back of the Soviets, councils of workers that delegitimised the state apparatus. By partaking in the Labour Party, and therefore having all your efforts sucked into it, you are legitimising that apparatus and fighting on the bourgeoisie's territory. If you do not move your efforts away from the state then you will find yourself forever dependant on it to achieve your goals.

One thing the Corbyn-era of Labour did do is create a hopeful and inspirational grassroots movement which touched people from all corners of society. The commitment of activists working tirelessly on the ground for the party cause is admirable, even if that cause was ultimately unsuccessful. And, although we all would have preferred a Corbyn government, we should come to terms with the fact that such a government would have contained the movement. In the future, we must seek to inspire a grassroots movement of a similar kind, but one that is committed to create power outside of the state system, and to demanding via direct action rather than bargaining via party politics. This means striking, mutual aid or food cooperatives, local assemblies, anything where we are taking what we want and creating a new society as we see fit. Do not be sentenced to hard labour, like so many good activists have before.

The seeds of the grassroots movement that Corbyn inspired have not disappeared; they will forever be scattered amongst the poor, the disenfranchised and the disillusioned in our society. We must only nurture them into fruition.


Image by Rathfelder on Wikipedia Commons

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