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Making sense of Labour

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Thousands have joined Labour hoping it can transform society. A new edition of The Labour Party—a Marxist History says the nature of the party shapes how it acts. Authors Donny Gluckstein and Charlie Kimber explain how their book can help activists in the struggle for change
Issue 2637
The weight of Labours history hangs heavy on Corbyn
The weight of Labour’s history hangs heavy on Corbyn (Pic: PA)

The book has been released with two new chapters. What has prompted the re-release?

Donny Gluckstein: The book is designed for people engaged in the movement.

There have been three editions, each as a response to events. The first edition came out in the Bennite period when lots of people looked to Labour as a way of returning to a so-called golden age of socialism.

It was directed towards revolutionaries who were thinking of joining the Labour Party.

The second edition came out in 1995 when New Labour was in the ascendance, with Tony Blair leading the charge. We wanted to explain what was going on.

The current one is coming out in the period of Corbynism. The debate is not with revolutionaries thinking of joining Labour. It’s with people within Labour who we want to talk to, and who we want to prepare for what happens if you get a Corbyn government.

The book has never just attacked Labour’s history. It’s always tried to understand its strengths and its weaknesses in order to carry the movement forward.

New Labour and Corbynism are the most extreme versions towards the right and the left within the framework of Labour’s history. The new edition tries to understand those two extremes.

Charlie Kimber: At the time of the anti-capitalist movement at the beginning of the century there was a strong mood that we don’t need political parties. There was a sense that leadership was unnecessary and dangerous, and that parties led to hierarchies that stifled democracy.

That’s changed. Now people talk about the shining examples of Podemos in the Spanish state or Corbyn’s Labour. They used to talk about Syriza in Greece, but that’s gone quiet after its ruthless imposition of austerity.

So the argument is not that we don’t need parties but that we need broad parties. The book looks at one of the clearest examples of such a party, its record over more than 100 years, and the strengths and structural problems with it.

It’s an argument for revolutionary organisation rooted in the experience of Labour.

What does it say about New Labour and Corbynism?

DG: New Labour saw the longest period of Labour rule. So in terms of Labour’s history, if it’s just about winning elections then New Labour was a success.

But that would be completely the wrong way of looking at it. What we need to understand is that New Labour has helped set up what we have today.

The Blairites caused war after war—five different ones. Around that Labour created scare stories, Islamophobia, fear of immigrants and demonising of asylum seekers.

That pushed the political agenda to the right quite dramatically.

Before New Labour, immigration was at the bottom of people’s priorities when they were asked in surveys. By the time Gordon Brown left office it was near the top.

New Labour said the party can embrace capitalism and deliver reforms at the same time. All previous Labour leaders had said they want to modify capitalism.

New Labour enthusiastically believed in capitalism. That was new in terms of Labour history.

People need to understand the damage that right wing Labour can do. In a sense the damage is done in the movement.

When the Tories do things like attack migrants, you can fight back more easily. When it seems to be your own side then it can disarm you. The right in Labour still has a strong hold today and tries to strangle every left wing initiative that Corbyn conducts.

Does the book help to understand New Labour as part of the party’s history?

DG: The whole book is about change and continuity. The Labour Party changes all the time, but it’s got a particular trajectory.

There’s a quote in the New Labour chapter from something the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said in 1900. She argued that reformists and revolutionaries aren’t on the same road. The reformist road leads somewhere else. What Labour has been doing is going along a road that leads towards acceptance of capitalism. It’s always pulled back by the base—Corbynism is an example of that.

If Labour completely accepts capitalism, then there would be no need for it at all. It would stop existing. But it’s always going in that direction and it evolved further and further in that direction until Corbyn came along.

Labour is a broad church. Not by choice, but because of the nature of what it represents—fighting the system and accepting the system at the same time. Between those two there is a constant battle.

Underlying it all is reformism.

Labour is a broad church, not by choice, but because of what it represents

Reformism comes from the fact that on the one hand we live in a capitalist society and people are influenced by capitalist ideas. But on the other hand people’s life experience of capitalism is that it’s nasty and brutish, and they want to fight against it.

So the majority of working class people have both ideas at the same time. They accept a lot of capitalist ideas but they also hate capitalism because of what it does to their lives. Reformism reflects that balance.

That balance exists all the time anywhere in the world but it doesn’t always take an organisational form. In the US for example there isn’t a proper reformist party.

We can also see the collapse of social democracy all around Europe at the moment. These sorts of things are falling apart because they can’t square the circle.

Warmonger Tony Blair

Warmonger Tony Blair

CK: The Labour Party privileges parliament and elections over action in the workplaces and on the streets.

There are Labour lefts who have always said we need action outside parliament as well as winning MPs. They’re sincere when they say it, but the question is which disciplines which.

And in the end parliament always comes first. Think how even now, before Labour is in office, Labour leaders sometimes go to picket lines—a welcome development—but not if the strike is against a Labour council.

Struggle is fundamental not only in winning change but in changing people’s ideas.

Workers’ ideas are not fixed. Sometimes they accept rotten ideas, sometimes they can act in the most collective and unified way. Their experience of collective work and society is pitted against the individualist pressures and ideologies of capitalism.

The central way in which left wing ideas win out is when workers are engaged in strikes, occupations, mass protests and movements against racism,oppression and war.

But Labour’s policy and practice cuts against putting struggle first.

One thing that’s important in this is your analysis of the trade union bureaucracy and its role in the balance between left and right

DG: The British Labour structure is very much built around trade unions. They are also the link to the working class. But that link is through the trade union leaders, who have their own agenda.

During the New Labour period, Blair and Brown consciously set out to try and remove the need for the trade union bureaucracy.

They treated it with absolute contempt. More importantly they tried to find a funding base independent of the unions. One place they could find that was big business. So they really threw themselves into trying to break the union link.

They couldn’t do it. Big business was temporarily interested in Blair because the Tories had lost. But as soon as there was any possibility that Labour could be replaced, they went straight back to the Tories.

Trade union leaders have clout within Labour because of the numbers they represent and the money they have.

They set up the Labour Party in 1900 because they needed to reverse the Taff Vale decision. This was a law that said if you go on strike you have to pay the employer what you have “cost” them.

In other words it made striking impossible within the laws.

New Labour said it can embrace capitalism and deliver reforms at the same time

There were two ways of dealing with that. One was to have a revolution, the other was to try and change things through parliament. That’s where the Labour Party came from.

In a sense that hasn’t changed. There is harsh anti-trade union legislation now. The trade union leaders have a choice. They could say, we’ll defy the laws—because the laws are made for big business.

The alternative is to try and change things through parliament. Because they are not revolutionaries, they say they have to do things within the legal framework and through parliament.

They need a vehicle for that and that is the Labour Party. Inside it they can pull to the left or to the right.

In 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald wanted to get into bed with the Tories they stopped him and held Labour back. MacDonald went on and formed the national government. So they were a brake on the right.

But most of the time union leaders act as a brake on the left because they accept the rules of the game and they’re not out for immediate mass strikes. They’re quite a conservative—with a small c—element.

So the link is a strength but also a weakness because it limits what Labour can do in terms of moving to the left.

What can readers get out of the new edition—both those who’ve never read the earlier editions and those who might have read them several times over?

DG: The book is trying to get under the skin of what’s going on in Labour—the different class forces involved at the bottom as well as the manoeuvrings at the top. But it does also give a history.

Hopefully by the end you’ll know the history of the Labour Party from the beginning to the current day and have a deeper understanding. And out of that you can think what can be done to shape the future.

With the Tories in deep crisis over Brexit there are opportunities for the left. If there is a general election and Labour wins, then all of the issues that the book discusses will become relevant.

In particular the lesson that we have to build a movement that is not dependent on what goes on in the corridors of Westminster.

New from Bookmarks Publications

The Labour Party A Marxist History by Tony Cliff, Donny Gluckstein and Charlie Kimber

A revised and fully updated edition which will be crucial for all those who want to understand Corbyn’s Labour and the party’s history

£14.99 from Bookmarks

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