By David Bush
A review of The Corbyn Project: Dreams and Dangers (John Rees: Counterfire, 2019)
After months of fits and starts over Brexit in the UK, the political deadlock in Parliament has finally given way to a general election on December 12. This will be the most significant election in the country since 1979. By the end of the election the UK will either have a government led by Boris Johnson’s that will, with greater confidence, continue to pursue austerity politics or a Labour Party led by Jeremey Corbyn who is running to overturn austerity, invest in public services, strengthen worker’s rights and create a more democratic vision of society. This stark choice lay at the heart of the ruling class crisis in the UK.
The prospect of Brexit is far from popular amongst the vast majority of the country’s ruling elites and corporations. With a weakened and divided Tory Party the establishment would normally look to Labour as a political vehicle to reverse course on Brexit. But as much as they may detest Brexit, they fear Corbyn more. This explains why Corbyn, since winning the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, has been subject to unrelenting attacks by both the right-wing and establishment media as well as from inside the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). This opposition to Corbyn has one goal in mind: to weaken the entire left.
Written as a series of dispatches from the political battlefield, John Rees’ new book, The Corbyn Project: Dreams and Dangers walks readers through the series of political challenges that have confronted the Corbyn project and the left in the UK for the last four years. Each chapter deals with a key political question, whose results at the time of writing remained in the balance, and thus the tone and style of writing is bent towards producing mass political activity. For the reader, this style makes the book dynamic and shows that whatever the outcome of the political question, it was far from inevitable.
Defending Corbyn through the movements
Part 1 of the book delves into the rise of Corbyn, the nature of the Labour Party, the Brexit referendum, foreign policy and the 2017 election. In the first chapter, written when Corbyn was on the verge of becoming Labour Party leader in 2015, Rees outlines the stakes “if the right succeed in defeating Corbyn then the whole movement, and not just the left in the Labour Party will suffer a reverse.”
Defending Corbyn from the rightwing is not just a concern for the socialist left. Revolutionary socialists have a political perspective that can strengthen the power of the working class power in the fight with the rightwing. As Rees puts it:
“Revolutionaries approach the uneven spectrum of working class consciousness differently. We aim to organise the most militant section of the class to take action (to protest, demonstrate, strike, as appropriate) and to use the action of this minority to act as a lever to raise (i.e. to change) the consciousness of the rest of the spectrum of working class opinion. This relies on the transformative impulse of action to create a possibility for change which simply never arises from electoral politics. This means, of course, speaking to people considerably to our right. But the purpose is to enthuse, convince and mobilise for action, not simply to reflect existing consciousness in the hope of winning votes.“
The best way to defend Corbyn is to build strong movements and raise the level of political consciousness and confidence through action. Assuming the only way to defend Corbyn is through the Labour Party misses the mark. In the chapter “Lenin and the Labour Party” Rees thus outlines two main tasks for the left in the period of Corbyn’s leadership.
“The general outline of Lenin’s tactical approach is also still relevant: support for any project which advances class organisation and class consciousness combined with fierce criticism of the Labour leaders and a commitment to building revolutionary organisation.”
Threats from the Labour right
Rees’ book shows that the greatest threat to Corbyn’s leadership has come not from the right but from the Labour Party itself. In the summer of 2016, the Labour right initiated another leadership challenge, citing low poll numbers and Labour’s poor showing during the Brexit campaign. While Corbyn easily won reelection as party leader in the summer of 2016, the Labour left continued to compromise on areas of foreign policy in the name of party unity. As Rees noted in 2016:
“It doesn’t look like that now of course, as we bask in the light of a second leadership election victory. But how many times in military history has a ruthless enemy army escaped to fight again because the victors did not know how to exploit their victory?”
Since Corbyn was elected as leader, the Labour right, with some support from the soft left, has supported bombing Syria, supported Trident (the UK nuclear missiles program) and defended NATO. Issues of foreign policy cannot be divorced from positions on domestic policy. The racist justifications for UK foreign policy are linked with the racist policies and practices of the state at home. The Tories and the media will aim at every turn to hammer the Left for evasiveness on foreign policy question. Backtracking and avoidance, Rees points out, will not work; only by standing firm, as Corbyn has through his political career, will Corbyn and the Left be able to upend imperial policies pursued by Tory and Labour governments.
Up until the General Election of 2017 the Corbyn project looked to be in real trouble. Low poll numbers, a hostile PLP, relentless attacks by the media had created a sense of that the Corbyn project was doomed. There were concerns that Corbyn was weak and that the Labour Party had no chance of winning while accepting the Brexit results. Pundits, the rightwing and even parts of the Left assumed Labour had little chance in the 2017 election. But on election day Labour won 40% of the vote and reduced the Tories to a minority. So what did so many on the right and left miss? Written on the eve of the election Rees correctly argues:
“It was the mass anti-austerity and anti-war movements that created the mood expressed by the rise of Corbynism. This then flowed into the Labour Party. But Jeremy would not be running such a successful campaign if that mood were not far wider than the Labour Party. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of new left wing members of the Labour Party. But around 10 million people are just about to vote for the most left wing manifesto that has been put in front of them since 1983. Most of them are not, and will not become, Labour Party members.”
Corbyn polarized on class lines and ran a mass campaign that tapped into this mood. In doing so he sidelined his detractors in the PLP and exposed Theresa May and the Tories as out of touch and in crisis. The Tories and the Labour right wanted the election to be about Brexit, but from the get go Corbyn set the agenda and the results were the largest gain for Labour since 1997.
What Rees’ book makes patently clear is that even this historic advance for Labour did not quiet Corbyn’s critics inside the party. In Part 2 of the book Rees looks at the last two years where rather than directly challenging his leadership, the Labour right shifted tactics in bid “to try to confuse and demoralize Corbyn’s supporters by showing that their lifelong anti-racist leader, and a large part of his support base, are actually racists, specifically antisemites.”
The accusations of anti-Semitism levelled against Corbyn and his supporters were spurious, revolving around the definition of anti-semitism and accompanying examples used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association. The examples and clauses accompanying IHRA’s definition have been roundly critizied because it essential labels criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. While the mainstream media and Labour right did not force Corbyn to backdown in his support for Palestinian human rights, they were able to get the Labour Party to fully adopt the IHRA definition, a step backwards for the Palestinian solidarity movement. The Labour right also caused splits within Corbyn’s base, most notably Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum came out publicly against Corbyn.
The greatest peril to the Corbyn project however, has come over the issue of Brexit. While Corbyn was focused on delivering a people’s Brexit, concentrating on issues of improved public services, jobs and the environment, the Labour right, backed by the elements of the soft left in labour, pushed through the second referendum position at the 2018 Labour Party conference. This position did not commit the Labour Party to supporting a second referendum but did allow it as an option. This internal maneuvering by the right-wing inside the Labour Party dovetailed with the large public campaign for a ‘peoples’ vote’, the big business funded campaign backed by the likes of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell.
Even with the May government in a deep crisis, the pressure on the Corbyn leadership to acquiesce to a second referendum was unrelenting in the media and within the PLP. In a bid to pressure Corbyn to change his position on Brexit, seven rightwing Labour Party MPs resigned from the Labour Party in February and founded the Independent Group, which later became Change UK. This pressure didn’t just lead to defections amongst the Labour right, it also produced significant splits with the Labour left as both John McDonell and Diane Abbot came out in favour of a second referendum.
By putting these attacks on Corbyn in context, Rees’ is able to show how these lines of attack developed and why. As Rees notes it is no coincidence that Corbyn’s leadership has found itself in the most trouble over the issues that it has retreated from the most: anti-Semitism and Brexit. Some on the Labour left will hope that ignoring issues, or worse, accommodating to them will silence critiques. But this is not the case. To truly challenge power and provide a real political alternative for working people requires further radicalism and even bolder vision.
Reform and revolution
The years of attack on Corbyn in opposition are but a small taste of what is in store for his leadership should Labour win the election. What Rees’ book shows clearly is that the attacks and disorganizing efforts will not simply come from the right, but also more dangerously from parts of the Left that will seek to create the conditions of retreat at the first sign of a fight. Whatever happens, Rees notes:
“Genuine Marxists will want to see the Corbyn project get as far as it possibly can and to attain as many victories as it possibly can. We might not agree that Parliament can deliver socialism, but in every struggle for concrete change in the here and now we will be fighting shoulder to shoulder with all those in the working class movement who want to improve the lives of working-class people.”
Rees’ book is an invaluable read that captures the spirit of political struggle gripping the UK. In the midst of a major political crisis, the prospect of Corbyn winning the UK election is tantalizing, but it is not without its dangers. What Rees makes clear is that socialists cannot wish away the challenges of a parliamentary road to socialism, nor can they turn their back to the masses inspired by Corbyn. What is needed is a concrete understanding of the political questions that face the left and a strategy to advance the interests of the working class at that given moment.
For revolutionary socialists, who organize independently of the Labour Party, this clarity of ideas and focus on building extra-parliamentary activity is something they can contribute to the movement. As Rees notes, “those on the left who are willing to stand for a united response to the threats that face us must chart a different course: one in which unions, the left and Corbyn supporters combine to build a mass movement of resistance that can defeat the Tories and open the road to a wider transformation of society.”