There’s an old saying that goes ‘In years nothing happens, but in weeks decades happen’. Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to victory in the Labour Party leadership election caught virtually everybody by surprise. Both the right and left had essentially abandoned any idea that any trace of radical politics lingered in the Labour Party machine. Thatcher herself declared that the greatest achievement of her career was not winning the Falkland war or beating the Miners’ Strike, but was, in her own words, ‘New Labour.’
The process of neo-liberalization in western states and societies effectively dismantled any radical machinery within the traditional Labour parties. New Labour in Britain was not an assimilation of neo-liberal values in isolation, but part of a more general abandonment of socialism by traditional working-class parties throughout Western societies and further afield. Within this context, Corbyn’s feat is incredible. It is indicative of several trends in the political climate not only of the British political landscape, but also of Western neo-liberal societies as a whole.
Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist formation within the Labour Party consists of 9 MPs; a tiny minority. The fact that he gained nomination for the leadership of the Labour Party was accidental in the sense that all that was desired by the majority of the moderates and Blairites who approved his candidacy was that featuring an actual left candidate in the leadership race would do pleasant things for the appearance of the Labour Party, especially in the context of next year’s local elections in London. Herein lies the origin of the Corbyn menace.
In the following months, something occurred that no one expected: a mass movement of people supporting Corbyn and his anti- Austerity politics. In four months, the membership of the Labour party surged from 200,000 to 600,000. The make-up of the new membership featured workers, the young, trade unionists, and those veteran Labour party members who re-joined in the great, moralizing campaign. What appeared to be encircling and encroaching the Blairite Labour Party was a social movement.
It was this social movement which propelled Corbyn to victory. In the day following the election, nearly 15,000 people joined the Labour party. His success wasn’t based on the charisma or the absolute power of one man who could overcome all the odds stacked against him by the Blairite machine. It was realized because of the way the struggling people of Britain could identify with his message. His slogans captured a mood deeply entrenched within British society; a mood of deep resentment against Thatcherism and Austerity. His campaign gave organized expression to a discontented English working-class.
One key lesson to be taken from this is how weak the British capitalist state and its machinery are at present. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been an emphasis upon what is commonly termed, in political and academic circles, ‘The End of History’; a phrase that has tried to entrench and symbolise the claim that there is no other alternative to our current society. Although the ideology (ideas and practices) of ‘There is No Alternative’ has been deeply concretised in contemporary society, the current crisis of Capitalism shows that the wider structures which are theoretically meant to defend the ideas of the super rich are in practice relatively vulnerable. The Labour party machine, the Tory party, the media, and all of the dominant ideological institutions within British society failed in mounting a successful campaign to discredit Corbynism. We are told again and again that there is no alternative. Yet Corbyn’s victory has emerged as a rallying call for radical change.
Another feature of this social movement which needs to be analysed is what will become of Labour. It seems inevitable that a fracture between Corbynism and Blairism will occur in the future. To say that Corbyn is a thorn in the side of the Labour party is a great understatement. A historic moment will come somewhere down the line when the discord between the Blairites and Corbynism will result in a rupture and a split. The question shouldn’t necessarily be whether Corbyn can save the Labour party. The question is how Corbyn and his supporters can carry the momentum of the social movement forward. There are irreconcilable tensions within the Labour party that will lead to a clash between the Parliamentary Blairite bureaucracy (the MPs) and the mass movement at the bottom. To maintain the momentum of the social movement, Corbyn should move to democratise the Labour party; a process that will take power away from the Parliamentary Labour Party and move it to the membership. In addition, Corbyn should maintain the influx of all genuine anti-austerity activists into the Labour party. The Socialist Party in England and Wales have correctly proposed that Corbyn should initiate a broad left conference which features not only the Labour Party but the rest of the radical left. In brief, the only thing that can save Corbyn, and can potentially save the Labour Party, is the social movement.
Leon Trotsky once spoke of the fact that the great dilemma and challenge of our time is the crisis of a lack of a revolutionary leadership. Marxists need to constantly bear that in mind while analysing events and movements against Austerity, especially in relation to Britain, Greece, Spain and other countries where anti-austerity movements are shaking the establishment and challenging the ideas & structures of the status quo. With the correct leadership, power can be transferred away from those who maintain the interests of the 1% to a socialist society democratically ran by the workers and the 99%. Arguably, the most important single consequence of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory is that the question of what socialism actually is can come to the fore, and is now being discussed widely. A new generation is hearing about socialist ideas for the first time. This is a great step forward which must now be built on.
by Shane Finnan
Shane is a graduate from NUI Maynooth and member of the Socialist Party, currently living in Cork and actively involved in the campaigns against austerity and water charges.