Saturday, 21 November 2015

Shelley: poet and revolutionary

This was originally published on Counterfire.

Jacqueline Mulhallen’s political biography of the revolutionary Shelley begins by noting the cinematic release, earlier this year, of a film documenting the great global anti-war protests of 15 February, 2003 and the mass movement surrounding them. Amir Amirani’s superb ‘We Are Many’ took its title from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s furious response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

The lengthy poem concludes with these lines (also used earlier in the poem):

‘Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’

Described by Mulhallen as ‘the most famous political protest poem in English’ (p.91), it was a ferociously passionate attack on those ruling Britain and the system they perpetuated. Shelley, by then living in Italy, had heard the news that demonstrators for democratic reform had been attacked (and eleven of them killed) in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The title of an anti-war documentary in 2015 (which, as has often happened, adapts ‘ye are many’ to ‘we are many’ for obvious rhetorical reasons) is just one example of the dynamic afterlife of Shelley’s poetry.

A radical, political Shelley

Shelley’s fame rests largely upon his poetry, and his contribution to the English poetic canon, but he was also a polemicist, playwright and radical activist. This biography is packed with fascinating insights into Shelley’s times, which enriches the compelling story of his short life (he died in a boating accident, aged just 29, in 1822) and discussion of his very varied work.

It is part of Pluto’s invaluable ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series, which features introductory political biographies of a range of historical figures. As with other volumes in the series, the main focus is on the evolving politics of the subject and on providing the relevant context which shaped their development. It’s a lively, well-paced and highly readable introduction which charts Shelley’s life chronologically, allowing a clear sense of the development of Shelley’s political commitments.

Mulhallen is a socialist activist who has previously written a book, The Theatre of Shelley, focusing on Shelley's plays, a generally neglected aspect of his output (his plays – ‘The Cenci’, ‘Hellas’, ‘Swellfoot the Tyrant’, ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and ‘Charles The First’ – have either never been performed or only rarely staged). She has long fused the artistic and political worlds, with experience of writing (and performing in) plays as well as political campaigning. The chapter about Shelley’s theatrical work draws on the author’s own earlier research, while other parts of the book concisely synthesise the work of researchers in addition to returning afresh to Shelley’s own writings.

Mulhallen acknowledges earlier accounts of Shelley’s politics, most notably Paul Foot’s very illuminating 1980 biography Red Shelley, but she also incorporates more recent research. A good example is the discovery in 2013 of a copy of Shelley’s major poem ‘Laon and Cythna’. It had notes by Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock of the changes Shelley was obliged to make (to make it less radical) before it could be published. Although the changes had been known about before, finding what appears to be Peacock’s own copy confirmed the radicalism of the original.

Mulhallen points out that much biographical writing and literary criticism about Shelley has either downplayed his politics or caricatured it. This new contribution to the field is entirely different. The wider social and political contexts – the legacy of the French Revolution, women’s subjugation, the turbulent politics of Ireland, social unrest, the war with France – are all threads woven into the life story. Their impact on Shelley, a profoundly political creature from a young age, is taken seriously.

This volume is dedicated to establishing Shelley’s place as not only a major poet but also a notable figure in the history of English radicalism: a revolutionary writer and activist who contributed to radical literature (as poet, playwright and political pamphleteer) and to struggles for equality and social justice.

Shelley sought to link specific movements against injustice and oppression, especially when they actively involved the poor and oppressed, with a broader critique of a vastly unequal capitalist society that was crystallising into the social classes later analysed by Karl Marx (a process of class formation documented by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class). Shelley articulated an alternative vision of equality and liberation that prefigured the socialist literature – in Utopian, communist and other varieties - which emerged not long after his death.

Shelley’s life and ideas offer insight into the early development of socialism in this country. His ideas were a bridge between the generation of the French Revolution and, later, the Utopian Socialists, Chartists and early Marxists (also feeding in to early critiques of women’s oppression under capitalism). Shelley’s most politically engaged writings expressed great social themes and a yearning for a better world, characterised by economic, social and sexual equality, with emotional force as well as political clarity.

Much of Shelley’s more overtly political verse has been deployed as rhetorical weaponry in working-class and progressive struggles from the Chartists, via the suffragettes and striking garment workers, through to the modern anti-war movement, even surfacing in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Shelley’s life, writing and politics are all bound together; they retain relevance as part of a radical, anti-capitalist tradition of mobilising from below to reshape the world.

Shelley's development

Mulhallen outlines Shelley’s privileged background (including what might loosely be termed an ‘education’ at Eton) and the politics of his family, moving on to early indications of his questioning of the values with which he was brought up. She tells the story of his premature departure from Oxford University after he and another undergraduate scandalously wrote and published ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, which in turn created a rift between Shelley and his father, and traces the development of an increasingly coherent and anti-systemic set of political ideas. This is interwoven with personal biography and his earliest writings (patchy in quality, but containing the seeds of his later literary and political achievements).

This is followed by chapters which discuss Shelley’s major writings, his political ideas and the practical movements in which he was involved. He travelled widely and moved home many times: while this was often driven by avoidance of his creditors, it brought the virtue of experiencing the world and interacting with people from very different backgrounds to his own, including those on the forefront of struggles against the British state (from Irish activists to persecuted radical journalists).

The political centre of the biography is a chapter on what Shelley scholar Stuart Curran dubbed Shelley’s annus mirabilis, 1819, which included ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, shorter political poems and the radical political critique ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’ (not published until 1920). The summary of Shelley’s ideas in ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’ is especially lucid; these ideas are examined in connection with the political climate of the time, revealing a vivid sense of their freshness and subversive power.

Shelley polemicized and campaigned for parliamentary reform – at a time when very few had the vote – and for a free press, rights to assembly and protest, and civil liberties. These rights and reforms were all viewed as a means to an end: they could enable working people to shift the balance of wealth and power in society.

He emphasised what Marx would later term self-emancipation, people taking action for themselves through collective resistance, not relying on well-meaning middle-class reformers. This was at a time when workers’ strikes were an increasingly important strategy for the early trade-union movement; an era of Luddite destruction of machinery and large demonstrations for democracy. His thoughts on violence and its relationship to popular movements were complex, but in essence he believed a small amount of revolutionary force could be justified in opposition to the large-scale, systematic violence of an exploitative class society.

Shelley was also an early champion of sexual liberation in a deeply patriarchal, hypocritical and restrictive society – a topic explored thoughtfully at a number of stages in the book, both at an ideological level and as a commitment woven into his own life and relationships. He was a proponent of religious toleration against the Anglican establishment, espousing atheism but also sensitive to the need for defending religious minorities irrespective of whether he agreed with their beliefs. He was a steadfast opponent of British colonialism in Ireland; the section on this is insightful about Shelley’s attempts at political agitation, soberly assessing the problems and limitations as well as celebrating his activist commitment. He supported revolutionary uprisings and national liberation movements abroad, especially in later years after he left England.

The poetry, of course, is well worth reading in its own right; Shelley is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished of Romantic poets. He was famously one of a loose grouping of second-generation Romantic poets which also included Byron and Keats among others (Shelley became close to the former in later years). They followed in the wake of earlier Romantics like Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge – poets who had been inspired by the French Revolution but whose youthful radicalism had long since cooled by the time Shelley and his contemporaries came of age.

Shelley married Mary Godwin (daughter of progressive thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) whose novel Frankenstein was itself an influential contribution to the literature of the age. The Shelleys’ complex relationship is an important strand of the book.

One of the most illuminating features of this book, though, is how its author traces the influence of a much wider array of writers, journalists, intellectuals and campaigners on Shelley, who is consistently considered as part of an evolving milieu – personally, intellectually, politically – with his ideas examined in relation to others. Those who influenced him included Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, who all made major contributions to radical political literature after the American and French revolutions, but also Thomas Spence, Robert Owen, William Cobbett and others.

He took ideas from the Quakers, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and political currents inspired by the French Revolution. Mulhallen brings to life the radical intellectual climate of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, repeatedly demonstrating how Shelley was shaped by that climate and how he made significant, sometimes original, contributions to it.

Shelley's legacy

Shelley influenced a range of literary and political figures. He was cited as an inspiration by later writers including Robert Browning, Edgar Allen Poe and Thomas Hardy. He was subsequently admired by twentieth-century cultural and intellectual figures of the European left such as Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno. However, Shelley was also read by working-class audiences in his own time and afterwards. There are numerous references in the book to examples of his writing, both poetry and prose, being disseminated through the widely-read radical press (often in defiance of state repression). Most of his poems would also have been shared through oral recitation, thus reaching a larger audience.

Shelley also made his mark on the early socialists. Marx described him as ‘essentially a revolutionist’, remarking that he ‘would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism’. Frederick Engels, speaking to Eleanor Marx in the 1880s, recalled how ‘we all knew Shelley by heart then’, referring to the 1840s. At that time ‘Queen Mab’, one of Shelley’s major poems, was sometimes called ‘the Chartists’ Bible’. Mulhallen informs us there had been at least a dozen pirated editions already in the 1820s, reaching working-class audiences, so it was well-established by the time Chartism emerged.

Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling gave a lecture on Shelley’s socialism in 1888, nearly seventy years after his death. Suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst decorated a hall with quotations from Shelley’s poetry (the suffragette motto ‘deeds not words’ derived from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’). For much of the twentieth century he was out of respectable critical fashion, a state of affairs influenced by disapproval from the poet T. S. Eliot and the conservative but highly influential literary critic F. R. Leavis. Nonetheless, his work lived on in the suffragette movement, miners’ libraries, workers’ education classes and the like.

Benjamin Zephaniah is quoted on the back cover as saying: ‘The world needs more Shelley, the world needs this book’. He is right on both counts. Shelley is fascinating as a way in to a world of radical ideas, debate and struggle around two centuries ago; he should be valued as part of our history of resistance and dissent. But he is also a source of inspiration today. This gem of a book recaptures Shelley’s world and demonstrates the revolutionary poet’s relevance for our own world.


Saturday, 31 October 2015

Why Remembrance is a political issue

The officially-approved politicisation of Remembrance Sunday has much in common with Help for Heroes, Armed Forces Day and the whole patriotic sanitisation of World War One that surrounds the ongoing centenary of that industrial-scale nightmare.
Together with state-led Islamophobia (like the 'Prevent' programme) and the 'British values' agenda in schools, these are the main planks of a concerted offensive in recent years to roll back the growth in anti-war sentiment that accompanied the 'War on Terror', especially the mass demonstrations against war in Iraq.

Public opinion, especially from 2001, has historically shifted in an anti-war direction. This has inevitably meant increased public scepticism about the role of the military, and of the British state in its actions abroad. (By the way, see the recent Guardian profile of novelist John le Carre for a great personal illustration of this shift).
The response from right-wing media, successive governments, the military top brass and the wider British state has taken the various forms noted above. It is a battle for hearts and minds, a battle of ideas, where the goal is to shore up support for militarism, nationalism and war. They want to regain lost ground.

This battle for hearts and minds is essential if the British state is to pursue its ambitions in the future: more wars, yes, but also more covert or smaller-scale forms of intervention. History becomes a weapon in shaping what kind of world we live in.
It's also about the militarisation of 'domestic security' - the way the police function, the massive increase in surveillance, the way public space is policed and managed, and so on. It is even reflected in the shifting language – notice, for example, the obsession with ‘security’ in today’s political language, and the way that can justify almost anything.

So, this is the significance of Remembrance Sunday, of the way it is cynically exploited, and of the debates around it. It is why it matters that almost everyone appearing on BBC TV for weeks in advance must wear a poppy, that there is hysterical denunciation of anyone who dares to dissent (from Jeremy Corbyn to a footballer from Derry), and that poppy selling is ubiquitous in high streets.
The now-dominant approach is hypocritical because it co-exists with pursuing yet more war in today's world. It promotes the idea that war's victims are 'heroes', which makes it all seem justified (this is the main reason I include Help for Heroes in the list above). It substitutes empty symbols and rituals for genuinely seeking to understand what happened. It cheerleads for nationalism. It focuses overwhelmingly on those who served in armed forces, neatly obscuring the reality that nowadays most of those killed in wars are civilians.

The antidote is to tell the truth about what really happened in the wars of the past and about what is going on today. It is to promote a message of peace, not endless war. It is to expose as hypocrites those who sanction wars, arms sales and state repression while wearing the red poppy and uttering platitudes. It is to share the literature and art that expresses uncomfortable, complex truths about World War One and the history of war.
It is to commemorate all those - of all countries, and civilians as well as soldiers - killed in wars. It is to, politely but firmly, say no to the obligatory wearing of a red poppy (and to explain why). It might mean wearing a white poppy instead. It is to defend those who are attacked for not complying with the enforced style of ‘commemoration’.

It also means campaigning and mobilising for policies that can shape a better – more peaceful, egalitarian and genuinely secure - world: from scrapping nuclear weapons to rolling back the militarisation of domestic law enforcement and public space, from protecting civil liberties to taking a stand against bombing of Syria, from stopping arms trading with Israel and the Gulf states to ditching the repressive 'Prevent' programme.
In so many ways, Remembrance is about the present and the future not just the past. Those who rule over us know it all too well. Their fetishisation of the whole business is in many ways a symptom of their weakness. We should be clear and unambiguous in offering an alternative vision of the past, present and future.


Reconstructing Lenin: an intellectual biography

I hope that ‘Reconstructing Lenin’ by Tamas Krausz becomes established as a major reference in writing and discussion about Lenin and the Bolsheviks: not simply in academic circles, but (more importantly) among modern-day revolutionary activists. It deserves to become an integral part of the study of Lenin, Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution – a growing and sizeable field of study since the end of the Cold War - due to the author’s excellent political judgement, the wealth of relevant contextual material and the way if illuminates the coherence and continuity in Lenin’s political thought over time (and its relationship to Lenin and his comrades’ political actions).
It is a very substantial book, a work of exceptional scholarship accurately subtitled ‘an intellectual biography’ because the focus is largely on Lenin’s ideas and their development. To call it ‘exhaustively researched’ is an understatement: its ‘Notes’ contain well over 1000 references, drawing on an extraordinarily wide range of sources.

Originally written in Hungarian, the English translation will hopefully influence discussion about its subject in the English-speaking world. This translation, by Balint Bethlenfalvy with Mario Fenyo, is published by US-based left-wing publishers Monthly Review Press.

The author, Tamas Krausz, is a professor of Russian history in Budapest. He is long established as a leading Marxist intellectual in Hungary. The earliest reference to his own writing on Lenin that I spotted in the bibliography was from 1980, so this book has had a long gestation (it is described as ‘four decades in the making’ on the back cover).
The author’s location in a former Eastern Bloc state means he is acutely conscious of the massive and violent distortion done to Lenin’s ideas, reputation and legacy by Stalinism. He is determined to uncover the real Lenin, via close attention to Lenin’s own writings and a sensitive project of re-discovering the intellectual, political and social world that shaped him.
This is not, it should be noted, an introduction to Lenin, the Bolsheviks, or the times in which they lived. A certain amount of familiarity with the field is generally assumed, while much of the language is reasonably specialised. It is nonetheless accessible and readable, and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to explore the field in some depth.

Although the focus is primarily on Lenin’s intellectual and political development, the opening (and long) chapter is biographical, from Lenin’s family background through his entire life. I thought this was excellent – genuinely insightful even for those of us familiar with Lenin and his life story, rooting the man in his time and place. It includes some fascinating, less well-known, details while recapitulating the essentials, giving a vivid sense of Lenin’s compelling personality as well as tracing the events of his life and how they intersected with wider political and social contexts.
It’s also worth noting here that two extensive appendices complement the main text perfectly. One of them is an extremely thorough series of brief biographical details of scores of socialists, political figures and so on relevant to a biography of Lenin. The other is a detailed time line of events between the revolutionary year of 1917 and Lenin’s death in 1924.Both of these are useful resources.

An innovative and coherent thinker

The book has three particular themes which should be flagged up. Firstly, Krausz is keen to root Lenin firmly in the Marxist tradition while grasping the intellectual contributions that made him innovative. He demonstrates, unanswerably, that Lenin made important contributions to the Marxist tradition – a necessary antidote to those who treat him as a purely pragmatic figure. But these contributions are nonetheless rooted in Marxism – Krausz explicitly rejects any suggestion that Lenin originated a new ism that is separate from Marxism, or one that constitutes a variation on Marxism.
Different chapters examine different important contributions – roughly chronologically, though there is inevitably much overlap. These include Lenin’s work on Russian capitalist development, imperialism, the national question, the state and revolution, and the relationship between struggles for democracy and struggles for socialism. Lenin made original contributions that form a vital part of the inheritance of classical Marxism and help us understand history and both understand and change the world we live in.

Secondly, Krausz makes a powerful case for Lenin’s intellectual and political coherence. This is not to underestimate his tactical or organisational flexibility – these are well documented. But his flexibility in practice was deeply rooted in a coherent and consistent worldview and set of ideas.
This is a vital antidote to the idea that Lenin was an opportunistic politician, twisting and turning to suit immediate practical interests with no intellectual compass. Even after 1917, when he repeatedly faced incredibly difficult obstacles as leader of a besieged and fledgling workers’ state, there was a coherent political worldview shaping his responses (whatever political expediency was, admittedly, required).

This, again, does not mean ignoring how Lenin’s ideas developed and evolved. There is no suggestion that he arrived fully formed, so to speak. Quite the opposite: the development of his ideas is traced in close relationship to the history of the society in which he lived. He is rooted historically by Krausz.
There is also a strong sense of interplay between Lenin’s thinking and that of other Marxists: he was ‘first among equals’, the leading figure in a talented and intellectually vibrant generation of radical socialists. There’s a lively sense of the many debates between Lenin and others, and the significance of these debates. It’s also clear that political experiences – above all the 1905 revolution – influenced the direction of Lenin’s thinking.

So Lenin made important political and theoretical contributions to Marxism which analysed a changing world: a world in which capitalism was spreading globally, while its European and north American core was evolving into a constellation of competing imperialist states, with the nation state increasingly intertwined with the capitalist economy. Capitalist development was uneven, with Russia characterised by a complex mix of new industrial methods and traditional (but evolving) agriculture. Classes were being re-shaped: the industrial working class was growing in many countries, but the peasantry was changing too.
Consequently, the prospects for revolution were changing too – new thinking was needed on the potential role of different classes in the revolutionary process, and on the nature and scope of revolution. Lenin’s analysis evolved over time and through debate with other Marxists, but nonetheless formed a coherent worldview that was consistent with the Marxist tradition.

Ideas into action

The third central theme in Krausz’s account concerns the relationship between ideas and action. Lenin was a revolutionary political leader. He didn’t simply develop analysis of the world; that analysis was, profoundly and throughout his adult life, geared towards changing the world. Krausz notes that Marx’s famous thesis – ‘the philosophers have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it’ – has never been more acutely relevant than in the case of Lenin. A single-minded commitment to building an organisation capable of playing a decisive role in historical change dominated Lenin’s life up to 1917.
Krausz carefully traces the relationship between theory and practice, between Lenin’s ideas and the project of social transformation. He provides the big picture here, but also a multitude of specific tactical debates and decisions. He makes an interesting comment, for example, about how all the various factional disputes in the Russian revolutionary movement (over many years) had a strategic or tactical dimension. They were often influenced by theoretical issues, but there was only ever really a serious dispute if there were tactical implications (there were no splits over purely philosophical debates).

Krausz is attentive to the different aspects of debates and to what was going on at key turning points, e.g. the 1905 revolution, the ‘April Theses’ in April 1917, on the eve of insurrection in October 1917, etc. He expresses the theoretical underpinnings without reducing everything to them; concrete tactical disagreements can only be understood with attention to the concrete situation.
Lenin’s practical achievements – incomparable in the history of Marxism – were threefold: he had the leading role in building a revolutionary party in Russia before 1917, he was the principal leader in the ‘second revolution’ of 1917, i.e. that which led to the overthrow of the entire political and social order in October, and he was subsequently the head of government in a fledgling Russian workers’ state for several years (this last one remains a unique role in the history of revolutionary socialism). He was therefore, in turn, party builder, revolutionary leader and statesman.

Krausz is good at illustrating the continuity in Lenin’s personality, political qualities and ideas through all these periods, while also focusing on the distinctiveness of each context. The period of building revolutionary organisation, at varying stages from the 1890s until 1917, was the bulk of Lenin’s political life, and it proves especially fascinating in terms of potential implications for activists today. 
In addition to these central themes, ‘Reconstructing Lenin’ is a goldmine of details – biographical, political and historical. Although Lenin is at the centre throughout, it brings various other political figures of the time (Plekhanov, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bogdanov and many more) into focus, showing how they influenced Lenin or how he debated with them. It in some senses serves as a collective biography of the Bolsheviks, a compelling study of a revolutionary organisation that evolved enormously in changing circumstances.

I have just three very small criticisms. Firstly, although Krausz is brutally honest about the enormous problems faced after October 1917 - and indeed the mistakes he believes were made by Lenin and his government during this period - he refers very little to the actual positive achievements of revolutionary Russia (which were considerable). This makes his sketching of the context of Russia in the several years following the October Revolution a little unbalanced.
Secondly, I think he underestimates the possibilities for successful revolution in a number of European countries, especially Germany, during the same period, appearing to be rather mechanical and deterministic about the apparently near-inevitable failure of the European movements. Thirdly, I think he is guilty of somewhat understating Trotsky's achievements and stature as a political leader and thinker - not drastically so, but this is a minor problem of emphasis for me.
These minor points should not distract, however, from the larger achievement. Crucially, the question of how ideas interacted with efforts to change the world is a thread running through the whole book. The issue of what lessons revolutionary socialist activists can learn for today is not my main focus in this short appreciation, but the book provides a solid historical basis for that project.
Note: I recommend Chris Nineham's Counterfire review of the book.


Friday, 30 October 2015

A world to win: class struggle and the Communist Manifesto

A young Karl Marx
In August I gave a talk on the Communist Manifesto at an event organised by Counterfire in Newcastle. I have just got around to collating my notes into readable form. I built my presentation, which focused especially on themes of history and class struggle in the Manifesto (two other sessions addressed different aspects), around a series of quotations from the original text. Here we go...
Marx and Engels were commissioned to write a manifesto for the Communist League in late 1847. Economic crisis had affected much of Europe in the previous couple of years. Revolution was in the air. Communists were making connections across borders and beginning to get organised, but were still small in number. The opening line of the Manifesto -  ‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.’ – was more wishful thinking than accurate description.

Engels had drafted something in rather dry question-and-answer form, but it was Marx who turned this – in the space of a few weeks at the start of 1848 – into what would become the most widely-read, influential and famous political pamphlet ever published. It was the culmination of several years’ intellectual and political development in Marx’s thinking, an attempt to state clearly what communists stood for.

There was a culture of secret and conspiratorial societies at the time, but Marx and Engels rejected this. If the emancipation of the working class is to be the act of the working class, there is little purpose served by secrecy. Ideas must be stated openly and persuasively.

By the time it was published, revolution had broken out in a number of parts of Europe – 1848 would turn out to be an historic year of revolutionary upheaval, though most of it defeated. The Manifesto in fact turned out to be something quite different to what might be expected. It almost entirely avoided specific policy prescriptions. It contained a broad survey of historical development rather than keeping its attention trained on present politics. It was expressed in often powerful, even poetic, language.

At the core of the Manifesto is a particular conception of history and how change happens: an understanding of society as being divided, fundamentally, into classes, and history as a succession of class societies (and class struggles).  Marx writes:
'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another.’

This is an important starting point: class is the main dividing line in society. This is not unique to capitalism , but rather has been true for thousands of years. It is a division that inevitably engenders conflict too.

Marx then provides a sweeping survey of the development of early capitalism, moving on to the era of industrial capitalism through which he was living:
'Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed. The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie.’

So, capitalism grew out of an earlier feudal society. Merchant capitalism increasingly replaced feudal relations, and in turn this grew into industrial capitalism. A new urban elite developed: the bourgeoisie. Although Marx refers to ‘two great classes’, this shouldn’t be taken to indicate anything about their size: the proletariat, those who do the work, are far greater in number than those who live off the surplus their labour produces. Marx specifically traces the growth of industry:
‘Steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.’

This kind of language is almost celebratory – and the tone often surprises first-time readers, expecting virulent denunciation of capitalism’s evils from the beginning. Of course Marx doesn’t leave it there, but he does take time to extol the progress represented by capitalism’s development. He writes of the revolutionising role played by capitalism, its economically dynamic quality and the way that overturns many established certainties:
‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.’

Marx and Engels had first met a few years earlier (and went on to be lifelong collaborators). In 1844 Engels wrote ‘The Condition of the working class in England’ about the impact of industrial capitalism on the living and working conditions of those drawn into the newly mushrooming cities. It was an ugly and unromantic picture. Marx and Engels had no illusions about the often grim reality of industrial capitalism for the proletariat, the working class.
What they grasped was how capitalism accelerated the pace of technological and economic change, went together with the growth of major cities and created greater opportunities for wealth (largely concentrated, though, among a tiny class of those who owned and controlled the means of production).

The development of the modern nation state went together with the growth of capitalism. This was a deeply contested process. The English, American and French revolutions were all, whatever their differences, about the rising bourgeois class asserting itself against the barriers inherited from late feudalism. Political revolutions, with varying degrees of success, accompanied the economic changes. Marx wrote:
‘Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.’

1848 was itself a year of bourgeois revolution. Although mostly unsuccessful, the uprisings left their mark – and in the decades that followed there was much greater political unification and centralisation in many parts of Europe, (limited) advances in democratic reform, the strengthening of modern state institutions (e.g. police forces), and so on.
But capitalism did something else, something enormously important for Marx, Engels and their comrades in the small Communist League. It created the working class. It brought together large numbers of workers in factories, mills and elsewhere - a process that was dangerous for the capitalists:

‘The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’
There is a lot packed in to this quotation. Firstly, it is identifying that growing industry brought turned people who had previously worked on the land, or perhaps as artisans, into workers - wage-labourers dependent on selling their labour power to the capitalist to make a living. Secondly, proletarianisation (working class formation) is a collective process, bringing workers together in combination. So, too, is proletarian resistance to capitalism a collective matter. Workers’ power is not as individuals, but as a collective force.  Finally, this collective power of workers is so potentially great that it can defeat the bourgeoisie and end capitalism, a system that has paradoxically created its own gravedigger.

Marx’s account of history, specifically the rise and development of capitalism (and the potential for moving from capitalism to socialism), therefore has class division at its heart, but also an awareness of the centrality of class struggle. The division into classes, and the exploitation at the heart of class relationships, inevitably generates conflict over what is produced and how the surplus wealth is allocated.
But Marx also had interesting things to say about the battle of ideas in society, and how that is shaped by material realities. Imagining himself addressing the bourgeois class, he wrote:

‘The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.’
This is a brutal warning and a reality check. Every ruling class imagines its own ideas and values to be a kind of ‘common sense’: universal values, taken for granted and seemingly obvious. In fact ideas change over time. The dominant ideology of one age may later seem antiquated. Changing ideas are shaped by material changes in the conditions of society: ‘the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property’.

History moves forward. Material production – the forces and relations of production – changes over time. So, with it, do the dominant ideas change:

‘What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.’
Marx points here to another vital aspect of ideology: it is the ideas of the ruling elite that are universalised as the ideas of a whole society. Whether through control of state religion, or schools and universities, or the media, the ruling class – the tiny elite possessing wealth and power – asserts its own ideas and values.

Yet there is no fatalism in the Manifesto. Running through it is an acute consciousness of historical change – transformation indeed – and the potential for further transformation in the future. The working class, identified as the collective agent of transformation, is not doomed to be tied to the ruling ideology. It is driven to resist by exploitation.
The working class is gathered together in large numbers and can organise collectively. Writing against the backdrop of Chartism, a mass working class movement coming to its end in 1848, Marx and Engels were aware of what was possible. There had been the earliest examples of strike action by the 1840s. There had been early efforts at building trade unions.

The class that can organise and resist collectively, can also set about creating a new world – one characterised by co-operation, equality and democracy, not the rule of the few over the many. There is little detail on what a communist or socialist society might look like, but this is a starting point:
‘In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

So communism is, ultimately, to be a classless society. And in that state of equality and interdependence lies the potential for human development and liberation. But there’s also recognition that such a future vision must be linked to current struggles, if it is to be anything more than a utopian dream. Marx succinctly outlines the tasks of communists:
‘In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time. Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.’

Three points here, all of them acutely relevant as the Manifesto was circulated amidst growing revolutionary tumult in 1848: communists support democratic or bourgeois revolutions (whatever their limitations might be), working class economic and social interests (‘the property question’) must always be forefront, and the movement must be international, uniting workers across national boundaries and opposing a common enemy. Class, not nationhood, is what unites us.
The Manifesto ends, then, with these stirring words:

‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!’


Friday, 2 October 2015

We (still) need to talk about class

My review of 'Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes', eds. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (Merlin Press 2014), was originally published on Counterfire.

The 2015 volume of Socialist Register, the annual journal of left-wing theory dating back to the 1960s, continues the same broad theme as last year’s volume (which I also reviewed for Counterfire). Both issues of the journal are concerned with contemporary changes in class structure and class politics.

Taken together, these two volumes are a concerted reassertion of the centrality of class to understanding society and to mapping the future of radical and left politics. This is at a time when class is an unfashionable concept and the working class is widely viewed as no longer a collective agent of social change.

At times it feels like the contributions are so diverse that the theme - transforming classes - is rather too loose. The ruling class, the middle class and the working class are all covered, with the last of these receiving the lion’s share of attention. There is truly global coverage, with the eighteen essays (mostly by left-wing academics with an intellectual background in Marxism) including contributions on China, India, South Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil and Chile. This year there is very little specifically on Britain – or in fact anywhere in Europe – while there is a lively series of four interlinked essays devoted to working-class politics, resistance and organisation in the US.

The collection is very disparate, but there are a number of basic political ideas that are just about universally shared among the contributors. They still regard class as a relevant concept; indeed, they typically see it as the fundamental division and relationship in society. The volume as a whole asserts the continuing centrality of class to making sense of the world we live in, through tracing the specific changes taking place in class composition or in the balance of forces between classes. This combination of fidelity to viewing class as the dominant social relationship and flexibility in relating that to evolving conditions is a great strength.

It is also the case that contributors, as might be expected in a socialist journal, adopt a partisan standpoint of support for working-class interests and for various forms of working-class resistance and organisation. For me, probably the most interesting and useful dimension of the volume is precisely the analysis of concrete examples of working-class politics, resistance and organisation, which comes through strongly in several contributions. The backdrop here is the impact of 35 years of neoliberalism, a sustained effort to shift the balance between capital and labour in favour of the former.

As the editors, Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, note in their preface: inequality has grown ‘in the political conditions and social struggles allowing the spread and deepening of capitalist social relations’ (Preface, p.x). The 2014 and 2015 volumes combined should, I think, be seen as a major project in charting the impact of neoliberalism on class relations and class politics globally, with special attention paid to those hopeful developments in working-class organisation that point to a different future.

A substantial essay by Susan Ferguson and David McNally is especially pertinent at the time of writing, as it explores the role of migration in contemporary working-class formation. It is a sophisticated analysis which weaves together different elements within a ‘social reproduction’ framework, doing an excellent job of highlighting the centrality of migrant labour to global capitalism and exploring what that means for migrant workers and their families.

There is a little too much academic jargon, but the arguments and ideas are valuable. The authors thoughtfully consider the intersections of class, gender and race in a broadly Marxist framework, always alert to the fundamental role of the economy in shaping society – and to the experience of work as integral to working-class experience – without being reductive.

The politics of the ruling class

The re-shaping of the ruling class is an important theme in a number of essays, most dramatically in Lin Chun’s piece on China. The topic is hugely important considering the remarkable economic growth of China in recent years, and very topical as I write this because of the financial turmoil in the country. The essay examines how China has been transformed as it has opened up to capitalist globalisation.

Alongside this there has been a shift in Chinese ruling-class discourse, balancing precariously between the supposed benefits of an increasingly neoliberal model and the old rhetoric of state Communism. An intriguing aspect of the shifting discourse is the complete invisibility of any reference to class, which would of course point towards the social inequalities in China and, even more dangerously, to the notion that a collective force may exist that can change society.

Achin Vanaik, writing on India, is also perceptive about the shifts in ruling-class and dominant politics, including the ideas and language deployed to sustain ruling-class power.  It is an excellent attempt at explaining how the reactionary BJP has come to replace the traditionally dominant Indian National Congress as the country’s most successful political party. It analyses the political crisis of the old order, and its roots, while looking at the social base of the BJP. The growth of the middle class is indispensable to understanding this, though Vanaik avoids any simplistic reductionism.

The other key reference point is something dating back to the late 1980s: ‘a neoliberal turn in the economy being accompanied by the rise of a Hindutava-influenced consolidation of ‘common sense’ socially and a stronger authoritarian inflection politically’ (p.57).

Developments in the working class

Two very different contributions focus on the middle class in particular: John McCullough writes about Hollywood representations of the middle class over time, while Randy Martin asks ‘what happened to the professional middle class?’

However, it is those which focus on the working class that really form the main body of this volume. These essays allow much greater scope for discussing class struggle and political action, as well as tracing developments in work and in the material composition of the working class. Two essays especially are fascinating on the complex developments in working-class movements in recent years: one on South Africa, the other on Egypt.

Sam Ashman and Nicolas Pons-Vignon assess the problems with successive ANC governments in South Africa and how the once mighty movement, which united many behind its banner in fighting to end apartheid, has been deeply compromised by administering cuts and privatisations in office. However, what is most interesting is the focus on developing alternatives: in the union movement, in the social movements, and in the field of electoral politics, with some valuable insight into how these interact with each other.

The great trade-union federation COSATU has suffered a crisis precisely because of its relationship to the ANC government, leading to some hopeful fresh developments. The metalworkers’ union NUMSA has moved to the left and been in repeated conflict with the ANC. The authors conclude:
‘The fact that the current contestation in South Africa, driven by a radical union and involving a growing number of workers, combines a powerful counter-movement to neoliberalism with a socialist political vision is of global significance’ (p.108).
Joel Beinin and Marie Duboc focus on workers’ struggles in Egypt since the revolution overthrew Mubarak in early 2011. It is refreshing to see such close attention to this vital dimension of Egypt’s upheavals in recent years. The essay charts the long-term development of labour movement struggles over some years – before and after the revolution – and identifies pre-2011 strikes as a major stream flowing into the revolutionary events.

It also draws attention to the role of the long-term neoliberal restructuring of the Egyptian economy in fuelling working-class revolt. It ends with a sober assessment of Egyptian politics, as of 2014, acknowledging that the left’s failure to develop a coherent and organised political alternative to mainstream political forces has been (and remains) a huge obstacle to positive social and economic change.

Class in the 21st century

Perhaps the most wide-ranging contribution is by Hugo Radice; his ‘Class theory and class politics today’ is as sweeping as its title suggests. Radice’s starting point is the BBC survey in 2013 which posited seven different classes in modern British society. He recognises that this model reflects genuine fragmentation in society, but is also critical of it, not least because it fails to identify how social classes interact with each other and it doesn’t involve any sense of class struggle.

He suggests that we need class analysis that wrestles with both increased polarisation and increased fragmentation, and which grasps social conflict between classes (and the significance of it for how we evolve as a society).

This leads him on to direct engagement with Marx’s writings, and their relevance today, and an interesting discussion of the middle class, its composition and relationship to other classes. He is sensitive to different to Marxist interpretations of the middle class and provides a thought-provoking summary of how the middle class has evolved.

Radice concludes with some welcome observations on the continuing importance of work as central to how class divisions are created and reproduced, also identifying a few important trends in the world of work under the impact of neoliberalism. His comments on resistance and organisation at work, though, are rather vaguer and very much under-developed.

The American working class

The volume concludes with a series of four pieces on the American working class, its politics and organisations, which taken together are referred to as a ‘symposium’ on Labour and the left in the USA. I found these fascinating, especially when read in conjunction with each other. Although there’s no direct dialogue between them, there is a sense of coherence and of different contributions adding up to an overall understanding of the topic.

Kim Moody and Charles Post, in a jointly authored piece, provide a useful overview of the long-term decline of the power of labour in American society, tracing the numerical decline, bureaucratisation and hollowing out of unions. They analyse the relationship between this and major economic changes and policies during the last few decades.

However, they also – more hopefully – summarise some strategies for renewal, referring to concrete examples of what has already been done and indicating what might be worth generalising. Campaigning by fast-food workers and their supporters is one good example; the movement of Chicago teachers is another. These are examples of struggles that have incorporated social movement tactics and been tied up with union recruitment and capacity building.

It is the concrete struggles and forms of organising that provide most of the material for the other three contributions to the symposium. One called ‘New working-class organization and the social-movement left’ develops the theme of the interaction between traditional workers’ organisations and methods of struggles with social movements and the issues they champion. The range of examples is tremendously insightful and provides a powerful sense of how the labour movement might potentially be built anew.

Another piece takes a long view, examining the evolution of working-class struggle and organisation from the post-war boom onwards, concluding that stronger and more combative trade unions remain indispensable to any project of left-wing renewal, while also grasping that this will take forms that reflect changed realities.

Jane McAlevey’s contribution, meanwhile, is a compelling case study about union building among hospital workers, which shares important successes from which we can learn and be inspired, while also being soberly realistic about the limitations.

Wealth of material on social changes

Overall, this volume is a very worthwhile complement to last year’s first instalment in the journal’s project of analysing class society and class politics in today’s world. It simultaneously restates the centrality of class and traces the most important changes in work, class composition and the balance of forces between capital and labour. It is truly global, which is both a strength and a minor weakness: to my mind, it doesn’t have sufficient focus.

Some contributions are regrettably too academic in style, though others are fairly lucid. Above all, however, there is a wealth of material on concrete struggles, political debates and ways of organising, exemplifying the general commitment not only to class analysis but the role of the working class in social transformation.


Sunday, 30 August 2015

5 points where I disagree with Owen Jones about Labour's future

Owen Jones, the Labour left's most prominent writer and commentator, has written a very useful piece called 'My honest thoughts on the Corbyn campaign - and overcoming formidable obstacles' .
It includes a lot of very interesting material and helpfully draws attention to the challenges the left will face should Jeremy Corbyn be elected leader of the Labour Party on 12 September. There is a great deal for me to agree with. I won't recount the lines of agreement in a short blog post like this one - my lengthy article 'Jeremy Corbyn, Labour and the left' overlaps heavily with much of what Owen writes, so you can refer to that if you wish.

So, let's cut to the quick. Here - in a spirit of comradely and constructive criticism, aiming for maximum clarity - is where I disagree:
1) Owen is wrong to say that 'bread and butter' issues must be the overwhelming emphasis for a Corbyn-led Labour Party, implicitly pushing for foreign policy issues to be downgraded as priorities. The big foreign policy issues are important in their own right. I'm thinking here of Trident replacement (and the wider issues of nuclear weapons and arms spending), the legacy of Western interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the threat of Western bombing of Syria, Israeli apartheid and the Palestinian struggle, this country's relationship with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia (which Owen does, commendably, write about), and more besides. 
It is on these issues that Corbyn has a strong record as a campaigner (and considerable expertise) through being Chair of Stop the War, a vice chair of CND and a patron of Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Iraq was the single greatest driver of disaffection with 'New Labour' in the first place. The anti-war protests of 2002/03 constituted this country's largest ever mass movement, and helped shape a long-term shift in public opinion on wider issues of war and militarism. This trend has not been reversed, while the massive demonstrations for Gaza last summer indicate the continuing potential for popular mobilisations on major international issues. 
Furthermore these issues will be the main source of attack by the right wing, both inside Labour and beyond, so they can't be ducked. They need to be a central part of Corbyn's whole agenda. This will become immediately apparent this autumn if David Cameron pushes for a Commons vote on attacking Syria. 

2) It is incorrect to say that Labour, led by Corbyn, should reject adopting NATO withdrawal as policy. Why? Because NATO membership (and Britain's role in it) is tied up with all the other foreign policy problems - with nuclear weapons (including Trident replacement), with military interventions, with excessive arms spending, with tensions in Ukraine, and so on. Withdrawing from NATO would in fact be an excellent overarching perspective that gives cohesion to much of the foreign policy detail. 
Corbyn needs to assert a totally different kind of 'internationalism' to that championed by the Blairites - one that involves opposing, not propping up, international institutions (NATO, EU) that are geared towards elite interests at the expense of the working class. Only a coherent socialist vision of internationalism can tie together various left-wing policies on international issues, and also link them with an anti-racist perspective on migration and the refugees crisis. When you consider the role of Western military interventions in creating refugees, and also the EU's 'Fortress Europe' policy, that means advocating that we get out of both NATO and the EU. 

3) Forget any forlorn attempts to 'reframe national identity'. Let the Right have their nationalism. It can only be countered by principled class-based politics.
This is the Left's duty: to translate an understanding that society is divided into classes, in constant struggle with each other, into concrete policies geared towards reducing inequality and improving the lives of the great majority. No version or form of 'national identity' will aid that project. 
The Labour Party is historically geared towards being one branch of the British state, ultimately putting (when in office) the interests of the nation state ahead of the working class. Labour is traditionally one of this country's two parties of government. The pressure on Corbyn to adopt the language of 'the national interest', and adapt his policies accordingly, will thus be massive. The left needs to resist this uncompromisingly, and develop a totally different class-based narrative that gives no ground to British nationalism. This is inextricably linked to any project to make a Corbyn-led Labour Party genuinely anti-war and anti-racist.  

4) There's not enough about democracy in Owen's contribution. The Corbyn insurgency has happened against the backdrop a long-term hollowing out of democracy and mass disaffection with Westminster. The desire for greater democracy, among millions of people, is profoundly political and linked to a range of social and economic issues. Look, for example, at how the mass political engagement (and to an extent radicalisation) of the Scottish independence campaign, and indeed its aftermath, revealed the yearning for greater democracy, precisely to improve economic conditions and create a better society. 
Corbyn should, if elected leader, open up a comprehensive, far-reaching and long-term process of discussing what kind of democracy we want, and what reforms are required. This should cover all sorts of things: local government funding and powers, Scottish independence, regional devolution, House of Lords, monarchy, EU membership, electoral reform, economic democracy, and more. 
Transforming internal Labour Party democracy is essential, but won't in itself be a vote-winner or make a difference to people's lives. It's the broader democratic vision for society that really matters. 

5) We need an approach more firmly oriented on broad movements beyond the Labour Party. While I agree about Labour needing to be a social movement, and going beyond the conservative limits of the PLP, there still seems to be an assumption that this is solely about the Labour Party (that's my impression, anyway).

But the Labour lefts, like Owen, need to consider the role of broad-based, non-party political movements and their relationship to a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Corralling everyone and everything into the Labour Party won't work, not least because it means fighting largely on the terrain of electoral (and internal Labour Party) politics, which is not where we are strongest. We need serious thinking about how mass movements can be further developed and how they can both support a Corbyn leadership and operate independently in ways that are effective.

The starting point for this will be the TUC national demonstration, at Tory Conference in Manchester, on 4 October. The massed ranks of new Labour Party members and supporters, enthused by Corbyn's campaign, should be encouraged to be there, to build it, and to be part of an ongoing broad movement against austerity afterwards. I'm sure Owen agrees about that. The point is that the left, inside and outside Labour, needs to explicitly focus on this and make it central to the strategy for left renewal beyond 12 September. 


Owen's reply (via Facebook) is as follows:

1) Here's where we'll strongly disagree. Issues like jobs, housing, education, living standards, healthcare, childcare, general opposition to austerity, and so on, obviously have to be at the absolute centre of Jeremy's leadership if he is to win mass support. That does not mean other issues are not important (like, as I mention, our support for the Saudi dictatorship).

2) I'd leave NATO in a heartbeat, but he has a million fights to fight if he wins - austerity, nukes, opposition to unjust and disastrous wars like Iraq - that opening up a fight on this issue makes no sense to me whatsoever. If you're a campaigner where you can just choose whatever issues you want to focus on without running the second biggest party in the country with much of the mass media and PLP going for your throat, then you can afford to do this, in my view.

3) Why the left should somehow not emphasise traditions and values based on the long history of people in this country struggling for justice - like the Chartists, suffragettes, trade unionists and so on - and make people feel proud of it and the rights and freedoms won is beyond me.

4) I mentioned PR, which I support, and a federalism with devolution that keeps redistribution. I was however emphasising key hurdles in this piece that need to be overcome, rather than a policy programme.

5) At the centre of this piece was the need to build a mass movement in every community without which a Corbyn-led Labour party would be dead in the water.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party and the left

Jeremy Corbyn and hundreds of supporters in Newcastle. Picture: the Mirror.


New Labour orthodoxies, dominant in the Labour Party for at least two decades, are crumbling.
Political figures from the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - those former prime ministers themselves and Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and Alastair Campbell - have shrieked their disapproval of Jeremy Corbyn. Alongside numerous centre-left commentators and columnists, these political grandees have warned that his victory in the Labour leadership contest would be a disaster, a lurch to the unelectable left and a throwback to the 1980s.
But all the evidence is that their pleas are going unanswered, as Labour Party members and registered supporters look set to elect an uncompromisingly left wing candidate as leader. The panic and fear of the New Labour establishment have been matched by remarkable popular enthusiasm for Corbyn.
There have been huge rallies nationwide.  The surge in numbers of members and supporters for Labour has been primarily driven by enthusiasm for Corbyn. It looks likely that even the exclusion of some members and supporters will not prevent him being declared the victor on 12 September.

The success of Corbyn’s campaign has taken everyone by surprise, including the man himself and those around him. The idea was to put across left wing policies and shift the debate to the left, but as momentum has developed Corbyn has become the clear frontrunner.
The Tories are divided over how to respond, but the shrewder Tories recognise that Corbyn can pull the whole of British politics to the left. Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, by her own reckoning, was Tony Blair and New Labour. Getting the main opposition party to adopt the same neoliberal doctrines was the mark of ideological victory. That centre left is now in apparent meltdown, being increasingly challenged by a growing and assertive left wing.

The decay of the old orthodoxy is most obvious in the popularity of Corbyn’s rejection of cuts and privatisation. Policies like restoring free university education, renationalising rail and energy industries, a public investment bank, increasing taxes on the rich, a major programme of house building and rent controls are outside the accepted terms of official political debate.  

Many of the most virulent responses, though, have focused on foreign policy issues like withdrawing from the US-led NATO alliance, scrapping Trident replacement , solidarity with Palestine, and refusing participation in further military assaults on the Middle East. The adoption of a foreign policy firmly tied to the US has for a long time been a core part of the Westminster consensus. That is now under threat.

Predictions and reality
Most people agreed on a number of predictions prior to May’s general election, should there be a Tory government. One prediction was that there would be widespread demoralisation and passivity among opponents of austerity. This has turned out to be broadly wrong.

The shock and upset at the election outcome swiftly gave way to anger and a determination to stop the Tories. The greatest expression of this was the People’s Assembly national demonstration on 20 June, and there have been scores of local protests expressing the same mood.
Another prediction was that Labour would shift to the right, with a Blairite takeover on the back of the dominant interpretation being that Labour had – under Ed Miliband – steered too far to the left. This was indeed the initial response, with Blairite politicians and commentators responsible for a deluge of calls for Labour to become ‘more credible’, to promote ‘economic competence’, and to obsess over the supposed ‘centre ground’. Yet that initial dominant response has swiftly been overtaken by more left-wing interpretations and proposals.

Finally, it was assumed that – with another five years until another general election – the focus would naturally shift, for the left, from electoral politics to the movements and trade unions. This has proved partially true. The People’s Assembly demonstration and numerous local protests testify to a shift towards extra-parliamentary action. Nobody is simply hanging on for 2020, aware that it is a distant horizon and conscious of how much damage the Tories can do well before then.
Unexpectedly, though, the anti-austerity and anti-Westminster mood has found an expression in UK-wide electoral politics. This goes much further than the ‘Green Surge’ which saw a mushrooming Green Party membership in the months prior to the general election.

It accompanies the social movements, rather than supplanting them. Indeed the fact that a general election is so distant means there is thankfully little pressure to simply channel everything into parliamentary politics. Here is what Corbyn himself has written:

'We need a Labour government in 2020, but we cannot wait until then. Labour has to be a strong and constructive opposition in the next five years. If we can win the argument in the country, then perhaps we can force this government to change course.
Our opposition cannot be limited to the parliamentary chambers and TV studios of Westminster. Labour is best when it is a movement, and that movement has swelled to an enthusiastic 600,000 who will decide this leadership election. Once that is over, we face a bigger task: to force this government to abandon its free-market dogma'.

The left is back
The left has long been written out of official politics. The march to the right began after the infamous election defeat of 1983, widely and largely inaccurately interpreted as a result of Labour being too left wing. Blair’s ascendancy to the leadership in 1994 marked an acceleration of the process. The Labour Right loves to accuse the left of being stuck in the 1980s, yet it appears trapped in an everlasting mid-1990s moment.

The rightwards shift was given impetus by the 1983 defeat and by the rise of the SDP, the breakaway from Labour that subsequently merged with the Liberals to form the centrist Liberal Democrats in 1988. But it was also shaped by two other historic developments of great consequence.
One was the series of defeats for the organised working class, with the Tory government and employers defeating the unions in a series of battles. This was symbolised by the defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985 and the outcome has been a prolonged period, since the early 1990s, of strike levels being at historically low levels.

The second historic change was the end of the Cold War, with the eastern European revolutions of 1989 followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was typically interpreted as at the very least an ideological blow for anyone advocating socialism; more grandly, it was dubbed ‘The End of History’, the end of any significant ideological conflicts and the triumph of neoliberalism internationally.
The current renewal of the left was completely unexpected from the perspective of those in Westminster bubble and the legion of Guardian, Observer and New Statesman commentators so dismayed by Corbynmania. For many of us on the left, the particular manifestation – i.e. the mushrooming support for a left wing Labour leadership candidate – is not something we predicted, but in a deeper sense it’s not such a great shock.

The crisis of New Labour
Labour’s right wing no longer has any answers. Disillusionment with New Labour grew during its time in government. Those who trumpet Blair’s supposed electoral magnificence forget that between 1997 and 2001 – even before the invasion of Iraq – millions of voters deserted the party. Labour Party membership fell from 400,000 in 1997 to 190,000 in 2004.

It was during the years of Blair’s premiership that support for the party was eroded. For example, it was this period that laid the basis for the later collapse of Scottish Labour. Much media commentary has focused on its role in the independence referendum, but the roots go deeper. Iraq was the biggest single source of alienation for the party’s traditional supporters throughout Britain, but a wide range of domestic issues played their part too. 
Labour’s right wing is now divided, with 3 candidates for leader. Pure Blairism – in the form of Liz Kendall – is proving unpopular in this leadership election. The Blairite wing remains strong in the Parliamentary Labour Party, but ideological Blairites are a tiny proportion of ordinary members. Blairism never embedded itself the party membership – during New Labour’s years in office the hardline Blairites always relied on a broader right wing in the party falling in line behind them.

But even traditional right wing Labour has failed to rally behind a single candidate, split instead between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Both of them are damaged by association with the old order – in office before 2010 and in opposition after it – and have been made to look like comfortable Westminster insiders, and thus part of the problem, by the rise of a left wing backbencher like Corbyn. Their decision to abstain in the Commons vote on the welfare bill scuppered any chances of appealing to those on the soft left of the party.
Labour’s right wing has nothing distinctive to offer. Why opt for ‘austerity lite’ when you can have the real thing with the Tories? Labour leaders’ acceptance of the Tories’ narrative on austerity, of their framing of the whole debate, has guaranteed it is in a weak position. It has appeared incoherent and vacillating.

This was true in the general election campaign. It could be seen in acting leader Harriet Harman instructing MPs to abstain on billions of pounds of cuts. It is there in the constant flip-flopping of Burnham and Cooper, who (let’s not forget) began their campaigns with an insistent message that Labour must tack to the right.

Discontent in search of an outlet
Political discontent is a long term phenomenon, but it has struggled to find an outlet. It is an international trend. In various European countries, parties to the left of the traditional social democratic parties have had varying degrees of success: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Left Bloc in Portugal, Die Linke in Germany and so on. In the US, Bernie Sanders is standing on a broadly left-wing ticket for the Democratic presidential nomination and picking up enthusiastic popular support comparable to what we are seeing with Corbyn here.

In the UK this desire for an alternative to social democracy’s capitulation to neoliberalism has not found any outlet in a new left party. In Scotland the SNP has come to largely occupy the political space the Labour Party might have been expected to fill. The independence referendum saw an explosion of political engagement, then the defeat of the Yes camp transformed into a surge in membership for the SNP – to over 100,000 members in a country of under 6 million people. Adopting an anti-austerity, anti-Trident stance helped propel the SNP to a sweeping landslide in May’s general election, taking 56 of Scotland's 59 seats. 
The Green Party witnessed a remarkable growth in membership, with many of its new recruits firmly on the left (though we will probably soon see how Green membership and support is damaged by Labour electing a left wing leader). However, the conservatism of our First Past the Post electoral system has prevented either substantial Green breakthroughs or the emergence of an unambiguously left-wing party. We may have a much more fragmented political landscape than that which had become familiar, but there still hasn’t been anything approaching a coherent left force in electoral politics.
Two other factors have limited the scope for new left challenges on the electoral field. It is when Labour is in office – and disappointing its natural supporters – that people are most likely to seek an alternative. But in conditions of Tory or Tory-led government there remains the powerful pull of sticking with Labour, whatever its weaknesses.

The other key factor is the continuing allegiance of major trade unions to Labour. This is a major part of why British politics has never had an electoral alternative to Labour on a serious scale, unlike in many other European countries.

It has been surprising to see Unite, CWU and especially Unison get behind an authentically left-wing candidate like Jeremy Corbyn, but it partly reflects how alienated the unions (and their members) have become from Labour’s dominant ideas and its direction over the last two decades. Trade unions were ripe for rebellion, having become fed up with not only many Labour policies but the obsession with disavowing any relationship with trade unions to appease the Tories and their newspapers. The unions looking to a Corbyn leadership also, it must be said, reflects weaknesses when it comes to the unions taking collective action: there is an element of looking to a political solution to the problems they face. 
It is almost as if both Pasok and Syriza co-exist in the same party. Labour’s degeneration has not been nearly so acute as that of Pasok – after all, it hasn’t implemented profoundly deep cuts on the working class like its Greek equivalent has. But there has been a long-term process of it becoming a party that fails to offer any real alternative to Tory policies.

The lack of favourable conditions for the creation of a credible alternative means that the thirst for a different kind of politics has – in a way that is unique in European politics – found almost all its electoral expression through the established party of the centre left.  

An unexpected phenomenon
It is worth briefly tracing the chain of events that got us here. The fact that Corbyn got on the ballot paper was unexpected because only a tiny minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party support him – a graphic illustration of how utterly the left has been marginalised in the PLP. A further batch of MP nominations was required to get on the ballot.

The nominations came (following grassroots pressure) from right-wing or centrist MPs who agreed to ‘widen the debate’ in the leadership contest. They were undoubtedly conscious of how bad it would look if the leadership contest was unremittingly right wing, with nobody offering a different viewpoint. What they didn’t expect was for Corbyn’s arguments to find any great resonance – a revealing sign of the disconnect between Labour MPs and the wider Party, never mind many people beyond its ranks. 
The Collins Review has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The changes to Labour's procedures for internal elections were meant - from the point of view of the right-wing Labour machine - to do 3 things: weaken the role of trade unions, marginalise the left, and present an image of being fresh, modern and forward-looking with the participation of wider layers of people. These new supporters would presumably be 'centre ground' types (because isn't everyone?) and therefore vote the right (and indeed right-wing) way.

All in all, it would make Labour more like the US Democrats. Yet it has - for them - been a disaster.
They didn't realise just how much the PLP has operated as a conservative bulwark, so getting rid of its one-third vote share was reckless. They underestimated the mood among many people - inside and outside Labour - for something better than the austerity-lite politics of recent years. And they failed to realise their own political exhaustion and shrivelling social base.

Now they are desperately trying everything to undermine what they themselves facilitated: even if it makes their party a laughing stock, prompts widespread references to a 'purge', and undermines their own party's growth. This is all in order to stop a victory for the left – or, considering Corbyn will almost certainly win, to stall the growth of the left which will strengthen Corbyn’s position beyond 12 September.
So, the fact that Corbyn succeeded in getting on the ballot was a turning point and, subsequently, the changes heralded by Collins have proved beneficial to the left. This has enabled the prospect of victory for a left-wing candidate – something which nobody predicted back in May, especially in light of the chronic weaknesses of a marginal, fragmented and disorganised Labour left.

How will Labour’s right wing respond to a Corbyn win?
An article by Luke Akehurst, a leading light in the broadly right-wing Labour First faction, is probably the best exposition I've yet seen of how Labour's right wing will seek to undermine Corbyn and the Labour left after 12 September. It is polite and respectful in tone, elegantly masking the determined ruthlessness of the content.

The key motif is 'party unity'. This will be presented as commendable duty, generosity and sacrifice on the part of Labour's right-wingers, emphasising how they are sticking with Labour and being loyal despite hating the leader's policies.
But its real purpose will be to discipline the left, urging insistently that if the left really wants to hold the party together it will recognise that most MPs (and many members)profoundly disagree with Corbyn, so he and his supporters must inevitably compromise.

This will take a number of forms, such as right wing MPs being willing to vote against the whip on issues like NATO and Trident, should it be necessary, because collective responsibility must be balanced with individual principle (and how could Corbyn disagree when he has rebelled hundreds of times?). It will mean thoroughly contesting every proposed policy change because, after all, Corbyn wants grassroots party democracy and debate doesn't he? And so on.
All of this, of course, goes to the heart of the contradictions and problems involved in seeking to 'reclaim Labour' and use the Labour Party as a vehicle for social change. Changing the leadership won't - however radically different that leader's policies to the status quo may be - bring about a sea change in the Labour Party. There are many obstacles, especially in the PLP.

But the obstacles are ultimately rooted in the nature of the Labour Party as a broad church stretching from socialists to social neoliberals (the latter having only modest differences from the Tories). It is a party that seeks governmental office to make modifications - whether tiny or major - to the running of the capitalist system.
The conservative nature of our electoral system has continually guaranteed that it has no serious challenges either to its left or to its right, meaning that it is a very broad church indeed (as neither socialists or its most right-wing elements can succeed with creating an alternative). A split to the right may well happen in the longer term - in the event of a Corbyn victory - but the omens aren't good when we consider the fate of the centrist Liberal Democrats, reduced to a miserable rump of just 8 MPs after participation in a Tory-led coalition government.  

So, what will the Labour left do? It is likely be torn between accepting 'party unity' (and all its concessions) and taking a more radical route which involves mobilising much of the grassroots against the conservatism of the PLP. The latter approach would also be strengthened by an orientation on wider social movements, recognising that what happens beyond parliament (and to a large degree beyond the Labour Party) can boost the left.
It was a little worrying when Corbyn said that he would welcome those from the Right of the Labour Party, even Blairites, into his shadow cabinet. 'Unity' is meaningless if it with those who have fundamentally different politics. How can socialists 'unite' with those who want cuts to welfare, to waste tens of billions on Trident, to make students pay extortionate fees for education, to bomb Syria, and so on?

It was also interesting to note Corbyn’s agreement to rally behind the ‘Yes’ camp in the prospective referendum on British membership of the European Union, despite his well-known reservations. This is hardly surprising in the circumstances - Corbyn has of course come under serious pressure to prove his pro-EU credentials and rule out campaigning for 'Brexit'. EU support is a vitally important priority for Labour's right wing and an issue where the Labour left is sadly rather weak and inconsistent. Nonetheless, it should serve as a reminder of the constraints on left-wing politics to be expected in the event of a Corbyn victory.

Corbyn and the wider left

There is a tendency in the media commentary to suggest that Corbynmania has come from nowhere, without any sort of precedent or groundwork. What tends to be forgotten is the wave of protests and campaigning since the election of a majority Tory government in May. The longer-term trends of mass protest, especially against austerity, also tend to be downplayed. But in many ways the Corbyn insurgency is the 20 June national demonstration carried over into official politics, amplified by going to the heart of mainstream politics and challenging the old order in Westminster.

The left and the labour movement have achieved a great deal over recent years through protests and campaigns, from the anti-war protests onwards. Since 2010 there have been the student revolts, mass TUC demonstrations, co-ordinated public sector strikes, the mass social movement around Scottish independence, and much more. Yet the field of electoral politics has remained – Scotland aside – largely immune from these trends. That is now changing, in dramatic fashion, and it is long overdue.
Normally there is nothing so divisive on the left as electoral politics. It is a strange experience, therefore, that Corbyn’s candidacy has largely united the left, not just the Labour left. One reason is the widespread recognition that any left-of-Labour alternatives are not currently going anywhere, so a Corbyn victory is widely seen as the best chance for a left-wing breakthrough. The backing of major unions like Unite and Unison has played a part too.

A big part of the explanation, though, lies in Corbyn’s status as a campaigner and movement figurehead: over three decades of serious campaigning has built him a base, of thousands of activists, that stretches well beyond the Labour left. The late Tony Benn was perhaps the only Labour politician who could be considered comparable in this regard. 
The campaign is bringing left-wing policies and arguments to the front pages of newspapers in a way unknown for generations. It has already shifted not only this leadership contest, but the whole of British political debate, somewhat to the left. If he wins – as looks likely – the consequences will be explosive. It will deepen the political crisis and open up space for developing a much bigger and more influential left pole in British politics.  
The Labour Party, however, will retain all the limitations that come with parliamentary politics. You only have to glance over its long history of timid opposition to Tory governments and disappointing failures in office to be reminded that electing the best person to be Labour leader is insufficient. When we look at developments in Greece this year we are made starkly aware that contemporary capitalism and its institutions are hugely resistant even to reducing the scale of austerity, never mind socialism.  

Socialists, mass movements and Labour
The social movements that have played a part in getting Corbyn this far will be vital for supporting him against the Right. It is going to be Corbyn vs the entire political establishment, with huge pressure on him from inside and outside the Labour Party.

Mass movements are a crucial lever of support for Corbyn’s left-wing policies, and just as importantly they provide the basis for how we can defeat austerity and achieve real social change. If we are to stop a new bombing campaign in Syria, for example, we will be stronger because we have an anti-war Labour leader, but we will still need a movement. In opposing austerity, the protests at Tory Conference in Manchester – especially the TUC national demonstration on 4 October – will be crucial.
Building powerful protest movements matters more than ever. In that context, and in a political climate being re-defined by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, we can build a bigger, more organised and coherent left. We need socialist organisation that isn’t tied to parliamentary politics, with activists focused on mass movement struggles not internal wranglings inside the Labour Party.

I will conclude with the words of Paul Foot, towards the end of his book ‘The Vote’ which documented the working class struggles that won the vote but also the disappointing record of a Labour Party that has failed to deliver. Foot wrote:

‘The main job of socialists is to relegate Parliament to the sidelines it has chosen for itself and to concentrate on politics where it matters, among and on behalf of the dispossessed. Above all, this requires, more than ever before, the coordination of socialists and revolutionaries in an organisation dedicated and resolved enough to confront the organised capitalist state with the only force capable of defeating it, the organised working class movement, and of forging the huge disparate mass of opposition into a combined revolutionary unity’
That is a tall order indeed - and certainly our existing organised forces are far too weak.  But it remains the only solution to the problems we are confronted with. It remains, too, a guide to how socialists should organise and to where we should direct our energies in the here and now.