Why has a battle to the death emerged between Jeremy Corbyn and the parliamentary Labour party? Is it because the PLP has undermined Corbyn at every turn, or does Corbyn in fact not see the parliamentary process as his end goal?
Corbyn has been compared to many in the Labour party – George Lansbury, Michael Foot and Militant Tendency. However, none of them capture Corbyn’s brand of socialism, except for Vladimir Derer, the founder of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD). He is the central intellectual spirit behind Corbynism, a man who sought to transform the Labour party into a “rank and file” movement that would create radical change and lead to socialism. Which leads to more questions: Is this Corbyn’s endgame? Or his departure point?
Labour’s current divide stems from the perennial tension in socialism. This is not between left and right, revolutionary or evolutionary but libertarianism versus authoritarianism. Hal Draper described this fissure in The Two Souls of Socialism as “socialism from above” and “socialism from below”. The former entails power being centralised, leading to permanence of bureaucracy. The latter is about putting power in the hands of a decentralised movement.
The dominant tendency within the Labour Party had been “socialism from above” with sporadic interludes of “socialism from below”. We saw these in 1921 with the advent of Poplarism, the 1926 General Strike, the establishment of the CPLD in 1973 and in 2015 with the rise of Corbynism.
Derer was the central intellectual thinker of “socialism from below” in the Labour party. It was he, not Tony Benn, who molded the resurgence of the radical left in the seventies and eighties, and he who laid the foundation for the successes of Corbynism. As Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, asserts in his obituary to Derer in 2014: “We may call ourselves Bennites, but in many ways we are really Dererites”
Derer occupies a middle ground between reformist and revolutionary socialism. He thought neither the rising of a spontaneous movement or social democracy which just sought to reform capitalism would lead to socialism. He also acknowledged the resilience of parliamentary democracy and its popularity with working people. Derer realised that to capture the Labour Party, you have to appeal to the often-contradictory views of the soft left and the unions. To convert this centre ground of the Labour party to his cause, he used the seemingly benign banner of democratising the Party. CLPD’S victories in the early eighties included gaining an electoral college, which included constituency parties and trade unions as well as MPs, and mandatory selection. With each victory, the CLPD sought to erode the power of the PLP and hand it over to members of the party. The fundamental aim, as Lansman wrote in the obituary, was to create: “A radical reforming government, however, elected on such a programme, pushing beyond the limits of a capitalist framework, will provoke a crisis which will create the potential for radical change”. Following this logic, for Corbyn Parliament is not the end goal, but the means to create a movement that can surpass it.
Alongside the CLPD, Briefing, a magazine, has been the engine behind Corbynism over the years. This originally emerged as a splinter group from the Trotskyist Chartist Tendency. Derer and Briefing could be referred to as Neo-Chartists, as they built upon the work of the original radical chartists of the 19th century who sought to bring about transformative change through constitutional reform. Corbyn, John McDonnell and Christine Shawcroft, who currently sit on the NEC, were all and continue to be leading lights in the magazine. Peter Tatchell, who was a radical left candidate in the infamous Southwark and Bermondsey by-election of 1983, summarizes the outlook of Briefing, when he wrote in Labour London Briefing in 1981:
“Labour has long lost the radical and defiant spirit of its early pioneers. We now seem stuck in the rut of an obsessive legalism and parliamentarianism…reliant on the present token and ineffectual parliamentary opposition will advance us nowhere…we must now look to a new, more militant form of extra parliamentary opposition which involves mass popular participation”
It is not through the parliamentary, but extra-parliamentary route that Labour can become a truly radical entity. Only by opening the Labour party to be a movement can socialism be achieved. This is why Corbyn sees his authority stemming from the supporters who attend his rallies rather than the elected representatives that sit next to him in parliament.
George Lansbury is often cited as one of the early pioneers in the Labour party, a foreshadower of Corbyn, who tried to turn the Labour party into a extra parliamentary movement. However, Lansbury was a barrel of contradictions, who flitted from from the extra-parliamentary to the parliamentary. He was both the man who supported militant suffrage, and served time in prison for the Cause, and the man who served in Ramsay MacDonald’s austerity Cabinet of 1929-1931. When others resigned from the austerity cabinet, he remained. He at once decried the party machine, saying: “We will never get true voting in the House of Commons until we are free from the domination of party government.” But at the same time, he served as party chairman. He managed to combine his parliamentary and extra-parliamentary roles in Poplarism, when Lansbury and his fellow Poplar councilors went on strike and then to prison over the Government’s unfair municipal rates.
Lansbury became leader of the Labour party by luck, as one of the last senior Labour politicians left in the party after the catastrophe that was the 1931 election. But he was booted out of the leadership by Ernest Bevin due to his pacifist stance to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Bevin claimed he was “hawking [his] conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”.
Unlike Corbyn, Lansbury was a paradoxical combination of pragmatism and principle. However, Corbyn never held a cabinet position, rebelled hundred of times against the party whip and waited for the party to come round to his view, rather than move his views to what was politically expedient.
Corbyn can also be compared to the uncompromising Red Clydesiders, the radical wing of the Independent Labour Party. A group of Scottish MPs who were elected in 1922 became disillusioned with Ramsay Macdonald, one of the founders of the ILP, for what they saw as his sell out of his socialist principles in 1929-1931 government. They arose out of the revolutionary atmosphere of 1910’s Scotland. James Maxton, the charismatic leader of this group, would lead the ILP out of the Labour party, in the early thirties. He ignored Lansbury’s attempts to maintain their link with the party. Maxton refused to compromise and play by party politics – he thought the party irreconcilably departed from it’s working class roots. Yet Corbyn upholding their same zeal and same defiance stayed in the party as an MP through Foot, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.
In 1993, at the height of the wilderness years for the radical left, Derer wrote a pamphlet titled: Is A Socialist Presence in the Labour Party Justified? His fundamental argument was that a presence in the Labour was justified if the Labour party was still able to transform into a “real socialist party, [with] the PLP… being made accountable to a predominantly left wing rank and file”. Many never thought that day would come, but it has.
For all his predecessors, Corbyn stands at an unprecedented moment in Labour Party history. At no point before have the radical left held the leadership and the National Executive Committee, though the Committee is held by a slim thread. The question emerges if he wins the leadership contest, will he follow the Derer line and seek to move beyond the authority of Parliament? Or will he end up playing by its rules?