We must salute those who decide to ‘stay and fight’ — but what we can reasonably expect to win now after three years of Keir Starmer’s onslaught is much reduced, says NICK WRIGHT writing in the Morning Star

ABOVE: THE SPIRIT REMAINS: Jeremy Corbyn with members of the NEU at rally, on February 1 2023, against plans for a new law on minimum service levels during strikes

WHEN last week, a reconstituted Labour Students called for an end to student fees it signified a return to serious student politics thus disproving Henry Kissinger quip: “The reason that university politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small.”The former Labour student organisation was wound up during the Jeremy Corbyn era after university Labour clubs disaffiliated in great numbers. It had an unsavoury reputation for neoliberal posturing and rampant careerism and even campaigned against free education. Its leadership were vicious precisely because the issues are important to these wannabe Blairites.

Last week the left won the Socialist Health Association’s leadership elections — beating the shadow health secretary’s team — and placed Labour’s health affiliate firmly in opposition to the slow-motion NHS privatisation that the party leadership favours.

Labour’s war on its trade union affiliates intensified last week when the selection panel for the Bolton North East parliamentary seat excluded the party’s north-west regional chair who was nominated by Unite, Unison, GMB and the CWU. The constituency leadership has since resigned en bloc.

This is but the latest example of stitch-up. In May last year 16 members of the Wakefield party resigned en masse accusing the Labour leader’s office of dodging party rules to impose their candidate over local favourites.

Last Autumn 13 members of the Sedgefield constituency executive resigned after their chair was left off the long list while former Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad was excluded from the long list in the constituency she previously won. Similar patterns of top-down intervention took place in Camberwell and Peckham while Momentum said Milton Keynes councillor Lauren Townsend was excluded from the selection “so the leadership can stitch it up for a rightwinger.”

Obviously this approach by the dominant leadership faction is deeply dysfunctional, inevitably engenders unnecessary division and is profoundly counterproductive for a party that depends on its mass membership to compensate for the advantages the Tories enjoy.

It seems difficult to imagine today but Britain’s Conservative Party was once a mass party in the very real sense that it could call on a millions-strong membership and had a real presence in thousands of towns and villages. From the ’30s it had up to one and a half million members. By the ’50s it was up to 2.8 million.

Labour’s membership model was different with its five million plus affiliated trade union members supplemented by a million individual members most of whom would, under rule, be trade unionists.

Our ruling class enjoys one advantage over its continental analogues in that, (except for the Channel Islands) it never had an opportunity to collaborate with Nazi occupiers. Consequently the main party of capital has remained more or less united — that is until the conditions imposed by membership of the EU brought out its sharp differences.

Today the Tory Party “in the country” is a much diminished scattering of ageing property owners and what the French call “garagistes” — small business people whose politics are traditionally reactionary — if not as bizarre as the juvenile eccentrics who constitute the Young Conservatives. At this level it is not a reliable vehicle for big capital.

It was these people who gave us Liz Truss as prime minister. The paradox is that Labour, a genuine mass party, elected the candidate favoured by the bankers and big business while the leader elected by the Tories, a rump party, was swiftly deposed by the Bank of England in the interests of big business.

In his drive to make Labour acceptable to big capital’s power-brokers, Keir Starmer is immensely aided by Tory disarray and the fortuitous timing that they are in office when contemporary capitalism’s recurrent crises coincide with the more particular problems of Britain’s capitalist economy.

In these circumstances the enormous advantages that wealth and power confers on the Tories is not enough — even with the support of our oligarchic media — to assure electoral victory while the latest opinion polls suggest that the Tories would be the third party with just a few dozen seats.

What the Establishment did so swiftly to Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng provides a sharp lesson in where decisive power is located. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what kind of pressures would have been mobilised against a Corbyn government.

Everyone still struggling to make Labour more representative of Britain’s working people and more likely to represent their interests deserves our encouragement and support. But for everyone facing unending years in Labour’s interstices there are many more active in their communities, at their work and in their union.

These two kinds of endeavour are not mutually exclusive but the question of what kind of political organisation is most useful for a working-class movement — one that wants to effect the “irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people” that Labour offered in 2017 — remains moot.

Return of the organic intellectuals

The present strike wave is characterised by shifts in consciousness. Last week’s exuberant pickets by NHS physiotherapists, well organised by their union, show how people become a material force when they take collective action. These are people who have never been on strike. They are helping to reshape both their own understanding of the social relations within which they are constituted and our national political consciousness.

Because our present strike wave has become the collective property of the working class as a whole, distinctions between different groups of working people are breaking down while a reworking of the popular national culture is underway.

The most interesting feature of the present political impasse at the level of Parliament and the political institutions is precisely the mismatch between the moral universe of the people who inhabit these institutions and that of the vast numbers of people beyond the strikers including many who think of themselves as Conservatives.

Within the institutional space — what Gramsci calls political society — the idea of public ownership of mail, rail, water, energy and public transport is inadmissible. Neither within the EU or in Brexit Britain are these things deemed generally permissible.

Within civil society — defined as the structures within which social processes, including conflicts of interest, are principally located — a different regime of knowledge exists conditioned by the particular concrete form society takes and its particular relations of production.

That is why the first task of a working-class political party is to carry through deep analysis of the economic base and superstructural features of the world in which it operates.

Of course there are all manner of mechanisms whereby class conflicts are expressed. The strike movement itself intersects at many levels with the the demand for the commons to be held in common.

In present circumstances the reason why it does not go far in challenging the ideological and institutional power of the ruling class is precisely because the social crisis has not reached its highest pitch and a leading party of the working class is nowhere hegemonic.

This is not to decry the organisational expressions of a revolutionary and communist tradition in Britain, or to discount the tasks that communists as well as many socialists and their allies set themselves, tasks which greatly exceed the material and human resources presently available.

While there is undoubtedly a political, ideological and institutional continuity embodied in the Communist Party, the network of structures and human connections in which this tradition finds a place in the life of the working class movement is a yet inadequate factor in fully fashioning a party dedicated to the transition to working-class power.

The powerful impulse to find socialist solutions to real life problems is reflected in a vast host of organisations, movements and tendencies. None of these are fixed and unchanged and there is a welcome tendency to find unity — especially around basic class questions and around solidarity and against war.

At the same time there is a countervailing tendency, where some elements cannot find the courage to challenge the Labour leadership even over points of principle and yet find areas of agreement with Nato’s war strategies.

The contradictions inherent in John McDonnell’s latest position — that Britain must support Nato’s supply of weapons to Ukraine, but should be wary of any risks of escalation — signifies a disaggregation of the forces that assembled around Labour’s most recent renaissance.

It was precisely over an accommodation with British imperialism and war that 20th-century social democracy first divided.

One precondition for the elaboration of a party able to exercise a leading role in the transition to working-class rule is the abandonment of the idea that the existing social relations of production can be changed through a change in consciousness, or even voting, alone.

Political power does not rest on ideas alone. It resides, of course, in habits, in the social relations of power exercised by bosses, bureaucrats, banks, building societies and landlords and, most particularly, in the state. A recognition that the working class must both challenge the ruling ideas in society as well as develop the means to challenge to the practical exercise of state power is a mark of political maturity.

What is traditionally characterised as “the battle of ideas” is more than that. We make our own history but under the given conditions of the era. This is why the “collective intellectual” that is the party pays attention to both history and to the specific conditions in which we presently live. Capitalism in general, and British capitalism in particular, is our object of study. But we study it in order to negate it.

This notion of collective intellectual endeavour is a fusion of our contested national culture — in which the elements of scientific thinking, philosophical materialism, rational thought and productive cultural activity are generalised beyond the professional intellectuals who constitute authority — to the creative activity of the working masses.

Embedded in the vast array of newly energised working-class organisations, in every workplace and community new ideas are mobilising millions of people on the basis of the fight to defend their class interests.

These struggles produce new leaders and thinkers at every level — and these “organic intellectuals” give expression to, and help generate, new and deeper levels of organisation and consciousness.

To the extent that a party is embedded in these processes and among these people, to that extent it can be the “total intellectual” that the revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism requires.


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