It ought to be a statement of the obvious that Labour is fighting a civil war between revolutionary socialists and social democrats, which goes back to the Russian revolution 100 years ago. The armies may have changed, but the battle line remains as static as ever.
Instead of seeing what is in front of our noses, however, we lose ourselves in the familiar arguments of democratic politics. After last week’s local elections, Corbyn supporters claimed Labour had had its best performance since 1971 (which it had, but only if you exclude every part of Britain outside London). Their opponents said the results were a disaster, and “if we cannot beat this shambles of a Tory Party, we don’t deserve to be in the game”. Labour people seem to believe that if only the question of the far left’s popularity could be settled, it would be the end of the matter.
Both are avoiding the real argument, and in their hearts they know it. The dispute isn’t about swings and seats, but competing visions of society. It is not that Corbyn and his supporters think the Labour right cannot win. They think it should never win (and vice versa). To the far left, the Labour party was an obstacle almost from the moment of its foundation. To its mind, Labour was an incurably “revisionist” party. Labour believed in peaceful, gradual change rather than revolution. It took the votes of the workers, and then betrayed them. Like a squatter, it occupied the rightful property where a revolutionary socialist party could make its home. As Lenin explained in 1920:
“‘The Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie’.
British communists should affiliate to it and seek to take it over, he continued. At all times they must ‘freely and openly declare that the leaders of the party are social-traitors’. Sylvia Pankhurst tried to persuade Lenin he was being a fool, and warned that Labour would just expel Marxist-Leninists. So it did in the 1930s, and again when Neil Kinnock purged Militant in the 1980s. Now the far left controls the party, and if anyone is going to be expelling in future, it will.
Nearly all the commentary after the local elections ignores the ideological clash. Take the campaign’s funniest moment, at least for Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents. It came in the middle class London suburb of Crouch End. Momentum had driven out Labour councillors, and put its people in charge: true socialists who would reflect the demands of the people for affordable housing and an end to privatisation and austerity.
The leading candidate was Charley Allan, a writer for the Morning Star, a newspaper which once supported communist tyranny and now supports any and every tyranny from Bashar al-Assad’s chemically enhanced dictatorship in Damascus to Vladimir Putin’s alliance of spooks and mobsters in Moscow. Like so many political thugs, Allan combines sentimentality and brutality. He presents Corbyn in the language of the transcendent as a saint comparable only to his other hero, Hugo Chavez. Like Chavez, Corbyn believes in ‘a world based on peace, equality, solidarity and justice’. Like Chavez, Corbyn ‘spontaneously inspires loyalty rather than relying on fear to enforce it’. The support for a Venezuelan regime that has looted its country, suppressed democracy and driven a large proportion of its inhabitants into malnutrition and exile is telling. But you should not dwell on it: Allan’s main target is the old Labour party. Piece after piece denounces its treachery and duplicity. If his writing is a guide, hatred of Labour rather than love of Venezuelan dictators is what gets him out of bed in the morning. Crouch End voters sniffed the atmosphere of intimidation and anti-Semitism that swirls round the local Labour party, and elected Liberal Democrats instead.
If we were witnessing rational electoral politics, the far left should learn from Crouch End. If it forces out popular Labour politicians and runs cranks in their place, it will lose. Nothing of the sort will happen and deselections will pick up pace as the general election approaches because, although Allan may be a crank, he isn’t a freak. The Labour leadership is just as cranky – to use the mildest word I might choose. It, too, regards Venezuela as a beacon, and ignores the poverty and corruption. Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry are as willing as any hack Russia Today propagandist to fuel fantasies about the poisonings of Russians in Salisbury and Syrians in Douma. They say they are ‘concerned’ about antisemitism but the conspiracy theory of fascism flourishes, not only in Crouch End but everywhere on the Corbyn left. The connection runs deeper. Like Comrade Charley, Corbyn was a Morning Star columnist.
The present doesn’t repeat the past. Causes change but mentalities stay the same. Labour’s leaders are not remotely socialist by historical standards. Their 2017 manifesto aimed to provide welfare to the middle classes – graduates, rich pensioners – and left the Tory cuts to the benefits of the working poor in place. Meanwhile no Corbyn-supporting intellectual has written, or could possibly write, a ‘progressive’ justification for the far left’s support for Syria, Russia and Iran.
One shouldn’t pretend there was a better past when the far left, whatever other crimes it excused, was a principled opponent of fascism. It has always instinctively believed that social democrats are worse than fascists. But still today’s apologias for extreme right-wing states and movements remain brazen, and will become more brazen yet because the bulk of Labour members don’t care what its leaders do. You could say in 2015 that they did not know what they would get when they voted for Corbyn. They cannot plead ignorance now. They know and they collude with their silence. There is an irony here that is worth savouring. We think conspiracism flourishes among the uneducated supporters of Trump and Ukip; the example of the British Labour party shows the supposedly educated middle-classes are just as credulous and vicious.
As long as they stay in thrall, Labour’s election performance won’t matter to them, or more importantly to their leaders. As I wrote here last week, the Tory right is remarkably complacent. It is risking the country’s future with a hard Brexit, and fooling itself with the idea that, however it behaves, the Conservatives will somehow pull through. But even if the Tories keep scraping home, the far left won’t give up and step back. Win or lose, Labour is Charley Allan’s party now. If you had said to him, Corbyn, McDonnell, McCluskey and their friends in 2015, ‘We will give you control of the opposition. You will never win power. You may find even yourself running a party with only a few dozen MPs. But it will be your party, a pure party and best of all its existence will send ‘revisionist’ Labour to its grave – ’
They would have taken that.