Two faces of reformism

Issue: 148

Alex Callinicos

In our last issue we advised the radical left in Britain to be “open to the sudden fissures that the crisis of the British state can…unexpectedly open up, perhaps making possible a qualitative advance”.1 And the unexpected came very quickly, and in a particularly surprising form.

In the same article we stressed the persistence of Labour, despite the scale of its defeat in May. But we didn’t imagine that the opening for the radical left would come from within the Labour Party, thanks to the extraordinary movement that took shape around Jeremy Corbyn and swept him into the party leadership on 12 September. It was all the more so since his victory came amid a surge of popular support for refugees and migrants—articulated strongly by Corbyn himself and marked by nationwide rallies that very day.

This seems an astonishing reversal compared to what seemed to be the case at the time of the general election in May. Then the contrast was between the triumph of the Scottish National Party north of the border on an anti-austerity ticket and the apparent dominance in England of pro-austerity and anti-migrant politics expressed by all three main parties as well as by the most successful challenger, the UK Independence Party. So what’s happened?

Fundamentally we have discovered that England isn’t after all a little royalist, chauvinist enclave immune to the political processes at work elsewhere in Europe. The experience of crisis and austerity and the corruption and involution of the party system are general phenomena, which are producing political radicalisation to the left as well as to the right. This has been expressed in the rise of Syriza in Greece and of Podemos in the Spanish state. It was clear at the time of the general election that there was a large current of opinion to the left of the Labour mainstream that found expression in voting SNP in Scotland, but went largely unrepresented in England. Now it has found its voice.

This basic driving force is understood even by Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of New Labour. At the same time as denouncing Corbyn’s rise as a “mortal danger” to the Labour Party, he acknowledges: “In different ways and intensities, we are all experiencing our ‘Syriza’ moment”.2 But this comparison poses a question. Syriza and Podemos are challengers to the mainstream social democratic parties: indeed Pasok (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement) in Greece has been virtually destroyed by its role in imposing austerity. A few months ago it was fashionable to talk about the “Pasokification” of Labour. Now we have seen the left wing rebellion find expression within Labour—not merely through Corbyn’s election, but in the rise in party membership from under 200,000 in May to 342,000 in mid-September.3

Paradoxically, Corbyn was able to present himself as an alternative to Labour while campaigning successfully to lead Labour!4 How do we explain this paradox? Three factors seem important. First, without giving too much importance to individuals, there is Corbyn’s persona. First elected to the House of Commons in 1983, by which time Tony Benn’s star was already waning, Corbyn had been largely marginalised within the Labour Party under successive leaderships. He survived through being a good ­constituency MP and a dedicated champion of numerous grassroots campaigns. He could therefore plausibly present himself as an outsider to the established party system. His personal qualities—modesty, honesty, moral and political consistency, dedication to the causes he has embraced—reinforced his attractions to those looking for a left wing alternative.

Secondly, there is the nature of Labour itself. Badly damaged in the New Labour era, the party has participated in the general decline of the established political system in the neoliberal era.5 But despite the drubbing it suffered in May, Labour continues (in England and Wales at least) to maintain the loyalty, however grudging, of many working class people who see it as a shield against the Tory attacks. The continuing importance of the trade unions in the party’s life is one ingredient here. But so too is the role of many inner city constituency parties—including Corbyn’s own Islington North—in campaigning on social issues important to working class communities. The picture is complicated by the role of Labour-controlled councils in implementing austerity, but this makes local parties a focus for lobbying and contestation that keep them alive politically.

Thirdly, there is the changing structure of the Labour Party. Because the configuration of power inside the party will have a decisive impact on the fate of the Corbyn leadership it’s worth looking at this in more detail. Since the modern Labour Party was constituted in 1918, there have been three centres of power within the party—the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the trade union leaders wielding the block vote representing their affiliated members, and the individual members organised into constituency Labour parties (CLPs).6 Traditionally it was the CLPs that provided the main base of successive movements of the Labour left—the Socialist League in the 1930s, the Bevanites in the 1950s, and the Bennites in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But all these movements broke themselves on the barrier of the PLP-trade union axis. In his classic study British Political Parties Bob McKenzie quotes a May 1930 entry from the Fabian intellectual Beatrice Webb’s diaries where she records the remark by her husband Sidney, then a Labour cabinet minister, “that the constituency parties were frequently ­unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks, and extremists, and that if the block vote of the trade unions were eliminated, it would be impractical to vest control of policy in Labour Party conferences”.

McKenzie comments:

there can be little doubt that he accurately reflected the conviction of the great majority of the parliamentary leadership of the Labour Party then and now. They would find it intolerable if the conference could be dominated or controlled by those (many of whom they consider “fanatics, cranks and extremists”) who turn up in large numbers as delegates from constituency parties. The conference could not be accorded even nominal authority in determining the long-range goals of the party if it were subject to the overriding influence of the constituency party delegates. But the parliamentary leaders have little to fear from the party conference as long as they retain the confidence (and the block vote support) of the traditionally moderate and conservative leadership of the majority of the big trade unions. Indeed it is this bond of mutual confidence between the parliamentary and trade union leadership of the Labour movement which is an essential key to the understanding of the functioning of the Labour Party.7

McKenzie was writing in the mid-1950s, when right wing trade union chiefs were helping the Labour leadership see off the challenge of the left wing movement led by Aneurin Bevan, which, through its network of local Brains Trusts, represented the peak of the Labour left’s influence among the CLPs. The Bennite movement 25 years later also benefitted from support in the constituencies as well as the disaffection of some trade union leaders thanks to the upturn in workers’ struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s and successive Labour governments’ imposition of pay controls. But, after a section of the Labour right broke away in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the trade union leaders intervened to pull Labour back to the centre under Neil Kinnock’s leadership (1983-92).8

This configuration of power, which has bound together two fundamentally conservative forces—the parliamentary Labour leadership, ever pulled towards the centre by electoral pressures and integration into the state apparatus, and the trade union bureaucracy, defined by its role in mediating between labour and capital—is critical to ensuring the bourgeois nature of the Labour Party. As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein put it:

the Labour Party is a capitalist workers’ party… Trade union consciousness and parliamentary reformism are the pillars of Labourism. The Labour Party is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, aiming to influence parliament. The trade union bureaucracy is a mediating element between workers and employers. The Labour Party is also a mediating element, except that it is at one remove from the direct struggle at the point of production. In addition the Labour Party leaders are sometimes called upon to run the ship of state: the trade union officials are never given the running of enterprises.9

Underlying the failure of Bennism were the defeats suffered by the British working class and the triumph of neoliberalism under the Margaret Thatcher government (1979-90). Famously, Tony Blair after becoming leader of the Labour Party in 1994 sought to reconcile social democracy and neoliberalism. As part of this project, he aspired to break the link between Labour and the unions, turning the party into a “normal” centre-left bourgeois party, closest to the Democrats in the United States. But, typical of Blair’s weakness as a domestic policymaker (masked in the latter years of his premiership by his enthusiasm for imperialist war-making abroad), he never achieved this goal.10 We can now see that seeking to weaken the union connection was a form of hubris on the part of the Labour right.

Ironically the biggest step towards achieving this aim was taken by Ed Miliband, elected Labour leader in 2010 in part to draw a line under the Blair era. The main reform achieved by the Bennites in their efforts to democratise the party was to make the leader elected not by the PLP but by an electoral college in which MPs, affiliated trade unions, and individual party members had an equal share of the vote. Ironically, this change guaranteed that the leadership would be occupied by “safe” figures from the soft left (Kinnock and Miliband) or the right (John Smith, Blair and Gordon Brown).

But the Blairites long demanded that this be replaced by “one member one vote” (OMOV). Miliband, harried by the Tories because his own victory over his brother David (the Blairite candidate) depended on union support, and after a row with the Unite union over its role in a parliamentary candidate selection in Falkirk, essentially gave in to the right. Henceforth the leader would be elected by individual party members plus affiliated trade unionists and Labour supporters (in the latter case paying the famous £3 for the privilege).

Never can there have been a clearer case of Be Careful What You Wish For. But the right’s advocacy of OMOV made a certain sense. It could be justified as a response to change—the fraying social connections of all mainstream parties, the more atomised societies of the neoliberal era. And the composition of the CLPs itself changed in the Blair era, as left wingers, and even less militant but traditional social democrats, left in disgust, and relatively affluent middle class supporters of New Labour joined up.

Patrick Wintour points out that in the 2010 leadership election:

by the final round among party members David Miliband received 54.4 percent of the vote to Ed Miliband’s 45.6 percent. David Miliband won outright in 540 constituencies (more than 85 percent of the total), whereas Ed Miliband won outright in just 73 (12 percent). Diane Abbott, the left wing candidate at that time, did not win a single constituency.11

In 2015, as Wintour notes, only 71,546 union supporters voted compared to 245,520 party members and 105,000 registered supporters. But Corbyn won 49.59 percent of the members, 83.76 percent of the supporters and 57.61 of trade unionists—an overall first preference victory of 59.5 percent. This result can’t be dismissed as merely an effect of the influx of supporters after he announced his candidacy in June. If the election had been confined to members, Corbyn would certainly have won once the second preferences of the lower performing candidates (Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper) had been redistributed. The Labour Party membership has been recomposed—first of all thanks to Miliband’s very timid attempts to distance himself from Blair and Brown and then as a result of the inflow of new members that started after his defeat in May.

None of this alters the fact that Labour’s working class roots have become much weaker since the heyday of Bevanism, when individual party membership peaked at 1,014,524 in 1952, nearly three times the present figure.12 McKenzie, an academic who also pursued a successful TV career, presciently suggested: “Perhaps in retrospect it will be evident that the mass party saw its heyday during the period when the extension of the franchise had created a mass electorate but there was as yet no effective means of reaching the voters in their own homes” via radio, TV, and now the internet.13

But what we can now see is that the very loosening of mainstream parties’ social anchorage means that—with the help of Facebook and Twitter—they can, in the right circumstances, become the vehicle of wider currents of protest. As Corbyn himself acknowledges, his campaign was powered in large part by the different mass movements that he has championed, notably the People’s Assembly against Austerity and the Stop the War Coalition. Seumas Milne puts what has happened well:

Politics is polarising in response to over a decade of falling living standards, rising insecurity and economic crisis. The media and political establishment has proved incapable of managing the intrusion of Corbyn’s democratic insurgency into what had seemed a well-insulated elite order. Media organisations that have for years called every major issue wrongly, from the war on terror to the economy, find themselves unable to deal with a movement that has overturned the rules of the game.14

The key question is, of course, what happens now. Before considering Corbyn’s options, it’s worth noting that his victory probably is curtains for the hardcore Blairites. The interventions the New Labour elite—Blair himself, Mandelson, Alastair Campbell—made during the election campaign were hugely counter-productive. Their candidate, Kendall, achieved a humiliating 4.5 percent of the vote. Even the election as deputy leader of Tom Watson, who initiated the ministerial revolt in 2006 that forced Blair to name a date for his retirement, must be a bitter pill for the Blairites to swallow.

Their ability to mount a damaging split comparable to the SDP breakaway seems limited. They lack big hitters comparable to the Gang of Four (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers) who led the 1981 secession. Moreover, the wretched plight of the Liberal Democrats hardly makes them an inviting ally. The rumour, reported by Robert Peston, that “one or a number of the New Labour Blairite ultras could cross the floor to the Tories, because of their personal relationship with [George] Osborne—to whom they feel closer, in a political and social sense, than they do to Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn”, is a sign of their weakness rather than their strength.15

This doesn’t mean that Corbyn has an easy hand to play. The dominant oligarchic structure of power in the Labour Party has been destabilised, not destroyed. He faces three outright enemies: the PLP, the Tories and the media, one threatening embrace—the British state, and one unreliable ally—the trade union leaders. The response to Corbyn’s victory by Labour MPs, hardly any of whom voted for him, was one of uncomprehending and childish fury. This is expressed both in the flood of refusals to serve in his shadow cabinet (in many cases before they had been asked) and in the willingness of those who agreed to accept posts to criticise him publicly. This reaction shows a contempt for the Labour Party’s democratic processes (no doubt many MPs would happily dismiss those who voted for Corbyn as Webb’s “fanatics, cranks and extremists”) that may well rebound on them. But undoubtedly the PLP is determined to bully him into “responsibility”.

The other open enemies, the media and the Tories, go together. What used to be called Fleet Street remains dominated by pro-Tory big business (though even the supposedly centre-left Guardian was hostile to Corbyn’s candidacy). In all likelihood we are going to see a rerun of the vicious campaign of media vituperation that a generation ago sought to destroy Tony Benn and Michael Foot. What Miliband suffered was a much milder version, though by the end the baying ranks of Tory backbenchers at Prime Minister’s Question Time and relentless media barracking wore down his public presence.

David Cameron’s initial response to Corbyn was subtler, though still designed to destroy, according to the Financial Times:

The first element is to treat Mr Corbyn with respect, an acknowledgment that the Labour leader is a product of a profound anti-politics mood in the country, disdainful of spin and boorish behaviour in the House of Commons… Mr Corbyn’s courteous style and refusal to engage in personality politics makes him a difficult target in the Commons; the public might respond badly to him being targeted for ridicule or mockery.

Instead Mr Cameron and George Osborne plan to attack Mr Corbyn on his policies, with a focus on the threat he poses to the “security” of Britain and the economic wellbeing of families.

Their strategy is to argue that Mr Corbyn is not some eccentric aberration to be targeted as an individual; rather that his overwhelming mandate as Labour leader proves he now represents mainstream Labour thinking.

Mr Osborne is particularly determined to make sure that Mr Corbyn’s failings damage the Labour brand.16

And then there is the British state. In winning the Labour leadership Corbyn has taken up a position in that state, as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and potential prime minister. The initial media kerfuffles over his attitude to the monarchy weren’t simply symbolic. The very first Labour government in January 1924 demonstrated that it was no threat to the established order by the eagerness with which its members affirmed their loyalty to the Crown. Beatrice Webb recorded that the new ministers “were all laughing over Wheatley—the revolutionary—going down on both knees and actually kissing the King’s hand” when he received the seals of office from George V.17 These charades are about securing Labour leaders’ commitment to loyally serving the British state.

Jeremy Corbyn is a republican, a socialist and an anti-imperialist, so this is a big ask. But the record of previous left wing Labour leaders is not a happy one. George Lansbury inherited the leadership by default in 1932, as the only ex-cabinet minister left in the House of Commons after the disaster of Ramsay MacDonald’s betrayal. He had emerged through the struggles of the working class in the East End of London—above all, the efforts during the 1920s of the London borough of Poplar to provide the unemployed with decent support. A J P Taylor calls him “the most lovable figure in modern politics”.18

But he fronted a policy described by Ralph Miliband as “MacDonaldism without MacDonald”, for example, opposing proposals that Labour-controlled councils should refuse to implement the Tory-dominated national government’s means test on unemployment relief.19 In permanent conflict with the Labour National Executive Committee over his pacifism, Lansbury was forced out after a particularly brutal attack by Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, at the 1935 party conference.

Michael Foot succeeded James Callaghan in 1980 and initially made a powerful impact outside parliament by addressing a series of mass demonstrations against unemployment. But he was then dragged down by his efforts to appease the Labour right and discredited by his urging Thatcher on her war with Argentina over the Falklands. He resigned after presiding over a devastating electoral defeat in 1983.

Corbyn is by background closer to Lansbury than to Foot. Foot, despite his history as Bevan’s loyal aide, was a lifelong House of Commons man whose parliamentarianism was expressed in his friendship with Enoch Powell, with whom he was frequently in political alliance on issues such as House of Lords reform and Europe.20 Corbyn—as we have already seen, marginalised in the House of Commons—has used his parliamentary role to support a variety of extra-parliamentary movements and struggles.

Moreover, unlike Lansbury, who told the 1934 Labour conference: “I have never considered myself leader—but as the spokesman of my colleagues in the House of Commons… It was an accident that put me there”, Corbyn has sought the leadership and won a thumping victory.21 This gives him considerable authority. But he can only hope to counter the forces lined up against him with powerful extra-parliamentary support.

One potential source of that support is those fickle friends, the trade union leaders. Corbyn’s campaign won the backing of a number of major unions. At least two factors were involved. First, it’s clear that many leading union officials are thoroughly fed up with the ignorance and indifference that much of the parliamentary leadership display towards the organised working class. Backing Corbyn was an opportunity to get the PLP’s attention. Secondly, there are more specifically political reasons. Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, has made no secret of his desire to wipe New Labour out and “reclaim” the party for the left. Corbyn’s candidacy posed for people like him the question: If not now, when? Unite gave significant organisational support to his campaign (though the idea that this was the reason for his victory is plain silly).

The union leaders’ backing can both help Corbyn and hold him back. As we have seen, the union bureaucracy is the crucial social underpinning of Labour’s parliamentary reformism. Like the rest of the party, it will judge Corbyn by his ability to deliver electoral success—above all, to win in 2020 and repeal the anti-union law now being pushed through by the Tories. Already the union leaders’ moderating pull is being felt. McCluskey is widely rumoured to have lobbied Corbyn not to make his fellow left winger John McDonnell shadow chancellor of the exchequer. Happily Corbyn ignored this advice, only to see the unions vote against a discussion of Trident at the Labour Party conference. He doesn’t have the union leaders to thank for his victory, which gives him considerable authority to pursue his own path. But his ability actually to do so depends on his being able to turn the movement that crystallised to support him into something long-lasting. This faces several difficulties.

First of all, a substantial movement of activists, based mainly in the CLPs, gathered around Benn at the end of the 1970s. But its defeat—and the wider defeat of the workers’ movement under Thatcher—caused the Labour left to dwindle away. Its weakness was reflected in the 7.42 percent of first preferences that Diane Abbott as the candidate of the “hard left” won in the 2010 leadership election. Many of the surviving Labour left activists helped to drive Corbyn’s campaign. But to face off the PLP he will need to persuade thousands of the people who joined Labour or registered as supporters to vote for him to become active members, turning up regularly to their local branch meetings and constituency general committees and all-member meetings. But the gap between largely online participation in Corbyn’s campaign and involvement week-in, week-out in Labour’s internal life is a big one.22

This poses, secondly, the question of how to motivate these ­potential activists. One of the weaknesses of the Bennite movement was its ­preoccupation with the inner-party struggle. This led it to ignore the way in which the economic defeats being suffered by workers were pulling the rug from under it. Cliff summed up this contradiction with the formula “political upturn, industrial downturn”: the contradiction was resolved by the defeat of the Labour left. But it’s clear that what motivated people to back Corbyn were the broader causes he championed—in a nutshell, resistance to austerity, war and racism. Sustaining their involvement will require also sustaining the movements around these different (though interconnected) causes. But this is a recipe for endless conflict with the Labour right-wingers in the House of Commons. Products of the New Labour era, they are entirely sincere in supporting, for example, a benefit cap, military action against ISIS, or clamping down on immigration. It’s precisely to oppose such policies that people voted for Corbyn.

Thirdly, Labour is fundamentally an electoral party. It exists, in other words, to contest and win elections. Corbyn will be judged fundamentally by this criterion. One especially odious right wing Labour MP, John Mann, put it crudely, but his basic view is widely shared in the party mainstream: “If Corbyn breathes new life into Labour in the Scottish elections next year, delivers a crushing victory for us in Wales and improves our position in England, he will have earned the right to lead us into the next General Election. But if he fails to do that, my party must act”.23

The pressure to deliver electorally will constantly cut across the effort to widen the net of left-Labour activists and sustain the social movements behind Corbyn’s victory. The pressure can be seen in his efforts to conciliate enough right wingers to serve in the shadow cabinet by, for example, retreating from his earlier policy of making Labour support for a Yes vote in the EU referendum conditional on Cameron not seeking “reforms” that “undermine rights at work”.24 But if he pursues this path of compromise, he could end up like Foot, abandoned by the left and despised by the right.

The fate of the Corbyn leadership electorally will be tied up with its ability to offer an economic alternative to austerity that captures people’s imaginations. Some proposals—renationalising the railways and clamping down on corporate tax-dodging—are popular. The key macroeconomic policy, developed by the tax reformer Richard Murphy, is “People’s Quantitative Easing (QE)”. This would involve the Bank of England buying the bonds and other assets of local councils, housing associations, and a new National Investment Bank. The money thereby created could then be used by these institutions to fund productive investment.

The quirky right winger Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of the Daily Telegraph, says this “is exactly what the world will need if the global economy tips into another recession with interest rates already at zero and debt ratios stretched to historic extremes”.25 But, further to the left, the Marxist economist Michael Roberts has been a consistent critic of the idea, often put forward by post-Keynesian economists, that QE, by pumping money into the economy, can overcome the stagnation caused fundamentally by a relatively low rate of profit. He points out that People’s QE would leave the bulk of the British economy in the hands of private corporations that have cut investment significantly since the onset of the global crisis in 2007 and are unlikely to change course without a significant rise in profitability.26

What this controversy highlights is the fact that Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s programme is, hardly surprisingly given that they are long-standing members of the Labour Party, a reformist one. Indeed, Corbyn’s victory must be seen as one manifestation of a new wave of reformism that has been developing in Europe over the past few years (and even beyond Europe, as Bernie Sanders’s phenomenal performance in the American presidential campaign shows). This new reformism differs in many ways from older versions of social democracy, but it essentially seeks to reverse austerity, increase economic growth, and reduce inequality without directly challenging the existing structures of capitalist power (including, in the case of Syriza and Podemos, those of the European Union and the eurozone).27

The trouble is that this new reformism has been brutally tested at the other end of Europe, in Greece under Alexis Tsipras’s short-lived first government. Swept to office in a revolt against austerity in Greece, Syriza found itself locked in permanent confrontation with the EU. The astonishing step forward represented by the referendum of 5 July—nearly 62 percent of the electorate voting No to the EU demands for yet more austerity—was followed barely a week later on 13 July by Tsipras signing a new agreement in Brussels that subjects Greece to a third and even harsher memorandum of understanding. After Syriza split over this capitulation, he called a snap election on 20 September that returned him to office on roughly the same share of the vote he had won in January.

Back in April the Financial Times reported:

Eurozone authorities’ frustration with Greece has grown so intense that a change in the current Athens government’s make-up, however far-fetched, has become a frequent topic of conversation on the sidelines of bailout talks.

Many officials—up to and including some eurozone finance ministers—have suggested privately that only a decision by Alexis Tsipras…to jettison the far left of his governing Syriza party can make a bailout agreement possible.28

Far-fetched or not, the EU has got its way and more. Panos Garganas diagnoses this tragic reversal in the next article in this issue. But something needs to be said about it here because of a strange amnesia that grips many on the radical left. Many enthusiasts for Corbyn a few months ago were hoping for a “British Syriza”. But shouldn’t there be some reflection on what happened to the original Syriza? What implications does it have for the development of a new left, here in Britain included? Addressing this question can be divisive. Some leading left wing intellectuals—for example, Leo Panitch and Slavoj Žižek—have defended Tsipras, basically on the grounds that there was no alternative. This disagreement underlines that the progress of the left is not a smooth continuous upward advance, but a polarised process involving debates, divisions and sometimes splits.

Of course, there is a long history of reformist governments reversing their policies under pressure from capital—think of Harold Wilson in Britain in the mid-1960s and mid-1970s or François Mitterrand in France in the early 1980s. The usual mechanism for disciplining governments has been capital flight causing a currency crisis. But of course, Greece no longer has a national currency. So a new mechanism came into play—the European Central Bank, first rationing liquidity to Greek banks and thereby encouraging a bank run, and then, by ceasing to make further loans, shutting the entire banking system down at the end of June.

In some ways this is a politically more potent weapon than currency crisis since closing the banks directly attacks the pockets of individual citizens. But it could have been countered. The No victory in the referendum was achieved in defiance of the bank shutdown. Shortly after he was effectively sacked as Greek finance minister after the referendum, Yanis Varoufakis revealed that he had created a team to prepare a “Plan B” involving, for example, “a parallel banking system while the banks were shut as a result of the ECB’s aggressive action to give us some breathing space”. But he never received the authorisation from Tsipras to go ahead.29 The problem wasn’t lack of technical means, but of the political will to seek an alternative to capitulation. Sustaining this alternative would have depended on turning the popular rejection of austerity in the referendum into much more sustained mass mobilisation and self-organisation.

Syriza was meant to be a new kind of anti-capitalist party. But in reality Tsipras’s cave-in has recapitulated in six months the movement from left reformism to social liberalism that it took Pasok 20 years to accomplish. Along the way, under Andreas Papandreou during the 1980s, Pasok achieved political and social reforms for the Greek working class. Syriza in government delivered nothing of substance and is now committed to an even more vicious programme of austerity than those mandated by the first and second memorandums.

The new government won’t have an easy ride. Tsipras concentrated his fire on the Greek Tories, New Democracy, already thrown into disarray from defeat in the referendum. But turnout fell to a historic low of 56.6 percent. Syriza lost 300,000 votes, half to Popular Unity (PU), the new party formed by Syriza’s Left Platform in August. Some 9.46 percent of the vote went to parties to the left of Syriza. This provides a good starting point for resistance to Tsipras’s attempts to deliver on his devil’s pact with Brussels.

Some on the radical left have simply switched their allegiances from Syriza to PU. But its leadership around Panagiotis Lafazanis hardly laid a strong basis for the new party when in government. They greeted Tsipras’s reversal of the referendum result with byzantine parliamentary manoeuvres (in the first parliamentary vote on 10 July a couple voted against while the rest either voted for it or abstained) and, rather than resign their ministerial positions and start campaigning publicly immediately, waited for several weeks to be sacked by Tsipras.

PU argues, correctly, that Greece should leave the eurozone, but surely the problem with Syriza lay deeper than Tsipras’s refusal to abandon the euro? Even one of its supporters has admitted: “Some of the ­problematic aspects of Syriza—both in terms of a certain bureaucratic organisational culture and of a reformist conception of the political programme—are being reproduced inside Popular Unity”.30 Tsipras called a snap election in part to deny PU the time to organise properly, which no doubt helps to explain why it didn’t get past the 3 percent barrier to obtaining seats in parliament.

But there needs to be much more reflection on the causes of Syriza’s failure. One main lesson of the Greek experience is to avoid becoming trapped in the media and parliamentary bubble. The strength of the new left derives from the social movements that have pushed it forward. Whether it is a matter of rebuilding the anti-austerity left in Greece or sustaining Corbyn’s leadership, the starting point must be the streets and the workplaces, not parliament.31

Finally, how and—above all—where should socialists organise? The flood into the Labour Party has swept along many ex-members of the ­revolutionary left. The climate is in some way reminiscent of the euphoria surrounding Syriza particularly at the time of its electoral breakthrough in 2012. The Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK) was criticised then for not joining Syriza and instead building Antarsya (the Front of the Anticapitalist Left) together with other far-left organisations. SEK’s choice has now been fully vindicated. Antarsya’s independent stance hasn’t led to isolation—the general secretary of Syriza actually thanked it for its role in the referendum campaign. But it did allow it immediately to challenge Tsipras’s subsequent betrayal without the initial hesitations or equivocations of the Left Platform.

In the direct confrontation between its government and the structures of capitalist power, Syriza buckled. Corbyn is just beginning to deal with these structures and their especially insidious manifestations within the Labour Party itself. We in the Socialist Workers Party will continue to support him against the right. But we shall do so as an independent organisation. As revolutionary socialists, we have inherited the Marxist critique of reformism, which has just been confirmed again in Greece. This theoretical understanding will make us particularly effective in the fight against the right, and in warning Corbyn that, if he compromises with them, he will destroy his leadership.

In this struggle we welcome continuing to work side by side with members of the Labour Party new and old (as we have for many years with Corbyn himself). Because our organisation is geared to intervening in and building social movements, strikes, demonstrations and other forms of ­contestation, we can act untrammelled by the structures of the Labour Party, governed as they are by the very different rhythms of elections and inner-party manoeuvres. We look forward to helping to shape this exciting new phase in the history of the British left.


1: Callinicos, 2015b, p17. Thanks to Joseph Choonara and Camilla Royle for their comments on this article in draft.

2: Mandelson, 2015.

3: Silvera, 2015.

4: I’ve stolen this formulation from Charlie Kimber.

5: Callinicos, 2015a.

6: Till Ed Miliband’s recent reform, trade unions affiliated to Labour could register any or all their members as affiliated members and pay subs on their behalf.

7: McKenzie, 1955, p506.

8: See, on the Bevanites and Bennites respectively, Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, chapters 12 and 16.

9: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p2. For a restatement of the Marxist theory of the trade union bureaucracy, see Darlington, 2014.

10: Blair’s prime-ministerial weakness is noted even by his close ally Peter Mandelson: Mandelson, 2010, pp227-228.

11: Wintour, 2015.

12: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p265.

13: McKenzie, 1955, p591. See, on the transformation of European political parties, Mair, 2013.

14: Milne, 2015.

15: Peston, 2015.

16: Parker and Pickard, 2015.

17: Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p96n**. John Wheatley, a “Red Clydesider”, was minister of health in the first Labour government. See also Miliband, 1972, pp105-106.

18: Taylor, 1970, p191, footnote 3.

19: Miliband, 1972, chapter 7.

20: Foot’s links with Powell are amply documented in Heffer, 2014.

21: Quoted in McKenzie, 1955, p324.

22: See the discussion of some of these problems in Panitch, 2015.

23: Mann, 2015.

24: Corbyn, 2015.

25: Evans-Pritchard, 2015.

26: Roberts, 2015.

27: The nature of contemporary reformism was one of the issues in my debate with Stathis Kouvelakis, “Syriza in Power: Whither Greece?”, at Marxism 2015—go to

28: Spiegel and Hope, 2015.

30: Sotiris, 2015.

31: The relationship between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles was one of the main themes of my first debate with Kouvelakis, “Syriza and Socialist Strategy” (25 February 2015):


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