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The fact that Jeremy Corbyn remains the central figurehead of the British left is the surest sign of a crisis. Corbyn is now an irrelevant factor in the national debate. Old and tired, purged from Labour, discredited in large sections of the working class, he is politically finished. Yet it is this figure that the bulk of the left still looks to. His paralysis is monitored with the greatest eagerness. Every one of his speeches is preceded by childish excitement and rumours that he may make a grand announcement, only to disappoint everyone. The whole left waiting for Corbyn is like a pathetic remake of Waiting for Godot, minus the artistic genius.

Here is the situation: the country is broken and rotting. The Tories are utterly discredited, and the coming election will likely see the victory of the most right-wing Labour Party ever, with Sir Keir Starmer openly supporting genocide and promising austerity and attacks. The situation cries out for a working-class opposition to the Tories and Starmer’s Labour. But there is none on the horizon. Instead, the socialist and workers movement is weak, splintered and playing zero role in this picture. Why?

It is common to hear that the problem with the left is that they spend all their time fighting among themselves instead of uniting against the real enemy. There is truth to this. However, simply stating this does not explain or solve anything, and such explanations are usually used to cover up the real problem. The left is weak because its representatives refuse to stand on their own two feet against the ruling class. They are always more interested in building coalitions with “respectable” elements of the liberal intelligentsia, the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy than in uniting the workers against the ruling class driving the country into the ground. But let’s see how this plays out today.

Starmer, Corbyn and the “independents”

It is Starmer who has drawn the class line in the coming elections. He has spent the last three years leading Labour like a mini-Stalin, purging any whiff of leftism, positioning himself as a total lackey of British imperialism and making it crystal clear that anyone remotely for the working class, Palestine or socialism is his arch-enemy. One would think that the workers and socialist movement would have responded by declaring war on Starmer. Not so....

The few Labour lefts who have not been purged — Zarah Sultana, John McDonnell and Co — have raised the white flag. Everything they do or say is carefully crafted to remain acceptable to the Starmerite clique, terrified that their career could end in a snap. They still try to appear left — they make speeches for peace, show up on picket lines and give food to the poor. Nevertheless, they are committed to getting Starmer into Number 10. At this point, any Labour left who has not taken a stance against Starmer has wilfully chosen to be his useful idiot.

As for the leaders of the trade unions, they no longer have such qualms. All unions now support Starmer, from the more right-wing leaders of the GMB and Unison to the “lefts” like Sharon Graham (Unite) and Mick Lynch (RMT). The latter recently explained that voters had to “grow up” and vote for Starmer (Guardian, 24 February).

With the Labour left and trade union leaders crawling on their bellies before an openly anti-working-class barrister, the left outside of Labour is utterly paralysed, starting with Jeremy Corbyn himself. The reason Corbyn is dragging his feet in even announcing that he will run in his constituency is that he has been a Labourite all his life. He does not want to run against Labour, let alone lead a movement against it. Corbyn’s natural habitat is the Labour backbenches, and his ultimate wish is to be readmitted to the party — an illusion he probably still entertains. Even if Corbyn did run independently, it is already clear that he would wage the most tepid campaign to not upset anyone — especially Labour’s big boss. Despite this, the bulk of the left is sitting in the waiting room of Corbyn’s office…waiting.

George Galloway’s election as Rochdale MP did provide a small glimmer of hope for the anti-Starmer left. On the one hand, his election was a satisfying slap across Starmer’s face and has led to a surge of left independent candidates wanting to challenge Labour and the Tories (like the “No Ceasefire No Vote” bloc). On the other, this “movement” is totally divided. Now, any bloke thinks he can lead his little independent campaign, engaging with others only to divide their turf, ie “I run here, you run there.” This includes Galloway’s Workers Party, which, for all his promises to present hundreds of candidates, remains a one-man show. Owen Jones quitting Labour was a recent addition to this disorganised chorus, calling to support the pro-EU middle-class liberals of the Green Party. “Quit Labour and saw off your left leg” would have been a simpler way to say the same thing.

What is needed is obvious: a unified, pro-socialist and pro-working-class front against Starmer and the ruling class. Instead, we have a swarm of individuals each running their own little show, interested in advancing their own little name but in no way advancing the interests of the working class. The main reason for this is not ego (although ego plays a role, and not just with “gorgeous George”), but that every single one of these independent candidates seeks to remain respectable in the eyes of the Labour left and trade union bureaucrats, who themselves need to remain respectable in the eyes of Starmer, who himself needs to remain respectable in the eyes of the ruling class.

You see, running in one constituency against Labour is cute but harmless — particularly when Labour is sure to win the election. Building a working-class movement against Starmer is an entirely different business and means making a lot of enemies. But no one on the left wants to do this. No one wants to rattle the cage, draw a sharp line against the union leaders and Labour lefts and put it to them: “With the working class and Palestine? Or with Starmer? Which side are you on?

TUSC and what to do

There is one partial exception to this: the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). To its credit, TUSC’s goal is to regroup the left in a united pro-socialist front against Starmer and the Tories, which is why we support it and urge all other left groups to do the same (see pages 6-7).

However, TUSC generates little enthusiasm and seems to function by inertia. The main reason for this is that TUSC’s leaders — mainly from the Socialist Party — suffer from the same disease as others in the left. Despite TUSC’s statement of intent, its leaders are adamant in supporting the Labour left (who support Starmer). Why? Because opposing them frontally would wreck TUSC’s chances of attracting Corbyn or trade union honchos.

In this way, TUSC tangles itself in the same chain as everyone else. The result is that no one understands the point of TUSC and how it differs from the dozens of other outfits. In turn, TUSC’s leaders wage the most timid campaign for their coalition, scared of alienating the Labour left and hoping to catch a big fish by being nice. This vicious circle only makes TUSC appear lame and irrelevant.

There is a clear appetite among workers and youth for a real working-class challenge to Starmer. And as simple and obvious as this sounds, it is not happening because everyone else on the left refuses to step on the toes of trade union bureaucrats and Labour MPs who still cling to Starmer! So, the first task of leftists is to recognise the problem, which no one does. Many far-left groups, like the RCG or the RCP, have not even begun to understand that the task now is to organise a working-class opposition to Starmer and instead scream into the wind for revolution. Hello? These groups must get out of their bubble and confront reality and the political impasse workers and youth face today.

The left must work together — and not by papering over our differences — to build a common front against Starmer. TUSC remains an obvious vehicle for this. What is needed is a fight inside TUSC so that it aggressively draws a hard class line against Starmer and puts the screws on the pathetic Labour lefts instead of tailing them. Force them to choose! Expose them at every opportunity! Then it will become clear who wants to fight and who wants to cling to Starmer’s tits. And TUSC might finally get some real traction because — guess what? — everyone hates Starmer!

Again, the point is simple: as long as the left clings to left-Labour MPs like Zarah Sultana, to union bureaucrats like Mick Lynch and Sharon Graham, or to discredited figures like Jeremy Corbyn — who all cling to Starmer — it will remain crippled and tied to the forces of the status quo. The result will be to push the working class towards right-wing and reactionary forces, who appear to be the only ones opposing the establishment. This is precisely the main lesson of the Corbyn years.

Corbynism and its lessons

Most on the left still think that the goal is to revive Corbynism, which only shows how the left has failed to learn any lessons. It is worth elaborating on this.

Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, not because he had anything original to propose, nor because he was particularly charismatic or ambitious. The Labour left’s decision to run Corbyn was a desperate one. They needed some symbolic presence in the leadership contest to show that the left was not completely dead. What happened is that the contest intersected a massive wave of discontent against two decades of Blairism, austerity and war, which lifted Corbyn (an irrelevant backbencher minutes before) to leadership, surprising everyone, including himself. Contrary to those begging Corbyn today, the man was never the cause of his success. He just happened to be the lightning rod for the explosion of discontent.

Fast-forward four years: Corbyn led Labour into an electoral disaster and resigned in shame. The right wing always likes to bring this up. Yet there is a reality that in 2019 Corbyn lost vast swathes of the working class to the Tories and ended his tenure with the left in tatters and tens of thousands of youth disillusioned, paving the way for Starmer. What happened?

A lot of ink has been spilled over Corbyn’s demise. Still, everyone attributes it to personal traits, organisational matters or the strength of the right wing. At most, some will say that Corbyn conceded too much and should have fought more. Sure, but why didn’t he? This is the crucial question that no one proposing to revive Corbynism has answered. The central issue is not so dissimilar to what we face today: it is about political programmes and unity with the ruling class.

From the day Corbyn won the leadership, he was torn by the contradictions inside Labour. On the one hand, he was pushed to the fore by the party’s working-class base and pro-socialist aspirations, gaining the support of a wing of the trade union bureaucracy in the process. On the other hand, he faced total hostility from the ruling class, the press and the Blairites, with the latter controlling the party’s parliamentary fraction and apparatus.

But fundamentally, Corbyn was not defeated by the right wing. Despite their never-ending hysteria and plotting, every time they tried to take on Corbyn directly, they failed because of his massive support at the party’s base (eg, the 2016 “chicken coup”). Rather, Corbyn was defeated by himself and his coalition of supporters.

What drove the Corbyn movement was largely negative — a rejection of Blairism, austerity and war. Corbyn’s coalition included an array of people with completely counterposed views on almost every critical political question of the time: pro-EU left Labourites (like MPs John McDonnell and Diane Abbott or Owen Jones), not so pro-EU Labourites (like Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne), left union bureaucrats (like Len McCluskey), Stalinists, left-wing Zionists, pro-Palestinian nationalists, ecologists etc. Then a significant number of more right-wing Labourites, turncoat Blairites and pure opportunists (like Starmer) latched on to this coalition.

All this is because the “Corbyn project” was never based on defending the interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie and drawing clear class lines on the burning issues of the day: Brexit, anti-Semitism, foreign policy, Scotland etc. Rather, it was a liberal jumble, loosely united on abstract values of “peace” and “social justice”. Thus, from day one the central preoccupation of Corbyn and his immediate advisers — waking up every morning to fresh scandals — was to keep this hodgepodge of conflicting interests together. This meant pursuing a constant and chaotic policy of appeasement and conciliation of the most right-wing elements of the bloc, who were under pressure from the Blairites, who were under pressure from the ruling class.

This was clear with the issue of anti-Semitism, the first effective wrench the Blairites threw into the Corbyn coalition. The most right-wing elements wanted Corbyn to crawl. The liberal anti-racists, utterly paralysed by the racist bourgeoisie accusing them of racism, wanted Corbyn to bend over backwards and give way to the offensive. The most left-wing elements wished to oppose the whole thing (including dismissing real cases of anti-Semitism) while conciliating the right. What was needed was a forceful fightback against the slanderous campaign by the ruling class, striking at the source of this hypocritical crusade: British imperialism’s support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and the demonisation of anyone attacking this as anti-Jewish. Instead, Corbyn’s bloc was polarised and paralysed, with Corbyn himself refusing to confront the issue (often literally going AWOL).

A similar dynamic happened around the question of the EU, which is the one that destroyed Corbyn. Support for the EU was a red line for most of the bourgeoisie and all the Blairites and was reflected in large numbers within Corbyn’s base and coalition. Corbyn was never a fan of the EU, but he nevertheless caved and campaigned for “remain” in 2016 to avoid a split in the party and his coalition. Then, as the zombie Tory government was on its last legs, as pro-EU remainers began raising their heads and as Corbyn was crippled by the never-ending quest to appease his pro-EU liberal bloc partners (extending from Starmer to McDonnell and Abbott), he became the candidate for a second referendum against Johnson’s “Get Brexit done.”

Most working people saw Brexit as the first real challenge to the liberal status quo of the previous three decades. The 2016 referendum was seen by many, particularly in the north of England, as not only on the EU but also on the state of the country. The question was: “Do you want things to remain as they are, or not?” Corbyn and most of the left played a criminal role in siding with “remain”, ceding the terrain of opposition to the EU to racist bigots. Concession after concession led Corbyn to stand for a second referendum, thus presenting himself to working-class voters as leader of the pro-EU, pro-London establishment party. As a result, millions of working-class voters turned against Corbyn and the left. Today, those who want to revive Corbynism must wilfully conceal that Corbynism caused one of the most significant schisms between the left and the working class and gave a tremendous boost to right-wing Tories and Reform UK.

As soon as he was elected party leader, what was posed for Corbyn was to confront the entire ruling class, drive the Blairites out of Labour, mount a working-class opposition to the EU, British imperialism and racist reaction and unleash the full force of the workers movement against Fleet Street and the City of London. But the whole idea of Corbynism — and of left Labourism in general — is that advancing socialism must be subordinated to a partnership with Blairites, pro-EU liberals, trade union bureaucrats and the ex-Crown prosecutor Knight of the realm, who are all hated by the working class and, in various ways, represent and defend the interests of the British bourgeoisie. Unity with the ruling class: this is why Corbyn’s project was a disaster.

To return to today, no one has learned this lesson. The bulk of the left is still in this holy alliance with the ruling class through the union leaders and left Labour MPs, which explains the glaring absence of a working-class challenge to Starmer and the total lame state of the left.

Trotsky wrote of Lenin that “the struggle for the independent political party of the proletariat constituted the main content of his life” (The Permanent Revolution, 1929). Any serious leftist must reflect on these simple yet profound words. The party of the working class must be politically independent from the bourgeoisie and any elements tied to it.

To become a real factor, the socialist movement must stand on its own two feet and draw a hard line against Starmer and against those who support him. To unite the socialist left, the socialist left must be split. This might sound contradictory, but some alliances make you stronger and others make you weaker. If one understands that the left is weak because of those within it who cling to the trousers of the bourgeoisie, then it follows that getting rid of these people will make it stronger. This is the fundamental difference between Corbynism and Leninism. The former is a dead end, the latter is the only way forward.