I began political blogging ten years ago, with increased intensity in the past five or six. On a few issues – Russia, the 2016 US Election, Brexit, Syria, Venezuela – my positions, and reactions to them, have threatened or actually cost me friendships I valued. Yet no one took me to task over specifics.1 No one ever said:
You know what, Phil? You’re dead wrong about Putin .. Trump/Clinton .. the nature of the EU .. Assad .. Maduro. And here, point by closely argued point, is why …
Rather, they traded generalities. I’m biased, said some. True. It’s hard to be impartial when your country, armed to the teeth and in bed with an even mightier power, wages hot war or imposes infanticidal sanctions on the global south in the name of lofty ideals but in the interests – as factually demonstrated in posts like this – of profits.
I’m an extremist, said others. Well, yes, it will look that way if, lulled by careful omission and the seemingly sober and reasonable voices of what Tariq Ali called the Extreme Centre, a violently insane world order2 has been successfully presented as mainstream and by that fact moderate. Which is to say, if your overarching weltanschauung is at root shaped by two realities. One, like mine your life is one of material comfort and freedoms beyond the reach of most people that on earth do dwell. Two, unlike mine your window on the wider world is framed almost entirely by corporate media, of which Noam Chomsky has made two telling observations. Here’s one:
These are big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now the question is, what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure?
And here’s the second:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
Still other of my detractors served up strawman argument with heavy handed sarcasm – ‘oh yes, I’m sure Bashar Assad is a saint!’ But the most memorable generality – ‘my politics aren’t the same as yours’ – effectively denied any relevance to factuality. We may as well have been discussing preferences for jazz over classical, Thai cuisine over Italian, Chelsea FC over Arsenal.
None of those who made such arguments is stupid or immoral. Most have degrees, doctorates etc, so are well trained in the construction of arguments grounded in evidence and framed in logic. So why won’t they debate me point by point?
They can’t. They sense instinctively that I must be wrong but can’t engage me on the facts. And why would they? As Caitlin Johnstone often reminds us, narrative beats facts hands down in the arena of opinion manufacture. And as any observer of the human condition knows, ‘instinctive sense’ – in this case nurtured by narratives spun by those best equipped, pace Chomsky, to do so – beats reasoned analysis. Also hands down.
In this case the narrative works night and day to deny the truth, hiding right out in the open, that our world order is imperialist. Of which I’ll stick with my working definition, frequently offered on this site:
Imperialism is the North-South export of monopoly capital, and South-North repatriation of profits.
For a closely argued account of how it works, try John Smith’s Imperialism in the twenty-first century. Meanwhile my assessment, slowly arrived at, is that failure to recognise ours as an imperialised world – or recognising it with insufficient clarity to grasp its logical corollaries – lies at the heart of those weltanschaungs which put me and similar writers beyond the pale.
We are too far outside the Overton Window, you see. But few grasp how and in whose interests that window is constructed. Worse, there are those with a sound grasp of the Overton Window who suddenly forget all they know in the face of especially ferocious propaganda blitzes.
So what has this to do with ‘the tragedy of Corbynism’? Glad you asked. Like many on Britain’s Left – from Labour ‘moderates’, through Jezza devotees, to those scornful of the very notion of ‘parliamentary socialism’ – I’ve read dozens of post-mortems on Labour’s crushing defeat of December 2019. Many made good points – see this review of Owen Jones’s book, This Land3 – but even the best, such as those offered by Jonathan Cook, Caitlin Johnstone and (ahem) me, have been limited.
Typically we cast the media as central villains. In particular we poured vitriol, and rightly so, on liberal media which, as they had with Julian Assange, worked so hard to undermine progressive support for Labour’s first real challenge in decades to neoliberalism and ‘austerity’. All well and good as far as it goes, but such analyses lack the requisite depth. For that we must factor in that elephant in the room whose remarkable invisibility has caused me such frustration – as per the above – in my dealings with those alienated by my views on, amongst other things, Russia, the 2016 US Election, Brexit, Syria and Venezuela.
And this is where I stop and hand over to by far the best – the most fearless and thoroughgoing – analysis of “the tragedy of Corbynism”. It first ran in the subscribers section of CounterPunch on December 27 but, by January 3, the Greanville Post was hosting a non-paywalled version. Written by Dan Glazebrook, this 7500 worder is the first I’ve read that places imperialism fair and square at the centre – the alpha and omega – of its analysis of the tragedy of Corbynism.
I don’t say it’s flawless. It could have done with another proof read where ill placed quote marks introduce ambiguity as to who is saying what. More important, a claim that labour aristocracies in the West are paid “above the value” of their labour-power invites unanswered questions on how the value of this unique commodity4 is determined by socio-political as well as natural and productivity realities. More important yet, I’m less than convinced by Glazebrook’s suggestion, towards the end, that the forces Corbynism unleashed should or even could have been diverted from utopian dreams of parliamentary socialism – or the more modest dream of gaining office – to focus on educating future generations in the realities of class struggle.
But in the wider scheme of things these are minor carps. Written clearly, in a manner devoid of those hackneyed and needlessly alienating phrases beloved of so many writers on the Left, Dan Glazebrook’s piece gets a lot more right than it gets wrong.
The Tragedy of Corbynism
Corbyn’s election as leader of Labour party in 2015 was seen by much of the British left as their best chance to reverse the neoliberal imperialist trajectory of the British state for at least a generation. With a solid track record of opposition to war, nuclear weapons and privatisation, he was able to capture the imagination of a disenfranchised youth sick of corporate-sponsored politicians, quickly turning the Labour party into the biggest mass membership party in Europe, with over half a million members. Two years later, defying all predictions, Corbyn’s Labour managed to overturn the ruling Conservatives’ parliamentary majority in a snap election which was supposed to deliver them a landslide. The prospect of a Corbyn government, with a genuine commitment to reversing the inequality and militarism that had become the hallmark of the western world, seemed to be a real prospect – perhaps even an inevitability.
Yet the general election of 2019 saw the entire project come crashing down in flames. Boris Johnson’s revitalised Tory party, united around a Brexit deal which had escaped his predecessor, stormed back to power with the party’s biggest majority since 1983, stripping Labour of dozens of working class constituencies it had held for generations. Corbyn was replaced by Sir Kier Starmer QC, heralding a purge of Corbynites from the frontbenches. Within a few months, Corbyn himself had been expelled from the parliamentary party.
Explanations for the 2019 result came thick and fast, and their apparent variety obscured the basic argument which tended to run throughout all of them: “Corbyn lost because he didn’t do what I said”. For the party’s right wing, he lost because he was too left; for the left, he lost because he had not moved decisively against the right. For Brexiteers, he lost because of his support for a second Brexit referendum; for Remainers, because this support came too late. For many Corbynites, the result was simply down to contingent tactical mistakes and the hostility of the media; and for Tories, of course, it simply demonstrated, once again, the British people’s instinctive, and correct, abhorrence for socialism.
For socialists, the temptation is to forget the whole sorry saga and ‘move on’. But a serious postmortem is essential if we are to have any hope of learning from the mistakes (as well as the successes) of the movement.
At the outset of this process, it is essential to recognise some basic political realities.
Firstly, the UK is an imperial entity. The relinquishing of formal political rule over most of its colonies between the 1940s and 1970s (with the crucial exception of a string of strategically-positioned island territories such as Diego Garcia, the Caymans, the Falklands, the Virgin islands and around a dozen others) has not changed this simple reality. The basic contours of the world economy created by colonialism – a system of wealth transference from Asia, Africa and Latin America to North America and Western Europe – remain intact, and have indeed been strengthened and perfected in the era of neo-colonialism, to the extent that net resource transfers from the global South to the North today amount to roughly $3trillion per year – triple the value of goods and services flowing the other way, and twenty-four times the total value of North-South foreign aid. Much of this uncompensated wealth transfer is via ‘capital flight’, often illicit, and mostly facilitated through the network of tax havens located in Britain’s remaining island colonies.
Secondly, and contrary to the claims of the colonial left, this wealth does not only benefit a tiny minority. From the 1840s onwards, writes historian Eric Hobsbawm, a ‘labour aristocracy’ began to emerge in Britain – a privileged section of the working class paid above the value of their labour power out of the profits generated by empire. Since 1945, this labour aristocracy, argues Zak Cope, has come to encompass the entire citizenry of countries such as Britain. The domestic accomplishments of Clement Attlee’s Labour government – the NHS, social housing, the welfare state – were largely paid for by the intensified exploitation of the colonies, and colonialism has underwritten social democracy ever since. Even in the era of neoliberalism, which has seen welfare states decimated, the British population (at least up until the 2008 crash) has seen the value of its real wages increase, as intensified exploitation of the global proletariat has led to cheapening consumer goods.
Thirdly, Britain has consistently used its military might to protect and defend this colonial wealth transfer whenever it has been under threat. From the opium wars of the mid-nineteenth century, to the destruction of Libya in 2011, any and every country which has refused to collaborate with the precepts of the colonial global economy has met the wrath of the UK military, either overtly or covertly (with the exception of some Latin American countries, the war against whom has been largely been subcontracted to the US). It is largely for this reason that Britain has invaded no less than 90% of the current member states of the UN at some point.
Social democracy in Britain has always reflected this colonial reality; it has always been a fight over the spoils of colonialism, rather than a challenge to it. The need to uphold and defend the colonial wealth transfer at the heart of world capitalism has always been the singular point of agreement between governments of left and right in the UK. It was, after all, the Attlee government that initiated both Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and NATO, as well as sending troops to Greece, Malaya and Korea to drown their revolutions in blood and restore the rule of more pliant local aristocrats; and it was Tony Blair’s New Labour who spearheaded illegal Anglo-American aggression against Serbia and Iraq as well as sending troops to Sierra Leone and invading Afghanistan, for the fourth time in Britain’s modern history. All of these interventions, from Attlee to Blair, can best be understood as wars to contain threats to colonial ‘global capitalism’ in general (as Christopher Doran has comprehensively shown in the case of Iraq) and British corporate interests in particular (as documented by Mark Curtis). Social democracy in Britain has, in reality, always been social imperialism – the provision of social gains for the British on the backs of millions of superexpoited workers in the global South, backed up by military force where necessary – and the Labour party has, for over one hundred years, been at its vanguard.
This is the historical movement which, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn suddenly found himself heading. At first, he seemed …
* * *
- Actually, one or two have engaged me over Lexit, Putin or Assad. But their arguments came not from the Centre but from the Far Left, and boiled down to their being more optimistic than I am. My arguments here are not addressed to them since, in terms of our fundamental analyses if not the conclusions we draw, we are as one.
- A violently insane world order … I rest my case on capital’s reckless, non negotiably systemic prioritising of profits over every other consideration: most pressingly peace and environmental sanity. On both fronts the drive to accumulate is at odds with the interests of the vast majority of humankind. This too is a claim I’ve made many times, and am happy to debate in detail with anyone offering a counterview.
- I’m not a fan of Owen Jones but it seems to me puerile to damn everything he writes when on some matters he brings both lucidity and valuable factual detail to bear.
- The uniqueness of the commodity labour-power in a capitalist system of generalised commodity production, where almost all wealth is produced for exchange, is that its use-value is to do what no other commodity can do: create (exchange) values greater than its own. This is the source of profit, ideologically driven denial of which truth has for 150 years debarred economic ‘science’ from understanding its own subject.
The article conflates the working class in the imperialist countries with their treacherous leaderships. The working class are all well off and reactionary – really? A thin layer certainly are, but tell that to workers on minimum wages and zero hours contracts, or to the relatives of those who died in the pandemic, or to the NHS workers struggling against the odds to save lives. And the only hope for Labour lay in the gradual education of the working class – by the “social imperialist” Labour Party – led by Corbyn – who is a “social imperialist”? Round and round he goes.
I agree with your first point, this is an ancient argument which long ago lost any connections with reality. The working class as a propertyless proletariat was summoned into existence by imperialism which, incidentally, creates a large pool of unemployed labour from which it fill the ranks of its armies and navies, in all of which conditions were atrocious, life expectancy short and pay little more than notional. It takes considerable ignorance to argue that the working class of Lancashire described by Engels and many others, collected any sort of dividend from imperialism. In fact their material condition was worse than that of the plantation slaves who produced the raw materials.
Did those working under such bad bargains require to be supervised and policed? Of course. And was there a thin layer of economically privileged functionaries? There was and most of them collected their rewards not from exploitation of the colonies but by skimming off the thin savings of the working class itself.
As to your second point, we are, perhaps also in agreement.
“I’m less than convinced by Mr Glazenby’s suggestion, towards the end, that the forces Corbynism unleashed should or even could have been diverted from utopian dreams of parliamentary socialism – or the more modest dream of gaining office – to focus on educating future generations in the realities of class struggle…”
I agree, the problem is that Glazebrook does not understand the dialectical relationship between Parliamentary reform campaigns and political education. The real problem with Corbynism was that it did not develop into the campaign for internal democracy, essentially aimed at bringing the bureaucrats, councillors and Parliamentarians back under the control of the membership- now without the block vote system that had enabled notional democracy to co-exist with actual, though not unmitigated, rule from the centre.
The logic of Corbynism, whether he realised it or not, was the creation of a party capable of becoming revolutionary. And that is as revolutionary as a party can get: the old model of the Democratic Centralist party never did work. It didn’t work in Russia and it led to disasters everywhere else. (In fact if its Democratic Centralism that you want the Labour Party provides it, albeit without any pretence of socialist objectives. )
The problem with reformism is not the reforming or the campaigning for reform-all revolutions arise from them- but the transformation of the reform movement into an electoral machine dominated by the candidates who, if they win, are transformed from opponents of the status quo into pillars of it.
The problem with the Labour Party is that those who should be doing what they are told-the representatives and delegates under instruction of the rank and file- are allowed to run the party. Naturally they do so in their own interests.
None of this is new. These problems have existed since representative institutions arose. And there are all manner of ways of mitigating the problems which is a reminder that it is not the Bolshevik party that we need to study but the Soviets, perhaps even the Red Army, in both of which the danger of those in authority selling out was anticipated.
It is idle to call the Labour Party social imperialist. There have always been elements of that in it, going back to the Fabians and the co-efficients whose social concerns arose from the perception that liberal capitalism , free trade and the employment of hunger as a whip had so reduced the physical quality of the masses that the ‘master race’ was in danger of dangerous degradation. But the core of the party was in the Trade Union movement and the class struggle. Its energy came from mass campaigns from strikes to the Hands Off Russia movement to Red Clydeside and The Miners Next Step. Syndicalism was a much more important part of the Party’s life than social imperialism. Tom Mann a much more important figure than Sidney Webb. But the real core lay in the unknown class warriors, the communities which, over the passage of a couple of generations, became almost unanimous in their support for socialism.
And, it should not be forgotten, quite clever in transforming popular criticism of the system into reforms. It is very easy to write off the many changes for the better brought about by reformers in the Labour Party but it is wrong to do so. They were the fruits of political education and chapters in that education. Their effects, both positive and negative are ongoing chapters in that education.
Corbynism was not a failure but an episode. It is important that the lessons we take from it are not those of its enemies- it did not fail for want of leadership but because leadership was not overthrown. Had the party merely returned to mandatory re-selection, it would have made the top down dictatorship, which we are now seeing in action, impossible. And the fault here was not Corbyn’s or Starmer’s or McDonnell’s it lay in the membership which failed to recognise that voting and canvassing are not only rare and episodic activities but of much less importance than the theory and practice which is political education.
I have already taken up too much of Philip’s space, without reaching the central point I wished to make and which I outlined in a previous post here. I will simply mention it- the development of a socialist party, a revolutionary party, in capitalist society involves a process akin to marronage of the sort most notably practised in the Caribbean and American slave societies. It involves withdrawing from the exploiter’s rule and building economies and communities which become bases from which to negotiate with, overthrow or reform class society.
It is a process that co-ops, for example, hint at. As do Socialist Sunday Schools or Trade Union education- the WEA originated in it. So did the working mens clubs.
As did the Cossacks-escaped serfs who won autonomy in struggle- and hundreds of others, the Metis, for example, whose existence is a reminder that the European worker who crossed the Atlantic to America discovered that, in almost every respect, the despised ‘savages’ were better off. One of the great unmentioned themes of American history is the struggle of the governing authorities to prevent the poor from running off and joining the ‘enemy.’ And then there was the Great Wall of China-which everybody knows can be seen from space but few consider was built to keep the peasants in as much as the nomads out.
Finally, there is nothing Utopian about the idea of Socialism coming through Parliament, merely of it coming without a mass movement ready to enforce its representatives’ acts if the old ruling class refuses to accept them. And to push aside the farce of a representative democracy which, in the final analysis, will not allow majority rule.
And, in the current state of British society this is probably going to necessitate defence against an increasingly out of control and dangerous looking military/security complex.
Colin, bevin: interesting comments. Thanks. You’ll likely recall the conclusion by Maoists that Western proletariats are now junior bourgeoisies in a world where Capital-Labour relations have become largely North-South relations. (Maoism had a tiny presence in the UK, even by Trotskyist standards, but was bigger in Germany which, significantly I think, was the least successful of Europe’s 19th century colonial powers.)
I feel a post coming on, though whether I’ll find time for it is another question. I’m still focused on the project, doubtless deemed petit-bourgeois by some, of “how I joined a cult”.
Meantime I’d urge you both not to ignore what Dan Glazenby has done: which is place the issue of imperialism back into central position. It never ceases to amaze and dismay me that so many British socialists can speak so parochially about Britain without reference to the ‘elephant in the room’ reality that Britain is not simply a capitalist economy but one of the planet’s top five marauders.
That all Brits gain from neocolonial plunder is beyond doubt – the super profits extracted from the global south do indeed underwrite NHS, schools, libraries etc. (Also the bombs, bullets and counterinsurgency artillery.) Whether this makes them bourgeois or ‘reactionary’ – not a term Mr Glazenby uses – is a separate question. Do they lose far more to their own exploitation? That opens up issues as much empirical as theoretical – just how much value do Western workers now produce?
Nor do I suppose Glazenby advocates a ‘levelling down’ to improve lives in the global south at the expense of workers in the north. While I query his grasp of the labour theory of value, that he invokes it at all shows him to be a Marxist. As such he would recognise as well as you or me that capitalism’s evils flow from its relations of production, not of distribution.
Sorry. This is all a bit scattergun. I need to mull over these matters further.
While the above analysis regarding the working classes is undoubtedly true for a considerable proportion, there is also a quite large proportion of the working classes who can only be described as ‘lumpen’. From personal experience, this proportion are unashamedly racist, xenophobic and reactionary, and are uncritical recipients of the ‘Daily Mail’ world view.
Also, the problem with the ‘Labour’ Party is that it is inherently a reformist rather than a revolutionary Party.
There are plenty of blue collar nationalists round here who would take Nigel Farage over Jeremy Corbyn every time. This may be a tragedy but it’s also an unavoidable reality of post-industrial working class communities. Once the solidarity went everything went with it. To his credit, Corbyn seems to have realised that Labour needs a new power base and to have identified where it may lie. I may be mistaken, but I can’t see Labour under Starmer mobilising to win back the support it could once rely on in the part of the UK I live in.
Me neither, Mick. This points us, I think, to the end of the road for what little remains of social democracy. While left and right wings of the Labour Party seem to think they can win elections with their preferred manifestos, this overlooks the fact that globalisation – a synonym here for imperialism – has divided Western labour-sellers into losers and (relative) winners.
One manifestation of this truth is the toxic split highlighted by Brexit and gathering momentum for Scottish independence. (Nor is this a peculiarly British phenomenon. The gulf within the USA between east coast liberals and Hillary’s “deplorables” is another manifestation of the same split within the West/Global North at large.)
In their attacks on Corbyn, the Labour Right publicly bewailed (and privately rejoiced in) his “lack of electoral appeal”. Implicit or explicit in this line of attack was a belief that a ‘moderate’ leader could repeat Blair’s success. This ignores the reality that Blair’s thumping 1997 majority diminished in 2001 and further in 2005.
Why? Other than the general truth of a chasm between winners and losers of globalisation, there’s the specific one that Blair-Mandelson-Campbell took it as read they could reach out to middle class liberals with policies that may piss off your “blue collar nationalists” but, since the latter had no place else to go, that wouldn’t matter. This is no longer the case. Farage, Scottish Independence and a betrayed Six County Loyalism threaten a sense of working class Britishness vital to Labour’s ability to win office. Nor should Welsh undying commitment to the union be assumed. If Starmer thinks he can win back those elements – and I wouldn’t care to guess what he thinks on this front – then I agree with you. He is much mistaken. As Brexit showed, Britain, and the Western i.e imperialist world at large, is now irreparably divided.
New ‘New Labour’ did send Ash Sarkhar and Richard Burgon on the stump in Stocksbridge for the 2019 election, I didn’t hear how well they went down in the Victory Club. What we’ve got now is a personable young Conservative MP out of King Edwards School somewhat in the Emily Maitlis mould, and a new shopping centre.
Further to my rather stark post above, in an even starker nutshell, the main reason that Corbyn lost the battle and was deposed, was the intervention of the Israeli government funded and organised “Call all our critics anti-semites” campaign. This was aided and abetted by right wing Jewish organisations, various ‘Friends of Israel’ the Murdoch Press, the Guardian, etc, which play into the general and un-nuanced public consciousness that ‘anti-semitism’ is an abhorrent practice. Which it is, when directed at Jews in general. But this general consciousness has been for a number of years now, weaponised by the Israeli government, which is on record as recruiting on-line ‘warriors’ to defend and propagandise their genocidal campaign against the Palestinians.
(Amazingly enough, the Guardian today published a report from Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem human rights organisation calling out Israel as an apartheid state. Unlike many other trivial articles which can be seen on their website for interminable days, this one now has to be searched for).
This widely publicised onslaught of the dreaded ‘Anti-Semitic’ slur was the main, and most effective tool in the anti-Corby campaign,
I agree that reforms must be fought for, imperialism opposed, and every injustice fought against. But there is no connection between reform and revolution in the absence of a revolutionary party to take up the struggle for a workers’ state. Since the Paris Commune Marxists have recognised the necessity of a party, in order to destroy the existing state machinery and build a new society, a new life, based on social ownership. This revolutionary transformation of humanity is Marxism’s defining characteristic, not mere recognition of the class struggle and exploitation.
It is not clear what you mean by political education. The working class needs it but what will it be, who will provide it and to what end? The Workers Educational Association you mention as a possible model was always an eclectic mix of ideologies, and not a vehicle for social change. I think real political education can only develop in the context of practical revolutionary struggle.
The working class cannot spontaneously generate such a party; it must be consciously developed. Syndicalism was a moment in the history of the labour movement. The best elements gravitated to communism after 1917. Its last hurrah was the Spanish Revolution, where it ended in political failure, unable to break from the bourgeois state and its Stalinist hangmen.
This is a language which Corbyn could not understand, having spent all his life in capitalism’s loyal opposition. He was a failure, precisely because he could not, literally could not, lead a fight for a revolutionary policy within the Labour Party. He could not defend his colleagues or himself against the Zionist attacks, or the attacks on his supposed lack of patriotism, because he could not and never will break from the bourgeoisie. And so he retained a cowardly political silence on the persecution of Assange.
In another illustration of his politics, he disclosed in August 2020, that he had been briefed by the Tories at the outset of the pandemic on their policy to “build up herd immunity by allowing people to die.” He condemned this as eugenics in August, but said nothing about this while he was leader, despite Johnson’s lying denials of such a policy.
It is utterly wrong to blame these failures on those who flooded into the Party looking for radical change, and now pay the price of demoralisation. They looked to him for leadership, but he could not change his political nature, any more than the remnants of establishment liberalism such as Owen Jones can change theirs. In the current acute social and economic crisis the material and ideological apparatus tells reformists and liberals alike: this far and no further. However, you are right that Corbynism was an episode; he is currently preparing another leaky political vessel.
The policy of developing islands of socialism to subvert capitalism was long ago criticised by Marx in his polemics against Proudhon, who opposed revolution on the grounds that a new society could be developed from within by cooperatives financed by interest bearing credit. He remained trapped within the worldview of the petit bourgeoisie, condemning poverty but unable to grasp “the revolutionary, destructive aspect which will overthrow the old society”. Of course, the model lived on in the cooperative movement and in the ideology of “municipal socialism”, not as harbingers of socialism, but as fully absorbed elements of capitalism.
The anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain before and during the Civil War were not “fully absorbed elements of capitalism”. Had they existed in more promising circumstances i.e without the Rightist putsch, they might have evolved to birth even more revolutionary conditions.
Compare this with the equivalent progress of communism. USSR – state dominated economy, no effective unions – didn’t end well. Cuba – yes, doing as well as they can under the circumstances, but as an island they have that one single advantage – some (understandable) limitations on individual freedom. Vietnam – hmmmm – cosying up to the US despite the lessons of history. China – Again, state dominated economy – no effective unions. So really only Cuba has done better, under similar adverse circumstances, and only because they are somewhat protected by being island.
Phil, I’ve only read the piece once (and intend to re-read it) but I was struck, I think like you, by how the context of imperialism gave the analysis something that others had very definitely lacked. I agree that this is important, whatever the technical difficulties there might be in the piece. I instinctively (and uncomfortably) feel agreement with the maoists you reference and what seem to me the obvious benefits that accrue to an Imperialist country even if only in trickle down to its society as a whole.
I would most definitely avoid categorising the UK working class as well off (though clearly everything is relative) but the notion that there might be an understanding that it could be worse off if imperialist interests were not defended chimes for me with the common criticism of Corbyn as unpatriotic that I heard on doorsteps (and which I didn’t really understand at the time).
Clearly not, Bryan. One problem here is that some very different but intricately related questions are in danger of being confused. It seems to me irrefutable that thanks to the north-south export of capital in its restless search for greater profits, less and less value is being produced in the West, least of all in a laissez-faire non dirigiste capitalism like Britain. Which begs the question, what are British workers doing if not producing value? To which my tentative answer – I don’t have access to the facts and figures needed to be bolder here – is that most workers are one way or another in the game of servicing capitalism/imperialism as nurses, cops, teachers etc, or in what mainstream economics calls the “added-value” sectors – retail, advertising, banking etc – and Marxists call the allocation, distribution and recycling of surplus values extracted from the global south.
Does this make those non value producing workers a bourgeoisie? I think not, and I’m not sure Dan Glazenby thinks that either. (Even in the time of Marx and Engels, when most Britons were indeed value producers, there were non value producing workers. Would we call 19th century nurses, domestic servants and the like a bourgeoisie? If so, words have lost their meaning!) Nevertheless, the drastic decline of value production in the West raises very big questions in need of daunting empirical investigation. This inquiry is quite separate from that of whether British workers are ‘reactionary’. Similarly, the extent to which workers identify with ‘queen and country’ rather than international class solidarity is quite separate from the issue of where their objective interests lie.
“That all Brits gain from neocolonial plunder is beyond doubt – the super profits extracted from the global south do indeed underwrite NHS, schools, libraries etc. ”
But is this true except as an observation that the capitalist system is, in fact, an imperialist system so that all incomes are derived from imperial bargains?
And could not the opposite be argued?
Namely that, historically, the acquisition of, for example, India led not to the enhancement of popular living standards in England but to their lowering.
Let’s look at India. There is no doubt that popular living standards fell in Bengal, after the British took over and in the Cornwallis Land Settlement established a zemindar, landowning class which was used to extort surpluses from the peasants. In place of the checks and balances in the old systems the new system of extortion meant that more was demanded of the tillers of soil than, in any but the best years, they could deliver except with great difficulty. In bad years they starved.
And while they did so the British, having convinced themselves that the monsoon was governed by providential laws, either divine or emanating from the market or both, did not use any of the powers that came with the responsibility of government to ensure that the people did not starve. (In less organised states the people faced with famine rioted or overthrew their government. Knowing this governments anticipated and mitigated popular anger by ensuring the provision of cheap food. Under the Raj, for many years greatly influenced by the two liberal economists James and John Stuart Mill in London, the market ruled because they understood that to be nature’s law.)
As to England would anyone seriously argue that the mass of people saw any benefit at all from this empire or its predecessor in America? As the Empire waxed the fortunes of the English people waned. They reached their lowest point in the first half of the C19th, during the very period in which the East India Company, increasingly a front for the government and the ruling class expanded until it ruled the entire sub continent. And through it most of East Asia including the trading centres of China, too.
Of course the vast sums that this poured into the pockets of the wealthy would occasionally trickle down in the form of wages and tips, fees for personal services etc. But the bargain was by no means a good one for the English people for the price that they paid, which included impoverishment and expulsion into the worst urban slums on earth, was the loss of their claim on the land. They sacrificed, because they were forced to do so, the control that they had over the land which was, together with domestic industries, their means of production. The story of enclosures and of the Game Laws, the story of the development of English Law as a means of expropriation ere both well known. But are they well understood?
To understand them it is necessary to understand the part that the Empire played, from the effects on land ownership and usage of the iruption of the nabobs and their, much more numerous, City equivalents. It would also be instructive to think about the effects on society of the importation of ideas of caste and of race from the Empire. It is hardly to be doubted that both mingled with the “science” of the era established the foundations of fascism-imperialism at home.
While the English people grew poorer, excepting of course the steadily expanding middle classes, many of them directly living off and and in the Empire- army officers, civil servants, engineers, salesmen, traders of all kinds and professionals in the lawyer doctor lines.
While the English people, the working class, grew poorer, their lives shorter, their independence, dignity,. health and humanity constantly being chiseled away, in the Empire the old ruling classes under the Moghuls and the Mahrattas etc once more grew rich. The people of India undoubtedly suffered grievously, and they did so at the hands of the imperial system but while they suffered the ruling castes and ‘races’ thrived as never before. They adjusted very quickly to the necessity off switching allegiance from one set of foreign bosses to another. As the Empire grew so did the reach of Indian usurers, for example, into East Asia, Africa and the Pacific.
We have been assured, ad nauseam, by economic historians celebrating capitalism that, after about 1850, for a generation at least, the living standards of the people rose in England. And this, we are told was one of the dividends of the Empire: the ruling class was flush so it tossed a few bones in the direction of the workers.
The role of the working class itself, in Unions and in its self expression is marginalised. So is the great wave of revulsion that ran through society as a whole, from the churches to the intelligentsia as the shock of what had happened to the people hit them. It was Liberals-exemplified later in the persons of the Hammonds and Hobson, for example- whose eyes were opened perhaps in part as a result of the horrors of the Potato Famine and the epidemics sweeping through the slums, and whose consciences weakened the cannibalistic resolve of the ruling class and made possible the emergence, after Chartism’s defeat, of the working class movement that eventually led to the formation of the Labour Party.
My reading is that the NHS etc were not paid for out of imperial dividends. In fact they were paid for, despite the enormous burden of maintaining the Imperial system through massive expenditures on arms and the cold war. And they were paid for because the people demanded them- they were the gratuities promised for fighting the war and for not overthrowing the system. The reforms of 1945-51 were minimal and the burden of paying for them lay heavily on the generation which lived and paid taxes and earned small wages through the 1950s and sixties- India was exploited alright as were the other colonies, and never more than in the war, but so were the people of Britain with a war debt that took decades to pay. Decades in which the de-industrialisation process now almost complete, began. Decades in which British governments resisted colonial demands for independence largely in order to apply the foreign exchange sweated out of coolies on the plantations to that Lend Lease debt.
My own view is that to suggest that the working class shared in the exploitation of India, Malaya, Africa or anywhere else is profoundly reactionary- a version of identity politics which not only stands in the way of our understanding of the history of capitalism but encourages the nostalgic racists who lament the passing of an Empire whose beneficiaries were the ruling class and its agents, aspiring professionals etc. Furthermore it imparts a sense of guilt to people who have nothing to feel guilty about-who never benefitted from racism, who never gained from the Empire-whose Welsh mining ancestors built the finest library systems in the country, whose grandparents fought and built the NHS, as it once was, whose trade unions demanded an equal provision of decent educational opportunities.
That most of these gains have since been lost is due in some small part to the confusion that “social imperialism theories’ have brought to the socialist movement.
I’m not sure what you mean by the question, bevin. Not only do different aspects of a complex issue need separating out (we can reintegrate them in overall conclusions) but confusion seems inevitable if we don’t place the law of value at the heart of the matter. The following statements are all true:
All in this discussion – you, Bryan, Colin, Dan Glazenby and me – come at it from a position of moral outrage, and so we should. But we must also look at the situation forensically. This means applying objectivity and an empirical approach. It also means listening to one another, not adding two and two to get five, and above all it means examining the core question – to what extent does northern labour share in the spoils of neocolonial exploitation? – within a law of value framework.
Again, this is all providing much food for thought – and highlighting the need for richer data. I’d be grateful if you, Bryan, Colin or anyone following these BTL exchanges can point to current empirical work in the field. Another Piketty, perhaps?
Apologies. I keep referring, erroneously, to Dan Glazebrook as Dan Glazenby. I’ve corrected the three instances of this above the line but left several more in these comments as they were.