The widely held view that the result of the coming general election is a foregone conclusion has really brought out the desperation in the so-called radical left. We’ll leave aside the dreamers who have supported Jeremy Corbyn through his 18 months of indecision, inactivity and failure; but even those who have opposed Labour on everything from its vote to bomb Syria to its council estate demolition programme can now be heard calling for variations on the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument – as if this were anything new. In reality this is the only political argument Labour has ever put forward: ‘Vote for us or you’ll get the Tories!’ Since everyone knows that Labour hasn’t got a chance in hell of winning this election, Labour supporters from Ken Loach to Paul Mason now have the added comfort of believing that Corbyn is some sort of reincarnation of Clement Attlee, and that if only – by some magic – an electorate that has increasingly turned its back on him suddenly turns around and votes him into power, the Parliamentary Labour Party that has done everything it can to oust Corbyn from the leadership will suddenly – and equally miraculously – transform itself into the Party of Aneurin Bevan and build Jerusalem in England’s grey and mortgaged land.
As a British subject of Her Majesty you grow accustomed to watching the intelligence quotient of the British electorate drop several notches every time a general election is called, but the particular political conditions of this one have introduced a new dimension of fantasy so far removed from reality that we’re moving – not unsurprisingly – into the dream spectacle of US politics, with Corbyn as our very own Willy Wonka who – despite failing to stand up to the British press, the City, the Establishment, Parliament or even his own Party – will somehow manage single-handedly to transform the UK into a land of nationalised industries, free healthcare and education, with a new council home in every back yard. Better still, unlike the imperialist Attlee he even promises to withdraw us from what’s left of Britain’s colonial interests and finally come out and say what he really thinks of the State of Israel whose every crime we steadfastly refuse to criticise, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia we’re so happy to sell arms to, the State of Qatar to which we’re flogging so much of London, the United States of America whose every aggression we obediently support, and – who knows? – even our own hideous Royal Family and the obscene sums it receives from the British taxpayer in the middle of a permanent programme of austerity paid for by the impoverishment of the working class of Britain.
Nothing of the sort will happen, of course, and those who take shelter in this fantasy do so because they refuse to face up to the reality of what has happened to Britain over this past decade and more, and what lies in store for us when this Conservative government is re-elected with – as seems likely – the largest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s second term in government. For anyone who has followed what is going on outside the right-wing propaganda of our state press and media, it seems likely that what the next five years will bring will make Thatcher’s revolution look like Weimar Germany to May’s Third Reich. And the more those who refuse to see this are afraid of its coming reality, the more they hide their faces in the illusion of a socialist Labour government coming to power – if not this time then the next time, and if not then the time after. The important thing (they repeat over and over to themselves and anyone who will listen) is not to lose faith. But faith is all this so-called political belief is based on, and like all faiths it serves to conceal the material reality of the world its believers do not wish to inhabit. The fact Britain’s so-called ‘intellectuals’ are seriously – even earnestly – engaging in this fantasy shows not only how lacking we are in political thinkers of stature (no change there), but how successful our state propaganda is in maintaining the illusion of parliamentary democracy.
It’s in this context, on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, that Lenin’s formula of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ offers a possible alternative to the farce being presented for our democratic choice. Coined to describe the attitude and policy of the Bolsheviks towards the imperialist war in which Russia was then engaged with Germany, revolutionary defeatism argued that since the Great War was a struggle between capitalist nations for a larger cut of the imperialist pie, the working class who fought the war – quite apart from losing their lives in the millions by doing so – had nothing to win from it, let alone the working class of the colonised nations. On the contrary, Lenin argued it would be better for the working class of both Russia and its colonies if their country lost the war, and turned the defeat of the government sending them to their deaths into a civil war which would – so the theory went – in turn create the conditions for a working-class revolution.
As it turned out, Lenin was right, though events didn’t unfold in quite that order. It was only once the Russian working class had turned on its rulers and with surprising ease overthrew the feudal order under which it had lived for a thousand years that Russia withdrew from the war with Germany. The human cost of that war, however, undoubtedly motivated its combatants to rise up against the dictatorship of the Russian Tsar. Far harder, in terms of the direction of the revolution, was to oppose the bourgeois Provisional Government that sprang up to take his place and which – much like our Labour Party did in Britain after the Second World War – tried to dampen the revolutionary fervour of the working class with the dog bone of democratic representation within a capitalist state.
In Britain we’ve spent the past seventy years gnawing that particular bone, and what gristle was once on it has long ago been devoured. It’s time we spat it out and adopted Lenin’s position to our own war, which is not between the Tory and Labour parties – which like Germany and Russia before them are locked in a struggle for a bigger bite of the capitalist cake – but between an increasingly impoverished, oppressed and politically voiceless working class to which 65 per cent of the British population still belongs and the administrators of monopoly capitalism for a ruling class that constitutes maybe 5 per cent at most. In this class war, the Labour Party of the middle class, which makes up the remaining 30 per cent of our population, can only play what has always been its role in British politics, which is to convince the working class of Britain that it has some say over the political system under which it lives and works. If it may have once to a certain extent – accepting the welfare state and nationalised industries in exchange for the promise of socialism the Labour Party never intended to keep, even before Tony Blair rewrote Clause Four of its constitution – it certainly doesn’t anymore. And now that system is breaking down both economically and politically, it is time we woke up from our servile chewing, spat out the bone, and bared our teeth at our masters.
To this end, electoral defeatism – to coin a term – is the only politically progressive policy. The counter plea, issued with increasing shrillness, anger and desperation from Labour supporters who have excused every betrayal of the working class by their Party, is that if the government of Theresa May comes out of this election with an increased majority, its ability to continue to wage war on the working class of Britain will be that much greater. But that is going to happen anyway; you don’t win an election in two months, and once returned to government with an increased majority the Conservative Party will escalate the class war it has been waging since it came to power, which it has always waged, and which it was formed to wage. As for voting for Labour in order to reduce that parliamentary majority: from fighting in every war the US tells us to to eroding our human rights in the name of the ‘war on terror’ to increasing the power of surveillance over us by the police and secret services to intruding on what’s left of our privacy to criminalising our homeless to demolishing our council housing to privatising our public services to socially cleansing our communities for profit to selling off our public land to foreign investors to failing to vote against welfare cuts, the Labour Party has not only been unwilling to stand up to the Tories in Parliament but has shown itself to be their willing ally in the class war.
For this reason, the revolutionary political movement we need to form if our class is to survive, let alone win, this war will only be born in this country from the electoral annihilation of the Labour Party. It will take far, far more than that for the working class of Britain – perhaps the most depoliticised and certainly the least politically organised working class in Europe – to rise up in revolt against its immiseration, let alone start a revolution. But if the polls are right – and they rarely overestimate a swing to the Tories – it looks like the 8th of June could bring about the end of the Labour Party as an electoral force once and for all. In six weeks time Jeremy Corbyn will be a footnote in history, what’s left of the Parliamentary Labour Party will take care never again to so carelessly put a left-candidate up for the leadership, Momentum will be disbanded, and we will once again be presented with the edifying spectacle of a new Party leader being chosen from a selection of anonymous right-wing candidates each indistinguishable from a Tory. Maybe David Miliband will return from his vacation with the Clintons and try to do a New Labour: Take Two. Who knows? But it is up to us to seize this moment of Labour’s defeat with the same clarity of purpose and immediacy of action with which Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized the Russian revolution. The time for cowardice, hiding in the fantasy of social democracy or making do with the scraps from our masters’ table is over. We must face the collapse that awaits us with open eyes and turn it to our own ends.
Architects for Social Housing
Illustration by Clifford Harper