A Tale of Two Lefts

Editorial, September 2015

Corbyn vs. Sanders - differences are day and night

The United States isn’t the only country to have someone considered a “socialist outsider” challenging the establishment of its primary center-left party; in Great Britain, long-time Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn mounted a campaign to become leader of the Labour Party after a leadership election was triggered following former leader Ed Milliband’s resignation over the party’s supposedly poor performance in May’s general election.  While Corbyn barely squeaked by the first hurdle to get into the leadership race by securing the nomination of only one more Labour MP than the needed minimum to qualify for the election ballot, and was initially expected by many in Labour’s leadership to be little more than means to give the Labour left the ability to speak in the race without meaningfully affecting the outcome, Corbyn’s presence in the race managed to attract tens of thousands of supporters in and around the Labour Party.

The Corbyn campain exploded in popularity, coming to overshadow his opponents (of whom the most “left-wing”, Andrew Burnham, was noticeably to the right of Ed Miliband) until his landslide victory was announced on September 12th, winning in the first round with 60% of the vote. Naturally, the Corbyn campaign is being considered as an opportunity by socialists and communists in the UK to directly intervene in a mass movement that’s already sympathetic, at least in part, to their politics. And given the apparent similarities of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders as left-wing challengers to their respective parties’ establishments, it is rather understandable that political commentators in both countries have compared the two rather favorably, with a possible conclusion that similar things can be gained by supporting each candidate in their own country.

The Red Party disagrees. We have taken up Bernie Sanders’ campaign in previous articles, noting that while there may be some opportunities for communists to engage with Sanders supporters and hopefully win them over to the long-term campaign for socialist politics, the Sanders campaign itself is severely limited in this regard, both in terms of its strategy and in terms of its broader social vision. On the other hand, while Corbyn’s own politics are also somewhat insufficient from a communist perspective, the specifics of the two campaigns, the comparative structure and political history of the Labour Party versus the Democratic Party, and what is likely to come after each candidate’s respective races are over, suggest that Corbyn provides a much greater chance for the advancement of the left than Sanders ever will.

The first points are primarily noting the political and organizational differences between the Labour Party and the Democratic Party. On the one hand, it could be enough for some to simply note that, for all of its flaws, (generally) right-wing leadership, and capitulations to the “practicalities” of bourgeois politics, the Labour Party self-describes as a “democratic socialist” party, whereas the Democratic Party does no such thing.  Even though it should be clear by the history of the Labour Party that much of its “socialism” is, at best, a bureaucratic welfare system built for managing workers’ lives within capitalism rather than a concrete step towards human liberation – and therefore Labour’s self-description as a democratic socialist party should not be taken as good coin – this self-description does speak to Labour’s history as a party built by and of the working class and working class organizations, from trade unions to cooperatives, workers’ mutual aid societies and even socialist parties. And due to the affiliate-based structure of the Labour Party, these organizations are able to exert influence over party policy in certain quarters.  While this influence has always been tempered by the oversight of the party bureaucracy, and since the onset of the New Labour project in the ‘90s there has been a concerted effort to reduce this organized influence further in favor of having elected officials and the party bureaucracy supported by big donors and an atomized mass of individual members (like the Democratic Party), this project has not yet succeeded, and mechanisms still exist for members of the Labour Party to positively influence the politics of their party.

This contrasts favorably with the Democratic Party, whose lack of a formalized membership structure reduces supporters largely to voting and fund-raising fodder; even if a rush of left-wing supporters to the Democratic Party did happen, there are little to no ways to actually turn that influx of people into organized political power.  This structure makes sense given the Democratic Party’s position as an institutional party of the capitalist state, representing disparate social groups of which the (arguably declining) organized workers movement is simply one among many. But it means that even a left challenge in the Democratic Party immediately poses the question of organizing outside of it in order to translate left-wing supporters into an actual political current. Bernie Sanders, for all his rhetoric of people power and “political revolution,” does not make this case, and ultimately points back to the Democratic Party mainstream as the logical conclusion of his campaign.

But what of Jeremy Corbyn? Ironically, an effort to “Americanize” the Labour Party by introducing One Member, One Vote style primary campaign for the leadership actually seems to have backfired, at least initially.  Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Labour Party, most of which ostensibly to vote for Corbyn, and have provided Labour with a potentially large pool of supporters to draw into party activity.  While this was not the intention of the previous leadership who introduced the “registered supporters” category, it nevertheless provides an opportunity for the new Labour Party members to connect with the already-existing organizations promoting socialism and democracy within Labour and organize towards those ends, and the Corbyn campaign should be recognized as being largely responsible for this membership influx.  Furthermore, as a primarily internal election, Corbyn’s campaign represents an opening salvo in a fight to potentially change the politics and structure of the Labour Party, whereas the Sanders campaign represents a bid to take the reins of the American state to attempt to turn it in a progressive direction.

Despite a supposed attempt to do politics differently, Sanders still falls within the range of acceptability of capitalist politics; any attempt to build a meaningful alternative in a way that Sanders suggests will necessarily mean opposing the Democratic Party in general, even the Sanders campaign, from near the outset.  Corbyn, on the other hand, represents at least the opportunity for a challenge – not to “take back” the Labour Party, but to potentially transform it into a true party of the working class movement, where all of its organizations and political tendencies can debate and fight it out publicly.  Corbyn’s own politics will likely run up against its left-social democratic limits over the course of this fight, but it unlikely that this would even be possible without the Corbyn leadership campaign, and a Corbyn-led Labour Party will find itself better-poised to undertake this struggle.

(From The Red Vine. For more, see here on the likely course of the Sanders campaign and potential political alternatives to it, or here on the future of U.K. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.)

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2 Comments

  1. I, a 20 yr Socialist Democrat, am feeling actual “Cognitive Dissonance” (unlike Chris Mattews “cognitive distance”), I spose what I’d like to know what the writer suggests that USAns do..not vote? tried that many times; vote for the Dem (more “in-line” Dem this time—dread it); or write in a candidate that isn’t even running–just never, ever works. Shoe up at any candidates speeches, town halls, etc and shout above everyone else (tried that one too)

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