The requirement of a parliamentary opposition is to oppose. When that opposition is a supposedly progressive social-democratic opposition, facing a reactionary government that requirement is raised tenfold. But, at a time when the reactionary Tory government, already a minority, is teetering on the edge of collapse, with its own left-wing splintering away from it, instead of piling on oppositional pressure to force it into collapse, and a General Election, Jeremy Corbyn is riding to its rescue!
The historical equivalents are numerous, and they are all bad. The most obvious parallel is that of James Ramsay MacDonald. After 1914, Europe went through the crisis phase of the long wave cycle. Its manifestation was WWI, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions that followed in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere, as well as in China. In Britain, it was marked by the 1926 General Strike that was only the last of a series of big strikes starting in 1920, as workers attempted to defend their living standards as they came under increasing attack. By the late 1920’s, workers in most places had been defeated, the revolutions in Germany, Hungary, China had been defeated. In Russia, the revolution had been isolated, leading to the rise of Stalinism as a form of Bonapartist regime, whose historical task was to accumulate capital, rapidly, on the basis of the new property relations that had been created by the revolution.
The reasons the workers were defeated have been discussed before, also in relation to the long wave cycle. As Trotsky described in Flood Tide, and The Curve of Capitalist Development, wars and revolutions arise at conjunctures of the long wave cycle. At the end of an upswing in the long wave, workers are strong, well organised and confident. The main reason for that is that the upswing causes the demand for labour-power to rise, and at a certain point that means that labour becomes in relative short supply. Firms compete to get workers, and have to pay higher wages to do so. That enhances workers confidence, they join unions in increasing numbers, they demand even higher wages, and better conditions. The downside is that the ability to get these higher wages, and better conditions encourages the idea that this can continue, and that they can get what they want by bargaining within the system, and all it requires is “more militancy”, which strengthens reformist and syndicalist ideas, and parties based upon them.
When the end of the upswing comes, and the crisis phase erupts, it does so for the reasons that Marx sets out in Capital III, Chapter 15, and in Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 17. That is capital is overproduced. As capital accumulates, and employs more labour, it reaches a point where the demand for labour causes wages to rise, as described above. Profits are squeezed by these higher wages, as Glyn and Sutcliffe described (Workers and The Profits Squeeze), in relation to such a period in Britain in the 1960’s, and early 70’s, and others have described in relation to other economies. At the same time, as Marx describes, the rise in wages, causes workers consumption of a range of wage goods to rise to a point, where they can only be persuaded to buy more of them, if the price is reduced by larger and larger proportions (what bourgeois economists call the effect of the price elasticity of demand), and although they use some of their wages to buy what have previously been luxuries only consumed by the rich, they cannot buy enough of them to compensate for the fall in the demand for these commodities by the rich, whose revenues have fallen due to the squeeze on profits, and subsequently on rents, and interest. Profits are squeezed from both sides, from rising wages causing produced surplus value to fall, and increasing constraints on demand, putting downward pressure on prices, and so realised profits.
As profit margins are thus squeezed, it does not take much for what are large profits based on huge volumes to turn into large losses, based on those same large volumes, when profit margins themselves become negative. The immediate effect of this is to cause a breakdown in the circuit of capital. Workers are laid off, unemployment rises sharply, wages are cut. All of the conditions that provided the basis of strength for the workers in the previous phases of the long wave are reversed. Capitalists have no reason to produce if to do so means to produce at a loss, so when workers threaten to strike to stop their wages being cut, that poses no threat to the capitalist who wants to stop such unprofitable production anyway. The demand for labour drops below the supply, and that puts pressure on wages. But, the response of capital to the squeeze on profits also undermines labour, by reducing the demand for it, and creating a relative surplus population.
In the 1920’s, businesses began to look for new technological solutions that would reduce their demand for labour. The peak of this Innovation Cycle came in 1935, but, some of the new technologies had already started to be introduced by that time, so that existing levels, or even higher levels of output could be achieved with less labour. As unemployment rose in the late 1920’s, enhanced further when the US also entered its crisis phase, marked by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the social-democratic state that had been gradually developing faced a crisis. Unemployment had stood at 10% for most of the 1920’s. In 1930, it rose to over 2.5 million. McDonald’s Labour government decided to stick to a balanced budget and adherence to the Gold Standard. Inside Labour, Oswald Mosley, at that time a Fabian, put forward his Keynesian Programme (a 1930’s equivalent of the AES), supported by Nye Bevan.
But, McDonald defied the party, and instead began a programme of public spending cuts, and cuts in Unemployment and other Welfare Benefits. It split the Labour Party, with MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas expelled. Mosley set up the New Party on the way to establishing the British Union of Fascists as the vehicle for implementing his programme of economic nationalism. MacDonald then established a National Labour Party, and formed a National Government with the Tories, who had a majority within it. In the subsequent election, in 1931 the National Government won 554 sesats, with 473 of them going to Tories and just 13 going to MacDonald’s National Labour. Rather like Corbyn today, with his backing for May, MacDonald argued that his action was “in the national interest”.
There is a difference, however. MacDonald’s betrayal came at a time when the labour movement was on the defensive due to the prolonged crisis of the 1920’s, and the onset of a period of stagnation in the 1930’s. Corbyn is coming to the rescue of May at a time when the long wave cycle is in an uptrend, and when the labour movement should be moving forward, and asserting its strength. One reason it is failing to do so, is appalling leadership.
Trotsky’s point in the above tracts is that the window of opportunity for revolutions is narrow. Unless the chance is seized at the point where workers are strong, confident and well organised it will pass, and once passed, the natural process of the capitalist cycle will create the conditions under which workers strength, confidence and organisation quickly dissipates, and they may well be attracted to easy, simplistic answers, based upon scapegoats, as happened with the rise of fascism. If the leaders of the labour movement have not used the period of workers strength to properly educate the workers about the nature of the workings of this capitalist cycle, so as to know that they must build up their own forms of property, and industrial democracy during the periods of long wave upswing, they will be doomed to failure when the crisis erupts, and the old solutions of reformism and syndicalism, of bargaining within the system are no longer possible.
What is troubling about Corbyn’s leadership and strategy at the moment is that it not only fails those tests, but it also fails other tests, which were failed by Stalinists during that period too. That is a subject for another post. But, at the present time, we see that Corbyn came to power on a wave of enthusiasm, as hundreds of thousands of new, young activists joined the party with a radical, progressive agenda that had been fuelled, at least in part, as a reaction to the vote for Brexit in 2016. The right-wing of the Labour Party have had no answer to that, because their conservative social-democratic model has run its course, as demonstrated by the 2008 financial crash. They have been reduced to coup attempts against the leadership using their inherited strength in the PLP — which is why those that have resigned the Labour Whip will not stand in by-elections — or else to sniping against the leadership using largely confected accusations of anti-Semitism, and bullying.
The anti-Semitism is largely confected, because even the total accusations amount to only 0.1% of Labour Party members, and in most cases amount to instances where Anti-Zionist sentiments have overstepped the boundary in conflating Israel with Jews, a boundary that Zionists themselves, of course, have done all in their own power to eradicate. The charges of bullying usually come down to the fact that MP’s who thought they had a cushy job for life, have found their local members demanding that they be accountable for their actions, and voting records.
At a time, then when Corbyn is under this attack, supported by the Tory media, as witnessed by the vote of No Confidence in Corbyn at the weekend by the so called Jewish Labour Movement, which actually only represents a minority of Jewish Labour activists, you might have thought that Corbyn would do all in his power to bolster his own support amongst his core base. But, instead, Corbyn seems intent on alienating his own base, via his reactionary Brexit stance, and instead to make an alliance with Theresa May, and her reactionary Tory government. In other words, Corbyn appears set to follow in the footsteps of Ramsay MacDonald.
It is up to Labour members to act now to stop this betrayal.
Originally published at boffyblog.blogspot.com on April 8, 2019.