Since the United Kingdom’s June 8th election, in which Labour erased the Torys’ majority in parliament, socialists are becoming enamored with the prospect of a Labour government. The amount of hope invested in the Labour Party is sincere; Tory rule is a neoliberal nightmare and Jeremy Corbyn appears to be a genuine alternative. But is Corbyn’s vision an alternative to capitalism or just its alternative version? Despite the possible gains for the working class under a Labour government, Corbyn risks failing and discrediting socialism if he wins power through the electorate without directly confronting capital and class society as a whole.
An existential threat to capitalist elites is necessary, otherwise Corbyn will become the de facto manager of the current system. Social democratic gains under a Corbyn led Labour government are not enough to end capitalism and are therefore subject to the rules of capitalism, which necessitates periods of crises. At the end of the next business cycle, with Corbyn in power, it will seem as if social democracy, now associated with Corbyn’s “socialism,” is to blame for the crises instead of the true culprit – capitalism.
Mike Macnair of the “Weekly Worker” explains the context of an electoral victory by the Labour party as it currently stands,
Suppose that an autumn election produces a Labour majority. What then? The answer is that we would have elected a Labour government relying on a broadly rightwing PLP, with only a minority which supports the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. We would have done so under conditions where unity-mongering from the Labour left meant that the compliance unit and rightwing control of the apparatus remained intact. And we would have done so on the basis of a Labour manifesto, agreed this spring, which is broadly acceptable to the Labour right.
Even without a pernicious right-wing the history of reformist socialism suggests capitulation and defeat would follow a Labour victory. As far back as 1969 the British Marxist Ralph Miliband was pointing out that,
…these men [who] have quite often professed anti-capitalist convictions, they have never posed- and indeed have for the most part never wished to pose- a serious challenge to the capitalist system…whose basic framework and essential features they have accepted much more readily than their pronouncements in opposition, and even sometimes in office, would have tended to suggest.
In recent years, France’s Socialist Party and Greece’s Syriza both capitulated to the demands of capital, implemented austerity at home, and in the case of France’s Socialist Party, actively took part in imperialism abroad.
Fighting for and winning reforms is important for building working class power, but without a plan to go farther these reforms simultaneously shore up the foundations of capitalism. This can be said even for important victories such as the National Health Service. Miliband said of the NHS, “It did not, for all its importance, constitute any threat to the existing system of power or privilege. What it did constitute was a certain humanisation of the existing social order”. Although many capitalist elites would like to see it eliminated, the NHS exists wholly within the confines of capitalism and doesn’t directly challenge the power structure of society.
This is a major reason why social democratic governments fail to end capitalism through reforms. It is a problem of state power- the capture, as opposed to the destruction of, the capitalist state. In its liberal conception the state is a neutral tool, a bureaucracy subjected to popular democratic pressures as well as elite interests that diffuses the power of both. Its purpose is to take the input from every sector of society and create an output of compromises and solutions to societal tensions and problems. Through the lens of liberalism it seems that Corbyn can skew the playing field in favor of the working class.
But it is evident, even in the most generous reading of the liberal understanding of the state, that Corbyn’s social democracy cannot take away the power of the capitalist class – only reduce it – and even then, only for a short period of time. Neoliberal attacks on New Deal policies in the U.S. and social democratic ones in Europe show that gains made by the working class within the capitalist state are never safe for long. Despite its popularity, this conception of the state is fundamentally wrong.
Marxists do not see the state as a neutral actor regulating society and representing the interests of everyone. Marxists understand the state as a weapon used by one class to suppress another. Engels explained in his “Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State” that the state is,
…a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.
Liberalism obscures the actual function of the state and the power dynamics that shape it. The state arose from the contradiction between classes. When classes came into existence it became necessary for a coercive instrument to be used by one class to oppress the other. Throughout history the existence of a state implied the existence of a class system. Leaving the bourgeois state intact means accepting the current class relations, i.e the bourgeoisie owning the state and the means of production, and the workers owning only their labor which they must sell on the market.
For Corbyn to become head of this state apparatus would ultimately place on him the responsibility of running it efficiently. One man cannot be a substitute for the entire working class taking power. Again, Miliband elucidates the class nature of the failures of reformist governments,
Something like a shudder of popular expectation and hope has always tended to accompany left-wing victories at the polls, no doubt in part because such victories have on the whole been so infrequent, and have appeared to dislodge from the centre of political power society’s traditional rulers; indeed because such victories are often interpreted (quite mistakenly) as actually constituting the expulsion from power of the dominant classes themselves.
An election does not expel capitalists from power. A Labour government would sit within a larger system created for and dominated by capitalist elites. Commanding the capitalist state apparatus even in an attempt to benefit the many and not the few, is still commanding the capitalist state apparatus. The logic of capitalism may force a Labour government to implement austerity, or an economic crash will inevitably occur. Either way Labour will be stuck holding the bag. It is possible that socialism will receive blame for the ensuing economic and social crises.
In order to avoid that fate, Labour must conquer the rightwing of the party, going beyond their manifesto to campaign for and implement a Marxist minimum program. The minimum programme is both the maximum the working class can achieve under capitalism and the minimum terms a workers’ party sets for forming a government. If implemented it would begin the transformation and destruction of the capitalist state and the beginning of a worker’s state. The minimum program would include demands such as extending popular control over all aspects of society by introducing radical forms of democracy, abolishing the monarchy, the House of Lords and MI5/MI6, disestablishing the Church of England, a reduction of work hours, massive investment in council house construction, an end to state secrets, and the nationalization of power, water, transportation, the pharmaceutical industry, and the banks.
This would constitute a direct confrontation with capital and would be impossible without the support of millions of workers. Labour would need to campaign on a minimum program, and a victory in the polls would signal mass support for these radical policies.
It is a zero sum game. Labour can fight against capital or capitulate to it. Without a minimum program, without a majority of workers behind them, without introducing radical new forms of democracy and transforming the capitalist state into a workers state, Corbyn will be relegated to managing capitalism rather than transcending it.