Why Not Join the Labour Party? A Personal Reply to Owen Jones and the Labour Left

The errors of the giants of revolutionary thought, who sought to raise, and did raise, the proletariat of the whole world above the level of petty, commonplace and trivial tasks — are a thousand times more noble and magnificent and historically more valuable and true than the trite wisdom of official liberalism, which lauds shouts, appeals and holds forth about the vanity of revolutionary vanities, the futility of the revolutionary struggle and the charms of counter-revolutionary “constitutional” fantasies.

Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 12, p. 378.

I am not usually fond of the obligatory Lenin quotes in socialist articles, but this particular phrase stood out in the context of what has been called ‘the defeat of the left’, and the struggle between social-democratic and radical responses to it. Lenin is dead; but the question of political strategy and socialist potential is alive. Unusually for members of the committed and serious left involved in Labour Party politics and activism, Owen Jones actually took the trouble, about a year and a half ago, to write an argument why the left should be in Labour. Of course, many such appeals for Labour get written by fake leftists, careerists, right social-democrats and think tank idiots from time to time, but such appeals make ‘the left’ into such an amorphous entity that these hacks can pretend there is a commonality of viewpoint and tradition between Emma Goldman and Luke Akehurst. The Labour left in the proper sense – those who are committed in one form or another to a substantive socialist vision opposed to capitalism and who are serious about the possibility of achieving it – rarely write such apologetics. That is a shame, because it is an argument worth having. Between the old, ossified clichés of the various ‘three letter parties’ on the Marxist left and the blatant opportunism of those using Labour as a vehicle for ‘achieving aspiration’, the arguments for party strategy are currently not well developed. Yet this is a crucial decision in theory as well as practice, and goes beyond a mere immediately tactical choice. It concerns the question of what you consider the core of what ‘the left’ should be about, for it to be worthy of its name and accomplishments.

In such a fundamental question, there are inevitably going to be both objective and subjective arguments involved. By this I mean: partially it can be debated in terms of arguments that are universalizable and general, and would apply in any similar situation for anyone, and partially it is a matter of personal commitments, priorities, and theoretical ‘intuition’, which may not wholly escape the boundaries of personal experience and idiosyncrasy. It seems fair then that in this reply I shall produce both, and I emphasize that I speak only for myself and my own considerations in this; ones which may of course change over time, besides. The question is made all the more complicated because, as anyone who has ever engaged with radical left micro-sects is aware, much of it depends or appears to depend on the reading of history in one particular way or another, and therefore it quickly gets mired in historiographical quicksand. This can’t be entirely avoided, but it is important in my view to be able to tell the difference between analytically major and minor issues. On the left altogether too much strife and confusion abounds simply because of an inability on the part of many writers to clearly state what to them is a premise and what to them is a conclusion. Explicating this will not necessarily lead to more agreement, but can make disagreement at least more productive and perhaps clear some old obstacles off the path.

First, however, I’ll consider the concrete arguments comrade Jones gives for the left to join Labour in his article cited above. Once more, it is important to note that the left here are not people who think that socialism means ‘being nice to people’ in a vague way, but “the full-blooded, Real Thing”. If we ignore the arguments by elimination at first, there are essentially four arguments: the union connection with Labour, the working class vote for Labour, Labour does not need to equal New Labour and Blairism, and finally a rival organization would be too difficult to set up. Then, there are essentially negative arguments: the non-Labour left has failed to achieve anything, the Greens and nationalist parties do not have class politics, and the right is winning everywhere else too, so we should not blame Labour for it. I will try to address these, and a number of things not mentioned besides, in a somewhat more integrated way than the original, as many of these issues cannot be seen in isolation from another in the way Jones seems to do. The same goes for the objective and the subjective in the argumentation, in the way I described above.

Let us begin by saying this: when comrade Jones says that the working class and most of the unions back the Labour Party and since its origins have always done so, then he is absolutely right. In the UK, this has always been true since the Labour Party itself was founded out of the Labour Representation Committee, allowing for a time lag for the working class to shift its allegiance away from the Liberal Party (something that happened remarkably fast ‘on the ground’ in any case). As Jones rightly notes, the bulk of the union leadership is so much in hock with Labour that it will even vote against pro-union policies in the NEC and elsewhere if it feels this may threaten the party’s electability. And certainly a majority of the working class vote, insofar as the working class has voted at all (and this is an important caveat), has gone to Labour since at least WWII. The unions by and large finance Labour since the defeat of the defeatists has scared away much of the financiers whom Blair and Mandelson had invited, and this shows no signs of changing. All this is true despite the Labour Party’s utter failure to provide anything in return. The Labour Party has shifted vastly to the right in recent decades, working class members or not, and union support or not. It is important to note also that these developments are not unique to Labour in Britain (again, as Jones indeed hints at): precisely the same is true of the SPD in Germany, of the PS in France, of the various incarnations of the social-democrats in Italy, of the equivalent parties in the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, and so forth. In some of these countries this is modified by the much stronger electoral and organizational presence of a party to the left of Labour, however, and this already raises questions. But mutatis mutandis this is a general trend, and it is even true for the US, Canada, and Australia in their own way, although modified more systematically in those places by the racial dimension.

The other points, however, bring us to the cardinal issue which Jones’ essay ignores. The real question is not whether the Labour Party could organisationally be reconquered for the left. No doubt in theory such a thing would be possible; one could get the Labour left slate elected to the NEC of the party, one could get many more working class and unionist members elected as Labour MPs (something Jones has valiantly but futilely been making the case for), one could revive the local activism of Labour, and so forth. The small successes of Respect, for example, also show that local organization plus a more principled approach on questions of imperialism and redistribution of power and wealth can defeat the machinery of the Labour establishment – and these victories are worth celebrating for that reason. The real elephant in the room here is the question between means and ends, goals and strategy: the question of the movement towards socialism. For all Jones’ mockery of the WRP, SWP, SPEW and many such groups, and his derision towards former Coventry MP Dave Nellist for standing as an independent left candidate and (narrowly) losing, in a wider context this becomes a rather hypocritical exercise. It is absolutely true that the proliferation of micro-sects on the left, from the days of Hyndman to now, has had virtually zero effect in achieving a socialist revolution in Britain against the power of the capitalist system. But it is equally true that the Labour Party in its glorious 112 years has achieved no such thing either.

In fact, whenever anyone within the Labour Party has so much as hinted at revolutionary aims, the response has generally been to treat them as an invasive species and to cast them out. Jones rather unfairly neglects to mention Nellist stood as an independent because the Labour Party deselected him; SPEW formed because the entryist tactics of Militant were simply answered by a wave of purges of the left; even the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was demonized and repressed by the Labour Party as much as by the secret services; and the price John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn pay for their continued membership is a complete impotence. The 1970s Labour programme calling on the public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy was the most radical one Labour ever approved, and it was still not a revolutionary programme by any means, nor was it ever even attempted to put it into effect. Surely he is right that it will not do to be like the SPGB and be impeccably and impotently correct on all manners of theory since 1906, but equally Jones cannot ignore that the Labour Party, whatever its achievements may have been, has singularly failed to even attempt anything revolutionary, let alone to achieve it.

In the face of this, the emphasis on working class participation and union membership in some ways becomes a matter of putting the cart before the horse, from my perspective. Here a personal difference probably comes into play. It may be an unfair generalization, but most Marxists and radical leftists of various stripes in my experience tend to ‘find’ left-wing political theory because they are already committed to socialism from a class perspective or a moral impetus, and are merely seeking a theoretical framework which can elaborate and ‘operationalize’ their ethical and political intuitions. For Jones, as he has repeatedly stated, this is a combined commitment to the working class in general and more particularly to overcoming the enormous blow it suffered in its defeat at the hands of Thatcher. It would probably not be overstated to say that these sentiments motivate the majority of the serious left in Britain today.

But for me, this is different. Here we necessarily come into the personal sphere, so bear with me a little bit – I will try to make a more objective, general argument out of these subjective premises as well, and not just toot my own horn. First off, I am Dutch, not British, by birth, and therefore have never experienced Thatcherism in the same way. Although the Netherlands too has seen the ‘neoliberal turn’, it did not come as an outright assault on the left in the same way, and there is not as much an epic tradition bound up with this story of the left’s glorious defeat as here with the miners’ strike. Instead, the already very rightist Labour Party in the Netherlands simply acquiesced happily, even when often in power, more like Clinton than like Scargill; although the effect and the cause have been largely the same, the form has been very different, and therefore the emotions are too. But more importantly than that, I do not share the same sense of the primacy of the working class, and to me this is a poorly developed political idea (and not unique to the Labour left at that, but also common to the Marxist parties).

I am not at all myself working class, nor have I ever claimed to be, and I do not have any particular working class experience (other than wage labour) to refer to, nor do I have any particular emotional or inherited attachment to the working class as a sociological phenomenon, except vicariously. I can of course theoretically understand its experience and empathetically relate to it, when talking to friends or reading the likes of E.P. Thompson, but it is not the same thing as growing up in a mining town or going to a neglected state school in Stockport where you’re the only one to go to university. So in the personal sphere, this does not drive me with the same force. In fact, my trajectory politically has been very different, perhaps idiosyncratic: I was originally by class origin and political osmosis something of a rightist social-democrat, a Dutch version of a Blairite one might say, although perhaps with somewhat more egalitarian tendencies than most. It was in fact not a socialism in search of theory that made me a Marxist, but the opposite: I encountered Marxism in my reading of economics and history, and became convinced that it had by far the greatest scientific and political explanatory power of all such theories I had seen, and it is in this way and for this reason that I became a socialist, not the other way round.

I say all this not to make my own person appear particularly interesting or important, or to wallow in my privilege, but to raise the significance of analytical priority I have previously mentioned. If one’s identification is primarily with the working class in and of itself, it makes much more sense to say ‘I must be where the working class is’ than if one’s analytical priority is for socialist transformation. Almost always on the left these are presented as equivalents, but they are not and need not be. For Marx and Engels, the working class was of primary significance, but only insofar as they were the vehicle for the achievement of socialism, a classless society: as early as the late 1840s, it was clear to them that the role of the working class could not be anything other than to abolish capitalism and thereby abolish the working class itself. As they phrased it in The Holy Family: “The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.” For them, through all the ups and down and twists and turns of history, therefore, the proletariat – the exploited working class – was the one class that could only emancipate itself by establishing a socialist mode of production as against the current capitalist one, and this was their life’s work. But this was a proposition not based on the properties or specificities of any existing working class, at any time or place, but based on a reading of history and political economy.

However, both on the social-democratic left and among the many Marxist parties since Marx, it has often been pretended that therefore the cause of socialism in this historical and economic sense is identical with the activity of the working class in the concrete: whatever the working class does is therefore the movement toward socialism, by historical necessity. This is, to me, putting the cart before the horse. In my view, socialism as a mode of production is politically and morally necessary because it is the only way to achieve the emancipation, intellectually and materially, of the vast majority of mankind; it is ecologically necessary to stave off the barriers to growth imposed by private accumulation; it is ethically necessary, as it is in accordance with my egalitarian instincts and with the demands of justice to overcome all the oppressive and exploitative aspects of society that are, if not generated by capitalism, certainly made much worse and pervasive by it; and finally it is historically necessary, because it finally fulfils the promise that the Enlightenment started, namely the recovery of humanity’s control over its own history by emancipating it from its self-created restraints and idols.

It may well be true that the working class is the only vehicle for achieving this, and that it must do so itself, as Marx and Engels also emphasized. While their arguments for this are not wholly conclusive, being largely an argument by elimination, it is certainly made plausible by the status of working people globally as the growing, concentrated, exploited force upholding the class system under capitalism. Under such conditions, it is certainly true that an emancipation of the working class would almost certainly require an abolition of the class and property relations that underpin global capitalism. But it also means that if socialism as a form of society could be achieved in some other way, then that would, to me, be equally desirable. The question is what works. Therefore, while it is certainly in most cases likely and plausible that the cause of the working class and the cause of socialism overlap, this is not an a priori necessity: it cannot be known beforehand, but must be examined in each case.

This is more than just a pedantic theoretical point. It matters enormously in two respects: firstly, in that it makes it much more understandable how one can reasonably maintain that a small group of radicals can be ‘right’ against the vast majority of people in a social-democratic organization like Labour. Indeed, if one simply goes wherever the working class goes, then that cannot possibly make sense except if the aim is to form a rival organization which seeks over time, to supplant it – which Owen Jones seems to implicitly assume is the aim of rival groups like the SWP, SPEW, etc. In many cases in fact these groups do present themselves in this way. In the UK, the most important group of this type has been the Communist Party of Great Britain, which indeed did seek (and expect to) supplant Labour in Parliament, in the unions, and in working class support, and singularly failed to do so for a variety of reasons. No other party has come even close to the – already not very impressive – CPGB in terms of size or influence against the Labour Party.

But this also makes things look different from a different sense of means and ends. If one does not see socialism as good because it is good for the working class, but the working class as good for achieving socialism, it is much more clear how in a given time and place a small stubborn minority can have a historical right of existence against a mass party. This goes all the more for a mass party that has from its inception been at best divided on the question of actually achieving socialism. For the theoretical founder of continental social-democracy, Eduard Bernstein, famously said “the aim is nothing, the movement is everything”, and he was not coincidentally influenced by the early Fabians and British unionists when he said this; whereas for me, the movement is nothing, and the aim is everything. A more fair way of putting the same thing, at the risk of misrepresenting him, might be to say that what for Jones are ends in themselves are for me means to a different end.

The purpose of this is not to sneer at working class people or to express a middle class sense of their general redundancy, nor a Christian tale of ‘the poor you will always have with you’. That working people are the majority of the population in most countries, and if one includes the peasantry subject to capitalist relations, one may well say all countries, is nothing to be sneezed at. Socialism itself serves no purpose if it does not improve the lot of the great majority in the world in every dimension of life it can. But equally, there is nothing special about the working class as such. Exploited and oppressed people rarely become morally or spiritually better people from the experience – if anything the contrary is the case – and one cannot generalize on the basis of class as to the properties of individuals (as a whole range of progressive and committed class traitors from Marx and Engels to Jones himself can attest). To deny that there is anything special about working people in this sense is not to dismiss them, but to take them seriously in their diversity as living individuals as well as realizing the political and social significance of their abstract status as a class.

It is therefore also possible, from a perspective that puts socialist transformation and emancipation first, to see the interests of a particular working class as significantly or even largely divergent from those a concrete political opposition to capitalism would take in a given time and place. This brings me to the second major point opened up by this, namely the significance of the enduring conservatism of the working class in Britain and elsewhere in rich countries, relative to the significance of achieving socialist aims. Indeed, the rightward turn of the social-democratic parties is not a mere failure of leadership in the UK, but is a general one across the board in Western politics, and is driven as much as anything by a revanchist shift in the ‘traditional’ working class itself in response to global forces. This expresses itself partly as Labour left nostalgia for welfare states gone by (good for the working class, not per se socialist) and partly in massive opposition to conceding anything to anyone further down the global ladder than themselves, whether local migrant workers or the immense working classes of the Third World. This contradiction is tearing social-democracy apart, and its future in the ‘old heartland’ of capitalism looks very grim indeed seen from a global perspective: an international dimension totally ignored by Jones and similar writers. I have explored this in some depth in my previous articles on the death agony of social-democracy and on unions and the West in the wake of Scott Walker, and therefore need not repeat all these arguments.

Suffice to say that there is something enormously nostalgic and Eurocentrist about the assumptions underlying the centrality of the union and working class connection with Labour to the argument for supporting it: it entirely assumes away the basis of the privileges of the vast majority of the Western working class compared to the numerically much greater working classes of developing countries, and the way in which reformist social-democracy like that of Labour and the unions as organizations of a local/national working class have aided and abetted the process of collaboration with global structures of exploitation. It is worth noting, as Jones in his article emphatically does not, that the record of the Labour Party on foreign policy is miserable indeed. Lots of MPs voted against the Iraq War, no doubt, although it was still a Labour initiative; but more significant cases are ignored. The Labour Party vacillated on independence for India, repressed a socialist anti-colonial rebellion in Malaysia, happily murdered the Kikuyu resistance in Kenya and ‘politically supported’ the war in Vietnam. And this does not even mention the Labour Party’s persistent anti-communism in the international sphere and its equally persistent subservience to the aims and wishes of the American ruling class.

This goes just as much for the so sanctified Attlee government as any other: Ernest Bevin told the party after its great election victory that “you will have to form a government which is at the centre of a great Empire and Commonwealth of Nations, which touches all parts of the world… Revolutions do not change geography, and revolutions do not change geographical need.” It is of course true that in Labour as in other countries’ social-democratic parties there have also been traditions of anti-imperialism and antiwar resistance, but this can also be said of well-meaning liberals (like Mark Twain), as Jones himself notes, and therefore cannot overcome the historical significance of social-democracy as a global mode of appearance of European/Western ‘labour aristocracy’. This has been brought home all the more by the pervasiveness among the ‘traditional’ Labour working class of overwhelming and instinctive resistance against mass migration to the UK, and parallel developments all over the West – this has been a tough nut to crack for the Labour left and a major boon for the Blairites. It shows that contrary to what Marx and Engels famously predicted, when it comes to the working class in Britain today, it has quite a lot more to lose than its chains and much more fears losing it than it strives to gain anything greater.

This does not mean I intend to write off, in some smug way, the working people of Britain (or any other country). As I said above, if socialism is not formulated to the benefit of the great majority, it is nothing. But that must be seen from a global perspective and taken seriously from that viewpoint, not just from the nation-state; such parochial limitations are not just Eurocentric and suspect from a universalizing standpoint, but also more and more untenable in an age of unprecedented globalization and the formation of a transnational capitalist class. This requires a transnational socialism of sorts as well, at least insofar as its premises are concerned, even if sheer political and organizational necessity may force one to operate within national boundaries first. (To my mind, this is also the answer to the hoary issue of ‘socialism in one country’, but that is another story.)

It is therefore all the more disappointing that the nostalgic, welfarist notion of Labour presented by Jones and many others on the Labour left totally fails to engage with this global and historical context to any socialist politics today – which is why I think the possibility of a contradiction between the sphere of a national working class, such as the British, and the desire to achieve a real scientific socialist programme of emancipation is a very live one in the UK today. This should also give us pause in all too eagerly following this or that electoral result or union endorsement in joining historically and politically declining social-democratic groups, no matter what the local numbers are. If one identifies the actual working class movement of one time and place with this ‘historic mission of labour’, and this ‘historic mission of labour’ overshadows the idea of socialism as a result as well as a movement towards that result, one cannot understand Eric Hobsbawm’s confusion about the downward trajectory of the working class he so famously expressed in “The Forward March of Labour Halted”, and like him will risk falling from a socialist point of view into pure electoral opportunism for Labour. But it goes to show that Hobsbawm was right about precisely the one thing he was most criticized for: despite everything to remain in the CPGB throughout its existence, out of a historical conviction that it is better to stumble on the road to socialism with a hundred comrades than to ‘democratically’ go nowhere with ten million.

To sum up then, in this sense my historical and political reading of the role of the Labour Party, today and in the past, is considerably different from that of Owen – as mentioned, this often underlies what appear to be merely tactical choices. This does not mean I endorse instead the equally futile efforts of all the multiplicity of Trotskyist and other sects among the British radical left. These, too, are full of good and committed comrades latching themselves to a vehicle that will not start. I have always refused to join any such group precisely because their understanding of the relationship between means and ends, between historiography and politics, is just as alien to me as that of the Labour Party. Where the Labour Party attempts in the name of the working class to perpetuate the working class and nothing else, there the ‘Leninist’ and other radical parties attempt to read history backwards: to achieve idealized historical movements and situations in the present, or simply ignore history altogether. For them, the stuff of history and economics is, as for so many radicals, a mere opportune tool in the achievement of preconceived political notions, one that can be changed or dispensed with as needed by present politics – in none of these cases is the historical analysis undertaken as premise and their politics the conclusion, as to me is fundamental.

Therefore also different is my sense of analytical priority. I am a socialist because I believe a socialist mode of production is both possible and necessary for the emancipation, in the Enlightenment sense, of the vast majority of the world population, and because capitalism is totally destructive of this end. I think Marx and Engels were right to outline how capitalism’s inherent logic is incompatible with this end and is exploitative of a growing part of the world population, but also right to emphasize that in greatly developing the productivity, technology, and organisational knowledge at mankind’s disposal, capitalism makes possible for the first time a socialism that is more than a purely ethical or religious impulse, and that for the first time can be put on a scientific footing. The working class is the class produced by capitalism and most essential for its continued existence, and for this reason its emancipation requires the establishment of socialist conditions over and against capitalist ones. It is also under capitalism latently, and now more or less in reality, the majority of the world population. But to me, there the special political and historical significance of the working class ends, and I would not now or ever follow even a large working class majority into a non-socialist politics. It is the job of the reformist parties, for whom the working class movement is everything and the aim of socialism nothing, to sacrifice the future to the present; it is the job of socialists to sacrifice the present to the future, if necessary. For this reason, I cannot join the Labour Party.


If indeed “it will not do to be like the SPGB and be impeccably and impotently correct on all manners of theory since 1906” then how can it be “better to stumble on the road to socialism with a hundred comrades than … go nowhere with ten million.”
The working class needs to defend its interests within capitalism using trades unions but these defend sectional interests of the working class engaged in class struggle. They are crucial for the working class but they are not, of themselves, socialist. The role of a socialist political party is simple – to promote the emancipation of labour and the abolition of capitalism. Once engaged in struggles within capitalism, the struggle for socialism becomes an increasingly distant object.
You say “I am not at all myself working class … and I do not have any particular working class experience (other than wage labour)”. Wage labour, working for wages in order to live, is surely the definition of being working class – not being poor, being a cleaner, working in a factory, etc. – these are different sections of the working class, as are office workers, teachers, professors, doctors, etc.

Marx’s approach was not that socialism would come about because it was a good idea for everyone. He accepted that many wealthy people would be drawn to it as they would see that it was good “for the vast majority of the world population”. But this idea was part of material struggle being fought out in capitalism between those who owned the means of production and those who did not. We can see historically the rise of capitalism from feudalism and we can see the outlines of the rise of socialism out of the contradiction between the potential for social production and its current constrained condition. We can present it this way or that, as class or non-class, but it will always, at root, be derived from material struggle. Socialists attempt to persuade others to see the class relations in capitalism so that they may decide to reject capitalism in favour of the emancipation of labour. We seek to inject class consciousness into class unconscious material struggle. The equivalent would be free-market capitalists struggling to gain support in states emerging from feudal absolutism to emergent capitalism. Our time will come and when it does it will derive from and fuel working-class struggle. Socialism cannot be achieved from without class struggle but is its conclusion.

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