What It Will Take To Build Left Independent Political Power In The 21st Century
Above photo: From Active Stills on Flickr.
Clearing the FOG co-hosts, Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, interviewed Dr. Leo Panitch, Professor Emeritus in political science at York University in Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy, about the recent election in the United Kingdom. Panitch has been studying the Left in the UK and other places around the world since the 1970’s. He talks about what led to Corbyn’s defeat, what it means for the Sanders campaign in the United States and what it will take to build independent political power on the Left. In the United States, this will require changing the structure of political organizing. You can listen to the full interview, plus an analysis of current events on Clearing the FOG.
Clearing the FOG (CtF): You’ve been monitoring the UK election campaigns and you visited the UK during the campaigns. We’ve just had this momentous result. Give us your review of what happened.
Leo Panitch (LP): It confirmed what I felt in the pit of my stomach for most of this year, especially since I went canvassing in ex-mining communities in Yorkshire in September. One could see that Corbyn and Corbyn’s-led Labour party, who had done so well in the 2017 election, accepting the outcome of Brexit but saying we need a Labour government to negotiate a progressive rather than a reactionary one got pushed aside by those voices.
Most of them were of the centrist liberal variety who really don’t believe in anything socially, but believe vaguely in the Clintonesque Blair kind of way in global humane internationalism. They were determined to undo the referendum. As the poles shifted in 2018 as Mrs. May’s government found it difficult to come to an agreement, they started pushing for a second referendum, a people’s vote. It was led by the people around Tony Blair with tremendous funding from the city of London, which is your Wall Street, and by the majority of the Parliamentary leadership, the MPS who had tried to unseat him within a year of him being elected.
The pressure became enormous on Corbyn to opt for a second referendum. One could feel in one’s bones that that would be giving the finger to those working-class constituencies, and there were a hundred of them, where Labour had MPS who had voted to leave, which was as in the midwest vote for Trump, a cry of despair in the face of three, four decades of neoliberalism, deindustrialization, neglect and the last 10 years after the crisis of a terrible austerity.
Some of it was open to being directed against immigrants. I heard that when I was canvassing. And some of it took a very Trumpist tone of the kind that we will “Make Great Britain Great Again.” Some of it involved the fact that people who otherwise would have been miners, especially men now in their 50s and 60s, went into the army when they couldn’t get jobs in industry. Therefore, they had a very skewed attitude to the conflict in Ireland where there had been a great bloodbath on the border for so long. And Corbyn was one of the first to be insisting we need negotiations with Sinn Fein, with the Irish nationalists in the north, which is what major Tory prime minister and then Blair finally did 10-15 years after Corbyn was calling for it.
But for that, Corbyn was traduced as a terrorist supporter and a lot of people picked this up. So you got a combination, including the appalling and ridiculous anti-Semitism smear since Corbyn had put down ever since he was an MP some 8350 motions in Parliament defending Jewish communities against vandalism and attacks and anti-Semitism not only in Britain but in Iran and Russia and Turkey and France and so on. That smear, which people up north don’t care about much, made him feel weird as far as they were concerned. All of that turned the tide against him.
So from 2017, where he secured the largest increase in the vote of any party in Britain since 1945, what you got was this turnaround and it’s tragic. People voted against their own interests as they will discover. Workers voted against their interests, as they did in the midwest in the United States in voting for Trump. And Jewish people voted against their own interests because in the face of the far-right, which is indeed anti-semitic Neo-Nazi quasi-fascist etc., you could have no better defender than a Corbyn-led Labour party. But that is the irony of the media’s effect on politics and the effect of the liberal centrists within parties like the Labour party and the Democratic party.
CtF: Looking at some of the exit polls, the primary reason people did not vote for Labour was because of Corbyn. The second issue was Brexit and the third issue, a minor one, was economic policies.
LP: The manifesto is the most radical and coherent Left-wing manifesto in the postwar world because it frames Labour’s industrial strategy within the framework of a Green Industrial Revolution. It’s even more coherent than the Great Manifesto of 2017, which had a better title to it, “For the many, not the few.” All the polls showed every item in that work was popular including the nationalizations, well over 50%, with less than 30% being opposed to them and the rest being undecided.
The taxes on the wealthy, including all the way down to taxes on everyone earning over 80,000 pounds, which is just over a hundred thousand in US dollars, was very popular. The opposing of rent controls was very popular. The promise to have a housing program, which would be an eco-socialist one in terms of energy consumption that would provide a million jobs, was enormously popular.
In that sense, Corbyn achieved Johnson running after him. You’d never know that his party was the party that introduced austerity for a decade or that he had been as a young man part of the Thatcherite reaction. Jonson ran after Corbyn saying we will enormously fund the NHS, we will stop the privatization of it. We will fund many more nurses and firemen etcetera. All of course, they had gotten rid of in the years of austerity. So his promises would just be to bring them back marginally to where they had been 10 years ago. But he went running after in policy terms all of this presenting himself as a one-nation conservative with the one-nation ideology coming from Disraeli in the 19th century who made an appeal to the male working class that had just gotten the vote calling them Angels in Marble. That is the workers who would vote Tory.
CtF: You have argued that part of the conservative’s reasoning for wanting to bring forth this proposal of Brexit was so that the UK could become more like a Singapore, so it wouldn’t be tied to the European Union’s labor standards. Corbyn played himself as “I’m representing all people. We need to hear both sides and figure out what to do.” But to do many of the things that he’s talked about in his Manifesto, there needs to be some independence from the European Union. Do you think he wasn’t clear enough in taking a side on Brexit?
LP: Yes, but I think that was largely a result of the xenophobic appeal of the original campaign during the time of the referendum. The New Labour Left that Corbyn comes out of in the 1970s was critical of the European project even then, arguing that the Treaty of Rome back in 1958 had free capital movements in its DNA. That’s where they were heading.
When Britain joined in 1971, Corbyn’s mentor, Tony Benn, opposed it and in the referendum of 1975, which Benn was the author of, the Labor New Left led by Benn and supported by Corbyn had opposed the European Union. They lost 66 to 33 with most of the Labour leadership, which was then in government, joining with the Tories in favor of the European Union. So there’s always been on the British Left that Corbyn represents a high degree of understanding that the neoliberal nature of the European Union gets in the way of what you would need by way of capital controls and planning agreements and the control of investment to turn around a rampant global neoliberal capitalism.
That said, back in 2012 when Cameron first decided he was going to get the UK independence party off his back by calling a referendum, never expecting he’d lose, Corbyn said, “Look, we may need to support staying in Europe in the face of a reactionary campaign against immigrants.” Corbyn is fundamentally an anti-racist, the most decent of human rights politicians you could possibly find.
As Labour leader during the referendum, he was traduced by the center-right of the party for not being enthusiastic enough because in the campaign meetings, he did a hundred and thirty-three of them, he said I would give Europe a seven out of ten. His position after the defeat in the referendum and this is how he increased Labour’s votes so enormously, to over 40% in 2017, was that we accept this vote. What we need now is a government led by the need to negotiate a progressive rather than a reactionary Brexit, one that will not be oriented to reducing labor standards. We would have a customs agreement. We would have the closest thing to a single market that would allow for some control over the movement of capital and the movement of labor. We would retain Europe’s labor standards, which are much higher of course than what Blair left the UK with. And we would retain the human rights standards of the European Court of Justice until we established higher standards than in Europe.
The Tory’s strategy, and those people are now in Johnson’s cabinet, was ‘Singapore on the Sea.’ That is precisely to get out of Europe not only for xenophobic and anti-immigrant reasons, which are the cynical ones, but also for the economic strategy ones of getting a way out of the European labor standards. Those are higher than in Britain because Europe didn’t have Thatcherism and within Europe, you have the strong Swedish and German labor movements. That’s what they wanted to get rid of.
It’ll be hard now for Johnson actually to do that by virtue of having won these Labour heartlands, having run a campaign of one nation, and having this very large majority, which allows him to do a very closed deal with the European Union. Given the degree of integration after 50 years of being part of it, with the city of London being the center of the European bond market -all of the European bonds and the Euro itself are traded by the merchant banks in Britain, many of which are American – Johnson will now strike as close a deal as he’s able to.
It’s possible that the Europeans, if Johnson does go ahead and lower labor standards, will go along with that and use that as a lever to lower labor standards in France and in Germany. As you see with Macron, he’s taking on a neoliberal reform against the demonstrations and general strike in France. He wants a pension reform of a neoliberal, austerity kind. So there are reasons for the Europeans to actually want to give Johnson some rope in this respect because they may then follow him in this regard saying well, we need this to be competitive.
CtF: The EU has become more evidently a corporate kind of state, but these bankers in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris must be licking their chops at taking all that finance business.
LP: Yes, but they’re dreaming in technicolor. They wouldn’t have although obviously that was part of the scare campaign. The attractions of living in London, even for European bankers, are great compared to living in Frankfort. Secondly, with the American financial system being at the core of the global financial system, and London being its central satellite, that wasn’t going to be moved away very easily.
In a very narrow sense, they might have hoped to pick up a little bit of business, but that wasn’t realistic. Now it’s even less so. It may take a decade of negotiations, but the status quo will largely remain until then. Johnson will do a deal with the EU that will protect financial flows moving easily across borders.
CtF: In the Scottish and Irish vote, there was a move toward nationalism, especially in Scotland. It’s like this nationalistic view in the UK, a “we’re going to be UK and not EU,” and then you have this nationalist view in Scotland and in Ireland, “we believe in nationalism too for ourselves.” It’s a big breakup potential for Johnson. How do you see that playing out?
LP: This is one of the possible outcomes of this English nationalism that Brexit represented, an attempt to reassert some sort of Great Britain in the imperial sense. As a Canadian, any politician like Reagan or Thatcher or Trump or Johnson who came to the Canadian people and said we were going to make Canada great again would be laughed off the stage. But in your imperial countries, that has a resonance in the working class, which was formed in the late 19th, early 20th century at the time when “The Sun never set on the British Empire.”
Scottish nationalism does reflect an anti-austerity orientation on the part of the Scottish National Party. It’s not only a matter of a certain degree of national identity, but it’s also explicitly anti-Thatcherite. That’s why it managed to win Labour votes so extensively because the Labour Party in Scotland was totally controlled by the Blairites, which totally bought into neoliberal globalization as Clinton did and they were all part of the team. It’s partly a rejection of the move to the right in Westminster.
That’s not to say it doesn’t represent a genuine sense of identity. That’s also true in Barcelona, in Spain, with the nationalist movement there. It reflects a social substance as well as an economic one. The Europeans don’t encourage that type of small nationalism. They don’t want to see the breakup of countries that are aligned to Europe.
If Britain leaves, they may be prepared, as they stood up for Ireland in the negotiations with Mrs. May, to countenance admitting an independent Scotland. Johnson will do everything he can to thwart this but the SNP is in for some trouble. There’s a trial about to take place of the former leader, Salmond, having attempted to rape a woman and there’s some evidence that the current leadership of the SNP tried to cover that up. So they may be not looking as rosy in the next election in Scotland. And if they aren’t, it’ll make it easier.
On the other hand, if Britain does leave in a way, which I think is unlikely, that gets in the way of the integration of Northern Ireland with the Irish economy, Republic of Ireland economy, it’s possible we could finally see a united independent Ireland. If things work out differently than I’m suggesting, we could see an independent Scotland. You’d be left with England and its little province of Wales where there’s a strong nationalist movement as well. So that would be a fine turnaround for the Tory Party, which was always the party of the United Kingdom above all but they could live being the party of a greater England.
CtF: One might think that Johnson being in charge of the UK would push the Scottish National Party to have more support. Scotland sees itself as being more progressive.
LP: All I say is that 53% of Scots did not vote for the SNP and they lost the last referendum. She won but she was running against Labour, the Tories, and the Liberal Democrats. If you added those three together, 53 percent of Scots voted for parties that aren’t in favor of Scottish independence.
Part of the reaction of the northern working class in Britain, which was already seen in the 2015 election that Ed Miliband lost for Labour, was that a Labour government would have to be dependent on the Scottish National Party. They responded in the kind of nationalism that the Tories and UKIP appealed to, voting for UKIP in 2015 and for Johnson this time partly by virtue of their antipathy to Scottish nationalism and contrasting it with their English nationalism. That’s one of the ironies of this. The incompetence of British politicians in this respect has been stunning.
Miliband being forced by the Blairites and Labour Party to run with the Tories against the SNP in the Scottish referendum was a disaster. They should have been running independently saying we would have given the greatest autonomy to Scotland in a British Federation and a reconstituted bridge estate. But instead, they fell into running with the Tories funded entirely by the capitalist financiers, which even though they’re for that left edge, Miliband who is an ethical socialist and had rejected the war in Iraq and the inequality of global finance and so on, it left him holding an empty bag.
CtF: You’ve been studying and following Labour for a long time since you did your thesis at the London School of Economics. Where does Labour go from here?
LP: Where do we go on the Left? It’s the same question. It’s not just Labour. Labour is a party like the Democratic party, except it is really more of a party. It actually has branches, constituency Labour Party’s and a certain class culture. The Democratic Party is an electoral machine every two or four years. That said, it’s really more a matter of where’s the Left because the vast majority of the leaders of the Labour party, the parliamentarians, the career politicians who come out of Oxbridge with relatively progressive liberal ideas and run for the Labour party, they are not socialists. They are not particularly on the Left. They are hostile to the kind of radical politics that Corbyn and Sanders represent and behind which they galvanized the remarkable anti-neoliberal and anti-war protest movements.
At the Labour Party conference I attended in September, young delegates from the floor came to the mic and said, “We’re not for the 52%, we’re not for the 48 percent, we’re for the 99%.” They were picking up the slogan of Occupy. So the question is not about Labour, it’s where does the Left go now.
That young Left moved from protest into politics. There is a very short bridge from Occupy to getting behind Sanders and getting behind Corbyn a year earlier. I think they realize that you can protest until hell freezes over and you won’t change the world. You need to get into the state to change the world. So the question will be whether their class focus can become class-rooted and it’s evidence of how un-class rooted it was.
You could get 800 brilliantly committed and talented young people campaigning for an Asian woman who heads up a think tank called Class running in North London while in a constituency in Yorkshire, you would get six canvassers. Although Momentum tried to move some of these people around the country, these people aren’t class-rooted in that way. The same is true of DSA. There are people in DSA who understand the real task is to be out there on picket lines to do the kind of support that the DSA in East Oakland did with the Oakland teachers. They were the ones running the school lunches so that black families did not have to take the kids across the picket line to access the lunch, etcetera. That is what is going to be required.
I think it’s always naive to think the immediate election, however much as one wanted Corbyn to succeed, one wants Sanders to succeed, one’s not going to win on the basis of that election. What we’re in is a very long run, difficult shifting of the social forces in these societies, which have for so long been skewed and based on the defeat of the labor movement in the 1980s. That had a lot to do of course with the defects of trade unionism, the extent to which it wasn’t engaged in political education of a kind that would have made it much more open to diversity, much less oriented to narrow economic self-protection in a consumerist sense rather than a collective-needs sense and so on.
We’re in for a long struggle. So the question is what happens to that Left in the Labour Party and I know, they will now continue through Momentum and other similar organizations that have come out of it to try to do the kind of class rooting and political education that they haven’t had time to do. We’ll have to see because there’ll be a terrible reaction to the Labour Party now, which will blame this defeat on the platform having been too left-wing.
CtF: That’s what we’re seeing in the United States. Joe Biden and the centrist Democrats are saying the lesson from Corbyn is we can’t elect a left-winger like Sanders. We’re already starting to see anti-Semitic memes coming out against Sanders.
LP: You’ll get the same slanders. It’s very important that that be responded to with simply the evidence of the popularity of the policies and the very fact that the Tories were able to root themselves in working-class discontent. The Democratic party has lost all credibility in places in the midwest that voted unfailingly Democrat since the New Deal, not least because they felt abandoned over NAFTA. There’s Trump coming along using the word working class and saying I’m going to undo NAFTA. What do they expect?
The response to this needs to be on the contrary. The lesson one needs to learn is that the party needs to become led by Sanders and the DSA, class-focus rather than progressively liberal, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Opposing the putting of immigrant children into cages of course, but it does need to become class-focused. It needs to be able to bridge that humanism with the real needs of people whose communities have been devastated.
CtF: The Democrats are doing the opposite in many ways. Two things going on right now play into this. One is passage of the new NAFTA, USMCA; it’s the same as the old NAFTA. The Democrats gave Trump that but it’s not going to help the working class. And then you have the impeachment process, which is basically a thumb in the nose of people who voted for Trump, working-class voters who said we don’t like these elites in Washington. Now these elites in Washington DC are doing a partisan impeachment based on a narrow issue, not dealing with working-class issues at all. Sanders has to be very careful how he plays on both those issues.
LP: I totally agree but I think it’s not inevitable that the reading of Corbyn’s defeat will be of the kind that Buttigieg and Biden will want to do. I think there’s every reason for being able to show that the policies were popular and to keep reminding people that on those policies Corbyn increased Labour’s votes in a way that no party had since 1945.
The Labour Party’s response to that smear was weak. Many of the centrist and right-wing Labour MP’s were happy to join in it in order to get rid of Corbyn since they are opposed to democratic socialism. It’s not that they’re reactionary, it’s that they think this is a dangerous chimera. They have the illusion that the center is holding, and that one can go back to the Keynesian welfare state. They are the people who present themselves as the pragmatists but they are in fact the most unrealistic people. They simply don’t recognize the way in which capitalism has changed so that compromise is no longer possible.
CtF: We’re seeing protests around the world in Lebanon and Latin America calling out neoliberalism and austerity. What are your thoughts on that in terms of the trends globally?
LP: It’s obviously very encouraging. It is not new. Seattle was in 1999. There were already protests in India and in France in 1995 against the free trade agreements and the move towards the WTO, the World Trade Organization. The anti-war movements, Corbyn himself was chair of the greatest of those, the Stop the War Coalition in the UK, which really was the base of a lot of his successful candidacy for the party leadership in 2015.
So this isn’t new. It is of a thing with the G20 protests, the Occupy Movement, and the Arab Spring. The terrible inequalities, exclusions, marginalizations and inevitable refugee effects that global neoliberalism will have will keep on producing these types of protests. What we need to learn, and it’s ironic that it was learned in Britain and the United States of all places, is that unless you can get into the state to change the world, all the protesting in the world is not going to change it.
Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg need to learn this as well. The disdain for party politics, which is understandable given what the Socialist, Communist and Democratic Parties in the United States became, is understandable. There’s been this anarchist moment amongst people who are organizing to change the world.
What people who moved into the Labour party and the Democratic party and those who created the smaller parties, Podemos, Syriza in Greece, and Die Linke in Germany, have understood is one needs permanent political organization of a kind that is prepared not only to put forward policies but is prepared to figure out how to implement them. Implementing is both about how to change the state once you get in to implement those policies, which I have to say I don’t think either Sanders or Warren are spending a lot of time doing. You’d have to change the very nature of the Treasury and Federal Reserve and not to mention even the Department of Energy in order to do those things. But you also need to change the basis of support that you’re winning from people because people would have to realize as when you engage in a long strike that you are going to have to have sacrifices in order to win this struggle.
You don’t win a strike without having to tighten your belts. Well, you’re not going to be able to take on the powerful forces of capital reigned against what you want to do unless people realize that for the transition period, this is going to be economically costly. We’re going to have to learn how to shift our standard of living given the nature of the ecological crisis and the radical socialist policies needed to introduce the kind of planning that would overcome that. We’re going to have to learn how to shift from individual consumption of so many things that we now have into the meeting of collective needs through collective services from transit to food to certain aspects of housing.
Now, that’s not to say that today’s Left is going to do away with coffee shops and markets and etc., but it is to say that we’re talking about changing our conception of our standard of living. It’s a matter of both being able to change the state and being able, for people who are supporting this, to change themselves through the process. That’s when it gets serious. For that, you do need political parties that look both ways, both to get into the state and that are engaged in the reforming of classes. That’s what these parties on the left do, they form people into classes. And now that the working classes of old are so divided and transformed and unrecognizable, the new parties in the 21st century will need to be reformed.
CtF: The US political system is such a difficult solid two-party system of two corporate parties funded by Wall Street.
LP: This can’t happen without both the Democratic and Labour parties splitting. It matters less in the United States because there’s less of a party apparatus. In fact, there is no funding machine. In the Labour party case, there actually is an organizational formm with real roots in communities and those branches of the party need to be turned into centers of community life.
Those have to be built anew in the United States. They can be out of the worker’s action centers that have developed. It will involve at some point people whose project is fundamentally not to change the system, which is the majority of the current leadership of the Democratic Party and most of its elected officials at every level. Either those people will have to see the writing on the wall and join in the struggle or those people who are engaged in this struggle through the Democratic Party understandably will have to find ways of building new organizational forms.
This isn’t new. If you look at the 19th century, the way in which people reorganized from the Chartists of the 1830s to the 1848 revolutions until you got the mass socialist parties of the 1890s and the mass strikes before World War One, people were transforming their organizational forms in order to get to that point. The 20th century then became one in which the parties that emerged before World War One and just after became the central forms of political representation vis a vis the state and organizing vis a vis the people through the 20th century. My generation of the 60s already saw that those parties had run their historical course as agents of social change. We’ve been stumbling our way now for 50 years through the woods trying to build new ones. That can be done through the old parties and through the building of new ones, but that’s the agenda for the 21st century.