Labour is repeating the mistakes of every left-wing movement in history by splitting into increasingly irreconcilable factions of Corbynist maximalists and Starmerian reformists. Is there a way to avoid the trauma of 2019 and unite the party?
The history of Socialist parties is marked by endless squabbles, splits, divisions, ideological sectarianism and sometimes bloody infighting. As the Marxist philosophy, in its promise of a future liberation of mankind, is practically a secular religion, the precise path to paradise-like in any faith – is open to interpretation. Thus, two strategic schools of thought have emerged within the Socialist camp that in effect represent two rivalling churches vying to represent the working class: the maximalists and the reformists or minimalists.
While maximalists aim to achieve communism by the book through a quick overthrow of the entire capitalistic-liberal system and regard any compromises with the ‘class enemy’ as a betrayal of the revolution, reformists aim to reach the promised land through a gradual transformation of the capitalistic system within the mechanisms of existing electoral institutions. Both sides have historically been at odds with one another and have waged violent battles for ideological hegemony: thus, the Russian Communists split into the hard-line Bolsheviks and the more moderate Mensheviks, while the German SPD after the First World War saw its left-wing faction become the Moscow-controlled KPD, the Communists Party of Germany. In the latter case, the consequences were particularly disastrous, as the various strands of the Weimar Left became more focused on fighting each other, than uniting their forces to combat the rise of Nazism.
While maximalists usually denounce reformists as being the gullible tools of the class enemy, reformists accuse maximalists of hurting the Socialist cause by hurting workers with appeals to street violence, strikes, extreme ideological rigidity, as well as by provoking brutal police crackdowns that obliterate any chance of obtaining broad popular support for left-wing policies in the wider society.
As a broad, left-wing church, Labour has almost naturally been experiencing an increasingly bitter ideological civil war between a maximalist faction of Corbynistas who demand an expansion of state ownership in key industries and higher taxes on the rich and Starmerian reformists, who are seeking to build broad cross-class coalitions of both rural and urban voters by offering a moderate, Social Democratic program of economic levelling-up, cooperation with the business sector and social justice reforms. While both factions are nominally united in the House of Labour, it is one of the many, peculiar oddities of the British political system that they have not yet split into two or more distinctive parties. After all, both wings already move, think, speak and write in different social, cultural and digital ecosystems. For maximalist Corbynistas, there is Novara Media, Verso Books, Jacobin, Tribune, or the various podcasts of the extremely-online Left, while the reformist faction finds its views expressed in the pages of legacy media outlets, such as The Guardian, The Independent, The New Statesman and Politico’s Westminster Insider. The profound disconnect between both factions of the party is on daily display on Twitter, where they keep replaying a variation of the great split of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of 1903.
While the left-wing populism of the maximalist wing is highly energising and in its demands for nationalisation of energy companies genuinely popular with Labour members, it is tainted by its relentless, often unbearably preachy striving for ideological purity and its unwillingness to build coalitions with more moderate sections of the left. On the other hand, while the reformist wing of the party realises that without governmental power, no Socialist state has ever been built, Starmer’s attempt to outflank the Conservatives on cultural issues is not a winning strategy. As I have previously pointed out in an another article in this magazine, wrapping the Labour party into the Union Jack and pledging allegiance to Queen and Country is a fool’s game and a sure way to lose the next general election, as the Conservatives have absolutely mastered this game over the past few decades. Furthermore, by aping the Conservatives in the criminalisation of soft drugs, Labour is giving the impression of being driven more by focus-polling and the spectre of 2019 rather than ideological conviction or even simple, political pragmatism. Legalising Cannabis has historically been a widely popular policy proposal and, to quote the leftist Cambridge philosopher and economist Frank Ramsey, it is only a ‘weakness of the imagination’ that prevents its implementation. On the other hand, both wings of the party have publicly allied themselves with the cause of wokeism which, at its core, is a positive, empathetic philosophy of mutual respect and inter-human sensitivity that has unfortunately become politically toxic with large swathes of the electorate after having been pushed through endless right-wing talk shows and newspaper columns. Hence, the laudable fight for the rights of oppressed sexual, ethnic and racial minorities, has paradoxically enabled the Conservatives to beat Labour with the worn, Trumpian barnstorming slogan of ‘political correctness’ and put the Tories in a position to trash the rights of the very minorities Labour seeks to represent and protect. As a consequence, parliamentary political capital has, in effect, been traded for ideological idealism.
What Is to be done? First of all, the Labour Party should not seek to move too far to the right on cultural or social issues, but concentrate on creating a new, multiracial and multi-gendered narrative of class that will revolve around strengthening the position of employees and consumers vis-à-vis large corporations and financial institutions. At the same time, it should avoid to get bogged down in public discussions about such sensitive issues as the ‘male cervix’ which to anyone but a minority of experts and initiated audiences must inevitably sound as obscure and intellectually exclusionary as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Instead, the party should focus on traditional Social Democratic economics, such as widening public housing by building 300,000 new apartments every year, increasing the hourly minimum wage to 15£, introducing a rent-cap in large metropolitan centres and lowering the state pension age to 63. These measures could be paid for by taxing high-risk and high-speed financial transactions, executing the provisions of the Global Minimum Tax Rate Agreement and by nationalising private energy companies, whose profits should be partly pooled in a sovereign wealth fund to be managed by the Treasury and which could, for example, be used to compensate coastal communities adversely affected by the consequences of the Climate Emergency. In short, the party should aim for a new political materialism that will concretely point out how a Labour government would benefit working people throughout Britain in their daily lives, jobs and bank accounts. Yet, as Germany’s SPD has shown at last year’s election, a central prerequisite for electoral success is the internal pacification of the party through the selection of a reformist consensus candidate who will however ascribe to a program of economic populism, whilst also assuring voters and international partners of fundamental, fiscal stability. As Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s unexpected victory has shown, party unity is the most important factor for the success of the left. Should Labour remain a house divided, a repeat of 2019 at a future election which – given the current state of the Tories – may well come sooner than later, is not an unlikely outcome.