Monday, 19 September 2016

Our Historic Bloc: Gramsci, Corbyn, and the Labour Party, by Andrew Godsell

I do not know whether Jeremy Corbyn has read the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

In a way, it is not too significant. Progressive political movements are much bigger than the personalities of their leaders.

Regressive movements – such as the regimes of Benito Mussolini and Margaret Thatcher – exhalt the personality cult of the divine leader.

As somebody who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1984, I see the emergence of the mass movement, in which 600,000 people are currently voting in a Leadership Election, as a vital part of our history.

Jeremy Corbyn has sparked the vision of a Labour Party that will end austerity, and which will rebuild the National Health Service and the railways as public services, while redistributing power and wealth.

The era of neoliberalism, an economic policy that Thatcher and Ronald Reagan borrowed from the horrors of General Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, led to a particularly severe worldwide crisis of capitalism – it started in 2008, and it is still reverberating. 

Tony Blair and New Labour achieved a great deal in the early years of power, before the ethical foreign policy gave way to unconditional support for the USA’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the pledge to abolish the House of Lords withered away as MPs focussed on fiddling their expenses claims.

But Blair’s Labour did not challenge the basis of the power structure in Britain. Now we have a Labour Party that has a choice.

It looks likely that Corbyn, an MP since 1983, with a strong record of support for the working class, trade unions, and internationalism, will be re-elected Leader.

The alternative is Owen Smith, a man who trivialises women and people who struggle with mental health issues, while his background career with Pfizer, a private drugs company, undermines the Labour commitment to the NHS. 

Smith is an unsatisfactory figurehead for 171 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, desperately clinging to the questionable way they used to do things, and at odds with the 60 per cent of the membership who elected Corbyn a year ago. 

So where does Gramsci fit in with this? 

I first became aware of the Italian politician, theorist, and prisoner of the Mussolini government, around the time that I joined the Labour Party. 

Gramsci’s name often appeared in the pages of Marxism Today and the New Left Review, magazines that I would read alongside the Labour Party’s New Socialist

During the 1980s, I read several collections of Gramsci’s writings, including the Prison Notebooks, plus a biography, and analysis of his thought. 

Gramsci’s central ideas include hegemony, the system of beliefs by which a ruling class asserts and reinforces its position. 

Gramsci advocated ways that the working class could counter hegemony, by creating its own ideology, and by building a movement that became a historic bloc, ready to take power and change society.

Some of the most interesting passages in the Prison Notebooks have Gramsci writing about the nature of a political party, and how its history can be explained. 

This has greatly influenced my book Why Not Trust the Conservatives

Gramsci occasionally touched upon the specifics of British politics, praising the strength of the trade unions, but he was sceptical about the potential of the Labour Party in his era. 

He developed the idea of Ceasarism, whereby a political crisis can lead to power being seized by a heroic personality. 

The crisis can, however, lead in parliamentary systems to a compromise, with Gramsci stating that:

“The ‘Labour’ governments of MacDonald were to a certain degree solutions of this kind, and the degree of Ceasarism increased when the government was formed which had MacDonald as its head and a Conservative majority.”

From his prison cell, with limited access to information about the outside world, Gramsci immediately saw the significance of the formation of the so-called National Government in 1931. 

Half a century later, Stuart Hall, writing in Marxism Today, saw an echo of this in the formation of the Social Democratic Party, as a group of Labour MPs defected to set up a centre grouping in Parliament, to oppose Thatcherism without challenging capitalism.

Now we hear rumours that the re-election of Corbyn as Leader will prompt many Labour MPs, returned alongside him in the 2015 General Election, to seek a repeat of the SDP betrayal.

It appears they may intend a request to the Speaker of the House of Commons to be recognised as a separate Opposition party, presumably without offering to seek a new mandate through by-elections – a precedent unexpectedly set by the two Conservative MPs who defected to UKIP in 2014. 

Unfortunately, at this point in writing the piece, I learned that I had been suspended from the Labour Party, and deprived of a vote in the Leadership Election, due to unsubstantiated allegations about comments on Twitter. 

Thousands of other loyal comrades are also suspended. 

My battle to reverse the suspension, imposed by a right-wing element on the National Executive Committee, continues as I resume writing about Gramsci.

I believe that this is just another example of the need for Labour to be a mass Socialist party, committed to changing Britain, rather than an echo of Blair’s New Labour. 

A party united around radical policies, with a membership four times that of the Conservatives, can win the next General Election. 

I have spoken about the potential of Jeremy Corbyn, as a figurehead for a re-energised Labour Party, at several political meetings, including my seconding an ultimately successful nomination of Corbyn by Southampton Test Constituency Labour Party last year. 

A few months ago, John McDonnell, Corbyn’s left hand man, addressed a packed Labour meeting in Southampton. 

One of the pre-submitted questions answered by McDonnell came from me: 

With the Labour Party having returned a reduced number of MPs at each of the last four General Elections, do you believe we will make the massive gains required to win a majority next time? Would joint work with other parties, on issues such as the NHS Reinstatement Bill and scrapping Trident, help us to replace the Tories with the progressive government the British people deserve? 

In reply, McDonnell said that Labour had been working with other parties to oppose, and several times defeat, the Conservatives in Parliament in recent months. 

On the other hand, he did not favour a formal electoral pact, believing that the strength of Labour can enable it to win power at the next Election. 

Since then the rebellion against Corbyn in the Parliamentary Labour Party has reduced its effectiveness. 

There has been increasing debate among the Left about some sort of progressive alliance between Labour, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party, aimed at defeating the Tories, and I support this.

I have never believed that the Labour Party had a monopoly on left-wing truth, and I see keeping the Tories out of power as more of a priority than returning a majority Labour government.

The SNP and the Greens have enjoyed major increases in their vote, and membership, in the last few years, because they offer something different to established Westminster politics, and give people hope. 

Labour, led by Corbyn, and with McDonnell leading the fight against austerity, can increasingly co-operate with this upsurge in progressive politics. 

As I approach the end of this piece, I have just read a profile of Corbyn, and his leadership campaign meetings, in The Guardian.

The author, Gary Younge, says:

“Corbyn talks about renationalising the railways, building more houses and reaching out to people with mental health problems. There is no talk of neoliberal globalisation, quoting of Gramsci, or appeals to intersectional thinking.”

Perhaps we could have some Gramsci quotes from Corbyn and his supporters, but the specific policy ideas we are developing are more important.

If Corbyn is re-elected Labour Leader, and if we regain power from the Tories, then our ideas can be put into practice on a national scale, making Britain a better place to live.

The media deride us as Corbynistas, but I am excited that we are forming a new Historic Bloc.

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