Corbynism: not ‘turning Labour into a socialist movement’, but turning a ‘socialist movement’ into Labour?

“I was there in 1984 standing alongside the miners,” [Corbyn] recalled, “and judging by the appearance of some of you, you were there with me. Welcome back!”

[Corbyn in August 2015]

The current Labour leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith is being framed by Smith and his supporters as the ‘competent, pragmatic, socialist versus the ‘incompetent, ideological, socialist’ Corbyn.

What is fascinating here is that – for Smith’s supporters at least – they are both “socialists”.

(Interestingly, Corbyn’s supporters are more likely to view anyone they disagree with in Labour as a ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Blairite’ neoliberal).

In this article I set out to show that it is the chasm between the fantasy of Labour’s ‘socialism’ and the reality of its ‘social democracy’ that has opened the door to ‘Corbynism’.

I go on to argue that the ‘Corbyn’ project is not about turning Labour into a ‘movement’ but about turning a vague movement of ex-Trots, ‘socialists’, greens, ‘occupiers’ and others into a ‘new model Labour Party’.

Clause 4 and ‘socialism’

Let’s start with a definition of “socialism”. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics defines it as “a political and economic theory or system of social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Most people would accept that as a pretty accurate definition.

On the above definition Labour was a ‘socialist’ party according to the old Clause 4 of the Party constitution (before it was reformed by Tony Blair):

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

In his excellent history of “Parliamentary Socialism” the historian Ralph Miliband famously chronicled how in practice Labour – in its practical policies, programmes and especially in its Parliamentary and Government incarnations – had at best been a reformist social democratic party.

(Miliband saw this as a criticism, which makes his analysis even more powerful testimony that Labour was never in practice a socialist party).

Many think that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown finally made reality and rhetoric come into line when they reformed “Clause 4” more than 20 years ago. The new Clause include a commitment to:

“A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services where those undertakings essential to the common good are either owned by the public or accountable to them.” (emphasis added).

That does not sound at all like “social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Rather, it is what we used to call a “mixed economy” or could be more usefully called a social democratic economy.

Crucially though Clause 4 also still stated “the Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.”

Blair and co sought to suggest that “socialist” did not mean “social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” but it was just a set of values about equality, democracy, etc. which “socialists” held to.

Most objective observers would call a party which supports democracy, a mixed-economy, liberal social policies, social, health and educational provision by the state and equality as a “social democratic” rather than a “socialist” party.

But as Miliband analysed, throughout its history Labour parliamentarians have relied on a vague “socialism” to mobilise working-class support and that segment of British politics who seriously believed in “social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” to support Labour.

This in part explains why Britain never developed a mass Communist movement to the left of the Labour Party – most ‘socialists’ were attracted into Labour’s ‘broad church’.

Non-Labour Socialists

However, for over a century there has been a small but significant ‘socialist’ movement outside of the Labour Party (as well as within it).

Most prominent amongst this external socialist movement was the Communist Party of Great Britain (until its demise in the early 1990s). The CPGB never grew beyond about 50,000 members but its influence, especially in heavy industry and the Trade Unions, was much greater than simple numbers suggest.

But, especially since the 1960s, there was also a significant ‘New Left’ – mainly composed of 57 varieties of Trotskyist groups. Foremost amongst these were Militant (inside Labour until the 1980s), the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Revolutionary Party and others.

The total membership of all these groups probably never exceeded more than 50,000 in the 1970s. But what is significant for the current state of the Labour Party is not their absolute number at any one time but their turn-over and influence.

Although the core leaderships of the various groups remained quite stable, the churn rate in members was phenomenal – I would guess at something approaching 50% per annum. If you take that over a couple of decades, it means there are probably now hundreds of thousands of middle-aged ‘ex’ comrades from the far-left glory days of the 70s and 80s.

[A this point I have to say I am one of them – I was a member of one of the smaller Trotskyist groups – the IMG – from 1972 until 1982, so I have some insight into how they and the rest of the far-left operated].

Most of the ‘ex-comrades’ simply drifted out of far-left politics and got on with ‘real life’ – having kids, careers, mortgages and all that stuff. Most probably drifted politically towards more reformist, middle-of-the-road politics.

But a lot still probably had a Che t-shirt at the bottom of the wardrobe, bored their kids with stories about their ‘demo’ days and played “Street Fighting Man” at full volume when drunk. They still thought of themselves as ‘socialists’ and maybe even went on the odd-demo.

Others drifted off into various other forms of protest politics – environmental, ant-cuts, human rights, poverty, and so on. Here they linked up with newer generations who tended to be more interested in single issue campaigns than the earlier generations obsessions with Marxism, socialism and revolutionary parties.

Few of the ‘ex-comrades’, I would suggest, ever really settled intellectual accounts with their ‘revolutionary socialist’ flings. They voted overwhelmingly for Blair in ’97 and tolerated the ‘Third Way’, to the extent they thought about it at all between school-runs, but not enthusiastically.

It is this mass of vaguely ‘socialist’ middle-aged ex-Trots – and there are an awful lot more of them than they or anyone else probably realized until recently – that might explain a lot of the ‘Corbyn’ phenomena. Disillusioned with Blair (mainly over one single issue – Iraq), despondent of Labour ever winning again anyway, they have turned to Corbyn as the political equivalent of going out and buying a Harley.

Turning Labour into a Movement or a Movement into Labour?

So we come back to Clause 4 and Labour’s “democratic socialism”. The reason for the absolute fracture inside Labour now is simple: its has seen a massive influx of people who think it is, or can be, a genuinely “socialist” party when most of its MPs and long-standing activists know that is fantasy politics. Labour, as a Parliamentary and Governmental Party has always been social democratic, not socialist.

John McDonnell, the real mastermind behind the ‘Corbyn’ craze, keeps talking about turning the Labour Party into a ‘movement’ rather than ‘just’ a political party. The truth is the other way around – what they have done is turn a vague, amorphous, movement of aging nostalgic lefties and enthusiastic youngsters into a ‘new’ Labour Party.

When some analysts say that ‘there are not enough Trots’ for this to be all about ‘entryism’ they forgetting history and just how long these small groups have been churning out ‘ex comrades’ who retain a vague attachment to their socialist pasts.

The old, in practice social democratic, Labour Party is now dead. I think the Parliamentary Labour Party – the only force that could have rescued it – have missed their opportunity to do so. All there is to do now is wait for the burial at the next General Election – which will probably be sooner than 2020.

[I have not gone into the role of the Trade Unions in all this – that is a whole other story].


For information here is the current Clause 4 of Labor’s Constitution

Clause IV.
Aims and values

  1. The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.
  2. To these ends we work for:
    1. A DYNAMIC ECONOMY, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services where those undertakings essential to the common good are either owned by the public or accountable to them
    2. A JUST SOCIETY, which judges its strength by the condition of the weak as much as the strong, provides security against fear, and justice at work; which nurtures families, promotes equality of opportunity, and delivers people from the tyranny of poverty, prejudice and the abuse of power
    3. AN OPEN DEMOCRACY, in which government is held to account by the people, decisions are taken as far as practicable by the communities they affect and where fundamental human rights are guaranteed
    4. A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT, which we protect, enhance and hold in trust for future generations.
  3. Labour is committed to the defence and security of the British people and to co-operating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all.
  4. Labour shall work in pursuit of these aims with trade unions and co-operative societies and also with voluntary organisations, consumer groups and other representative bodies.
  5. On the basis of these principles, Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern.


26 thoughts on “Corbynism: not ‘turning Labour into a socialist movement’, but turning a ‘socialist movement’ into Labour?

  1. A really interesting counter to the argument that there are not that many ‘trots’ in the UK. Ed Milliband would have benefited from reading this a year or two back….

  2. Very interesting perspective Colin. I triangulated your numbers. Thinking back to my days at Manchester University – when you were at Manus by the way – there must have been around 100 ‘new’ far left activists a year. Multiplying by 20 for the two decades of the 70s and 80s, and by 150 for the numbers of universities and polytechnics back then, I calculate 300,000 ex-university far left activists. I’m not sure what the multiplier would be to include those not in higher education. I think this calculation suggests numbers in the lower hundreds of thousands. Certainly enough to support this aspect of your thesis.

    1. The numbers would certainly have been higher in the 70s and 80s, but I don’t think we can reasonably go back quite that far – anyone whose experience of the radical left dates back to the 1970s will be in their mid-60s by now. Besides, the further back you go the more of a life we can expect people to have had after their Trot period. Colin’s model relies on the new recruits being ex-Trots – in other words, their experience of those groups not only being politically formative but also not being superseded by anything else, apart from apathy and alienation. If I’m in IS for a couple of years in the early 70s, join CND in the early 80s, work for War on Want, give it all up for a few years, get active again, join the Greens, leave the Greens, get more active in my union, start to think about retirement, wonder about the Greens again… and then join the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn, am I an ‘ex-Trot’? Strictly speaking, yes, but in life-course terms it’s not going to be determinant.

      1. My point was that there is an element of reliving “glory days” (Springsteen) in some of this – I know personally quite a few people who I’d have thought were now ‘sensible’ and way past being seduced by Corbyn who have become ardent Corbynistas (and yes many are in their late 50s and early 60s or even older). Look at the faces at Corbyn rallies at tell me there aren’t a very large number of older people present?

        Anecdotal I know, and this analysis was a bit of ‘kite flying’, but the central point was that there are awful lot more people who went through the “Trot Experience” than is generally supposed by the small size of the groups today.

        And it wasn’t just members – the Socialist Students Alliance (of which I was one of the leaders) had many, many, more members than the Trot groups that supported it. The IMG may have ‘maxed’ at about a thousand members, but could regularly organise demo contingents of 2-3 thousand or more. There were an awful lot of ‘revolutionary socialists’ who never formally joined a group.

        I am, as always, happy to be proved wrong if the facts don’t stack up. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for someone.

      2. I agree that there are a fair few grey hairs among the Corbynite joiners – and the central point, as you state it here, is a good one. What I’m reluctant to endorse is the suggestion that the ‘glory days’ element accounts for the, or even a, major part of the influx of members; I don’t think it can do, or not without pulling a lot of people’s experience out of shape. As well as the timescale, the shifting of the political terrain creates problems for the ‘glory days’ argument. If I was a nationalise-the-50-leading-monopolies/Britain-out-of-NATO merchant in the 70s and I’m joining the Labour Party now to agitate for public funding of health or non-renewal of Trident, I may feel as if I’m ‘getting active again’, but how much continuity is there really? Being anti-Trident is a left-wing totem now, but it hasn’t always been; I once heard Peter Mandelson speak against getting Trident in the first place. His argument was that if we bought Trident we wouldn’t be able to afford to fight a ground war in Europe when the Russians invaded, so he wasn’t exactly a peacenik even then – but he *was* anti-Trident.

        It’s an interesting argument, though – and we can certainly agree that more research is needed!

  3. I’m one of those who cast doubt on the ‘ex-Trot’ theory (not to mention the flatly untenable ‘entryist’ hypothesis). Oddly enough, I am myself both a recent Labour recruit and a veteran of a (non-Trotskyist) extra-parliamentary Left group (if you are ex-IMG we’ve probably got friends in common).

    The churn factor is interesting & it does make a big difference to the figures, but I still don’t think it comes anywhere near working – particularly when you’ve acknowledged that most ex-Trots either give up on politics altogether or turn into mild reformists. In the linked post I estimated the total strength of contemporary Leninism in England & Wales in the low four figures – say 5,000 at the very outside, across about 20 groups & ‘parties’. British Communism was a mass movement at one time – and the IS were pretty chunky in their heyday – but there’s a limit to how far you can go back if you’re talking about current recruits to the LP. If we’re talking post-91, the maximum strength of those parties, their predecessors and their now-defunct rivals was probably only about 20,000 – say 25,000 to be generous. (The Mils peaked at 8,000, and the SWP were half that at the very most.)

    Assuming a steady decline from 25,000 to 5,000 over 25 years and 50% turnover per year – which is on the high side even for a student-fed group like the SWP – and you get a total figure of 160,000 ex-Trots for the whole 25 years. (Yes, I have just spent ten minutes on Excel for the sake of a blog comment!)

    Given that most former left activists either move to the centre or burn out altogether, I don’t think the non-Labour left can possibly have contributed more than 50,000 to the LP in the last year – in which time the party’s put on over 300,000 new members.

    We can talk another time about whether Labour under Blair, Brown and Miliband was a ‘social democratic’ party, or whether it supported a ‘mixed economy’ in any meaningful sense. When you consider that the SDP’s 1983 manifesto envisaged halting any further privatisations – and hence keeping coal, steel & the utilities in state ownership – you can see how stretched those two phrases have become over the years.

    1. There seems to be an unstated assumption that Labour’s current political positions, as well as representing a substantial shift to the Left relative to the last couple of decades, are both inherently extreme and (inherently?) unpopular – hence the importance of recasting the huge number of new recruits as a series of small and unrepresentative groups, making the Labour membership a Potemkin village despite its apparent health. I challenged the ‘extreme’ point in my previous comment last year(!) – but this year, surely, the ‘unpopular’ point has been put to the test, and failed rather badly. Whatever else these may be, they clearly aren’t policies that can’t possibly win votes.

      1. This makes two big assumptions.

        Firstly that voters were attracted to Labour by their policies, rather than repelled by the Tories? There’s plenty of evidence that was a factor.

        Secondly, people knew what they were voting for. On several crucial issues they simply didn’t. On Brexit they thought Corbyn was anti (he isn’t). On student loans they thought he would not only abolish then but the debt too (he won’t). Both of these were important in attracting voters.

        Third point – they weren’t that popular or Labour would be in Government. It isn’t. Partly because they concentrated on pilling up votes in Labour areas, which doesn’t win seats. It was no secret their primary aim was a high popular vote rather than a winning electoral strategy. That requires winning over Tory voters – not much of that went on in GE, it was mainly consolidating the anti-Tory vote.

        Not the first time Labour has done this BTW. In 1951 Labour pilled up votes in Labour seats, winning the popular vote with their highest share ever, and lost the election.

  4. Really interesting stuff, but I think it places too much weight on the dictionary definition of socialism. The new joiners are not obsessed with the old Clause 4, they just want a party that will stick up for the poor and the disabled, won’t sell off or underfund our public services, will defend migrant rights, and won’t start stupid wars.

    In other words the distinctions you make between social democratic and socialist parties aren’t particularly relevant to what’s going on now, so I disagree that the fact that labour has not been socialist historically shows that Corbyn supporters are engaged in “fantasy politics”. They don’t care about owning the means of production, distribution and exchange. They just want the UK to be a bit more like Denmark and Sweden

  5. Interesting. At the Macclesfield CLP (it voted for Corbyn) on Monday the attendees were mostly (90%) over 50. Many I spoke said they were new joiners.

    Owen Smith will be the creature of the “conservative-lite” PLP members who will make him water-down the policies that he is currently espousing.

  6. 57 variety of trots. LOL. That pretty much says it all. The extremes aren’t happy unless they’re got someone to be unhappy with and about.

    The Left are particularly prone to it because they are collectivists first: it’s about OUR revolution – where the prols are included whether they like it or not. I imagine each of the 57 varieties saw the prols being freed by their particular group and no other, that they would all rise to their cause if only they could see the light.

    The right is more about individualism: MY freedom; and in the extreme, my freedom and bugger yours. The true right is individual dictators, monarchies, criminals, business empires.

    It’s no surprise that National Socialist fascisms have such an attraction for socialists historically, sometimes embarrassingly.

    I’d agree that there is a significant split in Labour: socialism v social democracy. The unifying element has, since the inception of Labour, been the newly aquired franchise of the working man of low income – ‘labour’. Wanting to use them as a tool in a revolution, or wanting to work for their fair benefit does have a certain commonality to it, though ideologically they are quite different. Labour has always been split, even as it won elections.

    There’s a greater affinity between social democracy and mild libertarianism, a balance of collective/individual freedoms and benefits (*cough* Lib Dems) – which explains the syphoning off of the centre left now and then to form alliances or new parties. But the extremes of Left and Right have managed to keep the electorate polarized by misrepresenting the centre ground of each side as being equivalent to their particular extreme: Conservatives are always demnised as their worst, and Labour as theirs.

    Socialism is as much a fantasy as a benificant dictator – maybe more so, since at least such a dictator could exist, until ousted by a malignant one. Athoritarian collectivism is pretty destined to be doomed to failure since there will always be power battles among groups that have no respect for democracy at heart.

    I’d love to see the death of the Labour party, for the benefit of the labour classes – the majority of people. A small hard Left, a small hard Right, and at least a couple of centre left and right parties struggling to get on with making things work through opposition and compromise as appropriate.

    Even using a simplistic model of a normal distribution of opinion to describe whatever issue is up for debate there will be extreme minorities and a bulk of opinion around the middle. I would trust the middle to accommodate the majority in compromise without persecuting the extreme minorities. I wouldn’t trust eitehr extreme to compromise for anyone.

  7. Colin
    Really interesting article. I agree Labour has always been a social Democratic Party, not so different to their Swedish and German equivalents. Blairism was different as it eschewed the earlier British stress on nationalisation and unionism and it explicitly urged an embrace of capitalism, not its removal. The ‘socialist’ bit came in funding public services like NHS and education. The bits of Blairism vilified by his left wing opponents related to his willingness to see the private sector’s involvement with its implications for employment rights and salary structures.
    But with the working class Labour constituency shrinking, it made sense to adapt the party’s message to appeal to the middle class votes the party needed and still needs to win elections. By demonising a variant of Labour’s social democracy the left abandon an approach which won three elections and refunded public services on the brink of collapse.
    Iraq was a terrible mistake and Blair proved his unsuitability to be a PM by how he has behaved since 2007. His ‘non Iraq’ achievements if I can so characterise then have been wilfully overlooked. We shouldn’t: if Labour is to win again elements of Blairism must be re- evaluated.

    1. Thanks Bill – broadly agree but would add that in 2010 there were – for example – far more public sector employed NHS staff than there were in 1997. There was outsourcing of some work, but this was eclipsed by the size of the expansion of the direct NHS organisations which is largely ignored by the left-wing critics of the Blair-Brown era. Same is true for other areas.

  8. I agree. Most of the so called socialists in Corbyn’s support have no idea what socialism actually is.
    But Corbyn does, which is is he is pushing for nationalization etc.

    What Corbyn doesn’t get and neither does Bernie sanders is that the 70’s miner vote they’re so actively courting has been gone for a long time. the young hipsters are nice, but we’ve seen in the past how what counts for a big march doesn’t quite translate into a GE victory.

    This is nothing but a very heavyhanded attempt by some strong unions to maintain a rapidly diminishing relevance by reclaiming control over Labour at any cost. Unfortunately the horse they’ve put out is lame- neither is McDonnell a good enough puppetmaster nor is Corbyn a competent enough strawman for such an endeavour.

    Labour has lost the next GE. It’s gone. They didn’t even realize that in 2015 people were stil actively voting against Labour, and they’re conveniently ignoring that nobody left of Tony Blair has won a GE in the UK for 40 years.
    Socialism as a concept, bot the real thing and the sweet sanitized version of the west (don’t get me started on this, I was born and raised in Communist Romania), is bankrupt. The Left needs a new ideology that accounts for what the 21st century’s challenges are. And until that happens? Sit back and enjoy the rise of the right. It’s only just starting.

    Labour are not even thinking of the working class anymore- they have changed their focus towards the lumpenproletariatt and left behind the traditional white working class with its annoying tendency to go right when it starts to do well.
    And while there are old Trots in Labour and in Corbyn’s following? very few of them actually read Trotsky or Marx. And there’s a hell of a lot more people in that generation that vote soldily Tory because they haven’t forgotten the 70s.

    The only chance labour has as of now is for God Emperor Corbyn to willingly explode into a billion little pseudo communists. Or to catch a nasty cold he’d be treating with homeopathy.
    Otherwise, buckle up. We’re officially in the wilderness

    1. There’s a fundamental split that’s been in Labour from the outset, and it’s based on, as Colin and others have said, on the difference between socialism and social democracy of a mixed economy. The confusion at large remains, as you point out, the failure to understand ‘socialism’, and specifically in the meaning of ‘social ownership of the means of production’ – the devil is in the detail.

      That’s why I gave up on Labour long ago and think the ‘labour movement’ would benefit from the split being made real. The ideologues aren’t as interested in the prols, that won’t do as they are told, as they are in their ideologies.

  9. Why not just ask the ‘Daily Mail’ who should be Labour leader. It would be far quicker than the effort put into articles like this. It is one thing to be a conscious enterist and another to have had a slight dalliance with a leftist organisation for a few months while at University in the 70s, 80s, 90s or 00s.
    I do not think the political education classes in the Trotskyist or Maoist groups was so intense that it changed the individuals political consciousness for ever – and after all, unlike Colin, most did not stay members for a decade but usually a term.
    Maybe we need to start looking for rational reasons why a large number of people have joined Labour to support Corbyn and identify the irrational reasons for the action of the PLP. Why would MPs act in ways that can only destroy the party and their political careers? Why are they using Corbyn as an opportunity to attack activists, policy and positions? Is it a case of a status quo being unwilling to give up any power and would rather destroy than share? What psychological traumas are MPs and the ex Ministers and spin doctors like Blunkett, Kinnock, Campbell, Falconer et al working out?

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