Save

Reform versus Transformation: Reflections on the Legacy of Corbynism’s Economic Programme

In: Historical Materialism
Author:
Mary Robertson Lecturer, School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London London UK

Search for other papers by Mary Robertson in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
Full Access

Abstract

In the context of divisive disagreements about how the British left should orient itself towards the current Labour Party, this intervention uses the Gorzian category of non-reformist reforms to critically evaluate the 2017–19 policy programme developed by the Corbyn-led Labour Party and draw out the implications for current strategic debates. It argues that the radical core of the Corbynite economic programme lay in its proposals for widening ownership and extending economic democracy, but that there was a tension between commodified and decommodifying visions of these proposals. Exploring the different conceptions of political transformation implicit within each vision, the paper argues that only the latter had the potential to be non-reformist in the Gorzian sense. However, Gorz was concerned not merely with a reform’s content but also with how it was formulated and pursued. The paper ends by arguing that the transformative potential of the economic programme was not reflected in its political strategy and that this has important lessons for strategy today.

Introduction

As Britain approaches the fourth anniversary of the 2019 general election, business-as-usual has largely returned to the Labour Party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015–20 leadership.1 At time of writing (October 2023), Keir Starmer is vocally supporting Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza while gleefully reclaiming the fiscally-conservative ‘centre’ ground, and seeing his ‘do nothing, say nothing’ strategy of waiting in the sidelines until capital needs its B team pay off in the form of rising polling numbers. But in the background the spectre of Corbynism continues to loom large. Corbyn himself continues to be denied the Labour whip and other left MP s, such as the grassroots activist and Britain’s first hijab-wearing MP Apsana Begum, are being persecuted with a ferocity that betrays not only hostility but also a deep sense of threat.2 Meanwhile, the party leadership continues to take every opportunity to denounce and distance itself from Corbynism while appropriating aspects of its lexicon.

For different parts of the Marxist left in Britain, Corbynism and its defeat have been variously seen as a vindication of political strategies focused on membership of Britain’s main workers’ party and proof that such strategies are doomed by the ‘sickness of labourism’.3 In the face of Starmer’s relentless persecution of the left, the Corbynite coalition is increasingly divided between those who have been expelled from or otherwise left the party and those whose so-called ‘stay and fight’ strategy is morphing into something more akin to ‘stay and wait’: avoid rocking the boat in the hope of being able to wield more influence in the future.

The reform-versus-revolution debate is as old as social democracy itself and will no doubt continue in various iterations for as long as capitalism does. A distinct characteristic of its current incarnation is the attention given to the role of policy, with the question of how to relate to the policy programme developed during the period of Corbyn’s leadership, as bookended by the 2017 and 2019 manifestos,4 emerging as a key point of contestation between post-Corbyn factions. For those advocating a ‘critical friend’ approach to Starmer, it is useful to frame this policy programme as different in degree rather than kind to past Labour Party policy platforms in order to shore up the idea that parts of the programme may be adopted by Starmer or that the Left is winning the ‘battle of ideas’.5 An example of this mentality is the near-triumphalist response from parts of the Left to the smattering of policy announcements at Labour’s annual conference in September 2022, foremost among them the commitment to create a new, publicly-owned energy generation company Great British Energy (GBE).6 Despite the party itself being clear that this would be ‘about the management of the investments, which we believe are essential to unlock these markets and opportunities’ and in no sense a challenge to Britain’s privatised energy system,7 the use of the terminology of public ownership was seized on by key left figureheads as evidence of the continued influence of the Corbynite policy programmes and the effectiveness of their softly-softly strategy.

This intervention rejects the idea of continuity – strategic or analytical – between the Corbynite policy platform and that of the current Labour Party. In particular, it argues that Corbynite economic policies were both radical and ruptural, containing the seeds of a break with capitalist social relations. However, it further argues that this potential was undermined by a political strategy that subordinated socialism to Social Democracy. My argument draws on André Gorz’s notion of non-reformist reforms,8 identifying the radical core of the Corbynite economic programme – its non-reformist elements – in the emphasis placed on ownership and economic democracy. Elaborating these elements of the programme I note that it held two different visions: one emphasising worker ownership and control within market structures, the other seeking to reduce the scope of market relations by expanding decommodified forms of provision. Exploring the different conceptions of political transformation implicit within each vision, I argue that the latter has a better claim to constituting non-reformist reforms in the Gorzian sense. However, Gorz was concerned not merely with a reform’s content but also with how it was formulated and pursued. I end by arguing that the transformative potential of the economic programme was not reflected in its political strategy and that this has important lessons for strategy today.

In Section 1 I define Gorzian non-reformist reforms and provide an overview of the 2017–19 programme. Section 2 outlines and evaluates two competing visions of economic transformation implicit in the programme and evaluates them in light of this definition. Section 3 sets out the political implications of Gorzian strategy and ways in which the strategy of Corbyn’s Labour fell short. The final section considers the implications for immediate strategic questions facing socialists in the Labour Party.

1 The Corbynite Economic Programme as Non-reformist Reforms?

1.1 Gorz on Non-reformist Reforms

Non-reformist reforms were Gorz’s answer to the perennial question facing socialists in liberal democracies: reform or revolution? Gorz rejected reformism, arguing that the realisation of socialism ‘can never be the result of a gradual reform of the capitalist system’ because capitalism’s crises, irrationalities and class antagonisms can never be eliminated.9 He was equally sceptical about socialism emerging through ‘a spontaneous rising of the discontented’, finding it implausible that European capitalism could see a crisis ‘so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrection in defence of their vital interests’.10 From the mutual impossibility of a reformist and a non-parliamentary revolutionary path to socialism, Gorz concluded that:

the principal problem of a socialist strategy is to create the objective and subjective conditions which will make mass revolutionary action and engagement in a successful trial of strength with the bourgeoisie possible.11

This, he argued, should begin with ‘the gradual application of a coherent programme of reforms’12 and proceed through ‘a succession of more or less violent’ confrontations which ‘will as a whole contribute to the formation and organization of the socialist will and consciousness of the working classes’.13

The programme of reforms in such a strategy is not aimed at making gradual improvements in people’s lives, stabilising capitalism or tempering its worst irrationalities. Its purpose is rather to convince the working class of the necessity of pursuing socialism through a direct confrontation with capital and to strengthen their position in that struggle. By exposing the intransigence of the capitalist class in the face of even moderate reforms, non-reformist reforms clarify in the minds of workers the unavoidability of violent confrontation with capital, thereby demonstrating ‘the necessity of socialist transformation to social forces not yet ready for it’.14 To do so, the programme of reforms must both express the radical imaginary, pointing towards a ‘new direction for social and economic development’,15 and elicit a counter-reaction from capitalists, thereby proving the impossibility of its peaceful pursuit. But non-reformist reforms are not random provocations: they should be strategically designed to bolster the chances that the working class emerges from the confrontation triumphant. This means that they should aim at achieving a ‘modification of the relations of power’ by making structural changes to the economy in the interests of labour.16

1.2 The 2017–9 Economic Programme

It would be farfetched to argue that the programme amounted to a conscious or consistent Gorzian agenda, but elements of it can be interpreted as such. Corbynism began as a defensive alliance against the crippling spending cuts and public-service restructuring instigated by the 2010 Coalition Government under the rubric of austerity. Following an early commitment to stick to Government spending plans, Labour adopted a Fiscal Credibility Rule (FCR) that committed Labour to balance the books on current spend on a rolling five-year basis. While accepting debt reduction and balancing the books on current spending as loose constraints, the FCR allowed a significant increase in public investment and significantly more day-to-day spending provided it was matched by tax increases. The 2017 manifesto committed to £250 billion direct public investment over ten years through a National Transformation Fund coupled with £48.6 billion additional day-to-day spending per year by the end of the parliament.17

The FCR set Labour’s fiscal policy from Autumn 2015 until the 2019 General Election when the debt reduction target was replaced with a whole balance sheet approach that committed Labour to improving public-sector net worth over the course of the parliament. This would have effectively allowed government’s liabilities (such as bonds) to be measured against its assets, including newly-nationalised industries. Constraints on borrowing for day-to-day spending were maintained, but the total value of such commitments – and corresponding revenue raisers – increased to £82.9 billion per year by the end of the parliament. The National Transformation Fund was expanded to include a Social Transformation Fund that would invest £150 billion in housing and other public services over five years, and the £250 billion of other capital investment over ten years rebadged as the Green Transformation Fund.18 While the scale of spending commitments attracted most attention,19 it was the switch to a whole balance sheet approach that marked a significant break with ‘conventional’ fiscal policy by moving past a narrow focus on spending to consider the overall wealth of the public sector. Including public assets in the fiscal rule would have helped to legitimise the state as an economic actor and remove arbitrary constraints on state spending.

The common Keynesian objection that, by fully costing current spending commitments, Labour was implicitly accepting austerity as a constraint, ignores both the positive distributional implications of such dramatic changes in the government’s tax and spend profile, and the potential multiplier effects of its public-investment commitments (which were expected to work via productivity improvements as well as aggregate demand). Contrary to claims by the right that Labour’s manifesto costings were ‘speculative … based on radically optimistic projections of economic growth and tax revenues’,20 the assumed income growth in 2017 was zero. In 2019, only £5bn of the £83bn of additional tax revenue budgeted for in the 2019 manifesto costings arose from the multiplier on government investment, citing estimates from NIESR and the OECD.21

The significance of the switch to anti-austerity rhetoric under Corbyn’s leadership, coming, as it did, after five years and two election defeats in which austerity was the central political issue and Labour had shied away from opposing it, should not be underestimated. Nor should the extent to which the Overton window on spending was shifted following 2015. This is especially the case in light of Labour’s pivot back to fiscal consolidation under Starmer.22 Nonetheless, expanding state spending is quintessential reformism, and the radical frontier of Labour’s programme rapidly shifted to focus on structural change.

Alongside the aforementioned programme of public investment, an interventionist industrial strategy appeared in the 2017 manifesto as a key mechanism for delivering structural change. The manifesto itself promised to ‘move beyond the narrow approaches of the past’,23 which a supporting document, ‘Richer Britain, Richer Lives: Labour’s Industrial Strategy’, elaborated in terms of a rejection of laissez faire.24 By 2019 this had advanced and concretised into a commitment to kickstart a Green Industrial Revolution that would tackle the climate and ecological crises and start to address the huge regional economic inequalities generated by neoliberalism.25 This Green Industrial Revolution would be driven by a programme of direct and indirect investment overseen by a new Sustainable Investment Board composed of the Chancellor, the Business Secretary and the Governor of the Bank of England, with the latter constrained by a new macro-prudential regime focused on encouraging productive investment and discouraging housing and land speculation.

Acknowledging the harmful consequences of finance-driven growth for economic justice and stability marked a break from the approach taken by the most powerful left figure in the Labour Party before Corbyn, Ken Livingstone who, as Mayor of London 2000–8, ‘showed a strong commitment to combating inequality’ even while ‘the main economic axiom that underlies it all is to support the continuation of the existing growth in financial and business services’.26 However, there is nothing inherently socialist or transformative about an interventionist industrial strategy, which, in itself, aims simply at bolstering some sections of capital at the expense of others. Indeed, Labour was explicit that its programme relied on an accumulation strategy premised on strengthening industrial capital at the expense of finance capital. In a 2018 speech to Britain’s manufacturers’ association, Corbyn said ‘the next Labour Government will be the first in 40 years to stand up for the real economy. We will take decisive action to make finance the servant of industry not the masters of all.’27

Such a strategy relied on a discredited dualistic approach to financial markets and physical producers28 and, even on its own terms, lacked a strategy for dealing with finance capital. The programme left in place and even relied on key institutions that sustain financialised capitalism: on monetary policy Labour committed to maintaining the independence of the Bank of England and ruled out both capital controls and monetary financing of public spending. Furthermore, oppositional rhetoric towards financial markets was coupled with attempts at reassuring them about the responsible approach that would be taken by Labour in government, with limited plans in place were this strategy of reassurance to fail.29

The focus on levels and content of state spending and reliance on an accumulation strategy that involved bolstering some sections of capital at the expense of others, despite pushing the envelope relative to the political consensus prevailing at the time, were reformist rather than non-reformist. A third element of the programme, however, which emphasised redistributing economic power through widening ownership and extending economic democracy, could be characterised as non-reformist.

This part of the platform was first set out in the Alternative Models of Ownership report published during the 2017 election campaign.30 The report, which was initially conceived as a tentative nudge towards an agenda that went beyond opposing austerity, made the case for ownership reforms by looking beyond distribution to questions of control, alienation and democracy. Its influence on the 2017 manifesto was reflected in commitments to nationalise energy, water and Royal Mail, and to double the size of the cooperative sector.31

By 2019, commitments on ownership and economic democracy were both more extensive and more developed. While Labour’s industrial strategy was framed in terms of stabilising capitalism, it contained the hints of an eco-socialist society in which use of key resources is determined collectively rather than through the market. Public investment and planning were at its heart, with public investment through a Green Transformation Fund and a National Investment Bank, backed up by a network of local Post Banks, the basis for state-directed industrial transformation. Regional industrial plans were detailed in nine regional manifestos, with that for the North-East, for example, including: creating 10,500 jobs by taking a majority stake in new offshore wind farms; expanding two ports on the Tyne and Tees rivers; building a fabrication and manufacturing yard and scrap-steel recycling plant on the former steelworks site at Redcar; and safeguarding 18,000 jobs in the automotive sector by investing in Electric Vehicles.32

Democratic public ownership was also central to Labour’s plans for a green transformation, as a way of securing ‘democratic control over nationally strategic infrastructure and provide collective stewardship for key natural resources’.33 Hence, the 2019 manifesto committed to public ownership of energy, water, rail, mail, broadband and buses and, on the eve of the 2019 election, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell made a speech elaborating detailed structures for democratic ownership and governance for newly nationalised industries:

We’ll set up boards to run them made up of you, the customer, and you, the worker, as well as representatives from local councils, metro mayors and others. We’ll make sure decisions are taken locally by those who understand the services – those who use them and deliver them.

Meetings will be public and streamed online with new transparency regulations set higher than ever before. So you can see if your road is being dug up, why, and for how long. And we’ll create new People’s Assemblies to hold these boards to account and give everyone the option of participating in how their utilities are run.34

A commitment to roll out sectoral collective bargaining and strengthen trade-union rights complemented public investment, planning and public ownership by accelerating the creation of the institutional infrastructure required for workers to be represented in economic decision-making.

Beyond the Green Industrial Revolution heading, Inclusive Ownership Funds (IOF) were a headline policy announcement at Labour’s 2018 annual conference. These gave workers employed in companies with more than 250 employees shares (owned collectively in trusts) representing 10% of the value of those companies and corresponding voting rights. Inspired by the Meidner Plan, the IOF sought to rebalance wealth and power towards workers, both directly and by changing the behaviour of companies.35 Another key area of work between 2017 and 2019 was aimed at democratising and expanding ownership at the local level. The report ‘Democratising Local Services’ set out detailed plans for reversing decades of outsourcing local services to the private sector and restoring democratic service delivery by local authorities.36 More generally, Community Wealth Building, a set of bottom-up strategies for redistributing wealth and economic power, became ever-more central to Labour’s approach to local economic development, with a Community Wealth Building Unit run by the US-based Democracy Collaborative set up in the Leader’s Office.

By 2019 even public-service spending – that most quotidian of social-democratic reforms – was being articulated through a radical argument for expanding decommodification set out in a report on Universal Public Services.37 2017 commitments to scrapping tuition fees and introducing free school meals were supplemented with new commitments on free, universal access to adult social care (specifically, personal care), making schools accountable to local communities, and free bus travel for under-25s.

Between 2017 and 2019, then, a set of commitments aimed at widening ownership and extending economic democracy became increasingly central to Labour’s economic strategy. These commitments possessed a number of ‘non-reformist’ characteristics. First, they did not feature in the programme as isolated reforms, or even primarily as means of improving living standards. Rather, they served as the unifying principle of a vision for a different society based on the extension of collective, democratic self-governance across more and more areas of social and economic life. Second, as such they represented the radical imaginary, claiming to ‘offer humanity a pathway to a more equitable and enlightened economy’38 structured by social, human and ecological need rather than profit. Third, they recognised that ‘a truly impactful alternative left strategy must go after capital itself’.39 This is most clear in relation to nationalisation where repossession of privatised utilities was to occur through compensating shareholders based on book rather than market value, but the IOF would also have involved a multi-billion-pound dilution of existing shares in affected companies. Finally, they sought to strengthen the position of the working class in such confrontations: for example, trade-union rights were justified on the grounds that ‘only by shifting the balance of power back towards workers will we achieve decent wages, security and dignity at work’.40 In this respect, at least, this group of policies also met the ‘basic condition’ of being ‘conceived as means not as ends, as dynamic phases in a process of struggle, not as resting stages’.41

On the basis of its proposals on ownership and economic democracy, then, the 2017–19 programme should be seen as a serious if partial attempt at achieving economic and social transformation through a programme of non-reformist reforms. As such, and despite the project’s ultimate defeat, these proposals deserve serious reflection by Marxists. The following sections evaluate the transformative potential of the programme by distinguishing between commodified and decommodifying forms of ownership and democracy and arguing that the latter had the potential to be non-reformist.

2 Commodified versus Decommodifying Forms of Ownership and Economic Democracy

The range of influences and interpretations that have been attached to the Corbynite economic programme is evident in the 2018 collection of articles edited by McDonnell, Economics for the Many,42 and at times gave rise to tensions and policy-making being pulled in competing directions. One such tension concerns the distinction between commodified and decommodifying interpretations of Labour’s approach to questions of ownership and economic democracy, which became publicly acknowledged and discussed only in the aftermath of the 2019 General Election. In a post-election intervention, James Meadway attributed the defeat to an excessively state-centric and top-down approach to economic policy and made the case for the left to refocus on the ‘decentralising elements’ such as the IOF and cooperatives in the wake of defeat.43 Christine Berry argued that these same ‘bottom-up’ elements – she emphasises, in particular, cooperatives and community wealth building – could provide the basis of a platform that could unify Labour’s rival factions.44 Responding to such arguments, Robertson demonstrated that these so-called ‘decentralising’ elements were in fact dependent on top-down state intervention for their implementation and argued that they were better distinguished by their focus on the firm rather than wider social structures, proposing the commodified/decommodifying terminology to capture this distinction.45

Commodified reforms to ownership and economic democracy are ‘within market’ transfers of ownership that aim to transform ownership structures at the level of the firm without challenging the wider system of production for profit. Capital is socialised at the level of the firm rather than on any wider social base in order to be compatible with market exchange. Decommodifying forms of ownership and economic democracy, by contrast, seek to take key areas of social and economic reproduction out of the system of production for profit and market exchange so that decisions about their allocation can be made through collective, democratic processes.

Examples of commodified reforms from the Corbynite economic programme include the IOF and doubling the size of the cooperative sector. Both would give partial (the IOF) or full (cooperatives) ownership of firms to workers with a view to improving economic outcomes, without challenging the integrity of the firm as a discrete entity operating within market structures. An example of decommodifying reforms from the 2017–19 programme is public ownership. There are many different kinds of public ownership and not all of them are decommodifying. Max Harris distinguishes sectoral public ownership, in which an ‘entire sector is taken out of the market’, from single-entity public ownership, whereby ‘a publicly owned company … has to compete in the market against other private providers’.46 Labour’s 2017–19 commitments on public ownership were of the former type, and would decommodify the industries concerned by removing profit as their governing principle and replacing it with social and environmental objectives.47

Other examples of decommodifying forms of ownership and democracy in the 2017–19 programme include expanding universal access to public services, which remove the role of the market in determining access to affected services and – in cases where the goods or services are provided publicly – also remove profit. Sectoral collective bargaining would not fully displace the market in the same way but would constrain it by imposing a degree of democratic accountability and decision-making at the sectoral level. Similarly, Labour’s green industrial strategy, which included taking a 51% stake in a plethora of green industrial projects, would not bypass the market but go some way towards subordinating it to elements of public planning.

Despite only coming to the surface following the election, as part of a struggle over the interpretation of the Corbynite policy legacy, this difference in emphasis and approach was present behind the scenes for much longer. The Community Wealth Building Unit, for example, faced ongoing tensions over its position on local authorities outsourcing service provision to local cooperatives, with some arguing this should be included in policies endorsed by the Unit as promoting economic democracy and others fiercely resisting its inclusion. Similarly, commitments to nationalise water and energy, first laid out in the 2017 manifesto, were subject to ongoing attempts at watering-down along the lines of replacing full nationalisation with mutualisation or support for the establishment of local energy co-ops. These tensions and disagreements – like those over commodified and decommodifying approaches more generally – were particular expressions of more fundamental differences in vision and political strategy, which are reflected in a number of important analytical differences between commodified and decommodified approaches.

Firstly, the two approaches tend to take different attitudes towards the state, with commodified approaches claiming to bypass the state while decommodified approaches see the state as a channel through which alternative models of ownership can be pursued. Though a suspicion of or hostility toward state intervention is not necessarily inherent to commodified approaches, they often run together, with part of their appeal being ‘the added bonus of sidestepping the messy complexities involved with confronting the state’.48 There is an irony here in that recent interventions in this tradition are highly, if implicitly, reliant on top-down state intervention. For example, delivering Labour’s commitment to double the size of the cooperative sector – itself extremely modest from the point of view of systemic change – was understood to depend on state support delivered through a Cooperative Development Agency. Similarly, the IOF – which Meadway sees as a key ‘decentralising element’ – was entirely reliant on utilising the power of the state to compel capital to introduce worker-ownership.49

Decommodifying approaches do not shy away from the necessity of using the state to challenge the power of capital and implement radical policies. But they reconcile this reliance on the state with a commitment to extending economic democracy by centring the democratisation of the state and the movement. Hence, the democratisation ‘agenda is not at odds with reclaiming a strong role for the state … rather this is about transforming the state itself so that this power can be wielded in a more genuinely progressive and democratic way’.50

Secondly, and relatedly, they are underpinned by different theories of change, with commodified approaches placing more emphasis on gradual, incremental change, as compared to decommodified approaches. Meadway, for example, argues for worker-ownership of business as a way of gradually changing the locus of decision-making in firms to achieve more desirable outcomes: ‘The evidence is clear that companies with even relatively limited worker ownership schemes behave differently, and generally focus more towards social and longer-term goals.’51 In its more radical incarnations the vision for change is one of a gradual, non-confrontational, bottom-up expansion of democratic ownership inspired by thinkers such as Gar Alperowitz52 and his vision of a pluralist commonwealth that draws upon a multitude of bottom-up initiatives.53

Decommodifying approaches, by contrast, emphasise the need to confront and dispossess capital directly in order to achieve more dramatic and rapid changes in socio-economic structures.54 In relation to utilities such as energy, for example, decommodifying approaches view the spontaneous creation and expansion of community ownership from below as implausible given the financialised structures that have been built on private monopolies of utilities and the concomitant weakness of the regulator, as a result of which:

community-owned companies struggle to compete with, and meaningfully ‘disrupt’, the Big Six companies. The troubles of Nottingham Council-owned Robin Hood Energy reveal the pitfalls of establishing individual municipal companies without altering the privatised system within which they operate.55

On the basis of both the ongoing role of the state in enabling profiteering from utilities and the barriers thereby created to establishing alternative forms of provision, decommodifying approaches regard dispossession through nationalisation as a pre-condition for, rather than an alternative to, gradual, bottom-up initiatives.

Finally, the two approaches have different conceptualisations of the relationship between ownership and democracy. Commodified approaches tend to see economic democracy as generated by and therefore conditional on ownership, whereas for decommodified approaches economic democracy is related to but not synonymous with ownership. The IOF, for example, would extend economic democracy only to the extent that it widened ownership, giving workers voting rights proportionate to their share ownership (10% in the case of the IOF). This contrasts with sectoral collective bargaining, which would extend democracy without directly challenging ownership. A related point is that commodified approaches tend to limit the extension of democratic control to the level of the firm, for example, in the form of worker co-ops or putting workers on boards, whereas democratisation within decommodified structures is coterminous with the population as a whole. Thus Labour’s nationalisations and industrial strategy sought to extend economic democracy across the economy as a whole by increasing the role of democratic institutions in economic decision-making and strengthening the forms and levels of democracy through which such institutions are governed.

3 Commodified versus Decommodifying Reforms as Non-reformist

The relative merits of these two types of reform as discrete measures aimed at reforming capitalism is moot. Evaluated from the perspective of achieving social and economic transformation, however, only decommodifying reforms have the potential to be non-reformist. Those who argue for an interpretation of the 2017–19 programme that emphasises its commodified elements are, in practice, limiting the programme to reformism.

One such limitation arises because commodified ownership reforms only ‘reshape the balance of interests around how production and work is organised’ at the level of the firm.56 At a societal level what goods are produced and how they are distributed continue to be determined by the imperative of profitability and market exchange mediated by price and competition. This places inherent constraints on workers’ ability to advance their own interests. Take pay, for example. If members of a worker-owned cooperative choose to pay themselves more than can be justified by their company’s performance, their company will become uncompetitive and eventually go out of business. To coin a phrase, worker-owners may set their own wages but they do so in circumstances not of their own choosing or, as Marx puts it, ‘the workers in association become their own capitalist’.57

In contrast, strengthening the collective power of all workers is both an objective and a condition of decommodifying reforms, which are conceived in terms of a dynamic process of extending collective democratic planning. Nationalisations, extending universal public services and Labour’s green industrial strategy would all serve to reduce the influence of the market on decisions about production and distribution of goods and services and replace it with democratically determined social objectives: ‘In public hands, energy and water will be treated as rights rather than commodities, with any surplus reinvested or used to reduce bills.’58 Democratic determination of these objectives would be secured through sectoral collective bargaining and worker and citizen participation in the management and operational structures of publicly-owned industries.

Another limitation concerns the need for non-reformist reforms to instil in workers an understanding of the inherent dysfunctions of capitalism and necessity for socialism. Some commodified reforms risk doing the opposite by giving workers a stake in the current system and a material interest in ‘fixing’ rather than replacing capitalism. Under market socialism, access to the necessities and desirables of life continue to rely on the performance of their firm, as outlined above. Indeed, this link is actually strengthened because workers receive a direct share of the profits of their company, encouraging them to directly associate their own interests with those of their companies and placing them in antagonistic relation to collective endeavours beyond the level of the firm. Part of the appeal of the IOF, for example, was that workers would receive up to £500 a year in dividend payments. But these payments came out of company profits, relying directly on company success at exploiting labour-power, and would be adversely affected by corporate taxes, collective bargaining and other reforms on which decommodifying strategies depend. Decommodifying reforms are quite different in structure, seeking to weaken and ultimately break the link between individual well-being and firm performance by creating a growing area of need that is met outside of the market system.

This difference points to another way in which commodified reforms fall short of being non-reformist: their limited radical imaginary. Decommodifying reforms focus on the creation and expansion of non-market institutions, gesturing towards a fundamentally different society in which the satisfaction of human needs and wants is freed from the tyranny of the market. Commodified reforms, by contrast, do not look beyond the wider system of commodity production or productivity-based distribution and end up neglecting those whose needs are left unmet by that system.

Insofar as worker-ownership brings benefits such as higher pay, greater job security and more agency over working lives, the benefits only extend to those lucky enough to be employed in a worker-owned enterprise. This is starkly demonstrated by the IOF, which would only have benefited those employed in publicly listed companies. Even for those workers who do benefit, the benefits will be highly stratified, reproducing uneven distributions of profitability and dividends payments across different companies, sectors and regions.59 The latter two are particularly important given the severe sectoral and regional imbalances created by neoliberalism.

More generally, Labour’s commodified reforms offered little of substance to the unemployed, low-paid, disabled, carers, long-term ill and others – people whose needs should be paramount in any left programme. Such people ‘ha[ve] to rely on … the family or the welfare system … [or] … try and cope with their needs being unsatisfied’,60 which makes the nature of these non-market institutions fundamental to understanding – and dealing with – manifestations of poverty, discrimination and other inequities. Commodified reforms not only neglect non-market institutions: by tying political subjectivity to firm-level organisations, they may make attempts to overcome the injustices capitalism creates for the market-excluded less rather than more likely.

The final way in which commodified reforms are constrained to be reformist concerns their vision of how change occurs. As discussed above, commodified approaches involve the aggregation of a plethora of incremental reforms that, while perceived as ‘bottom-up’, often occur through unilateral action by the state. Gorz denied such gradualism could ever be non-reformist, arguing that socialist transformation must at some point involve explicitly ‘bring[ing] the existing organization of power into question and into crisis’61 by exposing ‘the antagonism between the logic of social production according to the need and aspirations of men, and the logic of capitalist accumulation.62 He also warned against a strategy that relies too heavily on state institutions, highlighting the danger of co-option:

It is essential that [the necessary] antagonism should never be institutionalized, as it usually is in neo-capitalist and social-democratic regimes, by the integration of working class organizations in the state and their subordination to it, by compulsory negotiation and arbitration.63

The necessary rupture must be led by autonomous working-class organisations, that, by avoiding co-optation, are able to intensify the antagonism between capital and labour to the point of crisis. The decommodifying approach of directly dispossessing sections of capital through industry-wide nationalisations while strengthening trade-union freedoms and democratising public institutions was much more likely to deliver both strong working-class organisations and a rupture than the gradualism and state-centrism of commodified reforms.

Applying Gorz’s work to the Corbyn project reveals that challenging the balance of economic power through reforms to ownership and economic democracy, when done in a decommodifying fashion, has the most potential to serve as non-reformist reforms in a programme for socialist transformation. However, Labour’s confrontational and democratising economic strategy sat uncomfortably alongside a political strategy that presumed the smooth implementation of the policy programme would follow the capture of state power. This contradiction and some of the lessons from Labour’s 2017–19 political strategy are discussed in the next section.

4 The Failures of the Reformist Political Strategy

The contradiction between the most radical elements of Labour’s 2017–19 economic policy programme and the political strategy through which it was pursued centres around two related issues: their approach to the state and their theory of change. As we have seen, the decommodifying elements of the economic programme involved using state power to strengthen the ability of workers to confront and challenge the power of capital while simultaneously transforming and democratising the state itself. The political strategy, by contrast, focused on winning power in a general election, and assumed that this programme could be implemented through existing state institutions operating in a business-as-usual fashion.

The political strategy of the Corbyn project relied on a form of instrumentalism64 which supposed that changing the personnel wielding state power would be sufficient to using that power for socialist ends. As such it was highly at odds with the strategy through which Gorz thought a programme of non-reformist reforms must be pursued. Gorz’s approach sits within a tradition that problematises the traditional separation of base from superstructure common to both instrumentalist and structuralist65 approaches.66 Gorz is consistent with Simon Clarke67 in viewing the balance of power within the state as an expression of the class struggle’s state of play. Thus, he argues, ‘the electoral struggle, even when it is ultimately victorious, has never enabled the working classes to forge a collective will or real political power’.68 Like Clarke, this conception of the state leads Gorz to emphasise the necessity of more-direct forms of class struggle for exercising power through the state to be a realistic prospect:

a different policy will neither convince nor appear possible unless there has already been a virtual demonstration of the power of promulgating it, unless the relation of social forces has been modified by direct mass action.69

For Gorz, real political power must be won through mass struggle and direct action to alter the balance of power embodied in prevailing social relations as well as through electoral contests to take control of state instruments. Hence, the

promulgation of the economic programme [must go] … hand in hand from the beginning with democratic reforms allowing the development in factories, co-operatives, regions and local councils of centres of popular power and initiatives adapted to local circumstances.70

Gorz’s work is predicated on a theory of the state which holds that state power cannot be wielded against capitalism simply by taking control of the machine; rather, class struggle must be fought simultaneously across social, economic and state relations. This points to a fundamental flaw in the Corbyn Project’s strategy: it gave insufficient attention to the importance of waging class struggle within the state. More concretely, however well-developed and well-intentioned its policy programme, a radical government will face major political barriers to implementing it, including but not limited to: the co-optation of individuals put in positions of power; an obstructionist civil service; capital flight or an investment strike; and internal opposition within a Labour Party, which operates as an extension of the Ideological State Apparatus.71

The centrality of grass-roots mobilisation and unconventional forms of organising to Corbyn’s leadership election campaign has been widely recognised,72 and a number of commentators were quick to perceive the implied need for a political strategy that went beyond traditional electoral and parliamentary politics. The way in which Corbyn’s leadership campaign ‘appealed over the heads of parliamentarians and pundits’, Richard Seymour argued in early 2016, ‘suggests that parliament is not the end of politics’.73 In the same year, Alex Williams argued that ‘we need to move beyond thinking of winning a singular position of power (for example, state power)’ to instead ‘highlight a more complex, dynamic, and open-ended understanding of what power is’.74 However, the political barriers to winning power and implementing its programme – and the need for a strategy to overcome them – were given far less attention by Corbyn’s Labour than the details of the programme itself. In policy terms, ‘a crucial element missing from the manifesto[s] was any significant move towards democratising the state’.75 In strategy terms, there was ‘too much focus on capturing the state and assuming all will then be well’.76

An attempt to start developing a political strategy that takes class struggle at the level of institutions and wider society seriously was made in People Get Ready!, co-authored by Christine Berry and Joe Guinan.77 Although warmly received by senior politicians and officials within the party, its lessons were not sufficiently taken on board. A Preparing for Government programme was established after the 2017 general election, and was intended to prepare the shadow cabinet to navigate parliament and the civil service in order to implement large and complex policy programme. In practice this programme barely got off the ground, with responsibility frequently changing hands. To the extent that it did, its focus was almost entirely procedural and bureaucratic, focused on ‘trying to order priorities for Labour in office and finding some means for imposing direction on the existing machinery of the state, with little anticipation of the likely recalcitrance of the latter’.78

Additionally, the Corbyn project’s mode of doing politics soon lost its emphasis on mass action. Notwithstanding the prioritisation given to trade-union mobilisation and attempt to shake up how the party campaigned by creating a Community Organising Unit, the ‘People Powered Politics’ of the leadership campaigns gave way to more conventional politicking based on negotiating backroom deals. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the decision by the leadership to ask delegates at Labour’s 2017 conference to withdraw motions on party reform – key among them, mandatory reselections for MP s, which was perceived as a way of increasing grassroots influence over the wayward PLP – in anticipation of a party-wide Democracy Review to be carried out at the request of the leader. Reflecting high levels of loyalty to Corbyn among the membership, motions were duly withdrawn by delegates only for the NEC to force through watered-down reforms ‘with a motion to make reselection easier, but only on a case-by-case basis’ at the 2018 annual conference following closed-door negotiations between senior officials of affiliated trade unions and Corbyn’s advisers.79 The Democracy Review itself was ‘disappointing’.80

Gorz’s insight is that, by pursuing its programme in this way, Corbyn’s Labour was doomed to failure because it robbed the programme of its radicalism:

any reform whatsoever – including workers’ control – may be emptied of its revolutionary significance and re-absorbed by capitalism if it is merely instituted by government fiat and administered by bureaucratic controls, i.e. reduced to a ‘thing’.81

What was needed instead was a strategy focused on democratising and strengthening the movement as an independent power base, both inside and outside the party. A strong, independent grassroots movement would ‘help resist the inevitable backlash from vested interests’82 while holding the leadership ‘to its promises and push[ing] the boundaries of the possible’.83 It is likely that, had Labour won in 2019, the lack of such a strategy would have been a major impediment to its success. But the consequences extended beyond weakening a hypothetical future left government; that ‘Corbynites never squarely confronted the fact that you cannot democratise the economy without democratising politics’ was a major factor in their failure to get into government in the first place.84

Tactically speaking, a large and empowered movement was the only weapon Corbynism had against a highly hostile establishment that extended to the traditionally centre-left Guardian and a majority of Labour Members of Parliament. A strong, popular grassroots mobilisation was needed to cut through negative national representations of Corbynism and build on the mass support through practical solidarity. The failure to mobilise Corbyn’s broad base of support within the party beyond door-knocking around election times ‘to do the vital work of reaching out and building broad social bases of support for a new politics’85 was fatal to the success of the project.

For Gorz, the importance of mass mobilisation goes even deeper: the act of participating in political struggle is itself transformative, ‘an experiment in the possibility of their own emancipation’86 that strengthens their socialist resolve and capacity for liberation:

in reality, the socialist intention of the masses never emerges ex nihilo, nor is it formed by political propaganda or scientific proof. A socialist intention is constructed in and through the struggle for plausible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs and aspirations of the workers.87

In other words, it is not just the content of a reform that makes it non-reformist, but also ‘the way they are pursued’.88 Non-reformist reforms are not simply a question of ‘finding an answer to a policy problem’89 but of giving people lived experience of exercising power over their own lives.90 This aspect of Gorz’s thought is even more pertinent in the context of neoliberalism and the way it has stifled opposition:

the institutional shifts, the changes in the structures of political representation, and the social and economic transformations wrought by neoliberalism systematically reduce the scope for the expression of collective interests, the emergence of transformative programmes, and even the aspiration to change society beyond neoliberalism.91

Corbyn’s Labour bucked the trend by putting forward a transformative programme. But simply presenting more popular policies, without at the same time forging and strengthening collective political identities founded on hope for something better, was never going to be enough. Bluntly put, the picture of radical democratic participation at the heart of the economic programme did not correspond to the lived experience of activists, let alone the electorate. On the contrary, for forty years we have been interpellated as self-reliant, self-interested, competitive individuals who make life decisions on the basis of calculations of rates of return – whether by seeing our homes as not simply somewhere to live but as a potential source of speculative returns, or treating education not as a way of broadening our knowledge, skills and understanding but as a way of investing in our own human capital. If we are to challenge neoliberalism it is not enough to be equipped with the right policies. For those policies to be both credible as aspirations and viable as alternatives, our movement needs to reconstitute people as political agents by building collective identity and democratic sensibility through everyday experiences of empowerment and solidarity. It needs to give people real-world experiences of non-capitalist and decommodified forms so that instead of seeming dubious or fantastical, offers of ‘free stuff’ are seen and understood as an alternative way of doing things.

As well as clarifying the transformative potential of decommodifying reforms to ownership and democracy relative to other parts of the programme, Gorz’s work helps us to understand the failure of the Corbyn project by highlighting the importance of political democratisation – of the state and of the movement – both to getting into government and to overcoming the barriers they would face if they did. Fundamentally, he helps us to see that putting democracy at the heart of our economic programme without putting it at the heart of our organisational strategy was always doomed to fail. The relevance of these insights is not limited to the 2017–19 period but rather extends to contemporary debates within and about the Labour Party. These insights are the subject of the concluding section.

5 Conclusion: Lessons for Current Debates

What, then, are the implications of the preceding discussion for the current conjuncture, in particular, the dissolution of Corbyn’s coalition of support? On the elementary question regarding what stance socialists in Britain should take towards the Labour Party, the implications are inconclusive. The absence of a strong, autonomous popular movement engaging in workplace and other forms of struggle in tandem with the Labour Party’s electoral and parliamentary activities turned out to be a fatal weakness of the Corbyn project. There is an urgent need to build working-class and community organisations, and the case for prioritising this over involvement with the Labour Party is particularly compelling given the diminished space for socialist organising under the current leadership.

That said, one of the central premises of Gorz’s work – that liberal democracies such as Britain will not face circumstances conducive to a spontaneous mass-uprising in the foreseeable future – continues to hold. Furthermore, Gorz did not see popular struggle and attempting to implement an economic programme through the capture of state power as alternatives, but rather as two complementary aspects of the same strategy. Specifically, an economic programme and capacity to implement it are necessary to capitalise on the crises created by popular struggle:

If … mass struggles succeed in upsetting the balance of the system and in precipitating a crisis without being accompanied at the party level by the definition of a really new economic policy capable of resolving the crisis to the political and material advantage of the working classes … then the situation rapidly decays and despite their victories the working classes are soon thrown back by the bourgeoisie to their starting point.92

Ultimately, workplace and community organising and pursuing socialism through electoral channels are both essential, though emphases may vary with circumstances.

The question of whether those engaging in electoral politics should focus on building back the left base within the Labour Party or seeking opportunities to challenge the party from the left outside of it is similarly one of tactics rather than principle. But for those who do remain in the Labour Party, there are some quite specific and urgent lessons to be drawn from the work of Gorz and its application to the Corbyn project. One is that the ‘stay and fight’ strategy of pressuring the current leadership to adopt elements of the 2017–19 programme is at best futile and at worst counterproductive. It is futile because achieving socialism will not be the cumulative result of a series of policy solutions to discrete problems. Rather, it will require a radical transformation of prevailing political, economic and social arrangements. The role of individual policies in this transformation is not to inch us one by one closer to new arrangements but to contribute to a programme that simultaneously prefigures socialism, convinces the working class of the necessity of its pursuit through confrontation, and strengthens the power of the working class in that confrontation. A right-wing Labour leadership will, at best, cherry pick a few of the left’s ideas, but pursued in isolation these reforms are robbed of their transformative potential.

Notwithstanding the necessarily programmatic nature of non-reformist reforms, applying left pressure on the leadership in relation to policy is sometimes argued for on the basis of trying to win modest, albeit non-socialist, improvements to people’s lives. The problem with such arguments is that such a strategy is not merely futile but counterproductive. Trying to convince the current leadership to adopt ‘left’ policies leads rapidly to exaggerating the common ground between the Party’s centrist leadership and the socialist components of its membership in a bid to demonstrate the success of such left pressure, and binds people into the Labour Party as a political project. This ends up muzzling criticisms that need to be aired – something evident every time the cult of the ‘least bad’ rears its head, whether Great British Energy is being defended as ‘better than nothing’ despite representing a massive retreat from 2019 or the left being cowed into supporting the least worst of the other candidates when left candidates are unlawfully kept off selection short-lists.93 More fundamentally, it obscures crucial differences between the goals and perspectives of socialists and social democrats. Again, Gorz is insightful about the importance of maintaining clarity about these fundamental differences, even when the two have cause for (what must necessarily be a temporary) alliance:

If a socialist strategy of reforms is to be possible, this basic difference [between the goals and perspectives of socialists and social democrats] must not be masked, nor dismissed to a lower level by tactical agreements at the summit. On the contrary, it must be placed at the centre of political debate. If not, the socialist movement, by seeming to give a totally unmerited ‘socialist’ warrant to the social-democratic leaders through tactical agreements at the summit, will have prepared the rout in ideological and political confusion of the whole of the working-class movement and particularly of its avant-garde.94

Ultimately, there is a case for Marxists remaining in the Labour Party but it deserves no intrinsic loyalty. Its value is as a potential vehicle through which to pursue a non-reformist programme, and this purpose is currently in direct conflict with those who see the Labour Party as a vehicle for reformist social democracy. Most immediately, this means stopping trying to influence Starmer – which is inhibiting the ability of socialists to differentiate ourselves and our strategy while giving the right of the Party left cover – and start trying to win back control of the party.

The left has suffered a series of profound defeats, all of them while focusing on policy and failing to defend our base, or support and cultivate the next generation of leaders. It is not fashionable or comfortable to advocate factional fighting but that is what is needed, especially in the current crisis period. Joachim Hirsch95 argued that in times of crisis conflicts within parties become more important than conflicts between them, because such parties are forced to act against the interests of their members and constituencies as they attempt to stabilise the system. This is highly pertinent for today. Any near-term Labour government is going to become rapidly unpopular – far from having the room for manoeuvre Blair had, Starmer is lining himself up to deliver the fiscal tightening that even the Tories are deferring. Rather than merging with that government, socialists should be preparing to organise resistance to it.

References

1

An early version of this article appeared in New Socialist magazine. Grateful thanks to Robert Knox, Rory MacQueen and the Historical Materialism Editorial Board for comments on earlier drafts, and to Mary Partington, whose wisdom lies behind many of its ideas. All errors and weaknesses are mine.

2

The Guardian 2022.

3

Miliband 1960.

4

The Labour Party 2017a, 2019a.

6

Lawrence 2022.

7

See Robertson 2022 for a fuller critique.

8

Gorz 1964, 1968.

9

Gorz 1968, p. 111.

10

Ibid.

11

Ibid.

12

Gorz 1968, p. 112.

13

Ibid.

14

Gorz 1968, p. 119.

15

Gorz 1968, p. 118.

16

Gorz 1964, pp. 6–8.

17

The Labour Party 2017a.

18

The Labour Party 2019b.

19

Institute for Fiscal Studies 2019.

20

Bolton and Pitts 2018, p. 44.

21

The Labour Party 2019f.

22

BBC News 2023.

23

The Labour Party 2017a, p. 14.

24

The Labour Party 2017b.

25

The Labour Party 2019a.

26

Massey 2007, pp. 79–81.

27

Corbyn 2018.

28

Hanieh 2021.

29

It is not that the leadership were unaware of this possibility – on the contrary, various attempts at contingency planning were made, including the Shadow Treasury Team producing a briefing setting out possible responses to an array of adverse market reactions in advance of the 2019 election. But this document, and this kind of contingency planning more generally, were never considered a central part of the strategy.

30

The Labour Party 2017c.

31

The Labour Party 2017a.

32

The Labour Party 2019c.

33

The Labour Party 2019a, p. 15.

34

McDonnell 2019.

35

Lawrence 2019.

36

The Labour Party 2019d.

37

The Labour Party 2019e.

38

The Labour Party 2019a, p. 12.

39

Guinan and Hanna 2019, p. 110.

40

The Labour Party 2019a, p. 60.

41

Gorz 1968, p. 118.

42

McDonnell (ed.) 2018.

43

Meadway 2020.

44

Berry 2020.

45

Robertson 2020.

46

Harris 2022.

47

Unlike Starmer’s proposal for Great British Energy, which is an example of single-entity public ownership.

48

Gindin 2016.

49

See Knox 2021 for a similar argument demonstrating the top-down nature of New Labour’s supposedly decentralising constitutional reforms.

50

Berry and Guinan 2019, pp. 139–40.

51

Meadway 2020.

52

Alperowitz 2013.

53

Beckett 2019.

54

Fine and Saad-Filho 2019.

55

Anon. 2020.

56

Meadway 2020.

57

Marx 1991, p. 571. See Sharzer 2017 for a detailed elaboration of the limitations of cooperatives as a strategy for transitioning beyond capitalism.

58

The Labour Party 2019a, p. 15.

59

The IOF was accompanied by a dividend cap of £500 per year to partially correct for a wide spread in anticipated returns to workers in different sectors and companies.

60

Keucheyan 2020.

61

Gorz 1968, p. 113.

62

Gorz 1968, p. 112.

63

Gorz 1968, pp. 112–13.

64

Miliband 1969.

65

Poulantzas 1969.

66

Holloway and Picciotto 1991; Jessop 1991; Clarke 1991.

67

Clarke 1991.

68

Gorz 1968, p. 113.

69

Ibid.

70

Gorz 1968, p. 117.

71

The extent of this internal opposition was exposed by a leaked report setting out the extent of internal sabotage during the 2017 General Election. See The Independent 2020.

72

Klug and Rees 2019; Seymour 2016.

73

Seymour 2016: Kindle Locations 171–4.

74

Williams 2016.

75

Panitch and Leys 2020, p. 213.

76

Bhattacharyya 2020, p. 43.

77

Berry and Guinan 2019.

78

Murray 2022, p. 225.

79

Panitch and Leys 2020, p. 225.

80

Panitch and Leys 2020, p. 229.

81

Gorz 1968, p. 125.

82

Berry and Guinan 2019, p. 145.

83

Berry and Guinan 2019, p. 146.

84

Berry 2020.

85

Berry and Guinan 2019, p. 160.

86

Gorz 1968, p. 125.

87

Gorz 1968, pp. 121–2; my emphasis.

88

Gorz 1968, p. 122.

89

Miliband 1977, p. 188.

90

See Akbar 2020 for a fuller interpretation of this aspect of Gorz’s thought.

91

Fine and Saad-Filho 2016, p. 33.

92

Gorz 1968, p. 114.

93

Owen Jones is remarkably explicit about moderating criticism of Starmer in order to create the impression that the left have influence, saying ‘there’s a careful balance to be struck between challenging the Labour leadership … and not demoralising people by making them believe that building pressure delivers no results’ (<https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/1577652063743496194?s=20&t=WlC7B-4l0rBzpG5HeOF8gA>).

94

Gorz 1968, p. 115.

95

Hirsch 1991.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 695 695 0
Full Text Views 125 125 11
PDF Views & Downloads 282 282 22