Back to future & forward to past

The Jimmy Reid Foundation, the sister organisation of Scottish Left Review, held its annual lecture on Thursday 6 October. This year, the fourth annual lecture, was given by Jeremy Corbyn. He received a rapturous reception before he had uttered a word and then afterwards a standing ovation from the majority of the 600-odd people gathered in the Govan Old Parish Church that night.

He spoke eloquently and passionately about his different vision of society, based on need not greed and community and compassion, not competition. As the director of the Foundation, it was my duty and honour to give the vote of thanks at the end of the lecture. I took the opportunity to say that I was sure that Jimmy Reid would have welcomed Jeremy’s election and re-election to the leadership of the Labour party. This was for various reasons, all centred around the point that Corbyn is the Labour leader that many on the left have been wanting – and waiting for – for at least a generation.

Indeed, there are many citizens in Scotland who might have been attracted to stay with Labour had such a person been the leader of Labour (instead of Blair, Brown and Miliband, and the array of Scottish Labour leaders – Dewar, McLeish, McConnell, Gray, Alexander, Lamont, Murphy and now Dugdale). Corbyn’s refusal to support independence would not have been such an issue in these circumstances as it would have been counter-balanced by his more left-wing policies so that far fewer would have supported either the independence or the SNP. But that as we know has not been the case and Scottish Labour elects its own leader. We await to see whether Dugdale will survive the likely drubbing that Scottish Labour will receive in six months’ time in the local elections. But even if she does not, it is by no means certain that a left leader can or will replace her. Scottish left MSPs are not in large numbers and Scotland, according to the Herald (18 October 2016), was the only part of Britain which voted for Owen Smith and not Jeremy Corbyn (by 6,856 for Smith and 6,042 for Corbyn).

The argument that possible Corbynistas have, in fact, joined the SNP (given a Corbyn led Labour Party was not an option until September 2015 and the mass flow into the SNP’s ranks began immediately after the referendum result in September 2014) is questioned by the outcome of the SNP depute leadership contest. Just 34% of the 120,000 odd members voted and Angus Robertson won with enough first preferences in the first round. Robertson was the senior right wing candidate and the two left candidates, Tommy Sheppard and Chris McEleny only got 29% between them. The turnout was also down from 55% when Stewart Hosie won the position two years ago, meaning that though 40,500 extra members had a chance to vote, only 70 more votes were cast compared to 2014, up from 34,934 to 35,004.

Nonetheless, the political earthquake represented by Corbyn and the Corbynistas represents the best chance in a long time to end the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of mainstream politics in Scotland and Britain, where despite apparent differences each major political party subscribes to not just a particular version of capitalism but the dominant current mode of capitalism, namely, neo-liberalism. In the programme for the Corbyn lecture, we reprinted the editorial that Jimmy Reid wrote for the first edition of Scottish Left Review in 2000. It, along with Jimmy’s column in the Herald newspaper (collected in his book published in 2000 called Power without Principles – New Labour’s Sickness and Other Essays), excoriated capitalism for the iniquities and inequalities it created. But crucially and critically, it also excoriated ‘new’ Labour for defending and extending the reach and power of the neo-liberal form of capitalism. The abolition of Labour’s old Clause Four of its constitution (in 1995) committing itself to public ownership and Blair’s praise of the (alleged) dynamism of the market mechanism were what he took aim at.

For those of us that are serious socialists, there is a necessary discussion to be had on what is the definition of socialism and how the means of getting there relate to the ends of what socialism is or constitutes. What Jeremy Corbyn outlined at the Jimmy Reid annual lecture and the week before at the Labour Party conference are described as both social democracy and socialism. Indeed, Corbyn has referred to his vision as ‘21st century socialism’. Historically, social democracy has comprised not the abolition of capitalism but the reform of capitalism through state intervention to ameliorate the outcomes of the market. Public ownership and wealth redistribution are among its key tools. ‘Parliamentary socialism’ – Labour legislating for social democracy – is the means.

By, contrast, socialism is the abolition of capitalism and political power directly wielded workers (through a new form of democracy) for they will now control and benefit from the ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

How socialism comes about is not likely to be a repeat of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, involving as it did an insurrection and civil war. This is not least because an array of technologies are now different and Scotland and Britain are advanced capitalist economies (unlike Russia at the time). But what we can say with some certainty is that the split in the international socialist movement occasioned by the Russian revolution is one that is still with us, solidifying the two types of commonly held version of radical new societies, namely, social democracy and socialism. We shall be revisiting these issues at some length in our next edition (January-February 2017) when we ask apropos of the centenary of the October revolution: ‘What can we learn from dead Russians?’