Sept. 12, 2015, recorded a significant development in British and world politics that reflected growing mass opposition to capitalist austerity, environmental destruction and imperialist war. At a special conference, Jeremy Corbyn, a leader of the Labour Party’s left wing, long-time Labour MP, former union leader, and anti-war activist was announced to have been elected Leader in a landslide victory, with nearly 60 percent of first-preference votes.
On becoming Leader, Corbyn also became Leader of the Opposition to the current Conservative government of David Cameron.
Following a series of televised and radio debates with the other three candidates—Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall—Corbyn went on to gain the support of six of the Labour Party’s fourteen affiliated trade unions, including the UK’s two largest unions, Unite and UNISON, and received the highest number of supporting nominations from Constituency Labour Parties.
Corbyn has been a long-time activist, organizer and spokesperson against the U.S.-British war against Iraq. He was a featured speaker on Jan. 18, 2003, at the massive march and rally attended by hundreds of thousands of people in opposition to the imminent U.S.-British invasion and occupation of Iraq, organized by the ANSWER Coalition in Washington, D.C. He has been a consistent organizer and leader of the anti-war movement in Britain and a champion of Palestinian rights.
Corbyn’s election marked a decisive defeat for the “New Labour” former leadership, whose pro-imperialist, neo-liberal policies under Tony Blair had become thoroughly discredited. Liz Kendall, considered by some the “Blairite candidate,” came in dead last in the race.
Along with the dramatic rise of new mass movements against austerity throughout Europe, as well as progressive movements in the U.S., Latin America and elsewhere, it has become clear that the long period of reaction that began in the late 1970s and greatly accelerated under Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States is drawing to a close. A new period of resistance to monopoly capitalism/imperialism is opening up, potentially leading to a revival of not only the trade unions but the revolutionary workers’ movement throughout the world. That this initial revival of anti-capitalism and socialism is being frequently, although not exclusively, expressed through the vehicle of electoral politics is to be expected in the first stage.
Under Tony Blair, the politics of Britain’s Labour Party became virtually indistinguishable from that of the U.S. Democratic Party. But the origins of the two parties are very different. The Democratic Party originated as the party of the southern slaveholders and currently serves the interests of U.S. finance capital, though it maintains a mass base within the working class, oppressed communities and sections of the middle class.
The Labour Party, founded in 1900, originated in the British trade union and socialist movements of the 19th century. It grew to overtake the Liberal Party as the main challenger to the Conservative Party during the early 1920s, forming minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and again from 1929 to 1931. In office, it was a firm upholder of the British Empire and colonial rule. It later formed majority governments in various periods, including from 1997 to 2010 under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Despite its working-class origins, from its beginning the Labour Party was shaped by the consolidation of monopoly capitalism/imperialism in Britain and other advanced capitalist countries. Lenin explained in his book “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” the complex of factors that led to the growing conservatism and opportunism of the labor movements of the imperialist countries in the 20th century—including the British Labour Party.
Corbyn’s election as Leader of the Labour Party, and the program he advocates, if carried through in action, not just in Parliament but, more importantly, in the streets and mass organizations of the working class, could contribute to a significant new direction for the workers’ movement with major ramifications in the United States and elsewhere.
The Labour Party as presently constituted, like the other social-democratic parties in Europe, will not be the vehicle for the revolutionary overturn of capitalist rule. But the capitalists are furious about Corbyn’s election and want to destroy his political influence quickly because they fear that his election could be both a sign and a catalyst for a new wave of fightback and resistance. The British and U.S. rulers are supremely class conscious, and are all too aware that the deep assault against the living standards of the working classes could dynamically awaken a new generation to mass struggle. They are keenly aware that a fire of fightback and resistance once lit can spread outside of their control and be the basis for a revival of revolutionary socialism far outside the limits of social democracy.
The British and U.S. ruling establishments, not surprisingly, expressed shock at what The Guardian called “a stunning development.” The headline in The New York Times reads: “With Jeremy Corbyn Elected as New Leader, Britain’s Labour Party Takes a Hard Left Turn.” Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told BBC, “This election shows that Labour now is a serious risk to our national security, to our economic security and to the security of your family.”
The Party for Socialism and Liberation, on the other hand, welcomes this development, which clearly reflects a rise of class-struggle forces in the British workers’ movement. This is not isolated from what is happening in other places in Europe. It is not isolated either from the revival of left-wing forces in Latin America over the last 15 years. The emergence of a new generation of leftist and radical politics is a natural consequence of the offensive launched by the capitalist ruling classes against working people. Oppression breeds resistance.
Of course, there will be many issues related to strategy, tactics and organization that will require careful attention, analysis and planning. But in broad historical strokes the election of Corbyn constitutes one more indicator that the three-decade-long period of capitalist global counter-revolution is inevitably leading to a resurgence of leftist politics. All genuinely new, viable political phenomena—like the revival of global socialism that is now underway—do not immediately ascend to the place of their final significance but rather endure many fits and starts and mis-starts before they rise to fulfill their historical mission.