The remarkable and decisive victory of the socialist Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership election appears to revive the Left-Right divisions of the 1980s. But there are other historical precedents for the current surge of radicalism, in particular the birth of the Chartist movement nearly two centuries ago – Editors.
1— Relics of the 1980s?
Friedrich Nietzsche once complained about the ‘spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge’, who uses and abuses history for the purpose of glossing over the misdeeds of cowards and egotists. ‘We,’ on the other hand’, he wrote, ‘wish to serve history only insofar as it serves living.’
Is Labourism still living? When it becomes difficult to grasp the genuinely new, illustrations from the past are paraded as premonitions of the follies of the present. Throughout the Labour Party leadership campaign the narrative of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘mainstream’ opponents centred on the supposed historical precedent of Labour’s ‘unelectability’ in the 1980s. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who dismissed Corbyn as ‘a 1983 man’ and ‘a relic’, forgets her own status as a relic of the Social Democrats who split the Labour Party in 1983, thus ensuring Thatcherite rule for years to come. But it would now appear that the membership of the Labour Party has lost the confidence of its leaders. Despite a purge which denied a vote to many thousands of suspected ‘entrists’, Corbyn has won the leadership contest as the candidate of the Left with 251,417 or 59.5% of first preference votes, and the jaded political class of ‘New Labour’ don’t yet know what has hit them. But does anyone?
David Miliband, the Blairite ‘Progress’ faction’s ‘prince over the water’ in the US, has attacked Corbyn as representing the same ‘socialism in one country’ policies that François Mitterand’s government tried to implement in France in the early 1980s. Mitterand’s Left program, which included sweeping nationalisations, capital controls, higher wages and a 35 hour-week, was largely abandoned when the French economy began to tank under pressure from international capital. In Britain, the ‘modernisers’ of the Labour Party took Mitterand’s U-turn as a cue to move rightwards. The new strategy was to accept the ‘Thatcher revolution’ — with its anti-union laws, privatisations, deregulation of finance capital — as a positive process of ‘modernisation’, requiring only the application of socialist ‘principles’. As to the actual meaning of those principles Miliband has nothing to say apart from the standard New Labour word-salad of abstract nouns: ‘growth and opportunity… limits on inequality’, etc.
2 — Good Old Days, Bad Old Days
If understanding the present crisis of Left politics requires study of historical ‘precedents’, ‘historical parallels’ and ‘precursors’, then we need to go back a lot further than just the 1980s. First the 1960s, when Ralph Miliband (the Marxist father of David and Ed) wrote:
‘Even if all previous evidence is left out of account, the Labour Government’s record in office should be sufficient to show that these leaders work within a pattern of policy which is firmly set, and which excludes socialist commitments’.
In June 1968, Alisdair MacIntyre, a member of the International Socialists (who later became a Thomist and joined the Catholic Church), gave a talk on BBC radio entitled ‘The Strange Death of Social-Democratic England’. MacIntyre referred to George Dangerfield’s political classic of 1935, The Strange Death of Liberal England, which explained how the Liberal Party, having created the welfare state in 1910 that laid the basis for Labour’s social democracy, consigned itself to virtual oblivion as a political force within three decades. In short, the Liberals lost support by making enemies of their key supporters: trade unionists, suffragists, pacifists, social reformers, and both nationalists and unionists in Ireland. Under Harold Wilson’s Labour government (1964-1970), MacIntyre saw a similar process of unravelment. Against ‘The Spirit of ‘45’ (the title of Ken Loach’s film about the successes of the 1945-51 Labour government), by 1968 commitments such as progressive taxation, full employment, trade union rights, social housing, social security, and devolution for Scotland were being either abandoned, ‘reconsidered’, or just forgotten. MacIntyre noted that the return of large-scale unemployment (500,000 in 1968) had been deliberately engineered because, according to received economic wisdom, full employment encouraged ‘excessive’ wage demands and led to ‘instability’. MacIntyre also highlighted the ‘grotesque degree of inequality’, with the richest 1 per cent receiving 12 per cent of total incomes (beyond grotesque is the fact that in 2015 the richest 1 per cent get 21 per cent).
In 1968 MacIntyre rated Labour’s forthcoming electoral chances as dismal. He was right, but the swing to the right in the run-up to the 1970 election was exacerbated by Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech of 20 April 1968, an event MacIntyre had yet to take account of. Although Powell was booted out of Edward Heath’s Tory shadow cabinet, his intervention had the effect of reviving class-struggle Toryism, promoting opposition to membership of what is now the European Union, and, worst of all, both intensifying and legitimising white racism.
As it turned out, despite the Conservatives’ victory in the 1970 election, the Labour Party did not die. On a massive tide of trade union militancy Labour was elected again in 1974 on a program promising ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’. But by this time the effects of a global economic crisis and the Mid-East oil price hikes were kicking in. As the crisis deepened, Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, abandoned Labour’s Keynesian socio-economics, and told the 1976 Labour Party conference: ‘We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists…’
With British manufacturing exports in decline Callaghan tried to protect the pound from devaluation by holding down inflation. Having repealed the Tories’ anti-union laws, he now expected the union leaders to moderate their members’ wage demands. But the strike-rate remained as high in the Labour years of 1974-79 as it had been under the Tories from 1970-1974 — averaging nearly 12 million strike days a year. The 1978-79 ‘winter of discontent’ showed the limits of the economistic view that strikes for higher wages in themselves promote socialist consciousness. Media-driven public opinion, which was beginning to favour Margaret Thatcher’s ‘free market’, anti-immigrant, ‘law and order’ rhetoric, increasingly saw militant trade unionism, separated from the unions’ ‘own’ party, as driven by apolitical ‘selfishness’ or political ‘extremism’.
Callaghan’s failure seemed to confirm MacIntyre’s prognosis: what was ‘genuinely new’ was Labour’s acceptance of ‘definitions of political reality and political possibility according to which social democracy can no longer exist.’ MacIntyre defined the first premise of social democracy as follows:
‘The first [premise] was that class conflict was genuine, that in the market economy of classical capitalism the interests of the working class ran clean counter to those interests which relied upon the smooth working of the economic system.’
This recognition of the necessity of class struggle could be shared by revolutionary socialists and anarchists as well as Left reformists. But historically there has never been a ‘smooth working of the economic system’ for the ‘interests’ of capitalists to rely on. Another problem is that the premise sees the struggle between classes in terms of distribution: a premise shared by the ill-fated socialist project of François Mitterand.
Tony Blair’s New Labour government, elected in 1997, continued Thatcher’s privatisation program and attacks on welfare, and was fully gung-ho about joining George Bush’s military adventures in the Middle East, a never-ending car-crash which manifests itself today in the Refugee Crisis. Gordon Brown, Blair’s longstanding rival, proved to be another disappointment for party stalwarts after he succeeded Blair to the premiership, and lost the general election of 2010 to the Conservative-Liberal coalition.
‘Socialism’ was revived in the 21st century, come the global crash of 2008. Not however, as a means to achieve ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’, but as a means of bailing out the banks with tax-payers’ money. Chicago School economist, Robert Lucas, who proclaimed in 2003 that the ‘central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes’, changed his tune in 2008, admitting ‘I guess everyone is a Keynesian in a foxhole’.
The quantitative easing (QE) programmes of central banks restored the banking system , but the subsequent recovery was based on moving fictitious capital into the property market, share buy-backs, and government or corporate bonds. In a system awash with ficticious capital spreading unpayable debt throughout the corporate sector, there is no longer any smooth flow between profit and productive, i.e. value-creating, investment. The French economist Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has shown that the runaway enrichment of the top 1% relies on the rate of return on capital exceeding that of economic growth. This not only results in an automatic increase in inequality, but starves ‘real’ production of inputs to grow the value-producing economy (although Piketty is in favour of redistributive taxation he thinks it unlikely that individual states will be able to enforce it, now that their fiscal autonomy is severely circumscribed by the workings of globalised capital).
The second premise of social-democracy put forward by MacIntyre — which revolutionaries have never bought into — is that although ‘the interests of the working class must conflict with the goals which dominate the economic system’, parliamentary democracy and national sovereignty could at once contain and express class conflict. The negation of this second premise is fully apparent in David Miliband’s anti-Corbyn piece in reference to Greece:
‘..Britain is not Greece. Neither in terms of our deficits and debts… nor in terms of the political choices we face today, contrary to Jeremy Corbyn’s demand that Labour become an anti-austerity movement on the Greek model. The alternative to Syriza/Corbyn is based on passionate reform, not angry defiance.’
Leaving aside Miliband’s breezy complacency about Britain’s deficits and debts, his attitude to what he calls the ‘tragedy in Greece’ is a classic case of ‘Oh Dearism’. He shows no concern about the unelected Troika regime of the EU imposing inhuman austerity measures on a country whose government was specifically elected to oppose them, Nor does he seem troubled that within the unaccountable structures of the European Union, democracy and national sovereignty can be so easily overridden.
3 — The Road to ‘Corbynmania’
Throughout the 2015 general election campaign, Labour Party front-benchers under Ed Miliband’s leadership had nothing remotely interesting to say on such key issues as the outrageous abuse of the unemployed and disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions, or the unsustainable property-price bubble fueled by the London banks’ insider-trading and money-laundering rackets. Losing out to Tories, Greens and UKIP alike in England, the real disaster was in Scotland, the Labour heartland which no Labour leader could ever afford to lose.
Following the crushing election defeat, and Ed Miliband’s resignation as leader, the Labour front bench, under the caretaker leadership of Harriet Harman, immediately attempted to impose a new consensus on the party: that Labour’s campaign hadn’t been right-wing enough to impress targeted voters in Middle England — a foolish formulation which ignores the political promiscuity that characterizes the middle-class ‘aspirationals’. As for the ex-Labour voters who switched to UKIP (3.8 million votes) or the Greens (1.1 million) or Scottish National Party (1.45 million), they didn’t seem to count at all in the ‘post-mortem’.
By 15 June Corbyn had managed to collect the signatures of 35 MPs needed to get him onto the ballot for Miliband’s replacement. Liz Kendall (Blairite Progress faction), Andy Burnham (ex-Progress) and Yvette Cooper (supported by Gordon Brown) suddenly found themselves facing a Left candidate who actually wanted to talk about real issues. The tipping point came on 21 July 2015 when the Tory’s Welfare Reform Bill was put to the House of Commons. The bill threatened to hit 330,000 children in low income families, and push 40,000 of them below the poverty line. The Labour leadership decided to abstain, but 48 of the 232 Labour MPs rebelled and voted against the bill along with the SNP. That same day a YouGov poll for The Times projected Corbyn to win the leadership contest. By the cut-off date of 12 August for the registering of new members and supporters, the potential electorate for the leadership contest has risen to 610,753. Incredibly, since Labour’s election defeat in May, the party’s membership had tripled. What happened? Are there any historical precedents?
4 — Clicktivists, Flashmobs and Old Militants: the New Chartists?
One of the more interesting oddities in the current spate of ‘lessons from history’ is Edward Vallance’s Guardian piece, ‘The Rebirth of the Levellers’. This sees ‘Corbynmania’ as a revival of of the 17th century radicalism, best represented by the fearless John Lilburne, whose ideas formed the ‘intellectual basis’ for the Leveller movement’. The supposed irony of Corbyn’s admiration of Lilburne is that UKIP MP Douglas Carswell and the extremely right-wing Tory MEP, Daniel Hannon, also admire the Levellers, but see them as proto-Conservatives who favoured small government, low taxes and free trade, rather than as proto-socialists. If, in the present disorder of things, it is by no means only the Left that presents ‘alternatives’, Christopher Hill’s closing question in The Experience of Defeat now seems even more ironic: ‘In 1644 Milton saw England as a “nation of prophets.” Where are they now?’
When the Chartists entered history nearly two hundred years after the English Revolution, the history of the Levellers still remained buried. The Chartists drew their ideas from a newer radical tradition represented by Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Robert Owen, Thomas Spence, Maximilien Robespierre, and Gracchus Babeuf. It is true, as Christopher Hill points out, that Milton’s status as poet and prophet amongst nineteenth-century radicals (notably Blake and Shelley) represented a real radical continuity with the struggles of the Commonwealth. But this only strengthens the insight that the Chartists, and their radical working class successors, did not emerge in a society in which revolution and radical thinking were totally alien things.
In our book, 1839: The Chartist Insurrection, (foreword written by John McDonnell MP, who has just become shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer) Chris Ford and I describe how the turbulent 1830s began with the founding of the National Union of the Working Classes in the agitation for Parliamentary reform, and ended in 1839 with rise and fall of the Chartist National Convention and the Newport Uprising. The idea of radical democracy was not new. Its organisational forms had been forged in the Correspondence Societies of the 1790s, and developed in the mass mobilizations for democracy that ended with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester. The Liberal government’s 1832 Reform Act extended the electoral franchise to a few hundred thousand middle-class voters but left the workers completely out in the cold. With the suppression by the Liberals of the National Union of the Working Classes, ‘The political union of the middle and working classes which had achieved the Reform Bill was destroyed so thoroughly that it was not to be constructed for three decades.’
Having lost out in the field of political agitation the radicals began to organise trade unions and cooperatives under the umbrella of Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. Under Liberal rule however, trade unionism, like political agitation and tax-free newspapers, was illegal. The repression of unions culminated in the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia in 1834. But the agitation continued in other fields of struggle, first in the militant and often violent campaign against the New Poor Law of 1834, which was designed to drive unemployed people into workhouses, and then in the movement for the People’s Charter, founded in 1838 to campaign for Universal Male Suffrage.
From the early-1790s to the late-1830s a radical ‘tradition’ existed, based on republican-democratic and socialist ideas, which could not be contained by, or reduced to, any single campaign or organisational form. A similar shape-shifting of activism has been happening in Britain in the 21st century: mobilisations on environmental and social justice issues (many of them single issue campaigns), the student revolt of the Milbank Generation, trade union struggles, etc. In Scotland in 2014 the independence campaign found itself inundated with ‘Old Labour’ supporters and radical leftish youth. Following the near miss of the Yes to Independence campaign, the Scots took their revenge on the three unionist parties in the May 2015 general election, giving the nationalists 50 out of 56 seats in Scotland. As Mhairi Black, the new 20-year-old MP for Paisley put it, ‘Like so many SNP members I come from a traditional socialist, Labour family. Like so many, I feel that it is the Labour party that left me, not the other way about.’
In England the activist youth and trade union militants got behind Corbyn’s leadership campaign, either by joining the party online so they could vote for him, or by turning out in their thousands for the huge meetings he has been holding up and down the country — or both. All of them see neoliberalism generally as a clear and present danger that needs an effective opposition, not in five or ten years time, but now.
The other factor which empowered the movements of the 1830s that bears comparisons with the present day is the use to which the activists put the new media. Then as now, new technologies of mass communication facilitated mass actions. In the years 1830-36, hundreds of periodicals were suppressed because they refused to pay the three-penny Stamp Tax levied on papers which carried news reports. Radical publishers employed an army of sellers and distributors who used every ruse available to evade the watchful Stamp Officers: papers carried over rooftops, or carted through the streets in a funeral hearse, and then handed to customers in a shop through a hole in the wall by an invisible vendor. Probably a thousand publishers, printers, distributors and sellers were imprisoned in what became known as the War of the Unstamped.
In 1837 Feargus O’Connor, a former Irish MP, founded the weekly Northern Star newspaper, with offices in Leeds. Despite having to pay a hefty stamp tax, by January 1838 the circulation was heading for 20,000 and in 1839 would average 36,000, with peaks of 50,000. The actual readership was much more, because the paper would be passed around the neighbourhoods, where it could be read aloud in taverns and meeting halls for the enlightenment of the illiterate. O’Connor’s paper linked the campaigns against the Poor Law and the new Chartist movement. By the end of 1838, there were 608 organisations – Working Men’s Associations, Female Political Unions, Radical Clubs, etc. — collecting signatures for the Petition and holding mass meetings to elect the Chartist National Convention, which was to sit in permanent in session in London until Chartist demands were met, and style itself as the ‘real’ parliament elected by the people.
The Corbyn campaign has been facilitated and amplified by a similarly new media, which authority has found difficult to control or tax. The turnouts for Corbyn’s rallies — truly massive compared to those of his rivals — recall the momentum of 1838, when O’Connor and the other Chartist leaders drew huge audiences in all parts of the kingdom.  The differences between now and then are of course many. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t share Feargus O’Connor’s charisma, but nor does he share O’Connor’s character flaws, demagoguery and opportunism. In the 1830s the state was ill-equipped, badly organised and terrified of radicalism; now it is tooled up, strongly centralized and well-schooled in political recuperation and subversion of radicalism. But the main difference is that working class Chartists knew what they wanted — democracy and a good life — and how to get it: ‘Peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must!’ Today there is little consensus on the Left about what a ‘post-austerity’ society, let alone ‘socialism’, would look like.
After the Chartist campaign of 1848, the movement went into decline. Although O’Connor was elected to parliament, his Chartist Land Plan (a hare-brained lottery scheme to resettle factory workers on small-holding farms) collapsed under the weight of financial mismanagement. The last really great act of Chartism was the serialisation of the Communist Manifesto in George Julian Harney’s weekly, the Red Republican in 1850, translated by the Scottish Hegelian, Helen Macfarlane.
EP Thompson, on William Morris’s New Socialism of the 1880s, wrote:
‘With the death of Chartism [in the 1850s], and the absorbtion of the Chartists into the radical wing of Liberal Party and into the Co-operative movement, a few individuals here and there remained loyal to the republican and socialist ideas of O’Brien, Harney and Ernest Jones, and provide in their lives a link between the old Chartism and the New Socialism.’
In 1890 old Friedrich Engels observed the 100,000-strong turnout for May Day in Hyde Park, called by the London Trades Council, and commented, ‘The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle’, his enthusiasm heightened by the fact that the intermediate generation had never made it to the line of battle at all. Again, there is a historical parallel with the present. Jeremy Corbyn, the greybeard ’sixty-eighter’ and admirer of Lilburne and Marx, who has defied every move to the right the Labour Party has made since he entered parliament in 1983, enthuses huge audiences of youth born in the post-Thatcher era. The intellectual condottieri of New Labour, whose youth bloomed in the 1990s, now come across as embittered time-servers with an over-inflated sense of entitlement. As Paul Mattick once said, ‘What one generation learns, another forgets, driven by forces beyond its control and therefore comprehension.’
Corbyn’s ideas for a post-austerity economy would hardly have raised the eyebrows of the One Nation Tories of the 1950s. Today they have the endorsement of leading liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. But it may be that ‘Corbynmania’ does not represent any great enthusiasm for throwback Keynesianism, or even ‘classical’ social-democracy. Rather, it may raise the spectre of a parliamentary opposition working with extra-parliamentary movements to resist Tory policies; and in this process of resistance it may also raise the question of a workable alternative. For many of the young activists, as well as the veteran troopers of the Good Old Cause, the movement is not — as Eduard Bernstein argued — everything, nor is getting political power for a party led by compromised deadbeats. A movement as the means to an end beyond capitalism and its relations of production would be truly socialist. But it would recognize that Keynesian underconsumptionism can no longer restore growth and full employment, and that social democracy, though unburied, is nonetheless well and truly dead.
 Guardian 17 Aug 2015.
 Ralph Miliband, The Labour Government and Beyond, Socialist Register, 1966.
 Alasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism, Selected Writings 1953-74. Brill, London:2008, pp. 361-69.
 Richard Posner, ‘Economists on the Defensive’, The Atlantic, 8 Aug 2009; Robert Skidelski, ‘Keynes’, New Yorker 18 Oct 2009.
 Guardian, 20 Aug 2015.
 Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)
 AR Schoyen, The Chartist Challenge. London 1958.
 David Black and Chris Ford, 1839: The Chartist Insurrection. Unkant, London: 2012.
 Helen Macfarlane, Red Republican: Writings. Unkant, London: 2014.
 EP Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Merlin, London: 1977, p279.