Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A genuine workers’ democracy?

The ridiculous focus on whether Jeremy Corbyn was a cold war spy distracts from the actual view taken by elements of the British left on the fall of communism, argues Adrian McMenamin

Jeremy Corbyn is not a spy. Nobody sensible or rational has surely ever believed otherwise.

But the way in which his office have struggled to kill this ridiculous story off speaks to a real problem that he does have: namely that he was (and in the case of Cuba, remains) sympathetic to the social systems of the ‘socialist countries’.

This cannot be called a smear – there are simply too many pieces of evidence to make the claim deniable. And nor is the evidence solely circumstantial – like his employment of Seumas Milne and, for the general election, Andrew Murray.

The proof comes directly from the mouth and pen of Corbyn himself. Daniel Finkelstein rather stole the idea for this column in the Times earlier this week and made a pretty good job of it. I know: I am praising not just a Tory, but a Murdoch hack to boot – but try playing the ball for a change, comrades.

While Finkelstein looked at a speech Corbyn gave to a Morning Star conference, I want to look at an early day motion Corbyn signed on 14 December 1989, EDM 210.

An EDM is a way for members of parliament to express personal opinions and this one – proposed by Terry Fields, the late Militant Tendency member of parliament for Liverpool Broadgreen – was cited by Corbyn’s supporters this week as evidence of the sincerity of his opposition to the Czechoslovakian communist regime, which the EDM calls a ‘Stalinist bureaucracy’. And, in fact, the motion seems oddly timed – because the communist government there had fallen four days earlier and while the country’s president was still an relic of that rotten regime, he was only to last another fortnight.

Yet it is no accident the EDM makes no reference to the destruction of communism. Because it is really a statement of the classical Trotskyist view that the socialist countries of eastern Europe were actually workers’ states that had been deformed by corrupt communist parties and which, following a ‘political revolution’, would be restored to the true Leninist path.

So EDM 210 says that the protests of eastern Europe were ‘leading in the direction of genuine socialism, not a return to capitalism’. The standard Trotskyist position – based on the views of ‘the old man’ himself – was ‘capitalist restoration’ was not just undesirable but actually impossible, because the socialist system was inherently superior.

This is the core idea of EDM 210: because the states of eastern Europe had, at the tip of the Red Army’s bayonet, abolished capitalism and capitalist property relations they were better places. As the EDM itself says (and as it is signed by Corbyn and even now cited by Corbyn’s supporters we must take it as his view): ‘the only way forward for the peoples of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe is on the basis of a return to the principles of genuine workers’ democracy and socialism which formed the basis and inspiration for the October revolution.’

Let us briefly remind ourselves what the ‘basis’ of this ‘genuine workers’ democracy’ was before the wicked Joseph Stalin removed the heroic Leon Trotsky. First of all, of course, the toppling by force of the first (and still perhaps the only ever) democratically elected popular assembly in Russia. Then the banning of all other parties, and not just the ‘bourgeois’ and ‘counter revolutionary’ parties either, but also the Socialist Revolutionary party and the Mensheviks – the faction of Russian social democracy that Trotsky used to be a member of. Then a calculated reign of terror in the countryside followed by the order to ‘shoot down like partridges’ the revolutionary sailors of Kronstadt who had just had enough.

Even this is mild compared to what Trotsky had actually argued for inside the Bolshevik party. He had demanded that workers be subject to military discipline and be executed if they went on strike, but Vladimir Lenin baulked at that one.

Genuine workers’ democracy? Yeah, right.


Adrian McMenamin is a Progress columnist and is the former chief press and broadcasting officer for the Labour party. He tweets at @adrianmcmenamin



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Adrian McMenamin


  • Should we overlook Jeremy Corbyn’s youthful folly when in 1989 he proclaimed “the principles of genuine workers’ democracy and socialism which formed the basis and inspiration for the October revolution” in EDM210?

    I don’t think so. At age 39, he wasn’t altogether youthful for one thing: he was just about past the midpoint of average life expectancy back then.

    More importantly, the folly is rooted in a hypothesis that he has adopted as an eternal truth, as a grade one dogma. To cut a long story short, the hypothesis was concocted by Engels as ‘historical materialism’ and dogmatised by Corbyn’s nemesis, Stalin.

    If treated as an hypothesis, the theory of history that proposes an inevitable universal progression (‘primitive communism’ to slavery to feudalism to capitalism to socialism to communism) sorely lacks evidence. There are so many exceptions, so much rule-breaking that only dogma and wishful thinking or posturing are left.

    Can we overlook dogma, wishful thinking and posturing in our party? Well, up to 100,000 members who have left the Labour Party and who had enthusiastically joined as an act of youthful folly when Corbyn took the leadership, they decided not to overlook the dogma, wishful thinking or the posturing.

    I don’t overlook it either: I oppose it because it leads to errors like fantasising Brexit as the dawn of a British socialist nirvana.

    This is just as erroneous as imagining the 1989 collapse of communism would be “leading in the direction of genuine socialism, not a return to capitalism”.

  • Corbyn and McDonnell, whatever their faults, are to be commended for rejecting the reformist illusion that a workers’ democracy is possible without social ownership of the means of production.

  • Adrian, in the interests of accuracy: the Daniel Finkelstein article, in The Times, was largely a ecycling of the Ben Riley Telegraph article, of 15/08/2016 but with some serious omissions.

    This was presumably done in order to misrepresent the actual issue, in order to fit his political viewpoint. The actual text of the 1988 EDM was as follows:

    “That this House of Commons, in the light of the special conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in one week’s time, and of the judicial rehabilitation of Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek and Pyatakov, demands that the Russian Government goes further and gives complete rehabilitation to Leon Trotsky, Leon Sedov the chief in defendants in the Moscow frame-up trials, and all those innocent people murdered by the Stalin regime.”

    Given that this event occurred place during the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and was part of glasnost including: openness, an attempt at truth and reconciliation, recognition and posthumous pardons for victims of the Stalin regime, then it seems a reasonable course of action.

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