Subaltern Labour

Many revolutionary socialists are joining the Labour Party in Britain to support and take forward what has been called the ‘Corbyn Revolution’, the upswing of activity and hope that has accompanied the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party and then his success in taking the party close to victory in the 2017 general election. This is not at all to say that there are many revolutionary socialists, just that members of many different tiny left groups that remained outside the Labour Party and quite a few ex-members of those groups have decided that now is the moment, that now something significant is happening to change the political coordinates of British politics. It took the massive influx of new members, and returning members, those who stayed away for so many years, those sickened by the betrayals of the Blair leadership – neoliberal privatisation and imperialist war – to change the minds of those on the left, of those left of Labour.

Many of the revolutionaries hesitated, and this is understandable, partly because the Labour Party did indeed seem to be a rotting corpse, a bureaucratic apparatus feeding the careers of the dwindling number in the Parliamentary Labour Party willing to risk staying in the game of political musical chairs, and partly because there were alternatives. There were serious attempts to build a ‘left of Labour’ force, not so much as an electoral force but as a campaigning pole of attraction which would link the revolutionaries with the rest of the left. The most significant of these forces in recent years was Left Unity, formed after a call by Ken Loach to defend the NHS, and for many of those involved it was worth staying the course even when Corbyn was elected leader the first time around. The argument was, and it is an argument that we should still respect, that there are many left activists who have a history inside the Labour Party who find the routine of ward and constituency party meetings simply intolerable, and there are new generations of activists who are suspicious of party politics as such, for very good reasons. There needs to be a broad struggle against austerity and in solidarity with the oppressed in Europe, and beyond, and this movement needs to include and mobilise with those who want to keep their distance from the Labour Party.

This time of hesitation was, for some involved in Left Unity also an agonising lingering death of their hope of constructing something that really did ‘do politics differently’, as the tagline of their new party promised, while precisely at that time something new was being born. It took a while to realise that the left of Labour party was being born not outside the party boundaries, but inside them. It was unavoidable, necessary, part of a process of clarification for individuals and small groups as they learnt to work with the new activists inside the Labour Party and, particularly during the 2017 general election, and realised that canvassing for a Jeremy Corbyn government could actually be part of revitalising the left. The task during that period was to argue for a ‘liminal’ approach, for working at the boundaries of the party, working with those who had chosen to join and those who, for various reasons, would not join or rejoin. That approach is still valid, though we now also need to work at the boundaries in a more consistent way that grapples with pressing tasks that relate to internal structures of the Labour Party. To be liminal now means, for most revolutionaries, to take seriously what is happening inside the Labour Party while still doing our level best to keep links with campaigns and individuals that remain outside.

Liminal work now means a political shift to what could be called ‘Subaltern Labour’. We take our cue here from the debates in postcolonial activism and theory. To be clear, the term ‘postcolonial’ does not mean that we are beyond colonialism, that we can forget it. Precisely the reverse, it means understanding and mobilising against the way that colonial logic not only structures the relationship between the British state and its old colonies but also structures the internal politics of Britain now. We see that postcolonial double-edged replication of ideology and oppression in, for example, the ‘confidence and supply agreement’ that the British Conservative and Unionist Party has made with the Democratic Unionist Party in the north of Ireland. This is an agreement that is not merely a coalition with the political wing of the Old Testament, but an incorporation of what was shunned as ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ in the old colonies into the metropolitan centre. We also see it in the Grenfell Tower fire, a fire made possible by the profit-driven and racist logic which placed migrant families in a housing block with fancy cladding that would look nicer to the wealthy residences around it. The prettification of poverty and its intersection with ‘race’ is exactly what postcolonial theory homes in on. Colonialism continues today in new forms, and it is necessary to speak about it.

It is necessary to keep speaking about the colonialism that is so central to the British state, but it is difficult to do so. It is difficult because the dominant political discourse – the mainstream way of describing what politics is about – buries the voices of those who protest, either by making them seem irrational or, in a new twist that elements of the libertarian right are keen on turning, making it seem as if being anti-racist is equivalent to being anti-white. It may even be, some postcolonial activists argue, that those subject to colonialism are silenced to such a point that they feel that every complaint, every description of their exploitation and oppression, is distorted and misheard. From this argument comes the question as to whether the postcolonial subject can speak at all, whether the subaltern can speak.

Why subaltern? Gayatri Spivak’s postcolonial activist question ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ picks up from the prison writings of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci who was incarcerated by Mussolini. Those prison writings by Gramsci, intended for his comrades still working outside in the factories and in the countryside, Italian workers and peasants, had to be coded. One of the codes was to speak of ideological struggle against capitalism in terms of a ‘battle for hegemony’, and now it is code that is misread, read too literally by some of Gramsci’s present-day readers as if our main concern is simply to win a battle of ideas and as if that battle rages across society. For Gramsci, the battle for hegemony was a battle inside the workers movement, a necessary battle over the best way forward to overthrow the capitalist state. Gramsci was a revolutionary. Another of the code-words in Gramsci’s prison writings was to refer to ‘subalterns’ instead of peasants or the proletariat. Subalterns are the working class activists and those who are in solidarity with the working class, and a key part of revolutionary activity is to find ways of articulating what the real interests are of the working class, to enable it to ‘speak’.

For the subaltern to speak, then, is to voice the interests of the revolutionary working class. For postcolonial activists, and this is why they are so important to our struggle today; it is also to link working-class struggle with the struggle of the oppressed against racism, sexism and the manifold dimensions around which people are divided from each other in order that our rulers are able to continue ruling. To speak is to produce not just a better more accurate description of the world but to begin to produce a different world. Striking, occupying, overthrowing the state includes speaking, arguing, and so it is a form of labour, the assertion of what is most creative about human labour. When we find a voice for the oppressed, struggle to make it heard, struggle to make that mean something in terms of political action, we are engaged in ‘subaltern labour’.

But there is another aspect of this which is equally important, which is that we are all in some sense ‘subalterns’ on a political terrain that is hostile to us. That is the case for those who remain outside the Labour Party, in Left Unity, for example. There is a real danger that revolutionaries who remain outside the party will be cut off from those who have gone in to support Corbyn, and then the danger is that their isolation spirals into a series of sectarian complaints about what Corbyn and the Corbynistas are doing wrong, carping at every false step as they seek to differentiate themselves and justify their own separate existence. Their voices, their genuine critical analysis of the limitations of the Labour Party will then not be heard. We need to ensure, as part of our political activity inside the boundaries of the party, in the liminal space we defend as crucial to our revolutionary politics, that these voices from our comrades outside are heard. We should be arguing, for example, that Left Unity be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party, that it be welcomed as an ally of the left in the party. The point is not whether or not this will be accepted by the Labour Party; the point is to keep that existence of a left outside on the agenda. This is part of the struggle now inside Labour, to keep those voices as part of the radical Corbyn movement.

And the problem of operating on a hostile political terrain is also the case for those of us who join the Labour Party. The problem here is not only to do with the nature of machine-politics – a problem that is evident in the activities of Momentum and the way it replicates the very undemocratic practices it pretends to organise against – but also to do with how we speak. This aspect of the problem, how we speak inside the apparatus, is intensified by the existence of the ‘many revolutionaries’ who have now joined the party or, to be more specific, of the ‘many tiny groups’ who have joined. The task that confronts us is how to speak in such a way that enables us to continue functioning as revolutionaries – if we cannot do that, then it was never worth joining up – and that task itself has to deal with three audiences, three groupings inside the Labour Party that will be watching us. The first two groupings are two obstacles.

First, there is the party apparatus – Labour Party central office and the Parliamentary Labour Party and the right wing of the party which is not a negligible force – that will be keen to seize on us, make us illegitimate, silence us, treat as subalterns who should not speak, perhaps generously accept our help in canvassing on condition we remain silent, keep to our place as subaltern labour. Second, there are the entrist sects who have come into the Labour Party to recruit, to feed off the new Corbyn movement rather than build it, who even have the perspective of splitting away a part of the party into something they can remake in their own image. They will be willing, when it suits their interests, to finger us, and at the same time to accuse us of being reformist stooges. We need to clearly differentiate ourselves from the Labour Party apparatus and from the sectarians who will damage Corbyn and sabotage the growth of a left of Labour movement that might even take power in Britain.

The third audience, those who will be watching us, and they are those who, we must be honest about this, we want to watch us, to listen to us, are the Corbynistas. If we really want to locate ourselves in the Labour Party as mainstream pro-Corbyn people, and we should want to do that, then we need to be able to take the ethos of ‘doing politics differently’ that some of us have learnt from our time in Left Unity into this new context. Revolutionaries in Left Unity learnt that we could not build Left Unity by fixing a line that we wanted to be adopted in advance, caucusing to ensure that we were organised in meetings. We could not do that because we knew that those we were working with, a new generation of activists suspicious of party-organisational forms, would see this as dishonest. We needed to be open about what our allegiances were without imposing them.

Now inside the Labour Party we need to be able to work with a range of different left political viewpoints – the Corbynistas have various strategies, and some of them are committed to the long haul of parliamentary reform with or without Corbyn – in order to win even parts of the apparatus over to the left. There are, it is true, long-standing Labour Party members, even some councillors and, who knows, even some MPs, who are, with the success of Corbyn, remembering that they are social democrats, not merely opportunist or careerists. But there are many who are loyal to the apparatus, dangerous hardened reformists. So, when we work as revolutionaries with the Corbynistas we will need to, indeed, mobilize together in a process of subaltern labour with them in which we are covert at some points and know how to strike when the time is right. And at the same time, we need to be clear that we do have some disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn and particularly with some of the political forces that have surrounded and ‘advised’ him.

One of the fields of battle, our battle for hegemony, will be over delegates and election publicity, and the ongoing canvassing as Corbyn tries to keep the party on permanent campaign footing will be testing for us as we try also to mobilise for demonstrations. Connected with this, and even more important in the long term will be around political education. In some parts of the country the Corbynistas have made it clear that they are open to include in their political education discussions those who are still outside the party. Political education here must include the role of revolutionaries historically in the Labour Party, ranging from dual membership once permitted to the Communist Party to the affiliated Independent Labour Party. It will include critical discussion of ‘entrism’ and what the difference is between secretive sect politics and our role as mainstream pro-Corbyn activists.

In this, our own distinctive propaganda will be essential, and the profile of our revolutionary allegiance to international dimensions of political activity and identity should be a top priority. At every moment, then, we will be faced with the pressure to hide who we are, to be subalterns, or to speak only in the language that our enemies understand, but we need to engage in serious engagement with the Corbynistas, to build an explicitly revolutionary current inside the party that also draws energy from outside, subaltern labour.

 

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