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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After May, Labour and Left Unity

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in breaking the hold of the Conservatives on British politics. It is Corbyn who has brought the Labour vote up to the highest level – in percentage and total vote – for twenty years, and the biggest increase in the Labour vote since 1945. The question now is not if May will go, but when. The result also puts obstacles in the way of a ‘hard Brexit’. This victory for Corbyn, to be clear, is still within the limits of an electoral system geared toward the right, and internal Labour bureaucratic procedures geared to protecting sitting MPs who are rewarded by various competing reactionary lobby groups. This success is also within the limits set by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the weird alliances and manoeuvres of the unionist parties in Scotland – Scottish Labour and the Conservatives – which meant that Corbyn would always have been deprived of a working parliamentary majority at Westminster.

The election campaign has put the political project of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and the majority of tory-lite MPs into question, legitimating radical policies and energising a new generation of activists. Corbyn was hobbled by the restrictions placed on the content of the Labour manifesto and by the stubborn refusal of many MPs to include elements of the manifesto they disagreed with in their own local publicity, by exclusion of Corbyn’s image from many local Labour campaign leaflets, and even, in some cases, outright sabotage of the national Labour Party campaign. The manifesto could not include, for example, the decommissioning of Trident nuclear missiles and the conversion of nuclear-military jobs into socially-useful production, and this fault-line in the LP was seized on by the media and exploited by some anti-Corbyn MPs.

Corbyn was still, against all these odds, able to lead a radical campaign and, more important, to energise a new generation of voters, some of whom will continue the campaign for jobs, for the NHS and for human rights beyond 8 June. A majority of voters under 50 supported Corbyn, and a sizeable proportion of the over 50s voters were also won to his politics, or won back to LP politics after their defection during the treacherous Blair years. Many of those who joined Labour to back Corbyn during the two internal party elections for leader came out during the campaign not only to vote but also to leaflet and canvas, and for many of those who did get involved it was their first involvement in party politics.

However, most of the foot-soldiers in the Labour campaign were long-standing members of the party, doggedly carrying on in the face of the media-barrage against Corbyn, and pitching in behind their local MP. This hard work by the local Labour campaign teams and the flying visits to marginal constituencies understandably led to more recrimination against the ‘Corbynistas’ during the election. The absence of the new members was noted, and the price will be paid for this in the months after the election as the right-wing Labour MPs regroup and local activists suspicious of Corbyn will regroup behind them. This sizeable vote was for Corbyn but we should take care not to exaggerate what it means for the composition and politics of the Labour Party. It has not changed the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and we have seen an influx of some unpleasant new right-wing Labour MPs who pose a serious danger to the so-called Corbyn revolution. Every vote we gathered for the left during the campaign will also strengthen the party apparatus and its reduction of politics to an electoral machinery, and this success will be used, as always, against the left.

The ‘new’ members and other supporters of Corbyn working with Labour on the doorstep were mainly existing activists from Left Unity or from other left groups who had thrown themselves into the campaign knowing full well that this election was a make and break moment, that it could be the making of a new left and it could break the Conservatives. There are consequences of the way this campaign was conducted on the ground now, both for the way that Labour activists in local wards and constituency parties will relate to the new left, and the way that Left Unity can relate to the mass movement for Corbyn.

From inside Labour we can reasonably expect that, given the political composition of most of the local party wards, there will not be the warm gratitude coming our way that we might wish for. We can, instead, expect a degree of caution towards us and even measured hostility; we will still be perceived as those who are rocking the boat. Corbyn’s victory – a massive increase in the vote and number of Labour MPs – will not lead to eager acceptance of Corbyn’s politics, rather a closing of ranks around the apparatus on the rationale that now is the time to consolidate Labour’s gains and heal the wounds of the splits that began to open up in the party. We saw grudging acceptance of Corbyn’s contribution during the campaign, and the Labour Party apparatus knows that it will need to bide its time before attempting to remove him. Their thanks for his help will turn into a complaint that the result could have been better, and the loyalty of new members will be impugned, systematically side-lined. The attempt by different left groups to join Labour and intervene in the internal debates will, in most cases, be viewed as ‘entrist’ dishonest interference – in the case of some groups, let’s face it, it will be entrist and dishonest – and that will intensify the problem. Corbyn supporters will balance political challenge with pragmatic expressions of loyalty to the party. Electoral success will not, for sure, lead to a questioning of electoral politics. Instead, the ‘long hard journey’ narrative will, for many long-standing Labour members, be reinforced by this success.

Just as participation by ‘outsiders’ was only tolerated on the basis that we gave out Labour’s own leaflets and nothing more, said nothing different, so Labour party meetings will, in most parts of the country, continue to be deadening to radical politics after the election. Seasoned activists in Left Unity or other left groups might be able to tolerate this and sustain themselves under this pressure, but it would be disastrous to encourage activists in the new Corbyn movement to actually join the party and suffocate inside it. We will not win people to our politics by encouraging them sign up to Labour, but will lead them instead into the labyrinthine machinery of the party, if they are not repelled altogether from politics by the experience.

Left Unity members need to be clear with the Labour activists they worked with during the campaign that they have no intention of colluding in this internal party apparatus politics, and that we actively participated in the election campaign alongside them, not so we could all carry on with business as usual, but precisely because we wanted to create the conditions for something different. We stayed outside the Labour Party because that meant that we had more room for manoeuvre, and that, more than ever, we must have that room for manoeuvre to be a critical friend of the few left Labour MPs, to campaign against cuts carried out by Labour councils and to build a real mass movement for Corbyn that works across the limits that are imposed by Labour membership and restrictive ‘loyalty’ to the party as such.

Any continued success for Corbyn and the new revived Labour movement that he has made possible will depend on a radical break with some of the old assumptions about British politics made by the party. We need to say to our new Labour Party friends that we need freedom of movement to be able to really build something out of this electoral success, and that means that we, and they with us, must begin to reshape the political terrain.

A crucial part of this reshaping of the terrain that the Corbyn movement must engage with, with serious implications for mainstream Labour politics, is what we do with Scottish Labour. The success of Corbyn south of the border is intimately connected with the success of the independence movement north of the border, a movement that must break with the Scottish National Party which it is too-closely associated with. Scottish Labour ran a brave campaign, and, as was the case for many old Labour MPs across Britain who knew they had to pull together to save their jobs, they were, during the campaign period, relatively loyal to the Corbyn leadership. Nevertheless, Scottish Labour worked with the other unionist party in Scotland, the Conservatives, to try and block the SNP. They, the unionists, also succeeded, reducing the SNP vote by 13%, and taking 21 seats from them (12 to the Tories, 6 to Labour and 3 to the Lib Dems). This unionist success takes the edge off Corbyn’s victory, making a tactical alliance with the SNP to form an anti-austerity government impossible. This, along with the increase of seats by the appalling reactionary Democratic Unionist Party in the north of Ireland (from 8 to 10 seats), and the refusal of Sinn Fein to take up the 7 seats it won, will make ‘Conservative and Unionist’ government, in the short term at least, possible. Left Unity must now speak out for Scottish independence – this is one of the breaking points that will make it difficult, if not impossible, for its members to join the Labour Party – and argue for Corbyn to build tactical alliances against the Conservatives.

Left Unity should also, as part of this sustained pressure on the Labour Party from the outside, explicitly argue for the right to affiliate to Labour. This declared open policy of Left Unity – that we see ourselves as part of the Corbyn mass movement – should be the basis for any possible meetings and campaigns with allies inside the party. We worked together across the party boundaries during the election campaign, and we must work together across those boundaries now. The Greens too maintained themselves as a credible force, not only by retaining the one seat in parliament but also by standing aside in some constituencies and campaigning for Labour, functioning as one of the models of independent left politics in the Corbyn movement. Left greens are our comrades in this struggle, in this new phase of struggle opened up by Corbyn.

A strong left presence inside the Labour Party is in our interests if it is to be open to action for change beyond election time, and we believe that this left presence will be better able to connect with the mass movement by explicitly connecting with us. Some of our comrades in different left organisations, including comrades who were once active in Left Unity, will be working inside Labour on this basis. Perhaps it is possible to turn some local Labour Party wards outwards, to make them bases of the movement that Corbyn inspired. Good luck to those working inside the Labour Party to do that, and we must do all we can to support them. But, we will only have the strength to maintain and build this independent left political profile if we organise outside Labour and win as many as possible of the new activists to Left Unity now, to build that independent left political profile with us.

 

You can read and comment on this article on the Left Unity site here

 

 

 

Liminal: Working at the boundaries of the Labour Party

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party was a significant event in Britain, changing the terrain of politics at a time when things were generally already shifting to the right. The Brexit result in the referendum and the election of Trump on the wider world stage were symptomatic of this rightward shift. The election presented, and perhaps it still does present, an opportunity, but not if we simply engage in wish-fulfilment about what we hoped it would be rather than look the facts in the face.

We need to know what the election of Corbyn was and what it was not. It was not a transformation of the Labour Party (LP), and phrases like ‘Corbyn revolution’ are inspiring but inaccurate representations of what happened when Corbyn was elected. Neither was it an organised rebellion against the LP apparatus with a broader movement able to build an alternative politics with Corbyn as the public face. Again, that characterisation of the ‘Corbyn movement’ is quite misleading, even though it is understandable that supporters of Corbyn use that phrase as short-hand to describe the process. Neither was it the election of a charismatic populist who was able to inspire people desperate for an alternative; there were aspects of that desperation, but Corbyn was a much more careful and humble figure than some of the talk of ‘Corbyn-mania’ made him out to be. No, it was the election of a decent hard-working left MP who was, first, well-known among the far left inside and outside the LP and, second, respected as an alternative to old crony left politics. The two aspects are interlinked, and they could be as much the undoing of Corbyn now as they were the making of him two years ago.

The first aspect is Corbyn’s record on the left, a supporter of different campaigns, a voice inside parliament and willing to use the resources he had there (physical and symbolic) to link not only with extra-parliamentary politics but also, importantly, to link across to the outside of the LP. This immediately made him a trustworthy figure for many on the left as well as those involved in different solidarity movements, and even connecting with feminist politics (in a more muted way, but even so significantly beyond the scope of usual left LP practice). Those in the left groups and, more importantly, those who had once been involved in left groups mobilised for him. Those were the closest to the organised ‘Corbynistas’ feared by the popular press, and they valued something in Corbyn’s approach after having been sickened by the sectarian and bureaucratic practices of their own past groups. These forces connected with a second aspect.

The second aspect brings in many of those new to politics, suspicious of the political elites, suspicious actually of party politics as such, and not only of the far-left. Their involvement came at a time when the sexual violence scandals in the SWP were still in the recent memory of those starting to be involved in anti-austerity campaigns; the far-left as an organised political alternative to the LP was pretty well dead, written off by many young activists (particularly those drawn into a kind of politics in which feminist and ecological and alternative-movement politics was important). What is crucial here was that Corbyn was not ‘charismatic’ in the old sense, not a ranting populist, not making empty promises; his new supporters are the people who streamed into the LP, but then, after joining, kept away from the branch meetings, leaving space for the ‘organised’ left to move in and, in most cases, mess things up again.

We should be clear about this, however much we admire Corbyn, and however much we hope that something can be built from his election victory; that the election was for Jeremy Corbyn as an individual, and that if and when he leaves the scene, for whatever reason, there is no other ‘Corbyn figure’ to replace him. When he goes, the LP as a left force is likely to wither with his departure. He is a strange ‘anti-charismatic’ figure whose very break from charismatic politics makes him function in an appealing, almost charismatic way. They voted for Jeremy, not for a fictitious ‘team Corbyn’, and as an individual, not part of a movement. He was never, as the chair of the north Manchester rally kept desperately repeating during the first election leadership campaign, to be ‘the man with the plan’. He didn’t have a plan.

The attempts to cobble together a ‘movement’ in the LP after his leadership election have been shambolic. And this is partly because the LP apparatchiks simply repeat the way they usually organise, and partly because they have been joined by left-sectarians, some of whom jumped ship from Left Unity soon as they saw a bigger recruiting ground. Momentum is one key example, but not the only site in which ‘Corbyn supporters’ try and build something after the event of the leadership election, and do actually reinstall exactly the kind of politics that Corbyn opened up an escape from, opened an alternative to. What these attempts to build something after the event around Corbyn have done is actually to fall into a trap, the trap of old-style left ‘party’ politics in its worst sense, of bureaucratic fronts and manoeuvres and stitch-ups.

It is sometimes said that Corbyn is ‘trapped’ by the apparatus. That is true, to an extent, but it is a trap he has willingly embraced. He, for all his strengths, is a Labourite, he sees change in society as being brought about through the LP, and he is surrounded by a coterie of advisors who are in tune with that project, a political project that means humouring the left Trades Union bureaucrats and holding the party together at all costs. This has played out in appalling ways, with John McDonnell and other Corbyn supporters calling on LP activists to respect local council budgets – to set ‘legal’ budgets which effectively administer the austerity and neoliberal cuts handed down from central government – and with Corbyn even at one point compromising on the ‘free movement’ question, even imposing a three-line whip to vote for triggering of Brexit (after not doing the same over the Trident vote). And it is evident in Corbyn’s attempt to win back seats for the LP in Scotland (where the LP is, in some parts of Scotland, so unionist it is willing to stand down candidates in order that the Conservatives will win against the SNP). The LP is a unionist party, and Corbyn does not challenge that (ironically, paradoxically, after his honourable record in support of Irish republicanism).

Space to the left

The effect of the return to the old party politics that Corbyn was elected by many precisely to combat is toxic on progressive politics and on the far left, which should have, which was starting to learn better. It is toxic on progressive politics in the sense that it takes us back to machine-party politics, exactly the politics that those who voted for Corbyn were repelled by. Now they are repelled again. Many of those who joined the LP don’t even need to actively decide to leave because they never really signed up to be part of branch squabbling, but they are drifting away, disappointed already. When they encounter what is going on in Momentum, or when they come into contact with ‘revolutionary party’ alternatives to the LP (like the SWP or its little brother Counterfire) they are then repelled by politics altogether. At best, they go on to join campaigns and anti-party network organising. Let’s hope they at least do that, and we can try to stay in contact with them when they do that.

And it is toxic on the far left. It leaves groups like the SWP crowing at Corbyn’s missteps on the side-lines, waving their papers and ready to try and mop up those who are disillusioned with the so-called ‘Corbyn revolution’. They can even, for a brief period of time, present themselves as a radical alternative to old-style LP politics that the new generation of activists are fleeing from when they flee the LP after their brief time inside it. And it leaves some groups who have gone into the LP with a context in which they are drawn back into their bad old ways, not least dishonest deceptive ‘entrist’ politics in which they rely on ‘front’ organisations and hide their real allegiance.

We had a space to learn how to do things differently, and to learn from those involved in different campaigns. That space was and is Left Unity. Some of the left groups went into LU as a feeding ground and they had a destructive effect there. Groups like Socialist Resistance (SR) did, at least, work in LU openly and in a comradely way, trying to engage with anti-bureaucratic forms of working. It was a context – not perfect, but a good context – in which to connect socialist with feminist politics, in an organised way.

For all the problems with LU, what SR was able to do there, for example, was to configure its public activities – work with others and work with other activists who might hope at some point to be in the same organisation as its own – in a way that was congruent with some of the changes that were happening inside its own organisation. These changes were evident in the embrace of feminism and ecosocialist politics, changes intimately linked to being part of the Fourth International, which gave to those new politics an internationalist anti-imperialist edge. And those changes were manifest in the shift from ‘democratic centralism’ understood in a closed bureaucratic way to what SR now prefers to refer to as ‘revolutionary democracy’. The discussions of ‘safe spaces’ in LU (discussions that were problematic in lots of ways, problematic in the way they were framed by those in favour of them as well as those hostile to them) also connected with those changes. SR learnt what it was like to be able discuss with comrades it didn’t completely agree with about how to build something, and to be open about the disagreements among ourselves. There wasn’t a ‘line’ to be unrolled, and I think SR was respected for that by its old comrades and its new friends in LU.

The real danger now is that revolutionaries are jumping into the LP because it is afraid of ‘missing the boat’, but are jumping into a sinking ship. There are better ways of orienting to the hopes that Corbyn inspired and still, to some extent, inspires, than becoming part of the very LP apparatus that his election put into question. Insofar as there was a Corbyn revolution it lay in opening up a different kind of space in two ways. First, there opened up a gulf between activists and the apparatus – the LP today is two parties and we need to be clearly identified with the activists for whom Corbyn spoke during his leadership election campaigns. Second, there opened a space for exactly the kind of politics that Corbyn was once part of, a ‘liminal’ space that is neither entirely inside or entirely outside the LP. To be ‘liminal’ is to be at a boundary or at both sides of a boundary or threshold at the same time. The boundary in this case is the sharp-drawn boundary between the inside and outside of the LP, and the boundary some of us have unfortunately drawn between the inside and outside of LU. Being liminal also means treating what is happening now under Corbyn as being at an early stage of a process, a transitional point, not treating it as something decided. We don’t know what will happen with Corbyn and the LP, or with LU for that matter, and we need to be open to different possibilities, not abandon our friends in LU, not to burn our boats.

No, we don’t have to be like the control freaks of the SWP shouting from the sidelines saying that we always knew when he would slip up and posing as the fully-fledged alternative to the LP, and, no, we don’t have to be like the Socialist Party, now left in complete control of TUSC after the SWP have abandoned them, rather ridiculously offering ‘advice’ to him as to how he could really make the LP radical. Our place should precisely be in the ‘liminal’ space at the edge of the LP, working with comrades and new activists who have gone into the LP but also linking with comrades and new activists who are still suspicious about the LP, including those who are still in LU.

 

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The Labour Party

Total Recall from 1990 starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a ‘lowly construction worker’ who goes to Rekall Corporation in 2084 to have a brain implant to give him the memory of having been to Mars on a dream holiday, much cheaper than the real thing, and discovers that the memory is already there. The question that riddles the rest of the film is whether Quaid’s anxious uncertain sense that his troubled dreams of being on Mars that led him to Rekall were based in reality – whether he was always the leader of the resistance there as secret agent Carl Hauser – or whether this is a false memory that gives him the psychotic delusion that things are not as they seem, that he is more than he seems. There are three key hinge moments that the film, based on a short story ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’ by Philip K Dick, revolves around. The first moment is when Quaid learns that he may really already be Hauser, a fantastic discovery that tears aside the veils of reality as we know it and reveals another reality behind it that structures what we think we know. This is the Philip K Dick moment par excellence; there is another reality – it is not that another world is possible, it already exists. Quaid is, and always was, a secret agent and leader of the Martian resistance.

The second moment, a key scene in the film which elaborates a motif in Dick’s science fiction stories which is not actually present in the short story but true to the parallel reality themes throughout his work, is the moment of decision, of radical existential choice. This is the red pill moment (borrowed for the first Matrix film), one where our hero is faced with a forking path between two realities, one of which will spell disaster for him and everyone around him. But which? Quaid is told by the doctor that the red pill is ‘a symbol of your desire to return to reality’, and that if he swallows it he will fall asleep in the dream of being a rebel leader and wake up as what he was before. This second key moment is marked by hesitation and anxiety, and it is the bead of sweat on the face of the doctor that cues Quaid into this anxiety in the other; he shoots the doctor and his fight in and for his new reality resumes.

The third key hinge moment in the film is actually at the end, an unusually indeterminate and pessimistic denouement for a box-office bestseller – Total Recall was made on one of the most expensive film budgets of the time – when Quaid is sucked out onto the Martian planet surface after a reactor explosion and starts to suffocate. Perhaps he has successfully activated the reactor as he planned, however, and perhaps this has released oxygen into the atmosphere, and perhaps he lives. The final scene of the film though does not make this clear, nothing is certain, and it is possible that Quaid’s dream of a happy ending (like that in Brazil) is nothing but a fantasy he conjures up to console himself as he chokes to death.

The question now is whether Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip for giving Theresa May the go-ahead to trigger Brexit Article 50 whenever she likes, and on the Tories own hard-Brexit terms, will be seen as his own ‘red pill moment’. We already look back with some fond nostalgia at what 2015 gave us as the first key hinge moment for left politics and for Corbyn when he discovered that he was at leader of the Labour Party. But what then?

The British Labour Party grew to over half a million members after Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. This was an incredible turning point for a political party that had been founded in 1900, and had come to function as the British representative of social democracy, the British section of the Socialist International (the Second International which became a network of reformist and ruling parties trusted by capitalism to manage piecemeal changes that do not threaten big business or colonial power). The Labour Party first became a loyal governing party of the British State in 1924, and presided over a number of important progressive initiatives over the years when it took turns to rule, including the founding of the National Health Service, during which time its membership rose to over a million. This was before it folded under the pressure of capital and then enthusiastically, under Tony Blair, implemented neoliberal policies as the natural and most efficient heirs of Margaret Thatcher.

The election of Corbyn did not shift the Labour Party to the left, but rather opened up the gap between two parties; The Labour Party of the Members of Parliament and the apparatus linked to the bureaucratic leadership of the Trades Unions determined to prevent any shift to the left on the one hand, and the grassroots base of members of local Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated trades unionists who were dismayed at the abandonment of ‘clause four’ of the party in 1995 which, when adopted in 1918, had called for ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. 2015 saw something of a time-shift, then, a dramatic victory for the left and a complete surprise for Corbyn, a hard-working and trustworthy Member of Parliament for Islington North since 1983, who had barely made it onto the ballot.

This was like a dream come true for comrades in different campaigns who had seen Corbyn up to then as the patron saint of lost causes, and it was as if the Labour Party had now been shifted into some kind of parallel reality. Things were no longer as they had seemed. This is the moment, the first crucial moment, when this once lowly worker with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and then National Union of Public Employees suddenly becomes Party Leader, as if it was always destined to be so. It was as if Corbyn had bid to have the secret agent for the resistance fantasy implanted in his brain only to discover, like Quaid, that this historical memory was already there, that this revolution was something like what Walter Benjamin called ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’, redeeming the radical history of the Labour Party for today, reactivating it, turning it once again into what it might have been, a vital force against capitalism.

It was, for some on the left, as if the Labour Party was now completely different from the rotting corpse it seemed to be, as if it was no longer an old social-democratic reformist party with the establishment, but now with the resistance. Perhaps Corbyn was leading the resistance to austerity that would turn the tide against the Tories. At last, a popular trustworthy figure, charismatic in a strange anti-charismatic way – something that appealed to distrust of old political bureaucratic machine politics among new activists – was really willing to change the symbolic coordinates of the left.

Since 2015 the Labour Party has twisted and turned between two realities. In one, Corbyn has indeed been the force of change, redeemed his reputation as honest parliamentary back-bencher unconcerned with power, and spoken out for the National Health Service, for immigrant rights and a number of other radical causes. In the other, however, Corbyn has surrounded himself with some dodgy Stalinist and bureaucratic party-political advisors soft on the Assad regime in Syria, for example, and he has tried to maintain party unity by fudging the debate over the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system. Worse, Corbyn has sided with the establishment in Westminster against Scotland, repeating his pledge to win back seats for a British Party run from London, his dearly-loved Labour Party, from the Scottish National Party. Those who flooded into the Labour Party to back Corbyn, and even members of some of the little left groups who have joined, were already asking themselves what is dream and what is reality.

And then came Corbyn’s red pill moment. The red pill was a symbol, of a return from the dream to brute reality, of falling in line with the ‘will of the British people’ that had been lied to and duped into voting by a very narrow majority on a low vote for Brexit. Corbyn had, quite understandably, been lukewarm about campaigning alongside the devious and divided Tories for the European Union in the June 2016 EU Referendum, but he has ever since been egged on by crowds of little Englanders who have been willing to play the patriotic card, to pander to British nationalism in line with their own delusional fantasy that Brexit meant Lexit (a ‘left’ exit from the EU). Corbyn’s decision to whip his MPs to vote for Brexit in parliament is a disastrous mistake, feeding the illusion that ‘amendments’ in parliament would have any binding authority on Theresa May (the vote gave her personally the right to trigger Article 50) and then bizarrely proclaiming that the fight begins after the vote has taken place.

Some desperately claim that Corbyn’s cunning plan has opened the way to another vote after the Brexit negotiations are over, but then it will be too late. They pretend that our hero has not yet swallowed the red pill, that there is still time to spit it out. Some hope; disappointed supporters who have already avoided attending Labour Party meetings after signing up as members are already dribbling away. What matters are not secretive strategies but Corbyn’s role as symbol of the resistance, what this vote means for the left. The Labour right-wingers who broke from the whip are now being cheered on by some of those who voted for Corbyn as leader. Disillusion with the ‘Corbyn revolution’ is already corroding the resistance.

It is as if our hero has turned out not be to be Carl Hauser, rebel leader, after all and perhaps not even Douglas Quaid, lowly construction worker. The worst scenario, and this is how it seems to some of those gutted at his inept mistake in parliament, is that, after whipping his own Members of Parliament into giving support for a politically reactionary vote, Jeremy Corbyn whipped off his cuddly beard mask and we did indeed find Arnold Schwarzenegger underneath. If this is the case then we could indeed be taking a short cut to the third key hinge moment in this story when it ends badly for all of us. It is not merely that Corbyn returns to the back-benches and that the Labour Party becomes a traditional social-democratic party again, a return to business as usual, but that Brexit is triggered under the Tories in a nationalist frenzy. Then the British nation state can expel foreigners, crush the rebellious Scots, re-assert itself in the world, and we will all hurtle to nuclear war and choke to death, as if we were on Mars.

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

The British political situation: One response

There is a fundamental difference between what the leadership of many left groups puts at the centre of its concerns and those that are seen as central by the bulk of the British population and the main political parties. This leads to tactical and resource use errors. Of course the we have own focus which we have to prioritise which is not determined by majority public opinion and politics – but that wider situation, and our analysis of what it means, is central to our ability to intervene successfully around our long term objectives. The leadership of some left group is focused on Corbyn’s Labour Party whereas British politics are focused around Brexit and the Trump presidency. Despite our anti-Brexit focus around the referendum our new focus is resulting in our missing key aspects of the problems facing the movement. In practice anything to do with Corbyn, and the Labour Party as a whole, is being chewed up in both long and short term shifts in global and British politics – whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the forces grouped around him.

What is central to some groups’ strategy is what is referred to as ‘the Corbyn revolution’. They wish to see this revolution capitalised on in order to take the Labour Party to the left. The only way this objective can be supported is to take their organisation’s members and political focus into the LP, and build those forces which are part of the ‘Corbyn movement’ – particularly Momentum. This can be criticised from a number of angles.

First – it fails to understand the degree to which the working class movement has been hollowed out. We are not looking at how to intervene into a vibrant movement. There is no swell of working class consciousness, militancy and resistance. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has served to bring to a head the party political aspect of this hollowing out. If Corbyn or the Labour Left are capable of leading anything then that is only a new broad left grouping. An unlikely event as they are mostly thoroughly wedded to the Labour Party. It is also unlikely as they appear to be incapable of organising anything other than an internal conflict amongst some of the usual suspects.

Second – it fails to understand the strength of competing political rivals. Blair is back with his reversing of the ‘historic’ split in British radical politics by his new centre initiative. This is not something for the Blairites in the LP (and probably confirms their defeat) but it could be part of a re-launch of a social liberal centre politics which will have enormous appeal to millions of anti-Tory, anti-Brexit young, multi-cultural working and middle class people. Brown is trying to overcome the split in the union and the economic divide in England with his constitutional convention, now backed by Scottish Labour. This is at least a programme aimed at refocusing the Labour party as a formally social democratic organisation.

Third – Corbyn’s victory has been over interpreted in Labour Party terms. Large numbers of radical people had the unexpected opportunity to vote in a party that they were organisationally and, increasingly, politically alienated from – but maintain an electoral loyalty to (as the only serious alternative). They were not queuing up to be activists in the LP – they were just carrying out a 38-Degrees tactic of electronic lobbying of an unusual (and more costly) kind. A small minority have become active but seem to be disappearing into LP routineism – elections and pointless policy making. Corbyn’s victory’s biggest success has been to bring matters to a head. The problem is that this has happened in totally adverse conditions – and routineism is not going to be a solution. A good lead by Corbyn would be very helpful – but is very difficult given the centrality of Brexit.

Tristram Hunt in his final speech as an MP when stepping down from Stoke Central said two things which we need to understand the significance of. First, Corbyn is out of step with Labour voters and second this separation ‘highlights the deep seated challenges which centre left parties are facing’. The core of his case is 1) that the centre left has lost its way because many working class voters have rejected the ‘politically correct’ (it’s a wonderfully succinct slogan to encapsulate popular alienation from social change and radicalism) inter linked, globalised world that is leaving them behind. 2) it accepts that these problems have been a long time coming. The irony that the coup MPs in the past attacked Corbyn for not arguing the case for the EU well enough, and now attack him for not bending to the key popular issue that won the vote for Brexit, does not seem to trouble them. At least Hunt is right in taking the Labour Party’s problems away from the immediate issue of the leadership of the Labour Party.

Brexit poses the possibility of a major shake-up in British political structure. All five main parties face major challenges which involve reinventing themselves. May is seeking to build a new Tory Party based on patriotic Britain, strong in a free trade world. The Liberal Democrats were cut to pieces by being in coalition with the Tories and are at a weak starting point for rebuilding a social liberal, pro-EU centre. The Labour Party (and most of the unions) has been caught out by being loyal to an EU that has not delivered for many people, and is rightly seen as an agent of liberal globalisation by those same people. UKIP, if it is to continue, needs to accept that its founders’ objectives have been achieved – the recreation of the Tory Party as the party of an independent UK – and shift themselves to primarily taking on the Labour Party. The SNP is now all over the place because the wheels are coming off everything – out of the EU and in the UK seems to be the future.

Whole swathes of the population are looking at new ways of voting and developing new political loyalties. Working class consciousness is weak and confused. This is where we have to start. What values and policies should we be arguing for a radical workers movement to adopt? We are at a point of re-founding of the workers movement. The fundamentally not radical ideology of the Labour movement has come off the rails. It has ceased to be able to defend and improve within capitalism. In many ways the far left and particularly the SWP have provided a left social democratic presence on the streets and the picket lines for 20 years, under the shadow of which actual social democracy has withered away – courtesy of New Labour as much as anything else. Left groups in unions are based on bureaucratic shells and manoeuvre. Committees are empty talking shops.

The left has not been able to make any headway in providing an alternative to liberal globalisation. This has meant people looking elsewhere for pragmatic solutions. We now have to deal with a situation where all the non union progressives are looking for a way to overthrow the referendum result. At the same time a majority of union members have no interest in overthrowing that result – to say nothing of the unorganised working class. The link up of these two groups as Labour Party internal electors is what put Corbyn where he is – and their coming apart will be his undoing.

The consequences of all this are very significant for how we use our very limited resources. All into the Labour Party to defend Corbyn as leader is not the way forward. Our ability to play any role in this internal fight is minimal anyway. If comrades can be members of local LPs that are outward looking then that can be useful. But the fight lies in taking the resistance that made Corbyn’s victory out into the wider working class – this does not require an exclusive base in the Labour Party, though it probably does require some of its base being in existing working class organisations.

Momentum appears to have failed on all counts – both as an internal LP radical group and as broad umbrella of struggle. We have to accept that a big part of the problem is the nature of the English far left – its capacity to reduce anything it touches to a self destructive in-fight is totally demoralising for sane comrades and drives away many who would be interested in what the left has to offer.

At the level of political programme we have to address two main problems. One is how to re-link working people to working class organisations. The other is how to link up with those who had the same voting line as us in the referendum who now see the political left-centre as the place where radical social values exist. The labour movement is now permanently divided on Brexit. This is why everybody knows defending the NHS has to move centre stage as we can do that without mentioning the EU. But Brexit is going to be at the centre of electoral and parliamentary politics for years to come and could easily destroy the Labour Party. A consequence of Trump’s victory will be a global fight back by liberalism (with the Liberal democrats and Blair being the British arm). They are not going to give up on their global project and are already counter attacking vigorously. This is just the beginning of a four year struggle which starts with dealing with Le Pen in France. It means that the people leading the fight back against Trump are going to be the social liberals – this will not an easy time for developing the strength of socialist forces. Indeed Coyne’s campaign in Unite is quite compatible with liberal politics, they see unions legitimately in the work place and peripheral to politics – old Democratic Party style.

To play any role with our tiny resources in any of this we cannot become deeply embroiled in the internal events in the Labour Party. We have to focus on other tasks which have longer term objectives. We have to produce propaganda that recognises and analyses the depth of the working class political crisis. We have to put forward proposals for how this crisis could be confronted. We have to reconstruct broad campaigning organisations across the movement.

We have to accept that the most effective way our extremely limited resources can be used is in developing a class struggle analysis and seeking to draw revolutionary Marxists around it and winning new people to Marxism. This can only be done by participating where we can in struggles that are going on and participating, without liquidating ourselves, in any organisation that is campaigning. Our central resources have to up the importance of party building. Tactical flexibility on the ground locally, combined with theoretical and strategic consolidation as the basis for recruitment, will be the only viable option in the coming period.

CJ

 

Animal: The Lobster

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.