The defeat of the Corbyn project has sent a wave of confusion and demoralisation through the movement. The goal of a Corbyn government was the overriding concern of much of the last few years, every sinew mobilised for it and all other concerns were kicked into the long grass. A key positive of the Corbyn period was that it broke the back of much of the Left outside of the Labour Party who could no longer sustain reformist politics dosed with radical extra-parliamentary activism when change looked possible from a Labour government led by the Left, inspiring hundreds of thousands to flock into the party.
Now that it is all over for the Corbyn movement the Left outside of the Labour Party sniff a chance to break out and the debates that were put on hold in 2015 have again become urgent. It is perfectly reasonable for militants to put their energies towards defensive organisations in the official movement, in communities with groups like ACORN and London Renters Union and into wider anti-cuts bodies like the People’s Assembly. New life has also been breathed into the longstanding debates on building the movement beyond the Labour Party with contributions from Corbynistas looking elsewhere to push socialist ideas forward.
Before the rise of Corbynism most of the Left were caught up in single issues campaigns, chasing discontent over austerity and placard waving about climate change and US-led wars. This largely served to keep the Left busy but didn’t lead to a renewal let alone serious re-alignment. The argument for movement work is powerful and simple: the Labour Party is not a vehicle for change, electoralism doesn’t bring change and the real fight is on the streets.
With typical breathlessness the Socialist Workers Party’s Joint National Secretary Charlie Kimber warns us that “[w]e don’t have ten years to waste before the irreversible effects of climate change deepen. And we can’t wait until 2030 or whenever to confront racism and poverty.” Worse still, despite capitalism being around for a couple of centuries now “[i]n the next few months there will be key decisions about what kind of society emerges from the coronavirus crisis.” His solution is to rebuild his small party and being involved in the movements: setting his horizon no further than the end of his nose he proclaims “[a] few thousand of us can make a difference now” whilst forgetting that even with hundreds of thousands Corbynism fell apart without a purposeful and unifying class project for power. But this is par for the course, programmeless and adrift the SWP has ever cut itself as a minority sect project that would lead the working class by their stomachs to an undefined socialist future.
We are further told by Left Nationalist Jonathan Shafi that “[v]itality is to be found in building a movement of resistance to the Tories outside Labour” and from SWP alumnus Colin Wilson that the best thing Corbyn supporters can do is leave and “to check out what exists in their area” in terms of campaigns and reading groups. This apparently amounts to ‘leaving with a plan’. There is likely to be resistance to the economic crisis and rising unemployment, but what politics these campaigns pursue and the depth of their support are unclear. Joining and organising in such areas can be useful but it has to be done with something other in mind than just building up a movement to resist, it has to be on the basis of winning the working class and those moving into sporadic struggles to a clearly defined alternative.
What is being argued is that beyond Labour the array of struggles will furnish our movement not only with work but the politics on which to grow. This argument is being played out in the United States with greater ferocity following the collapse of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the uprising against racist policing. What is at risk with these arguments is whereas Corbynism attempted a mass political project that at the very least talked about socialist ambitions, with tens of thousands fighting for political change, this will be junked in a turn to the movements that may be rich in diversity but hopelessly politically diffuse. This would be a relapse into the pre-Corbyn world of marginal activism and sect competition. Instead we need to think, and recognise how limited Corbynism was and that we should go well beyond its limits instead of relapsing into old failed ways.
Building Class Power
Sai Englert’s recent contribution on what to do next is welcome and poses some of the right questions at the Left about its sectarian culture, over Labourism and the failure to take differences and debate seriously. Englert correctly recognises the need to build up our infrastructure whilst creating dynamic “Marxist collectives” that focus on the world as it is and not on the defense of tradition. He sets out the limitations of movementist approaches and his argument is worth quoting at length:
“Social movements in the last two decades – from the anti-war and the student struggles to mass revolts against racism and state violence – have repeatedly been able to pull large amounts of people out on the street and express their discontent, but have remained unable to transform that popular anger into sufficient social weight to force the government back. This weight could only be delivered by protestors taking their anger back to their workplaces and shut down production, circulation, and consumption.”
Englert is of course correct though this recognises only part of the problem as while in actual fact the movements that did appeal to large numbers, and were led by those claiming to be socialists, they had straightjacketed themselves and the movements through unity with liberals, reactionary religious figures and celebrities, ensuring talk of wider social change was left for small Marxist circles or annual rallies for the faithful few. Nowhere was the struggle for industrial action taken seriously, because among the leading organisations of the Left none fought for their politics or the primacy of class struggle. The tragedy of the anti-war movement for instance is that after the protests and marches most people went about their lives, the wars went on and Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a majority in the 2005 elections.
The idea that we had to leverage industrial action to keep the show on the road for these movements could be taken seriously if, and only if, communists are prepared to fight for their actual politics. This is important because whilst it is undoubtedly true that people learn during struggles and upheavals in society it is not automatic what conclusions they will draw nor the actions they will take. If anything the last forty years have shown us that capitalism is adept at recuperating struggles and demands broadening out the base of consent, if not outright support, for the status-quo. So as Englert points out elsewhere in his piece we do need organisation – I would say party – and definitely not in the so-called vanguardist tradition.
This conception of renewal through struggle is not without its merit and nobody could argue against developing what Englert calls “working-class self-organisation and political leadership”. Yet what is missing here is clarity on what politics, and on what aims. That is where his contribution begins to slip into the realm of the Trotskyist error of working and building where the masses are now whilst hoping that they will spontaneously come to revolutionary conclusions. Such an approach where practical unity in campaigns are elevated above the struggle for a longer term political perspective – that to borrow a phrase from Eduard Bernstein “the movement is everything”, with the final goal forgotten or kept for those in the know waiting to lead a spontaneous revolutionary spasm. What is needed here is a patient longer term struggle waged from above in the realm of politics and programme by a party organisation linked through action and work in struggle from below to build and renew the infrastructure of our movement. To use the words of Rosa Luxemburg, should the political struggle for communism be relegated and “separated from the movement itself and social reforms are made an end in themselves, then such activity not only does not lead to the final goal of socialism but moves in a precisely opposite direction”.
Party and Parliament
That the debate over a new party to the left of the Labour Party is again underway underscores the failures of not only the Corbyn period but the last few decades. We lack the institutional memory to put our previous experiences and failures into context, to discuss and debate a different way forward and to hold to account leaders of the movement when they have said one thing and then done another. This is a failure of infrastructure, yes, a failure of organisation, yes, but ultimately and most crucially this is a political failure that has kept us divided and incapable of rising to the challenges of contemporary capitalism. Where patience and building power is needed much of the left continues to look for quick fixes and the next big thing.
Calls for the creation of a new party have increased following the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet. Lindsey German of Counterfire and Stop the War tells us that “there is no road to success for the left inside Labour” and that we “desperately need a mass socialist party” that it is likely to arise from extra-parliamentary “struggles and not on electoralism” even though one isn’t “on the horizon” as of yet. Not waiting for the movement to magic up a party Becci Heagney of Socialist Alternative sets out the failures of Labour before and after Corbyn arguing that “[a] political voice for workers and youth will have to be rooted in the struggle taking place on the streets and in the workplaces” and that remaining in the Labour Party for the sake of unity is “the unity of the graveyard.” A wonderful turn of phrase and more than likely true so long as the Left is wedded to Labourism in or outside of the Labour Party.
What many of the calls for new parties have in common is a rejection of electoral or parliamentary work to differing degrees, a conception of unity that is based on broad politics encompassing those that want to overthrow capitalism and those that want it reformed and, as discussed above, a perspective that unity and renewal will be found in activism and the movements. These three positions represent three typical errors that have hamstrung our movement.
Elections and parliamentary work are essential for any serious and sustained advance in capitalist countries where universal suffrage has been won and defended by the working class against all and sundry. In Britain we have relatively free elections in which ideas can be put and tested at the ballot box. The vast majority expect electoral contests to continue and should the Left ignore elections then no mass support for serious social change is likely to be won. For Marx and Engels elections were essential tools that went hand-in-hand with political independence:
“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention.”
Of course extra-parliamentary work is crucial too and the tension between both would need to be regulated by a mass party where the struggle within the enemy camp of parliament and beyond is used to ready the majority in society to come to power, to begin dismantling capitalist relations and the state, opening the door for a communist future. Moreover, we know that any risk to the status quo will result in the capitalists breaking with electoral norms, their own laws and relative peace. Where that happens, defending and pushing for the realisation of democracy proper will be our greatest defence and weapon.
Broad or Mass?
There is nothing wrong in principle with communists and socialists working alongside environmentalists, free speech campaigners, social reformists or pacifists for example. This partial unity for immediate work can produce important wins or stave off outright reaction. Where a large number of those on the Left get it wrong is to turn temporary unity into permanent coalitions and parties. What politics would such unity produce? Who would set the limits of debate? When is the right time to speak of revolution?
Typically broad unity projects opt for unity on the lowest common politics, usually mirroring the politics of the Labour left and the trade unions. Either the non-socialist elements set the boundaries or the socialists become a self-denying bloc. Key principles on women’s liberation, class independence and the republic are forgotten or voted down. In the place of principles a hodgepodge of economic demands, Left moralism and trade union slogans hold centre stage to keep everyone on board. What is hoped, yet never achieved, is that by not talking about socialism, history or the reality of contemporary capitalism greater numbers of people will be attracted and move into struggle. Inside the revolutionaries, often in confessional sects, wait for their moment to spring out like a jack-in-the-box with their real programme. Banking on leading people by their stomachs through the dishonest and failed transitional method.
This approach has been tried over and over again in Britain and abroad. We can’t catalogue them all here but the failure of Respect, the Socialist Alliance and Left Unity all boil down to a broad approach. Abroad we see Podemos holding up a capitalist government in Spain, Die Linke administering municipal governments with capitalist parties in Germany and in Italy Rifondazione has never recovered from being part of the capitalist governments of Romano Prodi. Not only do such methods require compromising on overthrowing capitalism as the final goal but ultimately giving up on significant change and an independent class position that could genuinely build a political alternative.
We must oppose attempts to build such ‘broad’ parties as unity between competing interests and different programmes can only be temporary and to our detriment. We end up weakened because the politics that broad parties fight on are always to our right. Any attempt to create a new broad party following the defeat of Corbyn should be opposed. What is the point of swapping the broad Labour Party of half a million for one of a few thousand? A pointless endeavour. We can and must do better.
In contrast communists support the creation of a mass party led by a clear programme to supersede capitalism. We seek unity on the final goal whilst tactics and strategy are all up for debate and discussion. Rosa Luxemburg put it best when she wrote that our “movement can best advance by tacking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other, the abandonment of its goal.”
Right now, the key thing is not the unity of the Left simply to survive the right turn but forging unity through common action under a communist programme. Those pushing unity with the witch hunters, the bureaucrats and opportunists would be building on rotten foundations and should think further ahead than the next round of internal elections in the Labour Party. Communists should not peg any unity on lowest common denominator, essentially allowing liberals or those to the right to set the limits, but stridently put forward a programme that promotes a decisive breach with capitalism, democracy in all spheres of life and a communist alternative based on abundance for all.
The debate on what comes after Corbynism is welcome and those grasping for a way forward represent our best chance at genuine renewal. We now have an opportunity to think and to discuss not only what has gone wrong following the defeat of Corbynism and the last election but more importantly the historical defeat we suffered in the 20th Century. Not repeating the mistakes and arguments around creating a new Left party would be a start. Calls for conferences and assemblies are also welcome though those whose primary concern is uniting the Labour Left with politics broad enough to house socialists with the soft left, the trade union bureaucracy and liberal activists will find themselves having to hold their tongues or worse. Unity has to be built on political agreement not simply circumstance.
We need to break with movementism and those that fetishise sporadic social outbursts who are leading the Left up the garden path. Importantly we have to be clear that Labourism is not synonymous with socialism, whereas socialism seeks to democratise society and the economy, build a democratic republic that breaks apart the institutions of the British state, including the standing army, whilst collaborating across national lines at a continental and international level to overthrow capitalist relations. Labourism is an ameliorating phenomenon, it is a politics that defends the British state, the constitutional order and capitalist relations. They can’t be reconciled; it is a split that can’t be papered over through appeals for unity or the institutional victory of one or the other wing of the Labour Party. The relationship of Labourism and the Labour Party to British politics and the British state lays the foundation for the reemergence of the Right even when the Left are in the driving seat.
More fundamentally we need a patient approach that allows for a deep and detailed study of capitalism today, building an account of our defeats that reflect reality whilst dispensing with any romantic attachments for our failures whilst upholding our commitment to democratic norms and expansion in all spheres of our work and life. It is on that basis we can begin to think about the political ground on which working class independence and a communist party can be attained without falling into the twin traps of sect building or losing sight of the communist goal in order to achieve short term advances.