The last week has certainly changed the political landscape in Britain for at least the next generation. My aim here is not to discuss the referendum or to try to summarise the many implications of the result. Instead, like many other discussions and pieces of writing right now, this piece will, at least initially, revolve around the figure of one man who happens to have been my Member of Parliament since the day I was born.
The reason so much revolves around Jeremy Corbyn right now is not because he is a particularly remarkable individual or leader. His election to the leadership of the Labour Party is an expression of the exhaustion of post-2008 social movements and the collapse of their participants back into electoral politics, as well as the final disillusionment of enough party members with a New Labour playbook that can no longer lay claim to “realism” and “electability”. I agree with others that the Corbyn phenomenon internalises within one party what is the only feasible first-past-the-post equivalent of what has happened elsewhere with newer parties such as Syriza, and brand new ones like Podemos.
Looking at the experience of these other parties, though their contexts are very different, should nonetheless act as a reminder of the limits of “leftist” parties once they assume control of the capitalist state and are confronted by a world of states, international organisations and a world market ready to put them in their place. This is not to say that there are “no differences” between parties or that such small differences aren’t meaningful to people’s lives but it is to maintain that parties within nation-states are wholly inadequate vehicles to truly change social relations and a world built on imperialism. Even if Corbyn’s Labour won an election, the migrant detention centres set up by his party would stay, migrants would still drown and be killed in the pursuit of better lives and the intertwined pumping of surplus value out of proletarians and pumping of carbon into the atmosphere would continue to lead to worse and worse conditions for a majority of the people on this planet.
Critiques of the Labour Party and parliamentary socialism are as old as the party itself and theoretically they still stand. Indeed, in many ways, they grow even more compelling. There is no need to recapitulate them at any length but suffice to say that the very design and structure of liberal democracy is to present a separation between political and economic spheres of capitalist society. Such a separation mystifies the indivisible nature of these categories and locks into place a Sisyphean task for those economically exploited under such a system as they are meant to negotiate, through “representatives”, an end to their exploitation via a political system that does not recognise its existence. Labour, under a slowly decaying two party system, also acts as a Bermuda Triangle for social movements and working class struggle, sucking up their energy into a vortex of staid union workerism that long ago made its bed not just with the old Keynesian consensus but has also shown a total willingness to gradually negotiate the ebbing away of any remaining worker protections that only still exist as remnants of the previous compact between capital and labour.
As communists, those who want to overthrow an organisation of society built upon our own exploitation, we know that patriarchy, racism and exploitation are internal to the structural logic and historical development of capitalism and the state that undergirds and superintends the ‘moving contradiction’ of its social relations. In seeking the socialism of Parliament, the socialism of the state, what the Corbyns of this world seek is ultimately to save this system of relations from its own crises and restore some stability to the capital-labour relation.
So far, so “sneering” anarchist/ultra-leftist. However, with this said, we are where we are and it is important to address and adapt to “the political”, in ways that keep more distant goals in mind but don’t remain locked in ‘ideal-type’ scenarios and theories divorced from what is happening. In this spirit, it seems necessary to advocate qualified and precise defences of Corbyn in the current situation within Labour but, more importantly, on how that plays out in wider society. People are right to be encouraged by the fact that Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn consistently act as some of the only politicians who aren’t being negative about immigration and insist on prioritising anti-racism at a time when Islamophobia is widespread and structural racism of all kinds persists. There are also clear differences from mainstream politics in terms of their pronouncements and voting records on welfare and foreign policy. Our desire to cling to these are, however, reflective more of how awful all politicians are and, for example, Corbyn’s Labour remains trapped in the language of talking up migrants in a dehumanising fashion by pointing towards their economic benefit for existing residents and citizens – though more significantly for the needs of state and capital.
The attack on Corbyn and the dwindling numbers still loyal to him in the PLP is not just about him, of course, it’s about destroying the basis for any kind of remotely “left” ideas in the Labour party, in mainstream politics and in society. The recently under-practiced yet clearly unabated anti-communist zeal of liberals – against a pretty bog standard social democrat – shows, as ever, their willingness to ruthlessly round on the left on the side of property and order. When wizarding idiot JK Rowling casts horseshoe spells about the “fascists on left and right” this has far more implications for anarchists, communists and antifascists who take on actual fascists on the streets than it does for casual Corbyn supporters many of whom probably don’t. Perhaps, also, the stellar reporting of the events of the past week by, among others, the spectacularly mendacious George Eaton, has now moved many more people into the camp of those who believe that the Guardian and New Statesman, collection tins in hand, can’t die soon enough.
The current weakness of the left is largely down to the near-total defeat of the workers’ movement over the last century and the failure of programmatic struggles to build socialist societies through the seizure and transformation of states into “workers’ states”. Proletarians are separated and thoroughly decomposed within and across national borders, and any basis for struggle and organisation is severely hampered by constraints on time, energy and resources, as well as material conditions that evoke feelings of anxiety, depression and insecurity. There is no credible argument to say that the crushing of Corbyn would automatically usher in some instant boost for extra parliamentary struggle because what’s holding that back is not simply the existence of the Labour Party.
So what does this mean in practice? I don’t want to do a whole “this is what ‘the left’ needs to do” spiel so instead I’d like to make two comradely suggestions to those in and/or joining Momentum and getting actively involved in the Labour Party.
Firstly, if you don’t like what the PLP have done and plan on moving towards a process of deselecting MPs you should also be targeting local Labour council administrations being tirelessly fought by the likes of Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth, Haringey Housing Action Group and Focus E15 in Newham. This organising that is focused on material needs and confronts the state locally and directly has gained significant wins and represents a far better way to bring people together than ‘activism’. Links of solidarity and genuine support should be made to exert pressure on Labour councils (and all councils) using and abusing homelessness laws, and heinous bureaucratic violence and abuse to evict people from their homes and communities, socially cleansing London in the process. This organising is actually more crucial than ever because the danger becomes greater that in people’s desire to support Corbyn’s Labour people will then be more likely to at best only pay lip service to what the Party’s councils are doing or at worst ignore or dismiss them as an inconvenient truth. Whether or not Corbyn survives, this work remains just as important.
Secondly, the primary way to combat racialised violence – something that is a constant in society and most comprehensively administered by the state – is not through electoral means but through strong communities of solidarity and mutual aid. Even the most common form of antifascist mobilising (confronting organised fascist groups in the streets) is, whilst necessary, still inadequate. The spike in abuse and violence against migrants (or those perceived to be so) following the referendum result is taking place on public transport and in public places which means it requires strangers to intervene on the side of those being abused so that they are not alone or outnumbered. If migrants or people of colour defend themselves using “violence” or likewise others do so on their behalf, such actions should be rhetorically and institutionally defended across this “new New Left” converging around support for Corbyn. Likewise solidarity should be extended towards those who block, prevent and defend against the state’s immigration raids, legally or not.
I think that such solidarity is unlikely but I think it’s absolutely necessary and I’d be glad to be proven wrong. When I interviewed Joshua Bloom, a historian of the Black Panther Party, he spoke of how crucial it was to the growth and strength of the Party that there was a measure of cooperation between the Panthers – who believed in armed self-defence and were willing to fight back against the white supremacist state – and more moderate black groups and leaders. Bloom said of these alliances: “if you think about moderate black political leaders […] think about the kinds of people that supported the Panthers in San Francisco like Willie Brown, who was an assemblyman in California, or Cecil Williams who had a big black church, or think about people like…even Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League – I mean you don’t get much more moderate than that, in terms of black politics at that time – these were the people who led the charge against the most vicious repression of the Party […] these were the same people who, when push came to shove, felt like the Party was representing at least whatever effort there was on the part of young black people.”
I feel no sense of judgement seeing comrades joining Labour to vote for and support Corbyn – these are strange and desperate times and people are acting as they see fit – but I maintain the right to remain skeptical about investing time and energy into this. I do strongly believe that, generally speaking, the answer is not for everyone to stop what they’re doing, join Labour and become active in their CLP. Though as people are doing this, it seems clear that relationships between those trying to change the Labour party and those working outside of it could be very important over the next few years. And I can only hope that grassroots party members will extend solidarity to those proletarians contesting the power of the state more directly.
by Michael Richmond | @Sisyphusa