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There’s been widespread criticism from anarchists if not of Corbyn directly then of the wisdom of those that are joining the Labour party to support him and his project. By far the most widely shared piece we have seen is on Libcom – Thoughts on the movement, or why we still don’t even Corbyn – and we think it misses both the point and the possibilities of what’s happening.
The authors are right, it does now look possible that the left will indeed take control of the Labour NEC and this control will result in the party being more member lead. As they correctly point out, this is against all the odds. It’s this though that undermines the rest of their piece which we’ll take point by point.
That said, if you think the Labour Right play dirty, wait til you see the CBI, the City of London and the IMF join in while the media dial up the smears to 11. As sneaky and disingenuous as individuals like Tristram Hunt, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith are, they’re all also largely inept and charmless, as their botched coup and embarrassing public appearances demonstrate. They’re like The Orphans in The Warriors, easily rolled over at the start but not nearly as fearsome as the other opponents on the journey back to Coney Island.
The same will not be true as we draw up to General Election time, and even less so if Corbyn were to win; the likelihood he’d be able to pass reforms that harmed the interests of big business, without massive pressure from a disruptive extra-parliamentary social movement, is very slim… all the slimmer for the fact it won’t be Tom Watson playing ‘Good Cop’ to Chuka Umunna’s ‘Bad Cop’; it will be the Murdochs and other ‘captains of industry’ hamstringing even mild social democratic reform through non-cooperation, sabotage and public smears.
Without such a movement, a Corbyn (or any other social democratic) government would not have a leg to stand on. Yet with such a social movement, the role of such a government becomes different: the role will be to mediate and to limit; to separate ‘responsible’ representatives from ‘unruly’ elements and give carrots to the first while doling out sticks to the latter.
The Corbyn project is to a large extent about building a social movement. The evidence from the turnout at Momentum rallies is that this is starting to happen. It’s fragile though, the movement such as it exists is concerned with the leadership of the party, if that is lost the movement won’t be far behind. As things stand the leadership victory appears all but assured. The challenge beyond that victory is to build a movement conscious of it’s own power. Because the very aim of the Corbyn project is to make the party more member lead the ability of the party in government to undermine the movement is severely limited, if the movement does become conscious of its own power, it becomes impossible. The project, if realised, will see the Labour party do what it has never done before – redistribute power. There’s no reason for anarchists to be opposed to this.
Ultimately, extra-parliamentary forces largely determine parliamentary possibilities so even if you want parliamentary reform, it necessitates building grassroots power and a capacity to take disruptive action – strikes, occupations, demonstrations that block transport hubs etc – that such reform will become realisable. And, of course, when such extra-parliamentary forces are forcing reforms, parliamentarism ceases to appear as a ray of hope and becomes an obstacle.
A social movement formed independently of any parliamentary party or ambition would indeed be preferable. We don’t have one to speak of though and there’s been no shortage of attempts to create one. We do have half a million people who’ve joined the Labour party in the last year though who have been in part at least, inspired by a call to action to create a social movement but certainly motivated by a desire for change. This movement is also now linked, via the Corbyn project, to the vast majority of the trade union movement, whether affiliated to Labour or not. Unions from Unite to RMT have been emailing members to urge support for Corbyn. This connection between a social movement and the union movement has vast potential.
It’s at this point that the usual response is “can’t we do both?”. “Can’t we build an autonomous grassroots working-class direct action movement AND fight to reform the Labour Party into a left-wing electable vote-winning machine?” And the answer to this is: theoretically, yes. But practically there are only 24 hours in a day, two-thirds of which are usually spent either sleeping or working. What has become clear with the recent coup (if it wasn’t already) is that reforming the Labour Party won’t be as easy as paying £3 to vote Corbyn as leader. It means getting involved in your Constituency Labour Party, pressuring your MP, possibly deselecting them, which, as Novara’s recent guide to deselection makes clear, could potentially involve “years of hard work in branches and constituencies across the country”. Which is fine; as the old cliché goes, ‘they wouldn’t call it a struggle if it was easy’. The point is whether the Labour Party is the best place to expend all that energy in struggle.
You can always trust someone on the left to see an advantage as a disadvantage. The party rather than an obstacle to building a social movement, a side struggle that deflects energy and attention from the main struggle, is in fact potentially a huge asset in building a movement focused on social struggles. Many CLPs are hollowed out shells decimated by the Blair years with little in the way of attendance and even less energy. They provide a ready made structure through which local campaigns can be organised and linked in with national campaigns and the union movement. The building of a new set of structures capable of coordinating the numbers of people would take at least as much work as a take over of Labour CLPs even if those numbers could be found which of course so far they haven’t.
From our point of view, there can be no ‘UKIP of the left’; pro- and anti-systemic politics just don’t work in the same way like that. But it is worth thinking about how the extra-parliamentary left in Britain could use similar resources to what’s currently being chucked into the Labour Party and, in that sense, it’s oddly useful looking at the US extra-parliamentary right, with its vast media infrastructure of talk shows, blogs and ecology of organisations. Sure, they’re financed by millionaire/billionaire capitalists and we’re not (nor should we be). But working-class people collectively pay millions into unions, £4.6 million into the Labour Party in 48 hours and donate thousands of hours of voluntary labour into similar organisations. So the resources are there and it’s worth thinking about how an extra-parliamentary social movement could make use of them.
Cart and horse. Thinking about how to spend money and resources you don’t have is about as productive as sitting in your mate’s flat smoking weed and talking about how you’d spend a Euro Millions win. The thing to think about is how to get the resources. The Corbyn project has so far attracted the unions (and their money), half a million people and millions of pounds of working class people’s money.
The piece goes on to identify groups who are doing excellent work. They are though largely failing. That’s not meant as a criticism or in any way meant to discourage anyone fighting. It is a fact though, the material conditions of working class people are deteriorating. It’s certain that without those groups that conditions would be deteriorating faster and harder. If only there was a wider movement with numbers, funding and structure that those groups to link into…..if only.
They end with:
Obviously, there aren’t 180,000 people itching to get involved in extra-parliamentary direct action; what’s being sketched out here is how a few million quid and thousands of activist hours could help develop a movement separate from the Labour Party, and lamenting all that’s gone into that party (and scepticism over Corbyn more generally) does not mean passively accepting Tory rule. It just means we prefer barking up the right (tall and difficult to climb) tree than the wrong (accessible, appealing) one.
It’s true, there aren’t 180,000 people itching to get involved with extra-parliamentary direct action, but there are 180,000 people that want change and have been inspired by a vision of a social movement and a member lead Labour party, more than 180,000 in fact. More like half a million and counting. They’ve got a set of structures to take over with the head of those structures urging them on to do so. If those structures fail to deliver government or deliver a government that fails to deliver change in the form of improved conditions it doesn’t follow that they will give up and go home, the desire for change is still going to be there. Along with proof that it can’t be found in the ballot box.
To our minds there is no reason to criticise the existence of the Corbyn lead movement from an anarchist perspective. Sure, it’s not ideal that it has grown up around a parliamentary party with a history of undermining social and industrial struggle. It’s not ideal that it’s linked so closely to the fortunes of one man but those are problems to be overcome, not reasons to write off what’s happening or the potential it represents. If there’s one thing we could be doing, as anarchists, it’s criticising from the left, not the formation of this movement but the focus it has. Attempting to link it to other struggles, to make the point that social cleansing in London is being carried out by Labour councils for example.
What Corbyn has effectively demonstrated is the desire for change, he has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to get involved in trying to bring that change about. In 2 days people parted with £4.5million as part of that desire for change. We can ponder what we as anarchist would have done with that money if we want to, what we should really by thinking about though is why, with this extant desire for change in the country, we have failed to inspire people. Just maybe that “tall and difficult to climb tree” we’ve been barking up isn’t the right one at all and pissing on the Corbyn tree isn’t going to help anyone, least of all us. Corbyn is arguing for and creating a movement based on improving the conditions of working class people and that has to be the point of politics. If you don’t get that then your problem isn’t Corbyn, you don’t even politics.