“The women’s strike made us protagonists in history.” On a heatwave evening on a busy street...
The following article is one in a continuing series on Corbynism and the Labour Party. It was written by Plan C Manchester member Bert Russell and offers his take on the ongoing discussion.
As a fitting warm-up to the “Official” Fuck the Tories pre-protest party, Manchester & Trafford Momentum hosted an event entitled “Labour in Power” that looked to ask ‘questions of what a radical Labour government could achieve in power, dwell on previous experience to ask what challenges it might face and most importantly how those challenges could be overcome’. It’s not insignificant that this event was held at Partisan, an ‘independent, community led, DIY and cultural centre’ which – having opened in July this year – is providing sorely needed infrastructure that will be invaluable to both left-culture and political organising.
Over the past few decades, the tendency of UK social centres (from the Cowley to the Common Place) has been to nurture a somewhat subcultural political and ethical scene. By and large, we’ve reveled in our social centres being ‘outside’ of ‘normal’ society; whilst in their brighter moments we could consider them as prefigurative of post-capitalist societies, they’ve also functioned as ideological ghettos, distinctly separate from broader cultural and political discourse. In a conscious break with this past, the cooperative behind Partisan is not satisfied with reproducing a sub-cultural scene – this is a project about continuously building and pulling mainstream culture and politics to the left.
We should not overlook the symbolism of a space like Partisan hosting a discussion about the potentials of a future Labour government; not only does it point towards the significant cultural and political shift to the Left that is occurring within the Labour Party, it also represents a more-or-less tentative and critical openness towards parliamentary politics amongst traditionally ‘autonomous’ left circles. For Partisan, it suggests they are on-track in their efforts to build cultural-political infrastructure that sits just on the edge of the Overton window, contributing to a shifting of common-sense rather than the building of a little life-boat.
The event highlighted that despite the similarities, it appears that there may be some fundamentally different (yet not necessarily irreconcilable) starting points and assumptions about what power is, how change happens, and what ‘winning’ actually looks like. This short contribution isn’t going to resolve these differences, but hopefully it will identify one of the fundamental debates we’re going to need to have – together – as we move forward.
There’ll be no gods in this church…
Contributions from Paul Mason, Lauren Stocks, Selina Todd and Max Shanly belied a confidence that it’s no longer if – but when – a Corbyn-led Labour party will enter Downing Street. Few would have predicted this confidence eighteen months ago, and even fewer would have expected the ‘middle ground’ to shift to such a degree that we’d hear Theresa May using her party conference speech to defend capitalism as the ‘best’ way to run our societies (hang on… you mean there is an alternative after all?). There is no serious political perspective that doesn’t perceive the prospects for the left as being greater now than in living memory (at least, if you’re part of that majority of the country under the age of 45).
Yet as Max (an exec member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and a member of Young Labour’s National Committee) succinctly put it, “Corbyn and McDonnell are not Gods. They cannot simply deliver change on your behalf”. To the contrary, he argues, “the Labour Party is our vehicle for fundamental social change” only so long as there is a fundamental democratization of the Party, which includes a series of reforms ranging from the reintroduction of mandatory reselection through to conference becoming a binding policy-making body. It’s one thing to appreciate the symbolic significance of Corbyn, but it’s those working to democratize the party whom are really providing a challenge to the accusation of cultishness.
Along with a democratic reform of the Party, there have also been calls for ‘active engagement in community and workplace-based struggles’ that are considered ‘crucial if Labour’s new left is to bring about the social and political renewal it aspires to’. In an article entitled “Corbynism from Below” (cited by Max during his contribution), Tom Blackburn argues that it is essential for the Labour membership to contribute to ‘the establishment of ‘social spaces, cinema clubs, food banks and sports centres – to which might be added unionisation drives, breakfast clubs and political education projects’. This kind of solidarity work, he argues:
‘should not be treated as just another method of getting out the vote, nor should it be viewed as an attempt to soothe some charitable do-gooding impulse – building a ‘Big Society’ of the left. Rather, it should be seen as part of the process of building a modern-day ‘world of labour‘, renewing labour movement culture for the 21st century, and rebuilding bridges between the Labour Party and those working-class communities which have been neglected by it for so long’.
Compare this to what one our Brighton-based members wrote earlier this year, in which they argued that ‘we’ need to start building:
‘a set of solid material institutions which provide a base from which to wage struggles against Capital and the State and simultaneously form the basis of a new society. An infrastructure that can provide shelter and respite from the vagaries of the market and reproduce individuals as ‘socialists’. These should include unions and anti-fascist organisations, but also social centres, football clubs, ‘red gyms’, cultural events, and a Wetherspoons of the Left; a people’s palace fit for the 21st Century’.
On first reading, there appears to be a theoretical convergence between proposals emerging from the Left both within and outside of the Labour Party – social centres, sports clubs and cultural events are the order of the day! Yet these similarities perhaps hide some quite profound strategic differences, the implications of which could significantly affect the prospects of transformative change during a period of progressive Labour government.
…all power to the congregation!
The point of divergence rests on whether one privileges the Labour Party as the fundamental vehicle for social change – the referent point for all organising – or whether we render it as merely a constituent element, one factor in a bigger ‘force field’ that determines social possibility.
There are a number of signs that influential voices are, intentionally or not, polarizing debate in line with the former. Taking the recent Momentum event alone, Max Shanly’s understanding that “the Labour Party is our vehicle for fundamental social change” is somewhat unequivocal in positioning the Labour Party it’s central referent point. Similarly, Paul Mason’s plea that “whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re involved with, join the Labour Party, because that’s where it’s happening”, implies that projects such as Partisan (which Paul used as an example) – or indeed any politically-minded social endeavour, from renters unions to solidarity networks and so on – find their political agency through their integration within the Labour Party, so as to serve the Labour Party.
If we want a Left that thinks and acts strategically – and if we want to maximize the significance of what could actually be achieved under the next Labour government – we need to expand our horizons.
The question is not whether ‘we’ should or shouldn’t be part of the Labour Party, but rather, what do we want to try and achieve during a period in which a Labour Party has formed a government, and how do we go about achieving it? How would the scope of social possibilities change across the period in which a progressive Labour Party conducts Parliament, and what other social forces are required to exploit these possibilities? How do we want our lives to be different four years on from when Corbyn steps inside Downing Street, and how are we going to make this happen?
What these questions have in common is the desanctifying of the Labour Party. Whilst a Corbyn-led Labour Party evidently remains highly significant in changing the field of possibilities (at the most simple level, who would deny that things feel ‘more possible’ than they have done in decades?), it is no longer the referent point for progressive change. Once we’ve made this leap – once we accept that the world isn’t composed out of ‘goods’ and ‘evils’ but is a messy field of interconnected forces – political thought and action gets a whole lot harder. But it also means we stand a chance of achieving things.
Where is the movement?
“Momentum’s got 30,000 members and 100,000 on the mailing list – it’s a big organisation with a massive social footprint, but we’ve got a very attenuated and shrunken tradition of movement from below… Our biggest danger is that we go into this period without the understanding of the need for this 30,000 people, the 100,000 around them, and anyone else that will listen… to do the same thing at once – to exert the power from below of ordinary, networked, people to say “no, you’re not going to sabotage a democratically elected government”.
There is a good dose of realism in Paul Mason’s acknowledgement that a left-Labour government is likely to face a gloves-off assault by the media, large parts of international finance capital, intergovernmental institutions such as the WTO, the ECB and so on. If we want to go much further with addressing the ‘desanctified’ questions set out above, we will need to find ways to support the legitimacy of the Labour Party vis-à-vis these external assaults, but also to entrench progressives within the Labour Party against reactionaries and the Labour Right (a point made well by Selina Todd during her contribution to the debate). More than this, we have to realize that a Labour party can never ‘be’ the movement – it can (at best) serve to facilitate or open spaces within which more radically democratic organisations of society can occur.
A real crisis we are facing is that the social forces required to achieve any of this simply doesn’t exist. Momentum has acted as a pole of attraction for those who demand a radically different world, having unquestionably shifted the terms of the debate decisively to the Left – and for this is it must be applauded. It’s beyond question that those involved in Momentum are proving immensely capable of fulfilling its core aim – ‘to increase participation and engagement in the party to enable it to win elections and enter Government’. Yet Momentum is precisely this, an electoral machine – a skilled army of door-knockers, phone-bankers and pamphleteers that may well deliver Left-Labour to electoral victory.
As much as there will be protestations and examples that can be used as evidence to the contrary, Momentum’s social form – those practices, languages and ideas that cohere it as an organisation – is defined by its function as an electoral machine. Whilst this is both welcome and necessary, metamorphosis is a particularly rare event; history is littered with political organisations that have either collapsed, or lived on in a zombie-like fashion, in their attempts to fundamentally change their function and form. In short, we’d be wise not to pin our hopes of ‘power from below’ emerging from Momentum. Instead, we should let Momentum specialize at doing what it does best, whilst the rest of us start asking how we’re going to build social forms that really can exercise ‘power from below’.
Instead, we must come back to asking what social forces are necessary to achieve our goals? The answer to this will be particular to the goal we’re looking to achieve – you need to exercise leverage differently, depending on the thing you’re trying to move. Those social forces that lead to a delinking of wage and work are liable to be altogether different to those required to decarbonize and democratize the energy system, put the collective management of schools into the hands of students, teachers and parents, or to take into common ownership the geospatial data that is currently worth billions to Google, but that we produce simply through walking around with phones in our pockets.
As alluded to above, when you move beyond dualistic understandings of power, political thought and action gets a whole lot harder. Socialist Labour party + general strike ≠ full communism. As the capacity to affect change is thus context and issue specific, it is doubtful there is a universally applicable equation of how you precipitate fundamental changes to how we organize our day-to-day lives. Yet this isn’t to say that there won’t be some common factors, and that these will invariably be related to our ability to weaken the influence of capital’s profit imperative, expand and strengthen confidence in our ability to collectively self-manage, and to produce institutions of social reproduction (from food production to healthcare) that are resilient to capital going on strike.
To provide an imperfect illustration, consider the demand to massively expand community land trusts, accelerating the building of housing that’s permanently outside of the market, and that has been built and managed in common. The achievement of such a goal is liable to require a plethora of factors: the creation of mechanisms of low or no interest loans to finance the building, an extensive education process in collective self-management, and likewise in ecological homebuilding techniques, a cultural shift away from home ownership, the delinking of public housing investment funds from the underwriting of development capital, the seizure and reallocation of land, the building of renters-unions that radically reduces the ‘profit stability’ of buy-to-let or build-to-let housing stock, the democratization and introduction of truly participatory planning mechanisms, and so on.
Legitimacy – or – moving towards a world without the state
Those forces that the Labour Party require to defend itself from attacks against its legitimacy are not, therefore, a straightforward protest or union movement armed solely with demonstrations and strikes. Rather, they are the same affirmative forces that must necessarily coordinate to bring new forms of social relations into being (which notably, neither demonstrations nor strikes alone are capable of). It is not a nameable ‘thing’ or a particular organisation that will defend the legitimacy of a progressive Labour Government, but the diffusion of different social forms throughout society. The long-term legitimacy of the Labour Party will rest on the recognition that it is not the Labour Party that is the agent of social transformation, but those movements and initiatives that seize control and create new social relationships in the cracks and spaces that the Party could help open up. Orientate your policies towards supporting radical democratic institutions beyond-the-state-and-market, and you will earn both your legitimacy, and the resilient social forms able to defend you.
All this returns us to a perspective in which the Labour Party is decentered in a strategy for producing post-capitalist social arrangements. That’s not to say that a progressive Labour Party is irrelevant or antithetical to the progressive transformation of society – it is neither a silver bullet nor some abominable betrayal of ‘real class struggle’. Rather, it is to recognize that transformative social change – a progressive refiguring of how we relate to one another, and how we value and order our daily activities – neither begins nor ends in the institution, but relates to the wider correlation of social forces. Paradoxically, the resilience of a progressive Labour Party will thus be measured by the extent to which it facilitates the emergence of, and renders itself beholden to, affirmative non-state forces. In other words – the extent to which it is orientated towards the horizon of its own non-existence.
The task of building class power – understood as our capacity to not just increase our lot within capitalism, but crucially to force open the space for post-capitalist social forms to take root and expand – thus goes considerably beyond the old formula of ‘strengthen the unions’ (although this is often important) and ‘control the party’ (which again, is often important). Instead, we need to begin to identify specific demands – specific visions of how else we could organize our day-to-day lives – and start generating the diversity of ‘practices and processes’ that accelerate their realization. We can make a simple wager that, if we don’t, we’ll be no closer to realising a post-capitalist society after a Corbyn-led government than we are today.
 A video of the event is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJjEpvlF9cg