Action requires organisation
Counterposing activism to Labour Party work is a mug’s game, argues Paul Demarty
Jeremy Corbyn’s comprehensive victory in the Labour leadership election has had a number of salutary effects.
It has, first of all, brought a smile to the previously grim countenance of every British dissenter from what is called ‘the neoliberal consensus’. Thousands, even hundreds of thousands or millions, had more or less given up on the idea that the Labour Party could be better than it was under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. The best that could be hoped for was a quiescent leadership, jumping at its own shadow, triangulating its way towards (hopefully) favourable press coverage.
Many of these people continued to vote Labour, since it was a less-bad option than the Tories; others upped sticks to the Greens, the Scottish nationalists, perhaps even the UK Independence Party. A good many of these latter have seen fit to return to fold, from wherever they went off to. (Even in the case of the new-found Kippers, bizarrely, it seems that Corbyn plays better than his vanquished rivals.)
15.000 people applied for membership in the first 24 hours after the announcement of the result, to which we may add the 100,000-plus who joined during the contest. Having been slowly shrivelling under the Blairite bureaucracy, Labour’s membership decline has jolted violently into reverse.
Second of all, Corbyn’s triumph has wreaked merry havoc with the strategic stupidities of the existing left, in pretty much all its forms. One even finds Labour lefts who openly aver that they would have preferred a more ‘centrist’ candidate - the main point being, you see, to ‘get rid of the Tories’. They have been dragged along by a spontaneous, inchoate, mass enthusiasm, which is damnably impatient with ‘clever tactics’ of this sort. The people demanded an ‘unelectable’ Labour leader; and they have forced even the most timid Labour lefts into what Blairites erroneously call their ‘comfort zone’.
Outside the Labour Party, however, everything is in total chaos. Having spent a couple of months amiably talking Corbyn’s chances down, the Socialist Party in England and Wales has had to start aggressively rowing backwards. Its coma-inducing weekly, The Socialist, has had an interesting little item added to its masthead: “formerly Militant”.
In its statement welcoming Corbyn’s victory, SPEW continues to cling to the idea that it represents not a sea change within Labour, but in reality the founding of an entirely new party: any old humbug can be justified, so long as it is not inconsistent with the idiotic analysis it was pushing from the mid-90s up to this summer. They also reaffirm their commitment to standing Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates against pro-cuts Labour incumbents, which is almost certainly a tactical blunder under the circumstances - all the more so, given Tusc’s risible electoral performances thus far, and imminent death when the Rail Maritime and Transport union reaffiliates to Labour, as it is highly likely to do at its next conference.
On the positive side, however, the SPEW comrades hit upon the key point:
Jeremy Corbyn should fight to implement every one of the democratic measures which so terrifies Labour’s right wing ... At the same time the party should be opened up. All those who have been forced out or expelled in the past for fighting against cuts and for socialist ideas should be invited back ... Defeating the pro-big business elements that dominate the Labour machine will require mass, active participation.1
Among others - even those who have been happier to support Corbyn than SPEW - the idea that “mass, active participation” is necessary inside Labour is somehow incomprehensible.
It is hardly surprising to find Left Unity split six ways to Sunday on the issue. Among the organisation’s leadership, enthusiasm for Corbyn’s candidacy was immediate, marked and sincere. Yet, given that they have spent an awful lot of time and effort trying to pitch LU as a ‘broad left’ party, and the natural home for the sort of disaffected Labourites now stampeding homeward, there is some confusion as to what LU is for.
A broadsheet distributed at various demonstrations on September 12 suggests that “as an anchor to the left in British politics, we are committed to fighting alongside Jeremy and his supporters inside and outside of the Labour Party to achieve the policies that we all share” (an anchor, of course, is traditionally attached to a ship of some kind). Beyond that, it is forward to the next demonstration, and the next. “Working with others we will be organising events and launching an online journal dedicated to understanding and developing ... new possibilities.”2
From this summary, it is dreadfully unclear what LU has to offer this whole process that its comrades could not offer as members of the Labour Party. It is not the case that, as soon as one attends a constituency Labour Party meeting, one has to sign in blood a pledge never to attend or organise another demonstration. The rather sad truth is, however, that going into Labour would not mean forming a solid, delimited trend therein (whatever one thinks of SPEW members, they would be just as immediately identifiable as the Militant supporters of old), but simply dissolving into the mass.
It is no surprise, then, that some leading LU members - notably national spokesperson Pete Green - have been arguing that Left Unity should cease considering itself a party, and reduce itself to a “network of activists”. Others retreat more enthusiastically into the - ah - ‘comfort zone’ of hyper-activism. A motion from Lambeth branch to the recent national council meeting is exemplary in this regard: “we want to build a party that is in parliament but puts greater emphasis on the extra-parliamentary struggle. Real power comes out of the mobilisation and organisation of the wider working class and popular forces, not through MPs.”
As always, the most swivel-eyed expression of action-fetishism comes from Socialist Worker. Charlie Kimber, who was excited enough to turn up outside Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 12 with a petition for people to sign, wrote a letter to a notional Corbyn supporter in the last issue before the result, explaining why Kimber decided not to get involved. It is a peculiar argument - he seems, most of all, to object to the likelihood of a long and dirty political battle with the Labour right, and we will return to the comrade’s reticence on this point. Above all, though, the message is drearily familiar.
Whatever happens on Saturday, the crucial question is to march, protest, occupy and strike together against the Tories. Let’s listen to the leadership result together on the demonstration to say ‘Refugees welcome here’, and let’s protest in Manchester on October 4 at the Tory Party conference. Let’s support strikes and other fightbacks, push union leaders to call the action we need, and organise for resistance in workplaces. ... Struggle is the most important question. Of course, Jeremy and his supporters see battles outside parliament as important. But it’s a question of emphasis and priority.3
There are serious issues with action-fetishism, but let us assume comrade Kimber is correct - the crucial thing is to organise militant resistance. He believes himself to be a Leninist, so presumably he would at least agree that this sort of resistance is better conducted on a coordinated basis. That, in turn, requires an organisation.
Which one? An obvious answer will appear to comrade Kimber - the Socialist Workers Party (together with Unite the Resistance, or whatever its trade union front is this week). There is, alas, the small, niggling detail that the SWP has not gained 150,000 members in the last six weeks - unlike a certain other organisation we could name.
As the Labour membership shrivelled, so did its loci of organisation. Many CLPs came close to winking out of existence in the winking period. Ward or branch organisations - the basic unit in the Labour Party - exist very inconsistently across the country. Yet now comes the opportunity to revive them, for Labour to become (as its new leader constantly says) a movement again. Branches could get the left back into ongoing contact with those in the localities.
They could, at the very least, conduct voter registration drives, and membership drives (ideally at the same time). But they could also serve as centres of coordination for strike support, local campaigns, and almost anything else. The ‘resistance’, the ‘extra-parliamentary struggle’ so venerated by the SWP and other actionists, could gain an infrastructure with a longer life expectancy than the SWP can bring to the table. With grit, determination and human material, you could turn them into councils of action. Why not? The Paris Commune started out as a run-of-the-mill municipal authority.
Given these opportunities, why the widespread reticence? The problem is posed most directly with regard to comrade Kimber. He seems truly petrified of the Labour right.
The Labour Party hierarchy remains dominated by people who think Ed Miliband lost because he was too leftwing. You can get the 20 MPs who really back Jeremy into four cars. There are 210 who don’t ... Lord Mandelson has advised that the right should not strike immediately. But, resentful and brooding, they will plot and scheme to undermine and then eject Jeremy ... The real danger is that Corbyn supporters are plunged into internal party struggles rather than struggles at work and in working class areas.
This is the nub of the matter: Kimber is afraid of “internal party struggles”. We are not altogether surprised: the last two years have seen plenty of those in the SWP, and perhaps it is just us, but comrade Kimber looks a paler, more haunted man nowadays. Yet the whole rationale behind the SWP’s hostility to internal strife on its own patch is trivially generalisable to every other situation. In SWP dogma, the point is merely to get people moving and, once they are, any political problems will be swept aside. In this world view, discussions over programme and strategy can only exhaust, while picket-line camaraderie can only inspire. The true meaning of the SWP’s ‘forget Labour, come on the next demonstration’ approach is a deep hostility to political controversy.
This is not merely an SWP phenomenon. It is represented, in dilute form, whenever someone is found in a leftwing meeting denouncing ‘arguments about dead Russians’ and ‘sectarian rows’, in favour of going ‘out there’ to talk to people. It is the fervent belief that there exists a short cut to the masses. If these tens of thousands of new members stick around, however, they will decisively prove this idea wrong: for just such an upsurge in interest has happened, which will, however, plunge us all into a period of the sharpest, most intense political controversy, which in the end is merely a feature - and a healthy one - of permanent party-political organisation.
An opportunity has come to organise activism on a far greater scale than has been possible for years, but only those prepared to aid and lead the political fight within Labour will be able to take it.
3. Socialist Worker September 8.