After a campaign that seemed to drag on endlessly in the wake of the general election, Jeremy Corbyn has won the Labour Party leadership by a landslide. The most immediate consequence of this has been a surge in membership. Here are some reasons not to get caught up in the tide.
In writing this, I’m going to try not to re-tread old ground. So, for as incisive a summary of why anarchists aren’t celebrating Corbyn’s win as you’re likely to get, have a read of this piece by Red and Black Leeds. Scott Jay’s piece here on Libcom is also worth looking at, a good send up of the ever decreasing circles the left leads itself in.
But rather than argue over whether you should hope for Corbyn to be different, I want to consider a different question. Even if you believe that his leadership will be a good thing, that he will stick to his word and deliver improvements, is that any reason to stick all your eggs in one basket and actually join the Labour Party?
Well, no. The most basic reason is that even if you’re of a mind to vote for Labour in an election, you don’t have to be a party member to do that. But digging deeper, let’s go through the main reasons certain elements of the left are urging everyone to get on board now and dismantle them.
The most common trope now that Corbyn is Labour leader is that now ‘the left’ has to unite behind him in order to take on the Tories, who after all are ‘the real enemy.’
Who knew the free market didn't exist beyond the Tory party?
The Tories are, of course, laying siege to the working class. They’re desperate to push through reforms crippling the ability of workers to take collective action against the bosses, they’re slashing jobs, they’re stripping away the support some of the most vulnerable people in society rely on, and they’re selling off public services for private profit. Just as a start.
But what the Tories are doing is the culmination of over three decades of ruling class assault that begun halfway through the Labour government that preceded Thatcher. It is a counter attack by the forces of capital against the post-war social democratic settlement, and it has accelerated as the working class has gone into retreat.
The point is that the Tories are only one faction involved in this assault. The Liberal Democrats now insist that they were a moderating influence during the years of the coalition, pointing to the acceleration under the Tory majority government as proof, and Vince Cable has come out swinging against the Trade Union Bill. But, of course, they were the first party to support a public sector pay freeze and back in 2010 Cable was a leading proponent of restricting strikes in key public services.
Then of course there’s Labour. Not only New Labour, though of course that’s a convenient cut off point for party apologists, but ‘old’ Labour who just as keenly broke strikes, cut jobs, implemented austerity and attacked the unemployed. And, under Harold Wilson, who made the first attempt to bring in what became Thatcher’s anti-strike laws.
All politicians are chameleons in opposition. In power, they’re the managers of the state and servants of capital. That’s a core function and doesn’t change depending on the colour of their rosette.
The most common strawman thrown at anybody critical of electoralism in general but of Corbyn in particular is that all we want to do is sit at home and wait for the revolution.
It hardly needs saying that this is a woeful misrepresentation of anarchist and revolutionary thought. Do you really believe we think a revolution will pop up spontaneously like a surprise fart? But it ignores the fact that many people can’t afford to wait for a general election either.
Now, the left in Labour won’t simply be waiting for the election – they’ll be building for it by knocking doors, persuading more people to vote, turning up to constituency meetings, perhaps trying to de-select right-wing candidates, and so on. But none of this has a concrete effect until a vote comes and maybe Labour win, and maybe they’re not as bad as the Tories, but they still run the state and keep capitalism healthy.
On the other hand, the work that anarchists advocate can have concrete effects now. Whether it’s on as small a scale as winning one worker back stolen wages, or as significant as a whole workforce winning the living wage, it’s a concrete gain in the present. That’s where improvements in people’s lives come from: forcing businesses to stop using workfare, taking on unscrupulous landlords, helping claimants fight benefit sanctions.
Nor are these victories limited to those directly involved. They give workers confidence to take on new battles, they put the bosses on the back foot, and they create the upward pressure that can force social change.
That’s the campaigning and organising we need to do. Not to get one faction of the state in power at the expense of another, but to force concessions from the state and capital no matter who’s in charge.
One of the supposedly strongest reasons for having faith in the Labour Party is the trade union link. Not only the fact that the party was founded by the unions, but that it maintains a connection to a majority of organised workers through the affiliation of major modern trade unions.
However, Labour wasn’t founded by organised workers but specifically by the union bureaucracy. That is, by that layer of the trade union movement which acts as a buffer between the workers and the bosses, and whose role is to moderate class anger in favour of compromise and accommodation. From the very start, its relation to militant rank-and-file workers was spelled out by Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s observation that “the [parliamentary] Socialist is the best policeman for the syndicalist.”
His job is to sell Labour's interests to you, not yours to Labour
In practice, we can see this in the collaboration of the Trades Union Congress with the public sector wage freeze imposed by the 1945 Labour government. In that period, when Labour was waging war on the dockers, 90% of strikes were unofficial because the TUC was actively suppressing official action to the benefit of the Attlee regime.
The TUC also tried to suppress strike action during World War Two, committed as it was to help the national unity government maintain productivity for the war effort.
More recently, we can see the role the Labour link to the trade unions plays with opposition to strike action when it might embarrass Labour or, heaven forbid, when Labour are the bosses. When Labour are in opposition, the call is to just wait until Labour are in power because then it will all be better. When Labour are in power, then of course resistance is utterly beyond the pale.
Now that Corbyn is leader, Mark Serwotka has said that he won’t rule out the PCS union affiliating in the future. Others in the union are more forward, calling for it to be debated at next year’s Conference. They would do well to remember that the reason for all of the above is the same reason that PCS stood alone when Tony Blair implemented five years of job cuts that dwarfed those in the following five years of Tory-led coalition: the link between the unions and Labour is nothing less than a millstone around the neck of organised workers.
Many of those socialists who supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and who support involvement in the Labour Party argue that him winning the leadership, and even possibly winning the general election, would just be the start. To ensure that he was able to follow through on his promises, and to defend against attacks from both the Tories and the right wing of Labour, the party would need to become a movement. Corbyn himself endorses this approach.
Over in the US Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party senator campaigning to be a presidential candidate, made a similar point: “The biggest mistake that Barack Obama made was essentially to tell his supporters, ‘Thank you very much for electing me, I’ll take it from here.’ I will not make that mistake.”
The first problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t quite fit the facts. Organizing for America, the grassroots campaign that saw him elected on a ticket of ‘hope’ and ‘change’, evolved into Organizing for Action. It wasn’t abandoned after the election victories and it didn’t evaporate – rather it was heavily stage managed to set the agenda for the president in local communities across the country. But therein lies the problem; far from the (massively naïve, it must be said) social democratic ideal of a politician who serves the people with a grassroots movement at his back, that movement was harnessed to serve the politician on issues of his choosing. And sure, they promoted relatively progressive issues, but they were a safe distance from any risk of criticising Obama when he needed criticising.
Even if not as tightly controlled as OFA, any grassroots movement built around getting a specific person or party into power is always at risk of simply being harnessed by them in order to serve their own ends. This is doubly the case when said person or party faces attacks and character assassination from the other side.
So grassroots Corbynism will almost inevitably get bogged down in an almost knee-jerk defence of Corbyn’s person and policies based not on their merit but on the simple fact that the right wing hates them. Much as Obama’s grassroots expended their energies arguing with birthers and tea partiers while the President oversaw the murder of thousands of people via drone strikes, record numbers of deportations, attacks on civil liberties and more besides.
Is it such a stretch to see the left in the UK performing such ideological acrobatics? It already happens to a great degree. The same people who in an effort to get Corbyn elected leader were highly critical of the Labour establishment up to and including Ed Miliband were only a few months earlier denouncing the very same criticisms as unhelpful ultra-leftism when the Labour Party’s shot at state power was at stake.
To formalise this tendency into a movement to defend and apologise for Labour no matter what, using the spectre of Toryism as its excuse, can only harm any potential to build the real movement we need. You can hardly put pressure on somebody to act in your interests if you’re sheltering them and justifying their actions at every turn.
The strawman anarchist, sitting waiting for the revolution in the minds of social democrats, is a lazy beast. Clearly, doing nothing and expecting that some day everything will come up good requires no effort whatsoever.
But what we really advocate, on the other hand, requires a lot of effort. Organising even on a small scale requires a lot of slow, patient effort, difficult conversations, carefully thought out planning, and ultimately confrontation when you present your demands to the other side. If you lose, it’s more difficult next time because people are more reluctant to get involved. If you win, it’s more difficult as things escalate to include more people and bigger actions.
Yet this is the bread and butter of revolutionary change: not waving a flag about and shouting slogans, but putting your ideas into practice to show that they work, winning concrete gains and increasing working class confidence in our own collective strength.
How much easier, then, to simply vote for someone else to do it for you? To put no effort into analysing the forces weighed against this actually working? To organise with a recruitment quota and a script rather than under the steam of your own initiative? To when it all fails give it no thought whatsoever except that next time, despite the long dead trail of next times at your back, it will all be different for no reason other than blind, desperate hope?
But there are no short cuts. The liberation of the working class is the task of the working class ourselves, and that means it’s a task outside the boundaries of the Labour Party.