Some thoughts on building mass movements and organising, in relation to the Labour Party
Back in May when The Tories got in power, I made a quite simple point. It's one I've made numerous times before, and one that many other libertarian communist individuals and organisations have also repeatedly made - that the only way to fight the class enemy is to organise.
This is where our power as a class lies. Want an end to zero hour contracts? Build unions in the affected workplaces and defeat them with strikes and occupations. Want the Bedroom Tax gone? Resist every eviction with a ring of steel, refuse payment, show solidarity with the victims, and make the tax unworkable. Want to stop privatisation? We need strikes and occupations by the affected workers and to target the privateers with disruptive action that hurts their profits.
I could go on. But the point is that there’s no one way to do this, no single blueprint for success. It relies on working class people working together and believing in their own power to force change – without representatives or intermediaries. This is the very essence of direct action.
In his latest column for the Guardian, team mascot of the social democrat left Owen Jones has argued along surprisingly similar lines.
Why not, for example, start opening food banks – but with a difference? Instead of acts of charity, what about trying to organise those who, in the fifth-biggest economy on Earth, have been left unable to feed themselves.
Britain has up to 11 million private renters, often being charged rip-off rents and deprived of basic housing security. Why shouldn’t Labour set up private tenants’ associations, again to help organise people? The party is talking about the rights of self-employed workers who value their independence, but not the insecurity of those with no pension and limited social security. Why not try to organise them, too?
After the London riots, a young community organiser in Tottenham told me about his strategy to engage with young people. Not with top-down meetings but football matches. Afterwards, he got the players to talk with community figures and politicians about their concerns and ambitions. Youth services are often the first to be slashed by Britain’s hammered local authorities, and leisure activities with a political edge could prove attractive. That’s surely the approach this changing Labour party must have: politics made fun, rather than stale and dreary.
Labour needs to win over older people and combat the threat of intergenerational conflict. Why not set up schemes where young party activists spend a couple of hours a week with older people who lack company? Why not establish community centres offering a diverse range of activities? Social enterprises could be set up.
The difference, of course, is that he's not advocating that the working class, or the left, or socialists engage in this kind of activity. He's specifically and exclusively arguing that this is done by - and for - The Labour Party. Why? "By becoming a social movement, Labour could make its already booming membership soar: 1 million members must surely be the party’s aim." It's all about capitalising on the Corbyn victory, for the benefit not of our class but of the party.
One answer to this, I'm sure, is that there's nothing stopping those outside the Labour Party from doing this kind of organising. And indeed there isn't - that's why it's already being done by the likes of the London and Edinburgh Coalitions Against Poverty, by the Solidarity Federation and the Anarchist Federation, and by many others around the country. Often on a small scale, unpublicised and unsung, but very much there.
Therein lies the issue. Imagine if influential people like Jones were calling on all those who consider themselves 'on the left' but outside of anarchism or other radical currents to get involved in tenant organising, workplace organising, community and claimant organising just because it needed doing. For the benefit of the working class and not for the leadership and electoral gain of a political party. Sure, it's early days in the reign of this Tory government, but we had five years of the coalition before them, and eleven years of New Labour before that, and attacks on claimants, communities, pay and the public sector all the way through. Not to mention the Major and Thatcher governments that preceded Blair. Where was such a call from the left wing commentariat then?
But that's the point. As Theodoros Karyotis wrote for Novara, "left-wing pragmatism is going to achieve everything right-wing arrogance could not – that is, to subdue a population which has been fighting against neoliberal barbarism for five years." He was talking about Syriza, of course. But Syriza aren't pioneers, they're only following the path previously travelled by Podemos, by old Labour and by social democratic parties the world over.
Already, we can see hints of this in Corbyn's Labour. Not only from 'People's Chancellor' John McDonnell when clings to the narrative of 'living within our means' and 'paying down the deficit' for dear life but from the union bureaucrats who binned the promises to scrap Trident on behalf of the party their leashes are tied to.
It shouldn't even need saying that the union bureaucracies and Labour play the exact same role in their respective spheres: to moderate and manage class conflict so that it ultimately poses no threat to capital. Unfortunately, in place of a serious analysis based on history, experience and material reality, many so-called socialists rely on a blind faith that borders on religious mania. Just this once, can't we give Corbs a chance?
There are too choices here. We can, as Owen Jones says, build a movement in order to divert people's hope, optimism and energy to the benefit of the Labour Party. Or we can build a real movement to win improvements for our class and take on the present conditions. These two movements aren't the same. They don't even overlap. They are actively at odds.
If you want to organise for the benefit of your class, Libcom has some useful guides on how here.