by Lol Franek
On the 17th of April, the Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May called an election for June 8th, stating the lack of unity in parliament over Brexit as the primary reason. The public will go to the polls in just under 8 weeks to decide who will run the country. The choice, however, isn’t actually about Brexit. but between Labour and the Tories, Corbyn and May, austerity and hope. May has done what no one else in the last 20 years of the tory party has been able to do. She has managed to mobilise all sections of reactionary opinion, and seeks to consolidate this unity by increasing her majority in the House of Commons. In doing so, she asserts her authority over the factions within her party still bruised from the very fractious referendum campaign. Corbyn is a committed socialist at war with his own party. He has the support of hundreds of thousands of people, and has put forward some of the most creative and, if not ‘socialist’, redistributive policies that have been put forward by any party to a voting electorate of this country. There are multiple contradictions at play, within Corbyn’s movement and between the two camps, but due to the calling of a snap election, we have a singular clash between that which is reactionary, and that which is progressive – that is progressive for the proletariat in the class struggle as it appears in this concrete situation.
What is the position of communists on this? At the moment, there isn’t one. There isn’t a strategy, or even a fixed idea of what a common line might look like. In this essay, I seek to answer why, and to propose a strategy which takes into account the monumental importance of this situation, and the struggles that are bound up within it.
“Contradiction is present in the process of development of all things; it permeates the process of development of each thing from beginning to end. This is the universality and absoluteness of contradiction”
-Mao Zedong, On Contradiction
There are a number of contradictions which we must fully understand before we can build a correct strategy for organising.
The class character of the movement around Corbyn is composed predominantly of progressive petty bourgeois elements, and malcontent members of the labour aristocracy who are in a process of re-radicalisation owing to their share of imperialist super profits decrease through wage repression and the destruction of social welfare following neoliberal economic reforms around the end of the Cold War. This provides us with a historic opportunity which has yet to be politically articulated. A space is opening for an alliance between an increasingly proletarianised labour aristocracy and the rest of the working class in the UK. We thus have the uncanny power of the movement around Corbyn. While some parts of the left have noticed this important change, none have come up with a coherent strategy to mobilise around it successfully.
Firstly, we must note the changing class dynamics which have produced this moment of struggle within the Labour Party. The movement around Corbyn is composed of those petty bourgeois and members of the labour aristocracy who oppose austerity and/or the UK’s imperialist wars. Corbyn represents an ideological rebuilding of class consciousness among an increasingly re-proletarianised labour aristocracy in the UK.
However, the Labour Party (and the institutional labour movement) has a long history of crushing dissent, colluding with bosses, closing borders to the poor, and instigating bloody campaigns of imperial destruction to the benefit of the bourgeoisie represented by Westminster imperialism.
But in spite of this history, it has now become the place where a door has been wedged open just an inch, owing to the material conditions of the labour aristocracy and Labour’s own institutional links to the unions which represent them, allowing the return of a radical discourse surrounding solidarity and socialism. However, decades of culpability for neo-liberal reforms and imperialist foreign policy present these trends with a very shaky foundation, even still.
Jeremy Corbyn is himself a representative of these contradiction. In the last two years he has refused to be engaged on labour council cuts, shared platforms with known rape apologists, and been accused of unacceptable compromise on such key issues as Zionism, immigration, and policing. He has however ignited a passion for his politics and persona that no one else in recent history has been able to do. Though the voluntarist far left and the ultra left have both tried to pull this movement in different ways, they have both largely failed in this regard. This not only speaks to their historic failure, to the emptiness of their pretensions to representing a “vanguard”, but is a sign that something else is emerging which threatens to supersede them, to succeed where they have failed, to cast them into the overflowing dustbin of the failures of the British left.
Against this background, we have an extra-parliamentary left which constantly strives for organisational independence but is chronically unable to build beyond local issues, small sects, or waves that break against the forces of state repression.
The uncanny power of the movement around Corbyn is isolated within the Labour Party because we have not been able to build elsewhere. This is due to the weakness of the revolutionary movement in the UK today.
The ‘Far Left’ in Britain Today
“Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement.”
-Lenin, “Left-wing” communism – an infantile disorder.
We have two main strands of “leftism” outside of labour in the country of any note; one Trotskyite, one ultra-leftist. The Trotskyite strand is by no means unified. It is best described by a tawdry collection of sects who’s only achievement is to keep going thirty years after they stopped being relevant. They collect in the lower and middling rungs of the trade union bureaucracy and outwardly liberal campaigning apparatus, and more often than not sell out their own long term interests – and that of the working class – to clamp down on anything to the left of them or outside of their control.
The ultra-leftist strand has been more acutely aware of contemporary and vital struggles which have often been excluded from institutional political representation. This strand has always remained small except for some moments where it has been able to play a part in leading a mass movement. More often than not they are smaller in number and far less organised than the opportunists, and take comfort in minor local victories, seeing them as a sign that their politics is still vital even after the wave has crested and they have been unable to take a mass struggle to a higher level.
These strands sometimes overlap, sometimes take on characteristics of the other, and are both often related to a back bone of single issue campaigns which mostly agitate in the legal and institutional spheres, often (but certainly not always) unaware of the class nature of their activity.
In recent years, despite many valiant efforts, a movement has not grown outside of the Labour party. This is for several reasons. Both of these strands were unable to capitalise on the student struggles in 2011, or the English uprisings sparked by the murder of Mark Duggan by police the same year. One was hampered by a devotion to spontaneity and anti-hierarchical ethics, the other was so sectarian that they couldn’t work with anything that did not have their particular sect in control, was seriously undermined by its abusive and chauvinist practices, the root of which (a hostility to non ‘class-based’ politics) too many still refuse to refute. In Scotland, the social question was best articulated as a form of civic nationalism. Finally, often the left often lagged several steps behind these flashes of popular consciousness, and was ultimately unable to inspire with a socialism that only turned up when conflagrations had turned to embers.
What we have is the fundamental failure of the Trotskyites and the ultra-lefts alike to build beyond themselves into and within true mass movements. Under current conditions, this is not acceptable, and it robs both of these strands of legitimacy. If their line is not borne out by social practice, then it is not correct, and must be abandoned. The left in this country has proved completely unable to see this, and thus will never see realmovement which abolishes the present state of things.
Neither position hold the correct line on the question of Corbyn and the Labour party. One seeks to exploit “entryism”, and we see a number of parties entering Momentum and bringing it to a halt with ceaseless petty arguments which threaten to destroy it. The other seeks to toil in obscurity, not seeing anything particularly special about the current moment, and even using it as evidence to continue organising as they have been doing. These positions are both deeply inadequate, and must be thrown by the wayside before we can progress.
We can’t carry on the way we are, thinking that a lack of current success is only a prelude to an uprising that is beyond the horizon, but seems forever beyond our reach. The crisis continues, and we should be using its every political expression to build our movement.
What is to be done?
“There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly.”
-Mao Zedong, Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan
“The upsurge of the masses proceeded and spread with uninterrupted continuity; it not only continued in the places where it began, but spread to new localities and to new strata of the population (under the influence of the working class movement, there was a renewed ferment among the student youth, among the intellectuals generally, and even among the peasantry). Revolutionaries, however, lagged behind this upsurge, both in their ”theories“ and in their activity; they failed to establish a constant and continuous organisation capable of leading the whole movement.”
-V. I . Lenin, What is to be done
There are three positions we can take on Corbyn and the Labour Party. We either fight against him, fight with him, or ignore him and carry on doing as we have been – do nothing essentially. I am arguing here for the second position, obviously. But why? What makes Corbyn and the movement around him any different from the many left Labour MPs and groups who every so often challenge the rightist hegemony of the party, but mostly provide left cover for its numerous abuses?
Put simply, the 2008 crisis changed everything. We are at a crucial moment in the history of capitalism, in the history of class struggle, and our movement is woefully unprepared, incredibly weak, and utterly disorganised. It is clear to even non-Marxists that there is something deeply wrong with the way that capitalism is running at present. It is quite possible that it is entering a terminal decline – reaching a critical breaking point not due to the subjective action of the gravediggers it created, the proletariat, but by its own sheer objective destructiveness. To do nothing is not an option; we must grasp every moment of class struggle and push it further. To actively fight against Corbyn and his movement is to render ourselves completely irrelevant. To be blunt, what power do we have to do anything in opposition to this movement that takes us further than where we are now?
I am writing long after the failure of Syriza, and the electoral stalling of Podemos and other left populist parties in Europe. Why get on board with what is seemingly another variation on this theme?
Let us look at the case of Syriza. Without question, they failed catastrophically. This may have been destined to happen due to the reformist nature of the party, the inability to think beyond the narrow frame of modern economics, and an unwillingness to take a jump into the unknown. What they were able to do however was bring together the wide base of opposition to Troika imposed austerity and articulate at a state political level. This is something that the KKE or the Anarchist movement were not able to do. Indeed so sure were they of their dogma that the KKE refused to enter into coalition with Syriza, empowering the right wing of Syriza and pushing them into the hands of open reactionaries. Similarly, smaller ultra-left factions in Greece refused to join and help steer the course of the conflict, or did only to jump ship and declare themselves prophets, hoping the masses would join up afterwards, as in the case of the Greek CWI affiliate Xekinima.
As communists, we must lead the class struggle. We must push for the socialisation of the means of production under the dictatorship of the proletariat. But we are in a position where our movement is so weak, that we are unable to do so at this moment where an opening up to the future presents itself. The same old question is being asked: socialism or barbarism? And we are not in a position to provide an answer.
We come back to the question which we must all continually pose to ourselves: What is to be done?
The answer here is not so much one of ideology, but one of strategy. We need a strategy that is capable of winning, but which allows us to maintain a fidelity to the masses of oppressed people not only in this country, but those who experience national oppression as a result of British and hegemonic US imperialism around the world. The answer lies in rebuilding a movement which has a dialectical relationship with the masses.
Class struggle in Britain today
“The vanguard of the masses must establish proper and close relations with the masses. It must stand for the people’s interests in all fields, above all in the political field and it must adopt a correct attitude towards the people and lead them by correct methods before it can forge close links with them. Otherwise, it is fully possible for the vanguard to become divorced from the people. In that case, it will no longer be the vanguard of the people, and it will not only fail to perform the task of emancipating the people, but will also face the danger of outright destruction by the enemy. This means that the vanguard of the masses must follow a thorough-going and clear-cut mass line in all its work.”
-Liu Shaoqi, On the Party
This dialectical relationship has taken a number of different forms in all successful revolutions. It is present in the works of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, the prison writings of Gramsci, and in the theory and practice of “Mass Line” organising developed by Mao Zedong that was essential for the initial success of the Chinese Revolution.
Mao articulates this simply as the principle of ‘from the masses, to the masses’. It means we must go to where class struggle is happening; learn from those engaged in this struggle, and present a theory back to them which is able to take this struggle onto a higher stage. It means, alongside this, engaging in all struggles, engaging in mass work, to build a communist movement from the disparate threads of struggle which are beginning to emerge in this country.
What is needed are disciplined, but flexible cadre who are bound together by a kernel of correct theory. They must be agile enough to inculcate themselves with in mass movements and make these issues their own. They must approach these movements, and events of historical significance directly at the point of contradiction, with a view that they can be turned to their favour. They must not shy from contradiction because it seems insolvable. It means an organisation distinct in structure and intent from those we currently have, the seed of a (new) party of a new type.
The best parts of Momentum are already grasping towards. A few forward-thinking members see Momentum as an opportunity to undertake mass work and bring the insight gained into the party proper. They see the role of Momentum as being involved in local struggles like running food banks, reading groups, or even crèches so over worked parents can get involved in politics. They are moving towards a star of class struggle which leaves behind the dogmas of the past.
This must be articulated theoretically. As a practice, it must move far beyond the Labour Party. At the moment, under these conditions, we must begin with the movement that is centred around Jeremy Corbyn.
“Two types of social contradictions – those between ourselves and the enemy and those among the people themselves confront us. The two are totally different in their nature.”
-Mao Zedong, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People
I have spoken to committed activists about this, comrades involved in housing struggles who are fighting Labour councils engaged in destroying working class estates for parasite development companies. How can I ask them to go to those same people and ask them to vote Labour, when Labour has treated them so appallingly?
My answer is that whether you do or don’t must be based on investigation, and investigation under current conditions, with a correct analysis of what is a stake. The correct handling of contradictions among the people isn’t trying to make them bend to an unerring line. We must recognise that contradictions within the people exist, and they exist particular to a situation, for a particular reason. Currently, our class is fragmented along many different lines, different levels of class consciousness exist, and different levels of ideological hegemony prevail. It is not a communist’s position to raise consciousness by sheer iron will and determination. We must investigate; we must bring to the masses something that is beyond their lived experience, and take from the masses a concrete understanding of their conditions of struggle so as to better understand the entirety of social relations. This is the job of communists. This is the only avenue available after the utter failure of “pure” spontaneity, reflected in so many “movementist” and “identitarian” struggles. We need an organisation of cadre that ‘moves amongst the people like fish swim in the sea’. Only from this can a new communist movement grow.
Corbyn probably won’t win this election, and even if he does, this brings to the fore an entirely new set of contradictions. The struggle is just beginning, and will take ever newer and higher forms. Ours is not a strategy for winning an election. Ours is a strategy for leading the movement against neoliberalism, austerity, against the pain and suffering inflicted upon us since 2008, and ultimately against capitalism and imperialism. This is a strategy for building. And that is what we must do now: build.