James Schneider, Our Bloc: How We Win (Verso 2022), 144pp. James Schneider, Our Bloc: How We Win (Verso 2022), 144pp.

James Schneider offers some useful ideas for how the left can win, but we also need revolutionary class politics, argues Dominic Sorrell

We are living in uncertain times. The current strike wave, ignited by industry disputes on the railways last year, has engulfed most of the public sector in a battle to redress the imbalance of wealth in our society and to fight a cost-of-living crisis, which sees families freeze as oil companies record their highest ever profits. Despite this latest surge, victory is by no means assured. Already we are seeing trade unions, such as the UCU and RCN, pausing their strikes for negotiations with employers still in no mood to offer pay rises in line with inflation. In times like these, the left needs a strategy. Something that James Schneider’s Our Bloc: How We Win aims to provide.

Schneider was co-founder of the grassroots organisation, Momentum, which was created after Jeremy Corbyn took leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. He analyses the state of the British left post-Corbyn and argues for the construction of a ‘left bloc’ as a ‘formal alliance of social movements, trade unions, the Labour grassroots and socialists in Parliament’ (p.5).

Although published before the current round of industrial action, Schneider recognises the inevitability of such surges within a self-contradictory capitalist system. What is needed, he argues, is a way to ‘fight for influence’, to build up the organised forces in the left and unite them to effect social change. It is a bold ambition, and not one that is particularly new (the Left Unity party founded by Ken Loach in 2013 has similar ambitions), but Our Bloc offers plenty of ideas to the leftist, albeit with a focus of winning control in parliament rather than building a revolution.

Our Bloc opens with chapters analysing the current situation. It starts with an account of Corbyn’s Labour party, which offered many on the left a glimmer of hope that the country may finally be moving in a progressive direction. Of particular interest is Schneider’s comments that Corbyn’s leadership victory was only possible from ‘a wave from below’ of progressive forces (p.10). This sets the theme for the rest of the book: a top-down strategy for socialist politics cannot work; it must utilise grassroot activists from within and without formal parliamentary organisation. There are, however, inherent dangers in Schneider’s overall approach, since without revolutionary forces pressurising the system, reformist projects are very likely to compromise or fold in the face of intransigent ruling-class opposition.

Collapse of the Labour-left challenge

As we know, the hope Corbyn provided was quickly snuffed out. Marred by internal party conflicts, Brexit and the antisemitism row, the establishment wasted no opportunity in driving ‘a wedge … into the heart of the Corbyn project’ (p.16). Now, in an almost Shakespearian episode of betrayal, Keir Starmer has declared that Jeremy Corbyn will not be allowed to stand as a Labour candidate in the next election. With the Labour Party now shifting ever more to the right, Schneider reminds of us of an essential fact: the Labour Party ‘is not and never has been a socialist party’ (p.17). So what role does the party play for the left?

Schneider describes the UK’s two-party political system as ‘Capital’s A and B teams’ in his second chapter. Capital’s preferred party of power, the Conservatives, remain the most successful political party in the world. However, they are fundamentally hampered by the intrinsic contradictions of the capitalist system they bolster. Corbyn’s unapologetic critique of these contradictions proved a threat to the status quo. Boris Johnson understood that to ease the tension of these contradictions, he had to appeal to the interests of a wider layer of society, mainly small business owners, whilst keeping ruling-class interests mostly untouched. ‘Levelling up’ is one such example of a superficially progressive-sounding policy which has proven about as believable as his excuses for ‘party-gate’.

The reply from the loyal opposition is similarly weak. Starmer may have given the impression of a competent, professional and experienced debater, but the reality is, as Schneider points out, ‘most people have no idea what he stands for’ (p.32). His recently unveiled ‘5 missions for a better Britain’ do not exactly help. They are a set of fairly vague and uncontroversial policies that wouldn’t look out of place at a Tory conference.

An alternative in the movements

With the Labour party becoming increasingly hostile to the left, Schneider sets out his strategy for building a progressive force in British society: the left bloc. Despite the setback of Corbyn’s electoral defeats, left policies remain popular in the UK. Support for rail renationalisation, for example, increased by 6% to 64% from 2017 to 2019 (p.39). Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, has publicly called for such a renationalisation, spurred on by public support. In building the left bloc, Schneider says:

‘We need an entity that can unite the remaining Labour left with movements … Federated forces are stronger … Our aim should be to form a counter-hegemonic bloc to contest the ruling historic bloc … A complete left bloc will not be formed in one fell swoop. Instead, it will develop over time, in concentric circles, as trust between groups builds up and formalised cooperation proves its worth (pp.46–7).

The key idea is to build the widest possible collaboration between leftist forces in the UK. What is left unanswered, is how can we trust the parliamentary system to deliver the change we need? After recent events in the Labour Party, it seems somewhat naïve to believe that we can build the society we want through the apparatus of the ancien régime. Schneider does recognise the current situation, but argues that, just as with Corbyn, the left does need to be ready for the next surge that could see left ideas revitalised in the Commons. The question for debate is thus: are we aiming to win parliament or to smash it? Until this is agreed, it is hard to see how the left bloc will be a unified force.

There is still plenty of reason to support Schneider’s general programme, at least in the short term. There is no natural unity amongst the working class, it must be built. Schneider cites promising examples of where progressive forces of various stripes have come together in common cause: national united fronts such as Stop the War and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign; or local alliances, such as Black Lives Matter, XR, Unite the Community and the TUC coming together in protest against the Edmonton incinerator (p.51). There are still opportunities to grow unity further, such as a national tenants’ movement, similar to the existing London Tenants’ Union, which could energise huge swathes of our society and provide a good foundation for a political education.

Class or ‘populism’?

Crucial to building this unity, Schneider argues, is a convincing and radical banner to rally behind. For him, this is based on an adaptation of Chantal Mouffe’s left-populism thesis which Schneider calls ‘movement populism’: populist ideals that are driven not by one party, but an entire movement of progressive forces. Mouffe’s position has some serious limitations, however, in her effective abandonment of a clear class analysis and the understanding that the liberal capitalist state constitutes a fundamental barrier to radical left transformation. Revolutionary politics are, in fact, indispensable even for making reformist gains in the face of ruling-class obduracy.

Nevertheless, what could a ‘movement populism’ rallying cry look like? Schneider points to the climate crisis, which has already inspired radical protests, particularly amongst the young. The ‘Green New Deal’ was popularised by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and could lay the foundation for a radical programme that could unite movements not just in the UK, but across the world. For it to be effective, however, it will need to be radical and linked to the working-class struggle. One promising example is the Fire Brigade’s Union’s declaration that climate change is an industrial concern (p.60).

In the closing chapters of this book, Schneider asks the important question of what role does the party have in the left bloc? For him, whether it is Labour or some other party is of little importance. The main thing is to win state power and enact immediate reforms. Again, this begs some difficult questions of strategy, and the nature of power in a capitalist state. Nevertheless, he splits the desired reforms into three categories of increasing radicality: ameliorative (e.g. tax and spend), strong (an old example being the creation of the minimum wage) and non-reformist (such as the creation of the NHS). He emphasises that each level of reform will require more grassroots engagement and mass appeal support to win against the inevitable backlash from capital. It is still unclear, unfortunately, how exactly we avoid ‘parliamentary cretinism’ from setting in and derailing the movement.

Our Bloc finishes with four potential futures for the left in this decade. Since its publication in 2022, some of these futures are uncannily similar to recent events. Schneider predicts a nurses’ strike and even the Labour Party’s position on attending picket lines in his third timeline. He suggests that there could be the formation of a new party that would prioritise grassroots organisation. His fourth timeline is particularly invigorating, with occupations of major banks and Sky News culminating in an ultimatum to the government to write a new constitution.

Whichever future we are heading for, it is clear that change will be driven not solely by the political regime, but by principled activists on the ground. Schneider may not have all the answers for our movement, but Our Bloc provides serious suggestions for how we can move forward. It is a book that should inspire debate, but most importantly action. As Schneider concludes himself:

‘It is the task of those on the left and in our movements to show not just that the current system is anti-human and heading towards frightening collapse, nor only that a more humane world is imaginable — but that we can actually get there’ (p.109).

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