In the latest of our series of opinion pieces, Roy Wilkes argues for a turn to the extra-parliamentary left
Millions of people desperately hoped that Labour under Corbyn would tackle both the climate emergency and the miseries of austerity, deindustrialisation, poverty, insecurity and endless war.
The British state gave its answer to those hopes and aspirations in December. Even the mildest of reforms aimed at securing a decent quality of life and a habitable planet for future generations are unacceptable if they conflict with the overarching imperative of capital accumulation.
The Labour Party has never been a vehicle for fundamental change. But it was worth being a member during the Corbyn era. Thousands of newly radicalised socialists were inspired to become politically active.
But I don’t see much point in staying now, to bang our heads against a brick wall, now that the Corbyn insurgency has been so decisively defeated. We would be squandering our energy on resolution mongering, on trying to win powerless positions within the party, and worst of all on canvassing for mostly right wing MPs and councillors.
We need something new. We need somewhere to recruit, inspire, energise and organise the insurgent youth of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the school student climate strikers, the women fighting harassment and violence, the education and health workers fighting for safe conditions. Explosive struggles will inevitably erupt under the hammer blows of the deepening crisis; we need a party that will engage directly in those struggles, and it isn’t Starmer’s Labour Party.
There has been some speculation that Corbyn might be expelled, and that he might then set up a new mass party of the socialist left. It won’t happen. Starmer isn’t stupid, he would prefer to keep Corbyn as a prisoner of the PLP so that what’s left of Labour’s radical left can be kept to heal and picked off one by one in the witch hunt. So if we need something new we are going to have build it ourselves.
I don’t see any mileage in repeating attempts to build a broad party along the lines of Respect, Left Unity, Die Linke or Syriza. When the broadness encompasses left reformism, it is left reformism that sets the limits. The failure of this strategy has been demonstrated many times, most startlingly with the capitulation of Syriza in 2015. The insurgent youth are crying out for profound systemic change and won’t be inspired by a formation whose horizon is limited to that which can be secured within the bounds of our capitalist state and its institutions.
Our aspirations must reach higher than the mythical and no longer viable or even attainable ‘mixed economy’. In short, we need a party that is unequivocally socialist and which is therefore prepared to break decisively with capital and with its imperialist state.
Just as capital at this stage in its structural crisis is no longer able to tolerate the moderate reformism of the 2019 Labour manifesto, neither can it offer much in the way of concessions to organised labour at the point of production. With the aid of ever more draconian anti-union laws, and with the willing complicity of the stability-loving trade union bureaucracy, strike action has been driven down to an all-time low. 273 000 strike days in 2018, the lowest for 120 years.
Our capacity to make partial gains through defensive struggles has all but disappeared. We are left with no alternative but to prepare and build for offensive struggles against capital and against its state, a precondition for the success of which is building a mass socialist consciousness.
Overthrowing capitalism is never going to be simple or straightforward. The best chance we’ve got of developing effective strategy and tactics is to synthesise the widest range of revolutionary experiences and ideas. We can’t do that by perpetuating a multitude of fragmented echo chambers. We could start with a modest acknowledgement that none of us has all the right answers. Our success rate to date is a strong clue that perhaps we don’t.
The fragmentation of the revolutionary left has always been an obstacle and it still is. Each group sincerely believes that it is on the right track and that every other group is wrong.
Sectarianism is therefore defined by each as the behaviour of every other group, which is by definition therefore a sect. If we abstract from this situation it is easy to see that every group, from someone’s perspective at least, is itself a sect. Each group then tries to prove that it is not a sect by orienting to the masses with its own broad front, in which of course everyone else is invited to participate; refusal to do is then taken as decisive confirmation of irredeemable sectarianism.
This fragmentation arises from a bourgeois model of political organisation and hegemony; a permanent war of position of each against all, perhaps based on a misinterpretation of the Bolshevik experience. Small groups compete with each other in the marketplace of working class struggle; the most capable leadership rises to the top and builds a monopoly.
It is a bourgeois competitive approach that mirrors the behaviour of capitalist firms. A proletarian approach to party building would be the opposite, would see party building as a collective act of social labour. It won’t be easy for us to change the habits of a lifetime, but change we must. Because if revolutionary socialists can’t change direction when we need to, who can?
We need to develop forums in which we talk to each other, in an open and serious manner, about how we can collectively develop the theory and practice of revolutionary organisation, strategy and tactics that are adequate to the challenges we face as a class. And whatever their faults and inadequacies, and however much we may not want to admit it, other revolutionary Marxists, those who share an understanding of the need to overthrow the capitalist state as an unavoidable step towards the realm of unalienated freedom, are the most class conscious members of our class.
We need to be prepared to collectively question everything and criticise everything, including our own history and practice. We will disagree on many things. Good. That is how we all learn and move forwards. It is the ossification of tiny echo chambers that holds us back.
Plurality of ideas and approaches is positive and healthy. Plurality of sects competing with each other isn’t. And if we are going to extricate ourselves from the terrible predicament we find ourselves in, following over a century of failure to build an effective proletarian leadership, then our best hope is surely to force ourselves to come together, one way or another.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Unless there is a radical change in our mode of social metabolic control in the very near future it’s game over for human civilisation, perhaps for humanity as a species. There are ecological tipping points, points of no return, which are irreversible. And capital, which knows no limits and respects no boundaries, is accelerating us relentlessly towards them. And we are talking decades, not centuries. Perhaps very few decades. Covid-19 and the Australian bush fires are warnings, and gentle ones at that. Most people can see the catastrophe coming but feel powerless to stop it.
This is where revolutionary socialist leadership should be stepping in to the breach. It isn’t too late to change the course of history and avert catastrophe. But it soon will be.
Roy Wilkes is a member of Bury South Constituency Labour Party and retired NEU militant
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