Anarchist strawmen and Corbyn

Submitted by AWL on 6 October, 2015 - 4:51 Author: Ira Berkovic

An article, signed by “Phil”, on the LibCom website, puts the anarchist case against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. It says that working-class activists should “steer clear” of Labour, and makes five specific arguments:

1. The fight isn’t just against The Tories

No-one who has been involved in Corbyn’s campaign, and witnessed the attacks and attempted sabotage by figures on the right of the Labour Party, could believe that the Tories are the only enemy. This is a straw-man argument; only the most credulous and ignorant could imagine that Labour under Corbyn’s leadership will be uniformly and straightforwardly on the side of progress.

Dedicated class warriors for the interests of the ruling-class, people like Tony Blair and Peter Mandleson, have occupied senior positions in the Labour Party for years. The Blairite project consisted of the construction of a professional cadre of operators, fixers, and factional manouverers — an ideologically-disciplined “party within a party” — to capture the commanding heights of the Labour Party and wield it as a neo-liberal social instrument. Whatever popular mystique Blairism once commanded may now have been stripped away, but many of the personnel remain, particularly within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

For Corbyn to make progress with even his platform of fairly moderate social-democratic demands, he will need to confront those elements head on. The struggle against the pro-capitalist confiscation of the Labour Party is now taking place in a spectacular form within the Labour Party itself. Phil, an anarchist spectators on that struggle, have nothing to say about that struggle beyond bland platitudes.

“All politicians”, we are told (apparently they are an undifferentiated and homogenous category), “are chameleons in opposition. In power, they’re the managers of the state and servants of capital.” This is empty rhetoric posing as a revolutionary critique of the state. How a Labour Party led by the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell acted in government would depend very much on the social pressure under which it was placed — by its own membership, by its affiliated unions, and by wider working-class social and industrial movements. Phil abandons in advance any hope of ever creating such pressure.

Maintaining one’s critical faculties and independent perspective — about Corbyn himself, Parliamentary politics in general, and the Labour Party as an institution — is vital, but if someone who purports to be a working-class revolutionary, of whatever stripe, can look at the immense surge around Corbyn and say only “well, he’s a politician, he’s bound to sell you out”, you are unlikely to get much of a hearing.

2. We can’t just wait five years

“The most common strawman thrown at anybody critical of electoralism in general but of Corbyn in particular”, Phil says, “is that all we want to do is sit at home and wait for the revolution.” Phil argues that “none of [the work leftists in Labour might do in advance of an election] has a concrete effect until a vote comes and maybe Labour win, and maybe they’re not as bad as the Tories.”

“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.”

A strawman, to counter a strawman. Phil’s article positively duels with strawmen. The idea that the kind of activity described is somehow the sole activist property of anarchists is spectacularly arrogant. Perhaps Phil’s strawman Labour leftist would turn their nose up at it, and insist door-knocking for Labour election candidates, or procedural activity within Labour structures, is the only worthwhile use of activist time, but in the real world, many of the 250,000 people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn are people who are involved in precisely the kind of activity he mentions. And they voted for Corbyn because they saw in his campaign an opportunity to raise the profile of the politics that, for them, underpinned that activity; to assert a working-class alternative to neo-liberal austerity not merely at the level of individual struggles but at the level of national politics.

Are some of them misguided? Probably. Do some of them have a naive faith or illusions in the possibility to win social change through Parliamentary means? Most likely. But the movement around Corbyn expresses much more than both of those things, and by demagogically counterposing it to the “real” activity of anarchists, which “can have concrete effects now”, Phil substantially writes off the potential of those people.

Revolutionaries in the Labour Party want to use the surge around Corbyn as part of a process of rebuilding working-class organisation and political confidence — not to be stored up for 2020, but to be used now, industrially and politically, against the bosses and their state.

Ironically it is Phil’s perspective, of abandoing the terrain of national politics for a focus on localised struggles, that counsels “waiting”: wait, build up your strength through battles over individual issues, and ignore whatever “the politicians” are doing over your head; that’s not your concern.

Fortunately, 250,000 people have begged to differ.

3. The Labour-trade union link is a millstone around our necks

Phil writes the organic link between the industrial labour movement and the Labour Party out of history in a few sentences, claiming “Labour wasn’t founded by organised workers but specifically by the union bureaucracy.”

This is simply an ahistorical distortion. There was a growing groundswell, with mass participation from rank-and-file workers, in favour of independent labour representation that led up to and created the conditions for the founding of the Labour Party, including through the “New Unionism” movement of the 1880s. Phil erases those workers from the historical scene, insisting that only the members of “the union bureaucracy” were conscious actors.

Perhaps ironically, Phil’s argument so closely mirrors that of the Socialist Party (SP), the group which leads the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS). The SP has argued that the reason Unison and Unite have not been more militant is that they are Labour-affiliated. But do they, and does Phil, really believe that a Unison which disaffiliated from the Labour Party — but retained its immensely undemocratic, bureaucratic internal regime — would magically become a militant fighting force? The experience of the PCS shows that a non-Labour affilaited union, with a self-declared “Marxist” leadership, can still express all the traits of bureaucratic, sell-out unionism. What has mattered in the unions is not, in the first instance, whether or not a union is Labour-affilaited, but the relative strength within it of bureaucratic and rank-and-file organisation. For perhaps a generation or more, there has been next to no independent rank-and-file organisation in the labour movement in Britain; no counterweight to the power of the bureaucracy.

The unions, and the party they founded, were then what they are now: sites of struggle, formations in dynamic tension between conflicting interests. They are, fundamentally, an expression of class struggle. By organising workers, as workers, at the site of exploitation they express class struggle in an essential and organic way. Neither the unions, nor the Labour Party, are alien implantations into our class, but organically generated by capitalist class relations. The difference here is between those of us who want to revolutionise the organically generated, historically-developed labour movement — that is, the actually-existing mass labour movement — and those who want to build a revolutionary labour movement outside of it.

There are some obvious flashpoints coming up in terms of the unions’ relationship with Labour. Despite having backed Corbyn, unions like Unison are clearly uncomfortable with much of his platform (Unison leader Dave Prentis was openly critical of Corbyn’s decision to appoint left-winger John McDonnell as his Shadow Chancellor). Unison, Unite, and the other Labour-affiliated unions face a test: what role with they play now? Will they, for example, push for Labour to commit to not only opposing new Tory anti-union laws, but repealing existing ones if in government? Will they use their links to Labour to put pressure on Corbyn to moderate, or to pressure him to radicalise? The answers to those questions depend on the outcome of struggles within those unions, within the framework of the Labour-union link. But, if all they have to say about that link is “break it”, they are struggles which Phil and his comrades cannot possibly contribute to.

4. We need a movement independent of any party

What are “parties”? People with shared political ideas and approaches combining to fight to win majorities for those ideas and approaches in a wider sphere (in this case within the wider working class). Despite their holy terror of the word, all the anarchist groups are “parties”.

“Parties” are inevitable. Better that we organise into parties than have political differences play out “behind the scenes”, allowing our movement to fall prey to the leadership of undemocratic “invisible pilots” (a phrase anarchist forefather Mikael Bakunin once used positively as a model for how anarchists should operate!).

It seems that Phil’s concern is that the wider working-class movement will get drawn into having defend Corbyn, and by extension the whole Labour Party, against right-wing criticism, even if it moves rightwards. It’s not an unreasonable concern, in the face of a mounting media onslaught against Corbyn that risks distracting from the policies themselves. But a rightwards drift of Corbyn’s leadership is not inevitable, and depends greatly upon what we do now.

What the working class needs is an independence of political ideas, and parties and unions which are independent from the interests of other classes. The fight now ongoing in the Labour Party is a fight to free it from the politics of the ruling class.

5. There are no short cuts

“The liberation of the working class is the task of the working class ourselves”, Phil finishes (quoting Karl Marx, who had a rather different attitude to Phil on the question of political parties), “and that means it’s a task outside the boundaries of the Labour Party.”

Well of course it is. The potential of the current moment is not that it might transform the Labour Party as it currently exists into a vehicle for socialism, but precisely that it might go beyond “the boundaries of the Labour Party”, exploding the unstable and contradictory tug-of-war it has always represented, and create new possibilities for independent working-class politics. The Corbyn surge is exciting and important precisely because it questions where the boundaries of the Labour Party are, and seeks to test them.

Workers’ Liberty believes that revolutionaries should be inside that process — one of a mass working-class inquiry into exactly what the limits of our current organisations are. We should help that process develop, and, where we can, accelerate it — not simply by advocating greater militancy in this or that struggle but by attempting to educate ourselves and those around us in bigger ideas, beyond social-democratic reformism and towards a politics of revolutionary working-class power.

There are, indeed, no short cuts to the development of a mass revolutionary working-class movement. But it will not be built from scratch. It will be built through struggles within our existing organisations. And, as the old saying goes, “you gotta be in it to win it.”