Corbyn deserves our support, but we must recognise the Labour Party for what it is and build an autonomous social movement, writes Duncan Thomas.
Jeremy Corbyn is a fantastic politician, a committed man with sound principles. He has energised British society in a way that – outside Scotland – hasn’t been seen for a long, long time. His campaign has opened up spaces that seemed tightly closed, engaged people who had felt alienated for years and generally put the cat amongst the pigeons in a quite wonderful way. He has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to effect real change – but only if we know how to take it.
He needs and deserves all the support that we can give him. But we must do so as the Left and from the Left. Most importantly, we must remember and argue to others that political processes are driven by struggle; that the State is a complex institutional apparatus which must be subject to social pressure if it is to acquiesce to leftist demands; and that social mobilisation is a prerequisite to parliamentary success, if the latter is to be invested with any kind of radical potential. Corbyn’s entire campaign, despite its great importance, is secondary to this fundamental need for mobilisation in society.
As I have written elsewhere, although the green shoots of this mobilisation are certainly evident, we should not regard the Labour Party as a potential vehicle for such struggle. Corbyn has been isolated within it for decades; he still is now. Arguably, his campaign shows not that Labour can be “saved”, but on the contrary, reveals the overwhelming hostility of its upper echelons to left-wing or “progressive” politics. The huge contradiction between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and its active social base is now in plain view; the latter should not be under any illusions as to the lengths the former will go to in order to crush this rebellion, given that they have made their desire to do so perfectly clear.
Make no mistake, if Corbyn becomes leader of Labour, never mind Prime Minister, he will be attacked: by his own party, by large capital, by the media, by the state bureaucracy and very possibly by the Secret Services and other shadowy institutions. We should remember how this array of forces conspired to bring down Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government, attempted to do the same to Harold Wilson and, as chronicled in forensic detail by Seamus Milne, smeared Arthur Scargill with the same kind of tactics we are beginning to see deployed against Corbyn.
Indeed, the lesson of history is simple and sobering: when a threat is identified, the various factions of the British establishment set aside their internecine squabbles to destroy it. We must be prepared for that to happen with Corbyn and develop the capacity to react to it when it does.
That means seeing him less as a leader and more as an ally, albeit an extremely valuable one. It means working with Labour activists from the left of the Party, but at the same time being aware of the limits of that avenue and developing our own autonomous capacities to communicate, organise and articulate demands. Such an independent and self-reliant movement will be far more resilient and carry far greater potential – and, as such, will in fact be far more able to offer Corbyn meaningful and lasting support than if it remains tied too closely to the structure of the Labour Party itself.
To his great credit, Corbyn seems well aware of the importance of this. He often talks about how he wants to transform the Labour Party into the heart of a social movement – and while he is vague about how that movement would function, who would be in it and how radical its demands would be, it is not really his job to figure these things out. It’s our job and, if we can’t do it, his leadership bid will go nowhere, whether he wins or loses. Only by developing autonomy can we ensure that our collective ambitions are not too closely tied to Corbyn’s personal fate in the Westminster bureaucracy and corporate press.
The real potential of Corbyn’s campaign will be decided by us and, indeed, he is only in the running because of us. Recognising the limits of Labour, therefore, is not “defeatist”, but realistic and potentially empowering. It means trusting in our own agency, not that of a party or leader, no matter how much we respect and admire Corbyn.
If, like the Scottish Referendum, his campaign can provide a point of focus for wider engagement and mobilisation, then it may open up real possibilities. Sometimes, such a catalyst is necessary to trigger a momentum that takes on a life of its own. If we can take advantage of that, then Corbyn and his allies can be real assets in parliament. Whether or not such mobilisation can happen to a sufficient degree is difficult to say. We all have responsibilities and pressures; we often feel powerless and isolated. All these things are real barriers that can stop us from becoming politically active. However, there is no other way. Progress is gained through struggle, or not at all.
There is no magic formula, but all of us must contribute what we are able, where we think it will be most useful, in whatever way motivates us to act and best utilises our skills. We should not feel guilty if we do not have the time or confidence to be in the front rank of every rally and meeting. However, we should try to understand how we can participate in building the society we want to live in, make realistic commitments and carry them through. Corbyn’s campaign can be a reference point, around which that process can grow.
To paraphrase a famous line, only if we each give according to our abilities will we all receive according to our needs. If our abilities extend only to casting a vote and attending a few hustings; if we are incapable of both supporting his leadership bid and moving beyond it; if our efforts peter out once “success” has been achieved with his election, then Corbyn will be a sitting duck and our hopes will go down with him.
Over the coming days, rs21 will be publishing short pieces from different social movements on how they relate to the Corbyn campaign and interpret its limits and opportunities.