Jack Farmer argues that we need revolutionary ideas more than ever now that Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader
The unthinkable has become real: a socialist is leader of the Labour Party. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Labour’s history is littered with right-wing leaders who have betrayed the hopes of those who voted for them.
As I write, many are deciding it’s time to join the Labour Party to get behind Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda. I’m not one of those, since I think that it is the pressure from outside the election-oriented structures of Labour that is likely to prove crucial. Either way we need to figure out our strategy for building the anti-austerity movement. For those of us who see ourselves as part of a revolutionary Marxist tradition, we have to find a way of popularising our ideas without pretending we have all the answers – or simply seeming irrelevant. So, below I’ve briefly sketched out five revolutionary arguments I think it’s worth trying popularise as we build the anti-austerity movement.
Don’t put your faith in parliament and the state
People joining Labour are likely to get sucked into a factional fight against the right of the party, but our goal should be to build a big anti-austerity movement uniting people inside and outside Labour. If people in my area join Labour, they’ll be expected to give out leaflets for Chuka Umunna, an arch Blairite MP. Leafleting for Labour MPs certainly doesn’t do justice to the hope for change that people felt who supported Corbyn.
This speaks to a broader truth – that parliament and the state are not geared to returning wealth and power to ordinary workers and the poor. The NHS, the welfare state, social housing, the extension of the right to vote and other cherished reforms were not gifts handed down from our benevolent rulers – they had to be won be popular movements, often in the face of intransigent resistance from the parliamentary system. Ever since the Paris Commune Marxists have argued that workers cannot take control of the existing machinery of the state, which embodies and reinforces the class divisions in society – instead we have to build up our own democratic forms.
We didn’t have to wait long after Corbyn’s election to see the British establishment show its true colours. The Tories wasted no time saying he was a “threat to national security”, while a serving general suggested the army would mutiny rather than follow his orders. If he were actually to be elected prime minister this kind of hysterical reaction, amplified by a hostile media, would be ramped up much further. So we shouldn’t let people’s desire for change be funnelled into, and dissipated by, the parliamentary system.
Socialism-from-below is better than politics-as-usual
Teachers learned years ago that, if in doubt, always do the opposite of whatever Michael Gove tells you to do. Well, speaking after Corbyn’s election he advised us all to stick to “civilised” politics (i.e. leave it to people like him in parliament) and not take to the streets to protest or occupy or take strike action. This advice should come as no surprise: Gove knows that it will much harder to counter Corbyn if he’s backed up by a big movement on the streets and in workplaces.
As Dan Swain argued in the last issue of this magazine, politics-as-usual of the kind Gove advocates is about the management of people and ideas from above. We’re allowed to vote for the government about twice a decade (usually with a realistic choice of two parties with near-identical policies), but when it comes to doing politics we’re encouraged to leave it to the professionals. This reflects the way work is organised: do what you’re told and leave the big decisions to the boss.
We need to break down this ingrained deference to the powers that be – but not by simply putting all our faith in a different leadership-on-high. Even the most incorruptible left-wing leader will be brought to heel by a hostile establishment. Instead we need to build the self-confidence of people to fight back from below.
Much has been made of “Corbynomics” – the ways in which Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants to run the economy. His proposals are broadly Keynesian (and certainly not about ending capitalism) but it’s a measure of how narrow the ruling consensus is that his proposals have been condemned by many commentators for whom any challenge to full-blooded austerity is unacceptable. Nevertheless, his proposals are likely to open up space for more radical ideas.
One of the biggest lies of our time – alongside the breathtaking untruth that Labour’s public spending cause the 2008 financial crash – is that people like bankers, entrepreneurs and bosses are “wealth creators”. These people certainly control much of the wealth, but they would find themselves hard-up pretty quickly if all the workers underneath them went on strike. The real wealth creators are working class people currently being hammered by austerity.
Any movement against austerity will be toothless if those in it believe the lie that only the rich and those who control capital keep the economy afloat. The newspapers will scream that unless we continue to cut public services and the welfare budget these so-called “wealth creators” at the top will disappear. But if we recognise that it is the labour of millions of workers that keeps the economy going, we can use our combined capacity to organise at work and withdraw our labour to pile on the pressure for change and draw more people into a fightback.
The whole damn system stinks
While the media always insists that people moderate and limit their demands for change, or tailor them to suit the views of an imaginary “middle England” voter, we should instead relentlessly point out how each struggle unmasks a system that is oppressive in its totality. This is what Lenin meant when he argued that revolutionaries should be “tribunes of the oppressed”, arguing against every manifestation of oppression while talking about how this-or-that struggle relates to capitalism as a whole.
Today, we need to fight like hell for every positive change that Corbyn attempts to put on the agenda, whether its rent controls, protecting public services from cuts, ending sexual harassment of women, decommissioning nuclear weapons or defending migrants. But we’ve also got to see how this patchwork of unfair policies and oppressive realities stems from a class society and capitalism as a whole.
School of rebellion
Whatever happens in the coming months, we must build up the social movement that sparked Corbyn’s rise and without which he will be powerless. For a radical left that has spent decades in a defensive posture, there is a big danger that we position ourselves on the sidelines, smugly preaching the impossibility of change within the framework of parliament or capitalism. Instead, we’ve got to be shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone desperate for Labour to deliver change, while arguing that only the growing self-activity of ordinary people can win the change people yearn for. Just like a TV gameshow, you’ve got to be in it to win it.
Revolutionary socialists have a lot to teach – and a lot to learn. We draw inspiration and lessons from history, and especially from the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but if we allow ourselves to be satisfied with just an unchanging, desiccated “Leninism”, we’re dead. Marxism means learning: learning from each other’s mistakes and successes, learning from the past, learning how to intervene today to ignite people’s self-confidence. We never really graduate from the school of rebellion.
Putting this kind of politics into practice is far more difficult than politics-as-usual, leaving it to the professionals. But changing the world is never going to be easy.