Colin Wilson discusses why he isn’t joining Labour. We will be publishing the next related article on this topic early next week and would encourage people who’d like to contribute to the discussion to get in touch!
Lots of my friends – people with firm socialist politics and an impressive track record of activism – have joined the Labour Party in the last year. I see many more people thinking of doing so now to defend Corbyn. Others have paid £25 to vote in the leadership election. Of course, Corbyn stands head and shoulders above Owen Smith. The sight of a principled socialist leader explaining in plain terms what he thinks puts to shame a right-wing politics rooted in parliamentary manoeuvring and spin-doctored soundbites. It opens up a bigger space for left politics and makes it harder for the media to dismiss socialism as irrelevant.
So I hope Corbyn wins, but that’s not enough to get me to join the Labour Party. I share the anger of many people against most Labour MPs, especially those who felt called on last week to vote for Trident. Seeing them deselected would be a real step forward for democracy. The fact that, having won one election, a Labour MP is beyond all accountability to their members is disgraceful. But I’m wary of spending the next few years involved in a series of deselection battles. There seems to me to be a danger of people devoting most of their energies to struggles inside the Labour Party – to deselecting right-wingers, and then possibly struggling to hold the Labour Party together if the right splits off. At a time when we have other battles to fight – to defend migrants and oppose racism, to defend the NHS and oppose privatisation – that seems a problem.
I also can’t join the Labour Party when I look at its track record and historical purpose. Labour has always been a party which has wanted to become the government – an alternative leadership for the British state, including the British state as a war machine. This is one reason why many Labour MPs find Corbyn’s stance on Trident so appalling. Attlee, leader of the 1945 government, was after all the Prime Minister who authorised the development of British nukes. Running the British state alongside the generals, judges and senior civil servants isn’t the goal of my political activity. Now, I know that the same is true of my friends who have joined Labour. But in that case their political project involves trying to shift Labour away from what it has been for a hundred years and make it into something else, in defiance of the ruling class and their corporate media. I don’t see any reason to think that project can succeed.
Finally, let’s imagine a scenario where, by 2020, things have gone as well as they could for Corbyn and his supporters. The right-wing Labour MPs have been deselected, their SDP Mark 2 has failed, the Tories have split over Brexit and Corbyn is Prime Minister at the head of a solid majority of supportive MPs. He announces a programme of radical reform. What happens next? We can expect falls in the stock market and the value of the pound as business takes fright at this threat to profits. Labour will face the choice of managing capitalism or defying the unelected state machine. This is just the choice which faced Syriza last year, when the Troika imposed its terms for the bail-out. The Greek people had voted against those terms – now it was up to Syriza to defy the European ruling class. But, when a party is based on the logic of changing the system from within through parliament, leading a militant popular struggle from below isn’t something it is organised to do, and so Syriza capitulated. A similar challenge would very likely face a Corbyn government as soon as it was elected. I haven’t seen any proposals which explain how that threat would be defeated. For example, John McDonnell has written that a future Labour government will “reshape the narrative on the economy” but not explained how it will face down the attacks which it will face when it does so.
These issues reflect a debate which has continued on the left for a hundred years, between those arguing we can get socialism by reforming the existing system from within, and those who believe we need a revolutionary and democratic mass movement to sweep away that system and build something new from the ground up. Of course, all of the left fights for reforms within capitalism. But, as the Polish-Jewish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put it before World War I, reformist and revolutionary politics are not different routes to the same goal – they are different strategies that lead in fundamentally different directions. And reformism always involves the danger – which has overwhelmed many good socialists in the past – that reforms, and the struggles and concessions necessary to win them, become the whole horizon of a person’s politics, and the struggle for a fundamentally different society is forgotten.
It’s for these reasons – because I remain committed to a revolutionary project, not a reformist one – that I can’t join the Labour Party. As for people paying £25 to become Labour supporters and get a vote, I say good for them – as long as they are doing so as a tactic to defend Corbyn, not as part of accepting a reformist strategy as a whole. Here I’m attempting to apply in a dramatically shifting political landscape what seems to me one of the most valid perceptions of genuine revolutionary politics. On the one hand, you don’t abandon your principles – you seek to relate to people but you don’t tell them what they want to hear. On the other, you don’t cut yourself off from people you disagree with so you can maintain a sort of sectarian purity. You attempt to steer what is always a difficult course, based on judgements which may always be mistaken – avoiding sectarianism on the one hand, but not fudging your politics on the other.
Does such a revolutionary strategy mean guaranteed success? No, not at all – any sensible person would laugh at such a suggestion. But there is at least the chance that circumstances may make a revolutionary breakthrough possible, and we should do everything we can to build organisation so we can take advantage if it does, even if that means accepting that we must grow gradually from small beginnings. What we can know for certain is that the alternative, the road of reform, while popular at times, will always be a dead end. If we have any respect for our friends who are joining the Labour Party, these are concerns we have to raise.