I hope Corbyn wins, but I’m not going to join the Labour Party

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!

Photo: John Walker

Photo: John Walker

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.

There are 45 comments

  1. A Labour Party member

    Well-argued exposition of Marxist ABCs. And it might surprise you to learn that there are thousands of long-term Labour Party activists who are well aware of the limitations of mass social democratic parties, which have been made quite clear by history.

    But we are not in a situation where socialist revolution is on the agenda. In the here and now, the concrete political struggles in British society are refracted through the Labour Party. Retreating into a well-meaning but small group such as RS21 strikes me as a cop out.

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  2. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch)

    I am a revolutionary socialist and I’m also not joining Labour. But unlike Colin, I don’t rule out such a move as always wrong; I keep it under review, especially in the present period of fervour in that party.

    I think Corbyn gets too easy a ride from his supporters (Colin makes a good point about how these Labour activists just see that struggle as all. Indeed, just look at their Twitter feeds) as they will never criticise his Left Reformism (a bit to the right of Tony Benn, who, for example, wanted to leave NATO).

    They also won’t decry Corbyn’s inept tactics, such as his constant conciliation to the Right (all those Shadow Cabinet members that resigned were appointed by him!) as well as his self-defeating disavowal of the mandatory reselection of Labour candidates (because those MPs will keep on coming for him.)

    These Corbyn activists are often very similar to the Bennites and history may well repeat itself. The Benn struggle was to replace the old Right with people like Blunkett and Hodge (yes, Bennites then). But these new rulers ended up even more rightwing than what they replaced! I think you can quite clearly guess who will be the Right Labour MPs twenty years hence from Momentum, if history does repeat itself – Lord Owen of Jones?

    So why do I hold Labour party membership ‘under review’? Probably for much the same reason Colin writes ‘I hope Corbyn wins’. I mean, why would the comrade care who wins, in the way we don’t care about whom leads the Liberal Democrats, unless Colin thinks Labour are different for revolutionary socialists?

    That’s because that Syriza-type situation that Colin describes could arise. And maybe a section of the membership and a few MPs could break/be expelled from Labour, when PM Corbyn feels he must do what Mark Carney tells him.

    Such fervour about how far a government would go would have no precedent in recent UK history and so all that has passed before might be only of limited use.

    If that war should break out, don’t we think revolutionary socialists should be there in that Labour party along with fellow revolutionaries but, more importantly, with the mass of those classfighters (and a true mass of members have joined Labour recently) who are yet to see the need for revolution, rather than reforms? And it’s not a life-long pledge – if it doesn’t work out, we would leave. But if it does!

    I’m not forgetting history or the history or other places where a Corbyn has become a PM, etc. I’m not forgetting that the role of Labour from its foundation to now has been to reinforce capitalism. But I’m also not forgetting, albeit it in very different circumstances, that most communist parties arose from the ‘Labour’ party (although not in the UK

    We should not be hidebound by any rules or precedents of different times if we think a unique situation means a unique solution. I will join Labour if for example, if the Right MPs leave/are expelled and there is that rare moment of flux.

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  3. Salman mirza

    “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.”

    Yup that’s why I joined … I want to be on all those meetings with new young activists arguing for strikes occupations protests and union membership.

    To me it’s a strategy.. I feel like a hypocrite if I’m celebrating loads joining then not joining myself

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  4. FRED

    In the next period we are going to have to forget past differences and work together. If they break Corbyn people are going to need somewhere to go that is organised way beyond what social media can offer. If Corbyn keeps the Party the problems are going to be there too as people are going to face the same problems as in Greece. But we need organisation that is able to act quickly as a group. The problem to me about social media groups is that nobody is held to account and at times anything goes. It is often not at all clear who is responsible for posts and where the pockets of organisation are, The best one I had was when Lyndsey was talking to me for ages and then asked me if I knew Fred. On social media all sorts of people can set up rooms without knowing who is listening in and who in truth is responsible. A Party has its problems and will make mistakes but these loose groups frighten me very much because I do not know where they come from, I have worked with The IMG, Vanessa .SWP and Ian Bone. But in all those cases I knew who I was talking to as I was in a room where I could see the people. I am hoping that you are the same person I know but I am unsure. That worries me greatly. See you I hope Fred Swansea. I think I see at last what RS 21 means. I think it is important to have the meaning in the title and not just letters and numbers like on trainers .I hope that is not seen as trying to put you down. I just think it would help.
    Or perhaps I have misunderstood. Are you a party with a specific set of ideas. Iv’e not been able to go to meetings for ages as I am not well. From Fred only. Have great memories of working along side you.

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  5. RayB

    This article outlines the problems with reformism and Corbyn in particular very well.

    While I accept that the media is enthusiastically distorting and suppressing Corbyn’s position, I have rarely been impressed by his rhetoric when confronting the Tories. His fudge on the EU and calls for unity with MP’s who will do anything to get rid of him, even if it means destroying Labour, is a worrying sign. As leader, his deference to parliamentary procedure is almost parodic considering his rebellious past. Behind the scenes Corbyn continues to support the grass roots campaigns and union rank and file but the problem is that this is obscured by the current parliamentary fiasco caused by the Blairites. But I suspect, once this is settled, Corbyns focus will continue to be on parliamentary procedure. So I hope that those joining Labour will adopt a critical support for Corbyn which challenges the limits of reformism whenever this inevitably appears.

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  6. Liam MacU (@LiamMacU)

    “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.”

    This would make sense if the numbers on either side were, in very broad terms, in the same order of magnitude. In this case they really aren’t. The entire organised far left in the British state is probably smaller than the membership of a couple of London CLPs. A perspective of waiting outside the Labour Party because you’ve read something Rosa Luxemburg wrote 100 years ago just is not sustainable.

    For as long as Corbyn and Mc Donnell are the Labour leadership that party is where the class struggle in England and Wales is happening. There are no big strikes and the pitiful front organisations pretending to represent something real are worse than distractions. The Corbyn / McDonnell leadership is something quite new. They don’t have the Eurocommunist baggage that destroyed Syriza; they are serious about mobilising vast numbers of people; they have a long record as class struggle activists and seem to have good anti-bureaucratic instincts. If they lose the faction fight inside the Labour Party it will be a big defeat for every socialist in the British state and insisting on revolutionary purity is not a good response to such a situation.

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  7. Rogerw

    I think the massive growth in the membership of the Labour Party Is something new in British politics, and is, or least provides the potential for, a mass socialist movement which is not constrained by traditional Labourist electoral activity but is outward looking and engaged in extra parliamentary campaigning activity. I think revolutionaries can operate openly in such a movement, and that being in the Labour Party is the most effective way of working with and relating to the many thousands who have joined the Labour Party over the past year. Although I see this as a tactical rather than strategic issue. The ideal would be to build a revolutionary tendency in the Labour Party. The obstacle is that as always sectarianism of left groups to one another will mean attempts to build separate and competing revolutionary tendencies. If only we could avoid this then the opportunities for the revolutionary left are potentially massive.

    I should add that I only rejoined the Labour Party a few weeks ago and before it was decided we had to pay 25 quid to be able to vote. It was a heat of the moment decision and it is only in the past few days that l have reached the above perspective. If people have not yet joined the Labour Party by now then it is probably sensible to wait for the outcome of the leadership election. Were Smith to win then the situation would be very fluid, and tactical decisions would have to be made whether to join the party, stay in it or leave. The above applies assuming Corbyn wins, or as an alternative possibility is prevented by the courts from staying on the ballot. If the latter happens we have a new and different fight to make.

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  8. Colin Wilson

    Thanks to comrades for their comments.

    Some people suggested that if you aren’t in the Labour Party you make yourself marginal. Liam argued that Labour “is where the class struggle in England and Wales is happening.” But if you look at stories on this website for the last couple of months it’s clear that’s not true. Members of rs21 (that’s the organisation Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century) have been involved in calling a pro-migrant march that attracted over 1,000 people. We played an active role at UNITE conference. Members were involved in the BMA dispute, as well as many other struggles. Salman says he’s joined Labour so he can work with new layers of people. Certainly no one wants to be stuck on the sidelines, only talking to people who agree with them – but there are lots of forums for discussion and many active campaigns where meeting new people doesn’t depend on Labour membership.

    Several people pointed out the revolutionary left is small. The figures are stark: we have a few thousand members in total – less than 200 in rs21’s case – while Labour has half a million. I very much wish we were bigger. But let’s look at this in a broader context. For the last fifteen or so years, as people have rejected the neoliberal and pro-war politics adopted by established left parties, political formations from the radical left have erupted across Europe – Rifondazione Comunista, Die Linke, Syriza, Podemos, the New Anticapitalist Party in France and People Before Profit in Ireland. The Corbyn phenomenon is part of this trend – though, unusually, here it’s happening within the discredited centre-left party. The fortunes of these radical left alternatives have varied, and no one can claim they have a formula which guarantees success. People Before Profit are currently doing well, winning votes while maintaining principled positions. But Rifondazione had huge success in 2006, gaining 41 deputies and 27 senators – only to join a centre-left coalition, vote to fund Italian troops in Afghanistan and see their vote collapse again, so that now they have neither deputies nor senators. The Syriza government capitulated to the Troika despite 3.5 million people voting OXI to the proposed bail-out.

    So, it’s not just about the numbers: the radical left also needs to attempt to develop political strategies. The rise of Corbynism within the Labour Party makes that particularly tricky. Corbyn hopes that after a second leadership victory, most of the PLP will come on board – I don’t see any reason to think they will. There’s also a second power base for the Labour right, the leaderships of local councils like Manchester – who see the only way forward as working with the Tories and are contemptuous of Corbyn. Even if these forces can be won to grudging acceptance of Corbyn’s leadership, where is the potential common ground in terms of policy? I don’t think that I’m “insisting on revolutionary purity” when I raise these difficult tactical questions. And this is only part of the broader problem, that Labour governments have consistently and for over a century failed to carry through radical changes which take us towards socialism – the 1945 government is the only partial exception. That’s the case despite many Labour members wanting just those radical changes, as thousands of Corbyn supporters do now. Until Labour Party members can explain how they plan to deal with the Labour right, and why they think the fundamental nature of the party can be changed as never before, I remain convinced that we have no choice but to start, from small beginnings, to build a revolutionary alternative to Labour rather than joining it.

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  9. Rogerw

    Other than the ISN, which was not really an organisation, I have not been in a revolutionary organisation for many years. But two of the organisations I was in during the 1980s & 1990s, the ICL/WSL and then the ISG, adopted a shallow entry tactic in the Labour Party. This took the form of most members engaging in Labour Party work as part of their political activities whilst the organisation’s maintained an external public profile – mainly through the party press. Today, this can be extended to websites, Facebook pages and the like, and could be adopted by an organisation even the size of RS21. What is needed is for RS21 members to decide for themselves if Labour Party work is of any value. I would argue that it is, not just for RS21 as an organisation, but for what is becoming the mass socialist movement that is today’s Labour Party, as RS21 could help build a revolutionary tendency within the Labour Party. I believe this to be possible within a Corbyn led party, particularly as the Blairites are purged or purge themselves as they leave Labour to join the Lib Dems or form a new party in the hope this will enable them to keep their parliamentary seats

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  10. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch)

    I note Colin’s remarks about radical (if not always socialist) parties arising in Europe “– Rifondazione Comunista, Die Linke, Syriza, Podemos, the New Anticapitalist Party in France and People Before Profit in Ireland.”

    But where did these parties come from? They didn’t spontaneously evolve. A lot came from CPs which were mass parties in Europe but not in the UK. Clearly any equivalent that will arise in the UK would include some of the people currently in Labour. So the question is when are you in the same party as these comrades – before the split working for such or even working in a new left ‘Labour’ party which keeps the ‘brand’ and has expelled the Right. Nothing should be ruled out.

    There’s a debate about this article on the Facebook page of Dave Osland, a leader of the Labour Representation Committee and Labour Briefing.

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  11. Roderick C

    The key question for me isn’t whether we should join Labour – we shouldn’t for the reasons Colin outlines – but what role can revolutionaries, and revolutionary organisations like rs21, do to support Corbyn and help him defeat the right?

    On that basis there is a stronger case for getting involved in Momentum where one is able to than joining Labour. Or, in the wake of the banning of CLP meetings by the Labour NEC, of organising pro-Corbyn meetings and rallies and targeting Labour members.

    There is no doubt that, despite the obvious limitations of the reformist politics of the Labour left, that a genuinely left-wing Labour Party would be of huge benefit to the working class by shifting the whole debate in politics to the left. On the other hand, if Corbyn was forced out that would be a clear and very substantial defeat. So on that basis revolutionaries should be doing what they can to help build the Corbyn surge while retaining our organisational independence and putting forward our revolutionary politics in an open and honest way.

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  12. nothingiseverlost

    This is a good article, thank you. A genuine question, and one that’s been weighing on my mind for a while: how do people think the rise in Labour membership has affected involvement in actual class struggle outside of the Labour Party (broadly speaking, stuff like union/workplace organising, community organising like Sisters Uncut or housing/tenants groups, or social movements like Black Lives Matter)? Is your impression that the results have been broadly negative from a class struggle-outside-Labour perspective, in that people have given up on union/other organising commitments to focus on Labour, or broadly positive, in that people who weren’t previously that active have got involved in Labour *and* struggles outside the party, or broadly neutral (people who were doing other stuff before have carried on doing other stuff, people who weren’t previously that active have signed up to Labour but not taken on that much in the way of other commitments)? It seems to me that this question is crucial to any serious understanding of the situation, but I’ve not seen many attempts at answering it – even anecdotal data would be better than nothing.
    Finally, I think some of the people on this thread, particularly Liam, would do well to grasp the distinction between class struggle and the left.

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  13. RayB

    In response to nothingiseverlost, I don’t have any hard evidence one way or the other but anecdotally I became a revolutionary socialist during the 80’s when there were a range of campaigns such as defending the NHS, Section 28, the Poll Tax, the Miners strike, ANL, etc. etc. Rather than one issue such as the struggle inside Labour pulling me to the left in the 80’s, it was a range of issues that convinced me. Rather than having one pole of attraction I had many. It’s been my experience that political involvement isn’t limited to one issue so I’m assuming that those campaigning for Corbyn, like me, might become radicalised over a whole range of issues. Which is why, as a revolutionary, I defend Corbyn while at the same time arguing for a much broader coalition of the left other than Labour.

    I don’t think the main question for revolutionaries is about joining Labour but whether we continue to offer critical support of reformism. The problem with Militant in the 80’s was their failure to challenge the reformist nature of Labour after they had established themselves in positions of influence. The outcome of this type of enterism is similar to the Eurocommunists who theorised that the capitalist state could be transformed using its own institutions. Unless there’s a revolutionary current capable of having the debate about the nature of reformism and the capitalist state then it’s much more likely that when Corbyn compromises in the face of the full force of the establishment this might trigger wide spread demoralisation and squander much of the work put in by activists.

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  14. nickwall

    I joined Labour in September not so much to support Corbyn, as to be part of a very large and very political grassroots movement that had built up to support Corbyn. What happened to that movement seemed to me to be enormously important to the future of any serious leftwing project in this country, and I felt that my place was to be part of that fight and part of the debates that would inevitably rage within the movement, whether or not the movement was defeated. Since September my party branch has nearly doubled in size. And the people who are joining now are even harder politically than quite a few who joined in the heady days of 2015 : they’ve seen Labour MPs lining up to say that Corbyn has to go, and they’re still unwavering in their support. So what I feel is missing from Colin’s piece is some kind of reflection on how the revolutionary left who remain outside Labour can develop a serious relationship with this remarkably strong and growing new left movement which is building up within the Labour Party. Because if you’re right and Corbyn fails in his aims and the movement goes into retreat, then it’s your duty just as much as ours to make sure that tens of thousands of people aren’t lost to the fight for socialism.

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  15. Colin Wilson

    Nothingiseverlost – people I know personally who have joined Labour include two people who were active around Palestine and continue to be; several people who were and continue to be active trade unionists; and someone who is involved in community activity including producing a community newspaper. Others are people who had previously been active in far left groups but had left them. So I think people either do it *as well* as other stuff, or they do it when they weren’t active before. I don’t see people giving up other stuff and only being active in Labour. My perception is that lots of other struggles are continuing – as you say, like Black Lives Matter and Sisters Uncut, also migrant solidarity work – so I can’t accept the argument that if you aren’t in the Labour Party you’ve excluded yourself from political activity.

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  16. Rogerw

    Clearly not being in the Labour Party does not mean comrades are excluded from political activity. But, conversely, what is it that RS21 comrades feel they will lose if they join their local Labour Parties. As I have written above it does not mean disguising one’s revolutionary politics or even losing an external organisational profile. It does mean being fully involved in forwarding the class struggle by helping to transform the Labour Party into a mass socialist party, albeit a reformist one. In the here and now, assuming Corbyn wins, that means fighting in all constituenticies for the deselection of all sitting MPs who refused to be accountable to their members by voting Smith when the local party supported Corbyn. It also means arguing within constituency parties for Labour to develop an unequivocal socialist programme (for me that would include transitional demands, but that is for another debate). The SWP will not send members into the Labour Party because, whether it admits it publicly or not, it believes itself to be THE revolutionary party and it will lose its identity if it engages in Labour Party work. I am sure RS21 members, having left the SWP, do not share the delusion that Rs21, as a healthy version of the SWP, is the revolutionary party in waiting. Ultimately, of course such a party must be built and the Labour Party itself can never be transformed into a revolutionary party. But that is not where we are at in the here and now or for the immediate future. Right now because of the upsurge in a largely left wing young membership the Labour Party is a key site of class struggle and one in which revolutionaries should be fully, not just partly, involved.

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  17. RayB

    The SWP has never claimed to be THE revolutionary party but it has argued that revolutionaries attempting to engage in struggle will end up pulled to the right and politically compromised by entering Labour. That doesn’t mean that enterism into reformist organisations is never appropriate but in the case of Labour, at this point, it isn’t the best strategy. Enterism didn’t work in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the pinnacle of the Labour left movement, because of the pressure to compromise and move to the right as the focus of struggle for those revolutionaries in Labour became internal party wranglings. What exactly is different now? Moralising at revolutionaries, who support Corbyn, to join Labour is not a convincing argument for this strategy.

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  18. ihbirchall

    I think RayB is largely right here. Those who entered the Labour Party at the time of Bennism (mainly the IMG, the Militant were already there) achieved little in terms of either strengthening the left or of building their own current. And by the end of the decade Militant had suffered a massive defeat.
    Of course it’s true the SWP didn’t achieve that much either. We recruited individuals – maybe, allowing for turnover, two or three thousand over the decade. But there were creditable interventions in the miners’ strike and the Wapping dispute, and a high level of political education. I think we made the better choice.
    What RayB doesn’t mention is the sharp difference between the SWP attitude to Benn and to Corbyn. When Benn ran for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the SWP had a fair number of comrades in Labour Party affiliated unions, and they naturally backed Benn. But the SWP’s position was strongly critcial of Bennism. It’s worth rereading Paul Foot’s “Three Letters to a Bennite” – https://www.marxists.org/archive/foot-paul/1982/3letters/index.htm – which strike a good balance between being fraternal and being sharply critical.
    By contrast, as far as I can see, the SWP has attempted very little in terms of either explaining the Corbyn phenomenon or of making a critique of Corbyn’s politics (except on the EU question). Largely there has been more or less uncritical support. Sadly I don’t think the SWP or anyone else on the far left will do as well as the SWP did in the eighties.

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  19. Graham Campbell

    I am rather perplexed to read this article which restates all the old hardy annual SWP-ish truisms about why we wish the Labour left every success but are not gonna do anything to help them. Now in the past that might have been understandable in that Labour was moving rightwards, the left Bennites were gonna lose, we knew it, and they knew it deep down. But today is not the 1980s. Here the Labour left is set to win again, and maybe even win big, What the working class in Britain needs is a victory or two starting with Corbyn. The comments of my rs21 comrades do raise important points about reformist vs revolutionary political projects but there’s the mistake Colin Wilson is making – as if these are so strictly counterposed. After all the early 20th century Leninist Bolshevik revolutionaries spent several years in a common social democratic workers party with the Mensheviks right up to 1912. They even ran common electoral slates in the Russian Duma, and on many city councils and some Soviets even after the February 1917 revolution! The road to the mass revolutionary party back then had to deal with reformism politically and organisationally sometimes even within the same organisation with the reformists.

    So what is more likely and permissible in our very different era and context? Here we are, miles from even a pre-revolutionary situation in Britain – a state whose politics for the last 40 years of neo-liberalism has been dominated by the aftermath of long term strategic defeats for the working class by a ruling class that has depended on four legs of the stool of their establishment:

    1) the State in the form of police, armed forces, the judiciary, security services;
    2) the political parties of the ruling and middle classes – Tories, Lib-Dems, the civil service – the Media – the ‘Political Class’ as they are called these days;
    3) the economic establishment – CBI, Bankers financiers and their secret committees – the real power behind the throne and
    4) the Labour Party and the trade unions

    For any major revolutionary situation to emerge or even a possibility of radical change there needs to be crisis not just in economic terms but in at least some if not all these four legs of the political stool. The 4th leg of the stool is the only one composed of the working class and its institutions acting in manufactured consent to the capitalist mode of production. Instead of ending exploitation it seeks to mitigate it through state intervention, biut never to question to tights of the ruling class to own and control. The 4th stool was just as important to the rulign class because assuring the allegiance of the Labour MPs and governments to defending capitalism was crucial in preventing the threat of workers revolution from below. Controlling the ideology and organisation of the Labour party and the trade unions was always crucial to the defence of the ruling class hegemony in Britain. A tamed Labour party and an acquiescent trade union leadership was necessary to the defence of the realm.

    So what does Corbyn’s leadership mean in that context of 40 years of Thatcherite neoliberalism? Firstly it reverses the right-wing gains of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair and the right-wing of the Labour movement ever since the 1980’s ‘New Realist’ ‘Thatcherism in Drag’ philosophy took over the party and the unions. Secondly the Corbynite anti-austerity revolt has virtually overnight reversed the polarity within the Labour party. The once right-wing dominion of trade union affiliate block votes and the constituency Labour parties (once the fiefdom of the Blairites and Fabians) has been overturned entirely. This is as near to a political revolutionary impulse as we have seen in Britain since the 1970s maybe even 1945. The loss of control of this 4th leg through the election of its most left-wing ever leader threatens to overturn the capitalist stool. It is obvious that the only meaningful way to develop revolutionary politics is perversely to help defend Corbyn’s leadership of mass left reformism – a mass movement from below , which while in motion can help move millions very quickly to more radical conclusions than Corbyn is probably prepared to imagine.

    The only way we can help that process along is to campaign for and vote for him alongside the masses of young voters and trade unionists who have rallied to him. It is from deep inside that movement that we must make the case for revolutionary ideas – not from the hectoring sidelines. That means joining as members or affiliated supporters. Now, having a Labour membership card does not commit you to endless CLP ward meetings (these are suspended anyway for the next 2 months). And there’s not gonna be a general election for a while so it doesn’t commit you to mindless electoralism either. What it does commit you to is a fight to the finish to defend the most left-wing leader the Labour party has ever had in order to defend the direction of travel towards meaningful, radical change. Standing on the sidelines is simply an act of sectarian abstentionism and is the wrong option.

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  20. Rogerw

    Graham has put so much better what I have been trying to say. In practice, there is no danger to revolutionaries in being members of the Labour Party and the degree of active involvement can be determined by individuals in the context of both national and local circumstances. There is just so much potentially to gain by fully working alongside the thousands of new young leftists who reached their own decisions to join the Labour Party to support Corbyn and move Labour to the left. Assuming Corbyn wins the next major battle is deselection and in constituencies with sitting traitor MPs this requires membership of the Labour Party to be involved. Should the state through the judges remove Corbyn from the ballot then this will make deselection even more vital.

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  21. RayB

    What’s the point of joining Labour if you’re not going to engage with other members in the democratic process? Isn’t that the definition of standing on the sidelines? If revolutionaries are going to convince Labour members then it needs to be done openly and collectively – not as individual members with a hidden agenda.

    Despite the upsurge in Labour membership there’s nothing comparable today to the Labour left movement of the late 70’s and early 80’s and if enterism was a complete failure then how will it succeed in much less favourable conditions? The Bolshevik/RSDLP and Corbyn/Labour comparison serves to highlight how ill thought out and unrealistic this proposed enterism strategy really is.

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  22. ihbirchall

    Rogerw tells us “Assuming Corbyn wins the next major battle is deselection and in constituencies with sitting traitor MPs this requires membership of the Labour Party to be involved.” But though he quite rightly uses the term “traitors” he underestimates just how treeacherous the PLP majority are. If they are deselected they will stand against Labour candidates – cheered on by the press, including the vile Guardian – even if that means giving the seat to the Tories. They hate Corbyn and any suggestion of socialism far more than they hate the Tories. They remind me of the section of the French bourgeoisie who, in 1940, had the slogan “Sooner Hitler than the Communists.” I don’t think the Corbynites have any idea how to deal with this threat – which is why they are very lukewarm about deselection. And I don’t think any of their would-be friends have any idea either – slogans like Socialist Worker’s “Don’t compromise with the Labour right” are singularly useless when they don’t look at the concrete reality.

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  23. RayB

    The SWP’s coverage of the problems in Labour have been supportive towards Corbyn but critical of his reformism. Concrete reality is reporting that, “The Labour left is committed to parliament and winning elections. That’s why historically it has repeatedly backed down from taking on the right in the name of “unity” and maintaining a “broad church”.” and, “That’s why Smith was not wholly hypocritical to cite Labour’s founder Keir Hardie or even Aneurin Bevan as heroes. And the pull of wanting to win an election is a pressure on the Labour left as well.”
    I don’t see how much more explicit the criticism of the Labour left can get without it descending into a counterproductive attack on Corbyn at a time when he and the Labour left are fighting for their existence. I imagine those in RS21 are themselves trying to achieve the right balance between criticism and support in the midst of this welcome but unexpected upsurge of radicalisation.
    The way to beat the Labour Right and their austerity agenda isn’t to confine the fight inside Labour where compromise at the top can lead to demoralisation but to build a broad based campaign that isn’t controlled by the PLP and the union bureaucracy. Hopefully we can all agree on that.

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  24. ihbirchall

    I don’t speak for RS21, RayB, only for myself as a very old and pessimistic individual. But I’ve been observing the Labour Party for well over half a century and I was a member for nine years back in the 1960s. Of course I support Corbyn and wish him well, and of course I support efforts “to build a broad based campaign that isn’t controlled by the PLP and the union bureaucracy”. I’m just not very hopeful.
    There were two moments at which the left posed a real threat to the Labour right’s hegemony – 1960 with the Scarborough unilateralist victory and 1981 with the Benn deputy leadership campaign. On both occasions the Labour right saw off the threat comparatively easily. The left made tactical maistakes but in any case it didn’t really have the base to make an effective challenge. I hope I’m wrong, but I see no reason to believe that the left is better placed this time round.
    I think the piece by Alec Callinicos (who unlike me has never been in the Labour Party) in this week’s Socialist Worker is shallow and superficial, and greatly underestimates the sheer ruthlessness of the Labour right. They will quite happily destroy the Labour Party rather than let Corbyn lead it. I would dearly love to see the corrupt scum in the PLP deselected en masse – but in reality I fear deselection would simply play into the hands of the right.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Rogerw

    Agree with RayB’s last post but re his earlier comment I do not advocate a hidden agenda. My argument is that revolutionaries can and should operate openly in the Labour Party to build a revolutionary tendency, but this need not mean ending your external organisational affiliations, though, as an independent revolutionary, I do not have one. I am totally opposed to the form of deep entry as practised in the past by Mililtant. I was part of the Rev left that entered the Labour Party to support the Bennite struggle in the 1980s and I think what is happening now is much more exciting with much more potential, though, of course, with many potential dangers as well.

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  26. lives; running

    A friend who has been at the top of Labour politics read the Seymour book and told me, “The problem with you lot is that you’re all far too nice about the Labour Party right.” Her view, having seen them up close would be similar to Ian’s point up-thread and the 1940 comparison. Of course, from her perspective, that’s an argument for being “in”, in that if you can’t hurt the bastards then what are you doing in socialist politics?

    Personally, what I would like RS21, or anyone else on the revolutionary left, to be doing is filling in some of the blank spaces in the Labour left’s strategic thinking. By which I don’t mean talking about the weaknesses or opportunities of a deselection battle. People who have been in the Labour Party for 25 years tend, unsurprisingly, to understand the politics of Labour Party rules reform better than those who have been thinking about Labour Party rules for 25 weeks (or 25 minutes).

    What I mean, more, is trying to think through what the next stages of reforms would be that a Corbyn-led Labour Party “could” demand and would point beyond the limits of (at least) this mini-epoch in capitalism. If we needed a model it could be the recent RS21 Trident pamphlet, which explained in a measured way, to a key audience within the Labour Party (UNITE, more than anyone else, swung the crucial NEC meeting) how easy it would be to change something (Trident) that even key Corbynistas (McCluskey) don’t want changed.

    We could do the same when it comes to work, housing, education… Looking beyond the immediate. And bringing those ideas to a Labour left which has been thinking, understandably, much more about how to get Corbyn elected, rather than what he would do with any second mandate.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. RayB

    I agree, Ian, that the Right in Labour will do everything it can to destroy a resurgent left and that revolutionaries have a very limited impact on this struggle whether they are inside or outside Labour atm. Nevertheless, this move to the left in Labour wasn’t obvious or predictable before Corbyn stood for leader so nothing is set in stone. Corbyn is currently the focus of this resurgence but that might change once the limitations of Labour left politics becomes clearer. It might pull activists further to the left or it might lead to demoralisation. Either way revolutionaries need to develop a strategy to avoid the latter outcome as far as possible.
    If we’re experiencing a general resurgence of the left and the death knell of neoliberalism in the UK then this is an opportunity to discuss and debate a whole range of ideas and strategies that were closed off before Corbyn’s election. Regardless of the limitations of the reach of revolutionaries atm this might change quite rapidly. The left isn’t in a position of relative strength as it was in the 70’s/80’s and building an anti-austerity campaign outside Labour has been very difficult without rank and file networks but the unexpected support for Corbyn is partly the outcome of that pre-Corbyn campaigning which now has the potential to grow much wider than Labour than it ever had before his election.

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  28. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch)

    I agree with the points of lives;running save how does the comrade see “filling in some of the blank spaces in the Labour left’s strategic thinking” happening? It would be hard to do this unless inside the Labour party; I recall the Paul Foot letters at the time of Benn (mentioned by Ian Birchall in a comment above) and the disinterest of Lefts in the Labour Party for advice from those (probably correctly, in hindsight) who weren’t members; who ‘wouldn’t dirty their hands’.

    I think now the Labour Left is even worse, yet a lot bigger (see my comment on the later RS21 article ‘I joined the Labour Party – maybe you should too’) and Momentum are poor politically (not organisationally) so they won’t know what to do when ‘their’ councils are presented with making cuts. But no-one in their orbit is going to listen if you haven’t got a Labour party card.

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  29. lives; running

    On the last point SPP, I don’t agree. Every conversation I’ve had, from my local Momentum group, to people who see themselves as “in the know” it has been the same: there’s a recognition that the Labour left don’t have all the answers and an interest in dialogue with people to their left. Of course, it’s important that people don’t think you’re speaking in platitudes. And it’s important to have ideas they haven’t come across already. It may even be that this openness won’t last. For the moment, though, it’s there.

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  30. RayB

    Corbyn welcoming back Sarah Champion into the shadow cabinet who, along with the other 183 Labour MP’s didn’t vote against the welfare bill and who stabbed Corbyn in the back by joining the coup is a concrete example of the illusion Corbyn has, along with the rest of the Labour Left, in parliamentary democracy. It’s like allowing the cuckoo back into the nest after it’s tried to turf out the fledglings. Except that Labour is the cuckoos nest and the left in Labour have never acknowledged their incongruous position.

    The problem for revolutionaries in Labour is that they will be pressurised by the likes of Corbyn and the Momentum leadership to go along with this self-defeating strategy of compromise for the greater good of the party or appear “unreasonable”. Momentum is an exclusively Labour campaign so they will limit the debate to these kinds of compromises which is why we need a broader movement that challenges this self-defeating strategy.

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  31. @pplswar

    Agree with lives; running. Try to think about policies and demands that are so common sense and so badly needed that they inspire lots of people outside the far left and even the Labour Party to stand up and fight for them.

    “Don’t bomb/invade Iraq!” in 2002-2003 was a such a policy/demand. Opposition to the poll tax was such a demand. In Greece, ‘OXI’ to the Troika was such a demand. “Land, bread, and peace” in 1917 was a demand of this type. The Sanders campaign in the U.S. was fantastically popular because he advocated a whole series of demands/policies that both broadly and deeply resonated among working people. One of the reason why he crushed in the age 30 and under demographic is because he became universally known among young people as the ‘free college’ guy (even though he wasn’t advocating free college but merely making public colleges and universities tuition free).

    Maybe for you all it’s rent control; or cheap credit to promote home ownership; or a significantly higher minimum wage; or a jobs program for university graduates; or a federal political system since it seems like Brexit and the SNP’s rise were both partially fueled by hostility to ceding power to far-away authorities whether in Brussels or Westiminister.

    The important thing isn’t how ‘radical’ a measure is but how the masses react to it — does it spark mass sympathy, action, and activity… or not? And it should go without saying that the point of advancing whatever measure wouldn’t be to recruit to a propaganda group or ‘start a conversation’ about capitalism, imperialism, etc. but to actually fight and win whatever it is.

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  32. Paul Wilson

    The problem with the “Left” is the same as it’s always been it spends most of it’s energies arguing with it’s self in petty little struggles as opposed to arguing with the Tories. Nothing has changed.

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  33. RayB

    The support for Corbyn among the left, whether reformist or revolutionary, has been pretty uniform. In the UK, the left have worked together to oppose war, racism, fascism and other single issue campaigns reasonably effectively. I’m not quite so pessimistic about the ability of the “Left” to work together.
    The difficulty arises when the left is divided over following a top down parliamentary strategy or one led by rank and file, grassroots movements. While both are not necessarily mutually exclusive their contradictory nature questions the extent of capitalist democracy and whether it can be reformed. These aren’t abstract questions. They can only be answered by understanding the history by class struggle from a Marxist perspective but there’s an ideological and material barrier imposed by capitalism on the possibility of an alternative.
    Corbyn talks about a kinder politics and, in a small way, this opens up a fissure in the TINA narrative. Any socialist, whether reformist or revolutionary, welcomes this challenge to neoliberal ideology. But what happens if/when any reforms Corbyn pushes through reaches the limits of ruling class acquiescence? Or there is no leeway in the system, Corbyn can’t deliver reforms and is confronted by the capitalist state? Unless there is a growing and vibrant revolutionary alternative then some other political solution will fill this vacuum.
    The 20th century is littered with these political crises so the “Left” can’t afford to have amnesia and hope, despite past evidence, for an evolution of Corbyn’s kinder politics into socialism. While this contradiction exists there will always be a disagreement among the left over reform or revolution. Better to have that debate now and build a broad based campaign that extends beyond Labour than wait until reformism fails again and the state imposes its own solution. We only need look back a year to when Syriza compromised with the troika and imposed the memorandum on Greek workers for evidence of this outcome. Revolutionaries inside Syriza were completely compromised and many of those who left Syriza still have reformist illusions. That’s the issue that cleaves the left and there’s no glossing over it despite the need for unity to fight for and defend reforms.

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  34. ihbirchall

    “Unless there is a growing and vibrant revolutionary alternative then some other political solution will fill this vacuum.” Yes indeed. But the revolutionary left is smaller than at any time since 1968, and when I see drab little huddles of pensioners on demonstrations the word “vibrant” is not the first one that springs to mind.
    We have to start from where we are, not where we should like to be.

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  35. RayB

    I don’t think anyone on the revolutionary left has any illusions that there is a vibrant alternative to joining Labour waiting in the wings at the moment but nevertheless that’s what we need to aim for. No one predicted the rapid growth of support for Corbyn. The left have been at the center of that movement which was founded on years of prior campaigning. 5,000-10,000 turned out for Corbyn in Liverpool yesterday which would have been unthinkable 9 months ago. The political landscape has changed rapidly and there is everything to play for.

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  36. ihbirchall

    I am more pessimistic than many because I believe the Labour right will destroy the party rather than let Corbyn win, and because i don’t think deselection can work. But I don’t want to discourage anyone, especially as I don’t have an alternative strategy. So good luck to those fighting in the Labour Party, and to those trying to build an alternative outside. Corbyn’s meeting in Liverpool was very impressive – there is a base of support there that will not be wished away by the Labour right and their journalistic hangers-on.
    But I do wonder if a non-party publication, like the US Jacobin, aimed at those both in and outside the Labour Party, would make more impact than a range of far left grouplets each promoting their own publications. Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. RayB

    If there was a popular UK non-partisan radical left publication then that would be great. The more the merrier but it hasn’t emerged yet. I think Jacobin has some very encouraging articles but it’s not perfect. I also agree with you that the Labour Right will do everything, including a split, to destroy Corbyn and the left in Labour. But they don’t have the advantage of a rising centerist movement attracted by nascent neoliberalism. Both factors are missing from their arsenal and without that ideological counter-force they’re at a disadvantage to Corbyn. As for a solution to rebuilding an alternative left organisationally and politically that may develop as this struggle unfolds.

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  38. RayB

    Evidence of how low the Labour Right will descend is the hatchet job by Decca Aitkenhead and Thangam Debbonaire the day after the Guardian reported that thousands attended the Corbyn rally in Liverpool. Not satisfied with associating the murder of Jo Cox by a fascist sympathiser with Corbyn and his supporters the article extends this trope of violence to those who attended the Bristol West Labour Party AGM. Debbonaire claims that her resignation was merely coincidental to the coup and was provoked by her principled stand against Corbyn who allegedly invoked article 50 the day after the referendum. She refers to her politics as, “pragmatic middle left”, and prefers, “fettered capitalism”. Predictably the well known Blairite, Maria Eagle, ‘helpfully’ liaised between Debbonaire and Corbyn, and appears to have sanctioned this article. Expect more of the same.

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  39. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch)

    I think Ian’s idea about a pan-Left publication is good but the groups (still the main weight of the Left) obviously won’t agree to such. A long time ago I proposed a pan Left organising website e.g. would have a calendar function with details of all meetings, picket lines etc plus forum boards and more and I still think this would be good and feasible.

    I’m interested in why Ian thinks deselecting of Labour MPs won’t work? One reason it won’t work at the moment is that Corbyn has specifically said he is opposed – which is crazy; he’s letting his future executioners flourish. It’s all part of his poor strategy to be nice to the Right; a consideration they won’t return. It’s shame that Momentum and the rest make no criticism of Corbyn on this and other matters. Owen Jones is attacking Corbyn from the right in his latest criticisms (generally) but I think he is correct in saying that the lack of criticism of Corbyn is wrong.

    But if the Labour Left did try and save itself, I think they could deselect Right MPs. Of course, such would do everything that they could to stop it (including going to law) and some Right MPs would have majority support in their Labour parties but I think many MPs could be culled – and that’s a plus.

    Revolutionary socialists know this only gets us so far – the new initially sincere replacement Momentum MPs would soon be turned by their responsibilities of office in the way that former Bennite stalwarts went rancid. It’s a shame we would have to go through that process again, but I’d rather that than standstill.

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  40. ihbirchall

    Why won’t deselection work?
    a) Deselected MPs would stay in parliament till 2020. Presumably they would resign/lose the whip; whether they would form a new party is secondary. Substantial deselection would mean a large bloc of MPs (perhaps bigger than the remaining official Labour Party) who could disrupt and undermine the Labour Party. Could Corbyn fight and win an election from this situation? Perhaps, if there were a very big and militant extraparliamentary support, but I would have thought it extremely unlikely.
    b) When the election comes deselected MPs would have no compunction about standing against the official Labour candidate, even if it meant putting the Tories in. They hate Corbyn far more than they hate Tories.
    I think Corbyn understands this which is why he is not pushing deselection.

    Liked by 1 person

  41. Southpawpunch (@Southpawpunch)

    Maybe, but less than a quarter of the Labour MPs who defected to the SDP before the 1983 election were then re-elected although others seats were lost by the formation of the SDP. SDPer Polly Toynbee lost Labour Lewisham East in 1983.

    So I think deselection might or might not result how Ian predicts. But no deselection means nothing will change in Labour and the majority of MPs will always be out to destroy Corbyn and they eventually will. I would have thought that is why Corbyn may see it has to be tried. It may also be that the Right will leave of its own accord. But all may be just idle speculation.

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  42. RayB

    Returning to the issue of information sharing among the left, I think Jacobin is not really what’s needed if we want to develop discussion and debate among those influenced by Corbyn who are joining the left. Jacobin is a great resource but it’s not accessible as a platform to many on the left who do not have an academic background or already have a profile and influence on the left. I think there needs to be a resurgence of rank and file and grass roots groups and publications on and offline that are developed and sustained from below. I think one of the problems during the politically lean neoliberal years is that the political discourse on the left has mirrored that of the mainstream media where profile and influence command a platform while the rest of us have become accustomed to deferring to this limited arrangement. While I don’t think Owen Jones or Paul Mason have a stake in cornering the market for voices on the left and would welcome new ones I think this has become almost an unquestioned state of affairs to the extent that without a virtual CV with the right sources and achievements, access to the left media, let alone the mainstream media, remains closed or severely limited.

    I’m also not convinced that an online presence necessarily convinces people to become active politically. Social media encourages an atomised social engagement that’s more suited to individual acts of altruism than the development of a collective consciousness. The huge amount of data collection and the continually updated and evolving forms of social media highlight how it’s designed as a tool for marketing purposes rather than for developing collective political engagement. While there’s been much debate online among Corbyn supporters it’s been the local Labour Party meetings and national public meetings that have consolidated Corbyn’s support.

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  43. RayB

    Looks like Peter Taaffe and the Socialist Party have learnt nothing from their utter failure to radicalise the Labour Party at the height of its move to the left in the 80’s. Anyone looking for reasons why the left outside Labour in the UK have never managed build a viable alternative then this is one of them.

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  44. ihbirchall

    I have no sympathy with Taaffe’s recent statement, but I am mystified by the logic of RayB’s second sentence. It is indeed true that “the left outside Labour in the UK have never managed build a viable alternative”, but that is a collective failure of all the Leninist fragments including the SWP – which made the best shot at it, but which now, I believe, is smaller than at any time since 1968. If the SWP failed to “build a viable alternative”, then that was because either (a) objective circumstances made it impossible (in which case the SWP was wrong to claim it was possible), or (b) the SWP adopted a wrong strategy or made serious political mistakes. I fail to see how you can blame that on Taaffe. Perhaps a (very small) number of workers followed Militant rather than the SWP; if so, then the SWP was to blame for not being persuasive enough. TheSWP needs to examine seriously the reasons for its own failure, not try and find someone else to blame.

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  45. RayB

    Taaffe’s statement reveals that the SP’s underlying strategy since it left Labour has continued to be enterist. How could the revolutionary left unite to build an alternative outside Labour if those claiming to follow that tradition always viewed Labour as the vehicle? Regardless of the alleged mistakes made by the SWP, the CP and others who have tried to build an alternative, the ongoing SP agenda of resuscitating enterism was never going to contribute to that goal.
    Pre-Corbyn, the left as a whole was pretty moribund organisationally so the problem of building a left alternative was not simply contingent on the SWP or the left outside Labour. The argument that if the SWP had acted differently in some unspecified way this might have led to a shortcut to radicalising thousands, let alone hundreds of thousands who joined Labour recently, isn’t borne out by the fate of other left groups outside Labour who shared their reformist agenda but also failed to recruit.
    In hindsight it’s tempting to conclude that the years of activity carried out by the left before the leadership election was inspired by failure in the face of the spectacular upsurge in support for Corbyn. Or that this work was a diversion from the fatalistic stages approach towards radicalisation that Taaffe appears to never have let go. I doubt Corbyn’s support could have emerged without this groundwork. It’s disappointing but understandable that reformists now look to Labour but when a significant section of the revolutionary left appear to have upheld this illusion then what kind of alternative was possible?

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