Revolutionaries and Labourism

Jonas Liston discusse the relationship between revolutionaries and the Labour Party.

Oxford rally in support of Corbyn (Photo: John Walker)
Oxford rally in support of Corbyn (Photo: John Walker)

From different political standpoints much has been debated in relation to Jeremy Corbyn and Labourism. This debate isn’t confined to the left I came into, but to a growing and revitalised left in an ever-more politicised and polarised British society.

On the revolutionary left this debate has sometimes inadequately been reduced to whether one should join the Labour Party or not. To my mind, this represents the strategic impasse of both those who speak correctly to the historic and contemporary limitations of Labourism, but at such a level of abstraction that no practical activity is offered; and to those who would, with good instincts, join Labour out of a desire for a genuinely mass politics, but fail to offer a strategic counter-weight to the problems of Labourism, often indulging in the worst moralism toward those who refuse to join the Labour Party.

Neither of these formulations offers revolutionaries a way forward.

Post-Brexit, the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party set in motion a long-gestating plan to topple the recently-elected, radical left leader, and return Labour to being a viable party-political option for British capital. While the PLP have succeeded to some extent, at least in the short-term, in disorganising and distracting Corbyn and the left in Labour when they could have been laying into a briefly disarrayed Tory Government, they have, so far, miserably failed in their task at toppling the left. This is particularly embarrassing given that they had at their disposal the most undemocratic and bureaucratic manoeuvres open to the party machine, and almost all of the apparatuses of ideological legitimation prevalent in British society behind them.

The leadership election is far from over and already one humiliatingly short-lived candidate has pulled out. The remaining candidate, Owen Smith, is polling only a few percentage points above the ‘I don’t know’ option, and is around 30 percentage points behind Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour saw a 128,000 rise in membership in the two weeks after the EU referendum; there have been many rallies and meetings across the country involving thousands of people, and, despite the outright anti-democratic disenfranchisement of Labour members who joined after 8 January, 183,000 registered supporters paid £25 just for the chance to vote for the leader. This is a new and different type of political engagement given that, as anyone who has been on the dole recently knows, this makes up almost half a week’s payment of Jobskeeker’s Allowance.

If it wasn’t abundantly clear last September, it should be now. Warts and all, mass left-wing politics is back in Britain, so here’s the question: among all of this, where does the anticapitalist left fit in?

To be frank, our starting point should be that we want to fight. We want to join hands with any Labour Party member that’s up for picketing outside Byron Burger premises in response to the deportation of migrant workers. We want to participate with Labour Party members in campaigns to resist evictions, cap rents and defend council housing. We want to build solidarity with Labour Party members who might support, or actually be, a Junior Doctor. And of course, we want to fight side-by-side with them, in defence of the fighting left in Labour and against any attacks from the right.

From this point of view, multiple questions are posed.

The first is, isn’t the consistent problem of Labourism that its left-leaning members often sacrifice all else to the electoral cycle or the struggle against the right in their own party?

Well, despite there being much truth to this statement, it isn’t that straight-forward. The surge in Labour Party membership, while carrying with it all the potential problems of party disloyalty and electoral volatility, differs from previous surges in Labourism for three fundamental reasons: in it’s overwhelming majority it is a surge in support of an anti-austerity, anti-war, anti-racist Labour leader, identified as ‘a man of the movements’. It comes not as an answer to massive political defeats and a decline in struggle, but as an answer to how the right can be beaten back and austerity defeated. A substantial minority of those who have joined Labour over the past year bring with them some experience of campaigning and organising, whether it be through campaigns such as UK Uncut, social movements such as the 2010 student movement, political parties like the Greens, or older, accumulated lessons from the anti-war movement or the struggles of the Thatcher-era.

No doubt, that often the strategic default of Labour Party members has been to drop or unprioritise all other campaigning when a fight against the right in its own party or an election comes around. Militants who organise with Labour Party comrades would have experienced this over the last month in particular. However, it would be a mistake for comrades not to grasp the changed dynamic, whereby extra-parliamentary struggle can be seen as mutually re-enforcing and complimentary to parliamentary and internal-party struggle. This doesn’t, however, out-weight the material pull on Labour members in regards to what their priorities are.

The final aim of Labourism is governance. It is to this, which all other considerations are subordinated.

Where the engagement of revolutionaries in elections is a tactical decision defined by the terrain and possibilities apparent in an election and the strategic priorities of the specific moment, for most Labour Party members, it is the culmination of their political activity. Whereas for revolutionaries the electoral struggle is strategically secondary to the struggle from below, given emphasis only insofar as it strengthens the capacities of the former, for many a Labour Party member, the electoral question trumps all.

For revolutionaries who prioritise the social struggle, we have an altogether different conception of politics and change which means, to some extent, we are able to resist this tendency. However, we can’t just resist it, otherwise we lapse into sectarianism. We also need to be able to offer a counter-weight and strategic alternative to it. This requires two things of us. The first is, where possible, in our localities or specific campaigns, actively drawing Labour Party friends and comrades into struggles, whatever they may be, in which they aren’t already involved, or don’t see the immediate importance of. We do this to strengthen that struggle, broaden it out and give it a greater social weight, and also to open a space to discuss, in action, the type of politics and strategies the left will need to actually win. The second, and given our limited size and capacities, the most important, is to develop an ideological pole articulating a strategically-conceived politics of social revolution, solidarity and self-emancipation for the oppressed and exploited.

Crudely put, this is the re-purposing and re-application of the united front tactic for a different moment, wherein the extra-parliamentary left is markedly weaker.

The second question is, how can we defend Corbynism and the opportunity of a lifetime, if we aren’t actually members of the Labour Party?

This, to me, seems more straightforward. While some might say that the skills, talents and coherence of small groups of revolutionaries might be able to pull Labour Party members away from factionalism and electoralism and toward extra-parliamentary activity, this gets two things wrong. One, it underestimates the material pull within the Labour Party toward its strategic defaults, and two, it overestimates the ideological coherence and political strength of the small forces of the left outside Labour who would have no substantial impact on defending Corbyn and the left inside beyond what current members have already achieved, or on convincing members of an alternative strategy. However, membership would succeed in having their strategic focus shifted and their politics even further confused and dislocated.

With Momentum in existence, one doesn’t necessarily have to be a Labour Party member to have a relationship with Labour Party members. What we can do positively, is build and support rallies and meetings in defence of Corbyn; campaign in elections for those Labour Party candidates unabashedly of the left and in opposition to racism and austerity; articulate and act on the need for maximum political unity with now seemingly electrified organizations like Momentum; and defend and fight for the policies and politics of Corbyn’s worth defending, but those which he is not necessarily in a position to defend because of the immense material pressure on him to concede and accommodate.

There is a third question, however, that I haven’t touched upon. In a recent article Colin Wilson lays out a hypothetical vision of the future:

“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.”

Omitting, for sake of brevity, important questions of the state, political economy and social power, like much debate among the anti-capitalist left, there remains the question of how revolutionaries might become a strategic alternative to such a radical social-democratic government. The building of this strategic alternative poses the question: how do we develop an independent, working-class, revolutionary politics?

Firstly, and most obviously: we do so, with the principles and numerous historical, and not-so-historical lessons we have at our disposal, with which much is to be said about Labourism and social-democracy.

Secondly, with the raw materials that exist. Unsatisfied with the state of those raw materials, but prepared to co-exist with them in spite of their limitations. Mass revolutionary politics has never been constructed in a straight-forward line. Mass revolutionary politics develops ‘betwixt and between’, through the combination of the ‘day-to-day’ and the ‘final goal’. It’s tested in struggle, argumentation, defeat, win, approximation and the ability to develop commonalities amongst diverse political cultures of anti-systemic revolt. In the current moment, anybody who thinks they can construct independent, revolutionary, working-class politics whilst bypassing the massification and radicalization taking place in and around Labour is open to isolation and irrelevance.

Finally, we need a militant-intellectual renewal. The necessity of developing ideological coherence and theoretical rigour among working-class activists who want to understand the world better, in order to transform it in workers’ interests, has never been clearer, and no Marxist movement could ever survive, sustain and move forward, without it. Again, it seems to me that this can only be developed in engagement, tension and solidarity with the thousands upon thousands of proletarians now committing themselves to Labourism.

This is my thought-process on the relationship between Labourism and revolutionaries at the moment anyway. It is a perspective predicated on revolutionary autonomy but not revolutionary separation.

There is something to Corbynism now that wasn’t there, even three months ago. I think it’s the something that convinced my Mum to join, and it might just be the something that convinces my neighbours to join too. It’s that touch of fiery rage. If you have any sense of what’s going on in British society today, you should be aware that it could take us a long way.


  1. Jonas, interesting but I’m not sure you’re right about Momentum and revolutionaries. You can’t be a member of Momentum if you support a party that stands candidates against Labour (“I am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to [the Labour Party]”) – so that would apply to any SWP or SP members because of TUSC although it doesn’t seem to be used against people who, in recent years, have done such e.g. Workers Liberty, Left Unity (my own party) members. Nor does this prevent you turning up to their meetings although you can be met with bemusement, so at a recent meeting, to me: We’ll divide up and discuss work in local ward parties. You’re not a member of a LP ward? Hmmm. OK. We hope you join, soon.

    But you are vague on this issue of LP membership when no-one should be. Forget you mother and your neighbours. Are you currently saying don’t join Labour? You may be implying this but I think people need to be crystal-clear.

    I think it is a tough question but I do have a view (and with a measure of self-doubt). No to current membership. But, also, yes to membership if the Right MPs leave i.e. it becomes or moves significantly towards becoming a Syriza type party.


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