Momentum, mo problems?

It’s hard to know what to make of the announcement that the Corbyn campaign machine is to become Momentum, largely because there’s so little precedent for something like this, especially in the UK context.

From an anarchist perspective, it’s noticeable how it feels like Labour’s calling our bluff: we’ve always criticised party politics for focusing attention on elections and drawing energy away from ongoing organising, so it’s interesting to see something promising to do exactly that. In fact, while there’s also a lot of left-liberal-populist rhetoric that’s very different from a class struggle anarchist perspective, there’s parts of the Momentum rhetoric that chime eerily with anarchist criticisms.

For instance, I’ve previously written:

“any perspective that stays too focused on the Politics-with-a-capital-P sphere of parties and their official policies will tend to find itself drawn into the electoral logic of looking to 2020 as our next chance to have a real say. Against this, it’s necessary to restate that there’s things we can be doing to make a difference right now – not to alter the hypothetical policies of a hypothetical Labour government five or ten years down the line, but to actually prevent the implementation of the real policies of the real government we have right now.”

And, similarly, fellow anarchist blogger Phil has come out with things like:

“many people can’t afford to wait for a general election either.

Now, the left in Labour won’t simply be waiting for the election – they’ll be building for it by knocking doors, persuading more people to vote, turning up to constituency meetings, perhaps trying to de-select right-wing candidates, and so on. But none of this has a concrete effect until a vote comes and maybe Labour win, and maybe they’re not as bad as the Tories, but they still run the state and keep capitalism healthy.

On the other hand, the work that anarchists advocate can have concrete effects now. Whether it’s on as small a scale as winning one worker back stolen wages, or as significant as a whole workforce winning the living wage, it’s a concrete gain in the present. That’s where improvements in people’s lives come from: forcing businesses to stop using workfare, taking on unscrupulous landlords, helping claimants fight benefit sanctions.

Nor are these victories limited to those directly involved. They give workers confidence to take on new battles, they put the bosses on the back foot, and they create the upward pressure that can force social change.”

Now, compare that to the official Momentum rhetoric:

“What is Momentum? It means not waiting until we’re in Government to get things done… Opposition is about opposing. It is about fighting the Tories. But, it’s also about much more too. We can and must achieve an enormous amount before we win in 2020…. Momentum will help people develop their own organisations in their areas on the issues that most matter to them. It will assist these groups in campaigning and working with allies, but importantly in making real changes in people’s lives now.”

Similarly, Phil’s criticised the Labour Party for seeking to monopolise resistance:

“It’s all about capitalising on the Corbyn victory, for the benefit not of our class but of the party… We can, as Owen Jones says, build a movement in order to divert people’s hope, optimism and energy to the benefit of the Labour Party. Or we can build a real movement to win improvements for our class and take on the present conditions. These two movements aren’t the same.”

Again, this is echoed to a surprising extent by some of the Momentum boosters:

“The top-down, command and control, monolithic political structures of yesteryear are fast fading. The political eco-system of today is both vast and diverse. Whilst out Party can play a key leadership role in future political change it must also understand it does not have a monopoly on opposing vested interest.”

Now, I don’t think the Labour leadership are setting their strategy according to what obscure anarcho bloggers write, and I’m wary of taking their claims at face value. Only time will tell whether Momentum actually lives up to the hype – certainly, anyone who’s ever had much contact with the Trot left will be familiar with the phenomenon of officially “independent” groups that in reality are anything but. But in the meantime, it’s strange to see anyone in mainstream politics using the magic catchphrase “workplace and community organising”, which has long been a defining feature of a certain stripe of libertarian class politics*.

Of course, declaring an intention to do something isn’t the same as actually doing something: if wishes were horses then beggars would ride, and if fancy project launches were the same thing as sustained long-term organising efforts we’d probably be living in utopia by now. So far, specific proposals about what exactly Momentum is going to do have been a bit thin on the ground, but the Labour List and Buzzfeed articles have both talked about forming a private sector tenants’ union, which could be genuinely interesting. Just as I’d always advise someone to join a syndicalist union over a TUC one, or an independent claimants’ group over Unite Community where the choice exists, I’d always encourage anyone who has the option to get involved with independent rank-and-file initiatives like Hackney Renters or Tower Hamlets Renters if you can. But not everyone lives in Hackney or Tower Hamlets, so in the areas where no private sector tenants’ organisation exists, I think a Momentum-linked tenants’ union would be better than nothing.

I don’t think such an organisation would be without its problems: the Labour Party link would always be a pull in the direction of legality and bureaucracy, and against the militant direct action tactics that have worked so well for groups like the Brooklyn and Seattle Solidarity Networks. But these contradictions are always there in the mainstream workplace unions as well, and I wouldn’t argue against getting involved in them either.

Similarly, the problem of Labour councils still exists: while the Tories are in power on a national level, it’s still Labour councils that are actually implementing austerity in many places on a local level, so any organisation that tries to improve people’s day-to-day lives will quickly run up against Momentum’s Labour comrades in the town halls. How they’ll deal with that remains to be seen.

In conclusion: I wouldn’t recommend that anyone should join the Labour Party (in fact, as if anyone cares about my opinion, I’d still say it’s actively better to leave). I wouldn’t particularly recommend that anyone should join Momentum, not least because it’s so totally unclear what it’s actually going to look like yet. But if Momentum initiates specific projects that look like they could actually serve a practical purpose, like tenants’ unions? I suppose we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.


*Without checking, how confident would you be about which one of these quotes is from Momentum and which ones are from revolutionary anti-capitalist groups (Anarchist Federation, Plan C, Solidarity Federation)?

“We must… Intervene and co-ordinate our actions in the workplace and the community”

“organising or getting involved in local campaigns across a wide range of issues – both in the community and in workplaces.”

“Bring together individuals and groups in our communities and workplaces to campaign and organise on the issues that matter to us.”

“an organisation of people who are politically active in their workplaces and communities.”


About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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One Response to Momentum, mo problems?

  1. Pingback: A year in the shadow of bullets and ballots: looking back at 2015 | Cautiously pessimistic

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