On the libertarian left, the Labour Party, and your mate who got to go on Newsnight once

Plan C recently published an article, which is apparently meant to be the first in a series of different perspectives, on the Labour Party, Momentum and so on. It’s clearly an individual perspective and not meant to be speaking for the group, and they stress that it should not be read as implying “uncritical support for the Labour party, Momentum, or any such organisation”. I’ll do my best to read it in those terms, but even so there are some troubling aspects to the text, especially the closing note on media/celebrity figures. To go through it point-by-point:

1) Is just an observation that there’s a lot of crossover between the Momentum-backed The World Transformed event (which is given the rather unfortunately abbreviation TWT) and the Labour Party conference itself, which is not particularly surprising. If there’s anything to quibble with here, it’s with what goes unsaid more than anything that’s actually said – is TWT wholly owned by Momentum, or is it semi-“autonomous”, as it were? And what does all that mean in the wake of the whole debate over Momentum’s internal structures and the whole imposed constitution thing?

2) Mentions that content and ideas from the libertarian movements was well received at TWT. Again, I don’t really have an argument with this as such (other than that I’m sure the phrase “boxing above our weight” was one of the SWP’s official patented clichés, but I can’t really hold it against the author), but I’d like to see this expanded on: what specific ideas? And, perhaps more importantly, what were the libertarian/autonomist comrades in attendance at TWT not saying? I’m not particularly arguing against the idea of adapting one’s message according to one’s audience and situation – God knows we don’t need any more of the kind of radicals who have the One Correct Line and believe that all political activity should just consist of repeating said line whatever the circumstances – but I do think that it’s worth paying close careful attention to what gets emphasised and what gets left on the back burner.

3) Is about the apparent connections between Big Flame and Corbyn’s journey into the LP in the 60s/70s. I’m a bit shaky about the exact details of Corbyn’s biography between his lowly birth in a stable and his riding into the Labour leadership contest on the back of a donkey in 2015, but I didn’t think he’d ever been particularly close to the “autonomist feminist/Big Flame” milieu – I thought he would always have been a bit more Morning Star and a bit less Beyond the Fragments, as it were. Certainly his mates, like Seumas Milne, come from quite a different set of traditions. But there’s a sense in which this is all beside the point – Corbyn himself being pretty much the least interesting thing about Corbynism as a phenomenon. On that note, it’s confusing that the author says the “‘politics of care’… can be seen to be reflected back by the base of this movement through Corbyn’s speeches, policy initiatives and his sensibilities”. Surely, if we’re bothering to distinguish between the base of the movement and other parts of it, few things could be further from that “base” than the speeches and policy initiatives coming from the head of the Labour Party. Clarity about this sort of thing is important.

4) I totally agree with the point that it’s best to see the LP “as a collection of tendencies and forms of politics as opposed to a” monolithic whole. I’d also add that it’s worth remembering that what it means to be “inside” or “outside” the Labour Party itself is a contentious question, as seen in the last two leadership contests, where different forces tried to define it as being anything from “anyone who fancies paying £3” to “only people who had held Labour membership prior to 12 January 2016”. But having this kind of analysis makes it all the more important to not do things like mixing up Corbyn himself with his base.

5) I broadly agree with, although I’d probably reverse the perspective – less “The progressive component of the ‘LP assemblage’… needs the support of the wider social movements” and more “The progressive component of the ‘LP assemblage’ has value insofar as it’s capable of providing support to the wider social movements”. But anyway, I’m certainly not going to argue that Labour members/supporters coming into conflict with Labour councils is a bad thing. The only other addition I’d make here is to ask again, while we’re talking about democratisation, what do the structures of Momentum/TWT currently look like, and what direction are they going in? And how far are the two separate from each other?

6) Again, I have no argument with – I’m certainly happy to agree that “It is here in these conversations that we should remain the most vigilant and challenge/level our criticisms of parliamentarian politics”.

7) The key question is here whether or not “a combative class movement is forming in [Labour]’s immediate shadow”, and if so what does that look like? As far as I can see, Corbynism has definitely been very successful in drawing large numbers of people into first taking part in the two leadership contests and then in campaigning for Labour in the general election; its influence on extra-parliamentary class struggle activity still remains to be seen, imo. As ever, there’s a pessimistic reading of electoral activity, usually associated with anarcho/ultra-left perspectives, that sees it as broadly demobilising, sucking people in who are or might potentially become involved with more direct forms of struggle and focusing their attention on parliamentary stuff, and an optimistic reading, which I’d (perhaps crudely and unfairly) tend to associate with Trots, which sees it as a kind of gateway drug through which people can then get involved in other forms of activity. I’m genuinely unsure how the impact of Corbynism has actually played out in “the movements influenced” by its ascension; more reports and discussion on this point would be very welcome.

8) Point 8 continues on this theme, asserting that “Any movement that could emerge and go beyond the limits (real or imagined) of the LP will almost certainly grow from within the base of the LP and its external support networks (think Momentum groups or Unite the Community groups- which are beginning, tentatively, to develop the ‘social reproductive infrastructure’ necessary to support workers and their families when they take strike action).” Again, I’d be very interested to see more reports and discussion on what the actual activity of Momentum or Unite Community groups looks like in different local areas – my guess would be that there are probably some places where they do perform genuinely useful functions (as with Lewisham Momentum organising a “Night of the Living Wage” in support of striking cinema workers – good on them for doing that, shame on us in the “autonomous/libertarian left” for not doing more of it), and some places where they just function as talking shops, or purely as a way to funnel people into doing Labour Party Stuff (in the case of Momentum) or to get people along to whatever stunt the SP/SWP/People’s Assembly are pushing this week (in the case of Unite Community). It’s hard to get an accurate impression of which tendency is more prominent on a broad scale.
But when we consider places where an emerging movement could start to grow from, there are still a number of places where some kind of conflict is taking place where the immediate, unavoidable enemy will be local Labour Party structures – obvious ones being Birmingham, Durham, Derby, as well as pretty much every social housing campaign in Labour-controlled boroughs. At the risk of repeating myself, I’d be very interested to hear more about what left-Labour/Momentum types are doing in these situations.
When the author says that “we need to get involved with these initiatives… and get organised within these forms”, again I’d like to hear more about precisely what initiatives and forms are being pushed here. As is probably clear, I’m not convinced that there’s much use in joining Labour/Momentum/Unite Community for the sake of it; if there are specific practical initiatives coming out of Unite Community, Momentum or even local CLPs that point in useful directions, it’d be good to hear more about what they are.

9) Finally we get onto the last, and most objectionable point, which concludes with “As a comrade said to me in passing ‘Lenin once noted that one Bolshevik was worth 50 Mensheviks, perhaps we could now state with some certainty that one connected/media savvy autonomist is worth 500 Bolsheviks.’” There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have bothered typing up these notes if it wasn’t for how irksome the last sentence is, with its coldly hierarchical, quantitative measuring up of how much people are worth. When considering that equation, a few more problems present themselves – like, who gets to be a “connected/media savvy autonomist”, and who doesn’t? Where do these “connections” come from?* I’m really not asking these questions because I want to demonise these people or I think everything they do is bad, but I think we should recognise that things like “celebrity culture” or the condition of being “connected” are not innocent, neutral things, and our engagement with them should always be critical, not just cultish fawning.
Also, the mention of Bolsheviks reminds me – part of the appeal of Bolshevism is that democratic centralism presents itself as a way of solving the problem of how large groups of people can make decisions and co-ordinate their actions together. Of course, in practice it turns out to be a horrifically flawed way of dealing with this question, but it does at least recognise it as an issue to deal with. “Alternative media platforms”, on the other hand, tend to operate as a pure tyranny of structurelessness – at least with regard to the lack of structures through which we non-connected, non-savvy autonomists can have a say on what our brave celebrity heroes are doing and the directions they’re going in. (I hope we can all agree that social media beef is not an adequate substitute here, for all kinds of reasons.) It’s probably true to say that Novara has played some role in orientating the content and sensibilities of this movement, but surely they’re also a prime example of how, when you enter into Labour, Labour also enters into you.


* while writing this, I spent a while trying to find a quote that I was convinced was from one of the Webbs, but it turns out it was actually Orwell who’d said “If only I could become Nye’s eminence grise we’d soon have this country on its feet”, which is a shame, because it being one of the Webbs would have been much more satisfying. But whatever, the general attitude is recognisable, and it’s one to be wary of.

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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4 Responses to On the libertarian left, the Labour Party, and your mate who got to go on Newsnight once

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  2. Andrew Ross says:

    Can’t speak for other Unite Community branches (which is a healthy sign) but in Leicester the idea that we “get people along to whatever stunt the SP/SWP/People’s Assembly are pushing this week” is just bollox. What are we doing at the moment? Helping to unionise Amazon and other heavily exploited workers; fighting cuts to welfare advice workers; supporting claimants’ and renters’ struggles. Not to mention support for disabled activists, asylum seekers, Sports Direct workers, and fighting cuts to local health services. We treat anything at all emanating from political parties and their fronts with suspicion.

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