I never voted for anything until 2016. I’ve spent my whole adult life being an anarchist involved in extra-parliamentary politics and not voting kind of went with the territory. The rise of the far-right and the Brexit referendum changed that. The referendum was the first thing I ever voted in and now (in for a penny, in for a pound…) I appear to have become a voter.
I am not alone in experiencing this sort of transition. The radical left has substantially been pulled into the orbit of Corbynism and many comrades (including even anarchists) have got involved in the Labour Party and in campaigning for Labour. Or to frame it another way, the radical left has partially taken over the Labour party and many comrades have followed. Lots of my anarchist comrades from years back are currently out knocking on doors for a Corbyn government and I spent the last week trying to persuade people to register to vote.
TO VOTE OR NOT TO VOTE?
On the question of voting versus not voting, I don’t feel I have gone through any huge transformation. I never felt that not voting was a moral principle. You sometimes get the feeling from some anarchists that Thou Shalt Not Vote is one of the moral commandments of anarchism. That seems completely against my understanding of libertarian communism. There is a strange contradiction in some traditional anarchist arguments against voting – it is simultaneously useless and changes nothing and yet also you must not do it. Yet if it is so trivial then why the great injunction against it? Not voting is another electoral choice, the same as Labour, Tory or spoiling your ballot paper. To turn any of these into a moral absolute seems a mistake.
Another anarchist argument against voting is that mass universal suffrage was a sop to buy off the working class and prevent revolution. This is no doubt to an extent true, but if you stop seeing things as black/white moral issues and see mass universal suffrage as both an incorporation of the working class within capitalism and also a positive gain of the class struggle, then you can see that there is no problem with engaging with the compromised legacy of past struggles while always pushing for more and better.
It is not plausible to argue that voting or engagement with electoral politics never makes any difference to anything. Obviously there are many things it is not capable of affecting, but it is certainly possible to imagine ‘thought experiment’ situations when voting really can make a significant difference to things (would you advocate abstaining from voting in Germany in 1932?).
Therefore, sometimes it can be useful, it can serve a purpose, but to make a giant moral principle out of voting or not voting is to fetishise it. The non-moralistic argument would surely be to recognise it for what it is at any given moment (at some points in time it may be especially pointless and at others may have more use) and not to limit your options in advance merely to electoral politics. Voting has some capacity to change some things but the class struggle will carry on regardless.
VOTING NOW IS A STARK CHOICE
So that had always been my position – I had no massive opposition to voting but in the past there seemed little reason to actually bother to vote. It’s easy to be an anarchist when the two main parties are essentially interchangeable as they were for most of my adult life. For anyone under the age of about 50, for most of their lives the argument that real change required a step beyond the revolving door of Labour/Tory was easy to make. The two parties were competing over the ‘centre ground’ and politics was essentially about electing the best managerial team for UK Plc.
In contrast we are now facing the most stark electoral choice for decades. It feels hard to be indifferent or neutral or disinterested. It feels rather like a luxury or a position of privilege to stand aloof. Suddenly the two main parties seem really quite radically different. The Tories have essentially become the Brexit party – an English nationalist force that is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to the idol of Brexit. If they win the election a cabal of ultra-Thaterchites will use flag-waving jingo to bamboozle people as they – as Nigel Lawson put it – “finish the job which Margaret Thatcher started”. The Labour Party has its most left-wing leader ever, a life-long anti-imperialist and is proposing a quite startling end to the era of neo-liberalism – renationalisation, rolling back anti-union laws, workers on the boards of companies, rebuilding council housing – some major shifts in power.
So the newly ‘left’ Labour Party seems more of a project worth engaging with and the increasing growth and influence of the far-right seems more urgent to combat. Making the traditional anarchist argument has gone from being easy to being slightly more challenging. Especially as these events are combined with a general torpor and lack of combative class struggle or powerful autonomous movements.
THE HEYDAY OF ANARCHISM
The 1990s, it turns out in retrospect, were the recent heyday of anarchism – I didn’t realise that at the time. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc the whole of the traditional left was thrown into crisis. Even for groups that were critical of the Soviet Union, nevertheless the Eastern Bloc was the centre of gravity around which the whole left oriented itself. Anarchists and anarchistic movements seemed to be the only game in town from the 1990s through to maybe the 2008 financial crisis – they were the main fuel and inspiration behind the anti-globalisation movement for example.
But anarchists failed to capitalise on this – we didn’t have a plan, we failed to build anything, we failed to be able to move beyond protest politics into anything else. Since 2008, and especially more recently, we have seen a resurgence of the socialist left (including unfortunately, the lowest of the low – internet Stalinists). But given the general torpor and failure of extra-parliamentary politics into which this new post-crash left was born, for the generation radicalised by the financial crisis and by the student protests of 2010, it’s easy to see the attractions of the Corbyn project. Also for some older comrades, for those frustrated and tired of waiting for things to get better, this new direction held out the hope of seeing some results, and perhaps that most elusive feeling of winning.
Being an anarchist you don’t want come over all Russell Brand and talk a good fight about rejecting electoral politics until you then fall at the first hurdle and immediately cave as soon as there is any shred of difference between the two main parties – then your anarchist principles turn out to be not much more than the lack of a decent third party. However, at least Russell Brand wasn’t afraid to change his mind and wasn’t afraid to be inconsistent – he wasn’t ideological.
The attitude of some anarchists of hostility to or disengagement from the Corbyn phenomenon seems ideological and dogmatic. Just sticking to your guns and trotting out your anarchist line that never changes or develops seems to be missing something:
- It’s failing to acknowledge that something new or different is happening here.
- It’s failing to acknowledge that this situation is a challenge for anarchists.
- It’s failing to acknowledge what is behind the real attraction of Corbynism.
- It’s failing to have some humility and acknowledge the failure of anarchist and radical left politics to achieve anything much even in the face of global capitalist crisis and the exhaustion of any ideology justifying their rule – it’s understandable that some comrades are turning to Corbynism – it holds out the possibility of engaging with really large numbers of people and affecting quite significant changes on a really large scale. It’s exciting. It’s got the wind in its sails. And some people might want to see something change for the better before they die.
- Also in the context of the growth of the far-right across the world and here in Britain, engagement with electoral politics seems more of a necessity.
CORBYNISM AS A SOCIAL MOVEMENT
The most interesting thing about the Corbyn movement is that it is a movement. After the financial collapse, after years of austerity, after the hollowing out of the neoliberal dream that both parties had been selling for years as the only possible future, out of the blue in 2015, thousands and thousands of people emerged seemingly out of nowhere to create a movement behind Corbyn’s leadership bid. Suddenly it seemed there was a mass popular anti-neoliberal movement that no one on the left had predicted or foreseen.
The problem of course was that this was a movement of disconnected atomised individuals only linked by their participation in an electoral project. This is a severe limitation. As Bernie Sanders has acknowledged and perhaps the Labour Party have been less ready to acknowledge, even getting a Corbyn government elected would be the beginning not the end of any radical project. Bernie has emphasised that he’d need a movement behind him to be able to do achieve much and the same is true of a Corbyn government.
The state is more than the government, and any radical Corbyn government would find itself in government but not necessarily in power, its radical programme opposed by a large number of its own MPs and by all the other organs of the state from the military, to the civil service and the secret state. There would be huge pressure, especially from international institutions and the financial sector, for the new Corbyn government to compromise, to roll back on a lot of its promises. The only thing that could keep them on track and stop them drifting to the right, that could create the space for them to be able to do what they want to do and maybe even push them to do some things they don’t want to do, is a strong extra-parliamentary radical left. The Corbyn/McDonnell leadership is particularly susceptible to pressure from left activists and campaigners because they see themselves as part of the same movement; also a threat from the (further) left will persuade business and the establishment to go with what a Labour government is proposing for fear of something worse.
There is a basic political principle that you get what you fight for – we don’t have the weekend, the welfare state and the NHS by accident. They were not the benevolent gifts of a patrician ruling class. They were either extracted under duress or given through fear of revolution. As Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out, it was the threat of the Soviet Union that allowed the social democratic left in a lot of the world to win concessions from capital. The logic was – give them reform to stop them asking for revolution. The existential threat to western liberal capitalism, in the sense of an alternative system that actually existed as a rival global power, is gone. So how will it be possible for a Corbyn government or a Bernie Sanders presidency to make meaningful changes when faced with the ‘common-sense’ logic of the marketplace without an equivalent threat to back them up?
The value of any potential Corbyn government is completely dependent on extra-parliamentary power. It will make a crucial difference whether there are unions mobilising, social movements organising – a general increase in uppityness – both to pressure Labour to stick to what it promised and to serve as a threat, making the radicalism of Corbyn seem more moderate by comparison. A Labour government could also open up space for moving the Overton window and allowing more things to be thinkable and possible. It should increase capacity and morale across the entire left spectrum, as long as we take it as a starting point and not an end point – as a challenge to organise and mobilise more, not to hang up our hats and think ‘job done’.
BACKFILLING THE REVOLUTION
The weirdness of Corbyn (and Sanders) is a left project of repudiating neoliberalism emerging out of a devastated social landscape where most of the organs of collective solidarity have been decimated. And so instead of a radical leadership of the Labour Party emerging out of strong grassroots labour, left, union and radical movements and then building up until these movement finally found expression at the highest level (perhaps a little bit more like what happened to Labour in the early ‘80s), instead – it’s all back to front. A really left-wing leader has been parachuted in at the top with no infrastructure or organised radical left movements behind him. Now primarily Momentum and also other left groups are desperately trying to backfill and magic into existence a radical left movement to support Corbyn. But it’s all building from the top down rather than the bottom up.
So Corbynism represents a large and impressive amount of people looking for something new and different, coming together behind Corbyn’s leadership bid. And then subsequent to that, new social movement(s) in the process of being composed out of this crowd of individuals. The social movement around Corbynism is something that has begun to be formed after the election of Corbyn as leader rather than before. It is this movement and what becomes of it, that is of key importance in determining what happens next.
An obvious question will emerge if there is a Corbyn government – are we building a movement to challenge Corbyn from the left or to shore him up? There will be pressure to not rock the boat if there is a Labour government, as they will already be under attack from the right; to rally behind ‘our’ government and not to protest. This is the wrong approach – it is important to keep up pressure from the left on any potential Corbyn government.
If (as unfortunately seems more likely) Labour fails to win, the important thing will be to maintain the gains of the Corbyn project in terms of a shift to the left and not allow the Labour Party to revert back to being like another version of the Liberal Democrats. The space that has been created must be defended. Especially, the main area of contestation is over Brexit / immigration / migrants rights / nationalism. A Labour loss to the Tories in this Brexit election, could spark a wave of people saying Labour lost because it wasn’t tough enough on immigration, wasn’t giving enough ground to the ’legitimate concerns’.
Even out of power, much of the same stuff applies to Labour in opposition – they are very open to influence from the left, the existence of Corbynism opens up extra space for the left, the presence of other people further left than them allows them to present themselves as more moderate and also to point to a potential threat necessitating concessions.
The far-right had no qualms about getting out on the streets to campaign for Brexit, even though it was far from all that many of them would have wanted. But they recognised that it moved things significantly in their direction. Similarly you’d have to be blind not to recognise the massive shift that Corbynism has created in what it is possible to popularly say and think – a whole terrain has opened up around being able to talk about class politics, around being able to discuss socialism without people thinking you’re a loony, around challenging neoliberalism and capitalist business as usual.
So we should not be afraid to get our hands dirty, we should not worry about ideological purity more than getting stuff done, we should engage with what is going on. We should critically engage with the Corbyn phenomenon but most importantly we must also build class power and the autonomous power of extra-parliamentary radical movements.
Because, the big question, in the case of a Labour victory but even more so in the case of a Labour defeat is – what will become of the Corbyn movement? Will it collapse into disillusionment due to defeat or the disillusionment of disappointed hopes when Labour in power does not live up to expectations? Will it be redirected by electoral defeat and shift energies into extra-parliamentary politics? Or will more energy be thrown into continuing to transform the Labour Party? To what extent is the Corbyn movement capable of escaping being a purely electoral mechanism and becoming an actual social movement?
The answers to these things will shape the next decade of our lives.