(Originally written on the ACAB – Anti Capitalists Against Brexit blog on 1st July 2016)
I write this as a committed anti-capitalist activist who has been active in various non-hierarchical, non-party-political groups for the past 8 and a half years. I never thought I would ever even consider joining any political party, let alone the Labour party – (which was after all the ruling party when I first committed myself to becoming an enemy of the State) – yet over the past few days I have considering doing just that.
At first I thought I was going mad, but then I posted some random thoughts on the irony of it all on my Facebook wall and was surprised to find that I was not alone. Of course, I knew that in in the past year many people in the anti-capitalist movement have joined the Jeremy Corbyn bandwagon, and that many had signed up as ‘supporters’ of the party in order to be able to vote for him in the leadership election. But now thousands of people are signing up and paying money to become full members, and many people who had avoided jumping on the bandwagon before are now putting aside their scepticism and joining in.
There is a simplistic anti-capitalist narrative being constructed, based on a confusion about the meaning of the word ‘Socialism’ which I feel slightly wary of, despite the fact I know it to be largely based on truth. There are many people joining the party despite not believing in this narrative, but who are also rejecting old anti-capitalist ideological reasons for not doing so, in favour of a ‘pragmatic’ approach.
I want to investigate all these arguments in this article: The ideological reason for joining Labour, the pragmatic reason for joining Labour,the ideological reason for Not Joining Labour and critiques of all three of them. I will not discuss any pragmatic reason for not joining, because as far as I can see there is nothing to lose but the price of membership, of which the cheapest option is less than 2 pounds a month.
I hope this helps some people in the Anti-capitalist movement decide whether or not to join Labour, and how to conduct themselves within the party if they do choose to join.
The Ideological Reason for Joining Labour
The story goes that in the Good Old Days of our ancestors there existed a Socialist political party consisting of masses of workers organised into trade unions and which revolutionised British society half the way to ‘Socialism’ but didn’t manage to make it all the way there because of the Evil Tories.
Then one day the most Evil Tory of all, ‘Mrs T’ (No relation to Mr T), took over the country and dragged the political mainstream so far to the right that even the Labour party became no longer truly Socialist, being taken over by reptilian shape-shifting Evil Tories disguised as Labour party members, and all the true believers were exiled to the wilderness.
Neil Kinnock was the first of these, kicking out the Trotskyist Militant Tendency (who in this story are ‘revolutionary socialists’) and his successor Tony Blair, the most Evil Shape-Shifting Reptilian Overlord of all, actually changed the party’s constitution, abolishing Clause 4, which was (in this story) the ‘Socialist clause’.
But then, like the Morning Star rising at the break of dawn, Jeremy Corbyn emerged from the darkness to lead the way back to Socialism. Socialists would no longer be confined to tiny parties on the fringe of political life, but there will actually be a Socialist party that workers will be able to vote for and thus achieve Socialism in the UK via the ballot box.
Many anti-capitalists and other Leftists who support Corbyn believe that if he fails to remain the leader of the party then Labour will never have a leader with similar views to his ever again. It is claimed that the Parliamentary Labour Party’s Vote of No Confidence against him, which he lost 172 to 40, was the work of Evil Blairites, and that unless the left wing rallies behind him now, takes over all the Constituency Labour Parties and the National Executive Committee and then passes lots of democratic reforms at the party conference in September, the Right wing of the party will kick out the Left again like they did in the 1980s.
But, if Corbyn stays as leader long enough to pass his democratising reforms at the party conference, then the party will become a genuine Socialist party, democratically controlled by the grassroots, who will kick out the Right wing instead. Either way, the party will split, and the Left obviously prefer to have the Right be the ones wandering in the wilderness this time.
The Pragmatic Reasons for Joining Labour
Now, I am not saying that all anti-capitalists who are joining the Party are actually thinking along these lines. Many have said to be that they will join ‘tactically’ or ‘strategically’, and that they are not doing it because they think it will lead to Socialism, or that they see Jeremy Corbyn as some kind of Messiah, but simply because a Corbyn-led government seems like the lesser of 3 evils – the other two being an unelected Tory government or a Labour party led once again by Evil Shapeshifting Blairites.
Given that the next government will have to negotiate the UK’s future relationship with the rest of Europe, and that many decisions will be made which could potentially lead to disastrous consequences for workers and working class people if made by representatives of our class enemies, it is argued that it would simply be heartless for anyone who genuinely cares about the welfare of working class people to refuse to go along with this less of 3 evils for the sake of some kind of supposed Ideological purity.
The frontrunner of the Tory leadership race, Theresa May, has said she is in favour of scrapping the European Convention of Human rights and has a long history of not only opposing immigration, but enforcing immigration law in very draconian ways during her time as Home Secretary.
The negotiations Britain will have with the EU will definitely affect the rights of millions of EU immigrants in one way or another. If the UK stays part of the European Economic Area but not part of the EU, like Norway, then ‘freedom of movement of labour’ will remain in some way, but precisely how is not certain. Leaving the European Convention of Human Rights will affect non-EU migrants as well, including many refugees who are often able to use the Convention to prevent themselves being deported.
So for people who oppose border controls and advocate solidarity among people of all nationalities, it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn, who has one of the best track records on refugee and migration policy of any MP, would be much more preferable than Theresa May.
Apart from immigration, many other causes dear to anti-capitalists hearts are up for grabs – equalities protection for Women, LGBTQ and Ethnic minority people in the workplace and in public services, and the vast majority of our environmental legislation
So for the same reason that many of us who actually oppose the EU as an undemocratic part of the capitalist super-structure nevertheless campaigned for a Remain vote in the referendum so that we could keep these limited protections and rights, obviously we want someone in power who will negotiate to keep as many of them as possible, which will not be a Tory or a Blairite.
The Ideological Reason For Not Joining the Labour Party
There is a long history of certain sections of the anti-capitalist movement refusing to participate in elections. The basic idea is that all systems of representative democracy are really just controlled behind the scenes by various capitalist interests, and that it is impossible to achieve any meaningful positive change for working class people by participating in them.
Left wing parties which seek to win elections are often viewed with suspicion by many anti-capitalists. People who want to reform the way capitalism works in a particular country to make it work better in the interests of working class people, are accused of ‘believing in capitalism’ and therefore dismissed. This can be witnessed in many anti-capitalists dismissal of the Green party as being ‘Green Capitalists’ for example.
This is a serious charge coming from people who define capitalism as inherently exploitative and violent. A picture is routinely portrayed of society as a pyramid in which the vast majority of people are at the bottom, suffering terribly from violence inflicted on them by people in the middle for the benefit of people at the top. With such an image of society it is easy to argue that it is meaningless to try and change the people at the top, because there will still be the same violence being meted out daily against the people on the bottom.
In this vision, the only true interest of the people at the bottom is revolution, to come about through a great world-wide insurrection leading to the direct seizure of the ‘means of production’ (fields, factories, workshops, communication and transport systems etc) by workers and working class people who will then use them to create a new socio-economic system to replace capitalism, in which decisions are made in ways consistent with direct democracy. This future society is sometimes referred to as ‘Communism’, sometimes ‘Anarchy’, sometimes ‘Socialism’, sometimes ‘the Ecological Society’, and often the word ‘libertarian’ is thrown in there as well for good measure.
For this to happen, lot’s of work needs to be done first of all, not least of which is the necessity to convince the vast majority of workers and working class people in the world that this is in fact what there true interests are and finding some way to organise such an insurrection.
Some people, calling themselves ‘insurrectionalists’ believe that the best way to go about this is to start the insurrection right now, as a minority of people, and to keep it going until everyone in the world joins in. This is the perspective of the kind of people who go out in the middle of the night to set off bombs in banks and other symbols of capitalism, or try to sabotage big ecological damaging structures, then come home and write poetic communiques about it to encourage other to want to do the same. You can see some of them on http://325.nostate.net/
Others believe in seeking to build mass non-violent social movements which are outside of the control of political parties until the working class of the world is organised enough and accustomed enough to the idea that achieving things through direct action is better than getting people elected to do them, that one day we will all be ready to start the final insurrection. This is the perspective of some Anarchist-Communist groups as well as Revolutionary Syndicalists like the IWW, who believe in fighting every-day workers’ battles in a militant way to build up the working class’s confidence until the One Big Strike some day in the future which will start the revolutionary insurrection.
Either way, the point is that anti-capitalists need to spend most of their time convincing people that political parties and voting are a waste of time and to put their faith in direct action, insurrection and the dream of the final anti-capitalist revolution instead. So those same anti-capitalists can not be seen to be participating in elections or political parties, or it would undermine their whole argument.
Working class people should not have ‘false hopes’ that capitalism can ever work in their interest, or in any leaders or political parties that say that it can, because this will mean they will continue to passively accept the violence inherent in the system instead of resisting and striking back against those responsible for the violence.
Critique of the Ideological Reason for Joining the Labour Party
The narrative I wrote towards the beginning of this piece was obviously quite tongue-in-cheek and you shouldn’t be surprised to read that I don’t agree with it. If you are really interested in this you should find someone who actually believes in it in order to get a fairer description of what they actually believe, which will not be hard for you as there are Leftist blogs all over the internet offering different versions of this narrative.
The main point I want to make is that there is a huge difference between the kind of ‘Socialism’ that the Labour party supposedly used to stand for and the kind of Socialism that the revolutionary socialists I described above are fighting for. It comes down to the question of whether workers should directly control the means of production, or whether a government supposedly representing them should. Clause 4 of the Party Manifesto, which Blair abolished, committed the Party to nationalising industry, not to giving it over to direct control by the people.
When a government ‘nationalises’ something, i.e. takes it over, some people have a tendency to call it ‘socialising it’ as if rather than belonging to the Nation State, it actually belongs to ‘society’. To equating the Nation State with ‘society’ is to follow the logic of Nationalist ideology, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Take for example the NHS. In your area are there ever any big assemblies or meetings where the neighbourhood gets together to vote on how your local hospital is going to be run? No, because it does not belong to you, or your neighbourhood, it belongs to the British Nation State, not British Society. It is nationalised, not socialised.
Anti-capitalists have long pointed out that a State which nationalises industry and banking can more accurately be called ‘State-Capitalist’ rather than Socialist. A state which owns factories, employs people, and gets into debt to invest in things it hopes will make it a financial profit to pay back the debt and run a budget surplus, is basically acting exactly like a massive corporation, just one with lots of soldiers working for it and a captive market of consumers.
Some Troskyists, and of course many Stalinists, would disagree with this and say that it is possible for a state that nationalises industry and banking can be socialist, if its a ‘workers state’ that has come about as a result of a popular revolution. It is hard to see how this argument could possibly apply in the case of a legitimate political party winning an election in a constitutional monarchy such as the UK.
Jeremy Corbyn wants to Nationalise the railways, and to make sure other things already nationalised don’t get privatised. For this he is called a Socialist, but it would be more accurate to call him a Nationalist. Many people in on the Left in Britain think this word means ‘racist’ and so would not call Jeremy Corbyn one. But many regimes around the world which have stood for State ownership of industry have been known as Nationalist rather than socialist, or sometimes both, though the term ‘National Socialist’ has especially bad connotations since the Nazis.
But look at what the Nazis actually did, aside from their genocidal and imperialist policies. They nationalised the central bank and used their power over it to promote economic recovery. They also nationalised various industries and were able to create jobs and social stability as a result. These are standard Leftist policies, and have also carried out by other horrible regimes from Stalinist Russia to modern day China. It does not make them good people.
In fact this is exactly the kind of thing that the revolutionaries such as the Insurrectionalists, Anarcho-Communists and Syndicalists are talking about – leaders and political parties creating false hope among the people to get themselves into power and continue to violently oppress the masses.
Under a Corbyn Government, wouldn’t people still get stopped and searched or killed in police custody? Wouldn’t people still get kicked out onto the street if they can’t pay their rent? Won’t baliffs, private security guards and other hired thugs still exist? Won’t overcrowded prisons still house thousands of people who never actually hurt anyone else, just took the wrong drugs or stole and committed fraud against people rich enough not to miss the money?
I am not comparing him to Hitler, just pointing out that the rule of a Nation State is ultimately based on it’s ability to monopolise violence within it’s territory, and that this always has terrible human consequences.
Critique of the Pragmatic Argument for Joining the Labour Party
Is Corbyn actually likely to win an election? The idea that he represents the ‘lesser of two (or three) evils’ is based on the assumption first of all that he has a realistic chance of winning. If he doesn’t, then wouldn’t it be more pragmatic to support a different Labour Party candidate, or even a Tory candidate, who is committed to keeping at least some of the things we like from the EU, even if not all of them?
One problem with that is that at time of writing this, the right wing of the Party have not chosen a candidate to challenge him yet, so we would have no-one to support in any case. But it is important to know that it is not only Blairites within the Parliamentary party who voted against Corbyn, but also people who are still to the left of the Neoliberal consensus but just aren’t quite as radical as Corbyn. Angela Eagle was one of them, and she was supposed to be the candidate they would put up against them but now for some reason they are hesitating.
When they finally do choose a candidate, we will be able to see from polling companies how well they do compared to Corbyn.
But even if Corbyn is the best choice, is it really a pragmatic use of our time to go to loads of boring Labour party meetings to get various Leftists elected to various committees, for the sake of what might or might not happen some time in the future, when right now racist attacks are on the rise?
Shouldn’t we put all our energy into community groups, anti-racist actions and other kinds of non-party political campaigning to be able to pressure whichever government takes power that they need to listen to what the people want from the EU negotiations? In short shouldn’t we worry about building up the strength of the working class to be able to impose it’s will on any government by building up the unions and other social movements?
Even if this building up the strength of the working class outside of the political parties never leads to a revolution, isn’t it still better anyway? If we put all our eggs in the basket of the Labour party, and then Labour loses an election anyway, won’t we have wasted our time when we could have been building fighting movements to force concessions out of the Tories? And wouldn’t we need those same fighting movements anyway even if Corbyn wins, to hold him to account and make sure he keeps his promises?
Critique of the Ideological Reasons For Not Joining Labour
As you might have guessed already, I have not fully made up my own mind on the pragmatism question, although I certainly have made clear that I thoroughly reject the Nationalist or State-Capitalist ideologies that masquerade as socialism and which have been the ideologies of the Labour party for it’s whole history, even in the Good Old Days.
For about 5 years I was fully convinced by the ideological arguments against voting or joining any party. After a couple of years of being just a generic anti-capitalist activist with no ideological commitment I eventually joined an Anarchist-Communist organisation and stayed in it for two years, by the end of which time I had become more convinced by the ideas of the Insurrectionalists. This carried on until my mental health improved and I was no longer constantly consumed with rage, and I joined the Revolutionary Syndicalist IWW, (the Industrial Workers of the World) becoming essentially committed to non-violent activism, but still accepting that violence is theoretically justified under certain conditions, such as in self defence against racist cops for example.
Over the past year, though, I have drifted even further away from my former insurrectionalist ideas and started to question the basic philosophical arguments underpinning the whole Anarchist/Syndicalist ideology. When David Cameron’s Tories won the election last year in 2015 I felt guilty for not having voted to stop him, and when the referendum was coming up I decided I would feel guilty if I didn’t campaign for a Remain vote if the overall vote ended up being to Leave.
In the end I did put in a fair amount of work-hours to campaigning for a Remain vote, and even sacrificed various opportunities to make money instead, meaning I have fallen even further into debt. I guess I don’t feel guilty, except that I could have started the process of campaigning a lot earlier.
Some friends and I came up with the idea for ‘Anti-Capitalists Against Brexit’ (ACAB) in late April, and if I had actually started working hard on it back then it might have built into a proper organisation by now instead of just being a blog and facebook group, or at least the blog and facebook group might have reached and influenced more people in the Anti-capitalist movement who were on the fence and mobilised them to actively campaign for a Remain vote, and this might have had a knock on effect in getting more people to vote Remain. Maybe we would have come up with a viral youtube video or something, who knows. There is not much point thinking about what might have been.
I still believe in the IWW vision of the working class getting gradually more and more organised, and winning more and more battles, until we get the confidence to one day finally abolish capitalism. Its an ideology I think almost anyone can get behind, because it means getting good things for the working class at every step of the way, even if we never reach the final destination. But now I am wondering if sometimes being part of a political party, and campaigning for one party to win over another can’t be part of that process.
If the point is to convince people that they should get off their arse and take action, opening their minds and hearts to the idea that having solidarity with others of all nationalities and industries is in all of our self-interest, and that if they do so then they will see rewards, well then we need to make sure that direct action and solidarity actually DO lead to rewards, or else we won’t convince anyone.
There are reasons why trades unionists over a hundred years ago became convinced that they needed a party in parliament to represent them: because government policy does affect how easy or hard it is to win union battles, and other social movement battles as well.
If there is a government in power that is more likely to capitulate to the unions and social movements, that will increase the people’s self confidence and belief in the power of direct action and solidarity, as long as the people remember that it was THEM who achieved the capitulation, not the good conscience of the capitulation themselves, who is in fact a State-Capitalist-Nationalist.
So should we try and get State-Capitalist-Nationalists in power even though we know they won’t achieve socialism, and that only the direct action and solidarity of the people can truly do that? I am personally coming to the conclusion that yes we should, and from attending a Bristol Momentum meeting last night full of other people saying very similar things, I feel more and more certain of it.
So yes, I say anti-capitalists should join the party, so long as we don’t kid ourselves about it. We need to have ‘one foot in and one foot out’ as someone from Momentum said last night, and never forget that it is direct action and solidarity of the people that really achieves things, and that all politicians are class enemies even if they call themselves socialists and are nice to refugees, even while we are campaigning to get them elected.
Choose a candidate you think will be a pushover for social movements and unions if they are elected, try and get them elected, then try and build up unions and social movements to push them over, and if we end up overthrowing the state and seizing the means of the production as a result of building up our strength and confidence so much, so much the better.
People are welcome and very encouraged to respond to this article with comments or by writing other articles responding to it, as long as they are civil, as I wrote this as much to inspire debate and critical thought as for any other reason, and am still open to having my mind changed myself
Raz O’Connor (still not yet quite a Labour Party member but probably to join soon)
1st of July 2016