My old friend and comrade from Signs of the Times day, Stefan Howald, asked me to answer some general questions about Brexit for his political blog. The blog is in German and my complete set of answers was translated into German here.
A few weeks ago, when many UK university staff were on strike against a major attack on their pension rights, I was invited to speak at the teach-out organised by the UCU (University and Colleges Union) branch at Goldsmiths, University of London.
I gave a 20-minute talk from notes that I’d made the previous day. The talk provoked a really interesting discussion, and I promised a couple of people that I would make the notes available once I had had time to write them up. Well, I’ve written them up and they’ve become quite long, but that’s not all that surprising. This is still just notes – it’s not supposed to be a worked-out argument. But here it is in case anyone finds it useful.
Here is the much longer essay I wrote about the same subject, about Mark Fisher’s idea of ‘Acid Communism’, and the general idea of a utopian psychedelic socialism (pdf), which will soon be published on open Democracy (so if you prefer to read it online you can wait for it to be posted there).
This is all inspired by the Acid Corbynism session at this year’s The World Transformed, organised by Charlie Clarke, Matt Phull, Elliot Dugdale and Will Stronge.
So just after the election Alex and I did a talk at the Anti-University of East London event on this subject, which will be central to our forthcoming book (among many other things). The video is HERE
A week or two after that I wrote a long essay on the subject and the implications of the election, but I had already promised to write on this subject for Fabian Review, so I produced a short edited version for them which was published here last week. I did an even shorter version for IPPR but I don’t think that’s been posted yet.
The full length version is on open Democracy HERE.
Here’s the latest for the Guardian where I talk about the different ways of understanding what ‘Corbynism’ might mean as a political project.
There were a couple of points that got edited out for space. One is that the first use of the terms ‘Corbynism’ I can remember was by Alberto Toscano, who was using it, years before Corbyn became Labour leader, to designate a sort of highly principled but totally ineffectual (outside of very local contexts) Marxist activism. How things have changed…
The other was my now obligatory reference to John Medhurst’s That Option No Longer Exists, in order to point out that the division between radical decentralisation and centralising social democracy isn’t some kind of split between that hard and soft left, or whatever, but is as much as anything an expression of an ambiguity that always existed within Bennism: pro workers-control, but anti-PR; naive about the socialist potential of a sovereign parliament and tribal Left Labourism, but scathing about the corruption of the British constitutional institutions in general. I think that ambiguity is still there within Corbynism, rather than being a function of its relationship to anything outside of itself.
Finally it’s worth saying. Really we don’t want ‘Corbynism’ at all, because the best thing about Corbyn is the way he keeps saying that this movement is not about him. We need 21st century socialism, of which the pro-Corybyn political movement can only be one essential component.
This is the piece I had in the Guardian (print edition as well as online) a couple of weeks before the election. It’s basically a short version of the Stuart Hall Foundation essay, an revised version of which will be up on open Democracy soon.
It seems a bit like stating the obvious now, although the issue of how we relate to those constituencies who DID switch from UKIP to the Tories, and who used to vote Labour, who do exist and lost us some key seats, remains a live and crucial question.
Why does this electoral defeat mark a historic turning point and moral victory for Labour and UK Left politics ?
-The youth mobilisation marks the end of a period which has lasted over 30 years during which youth participation rated have declined steadily. This in itself represents a historic shift.
-Increasing Labour’s vote share massively in the face of such unrelenting media hostility demonstrates that, as Corbynite optimists have hoped, it is possible to mobilise a mass membership in innovative ways using new communications technologies on a scale which makes it possible to neutralise much of the propaganda power of the Mail /Sun/ Express axis, in ways which Labour has not been able to do since the 1960s.
-Any recapture of the Labour Party by the Right is now almost unthinkable for the foreseeable future
-The fact that so few of the UKIP votes went to the Tories confirms a perennial fact about the English working class: there are certainly racist and xenophobic tendencies in their culture, but attempts to mobilise those tendencies politically aways depend on tying them to an economic narrative (‘they’re taking our jobs…’). This means that an alternative, progressive economic narrative can generally neutralise them pretty easily. This certainly seems to be what happened.
-Completely contrary to what we all thought, it turns out that the SNP hegemony in Scotland is vulnerable and reversible, with everything that that entails, good and bad.
-In terms of actual votes and vote share for an avowedly radical programme, this is the best result for the British Left (and I mean Left, not Labour) since 1974 at the latest.
Nobody can reasonably believe that, given the constraints of time and resources, the Corbynite strategy has already reached the peak of what it can achieve. There is every reason to think it can go on to increase Labour’s vote share into the mid 40s given time – something that until this week I did not think possible. Let’s be clear – the result we have achieved under such difficult circumstances ENTIRELY vindicates the strategy pursued by the pro-Corbyn movement and Momentum.
The Big Historical Context
In the big historical context, here’s an important point. If you want to sum up the dilemma of the Left since the 70s, it’s basically as follows. The labour movement and attendant political organisations spent 150 years developing forms of organisation that were appropriate to the industrial society which was born at the beginning of the 19th century and reached its apogee in the West in the 1960s. The cybernetic revolution which we have been living through since then has made it possible for capital to circumvent most of the organisational strategies which workers had developed over the past century and a half (through globalising capital flows, automating jobs, etc.). The defeats of the left since the 70s have basically been a direct consequence of this development. At the same time since the 1960s we have been developing – in a faltering, haphazard ways – various new ways of organising which are more appropriate to the new techno-social context that we find ourselves in. From this perspective, the big question has aways been – would it take us another century to develop those techniques to the point where our standards of living and political / democratic efficacy would cease to deteriorate? Or would the technology itself enable us to accelerate the development of those techniques to the point where we could start to win political battles again much sooner? It may still be too early to tell, but the election result strongly suggests that the answer is that we may be on the verge of having a sufficiently robust and dynamic repertoire of such techniques to enable us to begin to make significant gains again, as arguably has already happened in parts of Latin America, Spain, etc.
A note on coalitions
This doesn’t alter that the fact that ultimately the resistance of the Labour leadership to co-operation with other parties isn’t sustainable in the long-term if they really want to build a social coalition on a scale that could actually make a socialist project viable in the UK. For a really radical project, you need over 50% support (which the ’45 government got, after a couple of years in office, which is why it was able to do what it did). And it is much easier to get that by including people in your coalition without demanding that they all join your party.
But in the specific context of this election, I have to say that despite my lifelong advocacy of a coalition strategy, it was tactically correct not to pursue a formal coalition with the other left-of-Tory parties, because they would all have have tried to make a commitment to a second Brexit referendum a condition for any co-operation. Again, personally I support a second referendum – but I think advocating it at the election would have cost us millions of UKIP votes.
But we mustn’t confuse this short-term tactical situation with the long-term strategic one. We will never be able to achieve what we want to as long as we assume that everyone in the Greens, SNP or even the Lib Dems is our enemy (important pointer – many younger activists do not seem to realise that the lib dems contain a radical liberal tradition which situated itself to the left of Labour on all key issues from the early 70s until the 2000s – this tendency has been in abeyance for the past few years, but no more so than was the Bennite tendency in Labour for over 20 years – whether it will ever recover we do not know, but we cannot assume not).
But the coalition (or ‘progressive alliance’ ) strategy must never been seen as an alternative to grassroots mobilisation – they are two prongs of the same strategic fork, not different political approaches.