For communists and revolutionaries in Britain today, it appears as if there are only two choices: work within the Labour Party, or organise outside of the Labour Party. The argument for the first is that we should attempt to work within Labour’s institutions at a local and national level to pursue a genuine and necessary change through reform. The other is to withdraw and work on ‘grassroots’ campaigns which do not have the reach or scope that the institutions of the Labour Party provide. By doing this communists can focus on things sidelines by the current movement within Labour, and pursue a more ‘revolutionary’ line unhampered by the narrow constraints of bourgeois parliamentary politics. It also allows them to keep some kind of fidelity to their own politics, and the traditions in this country which have spurned working within the Labour Party.
One certainty is that the crisis which began in 2007, which is chronic and global in nature, has not ceased. The solutions, under neo-liberal or traditional social democratic policies of the old imperialist nations are completely unable to deal with the nature and scope of this crisis. Nevertheless, we see attempts at grasping the new global social and political reality. From mass movements in the imperialist core pushing at the fringes of social democracy, to burgeoning fascism, as well as insurgency and international crises which go beyond normal strategies of government, we see underdeveloped tendencies struggling to deal with the most fundamental challenge that global capitalism/imperialism has ever faced. The persistence of such solutions - however faulty and precarious - necessarily limits the possibilities of moving beyond them. We have a duty to prepare for the next, higher stage of struggle, when the crisis can no longer be contained by the bourgeois parliamentary methods which are currently being employed - as we are beginning to see in peripheral and semi-peripheral nations such as Turkey and the Philippines.
This essay will argue that owing to the current level of class struggle in Britain, engaging with and working within the Labour Party is essential owing to their deep links to organised labour in the UK, and the growing mass and youth movement around the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. However, we must do so tactically so as not cede our essential principles to reformism. The aim of this essay is to lay out a framework for that engagement, as well as strategies to build a movement which exists beyond it, and is able to supersede it if necessary.
Where do we currently stand?
Ultra-left critics of Corbyn are not wrong in many of their criticisms. But no one ever made revolution or any sort of social change by simply being correct in the abstract. Their ultra-leftist error is the politics of abstention that they believe necessarily flows from their analysis of Corbyn and the movement which grew up around him, and their failure to see that the movement is as diverse and contradictory as the material conditions which gave birth to it. It is the role of communists to help the masses navigate these contradictions until they are able to get to a position where they might abolish them.
What few have come to terms with is this stark truth: the rise of Corbyn in a few short months did what many socialists, anarchists, and communists were not able to do, and which many said couldn’t be done. It should be seen as necessitating a complete rethinking of our theory, strategy, and tactics. Many individuals groups are stuck clinging on to the politics which were developed to meet the challenges of the era in which they were formed. They have proved themselves simply unable to meet the material challenges before us, and instead attempt to reimagine concrete reality to meet their abstract political line. There is nothing more futile, nothing less Marxist. We must build a politics which is able to grasp at the opportunities latent in this period of global economic and political turmoil.
The Labour Party has become a vehicle with the ability to influence the situation at this moment which is historically vital for the working class. The prospects of this changing, or of any group or party supercedeing this in the short to medium term are close to zero. Below, we state why we believe a new communist organisation *is* necessary, and vital at this current moment, where it should organise, and what it hopes to achieve, and state the areas in which it is vital for us to organise on if we are serious about revolutionary politics in the Britain in the 21st century.
The National Question in the UK
Approaching the national question in the UK, we must begin by recognising that it is fundamentally an international question. Not only given the fact that London sits at the centre of the world's financial system, and ‘Britain’ as the first imperialist power is built on the stolen wealth of generations of the world's oppressed, but that it is a multi-national state whose national and regional disparities have sustained and been developed by British place close to the heart of the capitalist imperialist system.
It should go without saying, and thankfully to some extent does, that the North of Ireland, despite being “represented” by the name “Northern Ireland” on British passports, is a colony of British imperialism. This position is so uncontroversial as to be accepted, at least formally, but some of the most chauvinist elements of the British left.
However, as revolutionary communists, we have a duty to go beyond mere rhetorical solidarity, as exemplified by most of the British left and the Labour Party. The Good Friday Agreement stands on most unequal terms, as can plainly be seen by constant overtures to the political representatives of Unionist death squads (including May and the DUP the second her government was threatened by the rise of Corbyn), paired with a constant harassment of Republicans by Stormont authorities in the North of Ireland, with the tacit approval of the “Free State” regime in the South. This state of affairs cannot merely be fought with words: we seek total unity in struggle with Republican forces in Ireland who seek a truly united and new Ireland, a democratic Ireland, a socialist Ireland. To actualise the totality of our unity in struggle with such progressive forces, we must not only condemn Westminster in words, but offer solidarity in deed to strugglers against Stormont, in Ireland, on whatever terms they choose.
We must work with all forces engaged in active struggle for decolonisation all around the former British Empire, but we must not neglect the island of “Great” Britain itself: in addition to the flagrant racism against immigrant nationalities, we also must expose the unequal relationship between the nations of the island “at home”, dating back centuries. The SNP’s culpability in the austerity regime is no better or worse than that of the Labour Party, but there is a fundamental historical difference which must be brought to the fore: the SNP’s popularity and the fact that the people of Scotland articulate their outrage at the current state of affairs in Britain through it is a sign of the continued relevance of the Scottish national question. The Scottish bourgeoisie has played an active role in British imperialism, but the capitalists do not by nature share: driven by the profit motive, the English bourgeoisie has made sure that Scotland is the junior partner, and this has meant concrete oppression of the people of Scotland: to achieve unity of the market, the traditional dialect of Lowland Scots, which had a legal status for centuries, has been replaced with English in all formal settings, depreciating this carrier of Lowland Scottish culture as the British state depreciates all cultures which differ from the hegemonic English culture.
Against the ugly homogenising instinct of the bourgeois British state, we must carry out active cultural investigation into revivals of the peoples’ own cultures from which they have been alienated for years by capitalism and the state. We must redraw the map of England from south to north, on the basis of opposing the Anglification of Cornwall, the subordinate status of the North of England (and the calls for autonomy in Yorkshire in particular), the connection of such border areas to the Lowlands of Scotland. We must likewise stand for the revival of Highland Scottish culture, including their own Gaelic language, which unites them to a certain extent with the Irish people languishing under centuries of Anglo colonialism. We must stand for a total opposition to the dogmas of British and English nationalism and redraw the national map of the island, rewrite the national histories, based on the social life of the masses.
Wales, which was legally recognised as “a part of England” for centuries, still suffers a very limited form of self-rule compared to Scotland. Wales is “England’s first colony”, and is basically still a colony to this day. “The right to self determination” has been denied to Wales on a fundamental level, by the fact that Wales’s fate has for decades been decided for it based on the interests of English capital. The ancient Welsh language, the indigenous language of Britain, has been beaten back almost as harshly as Gaelic in Scotland and Ireland. Wales is the poorest country in western Europe, despite being just down the M4 from London.
In Wales as in Scotland, we must reject the blind syndicalism which only permits the Welsh and Scottish peoples to act against the state as part of the Labour Party and “the working class”, which ignores the rightful indignation of even the most bourgeois sections of the Welsh and Scottish nations manifested in the SNP and Plaid Cymru; and we must also reject nationalism, defined in terms of totally jettisoning the fundamental question of class and all other consequent social contradictions within Scottish or Welsh society. Legal electoral fronts may be struggled on within either these “national” parties or within Labour, but the general thrust of our organising must be based upon the liberation of the oppressed masses in Scotland and Wales, whether they experience oppression because of their language, their gender, the colour of their skin, or simply the fundamental question of exploiter and exploited, which underlies and unites all oppression in the final instance.
Identity Politics and the Left
On this topic, it is worth quoting at length from an essay drafted by the Theoretical Study Group of the New Democratic Marxist-Leninist Party (NDMLP) Sri Lanka from July 2017:
As the above passage states, “Identity politics will exist as long identity-based oppression exists.” While it can not be ignored that ‘identity politics’ will be co-opted by the bourgeoisie, just as bourgeois nationalism may co-opt the righteous liberation struggles of oppressed peoples, an idealistic condemnation of this trend will not suffice to reorient struggle towards its essential class centre. Rather, we must reject the atomisation of the individual, the idealisation of “oppression” discourse, and intervene to bring the questions of identity firmly into the sphere of politics. In the first instance, this is done by leading the struggles for liberation of oppressed identities and peoples, and in the final instance we lead them towards unity on the basis of the fundamental contradiction of class.
Before railing against the liberalism of ‘identity politics’, communists should ask themselves whether in doing so, they are dismissing the existence of the oppression that gives rise to these politics. We should be asking ourselves: Why would any trans person join an organisation which wants to debate their right to exist? Why would any woman join an organisation which consistently apologises for and gives a platform to violent abusers? Why would any person of colour join an organisation which fundamentally dismisses the material reality oppression based on race or an analysis of imperialism and colonialism?
Rather than rejecting identity politics in toto, we should focus our theoretical and organisational efforts on struggling with those who are marginalised, and marginalised further by the official co-option of identity politics. We should be recognising the vital necessity of the struggles for rights and recognition, against social exclusion and societal and institutional discrimination. Most importantly, we should work together to theorise oppression not as intersecting discourses that produce an individual identity, but material conditions of existence which produce oppressed groups.
These struggles are at the core of the class struggle we wish to wage. We grow weaker as if by a process of exponential decay every time we jettison a struggle to protect our own pitiful hegemony on ‘the left’.
Any group which wishes to lead the masses to revolution which does not organise with these oppressed groups and have them represented at every level of the party will never do so.
As Engels said in 1847; ‘‘a nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations’, the masses will not become free whilst some continue to benefit from and enforce the oppression of others. This is why the best of our tradition is exemplified by the slogan ‘workers and oppressed peoples of all nations - unite!’
Dual power/service provision
Writers in the Black Nationalist/Revolutionary milieu, from Huey Newton to Kali Akuno have been quite clear that service provision controlled by the masses is necessary for survival against the genocidal policies of the US state. We can learn a great deal from this experience. As levels of poverty increase, and state provision is cut further and further by the Westminster austerity regime, the provision of basic need is becomes more and more desperately needed. Outside of the strate, this provision is currently controlled by charity and third sector organisations who only have the resources and the inclination to provide just the very basics, and often play an active role in the repressive apparatus of the state. Just one such example is several homelessness charities working with the Home Office to deport rough sleepers.
We argue that as activists within the electoral and industrial spheres begin to organise around a radical, anti-austerity driven social democratic politics, communists should base their organisaing in the community. We should should be opening unemployment centres, summer schools, after school clubs, food and clothing banks, needle exchanges, services for sexual, mental, and physical health, homeless and refugee night shelters in areas of social exclusion and deprivation. For example, with summer schools and breakfast/after school clubs, we can provide children with a place to play, learn, read, make art, do drama, to help them build their sense of self outside of a school system which doesn't particularly care about their attainment or development. Through these, we can provide services like breakfast/dinner clubs, laundry services, and other needs struggling families might need, as well as reaching out and providing mother's a place to discuss and receive support from one another. Once you have established a trusting and mutually beneficial relationship with members of the community, you can move on to discussing other concrete issues that affect the people you are organising with. Issues such as housing, internet deprivation, un- and underemployment, benefit sanctions, lack of access to healthy, nourishing food affect the most marginalised of our class to a greater or lesser degree all over the country. But seeking to meet material need, you develop your organising capacity and raise the consciousness of yourselves and the people you are organising with.
This organising should not be undertaken with the short term goals of party building, or providing charity without political content. It should be linked to the long term goals of building dual power institutions and empowering people socially and politically. Through this, we seek to achieve not the growth of our party or organisation (although certainly some will want to become involved), but the development of mass institutions and mass politics. This is the role of a vanguard. Too many times in our past have parties and organisations been blinded by sectarian conflict over arcane theoretical issues, or driven by a myopic focus on self preservation.
There is no theoretical substitute to gaining long term, in-depth knowledge through organising with the masses. It is necessary for any party or group to embed itself and it’s practice in the lived experience of the masses. A meaningful process of party/organisation building can only take place through a genuine commitment to struggle, through building the movement of the masses who are the motive force of history. A sectarian approach, a cult of the organisation for and by itself, on the other hand, will impede the broad movement of the masses, and consequently, the masses will reject such organisations.
These initiatives must develop further - economically, into co-operatives, and politically, into people’s assemblies. An in-depth discussion of these initiatives is beyond the scope of this survey, but will be developed in further pieces.
It should be made clear that this is not a substitute for some other arena of work, electoral, union, student organising, etc. rather this is one more fruitful area of political work that we as communists cannot abandon This is a way of building counter power and sustaining ourselves when and if the tide turns against the nascent left political feeling in the UK. It is a way of raising consciousness, of investigating into the conditions of the masses, of developing our line further, and most importantly, providing that which the state will not to the most oppressed of our class, and giving them shelter from it’s discipline and violence.
Some will try and counterpose community organising with workplace organising. However, we believe that nature of work and the current arrangement of union membership in this country, that community organising is absolutely essential for workplace organising.
In reality, effective union organising has always been supported by the community which exists beyond the factory gates. Important examples in the Britain include the Miners’ Strike and the Grunwick strike. We face greater challenges than in those days, with union density at an all time low, and the effects of privatisation, off-shoring, and the financialisation of the economy of the old imperialist countries, as well as the so called ‘4th Industrial Revolution’, all making employment more precarious. They key questions for the labour organising today are how do we organise people in the gig economy? Or in low paid service work like cleaning? How do we organise Amazon warehouse workers, retail workers, care workers, and bar, restaurant, and hospitality staff? Many of these industries have no union penetration whatsoever (aside from some notable and important exceptions), and there is no living memory of the successes that union membership can bring.
Community organising can fill that gap. Cadres and already unionised workers meeting fellow workers where they live, working to solve the problems in their communities with expensive poorly maintained housing, lack of services for the young, fighting evictions, fighting deportations, making communities cleaner and safer, arbitrating disputes between neighbours. When we have proved we can win once, the masses will believe we can win again.
To this end, cadres should be seeking out training in areas of use to the masses - if you are already in a union, get training as a workplace contact or a shop steward, learn how to fight a deportation case, learn housing law and learn how to prevent or forestall an eviction. Gain technical and manual skills, learn how to set up an internet connection, fix electrics, fix plumbing, maintain public greenery and other spaces, learn to advise people with benefits disputes. Learn what is necessary to start an afterschool club. Learn the needs of the masses, and work with them to resolve them using methods of dialectical pedagogy, or the ‘mass line’.
The organisation of labour cannot be separate from political work. This is essential to avoid the economistic and reformist politics seen throughout the history of labour aristocratic unionism in the UK.
We have a once in a generation opportunity to tie our social organising to electoral organising. We are well aware that the history of social movements and electoral politics. At the risk of over-generalisation, a tendency can be identified whereby institutional political parties co-opt the radical energies of social movements, often catering to the more bourgeois members of the groups in an attempt to curb their revolutionary potential.
We propose that activists use this historic opportunity, that the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party has produced, to further our aims as communists. We know that institutional power will try to undermine us, and so we do not place our faith in reproducing “Old Labour”. Rather, we must organise those truly broad masses who have firmly rejected “New Labour”, demanded change, and can be made to march forward still.
In two short years, through the opportunities presented or represented by Corbyn's leadership of the party, and the mass movement which has joined the party in response, class struggle has reached a level of prominence unseen in decades. Through all the compromises and even reactionary overtures of the leadership, the energy of the base - working class and petty bourgeois people who have lost a great deal over the last ten years, and committed to the idea of “socialism” (despite lacking a strong theoretical or strategic line) - is astounding. Recent grassroots successes such as the abandonment of the HDV social cleansing scheme in the Haringey borough of london have shown how committed and dedicated activists within the party have been able to use local party structures to effect change. Campaigns against gentrification have been going on for years outside of the party for years, and have been necessary in building to reach this point. However, it was only until Labour Party members were able to challenge a Labour-held council from inside the party that a real victory was won. We hope to see this replicated across London and elsewhere in the near future.
This is no call for a repeat of Militant’s experience of entryism. Instead, we argue that our primary goal should be the community and workplace organising detailed above, with the strategic support of and engagement with elements within the Labour Party. We should have cadres working within and without the Labour Party, investigating, organising, building, raising consciousness, forming alliances and generally doing politics with progressive members of whatever organisation, to build a political force greater than what Labour is capable of. We must not sit idly by and allow the same old dynamics to play out - that we use the current mass energy to intervene and keep building, with an aim of dual power structures which are able to challenge the government, and to build the core of a movement which will be able to survive when the Labour Party is shown to be unwilling or unable to defend even quantitative reformism, to be in conflict with the revolutionary masses as they push beyond the bounds of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism.
A Party of a New Type?
What has been outlined here is not possible without an organisation to bring it into being. As such, we call for a return to the best of the traditions of our movement. This involves a complete rejection of the cultist trotskyite pseudo-vanguardism as genuinely harmful for the movement and its members, as well as overcoming anarchist-influenced movementism which has produced important waves of protest since 2010 (most significantly Occupy and the 2010/11 student movement) but has shown itself completely unable to transcend this form and constitute a higher level of political organisation. Our task is to build a party acting as a vanguard so as to earn the right to be accepted as a vanguard. This means not sitting apart from the masses issuing dictats from on high, but producing the necessary political and ideological institutions for the masses to lead themselves.
We need to substantially engage with what democratic centralism means, and how we can use it to grow our movements rather than sustain parasitic cults and protect the very worst of us. A number of recent incidents within left wing groups have surfaced over the last several years where prominent members have been defended against allegations of abuse and sexual assaults, with ‘Democratic Centralism’ used to shut down any debate within these organisation after kangaroo courts have absolved the abuser of any wrongdoing. Off the back of these allegations, many former cadres have spoken out against the cult-like nature of these organisations, the dictatorial management of leadership, expulsions for minor infractions, or seeking to develop politics which stray from a stale and mostly useless party line.
To defend a politics which sees leadership and centralism as necessary for a movement of the oppressed to win, we must articulate a form of democratic centralism which sweeps away the autocratic and cultic forms which are predominantly practiced in this country today. For this to be successful, we have to develop robust methods of party democracy which sees the relationship between leadership, lower, and middle cadre as one of teaching and learning. As important as leadership is, it is incapable of leading without the organisational, theoretical, and democratic input of all cadre. Cadre are unable to provide this input without entering into an organic and dialectical relationship with the class as a whole.
A party should seek to embody an organic social trend which tends towards freedom and justice, and use the practical means at our disposal to raise this social trend to the level of a genuine social force. It should seek to articulate new social grievances as they arise. We argue for a party that is centralist in form, but democratic in essence.
We believe in the necessity to build a party not attached to some dead and stale dogma, but part a living creative tradition of liberation.
A party which has equal representation of women and minorities throughout the main organisation, and special wings dedicated to specific struggles - Women’s struggle, LGBT struggle, the struggle of black and other people of colour, and the struggle of disabled people.
A party which has the necessary specialisation of expertise, a division of labour necessary based on the material conditions of our struggle - theorists, organisers, culture workers, etc., but which seeks to bring these elements together in common work whenever possible, revealing the totality of the diverse labour dynamics within the organisational structure.
A party that can approach the masses with a dialectical form of pedagogy and organisation - a party which feels that it only has to teach and has nothing to learn from the masses by definition preaches a hollow materialism and a hollow socialism: such cults will never be able to lead real revolutionary masses.
A Party which has a strict code of conduct for party cadre, and has strict and survivor-led procedures for dealing with infractions, including harassment, abuse, and assault. More than this, cadre education, self-development and self-criticism must be at the heart of our organisation. Inculcating a culture which seeks to empower oppressed people and undo the oppressive personal behaviours of all as soon as someone enters the organisation means that being accountable starts then, and not at the point of infraction. As Marxists, our claim to a “ruthless criticism of all that exists” and our claim of being political subjects, our aspiration to a vanguard role in politics, lead to the inescapable conclusion that we must be ruthless first and foremost in our criticism of ourselves and our social identities.
A party which transcends vulgar syndicalism by organising all labour, including the unorganised and unemployed, on the basis of the politicisation of all forms of property, exclusion, and exploitation. A party which is able to develop an internationalism based on the acknowledgement of the UK’s imperial past and present, a radical and critical engagement with the actual social relations beneath the imperialist mythology, and through developing concrete bonds of solidarity with the struggling proletariat and oppressed of the world.
Such a party has not and cannot be created by writing this or any other text. Such a party will be built by social connections between people. We will not shy from our revolutionary duty to organise on all levels of our social life, using all means at our disposal. We will reveal to ourselves and to all the manifold contradictions of class society. In our concrete work, in our social lives, in our study, we will build higher and higher forms of organisation. By the time we declare the existence of such a party, it is these forms of organisation which will have already in effect created the revolutionary party this island has lacked for so long.
Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!
- The Lever Editorial Group