Radicalizing the Movement-Party Relation

In this week’s discussion, we continue mapping the resurgence of the global Left, shifting our focus to the UK to examine the emergence of the “Corbyn phenomenon.” The veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn initially came into power in 2015 as leader of the Labour Party, riding high on a wave of popular support, including new members who joined the party specifically to vote for him. He renewed his leadership mandate in 2016 in the face of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s strong opposition, including resignations of most of his shadow cabinet.

Although Conservatives remain in charge of the UK government, in “Radicalizing the Movement-Party Relation: From Ralph Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn and Beyond,” Hilary Wainwright argues that Corbyn’s victory signifies the emergence of a much deeper movement. She notes that many media commentators who attack Corbyn believe that he is not “leader-like enough.” Wainwright argues that Corbyn’s frumpy, self-effacing attitude is precisely the point, insofar as Corbyn is creating a space within the Labour Party for popular voices to emerge.

Wainwright goes back to the 1960s to discuss the twists and turns that eventually led to the Labour Party’s transformation into neoliberal “New Labour” under Tony Blair. She says that overtime British trade unions became locked into a “corporatist” arrangement with the party bureaucracy. In addition, the Labour Party created mechanisms to insulate itself from its membership. These actions included drafting a party constitution that reduced many of the debates over the party platform to procedure lacking any meaningful political content.

Wainwright locates these transformations in Ralph Miliband’s famous critique of “parliamentary socialism.” According to Miliband, the rituals of state, such as respect for the monarchy, legitimize power in such a way that the party no longer represents its constituency but simply aims to ensure the smooth functioning of power. Miliband’s critique echoes Perry Anderson’s argument that “The fundamental form of the Western parliamentary state…is itself the hub of the ideological apparatuses of capitalism” (Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, pt. 1).

Nevertheless, the compact between unions and the party bureaucracy came under severe strain when Margaret Thatcher went on an all-out assault against organized labour after coming to power in 1979 (p. 89). For example, Thatcher crushed the miner’s strike in 1984-85. Over time, the Labour Party shifted to Thatcher’s position and adopted the neoliberal “centre” under Tony Blair’s leadership in the 1990s. Workers, students, and other groups were put through the grinding mill of financial capitalism. During the 2008 financial crisis, this structure collapsed, and the creditors demanded further budget cuts in the name of “austerity.”

Corbyn stepped into this ideological vacuum when he claimed the mantle of Labour Party leader. Wainwright challenges liberal commentators who criticize Corbyn based on fears that he will, for example, undermine Britain’s nuclear deterrence. Wainwright says that the point is not whether Corbyn is “leader-like” enough to efficiently operate the levers of state power. Rather the focus should be on the space he has created for popular groups to emerge, such as UNITE and other unions that backed his campaign.

More fundamentally, Wainwright argues that the financial crisis and resulting delegitimization of the system enables us to theorize the difference between “power-as-domination” and “power-as-transformative capacity.” The goal of any radical party is not to turn social movements into marching members who only come out to vote. Instead, the party should enable ordinary people to experiment with their creative capacity to envision alternatives for the future.

Wainwright admits that power-as-domination also matters. The latter, however should be the goal of the party only insofar as it expands the space for people to insert themselves into the creative process. For example, Wainwright refers to participatory budgeting, social media and technological spaces, alternative energy, and other proposals to expand the commons, especially at the local/municipal level.

Wainwright compares Corbyn’s victory and Syriza’s failure by noting that the latter did not fully engage social movements, especially when creditors re-imposed demands for austerity. There are popular groups in Greek society that have attempted to take over social functions in a devastated landscape, but these initiatives have not been plugged back into the party structure. Wainwright argues that political parties should engage in “capacity building,” rather than seeing their role as representatives of passive constituents (p. 96-98).

As she notes, Britain is currently ruled by a Conservative government, for example, that only received votes from 24% of the eligible electorate (p. 91). The same could be said now of the US, where Donald Trump won the Presidency despite losing the popular vote, thanks to the arcane electoral system. These challenges cannot be reduced to electoral systems alone, however, but also reflect the growing disconnect between austerity economics and the collective needs of society, visible in massive voter apathy and public dis-engagement.

Wainwright challenges Corbyn and the Labour Party to create a space for those who are not “invested” in the current system, e.g.. students saddled with debt, enabling them to realize their collective potential. This Left party/movement will encounter blockages, but perhaps not the sudden revolutionary rupture that was originally envisioned based on the early twentieth century “Bolshevik model.”

Wainwright instead calls this process “revolutionary gradualism”: slowly accumulating transformations in the state linked to popular mobilizations, which inevitably provoke responses from the elite. These challenges are already evident in the Parliamentary Labour Party’s attempted coup and ferocious media criticism of Corbyn for not being “electable” or “leader-like.” Wainwright contextualizes these claims as reactions to the real possibility for social transformation Corbyn’s rise has unleashed.

Social Movements in a Sri Lankan Context

The question as usual is how do we apply these observations to Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka’s case, there is no Corbyn, insofar as both mainstream parties, the UNP and SLFP reflect the bourgeois political consensus, and the smaller Leftist parties are fragmented. To an extent perhaps Anura Kumara Dissanayake epitomizes a path toward reform in the JVP, but the latter has not only failed to directly address its violent, nationalistic past, but also lacks even a social democratic vision for the economy. We cannot necessarily find the alternative then in a current political party or its leadership campaign.

Moreover, the Sri Lankan state lacks spaces to empower ordinary people. The bureaucracy dominates most social interactions. Neoliberal economists use this as an excuse, however, to try and undermine the very concept of collective goods in favour of “individualizing responsibility.” Instead, we must press forward support for all public services, while simultaneously asking whether we can change how they function. This goal echoes what Wainwright describes about making the connection between “power over” and “power to”; highlighting the transformative potential inherent in the latter when inserted into a clear political goal defined by the former.

On a practical level, there are many youths who are interested in grassroots movements, including returning to rural areas to help implement local projects. These practices highlight the importance of ecological discourse in Sri Lanka, including protecting the environment through community action. The NGO sector predominates because of the need to find funding. Still, we discussed the possibility of linking environmental, workers’, feminist, and other struggles to re-emphasize the fundamental commitment to challenge capitalism.

Whatever path the Left takes in Sri Lanka, it must identify appropriate connections between political parties/coalitions and social movements. In many ways, ordinary Sri Lankans must already deal either with the absence of the state, including the lack of basic municipal services such as trash pickup, or, on the extreme end, state coercion. Residents protest forced resettlement in areas such as Thotalanga and are trying to regain lands held by the army in the north. In the ongoing Sri Lanka Telecom workers’ struggle, people are trying to create solidarity by providing food and other material support to the striking workers.

There are many ways of getting people to participate in community action that don’t simply reflect an “NGO model” based on donor objectives. These plans require, however, much greater coordination and thus a political vision of what we can achieve by directly confronting the capitalist system.

3rd February 2017