Beyond Evil and Lesser Evil

What is the best path forwards for the British left when presented with two bad choices? Bob Williams-Findlay, Susan Pashkoff, and Rowan Fortune discuss the route of neither/nor.

 

It has long been apparent that Starmer would not let the former Labour Party leader from the left, Jeremy Corbyn, continue to sit as an MP for the party. However, now it has been made official by the NEC. Despite this, and despite a willingness by many to back Corbyn’s potential decision to stand as an independent against the Labour Party, most on the left continue to adhere to the notion that we must put our full weight behind the party’s next general election campaign.

Pragmatism in its strict, non-philosophical sense is a self-inflicted wound. Neither political idealism nor the “lesser of two evils” argument is convincing. Indeed, in this form, pragmatism is not always especially pragmatic, as it appeals to only short-term, reactive goals that might cause deeper problems in the long run.

The Conundrum of Electoral Politics: Pragmatism or Idealism?

The goal is to get rid of the Tories. Most socialists would agree with this, given what they have done and what they plan to do. Few, though, say anything more about a Starmer-led government than that it would be less bad than the Tories and might make some good changes. While understanding the logic of this position, we nonetheless cannot help but consider lessons from history. Unlike the political pragmatists, we believe an authoritarian Labour government could result in a worse scenario than the current Tory leadership.

In power, the Labour Party could foreseeably oust its left wing entirely and thereby transform itself into a purely “people’s party”—do not be fooled by this rhetoric because it won’t be based on working-class interests but rather the needs of “the nation”.

Here is the dilemma: when and how do we prevent such a scenario? For now, The Labour Party, trade union bureaucracy, and sects seeking to club together to magic up an instant alternative to Labour are all presenting us with unlikely prospects for change. We require new organisational structures to be built from the grassroots rather than relying on the murderous parliamentary road to nowhere. We should reject the mythology surrounding the view that the only means of power is through the ballot box. History teaches us that energy can be exercised in other ways, bringing about progressive social change.

Beyond the Ballot Box: Exploring Praxis in the Marxist Tradition

Instead, we could have a notion of ‘praxis’ as embedded in the Marxist tradition—ideas brought together, tested, reviewed, modified, or developed. This involves difficult-to-build and hard-to-sustain collaborative reflection, but not reflection in some purely abstract sense, but rather a sensuous engagement with the world. It requires interacting with the dialectical relations between personal experience and knowledge and collective forms.

This, and not electoral projects, is the space where intersectionality can be best understood. It could therefore act as a corrective to one of the great weaknesses of the current British left—its tendency to stray into forms of parochial, anti-intellectual, and philistine chauvinism—to shore up its ability to capture and operate inside capitalistic institutions.

We do not advocate abandoning the political electoral sphere wholesale to the class enemy. Forming a new left party is not trivial, but to reach a point where it is feasible in our class terms, we need a developed movement to enable its creation. We are not, therefore, suggesting an ultra-strategy (one we cannot afford during an ecological catastrophe). We do not ignore bourgeois elections as inherently irrelevant; we only do not think that such elections should be the current priority, either in the ecological struggle or any other. Not only because they are not currently the most important use of our limited capacities but because, in the existing configuration, they alter the nature of our capacities.

Too often, working for an electoral party makes it hard to talk about issues of oppression and exploitation that affect multiple groups. This is because electoral politics requires socialists to always defend the party’s position. In this kind of situation, it’s hard to make deeper connections with people in the class, which is important for making movements.

It is a tendency that has seen some on the left sign up for the Brexit project but refuse to engage properly with the disabled people’s movement, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has seen parts of the left ally with the reactionary transphobic ideology of Gender Criticals, which has not only failed to reinvigorate the women’s struggle but created a situation where there is no united women’s movement in Britain. The left has largely ignored the Tory Party’s targeting of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people during the 2019 General Election. Moreover, it has sometimes capitulated to neo-campist positions on the Ukrainian war and sometimes even defended racist and brutal systems of policing and national border enforcement.

The Left’s Organisational Challenges: Overcoming Parochialism, Moral Paternalism, and Tokenism

The point is not simply to have a moralistic condemnation of the left for these failings, but to situate them in the forms of organisation in which the left engages. Too many socialists operate as though we do not exist within the very world we critique and wish to transform, and therefore as though we have no reason to engage in the praxeological duty of self-transformation in our struggles. We assume that the social miseries and prejudices of the wider world do not impact our cadre and comrades. This is a grievous mistake, one that leaves us unable to develop ourselves into agents of social change.

Our point is not that the left should universally leave the Labour Party due to Corbyn’s treatment. As an individual, Corbyn has been genuinely mistreated, but it does irk that the Labour left often seems more riled by such things than by Starmer’s continuous scorn heaped upon those who are marginalised. From criticising Black Lives Matter about the supposed virtues of policing to reneging on his promises to trans people before the General Election takes place, some are angry that Starmer operates in a universe where his only vice is hurting the Labour left. Worse, in this strange moralistic alternative reality, the worst of the labour movement’s most open enemies are expected to behave like saints.

That such a perspective is false is the least of its problems. Far more damaging is that constantly berating Starmer for his misbehaviour is a demoralising tactic, an exercise in our lack of power to alter our conditions. It is not only crucial that we fight those who make themselves our class enemies, but that we direct our capacities where they can be best developed. That means actively thinking about the battles we choose and how these shape our political consciousness.

What is the way forward? It cannot be the moralistic alternative reality that has plagued the left’s relationships with sections of oppressed communities for decades. When Corbyn launched his Peace and Justice organisation, there was not a single disabled person in sight. Whatever one’s view of Corbyn, such oversights are a problem. There is a moral paternalism within the left that often takes over when ‘the oppressed’ and the wider working class are not ‘grateful’ for their tokenistic solidarity, making them resentful and often even hostile.

Genuine solidarity and camaraderie require new ways of organising, engaged in the living struggles taking place everywhere in contemporary Britain! From the renters’ movement to the cost-of-living crisis, from the fightback of disabled people to queer liberation, from blocking the deportation of people seeking a better life to workers’ inquiries, from making the daily running of polluting corporations difficult to finding new ways to learn from our shared experiences of life, there is much to be done.


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Bob Williams-Findlay has been a leading disability activist in Britain for thirty years appearing on TV and being a keynote speaker at numerous conferences. He has written numerous articles on Disability Politics and Social Oppression.

Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

Susan Pashkoff is a revolutionary Marxist, Economist, political activist and blogger. She writes on issues around US and British politics and economics, gender and women's oppression, and disability.


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