A Million Member Party, Concluding Thoughts: Democratisation, Delivering Consequences, Disalienation

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The pieces collected in the New Socialist “A Million Member Party” series show the range of ideas for how the capacities of a Party with significant numbers of enthused members can be made use of for socialist advance (whether Labour does reach a million members, or whether membership only(!) reaches the high hundreds of thousands is immaterial for these plans). Unfortunately, at present, these capacities remain largely buried within the Labour Party and making use of them requires transformations of rules, institutions and culture that go beyond the Party being a body of loyal foot soldiers integrated into an apparatus which is not only largely electoralist, but as Alastair Gordon suggests, deeply limited even from an electoralist perspective.

Labour is now on a much vaunted “permanent campaign footing”; whilst, to a certain extent, this is a response to the fragility of the Tory minority government, it could be also be argued that this permanent electoral footing is not only a response that aims to retain the enthusiasm of the election campaign without initiating transformative projects, but a potential barrier to this necessary transformation. However, again, as Gordon suggests, there may be ways in which it is possible “to rediscover canvassing as community organising” whereby electoralism may be forced beyond its limits. Ultimately, however, the permanent election footing risks an unproductive condition of spasm, unable to generate new purposes. Suggestive parts of the Marxist tradition link the idea of spasm firstly to narrowly electoralist politics. For Ralph Miliband,

Programmes have to be lived, explained, defended, fought for—not only at elections and not only in spasms of parliamentary rhetoric but, over a multitude of diverse issues, great and small, as part of a continuous challenge to the fatal assumption that we live in a B.B.C. world of minor disagreements.

Secondly, spasm is linked to anarchist cults of spontaneity. For Gramsci,

Permanent passion is a condition of orgasm and of spasm, which means operational incapacity. It excludes parties, and excludes every plan of action worked out in advance. However, parties exist and plans of action are worked out, put into practice, and are often successful to a remarkable extent.[1].

But dialectically these two conditions of spasm, of action without thought in a state of pure responsiveness, are linked in their inability to become creative and institutionalise new values. A radically transformed, no longer exclusively electoralist Labour Party could change this, and, in doing so, it is also likely in the long-term to both bolster Labour’s electoral prospects and, crucially, the prospects of actually being able to carry out a left programme in government.

The discipline of an electoral focus, moreover, further risks blocking these necessary projects, as Hilary Wainwright argues, for Labour the winning of state power is prioritised over “the necessary preliminaries of raising and extending socialist consciousness and grass-roots organisation among working people in general”, which leads to the priority of the electoral machine, fixation on holding onto power nationally or locally over critiques of state power and this suppresses political debate and engagement, inhibiting involvement in industrial and social struggles[2]. There is, therefore, a different logic and sense of time in electoralist projects on the one hand and, on the other, in the longer-term, less disciplined from above projects of advancing and developing socialist consciousness. The contradiction applies to projects of an education character, such as those advocated by Adam Robertson, which from the urgent, short-term perspective of an upcoming election will appear non-essential. The contradiction will become even more pronounced in the case of social movementist projects as advocated by a significant number of contributors, which, as well as relying on a longer temporality, if they are to have any degree of seriousness, at least in areas with Labour councils, will rapidly run into contradictions with the Party in local government, as Casper Hughes argues, one aspect of a census of local needs would be to put “greater pressure on councils”. Furthermore, it is clear, as is already evident in positions taken up by the Old Labour Right, whether Tom Watson or Labour First, that in conditions of permanent electoralism, projects of democratising the Party, whether on the level of changing rules, as Joe Bilsborough argues, or of addressing the sedimented, exclusionary cultural practices of the Party, as in Andrea Marie’s piece, will be attacked as a distraction or divisive at a time when unity is required. The idea of “unity” has always been mobilised to put the demands of women or others marginalised by the Party’s sedimented practices to the back of the queue.

There are three crucial, strongly related and internally supportive, strands running through the pieces: delivering consequences, democratisation and disalienation. There is, most explicitly in Jan Baykara’s piece, a strong social movementist tendency, and this is implicit in many of the other contributions. In a sense, at least from within a certain theoretical dogmatism, this is wrong. The conventional notion on the imaginative part of the Labour Left has been that Labour should be porous to existing social movements, a tendency most significant in the 1980s municipal left. Whereas what is being suggested in a number of our pieces is that Labour needs to launch social movement projects itself. However, the current situation may well mean this is necessary. Corbyn’s victory was in a sense premature, indeed, it always had to be premature- here there is a parallel with Rosa Luxemburg and Georg Lukács’s arguments that the seizure of power by the proletariat will always be “premature” (and equally, in the “Marxist” critiques of Corbynism there is the same deterministic timidity as those polemicised against by Luxemburg and Lukács)- society does not progress mechanically, sometimes it is necessary to improvise[3]. Corbyn’s victory was not a reflection of a particular advance of socialist consciousness within Labour let alone within society as a whole, it was not the result of a socialist consciousness institutionalised in a rich fabric of social movements. Corbyn’s victory, instead, was more a despairing response to a deep moral crisis, constituted by the increasingly unavoidable realisation that existing Labout positions could offer vanishingly little. Corbyn’s victory was the culmination of a moral crisis constituted by neoliberalism and by the 1974-9 Labour government and, as Raymond Williams argues, after the crisis of 1973, “the price of full incorporation, (the capitalist version of reformism) is increasingly too high for the system to pay...any new incorporation must include the substance of actual defeat of major sectors of the working class” [4]. However, as shown by the election campaign, with over 40% of those who voted doing so for a programme enacting a major break with the dominant political and social logic, a Corbyn led Labour Party can be a vehicle for advancing socialist consciousness even as it wasn’t a response to it. However, this advance will now require more than the integration of ever more members into the existing Party structure.

A further unifying theme could be described as the relinking of everyday life to politics against the deeply structural tendency towards boringness in politics under capitalism, as Baykara describes it, Labour must become “focused on the everyday life of the many”. To argue politics is boring under capitalism is not an adolescent shrug, it grasps something essential about capitalism’s split between the economy, everyday life and politics, splits that have often been uncritically, if unconsciously, reproduced in the labour movement. As Ellen Meiksins Wood argues, “what has made working class “economism” so tenacious is that it does correspond to the realities of capitalism, to the ways in which capitalist appropriation and exploitation actually do divide the arenas of economic and political action” [5]. This sense that finding politics boring, has more than a moment of truth to it, is expressed clearly by oidptg,

Many commentators and politicians view political disengagement as a personal failing; as a dereliction of one’s democratic duty. Our analysis and our emphasis must diverge: disengagement can only be understood as the inevitable outcome of an uncaring and disinterested politics.

What all the strands in the series suggest is the possibility of undoing these splits and with them the boring character of capitalist politics, and within this a project whereby previously passive individuals may become, collectively, in the Party, subjects not objects of politics.

There are a huge range of potential projects and demands for Party transformation collected in the series and some may, ultimately, contradict each other. However, the range of projects, and even their potentially contradictory character need not be a problem, with membership in the high hundreds of thousands we have the capacity to experiment and develop these ideas in relation to local needs, capabilities and interests (and, indeed, as Hughes and others argue, to assess local needs). Longer-term New Socialist aims to play a role in nurturing these projects and building connections (but we need money to do so). Some of the ideas detailed in the series require the transformation of Labour, others require people with necessary skills to carry them out- Labour here functions more as a pole of attraction and, as in the conception of the 1980s municipal left, an institution that could both benefit from and be affected by, the results of these projects- and could be initiated autonomously, or through Momentum, or potentially, with the help of New Socialist. All of the ideas we collected are interesting and have potential, some may prove unsuccessful, but what works can only be determined practically, the point is to try them.

Democratisation

The first crucial aspect of democratisation, as discussed by Joe Bilsborough, is how “a million members canvassing, conversing, and campaigning makes even more pressing the importance of ditching and democratising the autocratic bureaucracy of the Labour party. Mandatory reselection ought to be back on the agenda in a serious way”.We have discussed (and will continue to do so) this extensively in New Socialist. For Bilsborough, it is essential that the “MPs we campaign for [are] both responsive to and representative of the changing demographic of the party”.

However, the changing of Party rules is only one aspect, albeit a vital one, of democratisation. Democratisation includes both changes to the culture of the Party and the use of the Party for the extension of democratic control over workplaces and everyday life. There remains a risk that, echoing the split between politics, economics and everyday life, demands for Party democratisation become limited to the political: to changes to rules. However, as argued by Marie, following Wainwright, the everyday practices of the Party, the cultures and sedimented institutional practices equally need to be transformed. Marie notes how, “too often, I have sat through boring and male dominated Labour party meetings, without the courage to speak, and in the certain knowledge that, even if I did, nothing would come of it.” Here again, boringness is connected to a lack of real world consequences and detachment from everyday life and experience. A democratic party does not only mean mandatory reselection, though it certainly does mean that, but it also means women’s voices being listened to at meetings and men taking on dreary but necessary administrative roles. A democratic party, as suggested by both Marie and Crory’s socialist feminism, involves the inclusion and listening to of a wide range of voices, demands and experiences.

A democratic party also means a Party which, as Marie argues, begins to prefigure the relationships we want to see in society as a whole. New Socialist intends to further investigate these questions of Party culture and the possibilities of prefiguration in our upcoming “Starting as we mean to go on” series. This concern with the internal workings of the Party and finding a place for those who have been excluded is further echoed by Mau B’s piece on the role of migrants in the Party, and, as he argues, an exclusively electoralist focus potentially limits this inclusion, with local councillors,

The purveyors of the policies that are often most harmful for immigrants as evidenced by the responsibility of local councils across the country for displacement and poor treatment of migrants. For these reasons I find it difficult to be enthused about integral parts of Labour party life such as #labourdoorstep and activities that revolve around elections. If the generalisation is warranted, I believe that the centrality of such activities dissuades migrants from taking part in the party at large.

Further questions as to the function and limits of meetings, which Ellard describes:

For most of us that has meant grimly rocking up to a cold TRA hall or someone's too-warm flat and chuntering through the order of the day: councillor reports on which committees they've been to, when the new cashpoint is going to get fixed, whether the branch bank account has £6 in it or £7. Sometimes there are motions and everyone has a good shout

are suggested by Torr Robinson. For Robinson,

Through entering cyberspace CLPs can do away with occasional and tedious meetings. Open up the online space for extra-party individuals and organisations to take part in forums, bringing attention to specific local complaints. Maintain a permanent online agenda to track progress with specific complaints and wider campaigns. Use e-democracy to hold case-by-case votes to ratify action – with such decisions binding for Councillors, MPs etc.

This suggests a long overdue (in 1979 Raymond Williams was pointing to forms of technology that made much more direct forms of democracy and accountability that the traditional labour movement meetings) [6] consideration of what the point is of meetings and whether the democratic functions of the Party can best be met through them. It is necessary, however, to remember, as Kate Flood, argues that there is a risk of isolating older people from an alternative, online public sphere although a mass membership party would clearly have the capacity to, as she also argues, develop the skills necessary for all to participate.

These questions of internal cultures are not, as Marie argues, purely introspective; by opening the Party to excluded experiences and finding ways to meet needs immediately, the Party can deliver consequences more widely,

Transforming dull and bureaucratic meetings into spaces that are genuinely receptive to developing friendly and supportive relationships, and that, in particular, are cross generational and child-friendly. Perhaps the best way to do this is to make sure that the time people devote to going to a meeting genuinely delivers consequences; that people are, and feel they are, doing things that matter, together.

This links questions of democratisation to the second key strand, delivering consequences.

There is a third sense of democratisation suggested by a number of pieces around the use of the Party to extend democratic control and relationships over wider areas of society. As Cotterrill argues,

The real prize lies in re-establishing a long-lasting relationship of trust and solidarity, not just between working people and the labour movement, but between working people themselves. The real grounding for a socialist future lie less in the imposition of re-distributive and fiscally intelligent economics, though this will play a party in creating the material conditions for deeper change, and more in a renewed spirit of associational democracy, in which new associational forms of production and citizenship challenge the state for legitimacy.

In Cotterrill’s account there are a number of areas where Labour could initiate projects that are useful to extending democratic control and building relationships and, as with Casper Hughes’s call for a census of local needs and Gordon’s linking of canvassing to community organising meaning this entails a further expansion of the needs and experiences brought inside Labour, “we must embed labour members within their neighbours’ political struggles and, more importantly, embed their neighbours’ political struggles within the Labour Party”. As Ellard argues,

With branch numbers in the hundreds and meetings in the scores we couldn't carry on as we currently operate. But we could engage in some serious hyper-localism by allowing – encouraging! – members to call STREET-, TOWER-, ESTATE- or WORKPLACE-LEVEL committees with delegated 'voices' to report on local issues at branch. These 'voices' would be directly elected by members of their committees. They would hold local councillors to account and work together to provide services on their streets.

These processes further tend to expand what is considered political beyond the boringness of capitalist politics, and the sense that the limited foot soldier canvassing can immediately and unproblematically register politics, as argued by Marie about #Labourdoorstep. Instead, what is registered on #Labourdoorstep is what is considered political. Here then, the question of democratisation further overlaps with disalienating socialism and delivering consequences. as suggested by Ranciere,

Our states are less and less able to thwart the destructive effects of the free circulation of capital on the communities under their care — all the less so because they have no desire to do so. They then fall back on what is in their power, the circulation of people. They seize upon the control of this other circulation as their specific object and the national security that these immigrants threaten as their objective — to say more precisely, the production and management of insecurity. This work is increasingly becoming their purpose and their means of legitimation.

Delivering Consequences

For the Black Panther Party, if you cannot deliver consequences, you are politically useless. If a Party of a million or close to a million members can’t begin to transform communities without the mediation of the state and institutionalise and expand the remit of socialist and democratic values, we are politically useless. It is crucial to remember that, despite the fragility of the government’s position and the permanent electoral footing, we could still be out of power for at least five years. The point of delivering consequences is not only the direct benefit of these projects, which as Tom Blackburn has argued in “Corbynism from Below”, can only "despite the real potential...partly ameliorate the damage being done by continuing austerity." However, the advancing of socialist consciousness and the building of popular power against the state, even a state “controlled” by a left Labour government, a power which will be, again as Blackburn argues,

This work and the building of new labour movement institutions must not be an end in itself. Rather, it should aim to lay the foundations for a mass movement which can empower a future Labour government not just to occupy office, but to wield power with the goal of delivering wide-ranging social transformation.

As a number of pieces argue, notably Hughes’s, who suggests a starting point to delivering consequences is to undertake a survey of local needs, this is a task which could alternatively or additionally be carried out, as Baykara suggests, by community working groups. The other side of this, as implied by Ellard, is also to grasp what capacities local parties have that can be pooled for projects that could include, “breakfast clubs, cat-sitting, watering each other's pots, even childcare in the right situation.” The delivering of consequences, as Ellard suggests in the notion of moving the administrative into the practical also entails an extension of what is considered political and what needs can be met by collective power and organisation. This is further suggested by both Hughes who argues that “elements of social reproduction – care, food shopping, cooking – could potentially be socialised amongst the community” and Marie, who cites Wainwright on the centrality of providing some relief and direct satisfaction of needs in building the women’s movement.

Any project of delivering consequences has to be responsive to circumstances, these may be local circumstances or may be circumstances constituted by national policy, as Robertson argues his proposal for popular education “would represent Labour Party members plugging the gaps in the provision of social goods vacated by the Conservative Government”. Robertson’s educational project clearly entails a form of democratisation, in socialising knowledge and aims at developing socialist consciousness.

A further area where a responsiveness to circumstances could be central is in work, as suggested by both Mark Seddon and Jacob Soule. Here the numbers embraced, the likely range of members and the capacity to launch political projects mean, as Seddon argues, “Labour could play an effective role in supporting low-paid workers outside, as well as inside, Parliament”. The two points, again through the organising and advancing of needs in a way that can impact on policy, need not be wholly distinct, as Seddon councludes, a national network of groups “could help to increase public support for the sort of legislation around pay and working conditions advocated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.” This potential power could be particularly significant in organising workers in under unionised sectors, as Soule writes,

A million strong membership would mean the entrance into Labour of many who are facing casualization and precarity, often in industries where unionization is difficult if not impossible. Academic labourers, freelance workers, Uber and Lyft drivers, as well as those facing unemployment or with disabilities—a coalition of those currently out of reach of the unions must be brought together.

This could, as Soule continues, be the basis of further democratisation, supporting, “a genuinely radical, participatory and democratic economic platform” with Labour helping to nurture the forms of consciousness, institutions and capacities for extending democratic control over workplaces.

The task of delivering consequences, moreover, aids the disalienation of socialism, it shows the direct usefulness of socialist values, solidarity is no longer abstract sentiment. As Gordon argues, Labour’s relevance must be proved in order to win back trust,

We must demonstrate the direct relevance of Labour to people’s lives. Quite rightly, working class voters are often sceptical of politicians and their promises. We will not overcome this scepticism by simply collecting data on people, or just trying to convince them during each election campaign.

Socialist and democratic values do not only have to be institutionalised by the state but the beginnings of their insitutionalisation despite the state make the winning of office, and as Blackburn argues, with the possibility of the left usefully exercising that power, much more likely.

Disalienation

The claim of the right has always been that socialism is alien to ordinary working people in Britain. Something of this contradiction, which is very largely false but, to an extent does correspond to the interests, at least from a narrowly economistic perspective, of at least a privileged section of the working class. The alienation of socialism from parts of the British working class is not, precisely, a case of “false consciousness”. However, this alienation, more significantly, is rooted in the structured passivity of members, and of the working class as a whole, a passivity that produces a sullen integration into the British state and capitalism. This distance between the Labour leadership and the working class, leads to the constant assertion that the Party as a whole is “out of touch” and that distance must be bridged in responding to “legitimate concerns” over immigration; this bone thrown, Labour’s technocrats can go on their merry way. This model acquires its own, viciously circular, momentum, the membership is disempowered so the gap between Labour’s leaders and the working class base can only be bridged by measures that reduce the enthusiasm of members so the gap between the working class base and the leaders becomes greater, and can only be bridged (etc). In addition to its working out on the level of technocracy + “legitimate concerns”, there is, a similar vicious circle, as suggested in Fay Dowker’s piece, around the question of Party finance, and here the cynicism of this type of politics and the active desire of its leaders to disempower and disengage the membership in order for a smoother integration of Labour into the purposes of capitalism comes into full view.

This impasse between the everyday life of the great majority of people and what is understood as politics, is part of the structural boringness of politics under capitalism. This impasse is further sustained by, as Marie discusses, the odd claim that Party members are radically distinct from “ordinary people”. Corbynism, by contrast, has its own potential virtuous circle, one constituted by, as Marie and Crory’s socialist feminism implies, and Hughes’s analysis states more explicitly, a particular working through of how the personal is the political and the political is the personal. The virtuous circle of Corbynism, in democratisation projects, whether of the culture of the Party, which becomes outward looking (Marie) or rule changes (Bilsborough), or democratising funding (Dowker) or through the organising of popular needs (Hughes, Ellard, Baykara) further involves the subjecting of representatives not only to the Party but to the needs of the community. Democratisation disalienates socialism.

The second element of disalienation, and of Corbynism’s potential virtuous circle, is the role of an enthusiastic, mass membership in arguing for an inspiring left programme, for oidptg, “one lesson of the election is that our message, when unmediated by a right-wing press and our bankrupt political class, is a powerful one. That it chimes. This is particularly true when it’s conveyed by those we love, trust and respect.” This potential is shown in the case of his brother, a teacher,

Labour’s free school meals policy, rooted as it was in his daily personal experience, resonated with him and with many of his colleagues. Although he may not have seen the minutiae of what Labour was proposing, he didn’t need to, intimately acquainted as he was with the social ill it sought to address. When we discussed that policy and others in depth he was enthused. He took this enthusiasm to his workplace, to the pub and to social media. To his colleagues, his friends and his acquaintances. Although it’s unlikely that he’d ever join the party or knock on doors, he became a passionate, eloquent and convincing advocate for Corbynism nonetheless.

Politics, therefore is no longer boring because it begins to refuse the gap between work and everyday life on the one hand and “politics” on the other. It is, moreover, a politics with the momentum of a virtuous circle, able to unify popular struggles and experience and engage ever larger numbers of people with socialism, pushing a programme beyond itself towards something more radical.


  1. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, p. 138, see also, the critique of Loria on the impossibility of maintaining politics in a pure state of passion and emotion, p. 164. ↩︎

  2. Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments, London, Merlin Press, 2013. ↩︎

  3. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London, The Merlin Press, 1971, p. 43. ↩︎

  4. Raymond Williams, “Notes on Marxism in Britian since 1945” in Culture and Materialism, London, Verso, 2005, p. 250. ↩︎

  5. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, Renewing Historical Materialism, London, Verso, 2016, p. 20. ↩︎

  6. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review, London: Verso, 2015, p. 425. ↩︎


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