by Ruth Kinna
It’s easy to see the appeal that Jeremy Corbyn has for anti-Blairite Labour Party activists. He’s resurrected a language of socialism that third-way preaching all but expunged and he’s disappointed his internal critics by staving off predicted electoral melt-down – witness the sense of victory that materialised after the last election when he defied gleefully pessimistic predictions.
But why has Corbyn also excited some anarchists? Maybe the context of his election as leader explains the draw. Corbyn’s leadership comes on the back of a successive wave of grass-roots, pro-democracy actions, more-or-less fuelled by the financial crisis of 2008. It coincides with the paralysis of parliamentary democracy and with an increasing polarisation of opinion that is revivifying the far right. Moreover, he has a powerful grass-roots movement behind him. If the drama of the elite’s hopeless mismanagement of government has generated more interest in party-politics than usual, perhaps the model of the party-movement has opened the door to the possibility of participation?
Corbyn also appears to have virtue on his side: a record of ignoring the party-line, strong anti-war and anti-apartheid credentials. He looks like one of those politicians who live ‘for’ politics rather than merely ‘off’ it. Of course he takes the money, but he advances causes and has done consistently for a long time. He doesn’t look like a conventional leader or talk like one either: Corbyn looks relaxed in the heat of the Tolpuddle Festival and unapologetically defends unionism. By this reckoning, he’s not those centrist opportunists who just want to get elected, willing to throw everything out the window in order to ease themselves into government. He’s exposed the nonsense of the logic that says that it’s not worth fighting for principles if you can’t implement them. Corbyn wants to bring people round to his way of thinking and secure their votes knowing that he’s a socialist. How refreshing is that?
Finally, there are the policy commitments. The policy he defends harks back to the glory days of Clement Attlee. It turns on social justice and wealth re-distribution to benefit working people and the disadvantaged. Corbyn is a social liberal who also promises to hit the rich and the corporations through taxation, and increase spending on welfare. He talks about grotesque economic inequalities and class divisions. He’s put re-nationalisation back on the political agenda. The idea of the administratively complex, large benevolent state is hardly an anarchist dream but after years of austerity budgets the programme not only looks different, but far more just than the alternative. Maybe, then, he would make a difference?
What’s not to like? Let’s start with the prospect of policy change. Anarchists are mistaken if they think that voting changes nothing or that institutional politics is irrelevant to disadvantaged groups. The historical anarchist rejection of parliamentarianism was about the extent of the difference participation in elite politics could make. A hundred years ago anarchist women didn’t argue that the right to vote would make no impact. A lot of them criticised the campaign because they recognised that the extension of the suffrage would bring some advantages to a small strata of already privileged women. It did. Their worry was that the electoral reform would fail to deliver fundamental social transformation. Me too says that they were right.
As CrimethInc. point out in From Democracy to Freedom, the maintenance of the state is the significant constraint on parliamentary power. Why? Max Weber – no friend of the anarchists – answered the question by arguing that the methods of modern party policies created two types of functionary. One was administrative, the other political. Unlike their administrative counterparts, political officials were always insecure. Enmeshed in the permanent struggle for power, they could be removed from their positions at any time. In modern electoral systems, it was simply not possible for politicians to play the decisive decision-making roles they cast for themselves. No surprise that UK policy analysts find more continuity in the business of government than politicians want to let on. Government doesn’t stop for elections. Ministers always come into power inheriting policy. Weber’s point was that the basic division of labour was integral to modern government. Administrators are charged with the business of government. Politicians are tasked with maintaining ‘law and order’ and, therefore, existing power relations. Chomsky finds something similar in his examination of post-war US foreign policy. Presidents come and go and all the while the military pursues a steady, largely consensual line. Chomksy’s dissection of the alignment of liberal democracy with corporate power, the manufacturing of consent and the symbiotic relationship of capitalism and the state complicates and completes Weber’s picture of parliamentary power constraint.
Individual virtue is not irrelevant in this context but it is not enough for a politician to be a good person to change the system in which party-politics operates. This was another of Weber’s insights, though he used it to attack anarchists unwilling to sully their purist principles ‘responsibly’ as he saw it, in order to realise their ethical goals. Anarchists who have argued that it’s possible to engage in party-movement politics without compromising prefigurative principles don’t follow the Weberian line that says that good outcomes can come from bad intentions and bad outcomes from good ones. Their case for anarchist participation in electoral projects is not about calculating the least-worst outcomes or piggy-backing on representative politics to advance ‘transitional’ demands. Rather it’s about exploiting new opportunities for anarchist action. Spanish party-movement activism is a model here. Electoralism might be difficult and messy, but the argument is that anarchists have held fast to anti-hierarchical, anti-elitist principles, building solidarity across a broad left and advancing socialistic reforms.
What does this suggest about anarcho-Corbynism? There’s a world of difference between a party-movement initiated through grass-roots activism and a mass party that succeeds in galvanising a popular movement. Only one of these is shaped by commitments to horizontal, anarchistic organising and autonomous politics. Increasing the membership of a vertically-structured organisation undoubtedly increases the party’s campaigning capacity and may also help sub-groups within the party cement their control over rivals – electoral candidates and sitting MPs in Labour’s case. But this is a battle between elites for control of a party machine.
Can the election of Jeremy Corbyn combat the worst excesses of parliamentary power or stop political corruption, advance workers’ power or combat every-day racism, misogyny or the rising tide of nationalism? Business as usual, albeit with an altered tax regime and a new legislative programme tailored to higher welfare spending, is more likely. The Spanish experience indicates that party-movements constituted anarchistically and operating at the level of the municipality can instigate cultural shifts capable of reverberating at the centre. Where party-movements have focused on the election of illustrious leaders in the hope of realising socialist programmes the results have been far less encouraging. What can the struggle to win control of government do that extra-parliamentary action can’t? Maybe it’s easier to imagine the electoral win. The gains achieved through mass occupations of the squares are far less easy to track and measure. But the effort to elect the party risks exhaustion and disappointment. Anarcho-Corbynism is the only parliamentary alternative to appalling Toryism. But that’s a pretty low bar.
Ruth Kinna is a professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University, working in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations where she specialises in political philosophy. Since 2007 she has been the editor of the journal Anarchist Studies.
Illustration by Scott Dessert