Che in England: Organisers as Social Reformers
First Published: Newsletter 16/08/2020
Author: David L
In the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, the Labour party and the Left has been faced with the challenge of reckoning with itself, asking the right questions and providing solutions to its problems. There are many, but I would argue that the most pressing problem of the left’s political situation today is that of developing a new political strategy. Political strategy in England for the socialists is afflicted by many problems, but above all by this: the belief that all roads (must) lead to Westminster. At the time of writing, this finds its particular manifestation in Keir Starmer’s strategy towards the government, which seems to be a response to the common criticism of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn before, during and after the General Election, which is that it didn’t deserve to win or be in government. This in itselfhas been linked to not only the antisemitism controversies within the party but also to its inability to keep the “traditional working class”. The rhetoric was that the party was not deserving of power. In part this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, a critique of centrists and the soft left that became especially once the leaked labour report became widely available.
Regardless of the reasons, it is important then that as socialists we start to develop new ways of organizing after a defeat of this scale. There are a range of revolutionaries and theorists we can look to take inspiration from, one of whom with which we will deal shortly, but first let us look at the current alternative to “Corbynism” that exists.
Sir Starmer has gone about distancing the Labour Party from the confrontational and controversial strategy practised by Corbyn’s Labour, making it clear it’s ‘under new management’. He’s done this by attempting ‘consensus building’, a strategy wherein Labour does not criticise or oppose the Government’s actions or policies, or at best will criticise the way in which they’ve handled and initiated these policies. Instead the Opposition will attempt to unify with the Government for the good of the country.. But like Jack Seward points out, ‘what Starmer fails to realise is that Boris Johnson's eighty seat majority government is not in the business of consensus building’. By treating Corbyn’s style of Opposition as a childish contrarianism Starmer seeks to promote an Opposition that seeks unity or constructive criticism. However, as Rachel Shabi writes, by ‘Trying to tiptoe around this fate by focusing on appearing constructive brings an additional peril: it binds Labour into parameters dictated by the government, leaving little room for manoeuvre.’
This willingness to try and work with the government, and in a wider sense keep in line with traditional politics and political values, is symptomatic of defeatism on the left. With the membership likely burnt out after the elections defeat, the Party accepts there is nothing to be done, except avoid being seen as opposing too much, or as Keir himself put it, ‘opposition for opposition's sake’. Which is to say it doesn’t want to upset the electorate it wants to gain back by defending the electorate it already has. This became apparent in Starmer’s treatment of the BLM movement, calling its demands to defund the police ‘nonsense’ and that it was a ‘moment’ rather than a movement. Along with the leaked Labour report, this led black members to criticise the party for taking the black vote for granted. As Maya Elise notes:
“The Labour Party has wrongly assumed that the Black community will be devout supporters due to their historic track record on race, especially in comparison to the Conservatives. It was the Labour Party who introduced the Race Relations Act, and elected parliament’s first Black MPs”
Out of power, the Labour Party is attempting a strategy which educator and theorist Paulo Freire described in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Going into detail about the various antidialogical methods (ways of talking down and to oppressed people) of controlling the people, Freire outlines the Left’s response to oppressive governments in a time where capitalist, reactionary politics take a more manipulative, subtle tone in comparison to more repressive regimes that subjugate their people. He writes:
In a situation of manipulation, the Left is almost always tempted by a “quick return to power,” forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible “dialogue” with the dominant elites. It ends by being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls into an elitist game, which it calls “realism.”
Starmer’s strategy for Labour, which presents itself as the ‘grown ups being back in charge’, belies a defeatist and cynical waiting game, where the party cooperates with the government, in the hopes that when the next election comes around all the Tory mistakes and fumbles will allow them to regain seats without much effort (One punditeven suggested he could win the next election). Meanwhile, the people who will supposedly vote for Labour, and according to Starmerite claims need a Labour government, will continue to suffer. They will be degraded and dehumanized by the state and economic system it supports, and will die undignified deaths. The working class’ demands will be ignored at a time where they need their rights defended most. Minorities will be subjected to violence whilst the Labour party refuses to give full support to their movements.
Whilst I have listed the ways in which Starmer's strategy embodies a certain attitude, it would be naïve to say it is a problem which starts and ends with him. In fact, this defeatism could be argued to be a result of the project of democratic socialism. It is a recurring misstep by the British left, as Angry Workers highlighted and criticised in their book Class Power on Zero Hours, that ‘the only real ‘strategy’ on the left is tied to the re-emergence of the idea that socialism can be obtained through winning governmental power’. This leads to the idea that ‘by using the two legs of the organised labour movement—the trade unions and socialist party in government—we can walk step-by-step towards socialism’.
Over the course of their twelfth chapter, Angry Workers lay out an extensive critique of the democratic socialist project. Out of the 12 they lay out, the last point, ‘Strategy starts from actual struggle and actual potentials and difficulties imposed by the social production process’ is particularly important to what we aim to do. Democratic socialism advocates a gradual work towards taking government power, and from there “real”,radical change can begin. This was the aim of Labour under Corbyn. The difference between Corbyn and Starmer is simply that Starmer’s strategy lacks the oppositional core, but their aims, and the promise this strategy makes it bed on, are the same. As I said at the start, All roads lead to Westminster. This perception must be turned on its head. The aim of the working class and the oppressed of Britain should not be to give their time and energy to political parties, in an unsure attempt to get them into, but to build their own means of self defence and forms of organisation outside of supposed political centres. If socialist activists truly want the emancipation of the working class & oppressed peoples, then they should meet them in their own conditions and environments.
But how to envisage this? Here it is useful to make a distinction. Democratic socialism imagines politics are the gradual progression towards an end goal, which will culminate in success when conditions are right. It sees itself acting on equal terms with the government and state. If it fails, it is because it is not deserving of power or the people’s support. We must view political struggle as an asymmetric, antagonistic contradiction between two antithetical groups, the oppressed and the oppressors. A capitalist, Tory government does not act in the interests of the people, and if parts of the population believe this, it is not a manifestation of some inner worthiness on the part of Boris or his cabinet, but rather is a political situation which is maintained through propaganda and the appeal to reactionary values fostered by a history and culture of empire. There is an open space for a possible alternative which starts from this position, the material position of most class, race and gender struggles in Britain.
It is here we can intervene into this space with strategic principles devised from Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. Written after the success of the Cuban revolution, Guevara's manual on how to conduct an asymmetrical war against a national army would go on to become a guide and reference for many insurrectionists in Latin America. Now this is not to say it should be taken entirely literally. Che speaks strictly of military affairs, and it is a guide for the most part on matters such as what terrain and weapons to use. But it has principles that can be useful for rethinking activism, civil disobedience, and political struggle in a contemporary era.
First and foremost, it argues against the attitude of defeatism that arises from an electoral system of politics, where a left wing party must wait for another chance at the ballot, and only through victory there can it enact change. Che writes ‘It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolutions exist; the insurrection can create them’. Revolution can be worked towards now. It is not something to be waited for, not when the poverty rate of people in working families is at a record high, when vulnerable groups such as the LGBT+ community and refugees face mental health crises. This speak to a need for revolutionaries and socialists to find ways of organizing that seek to work with the working class and oppressed ‘to organise their survival, be it in the forms of workers’ cooperatives, hack-labs, squats or self-run community projects’.
Che goes on to say that ‘It is necessary to create these essential conditions, basically by explaining the purposes of the revolution and by demonstrating the forces of the people and their possibilities’. By this he means it is important that people are educated, not only on politics and theory, but in how they can organise collectively. The people need to be aware of the power they have at their disposal. However, compared to the more prominent forms of activist culture in the UK and elsewhere in the world, which can often rely on marches and other public forms of political expression situated within the context of social media and raising awareness, Che’s guerrilla fighters are more grounded. Working with the people should not be a campaign of ‘professional activists’ running talks or protests over a short space of time, it requires a long term approach. As Astra Taylor reminds us ‘organizing is what the left must cultivate to make its activism more durable and effective, to sustain and advance our causes when the galvanizing intensity of occupations or street protests subside.’
To accomplish this, Guevara argues that communication and engagement with the people’s lives and environment must take place. From there, he says, ‘We must come to the inevitable conclusion that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer, that he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of the people against their oppressors, and that he fights in order to change the social system’. If we are to be revolutionary socialists, we must not simply bring awareness to problems, we must mobilize ourselves in order to resolve and reform the very issues facing marginalised communities. Indeed, Che adds that the first priority for a Guerrilla must be to ‘gain the absolute confidence’ of the people of a local area, and that this confidence is gained through ‘a positive attitude toward their problems, by help and a constant program of orientation, by defense of their interests’. This mirrors similar remarks by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth which highlight the limits of electoral parties, for ’The party should be the direct expressions of the masses [...] it is the energetic spokesman and the incorruptible defender of the masses’.
This enables us to imagine exactly what political education and organising must look like, keeping in mind that ‘The political education of the masses proposes not to treat the masses as children but to make adults of them’.
It follows naturally from these ideas that the people must be a prominent part of revolutionary action and organising. Paulo Freire uses Che as a prime example of how necessary cooperation is to liberation: ‘Cooperation, as a characteristic of dialogical action - which occurs only among Subjects [...] can only be achieved through communication’. It is imperative that radicals talk to marginalised communities and gain an understanding of that community’s situation and how they can be useful. This requires a radical faith in the people themselves, as ‘leaders must believe in the potentialities of the people, whom they cannot treat as mere objects of their own action’. Drawing from an example in Che’s experiences during the Cuban Revolution, Freire notes of his almost constant communication with Cuban peasants:
[...] Guevara’s emphasis that communionwith the people was decisive for the transformation of a “spontaneous and somewhat lyrical decision into a more serene force, one of an entirely different value.” It was, then, in dialogue with the peasants that Guevara’s revolutionary praxis became definitive.
Here we see that the relationship between radicals and the people, at the start of organising, is a two way street. Only through radical action can the people have their own power demonstrated to them, and only through dialogue and learning from the people can radicals truly become effective at mobilizing themselves and others. As Régis Debray said, ‘the ‘rebellion’ will truly be - by the manner of its recruitment and the origins of its fighters - a ‘war of the people’’. It is a move towards forms of struggle that exposes the limitations of the Labour party, which seeks only to draw people’s time and energy into electoral canvassing and campaigning, which often have long intervals in between. The struggle that people need, is one that is focused on their immediate problems, and is an everyday battle. This is what ‘Che in England’ means; to develop a revolutionary strategy that starts, as Angry Workers said, at the struggles present in the everyday life of working and marginalised people in the UK.