Momentum: Fight for political clarity

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Jim Grant of Labour Party Marxists surveys the left response to Momentum’s founding national committee meeting.

Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashōmon is based around the narrative concept of a series of self-interested characters giving their partial accounts of the same event –  a procedure borrowed by many subsequent works in all narrative media.

It seems also to have been borrowed, ingeniously, by Momentum: its inaugural national committee this weekend was undoubtedly an important moment, but the precise nature of its significance is something nobody can seem to agree on.

So, to the good news: proposals to ban leftwing literature from Momentum meetings were resoundingly defeated. That the impulse was there at all is, alas, hardly surprising – there is nothing a shiny new movement likes less than the reality of the haggard old Trots its meetings will attract, but it was still silly. Would Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament leaflets be banned? If not, then what about slightly more contentious campaigns (Cuba Solidarity, say)? Even on its own terms, it would be a bureaucratic nightmare, and a ridiculous price to pay for the slender benefit of keeping Socialist Worker at bay. (There is, of course, the small matter of elementary democratic principle to bear in mind as well.)

That Momentum is – for now – relatively open to the participation of avowed Marxists can be gauged from the fact that its steering committee (which will take care of things in between NC meetings) included a certain Jill Mountford of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Any regular reader of this paper will know that our criticisms of the AWL are legion; but, given that Momentum is screamed at in every paper for basically being the Militant Tendency with better social media nous, comrade Mountford’s election is a good omen for left participants in Momentum more generally. They are not yet buckling on this one. Good.

The most contentious issue, however, is related to Momentum’s membership rules. On the table were three options: Momentum is only open to Labour members; Momentum members must have Labour Party cards, but a separate category of supporters would have voting rights on all matters not directly connected to internal Labour politics; and finally, that Momentum was open to Labour members, affiliated supporters (such as members of affliated unions) and those who support the “aims and values” of the Labour Party, provided they do not support any party other than Labour.

The third option was chosen by a decent majority vote, and its vagueness is probably responsible for most of the leftwing confusion in the period since the meeting. We have argued repeatedly that Momentum should orient itself very firmly in the direction of the Labour Party, and aspects of the agreed wording fudge the issue somewhat. Talk of ‘aims and values’ is plainly lifted directly from the wording of the Labour Party’s ‘registered supporter’ category, which proved under the pressure of Jeremy Corbyn’s insurgent leadership bid to be somewhat elastic, with many of those who had left Labour for the Greens and suchlike excluded on the basis of ancient Twitter postings.

In context, the Momentum agreement is pointing in the opposite direction: it is, after all, the most elastic of the options available. Momentum members will merely have to employ the appropriate due diligence of not openly supporting opposing candidates under their own names. Yet it is still not nearly as elastic as some would like. Again – good. Momentum has chosen not to be yet another self-perpetuating campaigning mechanism along the lines of the People’s Assembly, Stop the War and sundry Trot fronts past and present. It is an (admittedly unofficial) organisation of the Labour Party, and all who sign up will at least have to stand in some proximity to the larger body.

Dogma

So, unsurprisingly, opinions divide. Many are pretty upbeat about the whole thing: “I believe the lobbying and pressure from grassroots Momentum branches won the day at the new NC on Saturday,” chirruped a triumphant Stuart King, formerly of the International Socialists, Workers Power, Permanent Revolution and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (and possibly still a member of Left Unity, but who knows?), on Facebook.

The AWL’s Ed Whitby, who was present, used his own blog to accentuate the positive. “People should join the Labour Party, and it is right that Momentum will strongly encourage this; but there are still many people coming to the organisation who for whatever reason haven’t joined yet. We need to encourage and persuade them, not throw up an unnecessary barrier.”1 (The AWL, of course, has a longer track record of conducting Labour work, so the result is probably easier to swallow for its members.)

Many Left Unity members are … less enthusiastic. It is hardly surprising: as its membership shrivels, LU is more and more dominated by the ‘carry on as before’ tendency; those for whom the desire to stand candidates in their particular locality automatically supersedes any attention to the goings-on in wider national politics; those for whom the narrow horizon of politics is fitting in as much low-level do-goodery into a given week as possible. No doubt LU will continue to ignore the great shifts happening all around it, in favour of trying to turn out what remains of its membership on whatever demonstration is looming.

The ne plus ultra of this political approach is, as ever, the Socialist Workers Party. A headline in this week’s Socialist Worker asks: “Is Jeremy Corbyn supporters group Momentum cutting off its grassroots?”2 Beyond being a great exemplar of Betteridge’s law (which states that any headline which takes the form of a question can be safely answered with ‘no’), it differs very little from any of SW’s recent ruminations on the topic.

“Momentum’s national committee rightly agreed to support the CND demonstration against Trident nuclear missiles in London on Saturday February 27,” writes the article’s author, Nick Clark. “And it also committed to build for the People’s Assembly national demo in London on April 16. But the committee’s agenda emphasised a focus on building the Labour Party.” For shame!

Comrade Clark’s bizarre conclusion deserves to be cited in full:

“Such a strategy risks allowing the groundswell of support that grew around Corbyn’s campaign to melt away. Corbyn’s strength came from the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for him because they wanted an alternative to austerity, racism and war. Sustaining that will mean building a broad-based movement.”

Might we naively suggest that people voted for Corbyn because they, er, wanted him to be the leader of the Labour Party? Does the SWP really expect people to take no further interest in the matter now that he is Labour leader, and – worse – actually think that is a good thing?

We will not find out from comrade Clark, who refrains from anything so vulgar as justifying the claims he repeats mindlessly, like a penitent monk. For that, we turn to Mark L Thomas, writing at greater length in the latest International Socialism, the SWP’s quarterly journal:

“The key to social change remains through collective struggle from below. Every advance in the struggle creates a greater self-confidence among layers of workers, so weakening the hold of rightwing ideas. This in turn is Corbyn’s best defence of his position against the Labour right … But if the mass of Corbyn’s supporters are simply drawn into bitter internal battles over Labour policy and candidate selections, in practice their focus will not be mobilising in workplaces and working class communities, but on arguing with the right wing … Paradoxically, this can weaken, not strengthen, Corbyn’s position.”3

Things are, alas, little better here – we have proof only of the bankruptcy of the SWP’s hyper-activist tunnel vision. For decades, we have been told with increasing desperation that every passing strike or demonstration is ‘really important’ and the ‘start of the fightback’. Well, comrades, the fightback has come – and you are reduced basically to complaining that it was not the fightback you had in mind. Would a little rethinking be too much to ask?

This sort of dogma is, as we have already seen, hardly limited to the SWP, which merely presents it in its purest and thereby most ridiculous form. Indeed, even organisations that take the Labour question more seriously as part of their operative activity slip into this paradigm all too easily. Thus we find the aforementioned Jill Mountford and Ed Whitby, along with AWL stalwart Sacha Ismail, in last week’s Solidarity:

“It would be false [sic] at this stage to push for anything like a clear, sharp statement of socialist aims, but we need to go beyond Lib Dem-style platitudes and commit to goals for changing the labour movement and developing workers’ political representation. Momentum also needs a clear orientation to supporting workers’ and social movement struggles, and taking them into the Labour Party.”4

It is, we note, never the right time to push for a “clear statement of socialist aims”; nor are we certain that “supporting workers’ and social movement struggles” goes beyond the platitudinous. Mountford wants Momentum to be ‘socialist’ in some sense, still: just not clearly or sharply so. So it is somewhat odd to find comrade Whitby ambivalent on this point in his later blog post: “The basic statement of aims was amended to refer more to socialism and the working class [but] it is still, in my view, far from adequate.” It is a difficult thing, indeed, to satisfy precisely the AWL’s demand for blurry, blunt socialism!

Focus on labour

Still, we must agree with comrade Whitby that the Momentum decisions represent movement in the right direction. And there is a small nugget of truth even in the SWP’s Nick Clark, when he complains of “a focus on building the Labour Party”. However, it is clear that, left to its own devices, Momentum has a very clear sense of what building the Labour Party means, and that is to support Jeremy. At all costs, Labour must be returned to government in 2020, with the honourable member for Islington North at the helm.

So, although Clark’s crypto-Bakuninist ravings and the Corbynist electoralism of the Momentum mainstream may seem to be directly and diametrically opposed, they have in common one thing: the need to suppress political clarity. The object of working class struggle is the conquest of political power, and in fact the ‘instinctive’ class vote for Labour – as with other humdrum matters of official labour movement politics – is a distorted reflection of that reality. The existence of the Labour Party can be put down, ultimately, to the fact that even the infamously bureaucratic British trade unions of the 19th century knew that the workers’ movement needed an effective ‘political wing’ to make anything stick.

Yet there is a vast gulf between what the extant forces of the Labour left consider to be ‘taking power’ and what is actually required to break the grasp of the ruling class on society. For one thing, capital is organised internationally, as the recent Google tax scandals have neatly illustrated; ‘getting the Tories out’ and putting in a tax-and-spend budget does not change that by itself. Organising internationally, however, renders unavoidable the necessity to think at a very high level about the sort of world we want to create. More immediately, the very structures of the state are organised in ways favourable to capital and hostile to labour (in extremis, we have had off-the-record coup talk about Corbyn from army chiefs already). Again, a laundry list of worthy reformist policies gathered into a Labour manifesto is not adequate as a response.

In short, rigorous and effective political discussion is not some self-indulgent distraction from the ‘real work’ – be that getting a Labour government or nudging up attendance figures at some demonstration. The great promise of Momentum is that it provides an opportunity to fight for political clarity among greater numbers of people and, by focusing on the Labour Party – an organisation that, for better or worse, actually matters – the chance to make that clarity a practical force in society at large.

Notes

1 . https://edsunionblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/steps-forward-for-momentum-report-of-first-momentum-national-committee-6-february-2016.

2 . Socialist Worker February 9 2016.

3 . ‘A house divided: Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’ International Socialism No149, winter 2015.

4 . Solidarity February 3 2016.

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