In and Against: labour transformed interview
25 January 2021
On behalf of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Rowan Fortune interviews the emerging left organisation within the Labour Party, labour transformed, exploring strategy, labourism, class, ideology, imperialism, and Brexit.
Question. (Q.) Anti*Capitalist Resistance: Within its documents, labour transformed emphasises internationalism and anti-imperialism. Will the group forge international links to other groups outside of the UK? And how will it navigate anti-imperialist solidarity in the context of a party that subordinates such struggles?
Answer. (A.) labour transformed: The main problem for any anti-imperialist in the UK is identifying what meaningful anti-imperialism looks like from inside the imperialist core, particularly when having to navigate through the Labour Party to a lesser or greater extent. This is an ongoing process for labour transformed, the first step of which was formulating and articulating a set of coherent anti-imperialist politics that we hold ourselves accountable to. This may seem obvious in itself, but like socialism, imperialism has become a placeholder for a variety of different processes and/or politics (one need only look at the recent Open Labour Progressive Foreign Policy pamphlet for an example of this). As such, the labour transformed anti-imperialism working group worked through and cohered around a definition of imperialism that we feel is a useful descriptor for the ongoing process of value extraction from the periphery to the core. We are acutely conscious of the pitfalls of labourism in relation to imperialism, and that’s why a publicly available political basis to hold members accountable is so important. We are clear that anti-imperialist solidarity is not something on which we as an organisation can budge on, and our interactions with other organisations, whether the Labour Party or extra-parliamentary organisations, must be predicated on defined goals that do not compromise our solidarity with the oppressed across the globe.
Now that we are formalising ourselves as a membership organisation, we are looking to start forging international ties. These must be links built on solidarity and political kinship rather than interpersonal relations, which lack continuity. There’s a real dearth of shared knowledge and experience across borders. We’ve started thinking about how to overcome this problem, and the viability of decentralised digital platforms for doing so.
Q. As labour transformed is in the process of forming a membership structure, will that structure (as with Momentum) require membership of the Labour Party? How will the National Organising Group be accountable to members?
A. In this formative period the NOG has been responsible for maintaining engagement and setting up the organisational infrastructure. Currently, we have an interim structure in which the NOG will continue to play a role in onboarding new members and setting up events. Once we have transitioned to a full sub paying membership organisation both the remit of the NOG and its composition will be voted on by members. Specifically, its role is in maintaining the smooth running of the organisation whilst assuming as little centralised power as possible. Whilst labour transformed has been in a gestative period the NOG has had a large hand in driving the organisation forward, but even now the working groups have the autonomy to run projects and operate however they wish, provided they are in broad agreement with the political basis of the organisation. This is not a democratic centralist organisation. An ongoing goal is to give members the autonomy, skills and confidence to launch and lead projects of their own.
Q. How will labour transformed relate to other socialist groups in the Labour Party? Such as Momentum?
A. labour transformed played a significant role in the election of the Forward Momentum slate to the NCG. How we relate to Momentum is an ongoing question that is predicated on how the organisation’s refounding process proceeds. We are keen to lend both resource and experience to help in this process, but will not shy away from criticising the organisation where necessary. As the largest left extra-parliamentary organisation in the country, it is of vital importance that Momentum effectively harnesses the resources it has at its disposal.
We are also keen to work with any socialist group whose politics broadly align with our own. For too long the British left have acted in silos or in competition with one another. We are a small cadre with an aim of reaching across superficial divides. There are many activists and organisations doing excellent work who might benefit from an extended network of shared knowledge and experience.
Q. In labour transformed’s Political Basis Document (PBD) a post-Corbyn proto-tendency in the Labour Party is outlined. They are defined by commitments to participatory democracy, rank-and-file organisation and platforming the marginalised. Cohering this tendency is one of the goals of labour transformed, what are the main obstacles?
A. We have already seen from both working group engagement and attendance at our events that labour transformed is currently an overwhelmingly white male grouping. This is obviously a massive problem, somewhat representative of the British left. We have a membership development group that is reaching out to comrades who may have once engaged with the organisation but then left to understand what we could be doing better. Whilst we don’t know the answer it is clear that without platforming and empowering the marginalised we will fail to become the participatory rank-and-file organisation we have outlined.
Q. The Labour Party has a culture of anti-intellectualism, which the PBD makes reference to. It’s reassuring that it also seeks a ‘shared commitment to open and principled debate’, and borrows from a range of theories (from autonomist views of class to Althusser’s interpellation). Are these ideas the start of a new, cohesive theory, or representative of internal debate?
A. We’re clear that the political basis document is a living document. Though we wanted to outline our politics in broad terms, these must be subject to testing and verification. There certainly isn’t complete agreement across the whole document. Working groups were free to work on their designated sections before the NOG collated this work into a coherent political basis. Members could table amendments that the organisation voted on. The closest we come to a novel contribution is to begin the process of fleshing out what an In and Against politics looks like, though this is only the first step in that process.
Q. labour transformed’s theory of the working class argues that it must ‘construct its unity by building solidarity and by organising to form coalitions among different factions of those who are exploited and oppressed’. This is similar to an interpretation of Marx’s theory of class proposed by Mutiny, and the view of class (as mentioned in the PBD) held by some autonomists. How does this view shape the organisational aims and scope of labour transformed?
A. The key point to get across is that class is not a static formation but in a constant state of composition and decomposition. The autonomist conception of class captures this well and aligns nicely with theories of class described by Marx and Gramsci, among others. This was the theoretical point we aimed to articulate in the political basis document. However, the question of how to cultivate class consciousness in the current moment is one of the great challenges facing the left. We have recently set up a workstream called New Class Narratives to not only understand conceptions of class but the underlying narratives that give them sustenance. In terms of organisational aims, as with our position on anti-imperialism, our political position holds us accountable. We will not pander to identitarian conceptions of class that compromise solidarity with the marginalised.
Q. Labour under Keir Starmer has a record of abstentions and compromises on, for example, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, and voted in favour of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Deal. What is labour transformed’s view on Brexit and the current Parliamentary Labour Party?
A. labour transformed hasn’t had a discussion or developed a formal position on Brexit. Broad agreement with our political basis is the only political criteria for joining the organisation. Clearly in the aftermath of the 2019 general election the balance of forces has shifted against the left within the Labour Party. One notable problem is the lack of formal structures that link the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs to the grassroots left, resulting in very little coordinated action, and this points to a wider problem of coordination across the left. Whether the left should stay in the party, and to what extent we should orientate towards it should be a collective decision. Likewise, quitting the party in dribs and drabs has little noticeable effect compared to a coordinated mass exit. Either way the decision must be made based on an analysis of our collective power and how that can be best exerted.
Q. The PBD defines the state as a contingent process and (ruling) class dictatorship, which socialists should abolish. However, winning control of the state is a transitional goal. To that end, the strategy of ‘in and against the state’ is suggested, with socialists acting outside of it to pressure socialists on the inside. The problem of accountability has plagued Momentum in the UK and the DSA in the US. Will labour transformed seek forms of accountability for politicians and elected officers inside the party?
A. The short answer is yes, but how to develop structures of accountability in organisations that may be resistant is an ongoing challenge. We have working groups and work streams dedicated to expanding what an effective In and Against strategy might look like in the current conjuncture. The organisation has already made itself politically accountable, but in terms of strategy this is very much a work in progress.
Q. labour transformed puts an emphasis on the role socialists must play within trade unions, and the need to foster links between community and workplace struggles. This makes sense given that the Corbyn movement’s detachment from worker struggles contributed to its vulnerability. How will labour transformed’s suggested strategy forums overcome indifference to workplace struggles within the Labour Party? And how will labour transformed prevent the potential for co-option of these struggles by labourism?
A. How socialists should view and orientate towards the Labour Party is crucial. Specifically, rebuilding the workers’ movement is not the first step towards a left Labour government. Rather the Labour Party can be used to facilitate this rebuilding process (for example, through campaigning for the repeal of anti-union laws). This In and Against position is also a useful approach towards the established unions. Too often unions are generalised as homogenous entities when in reality there is a great deal of variation at branch level, with radical activists and branches already working from an In and Against position. It is vital to build networks across these branches if a workers’ movement is to be realised.
One of the temptations of labourism is a willingness to sacrifice the much more laborious work of building rank-and-file power when electoral success appears to be within reach. If Corbynism has taught the left anything it must be that in the absence of collective power our demands can largely be ignored. Following Corbyn’s resignation as party leader the left had no collective assessment of the situation or structures for succession. A coherent analysis of Corbynism and its resultant aftermath is the first step in identifying the gains the left made and held onto, and developing the structures necessary to ensure activists who take up positions within the party or the unions are accountable to the wider movement.
Q. The PBD includes a thorough critique of labourism (as anti-democratic, nationalist rather than class based, anti-intellectual, and electoralist). The A*CR shares this critique, as well as the belief that the party remains a vital site of struggle. However, labour transformed goes further and argues that socialists inside the party can secure non-reformist reforms. What are examples of such reforms, and can they be achieved in a Starmer led Labour Party?
A. As already touched on, repeal of anti-trade union laws is absolutely essential. Intuitively this feels impossible under a Starmer leadership. We would argue however that it is not simply a matter of passing motions at conference, which can then be ignored. Any drive to secure reforms through the party must be tethered to a wider narrative of why these reforms are necessary and what they will achieve. These cannot be issues that flit in and out of public consciousness, but must be central to the ongoing story we are telling. The pressure on the party must come both from without and within. Until we make these attempts, we cannot collectively assess the utility of the party for socialists in the current moment.
labour transformed is organising a democratic left, not to soften the antagonism between the two extremes of capital and wage labour, but to supersede both.
Rowan Fortune is a member of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance and a London-based activist.