Today saw the election of North Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party. His remarkable leadership campaign attracted a storm of near-hysterical criticism from both established Labour figures and the right-wing press, but gained considerable support from across the UK left. From major trade-unions to Trotskyist sects, Corbyn succeeded in uniting a broad swathe of the established left, as well as many ordinary Labour Party members and supporters, behind his bid to lead the party following its worst election defeat in 30 years. In spite of a vicious propaganda campaign from right-wing papers like the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Express, alongside former Labour Prime Ministers and other high-ranking members of the Labour establishment (not to mention an attempted purge of his supporters by the current Labour leadership) Corbyn now looks set to lead the Labour Party into the next UK general election in 2020. For most of the British left, this will doubtless be a cause for considerable celebration.
We’re not celebrating.
In spite of the hype surrounding his ascension, we find precious little cause for optimism in his victory. It isn’t simply that he’s unelectable, as those on the right of the Labour Party claim, though it’s true the prospect of him actually becoming Prime Minister in 2020 seems pretty remote without seismic changes to the political landscape of the UK. It isn’t that his left leaning policies don’t go far enough, though it’s true that by the standards of the pre-1990s Labour Party he’s really more of a centrist. It’s not even that the party he leads has a track record of warmongering, austerity, and strike-breaking going back to 1945. Rather, our scepticism of Corbyn’s politics comes from the fact that his vision of an end to austerity, of an end to wars and bloodshed abroad, of well funded state-run public services, of a more just and equal society, is based on a lie: that if we elect better politicians, they will build us a better world without us having to do the hard work of struggling together to improve our lives. The truth is that if we want to see meaningful change, we have to fight for it ourselves.
The strategy of electing left wing and socialist politicians to fight our battles for us has failed time and time again. Corbyn is just the latest in a long line of failures, inside and outside the Labour Party. Just a few months ago, leftists across Europe and beyond were singing the praises of SYRIZA, a coalition of socialists and revolutionaries who rose to power in Greece in January this year, claiming they would put an end to the misery doled out to the Greek people by years of savage public spending cuts. Today their promises are in tatters, their supporters disappointed in yet another Greek government capitulating in the face of international pressure to implement still more austerity. Three years earlier another socialist party in France rose to power offering similar promises of an end to austerity and a fairer society. Three years on, their promises remain unfulfilled. The list goes on.
From an anarchist perspective, none of this is surprising. It is not just that left-wing politicians are liars, cowards and sell-outs, although of course they often are. Nor is it simply that forces outside of and beyond the reach of national parliaments, from international bureaucracies like the EU to centres of financial power like the City of London, make the aspirations of socialist governments impossible. The real issue is more fundamental. Governments, of any political stripe, can act only by wielding the power of the state. To maintain a powerful state, governments need a strong economy, and that means managing capitalism and maintaining a capitalist social order. Different governments can try to do this in different ways, but they’re all bound by the same basic logic, and none of them offer any real hope of a way out of the cycle of capitalist domination and human misery. That’s why left wing and socialist governments routinely disappoint us.
Nonetheless, the allure of Corbyn’s politics is easy to understand. He offers hope when other politicians offer only different flavours of despair, different degrees of capitulation in the face of the self-destructive forces of 21st century capitalism. And hope is important. For those of us who still dream of a better world, who still believe we can overcome the myriad forces of oppression and exploitation and build a more humane society, it sometimes feels like hope is all we have. But if we want to see real change, if we want to make our dreams come to life, we need more than hope: we need power. Not in parliament, but in the streets, in the workplace, in our neighbourhoods, in every aspect of our daily lives. That power can only come from self-organisation and direct action, working together cooperatively to use our own collective strength against those who profit from the current state of things.
So rather than place our faith in politicians to make things better for us, we choose instead to find hope in one another. It is not grand speeches by would-be leaders that inspire us, but the words and actions of ordinary people coming together, whether in the form of strikes and occupations or the many smaller acts of resistance and solidarity that make our day-to-day lives bearable. The false hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the like leads only to disappointment, disillusionment and despair. Real hope is sometimes hard to find, and real change is harder still, but we have to be honest with ourselves and one another, and face up to the realities of our collective situation. We have a long way to go to bring about revolutionary change, but the struggle starts in the here and now.