Corbyn: Class-based Politics Can Still Win

It’s a Friday night in Berlin, and Jeremy Corbyn has the audience at the “Socialism in our Time” rapt. “The socialist idea is about people working together, solidarity with our fellow human beings, and unleashing the creativity and the wonder that’s in everybody.”

The crowd erupts with emotion, and it’s not hard to see why. For a Left in purgatory, still adrift after the heights of the recent past, the former British Labour Party leader’s message hits home. We joined this struggle because we want everyone to have a good life full of meaning. And we’re not ready to give up that vision.

It’s been a turbulent few years for the Anglophone Left: Corbyn’s defeat in the United Kingdom, Bernie Sanders’s soaring run and crushing loss in the United States, and a global pandemic that devastated the lives of so many and forced our in-person organizing to move online. We’d hoped that a mass class politics might actually change the grind of daily life for regular working people, not in the distant future, but now. Our student loans might be forgiven. Our wages might go up. Healthcare for everyone was on the agenda. Instead, we were hit with the one-two punch of Corbyn’s and Sanders’s defeats, followed by the pandemic, which caused hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, upended people’s livelihoods and education en masse, and forced us into a demoralizing isolation. As we return to some semblance of normal, a thorny question arises for the Left: now what do we do?

 

On June 10-11 in Berlin, several hundred socialists gathered to tackle the question at a conference called “Socialism in Our Time,” hosted by Jacobin and Transform! Europe. Over two days, panels addressed issues from the Ukraine War to the climate crisis to the role of the global working class. Attendees at the packed Oyoun cultural center heard from a wide range of prominent voices on the Left, including British commentator Grace Blakeley, Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara, Die Linke’s Member of European Parliament Özlem Demirel, and U.S. scholars Nancy Fraser, Cedric Johnson, and Vivek Chibber.

The conference’s main takeaway was clear: the Left’s urgent task is to merge with the working class. Of course, this prescription is far from new, and raises as many questions as it answers. Who constitutes the working class in the current era of capitalism? And how do we bring the Left and the working class together? These are the pressing theoretical and strategic dilemmas DSA faces in this political moment, and their answers will determine how we deploy our resources and people power. To that end, here are five points from Corbyn that can inform our organizing in 2022 and beyond.

  1. We can support victims of war while still demanding the end of war

Corbyn condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine in stark terms. He emphasized that it will take organizing to end the war. “Are we just going to be spectators and watch tens of thousands die,” he asked, “or will we skip the killing phase and go to the talking phase? Surely, it’s up to us to put all the political pressure we have.” What should socialists demand of their governments? An immediate ceasefire, peace negotiations, and then ​​serious debate to bring about a European security order that doesn’t look like the one we have now, with NATO and Russia both pushing to expand, recreating the dynamics of the Cold War. Corbyn also suggested that nations in Latin America and Africa who haven’t aligned themselves with the United States or Europe might be the ones who bring about a ceasefire. Even as he called for a broad-based peace movement, however, he emphasized that our societies should welcome refugees– and not just those from Ukraine, but from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and other war-stricken areas outside of Europe. 

  1. We’ve got to challenge austerity coming out of the pandemic

After any crisis, Corbyn said, there’s a danger that elites will take the opportunity to slash social services to enrich themselves, driving working people and the poor even deeper into poverty. And global economic inequality is already at staggering heights, a phenomenon he traced in part to Reaganomics, which created a ballooning millionaire class in the United States, along with a growing underclass. “We have to challenge the economic narrative that says, coming out of COVID, that what we have to do is go into a new period of austerity,” he said. What does this look like for DSA? One answer is to defend and demand more universal, not means-tested, social programs, to increase workers’ capacity to organize on their own behalf. How do we get powerful enough to win such demands? Corbyn has a prescription for that, too.

  1. We’ve got to unite people across divisions on a class basis

Corbyn was unwavering in his vision of a mass politics centered on class. “Whether white working class or Black working class, they’re both working class. We have to unite people on a class basis and on a basis of socialist ideas.” For him, the way to overcome the particular forms of oppression of various groups based on race and gender is a class-based politics that makes universal guarantees: “Isn’t that what socialism is about? That you guarantee as a community food, housing, education, and opportunities to express yourself and achieve something in your life?” Corbyn also discouraged us from falling for the false opposition of labor and climate: “There’s no point in environmentalists going to a worker in an industry that’s currently polluting and saying, ‘You’re the enemy.’ No, they’re not! They’re people who need to put food on the table. The enemy are those that are making profits out of this.”

  1. The Left can win electorally right now

The outlook isn’t all bleak. Although the Left in the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as in Germany, has seen a downturn since the heights of a few years ago, socialists are winning in other countries. Corbyn celebrated Left electoral victories in Bolivia and Chile, and he expressed hopes for upcoming elections in Colombia, Brazil, and France. (Since the conference, Colombia has elected its first leftist president, Gustavo Petro. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s leftist alliance, NUPES, has performed well in French parliamentary elections and deprived Emmanuel Macron of an absolute majority, potentially dealing a blow to his center-right agenda.)

There’s nothing about this political moment that says Left losses at the ballot box are inevitable, and DSA should not be deterred from pursuing a class-based electoral project.

  1. Now is not the time for introspection

“We always think it’ll be nice to take a break and go away for a while and come back and decide what to do. We don’t have that luxury,” Corbyn said. “This is a time for action to deal with the crucial issues that this world faces.” It’s tempting, in this moment when the U.S. Left doesn’t have one clear project, to turn inward to internal structural battles. (Indeed, many nonprofits in the “progressive” space are dealing with the fallout from such introspection.) Instead, to take Corbyn’s advice, DSA should tackle pressing political issues and build the mass, class-based politics it will take to win socialism.

(For a flavor of how Corbyn sounds, see below for an earlier address in London. – Ed,)