2020 was a miserable year, and not just for the obvious reason that we spent most of it in a global pandemic. It was a year in which many of us stopped believing that things could be different.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party gave hope to millions that change was possible and, better still, they could bring it about.
In 2020, we were branded stupid and dangerous for believing such a thing; even for wanting it in the first place. The grown-ups, we were told, were back.
Labour’s leadership is turning the party away from the trade unions that created it, and the members that energise it, in favour of a strategy of buttressing capital in exchange for mild concessions. But the conditions that gave rise to Corbyn and the braver and more challenging political formation he represented have not gone away.
If the disaster of Iraq and the war on terror eroded mass consent for the political-economic system, it was in 2008 that the scales fell from our eyes: the people who ran the system weren’t capable technocrats but incompetents and crooks.
The Corbyn project was a delayed response to this popular discontent and despite its defeat, mass support for the political and economic system has not returned. Neoliberalism’s crisis appears never-ending. Inequality grows while living standards fall. The climate emergency accelerates. And the ruling class can’t work out how to overcome these mounting contradictions.
Socialists have spent enough time licking our wounds. No more retreat and apology – the challenges facing the planet and its working class are too great.
The situation demands action – not just because we need to organise to meet people’s immediate needs, but because the weakness of the ruling class’ grip on events presents an opportunity for system change. No one will meet this moment for us. Socialists must approach the 2020s with newfound determination, self-confidence and, most importantly, a plan.
Social struggle toggles between two phases, sometimes simultaneously. The Corbyn period mainly followed one phase: the surge. Surges involve direct and dramatic confrontation between social forces, where the balance of power can shift dramatically as one side wins out. Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci called it the “war of manoeuvre”: intense, urgent moments when the impact of actions can be felt almost immediately.
The second phase of social struggle is the struggle for influence, which takes centre stage in periods between surges and constructs the terrain on which future surges will be fought. Rather than sitting around waiting for the next surge, we seek to advance the progressive position and tighten our organisation in every way we can. Gramsci called it the “war of position”, and it is vital, if less instantly gratifying, work.
While some accounts of Corbynism locate its defeat in specific strategic failures or tactical mistakes, a more useful assessment would extend to the period before Corbyn, when socialist influence and organisation withered. It was on that scorched earth that Corbyn and his team were forced to battle. Our job is to ensure that the next surge operates on more propitious ground.
Rebuilding socialism in this period involves stepping back from day-to-day politics to develop a strategy. I will lay out what such a strategy could look like in a series of essays to be published over the next week. It may be short, flawed and full of gaps, but its aim is to stimulate debate among socialists and to provoke us to think about how we can make the biggest impact possible in the coming decade. In short, it tries to answer the question: how do we win the 2020s?
On Monday, I will interrogate what kind of movements we need to build – because actions, not words, win arguments. After five years of surge through the party, our most vital work now will be building powerful social movements that can both protect and secure advances for people today, and shift the ground on which politics sits over the long run.
On Tuesday, I will look at the role of the Labour party in the coming decade and what socialists can do within it. I will argue that we cannot afford to abandon the party. Its current leadership plainly will not “advance the class struggle” but its membership supports progressive policies, it maintains the vital link to the trade unions, its actions help shape public discourse and it could offer the vehicle for socialist advance in government in the future after significant democratic socialist transformation.
That future advance through the state will be Wednesday’s focus. I will argue for the centrality of the state to any socialist strategy; assess the relative failure of the Corbyn movement to critically understand and prepare for governmental power; then present how our movement can ready itself to be in and against the state.
The work does not stop at our borders. On Thursday, I will look at how we build power for the left globally. Capital is globally networked; socialists must be too.
To close the series next Friday, I’ll argue for a left-populist approach to communications. Public discourse is not the aggregation of the views and desires of the public. It is actively shaped and constructed by competing forces. Socialists must actively participate in both independent and mainstream media, popularising our ideas and challenging those of our opponents.
Taken together, these essays propose a plan of action for socialists of the 2020s, one I hope offers a sufficiently broad range of actions socialists can take immediately.
We can’t know exactly what the future holds, nor what form its opportunities and threats will take. What we do know is that another progressive surge is inevitable; the contradictions in the global system are too numerous for one not to be. Our job in the next decade is to build power, weaken our opponents, and ready ourselves for the next surge.
We have a world to win. Let’s seize it.
This series is dedicated to Leo Panitch, a friend and mentor who died just before Christmas and without whose repeated urging it would have remained unwritten.
James Schneider is the communications director of Progressive International, co-founder of Momentum, and a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn.