The Making of a New, Old Left

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Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally in Gateshead on June 5, 2017 (photo credit: Ren / Flickr)

The moment I knew Thursday’s U.K. general election represented something different than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, even from the landmark Bernie Sanders run of 2016, was when some of the most brilliant yet oft cynical writers of my generation started to tweet sincerely.

The exit poll released on the night of the election on June 8 was spectacular: despite years of criticism from media and politicians, the Labour Party, led by avowed socialist Jeremy Corbyn, was forecasted to gain over 30 seats and lead to a “hung parliament.” As the night wore on into the wee hours, leftist writers who had long advocated and organized for Corbyn’s explicitly socialist platform began to let their guard down. A bit of champagne probably helped.
 
Felix Biederman of Chapo Trap House and Deadspin tweeted: “I said we should never give up hope because Chelsea Manning never did. this is the beginning. the fight continues. I love you all.” Later, as the sun was rising over the U.K., essayist Sam Kriss posted, simply: “it’s a beautiful dawn” and later “i was wrong about this country.” A friend in London that night reported the streets were simply jubilant, with an Indian restaurant dispensing naan and beer to the cheering crowds waiting to squeeze into the packed bar.
 
There was a collective outpouring of deep joy and hope in these online spaces, something I’d never seen before.
 
This might not mean much to the members of older generations who don’t literally spend their lives on social media. But for many of us deeply cynical leftists in the under-30 bracket, it was monumental. After all, we’ve never won anything this big.
 
Of course, the election concluded as the exit poll had predicted. Theresa May’s Conservatives, representing unabashed austerity and xenophobic politics — merely a pundit-friendly version of Donald Trump — lost their majority and are now attempting to form a coalition with the far-right Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
 
Corbyn did not win. It will be a long road ahead. The lingering failures of Syriza and Podemos indeed demonstrate how socialist parties that participate in parliamentary politics can be easily crushed; there’s a case to be made the U.K.’s position as a G7 country provides a leftist government a type of global leverage that Greece and Spain didn’t have. But the point remains that there is no simple route out.
 
The question now is what’s next, not only beyond the specific resurgence of Labour but the surprising outpouring of global solidarity and sincere hope.
 
It’s even less clear in Canada. Some Canadian leftists will point to the Sanders and Corbyn surges as reason to commit (or recommit) to the federal New Democratic Party. Perhaps there’s a case to be there.
 
I’m personally skeptical: unlike the U.S. and U.K., Canada has three — rather than two — major parties, and the federal Liberals have already demonstrated how they easily market themselves as outflanking the NDP on many key issues. In addition, we’re stuck with the legacies of what the NDP has actually done while in power at the provincial level: at best, merely slightly restraining neoliberal wreckage, at worst, launched draconian law and order agendas, pushing for massive tarsands pipelines and implementing reactionary labour legislation.
 
There’s a chance that can change. Stranger things have happened. But I don’t think it will unfold via overhauling the internal decisionmaking processes of the NDP, as groups like Courage are pushing for (although that will help left-leaning members of the party to push for more progressive policies).
 
Instead, any serious leftist resurgence will take place the same way that it always has: via mass community-led social movements — including workplace struggles — that may interact with electoral politics but don’t invest the entirety of their efforts in the process.
 
In 2017 and beyond, such movements must prioritize the lives and issues of Black, Indigenous and people of colour, non-binary and non-male people, unemployed and underemployed people, queer people, people with disabilities, and migrants.
 
The Ontario Liberals didn’t just commit to a $15 minimum wage out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather, it was in specific response to a lengthy grassroots campaign led by women of colour and other workers. Same goes for the (already broken) pledges by multiple governments to “fully implement” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which emerged directly from the struggles of Indigenous peoples via Idle No More.
 
Carding of Black people is now a growing issue in the public consciousness specifically because of the efforts of Black Lives Matter and Desmond Cole. Same with the anti-refugee Safe Third Country Agreement, thanks to organizations like No One Is Illegal and Harsha Walia.
 
The list goes on. All of them point to the same reality.
 
Rather than waiting on policymakers (and even somewhat flawed social democratic heroes like Sanders and Corbyn) to do the right thing, we must organize in a way that increases local capacity, knowledge and pressure. And that must be done through building deep ties of solidarity via very old and, frankly, usually often boring methods of outreach: door-knocking, petition signing, event planning, phone drives, walking picket lines, rallies, postering, pamphleting, building strike funds, hosting fundraisers.
 
But it doesn’t have to be boring. That’s where the unprecedented feelings of hope that I alluded to earlier following the U.K. exit poll can be harnessed.
 
It’s dangerously naive to put too much hope in one leader or one party; that’s certainly not what I’m advocating for. Yet the Corbyn surge gave us a leverage point: that monumental global social change is within reach and desired by millions of people around the world. There’s more space than ever before for the resurgence of militant unions, politicized co-ops, workers’ resource centres, university activists and community organizations providing direct supports to people in a collective push for social change and justice. Old guard socialists may scoff at an overemphasis on feeling and trust, but I think it’s the only thing that’s ever resulted in lasting and truly democratic momentum.
 
That’s where I see the role of Solidarity Winnipeg and similar groups — even the Democratic Socialists of America — as valuable.
 
Solidarity Winnipeg serves as a networking group, helping to get people of different experiences and expertises in the same room together, collectively deciding what specific struggles to assist or signal boost. It’s a way of helping to link up movements under a firmly anti-capitalist banner, certainly not to erase contexts but to strengthen collective unity and force.
 
It also offers political education and skills development to help train people as organizers with both theory and skills, making the case for anti-capitalist social transformation to people who might not yet see the need for system-level change. There’s also a focus on a long-term strategic approach, assisting with the inevitable ups and downs of organizing.
 
That’s certainly not to suggest that Solidarity Winnipeg has it all figured out, or that everybody should join a similar group. There is much to be done. We need every skill and passion on board (including behind-the-scenes work for the socially anxious among us) for the collective struggle to combat austerity and fascism, while simultaneously articulating what a better and more just world looks like. We also must ensure that we are reaching out to people who aren’t involved in political organizing, which will require talking to neighbours, colleagues and strangers.
 
But it can be done. Cynicism is finally fading among many young people, replaced by a feeling of sincere hope, of the dawn of a new era. It will be extremely difficult. But we now have recent memories of sweet victory to cling to; the ultra-rich capitalists and political yes-men are on their back heels. The choice of socialism or barbarism is becoming clear for many.
 
Let’s continue struggling with sincere hope for short- and long-term victories. We’ve got a world to win.
 
If organizing and thinking about these broad questions is something you are interested in, please, get in touch with us at info@solidaritywinnipeg.ca and see how you can get involved.
 
Written by James Wilt. Member of Solidarity Winnipeg.

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