From South Wales to Philadelphia: sowing the seeds of revolutionary change
The future for Britain looks bleak, and opportunities for positive transformation appear blocked. My argument is that base building, by which I mean militant and practical community action, provides a tactic for much needed revolutionary transformation.
Our far right Conservative government has a majority of 80, Boris Johnson is packing the House of Lords with his cronies, and other restraints are likely to be swept away now that Britain is out of the EU. The promise of Corbyn has been destroyed by a Labour Party rapidly returning to Blairism. If Labour looks unlikely to challenge the Tories in any meaningful way, does the Green Party provide an alternative? Given the continuing existence of first past the post elections, the outlook for the Greens looks limited. The revolutionary left, in turn, can point to the failures of both Greens and Labour, but so far have also failed to provide an enduring and sustained challenge here.
This all points to continued misery. What could be worse than the 120,000 deaths from covid to date? Neoliberal economics and austerity look likely to be deepened, with perhaps advocacy of the restoration of the death penalty as a convenient means of distraction.
Labour may have moved right but hundreds of thousands of Labour Party members, or ex members, remain on the left. The last decade has seen the growth of popular support for a more equal economy and a socialist future. In 2010 we saw major student uprisings. In 2015 the Green wave increased Green Party membership from around 14,000 in 2013 to 50,000. The growth of the left saw Jeremy Corbyn emerge from the back benches to lead Labour. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Britain committed to radical transformation, but outside of Scotland, opportunities for change appear blocked; the right have apparent hegemony. Like rising water, however much the forces of change are damned, they will eventually overwhelm the forces of conservatism. Change will ultimately come.
One indication is the current wave of student militancy. The neoliberal model of education based on commodification and debt is buckling under the weight of Covid. Rent strikes are spreading. Keir Milburn, author of Generation Left, tweeted at the end of 2020, ‘here’s a prediction for 2021. A militant new student movement will explode across UK HE. Almost 100 people attended a Rent Strike training yesterday and this rent strike manual got 70,000 downloads in its first week’ You can find the training manual here.
Notions of community militancy, grassroots trade union activism and student protests are taking hold. From organisations like Acorn, a radical tenants’ union, to the IWGB, community radicals are winning victories. Mutual Aid is feeding people and working to ease the present crisis. Kali Akuno has argued that such grassroots community militancy provides a base for ecosocialism. Capitalism, he argues, drives climate change and threatens our survival, a revolutionary alternative, some might call it communism, is necessary. Akuno notes that all of this has to be practical, possible and strategic, outlining the ecological base building work undertaken in Jackson, Mississippi. It of course draws on Africa-American revolutionary practices right back to Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party.
While I am not here directly challenging those who prefer to promote the Green Party or stay in Labour, I think such community militancy provides a useful tactic for social change. This is because, ultimately, it isn’t a matter of replacing one government with another, electing ‘good’ politicians instead of ‘bad’. Britain is a decaying imperial nation and it sits within a sea of capitalism. Major social change is necessary. That demands building capacity for transformation, this means changing ideology and culture, deepening our understanding of social change and winning people over. Electoral politics is insufficient to the task.
Practical community militancy, what I would term ‘basebuilding’, creates, where successful, dense networks of individuals committed to radical social change. In a society where crisis, whether from covid or extreme weather driven by climate change, is the new normal, protecting each other and providing mutual aid is likely to be a means of both resistance and survival.
The task is to set up local groups to engage in militant community struggle. Two examples come to mind. In Philadelphia, Philly Socialists have established tenants unions, English language classes, a wide variety of training programmes and have occupied unused land left by developers. Explicitly committed to a revolutionary ecosocialist vision, they have grown fast and provide an exciting model for transformation. This is their self-description, Philly Socialists:
is a political organization committed to creating a just and sustainable future for ourselves and our planet. We are dedicated to building the base for socialist politics through projects that serve the people and fight the power: the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, Philly Workers for Dignity, and free English classes—just to name a few. These were built not by a few wealthy donors, but through the collective efforts and financial contributions of our members.
Closer to home in South Wales, the Valleys Underground is a revolutionary organisation committed to the creation of a ‘Welsh Socialist Republic’. They argue that it is through practical action that people will be persuaded to get involved in revolutionary politics. So as well as running education sessions and taking part in political action such as demonstrations, their practical activity has involved cleaning up a disused synagogue and working to restore allotments. Such practical work can be seen as part of process of building real capacity for resistance and change.
I would argue that we should look closely at both of these examples and build practically. Find some friends, start a basebuilding group where you live or work and build practical capacity for change. Putting together social events such as community music sessions and reading groups for political education, are part of the task. In thousands of communities, we could mobilise millions of people and start building an alternative that is both radical and practical.
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We should have a clear flagship policy that all can unite behind once it sinks in: Universal Basic Income. Not as tidied-up dole system, but set at a level which means a serious redistribution of wealth.