This is an exciting and challenging political moment. It is clear that there is widespread disenchantment with the powers that be and their political agenda, especially among younger people. Yet, the infrastructure of dissent that undergirds our ability to act collectively has worn away through years of defeats and restructuring. People who are deeply dissatisfied with the way things are going feel little collective power to resist in their workplaces, schools or communities.
In this context, the Corbyn leadership of the British Labour Party seems to be offering something new. Corbyn is a long-time Labour Party leftist with serious activist credentials who won the party leadership despite the opposition and indeed sabotage of its dominant neoliberal Blairite wing. Despite predictions of an electoral meltdown, Corbyn led Labour to a remarkable showing in the recent election.
I think Dru and Nav are right to point out that the Corbyn campaign in Britain and the Sanders campaign in the United States should excite us. I agree with David about the need for workplace and community movements to rebuild power from below, but he does not discuss the ways a vibrant politicized campaign to transform a social democratic party like the NDP can nourish and inspire social movements at a time of weak infrastructure of dissent.
The Corbyn campaign has created new horizons of political possibility, new forms of collectivity and new networks of activism in Britain. This does not change the assessment of social democracy I think we all share. No doubt a Corbyn government would need massive political mobilization to be able to deliver the best elements of its agenda.
But at this point, it is hard to see potential for such a transformation in the NDP. The Corbyn campaign used activist mobilizing in rallies and canvasses, drew in large numbers of people outside the Labour Party establishment and bluntly addressed the failures of neoliberalism and the needs for a new politics of social justice. Corbyn did not apologize for his activist past or make peace with the Blairite wing of the party that argued for Tory policies with a human face. Niki Ashton, who has at least defended Palestine solidarity and staked out some strong positions, does not seem to be so clear about the need to break with the party establishment or to bring activism right into the party.
At this point, I think the weakened left needs to be open to experimentation. It is great that some radical activists are trying a new orientation towards transforming the NDP. We will have to listen to their honest assessment about who is getting involved and what is happening on the ground. I certainly would not have predicted the recent success of the Corbyn campaign and I think we need to be open-ended and expect to be surprised in this challenging political period. We should be clear about the character of social democracy, but also about the possibilities for activist revival that can be present in those parties.
Alan Sears is a member of the Toronto New Socialists and author of The Next New Left: A History of the Future, (with James Cairns) The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century, and Retooling the Mind Factory: Education in a Lean State.
For earlier articles in this series see