When I watch sports, I am pretty pessimistic. I root for my teams, I have fun, but I constantly try to tamp down my expectations. I look for the faults, overemphasize my team’s weaknesses all in a bid to manage my hopes and soften the pain of likely disappointment.
My outlook is the result of having absolutely no control over the outcome. My attitude and opinions about sports have no relation to what happens on the field.
This perspective, while not ideal, is a perfectly reasonable response to watching sports.
It does not, however, belong in the realm of politics.
The recent UK election was a remarkable event. The Corbyn led Labour Party running on a bold left-wing platform won 40 percent of the vote, smashing all pre-election predictions. The Labour Party gained 3.5 million votes, 10% of vote and 30 seats compared to its 2015 outing. Corbyn’s campaign saw the largest swing in vote share to the Labour Party since 1945. This was achieved despite facing an extremely hostile media and a Labour Party rightwing, which had actively worked to undermine his leadership. The campaign overcame the odds. Instead of the of 100 to 200 seat majority predicted for May, Labour narrowed the 20 point Tory lead in the polls to a mere 2 percentage points by the election.
Labour’s left-wing vision redefined the election away from a question of Brexit to an election about public services, housing, peace and education. It was campaign that spoke to the needs and hopes of the broader class in order to raise expectations. And it worked.
In short, Corbyn’s campaign organized to change people’s ideas instead of adjusting his political message to meet the polls. This was an example of fighting to shape the political landscape, rather than getting swallowed by it.
The rightwing of the Labour party’s perspective on Corbyn was clear from the get go. They thought his ideas were threatening to British capitalism and that his opinions represented the left-wing fringe. They repeatedly stated that if he stood for an election the Labour Party would be wiped out. Added to this was the commonly held view that Corbyn was an ineffective leader, and did not present a strong opposition. To this end the Labour-right conspired to remove or at least sabotage Corbyn in the public’s eye.
The “soft left”, represented by people like Owen Jones and the Guardian, initially expressed sympathy with Corbyn, quickly turned on his leadership after the right-wing smear campaign. Corbyn they claimed could not unite the party, he had failed as leader and could not reach beyond the core base of the membership. As Jones stated just months before the UK election in a column calling for Corbyn to step down, “Those who fear the fall of Corbyn will open the door to New Labour-style politics should realise that a calamitous election defeat is the way to guarantee it.”
Jones and other high profile Labour commentators and pundits used their position to pave the way for a change in leadership, towards someone who was more moderate, more “electable”. The membership within the Labour Party, however, remained steadfast in its support for Corbyn, especially considering what else was on offer.
Both the Labour rightwing and centre share an inability to conceptualize that a politics that speaks to and emboldens the working class can change the political reality. Their view is ultimately rooted in a substitutionists or parliamentary understanding of politics, where politicians and parties do things for people, rather than people being the authors of their own political destiny. For them people play a tertiary role in politics, participating in elections or expressing their views in polls. The working class is not a political actor. Years of neoliberalism, the changing nature of work and communities necessitates this political approach. The role of the Labour Party is to package a viable policy platform based on existing political realities and opinion polls.
Marching misery into the radical Left
It isn’t just the Blairites or the soft-left Labour Party types (and their equivalents in countries’ like Canada) who have expressed extreme doubt when it comes to the working class’ ability to shape politics. Richard Seymour and his co-thinkers at the journal Salvage have been pushing a politics of low-expectations based upon a thesis that neoliberalism has ground down the working-class in all advanced economic countries. Hope should be rationed and pessimism is the order of the day. After the Brexit vote Salvage’s editorial stated:
Scotland’s secession is now all-but certain, and the rump-UK will be but two or three steps from emergency rule in the particularly British form of a National Government. All politics involves the death-drive, but Britain is accelerating toward a thanatocracy with strikingly little friction slowing it down.
Some on the Left insist on their unedifying fidelity to Bad Hope, glossing the referendum result as, in the extraordinary Candide-like words of one socialist newspaper, ‘A Blow against Austerity and Neoliberalism’.…it is a grotesque dereliction to imply that the racism which was so constitutive of the Exit campaign, and was key to the articulation of that fury, is somehow simply epiphenomenal, a gloss, a bolt-on, relatively easy to unbolt. Or to suggest that racism is a danger we must now try to ‘avoid’, rather than a poison not just here but gushing. It is not.
It is not that so much of what they predicted turned out to be wrong (who hasn’t made wrong predictions?). It is that the pessimism of Salvage, despite its radical premise, is merely a reflection of prevailing ruling class ideas distilled into the language of the academic left. It has much more in common with the soft-left or even a Blairite conception of politics, sticking its finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.
Thus, Seymour the day after the election was called wrote in Jacobin, “The immediate task of the British left, then, is not to pursue a fantasy: kick Theresa May out, bring down the Tories, get a socialist government, and so on. That, while it would be welcome, is unrealistic as a goal. It will only mobilize the true believers.”
Underappreciating a fighting perspective
This is not politics; it is observation. Politics in the Marxist sense is not about theory, history or the analysis of events, though they are all necessary. It is about using those tools to grasp the political moment in order to transform it in a way that benefits the working class. This requires an analysis rooted in struggle that can appreciate the balance of class forces, the organizational capacity and what needs to be done, and what needs to be done next.
A fighting Left perspective has to account for how people fight and what motivates them. When a fight is on, the goal of the fighting Left should be to raise expectations, to encourage the self-activity of workers. It is to steel people to fight, to go further than they thought possible. Of course, this has to be done responsibly, without deception. This is why the Left has to view itself as part of movements, sharing in their defeats and victories, not separate from them.
The Left doesn’t organize because it is optimistic, if that were true socialists could sit back and wait for the good times. The question is not whether the Left has too much hope, is too optimistic or even pessimistic. Because ultimately all those perspectives are perspectives rooted in being an observer of events.
It is unfortunate the voices that are prominent in the European and North American Left are disproportionately those who write about movements and struggles from a detached academic Marxist perspective. This is a sign of the weakness of our movements.
However, if the last number of years have shown us anything, it is that the fighting Left, those engaged in actual political struggle, have a much firmer grasp on the political pulse and how to respond to events. Instead of looking to those rationing hope and peddling pessimism, we should seek to elevate the voices of people who are involved in organizing, those who put forward strategies to build working class power.
Now is the time to dispense with the academic performance of pessimism and focus on how the Left can effectively build movements to change our world. It is best to keep in mind politics is not a game we are watching, but a struggle we are waging, so let’s prioritize the fight.