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Laurie Penny: A response to Alex Callinicos

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance.

Let me say right from the start that I know I shouldn't do this. Arguing strategy with revolutionary leftist parties in a public forum is a little like discussing venereal disease at a children's birthday party: half the people there won't know or care what you're on about and the other half will start trying frantically to shush you in case you inadvertently reveal some oozing detail that relegates you to pariah status. Last week, however, I wrote an article for the Guardian that appears to have got me into trouble with the Socialist Workers Party and I'd like to respond to the ensuing brouhaha.

In the article, I wrote that the old organisational structures of revolution -- far-left parties, unions and splinter groups -- are increasingly irelevant to the movement that is building across Europe. The organisational structures, not the organisations themselves. The fact that there remains, in most communities in Britain, a small but dedicated group of left-wing activists with gloriously unreconstructed socialist sentiments and an inexhaustible energy for leafleting is just one more thing that makes me proud to live on this bitter little island. Some of their ideas, like the notion that one can truly change the world by standing on the corner of every demonstration selling copies of the party newspaper, are a little antique but the essential idea of revolution and resistance is never going out of style. When students and young people say that the unions and far-left parties will have to follow our energy rather than seeking to lead and control it, we're not saying that the notion of a people's revolution isn't trendy anymore because it's somehow not 2.0 enough for us.

Alex Callinicos is right: students can't do it alone. Of course they can't. Nor can schoolkids or workers or people who are unemployed. That's what class solidarity is all about and solidarity has been the watchword of these protests. The structures of labour and power and information distribution have changed irrevocably since the 1980s, however, which is why the structures of solidarity and revolution have to change, too. The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production while keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.

Deregulating resistance will mean deregulating the organisations that control resistance, making them more anarchic, more inclusive and more creative. The function of the SWP over the course of these protests is an important example of how this can work. SWP activists are the street-fighting men and women of the far left and their energy and skill sets are vitally useful -- they have, accordingly, been involved in many of the high-profile actions that have taken place this winter, but they have not been leading from the front. SWP members have been most effective in conjunction with school pupils, anarchists, students and unaffiliated members who adapt their organic techniques to the changing nature of the whole. They have been least useful when trying to sell copies of the Socialist Worker to children running away from horses.

The question of the paper is fantastically indicative. The notion of a communistic worker's revolution developed smack in the middle of the golden age of newspapers, which is why Lenin's ideas about the function of a party paper -- that it ought to be a key organising tool produced for the edification of the masses by an influential vanguard of radicals -- were and remain so important to many radicals who see themselves as the inheritors of Marx and Lenin. At the time, Lenin was advocating revolution that utilised the structures of the most cutting-edge technology anyone had available to them. This new wave of unrest is happening at a similar turning point in the history of communications technology. New groups can exchange information and change plans via Twitter and text message in the middle of demonstrations. It's no longer about edicts delivered by an elite cadre and distributed to the masses, or policy voted on at national meetings and handed down by delegates. It's not the technology itself so much as the mentality fostered by that technology that is opening up new possibilities for resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party and other far-left organisations do not have a monopoly on class consciousness. Many organisers of this year's student revolutions have a background in far-left agitation and many more do not -- but nearly all of us know precisely what's at stake. If any one group tries to claim ownership or exert control over this new movement, they will have missed the point entirely. Nobody can own this revolution: not the unions, not the far left, not the Labour Party and not the students. It's far bigger than that.

As the sun went down over the Whitehall kettle and the icy winter wind began to bite, an extraordinary thing happened somewhere behind the police lines. I was huddled with a group of school kids and stiff, bewildered protesters around a dying fire made from exercise books and ripped-up bits of placard. We had hours yet before the police would let us free and nothing left to burn and, as we watched the embers fade away with mounting panic, a young man approached and asked if any of us would like to buy a copy of the Socialist Worker.

We rounded on him in desperation. None of us had any money but we were all freezing and we needed paper -- not to read but to burn. We begged him to give us even one paper and join us at the fire. A slew of emotions chased across the SWP seller's face as he considered this dilemma. Finally, he agreed to give us two copies, if, and only if, any of us could sing at least two verses of the Internationale. So we did -- me, some Neets and schoolkids from the slums of London -- our voices shaking a little from the chill. He handed over the papers with a smile and shuffled into the circle to warm up.

Ultimately, I'm not interested in whether you're a Leninist or a liberal or a Blairite or a Brownite or an anarchist or a concerned member of the public with no time for ideological flim-flammery. I'm interested in whether or not you're going to join me at the fire. I want to know if you're up for a fight. I want to know if you are prepared to put your body on the line to battle social oppression and fight the machinations of a dissembling government working to protect profit at the expense of the people. Because this is the future, not some cultish Petrograd-enactment society where we all dress up as revolutionaries and shout at each other for hours and then go home before anyone gets hurt. This is the future, it's happening now, and innocent people have already been hurt. The question is, are you prepared to stand with the tens of thousands on the street and stop injustice in its tracks?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser