The Shit and the Pendulum

Over the last year the foundational assumption of a large chunk of the left has been demolished. This statement largely refers to the reformist left, but greater things are afoot than the collapse of electoralist strategy, and self described proponents of the revolutionary position are faced with similar challenges to foundational ideological positions. We must confront the problems thrown up by this phenomenon. For reformists there are practical issues of what to do now, in the current context. For those holding the revolutionary position there remain some options, but the scope of impending circumstances similarly forces a change in theory and praxis.

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“The sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution — perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill wheel.” — The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe

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Allegedly, things can only get better.

Between December and the middle of April there has been a sequence of humiliations for the entire parliamentary leftist project in the UK and US. Bluntly, It is no longer a position that it is viable or defensible in the short or medium term. It will be years before power bases can be sufficiently rebuilt to threaten assault on the reformist left-liberal party institutions. The time period in which we need to start inflicting damage upon our opponents is however, very short. Bluntly, the situation cannot be “saved”. Systems like austerity or the current complex of wars are going to continue, and get worse, as they take on new policies and characteristics from the elite reactions to the spiraling crises that define the times. The ballot box may still hold expressive power in certain specific ways, and it might be ethically justifiable to vote, but it is no longer the center of gravity. The motive force for change will only come from other elements in our movement: strikes, local mutual aid initiatives, whatever antifascism looks like after the lockdown ends, solidarity networks, renters unions, agitation projects, and direct action will be the remaining tools in the arsenal.

To many this raises a question as to if it is worth it to stay in the Labour Party or to vote for Biden and so on. And as always, camps of opinion on either side of this dilemma hash out the great truth in this debate ad-infinitum.

This seems familiar to me. We’ve all been having this debate for years now. Given the gravity of the now-and-future crisis it’s pretty clear what the state of the field is now: It is purposeless to add to the critique or the defense of the electoralist position because the position no longer exists.

The electoral position was based on a theory where we were meant to have three basic pillars upon which to build an operational movement: the power to effect specific measurable changes to the structure of the economy, the time to do those changes in, and a generally ideologically cohesive and popular plan of changes needed and a scheme of how to do this within a legislative context. It’s pretty obvious that none of these conditions exist any more.

I’m therefore not going to do it. My heart isn’t really in it and it’s obviously redundant. Instead I think it’s more worthwhile at the moment to provide a guide to getting out of the mire to those who are open to getting into non electoral work. Literally: how could someone burned out on phone banking, canvassing and all the other emotionally draining forms of electoral work not only get out of that side of things, but step in to the realm of non parliamentary activism, away from labour if they haven’t been near to it before? Further, a discussion needs to be broached amongst those already engaged in such work, about much more broad and abstract principles -core elements of the revolutionary position have also suffered damage in many ways, and we must consider this with just as much weight as the proponents of Labourism must consider the obliteration of their ideological legitimacy.

Part 1- How to get out, and do it effectively:

Ok this bit is the easy bit, because thankfully you are spoilt for choice in terms of the variety of options of non parliamentary political work.That being said, while there is high variety, most of the non parliamentary organisations in the UK are starved for people, because the entire left has spent the last 5 years nearly exclusively acting as labour party operatives and canvassers, effectively creating a monoculture. The main exception to this phenomenon, other than the recent wave of mutual aid groups, is the independent union movement. Broadly though, there are many organisations that will be seeking recruits, and not all of them are useful. More on how this breaks down according to types of activity in this article.

The following is a basic series of advice for those considering leaving the Labour orbit. This is, contrary to many narratives, both possible on a personal level, and viable on a political level. This applies across a broad range of ideological positions and can be taken up by anyone, regardless of if they want to switch tacks to direct action methods out of sympathy to anarchism, communism, or more generalised socialist ideological positions. It can also apply for people who are politically inclined away from labour to begin with but have remained out of the fray.


1: Technically, you don’t actually have to leave the labour party or stop voting, although in my opinion you probably should, or at least put the relationship on pause while you try other things for a while. Given that neither of those things really strategically matter any more then my advice is that sticking primarily with Labour is fine as a hobby or a secondary line of activity but don’t let it distract you from more direct tactics. These direct tactics used to be called “ultra left nonsense” or “boring community activism.” Now they are called “the good ideas we should have been working on all along.”

2: Find out what things, in terms of pre-existing non-SWP activism, are in your area. Ideally you should try and find multiple things because quite a lot of them are likely to have drawbacks that put you off. The current mutual aid group phenomenon is obviously a good first place to go, but has not yet developed to the point where it is a confrontational form of organising. getting it to that point will require work, and networking with other radicals.

While many groups are very politically welcoming to genuine agitation, others are hotbeds of activity and militancy. In particular there are many people agitating for rent strikes and given that pretty much everyone in the activist sphere is either vocalising support for tenant unions or the independent unions right now, that offers a good point for connecting to other radicals outside of your existing network. These are good places to start but they are not the only place to go, and the impending collapse of functional civic life which will come with our next exciting and fun recession, means that we need a massive and inventive expansion of existing revolutionary organisations and tactics. Again, refer to the article linked above for contextualised lists of existing organisations.

3: Be prepared to have to change your normal expectations and methods a lot, whilst maintaining perspective and morale. Parliamentary campaigning is fundamentally different from most other forms of political organisation because it fluctuates in a manner highly dependent on election cycles and major political tipping points. Not every form of activism follows this model. Protest activism is almost at the point where it counts as being semi-seasonal, for example, with large set-piece summer protests being a staple. Union and tenant organising, are, whilst much more useful in many ways than either parliamentary or protest activism, often rather difficult or at least require a high investment of effort and a larger degree of personal risk.

For example, if you as a canvasser do a bad job a couple of times then the consequence is that your candidate might lose say, a dozen votes tops. If you are organising your workplace or taking on a role in your union, then making errors have different kinds of consequences- people may even get fired, or in the case of renters unions, possibly evicted. There is an element of personal material buy-in that is fundamentally different, and in some circumstances can directly affect your life in ways that expand beyond the time commitments and stress involved in canvassing and door knocking during election cycles.

Another good example is antifascism. While this has often had a strong core of labour affiliated activists cooperating with the anarchist wing of the antifascist movement, the degree to which it has been prioritised by the new wave of leftists in the UK, has been markedly low in comparison to its high profile nature in the USA. Accordingly, there is a low degree of familiarity with antifascist tactics within most of the post-corbyn new leftists in this country, and most people’s knowledge of it extends only to a vague awareness of Stand Up To Racism (an infamously ineffective formation which doubles as the SWP’s leading front), and occasionally reading articles about the black bloc.

This is an area of activism, where there is a reasonable risk of injury from police violence, and an expectation of a reasonable level of commitment to operating securely either IRL or online. Some of you will have experience with this difference due to engaging both in parliamentary activity and other forms of activism, but many of you will not. The antifascist movement will badly need new people in the coming years, for the following reason: Put simply, the current antifascist movement was not capable of forcing the far right street movement into retreat 100% of the time over the recent brexit fueled wave of racism. Rather, they demobilised because the far right’s goal was accomplished: Brexit happened, Corbyn was annihilated, and Boris Johnson won. For most of the far right, except the most ardent white nationalists, this was sufficient. Accordingly, unfamiliarity with antifascism as a set of tactics, as a concept, and as a movement, is a critical hole, and those entering direct-action politics need to decide how they are going to do that. They don’t have a choice.

These matters may form a jarring experience in some circumstances, but most of the time they more fall into the category of “educational and unfamiliar”. Essentially, these are not game ending changes that will be so alien that they prevent you from engaging, but you should be aware of the need to change your internal rules if you are to approach the operating environment for non parliamentary activism sensibly and with an eye for safety, and effective uncompromising radicalism.

4: If you don’t like the first or second thing that you get involved in just leave it. You can come back later, or never. You don’t need to commit to a project if you don’t like it or don’t feel that you are productive in it. It is in fact, just as ok to leave a given activist group as it is to leave Labour. There is no longer room for illusions and hypocrisy- a lot of activist groups are frankly useless. There is no specific organisation in the militant UK left that is structurally indispensable, and if you feel you aren’t making headway then there are other options. After all, change is needed everywhere, and no-one has a monopoly on the future.

5: In that spirit, make sure as much as possible that your methods and choices remain rewarding and healthy for you. This is actually structurally important for a number of reasons, but for now I will keep my explanation to the following: The implosion of the Labour Party, Corbynism in particular, and Labourism generally as an ideology is going to be fundamentally emotionally hard for people who were invested in it and it may be hard for you. Corbynism was thoroughly emotionally intoxicating for its acolytes, and watching it get bludgeoned to death in the street by a bunch of preening centrist hacks wasn’t exactly pleasant for anyone, not least those who were genuinely committed to it. Immediately leaping back into operation may not actually be the best thing for you, and it’s important to take care of yourself and keep a conscientious mind as to if your contribution is genuinely beneficial or if you are engaged in busy-work. This is particularly a risk given that many radical organisations will be trying to aggressively recruit labour-leavers.

I hope that this provides sound advice for those now made unsure of what to do. My only other advice is this: if there is a component of the independent leftist scene that you feel you do not understand, or feel at odds with, then ask about it, critique it, examine it for ways in which it fails. If we are going to be serious about this endeavour I think we should cast away the notion of not throwing stones at glass houses. It’s glass houses all the way around. The overriding lesson of the implosion of State credibility is that nothing is written by god.

Part 2: The Pit

The reality in the left is that all of our positions and institutions are fairly weak. We should therefore investigate how to strengthen them, otherwise we won’t get anywhere. It’s clear that the main criteria that justified the electoralist position no longer prevail: Time is restricted by the cycle of elections stacking up poorly against the timing of impending recession plus tipping point dates for climate collapse. Policy plans are either collapsing due to the sheer speed at which the economic system is collapsing, and the structural damage being received by states, or they are being superseded by the policy decisions of our opponents in power. Theoretical certainty has been annihilated both by a sequence of supreme defeats and the eerie sensation of being a movement of useless Cassandras. With this in mind I would invite my readers to consider the following:

Poe’s gothic classic The Pit and the Pendulum centres on the predicament of a subject who, captured and tortured by the Inquisition, is cast into a dark and seemingly vast cell. As time progresses the prisoner discovers not only that the cell is slowly shrinking in size, but that its red hot iron walls are edging ever closer, forcing his bound body to the edge of a pit. The prisoner is held as doom slowly comes closer and closer to him: an enormous bladed pendulum descends, the walls close in, and he edges ever nearer to the pit, trapped alone with dozens, even hundreds of rats. The subject is overwhelmed with dozens of stimuli and frantically attempts an escape…

…And the prisoner is saved by an angelic martial apparition, a revolutionary army. For us however, there is no deus-ex-machina apparition waiting for us. There are certain things we cannot escape.

Global warming, the expansion of capital into new and bizarre realms, the growth of new wars and new deserts… These things are all happening too fast for the old view of revolt and emancipation to be adequate for every problem facing us. The “strike and coup” models of operation clearly need massive revision. Revolutions can take lifetimes to work, and often have not borne true fruit until decades after the fact. The compact timescale of collapse, and the relative lack of advancement in revolutionary working class and liberatory movements in the areas of the world where the industrial decision making apparatus resides has set affairs in stone for us. We cannot even speculate about a revolutionary period dynamic and successful enough to achieve a meaningful victory before the 2030s at the most optimistic, silly guesstimate. We cannot presume to be on the eve of sudden success and the deaths of kings, but in the best case, in a prelude of sorts.

Revolutionary thinking must adapt itself. Clearly the classical theories of revolutionary strategy no longer function correctly in the modern environment. This last decade saw the re-emergence of the communist and anarchist left in the west, but that revival was in stark contrast to the relative poverty in our positions. The greater and more well known theorists have been devoured ravenously by thousands of new theorists and thinkers in the left. And why? Because of an insatiable hopeful curiosity, on the personal level, but arguably, on a wider level, due to the pressing and immediate need to figure out what bits of our old scriptures need to be kept but changed and what bits need to be dumped wholesale. This process is incomplete. There will always be huge debates over theory and praxis in the revolutionary movement, and I am certain that a new phase of such debates is now opening, but that is not to say that we have yet managed to set up properly solidified and modernised positions and options for action.

This is the critical challenge for the newly independent left: the challenge of converting a disassembled left into a series of formations capable of developing genuine Dual Power, as a viable strategic concept. The last few years have seen ostensibly radical groups such as Plan C, the normal assortment of socialist parties, various other similarly radical organisations, and even many anarchists, drawn deep within the orbit of non liberatory, solely electoral efforts. This “last stand” is over. The current task has thus become one which we should engage ourselves immediately, combined with our day to day contemplation and experimentation with new courses for action.

Would you see us act with vigour as they do in Hong Kong, and Lebanon? What about the lessons we are learning from our current collective foray into mutual aid, and rent agitation? If we are indeed, forced to contemplate a pit, then we need to decide if we are to act as rats, prisoners or inquisitors.

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