Radicalizing the Movement-Party Relation: From Ralph Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn and Beyond

Hilary Wainwright


Parties and movements, even those that share similar values, exercise distinct sources of power that do not work in the same way and are not necessarily in harmony with each other. The notion that a left party is about standing for election on the basis of socialist policies in order to win national office and take control of the commanding heights of the economy is still at the back, if not the front, of the minds of many left activists. In this thinking, movements are understood, implicitly at least, as the foot soldiers for the election of a left government, in exchange for which the party voices their demands. I argue here that a radical left party whose power lies in its position of representation in the elective institutions of the state cannot simply through representation become a ‘voice’ for movements whose power lies in the creative capacities in society – as if these movements have no distinct, autonomous sources of power, which may possibly conflict with a left party in government – and also in the process of winning office.

My argument is that when radical movements engage in electoral politics, this tendency for electoral pressures to swamp their autonomy as agents of transformation poses a dilemma. On the one hand, electoral success for a radical left party that has taken up the demands of the movements is likely to be favourable for social movements. After all, movements engage in electoral politics because they want changes that require government action, not least to end the rule of austerity economics. On the other, even those parties committed to radical left policies too often fail to take seriously enough, even if they ‘talk the talk’, the proven fact that electoral success is, on its own, an insufficient source of power – and practical knowledge – to achieve the social, economic and political transformation that both left parties and social movements desire.

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