Jonas Liston reviews Richard Seymour’s latest book, Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, and gives his own thoughts on the movement around the Labour leader, the history of his party, and the future of the left. The book is available directly from Verso’s website for £9.09.
For much of my life, I have had this vague, unconfirmed memory of my parents, standing in the kitchen of our old flat, displaying relief and even slight jubilation at the election of Tony Blair as the British Prime Minister. Until last year, I have always wondered why the fuck they were so chuffed.
Even worse, roughly eighteen years after Tony Blair’s first general election victory, I woke up early in the morning on 8 May for a Job Seekers appointment, only to turn on the news and find out that Cameron’s Tories had won an electoral majority, adding insult to injury. Walking to the job centre had never felt so grim. That feeling of grimness had nothing to do with any hope or illusion in the prospects of Ed Miliband delivering one for ‘the class’. Far from it. The party he led to defeat sparked almost no connection to notions I had growing up of ‘solidarity’ or ‘the left’. They almost always sparked thoughts of ‘war’, ‘ASBOs’, ‘immigrants and Muslims’, and that is not even to imply those words were filtered through to me with progressive connotations. Growing up, more often than not, we settled for Dizzee Rascal’s assertion: “I’m a problem for Anthony Blair” (Dizzee Rascal, ‘Hold ya’ Mouf’, Boy in da Corner, 2003).
The grimness I felt waking up that morning was so far removed from my emotions four and half months later. Sitting in a Highbury pub, I was watching a video on Facebook of Jeremy Corbyn, elected leader of the Labour Party only hours beforehand, speaking at a 90,000-strong demonstration in London in support of refugees. It’s that story, its challenges, its future and ultimately its limitations that makes Richard Seymour’s recent book one of the best things written on Corbynism and a must-read for militants inside and outside the Labour Party.
Tracing the development of Corbynism, Seymour’s account begins with the results of the last general election. At that time, many a Labour Party ideologue were already pushing their own analysis of why their party lost. Their answer: we were too left-wing. For a minority of activists on the left of the party, a counter-narrative was necessary, one that rejected austerity-lite and the triangulation of UKIP that had been such a crucial part of the ‘Blue Labour’ strategy of Ed Miliband. Corbyn’s nomination for the leadership election was the perfect opportunity. Sceptical of his ability to even get on the ballot, left-wing activists used social media and e-mail campaigns to take advantage of a sentiment within the Labour Party best expressed by Luke Akehurst: “I want their ideas taken on democratically and defeated in open contest” (Quoted in Seymour, 2016, Verso. Unless otherwise stated, all following quotations are from this work).
Akehurst got half of his wish at least. Corbyn got on the ballot with thirty-six nominations, and three months later, the Labour Party had found its most radical leader to date.
Let’s be clear before we go any further. Richard Seymour, like the project he is involved in, Salvage, is no fan of optimism. This is not to say that those comrades are all a bunch of unbridled pessimists who have forsaken any wager they once had on the capacity for the proletariat to liberate itself. Not at all. Their pessimism is geared toward an analysis of what’s happening in the world, and an appreciation of the advances our side makes in the struggle that doesn’t result in demoralizing militants. You can differ with that overall approach and question its validity, and I have my qualms, but to be frank, it’s more consistent and forward-thinking than those that are predicated on a triumphalist optimism on the one hand, and on the other, worse, a disregard of any wager made on working-class self-activity because of an unacknowledged, demobilizing pessimism or an unwillingness to transcend the boundaries of electoral arithmetic.
This matters in regards to Seymour’s intervention. He correctly identifies the mass character of the campaign, consisting of hundreds of mass rallies up and down the country attended by thousands of people; nearly 300,000 people registering as supporters and members during the campaign; the backing of 152 Constituency Labour Party branches, the two biggest unions in the country, Unite and Unison, and multiple smaller ones; and a dynamic, responsive and creative set of social media campaigns that would proliferate well beyond the immediate activists that initiated them and transcend the “breakdown of the traditional media’s ideological monopoly.” These factors epitomized what exactly revitalized the left in Labour beyond anybody’s expectations: “a long dormant left, the survivors of old and almost forgotten battles, had reanimated and fused with a younger generation radicalised through participation in social movements and single-issue campaigns.”
However, arguing against any line that suggests a coherent, confident or insurgent left in Labour, Seymour also places that movement’s character in the ever-present political crisis afflicting the party. This crisis involves the “weakening of the traditionally dominant party ideologies, and the normally effective modes of political control”; the almost natural two-headed calculating of the soft left in Labour, who, rather than being driven by contempt for the Blairite trajectory, view Corbyn and John McDonnell as the new modernizers they can get into bed with; and, importantly for how Labour’s crisis manifests itself in the future as Corbyn’s crisis, the latter’s willingness to compromise over a number of questions such as NATO or his leniency on Labour councils enforcing spending cuts.
These factors are fundamental to understanding the dilemmas and problems facing Corbyn and Corbynism. The emphasis placed by Seymour matters for how you perceive the future of the hard left in Labour, as does the approach he provides. This steers fully clear of any complacency regarding the insufficiencies of Corbynism: insufficiencies that a weak radical left, prone to fragmentation and lacking in long-term strategic thinking, could easily be-blind sided by.
One of the several strengths of Seymour’s book is his own political autonomy. As he acknowledges himself, this autonomy, removed from the material pressures imposed by a Labour Party membership card, but well-researched and sensitive to the developments taking place, allows him to point to the political dilemmas and insufficiencies sketched above. And he can do this far more sharply than a closer eye, engaged in internal politicking, might.
For Seymour, the challenges consist of, firstly, Labour itself, as a “constitutionalist and electoralist party” largely “obsessed with electoral outcomes to the near exclusion of other considerations”. Secondly, the fact that power in the Labour Party is “overwhelmingly concentrated at the top”, where the left does not exercise power. And lastly, but most importantly, what happens if Corbyn’s Labour actually wins a general election? These three questions are pressing ones for the international left in a context where what Susan Watkins terms “new, small, weak social democracies” have emerged (Susan Watkins, ‘Oppositions’, New Left Review, March-April 2016).
A tale of two parties?
Crucial to understanding the current state of the Labour Party is an appreciation of its past. Tracing the history of Labour as a “coalition between organized labour, socialists and liberals”, Seymour outlines the path of a party where, despite its working-class base and social-democratic agenda, the “liberal legacy has usually been dominant.” Whether it be the pro-liberal, reformist pressure group nature of its precursor, the Labour Representation Committee, or how the “Blairites adapted Labour culturally, politically, and organizationally to the success of Thatcherism”, this tension has always existed within the party. Time and time again, this has produced the hegemony in the party of “union moderates, Fabians and professional liberals”. Jeremy Corbyn is now leader and even if he has defied the normal hierarchy that constitutes Labour as a party, it is clear that relationship has not disappeared.
Despite the whiny screams and plotting of Labour Party backbenchers, any immediate coup attempts against Corbyn’s leadership have been neutralised by the timid defiance of most catastrophic projections in the recent council elections and Sadiq Khan’s election as mayor of London. However, this does not put Corbyn in a safe position. He might have the hundreds of thousands of new members by his side and a good chunk of that membership surge might even be active in branch meetings and in the local organs of Momentum, but there has been little attempt at mobilizing those constituencies so far, and the passivity which the Collins Review was meant to encourage by reforming voting procedure and weakening the union link still exists. It also goes hand-in-hand with the electoral volatility and break-down of party loyalty so intrinsic to the British political system in previous decades. This matters if you think an active and invested membership is crucial to the fortunes of Corbyn’s project. He might be performing well on PMQs and experiencing some minor increases in most polls, but like during the opportunistically stoked antisemitism scandal, he has consistently either tried to avoid confrontation with the different wings of his party or, to some extent, conceded ground.
This is important, especially regarding the before-mentioned antisemitism scandal in Labour. Not only because of the attack that it represents against Palestinian solidarity, but also because pro-Palestine party members have been victimized and vilified, anti-colonialism has been pitched disingenuously as antisemitism and genuine anti-racism has been undermined. Let alone the way in which these attacks have strengthened, given confidence to, and correlated with other attacks from the right in the movement, such as the Islamophobic and red-baiting attacks on newly elected National Union of Students’ (NUS) president, Malia Bouattia and the series of largely unsuccessful right-wing attempts to disaffiliate from the NUS in campuses across the country.
Any attempt at resisting these types of attacks and preserving the moderately radical ambitions of his leadership election will require a grass roots strategy that emphasises a confrontation with, and a radical, democratic transformation of the “party machine” and the “largely right-wing parliamentary group.” Whether this happens is something that I, like Seymour, am incredibly sceptical of. Corbyn has already dismissed de-selections of right-wing MPs and called on councils not to resist government cutbacks, and the degree to which groups like Momentum, even in some form of co-operation with campaigns and social movements outside of Labour, could turn into an active force transcending the boundaries of Corbynism and putting these issues centre-stage, at best, remains to be seen. At worst, it is completely subordinated to Labourist strategy.
The logic of Labourism
In the opening words to his classic work, Parliamentary Socialism, Ralph Miliband writes:“Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system” (Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, London: Merlin Press, 1979, pp.13).
Jeremy Corbyn might be the most radical leader the Labour Party has ever had, but even he and the hard left can not resist the material impositions of this electoral machine without sufficient alternative leverage, and even then, that resistance is still thrown into doubt. As Seymour outlines, the “main point of Labour’s existence is to win Labour governments, however much these governments may undermine Labour’s other purposes in the long term. That is so ingrained into the party culture that Corbyn cannot be seen to challenge it.”
On his own terms, Corbyn’s survival as Labour leader must not rely on satisfying the right and centre of his own party in the electoral cycle or on policy issues. It must instead involve a recognition that Labour will not to be able to rebuild in Scotland and that some alliance with the Scottish National Party (SNP) would be necessary if they were to have any chance at success, as well as the Greens and Plaid Cymru in other circumstances; similarly, an important tactical consideration is that “Corbyn and McDonnell have to begin to shape and lead opinion for the ends of progress in a way that Labour leaders haven’t done for some time”, rather than, like former Labour leaders, willingly appeal to every lowest common denominator they presume to be prevalent amongst the British electorate.
When the London Mayoral elections approached, it was felt that we needed to win, because if we didn’t, Corbyn would be dethroned. Absolutely we did. Despite his rank endorsements for Zionism or his nods to business, Sadiq Khan’s mayoral win was a ‘fuck you’ to Zac Goldsmith’s racist campaign. However, what drove the impetus to back Khan or any particular electoral decision matters.
For example, if Corbyn doesn’t win a Remain vote in the coming EU referendum, amongst particularly his younger, working-class, more socially-liberal voters, word has already filtered down that his internal opponents will use it as an opportunity to attack him. Personally, two thoughts come to mind when I hear this. The first is, had Corbyn kept to his original Bennite position regarding the EU – articulated in his leadership campaign, conceded almost straight after his victory – the entire landscape of this referendum might have been different. Yes, you would have had a divided Labour Party and the odds would have been against him, but it’s leader would have been putting an argument in society, predicated on popular sovereignty, anti-neoliberalism, solidarity with Greece, and humanitarian support and solidarity with all refugees and migrants, rather than falling in behind the leadership of the Tory Party and further perpetuating ‘common-sense’ liberal myths about the European Union.
The second is the more obvious, more frustrating point. Any genuine radical left cannot limit itself to electoral cycles. That can’t be our rhythm. It’s one of subordination and strategic constraint. Corbyn was elected leader, with his voters and supporters knowing full well he was “a man of the movements”. Those movements, social and labour-orientated, might be weaker than they have been in a long time, but they will pose a far more effective challenge to the right and the state than seeing which soft leftie or union bureaucrat you can swap concessions with to further advance your position. Truth being told and the history of the Labour Party being what it is, if you do that enough, you will no longer be advancing your original position, but someone else’s.
Who’s in power?
When one thinks of a Labour Government, there’s the historical example which sits in the common imaginary: that of the post-war settlement. A National Health Service, the welfare state, nationalization, mass house-building projects and much more. Not only were these things not to be scorned at; squarely put, these were tremendous gains for working-class existence in this country. However, whether they were product of a mass working-class radicalization or the benevolence of post-war capital is a different question altogether.
Seymour’s account of the Labour Government of 1945-51 places it in the exceptional circumstances that British and global capitalism found itself in at the time. The “catastrophic destruction of capital” during the Second World War created room for new investment. Most firms that were nationalized and taken under public ownership were “incapable of surviving alone at any rate, and their sustenance was necessary for renewed capitalist development”, in which owners were “compensated with public funds and borrowing”. It also meant that most publicly-owned firms ran on the same model as private industry, managed by former capitalists, “with their production decisions made on the basis of what was good for private business”. Combine this with the positioning of “liberal reformers in the state apparatuses”, the continuation of wartime production methods, and the institutionalized compromise between capital and labour, and you have the reality of the post-war settlement.
It was a brief moment, capitalised on by Labourism in a time of incredible weakness for British capital and large disaffection with the status quo amongst the popular classes. It was a moment wholly unlike any before and one that entirely fit within a Labourist strategic framework which gives priority to ‘the nation’ and feels no need to challenge capital, but more consistently, co-operate with it. Not only is this exceptional to British capitalism, it is also exceptional to Labourism, whose history in governance, whilst preferable to those to its right, has been one of colonialism, strike-breaking and signing off on austerity, to mention just a few glorious occasions. These phenomena were certainly far from absent in 1945.
Precisely because of this, pointing out the inadequacies of Labour in power, like Seymour does, is necessary. A Labour-led government under Corbyn would be a step in the right direction and carry a faint but potential break from austerity and neo-liberalism. However, a radical realism absent of any cynicism must recognize that if a Corbyn-led government were elected tomorrow, on the basis of his current agenda, any crises, problems or dilemmas he faced in opposition would pale in comparison. Not only would Corbyn’s government face the “pressures that can be brought to bear from business leaders, civil servants, the media, international institutions, and his own parliamentary colleagues”, he would face them all in tangent with an “almost seamless circulation of power between them all”.
Overcoming these odds requires a counter-power that can challenge, disorganize and displace our opponents. When I saw Corbyn speak at that rally for refugees, hours after his leadership win, I was baffled. When I saw him speak at two strike rallies for Junior Doctors, I was baffled. This is unprecedented territory for a Labour leader. But whether, in opposition or in government, Corbyn will step beyond the bounds of passive support and politicization to contribute towards the reconstruction and mobilization of mass organizations and popular power is something I doubt will materialize, even if I think his victory and the campaign, and crises that underlined it, could contribute toward that same objective.
From rebirth to angst
The problems facing Corbyn are problems facing the left as a whole. Richard Seymour’s book elucidates the dangers ahead for activists and militants in the Labour Party, and how one might navigate them. Many will make much of his gloomy projection that Corbynism has a short lifespan. In his review of Seymour’s Corbyn, Marxist historian Ian Birchall objects to the lack of a strategic alternative given by Seymour in regards to both those who might be disaffected by Labour in the coming years and those of us on the anti-capitalist left who struggle to find our place in a changed situation.
Firstly, projections and predictions can be made and trends can be assessed, but nobody should be in the business of underestimating the unpredictability of contemporary politics. Honestly, who knows what will happen to the Corbyn project and its various constituents? What is known is the real advance Corbyn’s leadership victory represents, the material constraints on such a project, the underlying weaknesses the current conjuncture creates, and the day-to-day fights, arguments and lines of attack that emerge.
Secondly, for those of us who give strategic primacy to the power of the oppressed and exploited, we have to be both honest about our influence and our capacities. The truth is, stuck between ossification and petrification, the fetishisation of organizational questions and personal vitriol, there is no current organizational form that fills the role of a strategically-conceived, independent anti-capitalist pole in today’s struggles; no real desire for one amongst the small units of radical militants who see autonomy from Labourism as important; and to be honest, there probably won’t be one, desire or no desire, any time soon. Despite this, a consistent praxis is necessary to the left of left officialdom. One that defends the policies of Corbyn’s worth defending, sometimes better than he can, given the immense electoral constraint imposed on him; that can give primacy to the social struggle, and the rebuilding of proletarian power as part-and-parcel of strengthening our side, but also as preparation for any flashpoints that may emerge in the future; and that can contribute toward constructing a genuine militant-intellectual left culture surpassing the organizational confines of either Labour or the extra-parliamentary left.
These two points are intertwined. If Corbynistas hit the limits of Labourism wondering what next for them, there is a burden on the extra-parliamentary left to rise to the occasion and begin a process of renewal, in terms of both its thinking and fighting capacities. This requires a non-sectarian, active relationship with the Labour left in the here and now. The radical left and the working-class movement is in a different moment to the one we were in only four years ago. Much of those weaknesses remain, some lessons were learned for better or for worse and events of fantastic proportion have come out of the least expected places. We are in a moment where despair and hope become almost interchangeable depending on what day of the week it is. Navigating that terrain is an immense task, one that, for now, we’re almost certainly incapable of, but one that the aspirations and limitations of Corbynism pose very starkly. It is to these efforts that Seymour’s book is a fantastic contribution.
Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics by Richard Seymour is published by Verso. Available from independent bookstores or directly through the publishers website for £9.09.