Yes, (Almost) Prime Minister! Jeremy Corbyn and the Rebirth of Left Wing Politics

The election results in the UK are wonderful. The result is wonderful, above all else, because it gives all of us hope that we can together fashion a better world. I would like to write more about these developments over time, but here is a review of a book on Jeremy Corbyn I wrote for the New International Bookshop members’ newsletter. I wrote it a while back, but I think it stacks up well.

Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, (London, Verso, 2016).

The neoliberal era, to no small degree, has been characterised by an assault on democracy.

Viewed discretely neoliberalism assails public education, public housing, public transportation, public enterprise, even public space be damned, in short anything with the word “public” in front of it.

This is because in whole neoliberalism represents an attack on the public, and an attack on the public requires an attack on democracy. One manifestation of this attack is the hollowing out of formerly mass based political parties, which increasingly function as branded electoral machines selling imagery and symbols to the public as the “masters of mankind,” to use Adam Smith’s phraseology, pursue their “vile maxim,” namely “all for ourselves and nothing for other people” what sometimes is called “the profit motive.”

The masters prefer hollowed out political parties for they are more amenable to their control. In the absence of a mass social base electoral machines ultimately are at the beck and easy recall of capital, as that walking and talking brand, Kevin 07, no doubt still is unable to recognise. So we had New Labour, New Democrats and the all the frothy rest.

Strangely, to the well-heeled that is, the public, that ignorant and meddlesome outsider, is increasingly assertive. Through Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders in the US, Nuit Debout in France, the Indignados and Podemos in Spain, and mush else besides we see the public clamouring for more sway in the way society is governed.

A glittering academic career waits for thee who can write a PhD explaining this strange phenomenon to the masters, whilst outlining a way to assuage the beast without affecting the interests of the overseers too unduly. Less glamorous, but of more human value, would be an analysis of this happening of the people for the left as we continue the struggle to reverse the neoliberal tide.

Richard Seymour’s book, on the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour Party leadership, is a welcome and splendid contribution to the defence of the public as it is one based on rich analysis and insightful historical context.

The foregoing observations on the essential character of neoliberalism are of no small relevance as Seymour identifies this public mobilisation, not so much socialism, as the essence of the Corbyn phenomenon in the UK. Crucially, the Corbyn mobilisation does not mean that the left “is suddenly vibrant and full of beans and power.” Rather, “in circumstances, which defy analogy, there is a chance for radical politics to make an utterly unexpected rebirth.”

Seymour notes that Corbyn has been opposed not just by the tabloid Murdoch press but also the left liberal media, and he catalogues with detail the offensive waged against him in The Guardian and The New Statesman. Those of us interested in a rebirth of radical politics in Australia would do well to make note of this.

We tend to associate the rise of Corbyn to a popular tsunami that overwhelmed the constituency party, or branches as we say in the antipodes, but Seymour shows how, and more importantly why, key trade unions provided critical support for Corbyn.

Seymour observes that, “throughout the period of Blairite dominance,” unions “had been sinking into an existential crisis.” This was because their “social depth had declined, the legislative climate has remained abysmal, industrial action has sunk to all-time lows, levels of manufacturing have continued to decline and the private sector is overwhelmingly non-unionised.”

The unions turned to Corbyn because they had to. Although Seymour focuses his analysis on the political wing, and discusses the industrial wing of the labour movement largely in the context of internal Labour Party affairs, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the rebirth of radical politics requires the rebirth of a grassroots union movement dedicated to waging class struggle at the point of production.

So long as the asymmetry of power between labour and capital obtains at the workplace the neoliberal era will endure. A mass based and democratic political party of the left might be necessary but it by no means is sufficient.

Seymour, rightly in my view, tends to deemphasise the radical nature of Corbyn’s policies. To be sure Corbyn is a long standing socialist campaigner, but many of his policies fit the Keynesian mould, an indication of how rightward the political culture has tacked, with some added commitments to nationalisation in limited domains. The programme of Corbyn’s mentor, and predecessor, Tony Benn, known as “the alternative economic strategy,” was more radical. For instance, it included stronger commitments to industrial democracy and workers’ self-management.

But, as Seymour states, Corbyn represents a rebirth. We have yet to relearn to crawl let alone walk once more.

Seymour writes incisively of the problems that Corbyn’s project faces. He notes that the Labour Party remains weak, and still is wedded to a conception of success understood in electoral terms.

But success needs also to be understood in organisational and ideological terms, Seymour relates. One of the key reasons why the left finds it difficult to slay the neoliberal dragon is because it lacks a viable and coherent ideological counter narrative. A rebirth of radical politics must not only mobilise the public at the organisational level but it must also feed into renewed intellectual vigour.

One problem, even though he writes pre-Brexit and Trump,that Seymour discusses is right wing populist appeals to racist and other assorted vulgar sentiment. In the 1964 Smethwick by-election, Seymour writes, the Tories defeated Labour with the slogan, “if you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.” The Tories of course cared not a jot for Sid Abbott and the travails of his blessed house, but racist and nationalist mobilisations are understood to be potent weapons for the attack on the public and unless this weapon is blunted radical politics will not ripen to maturity.

Another problem, not addressed by Seymour, is social democracy’s requirement for present and future economic growth. This growth imperative needs to be balanced, if not countermanded, by ecological considerations. A tough sell even in the best of times.

Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders demonstrate that a rebirth of radical politics and the rolling back of the frontiers of capitalism requires an insurgency from below, an insurgency from within the left and the labour movement. Such an insurgency is the essential midwife for the rebirth of radical politics.

I cannot but highly recommend Seymour’s book to those interested in bringing something akin to Corbyn’s rebirth of radical politics to Australia.