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Losing Their Grip: the Meaning of Corbyn’s Win

Last Friday was notable for a dog which didn’t bark: the comparative absence of what Doug Henwood once referred to as the “toxic cocktail of grandiosity and self-pity” now for almost a decade and a half the dreaded accompaniment to the beginning of the fall. Even better, radical historian Greg Grandin, with typical aplomb and brilliance, used the occasion to revisit what has turned out to be the far more historically consequential 9/11, namely, 9/11/73, the overthrow of the constitutionally elected Allende government, commemorating the role of its driving force, Henry Kissinger, the subject of Grandin’s latest book.

And if 9/11 was good, 9/12 was even better with Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory providing the chance to revel in Schadenfreude of the best sort: the spectacle of the Blairites (Doppelgängern to our neolib Clintonites but even more cynically opportunistic) trying to deal with what was a complete and total electoral humiliation.

More interesting, and maybe more significant, are the divisions Corbyn’s win exposes on the left. These turn out to be not so much about horizontalists vs. verticalists, Trots (Lennists or Maoists) vs. anarchists, anti-electoralists vs. Greens or other third partyists. It’s much simpler than that: the two sides are those who care about achieving political objectives versus those who don’t. Put differently, it’s about dogmatists wedded to an inflexible ideology and strategists who recognize that seriously engaging in politics (virtually by definition) requires a diversity of tactics. The left over there showed themselves to be overwhelmingly in the latter category with even David Graeber, about as anti-electoralist as they come, celebrating Corbyn’s victory. When I asked David about it on twitter, his response was to define his “job (as) to stand further to the left and move the overton window over to where Corbyn is a centrist.” Like Chomsky over here, David has a principled commitment to horizontalism, but not to the point of dogma: he recognizes that the necessary first step to breaking down the walls is to “expand the floor of the cage” as the saying goes. In practice that means participating in what they regard as the necessary evil of electoral politics-and doing so to win.

It was also significant to see the remnants of the now essentially defunct Socialist Workers Party (SWP) become unanimously supportive of Corbyn. That raises the question of whether, were it still functioning, they would have taken Corbyn’s success as a threat to their brand identity and attacked it on that (purely opportunistic) basis. That’s the strategy adopted by the Trotskyist left over here in relation to the Sanders campaign including, most notably, the International International Socialist Organization (ISO) among others, though the comparison requires understanding that the SWP was a much more significant force on the British left than the Trots are here. While it was not recognized as such at the time, the demise of the SWP was the best thing that could have happened to the British left and may have had a lot to do with the breadth of the alliance Corbyn was able to develop. In contrast, on this side the Trots are so marginal in their influence that their attempts to undermine the Sanders coalition are likely almost insignificant and they only succeed in digging their own hole deeper.

It’s important to keep in mind that while neoliberals have definitely lost this skirmish, the war continues and a counter-attack is certain. For example, though I haven’t yet heard any indications of their planning to do so, they have a weapon to deploy, namely the threat of bolting the LP to form a “moderate” third way party, as they did in the early 80s to form the now forgotten Social Democratic Party. Wikipedia describes this collection of unsavory characters who would later form the core of Blairite “New Labor” as “opposed what they saw as a leftward shift in Labour policy, the increasing prominence within the party of Tony Benn, and the involvement of trade unions in choosing the leader of the Labour Party.”

Replace Benn by Corbyn and you may have a prediction of what could occur over the next couple of years in Britain. And, pressing the analogy once more, there’s the possibility of a centrist third party dark horse such as Al Gore to spoil Sanders chances in November 2016, if it comes to that. In any case, no one should put these sorts of tactics past “them.”

The 1% percent will use any means necessary to maintain their boots on our necks and their hands in our pockets.

If there’s any lesson which living history should have taught us, it’s that.

But the Corbyn victory is now one of many indications that we can fight back and win.