Jeremy Corbyn is under siege. A large swath of his shadow cabinet resigned en masse after the United Kingdom voted to “exit” the European Union. While he enjoys popular support from the unions and old-fashioned (but still conflict-hungry) Labourites—as well as from the thousands of young voters he has brought into the party, either as registered supporters or as official members—he has nearly no backing from either the media, parliament or party infrastructure. A secret ballot of Labour M.P.’s gave him a vote of no-confidence, and deputy leader Owen Smith (who as of right now is the likely candidate to oppose Corbyn in the next leadership election) recently accused him of preferring the Labour Party be split in two rather than suffer forfeiting his high position. The left-liberal press has smeared him at different times as anti-Semitic and sexist, whereas the right-wing press has enjoyed ridiculing him either for his republican hypocrisy in adhering to royalist traditions or for his faux-dissent in frivolously defying them—often times in reference to the same event, as when The Sun ran articles simultaneously criticizing him for kneeling to the queen and alleging that he refused to do so. A senior military official in the British Army threatened mutiny if Corbyn got his wish that the Trident weapons system not be renewed. Fortunately for law and order, as the conservatives would doubtlessly put it, his wish was defeated last week.
For the politician on the receiving end of such an unwelcoming reaction, one would suspect to find not only a radical-reformist but a full-blown revolutionary—a politician who enters the constitutional arena, not in order to renovate it from within, but because he knows its chamber floor is the best place to voice his enthusiasm for tearing it down. Far from calls for just no more monarchy or House of Lords, surely the benefactor of such sabotage and derision must be calling for the complete abolition of all hierarchical authority (“faith, flag and country,” not to mention capital and property) as well as the ruthless condemnation of all antiquated titles and customs.
Unfortunately, to search for such a politician in Richard Seymour’s latest work, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, would be to look in vain. “Corbyn’s agenda is not exactly the Communist Manifesto. It is not even one of the more radical Labour manifestos.” According to Seymour, Corbyn is unlikely to be in office much longer and, more importantly, the loose alliances that got him there are likely to disintegrate soon after he leaves. The purpose of his book, then, is to understand how this temporary suspension of “politics as usual” came about in the first place, why Corbyn is viewed as such a malignant threat to elites and the consensus given his rather anodyne policy proposals, and what authentic forces can learn from answers to the first two questions in hopes of constructing an opposition that is both robust and in contact with the facts.
Seymour’s history of the British Labour Party is too comprehensive to delve deeply into here. Needless to say though, he does not find the Tony Blair “New Labour” phenomenon of the 1990s (“anti-social” behavior policing, treasury account balancing), nor the Ed Miliband “Blue Labour” one of the 2000s (anti-immigration, class collaborationist), to be either alien or inimical to the party’s founding principles. “The germs of Blairism,” as Seymour puts it, have been present since the beginning. From its first majority victory in 1922, the British Labour Party has spent a great deal of time assuring the country, in deed and in word, that its internationalism has been largely an affectation or pose—only really to be bothered with when it could be used as a rhetorical ploy for defending the dirty work of empire (for example, justifying the 1956 joint British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt as a fight against fascism). “National well-being” was always to take priority over ideological commitments.
Nor did this presumptuousness on the part of Labour leadership apply only to foreign policy. While the Party was responsible for nationalizing many key industries in the 1940s—such as steel, coal, telecommunications, the Bank of England and the railways—it did so without transforming the companies’ internal structures, “The public corporations were preserved on the model of private industry, with the usual worker-management hierarchies, and their production decisions made on the basis of what was good for private business—their management often drawn from the capitalist class.” Since then Labour has largely been a party of economic capitulation, allowing private investors to basically purchase monopolies under the euphemism of “privatization,” meanwhile replacing state control (however inept) with welfare and regulation.
One of Corbyn’s more far-reaching proposals has been to call for renationalizing Britain’s railway system—a policy Seymour thinks even a “Labour Right” administration would now be willing to enact. The country’s rail system was sold off piece-by-piece by the Blair government starting in 1994, yet that hasn’t stopped billions of dollars of public funds from being invested in the industry for much needed repairs and improvements since. Fare prices have risen over the years without the accompanying rise in quality, which has led a majority of Britains to favor renationalization. Following populist sentiment, even members of the fascistic UK Independent Party have tepidly endorsed the proposal. On the other hand, the two other mainstream British political parties have each explicitly rejected the idea: the Tories because they say it is unnecessary (the trains already run on time) and the Liberals because they think it would be too expensive to implement (a noble pursuit perhaps but not worth the money).
The rest of Corbyn’s policy platform is about equal threat to the status quo. He is for restoring the lost legal privileges of trade unions. Buying back the energy sector. Decriminalizing behavior that, if in fact wicked, is best dealt with by family and friends rather than the state. Protecting homosexuality as a respectable form of love and partnership. And ending the West’s looting and mayhem in the Middle East. What’s more, he wants to accomplish all this while simultaneously encouraging a “kinder politics,” aimed at combating, in Seymour’s words, “the illiberal drift of opinion on immigrants and welfare, wherein repressive policies are buttressed by a form of popular social sadism.” Like here in the United States, the British electorate tends to overestimate the number of immigrants in their country in addition to drastically overestimating the welfare benefits those immigrants receive.
Stated as such, and for those unfamiliar with Labour politics, it’s easy to see how an impression could be made that if elected Corbyn’s prime ministership would be, as Seymour says it would, an end to “politics as usual.” That is except for the fact most Labour M.P.’s frequently campaign on all the policies above, with party affiliates and left-wing intellectuals at least notionally endorsing them. (There are of course exceptions. In a speech last year, Tony Blair confessed he “wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform [of nationalization and trade-unionism]” and many left-liberal publications have, since Corbyn’s first run for leadership, been keen on repeatedly beating his economic stratagem over the head with an identitarian stick.) But if it isn’t his political goals, then what does give rise to the animosity and ill-concealed anger directed at Corbyn?
Seymour believes it’s partly to do with his nerves. Unlike Labour politicians of the last few decades, Corbyn does not study the opinion polls in order to determine his principles. “This is not to say he is indifferent to what people think—but he wants to change opinion, to lead it, rather than merely reflect it in various poll-tested triangulations.” Nor does he merely defend the structural changes that have been accomplished by past movements and administrations. He is ready to take real responsibility and offer real solutions.
Whether Corbyn is actually these things is not important. That the Left recognizes these things as the proper way forward is.
The recent electoral successes do not Seymour isn’t bleak about the future: “In all likelihood, Corbynism is a temporary phenomenon as far as Labour goes, and its most likely successor is some variation of the old Labour Right,” “It seems likely that for the great majority of the newest recruits, Labour is a temporary home,” and “The political space for left-wing activists to operate effectively is likely to be closed before too long” are all negative predictions he makes in his closing paragraph. He does not shy away from the likely adversity either, “Defeat is an inevitable but underrated experience in political life.” This is true. And pessimism can be sobering as long as the despair is temporary.