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Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left

Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

The left internationally has been stuck on the horns of a dilemma for quite some time now. When radicals take state power but fail to abolish private property, internal contradictions eventually catch up with the government and dash the hopes initially placed in it—Syriza in Greece and Chavista Venezuela being prime examples. With Cuba and North Korea as relics of the “communist” past, there are few on the left that consider them as models in the way that large parts once did fifty years ago, even more so when both hold-outs are now moving rapidly toward a Chinese-style economy. Just this week, there was news that Cuba will now recognize private property under a new constitution.

Despite such discouraging tendencies, radicalism persists mostly as a result of the assaults on living standards the capitalist system imposes. As part of an ongoing project to analyze the renaissance of social democracy in the United States, rebranded by the DSA, Jacobin and the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party as “democratic socialism”, I decided to read Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics”. I knew little about Corbyn except what I learned from the Guardian, The Nation and the usual leftwing websites that were as breathlessly enthusiastic as they were about the Sanders campaign.

As someone who has lauded Seymour’s books in the past, I delayed reading his 2016 Verso book because his Lacanian turn, while satisfying his own intellectual agenda, left a Freud-hater like me cold. I am happy to report that his book on Corbyn is vintage Richard Seymour and necessary reading for those grappling with the question of whether capitalism can be reformed.

To start off, since Seymour was a founding editor of Salvage magazine in England, it was likely that his take on Corbyn would lack the effervescence found among most of his boosters. On the “about us” page, Salvage describes itself as “edited and written by and for the desolated Left, by and for those committed to radical change, sick of capitalism and its sadisms, and sick too of the Left’s bad faith and bullshit.” That’s a promising start, enough to have convinced me to subscribe since the first issue.

In many ways, Jeremy Corbyn is the end-result of a political process identical to that of the United States. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power in 1979 and 1981 respectively and carried out brutal assaults on the welfare state and organized labor. As traditional adversaries of the Tories and the Republicans, the Labour Party and the Democratic Party retain some of the most odious features of these reactionary administrations. Bill Clinton abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and even moved toward privatizing social security until the Monica Lewinsky scandal slowed him down. His counterpart Tony Blair reinvented his party as “New Labour” and carried out the same kind of neoliberal economic policies that favored the rich.

Sick of both liberal and conservative politicians committed to neoliberal status quo, voters naturally were drawn to the two men who appeared to embody “traditional values” of the left—Corbyn and Sanders. Corbyn evoked the old-line, pro-working class policies of Clement Atlee, who nationalized much of British industry after WWII and introduced socialized medicine, as well as Tony Benn, the party’s most prominent radical voice during the 80s until his death in 2014. Sanders also salutes American leftist values even though they would appear to clash. He made a documentary on Eugene V. Debs but also describes the New Deal as the kind of government he would imitate. Keep in mind that when a reporter asked Eugene V. Debs’s successor Norman Thomas if FDR was carrying out the Socialist Party program, he replied: “only on a stretcher.”

Seymour’s book is divided roughly into three sections. Chapters one and two are devoted to an analysis of the collapse of “New Labour”, chapter three is a history of Labour, and the final two chapters discuss the rise of Corbynism. If all of this was simply expert analysis from a seasoned Marxist (and it is), it would be worth reading. On top of that, you are getting sparkling, sardonic prose that—dare I say it—reminds me of Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn in their prime. In chapter two, he describes the calculations that went into granting working people the vote:

In the nineteenth century struggles over democracy, the concern of those who sought to prevent it was that it would lead to the erosion of the principle of private property. The reason that elites ultimately opted to extend the franchise to workers, however, was that they came to regard it as the easiest way of managing social disturbances. By committing, through a long and deliberately protracted process, to redistribute a proportion of wealth and power, they might avoid challenges to that power by other means. As Earl Grey, proposing the reforms, suggested: “I am reforming to preserve, not to overthrow.”

Don Fabrizio Corbera, the aristocratic anti-hero of Giuseppe Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” expressed the same sentiments as Earl Gray when he said, “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

In the chapter on Labour Party history titled “Labour Isn’t Working: Whatever Happened to Social Democracy”, Seymour describes a party that is the poster child for reformism. Indeed, the Fabian Society that gave its name to Fabianism, the doctrine of reformism par excellence, was one of the major architects of Labour Party ideology.

Labour essentially was a kind of hybrid political formation like one of those half-man/half-animals from Greek mythology. It was midwifed by Liberal Party figures who superimposed their Christian/free market dogma on a nascent socialist formation that, unlike other Social Democratic parties, especially Kautsky’s, had little engagement with Marxism. Frustrated with the Liberal Party’s concessions to the Tories in Parliament, the Fabians and the Independent Labour Party founded the Labour Party in 1900, with its main purpose to put pressure on the Liberal Party from the left. In a way, the strategy was similar to the DSA’s hope of serving as the Tea Party of the left, even though they have never articulated this as such, to my knowledge.

Instead of being led by a fire-breathing radical like Eugene V. Debs, the Labour Party was in the hands of Ramsey MacDonald who promised that when it became a minority government in 1923 with backing from the Liberals it would “not be influenced…by any other consideration other than the national well-being.” His colonial minister, a former railway union leader named J.H. Thomas, promised that there would be “no mucking about with the British Empire”.

In 1926, the Tories were in power again and facing a general strike led by coal miners. Despite Labour’s institutional ties to Labour and MacDonald’s vow to back them in their struggle, he wilted under pressure and told Parliament that “with the discussion of general strikes and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing, I have nothing to do at all.”

After WWII, Labour came closer to its initial reformist agenda than at any time in its history. This was during Clement Atlee’s run as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, a “golden age” for workers that many Britons look back on fondly as Bernie Sanders and Michael Moore look back on the New Deal. While it is true that a full fifth of British industry was nationalized, it was mainly motivated by a need to modernize them through state intervention. Despite the claims by Labour intelligentsia that this was part of a move toward socialism, 75 percent of the nation’s wealth was owned by 5 percent—the bourgeoisie.

Among the most interesting findings in Seymour’s book is the role that Eurocommunist intellectuals like Stuart Hall played as propagandists for New Labour under the pretext of promoting Gramscian hegemonic theory. Hall was the editor of Marxism Today, a fountainhead of Eurocommunism. They argued that the premises of the old Left based on the vanguard role of the working class had become obsolete. While some of their individual observations were needed in a period of genuine social and economic change, Seymour sums up their role:

Though much of what the Marxism Today intellectuals said was luminous and prescient, above all when it came with Hall’s suave, seductive and assured voice, at least a similar quotient was charlatanry, bullshit and self-fulfilling prophesy. The critique of the Left’s cultural obliviousness, the theorisation of a new capitalism and the role of consumption and new forms of individualism in it, segued often into a kind of cheerleading for this new state of affairs and the bold energies it seemed to unleash. If Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques could recognise the danger of a Labour Government embracing a ‘brand of New Times’ that was just a ‘slightly cleaned up’ version of the radical Right, this was in part because their own intellectual project was a little too entranced by Thatcherite dynamism, and a great deal too scornful of Thatcher’s most belligerent opponents.

Do I need to mention that Syriza had the same kind of Gramscian, Eurocommunist origins? Obviously, with an economy even more anemic than Great Britain’s, a government based on such premises would be an even bigger disappointment than New Labour.

With such a dismal past, how in the world could Labour now be a receptacle for the enthusiasm and energy of young people seeking, if not the overthrow of capitalism, at least a return to something that had more in common with Clement Atlee than Tony Blair.

Ironically, it was Blair’s attempt to move the party away from its trade union roots and toward a model much more like the Democratic Party that allowed an influx of new blood. Blair wanted to emulate the Democratic Party’s turn toward the professional class but instead ended up with millennials who had been kicked in the teeth by neoliberalism.

Showing his own wariness about anything resembling the Syriza experience, Seymour describes Corbyn’s prospects as “extremely tenuous”, mainly because the trade union movement and the left are weaker than they have ever been. Corbyn’s main asset is “Corbymania”, the enthusiasm of young people who have joined the Labour Party in droves and probably provided the foot soldiers for the massive anti-Trump protests this week.

Even with such activists pouring into the Labour Party, its electoral prospects are dim. So why become a Corbynista? Seymour states that his leadership will provide a “temporary and much-needed space for the radical Left, where it can begin the work of regrouping and re-deploying its scattered forces.” In my view, this was how the revolutionary left in Greece should have viewed Syriza, not as an instrument of social and economic transformation but as a place where it could have regrouped and re-deployed its scattered forces.

With the collapse of the old Left, new formations are taking root such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza and the Corbynized Labour Party that was equivalent to pouring new wine into old bottles.

What about the DSA, the Sandernistas and the Democratic Party? Should they be included? Richard Seymour does not really deal with comparisons between Corbyn and Sanders in this book and hardly needs to. Although it must be said that Salvage’s editorial board did recommend a vote for Sanders if he had been the candidate running against Trump rather than Clinton.

At the risk of sounding like an unredeemable old Leftist, I’ll stick with the Richard Seymour of 2010 who summed up the class character of the Democratic Party this way (emphasis added):

If we understand electoral politics as a particular expression of the class struggle in the US, the bizarre trends noted above [Republicans taking over the House of Representatives in mid-term elections] can be comprehended better. First of all, the obvious. Unlike in much of the world, the United States does not have a party of labour, that is a party created by and rooted in the organised working class. The electoral system is entirely dominated by two pro-business parties. The Democrats have, since the ‘New Deal’, tended to gain from whatever votes are cast by the working class, and have ruthlessly and jealously guarded that advantage against all potential ‘third party’ rivals.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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