“Socialism is back. Unmentioned and unused, a dead concept and suddenly there was Corbynism.” That’s how Guy Rundle announced the resurrection in “The Death of Neoliberalism” in the July 15 issue of The Saturday Paper.
The renaissance started with “the rolling insurgency” of young people and union members backing self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries in the United States. But Jeremy Corbyn took the resurgence to a higher level in the British elections. As Rundle noted, Labour’s election manifesto — the aptly titled For the many not the few — promised to renationalise energy, water, railways and the Royal Mail as well as expand public investment in the economy.
What is driving Corbynism, and what drove the movement around Bernie Sanders, were growing concerns about the cooking planet and that for a younger generation capitalism has lost its shine. For many, many young people, the stagnation of real wages, housing costs, precarious work and no rights at work means capitalism is not a great future.
What Jeremy Corbyn presented in his Manifesto was extremely left wing and radical. It is possible to say it was left Keynesianism and, in a strictly theoretical way, that is correct. But, in the current political climate — the past 30–40 years — to be offering free education, to be talking about nationalisation, union freedoms and four extra public holidays a year is an extremely radical program.
And, if further proof of its radicalism is needed, if Labour had won the election, the reaction from the ruling class and even from within the Labour Party would have been ferocious.
It was a radical program; it appealed to the young. It talked up socialism and it talked up the validity of left-wing politics. It also put those ideas firmly back on the agenda in the advanced, developed countries.
One of the main flag wavers of the ruling class in Britain has been the mass media. From The Guardian to the xenophobic, racist Daily Mail, all have been anti-Labour and viciously anti-Corbyn in particular.
In 1992, when the Tories beat Labour, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun came out the next day with the banner headline: “It’s us wot done it”. The right-wing media cannot say that this time round. It was trumped by the internet, by social media and people power on the doorsteps.
There is now a growing realisation, especially among the young, that a wrong turn was taken 30 or 40 years ago. It is extraordinary that the walking political dead, the survivors, are leading the return to socialism. The 1960s and ’70s left wingers who stayed consistent to their anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist politics, their socialist beliefs, their deeply radical social democratic commitments, are the ones young people are now turning to.
It is absolutely extraordinary: what was old is new again. What some thought was in the dustbin of history is now what young people are really interested in.
Overwhelmingly, people under 40, many for the first time, voted two to one (or more) in favour of Labour. It was a generational revolt. There is no doubt about that. It was an urban thing, a student thing, those people coming into politics, coming into social power, who rallied around left-wing social democracy.
It’s back: the old pre-postmodernist idea that the future will be different from the present. We are entering a period when you can talk about 21st century or ecological socialism — and not just in Latin America.
What about Australia? The Greens had a forum on Corbyn and former NSW Greens MLC Sylvia Hale suggested that Bob Gould would be doing cart wheels in his grave. What she meant was that that Bob stuck to working in the Labor Party in the apparently utopian belief that a real left wing would emerge there and that would lead to a breakthrough in the building of a mass socialist party in this country.
It is true that the radicalisation in the advanced capitalist parties has taken place through the old social democratic parties: Sanders in the Democrats in the US and Corbyn in Labour in Britain.
Could that happen here? On the face of it when you look at Labor, you cannot see it. There are no survivors like Sanders or Corbyn. But social democratic parties are extraordinarily resilient — especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that someone like ACTU secretary Sally McManus will establish a militant reputation, go into politics and be the standard bearer for that radicalism. That’s a possibility that we cannot rule out.
Meanwhile, there are signs of it occurring here — I can see it in the Greens. You may be seeing in Socialist Alliance. There has been the sudden influx of young people — enough to form Young Greens branches in every state in Australia in the past five years. They are now recognised in our constitution.
The Left Renewal people are overwhelmingly young, some of whom believe that moderates like myself have failed to move the party to the left. They are excited by Jeremy Corbyn and the Corbyn phenomenon and they have found inside the Greens, a champion in NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon — and a roadblock in Richard di Natale and his supporters. To date most of the Australian Greens MPs have displayed a provincial conservatism as far as the rise of Corbyn and Sanders is concerned.
There are two considerations that must give us some pause about the inspiring example of the Corbyn surge. The first thing to note is that this movement is very much an electoral expression. How deeply it is organised at this stage in the offices and workplaces, universities and localities is another thing. That is a stage it has yet to go through.
Secondly, we should not run ahead of ourselves because we live in the “lucky” country. Ten years after the global financial crisis, Germany and Australia are two countries that have recorded relatively high GDP per capital growth even if things are faltering now.
In Britain, it went backwards. It has had seven to 10 years of austerity and only now are people radicalising. We are just beginning down that road. So it may be some time. But history moves very fast, especially in the age of globalisation and digital media. Young people are on the net, Facebook, and they see this stuff and they want to be a part of it. So when it starts here, it will happen much more quickly.