The unexpected, inspiring Corbyn phenomenon dissected with a cold eye

September 23, 2016
Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
By Richard Seymour
Verso, 2016
paperback, 256 pages

If ever a book was born under a lucky star, it surely was Richard Seymour’s Corbyn.

No sooner had the English socialist blogger and author’s book about the British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn been published in May than the anti-Corbyn coup pushed it into the best sellers list.

Seymour’s exhausting list of engagements suggest that the book is doing well. I am glad, for this is a very good book and one that all socialists should read.

Apart from its fortuitous timing, the book serves deeper purposes. It analyses the amazing phenomenon when a shop-worn old leftist, a veteran socialist and anti-war campaigner, was taken off the back benches, dusted down and miraculously propelled into the leadership of the British Labour Party.

In front of our eyes, hope was snatched out of the maw of despair. Inspired by Corbyn’s anti-austerity politics and principles, hundreds of thousands of largely young people swarmed into Labour almost overnight. From the position of rank outsider, Corbyn stormed Labour leadership elections last year to win with almost 60% of the vote. Indications are that, facing a right-wing challenge, Corbyn will win again this month.

Here in Australia we old lefties are almost choked with envy. Why couldn’t we have a Corbyn over here? We too are desperate for relief from neoliberalism. We too have a revived ultra-right under Pauline Hanson who has crested a wave of Islamophobia, the depths of which we did not grasp.

Hanson is now seated in our Senate and spouting the sort of vicious nonsense that warms the heart of the followers of the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

Yet the Australian Labor Party is headed by a right-wing former union leader, Bill Shorten, whose main credentials are his skill at doing deals with bosses. His rival on the party’s left, Anthony Albanese, is no better.

Faced with a challenge for his seat of Grayndler from the Greens in July, Albanese resorted to the crudest of red-baiting, stooping even to use the epithet “socialist” as an insult. There is clearly no sign on the horizon of a Corbyn Down Under.

But Seymour’s analysis should shake us out of the comfort of despair. He is not a member of the British Labour Party and comes instead out of the International Socialist tendency — represented in Britain by the Socialist Workers Party, from which he was honourably expelled for his defence of a woman raped by a leading party member.

Full disclosure: I too for my sins was once a member of the IS tendency but was expelled last century for trying to escape from what Paul Mason calls “the bureaucratic and hierarchical culture of Bolshevik re-enactment”.

Seymour writes as a sympathetic observer who remains outside Labour. This enables him to cast a cold eye on the dialectics of the enthusiasm that has created “Corbynism”.

Allied to this is his commitment to the Gramscian slogan of “pessimism of the intellect”. In a number of key chapters, he gives us a very useful and, to my mind, accurate portrayal of the history of the British Labour Party. Its great moments in office turn out not to have been so great. Its greatest leaders, such as Britain’s post-war prime minister Clement Attlee, turn out to have not been so great either.

Seymour’s deepest scorn, though, is reserved for the time of New Labour and its repulsive prime minister and war criminal, Tony Blair. Seymour’s wrath is almost holy here, correctly describing Blair as a “viper”.

Seymour makes two key points. Corbyn won because of the weakness of the Labour Party — it lost 5 million votes over the 1997-2010 period. But that very weakness makes Corbyn’s project of reviving social democracy all the more difficult.

As well, the economic boom that permitted some redistribution of wealth away from the powerful and towards the working class in the post-war era is long gone. We live in the time when the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is asserting itself.

The neoliberal response to falling profits has not restored profitability to pre-1973 levels. The capitalist class is hoarding and not investing. Can Corbyn’s mild Keynesian solutions change this?

Seymour is careful not to say he thinks Corbyn will fail. But he is brutally honest about the chances of the Corbyn project succeeding.

He was also incredibly prescient about the opposition that Corbyn would face from inside the party machine and the Parliamentary Labour Party. These forces did everything they could to destroy Corbyn. Although Corbyn looks set to win the new leadership elections, some of his opponents have already signalled that they are prepared to destroy the party in order to save it.

In an endeavour to get rid of Corbyn, most parliamentarians and the party machine have declared war on the party members. No one knows the extent of the suspensions and expulsions carried out in a bid to roll Corbyn.

Seymour has written elsewhere that he does not think the purge is of the scale needed to defeat Corbyn. He seems to believe that it is designed to create the kind of Ground Zero that will put down forever the very thought of a leftist leading the Labour Party — because the party won’t exist.

I cannot disagree with Seymour’s analysis. I cannot see British Labour transforming into the kind of vehicle that will build a society without a master class.

Nonetheless, one is tempted to say “Oh to be in England now that Corbyn’s there”. The spectacle of thousands flocking to political meetings and being driven by hope for a better world into joining a political party is enough to set this old leftist “muttering like a fool”.

It also reminds one of the need to complete the Gramscian slogan and return “optimism of the will” to the fore. That would give us “Pessimism of the intellect, and optimism of the will”. Even better would be Roy Bhaskar’s reformulation. In Plato Etc he wrote “Optimism of the will, definitely: ‘optimism of the will and realism, informed by concrete utopianism, not pessimism, of the intellect’.”

In any case, in Britain a struggle is taking place that will define the future of the European, if not the world, Left.  That alone should make us read Seymour’s book. After all, as Sherlock Holmes remarked “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

[Read Richard Seymour's article "Why Corbyn Wins" about recent developments. Gary MacLennan is a life-time socialist and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Brisbane.]

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