Richard Seymour, the veteran “Lenin’s Tomb” blogger, has put together a highly readable account of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the British Labour party. But while he includes a lot of information about the unsuccessful establishment campaign to prevent this from ever happening, he does not give the same attention to what it was that motivated long-time and newly-joined party members to vote overwhelmingly for Corbyn’s candidacy.
He was an unlikely contender for Labour leader. But, Seymour notes, underneath the political surface “something was already stirring.” The constituency nomination results “suggested that a long dormant Left … had reanimated and fused with a younger generation radicalised through participation in social movements and single-issue campaigns.” The panicked attempts of the right working through the media to warn of disastrous consequences for the party if Corbyn was elected – another “Project Fear” along the lines of the campaign against the “Yes” vote on Scottish independence – only increased his popularity.
However, Seymour gives greater weight to the changed role of trade union leaders than to a radicalized membership. “Corbyn won,” he says, “because the Labour Party was weak, and the traditionally dominant ideologies, and the normally effective modes of political control, had broken down. At the core of this was the degeneration of the union link, which had been hacked away at over years, with the result that the traditionally cautious union bureaucracies seized on a drastic opportunity to reverse their losses.”
His victory, then, is evidence “not of the power of the Left but of the enervation of the Labour Party and of the traditional political centre.” In the context of the decline of parliamentary legitimacy, this means that the prospects for the future of Corbynism are not bright: “we have to consider it as a moment in the degeneration of Labourism. It is the culmination of a series of defeats for a form of political organisation that seems to be inadequate in today’s world. And it is probably headed for a defeat of its own.”
Seymour’s pessimism is not without justification, but only if it is accepted that the Labour party must remain on the Westminster model and exists only to get enough MPs elected to form a government – in other words, excluding changes outside the purely political sphere, including possible social changes among voters. He considers the failed attempts to launch minority left parties like Respect and Left Unity, doomed by the “demoralization and defeat of the Labour left,” to indicate the lack of public support for radical socialist policies, and suggests that party activists follow an alternative strategy of grassroots campaigning to change popular consciousness.
Locating Corbyn’s base in the metropolitan left, and writing before the Brexit vote, he presciently points out the electoral importance of provincial areas where the concerns of the urban working class are not as visible, where there is “a sense of neglect and distance from Westminster” and where social attitudes are less progressive, but he doesn’t mention the deep problems of deindustrialization and unemployment in most of these areas.
Seymour’s brief account of Labour history makes the victory of the bureaucracy seem inevitable. Through the twentieth century, without exception, he writes, “Labour has cleaved to its constitutionalist, electoral roots. It has disowned the radicalism of its members and union affiliates more often than it has allowed them expression. … Insofar as it was a coalition between organized labour, socialists and liberals, it has been the union moderates, Fabians and professional liberals who have usually been dominant.” The left-wing groupings within Labour are “hardly any match for the immense, lordly dominion of the parliamentary party and the electoral-professional caste running daily party life.”
Even his neat characterization of the New Labour project as one that reduced the membership to largely passive supporters and made the “organized core” a professional stratum controlling the party apparatus tends to emphasize the power of the right.
Seymour does not hold out much hope for the future of Corbyn supporters in the Labour party. “It seems likely that Corbyn’s leadership will provide a temporary and much-needed space for the radical Left, wherein it can begin the work of regrouping and re-deploying its scattered forces. … However, it seems likely that for the great majority of the newest recruits, Labour is a temporary home. The political space for left-wing activists to operate effectively is likely to be closed before too long. … In the final analysis, Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism. And it is those limits, above all, which have brought us to this impasse.”
While Seymour’s strength is political analysis, confining himself to political categories is also his weakness. He gives a good account of the genesis of the crisis of social democracy in its inability to access an economic surplus to redistribute, but when it comes to historical change his narrative is couched in terms like “soft left”, “electoral winds”, “liberal reformers,” and so on.
He quotes Jo, a former secondary-school teacher, who attended one of Corbyn’s election meetings in Plymouth: “He’s saying things in a way that people can understand,” she said. “He says things that aren’t patronising, that are talking to working people, and that feel like what the grassroots of this party is all about.” But he doesn’t make enough of this response to Corbyn’s philosophy. When Corbyn describes socialism as a type of society where “we each care for all, everybody caring for everybody else,” he appeals to a strongly-held popular desire for a social safety net that rejects the neoliberal attitudes of New Labour and seeks to restore collectivist priorities like the NHS and social services.
However, Seymour assigns agency in Corbyn’s election to “a core of activists” savvy in social media, minimizing that of Labour’s membership in rejecting the Blairite elite – and also of the public who became new members in the course of Corbyn’s campaign. What radicalized them was the effects of Tory austerity measures on people’s everyday lives and the failure of the Labour establishment to oppose them. When large numbers of previously nonpolitical people take political action together, that is a strong indication of some kind of social movement.
As Seymour shows, the election of Corbyn means that the conditions that enabled the Labour bureaucracy to wield social power – including the viability of class compromise and the passive support of Labour members – have changed. Unfortunately he does not probe far enough under the political surface to analyze in more detail exactly why Labour supporters respond so strongly to Corbyn’s politics.
Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, Verso 2016