Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.
Part Two: Socialists must “hold the centre”
The authors accuse Corbyn of ignoring the “messiness” of real politics, “the calculated compromises necessary to achieve something concrete in a contradictory world,” in favour of an abstract morality manifested in a history of protests. However, as party leader, Corbyn has had to engage in many calculated compromises, such as holding a free vote on military intervention in Syria to appease shadow cabinet ministers, for example, and has had to navigate a difficult political terrain when aiming to unify Brexit-supporting and remaining constituencies. He has succeeded in holding together different wings of the party with moderate but practical policies that aim to reverse some of the most egregious aspects of privatization and welfare austerity. When he advocates more radical political alternatives aimed at encouraging popular democracy and involvement, he prefers practical examples like Preston and the “people’s Uber” pioneered in Barcelona over ideological purity.
Corbyn’s strength lies in his ability to communicate his ethical socialist beliefs to the public in a way that connects them with the political fight against austerity. The inclusivity of his message enables him to make a human connection with crowds at rallies and events. He does not perform well in parliament, on the other hand, since its procedures rely on making facile debating points rather than engaging with substance, a form of discourse modelled on institutions of ruling class privilege like Oxford, Cambridge, and the independent public schools. His political room for manoeuvre in parliament is limited by the hostility of many centrist Labour MPs, and even if a Labour government were to be elected in the near future, many of them would probably keep their seats. But this does not make him a prisoner of the parliamentary party. For him, the cabinet’s collective responsibility means fighting for policies decided by party conference, although his opponents had no compunction about resigning from the shadow cabinet.
As party leader, he can leverage his support from the membership in a way that previous left leaders like Bevan and Benn could not. At the same time, Labour MPs all believe in a certain amount of redistribution of wealth to alleviate social problems, and that creates a political space for Corbyn to keep the PLP together, since British capitalism now subsists on extraction of rents (in the broad sense) from the population through privatised industries and the financial sector. So, while the reforms proposed in Labour’s 2017 manifesto may be modest, the threat of halting or even reversing this flow of wealth to the rich alarms the establishment, even more than Corbyn’s foreign policy which would end the enrichment of the arms industry from dictatorships throughout the world, especially Saudi Arabia.
Bolton and Pitts’ pessimistic prognosis is that socialists must “hold the centre” to resist the advance of fascism and national populism. Only through the “structures of formal democracy” can the labour movement carry out its traditional activities. What is missing from their entire analysis is any sense of labour as a combative force in struggle with capital and its representatives, a movement that fought and fights for democratic rights even when outlawed by the state. In the 2017 election campaign Corbyn was able to shift the centre ground of politics to the left, something the authors perversely attribute to the Brexit vote, and his radical democratic instincts impel him to turn the party away from the arcane procedures of parliament towards local communities from which, he says, all progress originates. The authors concede none of this: for them, the “abstract, intangible forms of capital” remove all agency from socialists, since fighting to make the super-rich pay their taxes would illegitimately persecute those who are only the personalizations of money, capital and commodities. Demands for accountability for those who made the decision to cut costs on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment so drastically that they made it a death trap would not be acceptable to them. Socialists can only be spectators of “the fateful objectification of human activity in a reality that increasingly enslaves us.” This is their “Marxist” justification for accepting the neoliberal argument that there is no alternative to accepting the domination of the financial markets.
Labour’s immediate challenge is to establish itself as a clear alternative to both a Tory Brexit and the disenfranchising of neglected communities, navigating divisive political pressures exerted on the leadership by the media and sections of the parliamentary party. This depends on the politically empowered and knowledgeable party membership being able to develop policy through their connections to social movements. As Corbyn told a rallyin 2019, “What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future.” This prospect is deeply disturbing to most of the PLP, who want to preserve the division between the political arena and extra-parliamentary struggle that facilitates their domination of the party. It also frightens the ruling establishment, for whom any tactic is justified to prevent the election of a government that might reverse the transfer of wealth and power to the rich.
How could Corbyn achieve his platform in the face of such opposition from the establishment? The plain fact is that the dominant class has little inherent strength and depends on its control of the state and the grip of ideology to sustain its rule. Corbyn challenges this ideology by asserting the imperative of community solidarity, of inclusion rather than the division of Brexit and racism. Above all, he is able to channel popular dissent in a way that enables it to express itself in a creative struggle for policies of social change. This undermines the ruling elite’s historical strategy of using the elective legitimacy of parliament to contain and manage pressure from below, while strictly limiting popular influence on the actual conduct of government. Whatever limitations Corbyn may have as a politician, what is important is the fact that he has broken through the exclusion of the party membership from decision-making and released their energies in order to transform the relation of the party to the public and to the state.
Under a Tory government British society faces deepening austerity and a sharp growth in absolute poverty with its imposition of Universal Credit on benefit recipients, which can only be made worse by Brexit. The crisis it has induced threatens to break up the imperial British state, which has always depended on external advantage for its internal stability. However, social radicalisation has found an outlet and focus in a social democratic party that, for historical reasons, has provided the only practical conduit of organised political opposition to an austerity state. Rather than Bolton and Pitts’ faith in the institutions of “internationalist liberalism” to resolve the contradictions of a globalized economy, a Corbyn-led Labour government would be an inspiration for anti-austerity movements across Europe and the US, acting as an antidote to the rise of rightwing populist parties. Corbyn’s outreach to socialist tendencies battling the existing conservative leaderships of left parties and conservative Democrats in the US lays the foundation for democratizing international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU itself.
The strengthening of a mass social movement in close connection with a Labour party transformed by its roots in the localities offers the possibility of undoing the effects of years of neoliberal governments. The party at the constituency level is becoming increasingly open to the concept of empowering ordinary citizens so they can restore the social values of equality, public service, and cooperative effort for the common good. This is the socialism Corbyn aspires towards.
Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Emerald Publishing, Bingley, 2018