Corbynism from Below

Corbynism from Below edited by Mark Perryman, Lawrence and Wishart (2019) reviewed by Dave Kellaway

In France and Italy political leaders like Mélenchon or Bertinotti inevitably write tomes about their political philosophy and strategic projects but here this is rarer at least within the social democratic tradition. There is no book by Corbyn comprehensively outlining his ideas while John McDonnell has contributed articles to collections but mostly on Labour’s economic policies. Most books about Corbynism have been by academics or journalists. This collection, edited by Mark Perryman about the politics of Corbynism is notable for being written by activists.

The seventeen articles do not form a manifesto; they are ecumenical in scope. Authors range from those on the softer left who argue for a more pluralist approach towards other ‘progressive forces’ to Corbyn supporters who are building currents outside the Labour Party. Mark Perryman does a good job, drawing together a wide variety of perspectives which reflect real debates taking place in the movement today. While the articles cover different areas, the arguments between them are sometimes fierce.

Everyone agrees that Corbynism will not survive unless it is transformative: “Corbynism from Below seeks to explore the breadth and depth that is required for a project of transformation of party and political culture to sustain and develop the momentum for change” p.1

The book is organised in four sections: a) various models of Labour leadership; b) models of Labour membership and campaigning; c) the causes and effects of the setbacks since the 2017 general election and d) looking forward to the remaking of Corbynism ‘from below’.

Perryman’s long opening overview piece identifies Corbynism’s origins and avoids any exaggeration of the movements’ role (which Lindsay German’s later piece tends to do). He neatly names four components of the current (p.19) :

a) the ‘stay-at-homes’ – remnants of the Bennite left that stayed in the party, know how the party works, have now won some of the levers of power inside the party and won’t let them go in a hurry. He implies they can be a bit sniffy against new people or returners
b) the ‘come-back homes’ –like a) but bailed out over the new Labour and the Iraq war, dropped out of activity but kept their principles
c) the ‘at last we have found a home to call our own’ , mainly over thirty, voted Labour or Green, previously unconvinced of the point of joining, often active in unions and campaigns
d) the ‘home from other homes’, under thirty, political experience is post Blair/Brown and often radicalised over student fees, very keen on social movements.

One could also add those Marxist and radical currents who have joined and are no longer building a distinct political party in electoral competition – most of Left Unity for instance. Of course the SWP, the Socialist Party and Counterfire have rejected the tactic of building Corbynism from within Labour. This means they usually end up cheering Corbyn on and condemning his opponents in Labour but are absent from the main battlefield.

At the end of his piece, Perryman correctly identifies the Brexit impasse it as the ‘biggest, single, at times almost insurmountable, barrier to all the hopes placed in Corbynism’. He does not downplay the issue or think if we just concentrate on the bread and butter questions it would be superseded. However he focuses on the poor Remain campaign and the ‘arrogance of remain voters’ rather than on characterising the rightwing nature of the Brexit project. Probably written before the positive shifts in the Labour Party position, he is sceptical about calls for a people’s vote and sees it purely in terms of possible lost seats. Finally there is a plea for the politics of ‘we’ which tends to say the real issue is not Brexit but the state of my child’s school, which reflects a confused slippage from his earlier point above. But if people saying Brexit is their number one issue it is no good just counter-posing education cuts to them. Fighting such cuts will be more difficult under a Johnson-led Brexit government.

Lindsay German doesn’t overcome the contradiction of being external to many fights through not being in the Labour Party. She argues that the extra-parliamentary struggle is the primary way to take Corbynism forward and goes so far as to say: “it could be argued further that the Corbyn phenomenon, despite its roots in the movements, has not helped to strengthen those movements but in many ways weakened them, as the focus of political campaigning switches more sharply to Labour” (p.200).
It is one thing is to recognise the limits of institutional change but it is another to continually overegg the strength and depth of movements. She overstates the role of movements in the rise of Corbynism and fails to see that, given the relationship of forces, mass mobilisations are more likely to strengthen as a result of a Corbyn government. In any case the political content of any street level insurgency, as she dubs it, is crucial – and that is not as independent as she thinks from what happens within the Labour Party.

Top to Bottom

Lorna Finlayson gives a largely descriptive account of how Corbyn won the leadership and how he held off the attacks of the Labour right wing. She correctly identifies the stakes involved in a Tory reelection: the reactionary forces strengthened by the leave vote will proceed to attack the remaining gains of the 1945 settlement.

Andrew Gamble emphasises the international right wing shift and cites Chantal Mouffe on the need for the left to create its own version of the popular democratic. He favours more collaboration between liberal, green, social democratic and socialist currents and changing the tribal, sectarian culture of the Labour Party. There is a utopian bent to his position which underestimates the opposition to the Corbyn project within Labour.

Neil Lawson argues similarly, tending to ignore the class basis of politics and its relation to both economic exploitation and the state and proposing a left populism that includes everyone from the Labour PLP opposition to some Liberals. He recommends tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats – skating over their support for neo-liberal economics. But both he and Gamble are right about Labour needing to be open to collaboration with the Greens and the SNP to block Brexit or enable an anti-austerity government to be installed.

Corbynism’s periodisation is outlined by Phil Burton-Cartledge; the leadership election in 2015, the second leadership challenge after the EU referendum and then the third wave after the remarkable 2017 election campaign. The period after the current election will surely mark the fourth wave.

He highlights the difficulty of developing a new culture in Labour Party branches often dominated by an experienced but old left cadre. New members often work in the gig economy, may not be unionised but are social network savvy. How do you convince them that support for the leadership necessitates battling to win party positions? Political education is vital to explore class, political economy and the state – and challenge the widespread notion of the ‘neutral state’. Without raising the political level then crude conspiracy theories, loose political formulations leaking into antisemitism and blind loyalty to the leadership can be risks.

Jeremy Gilbert’s Acid Corbynism asks: “What kind of persons might Corbynism want to help produce…people equipped to both navigate and when required overcome the complexities of everyday life and be joyful in the fact of their infinite relationality, and to do this as part of local, national and global communities”

He encourages us to lose the self in a mystical materialism that uses Buddhist and other meditative practices. There are nuggets of truth here – to make the movement really strong and resilient we need a leap forward in how people feel and relate. The personal choices the climate crisis demands overlap here, we cannot be neutral about how individuals act.

Building Blocs from below

Two articles by Jess Garland and then Emma Rees and Adam Klug focus on organising. Garland correctly argues that we need to not just change how Labour works organisationally but that the parliamentary system must also changed. Electoral reform – the Achilles heel of most of the Labour left – is essential. Klug and Rees draw on the US experience to argue for both a big political vision and big organising, exploiting social media to the full. Nothing much to disagree with, particularly the need to empower members to have more of a say in campaigns so that it is not just top-down. The subsequent article by Anne Coddington goes into great detail on how social media campaigning works and how we need to create our own media. Heather Wakefield gives an updated view on the state of the relationship between unions and Labour, particularly on the role of women coming into conflict with Labour councils as in Birmingham.

James Meadway’s article is one of the shortest but best, correctly emphasising how the scale of defeats the movement has suffered weighs on the situation. This recognition of how the ‘great movement of ours’ no longer exists is a useful rejoinder to contributors such as German who does not really assess the relationship of forces. Meadway fleshes out the crisis of decomposition defined by Cartledge previously, talking about a series of disparate movements that come and go. He debunks the myth that the 70s are just around the corner and a new shop stewards type movement will emerge from some spontaneous strike wave. In other words that the class just lacks confidence or the right leadership.

The converse myth that these diverse movements add up to something greater or that their very fragmentation is a good thing – a thesis supported by people like Negri and Hardt with their talk of the multitude against the Empire – is similarly critiqued. Instead we need to develop a mass popular programme of education in political economy and develop ’organic’ intellectuals embedded in the movement and not just the universities with the aim of:“building a mass movement for a new economy, one that places the values of solidarity, sustainability and democracy at its centre, but that has the strategic sense to know how to apply them in the reality of our torrid present” p.248

Gerry Hassan takes a different tack and addresses the nature of the British state and its relationship to Brexit. He captures the particular nature of Labour’s nationalism, forged in the post-war settlement. He argues that it was founded on the principle of parliamentarianism as the primary and sovereign political authority using a powerful state to advance far reaching change often in the face of vested interests. It endorses the idea of British exceptionalism, a supposed uniqueness of British institutions’ continuity and durability (unlike the Europeans) and sees Labour as a force for good in the world, overstating Britain’s role in world and exaggerating its moral example (pp. 223-224)

Tony Benn, Corbyn’s mentor, subscribed to this but Hassan correctly says that today such a ‘Labour nation’ is discredited as a road map for future politics. Unfortunately the Labour leadership has not really addressed these questions. Indeed much of the confusion around negotiating a ‘good’ Brexit deal flows from adherence to the Labour nation ideal. Historically the Morning Star and the Communist Party supported a version of this in the British Road to Socialism;. a progressive Labour government could occupy parliament and use it alongside progressive national capital against foreign or monopoly capital. The EU was later named as an obstacle to this national project.

Hassan favours a transformation that would entail the party abandoning its commitment to parliamentary sovereignty and the unwritten constitution, instead embracing shared sovereignty, a written constitution and codified rights, with checks and balances on central power. He is correct about the necessity to recognise Scotland’s right to a referendum but his notion of re-imagining England as a nation separate from Britain is more problematic. But he nails the nature of Brexit: “Brexit has been driven by a reactionary English nationalism of exclusivity in thrall to the chimera of undiluted sovereignty”. (p.236)

Satnam Virdee has an excellent piece which covers some of the same ground as Hassan and is particularly relevant given McCluskey’s recent intervention against free movement. He is the clearest of all the contributors about the nature of Brexit: “At Brexit’s core were concerns around immigration, with the migrant represented not just as an economic threat, but as a security threat as well.”

He identifies the current opposition to free movement in how Labour historically made “demands for economic and social justice that were wilfully entangled with questions of national belonging…it offered a vision of the working class that identified certain racialized others as neither fully of that class nor of that nation.” (p.209)

He gives examples of labour movement attitudes to Jews, Asian and Afro-Caribbean workers – for example a quota system on the buses in Wolverhampton. More recently a narrative about national decline and the white working class left behind has developed. You even had theorists like Blue Labour’s Maurice Glassman and Jonathan Rutherford suggesting that working class voters could be won back to Labour through a rediscovery of its social conservative roots with a concern for ‘family, faith and flag’. Notions of ‘the people’ are toxic precisely because of the mainstream historical narrative which presents a deeply racialised white version of this concept. Corbynism represents a hope but: “as presently constituted it retains intact a particular left understanding of the nation state that has been a feature of the labour movement since its formation, and which is now being reprised through the crisis of Brexit.” p216

He sees some hope in the fact that the most dynamic and numerically significant layers of Corbyn supporters are from large cities and university towns, are younger and multi-ethnic/multi-national. A renewal of the left must be built with these activists.

History in the Remaking

Like several others, Paul Hilder is enthusiastic that: “a socialism from below is growing in our movement. We could call it networked labour. This movement is ours to weave and grow and no party apparatchik of whatever shade of red, has any right to stop it.” p252

But it’s a question of proportion. Social networks played a role in Corbynism’s rise but the major factors were material political and social forces. In the context of few strikes and isolated social movements, networked activity can be a virtual space in which some continuity of progressive thinking can be sustained. But this is not the same as actively participating, building organisations on the ground. I think it is possible to reactivate local Labour party wards in a way that transfers or complements some of that networked energy into face to face activism whereas Hilder tends to think it can replace actual meetings and structures. He misunderstands what happened in Podemos where the networked set up weakened internal democracy, leading to a split and a profound weakening of local branches.

Hilder downplays the importance of political leadership and accountability. No amount of imaginative local campaigning can overcome the consequences of national political positions on Brexit or free movement for instance. He advocates citizens’ assemblies, lots of primaries, more affiliated societies and even compulsory opting in of all workers into trade unions. He supports tactical voting. Inspired by Zack Exley and Becky Bond’s Rules for Revolutionaries 2016, he tends to focus on the techniques of democratic involvement without worrying about political content. Consequently the battle with the Labour right wing is not considered and uninformed judgements, eg that Allende’s government in Chile was ‘socialism from below’, are made.

Hilary Wainwright makes the final contribution. She defines Corbynism’s dilemma as a “movement based on principles of popular democracy and militant direct action engaging in the electoral politics of a parliamentary system designed to disempower, and exclude radical politics rooted in the lives of disaffected citizens outside parliament – whether in workplaces, communities or whole regions and nations beyond London and the south east”.

She proposes three things to help overcome this and radicalise the relationship between the Labour Party and social movements and deepen its democracy. Prefigurative politics, as seen in e.g. the struggle of precarious workers, in and against state – a formula also used by McDonnell – and party of movements, like what we saw with workers control initiatives in the 80s

Nobody can disagree with these sentiments but there is a tendency to overestimate the importance of some of the examples she cites such as the railway project in Norfolk or the Preston community wealth building work. She suggests the success of the 2017 election was down to this new form of organising whereas I think it was more complex, for example there was evidence of remainers backing Labour as the best bet at that time as the Lib Dem vote collapsed.

Her criticism of referendums to resolve issues like Brexit is correct but we are where we are and you have to deal with the reality facing you. The risk Brexit poses to the Corbyn project is underplayed and there are loose formulations about working class communities voting against a political class in 2015 which gives too much credence to some sort of progressive leave vote. However like Hassan she identifies the need for a democratic reform of the institutions.

Overall this book is required reading if you want to follow the live debate in and around the Corbyn movement. No doubt fresh chapters will be necessary after the coming election.

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