Jo Taku reviews the Second Edition of Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso, 2017).
This is a book that had its finger on the pulse in 2016 when it was first published, but which was, even so, unsure whether Jeremy Corbyn would actually pull through and lead the Labour Party to bring about the radical change his supporters wished for. This time, a fast rewrite a year later – writing against the clock which leaves some very tiny giveaway temporal-reference glitches in the text – Richard Seymour is more optimistic, and traces through the logic of the argument he set out the first time around.
The book sets its sights on the failures that marked the formation of the Labour Party at the beginning of the century and its time in office, times when it unsuccessfully squared the management of capitalism and defence of British imperialism abroad, something it has sometimes done rather well, with attempts to implement social democratic reforms that would protect the exploited and oppressed. The key guiding motif that Seymour uses to construct this historical narrative is that of ‘Britishness’ and the ‘national interest’ which trumps radical social change as soon as there is the meanest glimmer of crisis on the horizon. That motif runs from the earliest fusion of good citizen Methodism and Victorian liberalism in the founding of the party to Tony Blair’s capture of the leadership and the apparatus in order to promise little more than electoral success, something that many demoralised party members were then, at the end of the last century, willing to settle for.
Failure is the name of the game not only for the history and, as far as most of the revolutionary left was concerned, continuing legacy of the Labour Party. It also marks the attempts of political analysts and pollsters to make sense of the meltdown of the Labour vote and attempts to repeat Blair’s success. The underlying assumption, of course, was that this kind of success, Labour in office, was all that could be gained, and that any vision of a society beyond capitalism had to be left behind in order to attain it. When you work on the basis that the task of the Labour Party is to support ‘British industry’ and its interests abroad, then anything that challenges that narrative is seen as out of date pie in the sky old labour, old socialism.
Seymour skewers very well not only the myth that the old days of Labour rule were golden days for the Left – the lesson for the future is always, he points out, that being in office is very different from being in power – but also the myth that Corbynism is a return to those good old times. Blair might have been able to ‘modernise’ the Labour Party, taking it a long way down the road of turning it into a British version of the US Democratic Party so that the question is no longer how to change but how to manage capitalism, but he did so by remaining faithful to the legacy of old obedient Labour politics organised around class compromise and an ostensibly fair share of economic growth.
A big failure that Seymour handles expertly is the stunning failure of political analysts and media pollsters to predict Corbyn’s success. The underlying assumption here is that youth don’t vote, and if that is the case, then loss of the older voters is fatal to the Labour Party if it does not re-gear itself to the centre to lure them back again. The polling companies, Seymour shows, were transfixed by an illusory static image of what voting and political participation is today under entirely new conditions in which most of the population does not read newspapers and 18-24 year olds neither get their information from the newspapers nor from the standard television news programmes. What the Corbyn supporters were able to do, and full credit is given to Momentum here, was to key into new forms of media and new forms of organisation.
The whole basis of political participation changed rapidly, and that transformation – the ‘strange rebirth’ that the title of Seymour’s book refers to – lays the basis for a quite different kind of radical politics. There are important consequences of this for the way that the revolutionary left could engage with the hundreds of thousands of new Labour Party members who may have been tempted to join up but who will not come along to meetings, and there is a useful discussion of the paradoxes of old-style delegate democracy versus one member one vote electronic forums, paradoxes that no sector of the left has yet been able to work through meaningfully. This is one of the many loose threads in the book, a conceptual thread which can only be pulled out so far, and which it is for activists in the Labour Party now to follow through in their own unpredictable practice.
Seymour is good on the intersection between class politics and the role of gender, feminisation and ‘race’. The attacks on Corbyn for being an expression of old ‘brosocialism’ by those who cheered on the rise of Blair’s New Labour in the wake of ‘New Times’ and the supposed end of class politics is a key part of the story, and there are examples aplenty in the book of the weaponising of hypocritical fake-feminist argument in the right-wing broadsheet and even tabloid press. The fine lines that Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott trod around immigration and the free movement of labour during the Brexit referendum are discussed thoroughly, handled well. The attempt by the right to smear the Corbyn leadership with charges of antisemitism is also traced through, alongside some sharp comments about mistaken attempts to re-gear the whole debate around Zionism.
There could have been some attention to anti-fracking protests as a component of the social movements, the point here being not that Seymour merely misses this off the list, but that struggles around the environment open out into broader questions about the role of ‘growth’ in strangely reborn Corbynite politics. Seymour is quite right that Corbyn’s Labour Party is not itself a social mo
vement, but if we need to grasp how the intersection of a multiplicity of social movements made Corbyn’s success so far possible, we also need to work through how arguments about economic growth as the basis for socialist transformation function, and how ecological arguments about ‘degrowth’ have also to be woven into it.
Apart from anything else, the book is fluidly written and often very funny, not the thing you would expect from an account of the development of the Labour tradition and the appearance of a new force that might reenergise it, and, better, may yet even transcend it. References to our ‘Absolute Boy’ celebrating after the election with a halloumi kebab and apple juice jostle alongside some neat turns of phrase to characterise parliamentary party dismay and sabotage from the ‘backbench belligerati’ and a clear respectful but suitably sceptical account of McDonnell’s hopes that ‘entrepreneurial state’ intervention might revivify the economy along lines compatible with a real transition away from capital accumulation.
Seymour succeeds in tracking the contradictions of Labourism and Corbynism while showing how those contradictions open up spaces for something entirely new, strange, unexpected, with more strange and unexpected things to come. This should be the go-to book for Corbynites, spelling out the scale of the obstacles that activists face inside Labour as well as the resistance of capitalism to socialist transformation.