Mere Mud-slinging: “Marxists” miss the mark on Corbyn

Mike Phipps reviews Corbynism: A Critical Approach, by Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, published by Emerald

There have been a lot of books about Jeremy Corbyn in the last three years, but this one claims to be the most critical. It comes from two academics who announce at the outset that they supported Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election, once they had “set aside our initial reservations about the political milieu Corbyn sprung [sic] from, specifically with regard to its positions on foreign policy and the prevalence of conspiracy-theory critiques of capitalism and imperialism.”

Disillusion set in fast, particularly after Brexit, although generously, the authors say “The blame for the referendum result cannot be pinned on Corbyn alone.”  Or indeed, at all?  But there were far worse things about the Corbyn project – “the emptiness of its pseudo-populist rhetoric, its appeal to a ‘people’ that did not exist, the moralising, apolitical nature of the platform, the abject failure of the Labour contribution to the Remain campaign, and the seemingly unsurmountable splits both within the PLP and the broader Labour membership.”

Panicking about the lack of electability of Team Corbyn, the authors called for a negotiated handover of power to a ‘soft left’ candidate, leading one Twitter wag to dub them “Marxists 4OwenSmith”. Despite Corbyn’s increased majority in the face of a determined, personalised effort to remove him, it’s the “paranoid defensiveness” of Corbyn’s supporters “during the so-called ‘coup’”, as they term it, that the authors bemoan. For Bolton and Pitts, there was no coup, just a legitimate challenge by a rival. It was as if there had never been an orchestrated campaign to pressurise members of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet to resign and threaten them with exclusion from future office unless they did so, in one of the worst examples of groupthink ever mounted in parliamentary politics.

Nor did the 2017 general election result settle the issue. Buying into a common right wing trope, the authors suggest that the same irrational populist impulses that unleashed Brexit also fuelled Corbyn’s success – personalisation, sectarianism and conspiracy theories being just the most obvious aspects.

Dismissive stuff – and all this in the book’s Preface alone – but the authors assure us they are in the business of “Taking Corbynism Seriously”, the title of Chapter One. After all, it was the failure of his critics to do so that led to them being so shocked at the 2017 general election result. Unfortunately the authors’ belief that it is “economic protectionism and foreign policy isolationism which constitutes the core of Corbynism” undermines their endeavour.

The authors identify different strands within Corbynism. Or I should say mis-identify? First is the ‘trad left’ represented by Corbyn, John McDonnell, Len McCluskey and others –“ this wing mixes ‘Bennite’ economic nationalism and what we describe as ‘personalised’ forms of anti-capitalism with Leninist central party planning. Alongside this are forms of reflexive ‘anti-imperialism,’ ‘anti-Americanism’ and ‘anti- Zionism’.” Then there is the “youthful ‘postcapitalist’ techno-utopian wing” epitomised by Paul Mason. Thirdly there are a range of splinters, often from the hard left, and beyond this, autonomist and libertarian currents, organising through The World Transformed. Jeremy Gilbert, who contributed a chapter to my own book For the Many will be pleased to know he is the best representative of this current.

Dominant in all this are the ‘Stalinist’ Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray – “schooled in the smoke-filled rooms of Bennite and Leninist union and party life.” For writers with some academic credentials, it is astonishing how cavalier they are in the use of these labels.  Bennite and Leninist, for example, are used virtually interchangeably, as if they were not descriptive of two entirely different political traditions, with little in common. Apparently this method has infused Momentum, despite the individuals cited having little to do with the Jon Lansman-led movement. It’s true that Lansman cut his teeth in the Benn movement of the early 1980s, but the link to Lenin is less clear. Evidence of Momentum’s apparent skulduggery is its recommendation to avoid a debate on the EU at the 2017 Party Conference – which of course delegates were wholly free to ignore. The fact that they chose not to suggests they wished to sidestep a divisive debate – it’s hardly evidence of Leninism.

As they claim to be viewing Corbynism from a Marxist perspective, the authors might have looked at the material pressures affecting different sections of the Corbyn movement to act in line with the interests they represent. Len McCluskey’s politics are shaped primarily by the needs of the union he leads. The alleged congruence of methods with Momentum is secondary to the potential scope for antagonism between the different social bases of the two movements – as the argument over the appointment of a new Party General Secretary recently showed.

The failure to grasp the different motivations and expectations within the broad Corbyn coalition is a serious error and leads to the muddle of ideological rosettes the authors wish to pin on key players. The error is compounded by seeing the Corbyn phenomenon through the prism of populism. The danger with this approach is that it leads to simplistic conclusions. Once Corbynism is located within the broad ambit of left populism, then all the negatives associated with this trend can be conveniently ascribed to it. Thus one of the hallmarks of Corbyn’s populism is “the incessant focus on Corbyn’s unassuming personal goodness” and his “moral exceptionalism” is “the foundation upon which the entire project is built”. Corbyn seemingly “sits in a moral realm high above the tainted institutions and processes of liberal democracy”, embodying the promise to resolve social conflict “through the construction of a unified ‘people’, motivated by “narratives of betrayal and conspiratorial resentment”.

This is very superficial. Corbyn is not above politics, but a Labour campaigner through and through. Elaine Glaser penned a far more persuasive argument in The Corbyn Effect, edited by Mark Perryman, in which she distinguished between populism – a negative bashing of elites aimed at disrupting the political system, and a popular left politics, which retains a belief in democratic structures and seeks to succeed within them by advocating a compelling vision that will win enough votes. Corbyn’s campaign was an example of the latter, she contends – and she’s right.

In contrast, Bolton and Pitts, by falsely counterposing the Corbyn project to existing democratic institutions create a fiction that is easy to demolish. Populism, whether of the left or right, commits the sin of condemning liberalism and centrism as worthless and plays fast and loose with fundamental rights and the rule of law. I’m not sure this is true, but it’s not particularly relevant to Corbyn anyway. But they also ignore populism of the centre: Tony Blair was a consummate populist in his day, railing against the ‘forces of conservatism’ that hold back ordinary people and was  frequently willing to tear up centuries-old legal rights as part of his ‘war on terror’ jointly waged with George Bush.

The authors make it clear at the outset that they don’t want to get bogged down in the economic shifts that fuelled the rise of Corbynism. This is a major flaw. It’s precisely the scale of the crisis that a decade of austerity wrought that makes the solutions proposed by Corbyn increasingly credible and mainstream. By confining themselves to an analysis of the supposed ideology underpinning the policies proposed, they miss several salient points about the project. First, the ideas of Corbynism, especially those presented in the 2017 general election manifesto, are not heavily ideological at all: Chris Williamson frequently refers to them as “common sense socialism”, to be contrasted to the outdated ideological dogmas of neoliberalism, to which our opponents cling.  Secondly, many of the core ideas are not so radical: The Economist suggested recently that John McDonnell’s plans would take Britain back to about 2011 in terms of public expenditure.

One of the irritating things about Bolton and Pitts is the incessant caricaturing of the movement they claim to be scientifically analysing. The 2017 general election result was something “the left’s true believers” had “predicted for decades, if only someone had listened”.  Laughable it is to the authors that anyone might think Labour lost in 2015 because it was insufficiently left wing. But this is precisely the story of the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland, where the SNP routed the Party in its heartlands by challenging it from the left. (It’s also the story of the collapse of democratic socialism in Italy, Germany, Greece and a host of other western European countries, but that is beyond the scope of this review.)

So in this context, Labour’s considerable improvement in 2017 was not in fact based on a blind belief in the permanent correctness of some timeless left programme, but on a convincing narrative that, unlike that of 2015, challenged the Tories’ fundamental tropes about the origins of the crisis and the inevitability of austerity as its purported solution. Yet despite the hard evidence of 2017, the authors remain unconvinced that Corbyn would have fared any better at challenging the false Tory narrative during the Coalition years – and to say otherwise is an emotional reaction not “grounded in rationality”.

For the authors, it was Brexit that allowed Corbyn to make the electoral gains that eluded Ed Miliband. It allowed him to offer a platform “dressed in the protectionist colours of a post-liberal, isolationist nation-state”.

But was this really how the vast majority of voters perceived Corbyn’s manifesto? Isn’t it more credible to think that the 2016 referendum result and the 2017 Labour vote were both manifestations of the same phenomenon – a desperate rebuke to the elite whose continued adherence to a failed economic system was both making economic growth impossible and undermining the foundations of society in the process?

At the heart of this book is the authors’ contention that Jeremy Corbyn and his followers have exploited his “ethical infallibility” to betray his principles, or to prevent any serious examination of what these principles are. Inevitably, this assertion entails a lot of snide sideswipes against Corbyn’s political integrity, but the essence of the complaint itself is based on the contradiction between the 2017 manifesto and what Corbyn has personally stood for during a lifetime in politics. What is weird about this is the authors’ refusal to recognise the battles that went on within the Shadow Cabinet and other parts of the Party over the final content of the document, despite this being widely chronicled elsewhere. The snap election necessitated some brutal compromises on policy proposals and, having edited my own book about this, I could elaborate a much longer list of the contradictions – on benefit cuts, NHS privatisation, housing policy and nuclear weapons, to take the most obvious areas – than Bolton and Pitts cover here. But perhaps that’s because their aim is not to explore the content of these compromises so much as to question the personal integrity of the man who made them.

For the authors, Corbyn’s reputation for “moral exceptionalism” is not primarily down to the man himself – his tireless support for a vast array of campaigns, his willingness to electioneer in unwinnable constituencies or his thirty year record of putting principle ahead of the pursuit of office. Rather it is based on the reflected glory achieved by his mentor Tony Benn who evolved in his last years into something of a ‘national treasure’, thanks to a process of depoliticisation – again an astonishing contention, given Benn’s greater involvement in politics as his retirement wore on. The authors suggest that the marginalisation of Bennite ideas during the New Labour era generated enough collective pity to enable Benn to emerge as harmless and cuddly.

Or maybe it was a recognition that on some of the fundamentals of this epoch, notably the war on Iraq, Benn and Corbyn had been right and Blair had been wrong? No, of course not: for the authors the war was key to consolidating the “romanticisation” of the Labour left. In any case, the Stop the War Coalition was apparently motivated by isolationism and two-campist notions – hence its refusal to contemplate military intervention in Syria, to be contrasted with “very different circumstances in Iraq”. It seems to have escaped the notice of the authors that the purpose of an anti-war movement might be to oppose war.

And were the circumstances in Iraq and Syria so different? Both countries were ruled by brutal dictators and humanitarian justifications were trotted out for intervention in both cases. The bloodbath perpetrated by western forces in Iraq could easily have been replicated in Syria, giving freer rein to Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other armed groups emboldened by the influx of western armaments that would inevitably fall into their hands, as they did in Iraq.

Refusing to see a connection between western foreign policy and anti-western terrorism, the authors can only lament Stop the War’s determinism and myopia in response to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Its depoliticised response to the war – really? – fuelled similar tendencies in Corbyn’s leadership campaign a dozen years later, the authors allege, with politics supplanted by “moral righteousness”. But actually, there really are moral grounds for opposing invasions and wars, however simplistic the Marxist authors might believe them to be. And perhaps there is a moral appeal to Jeremy Corbyn, because integrity, or more concretely, not lying to the British people about non-existent weapons of mass destruction, might just be, for many people, a pre-political question that cuts across left and right.

Bolton and Pitts’ line of argument might be more acceptable if they put up some decent evidence for their assertions. Instead we get the usual rehash of terrain well furrowed in the mainstream – the fact that Corbyn once referred to Hamas as “friends” – decisive proof of a binary world view in which all western policy is irrevocably evil? Probably not. There’s an entire chapter deconstructing the saintly image of Jeremy Corbyn from his arrest in the struggle against apartheid South Africa and his commitment to peace in the north of Ireland, to his having spent time in the company of those “whose ‘anti-Zionism’ regularly spills over into the demonisation of Israel” – a vague charge, and therefore all the harder to refute.  At this point, the authors follow a line well trodden by the Jewish Chronicle, freely ripping remarks out of context and widening their fusillade to include anyone who spoke out against what were  in many cases unfounded allegations of antisemitism.

Corbyn’s calls for dialogue to resolve long-standing conflicts are, for the authors, just a cover to continue to wage armed conflict. (Now who’s being conspiracist?) By upholding the sovereignty of nations against western intervention, Corbyn apparently fails to see (important Marxist point coming up) that the real conflict is within each nation between, for example, a tyrannical government and its oppressed people. This truism should be no justification for invasion, one might think, yet it was precisely this line that helped sell the Iraq war: the false notion that the Iraqi people could not wait to be liberated. It also buys into the myth that the war was motivated by sound intentions that failed to achieve their potential in the field, whereas in reality the true motives of this – and most military interventions – were very different, driven by geostrategic and economic factors, rather than humanitarian concerns.

This book is a real missed opportunity. There is space for a critical discussion to be had about the content of Team Corbyn’s economic programme, for example, but that can’t be done in good faith if one starts from the assumption that Corbyn himself is a closet Brexiteer, “in pursuit of a sentimental politics that places the sovereignty and identity of a primordial and pre-political social force above the world of economic objectivity”. Bolton and Pitts might have made greater headway with a more limited charge sheet, supported by forensic analysis rather than endless rhetoric.

Even the evidence they do provide falls well short of the conclusions they draw. Along with the Brexit vote, Trump’s victory in the US presidential election in 2016 was a source of hope and inspiration to the Corbyn project, they claim: the facts say otherwise. You’d have to be a fool or a knave to take this line, when all the evidence points to Bernie Sanders’ campaign as the critical transatlantic influence on Team Corbyn’s strategy.

But Bolton and Pitts go from the tendentious to the outrageous when they suggest that Corbyn’s critique of international capitalism could lead to “antisemitic tropes of ‘Jewish bankers’ or a ‘Jewish lobby’ controlling the economy and media”. Unsurprisingly, given what we have seen so far, this becomes the springboard for rehashing the accusations of antisemitism against Corbyn. These smears do little to help the authors’ cause, merely betraying their fuller agenda. But the greater danger is that such baseless allegations hold back the recognition of, and fight against, real antisemitism where it occurs, and this is a disservice to the whole movement.

The authors themselves feel they may have gone a bit far, when they row back with a classic line, ”Our argument is not, to be clear, that Corbynism itself is fascist…” Good to know, that, but by this point, they might have lost the goodwill of most readers.

Does any of this matter? Well, more than one socialist website has been taken in by this apparently ‘Marxist’ critique of Corbyn from the left, which in fact is nothing of the kind, more an amalgam of bile. The irony is that there really is scope for a discussion about the ideas of Corbynism, their influences, their ambition and their achievability. This isn’t it.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power is available from OR Books https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/for-the-many-preparing-labour-for-power/