How to read a way out of defeat

A year ago Labour suffered a shattering defeat.  Mark Perryman sifts through 2020’s books that attempt to explain the reason why 

Such has been the momentous impact of the Coronavirus crisis there’s hardly been a moment to pause and reflect on the reasons for Labour’s 2019 defeat. But simply waiting to seeing how things might turn out once it is finally over is unlikely to shape the outcomes in a progressive direction.  Grace Blakeley in her new book The Corona Crash provides just the kind of political programme and analysis to frame those outcomes with a newly radicalised version of a post-pandemic politics.

In the summer the eruption of the #BlackLiveMatters movement was an indicator that, despite the chronic caution of Starmerism, the potential and role of a street protest movement haven’t disappeared. Linking the parliamentary to the extra-parliamentary is anathema to Starmer and his henchman David Evans, but there remain those with other ideas.  Testament to this is recorded in Diane Abbott, the biography by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton, a target of, and consistent campaigner against, racism. But there are on Labour’s Parliamentary benches far too few like her, more’s the pity.

2020’s  coronavirus crisis coincided with the end of the Corbyn and Sanders insurgencies, and the welcome defeat of Trump. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s The Socialist Challenge Today is polemical survey  of the hits, and misses of the Corbyn, Sanders and Syriza era. From the outside left, Lindsey German’s  As It Happened is a useful diary of  the Corbyn project from the highs of the 2017 campaign to the lows of 2019.  If there’s a second volume in the pipeline, it’s currently unlikely any highs will feature much.

Deborah Mattinson wouldn’t be described as much of an ally by most sections of the Labour left but it would be unwise to dismiss the work she has done on polling and focus groups that forms the basis for her book Beyond the Red Wall. Readers can disagree with Deborah’s conclusions but this is a serious attempt to make sense of Labour’s disastrous loss of so many ‘heartland’ seats in the 2019 General Election. We can argue the toss over the book’s methodology but recognising the seriousness of these losses and not assuming we know the answers why are absolutely vital. 

Muckrakers Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire don’t pretend to offer much in the way of answers for Labour’s predicament, but their strictly unauthorised inside story on the Corbyn leadership Left Out is so wonderfully scurrilous that it is a rollicking good read whether or not the reader agrees with the politics. Sure to brighten up any Christmas holiday reading.   

This Land by Owen Jones is the same account but from an openly Corbynist perspective, or perhaps Owen would now be more accurately a neo-Corbynist or post-Corbynist, but, despite his vociferous critics on the left, never anti-Corbynist. With an unrivalled media platform, Owen is probably the best known purveyor of Corbynist politics; however, the most interesting thing about his book is the scale, and the limits, of his critique of what Corbynism became. 

Chris Clarke’s The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master offers a very different view on what should follow Corbyn. Highly critical of left populism, Chris offers pluralism as his alternative, and in the process rejects the idea that Labour can be both popular and plural. Which begs the question: why not? Finding the means towards the affirmative will be the key task for a serious left wing project over the next twelve months, which is likely to include a humiliating third place, or at best distant second in the Scottish Parliamentary elections – a result that many will argue pretty much rules out Labour wining a ’24 General Election on its own.    

The year will end on one happy note, mind: the downfall of Trump. In his place, President Joe Biden. What Biden’s America will end up looking like, nobody yet knows. Better than Trump’s is a mighty low bar. Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht’s Bigger Than Bernie is convinced that without Sanders at the helm it won’t be as good as they’d have wished it to be. Where this leaves the American left grouped around the Democratic Socialists of America in the Democrats without Bernie to organise around, as we no longer have Jeremy to organise around, will determine the future of radical politics through the Biden term and what follows, with important lessons no doubt for us on this side of the Atlantic. 

Taking an internationalist view of the left’s prospects, or as he describes it “revolutions betrayed, mislaid and unmade”, Ian Parker’s Socialisms is a brilliant mix of travelogue and polemic, taking in Georgia, Serbia, North Korea and Venezuela along the way. 

With many exiting Labour stage left in 2020  it is worth remembering that some , but not all, of these small, highly committed, revolutionary-activist groups on the Outside Left produce leaders and regimes which in this tiny closed world are no laughing matter. My Search for Revolution is the story of the Workers Revolutionary Party, best known for counting Vanessa and Corin Redgrave amongst its ranks, as told by former member Clare Cowen. It’s a  story Clare describes as abuse, including sexual abuse, all in the cause of creating a party equipped to effect revolutionary change. 

And when this virus is all over, what then? Here’s a book of the year that maps precisely how a pandemic became a crisis, how new models of support and solidarity became the basis of survival, given a social worth and weight never accorded to them before, and provides an organising focus which demands the remaking of  how the Left defines the ‘political’. The Care Manifesto by The Care Collective is the book of 2020 because not only does it find a way out of the crisis but it lays the basis for something better in its place. 

Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka as Philosophy Football

Main image: The Broadway book collection. Author: Diksha Mhaskar, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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