A review of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, by Richard Seymour, Verso £12.99
IF A WEEK IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS, a year is an eternity. By this point in 2015, I had reflected on that May’s election result in Briefing, concluding that Labourism was at crisis point and that the Labour left had to form alliances with socialists in other parties, especially in Scotland.
Richard Seymour, meanwhile, was busy helping to set up Salvage, a uniquely pessimistic journal within a British left for which the glass is perpetually not only half full, but half full of particularly fine champagne. Advertising itself under the tagline ‘Bleak is the new red’, Salvage proclaims “Salvage has earned its pessimism. Salvage yearns for that pessimism to be proved wrong.”
Plenty of people would insist that with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader this yearning was fulfilled. There is an extent to which Seymour concedes this in Corbyn. The introductory section is called ‘Against All Odds’, and the first chapter, narrating Corbyn’s triumph over ‘Project Fear’ is uncharacteristically chirpy, coming as it does from a writer whose output is generally slightly less upbeat than a Radiohead lyric.
Perhaps, the reader might begin to think, Seymour has repented of his youthful melancholy. The truth is both more subtle and more interesting. While it is undoubtedly good that Corbyn is Labour leader, argues Seymour, the very thing that made this possible, namely the decline of historic Labourism, constrains severely the possibilities for his leadership.
Not that things would be better if that decline wasn’t a reality: Labourism itself is a deeply ambiguous phenomenon. Not only containing the seeds of its own demise at birth, but also inhibiting the growth of socialism, it nevertheless introduced an explicit class orientation to electoral allegiances. If the basis on which it did so stunted trade unionism by setting up a rigid division between the industrial and political spheres, it also gave trade unions an unprecedented prominence in Britain.
The book is written from a perspective outside of the Labour fold. This much is evident from the mistakes about Labour structures and organisations scattered through its pages – Seymour does not understand the difference between a branch and a CLP, for instance. This will put a certain kind of Labour trainspotter off the book. It would be wasted on them in any case.
This is a thoughtful, challenging, assessment of the Corbyn phenomenon from a perspective sympathetic to the man without a hint of sycophancy. The fact that it is not written by a Labour member is useful. Seymour can see things clearly that many of us are too close to its subject matter to perceive.
In particular, he insists that Corbyn succeeding is not the same thing as Labour succeeding, and that neither are the same as socialism. This is not the standard position within Momentum. This case is developed carefully over several chapters. The history of the Labour Party is laid out, and the New Labour project described.
For Seymour it is a mistake to understand New Labour, distinctive as it was, as discontinuous with what had gone before. It was faults internal to the Labour project that made Blair possible; the language of betrayal, however emotionally satisfying, is misplaced.
While Corbyn’s success was a reaction to New Labour, the same Labour project limits the potentials of that success. So, writes Seymour, “for Corbyn to take this institution and transform it into a means to radical inroads on Britain’s power systems would require resources, organisation and opportunities that don’t present themselves”.
The penultimate sentence of the book is more blunt: “ In the final analysis, Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism”.
If you are looking for easy comfort, I would suggest that you don’t reach for Corbyn. Don’t misunderstand me - we’re not supposed to despair. Seymour instead wants us to think, and to think seriously. The Corbyn surge has brought socialists together in a near unique fashion. It has introduced a new generation to the left. Yet if the argument of this book is correct, the basic structural crisis for working class organisation that some of us were describing a year ago remains. And that means that if we want to take advantage of this moment in political history, strategic questions have to be addressed. Glib populism or cheerleading for the Labour leadership is not good enough. If we do that, we will fail, and then pessimism really will be the only response left. 30 Labour Briefing July 20