A Corbyn Hot Take, or: A Revolution Without Solution?

Since the Lord knows that what the world really needs is another take on Corbyn, let me add mine to the pile. Since getting a sense of the strategic issues involved around his leadership involves something approaching a pros-and-cons format, it is probably best done in the form of a set of succinct points rather than a fully fledged essay. I hope to provide at least some sense of why I am skeptical about Corbyn’s prospects and yet find defending him important for the future of the British left, including those of us (such as myself) who have not joined the Labour bandwagon.

Let’s begin by observing some obvious negatives about Corbyn. There is no doubt the man is personally sympathetic, sincere, and a stalwart champion of left causes in Britain regardless of how unfashionable these are considered by the politico-journalistic chattering classes. But equally, few of even his closest supporters will doubt that he never wanted to be leader and came to the job without a clear preparation for it. The result has been a dispiriting incompetence, and not solely due to sabotage from within and the persistent campaign of mendacious ‘journalism’ about him.

While those things are real and damaging to Corbyn and his supporters, they ought to have been expected. The witless social climbers and careerist frauds that make up the Parliamentary Labour Party were never going to give up their cushy yes-men positions without a fight, and that the UK media would be largely hostile to someone so clearly identified with the ‘old’ left can be no surprise to anyone. What is therefore irritating to us who support Corbyn’s cause is how little of a plan there seems to have been: like the Brexiteers, victory seems to have been so unexpected that no real strategy or vision to provide an alternative to the status quo was ever formulated. It is sad to see Corbyn throw out some vague Keynesian stopgap measures every few months and to consider this an economic policy, when precisely the promise of a vision and a platform for a systematically different approach to the austerity ‘consensus’ is what led to Corbyn’s victory in the leadership race in the first place. On economics above all else a clear and systematic voice for change is expected of Corbyn, and to have to read Richard Murphy criticize Corbyn’s incompetence on this front from the left is unacceptable. Part of it is the lack of coherence; part of it also the lack of ability to get a message across. How many people actually know that abolishing tuition fees is a major plank of Corbyn’s manifesto?

Similarly, there seems to have been hitherto the expectation that the PLP would ultimately play ball and that merely pronouncing good intentions of unity and harmony would bring it about. That there has been poor briefing, internal fighting and shadow cabinet wrangling is all nothing new, but more dangerous is Corbyn’s seeming serious underestimation of the forces arrayed against him. Fortunately, the present leadership race has revealed the reality of the egomania and careerism among the (post-)Blairite factions in the party, so that in this regard at least things have – hopefully – become more clear to all involved.

Corbyn is no Harry Perkins, that must be said. But no Harry Perkins is available. And this is where the anti-Corbyn arguments begin to collapse, and where it becomes clear that defending Corbyn against his opponents on the right is essential to the future of the British left if it is to have any interest in parliamentary affairs at all. The reasons are easy to sum up:

– The most important consideration is that the opposition to Corbyn has sabotaged him from the beginning and has never been willing to accept his huge mandate to lead Labour to the left, regardless of circumstances. To concede even a millimeter to the opposition is therefore to concede not just Corbyn’s leadership, but the very possibility of a left leadership in Labour, ever. That is what is at stake. This is also why the Unite/Tom Watson brokering of a ‘peace deal’ and the chatter about a unity candidate is hopeless: the fight is about whether the left is allowed to have any chance, however democratically legitimate within the party, at leading Labour at all.

– When Neil Kinnock says that the problem with Corbyn is that the Labour Party was meant to be a parliamentary socialist party, what he means is that the Labour Party as the PLP conceives it is supposed to be a self-perpetuating career vehicle. For these people, the Labour Party exists to perpetuate the Labour Party and themselves within it. This is also why they care exclusively about winning the next election and not in the least about which manifesto or policies will achieve that, or what they will do with that election: all that matters is maximizing Labour MPs. Labour is not an instrument to achieve a longer term strategic goal of bringing about socialism: clichés about socialist values are an instrument to keep the Labour patronage machine going. Corbyn’s leadership, on the other hand, means the potential – if not yet the act – of returning Labour to something like its only legitimate purpose from a left perspective, to act as the legal and parliamentary opposition to the politics of capitalist society. This is why Corbyn frightens the Kinnocks and Blairs of the UK so much, and why he must be defended.

– From a larger perspective, it is clear that Corbyn’s inability to formulate a coherent economic alternative stems from the difficult position of trying to do a ‘big tent’ left politics in a declining imperial country, where most people are feeling the pinch but also have clear interests to defend within the existing world order. However, seen from this viewpoint it is all the more worth noting that Corbyn is not just a leftist Labour leader economically, but that he is a consistently antiwar and anti-imperialist one: indeed probably more consistently so than Labour as a party has ever shown evidence of. Combine this with Corbyn’s refusal to blame migrants and immigration for all the country’s woes, a virtually lone voice in the British wilderness at this point. Seen this way, it is clear that whatever the merits or demerits of his leadership skills, the very fact of his being leader plays at a minimum an important role in braking the ever further slide towards New Right populism that is now evident throughout Europe. It is a victory for antiwar campaigners and for the defenders of immigrants and immigration. In dark times, these are important accomplishments.

– For those of us outside Labour per se and who distrust it on the whole, the victory of Corbyn has been a rare direct and electoral victory for someone identified as the ‘radical’ left candidate by friend and foe alike. The very way all the usual suspects, from journalistic cliques to Blairite hacks to patronizing professionals, have united against him is a sign of what defeating Corbyn means to them. To defend him is therefore not to defend a Labour establishment that hates him, but rather the opposite: it is to show up that particular conglomerate of dealers in second-hand elite ideology for what they are. If Corbyn is defeated, it is a serious victory for all the forces in British society that also oppose every other left formation and movement, parliamentary and otherwise. A Corbyn victory guarantees nothing but weakens these forces and will demoralize them. This is therefore a significant strategic concern.

– Finally, while Corbyn is far from a guarantee or promise of such things, his leadership is the best chance of transforming Labour in a more permanent fashion that has occurred since the war. Only with Corbyn in power is there a chance of making Labour into a more membership-based vehicle that can multiply the power of social activism rather than putting a brake on it. Only such a party can at least potentially launch an offensive in the longer run to change the ideological stranglehold of neo-Victorian social and economic attitudes on the British public. While his opponents are keen to point to polls demonstrating how Labour voters and the general public consider Corbyn unelectable, they invariably fail to point out the same holds even more true for his direct rivals: whether Kendall last year or Eagle and Smith this year. The reality is that under present conditions no Labour Party worth having is likely to win the next general election, whenever that may ultimately happen. But only a Corbyn-led long term strategy has any chance of effecting changes on the ideological front, such as are necessary to not just mimic the present state of affairs (as the Blairites want) but to actually change it. Which, in turn, would also be beneficial for the left that has carefully stayed outside Labour itself. This is a major fight and may be impossible due to global socioeconomic conditions, it must be candidly admitted. But only Corbyn and his associates are at least willing to talk about the need to fight that fight, unlike the parliamentary apparatus’ favored strategy of chasing one’s own tail.

One should make no mistake here: there is no realistic prospect of replacing Corbyn in the short or even medium term with some imaginary leader who has his views but also all the connections and leadership skills the punditocracy might demand. There is, firstly, no such figure. And secondly, even if someone more charismatic or potentially tough were to replace him – a John McDonnell or Clive Lewis – this would be no more acceptable to the PLP opposition than Corbyn himself was. Any such transition attempt would leave the credibility of the democratic argument for Corbyn much weakened and open the door for any number of arbitrary deals and settlements, inevitably to the advantage of the Labour right with its long experience in internal manipulation. At the moment, as far as the specifics of the Labour leadership are concerned, it is either defend Corbyn or to concede the leadership of Labour to the Blairites in perpetuity. If the latter are allowed to use every form of political backstabbing and manoeuvering to destroy a left leadership – quite in contradiction to their own stated concerns with electability – there will never be room for one again. Precedent will have been set. That is at stake in Corbyn’s leadership race.

How can a Marxist read Tolkien? Or: ‘An Unreliable Narrative’, part II.

Not long ago, I found myself in a bar in Germany with two comrades, and force of circumstance brought up the writings of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien. As a known fan of his works, I found myself inevitably confronted with the question, why someone with Marxist convictions and such a different world outlook than Tolkien’s own would enjoy his works, beyond the mere love of a good tale. I found it difficult to answer this question in an effective way, even though it was hardly the first time I was asked this. The easiest, and in some respects best answer is to simply say: De gustibus non est disputandum. This ancient principle is easy to defend as the essence of all debates about whether the enjoyment of a particular work of writing – or for that matter of film, or music, or any other medium – is ‘problematic’ and whether one should care. There’s no accounting for taste. More importantly, one should not want to account for taste in this sense: while the question where tastes come from, what economists would call the determination of preference, is interesting from a social science viewpoint, it helps not at all in resolving the interminable arguments about ‘problematic’ works. Such debates begin and end with a dialogue along the lines of: “But X is bad for such and such reasons!” “Yes, but I don’t care, because it’s fun”. And such a waste of energy is best avoided in the first place.

In this essay I do not, therefore, want to indulge overmuch in an argument of that kind. It’s not about whether it is ‘okay’ for a leftist, indeed a radical, to enjoy Tolkien’s works, despite their author being as far from a left-winger as it is politically possible to be. That Tolkien was indeed not even just a conservative, but properly a reactionary, in the full sense of that often abused word, is well known to anyone who has investigated his life or views in to any degree. What I want to do here is to go beyond that mere observation and the intractable arguments about politics versus taste in one’s choice of reading material: I want to investigate what I get out of Tolkien’s works, despite being so opposed to his politics, his religion, and indeed much of his worldview, and in so doing perhaps contribute also to an understanding among radicals of how his work can even so fulfil a need that is not met by any avowedly left-wing work, not even in the genre of left-wing fantasy. Indeed, this also means engaging with some of the extant critiques and evaluations of Tolkien’s works, but not at the level of apologetics or to join the critics, but for the purposes of getting a better grip on what, in my view, his contribution is really about. More than that, I hope to do so in a different way than most commentary on Tolkien has done: by going beyond The Lord of the Rings in examining his ‘Legendarium’, the total of his life’s mythopoeic work, of which the story of the hobbits and Mount Doom is only a relatively small component. The Legendarium, taken as a whole and as a single project, is I think the proper subject for understanding Tolkien. So the purpose of this essay is not to convince you that you should like Tolkien if you do not do so already. That would be ridiculous. But it is to suggest how he can be appreciated, if one does, from the viewpoint of a Marxist.

Note that I assume the reader has a basic familiarity with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, its characters and structure, such as could be gleaned from reading either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, or from watching the films.

Continue reading “How can a Marxist read Tolkien? Or: ‘An Unreliable Narrative’, part II.”

Book Review: Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work”

I have for some time been looking forward to reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Not just because I know both well enough to expect insightful commentary from them, but also because their recent political writing has been an important component in the trend to re-evaluate leftist strategies (back) towards consciously future-oriented, optimistic, technology-friendly and generally ‘modernist’ approach. In these respects, this book did not disappoint. The work consists essentially of two parts. The first few chapters are devoted to a critique of existing strategies and ways of thinking as identified by Srnicek and Williams, approaches they deem to be harmful to the prospects of the left and in need of overcoming. The second part is concerned with developing an alternative proposal for the (radical) left’s political orientation, buttressed by more empirical discussions of political economy and technological change. Although in that sense the book is multi-layered and ambitious in scope, it is throughout an easy read: Srnicek and Williams have found, I think, the right tone for popular political writing that seeks to deal with abstract problems without relying on tedious jargon. If at times it seems a little dry, a bit lacking in the spark one expects of a directly political tract, it makes up for it in combining a light touch of vocabulary with analytical seriousness.

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Book Review: Adam Tooze, “The Deluge”

“Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos – from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…” These are the words of Woodrow Wilson aboard the SS George Washington in December 1918, reflecting on the tasks confronted by the United States and her allies after their victory in the First World War. It is also the fundamental thesis of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, the long-awaited followup to his brilliant discussion of the political economy of Nazi Germany (for a discussion of which, see here and following). Applying his profound talent for combining political economy with international relations, Tooze’s central subject is the aftermath of World War I and the challenge of creating a new world order amidst the ruins of the old European powers. This challenge, as he presents it, was a dual one. On the one hand it involved the recognition by all European powers, victors or vanquished, that the United States was now the pre-eminent economic power in the world, with the potential of translating this tremendous advantage into equivalent military and political power on the world stage; and on the other hand it involved the attempts by Woodrow Wilson as American President to effect this transformation of the world balance of powers while simultaneously disentangling the United States from a war alliance that he had never wanted in the first place, and which threatened to perpetually constrain the freedom of action the Americans needed to make this potential a reality.

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Book Review: Jonathan Sperber, “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life”

Does the world really need another Marx biography? As a fan of the man as thinker and (to some extent) as historical figure, normally my answer would always be ‘yes’. However, recent years have seen a spate of new Marx and Engels biographies that have been thorough and substantive on all aspects of their lives. Tristram Hunt’s irreverent but sympathetic biography of Engels (The Frock-Coated Communist, 2009), Francis Wheen’s fine overview of Marx’s life and thought (Karl Marx, 2000), and especially the brilliant study of the intersection of the private lives and public convictions of the whole Marx-Engels clan (including children and domestic servant), Mary Gabriel’s commendable Love and Capital (2011) have provided well-researched 21st century retrospectives on the lives of the great revolutionaries. Add to that the solid biographies I would consider the ‘standard classics’ from the previous generation, David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (first edition 1973, now on the fourth) and J.D. Hunley’s underappreciated study of Friedrich Engels (The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation, 1991), and it becomes a truly daunting task to add much new content to our view of either man.(1)

Nonetheless, Jonathan Sperber has persevered, and while the work is not an overall success, it certainly has some merit of originality of approach. Sperber’s speciality is 19th century German history, especially of the various mid-century radical factions and figures around the 1848-1849 revolution, and this shows. The subtitle “A Nineteenth Century Life” puts his cards directly on the table, as does the introduction to the book: Sperber is convinced that Marx was fundamentally a figure of that period, never escaped the limitations of the mid-19th century worldview, and has very little to offer to anyone living in later times. This is the burden of his biography, quite contrary to virtually every other biographer (friendly or hostile), and Sperber throughout portrays all developments with an eye to making this case. Unfortunately, the argument is simply not plausible, and it leads to not just an at times rather contemptuous treatment of the subject, but also to some very odd shifts of emphasis and context.

Continue reading “Book Review: Jonathan Sperber, “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life””