Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics by Richard Seymour (2nd edition Verso 2017)
20 January 2018
Richard Seymour, in the first edition of his book situated the Corbyn project in the historical context of how Labour reforms were sidelined by capital and then by the party leadership itself. This history, plus the deepening revolt against Corbyn made Seymour somewhat unsure that Corbyn could succeed in transforming the party.
In this new edition of his book Seymour admits that he had previously been more accepting of the enduring power of the established political regime and Corbyn's critics. Now following Corbyn's and Momentum’s breakout success in the 2017 general election he qualifies this position concluding in this edition that:
[I]t would be absurd to talk about a crisis of knowing, and point the finger at the media for their illusions, and not acknowledge that the facts have overtaken parts of my analysis. Apart from anything else, this is one of those occasions on which it is a real pleasure to be refuted by history.I find these words the most promising of the current edition. Given almost no one was able to, i) say that Corbyn could win in 2015 or ii) adequately explain how and why, Corbyn and Momentum were able in 2017 at such short notice—in the face of the utmost political hostility—to achieve the outcome of significantly reducing the Tory majority. It is then understandable that Richard Seymour was not able to say previously what decisively contributed to, or had changed, to enable the “rebirth of radical politics” in Britain - hence his reference to a “crisis of knowing” (but see below).
Indeed, he makes a convincing and concise case that shows that the persistent political neo-liberal “triangulation” of the right and neo-conservative policies by Blair, Brown and New Labour had caused a significant decline in Labour’s vote, so much so that large sections of the parties’ traditional support simply stopped voting.
The legacy of New Labour after a decade in power was grinding de-politicization driven by the right in, and outside, the Labour party (p.241). The moment this policy crashed was Corbyn's and the Left's opportunity.
Triangulation reached its crisis point in 2015 shortly before the first Labour leadership contest, when Harriet Harman, the caretaker leader, instructed Labour MPs to abstain and not oppose the Conservative's welfare bill. The fact that the Labour centre and right thought this would not present problems for the party indicated just how far to the right the New Labour leadership had travelled—clearly having abandoning any pretense of opposition.
Having accepted that Jeremy Corbyn “couldn’t win” as Neil Kinnock put it, Harman and the old guard's ban on opposing the Tories welfare policies was a maneuver designed by the right to undermine Labour's soft left from recovering any semblance of political or moral leverage from the ruins of Milband's 2015 election defeat. In short the right wanted to cement control to ensure they avoided the tabloid headline: “Burnham Follows Corbyn And Rebels Against His Own Party”. When it came to the actual vote on the Tory Bill all Corbyn's rivals for the leadership, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham, followed Harman's lead and abstained. The first to open the score against the this open goal was Dianne Abbot who simply tweeted “the electorate did not send us to parliament to abstain”. David Blunkett Labour's baron knight of the right, was having none of it and gave a stern defense of triangulation of the Conservatives position on the BBC radio news. Blunkett claimed that MPs in choosing not to support Harman's abstentionist policy would make it easier for the Conservative chancellor to attack Labour for not having the right policy—meaning talking up and pandering to conservative ideas about the undeserving poor receiving government benefits.
Corbyn in a radio interview gave a more in sorrow than in anger response, he didn't need to grandstand he knew that by that time he was out performing all the other candidates put together as Labour party branches endorsed his candidacy. This had happened ironically as a combination of party rule changes to reduce the influence of the left and trade unions. In short as Seymour notes, the right and his rivals had helped make Corbyn the only distinctive anti-austerity candidate for voters. The more Blair, Brown and their followers were seen to fulminate against Corbyn the worse they made it for themselves.
To such an extent Burnham and later Smith—Corbyn's second soft left challenger—had to be seen to distance themselves from the Blairite old guard. This they attempted to do by saying that they agreed with Corbyn's criticism of austerity, but that they were from “within the Labour family” while Corbyn, as a far left outsider, was not. This, talk left but acting right approach was just as easily dispatched by Corbyn. It was also self defeating—if Labour wanted an anti-austerity campaigning candidate then people should just as well vote for Corbyn who best fitted that description, rather than someone who claims to fit that description. Seymour in three separate well researched accounts of the approach of the print media and methods of the dominant mainstream media organizations like the BBC and polling companies, shows how their inbuilt assumptions about the left and viability of its politics had not only hardened and distorted their perspective but had also led to an inherent bias against Corbyn.
When it came to the 2017 general election all were close to being unanimous in predicting the collapse of Corbyn's Labour and its decimation by the Conservatives. After the 2017 general election—despite the reactionary and anti-immigrant “dog whistling”, as Seymour writes, it was the “Brexit dog that did not bark.” But still, as he admits, (see above) his analysis adds up to less than the sum of its parts. But before I say why this was. The articulation by Seymour of the changing contexts of Corbyn's success in his preface to this new edition, should be read at least three to four times. First for the quality of its story telling. Second, for its convincing detail and lastly and most importantly the political potential it points to. And for that reason they must be recapped here:
The Last Wailing of The Old Media
As Seymour comments, key to the political rise in influence of social media has been the continuing and significant decline of print media and it's ability to, “press gang” Labour by framing the issues of an election that “favored the Tories”. As if to underline his point Seymour gives details of paywalled print media content that many may have missed due to the fact that they were watching the television news trying to keep up with the fast moving Corbyn campaign and just how accident prone the Tories had become. How strange it is to read now so months on from the 2017 election of Corbyn's failing to catch the youth vote by promising them “gimmicks” or of the hapless Rod Liddle (ex-BBC now of Murdoch) – and his pathetic call to parents to stop millennials voting by letting them “stay in bed” or by “giving them LSD”. (7) xxxiii Seymour's research shows that New Labour's ten year demobilization of their own vote meant that Corbyn and Momentum were able to re-energise and remobilise around a convincing and popular programme. In other words what looked like a mountain Labour had to climb was in fact a sleeping giant obscuring a waking radical nephew and niece.
The New Activism
The story of how the young feminists who organized the on-line lobby of Labour MPs to ensure that Corbyn got on the Labour's leadership ballot is now the stuff of documentary legend. But the truth is this group was part of a network of activists that had built up their following since the beginning of the economic crisis. John Landsman who was key to Tony Benn's campaign for deputy leader in 1981 who became the founding member of Momentum, had in fact begun his return to activist politics by starting Left Futures.org in 2007. (6)
As has been witnessed John Landsman's return has meant that the former readers of his and other radical left news and opinion sites were able to be focused by him and his leadership group into Momentum—an activist’s platform, that now makes the news instead of consuming it. But what is it that is fundamentally different about this generation that exists to commend it? Has their recent political use of new media any precedents or explanation in Marxist theory?
Ideas Consciousness Action
The the political potential of new media was first theorized by the German Marxist critic Walter Benjamin. In the wake of the Russian Revolution he saw the “physics” of technology by which he meant firstly, simple tools like those used by a blacksmith or early man were made and used in such a way that united skill, learning and knowledge and production but also the development of intuition appropriate to specifically modern “techne” of electric media : printing, copying, telecomms, radio and film-making. This would, above all he said reach its climax in politics:
This role has been clear not only from the political use of social media in contemporary campaigns but it is the place now where concerned citizens, radicals and socialists organize their responses to austerity the right and the alt-right and their campaigns of distortion, intimidation and terrorism. It should not need to be stressed then that with all the communication elements that Benjamin identified (film-making, telecoms, printing, and photography) now being available in the form of one hand held portable device—means it is therefore now impossible to conceive of a politics of communication and organisation without modern digital technology.
Born For A Purpose
The current generation i.e. those born after 1984, not only began using advanced digital technology from an early age, they also began to understand how their own computers worked, compared software versions and build their own machines. After the late 1990s this private world went online and became a means of social self-definition that turned individualism into a matter of self-taught intellectual ownership of these advanced skills. This intuitive and successful relationship to the new communications technology meant that the current generation possesses a level of skill and self-confidence previously seen only in and available to - the class of university post-graduates. The interest by millennials in individual freedom and its extension to their peers and to society generally, cannot be sufficiently explained by their advanced self actualization of communication skills but must be seen also in the context of recent political change. Seymour's Strange Rebirth... gives the facts on how Labour's sleeping giant was mobilized to vote. But as he would agree it is from its base in the work place that the Labour Movement and socialist politics can make the ultimate difference. That is why I describe him as part of the new developing Marxist tradition. Seymour says that he has been “refuted by history” because of the extent of the 2017 Corbyn and Momentum's victory. The limitations of Seymour's book throws into relief the situation of Marxist theory itself. But Seymour's work like his subject is developing. Future editions and books will no doubt address the deficit in Marxist theory and practice where prospects as he says are much more open than before.