Corbynism from Below is a wide-ranging collection of thoughtful essays on this historic opportunity for the left to transform society, finds Kevin Ovenden

Corbynism from Below, ed. Mark Perryman (Lawrence and Wishart 2019), 280pp.

This is a substantial book. Some seventeen significant essays from a range of left contributors organised under the theme of ‘Corbynism from Below’. Such a collection, given the diversity of themes and points of view of the contributors, presents an immediate problem of organisation of the material. Here, the editor has done a good job of structuring the texts and in giving a brief to the authors.

Each of the essays, in varied styles, is highly readable. Together they make up a fascinating compendium of left thinking about the Corbyn phenomenon. There is no single definition of what that is. It is left to the reasonable frame of what has happened in and around the British Labour Party, at all levels, over the last four years. 

The first strength of the book is that it shows something of the seriousness of political thought that is taking place in parts of the British left. It is a common feature of good histories of the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan right in the late 1970s that it drew upon a major intellectual operation, and its popularisation, in pulling together a political project, even if that was much more ad hoc than many assume in retrospect.

Running through the book is an understanding from all the writers, framed by the editor’s keynote essay, that what is at stake and what is taking place is not just the possibility of another pendulum swing from Tory governance to Labour. It is rather the potential for a deep change in the whole direction of British society.

For social transformation

That’s another strength. Parts of the left are thinking big. That means having to confront some deep historic questions and current problems. The third section of the book is structured unashamedly around those problems, though they are addressed elsewhere also. So, this is not some boosterist account of the Corbyn phenomenon. It could not be further removed from the accusation that the support for Corbyn is some kind of cult.

One of the refreshing aspects of the essays taken as a whole is that they have, from very differing perspectives, an understanding that fundamental social transformation cannot be just ‘more enthusiasm for Corbyn’ or even, as we hope, success at the 12th December election, called after this book hit the shelves. 

It is impossible properly to deal with a book review with all of the essays here. There are interesting and more empirical accounts of the rise of Corbyn-supporting media to organising techniques on- and offline, and the influence of Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 (itself building in a technical sense upon Barrack Obama’s 2008 run). At the other pole are essays more devoted to cultural and political sociology trying to discern the kind of dramatic shifts that took place in 1945 and 1979, and how to accomplish something similar today.

It’s in the nature of such a collection of discrete essays that the two poles don’t really meet. The reader has to bring them together. That’s no bad thing. And the virtue of plurality and diversity is a running theme of many essays and the book’s production. Though, to paraphrase one of the contributors, at times it feels like a virtue is being made out of a necessity that arose not from the left’s advance but out of its previous defeats. This is a collection where each essay strongly bears the imprint of its author’s political and theoretical standpoint. A criticism might be that it tells you more about what X, with their well-known standpoint, thinks about the issue than the issue itself. But the usefulness is the considerable overlap that allows you to bring your own thinking to bear. You have to read the book as a whole. 

I want to address some of those common areas, and some absences. 

History and the present crisis

There’s no singular, historical account of what Corbynism is in relation to the history of the Labour Party. Lorna Finlayson’s piece on the ‘Corbyn Context’ does helpfully locate it in the history of the party and its strands. Others give descriptions of that ‘moment’ in 2015 – repeated in the summer of 2016 and in the 2017 general election – in which the Corbyn surge somehow brought together an oppositional politics that was of the historic Labour left but wider than it.

Andrew Gamble locates the crisis of liberal democracy (helpfully, he distinguishes that from the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’ in the form of the far-right claiming to represent a popular will) and the popular demands to take control; Lindsey German traces Corbyn’s involvement in a succession of sustained mass movements that posed both governmental change and a new way of doing politics. A number of essays take a sweep through the experience of post-war social democracy, the victory of Thatcherism over the post-war consensus and the technological and economic transformations in Britain. 

Here it would have been good to have one essay focusing on some hard, political economy. It’s perhaps inevitable in such a collection that you get lots of authors describing in different ways these changes, but no in-depth and evidence-led account. So, a number of things get stated about Thatcherism, but you too often end up with the kind of truisms that dominate much left thinking and which the book is keen in other regards to dispel.

It really isn’t true that Thatcher conquered ideologically in 1983 and then transformed Britain. She conquered politically and in open class confrontation. Politics is about combat and force. I don’t mean on the left, and the editor has a welcome commitment to intellectual pluralism. I mean that even in the most joyous and diverse of popular eruptions we have still to contest with and to force to concede, political forces bitterly opposed to radical change. Look at Lebanon today.

Various pieces touch on it, but it is something that the reader has to bring: this ‘Corbyn experiment’ is not taking place in a laboratory of the left. It is contested by the ruling bloc and is part of a global battle.

Strategies for the left

Several writers draw passing comparisons of Corbynism with the fate of Labour-type parties in Europe. They make some good points. But in my view there really has to be much more rigorous examination by the left in Britain of those experiences. Those proposing a ‘post-Marxist’ or Laclau-Mouffe strategy for the broad left in Britain have to face what the Spanish general election will bring on Sunday and the result of Podemos, which has pursued that approach. 

If we are to be true to thinking openly and outside our own traditions, we have to be a bit more attentive to international realities. Neal Lawson’s interesting essay is let down by writing that Syriza in Greece is not a traditional party but a more ‘community-based model for change’. Absolutely no one in Greece would recognise that description of a governmental party that is a social-democratic evolution out of Greek Communism, with a Central Committee and now a presidential leadership. This doesn’t help properly address the dilemmas of masses, movements, parties, radical change and ruling blocs or classes, and crucially the state. 

From different angles the book is concerned with those perennial questions. Heather Wakefield has some pertinent things to say about transforming the unions in the current context, not just hoping to bring back their role in a post-war social democratic period that has gone.

Satnam Virdee dispenses with 1945 nostalgia to examine the actual record of Labour and much of the labour movement on race and immigration in the post-war period. He also puts well how the Blair-Brown years brought praise for cosmopolitan, hyper-global capitalism while racialising anew the notion of Labourism and the ‘British worker’. Unfortunately, his account skips over the 1970s and early 1980s. They were not characterised by nativist, right-wing union action against migrant workers but by the extension of a militant working-class anti-racism. As a whole, it’s an omission in the book. We have often, on the one hand, great historical-cultural sweeps, on the other the immediacy of how the Blair period gave way to Corbynism with all its dilemmas. 

Again, it would be good to look at what happened in the 1970s into the 1980s. What happened to Papandreou; a giant left populist before the mid-1980s that theorists suggested as a solution for the left. Or to Mitterrand in France.

There are a number of references to the enormous explosion of 1968 and after. I enjoyed (and harrumphed at) Jeremy Gilbert’s quixotic essay on ‘Acid Corbynism’. At one point he touches on the Gay Liberation Front as an expression not of a liberal, hyper-identity politics, but as a much more radical emancipatory project. I wish he’d dwelt on it more. Because it would take us beyond a straw man of the historic left and class struggle. From Sydney to New York to London, the attentive writer would have to consider why this joyous movement, that the GLF was part of, produced so many people, and so much literature, that drew on revolutionary Marxism. 

If we are going to take seriously today’s questions of liberatory struggle against specific social oppression, then can we abandon a dogma that says that nothing much happened until cultural criticism and the Greater London Council in the 1980s, with a prior left just going on about miners and whippets?

Past and Present

That brings me to a source of mild irritation. A considerable number of contributors go out of their way to define themselves against what they label, but do not seriously interrogate, as ‘Leninism’ or state socialism in its Communist and social-democratic variants. Fair enough. None of them would know that other contributors were doing the same. But equally none of those who do provide much more than a caricatured foil – resting upon a presumption that ‘well, we are all against that’. It sits badly with the main thrust of trying to examine in a truly open-minded way the enormous challenges for the radical left. It’s not a criticism of the book, just an observation about much left discussion in Britain, but … the entire continent of Latin America and twenty years of enormous developments for the left does not register. Equally, if we are going to have some of Antonio Gramsci’s famous epigrams dropped in, then can we have some serious engagement with a Marxist who has much more to tell us about today than just those hand-me-downs?

This book’s aim of bringing diverse analyses to bear on the future of Corbynism and the left in Britain is welcome. It does a good job of doing so. In fact, I think future efforts should go further. 

That struck me particularly over the question of ‘Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis’. Contributors were writing under the impact of the furore and several reference it, including the lead essay. Almost all, in my opinion, give far too much credence to accusations made against Labour and the left. Lindsey German’s contribution does not. Whatever you think about all of that, it is a serious omission not to have commissioned a dedicated essay on this from any one of dozens of respected left thinkers and activists in the orbit of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, Jewish Voice for Labour or similar bodies.

The row takes up part of the introduction to the book and gets (limited) treatment elsewhere. But there is not a comprehensive account from anyone centrally involved in practically responding to the political attack. Nor anywhere in this contextualised. This is not just happening in Britain. It is happening in Germany, France, the US … Beyond Britain, beyond Corbyn, anti-capitalism is being equated by the right with anti-Semitism. Those who have most effectively dealt with it often have a background in the Marxist, in some cases ‘Leninist’, left, going back to the 1970s.

Phil Burton-Cartedge, in his essay, repeats Ralph Miliband’s observation that the waves of Labour-left radicalisation have always relied upon ideas and intellectual production from the ‘outside left’, for good or ill. There is a productive relationship to be built. But not by the kind of party-ism that derides all other contributions and that this book sets itself against. 

Ok: so, let’s do that consistently, across the piece and in recognition of this. This is not a conversation that the left can frame just for itself, alone. The other side organises too. Politics matter. We have to beat the other side. So, every point of view in the conversation on the left comes against the test daily of whether it assists in that or not.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.