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Reviewing Corbyn by Richard Seymour Verso 2016
If ever a book was born under a lucky star, it surely was Richard Seymour’s
*Corbyn*. No sooner had it been published than the anti-Corbyn coup pushed
it into the best sellers list. I have no idea of how many copies it has
sold, but the author’s exhausting list of engagements suggest that it has
done very well. I am glad that this is so, for this is a very good book and
one that all socialists should read.
Apart from the fortuitous circumstances surrounding its publication, the
book serves deeper purposes. It analyses the amazing phenomenon when a
shop worn old leftist was taken off the back benches, dusted down and
miraculously propelled into the leadership of the British Labour Party. In
front of our eyes, hope was snatched out of the maw of despair. Hundreds of
thousands swarmed into the Labour Party and suddenly we had the largest
Social Democratic Labour Party built almost overnight.
Here in Australia we Old Lefties are almost choked with envy. Why couldn’t
we have a Corbyn over here? We too are desperate for relief from
neoliberalism. We too have a revived ultra-right under Pauline Hanson who
has crested a wave of Islamophobia that we did not know even existed. She
is now seated in our senate and spouting the sort of vicious nonsense that
warms the heart of the followers of the likes of Donald Trump and Marie Le
Yet the Australian Labor Party is headed up by a right wing former union
leader, Bill Shorten, whose main credentials are his skill at doing deals
with bosses. His rival on the Left, Anthony Albanese is no better. When
faced with a challenge from the Greens, Albanese resorted to the crudest of
red baiting, stooping even to use the epithet ‘socialist’ as an insult.
So there is no Corbyn down under and no sign of one on the horizon.
But Seymour’s analysis should shake us out of the comfort of despair. He is
not a member of the British Labour Party and comes instead out of the
International Socialist tendency, from which he was honorably expelled for
his defence of a woman raped by a party “leader”. Full disclosure: I too
for my sins was once a member of the IS tendency but was expelled last
century for trying to escape from what Paul Mason calls ‘the bureaucratic
and hierarchical culture of Bolshevik re-enactment’.
Seymour’s speaking position is that of a sympathetic observer who remains
outside the Labour Party. This enables him to cast a cold eye on the
dialectics of the enthusiasm that has created Corbynism. Allied to this is
his commitment to the Gramscian slogan of “Pessimism of the Intellect”. In
a number of key chapters he gives us a very useful and to my mind accurate
portrayal of the history of the British Labour Party. Its great moments in
office turn out not to have been so great. Its greatest leaders e.g. Clem
Attlee turn out to have not been so great either. Seymour’s deepest scorn
though is reserved for the time of New Labour and its repulsive Prime
Minister, Tony Blair, the war criminal. Seymour’s wrath is almost holy
here, when he correctly describes Blair as a ‘viper’.
Seymour makes two key points. Corbyn won because of the weakness of the
Labour Party – it lost 5 million votes over the 1997-2010 period. But that
very weakness makes Corbyn’s project of reviving social democracy all the
more difficult. As well, the economic times that permitted some
redistribution of wealth away from the powerful and towards the working
class no longer obtain. We live in the time when the tendency of the rate
of profit to fall is asserting itself. The neoliberal response to falling
profits has not restored profitability to pre-1973 levels. The capitalist
class is hoarding and not investing. Will Corbyn’s mild Keynesian type
solutions change this?
Seymour is careful not to say he thinks Corbyn will fail. But he is
brutally honest about the chances of the Corbyn project succeeding. He was
also incredibly prescient about the opposition that Corbyn would face from
inside the Party machine and the Parliamentary Labour Party. They did
everything they could to destroy Corbyn. Indications are that Corbyn will
win the current leadership contest. But some of his opponents have already
signaled that they are prepared to destroy the party in order to save it.
In an endeavor to get rid of Corbyn, the Parliamentarians and the Machine
have declared war on the Party. No one knows the extent of the suspensions
and expulsions. Seymour has written elsewhere that he does not think the
purge will be of the dimensions necessary to defeat Corbyn. He seems to
believe that it is designed to create the kind of Ground Zero that will put
down for ever the very thought of a leftist leading the Labour Party,
because the Party won’t exist.
I cannot disagree with Seymour’s analysis. I cannot see the British Labour
Party being transformed into the kind of vehicle which will build a society
without a master class. But nevertheless, one is tempted to say “Oh to be
in England now that Corbyn’s there”. The spectacle of thousands flocking to
political meetings and being driven by hope for a better world into
joining a political party is enough to set this old Leftist ‘muttering like
a fool’. It also reminds one of the need to complete the Gramscian slogan
and return “optimism of the will” to the fore. After all as Sherlock Holmes
remarked “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your
clothes and come!"
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