In his Prison Notebooks the Italian Communist leader and theoretician Antonio Gramsci famously wrote that ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ While the morbidity (symptomatic or otherwise) of Donald Trump, UKIP, Andrea Leadsom and the burgeoning European far right is hardly in question, it remains a point of contention as to whether the politics represented by Jeremy Corbyn offers a pathway out of the crisis or we are instead witnessing the last hurrah of Britain’s harried and diminished workers’ movement. That is one of the questions Richard Seymour tries to answer in his excellent new book.
A former member of the Socialist Workers Party (he left the party in the wake of the ‘Comrade Delta’ rape revelations) and now one of the editors of the radical journal Salvage (www.salvage.zone), Seymour is clearly no great friend of the Labour Party and his pessimistic conclusions might be expected given his background in Trotskyist politics. Yet his position as an outsider (in spite of his sympathy for the Corbyn project Seymour has not joined Labour) affords his work a refreshingly clear-eyed vantage point, both sympathetic and critical.
In the early part of the book Seymour details the failure of ‘Project Fear’ – the attempt to defeat Corbyn’s candidacy that comprised a mini-purge of party members, calls for the election to be halted, a vicious media campaign against Corbyn and his supporters, and much else besides. What becomes most clear reading this part of Seymour’s book is how poorly Corbyn’s opponents understood the terrain on which they were fighting. Although Corbyn’s success was widely attributed to the votes of £3 supporters, the failure of Ed Miliband’s confused soft-left leadership had finally weaned much of the ordinary membership from its commitment to Blairite triangulation.
Donning conservative clothes was just about bearable when it was delivering election victories, not so when it resulted in humiliating defeats. As Seymour describes, Corbyn’s opponents were also undone by having alienated the unions, who threw resources behind Corbyn to create a formidable campaign machine that helped deliver his victory.
However, Seymour argues that union support for Corbyn, while key to his victory, also illuminates one of his key claims: that his success was a result not of the strength of the left but its profound weakness. The unions backed Corbyn not as an expression of their bullishnes, but rather in desperation. With new anti-union legislation in the offing and with the Labour Party taking union support for granted, they had finally recognised that only by backing a hard-left candidate might they reacquire some real leverage in the party and arrest the slow-motion destruction of their own institutions.
Building upon this analysis, Seymour shows that the crisis within the Labour Party is part of a more generalised crisis of representative democracy and the political centre in the UK. As he shows, the Blairites oversaw the atrophy of the party as traditional Labour voting communities, seen as little more than electoral fodder that could be safely ignored outside elections, gradually drifted from the party.
While the decline of the Labour Party as an institution embedded in a broader movement has been most dramatic symptom of the crisis of representative democracy, Seymour argues that the decline of identification with political parties has occurred across the political spectrum: ‘The evidence is overwhelming. There is a political withdrawal across the board, it is most pronounced among those who were already least enfranchised, and the biggest resultant losses in the UK have been sustained by the Labour Party.’
One of the most valuable parts of Seymour’s book is the brief overview he provides of the Labour Party’s history. Seymour shows that, in spite of all hackneyed talk of a return to old Labour and ‘spirit of ’45’ sentimentality, Corbyn’s election was without precedent. No Clement Attlee or Michael Foot (a supporter of the Falklands war), Corbyn’s real ideological forerunner is Tony Benn – who came closest to leading the Labour Party with his failed bid for the deputy leadership in 1981. Seymour points out that although the Blairites are something of an anomaly in the party’s history, the Atlanticist right are not.
In the final chapter Seymour offers a sobering assessment of the forces arrayed against Corbyn and the pronounced weaknesses of the Corbynite left. Ranging from the resistance of the party bureaucracy, the dominance of Labour ‘moderates’ in the media and the decline of the Labour movement’s institutions, Seymour gives good grounds for pessimism. Yet in spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing, and, at the time of writing, looks set to defeat his opponents in a second leadership contest. It seems quite possible that the mass movement (wanted by Corbyn and diagnosed as missing by Seymour) may well be willed into being by the coming second confrontation with the parliamentary party and its establishment allies. However the confrontation is resolved, Seymour’s analysis will remain indispensable.