Tom Gann
Tom Gann
Jul 17, 2016 · 8 min read

Thanks, in a way, for writing this. It does seem the best possible statement of left-intellectual anti-Corbynism so I’ve found it’s really helped me clarify things, albeit largely in opposition to what you’ve written. Also, I’d like to say everything I’m going to say is not meant with any personal animosity. It strikes there are three sets of, not completely distinct, issues with the analysis: the presentation of the current situation is inaccurate in quite a few ways, there are some serious theoretical weaknesses and, this is the hardest to express, certain “ethical” problems. Ethical is not quite the right word as it suggests a personal condemnation, but what I mean is problems of a general stance or attitude with a moral component that are the hardest to argue out.

In terms of theory, good phrases like “commodity fetishism” and “urban centres of accumulation” are wheeled out not for the purpose of analysis but merely to establish serious Marxist bona fides. As it stands, it is unclear whether “urban centres of accumulation” here offers any more than “metropolitan falafel botherers” but expressed in a rather more impressive way.

Perhaps the main theoretical problems are expressed in the passage beginning, “if Corbynism was really a social movement that had developed over time and culminated in, rather than started with, Corbyn’s leadership victory .” If things were different, they’d be different but this doesn’t get us very far. Marxism is not, despite what its opponents would say, a means for flattening empirical reality into dogmatic categories and condemning the present for not operating according to those categories, Marxism here becomes a set of brittle fetishes, a means of the theorist being superior to history.

This theoretical mistake, more than anything else, lies behind the tone, which expresses not much more than a sense of exasperation that reality has happened in a way that is different to the classical theory and the new membership have not reached the level of political consciousness that you have. You write of the new members, “rather than stopping to ask why people may think the way they do, to think about how their material conditions, their relationship to capital and forms of work and social reproduction, may affect their understanding of the world, this approach is instead based on the idea that people who disagree just haven’t been exposed to the ‘truth’ enough yet.” Certainly, the idea that socialism can be constructed through the sharing of sub-Another Angry Voice memes defending Corbyn on Twitter is politically naive, theoretically lacking, embarrassing and irritating, but (Thompson against Nairn and Anderson) “we all of us make this kind of face at times, but we do not mistake a grimace for high theory”. However, a political party does not need tens of thousands of experts in Capital and to argue that the limitations of the Corbyn project may be found in the intellectual errors of his supporters is to misunderstand strongly what a political party is about.

It feels that there is very little effort made to think through why new members think the way they do, short of the invective, which I agree with, to a degree, against clicktivism. The clicktivist tendency amongst Corbyn supporters is certainly a problem and impediment but merely to condemn is one-sided, it could equally be argued that large numbers of people have made a move beyond clicktivism towards joining a political party and this has been prompted by Corbyn, this offers a potential (and it is only a potential, for the reasons you explain) for organisational forms where none existed before. Political consciousness does not just appear miraculously, it is acquired over time, through struggle and reflection. It would be better, rather than to attack members for not reaching the point you’ve reached and lamenting the unclassical way in which Corbyn became leader to think seriously about how to build the required consciousness and organisation. It is not enough, and again I feel and sympathise with your frustrations, to talk waftily about “social movements” and “counter-power”, concrete proposals and plans and their carrying out is necessary, even if that happens first in areas with a certain density of militants and political infrastructure, as I suspect it will have to. Here there is an intersection with your political claims, it is much easier but equally futile to demand an immediate achievement of socialist consciousness when the challenges faced are imagined as urgent- projects of building political consciousness become an indulgence and the failure of party members to have already achieved a grasp of the situation becomes the pretext for what is not imagined as capitulation but as an solemn moral duty. It’s not just “hurrah-optimism” that comes from a refusal to wait, it’s also this kind of stoical pessimism.

Essentially, this is where an “ethical” orientation intersects with a theoretical and political one, you overstate the closedness of things, it is not in circumstances of their own choosing but men and women DO make their own history. This is part of a wider “ethical” problem, though I don’t want to suggest too much animosity, we do need a bit of determination rather than capitulation, and given Smith’s political positions and the almost inevitable loss of potentiality, it would be capitulation. Any effort at building socialism or even anything substantially more humane than we have now is going to encounter serious obstacles, including, even especially, from people in the Labour Party, and is likely to happen in inauspicious, even surprising circumstances. However, given the left is probably stronger now than it has ever been in our lifetimes but with extremely vulnerable bases for that strength, a bit of courage and inventiveness is necessary. Ultimately, (and I think we want the same things, whilst of those praising this don’t) there’s a point where accepting the demand that what we want be deferred to a more opportune moment is a demand to acquiesce permanently.

In terms of the current situation, for an essay which aims to look the situation clearly in the face without illusions, the analysis of potential replacements for Corbyn is remarkably naive. The final paragraph is a fantasy in imagining that a genuinely left candidate could somehow emerge and get on the ballot (one reason for the necessity of supporting Corbyn is that he was automatically on the ballot as leader, no other left candidate would get 51 nominations- or even the 35 required if Corbyn had resigned). This means, as some of your comments suggest, the logic of the position is to support Owen Smith, who has, to a degree, despite the necessity for austerity comment, pitched slightly to the left, but has a record of supporting a fair degree of NHS privatisation, the benefit cap, cringing over Work Capability Assessments, and weird vacillating foreign/defence policy positions. I also think, and this is a difficult point to make, your use of Jo Cox muddies things. Cox clearly made a strong and brave argument regarding refugees but this is not the same as the position I think we both believe is necessary which is the unqualified defence of all migrants, here on this it is correct to argue it is only Corbyn and his allies who are even close to holding the line here.

Equally, while being too generous to Corbyn’s opponents, you misrepresent Corbyn’s policy position, let alone his wider “meaning”, which includes democratisation and for the possibility to make much stronger demands on the leadership. Positions in some departments were not much more than continuity Miliband but this was an effect of Corbyn’s earlier shadow cabinet appointments and allowing them significant autonomy, already it looks as if the new shadow cabinet are articulating positions very much to the left of that. I agree there’s still not been an adequate programme formulated, but this could come.

Obviously, as is one of your main arguments, the gesture that things will come good eventually is something you find frustrating, and certainly on its own this claim is not good enough but you also overstate the urgency of the situation, the basis for your impatience don’t quite hold. A snap election is actually fairly unlikely, May has said she won’t, this doesn’t mean she won’t change her mind, of course, but there’d be considerable political costs for her. I’m not sure here what you’re saying, is it that Smith or Eagle would actually win an election held in the next few months, or that they’d avoid a complete disaster? The first is wishful thinking, when it comes to the second claim, it’s doubtful the disaster would be much less pronounced than under Corbyn. I’d also add here, it’s unlikely a “progressive alliance” would actually achieve that much- it seems tactically, at a time when the centre has largely collapsed, strange, to say the least, to construct a solidly centrist programme grounded in a demand for electoral reform, which, more than any other positions, regardless of the need for it, appear the out-of-touch concerns of a political class. It is also true that if any sort of progressive alliance is to happen it is more likely to happen under Corbyn, with McDonnell and Lewis advocating electoral reform, than under the old-fashioned hard labourist right.

The consequences of Brexit are likely to be bleak, the present revanchism will deepen and become crueller. Where I don’t agree with you is I think this makes a Corbyn leadership more important in meaning there is a major political figure articulating something substantially less cruel. It’s unlikely a Labour Party functioning as a purely Parliamentary opposition, a subordinate part of the system, unwilling to generate challenges or an autonomous programme, would put up much opposition to, for example, more deportations (as you know there are already deportations, including of homeless EU citizens, and Corbyn has opposed these unlike Smith or Eagle). The membership’s and, even more significantly, the union rejection of this positioning in abstaining on the welfare bill was, of course, a huge reason for Corbyn’s victory. Labour under Smith or Eagle, even if more coherent in Parliament than it would be under Corbyn is likely to offer not much more than a demand for partial humanisation- slightly fewer deportations, slightly more human rights protections. These challenges would be meaningful and it’s certainly trite to argue there’s no difference between Labour policies (unless you think there’s going to be a snap election Smith or Eagle could win, we’re not talking about a Labour administration) and Tory ones, and given the small Tory majority it is possible that a united Labour Party could win a few concessions on Brexit terms, but we’re not talking about much more than that. Moreover, as a split would be, as you say, extremely harmful electorally, it’s unlikely many MPs would take the plunge given how much their jobs depend on the Labour brand.

A final point on the limitations of the analysis of the present situation, I think the metropolitan character of Corbyn’s support and, therefore, its limited use in the seats that will decide the election is a little overstated- to give one example, merely because it’s the city whose politics I know best outside London, there were large rallies and there is a substantial Momentum group in Southampton, which includes Southampton Itchen, a seat Labour absolutely has to win if we’re to get anywhere near power.

The political analysis overstates the urgency of the situation. It also overestimates the ability of those opposed to Corbyn to provide a serious challenge to the Conservatives and to what the post-Brexit settlement might be. It also underestimates the differences between Corbyn and his opponents, the difference is not just one of degree but one of imagining and perhaps offering a quantitatively different challenge.

    Tom Gann

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    Tom Gann