The following represents a first rough draft to set down some issues I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Hopefully a longer, better referenced version will emerge in due course.
As someone whose social media contacts go across the political spectrum, I’ve been reading a lot on my Facebook and Twitter timelines on Jeremy Corbyn. The difference in opinions about Corbyn and his candidacy for Labour leadership reveals some of the major faultiness across the British left.
On the one hand, so the argument goes: Corbyn is a proper left wing candidate who will take the fight to the Tories and will resist the onward march of austerity. On the other hand, so the argument goes: Corbyn is — aside from his antediluvian hard leftism — is a supporter of the clerical fascists of Hezbollah and Hamas.
I have to admit to being frustrated with both sides of this argument: Those who obsessively point to Corbyn’s liaisons with Islamist far right usually ignore (with some honourable exceptions) the predominantly economic arguments that motivate his supporters. Once again, this section of the left (call them ‘decents’, ‘Eustonites’ or what have you), by failing to respond to the real needs that a hard left candidate addresses, allow themselves to be outflanked and left for dead as single-interest obsessives. It’s all very well to criticise Corbyn, but until you can show that it is possible to be economically radical and to oppose Islamism at the same time, you’ll simple end up in a ghetto of bitterness.
But Corbyn’s protagonists also frustrate me. It’s as though defending and promoting Islamist groups is utterly commonplace and reasonable. It’s as though there is absolutely nothing to worry about a potential Labour leader supporting clerical fascism.
I’ve been struggling to find a way through this morass, and this is where my thinking is at the moment:
One of the major problems with the left post-911 has been the extraordinary tendency for both its ‘wings to make common cause with different sections of the right. It’s extraordinary that some on the left have made common cause with Islamic fundamentalism and deluded themselves that it somehow has progressive potential. It’s extraordinary that some on the left have made common cause with neo-conservatives, with those who support torture, detention without trial, outsourcing conflict to mercenaries and asset-stripping developing countries.
But I think there is a crucial distinction to be made within each of these wings of the left, amongst the ranks for the left who make common cause with the right. That distinction is between those who have come to genuinely support the right and those who are guilty of misrecognition.
In the first group, the prototypical examples are George Galloway and Tony Blair. Both started out on the left but over time came to make a genuine political transformation, even if they sometimes still take on the mantle of left of centre politics.
In the second group, I think stands Jeremy Corbyn. I think he has convinced himself of the progressive potential of Hezbollah etc, not because he has embraced what they stand for, but because he has misrecognised what they stand for. In the same category also stand some of the more upright Eustonites — people like Alan Johnson and Martin Bright. They retain their original values, like Corbyn does, but they have made alliance with people who do not hold to their values out of misrecognition.
I think that the second group is, happily, bigger than the first. And I think that members of the left and right wings of this second group could, in theory, affect a rapprochement at some point in the future. In fact, I think there are signs that this is happening with some at least of the Eustonites (witness, for example, Martin Bright’s abandoning his job with Tony Blair).
It’s not happening yet with those on the left, but I live in hope. Just as Blair’s venality became too great to ignore, so perhaps Hamas and Hezbollah will — at some point anyway — do something so grotesque that the misrecognition will end.