Let no-one say that Richard Seymour is not an accomplished writer. But whether or not his wordsmithery provides a meaningful strategy for consolidating radical socialist politics in government is another question. His most recent offering, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, thus heaps an unhealthy dose of despair on the labour movement. Many will welcome Seymour’s latest incisive and witty literary intervention, but others, like me, remain perturbed by the narrowness of his political vision.
Seymour’s first serious fault lies in his inability to draw up an accurate account of the defining moment in recent Labour history — that is, during that vital period in the 1980s when the proto-Blairites forcibly seized control of the Labour Party. After Labour repeatedly sold out the working class during the 1970s, in the face of an increasingly militant rank-and-file trade union movement, Seymour asserts that the following decade merely represented a period in which working class politics became enamoured by Thatcherism — hence the subsequent rise of Neil Kinnock’s authoritarian clique and its latter-day spawn, New Labour.
Let us start in 1981. Referring to Tony Benn having come within a hairsbreadth of being elected to the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, Seymour somehow manages to invert history, explaining that “whatever excitement Benn was able to generate among constituency activists and a minority of union members, his real support was exaggerated in the election by a system of block voting.” Seymour would have us believe that “the majority of union members – just like the majority of people – were moving to the right under the pull of Thatcherism.” With a confidence that betrays his ignorance of the dialectical nature of trade unionism, he scolds us: “in the unions that actually balloted all members, Benn was roundly defeated.” (p.127)
Thanks to Seymour’s ample footnotes we can see that the ‘facts’ he cited to ground this bizarre claim were obtained from page 365 of Martin Pugh’s widely read book Speak for Britain!: A New History of the Labour Party (2011). Pugh had stated: “The [deputy leadership] vote greatly overstated Benn’s support, for left-wing union leaders had ignored the views of their members; in the TGWU [Transport and General Workers’ Union] for example, 52 per cent of branches backed Healey and only 24 per cent Benn, but all the union’s votes had gone to Benn.” (p.365)
No further evidence was provided to substantiate the contention that the majority of trade union members in Britain were drifting towards Thatcherism. Significantly, other labour historians draw attention to the fact that the misrepresentations of the problems within the TGWU “provided handy ammunition for the media campaign against the left.” This analysis was put forward by Richard Hefferman and Mike Marqusee in their book Defeat From the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party (1992). As they explain, the preference of TGWU members for Denis Healey…
“…was not an expression of right-wing sentiment among TGWU members but simply an indicator of the balance of forces at this time among full-time officials in the regions… As Benn stood for all the policies democratically determined by the TGWU biannual delegate conference, the union’s supreme governing body, and Healey opposed most of them, the [union] delegation acted perfectly honourably [in voting to back Benn], although Fleet Street leader-writers and the Labour right were up in arms.” (pp.20-1)
Returning to Corbyn — the book under review — just a few pages later, making a different political point concerning Neil Kinnock’s claims that he had to force the party rightwards to make it electable, Seymour argues: “The evidence is that the social attitudes of the majority of people moved significantly to the left under Thatcher.” (p.130) No explanation is given for how he reconciles this statement with his previous claim of the rightward drift of the working class.
Nevertheless, a move to the left was certainly evident and visible during working class struggles which were provided with a fighting socialist leadership, as in the case of the miners’ strike (which indefensibly was left out on a limb to rot by Neil Kinnock), and then in the titanic struggle in Liverpool, that was led by the determined members of the Militant – who also faced the anti-socialist wrath of Kinnock. But rather than celebrate the importance of a determined leadership in the face of Labour Party bosses that actively sought to undermine and disown such radicalism, all Seymour can dwell upon are the “scarring experiences of defeat in the 1980s”. No time is given to reflect upon the mighty struggles that were waged by the working class, only tears for their tragic aftermath, which apparently “led to a weary cynicism about the possibilities for change in such a reactionary country.” (p.179, p.180) Reactionary Labour leadership, I can give him that — but reactionary country?
Ever keen to dole out advice to a now ground-down labour movement, Seymour warns that “the wrong lessons were drawn from past defeats.” Apparently it is all too easy “to focus on the failures of the hard-Left – which undoubtedly, were real” – really, in what way? He also then goes on to highlight the limits of parliamentary democracy and Labourism, and the lessons that should be learned from struggling from within such capitalist straitjackets. Yes, of course he is right to highlight the limits of both parliamentary democracy and Labourism, but these limits were certainly something which the hard-Left –which included supporters of the Militant — were more than aware of and did much to publicise throughout their time in the Labour Party. (p.182)
Seymour tells his readers that they shouldn’t look for inspiration to older Labour activists, who in the process of struggle were expunged from the Labour Party, perhaps one good example being former Labour MP Dave Nellist, who now heads up the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). It seems “the older Bennite and Militant-style leftovers are, in general, too ideologically formed and too politically inflexible to be effective.” (p.196) Tired old Left factions (which incidentally, Seymour used to be a member of), we are told, are too “obsessed with setting to street stalls on a Saturday morning” to be able to communicate effectively to the rest of the labour movement. (p.196) Here you might be forgiven for thinking that Seymour himself resented talking to the public on such Saturday stalls when he was an active member of the Socialist Workers Party; and although I myself also partake in organising said Saturday stalls (for the Socialist Party, the successor to Militant), they are of course just one small part of my daily activities as a trade unionist and socialist organiser.
Not content on badmouthing longstanding Marxists, Seymour even goes so far as to belittle the few “left-wingers” who have been elected to government in recent years, saying that “where they have taken office they have usually administered the orthodoxy.” (p.187) Positive examples of socialists in positions of power are forbidden, no mention is made in about the determined lead given by the admittedly small number of local councillors across the country who have represented the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), and who have been firm in their commitment to opposing austerity and fighting tooth and nail against the mainstream political orthodoxy. That is not to mention other inspiring examples close to our shores, like those Socialist Party members who continue to fight in the Irish Parliament as principled members of the People-Before-Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance.
But let’s forget such inspiring examples concerning the rebirth of radical politics for the time being. To recap: according to Seymour one of the reasons why the Labour right “were able to defeat the Left in the early-to-mid-eighties” was “that the wider climate of opinion was moving sharply to the right at the time, while the Left – whether of Militant or Bennite variety – was far weaker than its national profile allowed it to believe.” (p.55) Leaving aside the falsity of a popular rightward swing, no-one has ever suggested that Militant’s struggles in Liverpool were matched in scale by similar mass movements in other cities: this fact is sad but true.
Against the odds, Liverpool’s Labour city council did fight, and did win momentous victories in the face of Tory cuts, for which they were rewarded with increased funding and electoral support. But broader political circumstances meant that despite their best efforts to spread their defiance, nationally and internationally, they were eventually beaten back. You can’t have socialism in one city, in the same way you can’t have socialism in one country. Yet members of the Militant didn’t stop fighting after their defeat in Liverpool, and against the wishes of the Labour Party leadership, Militant, working within the Labour Party’s wider structures, soon went on to help lead a huge and successful mass movement against the Tories hated Poll Tax. (p.129) Such historical matters of record, however, Seymour does not see fit to share with his readers.
Flash forward to 2015, and in a strange twist of fate, by virtue of the hollowing out Labour Party democracy, Jeremy Corbyn is elected as the new leader, on a clear anti-austerity, anti-warmongering platform. Hundreds of thousands of Labour members supported his candidacy, and still do, but surrounded by parliamentary colleagues who are strongly opposed to any socialist ambitions (hence the ongoing attempted coup), and an unrelentingly hostile media, necessarily means that capturing the leadership of the Labour Party is not enough. As a consequence “thus far, Corbyn’s need to reckon with the Labour backbenches,” Seymour observes, “not to mention the dissenters in his cabinet, has arguably done more to shape his policies than the as yet informed activist base.” (p.81) Nevertheless, the establishment has truly been caught “with its pants down”, and so it is apparent that Corbyn must move quickly to exploit this situation “to produce lasting gains”. (p.185)
Pondering what might be done, Seymour asks, should Corbyn “seek to deselect MPs who don’t represent the membership?” (p.85) Answering his own question he points out that if Corbyn does his movement for socialist change will “run the risk of sharpening antagonism well before they are able to win those battles.” Seymour, the confused revolutionary socialist, warns that such actions “would run the risk of providing ballast to a right-wing sabotage campaign, and alienating political allies.” (p.197) This danger may be partly true, but surely Corbyn must do whatever he can to support the democratic demands of Labour’s members by backing calls for democratic reselection processes. Corbyn can only take such a principled socialist position by leading from the front, not by caving in to the conservative needs of his fellow right-leaning Labour MPs who are doing their best to destroy him.
This brings us to the present. With the unfolding attempted coup on Corbyn’s leadership, it is apparent that the civil war within Labour — that has been ongoing since Corbyn rose to influence last year –has finally burst open, with 172 Labour MPs having supported a vote of no confidence in his leadership. But in the face of these unprincipled attacks, support for Corbyn is once again growing within the membership and the broader trade union movement. This latest act of open treachery has even pushed the General Secretary of Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, to threaten to backtrack on his previously mistaken refusal to support calls for the mandatory reselection of Labour MPs. This is a positive sign indeed.
Returning again to Seymour’s book: what is certain is that if Corbyn continues capitulating to the rightwing forces dominating his Parliamentary Labour Party then Corbyn’s ability to champion the political needs of the 99% will be totally compromised, whether or not he remains at Labour’s helm. Thousands of excited Corbynista’s have chosen Labour as their “temporary home” (p.219) and their high hopes for positive change must not be betrayed by another leader who feels straitjacketed by the need to balance the pro-corporate demands of the old guard on the right with the newly inspired labour activists on the left: if Corbyn continues down this path there is a real threat that the momentum for reforming the Labour Party, or building a truly socialist alternative that will represent the urgent needs of the working class, will face a very serious set-back. Corbyn must therefore set his sights high, because, as Seymour concludes, “in all likelihood, Corbynism is a temporary phenomenon as far as Labour goes, and its most likely successor is some variation of the old Labour Right which will incorporate some of the milder elements of Corbynism…” (p.218)
On the issue of challenging the party’s fundamentally undemocratic institutional structures, if the Corbynistas seek a “genuinely democratic Labour Party,” Seymour says, “they will be trying to bring about something that has never before existed, and which goes against all the dominant tendencies in parliamentary democracies.” (p.86) That, of course, is precisely why it is so important to present a meaningful strategy that is able to surmount the colossal barriers that lie ahead for the working class.
Seymour is well aware of the negative repercussions faced by Corbyn for giving succour to the right, like when he previously signalled his support for local Labour-led councils to continue carrying though government cutbacks. Such actions “are sure to turn off and demoralise Labour voters,” Seymour writes, “and a Left that is seen to acquiesce with such austerity measures could rapidly discredit itself in the eyes of the public.” (p.198) It is for this reason that those on the Left have consistently called upon the setting of legal no-cuts budgets in Labour-run councils as a means of building support for a Corbyn-led fightback against Tory austerity. But again, seeming to err on the side of caution, Seymour says we should not “force… councils to set illegal budgets” (which, funnily enough, no one is suggesting – except those misrepresenting the Left’s proposals), and then as an demoralising afterthought adds that either way “it seems unlikely that [the labour movement] would have the political muscle to succeed, or to weather the backlash if they did.” (p.198) So, with such a tragic counsel of despair what should we do then Mr Seymour?
It a matter of record that Corbyn has not been able or perhaps willing to lead a genuine fight-back against the status quo, and his policies at present only constitute “an attempt to gently push the boundaries of debate to the left…” (p.199) Seymour observes: “it is striking that, thus far, Corbyn has pointedly refused to identify a class opponent” — in the way that Bernie Sanders, Syriza, or Podemos regularly do — instead he is “sticking to the conventional Labour modus operandi of attacking ‘the Tories.’” (p.204)
Seymour explains, such inaction on the class front could prove to “be a disabling limitation” to the labour movement in an era of class polarisation. This is why Corbyn’s future success is so dependent upon his grassroots supporters acting to “continually push the agenda farther than he is able to” (p.205) — although really it seems we must push Corbyn farther than he is willing to be moved, not just farther than the limited reforms he thinks he is able to carry through within the Labour Party. In an ideal world, Corbyn would stop placating the rightwing and take immediate steps to democratise his own party so that he can provide the type of fighting leadership to the labour movement that will help build the confidence of the working class to stand united and fight-back against capitalism— something that Corbyn has to do with some urgency, now that a coup has been foisted upon him.
Seymour is correct to say that historically-speaking the “ability of social democratic governments to deliver reforms in the interests of workers… depended on an exceptional period of capitalist growth that will probably not be seen again…” (p.135) Hence, a radical socialist alternative is necessary in this current epoch. However, Seymour is wary of such talk, stating that to seriously transform the Labour Party “into a means to radical inroads on Britain’s power systems would require resources, organisation and opportunities that currently don’t present themselves.” (p.136) Again, Seymour fails to recognise the ways that a fighting leadership can help to give form to new possibilities. Surely if Corbyn was forced to lead an anti-austerity struggle within his own Party (as he now has the opportunity to do) there is a good possibility that his actions would inspire a great deal of self-activity within the working class, and maybe even lead to the creation of a new democratic party of the working class.
But there is no stopping Seymour’s naysaying, and he takes his unfounded pessimism to its logical conclusion arguing that even if Corbyn took Labour to an election victory “there is little in the way of wide international climate… that would support and sustain an experimental radical-left form of government.” (p.218) How Seymour is so sure about this is anyone’s guess, but certainly such a doom mongering commentary wouldn’t be out of place in The Sun.
It is for this reason that “Corbyn’s most pressing task is to demonstrate that there is a coherent alternative economic model” — a socialist alternative to a capitalist model of running society. (p.200) Corbyn must refuse to go down the path of former would-be-radicals like the Syriza government in becoming an instrument of the very capitalist forces he was elected to challenge, although he sadly has done something quite similar by siding with the EU Remain camp (an accommodation with the forces of austerity that, revealingly, was also held by Seymour). “The only possible counterpoint to such a scenario” unfolding in the future Seymour says, “would be a vibrant and mobilised grass-roots Left in the unions and beyond – a possible, yet by no means inevitable, political outcome.” (p.216, p.217) That is correct and may well be about to unfold before our very eyes. But none of this explains why Mr Seymour feels the need to temper his desire for a socialist revolution with a book-full of needless pessimism.