A review of Corbynism: what went wrong?
The failings of Corbynism were more than the failings of Jeremy Bernard Corbyn; they were the failings of a generation of the entire British socialist left, in all variants, as well.
And the consequences of those failings constitute a huge setback, from which it will take us years to recover, if we ever do.
It’s not difficult to imagine variant scenarios that replicate at the political level the damage wrought by the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike at the industrial level.
Inside the Labour Party, the current round of proscriptions and expulsions is relatively limited in actual numbers. But it has been calibrated with advanced engineering precision to remove the historic cadre of the hard left in the entire post-Bennite period.
Outside the Labour Party, the socialist groups that declined to sully their immaculate hands by direct intervention have singly failed to augment their feeble forces either. One, indeed, suffered a major split.
So the debate over ‘what went wrong’ is something the left could usefully engage in more seriously and more often. But no rush, guys; I suspect we have at least the rest of the decade for quiet contemplation.
It is a credit to Martin Thomas that his pamphlet has come up with the best first stab at an answer I have read to date.
This is not a who-did-what-to-whom insider account of the kind found in the books by Owen Jones and Pogrund and Maguire, and which presumably will be exemplified in the forthcoming Milne diaries.
It is instead a polemic compacted into under 60 pages, for the most part tightly written, which doesn’t duck criticism of individuals by way of diplomatic nicety.
That last consideration - in addition to the sheer unpopularity of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the wider leftist milieu - will inevitably limit its readership. But it shouldn’t.
Thomas implicitly takes issue with standard leftist accounts of 2015-19, which attribute the vicissitudes of the era to what is routinely depicted as a ‘bogus antisemitism scam’, conjoined with premeditated sabotage by the Labour bureaucracy.
By condensing coverage of antisemitism to just seven pages, he does not permit himself adequate room for comprehensive dissection. Concision is a judgment call in writing such a short work, but the space allowed arguably wasn’t enough.
Corbynism’s persistent blind spot in countering antisemitism - much of which flowed from an incorrect political understanding of Israel/Palestine rather than the classic Christ Killer/Protocols of the Elders Zion variant - was very real and acutely damaging.
But it also remains the truth that not all the allegations were in good faith. Both of these things can and did obtain simultaneously.
Nor is the Rage from the Labour Machine argument sufficiently explored, and will have to be seriously evaluated in future discussions.
Again, I’d argue this was a factor, albeit not a decisive one. It could only have been overcome had the leading lights of Team Corbyn not so determinedly preferred kid gloves to boxing gloves.
Thomas sidesteps the project’s more general lack of political concision, symbolised by the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink manifesto last time round.
Then there were the weaknesses in the media operation and the over-reliance on social media.
You cannot offset the impact of the millions of Tory-leaning newspapers sold every day by phoning amateur hour spindoctor hot tips to uncritically adulatory one-person websites, and then be forced to spend two million quid bailing them out of the shit in the libel courts.
What we do get, as might be expected from a political writer of Martin’s long experience, is recognition of the ebbs and flows of what was an ongoing political process rather than an event.
He is acute in assessing the peregrinations over Brexit, the moment of peak strength in the aftermath of 2017 general election, and the moment of maximum weakness following the 2019 general election.
Notably he understands how fragile things were at many points. He rightly stresses that defeat for Len McCluskey in the Unite general secretary contest four years ago could have dramatically shortened Corbynism’s lifespan.
Also singled out is Corbyn’s ideological evolution towards Morning Star-type politics, now perhaps the lowest common denominator of Labour left politics.
The parallels with the rhetoric of previous generations of Labour leaders are obvious. Thomas uses the words of Hugh Dalton, but the quotations could have been multiplied indefinitely.
We now have almost one and a half centuries of experience of social democratic parties, and the limits of how far they can move to the left are clearly established by both theory and history itself.
No Marxist expects social democratic parties to secure socialism; so what can we and what should we expect from them in the twenty-first century?
As Thomas highlights, the context here includes both lack of class struggle at the point of production, and the absence of extra-parliamentary activity mobilised by the Labour Party itself.
But a better-rooted and larger far left could have delivered these things and pushed the process further. The botch job we made in our repeated sorry efforts to build the necessary networks - admittedly in entirely unfavourable circumstances - is on us.
After all, it wasn’t Jon Lansman’s job to come up with the dream left reformist rank and file organisation Trots could not create in recent decades and then hand it over on a plate. Momentum was set up as Jezza’s stage army, and was never going to be anything else.
It is otiose to commit to somehow ‘doing better next time’, not least because Starmer’s direction of travel makes it clear that it will be a very, very long time before we get the chance, if we ever do.
That just leaves us arguing over what comes next. But that’s another pamphlet altogether.
• David Osland is a longtime Labour Party member and leftwing journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland