The uncomprehending rage of the Labour right as it sinks in that Jeremy Corbyn may well win the leadership is a delight to behold. The Blairites in particular deeply resented Ed Miliband snatching away the party that they regard as rightfully theirs in 2010.
Surely, they thought, after Miliband’s defeat in May, they would come into their inheritance. Instead, Corbyn—a “hard left” MP they despised and ignored—is triumphantly touring the country addressing vast and enthusiastic audiences.
The right’s fury comes over in a particularly ridiculous anti-Marxist diatribe by Jonathan Jones in last Saturday’s Guardian newspaper, “as a socialist student in the 1980s I’d absorbed the notion that the USSR was a ‘state capitalist’ system that never achieved true socialism.
“That illusion crumbled when I queued for gruel ladelled out from huge tubs at Moscow airport and bought a drink at a shop where there were separate tills for each of the small range of commodities. I was seeing pure socialism.”
Eh? Come again? I’ve studied Marx’s writings quite closely. Where does he say that “pure socialism” requires gruel and separate tills for different products? What has this to do with his vision of communist society, governed by the principle, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”? Reject Marxism if you like, but don’t let your unconscious write your articles for you.
Elsewhere last Saturday’s Guardian newspaper (audibly grinding its teeth) carries a friendly interview with Corbyn that summarises his own explanation for his success, “a wider global surge from the left that has seen momentum grow for the socialist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s US presidential bid, Syriza’s success in Greece and the rapid growth in support for Podemos in Spain”.
I think this is entirely right. What we are seeing is that England isn’t immune from the great surge of radicalisation produced by nearly a decade of economic crisis—what the Marxist blogger Michael Roberts calls the “long depression”—and austerity.
But I think we have to do more than enjoy the ride (and the Blairites’ dismay). Corbyn is doing well enough for us to start asking what happens if he wins.
His victory would be a great democratic success. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the Labour Party is a democratic organisation. It has two great oligarchic centres of power—the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the trade union bureaucracy.
It’s worth looking at what happened to George Lansbury, when he became leader of the Labour Party after the terrible defeat of 1931. Lansbury was a hero of the left, leader of the struggle by the east London borough of Poplar against the 1920s version of austerity. The historian AJP Taylor called him “the most lovable figure in modern politics”.
But Lansbury became leader by default. Every other Labour cabinet minister had either lost their seat or defected to the Tories. When he started to assert his Christian pacifism in foreign policy the trade union leaders—in the shape of TUC general secretary Walter Citrine and transport workers’ leader Ernest Bevin—turned on him brutally.
After being humiliated by Bevin at the 1935 party conference, Lansbury resigned.
The configuration of forces this time is different. Corbyn is winning, not by default, but borne forward by a tidal wave of enthusiasm.
And most trade union leaders are backing him. This in itself is interesting. I suspect it reflects profound impatience with the refusal of the parliamentary Labour leadership to fight for working people.
So if Corbyn does win, he will have powerful support. But he will face an overwhelmingly hostile PLP, and a Shadow Cabinet many of whose members have ruled out serving under him. And of course the media and the Tories would be on the alert to seize on any slip or split.
No doubt Corbyn understands this very well. But the crucial question is what conclusions he draws. If he tries to conciliate the right, as Michael Foot did when Labour leader in 1980-3, he’ll dig his own grave.
It’s the extra-parliamentary movement that has grown up around him that will remain his source of strength.