Reviewed By Laksiri Fernando –
This is an exceptionally valuable book for those who wish to understand British left politics today and/or resurrect social democratic, or in Sri Lanka’s case sama samaja (equal society) politics in a context where mixed signals or choices are being posed by various quarters. This should not mean that what Jeremy Corbyn is advocating in Britain today is completely applicable to Sri Lanka or even to Britain.
Corbyn may go into history as a person who has inspired a new generation of enthusiasts on ‘social equality,’ both encompassing politics and economics. What might be necessary is social equality also in the international sphere. This may prove to be an intermediary phase between the enthusiasm for ‘neoliberalism,’ that is now turning into its opposite, and an era of ‘social equality’ and social democracy. Corbyn’s ideology is not exactly social democracy, but something going beyond, and as he says, ‘democratic socialism.’ (By the way, this is similar to the title of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka!).
Corbyn exceptional radicalism has created a wedge within the Labour Party which was historically necessary given Tony Blair’s and other’s capitulation to what became initiated by Margaret Thatcher and other neoliberals in 1980s. This rise may coincide with a more right-wing initiatives of nationalists or ‘patriots,’ for example, who broke Britain from the EU (Brexit), and this is a challenge that committed social democrats may have to face in a many countries including Sri Lanka going through a transitional period.
Among a dozen of books already written on Jeremy Corbyn, 287 page Richard Seymour’s Verso book (Second Edition, London, 2017) can be considered one of the best and it is undoubtedly closer to what I intend to highlight in this review: ‘we are closer to a new area of democratic socialism where both political equality and economic equality could prevail.’
Circumstances of New Radicalism
Seymour correctly locates Corbyn’s success first within the party (2015), and next in the country at 2016 elections within the limits and downturn of neoliberalism and globalization. Corbin didn’t win the elections in the traditional sense to become the PM, but “Labour had its biggest surge in votes since 1945.” More importantly, his cause for ‘democratic socialism’ was the obvious winner in the political landscape. Vindicating his arguments and policies, the limits of ‘neoliberalism’ became revealed in the global financial crisis (2007-2008) which started in the United Stated with the burst of the ‘housing bubble’ and the credit crunch, and spread the shivers throughout the capitalist world engulfing the United Kingdom. This was ironically during the last Labour government’s tenure under Gordon Brown (2007-2010).
As Seymour reported, “World trade is still growing, but far less rapidly than before the credit crunch, and more slowly than global GDP. According to the World Trade Organization, the ratio of trade growth to GDP growth fell to 0.6:1 in 2016.” This is a valid analysis for the resurrection of social democracy or democratic socialism not only in Britain but world over. It is not through pure theoretical arguments that the need and rational for social democracy could be justified, but within an economic analysis and grievances of the people.
Perhaps heralding what is to come in 2018, world stock markets have plunged again in early February. The Dow Jones’ Index dropped by 1,175 points or 4.6 percent in one day on 5 February, but modestly recovered thereafter. This is the highest ever recorded fall within a day in its history, but the defenders of the markets argued that it is a market correction. It is not only DJ which had plunged; S& P fell by 4.1 percent and Nasdaq by 3.8. In Australia, within a day over $ 60 dollars became wiped out in the stock market.
Even it is a ‘market correction,’ it was at a heavy price and the most affected were the superannuation and pension funds. At least it shows that this world of ‘unbridled markets’ are cyclical and the real losers at the end are the ordinary people in terms of jobs, wages and living standards.
At the previous occasion, first came the recession in the housing economy and then the crash in the stock market. This time, the stocks have crashed first, and it is not clear yet what would follow in the economies. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that the ‘elected governments’ by the people would come to the recuse of the big companies and business communities at the expense of the people. This vindicates what Jeremy Corbyn has been continuously advocating. People have to have a proper ideology, a party and a dedicated leadership to counter the situation.
Corbyn ’s Background
There is no question that Corbyn as a person played a decisive role in radicalizing Labour politics. But it was not as a traditional ‘charismatic’ leader, but a determined humble one and that was his charisma among the new generations and circumstances. Until he obtained nearly 13 million votes at the elections, no one in the conservative circles or conservatives within the Labour did not take him serious. He was considered the ‘absolute boy’ and traduced as a ‘laughing-stock’ leader. All these became changed suddenly.
As Seymour said, “Corbyn, from a more humble background in rural Shropshire, where he worked on local farms, has never been considered a likely Labour leader.” As he further quoted Corbyn himself, there was a big contrast between him and Tony Blair.
“The difference between me and Tony was that whereas he was one of those very unusual politicians who was actually very successful in a conventional career pattern, I have been monumentally unsuccessful in the conventional career patter.” (p.4).
Perhaps that was his strength, having gone through difficulties in life and coming into contact with ordinary workers, farmers, housewives, unemployed youth and the like. This was also the difference between him and Theresa May. During the election campaign when she was asked about the ‘naughtiest thing she ever did as a child,’ she had said ‘running through fields of wheat, upsetting local farmers’! That was the difference.
It is not unusual in the Labour history (UK or Australia) for the workers or trade unionists to come to the leadership. Is this possible in Sri Lanka within the Left? I doubt it at present. There was a time when trade union leaders like D. G. William or M. G. Mendis were prominent in the Left movement. But even that period is gone now as the trade union movement has become scattered and the remnants largely becoming tools of ruling parties or nationalists. Another reason is the monopoly of the English education; thus the so-called theoretical knowledge imprisoned within a small urban elite.
Corbyn has been in local council politics between 1974 and 1983. This is in addition to his trade union activities. He became a Member of Parliament representing Islington North since 1983. Therefore, apart from his trade union affiliation and activism, and local government politics, he has been familiar with what was going on inside the parliamentary Labour Party during this ‘reformist’ or ‘revisionist’ period (1994-2015). The ideology of this period was broadly called ‘New Labour,’ directly and indirectly accepting neoliberalism.
In my opinion, however, there is no reason to totally reject what appeared as the analysis of ‘New Labour,’ with some excellent contributions in Marxism Today. Even in the future, social democratic movements even elsewhere may have to absorb some of this analysis particularly in respect of political liberalism. However, Corbyn was completely right in objecting and countering the economic conclusions of this analysis or its capitulation to neoliberalism. Even on the question of ‘free market,’ there is no reason to completely reject the reality.
While coming from a radical family, both parents being peace campaigners since 1930s, his political upbringing was very close to Tony Benn, probably the most radical politician in the Labour Party after the war. He himself was an anti-war activist going against the vacillating policies of the party on particularly Iraq war. He followed this leftist path very firmly and was instrumental in giving Tariq Ali, the former member of the International Marxist Group, membership of the Labour Party in 1982.
There are two chapters in Seymour’s important book, chapters 4 and 5, outlining his ascending to the leadership.
As Richard Seymour, the author of the book that we talk about says, “Corbyn’s agenda is not exactly the Communist Manifesto.” He is not even a strong Marxist. He believes in many things and, first and foremost as a rational politician, he believes in the people. Not that he believes in their opinion or what we call ‘public opinion, but their interests and needs. “That is not to say he is indifferent to what people think – but he wants to change opinion.”
His manifesto at the last election was fairly radical. It may be better to quote Seymour on this subject.
“Labour’s manifesto – above all its core commitments to renationalizing rail, mail, energy, and water; expanded public investment; abolishing tuition fees; building council houses; raising the minimum wage; and rolling out a new menu of workers’ rights – was extremely popular.” (p. xii).
There is no question about the popularity of such a radical manifesto among the labouring workers who always wait for a raise in minimum wages and among the students and youth who are eager to have tuition free education. But what about the middle classes and the public in general? His ‘renationalization agenda’ (rail, mail, energy and water) was extremely radical, while his ‘expanded public investment’ was equally popular among the party members and supporters without much questioning except among the conservatives. Building council houses was/is a primary necessity in Britain and elsewhere given the housing prices and rents.
Is such a programme feasible in Sri Lanka towards social democracy or more precisely, democratic socialism? This is a question I would like to pose with this review. Renationalization or halting privatization is necessary for social justice and affordability. Could they be run efficiently and without loss? Sri Lanka has largely preserved free education and health care although with several encroachments. Could they be expanded at least? Unfortunately, even at this closely contested local government elections, no one has promised or talked about ‘council houses.’
Corbyn has continuously refuted the neoliberal theory of ‘trickledown effect.’ How long the ordinary people have to wait for the ‘trickles’ to come down like manna! That is why he is talking about ‘expanded public investments.’ Obviously such a thing is difficult in a country like Sri Lanka given the small economic base, corruption and inefficiency. Another reason is the present tax structure. Therefore a certain leverage could be and should be allowed for the private sector participation and FDI. However, the ‘free market’ should not be allowed to manifest as ‘bond scams.’
What are the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn winning elections in the future? Anyone interested in this subject should particularly read Chapter 6 or the final chapter. The author’s analysis is obviously cautious on this matter both weighing pros and cons or merits and demerits. For this assessment, the author has finally used several types of benchmark.
The first is organizational. This is about the party while the author has commended Corbyn as fairly a good organizer and an effective communicator in previous chapters. The author has used elsewhere the common Christian saying, ‘the church is not bricks and mortar.’ This means the Party is not its bureaucracy or money, but its members. Corbyn it appears has a good grasp on this matter.
The second is ideology. Corbyn undoubtedly is a radical socialist. He has resurrected the word ‘socialism’ after several decades, where it was completely off the agenda. However he is a pragmatist and not an extremist. Democracy and liberty are close to his heart it appears. The third benchmark is electoral. This may be an area he is apparently weak, but appears catching up fast, but without compromising principles. He seems to be working on the youth, the poor and also utilizing the social media with much success.
The final benchmark the author talks about is policy. This is of course a difficult matter with different dimensions in any country. Corbyn has however built much consensus within the party and it is a matter of effectively communicating them to the public. The following appears to be the author’s final assessment about his future.
“In the first edition of this book, I thought it most likely that Corbynism would enjoy some successes but fail in its larger, longer-term objectives….It is no longer evident that this is the most realistic reading.” (p. 287).
*Richard Seymour is not a Labour Party member or a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. A former member of the Socialist Workers Party, he is an independent Marxist writer, broadcaster and an activist.