Klimt's The Kiss: a vital clue? Photo: DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
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It’s been a strange week: I have no idea who wrote the love letter I found on my table

It has been cut out from a reproduction of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and is about the size of one of those special stamps you get which are a bit too big for the envelope.

I find a little note on the table in the Hovel. It has been cut out from a reproduction of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt and is about the size of one of those special stamps you get which are a bit too big for the envelope, obscuring part of the address you’ve already written. On the obverse is written: “I love you not only for who you are – but for who I am when I am with you x”.

I do not recognise the handwriting. Something about it seems familiar, but not enough for me to able to pin it down. It looks a bit like [name redacted]’s – but not exactly like it.

Is it, I wonder, even for me? I’ve just opened an invitation for the Baileys Prize for Fiction and it may have fallen out of that, this being someone’s idea of a tantalising marketing campaign for one of their shortlisted books. I moisten my finger and run it across the words to see if the ink smudges, this being the way to tell if something is printed or not. It smudges. This does not preclude, though, the possibility that some minion with nice, neat handwriting has been employed to put one of these in each of the envelopes, although it seems a pretty cruel thing to ask a minion to do, given that by the thousandth envelope the minion would not only be ruling out ever using such a sweet formulation in real life, but she would also be thinking dark thoughts about the very word “love”. (The handwriting is feminine, I am pretty confident of that.)

I put the question of handwriting to one side and think of all the women I know who could have written it. I think we can rule out my wife. Others, too, we can rule out, for various reasons. And I doubt that the woman who was referred to some years ago in this column as the WIL (short for Woman I Love) would have written it.

It may, I reflect, have been meant for another inmate of the Hovel entirely. However, the thing that is hammering at my conscience as I write this – and that gave me severe misgivings as to whether I should even write about it at all – is that I know perfectly well who wrote me this charming note, but I have forgotten.

I do this, I know. I forget. My memory is like an Emmenthal cheese: very solid throughout, except for the enormous holes. I was once clearing out the freezer at two in the morning, with drunken resolve, together with H—, and we came across a quarter-bottle of Zubrówka whose provenance I queried aloud. “I think some bird gave it to me,” I said (using the word “bird” ironically, I promise). “That was me, you jerk,” she replied. (We polished it off and woke the next day with two of the worst hangovers either of us has ever had in our lives.) So it is entirely possible that the author of this note, one of the sweetest I have ever received, is reading this and saying to herself, in tones of unimaginable hurt and outrage: I cannot believe he does not remember.

All I can say in my defence, if this is the case, is that initially receiving it must have caused some kind of bomb to go off in my soul, as if the blush I would surely have experienced at the time immediately caused a mini-stroke, obliterating the memory of it at exactly the same time as it was forged.

There’s a nice paradox for you. And there are some compliments that are so vast, I feel I cannot contain them, because I sense not only that I can’t live up to them, but that I would become insufferably big-headed if I kept them in mind. So the nice things get swept under the conscious carpet while the cockroaches and other vermin crawl about freely in plain sight.

So there it is: I am haunted. Meanwhile, another funny thing happened to me the other weekend. The eldest boy, having turned 18, fancied a pint at the Duke after Sunday lunch. A nice idea, I thought, and as we were sipping our drinks at an outside table there was a tap on the window beside us. It was the woman who was once referred to in this column as the WIL – with her younger daughter and her New Man. “So?” you may ask. Well, she lives sixty miles away and was down in London for the weekend, and I happen to know there is at least one other pub in London open on a Sunday afternoon.

Well, we all chatted civilly. Later my son asked me if I had had any further thoughts about this coincidence. Temporarily channelling Doc, the permanently stoned private investigator from Inherent Vice, I replied: “That was no coincidence, man.”

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.