Martin O’Neill
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How nostalgic literature became an agent in American racism

From To Kill a Mockingbird to Gone With The Wind, literary mythmaking has long veiled the ugly truth of the American South.

Alongside this summer’s debate over the meanings of the Confederate flag, sparked by the Charleston shootings, another story about the history of American racism flared up. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, revealed further discomfiting truths, this time about the background to one of the nation’s most beloved fictional standard-bearers for racial equality.

In Watchman, Atticus Finch is discovered, twenty years after the action of Mockingbird, fighting against desegregation during the civil rights era. The shock readers have felt is akin to finding an early draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Orwell defends surveillance in the name of national security – but stumbling upon a segregationist Atticus Finch should not surprise readers who know their history. In the end, he proves just as problematic a symbol as the Confederate flag, and for exactly the same reasons: both flew in the face of civil rights to defend white prerogative in the South. And both were gradually romanticised through the process of revision, wrapping America in comforting white lies.

Like our euphemistic habit of calling Jim Crow laws “segregation” rather than apartheid, all of this partakes in a time-honoured communal practice of deracination through whitewashing, through popular fictions of innocence such as Mockingbird and ­popular histories such as folk tales about the innocence of the Confederate flag. America keeps willing its own innocence back into being, even as racist ghosts continue to haunt our nation’s dreams of the pastoral South, a society whose fantasy of gentility was purchased at the cost of brutal chattel slavery and its malignant repercussions.

An essential aspect of the history of American racism is also the history of its deliberate mystification. Many Americans continue to accept an idealised view of the antebellum and Jim Crow South, which emerged as part of a national romance known as the Lost Cause, a legend that turned terrorism into a lullaby. In the aftermath of the South’s crushing defeat in the civil war, southerners began trying to reclaim what they had lost – namely, an old social order of unquestioned racial and economic hierarchies. They told stories idealising the nobility of their cause against the so-called War of Northern Aggression, in which northerners had invaded the peaceful South out of a combination of greed, arrogance, ignorance and spite. Gentle southerners heroically rallied to protect their way of life, with loyal slaves cheering them all the way. This Edenic dream of a lost agrarian paradise, in which virtuous aristocrats and hard-working farmers coexisted peacefully with devoted slaves, pre-dated the war: merging with Jeffersonian ideals of the yeoman farmer, it formed the earliest propagandistic defences of slavery. One of the most powerful broadsides against this spurious fantasy was launched in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a north-eastern preacher’s daughter who had lived in border states and seen what really happened to ­fugitive slaves. The South responded to Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a furious denunciation of Stowe’s knowledge and motives, insisting on the benevolence of their “peculiar institution” – an especially sordid ­euphemism that recast plantation slavery as an endearing regional quirk.

Once institutional slavery was irrevocably destroyed, nostalgia prevailed, and southerners began producing novels, ­poems and songs romanticising the lost, halcyon days of the antebellum era. Reaching their apotheosis in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in 1936, and its film version in 1939, they have become known as the “moonlight and magnolia” school of plantation fiction, exemplified by the novels of Thomas Nelson Page, whose books, such as In Ole Virginia (1887) and Red Rock (1898), helped establish the formula: devoted former slaves recount (in dialect) their memories of an idyllic plantation culture wantonly destroyed by militant northern abolitionists and power-crazed federalists. A small band of honourable soldiers fought bravely on the battlefield and lost; the vindictive North installed incompetent or corrupt black people to subjugate the innocent whites; southern scalawags and northern carpetbaggers descended to exploit battle-ravaged towns. Pushed to the limits of forbearance, the Confederate army rose again to defend honour and decency – in the noble form of the Ku Klux Klan.

This thoroughly specious story is familiar to anyone who knows Gone with the Wind, but Mitchell learned it from Page and other novelists, including Mary Johnston and Thomas Dixon, Jr. Dixon wrote a series of books celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, of which the most notorious remains The Clansman (1905), for the simple reason that ten years later a director named D W Griffith decided to adapt it into a film he called The Birth of a Nation. Released exactly a century ago, it faithfully follows the same narrative blueprint. This was neither an accident nor a coincidence: Griffith was himself the son of a Confederate colonel (memorably known as “Roaring Jake”) and had listened to legends of the Lost Cause at his father’s knee. Reading The Clansman, Griffith said, brought back “all that my father had told me . . . [the film] had all the deep incisive emotionalism of the highest patriotic sentiment . . . I felt driven to tell the story – the truth about the South, touched by its eternal romance which I had learned to know so well.” That “truth” was a story in which the cavalry that rode to the rescue of an imperilled maiden was the KKK, saving her from a fate worse than death at the hands of a white actor in blackface. Griffith had considered hiring black actors for the film, he told an interviewer in 1916, but after “careful weighing of every detail concerned”, none of which he imparted, “the decision was to have no black blood among the principals”, a phrase that says it all by using the so-called one-drop rule to justify racist hiring practices in a film glorifying racism.

The Birth of a Nation was a national phenomenon, becoming the first film ever screened at the White House, in March 1915, for President Woodrow Wilson. Born in Virginia, raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was the first southern president since before the civil war. He attended Johns Hopkins University with Thomas Dixon, who became a political supporter of his; Wilson also appointed Thomas Nelson Page his US ambassador to Italy. Many members of his administration were equally avowed segregationists; their influence reverberated for generations. Wilson’s history books were quoted verbatim by Griffith in some of The Birth of a Nation’s titles, including: “‘The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.’ – Woodrow Wilson”.

Wilson does not, however, actually seem to have said the quotation most frequently attributed to him, that The Birth of a Nation was “like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”. The source for this appears to be Griffith, who told a 1916 movie magazine: “The motion picture can impress upon a people as much of the truth of history in an evening as many months of study will accomplish. As one eminent divine said of [moving] pictures, ‘they teach history by lightning!’” They can teach myths the same way, as Griffith’s film regrettably proved. Northern white audiences cheered it; black audiences wept at the malevolence it celebrated; it prompted riots and racist vigilante mobs in cities across America, and at least one racially motivated murder. Together, Griffith and Dixon worked to elevate a regional legend, designed to save face after a catastrophic loss, into a symbolic myth accepted by much of the nation.

 

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The Birth of a Nation helped to invent the feature film. It also helped to reinvent the Ku Klux Klan, which enjoyed a huge resurgence following the film’s release, spreading up through the north-east and Midwest. The Klan had a strong presence on Long Island in the 1920s, for example, which is why F Scott Fitzgerald made Tom Buchanan a believer in “scientific racism” in The Great Gatsby, a story set there in 1922, the same year in which Thomas Nelson Page died while working on a novel about the Klan called The Red Riders.

Four years later, a young writer named Margaret Mitchell began her own tale of the Lost Cause, a story that follows the same pattern, to the extent of describing Scarlett O’Hara on its first page in coded terms as a woman with “magnolia-white skin”. Gone with the Wind became a global sensation when it was published in 1936. Mitchell’s ideas of southern history were deeply influenced by Dixon’s racist ideology, although she was considerably more knowledgeable about the workings of plantation slavery than is often recognised. In fact, the great majority of antebellum southern planters (some 75 per cent) were what historians class as yeoman farmers (growing primarily for domestic use, selling only a small portion of their crop), not aristocratic owners of vast plantations. Such farmers often did not even own a slave, but rented or borrowed one or two during harvest time. But although the Hollywood version dispensed entirely with Mitchell’s sense of history (and her considerably more interesting take on historical sexism), it retained her racism, despite the stated intentions of its producers. The film of Gone with the Wind contributed greatly to the gradual displacement and dislocation of the historically specific time and place that had given rise to the antebellum plantation myth. Ben Hecht’s famed floating preface to the 1939 big-screen version labours at making the story timeless, a legend dissipating in the mists of history:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South . . . Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow . . . Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave . . . Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilisation gone with the wind . . .

as history recedes into ellipses.

Yet even this feudalist imagery has a specific history of its own, forming another crucial part of the popular culture of the Lost Cause. It was Mark Twain, whose works remain one of our most powerful literary antidotes to the toxin of moonlight and magnolia, who most famously named its source: the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott “did measureless harm”, Twain insisted in his 1883 Life on the Mississippi, “more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote”. Scott’s bestselling romances filled southerners’ heads with enchanted “dreams and phantoms . . . with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society”. In fact, Twain concluded acidly, “Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” This is only slightly exaggerated: Scott’s novels were as popular in early-19th-century America as were the films of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind a century later. It is certainly thanks to the popularity of novels such as Ivanhoe and Waverley that the cult of the “clan” was distorted into the Ku Klux Klan, with its bogus orders and knights. Scott’s novels may even have given rise to antebellum America’s use of the medieval word “minstrel” to describe itinerant blackface musicians; the OED offers no logic for the coinage, but its earliest citation is from 1833, when the mania for Scott’s work in the American South was at its highest. The feudal fantasy of “gallantry”, “cavalier knights” and “ladies fair” is a powerful one, not least, doubtless, because it gives America a sense of a much older past than it has, merging our history with a faux-feudalism in which slaves are rewritten as serfs, bound by devotion to the land and the family they serve.

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But even as Gone with the Wind was in its ascendancy, another national narrative was slowly gaining traction. Black writers including W E B DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright were vigorously challenging the dominant racist narrative, while white southern writers such as Ellen Glasgow and, especially, William Faulkner, also began debunking and complicating this facile tradition. Faulkner took from the Lost Cause legends that he, too, had heard as a child in Mississippi, some much darker truths about memory, history, distortion, perspective. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is probably his greatest meditation on the processes of myth-making and how they intersect with national history, writing a Homeric epic of America. Absalom came out in 1936, the same year as Gone with the Wind, and in many ways can be read as a corrective to it, shaking off the dreams of moonlight and magnolia to show the Gothic nightmare underneath.

Just twenty years later, a young woman who had been born in the year Margaret Mitchell began to write Gone with the Wind, named Nelle Harper Lee, produced her own version of the story of America’s struggles with its racist past. To Kill a Mockingbird takes place between 1933 and 1935 (just before Gone with the Wind was published), during which time Atticus Finch tells his young daughter, Scout, that the Ku Klux Klan was “a political organisation” that existed “way back about 1920” but “couldn’t find anybody to scare”, relegating the Klan to ancient history, instead of a mere dozen years before Lee’s story.

Nor is it any coincidence that Mrs Dubose, the racist old lady addicted to morphine, forces Jem Finch to read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to her as a punishment: there are more encoded traces of Lost Cause history in Mockingbird than many readers have recognised. Mockingbird resists this history on balance, but it also participates in collective myth-making, most significantly in its depiction of lynching as a furtive, isolated practice in the dead of night. It would be pretty to think so. In Lee’s version, a lynch mob is dispersed by the innocent prattle of the child Scout, who unwittingly reminds its members of their basic “decency”. In fact, by the 1920s, lynching in the South was often publicly marketed as a tourist attraction, in a practice historians now refer to as “spectacle lynching”, which took place in the cold light of day, with plenty of advance warning so people could travel from outlying areas for the fun. There were billboards and advertisements letting tourists know when and where the lynching would take place; families brought children and had picnics; postcards were sold and sent (horrific images of which are easy to find online). Burning at the stake was common; victims were often tortured or castrated, or had limbs amputated, or were otherwise mutilated first; pregnant women were burned to death in front of popcorn-crunching crowds. This was so well established that in 1922 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times with the headline “The shame of America”, demanding, in underscored outrage: “Do you know that the United States is the Only Land on Earth where human beings are BURNED AT THE STAKE?” It went on to outline a few salient facts: between 1889 and 1922, 3,436 people had been lynched in America. Of these, “only 571, or less than 17 per cent, were even accused of rape”. Eighty-three of the victims were women, which further undermined the myth that rape led to lynching.

Lee’s picture of lynching in To Kill a Mockingbird is not merely sentimental, but an active falsification: it participates in a wider American story seeking to minimise, even exonerate, the reactions of white southerners to African Americans’ claims to equal rights under the law. It functions as a covert apology, suggesting that lynching was anomalous, perpetrated by well-meaning men who could be reminded of common humanity – when, in fact, members of lynch mobs in the 1920s posed for photographs in front of their victims. But Atticus Finch stands up to racism, and Scout persuades Cunningham and the rest of the lynch mob to go home. This is why it matters that an earlier version of Atticus advocated segregation: it shows that the process of revising Mockingbird was a process of idealisation, promising readers that systemic racism could be solved by the compassionate actions of noble individuals.

This is the consolatory promise of individualism, that the nation can be redeemed collectively by isolated instances of benign action. The romance of individualism has always been how America manages injustice and unrest, how it pastes over irre­concilable differences and squares imaginary circles: the heroic figure who temporarily, occasionally, overcomes all structural and social impediments is taken as communal evidence that these obstructions don’t exist, or aren’t very obstructive. It is, of course, a deeply Christian idea: the redemptive individual who expiates collective sin, the original lost cause, sacrificed for the good of all.

The doctrine of individualism is further tangled up in yet another exculpatory logic: that of states’ rights. The remnants of this rationale also surface at the end of Go Set a Watchman: Atticus Finch argues that segregation is really a matter of states’ rights, and Jean Louise, his now adult daughter, though nauseated at his racism, accepts the legitimacy of that argument. What right has the federal government to insist that the people within its borders adhere to its laws, or even to the principles (truth, justice, equality, democracy) they purport to uphold? Some might conclude from reading this passage that, like paradise, causes are invented to be lost. The idea of the Lost Cause redeems a squalid past; it is an act of purely revisionist history, disavowing the notion that slavery or racism had anything to do with the civil war and its vicious, lingering aftermath. Glorifying that history as “gallantry” is not merely dishonest: it is ruinous.

Dismissing all of this as ancient history, or mere fiction, is not the solution, it is part of the problem. As Faulkner famously observed and this brief account shows, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. The word “legend” comes from the Latin legere, to read. Many insist that the stories we consume endlessly are harmless entertainment, but that, too, is part of the mystification, pretending that these legends did not arise precisely to veil an ugly truth with moonlight, to smother with the scent of magnolia the stink of old, decomposing lies.

Now listen to Sarah Churchwell discussing the fiction of the American South with the NS's Tom Gatti:

An American in London, Sarah Churchwell is an author and professor of American literature. Her latest book, “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby”, is published by Virago.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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Losing Momentum: how Jeremy Corbyn’s support group ran out of steam

Tom Watson says it is destroying Labour. Its supporters say it is a vital force for change. Our correspondent spent six months following the movement, and asks: what is the truth about Momentum?

1. The Bus

 The bus to the Momentum conference in Liverpool leaves at seven on a Sunday morning in late September from Euston Station, and the whole journey feels like a parody of a neoliberal play about the failings of socialism. We depart an hour late because activists have overslept and we cannot go without them. As we wait we discuss whether Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party this very day. One man says not; a young, jolly girl with blonde hair cries: “Don’t say that on Jezmas!” She is joking, at least about “Jezmas”.

A man walks up. “Trots?” he says, calmly. He is joking, too; and I wonder if he says it because the idea of Momentum is more exciting to outsiders than the reality, and he knows it; there is an awful pleasure in being misunderstood. Momentum was formed in late 2015 to build on Corbyn’s initial victory in the Labour leadership election, and it is perceived as a ragtag army of placard-waving Trots, newly engaged clicktivists and Corbyn fanatics.

We leave, and learn on the M1 that, in some terrible metaphor, the coach is broken and cannot drive at more than 20mph. So we wait for another coach at a service station slightly beyond Luton. “Sabotage,” says one man. He is joking, too. We get off; another man offers me his vegan bread and we discuss Karl Marx.

A new coach arrives and I listen to the others discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s problems. No one talks about his polling, because that is depressing and unnecessary for their purpose – which, here, is dreaming. They talk about Corbyn as addicts talk about a drug. Nothing can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault. “There are problems with the press office,” says one. “Perhaps he needs better PAs?” says another.

One man thinks there will be a non-specific revolution: “I hope it won’t be violent,” he frets. “There have been violent revolutions in the past.” “I stuck it out during Blair and it was worth it,” says another. “They’ve had their go.” “We don’t need them [the Blairites],” says a third. “If new members come in, it will sort itself out,” says a fourth.

I have heard this before. Momentum supporters have told me that Labour does not need floating voters, who are somehow tainted because they dare to float. This seems to me a kind of madness. I do not know how the Labour Party will win a general election in a parliamentary democracy without floating voters; and I don’t think these people do, either.

But this is a coach of believers. Say you are not sure that Corbyn can win a general election and they scowl at you. That you are in total agreement with them is assumed, because this is the solidarity bus; and if you are in total agreement with them they are the sweetest people in the world.

That is why I do not tell them that I am a journalist. I am afraid to, and this fear baffles me. I have gone everywhere as a journalist but with these, my fellow-travellers on the left, I am scared to say it; and that, too, frightens me. MSM, they might call me – mainstream media. What it really means is: collaborator.

The man beside me has been ill. He talks sweetly about the potential renewal of society under Corbyn’s Labour as a metaphor for his own recovery, and this moves him; he has not been involved in politics until now. I like this man very much, until I mention the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger and the anti-Semitism she has suffered from Corbyn supporters and others; and he says, simply, that she has been employed by the state of Israel. He says nothing else about her, as if there were nothing else to say.

We listen to the results of the leadership election on the radio; we should be in Liverpool at the Black-E community centre to celebrate, but the solidarity bus is late. Corbyn thanks his supporters. “You’re welcome, Jeremy,” says a woman in the front row, as if he were on the coach. She nods emphatically, and repeats it to the man who isn’t there: “You’re welcome, Jeremy.”

In Liverpool, some of the passengers sleep on the floor at a community centre. The venue has been hired for that purpose: this is Momentum’s commitment to opening up politics to the non-connected, the previously non-engaged, and the outsiders who will attend their conference in a deconsecrated church, even as the official Labour conference convenes a mile away. But never mind that: this is the one that matters, and it is called The World Transformed.

 

2. The Conference

Later that day, outside the Black-E, a man comes up to me. Are you happy, he asks, which is a normal question here. These are, at least partly, the politics of feelings: we must do feelings, because the Tories, apparently, don’t. I say I’m worried about marginal seats, specifically that Jeremy – he is always Jeremy, the use of his Christian name is a symbol of his goodness, his accessibility and his singularity – cannot win them.

“The polls aren’t his fault,” the man says, “it’s [Labour] people briefing the Tories that he is unelectable.” I do not think it’s that simple but it’s easy to feel like an idiot – or a monster – here, where there is such conviction. As if there is something that only you, the unconvinced, have missed: that Jeremy, given the right light, hat or PA, could lead a socialist revolution in a country where 13 million people watched Downton Abbey.

But the man does say something interesting which I hope is true. “This is not about Jeremy, not really,” he says. “It is about what he represents.” He means Momentum can survive without him.

There is a square hall with trade union banners and a shop that sells Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a Corbyn-themed colouring book. When I am finally outed as a journalist, and made to wear a vast red badge that says PRESS, I attempt to buy one. “That’s all journalists are interested in,” the proprietor says angrily. That is one of our moral stains, apparently: a disproportionate (and sinister) interest in colouring books.

I go to the Black Lives Matter event. A woman talks about the experience of black students in universities and the impact of austerity on the black community. Another woman tells us that her five-year-old son wishes he was white; we listen while she cries. I go to the feminism meeting and change my mind about the legalisation of prostitution after a woman’s testimony about reporting an assault, and then being assaulted again by a police officer because of her legal status. Then I hear a former miner tell a room how the police nearly killed him on a picket line, and then arrested him.

This, to me, a veteran of party conferences, is extraordinary, although it shouldn’t be, and the fact that I am surprised is shameful. Momentum is full of the kinds of ­people you never see at political events: that is, the people politics is for. Women, members of minority communities (but not Zionist Jews, naturally), the disabled: all are treated with exaggerated courtesy, as if the Black-E had established a mirror world of its choosing, where everything outside is inverted.

When Corbyn arrives he does not orate: he ruminates. “We are not going to cascade poverty from generation to generation,” he says. “We are here to transform society and the world.” I applaud his sentiment; I share it. I just wish I could believe he can deliver it outside, in the other world. So I veer ­between hope and fury; between the certainty that they will achieve nothing but an eternal Conservative government, and the ever-nagging truth that makes me stay: what else is there?

There is a rally on Monday night. Momentum members discuss the “purges” of socialist and communist-leaning members from Labour for comments they made on social media, and whether détente is possible. A nurse asks: “How do we know that ‘wipe the slate clean’ means the same for us as it does for them? How on Earth can we trust the likes of Hilary Benn who dresses himself up in the rhetoric of socialism to justify bombing Syria? The plotters who took the olive branch offered by Jeremy to stab him in the back with another chicken coup?” I am not sure where she is going with that gag, or if it is even a gag.

The next man to speak had been at the Labour party conference earlier in the day; he saw Len McCluskey, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis on the platform. “Don’t be pessimistic, folks,” he cries. “On the floor of conference today we owned the party. Progress [the centrist Labour pressure group] are the weirdos now. We own the party!”

A man from Hammersmith and Fulham Momentum is next. “The national committee of Momentum was not elected by conference,” he says. “It’s a committee meeting knocked up behind closed doors by leading people on the left, including our two heroes.” He means Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is explicit heresy, and the chair interrupts him: “Stan, Stan . . .” “I’m winding up!” he says. “We need a central committee of Momentum elected by conference,” he says, and sits down.

The following day Corbyn speaks in the hall in front of golden balloons that spell out S-H-E-E-P. It may be another gag, but who can tell, from his face? This is his commitment to not doing politics the recognisable way. He is the man who walks by himself, towards balloons that say S-H-E-E-P. (They are advertising the band that will follow him. They are called, and dressed as, sheep.) The nobility of it, you could say. Or the idiocy. He mocks the mockers of Momentum: is it, he was asked by the mainstream media, full of extremists and entryists? “I’m not controlling any of it,” he says calmly, and in this calmness is all the Twitter-borne aggression that people complain of when they talk about Momentum, for he enables it with his self-satisfied smile. “It’s not my way to try and control the way people do things. I want people to come together.” He laughs, because no one can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault.

I meet many principled people in Liverpool whose testimony convinces me, and I didn’t need convincing, that austerity is a national disaster. I meet only one person who thinks that Momentum should take over the Labour Party. The maddest suggestion I hear is that all media should be state-controlled so that they won’t be rude about a future Corbyn government and any tribute colouring books.

 

3. The HQ

Momentum HQ is in the TSSA transport and travel union building by Euston Station in London. I meet Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former fixer and the founder of Momentum, in a basement room in October. Lansman, who read economics at Cambridge, lived on the fringes of Labour for 30 years before volunteering for Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership.

The terms are these: I can ask whatever I want, but afterwards James Schneider, the 29-year-old national organiser (who has since left to work for Corbyn’s press team), will decide what I can and cannot print. ­Momentum HQ wants control of the message; with all the talk of entryism and infighting reported in the mainstream media, the movement needs it.

There is a civil war between Jon Lansman and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and other far-left factions, which, I am told, “wish to organise in an outdated manner out of step with the majority of Momentum members”. Some of the Momentum leadership believe that the AWL and its allies want to use Momentum to found a new party to the left of Labour. Jill Mountford, then a member of Momentum’s steering committee, has been expelled from Labour for being a member of the AWL. It screams across the blogs and on Facebook; more parody. We don’t talk about that – Schneider calls it “Kremlinology”. It is a problem, yes, but it is not insurmountable. We talk about the future, and the past.

So, Lansman. I look at him. The right considers him an evil Bennite wizard to be feared and mocked; the far left, a Stalinist, which seems unfair. It must be exhausting. I see a tired, middle-aged man attending perhaps his fifteenth meeting in a day. His hair is unruly. He wears a T-shirt.

The last Labour government, he says, did one thing and said another: “Wanting a liberal immigration policy while talking tough about refugees and migrants. Having a strong welfare policy and generous tax credits while talking about ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ unfortunately shifted opinion the wrong way.”

It also alienated the party membership: “Their approach was based on ensuring that everyone was on-message with high levels of control.” It was an “authoritarian structure even in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Even in the cabinet. It killed off the enthusiasm of the membership. They never published the figures in 2009 because it dropped below 100,000. We’ve now got 600,000.” (The membership has since dropped to roughly 528,000.)

And the strategy? “If you have hundreds of thousands of people having millions of conversations with people in communities and workplaces you can change opinion,” he says. “That’s the great advantage of ­having a mass movement. And if we can change the Labour Party’s attitude to its members and see them as a resource – not a threat or inconvenience.”

That, then, is the strategy: street by street and house by house. “We can’t win on the back of only the poorest and only the most disadvantaged,” he says. “We have to win the votes of skilled workers and plenty of middle-class people, too – but they are all suffering from some aspects of Tory misrule.”

I ask about polling because, at the time, a Times/YouGov poll has Labour on 27 per cent to the Tories’ 41 per cent. He doesn’t mind. “It was,” he says, “always going to be a very hard battle to win the next election. I think everyone across the party will privately admit that.” He doesn’t think that if Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader they would be polling any better.

Upstairs the office is full of activists. They are young, rational and convincing (although, after the Copeland by-election on 23 February, I will wonder if they are only really convincing themselves). They talk about their membership of 20,000, and 150 local groups, and 600,000 Labour Party members, and the breadth of age and background of the volunteers – from teenagers to people in their eighties. One of them – Ray Madron, 84 – paints his hatred of Tony Blair like a portrait in the air. He has a ­marvellously posh voice. Most of all, they talk about the wounds of austerity. Where, they want to know, is the anger? They are searching for it.

Emma Rees, a national organiser, speaks in the calm, precise tones of the schoolteacher she once was. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the status quo, of politics as usual, and I think trying to do things differently is hard because there isn’t a road map and it’s not clear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she says. She adds: “It is a coalition of different sorts of people and holding all those people together can sometimes be a challenge.”

Is she alluding to entryism? One activist, who asks not to be named, says: “I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you rounded up all the members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Socialist Party and any other ultra-left sect, you could probably fit them in one room. Momentum has 20,000 members.”

The SWP were outside at The World Transformed in Liverpool, I say, like an ambivalent picket line. “Well,” James Schneider says pointedly, “they were outside.”

Momentum, Emma Rees says, “is seeking to help the Labour Party become that transformative party that will get into government but doesn’t fall back on that tried and failed way of winning elections”.

They tell me this repeatedly, and it is true: no one knows what will work. “The people who criticised us don’t have any route to electability, either,” says Joe Todd, who organises events for Momentum. He is a tall, bespectacled man with a kindly, open face.

“They lost two elections before Jeremy Corbyn. It’s obvious we need to do something differently,” he says. “Politics feels distant for most people: it doesn’t seem to offer any hope for real change.

“The left has been timid and negative. More and more people are talking about how we can transform society, and how these transformations link to people’s everyday experience. Build a movement like that,” Todd says, and his eyes swell, “and all the old rules of politics – the centre ground, swing constituencies to a certain extent – are blown out of the water.”

Momentum sends me, with a young volunteer as chaperone, to a rally in Chester in October to watch activists try to muster support for local hospitals. They set up a stall in the centre of the shopping district, with its mad dissonance of coffee shops and medieval houses. From what I can see, people – yet far too few people – listen politely to the speeches about austerity and sign up for more information; but I can hear the hum of internal dissent when an activist, who asks not to be named, tells me he will work for the local Labour MP to be deselected. (The official Momentum line on deselection is, quite rightly, that it is a matter for local parties.)

We will not know what matters – is it effective? – until the general election, because no one knows what will work.

 

4. The Fallout

Now comes the result of the by-election in Copeland in the north-west of England, and the first time since 1982 that a ruling government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election. Momentum canvassed enthusiastically (they sent 85 carloads of activists to the constituency) but they failed, and pronounce themselves “devastated”. The whispers – this time of a “soft” coup against Corbyn – begin again.

Rees describes calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as “misguided. Labour’s decline long pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.”

This produces a furious response from Luke Akehurst, a former London Labour ­councillor in Hackney, on labourlist.org. He insists that Labour’s decline has accelerated under Corbyn; that even though Rees says that “Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in election after election in Copeland since 1997”, the majority increased in 2005 and the number of votes rose in 2010, despite an adverse boundary change. “This,” he writes, “was a seat where the Labour vote was remarkably stable at between 16,750 and 19,699 in every general election between 2001 and 2015, then fell off a cliff to 11,601, a third of it going AWOL, last Thursday.”

And he adds that “‘85 carloads of Mom­entum activists’ going to Copeland is just increasing the party’s ability to record whose votes it has lost”.

But still they plan, and believe, even if no one knows what will work; surely there is some antidote to Mayism, if they search every street in the UK? Momentum’s national conference, which was repeatedly postponed, is now definitively scheduled for 25 March. Stan who complained about a democratic deficit within Momentum at The World Transformed got his way. So did Lansman. In January the steering committee voted to dissolve Momentum’s structures and introduce a constitution, after consulting the membership. A new national co-ordinating group has been elected, and met for the first time on 11 March – although, inevitably, a group called Momentum Grassroots held a rival meeting that very day.

I go to the Euston offices for a final briefing. There, two young women – Sophie and Georgie, and that will make those who think in parodies laugh – tell me that, in future, only members of the Labour Party will be allowed to join Momentum, and existing members must join Labour by 1 July. Those expelled from Labour “may be deemed to have resigned from Momentum after 1 July” – but they will have a right to a hearing.

More details of the plan are exposed when, a week later, a recording of Jon Lansman’s speech to a Momentum meeting in Richmond on 1 March is leaked to the Observer. Lansman told the Richmond branch that Momentum members must hold positions within the Labour Party to ensure that Corbyn’s successor – they are now talking about a successor – is to their liking. He also said that, should Len McCluskey be re-elected as general secretary of Unite, the union would formally affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the party, was furious when he found out, calling it “a private agreement to fund a political faction that is apparently planning to take control of the Labour Party, as well as organise in the GMB and Unison”.

There was then, I am told, “a short but stormy discussion at the away day at Unison” on Monday 20 March, where the inner circle of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry “laid into” Watson, but Shami Chakrabarti made the peace; I would have liked to see that. Watson then released a bland joint statement with Corbyn which mentioned “a robust and constructive discussion about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.

Jon Lansman, of course, is more interesting. “This is a non-story,” he tells me. “Momentum is encouraging members to get active in the party, to support socialist policies and rule changes that would make Labour a more grass-roots and democratic party, and to campaign for Labour victories. There is nothing scandalous and sinister about that.” On the Labour right, Progress, he notes, does exactly the same thing. “Half a million members could be the key to our success,” he says. “They can take our message to millions. But they want to shape policy, too. I wouldn’t call giving them a greater say ‘taking over the party’” – and this is surely unanswerable – “it’s theirs to start with.”

Correction: This article originally named Luke Akehurst as a Labour councillor. Akehurst stood down in 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution