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3 December 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:17pm

Jeremy Corbyn believes in respectful dissent – why don’t his supporters?

If every person who dares to criticise Jeremy Corbyn is attacked, there can be no meaningful critique.  

By James Edwards

In her 1994 book, Outlaw Culture, in an essay entitled “Spike Lee Doing Malcolm X”, bell hooks spoke on the reputation of Lee admirers who would censor any view of the movie that was not “unequivocally celebratory” of the representation of Malcolm X. In this essay, bell hooks writes: “We cannot develop a body of […] criticism as long as all rigorous critique is censored.” She goes on to say that “black folks who subject the film to rigorous critique risk being seen as traitors to the race, as petty competitors who do not want to see another black person succeed, or as having personal enmity towards Lee.” Have we not seen this same type of behaviour recently? Where all criticisms of the Labour leader are themselves their own blasphemy? Where legitimate points made about Jeremy Corbyn that don’t compliment his glowing reputation are a betrayal to tenets of the left?

Yes, we have seen this. And the most rigorous of this abuse is usually aimed, not at those Conservative voters or politicians who don’t like Jeremy Corbyn for reasons of “policy”, but left-leaning individuals who dare criticise a man who is said to be leading Britain into a sans-Blairite future. However, there is a lot to be said on this issue, not only for its counter-productive style of criticism but because it flies directly in the face of, as hooks put it, “meaningful […] critique”.

Corbyn does not speak for all Marxists, but he is himself a Marxist – a democratic socialist. In this way then, Corbyn is in favour of what the Ancient Greeks called the “dialectic” and what Marxists (and closet Hegelians) call the Dialectical Process. This process is a means to an end. It is a strategy for social and political change that is supposed to lead all industrial societies to a better place by way of a thesis and an antithesis clashing to develop the synthesis of progress. In layman’s terms this is simply the process of practical debate where compromises of opinion democratically direct history, something our democracy has boasted of for decades.

Corbyn associates with this process. Not in the fixed terms of “the dialectical process” but just last Sunday in his interview with Andrew Marr, Corbyn had this to say: “I understand dissent, I understand disagreement with the leadership, I talk to people who don’t agree with me, I talk to people who agree with me just as, when I was a backbencher myself, I often talked to people with whom I actually had some disagreements, but it doesn’t have to be abusive, it doesn’t have to be personal, it doesn’t have to be nasty. It can be respectful and I am respectful of differences of opinion within our party.” Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges was convinced that Corbyn would “whip” his party into line with his own anti-war politics. But nothing of the sort has since happened. Coherent with his own commitment to this process of debate, Corbyn allowed his party full autonomy of a free vote and did advocate for a two-day debate to be held in the House of Commons on the airstrikes in Syria. Not, as I’m led to believe, to sway the vote (although I’m sure that is part of it) but to hear all sides of the argument, to come to a dialectical conclusion.

Despite Corbyn’s attitude to the proceedings, this is not a politician whose New Politics has taken with his supporters. It is obviously easier to attack a 2,000 word article with a witty one-liner, isn’t it?

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Political correctness can do good things, such giving much-needed space in the debate to marginalised groups such as trans women. Where it fails is in the over-emphasis on language which stops people self-critically examining their own engagement with the power-politics of identity and economics, as well as effective, political organising.

This is where the problem lies with the militant “Corbynistas” or “Corbynites”. By attacking every person who dares to criticise Jeremy Corbyn, they stop the circulation of criticism. I do think it’s important to filter out the nonsense criticism found in the tabloid papers, but to attack all criticism as though they all deserve a “shut up” response is reductive and egregiously counter-productive.

In the spirit of bell hooks I would like to propose then that all criticisms of Corbyn are legitimate. These critiques are not always correct, or even true, but their status as criticisms-that-are-points-of-opinion are valid. It’s important, I think, to wrestle ourselves out of the notion that all criticisms of Corbyn betray the party line and support an anti-Corbyn, Conservative consensus and to instead strive for criticism that seeks to empower, instead of shutting down dissent without even acknowledging the reasons for its censorship.

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