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Jeremy Corbyn: The last comrade

On a visit to Prague, Jeremy Corbyn opens up on Donald Trump, Russian war crimes, Brexit woes, anti-Semitism and the promised socialist transformation.

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One day in late June, as the “coup” to oust Jeremy Corbyn gathered momentum in the immediate aftermath of the vote for Brexit, Owen Smith visited the Labour leader in his office at Portcullis House, Westminster. A vote of no confidence had been tabled against Corbyn and shadow ministers were, at choreographed intervals, resigning in protest at what was perceived to be his failed leadership. Many blamed him personally for Brexit, believing that he was a “secret Outer”. (He was not.) Corbyn’s allies had long anticipated a move from within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) against the leader – they thought that it might come as early as the day after the local elections in May – and they were determined to defend their man to the last. Would Corbyn
be similarly resolute?

Long isolated and irrelevant, the far left had waited more than three decades since the end of the Bennite wars of the 1980s to be in a position to control the Labour Party. “This is what it’s all about,” John McDonnell, Corbyn’s long-time ally and neo-Marxist shadow chancellor, told his close friend as he urged him to stand his ground against their gathering enemies in the PLP.

With a hostile media camped outside his house, Corbyn felt the strain. He was concerned about the effect of the relentless scrutiny on his wife, Laura Álvarez, and his neighbours, many of whom he considers friends. “But they all said, ‘Stick at it. We’re with you,’” Corbyn told me during a recent trip to Prague for the annual conference of the Party of European Socialists (PES). “Friends, family, neighbours – they said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give in to what’s going on.’ And I didn’t.”

A former lobbyist for the biopharmaceutical multinational Pfizer, Owen Smith was elected as the MP for Pontypridd in 2010 and purported to be from the “soft left”. His high self-regard and considerable ambition compensated for a lack of ministerial experience, and he had an ingenious plan that he wanted to put to Corbyn when he visited him in his office. The plan was simple: Corbyn should resign and Owen Smith should become the leader of the Labour Party. Encouraged by his supporters among the soft-left faction of MPs, such as John Healey and Lisa Nandy, Smith told the Labour leader that if he moved aside gracefully, his reward would be to become the president of the party.

“What do you think of that?” Smith said, peering at Corbyn expectantly. There was silence and then he spoke, the low, rasping tone of his voice betraying no irritation. “There’s no vacancy for president, Owen,” Corbyn said, “because the position doesn’t exist.” He then offered to make Smith a cup of tea.

In the event, Corbyn crushed Smith in the ensuing leadership race, the second that he had contested and won in little more than a year since the debacle of Ed Miliband’s general election defeat, “burying the soft left along the way”, as one senior Labour figure put it to me.

Labour has been “captured by the far left for the first time in the party’s history”, Tony Blair said to me in sorrow a few weeks ago when I interviewed him at his offices in London. But Corbyn has not coerced his way to the leadership. No one forced the membership and activists to vote for him. Corbyn never hides who he is, what he represents or what his anti-capitalist positions are. He is the leader the members want – perhaps the leader the party deserves – and he draws his inspiration and determination to carry on from the hundreds of thousands who have joined Labour to support him. “The mandate I was given by members on two occasions and the support I get from a lot of people – that’s why I do it,” he told me. “And the pleasure, because I enjoy travelling around, I enjoy the campaigning work and I enjoy representing my constituency.”

Corbyn certainly enjoyed himself in early December when we were in Prague, where he was the star turn, repeatedly being stopped for photographs and handshakes, to which he responded with patience. “He’s very popular with young people here,” Kristyna Kocvarova, who works for the Czech Social Democratic Party, told me. “He’s a good speaker, open-minded, courageous, a guy from next door – yet really charismatic. He’s an inspiration to socialists across Europe.”

I watched as Corbyn took part in a panel discussion on the “future of democracy” in Europe in the main conference hall of a labyrinthine, communist-era building. Leaning forward in a chair, his reading glasses perched on the end of his narrow nose, Corbyn spoke from notes, his voice quickening whenever he wished to be emphatic or to convey urgency. He seemed delighted to be in the company of four left-wing women onstage. “I like being in the minority as the only man on this panel, just as we will have a majority of women ministers in a Labour government,” he said to loud applause.

“We can’t make a politics for straight, white men,” said one of the panellists, a blonde-haired woman from the Karl Renner Institute, the political academy of the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Corbyn nodded vigorously.

The Labour leader – his image projected on a large screen behind him – said that politics had been shaken up across the world and that corporate America had “bought up industrial America, deindustrialised it and sold it off”. He and his fellow socialists had to be “agents of change”. Injustice had been “brought about by free market economics”, he said, and: “We should stand up to unfettered capitalism . . . We cannot be protectors of the status quo.” His speech was a hymn to socialist internationalism. I sat listening in the front row, next to Corbyn’s charming wife, Laura, who is Mexican and was dressed in a mustard jumper and dark scarf. She used her phone to take photographs of her husband as he spoke, which she then shared with me. “Do you like this one?”

Corbyn performed creditably on the panel. He is at his most comfortable in these situations, speaking to fellow true believers, scourges of global capitalism and far-right nativism. “We need a socialist economic strategy across Europe for the redistribution of wealth and power,” he said. When asked from the floor about his role in the EU referendum campaign, Corbyn said that the vote for Brexit was “a cry from the heart from neglected communities”.

One questioner, a woman from Andalusia, said: “Jeremy, you are an icon, a rock star, but we European federalists cannot forgive you for your poor performance during the referendum. Why did you let us down?” Corbyn seemed unmoved by the criticism.

“I tried as hard as I could,” he said. “My message was ‘remain and reform’. But if we rejected the result now, what message would that send to the Labour voters for Brexit?” Then he declared that what was needed above all else was “the redistribution of wealth across Europe”, and everyone applauded again.

Afterwards, Corbyn met a group of Czech journalists in a small, overheated room and took quick-fire questions from them. Moderate social democracy was finished, he said, because it attempted to “manage the system, rather than transforming it”. He repeated the need for a “redistribution of wealth and power” and said that the “management model” did not work as it had created a “free-for-all market economy that blames minorities for the inequalities”.

 

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Since his victory over Owen Smith in the second leadership contest, Corbyn has begun to feel more  secure in his role, even as Labour’s ratings have collapsed – a recent poll put the party 17 points behind Theresa May’s Tories. While we were in Prague, the result of the Richmond by-election came through and Corbyn seemed unconcerned that the Labour candidate had lost his deposit. “The by-election was an act of extra­ordinary hubris by Zac Goldsmith and of extraordinary opportunism by the Liberal Democrats,” he said on several occasions in a curiously jaunty tone.

To observe Corbyn in Prague – as he mingled with other European politicians, paused for multiple selfies and did several television interviews – was to observe a politician increasingly at ease with his responsibilities and revelling in the attention. (Laura said: “If Labour charged a pound for every selfie, it would be very rich.”) Corbyn is heavier, especially in the face and around the stomach, than when I interviewed him in July 2015, when he was still the improbable insurgent, the rebel leader in waiting.

“I was the last to be convinced we could win,” he said, reflecting on that heady summer of campaigning. “I took a lot of convincing. People kept saying, ‘You’re going to win.’ I said, ‘No way.’ And then the pressure I got was from a neighbour who put a great deal of money on me, and he hasn’t got a great deal of money. So I suspect he borrowed the money to put it on. So every time I saw this guy, I had this feeling of responsibility towards him! He said, ‘You are going to win, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well, I hope you’re going to vote.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I didn’t register.’ Thanks mate.”

Corbyn admits that he was completely unprepared for what he would do if he won. He was elected on a Saturday and four days later had to face off against David Cameron in the House of Commons. After that first Prime Minister’s Questions, which I watched from the press gallery, Cameron, impressed, told one of his aides that Corbyn’s hands “were not even shaking” as he read his prepared questions in what was his first ever appearance at the despatch box at the age of 66. “Did he say that?” Corbyn asked. “I don’t get nervous. I just thought, ‘Well, we’ve been through so much.’ I finally got in there and sat down, ready to go up at the despatch box, and looked around and the place was absolutely packed. You couldn’t move. Every single seat was taken. I thought, ‘Wow.’ There must have been about 2,000 people there in total, I suppose, inside the chamber. The galleries and everything, completely full. I thought, ‘Wow – 2,000 people. And about 1,900 of them don’t want me to do well!’”

Moving on from the Commons, Corbyn went to the Labour party conference in Brighton, where he made 41 speeches in three days, and then the next week to a rally in Manchester that was planned to
coincide with the Conservative party conference taking place in the city, after which he and Laura took a brief holiday. “Laura and I went up to Scotland and we were accused of taking a lengthy holiday. Two days, and one of them was in Fort William on a bicycle. It’s not luxury. The small-mindedness and the way in which many of our media will always believe the worst of you. We were eating a bag of chips. And suddenly this guy sells a story about me eating chips to the Sunday Times – I hope he got well paid. So things have changed a lot.”

Seumas Milne, the Guardian journalist-turned-spin doctor and chief strategist, had told me that Corbyn works relentlessly and is much tougher and more determined than his mild demeanour suggests. “He’s a generous man,” Corbyn said of the friend he addresses in jest as “Comrade Milne”. “He does the same [he works relentlessly].”

I’d heard that Milne hadn’t had a day off since last Boxing Day. Corbyn laughed. “He hasn’t. What breaks have we had?” He turned to Laura. “We had that infamous holiday during the referendum campaign which amounted to one and a half days. We went to Exmouth at Easter for one day. We were going to stay for three, but then I went to Port Talbot [because of the crisis at the steelworks]. And then we had two days at the beginning of June in Swanage. Cycling. And we took a journey on a steam train.”

Corbyn’s aides believe that he is finally learning to stick to agreed positions – or “lines”, in the jargon – in interviews. The running joke among his entourage is that, after an interview or television appearance, they check “not against delivery but to see if a line was delivered at all”. His appearance is smarter – in Prague, he wore a dark suit and an open-necked pale blue shirt – and he is more willing to play the game and to make more of the necessary compromises of leadership.

He is also more comfortable in shadow cabinet meetings. Encouraged that he has more allies on the Labour front bench, he knows that he has silenced most of the PLP, at least for now. There is little speculation about a second attempt to oust him any time soon, though Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn supporter who, as one MP told me, has been “triangulating his way out of being too much the Corbyn loyalist”, is frequently mentioned as a future contender or challenger from the left.

Labour MPs have ceased using Twitter to condemn and mock Corbyn’s every statement and public performance. As things stand, Corbyn will lead Labour into the next general election, which his aides believe could be as early as May 2017. “We are preparing for a May or June election and we are ready,” I was told. As for his and the party’s dire poll ratings, Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, has said that these will steadily improve over the next 12 months, presuming there is no general election.

Labour MPs are clearing the ground for Corbyn to fail, in his own way, on his own terms. Many of the party’s most influential MPs – Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Rachel Reeves – will not serve under him. By contrast, Keir Starmer, whose Commons performances shadowing Brexit Secretary David Davis have been impressive, believes that he can best serve his party and country by demonstrating his competence in opposition and by seeking to hold the government to account on what is the defining political and economic issue of our times.

“Jeremy will be responsible for the manifesto and the outcome,” one senior Labour MP said to me. “He has to understand that he’s the establishment now. He will be responsible for our successes and failures. Yet the idea of leading us into the election – that’s the one thing that keeps him awake at night, because of the media scrutiny. They will go through his record, day after day, over a six-week period . . . I still wouldn’t be surprised if he stepped down in 2018, if there’s no early election.”

 

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How does it feel to be Jeremy Corbyn? How does it feel to be adored by activists and members but traduced by your MPs, reviled by the “mainstream media”, while presiding over catastrophic poll ratings for the party you lead? How does it feel to have spent three decades on the back benches pursuing various radical causes unconstrained by the usual career considerations or by the discipline of collective responsibility – only to find yourself in late middle age becoming the accidental leader of a great national political party at a time of profound crisis for the left?

As Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, put it to me when we spoke recently, Corbyn has unlocked something long repressed on the left. His consistency, his uncompromising socialism and his hostility to American power and the liberal world order have inspired many who turned away from Labour after the Iraq War to re-engage with politics. He has awakened, too, the interest of young people who are enraged by growing inequalities of wealth, despise the Westminster jamboree and distrust elites. Why, in the era of the hipster beard, even the facial hair is working for him.

But Corbyn is also an epiphenomenon: his election to the leadership is a symptom rather than the cause of Labour’s malaise, as well as more generally of the rejection of mainstream social democracy and what Tony Blair calls “muscular progressive centrism” by voters throughout the West.

In countries from the United States to France, the left is losing. There are social-democratic governments – in Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic, for instance – but they are invariably fragile coalitions. In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democrats are in government with the pro-business ANO party. ANO’s leader is a Berlusconi-style populist billionaire named Andrej Babiš, who is the deputy prime minister and finance minister and, before making his fortune, worked as an agent for the communist-era security services. No social democrat, Babiš is yet another billionaire Big Man in an era of authoritarian Big Men: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India.

Corbyn has a simple answer to the question of the struggles of the left. He believes that for too long progressive parties have pursued the wrong policies and have been too willing servants of “neoliberalism”, especially his party and the US Democrats. In America, Donald Trump won the presidency because he “was a well-funded opportunist who doesn’t appear to put forward an entirely coherent message other than one of blaming women and minorities”, and he “somehow managed to present himself as a “saviour” to people who were “suffering the trauma of industrial decline”. Though he deplores Trump, Corbyn said he would like to invite him to north London “to show him the Finsbury Park Mosque and give him a cup of tea”. He said they would “discuss Mexico on the way” to an Arsenal game.

Corbyn’s analysis is broadly Marxist: a far-reaching economic transformation of the exploitative system of market capitalism will lead to political transformation and the creation of a new society. “Social-democrat parties haven’t offered enough hope and optimism to the left-behind communities, haven’t offered hope that their housing issues are going to be dealt with,” Corbyn told me. “There also has to be a challenge to the power of globalism [by which he means, I think, financial capitalism], because we are told that the only solution to globalism is to retreat from the consensus model of a welfare state and roll back on it. And that’s what has been rolled back on in the USA and has left people very angry, and the Democratic Party couldn’t offer an alternative to it. So what’s to be the way forward in Europe? Sign TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] and have a furthering empowerment of global corporations, and say that the only way forward is to cut living standards and cut wages in order to have a global market, or is it to do something different in order to protect and increase and improve those living standards? I’d obviously go for the latter.”

The paradox of ultra-liberal globalisation and EU federalism is that these have resulted in what Corbyn describes as a “retreat into local identity agendas” and in the emergence of “strong separatist movements in Spain and France to a lesser extent”. As for the Scottish National Party, it offers a form of what he calls “identity nationalism”. Is the SNP a party of nativists? “To some extent. They are also very broad. And like all national movements, become very contradictory.”

Even after the vote for Brexit, Corbyn supports freedom of movement within the EU and strongly favours immigration. He is a cultural liberal but an economic protectionist. You might say that he is left-liberal on culture and left-liberal on the economy. He favours open borders, at least within Europe, but less open and much more tightly regulated markets. I asked him about the failures more generally of liberalism and of the post-liberal turn, but he didn’t quite understand what I meant. He is simply baffled by the reaction by some on the left against what the American writer and academic Mark Lilla has called “identity liberalism”.

“I don’t know why everything always has to be identified as ‘post-something’. I’m not sure we’ve had ‘post’ lots of things. How about we say this is the time for opportunity for social justice? I know it’s a bit of a mouthful. But as an idea, surely it’s a bit more optimistic than saying we’ve come to the end of some kind of era. I’m not sure eras are something people recognise when they’re in the midst of it.”

 

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Corbyn’s entourage in Prague comprised his wife, Laura, Seumas Milne, Jennifer Larbie – a former National Union of Teachers organiser who was recently appointed to advise Corbyn on foreign affairs and was excellent company – as well as the aides Gavin Sibthorpe and Mark Simpson.

One afternoon, we headed north-west out of Prague and drove for 60 kilometres into northern Bohemia, where we visited Terezín (formerly Theresienstadt), the site of a Nazi-era concentration camp and a Jewish ghetto. Long before that, it had been a Hapsburg military fort and small garrison town. It was intensely cold – the temperature was well below freezing – and frost was already forming on the grass beneath our feet as the New Statesman’s photographer Kate Peters took a series of portraits of Corbyn outside the high walls of Terezín in the fading late-afternoon light. Laura stood by watchfully and removed a red tie from her bag, which Corbyn put on dutifully – “Because of where we are,” Laura said, “we must be respectful.”

We were taken on a tour of the camp and into various cell blocks, where more than 150,000 Jews (including 15,000 children) were imprisoned in appalling conditions before being transported to death camps such as Mauthausen and Auschwitz. We were also shown the claustrophobic cell where the young Bosnian-Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip spent two years after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the shot that was heard around the world. The experience in the camp was harrowing.

As we prepared to leave, a Czech Social Democrat asked Corbyn to deliver on camera an impromptu message to “the young people of my country”. Corbyn reasserted that he opposed all forms of racism and that we should be especially vigilant because the far right was rising again in Europe. Corbyn knows that Labour has a serious problem with anti-Semitism, which is presumably why he took time out to visit Terezín. Anti-Semitism would not be tolerated in the party, he told me.

“I am very concerned about any reports I receive of any racist activity, or any anti-Semitic activity of any sort,” he said. “I’ve asked [for] an investigation to take place, and it’s been reported and where there is any evidence, a suspension may well follow, following the investigation.”

But why doesn’t he condemn anti-Semitism in and of itself (he always uses the wider frame of “all forms of racism”)? “I have totally condemned anti-Semitism on its own terms,” he said.

I asked what he made of Terezín. “I’ve been to other concentration camps and I remember as a young man going to Dachau, near Munich, which was awful, obviously. It was designed to be. We went to Auschwitz about five years ago, maybe more. It was a bitterly cold January day, and that was the right time to see Auschwitz. And today, this camp – very well presented, I thought, beautifully presented, and the guide, well, you were there with me. I thought he was very good. And I thought it was very moving to see it . . . The inhumanity that people can descend into.”

He has not been to the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem but said that he “will be there” the next time he visits Israel.

 

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By the time we returned to our cars, it was dark. Corbyn’s aides were becoming concerned that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. There were sandwiches waiting for him in one of the cars, but these turned out to be ham or tuna – as a vegetarian, he could not eat them. Someone passed him a slice of bread from which the meat had been removed. He took a couple of unenthusiastic bites and then drank some water. I had been warned that Corbyn could become “a touch robotic” if he was tired and hadn’t eaten and, on the journey back to Prague, we chatted but many of his answers were indeed robotic, like an actor delivering overfamiliar lines.

He was most engaged on foreign affairs. He favoured what he called a foreign policy based on “human rights”, as opposed to one based on, say, pragmatic national interest or cool-headed realism. A Corbyn foreign policy would be independent of America, under which Britain would not “automatically accept the foreign policy initiatives of the Unites States” and one would “challenge countries that routinely abuse human rights”, such as Saudi Arabia.

I asked him about Russian war crimes in Syria and whether a serious consequence of the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq was the reluctance of Western powers to intervene in the Syrian War, even to prevent humanitarian catastrophes such as in eastern Aleppo – which Peter Tatchell likened to the horrors of Guernica when he disrupted Corbyn’s speech in London on 10 December.

“The slaughters are appalling,” Corbyn said to me of the Syrian tragedy. “Had we gone in, would there have been any difference? I’m not sure whose side we would have gone in on, and it would have been a three-way civil war [sic]. I think the failure has been to keep the Geneva process going; the failure has been to bring about the political settlement when it should have been brought about.”

I asked if he thought that Putin was a neo-fascist. “His government is very repressive in many ways. I disagree with a lot of his policies, particularly his human rights policies, but one has to recognise that Russia is a place of enormous self-consciousness as a country. I think there has to be an engagement in Russia that is critical but at the same time hopes to bring about some kind of de-escalation of tensions. These tensions can get very dangerous.”

Why have so many politicians, from Viktor Orbán in Hungary to France’s Marine Le Pen and Ukip’s Nigel Farage, been attracted to Putin? Even Donald Trump seems sympathetic.

“I’m not entirely sure. I think that they like it that he’s the mirror they put in front of themselves. They see him as a very strong leader, which he is, and that expresses his determination on behalf of his country. I don’t quite see it that way. I do see him as somebody who is obviously president of Russia, obviously very powerful in Russia, and Russia is obviously a place that is always going to be important for its traditions, its natural resources and everything else. But I do not want us to get into a military arms race with Russia, and that’s why I want to see better agreements made with Russia.”

I asked again about Russian war crimes in Syria, and he said: “I would want to see them investigated. The bombing that’s gone on is appalling, particularly the bombing of the UN convoy, and as one who has spent a lot of time at UN human rights councils over the years, I would want to see an investigation on that. And so, if war crimes have been committed, then they must be charged.”

Towards the end of our conversation in the car, Corbyn pushed back against Blair’s claim that Labour had been captured by the far left. “I don’t know where the definitions of left and far left come from. You’ll have to ask Tony Blair. If I call myself a socialist, that’s because I am a socialist.” Then he checked the football results on his iPad.

 

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How serious is Jeremy Corbyn? Is he for real? One Czech journalist asked me this after he had fired several questions about Brexit at the Labour leader. Because of their history of occupation and communist oppression, the Czechs have a heightened sense of the absurd – and the startling decline of the Labour Party in the UK has become a kind of absurdist parable of these turbulent new times. And the Czech Republic is, after all, the land of Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek and Milan Kundera. There is a tradition in central and eastern European literature of the holy innocent or idiot who may or may be not be feigning his idiocy.

In Hašek’s celebrated novel The Good Soldier Švejk, which is about the misadventures of a Czech soldier serving in the Austro-Hungarian army, the hero mimics the absurdities and idiocies of the military bureaucracy in which he finds himself. As an empire crumbles around him, his performance is so convincing that no one can tell if he is merely acting the fool or he means quite what he says and does.

As Nicholas Lezard has written, “Švejkian means an enigmatic mixture of idiocy and cunning, deep folly and deep wisdom, an incarnation of human stupidity and yet also with something of the divine about it.”

For his supporters and detractors, it is something like this with Jeremy Corbyn, who can seem guileless in his self-deprecating affability and unworldliness, even innocent, as he repeats his stock phrases, chats about his allotment and preaches the virtues of peace and justice and an end to all war and conflict.

Is Corbyn as guileless as he can seem, or would have us believe? No one would doubt that he is politically sincere. Yet does he sincerely believe that his politics can have wide appeal? Does he believe that enough of the British people are yearning for a full-scale socialist transformation of society, even as the Labour Party collapses in Scotland and struggles desperately beyond its urban strongholds in England?

Labour has long been an uneasy coalition of the working class, minority groups, public-sector workers and metropolitan liberal intellectuals – and today that coalition is fracturing as its voters find themselves on different sides of the Brexit divide. Labour wins when it reaches out to and connects with the aspiring lower-middle and middle classes, when it attempts to speak to most of the people most of the time. It wins when it has an optimistic programme, when, as Clement Attlee said of the government elected in 1945, we look “towards the future”.

Another difficulty for Corbyn is that he drags his past behind him like a ball and chain. Some people will never forgive him for inviting members of Sinn Fein to Westminster only a few weeks after the IRA attempted to murder Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and many of her cabinet in a bomb outrage at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. I put it to Corbyn when we were back at his hotel that he had sided with the IRA over the British state. “Not true,” he fired back. “I was always wanting there to be peace in Ireland. I recognised what was happening in Ireland and that there had to be peace and there had to be an end to the war . . . I represent a very strongly Irish community – it’s more mixed now, but then it was very strongly Irish. And I always firmly believed that the only way you would ever bring about peace in Ireland is by talking to people.” The problem is that, on any number of conflicts – from Northern Ireland to Israel-Palestine – he invariably chooses to speak to only one side.

As for the provocation of inviting Sinn Fein to parliament, he said: “Well, the ones who came were actually former prisoners who had done their time. They came to parliament and we actually discussed what future there was. Whenever I had invited them, it would have been the same kind of thing, and the Daily Mail certainly managed to fill quite a lot of pages with that.”

 

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Jeremy Corbyn is a cannier media operator than he is given credit for. He is adept at deadpanning television interviewers and at deflecting questions about Trident or Nato by making reference to his jam-making. And he is at once ideologically inflexible and pragmatic. His economic policies so far are in essence no more than reheated Keynesianism. He has compromised on any number of positions since becoming leader, including on his opposition to Nato (membership is party policy, he told me) and unilateral nuclear disarmament (which isn’t party policy). He is an ardent Eurosceptic, yet he campaigned sincerely, though never as passionately as some colleagues would have wished, for Remain. David Cameron and George Osborne certainly believe they were “let down” by Labour and Corbyn during the campaign.

In her biography Comrade Corbyn, Rosa Prince suggests that the Labour leader’s world-view has been unchanged since he returned from working as a young man for the Voluntary Services Overseas scheme in Jamaica, where each week he used to wait for the New Statesman to arrive by post from England and wrote poetry. “I personally have always seen Jeremy as a Peter Pan figure, just not a grown-up,” one unnamed friend told Prince.

His aides see him differently, as a “quintessential Englishman” of a type that Orwell would have recognised in all his strangeness and eccentricity. Every Thursday, Corbyn sends his aide Gavin Sibthorpe out to WHSmith buy a copy of a railway magazine and the most excited that I saw him in Prague was when he received a text or email from a Labour councillor who was a train driver, offering Corbyn a “ride in his train cab”. “Look at this, look at this!” he said to Milne when the message landed. Dressed in a dark suit and dark polo neck sweater and drinking a double espresso, Milne smiled peaceably.

Corbyn has been caricatured as sectarian and as a humourless Spartist. But in person, he is humorous and nicely self-mocking. He has a hinterland, speaks Spanish and reads widely – he enthused about the novels of Edward Upward and of Orwell, especially the earlier works of low-key provincial English realism, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air. As we waited for the photographer to choose locations outside the Terezín memorial, he chatted about East German cars with Milne and recalled travelling through Czechoslovakia on an MZ 349 motorbike in the 1970s. “You had to change a fixed amount of money every day but there was nothing to spend on it. Everything was excessively bureaucratic and the officials were bad mannered.” He ended up buying some glass trinkets on the border to spend some money. “It’s not a good idea to carry glass on a motorbike,” he said. “But I think we got some back.”

Corbyn was especially animated when he spoke, as Laura poured us some tea at his hotel, about his two years in Jamaica and how the experience shaped his politics and made him the person he is. “I’m not sure changing politics is a good thing,” he said when I mentioned the comment of the unnamed friend in Prince’s book. “Yes, it was a dramatic experience. Here was me, a country boy from Shropshire, grown up albeit with a radical family, or left family, I suppose, didn’t do particularly well in school, and was suddenly bizarrely taken on the VSO to Jamaica. I went there and was suddenly told you had to teach 70 kids geography. So I was learning a lot about the little boys. It was a boys’ school I was teaching in. Also I took a lot of kids on camping trips, which I enjoyed, and that got me interested in a lot of other things. I started turning up at a lot of random evening classes at the University of the West Indies when I had an evening off. Anthropology, history, cultural stuff. Anything really. Just turn up and listen for a while. And talk to people, and then I went on a journey around Latin America, where I saw unbelievable repression and poverty.”

 

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One ally of Corbyn told me that they feel that he has something special – what the Andalusian activist in Prague described as his rock star charisma. “Jeremy has something powerful – Boris has it, too. He appeals to people, especially young people. We’ve got to capture that and use it better, because he offers something hopeful, a different way. It’s a kind of populism of the left, if you like . . .”

Is this what Corbyn feels that he is offering, too, a populism of the left to confront the new populism of the right that is sweeping Europe, especially if, as he believes, it’s all over for the moderate centre left?

“[You need] a community of endeavour,” Corbyn told me, somewhat prosaically. “A community of endeavour to achieve social justice and social change . . . There is a growing feeling that there has to be economies developed that are more sustainable and more rational and that Europe doesn’t have to succumb to the globalisation of the trade agreements. Instead, Europe has to be the manufacturing place.”

He seems unconcerned by Labour’s poor poll ratings, blaming the coup against him and a summer of internal conflict.

“We were distracted by the leadership contest when we could have been attacking the Tories,” he said to me. “We’ll see how they [the polls] develop as we develop our economic programme. We have got to be optimistic. We have got to offer hope,
not blame.”

Why aren’t people listening? “It’s extremely noisy, there is a lot of hate out there,” he said. “But people also think about things more deeply than many give them credit for. And a lot of media tend to speak to a lot of other media and don’t recognise that there’s a whole parallel system of information going on through social media that never touches the rest of it.

“So there are different forms of communication going on, and the dangers of racist populism are very serious indeed. And you have to confront it.

“I recently spoke to the CBI [Confederation of British Industry] conference and I said that I represented a very successful enterprise known as the Labour Party. Which, in less than two years, has doubled its membership, paid off all debts and all mortgages and has put a stash of money away for the next campaign that we’re involved with. I think we deserve congratulations for that.”

If he deserves congratulation, why are Labour MPs so unhappy?

“Some people are just never satisfied. Look, I hope they all have a wonderful Christmas, and I hope that we can do what we did [sic] on the schools, on the health service, on the economy, and win the election campaigns to come. We are on the way. We are hopeful. We are confident. And we are committed.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

CREDIT: COLIN ANDERSON/BLEND IMAGES
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The humanist left must challenge the rise of cyborg socialism

A new “accelerationist” movement, defined by its embrace of technological determinism, represents a threat to the ethical socialist tradition and liberal democracy. 

Undiagnosed by the mainstream media and much of the academic community, a major intellectual renewal is underway across the left. It is energetic and tech-savvy, building platforms such as Novara Media. It maintains a radical, rich heritage within the European left, embraces bold ideas, and is well-organised and networked.

It is fast becoming a new political movement; best captured in influential articles and books discussing “accelerationism”, “postcapitalism” and even “fully automated luxury communism”. It has entered green and radical thinking, and has subtly influenced many political commentators - especially when discussing Universal Basic Income.

Yet there has been little critical engagement with this new thinking in terms of its intellectual origins and assumptions.

***

The US political scientist Mark Lilla has offered a popular diagnosis of the state of the left. He suggests a modern closure of the American mind after changes within liberal thought made it barely recognisable from its previous iterations. The result is the long march of a malign identity politics through the left - which helps to account for the success of Donald Trump and various nationalist movements. Across both the left and the right, politics is now defined by identity and the losers sit on the progressive side.

Lilla’s basic pitch is a compelling one. Following Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, the left failed to develop a new body of ideas as post-war social democracy disintegrated. Consequently, two generations of radicals retreated back onto campus. The political imperative was to build a new public philosophy for the left but this was sidelined and replaced by the embrace of an individualised identity politics; one that “distorted the liberal message to such a degree that it has become unrecognisable”. The historic concerns of the left - nurturing citizenship and building the “common good” - were lost through a descent into relativism and a politics of the self.  We entered the culture wars.

The character of the left has shifted. It has become obsessed with the belief that politics is an authentic search for the self, rather than a sacrificial contribution to the commons, with its trade-offs and compromises. Movement politics - rather than one anchored in the complexities of representative democracy - now dominates. This politics assumes that generalisation is not possible given our assorted personal histories and experiences of privilege, inequality and exploitation. Left politics has turned inward, preoccupied by questions of personal identity and with a new language of fluidity, hybridity and intersectionality. This dovetails with our modern narcissistic, individualised culture and Facebook echo chambers, in contrast to historic forms of collective agency and physical solidarities informed by traditional - often ancient - models of justice.

So far, so good. Lilla’s argument helps define the detachment of the liberal left from both its historic traditions of language and thought and a discernible working class base. This detachment has been brought into sharp political focus over the last 18 months on both sides of the Atlantic.  

How, though, does this liberal reorientation relate to wider shifts across the left? The real challenge is to identify how this liberal rewrite has tacitly joined forces with darker ideas and histories. It is not just about the evolution of modern identity politics; it is about how parts of the left are once again returning to anti-humanist thinking to scientifically determine the true path.  

***

The signature book for much of this fashionable thinking on the left is Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work - Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ brilliant, iconoclastic 2015 text which introduced what we have come to know as “accelerationism” into our political mainstream. It is a genuinely audacious, supremely confident intervention in terms of its intellectualism and its presentation of a highly specific future for the left. It has caught a wave and helped to re-populate the left’s post-crash void and jettison late New Labour managerialism.

Given its many virtues, it is easy to understand why the book has been so uncritically welcomed, especially in its embrace of both automation and a Universal Basic Income. It is seen to speak for a disenfranchised generation: a modern classic imbuing the left with both ideas and confidence. No surprise, then, that the authors and their allies have been invited into the orbit of “Corbynism”. We might therefore request closer scrutiny of their ideas.

For example, the authors make a significant philosophical assertion when they write: “there is no authentic human essence to be realised” and that “humanity is an incomplete vector of transformation” (p.82). A few pages earlier, they suggest that the future demands “synthetic freedom”, exemplified by “Cyborg augmentations, artificial life, synthetic biology and technologically mediated reproduction”’.

This is not just some prosthetic envy but the demand for a new “Promethean Spirit”, as Ray Brassier, another accelerationist thinker, terms it. “Synthetic freedom” involves “at least three different elements: the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources and the development of technological capacities”. This final element is a recurring, disturbing drumbeat within the history of the left.

Things become clearer when the authors proclaim that their overall aim is to “undertake an interventionist approach to the human that is opposed to those humanisms that protect a parochial image of the human at all costs.”

The rebuke of political opponents as “parochial” is common within the left’s internal - and often impenetrable - doctrinal battles. It is not difficult to see why. You frame your opponent as a backward-looking reactionary whilst virtue-signalling your personal grasp of modernity; you own the future whilst your opponent languishes in nostalgia. This approach seeks to define a binary politics: the future against the past, progress against reaction, and right against wrong. It has a long tactical history. For example, witness Perry Anderson’s takedown of Raymond Williams in the Politics and Letters interviews or Tony Judt’s assessment of E.P. Thompson in the New York Review of Books.

So, who and what do they trash-talk as “parochial”? The authors provide two examples of “parochial defences” of the human. First, Jürgen Habermas in The Future of Human Nature, and second, Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future. The sin of both writers - their parochialism - is to suggest that modern “transhumanist” thinking might threaten the foundations of liberal democracy.

Habermas’ “parochial defence” is to propose that we retain what he calls “the species ethic” when negotiating modern technological acceleration. A generous opponent might suggest that this is hardly surprising given that Habermas inhabits a country with recent experience of eugenics. His request is to dare to suggest we search for philosophical rigour and establish moral and ethical principles to achieve minimal human self-understanding to survive these technological currents. Morality is rooted in this understanding; one, however, which is considered a “parochial defence” of the human condition.

Fukayama operates in the same vein. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, he suggested that transhumanism threatens the foundations of our liberal democracy, specifically that “[the] idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?”

This argument is also central to the history of socialist humanism. Fukayama concludes that “transhumanism” is “one of the world’s most dangerous ideas”. So, what is going on here? Maybe - and this is related to Lilla’s assessment of liberal identity politics - we are seeing the formation of a wider chronocentric left generation.

***

A few years back, Fukuyama suggested: “history is directional, and its endpoint is capitalist liberal democracy”. It was a chronocentric argument.

Chronocentrism - first coined to describe “the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that others pale in comparison” -  asserts a chronological snobbery; that a specific period of time - usually the present – holds greater significance than others.

It can present itself as a form of generational egotism through overvaluing the significance of your own generation; a personal “end of history” illusion.

Politics attracts the chronocentrically disposed, especially through various forms of economic determinism. New Labour, for example, was affected through its belief in a new cosmopolitan, liberal, knowledge-driven global moment. So too was much Scientific Marxism with its understanding of how the forces of production determine the relations of production, which became an overconfident assertion of revolutionary imminence.

Historically, much left-wing thinking has been prone to this condition through a belief in linear progress driven by technological innovation. But the danger has been an obvious and recurring one -  when the link between technological change and human “enhancement” leads to either tyranny and repression or an explicit embrace of anti-humanist political philosophies. The history of eugenics and the left is an obvious case in point.

Today, the clearest expression of the chronocentric malady is represented in the way that once obscure, marginal ideas regarding “accelerationism” have crept into the mainstream of left discourse. Here, modern technological change creates unique possibilities to transcend (or, in their vocabulary of disguise, to “enhance”) the human condition; for some it offers the opportunities of a technological “singularity”.

This chronocentrism might appear as unhinged, morally deficient nihilism, yet others regard it as the only truly utopian worldview on offer. Today, it is fashionable - as the book says, it is helping to “invent the future”.

Another example - containing a similar, highly deterministic take of Marx’s value theory and asserting revolutionary possibilities driven by modern technological change - is Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism, a modern chronocentric bible and companion work to Inventing the Future.  

These books have been treated uncritically despite the reappearance of anti-humanist thinking within the left. Humanism needs to be defended; or, as Orwell wrote, “the job of the thinking person is not to reject socialism but to make up his mind to humanise it”.

***

We might suggest three “parochial defences” against this hybrid chronocentric left. First, against its technological determinism. Second, against its form of cosmopolitanism. Third, against transhumanism - or, in old money, the new eugenics – in that it falls foul of scientism and fanaticism.

The origins of much of this new thinking lie in the radical politics of 50 years ago. “Autonomism” or “Autonomist Marxism” emerged out of the 1960s Italian workerist movement - the operaismo - characterised by a muscular critique of the centralised, orthodox Italian left. It sought to build a politics autonomous from traditional forms of representative democracy.

This mutated into “post-operaismo” - literally post-workerism - popularised by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire, a work highly influential among those inspired by the anti-globalisation movements, Occupy protests, and militant campus agitation of the last decade.

The young academic Frederick Harry Pitts offers a brilliant critique of this literature. In his book Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx he demonstrates how a highly specific and misleading interpretation of Marx’s value theory leads the contemporary left to celebrate and seek to accelerate  the substitution of human labour - the working class - with technology. In its place, the base of the left becomes a new urban, networked educated youth, rather than the historic class base of left politics.

For the left thinkers Pitts critiques, the era of postcapitalism beckons as the capitalist relations of production cannot manage the epochal shifts in the forces of production. As with traditional scientific Marxism, there is little role for actual struggle - for politics. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride as the laws of history unfold and take us to “postcapitalism”. Resistance is conservative.

If you challenge this teleology, out comes the counter-charges: parochial, reactionary, nostalgic, humanist or Luddite. History is on the side of the left – just not the dematerialising working class. Change is immanent. As with the old scientific left, immanence brings with it political “hope”.

***

In February 1998 (in the New Statesman) one of the founders of the “Third Way” - the sociologist Ulrich Beck - detailed the “Cosmopolitan Manifesto”. Identifying “freedom’s children”, he suggested the basis for a new “world citizenship” through an “ethical globalisation”. He identified the two stages of this entrenched modernity. First, the legacy of freedom captured through various civil rights struggles. Second, through our dissolved attachments where “community, group and identity structure loses their ontological cement” replaced by a radical individualism and strengthened democracy especially amongst the more educated youth.

There are political movements within and between nation states emerging to form “world parties” in a threefold sense. First, their appeal - “liberty, diversity, toleration!” - transcends values that appear in every culture and religion. Second, they prioritise global political action. Third, they seek to democratise transnational regimes and regulators. Here, as with modern technological determinism - the new base of the left is seen to be among the post-national, urban, networked, educated youth, rather than the working class.

This is where Lilla’s identity politics of the liberal left joins forces with today’s cosmopolitan accelerators. As the “Third Way” has collapsed, a notionally more radical left has again pronounced the nation as dead, or at least as offering diminishing returns given intensifying globalisation. Hardt and Negri identify the declining significance of the sovereign nation given the amorphous power of capital; modern rule suggests a declining relevance attached to questions of territory and country - empire without the significance of nation. This has brought forward the political possibilities offered by a transnational multitude.

Followers of Negri, such as Mason, suggest that the globally-oriented networked youth are the new progressive agents as the working class is being destroyed and the nation state is insignificant – and mostly reactionary. Cosmopolitanism asserts a privileged global citizenship over other forms of society or fidelity – parochial attachments or defences

***

Ancient ontology considered the world as a hierarchy, ascending from non-living matter through the levels of plants and animals, to humanity and ultimately the divine. This was contested by Descartes, for example, for whom the world was conceived as two fundamentally disparate substances: the rational human subject and nature; the task, he believed, was to master nature.

Within European left philosophy, the failures of 1968 produced a dramatic reorientation. The superstars of modern cultural studies - Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard – suggested an accelerationist approach to modern capitalism, rather than a search to overcome it, echoed in today’s fashionable texts.

According to another young academic, Lewis Coyne, postmodernism finishes the job Descartes started. As Descartes stripped the dignity from non-human nature Deleuze reduces humans to mere substance. Being - humanity - is construed as “a plane of immanence” -  a continuous movement of matter and time: “there are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed elements, or at least between elements that are relatively unformed, molecules, and particles of all kinds. There are only subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages.”

This “plane of immanence” also sits behind the postoperist thought that Pitts critiques. This suggests that everything is one single “assemblage” and there is nothing more; nothing such as parochial human nature with its sociability, relationships and attachments.

Modern transhumanism - in the guise of accelerationism - assumes that technological change creates the opportunity to transcend the present human condition - of becoming transhuman - and critically maintains that this is to be celebrated. Political resistance is “parochial”, nostalgic and futile.

Transhumanism is a modern, in-vogue cyber philosophy, but one which has its origins in a quite conscious anti-humanist philosophy of matter. In the 1990s, the Warwick Philosophy Department, specifically within the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, incubated a home-grown accelerationist movement consuming all the sacred continental texts. It has subsequently helped create a networked movement of activists and thinkers, which is producing books, conferences, and new media platforms that define today’s left.

At times, transhumanism reappears in debates around human “enhancement” - the quest to eliminate ageing, enhance physical and intellectual capacity and transcend mortality. Numerous practical and ethical criticisms can be rehearsed against this literature many of which historically resonate - think Huxley’s Brave New World.

***

Contrary to our chronocentric generation, it appears that history repeats itself. In a previous era, in one of the great essays of the English left, Edward Thompson took aim at Louis Althusser and structuralism; he wrote: “Enchanted minds move through humourless, visionary fields, negotiate imaginary obstacles, slay mythical monsters (‘humanism’, ‘moralism’) perform tribal rites with the rehearsal of approved texts.”

Today, the fashionable left seeks to surrender humanism. What previous generations fought for and defended - from William Morris and George Lansbury to Thompson, Raymond Williams and the Independent Labour Party -  is to be replaced with a decentred, plastic tech utopia.

Historically, humanist Marxists and ethical socialists retained a notion of human nature; without this, it was deemed impossible to establish an agenda for durable economic and social change. The left rejected determinism so that the human being could be reinserted back into history and the means by which lives are commodified could be resisted, rather than accelerated. This was considered the very essence of politics.

The three elements of this modern hybrid chronocentric left - its deterministic embrace of technology and abolition of the working class; its attachment to a specific vision of the cosmos and rejection of the nation state as a politics of land and territory; and its incipient transhumanism - refract into a political worldview and manifesto which is a world away from the everyday experiences of the people. In this new world, apart from a certain chronocentric group of mainly young men, everything else is presented as reactionary and parochial.

For the left, it appears a shift away from concerns regarding social justice and institution-building, towards a narcissistic concern with self and identity. This is the interface with modern identity liberalism – everything is fluid, change is immanent, we are individually all in transition. It also shares an almost fanatical approach to questions of progress and a disdain for history and tradition, or what Chesterton once called the “democracy of the dead”.

Maybe the left should noisily discuss the quiet rise of cyborg socialism.

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and is writing a book on the future of the left

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016