Corbynism: A Critical Approach

Corbynism: A Critical Approach

Emerald (2018), with Matt Bolton


From the moment Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, Corbynism has been dismissed, derided or romanticised - but rarely taken seriously as a set of ideas on its own terms. From a left perspective, this book critically outlines the shared understanding of capitalism and its alternatives that unites the component parts of the Corbyn movement. Bypassing arguments over electability undermined by the 2017 election, Corbynism: A Critical Approach decodes the central tenets of the Corbynist worldview, showing their coherence with contemporary political-economic shifts. Corbyn’s platform of protectionism at home and isolationism abroad, it contends, chimes with conspiratorial understandings of global capitalism as a ‘rigged system’ common to populist nativism in an age of Trump and Brexit.



"You may not agree with every argument, but Bolton and Pitts' book is a much needed, well researched and wide-ranging interrogation of Corbynism. Drawing on a distinctive left perspective, it cuts through the fog of uncritical adulation and unthinking hostility to shine a light on the origins and dynamics of this often misunderstood part of modern British politics." - Paul Thompson, Professor of Employment Studies, University of Stirling

"Using Marxist critical theory, this timely and courageous book analyses left populism in Britain as part of a wider process; it came into the mainstream alongside Brexit populism and has many critical points of continuity with it, as well as significant points of divergence from key traditions of class struggle and the democratic left.  The Corbyn movement is more part of the problem that it is part of the solution." - David Hirsh, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Goldsmiths


Chapter Synopses

Chapter 1 Explaining 2017: The Rise and Fall of Austerity Populism

In Chapter 1 we explain Labour’s surprisingly strong performance in the 2017 General Election, with the party gaining 30 seats and depriving Theresa May of her majority, a result which flew in the face of almost every prediction. We suggest that the key to understanding this remarkable turn of events lies in the process by which ‘the deficit’ became a dead letter in British politics, and the affordances this granted the Labour Party to make progress on the basis of a Corbynist agenda. Tracing the story of the deficit’s rise and fall uncovers a number of important insights about the origins and character of the present political turbulence in the UK, and Corbynism’s position in it. In particular, it reveals the crucial role played by the initial austerity narrative itself, showing how its crude ‘we’re all in it together’ productivism, as well as its anti-austerity opposition, acted as the forerunner of the populist currents that were to follow in its wake and eventually subsume it.

Chapter 2 The Preconditions of Corbynism: On Two-Campism

Chapter 2 focuses on the role that Corbyn’s personal reputation for unshakeable moral integrity and political prescience – a man who has forever been on ‘the right side of history’ – has played in the development of Corbynism as a whole. It shows how the moral mythology that surrounds Corbyn as an individual was rooted in the collapse of the Bennite ‘hard left’ tradition of the Labour Party in the early 1990s, and the subsequent process of romanticisation of that tradition, and of Benn himself, that followed, particularly in the wake of the hard left’s leadership of the opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Chapter 3 On the Right Side of History: The Moral Mythology of Corbynism

In Chapter 3, we show how Corbyn was the beneficiary of this process of dehistoricisation and depoliticisation, as it fed into the ‘Year Zero’ narrative that was built around his candidacy for the Labour leadership and which carried over into the General Election itself. The chapter argues that the faith in Corbyn’s personal integrity is such that the actual content of his programme – a national-populist platform of economic protectionism, twinned with a crude ‘two campist’ isolationist foreign policy – has long been left unexamined by his critics and the wider liberal-left. This absence of scrutiny, accompanied by a process in which certain scenes from Corbyn’s lengthy political career have been turned into modern day parables, has been crucial both in piecing together an electoral coalition, and preventing certain tensions and contradictions within the movement itself from rising to the surface.

Chapter 4 Taking Back Control: Corbynism in One Country

In Chapter 4, we seek to counter this romanticised, historically-revisionist version of Corbynism by examining the theoretical premises of the Bennite tradition which have been carried over into its successor. We do this by comparing the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ proposed by Benn as a solution to the crisis of British capitalism in the mid-1970s to the ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ document commissioned by John McDonnell in 2017. This comparison sheds some light on the ambivalence shown by the Labour leadership towards the prospect of a ‘hard Brexit’ – withdrawal from the European Single Market and the customs union. We situate this in relation to contemporary visions of the state, and specifically the nation-state predicated on a turn away from left traditions of transnational solidarity. The chapter then contrasts the theory of capitalism which lies behind the Bennite-Corbyn vision of ‘socialism in one country’ to a critical Marxian understanding of capitalism as a historically-specific global system constituted by ‘socially mediated labour.’ We suggest that it is the failure to recognise the abstract forms of social domination produced by such a system that lies behind Corbynism’s recent turn to the protectionist solutions espoused by nationalist movements on both left and right. The chapter spells out some of the possible malign consequences of such a turn.

Chapter 5 ‘Things Can and they Will Change’: Class, Postcapitalism and Left Populism

In Chapter 5 we critically analyse Corbynism’s mobilisation of the populist notion of the ‘people’, and the respects in which this stands in for a lack of class analysis that elides antagonistic relationships for a contradiction-free conceptualisation of how power will inevitably accrue to the popular subject. We suggest that an orthodox Marxist understanding of class, value and history leads Corbynism – both in its more traditional form, represented here by the work of Ralph Miliband, and its fresher postcapitalist iteration – to strategically miscalculate the possibilities for an incipient liberation present in the current state of things. The failure to recognise the negative, mediated and inherently contradictory character of class society – in which the activity undertaken by workers to ensure their daily survival produces the forms which come to dominate them – leads to the false presumption that social antagonism can be resolved through the production of a non-contradictory ‘people,’ protected from the pressures of the world market by the nation-state and technocratic fixes.

Chapter 6 The Rigged System: Corbynism and Conspiracy Theory

In Chapter 6 we explore how Corbynism is structured around a truncated critique of capitalist society as a ‘rigged system,’ that can easily lapse into a kind of conspiracy theorism. The chapter argues that the ease with which the ‘rigged system’ trope has passed along the political spectrum from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump and then to Corbyn indicates a troubling political ambivalence. In both its right and left formulations, the ‘rigged system’ conceit does not grasp class and capitalism as antagonistic, mediated and contradictory social forms, but presents capitalist society as a relatively uncomplicated and natural process of production which has been hijacked by the illegitimate intervention of the ‘wealth extractors,’ international finance and the banking sector. We expose how this truncated critique of the ‘rigged system’ segues with similar ideas circulating around the rise of Trump and Brexit- for instance, opposition to ‘globalism’ and a retreat into the nation-state as the horizon of political activity. We show how it can spill over into antisemitic conspiracy theories, especially when combined with the reflexive ‘two-campism’ of contemporary forms of ‘anti-imperialism.’