Corbyn Crisis: Are you a Corbynite or a Corbynista?

In my last post, I gave up on Corbynism, the doctrine espoused and acted out by Corbyn and his team. This doctrine claims that the future of the labour party is to be found by 1) making the party accountable to its members, 2) increasing membership as part of a grassroots movement, and 3) electoral success is to be found by reaching out to the politically disengaged through a radical socialist alternative that inspires them and incorporates them into the movement.

This is distinct from what I would call Corbynista-ism. Corbynista-ism is a non-partisan ideology that presents Corbyn and McDonnell as the only two members of the PLP with any integrity, and the only available leadership team that makes Labour worth voting for. It incorrectly takes anyone else in the PLP or anyone expressing any criticism of Corbyn’s performance to be a Blairite. It includes a personality politics around Corbyn on a spectrum from genuine belief in his character to blinkered and irrational fandom. All hold that in the person of Corbyn is the hope of the labour party and the country, and that if the former fails, the latter is worthless. Corbyn represents the “values” and “principles” of the Labour party. The “Blairites” represent a betrayal of values for victory, of principles for power.

We are in a situation now, I think, where the Corbyn team have mistaken Corbynista-ism for support of Corbynism, and where the pessimism of the value of the Labour party contained within Corbynista-ism is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a strange occurance insofar as Corbynism contradicts Corbynista-ism on several points. An illustrative example is that Corbynism, drawing on its Bennite origins, disavows any personality politics and denies that Corbyn is a political hero. Any success of Corbyn is explicitly attributed to the movement of which he is a part. Corbynista-ism holds the opposite, potraying the movement as a product of Corbyn himself as a “breath of fresh air”, “different from the career politicians”, and “offering a new kind of politics”.

Corbyn did not create the Corbynistas, though his team have allied with them. He can’t have done, he rejects its basic principles. Through a lazy ideological analysis, I suspect we can trace the prime origin of Corbynista-ism to what I’d call the Benn-Kendall dialectic.

Tony Benn, when he famously “left Parliament to devote more time to politics”, stood as a paragon of political virtue from another greater time when they said what they meant and meant what they said. Bennism can be summed up in his metaphor of “signpost” and “weathercock” politicians. The signpost politician points at the truth whether or not you agree with them, and will still be there pointing at it when you come back to them two decades later. The weathercock politician does not know what they think until the focus groups are in, and follows the direction of public opinion.

Because of the distortion involved in Corbynista-ism, this may seem akin to what the supporters of Corbyn say. But, this is not an argument about refusing to comprimise values for power. It is a critique of populism and an advocation of loyalty to the truth. If Benn demands honesty from polititians, it is because there is an objective truth that must be spoken about. It is not a question of values and integrity, but objectivity.

The Cobynista’s demand, in contrast, for values and for labour to regain its “soul” can be traced to Liz Kendall’s electoral platform. The claim here is that we have to be in power to do anything, and so we must not sacrifice our goals for ideological purity. As Blair said, if your heart is with Corbyn, get a heart transplant. This was intended as a criticism of Miliband, an ultra-Blairite critique of Brownism.

But, in the wake of Benn’s death, electoral loss perceived by the left as a failure to oppose austerity, and the opportunity to vote for an “Old Labour” candidate, this changed. Kendall’s point was perceived as an attack, not on Milliband, but on Bennism misperceived through the very lens of Kendall’s attack. Because Kendall spoke about values vs power, Bennism was reinterpreted, not as standing for political truth, but as standing for values even at the expense of power. The latter is something Benn, who consistently claimed that the splitting parties were damaging to the left and that everyone should just vote Labour, and who remained a Labour member even under Blair, would never have claimed.

The three “established” candidates lost the Labour Leadership Election, most of all Blairite Kendall. But, the Blairites set the terms of debate. Out of this, they determined the character of their nascent Cobynista rivals. Accepting the distinction between power and values (rather than upholding values in power, which is surely the point!), it was conceded that Labour must stand or fall on its values. This opposition between values and tactics dominated the leadership contest and lead to Corbynista-ism winning by a landslide.

From this, I would suggest that Corbynista-ism is a synthesis of Bennism and Blairism. Born of a contradiction between nostalgia for Tony Benn and “old” Labour and the Blairites false dichotomy between values and power. Corbynista-ism bastardises both. It inverts the image of a slick media savvy polititian by making a virtue of Corbyn’s clumsy appearance and ineptitude with the media. Instead of a slick hero, we have an ordinary hero. It protests the protesting of the PLP, responds to their threats to leave by threatening to leave. It responds to their claims that the left stole their party by saying the right stole it first.

Further, this ideology takes up the formal structure of Benn’s loyalty to the truth of socialism and corrupts it through Blairs narcissistic politics of the individual. Truth is objective and values subjective. The focus on values leads to a focus on the self rather than others. Rather than pointing out the material problems of the world, the Corbynista points inward to their inner conviction and moral commitment. The Corbynista does not say “Blairism is wrong”. The Corbnista says “I can’t bring myself to support a Blairite Labour Party, because disagree with it. It does not represent my views, so can’t be a part of it.”.

Blairism on its Head

Corbynista-ism is Blairism on its head. It “aspires” to a greater Labour party, and rejects the notion that the Left cannot be politically successful as though we were discussing social mobility, as though we were saying that working class people will never get into university. If the left fails to rise, it is not because false consciousness, but because it is being discriminated against by the elitist media.

Its faith in the possibility of its success is the naivety of a generation, of which I am a part, whom Blair taught to believe anything was possible. It believes that all that needs to happen for social justice is that everyone just needs to work together. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect. Yes, that last sentence was Blair’s Clause IV.

As Blair attempted to purge the left, so Corbynistas wish to purge the “right” of the party. But, whereas Blair had an astute analysis of his opponents, they do not. Corbynisa-ism misrecognises all others as Blairites, which makes them Tories. This vague conception of Blairism that somehow includes Liz Kendall and Ed Miliband, is necessarily obscure because, if a Cobynista was to see a Blairite with full recognition, they would see only their mirror image.

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