The stereotype attached to the British of prudence and sobriety has taken a beating in the struggle to hash out a Brexit deal. There is quiet talk of another general election, and the options currently on offer are a chaotic government that has lost two Brexit ministers because they couldn’t agree with the Prime Minister who appointed them, and a Labour opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn. Now is a perfect time, then, for a critical examination of Corbyn’s ideology. Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts’s Corbyn: A Critical Approach analyses Corbynism using what they term “a critical Marxist approach.” As they say in the preface, “This is the first book that sets out to take Corbynism seriously and critically as a semi-coherent set of ideas.” Their final verdict does not paint a rosy picture. Three aspects of their critique, in particular, offer an illuminating perspective on Corbynism: the notion of “two campism,” the moral mythology surrounding the person of Corbyn, and the relationship between Corbynism and conspiracy theories.
Corbyn’s foreign policy views are flatly inconsistent with any claim to a universalist moral ethos. He vehemently denounces Saudi Arabia’s many appalling human rights abuses but has happily accepted money from the propaganda arm of the Iranian regime. His ostensible opposition to violence and racism and oppression, meanwhile, does not extend to genocidal terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, the former of which he has implausibly described as “dedicated to the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long term peace and social justice and political justice in the region.” Nor does it extend to individuals such as Raed Salah, a blood libeller who blamed Jews for 9/11, but who Corbyn nevertheless described as a “honoured citizen” and who he invited to take tea with him on the parliamentary terrace.
Bolton and Pitts explain this inconsistency as the product of an ideology they call “two-campism”—a foreign policy philosophy underpinned by the spurious assumption that my enemy’s enemy is necessarily my friend. “The ‘West’—primarily the ‘imperialists’ of the USA, Israel, the UK, the EU—falls squarely in the enemy camp,” they explain. “Whoever styles themselves as opponents of the ‘West’ are in turn considered ‘friends,’ comrades in the anti-imperialist struggle, regardless of the content of this wider political programme.” What matters, ultimately, is not what these groups and nations propose, but the fact they are antagonistic to the West. Prior to becoming leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn was a chair of the “Stop the War Coalition,” a supposedly pacifist organisation that has published, inter alia, a defence of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The ‘W’ in StWC should more accurately stand for the “West” than for “War.” It is in this ideological and institutional context that Corbyn was infamously moved to describe Hamas and Hezbollah as “our friends.”
But incidents like these have scarcely dented Corbyn’s support among his base. A significant reason Corbyn’s disciples appear uninterested in his inconsistency is their non-negotiable belief in his unimpeachable moral integrity. Corbyn, they aver, is a good man; criticisms of him therefore constitute either “smears,” or else his wrongdoing indicates errors made in pursuit of noble intentions rather than malice. As Bolton and Pitts remind us, earlier this year Corbyn’s acknowledgement that antisemitic attitudes had seeped into the Labour Party were “rejected by a sizeable chunk of his own base.” They conclude from this that “Corbyn’s symbolic representation thus takes precedence over words from his mouth.” All political ideologies involve narratives, and the Corbynite narrative is one in which Corbyn is a virtuous man maligned by a coterie of special interests. This is despite the aggressive posturing he displays during interviews when questioned about his previous affiliations, and the sneering contempt with which he dismisses even fairly charitable critiques of his positions. See, for example, his dismissal of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland in this Vice documentary.
Irrespective of the particular context, Corbyn is always presented by his followers as the victim of a malign plot. This paranoid article of faith brings us to the third salient aspect of Corbynism: conspiratorial thinking.
“There is something very specific,” write Bolton and Pitts, “about the description of a system or an economy as rigged in its entirety.” This is because such a critique, they add, “implies that capitalist social relations are consciously and covertly designed by a minority of individuals or groups in order to exploit everyone else.” We can see where this is going: “Personalising critiques of class and capitalism contain an implicit, though by no means inevitable, tendency towards conspiracy theory and, more dangerously, antisemitism.” If we suppose that society is rigged in favour of special interests, we are inevitably invited to wonder who these malevolent actors are. And, historically speaking, there seems to be one particular group that always happens to occupy such a position.
This mindset doesn’t just offer a totalizing theory of society; it also operates as a defence of Corbyn himself. As Bolton and Pitts point out, after Jewish activists and mainstream Jewish organisations gathered outside Parliament this year to protest the cascade of antisemitic scandals within the Labour Party, “a group of academics wrote a letter to the Guardian arguing that antisemitism had been ‘weaponized just ahead of local council elections,’ while more than 200 Corbyn supporters signed a letter portraying the protest as the work of a ‘very powerful special interest group.’” Any objection to Corbyn’s close relationship to antisemitic forces is thus perceived by many of his supporters as itself evidence of a nefarious plot. One of the central ironies of this debacle is that charges of antisemitism are often repudiated by directly invoking the classic tropes of that racist malady.
Many of Corbyn’s most ardent defenders, such as the activist and commentator Owen Jones, ignore the opinions of mainstream Jewish people and organisations in favour of marginal anarchist groups such as Jewdas, whose anti-Zionism makes them more palatable to the radical anti-colonialist:
If all the people who attacked Jewdas have any decency or integrity, they will now apologise in full to them.
— Owen Jones? (@OwenJones84) April 3, 2018
A poll by Survation found that 85 percent of Jews in the UK believe that Corbyn himself is antisemitic. This followed the emergence of a video in which Corbyn described British Zionists as not understanding “history” and not “understanding English irony, either.” If the same percentage of black people considered Corbyn to be racist, or if he was recorded making similar disparaging comments about, say, Muslims, it is inconceivable that he would have risen to the pinnacle of British progressive politics.
And yet here we are. Not only is Corbyn leading the British Labour Party, but the convulsions of Brexit have placed him on the threshold of Prime Ministerial power. Bolton and Pitts offer a valuable and thoughtful analysis of Corbynite ideology, but it is unlikely that any account can adequately capture the bizarre spectacle of convinced anti-racists passionately embracing the oldest hatred in our civilization.
Tomiwa Owolade is a post-graduate English Literature student at University College London. You can follow him on Twitter @Owolade21