On leadership, vocation and tragedy – James Butler in LRB:
“Politics, Max Weber wrote, is a ‘slow, strong drilling through hard boards, with a combination of passion and a sense of judgment’. The maxim, from his lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’, is now usually deployed to chide a left impatient for social transformation, but Weber’s account of political leadership deserves more than this. He has acute things to say about the tragedy entwined in all political action and about the ‘diabolical powers’ intrinsic to politics, which may warp a leader beyond recognition. He is sharp too on the subject of vanity, a cardinal sin in a politician, and its dependent disorders, lack of responsibility and lack of objectivity. Weber’s is a prescription for heroes; I wonder if any politician could meet it.”
“The chief priorities of Corbyn’s Labour Party were neatly captured in two speeches made by John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor and often the project’s most eloquent spokesman. In 2016 he declared that Labour members would ‘no longer have to whisper’ the word ‘socialism’: the party would no longer be ashamed of its values. And in the dying days of the 2019 election campaign, he outlined a new social settlement with ‘foundations so deeply rooted that no Tory could ever tear them up’. As McDonnell delivered that speech he must have known that Labour wasn’t going to be elected. It was a missive to posterity: the project was collapsing beneath his feet.
Broad scope and lofty ambitions can conceal ambiguities and faultlines. Was the goal of the project primarily to wind the clock back, to undo the changes Kinnock and Blair had wrought within the party, and Thatcher in the country as a whole, by returning the trade unions to a central position in Labour and chasing a romanticised version of the postwar settlement? Or was it to bring the post-2008, post-austerity generation which had been so enthused by Corbyn into formal, institutional politics? Could the two ambitions be bridged? Why was it important to change the party’s structure, and how could it happen? Was it intended to put decision-making power back into the hands of union leaders or give it to individual members? How could the middle layers of the party – permanent staff and MPs – be brought on side? When talking about ‘the project’, who was included? Corbyn and his staff and advisers in Westminster, or the wider circle of activists and party members, or supporters in the country generally? During the last 18 months of his leadership, Corbyn himself, the one man who had sufficient power to impose clarity on any of these questions, seemed barely involved.”
“Jones is also seeking to salvage something from the collapse of Corbynism. That is presumably the point of his subtitle – ‘the story of a movement’ – and of his attempt at the beginning of the book to situate Corbynism in relation to the enduring crisis of European social democratic parties and, especially, to the history of UK protest movements – graduates from which initially gave Corbynism much of its fresh and irreverent energy. Corbynism’s connection to protest underlines a perennial problem for the left: extra-parliamentary movements often hit their limits when they try to bring about systemic change, but the transition to formal politics brings a different set of problems. For many younger supporters, Corbyn’s run for the leadership in 2015 was their first glimpse of the power of political parties to reach an entire country in ways protest simply cannot match. But the many thousands who were attracted into the party by Corbyn have always seemed a lost resource: neither the party nor Momentum, the organisation set up to mobilise them, ever seemed inclined to explore why they had joined or what their priorities were. They disappear from these books, too, as soon as the story at the top of the party starts in earnest. The circle of ‘the project’ shrinks.’”
“It is an intellectual vice on the left to think that because the world is best understood in terms of the operation of broad structural forces, personal qualities are less important. With regard to political leadership, the past five years have tested that thesis to destruction. A leader’s first qualification must be that they should want to lead. Though Corbyn apparently bridled at McDonnell’s often repeated suggestion that he stood for the leadership simply because it was ‘his turn’, his first words to one confidant after squeezing onto the ballot were: ‘You better make fucking sure I don’t get elected.’ Perhaps the surprise rush of popular support made him warm to the role. But the ambivalence never went away, and with it came intransigence, obstinacy and an aversion to making decisions, especially difficult decisions involving confrontation – which means nearly all leadership decisions. In the latter half of both books Corbyn is increasingly absent, and his decisions, when he does make them, are Delphic. He sometimes seems irritated by having responsibility for matters that don’t interest him, even though, as his policy architect Andrew Fisher observes, ‘if you’re the leader you have to lead on everything, not just the things you care about.’”
‘Objectivity and responsibility – the qualities demanded by Weber – were rarely on show in Corbyn’s office; he was usually unable to make a ruthless distinction between what could reasonably be kept and what had to be given up. Successful politicians have to be opportunists: in ‘Politics as a Vocation’, Weber writes that the political sphere has its own rules, which cannot be remade by sheer will. All the same, Corbyn’s popular touch did remake and expand what was understood to be possible in British politics. During his last party conference, even as his leadership was crashing, a restaurant in which he was eating had to close its kitchen because its staff demanded a group picture with him. Popular affection of this sort cannot be created out of thin air, and his successor may well miss it.”
“An anxiety that surfaces occasionally in This Land concerns the party’s generational politics: its parliamentary wing is still dominated by the dregs of New Labour, and the fear must be that the left will repeat its mistake of the late 1980s and retreat to the political margins. That the continued dominance of New Labour thinking both laid the ground for Corbynism and choked off parliamentary support for it is an irony Jones never quite identifies, but which runs through his analysis.”
“But those wary of the biases of an empowered membership can find ample support for their view by considering one of the political disasters that proved most damaging to Corbyn’s Labour Party: Brexit.
‘The army is crumbling,’ McDonnell said when the Unite leader, Len McCluskey, pressed him on his growing receptiveness to a second referendum on Brexit. McCluskey was sceptical: he’d heard rumbles of discontent in the party’s northern heartlands. His allies in the leader’s office believed that McDonnell’s head had been turned by lobbying from the deeply anti-Corbyn People’s Vote campaign; it is more likely that he changed his mind in light of polling showing Labour haemorrhaging votes to Remain parties, and because of widespread disenchantment among party activists. In his view, no party could win an election without its foot soldiers; in McCluskey’s, the move would alienate voters in the Red Wall constituencies which had been slipping away from the party for decades. Both of them were right. Jones suggests that Brexit was an unwinnable conundrum for Labour, with every route leading to catastrophe.
In the aftermath of the 2019 election defeat, Brexit policy became the object of just-so fantasies and excuses on every wing of the party, from those who claimed the promise of Lexit autarky would have swept the country to those who believed the country which elected Boris Johnson had secretly longed for a champion of faceless technocracy. All this was as much about self-exculpation as it was a means of striking at familiar targets – Blairites, Trots, Stalinists. There is no doubt that Corbyn’s standing was damaged in some quarters by appearing to condone a drive to overturn a democratic exercise, in others by an apparently puzzling refusal to push back at the disaster being engineered by the Tories. Retreating behind an increasingly baroque attempt to defer the question may have kept an uneasy peace in the party, but it prompted disbelief in a country rapidly evacuating the centre ground.”
‘For many, the most miserable reading in these books, which were published before the release of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into the Labour Party in November, will be the chapters on the antisemitism crisis. Left Out tracks the failure to deal with successive waves of the crisis in painful detail; This Land attempts to think through the failure of the leadership and the wider left to confront the issue, but also underscores the cynical uses to which it was put by the party’s right. Jones’s account tends to the schematic, touching briefly on the increasing circulation of antisemitic ideas in British society, its distinctive historical form on the left as the ‘socialism of fools’, the political evolution of Israel since 1948 and its varying but near universal significance for British Jews. There are some gaps: any of the Israeli New Historians, even the most conservative, would raise an eyebrow at the absence of any account of pre-1967 violence, and the question of whether ‘settler-colonial’ is a useful label deserves greater exploration – but Jones has made a serious attempt to understand the left’s weaknesses as something other than the fault of the party’s right. His account is an improvement on the defensive response that the public’s perception of the problem with antisemitism in Labour was distorted, or that positive changes were made to disciplinary procedures after they were taken out of the hands of anti-Corbyn party staff. The antisemitism crisis cannot be explained away, and the statement by Momentum’s founder, Jon Lansman, that he felt ‘used as a Jew’ to defend the party, but was left without support afterwards, should be a source of shame.”
“If, as looks likely, the EHRC report itself is occluded by the controversy, it will be another missed opportunity. It offers a chance to think about the way antisemitism enters politics, and how to prevent its growth. A functional, trusted and interference-free disciplinary process is a necessary foundation, but isn’t in itself sufficient. The origins of antisemitism are not bureaucratic but political. The authors note the digital and social origin of many of the cases they reviewed: likes on social media, shared posts, status updates. It is possible to join the Labour Party – and loudly proclaim your membership – entirely digitally, without making any direct contact with the rest of the party, or having any opportunity for political education. Labour has, in any case, rarely taken the political education of its officials, let alone its members, as seriously as it should. Ceding the digital space to the conspiracy theorists populating Facebook groups risks letting a problem grow unseen. This is a challenge for political culture as a whole, whatever specific relevance it has for Labour. A perfect disciplinary process might catch every instance of offensive behaviour: a better strategy would seek to prevent them occurring in the first place.”
“Corbyn would no doubt argue that his domestic and international commitments are of a piece, but Jones is making a brutal assessment, of the sort too often lacking in the past few years, of what is possible. This Land and Left Out are accounts of failure in political leadership, a failure compounded by the left’s uncertainty about what constitutes good leadership. We might be sceptical of Weber’s fascination with the heroism of individual leaders, but his real scorn was reserved for those who believe in nothing, or treat compromise as an end in itself. ‘What is possible,’ he wrote, ‘would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.’ None of the problems to which Corbynism was a response has disappeared.”
Read the article here.
An interesting article, what’s missing is the responsibility of Corbyn and Labour for the result of the Brexit referendum.
What’s clear is that Corbyn, hailed as a savior by many progressives in the West and maybe elsewhere, didn’t want to be a leader, and didn’t have the capacities to be a leader.
Politics has been for a long long time already and not only in the UK a competition between people who believe in nothing or close to nothing.
At least Trump taught us that not all nothingness is equally brutal and worthless.
There are shades of less and more decent nothingness.
Whether you can win an election with a truly progressive agenda remains to be seen. The answer might very well be: yes.
But the last progressive governments were above all far or fairly far from being progressive.
Think of Schröder in Germany, or Mitterand in France, I won’t mention Hollande. Let's skip Bill Clinton. Carter became a liberal after he left office. Obama? How can you not love him? He did what he could, probably, but he couldn't do much.
One of the more effective progressive politicians of our times remains Merkel, but she belongs to a rightwing party.
There is a fairly huge gap everywhere in the West between the demands of the upper class of leftwing parties (climate change, refugees, human rights, in short: universalism) and the demands of the traditional base of socialist parties (socialism for people like us, protectionism, in short economically mainly progressive, socially conservative).
The problem of contemporary socialism is that socialism without solidarity cannot exist, but to build a sustainable and long-term sense of solidarity among a majority of voters appears to be almost impossible. Solidarity with whom, is the question.
And what does anti-capitalism mean exactly when you don’t want to go back to communism? A question for the truly progressives in all progressive parties.
The rightwing politicians have fewer problems. Opportunism bordering on cynicism is part of their natural rightwing worldview: the struggle for survival is an ugly struggle.