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- Left to their devices
- A clutch of books on the rise of the left shine a light on the forces driving Corbynism. By John McTernan
- Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party by David Kogan Bloomsbury £20, 448 pages Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason Allen Lane £20, 368 pages Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani Verso £14.99, 288 pages
- Momentum campaigner Beth Foster-Ogg at a meeting of London Young Labour — Harry Mitchell
- In Downing Street, when I was Tony Blair’s political secretary, we used to say that political renewal needed new faces, new ideas, new voices, and new channels of communication. When Jeremy Corbyn became UK Labour party leader in a landslide victory in 2015 he certainly wasn’t a new face, though after 32 years on the backbenches he was new to leadership. But his election brought with it energy and excitement.
- Momentum, the grassroots organisation set up as a kind of praetorian guard for Corbynism, spawned “The World Transformed” — a fascinating new, ideas-driven fringe for the Labour party conference. The digital infrastructure that had been key created new channels such as the always interesting Novara Media. New voices emerged such as Ash Sarkar, whose brutal schooling of Piers Morgan on breakfast television launched a viral video, and a catchphrase — “I’m Literally a Communist” — which became a T-shirt. The unifying features of all this energy are optimism, big ideas for the future and wit.
- What, though, does it all mean for the future of Britain? A clutch of new books offer us an insight. David Kogan’s Protest and Power details the victory of Corbynism. Two others, Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future and Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, set out ambitious manifestos for a Corbyn government.
- Kogan’s book updates The Battle for the Labour Party, which he wrote with his uncle Maurice Kogan in the early 1980s detailing the rise of the far left under Tony Benn and what then looked like its complete triumph with the defection of David Owen and Shirley Williams to the new Social Democratic party. As Kogan notes, history did not immediately go to the left’s plan. The disastrous 1983 general election, in which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives routed Michael Foot, nearly broke Labour and led to the leadership of Neil Kinnock and the slow process of modernisation that culminated in New Labour. Tony Blair’s three successive election victories seemed to put paid to the left, but after defeats in 2010 and 2015, and following a change in membership rules, Corbyn became the most leftwing leader in Labour history.
- Interspersing a detailed history of internal party machinations with interviews with key figures, Kogan tells the story of what happened. Is there one key event? The rule changes that abolished the trade union block vote are shown to be pivotal. Long an aim of the right in the Labour party who thought that broadening the membership base would moderate it, they show the truth of the adage “be careful what you wish for”. Centrists had forgotten the old motto of the Labour party’s organisation department — “The Victory of Ideals must be Organised”. The left, as Kogan’s book shows, hadn’t — or at least, one man hadn’t. Jon Lansman, who founded Momentum, was there from the beginning as a Bennite activist in the late 1970s to the triumph of the leadership landslide. The lesson of this book is be patient and be ready to seize your chance. Time and time again, Lansman was. As Kogan puts it — brutally but fairly: “The left had learned in its political wilderness that the historic divisions and sectarianism could be set aside if there was a clear goal. It was uniting around an incredible campaign. Its opponents were drowning under levels of ego and denial”.
- What is missing in his book is a sense of how Corbyn’s was a victory of ideals too — that the politics were as intoxicating as the campaign was effective and data-driven. This is where Mason and Bastani come in. Both are leading figures in the rich ferment of ideas around Corbyn’s Labour. While Brexit takes up almost all of the bandwidth of the UK government, the left is thinking hard and thinking big. Think-tanks from the established IPPR to the newest additions like Common Wealth are producing new and exciting ideas. These two books offer a snapshot of the new radical narrative that would frame the programme of government of an incoming Prime Minister Corbyn.
- Their starting point is an analysis that sees current capitalism, which they loosely and polemically label “neoliberal”, as in crisis. They cite not just simply the global financial crisis of 2008 as proof, but also the scale of the challenges we face in terms of the rise of Big Data and machine learning to climate change, and the ethical challenges posed by biosciences and AI.
- Bastani’s book argues that ours is an age of disruption, one in which a world of scarcity will be replaced by one of abundance. His view is that Moore’s Law — the prediction that computer processing power would double every two years — is an analogy for other areas fundamental to our economy. He predicts that renewable energy will be so abundant as to be virtually free; that mining asteroids will release us from resource shortages; gene editing will cure disease; bioengineering will allow us to grow meat; and robots will free us of the need to work. This is techno-optimism worthy of a West Coast Big Tech billionaire. At times the word “communism” seems to have been added to the title to be provocative. There is certainly something wearily breathless about the futurism.
- Mason’s book is, in many ways, the more interesting. It has quick wit, vivid prose and makes rapid and stimulating connections, as does all his writing. Its subtitle — A Radical Defence of the Human Being — sums up its strengths. Fundamentally, Mason believes in the power of agency — the ability to choose to act and shape your own future. He resists a pessimistic reading of history and returns again and again to struggles — from the Paris Commune of the 1870s to demonstrations against Donald Trump today, he sees reasons for hope. And the very tools of automation, he argues, create the potential for individuals to network radically across the globe.
- Yet, while avowedly future-facing, both books have one eye on the past. One might say that a spectre haunts them, that of Karl Marx. And a very particular Marxist moment — not his best-known work Das Kapital, the touchstone of Communist governments, but “The Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse notebooks of an unfinished work not published in his lifetime. Mason quotes a marvellously oracular passage: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed . . . Mankind thus sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve”. This is Marx as a prophet, rather than the man whose political legacy was literally tested to destruction during the last century. Indeed, the unpublished writings of Marx, in Bastani’s words, “exerted little influence over communist projects in the 20th century”.
- This, in the end, is the point — for authors who write excitedly and excitingly about social, economic and technological change, both Mason and Bastani are both committed to a teleological view of history. They believe it will come to an end — in a form of Marxism. Yet, if the restless forces they describe — both of creation and resistance — are as powerful as they both argue, that final state of society and history seems unlikely. Creative destruction will continue.
- Ultimately, both writers shine a light on what powers the Corbyn revolution — its optimism, indeed its utopianism. Socialism may have failed historically, but the critics of capitalism have all the songs at the moment — and where the energy goes, the politics follows.
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