Corbynism seeks to solve the problems which led to Brexit with idealism – but without caution, it risks making them worse
As part of a recent course on Labour Party history run by my Branch, I stumbled across the writing of Leszek Kolakowski. This Polish communist philosopher, who in later years turned his back on the Stalinist movement because it abandoned progress in favour of dogma designed to protect itself, writes about the inherent struggles that exist within all parties of the left.
Amid the essays on why the Left is always seems as a movement “against” something, rather than being a constructive force, and treatises which (very sensibly) state that unless you can fully articulate a problem, one can never hope to solve it, I found a passage which resonated with me as a person who worried that the Corbyn project was founded on uncosted policies, and impossible offers which could never be fulfilled.
He wrote, in The Concept of the Left:
“Yet why is a Utopia a condition of all revolutionary movements? Because much historical experience … tells us that goals unattainable now will never be reached unless they are articulated when they are still unattainable… The existence of a Utopia is the prerequisite for its eventually ceasing to be a Utopia”.
So – put in my own words – there is an argument that pushing people to imagine what might one day be possible, but right now is unattainable, is the only way to galvanise the social energy required to create some movement in the right direction. Shoot for the stars, and one might reach the moon.
We have seen that happen – from Jeremy’s own success in the 2015 leadership election through to the unexpectedly strong general election result for the Party in 2017 – the creation of a vision of what might one day be possible has galvanised some voters and members in a way we’ve not seen in many years.
But what happens in the event of success? How do you manage the unavoidable situation when your supporters put results alongside their hopes for the promised Utopia, only to find that they don’t measure up? Managing this disappointment is the key – and failing to do so risks perpetuating the distrust of politics and the establishment that has led to such instability in the modern world.
Indeed, Kolakowski himself goes on to say in Responsibility and History:
“The excess of hopes and demands over possibilities is necessary in order to force reality to yield all the potential resources hidden in its present form… illusions are indispensable if the non-illusory possibilities are to be realised – and when confronted with results, disillusion is inevitable … [but] between the appearance of the illusion and the setting in of disillusion there is a lapse of time which is where the slow, painful, burdensome labour of social progress takes place.”
I would go further – what Kolakowski doesn’t mention, and what I think everything from Labour in the 1940s through the post-war consensus, Blairism, Obama and on to Brexit and beyond shows us – every time you galvanise change through promises of an Eden never reached, of milk and honey never tasted, the political class chips away at some longstanding supply of political ‘meta-capital’ which it takes decades of delivery to replenish (if indeed, it can ever be).
So I guess what I’m saying is this – on reading the work of a Marxist philosopher from the 1960s, I now understand the importance of utopia to the Corbyn project. But it has also opened my eyes to a risk that must be managed.
All great politicians have played this game. The post-war consensus failed to deliver in the eyes of many as unions became too powerful, and the backlash brought us Thatcherism. Barack Obama created a vision of hope, but the failure to manage the disillusion led, ultimately, to a backlash which produced Donald Trump and an age of post-truth Politics.
Brexit promised a painless exit and the repatriation of billions for the NHS, and while it continues its slide toward the cliff edge, more than half of the respondents to a recent poll believe “Brexit will make my life better” – while at the same time disapproving of almost everyone charged with delivering it.
Even Blairism – that most saccharine, Diet Coke of social democratic movements (in the eyes of its detractors) in setting out just five pledges, all of which it delivered, has long had to endure cries of betrayal and failure to deliver on the optimism and perceived promises that delivered it to power.
But here’s the key challenge – if Blair set his sights on a utopia that was so achievable, and his falling short (and the failure of other centrists) created a disillusionment with politics that has led us to Hard Brexit and Trump – what happens when the Corbynist utopia fails to materialise? Having set our sights so high, does it not follow that the disillusionment will be so great, so overwhelming, that we might find ourselves treading an incredibly dangerous road?
If Brexit was the eventual result of disillusionment with the Blair and Brown years – what might the “counter-Utopia” which is proposed to counter the shortfalls in Corbynism hold for the future?
Balancing this dichotomy is of the utmost importance – the vibrancy and vision of the Corbyn project has placed it within reach of power – if the people at the heart of that project are aware of the tradeoffs they will have to make on attaining it, they must begin preparing to manage the disappointment that will follow.
Setting out a vision is essential – managing the process of falling short even more so.
Fail to do this, and it is not hard to foresee a time when no progressive visionary will ever be believed again – and progress through the energising dynamism of Utopia will never again be possible.
And all the while the siren call of nationalism, individualism and self-interest will continue unabated.