Published at the close of September, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts’ Corbynism — A Critical Approach is not always an easy read. Bolton and Pitts go well beyond the argument that Corbyn does not understand antisemitism, does not really like the European Union, is a bit of a populist, and has a history (and present) of hanging out with some dubious characters. Rather, their book attempts to “elucidate the essential characteristics of Corbynism as a political orientation (and) outline and critique the general worldview which motivates such a platform”.
It seeks to do so on the basis of their understanding of “the essential characteristics of capitalism as a particular form of social organisation”, informed by the ideas of New-Marxist theorists such as Michael Heinrich, Werner Bonefeld and the recently deceased Moishe Postone. This necessarily leads the book’s authors to delve into the “conservation” and “substantialist” theory of value, the “mutation of operaismo into postoperaismo”, “personalisation” as a “truncated critique of capitalism”, accelerationism, “the Polanyian return to the nation”, and “forms of self-valorising value in a system of socially-mediated labour”.
This is not to say that such theoretical excursions make the book any the less worth reading. But it is to forewarn potential readers of what awaits them. In fact, it is Bolton and Pitts’ attempt to rescue Marx and Marxism from what passes for Marxist and Marxisant thinking in and around the camp of Corbynism — what they term “orthodox Marxism” — which provides the basis for their critique of the latter.
Capitalism, the authors stress, is an organic whole. Capital is a social relation which, by its very nature, defines and structures the totality of society: “The capital relation is not something imposed from the outside but runs through the whole of society itself.” Capital and labour are certainly locked in an antagonistic conflict — the class struggle. But at the same time: “Labour and capital are two sides of the same coin. They are not two separate ‘worlds’ brought together through force or trickery.” Capitalist and worker are subject to “a bond of mutual but coerced interdependence.” Value is not “the property of a given thing in a given space or time.” It is not “a thing which is somehow injected into an object during the labour process.” And it is not something “’captured’ by capital as a pre-existing form of value.” Rather, value is “a relationship existing between things, constituted across time and space.” It is “a particular social relation between objects which comes into being at the moment of their successful mediation.” Labour “relates to value only in and through its social mediation.”
The “site” of that mediation is global: Value does not exist outside of “the totality of labour in society as a whole, on a scale that is not national but global. … Labour (is) the universal form of mediation.” Consequently, capitalism is irreformable: “Without a foundational transformation of the system of socially mediated labour itself, all strategies must eventually convene on the continued validation of value.”
While it might have been more helpful if such theoretical considerations had been developed at the start of the book — rather than halfway-through and at various points thereafter — they do provide a means to understand, and critique, the “semi-coherent set of ideas” which Corbynism constitutes. In the Corbynist world view capitalism is not a universal system of socially mediated labour. It is a small number of bad people who ill-treat a large number of good people. This is summed up in the vacuous slogan “For the Many, Not the Few”, inherited from the Occupy movement’s division of the world into the 1% and the 99%. The slogan is also quintessentially Blairite. It was Blair’s new version of Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution which promised “a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.”
Overlapping with this personalised critique of capitalism are the equally populist slogans of a “rigged system” and “greedy bankers”. For Corbyn and Corbynism, the wealth and power of the elite 1% are to be explained by their cheating and their “rigging” of the system. And it is the greed of this 1% which causes economic crises: “Speculators and gamblers crashed our economy in 2008 … (their) greed plunged the world into crisis.” Greed At one level, the ruling classes can indeed be accused of greed and of cheating and rigging the system. They are not moral paragons. But at a more basic level, they have no need of either. It is capitalism itself which, because of what it is, creates and reproduces social and economic inequalities, and which bears within itself the germs of its own crises.
The political strategy which flows out of Corbyn’s moralising personalisation of capitalism is not one which seeks to challenge the workings of capitalism but one which seeks to remove the pernicious influence of the 1%. Thus, a Corbynist Labour government will “tear down the vested interests that hold this country back.” It will “take on the cosy cartels that are hoarding this county’s wealth for themselves.” It will “call time on this rigged system, because power is in the wrong hands.”
Ironically, all this amounts to a defence of capitalism: Tear down the power of the 1% and put an end to the cheating – and the result would be a capitalism which supposedly serves the many, not the few. This personalised conceptualisation of capitalism also effortlessly flows over into conspiracy theories about the rule of the 1%, the “establishment”, and the “elite”. And from there, harking back to ideas common in nineteenth-century labour movements, it is only another step to antisemitism.
Most theories of contemporary left antisemitism present it as the product of misunderstanding the nature of Israel and Zionism. Bolton and Pitts seem to argue the opposite: Personalisation leads to conspiracy theories, which lead to antisemitism, which leads to a particular – antisemitic – view of Israel and Zionism. Personalisation also dovetails into the Corbynist misunderstanding of the nature of value, seen as something inserted into the objects of production by the worker but then captured or stolen by the greedy capitalist. The political consequences of such an approach are dire. On the one hand, it shifts the essential contradiction within capitalism from production (where the exploitation of human labour takes place) to distribution (because that it where the capitalist realises the fruits of his theft). In the Corbynist world view, what therefore needs to be challenged is not the capitalist process of production (i.e. what makes capitalism capitalism) but how the output of that productive process is divided up.
According to Corbyn: “Wealth creation is a good thing. … It is a co-operative process between workers, public investment in services and, yes, very often innovative and creative individuals and businesses. Wealth creation is a shared process. The proceeds must be shared too.” On the other hand, it underpins the pro-Brexitism, or pro-Brexit leanings, of the broader moment around Corbyn.
Whereas Corbynism stands for “keeping” value where it is supposedly created – whether it be Britain, or Preston, or wherever – the European Union stands for internationalism and globalisation. Standing in the tradition of Tony Benn, Corbynism therefore yearns for the reactionary utopia of “some socialist form of nationalist sovereignty which will allow workers to ‘take back control’.” But in an “irreversibly global society”, such a project is doomed to “inevitable failure”.
As Bolton and Pitts point out, this hankering after a restoration of an illusory national sovereignty is at odds with Corbynism’s supposed anti-imperialist credentials: “It risks replicating in contemporary form the antagonistic and expansionist political-economic backdrop of nineteenth century imperialism.” It also leads into a profound hostility to migrant labour and freedom of movement of labour. Like similar populist movements in other countries, Corbynism now denounces freedom of movement as a plot by the 1% to push down wages. Migrant labour is also criticised as part of the mechanism whereby “value” drains away from Britain and is exported abroad (to the home countries of migrant labour).
The irony of this is not lost on Pitts and Bolton: “In the 2017 election the man who was elected precisely on the basis that he would not cede to pressure and impose ‘controls on immigration’ fronted a manifesto … (which) in real terms was the most right-wing policy on immigration the party had seen in generations.”. And the fact that so many of Corbyn’s supporters did not even bat an eyelid in response says something about the nature of the movement which has emerged around Corbyn Bolton and Pitts rightly devote substantial sections of their book to identifying not just the apparent similarities but also the ideological common ground between Corbynism and right-wing populism, as epitomised by Trump.
If the system is “rigged” against the majority of the population, if ordinary hard-working people are (literally) robbed of the fruits of their labour, and if the 99% need to “take back control”, the question which arises is: who is rigging the system, robbing workers, and exercising control? Corbyn’s answer is: greedy bankers, stock-market spivs, and Brussels bureaucrats. But the answer could just as easily be Trump’s: foreigners, Muslims, Mexicans, liberal intellectuals, establishment politicians, and the mainstream media. (In fact, a number of those categories also fit in with Corbyn’s explanation of the “rigged system”. And vice versa.)
At times, Bolton and Pitts are scathing in their assessment of Corbyn and his leadership of the Labour Party: “The emptiness of its pseudo-populist rhetoric, its appeal to a ‘people’ that does not exist, (and) the moralising, apolitical nature of the platform.” Corbyn and Corbynism have survived only because Brexit pushed British politics “into a space somewhere between fantasy and abyss, in which Project Corbyn was perfectly primed to operate.” Corbyn is a master of political evasion: “The beauty of his natural tendency to pitch arguments at a level of childlike innocence is that their very meaningless makes them virtually impossible to contest.” (Although Bolton and Pitts themselves have heroically risen to the challenge.)
Nor are Bolton and Pitts averse to criticising Corbyn’s essentially populist politics for being partially rooted in the thinking of Nazi jurist and Franco-admirer Carl Schmitt, whose “undoubtedly powerful critique of liberalism” had unmistakably “fascist origins”.
Bolton and Pitts’ book succeeds in identifying the utterly inadequate conceptualisation of capitalism and the resulting equally inadequate political “solutions” which underpin “Project Corbyn”. It fails in offering an adequate alternative. In 2016 the authors advocated that Corbyn surrender the Labour Party leadership to “a soft-left candidate able to overcome the schisms in the Parliamentary Labour Party.”
And in the book itself, what lies at the core of the authors’ alternative is “a reconciliation with liberalism, … a rearguard attempt to ensure the centre holds at a time of its dissolution. … Liberalism is the sea in which socialists in capitalist democracies swim.” The authors are right to argue that socialists must defend democratic rights in the face of the rise of “left” and right populist movements. But they have little or nothing to say about going beyond defence of liberalism and the building of an organisation which provides a genuinely socialist alternative to Corbyn’s “homespun moralistic commonplaces” and “uncontroversial moral platitudes … (which) serve to foreclose politics”.