Corbyn by Richard Seymour review – the strange rebirth of radical politics

Seymour investigates how the Labour leader proved doubters wrong – and a collection of essays, The Corbyn Effect, asks what might his government look like?

In these febrile times, writing books about current British politics – and even reviewing them – is a risky business. Richard Seymour’s highly opinionated study of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership, and the circumstances that gave rise to it, was first published in April 2016. Labour were in the low 30s in the polls, a middling-to-mediocre position, and Corbyn’s tenure seemed a bold experiment that was not that likely to succeed. Seymour gave his book, “written in sympathy with Corbyn”, an upbeat subtitle, but his predictions were largely pessimistic. A prolific polemicist in the small but prickly space to the left of the Labour left, and pointedly not a party member, Seymour argued that Corbyn’s leadership would be both too radical for the establishment to tolerate, and not radical enough to truly transform the party or the country. “In all likelihood, Corbynism is a temporary phenomenon,” he concluded. “There will be backlashes and disappointments, electoral setbacks and, in the event of government, continual, energy-sapping crises ... Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism.”

Like a lot of people, Seymour has spent the giddy months since this year’s general election hastily revising many of his ideas about Corbyn. This updated edition of the book is almost half as long again as the original. There are energised new chapters. Reliving the election in gleeful detail, Seymour describes the plush London constituency of Kensington being “swallowed in a vengeful blood-red wave ... as its forgotten working-class constituents took revenge on an atrocious Tory MP”. Elsewhere, the tone of the new material is less fervent and more analytical. For all leftwing Britons, Seymour writes with typical pithiness, the election brought “an abrupt widening of the horizons of the thinkable”.

With commendable honesty – or perhaps because there wasn’t time to do anything else – the expanded book puts these expectant fresh chapters next to unchanged, more cautious ones from the original edition. At one point, Seymour warns that public ownership of parts of the economy is no longer a viable policy for Labour governments, “because global capitalism would reject [it] ... much as a body rejects an organ implant”. Yet elsewhere he praises Labour’s 2017 manifesto for “its core commitments to renationalising rail, mail, energy, and water”, as part of an electorally appealing “social upgrade” of Britain’s dysfunctional market economy. The characteristic cleverness of that last Seymour phrase can’t disguise the fact that he is basically contradicting himself.

But his book is so full of insights you soon stop worrying about its inconsistencies. He is particularly perceptive about why New Labour fell. Too starry-eyed in its view of big business, and too dismissive of the support Labour had always drawn from capitalism’s losers, New Labour was not the impregnable political project its architects and many media backers imagined. Its wide appeal was only ever going to be temporary. As early as the 2001 election – only four years into the Blair government, and before the Iraq war disaster – New Labour shed almost 3m votes, Seymour points out, few of which went to the Conservatives. The vacuum that Corbynism would fill began to form much earlier than most observers realised.

Seymour is also astute about the underestimated potency of some of the Labour left’s longstanding positions. He spots that Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear weapons could come in very handy should he, as seems quite likely, have to form a coalition after the next election with the anti-Trident Scottish National Party. Similarly, the Labour left’s interest in exploited workers of all ages, races, genders and classes – rather than just the “white working class” reverently invoked by New Labour and those further rightwards – has been increasingly in tune with British realities since the early 00s, when the downsides of globalisation started to become socially ubiquitous. The frequency with which Corbyn has beaten supposedly impossible political odds since 2015 suggests that “the way we have calculated the odds has been incorrect”, Seymour writes tartly. As in 1945, when Clement Attlee won his surprise Labour landslide, British society could be readier than many pundits appreciate for a leftwing government.

A BAME rally in Highbury Fields, London, in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election campaign.
A BAME rally in Highbury Fields, London, in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election campaign. Photograph: Dinendra Haria/REX/Shutterstock Photograph: Dinendra Haria/REX/Shutterstock

What might this rare kind of government be like? A few of the contributions to The Corbyn Effect (Lawrence & Wishart), a collection of shortish essays by generally pro-Corbyn academics, activists and journalists, sketch out the possibilities. Paul Mason responds to the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s plan for a state-funded national investment bank with a seductive passage:

Towns would be financed to become communities again, instead of the deserted edge-places that neoliberalism created. Major infrastructure projects, delayed or cancelled by the cash-strapped Tories, could be implemented immediately – bringing jobs, training, green energy and hi-tech industries to all parts of the UK.

In Mason’s piece, and elsewhere in the book, there is a recurring argument that a leftwing government could be, and should be, as transformative as Margaret Thatcher’s. This is always a sign that British leftwing intellectuals are getting excited.

The political and cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert goes even further than Mason in his assessment of Corbynism’s potential. If Labour’s most adventurous ideas and activists are allowed to flourish, there is “the possibility of a radically democratic political movement supporting the most radical government in British history”.

Yet Gilbert has had enough encounters with the less free-wheeling parts of the Labour machine, as a leftwing party activist, to know that even if Corbynism lasts, its radicalism is not guaranteed. This year’s election manifesto, beneath its inspiring and informal modern prose, offered a pretty traditional “statist form of social democracy”, in Gilbert’s view. “Sooner or later, Corbynism ... is going to have to decide whether it wants to simply relive Labour’s glory days of the mid-20th century, or truly re-imagine socialism.”

This sense that Corbyn has many more obstacles to overcome, whatever the next election’s outcome, preoccupies almost all these essayists, and Seymour as well. The Labour party needs to be remade as a looser, but also more leftwing body. Power in the British state needs to be decentralised and democratised. Above all, a prime minister Corbyn would face the same enormous difficulty as elected leftwing governments throughout history: how to change, and replace, parts of capitalism while simultaneously keeping the economy working. Doing the latter will require “a minimum of cooperation”, as Seymour rather understates it, from the business and other elites who have done very well out of the old system. If they choose not to cooperate – and recent history, from Salvador Allende’s Chile to Syriza’s Greece, is not encouraging – then the pressures on a Corbyn government may become crushing.

Most of these cautionary arguments are well made in both books. But I wonder if the writers are being slightly too fearful. The deep problems of the Conservatives and of all present-day politics built around the free market receive little attention in either volume. A lone essay by the veteran political scientist Andrew Gamble, a shrewd observer of Thatcherism in its largely forgotten vulnerable phases, reminds us that the Tories have won only two of the last seven general elections, both narrowly. He also points out that the British right’s unchanging offer to the public – “small state, low taxes, free trade”, as he puts it – has become “a hard one to sell after 10 years of austerity and squeezed household incomes, and 30 years of rising inequality”. A Corbyn government may be unpopular, but so may be the alternatives.

Both these books are really works in progress, like Corbynism itself. They skate over the unsuccessful stretches of his leadership, and sometimes settle scores against his perceived enemies without much thought. Condemnations of the Guardian for systematic anti-Corbyn bias are not totally convincing coming from authors who also heavily quote pro-Corbyn Guardian writers. And there is not enough about what Labour should do after him. He will turn 70 in 2019.

But both volumes are invigorating additions to what is still a pretty thin literature about Corbynism. The concluding essay in The Corbyn Effect is the least ideological: a sharp analysis of parliamentary marginals by the sociologist Paula Surridge. First, she lists 65 current Tory and SNP constituencies with small or tiny majorities – more seats than Labour needs to gain to govern alone. Then she lists 19 precarious Labour marginals. Corbynism still seems so full of promise, and so fragile.

•To order Corbyn by Richard Seymour for £7.58 (RRP £9.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Andy Beckett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dangerous Hero by Tom Bower review – does the Corbyn exposé reveal anything new?
A biography which tries to convince readers that the Labour leader is unfit for office scores some hits but is itself flawed

Gaby Hinsliff

20, Feb, 2019 @12:34 PM

Article image
The Free Speech Wars review – from censorship to cancel culture
A stimulating guide, edited by Charlotte Lydia Riley, unpacks the arguments that are raging around free speech

Fara Dabhoiwala

03, Dec, 2020 @7:30 AM

Article image
Writers and Their Mothers review – the legacy of maternal blessings
Made, marred, mollycoddled and inspired … Philip Larkin, Ian McEwan and Samuel Beckett are among the authors in this lively collection of affectionate and celebratory essays

Anthony Quinn

10, Mar, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder review – the deathly prose of dic-lit
Mein Kampf is drivel, but what about Stalin’s poetry and Mussolini’s bodice-ripper? And does an autocrat lurk within every dreadful writer?

Will Self

25, Apr, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
Ethel Rosenberg by Anne Sebba review – a notorious cold war tragedy
This is a sensitive portrait of the American civilian who was executed for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Russians

Melissa Benn

24, Jun, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
Theresa May by Rosa Prince review – the anti-Cameron, Brexit PM
There is not much that’s intriguing about the determined May, apart from her class-based reaction against her predecessor’s gilded clique

Rafael Behr

16, Feb, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre review – the astonishing story of a cold war superspy
The double life of a KGB insider recruited by MI6 features microfilm, Soviet secrets and a daring escape

Luke Harding

19, Sep, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
A Party with Socialists in It review – Labour’s left from the 19th century to Corbyn
Simon Hannah’s survey of the left of the party is unsparing and more about unfulfilled promise than Corbynistas may like

Andy Beckett

08, Mar, 2018 @7:29 AM

Article image
Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls review – radical, unsettling, relevant
A superb new biography of the seer of Walden Pond reconsiders his reputation as tax-refuser, recluse, environmentalist and writer

Sarah Bakewell

10, Aug, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
May at 10 by Anthony Seldon review – politics and pressure
Could Theresa May have delivered a deal? And was she right to call an election? A study of the what ifs of Brexit

David Runciman

07, Nov, 2019 @7:30 AM