Interview with Mark Perryman on "The Corbyn Effect"

Tom Gann spoke to Mark Perryman about the legacy of Stuart Hall, Labour modernity, possibilities for radical organisation, cultural politics and more.

The Corbyn Effect, edited by Mark Perryman, is being launched at The World Transformed on Saturday September 23rd at 11 am. New Socialist Theory and Strategy co-editor Tom Gann spoke to Perryman about the legacy of Stuart Hall, Labour modernity, possibilities for radical organisation, cultural politics and more.

First of all I’d like to say how much I enjoyed the book and its mixture of seriousness, enthusiasm and probably right degree of scepticism or caution about the “Corbyn effect”. I think I found something really useful in almost every chapter even (or sometimes especially) when I disagreed. In fact it was great to read something about Corbyn and the current situation in the Labour Party when, where I thought it was wrong, it demanded serious critical engagement rather than irritation or contempt.

It appears from the acknowledgements that the very dramatic changes in the political situation from 2016-17 made getting the book sorted rather a tricky process. Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing and getting together The Corbyn Effect particularly in the context of those changes we’ve seen since Corbyn’s re-election?

I’d been away most of the summer of 2015 so altho’ I’d signed up as a registered supporter, duly had my leftie-ego bashed for not being purged (I’d had a Vote SNP poster in my window in East Sussex for gawd’s sake and been avoiding voting for Labour for an awfully long time) and been over the proverbial when Jeremy won, I hadn’t really been caught up in the fervour. The 2nd time round was very different, I’d joined the party the day Jeremy won so was full frontal in the re-election campaign at branch and CLP level. And after that I felt there was the space for the kind of book The Corbyn Effect has become as you , generously describe it. Everything was commissioned within days of Jeremy’s victory and in just after Xmas 2016. Then the by-elections happen, oh dear. He could be deposed by the end of Feb if both are lost. One win, one defeat, we decide to proceed but refocus the content and add the fateful words ‘existential crisis’ to a sub-title. All good, well sort of. Then the ‘snap’ General Election is called. Oh fuck. Labour’s going to get slaughtered, Jeremy forced out, third summer running a Labour leadership election. That will teach my pessimism of the so-called intellect! 9th June, the book is on, needs a total rewrite with new chapters added too, and must be out in time for Labour Conference. Which it is, phew!

Who’s your intended audience and what practical effects, if any, are you aiming for the book to achieve? In terms of the intended audience I mean both in terms of their political orientation- the book is generally very insistent on the virtues of pluralism both within Labour and across political parties and in terms of their political engagement, do you imagine the book is for already active people?

I would hope it has an appeal right across the Labour spectrum, what remains of the outside left, pluralists in other parties, Greens , Plaid and SNP in particular, the interested commentariat too. As for ‘qualifications’ I think its probably more about an interest in ideas, which some of those who are already ‘active’ are, some aren’t. And some who aren’t active, are. I don’t mean this in an intellectually snooty, abstract way it is just that there remains a tendency of anti-intellectualism in English society that affects the Left too. I’d also say for any students studying contemporary British politics this is a primer on the modern Labour Party.

Coming on to your own essay in the book, “The Great Moving Left Show”, which I really liked, especially for the very suggestive thinking of lost and alternative forms of Labour modernity in the 1980s. The inclusion of Bennism as something with profoundly modern aspects and the discussion of the necessity of forms of political innovation from below which may be social movementist or even extra-parliamentary but will be in close contact with Labour strikes me as really key. I was wondering what form you imagined these movements from below taking, whether as with Rock against Racism and Red Wedge, which you cite, and are a good point where the modernity of the left in the 1970s and 1980s intersects with organizing from below, being part of a cultural politics or whether they might take other forms? Moreover, if we’re talking about cultural politics, what would politics mean here- would it be a form which, as with at least the surface level of #Grime4Corbyn be something linked to building electoral support or something wider?

I think firstly we need to learn from the past. Blairite modernity was profoundly ahistorical, anything ‘old’ wasn’t ‘new’ and therefore bad. But secondly don’t freeze those lessons in time, one of the worst habits of the left. It worked then so must work now. So its broad lessons we need to learn, that popular culture is a crucial space where ideas are contested and thus any social movement serious about power has to be both cultural and political. The fact that since the early 1980s there’s not been any kind of movement remotely like Rock against Racism, and that Corbynism has precious little to resemble the best, and there were some really good bits, of Red Wedge is a something we need to collectively reflect on and do something about.

What do you think were the really good bits of Red Wedge, and how could they be reanimated now in a way that doesn’t, as you say, freeze them in time?

It was a mix of high profile acts and going on the road. It had more than a whiff of Rock against Racism in the sense that anybody could be part of it, in this case wearing a badge was enough. And the Labour Party backed it but didn’t try to own it, it had its own space. But it didn’t last long, when the ’87 General Election was lost Labour, more or less dumped it. What might it look like today? Well first of all get the acts and bands who are at the cutting edge of music now involved. That’s what #grime4corbyn did in terms of their genre and #JC4PM haven’t. Much as I love UB40,The Farm, Paul Weller et al they aren’t today are they? Needs to be localised, I’m a big fan of the We Shall Overcome outfit 154 anti-austerity gigs over weekend 6-8 October nationwide, totally bottom up, no big backing. That would be my kind of model. Right now Jeremy’s office could pick up the phone to any left-leaning artist in the country. Fill Wembley Stadium, Hampden, the Principality Stadium, Old Trafford, Villa Park. A huge free festival maybe? Then go local, use the ‘wow’ factor to inspire and empower the bottom up. We need to be far more culturally ambitious than Labour is currently, or has more or less ever been, that’s why Red Wedge as an exception is so important.

The other really strong aspect of your essay, I felt, was around the question of the modern and Labour, and the argument that Blairism represented only one possible version of this. To push this further, what do you think it would have taken for a Bennite or a Stuart Hall inspired version of Labour modernity to have been victorious (or is Corbynism this)? Alternatively, do you think latent in these ideas, particularly when expressed as “modernization” there is always buried a pressure not to generate new, anti-capitalist and democratic purposes but to adapt to the forms of existing society? If so, how could a resolutely modern version Corbyn project, which is clearly what we need, avoid this?

Where Corbynism connects to the seminal Stuart Hall essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ is that like Thatcherism, yet of course in an entirely different way, it seeks a rupture with an existing consensus. He does this by speaking over the heads of his party, the PLP, Thatcher did that too. And in that process develops a popular politics along the lines Hall describes but again, to entirely different ends. But we must understand 2017 as the beginning, not the end of that process. There is a huge way to go yet all we have established at the moment is the direction of travel, the break with neoliberalism.

How would a popular Corbynite politics work that wasn’t just the top-down, demagogic appeal to “the people” in their passivity of Thatcherism or Trumpism with a left content filled in?

Well the policies hopefully for a start! Stuart Hall in his ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ essay deconstructed some of the key strategic elements as ‘to work on the ground’ and ‘ win space’ by a process that set out to ‘change the field of struggle’ with ‘an alternative logic’. In my keynote essay ‘The Great Moving Left Show’ for The Corbyn Effect I suggest we need all of that to turn Corbynism into a hegemonic, transformative politics. And the central objective must be to work out how this will be played out locally, not the same everywhere, no single model, but localised expressions of. This is the moment. I would entirely discount an early General Election so we have a window of opportunity to do this but never underestimate the Tories ability to stage a recovery. It has to happen coming out of conference, time won’t wait.

Finally, with your essay, something I think is astute and important, is how differences and contradictions will emerge within Corbynism, especially as the movement grows. What do you think these differences will be? Secondly, what organizational and cultural forms do you think it would take to handle these contradictions in productive, non-antagonistic ways? Can they be achieved, moreover, in ways that are not rooted in (as the Left have almost always done) compromising for very little benefit?

In a nutshell one more heave vs a hegemonic politics. The latter demands the remaking of labourism, the former just more, and more activism. We see that tension around how Momentum organises in the Labour Party and in localised frustration with the conservative organizational culture Labour is lumbered with. In 2017 the Progressive Alliance argument, tho in 2022 or sooner I see that replaced by the case for what I call in the book ‘smart campaigning’. As for compromise, I’m going to disagree with you here. ‘No compromise’ is the death of politics, the issue rather is choosing what to compromise on, and what not to.

Moving on to considering the book more generally, The Corbyn Effect makes a lot of a commitment to pluralism but would you say it’s written from a particular line? A lot of pieces (but not all) appear to come from, in Jeremy Gilbert’s words, the radical wing of the soft left? How do you think this affects the writers’ assessments of Corbyn, a figure who’s slightly outside this tendency?

That was on purpose. Jeremy knows he has the ‘hard left’ in the bag, but he’d never have become leader with just that lot on board would he? The Corbyn surge has changed these labels, both of which in terms of dogged adherents had become more or less extinct by 2015 in any case. If I was after a label I would say now we’re talking about the basis of a next Left. And the contributors? I’m not particularly interested in their ‘label’, quite a few of them I don’t much have inkling of their wider politics, and still don’t. What I did know was that they’d write something interesting on Corbyn. What I avoid like the plague is the writer who you know precisely what they will write before they’ve written it because their point of view and experience is utterly unchanging. A trait too common in left politics.

Not asking this at all in a gotcha way, but how far do you think the contradictions between chapters come down to the book’s pluralism and how far do you think they reflect real contradictions in the Corbyn project, whether within its present, or between its actuality and potentiality or even perhaps between Corbyn himself and Corbynism? I’m thinking particularly of how some chapters suggest Corbyn is, in lots of ways, a rather traditional left labourist politician without much openness to social movements and others present Corbyn or Corbynism as essentially the vehicle of social movements?

Both. This isn’t a book from a single viewpoint and apart from those with aforemementioned entrenched positions most I would say think more or less the same, Corbynism is after all a messy complex of contradictions.

Even if there isn’t fully a line, it certainly feels as if Stuart Hall is the presiding influence, even in chapters that don’t explicitly mention him (thinking here of two chapters which I really liked, Monique Charles’s on Grime, with its attention to emergent radical cultural possibilities, and Phil Burton-Cartledge’s chapter on class politics, which strongly follows Hall’s insistence on dealing with the working class as it actually exists, not through inherited, obsolete even sentimental categories). Why is it, do you think, that Hall’s thought is so key to analyzing Corbynism and the present moment?

I’m not sure Hall is as prevalent in the chapters as you suggest, and perhaps I would like! He remains for some the pre-eminent English Left intellectual of the postwar period, Eric Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams, Sheila Rowbotham would certainly be up there too. But the marketization of Higher Education and the almost entire marginalisation of the marxist left after ’89 means that such thinkers, and others, don’t have the wider political currency they once enjoyed. If the book helps towards that, well that’s an achievement I would be vey proud of.

Continuing with Hall’s influence, reading The Corbyn Effect I was often thinking of where its line differs from the New Socialist line insofar as we have one, and one really crucial area that strikes me is around the significance of anti-imperialism for left politics. Anti-imperialism is really central to me and quite a few of the rest of us at NS but relatively absent from The Corbyn Effect. I was wondering essentially, how far this tendency to not focus on imperialism might be a consequence of The Corbyn Effect’s debt to Hall? Sivanandan in his, I think, partially fair, partially unfair, critique of Marxism Today in “The Hokum of New Times” suggests that going too far in the critique of mechanical forms of determinism abstracts out the economy from culture and politics, particularly the economy considered from a global perspective including in its imperialist aspects. Moreover, a sense I’ve often got in Hall is that he tends to exclude the peace movement from the realm of social movements (perhaps this exclusion explains too why some chapters argue that the former chair of Stop the War has had little contact with social movements). I found four chapters which addressed imperialism. Three of these chapters were, I felt, some of the strongest, though even here imperialism isn’t central: Hilary Wainwright on the way in which Labour’s dogmatic parliamentarianism bars any critique or reckoning with the imperial and martial character of the British state including a rejection of nuclear weapons and calling for a re-orientation of foreign and defence policy; Gerry Hassan on the role of Scotland in imperialism and empire building as a corrective to simplistic accounts of Scotland’s leftist identity; and Monique Charles both noting that Corbyn is an anti-imperialist as well as a socialist and pointing out how the imperial character of “Britishness” represents a very seriousness limitation on left possibilities of constructing a desirable national-popular identity. The other chapter that mentions imperialism is Paul Mason’s Foreword, which though I don’t want to be rude, I thought was morally, strategically and historically dubious around the need for the left to abandon its “kneejerk anti-imperialism” (if only the British left had been instinctively anti-imperialist). I’d also suggest that the accounts of Corbyn’s media troubles are lacking because they fail really to account for how much of what was thrown at Corbyn was around (as Wainwright suggests) his rejection of imperialism and its continuing role in the construction of the British state. So, would you say this lack of focus on imperialism is part of Hall’s legacy and do you think it poses any problems for The Corbyn Effect?

No, not at all. You’re reading to much into the end product! There’s no specific chapter on Brexit, none on the economics of austerity, foreign policy and the vexed question of nuclear disarmament. As editor you are arranging a team, a mix that will work, I wanted all those subjects as chapters but either they wouldn’t fit or the authors I wanted weren’t available, and in some cases both. I would say however that empire, Europe and these other issues are strongly prevalent right across the book which is good, if not better.

With the legacy of Hall I was also wondering if perhaps there’s a risk of minimizing the role of political leadership in hegemony and of battles within the Labour Party being ignored. Indeed, perhaps even Corbyn himself disappears except as an empty signifier. Hall’s correction to mechanical forms of Marxism, the crucial role of culture the expanded conception of politics, which you mention in your essay, these are all vital, of course. However, I wonder if the stick has been bent too far- hegemony is also sometimes a question of quite narrowly political struggles and of leadership and assuming moral and intellectual leadership (Gramsci was, at least, in part a Leninist, after all). When Maya Goodfellow says, absolutely rightly, “if the Labour Party is to be a force for transformative change, it must confidently take on the so-called migration ‘debate’”, this is a question, at least some extent, of leadership from Corbyn. On immigration Corbyn himself needs to, as sometimes he has failed to do, oppose certain tendencies both within Labour and perhaps within Corbynism itself. Is there a risk in a certain conception of hegemony either letting Corbyn off the hook or failing to recognize how crucial he is to the project (here perhaps there has been a failing of the radical wing of the soft left)?

It’s a balance. There’s no Corbynism without Jeremy, there’s no Jeremy without us. I bitterly resent the media depiction of this ‘us’ as a fan club, a personality cult and all that crap. But for two years we’ve been fighting a rearguard action against the PLP, the Labour centre-right and right. None of whom have gone away but 2017 changes everything. It gets easier; it gets harder because now is not the time to defend but to build. That requires both leadership and movement. If we have the former without the latter then our version of left populism become like all the others, demagogue led. The antithesis of left politics, or at least it should be. It’s a popular left we need, this requires people and an expression that works at the local level. The latter in the coming period is absolutely crucial, especially in the 66 target seats and 19 defences. Get that right and we could actually win next time, imagine that!

You’re doing two events at conference, the launch and Football from Below, how do these two strands relate?

Well spotted! If I was being slightly cocky I’d guess I might claim to be practicing what I preach. Saturday morning , the politics The Corbyn Effect launch. Sunday morning. ‘Football from below’ connecting social movement and transformative ideas to what we like to pretend was once the ‘people’s game’. Not to privilege football, but to set an example, we need interventions, not just discussion but practical actions, right across popular culture. I think I kind of know that the session on the book will go (still come mind – it should be really good!) but the football one who knows? If it works, and something comes out of it then perhaps we have begun to prove the point and purpose of the book!

Mark Perryman is the editor of the new book The Corbyn Effect having previously edited a wide range of other books on left politics. He is a regular contributor to a range of publications including New Socialist, as well as the Morning Star, the Labour Left website Left Futures, Open Democracy and Counterfire. Mark is the co-founder of self styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. In the 1980s he worked for, wrote for and was on the editorial board of, the magazine Marxism Today. He is a member of Lewes Constituency Labour Party and a member of Momentum. Twitter @phil_football.

The Corbyn Effect is edited by Mark Perryman with a foreword by Paul Mason, and published by Lawrence & Wishart. It is the first serious attempt to understand this exciting new phenomenon, the meaning, limitations and potential of Corbynism. An essential post-election read, The Corbyn Effect makes sense of Jeremy Corbyn and the fundamental shift in our system of ideas 2017 has made possible. Available now, from Lawrence & Wishart here