the national interest

American Leftists Believed Corbyn’s Inevitable Victory Would Be Their Model

Jeremy Corbyn Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images

The British election results, like any election results, are the result of unique circumstances and multiple factors. They are also, however, a test of a widely articulated political theory that has important implications for American politics. That theory holds that Corbyn’s populist left-wing platform is both necessary and sufficient in order to defeat the rising nationalist right. Corbyn’s crushing defeat is a decisive refutation.

Many writers, not only on the left, detected parallels between the rise of Corbyn and the movement around Bernie Sanders. The latter is considerably more moderate and pragmatic than the former, and also not laden with the political baggage of Corbyn’s widely derided openness to anti-Semitic allies. And yet many leftists have emphasized the similarities between the two, which are indeed evident. Both built youth-oriented movements led by cadres of radical activists who openly set out to destroy and remake their parties. Both lost in somewhat close fashion, Sanders in 2016 and Corbyn the next year. And fervent supporters of both men treated their narrow defeats as quasi-victories, proof of victory just around the corner.

Arguments of this sort tend to quickly devolve into straw-man attacks. So, in order to show that the view I’m describing is widespread, I am sharing lengthy excerpts from a half-dozen essays written by American leftists in recent years:

“Only Socialism Can Defeat Trumpism,” by Nicole Aschoff and Bhaskar Sunkara, The Nation, November 2016

“The past year has shown that millions of ordinary people are ready for an alternative, one pointed to by the success of Sanders and the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain …

As with the collapsing social democrats in Europe, the Democratic Party’s best bet is to move left and embrace a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people …

For the Democrats, no less than their peers in Europe, where the neoliberalization of social democracy has opened up space for a populist right, the choice on offer might well be either socialism or irrelevance.”

“Jeremy Corbyn’s Success is a Model for American Progressives,” by James Downie, Washington Post, June 2017

“Corbyn’s success provides a model for U.S. progressives in 2018, 2020 and beyond: If you need turnout to win — as liberals in the United States do — you need a bold, uncompromising platform with real solutions …

Why was turnout so high? Because Corbyn was able to generate excitement among Labour voters, especially the young. That’s in no small part because of this year’s Labour manifesto (the British equivalent of a party platform). Unlike other recent versions, mostly incrementalist documents that tweaked what came before, the 2017 edition is the boldest in decades: more money for the National Health Services and other major initiatives, a “jobs first” Brexit and free university tuition, financed by taxing corporations and the wealthiest. The manifesto and the campaign were summed up by their elegantly simple slogan: “For the many, not the few.” …

“Politics has changed,” declared Corbyn Thursday night, “and politics isn’t going back in the box where it was before.” He is right about British politics. If progressives apply the lessons of his success judiciously, U.S. politics will also change — for the better, for the many and not the few.”

“Jeremy Corbyn Is Leading the Left Out of the Wilderness and Toward Power,” by Mehdi Hasan, The Intercept, June 2017

“Last Thursday’s election result in the U.K. is a ringing confirmation that stirring idealism need not be sacrificed at the altar of political pragmatism …

Yes, mainstream center-left parties may have been crushed in recent European elections — think of France or the Netherlands. However, Corbyn — who spent 32 years toiling in obscurity on the backbenches before becoming leader of his party in a shock victory in 2015 — has now a paved a road out of the wilderness …

Here in the United States, meanwhile, the Corbyn-esque Sanders has become the most popular politician in the country and would probably win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination by a landslide if the contest were to be held tomorrow. Some polls also suggest he might have defeated Trump last November, too.”

“The American Left Has Found a New Hero,” Paul Blest, The Outline, June 2017

“American left-wingers like myself have found ourselves looking for an escape over the past few weeks in the stratospheric rise of the Labour Party — led by Corbyn, an unabashed socialist — in the polls ahead of this Thursday’s UK election …

As left wing activist Paul Mason told the New Republic last week: “They assumed Corbyn was their secret weapon. It turns out he is our secret weapon …

The reason that Corbyn is surging now, apart from the discovery that May is extremely bad at campaigning, is that he’s got a clear, progressive vision for the future, one that tackles the big question of making a more equitable society at home and around the world. The Labour Party manifesto unabashedly goes the farthest we’ve seen from a major left-of-center party; not just the Sanders-like social democratic parts like pumping more money into the National Health Service and making college free, but in nationalizing essential public services and raising revenues from increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations to pay for all of it.”

How Jeremy Corbyn Is Inspiring the American Left,” by Graeme Demianyk, HuffPost UK, July 2017 

“Sanders’s defeat to Clinton helps explain why the U.S. left has such a soft spot for a 68-year-old British collector of manhole covers. Corbyn’s success — not victory, but 40 percent of the vote and preventing Theresa May and the Conservative Party from winning a majority that she was expected to enlarge — is celebrated because his unashamedly left-wing manifesto was supposed to return Labour to the wilderness of the 1980s. It was the same accusation leveled at Sanders, that the Democrats could expect oblivion with the Vermont senator as their would-be President …

As ‘Chapo’ put it, Corbyn was “proof of concept” that a candidate offering uncompromising policies, and faced with a hostile media, would not sound the death knell for a political party. Labour now riding high in the polls, and Sanders becoming the most popular politician in the U.S., has only added weight to their argument.”

“Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn Might Create a Revolution,” Robert Borosage, The Nation, April 2019

“The coming British and U.S. elections could mark not simply a change of the party in power but the end of the 40-year conservative era and the beginning of a reform era …

Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto — “For the Many Not the Few” — was leaked by those certain that its radical ideas would torpedo his candidacy. Britain’s conservative media described it as a suicide note and gave it widespread attention. The result, ironically, was that Labour soared in public-opinion polls and made stunning election gains.”

There are certainly some points that can be made on behalf of socialist politics. The great recession created among the young a much larger constituency for anti-capitalist politics than existed before; some “left-wing” policies, like tough financial regulation and generous pension benefits, do command broad public approval, while some “centrist” policies have proven unpopular.

Nonetheless, on the whole, the arguments extrapolating from the “success” enjoyed by Corbyn and Sanders suffered from delusional wishful thinking. Proceeding from the erroneous Marxist view that capitalism is growing more oppressive, and a working-class backlash is therefore inevitable, they glommed onto bits of data and ignored and large and growing array of evidence to the contrary.

In the U.K., this delusion created a bitter argument between the left and center-left. The former insisted on maintaining Corbyn as Labour leader, based on the idea not only that he could and would win, but in some cases that his Labour critics opposed him precisely because they feared he would. Their moralistic fervor made any sober political calculation impossible. As early as 2016, a writer for the progressive New Statesman was lamenting “the sheer intensity of [Corbyn’s support], combined with some of his supporters’ glassy-eyed denial of reality and desire to ‘purge’ the party unfaithful,” and compared it to “a cult or a religious movement.”

Corbyn’s victory became a matter of faith, and its adherents continued to tout wisps of evidence for it even in the face of dismal polling:

Whether a more moderate Labour leader would have defeated Johnson — who is highly unpopular, yet still far less unpopular than Corbyn — is unknowable. What is certain is that his delirious backers assumed his success, and built around it a self-serving theory from which they refused to deviate in the face of mounting indications of doom.