What is the future of the syncretists – the ideological strain who meld moral reform and western-imperial belligerence? David Jamieson reviews a memoir of their activities of recent years.
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There are people more responsible for the death of Corbynism than Michael Chessum, but none of them were ostensible friends of the project. Keir Starmer was sharpening his knife, only half concealed in the shadows, for years. Meanwhile figures of the party right like Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell made no secret of their desire to overthrow the leftist leadership and restore the party machine.
But all these characters – and many more from the gruesome line-up of the Labour establishment – worked together to try and overturn Brexit. Militant Remainism was by far the most important weapon of all those deployed against Corbyn and his movement, and the policy of backing a second referendum was the killer blow. Few now deny this.
Chessum’s role is significant for two reasons. First because he was on hand to offer left cover for the operation to remove Corbyn. Second, because his ideology – a nameless syncretism of cosmopolitan liberalism, domesticated leftism and foreign policy militarism – remains a significant tendency on the transatlantic left. His memoir of recent years, This is Only the Beginning, is an attempt to set the record for this tendency.
The first half of the book, dealing with the student movement of 2010, is innocuous – even admirable at points for its journaling of neglected student protest far from London, and for the flashes of humility that colour Chessum’s account of his own role. But the real purpose of the book is apologia for the disasters of the Corbyn years.
Chessum was a founder member and leading light in Another Europe is Possible – a left pro-EU pressure group with big money backing and elite allies. The outfit pressurised the leadership, denounced left supporters of Brexit, and ultimately played a significant role in the adoption by Corbyn of a second referendum policy, to which the whole show would succumb.
The record of these events is at times stunningly honest, as when he recounts his part in organising Momentum (the Corbynite activist group) members for a protest where Bob Geldof screamed at working class fishermen on the Thames – a famous episode from the 2016 referendum campaign, exemplifying elite disdain. Momentum, he asserts, was also approached by David Cameron’s Tory government, which led the official Remain campaign, seeking joint operations (whether any were carried out, we aren’t told).
Most stunning of all, Chessum details his own sub-democratic lobbying efforts in the Labour machine. There’s very little self-awareness in evidence as he recalls secretive meetings to argue over policy with party officials. At 2019 Labour conference, Chessum relates: “In a tense meeting in the Leader’s Office enclave on the first floor of the Hilton on Brighton’s seafront, I found myself hammering out a last-minute deal with three senior members of Corbyn’s team.”
While we all assume this kind of horse trading goes on in politics, this revelation sits uneasily alongside the book’s constant complaints that the Labour party and the left in general suffer from poor internal democracy (the impression given that if democracy were perfect, Chessum and Co would naturally win every argument). The faux-casual writing style carries on throughout. He just “found” himself demanding major policy changes in a hotel, out of eye-and-ear-shot of voting delegates. How zany.
These blasts of candour emerge from a text in which a very great deal is simply not discussed. Best for Britain, a corporate vehicle drawing substantial funds from the business world (half a million pounds from George Soros alone) is mentioned, but not meaningfully discussed. It was a major funnel of monies to Another Europe is Possible. Chessum’s campaign was not an organic development of the labour movement. It was an astroturf vehicle, created by capitalist money, and staffed by his fellow syncretists. Best for Britain alone contributed more than a quarter of a million sterling to Another Europe, all in the crucial two years of campaigning to change Labour’s policy of accepting the 2016 vote. More was provided by major NGOs, some closely involved in the EU and its evolution over decades.
Most conspicuous by absence is politics itself. The text is barren of intellectual engagement with its subjects. We never get to find out what Chessum thinks about the world.
There’s no explanation as to why he felt so strongly about his support for EU membership that he was willing to risk the Labour left’s entire deck for it. The most fundamental of questions are never broached; what is the EU; what is its class nature; who created it, and for what purposes?
The place of analysis is taken by recrimination – against others on the left, but particularly against the mass public itself. The only clues to why he arrived at the outlandish political position he did – that the entire country should repeat a national vote, simply because he and his friends didn’t like the first outcome – are gleaned from his dismissal of the Leave vote as “a politics of right-wing nationalism, protectionism, anti-migrant scapegoating and racism.”
Opposition to the overturning of the 2016 vote on the left was “the internalization of a right-wing populist argument”. What Labour really needed was to resist Brexit, and educate those – a majority of the population – who wanted to implement the 2016 vote: “…defeating the rise of right-wing nationalism was always going to need to be a core part of Corbynism’s strategy – and that meant defeating Brexit or at the very least the narratives and politics it contained.”
At points, Chessum’s incredulity that anyone could believe in the Brexit heresy strikes a comical note. He explains to us that some of the people working close to Corbyn, such as Andrew Murray and Seamus Milne, were actually opposed to Britain’s membership of the EU on principle. Not content with having this foul attitude inside their heads, “they had even co-authored a book” in 2012 advocating British exit. They even wrote it down. Chessum seems completely disinterested in the fact that Euroscepticism was long the majority attitude on the socialist left – this and so much else goes unexamined.
Chessum’s attitude to the majority population, on which any electoral politics ultimately depends, is a characteristic mix of suspicion and fatalism. On the question of immigration: “There can be no squeamishness about ‘talking down to working class people’ when it comes to this debate.”
But then, the effort of talking down to working class people is wasted, because political leadership is impossible. Accordingly: “Britain’s departure from the EU–and, more pressingly the shift in attitudes and public debate that took place alongside it–was in many ways the thing that killed Corbynism.”
No evidence for the essentially racist character of opposition to the EU (or even simply opposition to the idea of overturning the 2016 vote) is ever produced, merely asserted. Some may find it strange that accusations of racism are made so easily, and that they appear to override all other considerations. But in parts of the left a moral panic about racism as a vast social contagion threatening to engulf society proliferated after 2016. That this volkish end time failed to materialise doesn’t seem to have encouraged Chessum to reassess his ideas.
This theme isn’t just a useful surrogate for arguing politics. It’s also a smear to be used against others. One particularly hysterical Another Europe article, rambling about (what else) the rise of Hitler, concluded that those socialists who remained Eurosceptic: “…have now completed the transition from revolutionary socialist internationalism to a variant of national socialism.”
For Chessum and his co-thinkers, Brexit is a miasma, emerging from the people and sowing its evil around. It poisoned politics and British society, and confronted Corbynism with an impossible task of reconciliation between its Remainer and Leaver voting blocs (a convenient belief once your policy was adopted and collapsed at the polls).
I think telling millions of working class people that they don’t understand how good they have it, and they must vote again until they vote for the establishment, is wrong on every conceivable level, including electoral strategy. But this is at most half the criticism.
He and his detractors on the Labour left alike share the lack of belief in politics – its ability to change opinion, to defy expectations, to break-up old arrangements and forge new ones. Chessum bemoans the historic emergence of a challenge to the EU. Others in the Corbyn milieu called for ‘constructive ambiguity’ to pave over splits in the Labour coalition.
But both believed in this building block politics. The 13 million who voted for Corbyn’s Labour in 2017 are passive objects, not subjects. It’s seldom broached that Corbyn and his closest lieutenants could have been honest about their opposition to the EU in 2016. This would have led to a vicious confrontation with the Labour machine and the state. It would have involved an honest reckoning with Labour members and supporters. But it would also have landed on British politics like a bombshell, instantly transforming the national constitutional debate and triggering widespread realignment.
This kind of radicalism isn’t of interest to Chessum and the syncretists, because ultimately they just aren’t interested in having this kind of confrontation – they aren’t interested, that is, in politics. Their ‘socialism’ is an anti-politics of economic policy proposals, plus experiments in sundry cultural and moral attitudes. Chessum argues in his conclusion that the greatest problem for the left is that it “regards the ‘culture war’ as a distraction from the real business of class politics”. His proposed programme of economic, social and moral reform is separated from, and embedded within, the existing institutions of the state and global capitalism. It is therefore no surprise that Another Europe hailed the Nato proxy-war with Russia from February 2022 as a progressive conflict. If an anti-democratic trading block can be imbued with leftist energies, why not a savage military alliance, and who knows what else next? Perhaps this really is only the beginning.