Book Review: This Is Only the Beginning: The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to the Fall of Corbyn by Michael Chessum

‘The left will face its chance again, but not soon, and until then we have not yet built up the institutions or the common strategies which would entitle us to govern.’

by David Renton

Why should we need another book about Corbynism? Labour insiders Len McCluskey and Andrew Murray have published memoirs. Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire have interviewed the Labour right. Books by left-wing journalists Owen JonesRichard SeymourMike PhippsAlex Nunns, and Oliver Eagleton mix memoir and analysis of Corbyn’s defeat.

Michael Chessum’s This is Only the Beginningdistinguishes itself in two ways. First, unlike Pogrund and Maguire, the message is celebratory, that Corbyn unleashed a generational longing for socialism, and one which had until then been primarily expressed in anti-parliamentary activism. In contrast to several of the other books I have mentioned, his is lively, well-written and optimistic. It opens with the Millbank student protests in December 2010 and the protests which followed, in which the author became a sabbatical officer at the University of London Union. It was in 2010, Chessum argues (rightly), that Corbynism’s future cadres had their first collective experience of struggle. If you want to see again in your mind’s eye the graffiti on Westminster, hear once more the police sirens, this is the book for you.

Second, Chessum draws on his experience as a member of the Momentum steering committee and then full-timer for Another Europe is Possible, to suggest where Corbynism went wrong.

The first half of the book is more successful, reflecting the way in which its author was closer to the centre of events. That said, even in the early material, there are a number of gaps, where you feel that other members of Chessum’s generation were involved in big events, and the author was not, but has failed to make good that gap through sufficient interviews: the Occupy movement, the 2011 London riots, and the public sector pension strikes whose defeat brought an end to hopes that the Conservatives would be driven easily from office.

When writing about student activists, it feels as if Chessum either knew everyone at the time (Solomon, Bergfeld…) or has interviewed them since (Sarkar, Butler, Bastani…). When it comes to older activists, which is particularly important when considering the rise and defeat of Corbyn, the author leans too heavily on Jeremy Gilbert and Hilary Wainwright.

In reality the five decades between 1960 and 2010 produced more than two generations of leftists, who contributed to the movement, even if the author does not see them. So, for example, in telling the story of the deradicalisation and then defeat of Corbynism, he focuses on events at Momentum where a series of decisions were taken: in 2016 to structure membership on an “open” basis rather through the affiliation of groups, in January 2017 to dismantle its constitution at a strike, to set up and then later close down its youth organisation, and consistently to use the organisation to win internal Labour party battles, each of which Chessum presents as drawing energy out of the Corbyn project.

The lack of feel for older left generations means that Chessum ignores the first and most essential of bureaucratic coups: that Momentum was itself a successor to a more grassroots movement, Jeremy for Leader, which had helped Corbyn win the first leadership contest. The activists from that campaign were dispersed without recognition or thanks in order to create something new, a campaign with a single membership list that could be owned and controlled by a single person, Jon Lansman. Undoubtedly, Corbynism became more top-down over time, but the desire for central control was there from the beginning.

The book also has relatively little to say about the 2017 election, which is a weakness, because when historians look back on Corbyn’s leadership, this is likely to be what most interest them: the contrast between the unanimity of opinion which told us that a left Labour candidate could only lose votes and the success of a left-led party in winning over the public.

Chessum largely ducks Labour’s antisemitism crisis. He does writes at length, though, about the politics of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

Of the books I mentioned at the start of this review, only one other has a clear narrative of Brexit, Eagleton’s, in which Corbynism was let down by the leader’s weak commitment to the righteous cause of a Socialist Britain outside Europe. Successively pulled to the right (i.e. towards positions on Brexit which allowed for the possibility of a second referendum), Corbyn confused ordinary voters who had voted to Leave and now just wanted to get the referendum done. The left suffered a terrible betrayal at the hands of anti-Brexit leftists who became the naive dupes of liberals, the capitalists, and Keir Starmer.

This is Only the Beginning presents a rather different narrative of events, one with the political values reversed. Like Eagleton, Chessum portrays Corbyn’s inner circle as apathetic and naïve about the referendum. He quotes Laura Parker, Corbyn’s private secretary complaining that in there was no “understanding of what was at stake in the core team, or any of that determination or energy or connection to what our people must have been feeling on the ground”.

Like Eagleton, Chessum grasps that Leave camp had a democratic aspect (Remain was led, after all, by George Osborne and David Cameron – how else could people show opposition to them except voting to Go?). Unlike Eagleton, Chessum insists that Brexit was a mechanism to spread nationalist ideas, exulted in anti-foreigner racism, and was to give over the next four years the Conservatives a clear path to renewal while offering Labour nothing similar.

Unlike Eagleton, and thankfully, Chessum is uninterested in recriminations. He wants the left to win. He is little, if any, interest in settling scores.

Chessum’s generous account begins and ends with messages of optimism. Just as austerity created its opponent (the radical students of 2010-11) so future right-wing attacks will teach new generations of protesters the necessity of struggle. A Labour right which is bereft of ideas and nostalgic for a political conjuncture (the 1990s) which is thirty years past, must eventually concede that it offers voters nothing and give way to the left, which will revive itself by offering people what they want, a much greater degree of control over their own lives.

For myself, I fear that the defeat of 2019-20 will last longer than Chessum hopes. Previous generations of student protesters have been defeated and dispersed. If Starmerism in government is going to disappoint, and 30 months of his leadership all point in that direction, it took the British public 15 years to tire of the Conservatives. The left will face its chance again, but not soon, and until then we have not yet built up the institutions or the common strategies which would entitle us to govern.

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful – and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

Source link

#Book #Review #Beginning #Making #Left #AntiAusterity #Fall #Corbyn #Michael #Chessum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *