The remarkable thing about Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left outsider who stunned the British establishment by capturing the leadership of the Labour Party, is not his alleged lack of patriotism. Whether he wishes to sing God Save the Queen at public events seems a rather trivial matter. The remarkable thing about his brand of leftism is how reactionary it is.
Corbyn is an old-fashioned socialist who would like to soak the rich and put transport and utilities back under state control. His rhetoric of class war suggests a complete break with mainstream social democracy.
Postwar European social democracy was always a compromise with capitalism. Left-wing ideology, especially in Britain, owed more to certain Christian moral traditions (“more Methodist than Marx”) than to any political dogma. Labour leaders like Clement Attlee, the first prime minister after World War II, were not opposed to a market economy; they just wanted to regulate markets in such a way that might best serve working-class interests.
During the Cold War, social democracy was Western Europe’s egalitarian alternative to communism. Attlee, for one, was ferociously anti-communist.
Lip service was paid at Labour Party conferences to the old symbols of socialism. Party leaders sang the Internationale with teary-eyed nostalgia. And, until Tony Blair struck it out in 1995, Clause 4 of the party’s constitution still promised “common ownership of the means of production” and “popular control” of industry. (Corbyn might well try to restore it.) But when it came to national government, ideological socialists were swiftly shunted aside to make way for more pragmatic operators.
By the time Blair, following the example of his friend US President Bill Clinton, became Prime Minister by promoting the “third way,” socialism seemed to be dead and buried. Clinton and Blair – who came to power after that other odd Anglo-American couple, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, had started to tear at the fabric of social democracy – made compromises of which Attlee would not have dreamed.
The genius of Clinton and Blair was to combine genuine concern for the underprivileged with an unseemly devotion to the fat cats of Wall Street, the City of London, and some murkier places, too. Blair vacationed with Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s plutocrat prime minister. Clinton used his presidential pardon to allow wealthy cronies to elude justice. And after leaving office, both men swiftly put their reputations in the service of their bank accounts.
One might say that by compromising with capitalism too much, the third-way leaders compromised themselves. This is one reason why, under Corbyn, the hard left struck back and finally managed to wrest power from the compromisers. Especially to many young people, Corbyn is the longed-for man of conviction, the “authentic” voice of the people. Never having had much of an ideology in the first place, the soft-left social democrats, faced with a real socialist, ended up having nothing much to say.
Could Hillary Clinton be similarly punished in her quest to be the Democratic Party’s nominee in next year’s US presidential election? Could the centre left, which she represents, lose control of the party?
In recent opinion polls, her main opponent, Bernie Sanders, who proudly calls himself a socialist, is edging ever closer to Clinton – and is actually leading her in some states. Like Corbyn, he has the air of authenticity – a politician who says what he thinks, unlike the scripted professionals of mainstream Washington.
And yet there is no Democratic left, including Sanders, that is remotely as hard as the Corbynites. Compared to Corbyn, Sanders is a moderate. More important, what a militant faction did to the Labour Party is being done now not to the Democrats, but to the Republicans. Indeed, the Republican rebels look far more extreme than Corbyn, let alone Sanders.
The Republican Party is in danger of being taken over by fanatics who see compromise in government as a form of villainous treachery. Forcing the archconservative John Boehner to quit as Speaker of the House for being too soft was an act of war by Republicans against their own party. Most aspiring Republican presidential candidates are not only extreme, but also more reactionary than Corbyn.Clinton, despite her so far lackluster campaign, and despite a popular perception of inauthenticity, even outright shiftiness, will probably hang on to her party and scrape through in the end. She will prevail not because her views look any more convincing than those of the center-left professional pols of the Labour Party, but because her opponents look so much worse.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945. Project Syndicate,