Ahead of the 2017 anniversary of the creation of the USSR, I have been re-reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s definitive biography of Joseph Stalin, Court of the Red Tsar …
While the broad outlines of Stalin’s fanatical, murderous rule are well trodden, the rich detail of Montefiore’s work holds lessons for political leaders of the present; one moment struck me as particularly illuminating. After chastising his son for using the Stalin name, Stalin himself explained, ‘You’re not Stalin and I’m not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power’. Aside from being quite a barmy, unnerving thing to say, it does tell us something about the nature of political leadership and political movements; namely, that figureheads of serious upheaval can come to view themselves as the embodiment of the change they helped bring about.
Now, while I have no wish to compare Corbyn to Stalin, I do think that for Kremlinologists Labour-watchers, the above lesson does bare thinking about. Most accept that in the aftermath of electoral annihilation today, Jeremy Corbyn will probably go; critical to what follows this, would be the answer to the following question: is Corbynism merely Corbyn? Or is Corbynism something more eternal? For the followers of the Corbynite project, they must hope for the latter.
Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Hyman wrote about the reasons that New Labour failed to renew itself and maintain its grip on the Labour Party. He wrote: ‘Without roots, without establishing its own traditions, cultivating its own sustainable culture, drawing on the stories and figures of the past, New Labour became unnecessarily fragile, the cult of one person, not a movement of hearts and minds’. Now, there obviously do exist some within the mainstream of the PLP who are sympathetic to the Corbynite programme; but, post putsch, with most of them in a self-imposed media exile, Corbyn comes across as something of a one-man band. The working assumption is that if Corbyn were to step down, his successor would be the most left-wing candidate to get on the ballot; but what if this is not the case? And what has not been tested is the attachment felt by the southern, university-educated electorate for the Corbynite programme; vis-à-vis Corbyn himself, when he has been given a drubbing at the ballot box, and where he is seen as having failed on his own terms. The dangers inherent to any regime when the legitimacy of that regime rests on the shoulders of one individual have received the attention of political science; Corbyn and his acolytes need to be alive to such dangers.
With the most recent rebrand of Jeremy Corbyn as a modern-day Clodius, these risks become even more pronounced. Posing as an anti-establishment insurgent in something of a one-player game. Such posturing means that if you do meet with failure, it is most certainly viewed as an orphan. The danger for their project is that, if Labour suffers annihilation at the ballot box, not only will the messenger be discredited, but so will the message.