What has the Corbyn project meant – as a model, an inspiration, or otherwise – to you and people in the milieu(x) in which you organize?
What was at stake with this project was in equal measure painfully distant and painfully close to the contexts I am immersed in, and to an extent represent. In both the UK and in Bulgaria, I would be quite similar to the part of the UK Left that has been eating humble pie about the electoral loss: urban, university-educated, cosmopolitan left-wing voters. In both cases, this is a new Left with two further shared characteristics. First, we are fighting with ghosts from the past. In the UK, that past is the toxic mixture of Thatcherism and New Labour, and in Bulgaria – of late socialist and post-socialist hard-core neoliberal anti-communist politics, in which the Bulgarian Socialist Party eagerly took part. In both cases, the new left is also – if not necessarily by origin, most certainly by a degree of geographic and class mobility – somewhat detached from working communities, which have borne the brunt of advanced capitalism in both the core and the periphery. One big difference is that in the UK working communities stayed home, reliant on crumbling job markets and welfare provision, whereas Bulgarian working communities have had ,nothing to stay home for, thanks to the UK and other powers that ‘helped’ with our transition. Every Bulgarian family now has at least one member living in the UK or another EU country, looking for work, antagonised and racialized by the local political class but also, more worryingly, by the local white working class. I will come to that.
For the last decade I have taken part in political formations at the national and regional level, on the tiny Bulgarian and Eastern European new Left. This milieu has very much been marginalised from electoral politics, nationally and at the EU level. It was born in the vacuum of institutions of political education, workplace organising, and community development left behind after the fall of the Berlin wall. It has grown up in the thick, toxic shadow of neoliberal, oligarchic ‘social-democratic’ parties as the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The BSP is progressive and socialist in name and distant history only; nevertheless, it forms part of the Party of European Socialists (PES), to which UK Labour belongs. For us, then, the Corbyn project suggested a very distinctive but frustratingly distant hope that such social democratic parties, with progressive pasts but deeply compromised recent histories, can be transformed from within by harking back to their progressive origins in the organised workers’ movement.
This was important, not only for nation-state-level electoral politics, but also on the international arena. Corbynism offered the hope that mainstream politics in core EU countries, which define policy, budgets, and social destinies for the periphery as well, could change. We had experienced such a sudden moment of hope in one older EU member state, Greece, but it was different: not only was Syriza a small party with no neoliberal past or faction, but Greece was also a peripheral EU country where change could be easily crushed from the core – and so it was. For me, in this sense, even Brexit made more sense than Grexit, as a core EU country like the UK, and one outside the Eurozone’s jurisdiction, was more likely to possess sovereignty and trade networks to carry it through the initial shock of leaving the Union. And we have seen this in the extraordinary, indeed slightly shocking leeway that top EU politicians have given to sloppy Brexit politicking, with its perpetual and unsanctioned delays, and the range of concessions promised to the UK.
Corbynism also meant that the hope that the takeover of power within a social-democratic party by progressive forces could potentially be relayed into stronger internationalist support. If the UK stayed in the EU, this meant that any progressive electoral alternative developed in the periphery could potentially rely on voting alliances and leverage within the European Parliament, with allies within PES and outside the European Left Party, which has remained quite a boutique party after the 2019 EP elections. If the UK left the EU under Labour leadership, Corbynism could signify the possibility of transatlantic and transnational trade alliances that would cut against the grain of free trade and even build a new international block to counterbalance Euro-Atlantic hegemony. Such a block would be difficult to build, but it was equally imperative to push ourselves to think about such possible alliances in the event of a Corbyn victory. Mass capital flight and subtle economic embargo were looming possibilities. But I am still convinced that it is easier to imagine a future beyond free-market capitalism starting from a core country like the UK, with its financial resources and international links, than from elsewhere.
And then, I moved from Bulgaria to the UK in 2017; hence, I have a split vantage point, both inside and outside the UK. Retrospectively, from both viewpoints, these scenarios I outlined above were quite unrealistic. From within the UK, the belief that Blairite neoliberal reaction would easily relinquish control of the party was naïve. The Blairites, after all, serve high-stakes capital interests, and – not unlike the Tories – have been hysterically looking for ways to carry on serving them. This is an important, difficult lesson to learn, and we really need to take stock not just by asking how to make Labour better at the next turn, but whether the party apparatus can indeed be made to serve progressive ends, as the Momentum movement within the Labour Party has tried to do. One basis for this belief was the presumption that the “red wall” of Labour’s strongholds in the white, working-class Midlands and north England would hold. But New Labour’s decade of assault on public institutions and working communities had brought about a hemmorhage of votes that long preceded Corbyn, and this time the wall fell. The Brexit Party, a new merger of previously existing fascistic projects, took hold in these areas and threw their seats back to the Tories. Meanwhile, Corbyn was quixotically struggling to bring along the center of his party, whose interests were contrary to those of his supporters – and this cost him the election. The attacks from within were brutal, and surely hurt more than anything the Tories did. This is a difficult pill to swallow.
Speaking now from the outside, Momentum’s energy also had a hidden peril. It offered a moment of fascination with a project that could easily activate our distinct form of peripheral self-deprecation. Many peripheral Left forces are prone to take this position despite our anti-imperial stance, and to look West and North for guidance and for an example of something bigger, better, and faster being done by the better-off Left ‘over there.’ Despite the periphery’s history of sustained radical projects, we always feel deficient, angry at our own limitations, suffocated by a mighty but unrelatable image of what could be, . This hope in ’the outside’ can easily be crushed, leading to even greater hopelessness at home – where things are objectively less hopeful (with the far right steadily on the rise, and all industries, services, and welfare institutions radically privatised and dismantled by neoliberal plundering).. We shall see how the developments in the UK are received in the region, and I hope this ‘We Asked’ rubric will reflect the mood at least to an extent. But I also trust that our movements are quite resilient, and much more self-reliant and regionally linked than they were just a decade ago.
Importantly, the type of Left politics that is condescending toward the periphery is the furthest thing from Jeremy Corbyn’s own politics. The way he has looked up to historical examples of resistance from places like the Middle East and Latin America, throughout the campaign, was absolutely humbling and one more reason to admire him as a person and politician. Oddly enough, when I moved to the UK I realised the British Left was just as self-deprecating and provincial as our own peripheral Lefts. It had its own fascination with stuff happening elsewhere and no belief anything good could happen at home, a belief which probably ate away at some of its initial energy, but which has hardly been central to its current crisis.
What is your perspective on the recent electoral defeat in the UK? What critical lessons should your milieu, and the left in general, learn from this defeat?
The defeat hit too close home because I myself aslike many other Eastern and Southern Europeans, I have moved to the UK in search for a secure present and future that is not available at home. I do not wish to equate all of us, of course. There are important differences between upper-middle-class Bulgarians working in the private sector or affluent NGOs, those like myself who have joined of the crumbling but still relatively secure public sector as students and precarious university workers, and construction, care and agricultural workers who are often hired by temp agencies and in extremely vulnerable positions. In England, these groups live worlds apart, and forming cross-class solidarity is as imperative and profoundly challenging abroad as it is back home. But this is the task ahead, as Corbyn’s loss and Johnson’s victory will have deep impacts on our lives in different ways and might bring us even further apart unless we also organise against such divisions. The latter two groups, economically vulnerable and with no prospects back home, will be deeply affected by the shutdown of public services and spaces of social integration, as well as by surveillance and commodification of every aspect of our work and life, that had not suffered capitalist enclosure already. The new Tory government is removing those clauses in the EU exit agreement which pledge alignment with the EU on workers’ rights, and will amplify the effects of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” on us.
But in order to adequately respond to whatever comes next, we also need to understand both the balance of power within Labour and the electoral promises that the Tories made. In much analysis coming out of the British left since the election is portraying Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s choice to go for a second referendum on Brexit as Labour surrendering its (white, English) class politics to the urban, educated elites. This analysis is a very nationalistic and myopic. Corbyn would probably not have been elected Labour leader were it not for so many of us, European citizens, who joined the party in time to vote for him. The argument is made on the basis of the nation-state’s endogenous population, but the hundreds of thousands EU citizen voters that are useful within the party are forgotten in national elections. More important than the European identity of which the Remain camp has made so much is the simple interest that the vast majority of us have in maintaining our freedom of movement. Damaging as Labour’s wavering on Brexit has been, it is important to appreciate why its leader tried to bring these unrepresented members on board. We were necessary to his project’s hegemony within Labour, and we were out canvassing in the election campaign: the UK left had better not forget that.
The question of the “red wall” then opens a bigger, more complex question: who are the working poor in Britain and the West today? This requires a head-on analysis, dealing directly with the racist sentiment behind the Brexit vote. Especially in the freshly lost Labour heartlands, these are not abstract sentiments. White working-class communities in the UK have seen the only jobs available – which would themselves refuse to take at the going temp-agency rates – as well as spaces of leisure and consumption, taken over by Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians. The sentiment against Eastern Europeans in Yorkshire where I live, for instance, is at least as strong as the animus against Muslims, and a backlash can be expected sooner rather than later. Here, one of the challenges for the UK Left is not to simply apologise those affected by neoliberal reforms but to expose and oppose current racism and seek out better strategies to fight it. Eastern European migrants should put more effort into joining this struggle.
Finally, we need to understand that similarly reactionary political positions are prevalent among Bulgarian and Eastern European migrants across the class divide. Sadly, that count includes those who, for reasons of similar if much deeper economic dispossession and political dejection in Bulgaria, than anything experienced in the UK are in the most vulnerable economic position in the UK. The far right has taken a strong hold within these communities in Bulgaria and across Eastern Europe over the last decades; thus, those migrants who suffer the most from racist attacks are pushed to act in a similarly racist manner towards weaker and further racialized segments of the working class in a multicultural host country as the UK. These workers, many of whom are organising in forms not always appealing or comprehensible to the Left, such as churches, patriotic nationalist and folkloric groups, should be subjects of Left organising and solidarity despite our differences. And those of us living in the diaspora will need to do more to connect, listen, understand, and act together with these communities, as they are our natural allies against the dispossession we will all be facing under the new Tory government.
Mariya Ivancheva is a Lecturer in Higher Education Studies at the University of Liverpool. She has done research and published widely on the legacy and present of social(ist) movements, the casualisation and digitalisation of academic labour, and the role of universities and their communities in processes of social transformation in Latin America, Europe, and Africa. Mariya is a founding member of LeftEast, the PrecAnthro collective and is active in the Bulgarian Left-feminist group LevFem. You can follow her at @mivanche.