We Asked on the Legacy of Corbynism: Rossen Djagalov

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?

I never thought of myself as a Corbynist/ Corbynista and found the early hype about him vaguely troubling. Don’t get me wrong: I very much like the man and his politics and certainly there is little reason to think he would ever “betray” the cause: he has stood on the right side of history for more decades than I have lived. But, granted I call myself a Marxist, I find it hard to think of a single person—rather than a set of principles—as my political lodestar. This resistance to personifying the rise of the British left since 2015 makes it easier think of its future beyond Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. In this sense, the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), to which I belong and which owes its rise as the major organization of the American left to Bernie Sanders’s campaign of 2016, has been wise to put some distance between itself and Bernie.

At the same time, the role of the individual and Corbyn’s uniqueness among Labour party parliamentarians circa 2015 are hard to deny. His somewhat fortuitous election as a leader of the party not only offered millions of British socialists somebody who could meaningfully represent them on the ballot (an option most of us are denied, as we are reminded during every election) but also blazed a peculiar, electoral path to socialism. Initially his candidacy and subsequently his leadership of the Labour Party mobilized a previously dispersed or dormant activist base around a class-based politics. Corbyn has also questioned foreign policy orthodoxies that even his closest allies in Parliament shied away from: NATO, Trident, Israel/Palestine, the British imperial past. His opinions on these issues could never become official Labour policies, but they were now spoken from the highest pulpits. Now that Corbyn is stepping away from the historical limelight, now that his adversaries—especially the centrists dominating the Parliamentary Labour Party–are running triumphant and his allies are at a loss what to do, with the least confident among them thinking that the man and his strategy might have been a colossal mistake, now that the hype is gone, let us say … oh, Jeremy Corbyn!

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?

Defeats are demoralizing. The urgent task of the moment is to stanch the loss of momentum (pun intended), of organizing forms and institutions of the British left. Foremost among them is the Labour Party itself, the battle for which has just begun. At stake is whether the party will remain a vehicle for the left and a broad social-class politics or will revert to a centrist formation that would barely tolerate the occasional leftist eccentric like Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, or Skinner. Armed with such a vehicle, however imperfect, the British left has posed a credible threat in a way that it hadn’t been for many decades.

Is Labour’s defeat at the 2019 elections relevant outside of Britain? I doubt it. I am not sure what one can do about the demonization to which a leftist candidate will inevitably be subjected by the bourgeois press. Maybe not having an issue like Brexit to desiccate domestic politics and split the progressive electorate would help, but if one doesn’t exist, it will surely be invented. As somebody most familiar with the American context, I find it hard not to see in the British left’s spectacularly successful hostile takeover of the Labour apparatus through Corbyn’s leadership bid an aspirational model for Bernie’s campaign for the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Lacking the local democratic structures of British Labour, its proximity to unions, and instead, shot through with corporate influence, the US Democratic Party is an infinitely harder nut to crack. The 36 Labour MPs who enabled Corbyn’s candidacy in 2015 are an order of magnitude greater than the Congressional Democrat endorsements Bernie has received. But the popular mobilization in which these two campaigns resulted, their capacity to unify a previously factionalized left within a single movement are in themselves worth it.

Rossen Djagalov is an Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the New York University and a fellow at the Poletayev Institute, HSE in Moscow. Formerly an organizer for Yale’s graduate student union (GESO), he works on representations of labor and international leftist culture in general. This episode comes from his forthcoming book on Soviet-Third-World literary and cinematic engagements. 

By Rossen Djagalov

Rossen Djagalov is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum.
A comparatist, he recently completed a dissertation on the media history of twentieth-century leftist culture.

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