The news headlines from my homeland over recent weeks have left me feeling as though the last three decades had not actually happened. Keith Harvey Proctor is embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct. Duran Duran have just released a new album. And a notorious, scruffy 1980s hard Left maverick MP, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader of the Labour Party. The 1983 Labour election manifesto, presided over by the equally unkempt and unelectable Michael Foot, was once described as the longest suicide note in history. That record has stood for a long time but, on the slight chance that Corbyn survives to fight an election, it might well fall in 2020.
Corbyn’s victory has been interpreted as the rejection of both New Labour and of the carefully coiffured politics of recent years. Labour is not the only party to experience this backlash. Ken Livingstone has pointed to the parallels between Corbyn and Labour and Nigel Farage and the Tories. The comparison is apposite in the sense that both represent popular disillusion with the political establishment. Trump and Sanders offer parallels in the current American presidential shenanigans. But there is a practical difference between Farage and Corbyn. Farage is not a member of the Tory Party. The worst he can ever do to the Tories is inflict a minor split in the their vote at a general election. Corbyn has the potential to tear Labour apart from the inside.
Perhaps more interesting than Corbyn’s election, though, is its aftermath, which has already exposed the deep problems that exist in Leftist politics today. Corbyn gave every single one of the most senior Cabinet posts to a man, even though women held a majority of Cabinet positions in total. There was an immediate outcry. Corbyn tried to explain his decision by arguing that Cabinet hierarchy was a product of nineteenth century British imperialism and that in his mind all posts were the same. The problem is not simply the pomposity of the answer. It is also hard to believe (because it is patently untrue) that the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer is no more significant than the Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration.
Corbyn’s difficulties are a product of the internal contradictions that now afflict the Left. It is against oppression and inequality but it really has no common understanding of those terms upon which to build a unified philosophy, let alone a coherent body of practical political policies. Just who is oppressing whom, and how they are doing so, is no longer a matter of agreement on the Left. So gender is just a social construct, unattached to biology—until, of course, it is a biological reality of immense social importance which one ignores at one’s political peril. And given all of the various categories which resulted from nineteenth century imperialism, it will be interesting to see how Corbyn’s Leftist Cabinet measures up relative to the proportions of other oppressed minorities it should contain: Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, queers, transgender people, the questioning, the disabled, blacks, Asians, etc. And what about the multifarious combinations of these oppressed categories. How are all these represented? Do they have a voice? After all, a complaint about the lack of women in the Cabinet might well look to a transgender person rather like a gripe originating in transphobically phallocentric heteronormative cissexism.
As Corbyn is discovering, in the ever-changing kaleidoscopic world of the New Left's obfuscatory conceptual gibberish and its arbitrary du jour approach to moral imperatives, yesterday’s progressive liberationism is as likely as not to be regarded as today’s retrogressive imperialism. When economic man gave way to psychological man in socialist thought, the Left’s rhetoric of equality may well have managed to retain its superficial aesthetic appeal, but it lost all of its inner coherence and fell prey to the tastes of anyone who could muster an angry lobby group. And now it is doing what it has always done best: Devouring its own.
Still, at least the 80s retro trip seems to have thus far stopped short of a disco revival, for which we can all be grateful. A hirsute old Trotskyite leading an unelectable Labour Party and missing the fact that the Left has changed, changed utterly, is one thing. But the return of the Bee Gees to cultural credibility? Now that would be truly terrifying.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.
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