In political terms 2007 feels like eons ago. Tony Blair was still Prime Minister and the financial crash just the crazy predictions of a few anti-free market reactionaries. At the time I was still a student and one of the things I did with myself (aside from a pub crawl Lancaster’s twelve best pubs, which was overly ambitious to say the least) was join a Marxist discussion group.
In this group I learned a lot about radical left wing politics. I also saw first-hand the left’s Judean People’s Front-like tendencies, as SWP and SPGB members argued passionately about the finer points of exactly what Trotsky did when. I have affection for these men - and they were all men, all over 50, all with bushy grey beards, all drinking real ale in a tiny room above a community theatre - who seemed to genuinely believe that the world would be a better place if everyone memorised Das Kapital. Despite this affection, I knew they were not the radical left I wanted to see.
I felt you could be to the left of everyone in Tony Blair’s or Gordon Brown’s cabinet, but you didn’t have to join the SWP and read the Morning Star. I had the powerful feeling that there was an ideology out there, in the space to the left of mainstream politics. One that did not require encyclopaedic knowledge of the Russian Revolution; that spoke to the experiences of more than just handful of old men. This is still something that I am trying to articulate today.
In 2007 I felt that being left wing meant being as suspicious of the Socialist Worker as of the mainstream media. It was important to be critical of fellow travellers on the far left and open debate was an essential part of this. Ours was an ideology that involved reading a lot of books, so discussion was key to what we believed.
There were big issues that we engaged with, both in the aforementioned discussion group and out of it. If I can achieve one thing, then it would be encourage more serious debate on the left. The world faces huge challenges and we need to grapple with these big questions. How are we to plug the NHS funding gap? What do we do about the refugee crisis? What do we do about climate change? These issues require serious thoughts and an open mind.
In the ten years that have passed since 2007 I feel that the far left as a movement has lost the desire to debate the big questions. The 2017 Labour Manifesto offered little on the issue of tackling an imminent global climate based apocalypse. Debate should not conducted only by those who have memorised the Communist Manifesto, but we could talk more about what we want to achieve now that we are closer to power.
There has also been an increase in unquestioning support for anyone else on the far left or anyone who offers a narrative that the far left supports. In pro-Corbyn, or anti-Tory, Facebook groups I have seen people sharing articles from such dubious sources such as Russia Today, Iran’s Press TV and even David Icke. As well as a rise in coded anti-semitism through the use of terms such as “Zio”. This material is shared enthusiastically if it’s critical of our enemies.
This change amongst those outside the mainstream left has several causes, many of which can be traced the first time Jeremy Corbyn stood for Labour leader. Corbyn offered something different to the other candidates. Not only did his campaign bring new people into the Labour Party, it also brought many new people into the broader spectrum of the far left. These were people who are generally dissatisfied with the direction of politics. They knew that things were wrong, that things were getting worse - and that Corbyn was the person to do something about it.
Related to this was the very hostile reaction to Corbyn from many of the established bugles of the left. This hostility went deeper than the centre left reaction against the surge in popularity for its long term opponent. Even writers whose opinions are generally outside that centre left reacted negatively to Corbyn. Or, at least, showed a stunning lack of curiosity in what motivated his supporters, coupled with an easy of dismissal of them as the dangerous indulgences of a child. Their curiosity extended to supporters of the far right, but not to the far left. Had the emotional concerns that many people had about society at least been acknowledged, then we could have avoided the divisions on the left we have today.
It is easy to mistake this lack of curiosity for a coordinated campaign to stamp out opinions that differ from the narrow band of centrism approved by the establishment. The Guardian, for example, publish a huge range of different opinions. Jonathan Freeland, Gary Young, Polly Toynbee, Simon Jenkins, Dawn Foster, Aditya Chakrabortty, Nick Cohen, Frances Ryan and George Monbiot don’t all have the same opinions. They cover a huge range of opinion, pro and anti-Corbyn, subtle and overt. What we saw was a difference of opinion, not the targeted oppression of one side or the other.
Unfortunately, most people with a general dissatisfaction with the way the country is heading are not strange people like me to who make sure to read a wide variety of the different opinions published by left wing writers. They focus in on the pieces critical of what they believe and extrapolate from there.
A lot of political debate is engaged with in peer to peer discussions inside Facebook groups and on Twitter, which have a bubble effect. People join the groups or follow the feed that reinforce their opinions and ignore ones critical of their principals. Facebook and Twitter are designed to accelerate this process by using algorithms to filter back to you what you like and filter out things you don’t.
The effect of this is to push together those who believe something passionate (such as Corbyn is not being given a fair hearing) into a tightly knit tribe of homogeneous opinion. It stifles debate, and encourages and seals off the tribe from the rest of the broader movement. Corbyn supporters feel they have more in common with other Corbyn supporters (whatever else they believe) than the rest of the left. This has prevented Corbyn supporters of being critical of each other.
Ten years ago we didn’t accuse someone on the left of being a centrist or Blairite because they were critical of the SWP. You could be critical of Blair and the SWP at the same time. We could engage with someone from outside our narrow tribe and discuss the bigger ideas that affect society.
This has changed. Now we look at anyone with similar opinions our as our friend - regardless of what other opinions they hold. We have lost our ability to be critical of ourselves, and to paraphrase RuPaul: “If you don’t criticise yourself, how the hell are going to criticise somebody else? Can I get an amen?