I  was recently  asked to speak at an  event  in support of Jeremy Corbyn`s bid to retain his leadership of the Labour Party.  The request came from the son of one of my oldest friends, a young man who  has recently discovered politics, along with a great deal of self confidence  after an unusually difficult  and prolonged  period of sturm und drang.  I would normally have  agreed but when  faced with the prospect of being a cheerleader for Jezza I  suddenly balked. Like many I had paid my 20 quid and broken the habit of a lifetime in order to vote him in  a year ago. Up to that point I had always belonged to the Groucho Marxist tendency and never joined a club that would have me as a member.
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Yet like many I had been disappointed by his performance. It was not just his failure to carry the bulk of the Parliamentary Party with him- the  vicious counter attack from the rump of hard core  Blairites was only to be expected- but his modus operandi, redolent of the political subculture of left activism to  which he has belonged for over half a century, was maximally calculated to alienate the younger and less committed MPs  on whose  support he depended. The eponymous Momentum, set up to build on the  support which  his original campaign for the leadership had aroused,  has succeeded in bringing a whole new generation  into direct political engagement for the first time. So called Generation Rent, the students who have seen their expectations of a rewarding professional career,  home ownership and financial security disappear as they swell  the ranks of the ever growing precariat,   have been the backbone  of  the Corbynista movement. But there is no easy  reconciliation between the  sectarian organisational strategies of the Old Left, and the populist mobilisation formats developed by  urban social movements and campaigns; they can fuse into quite a toxic combination, a form of  authoritarian populism unless a concrete mediation is found.

The inability of Team Corbyn to find a modus vivendi with the different social and ideological  forces that support  his anti-austerity  programme has been compounded by a mixture of political inexperience and organisational incompetence.  More serious has been the failure to give that programme both a substantive policy focus and  a rhetorical coherence that would resonate  not only with  Generation Rent   but with  large sections of the  disorganised working class  who have deserted to UKIP and  voted Brexit. Momentum simply has not reached out to this vital sector of the electorate, concentrated in the de-industrialised heartlands where the progressive culture of manual labourism  has disintegrated and been replaced by a more or less racialised version of white ethnicity. To do so would require a sustained effort to transform ethnic into civic nationalism of the neighbourhood through concerted and socially embedded  forms of cultural and community action. In lieu of this, what Momentum can and does do is  to operate in the gig economy and stage pop-up cultural events and meetings, a style of politics that has an elective affinity with Generation Rent.

The event to which I was invited to contribute was a case in point. It was staged in a music pub frequented by students and hipsters from Corbyn’s  Islington  constituency. I  told the organisers that I  was not a Corbynista  and did not feel able to  contribute for the reasons I have just outlined. But I did agree to pitch up and if there was a spot and they felt what I had to say was appropriate to the occasion, then I would `perform`.

There were about twenty young people huddled around the brightly lit stage, most of them, it turned out,   the performers  and their friends. In between the acts, which comprised some  awful doggerel protest poetry and some quite good, but apolitical  songs, the MC bellowed slogans   into an imaginary megaphone and encouraged the audience to respond as noisily as possible  to simulate a mass rally and attract punters in from the street. My friend`s son got up and made a rather good speech, passionate yet considered, about how Corbyn`s agenda represented a principle of hope  and Momentum was the last chance to build a mass movement against the Tories austerity regime. The audience cheered and hooted their appreciation. Yet  I could not help but feel that these young people were clutching at straws, and that they deserved  better than what they were being offered by the Labour Party in its present state of crisis. But  what, after all, did I,or my generation of 68’èrs have to offer them except a glimpse of a  political transformation that had seemed possible once upon a time but  like all such  narratives  would now seem  little more than a fairy story for a generation who anyway were inclined to misrecognise us as the spoilt offspring of  hip capitalism, if not  the  Thatcherite counter revolution, with our secure jobs and pensions, our over valued houses  and our smug self  satisfied radicalism.

I had written a short poem with a commentary which I thought might raise some issues worth debating, but looking round the audience I sensed  that few, if any of them, would know what I was on about, or would   see the relevance of my historical analogy. Maybe I was  wrong in under-estimating the depth of their  understanding of the crisis of social democracy. In any case  their story has had a happy ending, at least as far as Momentum is concerned with the re-election of    Corbyn with an increased majority.  So perhaps my intervention was redundant. Who needs subtle dialectics, when crude thoughts  can win the day?   But for  what it is worth,  here is the text of the talk I would have delivered if the circumstances had seemed more propitious:

Are we that Poem?

The title of my  poem derives from   a debate that took place during the 1930’s between Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht, who were close friends but also sparring partners. The debate, between a philosopher and a poet who wrote prose, and a playwright and  polemicist who wrote  poetry,  was about the relation between two versions of Marxism, Hegelian and materialist, and about  the (non)relation between revolutionary theory and practice in the arts.
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These conversations took place   against the background of the rise of right wing nationalism and fascism in Europe.  Brecht  admired  Benjamin’s ability to do elegant  headstands on the high wire of cultural theory, but argued that subtle dialectics was not enough; he needed to get his feet more on the real ground of politics. Benjamin   admired  Brecht’s didactic ability to cut through the hype and waffle and get to the nitty gritty of things, putting into plain words   ideas that were on the tip of everyone’s tongue, Crude thoughts, at least in the Brechtian sense,  are ideas produced through collective deliberation, voiced in the vernacular of everyday speech,  not just salacious gossip or blue jokes told by a stand up comedian.  Today more than ever we need both – dialectics is the dance of the mind and on the Left we need politicians who can not  only think on their feet but join in the dance of collective deliberation and policy making.  And I am NOT thinking here of  Ed ‘twinkle toes’ Balls  whose dancing is as wrong footed  as his politics.

My poem is a deliberate plagiarism of Brecht’s famous poem ‘The Solution’, which was written in 1953 in the immediate aftermath of a popular uprising  against the Stalinisation of the GDR regime, and in particular a decision by the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party to lower wages and increase work quotas. The uprising was started by construction workers and lead to mass meetings, and factory occupations. It was bloodily suppressed by Soviet tanks,  arrests and purges and extra -judicial murders. It led to the first large-scale exodus of people from East to West Berlin, and thus contributed to the building of the Berlin Wall. Brecht’s poem satirises a so called socialist  government   that  erects walls around its own  people, ostensibly    to defend them against being corrupted by capitalism but in reality to  protect its own power. Unfortunately  there are still people today on the Left who think that socialism can be built by erecting  doctrinal walls to keep  the ideology pure and stop it being contaminated by democratic debate, whether inside or outside the party…..

The only other thing  you need to know about the poem is that a psycho-pomp is someone who guides the dead to the underworld.


(with due acknowledgement to Bert  Brecht)

After the so called uprising of June 23rd 

When  business and political leaders

had leaflets distributed

stating that the people

had forfeited their confidence

and could win it back only

by redoubled efforts

and another referendum

Would it not be easier in this case

for the government

to dissolve the people

and elect another?


After the  attempted  coup of June 28th

when members of the PLP

had leaflets distributed

stating that their leader

had forfeited their confidence

and could only win it back

by giving up the ghost

would it not be easier in this case

for the PLP

to dissolve the membership

and elect a committee of psycho-pomps

to lead the now non-existent party

To another underworld ?