- Interview by
- Loren Balhorn
Few people embodied the inspiring rise of democratic socialism in the 2010s as much as Jeremy Corbyn. During his nearly five years as leader of the Labour Party, he more than doubled party membership, advanced a raft of socialist policy proposals, and, in 2017, scored an election result that inspired millions. Since stepping down in 2020, he has continued to campaign tirelessly for social justice in Britain and around the world in the face of ongoing hostility from the media and parts of his own party.
Two weeks ago, he was in Berlin to speak at the Jacobin-sponsored conference Socialism in Our Time. During his keynote, he spoke passionately about the need to oppose the drive to further militarization in Europe, to build solidarity with oppressed groups around the world, and to continue the long-haul struggle for socialism no matter what setbacks our movement faces.
Afterwards, he sat down with Loren Balhorn, an editor at Jacobin’s German language edition, to talk more about the strategic impasse facing the Left today, his new book project, and where he gets his boundless optimism from.
One of the themes at the Jacobin conference in Berlin was the idea that the Left is in a kind of “political purgatory.” After a period of inspiring political advances, your leadership of the Labour Party being a prime example, we now find ourselves in a period of stagnation or even retreat.
During your speech, you said that even though your campaign lost in 2019, the thousands of activists who were inspired by it will keep fighting for socialism, and that makes you optimistic. Does that mean you don’t think we’re on the defensive after all?
I think we’re putting ourselves on the defensive, and we shouldn’t. The forces of the Right are using COVID and the government spending around it to impose austerity and wage restraint. In Britain, there is now a wave of strikes against job losses and for job protection and higher wages. Wage levels in real terms have been falling for more than ten years and are set to fall further. There is already a planned national rail strike in the coming week — the first one for many decades — and a lot more in lots of other industries.
The militancy of workers is increasing, but what I think is really interesting from the point of view of the Left is that union membership is going up — and not just in the public sector, which is where it has always been strong. All over the world there are new unions being formed, often by people working in insecure work and the gig economy. Two weeks ago, I had a very interesting meeting with a group of gig workers in Colombia who said they had recruited two thousand members into a union. I think that’s the area the Left has got to look at: young people with insecure, low-wage work, insecure housing, and an insecure future.
I think sometimes the Left gets too introspective too quickly. The 2019 election was an enormous setback — I know that, I was absolutely a central part of it — but while we might feel stressed and depressed by that, real stress and real depression is when you can’t feed your kids. Real stress and depression is when you’re a nurse in a hospital and haven’t got enough beds to put your patients in. That’s real stress.
I was in Paris campaigning for Danièle Obono and Danielle Simonnet in the nineteenth and twentieth arrondissements last week. We had a public rally in a square, but before the candidates spoke, they invited people who weren’t party members to talk about their life and experiences and the demands they were putting on the candidates. That, to me, is the right form of politics — where you create political pressure on the party and on yourselves from the people that you’re expected to deliver for.
You mentioned sections of the working class that are fighting back. Those developments are inspiring, but at the same time highlight the reality that, on the whole, workers have been drifting away from their historical parties and trade unions for some time now. Do you think we can reverse this trend?
Yes, we can, but it requires more democracy in the trade unions and our political parties. Sometimes some of the established unions have a hostile attitude toward new unions and see them as people taking over their space instead of recognizing that traditional unions are very unwilling to get involved in organizing self-employed workers or people working for platform companies like Uber and Amazon. That’s where a lot of young people and migrant workers are employed. That’s where, I’m sorry to say, the immediate future lies when it comes to new jobs in Western Europe and North America.
I don’t disagree, but I don’t think we should underestimate how large the “old” working class still is, either. In Britain, people talk about the collapse of the “Red Wall” and how Labour lost touch with its traditional base. Where I’m from, the American Rust Belt, people say the same thing about workers and the Democratic Party. Do you think we can build alliances between the Left’s traditional bases and newer sections of the working class?
They’re not that different. If you take the UK, for example, London’s economy has completely transformed over the past forty years. There was once a huge manufacturing center around the edges of London and all up the Lea Valley, but that’s almost all gone now. Those jobs have been replaced by high tech, by services, by retail and construction — different industries, not so well organized in the labor movement, and much more ethnically mixed, but they are still allied with the older, white working class in a number of unions, particularly Unite.
However, it’s a slightly different story in other parts of the country where the loss of the old industries — cotton, steel, coal, and all those which provided relatively high-paid, secure jobs — have now gone. Those communities have become depressed and young people tend to move away as a result. The levels of mental health problems and depression in many of those societies is a huge issue. The labor movement and the Labour Party in particular just relied on those areas, saying, “Well, they’re going to carry on voting Labour because they always have.” Well, they didn’t, because they say, “Hang on, our community is depressed. We’ve lost our bus service, we’ve lost our railway service, we’ve lost our industries. We’ve had school closures. We have this air of depression around us.” That’s what led to the Brexit vote.
When I was in a discussion with other European socialist parties about Brexit, I pointed around the table to all of them. I said, “You’ve got exactly the same conditions in Germany, in France, in Spain, in Portugal, in Greece, in the Czech Republic. All around Europe you’ve got those same conditions.”
If the Left doesn’t offer some campaigning initiatives on jobs, on services, on the future, particularly for young people, then the racists are going to turn up, as they have in eastern Germany, and say, “It’s all the fault of migration.” It has nothing to do with migration, actually, but they’re an easy target to blame. Hence the rise of racism across Europe. If we don’t take that seriously and campaign for development and to organize people into new jobs, then there is a grim future.
You talked a lot about internationalism and foreign policy yesterday. In Germany, there’s a school of thought among some parts of the Left that basically says we shouldn’t talk about divisive international issues that we can’t change anyway — particularly the Israeli occupation of Palestine — but rather focus on domestic issues people can relate to. In your eyes, what is the link between domestic and foreign policy? Can we afford to prioritize one over the other?
We’re now in an era where Johnson, Biden, Scholz, and others are busy driving up an absolutely massive increase in arms expenditures. The United States now has the largest arms budget ever in its history. When Joe Biden sent a request to Congress for a defense budget for the coming year, they sent it back with even more than he asked for. Are we to sit back and say, “We’re not going to touch that argument”?
The Left cannot avoid international issues. Capitalism is global. Political power is global. Employers like Amazon and Uber operate globally and apply the same methods all around the world. You’ve got to confront these issues and empower people, and that means building serious links across national frontiers on a number of issues.
You mentioned Palestine, for example. The Palestinian people have been under occupation for many, many decades and are routinely bombed. I obviously support the right of the Palestinian people to live in peace. I support the recognition of Palestine unconditionally, and I actively work with human rights and peace groups in Israel to try to bring about an end to the occupation and the settlement policy.
I don’t think we can run away from or avoid the issue of refugees around the world. Not all, but a big majority are actually victims of war, so we have to be involved in international issues and oppose wars.
We’re in Berlin, where, in 1914, people like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht held large rallies for peace in the run-up to World War I. That was a fascinating period and a high point of working-class solidarity across Europe. Their very strong message was that of working-class solidarity for peace. They were all defeated by the xenophobia of 1914, but their message is still there.
I think the ongoing war in Ukraine has been hard for a lot of people on the Left to grapple with, because for the first time in decades we’re seeing a war of aggression launched not by the United States or its allies but by a country that is very explicitly opposed to the transatlantic alliance. How do you think progressive forces should respond to the Russian invasion?
That’s a very interesting point. I have been involved in the antiwar movement all my life, and I’ve also been involved in the human rights movement all my life. I have absolutely no illusions about Putin or his human rights record, but I have had some fascinating debates and conversations with people on the Left in Russia about what their hopes and wishes are. We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of feeling in Russia against the war in Ukraine among young people. We also shouldn’t overlook the number of Russian soldiers who have deserted and not been prosecuted within the Russian system — which is quite a big thing for a country to do when a soldier effectively deserts because they don’t agree with that war.
As I said last night, this war has got to stop. We’ve got to do everything we can to encourage the language of peace and try to bring about an agreement that reduces tensions on the Russian-NATO frontier and also addresses people’s security concerns. Security, if I may say so, is a very loaded word. People often think of security as preventing somebody from attacking you — and yes, that is an aspect of security. But for a very large proportion of the world’s population, their view of security is: Will I eat tomorrow? Will my kids get to go to school? Will they get health care?
In free-market economies, real security is the security you feel when you’re offered all of those things by the welfare state. But all of that is under threat from privatization and marketization. So our arguments have got to be economic, political, social, and — don’t forget — environmental.
Last night, you introduced a book project you’re putting together called Why We Are Socialists. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
When we were launching the Peace and Justice Project in early 2020, we had a discussion among some staff about what we’re about, and I think it was me who said, “Well, we’re all socialists.” Then someone else said, “Well, yeah, but what do you mean by that?”
So we’ve set people the task of writing or talking to us about why they became socialists. We’ve had probably five or six hundred submissions already, and they’re absolutely fascinating. Many of them come from a life experience, like growing up in a right-wing family and arguing with their parents all the time. Children arguing with their parents can be a very therapeutic experience — not for the parents, but for the children. Others talk about things like the miners’ strike in Britain, which was a definitive moment for many, or going through campaigns against the Vietnam War or the antinuclear campaigns.
We want to hear from you. We’ve only just started promoting it, and we’ll be taking submissions of up to five hundred words until August 31, written in whatever language you please.
. . .
Sorry, that was a Star Trek joke.
Yes, I know.
Well, anyway . . . would you mind giving us a spoiler from the book and telling us why you became a socialist?
That’s hard to answer, because my mother and father were both active in socialist circles. Neither of them came from particularly political families, but their politics were formed in the 1930s in London when my mother was a student — probably the only woman student in her university at that time. My father was an engineering worker who was also studying for a degree in the evenings, and they met campaigning in support of the Spanish Republic and against Franco’s fascist takeover of Spain. They had this sort of socialist core with them, and I suppose conversations with them had an effect, but they never really pushed politics down my throat.
I was motivated by environmental concerns, opposition to nuclear weapons, and the Vietnam War when I was growing up in the 1960s. We also lived in a small, quite right-wing town in the Midlands in a marginal constituency, the Wrekin in the county of Shropshire, and that formed my politics quite a lot. Then I went to live in the Caribbean as a volunteer for two years, and that taught me a great deal about colonial history and colonialism.
So my socialism comes from a combination of influence, experience, and work, both as a trade union organizer and a councilor. The idea of building a society based on the needs of all rather than the greed of the few has kept me going for seventy-three years.
On that note, you were leader of the Labour Party for nearly five years, and during that time you were subjected to a level of organized vitriol that, I would argue, was pretty unprecedented for the leader of a mainstream political party. A lot of people would throw in the towel after an experience like that. Yet you continue to campaign tirelessly. Your speech last night was brimming with optimism about the future despite all the horrible things going on in the world right now. How do you do it?
When we lost the 2019 election and my time as leader of the Labour Party ended in March 2020, Boris Johnson tried to say something nice to me at the last Prime Minister’s Question Time. That’s probably quite difficult for him, so let’s have some sympathy. But he did try to say something quite nice, “thanking the honorable gentleman for his time” or something like that. I was quite annoyed by this, actually. I don’t do personal likes and dislikes very much, but I was quite annoyed, so I got up and said, “Well, that’s all very well, but that sounds a bit like an obituary. I want you to know this: I will not be silenced. I’ll be around. My voice will always be there. It will always be there for justice, for socialism, and against oppression.” And I carried on.
I carried on doing rallies and meetings, formed the Project for Peace and Justice, and obviously continued to work in my constituency. I am very optimistic because I see so many young people who became active in our time as leadership, and, obviously, I’m devastated by the result, and so are they. But I said, “Look, we’re going to win this one way or the other. I hoped we’d have won a big step forward by going into government, but don’t think it would have been easy. Don’t think we wouldn’t have been under pressure.”
Somebody said to me at a demonstration I was at a few weeks ago, “Oh, God, I wouldn’t have to be here if you had won the election!” I said,
Oh, yes, you would, but you would have been on demonstrations in support of the government for the first time in your life. You would have been demonstrating to support the government, and I would have been here speaking in support of the government as well, because we would have been changing things and we would have been under massive attack.
We’re always under massive attack by the greed of the minority. That’s what unites us. But let’s be for something: be for socialism, for social justice, and for environmental sustainability. And above all, let’s see and unleash the imagination and the good that’s there in others.