Corbyn and Catharsis: Tracing A Political Tragedy

Samuel Rubinstein 11 December 2020
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Exactly one year ago, the political landscape in the United Kingdom changed. The Labour Party’s dalliance with the hard left, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, was brutally crushed. The flicker of hope, sparked first by Corbyn’s ability to retain control of the party and then by the surprisingly tight 2017 general election, was snuffed out. While Boris Johnson re-entered Downing Street with characteristic gusto, Corbyn was characteristically sulking as he attempted to salvage his reputation and honour with a much-ridiculed article for The Guardian about how he ‘won the argument’ [1]. One turbulent year later and things for Corbyn have become even worse: he led the party for five years, and now is lucky to be one of its members.

Some of Corbyn’s critics consider him to be a total non-entity, but even if he did not re-mould British politics quite how he had hoped, we should not be so quick to consign him to historical irrelevance [2]. Jeremy Corbyn will be remembered: not in spite of the fact that he was an abject failure, but because of it. Songs will be sung of him, plays written and performed, and the tale of his rise and fall will – like, say, Thomas Cromwell’s – forever be enticing. Corbyn is the ultimate tragic hero of our times.

Jeremy Corbyn will be remembered: not in spite of the fact that he was an abject failure, but because of it. Songs will be sung of him, plays written and performed, and the tale of his rise and fall will – like, say, Thomas Cromwell’s – forever be enticing. Corbyn is the ultimate tragic hero of our times.

Do not let the ‘hero’ part of that phrase lead you astray. That I describe Corbyn as a tragic hero does not mean that I am fond of him, any more than I’m fond of Othello when he kills Desdemona, Anakin Skywalker when he butchers the younglings, or Oedipus when he does what he’s best known for. Instead, I mean to say that the political trajectory of Corbyn ticks all the boxes of Aristotelian tragedy perfectly.

The ‘distinctive mark of tragic imitation’, says Aristotle in his Poetics, is that it should ‘excite pity and fear’. Corbyn certainly ‘excited’ fear in Britain’s Jews, 47 per cent of whom said that they would ‘seriously consider’ emigrating if he became prime minister [3]. His supporters likewise argue that he evokes fear in the super-rich, the 1%, the ‘few’. As for ‘pity’, his current predicament is piteous in the extreme. Exactly one year ago he was campaigning for the keys to Downing Street. But dreams of real political power have long since vanished, and for the time being, he would settle just to have the whip restored.

Corbyn is ‘a man who is not eminently good and just – yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty’.  The tragedy of Corbyn commences when he is ‘renowned and prosperous’: the leader of the Labour Party, positioning himself, particularly after surprising the nation by making modest gains in the election of 2017, as a prime minister in waiting. The ‘frailty’ – the hamartia – that brings about his downfall is, as for so many tragic heroes, his hubris. He could not straightforwardly apologise for the antisemitism that festered in his party while he was in charge. His hubris blinded him to the possibility that the EHRC’s investigation was fair and legitimate. Instead, he characterised the claims of antisemitism as ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media’ [4]. He could conceive of it only as a sinister conspiracy, designed by his enemies in conjunction with the right-wing press.

Every good tragedy needs a peripeteia – a moment of sudden reversal in the protagonist’s fortunes – and that moment for Corbyn came exactly one year ago, on the 12th of December 2019. You can pinpoint the second that Corbynism shattered completely: 10pm, when the exit poll came in projecting an 86-seat Conservative majority. In a single second, all of the old Corbynite assumptions were swept away, and the whole Corbynite project was exposed as ill-conceived.

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister forty years earlier – as the Corbynite argument goes – she ushered in a period of neoliberalism. Some of his acolytes go further back in time, claiming that the UK has been governed by Tories of some stripe or other since Attlee lost to Churchill in 1951. Whether Wilson and Callaghan were ‘true Labour’ remains a topic for debate in these neurotically purist circles, but Blair is universally considered to be a ‘red Tory’, ‘more of the same’. The people weren’t happy with this state of affairs, but with New Labour as the only alternative, they were never given any real choice. That underlay the vote to leave the European Union in 2016: the people were not convinced by the arguments so much as they were clamouring for ‘change’. Then, when another option arose in 2017, it seemed – thought Corbyn – that there was indeed a tremendous appetite for old-fashioned Labour socialism.

This, at its core, is the tragedy of Jeremy Corbyn. Throughout his career, he has genuinely believed that, if only they were given the choice, the British people, and the working class, in particular, would opt for socialism. But we all know what really happened. The electorate chose the Conservatives. And the working class – whose interests Corbyn thought, throughout his career, he was representing – turned out to loathe him. Constituencies that Blair had won easily – including Sedgefield, his own – went to the Conservatives for the first time in over eighty years. Corbyn brought upon his party its most bitter defeat since 1935. The Blairites had it right all along.

This pivotal event in a tragedy, when the protagonist is hit with the true nature of their circumstances, is what Aristotle terms anagnorisis. Corbyn devoted his entire life to a flawed project which rested on the assumption that his brand of politics would, if it were given any oxygen, prove popular among the ‘many’. To accept that the ‘many’ simply aren’t interested is a bitter pill to swallow. The tragedy of Corbynism is that voters in the Red Wall saw him as a danger rather than a saviour. Had he not then been blinded by his hubris, he would perhaps have realised that before it was too late.

Corbyn devoted his entire life to a flawed project which rested on the assumption that his brand of politics would, if it were given any oxygen, prove popular among the ‘many’. To accept that the ‘many’ simply aren’t interested is a bitter pill to swallow.

Corbyn is not a fundamentally bad person. He’s a good constituency MP. He sees his job as one of public service, and in that respect, it’s a shame that more politicians aren’t like him. His Manichaean view of the world – ‘the many’ and ‘the few’, ‘the oppressors’ and ‘the oppressed’, ‘American imperialism’ and its victims – has given him a Jew-shaped blind-spot when it comes to confronting prejudice, but, to his credit, he took the right stances on, say, apartheid and gay rights before they were mainstream.

But who wants their tragic heroes to be evil? Watching evil people suffer is hardly cathartic: they have it coming! Corbyn does too, in a way, but only because, while striving towards the good, he missed the mark. His hubris gave rise to a terrible mismatch between his perception of his place in history and the inconveniently bleak reality. He thought he was Labour’s messiah, but under his leadership the party got crushed. He thought he was the man of the people, but the people despised him. It was Plato, rather than Aristotle, who said that the state is the noblest work of art, the best imitation – mimesis – of the best life. The drama of Corbynism unfolding on the state level is the best tragedy.

[1]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/14/we-won-the-argument-but-i-regret-we-didnt-convert-that-into-a-majority-for-change
[2]https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/labour-doesnt-realise-how-irrelevant-it-is-kr0tzst5s
[3]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/11/02/labour-mps-have-abandoned-britains-jews/
[4]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-54746452