Jeremy Corbyn And The Power Of Literature


Something strange happened to the British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and to the British public on the way to the recently held election in the UK.

Once the target of widespread criticism from within his party and the mainstream media, his leadership deemed a disaster and his policies too extreme to be winnable, Corbyn surprised his critics and the pundits by his strong campaign and his popularity. He has suddenly emerged as Britain’s most popular political leader – a rock star.

How did this happen? And why should those of us who teach or write about the humanities, social sciences and literature pay attention?

In the reporting on the UK elections, reporters seemed to agree on one thing: Jeremy Corbyn is a “far left” politician. From this one assumes that there is a centre in relation to which politicians are either “right” or “left,” and, further, that there is a self-evident scale to decide how far left or right a politician is of that centre.

For lay people, this gradation is not so self-evident. It may be helpful if a political scientist or a journalist were to create an evidence-based scale, with specific features, to help ordinary people place their political leaders on the political spectrum.

We would then know if the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, are centre, or to its left or right – and by how much.

There is, however, another measure that could be helpful: the slogan or theme that a party leader chooses for her or his campaign.

For the UK elections, Prime Minister Theresa May chose “Strong and Stable government” as her battle cry. Clear enough: she was seeking a stronger mandate to negotiate a “hard Brexit” and to deal more strongly with the threat of terrorism.

Corbyn, by contrast, chose a rather enigmatic slogan: “For the many, not the few.”

On a superficial level, it was consistent with his persona of a populist. A bit of research, however, would have shown that this was more than a high-priced communications consultant’s clever coinage. In fact, it connected Corbyn to a history and a lineage that are revealing.

And it connected him to a literary tradition.

The phrase, “For the many, not the few,” is taken from a poem by Shelley, titled “Masque of Anarchy.” It reads:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth likedew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few.

Corbyn, in fact, read these lines at the Glastonbury Festival on June 24 to a large and enthusiastic crowd.

Shelley wrote this poem after an incident in Manchester in 1819, better known in history as the Peterloo massacre.

According to the Chambers Dictionary of World History, “Peterloo Massacre” was the “name given to the forcible break-up of a mass meeting about parliamentary reform held at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester. The Manchester Yeomanry charged into the crowd, killing 11 people. The incident strengthened the campaign for reform. ‘Peterloo’ was a sardonic pun on the Waterloo victory of 1815.”

Shelley’s poem, then, was a clarion call in support of reforms to achieve a truly democratic system of government that represented and gave voice to the ordinary people.

At the time, there was no universal suffrage, and right to elect members of parliament was restricted to the aristocracy who, through the system of “Rotten” or “Pocket” boroughs, chose their nominees. The Peterloo Massacre set in motion the reforms that eventually led to universal suffrage.

It turned outto be an incremental process involving several reform acts that were enacted well into the 1960s.

The first piece of legislation, the so-called Great Reform Bill came in 1832.  As D. C. Somervell was to say in his classic book of 1929, English Thought in the Nineteenth Century, “this was not a democratic measure…. Its purpose was to enfranchise property and intelligence.” And intelligence lay with the middle class.

Thus, in his speech to the House of Lords recommending the Bill, Lord Chancellor Brougham, a landed aristocrat, said: “If there is a mob, there is the people also. I speak now of the middle classes—of those hundreds of thousands of respectable persons—the most numerous and by far the most wealthy order in the community . . . who are also the genuine depositories of sober, rational, intelligent, and honest English feeling.”

This did not satisfy “the many” of Shelley’s poem who remained disenfranchised, while the landed elite attempted to co-opt an emerging affluent section of society, the “middle class,” to the cause of its continued dominance by deigning to grant it the virtues of sobriety, rationality and intelligence.

Unrests continued, and so did the push for reforms.

Further reform laws followed, such as the Poor Law Amendment Act, the Education Act and the Second Reform Bill of 1867, which extended the vote to a significant portion of the working class. Some years later, in 1884, more reforms came that increased the voter population.  The justification given by the elite was that sobriety, rationality, intelligence and honest English feeling had spread further down the social scale!

Because of these reforms that continued right through to the 20th century, Britain now has universal suffrage. This includes the right of women and everyone over the age of 18 to vote.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Corbyn received such huge support from young people. His campaign slogan connected him to a political history that is about empowering those whom the elite seeks to disenfranchise.

Does that make him far left, or place him squarely in the vanguard of a political battle for genuine democracy which began with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819?

Incidentally, it was the incidents in Manchester that led to the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, which, sadly, is no more. Ironically, its successor, The Guardian, spent the last two years bad mouthing Corbyn and now cannot eat enough crow.

Corbyn’s adoption of Shelley’s poem for his campaign slogan raises an important question about the real-life relevance of teaching literature at a time when the focus is on scientific and technical education and a devaluation of the humanities. The justification seems to be the one that Margaret Thatcher invoked when she said, “philosophy does not grow cabbages.”

The poet, W H Auden, seems to have anticipated this question of practical use when, in his poem, “In Memory of W B Yeats,” he said: “poetry makes nothing happen.”

By that he meant that poetry does not produce a specific material result – grow cabbages. However, as he went on to conclude, it produces something extremely important, namely, morality, sensibility, empathy and healing.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Corbyn’s success has created another opportunity to re-visit Auden’s conclusion.

It encourages those of us engaged in the teaching of humanities and social sciences to insist on the indispensable role of these fields, especially at a time when a narrow specialisation is the order of the day.

Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel laureate, drew attention to the danger of this privileging in his 1917 essay titled Nationalism.

[H]istory has come to a stage, when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for . . . the commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This process, aided by the wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization.

Tagore sounded an alarm that appears to have gone largely unheeded, despite all the lip service to the importance of humanities and social sciences generally, and literary studies in particular. As we look at the state of the world today, it is at our peril as humanity that we ignore the need for a re-calibration.

The world today needs people who are not trained for the “limited purpose” that Tagore referred to. It needs people who possess a balance between the logical and affective sides of their personalities. This is where, as the pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, pointed out, there is a big role for “‘sentimental education,’ an education through appealing to our emotions and imagination, thereby creating empathy.” Creators of literature, according to Rorty, “manipulate” their readers’ “sentiments in such a way that they imagine themselves in the shoes of the despised and oppressed.”

Corbyn may just have proved the point by his very effective adoption of Shelley’s paean to democracy.

(Dr Alok Mukherjee is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University, Toronto, cross-appointed to the Office of Equity and Community Inclusion, and the Department of Criminology.)

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