Bower’s depiction of Corbyn is one of a Marxist Walter Mitty who – like Donald Trump – does not read books, but is embedded within his own political certainty, a monochrome, quasi-religious belief in his world outlook where inherent ideological contradictions are banished. Corbyn hails from the upper middle class – his family owned a five-bedroom 17th century farmhouse in Middle England – and has found salvation in genuinely helping the poor and dispossessed. His commitment has seen him elected time and again for nearly 40 years. But, as Bower documents, it has also led the to the ascetic Corbyn’s breakdown of several marriages and relationships through his thoughtlessness and indifference.
Unlike his inner circle, Corbyn never attached himself to the Communist Party. Unlike his colleagues, he never joined the myriad of Trotskyist groups that proliferated during the 1960s. Instead, he worked within the Labour Party and willingly acted as a bridge to the far Left. Corbyn was never “traditional Labour,” and regarded its leader in the early 1980s, the left-wing Michael Foot, as a lackey of capitalism. Corbyn never supported the emergence of “socialism with a human face” during the Prague Spring in 1968, and was silent on the rise of the Solidarity, a Polish trade union movement in the 1980s.
The common denominator with the far Left was his support for liberation movements in the developing world, regardless of whether its leaders were progressives, during a period of decolonization. He often suggested resolving international problems through the United Nations. Yet when the UN strongly condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Corbyn instead defended Saddam Hussein.
Identification with the Palestinian cause became a core belief for Corbyn during the early 1970s, and according to his first wife, the very existence of Israel was a focus of visceral hatred. In 2006, Corbyn urged football fans to boycott his local team, Arsenal, because it had good relations with the Israeli tourist industry. A propagandist for one side only, he never acted as a mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians. When asked, Corbyn was unable to name even one Israeli peace activist that he had met.
In Corbyn’s hierarchy of the oppressed, according to Bower, “the descendants of slaves were the most victimized, while Holocaust survivors were at the bottom of the list. He did not distinguish between Jews in London and Zionists in Tel Aviv.” In Corbyn’s eyes, Zionism was wrong, not different, Israel is a racist endeavor and the Balfour Declaration was “a historic mistake.”
Moral equivalence became a feature of his responses to difficult questions. When told of the mass killings at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in November 2015, he protested that it was getting more media coverage than a simultaneous bomb blast got in Beirut. Bower reports that Corbyn was unhappy about the French shoot-to-kill policy that was directed at the assailants. He later told a meeting of the Labour Party that if faced with a similar situation in Britain, he would not allow the police to kill the perpetrators.
Corbyn’s model of socialism could be seen as former president of Chile Salvador Allende in 1970, who was killed in the military coup of Augusto Pinochet a few years later. Yet Corbyn’s trademark was silenced when confronted with uncomfortable facts, such as then-prime minister of Israel Golda Meir’s welcoming of Allende’s victory in the elections and the fact that he was due to visit Israel before Pinochet’s British-made jets overthrew the Chilean democracy.
Like many, Corbyn opposed the holding and proliferation of nuclear weapons, but was silent when the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran possessed nuclear capability. Instead he regularly appeared on Iran’s Press TV, earning badly-needed funds, despite the Ayatollah’s judicial execution of thousands of Iranian socialists during the 1980s.
Based on interviews, but without including any references, Bower’s comprehensive and detailed book covers familiar ground, with one chapter entitled “The Jew-Haters.” He nevertheless fills in the gaps in public knowledge, but his lack of interest in the ideological minutiae of far Left groups does lead to minor errors and omissions. His targeted audience is probably more interested in Corbyn’s amassed collection of superficial comments over the past 40 years. This paints him as a mild-mannered figure but lacking any kind of moral compass. However, Bower often fails to distinguish between being anti-Corbyn and anti-Labour, between Stalinism and Trotskyism.
Perhaps the real story of the Corbyn phenomenon is not his ascent to power, but that so many people have been swayed by it. Many British Jews are skeptical about Corbyn, not simply due to concerns about antisemitism and a distorted understanding of Zionism. They have learned from Jewish history the danger of false messiahs, who preach the construction of utopias to the impressionable and believe in the absolute necessity to demolish any obstacle in their path.
JEREMY CORBYN, leader of the Labour Party, gives a speech in London last month. (Hannah Mckay/Reuters)
By Tom Bower
371 pages; £20