Richard Seymour is a writer and broadcaster who runs the blog Lenin's Tomb. He's written for the Guardian, the London Review of Books and Al Jazeera. Seymour has also written the followingbooks: The Liberal Defence of Murder; Terror, Iraq and the Left; The Meaning of David Cameron; Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens; and, last but not least, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics.
Seymour is a former member of the Socialist Workers Party, which he left in 2013.1
Seymour now studies at that hotbed (since the 1960s) of Leftism/Marxism - the London School of Economics. He's studying under the watchful eye of “race theorist”, Professor Paul Gilroy.
If we bring things up to date and make them slightly more relevant. Richard Seymour now supports Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. (His support is graphically displayed here.)
Finally, what follows is a commentary on Richard Seymour's Guardian article, 'Can you be too leftwing?'.
At the end of his piece for the Guardian, Richard Seymour comes clean about his ostensible critique of being “too leftwing”. Being too leftwing results in a situation in which “little is achieved”. Therefore, basically, it's (more or less) politically “useless”.2
Seymour's position is extremely simple. It's not really that he believes that there is such a thing as being too leftwing. It's this:
If being too leftwing “impedes you in the achievement of your goals”,
then (in terms of Marxist praxis) it's very wise to question one's too-leftwing stances and actions.
Seymour also concedes that “[t]he left often seems too tied up in dogma and inter-sect rivalries to pursue its own agenda effectively”. What's more, Seymour asks himself this question:
“[W]hy, in more than five years of turmoil for the global capitalist system, has the left made such a practically negligible impact?”
This means that leftwing gaols and agendas are being thwarted because some people are being too leftwing. In order to bring about leftwing goals, it's necessary to question - and sometimes even replace - one's too-leftwing attitudes and actions. This must put Leftists in an almost paradoxical situation.
Seymour offers more criticisms of the Left. He writes:
“It is all too often subculturalised, dependent on forms of sociality and on shibboleths that are exclusive and tend to repel new participants.”
It's even the case that
“fragments of the left in Britain sustain a facade of ostentatious normality by consuming copious quantities of alcohol or evincing an interest in sport”.
However, just like Tony Blair, William Hague and David Cameron, these Leftists are often phoney – at least as far as their love of sport and alcohol are concerned. That is, when in a “room together” they don't talk about sport. They “talk about 'the class', and hold forth on 'the dialectic"”. So how does Seymour know all this? He says: “I know. I am one of those people.”
Here again Seymour has a problem with such people not because of what they do or what they believe: he has a problem with them because they aren't bringing about a revolution in the United Kingdom. Or in Seymour's own words:
“By the time oppositional forces work out an analysis of what is happening, figure out some tactics and get their people in motion, the terrain has already been occupied by those in power.”
Seymour becomes even more explicit about wrong praxis when he says that
“[w]hether one is in the Labour party or in a groupuscule of some kind, it should be evident by now that the institutional formats that worked in the 20th century no longer do”.
It's certainly the case that Seymour does have insights into the problems of the Left. Despite saying that, these problems are well-known and obvious to all those who've ever given these issues any thought. Seymour, for example, tells us that there's
“a problem with a certain cliched way of being leftwing, which consists of a backwardness, a refusal to accept unyielding realities, which undermines one's ability to respond to emerging situations”.
Here again Seymour stresses that being too leftwing creates a problem for advancing – well - leftwing causes and being ready “to respond to emerging situations”. A “certain cliched way of being leftwing” and “a refusal to accept unyielding realities” work against – not for - radicalisation or the revolution. Thus, in a certain sense, Seymour is not only more-Left-than-thou, he has actually gone one step beyond that.
Neither Too Leftwing Nor Too Soft
Despite all the above, if Seymour has a problem with being too leftwing, he also has an equal problem with not being leftwing enough. He writes:
“For those who were prepared to move to the right, it was easier to face some of these new realities. Advocates of the ideology of 'New Times', associated with the Communist party publication Marxism Today, considered it de rigeur to dispense with old dogmas – though this tendency arguably introduced new dogmas in their place, and fed into a great deal of what was wrong with New Labour.”
So being politically soft led to revisionism becoming “de rigeur”; as well as to “new dogmas”. Worse than that, it led to New Labour!
This ambivalent - if not contradictory - position on being too leftwing and not being leftwing enough evaporates when one sees that Seymour's position – as we've seen - is almost entirely motivated by the Left's lack of success; not by a distaste for too-leftwing ideology or values. Thus if being too leftwing is bad; not being leftwing enough is worse. The former is bad because it hasn't led to a revolution. The latter is even worse because it led to New Labour and other crimes against (revolutionary?) socialism.
That's why, in his piece, Seymour immediately makes a more-Left-than-thou comment about “Guardian or Comment is free readers”. (This is ironic in the obvious sense that Seymour's article is in the Guardian.) Guardianistas aren't “too leftwing” simply because they “reuse shopping bags”. Instead they would be if they believed in the “expropriation of property”. This position isn't a surprise: Seymour was a member of the SWP until 2013. Indeed nowadays it's commonplace for more-Left-than-thou Leftists to class the Guardian as “neoliberal”. (These super-radical positions usually come from very young socialists or from every Trotskyist; not from well-paid writers for the Guardian.)
To repeat: Richard Seymour is simply against being too leftwing because that hasn't worked. It hasn't brought about total power for the Left. Thus the fact that Seymour still refers to all the traditional Leftist shibboleths - and does so in a typically Leftist manner - is no surprise. He does so, for example, in the following:
“By organising these changes under the ideology of 'the market', by breaking up the old modes of social solidarity and defeating the big battalions of the left and labour movement, neoliberalism forced the left either to rethink or to bunker down and defend orthodoxy.”
This passage is replete with Leftese. We have “the ideology of 'the market'”, “social solidarity” as well as the fantastical claim that neoliberalism has brought about “a profound civilisational shift” (unlike earlier capitalisms?). Seymour even refers to the “"crisis-ridden" nature of capitalism”; though he does use scare-quotes. (An entire book could be written about what Leftists take late-20th or early 21st century capitalist crises to be; as well as what they take the cliché “austerity” to mean.)
Conclusion: Seymour the Revolutionary Corbynista
There's a fairly well-known quotation which goes: “The worse things are, the better they are.” (This has been used by many writers; though Karl Popper's usage - in his The Open Society and Its Enemies - is particularly apposite.) Richard Seymour agrees with this worse-is-better statement. He says that
“the 'weakness' and 'crisis-ridden' nature of capitalism and its dominant parties necessarily provide an advantage for the left”.
Despite the scare quotes, Seymour admits that all this “could do so”. (Though he doesn't say that it does do so.) This worse-is-better Leftism is again commented upon by Seymour. He talks about the “favour” the Left gets from “student protests or a major strike”. These things can “suddenly transform the situation in the left's favour”. Yet despite all that, it's still the case that although unemployment, strikes, civil conflict, racial struggle, poverty (or “austerity”), etc. are all very good - and often exciting - for the Left, it's still not enough. This (usually working-class) suffering, pain and weakness - which the posh Left both feeds on and needs - is useless if “it is unable to exploit that weakness”. And part of that exploitation, it seems, is offering a even-further-Left critique of being too leftwing.
Seymour, I believe, has another motivation to say what he says. He states, for example, that “the left is weaker than it has been for some time”. And in so doing Seymour shows us that he's a typical Trotskyist when he deliberately underplays the Left's current power.
Seymour also refers to Antonio Gramsci's theory of political hegemony. He states that the “'traditional ruling class'” and “its allies” actually
“have their forces in the media, in the dominant political parties and in business, and can mobilise money, intellectuals and politicians far more quickly than their opponents”.
This completely and utterly discounts the fact that Leftists have already taken over many of Gramsci's own designated “institutions” (e.g., the universities, publishing houses, the arts, large parts of the law, NGOs, charity organisations, parts(!) of the media, the blogosphere, councils, council chambers, public libraries, “rights groups”, and even some churches). And the fact that Seymour discounts - or simply ignores – all that shows him (again) to be a typical Trotskyist.
Nonetheless, it's certainly true that the radical Left has little power in Parliament (though many MPs are socially/culturally leftwing) because that's a place in which a popular vote is - at first at least - required. And the Left – obviously - doesn't control big business either. Indeed these are some of the reasons why Seymour is a revolutionary socialist; not, say, a social democrat, Green or Lib-Dem. Historically socialist/Marxist revolutions haven't required a vote or even mass/popular support.
All this means that Richard Seymour is wilfully blind to the Left's ever-increasing power in current society. Indeed, quite remarkably, he seems to deny that the Left has any power, anywhere. This bizarre myopia is often displayed because Leftists like Richard Seymour want total power, everywhere.
1 Seymour didn't leave the SWP for ideological, political or moral reasons: he left because of the “rape crisis” which affected this Trotskyist group at the time (in 2013). I mention this because it fits in with the theme of the commentary above. That theme was that Seymour doesn't have a problem with being “too leftwing”. He has a problem with the Left's lack of revolutionary success. Or, rather, he only has a problem with the former because of the latter. To Seymour, that must have surely meant that a rape crisis in his favoured Trotskyist sect wouldn't have contributed very much to a revolution.
2 Richard Seymour makes the obvious point that in order to be “too” anything, that position has to “relative” to something else. Thus in a country which, say, had a Corbyn government, and in which all the institutions had been completely taken over by Gramscians (if not self-described that way), being “too leftwing” would be very leftwing.