Is honesty really the best policy? Labour’s war over truth

By Rory Weal

That we are living through an age of ‘post-truth’ politics has become the most common commentariat cliché of the year. ‘We apparently now inhabit a world that appears to be increasingly anti-fact’, wrote the Telegraph’s Michael Deacon in July.[i] From Donald Trump’s presidential bid to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, insurgent political movements seem to increasingly be dismissing the concrete and objective in favour of the emotional and intangible.

This broader phenomenon has been observed in the ongoing soap opera that is the British Labour Party. ‘The war on truth is being fought every bit as heroically on the Left as it is on the Right’, wrote Deacon in the same piece. Citing the continual refusal on the part of Corbyn supporters to reconcile external reality (Corbynite electoral unpopularity), with subjective personal conviction (Corbynite unimpeachability), Deacon’s assessment seems all the more pertinent following the grand master’s second storming leadership victory last month.

Yet as with so much commentary on Labour’s perpetual melodrama, the assignment of Corbynism as ‘post-truth’ politics in action is no value free assessment. It is the product of a particular, and itself profoundly subjective, conception of truth. It reinforces the idea that the right have the monopoly over pragmatism, and the left a monopoly over principle – both of which are ludicrous and dangerous absolutist pretentions. Given the current balance of power in the party, only the development of a more pluralist political culture will save Labour from ruin. The logic of Corbynism as 'post-truth' is preventing sincerely engaging with it as a phenomenon, undermining any case for pluralism, and failing to shape its outcome. This article aspires to this end by rejecting the simplistic 'post-truth' assignation, instead identifying two contesting languages of 'truth' in Labour. Only more intellectually honest understanding of what the hell is going on in Labour will make an effective response possible.

These two languages of political truth can broadly (and not unproblematically) be summarised thus: on the one side, is the ‘empirical’ idea of truth – divorced from theory, idealism, and ideology. It is the tradition embraced by New Labour and moderates. On the other, is a ‘total’ idea of truth – intrinsically bound up with ideology and taking into account a far larger frame of reference and time. It serves as fundamental justification for the Corbyn project. There are merits and flaws to both approaches, yet taken to their extremes they both pose a severe threat to an accurate alignment with reality. Recognising the genuine intellectual merit in both their conceptions of political truth is the only way much needed reconciliation - and potentially a ceasefire in the civil war – can be secured.


The Moderate’s truth

It is worth first engaging with how moderates have responded to Corbynism, why this approach has failed, and what this tells us about ‘post-truth’ politics. Since Corbyn’s election in September 2015, the moderate response has been to dismiss the phenomenon as a wholly irrational political doctrine (one need only look to Blair's 'get a heart transplant' comment to see this tendency). The thrust of moderate attack has been his unelectability vis-à-vis polling. An assessment of the objective fact of his poor polling has deduced their argument that he should stand down. There is no ambiguity here - Corbyn’s polling is indeed very poor. Nonetheless this has not made the blindest bit of difference to his leadership. The response of moderates is thus to accuse Corbynites of ignoring not just moderate politics but truth itself.

This logic of Corbynism as ‘post-truth’ has compelled the Labour right to ‘smash’ the phenomenon rather than reform or shape its outcome for mutual benefit. The harder the moderate hammer has smashed, the more robust and intransigent Corbynism has become. In the 2016 leadership election it was no use fronting a ‘soft left’ candidate; the damage had already been done in the preceding months and in the nature of the "coup" itself – Owen Smith’s positioning appeared insincere, short-term, and opportunistic. The basic assumption of moderates since day 1 has been that Corbyn and his supporters are unredemptively delusional, and what is delusional cannot be reasoned with. It’s a logic of laziness, and – ultimately - of defeat.

This flawed strategy, which has resulted in a decimated and shell-shocked Labour right, emerges ideologically from their empirical and absolutist conception of political truth. In his 1972 essay on ‘the poverty of empiricism’, the left-wing academic Gareth Stedman Jones attacked the ‘positivistic adherence to the visible and immediately verifiable ‘facts’’.[ii] His argument summarised the flaws of empiricism as he saw them, which lay in separating ‘objective’, unshakeable facts from subjective secondary theories. This empirical conception of truth is the tradition to which New Labour, and their moderate adherents, align. New Labour saw itself as transcending ideology, as being objective in matters of policy and electoral campaigning alike. ‘What matters is what works’ became the mantra, as if outcomes could be dispassionate, objective, and value-free. But this was itself delusional. Any selection of facts or measures obeys an implicit value judgement. ‘Truth’ is contingent on your subjective theories and frames of reference, and your choice of facts reflects those very theories and reference points – confirmation bias is itself an inescapable ‘fact’ of politics.

New Labour believed it could transcend ideology - this turned out to be mere hubris. It is that very hubris which has since infected the Labour right, who have since stuck unwaveringly to a faltering strategy, doggedly refusing to engage sincerely with Corbynism as a political phenomenon, and preferring to dismiss the membership as ‘post-truth’ to save them the trouble of said engagement. Because of their (flawed) belief in transcending ideology, Corbynism's open ideological fervour is sheer delusion. Yet the truth is that there are hunks of delusion in both perspectives.

 

 

The Corbynite’s truth

Corbynism should be understood against the above backdrop, as a response to the ideological deficiencies and managerialism of New Labour. It is not a rejection of objectivity or ‘truth’ per se. It is instead a renewal of the historic challenger to empiricism on the left – the Marxist/Hegelian conception of ‘totality’. This concept is best articulated in the work of Hungarian Marxist György Lukács, who believed that:

‘the recognition of a fact or tendency as actually existing by no means implies that it must be accepted as a reality constituting a norm for our own actions…[there] is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies – namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development’.[iii]

Seen in such a Marxist tradition, we can get a better handle on Corbynism. In this logic, poor polling is indeed ‘actually existing’, but is not a normative basis for action (e.g. booting out Corbyn) given its isolation from a wider social totality – i.e. the continued stagnation of real wages, New Labour complicity in said stagnation, and the immense popularity of Corbynite economic policies. This ‘totality’ is enough to convince Corbynites not to act on the basis of such isolated facts which would otherwise undermine the ‘total’ project.

New Labour lacked a ‘total’ truth, ignoring the long-term picture and failing to embed a particular conception of state and society. Even now, if the right responded with their own ‘total’ truth - a compelling strategy aligned with both short-term (poor polling) and long-term (crisis of social democracy) realities - Corbynite hegemony could be quelled. But they have stubbornly rejected the terms of argument, and thus Corbynite hegemony has grown.

This is a sad state of affairs because there is merit to both the empirical and the total conceptions of political truth. Too ‘empirical’ and you lose sight of a wider vision, becoming arid, cold, and oblivious to the long-term. Too ‘total’ and your politics become abstracted to the point of irrelevance, disappearing into the clouds of a future which may never arrive, losing touch with the immediate and the tangible. A reconciliation must be sought if the Party is not to further drift into complete irrelevance.

 

Bridging the gap between the empirical and the total

There is a way out of this perpetual war of truths, and that starts with accepting the relativity of truth and political opinion. Corbynites are not delusional, completely disconnected from ‘reality’ and irredeemably ‘post-truth’; there is a rational basis to their support. Likewise moderate arguments are not simply the product of being beholden to commercial interest; their critiques are often articulated in sincere ‘good faith’, aiming for the genuine betterment of the poorest in society. Both groups display sincerely felt subjective political convictions, with different approaches to ‘truth’. No one has a monopoly on either enlightenment or conviction. Put simply, these are approaches which both have at least some degree of intellectual merit.

For both sides, the priority has to shift away from the individualistic endeavour of proving one’s truth, to trying to spread it. What is the political utility of believing yourself to be right if you’re not successfully persuading other people of that fact and shifting opinion in your direction? This is a question both factions have to ask themselves: moderates in relation to their activity within the party, and Corbynites in relation to their activity without. Recognising the merits in your opponent’s argument, and the weaknesses in your own, is a pivotal means of influencing the collective and bringing the Party closer to your standpoint. An eye-roll of a cliché though this sentence may be: both sides would do well to read up on their Gramsci:

‘the more numerous the individuals of broad and well-grounded [political] culture, the more popular opinions approach to truth – that is to say contain the truth in an immature and imperfect form which can be developed till it reaches maturity and perfection. It follows from this that the truth must never be presented in a dogmatic and absolute form, as if it were already mature and perfect. The truth, because it can be spread, must be adapted to the historical and cultural conditions of the social group in which we want it to be spread’.[iv]

In short, more humility and less hubris from both factions, please. Accepting this is the key to bringing about a more pluralist political culture. This requires an honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses. Moderates have forgotten that emotion and cultural resonance have always been the clarion drive of politics, especially on the left where the parliamentary mainstream is less divorced from its activist hinterland than the right. Equally, Corbynites have forgotten that such emotional appeals must be based on an honest assessment of the group you are appealing to. Both factions, in this sense, have got it half right; and the other half woefully wrong.

The longer Labour’s civil war continues, the more resolute and less reflective both groups will become. Both are rapidly losing touch with ‘reality’, located somewhere in the nether between the empirical and the total. Each faction’s defensiveness necessitates them to fall back more strongly on ever-narrowing intellectual resources and insist on their absolute validity. If this present situation persists it is Corbynism which will emerge hegemonic. This is obviously bad news for moderates, but neither should it cheer the hearts of Corbynites; the Corbyn project will end in disaster unless it equips itself with the tools of self-criticism and honest reflection. Failure to adapt is not an option. The existence not just of both factions, but of the Labour Party itself is at stake.


[i] M. Deacon, The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/09/in-a-world-of-post-truth-politics-andrea-leadsom-will-make-the-p/)

[ii] G. Stedman Jones, ‘the poverty of empiricism’, in ed. R. Blackburn, Ideology in social science: readings in critical social theory (Fontana: Collins, 1972), pp. 96-119.

[iii] G. Lukács, Lenin: a study on the unity of his thought (MIT: Massachusetts, 1971), p. 18.

[iv] Qu. J. Joll, Gramsci, (Fontana: Glasgow, 1977), p.32.