Viewpoint: The political theory of enlightened isolationism, or, in muted praise of Jeremy Corbyn

Viewpoint: The political theory of enlightened isolationism, or, in muted praise of Jeremy Corbyn

Charles Turner

Many on the right of the Tory party fear that Jeremy Corbyn may be about to slip into Number 10.  They were furious with the rebels behind Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill; they fear that it may now be easier for parliament to reject anything but the softest of Brexits.  That opens up two scenarios: either a soft Brexit is agreed by parliament and the tories’ civil war intensifies, or the government negotiates a harder Brexit, it is rejected by parliament in an effective vote of no confidence, and the tories’ civil war intensifies.  Either way, Corbyn gains.

Yet if Corbyn is a nightmare for the Tory right he is also one for us remainers; as his statements about the single market and a second referendum confirm, like Liam Fox and Owen Paterson but unlike Theresa May, he believes in Brexit as the basis for resetting the British economy and with it British society.  They want a low tax Singapore-on-Thames with fracking and GM crops thrown in, but minus Singapore’s progressive housing policy.  What Corbyn wants is still a bit of a mystery.

Some say Corbyn is a Marxist who dreams of turning the UK into a gloomy version of Cuba.   I don’t think that is quite right: neither Marx’s hard-headed economic analysis nor Marxism’s aggressive millenarianism are really his thing.  There is of course the famous image of hunting in the morning, raising cattle in the afternoon and being a critic in the evening, which sits well with his enthusiasm for allotments and jam-making; the idea that every child should learn a musical instrument, of which he made so much during the June 2017 general election campaign, may have been inspired by the Buena Vista Social Club; and there is his shouty defence of school dinners: ‘children!…eating together!…in our society!…in our community!’

Where Corbyn parts company with Marx and possibly Cuba is in his pacifism. He may be naïve about the intentions of Russia or Iran, but behind it there is less a belief in the global triumph of international socialism than a sense that the UK has historically done more harm than good abroad and would be better off retiring from the fray, and that when it does it can renounce nuclear weapons, join the majority of states that have never had them, stop selling fighter bombers to Saudi Arabia, and become a lesson to the rest of the world.  Corbyn’s anti-European anti-capitalism, and his belief that the EU is a neoliberal project that will shackle Labour’s economic policies, are subsumed within this problem of war and peace.  It was here where the clearer dividing line lay between him and his remain campaign colleague David Cameron: if at one point Cameron implied that leaving the EU might precipitate world war 3, Corbyn believes that leaving it is a positive step towards world peace and global justice.  If Cameron was presenting the standard line about the EU’s pragmatic justification, what lay behind Corbyn’s position? A basic pacifist instinct to be sure, but some of what he says has a more complex intellectual heritage.

Whether Corbyn has read Marx or not, you can bet he hasn’t read a word of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814).  Yet Fichte’s thinking on war, peace, the state and commerce is not a million miles from Corbyn’s.   Fichte was one of a long line of European thinkers who had been reflecting on these questions at least since the French wars of religion and the thirty years war, the outcome of which came to be known, not entirely happily, as the European states system.  If Hobbes thought that the modern state’s framework of security allowed individuals to pursue ‘felicity’, Adam Smith saw the pursuit of self-interest itself as desirable; commerce was an alternative to war because it demanded of people that they relate to one another in more complex and sophisticated ways than war did.

There were two problems with this: the relationship between states remained deeply unstable even when it was not overtly warlike; and as the fiscal and military capacities of European states grew, they didn’t so much provide a legal framework for the market-oriented commerce, as pursue commercial gain themselves, especially outside Europe.  European states became more aggressive, not less, with the prospect of commercial gain.

Towards the end of the 18th century Germany produced two distinct answers to these problems.  Kant argued that, in the long run, the problem of war would drive European states to form a federation of republics; while the imperative of commerce would transform this federation into a cosmopolitan European order.  With trade and the financial revolution, the growth of public credit and therefore debt would force states to choose between servicing their debt (leading to military catastrophe) and funding their military (leading to a constitutional crisis).  Since neither was desirable, exhaustion would forces states to develop republican constitutions and form alliances that demilitarized the European states system.  But in the meantime there were numerous examples of the abuse of the spirit of commerce: the imperial plunder practiced by European states was the most notable, but there were also states that were closed in some way, that restricted commerce beyond their own borders, in particular when they were self-sufficient in key resources.

This is where Fichte comes in: writing in 1800, he saw such closed commercial states as a solution to the problems of war and peace Kant was grappling with.  Kant had been naïve to assume the gradual emergence of an awareness of the need for republics throughout Europe; and, Brexit fans take note, any federation that was worthwhile, he thought, would only hold together if it was prepared to ‘annihilate’ any member that defied its terms.  In any case, as long as people assumed that they benefited from commerce more than they did from living under a settled state, the spirit of commerce would lead to more disorder – and more destructive competition between commercially oriented states.  People would continue to think that they thus benefited as long as commerce was able to meet their expanding desires for consumer goods.  Commerce, war and consumerism were thus fatefully entangled, and so, Fichte believed, the only chance of a genuine and reasonable social contract was for states to withdraw from the arena of global competition as far as possible and establish planned, self-sufficient national economies.  Then, instead of competing with one another economically, and going to war with one another as they plundered the rest of the world’s resources and subordinated its peoples, European states would co-operate with one another over the allocation of goods and resources that were available in some states and not others, and compete with one another in areas where competition was healthy and productive, such as the arts and sciences.

Fichte’s vision required that citizens be persuaded to reduce their desire for consumer goods to a minimum.  He valued the right to work and to material comfort above the right to property and to dispose of it as one wished. And it is here that much of what he said resonates with Corbyn’s own vision of socialism; indeed, some of it could be inserted seamlessly into his speeches: ‘Everyone should be catered for and live securely before someone decorates their home, everyone should be warm and comfortably clothed before someone dresses splendidly…It is not right that someone says they can afford it.  It is unjust that while one person can pay for what is superfluous, one his fellow citizens lacks the basics or cannot pay or them’.

Corbyn is easy to caricature as a little Englander, but like Fichte two centuries before him, he may be tapping into an instinct all of us have for a simpler life, one less burdened by the need to make decisions about things – such as the provision of basic utilities – we would rather leave to competent state authorities, and less disrupted by the yearning for, or need to migrate to, other countries.  He is right to say that many people who are self-employed would rather be regular workers, and while he has been lambasted for wanting to leave the EU and for saying that free movement will end, and seen as a ‘British jobs for British workers’ man, he is also pointing out the truth that, for every successful member of the international middle-class working in well-paid jobs in Paris or Berlin or London, there are thousands who have traipsed half way across Europe to live in a caravan and pick carrots and lettuces for a pittance, or across oceans to live in squalid camps and die building skyscrapers.  Some on the libertarian left actually favour free movement for all, EU citizens or not; Corbyn by contrast seems inspired by Brian Barry’s idea that, ‘in an ideal world, everyone would be free to stay where they are’.

It’s an admirable instinct and one that deserves more extended reflection.  I still won’t be voting for him though.


Charles Turner is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

Image: Gary Knight

10 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 07, 2018

    Corbyn is my MP and a pro-Europe alternatives are not likely to be succeed at present. But he gets plenty of letters from me!

    Mostly I agree but I disagree on Smith. In my view you fall into the right wing trap of assuming Smith is one of ‘their’ creatures (or, worse, the father of the free market right) in saying “Adam Smith saw the pursuit of self-interest itself as desirable.” No, he didn’t say that and many times he said the opposite. What he did say was that disinterested self interest might lead to socially beneficial results: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” In fact, he was fully aware of injustice from congealed inequality:: “But avarice and ambition in the rich, in the poor the hatred of labour and the love of present ease and enjoyment, are the passions which prompt to invade property, passions much more steady in their operation, and much more universal in their influence. Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”

    The right reads Adam Smith through a post nineteenth century lens of economics whereas Smith was a moral philosopher – closer to a sociologist of today – who knew nothing of industrial capitalism – and indeed never even used the word. We should read Smith,- including Wealth of Nations – via the Theory of Moral Sentiments and in particular via his statements on the thoroughly social character of Man. This was the preceding work but also his life-long committment which he returned to after Wealth of Nations. His themes on human reflexiveness were much later (and in an unacknowledged form) taken up by the American social philosopher and left wing activist George Mead.
    Let’s not abandon Smith to the right just to take on Fichte for the left.


    • Avatar
      March 12, 2018

      Of course I need not have mentioned Smith at all. As usual, too many names. Smith did think though that on balance commercial activity entailed a more enlarged imagination than warfare did (for centuries even uneducated traders in the eastern mediterranean would know two or three languages for instance), and that ‘moral sentiments’ were not entirely something added on top of and reigning in selfishness. I really mentioned this in passing to suggest that Corbyn’s principled pacifism needs to take on the point (a very old point) that at a very basic level commercial exchanges are more desirable than exchanges of fire. Fichte was sceptical about that argument, seeing war and commerce reinforcing one another, but his solution, which I think is Corbyn’s, was a fairly miserable sounding austerity for all. The German Democratic Republic was in many ways the embodiment of such an ideal, which is perhaps why Corbyn took a cycling holiday.


  2. Avatar
    March 19, 2018

    What an awful, arrogant article – it’s neither ‘measured’ or ‘factual’, it is ‘critical’ (of Corbyn) but largely on the basis of unsupported assumptions and conjectures. How do you know what he’s read? Why are his positions on Russia and Iran ‘naïve’ ? They seem more like enlightened realpolitik to me, especially when contrasted with the UK’s support for the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia… Why is there also this knee-jerk assumption that we are all remainers (‘us remainers’)?
    I wouldn’t expect to agree with everything I read here, by a long way, but would expect a higher standard of discussion from the BSA. This reads like an article out of ‘Progress’ publication or the Guardian.

    [Just a note from the Editors: Discover Society is not a BSA publication]


    • Avatar
      March 21, 2018

      It’s an opinion piece not a scholarly article, as suggested by the title of the section, ‘Viewpoint’. I never suggested Corbyn had read anything in particular but rather that it might be worth wondering whether his brand of pacifism had deeper intellectual roots or affinities. Lots of people say things today that resonate with more elaborate formulations of them from decades or centuries earlier. The phrase ‘us remainers’ refers to a specific group of people I identify with (compare Rorty’s ‘we liberals’): it does not suggest that I believe everyone reading the piece is a remain voter. On Corbyn’s foreign policy, I think the word ‘naive’ is quite generous.
      If you expect a higher standard of discussion from the BSA then you must have been away for a while.


  3. Avatar
    March 24, 2018

    Why won’t you be voting for him?


    • Avatar
      March 25, 2018

      Because although a world in which we grow our own veg and make our own jam conjures up certain bucolic fantasies, I quite like living in the world created for us by consumerism: elegant smart phones, stylish clothes, cheap flights to exotic destinations. None of these things are necessities and many lead to waste and pollution, but European social democracy has shown how they can be made perfectly consistent with social justice and fairness (above all good, generous sized and affordable housing). Corbyn’s vision is not social democratic, but much more hair-shirted, a kind of austerity for all. The communist states of Eastern Europe showed what that looked like. There was basic security yes, but there was no investment, so after 40 years factories were falling to pieces and once magnificent city apartment buildings were crumbling, held up by scaffolding; there was also a great deal of narrowness, ignorance of other cultures, and general grimness.


      • Avatar
        March 25, 2018

        Have those luxuries really been shown to be perfectly consistent with social justice and fairness? It doesn’t take much of a glance to see the developing countries of our world, or rather the people living within them, are suffering from the effects of our waste and pollution. The effects of man-made climate change and the emergence of climate refugees for example are hardly aligned with any definition of social justice or fairness, are they?


  4. Avatar
    September 07, 2018

    You won’t vote for Jeremy? Then who will you be voting for?


  5. Avatar
    October 12, 2018

    I think it’s a good idea to try to find the intellectual roots of Corbynism and Charles Turner should be congratulated for his original stab at this murky question. Despite the taunts of the right, Corbyn is not a Marxist. Despite the presence of Tariq Ali in the illustrative photo, he is not aligned to the New Left. Fichte is a creative suggestion and does seem to resonate with Corbyn’s strange brand of anti-Europeanism. However, Fichte does not capture his domestic agenda and how it aligns with his pacifism. May I add a more domestic provenance — the Levellers. How about this from the Agreement of the People (1647)? “We do now hold ourselves bound in mutual duty to each other to take the best care we can for the future to avoid both the danger of returning into a slavish condition and the chargeable remedy of another war.” This seems to capture his rather innocent solidarism.


  6. Avatar
    January 16, 2019

    He’s not naive about Russia or Iran, he supports their repugnant aims!
    No on is as blind as he would have to be to merely be naive about the 2 regimes