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‘Our Rebellion’: A Camusian Reflection on the Corbyn Movement

12 Dec 2020

Alex Yates

‘Our Rebellion’: A Camusian Reflection on the Corbyn Movement

Famously pictured with a cigarette dangling from his lips and the sharp collar of his coat upturned, Albert Camus has achieved rock star status in the canon of 20th century philosophy. Situated within the tradition of the anti-totalitarian left, a loose collection of philosophers who upheld the values of worker solidarity but stood in opposition to the tyrannical excesses of the Soviet Union, Camus famously constructed his own vision of anti-authoritarian politics in his 1951 work The Rebel. Analysing the tradition of revolution from France in 1789 into the 20thcentury, he saw a trail of blood left by those fixated with reshaping the world in the image of revolutionary virtue[1]. Instead, Camus attempted to capture the authentic spirit of rebellion.

For Camus, rebellions have emerged across history in reaction to the breaking of a social contract: when a line in the sand is crossed. Borrowing the master/slave example from German idealist G.W.F Hegel, he proclaims the rebel to be “A slave who has taken orders all his life, [who] suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command[2].” Rebellion is at the same time defiant and moderate. It refuses to accept the transgression of the oppressor, but at the same time has very specific goals: to end the injustice performed. Embracing the most admirable parts of the left tradition, Camus sees rebellion as a moment of solidarity. More than revenge for a harm committed, the rebel asserts the value of human dignity. They claim that no one should be treated in such a way. In rebellion, is solidarity.

There have been several attempts to place the Corbyn movement in a specific political tradition. Through Camus’ contribution, I suggest another. In the US, Bernie Sanders had ‘Our Revolution’, in Corbynism, we had ‘Our Rebellion’. Few can doubt that central to Corbynism was opposition to a decade of Tory cuts, with Keir Starmer thanking his predecessor for shifting the Labour Party towards an uncompromisingly anti-austerity position[3]. Even before the party took this policy direction, political movements emerged in opposition to the breaking of the social contract by the coalition government’s austerity programme in a Camusian fashion. From the student movement against the hiking of tuition fees, to the anti-tax avoidance protests of UK Uncut and the emergence of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, a constituency was forming. A rebellion arose from the collective suffering of Tory austerity. In Jeremy Corbyn, these movements had institutional expression: a leader of one of the main parties of Westminster who was willing to say, “we can’t take this anymore.”

Although Camus does not demonstrate what rebellion practically looks like in his political theory, such resistance finds its expression in his fiction. His allegory for fascist occupation of Paris, The Plague, follows the story of a city in Algeria in the grips of a deadly epidemic, and the small acts of resistance each of the characters engage in to protect one another. Speaking through the novel’s protagonist, Dr Rieux, Camus asserts that “The only means of fighting a plague – is common decency […] I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case, I know that it consists in doing my job.[4]” Such a sentiment is echoed through the actions of the 325,000 new members who joined the Labour Party in the first year of the Corbyn project[5], many of whom continued to campaign in the dead of winter during the 2019 general election, with Corbyn-supporting Momentum encouraging activists to take the day off work for the final push of campaigning on election day[6]. In such grassroots organising, Camus’ spirit of rebellion came to life in a group of activists who, in reaction to the injustice of their government, did what they could to bring it to an end.

Such an understanding of the Corbyn movement begs the question, is rebellion an effective strategy for left politics?  Camus’ contemporary, Francis Jeanson, famously critiqued The Rebel as being moralistic and insufficiently action guiding. If the risks of revolution being even worse than the status quo are too high, why bother struggling at all?[7]While I find Jeanson’s criticism to be overly-simplistic, there is something to be questioned about the ability of rebellion to mobilise. In the debates leading up to the December 2019 general election, Corbyn presented poverty and austerity as a cause for great national shame. Whilst this was no doubt the case, shame is not a great political motivator. When the Labour campaign was moralising over the state of the country, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives centralised their campaign in the frustration of the electorate who perceived their vote to leave the European Union as having been betrayed by the political class, mobilising voters in the so called ‘red wall’ and leading the path to the biggest Conservative election victory this century. One is reminded of Roland Barthes’ critique of The Plague as an allegory for fascism. Fascism, much like the hurt caused by austerity, is not a naturally occurring plague under which one must grit their teeth and survive, but a political adversary to be confronted head on[8]. As far as creating a political movement goes, the power of collective suffering pales in comparison to that of collective struggle.

Yet, perhaps there are other lessons to be taken from Camus for our movement. In the COVID era, the pestilence described in The Plague has become our reality. The ‘sanitary squads’ of the novel who clean up the city to prevent the disease spreading found a real-world equivalent in the army of volunteers who delivered food, made phone calls to check in on those shielding and participated in vaccine trials. It is now widely known, however, that the recovery from the pandemic induced recession will be long and arduous. Although denied by the treasury, talk of “difficult choices” and Nick Robinson questioning whether Rishi Sunak will be “tough enough” to bring back austerity if required[9] should concern all expecting an investment-based economic strategy. If the Conservatives slide back into their economic orthodoxy, and the neo-Keynesian mask slips to reveal the neoliberal face, one should take note of Camus’ advice. In assertion of our common dignity, we must be prepared to rebel again.

[1] Camus, A. (1984) The Rebel, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p.243

[2]Camus, A. (1984) p.19

[3] https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/keir-starmer-labour-leadership-right-to-take-radical-position-66988

[4]Camus, A. (1960) The Plague, London: Penguin Books, p. 136

[5] https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/explaining-the-pro-corbyn-surge-in-labours-membership/

[6] https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=616551918690199

[7]Jeanson, F. (2004) ‘Albert Camus, or The Soul in Revolt’ in Sprintzen, D.A. & van den Hoven, A. (eds) Satre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, New York: Prometheus

[8] Smith, M. (2016) ‘What Dies in the Street’ French Forum, 41 (3), p.193

[9] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000pqbq

Henri Carter-Bresson/Magnum