Rising to the Challenge: Critical IR in the Corbyn Moment

David WearingA new post in our loose series on left foreign policy, this time from David Wearing. David is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he specialises in UK foreign relations in the Middle East. David is author most recently of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain (Polity, 2018), reviewed in a recent issue of the LRB, and of many interventions on the arms trade, the war in Yemen, and the Gulf monarchies. He is also a frequent commentator at The Guardian.


In the academic field of international relations, up until recently, the division of labour was pretty clear. Some of us were engaged in ‘problem solving theory’ and others in ‘critical theory’, as per the distinction famously drawn by Robert Cox.[1] Here, I want to address those friends and colleagues who count themselves in the latter group, arguing that the current historical moment presents us with a unique (perhaps fleeting) opportunity to have a significant impact on British politics and international relations, but one which also demands a willingness to recognise the urgency of that moment, and adapt.

According to Cox’s distinction, problem solving theory ‘takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships’, and looks for patterns or regularities within those parameters. It is a small-c conservative, technocratic approach, suited to advising policymakers on how best to manage the status quo. Therefore, notwithstanding claims made by those who fall under this heading to be apolitical, objective and scientific, problem solving theory has an inescapably political character, attracting those on the right and centre of the political spectrum, and primarily serving those who benefit most from the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’.

Critical theory, by contrast, ‘does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing’. As such it attracts those further to the left on the political spectrum, for whom the point of interpreting the world is not to manage it better but to change it in fundamental and transformative ways. Under the hitherto familiar division of labour in IR, our task was not to advise policymakers, but step back from and critique the historical conditions within which policymaking takes place: shedding light on what is taken for granted, looking for moments of disruption and crisis in the established patterns, and engaging with those civil society actors who shared our commitment to challenge the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’ head on.

I say ‘the hitherto familiar division of labour’ because we in the UK are now living through precisely one of those moments of disruption and crisis that much of our analysis seeks to identify. Call it ‘the Corbyn moment’, for want of a better term. And if our focus and activities as scholars are defined by our ‘position in…social and political time and space’, as Cox says, and if the present moment is different from the familiar norm, then our focus and activities must surely be different as well.

What is the nature of that moment?

Corbyn Rally

There’s a book in this, but let me try and at least sketch it in outline. The political expression of the economic crisis of 2008 took a while to work its way through a system jammed up by three decades of accumulated neoliberal conformity, but it finally burst through in 2015 when the socialist and anti-imperialist backbencher Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn’s leadership – however embattled at the level of Westminster and Fleet Street politics – was anchored in a vastly expanded party membership resolutely opposed to a return to the Blair era or anything resembling it, as Owen Smith discovered to his embarrassment in 2016. It was then shored up by his successful re-consolidation of the party’s voter coalition in the general election of 2017, which demonstrated a significant public appetite for a change in the national economic model.

This new moment should not be reduced to economics. The Iraq war, the wider ‘war on terror’, support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, all served to discredit the political establishment in the eyes of not only the party membership, but also a significant section of the wider public. One striking example serves to illustrate the point. After the Manchester bombing during the 2017 election campaign, Corbyn readily identified the role played by Western foreign policy in exacerbating the conditions in which terrorist violence occurs. The political class rubbed their hands with glee, expecting him to pay a severe penalty for this flagrant transgression of accepted discourse, only to be stunned to discover that a majority of the public agreed with him. This is a moment of disruption, and as such it presents possibilities.

The parallel crisis and transformation on the right hand side of the political spectrum is rooted in a quite different set of conditions, and there is no space to explore that here. But the upshot for our purposes is that by submitting to the grip of chauvinistic populism the Conservative Party has detached itself from many of the key socio-economic interests that it exists to serve, and has imperilled its ability to govern at the same historical juncture as a Labour Party committed to a transformative programme has emerged for the first time in decades. This then is the nature of the Corbyn moment. But what is the nature of the terrain that it presents to us as critical and politically engaged scholars?

A Labour party defined or at least shaped by the Corbyn moment for the foreseeable future, even beyond his leadership, is now simply a fact of life. And a Corbyn government, while obviously far from guaranteed, is a real possibility that we now have to reckon with. In international relations terms, a global north power with a seat on the UN Security Council, nuclear weapons, and the world’s biggest financial centre could soon be led by a socialist and anti-imperialist prime minister. For those of us in British academia engaged in critical theory, it would be positively eccentric of us to sniff at this moment or to remain disengaged from it.

Labour may be led by a socialist anti-imperialist, and a large proportion of its membership may subscribe to those same values, but the party overall clearly cannot be characterised in that way. The foreign policy and ‘defence’ sections of the 2017 manifesto reflect the degree of resistance that more conservative elements in and around the party are able to exert. However, what is undeniably true is that Labour has dramatically opened up as a site of dynamic and promising contestation. So while there are limitations, there are also possibilities, and – crucially – scope to challenge and roll back the limitations while expanding the realm of possibility.

In addition, ‘Corbynism’ as a political force within Labour is itself a site of contest, whose character remains fluid and has yet to solidify. Older and newer currents of left-wing thought and practice interact, sometimes competing with and other times complementing each other. The collective position on foreign relations outside of Europe is an area which remains particularly up for grabs, given that the overwhelming focus of the leadership and movement up until now has been on the domestic economy and on Brexit,. It is here where, I believe, we can make our contribution.

Two areas immediately suggest themselves: education and policymaking. In terms of education, there is an important role to play in raising consciousness of key issues, helping the grassroots movement that is central to Corbynism develop its collective understanding, and empowering it to drive change from below, challenging the more conservative elements in intelligent and effective ways.

This month’s, ‘The World Transformed’ – a political festival taking place alongside the Labour conference in Brighton – is an excellent example of where this kind of educational activity can take place. This year’s programme has a far more international flavour than in previous years, and the specific stream of internationalist sessions has an impressively diverse and radical array of voices. The sessions diverge from the normal panel plus Q&A format, incorporating much more scope for open discussion and participation. I would warmly encourage those colleagues who are not already speaking to join us in those conversations and bring the benefit of your knowledge and expertise. The policy labs where ideas will be generated for a ‘manifesto for the movement’ are one specific space where your input would be highly valued.

TWT is a particularly notable example of the educational role we can play, but it would be worthwhile for us to think collectively about how we can provide this service on a more regular and sustained basis. The mass movement around Corbyn is now a powerful agent in British politics, and its collective understanding and consciousness of foreign relations is a matter of significance. It is right and important for us to put ourselves at its disposal.

So far so familiar, at least in terms of engaging with activist audiences – which many of us are well accustomed to doing – if not in terms of the historic context in which that is now taking place. But where we really stray into unfamiliar territory is in the realm of advising policymakers. As per Cox’s delineation, our involvement in this sort of activity prior to 2015 bordered on the unthinkable, almost by definition. But with the Labour Party of the Corbyn moment gearing up for the prospect of power, there is a role for us to play here as well.

John McDonnell’s plans for the British economy are well publicised, and the subject of in-depth media coverage, including a recent series of articles in the Financial Times. In his survey of the thinkers and think tanks helping to develop the party’s economic agenda, the Guardian’s Andy Beckett quotes someone at the New Economics Foundation describing the leadership’s apparently insatiable appetite for ideas. “They’re virtually asking, ‘Have you got anything else at the back of your cupboard?’ We scrabble around, and give them anything we can come up with, as quickly as we can”.

But there is no discernible parallel effort taking place in terms of foreign relations, and this is a real problem. British foreign and military policy continues to be a matter of life or death for peoples throughout the global south, in terms of direct military interventions, enabling support for military action by allies (most tragically in recent years in the Yemen case), and in British power’s ongoing, long-standing, deeply embedded complicity in all manner of forms of structural violence. British foreign relations in 2019 are of course the product of historical processes, from the centuries of formal empire through to their neo-imperial legacy. Just beginning to rethink Britain’s role in the world along socialist, anti-imperialist lines, let alone generating the policy ideas that can begin to unstitch some of this legacy, is a truly formidable challenge. The opportunity to even think about it meaningfully is an entirely unfamiliar one. And yet here it is, for now at least. How do we seize it?

There is no foreign policy think tank of the left. Should one be set up? If so, where would the funding come from? What would its remit be? How would it avoid being captured or compromised by the status quo? If a specific think tank cannot be set up, how might critical IR scholars otherwise turn their hand to generating the ideas that can be used in this political moment, within the confines of the demands and possibilities that our day jobs present? There are rewards to be gained of course for achieving ‘impact’, although few of us expected those to be available to us in precisely this way before. Would it be possible for us to formalise a collective effort to take up this task, justified on ‘impact’ grounds? If so, what would that look like? We’re probably arriving quite late at the point where we’re asking ourselves these questions, but the conversation needs to be had.

‘Critical theory can be a guide to strategic action for bringing about an alternative order’, says Cox. Advising policymakers need not constitute a turn to the conformity of problem solving, if we approach this task in the right way. Our role could be to help a wider movement recognise and appraise the opportunities presented by the current conjuncture, with ‘utopianism…constrained by…comprehension of [the] historical processes’ in play, but also with our ability to make the most of these opportunities empowered by that same understanding.

One day we will look back on this historical moment and think about the role we played within it, in our relatively privileged position as scholars. We will think about what we did and didn’t do, what we could have done differently, and how our acts and omissions shaped that moment’s outcomes and historical legacy. The point, for now, is that we make sure we have a good story to tell ourselves and others when that time comes around.


[1] Cox, R., ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 10/2, (1981)

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One thought on “Rising to the Challenge: Critical IR in the Corbyn Moment

  1. Pingback: Corbyn + international relations – In this country

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