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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What Jeremy Corbyn Has Meant To Me

Coming from India to Britain, I finally found a politician committed to anti-imperialism.

A week before the 2019 General Election, I (temporarily) left the United Kingdom. The campaign had become increasingly bitter and fractious, and I’d watched as the Labour Party tried to claw back a significant deficit in the poll ratings—caused largely, we now know, by Brexit and the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn—by focusing on a manifesto that promised radical change on the subjects of healthcare, transport, infrastructure, and the climate crisis. In Oxford, where I study, the mood had been sullen: In dinner halls and outside classrooms, reluctant Labour-supporting students had half-heartedly tried to convince abstentionists that Jeremy Corbyn was not quite as bad as Boris Johnson. In any event, they failed—and Labour failed.

I was in Melbourne on the day of the election, frantically refreshing the Guardian’s seat count, as the scale of the disaster rapidly became clear. And over the past few days, wandering alone in this quiet city so very far from the United Kingdom, I have felt a crushing weight in my chest, a rock in my throat, and I’ve found myself welling up as I cross a traffic light. 

Public confessionals are, of course, dangerous things. Sometimes, the welter of thoughts and emotions swirling around in your head can only become coherent by writing it all down, in public, as you worry constantly about embarrassing yourself. But the surprising intensity of what I am feeling—I, an Indian citizen, temporarily living in Britain, towards the fate of a British politician—drives me to believe that perhaps writing it down is, after all, the only way to bring clarity.

Growing up in India, I had a singular political education. My parents let me run wild among the bookshelves. As a kid, I read Donald Woods’ biography of Steve Biko, the murdered South African anti-apartheid activist, and Ousman Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood, a novel about colonialism and labor strikes. In the mornings, I went to a school where—for five years—I was bullied mercilessly (“…early I learned/that wounds made me…”). In the evenings, I heard my parents read Dinkar’s epic poem, Rashmirathi, to each other. These childhood experiences shaped me permanently: To this day, I have a visceral distrust of authority, an instant emotional bond with the underdog, and a hatred for all forms of bullying.

As I grew older, this interior landscape—that, for obvious reasons, gravitated towards the tradition of the political left—began to be shaped in more concrete ways by the books I read. I learnt about the global history of struggles for freedom, equality, and justice: about the Paris Commune, about Salvador Allende, about Eugene Debs. I began to feel an emotional bond with these struggles: Allende’s 1973 suicide seemed like a personal loss, and the 1987-1988 battle of Cuito Cuinavale a personal victory. In the spirit of internationalism, I felt like I was a part of the global tradition that bound together the political left. And I learnt also how, in the 20th century, the United States and its allies in the “free world” had systematically undermined and destroyed democratically-elected socialist governments around the globe. From Allende to Mossadegh, from Latin America to Africa and Asia, the “free world”  had overthrown popular leftist leaders, installed dictators, and enabled massacres, including, in Indonesia, the massacre of half a million people.

When I moved to the “West” in 2011 as a graduate student, the internationalist in me was swiftly disappointed. I spent two years in the United Kingdom and one in the United States, experiencing how the dominant culture—from the right to the left—insisted on the glories of Western enlightenment (while ignoring its racism), the beauty of the rule of law (ignoring how the law was undermined in the colonies), the development of the ideas of freedom and equality (ignoring the genocide of indigenous peoples), and how the “free world” saved the 20th century by defeating communism and fascism (ignoring all the overthrown governments, “police actions,” and dirty-war massacres). All this, delivered with a smug dose of “western” superiority, was as infuriating as (it seemed) eternal and implacable. But in the meanwhile, my own political instincts sharpened. Thanks to new friends, I discovered more anti-colonial thinkers (Audre Lorde, Edward Said, Ghassan Kanafani, Adrienne Rich), and dived into Palestinian rights activism on campus (something that remains close to my heart today). But the gap between what I understood to be my own politics, and the politics that I saw from politicians (especially those on the “left”), seemed wider than an abyss. 

By 2014, I was back in India to work as a lawyer, and cynical about the possibilities of politics. No politician, it seemed, was ever going to articulate the convictions I felt so strongly, the internationalist values that had been taking shape all these years. The imperialist structure of allowable political thought simply wouldn’t allow it.

Then Jeremy Corbyn came along.

In 2015, I had no idea who Corbyn was. Ed Miliband had just lost, and as a good internationalist, I was vaguely disappointed that somewhere in the world, a Labour Party had been defeated in an election. During my time in the United Kingdom, I had gotten into the habit of reading the Guardian (a paper that seemed to encapsulate, at the time, a strong social-democratic ethic), and so I had a rough sense of what was happening. I learnt that an old-school leftist called Jeremy Corbyn was running for Labour leadership, and that this had really caused a flutter in the media—in fact, they had already begun to attack him. I was intrigued. I began to follow Corbyn’s stump speeches as he toured the country, finding to my surprise an honesty—and an empathy—that drew me.

But I remember the specific moment that turned me from an interested spectator to someone emotionally invested in Corbyn and his fight. After he became leader, Corbyn was to be inducted into the Privy Council, in a ceremony that involves kneeling to the Queen. Corbyn, however, refused to kneel. The media went bananas. But for me, this tiny act of defiance was immensely powerful. I know from long experience that there are few things more difficult than defying sedimented social conventions. When you break cultural norms you risk being treated as an outsider, as not-quite-one-of-us, and, therefore, as a fit subject of scorn and ridicule. But there was Corbyn, refusing to kneel, knowing what kind of media trouble it would get him into—but doing it nonetheless, out of a simple conviction that hierarchy must not be tolerated in any form.

I was hooked. I began to follow British politics very closely. I began to read about Corbyn. And soon, I found out about his 40 years of solidarity with struggles for liberation all over the world. I read about the fight to free the Guildford Four. I saw that iconic photograph of him getting arrested at an anti-apartheid march in the 1980s (while Mandela remained a “designated terrorist” by the United States). I heard his passionate speech against the Iraq War in 2003. And Corbyn also appeared in other places, fortuitously. I was watching a film about Chile and the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship, and there was Corbyn, campaigning against Pinochet and standing by the families of the victims. I was watching an anti-war speech by the radical Labour MP Tony Benn, and there was Corbyn, sitting right behind him. In the course of casual conversation, Palestinian friends talked about how, at long last, they had found in Jeremy Corbyn a “Western” leader who stood by them.

And I realized that Corbyn (by now “Jeremy” to me) was an internationalist. He had spent his political life in solidarity with struggles for equality and justice all over the world. Often, these struggles had brought him into direct conflict with “Western” foreign policy—and therefore, by extension, against “the West.” And so—whether it was Libya or Ireland—he often stood alone in support of a cause, in the teeth of intense hostility. It must have been a lonely and dispiriting exercise. But if—as Thomas Gheogheghan writes—“solidarity is the only love left in this country that dares not speak its name”—then gosh, did Jeremy speak it!

How do you describe that feeling of finding, for the first time in your life, a politician who speaks—honestly and clearly—the convictions that you have always felt, and which you had resigned to never hearing articulated? It’s like an awakening into something real, a horizon dawning, a word of new possibilities emerging. It’s like hearing a voice that says, “you are not alone.” It’s beautiful. And in those heady days of late 2015 and early 2016, it was all that and more.

But I soon realized that it was precisely Jeremy’s personal history, with which I so identified and which meant so much to me, that would be weaponized against him. The process of delegitimization began at the very moment when he started to run for Labour leadership, and as the months wore away, as Brexit happened, and as Tory infighting brought the possibility of a Corbyn prime ministership ever closer, the attacks became relentless. Jeremy, we were told, was anti-British. He was “anti-West.” He was a friend of (U.S.-designated) terrorists, and therefore uniquely unfit for office. The attacks were nonstop, and most heartbreakingly (for me), they appeared regularly in the Guardian, the paper I had long believed was “ours” as leftists. Some of these attacks bordered on the ridiculous: Jeremy was pilloried, for instance, for being present at a United Nations meeting on human rights and workers’ rights with Michelle Bachelet instead of at a Brexit protest march, as if, in the moral scale of things, Brexit outweighed everything. But for me, this was one of the many moments in the four years of Jeremy (2015-2019), in which I learnt again and again from him that simplest of all lessons: Solidarity must be internationalist, or it must not be at all.

It is worthwhile, I think, to pause here and briefly reflect on the nature of these attacks on Jeremy and his internationalism. Britain is a country that remains deeply in denial about its colonial crimes. A 2016 poll showed that 44 percent of Britons are proud of their country’s role in colonialism. Winston Churchill—a virulently racist man who oversaw a genocide in India, still has his head on currency notes. Popular journalists regularly whitewash Churchill’s role in this genocide with an intensity and disinterest for the actual historical events that—one feels—would normally have them (rightly) hounded out of public life, were it not for the fact that the victims belonged to the wrong skin colour and were very far away. Post-World War II British complicity in atrocities all over the world—from Kenya to the Chagos Islands—barely merits a mention in the public sphere. The image that Britons seem to have about themselves is of a nation that has given to the world the “rule of law” and “fair play,” whose colonial enterprises were founded in a “fit of absent-mindedness” and which “stood alone” against Nazism—and later, with the United States, against communism—in the mid-20th century. This simple binary of “Britain and the West” versus “the rest of the world”—and this refusal to reckon with and come to terms with Britain’s history—makes it particularly easy to demonize any kind of criticism (and certainly, the kind of criticism that Jeremy engaged in) as “anti-British,” “anti-Left,” “standing with enemies,” and—the kiss of death—“unpatriotic.” Needless to say, this is a distorted view not only of Britain’s role in the world, but also of a proud tradition of anti-imperial and anti-colonial thought within Britain itself. But as the post-election post-mortem showed, it was this sense of Jeremy’s “unpatriotism”—fueled by the media’s depiction of him as regularly taking the side of Britain’s “enemies”—that caused a large number of voters to turn away from him.  

But meanwhile, as the attacks went on through 2017, as Jeremy survived a failed internal Labour party coup and triumphed in an against-the-odds hung election, I realized that something else bound me to Jeremy. The sneering, the ridicule, the constant, non-stop denigration of personality and character, the insinuations that “you are not one of us”—they were horribly familiar. Jeremy was facing at a national level what I had faced in the classroom as a child. I waited for him to snap, to break, to break down, to lash out—as I once had.

He never did.

To this day, I can’t remember a single occasion when Jeremy got personal, or lashed out. And I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it must have been in the teeth of all those attacks and all that bad faith, so much poison that it infuriated and depressed me, even though none of it was directed at me. I can’t imagine how he kept his cool.. But it was a personal lesson as well as a political one, embodying what Victor Frankl has said—the one thing you always retain power over is how you choose to react.

Jeremy taught me that no matter what, no matter how awful and unfair the world is, you can always choose dignity.

Four years went by. In 2018, I returned to the United Kingdom for a PhD. In the meantime, Cameron came and went, May came and went, Johnson came—and Jeremy was there, at PMQs and elsewhere, one of the only constant figures in a tumultuous time, standing by what he always has for the last four decades.

Nothing lasts forever. A few days after Liverpool fans chanted “oh, Jeremy Corbyn” in a stadium far away—a scene that still makes me tear up—the dream came crashing down. And much as I’m still caught up in the feeling of desolation, what I would really like to remember is how it felt to watch the campaign unfold, the brilliant enthusiasm that Jeremy inspired in young people, and above all else, his closing speech, where he fittingly talked about Victor Jara, and then said: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot stop the spring from coming.”

Doesn’t that sum it all up?

My postal ballot did not arrive in time. I could not vote in this election. But if I had, for the first time in my adult life, I would have cast my vote not from a desire to keep a party I disliked out of power (as I have done in India), but with love and enthusiasm for a man and what he represented. And I would have done that in a land far from home, in a foreign country that once colonised and devastated my own.

There’s something special about that, and about the man who made it possible.

Somewhere along the last four years, this Indian kid who’d been bullied as a child grew to love, respect, and admire a British politician—and cry when he lost an election.

There’s something very special about that indeed.

In the words of Mourid Barghouti, at the end of things it is time to “collect the days and nights of laughter, or anger, of tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments for which a single lifetime cannot suffice to visit them all with an offering of silence and respect.”

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn. Thank you.

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