The quasi-religious adulation of the Labour leader by his mainly young admirers is a result of the spiritual vacuum left by secularism
Whenever he speaks at a public gathering, the chant “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” comes back from the young faithful. On the face of it, this degree of adulation is puzzling. Corbyn certainly projects sincerity of conviction; and he has shown campaigning skills as well as a kind of dogged tenacity in pursuit of his ambitions. But he does not come across as particularly intelligent or charismatic, and given that his political discourse seems to be confined to the recycling of generally discredited Marxist clichés that are deeply unoriginal, his transformation into the object of a quasi-religious personality cult is indeed surprising. No doubt this says more about his audience than it does about him. For here we seem to have the classic case of a Malvolio figure, who has had greatness thrust upon him, for no better reason than he happens to have become the accidental object of a deep emotional yearning, or a kind of spiritual hunger, among his predominantly young followers.
So how to account for this phenomenon? Perhaps in so far as we have alighted on a spiritual aspect to it, some insight might be gained by trying to understand it from the perspective of the history and typology of some of the religious movements of the past. For it seems possible to recognise in the Corbynista phenomenon a modern day and secularised version of what we might describe as a gnostic cult.
One of the key features of Gnosticism is a mindset that sees the world in dualistic terms, where the forces of good are having to battle it out against the forces of evil. Gnostics see themselves as a militant vanguard group, possessed of special insight (or Gnosis); they are natural rebels and outsiders who are forever conscious of what they perceive to be the world’s corruption and injustice; they are by instinct antinomian, and hyper-critical of the establishment power, together with the legal and institutional constraints it imposes. Gnostics tend to be impatient for salvation, and inclined to hanker after a messianic figure, who they believe, will deliver them in short order to a state of blessed redemption.
Translate these doctrines into secular form and the parallels are indeed striking. For Corbyn has prided himself on belonging to a like-minded fraternity of hard-left rebels that have consistently refused to compromise their ideological convictions or co-operate with the “Establishment power”, even if that power happened to be, as it had been under Tony Blair, the governing Labour Party. Theologically speaking, this self-proclaimed community of virtue has embraced a thoroughly dualistic vision of the world in which the forces of righteousness that hold the banner for the poor and the oppressed are locked in a perpetual struggle with the forces of evil, identified with the usual targets of Marxist demonology: American neo-imperialists, Zionist colonisers, rapacious global banks and multinationals, and closer to home, selfish Tories and their stooges in the Murdoch press.
With these forces of evil, according to the settled Corbynista view, no compromise is possible. Corbyn himself, flanked by his cohort of resurgent trade unionists and his army of faithful young followers, is the unlikely messianic figure holding out the promise of salvation, now reconceived in secular terms as a society in which unlimited welfare would be available to all.
The question is: how is it that this gnostic clique of true believers, enthusiasts for an uncompromising socialist vision of society that has time and again demonstrated its abject record of failure, could possibly have captured Her Majesty’s Opposition and become plausible contenders for power? Undoubtedly, political factors, often mentioned, such as the failure of the Conservative Party to continue to make the moral case for conservatism, is part of the answer. But only part of it. It does not explain why, for example, for the first time ever, Labour could be controlled by a faction that is plainly unpatriotic, caring little for the country’s traditions and institutions and making common cause with its enemies. Nor does it explain why a political discourse that has become so poisonously adversarial should have been rewarded with such apparent success.
To explain this, we need to dig deeper, into the tectonic cultural shifts that have been taking place below the surface in Britain for several generations now. We need again to look at religion. For there can be no doubt that the background of what we have identified as a revival of modern gnostic trends has much to do with the spiritual vacuum created by the decline of traditional religion.
The young who are hankering after Corbyn are not so much economically as spiritually undernourished. The latest iPhone or trinket they can easily buy online is simply not enough to satisfy their emotional or psychological needs. They ask for bread; but all they have been offered are stones.
Within living memory, we can point to two major trends, closely associated with the decline of traditional religion, and both of which have hastened the arrival of what can only be described as a new religious dispensation.
First is the virtual abolition of the distinction between Church and State, once considered a constitutional pillar of our liberties. The Church had influence; the State had power. The distinction meant that there was a large sphere of social networks inspired by the Judaeo-Christian heritage and built on trust, common morality and self-regulation, where there was very little need for the State to legislate or interfere.
Secularisation has dramatically reduced the autonomy of this social sphere, as whole areas of social life have become the business of the State to police. The State is fast becoming a secular Church, the fount of moral legislation, and is busy imposing a uniformity of belief on its citizens every bit as intrusive as the theocratic states of the past, where the distinction between Church and State was likewise unknown.
From this development, it has followed that politicians have been only too willing to step into the role of prophets or high priests; and it is not surprising, therefore, that someone like Corbyn, who appears to offer a coherent worldview and gives clear guidance as to what people should believe, should be able to acquire a following.
That is one part of the story. The other major trend is simply the wholesale abandonment of the moral teaching associated with the Bible. For it is the first rule of Judaeo-Christian morality that evil is to be found within us. The world certainly needs perfecting, but that task is inevitably complicated by the fallibility of human intellect and character. Thus we are told, we must first tend to the condition our own souls, acknowledging our own faults and imperfections, before we dare to judge our fellow man. It is a prescription for humility which may be considered to be the very foundation of a gentle and harmonious social life.
The strength of this moral teaching is that it inoculates us against the self-righteousness that sees the world in dualistic terms, as divided between us and them, between the children of light and the children of darkness. For in the gnostic vision of the Corbynistas, the we are wholly virtuous, wholly pure and wholly innocent; evil is nothing to do with us, but wholly to do with them, those wicked bankers, capitalists, neo-imperialists, Zionists, Tories and racists, who must in due time be punished for their sins. It is because of its dualistic theology, that Corbynism is a recipe for a kind of civil war. It is also why it is so extremely dangerous.