Julius Caesar was not killed because his policies spelled disaster for Rome. His reforms to the governance of the provinces went more or less unchanged for the next five hundred years and his rise to the dictatorship did not see the bloody purges that marked the reign of his predecessor, Sulla. No, Caesar’s fatal crime was his dismissive attitude to his fellow senators and his appeals over their heads to the people of Rome. By some accounts the final straw came when a group of senators called at his house and he did not stand to greet them. While it is unfair to compare Jeremy Corbyn to Caesar, a charismatic leader and brilliant politician, the plotters in Labour’s parliamentary ranks would do well to study the assassination that plunged Rome into civil war and led to the destruction of the ruling institutions of the Republic.
In his excellent History of Rome Podcast Mike Duncan states that Caesar’s assassins made three related mistakes. First and foremost they had no plan for what they would do next. So fixated were they on killing the tyrant, that they failed to consider what would happen after he was dead. Secondly, was the exclusive focus on Caesar and not his supporters. Mark Antony was in the senate and watched his mentor be killed but was able to slip away and plan revenge. Finally, Cassius, Brutus and the other conspirators, all senators, fatally misjudged the attitude of the common people of Rome. Because Caesar disparaged the senatorial class, because he did not believe their wealth and status automatically granted them the right to rule, they assumed that the average Roman shared their view that Caesar was a despicable tyrant and they were the ‘liberators’ freeing Rome from a scourge. But the masses hated the wealthy and arrogant senators and while they may not have loved Caesar they at least saw in him a man who looked beyond the interests of his own class and cared about making their lives better.
The Labour plotters trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn are making all three of these mistakes. In their view, Corbyn alone is the problem, rather than the vacuum of ideas and inspiration in the party’s centre-left that led to his election in the first place. Should they succeed in knifing their nemesis what banner would they hoist over his corpse? Slightly fairer cuts?
Their attitude to Corbyn’s supporters is as misguided as the senators’ were to Mark Antony and the literal legions Caesar commanded. Members of Momentum have been tarred en masse as entryist thugs who nonetheless are expected to go away or fall in line the moment the man who inspired them to form their organisation is deposed. Scant attempts have been made to recognise that these are overwhelmingly decent people who are motivated to make society better and to persuade them that better leadership could better advance their goal.
The assumption that because Corbyn is unacceptable to those in Westminster he is unacceptable as leader again mirrors the miscalculation of Caesar’s assassins. Like Caesar, Corbyn would not have risen to power without deep, popular discontent with the ruling class. The parliamentary Labour party have not found a way of addressing this issue and worse, do not seem to believe one is necessary.
Cicero called Caesar’s assassination ‘a fine deed, but half done’. Shortly afterwards Mark Antony had him put to death. To call the attempts to depose Jeremy Corbyn ‘half done’ would be a gross over compliment. Labour’s plotters should stop and think, spend time connecting with Corbyn’s supporters and creating a platform capable of inspiring them and the broader electorate. In their attempt to depose their leader and return to business as usual they are as misguided as the men who hastened the Republic’s demise.