Jeremy Corbyn is merely stating the obvious. No, of course we would not go to war with Russia. For anything, ever. Although we did intervene after the Revolution in support of what we still regarded as the legitimate government, we have not gone to war with Russia, as such, since 1856. Owen Smith’s suggestion that we would, should or could do so is as naïve as his suggestion that we should have a nice cup of tea and a chat with the Islamic State.
The Conservative Party failed to support those who were holding the line against what is now IS. Indeed, it wanted to bomb them. But it has understandably issued an attack ad against Smith on the subject. Yes, Smith is soft on IS. Corbyn, however, is not. The Soft Left is called that for a reason. As is the Hard Left. That latter is highly unlikely, for its own reasons, to support almost any war that the Anglo-American foreign policy Establishment is ever going to want to wage.
Throughout the last 20 years, it has been right about that. But it is not pacifist. Very far from it. Nor is it anything less than clearheaded. Very far from it.
NATO already revolves around Erdogan’s Turkey, while all and sundry are being let in. The next in the queue in the ghastly regime in Olympically corrupt, but strategically irrelevant, Montenegro. With honourable, but very rare, exceptions, the Labour Right is hopeless on these matters. A kind of chest-beating international hawkishness was one of the ways in which it defined itself as a distinct faction or tendency.
In New Labour, that mixed with the anti-Soviet fanaticism of those who had very recently been Trotskyists or Eurocommunists. Those were perhaps the only two factions or tendencies that ever truly believed that the Soviet Union had either the means or the will to invade Western Europe, as we now know for a fact that it did not. Traditional Tories recognised that the USSR was a ramshackle operation waiting to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
Although they were also among those who recognised, when it and Yugoslavia disintegrated, that two geopolitical catastrophes had thus occurred, the unpleasant ramifications of which would be felt for generations, even for centuries. Therefore, the heirs of Enoch Powell and Alan Clark ought to know better about NATO today. They have been as right as Corbyn and the Morning Star in the past. They ought to be so again.
NATO membership causes us to give undertakings that we have no intention of honouring, and in reality could not honour even if we wanted to do so. It causes us to give those undertakings to entities that do not deserve them, whether strategically, morally, or both. And it subjects us to a supranational body that presumes to demand two per cent of our Gross Domestic Product. Not only that, but it really only expects a handful of states, including our own, to meet that in practice.
Imagine the reaction of the NATO zealots in Parliament and the Press, or at least of the Tory ones, if it were so much as suggested that the United Kingdom now accede to a body of that kind. They ought to join those of us who demand that that body be dissolved, and that the United Kingdom begin that process by seceding from it unilaterally, unconditionally, and immediately.
Yet what a far less hysterical time the Cold War was. Everyone with any sense knew that it was all lies. People who could not see that, including those who imagined that a threat of domestic revolution existed, were a joke even at the time. But we shall come back to them. The Soviet Union had neither the will nor the means to invade Western Europe, never mind the United States. It had no desire whatever for alternative centres of Communist power. It would in any case collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, exactly as and when it did.
Consider quite what Britain was like in those decades without the world’s coming to an end, or the United Kingdom’s constitutional order collapsing, or either party of government’s adopting Marxism-Leninism, or anything like that. The intelligence services were so riddled with Soviet agents from top to bottom that it was a standing joke even among the general public. Such penetration extended even to the Royal Households. As the exposure of two dead Ministers as Czechoslovak agents has demonstrated, it also extended to the very right-wing elements both of the Labour Party (John Stonehouse) and of the Conservative Party (Ray Mawby).
Professing oneself a Communist was always perfectly respectable at the very highest levels of British society, where it was treated as just another aristocratic eccentricity. Wogan Phillips, second Baron Milford, sat as a Communist in the House of Lords for 31 years until his death in 1993: throughout most of the 1960s, and throughout all of the 1970s and the 1980s. He still called himself a Communist even after the party had dissolved itself in 1991.
Eric Hobsbawm ended up as a Companion of Honour. Neither Tony Benn nor Michael Foot ever did, even though it would have been the obvious gong for both of them. It is notable that, unlike the second Viscount Stansgate, the second Baron Milford never disclaimed his peerage. In point of fact, the latter’s party was a moderating force, especially over and against sections of the Labour Left, which contained people whose views, Trotskyist and otherwise, were far more extreme.
Throughout its history, the Communist Party of Great Britain was avowedly and actively opposed to a violent revolution in this country, holding, as Lenin had done, that its objectives could and should be attained wholly within and through the British constitutional and parliamentary process.
By the 1970s, especially, by no means everyone on the Labour Left took that view. Most still did. But by no means all. And Labour had had a problem with Trotskyist infiltration for as long as there had been Trotskyists at all. The CPGB was full of intelligence agents, but the intelligence agencies were full of Eastern Bloc agents, and so on, and on, and on, and on, and on. We shall never know the extent to which the turning of those wheels within wheels prevented or resolved industrial disputes, precluded those disputes’ escalation, and so forth.
Certainly, the CPGB was capable of highly fruitful co-operation with the trade union and Labour Right, much of which was very Right indeed and had all the British and American connections to match. Compare and contrast the successful partnership between Mick McGahey and Joe Gormley in 1972 and 1974 (against a Conservative Prime Minister loathed by the overlapping worlds of MI5, MI6 and his party’s own right wing) with the failure of McGahey and Arthur Scargill in 1984 and 1985.
The Communist had wanted to hold a national ballot, and had always remained open to compromise. He had wanted to reintegrate the UDM without rancour once, as he correctly predicted, its patrons had discarded it. He always called Scargill “that young man”, and he declined ever to write his memoirs or to authorise a biography, since “differences must remain within the family,” which said it all.
McGahey used to appear on things like Any Questions. He was as respectable as that. His union, with the closest ties of any to his party at home, and with an unmatched internationalist tradition stretching deep into the Soviet Bloc, effectively controlled around 85 per cent of the nation’s energy supply for many decades. It did not strike at all between 1926 and 1972, or between 1974 and 1984, an extremely unusual approach during those periods even for trade unionists with vastly less, quite literal, power.
The NUM was also a huge voting bloc at Labour Party Conferences, joined by the numerous Constituency Labour Parties that it effectively controlled. It sponsored enough MPs to make a significant difference, considering the normal size of Labour Governments’ majorities, if any, historically. For almost the whole of that period, only MPs had a vote in Leadership Elections. Look at the Leaders elected.
Like those on the mainstream Labour Left Tribune, certain staffers on the Morning Star were and are members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and Lobby, as their Daily Worker predecessors also were. Such membership required and requires full security clearance to go about the Palace of Westminster, and Lobby membership gives access to twice-daily briefings by the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman. The Daily Worker and then the Morning Star participated in all of that throughout the Cold War, as did Tribune. Did the Realm fall? Well, there you are, then.
Joan Maynard managed to sit not only as a Labour MP but as a member of that party’s National Executive Committee while also, with several other MPs, on the Editorial Advisory Panel of Straight Left, a newspaper and a faction that had been set up because of the feeling that the Communist Party was going soft. In 1979. She served with distinction on the Agriculture Select Committee. Her Straight Left colleague James Lamond was on nothing less than the Public Accounts Committee. For many years, all of them under a Conservative Government and most of them under Margaret Thatcher, he was on the Speaker’s Panel, chairing Standing Committees of the House. Parliament survived.
Pat Wall sat as an MP while probably the single most important Trotskyist thinker in the world at the time. His fellow-Militant Dave Nellist won Spectator Backbencher of the Year. Mildred Gordon was an MP while the widow of a leading American Trotskyist and the wife of Trotsky’s bodyguard, who as her husband presumably held a House of Commons pass.
None of this is to condone any of those positions or factions. But all of it does provide some context. Not least, it provides some context to the most uncritically spook-dependent British Government of all time, which came to power in 1997. That Government was both laden with, and surrounded by, veterans of extreme left-wing organisations. Of course those veterans did whatever the intelligence services told them. They were the intelligence services.
The Marxism Today for which Tony Blair wrote is long gone. He was the only politician at the founding meeting of Demos, the think tank founded by its final Editor. Formally, the Communist Party became the proto-Blairite Democratic Left, which became the ultra-Blairite New Politics Network, which became Unlock Democracy, which is still there, in a building bought thanks to the largesse of Lenin.
Unfortunately, however, the spirit of Jimmy Anderson and Major Harry Truscott remains very much a feature of the present age. The party that the Prime Minister leads contains any number of them. Another party, still complete with a member of a House of Commons, has only such people in it, or even so much as voting for it. There would seem to be no shortage of them even in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Some of them believe that both the Sino-Soviet Split and the fall of the Soviet Union were faked. Many of them believe that the KGB murdered Hugh Gaitskell in order to install Harold Wilson. All of them believe that Wilson was a Soviet agent. They really, truly, honestly believe these things.
They are convinced that Scargill was trying to stage a Red Revolution on the 1917 model, and that Gormley had more or less done so in 1974. It never occurs to them that the Heath Government, which in any case they profess to despise, was “toppled” by nothing other than the votes of the electorate, four years after that same process had installed that Government.
The theory of the Great Red Peril, including The Enemy Within, continues to be propounded, but tellingly by people who for the most part are not employed by academic institutions. The same was true of that theory at the time. As it also was, and very largely still is, of the economic theories to which Thatcher, who was as illiterate economically as she was historically and geopolitically, was so attached.
Across the full range of her agenda, the intellectual guiding lights hated the Conservative Party, not least when they were nominally members of it. They had no roots in it; nor had she. Not uncommonly, they had Marxist roots instead. The Conservative Party hated them back, which led it to hate her, until eventually it became the only organisation ever to succeed in getting rid of her. She then spent 15 years a joke figure, and just under another decade as one of those extremely old people who are only waiting for the end.
But even during her Premiership, it was not as if there were no ties to the Soviet Bloc. Very soon after Polish miners had been gunned down, the Thatcher Government was importing coal from Poland to order to assist in breaking the Strike.
On the other side of the Sino-Soviet Split, Thatcher fully deserved her designation by Red Star as “The Peking Plotter”. She never saw a Maoist whom she did not like. She installed Robert Mugabe, having refused any other settlement, and she even arranged a knighthood for him. Then there was Nicolae Ceaușescu. Then there was Pol Pot. When Nelson Mandela died, her flame-keepers could be heard criticising him and his for their criticism, in turn, of Steve Biko.
We ought to be governed by people who understand all of this. But we are not. Nor would we be under Owen Smith or any of his supporters. But we will be, when Jeremy Corbyn is Prime Minister.
There is no evidence that Corbyn is in any sense a Marxist, and that is rather the point. There are not 10,000 people in every British Marxist organisation put together. Corbyn’s mentor, Tony Benn, found inspiration in seventeenth century Radical readings of the Bible, and in his own Radical readings of the Bible. Michael Foot looked to the literature of the eighteenth century, when numerous subcultures remained unconvinced of the legitimacy of the new Whig State, and of that State’s capitalism and imperialism. At every point of challenge to that State and ideology, those subcultures have recurred.
Benn’s stock speech contained a potted history of the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, the Diggers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, and so on. It attracted considerable ridicule, but it made an important point. The Radical traditions of these Islands, and not least of England, traditions to which upper and upper-middle-class figures such as Benn and Foot have always been integral, provided and provide the context in which the tiny Marxist minority can participate. Fear of being overwhelmed is altogether misplaced. Both the Radical and the conservative traditions, closer than is often realised or admitted and each present in all of the main parties, are more than capable of standing their ground.
Gramsci called for a broad social movement towards institutional hegemony, for a celebration of the “national-popular”, and for an organic and self-organising working-class culture that included worker-intellectuals. We, on the other hand, already had those things, most obviously in and as the Labour Movement, including, but not restricted to, the extraparliamentary origins and the federal structure of the Labour Party.
Thus, and thus alone, was the CPGB, which in fact started life as a secession from the Independent Labour Party, able to contribute to the General Strike, to the Hunger Marches, to the Battle of Cable Street, to the formation of the International Brigades (although see below on that one), to the occupation of the London Underground during the Blitz, to the Forces Parliaments, to the Dock Strikes after the War, to the Squatters’ Movement of 1946, to the creation of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 1947, to the Clydeside Apprentices’ Strike of 1952, to the foundation of the Notting Hill Carnival, to the work-in at United Clyde Shipbuilders, to the Grunwick dispute, to the three Miners’ Strikes, to the People’s March for Jobs, to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to the Movement for Colonial Freedom, to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and to the Solidarity Campaigns with Vietnam and Chile.
Thus, and thus alone, was the successor Communist Party of Britain’s Andrew Murray able to preside over the largest demonstration in British history. Does anyone seriously suggest that the CPB, as such, could have brought two million people onto the streets of London, even against the Iraq War, for a rally addressed by the Mayor of London and by several Members of Parliament, including the Leader of the Liberal Democrats and a future Leader of the Official Opposition?
Thus, and thus alone, were British Trotskyists able to find an audience for their guru’s equal opposition to Fascism and to Stalinism (although it was the ILP Contingent that went to fight the former only to be killed by the latter), and then to participate in the movement against the Vietnam War, in the student movement of 1968, in the industrial disputes of the 1970s, in the Anti-Nazi League, in the fully successful campaign against the Poll Tax, in the Stop the War Coalition, and in the anti-austerity movement. Thatcher bitterly regarded the abandonment of the Poll Tax as the British State’s greatest ever concession to the Far Left. Yes, that was organised by Militant. But does anyone seriously believe that Militant could have done it on its own?
Thus, and thus alone, did Ken Livingstone become Mayor of London in 2000. Thus, and thus alone, did George Galloway become MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, and for Bradford West in 2012; the first candidate to the left of Labour to win an English seat since 1945 is not a Marxist, and his profound religious faith informs the full range of his political positions.
Thus, and thus alone, did Corbyn become Leader of the Labour Party in 2015. By participating in The World Transformed, everyone doing so is acknowledging the point: thus, and thus alone, will Corbyn become Prime Minister in 2020.
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