Don’t tell me that it doesn’t hurt

Here’s what I know about Seumas Milne. He’s probably an old tankie; he’s certainly gotsome of the reflexive anti-imperialist instincts which used to characterise tankies. Show him a foreign policy crisis and he’ll ask

  1. Is it the result of past Western intervention?
  2. Is it being promoted to justify current or future Western intervention?
  3. Is it being promoted to distract attention from other, more pressing examples of past or current Western intervention?

The anti-imperialist framing always comes first; if there is any element of the current crisis which fits that framing, that’s the element to focus on. If not… well, should we really be devoting our time and attention to crises our government has nothing to do with?

Back in the 1980s – when tankies were tankies – I did a lot of reading about Eastern Europe & was genuinely interested in the different trajectories towards liberalisation and “modernisation” being experimented in the different states: Hungary was trying out free markets and their dissidents seemed quite advanced in their thinking, but could we really trust either them or the government? the Polish unions were strong, of course, but was the democratic socialist current getting lost? might Yugoslav ‘self-management’ represent a genuine third way? Naturally I had very little time for those who maintained that imperialist encroachments on the USSR’s sphere of influence were the main issue here, what with the Soviet Union being a bulwark against Western imperialism.

But you didn’t have to have any sympathy with the Soviet Union to view the world in terms of Western imperialism. Milan Rai’s Chomsky’s Politics quotes Noam Chomsky putting the case in fairly blunt terms:

I’ve been in 10,000 teach-ins in my life, I don’t know how many. Every one of them is about something happening somewhere else. I go to a teach-in on Central America, a teach-in on the Middle East, a teach-in on Vietnam. That’s all nonsense. Everything’s happening in Washington. It’s just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world.

This way of thinking to me was heresy, and intellectual heresy at that: heresy against my faith in knowing more about stuff as a value in itself, as well as my conviction that the world wasn’t – couldn’t be – mono-causal as well as unipolar. I still held that view when Yugoslavia was torn apart by pan-Serb expansionism, ratified by the West; I still held that view when an illegal war was launched by NATO against Serbia and the bulk of the British Left rallied, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to the side of Serbia. (I’ve no idea what Seumas Milne said about Kosovo, but I somehow doubt I’d agree with it.)

But Kosovo was a turning-point, as it was for a lot of people: Attila Hoare has said that he opposed the intervention at the time – supporting Workers’ Aid for Kosova instead – but came to the realisation that he’d been wrong. It was the other way for me: knowing the Serbian & Kosovar background, I detested the Serbian government, was repulsed by what they were trying to do and began by supporting the intervention – in principle. As the details of the intervention came out – how it was being conducted, its basis in law, the Rambouillet treaty, etc – it gradually dawned on me that I supported an intervention against the Serbian government, but not this one: this one was being carried out by the wrong people, using the wrong weaponry, against the wrong targets, with the wrong (lack of) legal basis and the wrong war aims. And, since the right intervention wasn’t available – the Workers’ Aid initiative was probably the closest thing – it turned out that I was opposed to the intervention, like everyone else. It was a learning experience.

The point of all this is that the mindset that sees the world through an anti-imperialist lens – and applies something like the checklist I set out earlier – has certain definite merits along with its flaws. The main one is that it’s not (very often) actually wrong: there are very few countries in which Britain (or the US) is interested, where Britain (or the US) hasn’t in the past stirred the pot pretty hard. Going anti-imperialist isn’t just a short-cut, saving you all those tedious ‘teach-in’s about different things going on in different countries; it will, generally, give you something you can work with. Which brings us to the second point: anti-imperialism is – almost by definition – relevant to domestic politics. People like me may genuinely want to know which Syrian tribal faction is historically associated with which strand of Islam, but people like me are academics. If you can point to a treaty, an arms deal, an investment vehicle – something that explains our government’s actions, and by the same token something that our government has leverage over – then you’re doing something politically relevant. It can also be argued, lastly, that anti-imperialist politics is excluded from the mainstream, so this angle is worth pursuing just to strengthen those voices. (However, this on its own is the weakest and most contentious of the three points – if you think it’s hard to get an anti-imperialist angle into the papers, just try getting a column out of “government policy overlooks complex but interesting history of region (again), says jaded academic”.)

Coming back to Seumas Milne: what all this tells us is that, to the extent that he’s retained the anti-imperialist instincts of his tankie youth, this

(a) doesn’t tell us anything about his current politics – other that he’s on the Left(!) – and

(b) isn’t actually wrong, particularly for someone whose day-job is being a political operative

Which brings us, finally, to the extraordinary hatchet-job recently printed in Private Eye (issue 1489). I’m going to extract sections from this and sort them into chronological order, for reasons which will become apparent.

The Communist Party opposed the Common Market not only because it was a bosses’ club but also because it would “consolidate the military power of the so-called Western Alliance against the Socialist countries”, as the party said in 1962 when then PM Harold Macmillan raised the prospect of British membership. European unity had to be opposed because it challenged the Soviet Union.

Seumas Milne was born in 1958. He was never a member of the Communist Party.

“We would withdraw from Nato and the EEC,” schoolboy Seumas wrote in his manifesto as the Maoist candidate in a mock-general election at Winchester College in 1974

Milne would have been 15 or 16 at this point.

The old Communist Party was anti-European. In the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EEC, it allied with Enoch Powell and the National Front to fight for a “no” vote.

What ‘Ratbiter’ omits to mention here is that the Labour Party also campaigned for a No vote (despite the Labour government advocating a Yes vote – it was messy, albeit highly democratic). Of course, none of this constituted being ‘allied with’ those elements of the Right that also advocated No.

In 1979 Milne became business manager of Straight Left, a secretive faction in the Communist and Labour parties.

Straight Left was the (unofficial) publication of a tankie faction within the Communist Party of Great Britain, some of whose members joined the Communist Party of Britain when it split; the faction also had sympathisers in the Labour Party. Milne was never a member of either of the Communist Parties. Something else our author omits to mention here is that Milne left Straight Left after two years to join the Economist, where he worked from 1981 until he joined the Guardian in 1984.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Milne transferred his loyalties from Soviet communism to the Russian gangster capitalism that succeeded it. In a 2014 Guardian piece he assured readers the Ukraine war was not Putin’s fault but that of the EU, whose “effort to woo Ukraine is closely connected with western military strategy”.

Quite a lot to unpack here. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Milne was motivated to take the job at Straight Left, back in 1981, by ideological sympathies – that he (like a surprising number of others on the Left in the 1980s) genuinely believed that the USSR was a socialist bloc and a force for peace. We’ve no evidence that he still held that belief at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall (in 1989). Also, it’s both lazy and defamatory to convert an ideological belief into a (potentially treasonous) “loyalty” (“go back to Russia!”). Lastly, seeing the world – up to and including the war between Russia and Ukraine – through an anti-imperialist lens is simply what an anti-imperialist will tend to do; it’s not evidence of positive sympathies with whoever is targeted by the West, let alone of “loyalty” to Putin’s Russia. (If ever there was an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence…!)

Rival Marxist factions understand Milne’s importance. The Alliance for Workers Liberty, a Trotskyist group, commented in 2017: “The Article 50 fiasco, and Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left.”

The AWL is a tiny group with a long and chequered history, characterised mainly by ruthless factionalism and sub-Spiked contrarianism. There are some good people in there, but it’s the last group you’d go to for a reliable opinion on other parts of the Left.

To those who understand the power struggles on the left, Milne’s dominance was assured when Simon Fletcher, Corbyn’s campaigns chief, resigned in 2017 after clashing with Milne over Europe. Fletcher was a former aide to Ken Livingstone, and within days of his departure Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin published a thunderous piece rebuking Milne by declaring: “There is no socialist or even people’s Brexit.”

Simon Fletcher has been named in connection with another (even smaller) Trotskyist group, Socialist Action, which Livingstone has worked with. The main contributor to Livingstone’s Socialist Economic Bulletin is Tom O’Leary, who wrote the piece mentioned; it doesn’t mention Milne. Joining the dots is fine, but this is more drawing than dots.

Coming right up to date (possibly):

In conversations with journalists, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer says Seumas is the greatest single obstacle to his attempts to shift Corbyn to a pro-European stance. The shadow Brexit secretary adds, with a despairing roll of his eyes, that Milne wants Britain to leave and form a global alliance of anti-American countries.

But Starmer doesn’t seem to have said any of this on the record, so who knows?

And on the basis of all this, ‘Ratbiter’ signs off by dubbing Milne

an unrepentant communist

Or rather, an unrepentant Putinite, presumably – keep up!

I hold no brief for Milne; I’m quite sure he’s an anti-imperialist of a fairly crude variety & strongly suspect he was a Stalinist in his younger days, neither of which endear him to me at all. (I would also agree that he’s not the ideal companion for Corbyn when Brexit’s on the table, and hope that Keir Starmer has also made this point.) But fairly crude anti-imperialism isn’t that big a handicap for someone in Milne’s current role, and – as far as his current beliefs are concerned – anything beyond that is speculation and smear.

“I’ve met Communists,” a Communist said to me once, “and – you know what? – none of them had two heads.” As statements of the bleedin’ obvious go, this is one that continues to be relevant. The fact that someone holds unusual or ‘extreme’ views doesn’t make them an alien being – a ruthless political operator, a treasonous subversive. The Left – they may not have much time for art galleries and medieval towns, but in most other ways they really are just like you and me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: