Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
– Bob Dylan
I think a lot of the sound and fury about the Corbyn campaign can be understood better – not that this will make it go away – if we think about what it means to have political allies.
To take an easy case, what does it say about you if you’re involved in politics and you don’t have any allies at all – if you have your own political programme, which is yours and belongs to you, and you never make common cause with anyone? Does it mean you’re a person of principle, an inspiration to the young and a light to the nations? Or does it mean you’re scrupulously avoiding having any practical effect on the world and making sure your political career will be consigned to a footnote? I’m thinking here of every politician who gets too big for their own party, from Kilroy-Silk to Galloway, but also of those politicians who get so attached to the sound of one particular bell that they ring it in the morning and ring it in the evening, till their name and their pet cause become synonymous. The late Willie Hamilton, a Scottish Labour MP, was a good example of this approach. Willie Hamilton was a republican; he believed that the royal family were a waste of public money, and he said so whenever he was asked. He certainly kept republicanism alive as an idea, but for most people the idea in question was “that thing Willie Hamilton’s always banging on about”. Less extreme examples would be Tam Dalyell and the West Lothian Question, or Frank Field and the undeserving poor.
So let’s assume that you’re a politician and that you’re right about everything – I mean, I know I am – but that you want to get things done from time to time. You’re going to have to make alliances, with people who don’t agree with you about everything. Which means they’re wrong about some things – maybe a lot of things. You’re going to have to make alliances with people who believe wrong things. It’s either that or be Willie Hamilton, or Frank Field at a pinch. Sorry – no one ever said politics was easy.
Of course, there are red lines; there are people you’ll never want to ally with for any reason – aren’t there? There are people who will make you take your name off a letter if they sign it, who will make you walk out of a public meeting if they walk in, who will make you reconsider your support for a policy if you find out they support it. And we all know who they are… don’t we?
It seems to me that this assumption, in different forms, has given the Left an enormous amount of trouble over the years. I’ll be honest, I read Homage to Catalonia at a formative age, and I used to be a staunch anti-Communist (it’s one of the few things you can be staunch about). I had absolutely no truck with any apologetics for Stalinism, post-Stalinism or neo-Stalinism, and I wasn’t particularly keen on Leninism (a.k.a. proto-Stalinism). The fact that, at the time I was striking these attitudes, the actually existing Communist Party was made up of equal parts of Scargillites and SDP sympathisers – while the ‘Leninist’ parties were, almost without exception, made up of utter tossers – made it a lot easier to stay truck-free and congratulate myself on being both Socialist and Principled. But you’ve got to ally with somebody, if you’re going to get anything done; the group I was in duly aligned with the Labour left on one hand and carefully selected Leninist tossers on the other. And of course blind eyes were turned; we tended to cough and change the subject when anyone started talking about the class nature of the USSR or which side to support in imperialist wars, or mentioned Ireland. (They all sounded the same…)
When I was wearing my It’s 1940 And I Am Victor Serge hat, I used to think there was a place for a really principled left somewhere to the… well, how to put this… not exactly to the right as such… OK, OK, somewhere a bit to the right of the ‘hard left’; I used to look wistfully at the likes of Chartist and Independent Labour Publications and Tribune and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. The people involved might not get into the Guardian any more often than the hard Left, but at least they weren’t ridiculed when they did – and at least they weren’t asking us to do six impossible things before breakfast (“support the IRA”, “read the Morning Star“). What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was hankering after a position that was itself impossible – not on the hard Left, but not actually against it either. I was aware that, when I talked to contacts at ILP or Tribune, they didn’t observe these niceties, but were quite happy to bang on about Trots, tankies and assorted Labour Left headbangers in a way that seemed quite genuinely hostile – you could almost call it sectarian. But maybe that could be our goal – to be on the soft Left but not against the hard Left, leading by example, sort of thing. Maybe.
As a group we had the luxury of having been established as a cross between a discussion group and a go-between; our goal was to promote debate and co-operation, and ultimately set much larger forces than ourselves in motion. We weren’t a party, in other words, and as such didn’t feel we had to take a position on absolutely everything. So at the time of the Gulf War we were agin it, but didn’t take a definite position between the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (mostly Labour Left, anti-war) and the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (mostly Trot, anti-imperialist); indeed, with our ‘left unity’ hat on we could argue that it was our job not to take a position between them. (We didn’t have any trouble taking a position with regard to the third anti-war campaign, on the other hand – the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee could sod right off.) Then, a couple of years later, the rest of the Left started to take notice of a region I’d been following for a few years – the soon-to-be-former Yugoslavia – and promptly got it completely wrong. This wasn’t discernibly a soft Left / hard Left thing, though – unless you counted Tony Benn as ‘hard Left’ – so much as an “almost everyone who knows about the area already”/”almost everybody else” thing. There was a ‘soft Left’ tune to be played – the “critique of kneejerk anti-imperialism” one – but at the time it seemed less urgent than “do you actually know what they’re doing out there, who’s doing it and why?”
A few years after that, there was Kosovo – a nation whose cause I’d supported for even longer than that of a united multi-ethnic Bosnia; a conflict which seemed utterly unambiguous in terms of right and wrong; and a conflict where, once again, the Left promptly lined up with the wrong side. Or so I thought. This was the turning-point for me: as the NATO bombing campaign wore on I realised that what I supported was a war of liberation, fought by the Kosovars themselves against the Serbian armed forces – or, ideally, not having to be fought at all, the Kosovars having sufficient armament and support to induce the Serbs to back off. (The ideal outcome in Bosnia would have been similar.) What was happening, on the other hand, was high-level bombing of civilian targets, as part of a war of aggression, fought by a military alliance from outside the region, seeking to impose its own terms on Serbia – terms that included, among other things, the establishment of a free-market economy. In short, it was an illegal war being fought by illegal means by illegitimate combatants in order to dictate unjust terms; the only thing it had in common with the war I thought I was supporting was that Serbia was involved. And this war – the war that was actually taking place – was wrong and, when it came down to it, needed to stop. Ultimately my only disagreement with the “stop the war” crowd – the “anti-NATO” crowd, the “kneejerk anti-imperialist” crowd, the “solidarity with Serbia” crowd – was that I thought the Serbian government had to be defeated and/or overthrown after this was over. I wasn’t alone in finding my way to this position. The group I’d been in had dissolved by this time, but I remember a friend being involved with another small group which had the double slogan STOP THE BOMBING – ARM THE KOSOVARS.
The anti-Communism that I’d grown up with, the anti-Leninism that I’d lived by, the opposition to “kneejerk anti-imperialism” that had made me dislike Chomsky so much – I was starting to wonder what it was worth, really. I could still see the point of being against the people I’d always been against, but I was starting to wonder whether it was really a principled position – and about who I was lining up with. Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? came out in 1999, and a passage in Francis Mulhern’s Red Pepper review stuck with me:
[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. The IRD financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.
Then all of a sudden our world was no longer post-Wall but post-9/11, and everything was changed, changed utterly – except that the same hard Left was attacking our own government and going easy on their enemies (however vile they might be), and the same soft Left was denouncing them for it. Rather more of us were occupying ‘hard Left’ positions now – apart from anything else I seemed to have become hard Left myself, somewhere along the line. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, as the price of admission to the soft Left now seemed to include actually supporting an actual alliance of imperialist powers conducting an actual illegal war of aggression. (Just reporting how it looked from the outside.)
I think there’s a division on the Left which is at once very deep and very impermanent, like a crevasse in sand; there’s a chasm between the two sides, but where that chasm actually is – and how much space there is on each side – changes over the years. (There’s also a real and permanent fault-line, which doesn’t always coincide with the impermanent one; I’ll come back to that.) Which side you’re on will determine where you look for allies – what kind of wrongness you can tolerate in order to get things done: if you’re on the ‘soft Left’ side, attitudes to the EU may be negotiable, but having the wrong position on the former USSR won’t be permitted. The wrongness of our allies is something we can turn a blind eye to – it’s called practical politics. The wrongness of our opponents’ allies, on the other hand, is a glaring and inexcusable fault: in fact, the very fact that they can have allies who are so wrong demonstrates how wrong they are. This – never particularly productive – approach has surely reached its nadir now, with people being accused of having allies who sympathise with IS, by people whose allies include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
There’s something cultural – almost temperamental – about the ‘soft Left’/’hard Left’ division: a preference one way or the other (thinking that the Morning Star is a well-produced, informative paper, or that the SWP are disruptive headbangers) doesn’t automatically give you beliefs to match (opposing British troops being used anywhere or thinking the Iraq war was a good idea, respectively). Those preferences do mean that you’re more likely to meet people who do have the ‘matching’ beliefs – but not that you’ll only meet people with those beliefs, or that your own beliefs will have to be moulded to fit. Back in the 90s, Chartist and Briefing may have squared off against each other as soft- and hard-Left respectively, but they were both genuinely pluralistic groups with a lot of overlap between them. (Chartist – which is still around, with some of the same people involved – has come out for Corbyn.)
When the Kosovo conflict began and the SWP leapt to express solidarity with Milosevic – at least, to express a solidarity with the Serbian people which didn’t seem to exclude endorsement of their government – I remember feeling that this was something different: a real line was being drawn, and people we had thought to be allies were turning out to have a very different project of their own. I think now I was wrong twice over – in overstating the permanence of the line being drawn and in the side I put myself on. I also think that an enduring line was drawn a few years later – over Iraq and over the reaction to the 7/7 bombings. Or rather, the hard/soft line was drawn so as to coincide with the underlying, permanent fault-line I referred to earlier: the fault-line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. Think of it in terms of the difference between rivalry and opposition. As between two rivals, one can’t succeed without the other one failing; when one rival does defeat the other, anything the first rival has achieved is likely to be rolled back. Nevertheless, both have a shared cause, even if they understand it differently; either one would be glad to have the other as a collaborator, if only they would abandon their rivalry. Between two opponents, for one to succeed is to make the other fail: the two have opposed causes, and it’s unimaginable that one could collaborate with the other. The hard Left and the soft Left are rivals for the Labour Party; imperialism and anti-imperialism are opponents.
Essentially, the old soft Left has ended up positively committed to supporting aggressive wars conducted by imperialist powers. Positive support for imperialism has never been universally popular on the Left, if only because it goes against both left-wing and liberal principles, it’s supported by the Right and there’s nothing left-wing about it. If the soft Left – which has never been pro-imperialist by definition – had had a look round after Iraq and backed quietly out of the corner it had talked itself into, the damage might have been rectified. Instead, many of them now seem to be determined to talk themselves further in. The clearer this becomes, the less popular the soft Left gets – and the less of a stumbling-block the hard Left’s choice of allies starts to appear. I think over the summer a lot of people have started to feel that, firstly, there are more important things in politics than who a person’s allies are, particularly given that an ally is (by definition) somebody you don’t agree with on everything; and, secondly, that on some of those important things, the hard Left may actually be more right than wrong, and the soft Left (at least in its current form) a lot more wrong than right.
All this, as may have become apparent, is by way of a response to ‘Bob from Brockley’ and his ‘vague sense of worry and depression’ (my words) about some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies and connections. On mature consideration – and speaking as somebody for whom, at one time, the wrong kind of anti-imperialist allies would have been an instant deal-breaker – I’m disposed to be a bit firm with regard to this one. On the hard Left/soft Left level, as far as I’m concerned the whole question of allies is fluff. Everyone has allies; we don’t agree with them about everything; we turn a blind eye to our allies’ shortcomings and make a big deal of those of our enemies’ allies. My friend and colleague voted in support of General Jaruzelski’s restoration of order in Poland? A perfectly legitimate opinion in historical retrospect! (Thinks: tankie bastard, I knew he’d be trouble.) Your ally was wined and dined by a private healthcare provider? An all-too-typical example of the corruption which is destroying democracy! (Thinks: what an idiot, he didn’t even need to declare that.) And so on. If a dodgy friend or contact is influencing our man’s opinions or judgments, show us the opinions or judgments which have been affected and we’ll talk about them. Otherwise, it’s fluff.
To the extent that it runs deeper than that – to the extent that a political opponent has allies that you can’t imagine associating with under any circumstances whatsoever – I suspect that what’s really going on is an opposition that runs deeper than that: that is, a case of true opposition rather than rivalry. This, of course, is why the old Cold War rivalries on the Left were sometimes so bitter: somebody who wanted to defend ‘actually existing socialism’ and somebody who wanted to undermine it may have been rivals within the British Left, but on the broader stage they were opponents. We don’t tend to turn a blind eye to our rivals’ defects at the best of times; we certainly aren’t going to be that charitable if we’re positively opposed to what our rivals want to achieve. But here again the actual question of allies is, ultimately, fluff. If, at the end of the day, you’re opposed to Jeremy Corbyn because he’s a consistent anti-imperialist, it won’t matter whether he’s been hanging out with Gerry Adams, Vinnie Jones or the Pope – just as, for his supporters, it doesn’t matter whether Tony Blair hangs out with Islam Karimov, Khaled Meshaal or George W. Bush.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins this election, he’ll be the first genuinely anti-imperialist leader of the Labour Party for a long time – possibly the first ever. Many people, unfortunately, will oppose him for that reason. I just wish they’d acknowledge that they do oppose him for that reason, rather than maintaining that they’re ‘raising concerns’ about his ‘judgment’ and so on. Maybe the reason that these ‘concerns’ are having so little impact on Corbyn’s support is that this isn’t just another case of rivalry within the Left. Maybe we’re not actually on the same side here.