Left-wing thought has shifted towards movements it would once have denounced as racist, imperialist and fascistic. It is insupportable
‘Tory, Tory, Tory. You’re a Tory.’ The level of hatred directed by the Corbyn left at Labour people who have fought Tories all their lives is as menacing as it is ridiculous. If you are a woman, you face misogyny. Kate Godfrey, the centrist Labour candidate in Stafford, told the Times she had received death threats and pornographic hate mail after challenging her local left. If you are a man, you are condemned in language not heard since the fall of Marxist Leninism. ‘This pathetic small-minded jealousy of the anti-democratic bourgeois shows them up for the reactionary neocons they really are,’ a Guardian commenter told its columnist Rafael Behr after he had criticised Corbyn.
Not that they are careful about anything, or that they will take advice from me, but the left should be careful of what it wishes for. Its accusations won’t seem ridiculous soon. The one prophesy I can make with certainty amid today’s chaos is that many on the left will head for the right. When they arrive, they will be greeted with bogus explanations for their ‘betrayal’.
Conservatives talk as if there is a right-wing gene which, like male-pattern baldness, manifests itself with age. The US leftist-turned-neocon Irving Kristol set the pattern for the pattern-baldness theory of politics when he opined that a conservative is a liberal who has been ‘mugged by reality’. He did not understand that the effects of reality’s many muggings are never predictable, or that facts of life are not always, as Margaret Thatcher claimed, conservative. If they were, we would still have feudalism.
The standard explanation from left-wingers is equally self-serving. Turncoats are like prostitutes, they say, who sell their virtue for money. They are pure; those who disagree with them are corrupt; and that is all there is to it.
Owen Jones, who seems to have abandoned journalism to become Jeremy Corbyn’s PR man, offers an equally thoughtless argument. ‘Swimming against a strong tide is exhausting,’ he sighed recently. Leftists who stray from virtue are defeated dissidents, who bend under the pressure to conform.
It won’t wash, particularly as Jones cannot break with the pressures that enforce conformity in his left-wing world and accept the real reason why many leave the left. It ought to be obvious. The left is why they leave the left. Never more so than today.
In the past, people would head to the exits saying, ‘Better the centre right than the far left.’ Now they can say ‘better the centre right than the far right’. The shift of left-wing thought towards movements it would once have denounced as racist, imperialist and fascistic has been building for years. I come from a left-wing family, marched against Margaret Thatcher and was one of the first journalists to denounce New Labour’s embrace of corporate capitalism — and I don’t regret any of it. But slowly, too slowly I am ashamed to say, I began to notice that left-wing politics had turned rancid.
In 2007 I tried to make amends, and published What’s Left. If they were true to their professed principles, my book argued, modern leftists would search out secular forces in the Muslim world — Iranian and Arab feminists, say, Kurdish socialists or Muslim liberals struggling against reactionary clerics here in Britain — and embrace them as comrades. Instead, they preferred to excuse half the anti-western theocrats and dictators on the planet. As, in their quiet way, did many in the liberal mainstream. Throughout that period, I never heard the BBC demanding of ‘progressives’ how they could call themselves left-wing when they had not a word of comfort for the Iraqi and Afghan liberals al-Qaeda was slaughtering.
The triumph of Jeremy Corbyn has led to What’s Left sales picking up, and readers acclaiming my alleged prescience. Grateful though I am, I cannot accept the compliment. I never imagined that left-wing politics would get as bad as they have become. I assumed that when the criminally irresponsible Blair flew off in his Learjet, the better angels of the left’s nature would re-assert themselves.
What a fool I was.
Jeremy Corbyn did not become Labour leader because his friends in the Socialist Workers party organised a Leninist coup. Nor did the £3 click-activist day-trippers hand him victory. He won with the hearty and freely given support of ‘decent’ Labour members.
And yes, thank you, I know all about the feebleness of Corbyn’s opponents. But the fact remains that the Labour party has just endorsed an apologist for Putin’s imperial aggression; a man who did not just appear on the propaganda channel of Russia, which invades its neighbours and persecutes gays, but also of Iran, whose hangmen actually execute gays. Labour’s new leader sees a moral equivalence between 9/11 and the assassination of bin Laden, and associates with every variety of women-hating, queer-bashing, Jew-baiting jihadi, holocaust denier and 9/11 truther. His supporters know it, but they don’t care.
They don’t put it like that, naturally. Their first response is to cry ‘smear’. When I show that it is nothing of the sort, they say that he was ‘engaging in dialogue’, even though Corbyn only ever has a ‘dialogue’ with one side and his ‘engagement’ never involves anything so principled as robust criticism.
A few on the British left are beginning to realise what they have done. Feminists were the first to stir from their slumber. They were outraged this week when Corbyn gave all his top jobs to men. I have every sympathy. But really, what did they expect from a man who never challenged the oppression of women in Iran when he was a guest on the state propaganda channel? You cannot promote equality at home while defending subjugation abroad and it was naive to imagine that Corbyn would try.
The women’s issue nicely illustrates the damage he can do, even if he never becomes prime minister. When Labour shows by its actions that it doesn’t believe in women’s equality, the pressure on other institutions diminishes. Secularists and liberal Muslims will feel a different kind of prejudice. They will no longer get a hearing for their campaigns against forced marriage and sharia law from a Labour party that counts the Muslim Brotherhood among his allies.
The position of the Jews is grimmer still. To be blunt, the new leader of the opposition is ‘friends’ with men who want them dead. One Jewish Labour supporter told me, ‘I feel like a gay man in the Tory party just after they’ve passed Section 28.’ Another described his position as ‘incredibly exposed’. He had ‘come to understand in the last few weeks, quite how shallow the attachment of the left is to principles which I thought defined it.’
And yes, thank you again, I know at this point I am meant to say that Corbyn isn’t an anti-Semite. Maybe he isn’t, but some of his best friends are, and the record shows that out of cynicism or conviction he will engage in the left’s version of ‘dog-whistle’ race politics.
I am middle-class and won’t suffer under the coming decade of majority Tory rule. Millions need a centre-left alternative, but I cannot see them being attracted by the revival of lumpen leftism either. Unlike their Scottish and French counterparts, the English intelligentsia has always had a problem with patriotism. Whenever this trend has manifested itself, voters have turned away, reasoning that politicians who appear to hate England are likely to have little time for the English.
By electing Corbyn, Labour has chosen a man who fits every cliché the right has used to mobilise working-class conservatism. In the 1790s, George Canning described the typical English supporter of the French Revolution ‘as a friend of every country but his own’. Today’s Tories can, with justice, say the same about Corbyn. George Orwell wrote of the ‘English intellectual [who] would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box’. That came to mind on Tuesday when Corbyn declined to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ at the Battle of Britain remembrance service.
I opened What’s Left with a quote by Norman Cohn, from Warrant for Genocide, his history of how the conspiracy theories that ended in fascism began in the dark, neglected corners of 19th-century Europe:
It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people.
In the years since What’s Left was published, I have argued that the likes of Corbyn do not represent the true left; that there are other worthier traditions opposed to oppression whether the oppressors are pro-western or anti-western. I can’t be bothered any more. Cries of ‘I’m the real left!’, ‘No I’m the real left!’ are always silly. And in any case, there is no doubt which ‘real left’ has won.
The half-educated fanatics are in control now. I do not see how in conscience I can stay with their movement or vote for their party. I am not going to pretend the next time I meet Owen Jones or those Labour politicians who serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet that we are still members of the same happy family. There are differences that cannot and should not be smoothed over.
I realise now what I should have known years ago. The causes I most care about — secularism, freedom of speech, universal human rights — are not their causes. Whatever they pretend, when the crunch comes, they will always put sectarian unity first, and find reasons to be elsewhere.
So, for what it is worth, this is my resignation letter from the left. I have no idea who I should send it to or if there are forms to fill in. But I do know this: like so many before me, I can claim constructive dismissal.
Nick Cohen’s books include Pretty Straight Guys, What’s Left? and You Can’t Read This Book. He is a columnist for the Observer and blogs at spectator.co.uk/nickcohen