Nick Cohen

Extremists and the mainstream: the case of Comrade Newman

Extremists and the mainstream: the case of Comrade Newman
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The Chippenham Labour Party has decided that its candidate to contest the 2015 general election will be one Andy Newman. As the anti-totalitarian blogs Howie’s Corner and Harry’s Place have already argued he is almost certain to be the worst politician to stand for a mainstream party. An innocent observer, who believes the British Left’s protestations that it is for workers’ rights and against sexism, racism and homophobia, could go further wonder how such a man could get close to the Labour Party – let alone close enough to run on a Labour ticket.

Newman manages the laughably named “Socialist Unity" website: laughable, not just because it engages in vicious factionalism, but because it indulges the religious strain of far-right thinking. He has campaigned against Anne Marie Waters of One Law for All , which opposes the imposition of Sharia law in the UK. In other words, he has put himself on the wrong side of the struggle between religion and women’s rights. Socialist Unity praises the Iranian theocracy, which as well as subjugating women, denying democratic rights, persecuting minorities and murdering homosexuals, jails the leaders of the Iranian left, who might have hoped for support from their western comrades. None is forthcoming from Newman because he, like many others, has concluded that supporting the ayatollahs is 'progressive', although he has the grace to add (see comment 5) that 'progressive politics is a very broad and possibly contradictory concept'.

Isn’t it just? In his case, progressive politics also means going along with Hamas and with the Communist Party of China’s restrictions on workers’ rights – (see comment 5) 'It is not unusual for socialist governments to have a tension with trade unions…who impede the advance towards greater equality.'

The tidy minded may find simultaneous support for Islamist Iran and Communist China inconsistent in the extreme. But within the modern radical mentality, it makes sense. All that is left of the far left after the collapse of Marxist-Leninism is the desire to follow anti-western feeling wherever it may lead. If it means supporting atheist commissars one minute and inquisitorial mullahs the next, so be it. The incoherence behind the posturing explains why those trying to set up a new version of the Socialist Workers or Communist Party to the left of Labour are going to face huge political problems. Beyond anti-Americanism, what do they have? Are they going to argue for a central committee that demands absolute obedience all over again, or state control of the whole of society? You only have to ask the questions to know there is no articulate political position to the left of Labour, indeed Labour itself is struggling to define what it means to be left wing in the 21st century. The confusion of our day explains why Andy Newman and his kind can embrace wildly different tyrannies with such promiscuity and without a hint of self-awareness.

The more interesting question is why decent Labour Party members selected him as a candidate. Or, to put it more broadly, why does a vast section of opinion from the extreme left well into the liberal mainstream, regard universal human rights and support for the oppressed as distractions from the true political business of condemning the West? Just as you should start to worry about the influence of the far right when apparently sane Tories ape it and send out propaganda vans telling illegal immigrants to go home, so you should worry about the far left when Labour politicians ally with tryannophiles who want to keep Assad in power, as they did during the Syria debate.

Moscow Gold? The Soviet Union and the British left by Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey, provides a psychological explanation for the mainstream’s indulgence of the extreme. It is a fine little book you can read in a day – 168 pages for just £3.50 on Kindle. Anderson and Davey have taken advantage of the vast amount of research into communism since the end of the Cold War. They wear it lightly, and refreshingly, are open about their political position. As members of the democratic left, they believe that communism was a disaster for left wing politics. It tied the left to tyranny and the lies and disillusion that went with it. Leaving everything else aside, the far left burnt out activists. For generations, idealistic men and women joined the Communist Party, Militant and the SWP, and left disgusted, not just with Leninism, but with politics of any kind.

Many in Labour fought back. Labour banned communists from membership because as Nye Bevan said, the Communist Party is 'the sworn inveterate enemy of the socialist and democratic parties'. (After he made this point forcibly to Khrushchev, the appalled dictator said that he would vote Tory if he were British.) Bertrand Russell went to Moscow, looked around, and declared that the Bolsheviks had established 'an iron discipline beyond the wildest dreams of the most autocratic American magnate'. Neil Kinnock fought an exhausting battle to drive out Militant.

I could go on, but it would be foolish not to record that an awful naivety limited support for anti-totalitarian politics in the mainstream left. On the one hand, people did not want to agree with right-wing politicians and journalists, who from the days of the Zinoviev letter in the 1920s to the Sunday Times claiming that Michael Foot was a Soviet agent in the 1990s, had a proven record of inventing false stories to scare people away from left-wing politics. More generally, they did not want to believe that the world was as bad as alarmists maintained it was. They thought that if only we could shake off our anti-Soviet (or today) our anti-Islamist prejudices we would realise that Soviet Union/Iran/Hezbollah were not so bad, and live together in peace. If apparently despotic regimes don’t conform to our democratic norms, that is because they are backward. Give them time and goodwill, they will attain our freedoms.

This illusion explains the failure of Barack Obama’s attempt to “reset” American foreign policy as much as the decision of the Chippenham Labour Party members to allow Newman to represent them. To sustain it, requires a fair amount of outright lying by intellectuals, who are frightened of confronting their supporters’ prejudices. You can see it today in the British press. The Telegraph and the Mail do not tell their readers in terms that Ukip is a disaster for the right, which not only splits the vote but confirms all their opponents’ worst prejudices. The left-wing press meanwhile is incapable of writing honestly about radical Islam. Michael Foot gave the best response in the 1950s, when he looked back at the failure of the left to tell the truth about the show trials and murders of the Soviet Union. In words, which I will aim to live by for the rest of my career, Foot said:

'Let us hope that we have learnt the moral, which might be put in a maxim to be inscribed above every editorial chair: “Never funk the truly awkward issues; they are the very ones your readers most want to hear about. And if by any chance, they don’t, to hell with them!'