Image: Red Labour (based on "The Motherland is Calling" by Irakli Toizde, 1941)
I had a spat with someone I respect on Facebook recently. I shared a Guardian article by Kevin Bolton that modestly asks why the Ukrainian community weren’t consulted about the Engels statue from Ukraine placed outside the HOME arts centre in Manchester by the artist Phil Collins. I received a swift, angry response telling me that to share this article was anti-communist and that the British Ukrainian community was largely formed out of SS troops who murdered Jews en masse. Bolton's opinion therefore was to be refused. I disagreed. This spat went on for a while and then fizzled out.
A little later, I circulated a link to a timely post by Cathy Nugent, on the Shiraz Socialist blog, titled 'Stalinist iconography is not acceptable'. This was greeted by laddish sneering from the same 'comrade'. It was telling that the jeers could not defend using Stalinist symbols directly, they skirted around the issue.
Almost simultaneously, I had a Twitter spat with a well-known writer. I had circulated a survey asking for responses to a series of words. He tried to undermine this by picking at the admittedly loose methods. But what became clear was that he didn't want me to make science at all. He was frantically paranoid that I might write an article claiming that Corbynism is a cult. He didn't want me to write objectively, he wanted me to write dogma. His dogma.
Corbynism isn’t a cult. It can't be, not with such a huge groundswell of voters. The centre is a cell of sorts, a core, but then that can probably be said of any government or shadow cabinet since parliament began.
What characterises the discourses of the new left I encounter in conversations like these, largely in and around Manchester, is that when historical examples are reached for they are often rooted in the 1930s and 1940s. My own ‘side’ shares tropes that seem valid to me - of the bad (fascism) and good (creation of the NHS). On the other side, the new right often cites a 'wartime spirit', rooted in the same period, but which carries all kinds of connotations of the private individual defending essentially capitalist liberty through stoicism and 'true grit'. These are tropes I am more suspicious of.
The problems with the new left discourses don't really lie in the 1930s or 1940s, or with the historical research, which is often high quality. The problem lies with the stated or unstated links between the past and the present.
That there were radical communists in Manchester, therefore Manchester is radically communist. Discourse analysis is usually needed to detect these things, as again to say them plainly would be an open scandal: The Pale of Settlement is invoked and the Holodomor is avoided; the Tsars were uncomplicatedly evil and 1917 uncomplicatedly progressive. A Chartist rally is presented from the 1840s next to a Corbyn rally from 2017, as though there were a direct and unproblematic route from one to the other.
The connecting thread of the 1930s and 1940s is of course World War 2. In the London Review of Books James Meek asks why so many writers go back the 'the war' listing over 300 places where wars have taken place since WW2. He suggests that WW2 is picked as it is a big subject with an already known cast. It is a text, therefore, that has swollen exponentially due to its own successful circulation and its 'worldness'.
But the history to hold onto here is not the fetishized history of the 1930s or 1940s, it is the history of willful blindness among the left, which can be traced back to the same period. The 'coverage' of the Ukraine Holodomor provides a good example of that blindness. Gareth Jones reported on the events in the early 1930s, but was ridiculed for it. From Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder:
'Though the journalists knew less than the diplomats, most of them understood that millions were dying from hunger. The influential Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, did his best to undermine Jones’s accurate reporting. Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, called Jones’s account of the famine a “big scare story.” Duranty’s claim that there was “no actual starvation” but only “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition” echoed Soviet usages and pushed euphemism into mendacity. This was an Orwellian distinction; and indeed George Orwell himself regarded the Ukrainian famine of 1933 as a central example of a black truth that artists of language had covered with bright colors. Duranty knew that millions of people had starved to death. Yet he maintained in his journalism that the hunger served a higher purpose. Duranty thought that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Aside from Jones, the only journalist to file serious reports in English was Malcolm Muggeridge, writing anonymously for the Manchester Guardian. He wrote that the famine was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.”' (p.95)
I spoke to a friend who is an expert on Jewish suffering in the 1930s and 1940s, who also has some links to Ukrainian communities. He recounted a recent visit to a Ukrainian club. Here he encountered the mirror opposite of the blind belief that the Soviets were uncomplicatedly benign: 'They told me stuff about Ukrainian history that I knew was bullshit', he explained. The 'Ukrainians were an oppressed minority in both the Russian and Austrian Empire, so many saw the Nazis as a better ally for their national freedom than Soviet Russia, and anti-Semitism was probably rife.'
So there is a distant rational kernel in the idea that 'Ukrainians are Nazis', but, he explains, this is also 'a myth that first the Soviets and now Putin have embellished enormously.' The claim that the large proportion of the UK Ukrainian community is formed out of SS collaborators is not just inaccurate, but a horrible slur, having known people whose Ukrainian parents arrived from German forced labour camps. But the largest part of its wrongness lies in the assumption that all Ukrainian interest in the British present arises from the WW2 generation of Ukrainians, as though there is one moment of migration, before and after which, nothing. Again, the problem here is a monomaniacal focus on the 1930s.
Is it the case that nobody other than the new left can decide what the statue of Engels in Manchester means? Or that to ask the Ukrainian community what they think about it is to fall into 'fascist identitarianism' and to denigrate communism?
A better-known example than the dismissal of the journalism of Gareth Jones is the return of Orwell from the Spanish Civil War, his eyes now open to Stalinist betrayal. It is interesting that in relation to pro-Soviet posturing among the new left, Orwell has been edited out of the mix, often quite aggressively, as a traitor to communism.
Such a claim is of course possible, but this kind of 'realism' is often not applied with the same rigour to Soviet history. After decades in the left canon, Orwell is sometimes now associated with Christopher Hitchens, whose journey to the right is seen as too toxic. But this black and white sense of Orwell, and Hitchens, edits out the mess of war and the difficulty of seeing straight in the dead eye of the storm. There is a new edit of the past, forming a present moment, that drives into the future.
This is a fairly universal human phenomenon. But those edits congeal into new myths and those myths are being easily swallowed by the new left. They need to be outed in the text wherever they can be found. Such outing may not be popular. But it also doesn’t immediately make the ‘outer’ a New Labour stooge, post-modern relativist, fascist, identitarian, a generic right-winger or a mix of all of those things that one is now seeing in the text – new hybrid terms like ‘postmodern identitarian fascist' for instance.
Postmodernism is often understood as simply cultural hybridizing. Tweed trainers, for example - ironic, cool, mixed-up - and therefore postmodern. But postmodernism also carries the sense that meanings generally are open to interpretation, that meaning is made by individual readers of a text or cultural artefact, rather than by the individual genius of their creator.
This kind of postmodern reading has tended to be rejected by the left, sometimes with greater nuance (“All That Is Solid Melts into Air” by Marshall Berman), sometimes with less (“Against Postmodernism” by Alex Callinicos). The rejection itself has become much less nuanced lately. Some appear to feel that if one disavows postmodernism vehemently enough, meaning itself becomes stable. It does not.
Thus the Engels statue placed outside HOME by Phil Collins, an artist associated with the ur-postmodern Young British Artists, isn't being viewed as art at all by many of the new left. It isn’t seen as something placed deliberately to provoke multiple reactions, something strongly associated with postmodern art. Nor is it viewed through the useful skepticism of monuments in Britain, traceable at least to the aftermath of WW1, for instance in Robert Graves's turn away from England. Instead it is celebrated in an affirmation of a certain identity, even as ‘identitarian’ politics is refused.
The left refuses postmodernism and posits instead the supposedly solid objects of Jeremy Corbyn, communism and socialism. This belief is genuinely not ironic, it is belief in the sense that an anthropologist might write it up: It works, for the holder of the belief, but that doesn't stop it being cracked with contradiction for the outsider.
This paradoxical cognitive shift means that to the new left, the statue, the idea it had ‘come home’, and the left beliefs it is imbued with, are all solid. But the idea that Corbyn had ‘won’ the General Election of June 2017 is flexible, as are the Stalin memes.
And the paradoxes don’t stop there. Many Corbynites think that Corbyn stands for a range of things that he may or may not actually stand for, particularly on the subject of immigration. Corbynism may not be a cult, but it is certainly mass millenarianism. Corbyn's non-arrival is the same thing as his arrival, the contradictions are erased by sheer faith alone.
So how can we characterise all of this? One very unfortunate cap fits. In America, in Trumpism, the talk is of 'post-truth'. The Washington Post recently reported on the American counterpart phenomenon. For the American new left - often Bernie Sanders supporters - the terms 'liberal' and 'fascist' appear, in the more hyperventilated testimonies, to have fallen into one another. The same post-truth phenomenon can be seen in Britain, the toxic vapour afterburn of dying postmodernism.
The new left would like to see the right as post-truth and the left as The Truth Truth. For them, 'post-truth' is a label to be stamped only on to Trump and the Breitbart right. But the Soviet apologism on the left is post-truth too. I don't raise this to bait the left but to request that they sort out the ridiculous Soviet posturing, so that Labour can get into power.
The nasty spats seem to be worsening. A recent Open Democracy article by Michael Edwards asked 'when will there be harmony?' But the hate-filled arguing is rooted in massive structural inequality. This is class war being played out on the subjective landscape of identity politics. Being anti-liberal identity politics does not magically place you on a higher moral ground, you are still on the toxic scorched earth remains of the previous era. It saddens me that those who could be found applauding Mark Fisher’s essay ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’ are often the same people now re-creating that castle on the left.
At the same time, in new left rhetoric there is a 'we' constantly being declared, 'we' should, 'we are', etc. This 'we' could indicate a dictatorship. We could view this as 'dangerous', another common over-reach of the new left, but it’s just a bit silly. It detracts from the positivity and force of the new movement – the Corbyn left – that I do feel connected to.
What is genuinely dangerous is that each public pro-Soviet outburst that tries to reclaim or cover up its horrors potentially gives a single bullet to the Conservative Party. This is the real danger, not an excessive claim 'of a return of the Gulag'.
There may be little cause for alarm immediately, but Diego Rubio, writing for the London School of Economics, suggests that there is growing evidence of support for a dictatorial version of the future, in an article entitled 'Historical amnesia is undermining European democracy'. European democracy is not yet cracked beyond repair, and in the U.S. safety mechanisms appear to be responding to Trump’s abuses. But wouldn't it be great to be able to claim the moral high ground by acknowledging that murder has been done in the name of communism? And that here is a version of socialism that abhors such things and guarantees there will be no repeat of them?
Of course, the critiques of democracy are not without substance. Our thin versions of democracy and neoliberalism were always compatible, and we have been fed to vomiting with its false promises. We are told that liberalism and capital make fine partners, as capitalism supposedly 'thrives' on providing choice. But running into blind belief, rather than the sense of a broken present moment, characterised by many dangers, is not a useful response to the previous era. The rejection of postmodernism in the name of a political left turn does not inevitably require a haemorrhage of philosophical subtlety either.
A Labour Party victory is still distant. The sense of this is being lost by the new left. A Labour Party victory relies on the Greens continuing to defer votes when needed, but it also relies on Labour under Corbyn reaching outside its new base. Every masculine, aggressive meme potentially undermines the possibility of victory.
The whole point of this article is to say that the new left need to loosen their hold to tighten their grip. By trying to patrol Twitter in tanks to prove the left are not tankies, many of them veer close to proving exactly the opposite. The problems won’t be dealt with by reading this article either, although we will see some further symptoms below the line.