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Is Corbyn too pally with tyrants and other pariahs?

Why is it so hard for the left, both pro and anti-Corbyn, to resist the logic of "my enemies' enemies are my friends"? Can we learn to cast a plague on the houses of enemies of progress whoever they are?

Of the many extraordinary aspects about the Jeremy Corbyn’s surging campaign for the Labour leadership, one of the most noteworthy is how far his supporters and critics appear to have wildly different views about what the crucial issues are.

An important example of this is the repeated criticisms of Corbyn for his ‘friendship’, or at the very least convivial contacts, with Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, with (if some allegations are to be believed) antisemites and holocaust deniers, and with the Putin oligarchy in Russia. Although Corbyn is rarely accused of being an active supporter of such figures (as George Galloway is regularly accused of being), it is a central concern of a section of his critics that he appears, at the very least, to have an unacceptably high degree of tolerance for the totalitarian.

Yet although repeated evidence is offered as to the dodginess of Corbyn’s choice of friends, there is no evidence that such revelations are eroding his support. I’ve been struck on social media both by the increasing frustration of Corbyn’s critics that they are not gaining traction, but also by the lack of response to such criticisms from the man himself and his supporters. For example, in an open letter to Corbyn on Left Foot Forward, Alan Johnson, who expressed sympathy with Corbyn’s social and economic policies but could not relate to his foreign policy, concluded ‘I want to cheer you on. Can you respond in such a way that I can?’  As far as I can tell, no response has been forthcoming. There is barely even a ‘debate’ here – the passionate concerns of one faction appear to be of trivial interest of others.

But it would be wrong to conclude that Corbyn’s problematic friendships are the direct source of his popularity, at least beyond a small coterie of activists. His challenging of austerity appears to be at the heart of his supporters concerns. We can also explain at least some of the ignoring and dismissal of the claims against Corbyn as a reflexive reaction to their appearing in the right-wing press and the blogs of long-standing critics of the Labour left.

In a more complicated and indirect way, though, Corbyn’s openness to Islamist and other totalitarian groups, does account for at least some of his success in attracting new supporters. Corbyn appears to be a refreshing kind of politician, lacking in polish, speaking plainly and welcoming to those who feel frustrated and alienated by politics as usual. He appears outward facing and optimistic. His receptiveness towards Islamist groups can seem, to those who are inclined to see it, as opening the tantalizing possibility of an end to endless conflict and an insular, defensive west.

Contrast this with how some of those who repeatedly draw attention to Corbyn’s friends must seem to Corbyn’s supporters: angry, obsessed with finding ‘gotcha’ moments, defensive and even paranoid.

There appears to be an odd reversal of the usual pathologies of the left going on. It is the ‘old’ Labour left – so often sectarian, schismatic, obsessed with ideological purity – that seems to be magnanimous and welcoming. It is the centre and right of Labour – that was supposed to be a departure from the leftist self-ghettoisation – that seems to be circling the wagons.

But not so fast.

While it is tempting to see the wave of support for Corbyn as heralding a new era of open-hearted leftism, much of what appears to be his openness does indeed reflect engrained political pathologies. Although he has defended his contacts with Islamists, the IRA and others as a contribution to peace-making, he does not have the deep relationships across the spectrum and the even-handedness that this would entail. Whatever his conscious motivations may or may not be, it is more accurate to say that Corbyn is constantly predisposed to be at least convivial towards a broad swathe of those who see themselves as opposed to ‘the west.’ It results from a strong, and sometimes understandable, temptation to see those who are fellow opponents of western capitalism as necessarily worthy of a sympathetic hearing.

In other words, the temptation to see my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

It’s a temptation to which many have succumbed outside the Labour left: cold warriors supporting Latin American dictatorships in the name of democracy, neocons supporting Saudia Arabia in the name of the war on Islamic terror, Blairites supporting neocons and Christian fundamentalists in the name of progressive liberalism. It’s a very human kind of mistake to make, but that doesn’t make it any less problematic. And even though Corbyn’s falling into this trap stems from a principled critique of the oppressive nature of many aspects of western capitalism, it doesn’t make his mistake any less dangerous.

In short, Corbyn’s openness and generosity of spirit cannot be disengaged from a much grubbier kind of politics – a politics that is far from being a breath of fresh air.

Yet perhaps the infusion of a new generation of idealistic supporters who yearn for a new type of politics, might be enough to push Corbyn away from these moral blind alleys. A truly new politics – one, I think, that at least some of his supporters are looking for - would seek to create connections and opportunities for dialogue across the board, and not just among those who are pariahs in the west. Being truly open means, paradoxically, being beholden to no one, least of all anti-western totalitarians. Perhaps the unexpected experience of being feted by a growing, youthful movement might be enough to transform Corbyn himself, to give him the courage to throw off the pathologies of the old politics.

Similarly, those on the left who are horrified at some of Corbyn’s choice of friends may have more success in being heard if they adopt some of the more positive aspects of his campaign and his supporters. By eschewing anger and old-left sectarian bitterness, there might be an opening for a more sincere and productive dialogue. There has to be some soul-searching about why the continuous revelation of Corbyn’s alliances has not dented his support – and this soul-searching has to go beyond darkly fatalistic diagnoses of the decadence of the left.  

One thing's for sure, the old way of doing things is not working. If Corbyn becomes Labour leader, those of us who are concerned about a political party of the left headed by someone who seems inadequately critical of forces - like Hamas, Hezbollah or Putin - that we see as being on the far right are going to have to find a more productive way of expressing those concerns.

About the author

Keith Kahn-Harris is a London-based sociologist and writer. He teaches at Birkbeck College, Leo Baeck College and is a Fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. His most recent book is ‘Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community’. His website is kahn-harris.org and he tweets on @KeithKahnHarris.


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