Seumas Milne, Labour’s new communications chief, was at the heart of a Communist party faction whose aims and methods he still espouses
Is Seumas Milne, appointed in October by Jeremy Corbyn as executive director of strategy and communications for the Labour Party, a Stalinist? And if so, why did Corbyn hire him?
Milne was, until his new appointment, Associate Editor and previously Comment Editor of the Guardian. It is odd for a senior figure on a respected national newspaper to have the whiff of Stalinism about him, odder still for such a person to be at the heart of one of Britain’s two main political parties. He describes himself on Twitter as being “on leave” from the paper, implying that he may well go back once his foray into practical politics is over.
He is not your standard-issue Corbynista. While Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet was full of Oxbridge graduates, many with PPE degrees, Corbyn’s is noticeably different. Corbyn himself never graduated — he completed one year of a course on trade union studies at North London Polytechnic. More generally, the Corbyn shadow cabinet’s background is more working- and lower-middle-class than was that of Miliband’s team. By contrast, the former Guardian Editor Peter Preston says of Milne, “He is extremely clever in a Winchester and Oxbridge way.”
Seumas was born in 1958, the son of Alasdair Milne, then a BBC producer and later Director-General of the corporation. His father’s conflicts with the Thatcher government may well have played a part in radicalising Seumas. Alasdair Milne was forced out by the BBC board and its chairman Marmaduke Hussey in 1987 in large part, as Jean Seaton recounts in her authorised history Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987 (Profile, £30), for a perception of left-wing bias and more specifically his handling of “Maggie’s Militant Tendency”, an episode of Panorama made by Michael Cockerell alleging far-right involvement in the Conservative Party. The programme’s claims fell apart, specifically the notion that there was an attempt to infiltrate the party by far-right elements analogous to the organised infiltration of Labour by the Militant Tendency. The BBC was sued for libel over the programme by three MPs named in it — their action partly funded by the billionaire Jimmy Goldsmith — and the BBC eventually made an out-of-court settlement of nearly £1 million, according to Seaton.
Like his father before him, Seumas was sent to Winchester College, a far cry from Adams’ Grammar School in Newport, Shropshire, where Corbyn got his two grade Es at A level. According to the Guido Fawkes website, Milne bragged to a former colleague that he spent his gap year at a training camp in Lebanon run by the Leninist terrorist organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It seems likely that this was more leftist posturing than an accurate depiction of what he did in his gap year; there are rather more public schoolboys who are revolutionary poseurs than those who actually spend time training with guerrillas. Whatever happened in his gap year, Seumas then read PPE at Balliol College, Oxford.
At Oxford, Milne became involved with far-left politics, more specifically with the “opposition” within the Communist Party of Great Britain. The official party was, of course, a Leninist organisation and thus by definition espoused the principle of democratic centralism. This is, if you like, a version of cabinet collective responsibility writ large. There is meant to be debate within the party, but once a decision is taken it is binding not just on the inner leadership but on the membership as a whole. Failure to support the party line is an offence meriting expulsion. In practice, what Leninist organisations neglected in most instances was not the centralism but the democracy. Policies were imposed by the leadership and binding on all members.
There were, naturally, disagreements within the Communist Party: they were just expressed in secret or in code, and were not for outside ears. What divided the British Communists, astonishingly, was that the party “opposition” thought the leadership was insufficiently pro-Soviet. In 1956 the Communist Party supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary — and lost one third of its membership. In 1968 the Soviets asked the British party to endorse their invasion of Czechoslovakia. The leadership refused, and instead offered the Soviets some criticism, albeit of the mildest of mild sorts. Even this criticism was too much for many party members, and an opposition faction formed. Its leading lights were Fergus Nicholson, the party’s student organiser, and Sid French, strangely its Surrey organiser and nicknamed by some “the Stalin of suburbia”. In his forthcoming memoir of growing up Communist, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists (Jonathan Cape, £17.99), the Times columnist David Aaronovitch writes: “One of the peculiarities of party life was that the most hardline, pro-Soviet, and ‘proletarian internationalist’ members of the party were to be found in places like Oxford, Hampshire and Surrey.”
For French and the Frenchites, the party’s “revisionism” became too much and his band of 700 followers went off to found the New Communist Party in 1977. This party — with now, surely, a tiny membership — is still going, mainly as a fan club for the North Korean regime and as unambiguous, unnuanced worshippers of Stalin.
Milne got involved with Nicholson’s wing of the “opposition”. Their views did not greatly differ from those of the Frenchites; however, they remained within the party as they had an unshakeable faith in democratic centralism and believed it was essential not to split the vanguard.
Jack Conrad, the nom de plume of a Communist involved in the disputes of the time who went on to form his own revolutionary faction, wrote last year in the Weekly Worker, a publication supporting his far-left group: “The opposition was pro-Soviet and to one degree or another pro-Stalin. It should be emphasised that for many Stalin served as a totem; an expression of extreme anti-capitalism . . . Not that political talent was entirely lacking. Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne were counted among the opposition’s cadre.” The paths of Murray and Milne remain entwined. Murray is now chief of staff of the Unite union and was central in swinging its support behind Corbyn’s leadership bid. He was chair of the Stop the War Coalition and remains deeply involved in the politics of Soviet nostalgia and revivalism.
Nicholson and his supporters formed themselves into a faction called Straight Left, the name apparently partly chosen to differentiate the true believers in the Soviet future from the reformists, who were seen as too interested in gay rights and other peripheral bourgeois concerns. Nicholson and his supporters, however, had a problem: as keen believers in democratic centralism they could not admit to being a party faction, something that was prohibited. They found a solution in copying the methods of their Trotskyist rivals on the far left, most notably the Militant Tendency.
Militant, or to give its then title, the Revolutionary Socialist League, had decided that its brand of Marxism could best be promoted within the Labour party rather than working outside it. This would not, however, be possible as long as it openly proclaimed itself to be a revolutionary, vanguardist party; after all, no party will tolerate another party with different aims openly operating within it. It thus came up with the wheeze of claiming simply to be a weekly paper, Militant.
Straight Left followed this method and also claimed to be simply a left-wing weekly aimed at the wider Labour movement. It managed to dress this up by recruiting a few far-left Labour MPs — none of them known for their forthright criticism of the Soviet Union, all now dead — such as Joan Maynard (popularly known as “Stalin’s Granny”) and James Lamond, founder chairman of the British-East German Society, to serve on its editorial board.
Milne served as Straight Left’s business manager. There is no evidence that he himself ever joined the Communist Party. Indeed, it would have served the interests of the faction better if he was not a formal member.
Straight Left was an incredibly dull read, perhaps intentionally in order not to reveal its true purpose. The paper combined calls for immediate mass nationalisation and other left-wing Labour demands with slavish, drooling support for the Soviet Union. Its back page contained a regular column, written by Nicholson, under the byline Harry Steel. The pseudonym was designed to honour Harry Pollitt, the Stalin-era general secretary of the Communist Party on the one hand, and Stalin, the “man of steel” himself, on the other.
Whatever Seumas Milne may now claim, Straight Left was simply a hard-line anti-reformist pro-Soviet faction within the Communist Party — and Milne was at the heart of it. Twenty years ago, when I interviewed Nina Temple, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (it was dissolved in 1991), for a university dissertation, she described Straight Left as the most slavish defenders of the unreformed Soviet Union she had come across in her entire lifetime in the party. In the words of Jack Conrad, Straight Left may have “fooled some numbskulls into thinking that it was just a left Labour paper”.
Has Milne moved on from his youthful dalliances with Stalinism? His Guardian columns suggest otherwise. He has written that “the number of victims of Stalin’s terror has been progressively inflated over recent years” and that “Communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality”.
Milne sees himself as a representative of the anti-imperialist Left — but it is a special interpretation of imperialism, namely that formulated by Lenin in his 1916 pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest stage of Capitalism. In a 2011 speech, Milne declared: “Under modern capitalism, imperialism in essence is the use of force and coercion in all its forms . . . to extort profits above what can be obtained through ordinary commercial exchange.” Imperialism is not Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which he has repeatedly supported. It is whatever the centre of world capital and its allies — in the Milne worldview, located in the United States, its European allies and Israel — does.
If Seumas Milne is no longer a Stalinist he has certainly not travelled far from Stalinism. What is most worrying is that on Milne’s appointment, Corbyn’s own campaign stated: “Seumas shares Jeremy’s worldview almost to the letter . . . they sing from the same hymn sheet.”