Labour’s Russia problem
‘While Theresa May has shown herself in the best light in her response to Russian aggressions, Corbyn has demonstrated his greatest weakness’
The Labour Party has a Russia problem. Or, more precisely, Jeremy Corbyn and those around the Labour leadership have an unnatural attachment to Russia and all its works. This has recently been demonstrated in Corbyn’s unwillingness to accept unequivocally that the Russian state was behind the nerve agent poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury and that Russia’s ally Syria was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on Douma.Corbyn has been all too ready to propose other potential guilty parties or to entertain the possibility that both these actions were false flag operations. While Theresa May has shown herself in the best light in her response to these aggressions, Corbyn has demonstrated his greatest weakness: lingering admiration and affection for all those who are opposed to the United States.
Labour politicians are not the only ones to have had a dubious attitude to the Putin regime. There has been much comment on how the Conservative Party has received donations from people who have had a rather cosy relationship with Putin. Some Tory Eurosceptics, in their hatred of all things emanating from Brussels, have been rather too ready to blame the European Union and its expansionist plans for the Ukraine crisis. The Bruges Group has been the most egregious offender in this regard, producing a film in 2014, Someone has Blunder’d, blaming Russian aggression against Ukraine on mythical Euro-neocons. Writing as someone who found voting for Brexit the easiest political choice of my life — and who would still have voted Leave even if I had believed that Project Fear was Project Understatement — it astounds me that there are otherwise sensible politicians and Eurosceptics who seem to think that if faced with a choice of domination by the EU or domination by Russia, as Ukraine was, the latter is a sensible option. For all its faults the EU is not a kleptocracy that routinely falsifies elections, murders political opponents, and imprisons dissidents.
Once one moves further right, Putinophilia takes off at full throttle. Nigel Farage has a distinct soft spot for the strongman in the Kremlin. When one reaches the noxious and balmy world of ex-British National Party leader Nick Griffin — a man who now describes himself as “national revolutionary strategist and lifelong white rights figher” — one finds a man who regards Putin as the potential saviour of the white race. Griffin — a frequent visitor to Assad’s Syria — now says he will vote Labour because of Corbyn’s opposition to the use of force against Assad.The most serious Putinophiles are, however, found around the Labour leader. Seumas Milne, Labour’s Director of Strategy, stated back in his days as a Guardian columnist, “Putin’s absorption of Crimea and support for the rebellion in the eastern Ukraine is clearly defensive . . . the east of Ukraine, at least, is not going to be swallowed up by Nato or the EU.” Andrew Murray, a key Corbyn strategist and former leading light of the Communist Party of Britain, even set up a pro-Russian aggression campaign group, “Solidarity with the Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine”.
Where does Corbyn’s Putinophilia spring from? The best guide to understanding those around the Corbyn leadership are Tony Benn’s diaries, especially the volume dealing with the 1980s, The End of an Era. Corbyn frequently appears as a parliamentary foot soldier championing the cause of Benn and the Bennites. An instructive entry in Benn’s diary is that for July 3, 1986. A 16-year-old Edward Miliband, son of Marxist academic and Bennite theorist Ralph Miliband, had just finished his O Levels and was starting what we would now call an internship in Benn’s office. Benn received two visitors that day. The first was Joe Slovo, the last white general secretary of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. Benn says, “I asked him about Russia, and he said he thought Stalin and Mao Tse Tung had seriously set back the cause of socialism.” An unexceptional conclusion, one may have thought, even for someone so reliant as Slovo on the Soviet Union — both for supplying weapons to the ANC and supporting him personally in exile from apartheid South Africa. After all, his wife Ruth First had been murdered by South African intelligence four years previously. But in Benn’s view, it is “a rather harsh judgment”.
Later that day — in preparation for a visit to communist Poland — Benn received the London representative of Solidarity. What did Benn make of the independent trade unionists fighting for a free Poland? “I have had a lot of suspicions about Solidarity . . . There is no question whatever that the Labour Party and the TUC, in supporting Solidarity, are actually supporting Polish Thatcherism.” Over the subsequent days during his visit to Poland he only has good things to say about the Polish Communist Party representatives he meets, while depicting the Catholic Church as a victim not of the state but of Solidarity’s pro-Americanism. The best he can say of Solidarity’s representatives is that they are well-meaning but naive.
Benn’s two meetings that day do much to sum up his world view: on every issue he took the Soviet line. What the Diaries also make clear is that, while obviously never a member of the Communist Party, Benn took a great interest and partisan position in its internal struggles. The boundaries between the Communist Party and the Labour Party have long been much more porous than is often acknowledged. They are certainly much more permeable — whatever some on the Left might imagine — than the boundaries between the Conservative Party and the far Right. During the 1980s the Communist Party was torn apart between a reformist Eurocommunist faction centred around its monthly magazine, Marxism Today, and traditionalist anti-reformers around its daily paper, the Morning Star. Benn does not have a good word to say about the reformers, or the “Marxism Today clique” as he calls them, and again and again he praises the hardliners.
Corbyn, a columnist for the Morning Star until he became Labour leader, took the Bennite position in these struggles. Corbyn’s two closest confidantes since becoming party leader, Milne and Murray, were partisans in these struggles on the anti-reformist side. Corbyn’s takeover of Labour represents not merely a victory for the Labour Left, but a triumph for those associated with the Morning Star and its anti-revisionism. The Morning Star brigade have simply exchanged support for the Soviet Union with Putinophilia.