Marxist Cliche: Seamus Milne and the role of Marxist-Leninist Crocodile Buggerism in Labour’s Electoral Strategy

A Japanese pilot about to demonstrate the utility of Corbynite electoral strategy against the USN and Royal Navy off the coast of Okinawa in 1945.

One of the reasons I post to this blog is to illustrate the historical parallels which confirm Marx’s axiom that history repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.  And then, I would add, as cliche.  I’ve resisted posting much on Cobyn’s success in the Labour election because it remained unclear whether it would represent the triumph of what Norman Geras memorably titled the Verkrappt Left, or whether the reality of power-broking in a wider party political context would dilute the ideological purity of the Corbynites.  To some extent this uncertainty was mirrored by Labour MP’s in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) looking for signs that the Corbynites would reach back into the Bennite past to impose a policy of local re-selection of MP’s, handily allowing the hard left to seize control of the reselection process and thereby purge centrist Blairite ‘wreckers’ and ‘saboteurs’.

But does Corbyn even need to do this?  This sort of purging would only be necessary if the PLP had the potential to form a anti-Corbynite consituency and engage in a struggle for power.  My opinion is that it lacks even this capacity.  The evidence of the post-Blair Labour record, first under Brown and then under Milliband, reveals the complete absence of any depth of a genuine Blairite constituency in the PLP.  The pathetic support shown for Liz Kendall’s bid for Labour leadership, and the comically impotent responses of the PLP to the chaotic fiasco of Corbyn’s leadership so far, indicate that the absence of a centrist constituency in the PLP has become so pronounced that I doubt that the PLP would be able to challenge Corbyn even if it wanted to.  It’s apparent that many in the PLP are aware of the problem, but the point is that none have had the will to do anything about it.  Reselection would be an imperative if the PLP was to represent a threat to Corbyn.  The evidence to date is overwhelming that it does not.

Even if it did, there is no wider appetite for a public stand on discredited Blairite centrism.  Which means that the conditions necessary to challenge Corbynism are absent, and will need to be created anew.  It was my fond hope that electoral defeat in 2015 would have been sufficient to point out the error in abandoning Blairite strategy, but this is clearly not the case.  Blairism remains discredited in a wider sense within and without the Labour party itself.  Repeated electoral defeat is the only measure which will demonstrate the gap between what the hard left want, and the unarticulated but nonetheless distinct reality of what the British electorate will accept.  2015 was not enough to instil the lesson, and therefore an overwhelmingly catastrophic electoral defeat of the hard left is required in 2020.

The necessary pre-condition of that is the construction of Corbyn’s platform as an exemplary and uncompromising example of hard-left policies untained with any remaining traces of centrist deviationism.  It will not only need to be an eye-wateringly uncompromisingly leftist platform designed to demonstrate the obsolescence of any residual appeal to the centre, it will need to be widely advertised as such.  Fortunately Corbyn has landed upon the perfect agent to deliver this in the form of Seamus Milne, the Stalinist ex-editor of the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

It would be difficult to pick a better choice.  I won’t rehearse Milne’s full credentials here; suffice it to say that he’s long been an apologist for fascist terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iraqi ‘resistance’. His reflexive anti-Americanism has been a determining influence on his commentary over the past decade, most notably expressed in his attribution of blame for the 9/11 attacks on America itself and his characterisation of Putin’s invasion of Crimea and his military adventures in Ukraine as ‘defensive’.

Milne, like most ideologues and especially communist ideologues, likes to see himself on the right side of history.  Enraged by Francis Fukuyama’s assertion in the ‘End of History’ that the evident success of liberal democracy and the evident failure of Soviet communism at the end of the Cold War amounted to an end to history, Milne postulates (most obviously in his own book, ‘The Revenge of History’), that the following decade has seen the defeat of the American neo-liberalism Fukuyama saw as decisively victorious in the battle of ideologies.  The problem with Milne’s appropriation of historical teleology (and Fukuyama’s similar effort to interpret the past exclusively in the light of a pre-determined analytical conclusion) is that history does not work for the deterministic benefit of political ideologies, even if it is sometimes influenced by them.

[For obvious reasons, I am compelled to observe that, like many better-informed commentators in the field of political science and international relations, Milne is unaware that Fukuyama’s thesis was originally subverted by the classic parody of the Whig Interpretation of History, Sellar’s and Yeatman’s ‘1066 and All That’ published as recently as 1930. Milne’s ripost to Fukuyama was therefore even more unnecessary than might be suspected at first.  Still, you’d need sufficient knowledge of the subject and a sense of humour to appreciate that.]

To return to an illustration of the historical phenomenon of the repeated collisions between the ideological purity of Milne/Corbynism and electoral reality, I am gratified to find another excuse to quote Denis Healey after his recent death.  Healey was the nemesis of the Labour ideologues when they thought the arrival of the Millenium was about to be assured by the purging of centrist deviationists and wreckers like Healey from positions of power and influence in the Labour Party.  This process was exemplified by the 1981 battle for the Labour Deputy Leadership between Healey and Tony Benn.

‘Wherever I went, a group of Militant supporters followed me around to heckle.  In Cardiff there was an orchestrated attempt to howl me down by extremist mobs of Trotskyites and anarachists, whom Tony Benn did nothing to discourage or condemn.  He had made a point of inviting groups outside the Labour Party to join his cause, including even the Posadists.  The Posadists believed that socialism would be brought to Earth by extra-terrestrial creatures from outer space, because they would have high technology and therefore must be socialists…  In my rally at Birmingham such groups were joined by a mass of IRA supporters who made it quite impossible for me to be heard.  All these scenes were transmitted by television into ordinary homes throughout the country.  They gave the Labour Party a reputation for extremism, violence, hatred and division from which it has not yet recovered.  Yet Benn still insists on describing such election campaigns as “a healing process”.’

This is the template that Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ will have to avoid.  Given Corbyn’s prominence as an IRA/Hamas/Hebzollah/anti-American apologist, the attitudes of his shadow chancellor (deliberately and distinctively pro-IRA in the past) and Milne’s similar track record, my money is on it failing to do so.  After all, as Healey points out, the 1981 controversies were just another repetition of the same conflict which had riven Labour in the 1950s.

‘The real tragedy of Bevanism in the fifties, as of Bennery in the eighties, was that it distracted Labour from tackling the problems created by the social changes which the Atleee Government produced, and by the secular decline of Britain as a world power.  Moreover, by posing the issues in terms of a theological disputation about the religion of Socialism, it cut the Labour Party off from its natural roots, not least among the working class itself.  It was a reversion to the romantic Messianism which led to the defeat of the first Socialist movements in Europe in 1848.’    

Which means that if there is any teleology involved in all this, it points towards a further and entirely predictable Labour defeat in 2020.  First tragedy, then farce.  Then cliche.

To further illustrate the move from tragedy to cliche and then back to farce involved, I only need to quote Tom Sharpe’s satire ‘The Wilt Alternative’.  Tempting as it is to compare Milne to the left-wing terrorists Sharpe parodies (with their arch-Corbynite allegations against ‘CIA Zionist reformists’), the most accurate parallel arises when the protagonist feels compelled to defend a hard-left academic colleague from the hostile reaction to his film on Marxist-Leninist Crocodile Buggerism.  Yes, Marxist-Leninist Crocodile Buggerism.

‘He leant back in his chair and wondered yet again how it was that a supposedly intelligent man like Bilger, who had after all been to university and was a graduate, could still believe the world would be a better place once all the middle classes had been put up against a wall and shot. Nobody ever seemed to learn anything from the past.’

Which is why I unreservedly greet Milne’s cheerleading of Labour policy under the Corbynites as the natural and necessary precondition for what I have earlier described as Labour’s Kamikaze joyride to electoral oblivion.

Tom Watson and Szyslak’s Second Dictum

Great Philosphers of Our Time #1 – Morris Szyslak grapples with the conundrum of distinguishing ethical legislative representation from Watsonite opportunism.

It’s always worth observing phenomena which indicate the intersection of two disparate threads of human intellectual endeavour.  Politics and philosophy have a clear overlap, an area which has provided fertile ground for academics to pontificate upon and explore in order to access pots of grant money, err, I mean ‘for the advancement of knowledge’.  Barring a genuine revolution in British electoral politics of epic magnitude, characterising the post-Blair Labour party’s leadership choices as ‘a kamikaze joyride into electoral oblivion’ as I have done – repeatedly – seems all too predictable.  In view of the incredulous hostility evident in the recent meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party following John McDonnell’s abrupt U-turn on following Osborne’s proposals on legislating for mandatory future budget surpluses, even the shell-shocked, demoralised post-Miliband PLP appear to recognise this.  Given that the process of ‘kamakaze joyride into electoral oblivion’ has therefore reached the point of total inevitability under Jeremy Corbyn, that particular thesis has moved from philosophical speculation into the realm of predictable, repearable science.

To return to a question which remains within realm of philosophical inquiry, I would now like to move elsewhere, and demonstrate the clear intersection of politics and philosophy illustrated by the influence of Sizkakian philosophy on Tom Watson.

Most Labour politicians take well-known socialist thinkers as their reference points; Marx, Gramsci, Webb, etc.  However, all politicians tend towards a more morally-flexible realism encapsulated by philosophers outside that customary ideological orbit.  A lesser-known but nonetheless influential example of these would be Morris Szyslak.  Szyslak formulated many of his dicta after experience working in a public bar, allowing his subsequent observations of human behaviour to reveal a deep insight into the human condition.  An example of this would be Szyslak’s lesser-known but nonetheless instructive First Dictum:

Man, you go through life, you try to be nice to people, you struggle to resist the urge to punch ’em in the face, and for what?

Szyslak’s second dictum is of course far more well-known, and can be applied successfully to much political behaviour [see below – although often attributed to others, Szyslak originated the concept].  An obvious example would be Tom Watson’s refusal to apologise for advocating investigation of allegations into child abuse by British politicians and establishment figures.  These allegations culminated with a charge of rape against Leon Brittain, ex-Home Secretary in the Thatcher government – a charge Watson wrote to the prosecution authorities to investigate, and which was evenutally dropped.  But not before Brittain died ignorant that his name had effectively been cleared.  Demands for an apology mounted after Watson was forced to retract his assertion that Brittain had been ‘close to evil’.

In the period following shocking revelations about past abuse conducted by public figures such as the radio DJ Jimmy Saville there was a clear sense that victims of such abuse had been faced with too little assistance and a lack of willingness to investigate.  An investigation into historic allegations of abuse against various establishment figures, (later including Brittain) was one reaction.  Detective Superintendent McDonald, a police officer investigating earlier allegations, characterised them in December 2014 as ‘credible and true’, obviously to encourage other potentially vulnerable witnesses to come forward.

Questions soon arose about the credibility of those witnesses after Tory MP’s Harvey Proctor and Nigel Evans and radio DJ Paul Gamaccini complained about their treatment as suspects on insufficient evidence, an experience apparently parallel with that faced by Brittain.  Lord MacDonald, a former Director of Public Prosecution warned that it was the job of the police ‘… to conduct impartial, objective investigations and not to indulge narcissists and fantasists, and certainly not to hand over the right to determine the truth to people on the sole basis that they claim to be the victims of crime.’

As a result, the pendulum was perceived to have swung too far against the presumption of innocence on behalf of those accused of such crimes.  Consequently, Watson’s close association with the allegations brought his personal role into question.

The problem here is how to distinguish between differing interpretations of Watson’s behaviour – reasonable representation of an issue of genuine public concern, or opportunistic exploitation of an emotive issue for political advantage which prejudices the legal principle of innocence before conviction after due legal process.  This is where a close observation of where Watson’s approach intersects with moral and political philosophy can assist our judgement.

To quote Watson’s statement to the House of Commons in response to demands for his apology:

‘We presided over a state of affairs where children have been abused, and then ignored, dismissed and then disdained. If anyone deserves an apology, it’s them.’

This would be respectable enough but it ignores the balancing requirement of respecting innocence before conviction, and avoiding witch-hunts inevitably tarnishing the reputations of public figures even when they are innocent of the allegations involved.  The original concept of facilitating allegations represents an excellent tactical choice for a politician wanting to simultaneously capitalise on the easy public support to be gleaned by attacking paedophiles whilst posing as a champion of justice denied.  But the inability to judge the moment when the pendulum begins to swing back against the original public mood, the moment when the injustice of false accusations became apparent which was unmistakably signposted by Lord MacDonald’s intervention, fatally undermines that posture as a champion of justice.  A champion of justice is most vulnerable when perceived to be fostering injustice – even in the name of the children.

In political terms this is counter-productive as it brings Watson’s political and ethical judgement into question instead of vindicating it.  There is a balance here, and Watson is unable or unwilling to perceive the damage unfounded allegations can do to both the accused and to the credibility of future allegations of abuse from marginalised victims.  The parallel with McCarthyism should be obvious.

In conclusion it can be seen that Watson’s approach is dangerously vulnerable to charges that it adheres too closely to Szyslak’s Second Dictum:

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

It seems reduntant to ask if anybody is concerned that Watson, perceived as the moderating influence upon the irrational Corbynite frenzy dominating the Labour party, has adopted the reflexive populism satirised by a suicidal misanthrope in the word’s best-known animated cartoon.  Forward to Oblivion!

Reparations for Anti-Slavery! Captain Joseph Denman, RN v. the Identity Politics Activists.

David Cameron’s recent visit to Jamaica was notable for the furore this roused in certain predictable quarters over the demand that Britain should pay reparations for slavery.  The catalyst was the apparently shocking discovery that a distant relative of Cameron’s owned slaves, and was therefore paid compensation by the British government under the terms of the 1833 Abolition Act.

I can understand the distaste people experience when considering that slave owners were granted £20 million in compensation by the British government of the time, just as I can understand the glee which rewarded the searching of the relevant records by reparations activists when they discovered that a distant (if somewhat excessively-distant) relative of a Tory PM could be found there.  I wonder if they searched as avidly for the names of any of Cameron’s distant relatives in the lists of the abolitionists and abolitionist societies that abounded in 19th century Britain?

Never mind Cameron, however.  The key objective here was clearly to convert that flagship of British Whig historical pride, the British state role in ending slavery, into an object of shame demanding financial reparation in the present; financial reparation which, if you read the Guardian in the new era of British politics characterised by Corbynite wealth redistribution, should naturally be directed into the coffers and/or prestige of activist organisations with the necessary identity-politics credentials, such as the ‘Afrikan Heritage Community for National Self-Determination’.

If taking on the British self-image over the issue of slavery reparations can be seen as an attempt to attack the colossal self-regard of liberals protecting their ideological shibboleths, the reparations activists need to realise that this works in both directions.  The discovery might shock them, but they are actually perpetrators of precisely the same kind of selective and hypcritical denial of natural justice that they assume Cameron represents on behalf of the British state.  In other words, if you want to take on a flagship of whig historical tradition, be aware that it can fire a broadside back at you in response.  So prepare to be boarded, identity politics activists.

The core of the reparations argument revolves around the sense of reciprocity central to natural justice.  Clearly, any reasonable appreciation of these events cannot avoid a damning moral judgement of the murderous brutality and savage exploitation involved in the Atlantic slave trade.  The problem is the fixation on the British state as the agency to blame and the party required to pay compensation in restitution.  Clearly, the British state did, in moral terms, take relevant steps to get their own house in order in terms of ending the legality of slavery in Britain and then British territory.

But that is not enough to get them off the hook for reparations in the eyes of many activists who consider that the tax income from the prior existance of a slave-based economy (and particularly the massively lucrative sugar trade of the 18th century, which was dependent on slave labour) damns the British government.

Luckily for the Whigs that abolition within British territory wasn’t the end of the issue.  Let me introduce you to those unexpected reactionary heroes of Whig international policy, Lords Castlereagh and Palmerston, both of whom made extending the abolition of the slave trade a primary aim of British foreign policy – Castlereagh by including it in the treaties involved in the Congress of Vienna which terminated the Napoleonic War (after banning the trade in British territory in 1807), and Palmerston by relentlessly pressuring foreign states to accept treaties banning the trade and (far more importantly) by enforcing them using British naval power to board, search, capture and condemn slave ships.  Indeed, in a bizarre forerunner to late 20th-century ideas of humanitarian intervention moving ahead of international law, Palmerston was to approve of naval raids on slave barracks on the west African coastline when the government law officers (and his pusilanimous successor, Lord Aberdeen) considered them illegal.

And let us not forget the instrument of that policy, the Royal Navy, which experienced significant losses to fever and disease enforcing British-led international anti-slaving operations in West Africa, East Africa, the Carribean and South America in the seventy or so years between 1810 and 1880 when anti-slavery operations were at their height.

Let us not also forget the financial costs involved.  The anti-slavery commiment has been estimated at totalling 15% of available British warships and 10% of British naval manpower in the 1840s [Bary Gough, Pax Britannica (2014):186].  In the naval estimate debates in the House of Commons in 1848, one MP critical of the cost of anti-slavery operations estimated that they were currently costing around £600,000 per annumn, and had cost £21 million over the past thirty years [Hansard, 22 February, 1848].  Now there’s a certainly pleasing symmetry to that when we consider that compensating British slave owners cost £20 million in 1833.  And in the fact that both sums were paid by the British taxpayer.  And to whom do we send the bill for reparations for that expense in the name of natural justice?  The descendants of those Africans who avoided becoming slaves largely because the British state played an instrumental, even critical, part in ending the slave trade?

Such ideas are clearly ridiculous, but British policy – and the expense involved to the British taxpayer – are nonetheless historical fact, and should alert anyone to the selectivity involved in activists seeking slavery reparations at the expense of the British taxpayer today.  After all, one component of the costs of British anti-slaving operations were the complex web of subsidies (i.e. bribes) paid to local African leaders and chiefs by the British to authorise anti-slaving operations in their territory, such as the $4,000 paid to Pepple, King of Bonny by Captain Craigie of HMS Bonetta in 1839 [Gough: 175].  Is anybody considering suing their descendants to recover those costs to the British taxpayer at all?  Never mind the claims of descendants of Anglo-Saxons recorded as slaves in The Domesday Book [Norman Foreign Colonialist Exploiter (1086 AD)].

Another funny thing about demands for legal reparations are how devices assumed to operate in service of a particular set of ethics can fall foul of the strict amorality of any legal system, such as when Captain Denman, RN, was sued by a Spanish citizen, Senor Buron, for damages in 1847.  Denman had led a naval landing party at the Gallinas river estuary in West Africa in November 1840 which liberated 880 slaves being held for shipment on slaving ships.  In the process of this Denman had been inconsiderate enough to inflict £180,000 in damages to Senor Buron’s property by liberating his slaves and destroying his slave prisons and the trading goods he used to purchase slaves [W.E.F. Ward, The Royal Navy and the Slavers (1969): 186].  I can only suppose that the charge of ‘war criminal’, which would be added to this today, was regarded as implicit at the time.  The British taxpayer eventually met Denman’s court costs in his successful legal defence; meanwhile calls for reparations against the Spanish government for Senor Buron’s activies, which were typical of the continuing trade in slaves to Cuban sugar plantations, appear silent at this point.  As do demands on the Portugese, Brazilian, and various Arab and East African states involved in the the contemporary slave trade and subject to consequent British naval action.

In a small but personal fashion this points up the hypocrisy of such demands for reparations against Denman’s descendants and the descendants of the people who paid his salary, the prize money he was awarded for releasing slaves and his court costs against opportunist slavers seeking reparations in the name of justice.  What amplifies that all the more is that issues of slavery and coercive people-smuggling have not disappeared from the modern world.  Demanding reparations from the British state for something the British ended by state action almost two centuries ago while ignoring their reciprocal efforts to end slavery internationally is a selective abuse of history to serve political ends in the present.  The selectivity of focus, and the agency held to blame, tells us everything about the agenda, motivation and hypocrisy of the reparations activists.  Indeed, it seems on those counts, as well as on the issue of entertaining colossal sanctimonous self-regard, the modern reparations activists can impressively claim to out-do 19th century British Whigs.

If the moral issue of slavery really did excise such activists, they wouldn’t be engaging in identity politics in search of sympathetic coverage in the Guardian and an easy payout.  Instead they would be actively engaged risking their own money and personal safety combatting modern slavery and people-trafficking. Much like Captain Denman did.