Over the last few years I have had a few arguments with people on social media. You might have spotted this. I might even have politely explained to you why I am right, and you are foolish.
Over and over again I have had the same, odd experience.
Someone has angrily told me that they are loads more left wing than I am while simultaneously expressing a very right wing opinion. At it’s most extreme people who self identify as left wing have shared with me material from the far right, including from US neo-nazis, in the profound belief that this material is left wing.
I’m not a great believer in the horseshoe theory of politics that is sometimes taught in GCSE History and Politics classes. The left and the right are different philosophies, and the only similarities at the extremes are between the tactics of the authoritarian varieties
But sometimes ideas switch from right to left and vice versa.
Freedom of movement across the EU started out on the far right as a way of using free markets to erode workers rights and deregulate labour markets. Today the same right wingers denounce the policy they championed only 20 years ago, while the left, who once opposed it, give speeches defending it. Universal Basic Income made the same shift. Universal Credits was developed as a Labour policy, and ended up as a millstone round the neck of the Tories.
The rise of left wing antisemitism is the most extreme example. When I was a teenager the kind of antisemitism that relishes ideas of Jewish conspiracies and believes the mainstream media is in the pay of the Israel lobby were only found among a particular variety of right wing weirdo – the kind with a complete collection of Sven Hassel novels
I can pretty much guarantee that anyone who owns more than one Sven Hassel book is a massive arsehole and has crazy right wing politics, no matter how ironic they think they are being.
I wrote last week about Durham’s brief flirtation with the far right:
Antisemitism in Britain didn’t start with Mosley, but the anti-semitic tropes which occur in modern politics do.
This is Mosley’s Stop The War campaign. As you can see he chose to make his anti-war campaign pledges on the side of a bus, which definitely doesn’t remind me of anyone in modern politics. Not at all.
Mosley was a demagogue, not an ideologue, and he relied upon others to do his thinking for him. I have read “The Coming of the Corporate State” by Alexander Raven Thompson so that you don’t have to.
The BUF platform was:
Anti-Zionist – in particular believing that Zionism is the biggest issue in foreign relations
Corporatist – the state organised by industrial and occupational groups
Pro-Environmentalist – the BUF were the first political party with an environmentalist policy. In particular they believed that capitalism and environmental protection were incompatible and an environmental crisis was inevitable
Anti-elitist – they claimed that Britain is ruled by a small self serving elite, a 1% who run the country for their own ends. Mosley argued this noisily despite being a Baronet himself. Again this in no way reminds me of any contemporary politicians.
Anti-mainstream media, which they believed served the interests of Zionists
Anti-war, particularly linking pacifism and anti-war movements with anti-Zionism
Quite a lot of this sounds more like left wing politics than right, particularly if you ignore the Monarchy and Empire stuff. State corporatism is often mistaken for a programme of nationalisation. As long as you stuck to the slogans and ignored the details it would be easy to mistake this for a left wing programme, which it very definitely isn’t.
Above all the the BUF fascist ideology is a form of secular gnosticism – the world is an awful place, the truth is known only to a select few, a crisis is coming which will transform the world and this can be seized upon by the gnostics to remake the world in their image.
Mosley always denied that his anti-zionism was really antisemitism, but I don’t believe him. This is Mosley, after the war, denying he is an antisemite:
“The anti-Semitic view that all Jews are born wicked, or that all Jews should be the sacred objects of the system, seems to me equal nonsense. I am neither an anti-Semite, nor a sycophant of Semites….. I believed that certain great Jewish interests were trying to involve us in war, not in a British, but in a Jewish quarrel: I still believe it”
Mosley also argues that the British Empire was inherently anti-racist because it contained lots of different people who it ruled over equally. Daftie.
By the time Mosley made these claims he was a disgraced individual, abandoned by even the Daily Mail. Very few British fascists escaped involvement with him without huge reputational damage.
The only notable exception to this was Jorian Jenks.
Jenks was one of the founders of the environmental movement in Britain, maybe even the most significant figure in it’s early history. Jenks was an enthusiastic fascist and most of his early work was published in fascist journals. He was the soil in blood and soil fascism. His 1939 book Spring Comes Again combined agriculture, environmentalism, fascism and anti-semitism.
Jenks was also a protectionist who supported the idea of agricultural autarky – reducing our reliance on foreign imports of food. The current ideas of self-sufficiency post-Brexit are the direct ancestors of Jenk’s ideas, which linger on among the anti-immigrant right.
Jenks was imprisoned in Walton Jail as a traitor, but was released in 1941.
Post-War Jenks became the President of the Soil Association, Britains oldest environmentalist campaign group. He edited Mother Earth, the Soil Associations journal, and Rural Economy, alongside other fascists like Rolf Gardiner. Both of these publications promoted a Mosleyite world view – anti-capitalist, anti-war, pro-environmentalist, antisemitic. From the 40s to the 50s the Soil Association promoted far right politics as much as mainstream environmentalism, and on occasion included articles written by actual Nazis.
Green politics is so tied up with modern left wing politics that we forget that for most of the C20th environmentalism was a far right pre-occupation.
Jenks died in 1963 only a few months after Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. Silent Spring included many of the ideas that Jenks had campaigned on, in particular around banning pesticides, and it took these ideas to a much wider audience, particularly on the left.
At the time a new faction was emerging in the British left, which made anti-imperialism it’s key virtue. Inspired by the growing conflicts in South East Asia and Latin America the far left began arguing that the cause of the world’s wars and, in particular, its ethnic conflicts, originated with Western imperialism and the lines drawn on maps by conquering powers.
From the perspective of the late 60s this probably looked like a reasonable proposition, and many middle class British lefties started styling themselves in the manner of Latin American or South East Asian revolutionaries. Environmentalism and anti-imperialism became key elements of a left wing political world view alongside anti-capitalism and anti-war. Spring Comes Again sold well, on the back of Silent Spring, and the left absorbed it’s messages.
When I was writing this blog and the previous one I had to track down some pretty odd publications (Alexander Raven Thompson’s book above for example), and visit some rather unpleasant websites, mostly on the right, but also some promoting weird left wing conspiracy theories. There still exists a small group of Mosleyites on the right who keep his memory. When I tried to track down Spring Comes Again, and work out how popular it was in the 60s I discovered, disturbingly it is still in print, still popular, and easily available on Amazon:
Into the ferment of 60s revolutionary politics come 2 figures from the very right wing of the Labour Party: Ernest Bevin and Christopher Mayhew.
Today Christopher Mayhew is remembered only for taking LSD on the BBC, an event commemorated in this single by The Shamen:
In the 1960s he was on the right of the Labour Party and a junior Minister.
Ernest Bevin was a big gun in the Labour Party, a former Foreign Secretary. He was also, according to Mayhew, an anti-semite:
“There is no doubt, to my mind, that Ernest detests Jews.”
In 1969 Mayhew established the Labour Middle East Council (LMEC) with Bevin’s help with the express aim of turning the Labour Party from a proudly pro-Zionist party to an anti-Zionist one.
Mayhew and Bevin believed that they would find fertile ground for their ideas on the right of the Labour Party, and weren’t shy of deploying the kind of rhetoric that blurred the lines between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism in a way similar to Jenks. LMEC is just Jenks repackaged for the left.
They were shocked that the people who rallied to their cause were exclusively on the far left. The newly emerged anti-imperialist left, which had already absorbed elements of Jenksian pro-environmentalism also embraced Mayhew’s anti-zionism and Bevin’s antisemitism.
Not only did LMEC tread the same ground as Jenks, but they added some new unpleasant ideas of their own. Mayhew was the first person to advance the argument that Israel was an apartheid state, in an article for Venture in 1971, and Mayhew and the LMEC actively promoted the idea that British Jews had divided loyalties.
By 1974 Mayhew left the Labour Party outright in protest at the rise of the far left, and by the 80s would refuse to attend anti-war and anti-Zionist events due to the the presence of communists and trotskyists.
The LMEC spawned a host of pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist groups throughout the 70s and 80s, which mixed left wing anti-Imperialism and Jenksian anti-semitism. George Galloway’s Trade Union Friends of Palestine, and Ken Livingstone’s Labour Committee on Palestine, and Labour Friends of Palestine. These groups competed between themselves to see who could be the most extreme.
Labour Herald edited by Livingstone introduced the Israel = Nazis trope in the early 80s.
This is probably the point at which I went to my first pro-Palestine meeting, at Fowler’s Yard in Durham
If I recall correctly the meeting took place immediately before a Red London gig, and I admit that I was probably as interested in the music as the politics
The meeting, if I am honest, had no angry racism, and no anti-semitism, but no real facts either. Me and Phil King were the classic rebels without a clue.
Around the same time I first encountered the anti-imperialist left. The 1980s weren’t a good time for middle class lefties in the UK and the US. Thatcher and Reagan were ascendent, and were drawing support from working class voters. Struggles in Latin America offered hope to the left as well as inspiring a rambling Clash triple album
Looking back Sandinista isn’t as awful as it sounded at the time, but not as good as the Clash clearly thought it was.
But it is a good indication about how trendy it was to name check non-European radical movements. At times this was a bit comical. By the 80s it was vogueish to name check some obscure anti-imperialist faction in any political debate, just as it was essential to name check a rare dub reggae act or 70s German Avant Garde rock band.
Dr Alimantado. Sendero Luminoso. Cluster.
There was however a huge problem with this world view. Too many of the anti-imperialist movements we were cheering on weren’t very left wing. Many of them, particularly in the Arab World, were right wing nationalist movements fighting the West, some of which were homophobic, misogynist and racist. We rationalised these strange alliances either as enemies of our enemies, or with some wooly ideas that once in power they would somehow stop being reactionaries.
The Sandinista themselves turned out to be right wing socially conservative Catholics and authoritarians, not left wing Clash fans after all.
I gave up on the anti-imperialist far left in the early 90s and rejoined Labour. I continued to go to pro-Palestine events however for a few years longer. I eventually lost interest, mainly because it was pretty clear that we weren’t achieving anything. The same speeches, the same people, nothing changing.
The support that the remaining anti-imperialist factions on the far left, including some of the current labour leadership, gave to Milosevic and other ghastly people ended in the Living Marxism trial. From that point on the tolerance that the rest of the left had towards them evaporated, and they ended as an angry rump on the margins. On the few occasions I got back in touch with Palestinian Solidarity they were getting odder and odder. I think by then most people realised that we were failing, but rather than accept that our tactics (in particular BDS) weren’t working, a lot of people were starting to adopt odd conspiracy theories. The CIA, Mossad, the mainstream media were all plotting to thwart the plucky efforts of brave middle class Marxists. I think by this point pro-Palestine groups and the rump of the anti-Imperialist left were pretty much the same thing, the same people going to the same meetings.
I honestly thought at this point that the increasingly odd group of ageing lefties would die out, and their ideas with them, and I wouldn’t miss them. Their ideas were rarely deeper than slogans, and the slogans were a jumble of ideas from the right and the left, including a strong under-current of antisemitism.
What changed was the Iraq war.
I am more sympathetic than most people towards the decision to go war, mainly because I have seen an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction. In the 80s the Thatcher Government had conspired illegally to help Saddam Hussain acquire WMDs, one of which – the supergun – had been seized by Customs and Excise and rusted in a yard at Tees Port. When I first worked on Teesside you could see it from the Docks road. I’m also pretty happy that Saddam Hussain has gone. But there is no doubt that the case for war was not properly made, the consequences of war weren’t properly thought out, and a lot of misery resulted. Given what has happened in Syria it is not certain that non-intervention would have been a better plan, but that doesn’t make things better for the Iraqis’ who suffered.
The Stop The War coalition brought together the old anti-imperialist left, pro-Palestinian activists, and younger campaigners, some of whom were from a socially conservative Muslim background. For the first time this gruesome mess of ideas was allowed to present itself as the moral highground, and somehow as a pure tradition of leftism, nobler than the nipping and tucking of the then Labour government.
The way that this group of oddballs came to run the Labour Party is partly a tale of their ability to control a political movement through bureaucratic control of it’s committees, as it is about the popularity of their ideas.
The current Labour leadership do also have a secular gnostic world view. The world is an awful place, the truth is known only to a select few, a crisis is coming which will transform the world and this can be seized upon by the gnostics to remake the world in their image.
The current crisis of antisemitism and the Labour Party’s inability to put an end to it is due entirely to the crowd of people that the Labour leadership have surrounded themselves with, and the awful set of ideas that they hold to.
None of this is meant to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn or anyone on the British left is a fascist. I don’t believe that for a moment. But I do think that Corbynism (if there is such a thing) is a hopeless jumble – a mess of ideas from the far left and the far right, all filtered through the worldview of a bossy privileged middle class public school boy.
But if we were put together a list of the most offensive views that the modern left hold about Jews or Israel we can trace most of these back through Galloway and Livingstone to Mayhew and Bevan, and all the way back to Jenks and Mosley.
I am sure that my pro-Green Party friends will be appalled that I have foregrounded Jorian Jenks, a figure who most modern Greens would rather forget. But the story of Jenks reminds us how similar the ideas of Paleo-Conservatives like Prince Charles are to the ideas of newt loving Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn on his allotment.
They would get on like a house on fire, 3 posh chaps making jam, talking to plants and moaning about the awfulness of capitalism. George Monbiot in the Guardian alternates between progressive leftism and reactionary conservatism on a weekly basis (increasingly on the reactionary side).
This is from another one of the Clashes less fancied albums “Give ‘Em Enough
The Clash here explore the same sentiment that Arthur Koestler did in “Darkness at Noon” when he compared left wing fellow travellers to peeping toms, “peering through a hole in the wall at history while not having to experience it themselves”.
I think that nothing really distanced my ideas from the middle class anti-imperialist left than spending time outside of Western Europe, particularly in countries like India. For all the marches against the evils of globalisation it is clear that living standards aren’t falling around the world, this isn’t the age of inequality. Life expectancy and living standards across Asia are rising, driven not by the campaigns of the left, but by the kind of economics they like to denounce as neo-liberalism or neo-colonialism.
The US isn’t an Imperial hegemon (although China might be about to become one), Russia isn’t our friend, and Israel isn’t an apartheid state.
I wanted to end with a joke, a funny way of describing my erstwhile middle class anti-imperialists with their endless ill informed solidarity for people in countries they will never visit or ever meet. People who see their own struggle to find a non-Israeli organic kumquat somehow the same as the struggles of Mandela, or Gandhi or Martin Luther King
But the best I could come up with was Talcum X.