We must always be bold enough to acknowledge and criticise moral failures on our own side of politics. As I wrote on Monday, it’s shameful that some of my fellow Eurosceptics have become apologists for the tyranny of Vladimir Putin. Crow if you wish when your opponents sin (I certainly have at times), but when your own are getting something horribly wrong you have a duty to pull them up on it.
Over at The Guardian, Owen Jones has perfected the crowing part. Inspired by the resignation of Mike Flynn, the now ex-adviser to Donald Trump who has resigned after misleading the Vice-President over his discussion of sanctions with Moscow, Jones rightly highlights the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed patriots cosying up to the Kremlin. But then he goes on to make an extraordinary claim:
“For much of the 20th century, the left was relentlessly smeared for supposedly being in league with Moscow, thus posing a threat to national security. Even leftists who passionately opposed the Soviet regime were portrayed as being the accomplices of Moscow. Now the national security adviser of a hard-right Republican president has resigned for actually being in league with Moscow. Flynn not only discussed lifting sanctions on Moscow – he lied about it.”
A smear, of course, is something that isn’t true – to read Jones’s account you’d think the British Left was entirely free of apologism, fellow-travellerism or outright collusion with the Soviet Union, and was wrongly tarred just by virtue of being on the moderate end of the same side of the political spectrum.
That would be an interesting rewriting of history. It isn’t a “smear” to say that chunks of the 20th Century Left were far too close to the Kremlin. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the parents of British Fabianism, ardently denied the Ukrainian famine on the say-so of Soviet propagandists, despite the eye-witness accounts of their own family members. Jack Jones, one of the most powerful union barons of the 1970s, was later revealed by Oleg Gordievsky to be in the pay of the KGB. For years, the Morning Star was heavily subsidised by mass subscriptions on the part of Soviet institutions.
Then there were the “useful idiots” – the people always willing to think the worst of NATO and the best of the Warsaw Pact, and who pressed for the West to abandon its defensive alliances and nuclear deterrent in the hope that the USSR would transform into a lamb in response. They may have genuinely and innocently believed what they were saying, but they were helping the Kremlin by saying it all the same.
Throughout the Cold War there were many good people on the Left who held to what was right, and stood opposed to the Evil Empire. Indeed, the establishment of NATO and the development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent came about thanks to some of them, for which we should be eternally grateful. But to pretend there was no problem on the Left in terms of others who served the purposes of the Soviet Union – unwittingly, deliberately or even under direct orders from a hostile power – is to rewrite history.
Jones should have the courage to acknowledge the facts rather than wish them away. If by some odd circumstance he has forgotten that dangerous beasts like NATO-bashing useful idiots and outright Stalinists were a troubling feature of the 20th Century British Left, he need only look at today’s Labour Party – Jeremy Corbyn and Seumas Milne are relics of each respective tradition.