Note – an abbreviated version of this piece was first published by Conservative Home – you can read it here.
If you teleported a person from 1970s Britain to London’s Clerkenwell on the afternoon of 1 May 2018 they could be forgiven for assuming the West had lost the Cold War. As a band struck-up “The Internationale” several thousand marchers, some clutching communist flags, began processing towards Trafalgar Square. But it was the banners which really caught the eye. Amidst the standards of assorted trade union branches was a giant poster of Stalin, and another featuring Stalin along with Mao and Lenin. Various Communist Party dictators also featured on flags and t-shirts, including in one case North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un.
The event, London’s annual May Day parade, was no fringe undertaking. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union and a close Corbyn ally, made an appearance. Last year the rally was addressed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell who later claimed, rather implausibly, that he hadn’t noticed the communist and Syrian regime flags which were just behind him. The year before Jeremy Corbyn, then in his first year as Labour leader, delivered a speech. The events character, and in particular the presence of banners and paraphernalia celebrating communist dictators, has not changed in recent years.
That senior figures from the present Labour leadership, including Corbyn himself, have been prepared to associate with an event where portraits of some of the 20th centuries most despotic mass murderers were on display ought to be deeply shocking. There would, quite rightly, be outrage if a senior Conservative figure delivered a speech to a crowd which waved fascist flags, and sported posters of fascist dictators. But instead it is merely an extreme example of a much broader trend. Those who apologise for tyranny based on far-left principles, or associate with those who do, aren’t held to anything like the same moral standard as their counterparts on the far-right.
The Labour Party, in general, has failed to separate itself from the far-left as thoroughly as the Tories have from the extreme right. Even during the Blair years the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, a group dedicated to parroting the propaganda of the dictatorial Cuban regime, was allowed a presence at the annual Party conference. Labour MPs participated in numerous campaign groups which were either run by, or at least contained, the far-left (Stop The War Coalition for example was formed around a core of Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party activists). Unsurprisingly since Corbyn was elected Labour leader the situation has deteriorated. Should Labour form a government with its current Shadow Cabinet the British economy will be run by a man who once described his greatest influences as “Marx, Lenin and Trotsky basically” whilst the Home Secretary will be a woman who has suggested that Mao “did more good than harm”. If any Tory MP, led alone Minister, had made equivalent remarks about a fascist dictator I can’t imagine them retaining the Conservative whip for a day.
Stalin, Mao and Lenin on a banner at the 2018 London May Day march
So why the double standards? The default answer, when speaking to friends on the left, is that it’s a question of intent. Sure communism doesn’t work, and the stench of rotting flesh emanates from anywhere it’s tried, but they do at least mean well. Their final goal, of an egalitarian classless society of plenty, may be unobtainable but it is at least desirable. This is unconvincing. Serious proponents of just about every ideology in existence believe what they strive for is morally right. Few people get involved in politics with the intent of becoming the bad guys in someone else’s video games. In any case the end goal of communism, a truly classless society, can surely only possibly be maintained via force.
Some, I’m sure, treat the far-left with an undeserved ambivalence because they view their intentions at least as decent. But this doesn’t fully explain why they are treated so differently to the far-right. Partly, and more than a little ironically, I think social class is a factor. A surprisingly large number of far-left figures come from monied backgrounds. Alexander Callinicos, member of the Socialist Workers Party’s Central Committee and arguably its de-facto leader, is the privately educated grandson of the 2nd Lord Acton. Andrew Murray, the former Communist Party who urged “solidarity” with North Korea and now works part-time as an advisor to Corbyn’s office, is the privately educated grandson of the second Lord Rankeillour. Generally the leaders of Britain’s far-left, unlike their far-right counterparts, know how to conduct themselves in polite society. Their politics may be horrific, but they can hold their own at a dinner party or in a university lecture hall, and this it seems counts for quite a lot.
There is also, I suppose, the fact that as a country we’ve never waged all-out war against communists in the same way we have fascists. The fifty year long Cold War earned its name. Few Brits have the memory of a relative who fought communism on the battlefield, in the way that many still do for fascism. This, quite understandably, has had a major impact on our collective psyche. Luckily for us the flow of history means relatively few of communisms victims have been British, but this is no reason to downplay its barbarity.
If you want to associate with a totalitarian ideology, and still be accepted in polite society, make sure its adherents wave the hammer and sickle and not some nationalist symbol. Openly support a far-right ideology which is hostile to Parliamentary democracy and you’ll be lucky to hold down a respectable job, advocate it’s far-left equivalent and you’ll likely be dismissed as a well meaning eccentric. This hypocrisy has real world consequences. Labour moderates were content, I think out of naivety rather than malice, to share their party with IRA sympathisers and Putin apologists. They ended up surrendering control. We would be wise not to replicate this mistake on a national level.