By Jude Woodward
The appointment of Seumas Milne as Labour’s director of strategy and communication is the second key appointment of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to come under particularly frenzied attack from the Tory media – the first being the appointment of John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor. The reason is that each decisively indicated the fundamental orientation of the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party and that it had no intention of backing down in the face of the hostility of the right.
Corbyn has, absolutely correctly, made compromises to reach out to the centre of the labour movement and even engage elements of the right in creating a broad alliance. The Labour Party he has to lead is an alliance of socialists, social democrats and social reformers. But nevertheless he has a clear mandate that the decisive project of his leadership, its driving force, is to steer a new course for Labour in the interests of the majority of the population. This means on the one hand breaking with austerity and the capitulation to the Tories on economic policy, and on the other ending the abject subordination of Labour’s foreign policy to that of the USA that characterised the Blair years.
The right’s castigation of this latest appointment and of Milne personally were of an unusually unabashed and extravagant character; in the rather accurate words of John Wright in the Huffington Post, there was ‘a feral and unhinged scream from the swamp of reaction’. The epithets ranged from ‘Stalinist’, ‘apologist for terrorists (and murderous dictators)’ to highly political statements such as ‘unhinged’, ‘a bizarre appointment’ and ‘insane’.
Apparently he is ‘…one of the most controversial and divisive ideologues on the left of British politics’, whose ideas have ‘led him down some dark intellectual alleys’. He is ‘… almost pathologically unwilling to let the tiresome facts of reality intrude upon the certainty of ideology.’ A ‘Corbynista who loves “humanity” but appears to hate people’.
‘We are ashamed in front of the world’, brayed former Labour candidate Kate Godfrey, amplifying the more moderate language of the likes of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and other Labour luminaries who weighed in against Milne.
In other words, Tony Blair can be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and the Middle East and that is all hunky dory – no shame in front of the world for that! But it is a terrible crime for Labour to appoint a former Guardian comment editor, who wrote a sharply argued column often objecting to such wars.
As with many of the frenzied attacks on Corbyn himself, most of the blusterings against Milne are simply mendacious, derived from phrases taken out of context and reductiones ad absurdum. But nevertheless there are good reasons why the British establishment and its hangers-on in the Labour right are perturbed by the appointment of Milne.
Primarily this is because Milne has a clear view that utterly rejects the crude lies peddled about the world within which the political struggle in Britain now plays out. The right knows that it will not be able to trick him into being a cat’s paw of neoconservative doubletalk and counterfeits justifying foreign adventures and illegal wars, as it has so many before. It is crystal clear that he will never give ground to lies such as that Western military action is in response to a ‘threat of Islamic jihadism’ rather than assert the truth that it has spawned it. Nor adapt to the lie that Latin America over the last fifteen years has seen a rise of autocratic governments rather than that the populations of the southern continent have begun to carve out a new regional independence and put forward alternatives to the American imposed disastrous neoliberal economic consensus. Nor will he falsely ‘concede’ that the crash of 2008 was a consequence of spendthrift welfare policies under Labour rather than the global failure of neoliberalism’s unfettered financial deregulation to deliver stability and growth.
Milne’s 2012 book, The Revenge of History, bringing together over ten years’ of articles and essays on international and British political developments, demonstrates this clear-headed grasp of the real drivers of global processes and situates the political struggle in Britain itself within the framework of these overall international bearings. A coherent view unfolds arching from the West’s triumphalism following the dramatic reversals of 1989-91 in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; through the Clinton/Blair ‘humanitarian interventions’ in former Yugoslavia; the global imposition of neoliberalism and ‘shock therapy’; the Bush/Blair wars in the Middle East; the rise of China and surge of the left in Latin America; before arriving at the current post-2008 global situation born of the twin crises of the limits of US military power and the almighty crash of the neoliberal capitalist model.
He describes the trajectory in world affairs from George Bush Senior’s 1990s inauguration of ‘a New World Order, based on uncontested US military supremacy and Western economic dominance’. (Milne, 2012, p viii) This is then traced through to the second decade of the 21st century where, while the US still projects military force from the heart of a global empire, its ‘unilateral military power and credibility had been eroded, while China, Russia and Latin America had asserted their independence, expanding the political and economic options for weaker states in the process.’ (Milne, 2012, p xxi)
This is a solid intellectual and political framework that is not going to be shaken by any blandishments from the right – still less by ‘Stalinist’ name-calling from sections of the so-called left. Moreover such an ability to correctly judge the situation is the primary skill required for Labour’s director of strategy. It is fundamentally because Labour has appointed a clear sighted and hard headed realist that Milne’s appointment has provoked such squawking and snarling.
Moreover Milne sets the political situation in Britain and the struggles that have unfolded here within this overall international context.
This approach results in a considered and very realistic view of the immense scale of the struggle facing the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party in steering towards an election campaign in 2020 on a progressive anti-austerity and international platform.
The forces aligned against Corbyn are not just the barking dogs of the Labour right, but the entire weight of the British ruling class, backed by its state institutions, companies and media. And behind this lies the determination of the most powerful individual forces on earth – the American capitalist imperial establishment and its European partners – to ensure that a political force like that represented by Corbyn will never come anywhere near power in a country as important as Britain.
These forces ranged against Corbyn are so mighty that if it were the case that this struggle will only be determined by what takes place in this country, Corbyn would be bound to lose. Fortunately it is not.
Lenin explained the correct way to understand how the forces of the international and the national situation interrelate. His words refer to the full introduction of socialism itself, which is unfortunately not on the cards immediately in Britain, but the analysis equally applies to less advanced periods of the class struggle such as now when the fight for serious reforms is on the agenda. ‘The socialist revolution will not be solely or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their own bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism.’ (Lenin V. I., 22 November 1919)
What happens with the Corbyn leadership and this attempt to take Labour towards government on a progressive political programme of course does most immediately and directly depend on how it and the rest of the left in Britain conducts itself. That is why unity is crucial, petty criticism and silly disputes are unhelpful, and understanding the need to hold hard to issues of principle – including opposing austerity, military interventions, and racism – while being flexible on tactics is vital.
But even if the forces of the left here in Britain got every single thing right in the next five years – which regrettably they will not, as even the very best cannot avoid all errors – the Corbyn leadership would still be defeated if the international class struggle itself does not advance; if the international forces ranged against the left here are not placed under strain by the range and extent of their global crisis. The British and the international class struggles are not separate. Every advance – however partial or imperfect – internationally helps the struggle here and vice versa. Which incidentally is why international solidarity, opposition to Britain’s wars and interventions, and support for all those standing up to imperialism are non-negotiable responsibilities of the left here.
The appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor – the key role in determining economic policy – indicated that the Corbyn leadership did not intend to back down on opposing austerity as its core platform. The appointment of Seumas Milne, while ensuring Labour will have a clear headed person in charge of strategy, reinforces this opposition to austerity and puts a powerful marker down on its overall fundamental policy orientation – whatever are the steps that have to be taken to keep Labour as a left-centre broad church.
The appointments of John McDonnell and Seumas Milne have caused such hysteria because they show that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has no intention of backing down from its orientation to do everything possible to deliver gains for the overwhelming majority of population.
This is why these appointments have caused such frenzy from the right and why they should be supported and defended. The Tory media understand they have to face not ‘infantile leftists’ but determined and skilled opponents.