One of the ironies of anti-communism – an ideology that has killed millions since 1945 – is how many of those it chastised held views regarded as entirely legitimate in western Europe and North America.
In Indonesia, from the 1960s General Suharto killed more than a million people, including feminists and trade unionists, in a frenzied bloodbath. In Central America, where hundreds of thousands lost their lives towards the end of the last century, land rights activists and indigenous movements have been the primary targets for reactionary zeal.
From Kenya to Malaya millions were interned, while democratic governments – in Iran, Guyana and Ecuador – were subverted for simply wanting the social settlement wealthier countries increasingly took for granted.
This anti-communist agenda was pursued by fanatics, something asserted with brutal clarity by John Foster Dulles in 1956, then Eisenhower’s secretary of state, when he concluded that ‘neutrality’ was an ‘increasingly obsolete conception’ and almost always ‘immoral and shortsighted’. While a proclaimed love of liberty was the overt ideology, sanctions, war and regime change were the iron fist inside the glove.
In the United States this was accompanied by McCarthyism – and a declaration of war against the ‘enemy within’. America was far from alone in fighting such domestic battles: in 1952, 5,000 of the BBC’s 12,000 posts were subject to political vetting, with ‘adverse reports’ filed for one in ten applicants. Despite being a high watermark, that process would remain in place, unknown to the general public, until the 1980s.
In the context of today’s histrionics around ‘cancel culture’, such events demonstrate how twentieth-century liberal democracy rested on deep-seated authoritarianism, the spectrum of legitimate views more constricted than we care to admit.
Yet despite those dark days most of us – including myself – believed such extremism to be firmly in the past. Yet staggeringly, particularly over the last six months, it has re-appeared. An era where socialism is once again a mass politics is attended, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a reawakened McCarthyism.
Evidence of the return to McCarthyism is increasingly conspicuous. The recent deployment of ‘lawfare’ against Labour – a development pioneered in the United States – is instructive, as legal proceedings interface with public relations efforts and a hysterical media willing to admonish an entire political constituency. England has not only the most regressive libel laws in the OECD, which overwhelmingly favour the wealthy, but also endures a billionaire-owned press, which even viewed Ed Miliband as dangerously radical. In that dual context, this new turn to McCarthyism will prove highly effective.
The mediatised aspect of lawfare matters. Last week’s settlement was almost immediately followed by journalist John Ware threatening to sue Jeremy Corbyn for libel. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, the BBC veteran explained his rationale claiming that while there is, “an unwritten code that says we journalists should never sue because… we hold free speech sacrosanct”, this had changed – primarily as a result of technological shifts. As a result, Ware concluded:
“On much of the internet, basic standards of accuracy and fairness have disappeared. I feel passionately that we need to try and hold internet media and political ‘activists’ to account when they fail to apply the same standards they demand from the mainstream media.”
I personally disagree with such an argument. In a free society all citizens, including activists, have a right to criticise journalists. Furthermore, many online outlets are regulated by Impress – which upholds more exacting standards than the print regulator Ipso.
Yet even if you agree with Ware the primary subject of his ire – Corbyn – isn’t an anonymous Twitter account or Instagram influencer, but an elected politician and former leader of the opposition. The idea that his criticism of Ware’s work represents anything new, some unhealthy outgrowth of social media or ‘alt-left blogs’, is absurd. The reasonable inference, therefore, is that Corbyn is being accorded a wholly different status to his peers – it is acceptable to take legal action against him when it would not be against anyone else. Why?
The following day Times columnist Philip Collins wrote that Labour must “expel him [Corbyn] from the party”, and “point the way out for his nasty band of facilitators”. Precisely what offence Corbyn would be expelled for is unclear, but that appears a technical detail for the former speechwriter to Tony Blair. Collins wants those wedded to higher taxation for the rich, public ownership and enhanced accountability removed from Labour – and in so doing placed beyond the parameters of political acceptability. They can exist, of course, but for ideological gatekeepers like Collins, legitimacy is off-limits.
That same day Collins’ fellow columnist at the Times, Oliver Kamm, claimed former parliamentary candidate Corrie Drew should have her Labour membership revoked for tweeting “for John Ware” alongside a picture of her flicking the finger and the hashtag #CorbynWasRight.
This is the same Oliver Kamm who, only months earlier, tweeted an article from his own newspaper which claimed: “Free speech means freedom to offend”. One can only presume that Kamm thinks free speech and due process are critical features of society – so long as they are extended only to those with whom he agrees. When I raised the matter with him on Twitter he replied that Drew’s politics “are hostile to parliamentary democracy” – a strange assertion given that she literally ran for parliament in a democratic election.
This censorious double standard is perhaps most obvious, however, in some of the responses to a legal fundraiser initiated by Carole Morgan for Corbyn – intended to cover the Islington MP’s costs in the event of a libel action. So far it has raised more than £300,000 in just five days, meaning the threat of legal action resembles less the sword of Damocles and more a plastic butter knife.
Even this rearguard effort at self-defence elicited outrage. Corbyn, we are told, is unworthy of solidarity and his continuing life after frontline politics is itself somehow an act of vainglorious temerity. The only problem with that, however, is regardless of the establishment trying to re-write history, even at his nadir Corbyn led a party which received ten million votes. As critics increasingly understand that socialism is here to stay as a mass politics – which it is – one can only presume the McCarthyite hysteria will intensify.
The Daily Mail has called for Corbyn to return the money, while those involved in ongoing proceedings against Labour say they will consider dropping their cases if the former leader is kicked out of the party. The desire here, therefore, is not for justice, equality under the law or due process, but eradicating an entire politics – starting with its most publicly visible figure. This is the single most flagrant example of ‘cancel culture’ imaginable, and yet the free speech ambulance-chasers are silent.
Most concerning of all is that, unlike the Cold War era, such pathological hatred is divorced from an alternative. Whereas figures like Foster Dulles, Kissinger and Arthur Schlesinger Jr despised socialism, they also had their own propositional politics, however disagreeable. But when it comes to their would-be imitators this is not the case, their anti-left sentiments all the more nihilistic as they operate without ideas of their own – and all in a world increasingly defined by challenges like demographic ageing, inequality and climate change.
But perhaps this provides something of an explanation, the compulsive vendetta being pursued against the left serving a secondary purpose of not having to confront the fact that – for the first time in a century – the political forces of the status quo have no solutions to society’s intensifying crises.
This makes the politics of the ‘centre’, in style and content, more authoritarian than the left could ever be. After all, if they can’t change anything themselves then, at the very least, they can destroy those who believe they still might.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.