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Which Side are You On?

by Nicky Hutchinson
November 2, 2020

High profile figures on the left claiming that Corbyn's response to the EHRC report was 'unwise' betray a poor understanding of the duties of comradeship. 1195 words / 5 min read

When Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from Labour for his response to the EHRC’s antisemitism report there were some who criticised his statement as offensive. Members on the Party’s left, meanwhile, leapt to his defence. For some in the middle there was an odd whimper that his reaction had been “unwise” or “misjudged”, “inept” or “unhelpful”: a refusal to say whether it was good or not, but to see it through a lens of tactics.

It’s fair to say many of us are having trouble to adjusting to life after Corbynism. There is nothing more crushing than believing something different truly is possible, only to have that belief shoved back in your face by gloating racists. Party members break down in tears on zoom calls, having been unable to process what happened without being able to talk it all through due to Covid. Many others leave, perceiving no leadership on the left to make it worth staying, only the self-defeating entreaties to “stay and fight” of those doing nothing to fight.

While they are privileged in most ways, there is one way in which the adjustment is harder in one sense for those whose recoveries are taking place in public. MPs have gone in various directions; some are now too frightened to stand up to the new leadership, some have been more inclined to solidarity, while others talk loudly while carrying a small stick. Other Corbyn supporters made their names since 2015 as commentators, pontificating on the political scene for TV or new media. Still others advised Corbyn-era frontbenchers, officially or unofficially, on policy, strategy or media, and now have or seek careers related to politics where decisions are assessed against how they advance towards an electoral goal. The problem arises when trying to combine this with being a socialist activist. The result is a weird being that oscillates between arguing for doing the right thing and discussing what the ‘smart’ thing to do is: neither fish nor fowl, neither a dispassionate observer nor a reliable comrade.

So we are told that if he was being strategic Corbyn should have remained quiet under fire on the EHRC report, that we should “avoid the Tories’ trap” by ignoring anti-trans bigotry, or that the ‘smart’ thing to do is to stop harping on about austerity cuts even as they continue to cost lives.

Obviously socialists need to have principled politics and also make wise tactical and strategic decisions; the problem is those who switch between the two opportunistically, stroking their chins about what is ‘smart’ at times when a trustworthy comrade would simply do the right thing.

Amongst other things a comrade is someone who shares your goals and, while disagreeing on tactics, keeps those disagreements private in the middle of a fight. You or I might think that a trade union dispute is unwise. But pretty much any union activist, or anyone who has been in a political fight, knows that if you want to be a comrade you share those thoughts privately and show your solidarity publicly for those under attack.

Socialists need to have principled politics and make wise strategic decisions; the problem is those who switch between the two opportunistically, stroking their chins about what is ‘smart’ when a comrade would do the right thing.

Equally, Corbyn’s staff or friends obviously might (if they thought so) have advised him quietly that a particular sentence was unwise, depending on the hoped-for outcome. If a comrade thought Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the EHRC report was justified but misjudged, they might roll their eyes, kick the carpet or moan to a friend. They would realise that they have no right to pontificate over tactical wisdom when a comrade is defending himself against allegations of antisemitism which they agree are unfair, and would support him even if they thought his response a tactical mistake.

Why does this distinction matter? Because we are going through a horrible but necessary period of political clarification. The Labour Party will emerge from the next few years a very different terrain to that of the Corbyn or pre-Corbyn era. The first stage of that clarification is working out who are our comrades, who wants the same things as us and will work together in good faith, and who is something different. Naturally we broaden the number of our allies as widely as possible to win political battles wherever possible and to build alliances on the basis of acknowledged differences, but this cannot begin without first understanding who is on our side.

The first stage of political clarification is working out who are our comrades, who wants the same things as us and will work together in good faith, and who is something different.

There is a fundamental difference between politics observed as a ‘neutral’ and politics entered into as a committed protagonist. We have all seen footballers awkwardly commentating on their own team’s game while out injured, unable to decide whether their loyalty to their team-mates outweighs the need to be seen to be objective. Maybe there is a place for both. But while we all have friends, colleagues and family members who we disagree with, a comrade can expect and demand a certain level of political loyalty, a solidarity implicit in a shared “we”; those who commentate on our political decisions like dispassionate observers cannot demand that solidarity and will not be granted it.

There are naturally people who think Corbyn was morally wrong, maybe even that he is an antisemite, that nobody has overstated the extent of Labour antisemitism for factional reasons and that to suggest so was something worthy of suspension. They set themselves honestly against Corbyn’s re-admittance. Mealy-mouthed fence-sitting under the guise of tactics is somehow worse.

It leads you down the road of complicity, of “both sides-ing” when your comrades are under attack. It leads you to the grotesquely pathetic contortions of “well, of course I agree with that, but it’s important that Starmer doesn’t listen to people like me.” And, if you really have no self-respect, it might even lead to a regular column in the New Statesman.

There is a long haul ahead for all of us. Nobody is going to make it trying to ride two horses at once.

Postscript

I hoped it was clear but perhaps needs clarifying that the above does not in sense whatsoever argue for the suppression of criticism of comrades (or anyone else) on moral or political grounds. One of the article’s central arguments is the need to distinguish between moral questions and tactical ones. It is a result of the failure to make this distinction that some – I criticise here some left political pundits, not the movement in general – duck moral questions around allegations of antisemitism by pivoting to whether or not a response to them is tactically ‘wise’. The obligation on comrades to discuss disagreements privately applies to tactical points and it is wrongly applying that categorisation to questions of right-and-wrong which leads to the moral squalor of asking not whether someone is fairly accused of, for example, antisemitism (or abuse, etc) and whether their response is fair, but what the politically opportune response should be.


Author:

Nicky Hutchinson