The stab-in-the-back myth
Nick Cohen on the dangerous lie the Corbynite left copied from the Nazis
The far left speaks with two voices. The first is the sweet voice it uses when it talks to the mainstream of progressive opinion. Forget all our associations with Leninism, Islamism and the Arab and South American dictators, it says. Forget our supporters who boast, “I am literally a communist.” We want what you want. Our only difference with the Labour politicians of the past is that when we declare our hatred of needless foreign wars and austerity we mean it.
Statements so inoffensive they might have been on greetings cards once peppered Jeremy Corbyn’s discourse. “If you do what you believe in, you’re strong. It’s when you don’t do what you believe in that you’re weak.” “The technology of the digital age should empower us both as workers and consumers.” “Racism divides, exploitation of minorities divides, exploitation of minorities brings about hatred.” How true and how lovely, and who could object?
Then there is the cracked voice the far left uses when it talks to itself. It does not matter if outsiders listen and think the far left is crazy or mendacious or both. All that matters is persuading its allies not to abandon the cause when they have every reason to leave.
The need of today’s far left to cajole its supporters into line ought to be plain to see. Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader was a disaster for the party and the wider centre-left: for in England at least the Labour Party remains the only credible vehicle for progressive politics. It confirmed Labour as a bankrupt force in its former Scottish heartlands. It lost the Brexit referendum — assuming, that is, the far left ever wanted to keep Britain in the EU.
It lost every European and local election. It lost once safe seats in working-class towns across the north and Midlands, and failed to win in middle-class towns in the south. The party retreated into the big cities, where it did well, but not well enough to come close to forming a government. To top it all, Labour made the suicidal decision to allow a general election in 2019, when Jeremy Corbyn was the most unpopular leader since records began. The worst defeat since 1935 followed.
Like drug dealers high on their own supply, Corbyn and his supporters convinced themselves they could take Tory seats and win power. They wasted resources on trying to beat Boris Johnson and many other safely ensconced Conservatives instead of concentrating on protecting what Labour held. No one knows what will happen now the coronavirus has turned politics upside down. Nevertheless, the position of the post-Corbyn Labour Party remains dreadful.
Those of us who understood the far left tried and failed to warn that it was as concerned with controlling the Labour Party as controlling the country. If Corbyn could shift Labour from being a social democratic to a post-Marxist party, we said, he would be satisfied, even if the Tories remained in power. The far left does not even control Labour now, as Keir Starmer’s emphatic victory in the leadership election proved. Tellingly to my mind, its candidate Rebecca Long Bailey ran a desultory campaign, so lacking in belief it was as if she knew the game was up.
Under Corbyn the far left achieved more than it ever imagined possible. It motivated hundreds of thousands of activists, and won the tacit acceptance of the 10 million or so people who voted Labour in 2019. Now the auditorium is emptying and the crowds are looking elsewhere.
Those on top want comforting myths as much as the lowliest drone
Put yourself in the place of Momentum members. The evangelical rallies, the Twitter pile-ons, the-get-out-the-vote drives, the plots, the demos, the hopes that maybe just maybe the British would turn to socialism look like so much wasted time. What was it all for? The best among them will feel shame at tying themselves to a movement that is now under investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for institutional racism against Jews, and for handing the Tories control of the country for at least another five years.
The moment of maximum danger for an extremist movement is when its supporters feel the urge to shrug and walk away. The Corbyn movement is already shattering into fragments: Momentum, Forward Momentum, Momentum Internationalists, and Don’t Leave Organise to name but a few. The disintegration could go further. Half the right-wing members of Tony Blair’s cabinet in 1997 began their careers on the Bennite left of the 1980s. As the world changed and they grew tired of losing elections, they changed and won. You do not need mystical powers to predict that many among today’s loudmouthed Corbynite “outriders” will become tomorrow’s cautious bourgeoisie. From a far-left perspective, there is an urgent need to stop the rot before the whole edifice crumbles.
The result is a shameless stab-in-the-back theory, which matches in its audacity the Dolchstoßlegende that Prussian militarists and German Nazis used to explain away the allied victory over the Kaiser in the First World War. Corbyn’s allies are talking in their true voice now. They are not interested in what moderate centre-left opinion thinks or what anyone thinks. Their sole aim is to hold their sect together. Along with justifying themselves to their followers they must justify themselves to themselves. For the far left’s leaders were as fooled as the most naïve Labour activist. They, too, need to believe they haven’t wasted their lives.
It’s a mistake, I think, to believe that the leaders of any political movement are motivated solely by cynicism. However shamelessly they manipulate their camp followers, the people at the top want comforting myths as much as the lowliest drone.
To an outsider the result of the urge to find a scapegoat looks close to madness. An 850-page report, commissioned by Jenny Formby, Corbyn’s appointee as Labour’s general secretary, who has now resigned, turns the world back to front. Nothing is what it appears. Everything becomes its opposite.
The far left did not, apparently, throw away its chance of power and hand the country to Boris Johnson. On the contrary, it should be in power today. If the report’s findings are right, said John McDonnell, Britain could now be “in the third year of a Labour government”. This paradise was lost because “a group of senior staff” — consisting of Labour officials opposed to Corbyn — undermined the party in the 2017 general election campaign in a “shocking act of treachery” and ensured its defeat.
Despite appearances, the far left was not an antisemitic movement either. The real enablers of Jew hatred were the very people who complained the loudest about the descent of Labour into a babbling claque of anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists. “Officials,” motivated by hostility to Corbyn’s left-wing politics, made a “concerted effort to scupper the handling of complaints” of antisemitism, explained an ex-Labour MP as she reviewed the report for the communist Morning Star. They created a “massive backlog”, which was then used by the far left’s enemies to spin the false narrative that Corbyn didn’t care about racism. Only when the vipers were cleared out, and Formby’s officials took control of the party, was racism taken seriously. As purge followed purge in Stalinist Russia, the joke ran: “The past changes so quickly, you don’t know what’s going to happen yesterday.” The same applies to the Corbyn movement. If we remember yesterday as it was rather than as the far left would like it be, the conspiracy theory makes no sense.
Labour did better than everyone, not least the Corbynistas, expected in the 2017 general election, but it was still 55 seats behind Theresa May’s Conservative Party. The difficulty in sustaining the assertion that Corbyn might have won, if “Blairite” officials had not sabotaged the campaign, is that in 2019 Corbyn controlled every part of the party machine, and led Labour to an ignominious defeat.
As for the Labour relationship with Jews, the story changes so fast it’s as if we are back in the USSR. Yesterday’s far-left line was that accusations of racism were “smears” by right-wing “Zionist” enemies. All of a sudden, the smears turn out to be true or at least plausible charges that anti-Corbyn Labour officials deliberately ignored as part of a plot against the very party they were duty bound to serve. We are meant to forget, for Formby’s report most certainly does forget, that Labour officials described to the BBC how they were driven to nervous breakdowns by Corbyn’s allies’ determination to minimise racism.
Formby’s report could cripple the Labour Party for years
We are meant to forget too that Corbyn might have decided to combine support for Palestinian rights with a recognition of Israel’s right to exist. He might not have befriended terrorists who wanted to kill Jews for being Jews. He might have defended Jewish MPs, and stopped the left driving them from his party. He might have refused to become the willing and paid servant of the Iranian state’s propaganda service. He might have recognised racist caricatures straight out of fascist Europe and denounced rather than defended them. He might have refrained from descending into the banter of every saloon-bar bigot and not scoffed that, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time” Zionists “don’t understand English irony”.
He did none of the above because for a generation, not just the far left, but much of the centre left and the pro-Palestinian movement, made no attempt to draw a boundary between opposition to Israeli policies and anti-Jewish racism. In these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Labour became a magnet for every variety of Jew baiter and conspiracy nut when Corbyn took over.
The vast length of the report Formby commissioned and its stolid, bureaucratic title “The Work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism 2014-2019” fit the conspiracist model. Go to any website asserting that al-Qaeda didn’t bring down the twin towers or that manmade global warming is a lie, and you do not find arguments you can accept or reject. Instead, the conspiracists so drown you in an ocean of pseudo-scientific detail that your befuddled mind is unable to think for itself.
Readers of the Formby-commissioned report are left to drown in thousands of private emails and WhatsApp messages from former Labour staffers. To be fair, they do indeed show that many officials loathed Corbyn and his apparatchiks.
But the effect of the decision of someone in Corbyn’s circle to leak them showed that the different languages the far left speaks are next to incomprehensible. In the world of verifiable facts and evidence-based arguments, the report is an unmitigated disaster that might cripple the Labour Party for years. Labour’s own lawyers said they could not possibly submit it to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission as it admitted the very accusation of institutional racism the party was trying to rebut.
I would quote from the disobliging WhatsApp messages Labour officials sent when they discussed the multiple faults of their bosses, but I cannot. The leak of the report is likely to produce dozens of legal actions. One lawyer told me he estimated 40 claims would follow. Most would be for breach of privacy based on the argument that Labour officials had the right to expect their confidential message would not be spread all over the web. Others are threatening to sue for libel. They say it is an outrageous lie to claim they conspired to lose an election or to cover up racial hatred. So great are the legal dangers, Formby had to warn Labour members that, if they shared the report that she commissioned, they “will be immediately exposing themselves to potential significant civil and criminal liability”.
Formby’s gone now and so has Corbyn. Keir Starmer will have to clean up their mess and find the money to meet a legal bill that could run into millions of pounds. Objectively, the conspiracy theory looks quite mad. But psychologically, from the point of view of the far left, the report is a work of propaganda that approaches genius. To see why compare the German far right of the 1920s with the British far left of the 2020s. After its defeat in the First World War, the German army’s Chief-of-Staff, General Erich Ludendorff, began to propagate the Dolchstoßlegende — stab-in-the-back myth — that the German army had not lost but been betrayed by the democrats, pacifists and Jews. The self-interest in shifting the blame is easy to understand, as is the self-interest of a British far-left anxious to shuffle off responsibility for shattering the Labour Party.
The choice of target determines the course of new conflicts. The emerging ultra-nationalists and fascists of the 1920s could never accept Germany’s surrender and the humiliating peace terms of the Treaty of Versailles. But they reserved their energy for denouncing, not the French, British and American forces that had defeated Germany in battle, but the democratic politicians of the new Weimar Republic, who had accepted defeat. Their fantasies inspired a programme for undermining democracy in the 1920s.
The socialists, liberals and Jews, who given the collapse of German power, had no choice but to sign whatever treaty the victorious allies offered them, were traitors: the “November criminals” in Hitler’s words, after the armistice of 11 November 1918. The enemy within must be attacked; their republic must be destroyed. Once the “criminals” were gone, Germany, under the far-right’s determined leadership, could try again for European domination with a Second World War.
The Dolchstoßlegende of the British far left reserves its greatest hatred, not for Boris Johnson and the victorious Conservatives, but for Labour’s enemy within. After condemning the stab-in-the-back as “the most shocking act of treachery against the party”, John McDonnell added: “Expect all of us whose dreams of this transformative Labour government were shattered in 2017 to be angry. Actually, bloody angry.”
That bloody anger lays out a political programme for the future. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission finds that Corbyn’s Labour Party was racist, the far left can say the “establishment” was covering up on behalf of Corbyn’s internal enemies, who its own report had proved were the true racists. If Starmer decides to spare the party fantastically expensive legal costs, and settle the privacy and libel claims, the far left will accuse him of selling out to traitors, and showing in the process that he was a traitor himself. If he wants to hire any of the ex-Labour officials who could not stomach working for Corbyn, they will repeat the charge.
As with the German betrayal myth, the far left’s fantasy allows it to rally disillusioned followers. You did not lose because your belief in the far left was a mistake, it says. You haven’t wasted your time and energy. Stick to the cause and we can try for domination again. You can see now only the machinations of traitors stopped us winning in 2017. Next time there will be no mistake.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe