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The ‘Stalinism’ of Jeremy Corbyn: a reply to the Telegraph’s deputy editor

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters should get off Twitter and read a book instead. Or at least that’s the somewhat patronising headline accusation that opens the Telegraph deputy editor Allister Heath’s polemic against the left’s contestant in the current Labour leadership contest. It’s a bit rich for rightwingers to accuse leftwingers of not reading enough books. Surely the stereotype is that we read rather too many of the damn things, supposedly rendering us other-wordly intellectuals who remain congenitally unsuited to the genuine rigour required to run a whelk stall?

Heath can rest assured that many socialists are in possession of formidable private libraries, often including the output of our intellectual critics. Because of that, many of us will readily identify the Hayekian provenance of his arguments. Our interlocutor’s assertions are chiefly two; that Corbyn’s manifestation of Labourism is somehow incipiently totalitarian, and that there is no alternative to the economics of the free market right and its political corollaries. Thus the piece starts with an invitation for ‘any gullible youngster … who has fallen for Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist siren song’ to read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, which ‘may at least jolt them out of their ideological stupor’.

The Corbyn campaign, we are told, is ‘simply reopening a lengthy debate that was closed down when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989’. We are, in short, treated to just about every accusation in the cliched rightwing playbook, leaving us only one ritual invocation of Pol Pot short of full house. The tone alone – as asinine as it is apocalyptic – certainly grates. What is being said here?

  • That Corbyn advocates the institution of a Very British Gulag Archipelago centred on Doncaster, with satellite camps scattered across the vast post-Thatcherite industrial wastelands of the Northern Powerhouse?
  • That should Corbynism triumph, Britain will have to build an Anti-fascist Defence Wall around the Calais entrance to Eurotunnel, to prevent immigrants getting out?

Perhaps realising how specious such contentions are, Heath then immediately contradicts himself. ‘Needless to say,’ he writes, ‘Mr Corbyn and his groupies are no Stalinists’. Precisely. So why spend a substantial portion of the article warning us that Stalinism is a Very Bad Thing? We kind of knew that already.

Of what fallacies will reading Conquest disabuse gullible youngsters, then? The insidious dangers of rampant Year Zero Scandinavian social democracy? The ugly perils of unleashing German Mitbestimmung? Such deliberate conflation is, in origin, Hayek’s rather than Heath’s. The Austrian economist’s most famous book – not coincidentally, written on the eve of the electoral triumph of the most radical Labour government in British history –  made the case that even the least attempt at economic planning is The Road to SerfdomThe problem for defenders of that thesis is that it was verifiably nonsense on stilts; pace Churchill’s dire warnings, Clem Attlee did not institute a Gestapo regime.

While we are on the subject of infamous rightwing books, Heath even indulges in the obligatory big up for Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which argued that free markets and liberal democracy were the last word in humanity’s economic and political evolution. That is another volume of rightist punditry that has not stood the test of time. Free markets and liberal democracy do not feature highly on the Moscow or Beijing agenda right now, nor find much favour in the Middle East. Moreover, Hayek himself was perfectly prepared to defend murderous military dictatorships, provided only that they ‘upheld economic liberty’.

In short, Heath’s charge that the left’s ‘ignorance of history, let alone economic theory, is shocking’ really won’t wash.

The second part of the piece comprises a standard panegyric in defence of capitalism, premised on the Hayekian notion of spontaneous order; let the lefties meddle and the whole shooting match comes crashing down. The world economy continues to ‘boom’, we are told. Well, there a plenty of pro-capitalist observers, with an eye on the China slowdown and the current stagnation in world trade (£), offering rather more pessimistic assessments.

Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted ‘out of poverty’ by the grace of capitalism, Heath insists. But as I have argued elsewhere, this notion is contested. To be sure, it is better to be a few cents over the entirely arbitrary dollar-a-day threshold than a few cents under it, but capitalism still condemns around half the planet’s population to an unimaginably basic existence.

If we are going to highlight lacunae on people’s reading list, Mr Heath may want to take a look at Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. To be blunt, the idea that the advent of a British opposition party led by an advocate of renationalising the railway network and reintroducing student grants would be enough to derail global capitalism, then Hayek’s spontaneous order is hardly a robust edifice.

A Corbyn victory on September 12 – if it happens – won’t be the launchpad for permanent revolution. But it would be a key first step towards the extension of democracy in both politics and economics. Anyone would think Mr Heath didn’t welcome the prospect.

18 Comments

  1. David Ellis says:

    Eight five individuals control more personal wealth than 3.5 billion people. That is concentration of wealth on a scale that would make the most absolutist medieval monarch blush. Nobody voted for that and of course our liberal elite leaders are more than happy to reach for the gun and tyranny if their precious private property is ever under threat. That is the only human right, the right to property, that they recognise and yet it is not a human right at all but the right of a tiny elite upheld against humanity. As for Stalinism well Stalin was certainly responsible for his crimes which were indeed legion but the West and its successful campaign of containment through war and embargo in the 20s and 30s was responsible for Stalin. The blood is on their hands.

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    I agree, but what do you expect from The Telegraph? I take somewhat more seriously the comments from Blair, in his speech to Progress, and Johnson, in his ludicrous vote Cooper diatribe, in which Keir Hardie is portrayed as a ‘moderate’, a stance demolished yesterday by David Pavett. Both are implying, although they are unlikely to elaborate the point, that Corbyn stands for a sinister form of totalitarianism that is alien to the Labour tradition. In fact Corbyn is promoting a fairly moderate brand of social democracy that was standard fare in the Labour Party from the forties to the seventies, and is not nearly as left wing as Labour’s 1983 manifesto. What Blair and Johnson are saying is that Labour only has a future as some sort of liberal party, from which any trace of social democracy must be expunged.

  3. David Osland says:

    But that’s how they really do see it in Hayekville, Peter. Any interference with the spontaneous order of the market is the thin end of the wedge to Totalitarianism.

  4. Thank you for this exceedingly erudite put-down, David. I’ve always despised Hayek and all his libertarian oprichniki; the Telegraph’s keenness to adduce him speaks volumes of their ideological position and the depths to which this Tory government is heading for.

    I myself have written a diminutive essay on the matter, with particular regards to Labour’s failings, proposed strategies for success, and a consideration of Socialism’s economic and general ideological underpinnings; published here, I thought you might find it interesting.

    Excellent article,
    Alex.

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      When looking for riposte against left wing policies we could do no better than to refer to Albert Einstein’s paper on Why Socialism:

      http://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism/

      The beauty of reading this today is that we can see that all the evils of capitalism are same today as they were when he wrote this.

  5. NT says:

    The great lesson of the twentieth century is that liberal capitalist democracy (eg, the USA, western Europe, Australia) works, and authoritarian socialism (eg, Nazi Germany, the USSR, North Korea) doesn’t. That’s the great history lesson here – not (just) Labour’s defeat in 1983.

    Obviously Corbyn isn’t going to turn us into the Soviet Union. But the constant – that command economies and central planning don’t work – applies both to a Stalinist 5-year-plan or Corbyn’s “public-led” economic expansion (hard to know why that’s necessary when unemployment is the second lowest in Europe and economic growth is at a historically high level of 3% a year).

  6. Chris says:

    Typical bullshit conflation of socialism and Communism. It also amuses me how much conservatives think they know about economics.

    1. Mukkinese says:

      Being convinced of something, especially when it both flatters and enriches you and at the same time gives you an excuse to treat those less fortunate as second class humans, is not the same as “knowing” anything.

      The right clings to the silly notion that the world is a meritocracy and they are rich and powerful because they deserve to be, likewise the poor deserve what they get.

      A childish idea that allows them to sleep soundly as they take food out of the mouths of innocents, just so that they can have some more shiny baubles that they do not need…

  7. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Believe it or not there are whole American bureaucracies, with staff and budgets and pension plans (the American Information Service being but one of the the CIA’s psychological warfare division being another,) devoted solely to misrepresenting the democratic left where it can be found and slandering all things un-American.

    Strange but true.

  8. Patrick says:

    Next month we are running our 20th election in 8 years, is this democracy!

  9. Bazza says:

    Rosa Luxemburg warned of the dangers of bourgeois socialism – top down, elite, undemocratic central committees, with secret police etc. and the early bourgeois socialist leaders like Lenin, (would be leader Trotsky) and mass murderer Stalin took power for themselves.
    Jeremy as a facilitator of power and democratic socialists want power to come from below AND MORE DEMOCRACY – people having a say in every area of life, whilst the likes of the Telegraph it could be argued seem to favour top down power for the rich and powerful.
    The future I believe is grassroots, bottom up, democratic, participatory and peaceful.

  10. Karl Stewart says:

    Why is John McTernan allowed to remain a member of your party?

    In his recent interview in the Spectator, McTernan is quoted openly calling for a fascist coup in the event of a Corbyn victory.

    This is not a left-leaning publication, but even his interviewers seem shocked at such openly fascistic views and they ask him what about the grassroots of the party, to which he asks who cares about the grassroots.

    So, why have his remarks not been reported to the party’s ruling body and why has his membership not been suspended pending a formal investigation?

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Why is Blair not now awaiting prosecution in the Hague, why has Stephen Green not been prosecuted for his role in the fraud, criminality and malfeasance at HSBC; why are the same people who regularly stuff their pockets with taxpayer funded perks, (Laws, Balls, Miller, Cooper, Harman et al…) still at large and prospering whilst it is now being proposed that our homeless and the destitute should be, “punished,” with fine of up £500 and 2 years in prison?

      But then that’s a question which probably answers itself really.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        fines of up £5000 and 2 years in prison?

    2. John P Reid says:

      His argument is that if non members pay the £3 ,then it’s not legit, as they not members, are coups fascist? Cuba 1959!

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        Indeed, but speaking as some who has felt increasingly ignored and even effectively disenfranchised, (yes; I’d even go so far as to use the term alienated,) by the toxic Blair period of the UK Labor party and by his morally corrosive and socially decisive legacy; and that even without Labor’s operational disasters at Mid Staffs, Rotherham, Rochdale in Birmingham and elsewhere.

        I’ve happily paid my £3 quid to vote for Jeremy Corbyn and I very much appreciate having finally being given the opportunity to so.

        I see it as faint glimmer of light at the end of long a very dark tunnel; so to speak and Corbyn, (who actually seems pretty moderate to me,) doesn’t sound to me at all like an approaching freight train; although that might be nice ?

        1. Wildsage says:

          We do need the input of well read and well informed people to equip us to counter hostile propaganda (and THAT is what we are being bombarded with since Corbyn got big time support)
          BUT it is ordinary people fed up with ‘business as usual’ Blairism and tory attacks that will change the situation and recreate the possibilty of a better world for the majority. That is what is happening. Finally again here too ! We can all learn to play a role in making progressive change possible ?
          That is genuine democracy ?
          wildsage

  11. Mervyn Hyde says:

    Excellent article and comments, if we had any doubts at all about how the feral elite are controlling our lives, the media provide a window on exactly how they intend to maintain it.

    Senator Bernie Sanders said it in a nutshell back in 2011, “the 1% are at war with it’s own people”; and the sycophants that support them are not concerned about the real economic consequences, only their personal interests.

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