25 December 2005


I’ve been an avid reader of Oliver Kamm’s weblog (click here) since he started it – and his new book, Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, is as readable and as feisty as you’d expect it to be.

I also agree with its basic thesis, that at some point in the past half-century much of the left in Britain and America -- and elsewhere, though most of his examples are decidedly Anglo-Saxon – forgot a crucial lesson of the 1930s and 1940s, that opposition to totalitarianism should be at the very core of foreign policy in every democratic polity.

But when it comes to the detail, I’m afraid I part company. He’s got too much of his history horribly wrong.

Kamm starts well, identifying the failure of the most of the 1930s left (with hindsight quite extraordinary) to recognise either (a) that the rise of Hitler necessitated rearmament or (b) that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian power and at best an unreliable ally against Nazism.

After that, however, he loses the plot, starting with his account of the British left in the 1940s. He’s right that some of the left was sympathetic with Stalin then. But he lazily elides the outlook of the tiny group of Labour Soviet fellow-travellers with that of the “third force” left, the dominant Labour left faction – grouped around Tribune – which from 1945 until 1947-48 argued for a united democratic socialist Europe independent of both Washington and Moscow (a position most famously articulated in the pamphlet Keep Left). Both the fellow-travellers and the Keep Leftists, were, in Kamm’s view, equally gullible useful idiots for Moscow.

Yet that simply wasn’t the case. The “third force” left was never of one mind, but it included some of the most consistent left critics of Soviet society and Soviet foreign policy (among them George Orwell, Arthur Koestler and Franz Borkenau). And nearly all the “third force” left was driven by events – in particular the seizure of power in east-central Europe by communists backed by Soviet occupiers – to accept that an anti-totalitarian western European alliance with the United States, as advocated by Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign secretary, was the only option for democratic socialists. By 1948, the Labour left was emphatically pro-Nato. But you don’t get a hint of it from Kamm.

More important, despite Kamm’s claims to the contrary, this remained the dominant perspective of the democratic left in the Labour Party for the next 50 years – regardless of its criticisms of US policy, regardless of its opposition to nuclear arms and regardless of regular outbreaks of wishful thinking about how the Soviet Union and its satellites might be on the brink of democratic reform.

There was always a tiny group of hardline pro-Soviet left-wingers in the Labour Party, including several MPs: Frank Allaun, Ron Brown and James Lamond spring to mind from the 1980s. They were fools and worse, and they should not have been tolerated as they were – but they were never the majority of the left, even during the left’s enthusiasms for the false dawns of Khruschev’s thaw or Gorbachev’s glasnost.

The overwhelming majority of Labour’s unilateral disarmers and critics of US foreign policy – from Nye Bevan to Robin Cook – remained committed to British membership of Nato; and some of them were the most outspoken critics of “actually existing socialism” in British politics.

In the Labour Party, it was the Realpolitiker crew on the right – with Denis Healey in the vanguard from the 1940s until the 1980s – that, after its initial cold-war enthusiasm for confronting communism, most consistently argued for accommodation with Khruschev, Brezhnev, Andropov et al and opposed any western action whenever Moscow clamped down.

Apologists for the Soviet Union did play a bigger role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, at least in its 1980s manifestation, than in the Labour Party. But again they were not in the driving seat, contrary to Kamm’s suggestions. Throughout the 1980s, CND was dominated politically by supporters (mainly soft-left – Footite, Kinnnockite – Labour) of the European Nuclear Disarmament campaign, the group led by Edward Thompson that argued for disarmament by both superpowers in Europe and promoted dialogue with – and supported – dissidents in the Soviet bloc. I deputy-edited END’s magazine, and I can vouch for the fact that Vic Allen, the hardline Stalinist on the CND executive who, it recently emerged, spied for the Stasi, was as much our enemy as he was MI5’s.

END, along with various libertarian and Trotskisant leftists – Solidarity, Labour Focus on Eastern Europe – kept up a relentless critique of Soviet totalitarianism (though we rarely used the word) long after the Labour right had drifted into Kissingeresque Realpolitik. The demonstrations against the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981 were organised by expat Poles and the libertarian left outside the Labour Party, not by cold-war right-wing social democrats. And if you were looking for anti-totalitarianism in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t happening in the public pronouncements of John Gilbert or the rest of the Nato-loyal right-wing Labour establishment: the sound of freedom was END talking to Vaclav Havel.

There’s more than one way to be anti-totalitarian, in other words, and it’s not essential for anti-totalitarians always to adopt the most hawkish foreign policy stance available. The utility of confrontation or military intervention or negotiation and diplomacy has to be judged case by case. Kamm is right to emphasise the principle of anti-totalitarianism – but there’s no need for anti-totalitarianism to make you a neo-con.