In this week’s column, Paul takes on the anti-Nato left, tracing its roots to show is has always been a fundamentally un-Labour position.
There is no evidence that Lenin ever used the phrase ‘useful idiots’ to describe those in the West who gave succour to the cause of Russian communism without realising the extent of their idiocy. That’s a shame, because the phrase perfectly captures the status of the pro-Communist celebrities, writers, and politicians who blithely brushed over the Gulag, the show trials, the KGB, or the Holodomor, when the Russians starved millions of Ukrainians to death in 1932 and 1933.
It was of course useful to the Soviets that such people existed, to excuse their crimes and spread, like manure, what we would now call ‘fake news’. The degree to which they were idiots is debatable. Some were idealistic dupes such as the Webbs, others treacherous renegades such as Kim Philby.
Some like Denis Healey saw communism as the best bulwark to Nazism in the 1930s, but went on a political journey towards democracy. Others went in the opposite direction: Denis Pritt, Labour MP for Hammersmith North and Labour NEC member, actually attended the first show trial in Moscow and sided with Stalin in purging the Bolsheviks. He was kicked out of the Labour Party in 1940 for backing the Soviet invasion of Finland, after the Hitler-Stalin pact, and remained a staunch proponent of Stalin’s Russia and opponent of NATO. No wonder he appeared on George Orwell’s list of Soviet sympathisers which he supplied to British intelligence in 1949.
During the Cold War – a term coined by Orwell – British pro-Russian sympathisers could cloak their politics in the language of brotherhood and peace. The Red Army had won the war. The Soviet Union was a unique experiment in Marxism-Leninism, and sure, a few eggs might get broken, but the omelette would be worth it. Even today, there are lingering traces of this sympathy for Stalin and Stalinism, despite all the evidence of torture, murder, repression and death camps. Some of the lingering traces found their way into Leader of the Opposition’s offices between 2015 and 2019.
But why would anyone be pro-Russian today? Why do the Stop The War Coalition and their parliamentary supporters back the line it’s all NATO’s fault? Why did Keir Starmer feel the need to remind the PLP meeting at the end of February that seeking equivalence between NATO and Putin is incompatible with Labour membership?
After all, Communism collapsed over 30 years ago, to widespread rejoicing across the former Eastern bloc and beyond. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a straightforward act of murderous imperialist aggression towards an independent democratic neighbour. Putin is plainly a Russian imperialist, as his foreign policy has shown consistently since the 1990s.
The only people surprised by the invasion on 24 February were those who were in a coma during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, or Georgia in 2008, or the military interventions in Syria or Kazakhstan. It’s not like ‘invade more countries’ was Putin’s new year resolution; the guy has proper form.
And yet there are current Labour Party members – and MPs – who equivocate over who is to blame for the Russian columns rolling across the borders, as though there is moral equivalence between Russian invaders in tanks and Ukrainian civilians with homemade petrol bombs. Or that NATO is the aggressor and ‘refute the idea that NATO is a defensive alliance’ as 11 Labour MPs did, at least for an hour or so.
The fact is that for some on the left of politics, hatred of the Western alliance, of America, and of NATO is the overriding factor in any situation. If Putin is against the West, then he can’t be all bad. Years of Russia Today and Morning Star editorials have combined to create an intellectual and moral blindfold, so that even an open and shut case of black and white, goodies versus baddies seems somehow nuanced.
Fine. They’re entitled to their view, no matter how abhorrent we may find it. However, the Labour Party should have as a litmus test support for Britain’s membership of NATO, symbolising wider support for our place as part of a Western alliance and family of democratic nations. It’s a fundamental test of membership; there is no room for ‘yes, but’ and ‘what about?’.
The West owes so much to the efforts of Clement Attlee and in particular Ernie Bevin in creating NATO in 1949. As Kenneth O Morgan put it in his history of the 1945 Labour government: ‘Bevin’s creation of the fabric of transatlantic collaboration, from Marshall aid to NATO, must rank as one of the outstanding achievements by any British foreign minister since the days of the Elder Pitt’.
Bevin’s NATO was as much a symbol of international solidarity as Bevan’s NHS was the symbol of social solidarity. Bevin created NATO from its smaller constituent parts in the same way he created the Transport & General workers union. He knew that the way to stand up to bullies – whether British bosses or the Soviets – was collective strength. And he knew how to handle the likes of Molotov from his dealings with the Commies inside the T&G.
Today, the same collectivist principle applies. We need NATO more than ever, and recent terrible events have proved it in spades. There is little doubt that Putin would invade Estonia if it was not a NATO member under the protection of Article 5. Or the other territories and peoples that form part of his demented plans for a ‘greater Russia’. The Labour Party stands with the people standing in the way of these delusions, and the institutions, treaties and alliances that defend them. It’s not just a question of practical geo-politics, but also our social-democratic values: we believe in solidarity, in defending the weak against the strong, for democracy and liberty.
By contrast, if you think Russian imperialism is the West’s fault, or that Putin maybe has a point, or the Ukrainians are fascists, or Biden and Zelenskyy are the bad guys, then don’t think you can be a member of the Labour Party as well. Useful idiots need not apply.