I still fight oppression-The liberals who say I have deserted the left should ask themselves where they stand on Islamism:
Sunday August 7, 2005
Looking back on how his generation covered up the crimes of communism in the 1930s, WH Auden explained that he and his friends weren't true communists but fellow travellers. At home they defended civil liberties and stood up for freedom of speech. Abroad, they tolerated atrocities precisely because they didn't impinge on them.
'Our great error,' said Auden, 'was not a false admiration for Russia but a snobbish feeling that nothing which happened in a semi-barbarous country which had experienced neither the Renaissance nor the Enlightenment could be of any importance: had any of the countries we knew personally, like France, Germany or Italy, the language of which we could speak and where we had personal friends, been one to have a successful communist revolution with the same phenomena of terror, purges, censorship etc, we would have screamed our heads off.'
To speak of the 'Auden generation' is to perpetuate a myth of the Thirties. The majority of the population, including the majority of Labour supporters, never read an Auden poem or hitched a ride with communism. What is meant is the 'progressive' middle-class left: publishers, authors, academics, teachers, liberal journalists, the odd lawyer and odder advocate of various forms of alternative life styles. People like me, in short.
In their later years, most tried a defence which Auden was too honest, and too filled with disgust at his younger self, to advance. Our priority was fighting fascism, the excuse-making ran. We were faced with a psychopathic movement of the extreme right which was dripping in blood. It looks bad now that we went along with Stalin, but we were socialists and he called what he was doing socialism, and in any event we had other priorities.
Today's middle-class left is made up of the same types as 70 years ago. The faults of small-mindedness and self-righteousness and the virtues of instinctive suspicion of the British establishment and sympathy for the British underdog haven't changed either. What's new is that no one truly believes in socialism. When Tony Blair goes we will have the first Labour leadership election without a serious left-wing candidate. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine what a serious left-wing candidate would look like and what his or her programme might be.
I'm sure that any halfway competent political philosopher could rip the assumptions of modern middle-class left-wingery apart. Why is it right to support a free market in sexual relationships but oppose free-market economics, for instance? But his criticisms would have little impact. It's like a religion: the contradictions are obvious to outsiders but don't disturb the faithful. You believe when you're in its warm embrace. Alas, I'm out. Last week, after 44 years of regular church-going, the bell tolled, the book was closed and the candle was extinguished. I was excommunicated.
The officiating bishop was Peter Wilby, a former editor of the New Statesman and a friend of long-standing, who delivered his anathema in the Guardian. The immediate heresy was a piece I'd written about how difficult the courts made it to deport suspected Islamist terrorists. As I'd campaigned to protect asylum seekers in the past, Wilby used the article as damning evidence of 'a rightwards lurch'. The old bat didn't understand that genuine asylum seekers are the victims of the world's greatest criminals - four million fled Saddam Hussein - not criminals themselves.
Even if he'd grasped that the Mail was wrong and real refugees weren't villains, I doubt it would have made a difference. My mortal sin had been to question 'harshly the motives of the anti-war movement', and to that I had to plead guilty.
The least attractive characteristic of the middle-class left - one shared with the Thatcherites - is its refusal to accept that its opponents are sincere. The legacy of Marx and Freud allows it to dismiss criticisms as masks which hide corruption, class interests, racism, sexism - any motive can be implied except fundamental differences of principle. "
Auden noticed a retreat from universal principles in the 1930s - communism was fine in 'semi-barbaric' Russia but would have been a screaming outrage in a civilised country. He should have been alive today. With no socialism to provide international solidarity, good motives of tolerance and respect for other cultures have had the unintended consequence of leading a large part of post-modern liberal opinion into the position of 19th-century imperialists. It is presumptuous and oppressive to suggest that other cultures want the liberties we take for granted, their argument runs. So it may be, but believe that and the upshot is that democracy, feminism and human rights become good for whites but not for browns and brown-skinned people who contradict you are the tools of the neo-conservatives.
On the other hand when confronted with a movement of contemporary imperialism - Islamism wants an empire from the Philippines to Gibraltar - and which is tyrannical, homophobic, misogynist, racist and homicidal to boot, they feel it is valid because it is against Western culture. It expresses its feelings in a regrettably brutal manner perhaps, but that can't hide its authenticity.
The result of this inversion of principles has been that liberals can't form alliances with the victims of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Iraq any more than the Auden generation could form alliances with the victims of Stalinism.
This isn't simply about international relations. Who is going to help the victims of religious intolerance in Britain's immigrant communities? Not the Liberal Democrats, who have never once offered support to liberal and democrats in Iraq. Nor an anti-war left which prefers to embrace a Muslim Association of Britain and Yusuf al-Qaradawi who believe that Muslims who freely decide to change their religion or renounce religion should be executed. If the Archbishop of Canterbury were to suggest the same treatment for renegade Christians all hell would break loose. But as the bigotry comes from 'the other' there is silence.
Perhaps it will break soon. There always was far more disquiet on the left at this 'rightwards lurch' than the Guardian or Radio 4 admitted. If my emails are a guide, the London bombs have added a practical reason for breaking with the consensus: now they're trying to kill us. Even if people think that the Iraq war has made Britain a bigger target, they are still confronted with a fascistic cult of murder and self-murder which allows no compromise.
The thing to watch for with fellow travellers is what shocks them into pulling the emergency cord and jumping off the train. I know some will stay on to the terminus, and when the man with the rucksack explodes his bomb their dying words will be: 'It's not your fault. I blame Tony Blair.'
My advice to my former comrades is to struggle out of your straitjackets and get off at the next station. It would be good to see you on this side of the barrier.