Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in general is rapidly on the rise in the West. This should not surprise us; polite society has allowed atrocity-denial and the hatred it vomits out to become normal and acceptable. If a person can deny the documentary and photographic proof of a massacre in Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda or anywhere else without suffering ill for it, the denial of Auschwitz will follow suit.
Denying the Holocaust is now at risk of becoming fashionable once again. It is on the cusp of being, so to speak, ‘cool’. It positions you against the Establishment, the metropolitan elite, the leisured and educated bien-pensants who have been losing every election and Referendum for some time. Denying the “official story” gives you the ability to fight back against the Mainstream Media (MSM) whose agenda to manipulate you into conformity can be resisted by “doing research” and getting your facts from true and alternative media sources. Believing the Holocaust happened makes you an establishment shill; but “questioning” it makes you an independent mind who cannot be bought off or brainwashed by the globalists who control all the television networks, newspapers and History Departments in the Western world.
If this parody is offensive, the subject matter is an obscenity. I wrote an undergraduate Dissertation on the subject of genocide denial in two libel trials; Irving v Penguin and ITN v LM, both concluded at the High Court in the year 2000. I completed and printed this work in the summer of 2016. Even in the time since then, I find the scale of the successes enjoyed by genocide and atrocity-deniers in recent years to be staggering. Do not heed the well-meaning advice of “don’t read the comments”, and gaze into the comments section below any major news story related to Syria published in 2015 or 2016. As the Syrian conflict draws to a bloody denouement; the “peace” of silence over a graveyard once everything remaining in it is dead; we may forget these stories ever happened as they did.
There you will see, with hundreds of upvotes of approval from other users, fellow members of your society accusing CNN, the BBC, Channel 4 News, the Guardian or the Washington Post of promoting fabricated atrocity stories in the service of an imperialist or ‘globalist’ geopolitical agenda. The work of journalists and war correspondents is dismissed out-of-hand as a calculated effort to deceive and manipulate. The photographs of bloodied, crying children and the mass graves holding their relatives are “dubious” or outright fraud given centre-stage by “the media”, a monolith dedicated only to demonising the Syrian government for the purposes of regime-change. Inevitably, anti-Semitism and allegations of “Zionist” puppetry behind Western involvement and Western media reporting on Syria emerge, gaining hundreds of upvotes even when openly proclaiming admiration for Hitler and the Nazi extermination of the Jews.
The rage against the victims of atrocities, and those exposing the atrocities, has never been more publicly visible and hence, publicly acceptable. I submit that, as a result of the acceptability of denying other genocides, we are now facing the prospect of a new generation denying or shrugging-off the Nazi Holocaust. If you want some immediate evidence, break the “don’t read the comments” rule again, and go to the YouTube uploads of theatrical trailers for the historical and courtroom drama film Denial, released in British cinemas on Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th. Every YouTube video related to the film is flooded with downvotes; the ‘dislikes’ have been in the majority or winning 50-50 since each video was uploaded, the comments section dominated by tech-savvy members of the alt-right or the conspiracy subculture. Deborah Lipstadt, the historian whose legal battle with neo-Nazi historical fraudster David Irving inspired the film, regards the problem as the same:
“Of course the thumbs down and the comments on [the trailer] were pure anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt tells TIME… “I think we’re living at a time when conspiracy theorists and people with outlandish ideas that do not correspond to the facts are finding more of a fertile field, more of a welcome, more of an ability to promulgate their claims than we’ve ever had before…”
They are winning the battle of approval and platform vocals in burying the film’s online reputation as a Hollywood propaganda exercise to promote the ‘Holohoax’. The favourite quote of the commenters is the favourite of all anti-Semites who abuse history; the immortal quote by Voltaire that “to know who rules over you, notice who you cannot criticise.” Except it is not an immortal quote by a French philosophical and political genius; it is a claim made in an hysterical 1993 book by none other than “Kevin Strom, an American white nationalist, neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.” The quote itself, a favourite of neo-Nazis which has spread into a broader conspiracy subculture, entered the news in Australia in 2015 when a conservative politician tweeted it with the Internet-sanctioned authority of its Voltaire origins. Unfortunately:
“The suspected source of the quote is Strom’s 1993 essay, All America Must Know the Terror that is Upon Us… In 2008 Strom was sentenced to 23 months in prison for possessing child abuse material.”
The online warriors, who exist in the very real physical world, fear no response and no repercussions, socially or otherwise, for their actions.
None of this matters. Truth has already been abolished for those who spend their time downvoting film trailers and upvoting comments proclaiming the most well-documented events of the twentieth century to be a hoax propagandised by an invisible global conspiracy. Case in point is a popular online documentary praising and lavishing glory upon Adolf Hitler, enjoying high ratings on IMDB and more than 140 user reviews, called ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’. The approval given by fans to the documentary in the top-rated reviews, is primarily for the Hitler-worshipping film challenging “history as told by the other side (the winners). Which is the story we are indoctrinated with through the school system and our media.” The Truth, or in this case, the denial of overhwelming evidence of the Truth, shall set you free. So saith the collective wisdom of the alt-right.
The far-right and the alt-right are not alone in their quest for ‘truth’.
The front pages of a socialist newspaper, one disseminated and promoted by the leader of the British Labour Party who remains a contributor, proclaim the “liberation” of a city being subjected to massacres and mass executions by a dictator who has used chemical weapons against civilians. Viral videos circulated among the politically interested, those who consider themselves ‘activists’ for one or many causes, whose favourite words are ‘resistance’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘justice’, boastfully deny the existence of atrocities which are extensively-documented. Unsatisfied with denying the suffering of those in the frames of photographs and videos, the deniers embrace the intoxicating self-righteousness of the conspiracy narrative; the alleged surviving victims are not survivors at all, but merely actors and fakes, paid as part of a malevolent conspiracy led by the mass media and Western governments. As the American children massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 were victimised again after their deaths by InfoWars.com and its owner Alex Jones denouncing the massacre as a “hoax” by the US government, and their families denounced as “crisis actors”, so to for every Syrian civilian murdered by the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The White Helmets volunteers trying to dig them out of the rubble and save them from barrel-bombs are not really humanitarian rescuers at all – they are really Al-Qaeda terrorists trying to overthrow the Syrian state. Their ‘volunteers’ are jihadists, the children they rescue are props, their statistics and documentation are a propaganda effort organised by the CIA and/or Mossad.
ISIS is a terrorist death cult which has brought racial genocide, social apocalypse and totalitarianism to Iraq and Syria, and would launch a war of extermination against the Jewish people if it possessed the material capacity to do so. Yet, the “anti-establishment” and “open your eyes” media have discovered the shocking truth. ISIS is in fact a creation of Israel itself, designed to bring chaos to Arab Muslim countries and distract the world from Israel’s own catalogue of offences. This belief has taken hold powerfully in many Muslim countries; whether by state propaganda in Iran, statements by the foreign minister of Lebanon, or simply where the cognitive dissonance and moral conflict of confronting a self-identified ‘Islamic’ holy state, has been too difficult for many believers to manage. Muslim communities in the West face similar problems. According to a study by Policy Exchange which surveyed 3,000 British Muslims on their beliefs, a shocking 52% of respondents in the survey said that they “do not know” who was responsible for the September 11th 2001 attacks. More respondents (7%) blamed ‘Jews’ than Al-Qaeda (4%). This could represent a combination of factors; failures in the education system, the difficulty of discussing recent and politically-loaded historical events and again, the cognitive dissonance in confronting members of one’s own group being responsible for a violent atrocity against others. However, the fact that the gradual development of the “don’t know” majority has faced no response from wider society is the most troubling aspect of these findings. Khalid Mahmood MP wrote of the damaging impact that this was having, in the Foreword to the study:
“But it is deeply troubling that this seems to have led a not-insignificant-minority to believe that the world is at the mercy of the machinations of dark, anti-Muslim forces… This readiness to believe in conspiracy theories and the mentality of victimhood to which it speaks is having a pernicious effect on British Muslims and the way they see the world. It is holding us back – as a community – and ensuring that we remain locked in a paranoid and at times fearful worldview.”
No substantial government or civil society effort has been made to counteract the spread of this ignorance among members of the Muslim community or among others. From this it would seem that “don’t know, don’t care” has become the attitude taken to 9/11 conspiracy beliefs by the body politic and even those who do not share said beliefs.
Conspiracy-belief and denial pertaining to ISIS and Islamist terrorism have also taken hold among Western non-Muslims, for whom opposing another military intervention in Iraq leads them to believe, for the preservation of their own worldview, that ISIS atrocities are hoaxes by the US government. The Anti-Defamation League has catalogued a repeating wave of stories and viral images blaming various terrorist attacks in the West, as well as the workings of ISIS itself, and even natural disasters, on Israel and “Jewish lobby” conspirators. Whilst many such claims originate in mainstream newspapers in the Middle East, including leading daily papers in Egypt, Qatar and Jordan, there is a base of support for them in the West. They extend beyond anti-Israeli conspiracy sites like the neulously named ‘Veterans Today’. There is the case of Naomi Wolf, a respected feminist author and former Presidential campaign adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in October 2014 declared her belief that videos of ISIS members beheading foreign hostages were faked, along with the equally baseless claim that the US response to Ebola in West Africa was a plot to deliberately infect the US population with the virus. After a predictable critical response, she ‘clarified’ her comments – but there is no doubt that many of her 100,000+ Facebook fans will have shared and further disseminated her ideas.
A similar storm erupted in 2016 when Joy Karega, a professor at the prestigious Oberlin College in Ohio was revealed to have spent several years claiming ISIS was a “CIA and Mossad operation”, reposting anti-Semitic claims about the Rothschild family, and responding to the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack by posting an image referring to the trope ‘JSIL’ – that is, ‘Jewish State of Israel in the Levant’, a ‘satirical’ slur created by anti-Israel activists to promote moral equivalence between Israel and ISIS. The image in question is one depicting ISIS emerging from the body of Benjamin Netanyahu, with a Star of David Tattoo bearing their ‘real’ name. As it happened, the Charlie Hebdo attack was carried out by self-proclaimed supporters of Al-Qaeda, not ISIS.
In this case, the professor was eventually fired – though not without considerable support from the student body, particularly on the ‘social justice’ left. What is startling is that the posts, of a grievously anti-Semitic character, which denied historical events (recent terror attacks) or assigned blame for them to Jews, were posted openly under Karega’s own name whilst she was teaching at a higher education institution. Her friends, colleagues and those who could see the posts did not raise them prominently until they were first exposed on the website of The Tower magazine in February 2016. Despite her dismissal, Karega has apparently doubled-down in her beliefs and according to Matthew Gidin, is producing an academic text to ‘study’ the following:
“(1) How has the term “conspiracy theory” been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?; (2) How has the uncomplicated tying of conspiracy theories to accusations of anti-Semitism been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?”
Those who attempt to criticise conspiracy theories or anti-Semitism, are merely reinforcing their own power as part of the conspiracy itself. As Gidin put it, “In other words, Karega wants to study how Jews silence anti-Semites.”
A similar process occurred with many subjects of the British Labour Party’s anti-Semitism scandal which dragged on throughout 2016. Complaints were made that “old social media posts” had been “dredged up” by muckrackers to cause embarrassment to Labour and particularly to Jeremy Corbyn. His defenders were adamant that the posts had only come to light for this specific purpose. However, if the posts were ‘old’, why had it taken so long for them to be exposed and the authors challenged? Why would it have taken anti-Corbyn muckrakers to find and condemn anti-Semitism among Labour members?
Hoax executions and terror attacks are but one facet of the conspiracy world’s fascination with blaming the existence of ISIS on everyone but ISIS. “ISIS armed by America” is a pervasive myth fed by a network of conspiracy sites – some dismissable as ‘fake news’, others pursuing long-established propaganda wars waged by a gargantuan conspiracy site with the deceptively academic name of ‘Globalresearch.ca’. Its philosophy towards democracy and human civilisation can be summed up in an article it actually thought morally and socially worthy of publishing: “North Korea, A Land of Human Achievement, Love and Joy”. Needless to say, it is the home of the most far-reaching claims that “Is Uncle Sam Funding the Islamic State?”. Globalresearch is just one of a network of conspiracy sites which have been servicing the demands of the “alternative media” market for Syria and ISIS-related stories for years. Others include Mint Press News, a site founded specifically to act as a pro-Assad outlet in the West, The Duran, and the Russian state media vehicles Sputnik and RT.com.
The work of outfits like this would be laughable were it not for the reality of what they deny. The victims of mass murder, torture, assassination and yes, genocide, are either screamed at for being fakes and stooges, their deaths attributed to other parties to excuse the guilty, or as the Jews of Europe were intended to be by the Final Solution, their very existence is erased from the historical record entirely.
Why is this monstrous enterprise increasing in popularity? Why has the denial of atrocities become so casual, so commonplace and out-in-the-open? Why do people not fear to speak, in public, that the parents of children killed in airstrikes or shot at point-blank range by death squads are just actors? Why do the ‘Holohoax’-obsessive trolls seem to be gaining the upper hand over any online media to do with the Holocaust?
I have considered several ideas; their relationship and contributory causality is not precise. However, I think all are important in understanding why Holocaust denial specifically is apparently on the rise in Western society, and its relatedness to atrocity-denial more generally. The most important, I think, is this:
People who casually deny atrocities are no longer paying any meaningful social price.
Probably the ultimate example of conspiracy theorising, atrocity denial and brazenly dishonest acts of defamation going unpunished is the election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency. Trump, who had pursued a bizarre self-appointment as the birther-in-chief, had promoted discredited and wholly fraudulent claims about links between vaccines and autism, repeatedly claimed climate change was a “hoax”, came to his logical conclusion when he rewarded the Sandy Hook victim-abusing fanatics at InfoWars with his loyal support during and after the 2016 campaign. Writing in The Washington Post in October 2016, Cheryl Greenberg discussed the complex and confusing relationship between Trump’s loud-and-proud xenophobia with an apparently more subtle undertone of anti-Semitism in his speeches:
“Trump’s alt-right followers… have certainly understood the anti-Semitic implications of these particular allegations. The stunning recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists, politicians, performers and others, as well as the violent threats against their lives and their families, has made that clear. In the past few days, a new Nazi-inspired expletive has been reported at Trump rallies: “Lügenpresse!” (lying press)…”
For those who have carved out an audience and a support-base for their ideas, social rules of shame or disgrace which would preclude a person from speaking easily-exposed falsehoods about an historical event, no longer apply. The dedicated readerships of fake news websites and those who believe in a conspiracy narrative, or are open to entertaining it on equal terms with an empirically-based narrative, see no disgrace in casually blaming 9/11 on the Israelis or attributing the massacre of children in Syria to video-fakery. David Irving once had a ‘respectable’ career in popular history writing and an associated reputation which was destroyed by his exposure as a Holocaust denier and professional anti-Semite. However, if you have built your career and primary appeal around your anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-everything credentials, your income and social status are not threatened.
In the UK, this lack of consequence is found in the leadership of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has been wearing the badge of the Holocaust Memorial Trust this month, perhaps out of admirable solidarity. This cannot rewrite the historical record that Corbyn took £20,000 from Iranian state television Press TV, and by extension from a state which organises official conferences denying the Holocaust. He vociferously defended an Anglican priest, Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer, who had been investigated by the Church and criticised by members of the Jewish community for persistently posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media. Blaming a particularly nasty post made by Sizer in 2012 on “a technical oversight in terms of computer links”, Corbyn portrayed Sizer as the victim, predictably: “Might I suggest that such criticism is part of a wider pattern of demonising those who dare to stand up and speak out against Zionism…?”
Sizer eventually did suffer appropriate consequences for his persistence in promoting conspiracy theories which claimed Jewish involvement in 9/11 or getting too chummy with Holocaust deniers – such as at a 2014 conference organised by the Iranian state. From the Jerusalem Post:
“Iranian-run Press TV has described the conference as intending to “unveil the secrets behind the dominance of the Zionist lobby over the US and EU politics,” with one session devoted to examining “Mossad’s role in the 9/11 Coup d’Etat,” and another discussing “9/11 and the Holocaust as pro-Zionist ‘Public myths.’”
For this and other offences against reason and human decency, Rev. Sizer was first banned by his superiors from posting about Middle East issues on social media, and is now accepting an ignominious departure from his position with the Church. Jeremy Corbyn, however, was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 with a large personal mandate, and was re-elected on a larger mandate in September 2016. The scandals and political damage caused by the anti-Semitism crisis in Labour which have alienated the Jewish community from the party have not removed him. Even David Irving, whose entire political career has been on the far-right, recently stated that he was impressed by Corbyn, calling him “a very fine man”. What the Jewish community considers to be a matter of moral urgency is dismissed entirely by Corbyn’s supporters. Headlines about his work for Press TV, his praise of Hamas and Hezbollah or defending individuals like Rev. Sizer are dismissed as proof of a media conspiracy to oust him – sometimes of course inflected with the prefix ‘Zionist’ media conspiracy. Anti-Semitic incidents rose in Britain and especially London during the first half of 2016, when the anti-Semitism crisis was in the news, with many incidents directly linked to it, such as through the abuse of Jewish Labour MPs via social media. No amount of protests or complaints from the Jewish community, whether made by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust or polls of Jewish Britons generally, had any dent or measurable impact on Corbyn’s re-election and personal popularity among his base.
Why should Holocaust denial not begin to flourish when political allegiance triumphs over historical facts and basic empathy for the Jewish people on such a scale?
The liberal-left writer George Monbiot has long been a critic of genocide-denial in all quarters. He despairingly asked in May 2012, “How did genocide denial become a doctrine of the internationalist left?” Casual belief and promotion of atrocity-denial and attendant media conspiracy narratives by intellectuals; not least John Pilger, Edward S. Hermann, David Peterson and to an extent by Noam Chomsky had not prevented them maintaining loyal followings of fans and academics who considered their work worthy of praise and emulation. Much of the controversy involving Chomsky related specifically to Bosnia; the location of a genocide during a war of aggression by Bosnian Serb forces and allies from Orthodox Christian countries which an undercurrent of popular opinion in Serbia and throughout the Orthodox world has been attempting to deny since.
During the late 1990s, a series of conspiracy theories promoted by the magazine Living Marxism, re-named LM in February 1997, alleged that the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia were based on exaggeration and fakery by ITN and Guardian journalists. ITN sued and won at the High Court – but whilst the magazine folded under bankruptcy, its members re-formed under various names (collectively known as the ‘LM Network’ by the monitoring group Lobbywatch) to continue promoting the group’s professional contrarianism. Today, the most prominent members of the group, including Mick Hume, Brendan O’Neill and Claire Fox, enjoy decent media careers writing for The Spectator, The Telegraph and The Times and the LM-successor project Spiked Online. Those on the left and the right who defended LM’s right to publish lies about the Bosnian camps against ITN’s apparent “deplorable attack on press freedom”, included the writer and columnist Toby Young, the playwright Fay Weldon and the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who never suffered any lasting damage to their credibility. Nor did the Institute of Contemporary Arts which hosted a three-day conference lavishing support on LM and its members.
An expert on the ITN v LM case, Prof. Duncan Campbell of Durham University, discussed the legacy of the trial in a 2009 article concerning other efforts to obfuscate the historical record of Bosnia, ‘Chomsky’s Bosnian Shame‘. The lack of remorse, and more importantly the lack of any long-term loss of influence for the LM network was clear and unambiguous:
“It was LM’s lies about the ITN reports that bankrupted themselves, morally and financially. Despite their failure, those who lied about the ITN reports have had no trouble obtaining regular access to the mainstream media in Britain, where they continue to make their case as though the 2000 court verdict simply didn’t exist.”
No shame, and no loss in terms of commanding influence over public discourse. Genocide denial and libelling of professional journalists and the victims of concentration camps may have been reprimanded by the High Court, but it commanded few negative social results. On the contrary, the ‘LM network’ is doing better now than it ever did as a glossy, loss-making special interest magazine in the 1990s. Its members, who have never issued a moment’s apology to the victims of the genocide they dismissed as a hoax, are much more successful today.
What the past decade has taught us is how little the educated and professional world cares about investigating or delivering consequences for a person committing the act of denying a genocide. You could spit on the graves of the murdered, scream “liar!” at those who published photographs of the dead and buried, and keep your column, your academic post or your political party membership. Even if you lost one of these, the act of losing it would earn you the mantle of a victim of persecution by the establishment, and a fan base to follow you to your next enterprise.
Who is ultimately responsible for this? We could easily blame the post-truth generation of politicians and the anti-consensus contempt of the 2016 illiberal revolutions. Perhaps more controversially, Brexit comes into consideration. There is a chilling undertone to Michael Gove’s now-infamous denigration of experts and expertise during the Vote Leave campaign. It is unclear, and unlikely that the majority of people really have “had enough of experts”. But the democratisation of information via the Internet has brought with it a renewed vigour in popular contempt for sources of information based on the empirical sciences and quantitative research. Since “the experts” failed to predict the financial crisis, wrongly predicted the outcome of General Elections, Referendums and Presidential Elections, their word is worth no more than the viral video shared by a politically active friend on Facebook.
But the “experts” and acronym-holding organisations who can be denigrated and dismissed, whose painstaking research is no better or preferable to that promoted via Globalresearch or Naturalnews or InfoWars are not just economists or climate scientists. It includes historians and Holocaust experts, whom amateurs and imposters can demolish for the audience of an unknowing and unfamiliar public. There has been since Brexit a similar phenomenon to the publicly acceptable posting of anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories by persons who feared nothing would happen to them. Since the Referendum vote, racially and religiously-motivated hate crimes have rapidly increased across the UK, the attackers feeling legitimised in their actions – as well as a belief that they can act without endangering themselves to negative repercussions. Despite the scoffing and conspiratorial efforts of Brendan O’Neill and other LM Network members, all of whom took a pro-Brexit line and are defenders of Trump as an “anti-establishment” force, to paint the increase in hate crimes as an establishment media plot to undermine Brexit, the figures and combined weight of personal accounts are hard to dispute.
In the new wave of Holocaust denial, the discourse resembles the contempt for established knowledge aimed at the targets of Brexit and Trump’s contempt for experts and ‘the elite’. To reject the ‘mainstream’ and ‘elite’ consensus, and to embrace the controversial knowledge, the alternative media, the “alternative facts” as Trump’s Presidential spokespeople now describe them, is to be a rebel in a narrative of resistance to tyranny. The hatred of the media common to all deniers was expressed in a sinister vogue by Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who wrapped an authoritarian threat to the media in populist tones: “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”
To the British left, I would argue that the Middle East dictatorship-hopping cranks were tolerated and kept around for too long. New Labour tolerated the presence of MPs like George Galloway for years, despite his slavish enthusiasm for genocidal dictators like Saddam Hussein, and only expelled him when his behaviour spilled over into inciting the murder of British soldiers. Similar tolerance was given to Jeremy Corbyn despite his involvement in the same sinister promotion and apologetics for various anti-Western terrorist organisations when it suited his interests. Both have since given their credibility as Western politicians and media figures to the state-sponsored churnalism of foreign dictatorships. Both have been embroiled in rows over anti-Semitism which keep recurring without them discarding their particular beliefs which cause the rows to erupt.
More prominently and with a greater shrug of the shoulders, British and American society have normalised the denial of atrocities, along with the denial of ordinary historical facts, to the point where Holocaust denial is no longer as publicly outrageous as it once may have been. Anti-Semitism and belief in conspiracy theories which lead inexorably to it is not a career-ender for many people with a social circle that is amiable to their warped understanding of the world. Only when concerned members of an outside community notice the obscenity is it picked up. Soon, we may no longer regard publicly posting viral photos on Facebook claiming the gas chambers to be a “mainstream media Zionist hoax” to be an obscenity or an abnormality of any kind.
What follows is a departure from the factuality and severity of previous work and a series of Pensées, or common thoughts which I expect will be similar to many this year. It is part political writing and part personal exposition.
2017 will mark a twenty-year anniversary since the largest-ever victory of the British Labour Party at a General Election. It is currently being comprehensively documented in real-time on the @newdawn1997 Twitter account run by the University of Nottingham Politics Department. 1997 remains the largest electoral landslide in post-1945 British history, the beginning of Labour’s longest period of government and the beginning of devolution to national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The first term alone of the Labour Government saw the end of a thirty-year civil war in Northern Ireland, the halting of a genocide in Kosovo, the beginning of the National Minimum Wage and the passage of the Human Rights Act; to say the least, their accomplishments were significant.
For Labour supporters who had not cut themselves loose of ‘New Labour, New Britain’ in its entirety, remembering the victory would always be bittersweet during times of opposition or struggling government. However, in 2017, the memory approaching is tinged with a far greater sadness and bitter recriminations; not merely for Labour’s present dire straits and disastrous polling performance, but for the loss of a legacy which other parties proudly display. The Conservatives celebrate the days of Churchill and Thatcher, the Liberal Democrats the days of David Lloyd George. Labour activists who remember 1997 with reverence and warmth face the prospect of conducting their celebrations in private, away from the hostile gaze of fellow members, whose denunciation of the victory’s central figures extends to the rhetoric of imprisonment and judicial murder. US Republicans openly call for the jailing of their Democratic opponents for treason, terrorism or fabricated sex abuse crimes involving pizza restaurants. But in Labour’s own forums, it is now not uncommon to see the name ‘Tony Blair’ appear alongside screeches of “murderer” and “war criminal” and ill-researched references to the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
The sadness of remembering 1997 in 2017 comes with an examination of the times the democratic world, not merely Labour, finds itself in. The majoritarian optimism, high hopes and expectations which defined and arguably encumbered the 1997 Labour campaign and its potential in government, a phenomenon repeated by Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2008, is now nowhere to be found in European or US politics. The hope of a comparable landslide is beyond the reach of any British party today, with the incumbent Conservatives governing on a tiny majority, Labour facing catastrophe with every new poll and the Liberal Democrats reduced to a minibus load of MPs. Beyond this, far more grave and depressing currents across the globe appear set to make the quivering of British electoral fortunes appear trivial. Autocracy, the rejection of democracy and Parliamentary government in favour of erratic strongmen, absolute plebiscites and the quashing of dispute with violence has returned to a nuclear-armed West. The notable exceptions to this trend are Canada, where the 2015 Liberal landslide bucked the trends of southern neighbours, and Germany, where Angela Merkel is set to hold onto power despite public discontent over migration and terrorism.
There is a pressing need to reinterpret the 1997 UK General Election. Seemingly every cultural touchstone in Britain during the late-1990s and throughout the 2000s, from Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain (2005) to the revised opening titles of the romantic sitcom As Time Goes By, to throwaway lines in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and to the premiership of David Cameron as Tory leader then Prime Minister, treated New Labour’s victory a crescendo not to be exceeded. Conservative writer and columnist Peter Oborne scathingly wrote of his own party’s leaders in 2014:
“It is said that Mr Cameron and George Osborne both refer to Mr Blair as “the Master”, asking each other “what would the Master have done?” when in difficult situations. The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics Forever, written by Tony Blair’s late political strategist Philip Gould, is regarded within the Cameron circle with the same awe and veneration as a Bible…. It is not widely known that Mr Cameron often seeks advice from the former prime minister… David Cameron in this sense represents the survival of Tony Blair through other means.”
The landslide victory of the Labour Party in 1997 was in subsequent years signposted as an end-point of British politics. The postwar consensus which lasted from 1945 until 1979 had been revised and replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, whose economic policies were now accepted by Labour; a new consensus from which departure seemed unforeseeable. Even the election of a Conservative-led coalition Government in 2010 did not represent any radical new dawn, if anything it affirmed the centre-ground-pursuit of the previous decades. The momentous transformation of 1945, 1979 or 1997 would never be matched but they did not have to be. Fukayama may have been wrong on the history of the world ending in 1992, but it seemed British political history had reached a terminus in 1997 from which future direction would be only a steady continuation. The prevailing belief was that liberal democracy had won out, centre-ground politics was accepted by all major parties and election-losing strategies of radicalism and extremism were consigned to a lunatic fringe and all but dead where it counted by the time Tony Blair left office in 2007.
In 2017 we inhabit an age of illiberalism; a rejection of “experts”, statistics, polling data, climate science, economics and the norms of Western liberal democracy. The very existence of long-form writing and journalism is among the many objects of blame given for the alienation of working-class electoral majorities from liberalism and the institutions of democratic society. All the long-read essays in America could not prevent the victory of Donald Trump, a literacy-questionable demagogue who betrays no sign of having read any long book, not least the ghostwritten self-help guides bearing his own name, or the epistles of the New Testament whose mispronunciation in a spectacularly cringeworthy manner did not lose him the evangelical vote. Nor could an alliance of think tanks, research institutes, business confederations and the leaders of the UK’s five largest parties prevent the British electorate from embracing a constitutional decision which reverses fifty years of postwar political consensus and overturns the one consistent source of agreement between British political parties and institutions – that of Britain’s continued membership of the European Community, subsequently the European Union.
Now, any document of history from what may come to be known as the “Europhile period” of British politics will be regarded as painfully and even laughably short-sighted if it views the European project as even remotely inevitable, settled or integrated seamlessly with Britain’s own future. For an American comparison, videos of the 2011 humiliation of Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the subsequent elation of American liberals, along with the derisive scoffing at his candidacy for the Presidency once possessed humour and reassurance for those now contemplating the same images with trepidation and fear. A justified belief exists that the beliefs and interests of the 48% who voted against Brexit will be disregarded; any opposition to the 52% majority is ‘defying the will of the people’, whose mandate must be executed without moderation or mercy. Trumpism as much as Trump openly regards political opposition and an inquisitive or adversarial media as The Enemy against whom the most aggressive rhetoric and even the powers of the state should be deployed.
The New Labour project, and the proclamation of a permanently established democratic, liberal and centrist consensus which followed it now seem hopelessly and incontrovertibly defeated. Extremism, authoritarianism and total disregard for the belief or interests of political minorities has, in this decade, “won”. Hence, when we look back on 1997, there will not only be Labour members mourning for a successful Labour Party, but a mourning for small-d democratic and small-l liberalism in general. The idea in 1997 that either Tony Blair or John Major would threaten to jail the losing party leader or declare everyone who didn’t vote for them to be ‘traitors’ was unthinkable.
A New Labour Childhood
My earliest political belief was hating New Labour. It arose in the early political consciousness of an eleven year-old whose first contact with politics had been comic satire and the apolitical simplicity of anger at government incompetence. Jon Culshaw’s impressions of Blair in Dead Ringers, Rory Bremner’s in Bremner, Bird and Fortune and a growing list of political writers of popular satirical paperbacks taught how it was good and necessary to laugh at and even despise the government. Before I even knew properly the difference between ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’, I knew that my position was against anything which New Labour was doing.
Hatred had been preceded by passivity. The first government I distinctly remember event living through was New Labour. Very early visual impressions of television images from preschool years, among children’s programmes like Old Bear and Postman Pat, include the then-incomprehensible scenes of Tony Blair walking through the crowds waving Union Jacks and Labour flags in Downing Street. The faint impressions the scenes made, inexplicable to a child under the age of five, were also inexplicable to adults who had lived under continuous Conservative government for eighteen years. In 1997, they experienced the victory of a Labour party which promised transformative change whilst protecting the life they understood. You could keep the council house you bought under Right To Buy and look forward to better wages and better jobs for your children, an end to the violence in Northern Ireland which spilled across the rest of the UK and the chronic under-funding and mismanagement of the NHS. The pervasive excitement among the adult generations did not filter down overtly in a manner comprehensible to my own, but we were to be the first for whom every aspect of our lives was to change. From infant health, to schooling, to higher education and employment, everything about us would be affected by a Labour government, in office from our first days in Reception class until we were preparing to start full-time work or go to university.
Images of the Blair government and its often-changing cabinets flickered on in the background every morning as I had breakfast and dressed for school. It was normality; as I remembered nothing else, when I was told there had been Prime Ministers other than Blair, the concept seemed anomalous and even alien. Surely nobody else could come walking through the black door of Number 10, waving at the cameras or holding that mug of tea? By the time I was old enough to grasp the concepts of historical time which primary-school children learned through chronologies and parsing the differences between the Tudors and the Victorians, the one unchanging permanence remained the premiership of Tony Blair. Princess Diana died, we lost the World Cup, the Millennium passed, England’s farmland burned under the scourge of foot-and-mouth disease, the world was shaken by 9/11 and the West’s response to it, we lost the World Cup again, the Conservatives traded one unsuccessful, balding ex-minister for another as leader, and Blair remained where he was.
It is an oversimplification, but one cliché has the value of also being true: familiarity breeds contempt.
The grievances which began to kill Blair’s prospects as PM after 2003 and more profoundly after the reduced majority of the 2005 election are well-known. For the general public it was concern and alarm over mounting immigration, Blair’s Europhile tendencies, increasing resentment of New Labour ‘spin’, Blair’s executive and Presidential style of government, and concerns over the Blairs’ private business affairs. There was the less-covered but more ‘slow burn’ impact of issues like the controversy and eventual failure of PFI and what may be called Waiting for Godot’s Completion of an NHS IT System which would eventually produce billions in losses.For the Labour Party itself, the more partisan issues of Labour’s identity, the government’s cosy relationship with big business and the City, a loss of enthusiam for ‘Labourism’ and the very word ‘socialism’ and Blair’s apparently intractable position, immune to accountability for party members’ anger. For both public and party, it was one word which mattered above all: Iraq. The 2002-3 build-up to war with Iraq which seemed a foregone conclusion, the WMDs never found, the disastrous aftermath of the invasion and the feeling that none of it had been necessary. More than anything, this turned Blair from the beloved dream-bearer of 1997 into one of most reviled and unpopular Prime Ministers since Anthony Eden at the height of the Suez crisis.
This all now, particularly in the wake of Chilcot, seems a truism barely worth arguing for. However, the greater damage to New Labour’s memory by the passing of the years has caused immense problems of its own – for the country, arguably for the wider world, as well as the Labour Party. Populist resentment of politicians, spin doctors and overseas intervention caused deeper public cynicism towards electoral politics and internationalism. “Politicians generally” became the most mistrusted and disliked profession in Ipsos MORI’s year-on-year polling on public trust in institutions and professions. Labour’s election-winning strategies devised and managed by Tony Blair’s Director of Communications Alistair Campbell were dropped in large part due to their association with the officially abandoned New Labour mantle and perhaps also the satirical embodiment of public spin-loathing in The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker. There was a protracted identity crisis and the confused “what are Labour for again?” direction under Ed Milliband, then the embrace of far-left radicalism and a nadir of low opinion polls and appalling midterm performance under Jeremy Corbyn.
It was a strange contrast. Labour was now doing very poorly despite its huge card-carrying membership and considerably better financial position (New Labour lurched from one funding crisis to the next whereas Corbyn’s appeal to new members and the 2016 leadership challenge had filled the party coffers with membership fees). I became interested in what had made Labour successful in 1997 and whether any of it could be usefully transferred from the past to present and future. In looking back on the New Labour project as a whole, one of my main sources became the personal diaries and other works of Alastair Campbell. I realised that during the Labour government, I had never consciously seen Campbell himself on television apart from replays of the famous confrontation with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News at the height of the Andrew Gilligan row on June 27th 2003. The great “liar-in-chief” who had made Labour so successful whilst becoming one of the most infamous figures in British politics, his name was a veritable swear word by the time he formally resigned in August 2003. The figure and personality of Campbell I was familiar with at the time had always been projected through secondary sources; for most people this was Malcolm Tucker. The first interviews of him I watched full-length in the 2010s concerned his work with mental health charities, his open discussion of struggle with depression, alcoholism and recovering from a psychotic breakdown in 1986. Among them were his discussions of the death of former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy from alcoholism-related illness shortly after the 2015 General Election. His forays into frontline politics once again, particularly on behalf of the Remain side of the EU Referendum, brought his interviews and discussions at universities and public forums back onto headline topical issues. He seemed a good place to start.
Confronting this figure of odium, whom I had learned to despise through his vicarious appearances via the Yorkshire actor Andrew Dunn in Bremner, Bird and Fortune, jokes in Mark Thomas and Stewart Lee routines, and casual conversation on current affairs programmes about Campbell as the Machiavellian puppet-master who had brainwashed the public into voting for the fraudulent Blair, was an odd experience.
Without being filtered through the second-hand snorting and derision of critics and satirists, what struck me most about the Master of Spin was how plain-spoken he seemed. There was none of the complex, animated emotional performance which one saw in Blair, the ‘scripted’ facial expressions and gesticulations which the public came to associate with Blair’s apparently intrinsic insincerity and falsehood. It might have been Campbell’s Northernness, the frankness in discussing difficult and personal subjects without coming across as a self-pitying sniffer or some other quality which spoke to the normally irritable subconscious. However, the image was markedly different from the chimera of Goebbels and an enraged Peter Capaldi which had existed in the minds of those who loathed New Labour at the time.
The diaries added to this altered perspective. That which Campbell and his management of Blair’s image was most associated with – that increasingly nebulous term ‘spin’ – had convinced me in the 2000s that everything which flowed from the mouth of Blair or his ministers were lies, calculated to manipulate with maximum effect. There was no sincerity in policy, no desire to improve social relations or the health of the nation – merely to stay in power by any means necessary. Such was the way of politics, particularly with New Labour. Reading the Campbell Diaries in the 2010s demolished much of what remained of this total cynicism towards the subject matter. As it turned out, they weren’t all constantly lying to us about their motives and objectives. They actually did believe in things which they wanted to accomplish, even in private and behind closed doors.
Battles would rage furiously between people who cared deeply about education, employment and the health service on how best to improve and protect them. The uncompromising language and meticulous detail which the diaries gave to the daily struggles of holding the Government together, promoting its agenda in the press and using the ‘dark arts’ to get things done – in their brutality, they falsified any belief that the whole thing was just power and privilege for its own sake. They are unflattering to many concerned, not least Campbell himself. But they starkly illuminate the drudgery and harsh realities of running a government and achieving ambitious objectives against competing and conflicting interests. They further undercut the appeal of utopianism and the “principled” radicalism of Corbyn and all pure, untainted platforms of left-wing parties which account for no opposition or obstruction that might get in the way of realising the socialist paradise.
Kicking your star players
One of the most damaging aspects of New Labour at the time, which could not be blamed on the hard-left or on the Conservatives, was the protracted turbulence between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The damage this caused to the New Labour brand in the media was obvious, as details of every spat and punch-up over policy or personality leaked out; one of the most infamous was a jibe against Brown’s “psychological flaws” given to a journalist in January 1998 which Campbell would later admit being the source of. Even as a New Labour-hating teenager in the 2000s, I believed the media coverage of the rivalry was overblown and based on a gossip-factory. Instead, the divide was profoundly real. The damage caused by the Brown camp and its own spin doctors Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride was the more damaging for including regular attacks on Blair’s ministers; a process which Campbell described as analogous to playing or managing a football team and seeing members of your own team “going around the pitch and kicking your star players”.
It was one particularly vicious embodiment of Labour’s historical tendency to be its own worst enemy, a tradition which has continued and grown significantly in the years since it entered Opposition once again. Now, the kicking of the star players is happening after they have hung up their boots. It were as if when the current crop of Manchester United is doing badly, they decide to denounce the heinous and unprincipled record of Bobby Charlton and George Best, vowing to never return to their way of doing things.
In the cynicism and hatred which was heaped on New Labour continuously after it had left office, its achievements and the reasons for why it succeeded electorally were obscured and buried behind a smokescreen of political pyrotechnics. The greatest trashers of New Labour were not the Tories or the Lib Dems but those on the socialist left and even within Labour’s own ranks. The elements which produced Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victories in 2015 and 2016 had poured greater volumes of scorn and hatred onto New Labour and its figures than the Torch-carrying Conservative Party and its election broadcasts ever did at the time. The possible exception to this is the Tories’ rather nasty “demon eyes” poster, now being used by the @newdawn1997 account, and which I have seen reposted elsewhere by Blair-loathers on the left apparently unaware or ambivalent about its provenance.
It is unavoidable, however, that John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron never called Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell “child-murderers” who should be in the dock at the Hague, as became common parlance on the anti-Blair and later pro-Corbyn left. Perhaps it is a testament to Labour’s policy spirit of “education, education, education.” People with no legal qualifications or expertise in international jurisprudence or human rights law suddenly found themselves qualified to pronounce the guilt of dozens of British and American citizens, with Bush, Blair and Campbell top of the list, for crimes against humanity. But the belief in the absolute horror of Blair and New Labour’s insidious, society-destroying evil goes further. One example will illustrate the depths which are now being plumbed.
A particularly disgusting and outright libellous claim which began in the David Icke sphere of conspiracism and has metastasized to the inner world of the socialist left (and some Liberal Democrats, not least former MP and minister Norman Baker), is that Blair somehow orchestrated the deaths of the Labour leader John Smith in May 1994 and Robin Cook MP in August 2005. Both men had suffered from cardiac problems for several years and were in the presence of their spouses when they died. However, insert MI5, Peter Mandelson or Babylonian lizards armed with cyanide, and ultimately Blair as the architect, and you have an Oliver Stone JFK-like narrative which is becoming a far-left campfire story. This is perhaps due to a 2011 Channel 4 satirical comedy-thriller, The Comic Strip Presents… The Hunt For Tony Blair exposing the idea to a wider audience. But among red-green-black flag meetings of any group of ‘anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-war, anti-austerity’ types, dropping this obscene and insane allegation into a conversation may not receive the shock and denunciation it deserves; as this is already a loathsome experience I have had in private and I fear will soon enter the public domain of acceptable discussion.
Despite multiple inquiries into the Iraq War and Blair’s decision-making before the invasion, none have concluded that ‘lies’ or deliberate deceit was used, certainly at no level on the scale imagined by the people chanting “BLIAR!” and calling for war crimes charges. Those, too, seem spurious in the light of the multiple inquiries, including Chilcot, whose harsh criticism of Blair do not recommend any criminal prosecutions. Hysterical accusations of “genocide” which are levied with serious feeling against Blair serve only to cheapen and debase the power of an essential word in the vocabulary of human evil. None of it matters. The decision that Blair, and by extension New Labour, was an enterprise of criminality and wickedness was taken by those who hold it long before Chilcot completed his homework after much procrastinated delay. Tony Blair’s last few minutes as Prime Minister on June 27th 2007 were given a background score by screams of “war criminal!” from anti-war protestors with apparently nothing better to do on a Wednesday morning. In May 2012, Blair’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry was forcibly interrupted by a protestor engaging in some creative self-promotion for his own anti-Blair documentary, alleging Blair had been “paid off by JP Morgan” for the Iraq War, a bizarre allegation not considered serious by even Blair’s harshest serious biographical critic in Tom Bower. But it matters not – the stunt got plenty of attention, as did a January 2014 attempt by a Shoreditch restaurant employee to make a “citizen’s arrest”, and the synonymity of Blair with the w-c words gained renewed vigor before Chilcot published the completed inquiry in July 2016.
In an interview with Blair biographer John Rentoul as part of an article by GQ‘s political correspondent Rupert Myers, the state of Blair-hating conspiracism is laid bare. The illogicality of Blair ‘lying’ malevolently about something as easily exposed as the absence of WMD rather than him making an overly-ambitious leap of faith on military intelligence means nothing. More repulsively, nor do any medical conclusions that Dr. David Kelly (or Robin Cook, or John Smith) were not the victims of a conspiracy to murder:
“Logic isn’t a friend to the Blair conspirators. They won’t be satisfied by anything short of a full truth that they have imagined for themselves. The redaction of communications with the US will feed the theories, but no amount of disclosure could satisfy them. Somewhere there is a bunker where Blair, Bush, Cameron, Merkel and the like unzip themselves from the human suits, eat their lizard-friendly canapés, and look up at the big wall, planning their next genocide/EU regulation.”
The psychological component for this sphere of thinking, insofar as it exists within Labour, is provided with some insightful speculation by Rentoul. The Labour voters of 1997 and 2001 face a psychological difficulty of loathing and demanding the imprisonment or execution of a man whom they helped put into power. Those who loathed New Labour’s other qualities at the time or retrospectively, on everything from tax, to Europe, to trade union laws, can find a ready-made attack for delegitimising the entire record in Government with one screamed accusation. As such:
“For Rentoul, “there is an element of self-loathing: people who voted enthusiastically for Blair now hate part of themselves and the only way to make that work is to tell themselves that they were deceived.”
So long as there are people who feel betrayed by Blair, people who fail to grasp the need for political compromise, or the complexity of diplomacy and war, there will be those who want to believe in Blair as an international villain…”
In 2017, the continuing damage to the legacy of Labour’s most successful period in government bears strange fruits. Those most likely to demand a cold prison cell for the people who won Labour three General Elections and those who would, given a time portal, gladly undo the entirety of Blair’s time in office, are Labour’s declining base of supporters. Corbyn has repeatedly endorsed the claim that the war was “illegal” and that Blair should be put on trial “if he has committed a war crime” – a somewhat dubious and circular assertion given that whether someone has committed a criminal offence can only be established through a trial which results in a successful conviction.
Tom Watson, now Labour’s Deputy Leader, helped to organise a revolt against Blair in 2006 when he was a junior defence minister. At time, Blair described him as “disloyal, discourteous and wrong” for resigning as a minister and leading a wave of others to do so in protest at Blair’s refusal to set a date for his resignation. Ten years later, at the 2016 Labour Party Conference, it was Watson who pointed out bluntly:
“I don’t know why we’ve been focussing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years, but trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand… We won’t win elections like that, and we need to win elections.”
Labour seems to be the only party in Britain determined to politically destroy its own legacy in public. It almost emulates the practice in the Soviet Union of disgracing former leaders after haphazard Communist Party coups forced them from office. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn demanded a balanced discussion of Fidel Castro’s legacy in his own glowing tribute following the dictator’s death, such balance is absent for Blair by a country mile. The Left must speak of the “achievements” of Castro in health and education and barely acknowledge his domestic repression, massacres and foreign military adventures. But Blair is a “war criminal!” and will always be a “war criminal!” no matter how many investigations and inquiries are held which conclude otherwise. If you tried to excuse Iraq by invoking NHS hospital waiting times, an indulgence so frequently given to Castro, be grateful if you keep an unbloodied nose.
A Bad D:Ream
“As far as I was concerned, Foot was the left’s candidate so it had to be good. That was why the right-wing media tried to say Labour were in trouble – it showed how scared they were of what he stood for. When his ascension was confirmed in a second ballot, my fellow students and I drank a happy toast to this victory for socialism. I looked across to the Tory students on the other side of the university bar and they seemed to be celebrating something too.” – John O’Farrell
Taking the name of New Labour’s election anthem by Northern Irish pop group D:Ream, John O’Farrell’s book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter details the full dispiriting horror of defeat after defeat from 1979 to 1997. The misery was not merely from the loss of a competition – England football supporters grew used to this in the same period – but the sense of public rejection. The whole nation wanted England to win even when it failed; but the repeated unambiguous refusal of Labour’s promises in favour of the Conservatives struck Labour members and supproters personally. Perhaps in trying to capitalise on the sense of national unity which grew around the England team even in the face of continuous defeats, Blair in 1996 appropriated another pop music success and declared “Labour’s coming home!”. If ‘home’ is Government and the centre of British public life, Labour is now further from home than at any point since 1945. To illustrate the party’s misery with bitter irony, the title of D:Ream’s anthem, which became synonymous with Labour’s successes, is now typically inflected in the negative – hence the New Statesman article of 12th December 2016, ‘Things can only get worse for Labour’.
The comparisons between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot are well-worn; the impenetrable convictions of their supporters and the rejection of criticism with accusations of base motives and “right-wing bias” the same. However, Corbyn is leading Labour at a time when global politics slides towards a new consensus rejecting liberal democracy in favour of a new age of strongmen, charismatic authority and rule by decree and plebiscite. Labour is gripped by a powerful new wave of denial and self-delusion; both of its present troubles and its previous successes. The time when Labour was in government is not only receding into history as all living memory eventually does; it is being buried, still alive, by those who can never forgive Blair for being Blair. This happens at a time when globally, those who have benefited most egregriously from the abuse of loopholes and weaknesses of democratic societies – using freedoms of speech and association to discredit the social order, take control of government, then close over those same freedoms for others – are winning power on every continent.
After years of loathing, I came to a more nuanced view of New Labour, perhaps ironically as a result of Corbyn’s leadership. The “true socialist” which so many in Labour had longed for since the days of Michael Foot, the heroic transformer who would undo the compromise and betrayal of Kinnock, Blair and Brown, was finally here – and he was a disaster. His economic policies were based in sanctimony and wondrous goals rather than making concrete plans. His foreign policy was a moral catastrophe, and his history of support for IRA terrorism would doom any chances of him winning over the British electorate. On a personal level, his incompetence was staggering, his procedural and managerial failures matched by a paranoid and malicious streak which blamed Labour’s troubles on disloyalty and media conspiracy. During the 2016 leadership contest, forty women MPs published and open letter to Corbyn and described an explosion of “escalating abuse and hostility” in Corbyn’s name, carried out by a vast army of fanatical supporters. But it became obvious that Corbyn the individual was not the root of the problem; were he replaced by John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon or any other of the far-left in Labour, the crises would remain the same. Labour cannot return to the past but the future, under this trajectory, looks increasingly bleak. “Things can still get worse”, with no rock bottom to Labour’s potential losses.
The Memory of New Labour: Truth, Lies and… Videotapes?
There might be something remotely Freudian in these thoughts. As the world teeters on the edge of the abyss, led by a raging sociopath who allegedly asked three times in a one-hour briefing with his security advisers, “if we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use nuclear weapons?”, we naturally seek things of comforting value. Blair, for all his dreadful mistakes and shortcomings, represented stability and continuity without dictatorship. He is irrevocably tied to a stable, happy and hopeful childhood for many of my generation, in a period of continuous economic growth, vastly expanded and improved public services, and technological revolution which led Britain from a few dozen dial-up Internet cafes, to the tablet computer and personal smartphone. It became normal to plan visa-free travel to Europe, to visit Belfast without fears of being assaulted or shot, for working-class children to expect that further education would be available when you left school, and a university place would be available for you after that. If you became ill or needed an operation, the NHS would do it better than they ever had done before.
The effect on other childhoods which followed New Labour policies were considerably more dramatic. In Kosovo, many young boys born after 1999 were named ‘Tonibler’ by a national population which regarded Tony Blair as a hero responsible for saving them from annihilation and helping them secure their independence as a state. Iraq’s Kurds, under repeated threat of extermination by Saddam and others, now have their own state – the opinion of Blair in Kurdistan is mostly positive. In Sierra Leone, where Britain’s military intervention in 2000 resulted in the end of a bloody civil war, Blair’s post-government “crucial but little-known role in fighting Ebola” as made him a figure of popular adoration. Every shriek of “imperialist”, “genocide” and “war criminal!” seems considerably less effective when measured against this.
None of this article is an appeal for a return to New Labour as a whole, nor any impossible to pin down notion of ‘Blairism’. Not simply because the brand is “tainted” or damaged by Blair’s actions in office or since leaving Downing Street – though that in itself is difficult to dispute. New Labour was of its time and was immensely successful within its historical context. Copying it like-for-like would never solve Labour’s contemporary woes with Scottish nationalism or the divide between pro-Leave and Pro-Remain constituencies. What I make as an historian is a plea for a more balanced assessment of the historical record of New Labour and the legacy it leaves in the present. What I make as a Labour Party member is for the party to reconsider its infatuation with continuously building the scaffold and digging the grave for its most successful former leader and Prime Minister, and throwing out his entire record in the process. Blair, whatever judgement history makes of him, deserves the same balance afforded to other historical leaders and figures; not least the misty-eyed tributes to Fidel Castro as a “huge figure of modern history”. Blair won elections and did eventually leave office when pressured to go; something that cannot be said for the one-party dictators whose pursuit of ‘social justice’ invariably involves throwing the opposition in prison or into unmarked graves.
An additional proposal, for the benefit of posterity and even for the sake of near-future generations, is more careful preservation of a physical record of the New Labour years. Photographs, video and film footage and sound recordings are poorly archived in the public sphere of accessible material. Google and YouTube results lead mostly to old, archived BBC News pages from the 2000s and haphazardly recorded, preserved and uploaded video clips from VHS recordings of news bulletins at the time. The fact that a private citizen in the 1990s decided to press ‘PLAY/RECORD’ on their VCR provides our best visuals of the birth and ascension of New Labour. One of the main visual records of New Labour’s early years is a magnificent and overlooked 1995 documentary series, Labour: The Wilderness Years (now a possible inspiration for another Labour-themed Twitter account, @wildernessyrs chronicling Labour’s opposition today). The uploader of the series is a Tory YouTuber named thatcheritescot, an amateur archivist who, in the absence of official provision of broadcast material, is responsible for uploading a considerable amount of footage of British political history that is available online.
The lack of visual, non-written primary sources for lay people interested in New Labour is startling. An incredible example of this is the utter dereliction of available high-quality footage of the 1997 General Election itself. The main version on YouTube is a low-quality VHS transfer of the BBC Election Night coverage split into forty-eight parts, heroically uploaded by a user named Andy JS in 2010. In 2016, the user ‘beforeitallgotsomodern’ uploaded a video of a BBC VHS tape released after the election, containing 1hr 15mins of highlights of the campaign. At one time broken, they repaired their copy of the tape themselves. This, it appears, is the best-quality visual record the public can access in 2017 of the most historic night in British politics since 1945.
The situation for the 2001 Election and the 2005 Election, not to mention the many council and local elections mid-term from 1997 to 2010, is really no better. Perhaps because it existed in such recent modernity, New Labour seems to have been the subject of less television and film documentaries than the governments of Churchill or Thatcher. In any case, the renewed interest in 1997 in the anniversary year, perhaps stoked by the @newdawn1997 project, may lead to renewed efforts to keep the primary sources alive and accessible. BBC Parliament typically rebroadcasts the original BBC master tapes of Election Night coverage in anniversary years, doing so for Election 92 in April 2012. It re-showed Election 97 in 2005 and again in 2007. It will be a melancholy but also necessary experience for Labour members, Labour voters and those concerned with the present and future direction of British politics.
As a subject of history and memory, New Labour deserves more careful and considered treatment than the loathing, disgrace and consensus of organised forgetting which the political spectrum has embraced from left to right. In recent years both historians and the public have begun to accept that Winston Churchill has been treated too kindly, and his full record of mistakes, failures and mixed results have to be taken into account along with the ‘Finest Hour’. I submit that Blair, Brown, Campbell and the rest should get the same balance, with their achievements recognised without drowning-out by ill-conceived screaming.
My assessment, one that I freely accept is prejudicially inseparable for having grown up almost entirely under New Labour in government, is that things did get better. That is something, is it not?
DENIAL in the face of catastrophic failure of one’s ideas is a predictable reaction from a believer, as per Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction in response to the failure of one’s beliefs. Denial in the face of shame for one’s actions is an experience well-studied by psychologists and criminologists. One 2014 study summarises the role of ‘shame’ in creating both denial of responsibility and recidivism among offenders:
“Feelings of shame… involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.”
Combining both faces of the phenomenon of denial is the behaviour of the supporters, apologists and promoters of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, the late Hugo Chávez and the PSUV regime in Venezuela, and their response to the present state of the country. Humanitarian catastrophe of an apocalyptic scale is now unfolding in the most oil-rich state in the world. The magnitude of human suffering is indescribable. The scenes of bread queues and shortages familiar to Eurozone-crisis Greece are long since surpassed. Venezuela has become a ‘Starvation State’ which “today drowns in a humanitarian crisis”, with lawless cities and hunger for the majority. It extends beyond humans, as the country’s pets are left in skeletal starvation and the zoos of Venezuela become graveyards of wild and endangered animals. Peter Wilson, an American journalist and schoolteacher explains in a comprehensive essay his reasons for fleeing the country after twenty-four years, details the state of human agony reached in 2016:
“Medicines are almost nonexistent. Aspirin has become a luxury for many; diabetics, people stricken with cancer, and those with high blood pressure are out of luck. The public health system – which Chávez vowed to make the region’s finest – has been gutted.”
The response of the Venezuelan government to a crisis entirely of its own making has been systemic and organised psychological denial of its own, and particularly to externalise blame through conspiracy theories. Fantasies of ‘economic warfare’ waged by ‘hoarders’ led by the United States are played out in government seizures of foodstuffs and crippling price controls. The most disturbing recent development is the prospect of Venezuelans becoming a population of forced labourers in government-run agricultural projects, a solution that would take Venezuela from Zimbabwean levels of hunger and inflationary poverty to Cambodian levels of state-led starvation.
As recently as June 2015, when this starvation crisis was already in full-swing, an event organised by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign in London attracted the following big-name supporters, according to a triumphant write-up in the communist Morning Star newspaper:
“Labour Friends of Venezuela founder Colin Burgon was joined by party leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn, Easington MP Grahame Morris and newly elected East Leeds MP Richard Burgon in hailing the challenge Venezuela posed to neoliberalism and privatisation.”
This article is ultimately not about Venezuela, whose suffering has been accurately detailed and analysed in many sources including the reports by Amnesty International on the deteriorating state of the country. A subject more proximate to a Western reader’s understanding is the role that Western intellectuals, politicians and journalists played in creating the present crisis. In Britain they most prominently include “Corbyn and Hackney MP Diane Abbott, along with Grahame Morris, Owen Jones, and ex-Labour MP Colin Burgon, [who] all flew to Venezuela to monitor the country’s [October 2012] presidential elections.”, as well as now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, an honorary President of the Hands Off Venezuela Campaign. The election monitoring episode was described in an article by Sinn Fein Connor Murphy MP in the magazine An Phoblacht, which included a captioned photograph of some of those in attendance. The same image was tweeted by Diane Abbott MP and her presence, along with that of fellow Hackney resident Owen Jones, was discussed at the time by the website of the Hackney Citizen.
Subsequent to the 2012 elections in Venezuela, a propaganda exercise in Britain was conducted using a speaking tour of Chavismo politicians and trade union leaders. Events were organised by left-wing groups in Britain to host and support the Venezuelan officials and “celebrate Venezuela’s alternative”. The events were held in London, Glasgow, Leeds and Sheffield and involved British speakers alongside the Venezuelan political leaders:
“… In addition to our Venezuelan guests plus Ambassador Samuel Moncada, a fantastic array of speakers includes: Owen Jones; Seumas Milne; Ken Livingstone; Esther Armenteros (Cuba); Alicia Castro (Argentina); Frances O’Grady (TUC) & Jeremy Corbyn MP.”
The election monitoring exercise, the visits to and reporting from the country itself, along with years of promoting the virtues and denying the abuses committed by the Chavismo regime, directly implicates these figures in moral responsibility to do something in response to the present crisis and the continued suffering of the Venezuelan people at the hands of a regime which they passionately supported.
Furthermore, they directly contributed to and sustained a narrative of conspiracy theory which supporters the Venezuelan government’s suppression of opposition parties, NGOs and human rights activists. There is Owen Jones’ consistent rhetorical sneer that “Is all the Western media coverage that portrays him as a dictator by chance related to his politics?” and Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry’s supportive role at an event denouncing “US, the media and the Venezuelan Opposition” at which the Venezuelan Ambassador “expressed concern” that “the US is funding opposition groups and NGOs in Venezuela” – a charge routinely made by the Chavismo regime against its enemies when arresting their members and dismantling their organisations. Denouncing the exposure or criticism of human rights abuse as the malicious work of a foreign conspiracy is nothing new, but stock and trade for dictators left, right and centre. See Srdja Popovic’s brilliant article in Foreign Policy, ‘When Dictators Cry Conspiracy’:
“In Russia, protesters and anti-corruption activists are called “CIA shills,” or more ambiguously, “foreign agents.” In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and his successor, President Maduro, see foreign conspiracies everywhere. And in Hungary, Viktor Orban claims that NGOs who point out the deficiencies of his rule are subversives from abroad”
Conspiracy narratives explain away national crisis and demonise political opposition, as well as both denying and justifying human rights abuse. Case in point; sociologist Hugo Pérez Hernáiz’s blog ‘Venezuela Conspiracy Theories Monitor’ which tracks the cosmology of the Chavismo regime and its explanatory framework by conspiracy:
“Germán Saltrón responded for the Venezuelan State that all human rights NGOs operating in the country are “financed by the United States,” and that they are in cahoots with “90% of the local and international media” in a plot to “attack and play down the historical importance of the victories of the Venezuelan government.”
The Chávez apologists are confronted with two cognitively distressing facts; that a favoured political project has failed, dragging millions into an abyss of hunger and despair in the process; and that they played an instrumental or even essential role in bringing this state of affairs about, whilst enabling the regime responsible to suppress and destroy its opposition by legitimising and even providing its conspiratorial narrative, pro bono. What is most striking in the Western socialist left’s response to Venezuela’s agony is the absence of response.
The vacuum of recognition or even acknowledgement in the face of disaster is followed by an absence of moral accountability. Knowing full-well that Venezuela is still there, suffering beyond measure, those who involved themselves intimately in the politics of a South American republic now conduct their lives “as if” nothing had happened. In a devastating article, the writer Paul Canning named this as ‘The left’s giant forgetting’. Venezuela has become a collective unperson to those who formerly proclaimed it an example for humanity’s emulation; although tacit recognition of their previous behaviour is found in some of the apologists, as in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s deletion of any reference to ‘Venezuela’ from his website in March 2016, after two decades of promoting the Chavismo ideology in articles, demonstrations and media appearances.
As of this writing, Owen Jones has not used the word ‘Venezuela’ in print or online in the English language since 31st May 2015, over 580 days, mentioning it only when interviewed for a Spanish newspaper in June 2016, admitting “Venezuela is in a horrible state” while making no reference to Chávez, socialism or his own involvement.
Denial of Venezuela’s very existence has not set in entirely across the left. Indeed, the ‘great forgetters’ are not entirely consistent, with the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign making a fringe appearance at the 2016 Labour Party Conference. In almost perfect continuity from its role as the Daily Worker during the Stalin era, the communist Morning Star newspaper, where Corbyn remains a contributor, continues repeating Venezuelan state propaganda. The October 24th 2016 front page headline describes protests by the starving population as a right-wing “coup plot”, following a narrative that all opposition to the PSUV stems from the machinations of the political right. In the feed of pro-PSUV stories in the Morning Star, there is no mention of the mass starvation, mass imprisonment of political dissidents and explosion of street violence, kidnappings and murder in the state which now define life in the country which the more mainstream and popular British left, now embodied in Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones, would prefer to forget.
The Fellow Travellers
The publication of Robert Conquest’s groundbreaking history of the USSR, The Great Terror, led to an outbreak of cognitive dissonance on the British Marxist left. The writer and Observer journalist Neal Ascherson, a former student of Eric Hobsbawm who had graduated from Cambridge with a triple-starred First in History, was like his tutor sympathetic to Marxism and the USSR. When confronted with Conquest’s book, he later recalled:
“Everyone by then could agree that Stalin was a very wicked man and a very evil one, but we still wanted to believe in Lenin; and Conquest said that Lenin was just as bad and that Stalin was simply carrying out Lenin’s programme.”
When the history comes to be written of Venezuela’s descent into dictatorship and starvation, and the cheering on of this process from the left, a throat-clearing defence will be offered. It may be the first of the eventual breaking of silences by Venezuela’s erstwhile promoters in the West. The defence will contrast the starvation and chaos of Venezuela under Maduro in 2015-16 with the prosperity, openness and legitimacy of Venezuela led by Hugo Chávez from 1999 until his death in 2013. This myth has already begun taking hold in Venezuela itself, as believers in the Bolivarian Revolution insist that Chávez was a good man whose legacy has been spoiled by self-interested crooks led by Maduro. It is represented in Jacobin Magazine’s ‘Redeeming Chávez’s Dream’, an article of hand-wringing moral confusion by Chávez biographer Mike Gonzalez, speaking of “the hope that Chávez offered, and the promise that Maduro betrayed”, in between parsed criticism of Chavismo policies and indulgence of Maduro’s cruel fantasies that “There is no doubt that Venezuelan capitalists are hoarding goods, which disappear and reappear without explanation and with ever-increasing prices.”
Over the sixteen years that Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro ruled Venezuela through the MVR, then PSUV coalition parties, the regime enjoyed the enthusiastic support, endorsements and defensive apologetics of prominent members of the political left in Europe and North America. Support predictably came from far-left parties including the Communist Party of Britain, whose involvement in the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in support of Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship led organically to a Venezuela Solidarity Campaign. However, in addition to this, support came from members of mainstream centre-left political parties, academics, Hollywood celebrities, artists and popular authors. They championed the regime for its open and real-world application of the socialist ideas they dreamed of implementing in their own societies and saw it as an important ally in the ‘anti-imperialist’ politics of struggle against US foreign policy. Embodying British left-wing support for Venezuela at the height of Chavismo’s popularity, and the wall of silence since 2015, is Owen Jones.
Every person errs in judgement and makes mistaken predictions about politics, a sphere of human affairs in permanent flux and subject to the intrusion of the unpredictable. Francis Fukayama’s now-infamous declaration of ‘The End of History’ in 1992 should not disqualify him from the table of economic discussion, much less the public square. Election-winners are wrongly declared, economic crashes are either unforeseen or mistakenly prophesised and alliances are entered which end badly for all parties.
Owen Jones possesses a Masters’ degree in History. He has a record of accepting difficult questions facing the political left, recognising the existence of anti-Semitism in left-wing movements and the Labour Party. He has hosted friendly and open discussions with conservatives and right-wingers on his YouTube series for the Guardian, in stark contrast to the no-platforming and safe-space obliteration of disagreement practiced by many on the activist left. In more recent months, he exposed himself to inevitable waves of criticism and abuse from fellow Labour members when he openly criticised the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Jones’s capability for intelligent reflection and recognising hard truths are worth noting, and this article does not seek to drive aggravated condemnation or abuse in his direction. Whereas support from Venezuela on the hard-left fit a consistent pattern of supporting communist and Stalinist regimes in the cases of McDonnell, Abbott, and especially Milne, Jones had at least seemed consistent in support for representative democracy and the liberty of others to disagree.
Grahame Morris MP wrote on October 15th 2012 that he had been part of “a contingent of independent election observers, including my colleagues Diane Abbott MP, The Guardian‘s own Seumas Milne, Independent columnist Owen Jones, and Hugh O’Shaughnessy”. There was nothing remotely ‘independent’ about the observers – all were from the socialist left, all had expressed support for Chávez and most crucially, all were involved in some capacity with the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.
Rob Marchant, writing at Left Food Forward after Chávez’s death in March 2013, noted the strange truth about the ‘official election observer’ status given to Abbott, Morris, George Galloway and others and where it originated from:
“For the first time this election, there was no official, institutional election observation (EU, UN, and so on) other than the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a relatively new organisation rather dominated by Chávez and his friends among South American leaders.”
Owen Jones openly considered the accusation that he had served as a ‘Useful Idiot’ for a despotic regime in an article published during his visit to Caracas on 8th October 2012. He repeated this consideration in his article mourning Chávez’s death, 6th March 2013; “perhaps you think I was like those hopelessly naïve Western leftists who visited Potemkin villages in Stalinist Russia.” He was powerfully aware of the historical precedents for Western intellectuals serving as legitimisers for dictatorships whose economic policies they supported. The analogy was not far from the imagination of anyone raised or inducted into the world of the left, where the tendentiously-litigated memory of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union, the essays and novels of George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War was fought out in lived attempts at emulation as much as in articles and theoretical discussion.
It is wrong to conclude from this article and the unfolding tragedy of Venezuela that Jones and the other British leftists who supported Chavismo were ‘Useful Idiots’. Their responsibility is ultimately far worse. The Useful Idiots of Stalin’s USSR in the 1930s had little information to go on besides official Soviet propaganda and carefully-staged tours, which they chose to naively accept. Bertrand Russell had met and recognised the brutality and cruelty of the nascent Bolshevik dictatorship in 1920 when part of a Delegation of socialists that the Soviet rulers had expected to be sympathetic to them. Russell used his time in the Delegation to conclude that “a great part of the despotism which characterises the Bolsheviks belongs to the essence of their social philosophy.” Though sympathetic to the goals and purpose of revolutionary socialism, he consistently denounced the brutality and humanitarian failures of the Bolsheviks. However, a lack of consistent reportage on conditions in the country left even Western intelligence services blind and ignorant to the extent of suffering in the USSR. Extensive documentation on human rights abuses in the Soviet republics were not readily available at the time.
In contrast, Human Rights Watch and other organisations provided overwhelming and easily-accessible evidence that Venezuela had during the 2000s become a dictatorship, a home to mass murder and political repression sliding towards economic and social collapse. This was or should have been self-evident to any journalist, politician or educated person who visited Venezuela even if they were under the chaperone of a tightly-managed official tour. Direct contact was not even necessary to know what was happening there. Nothing more than an Internet connection and a library card would provide the mountains of information collected on political and social conditions in the country which had not been produced by Venezuelan state media. An amateur journalist could do it. A student could do it. That salaried journalists working for broadsheet newspapers and politicians elected to represent their constituents did not do this would be scandal even without the apologetics and ideological prejudice which belies it.
Human rights under Chávez
“But when it comes to his relationship with his opposition, Chávez has arguably been pretty lenient.”
– Owen Jones, October 2012.
“States raised concerns about a number of issues including the independence of the judiciary, threats to and harassment of human rights defenders, prison conditions, freedom of expression and impunity. In October, the Supreme Court breached legally binding international obligations by disregarding a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the ban be lifted on opposition politician Leopoldo López running for office.”
– Amnesty International, ‘State of the World’s Human Rights’, January 2012.
In contrast to the mourning and celebrations of Chávez offered by Jones and others following Chávez’s death, Human Rights Watch stated in a March 2013 retrospective, Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy’ that Chávez’s rule consisted of “Dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights”. Defenders of Chávez may accuse HRW of bearing a grudge against the Chávez regime, albeit to which any reasonable NGO and human rights defender may be entitled:
“In 2008, the president had representatives of Human Rights Watch forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country after they released a report documenting his government’s violation of human rights norms. Following the expulsion, his then-foreign minister and now chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, announced that, “Any foreigner who comes to criticize our country will be immediately expelled.”
Had Owen Jones and the leftist supporters of Chávez changed track during their time in the country, they could have faced the same fate. However, there is no evidence to support any retrospective claim of duress in justifying their praise for Chávez or Chavismo; nor would there be in claiming Human Rights Watch and other NGOs had only documented aberrations which were beyond the control or responsibility of Chávez himself. Peter Wilson’s essay on Venezuela summarises:
“Under Chávez, the country’s institutions – from the courts to the military to the legislature – lost whatever autonomy they once had. All became appendages of the Bolivarian socialist revolution. Under Chávez, it wasn’t strange for the supreme court to open one of its sessions by warbling a pro-Chávez ditty. Or for the head of the National Electoral Commission to show up at Chávez’s funeral in 2013, wearing the armband of Chávez’s political movement.”
The status of human rights deterioration and abuse in Venezuela was apparent and visible for the entirety of Chávez’s rule. Ending any illusions that the endemic problems of authoritarian rule, extrajudicial state violence and infringement of political freedoms began after Chávez’s death are the catalogue of reports from Human Rights Watch from the beginning of Chávez’s rule through the MVR in 1999. HRW’s annual World Report, an international survey of human rights records and human rights abuses has run since 1989 and reporting on Venezuela began in 1994. Some of the problems which were endemic to Venezuelan society under Chávez, particularly the problem of domestic prison conditions and prisoner abuse which Venezuela became associated with internationally, were inherited from previous governments, as were long-running social diseases of official corruption and police excessive use of force (“Venezuela’s intractable human rights problems, especially the ingrained abuses that have long been a feature of law enforcement work, remained of primary concern to human rights defenders during 1998.”) Additionally, the country suffered its worst economic crisis for fifty years in 1994-1995 as a result of declining oil prices and a banking crash; though the effects pale in comparison to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Venezuela in 2016.
Progress to overcome these issues would inevitably be difficult and mitigated with obstruction and setbacks. It is worth considering in comparison the transformative success of Northern Ireland in the same period as Chávez’s rule, where sectarian violence, frequent murders committed by and of police officers and an infamously brutal prison system had been reformed substantively following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. However, Chávez’s methods of governing, led by revolutionary ideology and emulation of Marxist one-party rulers who held human rights in contempt would sustain Venezuela’s existing problems or make them significantly worse.
In 2000, HRW reported that “in the space of six months, Chávez had accrued more power than any ruler in Venezuela since the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s.” There is at this time a gradual move to abolish separation of powers in the Venezuelan state. For the same period, Freedom House described Chávez’s efforts as being “to abolish congress and the judiciary, and by his creation of a parallel government of military cronies.” In 2001, despite “ambitious plans for prison reform”, HRW stated the Chávez government had “failed to mount an effective response to Venezuela’s deep-seated human rights problems, in particular the ingrained abusiveness of its police forces and appalling prison conditions.” In 2002, HRW noted “A disturbing recent development was the emergence in some states of organized death squads, acting with impunity and even publishing their hit lists in local newspapers.” The next report, World Report 2003, covered the coup attempt and its aftermath, noting that Chavismo failed to secure justice even for the victims of the anti-Chávez coup; “failure to make progress in investigating the April violence was symptomatic of endemic problems within the Venezuelan justice system as a whole. The attorney general’s office and the judiciary–under-funded and inefficient–proved incapable of dispensing justice efficiently and impartially.” Prison violence and conditions of an “inhumane” and extreme character continued, as did mass murders committed by police “extermination squads”, the investigators of which faced routine harassment and intimidation.
One of the most-vaunted evidences of Venezuela being a “free” society which apologists raised in its defence was the predominance of opposition-supporting press and minimal state control of the media, as in Owen Jones’ assertion in October 2012 that “the private media enjoys a 90 per cent audience share and routinely pump out vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda.” There was some truth to this assumption in the 2000s. In 2004, HRW declared:
“Venezuela has a vigorous and uninhibited media. Indeed, as part of the often heated and acrimonious debate between supporters of the government and its opponents, members of the media have been able to express strong views without restriction.”
The absence of a systematic policy of state censorship at this point does not entail freedom of the press; Chávez, as later ‘illiberal democrats’ would do, exercised an extra-governmental soft power to intimidate journalists and opposition figures which did not require closing their publications and broadcasting stations outright. When it came to upholding individuals’ rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press when they were attacked by vigilantes or organised assailants, “In the majority of cases, the Chávez government has not done so.” The majority which Chávez won in a referendum on his right to remain in office in 2004 provided him, in the regime’s view, with a mandate for political takeover of national institutions including the judiciary. Furthermore, the development of legislative censorship was apparent from late 2004 onwards. In a clear denotation of things to come, HRW marked the onset of overt state interference in broadcasting content through punitive and censorious measures:
“In October 2004, the National Assembly moved to pass a government bill on the “social responsibility” of radio and television stations…. the draft law provides for a regime of drastic punishments for infractions… If found responsible for infractions, the stations could be fined, ordered to suspend transmissions, or even have their broadcasting licenses revoked.”
The 2005 Report described the laws passed “since late 2004” as having placed “onerous restrictions on the media”, in addition to further expansion of “Venezuela’s desacato (disrespect) laws, and increased penalties for desacato, criminal defamation, and libel.” Police violence, prison violence and rising crime continued to worsen throughout the decade, and Chávez’s social justice ‘missions’ failed to prevent street crime and paramilitary violence spiralling beyond control. One subject that should have been of concern to socialist supporters of Chávez in the West was the issue of trade union and labour organising rights; HRW reported in the 2008 report that “State interference in trade union elections has weakened the right to free association.” Venezuela continued deteriorating socially despite multiple elections and referendums which were supposed to demonstrate the vibrancy of popular democracy, and the reorganisation of Chávez’s ruling MVR into the PSUV. Whilst it is true that Chávez accepted the outcome of a constitutional referendum in 2007 that involved “reforms allowing the indefinite suspension of rights during states of emergency”, the regime circumvented this through continued use of indirect power through extra-governmental actors including paramilitary forces.
By 2009, following Human Rights’ Watch initial expulsion from the country, the reports on Venezuela were approaching a red-line of authoritarian regimes:
“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”
Without irony, many of the human rights tropes invoked in justification, defence or apologia for Chavismo; the 1989 Caracas massacre, the 2002 “US-backed” and “Pinochet-style” coup, the “social justice” policies of Chavismo – lie in ruins after examining the factual record of what Chávez did for – and did to – those involved. Chávez showed little real gratitude to those who returned him to power in 2002, particularly when they became an obstacle to him in later years. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2009:
“Raúl Baduel, an army general who commanded the military operation that returned Chávez to power during the April 2002 coup attempt, is currently in Ramo Verde military prison, facing trial by a military court on corruption charges. Baduel was an outspoken critic of constitutional reforms proposed by Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly.”
One policy in particular associated with the censorship of Venezuelan media and the press was the revocation of broadcasting license rights for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), ostensibly for its role in supporting the failed 2002 coup against Chávez. The broadcaster lost network licensing in 2007 when the state refused to renew its license, with Chávez citing the coup attempt as the reason. Jones would repeat this in his October 2012 article:
“Five years later, the government refused to renew the licence of one broadcaster, RCTV, because of its role in the coup… I wonder how many governments would tolerate TV stations advocating their armed overthrow.”
Similar justifications of the shut-down of RCTV by revocation of broadcasting rights were made in an official motion adopted by the Trades Union Congress in 2007, drafted by supporters of Hands Off Venezuela. In a delusionally over-reaching statement commending the TUC for adopting the motion, “Hands Off Venezuela spokesman Charley Allan hailed the result, saying: “This vote shows that Venezuela’s peaceful and democratic revolution is backed 100 per cent by the workers of Britain…”
If British trade unionists and journalists repeating the censorious propaganda of a foreign state were disconcerting enough, the results of the world’s acceptance of the legitimacy of RCTV being removed from the airwaves were damaging. The claim of RCTV’s involvement in inciting or assisting in a coup was repeated by Venezuela’s defenders whenever the question of press censorship and state powers of censorship was raised. Whether the involvement actually occurred was never established with any sufficient evidence beyond the assertions of the Venezuelan government. Human Rights Watch stated in the 2010 World Report:
“Neither this accusation nor an alleged breach of broadcasting standards was ever proved in a proceeding in which RCTV had an opportunity to present a defense.”
After losing its primary broadcasting rights in 2007, RCTV tried to reinvent itself as a cable channel. However, this limited range of capacity was interfered with again in 2010 as the state sought to punish broadcasters which did not broadcast Chávez’s (frequently long, Castro-esque) speeches and addresses. The following year’s HRW Report detailed:
“In January 2010 the government broadcasting authority CONATEL ordered the country’s cable providers to suspend transmitting channels that did not comply with the broadcasting statute—including the requirement to transmit presidential speeches… The suspension affected seven channels, including RCTV International… CONATEL rejected RCTV International’s application for status as a national broadcaster. At this writing the channel was only available online and unable to transmit in Venezuela.”
Government interference and hobbling of Venezuela’s much-vaunted diverse media market continued to escalate, again using circumnavigation which avoided the explicit removal of scores of stations from the airwaves directly. Instead, regulations compelling broadcasters to transmit quotas of government-approved programming were implemented and restrictions were placed on what original programming could be broadcast and syndicated to other broadcasters. The result was a diverse and decentralised media that operated under dictatorial and centralised content-control policies. Needless to say, human rights conditions beyond press freedom continued to deteriorate as the murders by criminals, the police and in the lawless prison system escalated into the 2010s.
The HRW World Report for 2012, the last report issued before the visit of the ‘election observers’ from the British left in October 2012, detailed the move to overt political prosecutions by the Chavismo regime – a matter which would have been visible and prominent to any remotely-curious foreign journalist interested in Venezuelan politics, let alone those visiting on an election-related trip:
“Several prominent critics of Chávez’s government have been targeted for criminal prosecution in recent years. The courts’ lack of independence reduced the chances of them receiving a fair trial.”
Chávez’s increasing authoritarianism and systematic abuse of the justice system was condemned even by a long-time supporter and ally Noam Chomsky, whose writings Chávez had frequently promoted including during his 2006 address to the United Nations. In 2011, Chomsky accused Chávez of launching an “assault on democracy”. Chomsky’s public letter to Chávez was published in full in The Guardian on July 3rd 2011, lobbying for an end to the “cruelty” of an imprisoned judge and others locked up per Chávez’s denunciations on television.
With over a decade of freely available publications by a leading and respected human rights organisation, alarm bells being rang by many other NGOs, and public condemnation of the dictatorship being created in Caracas, including by the world’s most-cited living scholar, himself a titanic figure of the left, the ‘election observers’ who flew to Caracas in October 2012 had no excuse or justification for being ignorant of the situation in which they involved themselves. If the pro-Chavismo socialist left found it impossible to believe or accept the evidence and testimony of even these sources, they could have easily found cause for alarm in a source they were much more likely to trust: the beliefs, claims and actions of Chávez himself.
Chávez and the Dictators
Jones acknowledges the admiration and support Chávez gave for “autocrats and tyrants such as Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Assad” in his October 2012 apologetic, and again in the March 2013 obituary article, “he also supported brutal dictators in Iran, Libya and Syria. It has certainly sullied his reputation.” On both occasions, however, Jones engages in a profoundly dishonest exercise of whataboutery, introducing the irrelevant throw-back invocations of “the West’s own support for dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kazakhstan – whose regime is currently paying Tony Blair $13m a year for PR services.” Because of this, Jones claims of Chávez’s human rights critics, “a giant glasshouse looms behind them”. The irrelevancy of Western involvement in the Middle East, not least the business activities of a former Prime Minister, to the very real and material human rights abuses committed by Chávez and supported by him in other countries is self-evident. Human Rights Watch and other human rights defenders in Venezuela were not synonymous with the personage of Tony Blair; associating criticism of Chavismo with them only repeats the paranoid and repressive narrative of the regime against its victims.
Furthermore, Jones omits a distinction between Chávez’s support for dictator’s and those of the West which should be recognisable at point-blank by himself and other pro-Chávez leftists keenly seeking to emulate the regime “that says no to neoliberalism”. Whichever palpable support has been given by Britain and the US to various regimes, Western democracies have not sought, as a matter of ideology and policy, to emulate the governmental and economic systems Saudi absolutist monarchies and Central Asian autocrats, transposing their emulation onto their own societies. Just as Jones, Milne, Corbyn and Abbott dreamed of creating a Venezuela in Britain, Chávez sought to remake Venezuela in the image of the despotisms he most admired for their anti-imperialist credentials.
Chávez’s admiration and even fetishism for Fidel Castro and the Cuban model of one-party dictatorship was avowed and promoted by Chávez himself. The efforts to transform Venezuela into a second Cuba were one of the most well-established facts about Chavismo:
“Mr Chávez portrays Cuban help as socialist solidarity in the struggle against “the empire”, as he calls the United States. When he was visiting Cuba in 2005 Fidel Castro said publicly to him that their two countries were “a single nation”. “With one flag,” added Mr Chávez, to which Mr Castro replied, “We are Venecubans.”
Unsurprisingly, a strong overlap exists on the British left between the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Receiving no solidarity are the trade unionists, political dissidents and various minority groups systematically persecuted by the regime. Also absent from typical socialist discussions of the virtues of Cuba as a nation of anti-imperialist defiance is Cuba’s historical role in supporting regimes elsewhere in the developing world, Angola and Ethiopia being the most prominent, which have inflicted catastrophic humanitarian suffering on their populations via repression and man-made famine. ‘Venecuba’ is merely the latest in a long line of one-party state projects sponsored and supported by the Castro brothers and the Communist Party of Cuba.
Considerably more disturbing than Chávez’s relations with Cuba were his admiration and more than pragmatic relationship with the Kim Dynasty regime of North Korea. Cuba’s human rights abuses, whilst palpable, were considerably less in scale, execution and genocidal ambitions than the monstrous scale of human suffering maintained for the entirety of North Korea’s existence as a state. In December 2011, ten months before the ‘election observers’ would travel to Venezuela, Chávez responded to the death of Kim Jong-il in the following:
“Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sent condolences to North Korean authorities expressing the “most sincere sorrow” for the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, on behalf of “all Venezuelans,” after learning about the death of his “comrade.”
A leader responsible for the starvation of his country in an artificial famine, the terrorising of its immediate neighbours with nuclear weapons, the imprisonment of tens of thousands in gulags and the punishment of political prisoners’ families ‘down to the third generation’, the creation of a political theocracy around the worship of Kim Il-Sung the Father and Kim Jong-Il the Son and the supreme rule of a society ranked worst in the world for human rights and press freedom was, in the mind of Chávez, worthy of being named ‘comrade’. After Chávez, with Venezuelans experiencing a diet of leaves and refuse-searching as North Koreans have for decades, it was a statement of unknowingly accurate portent.
Why They Did It
The possible motivations for supporting and publicly propagandising for an authoritarian regime which ostensibly violates the most essential principles of the democratic left are manifold. Without access to the inner minds of the ‘election observers’ or other pro-Chavismo authors who legitimised the regime in the West, it is not possible to know with any certainty what drove them.
Mass nationalisation and the state control of the economy for ‘need not greed’ and ‘for the public good’ appealed to every socialist who supported Venezuela. Transposed from Marxist and socialist political theory textbooks into real life, the long-term consequences were as follows:
“Starting around 2005, Chávez also began expropriating businesses by the dozens, claiming that many weren’t producing or operating to his standards. By 2015, over 1,200 private companies had been nationalized, seriously denting local production of food, medicine, and oil — the country’s largest export. Many oil production facilities now stand idle.”
Contrary to Jones’s claims to Chávez’s success in boosting oil production, the deliberate mismanagement of the oil industry left the already overly-depended-upon sector incapable of performing. In March 2013, the New York Times energy correspondent Clifford Krauss wrote that “Venezuela’s annual oil production has declined since Mr. Chávez took office in 1999 by roughly a quarter, and oil exports have dropped by nearly a half, a major economic threat to a country that depends on oil for 95 percent of its exports and 45 percent of its federal budget revenues.” This simple warning, made by many others and capable of being made by any economist not entranced by the Chavismo ideology, went unheeded. The results are found in the catastrophe of 2015-16.
One of the last triumphant mentions of Venezuela involving Corbyn, Colin Burgon and Richard Burgon MP, Grahame Morris MP and other prominent political backers of Chávez comes from the June 2015 rally in support of the regime, held during Corbyn’s first Labour leadership campaign:
“Politicians, journalists and peace campaigners, along with the Venezuelan and Argentinian ambassadors, praised the “inspirational” example that the Bolivarian revolution is setting the world. Speakers hailed the Latin American country’s achievements in poverty reduction and improving literacy and healthcare. Cuba Solidarity Campaign director Rob Miller noted the unshakeable friendship between Caracas and Havana, which saw Cuba send doctors and nurses while Venezuela provided economic aid and helped break the US blockade of the socialist island.”
Corresponding directly with support for Fidel Castro’s socialist regime in Cuba, which became pertinently more visible following the former leader’s death in November 2016, the hard base of support for Chavismo came not only from those seeking an economic alternative to capitalism but a defiant obstruction of the United States.
There is a bitter and horrifying irony to the praise lavished on Venezuela’s regime by its supporters during and even after the Chávez years. The proclamation by the Guardian columnist, activist and now Jeremy Corbyn’s communications chief Seumas Milne as one that would “offer lessons to anyone interested in social justice and new forms of socialist politics in the rest of the world.” Diane Abbott MP, now Shadow Home Secretary, said that Venezuela “shows that another way is possible”. Oliver Stone mourned Chávez’s death by assuring that “Hugo Chávez will live forever in history.” These predictions made by the authors have been validated and realised, albeit in ways they did not wish or allow themselves to consider possible.
What Can Be Done: Accountability
“Oh, Western freedom-loving “left-wing” thinkers! Oh, left-wing labourists! Oh, American, German and French progressive students! All of this is still not enough for you. The whole book has been useless for you. You will understand everything immediately, when you yourself — “hands behind the back” — toddle into our Archipelago.” – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
There is a telling episode in the research of Jeffrey Meyers, a biographer of Orwell whose work led him in 1999 to track down two surviving contemporaries of Orwell from the Spanish Civil War. The men, Frank Frankford and Sam Lesser, had been responsible for a pro-Soviet propaganda story fed to and published in the Daily Worker of September 14th 1937 which accused the P.O.U.M and its commander Georges Kopp of collaborating with the Fascists to destroy the Spanish Revolution, an episode which Orwell detailed in Homage to Catalonia. Meyers had sought to interview the now-octogenarian men and ascertain the truth behind their reasons for promoting the story, and particularly if Frankford had, according to one contemporary account, broken down and begged Orwell’s colleague John McNair for forgiveness in 1937, only to deny this for decades afterwards. The article is entitled ‘Repeating the old lies’:
“Brockway’s account of Frankford’s remorse (witnessed by McNair) is convincing. Why then did Frankford “stick to his story” and repeat his lies to Crick, yet retract essential parts of his statement — as he did long ago in Spain — and claim to be a cynical realist when he was really a disillusioned fantasist? Was it stubbornness, pride, bravado, or bitterness?
His uneasy recantation on television, reinforced by his guilt-ridden pleas when I interviewed him, seemed inspired by bad conscience… My interviews with Frankford and Lesser reveal that the political battle lines of the 1930s have endured into the 1990s. Hard-liners still believe it’s ethical to lie in the service of Communism — even when the system has withered and supporters like Frankford have begun to crack. “
Corbyn’s removal of any trace of ‘Venezuela’ from his website in an act of Ministry of Truth memory-holing is the clearest example of such behaviour regarding Venezuela. Eventually it may be claimed by Corbyn supporters, as with other historically dubious assertions made about Corbyn’s relationship with Iranian state television, that Corbyn was never an apologist for the brutality of Chavismo and simply used his position to ‘raise concerns’ about human rights. Owen Jones has at least recognised the continued existence of Venezuela in his Spanish interview, albeit without acknowledging or much less expressing remorse for his own involvement in legitimising the Chavismo regime. The silence of other apologists whose articles are still visible but who now live their lives ‘as if’ they were never involved in the making of Venezuela’s present tragedy is a silence which screams.
Owen Jones has continued his life a prominent political commentator with a large social media following and a frequent guest on current affairs programmes. After Venezuela’s collapse into catastrophe unseen in the Western Hemisphere for decades, he has carried on as though nothing happened. In fact, he has taken up the mantle of promoting the Spanish populist party Podemos, arguing that “the continent’s last hope lies with the leftwing Podemos party”; once again, his articles ignore and omit the relationship between Podemos and the Chavismo regime. Venezuela loomed large over Spain’s June 2016 elections as the leaders of Podemos were made to face their own history of support and advice provided to Chávez and Maduro:
“A handful of Podemos leaders — including Mr. Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero and Iñigo Errejón — once used their academic credentials as political scientists to work as advisers to the government of Mr. Chávez, who died in 2013… Even as Podemos has distanced itself from Venezuela, it has not joined other parties in condemning Mr. Maduro’s policies.”
Podemos, like the Corbyn front bench, does not wish to talk openly about Venezuela and their history of direct involvement in the Chavismo regime, but also refuses to condemn the regime’s catastrophic inhumanity when asked to do so in Spain or the European Parliament.
If Owen Jones did eventually admit to his many journalistic and moral wrongs in his involvement with Venezuela, it would not be sufficient recompense to say the least. Jones deserves no special recognition or credit for realising, often too little and too late, what others outside his political sphere were capable of warning years or even decades prior. This is especially pertinent in relation to Jones’ instrumental role in the election of Jeremy Corbyn and Jones’s own former boss John McDonnell to the highest seats of Labour Party office, defying all warnings of their unelectability and unpopularity in the eyes of the British electorate, only to finally acknowledge in June 2016 that “Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster.” His widely-read post on Medium, ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’ is an exercise in hubris and a dearth of titular self-awareness. Having failed to answer the questions he now makes of others when he was engaged in getting Corbyn into the leadership, Jones seemed to be following a pattern which began with his reporting on Venezuela in 2012.
When Jones, Corbyn, Abbott and others eventually break their silence on Venezuela, they may respond with protestations that the collapse of the socialist state created no worse a situation than had been seen in capitalist or colonially-occupied countries. Should tens of thousands of Venezuelans die of malnutrition and disease, the Bengal Famine of 1943 will no doubt be invoked. But as with Castro, Mugabe, Khomeini, Kim-Jong-un and every other anti-Western dictator who places their regime in American crosshairs, the defence and apologetics offered through whataboutery will ring as hollow and diversionary excuse-making.
In an eviscerating condemnation of the pro-Chávez intelligentisa, Nick Cohen created a lucid analogy between “radical tourists” apologising for dictators with the “sex tourists in search of ‘exotic’ thrills”. Having failed to persuade electorates to embrace policies in their own countries, radical tourists seek to vicariously live out their fantasy of a successful socialist or ‘anti-imperialist’ state through the experimentation on captive masses in Venezuela. Just as Cuba became a tourist trap for Western socialists with spending money, a resort for revolutionary fantasists, its partner in ‘Venecuba’ attracted the political tourism of the domestically unsatisfied intellectual Left of Europe and America.
On the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016, the writer James Bloodworth, former editor of Left Foot Forward, reflected on the place of Cuba in the left-wing imagination, as well as his own year-long stay on the island in 2006, beginning as a sympathiser and ending completely disillusioned. The ability of Cuba to attract the support not only of Communist Party members but of leftists across the spectrum was fixed in its oppositional position to the United States; all human rights abuses and state-controlled economic failure could be “rationalised away” by reference to social-welfare accomplishments and the dream of keeping a piece of the Earth cleansed of American consumer culture:
“Therefore the hair-splitting Marxist dialectician who sees Cuba as a “bulwark” against American capitalism, or the young western Socialist intoxicated by the romantic penumbra surrounding the bearded guerrilla fighters, is closer to the high Tory imperialist of the nineteenth century than they imagine. In both cases foreigners exist to be experimented upon or sent over the top of the trenches to take a bullet from the opposing side…”
The imperial implications are obvious. Nick Cohen’s analogy of the sex-tourists may have appeared brutal, but the inverse and perverse relationship of “anti-imperialist” Cuba and Venezuela making their populations captive playthings for Marxists of the rich world is palpably apparent. Bloodworth summarised the prevailing fetish for Cuban revolutionary chiq as “a mentality which views that country as a fly-blown museum attraction there for the enjoyment of wealthy westerners”. This was the position Venezuela found itself in when being fawned over by Chávez’s British admirers; now even they are, for the most part, unwilling to speak the name of the country which once brought them so much pleasure.
From those who supported, propagandised, politically emulated and are now silent on Chavismo and its policies in Venezuela, moral accountability is required. It is ultimately not a question of political ideology, of socialism or capitalism, but of respect for the most essential human rights. Moral accountability is inseparable from intellectual honesty. It must now be demanded from those who would have turned Britain into Venezuela and now live in the shame of denial. Corbyn’s self-conscious obliteration of Venezuela from his website is the merely the most obvious expression of shame without acknowledging guilt. The deafening silence and the vacuum of empathy for the victims of Chavismo is in itself a new moral obscenity.
Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Milne and Morris are in their senior years and will not have many decades to contemplate their actions. Owen Jones is still in his thirties, as is Richard Burgon MP. The latter may lose his seat at the next General Election as a result of Labour’s disastrous polling. Self-reflection may follow or it may be subsumed by Festinger’s dissonance reduction and the journey further into face-saving denial. Owen Jones faces no similar concrete disconfirmation of his politics and ethics. In the assumption of his good health and a long life, internal discord and despair over his role in Venezuela’s tragedy and his relationship with others on the left may haunt him well into the late twenty-first century.
UPDATE (04/01/2017): Thanks to the support and forwarding work of Paul Canning, David Paxton, Nick Cohen and others, this article is now spreading much further than I initially expected. I owe Paul Canning particular thanks for being among the first to promote it to his followers on Twitter. He has just completed a new article detailing the links between the Labour Party and its sister socialist and social democrat parties in Venezuela and the persecution they are subjected to by Chavismo and the PSUV. ‘Venezuela: A Corbynvista warning’ is viewable here.
Owen Jones has been approached for comment. As of 04/01/2017, he has made no reply. I dislike response-demand or “debate me!” trolls and Jones, as any public figure, is under no obligation to respond to the claims of an unknown writer. However, his continuing silence on the issue in contrast to his earlier enthusiasm for the subject of Venezuela and Chavez will, I believe, cause greater harm to his reputation in the long-term than a simple mea culpa made to the people of Venezuela and his readers.
 Raul Stolk, ‘Venezuela has Become a Starvation State’ in The Daily Beast.
 Tribune News Services, ‘Pets starved, abandoned as Venezuela economic crisis deepens’ in Chicago Tribune, September 7th 2016.
 Peter Wilson, ‘After 24 Years, I am Leaving the Disaster Venezuela Has Become’ in Foreign Policy, October 27th 2016.
 Amnesty International, ‘New regime effectively amounts to forced labour’, July 28th 2016.
 Morning Star, ‘Hundreds Rally to Mark 10 Years of Backing Venezuela’, June 6th 2015.
 Sarah Pilchick, ‘Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn pays tribute to Hugo Chávez’ in Islington Now, March 7th 2013.
 Owen Jones, ‘Hugo Chávez’ in The Independent, October 12th 2012.
 Communist Party – ‘Venezuela Under Threat’.
 Srdja Popovic, ‘When Dictators Cry Conspiracy’ in Foreign Policy, February 3rd 2016.
 Venezuela Conspiracy Theories, ‘Human Rights NGOs’ are funded by the United States’, November 14th 2014.
 Paul Canning, ‘Venezuela: The left’s giant forgetting’:
 Daniel Postico, ‘Owen Jones, gurú británico de Podemos: “Venezuela está en un estado horrible”‘.
 Morning Star, 24th October 2016.
 Andrew Brown, ‘Profile: Robert Conquest’ in The Guardian.
 Mike Gonzalez, ‘Redeeming Chávez’s Dream’.
 Owen Jones, ‘Antisemitism has no place on the political left. It’s time to confront it’ in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/26/antisemitism-left-racism-israel
 Rob Marchant ‘Labour, Venezuela and the Strange Tale of ‘Official Observation’.
 Owen Jones, ‘Hugo Chávez’ in The Independent, October 12th 2012.
 Owen Jones, ‘Hugo Chávez was a democrat, not a dictator, and showed a progressive alternative to neo-liberalism is both possible and popular’ in The Independent, March 6th 2013.
 Amnesty International, ‘Amnesty International World Report 2012: State of the World’s Human Rights’.
 Human Rights Watch, ‘Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy’.
 HRW, ‘Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy – Rejection of Human Rights Scrutiny’.
 Peter Wilson, ‘Venezuela’s Season of Starvation’ in Foreign Policy, June 19th 2016.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 99, ‘Venezuela – Human Rights Developments’.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2000, ‘Venezuela – Human Rights Developments’.
 Freedom House, Freedom in the World 1999, ‘Venezuela – Ratings Change’:
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001, ‘Venezuela – Human Rights Developments’.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002, ‘Venezuela’.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2003, ‘Venezuela – Defending Human Rights’.
 Jones, ‘Hugo Chávez’ in The Independent.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2004, ‘Venezuela – Freedom of the Press’.
 HRW, World Report 2004, ‘Venezuela – Freedom of the Press’.
 HRW, World Report 2004, ‘Venezuela – Freedom of the Press’.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2005, ‘Venezuela – Freedom of the Press’.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2008, ‘Venezuela’.
 HRW, World Report 2008, ‘Venezuela’.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2010, ‘Venezuela’.
 HRW, World Report 2009, ‘Venezuela – Prosecution of Political Opponents’.
 Jones, ‘Hugo Chávez’ in The Independent, October 8th 2012.
 Hands Off Venezuela, ‘British Trades Union Congress (TUC) reaffirms solidarity with Venezuela’, 14th September 2007.
 HRW, World Report 2010, ‘Venezuela – Freedom of the Press’.
 HRW, World Report 2011, ‘Venezuela – Freedom of the Press’.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012, ‘Venezuela – Prosecuting Government Critics’.
 Noam Chomsky, quoted in Rory Carroll, ‘Noam Chomsky criticises his old friend Hugo Chávez for an ‘assault’ on democracy’ in The Guardian, July 3rd 2011.
 The Economist, ‘Venecuba: A single nation’, February 11th 2010.
 FRANK LÓPEZ BALLESTEROS in El Universal, ‘President Chávez Laments the death of Kim Jong-Il’.
 Peter Wilson, ‘Venezuela’s Season of Starvation’.
 Clifford Krauss, ‘Dwindling Production Has Led to Lesser Role for Venezuela as Major Oil Power’ in The New York Times, March 8th 2013:
 Morning Star, June 6th 2015.
 Seumas Milne, ‘ The Chávez victory will be felt far beyond Latin America’ in The Guardian, Tuesday 9th October 2012.
 Jeffrey Meyers, ‘Repeating the old lies’.
 Owen Jones, ‘Spain can halt Europe’s slide to the populist right’ in The Guardian, November 3rd 2016.
 Nick Cohen, ‘Radical tourists have been deluded pimps for Venezuela’ in The Guardian, May 22nd 2016.
 Bloodworth, ‘The romanticisation of FIdel Castro’s Cuba must die with him’ in Little Atoms, 26th November 2016.
 Bloodworth, ‘The romanticisation of FIdel Castro’s Cuba must die with him’.
Narcissism is the lake which every creator traverses a tightrope over when managing their public image. More than ever, the realities of self-promotion in the twenty-first century make it almost inevitable that every author, videographer, podcaster and journalist, whether fully independent or associated with a larger organisation, runs the risk of being labelled an “attention-seeker”. Continuously promoting one’s own work, trying to insert oneself into any public debate or discussion, relentlessly directing potential readers towards the servers hosting your own domain, carries with it a strong personal involvement in the labours of publicity. By definition it instinctively appears “unprofessional” to be doing it by oneself and without the work of a PR and advertising machine or an established media outlet promoting your work. As per the dreadful case of the self-establishing “media commentator”, “lawyer” “theologian”, unmasked fraud and extremist Mo Ansar who “tweeted himself into existence”, there hangs a question of moral legitimacy over which authors should be considered worth listening to, particularly when their relevance to a conversation is one asserted solely by themselves.
Unpublished and unsigned writers, indie journalists and anyone without the backing of an institution runs an operation wide open to accusations of being one of another random voice in the street simply being amplified by an unusual desire for attention. Without the gatekeepers of editors and content managers, blogs and online platforms remain the open entrance into the world of ideas for every unchecked, unconsidered and unconsidered opinion as well as opinions which might have some value. Everyone reckons something and the blogger is assumed to be just another reckoner who has decided to aggressively assert their reckonings into public discourse without consultation or approval by the established gatekeepers. Complicating this is the question of anonymity and online personas (names like ‘Guido Fawkes’, ‘Popehat’ and ‘Armoured Skeptic’) versus named and identifiable writing under a legal name, with the middle juncture being a recognisable pseudonym – a pen name with a public face, accountable for the content published under it but without projecting the creator’s personal details into the public domain.
Publishing under one’s own name carries not only the risks associated with personality cult and narcissism accusations but the pressing concern of security. If you have a fairly unique and uncommon name as part of your public persona, it can be particularly difficult to conceal yourself from the troll underworld as many politicians and political commentators in the 2010s have learned the hard way. But why should an author seek to hide themselves with a bland or search-result-buriable pseudonym?
These jumbled thoughts were part of my reasoning as I have recently been trying to revamp HistoryJack and get it to the right part of the runway for taxiing in advance of takeoff. Soon I will be publishing an extremely long article, one fitting the length of an academic journal entry but one I expect is too journalistic and everyday-speech laden to pass any peer review. Though in the age of @RealPeerReview, one must always wonder and shudder at the thought of what is possible.
The conclusion of my recent work to make HistoryJack ready for a much wider audience is the question of whether to use my own name. I have a professional life mostly separate from writing and no desire to see it or anything else interrupted and interfered with by trolls and the legions of the damned, raining frogs and all. Likewise, the pitfalls of Narcissus made a pseudonym the more appealing – to deny my own name any glory resulting from the blog and give all the credit to a partly fictive online persona would gel more closely with the current consensus. Maximise security and minimise unwanted personal attention – what could be wrong with that? Hence, for a while, I briefly adopted a nom de plume of ‘Jack S. Willis’. Taking some ancestral maiden names and some minor tweaks on my own, I thought this would be my means to get everything written here out into the world without any annexation by or of my ordinary life.
However, for a variety of reasons, the pendulum has swung towards full disclosure and the roll of the dice on my own name. I am fortunate and more recently quite grateful to be the one and only Jack Staples-Butler in the world; registers for every English-speaking country I have been able to locate online record nobody else sharing that full name. My previous writing for Nouse, The Yorker, OpinionPanel and my broadcasting work for University Radio York was all done under my own name. Of course, this was all edited and run through the gatekeepers – nothing risky or troublesome for future professional prospects. However, what explanation could I give to any satisfaction as to why I had chosen to do all this under my own name but then fled under the cover of Mr. Willis when it came to my own original content?
The confusion in the end was too much. After making the appropriate adjustments to my personal records and putting up as many security barriers as can reasonably be expected – in reality, it is not trolls but the automated data-harvesting plagues which are the main threat – I have set everything back to my own name. From henceforth, I will be writing and publishing the HistoryJack Blog under my own name and tweeting under the Twitter account I first set up in July 2012, @jstaplesbutler. Everything I write will be done with the sincerity of a willingness to defend it from all critics and if necessary before a court – though I tentatively say that the possibility of this remains extremely remote. The New York Times test for writing and blogging, that you should consider whether you would want to see your writing printed on the front page of the Times under your own name with your profile photo next to it, is one I would happily take.
Provided they would remunerate.
… – Jack
There will soon, on HistoryJack.com or possibly another medium which will be linked to here, be a long-form article of 8,000 words in length on a subject of immense importance which has until now escaped the attention it should be getting.
It will be published in the New Year for 2017.
For now, enjoy an image of the White Mountain National Forest region of New Hampshire taken at the end of summer.
… – Jack
HistoryJack as a blog has been noticeably silent for the past year save for the occasional reblog and a drip-drip of Twitter activity. Whilst the primary reason for this diversion away from regular updates has been the completion of my undergraduate studies, there has been a secondary concern pressing against the existence of the blog itself; namely, the benefits or purpose of continuing to maintain a blog in my own name on an academic subject. In fact, I now write under a slight pseudonym partly for the excitement and anticipation of one day joining the illustrious list of pseudonymous authors, but for the more practical security concerns raised by the realities of modern publishing. Expanding this blog into more regular and opinionated political writing has been a prospect considered with great trepidation. Online abuse and trolling has become more prominent throughout 2015 and 2016 and even a leading theme in the UK Labour Leadership contest and even the U.S. Presidential Election. Now everyone, whether controversial or not, has the potential to become a new Salman Rushdie, Jyllands Posten or Charlie Hebdo.
One article published this week in the American conservative magazine National Review details the horrific and systematic campaign of intimidation, abuse and harassment suffered by the columnist David French at the hands of Trump supporters displeased with his opposition to the candidate. His detailing of the terror launched against him and many other writers from within the conservative opposition to Trump makes for stomach-churning reading. The work was done by hundreds of different accounts and IP addresses, attackers combing the Internet to rake up the personal information of victims and invade their lives before deluging them with abuse; this ranged from fantastical obscenities like portraying French’s children in gas chambers, to credible threats of murder citing home addresses and breaching telephone lines during private conversations. This reflects the experiences of seemingly every writer, commentator and public figure who isn’t a True Believer of the anti-establishment, anti-mainstream, anti-everything ascendancy on the political right and left in the Western Hemisphere.
Having witnessed many authors and public figures I admire and follow being driven to secrecy, pseudonyms or even offline altogether, the purpose of running this blog became more questionable. Writing is the harvest of thought, whether of ripened or poisoned fruits, and abandoning it for future security considerations alone would be a betrayal of those who persist in the face of the tsunami of hate and violence. While I remain in what Richard J. Evans called the “decent obscurity” of the historian, a sheltered existence of academic spats not reaching public consciousness, keeping the blog going would seem self-evidently safe and justified. However, renewing the license for this domain name was a decision taken with some apprehension. Refocusing the blog away from academic history and towards current affairs was a plan I had envisaged should I decide to give the archives and conferences a heave-ho in favour of something else. As it happens, since my last major activity, I have been pursuing a legal career and gave strong consideration to retiring HistoryJack to the archives and keep any future political and cultural writing to larger, more impersonal forums such as Medium, eventually graduating to editorialised platforms like the brilliant Little Atoms or the likes of New Humanist, Left Foot Forward or Standpoint. This is done in the awareness of the tightrope that writers in the digital age walk between the necessity of being an self-publicising, self-proclaimer of importance and relevance on the one side, and the self-inventing fraudulence of “tweeting oneself into existence” on the other. Any successful writer must, whilst walking that delicate balance of humility and self-publicity, be an attention-seeker towards their work and a successful articulator of why their voice should be heard – how else would new writers get a foothold in commentary and reviews? But the aggressive, social media-based self-marketing now expected of any would-be author of note makes it difficult to follow The Cash and Walk the Line.
A good rule of thumb to start with would be to avoid involving oneself in, or deliberately starting conflicts by Twitter handle, the unpublished and unknown opinionator punching to the weight of professional journalists, academics and broadcasters and demanding to be let into their world with their musings on an equal footing. This is not to disregard the work of amateur bloggers and writers who can produce major criticisms and improvements on the work of the professionals; some of the greatest works of human insight were produced by autodidacts and non-scholars like Eric Hoffer. Long-read critiques and discussions are quite different to charging into existing discussion spheres demanding recognition; with the right commitment of energy and intellectual dexterity, a previously obscure author can produce work of praiseworthy quality and relevance.
One of my own favourite everyman commentators, a non-scholar with a knack for producing incisive and original content is the podcaster Godless Spellchecker, an office worker named Stephen Knight who makes no pretences to theological or historical grandiosity. He recognises as a given that he does not possess the professional standing or qualifications to challenge religious leaders to public debates, insist indignantly that the Journal of Contemporary History publish an article detailing his thoughts on global jihadism or demand a platform on BBC’s Hard Talk. Instead, GSpellchecker plumbs the depths of pseudo-scholars, quacks, frauds, woo peddlers and Internet wisdom warlocks whom professional journalists have neither the time nor the wherewithal to devote resources and column-inches to refuting and debunking. He fights the intellectual battles that need to be fought, against the avalanche of pseudo-knowledge defined by Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. It takes little work for a self-proclaimed expert or ‘journalist’ to pump garbage stories about chemical trails, miracle cancer cures or the melting point of steel beams into the online atmosphere – and much time-consuming work to refute it satisfactorily for the general public. GSpellchecker excels at this, and does so with wit. One post from November 2015 in particular highlights with brevity how diluted and easily applicable professional and honorific titles have been made by the digital age:
“Now anyone can slap ‘Journalist’ or ‘Social Commentator’ in their Twitter bio and away they go. It may even earn you an invite to the telly studio as a talking head if you build a significant following.”
Consider ‘the curious case of Mo Ansar’. As LBC’s Iain Dale stated, “He invented himself as a rent-a-quote commentator”. Or even within the professional ranks of established media figures, the lamentable case of Johann Hari, the once-vaunted Independent columnist and young Orwell Prize winner whose exposure for plagiarism overshadowed additional troubling evidence of intellectually dishonest practices. It was not just the taking and driving away of other writers’ work, it was the systematic self-promotion by sockpuppets, Wikipedia editing and manipulation of his own public image, along with harassment of critics, that makes him a cautionary example. The pitfall from the tightrope faced by any new author is to avoid following in the footsteps of the Ansars and Haris, whose elevation from authorial obscurity to fame and relevance in little time seemed to preclude any question as to why they were being made to, as Nick Cohen put it, “seem one of the essential writers of our times”. As a counter-example of an author genuinely engaging in a field outside their immediate specialism, the thriller and espionage novelist Jeremy Duns has a splendid sideline in exposing plagiarism, fraud, sock-puppetry and abuse by authors and other public figures in his spare time and has written extensively and quite bravely on Ansar, Hari and many others whose desire for a place in the history books led them and their readers into the discursive abyss.
In every online dispute or argument between an established author and a new critic, or a political figure and an angry upcoming cultural theorist, rests an unsolved dilemma regarding equality of opportunity or outcome in the selection of ‘real’ writers and critics. Just who should be taken seriously and listened to? When does an online commenter become a respected and panel appearance-worthy commentator? It is rather similar to an unanswerable question of what constitutes fame and the status of a celebrity or ‘real’ celebrity. Who is a ‘real’ writer fit to be part of a public discussion? There being no objective standard or any litmus test measurable in metrics, we are left with the perennial uncertainty of the fairness as to inviting on one proponent of a perspective over another. At the very least, certain conduct should preclude one from a serious role in mainstream culture, not least the abuse and cyber-terrorism which has driven respected authors into hiding and behind walls of personal protection.
All of this should be on the mind of any author in the English-speaking world setting out to establish themselves. Presumptively dragging individuals you do not know into contrived Twitter rows, lassoing different figures together in arguments started by yourself, as Ansar frequently did (and still does) is not a decent way to ‘burst onto the scene’ as a writer or anything else. The wells of discussion and notification alerts have been poisoned enough long before a new writer sets out to create a buzz by compulsively tweeting their own thoughts, comments and hit-pieces to politicians and columnists on an hourly basis.
With all this in mind, anyone reading this blog should expect to see more direct critiques appearing soon and any inevitable response from critics appearing in the comment sections. My plans for the next few months of posting are still under wraps however, considering the cautionary position outlined above which I hope will help me steer the blog through the choppy waters of ‘new author’ status. There will be critiques and responses to the works of others and a long-read of sorts is currently planned which, if it gained wide attention, will attract harsh criticism in its own right for its treatment of the contemporary Corbyn-supporting British Left. I plan also to take part in public debates on various topics, taking HistoryJack on the road as a home for ideas rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. These will include expositions of thought on some quite controversial topics including the present culture wars taking place mainly on campuses and in the publishing industry over safe spaces, trigger warnings and the ‘social justice’ culture which broadly encompasses the new authoritarian discourse on the political left across the Western Hemisphere. All works in progress which I hope will reflect the value of caution briefly outlined above.
This is the first of what I hope will be many posts here reflecting an active role in political and cultural writing. One day I hope to expand to writing for larger and more widely circulated publications and platforms but it will be a long road to walk before I can go a few rounds with writers like James Bloodworth, author of the fantastic new tome on British social division, The Myth of Meritocracy and a prolific chronicler of the many moral catastrophes which have blighted the left in recent years, not least the foreign affairs of Jeremy Corbyn. May this blog be tempered by humility and a perpetual err to the side of caution.
Lest I or anyone involved in contributing to HistoryJack becomes another self-inventing ‘essential writer of our times’, or fall into dismal and indecent obscurity, may we return to Freud’s less apocryphal and more truthful aphorism; “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.”