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I wanted to believe in Jeremy Corbyn. But I can't believe in Seumas Milne

The Labour leader's appointment of Seumas Milne is a disaster, argues Oliver Bullough. 

I wish Jeremy Corbyn well, I really do. I sincerely hope he shunts important issues – renationalisation, fairness, tax justice – onto the political mainline where they belong. I was even thinking of getting involved with his revitalised Labour Party. But then he appointed Seumas Milne to direct the party’s strategy and communications.

Milne is by all accounts lovely. As comment editor from 2001 until 2007, he oversaw a comment section that was vibrant to a fault. It’s not him, or his newspaper that’s the problem (full disclosure: I write for the Guardian from time to time myself, and am a paid-up “supporter”); it’s what he thinks.

I specialise in the ex-USSR, where I lived for six years. I’ve written two books about Russia, as well as articles and radio documentaries. I’ve travelled to all but four of the countries of the old Warsaw Pact. I know it pretty well, in short. And yet, when I read what Milne writes about it, I slip into a parallel universe.

Take Ukraine. Ukrainians overthrew President Viktor Yanukovich last year, after snipers killed dozens of protesters. When they broke into his palace, they found treasures upon treasures – icons, carved ivory, Picasso ceramics, ancient books – piled up in the garage. He’d had nowhere to put them.

It was pure people power: the street reclaiming democracy from a thuggish kleptocrat. There was plenty for the leftist Milne to cheer here, right? Wrong. And then Ukraine’s larger neighbour took advantage of the revolutionary government’s weakness to annex its southern province. That’s something for Milne to disapprove of, right? Wrong again.

“The crisis in Ukraine is a product of the disastrous Versailles-style break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s,” he told his readers on March 5. “The US and its allies have since relentlessly expanded NATO up to Russia's borders… it is hardly surprising that Russia has acted to stop the more strategically sensitive and neuralgic Ukraine falling decisively into the western camp.”

 “Putin’s absorption of Crimea and support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine is clearly defensive,” he wrote, a couple of months later.

Now, you can quibble with the facts. The destruction of the USSR was not some Versailles-style treaty imposed from outside. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus did it themselves, despite opposition from Washington. You can point out that NATO (thanks to Norway) had had a border with Russia for four decades by the early 1990s. And you can suggest that annexing part of a neighbouring country is not a “defensive” step by any conceivable definition.

But really, that’s not important. What’s important is something that’s missing altogether -- the recognition that this wasn’t anything to do with NATO or Vladimir Putin at all. This was an uprising by Ukrainians keen to improve their lives. If Milne wanted to criticise the West, there was plenty of material: Yanukovich’s palace, the one with a Picasso vase in the garage, was owned via a UK shell company, for starters. But Milne appears to have had no interest in the hopes, aspirations or dreams of individual Ukrainians, or in actual instances of Westerners enabling Yanukovich’s beastliness. This, you see, was all about us, and all about NATO.

Eastern Europeans think their countries voted as democracies to join NATO, as is their sovereign right, but that doesn’t wash with Seumas. He thinks this is an aggressive expansion, seemingly against the wishes of the countries involved. “NATO’s hawks have got the bit between their teeth.”

For Milne, geopolitics is more important than people. Whatever crisis strikes the world, the West’s to blame. Why did a group of psychopaths attack a magazine and a supermarket in Paris? “Without the war waged by western powers, including France, to bring to heel and reoccupy the Arab and Muslim world, last week’s attacks clearly couldn’t have taken place”.

Why did Anders Breivik slaughter 77 people? “What is most striking is how closely he mirrors the ideas and fixations of transatlantic conservatives.”

Why did two maniacs in London decapitate an off-duty soldier? “They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others.”

Milne’s geopolitics spared us having to read how the children of Beslan or the theatregoers of Moscow only had themselves to blame, but office workers in New York had no such luck. “Recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process - or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world - seems almost entirely absent.”

And this rampant victim blaming is not an approach confined to current affairs. His geopolitical preferences extend into history too, where he fiercely opposes any suggestion that Stalin’s Soviet Union was as bad as Hitler’s Germany. He has been caricatured as a Stalinist as a result, something that appears to irritate some of his once-and-future Guardian colleagues (he is on leave from the paper). I got into a Twitter debate with Zoe Williams yesterday, in which she pointed out: “he's written reams about the crimes of Stalin”.

He has indeed, but he has written about them in the manner of a Brit acknowledging the Amritsar massacre, before pointing out how much worse off India would be without trains. A particularly telling Milne moment came in 2006, when the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly voted to condemn “the massive human rights violations committed by totalitarian communist regimes”. In the article he wrote in response, Milne admitted the USSR executed 799,455 people, then moved on.

“For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality,” he insisted.

Now, you can quibble with the facts. Focussing only on the USSR’s executions ignores the millions it starved to death in Ukraine, or in the mass deportations from the Caucasus and Crimea, the way it used rape as a weapon, or that fact it invaded without provocation half a dozen countries. You can also question those “huge advances” considering the fact that life expectancy in the USSR peaked in 1962, then declined steadily as chronic alcoholism took hold. But more important for me was the fact that this sentence reminded me of something I’d read before.

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell conjured up a “comfortable English professor” who wants to defend totalitarianism, but can’t bring himself to admit killing people gets results. “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore… the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement,” Orwell’s fictional professor writes.

Almost exactly 60 years had passed between Orwell’s essay and Milne’s humbug but, in the world of supposed leftists who think politics is more important than people, not much appears to have changed.

I wanted to believe in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, I really did. But, with the elevation of this man, that chance has gone.

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The NS Podcast #230: It's (New) Party Time

The New Statesman podcast.

Helen is joined by Anoosh to consider whether a new political party would have any chance of success in the UK. Then they discuss the TV shows everyone really likes to watch but doesn't admit to and analyse why the quality of Don't Tell The Bride has declined. Finally, a bumper You Asked Us section including listener questions on social care, punching Nazis, the Tory economic agenda and more.

You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed: http://rss.acast.com/newstatesman, or listen using the player below.

 

Further reading:

The NS centenary debate from 2013 - did the left win the twentieth century?

Meet the Ivanka Voter by Anne Helen Petersen on Buzzfeed.

Anoosh on the EDL.

Why is Love Island so Tory?

How Don't Tell the Bride lost its spark

Take Me Out and the failures of feminism by Alan White.