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12 December 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Traitors to the left

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is tying itself in knots with its position on Iran. Stick to an

By Nick Cohen

Before you go to a left-wing meeting, brace yourself for the likelihood that everyone you meet in the hall will be standing on their head. Do not be surprised to see communists supporting fascism, feminists throwing their arms around misogynists and liberals volunteering to be advocates for tyranny. It’s been like this since 9/11 turned the world upside down, and the temptation for a journalist is to play the cynical reporter and pretend to be unshockable. I try my best to be a hard man, but the shocks keep on coming. Take the fates of two venerable left-wing institutions, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Searchlight.

For 18 months I’ve had CND workers telling me how they have been forced out by the same people who disgraced the anti-war movement – the Socialist Workers Party, Ken Livingstone’s homeboys from Socialist Action, the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Labour Party . . . the friends of the indefatigable George Galloway, in short. I couldn’t see how to write about it. How could I prove that they were victims of a political purge rather than guilty of poor performance? In any case, there was always an element of a Quaker-communist alliance about the old CND, and the ideas it produced weren’t always wrong. CND’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament was political poison for Labour because it was so clearly in the interests of the Soviet Union, but CND had a second argument that was truer than its legions of critics in the 1980s admitted. Nuclear power breeds nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons breed more nuclear weapons, CND’s argument ran. Unless proliferation stops, they will get into the hands of men who are prepared to use them.

That was then. Anyone who now believes CND is as much against proliferation as for unilateral disarmament would have been surprised by this autumn’s annual conference. Among the guests was the startling figure of Dr Seyed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, the then Iranian ambassador. Iran is building the nuclear power stations CND once protested against – an odd project for a country with one of the largest reserves of oil in the world. Not only the US government but the United Nations and the European Union suspect the Islamic Republic wants the bomb. The obvious course for those sincere about nuclear disarmament is to oppose Tehran as vigorously as they oppose a replacement for Trident. But there’s the rub. Standing by its principles would, if only for a moment, have put CND on the same side as George W Bush and Tony Blair, and that would never do.

Betrayal has defined the liberal left since Iraq because anti-Americans find their comrades in the Kurdish socialist movement or the Iraqi Communist Party or Arab liberal parties an embarrassment and cannot stick by them or even acknowledge their existence. Given that record, I guess it was inevitable that CND, whose governing council is stuffed with people who call themselves “socialists”, “workers” and “communists”, would take the next step and betray the Iranian left.

The Islamists murdered tens of thousands of leftists, perhaps up to 100,000, after the 1979 revolution, which socialists had supported – somewhat unwisely as events turned out. Trade unionists, atheists and women’s rights activists can expect floggings and jail sentences. Members of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran exiled in London gazed with astonishment on CND’s dalliance with a “fascistic” state. The invitation to the ambassador was an “outrage”, the party said. CND was insulting “the people of Iran who are struggling to get rid of this brutal regime”, and the countless thousands who have died in the attempt.

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Iranians went to the conference to protest. CND stewards threw them out when they heckled the ambassador, just as Labour party conference stewards threw out CND’s Walter Wolfgang when he heckled Jack Straw the previous month.

CND’s Kate Hudson told me she opposed the Iranian nuclear programme. She was not shouting “rah-rah Iran”, and had invited the ambassador, she told me, merely to hear what he had to say. In her small way, I’m sure she’s sincere. But if CND doesn’t invite speakers from the Ministry of Defence or American embassy – and it doesn’t – and never issues a press release condemning Iran – ditto – people are entitled to look at the burden of the evidence Hudson is presenting and consider her opposition to Iran to be little more than throat-clearing.

The conference over, Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad, gave every indication that if he had the bomb he would press the button. His threat to “wipe Israel off the map” got the headlines, but what was as interesting to anyone who knows the history of totalitarianism was his apocalyptic world-view. He saw history as a Manichaean fight to the death stretching back over the centuries.

“We are in the process of a historical war between the World of Arrogance [the west] and the Islamic world, and this war has been going on for hundreds of years. The situation at the fronts has changed many times. During some periods, the Muslims were the victors and were very active and the World of Arrogance was in retreat . . . During the period of the past 100 years, the walls of the world of Islam were destroyed and the World of Arrogance turned the regime occupying Jerusalem into a bridge for its dominance over the Islamic world . . .” He does not sound like a man the Foreign Office can calm down with a little “quiet diplomacy”.

This is the Messianic ideology of religious fascism, and the truest friend of British anti-fascists over the past 25 years has been Searchlight magazine. The police use it and centre-left political parties rely on it. If you read a story about the violent criminal record of a BNP candidate, or how Combat 18 is recruiting football hooligans, the chances are it will have come from Searchlight. Dealing with neo-Nazis is dangerous work, and its journalists need physical courage as well as detective skills. They have displayed both magnificently and I cannot think of another left-wing campaign that has been so consistently brave and effective. Now its staff are wondering what has happened to the left they served so well. Searchlight has had to pull out of Unite Against Fascism – a supposedly “broad-based” campaign, run by the usual crowd – because of a whispering campaign against it. The Trots are accusing the magazine of “Zionism” because it stands up for universal principles by condemning Holocaust denial and attacks on Jews, regardless of whether the deniers and attackers have white or brown skins.

The turmoil in small groups may seem trivial but it reflects the fracturing on the wider liberal left. In classic socialist terminology, we are seeing a fight between “anti-imperialists” and “anti-fascists”. The anti-imperialists see US power as the greatest threat of our day. The reckless brutality of the Bush administration appals them, as does Tony Blair’s willingness to go along with it. This view so dominates the mainstream liberal press and parts of the BBC that it often seems like the only left-wing view. The danger for the anti-imperialists is that they will end up on the far right. A few are already there. The anti-fascists see totalitarianism as the greatest threat of our day and say that in the struggle against it any democracy is better than every dictatorship. Our voice dominates only the left-of-centre weblogs.

The danger for anti-fascists is that we are stuck with George W Bush, who is not a general any soldier should want to follow into battle. They call us neoconservatives, armchair generals and Zionists. We call them the pseudo-left, the red-brown alliance and empty-headed liberals on an ultra-leftist binge. You can see the argument going on in the splits in the Stop the War Coalition when it abandoned the Iraqi democrats, or the slow realisation by CND activists and Searchlight journalists that they can no longer take the goodwill of the people around them for granted.

Although we are in a minority, we believe we will win in the end. As democratic socialists, we are optimists. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we believe there is only so much rubbish the human race can swallow.

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