How would Vicky, the greatest cartoonist in the history of the New Statesman, have drawn Jeremy Corbyn? My guess is as a Jacobin in the French Revolution – and there’s a good reason for this. The fear within Labour of revolution from the left is as old as the party. At times, it has been paranoid, such as when Michael Foot, Richard Crossman, Jennie Lee and others founded the Keep Left group in 1947. It was paranoid then, although four years later, when Keep Left became the Bevanites, the leftists split the party and the result contributed to Labour’s ensuing 13 years in opposition.
The resonance of the Keep Left revolt to the Corbynistas today echoes through a New Statesman book called Let Cowards Flinch, published in 1947. It is a satire in verse that compares the Keep Left rebels with the Jacobins who seized power in the French Revolution in 1793. It was written by Olga Miller under the pseudonym Sagittarius but its historic value lies as much in Vicky’s cartoons.
The leaders of the Labour Party are given personas from the French Revolution. Clement Attlee is Jean-Paul Marat, Ernest Bevin is Georges Danton (“scowling and satanic,/Subverter of all social discipline,/Malignant mouthpiece of the mob tyrannic”), Aneurin Bevan is Robespierre, Stafford Cripps is Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and Hugh Dalton is Talleyrand (“oozing sanctimonious zeal,/Sapper and miner of the Bank Bastille”). Vicky draws it all in black and white, except the flag, which is deepest red – in reference to the song “The Red Flag”, whose lyrics inspired the title Let Cowards Flinch.
By 1947, Sagittarius tells us, “the ship of state is partially grounded”. Labour and capital are marching together; socialism is stalled; foreign policy is subservient to the needs of the US. “No storm,” the frontbenchers cry, “can shake the realm,/Cripps at the prow and Attlee at the helm”:
But even as they speak and wait the cheer
(Sure sign of Parliamentary popularity),
A hideous clamour bursting on the ear
Bespeaks a rift in Party solidarity;
Forked lightning sparks and crackles in the rear,
And in a sudden flash of blinding clarity
They recognise the enemy within —
The unrepentant British Jacobin.
“Though cowards flinch,” the Labour rebels whoop,
“The people’s scarlet flag we will keep flying,
“Still marching with the comrade workers’ troop,
“Appeasement and reaction still defying!”
The Front Bench turns to face the factious group,
Finding the situation more than trying,
And strives in vain to snuff those fiery particles,
The genuine revolutionary articles.
The Keep Left subversives are then introduced, the Corbynistas of their day. The Jacobins call for the full socialist ticket; otherwise, they should all “go down with blazing guns and colours flying”. They force the Labour Party to answer awkward questions:
Has Labour lost, or won, the war of class?
Can they restrain the frantic squatters’ surges
By simply writing “Keep off the grass?” . . .
Has Labour strangled private enterprise
When kings of industry are sitting pretty?
Can there be Socialistic compromise
With forces of reaction in the City?
Does Labour seek to make a sweeping clearance,
Or bolster up a system in decay?
While Labour is consumed with doubt and division, the opposition is delighted:
Conservatives collect their scattered wits,
And Liberals, long drowned beneath the tide,
Beholding Labour’s multitudinous splits,
Are naturally highly gratified;
Such violent ungovernable fits
Portend collective Party suicide
They know, according to the classic pattern,
All revolutions eat their brood, like Saturn.
The relevance of Let Cowards Flinch to politics today comes from Corbyn’s old-style democratic socialism. Labour readers who see a line of clear descent (as well as dissent) from the postwar party of nearly 70 years ago can take comfort – or not – from the conclusion:
They little know of England who suppose
Her everlasting fabric can be shaken
With paroxysmal and prurient throes
By which less balanced States are overtaken;
Instinctively the true Briton knows
All ideologies to be mistaken,
And celebrates in his rough island story
The triumph of the improvisatore.
So Labour’s evolutionary plan
Will in the course of ages be perfectible,
Although the era of the common man
May not for centuries become detectable –
Meanwhile all Socialists in office can
Prove Socialism thoroughly respectable,
And, in due time, make even revolution,
Like Peers and Pools, a British institution.
After all, the Pools have gone but the Privy Council remains, even for a Rt Hon republican.
Hugh Purcell’s biography of John Freeman, “A Very Private Celebrity”, is published by Robson Press
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left