The Struggle Between Labour’s Two Internationalisms

By Adam Peggs

In the age of Corbyn many figures who would find sympathy with Labour’s political agenda at home, find little solace in the shift in the party’s foreign policy. Corbyn is ‘betraying’ the kind of tradition exemplified by Attlee in the opinion of historian John Bew. Robin Cook’s former advisor attacks his worldview as ‘simplistic’ and ‘anti-Western’. The party’s own MPs interpret the leadership’s substantive critique of UK-Saudi relations as equivalent to apologism for the other side. In the centre, conceptions of internationalist ethics remain just as distant as ever from the historic values of the left.

That the party has a principled critique of Britain’s – or more precisely its leaders’ and their allies – role in the world should come as little surprise. Britain’s socialist movement has often been guided by an ethical and  internationalist evaluation of British foreign policy.

A subversive, socialistic tradition of internationalism has run through the entire history of the Labour Party and during the era that precursed the party, from William Morris and Ernest Jones to Margaret Bondfield and Keir Hardie to Fenner Brockway in the post-war era. In the late 1800s, this had meant opposition to empire and dictatorial rule of much of the Asian and African world. Later it would mean Hardie’s and Bondfield’s dissent against the imperial rivalry and slaughterhouse that was the First World War. Later still it would live on in the form of strident opposition to Apartheid, support for self-determination across the Global South and scepticism toward war in the name of the Atlantic Alliance.

However, a war-oriented and paternalistic conception of internationalism has long been present in Labour tradition too. As it has been in the traditions of many of the major centre-left parties in Europe.

The Fabian Society, vital in Labour’s foundation, supported British Imperialism after all,  along much the same line as establishment Liberals. Like the liberals, they saw empire as a tool of efficiency to be used on those seen as incapable of self-rule.

Ramsay MacDonald’s government, the first Labour administration, issued the Bengal Ordinances, which abolished the rights of Habeas Corpus and scrapped trials by jury, in an act of overt draconianism by the Empire. Nor was this a particularly large exception for a party which at the time sought to defend and retain Britain’s colonial subjects, including via dropping bombs on Iraq.

Attlee’s government re-jigged the empire -at least on a temporary basis, bowing to demands for Indian independence but maintaining control of most of the rest of Britain’s ‘possessions’. At its worth this involved going so far as to reject an olive branch and wage a brutal war against the independence movement in Malaya. The war saw British forces interning roughly a tenth of the population as part of the Briggs Plan, specifically intended as an act of punishment.

More than a decade later Wilson made good on his promise to take action against apartheid South Africa – instituting an arms embargo, but avoiding full adoption of the ethical, proactively anti-racist policy desired by his comrades on the left. In the sixties, it was the restless left on the backbenches who pushed for a hardening of the line, including on the sanctions favoured by the UN.

Since then advances have only come when Labour has been in opposition, with steps backward in government. Party policy moved in a more proactive direction toward South Africa in the 1970s, with a pledge to ‘discourage new investment’ in South Africa and give aid to liberation movements in the region. Yet even here we saw a party with some hesitancy to live up to its own principles and beliefs.

Neil Kinnock would, for a time, be an opponent of the American right’s (frequently anti-socialist) military interventionism, opposing the United States 1983 invasion of Grenada – though had the country not been a former colony the denunciations might well have been quieter. Scepticism toward British nuclear weapons also predominated in this period, lasting until the later part of Neil Kinnock’s leadership when the foundation-work for New Labour had begun.

This period found itself followed by an era of Atlanticist triumphalism and wanton interventionism. It is not so much that Labour had failed to realise its internationalism, but that the kind of internationalism was one divorced from values like solidarity, equality and empowerment and based instead around the politics of the Atlantic Alliance.

By the 2000s Labour’s major decisions on foreign policy were being largely delegated to decision-makers in the US, even under an almost unprecedentedly adventurist President in George W. Bush. The ethical dimension to New Labour’s foreign policy was small – and all the more so from Blair’s second term onward.

Corbyn represents a tradition with roots in those who fought apartheid, campaigned against the Vietnam War, decried coups in Latin America and opposed the one-party rule (so-called “democratic centralism”) of the Soviet Union and its allies. Part of this was rooted in a willingness to diverge from the kind of respectability that had led to protestors being treated as subversive and undesirable, even when campaigning for causes which were broadly popular.

Though Corbyn himself famously fought against South Africa’s apartheid system, it is worth recapping those on the left who were long-standing and strident opponents of white supremacy in South Africa. The Anti-Apartheid Movement was led overwhelming by figures from the wider left of the party, with the milieu around Corbyn among its most vociferous supporters – their involvement dating back to when the cause was less politically fashionable.

Equally telling, is the backing Corbyn and the left gave to the Solidarnosc movement of trade unionists who successfully opposed the dictatorship in 1980s Poland in the face of harsh repression. This is the clear blue water between Corbynism and the apologists for authoritarian socialist regimes, a left tradition which owes a good deal to figures in the party as varied as Nye Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson and E.P. Thompson.

This kind of campaigning foreign policy has few precedents in Labour leadership. It had long disappeared in Harold Wilson when he ascended to the Labour leadership and the same was true for the ex-Bevanite Neil Kinnock. There is a clear case that we are now seeing the most comfortably left-internationalist leadership for generations, if not ever. For those who have watched a world enveloped by cynicism and the death of camaraderie, this can only be a great stride forward.

Yet there are already signs that a left ‘common sense’, a shared understanding along the lines associated with Ralph Miliband, is winning out and shaping direction along positive lines. Labour has endorsed a ban on arms sales to Israel until it accounts for its actions internationally. Corbyn has been clear that Labour is opposed to the bizarre policy of using nuclear weapons first, touted by Theresa May and flirted with by his most diehard opponents.

Last year Labour stood on a  manifesto which showed real prospects for an ethical foreign policy – not just the foreign policy with an ‘ethical dimension’ that Robin Cook spoke of. This is of itself was a significant victory for the left and the prospects of an ethical internationalism.

But what guides this? Is it a politics derived from the peace movements? After all, Corbyn and most of the Labour left are not pacifist. Is it an opposition to military adventurism? Jeremy and those around him are not comprehensively anti-interventionist. Nor does much of the left see international relations through the prism of colonial powers versus their victims. Though the US magazine Foreign Policy did characterise Corbyn this way – and then bafflingly characterised this as ‘authoritarian’ in a strange moral inversion. That this denunciation of Corbynism was written by an expert, who works at a university known for its internationalist politics, is troubling.

Instead, it at least seems to draw together strands such as an ethical foreign policy, approach to global development and the political legacy of the decolonial movement.

The actual political basis for this appears only half-fleshed out, though numerous people including David Wearing have had a good go at it. Too little attention has been paid to where feminism fits into this, especially when paragons of liberal interventionism – not least Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair – have co-opted the rhetoric around this to buttress regressive international relations. Given women are overwhelmingly on the receiving end of oppression internationally it is imperative that feminism, which ought to have a symbiotic relationship with the left, informs the thinking of left internationalists.

The best of this was exemplified by Emily Thornberry’s barnstorming conference speech this autumn, which outlined the transformative potential of Labour’s internationalist traditions. From the history of Suffragist and anti-racist campaigning in the party – which had always been stronger at the grassroots. The need to defeat the far-right resurgence and the rise of populist-nationalist leaders from Hungary to the United States, who in turn have inflamed actual fascist and neo-Nazi movements – as exemplified in Charlottesville. Crucially, Thornberry also spoke of the need to break up the nexus of British arms to authoritarian regimes and other thugs.

That being said, this smoothed over the traditions of bellicosity – the other internationalism, which had characterised the MacDonald, Attlee and New Labour governments. That Labour has built, perhaps half-consciously, a kind of Tribunite foreign policy is in itself a generational shift and a break with a discredited orthodoxy. From here on we may see the strengthening of those strands like ethical internationalism and the aspirations of the decolonial movement, into a robust, coherent view of the modern globe  – and Corbyn’s Geneva speech last year is a sign that the party can live up to this ambition.

An internationalism that challenges authoritarian regimes that Britain sucks up to, opposes the tradition of reckless (often devastating) military engagements and emphasises solidarity with the Palestinians. The Geneva Speech did just this, denouncing the history of external coups, Britain’s status as a key arms supplier and the history of Anglo-American military adventurism. Nonetheless, it did not touch on the British Empire, a subject which elements of the left have touched upon only sparingly, despite its fundamental legacy. Even when Corbyn stated that the British Empire simply had a ‘legacy’ during Black History Month, without going as far as criticism, he was attacked by a Conservative Minister.

Britain is still talked of as a power which believes it is owed primacy on the world stage, with a corresponding right to drop bombs where we see fit. We saw this in May’s presumably unlawful bombing of Syria earlier this year. We see it when MPs from across parties remain uncritical of Britain’s role in the devastating war in Yemen. Or when Brexiteers presume any country in the world will bow down to Britain in a free trade deal. A state where the logic of nationalism and the credo of liberal interventionism can be used in combination to pursue any cynical strategic end. This is the ‘other’ internationalism which needs to be dispensed with.

The one which argues – in John Bew’s words – that Labour’s ‘noble’ internationalism was based on ‘the closest possible cooperation with the United States’, that warns of criticising the militaristic strand of Attlee’s government and its opposition to independence for African countries. Or that sees more to praise in Britain’s role in the Korean War and other not dissimilar interventions, than the left’s heritage of anti-war and anti-racist internationalism. This was the same approach to the world that was denounced by Barbara Castle in 1952 as a failure of the leadership to apply Socialist principles to international affairs.

There has always been a distinct tension between these two kinds of internationalism. Labour, as the historian Bernard Porter, has argued ‘has always been split over foreign policy’, from divisions on the South African (so-called “Boer War) to the First World War to on Palestine and Syria today. The left is now so successful in the party that it has a chance to meaningfully alter these divisions in favour of a better internationalism.

There is perhaps room here for a left which learns from the experiences of the left in Britain’s former colonies. One which learns from and repudiates the imperial legacy and the kind of internationalism deployed by both New Labour and the Fabian Society. This may involve the kind of ‘practical idealism’ talked about in the Fabian’s ‘Outward To The World’ pamphlet, but on a markedly different basis, ultimately working to end the British establishment’s role as arms trader and as a military adventurist. This would indeed, as Bew has proclaimed, ‘betray’ Labour’s ‘foreign policy traditions’. It would be worth it.

Labour has not quite become a party of internationalism, but the Corbyn project remains one with the potential to facilitate that change. Fragments of what a different relationship with the world would like are present within Corbynism and that is a serious cause for optimism.