The smear on Jeremy Corbyn that he was an informant to a Czech spy during the Cold War is the worst kind of red-baiting
The establishment press has hounded Jeremy Corbyn since he won the Labour leadership election in September 2015.
An academic study by researchers from the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London, published in July 2016, found that mainstream media coverage was consistently biased against Corbyn.
Another study in summer 2016 by academics at the LSE found that 75% of press coverage misrepresents Corbyn’s views. That was even before the nasty pre-election front pages from an array of right-wing outlets in the first months of 2017.
But recent attacks related to Corbyn’s so-called Czechoslovak connection have plumbed new depths.
Corbyn met a Czechoslovak diplomat in the second half of the 1980s, leading to accusations he was spying for the Czechoslovaks. But Corbyn underlines he met the Czechoslovak diplomat in question to discuss then-current international efforts to de-escalate East-West tensions – a topic he also discussed with United States embassy officials.
For some, like Tory cabinet minister Liam Fox, however, meeting Soviet bloc officials made Corbyn ‘a useful idiot’. Corbyn’s insistence on media coverage based on facts and warning to media barons that change is coming has unleashed further accusations that he is planning an attack on Britain’s free media.
Such open red-baiting is an attempt at reviving the memory – and exaggerating the influence – of a minority in the Labour Party who viewed the Soviet Union as a superior alternative to Western capitalism.
While such trends certainly existed, often actively supported by the Communist Party of Great Britain, they are hardly the whole story behind the democratic socialist tradition in the Labour Party.
As someone studying Labour Party relations with a ruling Communist party in the Cold War, in Yugoslavia, I am keenly aware that several leading figures on the Labour left were critical of political dictatorship. Their sympathies lay with a re-alignment in European politics towards democratic socialism in the East as well as the West.
Such hopes were given a boost by the decentralising reforms undertaken in Yugoslavia following the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. Some wished that democratic socialism would take root in the country. They were quickly disabused.
A leading reformer, Milovan Djilas, was expelled from the party leadership in 1954. He left the party and thereafter served three prison terms totalling nine years in jail for dissident activity by 1966. He would be briefly re-arrested in 1984.
Prominent Labour leftists like Nye Bevan and Jennie Lee, and later Michael Foot, consistently raised and criticised the imprisonment of Djilas in public and when they met Yugoslav diplomats in private.
Despite disagreement on fundamentals, contacts with Communist diplomats in the Cold War were normal. Many Labour politicians often visited Yugoslavia. Labour leaders Hugh Gaitskell and Michael Foot both holidayed on the Adriatic – but they were never Communist spies.
Tony Benn returned from a trip praising Yugoslav worker self-management as a system worthy of study - but he repeatedly made sure that he pointed out that he favoured a parliamentary road to socialism.
In his diaries, Benn notes that Bruno Pitterman, a former president of the Austrian socialists, favoured parliamentary links with Romania, Poland and Yugoslavia to study their approach to elections. Besides an exchange of experiences, the aim was that ‘democratic socialists should act as a magnet for Eastern Europe’, which Benn finds ‘highly intelligent’. This was not the approach of a ‘useful idiot’.
More than that, mindful of his experience of ‘office without power’ in the 1970s and Yugoslavia’s increasing reliance on the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s, Benn warned a Yugoslav diplomat in 1984 about the IMF, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Benn would later often repeat when arguing against military intervention in the Balkan wars in the 1990s that the West and the IMF had had a role in destabilising Yugoslavia and could not be trusted with establishing and policing the peace. He was not blind to the negative effects of Western policies abroad.
There was moreover nothing in Benn’s warning to the Yugoslav diplomat which he had not said in public in Britain about the role of multinational corporations, civil servants and international organisations undermining Britain’s democracy. Indeed, he remained consistent in his vision of a parliamentary road to socialism until his death.
This is why he remained the bête noire of the establishment. Corbyn is clearly Benn’s political heir on the Labour left, and, with an election on the horizon, he has faced the predictable red-baiting that goes with the role.
That is also why none of the press that has called for an opening of East European files on Corbyn has followed up with a similar call for the opening of British secret service files. That would risk exposing another major threat to democracy in Britain, one that they clearly prefer not to notice.
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