When the Democratic Party faced a revolt from its ranks for daring to propose condemning anti-Semitism, the scene gave those of us in Britain deja vu. The American Left is following the same script that led to the rapid radicalization of the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn. It’s no longer a mere talking point, a form of shorthand for journalists: The Democratic Party’s Corbynization is here, and it tacks so closely to what happened in Britain that it’s important for Americans to understand where we’ve been — and where they’re headed.
The anti-Semitism fracas came about thanks to a series of bigoted statements made by Minnesota freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who accused U.S. Jews of disloyalty to America. Omar was part of the January intake in the House of Representatives, alongside Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The trio have become increasingly dominant in press and social media coverage, allowing them considerable influence in setting the agenda for the party in the public space. Tlaib has also levied the “dual loyalty” charge, and Ocasio-Cortez has used her prominence to defend them.
The Democrats regarded this as opening the way for a bold, new approach to politics, with fresh ideas from a younger cadre who would broaden the debate. I know where I’ve heard that before.
In September 2015, Corbyn became the leader of the British Labour Party. There were three other candidates, offering variants of the centrist course; they split that vote among themselves, and Corbyn prevailed by a huge margin.
Corbyn had some help from flukes of circumstance. In order to be eligible, Corbyn had to be nominated by 35 members of Parliament. He scraped in because a number of MPs took the view of Frank Field, a senior moderate figure, that Labour needed to “ widen the debate” and confront the activist wing of the party with the unreality of their program. This backfired because of the second key factor: the changes made by Corbyn’s predecessor, which allowed members of the public who had paid a mere 3 pounds to join the Labour Party to vote in its leadership contests. A flood of pro-Corbyn activists joined up before the vote.
By the time Corbyn took the helm, he was a known quantity: from the hard-Left of the party with long-standing extremist connections. Corbyn had regular contact with Eastern Bloc spies, knowing exactly who they were, throughout the Cold War. He opposes NATO, speaking of the alliance in conspiratorial tones. He backed Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the leading edge of Soviet imperialism. Elsewhere in Latin America, Corbyn supported the Soviet satellite regime in Nicaragua and keeps silent even now with Daniel Ortega back in office, committing his old crimes.
The world over Corbyn has found himself attracted to purveyors of anti-Western violence, what was once called “Third Worldism” and self-identified as “anti-imperialism.” Osama bin Laden’s death was a “ tragedy” to Corbyn. Even when he finds a defensible cause, such as rights for the Kurdish minority in the Middle East, he offers his support only to the Stalinist terrorist forces among them.
Corbyn’s defenders now say he was an early proponent of “talking” to the Provisional Irish Republican Army to try to reach a peace settlement. This is untrue: Corbyn and his deputy, John McDonnell, were PIRA activistsduring the height of their terrorist campaign, which murdered hundreds of Irishmen and several British government ministers and nearly killed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Corbyn gave these killers a platform in Parliament and unequivocal support to PIRA’s political objectives. So serious was Corbyn’s activity that it attracted the attention of the security services.
Corbyn famously said it would be an “honour” to host his “friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah in Parliament. When this episode re-emerged after Corbyn became leader, he expressed regret for using “inclusive language” about these groups. This might be easier to believe if, when the U.K. finally proposed extending the terrorism designation to the totality of Hezbollah, the long arm of Iran’s theocratic regime responsible for anti-Western and anti-Jewish terrorism from Bulgaria to Buenos Aires, and underwriting mass murder by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Corbyn had not let it be known there would be no consequences for Labour MPs who voted against the designation and signaled his own disapproval of the decision. Not incidentally, Corbyn has taken money from the Iranian government to appear on its propaganda station; he responds with fury and mendacity whenever asked about the subject.
Corbyn clearly cares a lot less about domestic policy, but his program remains old-school socialism: the state selecting industries to subsidize, nationalizations, wage and rent controls, the lot. One area where Corbyn has shown a genuine interest in domestic affairs, unsurprisingly, is in wanting to make changesto the counter-radicalism program, PREVENT. Nobody would deny it needs reform, but Corbyn is part of a sinister attempt to paint PREVENT, which aims to protect vulnerable people from being recruited into extremism, as an anti-Muslim conspiracy that wants to stifle freedom of religion and free expression about government policy, exacerbating the community tensions on which terrorists feed.
The milieu Corbyn emerges from is embodied in the Stop the War Coalition, which he headed from 2011 until he became Labour leader. While the SWC actually is a merger of what the shah of Iran used to call “the Black and the Red,” Islamists and Communists, the support the SWC and its fellow travelers extend to Islamism has less to do with Islamism per se, and much more to do with the doctrines of new Left anti-Americanism.
The opposition to labeling Hezbollah a terrorist group is, in the SWC mind, equivalent to opposing such a label for the African National Congress in its struggle against apartheid South Africa. The “anti-Zionism” promoted by the Soviet Union, which portrayed Israel as racist by nature and exercising tentacular control over American foreign policy, was imbibed at the source by most of the leaders of the SWC, and handed down to the newer cadres as an explanation for the Iraq War that galvanized many of them into politics.
Corbyn’s voters are not uniformly, or even primarily, extremists and terrorist sympathizers. But the longer this vanguard remains in place at the top of the party, the wider its ideas will filter down. For the majority, who grew up under the post-Cold War liberal consensus, there is simply no memory or experience of socialism’s failure. Thus the common radical ideological thread that connects Labour and Democratic leadership to their followers and to each other.
The rise of Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and others with radical associations and support for socialism was facilitated by well-organized, young, ground-level activists, who circumvent the traditional party structures. In the American case, social media has played the key role, allowing these junior figures to have an influence far beyond their positions and enabling, too, very much in the manner of Corbyn, something like a personality cult to develop, raising the cost for anyone who ventures a criticism.
Beyond this, there are signs that the pillars of Corbynism, such as unworkable economics, anti-Americanism as the guiding principle of foreign policy, and anti-Semitism, are taking root. Let’s take each in turn.
The Green New Deal, proposed by Ocasio-Cortez, is the easiest example of the pull of economic surrealism on the Democratic Party. Putting aside the disastrous rollout, it was fairly clear that even the parts Ocasio-Cortez was prepared to stand by were prohibitively expensive and politically toxic nationally. Yet five Democratic presidential candidates immediately signed on. This race toward ever-more-ambitious “purity” has happened to Labour, and the popular rejection is almost a confirmation that one is on the right track. It is nearer the conduct of a cult than a political movement, but it can shape the incentive structure needed to succeed inside the party.
On foreign policy, the crisis in Venezuela has been illuminating and alarming. Dictator Nicolas Maduro, a close ally of the Castro regime, staged an election that the European Union said did not comply with “the minimum international standards for a credible process.” Maduro was removed by his parliament through a well-established legal mechanism and replaced by an interim president, Juan Guaido.
That Guaido’s political party, Popular Will, is the Venezuelan member party of the Socialist International, has not stopped the Western Left describing these events as “a right-wing coup engineered in Washington.” The Corbyn circle are, of course, all longtime supporters of the Venezuelan regime, and Corbyn’s only statement since this crisis began has been to condemn “outside [read: American] interference” in Venezuela.
Both Ocasio-Cortez, who has directly spokenwith Corbyn — they had a “lovely” conversation, apparently — and Tlaib have been circumspect about Venezuela. But both were members of the Democratic Socialists of America before going to Congress, and it seems unlikely they have fundamentally departed from the DSA worldview in the last 10 weeks. DSA has blamedthe Venezuelan situation on U.S. sanctions, saying they were designed to “make the economy scream,” which as Commentary’s Noah Rothman pointed out, is Soviet-era nostalgia, related to U.S. policy in Chile in the 1970s. Ocasio-Cortez’s office told the Daily Callerthat they were still “figuring out [their] response.”
Omar, however, threw herself into the issue. She denounced the “US backed coup” and “Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition,” saying this would “destabilize the region.” Maduro driving 3 million Venezuelans into neighboring countries such as Colombia through political repression and economic incompetence might be thought fairly destabilizing to the region, but the congresswoman had other ideas. She harangued the newly appointed special envoy on Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, when he appeared in mid-February before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which she is inexplicably a member, saying Abrams would oversee genocide if he promoted American interests. This wild distortion of Abrams’ record appears to have been cribbed from an article at Al Jazeera.
The Democratic leadership has largely backedthe Trump administration’s recognition of Guaido, but the activist base, as in the Labour Party, thinks America can only do evil in the world and some of them actively support the Maduro regime as an outpost of independence against an American-led, capitalist, and exploitative world order. The result is that so senior a Democratic official as N.Y. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has to placate this noisy minority by worrying aloud about the legitimacy of America having “anointed” the interim president.
The appearance of anti-Semitism is in many ways the crucial test of where this is going.
The Labour Party has been embroiled in a crisis around anti-Semitism pretty much since Corbyn came in. What happened in Congress this month is the standard Corbynista operating procedure. Whenever Corbyn has to comment on the latest incident, he declares himself “against all forms of racism” and says he has spent his life campaigning against racism.
Corbyn is often exculpated of personal anti-Semitism, though his record includes detecting “ the hand of Israel” behind a jihadist attack in Egypt and honoring the Palestinian terroristswho murdered the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The institutional nature of anti-Semitism in Corbyn’s Labour Party, and its centrality to Corbyn and the team around him, is not open to doubt, however. A recent example is Corbyn’s personal effort to prevent the suspension of Chris Williamson, a Labour MP who promoted several raging anti-Semites, while dismissing the issue as a politicized fabrication. The public outcry about Williamson was considerable, as was the political damage to Labour. Yet Corbyn still made every effort to shield him, as he has done in previous cases.
With the Democrats, Omar had said long before she came into office: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” When asked about what seemed a fairly clear-cut instance of using an anti-Semitic trope, Omar replied that she was “criticizing a military action by a government” engaged in “really oppressive policies,” and that she had not meant to offend “particular people of faith.”
Omar had said support in Congress for the bill opposing the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, sanctions movement was “all about the Benjamins,” and named the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee as responsible for paying elected Americans to be pro-Israel. Responding to the backlash, Omar said she hadn’t meant to offend and “unequivocally apologize[d]” before adding, “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics,” which seemed less unequivocal.
Omar recently extended her remarks, saying: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” and in a separate statement suggested that in reality, the criticism she and Tlaib have received is motivated by Islamophobia and racism.
Tlaib, for her part, spent her inauguration ceremony and the private dinner afterward with Abbas Hamideh, a Hezbollah activist, and was less than a week into her tenure when she attacked those in Congress supporting the anti-BDS bill as having “forgot what country they represent.” Criticized for the anti-Semitic “dual loyalties” implications of what she had said, Tlaib said she was merely protecting the “Constitutional right to free speech.” When it was discovered that Tlaib had written for the newspaper of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, she dismissed the matter: What she had written “was not an endorsement of Farrakhan or anyone for that matter,” and she “condemns his anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ views.”
This statement from Tlaib, as with the one in Congress, inevitably raise the analogy of those who responded to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was protesting a series of incidents where black Americans were killed by police, by saying, “All lives matter.” The Left was, not unreasonably, critical of those they saw as diverting attention from the matter at hand. Now it has come full circle.
The descent of the Labour Party is an object lesson in the fringe capturing the center, and it is no mystery why the Left is especially vulnerable to this.
The nomination of Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, by people who publicly disagreed with him yet wanted to broaden the debate, has to rank as one of the gravest political miscalculations in recent memory. As reasonable as it can be made to sound, it doesn’t make a lot of sense when it is considered in any other case. For example: Do fascists get brought on stage at Tory meetings just to ensure the full spectrum of the Right is represented? The question answers itself.
The same principle of exclusion should apply with Bolshevik castoffs. This would involve the Left overcoming its aversion to drawing a line between the mainstream and the extreme. There is a recurring habit of moderates to disbelieve that there are any true enemies on the Left. The irony, of course, is that the far-left does not return the sentiment. The far-left has always concentrated its fury on the heretics in its own camp, even if the infighting drags the whole movement down to defeat.
A related benefit of the center-left creating distance with the far-left would be the pressure to explain to its own constituents what it is for and why the far-left is wrong. Too often, the center-left seems to say that in ideal circumstances it would side with the far-left, but for technocratic, practical purposes it cannot. This is not a winning message. State socialism has failed, and on its own terms. It has taken prosperous countries such as Venezuela and made them poor. This is a political fact; one does not have to be a fan of Ayn Rand to acknowledge it, and those who deny it, or blame some shadowy cabal for frustrating this noble ideal, should be treated as flat-earthers.
A necessary war against leftist conspiracy theories, including the old failsafe of anti-Semitism, would be a salutary side effect of the mainstream Left defining itself. It is important to prevent party structures being captured and/or altered by the radicals. The influx of Corbyn supporters to the party, many of whom were supporters of other parties until very recently, combined with changes to the electoral procedures for the Labour leadership contests that gave these people greater power over the outcome, has made it virtually impossible to remove Corbyn himself and nearly inconceivable that his wing of the party will not be able to choose his successor, even though a majority of the parliamentary party is opposed. Mutatis mutandis — the Democrats should hold firm against proposals that, in the name of “democracy,” empower a well-organized minority. And with the party’s current leadership soon to be aging out, the establishment’s ability to choose centrist successors is on the wane at an inopportune moment.
Which brings us to the final and most salient lesson the American Left might take from its counterparts in the mother country: Prevention is much easier than repair. Even if the Labour Party could get rid of Corbyn and even if they could reverse the institutional changes to allow a moderate to succeed him, the damage done to the brand will last a generation and more. For example, though the Corbynites profess to believe that anti-Semitism is being used as a political weapon against them, the fear of British Jews about the possibility of a Corbyn government is very real, and it has stained the whole party. Jews, and everyone else, have watched as Labour members remained silent, made excuses, or actually attacked the victims during this period, whether for the sake of their careers or some ideological goal they thought they could achieve with Corbyn. It is not the type of thing that will be forgotten. Democrats ought then to take heed of the old Bob Dylan lyric: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) is a writer in London.