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Labour’s racist past and present


The current furore about Labour anti-Semitism certainly doesn’t fit with the image the Labour Party and the wider Left has of itself. Many committed socialists have a sincere dislike of racism. Labour’s social media is full of genuine outrage and incomprehension that anyone could believe their movement could be guilty of racism, their most reviled sin.

But while they can point to a tradition of opposing racial bigotry, they have another tradition they are less keen to talk about, a tradition that we can see still hasn’t come to an end. It’s not always fair to judge political movements on their pasts. The living are not responsible for the actions or ideas of the dead, but Labour takes pride in its history and heritage, at least those bits it wouldn’t rather forget.

Keir Hardie, the Labour Party founder, regarded by some modern socialists as almost a saint, had some nasty racist views. Henry McLeish, Labour’s former Scottish First Minister, quotes Hardie as writing that the importation of immigrant Lithuanian workers to Scotland by colliery owners would only ‘teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers’.

Not quite the words of a happy multiculturalist. This urge to keep out competitive foreign workers is something that has emerged numerous times in the history of the wider labour and trade union movement, at times expressed in language even cruder than Hardie’s.

Prominent socialist intellectuals of the 20th century were often deeply racist. Jack London, literary hero and inspiration to generations of socialists, was virulently so, seeing black people as ‘monkeys’. But this vileness didn’t detract from his iconic status in socialist culture.

The eugenics movement, widely supported on the Left, was concerned not just about degenerates breeding at home, but what it saw as the global threat of the white race being outbred by the coloured races. This was uncontroversial stuff for so many Leftist thinkers including H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the co-founders of the LSE and founders of the New Statesman, house magazine of British socialism.

That’s before you look at the official communist movement. The various communist parties of Europe proudly boasted of their anti-fascist and anti-racist credentials but had an appalling record of anti-Semitism between 1945 and the 1980s.

Stalin was a committed Jew-hater and it was only his timely death that prevented a wave of planned persecution against Soviet Jewry. Of course Stalin was a monster, but other Soviet leaders and Eastern Bloc countries also had form. Anti-Semitism was normally presented as a struggle against ‘cosmopolitan’ elements or bourgeois remnants. To their shame, the communist parties of the western democracies failed to offer any condemnation of this.

The Left could respond with their favourite historical examples of racism from the political Right or centre. There are plenty; you could exhaust yourself playing tit-for-tat with this. The point though, is that the Left has no claim to moral superiority. Leftists may see themselves as motivated by humanitarian concerns and beyond some of our nastier failings. But even if you allow them the high regard they often have for themselves (which I don’t), the most saintly of people can still have horrid ideas on race. Gandhi’s views on black Africans, at least until he gained the political skills to moderate himself, wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the National Front of the 1970s.

Labour’s exaggerated sense of its own virtue blinded it to early warnings, often loudly shouted from outside, that something nasty was happening. The anti-Semites crept in, at first a trickle, then a steady flow. A sense of entitlement to political power, sought of course from ‘selfless’ motives, allowed for dubious trade-offs which ignored the nature of some of the party’s support.

And so the transformation began. The party that once confronted Mosley’s blackshirts, stood against apartheid and gave us the Race Relations Act of 1965, now has creepy Holocaust deniers and snide tellers of Jew ‘jokes’ in its ranks. Whether it will find its way back to decency, we still don’t know.

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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