January 22, 2016 by James Crossley
In a Guardian article, Martin Kettle reflects on David Aaronovitch’s recent book about his Communist upbringing and his claim that “The Party was a church…Its strength was that it was about belief and faith as much as about intellect.” “Nothing”, claims Kettle, “is harder for an atheist than to be told they are, in fact, religious”. He refers to Eric Hobsbawm’s suggestion that the Cold War was a war of religion but that, in the 1950s, “the claim that communism was a religion would have been both insulting and laughable to my parents…Marxism was scientific”.
Already, then, we can see some assumptions about what “religion” is deemed to be and from the rest of the article we learn that it is about certainty, true believers, faith over intellect, internal debates, dismissive of alternative views and sceptics, and so on. This is not, of course, to deny that Kettle’s parents thought in the terms he described but rather it is to critique the use of “religion” as an analytical category, at least in this instance. We might think of those groups who might typically be designated “religious”. Let’s take the Church of England. It seems to be one national myth (whether right or wrong I leave to one side) that the C. of E. is about compromise, pragmatism and willingness to doubt. Does this mean they are not a “religion” according to Kettle’s definition? We might also think of those who might typically be designated “political” and not Communist. Tony Blair, for instance, does a kind of reverse Kettle in assuming the traits Kettle likes are the sort of thing that warrants the language of “church” or “kirk” (with a curious Pauline justification):
We had become separated from ‘normal’ people. For several decades, even before the eighteen years in the wilderness, Labour was more like a cult than a party. If you were to progress in it, you had to speak the language and press the right buttons…The curse of Gordon was to make these people co-conspirators, not free-range thinkers. He and Ed Balls and others were like I had been back in the 1980s, until slowly the scales fell from my eyes and I realised it was more like a cult than a kirk. (Tony Blair, Blair, A Journey [London: Hutchinson, 2010], pp. 89, 641)
So, a church can be a good political thing according to these assumptions. And, if we follow Kettle, what would we make of Blair’s certainty about Iraq and WMDs? Was that “religious”? And, if we follow Kettle, what do we make of the long-standing connection between the Labour Party (right, left and centre) and different church groups or those politicians (like Blair) who have foregrounded religion as a driving force in their politics?
Following Blair, we might also mention some of the recent uses of “cult” to describe Corbyn’s supporters, which perhaps imply more positive assumptions about “religion” or “ faith” or “church” in the sense that Blair did, and which allow the allegation to function as a means of constructing an idealised history of the Labour Party, a broad church if you will. This is especially relevant as Kettle’s target is obviously something similar without mentioning Corbyn or Corbynism by name or any potential policy in detail:
we do without doubt have a revived left in Britain, which has dusted off some of the same ambitions, some of the same political ideas, some of the same historic dreams and some of the same deep flaws, foolishness and even intellectual turpitude that made British communism unsustainable. If politics is “an act of faith” then its opposite is “a programme and a willingness to change and adapt to new times”…This left of today looks to me suspiciously as if it is developing into another church. This left too is marked by a reluctance to ask necessary but difficult questions about its plans for the world beyond the church walls. This left too seems happiest as a fellowship of true believers, squabbling among itself, dismissive of all those who remain sceptics or whose beliefs the elders find unacceptable. Just as the communists knew things deep down that they should have faced up to, so too does this left… There is nothing inherently wrong with having a politics that is essentially a religion, providing that you recognise it for what it is, something personal between you and your friends. But I’ve been there and done that. If politics is an act of faith…it will fail, as communism did. That’s fine for those for whom belief in socialist principles matters more than anything else, just as it was for the communists. But it won’t work. And in the end people will hate it too.
So there are obviously specific interests at play in this game of defining what religion really is and grounded in the necessarily vague authority of personal experience. For this analogy to work, Corbynism is not only paralleled with Communism but with Stalinism and mass murder, for whom, as Kettle puts it, “the faith still seemed plausible, providing you overlooked Stalin’s trials and purges, the invasion of Hungary, the ban on Boris Pasternak and the rest.” This sort of tactic has been used before by Guardian writers. Jonathan Jones, while making it clear Corbyn isn’t Stalin, compared the associated movement with Stalinism while Michael White imaginatively compared Corbyn’s followers to the “popular fundamentalism” of ISIS.
The more specific ideas Corbyn has mentioned are things like anti-austerity, collective rail ownership in distinction from the 1970s top-down models, abandoning tuition fees, opposition to bombing Syria and Trident renewal, and criticism of foreign policy relations (e.g. with Saudi Arabia). Some of his economic policies have been compared to present-day German economic policies. Make of all that what you will but this is an exercise in setting the limits of acceptable political beliefs. As yet collectivisation of farms or murdering dissidents has not been mentioned. And how such a parallel, which also includes the invasion of a country, matches up with another dominant (and not-entirely-accurate) construction of Corbyn and his followers as pacifists is unclear. Corbynism has to be sufficiently vague and decontextualized, with similarities largely restricted to stubbornness, to make sure that there is a sinister undercurrent to all this that we are presumably missing. And the suitability vague “religion” is a category close at hand that can justify almost anything, it seems.