According to the editor of Spiked, the right-wingers who criticised Ash Sarkar (the woman who said to Piers Morgan, ‘I’m literally a Communist, you idiot’ on breakfast TV) are as bad as Ash Sarker herself. ‘It’s the living, breathing definition of a spat in which you want both sides to lose,’ he said. We’d expect this sort of moral equivalence from the Guardian, but it was something of a surprise that it came from Brendan O’Neill, who is famous for his waspish attacks on trendy young urban leftists like Owen Jones. But he doesn’t like Cold Warriors either: ‘Grouchy right-wingers, who really miss the Cold War and all its evil Commies that they could define themselves against, who spy in Teen Vogue’s cheering of a communist – still dying here – the imminent return of the Red Menace’.
As something of a Cold Warrior myself, I thought a few words in response would be in order. A lot of what O’Neill writes is true. Sarkar is undoubtedly a prat. But I think O’Neill is unwise to just laugh such people off, dismissing them as hipsters play-acting out comfortable fantasies. If we were talking about a 15-year-old who dons a new political identity every week, then yes, they’re probably playing political dress-up, and we wouldn’t want to take it too seriously. (But even then we’d give the twerp a good talking to about the realities of Communism.)
But this is a woman in her – I presume – late twenties, a woman who teaches at a University, a woman who knows perfectly well what the previous results of Communism have been like. My view is that when someone like that tells you they’re a Communist, take them at their word, and treat them accordingly. History is full of disasters caused by not taking seriously the political claims of fanatics who seemed, at the time, foolish and deluded, but who clearly had determination. And that applies especially – a thousand times over – with Communists.
The Communists only managed to take over in Russia and enforce their rule for so many decades because they were not taken seriously by the other left-wing parties, who were forever making excuses for them, telling everyone that they weren’t that bad really, and they don’t mean half the things they say. It turned out that they did mean all the things they said, and more, and they really were that bad, in fact, far, far worse than anyone imagined. So when a professional political agitator today says that they’re a Communist, I’m minded to assume that they aren’t just a soft bourgeoisie who really desires nothing more than the comfort of the status quo, as O’Neill assumes. Such a person may or may not be up to the task of personally ordering the gulags – literal or metaphorical – built, but they’ll certainly be up to the task of helping us to get to a position where they can – literally or metaphorically – be built. It won’t be any consolation to find Ash Sarkar has been thrown in there with you.
Other online commentators have dismissed the idea that Sarkar is a real Communist by noting her ludicrous definition of Communism in this interview with Owen Jones: ‘Communism is a belief in the power of people to organise their lives as individuals, their social lives, their political and economic lives, without being managed by a state’. Obviously this bears no relation to life in, say Mao’s China. It sounds more like the sort of thing Sarker’s libertarian enemies would say. But it’s also the sort of thing real Communists say. It’s the sort of thing Marx said; he thought the State would wither away under Communism, and we’d all be living in our own personal paradise. It’s the ‘Ur-topian’ vision of the future that drives Communists to take power, control speech, control thought, imprison dissidents, and which ultimately leads them to mass slaughter.
So maybe, just maybe, Ash Sarkar is a harmless social democrat bigging herself up. But with Communist ideas on the rise again, the UK Labour Party taken over by the hard left, and the establishment of the Western world becoming increasingly intolerant of incorrect thoughts, you’ll have to forgive me for taking her more seriously than that. The idea that we shouldn’t take such an opportunity to inform younger people what Communism was really like, even though students don’t get taught this at school, seems to me completely bizarre.
O’Neill also says, ‘their talk of revolt is an attempt to dilute a real revolt … They’re idiots, in fact, who play communist games in their echo chambers because what is happening in the real world – the overturning of the postwar political era by newly confident publics – makes them shake with dread.’
This gets things exactly the wrong way around. The recent political earthquakes and ‘popular’ revolts have not just come out of nowhere. The left hasn’t been harmlessly pottering about in its garden shed, looking after itself, and suddenly heard a couple of loud bangs which turned out, on investigation, to be Brexit and Trump. What happened is that the left has been busy trying to transform society into its own image, pushing its people and its ideology into influential positions, and imposing its politics on top of people. It was the success of this movement that caused the recent popular revolts.
And rather than shaking in their boots, leftists like Ash Sarkar, who is noticeably not shaking in her boots in the slightest, are grimly determined to quell this revolt. Some of the Establishment are getting hysterical, true, but that is not them ‘shaking with dread’, that’s them getting very angry at the temerity of the populace not to submit. It also tells us that they’re not going to go away and drop their lifelong political activism just because someone tells them they’re just an overgrown student who doesn’t really mean what they say.
So I’m going to go right on being a Cold Warrior, until I stop hearing those chilling phrases, ‘That’s wasn’t real Communism’, and ‘Next time it will be different’. Because next time it won’t be that different.