Hate and the Left
HOT’s Sean O’ Shea continues his conversation with local pacifist and activist, Bryan Jobbins, on some of the challenges facing the Left: Labour Pains. In this interview, they discuss the prevalence of hate on the Left, its genesis, consequences and possible resolutions.
Bryan Jobbins formative work encounters in farming and factory floor were pivotal in his own consciousness awakening. These experiences, together with his later professional development as a nurse, social worker and psychotherapist, informed his belief that the personal is political and the political personal.
Paradoxically some on the left still see no contradiction in advocating peace and socialism with one breath and promulgating hatred towards political opponents in the next. Unfortunately however the projection of hate onto individuals and groups only serves to dehumanize both parties and compounds our own sense of alienation.
Bryan critically reflects on the psychodynamics of hate and provides some historical examples of mature ways of dealing with this pervasive but corrosive emotion.
What is your response to recent expressions of hate on the Left and in the Labour Party in particular?
In your reporting of the Labour Party Conference and the Momentum World Transformed festival of politics, art and culture, A World Transformed, you very properly reflected on the implications of the sale of ‘We still hate Thatcher’ mugs and ‘Tories are vermin’ merchandise that ‘somewhat tarnish’ Labour’s reputation.
It certainly does cast a shadow and elicits some unease regarding allegations of Labour bullying, misconduct and anti-Semitism, which I had previously attributed solely to the aggrieved recitatives of diminished right wing Labour MP’s and their sponsored uniformly hostile anti-Corbyn corporate media.
Lest we forget, Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda film of scurrying rats was a metaphor for his de-humanising of the pre-war Jewish community as vermin.
A personal experience. I remember coming out of Finsbury Park station in North London just after Margaret Thatcher died. A Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) activist held aloft his party’s paper. He beamed at me as I stopped to buy one as I have on other occasions. I noticed with detachment the composed professionalism of the front page: Margaret Thatcher’s image. It was inviting us to a celebratory triumph: Thatcher was dead.
I could empathise with the sentiments expressed. Thatcher had after all savaged the working classes in her three terms of office and left them weakened and demoralised, but I realized that I couldn’t share the SWP’s seller’s exultation that day.
I don’t usually agree with the Daily Mail’s political perspective, but I think their outraged protest against some of the Lefts unexpurgated reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death was fundamentally right – and our reactions did us no great service.
Let me elucidate. Our concrete experiences will, as Karl Marx said, determine our consciousness and our practice too.
In my twenties I worked as a staff nurse on a back ward for elderly male psychiatric patients with dementia. Sometimes, not infrequently, as I did my rounds at night, a ghostly presence would be discernible emerging in dazzled unfocussed distress, while from the patient’s open-flap night dress, dripped incontinently a trail of faeces behind him.
I thought then – I still do now – I could never wish anyone, not the bitterest enemy, a future that would involve descending into the frequently parallel consciousness of a human twilight zone.
In the middle of a difficult referral meeting, later on in my career when working in an NHS psychotherapy service clinic, I had a phantasy: if a Mrs Thatcher had contacted us – it was of course an unlikely eventuality, but, if she had requested therapy – how should a therapist with strong left wing views respond?
A moments thought. It might be difficult for her or him but I was immediately clear. It would be professionally correct for the therapist to offer Mrs Thatcher an assessment interview and in doing so, welcome her into that therapeutic dialogue where one could ordinarily have called her simply, ‘Margaret’.
The Thatcher that I had excoriated over the years and whom in absentia, I had on many demonstrations, shouted “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!” – this Thatcher had died years ago; her last years dipping in and out of consciousness, scourged from the advancing plaques of dementia.
Only on one occasion, when it was reported she’d recovered the lucidity to remember with satisfaction that she’d screwed the miners, could I momentarily revisit that old site of hate at my memory of Margaret Thatcher in her pomp and power, when she could robustly defend herself.
I am too old and wizened to retain absolute convictions or attachment to the heroes or heroic ideas of my youth. As Sigmund Freud notes, we need to become normally disillusioned by our child’s self projections of unquestioned authority and omniscience onto parents and later authority figures.
That said, there is one person I can still admire this side of idolatry: Edith Cavell, the nurse and British patriot who is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers in Brussels from all sides without distinction. She was executed for espionage by the German authorities in 1915. I regularly pass by her memorial which faces towards Trafalgar Square. I always stop and look up. I know by heart what I shall read: ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.’
What is your view of the origin of hate and what can we do about it?
For Freud, hate is a constituent of ourselves and he spoke of it as one element in his controversial formulation of the death instinct. The German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, would reject the Rousseauian belief in man’s innate goodness or benevolent disposition. In his Opuscules on History, Kant recognises that malice and hostility exist but can be the spring board towards a more civil organisation through the exercise of ‘practical reason’. This hypothesis allowed for a historical-based progress of humanity, which, if never certain, could still be retained as a ‘regulative ideal.’
Two examples of ‘practical reason’ will suffice. Let us recall an exchange between Margaret Thatcher and the veteran left wing Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, uncompromising critic of Thatcher and her neo-liberal agenda.
It is Thatcher’s last appearance in the Commons. What did Dennis Skinner see before him that day? His former strident Bismarckian iron-clad lady now stricken in her imminent eclipse and humiliation. Skinner could have relished the opportunity to respond triumphantly to his opponent’s approaching nemesis.
It was their last jousting. They touched lances as it were and enjoyed a brief engagement. The tone was revealingly ceremonial.
Dennis Skinner, father of the house, could I think recognise and acknowledge that in Margaret Thatcher – across their political divisions – was another long time member of a parliament that they were both proud to serve.
It was one of Thatcher’s most human performances. She had come and spoken – and she would sink, but not now – later. It was a good performance too by Dennis Skinner, whose generosity of spirit echoed what George Orwell would call ‘common decency’.
Another example. The scene: the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War. The German High Command is arraigned for crimes against humanity.
The report of the German concentration camp atrocities had recently become public knowledge and elicited universal condemnation. If there was any previous inclination by certain members of the Allies to proceed to summary execution of their elite enemies, it was no longer an option. Harry Truman, president of the USA, advises them it would be legally inadmissible. Justice will now be transparent.
Enter in these exceptional and personally stressful circumstances, one Sir Hartley Shawcross, Chief British prosecutor at Nuremberg.
In an excerpt from his memoirs in 1995, he observes that Hermann Goering’s defendant was a remarkable man, a criminal no doubt, but a courageous one and a man of great ability and outstanding personality.
Hartley Shawcross was himself remarkable. He showed a capacity to distinguish the individual personalities of the assembled German defendants who might otherwise have remained a more conveniently disposable massed other.
We need to own our hateful feelings; not to do so, we are more likely to take refuge in various strategies of avoidance of an uncomfortable self awareness of negativity.
Freud’s famous mechanisms of defence such as denial, displacement and projection, added to later by the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein’s concept of ‘splitting’, serves to appease our basic, let’s call it, ‘existential anxiety’.
How then can we transform our hate by socialising it, so that we do not destroy ourselves in bitter ruminations and recriminations in the process of destroying the hated object? For the French domiciled Bulgarian psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva, one step is in recognising in Stranger to Ourselves – the title of one of her seminal texts – where we project hate onto the foreigner or alien, who signifies for us the un-assimilable ‘otherness’ of ourselves.
Fortunately in practice, successful mature strategies, as evidenced by such as Dennis Skinner and Sir Hartley Shawcross, are available to us all. They both demonstrated the capacity to recognise their opponents or enemy in their multi-dimensional personae and humanity – and by doing so facilitated a connective tissue of empathetic identification to form.
A good place for all of us in our political struggles is to reflect on Karl Marx’s declaration: ‘Nothing human is alien to me’.
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