I’VE ASKED MANY QUESTIONS about my role on the left since my expulsion from the party but they all come down to one - is there a place for truth in our politics, even the most painful kind of truth?
We live in politically febrile times. At what many saw as a similar turning point in American intellectual and political life, in 1968, the brilliant linguistic philosopher and political campaigner Noam Chomsky posed a similar question - what is the function of the intellectual?
Chomsky came to a straightforward answer - to tell the truth and to speak that truth to power, whatever the cost. The Responsibility of Intellectuals - Reflections by Noam Chomsky and Others After 50 Years has just been published. This collection of new essays and critiques, including from Chomsky and a number of academics, examines Chomsky’s seminal essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals. Contributions from Craig Murray (ex-British ambassador) and myself place Chomsky’s essay in the context of this critical moment for the British left. I ask, given the limitations of class and race, who is the intellectual Chomsky’s remarks are aimed at? My answer is clear. As blacks and working class people are functionally excluded from academia, we all have to take on the role of the intellectual.
Today, access to instant 24 hour news, the media and social media have strained confidence in public figures and institutions. Global interests now have speedy global reach. Mechanisms that form and misinform opinion have increasing control on what is said, when and by whom. Ask any comrade who has attempted to get the attention of the mainstream media. The news blockade against reporting anything which challenges, for example, the ongoing witch-hunt against the left, is unprecedented, total and breathtaking. But this is not just the story of ‘them’.
The importance, and potential power, of telling truth to power is exemplified, perhaps for the first time, in a lifetime of personal activism and parliamentary politics by the present leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. His unique selling point was, and remains, an insistence on telling even the most unpalatable truths, including to his own party. South Africa, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Palestine - it’s clear Corbyn, not the party, has been on the right side of history. This is what it means to tell truth to power.
It maybe took 40 or more years of mostly unrecognised and persistent political work but Corbyn’s message found its target, gaining traction in the political hopes and consciousness of millions. Truth was the game changer, the source of a political earthquake. This was at the heart of the ‘Corbyn revolution’, the promise ethical politics could inform decision-making in the Labour Party and, supported by the solidarity of tens of thousands of grassroots members, that this new way of doing politics could revolutionise British government. The task was never going to be easy.
The more than half a million members, the fewer active members and non-member left activists, have not just seen lies, distortions and propaganda aimed at destroying them and the causes they support. Thousands have been subjected to the machinations of a corrupt disciplinary process and a party structure too often used and abused for factional interests - without recourse to the mediation of a proper investigative process.
While a vociferous and high profile few, with easy access to the media, abuse and bully with impunity, the membership has been defamed in the media, often by those who should have supported it, in the trade unions and the parliamentary party. Any voice that attempted a challenge has been ruthlessly silenced. The courage many have shown, in their professional, political and private lives, facing what can only be called an onslaught, has yet to be recognised. The damage done to this ‘political opportunity of a generation’ by these concerted efforts to confine and close down debate, to ‘book burn’ and airbrush inconvenient truths has yet to be assessed.
This book is a reminder that power without truth can never achieve the politics we aspire to. As for Chomsky’s response, it is as clear now as it was 50 years ago - telling the truth doesn’t just matter, it’s essential. I can think of nothing more to add to that.
» The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Reflections by Noam Chomsky and Others After 50 Years, UCL Press, edited by Nicholas Allott, Chris Knight and Neil Smith
reviews Chris Knight's Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, £18.99