In defence of Ken Loach: History is for all of us to discuss

I wrote this short article just over a year ago, before I was myself expelled from the Labour Party. It explores how right-wing Zionists in the Party had somehow succeeded in smearing and vilifying Ken Loach, even amongst broad layers of progressive activists in the Party who you’d have expected to love and respect his work, and to the point not only of supporting his expulsion but seeing him as an evil anti-semite. With Jamie Driscoll’s exclusion from standing again as Mayor for the North East, and Luke Akehurst’s justification that “no-one who shares a platform with Ken Loach could possibly be a Labour candidate”, the article has become highly topical again.

At my Labour branch meeting last week, I moved a motion opposing the NEC’s recent proscription of several organisations, and the auto-expulsion of members deemed to have “supported” them. In the course of the discussion, someone argued that it was right and necessary to expel Ken Loach because he had said, in a BBC interview during the Labour Party conference in 2017, “History is for all of us to discuss. All history is our common heritage to discuss and analyse.” This, it was claimed, proved that Ken is a holocaust denier.

Ken was responding to a statement from the interviewer that at a fringe meeting the previous day there had been “a discussion about the holocaust – did it happen or didn’t it?” Ken disputed whether there had been such a discussion at the meeting. Instead, he argued positively for the space to discuss and analyse, for instance, the founding of the state of Israel based on ethnic cleansing, and the role of Israel now.

Manifestly, this does not constitute holocaust denial, and indeed Ken said in the Guardian a few days later, “The Holocaust is as real a historical event as the second world war itself and is not to be challenged. In Primo Levi’s words: ‘Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.’” I do not believe that the characterisation of Ken as a holocaust denier can withstand the slightest scrutiny. But that is not the point. What is alarming is that so many people in the Party, and indeed on the left, have bought into this kind of argument.

Image Craig Connor/ChronicleLive

In the face of a witch-hunt, if you fail to oppose it you end up being drawn into ever more perverse and distorted positions to justify yourself. In this case, despite all Loach’s lauded achievements in bringing alive international working class history … in the Spanish civil war, in the Irish liberation struggle, and in the crises of homelessness and unemployment, to name but a few … those who become complicit in the witch-hunt are compelled to assassinate his integrity in order to silence those who do stand up to it.

It is not just that this is the crass rhetoric of charlatans … it’s that we drift ever closer towards becoming ‘book-burners’ and censors ourselves. By suppressing discussion, we risk helping to create the conditions for fascism, in a world where the far-right are already jostling for power, and in some countries already in charge.

How we interpret the past defines how we see the present. Ruling classes always cast history in their own image, to justify and perpetuate their own power. Growing empires and new nation-states re-write (and distort) history to establish their identity and hegemony. Every oppressed class and group within society has to continually revisit and re-interpret history, as part of its fight for its own liberation.

Suppression of open discussion about history is a tool of the ruling class, and of reactionary forces, and socialists must fight for the right to revisit history, in all its aspects and at all times. As Hobsbawm said, “losers make the best historians”. Indeed, understanding how we have lost in the past is the only way to win in the future. The Black Lives Matter movement has fought hard in recent years for the right to re-assess the history of slavery, and Britain’s role in it. Jewish socialists have had to fight hard, in an increasingly hostile environment, for the right to re-assess the decades of working class Jewish struggle for liberation in the first half of the 20th Century across Eastern Europe and Russia — the ideas and struggles of Jewish socialists in the Bund, and indeed of Jewish communists, who argued forcefully against Zionism. Zionists have sought to write these ideas and struggles out of history since 1948, with some success.

When the left adds its voice to the calls for censorship, and for suppression of historical discussion, we strengthen the ability of the right-wing and ruling class to control what we talk about, what our children learn, and how we see ourselves. We give weight to their agenda — to outlaw discussion of sexuality in schools (remember Clause 28?), to enforce an imperialist curriculum of British history, and of course to condemn criticism of the apartheid state of Israel as anti-semitic.

We have to believe in the power of our ideas, and in the necessity of the freedom to challenge and debate — that is how we undermine and subvert reactionary interpretations of history from which repressive ideologies are constructed, not by censorship.

When I proposed the motion, I assumed that I could call on a shared unease about Ken’s expulsion. The response, from a teacher and progressive councillor, took me by surprise, as did the sight of someone from Momentum apparently nodding in agreement. It is increasingly difficult to know what people mean when they identify themselves as socialists within the Labour Party. My son stumbled across ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ when he was fifteen, and it had a profound impact on him — his first introduction to imperialism and the republican struggle. If this narrative about Ken Loach leads to even one teacher choosing not to show his films to stimulate discussion at school, would that not be tragic?

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