Hilary Benn’s ‘Internationalism’

Michael Chessum

Before Hilary Benn sat down from his contribution to the Syria debate in the House of Commons last night, the political echo chamber was reverberating. Over the applause, microphones picked up outbursts of praise from the Conservative benches that were echoed through the commentariat: ‘superb’, ‘historic’, ‘career-defining’. It was certainly an impressive feat of rhetoric, all the more so for having been written largely during the debate. But at the core of the rhetoric were two distortions, which aped the language of socialist internationalism while arguing for its opposite.

Urging the Commons to confront a new kind of ‘fascism’, Benn invoked the legacy of the International Brigades who went to fight Franco in Spain in the late 1930s. Just as those brave socialists and trade unionists volunteered to fight fascism in Europe, he implied, so we must fight Daesh now.

Nothing could be further from the spirit of the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign in Syria. The International Brigades were criminalised by the British government, which rehabilitated the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act, and when they arrived they found themselves fighting a losing ground war, mile-by-mile across Spain. On Wednesday night, MPs voted for a bombing campaign from the air, undertaken by the British state in alliance with the largest military superpower in the world. It is more a gesture than a strategy, though no less deadly for the civilian population of Raqqa.

The International Brigades fought the rise of a dictator. But Cameron’s bombing campaign is not targeted at Assad, who is responsible for far more civilian deaths and whose ideology is much closer to fascism than Daesh’s violent religious fundamentalism is. In practice, British warplanes are cementing Assad’s position, and while Western governments have all said they want him to go eventually, they have form in the Middle East, from supporting Saddam Hussein before 1990 to their alliance with Saudi Arabia now.

There are brave young volunteers going to Syria to fight against both Daesh and Assad, but like their predecessors in the 1930s they are criminalised by the British state. Less than a month ago, a British court sentenced an 18 year-old woman to 21 months in prison under the Terrorism Act 2006. She had volunteered to fight for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organisation in Britain at Turkey’s behest. Turkey, the only Nato member in the region, is bombing the Kurds and is complicit in funding ISIL. Hilary Benn backed the Terrorism Act 2006.

Perhaps the most startling element of Hilary Benn’s speech was his appeal to the Labour Party’s ‘internationalism’. On Tuesday, the Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle wrote in the Mirror that ‘Labour are a proudly internationalist party’ and that therefore it had a duty to back the bombing mission.

Socialist internationalism is rooted in the principle that the left needs its own axis of international solidarity. There are many criticisms you can make of the brutal, opportunistic policies of the big world powers, but a lack of international perspective is not one of them. And big business is internationalist too: its demand for markets, raw materials and labour to exploit does not stop at borders. Internationalism is about more than ‘not walking by on the other side of the street’, as Benn put it – it is supposed to be labour’s answer to capital’s global power.

Benn and Eagle’s understanding of internationalism betrays a deeply institutionalised understanding of Labour’s purpose. When Jeremy Corbyn and others on the Labour left oppose war, it is not just because they deem the case weak and the civilian casualties unjustified – it is also because they understand that ‘we’ will not be bombing Syria at all: the British state will be. For Benn, as for most other front bench Labour politicians over the past century, the Labour Party is part of the sensible establishment that runs the state. It is only under this assumption that it makes sense not only to maintain a nuclear deterrent and an interventionist foreign policy, but to establish it as a funding priority above schools and hospitals, even when the public oppose it.

None of this is to say that Benn, Eagle or Alan Johnson are Tories in disguise. But the battle for Labour’s foreign policy reveals a sharp ideological difference between a brand of establishment social democracy and a renewed political force to its left. In his speech supporting military action in Syria on Wednesday, Benn colonised language that rightly belongs to his radical political rivals, and, in distorting it, made it meaningless.


  • 3 December 2015 at 9:42pm
    streetsj says:
    Please forgive my stupidity but I don't understand what you mean when you say Corbyn et al oppose the war because they understand it is not "we" but the State who will be bombing Syria.

  • 3 December 2015 at 11:37pm
    suetonius says:
    I'm guessing that what he means by "we" is labor, the people. When the Lincoln brigades et al went to Spain, they weren't representing a state.

  • 4 December 2015 at 12:18am
    David Timoney says:
    Benn made three claims: Daesh are Fascist; the Labour party opposed Fascism in Spain; UK airstrikes were instrumental in stopping Daesh advancing on Baghdad.

    Daesh (or whatever you prefer to call them) are not Fascists. To use this term so loosely is to denude it of all meaning beyond “really bad”, to the point that Benn sounded like Neil from The Young Ones. Fascism is always fundamentally nationalist. Daesh are religious sectarians who reject the very concept of the nation state.

    Labour adopted a policy of non-intervention in Spain in 1936, much to the chagrin of the party rank and file who wanted military aid for the Republican government. As Mussolini and Hitler were busy arming Franco, this meant a de facto advantage to the Nationalists. The party changed the policy in October 1937, following pressure from the membership (achieved without Twitter "bullying"), but by then it was too late for the Republic.

    Benn claimed that airstrikes in Syria would be worthwhile because those conducted in Iraq had stopped Daesh short of Baghdad. Daesh stopped at the de facto border between the Sunni and Shia populations, which happens to lie to the west of Baghdad. They had no interest in going further as their aim was to be seen as the protector of Iraqi Sunnis against Shia persecution. UK airstrikes were irrelevant to this.

    • 7 December 2015 at 7:47pm
      Rob M says: @ David Timoney
      "Fascism is always fundamentally nationalist." Not always, no. A lot of post-war neo-Nazism has embraced a racial internationalism, disdaining nationalism as a barrier to white solidarity. As early as the late 40s, many fascist writings like Yockey's Imperium took the view that white supremacists owe their country nothing.

  • 4 December 2015 at 6:59am
    Fred Skolnik says:
    ISIS is not acting as the protector of Sunnis but as the promoter of its own brand of Sunnism. Religious wars are not conducted for anyone's welfare but in the name of God. ISIS will take as much as it can get and destroy whatever lies in its path, aiming to establish an Arab nation-state or caliphate whose religion is its own. This is precisely what the Arabs did in the seventh century. By its own testimony it wishes ultimately to wipe out all infidels and conquer the world.

  • 4 December 2015 at 11:42am
    Joshua K says:
    Throughout his career, the political commentariat and wider media have treated Hillary Benn as a non-entity, at best; until, that is, he starts singing their tune - whereupon he is lionised as a Churchillian figure standing up to hard-left bullies.

  • 4 December 2015 at 1:16pm
    MagnaCarter says:
    Hilary Benn's address to the Commons on Wednesday reminded me of Twelve Angry Men , both Sidney Lumet's version and Galton and Simpson's.

    The delivery was Henry Fonda, the content, Tony Hancock.

  • 4 December 2015 at 5:38pm
    Sebastian Knight says:
    'Benn and Eagle’s understanding of internationalism belies a deeply institutionalised understanding of Labour’s purpose.' Surely he means 'betrays', not 'belies'?

  • 5 December 2015 at 11:31am
    John Burns says:
    Amazing that such empty phrases from Hillary Benn should be greeted with praise. It is a mixed up world.

  • 5 December 2015 at 12:32pm
    RosieBrock says:
    It was the oratory that impressed I expect because there is a great hunger for a statesmanlike figure to rise up and lead the country - its nostaliga at play, a throwback to the kind of Churchillian-like politician that makes us feel we have stature in the world. Certainly that is what the House applauded -oratory and delivery can transform thin substance. Not everyone who applauded. It concerns me that no one, not the commentariat in the media, the intelligence services of the West, and certainly not the PM or Benn or Corbyn really understand the geo politics and history of the region. Decisions are being made based on limited knowledge and ignorance. Who the 70,000 local 'tribal' forces on the ground? That they are not a homogenous group is the only thing that is certain. However, it is probably true as Benn said that no one will listen to us in the diplomatic community if we did not involve ourselves with bombing. Yet we all know that bombing will increase the imminence of terrorist activity in the UK. Of course, after Paris, my emotional instinct was weep, wring my hands and want to kill the perpetrators. But refugees dying on beaches made me want to do the same to Assad Putin, and strangely Blair -all 'war criminals' in my view. It is Russian bombs that are principally destroying 600 civilians a week. To be honest, I do not know where to aim my fire and I think a lot of people feel this way.

  • 5 December 2015 at 8:32pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Well, yes, to invoke the romantic-heroic failure of the Spanish Civil War is sort of positing - positioning - oneself as part of heroic-historic lore, too, especially if one is a Benn or Foot.

    I did a special project for my "A" Level History on the Spanish Civil War, wondering why the poets went to shake their pens at the Stukas while trying to operate ancient Martini-Henry rifles.

    I asked my father why he didn't volunteer. He was slightly irritated and said that everyone knew there was a somewhat bigger affair around the corner.

    He was seven years in World War Two.

  • 7 December 2015 at 9:15pm says:
    Has anyone gone into the trouble of looking up if Hilary Benn's district didn't host a manufacturer of munitions of the kind it was reported there was an acute shortage on the Syrian front?

  • 15 December 2015 at 6:19pm
    A Mawani says:
    A true account that Mr. H Benn should read.

    "TUC and the Labour party’s leaders initially supported the controversial policy of Non-Intervention, whereby no arms would be sold to either side in Spain. This policy was backed by the Conservative-dominated British “National Government”, but more pertinently by the newly-elected French Popular Front government of the Socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum. The leaders used their “block votes” to secure large majorities for Non-Intervention at the TUC Congress in September 1936 and – less convincingly – at the Labour party conference in Edinburgh". "Despite a late flurry of enthusiasm for “Arms for Spain” at the TUC Congress in the autumn of 1938 the Civil War ended in late March 1939 with the defeat of the Republic".

    The Trades Union Congress and the Spanish Civil War.
    By Dr Tom Buchanan, Reader in History, Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, and Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.

    Apparently, when the Italian and German planes sunk a number ships carrying humanitarian aid from the British people to the Republicans, the Tories applauded in a frenzy at news

  • 15 December 2015 at 9:29pm
    Nandt1 says:
    Yes, of course, one can find all sorts of differences between the Spanish Civil War and the present situation with ISIL. This said, surely Mr. Benn raises questions that deserve answers. ISIS slaughters civilians for their religious beliefs, oppresses women, and is aggressively expansionist within the region, as well as attacking us within our own countries. What else do they have to do for Mr. Benn's critics to accept the need to stand up to this group?

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