Twitter can be a place where the left builds, or goes to die

Owen Jones
8 min readAug 23, 2020
this is not healthy

Here’s what Twitter could be for the left. It could be a means to reach new audiences, to organise, to build pressure on the Labour leadership, to link together campaigns, to share ideas and strategies.

Or it could be an angry and ever diminishing echo chamber, where blind fury is a substitute for strategy, where there’s fierce competition over the fieriest denunciations about how crap everyone and everything is, where outlandish conspiracy theories can be shared, and where traitors can be vilified and their malign motives exposed.

In other words, Twitter can be where the left goes to die, not with a bang, but with long, miserable, enraged wail.

The reason Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership contest with a landslide majority is because he won over a huge chunk of those who voted for Corbyn in 2015 and 2016. In the deputy leadership election, the one candidate, Richard Burgon — a thoroughly decent, principled and unfairly maligned man — who stood on an unapologetically continuity Corbynite platform secured 17.3% of the vote in the first round.

A Labour left which wished to rebuild power and influence within the party would seek, at the very least, to persuade those who have formally left its ranks (let alone the wider public). These are people who largely hold Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership in very high self-esteem, though have their criticisms, and have not changed their minds on key policy issues.

There is a very loud and interconnected Twitter bubble whose leading figures claim to be “the left”, but is in fact a very small subculture of the left. This is by no means a phenomenon which is exclusive to the left. There is a similar Twitter bubble of what are sometimes called “aggro-centrists” — self-described “centrists” with a pathological and disturbing obsession with the left, who they loathe infinitely more than they do the far right, and who are awash with toxic rhetoric, outright abuse, often straightforward bigotry, and conspiratorial nonsense.

Last Friday, I found myself trending for the 4,635th time, which is usually caused by living rent free in the heads of the most tedious people in earth, provoked by outlandish statements such as people who can afford cleaners should pay for them to stay home during a pandemic.

This time, it was caused by challenged a tweet by Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the editor of ‘The Canary’. Mendoza had listed three slogans: Vote Leave’s ‘Get Brexit done’, Boris Johnson’s ‘Build, build, build’, and Keir Starmer’s ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’.

As the punchline to satirise these three slogans, including Labour’s own offering, she used ‘Arbeit macht frei’, known exclusively as the signature Nazi slogan of the Holocaust, most notable for being hung over the gates of the Auschwitz extermination camp, 87% of whose victims were Jews. To be very clear. ‘Arbeit macht frei’ has no other meaning in the popular imagination except through its association with the mass slaughter of six million Jews, as well as others deemed undesirable by Nazi genocidal ideology. There is no other reason for anyone to mention it, and that is the only reason it was mentioned.

Mendoza’s tweet caused hurt and distress to many Jews who saw it as using the mass murder of their people as a punchline to ridicule Tory, Labour and Brexit slogans, belittling the horror of the industrialised extermination of many millions, including their own relatives: ‘Arbeit macht frei’ was one of the last things some of them saw before they were gassed and their possessions pillaged from their bodies before they were incinerated. Simply seeing the phrase is a cause of genuine pain for many Jews. Some left-wing Jews who voted for Corbyn twice do not believe the left is a safe space for Jews, a profoundly painful conversation I have had over and over again. This is beyond shameful which is why, as a left-wing commentator with a platform, I pushed back on Mendoza’s tweet to show that this discourse is not unchallenged on the left.

As well as Jewish distress, just consider this. This supposedly left-wing commentator thinks it is valid to draw comparisons between the rhetoric not just of Vote Leave and the Conservative party, but the Labour leadership, with the Holocaust and the extermination of millions of people. How do people who speak like this think this sort of rhetoric looks to people outside of their bubbles? Do they not realise that the average punter, including those sympathetic to broadly sympathetic to left-wing ideas, look at this and think “this is completely unhinged and I want nothing to do with any movement that speaks like this”?

Here’s another thing. It’s often said that antisemitism is used to shut down criticisms of Israel’s brutal occupation. This is sometimes the case: anyone with a platform who expresses solidarity with Palestinian freedom knows this to be the case. Yet it is so striking that, on so many of these occasions, the hurt caused to Jews has nothing to do with Palestine at all. Here is a case in point.

It is possible to passionately confront the horrendous injustices of Tory rule, and to criticise the Labour leadership, without causing hurt and distress to Jewish people by invoking the mass gassing of the Holocaust. What a thing to have to write.

The result of challenging Mendoza’s awful tweet was a firestorm: that I’m a centrist or a straightforward Tory, a traitor, a careerist, a hater of socialism, someone who wants to purge anti-fascists from the left (certainly news to the fascists who relentlessly target me), that I’m driven by wanting to keep media spots and that I crave the approval of media types (which is certainly news to them). And so on and so forth.

Much of the response was straightforward gaslighting. Apparently Mendoza was actually drawing a comparison between Tory treatment of disabled people and the Nazi murder of disabled people: not only is the former bad enough on its own terms without invoking Nazi mass murder, Mendoza’s tweet had nothing to do with disabled people at all. Others suggested it was actually about the reactionary tradition of the glorification of work, giving comments by Iain Duncan Smith as an example. Again, using the German phrase ARBEIT MACHT FREI — which can be traced to a 1873 novel by German writer Lorezn Diefenbach, a detail only notable for looking back to the origin of a flagship Nazi slogan — is deliberately bringing up the physical extermination of millions in the Holocaust, nothing else, the end.

For those who do not understand, I strongly recommend reading this thread by SOAS academic Yair Wallach:

Those who acted as apologists for this tweet are cranks. I make no excuses for using this word, whose dictionary definition is “an eccentric person, especially one who is obsessed by a particular subject”. Some then claimed that “crank” itself was a term linked to the Nazis and the Holocaust, because the word “crank” can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and the German word “krank” evolved from the same word, and the Nazis had a division called the “Gemeinnützige Krankentransport” which transported disabled people to be eterminated, which elides over the fact they are not only completely different words, but “krank” in German means “ill”, has no Nazi connotations, indeed ‘krankenhaus’ means ‘hospital’, ‘krankentransport’ means ambulance and oh my word why am I still typing this.

We don’t need to have these discussions. We don’t have to have them. We should be confronting Tory injustice and challenging the Labour leadership, too. There is no need to say things which cause so much distress and hurt to Jewish people to get retweets and likes when ridiculing Labour or Tory slogans. There’s no need to say things which make the average punter who the left is trying to appeal to want to run several miles away from.

There are several things at play with some on the left and twitter. What happened in December 2019 was a genuine trauma for most of those who invested so much hope and energy into the Corbyn project. I more than identify: Labour’s catastrophic defeat was, for me, a worse bereavement than losing my own father. Some now feel there is no hope and are acting like they want the whole world to burn. Nihilism has supplanted strategy. Some want to find anyone and everyone to blame on the left. The likes of John McDonnell — a torchbearer for socialism in the political wilderness — are now castigated as impure. Others are understandably angry about being relentlessly vilified not just by the right-wing media, but by liberals, too. Some, frankly, are driven by conspiracism: that rather than wanting, above all else, to confront structural injustices inherent to capitalism by collective means, they believe in shadow individuals pulling strings. Those malign individuals don’t just exist on the right, they include individuals like myself who are secretly driven by seeking profile and money: that somehow I’ve been bought or, according to some, blackmailed.

None of this is healthy or productive. It’s certainly cementing an identity on twitter, but not one most want to be part of. It’s giving up on appealing to those who voted for Corbyn twice and then for Starmer, let alone any wider audience. It’ll get likes and retweets from a certain set, and that’s your lot. No issue or cause is advanced, no movement is boosted, no form of oppression or exploitation is overcome; but many are repelled and repulsed, and for what? Why die on these hills?

A final word. There is a recurring claim, which I’ve had ever since I’ve had a platform, that here is another sign I’m going to sell out, tread the cliched path of the leftist who becomes a rightwing bore. I called myself a socialist before my age was in two digits. I marched against the Iraq war over a dozen times. My first job, from 2005 to 2008, was working for John McDonnell when the Labour left were as marginalised as they’d ever been, including helping to run his doomed leadership campaign (he remains Labour’s lost leader, but for another time). Before 2015, through my books, columns and media appearances — tiny violin time — I was almost entirely isolated as a public advocate for socialist ideas when it was fucking unpopular and marginalised. I campaigned for Corbyn from the moment he stood for leader, when his odds of winning were 200–1, and spent that summer on TV, radio, on social media, in videos, leadership rallies, arguing the case for him. I voted for him twice. I threw my heart and soul in to the 2017 and 2019 general elections, made the case for Corbyn’s leadership and rebutted absurd and often unhinged attacks on god knows how many occasions, and have been vilified as a result (please do forgive the violins). Along with a minority of the Labour membership, I voted for Rebecca Long-Bailey, just as I voted for Diane Abbott in 2010, and just as I would vote for any left-wing candidate. I’ll always wish Labour well while advocating to push it leftwards. Those hoping for a rightwing conversion — strikingly from a specific wing of the left — are always going to be horrendously disappointed.

That’s my self-indulgence over. Again, what is twitter for? There is so much to pressure the Labour leadership over — see the joint initiative between Momentum, Open Labour and the Labour Campaign for Free Movement. Starmer won on the basis of ‘10 Pledges’ in which he committed to policy red lines the left fought for in the wilderness. Twitter can be a tool to campaign, build alliances, amplify policies and the lived experiences of those suffering under Tory rule, and to pressure Labour to offer an inspiring and coherent alternative. But some wish to retreat into an angry, bitter, unforgiving, conspiratorial and profoundly unattractive echo chamber that will set the cause of socialism back, not advance it. We either build, or we die.

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Owen Jones

Author of 'The Establishment' and 'Chavs', Socialist, Guardian columnist. Losing my Northern accent. My views etc... https://www.youtube.com/c/OwenJonesTalks