Lesson for the Left in Ponomarev Visit

THE visit to Britain of Boris Ponomarev, like that of former KGB chief Alexander Shelepin last year, has been an unmitigated disaster for those who try to promote the human face of Soviet socialism

Beginning with the uproar in Parliament and ending with a bevy of cat-and-mouse demonstrations, Ponomarev was quite clearly shaken by the hostile reception given to him. In talks with Prime Minister Callaghan and Foreign Secretary Crosland, Ponomarev said that never before had he been subjected to such indignity. “Pravda” echoed his sentiments when it took the unusual step of mentioning the demonstrations, describing them as being the work of “hired noise makers from Zionist organisations and emigre rabble”.

AGAINST SUCH a background, the issue of human rights and the freedom of Jews to leave the USSR became almost an agenda item for nearly every discussion Ponomarev had. TUC leader Len Murray, however, was reported in “Pravda” as having said that “these groups did not represent the British working class”. When asked to comment, the international department of the TUC said that “Pravda” was entitled to its interpretation and it did not wish to “interfere in an issue between two newspapers”. The TUC’s embarrassment was quite transparent, to the extent that it equated the democratic British press and the state controlled “Pravda” as a means of avoiding direct comment.

This frame of mind—that of acting as neutral apologists—is one that dominates the thinking of many people within the Labour party and, unfortunately, many on the Left. It could be argued that by maintaining relations with an undemocratic body such as the Soviet Communist party, the British Labour movement at least has the opportunity to raise the question of human rights and Jewish emigration. From the other point of view, it debases the moral tenets of socialist democracy and trade unionism in the eyes of many. Labour MP Maurice Miller attacked such double standards, and condemned the invitation to the delegation in the first place.

He commented: “If we had a representative of the Vorster government coming to this country, there would be MPs and other people demonstrating everywhere the man appeared”.

Ian Mikardo, who took the chair at numerous commissions during the Brussels conference, told the press that the Russians were asked to send a delegation “and we can’t tell them who to send”. Very true: but if Mikardo, by implication, accepts that there is a diversity of viewpoints within the USSR, he must also accept that there is a similar lack of monolithic thought in other totalitarian countries—states with whom the TUC has no direct relations because of their well-known and documented abuse of human rights.

Mikardo, Murray and many others people who care about human dignity — would not find themselves in such a difficult position if they had really thought out their position vis-a-vis relations with anti-socialist bodies in the Eastern bloc.

PONOMAREV’S VISIT was, in any case, probably a float for Brezhnev; a test to determine the temperature of the political water. Since the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s visits to the USSR to sign trade agreements, the Soviet leader has had an open invitation to visit this country. With the accession of James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher to the thrones of their respective parties, relations with the Soviet Union have become noticeably cooler and sometimes openly hostile. It was significant therefore that Ponomarev made it clear to Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland that the atmosphere was not right for an early visit from Brezhnev.

Jewish Observer 5 November 1976

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