Keep it comradely: what does ‘comrade’ mean, who uses the term and why?

Morgan Jones
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

At Labour conference this year, John Bercow – the Monday Club member turned long-serving Tory MP turned Speaker of the House turned alleged workplace bully turned Labour member – spoke at a fringe event. “Colleagues, or if I may be permitted to say, comrades,” he began. The audience laughed. I did not particularly find it funny, but it did prompt me to ask: what does it mean to be a comrade? Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to be the kind of person who calls others “comrade”? Why not sir, or madam, or colleague? Is it a laughing matter – and who is in on the joke?

Comrade comes from the Latin camera (room or vault), and its English meaning trickles down through French and Spanish words that indicate sharing rooms or barracks. Comrade – a person you share a house with. It’s an enjoyably direct origin for an often controversial term. 

To lay my cards on the table, I am reasonably sincere about calling people comrade. It has the utility of the specific. People I go canvassing with, or see at local party meetings, are not my colleagues: nobody is paying us for our rainy Sunday morning leaflet rounds. Only in the broadest, most Quakerish sense would I address this group of people as friends. Comrade, to me, usefully describes a particular relationship, and also carries with it a degree of emotional meaning.

The Labour Party exists to win elections – to be the parliamentary arm of the labour movement – but it is more than this, also. There is a reason for which Tory conference is essentially a ministerial showcase, while Labour conference is a major policy-making mechanism. What is best about the party comes out of trade unions and liberation struggles; things that are not just means to ends but communities in and of themselves, where people find meaning and agency. For an electoral party to be solipsistic to the point of sclerosis is a bad thing. Having an outward view does not preclude a sense of common identity, however.

As political theorist Jodi Dean put it: “Comrades are those you can count on. You share enough of a common ideology, enough of a commitment to common principles and goals, to do more than one off actions. Together you can fight the long fight.” A few years ago, I went to the memorial service of a Labour councillor who had passed away. A comment from one of the speakers that stuck in my mind was that she “was now part of the history of the future of our movement”. We are now 11 years out of power; it certainly feels like the long fight.

Of course, mine is not the only, nor necessarily the correct, position on ‘comrade’. It is often said (and who would sincerely argue?) that Labour is obsessed with itself, that we seek traitors where the right seeks allies, that we fight each other at the drop of a hat. We have committees on committees, acronyms on acronyms. We are uncomfortable when it is not about us. For some, “comrade” as a term is a verbal incarnation of our tendency to look not just inwards but also backwards; an antiquated term that indicates an antiquated party.

“Cultish”, “naff” and “Soviet” are some of the words that come up most frequently when I asked people why they didn’t like the term. It is also true to say that people who do not like the term often dislike it with real passion. This is surely in part because “comrade” has an undeniable factional flavour. There is a reason why Rosa Prince’s biography of the former Labour leader was titled “Comrade Corbyn”, and why The Economist greeted Corbyn’s ascent to leadership with an article headlined “Backwards, Comrades”. Politics is full of verbal indicators, little tics in speech that hint a person’s position. Whether you call people ‘comrade’ is indicative in the same way that who you call Trots is indicative (is it a generic dismissive term for the party’s left, or do you use it to refer to people with explicitly Trotskyist sympathies?).

The ‘comrade’ debate goes deeper than nomenclature and into how a person feels the party should relate to itself and the outside world. In a recent interview, Angela Rayner commented that “my political party is like my family”. I am quite sure that the average person on the street would find it a bit weird to call someone comrade; I am quite sure that the average person on the street acknowledges that you do not speak to your family in the same way you would speak to them.

But, of course, political parties are not quite families either. Wes Streeting was recently quoted as having told the shadow cabinet that Labour “should drag a sacred cow of our party to the town market place and slaughter it until we are up to our knees in blood”. While not a priority, I would think that “comrade” is one of the darlings that many from Streeting’s wing of the party might happily do away with in an attempt to make the average person on the street think we are a bit normal. Perhaps this would be right; perhaps those who insist on using “comrade” are simply alienating the general public.

Many of the people I asked about calling people comrade in advance of this article said that they did use the word, but usually in jest. These were members who had generally spent years in the party, had gone to their local meetings and slogged it out on the doorstep; people from my trade union branch, people who take their politics and their political home seriously. They are, in short, people I would consider comrades.

John Bercow is not someone I would consider a comrade. We cannot count on him; he is not in it for the long fight, even if his interests and those of the party might have aligned, allegedly (and, given the nature of his political career, probably temporarily). Political speech and belonging are complicated, often personal things, and whatever your stance on calling people comrade, a Tory grandee putting his feet up on the party’s internal culture sits ill.

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