The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, February 29, 2004
1 comments | Permanent link to this post

Taking no prisoners

Juan Cole covers a lot of ground in a many-sided examination of issues raised by Mel Gibson's splatter movie:
The phenomenon of Mel Gibson's The Passion, about the death of Jesus of Nazareth, has provoked a lively debate about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Historians are well aware that medieval passion plays (which shared the sado-masochistic themes of Gibson's movie) often resulted in attacks on Jews. The concern of American Jewish leaders is therefore entirely valid.
Cole then goes on to look at this from several unexpected angles.

Comments on De Soto

Several readers have been kind enough to respond to my request for comments on Hernando de Soto's campaign to reform property law in the so-called Third World. The comments have been interesting, informed, and diverse. Here they are, without further comment.

Svein Olav Nyberg:
De Soto: He seems to be on to a real problem and a real solution. I have seen articles elsewhere - especially The Economist, which I regard as a very good newspaper regardless of stance - where such issues have been highlighted; sub-equatorial Africa suffers a lot from the problems of property that is not property, property that stops being yours when you move off the land. But it would probably be good to balance that with your own experience: When property stays your own when you move off the land, how do you draw the land to massive absentee landownership? I think such concerns would be good to throw into the mix if a new concept of property rights is in the creation around the planet.

David O'Kane:
With regards to whether or not De Soto has a point when he advocates the extension of private property rights to the 'wretched of the earth'. Does he really have a point? Yes and no - mainly no, I'd say from what I know about Africa land tenure
and land reform anyway.
Briefly: the idea that the state (or the elite group which controls it) is able (or even willing) to wave a magic wand and change various local types of indigenous land tenure betrays a fundamental ignorance of how African land tenure works.
Writing forty years ago, Paul Bohannon noted that while western systems of property are centred around relations between individuals and the objects, things they own as property, African systems of land ownership are centred around the relations between individuals and the other individual members of their particular social group. This group may be a lineage, a clan or a village community, but it's generally groups, not individuals who are the ultimate land owning bodies in most African societies. (This isn't 'primitive communism' by the way - it's better considered as resting on a dialectical relationship between the individual and the group). What that means is that it would be a lot harder than people might think to bring about a move to individualism in African property.
Which is not to say that there haven't been attempts - with varying degrees of success - to introduce individualised private property into Africa. The longest running such attempt has been in Kenya. The British colonial authorities started the land reform programme in the 1950s, and it was taken over by the post-colonial state and continues to this day. The results have been mixed. In most cases that I'm aware, local systems of tenure have persisted behind the mask of the new individualised system, and the expected increases in agricultural production have been mixed. In some areas the extension of individual property did bring about an increase in agricultural production, but in others the increased production pre-dated the reform.
I know the Kenya case from the work of other anthropologists and development experts (not that I'd yet claim to be an expert myself, of course), but I did get to see some of the Eritrean case at first hand. The Eritrean government has been widely criticised for declaring the nationalisation of the land in 1994. Many of those criticisms are well founded - especially the land proclamation's apparent neglect of Eritrea's pastoralist population - but I think it was still preferable to an attempt at 'shock therapy' style privatisation of the land. While a lot of the peasants I met were suspicious of the government's motives in declaring land nationalisation, they were all of the opinion that it would be utterly wrong to sell or trade the land of the village (they held their land under the diessa system, where land is owned by the village as a whole). I'm of the opinion that attempted privatisation would have only triggered a social and political crisis in the Eritrean countryside, which would have hindered, not helped, the country's development.
Now it may be that De Soto's book (which I've not yet read) may deal with problems like this). But seeing the way it's used in support of blithe assumptions like those in the link you posted, I'm a bit wary of its prescriptions. Capitalism's a nice idea in theory, but it'll never work in practice. As for the Egyptian reform, I saw an analysis of it a couple of years ago which argued that it was likely to lead the impoverishment of a great many Egyptian peasants - which would be unlikely to help Egypt's economic situation, or its political situation.
I hope the above is some use (as you can imagine, I can bang on about this for hours).

Jim K:
I've heard something of De Soto's views, and read in "The Other Path" (it's a long book, with detailed data and lots of tables). The Forbes article is somewhat over the top, and I think they do De Soto's ideas a disservice by presenting them as a formula for jump-starting utopia. Rather, they would do in many countries what the "bourgeois revolutions" of the 18th and 19th centuries did in the West: simplified and streamlined commercial codes and laws out of their medievlal and byzantine complexity (which very much serves the local elites and their hangers-on). There's a picture in "The Other Path" that shows De Soto and his assistance showing the sheer physical extent of the existing Peruvian regulations that need to be satisfied to set up a business legitimately: it came to a printout over 100 feet long, printed in small type! In short, from what I've seen De Soto's ideas are the real thing. They'd be hell to put in place though, in the face of the elite's objections (and they will object).

Josh Buermann:
His major project for 'legalizing capitalism' in Peru was the COFOPRI program, which has given over a million titles of publically held land to already existing urban land invasions around Lima and elsewhere in the past five years or so. It's rural projects were somewhat more limited, but essentially it's a voluntary land reform program that De Soto managed to sell to the World Bank, among others. So far as I can tell it's the first progressive policy to be embraced by the neoliberals since they spawned out of the general abandonment of progressive policies. It's only snake oil if you believe all the promises.

Ric Locke:
Here in the U.S., among Libertarians, de Soto is becoming fairly well known, and somewhat celebrated. He is actually causing something of a stir in Latin America, as well.

De Soto's thesis is a bit bigger than what you describe. Roughly summarized, it is that, in total, the assets of the "ordinary people," from shopkeepers and small-business providers down to workmen's houses, vastly exceed the assets of the State-owned and Big Business entities, and that
countries are understating their total wealth and unecessarily restricting their access to capital by failing to provide mechanisms by which those assets could be protected and recognized. His thoughts were instrumental in convincing Mexico to dismantle the _ejido_ system (roughly a cross between kibbutzim and feudal holdings) and begin issuing land titles, a process which is under way but nowhere near completion.

By repute, his work is best read in the original Spanish. I wouldn't know; I'm not at all facile in Spanish. I have read _The Mystery of Capital_ in English translation, and found it unfortunately somewhat pedestrian, which tends to obscure the ideas. Recommended anyway, though.

Many thanks to all who wrote.
1 comments | Permanent link to this post

Women's equality in Iraq

Juan Cole reports a welcome defeat for reaction in Iraq:
Raghida Dergham reports in al-Hayat that the representatives on the Interim Governing Council of the Islamist tendency suffered a political defeat on Friday when the IGC abrogated Directive 137, which it had issued in late December, and which put personal status law in the jurisdiction of religious courts. If implemented, the order would have abrogated the uniform civil personal status law of 1959.

An informed source reported to Dergham that IGC member Raja' al-Khuza'i, a maternity physician who missed the first vote, was the one who insisted that the directive be reconsidered in light of the angry public response to it. (Many women's groups had mounted protests).

One of the organisers of these protests, the communist and women's liberationist Yanar Mohammed, has received a second credible death threat from an Islamist militia group. You can show support for her here.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Red granite and black diorite, with labradorite crystals

A voice from Lenin's Tomb takes issue with my recent dissing of the fledgling British left political formation, Respect.

Here are what I think are the main points:
I can't really account in my mind for your attack on the Respect Coalition, and since the only reasons you give in your blog are those of other authors, I suppose I'll have to deal with those.

"All the attempts to build a new alternative to the Labour Party, as history has shown, will come to nothing. Various attempts, of an ultra-left or opportunist variety (they are head and tail of the same coin), all ended in shipwreck. The different sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement have been attempting to build the revolutionary alternative to Labour for decades and achieved nothing." (Rob Sewell).

I suppose 'history' shows us a lot of things, but I wonder if Sewell is serious in suggesting that the Labour Party could never be supplanted by another political force. Is 'history' that unyeilding? Have sweeping changes much more radical than this never occurred? Did not the foundation of the Labour Party itself involve precisely a split with the political giant of the 19th Century?
Indeed it did, but in the first place there was rather more than one MP, a couple of trade union leaders, a film director, a liberal journalist, a Muslim antiwar activist and a few socialist sects behind the Labour Representation Committee. In the second place - as the very name of the LRC reminds us - it was based on the painful discovery that the wage-earning class had independent interests of its own, interests which weren't to be subsumed, and couldn't be satisfied, within a coalition of progressive forces. The foundation of the Labour Party was a break, as you correctly say, with Liberalism, the political giant of the nineteenth century. However inadequate and partial that break was, it meant that the British working class was standing on its own feet and charting its own course for the first time since Chartism.

What does Respect represent, politically? A step back to the very 'unity coalition' that the LRC stepped away from: back to radical liberalism with trade union support, and away from the independent representation of labour.
And by the same token, if 'sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement' have so far achieved nothing, isn't it perhaps time to start achieving something? Isn't that what the SSP has been doing? Isn't that the idea behind trying to unite the radical, Green, reformist and revolutionary left? If Sewell will insist that George Galloway is an opportunist or ultra-leftist, will he honestly say the same of Salma Yaqoob or George Monbiot? And why is it essential at every point for him to imply that noone could ever wish to form an alternative to the Labour Party for any but the most mercenary or fanatical reasons? Given the present conduct and performance of the Labour Party, could not a reasonable case be made for a new alternative?
Given the conduct and performance of the Labour Party for its entire existence, a reasonable case could be made for a new alternative at any point in the past hundred years. The question is how that can be done, and whether it can be done by posing as a mass electoral alternative to Labour. The websites where you'll find the writings of Rob Sewell and Bob Pitt contain some useful information and analysis on these points.

The SSP has achieved much, though not as much as it thinks. But Respect is doing something different. The SSP, whatever else may be said about it, stands openly and proudly for a democratic socialist transformation of society. Respect doesn't. That's why it could get the support of the honestly non-socialist liberal George Monbiot - who has, incidentally, resigned because Respect plans to stand against the (actually more radical) Greens, and he couldn't see a principled difference between Respect and the Greens. If you're going to stand against Labour, for heaven's sake at least stand on your own programme and measure the support for it, popularise it, get into arguments, try to change minds and stir things up a bit. That's what the SSP does. Don't trim your programme - don't argue against what you believe in - for the sake of imagined temporary popularity.
The Labour Party as presently constituted neither has the desire nor the ability to attract the kind of membership capable of pushing it in a different direction. And the direction it is headed in at the moment is so transparent, it requires wilfull blindness to miss it. At the last Labour conference, the membership backed the leadership on every key question, never failing to back it by less than two to one, usually by three to one. They clapped and cheered as every vile shibboleth of the right was paraded in New Labour clothing (well, naked then).

So, why the need to forever cling to this party? Well, Sewell would answer:

"On the contrary, forces are already gathering within the trade unions to take back the Labour Party for the working class. In the coming period, the edifice of Blairism will come crashing down. The Labour Party will take a sharp turn to the left as in the 1970s (after decades of rightwing domination) as the unions press for working class policies."

Such self-delusion is hard to digest, let alone reckon with. The Labour Party would rather lose a key union sponsor than move to the left! They would rather see the RMT take their money and support to the SSP and the Respect Coalition! They would rather force unpopular policies through parliament and cut huge swathes off their vote than move to the left! (Recall also, comrades, that Labour's "left turn" during the 1970s resulted in the 'social contract', monetarism, public spending cuts, the rise of fascism, and the election of Margaret Thatcher. All hail Labour's "left turn"!)
This is an astonishing statement. On your own account, a third or a quarter of even the heavily filtered Party conference votes against the leadership on key questions. And, to take up an aspect that you miss, the present Labour government has had more and bigger rebellions in its own ranks than any government for the past century and a half:

This government has seen the biggest MPs’ revolts since the mid-19th century. Two Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, are far more rebellious than any others, but by September 2003 thirty MPs had voted against the government on over half the contentious issues in parliament.

To compare: the 1964-66 Labour government had no parliamentary revolts at all in its first session. The 1945 government had only ten. The 1997 Blair government had 16. This 2001 Blair government had 76 in its first session, and had had 141 by the end of 2003.

And all this tells us that Labour will never again move to the left?

But even if it did move to the left, you 'remind' us, that would only help the right - the shift to the left in the 70s 'resulted in' the victory of the right in the Labour Party, and then by the Tories! No, my Leninist friend, that was how the shift to the left - first in society, then in the unions and the Labour Party - was fought and defeated. That the left's own weaknesses were part of the reason for their defeat is incontestable, but that's another matter. You might as well say that the founding of the Communist Party, an independent party to the left of Labour, in the 1920s resulted in the formation of the National Government and the rise of the Blackshirts.

The rest of the post deals with Bob Pitt's weary argument that we've seen it all before, and deals with it by saying that this time it's different.

That's what they say, every fucking time.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Monday, February 23, 2004

Where did that come from?

Sometimes the only way to find out what you think is to say it. Sometimes you surprise yourself. After a day or two of thinking over my angry post on Stalinism, I have to say that it's surprised me. I'd had no idea that my confused and ambivalent attitude to Stalinism was all along rooted in nothing but the crassest British nationalism. It has nothing to do with Trotskyism, or indeed with Marxism, the most basic elements of which must in my case have gone in one ear and out the other.

I could go through the post and try to disentangle it, but there would be very little point. Sometimes you just have to start again from the beginning.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Legalising Capitalism

The Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto, in The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital, makes an interesting case that many people in the underdeveloped world don't have the legal right to what is undoubtedly their property, and therefore don't have access to a whole lot of possibilities of using their property to develop their business. He is actually doing something about it by helping in the development of legal codes that recognise the property of the hitherto extra-legal population.

There's a slightly breathless article about its application to Egypt here.

It'll be fascinating to see how this pans out. I'd be interested to hear any informed opinions on it, too. Is De Soto on to something big, or is this all just snake oil?
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Open Letter to an Open Enemy

Give me back the Berlin Wall
give me Stalin and St. Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.

Leonard Cohen, The Future, 1992

I've written novels which make frequent passing reference to the Soviet Union, Lenin, Trotsky, and communism. These references, however critical, are never wholly condemnatory. I've been a member, albeit a bad one, of Trotskyist sects and of the Communist Party. I'm still a socialist, albeit a bad one. I don't regard this as equivalent to having been a Nazi, or still being a fascist. There are some who say it is. Not even they believe it. They'll say: 'Hitler was a socialist!' and think they've made a point. They don't say: 'Stalin was a socialist!' and think they've made a point.

This was written in anger, in response to a former opponent who has called me the moral equivalent of a Holocaust denier, but I'll let it stand:

My reference to 'the great scandal' of Lenin was not meant as a criticism of Lenin. I do not regard Lenin as a mass murderer, any more than I regard Cromwell, William of Orange, Robespierre, Napoleon, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Churchill as mass murderers.

The word 'kulak' is in no way equivalent to 'untermenshch': 'kulak' means, literally, 'fist', and descriptively 'rich peasant'. 'Untermensch' means 'sub-human'. Even used pejoratively, 'kulak' is a million miles from 'untermensch'. Nevertheless, I'll not defend my indefensibly flippant use of it, albeit in a clearly over-the-top rant.

I find your parallel world argument as ignorant as it is offensive. You have studied the intellectual precursors of fascism, but you show no evidence of having more than glanced at those of communism. The relationship between Marxism and 'actually existing socialism' is not at all like that between the proto-fascists and 'actually existing fascism'. Fascism was not a good idea badly implemented, or implemented in heinously inclement conditions. Fascism was a bad idea well implemented, in (for it) ideal conditions. It made vile promises, most of which it kept. And in the world I live in, 'actually existing fascism' has its respectable dupes and defenders. They are called, and rightly call themselves, conservatives and libertarians.

But that's not the main point. I wholly reject the premises of your argument: that Stalin was comparable to Hitler, that the Ukraine famine (or the many other Stalinist and communist crimes) was a crime comparable to the Holocaust, and that people who misguidedly minimise or defend the terror under Stalin are comparable to Holocaust deniers. In fact, I would claim that this position is itself the subtle and respectable face of Holocaust denial: Holocaust relativisation. 'So Hitler killed six million? Stalin killed sixty (or forty, or twenty) million!' It's the great lie of our time, conclusively refuted by the Soviet archives - though the truth, God knows, is horrifying enough. To tell you the truth, I am personally more anguished by the raw numbers from the archives than by the many speculative and wildly inflated figures I have read over the years. I'm not, however, going to argue over numbers or details.

Here is a statistically insignificant personal detail. Of the five or six Jews I happen to know personally, three or four have huge gaps in their families - blood-lines that ended in German-occupied Poland. I by chance know one Russian personally, a man of my own age. He is a liberal, never a communist, a man who went to the barricades for Yeltsin in 1993. He does not remember the Soviet Union in his own lifetime as a regime of horror. Far from it: 'Brezhnev was - what do you call it? Yes - an enlightened despot. Not totalitarian!'

And before his lifetime?

His wife's mother was deported to Kazakhstan as a kulak. 'They were dumped on the steppe with nothing,' my friend said. 'Nobody cared if you lived or died - better that you died. But they built a place to live from nothing. And you know what she says? She remembers it as a good time, all of us from all over the Soviet Union working together ...'

Show me a Jew who remembers the Holocaust like that. The great Israeli civil libertarian Israel Shahak called Solzhenitsyn practically a Nazi for claiming Stalin's labour camps were like Hitler's death camps. Nicolas Werth, a contributor to The Black Book of Communism, flatly stated: 'Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union.'

I will admit to one hatred: for the Germans of the wartime generations. For them I have no pity whatsoever. Dresden, Hamburg, the expulsions, the camps emptied of Jews and filled with Germans after the war? Cry me a river. A Jewish pacifist friend of mine remarked recently that she'd heard a radio programme about the sufferings and mass deaths of the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after the war. She switched it off, she couldn't bear to listen to it - not because she was moved by their suffering, but because she vehemently rejected any appeal for sympathy with them. And I agree with her. Another Jewish friend, twenty-three years ago, so hated and feared 'the Polacks' that she was eager to march against Solidarnosc. And I agreed with her. I still do, [that is, I still restrospectively sympathise with her fears and my own suspicions, wrong though they were] for all that I have sincerely given a warm description of what I saw in post-counter-revolution Poland, and a sympathetic account of conversations with counter-revolutionary Poles ('I had seen a better world'). But still.

I'm shocked and a little ashamed that you've so misunderstood my position. I've never concealed it, and have often enough stated or implied it.

I've often enough pointed out that there were Marxists and other socialists who opposed Lenin, and others who opposed Stalin, and others (including myself, back in the day) who opposed his successors, and that they did so (contrary to your endlessly reiterated - no matter how often corrected - false assertions) at the time and not only after the fact. I've often enough pointed out that, on an arguably Marxian definition of socialism, the Soviet Union and the other Communist-ruled countries weren't socialist. And that even if they were in some sense socialist, the undemocratic means by which they were established had a great deal to do with their subsequent dictatorial character. 'Socialism' with an always-revocable popular mandate in a democratic state and developed society could well be very different from 'socialism' in a one-party state and a backward and shattered society. I've often enough made bitter reference to the bloodier epochs or grubbier features of these societies, in both my fiction and in my writing on the Net. I've often enough criticised and lampooned socialism and communism, real and imagined, as well as imagining other forms of socialism and communism.

But I've never concealed my view, and stated it often but evidently not often enough, that in the Russian Civil War and in the Second World War, I am glad the side that won did win. I am willing to stand by everything that was necessary for these victories. In the Russian Civil War, given the choice between the Reds and the Whites, I take the Red side. And given the situation that the Soviet Union faced from the end of the twenties, I side with the basic choice of industrialization and collectivization. Furthermore, given that treason and capitulation had their partisans, as they did and must have done, I agree that they had to be crushed.

Given that basic choice, blunders and crimes on a horrendous scale were inevitable. That does not mean they were excusable. 'It is written that offences must come, but woe unto him from whom they come.' I've held this view for about thirty years, whatever the shifts in my mere opinions about socialism. I have said that even in an anarcho-capitalist Galaxy, there could be statues of Stalin under other suns. I have a very critical view about socialism, to say nothing of Leninism and Stalinism, but I have a great love for the Soviet Union. This is not revisionism. This is mainstream historical orthodoxy. This not ideology. This is elementary British, Soviet and European patriotism - and American too, did you but know it. My father hated Communism, and was deeply distressed at my identification with even a critical communism, but he remembered with pride hearing a sermon of thanks after Stalingrad, and he counted among his friends a deacon who in my hearing recalled without regret a massacre of German prisoners by the Yugoslav Communist partisans he had parachuted in to help. I am not going to spit on the Red soldiers' and Red partisans' graves for the sake of 'civil discourse' with you or anybody else.

For what was the situation the rulers of the Soviet Union faced at the end of the twenties? The peoples of the Soviet Union were the 'untermenschen' marked for extermination and enslavement. They were for the most part backward and ignorant peasants. In modern warfare they had not a chance in hell. Not only Hitler, but significant and powerful sections of the German ruling class, saw the former Russian empire as Germany's future colonial empire and 'lebensraum'. And the rulers of the other empires, the good liberal democratic colonial empires, were only too keen to point the Germans in that direction, and away from their own. (That's why I hate the Tories, by the way: for most them it was class before country, every time, and for many of them it still is. Well then: 'It will go hard but I will better the instruction.' Class before country.)

The rulers of the Soviet Union, that empire of untermenschen facing extermination or enslavement, knew what was coming. They knew that, in a decade or less, an army from the future would fill their horizon with a storm of steel. There was no way of avoiding it. There was no way of preparing for it without the most horrendous efforts, the most drastic expedients, to drive and dragoon their empire into the twentieth century. As I've said elsewhere, they had to beat their ploughboys into swordsmen. And if they chose that, there would be those who would flinch, those who would panic, those who would revolt and those who would betray. There was no way of knowing in advance who these might be. There was no benefit of the doubt to be given doubters. One slip could be fatal. There was not an inch to be given. The costs would be horrific. The price was madness. The reward was infamy. But it was that - or death.

As Stalin said in 1931:

'We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.'

Everything that was defensible in Stalinism, and everything I would defend about the Soviet Union, is in these three sentences. Everything else was negotiable, was debatable, could have been done otherwise, can be criticised, denounced, condemned. And I have done so often enough, but not enough to satisfy you and your ilk. Nothing that I say ever would be, and please God it never will.

[Afterword: the above piece shocked me almost as soon as I had posted it, and gave rise to some painful reflections. It is confused and wrong. Please allow me some time to sort this mess out.]
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Socialists diss RESPECT

So the other day over dinner I say to Mrs Early, 'What do you think of Respect: The Unity Coalition?' And she says 'What?' and I say, 'Exactly.' A bit later in the conversation she says, 'Oh God, the SWP ...'

She's not the only one:

Rob Sewell writes:
With the media frenzy over tuition fees and the Hutton report, you can be forgiven for not noticing the launch in the same week of a new British political party called simply RESPECT.

The launching of RESPECT, also known as the Unity Coalition, was the brainchild of a layer of people disillusioned with Blair who wanted to form a left alternative to New Labour. The new party, if you can call it a party, has the backing of the Muslim Association of Britain, the Socialist Alliance, Socialist Workers Party and the Stop the War Coalition. It also has the support of film director Ken Loach, author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot and expelled Labour MP George Galloway.


All the attempts to build a new alternative to the Labour Party, as history has shown, will come to nothing. Various attempts, of an ultra-left or opportunist variety (they are head and tail of the same coin), all ended in shipwreck. The different sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement have been attempting to build the revolutionary alternative to Labour for decades and achieved nothing. That is why, having burned their fingers, they jump from ultra-leftism to opportunism and back again. Why should this venture be any different? It will not.

Despite the fact that it has a shallow programme that does not go beyond the framework of capitalism will not save it. On the contrary, forces are already gathering within the trade unions to take back the Labour Party for the working class. In the coming period, the edifice of Blairism will come crashing down. The Labour Party will take a sharp turn to the left as in the 1970s (after decades of rightwing domination) as the unions press for working class policies. All the sects, including RESPECT, will be left with their mouths open.


While initiatives like RESPECT can pick up a few disgruntled votes here and there, they will never attain a mass base or be able to break the hold of the Labour Party, or Blairism, from the outside. They are whistling in the wind. Only by organising a struggle, with the rest of the trade union movement, within the mass organisations of the working class, can Blairism be defeated and the Tory carpetbaggers driven out. All other routes are doomed to fail.

Bob Pitt adds:
Of course, there were a few sceptics present at the meeting - this writer for one - who experienced the weary feeling that we had seen it all before, having sat through almost identical rallies organised first by the Socialist Labour Party and then by the Socialist Alliance. There we had heard the same emotional denunciations of Blairism, at the expense of any objective assessment of the relationship of forces within the labour movement or the level of political consciousness among working people, and the same confident but baseless predictions that the new political formation would attract widespread popular support. Both these previous attempts at launching an electoral alternative to Labour were dismal failures. But instead of facing reality and drawing the necessary political conclusions, the anti-Labour left seems intent on going through the same pointless exercise over and over again, each time in an only marginally different form. By the end of the Friends House rally I was beginning to feel as though I was trapped in far left version of Groundhog Day. George Santayana’s observation that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it had never seemed more apposite.

Speaking for myself, I'm gobsmacked at what the SWP is up to these days. I mean, I know they used to go in for opportunist stunts, but this one takes the biscuit. It's like a Popular Front without the popularity. RESPECT is such a stupid project that I find it hard to believe there won't be a revolt by members who remember what Marxism is. I have too much respect for some of the SWP members I know and have known to think they're happy with it.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Monday, February 16, 2004

The Future and it Works

The Scottish Nationalist/Stalinist (now there's a surprise) poet Hugh MacDiarmid famously and foolishly said he would kill a million men for one glorious lyric. What he should have said, if he had really got this communism thing clear in his head, was that a million glorious lyrics were not worth the life of one man. (Arguable, given the Glory that was Greece and all that, but a lever and a place to stand.) Millions of former Soviet citizens have starved, frozen, died in fratricidal national and civil wars, or drunk themselves to death as a result of the counter-revolution, but it has produced some glorious gonzo journalism. This article is in extremely bad taste. It also contains some painful truths:

There are basically two kinds of censorship, but most people only notice the harmless kind that involves trying to hide naughty words or pictures once they’re already out there in plain sight. This kind of censorship is what brought down the Soviets. It just doesn’t work, and ain’t worth the trouble of trying. It just ends up as a joke.
The other sort of censorship is harder to spot and much more cruel. It’s a matter of which stories get told or noticed in the first place, rather than fussing about the language in which they get told. Put it this way: how many things happened yesterday? and how many of those things made the nightly news? For starters, you probably didn’t. Yup, if you’re reading the eXile, it’s a good bet that nothing you did or ever will do made the news.

Your story is just too depressing. To make the news, your story has to be one of the consoling lies that a culture, any culture, tells itself to make the ordinary suckers’ lives seem bearable to them. If your bike is rearended at a stoplight and you spend the rest of your life tetraplegic, it’s not going to be on the news. It’s a big story to you, and it’s the kind of story total strangers enjoy hearing, if only out of morbid curiosity, but it won’t make the news. It’s too true. It’s not an exception.
Try keeping track of the stories you see featuring 'ordinary people' and you’ll discover that they’re all lies: Illiterate nobodies get rich. Terminal cancer case is spontaneously cured. Parakeet and cat become best friends. Behind all these like the breath of the grave whisper the simple, censored facts: the poor stay poor. Millions of terminal cancer patients die on schedule. The cat grabs the parakeet first chance it gets, and kills it slowly, torturing it with great pleasure.

When a culture really wants to censor the horrible truth, it takes these stories and puts them together into an 'inspirational' movie. And that movie is called Forrest Gump.
Read this this too. Oh, and this:
I have just discovered why nearly 80% of Russians support censorship of the free press. The reason is Elena Tregubova, and everything that Elena Tregubova represents — which is to say, the liberal free press of the 1990s.
The first half of Tregubova's book relates the peak years of the "Young-Reformers"-led Yelstin regime in 1996-8, and its subsequent collapse following the financial crisis. For Tregubova and her class, this was the Golden Age. Idle factories, mass poverty, the premature deaths of millions of Russians and the theft of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of assets play no role in her magical world. What mattered for her was that she mattered; she had access to the most eksklusivnie circles, cities and goods. She's kind of like a gory Russian version of Marlo Thomas’ That Girl, bright-eyed, young and beautiful and the apple of every elite Russian male's eye (or so she believes), all the while crunching over the bones of Yeltsin's victims as she zips from one elitny tusovka to the next.

0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Friday, February 06, 2004

The god that failed, again

"We thought we had joined an antitotalitarian liberal movement, not an alliance of American Likudniks and born-again Baptist creationists ..."

Michael Lind, former neocon, on the neocons.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Claiming the moral low ground

Norman Geras writes that the view that (political) morality is ideology is
a manifest self-deception, including in this paragraph of Ken's. Purporting to raise the writer or speaker who deploys it above the mere 'heat' given off by the mechanism - while all the rest of us flail about believing this heat to be the central thing - the morality-as-ideology discourse still permits that person to insinuate their own superior moral judgement. This comes in the way they speak about the mechanism to which the heat is said to be secondary. Here, it comes with the phrase 'screams of those caught in the machinery'. That's the concern of others than yourself, Ken. As it happens, it brings to my mind something else than - something as well as - the depredations of imperialism.

I entirely agree with his last two sentences, and I take his point, but I disagree with the rest.

My argument cuts both ways, and was intended to: the victims of anti-imperialism, of non-intervention, of national liberation and social revolution are just as much 'caught in the machinery' as the victims of imperialism. I really am not claiming any superior moral judgement, or claiming to be above the illusion, if such it is. I even said, in the rest of the post, that I've done (and of course, as I should have said, still do) the same thing myself. But I suspect moral argument is the wrong approach to issues of war and peace and politics generally, not least because so many millions of deaths are just deaths. Millions have been justly killed in just wars, and millions more, right now, are justly left to perish. But pacifism, at least as I understand it, is unsatisfactory, partly because it's moralistic. One thing I was groping towards, in that post, is that pacifism or anti-militarism needs its Marx. It needs someone to argue for it in a non-moral, cynical, side-of-the-mouth kind of way. (Pass it on.)
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Monday, February 02, 2004

Empires and the Modern Prince

The delegates brandish their weapons.

(Note, possibly apocryphal, from the record of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East)

Norman Geras wonders about the socialist or Marxist antiwar left:
[...] a very large segment of the political constituency I'm talking about not only opposed the Iraq war, but also opposed the intervention in Afghanistan before that, and in Kosovo before that, and so on back to the first Gulf War that evicted Saddam's armies from Kuwait. [...] America, as foremost representative of global capitalism, on one side, and (speaking loosely) regimes and movements of an utterly ghastly kind politically, on the other - those are two common poles throughout. [...] Why does this particular thematic combination lead so many to come down each time on the side they do - morally and politically, in my own view, the wrong side?

I'm sure the question is rhetorical, but if he does find it something of a puzzle, I'm surprised at his surprise. Most of the groups he refers to hark back to Lenin, and whether they do so via Trotsky or via Stalin, one of their most basic positions is that in any conflict between an advanced capitalist country (an imperialist country, as Lenin would have it) and a backward country (a colonial, semi-colonial, or dependent country, as Lenin would have it) they will back the backward country regardless of the nature of its regime. This position is a consequence of Lenin's theory of imperialism. If imperialism is what that theory says it is - a monstrous octopus choking more than half the life out of more than half the world - then (almost) anything that weakens it is in the interests of the working class and of progress, (almost) regardless of how reactionary or anti-working-class imperialism's opponent may be.

This was, ironically, why some on the British left supported the Afghan mujahedin - they regarded the Soviet Union as an imperialist power, and the muj as a national liberation movement. Beyond that they had few illusions about the muj. If you can - 'critically', of course - support the muj against the Russians, why not the Taliban (and some of the very same muj) against the Americans and their allies?

The fact is that most of the nationalist and anti-imperialist regimes or movements that most of the Marxist left has supported, or sided with, or at least not sided against, over the years have been denounced at the time as utterly ghastly politically: the 'murderous' Mau Mau, the 'fascist' EOKA, the 'Stalinist' NLF, the 'terrorist' ZANU, the 'Soviet-backed' MPLA, and so on and on and on. Even movements like the ANC that had a lot of liberal support used terrorist, or other terrible, tactics. Remember the Pretoria police station bombing? The tyres and the petrol? The Algerian FLN's cafe bombings in Battle of Algiers? The same goes for regimes and dictators. Few today would defend the Suez adventure, but at the time it was presented as a war of defence against Nasser, 'the new Hitler'. The Falklands War was supported by most of the Labour Party as an anti-fascist war of liberation, but the Marxist left almost in its entirety opposed it and, likewise almost in its entirety, sided with Argentina despite being accused of 'backing a fascist junta'.

I'm not concerned here with whether the support was correct or not. My point is that the position taken today by the Communist Party and the Trotskyists is for them nothing new. The precedents go back to the 1920s, if not before. The internationalists in the Second International supported the racist and religious Boers against the Brits, as did some liberals.

Lenin's Soviet Russia had cordial relations, as a state, with the anti-communist regime of Kemal, and with the Emir of Afghanistan. It also began to play off German imperialism against the other imperialisms, at Rapallo. Under Lenin's successors the list, as is known, lengthened considerably.

This seems cynical, but it's exactly the same approach as that of traditional diplomacy and foreign policy, recently exemplified by the Western ruling classes in the Cold War. They regarded Communism in much the same way as the Leninists regarded imperialism, and backed (almost) any regime or movement that weakened it (almost) regardless of how unpleasant that regime or movement might otherwise be. When a Vietnamese invasion overthrew the Khmer Rouge, did the US or UK governments waste a moment in weighing the morality of the intervention? They did not. They set about supporting the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, diplomatically and militarily, against Vietnam. The same considerations apply to the War on Terrorism. If Wherethefucksthatistan is boiling its Islamists alive, bully for Wherethefucksthatistan, and warm handshakes and handouts for His Excellency Whatevereyev, President for Life of Wherethefucksthatistan, a man we can do business with and our son of a bitch.

The great scandal of Lenin was that he taught realpolitik to the lower classes and backward peoples. If the working class was ever to become a ruling class it had better start thinking like one, and for a ruling class there are no rules. There is only the struggle to get and keep power. This is not to say that the Leninists and the imperialists are without moral feelings. Individually they are for the most part perfectly normal. Their compassion for their enemies' victims is absolutely genuine. So is their outrage at their enemies' moral failings and blind spots. In the 1980s I found it very difficult to regard supporters of the Chinese Communists' consistently anti-Soviet international policies as anything but scoundrels and scabs; but they were merely applying the same criteria as I was, to a different analysis of the world; and their indignation at my callous calculations and selective sympathies was just as real. I had the same sort of arguments with Trotskyists who supported the muj.

'How can you ...?' 'How can you ...?'

Morality has very little to do with choosing sides. It can tell us that a given act is dreadful, but it can't tell us whether to say, 'This is dreadful, therefore ...' or 'This is dreadful, but ...' We still often believe that we oppose our enemies because of their crimes, and support our allies despite their crimes. I wouldn't be surprised if Margaret Thatcher was quite sincere in condemning ZAPU as a terrorist organization because it shot down a civilian airliner, and in supporting one of the mujahedin factions, despite the fact that it had deliberately blown up a civilian airliner. Sometimes our moral justifications can blunt our moral sense. Think of the incendiary bombings of Germany and Japan. Suppose they were a military necessity. If so, better to accept that what 'our side' is doing is wrong and do it anyway than to persuade ourselves it is right because it is in a just cause.

(The writings of a great amoralist - a de Sade, a Stirner, a Nietzsche - can inspire a handful of murders in two centuries. Over the same period, the writings of a great moral philosopher - an Aquinas, a Kant, a Bentham, a Mill - can justify, if not indeed incite, the deaths of millions in just wars and just revolutions. Morality is an immensely dangerous and destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human passions and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.)

Morality is real. Morality is ideology. It is the heat given off by the workings of quite different machinery. In measuring the heat while ignoring the mechanism - in making a moral case for or against a particular war, for example - the moral philosopher reasons 'consciously indeed, but with a false consciousness'. The screams of those caught in the machinery continue unabated. They cry to heaven. It is only in what Locke called the 'appeal to heaven' - the clash of arms - that anyone (apart from, of course, 'pacifists, Quakers and other bourgeois fools' as someone said, who indulge in 'pacifist-Quaker-vegetarian prattle about the sanctity of human life', as someone else said) sees a hope that some day the machinery can be made to stop, and the screams to cease. That hope itself is the machines' fuel.
10 comments | Permanent link to this post