“Bob seems like a reasonable sort” - Andy Newman.
This post is the first of three planned oblique attempts to address the core contradictions at the heart of the Bob project, as well as to respond to some of the discussions at my more heated comment threads, such as this one, this one and this one. It starts with a report on a recent and not particularly important spat amongst the leftover remains of the British anti-racist movement carried out in the courts and in the blogosphere, amongst three of the heavier hitters of the UK-based but internationally read left bloggers, Harry’s Place, Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity and Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb. This spat is a good occasion to reflect on the meaning of “decency” and “indecency” in politics. In reflecting on this, the post touches on three areas: the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the war on terror, and the etiquette of debate, with a kind of footnote on the anti-racist movement. All of these are illustrated with examples from British fringe politics of the 1990s and thus have a slightly autobiographical element, although I’ve done my best to keep self-indulgence to a minimum. I realise that the coherence of these elements might not be immediately apparent, but I would genuinely appreciate your responses, even if you only read part of it.
Hitch, Fitz and Harry
Let’s begin, though, with Christopher Hitchens, a key figure in the issues to be raised in what follows. The next two paragraphs are extracted from Poumista. [Carl P has] a piece on Christopher Hitchens and prayer and Andrew Coates has a long and very good review of Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch 22. This provokes quite a long comment thread, involving our comrades Mick Hall and Mike Ezra, who recounts the debate in a post at Harry’s Place entitled A Debate with the Indecent Left. The Coatesy comment thread, unlike more or less any at Harry’s Place, is well worth reading.
Meanwhile, as Carl informs me, a furore has raged in the pokier corners of the leftiesphere about said Place, specifically the association with it of one Terry FitzPatrick, street-fighting man, veteran anti-racist and, erm, bon viveur, recently arrested for racism in relation to statements made to Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote and Lee Jasper, black liberation tsar. (When I lived in Brixton, Jasper’s names featured prominently in local graffiti, which described him as a police informer, on which I will not pass comment). Here‘s Andrew again, but more relevant are posts by Richard Seymour, Lee Jasper and especially this series at Socialist Unity: 1, 2, 3, 4. Here are the charges against Fitz, to which he is pleading not guilty. I won’t weigh in on this debate... except to note that Woolley and Jasper’s faith in bourgeois law as a tool to punish alleged racists is rather in contradiction to their disregard for due process in making a big deal of this before the court rules – in contrast, say, to Paul Stott, an anarchist who prefers not to upset the legal proceedings.
The collapse of Yugoslavia and the birth of the decent left
In the debate between Andrew Coates and Mike Ezra, the war in the former Yugoslavia emerged as a key touchstone. Ezra reduces Coates’ position to “genocide denial” and Coates defends his position as a consistent anti-imperialism in which all acts of Western military intervention are characterised as imperialist and therefore to be condemned. Andrew portrays the 1990s as a time when the prevailing wind was in support of such “humanitarian” intervention; he claims that Living Marxism, despite its dodgy politics, stood out in the courage with which it refused this orthodoxy.
My memory is a little different. It seemed to me at the time that the broad majority across the left, from Tony Benn and Harold Pinter to CND to the Morning Star to the Socialist Workers Party to the Anti-German movement in Germany, was either explicitly supportive of Slobodan Milosevic against Western intervention, or at least de facto pro-Milosevic in its call for NATO to stand down. (There were honourable exceptions, including prominently Christopher Hitchens, less prominently Marek Edelman, and further to the left the Workers Press faction of the Workers Revolutionary Party and the followers of Raya Dunayevskaya.) This pro-Serbism was for a mix of good and bad reasons, including the anti-imperialism Coates invokes, but also a sometimes Slavophile nostalgic affection for Tito’s Yugoslavia as the most promising example of an “actually existing” socialism and an identification of goodie Serbs with the anti-fascist partisans of WWII and of the baddie Croats with the collaborationist Ustache (an equation that already grossly oversimplified the complex reality).
I recall feeling quite isolated in my corner of the left at the time in thinking that the victims of Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing urgently needed material support. Concrete solidarity from below, as in Workers Aid to Bosnia (in which Marko Attila Hoare was active), seemed politically the right position to take. But it was clear at the times of the worst aggression that this was not enough. (And accounts I’ve since heard from ex-Yugoslav survivors, as well as everything since I’ve read, from Joe Sacco to Samantha Power, has confirmed me in this conviction.)
Although I felt isolated, I know I was far from alone in this. The disgust – at seeing the likes of Benn and Pinter stand up for the fascist thug Milosovic, at seeing LM deny the existence of the ethnic cleansing at Trnopolje, at seeing Noam Chomsky and his ilk trivialise the ethnic cleansing, at seeing ultra-leftists like Wildcat UK attack those who sought to give support to the beleaguered people of Bosnia – was a key moment, I think, for many on the left who came to be known as the “decent” left. For some, such as Hitchens, Oliver Kamm, the supporters of the Henry Jackson Society or Stephen Schwartz, this disgust started a process that led to a proximity to some kind of “neo-conservative” politics. But for many others, it began an effort to re-found a left more consistent with genuinely internationalist human values.
In the 21st century
It is interesting that this heterogeneous dissident tendency emerged on the left at a time when the struggle in Israel/Palestine was in relative remission, and was initially expressed in solidarity with primarily Muslim populations (the Bosniaks and Kosovan Albanians). Leftist support for Saddam Hussein at this time, in the wake of the first Gulf War and at the time of crippling sanctions on Iraq, was partly predicated on a knee-jerk sympathy for Ba’athism as a superficially socialist and stridently secular movement, at war with the Shi’ite theocracy in Iran and against the Salafi monarchies in the Gulf states.
It was only in the current century that the cartography radically shifted. In Autumn 2000, Ariel Sharon returned to centre stage in Israeli politics, a figure well recalled by the western left from the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre as a war criminal. The Second Intifada began. The focus of the left’s obsession shifted to the Middle East.
A year later, when 9/11 occurred, Christopher Hitchens was one of many leftists who found themselves disgusted as their friends and comrades, people they cared for and respected, took some kind of satisfaction in the slaughter or saw it as merely America’s chickens coming home to roost. Hitchens saw himself as having been ex-communicated from the left for dissenting on this issue. Others experienced a kind of cognitive dissonance.
As the first decade of the century continued – the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, slow motion genocide in Sudan, the on-going Israel/Palestine conflict, the election of Hamas in Gaza, the election of Ahmedinejad, intensifying tension between the West and Iran, repeated murderous jihadi outrages – those of us who felt Hitchens’ disgust had plenty more occasions to experience it. More and more, our friends and comrades were making common cause with forces that stood against all of the most fundamental core values of the left. In the 1990s, it had been on the left that petitions against the almost unbelievable brutality of the Taliban had been circulated; now the petitions effectively called for Western governments to respect the Taliban’s sovereign right to brutalise the Afghan population. In the 1990s, “Islamo-fascist” had been a term used by the left; now to use it invited condemnation as “Orientalist” or “Islamophobic”. And, as Charlie Pottins puts it, “The SWP has gone from refusing to support Workers Aid for Bosnia('Muslims') to discovering something 'progressive' in political Islam.”
An early, telling incident that defined the new left orthodoxy – and the emerging backlash to it – occurred in Birmingham in 2003, when the SWP-dominated Stop The War Coalition held a meeting segregated by gender, to pander to clerical conservatism in “the Muslim community”. Such deference to patriarchy and communalism would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, but now those who disapproved found themselves marginalised in Birmingham and nationally. Before long, the SWP was in an electoral alliance with far right Islamists, and Ken Livingstone was courting ultra-conservative imams.
The counterveiling tendency, as with the war in Yugoslavia, was far from homogeneous and cut across many of the old divisions on the left. The heretics of the noughties included many who had experienced similar disgust at the pro-Milosevic orthodoxy of the nineties, but the two constituencies did not map onto each other at all. For instance, on this issue Andrew Coates and I are on the same side.
Although the roots for this movement go back much further (in my generation, Steve Cohen’s 1984 pamphlet That's Funny You Don't Look Anti-Semitic was a key moment), by the end of the noughties, there were a wide range of groups and individuals expressing some version of the backlash against the new orthodoxy – from liberals such as David Aaronovitch to Trotskyists such as the Alliance for Workers Liberty to ultra-leftists such as Shift magazine. Most of the bloggers on my blogroll, including both Andrew Coates and most of the writers at Harry’s Place, as well as Shiraz Socialist and most of the survivors of the sadly defunct Drink-Soaked Trots, would fall into this broad category.
In fact, for some of us who feel alienated by the common sense of the mainstream left, the internet has become a kind of place of refuge where we can connect to others who share our disgust. It was never my intention when I started blogging to concentrate on these sorts of issues (I thought I’d be blogging about stuff like films, TV, books and comics!), but there was something self-indulgently cathartic and something that felt politically important in being a link in this chain. I think I first realised this when my trade union first considered boycotting Israel, and I had a small leap in my readership stats when I posted against this.
Clearly, a group that includes a Class War anarchist like Paul Stott, a Henry Jackson Society member like Marko Attila Hoare and a Pabloite like Andrew Coates is too disparate to be a movement, and most people in this group would reject the label “decent left”. But it seems to me that what unites this motley crew is a certain quality of moral decency and an increasingly rare commitment to some of the core values of the left, such as human emancipation, internationalism, women’s rights and secularism.
Indecency and hate
There is also a third kind of decency that the debate between Andrew Coates and Michael Ezra brings to mind. As Michael acknowledges in his Harry’s Place post, the debate is surprisingly civil and respectful, if robust (well, it starts to deteroriate around comment no.150 – see Rosie Bell on “cunts”). Contrast this to Richard “Lenin” Seymour’s comment at the Poumista thread on this: “Unlike the crawling wankers above, I hate your blog and couldn’t care less whether you give a link or a reference on this piece of shit.” Seymour’s completely gratuitous rudeness exemplifies a different kind of indecency. Even when I was at my most Marxist, and tended to reduce everything to a class analysis, it was apparent to me that there were moral qualities in politics that exceeded or evaded such an analysis. Moral qualities like honesty, integrity, open-mindedness and civility are all too rare in politics, but there are certain forms of politics that are particularly inhospitable to them. It seems to me that the indecent left, of which Richard “Lenin” Seymour and his party, the SWP, is especially immune to these qualities.
However, this type of indecency is not confined to the indecent left, as the briefest of glances at the comment threads of Harry’s Place will tell you. All too often, the bile spouting below the fold at Harry’s Place is linked to a pathological hatred not just of militant Islamism, nor even of Islam, but Muslims in general, a hatred that the above the fold posters at HP try to combat, but have somehow created a hospitable place for.
Footnote: Lee Jasper and the failure of the anti-racist movement
As an aside, a note on who Lee Jasper and, to a lesser extent, Simon Woolley, are, and why Terry Fitz’s vendetta with them might have a certain resonance with some anti-racists. Jasper was a key figure in the formation in the early 1990s of the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA). Essentially, ARA was a coalition between three disparate elements: grassroots black anti-racist groups such as the Newham Monitoring Project and Southall Black Sisters, black nationalist groups, and the Labour movement bureaucracy. Holding this unstable mis-alliance together was the organisational skill of Socialist Action, a Trotskyist/Pabloite groupuscule descended from a faction of the International Marxist Group (Tariq Ali, Coates and Quentin Hoare were also members of the IMG, but of a different faction). Socialist Action developed an extremely secretive life after the Militant Tendency were purged from the Labour Party, and were extremely close to Ken Livingstone, who himself had built up an impressive range of political constituencies, including a number of London’s ethnic political machines. ARA and the Livingstone machine were good career stepping stones for a number of former radicals who made the long march through the institutions, many being rewarded with commissariats in the GLA after Livingstone became Mayor of London (including, of course, Jasper, who was at the heart of a number of rumours and allegations of financial impropriety that helped bring down Livingstone in 2008).
After some predictable conflicts and best forgotten financial disputes, ARA morphed into the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR), which in turn merged with the SWP’s front organisation, the Anti-Nazi League, to begat Unite Against Fascism. This had a certain irony, as both the ANL was launched in spring 1992 in direct (and hostile) competition to ARA, which had been launched in the Autumn of 1991. (An example of the childish hostility between ARA and the ANL was the 1992 Welling march discussed here, when two rival national anti-racist marches took place on the same day, ANL’s in SE London, ARA’s in central London.) Both groups were thoroughly undemocratic and top-heavy. Although both billed themselves as signalling the revival of Britain’s anti-racist/anti-fascist movement, they actually signalled its complete collapse.
ARA’s embedding in the hierarchies of the Labour Party and trade unions, the empty moralism of its simplistic anti-racist message and its lack of concern for local struggles were evidence of how disconnected it was from the traditions of grassroots anti-racism that had been carefully built up in Britain’s urban communities over the previous decades. The 1980s had seen the incorporation of much of the leadership of this movement into the machinery of the state, via jobs in municipal socialist bureaucracies in Britain’s cities, appointments to posts in further and higher education, and careers in the emerging private sector race awareness industry catering largely to public sector contracts. The activists who chose to remain on the front-line were fragmented, bunkered down after years of Thatcherite class war from above.
I was at ARA’s launch event, at which Jasper gave a typically self-congratulatory speech. I have vaguely followed Jasper’s career since then, his calls for black-only schools, his obsession with male role models (such as himself) for young black men, his routine poses of radical militancy while acting as a police advisor, the web of cronies he has helped enrich in the race relations and community development industries, his relish for accepting meaningless awards from fellow members of this tight network.
These traits were even more prominent in the year’s of his pal Ken Livingstone’s mayoral administration, when Jasper was given several influential and lucrative roles in this city’s municipal governance. Many of Andrew Gilligan’s malicious allegations against Ken and Jasper (aired in then very pro-Boris Evening Standard as Ken was fighting a tight battle to continue in post) have turned out to be lacking in hard evidence, and Boris has hardly given us city government free from cronyism. But Jasper epitomises the culture of grace and favour, clientism and patronage that cast a shadow over Ken’s achievements.
One episode in the Ken years of less interest to the Standard but germane to the issues here was the London hosting of the European Social Forum in 2004, when Ken, Jasper and the Socialist Workers Party worked together to turn a genuinely promising experiment in democratic alternatives into a festival of PR for the Mayor of London and a soapbox for the SWP, then at the height of its unrequited love affair with militant Islamism. A group of grassroots anti-racist organisations issued this statement at the time, which called for Jasper to stop using accusations of racism to silence criticisms of the lack of democracy and consensus by the GLA in organising the ESF.
This post is the first of a series of three posts on triangulating Bobism. The next two will be entitled “The Battle of Ideas: Boris Johnson and Slobodan Milosovic” and “Getting it right about Iran”. I will link to those here when I’ve finished writing them, assuming I ever do.
Related posts: Between Burke and Paine in the twenty-first century; Revisiting between Burke and Paine in the twenty-first century; Decentism: Burke and Paine again; Decentism and defectors, lumpen and otherwise.
On the left and Yugoslavia: David Walls: Dubious Sources - How Project Censored Joined
The Whitewash of Serb Atrocities; Words from a Bosnian survivor; Bosnia Solidarity Committee.
The Whitewash of Serb Atrocities; Words from a Bosnian survivor; Bosnia Solidarity Committee.
On Workers Aid to Bosnia: The Workers Aid story; Robert Myers: The Fallacy of Neutral Humanitarianism in Bosnia; From Charlie Pottins’ archive.
On the left and Islam after 2000: Amanda Day: Hammer and Crescent; Gilbert Achcar: Marxists and religion; Steve Goodwood: Setting the record straight on Birmingham Stop the War.
On Lee Jasper and the ESF: Open Letter from Lancaster IMC to the European Anti-Social Forum; Weekly Worker: Paying the price.