Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Triangulating Bobism 1: Harryism and indecency

“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 SeymourLee Jasper and especially this series at Socialist Unity: 1234Here 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.



Further reading:





96 comments:

modernity said...

"My memory is a little different."

Not so sure it is.

That's roughly how I remember it too.

Maybe a fourth part? On the last century's Left and why dogmatism killed off any connection with the working classes.

Transpontine said...

I'm not sure about the notion of the 'decent left' really, or rather of any political current claiming to have any kind of monopoly of moral virtue compared with its opponents. In the absence of a global emancipatory project able to set a historical agenda of its own, everybody is scrabbling about trying to take some kind of stance amidst the real time disasters of war that require some kind of response now and can't wait for the proletarian cavalry to come riding over the hill. But in that context any response risks compromising with terror from one camp or another. Sure it's indecent to defend the Taliban, but there are also plenty on the so-called 'decent left' who are quite prepared, for instance, to justify Afghan civilians being killed by NATO in the name of some greater game. Of course my own position - which vacillates between pacifist refusal to justify killing and third campist 'plague on all houses' ultra-leftism is arguably also indecent when there is no force presently able to implement them and therefore offer any kind of solution to the misery facing people in the here and now.

kellie said...

An underdeveloped thought: the use of 'decent' in all this is an indicator of the importance of personal moral character for the left, more so it seems to me than for the political centre. To be left is to be considered morally OK. And the same is perhaps true on the right, at least the religious right. In the centre questions of competency and effectiveness are more important than on the extremes. Another quality valued on the left is intellect: to be left is to be smart. Is this also true on the right? In parts it is I think. For example, conspiracy theory on left and right is in part about asserting intellectual superiority, however delusional.

So a crude sketch: left and right extremes value moral character and intellect, the centre places relatively greater value on competency and effectiveness. Maybe.

This links to all the missing the point over motive, all the putting a black hat on people rather than arguing through complexities of actions and consequences.

kellie said...

As soon as I see it written down, I see what's wrong with it. The difference between the extremes and the centre is the narcissism of their concern with moral character and intellect. Wanting to be good and be seen to be good, be clever and be seen to be clever, rather than the harder work of trying and questioning, testing while maintaining uncertainty, finding out what's better and worse under these particular circumstances.

Or perhaps this isn't right either - better maintain that uncertainty if I want to avoid extremism!

Marko Attila Hoare said...

A very interesting post, Bob.

You are probably right in saying that the Bosnian war was a defining moment for many who later became members of the Decent Left. It certainly revealed the full extent of the moral bankruptcy of much of the old radical left And it cut squarely across the traditional left-right political divide: it put Thatcher, the necons, the Workers Revolutionary Party, Ken Livingstone and the UK's International Socialist Group on one side, and John Major's Conservative government, Henry Kissinger, Ariel Sharon, Francois Mitterand, Living Marxism, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Diane Abbott on the other side.

Still, it was the 9/11 attacks, the run-up to the war in Iraq and the highly polarising nature of these events that really led to the birth of the Decent current. The extent of the radical left's anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, coupled with its apologias for Islamism and blindness vis-a-vis the crimes of al-Qaeda, Saddam, Hamas, etc. gave rise to the Eustonite or 'Decent' reaction.

However, not many of the people today considered stalwarts of Decency were prominent or even necessarily present in the campaign over Bosnia, and the divisions over that conflict are not the same as the ones that today divide the Decent Left from the rest of the left. Coates was certainly on the wrong side over Bosnia. Conversely, many of the leftists who supported Bosnia are certainly not Decent Left - e.g. Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn, the members of the WRP (Workers Press). Not to mention Chris Bertram and the folks at Crooked Timber. The 'left' is a problematic concept at best, and is too diverse to be divided merely into Decent and Indecent.

Certainly, members of the current of opinion known as the Decent Left seek to reaffirm fundamental left-wing principles that have been opportunistically abandoned by the old radical left in their orgy of anti-Americanism: opposition to fundamentalism; solidarity with progressives in the Middle East and elsewhere; support for universal human rights.

In practical terms, members of the Decent Left have tended to find themselves on the opposite side of the fence from other members of the left over Iraq, Iran and Israel.

I'm not sure the Decent Left, with which I myself identify, can necessarily lay claim to a higher level of moral decency than other leftists; it's more a case of simply seeing things differently, and disagreeing over key issues. I don't think anyone can honestly pretend that Harry's Place, or the late (and unlamented by me at least) Drink-Soaked Trots blog have always shown themselves to be paragons of virtue.

The old radical left's extreme anti-Zionism, readiness to excuse Hamas and Hezbollah, dabbling with anti-Semitism and blindness to the crimes of Arab and Muslim regimes is horrible. However, members of the Decent Left have sometimes swung too far in the other direction, becoming pro-Israel partisans who don't object very strongly to Israeli human-rights abuses, or show much solidarity to Palestinian victims of Israeli oppression. We're still waiting for a significant faction on the left to get the balance right on this one.

PS worth citing the original article that gave rise to the term 'Decent Left':

http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Adler/
Politics/Waltzer.htm

bob said...

Thanks for the comments.

1. Re Mod on class. I realise that the post completely missed any mention of class, but the abandoning of the western working class as a possible agent of emancipatory change is a key factor in the debasement of the left. It was this turn away from a proletariat that the left seemed to feel had failed it (when in reality it was the other way around) that opened up the door to seeking substitutes in Third World nationalist movements and later in clerical reactionary forces. (This is the serious point behind the light-hearted surface in John Sullivan's brilliant As Soon as This Pub Closes; Sullivan tracks this turn back to the IMG and, to be anorak-y about it, the 9th World Congress of USFI and its theory of "the new youth vanguard".) I have more to say about this, but in the meantime, Mod's itemisation here is as good a place to start as any!

bob said...

2. Re Transpontine and Marko on moral virtue. My point is not that the so-called Decent Left has a monopoly on moral virtue, nor that the wider group I identify in the 21st century section of my post has such a monopoly. Rather, part of what I am saying is that moral credibility on some issues sometimes does and sometimes doesn't map on to moral credibility on others.

Thus some of the people who were right about Bosnia, as Marko reiterates, went on to be wrong about the war on terror, and vice versa. And some of each display a certain kind of moral integrity in they way they conduct themselves poltically, but not always.

Many Harry's Place commenters and some HP posters, and Will Rubbish of the Drink-Soaked gang might fall into the second type of decentness I talk about in the post (not giving in to clerical fascism), but they fail spectacularly in relation to the third type (displaying basic decent humanity in their political conduct). So, on the third count, they are not really much different from Lenny Seymour or The Exile, who are Indecent in all three senses!

3. Re Kellie and morality. I don't think I really agree. The Marxist tradition on the left, at least, and its inheritors in the structuralist, postmodern, poststructuralist, queer, postcolonial and other such lefts, are actively hostile to the notion of morality in politics. Zizek is the best exemplar of this today.

The insistence on morality in politics is an admission that Marxism and its successor grand theories are (whether necessary or not) fundamentally insufficient in politics. Part of the acceptance of the "decent" label, then, was a turn away from orthodox Marxism and its successor dogmas. (This is closely related to the official Decents finding common cause with the "idealist" foreign policy of the neocons, and the ortho-left finding common cause with the "realists".)

4. Re Transpontine and a plague on both your houses. I see Third Campism and the No War But the Class War position as another form of decentness in a way, positions with a kind of moral integrity, that avoid the pitfalls of the "anti-imperialist" ortho-left.

But, as you say, just as official Decentism ends up compromised by providing cover for some immoral actions of the West and Israel, the Third Camp/NWBTCW position ends up compromised by providing cover for tyrants and thugs elsewhere - the classic instance being WWII, when the ultra-left position was pretty much completely untenable.

bob said...

Thinking about John Sullivan, I checked what he said about Socialist Action. It's a genre classic:

Fourth International divergencies were eventually to trip up the IMG just as they had Healy and Grant in the past. During the 1970s the ageing SWP (US) was taken over by a group of Yuppies led by Jack Barnes, who had cut their teeth as opponents of the radical tendencies in the anti-Vietnam war movement. They threw out most of the veterans, as well as supporters of Mandel, and started to "junk the old Trotskyism" in the hope of becoming the authorised agents of Havana and Managua. Mandel, more responsive to the European labour movement, had no alternative but to build up national factions to prepare for the inevitable split. The result in Britain was the International Group, formed in 1986 by defectors from Socialist Action. The International Group, which publishes the journal Socialist Outlook, fused with Alan Thornett's faction which had split with Socialist Organiser because of its refusal to back Galtieri in the Falklands war. At the end of 1987, less than a year after the defection of the International Group, Socialist Action split once more. A new faction followed its American mentors, embraced Stalinism, and is now attempting to create a dwarf version of the American SWP in Britain. Although both of the factions were in agreement in junking the idea of the self-activity of the working class, their appetites then diverged. The rump of Socialist Action were uninspired at the thought of being a liberal sect, and decided to maintain the alliance with the Campaign Group of MPs. This unusually close agreement between a parliamentary faction and an extra-parliamentary organisation resembles the alliance between horse and rider. The MPs assure us that Socialist Action is cured of its youthful radicalism, and will cheerfully prostrate itself by selling the MPs’ abysmally boring Campaign Group News.

The people who formed the International Group were not prepared to go along with their former comrades in explicitly proclaiming that the working class was merely one part of the progressive alliance formed by the Feminists, Gays and the Labour Party’s Black Sections. Interestingly enough, all of the Campaign Group MPs we have spoken to have more in common with the International Group than with Socialist Action on this point, but complain that it is difficult to get good staff nowadays. Although the division between the three groups originated in a dispute over international spheres of influence it seems reasonable to expect that the normal process of competition will eventually produce further political differences. The united group were agreed on lining up with the Labour Party leadership, the Liverpool Bishops, the Race Relations industry and the Liberal Party in attacking Militant and the other Left wing councillors on Merseyside. Similarly, neither group has criticised the "right on" Labour councillors as they implement cuts and worsen the condition of their staff, while handing out well paid jobs to their friends. However, Socialist Action’s attitudes seem more definitely anti-working class, so we fear that their next step will be to exclude the proles from their position in the broad Left alliance.
(This is from 1988.)

bob said...

Sorry, final point. Marko writes: "We're still waiting for a significant faction on the left to get the balance right on this one."

This, I suppose, "the core contradictions at the heart of the Bob project" (read that as self-mockery not pompousness please!) I mention at the start of the post. Should we be working towards a reconfigured left that gets that balance right (the Euston option), or abandon the left altogether in favour of something else (the path taken, in opposite directions, by Hitchens (and e.g. The New Centrist), on one hand, and the IWCA on the other).

I'll shut up now - for a while.

Marko Attila Hoare said...

'the abandoning of the western working class as a possible agent of emancipatory change is a key factor in the debasement of the left.'

That's a bit like saying that the problem with Islam is that today's Muslims have departed too far from the teachings of the Prophet, and they need to go back to Islam's original purity. But in reality, 'the left' wasn't any less problematic in Marx's or Lenin's day - long before Third Worldism got going.

I'd say the opposite: that many leftists fetishised the 'working class' to the point that they were unwilling to accept any progressive agency in anything that wasn't overtly 'proletarian' in character. For example, humanitarian military intervention.

E.g., the Militant tendency was vey Indecent, but they certainly didn't ignore the working class. And in fairness, neither does the SWP, which when I was close to it in the early 1990s, was always collecting for strikes, etc.

Why don't we accept that not only the working class, but also other social classes can be agents of progressive change ? Why limit ourselves to viewing just one class as the carrier of progress ?

'Should we be working towards a reconfigured left that gets that balance right (the Euston option), or abandon the left altogether in favour of something else'

Better to abandon the left altogether - it's a pretty meaningless concept.

If you insist on retaining the 'Left' label, then either

a) you have to accept you belong to the same category of people that includes supporters of Chinese Communism, Milosevic, Hezbollah, etc., which renders meaningless the concept of the left as something positive,

or

b) you have to insist that you and your mates alone are the 'real' left, and all other left-wing factions have 'betrayed the left'. A lot of people do this, but it's just meaningless sectarianism; squabbling over possession of a label that means different things to different people.

Since 'The Left' can and does mean pretty much anything, there's no point in making a fetish out of 'being on the left'.

Better to choose a new self-definition, one that has no such ambiguity.

bob said...

Thanks again Marko.

1. Re the left and the working class. Yes, on the whole you're right. But I think most of the left now recognise that the working class is not the only agent of change; clinging on to reductionist class analysis is relatively rare now.

But I still think that the structure of our society means that only the working class are a potential positive agent of social change as a class. This is because only the working class has no stake in any form of oppression or exploitation. Thus, Kurds as a nation might be a positive agent of change in resisting Turkish, Syrian or Ba'athist state brutality, but ultimately their interest, as a nation, is in their own self-determination not any kind of broader liberation, and Kurdish self-determination opens the possiblity of the oppression of minorities or excluded groups within Kurdistan. Without this kind of class analysis as a kind of horizon of possibility, rather than as a guide to all and every situation, I think the left loses its compass.

Re abandongin the left. Maybe, but I don't think the alternatives are as stark as you make out. Your (a) doesn't necessarily matter - I am in the same category as some of these people already when I call myself a secularist, say, but that doesn't mean I should never call myself a secularist. Whereas your (b) doesn't necessarily follow. You can say there are two (or more) versions of x without saying only one is the "true" x. So, Hal Draper identifies socialism from above and socialism from below, but doesn't say that only the latter is "true" socialism.

louisproyect said...

Concrete solidarity from below, as in Workers Aid to Bosnia (in which Marko Attila Hoare was active), seemed politically the right position to take.

---

Very true. This was the right position.

Marko Attila Hoare said...

'But I still think that the structure of our society means that only the working class are a potential positive agent of social change as a class. This is because only the working class has no stake in any form of oppression or exploitation.'

But it is, surely, a matter of opinion what the 'real' interest of the 'working class' is. Some might argue that the great prosperity enjoyed by large sections of the working class in Europe, North America and elsewhere rests upon the liberal capitalist order which itself rests upon the exploitation of the Third World. Some might argue that Western workers benefit from the supply of cheap goods produced in Third World sweatshops. Or have an interest in keeping out immigrant labour that forces down wages, therefore an interest in keeping immigrants at home and starving. Or enjoy the benefit of a health service staffed by nurses and doctors sucked out of the developing world, at great cost to the latter's own health services.

These are all moot points, of course. What the 'real' interests of the 'working class' are is not so uncontroversial and black-and-white, and cannot be so easily stated.

For that matter, the 'working class' is itself a problematic concept in advanced capitalist society. Dividing the population of an advanced capitalist country into the 'working class' and one or more other social classes is simply too rigid and simplistic, and doesn't correspond to today's reality. For example, some blue-collar workers enjoy middle-class standards of living, which sets them a world apart from illegal immigrant fruit-pickers earning less than the minimum wage.

Having no stake in any form of oppression or exploitation is, in any case, not the only qualification for acting as a positive agent of social change. Having an interest in promoting economic development and prosperity, or in integrating the world, or in acquiring education, or in collaborating with members of the same class from other countries in a manner that transcends cultural boundaries - all these are things which might lead classes other than the working class to act as agents of progressive social change.

Marko Attila Hoare said...

'I am in the same category as some of these people already when I call myself a secularist, say, but that doesn't mean I should never call myself a secularist.'

Hmm, but 'secularist' has a limited and specific meaning, and is essentially descriptive. But God only knows what 'The Left' means in this day and age, or why such a nebulous concept is so fiercely clung to and fought over by so many people.

'You can say there are two (or more) versions of x without saying only one is the "true" x.'

I don't at all disagree with you here, Bob; I'm just asking how useful is the concept 'The Left' when it embraces so many currents that are often so antithetical to each other.

But I've gone on far too long...

bob said...

Marko, feel free to go on as long as you want! On the terminology, I partly agree with you.

On the working class: I wouldn't want to make too strong a claim about the "real" interest of the working class, and recognise that as subject to contention.

Looked at it in national or world-region terms, yes, the interests of the working class in one area can clearly be antithetical to general human emancipation as I would understand it, and the undeniable relative affluence of (at least most sections of) the working class in the global north is paid for by the misery of (at least most sections) of the working class in the global South, and the other examples you give. However, looked at globally, the same structural relations are clearly damaging to the class as a whole. (This is why, as Transpontine has pointed out on previous threads, the IWCA is wrong to support immigration protectionism in the name of the working class, as those who are thereby excluded are working class too).

And, yes, defining the class is not easy and simple, especially in advanced capitalism. However, if you view class in terms of relations rather than as a sociological category, there is still a strong case. Many people who are culturally or sociologically or in income terms "middle class" are, in Marx's term, part of the proletariat by virtue of their relation to capital.

And, yes, having no stake in bad stuff is not the only guarantee of being an agent of positive social change, and I'm not claiming the working class is the only agent of positive social change. However, the other forms of positive social change you mention may well lead to new forms of oppression and exploitation. For example, prosperity and economic development FOR ALL is in my view impossible to achieve under capitalism, and prosperity and economic development for cannot but lead to less of it for others.

Andrew Coates said...

This is an exceptionally well-argued Blog post.

But I would like to add one thing: my politics come from the French left, my secularism comes from that source, and my ideology is heavily influnced from that background.

If you will look at the evolution of the Piquet Tendancy you will find almost identical views.

bob said...

Follwing up my last comment: this is relevant to the debate: Red Star Commando: A World To Win.

Thanks Andrew - high praise indeed. I have to say I am rather ignorant of the French left, a fact of which I am ashamed.

bob said...

Also relevant: Hans Kundnani on the new left and the neocons

Anonymous said...

I think you'll find that the 'decent left' is neither 'decent' or 'left'.

bob said...

Thank you anonymous, what an incredibly witty and profound intervention.

Duncan said...

This is an interesting and well argued post Bob but I'm afraid I don't buy it.

As far as I can see the core theme of this piece is the decline (or 'debasement') of the left after the abandoning of certain fundamental values and the necessity of recovering those values.

Your article here is an interesting discussion on the various political positions, and reactions to those positions, taken by political groups ranging in size from small to miniscule and relatively minor political public figures about events which they have practically zero impact on or influence over.

I realise this isn't intended to be a comprehensive discussion but I feel like you're missing the main point. In my opinion, any discussion about the decline of the left in Britain has to focus on three main domestic events: the failure of the only two influential far left groups in the postwar period, the CPGB and the Militant Tendency, which crumbled into insignificance and the collapse of mainstream social democracy. These three currents represented serious attempts to challenge the established order, the first two involving tens of thousands and the latter involving perhaps millions of ordinary working people.

I think a discussion of the decisions they took and errors they made is more important than people arguing about events they have little or no stake in. That's not to say these debates aren't interesting (I'm certainly interested in them) but their importance needs to be understood.

What's needed is not a discussion about values and attitudes to historical events but a return to grassroots community campaigning in communities and workplaces, rebuilding the strength of the trade union movement and helping to create a movement against looming spending cuts. Get this sorted and everything else will flow from that.

Yes elements on the left have taken some pretty disgraceful and ludicrious positions in recent years (though I'm unconvinced this is anything new, is a degree of sympathy with Hamas really worse than saying everything is running smoothly in 1930's USSR?). However, the real decline has come with the disinterest in the things I describe above.

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.

Great. These are fine sentiments. The problem is, are they intended as statements and values to endorse verbally and in writing, a standard to measure people by, or is there a practical plan of action about how these things are going to come about?

I can easily condemn and support a whole list of things (such as, apartheid in South Africa was a bad thing, going to the moon again is a great idea, slavery is bad, I support an arms embargo Belarus, etc) without it having any bearing on my practical activity or events in the real world.

People like Marko Attila Hoare may, like me, not like the Taliban very much but is the fact that we share a rhetorical commitment to certain values really a basis for political agreement and action? I'm not convinced. I presume (and this is only an example, apologies if these aren't positions Marko or anyone else holds) he would argue my support for the immediate withdrawal of coalition forces for Afghanistan betrays my rhetorical commitment to women's rights because, as soon as they depart, the Taliban will take over and do horrible things to them. I, in turn, could counter that he has in fact betrayed his commitment to women's right through his continued support for a war that has involved repeated air strikes on civilians (including women and children) and that anyone who thinks British troops are defenders of women's rights has clearly never been for a night out in Portsmouth.

Finally, I definitely agree with you about the need for civil, level-headed debate.

bob said...

Thanks for your response Duncan. (I deleted the duplicate - Blogger seems to have a weird glitch with longer comments on older blogs. If you get the "URl too large" page, your comment has actually gone up. Anyone who knows a solution, please let me know, apart from the solution Mod will suggest: switch to Wordpress...)

I appreciate that all of the currents and individuals discussed in this post have had, on whole, zero or close to zero purchase on the events at stake, and thus their positions are largely rhetorical. In a sense it doesn't matter if I denounce Milosevic or not; it'll make no difference to what he does.

But then again in some ways it does matter. The Blair government ignored public opinion on Iraq in 2003, but the drip drip of left-led anti-war protest has contributed to the war-weariness which helped get Obama elected and helped Labour lose the last election here. Or, another example, Workers Aid to Bosnia was never going to stop the Srebernica massacre, but it made a material difference on the ground in Yugoslavia. Or, a totally different example, George Galloway's alliance with Islamists has changed the map of both local and national politics in the UK.

I also appreciate that it might have looked like saying that the left WAS good and isn't any longer, which is not what I wanted to say. Support for the USSR, common sense on most of the left for decades, is a good example of why the glorious past is not something to return to.

It would be more accurate to say that the divides I'm talking about have been played out in every decade, with the same sort of contradictions and ambiguities. (This is why, for me, a sense of an anti-totalitarian tradition on the left - from Rudolf Rocker and Sylvia Pankhurst to CLR James to Victor Serge, Andreu Nin and George Orwell, to Raya Dunayevskaya, Irving Howe and Hal Draper, to Murray Bookchin and Maurice Brinton - is important - which I think is something Hitchens addresses in Hitch-22, from what I've gleaned second hand.)

I completely agree that "a return to grassroots community campaigning in communities and workplaces, rebuilding the strength of the trade union movement and helping to create a movement against looming spending cuts" - the dog shit politics as it were - is the most important thing, more important than this stuff.

And I have at times found myself working on the dog shit politics alongside people who I consider pretty "indecent" in one or more of the senses I've used it here.

I'll think some more about this!

Waterloo Sunset said...

1. On the War in the former Yugoslavia, I remember the following 'camps' existing on the far left at the time.

a) Support for NATO intervention. I didn't come across that much. I suspect that's as much to do with the fact I wasn't really moving in Labourite circles, where I'd guess that was most prominent.

b) Overt support for Milosevic. This, I think, was a minority position. The RCP would obviously qualify, but that's as much to do with their relentless contrarism as anything else. I'd also assume the Stalinist flotsam would have taken this position. I'm only familiar with the British left really. I didn't even know about the existence of the Anti German current at that point, let along their position on the war. That is interesting though, because of their influence on some sections of Decency. Engage have cited them favourably, as an example, although not on this issue.

c) Absentionism. These would be the groups that opposed the war, but without either having much argument for what else should be done or calling for a Serbian victory. The SWP and the pacifists took this position.

d) Ultra left absentionism. The world will only be liberated by a global revolution, therefore we do not take sides in capitalist wars and things will not get any better. Actually, grab any analysis of a war from this camp. It doesn't matter which war, they say essentially the same thing every time. The ICC, Wildcat UK, SPGB etc.

e) Passive solidarity from below. Against NATO, but also against Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, but this only really showed itself in analysis, as opposed to any concrete suggestions for the British left. Worker's Power typified this approach, campagigning on a stance of opposition to the intervention, but a call for the arms embargo on Bosnia to be lifted.

f) Active solidarity from below. As you've mentioned, Workers Aid to Bosnia were the most prominent example of this. To their left, you also had Antifascist Aid to Bosnia which were anarchist influenced and promoted reasonably heavily within my local AFA branch at the time. I believe AFA activists were involved in both setting it up and the one convoy they managed to put together.

To summarise, I think that the left's position on this was less simple than you outline. It was a complicated issue and the multitude of views on the left reflected that.

2. On Fitzgate, yes, Jasper has incredibly dodgy politics. He also called for the sending in of the cops against Mayday protestors. However, I don't think that's relevant here.

If one of your regular guest posters is accused of sending racist abuse via email, you immediately launch an investigation. What you don't do is repeatedly call the person with the complaint a liar, while suggesting he isn't black enough to really know about racism.

I deny that this has any resonance for those of us who had criticisms of ARA. Those were political criticisms. Not one of us would have considered it was acceptable to call a leading ARA activist a n*****. And I'm somewhat surprised to find you attempting to contextualise this. Racist abuse is beyond the pale, period. And those blogs still linking to Harry's Place, particuarly those whose blog lists are quite obviously only made up of those they consider political allies, are complicit.

As an aside, it's amusing to see Searchlight loyalists like Andy Newman quickly rewriting history to try and hide the fact Fitz is a prominent HnH activist.

Waterloo Sunset said...

3. On defining decency, I'm not convinced civility is a significant enough factor. I think it's best to stick to politics. As shown by the fact you list Paul Stott. While Paul is generally a civil debater, he is still a promiment activist in Class War, home of the page 3 hospitalised copper. I'd see this more as a question of style as opposed to focus. Besides, I openly advocate political violence against my enemies on the far right. You and Mod condone it, at the very least. That's pretty much the definition of uncivil.

I'd go for a much simpler definition. To steal Marko's term, I think support for liberal intervention, in principle, is the defining factor of decency. Although I'd rename it "capitalist intervention" or "ruling class intervention". Partly because I think decents do need to be very clear about specifically who they are allying themselves with.

4. The other big faultline I see coming into play here is the conflict between belief in liberation from above and liberation from below. I think decents largely fall in the former category. Interestingly, they aren't the only ones. There's a case for it being a variant on vanguardist approaches to revolution. I don't think that Hitchens has moved as far from as his Trot days as he thinks. He's just replaced the concept of the party as agency of liberation, with the concept of the state as said agent. While I accept that decents genuinely see themselves as anti totalitarian, I don't think you can escape the fact they are unmistakably part of the authoritarian left. As such, I think Marko's wholesale rejection of class politics actually makes him one of the most politically consistent decents. When emancipation is first and foremost something that is done to people, as opposed to something people do for themselves, there is no logical reason why the masses need to be involved at all. Benevolent coups, as it were.

Waterloo Sunset said...

As an afterthought, I don't know if you've seen this ?

It's obviously written by someone critical of decency and there's a fair argument they're generalising. But I think there's more than a grain of truth in it.

bob said...

Thanks WS. Very good summary of Yugoslavia. You're right - much more complex than I made out.

On Fitzgate. If the allegations are true, then what Terry F wrote was absolutely appalling, and cannot be contextualised away at all. The more recent claims by Jasper and Woolley, too recent to be included in the court case, are at least as appalling. As the case is on-going, let's see what happens, but if the evidence shows that these were his words, I will completely condemn him, and it will be incumbent on HP to completely repudiate him.

I guess the reason I am hesitating now, is that Jasper (I don't know so much about Woolley, but he seems to be Jasper's man) has such a record of dishonesty that I am not prepared to accept his word without evidence. But you are right, political criticisms of ARA should not make a difference to how I judge this case.

I don't like either the way Seymour uses the case to beat Newman and Hope not Hate, or the way Newman minimises Hope Not Hate's complicity. I was going to go on in my ARA section to why explain why Searchlight played such a pernicious role in creating the political landscape that allowed ARA to take the form it did - maybe some other time!

On general decentism, I'll think about it more. I wrote this post as a way of helping me to think about this, not as any kind of worked through position, and it has worked!

I'll read the Splintered Sunrise piece. SS, however, is compromised in my eyes by his support for Serb nationalism.

Waterloo Sunset said...

You seem to be a bit unclear on some of the details of Fitzgate, so I'll summarise what I know. (I seem to have been following this a lot more closely than you!).

To clarify, the racist email was definitely sent by Terry Fitz. That's no longer in doubt. He posted on Socialist Unity confirming so and repeated the abuse. I have many differences with AN, but I can't see him lying about stuff like IP addresses. HP have banned Fitz from commentating, but that seems to have only happened after he posted on SU. He was certainly still commenting on HP 24 hours after this all kicked off. At the very least, HP's claim of an 'investigation' is looking thin. They only said this after the banning. And, much like Jasper, I certainly am not prepared to take their word on this when the evidence points in another direction.

Seymour's criticism of Newman is unfair I think. It mostly seems to come down to a difference of opinion on comments policy. That said, those two have a love/hate relationship anyway, and posts niggling at the other have been happening on and off for some time. It's not a new development.

HnH, I'm less sure Seymour was unfair on. Although I'm obviously remarkably partisan on anything to do with Searchlight. A leading HnH activist hurling racist abuse is a genuine issue, particuarly considering that allegations in the same area have been made against other team members, Hepple & Hill especially.

You missed a hilarious post by Andy where he said that yes, Collins and Fitz did know each other, through Collins now estranged criminal family. But that wasn't relevant. He took that down very quickly and I stupidly hadn't taken a screenshot. Is it churlish to suspect he had Nick Lowles on the phone shouting at him?

On the Splintered Sunrise post, I take your point, but this is actually him quoting someone else.

john said...

Bob,

At one point in your analysis you suggest that the reason why the SWP were in favor of a defeat for the coalition which had attacked Iraq in 1991 was some residual sympathy for ba'athism as a form of socialist (presumably because statist) ideology. This is a very odd formulation given the SWPs actually existing politics whose roots lie in refusing to treat the extent of state ownership of means of production as a measure of socialism.

The tradition from which the SWP stems was founded on an analyses of state capitalism held to explain both the bureacratic state capitalism's of the East and the growing tendency for state intervention in western countries, the two held to be related in different ways to more global tendencies in capitalism.

Later this analyses led it to have few illusions in the politics of anti-colonial regimes characterized by large scale state intervention but absence of workers control over the results, making it somewhat unpopular on other sections of the left.

The key moment in that tradition is often held to be the Korean war where the embryonic IS refused to take sides on the basis that it was not a national liberation struggle of the Korean people, but a clash between rival imperialism's (ie Russia and the US with China acting as proxy). Obviously this had little practical impact on anything but it effectively laid the basis for what later became the SWP's politics on these positions.

This position has only recently been re-emphasised in the writings of some Korean Marxists in the International Socialism Journal.

john said...

Of course such a position did not rule out support for either national liberation struggles or indeed smaller countries threatened by invasion by one or other imperialist power: however such a position could quite happily be held independently of the politics of either the movement or the state concerned. Its here that controversy has tended to focus, arguments being made attempting to equate Iraq, Iran or indeed Serbia, to Russia or China, by the SWP's more knowledgeable critics. This always seemed to me a logically ludicrous equation but no matter.

It seems very unlikely therefore that the SWP took the position of preferring a defeat for the invaders on the basis of the progressive character of Ba'athism. But of course such a position was much more widely held then simply in the SWP.

Here it might be possible to present a much simpler reason for the divergence between those describing themselves as the decents and the rest of the anti-war left.

Quite simply that if you oppose a war it makes sense that you oppose an invasion. And if you oppose the invasion it makes sense that you wish to see it halted. You don't want a war, and its perfectly natural that you want to see the aggressor halted. This is not of course a pacifist position. But nor is it a defense of the regime in question (and neither is pointing out, for example, that however vile such a regime is it is ludicrous to paint it as a threat to world peace etc or other arguments attempting to justify war: equations with Hitler here tend to loom large).

I am genuinely pleased that a public break with the deeply odious HP has now occurred despite other continuing disagreements: the first indication of this to me was Martin Shaw's disenchantment, first of all with the remnants of the decent left over Georgia and secondly over the knee jerk defense of Israel in almost every situation. He suffered the usual ridiculous attack here:

http://hurryupharry.org/2008/10/03/does-anti-semitism-play-a-serious-part-in-anti-israel-campaigning/

But it was his position on Georgia that was most interesting here. Knowing a little of his work it had always struck me that his was a deeply principled if I believed mistaken defense of the theses that changes in the nature of the world order made anti-imperialism a kind of trap. It was very interesting to me that in this case he refused to fall into it, and despite maintaining his position, understood that there were other kinds of traps as well.

His article on Georgia is here:

http://dissentmagazine.org/democratiya/article_pdfs/d14Shaw-1.pdf

As with Hoare's principled position on the recent contra temps it was a relief to read it at the time. But then it was a very lone voice. Perhaps times are changing and it will prove possible to have more rational disputes today.

Waterloo Sunset said...

Apologies for the large number of multiposts, but I'm adding new thoughts as they occur.

On ARA and the ANL in 1992.

I was 18 at this point, so these memories may well be tainted by the nostalgic zeal of youth!

I'd agree that the rival demonstrations of both ARA and the ANL were childish. However, I don't we can let those of us in AFA off the hook. The position I took at the time, and still hold now, was that we should attend one of the demonstrations (preferably the ANL one as it was likely to be bigger and more broadbased) to put across our own view. That was shared by several branches, mostly in the Midlands and the North. But Red Action, and by extension London AFA, refused to play any part in it. Instead they went to a pub down the road and skirmished with passing fash. I still think that was a mistake, tactically. Our traditional (and often justified) hostility to the liberal left actually led to us missing a chance to put an alternative to people.

I have to say, my personal experience of ARA was more positive than yours. They were certainly establishment antiracists, no doubt about that. But I went along with another guy to their local launch meeting as semi official AFA representatives. And they were pretty decent with us. Interestingly though, that wasn't Lee Jasper. I've only had very limited contact with Jasper and he didn't impress me. He seemed pompous and appeared as if he was most comfortable surrounded by sycophants. But he wasn't at this meeting. Instead, we dealt with Marc Wadsworth. As you might expect from a television presenter, he was friendly and personable. In fact, I'd go as far as to say he was actively charming. He was even reasonably sympathetic to AFA, to the extent of telling us he thought the two groups had different focuses and he would have no problem with dual membership.

From the sounds of it, that wasn't reflected in London ARA. But I think it's possible that, as relative outsiders, you and I may have missed some of the nuances of the various viewpoints within ARA itself. It's interesting to note that Marc Wadsworth isn't a member of Socialist Action (there seems to have been some tension between them and him within ARA) and seems to have carefully kept his independence from Livingstone, unlike many other ARA figures. I have to say, I still think he's one of the good guys, from what I've seen of his current work.

On the ANL, I also think it's fair to say the other main group they were set up in competition to was AFA. It was unpalatable to the SWP leadership to start working with a group led by people they'd once expelled. That was reflected in how they interacted with us on the ground. They refused pointblack to consider any joint work at all (unlike the YRE, who were pretty nonsectarian, at least locally). And I know of at least one person who resigned from the SWP after they had a go at him for going out with AFA on actions. Obviously, I'm not claiming that hostility was all one way. We still see their political approach in UAF, the attempts to ride both the militant and the liberal horses at once. And I think the existence of both ARA and AFA made them feel squeezed, especially as AFA were a lot more prominent and bigger than Antifa are now.

Waterloo Sunset said...

On Shift, they're certainly not part of the mainstream left. But I'm not in favour of putting them in the decent camp, even just by association.

I think that's my own bias showing. Whereas one of your motivations seems to be to try and define decency in a way that allows you to disentangle yourself from some of its more undesirable elements, I start from a broadly hostile view to decency. And what it really boils down to is that I agree with Shift on a hell of a lot. And I'm not entirely comfortable with a group I'm supportive of being claimed for decency.

That would also explain why I'm reluctant to let either Paul Stott or Stuart Craft be put into that category. (I even have that problem with you to an extent. I'm more inclined to seeing liberals as decents, not people sympathetic to militant antifascism).

Somewhat tongue in cheek, perhaps it's not only time for you to reassess decency in the hope of reclaiming it. Perhaps some of us need to do the same with indecency. Because this is a relatively new development. In the past, the indecent left existed, but in opposition to the cobwebs. It was made up of the likes of Class War, Red Action, the squadists, the Situationists, the stuntists, the work resisters, the occultists in silly hats, the proudly lumpen, the ungovernable. And maybe it's time we took it back...

On a lighter note, you really should write more about comics. As it will allow me to show that I'm not a onedimensional politico. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend Phonogram. Best thing I've read since Watchmen. And that really isn't hyperbole.

Waterloo Sunset said...

As if on cue, Harry's Place are now running a guest post on what seems to be the Anti Germans, although it doesn't specifically call them that. A few links related to the ADs that may be of interest.

The Antigermans and the World Cup

Lengthy Oi Polloi interview/debate by an Antigerman fanzine

With the latter, the questions are in German but the answers are in English!

Marko Attila Hoare said...

'I think support for liberal intervention, in principle, is the defining factor of decency. Although I'd rename it "capitalist intervention" or "ruling class intervention". Partly because I think decents do need to be very clear about specifically who they are allying themselves with.'

I'd take this a step further: the principal faultine between the Decent Left and rest of the Left was over which side to take between the US and its allies in Iraq on the one hand, and the anti-war movement on the other. Thus, even Decent Leftists who opposed the war in Iraq prior to the invasion, subsequently came down against the anti-war movement as represented by the Stop the War Coalition.

The Decent Left thus supported the Western alliance and the liberal-capitalist mainstream against the Stoppers, Islamists, Iraqi insurgents and Taliban.

The second principal faultline is that Decent Leftists tend to be pro-Israeli, or at least strongly in favour of defending Israel, whereas the rest of the left tends to be anti-Israeli, or at least strongly pro-Palestinian (though personally I take a more centrist position on this issue).

'The other big faultline I see coming into play here is the conflict between belief in liberation from above and liberation from below. I think decents largely fall in the former category.'

I don't think this is quite true; most Decent Leftists would support liberation both from above and from below. For example, Harry's Place has - commendably - consistently supported Iranian popular and democratic opposition to the regime, and supported the Burmese monks against the junta.

Whatever you think about the invasion of Iraq (and my own feelings are mixed, although I supported it), there is obviously more scope for grass-roots activism and agitation in Iraq now than there was under Saddam's totalitarian regime.

As a disclaimer, I'd reject the notion - put forward by the folks at Aaronovitch Watch, for example - that the left can simply be divided into the Decent Left and the Indecent Left. The Decent Left is simply one left-wing current among many, and the differences among the rest of the left are often as great or greater as between them and the Decents.

bob said...

Thanks for all the comments, and welcome to John.

@WS re Fitzgate - I am clearly way behind on this, and made the wrong call. I will look at the wording of my post and consider changing it. HP obviously also made the wrong call. I am not sure how decison making works at HP, as its founder Harry is, I think, absent - whether the older writers come to a consensus, or what.

@WS re Sunrise: still haven't read the post, but on his Serbian sympathies I wasn't refering to the post but to a longer standing pattern. See Marko on this.

Got to run - more later.

kellie said...

Hi Bob, I've been meaning to return to this thread with something more considered than my first crude scribblings, but find myself overwhelmed not just by your more experienced and better read commenters, but also by the relentlessness of offline life.

However I'm still here in the corner, listening with much interest to a very good discussion!

bob said...

Belatedly resuming.

@John re SWP. It is certainly the case that the IS tradition, and the broader Third Camp/ant-"state capitalist" position, initially meant the IS/SWP were able to avoid the pitfalls of a certain kind of "anti-imperialism" that cursed the post-Pabloite Trots.

However, by the time of the first Gulf War, the SWP's adherence to this tradition was already attenuated. Instead of taking a third camp position, and recognising that the war was between two rival imperialisms (a small fascist imperialism and a big liberal democratic imperialism coming to the aid of a small feudal kingdom), the SWP actively called for victory for the small fascist imperialism.

This was what was documented by Mikey's HP post to which I linked. What this post does not show, you are right to say, that this call for Iraqi victory had anything to do, on the part of the SWP, for any affection for Ba'athism, and I have therefore removed the hyperlink from the place it was.

Nonetheless, other parts of the left (I can't think now of specific examples, but I remember having the conversation) saw Saddam as not only "anti-imperialist" but also relatively progressive; women's rights, for example, were much more developed in Iraq than Kuwait.

bob said...

Still @John "Quite simply that if you oppose a war it makes sense that you oppose an invasion.

Hmm. I don't think this is so simple. There are lots of ways of opposing a war, including pacifism, which you mention, which I think is wrong but has an integrity of its own, and all the other options itemised by Waterloo Sunset at 26 August, 2010 23:37 above.

I opposed the invasion, but then opposed the insurgency - while the SWP celebrated it as "the resistance". I opposed the invasion - but I did not call for America's defeat (which, surely, is another way of saying Saddam's victory isn't it?) as the SWP did.

bob said...

@John and Waterloo re what defines the "decent left" and re Martin Shaw and Shift.

I wasn't trying in this post to reconfigure or renew or redefine the "decent left". I was reflecting on some of different senses the word "decent" might have, and different kinds of ways in which a backlash against "indecentism" has been expressed.

There is something like an official "Decent Left", associated with the Euston manifesto, the Henry Jackson Society, Norm's blog, Democratiya, Harry's Place and Labour Friends of Iraq.

On the one hand, this is already not exactly coherent - Norm still calls himself a Marxist, some members were actively opposed to the invasion of Iraq, etc. Marko is one of many who have been critical of HP's tolerance of racists and Islamophobes, even though he is more right-wing than HP on lotd of issues.

On the other hand, there is a wider and even more heterogeneous formation that certainly includes Shaw and Shift, that I think exists, but I have no name for. This is part of the purpose of the post, to float that idea.

(And if I'm right, and there is something important that Martin Shaw and Shift and me have in common, then that doesn't mean all other differences are less important or not worth thinking about.)

bob said...

Now @WS re ARA/ANL

I think ANL was set up in competition to both AFA and ARA, and did not have any raison d'etre not covered by the other two, which did have very different functions.

ARA was contradictory, and included good elements. I was involved in both CARF and AFA for some time, with no sense of contradiction, and CARF then affiliated to ARA when it was founded.

The situation was also different in London from elsewhere - sectarianism, power hunger and territorialism are much worse in London; elsewhere people just get on with it based on what they've got to hand - even sometimes the SWP!!

I didn't get a good vibe off Wadsworth, but wouldn't class him with Jasper. Somewhere, on a USB stick where my dead machines are backed up, I have material I wrote about this at the time, which I will try to find and post.

The other part of the story, not included in this post, is the experience of the Socialist Alliance, another organisation with some potential killed by SWP sectarianism/oppourtunism.

bob said...

Still @WS

Re reclaiming indecency: yes, I think I defined civility/incivility too narrowly in the post; there's lots of different sorts of incivilities, and some of them are perfectly compatible with common human decency. Or, rather, common human decency requires us to sometimes be un-civil.

Re comics: OK!

Re Antio-Germans: the original ones were pro-Serb because they saw Germany's recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as the cause of the problem. The emergence of anti-nationalism from anti-Germanism reflected a sensible backlash against this.

Thanks for the links. Contacts in Germany tell me the German flag issue is probably not anti-Germans, but just "anti-imperialists" (one man of Lebanese origin was told to put up a Palestinian flag instead of a German one)! Anyone who knows any more about this, I'd be keen to hear.

The Herf piece on liberal anti-fascists that HP links to, some of the people mentioned are ex-anti-Germans (Kuntzl), others still (Grigat) and others nothing to do with it (Pfeifer). But it's interesting nonetheless.

Not read the Oi Polloi interview yet, but will!

bob said...

@Marko

"most Decent Leftists would support liberation both from above and from below. For example, Harry's Place has - commendably - consistently supported Iranian popular and democratic opposition to the regime, and supported the Burmese monks against the junta."

This is an interesting issue, that is right at the heart of it for me. Is it possible to support intervention from above and intervention from below at the same time, or do they exclude each other? In other words, is it coherent to support Workers Aid for Bosnia AND Nato bombs?

This relates to the issue of motive and consequence Kellie raises. (Thanks, kellie, for listening.) Is it possible to be glad the intervention from above is occuring, even if you know it is occurring for bad reasons?

A decade ago, my answer to all of these questions would have been "not sure but probably not", whereas now it is "not sure but probably".

"I'd reject the notion - put forward by the folks at Aaronovitch Watch, for example - that the left can simply be divided into the Decent Left and the Indecent Left. The Decent Left is simply one left-wing current among many, and the differences among the rest of the left are often as great or greater as between them and the Decents."

Yes, spot on.

Marko Attila Hoare said...

'Marko is one of many who have been critical of HP's tolerance of racists and Islamophobes, even though he is more right-wing than HP on lotd of issues.'

What issues are these ? I don't pretend to be very left-wing, and wouldn't even define myself as part of 'the Left'. I'd define myself as a centrist; I'm bi-partisan rather than pro-Labour. Otherwise, I don't think I'm more right-wing than Harry's Place.

johng said...

Hi Bob,
(and its John, google account in error)
I certainly do think pacifism can be a principled position. I was simply trying to outline that it isn't the only one.

On the notion of third campism, I think there are problems of definition. There is a case to be made that my own tradition was closely connected to that doctrine.

However there is third campism and third campism. In the Korean war the analyses was that this was a case of two rival power blocs. A simple enough position to respond to as a third campist. Howvever its also true that in some cases Hal Draper seemed to slide into issuing a slogan like Neither Washington nor Hanoi, a slogan arguably entirely different to neither Washington nor Moscow (as is neither Washington or Baghdad today).

Vietnam was not Korea because what was involved was not two rival global super-powers but one super-power committing aggression against a regime which may internally have been nasty but was hardly involved in policing the system on a global scale.

Of course its aggressive as well. But Imperialism is a hierarchy of competing nation states so its not surprising that those further down the food chain mmay often be as nasty.

If some on the left did support North Vietnam because of support for its politics, this was never the case for the SWP. Hence I think my rejection of attempting to characteristic the war in terms of regime types.

I think characterizing these wars purely in terms of the types of regime in involved runs the risk of a default position of supporting the major imperialist powers, which are very often democratic, when they go to war, as well as I think expressing a largely illusory belief that democratic countries can't commit terrible crimes on the international stage because they are democratic (possibly the most dangerous idea of the last ten years).

bob said...

John, as I said, I recognise the roots of the SWP in third camp socialism. My instinct is with you about Vietnam. (We discussed that towards the end of this long this comment thread, one that overlaps significantly with the conversation going on over at Andrew Coates' place).

There are some ways, though, that Draper was not wrong, because N Vietnam might have been a small country and undoubtedly the victim of American aggression, it was nonetheless part of a the same global armed camp as N Korea in the Korean war.

Saddam's Iraq was not part of such a camp, and the first Gulf War took place in a uni-polar post-Cold War world, and then there might have been an argument for Saddam's victory, particularly as the Coalition then had no desire to liberate the people from his tryranny (as amply demonstrted by the shameful way we ended the war, betraying the Kurds and epecially teh Shi'ite south). In a unipolar world, the Third Camp position is a bit less tenable.

However, by 2003, I don't think the world was any longer unipolar. A new global power cartography was beginning to emerge, and in this a victory for Saddam was not just a victory against the dominant power. Plus the western war aims were different, and for many more reasons the situation was a lot more complicated than the SWP position, to my mind, allowed for.

So, I agree that simply making an evaluation on the basis of type of regime is not enough, but nor is making an evaluation on the basis of the geopolitical balance of power.

--

Marko, I can't think of any examples, although I'm sure I had some in my mind when I posted it! Maybe I was thinking of your "vote Labour or Conservative" post: HP would never advocate even contemplating a Tory vote would they?

Duncan said...

On a different note to my comment above, I recently read a reference to left intellectuals in France who supported France during the war in Algeria on the grounds that the French were upholding certain republican values in the country while those opposed to French rule were backward, barbarous, etc.

I don't know how much truth there is in this (or who the intellectuals were) but it could be seen as an interesting precusor to modern 'decents'.

Does it ring any bells Andrew?

Michael Ezra said...

johng entirely forgets that what the Vietnam war was really about was America trying to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression directed from the North.

Having said that, I am not surprised that johng inverts the truth.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Marko

The Decent Left thus supported the Western alliance and the liberal-capitalist mainstream against the Stoppers, Islamists, Iraqi insurgents and Taliban.

That's a valid summary I think. And I'd see Iraq as more crucial to defining decency than either former Yugoslavia or 9/11.

The only thing I'd add to that is that there was a third camp, comprised of people who opposed the war, without supporting the 'resistance'. Including many 'Stoppers'. In fact, I think that was one of the reasons for the shrinkage of the anti war movement, as many who were against the war disliked the increasing focus on supporting the insurgents.

The second principal faultline is that Decent Leftists tend to be pro-Israeli, or at least strongly in favour of defending Israel, whereas the rest of the left tends to be anti-Israeli, or at least strongly pro-Palestinian (though personally I take a more centrist position on this issue).

This may seem slightly pedantic, but I think it's generally a mistake to talk about people supporting whole societies in this way, as opposed to specific elements within those societies. To all intents and purposes, many decents are supporters of the Israeli government/state specifically. In most cases, they're a lot less sympathetic to the Israeli left. And, interestingly, reports of strike action within Israel are very thin on the ground, from both the Zionist and the Anti Zionist camps. In the former case, because they see it as undermining support for the Israeli state. In the latter, because they subordinate all other issues regarding Israel to the occupation of Palestine.

I don't think this is quite true; most Decent Leftists would support liberation both from above and from below. For example, Harry's Place has - commendably - consistently supported Iranian popular and democratic opposition to the regime, and supported the Burmese monks against the junta.

On reflection, I think you're right to call me on that. While the focus of the Decent Left seems to mostly be on top down intervention, you're correct to say that isn't universal.

I would observe that this mostly seems to be focused on regimes seen as opposed to Western (or more specifically US and UK state) interests. There's relatively little focus on atrocities in Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. And with Sri Lanka, many Decents seemed only be interested in talking about how it was an example of the rest of the left ignoring a country that wasn't Israel!

That difference is even more glaring within the West. Very few decents (with the possible exception of those at the far left of decency with Bob) support the overthrow of Western regimes. That's understandable, as many decents see capitalist democracy as either a good thing or at least the best currently possible. What's more telling is the lack of support for things like the campaign against the cuts within Greece.

You don't really fit into this pattern of relflecting Western interests, as I'd not see the former Yugoslavia as currently prominent in the thinking of the Western political class. But both your personal interest in and your indepth knowledge and research of the area seem very personal, as opposed to reflective of a wider pattern.

Whatever you think about the invasion of Iraq (and my own feelings are mixed, although I supported it), there is obviously more scope for grass-roots activism and agitation in Iraq now than there was under Saddam's totalitarian regime.

There's less systematic torture and/or killing. I'm less convinced there's a real difference in potential for activism and agitation. Most of Saddam Hussain's anti union laws are still on the books.

Waterloo Sunset said...

As a disclaimer, I'd reject the notion - put forward by the folks at Aaronovitch Watch, for example - that the left can simply be divided into the Decent Left and the Indecent Left. The Decent Left is simply one left-wing current among many, and the differences among the rest of the left are often as great or greater as between them and the Decents.

Indeed. The wide variance in political positions in this discussion alone shows that isn't the case. Ironically, Aaronovitch Watch are proof of that, being as they're left liberals, not socialists. (I think Encyclopedia of Decency has a valid defense of being satirical, which doesn't always lend itself to nuance). I think that happens quite a lot though. Both sides have a tendency to caricaturise each other's positions. In some ways, as someone highly critical of decency, Harry's Place (and cold war warriors like Michael Ezra) are a pretty easy target. Easier than the more complex analysis of the likes of you and Bob.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Bob

This is an interesting issue, that is right at the heart of it for me. Is it possible to support intervention from above and intervention from below at the same time, or do they exclude each other? In other words, is it coherent to support Workers Aid for Bosnia AND Nato bombs?

In almost all cases, I think they're mutually exclusive. It's near impossible for grassroots opposition to operate in war conditions. Even in a case like the Spanish Revolution, almost all agitation was pushed aside to concentrate on the war effort. Including by those who were arguing that you needed to win the revolution to win the war.

Is it possible to be glad the intervention from above is occuring, even if you know it is occurring for bad reasons?

More than that, there's also the question of whether supporting an intervention for bad reasons makes you complicit in those reasons. And does doing so make you a de facto supporter of those doing the intervention? On that question, I think decents are often inconsistent. They argue that you can't support Hamas without being tainted by their antisemitism. (Which I agree with). But they don't see that as making them responsible for all the policies of George Bush, including the ones they disagree with.

A decade ago, my answer to all of these questions would have been "not sure but probably not", whereas now it is "not sure but probably".

That's probably the crux of our political differences. If anything, I've moved in the opposite direction to you, considering my past sympathy for 'national liberation' movements. I'm still more ambivalent than most anarchists about propaganda by the deed, at least in principle.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Michael Ezra

johng entirely forgets that what the Vietnam war was really about was America trying to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression directed from the North.

No, you're wrong.

The insurgency in the South first started in response to Diem's "Denounce the Communists" campaign. (Actually a campaign against political opponents in general). Estimated death toll around 12,000. Plus around 40,000 people in jail. For political beliefs, not actions.

On top of that, the North Vietnam Communist Party was originally against the insurgency. It was a homegrown movement from the south that kicked it off.

Having said that, I am not surprised that johng inverts the truth.

Apologists for the murder of 12,000 people shouldn't throw stones...

Michael Ezra said...

Waterloo Sunset states that "The insurgency in the South
first started in response to Diem's 'Denounce the Communists' campaign."

I have to inform Waterloo Sunset that he is wrong on this point, although I am aware that others have had this theory in the past including Jean Lacouture and Philippe Devillers who made this claim in the 1960s. Propaganda put out by the VWP (Vietnamese Workers' Party - communist party of Vietnam) also espoused this view.

While it is true that Diem was very repressive and this did lead to pressure for an armed action in the South, the claim that Diem's repressiveness led to the insurgency is not supported by the historical evidence. This evidence shows beyond doubt that the NLF was formed because the Communists in the North led by Ho Chi Minh said that it should be formed. Guenter Lewy comments, "The decision to form armed units throughout the South in order to smash the GVN was made by the Fifteenth Conference of the Central Committee [of the VWP], meeting in Hanoi in January 1959, though the new policy directive was not issued until may 1959." The reason for the establishment was a "typical communist front organisation to hide the direction of the insurgency by the Communists." They waited to start the armed insurrection until the revolutionary situation in the South was "ripe." The party wanted the situation to be "ripe" and systematic terror was used: "the extermination of traitors." Those exterminated included those necessary in an administration such as school teachers, social workers, medical personal etc. The purpose of this was to goad Diem's regime. A prominent defector put it as follows: "the more people were terrorized, the more they reacted in opposition, yet the more they reacted, the more violently they were terrorized. Continue this until the situation is ripe, and it will explode... we had to make the people suffer, suffer until they could no longer endure it. Only then would they carry out the party's armed policy. That is why the party waited until it did."

Consequently, it can be seen that the whole situation was stirred up deliberately as part of a planned action by the Communists to make the situation ripe for revolution.

For a more extensive discussion see my source:

Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 1978) pp.15-17.

johng said...

I think its fair to say that those who seek to argue that America was defending freedom in Vietnam are not part of the left, decent or otherwise. Its pretty pointless attempting to respond to Ezra's endless recycling of right wing revisionist US historiography as I've found out on other occasions.

Bob's remarks on the changing structure of geo-politics, and the conclusions to be drawn from it strike me as key analytical issues in assessing the real divides here. I also thought Hoare's point about the underlying issues not being decency but difference in analyses was fair.

Usually however these arguments are not really seriously addressed in discussions between opponents on this question although there is much discussion amongst themselves (see below).

It does seem to me that another key question is the connection between regime type and foreign policy. I think there was a growing belief that Transnational organisations might institute a more liberal international order which might spawn a global human rights regime. Dangerously this idea became linked to the idea of an 'alliance of democratic nations', every theory demanding some kind of sociology of agency.

I obviously think these beliefs were profoundly mistaken. I think the issue Bosnia was a seriously tough one for the left.

I can remember one discussion with a member of an Islamic group at the time. He suggested that the failure of the west to intervene in Bosnia had been key to his decision to become a supporter of Political Islam. I suggested that he should be careful what he wished for.

This raises a more general strategic issue for liberals and the left which is worth pondering.

Many point to the difficulties of sustaining a blanket opposition to western intervention. Typically arguments proceed by invoking what might be described as special cases. The difficulty here is that all these discussions took place against the backdrop of a more and more permissive global regime of intervention.

The overall balance sheet of that new global regime is I think a central issue in how we judge the history of these arguments.

Incidentally Bob, contrary to many sections of the left, the SWP has never believed in the theses of the 'unilateral moment'. Perhaps the most serious recent account of the SWPs politics on these questions is Alex Callinico's new book on theories of Imperialism.

On the basis of 'know thine enemy' it might be worth reading.

Michael Ezra said...

I guess johng has also forgotten about JFK's inauguration address where he stated the now famous words:

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us we]l or ill, that
we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,
support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and
the success of liberty."

But perhaps johng has not forgotten it but thinks that it should not be mentioned as it is also part of "right wing revisionist US historiography."

What I am concerned with is the historical truth. This should not be a function as to whether someone is or is not the left, but a function of honesty.


(Bob from Brockley, I apologise my previous comment came up twice, please delete one of these.)

Coventrian said...

Ezra's source Guenter Lewy denies that the Americans commmitted genocide in Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos

He also denies that:

The Americans committed Genocide against the Native American Indians

The Turks committed Genocide against the Armenians

The Nazis committed Genocide against the Roma

In other words, a serial genocide denier.

To quote Noam Chomsky,

Lewy's "concept of the writing of moral-historical tracts... is misrepresentation of documents, uncritical regurgitation of government claims, and dismissal of annoying facts that contradict them, and [his] concept of morality is such as to legitimate virtually any atrocity against civilians once the state has issued its commands."

http://www.winkestleak.net/vietnam1.html

Marko Attila Hoare said...

John, btw, I thought it was totally out of order what Rosie Bell said about you in her post on comments policy over at Shiraz Socialist. I'm sorry, because I like her and she's always seemed a decent sort. I hope it's just a brief attack of Will-itis.

johng said...

Thanks Marko. I was named after JFK Michael. I am aware of his speeches.

bob said...

I realise how ignorant I am about the actual details of the Vietnam war. Can anyone recommend the essential reading?

I don't know much about Lewy, although I've seen lots of criticisms of his work on the Roma.

Incidentally, I believe it is correct he denies that America committed genocide in Cambodia, but does not deny that a genocide occurred. I disagree with him on his judgment about the Gypsies and Armenia, altho am not sure if genocide is exactly the right terminology for what was visited upon the Native Americans. Is he generally seen as a reliable source?

I also thought that Rosie was out of order in her language in that post at Shiraz Socialist, enjoyable though I found it. I am very glad that the standard of conversation in this thread has been so high. (Saying that clearly sets me up as a hostage to fortune; it will probably now descend into a mudslinging battle.)

I won't be able to check in very often in the next few days, but do please carry on whether I'm here or not!

johng said...

Well just to make Michael Ezra scream with rage (its sometimes entertaining) I remember quite enjoying Kolko's the Anatomy of War.

In arguments about American foreign policy he is one of those who has since come to be associated with post-revisionism: that is argument against the revisionists who think the Vietnam war could have been won with a little more gritty determination and less attention being paid to long haired students etc.

Its these revisionists who seem to provide the staple for the kinds of accounts Michael favors: more interestingly there is a resemblance between #some# of their arguments and some of the anti-realist arguments deployed by those liberals who think we must continue with Bush's wars in the name of liberal duty.

Confusingly enough though Kolko's work as a domestic historian is associated with what in the US is called 'revisionism' which is actually politically not on the left at all but a kind of American radical populism (one of their arguments being that capitalists are the biggest enemies of the free market).

But is book on Vietnam was the staple of the New Left of the time, and none the worst for it in my view. That was, after all, one we won. If Kolko's book is useful in terms of the big picture (geo-politics, military strategy, calculations in Washinton, Moscow and Hanoi etc) one dimension of the human cost (not the biggest cost of course) is Christian Appy's 'Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers in Vietnam', a brilliant oral history from which much can be learnt.

Its a particularly devastating book for the revisionists, and if I didn't know that Michael was a hedge fund guru I might even have bought him a copy.

I would of course be expected to say that Jonathan Neales book on Vietnam is excellent and useful (aside from anything else its assessment of contemporary arguments on the right about Vietnam is very relevant), so I will.

He also wrote a very good review of Appy:

http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj79/neale.htm

Michael Ezra said...

I see I am now being attacked for presenting accurate information because the source is not liked. It is amusing that Coventrian uses a quote from Noam Chomsky to criticise Lewy. Chomsky is hardly noted for accuracy in his political writings. In fact, on pages 223-4 of America in Vietnam, Lewy accuses Chomsky of being one of the intellectuals who accepted Vietnamese Communist propaganda.

It is fair to say that Lewy's 2005 book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey has been highly criticised. His book on Vietnam which I used is much better. It was a very important book when it came out and was published by Oxford University Press, one of the world's most prestigious academic publishing houses. For a single volume on the Vietnam War, I certainly think that this book should be read. (It is also well written, quite comprehensive and not difficult to read.)

One of the finest books that I know on this area is Arthur J. Dommen's, The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (Indiana University Press, 2001). This really is an outstanding work. The problem is that while it is meticulous and detailed, it is not, in my opinion, so easy to read. I would suggest it more as a reference book as opposed to a book that can be read easily on the beach.

For something more recent and from where I am about to use as a source, I suggest the following:

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965,(Cambridge University Press, 2006).

This really is superb, but as you should be able to guess from the title, this only deals with the period leading up to the war and the beginning of the war. The reason for this is that this book by Moyar is the first volume ending on July 28, 1965, the date when LBJ announced the first of many large increases in the amount of troops. Volume 2, the final volume, is not yet out. I am eagerly awaiting publication. (Incidentally, Moyar in the first volume is highly critical of the US for supporting the coup against Diem in November 1963.)

In any event, back to the point I was making against Waterloo Sunset's claim that "The insurgency in the South first started in response to Diem's 'Denounce the Communists' campaign, one can see what Moyar states (reference above, p.79.):

"At the end of 1956, the Vietnamese Communist Party took its first steps towards the reactivation of the armed struggle in the South. The orders came down from Hanoi to the Party’s committee for Nam Bo, a region roughly equivalent to what the French had called Cochinchina, the southern
third of Vietnam. At the Second Conference of the Nam Bo committee, the Party authorized its members in the South to kill 'traitors,' though it also concluded that the time was not yet ripe for a full military struggle [Emphasis added]."

Moyar adds on page 83 that in January 1959:

"Ho Chi Minh came down in favor of an armed struggle, and his opinion carried the day. The Central Committee then resolved, '[o]ur Party must make active preparations in all fields' for 'staging an insurrection to overthrow the U.S.-Diem regime' and 'to unify the nation.' The war would not just be a local struggle, Ho stressed, but part of a global struggle against the enemies of Communism: 'We must include South Vietnam in the over all revolution of our entire nation and include our nation’s revolution in the world revolution. The socialist revolution is gaining in strength and breadth. Imperialism is in decline.”

Michael Ezra said...

I do not "scream with rage" at johng's suggestion of Kolko's, Anatomy of a War, I simply laughed. From what I recall, the book is dedicated to Ho Chi Minh!

Below I copy an extract from a review of the book by George C. Herring published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 92, No. 2 (Apr., 1987) pp. 350-362:


"Kolko's book is fundamentally flawed. It is painfully long, its prose turgid and repetitious. The last half of it, covering the period after the Tet Offensive, adds little that is new, and in general it is not as provocative as Kolko's earlier works, perhaps because the radical position on the war has already been fully articulated.

Kolko is forthright about his bias. He concedes his enthusiasm for 'autonomous social development in the Third World' and admits that he 'fully welcomed' Vietnam's success over the United States. But his claim that his partisanship does not stand in the way of 'objective scholarship' is at best naive, at worst disingenuous. He itemizes in great detail the countless 'dark deeds' committed by the United States
and South Vietnam while glossing over North Vietnamese and Vietcong atrocities. Local party activists sometimes became overzealous and violated orders, he says. In any event, 'revolutionary morality did not require sainthood.' Throughout the book, he waxes lyrical about the glories of the revolution, while portraying the United States and its South Vietnamese clients as stupid and evil. Sometimes this contrast reaches ludicrous extremes, as when he uses the culinary accomplishments of the PAVN to demonstrate its institutional superiority."

As for Jonathan Neale's book, The American War: Vietnam 1960-1975, I am not familiar with it, and as I note that it is published by Bookmarks, I highly I doubt I shall ever bother becoming familiar with it. Perhaps johng should read, Norman Podhoretz's book, Why We Were in Vietnam, (Simon and Schuster, 1982). He might learn something.

johng said...

Why is it Michael that you think 'bias' is always a problem? It isn't as if most of what you recommend isn't biased. I think to proclaim ones bias at the outset is good practice. It makes the reader aware of things to look out for and better able to make their own judgments of a books contents. Far worse in my view is to parade a list of publications, all of them arguing a particular case, and pretending that they simply represent the best scholarship rather then that they just happen to be books that you agree with. Importantly just because these books are all attempts to argue that the consensus at the end of the war (that the US mission in Vietnam was an inevitable failure and a misbegotten adventure) was wrong does not mean that what they say is false. Its just to say that the term 'bias' makes very little sense. Of course if someone distorts facts to suit their bias, that's a different matter. But one suspects that your not in much of a position to do that. That's because in all likelihood most of the way you respond comprises in googling a book and finding out whether the people you like like it. It doesn't lead to a very interesting discussion if your having a conversation with people who don't like what you like.

As an aside I think the obsession with 'bias' has been part of the conservative reaction against liberalism in the US. Apparently everything thats gone wrong in the US over the last thirty years is the product of liberal media and liberal lefty historians. Its a wierd kind of Bennism in reverse.

Until Harry's Place I didn't think we had an equivalent in Britain.

johng said...

Oh and it was Napoleon who discovered the importance of Culinary achievements in armies I believe. Knew a bit more about soldiering then a bunch of conservative chicken hawks...

johng said...

I thought this a balanced assessment on Chomsky by Louis Proyect in 2002. Chomsky is obviously a key figure of demarcation. It is obviously 'biased'.

http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/20020815.htm

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Bob

If you're looking for a more orthodox historical view of the Vietnam War, try starting with "The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy 1941-1968" by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. "America and Vietnam" by George Herring is also worth a read. It should be noted that John's suggested sources on this are reasonably radical (as he freely states). Kolko's scholarship is widely regarded overall, but he is considered a revisionist. (Although he's hostile to both Stalin and Mao, which makes him more complex than Michael is trying to imply on this). But you should also be aware that Michael is choosing only to cite a specific school of revisionist historians, who are very much in the minority as far as Vietnam scholarship goes. Personally, I'd recommend reading some of the more mainstream works before you delve into either side of the more unorthodox interpretations.

@ Michael

I'm not sure how many times I'm prepared to bat this one back and forth, for two main reasons. Firstly, it seems a bit off topic to me, although Bob, as always, is indulging us. It's reasonably telling that you seem unwilling to engage on the subject of Harryism. I can sympathise however. I try to avoid defending the indefensible as well. More crucially, our approaches to historical debate seem very different. I prefer to critically analyse source material and draw my own conclusions. (Including historians I'm politically sympathetic to. To give just one example, I think Hill's work on the English Revolution is extremely flawed). Whereas you prefer to quote chunks of text from historians you agree with, without attempting to evaluate them yourself. Even on historians you disagree with, you take that approach. If we look at your comments on Kolko, it's noticable that all you've done is criticise his acknowledgements page and then told us Herring's view on him. You didn't actually try to criticise him yourself, either his arguments or his validity as a historian. That is probably an insurmountable difference on this. It wouldn't be as problematic if we were discussing primary sources, but there's only so far I can discuss secondary sources with someone who is unable or unwilling to use their own personal interpretation of what they're quoting.

Anyway...

I have to inform Waterloo Sunset that he is wrong on this point, although I am aware that others have had this theory in the past including Jean Lacouture and Philippe Devillers who made this claim in the 1960s.

And the vast majority of orthodox historians, including modern ones. This isn't a new, nor a radical, analysis I'm putting across here.

To narrow this down to the very basics, do you accept that there was no military action by the NLF until after the 'Denounce the Communists' campaign was underway? That's a yes or no question.

Furthermore, do you recognise that, at the very least, American intervention in Vietnam was consistent with the Domino Theory analysis prevalent in US political circles at the time.

Waterloo Sunset said...

Now, to explain why I'm not prepared to allow you to use Lewy as your only source in this discussion. (Bob, this may also go some way to answering your questions on the reliability of Lewy as a source. Although I'm merely going to outline my issues here and you can draw your own conclusions.

1. Lewy is a revisionist and a highly controversial one and that. In itself, that's fine. Revisionism is absolutely valid and, indeed, necessary in historical studies. (Although I think Lewy falls into negationism at times, which isn't legitimate). However, while you shouldn't use a single source on issues this complex anyway, you absolutely can not do so with a revisionist, left or right. (There's no way you'd accept me solely using Zinn, though I'm used to your intellectual inconsistancy by now). For your use of Lewy to be valid, you need to compare his account and conclusions to that of other historians and tackle the disagreements head on. Note that needs to be the orthodox historians, not you just citing those like Podhoretz who are from the same school as Lewy.

2. I require a full list of all citations for Lewy's claims. (I don't own a copy of his book and haven't read it for years). In the case of Lewy specifically, this needs to be direct sources for each claim, not merely a bibliography. In the case of Lewy, this is absolutely fair. He previously used an unverifiable (and possibly non existent) Naval Investigative Service report to draw conclusions. One which the US government has no record of. When pressed, he airly claimed he couldn't remember whether he'd read the report or merely had it mentioned to him. As such, I'm not prepared to take his word that his sources are valid, I need concrete evidence that's the case.

3. Finally, he's unquestionably a genocide denier. To quote the Southern Poverty Law Centre:

"Lewy is one of the most active members of a network of American scholars, influence peddlers and website operators, financed by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the government of Turkey, who promote the denial of the Armenian genocide — a network so influential that it was able last fall to defy both historical truth and enormous political pressure to convince America's lawmakers and even its president to reverse long-held policy positions. But it's not only Armenians calling the slaughter a genocide, and there is no real debate about its essential details, according to the vast majority of credible historians. Although Lewy's brand of genocide denial is subtler than that of Holocaust deniers who declare there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, it's no less an attempt to rewrite history.""

I need you to explain why Lewy is the only possible source you can use on this, as opposed to using one who isn't a genocide denier. This isn't about Vietnam per se, I'd take the same stance if you were happily citing Irving.

I also have a question. Were you not aware this was Lewy's position when you cited him, or did you think genocide denial was unimportant from someone you politically agree with?

Waterloo Sunset said...

Comments now seem to be disappearing into the ether...

darren redstar said...

thankyou for the plug, bob. but still no takers..
on how low the 'left' can fall
see
http://ianbone.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/hitler-not-planning-to-invade-britain-barmy-swp-latest/#comments

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Darren

I considered it, but couldn't work out what your email address was! And I don't have a blogger account, so couldn't comment on the post to tell you that...

johng said...

If you look up operation sea lion on wikipedia you will find this summation of the debate about whether the plan to invade Britain in 1940 was a goer.

Military historians are divided on whether Operation Sea Lion could have succeeded; some, such as Michael Burleigh and Andrew Mollo, believe it was possible. Kenneth Macksey asserts it would have only been possible if the Royal Navy had refrained from large scale intervention[27] and the Germans had assaulted in July 1940 (they were unprepared at that time),[28] while others such as Peter Fleming, Derek Robinson and Stephen Bungay believe the operation would have most likely resulted in a disaster for the Germans. Adolf Galland, commander of Luftwaffe fighters at the time, claimed invasion plans were not serious and that there was a palpable sense of relief in the Wehrmacht when it was finally called off.

During the period 19–26 September 1940, sea and wind conditions on and over the Channel where the invasion was set to take place were good overall and a crossing (even using converted river barges) was feasible provided the sea state remained at less than 4 (which, for the most part, it did). Beginning the night of 27 September, strong northerly winds prevailed, making passage more hazardous, but calm conditions returned on 11–12 October and again on 16–20 October. After 20 October, light easterly winds prevailed which would have actually assisted any invasion craft traveling from the Continent towards the invasion beaches. But by the end of October, according to British Air Ministry records, very strong southwest winds (force 8) would have prohibited any non-seagoing craft from risking a Channel crossing.[29]

There were a number of errors in German intelligence, and whilst some of these might not have caused problems, there were others (such as the inclusion of bridges that no longer existed[30] or misunderstanding the usefulness of minor British roads)[31] that would have been detrimental to German operations, and would have only added to the confusion caused by the layout of Britain's cities and the removal of road signs.[32]

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Bob

To try and rework my missing posts, although this time I'm going to have the sense to save them in Word...

@ Bob

For an orthodox view of the Vietnam War (I'm not sure how familiar you are with history as a subject, so to clarify, by "orthodox" I'm referring to the majority or the consensus view of historians), I'd recommend starting with "The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy 1941-1968" by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. "America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975" by George Herring is also worth reading. The latter will definitely be still in print, although I'm not sure on the Schlesinger. Because this is such a contentious subject, I'd also suggest you look at some historiography to get the background for these debates (I'd also advise Michael to do the same). If you can, I'd try and get hold of two back issues of the "Diplomatic History" journal. The two articles I'd recommend for an indepth overview of the subject are "Vietnam Reconsidered" by Robert Divine (Winter 1988) and "The Unending Debate: Historians and the Vietnam War" by Gary Hess (Spring 1994). If you know any academics, going through an institution will be your easiest and cheapest bet. I'm fortunate enough to have a very indulgent friend who's a lecturer at the local uni!

Be aware that all of Michael's recommendations so far have been revisionists (those challenging the orthodox consensus) and from a specific camp at that. I thought that was worth mentioning as you've said you're unfamiliar with this subject. John's aren't quite as pronounced. Gabriel Kolko does fit within the orthodox viewpoint just about, but his interpretation is very much on the radical end of the spectrum. (Despite what Michael seems to believe, the cited Herring review really is nothing out of the ordinary in historical circles. Historians attack each other all the time! It's rather inconsistent, considering how hostile orthodox reactions to Lewy are. I'm willing to believe Hanlon's Razor applies here, however). But, even with that, I'd personally recommend that you get familiar with the more 'mainstream' viewpoints before you move into looking at the radicals and revisionists. Without doing so, it's easy to miss the context of the debate taking place.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Michael

I'm not sure how many posts I'm going to be prepared to bat this back and forth with you, for two main reasons. Firstly, it seems a bit off topic and I was enjoying the discussion at hand. Although, as always, Bob is being very indulgent. I can certainly understand why you don't want to discuss Decency and Harryism, considering your own involvement in Harry's Place. I also avoid attempting to defend the indefensible. But I'm only going to be willing to continue with your derailment for so long. More importantly, I think the way we approach historical debate may be mutually exclusive. I prefer to critically evaluate the sources at hand and draw my own conclusions from them. Including those historians I am politically sympathetic to. I think Hill's work on the English Revolution is highly flawed, to give just one example. You, on the other hand, prefer to cite chunks of text from those you agree with, without any serious attempt to look at them critically. Even with those you're opposed to, you prefer to deal with that by quoting others opinions, rather than making criticisms of your own. If we look at your comments on Kolko, that would prove my point. Your 'criticism' of him consisted solely of an ad hominem attack on his acknowledgements and a quotation of the Herring review, as opposed to any attempt to tackle his arguments and research yourself. That's not so much of an issue if we're looking at primary sources, where I can remove your editorialising and draw my own conclusions. With secondary sources however, I suspect it may make it impossible for us to have a productive debate. Our approaches are just too different.

Anyway...

I have to inform Waterloo Sunset that he is wrong on this point, although I am aware that others have had this theory in the past including Jean Lacouture and Philippe Devillers who made this claim in the 1960s. Propaganda put out by the VWP (Vietnamese Workers' Party - communist party of Vietnam) also espoused this view.

And its also the view of the orthodox school, to some extent or another. But let's break this down. To be clear, I'm not taking issue with the argument that atrocities against civilians were carried out by the NLF. I'm specifically querying your claim that

johng entirely forgets that what the Vietnam war was really about was America trying to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression directed from the North".

From that, it is clear that you are making a categorical statement that it was the North that started the aggression, not Diem. You cite Lewy to try and back up this point:

"The decision to form armed units throughout the South in order to smash the GVN was made by the Fifteenth Conference of the Central Committee [of the VWP], meeting in Hanoi in January 1959, though the new policy directive was not issued until may 1959."

Unfortunately, it does the opposite. My argument is that the NLF's move to insurgency was a response to the Diem campaign. Your response is to cite a source showing that there was a definite decision made to form armed units throughout the south. Indeed there was. In, as your source says, 1959. A full four years after the start of the "Repress the Communists" campaign. And three years after Diem had implemented the death penalty for "communist activity".

Waterloo Sunset said...

On the subject of reasons for American involvement, I'm going to raise three issues for you to address at this point. To recap, your claim is that the ONLY reason for US involvement was response to communist aggression. As such, it would follow that there was no previous indicator of US hostility, no US support for repression prior to the outbreak of military hostilities and that leading US politicians and generals were very clear that they were actually fighting a defensive war, as opposed to being aggressors. Therefore, I would like you to explain the following.

1. That US involvement was fully in keeping with an application of Domino theory. And that Senator John F Kennedy, in June of 1956, gave a speech to the American Friends of Vietnam which would also fit with this approach:

"Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam."

2. That in 1957, after the "Repress the Communists" campaign was in full swing, but before the formation of armed units, Diem undertook a state visit to the US. Where a ten day parade was held in his honour. While there, President Eisenhower openly pledged support for Diem, although it is true to say that some US officials were privately more dubious (Secretary of State, John F Dulles in particular). But, from that, it is reasonable to conclude that the US were supportive of Diem, after his repression had been stepped up, but before any military hostilities had taken place. Which refutes your claim that this was a defensive war.

3. That senior US officials made comments making clear that their purpose was primarily aggressive. The most famous of these is Curtis LeMay's comment that "They've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age". How is a threat to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age in any way defensive in scope?

Waterloo Sunset said...

Now, to move onto why I'm not prepared to accept you using Lewy as your only source. (Bob, this may go some way to answering your question on Lewy's credibility. I'll merely outline my own issues and leave you to draw your own conclusions).

1. As has been mentioned, Lewy is a revisionist and a highly controversial one at that. In itself, that's absolutely fine. Revisionism is not only valid within historical research, it's utterly necessary. The orthodox view needs to be challenged and criticised. (However, I think Lewy veers heavily into negationist territory at times. That isn't fine). But you shouldn't be using a single source for your arguments anyway. You absolutely can not legitimately do so when dealing with the revisionists. By definition, they exist in opposition to the consensus view. To be clear, that doesn't mean adding another revisionist source either. It means familarising yourself with the orthodox school, understanding where Lewy differs from them and being able to explain why you think he's right to do so.

2. Lewy isn't a historian, he's a political scientist. That's fine. I'm all in favour of a multi discipline approach to subjects like this. And I'm certainly not claiming someone has to be a historian to form an opinion. I'd be utterly hypocritical if I was to do so, considering I'm not a qualified one myself. However, it's not valid to ignore the contribution of historians entirely, especially on a subject this controversial. They have a vital role to play. (In the same way, if Marko tells me I'm talking rubbish about how historical debate works, I might not agree with him. But I'd certainly take him seriously enough to address the issue, because of him having the academic bona fides to justify doing so).

Norman Podhoretz isn't a historian either. He's a journalist and writer who served in army intelligence. He's also a neoconservative theorist. Which is no attack on his integrity, as he's completely open about where he's coming from. But the fact you would cite a neoconservative theorist (in a discussion where you're criticising other sources for being politically biased!), while deliberately omitting to mention where he's coming from, is extremly intellectually dishonest of you. And I refuse to accept you aren't fully aware of what you were doing there. I think you were hoping this was going to be like Harry's Place, where few people have the knowledge to recognise your tactics. It isn't.

Waterloo Sunset said...

3. If you're going to use Lewy at all, I require direct citations for all his claims. In this case, that's actual sources, not simply his bibliography. This is entirely fair. Lewy has previously been caught citing an entirely unverifable "Naval Intelligence document", which the US government has no record of. When challenged, he airly claimed that he "couldn't remember" whether he'd seen the document or been told about it by someone else. Therefore, I am not willing to accept any claims he makes that can not be verified.

4. As has been mentioned, Lewy is a genocide denier. While some of the cases mentioned by Coventrian are still open to debate, the Armenian and Roma genocides are not.

To quote the Southern Poverty Law Centre:

"Lewy is one of the most active members of a network of American scholars, influence peddlers and website operators, financed by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the government of Turkey, who promote the denial of the Armenian genocide — a network so influential that it was able last fall to defy both historical truth and enormous political pressure to convince America's lawmakers and even its president to reverse long-held policy positions. But it's not only Armenians calling the slaughter a genocide, and there is no real debate about its essential details, according to the vast majority of credible historians. Although Lewy's brand of genocide denial is subtler than that of Holocaust deniers who declare there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, it's no less an attempt to rewrite history".

On the Roma, he takes the same approach that some of the more 'subtle' antisemites to to the Holocaust, by claiming that the Roma were complicit in their persecution, because of their "negative behavioral traits".

While none of this means that Lewy absolutely can't be used as a source, it does mean that he's a negationist and his work needs to be treated with extreme caution. It's no different than citing David Irving.

And this incident throws your claim that Andrew Coates is a believer in "genocide denial" into sharp relief. Because here, you have repeatedly and uncritically used a proven genocide denier as not only your primary, but your only source for this debate. On top of that, you have failed to mention that is Lewy's position, because you agree with his analysis of Vietnam. The most charitable explanation is that you were unaware of this, in which case your ability to research and evaluate your sources is very questionable indeed. Otherwise, it's clearly the case that you are prepared to condone genocide denial if it fits your political agenda.

To conclude, this isn't just a question of Lewy's validity as a source. It is also a question of yours. Because I have categorically shown that your arguments are deliberate misreprentations of your sources' political views (Podhoretz) and also hypocritical and an apology for genocide denial (Lewy). As such, it is my belief that I have proven you cannot be trusted and your claims to only be interested in the "historical truth" to be untrue. And, to quote your own words back at you,

This should not be a function as to whether someone is or is not the left, but a function of honesty.

Unless your response to this post directly addresses both of those issues, I will refuse to address any other points it contains.

On a different note, I'd also like to take this opportunity to apologise to Marko. Who may well be feeling that he doesn't participate in blog commenting to be reminded of being at work!

johng said...

Thanks waterloo sunset. It should be said that Herring is not himself a revisionist. In many ways he represented the liberal consensus which condemned the war but drew the line at more radical critique. I suspect that Michael knows almost nothing about all this, simply being interested in relating every argument back to his current views of the contemporary world (although he seems to be after what he calls 'the truth', apparently consisting in the stringing togeather of right wing talking points through the ages).

It comes as no surprise that I believe that the radical view is in general more persuasive, although I have some caveats due to already alluded to differences on the nature of the cold war (bought out well in Neale's book).

In terms of a non-marxist, general account of US foreign policy, I think 'The tragedy of American diplomacy' by Applebaum originally published in 1959 and recalled in this article raises very interesting questions in terms of the more general debate here. It would raise the bar muchly if it was more widely read in my view.

http://www.counterpunch.org/egan08092003.html

johng said...

sorry I misspoke. Its William Appleman Williams, (a name which seems to me straight out of Catch-22, a book which would also probably do Michael some good). Applebaum must be the result of trauma inflicted by reading a certain journalists column in the Murdoch press.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Bob

I'm having issues with my posts disappearing. I'm hoping that having signed in with an account should rectify that. Can you delete the duplicate post for me? It'll be less confusing if I repost them in order, apart from the one addressed to you.

@ Michael

I'm not sure how many posts I'm going to be prepared to bat this back and forth with you, for two main reasons. Firstly, it seems a bit off topic and I was enjoying the discussion at hand. Although, as always, Bob is being very indulgent. I can certainly understand why you don't want to discuss Decency and Harryism, considering your own involvement in Harry's Place. I also avoid attempting to defend the indefensible. But I'm only going to be willing to continue with your derailment for so long. More importantly, I think the way we approach historical debate may be mutually exclusive. I prefer to critically evaluate the sources at hand and draw my own conclusions from them. Including those historians I am politically sympathetic to. I think Hill's work on the English Revolution is highly flawed, to give just one example. You, on the other hand, prefer to cite chunks of text from those you agree with, without any serious attempt to look at them critically. Even with those you're opposed to, you prefer to deal with that by quoting others opinions, rather than making criticisms of your own. If we look at your comments on Kolko, that would prove my point. Your 'criticism' of him consisted solely of an ad hominem attack on his acknowledgements and a quotation of the Herring review, as opposed to any attempt to tackle his arguments and research yourself. That's not so much of an issue if we're looking at primary sources, where I can remove your editorialising and draw my own conclusions. With secondary sources however, I suspect it may make it impossible for us to have a productive debate. Our approaches are just too different.

Anyway...

I have to inform Waterloo Sunset that he is wrong on this point, although I am aware that others have had this theory in the past including Jean Lacouture and Philippe Devillers who made this claim in the 1960s. Propaganda put out by the VWP (Vietnamese Workers' Party - communist party of Vietnam) also espoused this view.

And its also the view of the orthodox school, to some extent or another. But let's break this down. To be clear, I'm not taking issue with the argument that atrocities against civilians were carried out by the NLF. I'm specifically querying your claim that

johng entirely forgets that what the Vietnam war was really about was America trying to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression directed from the North".

From that, it is clear that you are making a categorical statement that it was the North that started the aggression, not Diem. You cite Lewy to try and back up this point:

"The decision to form armed units throughout the South in order to smash the GVN was made by the Fifteenth Conference of the Central Committee [of the VWP], meeting in Hanoi in January 1959, though the new policy directive was not issued until may 1959."

Unfortunately, it does the opposite. My argument is that the NLF's move to insurgency was a response to the Diem campaign. Your response is to cite a source showing that there was a definite decision made to form armed units throughout the south. Indeed there was. In, as your source says, 1959. A full four years after the start of the "Repress the Communists" campaign. And three years after Diem had implemented the death penalty for "commmunist activity".

Waterloo Sunset said...

Now, to move onto why I'm not prepared to accept you using Lewy as your only source. (Bob, this may go some way to answering your question on Lewy's credibility. I'll merely outline my own issues and leave you to draw your own conclusions).

1. As has been mentioned, Lewy is a revisionist and a highly controversial one at that. In itself, that's absolutely fine. Revisionism is not only valid within historical research, it's utterly necessary. The orthodox view needs to be challenged and criticised. (However, I think Lewy veers heavily into reductionist territory at times. That isn't fine). But you shouldn't be using a single source for your arguments anyway. You absolutely can not legitimately do so when dealing with the revisionists. By definition, they exist in opposition to the consensus view. To be clear, that doesn't mean adding another revisionist source either. It means familarising yourself with the orthodox school, understanding where Lewy differs from them and being able to explain why you think he's right to do so.

2. Lewy isn't a historian, he's a political scientist. That's fine. I'm all in favour of a multi discipline approach to subjects like this. And I'm certainly not claiming someone has to be a historian to form an opinion. I'd be utterly hypocritical if I was to do so, considering I'm not a qualified one myself. However, it's not valid to ignore the contribution of historians entirely, especially on a subject this controversial. They have a vital role to play. (In the same way, if Marko tells me I'm talking rubbish about how historical debate works, I might not agree with him. But I'd certainly take him seriously enough to address the issue, because of him having the academic bona fides to justify doing so).

Norman Podhoretz isn't a historian either. He's a journalist and writer who served in army intelligence. He's also a neoconservative theorist. Which is no attack on his integrity, as he's completely open about where he's coming from. But the fact you would cite a neoconservative theorist (in a discussion where you're criticising other sources for being politically biased!), while deliberately omitting to mention where he's coming from, is extremly intellectually dishonest of you. And I refuse to accept you aren't fully aware of what you were doing there. I think you were hoping this was going to be like Harry's Place, where few people have the knowledge to recognise your tactics. It isn't.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Bob

Do you need to check your spam filter? I'll try getting these through in order again. I'd appreciate it if you can delete the duplicate!

@ Michael

I'm not sure how many posts I'm going to be prepared to bat this back and forth with you, for two main reasons. Firstly, it seems a bit off topic and I was enjoying the discussion at hand. Although, as always, Bob is being very indulgent. I can certainly understand why you don't want to discuss Decency and Harryism, considering your own involvement in Harry's Place. I also avoid attempting to defend the indefensible. But I'm only going to be willing to continue with your derailment for so long. More importantly, I think the way we approach historical debate may be mutually exclusive. I prefer to critically evaluate the sources at hand and draw my own conclusions from them. Including those historians I am politically sympathetic to. I think Hill's work on the English Revolution is highly flawed, to give just one example. You, on the other hand, prefer to cite chunks of text from those you agree with, without any serious attempt to look at them critically. Even with those you're opposed to, you prefer to deal with that by quoting others opinions, rather than making criticisms of your own. If we look at your comments on Kolko, that would prove my point. Your 'criticism' of him consisted solely of an ad hominem attack on his acknowledgements and a quotation of the Herring review, as opposed to any attempt to tackle his arguments and research yourself. That's not so much of an issue if we're looking at primary sources, where I can remove your editorialising and draw my own conclusions. With secondary sources however, I suspect it may make it impossible for us to have a productive debate. Our approaches are just too different.

Anyway...

I have to inform Waterloo Sunset that he is wrong on this point, although I am aware that others have had this theory in the past including Jean Lacouture and Philippe Devillers who made this claim in the 1960s. Propaganda put out by the VWP (Vietnamese Workers' Party - communist party of Vietnam) also espoused this view.

And its also the view of the orthodox school, to some extent or another. But let's break this down. To be clear, I'm not taking issue with the argument that atrocities against civilians were carried out by the NLF. I'm specifically querying your claim that

johng entirely forgets that what the Vietnam war was really about was America trying to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression directed from the North".

From that, it is clear that you are making a categorical statement that it was the North that started the aggression, not Diem. You cite Lewy to try and back up this point:

"The decision to form armed units throughout the South in order to smash the GVN was made by the Fifteenth Conference of the Central Committee [of the VWP], meeting in Hanoi in January 1959, though the new policy directive was not issued until may 1959."

Unfortunately, it does the opposite. My argument is that the NLF's move to insurgency was a response to the Diem campaign. Your response is to cite a source showing that there was a definite decision made to form armed units throughout the south. Indeed there was. In, as your source says, 1959. A full four years after the start of the "Repress the Communists" campaign. And three years after Diem had implemented the death penalty for "communist activity".

Waterloo Sunset said...

Bob, when you're available is there any chance of opening a new post to see if that solves the comments problem?

Michael, I'll reply to you at that point.

Michael Ezra said...

I have also had a comment I posted twice deleted and I am not sure why. It was quite a long contribution dealing with Lewy and contained other suggestions of books that came to a similar conclusion. Perhaps Bob does not want this conversation? I do not know, but I was certainly not rude in my post. In fact, the opposite; I spent some time extracting some quotes.

johng wonders what the problem is with reading biased books. It is true that many books have some bias in them, but the question comes down as to whether the historian can be objective or not and also whether they can be accurate. It is often what they leave out as opposed to what people put into a book that exposes their bias. Can we trust a book for reliability? When they invent facts and use footnotes that do not justify those facts, then the answer is that one should not trust the book. This is the case, as I believe I have demonstrated on the Andrew Coates thread that Bob has linked to, that it seems SWP stalwart John Rose has done in his book, The Myths of Zionism.

But reliability is not something that overly bothers johng as he proudly uses Wikipedia as a source as he has done with a message in this thread on "Operation Sea Lion."

I also note that johng touts William Appleman Williams' 1959 book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. This book has been totally and utterly discredited, not least by Robert James Maddox. (The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War [Princeton University Press, 1973], pp.13-37). Maddox demonstrates conclusively the "cavalier treatment" that Williams has taken with his sources. He provides a hilarious example of what Williams did with a letter that Henry Wallace had sent to President Truman in March 1946. By providing both the extract from Tragedy and the text in the original letter with omitted sections reinstated, one can see how Williams has totally distorted what Wallace was saying.

It is no surprise that Williams concludes his chapter:

"Williams use of evidence throughout Tragedy bears a marked resemblance to those 'composite photographs' favoured by the more sensational tabloids earlier in the century. By superimposing the faces of prominent individuals upon the bodies of posed models,...editors were able to obtain pictures of anything their vivid imaginations required. Williams achieved the same effect through his handling of quotations. By weaving into his own prose phrases and sentences gathered from various contexts, he was able to create the appearance of authenticity for his thesis when non existed."

The book, as Maddox makes very clear, is one that is "largely divorced from reality."

In his book,Lying About Hitler, Richard J.Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, said, "Selecting evidence to support a case is one of the worst sins a historian can commit." Perhaps johng should pay attention to this sentence.

johng said...

Michael I don't know what you think you prove by posting excerpts from hostile critics of particular historians (in this case a series of essays published in the early 1970s attacking texts associated with the new left). But your use of the term 'proof' ought to raise a few eyebrows.

Evidently your threshold of proof you expect is rather low (broadly it would seem anyone who produces a book that you approve of). Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) not every one agreed with Madox's judgements which is why there is still scholarly debate.

Its interesting that one critic at the time pointed out that nowhere does Madox address any particular arguments, he proceeds mainly by attempting to impugn scholars influential on the new left for their academic standards.

Others judged differently here to, although what strikes me as interesting is that much of what you write seems a slavish imitation of this method.

The drawback is not only that there are disputes about standards of scholarship all the time, but that even if it could be proved that there was a footnote out of place, this would not in fact prove whether the argument was wrong or not (for instance whether or not it was true that US foreign policy tended to produce the opposite result to its stated aims).

On 'Bias' you remind me that its wrong to run rings around complete clots, so I'll stop. But your attempt to link this discussion to a discussion about David Irving was at least amusing. I would re-iterate that for anyone interested in contemporary debates about US Foreign Policy, Liberalism and arguments about intervention William Appleman Williams old book the Tragedy of American Diplomacy is would raise the bar of debate, although it is indeed shocking to discover that those who disliked the impact of this book on scholars, disliked the book.

It should be said that those bewildered by the fact that scholars (and other people) often have different opinions about things, should probably avoid reading anything at all.

johng said...

The drawback is not only that there are disputes about standards of scholarship all the time, but that even if it could be proved that there was a footnote out of place, this would not in fact prove whether the argument was wrong or not (for instance whether or not it was true that US foreign policy tended to produce the opposite result to its stated aims). The other drawback of course is that if you only read accounts like this you learn absolutely nothing about the actual arguments which have excited so much interest in all those years. And when genre confusions begin it makes discussion on blogs even more tedious and uninformative (although it does give some people illusions in their own expertise I suppose).

On 'Bias' you remind me that its wrong to run rings around complete clots, so I'll stop. But your attempt to link this discussion to a discussion about David Irving was at least amusing. I would re-iterate that for anyone interested in contemporary debates about US Foreign Policy, Liberalism and arguments about intervention William Appleman Williams old book the Tragedy of American Diplomacy would raise the bar of debate, although it is indeed shocking to discover that those who disliked the impact of this book on scholars, disliked the book.

It should be said that those bewildered by the fact that scholars (and other people) often have different opinions about things, should probably steer clear of books. Reading and discussion can be a somewhat disconcerting experience for those who imagine that all the problems in the world are the product of a lack of moral clarity and people losing their compasses.

Michael Ezra said...

I am reluctant to spend much time on a rebuttal to what Waterloo Sunset has said. The reason for this is, as I said in my previous contribution, an earlier post of mine that actually took me some time has been deleted and I do not know why.

I do feel that I have to come back on the Waterloo Sunset's comment of 29 August, 2010 10:25.

Of course the general Domino Theory was a concern to the Americans. If South Vietnam fell, it would be another example of a country in the free world falling to Communism. In some ways, Vietnam was a case of America drawing a line in the sand. But Waterloo Sunset leaves out other reasons that JFK provided in his June 1956 speech highlighting America's stake in Vietnam. The speech can be seen freely on line. The full four reasons that JFK gave for the stake in Vietnam can be seen and it should be noted that in one of them he said:

"[Vietnam] is our offspring - we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence - Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest - then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible."

Waterloo Sunset refers to 1957 as a period "before the formation of armed units" and "before any military hostilities had taken place." While it is true that Ho Chi Minh's Communist Party Central Committee did not officially move to supporting the "staging an insurrection to overthrow the U.S.-Diem regime" until January 1959, from the end of 1956, the Vietnamese Communist Party started reactivating armed struggle in the south. Michael Moyar comments(Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 [Cambridge University Press, 2006]), p.79):

"The orders came down from Hanoi to the Party’s committee for Nam Bo, a region roughly equivalent to what the French had called Cochinchina, the southern third of Vietnam. At the Second Conference of the Nam Bo committee, the Party authorized its members in the South to kill 'traitors,' though it also concluded that the time was not yet ripe for a full military struggle. During the ensuing year, the Party undertook isolated assassinations of government leaders, land
reform cadres, and spies.... As the year of 1957 neared its end, the Party began using some of the 1,700 Communist troops in the South in armed raids.... During the last quarter of 1957, Communist forces initiated 140 terrorist actions and hit-and-run attacks on government posts, mostly in the rugged area along the Cambodian border. On a few occasions, they assembled several hundred men for the attack."

Finally, Waterloo Sunset uses an often reported General Curtis LeMay alleged statement about bombing North Vietnam "back to the stone age," to try and make his point. Earlier than this quote, LeMay had also reportedly said, "We ought to nuke the Chinks." He was not taken seriously then and he he did not find much support for his latter reported position. By this stage, Curtis "Bombs Away" Le May, who had retired prior to the regular bombing of North Vietnam commenced, was considered a bit of a joke.

Michael Ezra said...

In the hope that it is not all lost or deleted, I do feel that I have to come back on the Waterloo Sunset's comment of 29 August, 2010 10:25.

Of course the general Domino Theory was a concern to the Americans. If South Vietnam fell, it would be another example of a country in the free world falling to Communism. In some ways, Vietnam was a case of America drawing a line in the sand. But Waterloo Sunset leaves out other reasons that JFK provided in his June 1956 speech highlighting America's stake in Vietnam. The speech can be seen freely on line. The full four reasons that JFK gave for the stake in Vietnam can be seen and it should be noted that in one of them he said:

"[Vietnam] is our offspring - we cannot abandon it, we cannot ignore its needs. And if it falls victim to any of the perils that threaten its existence - Communism, political anarchy, poverty and the rest - then the United States, with some justification, will be held responsible."

Waterloo Sunset refers to 1957 as a period "before the formation of armed units" and "before any military hostilities had taken place." While it is true that Ho Chi Minh's Communist Party Central Committee did not officially move to supporting the "staging an insurrection to overthrow the U.S.-Diem regime" until January 1959, from the end of 1956, the Vietnamese Communist Party started reactivating armed struggle in the south. Michael Moyar comments(Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 [Cambridge University Press, 2006]), p.79):

"The orders came down from Hanoi to the Party’s committee for Nam Bo, a region roughly equivalent to what the French had called Cochinchina, the southern third of Vietnam. At the Second Conference of the Nam Bo committee, the Party authorized its members in the South to kill 'traitors,' though it also concluded that the time was not yet ripe for a full military struggle. During the ensuing year, the Party undertook isolated assassinations of government leaders, land
reform cadres, and spies.... As the year of 1957 neared its end, the Party began using some of the 1,700 Communist troops in the South in armed raids.... During the last quarter of 1957, Communist forces initiated 140 terrorist actions and hit-and-run attacks on government posts, mostly in the rugged area along the Cambodian border. On a few occasions, they assembled several hundred men for the attack."

Finally, Waterloo Sunset uses an often reported General Curtis LeMay alleged statement about bombing North Vietnam "back to the stone age," to try and make his point. Earlier than this quote, LeMay had also reportedly said, "We ought to nuke the Chinks." He was not taken seriously then and he he did not find much support for his latter reported position. By this stage, Curtis "Bombs Away" Le May, who had retired prior to the regular bombing of North Vietnam commenced, was considered a bit of a joke.

johng said...

The drawback is not only that there are disputes about standards of scholarship all the time, but that even if it could be proved that there was a footnote out of place, this would not in fact prove whether the argument was wrong or not (for instance whether or not it was true that US foreign policy tended to produce the opposite result to its stated aims). The other drawback of course is that if you only read accounts like this you learn absolutely nothing about the actual arguments which have excited so much interest in all those years. And when genre confusions begin it makes discussion on blogs even more tedious and uninformative (although it does give some people illusions in their own expertise I suppose).

On 'Bias' you remind me that its wrong to run rings around complete clots, so I'll stop. But your attempt to link this discussion to a discussion about David Irving was at least amusing. I would re-iterate that for anyone interested in contemporary debates about US Foreign Policy, Liberalism and arguments about intervention William Appleman Williams old book the Tragedy of American Diplomacy would raise the bar of debate, although it is indeed shocking to discover that those who disliked the impact of this book on scholars, disliked the book.

It should be said that those bewildered by the fact that scholars (and other people) often have different opinions about things, should probably steer clear of books. Reading and discussion can be a somewhat disconcerting experience for those who imagine that all the problems in the world are the product of a lack of moral clarity and people losing their compasses.

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Michael

I have also had a comment I posted twice deleted and I am not sure why. It was quite a long contribution dealing with Lewy and contained other suggestions of books that came to a similar conclusion. Perhaps Bob does not want this conversation? I do not know, but I was certainly not rude in my post. In fact, the opposite; I spent some time extracting some quotes.

I'm sure this isn't Bob's doing. Not only have I had several lengthy comments disappear only seconds after posting them, Bob's perfectly capable of telling us to shut up if he wants to do so.

This is a problem at the blogger end. Hence my recommendation that a new discussion might help solve that. (Or possibly checking spam filter settings). I don't want to post several lengthy comments if not all of them will get through. It'll make them impossible to follow.

johng said...

I get the impression that working for Michael would require all the fortitude of the good soldier svjek. Thing is none of us work for him.

Michael Ezra said...

Waterloo Sunset,

I have had another lengthy comment disappear. It certainly originally was published, I checked. For what it is worth, it was in reply to your comment of 29 August, 2010 10:25. It took a reasonable amount of time to compile and I used reliable sources.

Given this has now happened twice, and although I hope that you are correct, that it is a software problem, it is hardly conducive to me being willing to continue contributing to this thread. It is a shame really, I was looking forward to exposing johng once again.

dan@israel said...

I dont understand intentions of people to get involved everywhere in oder to *improve* situation and *bring peace*. for example what did USA in Iraq? and what gonna happen now after combat will leave this country? i suppose another internal war based on hatred of two religious groups.

johng said...

Bob, before this discussion went hey-wire we were discussing briefly Korea and Vietnam. This is a 1968 editorial on that comparison in International Socialism. Not uninteresting in relationship to our discussion.

http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1968/no032/editorial2.html

johng said...

oh and this one is for the charming Michael Ezra himself. An article on 'state capitalism in vietnam' published in 1976 in International Socialism, which contains reference to Cambodia.

http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1976/06/vietnam.htm

bob said...

Absolutely not me deleting them - I'd never delete comments of that sort. I only delete things like excessive personal insults and extreme racism. I've created a new thread here, as per WS's suggestion, and will try and work out what's going on with Blogger. Sorry it took me a while: I've got limited internet access at the moment.

bob said...

I found a bunch of the comments in the spam folder and un-spammed them, so now they're there in the order they were posted, which makes things even more confusing. I deleted the new post I created, as I think that might make it worse not better. I'll try and work out why they were sent to spam, and make changes if necessary.

bob said...

I think this post's comment thread is fully functional again, but if not feel free to continue the conversation at my post on on John Pilger on Cambodia.

Michael Ezra said...

Yes, Bob. It is rather confusing. For example, posts from Waterloo Sunset have come up that I had not previously seen and posts that I had made, for example referencing Michael Moyar, I assume Waterloo Sunset had not seen. It is a shame actually, as it could have been an interesting discussion on the historiography of the Vietnam War.

As it stands, it is a bit of a total mess. Perhaps another time. (But please not for next few weeks as I have lent some of my books on Vietnam away and do not have the resources to hand.)

Also, is there a way that I can be notified when you create new posts as I do not check this site regularly?