Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top posts of 2016

Well, not many people I know will be missing 2016, a year of slaughter in Syria, of repression in Turkey, of starvation in Venezuela, of global electoral swings towards reactionary and authoritarian leaders, when truth was de-valued and unfashionable forms of racism were mainstreamed again, when our favourite musicians died, when Putin consolidated his geopolitical power, when the poor got poorer and the rich got richer.

I didn't blog much, but here are my top posts of the year, by number of readers:

1. Trots!
This post, from July, was on the silly demonisation of "Trots" within the Labour party, arguing that the real danger was Stalinists. Since then, bizarrely, we have seen Momentum's leadership and its publicists (Laura Murray, Owen Jones, etc) take up the anti-Trot crusade (not always honestly). With Stalinists claiming Trotskyism is the new neo-conservatism and the American right accusing US liberals of McCarthyism and red-baiting for questioning Putin's role in the Trump election, it almost feels like we are in the age of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or the KPD's Third Period, when Trotskyists were denounced as social fascists and Hitler was seen by some of the left as the lesser evil. Perhaps it's time to rescue Trotsky's legacy of anti-Stalinist leftism?

2. Strivers and skivers
This post, from April, was my first, rather un-impressive, attempt at creating a visual meme. I think it sums up 2016 well, featuring the Tory/UKIP businessmen and Russian oligarchs who bankrolled the Brexit campaign while patriotically stashing their cash in Panama, juxtaposed to British steelworkers made unemployed by Tory economic policy and the Tory veto on the EU's power to stop Chinese steel-dumping.

Image result for corbyn labour 20163. Free advice to Jeremy
This post, from October, was about what I think the Labour Party needs to do. I probably need to do an update on this, as it has gotten even worse on some of these things but slightly better on others.

4. Undigested thoughts on Labour's antisemitism problem
This post, from April, was a quickly written rant about Labour and the Jews. Conclusion:
I would strongly defend Labour from those who say that this stuff is "rife" in the party. It's not, contra Boris, a "virus" in the party. Most party members are appalled by it. But I do think that Labour, and the left as a whole, does have some kind of a problem with antisemitism. And it needs - we need - to face up to it.
5. Lenni Brenner says Ken's wrong
Following on from no.4, this post showed that even Lenni Brenner, the anti-Zionist pseudo-historian Ken Livingstone invoked to defend his weird views on Hitler, did not support what Ken said. Includes a long and interesting comment thread.

6. Confusionism in Brockley: A cautionary tale
This post, from November, was on some new age fascism close to home.

7. Pegida UK, UKIP and the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim bigotry
From back in January, on Anne-Marie Waters and the new anti-Muslim hard right.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Confusionism in Brockley: A cautionary tale

Note: some updates in the comments 30.11.2016

Ideas for Change?
The "Brockley Festival of Ideas for Change" was advertised some time ago, with an odd, eclectic collection of mainly left-wing speakers, and sponsored by the local civic amenity association, the Brockley Society and with some kind of affiliation from the local university, Goldsmiths. The excellent Goldsmiths exhibition on the Battle of Lewisham was to be shown, and there were talks by interesting local activists.

Ivo Mosley, the grandson of fascist leader Oswald, was a committee member, along with his wife Xanthe, and there seemed to be a strong emphasis on the evils of the money economy.

For some local people, the first alarm bell was that one of the billed speakers was Jackie Walker, the Labour left activist with local links who has stirred considerable controversy in the past year with a series of comments on social media and in public interpreted by many as antisemitic or at least legitimating antisemitic conspiracy theories (see e.g. Andy Newman, Joe Mulhall, Padraig Reidy).

Slightly louder alarm bells started to ring around 9 November when the main organiser, Anthony Russell of a group called "The Chandos" (not to be confused with the Brockey Rise pub of the same name), tweeted the odd combination of Julian Assange, George Galloway and Russell Brand to invite them to the festival.

When I commented on this on Twitter, Anthony Russell responded with an odd series of comments, which unfortunately I didn't screenshot and are now deleted. He said something to the effect that he what he thought I took to be "racism" was in fact people "pigeon-holing" themselves by race. I clumsily replied that I hadn't used the word racism but that Walker, Assange and Galloway have all said things which sit uncomfortably for many Jews. He replied that there are plenty of things that sit uncomfortably for him "as a white man", and then stopped tweeting.

Things hotting up
Then louder still alarm bells rang when it was noticed that Russell had posted a rather strange Facebook post about the event:

Two of the classics of coded antisemitic themes jump out: the "official" (whatever that means) media is "captured" (by whom?); politicians are in thrall to "higher powers" (which higher powers?). And then the modern classic: the 9/11 attacks (given scare quotes) were apparently "unexplained and highly suspect" - a claim made by conspiracy theorists of the left and right, often linked to antisemitic paranoia. And also one of the staples of the contemporary generation of conspiracy theorists: the idea that there is no civil war in Syria (apparently the popular uprising against a dictatorship simply didn't happen) but rather it was "invaded" (presumably by some combination of the US, Mossad and the Gulf states). 

In the last day or two before the festival - really too late for anyone to do anything about it - a few people started looking more closely at Anthony Russell. What they found wasn't pretty.

There were two sets of posts that were worrying. First, there were some that implied Holocaust denialism. Here he is, on Twitter (now deleted) and on his website, meeting David Irving in late 2013:

David Irving is described as "distinguished" but "controversial". Well, the second of those terms is true: he is famous as a Holocaust denier. In fact, as Wikipedia puts it
Irving's reputation as a historian was discredited[4] when, in the course of an unsuccessful libel case he filed against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, he was shown to have deliberately misrepresented historical evidence to promote Holocaust denial.[5] The English court found that Irving was an active Holocaust denier, antisemite, and racist,[6] who "for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence".[6][7] In addition, the court found that Irving's books had distorted the history of Adolf Hitler's role in the Holocaust to depict Hitler in a favourable light.
What is more interesting, perhaps, is the way he phrases it in his tweet: that study of WWII took him to Irving. What study of WWII would lead you towards, rather than away from, Irving? Not a study of actual facts or historiography, but perhaps spending too much time in the conpiratorial corners of the internet.

Here are two more:

The first of those is a link to a perfectly legitimate article, but it is interesting what he chooses to quote from it in the tweet. Here is the full extract:
President Roosevelt told French military leaders at the Casablanca Conference in 1943 that “the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions” in liberated North Africa “should be definitely limited,” lest there be a recurrence of “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany…”
In other words, it is FDR's antisemitism he chooses to disseminate. 

The second one is a little different. It implies that Ken Livingstone's claims about Hitler being a Zionist are true. And it implies that speaking this truth is somehow an act of bravery, presumably because of Zionist power in our society. More alarming still is where Russell takes the article from: an actual Nazi website. Here it is:

"Jimmy Saville is innocent"
As well as these few examples of Russell's interest in Holocaust denialism, there are also a couple of examples of disturbing sexual politics:

All's well that ends well? [Section amended 30/11/2016]
All of the social media activity - on Twitter and on local Facebook pages and so on - meant that the other committee members were in a slightly embarrassing position, and rather late in the day to do anything about it. Wisely, Jackie Walker on Facebook has said that she withdrew when she learned about Russell's background - see this comment. It seems the organisers were as shocked as we were, and he agreed not to speak at the event. I sympathise with them, as there was really little else they could do so late on, and nobody in Brockley is likely to want to have anything to do with him again. 

I guess there's a lesson here about due diligence, and a lesson that an apparent "gentle buddhist persona" is no guarantee of moral decency. 

But I think there are also lessons about the nature of fascism in today's post-truth digital age. 

Buddhist Confusionism
US anti-fascist activist and researcher Spencer Sunshine gave a couple of talks last week in which he explored what he calls "unorthodox fascism", the mutations of classical fascism which enable it to reach out to engage non-traditional constituencies, whether through apparently left-wing or ecological movements, libertarianism or music subcultures - from Occupy Wall Street to neo-folk to the Rock Against Communism skinhead scene. Although most of these spaces might in themselves be fairly insignificant, it is striking how many possible vectors there are for fascism's toxin to enter the mainstream.

German anti-fascists talk about the concept of the querfront, cross-front, a conscious project of left-right crossover. As Elise Hendrick puts it:
Craving the legitimacy that an alliance with progressive forces can provide, reactionaries seize on ostensibly shared positions, chief amongst them opposition to corrupt élites, to create the impression that progressives could benefit from making common cause with them.
Andrew Coates introduces English-speaking readers to the French term confusionism, the blurring of left and right, and usually of the worst of both.  

The Festival of Ideas fits into this mould, I think: an apparently "progressive" organisation, stressing peace and spirituality, but some disturbing fascist-aligned ideas when you scratch the surface.

One of the things that strikes me about the affair is the way that Russell positions himself as a seeker after truth. He claims it is research that took him to David Irving. He talks about Ken Livingstone daring to speak the truth about Zionism. The intense distrust so many people feel towards "official" or "mainstream" sources of truth, combined with the easy click of a finger digital access to such an enormous excess of (real and fake) information, breeds this esoteric approach to the truth.

The truths told by experts - by historians about the Holocaust or the slave trade, by scientists about the climate, by economists about the effects of Brexit - are simply not trusted, and people opt instead for "truths" they imagine to be somehow deeper. The authority of charisma replaces the authority of scholarship.

Because anyone can "do the research" (i.e. google, and click on a couple of links), the craft skills involved in pursuing genuine knowledge are de-valued. The fractal, hyperlinked geometry of  internet seareching breeds a conspiratorial worldview, which invests unwarranted significance in often quite arbitrary connections. I don't know how we counter this, but we urgently need to work out that out.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

#SWPCulture: Stand Up To Racism/Stand up to rape culture

Image result for confronting rape culture swp

Here are two letters published in Media Diversified, relating to something I wrote about here. The first is from 6 October:

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Free advice to Jeremy

Image result for corbyn labour 2016
I wrote the first draft of this post last weekend, when conference was just beginning. I am now more optimistic about some of these things than I was then, but less optimistic about others...
So the dust has settled from the Labour right's utterly inept leadership challenge and Jeremy Corbyn has been decisively elected as leader of the Labour party with an increased mandate.

Although I knocked on doors in 1992 election, I left the party in 1991, as it was far too tepid and right-wing for my appetite. Since then, a mixture of love and hate, but it's always been there. I've lived all of that time in safe Labour wards in a safe Labour constituency, feeling like my vote was taken for granted by the party, but also taking the party for granted. In 2015, everything changed - on the one hand a chance for a party more in line with my views, on the other hand a party that seemed unlikely to ever win an election. And if the Labour Party can't ever win elections, it seems like it has no reason to exist. I rejoined this summer, but have never felt so politically homeless.

So here, for what it's worth, are a few things, in no particular order, that I think Corbyn's Labour need to do to have any chance whatsoever of having any reason to exist. Some of them are small and some are big, but perhaps the smallest ones matter the most symbolically. The extent to which they are even vaguely achievable is the extent to which it is worth sticking with the Labour project for the forseeable.

1. Get a strategy and communications strategy

As I said, if the Labour Party can't win elections, it has no reason to exist. To win elections, it needs a strategy, and it needs to be able to communicate that to voters. The first year of Corbyn's leadership did not show much sign it could. To be fair, a huge amount of Team Corbyn's efforts were put into fighting factional battles (although a lot of energy was put into keeping the battles going). Actually, fighting (mostly losing) factional battles is most of what Corbyn and his allies have ever been good at; they never imagined before they'd be anywhere near the process of making policies, so they had a lot to learn. Putting Seumas Milne in charge of strategy and communication was at best a disaster, at worst a sign that fighting factional battles (not winning elections) was all Team Corbyn wanted to do. Rumours that Milne's days are numbered are an encouraging sign we might have gotten past that.

Getting a strategy and communicating it means finding the vision and messages that will win over millions of Tory voters, stop votes leaking to UKIP in the eastern half of England, stop centrists and Remainers from defecting to the Lib Dems, and mobilising the non-voting millions (especially young people - but especially the ones who live in marginal constituencies). That's a big task, but it could be possible. Owen Jones starts to spell out what it means here

2. Clear out the Stalinists
Image result for morning star corbyn
Talking of Milne... the Labour right are obsessed with the menace to the party allegedly posed by Trotskyists, but the real danger in my view is from Stalinists. While "moderates" harp endlessly (and often inaccurately) about the AWL (a small and largely benign force) and SWP and Militant (who are nowhere near Team Corbyn), the left factions who are actually holding some of the key levers of power are less commented on. It is not Socialist Worker in which Corbyn has had a weekly column in; it is the Communist Party of Britain's Morning Star, and he has used that column to promote a basically Cold War second camp worldview, most recently in promoting Kremlin lies about Ukraine. Corbyn needs to break with this legacy - which seems unlikely while he is surrounded by Stalinists.

After leaving Oxford, Seumas Milne cut his political teeth in a group called Straight Left, whose USP in the small but crowded market of the far left was that it thought most other Communist groups were insufficiently appreciative of Stalin's achievements. Milne has stayed true to that formation, regularly arguing that Stalin's achievements (e.g. in the field of marriage equality) outweigh his crimes, and generally projecting a pro-Kremlin geopolitical line.

Although Milne might soon depart his place at the top of the Corbyn machine, there are rumours that another graduate of Straight Left, Andrew Murray, is a potential next General Secretary of the Labour Party (and Murray's 27-year daughter Laura has recently been given £40K job as Corbyn's "political adviser"). Murray is Chief of Staff for Unite and as such quite a player in the labour movement - but is a member of the Communist Party of Britain. The CPB, among other things, recently affirmed its support for North Korea and for Assad's genocidal fascist regime. How a member of the CPB could even be considered as a potential senior Labour official is mind-boggling.

And then there is Socialist Action, a formerly Trotskyist party but now basically Stalinist (it worships the Chinese Communist Party and Fidel's Cuba). Its cadre Simon Fletcher, formerly part of Ken Livingstone's team, was Corbyn's campaign chief of staff and under Ed Miliband apparently designed the £3-a-vote system that got Corbyn elected; its leader, John Ross, is allegedly very influential on Team Corbyn. Although the SA clique seem to have been side-lined this year, they remain part of the machine.

Until people like this are nowhere near positions of power in the party, it cannot be a healthy democratic socialist party.

3. Rein in the deselectors
Image result for deselect blairites
Corbyn has offered an olive branch and clean slate to his right-wing antagonists and at least some seem to be willing to meet him half-way. And yet on social media, the demand for deselections continues to clamour among the Corbynista rank and file. And with the corrupt Tory redrawing of electoral boundaries approaching, they will get ample opportunity to get their way if they can mobilise in branches. 

It is not that serving MPs have a god-given right to keep their seats. But most of the targets of the deselection mania seem to be precisely the most able, locally popular constituency MPs who, while perhaps not as ideologically pure as Corbyn's loyalists, have the best chance of getting Labour a presence in parliament after 2020. Unless there is a concerted pulling together - in practice and not just in public rhetoric - then disaster is certain.

4. Take antisemitism seriously

Image result for labour antisemitism

Obviously there's a lot I could say about this (here was my first attempt), but I'll try to rein myself in. The problem is not that Corbyn doesn't say he won't tolerate antisemitism (usually "and all other forms of racism") often enough. The problem is that the factional rage of so many rank and file Corbynistas is so intense that any discussion of antisemitism on the left in general or in the party in particular is shut down before it starts. Instead of openness, reflection and learning, the culture is to get defensive and hunker down. When specific allegations of antsisemitism are made, the default reaction of most Corbyn supports is to claim they are made in bad faith, to describe all allegations of antisemitism as driven by an animus to Corbyn (either because he supposedly "threatens the establishment" or because of his views on Palestine). Instead of Ken-style doubling down, Labour could learn from Naz Shah's gracious apology and commitment to dialogue. As Rachel Shabi puts it:
[The left] are not inoculated against being antisemitic or racist – or sexist, for that matter. Progressives for whom the Palestinian cause is important can have blind spots over, and be desensitised to, antisemitism. Yes, it’s hard to admit susceptibility to such “isms”, but acceptance (we are all susceptible) really is the first step. And the onus is on the progressive left to get this right (this step being one of the things that “progressive” means). So it doesn’t work for the left to counter accusations of antisemitism by saying the Tories have a bigger racism problem: true, but hardly the point.
I take a little bit of hope from the fact that quite a lot of Momentum supporters - Barbara Ntumy, Manuel Cortes, Andy Newman, Aaron Bastani, Owen Jones, among others - have unambiguously criticised Jackie Walker for her series of dodgy comments about genocide, slavery, Zionist conspiracy, and Jewish fear of antisemitic violence. Although a small number of Jewish anti-Zionists are providing her with cover, I feel the tide might be turning on the tolerance of this sort of thing on the left.

5. Cut ties with Stop The War
Image result for stop the war corbyn
Nothing symbolises what's wrong with the British left as much as Stop the War, an organisation that Corbyn has been intimately involved in from its formation. Lots of sensible people opposed the Iraq war in 2003 and therefore might forgive StW its early work, but its ugliness has become clearer and clearer since the slaughter of Syria began in 2011.

StW seem unable to make an unqualified criticism of the main perpetrator of deaths in Syria - the Assad regime and its backer Russia. It refuses to let Syrians speak at their events unless they are actually mouthpieces of the military junta. StW's leaders include Andrew Murray (see above), as well as Counterfire's Lindsey German, who recently tweeted an endorsement of an almost unbelievably awful article by crackpot ex-ambassador Craig Murray which claimed that actually barrel bombs aren't that bad. I could go on, but this post by Paul Canning sums it up well. In short, as long as Corbyn remains close to this outfit, no internationalist, no-one who is genuinely against wars, can whole-heartedly endorse him.

6. Cut ties with Stand Up To Racism

And the other toxic organisation with which Corbyn remains associated is Stand Up To Racism - indeed, he's speaking at one of their events this coming week. This group, which overlaps organisationally with Unite Against Fascism, is a front for the Socialist Workers Party, and is led by people who were on its Central Committee of the SWP during its "Comrade Delta" period. As ex-SWP member Dave Renton summarises (via Coatesy):
In 2010 a man called Martin Smith (“Comrade Delta”) was the National Secretary of the SWP, its day to day leader, the person who employs the other party workers. In July of that year, a 17 year old woman (“Comrade W”) complained that he had mistreated her. She didn’t use the word “rape”, but the people who met her and heard her knew what she was talking about. From the start, Smith’s supporters (including Weyman Bennett, who worked with him on the SWP’s anti-fascist campaign) put pressure on the women who helped Comrade W, calling one of them a “traitor”, ostracising and dismissing them and forcing them out of the SWP.
So, yes, stand up to racism - but not by associating with this lot.

7. Fight against racism and for migrant rights

Standing up to racism has to be a top priority for Labour. The wave of post-Brexit violence against migrants and minorities has been truly terrifying. Labour needs to take leadership on this, not pander to the lowest common denominator on these issues. Corbyn needs to stand firm against the voices, mainly on the right of the party (most recently Rachel Reeves and Stephen Kinnock as well as, more surprisingly, Jonathan Freedland) who think that being anti-immigration is the "realist" way back to power for Labour.

Too often, an embrace of anti-immigrant politics is justified by an appeal to "the white working class", even though this a largely mythical beast. (Inconvenient fact: only around 39% of Leave voters were working class and only around 32% of working class voters actually ticked the Leave box in the referendum.) Yes, we need to listen to the "concerns" of those people who feel left behind by globalisation; but we don't have to embrace positions we know are wrong because we think that might win them over.

Most British voters, if asked if immigration is a problem for their area, say it isn't; they say it is a problem for the country. They're most likely to say that (and voted Leave in the largest numbers) where there are the least immigrants. That suggests that the media and politicians constantly talking up the migrant threat - rather than actual experiences in communities or in the labour market - drives anti-immigrant sentiment. And that means it is the responsibility of decent politicians and of the labour movement to take some leadership in challenging those narratives.

8. Defend free movement

The defence of free movement is a vital symbol of what Labour values should be on migration issues - I'd even say a red line issue. Corbyn and McDonnell seemed lukewarm about free movement after the Referendum, but are starting to firm up a more positive position. The key point, I think, is that the right to free movement of labour is our right. Whether the UK gets access to the free market post-Brexit, capital always finds ways of moving across borders; our right to cross borders is something to defend in a globalised world. Abandoning free movement is to embrace a nationalist idea of the working class. Labour values instead should be about solidarity, about the common cause of working people born in Britain (including those left behind in a globalised world) and those born abroad.

9. Promote a more consistent internationalism

Although Corbyn's supporters see him as an internationalist, it seems to me his internationalism is highly selective. True, he has performed brilliantly in denouncing our links with Saudi Arabia, and he has a track record (muted in recent years) of championing unpopular causes like the Kurds and Western Sahara. But his appalling Stalinist views on Ukraine, his dreadful positions on Venezuela (reflecting a problem on the wider left) suggest a less impressive picture.

Although geopolitics is not a vote-winning topic, the silence of Corbyn and other Labour leaders on Syria at conference - in a week when chemical weapons and barrel bombs were raining down on Aleppo - was glaring to many people far beyond the usual Syria solidarity scene. Corbyn's inability to name or blame the perpetrators and his refusal to countenance any action in support of those suffering is one of his most shameful positions. Labour - in the spirit of Jo Cox - needs to speak out on this, and now.

10. Push forward young faces

Finally, the cause for hope that some of this stuff might be possible is in the younger generations of activists and politicians. It is common these days to denounce the apathy and clicktivism of millennials, but my impression is that younger activists - free of the baggage of the 2003 Iraq war moment and of Cold War "anti-imperialism" - represent a better sort of politics than the left's old guard does. This week, many mainstream journalists noticed that Momentum was not full of shady old Trots but included energetic, savvy young people from all sorts of walks of life.

This trend might also be reflected in the impressive younger MPs and younger grassroots activists on the party's left and its right (many of them women) who have come to prominence in the last year. Unfortunately, many of the non-Corbynista ones (e.g. Stella Creasy, Lewisham's Heidi Alexander, Jess Phillips) have been treated so shabbily by team Corbyn that they will remain marginal rebels, but they, as well as people like Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and, outside parliament, Barbara Ntumy, perhaps point to a possible future Labour party.

Friday, September 30, 2016

In praise of John Penney

I just read this great comment by John Penney on an excellent Left Futures post by Andy Newman about Labour's current antisemitism controversy. Newman is not always someone I agree with, especially on geopolitical issues, but on issues of anti-racism and anti-fascism he often calls it right. Anyway, here's John's comment:
Jackie Walker’s bizarre repeated insistence on playing some sort of sick competitive “top trumps” comparison between the WW2 anti Jewish Holocaust and the centuries long mass enslavement and holocaust of Africans, should be utterly unacceptable to socialists. Particularly when she repeats that utter historical lie, propagated mainly by the previously deeply, and openly, anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement in the USA, that: 
many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean.”
“Chief Financiers” of the slave trade? This is an utter lie, with no historical basis whatsoever. It is an anti Semitic trope, playing into a long established seam of anti-Semitism within the US, but also, UK Black communities. 
Add this to her more recent, extraordinary comments, which show a staggeringly cavalier disregard for the facts about Holocaust Memorial Day, and the conclusion must be clear – Jackie Walker’s membership of both the Labour Party and Momentum is utterly unacceptable. 
As a lifelong anti fascist and internationalist socialist, and a Momentum organiser in North Shropshire, I feel personally offended to be in the same organisations as this person – and deeply concerned that the Momentum Leadership ever allowed Ms Walker to remain in Momentum after her first extraordinary outburst. 
If Jackie Walker isn’t expelled from Momentum after her latest offensive intervention (which appears to me to be simply an example of some strange deliberately controversial attention seeking behaviour) I’m sure many of us will have to reconsider our membership of Momentum.
It's always a pleasure to come across John's comments online. I've never met him, but he is one of the unsung heroes of post-war British militant anti-fascism and (via Anti-Fascist Action and Red Action) had a major indirect influence on my own political development half a generation later. If the left had more comrades like him, I'd feel a lot more at home here.

So, here are a few of his comments which I've bookmarked over the years. I've taken the liberty of adding a couple of hyperlinks and tidying up some of the punctuation.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

From Bob's archive: Loving the people

Away for a couple of weeks, so one from the archive. This is from September 2008, on the eve of Obama's first election, and seems kind of relevant in this American election year. 

“I love the Jews really only en masse, en détail I strictly avoid him.” – Wilhelm von Humboldt, quoted by Hannah Arendt
Luckily, Alice Walker will almost certainly never read this post. “Sometimes, reading a blog, which I do infrequently, I see that generations of Americans have been crippled, and can no longer spell or write a sentence.” Oh well.

Ms Walker provocatively opens her recent piece on the American presidency like this:
I remember seeing a picture of Fidel Castro in a parade with lots of other Cubans. It was during the emergency years, the "special period" when Cuba's relationship with the Soviet Union had collapsed and there was little gas or oil or fertiliser; people were struggling to find enough to eat. It was perhaps Cuba's nadir, as a small Caribbean island nation considered a dangerous threat by its nearest neighbour, the United States - which, during this period, tightened its embargo. Fidel, tall, haggard, his clothes hanging more loosely than usual from his gaunt frame, walked soberly along, surrounded by thousands of likewise downhearted, fearful people... 
However poor the Cubans might be, I realised, they cared about each other and they had a leader who loved them. A leader who loved them. Imagine. A leader not afraid to be out in the streets with them, a leader not ashamed to show himself as troubled and humbled as they were. A leader who would not leave them to wonder and worry alone, but would stand with them, walk with them, celebrate with them - whatever the parade might be. 
This is what I want for our country, more than anything. I want a leader who can love us.
Now, I have some admiration for Fidel Castro and what he has achieved, against all the odds. And I think that the American trade embargo on Cuba has been a cruel, counterproductive, vindictive policy, which has done nothing to further democracy and only helped immiserate the people of Cuba.

However, Castro’s regime has been a brutal authoritarian dictatorship. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love does not extend to letting them choose who should rule them, or letting them listen to or read any dissenting voices, or letting them access the internet or have a free press or borrow books from their libraries which challenge his worldview. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, his love is expressed through a system of neighbourhood informers who ensure political conformity, through the imprisonment of dissidents, through the outlawing of homosexuality, through allowing the sex tourism industry to flourish to bring in hard currency. If Castro loves the people of Cuba, he does not love them enough to let them form free trade unions, to let them go on strike or to let them travel abroad.

Whatever Bush’s faults, none of these things can be said about him. But Bush, Walker says, is all about “killing, under order, folks we don’t know; abusing children of whose existence we hadn’t heard; maiming and murdering animals that have done us no harm.” That, she says, is how we know Bush loves neither us nor himself.

John Kennedy, in contrast, Walker says, did love the American people. Maybe I’ve read too much James Ellroy and Gore Vidal to have a clear view of Kennedy, but he was the man who ordered the ridiculous Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro’s government, the man who declared a war on Communism and turned a tiny military operation into the Vietnam war, the man who authorising the bombing, burning and napalming of Vietnamese civilians. In other words, sending Americans to kill folks they don’t know, abuse children, and, yes, maim animals.

Regardless of which picture is more accurate, though, I don’t think it is right to ask for a president who loves the American people. As soon as someone invokes The People, with that definite article, I get worried.

Hannah Arendt was famously rebuked by her friend Gershom Scholem for not loving the Jewish people enough. She replied (addressing him in her letter, I think, by his original German name Gerhardt): 
“I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective – neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons… I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.”
As I’ve said before, those who most love Humanity en masse, as von Humboldt puts it, in the abstract – The People – are those who least love actual humans en détail, in the flesh – who care least for real people, including real Americans. In fact, those who most love The People in the abstract are often those most able to kill and abuse and maim real people in the flesh.

Alice Walker, it seems, is a woman who cannot love her own daughter or grandson, yet loves the whole American people, despite their inability to write a sentence, despite them being “racist and sexist and greedy above all”. If I were an American, I would not want a president who loved me as Fidel loves the Cuban people or as Alice Walker loves the American people. I would want a president who loves her friends and her children.

If I were an American, I would vote for Barack Obama, but, as Noga says, his strongest supporters don’t make that easier.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Detail from Alun's map of British Trotskyism, 2015, Revolutionary History
A menace is apparently stalking the Labour Party, that of the "Trots":

It is often said, with some justice, that Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters cleave to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s and are still fighting the battles they lost then. However, it seems to me that the Labour right, in fantastically over-emphasising the menace of the "Trots", are similarly fighting old battles, battles they won in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1980s, a couple of quite large and well-organised Trotskyist sects, as well as a few smaller ones, did indeed seriously carry out well-disciplined operations to enter and take commanding positions in the Labour movement. (For a very enjoyable history, see John Sullivan's classic As Soon As This Pub Closes.) These included the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party, whose electoral front is TUSC) as well as the smaller Socialist Organiser (now the Alliance for Workers Liberty). Such groups managed to get a controlling influence in the Labour Party Young Socialists (where I cut my political teeth in the late 1980s) and municipalities such as Liverpool, before being expelled in the 1980s. Mainstream Labour activists too young to have fought these battles will have encountered the legacy of them in the student union movement (where the full spectrum of Trot sects have grappled for influence), and been inducted there into the Party's collective memory of the "Trot" menace.

The membership of these groups, however, peaked perhaps in five figure numbers, and may barely be close to that now. (Paul Mason, a former member of the Trotskyist groupuscule Workers Power, told the BBC yesterday that there are only 1500 British Trotskyists, but I think that might be a very conservative estimate.)

Now, 250,000 people voted for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership in 2015, including 121,751 actual Labour members - of whom a good many were soft left long-term party members and far from Trotskyist. We have been told that this week alone 180,000 people paid £25 to sign up as registered supporters in order to vote in the leadership election, and a good number (though definitely not all of them) are Corbyn supporters. And then there are members of Momentum who haven't joined up, plus an army of Corbynista keyboard warriors.

Are all of these - perhaps half a million - Trots? Of course not.

It is true that there are a couple of Trotskyists high up in team Corbyn. (Simon Fletcher, who, while working for Ed Miliband, designed the leadership voting system that gave Corbyn his victory, is a veteran of the cult-like Socialist Action, who used to be Trotskyist but have evolved in a Stalinist direction over the years - see Coatesy.) And then there's Seumas Milne, whose roots are in the Stalinist rather than Trotskyist left. But what about at the grassroots, in the party branches?

Reports of pro-Corbyn rallies always mention the presence of SWP banners as proof that his campaign is full of Trots. Anyone who has been to any demo, however, knows that a tiny number of SWP members bring huge numbers of SWP placards along, which they hand to the naive and gullible innocents who like the message and don't think about the brand. The SWP placards are evidence of the foolishness of some of Corbyn's followers, not of their Trotskyism.

As for Momentum, it is clearly quite a heterogeneous formation. Its leaders and organisers include long-term Labour non-Trotskyist left-wingers such as Jon Lansman, as well as new party members like former Green James Schneider, and a few actual Trotskyists such as Jill Mountford. (See this scurrilous "exposé" by Andrew Gilligan, and this more sobre account by John Harris.) It's true that various Trotskyist parties have been reported at local Momentum meetings (including the appalling Socialist Workers Party) - although the Momentum organisers have told them to sling their hooks. Most reports I've heard of Momentum meetings talk about a few Trotskyists, far outnumbered by young socialists relatively new to politics and un-encumbered by any history of sect membership.

In a way, of course, it is a good thing that the menace of the "Trots" is partly a figment of mainstream Labour activists' imagination. Trotskyism - like Leninism in general - is an inherently anti-democratic movement, which subordinates working class self-activity and democratic socialism to the vehicle of the vanguard party. The concept of the vanguard party is one of the core precepts of Trotskyism, and it is a concept incompatible with support for a broad-based, mass, democratic party of labour (which is why Marx always argued that communists should not form ideologically pure vanguard parties). Most rank and file Corbyinists clearly desire (and have an idea that Labour once was) a broad-based, mass, democratic socialist party, not a Leninist vanguard party.

On the other hand, the fact that the Corbynist movement is not Trotskyist also speaks to one of its weaknesses: its ideological eclecticism and incoherence. Beyond a few phrases about fighting austerity and supporting public ownership, Corbynism is a movement that lacks a unifying vision, lacks a concrete sense of how its aims could be achieved, has so far failed to articulate how its vague socialist ethos could be translated into policy ideas.

Two recent articles illuminate this well, in different ways. The radical economist Richard Murphy describes here (h./t Paul C) why he went to work on helping to flesh out "Corbynomics", and why, sadly, it came to nothing:

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

Undigested thoughts on Labour's antisemitism problem

These thoughts are are the most undigested I've ever put in a blogpost, but I just wanted to get them down. They're based on an email I dictated into my phone while walking this morning, so blame Apple's auto-correct for any typos. Actually, why not blame Apple for any errors of judgement on my part too. 

The start is responding to Asa Winstanley in Electronic Intifada, but it could just as equally be responding to Jamie Stern-Weiner in OpenDemocracy, Graham on Twitter, the Jewish Socialist Group or half my left-wing friends. 

Basically, I have two problems with this sort of response. First, I find the whole idea of an all-powerful "Lobby" making accusations of antisemitism and manipulating the party smacks of conspiracy theory thinking, reminiscent of right wing fantasies about "Eurabia", "creeping sharia" or "white genocide", and specifically reminiscent of old antisemitic fantasies of secret Jewish tentacular power.

Second, it requires a highly selective sampling of the recent antisemitism allegations in Labour. Some of the allegations can be dismissed or at least aren't that serious. Others, however, are harder to dispense with in this way. The list of allegations is just so long that it is unsustainable to say they don't add up to something worrying and significant. I think, as Owen Jones says, we need to really take this seriously and try to understand it.

I'm tired of seeing Labour councillors and local Momentum branches retweeting active Holocaust deniers. I'm sick of hearing that the accusation of antisemitism is used to "shut down criticism of Israel" - as if joking about deporting Jews or saying that Hitler's early work was good "before he went mad" is simply "criticism of Israel". 

Sure, not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism - but some is. When a Ken Livingstone social media acolyte who dismisses antisemitism then calls George Soros (who has basically only ever criticised Israel) a "Zionist" you know that "Zionist" means something other than what it used to mean for that person. When John Mann (who has never, to my knowledge, actually expressed a view about Israel and is not a member of Labour Friends of Israel) is routinely called a "Zionist" because he cares about antisemitism, then something is wrong.  

The response that it is a question of "crying antisemitism" is a dangerous one, and we see it too when the right talk about the "Islamophobia industry" or about black people "playing the racism card" or women "playing the sexism card". Leftists (e.g. OpenDemocracy) would not consider giving the time of day to this kind dismissal of other racisms, and shouldn't here. (Imagine if they defended UKIP on the basis that it's just a few rotten apples that are actually racist.) 

I'm not saying everyone who ever utters an antisemitic comment should be sent to the gulag or silenced - or even necessarily kicked out of the party. (I think Naz Shah's apology, for example, is heartfelt and serious and she should be welcomed back to the party.) But I think there needs to be a really serious, difficult process of working out where things went wrong and actually stamping this shit out.

However, I do feel that a kind of hysteria has developed around this. A few untruths, half-truths and exaggerations have diluted the authority of those calling out antisemitism. Baroness Neuberger's bizarre allegation that Militant were antisemitic would be one example; Boris Johnson's description of antisemitism as a "virus" in the party is also absurd. 

And all too often people calling out Naz Shah for her antisemitism on social media would, quite quickly, descend into making racist generalisations about Muslims,  thus forfeiting their right to lecture anyone about racism against Jews.

And clearly the agenda of Andrew Gilligan or Guido Fawkes (those doing the muck raking) is deeply distasteful. It sickens me to hear Cameron and Johnson lecture Labour about this - not least while Lynton Crosby runs Goldsmith's dirty, dog whistle racist campaign against Sadiq Khan and Tory Brexiteers drop ominous warnings about "uncontrolled immigration".

And I'm sure there are some Labour "moderates" fanning these flames out of resentment at Corbyn. (Although the widely circulating idea that they have orchestrated this to undermine Labour's election chances next week is frankly absurd - unless you think that Ken Livingstone's motor mouth is secretly under their control.)

It's also clearly true that some of the strongest antisemitism allegations relate to people who joined long before the Corbyn win (e.g. Gerry Downing) and/ or to members who have nothing at all to do with his movement (e.g. Khadim Hussain). However, there does seem to be some overlap between the pro-Corbyn keyboard warriors and the most vociferous defenders of antisemitism. (If you look at the Twitter scene around Scott Nelson for example.) It's important to distinguish this milieu from the people who are actually active offline in Momentum - and clearly it serves the interests of both Tories and Labour "moderates" to blur that distinction - but it does disturb me, given the numerical dominance of the Corbynites in the new Labour Party.

So, I would strongly defend Labour from those who say that this stuff is "rife" in the party. It's not, contra Boris, a "virus" in the party. Most party members are appalled by it. But I do think that Labour, and the left as a whole, does have some kind of a problem with antisemitism. And it needs - we need - to face up to it.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Merle Haggard z''l

I was very sad to see last night that the wonderful Merle Haggard has passed away.

I've collected here some of the times I've blogged about him over the last decade...

Untamed hawk

Johnny Cash coined the term "dove with claws", talking about the Vietnam war:
This past January we took our entire show, along with my wife June, we went to Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon. And a reporter friend of mine asked, said, "That makes you a hawk, doesn't it?" And I said, "No, that don't make me a hawk. No. No, that don't make me a hawk." But I said, "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."
Wade Tatangelo characterises Cash's position as "anti-war/pro-soldier", which is not a bad place to be.

Merle Haggard takes it one step further. Asked "Do you feel like a dove with claws these days?" He replied:
How about an untamed hawk? I’m not going to be a part of the mainstream ever. I’m an American, and I think America is about differences of opinion, and it’s also about integrity and honesty and all those things. We need to gain that respect and that reputation around the world again, as well as in the middle of this country. I think the average American is in a state of confusion as to what to do or who to turn to for help.
By strange coincidence, Haggard's beautiful song "I wonder if they ever think of me" has just come on my shuffle. Although the sound is a little schmaltzy, the opening line is "There's not much a man can do inside a prison", pretty raw for the time. After lamenting the prisoner's loneliness for a couple of verses, you suddenly get this:
I wonder if they know that I'm still living
And still proud to be a part of Uncle Sam
I wonder if they think I died of hunger
In this rotten prison camp in VietNam.

Norm and Karl

In 2008, the late Norman Geras, a big country fan as well as a life-long Marxist, did a Normblog profile of Karl Marx. One of the best bits:
If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > Johannes Kepler, Philip Roth and Merle Haggard.
 Being Norm, this was footnoted. The footnote went to the chapter in Capital on the length of the working day. The YouTube link from Merle's name is now dead, but I think we can presume it's this song, which rates, with Dolly Parton's "9 To 5" and Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It", as among the best ever Marxist country songs:

Politically uncorrect

Back in 2006, Chris Dillow wrote something about the complicated politics expressed in songs like those, and how the gap between their sentiments and today's left tells us something depressing about the latter. Here's an extract:
Haggard – and the millions of people he sings for – is regarded as a right-winger simply because the left ceased to be comfortable with conservative (small c) working people. And the discomfort, I suspect, is reciprocated: many working class people (on both sides of the Atlantic) don’t want anything to do with a “left” that consists of multi-millionaire managerialists who hate their way of life.
Healing that gap, healing the left and connecting it with the humanly concerns of the people Haggard sang for, is of course a (necessary, impossible) task that Norm set himself and the rest of us. On that note, I'll leave the last word to Merle, and one of his last songs:

More: Bob's Beats; Merle Haggard on Barack Obama's inageration; Haggard defends Obama

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

From Bob's archive: When the LRB whitewashed Europe's shame over Bosnia

Continuing my posting from the dusty archives.

This one, from July 2008, was originally entitled "An Extraordinary Claim". It seems extremely relevant now for a few reasons. The "realist" foreign policy line which it describes, pursued in the 1990s by George Bush I and by John Major, has become the dominant foreign policy position against since 2008. With Bush II and Blair having toxified interventionism's brand, Both Obama and Cameron (despite the latter's occasional empty Churchillian rhetoric) have largely pursued "a policy of disapproval" in relation to Syria, the great moral change of our time. Sadly, Samantha Power, to whom this post owes a lot, has played a part in running PR for our tolerance of atrocity. Most recently, David Owen, one of the most awful practitioners of a do-nothing "policy of disapproval", has popped into the UK's Brexit debate to say that the EU is responsible for Russia's aggression in Ukraine and that we should let Russia get on with it in their sphere of influence. Anyway, here we are:

I read slowly. I subscribe to the London Review of Books. I'm currently reading the 10 April edition. On the bus this morning, I was reading a review by Henry Siegman of two books about the Israeli settlements in the Occupied lands. The review is a sharp indictment of the settlement movement, and the wider Occupation policies of the Israeli state.

About half-way through came this extraordinary claim:
the driving force behind the settlements is a small religious-nationalist group, whose members are widely considered the most savvy, well connected and effective political operators in Israel. Their ideology combines an intense form of religious messianism with an extreme nationalism that has far more in common with the religious and ethnocentric nationalism of the Serbian Orthodox militias of Mladic and Karadzic than with any Jewish values I am familiar with. That Sharon and some of his settler friends were virtually the only politicians in the West (other than Serbia’s Slavic supporters) who opposed military measures to prevent Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo was not an accident.
As a lifelong opponent of Ariel Sharon and even more so of the religious-national movement with which he has sometimes been uneasily allied, I have no wish to defend him. But this seems to me an example of an anti-Zionist so deeply enmeshed in hostility towards Israel's leaders that any criticism will stick.

Let's take a look, in this week when arch-cleanser Radovan Karadžić has finally been arrested, at Serbian ethnic cleansing. First, Bosnia, where ethnic cleansing took place mainly between 1992 and 1995 (that is, more or less exactly coinciding with the Rabin years in Israel, when Sharon was in the political wilderness). The first significant action by "politicians in the West" took place as war clouds gathered: the 1991 arms embargo, which was a great boost to the Serbian forces who had inherited most of the Yugoslav national army's arsenal, and a great threat to the future victims of ethnic cleansing, who were unable to defend themselves and thus left, essentially, at the mercy of "politicians in the West". Politicians in the West then stood by during the Foča massacre and the Prijedor massacre. When, finally, UN troops were committed: to defend the international airport. The rest of the story is essentially the story of Western politicians' utter inactivity: a refusal to name what was happening as genocide in order to avoid the legal and moral responsibility to act, and literally standing by while massacre after massacre occurred.

What was the position then of Western politicians? Some Western politicians, like Bob Dole, called for action. The majority of the Bush I clique American politicians, epitomised by James Baker, Lawrence Eagleberger, Dick Cheney, Brent Snowcroft and Colin Powell, opted for a "realist" response: doing nothing, shifting responsibility to Europe. Samantha Power has dubbed the Bush policy as a policy of disapproval: disapprove, but do nothing. In Baker's memorable words, America "did not have a dog in this fight".

Bill Clinton, who won the Democratic Party nomination for president during the period of ethnic cleansing, called for action. It was only after his election at the end of '92 that intervention became politically possible. But despite some American politicians (notably Dole, Frank McCloskey, Al Gore and Joe Biden, as well as Madeline Albright), calling for action to finally be taken, the majority of Republicans and Democrats denounced them as war-mongers.

Thirteen months into the war, well over a hundred thousand Bosnians massacred, Clinton finally sent Carter-era hack Warren Christopher to Europe to persuade the Europeans not to actually act but to lift the arms embargo so the victims of cleansing could defend themselves. He came back having changed his mind, and the Bush I policy of disapproval and inactivity continued for months, a continuity signalled by Colin Powell remaining in post. Warren Christopher even claimed the Muslims were themselves responsible for their own genocide. The official line was: this is a tragic civil war, there's nothing we can do.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, the David Owen led European diplomatic initiative was signally ineffective. The UN came up with a tepid "safe areas" plan over a year into the slaughter (de facto accepting genocide outside the safe areas), but failed to send anywhere enough troops to defend them. France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark were the only European countries to actively support this. Mitterand, under pressure from both left and right-wing politicians to act more decisively, accepted a minimal UN presence. Only when Chirac took over in 1995 did France take a more robust position. Italy opposed intervention from the start. Greece not only opposed intervention but supported Milosovic. Helmut Kohl, to the intense irritation of Major and Mitterand, took a stronger line - but Germany's official military neutrality stopped it from actually committing troops.

What was Britain's position? Under John Major and Douglas Hurd, Britain took an even more anti-interventionist "realist" position than Bush I. As Melanie McDonagh put it in 2001:
In the Bosnian war, Britain supported Milosevic. It dealt with him as a peace broker - from the start, it had set its face against the idea that the Bosnian government should be supported in fighting to prevent the dismemberment of its territory. And by maintaining the arms embargo, Britain consolidated the weakness of the Bosnian army vis-a-vis the Serbs. Indeed, as a forthcoming book by the Cambridge academic Brendan Simms makes clear, Britain was decidedly lukewarm about the establishment of the international war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia, lest it make Milosevic that bit less likely to strike a deal.
Or, as Ed Vulliamy, a witness to genocide, has written:
It was David Owen whose endless, futile maps and plans bought the Serbs time and which seem so grimly absurd with hindsight. The enduring image of the bungled history of Unprofor will be of General Michael Rose supping on suckling pig with the butcher Ratko Mladic. 
It was the British who objected to food-drops over Srebrenica, lest the Serbs see them as the thin end of the wedge of air strikes. But: 'The Bosnian Serbs need to realise they are not going to gain what they have grabbed by force,' proclaimed Major's Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in May 1993. And yet Hurd was the leading critic of any attempt to check the Serbs by military means. At his side, always, was Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
It took the Srebrenica Massacre and the shame of the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide before the West finally actually intervened in August 1995, with a bombing campaign that halted the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia within weeks.

So, so much for Israeli exceptionalism.