Saturday, November 30, 2013

Maoist slave cult footnotes

Following my post this week on the Brixton Maoist cult, I have had some second thoughts about how helpful the word "slave" is in the case. "Modern-day slavery" has become one of the moral panics of the contemporary liberal imagination, a moral panic so apolitical the Tories buy into it. Clearly, in this case there is control, manipulation, domination, maybe also exploitation - but (as with the difference between "normal" sects and cults), the line crossed before we should be talking about "slavery" is rather blurry, and I'm not sure there are enough facts in the public domain to judge this case. I think Transpontine gets it exactly right here:
Unless and until this case comes to court and all the evidence is out there, it's probably best not to speculate too much about the details. It is pretty clear though that this would be a unique situation arising from very particular circumstances - and certainly no basis on which to generalise about slavery in modern Britain. Clearly there are disparate cases of extreme exploitation, abuse and servitude but maybe Frank Furedi has a point about the inadequacy of the term 'slavery' to describe them. 
Tempting too to draw general political conclusions about Marxist-Leninism as Bob from Brockley does. I have some sympathy with this approach, but again we probably can't deduce too much from this pathological case study. Once a political organisation is small enough to fit in one household we are really talking about small group interpersonal dynamics rather than political ideology, even if ideology can justify all kinds of behaviour that most people would find appalling.
But anyway, I just wanted to signal a few other internet posts worth reading on this topic.

Monday, November 25, 2013


So, it turns out that the group involved in the extraordinary Brixton slave case are a weird Maoist cult. You'll have read by now that Aravindan Balakrishnan, 73 (known as "Comrade Bala"), and his wife Chanda broke with the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) in 1974, to form the spectacularly named Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Despite the comedic name of the cult - and my comedic title - the case is unbelievably horrible, and raises important and disturbing issues.

There are many questions still open - what contact Lambeth Council had with the sect, how a very locally based group under very heavy state surveillance in the late 1970s managed to keep a woman a slave for the last thirty years, etc - which I can't hope to address here.

And in some ways the Maoism of the group is irrelevant: their key features are those of a cult rather than those of a Leninist party. (As Lurdan writes in the Libcom discussion thread: "Looking at their writings now they seem to exhibit all the indicators of a classic millenarian sect based on an apparently literal belief in the immanence of global revolution.")

However, there are features of Leninist parties that encourage cult-like activity. Comrade Bala's group is among a very small number of Leninist parties to degenerate into pure cults (NATLFED on the US West Coast is the classic example and the LaRouche network is the most successful) but many more Leninist groups are on a cult continuum.

Being at war with the "bourgeois" (or "fascist") state is an exemplary control technique for forcing members into absolute loyalty and trust of insiders and absolute break with mainstream society. But more specifically there are two features of Leninist doctrine that lead to cult-like behaviour. The first of these is the notion of the vanguard party; the second is that of democratic centralism. Both are sketched out in Lenin's What is To Be Done?, written at the turn of the last century in the context of an ultra-authoritarian police state where open, democratic political organisation was impossible.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Crap Marxism 1: Base/superstructure

This post was inspired by a post by some Oxbridge Telegraph blogger criticising Owen Jones for something he said about Marxism. Marx's view, the Telegraph blogger writes, was "that all human relations are shaped by economics and that everything we do is measured in purely material terms reduced the individual to a pawn in a historic war between competing classes. You're not a person – you're either an exploiter or an alienated peasant." This is an ignorant stereotype of Marx's thought. But the Telegraph blogger claims he himself was once a Marxist. And that got me to thinking how the Marxism of many self-described Marxists is based on ignorant stereotypes of Marx's thought akin to those propagated by anti-Marxists.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Mother Agnes" and "Stop the War"

The Syrian revolution speaks on "Mother Agnes"
Source: Occupied Kafr Anbel
Stop The War UK invited Fadia Laham (known as Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix) to speak at its London event on 30 November. "Mother Agnes" is a Lebanese-born, French-educated nun, who started her own order in Syria.

Her invitation provoked outrage from Syrians and supporters of the Syrian revolution, as "Mother Agnes" has been a widely disseminated mouthpiece for the Assad regime's propaganda, including vigorously denying some of Assad's war crimes. (Of pictures of dead children in Ghouta, for example, she claims they are only sleeping.) Her lies are widely promoted by Russian media sources, by Christian news agencies, and by the LaRouche network. There are also live allegations about her own involvement in war crimes, and in the regime murder of journalists. Below the fold, I have pasted some information about her, but some good starting points are Linux Beach, Democratic Revolution, and Pulse.

Some of the more intelligent and honourable invited speakers at the Stop The War event had doubts when informed about sharing a platform with her. (Film-maker Jeremy Scahill and commentator/activist Owen Jones said they wouldn't speak alongside her, and writer Rachel Shabi appeared to be considering this.)

Now, Stop the War have announced that "Mother Agnes" has withdrawn. [UPDATE: Mother Agnes' statement here (pdf).]  However, it remains a scandal that they should ever have invited her, that they should have thought she was a legitimate voice from Syria at an "anti-war" conference. Who at Stop the War invited her? Who agreed to it? Through what channels did they invite her? What were they thinking?

While this is not true of all the speakers at the event, it is clear that the main organisers of Stop the War are not anti-war at all. They are just opposed to the US getting involved in wars. The opening words of the conference publicity are these:
In a historic setback for the organisers of the War on Terror, protest and public opinion helped stop a new war on Syria.
Do they not realise that war has been going on in Syria for well over two years, that over 120,000 people have been killed, that 5 million people are displaced in Syria, that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been forced to flee the country? How can "anti-war" people claim that as any sort of achievement?


Friday, November 15, 2013

Weighing into the Tommy Robinson debate

Although I’ve been thinking about it for five or six weeks , this post is still only half-digested (at best). It’s a response to the October announcement (facilitated by the anti-Islamist thinktank Quiliam) from the founders of the English Defence League (EDL), Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Kevin Carroll, that they were leaving it. It is also an attempt to respond to some of the responses to the announcement, including on Harry’s Place and from the blogger Jacobinism (and Paul Stott’s footnote to Jacobin).

It doesn’t have a central argument, but is instead a series of provisional assertions.

1. Anti-Muslim racism is a serious danger for Britain and for Europe. As I wrote in my post which set the scene for this one, anti-Muslim racism is a stark reality of Britain today, spiking in the months since the brutal slaughter by Islamists of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. The existence of the EDL was never responsible for pandemic anti-Muslim racism. But their provocative marches increased the fear for British Muslims. The EDL’s articulate leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known by one of his pseudonyms, Tommy Robinson) gave voice to and disseminated a particularly vicious strain of anti-Muslim racism. The tag #EDL, like the daubed slogans PJ (Perish Judah) in Mosley’s day, KBW (Keep Britain White) in Powell’s day, or NF in my youth, served as watchwords for racists, giving them confidence while spreading fear among Muslims. Any discussion of the EDL and its founder that ignores this reality is worthless.

2. Any blow to the EDL is a good thing. Given the poisonous role of the EDL in Britain’s body politic, anything which does it harm should be celebrated. Its rejection as spoiled goods by its own founder will hopefully be the first nail in its coffin, and we should be grateful to Yaxley-Lennon if he ends up helping to kill the beast he birthed.

3. The EDL were never fascist, but that’s not saying much. Since it emerged, I argued that the EDL should not be seen as fascists. At most, I said, they should be seen as proto-fascists. But Yaxley-Lennon had passed through the BNP on his way to founding the EDL, and lots of openly Nazi activists were at large in the movement, including in local leadership positions, helping to intensify its poisonousness. Many anti-fascists, forever replaying the Battleof Cable Street, dearly wanted the EDL to be fascist. Any picture of an EDL member raising his arm looked like a Nazi salute to them – when only some of them were. But the fact the EDL wasn’t fascist doesn’t make it alright. Whether it was fascist or not, it was poisonous.

4. Tommy Robinson was never stupid. As Jacobin points out, many liberals who now claim Yaxley-Lennon is cleverly re-branding himself were not so long ago happy to claim he was an ignorant redneck. Anyone who thought he was “an ignorant, racist ex-con and brainless neo-fascist ideologue” is an idiot (although he was an ex-con, but then so are lots of good people). Yaxley-Lennon might not have known much about Islamic theology or Muslim cultures, but he was a slick orator and a brilliant political operator.

5. The EDL is a toxic brand. Ex-BNP member Yaxley-Lennon shaped the EDL in his image. Because of all the stuff I’ve outlined above – the Nazi salutes, the street violence, the coke-headed thugs posting racist stuff on Facebook EDL pages – the EDL he created is seen as toxic by many people who might share its views. Matthew Goodwin’s YouGov polling data confirms this: there is a sizeable constituency of people who like its beliefs but not its violent methods. It could never grow beyond its hooligan support base, and even lots of its supporters were embarrassed at some of their comrades’ antics.

6. Tommy Robinson is a better brand. Most of the prestige of the EDL brand among its supporters was bound up in the charisma and rhetoric of its leader. The Tommy Robinson brand became more powerful than the EDL brand. Most of its supporters would follow its leader whether in the EDL or not. So it made a lot of sense for Yaxley-Lennon to dump the toxicity and polish off his own brand. Quilliam’s endorsement worked brilliantly to that effect.

We know fascists try to re-brand. Marine Le Pen is working hard to give the FN a better image. For a while, the BNP tried to present itself as a respectable besuited UKIP-style party – although constant incidents of financial dodgyness, criminality and thuggery, and the sheer incompetence of its would-be politicians stymied that plan. And for a while the BNP tried to fish in the EDL’s counter-Jihadi waters by publicly presenting itself as philosemitic and pro-Israel, although in private it called the EDL a Zionist plot. (The only people fooled were a few gullible anti-Zionists, so deranged by their Israel-hatred that they were prepared to believe anything that reflected badly on it.)

But, people do change. As Paul Stott notes, liberal anti-fascist organisations like Searchlight/HnH make considerable capital out of their turned assets such as Ray Hill and Matthew Collins. And some of the most impressive genuine, militant anti-fascists I have known had been fascists when younger. Today, many people I trust are willing to give Yaxley-Lennon the benefit of the doubt about his conversion. He’s made some positive gestures. Quilliam have a good track record helping people exit the jihadi death cult, so perhaps they can help Yaxley-Lennon make a genuine recovery.

Personally, though, I don’t see much evidence of any actual change in Yaxley-Lennon’s views yet. He was (incompetently) stalking and threatening anti-fascists weeks before his U-turn; he continues to fraternise with and compliment out-and-out fascists on his social media pages; he carries on linking to YouTube videos of his most racist speeches. At the very least, we should be very sceptical of him.

7. The real question is, what is Tommy going to do with his re-branding. If Yaxley-Lennon has read Matthew Goodwin’s polling analysis (and I’m sure he has), he’ll know there is a sizeable constituency in the UK for an organisation which shares the views of the EDL but not its violence. Yaxley-Lennon has a big ego, big ambition, charisma and political nous. If the mainstream media rehabilitates him, what can he do with his fame?

With Farage and UKIP given disproportionate access to the public by the BBC and the print media, Yaxley-Lennon knows he will get a hearing. (The media class has been taken in by private school bankster Farage’s self-presentation as Ordinary Bloke; how much better former football hooligan tanning machine businessman “Tommy Robinson” can play that role.)  So, when we say good luck to Yaxley-Lennon, well, yes, good luck in his private life and journey of self-discovery – but, no, not good luck in his political ambitions. 


Those are the main points I wanted to get out. The following are more specific, in response to particular claims made in the Tommy Robinson debate.

Endemic Islamophobia?

Anti-Muslim graffiti in Mitcham, South London, after Woolwich attack
Source: This is Local London
I don’t like the word “Islamophobia” for several reasons – the idea that it is a phobia makes it both natural and pathological; the “Islam” bit creates a blur between dislike of Islam (which can be T perfectly legitimate) and dislike of Muslims (which is racist). But the anti-Muslim racism which it is used to name is nonetheless a stark reality. Just as a man who walks the streets of Britain wearing a Jewish kippah will soon discover that antisemitism is far from dead, a woman who walks the streets of Britain in a hijab will receive torrents of verbal abuse.

In the wake of the horrific slaughter of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in the summer, there was a huge spike in abuse.* Some of this was violent. Mosques were fire-bombed; people attacked; an elderly man in the Midlands was murdered by a Ukrainian fascist just for being Muslim. Not all of the abuse was violent: there was graffiti, shouting of taunts, and huge amounts of obscenity on-line. It came from every section of British society; Guardian reading liberals are more careful in the way they express revulsion at Muslims than Mail reading Tories, but I don’t think it’s much less common among them.

Some Muslim community leaders and professional anti-racists played up the recent spike – just as Jewish community leaders sometimes overemphasise the danger of antisemitism. Some commentators, such as Andrew Gilligan (cited and re-cited by Jacobin), have sought to diminish the seriousness of the abuse by pointing out only a small proportion of it is actually violent, just as many leftists downplay the threat of antisemitism with similar arguments. But anyone who has experienced racial harassment (or indeed other kinds of bullying) will know that words can leave deep scars. Most British Muslims today live in fear.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Russell Brand click bait

I have nothing to say about Russell Brand but, a little late, here are four links to people who do have something to say, and say it well:
And here's what I tweeted when I read the Guardian installment of Brand's intervention:
On the other hand, I have a tiny bit of sympathy with this, although I think the article it comes from is 99% bullshit:

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Beyond left and right, Syria and the politics of solidarity

From liberated Kafr Anbel
Beyond left and right
Marko Attila Hoare wrote a very good and really thought-provoking article for Left Foot Forward recently, called "What does it mean to be left wing today?", arguing that on almost all issues the tribal identities of "left" and "right" are basically meaningless and often unhelpful. He does say that there is one issue on which the distinction continues to matter: "the left supports the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor while the right opposes it." I'd phrase it differently (but am having trouble doing so now, as I'm not as articulate as Marko) but it's about right. And following from that is this: "Consequently, to be left-wing in Britain today is to side with popular resistance to the government’s anti-redistributive policies; with anti-austerity protesters and striking workers; with those who campaign to defend their public services and welfare state." I think that precisely because of the unfairness generated by the Coalition government, I've found myself feeling more assertively "left-wing" since 2010, after a decade of feeling myself increasingly uncomfortable with the left.

One of the issues that Marko mentions in his article is this:
In Britain, old-guard Bennite leftists consider it axiomatic that to be left-wing is to oppose Western military intervention. Yet it was Tony Blair’s Labour government that pioneered liberal interventionism via Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, while much of the conservative right has reacted against the idea of risking British soldiers’ lives to help foreigners. 
David Cameron – Blairite in foreign affairs – could not mobilise enough of his own parliamentary party to win the vote for intervention in Syria. Liberals are more likely to support intervention in defence of human rights and popular revolutions abroad, while conservatives often view dictators like Assad and Mubarak as positive factors of stability.
I was thinking of this tonight as I read two articles I liked whose authors I imagine wouldn't like to see their links sitting next to each other: Ben Cohen on humanitarian interventionism as passing fad and Louis Proyect on the idiocy of the "anti-imperialist" left's analysis. In both articles, a gut sense of solidarity with those in struggle and under attack prevails over ideological dogma. Proyect writes:
There’s a problem in reducing politics to litmus tests as to which state is pro-U.S. or anti-U.S., a bad habit of the “anti-imperialist” wing of the left that has little interest in what Syrian or Iranian Marxists stand for. In my view, the most urgent task facing the left today is uniting socialists, not disgusting third world dictators like Qaddafi or al-Assad who are worshipped because Nicholas Kristof editorializes against them.
I think nobody articulates gut solidarity better than Terry Glavin. His recent articles for the Ottawa Citizen on the exodus Syria are vital reads: A way out of SyriaSyrians in Amman ‘The trust is lost’, and Into the unknown, culminating in the scorching The worst-case scenario in Syria is here now. Here's some of it:
It is important to remember the reasons why this particular Arab Spring phenomenon — which began as a cheerfully optimistic, largely non-violent and fervently pro-democracy uprising led mainly by teenagers — degenerated so quickly into a bloodbath of reaction, repression, counter-revolution and savagery. 
It happened because the NATO countries, “led from behind” by U.S. president Barack Obama, allowed it to happen. It happened because the White House has preferred to avoid any confrontations with Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Hezbollah. This is the Obama Doctrine. [...] there is no such thing as an America that is a force for progress in the world any more, either, at least not for the moment. History’s clock has turned backwards. 
And on the Jihadi fighters:
“Jihad” is merely armed struggle ordained by the Muslim religion. Syrians are mostly Muslims. Betrayed and abandoned by their erstwhile friends in the western world, they are waging a lonely struggle, surrounded by death and sorrow, and they naturally turn for courage and comfort to the traditions of the faith. 
Besides, just how anemic and spineless would a religion have to be if it did not contain at least some kind of doctrinal obligation to rise up against a war criminal like Bashar al Assad? Any moral claim the NATO countries might have once been able to make against the temptations of jihad — that’s gone now, too. 
Syria is gone.

Unrelated reading: depraved leftists, gender politics
Phil AVPS on the depravity of the SWP; Karima Bennoune says keep your fatwa out of my face (listen to her on Thinking Allowed); Meriam Sabih on Malala and the white saviour complex fallacy; Lejla Kuric on Malala's real enemies; Eric Lee on what Marxists need to remember about JFK; Nick Cohen on cowering from Islamism; Sarah AB on secular mesalliances against Islamism.


Previous posts

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Blog recommendations for homeless leftists

We have reached the level of the dark times of the early Middle Ages. The need to reflect on this. The extreme difficulty of reflecting on it. -- Victor Serge
Lots of the blogs I have followed for a long time seem to be slowly dying,  but there are new ones out there, and old healthy ones, and ones that are not so new but new to me. Here are a couple that have caught my eye lately.

The Spanish Prisoner

This is one I've been following for a long time, but inexplicably have almost never linked to. It's the blog of West Coast left-wing artist and writer Evan Kornfeld (who tweets here). He blogs most frequently on film, but also on politics. Two sample recent posts: this must-read post on the Guardian peddling disgraceful Saudi exceptionalism and apologetics for sexism, this on the odious CounterPunch-hyped right-wing crank Craig Paul Roberts. In fact, the post-left idiocy of CounterPunch is a frequent target of Evan's, as an example of the wider trend to "political cretinism" in the US.

The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity

This is another (kind of) left-wing, US-based blog. It's a group blog, but the main contributor is one Skepoet (C Derick Varn, who tweets here).  It suffers from too many words, and is mainly of interest to those already inside the closed world of Marxist philosophy and critical theory, but I find a lot of its material extremely interesting. The motto is "Urgently, Angrily, Skeptically, Critically, Dialectically, and Honestly", and are unusual in their milieu for engaging with religion, and in fact with a range of different religious traditions. Two sample posts: on the awfulness of CounterPunch and its late Alexander Cockburn and his baleful influence (yes, I admit one of my own obsessions) or this more arcane one on Talmudic Judaism and council communism. Off-site, here is a long essay by Skepoet on "popping the left":
The point of “popping the left”... is not to be anti-leftist. To be anti-leftist is to focus on the “left” — Marxist, Trotskyist, Situationist, labor Zionist, anti-imperialist, anarcho-syndicalist — and to reflect a myopia that not only blurs but also corrodes. The billion points of light or a thousand flowers which spend more time gossiping about each other and writing 16 point strategy broadsheets on how to best organize Cadres after Occupy or how to make an American Syriza or to talk about how evil tankies, Trots, greens, and infantile leftists actually are. To constantly denounce “the left” makes about as much sense as to complain constantly about advertising: the pathologies that exist in the left milieu aren’t just the product of that milieu, they are also a product of the society that produces that milieu. The point of “popping the left” is to see beyond oneself into the wider world and to ask questions of the who, when, and why of history.

...A guiding light is not a map or a program or a set of vocabulary words and rubrics to apply to complicated historical movements. Materialism means dealing with what is here, historical means looking with one eye to the past and another to the possibility of a radically different future.

Whisky and Tea

I don't know why I haven't been linking constantly to Mark Crawford's blog, as it's completely up my street and as I write this I notice I am on the small but perfectly formed blogroll. It's from this side of the Atlantic, and I guess you'd characterise it more as centre-left. Mark (who tweets here) recently left the Labour Party in protest at Ed Miliband's betrayal of the Syrian people, and his post (entitled "Not in My Name") on his reasons for leaving is absolutely superb. Here are some sample passages from the blog. From a post on Russell Brand:
Socialism makes the modest suggestion that welfare should not depend upon the charitable donations of the rich and religious to the deserving poor, a view that holds petty paternalism and charity as insults to human dignity – what Marx called the soothing of the heart-burned aristocrat. It’s why charges of hypocrisy are so ludicrous: “champagne socialism” is an attempt to vomit egalitarians out of public discourse with a pithy remark, alluding, apparently, to the miso soups and lattes over which they denounce the bourgeoisie. (I can only afford cava myself but we’ll let that pass.)
From a post on Syria:
What Kerry calls “armchair isolationism” is quite important: it requires no effort on the part of the person sitting in the armchair, making it much more effective than the “armchair general” metaphor that reactionaries like to jump on.
And from the Labour resignation post:
By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he had grasped perhaps a little too confidently Hitler’s commitment to an old man to a World Peace Conference under the chairing of Roosevelt. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.

Ancient Ribs

If some of the blogs above suffer from using too many words, this (new) one is admirably pithy. Like the blogs above, it is in some sense politically homeless (the only honorable place to dwell, as Jogo puts it). Like me, the blogger Daniel Rivas Perez (who tweets here) is a fan of Victor Serge, as well as of Camus. Here's some sample phrases:
Whether or not Marxism is the future for Pakistan or for anywhere else—it isn’t—it is important to note and support those forces that work towards secularism, equality and justice in a country, and to oppose those which… don’t.
It’s a wonder to me that [Robert] Fisk is allowed to work without an editor—and yet, he is.
[Russell] Brand conflates globalisation with immiseration, as though no global poverty existed before there were textile factories and Coca-Cola bottling plants. This is absurd. No left-wing argument can be coherent without first recognising that the predominant economic system has achieved great things; this does not preclude criticism of that system.

The Drowned and The Saved

This is another new blog. Alex Bjarnason (who tweets here) blogs about the Holocaust, politics and the Middle East from a centre-left Zionist point of view. The blog features regular round-ups of stuff that's out there (such as this or this). This is the launching statement:
Primo Levi (31/07/1919-11/04/1987) was an Italian Jewish chemist who fought in the resistance before being caught and deported to Auschwitz. He survived, spending thirty years as a chemist in industry, and achieved great acclaim as a writer, making some of the key literary contributions to our understanding of the Holocaust. He is one of my heroes, as a writer and survivor; this blog is inspired by his memory and named after one of his books. The devotion of survivors like Primo to bear witness is now being passed to our own generation- something I hope to contribute to in this blog. 
I will write about more than the Holocaust, reflecting my own interests in politics, human rights, Israel and the Middle East, and beyond. The recent death of Norm Geras, who wrote NormBlog, forced me consider the importance of blogging and need to find my own voice. The British Left remains in a strange place, and after re-reading the Euston Manifesto, I think its rallying call is more important than ever. This blog will be the beginning of my contribution to winning the battle for a left that truly supports social justice, solidarity and equality.