Monday, December 31, 2018

My top posts of 2018

As usual, I am posting here my most-read posts of the year.

1. Jeremy Corbyn and Red Action: Sorting truth from smears (September)

This post examined a claim made by Andrew Gilligan in the Sunday Times about Jeremy Corbyn's involvement with 1980s/90s radical group Red Action, finding most of them to be basically false. 
Having looked at this fairly thoroughly now, whatever grains of truth in Gilligan's account are heavily diluted by half-truths and falsehoods. I am not making this point to defend Corbyn, but to defend truth. If Corbyn is to be indicted, let it be for things he actually did.

2. The return of Stalinism on the British left? (May)

After the proliferation of Stalinist banners on the annual TUC Mayday parade, and the election of a Stalinist as education officer of my local Momentum branch, this post looked at how Stalinism has returned to the British left. 
Every May Day, I feel a little more depressed. As a long-time Marxist and trade unionist, May Day should be my holiday. But watching the parade of Stalinist icons parade through London every year makes me feel shame rather than joy. Shame - but also fear about the direction the British labour movement is marching in.

3. Fact-checking the SPLC on Max Blumenthal, Part 1 (March)

In March, the Southern Poverty Law Centre published a report by Alex Reid Ross (the author of the book Against the Fascist Creep)  on left-right convergence. The SPLC took it down after legal bullying by Max Blumenthal, so I went through what the report said about Blumenthal and found it to be accurate. Here's part 2

4. In the time of the multipolar spin (April)

Not a particularly special post, but a round-up of recent writing on the fascist international, left-right convergence, disinformation and conspiracy. The title is taken from Reid Ross's SPLC report. 

5. Against the fascist creep, against left nationalism (December)

This post looked first at the convergence between the extreme far right and the conservative mainstream, embodied by the relationship between Tommy Robinson and Gerard Batten, then goes on to look at anti-fascist responses to this moment, including the dreadful response of the SWP's front organisations (Stand Up To Racism/Unite Against Fascism) as well as some (Novara-linked) parts of the Momentum left. Finally, it looks at how that dreadful response is shaped by a rising form of left nationalism, as diagnosed by Malcolm James and Sivamohan Valluvan.

6. Chris Williamson, Angela Nagle, Stand Up To Racism (November)

A slightly miscellaneous post on some things that were making me angry that month.

7. How a suicide attack on a civilian convoy was spun into a sectarian conspiracy (February)

This was a guest post by Anton Mukhamedov that I was privileged to publish, a very well-researched investigation of an explosion in the al-Rashideen neighbourhood of Western Aleppo on April 15, 2017, when buses evacuating civilians from the towns of Fu’ah and Kafriya besieged by rebels in Idlib province were targeted. It looks at how sectarianisation and then disinformation spun the story into a conspiracy theory.

8. Chris Williamson/Gilad Atzmon (December)

A late entry, looking at the odious antisemite Gilad Atzmon, and how shameful it is for a Labour MP to be defending him. 

9. Miscellaneous reads (January)

Nothing special about this post, but it was the first of a series of almost weekly round-up of key reads, plus included my top five posts of 2017.

10. Islamophobia turns left: Ben Norton and the Grayzone Project (March)

This post looked at how a section of the "anti-war" left has increasingly taken up Islamophobic, war on terror themes, using Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal's Grayzone Project as a case study.

Honourable mention: London is anti-fascist -- a few thoughts on #stopDFLA (October)

This post didn't make the top ten in terms of clicks, but it is one of the things I've written this year I'd most like you to read. It is about the far right DFLA and the mobilisations against it, and the two souls of anti-fascism (in Dave Renton's phrase) demonstrated in those mobilisations.


And here's my top tweets of the year:

Friday, December 21, 2018

The authoritarian war on journalism and dissent - and the fake left web personalities who front it

A great piece by Sulome Anderson on the damage done by the trust fund alt-left personalities Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, which reminded me to finish off my fact check of the Southern Poverty Law Centre report which Blumenthal threatened legal action over.
I refuse to watch as their targeted campaigns threaten the lives of rescue workers and doctors in Syria, the safety of freelance journalists in Nicaragua and the careers of reporters and academics who dare to investigate their own unsavory associations and ties to Russia.
I don't think I ever blogged about the second issue she mentions in that paragraph, the detention and deportation in October from Daniel Ortega's increasingly authoritarian Nicaragua of young anthropologist and journalist Carl David Goette-Luciak after a co-ordinated smear campaign against him in which Max Blumenthal played a part. Here is the Guardian, for which Goette-Luciak wrote:
Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) denounced what it called a targeted online campaign of smears and threats against Goette-Luciak. He was accused of being a CIA agent and of trying to undermine the government, and had his home address published online. 
The US blogger Max Blumenthal later published [on conspiracy site MintPress] a lengthy, insinuation-infused attack on the journalist that admitted “there is no evidence that Goette-Luciak is an asset of the CIA or any other US agency”. 
In his article, Blumenthal, who conducted an unquestioning interview with Ortega this year and has been criticised for his reporting on the Nicaraguan crisis, painted Goette-Luciak as a “novice reporter” acting as a “publicist” for a Nicaraguan opposition that was set on regime change. 
After publication of this article a lawyer for Blumenthal contacted the Guardian to emphasise there was nothing to suggest his reporting contributed to the deportation of Goette-Luciak.
Blumenthal's hit piece on Goette-Luciak was republished in the UK's hyper-partisan conspiracist clickbait blog TheCanary, which gained some controversy in the UK. My thread on this is below.

Charles Davis, a former Telesur journalist, has written about the case too, including how Norton and Blumenthal's Grayzone Project participated in an orchestrated attack on Goette-Luciak and on Nicaraguan dissidents. One part of this disinformation campaign was the creation of a fake journalist, "Charles Redvers", who somehow managed to get a piece published on openDemocracy.

The online ecoystem that includes Grayzone, MintPress, Russian state outlets such as RT, and Corbynista alt-media like TheCanary (and promoted by an actual Labour MP, Chris Williamson) is not just dangerous for promoting fake news and dodgy geopolitics. It is also actively colluding in smears against investigative journalists, in a dark time for the profession. As Anderson starts her piece with which this post began:
A revenue crisis driven by the Internet, President Trump’s attacks on a free press, widespread mistrust of traditional media — all these factors make a career in this field today extremely challenging. The consequences of this changing environment are strikingly reflected in a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which found that the number of journalists killed worldwide nearly doubled this year. 
...Reporting as close to the truth as possible and correcting inaccuracies when they occur are hallmarks of real journalism. Knowingly publishing lies to serve a political purpose is not journalism. It’s propaganda, and people who deal in that kind of information are not journalists. When their lies put others in danger, there should be consequences.
Labour activists need to stop promoting TheCanary and RT. The left as a whole need to shun the "alternative" media platforms that promote authoritarian regimes.


Chris Williamson/Gilad Atzmon

I recently posted on Chris Williamson, the odious Labour MP who really needs to have the party whip removed from him. I didn't think Williamson could stoop any lower than he has already, but today he signed a petition defending Gilad Atzmon, tweeted the petition, then deleted the tweet, and later wrote a half-arsed non-apology. (Atzmon had been banned by Islington council from playing there in the Blockheads. Not sure I approve of this ban, as when he is playing saxophone in someone else's band he hasn't got a platform for his politics. But given how toxic he is, I'm not going to complain about him being considered a pariah.)

If you don't know who Atzmon is, here's over 13 years' worth of my blogposts about him. The short version is he is an Israeli-born jazz musician who long ago renounced his Jewishness, became a Holocaust revisionist and antisemite. He is not only denounced by anti-fascists like Hope not Hate but also by anti-Zionists such as As’ad AbuKhalil, Michael Rosen and Tony Greenstein.

Williamson's apology to me reveals he is either more stupid or more dishonest than we already realised but either way confirming he doesn't care at all about racism against Jews. Because either he saw a petition complaining about someone being accused of antisemitism and just assumed the accusation was false without bothering to research it (in which case he is remarkably stupid and irresponsible, as well as automatically assumes accusations of antisemitism are always false) or he's lying.

And Williamson has a track record:
I haven't really looked to see if anyone is siding with Williamson, but there are some:

So far, Skwawkbox has retweeted Williamson's apology, but none of the other hyperpartisan Corbynite accounts have, and many influential figures on the party left (e.g. Mike Segalov, Dawn Foster) have sensibly criticised him, so maybe this spells the beginning of the end for Williamson. But somehow I doubt it.

I should also say that I find it irritating that he was never forced to apologise for his accolade for Vanessa Beeley, a cheer-leader for Assad's reign of terror in Syria (as well as another Atzmon fan), or that Williamson's support for Maduro's increasingly authoritarian regime in Venezuela doesn't attract more criticism. (For more on Williamson's terrible politics on Latin America, see Paul Canning's tweets, e.g. this thread. For more on how Williamson has promoted Kremlin-backed fake news on Syrian chemical attacks, see Victoria Freeman on Twitter.) Antisemitism has a corrosive influence on part of the Corbyn left, but the "anti-imperialist" blindness to suffering in Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere has a corrosive influence too and should make people just as angry.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Fact-checking the SPLC on Max Blumenthal, part 2

This - which has been languishing in my drafts folder for far too long - is part 2 of my attempt to fact-check Alex Reid Ross's spiked article for the SPLC on red-brown alliances, focusing on the claims about Max Blumenthal. Part 1 is here. (For Reid Ross' report: a Google cache is here, a PDF is here, and an archived version is here. It's been reblogged by CrashFast, Louis Proyect, MarxBordiga, Cautiously Pessimistic and (stripped of most links) AntidoteZine, or (with links) Glykosymoritis and Hummus for Thought.) My digging it out was inspired by this.

Claim #5: Blumenthal attended a pro-Kremlin shindig and became increasingly pro-Kremlin
Jill Stein in Moscow with Putin and Flynn, December 2015
Blumenthal at the event next to Charles Bausman
The report says:
Blumenthal was not as clear of a spokesperson for Kremlin geopolitics before he appeared at the same RT gala as disgraced former National Security advisor Michael Flynn and the Green Party’s Jill Stein in December 2015. During that occasion, he joined a panel called “Infowar: Will there be a winner” alongside Alt Right anti-Semite Charles Bausman of Russia Insider. A month later, Blumenthal’s pro-Kremlin position crystalized with the founding of the Grayzone Project.
It is easy to show that Blumenthal was not "as clear of a spokesperson for Kremlin geopolitics" before the gala: this post documents his earlier anti-Assad positions.

That Blumenthal attended the gala is a pretty widely reported fact:
Blumenthal has said he didn't "need" to get paid to do this gig, as he likes RT so much!
(This post discusses whether or not Blumenthal was paid to attend.)

What happened next?

These claims are made in some detail by Oz Katerji and Sam Charles Hamad in August 2017. They write:
Last March [2017], a live performance in support of Syrian first responders by a flashmob orchestra at New York’s Grand Central Station was physically disrupted by a group of six protesters. Within hours, the video of the disruption was uploaded to social media and promoted by an RT employee. Max Blumenthal, a blogger at Alternet, soon released documents that suggested the performance was organized by a pro-Syrian campaign group. 
Three participants in the protest have so far been identified: all have links to RT, the Russian state-funded propaganda network now under investigation by the U.S. government for its alleged interference in the last presidential election. ... Blumenthal, who amplified the story, is also a regular on RT... It is Blumenthal who with Alternet has created an effective beachhead in the US for Kremlin propaganda.

Things were not always thus. In 2012, Blumenthal had publicly resigned as a columnist from the pro-Assad Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, citing as his reason the paper’s publishing of cheerleaders who blamed Assad’s victims and maligned critical journalists. He likened their behavior to that of Israel’s apologists. Blumenthal has now dramatically resurrected himself as an apologist for Assad, a scourge of critical journalists, and a mirror image—by his own logic—of Israel’s apologists.
In December 2015, Blumenthal visited Moscow to attend the 10th anniversary of Kremlin propaganda network RT. He returned a changed man. A month later he founded the “Grayzone Project”, billed as an initiative for “confronting Islamophobia”, but in reality a home for Assad and Kremlin-friendly outcasts from leftwing blogosphere (Grayzone’s few Muslim writers quickly departed after they realised its true character).
The emergence of this axis presents a case study in the ideological realignments that are being instrumentalized by the Kremlin with fellow travellers on both the left and the far right. Its mercenary character is betrayed by its sloppy methods.
The claim is also backed up by Janine di Giovanni in the New York Review of Books:
Another prominent pro-Assad figure is Max Blumenthal. In 2012, he resigned from his position as a reporter for the English-language website for the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper in Beirut, for which he had written frequently about the plight of Palestinian refugees. In an open letter, he opposed to the paper’s pro-Assad views and its featuring of content by Sharmine Narwani and a writer named Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, whose work he called “malevolent propaganda.” In September 2013, Blumenthal went to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on assignment for The Nation. He strongly opposed US intervention against Assad, but he wrote on Twitter that “100% of dozens I spoke to in Zaatari today want US intervention in Syria.” 
But then, in December 2015, as Russia was relentlessly bombing Syria, and doctors and civilians were being killed in Aleppo by barrel bombs, Blumenthal went to Moscow on a junket to celebrate RT’s tenth anniversary. We don’t know what happened during that visit, but afterward, Blumenthal’s views completely flipped. He has attacked not only the White Helmets but also Bana al-Abed, a nine-year-old girl who lived in rebel-held Aleppo and ran a Twitter account with her mother. The man who once wrote an essay called “The Right to Resist is Universal,” and attacked Narwani as an “Assad apologist,” now accuses anti-Assad Syrians of belonging to al-Qaeda and has claimed that the White Helmets were affiliated with the Islamist group.

Claim #6: Blumenthal attacked the White Helmets, which gained him an accusation of plagiarism by another Assadist blogger

The report says:

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Against the fascist creep, against left nationalism

The fascist creep: Tommy Robinson and the Brexiteers

Image result for "great brexit betrayal" robinson
One of the defining features of our current political moment is what Alex Reid Ross calls "the fascist creep" - how fascist ideas "migrate from left to right and right to left and how they surreptitiously slip into the heart of the body politic", as Tamir Bar-On puts it. This has two main dynamics. The first is what Dave Renton calls "the convergence", as far right ideas become increasingly acceptable in mainstream politics. (See also Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter on the mainstreaming of the far right).

This week has seen a grim example of this convergence, as UKIP's leader Gerard Batten announced he had hired "Tommy Robinson" - real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon - as an "advisor" on so-called "rape gangs" and prison reform. Yaxley-Lennon is formally ineligible to join the party, as he is a former member of both the fascist British National Party and his own English Defence League. And should be considered toxic for his constant incitement to hatred and violence. He is particularly ill-suited to advising on child sexual exploitation and criminal justice, given his own record of violent criminality, contempt of legal due process, lack of respect for women, and online sexual harassment of teenage girls.

Over the next few days, he was busy spreading fake news about the shocking Syrian refugee schoolboy bullying incident Huddersfield - fake news that will have had the effect of amplifying xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, and probably contribute to future attacks. This was all the more grim because it was his ideas that appear to have influenced the bully.
On Saturday 9 December, Yaxley-Lennon has announced he will lead a pro-Brexit march on parliament, under the strapline of “The Great Brexit Betrayal”. The elite's "stab in the back" is a right-wing trope of some vintage, most notoriously a theme of the Nazis

An illustration from a 1919 Austrian postcard showing a caricatured Jew stabbing the German Army in the back with a dagger. The capitulation was blamed upon the unpatriotic populace, the Socialists, Bolsheviks, the Weimar Republic, and especially the Jews. Source: Wikipedia
Like the discourses of "enemies of the people", "citizens of nowhere" and the "lying press", the "Great Betrayal" meme illustrates the way that Brexit has allowed fascist ideas to travel into the heart of our public discourse, creating a toxic, divisive, aggressive political culture that is genuinely dangerous.

No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain

A coalition of left groups, including the recently formed Labour Against Racism and Fascism (LARAF) and Another Europe is Possible, and supported by Momentum, have called a mobilisation against Yaxley-Lennon's march, meeting at Portland Place at noon. (See this article by LARAF's Urte Macikene for more.)

Meanwhile, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), via its fronts Stand Up To Racism and Unite Against Racism, has called a rival counter-demo. The SWP, among its many other faults, has always supported Brexit, which it sees as a great working class rebellion.

Bizarrely, as Coatesy documents here, not only the SWP but also the young radicals at Novara Media are attacking the counter-demonstration. Novara have published a piece by Callum Cant and Benjamin Walters which argues that making the anti-fascist march explicitly pro-Brexit allows Robinson to claim leadership of the 52% who voted Brexit rather than just the 10% who are potential fascists. They argue that anti-fascism requires narrow politics in order to achieve a broad base. David Rosenberg, who was part of last week's SWP-led "Unity demo", makes a similar argument in the Stalinist pro-Brexit Morning Star.

That would be a valid argument (although, as I'll argue in a second, wrong). But what seems less legit is Cant and Walters' and Rosenberg's sectarian attack on Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), which Cant and Walters call "an ultra-remain campaign group". They continue: "Whereas the Momentum-backed counter-protest is using the slogan ‘No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain’ without taking a line on Brexit, AEIP are linking together an ultra-remain position with an anti-fascist position." Rosenberg similarly claims that AEIP "has called a separate protest".* In fact, of course, the ‘No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain’ slogan is exactly the slogan Another Europe is marching under, co-sponsoring the whole event with Momentum, so this is rather confusing. Unless I'm missing something, AEIP are not proposing a separate protest, but simply organising an anti-Brexit bloc on the demo, just as there was a feminist bloc and a Brazilian bloc on the recent anti-DFLA demo.

Anti-fascism has always had to steer a difficult course. On one hand, an ultra-left purism exemplified by the Communist Party in its "Third Period", when it called the social democrats "social fascists" and saw the soft left as a more dangerous enemy than actual Nazis. (Kevin Ovenden accuses AEIP of "Third Period liberalism, but there is a bit of a ring of the Third Period from the Novara scene when they constantly blame "centrists" for the rise of fascism, and even argue that centrists like Macron are as bad as or even worse than fascists like Le Pen - much as many of their American comrades saw Trump as better than Hilary Clinton. Not surprisingly, the SWP blame Labour centrists for the rise of racism at exactly the same time as they argue for pro-Brexit "anti-fascism".) On the other hand, the lowest common denominator of the "Popular Front", which dilutes its anti-fascism as much as possible to unite everyone against the fascists - without any analysis of what makes fascism tick. (This has always been the approach of the SWP, who signed David Cameron up to Unite Against Fascism.) Cant and Walters say they want a "united front", but what they seem to be proposing is a popular front, an appeal to Brexit supporters, however reactionary. 

Despite its sectarianism and inaccuracy, the Novara piece was tweeted by Momentum and Owen Jones. Jones has also written a slightly softer plea for a non-anti-Brexit challenge to Robinson. The substantive argument is taken up by Michael Chessum:
It is quite true to say that Robinson is using the Brexit moment to recruit followers and bolster his credibility in the political mainstream. But that is only a fraction of the story. The narrative of national betrayal and imperial nostalgia is at the heart of Brexit, and always has been. The aim of the Brexit project was always to take the nastiest narratives on immigration, race and nationalism and, with the use of a popular vote, put these ideas on the winning side of history. At the moment, swathes of the left seem content to leave them there. 
For two years now, the British left has been trapped in a logic of triangulation on Brexit. The overwhelming majority of the left backed remain in 2016, and the overwhelming majority of Labour members now back a fresh referendum. But as Robinson and Ukip march, many on the left, hamstrung by loyalty to the Labour leadership’s fudge on the subject, will attempt to argue the impossible: that the left should oppose the far right, but accept its greatest achievement.
I think Chessum is correct. Brexit - taking control, stronger borders, stopping migration, turning back the clock, making Britain great again - has always been a fundamentally racist project. 

Against left nationalism
The fact that a significant part of the left has been won over to the essentially nationalist and implicitly racist Brexit project illustrates the second major dynamic of the fascist creep: the seepage of ideas between left and right to form novel "red-brown" political formations

Owen Jones and the Novara left are able to see how "centrists" such as Hilary Clinton or UnHerd play a role in sanitising far right ideas by bringing anti-immigration arguments into the mainstream. But they are blind to the same mechanism when it comes from the left.
Last week, I looked at Angela Nagle's "left" case for borders as one example of the new left nationalism. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in The Nation argues, correctly in my view, that there is no left case for nationalism: "The willingness of the left to play by the far right’s rules and according to their narrative is part of what got us into this mess."

And yet large swathes of the left are playing by these far right rules. The support for Brexit by the SWP, Counterfire, the Socialist Party, George Galloway and especially the Morning Star would be one example - with many of the Novara-style new leftists sounding more and more like them, with the ridiculous idea of a "People's Brexit". Die Linke's Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany and La France Insoumise's Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France (the latter spoke at this year's Momentum fringe event, The World Transformed) increasingly articulate nationalist themes: France is no longer an "independent country", says Mélenchon; “Open borders in Europe means more competition for badly paid jobs,” says Wagenknecht.

Corbyn's obsession with nationalisation, protectionism and buying British speaks to a kind of economic nationalism, as Marxists Matt Bolton and FH Pitts, as well as centrists Denis MacShane, Oliver Kamm, Ben Chu and Sean O'Grady argue. This is a dangerous path for the left.

Malcolm James and Sivamohan Valluvan have a very long piece in Salvage on the left's failure to reckon with nationalism. I hope they don't mind if I quote a couple of long extracts from it, as their arguments against left nationalism are somewhat buried in their complex analysis of the current conjuncture.
As the dust settles on the [2017] election, nationalism has begun to return to left politics, parliamentary and otherwise – because it never left. In parliamentary Labour, we see Corbyn’s initial quietism on migrants’ rights accumulating a more recognisable anti-migrant language; we see it in the recent pronouncements of MPs Gloria De Piero and Graham Jones on the ‘white working class’; we see it in the formation of John Denham’s English Labour Network; but, perhaps more importantly, we also see it in the continued attempt by influential opinion-makers to lend anti-immigration sensibilities a more pronounced left-wing rationale...