“With the Korean War, passions in The Club became more aroused and after a vote on Birmingham Trades Council in which Cliff’s supporters, including Percy Downey, voted for a neutral, third campist, position they were expelled en masse from The Club. Cliff himself, being a member of the almost non-existent Irish section of the FI, could not be expelled. The final result of these events was the foundation of the Socialist Review Group organised around the magazine of the same name” - Wikipedia
“‘The War in Korea’ appeared in the second issue of the group’s duplicated paper, Socialist Review, in January 1951. It should finally nail the lie that the organisation ‘supported the Americans in Korea’. Incidentally, it should be noted that, at the time it appeared, the FI position, as determined by world congress decision, was that North Korea was one of the states about which it had been resolved: ‘The capitalist nature of these countries imposes the necessity of the strictest revolutionary defeatism in war time.’ This fact did not prevent the British section of the FI from giving uncritical support to the Stalinist propaganda machine during the Korean war” - Duncan Hallas, introduction to The Origins of the International Socialists, August 1971.
SW said that North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests have “nothing to do with anti-imperialism or socialism“.
However, it declared the North Korean government not to blame for those tests. All the blame lies with the US and its allies.
SW said that North Korea is “a nuclear bogeyman created by the US“. SW cannot mean to say that North Korea really has no nuclear weapons (i.e. the story that it has them has been manufactured by the US). It cannot mean to say that the North Korean government is controlled by the US, and carrying out nuclear tests only because the US tells it to.
It seems to mean that the US is so aggressive towards North Korea that North Korea somehow has no choice but to stage nuclear tests. “North Korea’s third nuclear test was a direct result of bullying by South Korea, the US and Japan”.
The UN Security Council had increased sanctions against North Korea because of a previous rocket launch. The US and South Korean government had warned of further action.
This allegedly means that: “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and rockets are ‘monsters’ created by US imperialism“.
How? Let’s concede that the US has adopted an aggressive tone towards North Korea. It’s mild stuff compared to what the US has done over the decades in central America. If North Korea has developed nuclear weapons, and the central American countries haven’t, it is a matter of the North Korean government’s choice, not of compulsion.
SW’s argument here seems like their argument that Islamist terrorism, though not exactly what SWP members would want to see in their own front rooms, is an inevitable response to US misdeeds in the Middle East, so inevitable that people like those who bombed the World Trade Centre should not be condemned.
Why then haven’t the peoples of Central America been “forced” into Catholic-fundamentalist terrorism? For that matter, why haven’t workers in the US itself been “forced” into systematic bombing of civilian targets by the exploitation to which US bosses subject them?
SW continues: “The US demonisation of North Korea is part of its strategy to maintain hegemony in East Asia… There is even talk of supporting regime change in North Korea“.
The US State Department declares officially that “outstanding problems includ[e] the North’s attempts to develop a nuclear program and human rights abuses”. Facts about North Korea do not cease to be facts if the US government repeats them.
The SW article nowhere mentions the totalitarian and exploitative regime in North Korea, or its denial of all workers’ rights.
The issue on which the forerunners of the SWP first separated from other (“orthodox”) Trotskyists was that in 1950 they refused to consider the Korean war as simply an attack by the US on innocent North Korea, and insisted that Stalinism was also playing an imperialistic role in Korea.
At that time the Stalinist regime in North Korea (as far as can be guessed) had sizeable popular support. Why rally to the defence of its raddled and corrupt successor in 2013?
Presumably, to now re-write their own history and renounce, once and for all, the “third camp” politics that was their original, defining, characteristic. Professor Callinicos really believes that Tony Cliff got it wrong over the Korean war and James P. Cannon, Ted Grant, Gerry Healy and the ISFI (“orthodox” Trotskyists) got it right.
I sent this letter to the Morning Star back in January. They published it, albeit in a slightly edited form. It produced some truly Jesuitical responses, attempting to explain why the Falklanders do not have the right to self-detemination. Extraordinary, isn’t it, how sections of the “left” are so ready to tie themselves up in knots in order to justify the denial of basic democracy to ordinary people..?
Like many readers of this blog, I was there on 15 February 2003, and I’ve never had cause to regret it. But I don’t share the self-righteous preening of tyrant-lovers like Andrew Murray, nor the slightly more forgivable solipsism of Laurie Penny (who at least has -or had- the excuse of youth). Even at the time, I was sickened by the refusal of the SWP, Galloway, Murray, etc to address the human rights issues and their systematic, deliberate, whitewashing of Saddam (Galloway, of course, being the most grovelling and egregious Saddam fan). A little later, their support for the fascistic gangs who were murdering Iraqi trade unionists alienated me once and for all. The subsequent degeneration of the Stop The War Coalition into a shrivelled Westphalian excuse-machine for vicious dictators and tyrants everywhere has only served to confirm my worst expectations.
Ian Taylor, an unrepentant marcher and anti-war campaigner, puts his finger (in the present issue of the New Statesman – no link presently available) on the central weakness of the ‘line’ of the SWP/Galloway leadership at the time, though he naively puts it down to a lack of political imagination rather than a lack of political will:
“In my opinion, what we needed more than anything else was an answer to the dilemma of what should have been done about Saddam Hussein and the appalling human rights abuses that were undoubtably that were undoubtably going on inside Iraq. Questions about this came up a great deal at public meetings, when leafletting the high street and in letters to local and national newspapers from supporters of the war. When asked about Iraq now, Blair always plays this card because he knows that opponents of the war don’t have an answer to it. If being on the left means anything, it ought to mean standing up for the oppressed. It shouldn’t have been beyond the wits of those speaking for the movement to have woven an answer to the problems of human rights abuses by non-western regimes into the fabric of their anti-imperialist principles. My view is that, just as we had weapons inspectors in Iraq, we should also have had human rights inspectors there. That would have done a lot to wrong-foot Blair et al.”
I can remember stumbling across the following searingly honest ’Letter to an unknown Iraqi’ that pretty much summed up my own feelings at the time. I circulated it on the local Stop The War email list, where it didn’t go down terribly well as I recall:
The Urge to Help; The Obligation Not To
By Ariel Dorfman (February 28, 2003)
I do not know your name, and that is already significant. Are you one of the thousands upon thousands who survived Saddam Hussein’s chambers of torture, did you see the genitals of one of your sons crushed to punish you, to make you cooperate? Are you a member of a family that has to live with the father who returned, silent and broken, from that inferno, the mother who must remember each morning the daughter taken one night by security forces, and who may or may not still be alive? Are you one of the Kurds gassed in the north of Iraq, an Arab from the south displaced from his home, a Shiite clergyman ruthlessly persecuted by the Baath Party, a communist who has been fighting the dictatorship for long decades?
Whoever you are, faceless and suffering, you have been waiting many years for the reign of terror to end. And now, at last, you can see fast approaching the moment you have been praying for, even if you oppose and fear the American invasion that will inevitably kill so many Iraqis and devastate your land: the moment when the dictator who has built himself lavish palaces, the man who praises Hitler and Stalin and promises to emulate them, may well be forced out of power.
What right does anyone have to deny you and your fellow Iraqis that liberation from tyranny? What right do we have to oppose the war the United States is preparing to wage on your country, if it could indeed result in the ouster of Saddam Hussein? Can those countless human rights activists who, a few years ago, celebrated the trial in London of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet as a victory for all the victims on this Earth, now deny the world the joy of seeing the strongman of Iraq indicted and tried for crimes against humanity?
It is not fortuitous that I have brought the redoubtable Pinochet into the picture.
As a Chilean who fought against the general’s pervasive terror for 17 years, I can understand the needs, the anguish, the urgency, of those Iraqis inside and outside their homeland who cannot wait, cannot accept any further delay, silently howl for deliverance. I have seen how Chile still suffers from Pinochet’s legacy, 13 years after he left power, and can therefore comprehend how every week that passes with the despot in power poisons your collective fate.
Such sympathy for your cause does not exempt me, however, from asking a crucial question: Is that suffering sufficient to justify intervention from an outside power, a suffering that has been cited as a secondary but compelling reason for an invasion?
Despite having spent most of my life as a firm anti-interventionist, protesting American aggression in Latin America and Asia, and Soviet invasions of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, during the 1990s I gradually came to believe that there might be occasions when incursions by a foreign power could indeed be warranted. I reluctantly agreed with the 1994 American expedition to Haiti to return to power the legally elected president of that republic; I was appalled at the lack of response from the international community to the genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda; I applauded the Australian intervention to stop the massacres in East Timor; and, regarding Kosovo, though I would have preferred the military action to have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations, I eventually came to the agonizing conclusion that ethnic cleansing on such a massive scale could not be tolerated.
I am afraid that none of these cases applies to Iraq. For starters, there is no guarantee that this military adventure will, in fact, lead to a “regime change,” or peace and stability for your region.
Unfortunately, also, the present affliction of your men and women and children must be horribly, perversely, weighed against the impending casualties and enormous losses that the American campaign will surely cause. In the balance are not only the dead and mutilated of Iraq (and who knows how many from the invading force), but the very real possibility that such an act of preemptive, world-destabilizing aggression could spin out of control and lead to other despots preemptively arming themselves with all manner of apocalyptic weapons and, perhaps, to Armageddon. Not to mention how such an action seems destined to recruit even more fanatics for the terrorist groups who are salivating at the prospect of an American invasion. And if we add to this that I am unconvinced that your dictator has sufficient weapons of mass destruction to truly pose a threat to other countries (or ties to criminal groups who could use them for terror), I have to say no to war.
It is not easy for me to write these words.
I write, after all, from the comfort and safety of my own life. I write to you in the knowledge that I never did very much for the Iraqi resistance, hardly registered you and your needs, sent a couple of free books to libraries and academics in Baghdad who asked for them, answered one, maybe two, letters from Iraqi women who had been tortured and had found some solace in my plays. I write to you harboring the suspicion that if I had cared more, if we all had, there might not be a tyrant today in Iraq. I write to you knowing that there is no chance that the American government might redirect to a flood of people like you the $200 billion, $300 billion this war would initially cost, no real interest from those who would supposedly liberate you to instead spend that enormous amount of money helping to build a democratic alternative inside your country.
But I also write to you knowing this: If I had been approached, say in the year 1975, when Pinochet was at the height of his murderous spree in Chile, by an emissary of the American government proposing that the United States, the very country which had put our strongman in power, use military force to overthrow the dictatorship, I believe that my answer would have been, I hope it would have been: No, thank you. We must deal with this monster by ourselves.
I was never given that chance, of course: The Americans would never have wanted to rid themselves, in the midst of the Cold War, of such an obsequious client, just as they did not try to eject Saddam Hussein 20 years ago, when he was even more repressive. Rather, they supported him as a bulwark against militant Iran.
But this exercise in political science fiction (invade Chile to depose Pinochet?) at least allows me to share in the agony created by my own opposition to this war, forces me to recognize the pain that is being endured at this very moment in some house in Basra, some basement in Baghdad, some school in Tarmiyah. Even if I can do nothing to stop those government thugs in Iraq coming to arrest you again today, coming for you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, knocking once more at your door.
Heaven help me, I am saying that if I had been given a chance years ago to spare the lives of so many of my dearest friends, given the chance to end my exile and alleviate the grief of millions of my fellow citizens, I would have rejected it if the price we would have had to pay was clusters of bombs killing the innocent, if the price was years of foreign occupation, if the price was the loss of control over our own destiny.
Heaven help me, I am saying that I care more about the future of this sad world than about the future of your unprotected children.
Adapted (by Jim Denham) from an article originally written before the announcement of the new leadership, by Camila Bassi
One in five of the world’s populace now have new leaders for a decade’s term.
The 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was an assembly of the ruling class so tightly regulated that all that China’s people and the rest of the world saw was a well-orchestrated display of bureaucratic power.
Behind-the-scenes faction fights between the elites within the Party had already been settled for the sake of the ruling class’s survival.
The previous Vice-President Xi Jinping (a candidate accceptable to all of the Party’s factions) succeeded Hu Jintao as leader of the CCP.
After Xi and the No. 2 official, Li Keqiang, who becomes premier, the other top officials on the ageing Politburo Standing Committee, in order of their new rank, are Zhang Dejiang, 66, a North Korean-trained economist now running Chongqing; Yu Zhengsheng, 67, the Shanghai party boss; and Liu Yunshan, 65, the head of the Communist Party’s propaganda department, which is in charge of censorship. The final two on the seven-member committee are Wang Qishan, 64, known for his economic management skills, who will be in charge of anti-corruption efforts as head of the party’s discipline commission in the new government; and Zhang Gaoli, 66, the party boss in Tianjin.
Now seems an apt moment to pose the question, what defines the present political moment in China? I’ll provide a response through seven key observations.
1. The Princelings, the Populists, and the Bo Xilai affair
Two defining factions at the top of the CCP are the “princelings” and the “populists”.
The princelings tend to have familial roots in the Party and geographical origins in the economically prosperous coastal areas of the country. They are seen to represent business interests.
The populists tend to have climbed the ranks of the Party and to have come from more inland (poorer) Chinese provinces. They are perceived to speak more for the vulnerable social interest groups.
Bo Xilai, while head of Chongqing, had ambitions for the Politburo Standing Committee. Bo (a princeling) represented — through the since-coined Chongqing Model — one avenue for more general political reform in China. In this major city he drove through a combination of high state control, which included a high-profile (but selective) clampdown on organised crime, the promotion of Maoist “red culture”, and the courting of foreign investment alongside large-scale public provision.
Bo’s downfall came from the death of a British businessman and his related corrupt business dealings, but also from factional fighting and his challenge to Party convention. The significance? The reaction of many of the populace, which questioned the deep-seated corrupt nature of the Party itself and how Bo had risen to such prominence.
His downfall was the biggest event in China since the 1989 revolutionary uprisings centred on Tiananmen Square. With approximately 500 million Chinese netizens, the Party cannot control everyday life as it once could.
2. Troubled times for the Chinese economy
China’s economic growth has been slowing down for seven consecutive quarters and this year it will have the slowest economic growth rate since 1999.
The huge spending package launched in 2008 has, it is estimated, led to the building of half of all of the country’s physical assets within the last six years.
The “inevitable side effects of that stimulus — non-performing loans and potentially deflationary overcapacity — have not yet taken hold” (Pilling, 2012). Take housing as an example. About 30% of the country’s housing stock is currently lying empty. If we add to this that the economy has still to be rebalanced by the CCP from investment to consumption, and the economy’s dependence on exports to a recession-hit Europe, troubled days surely lie ahead.
3. working class protest and militancy
As surveyed in my article in Solidarity 258, both the quantity of working class protests in China has significantly increased this century and the qualitative nature has changed, with these protests becoming more militant.
As previously noted: “Whilst worker protests in the early 2000s predominantly involved laid-off workers from state-owned enterprises and rural migrants employed in the private sector, by the end of the decade a new group, or a ‘new generation’, emerged. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s have altered the nature of the migrant worker to one younger, better educated, more connected, and with higher expectations and more willingness to take on proactive demands.”
4. The rise of “middle class” discontent
This is less militant. So-called “middle class” protest in China is more about better government than the overthrow of the existing one. But the rise in discontent amongst middle-income Chinese includes currents desiring some form of bourgeois democracy.
Intense political discontents on housing, health, education, and the environment, are all fundamentally driven by a concern that the CCP pursuit of economic growth is at the expense of ordinary people.
The recent NIMBY protest in Ningbo against a petrochemical plant led to a concession by the local government to stop the plant’s expansion. This decision can be explained both by the fact that it occurred in the run up to the 18th Congress, during which the Party seeks an especially compliant population, and by the Party’s more general strategy (unlike the more violent one towards militant working class demands) of keeping the peace by piecemeal allowances.
5. Anxious maintenance of internal stability
Based on observations 1, 2, 3 and 4, an increasingly more assertive Chinese population — able and willing to take on its government — might well indicate that China is on the verge of a revolution.
One further factor needs to be brought into play for such an assessment, which is the ability of the CCP to (in its own words) “maintain internal stability”.
The Ministry of Public Security records the number of “mass incidents” rising from 8,700 in 1993, 32,000 in 1999, 50,000 in 2002, and at present 100,000 annually. More to the point, the Party is increasingly serious (paranoid even) about keeping control; currently spending as much if not more on the maintenance of internal stability than its defence force.
So, while my article in Solidarity 231 assesses the potential of an inspiring struggle against land seizures and for local democracy in Wukan village, any suggestion of meaningful political reform is tempered by the introduction of militias in Wukan since August of this year. This reflects, more generally across China, “the newest incarnation of a venerable approach to population control and social management” (Wagner, 2012).
6. The Sino-Japanese islands dispute and Chinese nationalism
The CCP is creating new facts on the water in its long-running maritime disputes with the Philippines and Japan.
Could this situation escalate further and draw China, Japan and the United States into a war? It cannot be ruled out.
Not unrelated is the nature and volatility of Chinese nationalism, which has deeply embedded within it a popular anti-Japanese racism, as seen in the recent wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations across the country. Herein lies a means for the CCP to unify the populace and distract them from the problems within by the problems without.
7. China in Africa
Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times (21 October) states: “The big picture remains the Pentagon’s AFRICOM spreading its militarized tentacles against the lure of Chinese soft power in Africa, which goes something like this: in exchange for oil and minerals, we build anything you want, and we don’t try to sell you ‘democracy for dummies’.”
A widespread view on the left, based on observations like this, is that US imperialism is the big bad evil, while China remains a palatable alternative. A serious assessment of Chinese imperialism is avoided.
China is now Africa’s largest trading partner and lends the continent more money than the World Bank. Chinese companies have entered profitable oil markets in, for instance, Angola, Nigeria, Algeria and Sudan, made big mining deals in countries like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and are constructing what is claimed to be the world’s biggest iron mine in Gabon; additionally, land is being sought for large-scale agribusinesses, and physical infrastructure — to swiftly move capital and labour — is rapidly developing (French, 2012).
In terms of global geopolitics and imperialism, we need to take stock of what this means.
It is not so much the implications of any one of these observations but rather the consequences of them all climaxing and cumulating which makes China’s present moment so critical. Watch this space.
Associated Press (2012) ‘Successful pollution protest shows China takes careful line with rising middle class’. The Washington Post.
Bassi, C (2012) ‘China’s new worker militants’. Solidarity 258.
Bassi, C (2012) ‘Chinese workers fight for democracy’. Solidarity 231.
BBC (2012) ‘China’. BBC World Online.
French, H (2012) ‘The Next Empire’. The Atlantic.
Pilling, D (2012) ‘Xi should draw up a new social contract for China’. Financial Times.
Wagner, D (2012) ‘The Rise of the Chinese Urban Militias’. Huffington Post.
The Chávez victory in Venezuela’s presidential election last week, has been greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by some on the Stalinist-influenced left, and by a quiet gnashing of teeth and subdued wailing on the right. Others have taken a more nuanced view. There can be no denying that Chávez’s social programmes have brought real benefits to the poor. But the endemic corruption amongst the Chávista ruling elite, the lack of anything remotely resembling workers’ control of industry, Chávez’s unpleasant (but all too common amongst Stalinoid populists) penchant for antisemitism and some truly foul international alliances, mean that the regime cannot be considered ‘socialist’ except in the most debased and meaningless sense of the word. It is, perhaps, social democracy sui generis. The Chávez regime is also, quite clearly, what educated Marxists call ’Bonapartist‘ (to be precise, in the case of Chávez, “petty-bourgeois-democratic Bonapartism“).
Some Trots are very keen on Chávez, others slightly less so. Some are very critical indeed. But what would the Old Man himself have had to say? Well, we don ‘t need to speculate. Between Januay 1937 and his assassination at the hands of a Stalinist agent in August 1940, Trotsky lived in Mexico under the government of Lazaro Cárdenas - a regime very similar to that of Chávez’s. To pre-empt one obvious question about Trotsky’s generally charitable assessment of the Cárdenas regime: yes, of course, Trotsky was dependent upon the Mexican government for his survival and wasn’t about to do or say anything to piss them off. But Trotsky’s undertaking to Cárdenas not to “intervene in the domestic or foreign politics of this country” also meant that he was under no obligation to praise the regime: he could simply have stayed schtum.
As it was, Trotsky ventured some praise for the Cárdenas regime - and also some friendly criticism. But the crucial point is that he never recognises or describes the regime as ‘socialist.’ On the contrary, he writes:“it is not our state and we must be independent of the state. In this sense we are not opposed to state capitalism in Mexico; but the first thing we demand is our own representation of workers before this state. We cannot permit the leaders of the trade unions to become functionaries of the state. To attempt to conquer the state in this way is absolute idiocy. It is not possible in this manner peacefully to conquer power. It is a petty bourgeois dream…”
The article below is adapted and modified by Jim Denham, from an unattributed piece on the Workers Liberty website:
Above: Trotsky thanking the Cárdenas government (accompanied by cockerels)
Trotsky had been expelled from the USSR by Stalin in 1929, and spent the rest of his life trying to find a country which would let him live in exile. He arrived in Mexico on 9 January 1937.
Thanks to the efforts of Mexican Trotskyists, such as the renowned artist Diego Rivera, the Cárdenas government granted Trotsky asylum on the condition that he would not interfere in Mexico’s domestic affairs. Trotsky accepted this condition, in a statement on his arrival, promising “complete and absolute non-intervention in Mexican politics and no less complete abstention from actions that might prejudice the relations between Mexico and other countries”. (Writings 1936-37 p.86)
Trotsky was forced to break with the Mexican “Trotskyist” organisation, the LCI, after six months in the country, when the Mexican Trots (the LCI) issued a manifesto calling for “direct action” against the high cost of living, implying that workers should attack shops. Coming at the time of the Moscow trials and the attacks on Trotsky by the Stalinists in Mexico, this call by the LCI was particularly stupid. After Trotsky’s intervention, the LCI dissolved itself for the remainder of 1937.
Trotsky publicly supported Cárdenas’ expropriation of the oil industry. On 23 April 1938 he wrote to the Daily Herald in Britain, pointing to the hypocrisy of the British government and defending the nationalisation of oil of the grounds of national economic development and independence. He argued that the Labour Party should set up a commission to investigate how much of the “living sap of Mexico” had been “plundered” by British capital. (Writings 1937-38 p.324)
He also criticised some of his Mexican supporters. On 15 April 1938 Trotsky wrote to his closest collaborator, the US Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon: “Galicia, in the name of the revived League [LCI], published a manifesto in which he attacked Cárdenas for his policy of compensating the expropriated capitalists, and posted this manifesto principally on the walls of the Casa del Pueblo. This is the ‘policy’ of these people.” (Writings 1937-38 p.314)
Trotsky characterised the oil expropriation as a matter of self-determination. He wrote: “Semi-colonial Mexico is fighting for its national independence, political and economic. This is the basic meaning of the Mexican revolution at this stage… expropriation is the only effective means of safeguarding national independence and the elementary conditions of democracy.” (Writings 1937-38 p.359)
He compared “this courageous and progressive measure of the Mexican government” to the work of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the United States, adding that, “if Mexico should find itself forced to sell liquid gold to fascist countries, the responsibility for this act would fall fully and completely upon the governments of the imperialist ‘democracies’.” (ibid p.360)
He summed up his attitude thus: “Without succumbing to illusions and without fear of slander, the advanced workers will completely support the Mexican people in their struggle against the imperialists. The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defence.”
He reiterated his support, without losing sight of the character of the Mexican government: “The international proletariat has no reason to identify its programme with the programme of the Mexican government. Revolutionists have no need of changing colour, adapting themselves, and rendering flattery in the manner of the GPU school of courtiers, who in a moment of danger will sell out and betray the weaker side. Without giving up its own identity, every honest working class organisation of the entire world, and first of all in Great Britain, is duty-bound—to take an irreconcilable position against the imperialist robbers, their diplomacy, their press, and their fascist hirelings.” (Writings 1937-38 p.361)
A particularly important article of Trotsky’s, in the light of the current situation, is one on freedom of the press, which he published in the first issue of Clave magazine (October 1938).
In the summer of 1938 a Stalinist agent within the Cárdenas regime, Lombardo Toledano, began a campaign against the reactionary press in Mexico, intent on placing it under “democratic censorship” or banning it altogether. Trotsky was unequivocal in opposing this drive. He wrote: “Both theory and historical experience testify that any restriction of democracy in bourgeois society is, in the final analysis, invariably directed against the proletariat… Consequently, any working class ‘leader’ who arms the bourgeois state with special means for controlling public opinion in general and the press in particular is, precisely, a traitor.” (Writings 1937-38 p.417)
“Even though Mexico is a semi-colonial country, it is also a bourgeois state, and in no way a workers’ state. However, even from the standpoint of the interests of the dictatorship of the proletariat, banning bourgeois newspapers or censoring them does not in the least constitute a ‘programme’, or a ‘principle’ or an ideal set up. Measures of this kind can only be a temporary, unavoidable evil…
“It is essential to wage a relentless struggle against the reactionary press. But workers cannot let the repressive fist of the bourgeois state substitute for the struggle that they must wage through their own organisations and their own press… The most effective way to combat the bourgeois press is to expand the working class press… The Mexican proletariat has to have an honest newspaper to express its needs, defend its interests, broaden its horizon, and prepare the way for the socialist revolution in Mexico.” (ibid pp.418, 419-420)
Trotsky began to write about developments in the unions in mid-1938. Before a Stalinist-organised “Pan-American Trade Union Congress” in Mexico City in September 1938, which set up the Confederation of Latin American Workers (CTAL), he wrote (in the name of Diego Rivera) to denounce Toledano’s links with Stalin. He wrote that Toledano was “a ‘pure’ politician, foreign to the working class, and pursuing his own aims”. His ambition was “to climb to the Mexican presidency on the backs of the workers” and in pursuit if that aim had “closely intertwined his fate with the fate of the Kremlin oligarchy”. (Writings 1937-38 p.426)
His attitude seems to have hardened after the CTAL conference, when Trotskyists were excluded for their politics. He was also prompted by the increased attacks on him by the Stalinist bureaucrats in the unions. After Lombardo Toledano presented a dossier to the (Stalinist) Mexican trade union congress (CTM) in 1938, it voted “unanimously” for the expulsion of Trotsky from Mexico.
Then the August 1938 issue of the CTM magazine Futuro carried an attack on him by Lombardo, accusing him of organising a general strike against Cárdenas during the oil expropriations.
Trotsky distinguished between leaders and the unions: “Toledano of course will repeat that we are ‘attacking’ the CTM. No reasonable worker will believe this rubbish. The CTM, as a mass organisation, as a mass organisation, has every right to our respect and support. But just as the democratic state is not identical with its minister at any given time, so a trade union organisation is not identical with its secretary.” (Writings 1938-9, p.22)
Other attacks followed. The Mexican Communist Party (PCM) leader Hernan Laborde accused Trotsky of having links with General Cedillo (who had led an abortive coup against the government). The Stalinist agent Lombardo also claimed that Trotsky had met with fascists during a summer holiday trip. Trotsky’s response was to offer to participate in a public investigation into Lombardo’s charges.
Trotsky also sought to galvanise an opposition to the Stalinists, drafting a statement intended for publication. It stated: “[In Mexico] the unions, unfortunately, are directly dependent on the state” and “posts in the union bureaucracy are frequently filled from the ranks of the bourgeois intelligentsia, attorneys, engineers etc”.
He described the way these bureaucrats gave themselves a left cover by becoming “friends of the USSR”. He described how they kept control of the unions: “they ferociously trample on workers’ democracy and stifle any voice of criticism, acting as outright gangsters towards organisations that fight for the revolutionary independence of the proletariat from the bourgeois state and from foreign imperialism.” (Writings 1938-39 p.83)
Trotsky went further in November 1938, arguing that the trade unions in Mexico were “constitutionally statified”. He told his closest collaborators that, “they incorporate the workers, the trade unions, which are already stratified. They incorporate them in the management of the railroad, the oil industry, and so on, in order to transform the trade union leadership into government representatives… In that sense, when we say ‘the control of production by the workers’, it cannot mean control of production by the stratified bureaucrats of the trade unions, but control by the workers of their own bureaucracy and to fight for the independence of the trade unions from the state.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.791)
“In Mexico, more than anywhere, the struggle against the bourgeoisie and the government consists above all in freeing the trade unions from dependence on the government… the class struggle in Mexico must be directed towards winning the independence of the trade unions from the bourgeois state.”
He made it clear that revolutionaries would continue to work in the unions, even though they were partially integrated into the Mexican state. (Writings 1938-39 p.146)
He criticised the Cárdenas government’s second six-year plan in March 1939 for a participation proposal which “threatens to incorporate a bureaucratic hierarchy of the unions etc, without precise delimitation, into the bureaucratic hierarchy of the state”. He went as far as to characterise the unions as “totalitarian”. (Writings 1938-39 p.222, p.227)
This advocacy of intervention in even the most reactionary unions remained in all Trotsky’s articles until the end of his life. For example Clave carried articles in 1940 on the first congress of the STERM teachers’ union and on the 7th national council of the CTM, both characterised by little democracy.
Trotsky made few remarks on the nature of the Mexican regime in the first eighteen months of his asylum, and when he did, these were brief allusions. For example in the article on the freedom of the press in August 1938 he described Mexico’s democracy as “anaemic”.
He argued that “a semi-democratic, semi-Bonapartist state… now exists in every country in Latin America, with inclinations towards the masses”, adding that, “in these semi-Bonapartistic-democratic governments the state needs the support of the peasants and through the weight of the peasants disciplines the workers. That is more or less the situation in Mexico”. (Writings supplement 1934-40, pp.784-785)
What did Trotsky mean by Bonapartism? He had employed the concept to understand the regime in Germany before Hitler and to describe the situation in France in the mid-1930s. He summed it up succinctly in March 1935: “By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate – in order to preserve its possessions – the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘saviour’. This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions.” (Writings 1934-35 pp.206-07)
In his discussion with comrades in November 1938, he explained: “We see in Mexico and the other Latin American countries that they skipped over most stages of development. It began in Mexico directly by incorporating the trade unions in the state. In Mexico we have a double domination. That is, foreign capital and the national bourgeoisie, or as Diego Rivera formulated it, a ‘sub-bourgeoisie’ – a stratum which is controlled by foreign capital and at the same time opposed to the workers; in Mexico a semi-Bonapartist regime between foreign capital and national capital, foreign capital and the workers… They create a state capitalism which has nothing to do with socialism. It is the purest form of state capitalism.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, pp.790-791)
Discussing the ruling party’s second six year plan in March 1939 (which had been endorsed by the CTM) Trotsky described how “the government defends the vital resources of the country, but at the same time it can grant industrial concessions, above all in the form of mixed corporations, i.e. enterprises in which the government participates (holding 10%, 25%, 51% of the stock, according to the circumstances) and writes into the contracts the option of buying out the rest after a certain period of time”.
Summing up he wrote: “The authors of the programme [i.e. the plan] wish to completely construct state capitalism within a period of six years. But nationalisation of existing enterprises is one thing; creating new ones is another… The country we repeat is poor. Under such conditions it would be almost suicidal to close the doors to foreign capital. To construct state capitalism, capital is necessary.” (Writings 1938-39 pp.226-227)
Trotsky never equivocated on the nature of the ruling party, including the character of the PRM (the “Mexican Revolutionary Party” created by Cárdenas). In his discussion with comrades in November 1938 he argued: “The Guomindang in China, the PRM in Mexico, and the APRA in Peru are very similar organisations. It is a people’s front in the form of a party… our organisation does not participate in the APRA, Guomindang, or PRM, that it preserves absolute freedom of action and criticism.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.785)
At the beginning of 1939, prospective candidates in the PRM resigned their posts and began to campaign for the presidency, which would take place in July 1940.
At the outset the candidates were Francisco Mujica on the “left”, Manuel Ávila Camacho in the centre and Juan Andreu Almazán on the right. The PCM and Lombardo threw their support behind Ávila Camacho, calling for “unity behind the only candidate that can defeat reaction”.
Trotsky condemned the support for Ávila Camacho offered by the CGT, and wrote: “At the present time there is no workers party, no trade union that is in the process of developing independent class politics and that is able to launch an independent candidate. Under these conditions, our only possible course of action is to limit ourselves to Marxist propaganda and to the preparation of a future independent party of the Mexican proletariat.” (Writings 1938-39 p.176)
Later he registered his attitude toward Diego Rivera, who had broken with the (Trotskyist) Fourth International and briefly supported Mujica. Trotsky wrote: “You can imagine how astonished I was when Van accidentally met the painter [Rivera], in company with Hidalgo, leaving the building of the Pro-Mujica Committee carrying bundles of pro-Mujica leaflets which they were loading into the painter’s station wagon. I believe that was the first we learned of the new turn, or the passing of the painter from ‘third period anarchism’ to ‘people’s front politics’. The poor Casa del Pueblo followed him on all these steps.” (Writings 1938-39 p.293).
Despite Mexico’s relative economic backwardness in the 1930s, Trotsky did not rule out the possibility that its workers might seize power – even before their counterparts in the US. (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.785) However he was concerned about a mechanical interpretation of permanent revolution as applied to Mexico by some of the LCI.
“The Fourth International will defend… [Mexico] against imperialist intervention… But as the Mexican section of the Fourth International, it is not our state and we must be independent of the state. In this sense we are not opposed to state capitalism in Mexico; but the first thing we demand is our own representation of workers before this state. We cannot permit the leaders of the trade unions to become functionaries of the state. To attempt to conquer the state in this way is absolute idiocy. It is not possible in this manner peacefully to conquer power. It is a petty bourgeois dream…
“I believe we must fight with the greatest energy this idea that the state can be seized by stealing bits of the power. It is the history of the Guomindang. In Mexico the power is in the hands of the national bourgeoisie, and we can conquer power only by conquering the majority of the workers and a great part of the peasantry, and then overthrowing the bourgeoisie. There is no other possibility.” (Writings supplement 1934-40, p.792, p.793).
Trotsky’s evaluation of developments in Mexico went through a series of stages and modifications, as the battle between the state and the working class was played out. In the last eighteen months of his life, in discussions with Mexican socialists, he further clarified his views on the nature of the regime and the ruling party, its relationship to the unions and on workers’ administration.
The first collaboration of note was with Francisco Zamora, a member of the editorial board of Clave who had also sat on the Dewey Commission. He was a professor of economics at the National University of Mexico and a member of the first committee of the CTM. Between October 1938 and May 1939 Zamora published a series of articles in the magazine Hoy, which contain some ideas influenced by Trotsky.
Zamora criticised the CTM and CGT leaders and pointed to how their bourgeois politics had accommodated with the Mexican state. He argued that the Mexican revolution, particularly in its agrarian relations, was unfinished. However he predicted that Ávila Camacho would not continue the work of Cárdenas, but rather destroy it.
Zamora also discussed the way the state represented the interests of the dominant class, although during periods of stalemate allowed the state “a certain momentary independence” – alluding to the idea of Bonapartism.
Around the same time Trotsky held discussions with the Mexican Marxist Octavio Fernández on the nature of the Mexican revolution. Between February and April 1939, Fernández published three articles in Clave with a wealth of statistical material dealing concretely with the Mexican social formation and in particular with the peasantry and the working class.
Fernández distinguished between the military-police form of Bonapartism of the Calles period and the “petty-bourgeois-democratic Bonapartism” of Cárdenas. He also argued that the expropriation of the oil industry was made possible by the international crisis of relations between the imperialist powers. He believed that further expropriations were unlikely as long as a bourgeois government was in power in Mexico. He nevertheless urged workers to push the nationalisations as far as possible, to press the government not to pay compensation, to set up control committees in factories and for price control committees. (León Trotsky, Escritos Latinamericanos 1999 pp.233-234)
In a later article in Clave, ‘Qué ha sido y adónde va la revolución mexicana’ (November-December 1939), Fernández warned that in Mexico, everyone was a “revolutionary” and for “the revolution”. This was because the Mexican revolution (1910-20) was “aborted”, in the sense of an unfinished bourgeois revolution – but in a country where the working class was increasingly becoming an independent factor.
Probably Trotsky’s most important discussion took place with Rodrigo García Treviño, an official at the CTM. Following the exchange, Trotsky wrote a paper on whether revolutionaries should participate in the workers’ administration established in the nationalised rail and oil industries (reprinted here). The key passage is this:
“The nationalization of railways and oil fields in Mexico has of course nothing in common with socialism. It is a measure of state capitalism in a backward country which in this way seeks to defend itself on the one hand against foreign imperialism and on the other against its own proletariat. The management of railways, oil fields, etcetera, through labor organizations has nothing in common with workers’ control over industry, for in the essence of the matter the management is effected through the labor bureaucracy which is independent of the workers, but in return, completely dependent on the bourgeois state. This measure on the part of the ruling class pursues the aim of disciplining the working class, making it more industrious in the service of the common interests of the state, which appear on the surface to merge with the interests of the working class itself. As a matter of fact, the whole task of the bourgeoisie consists in liquidating the trade unions as organs of the class struggle and substituting in their place the trade union bureaucracy as the organ of the leadership over the workers by the bourgeois state. In these conditions, the task of the revolutionary vanguard is to conduct a struggle for the complete independence of the trade unions and for the introduction of actual workers’ control over the present union bureaucracy, which has been turned into the administration of railways, oil enterprises and so on.”
García Treviño wrote an article quoting (anonymously) passages from Trotsky’s document – including on Bonapartism sui generis and the concluding emphasis on the need for a revolutionary party. He praised the workers’ administration as just as efficient as under the previous management — for example by centralising production — and rejecting the hostility of the Stalinists towards it.
But he pointed out that in the rail industry, workers had also been saddled with the old debts of the company. He criticised the form of control because it could not break out of the laws of the bourgeois economy, the firm was bankrupt and because compensation was paid. He said that although workers had a bigger say in the industries, the state remained in control and pointed out that cooperatives could be a “cruel and merciless” form of exploitation of the working class.
Trotsky was unable to add much over the next year. The world was sucked into another global war and as hostilities began, a huge faction fight took place in the Trotskyist organisation in the United States, the SWP. On top of that, the Stalinists in Mexico stepped up their attacks on Trotsky’s asylum and prepared the ground for the GPU assassins to do their work.
For example PCM leader Laborde accused Trotsky of involvement in a rail crash in its paper La Voz de Mexico in April 1939. Lombardo’s press, including Futuro magazine and the daily paper El Popular slandered him during the early months on 1940. Trotsky again proposed a public commission of investigation of the charges.
On 24 May 1940 a serious attempt was made to murder Trotsky, with the Stalinist painter David Siqueiros leading an armed assault on his house at night.
Accused of slandering the Stalinists, Trotsky offered to take the matter to court. He identified the role of the GPU, which had begun making plans to kill him from April 1939. These plans were stepped up by Vittorio Cordovilla, a Stalinist agent who arrived in Mexico in late 1939 and organised a purge of the party (including its leaders Laborde and Campa) for not prosecuting the anti-Trotsky campaign hard enough. Within months of this intervention, Trotsky’s life was ended by a Stalinist ice axe to the head.
On Trotsky’s desk at the time of his death was an unfinished manuscript from April 1940 on the trade unions, with a valuable assessment of the relationship between the state and the working class in Mexico and similar countries. Entitled Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, it once more characterised the Cárdenas regime as Bonapartist.
Trotsky also distinguished between different forms of Bonapartism, with some leaning “in a democratic direction, seeking support among workers and peasants”, while others “install a form close to military-police dictatorship”.
He criticised the nationalisation of the railways and oil fields as aimed simultaneously at foreign capital and the workers – and registered that these industries were run by the union bureaucracy for the bourgeois state.
Trotsky also repeated his assessment that the Mexican trade unions had been transformed into semi-state institutions – but maintained that Marxists still had the possibility of working inside them. But he emphasised the need for workers’ organisations to assert their own independent politics, from the state and the labour bureaucracy, and to fight for trade union democracy.
One thing is clear from comparing Mexico in the late 1930s with the situation today (especially in Venezuela), and that is that Mexico’s history anticipated present political issues of strategy and tactics in almost every case — the nationalisations, workers’ participation, coup attempts, union splits, the press, the creation of a ruling party etc, — as part of the creation of a Bonapartist regime. And in almost every case, Trotsky set out a clear position for how Marxists would navigate in these circumstances.
Of course, we cannot read off mechanically from the past what to say and do in the present. For one thing, Venezuela and Mexico today are much more industrially developed than in Trotsky’s time, and the form of domination by the US is different today than it was in the 1930s. And the Venezuelan UNT trade union federation is not today incorporated in the state but is an independent movement with some militant and longstanding rank and file forces.
But our tradition is an anchor – it demands a critical stance. Other Marxists, including Trotskyists in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, have used Trotsky’s comments to develop their analysis of the Mexican regime in terms of Bonapartism – and applied to to other cases, such as Peron in Argentina and Velasco in Peru. Events in Venezuela under Chávez should be assessed on their own terms: but much can be learned from the attitude that Trotsky took to comparable developments.
“In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core: but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.
“The artistocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coat of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverant laughter” – Marx and Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto.’
I’ve written about the Graun‘s tame public school Stalinist, Seumas “Posh Boy” Milne many times before and was inclined, at first, to ignore his latest pack of lies, half-truths, evasion and privileged westerner’s patronisation of, and generalisation about, people of other cultures, published in that paper yesterday. But it really is a loathsome, poisonous piece of writing, even by Milne’s distasteful ‘standards.’
Milne (ex- Winchester School and Balliol, Oxford) is far from the first scion of the upper class to become a radical and, in a sense, a class traitor. In principle, an admirable stance. George Orwell famously described himself as “lower-upper-middle class” and went to Eton. But Orwell’s socialism was libertarian and democratic to its core. Even in the 1930′s, when the full horrors of Stalinism had yet to be generally acnowledged and the Soviet Union was widely admired amongst British intellectuals, Orwell rejected it and dedicated his life to promoting what he saw as democratic socialism and fighting totalitarianism in both its fascist and Stalinist forms.
Milne could scarcely be further from that tradition. All his adult life has been devoted to glorifying Stalinism and dictatorship. He seems to have a psychological need for a strong leader-figure. He certainly holds democracy in any form, in complete disdain. On leaving Balliol he became business manager of Straight Left (the publication of an ultra-Stalinist faction within the British Communist Party), and since joining the Guardian (via a stint at the Economist) has frequently devoted columns to defending/excusing/downplaying the mass murder that took place under his hero.
But Mine has had a major problem since 1989: the masses of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rejected totalitarianism, and the working class of the ’West’ (and, indeed, most of the rest of the world) finally discarded whatever residual illusions they may have had in Stalinism as any kind of progressive force. History’s verdict on the Milnes’ of this world was decisive and damning. Since that blow (shared by his friend and co-thinker George Galloway), he’s had no postive vision of socialism to put forward. Like many other Stalinists, he doesn’t even use the word very often. He prefers to talk about “imperialism,” which for him means little more than “bad” and – especially – American and Israeli “bad.”
Apart from hoping that Chinese capitalism (the rise of which even he has described as “problematic”) will soon eclipse the US version, and that populist demagogues like Hugo Chavez will develop some form of home-grown “socialism” in Latin America, poor Seumas doesn’t really know what he’s actually in favour of. But he knows what he’s against. Hence his support for anyone – but anyone – who’s against the US and/or ‘the West’ as a whole and/or Israel. Hence his support for the Iranian clerical fascists, for the antisemites of Hamas and Hezbullah, the so-called “resistance” that murdered trade unionists and democrats in Iraq and for the so-called “resistance” (aka the Taliban) in Afghanistan (if you don’t believe me on this, take a look at the video below). Naturally, he now rejoices at the reactionary anti-American protests recently stirred up by clerical fascists in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, which he gloatingly celebrates as “blowback” from “US and western attempts to commandeer the Arab uprisings” (he thought the Libyans should have submitted to the tender mercies of Gaddafi, just as he now supports Assad). Clearly, for Milne (as for Galloway, Pilger, Tariq Ali and people like the degenerate ex-SWP’ers of ’Counterfire’) Islamism now plays the “progressive” role in the world that Stalinism and various nationalist movements once did. He conveniently ignores the fact that all the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of Libyans (and no doubt Egyptians and others) rejected the latest manufactured Islamist ‘outrage.’ Here’a telling passage from his latest Graun effort:
“The fact that the attack on the US consulate, along with often violent protests that have spread across 20 countries, was apparently triggered by an obscure online video trailer concocted by US-based Christian fundamentalists and émigré Copts – even one portraying the prophet Muhammad as a fraud and paedophile – seems bafflingly disproportionate to outsiders.
“But in the wake of the Rushdie affair and Danish cartoons controversy, it should be clear that insults to Muhammad are widely seen by Muslims as an attack on their collective identity and, as the Berkeley-based anthropologist Saba Mahmoud argues, a particular form of religiosity that elevates him as an ideal exemplar.
“Those feelings can obviously be exploited, as they have been in recent days in a battle for political influence between fundamentalist Salafists, mainstream Islamists and the Shia Hezbollah. But it would be absurd not to recognise that the scale of the response isn’t just about a repulsive video, or even reverence for the prophet. As is obvious from the slogans and targets, what set these protests alight is the fact that the injury to Muslims is seen once again to come from an arrogant hyperpower that has invaded, subjugated and humiliated the Arab and Muslim world for decades.”
Condensed version: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Seumas, like many such self-important political illiterates, is highly sensitive to criticism, and at Comment is Free (where readers are supposed to be able to comment on Graun articles) he is protected by vigilant “moderators” who regularly delete critical comments and put those who dare attack, mock or just disagree with Seumas into a limbo called “pre-moderation.” However, one or two critical voices occasionally get through: someone calling themselves ‘sullenandhostile’ (on page 3, 19 Sept, 1.15 pm below the article) takes poor Seumas apart good and proper. I doubt that s/he’ll be allowed to return.
You might just ask, in view of his hatred of America and his support for all who attack the “West” by whatever means, why he doesn’t go the whole hog and express at least some sympathy with Al-Qaeda ; well, he has done. Here. Note the date.
Twitter Feminists are doing a very good job of dismantling the anti-woman rhetoric written by Women Against Rape in the Guardian today. The article is a pile of victim-blaming, rape excusing twaddle from two women who should know better: Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff. Any woman who writes this is victim-blaming:
“It seems even clearer now, that the allegations against him are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction.”
They are calling the two women liars. It doesn’t matter how much want to pretend they aren’t, suggesting the charges are a “smokescreen” is calling to victims of sexualised violence liars. That is the territory of MRAs and their handmaidens. Not Feminists. Yeah, they try to minimise the impact by saying this without a trace of irony:
“… the names of the women have been circulated on the internet; they have been trashed, accused of setting a “honey trap”, and seen their allegations dismissed as “not real rape”.”
WAR are also calling the two women liars. They are suggesting it wasn’t real rape. By buying into Assange’s paranoid fantasies, they have effectively silenced two rape victims and trashed the reputation of their organisation. They are arguing precisely the same thing as MRAs. All for what, to line up to defend a whiny little tosser because they think he’s The Second Coming? Well, he isn’t. I know her and she’d kick the shit out of Assange.
The whole article is a pile of paranoia and misinformation. WAR have just ensured that I won’t ever use them for support or refer friends to them. Anyone who writes that Wikileaks is more important than the bodily integrity of two women is no feminist. Wikileaks is more than one man and, frankly, it’s not like Assange’s reputation in Wikileaks is all that brilliant what with the whole dumping an Iranian leak into the shit without a backward glance.
From the New Statesman of 9 July. An important debate in which the NS‘s self-righteous outgoing Political Editor is shown up for the lightweight, superficial bullshitter he is, by someone who really knows what they’re talking about; Hasan opens the exchange:
Assalam alaikum. Your new memoir, Radical, exploring your journey from Hizb ut-Tahrir activist to self-professed “liberal Muslim”, is bold, fascinating and, at times, insightful.
To be honest, I wasn’t always a fan of your work – and I am still bemused by the view in some circles that former extremists are the best (the only?) people qualified to identify and tackle extremism.
Nonetheless, you should be applauded for trying to answer one of the most uncomfortable questions of our time: what is it that turns a tiny minority of ordinary, young, Muslim men into fanatical, cold-blooded killers?
It is undoubtedly the case that what you refer to as a “stifling, totalitarian victimhood ideology” often plays a role in the transformation. But I worry that, in your understandable attempt to denounce and deconstruct the “Islamist narrative of a clash of civilisations”, you downplay the role of foreign policy issues (from the invasion of Iraq to the occupation of Palestine to the west’s support for Arab dictators) as drivers of radicalisation.
Would you accept that those neoconservatives who deny a link between, say, foreign occupations, on the one hand, and radicalisation and terrorism, on the other, are being dishonest? The empirical evidence is clear: the US political scientist Robert Pape, who studied every known case of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003, has concluded that the “specific secular and strategic goal” of suicide terrorists is to end foreign military occupations. “The tap root of suicide terrorism is nationalism,” he wrote; it is “an extreme strategy for national liberation”.
You denounce those on the “regressive left”, such as the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne, who dare to join the dots between the west’s wars and Islamist extremism. Forget Milne. Consider instead the verdict of Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden tracking unit and the author of three acclaimed books on al-Qaeda. “I don’t think there are a lot of people who want to blow themselves up because my daughters go to university,” Scheuer told me in an interview last year. “People are going to come and bomb us because they don’t like what we’ve done.”
Is he wrong?
As Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen noted in her preface to Radical, it is a story about racist violence and a struggle for human rights, just as much as it is a story about the impact of a divisive ideology. Rather than explicitly prescribe factors that cause extremism, I chose to bring them out through the means of storytelling, so that readers could step into my world.
I have attempted to strike a balance between the two extremes of the neoconservative right, which tends to blame Islam itself for an increase in Islamist-led violence, and the regressive left, which tends to blame only foreign or domestic western government policy. The fact is that human beings are complicated animals. Unlike water, we don’t all boil at 100° Celsius. No catch-all cause of extremism can be identified. It is best to approach this subject with some general principles in mind that inevitably contribute to the phenomenon – grievances, identity crises, charismatic recruiters and ideological narratives.
It matters not whether the grievances are real or perceived. The perception of a grievance is sufficient to act as an agitating force. Where policy is wrong, such as with the invasion of Iraq, it should be changed to protect our own values rather than to succumb to the demands of terrorists. Where policy is right but perceived as wrong, more needs to be done to engage the aggrieved parties, as citizens and not as segregated communal blocs.
One million Britons marched against the Iraq war. Of these, a tiny minority, from within the non-Iraqi British Muslim communities, reacted with violence on 7 July 2005. To interpret this simply as a “nationalist struggle” to remove occupation ignores the blatantly obvious fact that, first, the terrorists were not Iraqis, they were British-Pakistanis (though British Iraqis have lived here for a long time); second, the vast majority of the Stop the War protesters were non-Muslims, yet only a handful from among a minority of Muslims reacted to the war with terrorism. Even though occupation may have caused agitation among the 7 July bombers, these northern-born lads with thick Yorkshire accents confessed in their suicide tapes to considering themselves soldiers with a mission to kill our people (Britons) on behalf of their people (Iraqis). The prerequisite to such a disavowal of one’s country of birth is a recalibration of identity; this is the undeniable role of ideological narratives.
I’m glad we seem to be in agreement on this: yes, radicalisation is as much a product of foreign policy “grievances” as it is one of a hate-filled “divisive ideology”. I am delighted to see the head of the Quilliam Foundation, “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank”, taking a much more nuanced approach to Islamist-inspired violence than some of its well-known outriders (step forward, Michael “Islamism Is Nazism” Gove). For far too long, the debate over the “root causes” of terrorism has been dominated by simplistic assumptions, sweeping generalisations and lazy stereotypes.
So here’s my confusion. In your memoir, you write that David Cameron’s speech on extremism in Munich in February 2011 was the result of a meeting you had with him in Downing Street and that it “included almost all of my suggestions”. Yet this was a speech as inflammatory as it was superficial, peppered with stereotypes and straw men. On the day that the English Defence League marched against Muslims living in Luton, Cameron bizarrely decided to blame the rise of Islamist-inspired violence in the UK on “segregated communities”, “the doctrine of state multiculturalism” and “the passive tolerance of recent years”. Conveniently, he had little to say about the well-documented links between “our” foreign policy and “their” violent extremism.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Prime Minister’s now-notorious address was his enthusiastic endorsement of the so-called “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation, which states that young Muslims start off alienated and angry, slowly become more religious and politicised, and then almost automatically turn to violence and terror. Or, as Cameron put it, “As evidence emerges about . . . those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence.”
But this claim has been contradicted by the PM’s own officials. In July 2010, a leaked memo prepared for coalition ministers on the cabinet’s home affairs subcommittee concluded that it was incorrect “to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence . . . This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.”
Isn’t it time we ditched the unhelpful and discredited analogy of the conveyor belt? Shouldn’t we be more rigorous in our analysis of the radicalisation process and less obsessed with “non-violent extremists” – who, by definition, pose no physical threat to us?
This extremism agenda must remain non- partisan, my friend. To be fair to the coalition, its policy has been to try to turn the Bush-era doctrine on its head. Instead of developing a state-heavy response to terrorism, while tolerating non-violent extremism in civil society, this government has tried to curtail state-led excess, while doing more to focus on civil society responses to non-violent extremism. Consequently, legality and civil liberties are better protected now than they were during the Bush era. Obviously there is still much more that can be done.
I’m glad that the Prime Minister’s Munich speech addressed non-violent extremism and I’m proud to have influenced this. I agree that raising multiculturalism in the speech was an unnecessary distraction. But the desire was to highlight non-violent extremism, because in recent years it had been such a taboo, unlike complaining about grievances, which Britons have a long tradition of doing.
Non-violent extremism may not pose a physical threat but that doesn’t mean it is not a challenge requiring a robust policy response. Casual racism in society poses no direct physical threat, but we can all recognise that where it spreads unchecked, without a civic challenge, it is an unhealthy phenomenon. Islamism – which can advocate anti-democratic views, divisive sectarianism and ideas that discriminate on grounds of gender and sexuality – is analogous in this respect to racism. This does not mean we ban such ideas, but it does mean that, as with racism, we require a popular civil society approach in challenging them.
I agree there is no conclusive evidence that extremism is a “conveyor belt” to terrorism, just as there is inconclusive evidence to the contrary. In such cases, common sense surely should prevail. To become a jihadist terrorist, one first becomes an Islamist, though not all Islamists will go on to violence. Joining militant racist groups like Combat 18 seems unlikely if one is not first exposed to a level of racist rhetoric.
However, ultimately, this entire issue is a red herring. Whether or not there is a “conveyor belt”, we must surely agree that the spread of extremism in societies is unhealthy for integration in its own right. Just as many on the left challenge anti-Muslim hatred while they object to challenging Islamist ideology, many on the right challenge Islamist ideology but neglect anti-Muslim hatred. I value consistency. Why not challenge both?
“An unnecessary distraction”? The Prime Minister’s decision to bolt a supposedly nuanced analysis of counter-extremism and radicalisation on to a conservative critique of “state multiculturalism” was reckless, irresponsible and inflammatory.
Above all, it lacked a factual basis. Multiculturalism has little, if anything, to do with the rise of Islamist-inspired terrorism. Otherwise, how would you explain the presence of extremist groups inside monocultural societies such as Saudi Arabia or the Gaza Strip?
Remember: the 7 July bombers were, by any conventional definition, integrated into wider British society. None of the four spoke English as a second language; one of them was a convert to Islam. The ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, once nicknamed “Sid”, was a teaching assistant who had refused to have an arranged marriage. Shazad Tanweer, the Aldgate bomber, was an avid cricketer who worked part-time in his father’s fish-and-chip shop. Their actions were horrific and unforgivable but their grievances were political, not cultural.
You asked why some on the left “challenge anti-Muslim hatred while they object to challenging Islamist ideology” and you issue a call for consistency. But are you really comparing like with like? Mainstream Muslim groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) may have their flaws and limitations, but is it fair or accurate to compare them to the hate-mongers and bigots of the British National Party or the EDL? How does such a divisive, such a black-and-white, approach to engaging young, politically active British Muslims help to build the bonds and civic relations that you say you cherish? Isn’t it a dangerous mirror image of the terrorists’ own “with-us-or-against-us” mentality?
To be honest, the analogy between racism and Islamism that you constantly invoke in your writings and public appearances worries me. We’re all clear about what racism is and why it is so offensive and abhorrent. But what is “Islamism”? How do you define it? Here is a term so elastic that it stretches from the elected, pro-western AKP government in Turkey to the anti-western barbarians of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan; it is a deeply contested idea. And what defines this new and equally nebulous phrase: “non-violent extremism”? Are the Haredi Jews of north London “non-violent extremists”? How about Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, who compared the introduction of gay marriage to the legalisation of slavery?
Or is the expression, as I suspect, just the latest code for referring to politicised Muslims with whom we might disagree?
If monocultural Saudi and Gaza harbour “extremist” groups, this is an argument against you. It is obvious that divided, monocultural areas in Britain are bad for integration, regardless of one’s view on multiculturalism. I did not compare the MCB with the BNP. A more accurate comparison would be between my former group Hizb ut-Tahrir and the BNP. My critique of the MCB is far more nuanced and involves my views on the unhealthy nature of communalist identity politics, and my preference for the citizenship model over the “umbrella” model, except in dealing with narrow religious matters.
Arguing that challenging Islamist extremism through civic activism is divisive and isolates angry young British Muslims is as absurd and insulting as saying that challenging racism is divisive and isolates the angry young white working class. Either challenging (without banning) racism and Islamism is correct, or appeasing both racists and Islamists is correct. It is an offence to Islam and to Muslims to pander patronisingly to anti-Semitic, or anti-woman, or homophobic, or bigoted sectarian views when they emanate from brown Muslims – as if that’s just our culture anyway – but simultaneously be forthright in challenging white racism.
I am also very surprised to read that you claim there’s a consensus around racism as you try to prove that there’s no such thing as non-violent extremism. I have been raised on a diet of racist hammer and knife attacks. I can tell you, as someone who’s lived it, unlike some champagne socialists: “we” are not “all clear” on what racism is and “why it is abhorrent”. And, speaking in the context of rising right-wing extremism across Europe, we have certainly not overcome it.
Likewise, just because we are not all clear what Islamism is, that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Islamism is the desire to impose an interpretation of Islam over society as law. By definition, this raises urgent questions about human rights, and usually it is we Muslims who are the first victims of Islamism. Absurdly, this is excused by the regressive left as if brown culture were discriminatory anyway – a poverty of expectations. Yes, Islamism is diverse, but so was communism. Stalin killed Trotsky. Is this proof there’s no such thing as communism?
Tunisia’s post-Islamist Ennahda party recently went through its own “Clause Four” moment when it ditched a condition that its interpretation of sharia must be the source of law. Tunisian civil society (all Muslims) pressured Ennahda for reform – which is exactly what I endorse. Were Tunisians being divisive and anti-Islam?
Naturally the term “non-violent extremism” should not be used to dismiss politicised Muslims with whom we disagree. After all, you’re a politicised Muslim and I’m quite evidently disagreeing with you. When the abhorrent views I’ve listed are subscribed to by Christians or Jews, I have indeed labelled them as extremist, too. While the regressive left is inconsistent, I believe the best way to address this issue is to reverse the neoconservative model; that means we must jealously guard the civil liberties of extremists, yet at the same time challenge non-violent extremism in society through grass-roots civic action, rather than exploding bombs and grossly violating human rights.
Maajid Nawaz is chairman of the think tank Quilliam and the author of “Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening”, newly published by W H Allen (£12.99)
The death last week of Ahmed Ben Bella (surprisingly sympathetic Telegraph obit here), leader of the Algerian war against French colonialism and first president of independent Algeria, is an appropriate moment to consider the politics of ‘anti-imperialism’, particularly as applied by sections of the left to contemporary Islamism and the Israel/Palestine issue.
Above: Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965 (Photo: AFP/GETTY)
Clive Bradley discussed these issues in the Decemeber 2002 issue of Workers Liberty magazine:
The Algerian war of independence, which ended in 1962, lasted eight years. It was bitter and bloody; according to some accounts, over a million people died. French colonialism considered Algeria to be part of France, although only the European settler colonists, the so-called pieds noirs, had full rights. The majority Arab and Berber population were second-class citizens facing brutal racism. The nationalist movement, the Front de Libération Nationale, (FLN), from the beginning of its military campaign launched terrorist attacks on civilian as well as military targets, and sometimes also on the French mainland (although they did not attack cafés and so on, as they did in Algeria). The French army responded with utter brutality: massacres were carried out (and then massacres in retaliation by the FLN); torture was common.
One of the scandals of the Algerian war was that the mainstream French left failed to take an internationalist stand. The Socialists formed governments which continued colonial rule and all that went with it. The Communist Party did not support the struggle for independence; at times it supported the idea of it in the abstract, but certainly it did not support the FLN. All of this was unforgivable, and was sharply criticised by more radical forces (including Trotskyists), who supported both the aim of full independence and those fighting for it.
There is no doubt that the FLN were ruthless and frequently brutal, for instance in their attacks on civilians (dramatised in the film Battle of Algiers, below).
Yet to equivocate on solidarity with them was to fail to fight oppression. Frantz Fanon, the Martinician theorist of “Third Worldism” who was closely involved in the FLN, also rightly denounced those liberals who opposed French oppression, but in the name of what it was doing, morally, to the French, rather than its Algerian victims.
The FLN, incidentally, although it had some links with Arab nationalists elsewhere, especially the Egyptian government, was more self-consciously “Islamic” than many other such movements, and the regime it installed in 1962 declared itself ”Islamic.”
Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine do not, as yet, command the levels of support the FLN had in Algeria. But they are growing, and in principle they could eclipse Fatah (the main faction inside the PLO). They have already eclipsed the old PLO and Stalinoid left like the Popular and Democratic Fronts and the Communist Party. Even before then they had widespread support, and it seems their most dramatic contribution to the struggle, the suicide bomber, has very considerable support amongst the Palestinian masses. A generationof youth wants to be martyrs. Isn’t the basis of an internationalist stand as clear as it was for Algeria – and the same? Shouldn’t we support Hamas, defend the suicide bombers (or at least their right to do them, even if we question their tactical wisdom)? Isn’t our sharp opposition to Hamas just an abdication of revolutionary duty as bad as the failures of the French left over Algeria? (And wouldn’t this judgement be even more true of Israeli socialists?).
This is not a small matter. If Workers Liberty is wrong about Hamas, it is a very serious error. I think it is worth teasing out the ussues in some detail.
The immediately obvious distinction between Algeria and Israel/Palestine is that Hamas’ actions are not just chauvinistic towards Jews, but are aimed at the destruction of the Israeli Jewish entity. The FLN may or may not have been chauvinistic towards the French (or towards the colonists), but either way the existence of France was never in question in the Algerian revolution.
But this in itself is not, I would argue, decisive. Hamas’ attitude to the existence of Israel by itself might be be only a chauvinistic expression of Palestinian nationalism – reprehensible, no doubt, but not much of real political weight. For onething, whether Hamas would like to destroy the Israeli Jewish national entity or not, it does not possess the power to do so. Maybe some people in the FLN wanted to destroy France, whatever that might mean, but even if they did, it was outside their power to do so. Someone refusing to support the FLN against the French army on the grounds that some people in the FLN wanted to destroy France would have been odd, not because it would be reasonable to want to destroy France, but because nobody in their right mind would think it could be achieved.
Hamas’ programme has a different significance, however, because of the history of the region and because of previous attitudes towards Israel on the part of the Arab bourgeoisies (in particular on the part of the non- Palestinian Arab bourgeoisies who have armies). Also its significance depends upon an assessment of Islamism. And has an extra significance, for us, because of the attitudes of the British left. But in and of itself, that a section of the Palestinian national movement has a chauvinistic programme towards Israel, could not determine our overall attitude.
The PLO did not formally support a “two states” programme for Israel/Palestine until the late 1980s (in practice it was for two states since the 1973 war). But even when the PLO was fighting for a “democratic secular state”, i.e formally for the destruction of Israel, I think socialists could reasonably have said they “supported” the PLO. (WL did say this, and at then time we weren’t for two states either). The PLO had the support of the big majority of the Palestinian people. If there was to be any short-term settlement, it would require Israel to negotiate with the PLO. Socialists would not “support” the PLO in a more specific sense, but in the same way that we would not support any bourgeois nationalist movement,, rather than because of its programme regarding Israel. It was in a more limited sense that the PLO deserved our support – including for many of its military actions. Like the FLN, it was a bourgeois nationalist movement.
If we are right about Hamas, then, our opposition to it can’t be purely because of their programme regarding Israel.
Is making the parallel with “France” making things a bit easy for ourselves?
Well, it is not a priori, and beyond argument, that the pieds noirs in Algeria constituted a national minority whose collective rights deserved to be protected against the chauvinistic programme of the FLN. If that were the case, then terrorist attacks on cafés, massacres of civilians, etc, rather than essentially legitimate expressions of the nationalist, anti-colonial struggle, were outrageous attacks on the democratic rights of French-speaking people in Algeria.
Certainly, the pieds noirs were a sizeable population, by definition native to North Africa rather than Europe. If you can argue that the Jewish population in Palestine could be considered a nation by 1948 even though most of them were refugees, perhaps you could argue that the far more indigenous European-origin population of Algeria was a national minority.
Perhaps you could also argue that the wholehearted solidarity with the FLN advocated by the most radical voices of the day was based on a romantic, “third worldist” view of the world. In retrospect, the FLN, like other nationalist movements, had profoundly limited progressive potential. Socialist solidarity needed to emphasise the independence of the working class, and socialist organisation. (The mainstream Trotskyist movement was so enthusiastic in its support for the FLN that it saw them, like Tito, Castro, etc, as incipiently Marxist).
Is our attitude to Hamas just more hard-nosed and realistic? No these arguments do not stand up.
In Algeria, millions of Algerians were denied their right to self-determination – and denied in a particularly brutal and muderous way. (Straight after World War Two, French colonialism ushered in the new order by a dreadful massacre of Algerian nationalists. Perhaps 40,000 people were slaughtered in May 1945 in the town of Setif). Algeria was a seperate country forcibly controlled by France. The rights of a minority of colonists could not, by any democratic standard, be placed above the rights of the huge non-European majority. Moreover abstract considerations of whether or not the pieds noirs were a national minority aside, the French in Algeria did not at any point demand minority rights, or a seperate connection to France which allowed Algeria its independence. Their demand was for Algeria to remain incorporated into France – but denying the Arab and Berber majority any political rights.
In any case there was no way in which the French minority’s national rights, if you argue they had them, could be territorially expressed: they were an elite, defined by race and language, within the general population, not a territorially distinct group – in other words they were sociologically closer to the whites in South Africa than to Israeli Jews, although with even less claim to distinctness, as they considered themselves French and Algeria to be part of France…
…read the full article (there’ s plenty more!), here (pdf)