A comrade has drawn my attention to the following piece, which is an excellent critique of ‘identity’ politics – a problem, even in the 1980′s, when this piece (in part, a review of ‘Eurocentrism ‘, book by the Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin) was written. Matters are, of course, much worse now
(The following article originally appeared in New Politics , 1989)
The Universality of Marx
By Loren Goldner
A strange anomaly dominates the current social, political and cultural climate. World capitalism has for over fifteen years been sinking into its worst systemic crisis since the 1930′s, and one which in its biospheric dimensions is much worse than the 1930′s. At the same time, the social stratum which calls itself the left in Europe and the U.S. is in full retreat. In many advanced capitalist countries, and particularly in the U.S., that stratum increasingly suspects the world outlook of Karl Marx, which postulates that capitalism brings such crises as storm clouds bring the rain, of being a “white male” mode of thought. Stranger still is the fact that the relative eclipse of Marx has been carried out largely in the name of a “race/gender/class” ideology that can sound, to the uninitiated, both radical and vaguely Marxian. What this “discourse” (to use its own word) has done, however, is to strip the idea of class of exactly that element which, for Marx, made it radical: its status as a universal oppression whose emancipation required (and was also the key to) the abolition of all oppression.
This question of the status of universality, whether attacked by its opponents as “white male”, or “Eurocentric”, or a “master discourse”, is today at the center of the current ideological debate, as one major manifestation of the broader world crisis of the waning 20th century.
The writings of Marx and Engels include assertions that the quality of relations between men and women is the surest expression of the humanity of a given society, that the communal forms of association of peoples such as the North American Iroquois were anticipations of communism, and that the suppression of matriarchal by patriarchal forms of kinship in ancient Greece was simultaneous with the generalization of commodity production, that is, with proto-capitalism. Marx also wrote, against the Enlightenment’s simple-minded linear view of progress that, short of the establishment of communism, all historical progress was accompanied by simultaneous retrogressions. But most of this is fairly well known; this is not what bother contemporaries. What bothers them is that the concept of universality of Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs or even in relations of “power”, which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.
The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinct from other species by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free frim the relatively fixed laws of population which nature imposes on other species. “Animals reproduce only their own nature”, Marx wrote in the 1844 Manuscripts, “but humanity reproduces all of nature”. Nearly 150 years later, the understanding of ecology contained in that line remains in advance of most of the contemporary movements known by that name. Human beings, in contrast to other species, are not fixed in their relations with the environment by biology, but rather possess an infinite capacity to create new environments and new selves in the process. Human history, in this view, is the history of these repeated revolutions in nature and thus in “human nature”.
What bothers contemporary leftist opinion about Marx is that the latter presents a formidable (and, in my opinion, unanswerable) challenge to the currently dominant culturalism, which is so pervasive that it does not even know its own name.
Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue). For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can jdge the humanity or inhumanity of different “cultures”, are “white male” “Eurocentric” constructs designed to deny to women, peoples of color, gays or ecologists the “difference” of their “identity”.
Edward Said, for example, has written a popular book called Orientalism which presents the relations between the West and the Orient (and implicitly between any two cultures) as the encounter of hermetically-sealed “texts” which inevitably distort and degrade. In this encounter, according to Said, the West from early modern times counterposed a “discourse” of a “dynamic West” to a “decadent, stagnant” Orient. Since Said does not even entertain the possibility of world-historical progress, the idea that Renaissance Europe represented an historical breakthrough for humanity, which was, by the 15th century, superior to the social formations of the Islamic world is not even worth discussing. Such a view not only trivializes the breakthrough of Renaissance Europe; it also trivializes the achievements of the Islamic world, which from the 8th to the 13th centuries towered over the barbaric West, as well as the achievements of T’ang and Sung China, which during the same centuries probably towered over both of them. One would also never know, reading Said, that in the 13th century the flower of Islamic civilization was irreversibly snuffed out by a “text” of Mongol hordes (presumably also Oriental) who levelled Bagdad three times.
Were Said somehow transported back to the wonder that was Islamic civilization under the Abbasid caliphate, the Arabs and Persians who helped lay the foundations for the European Renaissance would have found his culturalism strange indeed, given the importance of Plato and Aristotle in their philosophy and of the line of prophets from Moses to Jesus in their theology. Said’s text- bound view of the hermetically-sealed relations between societies and in world history (which for him does not meaningfully exist) is the quintessential statement of a culturalism that, which a pretense of radicalism, has become rampant in the past two decades. Read the rest of this entry »
Is this the same Mark Fis(c)her who was until quite recently, a leading light of the CPGB/Weekly Worker group? A BTL commenter (below) thinks not. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything Fisher writes here (I think he’s excessively enthusiastic about Russell Brand, for instance), but it’s an interesting piece, well worth serious consideration and discussion. Fisher’s comments on the rise of self-righteous identity politics and the concomitant decline of class politics, certainly ring true:
The article first appeared on the North Star website:
Exiting the Vampire Castle
By Mark Fisher
This summer, I seriously considered withdrawing from any involvement in politics. Exhausted through overwork, incapable of productive activity, I found myself drifting through social networks, feeling my depression and exhaustion increasing.
‘Left-wing’ Twitter can often be a miserable, dispiriting zone. Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism. The reason I didn’t speak out on any of these incidents, I’m ashamed to say, was fear. The bullies were in another part of the playground. I didn’t want to attract their attention to me.
The open savagery of these exchanges was accompanied by something more pervasive, and for that reason perhaps more debilitating: an atmosphere of snarky resentment. The most frequent object of this resentment is Owen Jones, and the attacks on Jones – the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years – were one of the reasons I was so dejected. If this is what happens to a left-winger who is actually succeeding in taking the struggle to the centre ground of British life, why would anyone want to follow him into the mainstream? Is the only way to avoid this drip-feed of abuse to remain in a position of impotent marginality?
One of the things that broke me out of this depressive stupor was going to the People’s Assembly in Ipswich, near where I live. The People’s Assembly had been greeted with the usual sneers and snarks. This was, we were told, a useless stunt, in which media leftists, including Jones, were aggrandising themselves in yet another display of top-down celebrity culture. What actually happened at the Assembly in Ipswich was very different to this caricature. The first half of the evening – culminating in a rousing speech by Owen Jones – was certainly led by the top-table speakers. But the second half of the meeting saw working class activists from all over Suffolk talking to each other, supporting one another, sharing experiences and strategies. Far from being another example of hierarchical leftism, the People’s Assembly was an example of how the vertical can be combined with the horizontal: media power and charisma could draw people who hadn’t previously been to a political meeting into the room, where they could talk and strategise with seasoned activists. The atmosphere was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but refreshingly free of the paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog.
Then there was Russell Brand. I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background. Over the last few years, there has been a gradual but remorseless embourgeoisement of television comedy, with preposterous ultra-posh nincompoop Michael McIntyre and a dreary drizzle of bland graduate chancers dominating the stage.
The day before Brand’s now famous interview with Jeremy Paxman was broadcast on Newsnight, I had seen Brand’s stand-up show the Messiah Complex in Ipswich. The show was defiantly pro-immigrant, pro-communist, anti-homophobic, saturated with working class intelligence and not afraid to show it, and queer in the way that popular culture used to be (i.e. nothing to do with the sour-faced identitarian piety foisted upon us by moralisers on the post-structuralist ‘left’). Malcolm X, Che, politics as a psychedelic dismantling of existing reality: this was communism as something cool, sexy and proletarian, instead of a finger-wagging sermon.
The next night, it was clear that Brand’s appearance had produced a moment of splitting. For some of us, Brand’s forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. This wasn’t Johnny Rotten swearing at Bill Grundy – an act of antagonism which confirmed rather than challenged class stereotypes. Brand had outwitted Paxman – and the use of humour was what separated Brand from the dourness of so much ‘leftism’. Brand makes people feel good about themselves; whereas the moralising left specialises in making people feed bad, and is not happy until their heads are bent in guilt and self-loathing.
The moralising left quickly ensured that the story was not about Brand’s extraordinary breach of the bland conventions of mainstream media ‘debate’, nor about his claim that revolution was going to happen. (This last claim could only be heard by the cloth-eared petit-bourgeois narcissistic ‘left’ as Brand saying that he wanted to lead the revolution – something that they responded to with typical resentment: ‘I don’t need a jumped-up celebrity to lead me‘.) For the moralisers, the dominant story was to be about Brand’s personal conduct – specifically his sexism. In the febrile McCarthyite atmosphere fermented by the moralising left, remarks that could be construed as sexist mean that Brand is a sexist, which also meant that he is a misogynist. Cut and dried, finished, condemned.
It is right that Brand, like any of us, should answer for his behaviour and the language that he uses. But such questioning should take place in an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity, and probably not in public in the first instance – although when Brand was questioned about sexism by Mehdi Hasan, he displayed exactly the kind of good-humoured humility that was entirely lacking in the stony faces of those who had judged him. “I don’t think I’m sexist, But I remember my grandmother, the loveliest person I‘ve ever known, but she was racist, but I don’t think she knew. I don’t know if I have some cultural hangover, I know that I have a great love of proletariat linguistics, like ‘darling’ and ‘bird’, so if women think I’m sexist they’re in a better position to judge than I am, so I’ll work on that.”
Brand’s intervention was not a bid for leadership; it was an inspiration, a call to arms. And I for one was inspired. Where a few months before, I would have stayed silent as the PoshLeft moralisers subjected Brand to their kangaroo courts and character assassinations – with ‘evidence’ usually gleaned from the right-wing press, always available to lend a hand – this time I was prepared to take them on. The response to Brand quickly became as significant as the Paxman exchange itself. As Laura Oldfield Ford pointed out, this was a clarifying moment. And one of the things that was clarified for me was the way in which, in recent years, so much of the self-styled ‘left’ has suppressed the question of class.
Class consciousness is fragile and fleeting. The petit bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry has all kinds of subtle deflections and pre-emptions which prevent the topic even coming up, and then, if it does come up, they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it. I’ve been speaking now at left-wing, anti-capitalist events for years, but I’ve rarely talked – or been asked to talk – about class in public.
But, once class had re-appeared, it was impossible not to see it everywhere in the response to the Brand affair. Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left. Others told us that Brand couldn’t really be working class, because he was a millionaire. It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’.
Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. I don’t know the individual who wrote it, and I wouldn’t wish to name them. What’s important is that the post was symptomatic of a set of snobbish and condescending attitudes that it is apparently alright to exhibit while still classifying oneself as left wing. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. Brand, apparently, is ‘clearly extremely unstable … one bad relationship or career knockback away from collapsing back into drug addiction or worse.’ Although the person claims that they ‘really quite like [Brand]‘, it perhaps never occurs to them that one of the reasons that Brand might be ‘unstable’ is just this sort of patronising faux-transcendent ‘assessment’ from the ‘left’ bourgeoisie. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.
Where to go from here? It is first of all necessary to identify the features of the discourses and the desires which have led us to this grim and demoralising pass, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent – and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement. I think there are two libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about. They call themselves left wing, but – as the Brand episode has made clear – they are many ways a sign that the left – defined as an agent in a class struggle – has all but disappeared. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve just returned from a get-together with some old comrades – in a couple of cases (well, three to be exact), people I’ve known more or less since first getting involved with the serious left in the early-to-mid seventies. It dawned on me that as well as being comrades they’re some of my oldest and closest friends. And one of them, at least, I rate amongst the most admirable and principled people I’ve ever known.
I also learned a new (well, new to me) sectarian song that some readers might enjoy:
Unite and the Collins Report
By Jim Kelly, Chair, London & Eastern Region, Unite (personal capacity)
Above: Len McCluskey
Just as the Falkirk affair was put to bed, we were faced with a much bigger challenge; Miliband’s call to individualise party membership and end (or severely downgrade) the link between unions and Party. Unions from the GMB to USDAW are united against it, while the UL (The United Left group within Unite, who have a majority on the union’s Executive -JD) met and voted 60 to 1 to oppose it. There is a majority both within the unions and Party to maintain the link. So while it would be a major defeat for the unions if Miliband’s reforms were to go through as is, this will only happen if we support change, or if unions are divided. Unions have almost half the votes at Labour’s conference, the more unified we are the firmer we are about the dangers of Miliband’s position the less damaging will be any changes. The precondition for getting the best possible outcome is a united approach by all unions.
Within all of this I am unsure as to Len’s position. I thought his presentation to the Unite delegation at LP conference at our first meeting was a little subdued and appeared to me to say we are up for trading influence on structures for policy shifts from Miliband. I hear he made a rousing speech defending the link at the Mirror fringe meeting, which many of us could not get in to, after Kenny’s tub thumping “no surrender” speech on the Monday. Yet he has welcomed Miliband’s proposals and along with other comrades, has argued `… the link is not working’; although true, the main reason it is broken is largely down to the unions and it can be mended.
Just this week Len is reported as saying, at the Jimmy Reid Commemoration Lecture that we would fund Labour in 2015, regardless of affiliation numbers.
More importantly while we can all agree with Miliband that we should aim for a mass party, it is only the spin Miliband puts on building a mass membership that demands an ending or downgrading the link. Keeping the Link as is, and building a mass party are in no way mutually exclusive. So the argument about the Link not working and the idea you cannot have the Link and a mass party simply does not stack up.
Ending of the Labour – union link or its downgrading is the most important issue the movement has faced in many decades.
The link is so important to us because, apart from collective bargaining, the only, way unions can progress members’ interests is through Parliament by extending legal support for workers. The only party in a position to perform this role is the Labour Party. For any union, regardless of the political character of its leadership, that leadership’s duty is to press Labour to support worker friendly legislation.
So change does not support unions’ immediate interests. A reformed party would also be another milestone in the disintegration of the labour movement, marking a further step in the direction of neo-liberalism. Politics like nature abhors a vacuum and removing the unions’ collective voice has been the long-term goal of sections of the right, which many want to fill it by a merger with sections of the Liberal Party, forming a left of centre party of do-gooders (Guardian readers). Only a fantasist would believe that out of such a defeat a new workers party will spring from the ashes.
If we want to try to reach an agreement with Miliband, and I think it is essential the unions do, it could include his proposal to encourage individual levy-payers to opt into a form of individual membership provided that:
1. The collective voice of Unite and other unions continue to be represented – allowing our representatives to speak at every level within the party structure on behalf of the whole membership, representing the policies and aspirations of the union as decided through our democratic processes.
2. The level of representation and votes to which the union is entitled is sustained at the current level, and is not dependent on recruiting any particular number of individual members.
3. The union is not required to make any changes to our rule book as a condition of continued affiliation to and support for the Labour Party.
The union should respond to the Collins interim report consistently with these principles, which should also serve as our bottom line in any discussions with the party leadership.
Finally, we should not accept the proposal to introduce primaries as a basis of selecting Labour candidates for public office. Our members who support the Labour Party should be able to participate in these selections on the basis that they contribute financially to the Labour Party, as should individual members of the Labour Party., There is no support from any quarter of the Labour movement (other than the Blairites in their mis-named organisation Progress) to involve people in these selection who do not support the party and who do not make a financial contribution to it.
The last London TULO was informed that Alan Olive, the Labour Organiser in London, will be running trial primaries in Croydon South in March next year. When Unite and GMB pointed out that this pre- empted the Collins Report and was outside the Rule Book he simply ignored our opposition. I am unaware if this issue was raised at the London Labour Board meeting, but it is a signal the apparatchiks’, as opposed to Progress, intent to push ahead with attacks on our collective participation in the party regardless of any agreement on the Collins Report.
Silencing a working class voice in politics has been the dream of the rich and powerful since the Chartists and then the formation of the party, Unite should defend our voice in the Labour Party with no fudging. The UL should pursue these points both through the regional structure and ensue they are endorsed by the EC.
RIP Norman Geras,
25 Aug 1942 – 18 Oct 2013
It shouldn’t have come as any surprise: after all, he’d warned us in so many words, that he was headin’ for the last round-up. But it was still a shock today, when the news came through – it felt like losing a a best friend or even a family member with an illness that you’d known all along could only have one ending. This despite the fact that we’d never properly met and only ever corresponded by email or via his occasional BTL comments here.
I will be writing more in days to come about this complex, inspiring human being. His pioneering blog, brim-full of gentle humour and searing honesty, remains as a permanent memorial. But for now, I’ll simply recommend Nick Cohen’s heartfelt tribute at the Spectator‘s website…
… and play some jazz (a shared enthusiasm, though Norm loved all sorts of music, including – to my horror - country ‘n’ western):
This version of ‘Ghost of A Chance’ recorded by tenorist Illinois Jacqet in 1968 was Norm’s gift to me, when I had the honour of being the subject of one of his many ‘profiles’ of fellow-bloggers. I’m playing it now, and thinking of him.
NB: http://normfest.org/ – well worth a visit, and you can leave a message there as well.
Above: Chief Petty Officer Ralph Miliband, defending bourgeois democracy in WW2
The Daily Heil‘s filthy, lying smears against Ralph Miliband may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging people to look into the life, thought and writings of this remarkable man. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only ever read his most famous book, Parliamentary Socialism, but now intend to read as much as I can of his other writings and have already ordered a copy of his debate with Marcel Liebman, The Israel Dilemma.
I’ve also visited the Marxists’ Internet Archive and found a most informative 1995 appreciation by Leo Panitch that emphasises Ralph’s democratic and pluralist credentials, and also points out that even during his lifetime, he was smeared in much the same way that the Heil has just done:
Miliband was not spared the denigration himself. A few months after his critique of the new revisionism appeared, a letter to the editor appeared in The Guardian by John Keane, in response to an op-ed piece Miliband had written calling for a new socialist party in the wake of the defeat and marginalisation of the Labour Left. ‘Readers of [Miliband’s] theoretical works will know that he is an old-fashioned class reductionist and no friend of democratic pluralism. In practice, his class and party-centred perspective would reproduce the worst features of vanguardist politics: especially its authoritarianism, machismo, implicit racism, and pro-Soviet prejudices.’ It was a sad commentary on how far the level of intellectual debate in Britain (and not only in Britain) had sunk in certain circles that Miliband, who famously stood in the state debate against the reduction of state power to class power, and who had undertaken (beginning with his to well-known essay on The State and Revolution in The Socialist Register 1970) the most consistent criticism on the British Left of the undemocratic facets of Lenin’s writings and practice, should have been so traduced in this fashion by one of the new ‘civil society’ theorists.
Even leaving aside the venality of the attempt to tar Miliband with racism, etc., it was no less scurrilous to taint him with pro-Soviet prejudices: here was a Marxist who had never joined a Communist Party, or any vanguard party, who had opposed the invasion of Hungary as a young man, and who in his maturity had not only opposed the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan but had used it as an occasion (in his Military Intervention and Socialist Internationalism, the lead essay in The Socialist Register 1980) not just to deplore all such military interventions by Communist regimes (including the Vietnamese in Cambodia) but to undertake what has been called the ‘first notable attempt’ to theorize the international relations between unevenly developed socialist countries. Miliband’s long-standing personal litmus test for whether the reform of Soviet-style regimes was genuine was whether he would be allowed to start an association for the abolition of capital punishment in such regimes. (’Do you know why they have no cafés there?’ he asked me on his return from a visit to Russia. ‘Central Planning, of course,’ I replied. ‘Don’t be silly’, he said. ‘Cafés are where revolutions are hatched.’)
To appreciate just how unfair Keane’s attack was it is worth recalling that Ralph chose the following sentences to conclude his most important book, Marxism and Politics:
“Regimes which do, either by necessity or choice, depend on the suppression of all opposition and the stifling of all civic freedoms must be taken to represent a disastrous regression, in political terms, from bourgeois democracy, whatever the economic and social achievements of which they may be capable … [T]he civic freedoms which, however inadequately, form part of bourgeois democracy are the product of centuries of unremitting popular struggles. The task of Marxist politics is to defend these freedoms and to make possible their enlargement by the removal of their class boundaries.”
It was Ralph’s commitment to this kind of socialism that sustained him to the end of his life. In 1981 Ralph helped found the Socialist Society as an organisation devoted to socialist education and research. Unlike some of the other intellectuals involved, Ralph helped build the organization, and was a regular and punctual attender of steering committee meetings, no matter how frustrating they sometimes were. He also brought together a small socialist brains-trust which met regularly with Tony Benn, and was active with Benn and Hilary Wainwright in setting up the Chesterfield Socialist Conferences and the Socialist Movement that developed out of them. Yet this was only a continuation of the kind of work Ralph was always involved in, from the Centres for Socialist Education in the mid-1960s to the Marxist study centres he founded when he moved to Yorkshire in the 1970s. His commitment to developing the socialist intellectual community outside the cloisters of academe had never weakened.
This excellent article makes many of the same points as a spirited piece in today’s Graun by Ralph’s biographer Michael Newman.
So you never know: the Heil‘s filthy smear may serve a useful purpose if it encourages more people to seek out the true beliefs of this remarkable and admirable human being.
Comrade Coatesy republishes his own 1994 obituary/review for Labour Briefing, here
Recommended: some very informative stuff from Poumista: http://poumista.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/ralph-miliband-democrat-and-anti-fascist/
By Martin Thomas (at the Workers Liberty website):
Two and a half months’ debate: socialism or vote-catching?
Over the next two and a half months, a fundamental debate will be run among some hundreds of left activists, most of them at present politically homeless and looking for a way forward.
At the founding conference on 30 November of the Left Unity group, the main debate will be between the “Left Party Platform” (LPP), proposed by Kate Hudson and others, and the “Socialist Platform” (SP), proposed by Nick Wrack, Soraya Lawrence, Will McMahon, Chris Strafford, Cat Rylance, and others.
Former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker, now a member of the SWP-splinter ISN, explains his support for the LPP in these terms: “The Left Party Platform stands explicitly in the ‘European Left Party’ tradition, encompassing parties like Greece’s Syriza, Germany’s Die Linke, Portugal’s Left Bloc, France’s Front de Gauche…
“We’re told that it’s a statement that almost anyone to the left of Labour could agree with. Yes — exactly! That’s the point!” The LPP’s proposed political basis is, as Walker puts it, “inclusive of socialism”, but not explicitly socialist.
The (rather manipulative, but also very unrealistic) philosophy behind this approach is that masses of people can be inveigled into left-wing politics, or at least into voting for a new leftish electoral effort, by offering them something just a bit to the left of Labour but vague enough not to startle them.
The SP people, some of whom have in the past been involved in other projects based on a similar philosophy (Respect, TUSC, etc.), declare, on the contrary, that any worthwhile left-wing project must clearly declare itself socialist and working-class from the start, and look to building up through patient activity to convince working-class people rather than catchpenny schemes for instant electoral glory.
The SP met on 14 September in London. It was a difficult meeting, but we got through it. The scene is now set for arguing the issues among people attracted to Left Unity over the next two and a half months.
The core numbers are not large. So far the LPP has 140 signatories and the SP 106. At its national coordinating meeting on 7 September Left Unity was told by a central organiser, Andrew Burgin, that LU membership “ran into hundreds”. No more precise figure could be elicited, despite the story from the Burgin camp in LU that LU can quickly become a British equivalent of Syriza or Die Linke.
Even those hundreds include some who are not activists, but have just clicked on a website to pay a nominal amount. But there are said to be another 9,000 who have clicked on the Left Unity website to express some level or another of interest. The challenge facing the SP is to reach out to them.
Some people at the 14 September meeting spoke about that. Ruth Cashman of Lambeth LU said that so far the LPP has been able to build an image of being more “outward-looking” than the SP. As well as arguing the general issues, SP supporters should argue in their LU groups for practical and principled proposals for week-to-week activity. Matt Hale of Sheffield LU spoke about the need to link up with trade-union struggles.
Most of the time was taken up with other things. The meeting opened with a wrangle about rival agendas. It then debated a proposal, put jointly by the Weekly Worker group and Ian Donovan (ex-member of the WW group, and ex-member of many other groups too), to expel AWL members from the SP on the grounds that we are “pro-imperialist”!
The quality of their bill of indictment can be judged from the fact that it included the claim that the AWL supports the USA bombing Syria. The issue of Solidarity on sale at that very meeting carries a headline: “Against US bombs” [in Syria].
Replying to the WW/ Donovan proposal, Ruth Cashman pointed out that only a couple of months ago Tina Becker of the WW group had proposed to her, Ruth, that AWL and WW cooperate in starting a left platform within Left Unity. This report caused outcry among the WW people, subsiding into the claim that it was just “something said in a pub”.
If only the WW arguments had reached the level of drunken pub gossip…
WW had made an all-out mobilisation for the meeting, but their proposal was defeated by 28 votes against the 15 they had from themselves and some ex-members like Donovan.
Some time was then taken up with amendments from WW to the Socialist Platform text. The meeting had already decided only to discuss and take “indicative” votes on these, since it is scarcely practicable to amend the platform on which the political battle is being fought in Left Unity midway through the process to the November conference.
Most of the amendments were literary and textual, and some unobjectionable. I and others abstained in the vote on most of them. One amendment did help, by sparking a little discussion on Europe.
The next major round of elections in Britain, May 2014, includes the European Parliament elections. The RMT and some of the left (SP) will probably push a “No2EU” slate again, as in 2009. UKIP will be prominent. The SWP and the Socialist Party will be vowing that they will vote for “Britain out” if the much-talked-about referendum on EU membership comes.
Refreshingly, no-one in the Socialist Platform meeting dissented from the argument that a capitalist Britain outside the EU is no advance on a semi-united capitalist Europe; that a capitalist Europe with newly-raised barriers between nations is a step backwards even from a bureaucratically semi-united capitalist Europe; that our answer to the bureaucratically semi-united capitalist Europe is not to seek a break-up into walled-off nation-states, but to strive, through cross-border workers’ unity, and a common struggle to level up standards, towards a workers’ united Europe.
Left Unity has a “policy workshop conference” (a non-voting affair) in Manchester on 28 September, and a caucus there will be the next get-together of SP supporters. The main task in the next two and a half months is to get life into the local LU groups and argue the case that nothing less than explicitly socialist and working-class politics can serve as a response to the current turmoil of capitalism.
•The Socialist Platform: what it is, and how to sign up for it
•How to join Left Unity and register for the 30 November conference
•Nick Wrack explains the Socialist Platform
•Click here for Pete McLaren’s report (as ever, comprehensive and careful) from Left Unity’s 7 September National Coordinating Group meeting.
•Documents from when the WW group flipped out in 2008, accusing AWL of favouring an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran.
Above: soldiers carry the body of Allende, wrapped in a poncho
By Cathy Nugent (from the Workers Liberty website)
On 11 September 1973, a bloody military coup in Chile ousted the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende. Allende was killed defending the Presidential Palace during the coup.
Workers in the factories attempted to defend themselves against the military attacks — but they were not sufficiently organised or sufficiently armed, to stop the onslaught.
The military regime of General Pinochet which followed tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of working-class militants and political activists.
Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition government was elected in 1970. The two main parties were the pro-Moscow Communist Party and Allende’s Socialist Party. Allende considered himself a Marxist.
The Chilean Communist Party had a stagist strategy for achieving socialism in Latin American countries. The first stage was for the workers to defeat the “reactionary feudal sector”, forming an alliance with the “progressive” national bourgeoisie. Then the workers’ movement would proceed to a struggle for socialism.
Yet by 1970 Chile was a fully bourgeois society. Even if there had been an important economic distinction between landlords and capitalists, politically the ruling class as a whole was united against working class or struggle.
The Socialist Party was nominally Marxist. In 1973 the overthrow of the capitalist state was still party policy, but not a policy that the party adhered to in practice.
The Popular Unity government came to power on a wave of radicalisation in 1970, boosted by dissatisfaction with a mild reform programme of a Christian Democrat government. Allende promised more.
The Popular Unity government believed Chilean economic development should take place without reliance on aid, loans or investment from abroad, particularly the United States. It stood in the tradition of the 1938 -1946 Chilean “Popular Front” government of the Radical Party, supported by the Communist Party and the Socialist Party.
Popular Unity’s reforms were far-reaching. By 1973 about 40% of land had been expropriated and turned into smaller plots and co-operatives. Copper and nitrate mines were nationalised, as were the banks and many smaller industries. The government intended to compensate the capitalists but could not afford it! Many nationalisations were on the initiative of the workers.
From day one the US State Department, headed by Henry Kissinger, funded the military and right-wing opposition to Popular Unity. The 1973 coup was actively backed by the CIA.
By 1972 Popular Unity began to be destabilised: the US withdrew credit; financial speculation was rife; agricultural productivity was low; wage strikes continued right through to 1973.
This led to economic crisis and crippling inflation which by 1972 had generated a middle-class and bourgeois reaction threatening the existence of the government.
Instead of building on the mass working-class support for its policies, the government grew less inclined to make concessions to the workers.
In May 1972 a demonstration in Concepcion in support of further nationalisation, was fired upon by cabineros acting on the orders of the Communist Party mayor.
Instead of acting against the Chilean financiers, the government encouraged wage “restraint” in order to “conquer” inflation.
Allende believed a loyal “constitutional” majority among the officers would not allow a military coup.
In August 1972 the government sent in the police against a shopkeepers’ strike in Santiago to try to get them to open up (many of them had been hoarding and conducting black market trading). This prompted violence from the fascist opposition.
In October 1972 the truck owners went on strike against a proposed state-controlled truck company. The strike spread to many other small businesses. In Parliament the opposition tried to impeach four government ministers.
During the middle-class strikes the Chilean workers tried to keep the factories operating, to defend the government and to try to stop the worsening of shortages. But Allende did not build on this support.
Workers’ councils known as cordones were formed in several areas of the country. They saw their goal as keeping production going during the crisis, and defending the gains the workers had won under Allende.
Armed detachments were organised to meet the right-wing threat but were nowhere near widespread enough to save the Chilean workers from the savagery of the army.
Large sections of the Socialist Party supported the cordones, but the Communist Party was very hostile to them, seeing them as a challenge to their hegemony in the trade unions.
In the March 1973 legislative elections, Popular Unity increased its share of the vote to 45% (from 36% in 1970). By May the right was out in force on the streets
Now the miners struck against the withdrawal of the sliding scale of wages. Under this system — won in the first months of the government — wages were pegged to inflation and would rise automatically with the cost of living.
An attempted coup led by a rebel section of the military took place in June 1973. It was not supported by the whole of the military, only because they had not yet fully formulated their policy.
The government still enjoyed massive support amongst the working class. Only five days before the final coup a million people demonstrated in Santiago to celebrate the third anniversary of Allende’s election.
In the event, apart from small armed detachments of workers, the Chilean proletariat was defeated with minimal fighting and then subjected to a terrible butchering.
There followed 16 years — until 1989, when the junta was forced into an election — of the viciously anti-working class Pinochet government.
Marxist socialists have had many debates about the lessons of the coup. They have pointed out that Allende’s refusal to arm the workers was decisive in the defeat of the working class. This is true. But it was only the last act in a tragedy at the core of which was the Popular Unity government’s decision to try to conciliate the capitalists, trying to convince them to go along with its reforms.
As the elected government, the UP thought they had the power — the armed forces. That is why they did not arm the workers. They learned that when it came to it, the capitalists, not parliamentary democracy, had the ultimate loyalty of the armed forces.
The working class of Chile paid for Allende’s weakness, confusion and vacillation with many tens of thousands of proletarian lives.
The new Library of Birmingham: rubbish outside (above); magical inside (below)
To the opening ceremony of the new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square today: an occasion made all the more powerful by the superb choice of anti-fascist Malala Yousefai to do the deed. In an inspirational speech, emphasising the emancipatory power of books and learning, Malala brought forth laughter by calling us (and herself) “broomies” – oh well, she hasn’t yet had time to pick up the accent. For the record, she called Brum her “second home” after “my beloved Pakistan.”
The new building itself is superb in every respect, except its outer appearance, which is a gigantic, square and over-decorated cake. The interlocking ornate circles on the outside are, supposedly, intended to represent Birmingham’s history of metalwork and jewellery manufacture. Unfortunately they weren’t manufactured in Brum or the Black Country, but in Switzerland.
Frankly, I think the “old” (ie: previous) library, designed by the now almost-forgotten modernist John Madin and completed in 1974, is a much more handsome building, and I’d been hoping it would be retained and given a new role. Sadly, I overheard Birmingham Council’s Deputy Leader Ian Ward today, telling someone that it’s going to be demolished.
But enough carping: once you’re inside, this is, indeed, a “people’s palace,” as architect Francine Houben of designers Mecanno, describes it. It includes everything you’d expect of a modern library (ie “an open information hub for the City”), plus a “library within a library” for children, massive archives accessible to the public, elevated gardens with stunning views of the city, and -right at the top- the reconstructed 1882 Shakespeare Memorial Room with Europe’s most extensive collection of Shakespearian manuscripts and Shakespeare-related literature.
This is, truly, a “people’s palace” and credit is due to Council / Labour Group leader Albert Bore (someone I’ve had clashes with in the past) and the Labour leadership of Birmingham City Council, who drove the project forward against Tory opposition at local and national level.
But this is likely to be the last such civic project in the UK for the foreseeable future. With the present cuts and the emasculation of local government finance by the Coalition, the idea of another £189m public project like this would now be unthinkable.
So why the hell was Tory / Coalition Minister for Culture Ed Vaisey invited to attend and speak at the opening ceremony?
Above: Max Shachtman
From the Workers Liberty website:
This speech was made by Max Shachtman soon after the famous March on Washington for civil rights of 28 August 1963, and appeared in New America, the paper of the Socialist Party (USA), on 24 September 1963.
It is not the revolutionary Shachtman of the 1940s and early 50s, but the call for an alliance with the labour movement is interesting and valuable.
The superb demonstration for civil rights has come to its grandiose conclusion, as you know. And we of the Socialist Party are immensely proud and gratified over its spectacular triumph.
Not because we invented this movement, not because we led this movement – we did not; but because its triumph is our triumph, as it is that of all people who cherish freedom, democracy, and human equality. Every achievement in this fight for human rights is, as we see it, a milestone on the road to that complete socialist democracy which at once our ideal and our political goal.
Our pride is sustained by the thought that today and tomorrow, as from the beginning, we have been supporters, firm and without reservation, of the civil rights movement and of its goal. I say firm and without reservation – and also without partisan interest or concern. We socialists have no “instructions”, or as they say nowadays, “directives”, to give the civil rights movement.
We shun such a role, in the first place. And in the second place, we have no criticism to make of a movement that has achieved so brilliant a record of success in mobilising millions, literally millions, in struggles all over the nation.
The spokesmen for the March were united in proclaiming it, at Lincoln Memorial, as only a beginning. And with the end of the March, the question naturally rises: What next?
We socialists are obliged to be true to ourselves. We are a political organisation. Politics is our means. It is our justification for existence. And I want to confine my remarks to nothing than an explanation, an explanation, of how we see the political strategy that can under these difficult circumstances multiply and speed the goal that we socialists and the civil rights movement seek in common.
The demonstrations and the battles that preceded it as surely as they will follow it have been superb, as I said, and as you well know. Now, after seven years of this brave American movement, it is time to draw up some provisional balance sheets, at the least.
What have been the results? What have been the results of this cry from the bottom of the hearts of millions of people who for a century have waited so patiently?
We now have the civil rights bill sponsored by the Administration limping along in Congress. We have many friendly statements which were not forthcoming until the Negro people in this country began to put on the pressure, the statements from the most respectable circles of this country.
There has been a little integration in the South, a little. Some airports are now available to absorb the masses of Negroes who travel by plane. There are some golflinks the large majority of Negro people can play on, just as you and I. There are some restaurants where we can have a quick coca-cola. Some jobs have been given to Negroes here and there, that’s all, just a few here and a few there. And a few other things – a very few other things.
It is very considerable, I would say, as compared with what was the status quo several years ago. But it is still trivial in comparison with both the need and the aspiration. And that is the problem.
The other day I read a report in the New York Times from Los Angeles about the activity of the civil rights movement there. The civil rights movements, organisations, are combined there, as in many places, into what is called the Civil Rights Committee. It has, as do so many other civil rights organisations, an employment committee, which is headed by a man named Eugene Franklin, according to the report.
Upon being questioned by the reporter from the Times on what progress has been made, he says, “Oh yes. Everybody’s issuing policy statements supporting us. But we haven’t put any people to work yet”.
Now, I want deliberately to exaggerate without caricaturing the reality. And say that everything – I’m exaggerating, but not by much – everything depends upon jobs.
The living standards of the Negro, unspeakably and abominably low, depend on jobs. For the Negro in particular, access to whatever educational facilities there are especially in the higher categories, depends on jobs, not on poverty.
The facilities that are available for medical care and housing – if you can call the dismal quarters reserved for most Negroes “housing” today – depend on jobs. The power which almost every group in the country has utilised to advance its interests requires the economic power is given to you by work, by jobs, by important jobs, by necessary jobs, by indispensable jobs, so that you can withdraw your power in order to enforce your demands. To the greatly underemployed Negro mass, this power is not sufficiently available without jobs.
I do not want to speak extensively on that subject that will be dealt with elsewhere, but I want to go to the next aspect of it.
Jobs, in turn, depend upon the state of the economy. You may be for jobs and I may be for jobs, but if the economy is not working, even to the extent that our dubious prosperity under American capitalism allows it to work, there will be no jobs.
There will be no jobs for the “superior” people, and if there are no jobs for the “superior” people, there will certainly be no jobs for the “inferior” people.
And the economy is in terrible shape. We are lagging behind this country, we are told, and we are lagging behind that country. In fact, sometimes the world seems to be divided between the US and the countries it is lagging behind. That’s how it is in a wealthy country like this, in an unimaginably wealthy country like this, where continual mass unemployment is made even weightier by the number of resolutions and promises to liquidate it which do not change the number of unemployed. And here’s where I see politics come in.
All important steps of progress in the US today, in so far as they depend upon government enactments, government initiatives, are stalled today, as yesterday, by the existence of the power of the great anonymous party in the US. That anonymous party which, though it submits no candidates formally to the electorate, is known more popularly – popularly? no, it is known more widely – as the Dixiecrat-Republican coalition.
It is not the whole evil in this country, but it is one of the most poisonous roots of the evil in this country. It is the prop, in turn of our two traditional big political parties in the US. It is the prop, in its own way, of the Administration and of the official opposition.
And existing side by side with it is an unutilised power of immense proportions, the political power of the Negro people in the US. This is not just 10% of the population, that statistic tells us nothing. It is a very important 10%, because it is a concentrated 10%.
It is 10% in the nation. But while it is not 10% in Wyoming, it is almost 50% in NY. It is not 10% of Kansas, of all such states which do not have such great importance, but it is 25% of Chicago, it is a third or so of St Louis, and so on and so forth throughout the country in the most important political and economic centres.
It is a concentrated political power, and in many centres it can be the balance of political power.
I’d like to see, if I may intrude on this subject, I would like to see the Negro people in this country, starting with a few who speedily become the great number, become imbued with an active consciousness of their tremendous political power in American society, and of how greatly all political decisions made in this country are dependent on this power and how it is exercised. And I would like to see the adoption of a political strategy by the civil rights movement, and not by it alone, which starts by putting forth as its main slogan – not the only one, but the main slogan for the present period: Drive the Dixiecrats out of power in the United States!
I have my radical moments, you know, and I would go even further. I would say: drive them out of politics altogether. But I know that’s a very radical idea and I won’t insist on it.
I heard the Dixiecrat spokesman on TV in the very midst of the demonstration at Lincoln Memorial, a person whose name I don’t like to mention in polite and civilised society. He says he find nothing wrong in the country. Not that he has any prejudices against Negroies, but there’s nothing wrong, they enjoy the greatest freedom of any people in the entire world. Now, that man has a unman form, more or less, but since he is not a civilised person he should be removed from the field of politics. For by his own admission he does not understand the first thing about what is happening in this country, and a statesman or a representative has no right to occupy a public office unless he understands at least the first thing about what’s going on in the country. Drive the Dixiecrats out of power!
Now you may say: them alone? No. But from my teachers I learned the great, profound socialists and agricultural truth: every season has its vegetable. This season – drive the Dixiecrats out of power. If you succeed, and to the extent you succeed, in driving them out of power, you have broken the backbone of the Dixiecrat-Republican coalition. In itself, it is small. But due to the constellation of political forces in this country, it presents an enormous obstacle to all forms of social progress in this country.
Without the Dixiecrats, the Republicans, from the populous states of the Mid-west, from the mountains and from the deserts and from the rivers and all the other important population centres, have no significant political power in this country.
To smash the Dixiecrats will not only break the power of the coalition, it will break the backbone, as I understand it, of what is called, and this is the popular sociological term today, the power structure – I never heard this stuff when I was a kid, but it’s mighty popular now – it will break the backbone of the power structure in the United Startes. Its success will lift us all onto a new stage of political revolution in the land.
You may well ask: what about the North? There are no pronounced, conspicuous, influential Dixiecrats there. That’s true. But there are people who are in the same party as Dixiecrats. They are no Dixiecrats, they’re civilised people. But their civilisedness is kept under extreme control. They say: “We have our differences with our Southern brothers; they are Democrats of one kind, we of another; we cannot be held responsible for them, and on occasion we vote differently from them”.
To every political spokesman in the North must be put the question, and not in too polite a way – no, that sounds too bad; in a polite way, in a polite and insistent and unintermittent way – not the question: Do you differ with the Dixiecrat? but: Will you break with the Dixiecrats? Will you repudiate the Dixiecrats? Will you isolate the Dixiecrats? Will you help drive the Dixiecrats out of power? Or are your promises about liberalism, about which we have heard so much – white liberalism, and, if I may say so without offence, black liberalism – just so many nice words? Read the rest of this entry »