In defence of Little Israel – an interview with Michael Walzer

January 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm (Champagne Charlie, Cross-post, Human rights, israel, Middle East, secularism)

Cross-posted from Bicom‘s website. Interview conducted by Bicom’s director,  Alan Johnson.

Michael Walzer is co-editor of  Dissent. Since 1980 he has been a member of the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His books include Just and Unjust Wars, Spheres of Justice, Arguing About War and Politics and Passion: Towards a More Egalitarian Liberalism. The interview took place on 20 January 2012.

Part 1: Jewish state / state for all citizens

ALAN JOHNSON: Can Israel be both a ‘national homeland for the Jewish people’ and a ‘state for all its citizens’?

MICHAEL WALZER: ‘Homeland’ has been an ambiguous phrase ever since the Balfour Declaration. Israel is not the state of the Jewish people; Jews outside Israel don’t vote in its elections and non-Jews inside Israel do vote in its elections. The Jewish people are not sovereign in Israel; the citizens of Israel are sovereign there.

I think there is a sense in which Israel, I mean green line Israel, is right now politically a state of all its citizens. The real difficulties are not political, they are cultural, and they arise in every nation state. Minority groups do not find themselves present in, or supported, by the state-supported culture. That is a problem in every nation state that has national minorities. I don’t think that Israel has dealt with it badly considering the circumstances in which it has had to deal with it – the circumstances that Alexander Yakobson describes in his piece, of continual conflict with its Arab neighbours. Compare, say, the treatment of German-Americans during World War One or of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, and you would have to say that Israel has actually done pretty well—despite continuing patterns of discrimination.

But this issue of minority rights needs more discussion. Talking about it, I always like to use the relatively innocuous example of Norway, which seceded from Sweden in the very early twentieth century in order to defend its ‘Norweigenness’. The Norwegian state is a little engine for the reproduction of ‘Norweigenness,’ and a minority group like the Letts in the North do not find themselves included in or supported by that state project. I don’t think there is any remedy for that except full political equality – and then the minority groups can organise their own associations and support themselves. I don’t think that is oppressive. I don’t think the nation-state is a political formation that we need to transcend. We need to defend political equality within it, but the notion that the Greeks or the Finns or the French don’t have the right to create a state that sustains and celebrates and promotes their history and culture – I think that is a mistaken view. And if the Greeks, the Finns and the French have that right then so do the Jews.

JOHNSON: Some people would say there is a tension between the Jewish character of the state and the aspiration to be ‘a state for all its citizens.’ They point to the desire to retain a Jewish majority and suggest that is part of the explanation of, for example, last week’s rejection by the Israeli Supreme Court of the appeal against the Citizenship Law. So we end up with a situation in which Israeli Arabs who marry a Palestinian from the West Bank can’t bring their spouse to Israel, the spouse can’t become an Israeli citizen, and so the couple can’t have a family life in Israel. Some say this is the result of the desire to be a ‘Jewish homeland’ and preserve a Jewish majority cuts across what we would think of as equal citizenship rights. What do you say to this?

WALZER: Yeah, that’s a bad law and I think that liberal and left forces in Israel will oppose it and one day repeal it. But the desire to sustain a majority is, again, characteristic of every nation-state. Look, one of the most extraordinary features of American political history is that the Anglo-Americans, the English settlers here, who certainly thought they were creating an English nation-state, allowed themselves, with some resistance and resentment, to become a minority in what they thought was their own country. This is one of the uncelebrated but most distinctive features of American history. But it’s not going to happen anywhere else. It could only happen in an immigrant society that wasn’t a homeland. It’s not going to happen in France. The French are not going to allow themselves to become a minority in France, or the Danes in Denmark. It’s not going to happen. And if their majority status is ever threatened, they will respond with measures that will be illiberal. Unless you want to abolish the nation-state, you have to live with majorities and minorities and work hard to ensure that political equality, and I would add economic equality, are features of these societies.

Part 2: Current developments

JOHNSON: Many perceive serious challenges to that kind of political equality in Israel society right now. They worry about attacks on citizenship rights, women’s position in society, racism against minorities, attacks on media independence and the independence of the Judiciary. Why are these developments happening now?

WALZER: First of all, we have to recognise that Israel has the most right-wing government it has ever had. The case is similar to America during the second Bush administration. We all said that this was as bad as it had ever been, and that is true of Israel today. Now why is this so? One reason is the virtual collapse of the left—I mean chiefly the security left, the peace movement. That left was undermined by the Gaza withdrawal, the Hamas takeover and the rocket attacks. All this made it enormously difficult to sustain a commitment to the two-state solution and to a withdrawal from the West Bank.

The weakness of the left manifest across all the other issues that arise in Israeli society. There is no coherent social democratic or liberal democratic opposition right now. So the right-wingers are ‘feeling their oats’. They are in a stronger political position than they have ever been in, and it’s possible that they are in a stronger demographic position too. The rate of reproduction of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox population is much higher than the rate of reproduction of the secular Ashkenazi population.

The Russian immigrants – while they would probably join a secular, anti-clerical movement are right now the supporters of right wing politics. So, it looks as if – though some of my Israeli friends dispute this – the proportion of the population committed to the right is growing, and that means that far-right militants feel that they have a free hand at this moment.

JOHNSON: Some people dismiss the seriousness of the threat, often by reference to the Supreme Court which they expect to vote down the controversial Knesset bill as contradictory to Israeli Basic Law. Or they say that what is going on is just politicians playing to their base. Others are deeply worried that a deeper shift is taking place in Israeli society, one that will be difficult to reverse, driven by the demographic shifts you have been talking about, and also by the legacy of the second intifada, which has left many Israelis defensive and nationalist. How worried should we be?

WALZER: Well, I am generally in favour of worrying (laughs). I think, especially at a moment like this, that it is a useful exercise because it mobilises emotion and energy on the centre and the left, and we very much need that. So I would take very seriously the threat from illiberal, nationalist right-wing forces, especially so since the security situation is difficult and the old left positions, which I continue to hold, don’t have a lot of resonance politically at this moment.

Part 3: State and civil society

JOHNSON: Moving on to one of those conflicts, there has been a flurry of stories about the Ultra-Orthodox. We have heard of conflicts arising from some ultra-Orthodox expressing and imposing their religious values in the public square. For example, certain bus routes on which women must sit at the back of the bus, or little girls being spat at for their ‘immodest’ dress, and so on. Should progressives argue the ultra-Orthodox should keep their religious values strictly to the private sphere, or do they have the right to express their collective identity and collective life in public space? And if they do, how do we reconcile that right with the rights of others not to be discriminated against? Where should the secular writ run? And what should be its limits?

WALZER: Yes, while I have already said that I thought the national majority in all nation states do have the right to express their history and culture in public spaces, there are restraints on that. What is expressive for one group can’t be repressive for another. And that tension is visible in some of these incidents of ultra-Orthodox militancy.

I also think there are good reasons for the privatisation of religion in Western societies, which have to do with the extent of religious claims to regulate everyday behaviour and with the intensity of religious conflicts in European history. Privatisation was a pragmatic, prudent response to those claims and to that intensity. It made life less dangerous. Today we see a revival of religious claims and of religious intensity, especially in the Middle East, and once again that old prudent response makes a lot of sense. To curtail the expression of religious feelings in public space is probably a good thing to do, if you can do it in a way that permits free association. It’s not that you are ‘domesticating’ religion. You are not confining it to the home. There are associations, synagogues and yeshivas – many public spaces are available to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox that do not constrain the lives of other people.

The ultra-Orthodox in Israel pose a different kind of issue. If there were peace, I am sure there would be a kulturkampf in Israel – a cultural war – which the secularists would probably win, though it might be touch and go for a while. Israel is supporting a population in which a large proportion of whose members live on welfare, don’t work, don’t serve in the army, don’t allow their children to be taught the meaning of democratic citizenship or the history of the country in which they live. It is extraordinary. It is a sign of the strength of Israeli liberalism, or at least of internal Jewish liberalism, or maybe it’s a sign of guilt about not rescuing more Jews from the Holocaust. I don’t know. But I can’t imagine in any other country the carrying of a parasitic population in the way this one is carried in Israel. And I don’t think that it can be sustained for long, given their growing numbers.

JOHNSON: Are there ultra-Orthodox who understand this and are searching for alternatives?

WALZER: Yes. Some are trying hard to push a much greater portion, especially of their young men, into the economy, to provide vocational training which they don’t get when all they are studying is the Talmud. And there are secular Jews also trying to do that, partly because they want to cut the state’s welfare expenditure.

JOHNSON: Nadav Eyal, in this series, has argued that these controversial Knesset proposals are the death-throes of a failed project. We all speak today as Labour used to speak, not as Likud used to speak. We are all for two-states. He writes: ‘the right wing is not winning, it is withering. We are witnessing the convulsive actions of a dead idea. These are true convulsions. Dangerous, perhaps, but they do not mark a victory, but rather a defeat.’ Is there a coherent right-wing project?

WALZER: I don’t think that the support of the two-state solution by people like the Prime Minister reflects a serious ideological transformation on the right. The settler population is growing. The militancy of the settler movement has intensified. And the prospect of a withdrawal enforced by the IDF grows more and more dim. The country is moving, maybe drifting is the right word, towards a one-state solution, and there are people on the right who have embraced that because they believe that they will be able to control this state. The dream of a Greater Israel with a Jewish majority depends in part on the exclusion of Gaza, which then postpones the moment when the Jewish majority will be threatened. And I suspect many people on the far-right believe that in a Greater Israel controlled by an assertive Jewish majority, many Palestinians will leave voluntarily or can be more or less gently pushed out. I think that is what is inside their heads. And I find that very worrying. One state either means the end of Israeli democracy or it means the end of the Zionist project – to which I remain committed.

I think there should be a Jewish state. And if this state is to be Jewish and democratic, it has to be Little Israel, because Greater Israel can’t be both Jewish and democratic. I think many on the right do not care much or do not care enough about the values of democracy. In any case, they are deluded about what will be possible in a single state that will encompass an Arab minority of 40% from the beginning. I think of Lebanon and I think of Cyprus. This is a very bad idea! And, yes, the country could be drifting towards its realisation.

Part 4: The Future

JOHNSON: What are the main signs of hope for Israeli democracy?

WALZER: I was in Israel this past summer during the social justice protests – a totally unexpected uprising with a very large social base. It has had difficulty – as have the protests in Spain and other places, in the US too – finding a political expression. The party system at this moment is not congenial. But the protests signalled that there is a base for a left-liberal or social democratic politics. And I also think that the settler militants, the so-called ‘hill-top youth,’ and the ultra-Orthodox militants, have overreached. I think, well, I hope, that there will be an anti-clerical reaction and a return to the old Zionist idea of the ‘negation of the Galut,’ which entails a rejection of the rule of the rabbis. I think or hope that there will be a return of secular politics. I am sure this would happen if there were peace. But it might manifest itself quite strongly even in current conditions. So that is my hope – some combination of the politics of social justice and a Jewish equivalent of the anti-clericalism we saw in Catholic Europe in the late nineteenth century.

H-t: Prof Norm

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When it comes to social justice, trade unions are the only show in town

January 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm (Cross-post, James Bloodworth, solidarity, unions, workers)

By James Bloodworth, cross-posted from Obliged to Offend

Workers at Primark in Northern Ireland have voted overwhelmingly for strike action after the company attempted to impose a pay freeze on its shop staff for the second consecutive year. Primark’s staff are paid just £6.84 an hour, yet in the past two years the company has seen its profits soar to an estimated £644 million. Union reps are meeting next week with strike action in February looking increasingly likely.The fact that a call for industrial action by staff at Primark has made the news at all is testament to how organised workers’ struggle has become something of a rarity in recent times. This is reflected in the trade unions themselves, where there has been a steady decline in members in the last 30 years. Six-and-a-half million people were in a trade union in 2010, down from a peak of around 13 million in the late 1970s. These figures also conceal a large discrepancy between public and private sector membership, with only 14 per cent of private sector employees being members of a union compared with 56 per cent of those in the public sector.

Media superficiality would have it that trade unions are little more than a quaint irrelevancy to 21st century life. The economic downturn has added to the scorn heaped on anyone viewed as rocking the boat by popularising the notion that the burden of the financial crisis is being shared equally. “Get on with it” perhaps best describes the attitude of most of the print media to discontented workers; and in the case of the Primark dispute bosses see nothing wrong with telling staff to meekly accept their lot – despite the fact that there undeniably is a great deal of money swilling around.

This attitude is not confined to the bosses of Primark, either. In Britain’s lightly regulated labour market employers increasingly have the power to do what they want to a degree unthinkable since the First World War. A recent report by the Fair Pay Network (FPN) – a coalition of charities and non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress – and published by the Independent revealed that Britain’s largest supermarket chains are paying their staff poverty wages while making huge profits and raising executives’ salaries.

Not only has years of anti-union rhetoric affected how large companies treat their workers, but it has also had a discernible impact on the Left, which increasingly spurns trade union activity in favour of occupations, protests and flash mobs. The idea of autonomy is at the heart of the tactical switch; and the sacrifice and solidarity of the strike feels grey and outdated compared to the free-for-all of the tent city and the high-octane exertions of the Black Bloc. Little do they realise it, but even today’s protesters have adopted some of the commitmentless individualism of Thatcher-Blairism.

The political assault on trade union activity has been reignited recently, with Boris Johnson, a Mayor elected with the first preferences of just 19 per cent of his electorate, calling for a minimum turnout threshold on industrial action ballots. Others fantasise about going further, openly musing on whether “we” (meaning in reality society’s top 1 per cent) should permit strikes to happen at all.

Scratch an anti-trade union politician, however, and you will find the same contempt for democracy that has in the past lobbied against everything from the right of working people to vote to the right of the poor to receive medical treatment. For many the workplace already remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development(CIPD) found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely “disengaged”, while the remaining third were indifferent.

It is not as if the law as it stands comes down in favour of those democratically withdrawing their labour, either. There is in reality no such thing as the right to strike in law in Britain. Walk-outs are only possible because unions have immunity from any subsequent claims for damages.

Extending democracy beyond the confines of 19th century liberalism will not be done by erecting a tent in one of capitalism’s bustling metropolises, nor by inconveniencing shoppers in Regent Street. It will come through the tireless and unglamorous struggle of those, like the workers at Primark, who realise that by standing together they can claw a little back from those who would make off with everything given half the chance.

Trade unions are by no means perfect, but if the left is to become relevant again it must rediscover the notion that social justice begins at work.

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Stop The War protest flops: good!

January 29, 2012 at 7:22 pm (apologists and collaborators, Jim D, John Rees, Libya, Lindsey German, Middle East, stalinism, SWP, Uncategorized)

The Stop The War Coalition’s protest event outside the US embassy in London on Saturday was, it seems, a wretched affair with barely four hundred people bothering to turn out: good!

The days when Stop The War played a reasonably positive (if popular-frontist) role against the Iraq adventure, are long gone. It shamed itself  when it objectively supported Gaddafi by opposing the Western bombing that helped the rebels overthrow that deranged regime. Its main response to events in Syria has been to denounce the (non existent) possibility of Western intervention, rather than to denounce the barbaric regime of al-Assad and offer any, even verbal, support to the brave rebels.

Now, it is increasingly acting as the unpaid mouthpiece of Tehran, as Lindsey German’s craven performance on ‘Russia Today’ demonstrates:

Did I say “unpaid”? Stop The War’s main man, is of course, a bought-and-paid-for lackey of Tehran (ie: he works for the regime’s ‘Press TV’ channel).  And he doesn’t always sound all that anti-war, either:

Stop The War is now a bunch of  unreconstructed Stalinists, anti-Israel fanatics and degenerate ex-SWP’ers whose main role in life seems to be to defend the clerical-fascist regime in Tehran and its nuclear ambitions.

Not a word of support, of course, for the brave Iranian trade unionists imprisoned and persecuted by the regime.

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Burns Night

January 28, 2012 at 9:38 am (music, Rosie B, scotland, song)

I was out to celebrate Burns Night at the Captain’s Bar, where various performers were doing songs and poems.  Neil Thomson, who was hosting, did a relaxed rendition of Now Westlin’ Winds, (Song Composed in August)- a lovely evocation of late summer.  Here it is sung by Damian Nixon, using Dick Gaughan’s arrangement.

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer

The partridge loves the fruitful fells
The plover loves the mountain
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells
The soaring hern the fountain
Through lofty groves the cushat roves
The path of man to shun it
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush
The spreading thorn the linnet

Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander
Avaunt! Away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion…[more]

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Help save trade unionist Mahdi’s life.

January 28, 2012 at 12:18 am (Civil liberties, Education, Human rights, internationalism, Jim D, LabourStart, Middle East, unions, workers)

Mahdi ‘Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, President of the Bahraini Teachers Association, must be freed from jail.  Now.
                                                Is this email not displaying correctly? View it in your browser.
Free Mahdi now!
Chances are you don’t recognise the man in the photo.
His name is Mahdi ‘Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb.
He’s the president of the Bahraini Teachers Association.
And he’s in jail because of his trade union activities.
Mahdi’s health is rapidly deteriorating and the global union federation for teachers, the Education International, has called for a massive online campaign of protest.
It will take you just a minute or so to send off your message — and it might well save Mahdi’s life.
And then — please forward this message on to your friends, co-workers and fellow trade unionists.

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Nicol Williamson walks off the stage

January 27, 2012 at 8:52 pm (cinema, jazz, Jim D, literature, music, song, theatre, TV, whisky, wild man)

Nicol Williamson, actor. Born 14 September 1938; died 16 December 2011

A wild, erratic talent:

“Nicol Williamson, whose death of oesophageal cancer at the age of 73 has been announced, was arguably the most electrifying actor of his generation, but one whose career flickered and faded like a faulty light fitting. Tall and wiry, with a rasping scowl of a voice, a battered baby face and a mop of unruly curls, he was the best modern Hamlet since John Gielgud, and certainly the angriest, though he scuppered his own performance at the Round House, north London, in 1969, by apologising to the audience and walking off the stage…” The rest of today’s Graun obit here.

Rather eerily, here he is on the Frost On Saturday show (London Weekend TV, circa 1968 at a guess) talking about death…

That was when chat shows didn’t insult your intelligence.

Here’s one of his finest filmed performances, The Bofors Gun (1968, dir: Jack Gold):

Note the young John Thaw and David Hemmings

Finally, as Jack Gold notes in the Graun, “if ever there was a piano handy, he was immediately seated there, singing ballads, blues, rock, jazz. He loved the great musicians and improvisation. I think that, latterly, that is where his heart truly lay.” Listen to him singing I’ve Got The World On A String:

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The union-Labour link and the dead-end of disaffiliation

January 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm (AWL, class, Cross-post, labour party, unions, Unite the union, workers)

Letter to the AWL’s paper Solidarity &  Workers Liberty, by Darren Bedford  

Britain’s biggest union, Unite, “should only fund Labour when it supports [their] policies”, says Jerry Hicks, left challenger in the union’s general secretary election in 2010.

Hicks’s article, which has been doing the rounds in the left “blogosphere”, is full of contempt for Unite leader Len McCluskey, accusing him of hypocrisy in attacking a Labour leader whose election he (along with Unison and the GMB) effectively engineered. Hicks exhorts McCluskey to “Stop wringing your hands, stop moaning and stop funding them!”

A perfectly reasonable line of argument, surely? Why should unions, particularly one with as much potential clout as Unite, give money to a party who — in government or opposition — has helped reinforce the cuts consensus in British politics?

But the problem with Hicks’s approach, and indeed with the entire way in which the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party is understood by almost everyone in the British labour movement (including both the union bureaucracies and the far-left) is that it conceives of the relationship in essentially financial, machine-politics terms.

It is a conception of political engagement consisting essentially in trade unions “buying” political favours from an external political force. If a particular politician or political party doesn’t deliver on the paid-for favours, stop the payments and give the money to someone you expect to do a better job.

This is how unions do politics in America, where there is no labour party (small ‘l’ and ‘p’ deliberate). The funding invariably goes to the Democrats; the unions give them money, and turn out activists to campaign for them, in return for political scraps-from-the-table (or, more frequently, the promise of scraps). There are no channels through which workers, through their unions, can exert direct control or accountability over the Democrats. The relationship is mediated through union bureaucrats (themselves unaccountable) playing machine politics with Democratic senators, congressmen and women, and other officials.

This is undoubtedly how the hardcore New Labourites would like the relationship between their party and the unions to function in this country too. Severing the structural link between the Labour Party and the unions has been a long-held dream of the Blairites, and one that they have only held back from trying decisively to make a reality through a lack of confidence.

Certainly, McCluskey’s hypocrisy should be called out, along with the hypocrisy of Unison’s Dave Prentis and the GMB’s Paul Kenny, who have conducted similar media exercises in macho-posturing (both have talked of “reviewing” their unions’ relationship to Labour).

Their real hypocrisy lies not in their role in getting Miliband elected, but in their roles as part of trade union leaderships that have, at practically every turn, acquiesced to the New Labour machine when they could have stopped it in its tracks. In 2007, when the Labour leaders proposed a raft of anti-democratic reforms to party structure at its Bournemouth conference, union leaders talked a good fight but ended up voting the reforms through.

McCluskey, Prentis and Kenny have absolutely no intention of disaffiliating their unions from Labour. Besides, a summary disaffiliation by unions on these terms, necessarily motivated by a business-unionist complaint that affiliation to the Labour Party was no longer value for money, would be a financial blow for New Labour but a political victory. It would represent the completion of the Blairite project to turn the Labour Party into the US Democrats.

The confusion on this question is widespread; Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka (two of the most left-wing bureaucrats) have toyed with the idea of union funding for Plaid Cymru, SNP and even Lib Dem candidates. Most on the far left would baulk at unions supporting what are clearly straightforwardly pro-capitalist parties, but if your only conception of political engagement is based on buying political favours from the least-bad electoral party, then why not throw some money at Plaid?

After the abject experience of Labour in power, the little-better experience of them in recent opposition and the generation of anti-democratic reform in the party, it’s understandable that even people on the trade union left have internalised and accepted the basis on which union bureaucrats and New Labourites want the Labour-union link to function. But if socialists are to be useful in the fight for genuine working-class political representation, our perspective has to be based on more than knee-jerk cynicism.

Channels for union self-assertion inside the Labour Party are radically different now than they were even 15 years ago, but they still exist. The unions could still exert massive political pressure. They could get radical policy onto the floor of Labour Party conference. They could demand that Labour councils refuse to pass on Tory cuts. Some of what they could do might have a targeted financial element; within a framework of continued affiliation, they might refuse to fund individual MPs and councillors who voted for cuts. The reason the unions have not done these things is not that they are impossible, but that the union leaders lack the political will to do them and rank-and-file union members lack the democratic structures within unions themselves to force them to act.

That list is far from exhaustive, and there are plenty of ways the unions could assert themselves outside the Labour Party too (including backing independent candidates if and when it makes sense, as the RMT, CWU and FBU all did while still affiliated). But the aim is to shift the political terrain, not simply to buy into a “value-for-money” approach to political representation.

The Labour Party is not “reclaimable” in the crude sense suggested by those on the left for whom loyalty to the Labour Party is a religion. In all likelihood, any consistent political self-assertion by unions on anything approaching a radical political basis would precipitate a splintering of the existing Labour Party, with most MPs and the entire New Labour machine decamping (perhaps to merge with the Lib Dems), or pushing through a formal severing of the union link. That potential should not be shied away from; in fact, if it happened as the result of a consistent fight, it would be positively to be welcomed.

Of course, we’re nowhere near that happening now. It would require seismic shifts within the unions themselves and a reinvigoration of independent rank-and-file organisation (something else the left has consistently failed to meaningfully organise for). A perspective of the unions using the existing link to disrupt, subvert and, if necessary, cause a split (rather than hive off one by one) is “blue sky thinking”. But it’s “blue sky thinking” that starts from where we are now and proceeds forwards. The “blue sky thinking” of Hicks — that the unions will disaffiliate, one by one, and give their money to someone else instead — is both less plausible and less desirable.

It would be a step back for working-class political independence, a political gift to New Labour and a reinforcement of the machine politics that both New Labour leaders and union bureaucrats are desperate not to see disrupted.

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Happy birthday Comrade Tatchell

January 25, 2012 at 9:55 am (Civil liberties, good people, Human rights, Jim D, protest)

60 years old today – and 45 years of campaigning.

One of the few figures in British public life who is entirely admirable.

Peter Tatchell attacked by Mugabe security

Above: attacked by Mugabe’s thugs

I can’t better Nick Cohen’s tribute from Sunday’s Observer:

“He lives in some poverty and suffers for his beliefs. As for gay rights, when even the leader of the Conservative party finds it politic to legislate for gay marriage, homosexual liberation appears the most mainstream of causes. Yet Tatchell wants nothing to do with the British political class and the feeling is reciprocated. Rather than showing how yesterday’s rebels become today’s conformists, Tatchell’s life illustrates a rarer and nobler theme: how a commitment to freedom for some can meld seamlessly into a commitment to freedom for all.

“If he were not an atheist, who receives death threats from Islamists, I would say that there is something of the saint about him.”

Read the rest here.

Help fund Peter’s work here.

To quote Nick Cohen again:

“Happy birthday, comrade. If the British are slightly more tolerant than we once were, it is in part because we had the good fortune to have you live amongst us.”

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Walking through ‘Capital’ with David Harvey

January 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm (AWL, capitalism, capitalist crisis, economics, Marxism)

By Martin Thomas of the AWL

David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital may become the most widely-used handbook for studying the great “critique of political economy” which Karl Marx published in 1867.

Harvey’s book has a clear, brisk, and unpretentious style, in contrast to some other guides to Capital thick with lectures on how the author has detected some otherwise-unnoticed complexity in Marx’s argument. It includes frequent, and often useful, comments on contemporary relevance.

It is a write-up from nearly 40 years of almost continuous conduct of study classes and reading groups on Capital; and, in effect, the written version of a popular series of video lectures, based on those 40 years, available online at

The book will also attract readers because of Harvey’s fame as the best-known academic Marxist writer of our days (including on current issues, as in his Brief history of neoliberalism). He is, apparently, the world’s most-cited academic geographer and one of the 20 most-cited authors across the whole field of the humanities.

In London, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is using Harvey’s video lectures as a basis for our current study class on Capital.

Harvey’s exposition of most points in Capital is lucid and unpretentious, and he flags up where his interpretation is controversial without plunging readers into fevers of intra-Marxist debate and long supplementary reading lists. And he is emphatic about the main idea:

“Marx holds up a mirror to our reality in Volume 1 in such a way as to create an imperative to act, and he makes it clear that class politics, class struggle, has to centre what we do…

“Over the past quarter century, many of us have lived in a world where we have been told again and again that class is irrelevant… Any serious reading of Capital shows irrefutably that we will get nowhere unless we write ‘Class Struggle’ on our political banners and march to its drumbeat”.

And again: Marx’s “introduction of class struggle marks a radical departure from the tenets of both classical and contemporary economic theory. It radically changes the language in which the economy is depicted and shifts the focus of concern…

“Marx’s value theory… leads directly into this central question [of class struggle]. This is so because value is socially necessary labour-time, which means that time is of the essence within capitalism… Control over time has to be collectively fought over…”

Harvey notes that, paradoxically, in Capital Marx discusses “class struggle” only relatively late on, for the first time in the tenth of the book’s 33 chapters. (In the Communist Manifesto, by contrast, Marx declares straight off, on its first page, that history is the history of class struggles.)

With class struggle as with all other important concepts, in Capital Marx wants to get us to think about things critically and to take nothing for granted. Rather than cataloguing the salient facts of capitalist society straight off, he wants to dig down to its cell-forms, and trace all the connections forwards and backwards. In fact, it is not until chapter 25 that he has fully developed the argument which shows that capitalism must constantly create and recreate a division of society into classes.

As Karl Korsch put it in his introduction to Capital (1932), Marx’s “is a method which leaves nothing out of account, but which refuses to accept things uncritically on the strength of a superficial common-or-garden empiricism soaked in prejudice… The reader of Capital is not given a single moment for the restful contemplation of immediately given realities and connections; everywhere the Marxian mode of presentation points to the immanent unrest in all existing things…”

Capital study groups, as Harvey wryly notes in his introduction, have a chronic tendency to get mired in intricate line-by-line study of chapter 1. Sometimes they become exhausted through that effort before they get on to later chapters. Chapter 3, a lot of it dealing with Marx’s dissection of other economists’ views on money, is also often a hurdle.

But the reader cannot really understand the concepts in chapter 1, or understand what Marx is “getting at”, without pressing on and seeing how those concepts are reworked and reconnected in the course of the analysis. To get stuck on trying to elucidate chapter 1 by sheer force of exegesis is a trap.

Marx himself, in a letter, suggested that students might read chapter 10 first, to “get into” the book, before attempting chapter 1. Korsch suggested starting with chapter 7 and then going back.

Harvey rejects such zig-zagging, and tackles the problem more straightforwardly by pushing through chapter 1 briskly and without fuss, then advising the reader: “Once you get to the end of [the book], it is a good idea to go back to the beginning and read the first chapter again… You should, by now, find it a lot easier to follow. When I went back the first time, I also found it much more interesting and even downright fun to read”.

A steady understanding of class struggle, and of the fight for control of time and of life, as “the focus of concern” should allow the reader to understand that the Stalinist states which called themselves “Marxist” were in fact other systems of exploitation of the working class, and not embodiments, even aberrant ones, of Marx’s ideas.

Harvey, however, is unclear on that point.

In chapter 14 of Capital Marx makes a sarcastic jibe: “It is very characteristic that the enthusiastic apologists of the factory system have nothing more damning to urge against a general organisation of the labour of society, than that it would turn all society into one immense factory.”

The context makes clear that Marx was not positively advocating the conversion of “all society into one immense factory”; in Capital he denounces the mutilating effects of the way capitalism shapes labour more than he denounces the chaotic and inefficient nature of market regulation, and he emphasises the battle for free time.

Yet the passage sets Harvey pondering as if he takes Marx to suggest that planning is sufficient for socialism, so long as it is unlinked from capitalist greed, and commenting censoriously on Lenin’s advocacy, in the early years of the Russian revolution, of adapting the then-most-modern capitalist techniques and management methods for the workers’ state.

The “acute failure”, he says, “in the history of actually existing communisms” (or at least “one of the acute failures”) has been to “take the technologies of a capitalist mode of production” uncritically.

If only. Stalinist Russia, and Mao’s China, were characterised by more primitive technologies and modes of management than the advanced capitalist countries, put into operation on the basis of the autocratic state’s ability to mobilise vast masses of labour under tight political control. Stalin had the White Sea Canal dug by hand; Mao forced millions of people to try to run “backyard steel furnaces”, and shut down higher education entirely for a while.

In the 1980s, one of the factors in the collapse of Stalinism in Europe was its failure to develop computers and microelectronics beyond limited use of clunky equipment produced in East Germany.

Lenin’s argument in the early years of Bolshevik Russia was a different thing again. It was not based on uncritical acceptance of capitalist technology. Lenin knew well that socialism would develop its own technology, inevitably starting from what capitalism had already achieved, but moving in different directions and on different criteria.

Lenin also knew that a “proletarian” technology could not be created at will or by sketchy deduction from general socialist ideals, any more than a “proletarian” art or a “proletarian” military doctrine. Socialist technology requires a socialist society, and socialism cannot be built in a single country, let alone a country as poor and war-ruined as Russia was.

He advocated adapting the then-most-modern capitalist techniques and management methods at the same time as, putting the point as bluntly and angularly as he could, he declared that an efficient “state capitalism” would be a great step forward for the economic life of the poverty-stunted workers’ state. His arguments did not mean equating capitalist technology with socialist, any more than they meant equating capitalism with socialism generally.

Possibly linked to this argument is an odd excursus in Harvey’s Companion where, instead of following Marx’s text unpretentiously as elsewhere, he writes an entire chapter of extrapolation from a tendentious reading of a single short footnote about technology in chapter 15. He develops the argument, expounded more lengthily in his book The Enigma of Capital, about social life being shaped by six or seven “spheres” of activity, and socialist transformation being a slow and diffuse process of pursuing various processes of change in the various “spheres”.

Linked to that, again, is his over-emphasis on the importance for the working class of allies from other classes, which leads him at one point to cite Mao Zedong as an authority on how to form the necessary class alliances.

Other criticism of the Companion could be made, for example on its (not-too-heavy) schematising about “dialectics”. But the conversational style makes it easy to learn from the Companion both by accepting its clear summaries of some of Marx’s points, and by critically rejecting Harvey’s extrapolations on others.

And now, by popular demand, we present that old favourite, yet again: The Communist Manifesto in cartoon form:

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Unilever – hands off our pensions!

January 23, 2012 at 11:03 pm (Jim D, pensions, solidarity, unions, Unite the union, workers)

The pensions battle hits the private sector. Unilever workers, organised by Unite and the GMB, have begun an eleven-day series of rolling strikes across the company’s twelve sites in England and Wales.

From the Unite website:

Unilever – hands off our pensions!

Many of the world’s biggest companies are using the recession to attack workers’ pay and pensions. Yet they are still making healthy profits and returning dividends to shareholders. At Unilever, workers are standing up for what is theirs – and they need your help.

Join our campaign
  • Send a protest letter to Unilever to stop these pension changes – template letter and email to CEO Paul Polman here
  • Email your message of support to:
  • Letter from Len McCluskey to Unilever’s shareholders here
  • Please consider donating to Unilever workers’ strike fund. You can do this by sending a cheque made payable to “Unite the Union –Unilever” to: Jennie Formby, 128 Theobalds Road, Holborn, London WC1X 8TN.
Unilever is planning a massive attack on our members’ pensions- watch the video below for more information:
The food and household goods giant, whose brands include PG Tips, Marmite, Pot Noodle, Dove, Comfort and Surf, plans to close it final salary pension scheme that its long-serving staff have worked hard for and break its promise to protect their pensions. The Company wants to transfer current members to the inferior Career Average Revalued Earnings (CARE) scheme from 1 July 2012.  But they also want to make more detrimental changes to the existing CARE scheme so everyone loses. Shutting down the scheme will wash the retirement plans of 7,000 workers down the drain – one worker has already estimated he will lose a massive £150,000 from his pension pot if he lives for just 15 years after he retires!
Victory to the Unilever workers!

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