‘I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my foster father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book’ – Yang Jisheng
Mao’s crazy policy of unrealisable industrial tragets in the town and forced collectivisation in the countryside was driven by no more than the desire to outstrip Moscow (ie:Khrushchev) as the supposed leadership of international “Communism.” It resulted in mass starvation, cannibalism and terror. Those who dared question the policy were denounced as “right-deviationists” and “counter-revolutionaries” and suffered torture and death. The top echelons of the Party remained silent. Twenty years later Deng Xiaoping said, “During the Great Leap Forward, was it only Mao Zedong who was so fanatical and none of the rest of us? Neither Comrade Liu Shaoqi nor comrade Zhou Enlai nor I opposed him.”
The greatest manmade disaster in history? If you doubt it, listen in every morning this week at 9.45 am or catch the 12.30 pm repeats. Or read the book itself. Here’s a flavour:
“A 41-year-old woman, Pan Suhua, in March 1960, dug up the body of her husband after he had committed suicide, and apart from cooking and eating his flesh, sold 5.875 kilograms of his bones as bear bones at 75 fen per kilogram.”
“In the spring of 1960, a four-member family had been reduced to just the mother and her emaciated daughter. Driven to madness by starvation, the woman killed her daughter and cooked her flesh to eat, after which she became completely deranged and repeatedly cried out her daughter’s name.”
“When [the brigade leaders] went inside they saw something being cooked in a wok, and when they raised the lid they saw it was human flesh. The wok contained an arm that still had a hand attached, from which I could see that it had come from a child.”
This piece first appeared in the Algemeiner on on October 18, 2012:
By A. Jay Adler
In rhetoric, an enthymeme is an argument that contains an unarticulated premise. Commonly this is because the conversation is among a group of people with shared values, among whom one or more of those values — premises to an argument — it is assumed, requires no expression. Among a collection of crime–busting DA’s in a death penalty state, the argument “it was a coldblooded, premeditated murder — he should be executed” does not require expression of the major premise “people who commit premeditated murders should receive the death penalty.” That commonly-held belief is understood. Sometimes people assume too much. Sometimes they are careless in their arguments. Sometimes they are being tricky. Who knows. Whatever the reason, for various reasons, unarticulated premises — unstated assumptions — are the cause of much misunderstanding and confusion in argument, including political argument.
There are, in truth, two Israeli–Palestinian enthymemes, one on each side and each a kind of inverse of the other. It isn’t that the assumption in each case has gone, literally, until now, always unstated. It hasn’t. The assumption — a fundamental position — has been stated many times and continues to be stated often. It is that each assumption is a belief generally characterized as an extreme position, articulated by individuals and groups pursuing a goal generally considered to be extremist. These “extremists,” most often — and the more extreme, the more often — do not make enthymemic arguments. They present their full case, every premise, every belief articulated toward the conclusion: the clear goal. Rather, they are the more moderate and reasonable parties, or parties who believe themselves to be moderate or pretend to be reasonable, who make the enthymemic arguments.
The Palestinian enthymeme omits the premise that the parties presenting their position do not accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Again, many extremist Arab and Palestinian organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas – and Muslim nations, such as Iran – obviously are already quite open about this, though many foolish people refuse to see the brick wall of this rejection that boxes everyone in – the original separation barrier that has separated the region from peace since 1947 and longer. However, that premise – essentially, that Israel is illegitimate – is the unexpressed, even motivating belief of many parties who pretend to moderation, but do not truly practice or pursue it.
In “The ‘Peace and Justice’ Charade,” I wrote about those activists and groups who utilize the language of social justice and peace to pretend that what they seek is an equitable and humane resolution to conflict that, as concepts of social justice always imply, upholds the rights and interests of all parties. In truth, these groups advocate continued conflict toward the goal of a Palestinian victory. Typically, when representatives of these groups and the many non-affiliated sympathizers with them address a current event in the ongoing conflict, the 2008-09 Gaza War, for instance, they direct their attacks at what they claim are current Israeli misdeeds. But this is always a cover. If, rather than debate the usual concocted “facts” that regularly come to dominate the media and international responses to these events, one pursues a historical chain of exploration with such critics, one discovers a not-so-curious countervailing fact: there was never a time, before the misdeeds of Gaza or the deceptions of Oslo or the failures leading to 1973 or the “aggression” of 1967 in which Israel was ever right or justified. There is sometimes the cursory premise in pretense that Israel is a nation with legitimate interests, but when matched against historical events, this turns out to be effectively untrue. What is revealed is a commitment in intellectual belief to the idea that every practical policy ever pursued to actually bring Israel into existence was somehow an injustice, in an invalidating, illegitimating act. Thus is the unstated premise exposed.
What, then, is the Israeli enthymeme? The Israeli enthymeme, most recently justified, but not openly acknowledged per se by the Levy Report, is that Israel is no longer bound by its acceptance of the 1947 partition plan. The extreme position, entirely disrespectful of the partition plan, is the religious claim of a Jewish right to all of Biblical Israel. This argument is openly made, all of its premises clearly stated.
For many others, however, the six decades and more of Arab enmity and anti-Semitism and war and terrorism have invalidated, if not necessarily Palestinian rights, certainly Israeli obligations to pursue resolution to the conflict as if the past six decades have not happened. In truth, there are degrees to which almost anyone with some degree of sympathy for Israel accepts this argument. International policy pursuits are nothing if not inconsistent.
Accordingly, for instance, consider forty-five years of constant reference to post-1967 U.N. resolutions as if – goes the pretense – they are legal directives with completely coherent legal foundation. The call is always to return to the 1967 boundaries. Why do none of the responsible parties demand a return to the ‘47 partition lines? The 1967 boundaries – the 1949 Armistice “Green” lines – were never established as permanent boundaries. Should not any ultimate resolution return all parties to the original plan and division of land? Would that not be equity?
No. All responsible parties recognize what the 1948 war and Arab rejection of and reaction to the partition revealed – that Israel as constituted in the partition plan was untenable. Legal and logical consistency be damned. So all but Israel’s enemies simply ignore this de facto historical development – a development always implicitly acknowledged and accepted in calls to return to the 1967 boundaries.
There is a further consequence, however. The consequence is to establish a precedent and foundation for the Israeli enthymeme. There have, after all, already been consequences to Arab rejectionism. The Arab nation that might have arisen within the borders of the 1947 partition plan is forever lost. Since 1967, what Palestinian Arabs have been offered are the reduced borders established by the 1948 war. Since 1967, Israel has argued, as after 1948, that the ’67 boundaries were established by the war to be inadequate to Israeli security. Israel, officially, seeks adjustments. Some oppose, but many – the details continually disputed – accept the principal. Once more, Palestinians will pay a price for a course of cultural and political hatred and rejection they have pursued. Once more, a foundation for the Israeli enthymeme is laid.
There are multiple additional reasonable arguments in support of the unstated premise of the Israeli enthymeme. An end of the Levy Report was to find one in challenging the very notion in law of Israel as an occupying power on the West Bank. There is a natural right – and a great contradiction for the Palestinian Authority in rejecting it – of Jews to live on the West Bank. There is the basic case in common sense that argues, “How many times must I be rejected and abused – horribly abused – in response to my offer of a compromise before I may rightfully say, you know what, I withdraw my offer.”
If Palestinians and the Arab world can wage unremitting hatred, perpetual terror, and intermittent war against Israel for 64 years and still end up with the same deal they could have had before (but not the same – not 1947!), then what price is there to be paid other than the lost time and lives and the other costs of conflict? And who recompenses Israel for its losses?
Given, then, the record, and the continuing Palestinian rejection, on that side, of any genuine effort at reconciliation, why not just pursue, little by little, in creeping reality of circumstance, a modern Israel that embraces all of its historic land? We will not make this our official policy, and if a miracle should occur, and the Palestinians suddenly offer what they never have before – well, we’ll deal with that then. In the meantime…
There are many justifications for the Israeli enthymeme. There is one profound argument against it.
The international community and people in general accept, as most people will in nearly all circumstances, the fairness of compromise. The decades-long record of Arab and Palestinian rejection will not stand out in the minds of most people any differently from the endless charges and counter-charges, of grievance and counter-grievance that characterize to fatigue the contours of every conflict in the world. What stands out, what will always stand out in the end, if they are maintained to the end, are Israeli justness and fairness in contrast to the contrary among the nation’s enemies – a willingness at the conclusion as at the start to accept reasonable compromise. If, instead, Israel uses all of the easily comforting justifications of Arab behavior to seek in the end the same total victory Israel’s enemies have long sought against it, Israel will have sacrificed much of the honor of its beginnings.
There has been much discussion for over a decade about how an Israeli left may meaningfully reconstitute itself, what it means to be a liberal Zionist in some way other than ignoring the failure of Oslo, and the reasons for it, and simply parroting, in a sandwich of AsAJew love, Palestinian arguments. There is, however, lots of historical precedent for clear liberal recognition of the world’s horrors and of the world’s bad actors and of the resolve required to meet them. Many of Israel’s founders contribute to that precedent. Liberal Zionism today need be no different. A liberal Zionism will also maintain a true commitment to a two-state resolution to conflict. That commitment entails not acquiescing to the Israeli enthymeme, the not fully stated argument that Israel should no longer be committed, whatever the behavior of its foes, to a secure and fair compromise and two states.
Malala Yousafzai: Trotskyist hero(ine)
In Shiraz Socialist’s coverage of the cowardly shooting by Taliban fascists of this 14 year-old hero(ine), we have not so far mentioned the fact that she is a Trotskyist sympathiser. Here is a statement from the Trotskyist group with which she is associated, the IMT (International Marxist Tendency):
The suffering of the people of Pakistan is largely unknown in the West. A veil of silence has been carefully drawn over the number of people killed every day by American drones and Taliban murders. But recently a small corner of the curtain was raised as the result of a particularly appalling event.
Malala Yousafzai was brutally shot by gunmen as she was returning home from school. Masked assassins stepped onto a bus filled with terrified children, identified her, and shot her at point blank range in the head and neck.
Who are these men who wage war on defenceless schoolgirls? We know who they are because they have already admitted their guilt. The cowardly murderers who perpetrated this vile deed feel no need to hide away from public opinion. They feel no shame, for they are utterly shameless. The Pakistan Taliban has claimed responsibility for this act of bloodthirsty savagery.
What crime did this fourteen year-old girl commit that could justify the taking of her life? Was she a friend of American imperialism? Did she support the occupation of Afghanistan? Was she on the side of the Pakistan government and its army?
No, she was none of those things. On the contrary, Malala was on the side of the oppressed people of Pakistan and Afghanistan and every other country. She was an enemy of imperialism, landlordism and capitalism. She stood for the cause of freedom, progress and socialism. And for that they have tried to take her young and innocent life.
Swat laid waste
Perhaps nowhere has the sufferings of the people of Pakistan been greater than in the mountainous area known as Swat. The Swat valley is a picturesque place that was famed for its music and tolerance. It used to be a favourite holiday and honeymoon destination. Now it has been laid waste by a war characterised by the utmost savagery on all sides.
Because of its proximity with Afghanistan, this beautiful region has been plunged into a bloody war, in which the Pakistan army, the Taliban and US imperialism have vied with each other to win domination.
First the Taliban seized control. They made life a hell for the people of Swat, forcing men to grow beards, beheading their opponents, imposing sharia law and other reactionary measures to keep the masses in a state of ignorance and illiteracy in which they would be more easily dominated by the mullahs and religious fanatics.
In one incident the Taliban killed 14 people in one village and hanged their bodies from the trees as a warning. Only two people dared to bury the bodies. Later they began to organize resistance to the terrorists and they are now members of the IMT. Despite all the difficulties and dangers, the comrades of the International Marxist Tendency in Swat organized a very successful Marxist School this summer, from July 13th to July 15th.
The school was attended by more than 225 comrades from all over the country. Even some soldiers were present. Also present was comrade Malala Yousafzai, who spoke in the debates. She was full of confidence and enthusiasm in the just cause for which she was fighting.
Now, not three months later, she is fighting for her life in an intensive care ward in a Peshawar hospital [now recovering in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, UK -JD], with a bullet lodged close to her brain.
Reactionary nature of the Taliban
There are those in the West who consider themselves “lefts” who think it is right to support the Taliban, allegedly because they are “fighting imperialism”. Here we have ignorance and cynicism combined in equal proportions.
The Taliban and other such reactionary outfits were never anti-imperialists. In the past they were sponsored, armed and financed by imperialism, which used them as a tool against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Then the western media described them as “freedom fighters”. Now they describe them as terrorists. In fact they were counterrevolutionary terrorists then, and they are counterrevolutionary terrorists now.
Reactionary movements like the Taliban are intimately linked to the landlords and capitalists. They defend the interests, not of the poor, but of the wealthy merchants, money-lenders, landlords and drug smugglers. It is an open secret that they are financed, armed and, to a great extent, controlled by elements in the Pakistan state and the notorious intelligence service, the ISI.
To the extent that they are opposed to the American presence in Afghanistan, it is because their masters in the ISI are seeking to turn Afghanistan into a colony of Pakistan. This would not represent an advance for the suffering people of Afghanistan, only the exchange of one brutal foreign oppressor for another.
The struggle against imperialism can only be successful if it is led by the working people under the guidance of a revolutionary Marxist party. The real way to defeat the imperialists is to root out their points of support – the corrupt landowners and capitalists. The fight against the foreign oppressors can only be successful if it is linked to the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism.
The Pakistan Marxists have consistently exposed the close connections between the Islamic fundamentalists and the Pakistani state. That has earned them the undying hatred of the Taliban, who fear, quite correctly, that the spreading influence of revolutionary Marxism is undermining them.
In Swat our comrades have organized the local masses against these reactionaries. As a result many comrades have been the victims of fundamentalist terrorism. One comrade had eight bullets from a G-3 rifle pumped into him. The comrades reported that “only his will power and hatred of a repressive state and the Taliban counterrevolutionaries kept him alive”.
Malala Yousufzai spoke at the Marxist school in SWAT after the horrors of the Taliban occupation. Then the Pakistani Army swept into the valley causing mayhem. That offensive uprooted an estimated 1.2 million Swat residents. The army has also been guilty of human rights abuses, including murder, torture and the massacre of prisoners. The ordinary people were, as usual, caught in between.
The Taliban counterrevolutionaries were particularly opposed to women playing any role in society other than that of domestic slaves. They wanted to prevent girls from going to school. Such was their fanatical hatred of learning that they destroyed schools and murdered schoolteachers. Malala’s father was the head of the last girls’ school to be closed.
During the occupation of Swat by the Taliban in 2009, Malala, then 11 years old, spoke out against the closure of girls’ schools. At a time when the cowardly politicians in Islamabad were busy appeasing the Taliban, she spoke out against them. She wrote a blog for BBC Urdu under a pseudonym. She has subsequently continued to speak up against the Taliban, an action that took tremendous courage on her part. They began to threaten her, but she continued her defiant struggle, which took on an increasingly conscious and political character.
The Taliban leaders put out false information, accusing her of being pro-Obama and pro-Western. That is a lie. Although she was fundamentally opposed to the counterrevolutionary Taliban, comrade Malala was also opposed to US imperialism and the corrupt bourgeois regime in Pakistan. Her sympathies lay in a different direction altogether: with revolutionary socialism and internationalism.
Of course, at this point it suited the bourgeois that someone like her should expose the crimes of the Taliban. She was given the national peace prize in 2011. But then the bourgeois sources go quiet on her activities. The news reports of her attempted assassination make oblique references to her growing interest in politics, but they do not say what these politics consisted of. In fact, she was a sympathiser of the IMT.
This is not hard to understand. At the present time, the Pakistan section of the IMT is the only organized Left force that exists in Swat. Over the past few years our ranks have been swelled by an influx of former members of the Communist Party who have remained loyal to the ideas of Marx and Lenin and who are continuing to struggle for socialism despite all the dangers.
The report of the Marxist school in Swat, which we published in Marxist.com, concluded: “This school has given us great energy and strength to fight for the ideas of scientific socialism which could provide an alternate to religious fundamentalism and bourgeois liberalism”.
A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone that Malala had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.” The real obscenity is a society that is based on the slavery of millions of workers and peasants and treats women as slaves of slaves. The real obscenity is child labour and illiteracy, poverty, disease and ignorance. And these are precisely the things the Taliban wishes to perpetuate.
Malala is one of the many outstanding young comrades who are looking for a way out of the present infernal impasse by taking the revolutionary road. In so doing she was well aware of the risks. She was prepared to put her life at hazard to fight for such basic human rights as education. And she has paid a heavy price.
Every class conscious worker in the world will keenly feel the tragedy of a young girl shot down in cold blood by a cowardly assassin for the crime of demanding rights for women. Our hearts bleed for the suffering of her family, friends and comrades. We fervently wish for her recovery.
This vicious attack will not deter us from our task. By exposing the baseness and cruelty of our enemies, which is only the distilled essence of the baseness and cruelty of the society that spawned these monsters, it will steel our resolve to continue the fight for which comrade Malala made such a great sacrifice.
Now more than ever the only choice for humanity is: socialism or barbarism. It is a choice between the forces of darkness and light, between ignorance and knowledge, between savagery and civilization. It is an easy choice to make, and Malala made it. Let her life and courage be an example to us all.
- Down with the murderous counterrevolutionaries! Down with imperialism!
- Let us fight for justice for all, for a life free from ignorance, violence and oppression.
- Let us step up the fight for a better future in a socialist world.
London 10 October 2012
The present issue of the neo-Con magazine Standpoint carries a fascinating interview with the late Eric Hobsbawm. It was conducted in 1985 by Miriam Gross, a personal friend (though not a political ally) of Hobsbawm’s, for the now-defunct publication Time and Tide. To the best of my knowledge, it’s not been republished before now. It contains some fascinating and highly questionable statements from Hobsbawm, such as his claim that the Nazi-Soviet pact “made no difference at all” (to what? Communist Party membership?) or that he “never believed in this workers’ paradise business” (about the USSR), and his claim that he “did criticise [the Hungarian invasion] in public” – something that there is no record of, as far as I’m aware. Finally, there’s his denial that he advocated Labour making a pact with the (then) SDP-Liberal Alliance: something that he quite clearly argued for in the Euro-Communist Journal Marxism Today at the time. I concluded, having read this interview, that Hobsbawm was a great historian, but a dishonest individual whose political accounting of himself and his own record is simply not to be trusted. Judge for yourself:
When did you first become a Communist, and why?
I became one in 1931 or so, when I was about 14. Being brought up in Central Europe — in Austria until 1931, and then in Berlin — made me a revolutionary. One had to do something fairly dramatic, so I became left-wing (partly because I was Jewish — if I hadn’t been, I might well have became a Nazi under those circumstances), and all the dramatic left-wing organisations in Austria and Germany were Marxist. I didn’t actually know much about Marx until one of my schoolmasters in Berlin said, “You’re a Communist, you don’t know anything, you’d better read this damned stuff,” and pointed me in the direction of the school library.
What about your parents — what sort of attitude did they have?
My mother died quite early, when I was 14 — I think she would have been a liberal of some kind, keen on things like European integration and H.G. Wells and stuff like that. I don’t remember my father having any particular politics — he had died not long before. My Viennese family would, if anything, have been liberals. I also had family in England, who were of course refugees from Russia or Poland by origin; they lived in modest circumstances and some had strong Labour Party sympathies. But I didn’t know them until I came to England permanently in 1933.
What about your schooling when you came to England — did it make any difference that you were already a fully-fledged Communist?
I went to Marylebone Grammar School, which unfortunately no longer exists. As for Communism, in Germany I had belonged to a curious little organisation for schoolchildren called the Sozialistischer Schülerbund, which was a dependency of the German Communist Party. There was nothing like that in London, although I used to go and sell anti-war pamphlets which I picked up at the Communist Party (CP) bookshop in King Street. As far as I could see, Britain was in every respect way behind Germany. The kind of conversations which were familiar to 15-year-old schoolboys in Berlin — about politics, about literature, about sex — didn’t take place in English schools. I was a bit bored and I spent a great deal of my time reading. Then I turned out to be rather good at history, and I got a scholarship to Cambridge, to King’s.
Were you very politically active as an undergraduate?
Yes, in CP politics and socialist clubs, not in the ordinary Cambridge Union politics. I was also active in undergraduate journalism, and eventually ended up editing Granta.
At that time, did you already want to become an academic — and were you particularly drawn to labour history?
I became an academic because I did well enough in my examinations to get a research grant, and by then I had decided that I didn’t have the temperament to be a journalist or a political organiser, which otherwise one would naturally be quite keen to be. I was interested in Third World history, as we would say today — imperialism, as we said in those days — and I had a travel grant to go and do research in French North Africa. But for a variety of reasons, because of the war and because I got married, I wasn’t able to go out there, and I turned to labour history instead.
What did you do in the war? Were you called up?
I was in the army, first in a Royal Engineers unit and then in the Education Corps, but I did nothing of any particular interest.
What was your attitude to the war during the period 1939 to 1941, after the Nazi-Soviet pact?
Oh, like most people I was absolutely loyal to the party line. Recent work has in fact shown that party policy in this period made virtually no difference at all, that if anything party membership increased.
But didn’t you feel any kind of conflict about being an English soldier?
Yes, I did. From the time the war started to hot up, one became rather unhappy about it. It was perfectly clear, for one thing, that the official party line was absolutely useless. Moreover, none of us really quite believed it, you see. We all believed that it was really an anti-fascist war — I mean it could hardly be denied, it was impossible to claim that both sides were equally at fault or equally bad. So far as I am aware none of the Communist parties, certainly not the British party, ever tried to act up to what was the official line, namely that it was an imperialist war, which would have involved a policy of revolutionary defeatism. That doesn’t mean that those of us who were devoted Communists at the time weren’t primarily loyal to the international cause.
Do you still regard yourself as a devoted Communist?
There is no equivalent movement today. In the 1930s and 1940s it was a single homogenous thing: if you were a Marxist you were de facto overwhelmingly likely to belong to a Communist party, and that Communist party was quite certain to be loyal to the Soviet Union, so the whole thing went together. But since 1956 it has been going in different directions. So the situation is no longer the same.
Were you shocked in 1956 when Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Stalin?
Yes, everybody was shocked. As far as I know most Communists in most countries lived for several months in the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Because the truth is, even if you were quite sceptical, as I was by that time, I think, about what was going on in the Soviet Union, the sheer amount that came out was something which I think very few people had realised, and it’s no use saying that it had all been available. I’m pretty certain that even a lot of people in the Soviet Union didn’t realise what had been going on. But I was shocked about a lot of other things too. In one way the shock in 1956 was twice as strong because, thanks to the Cold War and McCarthy and the dramatic anti-red atmosphere, a lot of people had for several years as it were put away serious queries about the Soviet Union and had been welded into loyalty towards the old cause simply because it was so clear that the baddies were on the other side, you see. And so it wasn’t until there was a tremendous crack on the Communist side that people were prepared to come out with doubts that they had had for a long time.
Didn’t you feel at any point that you might leave the party or that you had been committed to the wrong ideology?
No, not at all. Think of yourself, if you’d belonged to my age group. What other political choices would you have made during the Thirties and Forties? I don’t think anybody would have made any other choice. If you look back at my contemporaries, say, in Cambridge, if they had any kind of political consciousness the odds were that they were very left-wing. I think one of the things that has always made me suspect Harold Wilson is that he belonged to the same generation and was a Liberal until he kind of vaguely moved into the Labour Party.
But still, one can change one’s mind.
One can change one’s mind, yes, but on the other hand most of us fortunately were not in a position to have anything to reproach ourselves with. What we had done, what we did in our political activity in this country, was not something to be ashamed of. That we happened to be associated with people who had a lot to be ashamed of is another question. In fact we were people who, without any hope of getting any advantages at all, had devoted ourselves to a great cause.
Didn’t you feel, though, that the cause itself wasn’t working when put into practice?
Yes, that became increasingly clear. Actually, you see, I wasn’t particularly surprised since right from the beginning — I may have been too sophisticated a boy at the time — I never believed in this workers’ paradise business, and it seemed quite clear that it was tough luck for Communism that it had first come into power in an extremely backward and difficult country like Russia, in which things were bound to look rather different. If you had read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry or Ilf and Petrov, for instance, you realised that all the stuff about shining-eyed people on tractors was rather unreal. So it wasn’t a great surprise to find that in some respects these guys were inefficient and barbarian and did all sorts of wrong things. I think the disillusion came when one saw that (a) the other countries which had become socialist weren’t allowed to go their own way, and (b) that the prospect of the global replacement of capitalism seemed to recede. And after 1956 it became perfectly possible to be critical of things.
I remember once having a rather loud evening with Arthur Koestler who, like so many ex-reds, got very hung up on the Communist record. One reason I’m not an ex-red is that I don’t like the way so many ex-reds get hung up on it. And Koestler kept on attacking me — why didn’t you do this or that? Why didn’t you criticise the Hungarian invasion? Well, actually I did criticise it in public, you see. So it was perfectly possible to be a Communist and to criticise things you didn’t like.
What do you think it means to be a Marxist today?
I think Marx was right to see insuperable contradictions in capitalism. But the questions Marx raised about how capitalist society is going to be transformed are now much more open, given the transformations in social structure. Politically I share many beliefs not only with Marxists but with almost everybody who is on the Left. “Marxist” itself doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when I began. It has become a label for being either a revolutionary or a socialist or on the extreme Left. I think one should be against the rich and for the poor because the rich can look after themselves and the poor can’t. To this extent I believe the socially managed society which we call socialism is a society which must, as far as possible, be in the interests of ordinary people.
Yes, but ordinary people in this country, at any rate in the last two elections, rejected it. How are you going to achieve socialism if it is against the wishes of the majority of workers in this country?
It’s going to be very difficult until people are convinced, and it’s up to the Labour Party to put forward a case that persuades them. In 1983, Labour, which had been publicly committing suicide for years, virtually had no programme.
But surely it had a rather distinct programme?
We can disagree about that. But anyway, I don’t actually believe that people vote for programmes. They vote for perspectives, they vote for hopes or against fears. I don’t believe that most of the people who voted overwhelmingly for Labour in 1945 knew exactly what their programme was.
I agree, but don’t you think it was precisely because of fears that people didn’t vote for Labour in 1983 — vague fears about the kind of future which Militant Tendency or Arthur Scargill seemed to represent, fears about intolerance and repression?
Well, it’s a question of what at any given moment you fear most. Right now I particularly fear repression and intolerance and the revival of jingo demagogy and know — nothingism and intellectual barbarism from Thatcher and her followers. Those people are far more dangerous than anything that Militant can produce. Name any revolution which has ever been produced by Trotskyists.
There aren’t any. The point is that they attract a kind of permanent extreme element on the fringe which in certain circumstances is quite a good influence and in others quite the reverse.
But in Communist countries revolutions have led to repression anyway.
Then do you still believe — presumably you once did — in the proletarian revolution?
I certainly did, though since becoming a historian — and a historian who has studied Lenin — I have come to the conclusion that revolution is actually a thing you can’t make. It’s a happening rather than a planned operation, and any attempt to force the pace doesn’t quite work out.
But didn’t Marx more or less predict that capitalism would make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that this would eventually lead to a spontaneous revolution? This hasn’t actually happened, and on the whole people are better off than they have ever been. Could it not be that a much better society will gradually emerge from capitalism?
That is a possibility. There’s no question that in material terms people are in most cases far better off than they were, say, a century ago. They’re better off because of the enormous increase in the powers of production. About relative inequality I’m by no means certain — there are ups and downs. At the moment the rich are getting notoriously richer; in the United States for instance all groups are losing ground compared to the top 20 per cent, and this is clearly also true in Britain.
But aren’t the poor in Marxist countries even worse off?
Not necessarily. It’s true that most East European states are distinctly worse off than most Western European states, but I would have thought that the Balkans are passing through an all-time golden age in their history. OK, if you compare Hungary and Austria, people in both countries are better off in material terms than they have ever been in their history, and the Austrians are considerably better off than the Hungarians. OK, if you look at certain other aspects, Hungarians today have a much more interesting cultural life.
Maybe, but isn’t a lot of that culture at odds with the prevailing socialist regime?
I’m not against that. On the contrary, you won’t get any culture if you assume that it is all essentially publicity releases for the regime. This applies everywhere, both under capitalism and under socialism. And if we are talking about civilised standards in general, the Soviet Union has in fact immeasurably improved. In the 1930s and ’40s, you could have said that if you wanted barbarism in the most literal sense, that is where you got it. If you look at the present, the regimes which kill and torture are not the Marxist regimes but some of the other ones.
Isn’t there barbarism on both sides?
No. If you actually look at the extent to which, say, the Polish regime has managed to control and solve the Solidarity thing, I doubt whether more than 30 people were actually killed during those two years. I’m the last person to justify this, because I thought Solidarity a great thing — I believe that one of the weaknesses of socialist regimes is precisely that they don’t allow scope for labour movement. But to talk about this in the same terms as about Chile or Argentina is simply not using words in a reasonable way.
It’s not saying much, but the fact is that people in a place like Poland can now criticise the regime, if necessary in public, and what they risk is not a hell of a lot more than what they would in a Western country.
I would have thought they risk a great deal more and Poland, anyway, is rather special. But let’s get back to English politics. Tell me about giving advice to Neil Kinnock and being his guru.
I’ve never advised Kinnock, never been his guru. I’ve only met him twice, once when I did an interview with him for Marxism Today and once when he took the chair at a Fabian Society meeting.
But what about your articles?
Look, it’s nice for a retired professor who writes about politics to find what he writes about being widely discussed, but some of my articles have also been widely criticised.
Do you mind criticism from the Left that you are advocating a broad front with the SDP-Liberal Alliance?
Sure I mind. Naturally I’m on the side of these guys, even though I don’t think their policies are particularly helpful.
But if you’re locked into an electoral arrangement with the Alliance in order to defeat Thatcherism, how will you get back to socialism? Surely David Owen’s views are nearer in certain respects to the Conservatives than they are to the Left of the Labour Party.
I’ve never appealed for a pact with the Alliance. The idea that I did has now been repeated so often in the press that it has come to have an independent existence, just like the stuff about being Kinnock’s guru. I simply said what is obviously true, that as long as the opposition to Thatcher is divided 50-50, it is that much harder to defeat her, and sooner or later we will have to come to terms with this. What interests me much more is how, in a broader sense, we can get back to socialism, which I believe is not by isolating the working class within a small sectional movement, but once again making it the centre of a broad progressive coalition. This does not necessarily have anything to do with whether you are for or against Owen — I’m personally rather against him. Historically speaking, a broad coalition is as likely to strengthen the Left as the Right. There are quite good reasons for believing that it would get socialism out of its isolated corner, as well as keeping it in contact with a lot of people who are not blue-collar workers but who are just as interested in having a different kind of society.
Do you see nothing that can be said in favour of Mrs Thatcher? Not even the fact that she is a woman?
Nothing. I’m actually a believer in sex equality, and consequently I’m prepared to judge a woman prime minister in exactly the same way that I would a man prime minister. The one marginal thing I could say for Mrs Thatcher is that she is so jingoistic and racialist, so much a kind of Kipling imperialist, that she has actually cut the ground from underneath the National Front and the real fascists.
Apart from that, she is waging the class war from above, not merely trying to divide the rich from the poor but trying to break up the solidarity of the working class, which used to be so enormous, and which you could still see during the miners’ strike. It’s the middle class for whom she is waging the class war. For them it’s a matter of fear and resentment against the working class. Aristocrats don’t mind one way or the other. It’s the goddam middle class which is scared of the workers and will try to kick them in the balls.
As a middle-class person, I don’t feel that to be true. Nor do I observe it around me.
Oh yes, who are all these ultra-right ideologists at the moment? They are middle-class boys, they are grammar school boys who have made it, like Norman Tebbit, who regard the fact that they have made it themselves as proof that everything is OK and that therefore guys who haven’t made it are not worth bothering about. You see, to this extent my generation was better. As far as I can see, guys like Roger Scruton have come up the same way as guys like myself — they went to grammar schools, got scholarships, and are quite smart.
One last question. What in your view would be an ideal future for Britain?
I would like in some ways a society which preserves what has been good in the past. Paradoxically I believe that the Left, socialists, are better at preserving this than the centre and the Right, because the one thing which destroys everything is the unrestricted development of capitalism. If you want to find what is traditionally good about Germany, for example, you are much more likely to find it in Jena than in Frankfurt. Being now a great deal older than I was when I started, I have, if you like, less apocalyptic and millennial hopes for the future. I should be happy in a country in which it was impossible to be rich or successful without being ashamed that people who are less well-off than you or stupider than you or didn’t have your chances were being dropped down the drain and forgotten.
But that’s very mild — it sounds like an SDP view of the future. Even Conservatives couldn’t actually disagree with it.
Then the question is: how do you set about achieving it effectively? I believe it is only likely to be achieved through parties and movements which build on the classical socialist and working-class tradition in this country.
From Nick Lowles of Hope Not Hate:
The BBC has just announced that Malala Yousafzai has stood up for the first time since being shot in the head by the Taliban. The 14-year-old was targeted after she led a campaign for girls to be educated.
This is really great news.
Thank you so much if you’re one of the 4,153 people who have so far signed her Get Well book.
We are delivering the book to Malala early next week so we are making one last push to get more names.
You may have already signed but can you now encourage your friends to do likewise?
Malala is a symbol of hope against hate and the more people we can get to sign our Get Well book the better the message that sends to her.
We will be delivering the Get Well book early next week so please ask your friends to sign today:
This week is Hate Crime Awareness Week and we’ve done our bit to promote it. Today, we have put up two articles about Malala which are well worth a read. The first is by Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister and who is now the UN Special Envoy for Global Education. He has launched a campaign to achieve education for all in Pakistan. We also have an article by Sara Khan, Director of Inspire, a Muslim women’s human rights group. She explains how Malala’s story can inspire Muslim women in the UK.
You can find both articles on http://action.hopenothate.org.uk/page/m/4c18e7c/618c0651/6106672b/167f7584/2124584510/VEsC/
Let’s go into the weekend on a cheerful note. Please encourage your friends and family to sign Malala’s Get Well book and let her know how much she inspires us
Here is a press release [from Wednesday 24th October] from the Marikana Support Campaign on the intimidation of commission of inquiry witnesses:
The Marikana Support Campaign is deeply shocked by this evening’s violent detention, on unknown grounds, of four Marikana worker leaders, and the abuse of other members of the community, including women, and the Marikana Support Campaign local coordinator by the police.
The group, returning by taxi to Marikana from a punishing and emotional day in the Farlam Commission, was corralled by an estimated thirty to forty police in a casspir, vans and unmarked vehicles. The group we all wearing campaign T shirts, stating ‘Remember the Slain of Marikana’ was ordered out of the vehicle by police wielding pistols and rifles, forced to lie face down in the dirt, and pinned down with booted feet at their necks. The police slapped and beat members of the group, threatening to shoot them if they attempted to look up. One member of the group was warned “I will blow your head away!”
Four of the men, all former strike leaders at Lonmin and key witnesses at the commission , were hauled up off the ground, identified by police as “these are the ones that we are looking for.” No reasons were given for their detention, and a member of the group recalls how the sounds of boots striking bodies could be heard as the men were dragged away and thrown into the police vans.
This unlawful and deeply abusive behavior by the police can only test the confidence of the family members of the slain workers, the surviving workers and community members’ in the work of the Commission. The police behavior signals their continued disregard for the civil and political rights of citizens, and the work of the Commission.
People testifying before or supporting the work of the Commission must be guaranteed their safety. Instead, community members attacked by the police tonight feel that the Commission has “become a hunting ground for the police.” This is the place where the police identify people, and will come after them to punish and silence them. The work of the Commission is being deliberately thwarted by the police to escape the responsibility they carry for the massacre of 34 people.
The Marikana Solidarity Campaign calls on the Farlam Commission and President Zuma to put in place an immediate moratorium on the SAPS and its harassment and victimization of Marikana workers and community members. We also call on the Commission to demand the immediate release of all strike leaders that have been detained in the past two weeks. The Commission and the President must ensure that the necessary conditions of trust and safety for those appearing before the Commission are met, or it will fail miserably!
H/t: Martyn H
Brits, send protest messages the South African High Commission: http://southafricahouseuk.com/
Very occasionally (about once every five years of so), the Graun carries a sensible, balanced and thought-provoking article that I am able to unreservedly recommend. It happened on Saturday (print edition), when Jonathan Freedland asked “We condemn Israel. So why the silence on Syria?”
Freedland contrasts the protest, publicity and outrage over Israel’s Operation Cast Lead four years ago, with the general lack of interest over the Syrian government’s ongoing atrocities; here’s a flavour:
There is no such clamour now. The Stop the War Coalition is not summoning thousands to central London to demand an end to the fighting, as it did then. On the contrary, its statements are content simply to oppose western intervention – of which there is next to no prospect – while politely refusing to condemn Assad’s war on his own people. Caryl Churchill has not written a new play, Seven Syrian Children, exploring the curious mindset of the Alawite people that makes them capable of such horrors, the way she rushed to the stage to probe the Jewish psyche in 2009. The slaughter in Syria has similarly failed to move the poet Tom Paulin to pick up his pen. Apparently, these Syrian deaths are not worthy of artistic note. The contrast has struck Robert Fisk, no defender of Israel. He puts it baldly: “[T]he message that goes out is simple: we demand justice and the right to life for Arabs if they are butchered by the west and its Israeli allies, but not when they are being butchered by their fellow Arabs.”
Read the full article here.
Inevitably, Freedland’s argument provoked the usual response from the loons, conspiracy theorists, professional Israel-haters and outright antisemites who frequent Comment Is Free. It also resulted in a typically stupid letter from Baroness Jenny Tonge, the Lib Dem’s and House of Lords’ resident anti-Israel thicko and fanatic. The most charitable thing that can be said is that she seems to completely misunderstand Freedland’s central point:
Jonathan Freedland makes the usual plea “why condemn Israel?”. Israel claims to be a western-style democracy that respects human rights and international law. The US and the EU, as well as our own country, have social, academic, cultural and trade links with Israel, and many of us have friends or colleagues in Israel. To many UK citizens, it is their home too. Israel drove the Palestinians from their homeland and livelihoods in 1948 and for 45 years Israel has occupied the West Bank. The treatment of the Palestinians is brutal and humiliating, as I have witnessed. We are right to condemn Israel for its actions. We are right to demand a higher standard of behaviour from Israel than from Arab states that are only now struggling to achieve political change. I have been to Syria. Does Mr Freedland really want Israel to be judged by the same standards by which we judge Syria?
Prof Norm delivers a devastating riposte here.
But it’s not Tonge’s stupidity that I particularly want to draw to your attention, but this strange and (I would submit) sinister comment from Lindsey German of Stop the War (and the objectively pro-Assad ‘Counterfire’), quoted by Freedland:
Anxious for answers, I called Lindsey German of Stop the War, who told me the organisation was not active on Syria because that “isn’t Stop the War’s job”. Its focus is on what “Britain and the US are doing”. Why, then, was it so vocal on Gaza? Because the west “was very much in support of the Israelis, so it was very different”. (In fact, Britain did not support Operation Cast Lead but called for a ceasefire.) She adds that the Palestinian question “has its own dynamic, which isn’t true of any other country”.
Assuming that Freedland quoted her accurately, what on earth did German mean by the Palestinian question having “its own dynamic, which isn’t true of any other country”? After all, the Palestians do not have a “country” – which is, of course, the root cause of their tragedy. Can anyone suggest what German means by that particular statement?
PS: hidden away in the foul madness that is the Comment Is Free “discussion” that followed Freedland’s piece, is a reasonably sensible debate between one David Pavett and ‘Aloevera’ that drew my attention to this fascinating interview given by the late Fred Halliday in April 2010. Recommended.
Workers Liberty reports (below); but how was it for you?
There were many flashes and flurries of militancy on the London demo – from direct action against companies involved in ‘Workfare’ to disability activists blocking Park Lane and stopping traffic at the end of the demo. Hundreds of marchers carried home-made signs identifying themselves as “Plebs”. Demonstrators heckled Ed Miliband for saying there would have to be some cuts.
Despite discouragement from the TUC, there were a number of lively feeder marches. These included several thousand from South London anti-cuts groups (with a large anarchist presence), and more than a thousand on a student bloc organised by the student left through University of London.
And of course, 150,000 is still very big – a clear indication that, despite setbacks, vast numbers of workers want a fight. There were very large numbers of Unite and Unison members marching together in enormous contingents. But as well as the decline in size, the mood generally seemed positive, but less militant than in March 2011. Although comrades report that many from their workplaces and unions marched who had not marched before – and some found it very inspiring – demonstrators seemed on average a bit older.
This is not a surprise. The 26 March demo came at a time of ‘ascent’, a few months after huge student protests and just before the first strikes to defend public sector pensions. Despite the obvious inadequacies of the union’s campaign, it felt like things were moving, like the struggle was going somewhere. This protest came after the union leaders have squashed the pensions campaign, and left things to decay for almost a year.
There was some militant rhetoric from the union leaders. Unite’s Len McCluskey used the closing rally to “start the consultation” on a general strike agreed at TUC conference. “Are you prepared to strike?”, he asked the crowd and was met with a huge din of cheering and vuvuzela horns. Thousands of people then put their hands up to “vote” for strike action.
Such dramatic flair would be welcome – if it was linked to something concrete. Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka, Christine Blower and others made similar noises. But this was not matched by a commitment to much of anything. There was no real attempt even to highlight victories won or to champion the workers’ battles which are in progress, despite the lull.
The SWP and the Socialist Party report that their calls for a “general strike” (in the latter case a “24 hour general strike”) got a good response. This does not make such calls a serious strategy. As Trotsky put it in the early 30s (in ‘What next?’), for many workers “‘the general strike’ signifies the prospect of struggle”. But neither the SP nor the SWP had much to say about how to get from where we are now to a general strike, or about what demands the movement should be campaigning for.
The importance of clear demands was shown by the fact that not even “No cuts” was featured in the official union campaign. Labour leader Ed Miliband was invited to speak at the rally, and he told marchers “There will still be hard choices — it’s right that we level with people.”
There were hundreds if not thousands of heckles from the crowd – quite right too, though no doubt Miliband was pleased, so he can show how ‘tough’ he is – but the unions are not suggesting any real alternative to the Labour leadership’s programme. (To be fair to Bob Crow, he did use his speech to criticise Miliband.)
The fact that, so far, ‘left wing’ Unite has pressured Labour councillors not to vote against and defy the cuts but to vote for them shows how far there is to go. So does its tame performance at this year’s Labour Party conference, despite its formal new commitment to a fight in the party.
Unsurprisingly, it was harder than on 26 March to sell socialist literature. We think we sold about 400 copies of Solidarity, but a lot of comrades said sales seemed slower. We did have many interesting and useful conversations.
The NHS Liaison Network statement calling for a union campaign to push Labour into implementing its new policy on the NHS got a good response on the NHS bloc and on the Unison and Unite contingents, with many marchers refusing a leaflet and then reconsidering when they read the headline (“Fight for Labour to carry outs its policy: rebuild the NHS!”) Liaison Network activists made some useful contacts for the campaign.
No matter how gloomy things look, serious socialists should not respond to the SWP’s “general strike” demagogy by rubbishing the prospect of any mass struggles. It will take generalised industrial action to defeat the cuts – but that poses, rather than answers the question. Trotsky again: “Does this mean that the strike struggle should be renounced? No, not renounced but sustained, by creating for it necessary political and organisational premises.” What that means now is:
• Championing, publicising and encouraging every dispute, every struggle, every spark of resistance – and demanding the unions do the same, rather than ignoring or stifling them.
• Advocating and organising resistance, in workplaces, locally, nationally, to cuts and attacks now – not waiting for hypothetical coordinated action in the future.
• Arguing for a serious assessment of how the pensions dispute was sunk, and a different strategy for future national struggles, including properly coordinated and mounting action.
• Seeking opportunities to build rank-and-file networks in the unions, like the Local Associations grouping among teachers, which can challenge the union leaders, including ‘left’ ones.
• Developing clear demands about what policies we want to see (restore the NHS, scrap the anti-union laws, expropriate the banks, etc…), developing a campaign around them and bringing real pressure to bear for them in and on the Labour Party.