Loach honoured at Cannes: a critical appreciation

May 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm (Andrew Coates, AWL, cinema, Clive Bradley, culture, film, From the archives, posted by JD, socialism, television)


Comrade Coatesy celebrates Ken Loach’s success at the Cannes Film Festival, but is not uncritical of Loach’s politics:

Ken Loach has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake.

“Daniel Blake is a 59-year-old joiner in the North-East of England who falls ill and requires state assistance for disability from the Employment and Support Allowance. While he endeavours to overcome the red tape involved in getting this assistance, he meets single mother Katie who, in order to escape a homeless persons’ hostel, must take up residence in a flat 300 miles (480 km) away.”

France 24 reports,

The 79-year-old Briton attacked the “dangerous project of austerity” as he accepted the festival’s top prize from actor Mel Gibson and Mad Max creator George Miller, who headed this year’s jury. “The world we live in is at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe,” Loach said, adding: “We must give a message of hope, we must say another world is possible.”

And, he continued, “Necessary”.

Le Monde’s review noted that ‘welfare reform’ forms the heart of the film. That in the UK there is a veritable ‘crusade’ against the disabled, to root out those feigning illness (“la chasse aux tire-au-flanc a pris les allures d’une croisade) in a “néo-victorienne” Britain.

Moi, Daniel Blake n’est pas une satire d’un système absurde. Ken Loach n’est pas un humoriste, c’est un homme en colère, et le parcours de l’ouvrier privé de travail et de ressources est filmé avec une rage d’autant plus impatiente qu’elle est impuissante.

I, Daniel Blake, is not a satire about an absurd system. Ken Loach is not a humourist, he’s full of anger, and the progress a worker without a job, and without assets, is filmed with an indignation that is as exasperated  as it is impotent.

This Blog is not an uncritical admirer of Ken Loach. He is against austerity and for social rights, the cause of the left.  But his more specific politics, which include a lengthy membership of Respect and support for the cultural Boycott of Israel, as well as no known activity against Islamist genociders, or support for the Kurdish people in their fight for dear life against ISIS,  are not always the same as ours.

Nor are all of Loach’s films, for all of their skill and intensity, always as deep as they set out to be.
(Read Coatesy’s full article here).

In the light of this well-deserved award to an avowedly Marxist film-maker, now seems a good moment to republish Clive Bradley’s insightful article. As the piece was written in 1997, it doesn’t deal with Loach’s more recent work, but nevertheless raises important issues about the difficulties of reconciling ‘art’ and ‘propaganda’, and the extent to which Loach succeeds (and fails) in doing this, by examining three of his films. The author stated at the outset: “throughout this article, I am using the word “propaganda” in its neutral  sense, to mean politically educative material”.

_________________________________________________________________________

Art versus Propaganda: the films of Ken Loach

By Clive Bradley (Workers Liberty 39, April 1997)

What does it mean to make socialist films in contemporary Britain? What is the relationship between art and propaganda in modern cinema?

The work of Ken Loach, one of  Britain’s leading film-makers, hinges around these questions. The  tension between art and propaganda, drama and politics, runs  through his films.

Loach is unusual not so much in that he is a socialist — indeed a Marxist, indeed some kind of Trotskyist — who makes films; there have been a fair number of film-makers who are or were Marxists of some description. He is unusual because he frequently attempts, to make films about politics with a capital ‘P’, to put the class struggle on the screen. His politics inform his choice of subject matter  to a degree which is. as far as 1 am aware, unique in contemporary film.

Loach made Iris name in the 1960s with a seminal TV drama, Cathy Come Home, about homelessness. Days of Hope, a TV series written by Jim Allen, traced the British class struggle from the First World War to the General Strike. Fatherland is about an East German who moves to the West and discovers capitalism is as bad as Stalinism, Hidden Agenda about the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland, Land and Freedom the Spanish Civil War, and the recently-released Carla’s Song is about Nicaragua.

Even his films which deal with less ‘big’ political issues have political themes. Riff Raff is about a group of building workers. Raining Stones about two unemployed men in the north of England struggling to survive; one of them needs the money to buy his daughter a communion dress, and gets into trouble with a loan shark. Ladybird, Ladybird is about a woman’s fight against social services to keep custody of her children.

Added to this are a number of documentaries, for example on the often treacherous role of the trade union leadership, and the current Liverpool dockers’ strike.

There have been very few films in recent years which deal with such issues, and no film-makers who try to do so with such consistency. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Loach is a vitally important director for socialists. We should be glad someone is making such films: the world would be a poorer place without them.

The question remains whether Loach has successfully resolved the tension between art and propaganda, and what his work might tell us more generally about it. I want to argue that he has not, and that this raises an interesting question for any project of socialist film-making. Put bluntly: is such a thing possible?

This article looks at the question by focusing on just three of Loach’s films — Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song, his two most recent, which are among his most strongly political, and Kes — an early film which is probably the least political in his career. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 1 Comment

Lenni Brenner’s revisionism: “hysterically and obscenely stupid”

May 22, 2016 at 9:02 am (anti-semitism, AWL, fascism, From the archives, history, Livingstone, posted by JD, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism")

The veteran Jew-baiter Ken Livingstone says his claim that Hitler “supported Zionism” before he “went mad” is supported by the books of “historian” Lenni Brenner. In fact, Livingstone’s misunderstood what Brenner actually wrote (though that was bad enough in the first place).

Anyway, we seemed destined to hear a lot more about the dodgy self-proclaimed “Trotskyist” Brenner, who’s been promoted by the now defunct anti-Semitic Workers Revolutionary Party (with whom Livingstone was closely associated) as well as the SWP and its spin-off Counterfire.

Here’s what a contributor to Socialist Organiser wrote about Brenner when he first started attracting attention in 1984:

By Gerry Ben-Noah (first published in Socialist Organiser 199, 04/10/84)

DENIAL of the holocaust has become the stock-in-trade of the far right in Europe and the USA, from Richard ‘Harwood’ ‘s Did Six Million Really Die? to Arthur Butz‘s The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. That pro-Nazis should seek to excuse their heroes of one of the greatest crimes in history can hardly be surprising.

What is remarkable, however, is the recent emergence of a “left wing” version of holocaust revisionism.

At the most extreme, a French Trotskyist defends Robert Faurisson‘s right to deny the existence of gas chambers and extermination camps. More often, though, the “left” revisionists do not deny that the holocaust happened: they merely argue for a redistribution of responsibility for the tragedy. They suggest that the Nazis were not solely to blame for the disaster that befell the Jewish people. Zionism, too must share the guilt.

Now, in fact, various Zionist leaders did calculate that anti-semites would for their own reasons collaborate with them. They understood that there was logical common ground Zionism and anti-semitism — old-fashioned, central-European, pre-Nazi Christian anti-Semitism — in that both rejected assimilation.

Zionism was generated by anti-Semitism. Then once embarked on their project of removing the Jews to Palestine, out of the reach of the anti-semites, the Zionist leaders made hard-headed calculations and assessments of the world they lived in, seeking to find ways of realising their programme.

Thus Zionist leaders had discussions with ministers of the viciously anti-Semitic Tzarist government, with Von Plehve, for example.

In the same way the Zionists have allied in succession with Turkish, British and then US imperialism. Brutal realism and cynical real-politik in the service of their central goal of creating the Jewish state has always characterised the central leadership of the Zionist movement. It has led to shameful episodes and unsavoury contacts.

The realpolitik of the Zionist leaders — together with a slowness to realise that older strains of anti-Semitism had evolved into the lethal, genocidal Nazi variant, with which there could be no accommodation — may well have helped blunt the response of European Jews to Nazism

Identify

But to go on from this tragic confusion to identify Zionism and anti-Semitism, to place the moral or political responsibility — or any share of it — on the Zionist Jews, for Hitler’s holocaust of European Jewery — that is hysterically and obscenely stupid.

Yet that is what the new revisionism — at its sharpest when it stops playing with hollow, abstract logical identification between Zionism and anti-Semitism and bases itself on the historical facts — concludes and now proclaims to the world.

It is important to recognise that whilst holocaust revisionism is absolutely central to the ideology of the far right, “left” revisionism remains — so far — a marginal and aberrant belief within the socialist movement.

Until now it has been propagated only by scattered articles in the “Workers Revolutionary Party” press, or by quaintly-titled pamphlets such as Tony Greenstein’s ‘Zionism: Anti-Semitism’s Twin in Jewish Garb’.

Until now it has looked like the work of cranks.

Until now. Lenni Brenner, “left” revisionism’s newest recruit is a Jew, whose books have  all the appearance of serious works of history and are published (expensively) by commercial publishers.

Both the books [ie: The Iron Wall and Zionism In The Age of Dictators – JD] argue, with apparent authority, that Zionists did not fight back against anti-Semitism because they were in sympathy with it. According to Brenner, the Zionists saw anti-semites as nationalists like themselves, with a common objective in the removal of the Jews from Europe and a similar evaluation of the intrinsic worth of diaspora Jewry.

Where does one begin to review work like this? The revisionists of the right have shown how easy it to contest and even subvert what had seemed unassailable historical facts. For, of course, very little history can survive scepticism of this kind, based on the rejection of any evidence one does not like.

Now Brenner does not, by and large, engage in this kind of revisionism. Brenner’s unique contribution to historical revisionism lies in the sense he makes of events.

Most of the events he refers to are real and publicly known. They have been described before by pro-Zionist writers, notably Hannah Arendt in Eichman in Jerusalem (this is not to say that a sizeable catalogue of inaccuracies and contradictions within the Brenner corpus could not be assembled — but such an exercise would miss the point).

Congruence

Brenner’s “theory” of Zionist-Nazi congruence rests upon two sets of phenomena: the actions of individual collaborators who were Zionists, and the policies of Zionist organisations which, for him, were lacking in anti-Nazi resolution.

With the benefit of hindsight it is, of course, easy to see that many Zionists underestimated the Nazis. They thought the new anti-Semitism would be like the old: brutal, humiliating and dangerous for individual Jews.

They could not and did not conceive of the annihilation that was to come. Thus, their strategy was based on a series of assumptions about the immediate prospects for Europe’s Jews which were horribly wrong.

Inner logic 

To move from this tragic confusion, however, to the suggestion that the Zionists were unconcerned about the fate of the European Jews is absurd. To argue that they were therefore in sympathy with the Nazis is bizarre.

It would be foolish to deny that there were Zionists who collaborated. So, no doubt, did some Communists, Bundists and liberals. In the nightmare world of Nazi Europe many people did bad things to save their own lives or the lives of those they loved.

For Brenner, though, these individual acts of collaboration are expressions of the inner logic of Zionism. Individual or collective acts of anti-racist resistance by Zionists, on the other hand, are dismissed as merely historical accidents, exceptions that in some unexplained way, prove the rule.

It would be trivially easy to write a similar account of the “inner logic” of capitalist democracy, or of Marxism, which proved to this standard their affinity with Nazism. Such accounts have little to do with serious history.

Brenner claims to be opposed to Jewish, Arab and every other kind of nationalism. Perhaps he is so far from nationalism that he does not feel the need to avoid racial slurs, which he sprinkles throughout his writing. Thus, the inter-was Palestinian Arab leadership were not only “a parasitic upper class” but also “classic levantines” (Iron Wall p, 57); and the Palestinian Arabs as a whole had a “low level of culture” (ibid p.65). As for the Jews:

” … the old Jewish slums were notoriously filthy: ‘Two Jews and one cheese make three smells’ was an old Polish proverb. Karl Marx was only being matter-of-fact when he remarked that ‘The Jews of Poland are the smeariest of all races’ ” (ibid p. 11).

For a self-proclaimed socialist to repeat anti-semitic Polish proverbs as matters of fact is simply incredible. Such remarks are frequent in Brenner and range from the paranoid: the suggestion that rich Jews control the US Democratic Party and thus American foreign policy — to the merely unpleasant — Agutal Israel demanding from the Likud “their pound of flesh” (p. 207) as the price for parliamentary supplrt.

There is, then, a curious ambivalence in Brenner’s writing. He censures Zionism for despising Jews and on the other hand he clearly despises them himself. Similarly, he characterises the Zionist-Revisionists as near-fascists, and cites quotes from anti-Revisionist Zionists to establish this. But he also argues that the Revisionists were the most authentic Zionists, closest to the inner logic of the movement.

Therefore, the opposition of the Labour Zionists to Revisionism, of which good use is made in proving the latter to be reactionaries, is then dismissed as either bad faith or false consciousness. Either Labour’s disagreements with Jabotinsky’s followers were entirely tactical, a contest over who should control the colonialist venture — or the left simply did not appreciate, as Brenner can appreciate, that they were really just logical Zionist-Revisionists.

For a Marxist, Brenner places enormous weight on his own ability to critically examine other people’s psyches across the years (this ability is not restricted to the minds of Labour Zionists: Brenner also ‘shows’ that Betar was Fascist by reference to the mental states of a hypothetical “average Betari” (ZAD, p. 114).

Psychoanalysis

We are also offered a psychoanalysis of Jabotinsky:

” … there was nothing ambiguous about Jabotinsky’s oral fixation … he hated mathematics and was always undisciplined as a student: the infallible signs of oral fixation … He had other stigmata of the fixation … he became hopelessly addicted to detective stories and westerns” (Iron Wall, p.6).

This is the sort of thing that gets psychoanalysis a bad name. It reveals, too, that underneath the glossy covers Brenner’s work is every bit as crankish as former attempts to construct a “socialist” version of historical revisionism.

Why then, has it any credibility? A comment by Isaac Deutscher offers a clue:

“The anti-Zionist urged the Jews to trust their gentile environment, to help the ‘progressive forces’ in that environment … and so hope that those forces would effectively defend the Jews against anti-Semitism … The Zionists, on the other hand dwelt on the deepseated hatred of non-Jews and urged the Jews to trust their future to nobody except their own state. In this controversy Zionism has scored a terrible victory, one which it could neither wish nor expect” (The Non-Jewish Jew, p. 91).

Brenner, like most socialists, wishes that this victory had not happened. But instead of thinking seriously about what kind of socialist strategy could win the Jews away from Zionism, he constructs a fantasy-world in which Zionists did wish for and expect the holocaust, and in which the most fanatical Jewish nationalists were, in reality, ardent anti-semites.

All of this would undoubtedly be an interesting case study for psychoanalysts. Marxists would be better off by turning to Nathan Weinstock’s Zionism: False Messiah.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Chinese “Cultural Revolution” and the reactionary tragedy of Maoism

May 16, 2016 at 6:10 pm (AWL, China, history, Human rights, national liberation, posted by JD, stalinism, terror, thuggery, tragedy)

 Red Guards and students, waving copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, parade in Beijing at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Above: the “Cultural Revolution” begins in 1966

Fifty years ago in China one of the bloodiest episodes in recorded human history began, in which as many as two million people died.

What followed was an unprecedented period of upheaval, bloodshed and economic stagnation that only ended with Mao’s death, in September 1976.

The so-called People’s Republic of China had been declared in 1949 and began the history of China as a one-party totalitarian nation-state, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

During the 1950s, the conditions of existence in the countryside (where the majority of the population resided) and in the cities were transformed by the CCP, in an effort to economically develop and exert political control within all arenas of everyday life (from work to leisure to home). Agricultural land in the countryside was bloodily “redistributed” to cooperatives and collectives, and cities were ordered into work units and neighbourhood units. The state owned everything. Layers of Communist Party bureaucracy proliferated and corruption thrived.

“Enemies Without Guns” was an early Party propaganda campaign that illustrates the pervasive affect the bureaucratic state was able to exert on its population: breeding distrust amongst neighbours, and breaking down camaraderie among the working class and peasant masses.

The Party encouraged the population to anonymously submit the names of those who they suspected were linked to, for example, money, foreign devils and/or the rival Nationalist Party, into designated post boxes.

Alongside early rural land reforms and urban industrial projects, which sought to launch China (then home to one in four of the world’s population) into a global superpower, was the omnipresence of the state. Effort towards economic modernisation would go hand-in-hand with political repression – the defining feature of China’s political economy.

The 1930s and 40s were shaped by a struggle between the Nationalist Party, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong. The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan when Mao took power in 1949. Taiwan has since benefited from US military aid, which is an ongoing source of annoyance for the CCP. Moves by the Chinese state to act on its claim that Taiwan is part of China have long threatened to draw the United States into war.

Tibet is another major geopolitical tension and conflict. The CCP launched a military offensive on the region of Tibet in 1950, claiming the area was a part of China mainland. A Tibetan uprising to CCP rule in 1959 was brutally crushed. The Dalai Lama calls for political autonomy for Tibet, not a separate nation-state. The CCP refuses to negotiate.

While most intellectual life was controlled by the CCP, a momentary opening was created by Mao Zedong’s instruction in 1956 for the country’s citizens and intellectuals to constructively criticise the Party, known as “A Hundred Flowers to Bloom in the Arts and a Hundred Schools of Thought to Contend in Science”. What it released was a huge wave of criticism against Party bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. Walls of universities were plastered with such criticism.

In 1957 Mao declared those he had encouraged previously to criticise the Party as “Enemies and Rightists”, and he appointed Deng Xiaoping to head the subsequent “Anti-Rightist Movement”. This effectively silenced China’s key intellectuals for decades.

When I have visited China in the years 2007-2013, various of my contacts (working in the fields of academia, teaching, and business) have observed that Chinese students and graduates struggle with a sense of critique, i.e., of questioning things. Without doubt, the silencing of the country’s intellectuals decades previously has left a legacy on education, where only a few brave teachers and students dare to question.

The launch of the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958 signified Mao’s ambition to equal the West in industrial output within fifteen years. Actually it was a huge propaganda campaign with ludicrous and counterproductive initiatives and targets that, in combination with natural disaster, literally starved to death millions.

People were told to convert scrap iron and steel into pots, and so the countryside was marked by rows of giant furnaces that made piles of pots which were useless and cracked easily. And yet it went on. To meet targets, Party bureaucrats inflated the figures for the actual production of grain. Too much grain left the countryside, generating a food crisis while grain lay stored in excess in the cities. One propaganda slogan, “The corn will grow higher the more you desire”, accentuates the farce.

There was little to no questioning of the Great Leap Forward as a consequence of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Anti-Rightist Movement.

Historian Frank Dikötter, in Mao’s Great Famine: The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, argues that the Great Leap Forward, with a death toll of 45 million, “ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century…. It was like Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over”.

By 1964 the infamous “Little Red Book”, a book of Mao quotes, had been produced and widely distributed. Its reach cannot be underestimated, both within China and globally. And what it came to symbolise was the cult of Mao, that is, his status as a living god and the irrational fervour that went along with that. In this climate, Mao decided that he needed to call on new forces to boost his hegemony in the Party. In May 1966 he launched a campaign that called on the youth to attack the Party and steer it onto the path of true “revolutionary politics”. The “Cultural Revolution” was born.

In April 1966, the Cultural Revolution was launched, under the direction of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and Kang Sheng. Mao’s personality cult reached fever pitch — the Little Red Book was recited daily and 4.8 billion Mao badges and 1.2 billion Mao portraits were produced. China was turned into a cultural desert — schools were closed for a year and Red Guard groups (led by the children of high officials) assailed teachers, writers and artists, and participated in state plunder.

Red Guards were given licence to attack virtually anything from “Hong Kong haircuts” to the “bourgeois-feudal reactionary music of Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich.” The regime issued spine-chilling edicts, condemning: “workers concerned only with love and romance, pandering to low tastes, claiming that ‘love’ and ‘death’ are eternal themes. All such bourgeois revisionist trash must be resolutely opposed.”

But the Cultural Revolution threatened to escape Mao’s control. Proletarian and peasant masses went out on unprecedented strikes and fought pitched battles against Red Guards. A notice in Fuzhou warned that: “A handful of freaks and monsters have cheated the misled members of the worker Red Guard units and some worker masses to put forward many wage, welfare and other economic demands to the leadership and administrative departments of the units.”

There was a significant rebellion in Wuhan, followed by bloody faction fighting. Mao solved the crisis by rusticating the youth and instituting state terror. He purged the top leadership of his regime — Liu Shao-chi and Deng Xiaoping were denounced as “capitalist roaders”, and the purged positions were replaced by appointees drawn from the army.

As Raya Dunayevskaya noted, Maoism was the application of the theory of “socialism in one country” to a technologically backward country in a world divided between two industrialised superpowers. Because of this situation, and because the regime had “no perspective of world revolution ‘in our time’, [it felt] compelled to drive the masses all the harder. Under private capitalism this was known as primitive accumulation; under state capitalism, calling itself Communism, it is called, internally, ‘fighting self-interest’, and, externally, ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Thought Lights Up the Whole World.’”

As such, Maoism belongs to humanity’s reactionary past, not its socialist future.

The fever-ridden young Red Guards were instructed to destroy the “Four Olds”: “Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits”.

The very cultural and historical fabric of Chinese society was devastated — museums, libraries, temples, street signs, and so on. By 1967 the Cultural Revolution descended into factional warfare, with a splinter from the Red Guards forming, known as the Rebels (supported by Mao). By the summer China was in civil war.

It is estimated that thirty six million people were harassed during the Cultural Revolution and up to one million killed (Branigan, 2013).

There is no doubt that the post-Mao Chinese government pursued a series of reforms. But today, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the economic forces that were really transforming the Chinese economy in the first decade of reform were private farming, township and village enterprises, private business in cities, and the Special Economic Zones. None of them was initiated from Beijing. They were marginal players operating outside the boundary of “socialism”. For these marginal forces, the Chinese government was happy to leave them alone as long as they did not threaten the state sector or challenge the Party’s political power. This created a room for what we called the “marginal revolutions” that brought entrepreneurship and market forces back to China during the first decade of reform. Today, China is a major capitalist power, likely to overhaul the US economy in the present century, but still lacking in bourgeoisie democratic rights and free trade unions.

Reference:

• Branigan, T (2013) “China’s Cultural Revolution: son’s guilt over the mother he sent to her death”, The Guardian.

NB: this piece is based upon the work of various contributors to the AWL’s paper Solidarity, and in particular the late Mike Kriazopoulos. 

Permalink 3 Comments

Use reason, not expulsions, to defeat anti-Semitism in our movement

May 15, 2016 at 3:49 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, labour party, left, Marxism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", reformism, stalinism, trotskyism)

Three more councillors suspended from Labour day before electionsJackie Walker was suspended pending an investigation

We republish below, a new piece by Sean Matgamna, the person who has done more than any other individual to force the question of anti-Semitism onto the agenda of the British left.

As usual with Sean, it’s a balanced and well-reasoned piece that takes full account of the political context in which comments are made, and he is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

But I personally think he’s wrong in simply dismissing as unreasonable, concerns about Jackie Walker’s Facebook comments. I can agree that her comments should not have been dealt with by disciplinary action, but they were not unproblematic. As Sean doesn’t quote Walker’s comments, I will:

“As I’m sure you know, millions more Africans were killed in the African holocaust and their oppression continues today on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews …

“Many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. So who are victims and what does it mean? We are victims and perpetrators to some extent through choice”

I would ask, what is the relevance of Jewish slave-traders in the 17th century to anti-semitism today? I genuinely don’t understand what point Jackie was trying to make.

That may be partly because I haven’t seen the whole conversation the comments were part of, but could someone explain what the point was? The only interpretation I can see is that the role of Jews in slavery somehow mitigates anti-semitism today. If that’s not the point, then what was it? I’d be very happy to have it explained.

_______________________________________________________________________

Mobilise reason to fight anti-Semitism
By Sean Matgamna

Jackie Walker, a woman of mixed African-Jewish background, and vice-chair of the Labour Party’s left-wing group, Momentum, has been suspended by the Labour Party on grounds of anti-semitism. The charge of anti-semitism is based on a fragment of a Facebook conversation from some months ago. Her anti-semitism consisted in the statement that Africa too had experienced a Holocaust.

The Labour Party now has a regime of capricious and arbitrary instant exclusions. This paper and its predecessor Socialist Organiser have argued that anti-semitism in the labour movement needs to be rooted out. But this Red-Queen-in-Alice-in-Wonderland off with their heads regime is not the way to do it.

For decades, from Israel’s June 1967 Six Day War and with renewed energy after the 1973 Yom Kippur Israeli-Egyptian war, hostility to Israel has been a major, and seemingly ever-growing, force in the labour movement and in the Labour Party. Some of that is a just hostility to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But there is more than that. There is often a blatant anti-semitism.

In June 1967 Israel occupied that part of pre-1948 Palestine which the United Nations partition plan of 1947 had designated for an independent Palestinian state, to exist side by side with Israel. That Palestinian territory had been occupied and annexed in 1948-9 by Jordan and Egypt, and a small part of it by Israel. Now all of pre-war Palestine and Gaza was under Israeli control. Various Israeli offers to vacate the newly conquered territories in return for peace and recognition by the Arab states were rejected. Israel’s occupation of that Palestinian land has so far lasted half a century. It has turned Israel into a regional imperialist power (in the sense that Marxists had called the pre-World-War-2 Czechoslovakian, Polish, and Yugoslav states imperialist: they ruled over minority peoples repressed to various degrees by the Poles, Czechs, Serbs).

Israel has been a grubby and brutal imperialist power in its treatment of the Palestinians. As with any other imperialist occupation, Marxists have demanded that the occupying power, Israel, get out of the Arab-majority territories and allow the Palestinians to have their own state there. That there were special problems was not to be denied. In 1967, no Arab state recognised Israel’s existence, or its right to continued existence. Only the PLO and a couple of states, Egypt and Jordan, do so, even today. The PLO before the June 1967 war had been controlled by Egypt and fronted by Ahmad Shukeiri, who proclaimed the PLO’s objective in the slogan: drive the Jews into the sea.

This was altogether too reminiscent of Hitler, then only twenty years dead. Any taint, approximation to, or suggestion of anti-semitism was still held to be unclean politics, far outside what was acceptable to labour-movement people. But with an enormous exception: the Stalinist movements everywhere had spent the years from 1948-9 to 1953 in a scarcely-disguised anti-semitic clamour against “the Zionists” and against Israel.

In Stalinist show trials in Russia’s satellite states in Eastern Europe, such as the Czech Slansky trial of 1952, recently-prominent Stalinists accused of all sorts of treasons were indicted above all as being Zionists. They were jailed, and some hanged. The Stalinist parties everywhere conducted large-scale propaganda against Zionism. It was then that the assertion that the Zionists were tools, and political and moral accomplices, of Hitler and the Nazis, appeared and went into circulation. In the USSR, a projected show trial of Jewish doctors who had attended the leading Stalinists was set in train. It was abandoned when Stalin died in March 1953. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin in 1956, and his anti-semitism suddenly became a matter of public record. Many Jews left the Communist Parties. Stalinist anti-Zionist anti-semitism was banked down. But not everywhere. Open anti-semitism became a force in Poland as late as 1967-8.

The orthodox Trotskyists, including the Palestinian Trotskyists, declared themselves against both sides in the Israeli war of independence in 1948. The Workers Party in the USA supported Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Naturally, Trotskyists denounced the Stalinist anti-semitic campaigns of 1948 to 1953. In 1956 and after, its anti-semitism was part of their denunciation of Stalinism. How did those attitudes turn into fervent support for the Arab states against Israel? What were the political processes by way of which much of what had been official Stalinist doctrine in 1948-53, denounced as anti-Semitism by the orthodox Trotskyists, came to be fervently accepted and propagated by them?

The objective basis for it was the fact and the accompanying brutalities of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian-majority territories. Its subjective basis was the peculiar version of anti-imperialism which the Trotskyists adopted from the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 onwards, an anti-imperialism coloured and sculpted by the belief that in the colonial and semi-colonial world the Stalinists were, by virtue of their militancy against the US and its allies, leading the first stage of an anti-capitalist and essentially working-class world revolution.

Thus the orthodox Trotskyists came to be impassioned defenders and advocates of one of the great imperialist blocs contending for mastery in the world. They made criticisms of Stalinism, but never allowed them to affect the basic commitment to ” defend” the USSR and its spawns and replicas. The same sort of anti-imperialism was brought to bear on the antagonisms between Israel and the Arab states. The anti-colonial movements in the Arab world were construed as part of an”Arab Revolution”, which in turn was part of the “Colonoial Revolution which was part of the world revolution. The Grant tendency (later Militant, and today the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) even discovered in 1965 that Ba thist (non-Stalinist) Syria had in thhis historical process become a “deformed workers state”.

Israel, which after 1967, though not before, became closely allied with the USA, was part of the imperialist bloc. The Palestinians and the Arab states, such as Nasserite Egypt, opposing Israel were part of the progressive anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist bloc. And of course the Palestinians facing the superior might of Israel naturally attracted the reflex sympathy and support of socialists.

The Trotskyists shift from their attitude in the 1948 war and after was first a shift to a new denial that Israel was a historically legitimate state. From the end of Arab-Israeli hostilities in 1949, the Trotskyists had taken the existence of Israel as a fact. When in 1956 Israel joined France and Britain in invading Egypt (the Suez crisis), the Trotskyists properly took sides with Egypt, but did not conclude that Israel, the ally of Britain and France, had no right to continue existing. In the grip of a belief that the” Arab Revolution” was or would soon become socialist, Gerry Healy, the leader of the main British orthodox Trotskyist group, published a small pamphlet on the Suez crisis in which, astonishingly, he threatened that if the Israelis did not change to the right side in the world revolution, the side that the Arabs and their colonial revolution were on, they would soon face a bloody holocaust that would make Hitler’s massacres seem “like a tea party! The organisation that could allow Healy to publish such a thing — what could make the murder of six million Jews in Europe seem like a tea party?– was politically sick; but the same organisation, at roughly the same time, could publish a valuable expose of Stalinist anti-semitism.

The shift to a radical opposition to the existence of Israel came by way of widespread acceptance of the post-1969 PLO proposal to replace Israel with a secular democratic state in all of pre-1948 Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs could live as equals. The PLO no longer shouted “Drive the Jews into the sea”, but, with its seemingly benign proposal for Jewish-Arab equality in a common secular democratic state, it was thereby all the more effective in spreading the idea that Israel was not a legitimate state, that it should never have come into existence, and that it should be put out of existence as soon as possible. Any idea that this could ever be done by Israel agreeing to abolish itself as a state and put its citizens at the mercy of its long-time bitter enemies was ludicrous.

And it was an approach unique to the Jewish state: to no other nation state was there such an attitude. In practice the approach could only mean what Shukeiri’s “Drive the Jews into the sea” had meant: conquest of Israel, depriving the Hebrew nation of national rights, and killing as many Israeli Jews as necessary to do that. A combination of hostility to Israel’s continuing occupation of Arab-majority territories and the pseudo-benignity of the secular democratic state proposal made the formula widely acceptable to people who would never accept the same programme — that Israel was not a historically legitimate state and should go out of existence — presented as the “drive the Jews into the sea” that it was and in practice could only be. Thus the idea of Israel’s historical illegitimacy became widely accepted on the left, including the Labour Party left; and then, what followed from it, since Israel was so unreasonable as to refuse to abolish itself: support for any armed Arab (or, latterly, Islamic, i.e. Iranian) action against Israel.

Not just a proper socialist and democratic support for Palestinians attempting to drive out the Israelis from Palestinian majority territories, but support for suicide bombs against Israeli civilians and for the mouthings and actions against Israel of such as Saddam Hussein. Labour MPs held to such views, and not only honest and well-meaning political fools like the late Ron Brown MP. When in 1994 the soft-left Labour MP George Galloway, on camera, addressed Saddam Hussein, praising the butcher’s strength and in Arabic pledging support for the conquest of Jerusalem, the right-wing Labour establishment left it to the Tories and the press to protest. Galloway’s continued membership of the Labour Party was at that point never questioned, other than that Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity) said that he should be removed as an MP.

And now, under a left-wing leadership, we have a regime in the Labour Party where Jackie Walker, a woman of mixed African-Jewish background, can be summarily suspended for daring to call the long historical martyrdom of Africa, notably the slave trade, a Holocaust equivalent to the Hitlerian massacre of six million Jews. Are such glosses on history now full-blown anti-semitism? Not something maybe to disagree with or question, or denounce, but something incompatible with membership of the Labour Party? The Labour Party that for so long had George Galloway as one of its ornaments?

I repeat: anti-semitism on the left needs to be fought against and destroyed. This paper, and its predecessor Socialist Organiser, have been fighting it within the left and in the labour movement for over three decades. The main fight, however, has to take the form of debate, discussion, political education and re-education. The suspension from the Labour Party of a Ken Livingstone for pretty blatant anti-semitism on the air is just and necessary. The removal of Jackie Walker is preposterous. It is the sort of response in mirror image that the hysterical left in student unions have sometimes employed against those Jews they deem not hostile enough to Israel and thus Zionist and racist.

The Palestinians are oppressed by Israel and therefore are entitled to the support of honest socialists and consistent democrats. Is heated support for the Palestinians from now on to be incompatible with Labour Party membership? Is indignant, or exaggerated, or hysterical denunciation of specific Israeli acts to be branded racist, incompatible with membership in the new Labour Party?

We need to specify what left anti-semitism consists of, in order to debate, educate, and clarify. These, I think, are its main features.

1. The belief that Israel has no right to exist. That is the core of left anti-semitism, though it comes in more than one version and from more than one root, ranging from the skewed anti-imperialism of the orthodox Trotskyists through Arab nationalism to Islamic chauvinism.

2. The belief that Israeli Jewish nationalism, Zionism, is necessarily a form of racism. That this racism can only be expunged if Israel, Zionists, and Jews abandon Israeli nationalism and support of any kind for Israel. That Jews Jewish students, for example can only redeem themselves if they agree that the very existence of Israel is racist.

3. The view that Israel alone is responsible for the conflict with the Arab states (and, now, with Islamic states). The idea that Israel alone is responsible for creating Arab refugees, and is uniquely evil in doing so. In real history about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out in 1948. In the following years the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab territories numbered about 600,000. Israel integrated the 600,000; the Arab states mostly refused the Palestinians citizenship or even the right to work.

4. The claim that the Palestinian have a “right of return”, that is, the right to the organised settlement in Israel of six million people, only a tiny and dying-off number of whom were born in what is now Israel, is one of the many codes for in fact demanding the self-abolition of the Jewish state and justifications for war to conquer and abolish it because it will not accept the demand. It is not the equivalent of free immigration to the UK, or even of mass migration to the UK of millions from Syria, Libya, and Africa. Its equivalent for Britain would be the organised settlement in the country of sixty million people. Socialists should be in favour of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians for compensation and for letting individual Palestinians into Israel. Support for a collective right of return is only another form of the demand to conquer and destroy Israel, if it will not surrender.

5. The idea that the forced migration of 700,000 Arabs was a *unique* evil is also extravagantly wrong. In 1945, about 13 million Germans were driven out of Eastern Europe and German East Prussia. They were driven into a Germany reduced to ruins by wartime bombing, where economic life had seized up and millions were starving. At least half a million are reckoned to have lost their lives in that ethnic cleansing. Only obscure German nationalists now propose to reverse that forced population movement and to drive out the Poles and Czechs who live where Germans once lived.

6. There is a peculiar form of Holocaust semi-denial current on the left. I have never heard of anyone on the left who denies that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis (though, in the nature of things, someone will now jump out from behind a bush wearing a “Hitler was Framed” badge, and call me a liar). What many on the left deny is that this unique fact of history had repercussions that we should at least try to understand, with some sympathy for the surviving Jews and their decendents. On the left the Holocaust is not denied, but it is relegated almost to the status of a “virtual fact”. In truth, the Holocaust discredited all Jewish-assimilationist programmes, including ours, the socialist one. It created the will for a Jewish solution to the Jewish question and for the creation of Israel. There is not to be surprised or scandalised in that. The Holocaust should be appreciated as a real fact of history, with repercussions and reverberations, and not as something outside the history we are all part of, as a sort of side-show, as a two-dimensional hologram rather than the enormously weighty, reverborating event it was and continues to be.

7. The idea that there are good peoples entitled to all rights, and bad peoples, entitled to none. That too is something I have never heard anyone voice explicitly. But it is there as an underlying implicit subtext in the idea that we are concerned with national rights only for the presently oppressed, i.e. in this case the Palestinians.

8. There is no one-state solution. Not through, as now, Israeli domination of the whole territory and Palestinians living indefinitely in a limbo of Israeli occupation, nor through a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” incorporating Israel after its Jewish population have been killed or overpowered by Arab or Islamic states. The only just solution that can serve both Jews and Arabs is two states: a sovereign Palestinian state in contiguous territory, side by side with Israel.

Permalink 24 Comments

Matgamna on Livingstone, Labour and anti-semitism

May 5, 2016 at 10:26 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, history, israel, labour party, Livingstone, palestine, stalinism, zionism)


Above: the LBC interview that started it all

This article also appears in the present issue of Solidarity and the Workers Liberty website.
By Sean Matgamna

On one level the sudden media outcry about Ken Livingstone’s anti-semitism is being used and fed by the Labour right, especially the stupid part of the right — and, of course, the Tories — to sabotage the Labour Party in the London mayoral and other local government elections and to discredit Jeremy Corbyn.

Livingstone has been what he is now for decades. He was the same Livingstone when the Blairite right took him back into the Labour Party, in 2004, after his 2000-4 term as London mayor. The bigger truth, however, is that, whatever their motives, those who cry out against Livingstone’s vicious nonsense about Hitler supporting Zionism and wanting to send Jews to Israel in 1932 (he said Israel, not Palestine) are right to do so. If the enemies of the Labour Party and of the left have found a soft target, it is a legitimate target. A big part of the pseudo-left believe or assert that “Zionists” (that is, for practical purposes, most Jews) are historically tainted by Nazism. That “the Zionists” “collaborated” with the Nazis in making the Holocaust and share responsibility for it; that “the Zionists” manipulated even the Nazis during World War 2 and especially share responsibility for the Nazi murder of one million Hungarian Jews in 1944-5. That in their “racism” — that is, in first their wanting a Jewish state and then in their Israeli nationalism — they run parallel to Nazism. That Israel, in that sense, is a continuation of Nazism.

This bizarre “story” originates in the Stalinist anti-semitic campaign against “Zionism” of the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s. The fact that it is a tissue of contrived and vicious nonsense does not discredit it: one reason why it survives is that it is rarely expressed as a coherent story, as it is here. It is the thesis of the play ‘Perdition’, written by Jim Allen and produced by Ken Loach, and based on Lenni Brenner’s grossly biased and distorting book which Livingstone says he will submit to the Labour Party inquiry into his statements.

Politically inexperienced young people, justly indignant at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Gaza and moved to side with the Palestinians, are easily led into accepting some or all of these ideas. A petrol bomb, or Molotov cocktail, consists of soapy water and petrol in a bottle, and “works”, after the glass container is shattered, by way of the soapy water spreading the burning petrol. Righteous indignation at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is the soapy water here, spreading a lethal anti-semitism disguised as “anti-Zionism” — what someone called “absolute anti-Zionism”. It has been spread on anti-war demonstrations, for example, by way of placards and chants equating Israeli prime ministers with Hitler, identifying Zionism and Nazism, coupling the Star of David and the swastika, and proclamations of the need to destroy (in real-world terms, conquer) Israel. Young people indignant at Israeli government policies and actions against the Palestinians are miseducated to believe that support for the Palestinians against Israel demands not an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel, but the destruction of Israel.

Least of all does this vicious claptrap help the Palestinians. Even leaving aside the question of the national rights of the Hebrew nation in Palestine, this attitude implies indefinite postponement of a settlement, until Israel can be conquered. It rules out emancipation for the Palestinians in any foreseeable future. Its devotees actively campaign against the only real solution: an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel.

They “use” the plight of the Palestinians to float Arab-chauvinist, Islamic-chauvinist, “anti-imperialist” hostility to Israel. They are functionally indifferent to the living Palestinian people. The terrible truth is that the pseudo-left, and most so the “revolutionary” pseudo-left”, is a cesspool of an “absolute anti-Zionism” which is anti-semitism because it condemns — as “Zionists”, as criminals, as racists — Jews who refuse to agree that Israel should be abolished.

In the not-so-distant past, student Jewish societies have been banned for refusing to support this. Livingstone’s comments were only a small and half-sanitised version of that politics, that attitude, and that mindset. It is a historical fact that some anti-semites — for instance, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein — did say they found Zionism acceptable. It would if successful remove the Jews they hated to a distant land. For decades such facts as the talks between Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and the minister of the anti-semitic Tsarist government, von Plehve, or the “Transfer Agreement” made by the Jewish Agency in Palestine with Hitler’s government in August 1933, allowing Jews who fled Germany to Palestine to keep some of their property, were setpieces in Stalinist anti-Zionist agitation. But Livingstone wasn’t just referring to such things in the past and “construing” them. It is plain from the way he spoke that he was jeering, baiting, just as he did in 2005 when he called a Jewish journalist “like a concentration camp guard”.

“Hitler supported Zionism”. He wanted Jews to go “to Israel”. The Holocaust was not a logical development in war conditions of Nazi policies, but a matter of Hitler, previously a Zionist, “going mad and killing millions of Jews”. Slight pauses in his speech indicated that Livingstone was being careful with his words. He reaffirmed his statements in three separate interviews on 28 April, and has refused to retract them since. With Livingstone, the cesspool of pseudo-left “absolute anti-Zionism”, that is anti-semitism, overflowed into mainstream politics. It gave the right and the Tories an easy target and an opportunity to bring the scandal out into the open. It needs to be out in the open. It needs to be discussed. It needs to be purged politically — and the labour movement needs to purge itself of the unteachables like Livingstone.

The immediate suspension of Livingstone from the Labour Party and the setting-up of an investigation into his statements overlaps with the distinct and separate question of the rights of Labour Party members and the continuing waves of expulsions of leftists. “Progress” and other Labour right-wingers are campaigning to make expulsions even easier, and for anyone adjudged by a Labour Party official as guilty of “anti-semitism, racism, or Islamophobia” to be summarily banned from membership for life. Livingstone and his supporters try to present Livingstone’s suspension as one more unjustified reprisal against the left. They try to amalgamate the issues. Serious socialists should not let them do that.

Livingstone is not a typical victim of Labour’s expulsion-freaks. There is a mystery here. What does Livingstone think he is doing? He is a calculating man. He is a Livingstone-serving opportunist, not a principled politician who will stand by his version of the truth, irrespective of consequences. His saying what he said and refusing to retreat from it is uncharacteristic behaviour. He knows perfectly well that he is helping the Labour right and the Tories, sabotaging Labour’s election campaign. He wants to do that? Why?

The explanation may lie in Livingstone’s dual character. Inside this supremely self-centred, manipulative politician Dr Jekyll-Livingstone there is imprisoned a contrary, irrational, egotist, Mr Hyde-Livingstone, who sometimes takes over.

The Labour right offensive targets not only Livingstone but Corbyn. Prominent has been John Mann MP. Mann is something of a rent-a-gob, an MP in a symbiotic partnership with busy journalists who need an immediate response, a comment, a quote. That gives the MP a spurious prominence and the journalists usable copy. In his rent-a-gob role, when it became plain in the middle of the 2015 Labour leadership contest that Corbyn would win, Mann made the preposterous proposal that the election be called off, thus branding himself as not only a right-winger but also as a notable dimwit. But Mann has for long been an open opponent of “left-wing” anti-semitism. He is entitled to have a go at Livingstone, even though, characteristically, he did it with wild hyperbole. Whatever the motives of those attacking Livingstone, the issue of pseudo-left anti-semitism must be tackled on its merits.

For the serious left to ally with Livingstone, and to let opposition to the expulsions regime in the Labour Party prejudice us in favour of Livingstone, pushing aside the political question in this case, would be a suicidal mistake. “Left” anti-semitism is no small thing. The future of the labour movement depends on it being opposed, combated, and uprooted. The Labour leadership had a right to suspend Livingstone and open an investigation, and they were right to exercise it. The alternative would have been to show themselves numb, indifferent, or collusive to anti-semitism and the anti-semites. Livingstone will have the chance to argue at the investigation all his claims to have been unfairly or unjustly treated.

There is a plain danger that the politics of the issue will be buried in the churning mud of denunciations and counter-denunciations. Typical left “absolute anti-Zionists” are not racists. They most likely share all the horror of decent people at racism. Their mental furniture includes denunciations of Hitler’s and Stalin’s anti-semitism, loathing of the Tsarist Black Hundred anti-Jewish pogromists, and so on. The central problem with the “absolute anti-Zionists” is that they don’t see the connection between the anti-semitism and the racism they loathe, and their own politics now on Israel. They see themselves only as champions of the Palestinians oppressed by Israel, and their hostility to Israel only as a just and necessary part of that. Such people are typically not racists against Jews. The dividing line is not on racism, but in the politics of the Middle East. It is not between critics of Israel and its uncritical defenders, but on the political answers subscribed to. The dividing line is between those who want to change and reform Israel, and have an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel — and those who deny Israel’s right to exist at all, who see Israel as an illegitimate political formation, a mistake, a crime of history that must be undone by the elimination of the whole Israeli polity.

Everything anti-semitic specific to the left is rooted in that divide. It is impossible to draw a line saying which degrees and kinds of criticism of Israel are to be licensed. Who should decide what is untrue or true, too severe or merely just, preconceived or a legitimate response to reality? It is a hopeless task. Such a Labour Party regime could not but be arbitrary and capricious, and, in current conditions, driven by a hysteria invoked for the occasion by the Labour right.

On the one side there will be people inclined to see any serious criticism of Israel as anti-semitism; on the other, those inclined to see any defence or justification of Israel as “Zionist apologetics”. The political dividing line, both true to the reality and serviceable in practice, is between critics of Israeli policy and action who want to improve things, and those whose often just criticism carries the demand that Israel be destroyed, that the Hebrew nation be deprived of self-determination — who back armed action by such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and by Arab or Islamic states, to put Israel out of existence.

It is important in all this not to lose sight of the Palestinians held in the stifling grasp of Israeli occupation, outmatched militarily and more or less helpless in the face of Israeli military might. The Palestinian demand for their own independent state, alongside Israel, deserves the support of every socialist and honest democrat.

Permalink 24 Comments

Livingstone’s “thing” about Jews

April 30, 2016 at 6:42 am (anti-semitism, AWL, conspiracy theories, fascism, history, Jim D, labour party, Livingstone, Racism, stalinism, zionism)

According to the Evening Standard Ken Livingstone is planning to rely on Lenni Brenner’s controversial writings on Zionism in his defence within the Labour Party. It says Livingstone met and was convinced by Brenner (described as ‘an obscure Marxist writer’ and ‘bearded American historian’) in 1985 – that is, at the height of Livingstone’s association with the Workers Revolutionary Party.

His defence that his remarks are (supposedly) historically accurate is an attempt to obscure what’s really going on and a red herring . More to the point is why he chose to make those remarks when he did. They hardly constitute a defence of Naz Shah, which is what he was supposed to be talking about. This and the 2005 incident with a Jewish reporter, indicates that he has a reflex of saying something offensive to Jews when he sees an opportunity or is challenged. That is, he has a “thing” about Jews.

The article below, published in the AWL’s Solidarity newspaper in 2005 (shortly after the incident with the reporter) gives a good analysis of Livingstone’s character in general, and his “thing” about Jews in particular. In the light of subsequent events, however, I’d say the author (Sean Matgamna) is being too charitable when he opines  that “It is very unlikely that he is prejudiced against individual Jews, simply for being Jewish”:

Row: Ken Livingstone was recorded comparing Jewish journalist Oliver Finegold (right) to a 'German war criminal' , which ended up in the High Court

Permalink 13 Comments

What attitude should socialists take to Prevent?

March 3, 2016 at 8:56 pm (AWL, civil rights, Education, Free Speech, islamism, posted by JD)

A debate has been taking place in the AWL’s paper Solidarity:

From Omar Raii:
Oppose Prevent but don’t ally with Cage

The Daily Mail has condemned the National Union of Students over its links with the organisation Cage (formerly Cageprisoners), run by former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg.

The Daily Mail (7 January) targetted NUS Vice-President Shelly Asquith, criticising her for speaking out in opposition to the government’s Prevent strategy — the government’s scheme ostensibly aimed at stopping young people being “radicalised” by “extremists” but which is aimed exclusively at Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism and has is linked to increased state surveillance and repression on the grounds of “national security” and “counter-terrorism”.

The Daily Mail linked opposition to Prevent with support for Cage. Spokespeople for Cage have been invited to NUS events to speak against Prevent. The paper also linked opposition to Prevent with some student unions banning speakers such as Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and David Starkey.

Criticism of NUS and Asquith by the right-wing press has brought understandable ire from the student movement and the left. The Prevent strategy is deeply flawed and many students are rightfully worried about its potential negative implications for freedom of speech on campus, and about using teachers and lecturers as spies and informants. The NUS and Asquith are absolutely right to organise speaker tours against something that would be damaging to the student movement.

The Daily Mail’s pro-freedom of speech language, is hypocritical given its support for repressive government measures that would dampen down freedom of speech on campus. The paper was also hugely patronising and sexist — at one point, the NUS Vice-President is referred to as a “Corbyn girl”. We should unequivocally defend NUS for its stance on Prevent. Despite the crass hypocrisy of The Daily Mail, that is not the only issue here. Banning speakers — not matter how offensive they may be — in an attempt to create so-called “safe spaces”on campuses makes it more difficult to argue against government censorship and repression. Moreover, working with Cage and Begg is a huge own goal for the NUS in terms of fighting Prevent.

Members of Cage and Begg have made statements supporting right wing Islamists such as the Taliban. The NUS does itself no favours by allying with them. Equally the left’s response to opt for unequivocal defence of Cage is dishonest. In its opposition to the Daily Mail, Socialist Worker interviewed Moazzam Begg and Azad Ali (who has also worked with Cage) without once criticising them, or even mentioning their history. This, not just the Daily Mail’s racist witch hunt or propaganda for the Prevent agenda, is a problem. We do not have to defend Begg or groups like Cage in order to defend Muslim students or overlook the views of Islamists in a battle against a greater enemy, on this occasion The Daily Mail.

More on Cage

*************************

From Patrick Murphy:
Why and how to oppose Prevent

In February 2015 schools, local authorities and colleges in the UK became subject to something called “the Prevent duty”. Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, this was a legal duty to “have regard to the need to protect people from being drawn into terrorism”.

In this age of high-stakes monitoring and the tyranny of Ofsted, that “duty” led to frequent cases of over-anxious staff reporting perfectly innocent behaviour as if it were dangerous. The Prevent programme itself was introduced by the last Labour government in 2006, in response to the 7/7 London bombing, and driven by the concern that atrocities were the work of “home-grown” terrorists.

At the time it was part of a four-pronged anti-terrorist strategy: “Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare”. In 2006 the strategy was focused exclusively on Islamist terrorism and based on the principle that there was a decisive causal link between extremist ideology and violent acts. The strategy relied heavily on funding Islamic groups seen as “moderate” and able to act as a counterweight to the “extremists”.

In 2009 the focus narrowed to target Al Qaeda and the funding increased. At the same time an attempt was made to widen the definition of extremism to include “promoting Sharia law or failing to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan”, but that was quickly withdrawn. In 2011, the Coalition government extended the definition of extremism to include non-Muslim groups, and in particular the far right. Funding was withdrawn from so-called “moderate Islamic” groups, on the not entirely unfounded basis that some of them were promoting much the same ideology as the “extremists”. So-called “British values” became the litmus test for what was deemed “safe”. Prevent was given a focus on protecting young people from grooming by jihadis and other extremists.

The left should unequivocally oppose everything that jihadists or far-right extremists represent. We oppose them not in a passive or abstract way; we want them stopped, caught and defeated. We want children and young people protected from efforts by such people to groom them and endanger their lives, just as we would want more and not less effort by the state to prevent child abuse, whether it is violent or sexual or through neglect. The Prevent agenda is, however, very unpopular across mainly-Muslim communities and on the left. The National Union of Students calls for a boycott and has produced a handbook on it. The largest teachers’ union, the NUT, is likely at its conference at Easter to pass a motion which calls for Prevent to be withdrawn. So, representatives of some of the most important groups and communities expected to make Prevent work dislike the strategy.

They are right to do so. For a start, there is no evidence that Prevent is successful in “preventing” jihadi recruitment. The number of young people travelling to Syria to join Daesh indicates the opposite. So none of the other problems with the strategy can be excused on grounds of ends justifying means. Muslim communities feel targeted. Until 2011 other forms of terroristic extremism went unmentioned. Even now the references to the far right appear fairly token. Many initiatives developed as part of Prevent increase the level of surveillance in our society, by encouraging people to spy on and suspect the worst of each other, or by the misuse of local state power. Prevent funds were used to fund all the CCTV cameras in central Birmingham.

The strategy is open to political abuse. Once its approach is embedded the state can easily recalibrate it to target direct action environmentalists, anti-fascists and the labour movement. Prevent undermines the relationships many public service workers, especially teachers, have with their communities, students and young people, and thus cuts against teachers gaining trust and being able to re-educate young people tempted by terroristic ideologies. Without doing anything significant to stop recruitment to terroristic ideologies, the Prevent strategy introduces or exacerbates a whole set of other problems. It should be withdrawn.

Socialists, however, should acknowledge that there is a real problem of jihadi-terrorist recruitment. There are useful ideas in the NUS handbook, but major weaknesses too. Against Prevent it proposes we ally with the self-styled “human rights NGO” CAGE. Omar Raii explained the problems with that in an article in Solidarity 390. NUS claims that Prevent diverts attention from “the government’s own complicity in nurturing political violence due to its recent foreign policy decisions as well as its long history of colonialism” and that, by focusing on terrorism, the government is guilty of redirecting attention to “the consequences of its actions”.

The logic here is that the terrorists are not really responsible for their own actions. They were made to do them by some recent foreign policy decision or by “the long history of colonialism”. This view simultaneously excuses and infantilises religious fascists. NUS dismisses what it calls “the conveyor-belt theory”, the idea that there is a decisive link between extremist ideas and acts of violence. But the evidence they cite against shows only that violence has multiple causes and that ideological predisposition is not enough on its own.

It is ironic that NUS should deny the link between the expression of reactionary ideas (extreme homophobia, misogyny, religious hatred) and the threat of violence. Too many student unions have sought to ban speakers they don’t like on grounds that the ideas represent a risk to the safety of various constituencies of students. So Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Dapper Laughs are too dangerous to be heard, but overt jihadi-terrorist ideas have no consequences?

We should oppose the Prevent strategy for the right reasons and alongside the right allies. We should also treat the danger to children as real and serious. Policies to deal with grooming, travel to Syria, and social media safety should be embedded in regular school safeguarding policies and training. Citizenship teaching should be reinstated in schools: it has been marginalised by government obsessions with tests, league tables, and core subjects.

More primary schools should be encouraged to discuss ideas, including through the teaching of basic philosophy. Prevent isn’t necessary to do such work. It does more harm than good, by closing debate down where it should be opened up.

********************

From Jim Denham:
Not convinced

Omar Raii (Solidarity 390) and Patrick Murphy (Solidarity 391) both draw attention to the shortcomings and potential dangers of the Prevent programme, aimed at countering “extremism”/”radicalisation” in schools and colleges.

It does indeed seem to be the case that in some instances Prevent has been implemented in a heavy-handed manner by over-zealous and/or ill-trained teachers. I can also agree that Prevent is potentially a threat to free speech – discouraging free and open discussion of the issues surrounding terrorist ideologies and thus making it more difficult to counter them. However, there is a great deal of credible evidence showing that much of the opposition to Prevent stems not from “ordinary” parents and teachers, but is being organised and co-ordinated by ultra-reactionary Islamists, specifically Cage, Mend and their front organisation, Prevent Watch.

Many of the media stories about heavy-handed and/or inappropriate Prevent interventions were, in fact, put about by Prevent Watch with the intention of spreading fear and confusion in Muslim communities. Several of these stories have turned out to be exaggerated or, indeed, downright false — for instance the story about the Muslim boy in Accrington whose family received a police visit after he wrote at school that he lived in a “terrorist house” when what he meant was a terraced house.

Sections of the media had a field day with this story, but it now turns out that the police visit had nothing to do with Prevent or “terrorism” but happened because the boy had also stated that he’d been subjected to physical violence at home. Prevent Watch continues to carry this false story on their website.

Omar and Patrick rightly point to the foolishness of much of the left (and the NUS leadership) in allying with Cage/Mend/Prevent Watch in opposing Prevent. But both comrades take it as read that we should oppose Prevent, albeit “for the right reasons and with the right allies.” I’m not convinced. Teachers and others in positions of responsibility towards young people are, quite rightly, required by the state to take action to protect their charges from grooming and all forms of physical and mental abuse. Surely protecting children and young people from terrorist ideologies is a similar responsibility that socialists should not, in principle, oppose? A final (genuine) question: Omar states that Prevent “is aimed exclusively at Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism”: is this true? I have read elsewhere that only 56% of those referred for intervention under Prevent have been Muslim.

********************

From a London teacher (name and address supplied):
This bureaucratic drive is probably counterproductive

Yes, of course, we should oppose the government’s anti-Islamist strategy, Prevent. It is heavy-handed and, probably, counter-productive.

Teachers already have a legal obligation to actively stop children being put in danger, and keep them safe. So, for example, I have reported to the school’s safeguarding officer that one of my students had been attacked by his dad. The senior member of staff then reported the incident to the police.

In the same way I recently reported a student for Islamic extremism. That report led to a police raid on his family’s home. How can I justify reporting this student? Because I might have saved his life (and the lives of others he might have hurt if he had ended up in Syria). So, on the level of the obligation to keep kids safe there is no need for extra legislation. Nor is there any need to force schools to teach “a broad and balanced curriculum which promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils.” That’s already a legal obligation in schools like mine.

If the government wants to stop religious radicalisation the best first step would be to abolish religious schools. My school does quite good work promoting gay equality and women’s rights; I bet you can’t say the same about the independent religious schools attached to the mosque at the end of my road, or for any priest-and-nun-infested schools as well.

All religious schools maintain boundaries, encourage isolation and obscurantism. The problem with Prevent is that, firstly, it is part of a ruling-class ideological offensive against Islamists which is done in their name, with their ideas. The government knows it is part of a bureaucratic elite, and they are seeking to co-opt teachers and others into gathering information on their behalf which they wouldn’t be able to collect otherwise. But the net is far too wide.

If a kid tells me they are in favour of sharia law I would like to talk to them, not to get them arrested or put under state surveillance (I can draw a distinction between a student who might be about to sign up with Daesh, and another who is curious, or awkward, or bloody-minded, or contrary, or a bit sexist). And finally this policy will be overseen by school Head teachers who are paranoid about becoming the next school to have a student disappear to Syria (with all the bad press and interest from Ofsted that that generates). They will over-report to cover their arses.

Obviously what is required is for the unions to develop an independent policy. We should oppose Islamist terror in our own name, and educate students to value liberty and equality. There are groups which oppose Prevent for their own reasons (because they are Islamists, or the Islamists “useful idiots”), but that shouldn’t stop us critiquing the government from a socialist perspective.

*************************

From Adam Southall:
Prevent script is authoritarian

I was very interested to read recent articles and correspondence regarding the government’s Prevent strategy (Omar Raii, Solidarity 390, Patrick Murphy, Solidarity 391, Jim Denham, Solidarity 394).

As part of being formally inducted into a new role, I had the pleasure of receiving a session on Prevent. This consisted of a heavily prescribed and standardised script and DVD presentation. It was clear the tutor was not allowed to depart from the script, expand or engage in discussion.

I was a little surprised that the “main terrorist threat to this country” is still regarded as being from Al-Qaeda. Included in the script and DVD was an overarching “explanatory” “expert” narrative which explicitly regarded terrorism by Al-Qaeda and presumably ISIS as merely the latest in a long line of historical “ideological terrorisms”, which included in the past people “fighting for a homeland” and even “for a communist society.”

The sources and motivations behind Al-Qaeda and ISIS are undoubtedly complex and contradictory, but to equate these with the mass democratic struggles including armed actions by such as the African National Congress of South Africa, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Irish Republican Army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, for national liberation, democratic self-determination, and some degree of social emancipation, seems to me to be not only ludicrous but to indicate an underlying dangerous and authoritarian ruling class ideology.

People are not required or expected to have agreed with every dot or comma or action by groups such as these, but there is surely a world of difference between movements and organisations fighting for basic democratic, national, human and social rights, and those which would seek to impose some form of clerical-fascistic/murderous dictatorship over the people.

Permalink 9 Comments

The socialist stance on the EU and the referendum

February 21, 2016 at 8:36 pm (AWL, capitalism, class, democracy, Europe, labour party, left, posted by JD, workers)

This article is slightly adapted from the editorial that appeared in the 10 February edition of Solidarity:

On 9 February, in Berlin, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis launched a new “Democracy in Europe Movement”. It seems not so much a movement as a personal vehicle. But the spirit of its manifesto — demanding, by 2025, a EU constituent assembly that will create a democratic federal Europe — is right. It aims beyond the petty “what’s best for our little corner” or “what’s safest” calculations which dominate the official debate, and dares to restate the old ideals which motivated calls for a United States of Europe as early as the mid-19th century. “A Europe of reason, liberty, tolerance, and imagination, made possible by comprehensive transparency, real solidarity, and authentic democracy”.

The first radical journal which Karl Marx wrote for was called the German-French Yearbooks. He looked to a day when “the day of the German resurrection will be heralded by the crowing of the Gallic cock”. His Communist Manifesto was written for an international organisation, mostly of migrant workers, active in France, in Belgium, in Germany, in England. Marx was educated in German philosophy, learned socialism from French workers, formed the outlines of his distinctive theory in Brussels, and gave most of his life to studying Scottish and English political economy.

The creation, from a continent wrecked for centuries by incessant national and dynastic wars, of a Europe of mutual enrichment, and melded traditions, inspired many other democrats. In all fields, a Europe of cosmopolitan culture, free movement, diminished borders, is an advance not just “for Britain”, or for this or that grouping, but for the whole continent.

To take an offbeat example: as recently as the 1930s, André Weil became an epoch-making figure just because he broke the chauvinist barriers which had stopped French mathematicians learning from German mathematics. There was an equivalent in England in the 1820s: a students’ revolt at Cambridge University was needed to break down the narrowmindedness which had paralysed English mathematics for a hundred years after the death of Isaac Newton, banning the use of “German” notation.

The arrogance, and shameless capitalist dogmatism of the EU leaders, their drive to make the rules of the single market and the eurozone axioms to be enforced by unelected officials whatever the cost to human lives, is drowning those ideals in a quicksand of bureaucratism. And in so doing, it is nourishing narrow-minded reflex responses, nationalism, xenophobia, migrant-hating. Varoufakis is right: “The European Union will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!” He is also right in his warnings: “If we return to the cocoon of the nation-state, we are going to have a fault line somewhere along the River Rhine and the Alps. Everything to the east of the Rhine and north of the Alps would become depressed economies and the rest of the Europe would be in the territory of stagflation economics, of high unemployment and high prices. “This Europe could even produce a major war or, if not an actual war, so much hardship that nations would turn against each other… We would have condemned the whole world to at least one lost generation. “Out of such an event, I counsel my friends that the Left never benefits. It will always be the ultra-nationalists, the racists, the bigots and Nazis that benefit”.

The mess of the major campaigns aimed at Britain’s EU in-or-out referendum, to be held on 23 June, confirms his judgement. Three campaigns are squabbling over who gets the official Electoral Commission franchise as “the” exit campaign. Vote Leave is run by Dominic Cummings, previously the Tory party’s “director of strategy”, then an adviser to Michael Gove as education minister, notorious for his arrogant abuse even of other Tories and other officials. It is figureheaded by former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson, who is now mostly active as a climate change-denying crank.

Shamefully, the leading Labour MPs who support exit, Kate Hoey and Kelvin Hopkins, first linked their Labour Leave campaign to Vote Leave. Now Hoey and Hopkins, but not John Mills, the millionaire who’s been financing Labour Leave, have jumped ship to Grassroots Out (GO). Not an improvement, because GO is financed by UKIP millionaire Arron Banks, was founded by two right-wing Tory MPs, and advertises UKIP leader Nigel Farage as a key supporter. Bizarrely, at its recent public meeting in London, GO introduced George Galloway (who some people still consider to be a left-winger) as its surprise “big name” speaker, alongside Farage. GO may merge with the third campaign, Leave.EU, also funded by Banks, also backed by UKIP. If there is a shade of difference between Leave.EU and Vote Leave, it is that Leave.EU is more straight-for-the-nerve anti-migrant and Vote Leave is more for a free-market Britain, free of annoying “over-regulation” (read: worker protections) from the EU.

Although some genuine left-wingers back exit — Kelvin Hopkins is a soft Stalinist who writes for the Morning Star — they have no distinct voice, and figure in this squabble only as backers of this or that Tory/ UKIP faction. That is logical. Re-raising borders between Britain and the EU countries may contribute to the racists’, xenophobes’, and ultra-capitalists’ aims of excluding migrants and destroying worker protections. It cannot possibly contribute to left-wing aims.

On the “in” side, Britain Stronger in Europe has no rival for the official Electoral Commission franchise. It argues that remaining in the EU is good for “stability”, for “security”, for “business”. The message is as uninspiring as a wet sock to the millions whose lives have been made unstable and insecure, and who have been exploited or sacked by “business”, through the global capitalist crash of 2008 and the EU leaders’ management of its sequels in Europe. Labour, anxious not to repeat the fiasco of its merging with the Tories in the Better Together campaign in Scotland, has an independent “in” campaign, Labour In For Britain. But notice that — “for Britain”, not for workers. The campaign is led by Labour right-winger Alan Johnson. Its profile is feeble, and mostly an echo of the arguments of Britain Stronger in Europe, with a quiet footnote about workers’ rights.

Socialists need a campaign which opposes exit from the EU, not in the name of endorsing the existing EU, but in the name of taking it as the start-point for battle to bring down barriers, level up conditions, extend democracy, and weld workers’ solidarity across the continent. In order to do that, Solidarity has initiated the Workers’ Europe campaign, and works with the Another Europe Is Possible campaign.

Permalink 2 Comments

Herman Benson, aged 100, is still an anti-Stalinist socialist democrat

February 19, 2016 at 4:54 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, posted by JD, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States)

Also published in the current issue of Solidarity:


Above: Shachtman (left) and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

Herman Benson was a founding member, along with Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others, of the Workers Party, which broke from the US Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British group of the same name) in 1940 following a debate about how to understand the Stalinist state in Russia.

While the SWP majority maintained that the USSR remained some kind of “workers’ state”, however “deformed” or “degenerated”, a large minority, which went on to become the Workers Party, argued that it was a deeply oppressive society based on a new form of class exploitation. They developed their ideas into what became known as “third-camp” Trotskyism, arguing that the global working class must constitute itself as an independent force against both the two camps of US-led capitalism and Stalinism.

Herman was a member of the Workers Party National Committee, and labour editor of its paper, Labor Action. Later, he founded the Association for Union Democracy and was its first Executive Director. In 2012, he contributed to a Workers’ Liberty symposium of recollections and reflections from activists involved in the “third camp” tradition, which can be read here.

He spoke to Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty about the debates which are examined in The Fate of the Russian Revolution Volume 2: The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism, in which some of his writing from the time is included.  At 100 years old, he is – almost certainly – the last surviving member of Shachtman’s Workers Party


What, for you at the time, were the primary motives for siding with the opposition in the 1939-40 battle?

In 1939, I was not an old-time Trotskyist. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP), in 1930, at the age of 15. By the time the Trotskyists joined the SP, the depression, the rise of Hitler, and the destruction of German Social Democratic Party turned me into a kind of Leninist, but one repelled by crazy antics of “Third Period” Stalinists and then by their popular-front turn. When the Trotskyists left the SP in 1937, I, along with many other YPSLers, went with them.

I mention this to explain why I never gave much weight to the complaints against Cannon’s bureaucratism. They [the “old-time Trotskyists”] went through unexplained factional frictions and personal combinations in the Communist League of America (CLA, the first US Trotskyist group, founded by Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern in 1929), not me. Even now, I don’t think our disputes of that period shed any light on the question of the party.

Old-timers could vent their grudges against Cannon, but for me, and most in early opposition, the immediate issue was clear: the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland was an oppressive “imperialist” attack, to be condemned.

At that point, everybody would still be for defence of the Soviet Union if it really came under attack. It took a long period of intricate debate over complex ideological issues to free even us from notions of defending one of the most oppressive regimes in history. The “orthodox” majority said, “we’re not defending the regime, only nationalised property”. People like [Albert] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow needed more time.

Do you think The Fate of the Russian Revolution Vol. 2 accurately conveys the substance and the balance of the disputes between the two strands of Trotskyism in the 1940s?

I think the editor does a great job, although I may be prejudiced. For me, reading it at 100, it activates the juices of a 24-year old zealot. One minor quibble, though: what’s the point of the final extract from Trotsky on dialectical materialism?

Looking back, do you see any of those issues in a new light?

Of course. More than half a century has elapsed. The world refused to evolve as we hoped or expected. But that’s the big story.

The Workers Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL) tradition didn’t hold up in a discrete form, but rather diffused, in different ways and in different directions, into other organisations. Do you think that was inevitable? If not, how could it have been avoided?

I do think that the demise was “inevitable”, whatever that word means. Both sides in the 1939/40 dispute counted on worldwide socialist revolutions in the post-war period. When capitalist democracies and Stalinist dictatorships emerged intact, the political-social foundation of that position was undermined. The WP splintered, and the SWP , as the book describes, was transformed into something alien.

A kind of desiccated, academic Marxism found refuge in the universities, without connection to workers’ revolution. In the United States, most nominally “socialist” currents lost any distinguishable socialist quality. Once, socialism meant concentration of industry in the hands of the state (nationalised property) and a planned economy in a democratic society. Now, each group has transmuted socialism into an amorphous dissatisfaction with the status quo plus whatever their hearts desire. The perspective of a traditional socialist society emerging from a workers’ revolution and a workers’ state has vanished and is not likely to be revived here. In that atmosphere, the WP could not survive.

Do you think the debates of 1939/40 have relevance for socialists today? If so, what is it?

I believe there is a lot to learn from the old WP/SWP dispute, not only for socialists, Marxian and others, but for all crusaders for social justice. In the broadest sense, it reminds us that when our ideology appears somehow to justify a horror or an act of oppression, maybe there’s something flawed in our ideology.

More to the point, especially for me, those discussions restore the defence of democracy in society as a central theme not only for socialists but for all who seek social justice. In that sense, reflection on those debates, for those who undertake it, is an antidote for the persisting residue of Stalinist thinking in the labour and socialist movements.

Permalink 3 Comments

The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism

December 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, literature, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, Uncategorized)


Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.


The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.

______________________________________________________________________

A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ecljgu22im9yfjh/dec-all.pdf?dl=0

Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).

 

Permalink 4 Comments

Next page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 618 other followers