This post, by Michael Ezra, first appeared at Harry’s Place:
In 2003 I did not just support the Iraq War, I supported an ideology associated with many of the most vocal proponents of that war: neoconservatism. The purpose of this post is not to criticise Tony Blair for his decision to go to war, although one has to admit that Iraq in 2016 is not the liberal democratic paradise of which many had dreamed, but to note that neoconservatism as an ideology is a soiled good.
There is no simple definition of neoconservatism and neoconservative writers have not all sung the exact same tune with the exact same words. In my opinion neoconservatism is about promoting democracy abroad, opposing regimes hostile to American interests, championing American military strength, and not shirking from using that military strength to further these ideals. The dream was a world reshaped in the American image. Neoconservative thinkers believed, as Francis Fukuyama put it, “history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will.” While neoconservatives are interested in more than foreign policy, it is the foreign policy aspect that has dominated discourse. It is that upon which I focus.
The neoconservatives are ideologues. Like other ideologues they believe that their ideology is right in the moral sense. They had, in their own minds, “moral clarity.” George Bush admitted that the book that influenced his view on foreign policy was Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy. Bush also recommended his aides read the book. Sharansky divided the world into two types of countries: free societies and fear societies. He applied a simple test: “Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm? If he can, then that person is living in a free society. If not, it’s a fear society.” (pp.40-41). Sharansky formulated his argument based on his own experiences as a dissident in the Soviet Union. If one lives in a fear society, dissidents are arrested and thrown in prison. Fear societies become repressive and tyrannical. He argued, “There is a universal desire among all peoples not to live in fear.” (p.38) His book is a blue print for overturning every single middle eastern dictatorship, and to do so, if necessary, by force: “The free world should not wait for dictatorial regimes to consent to reform….if we condition reform on the agreement of nondemocratic leaders, it will never come. We must be prepared to move forward over their objections.” (p.278). It is a seductive argument. I was seduced.
With such an ideology, in order to morally justify using force for regime change one does not need a fear society to have Weapons of Mass Destruction that could threaten American interests. Regime change is carried out for the good of the citizens of the living in the regime of fear. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya informed President Bush that the Iraqi population would welcome American soldiers “with sweets and flowers.” Yet, one could argue, if intervention for the good of the citizens is sufficient, why pick on Iraq rather than any other country? The Weapons of Mass Destruction becomes a way of selling the military action to the population at home. (I am interested in the ideology, not the legality of the war, so there is no need to get into discussions as to United Nations votes and whether Bush and Blair did or did not believe Iraq had WMDs.)
At the time of the so-called Arab Spring the cracks began to appear. When there were huge demonstrations in Egypt against President Mubarak, the neoconservatives cheered on regime change and democracy. The hawks in the Israeli government, thought by many to be in line with the neoconservative ideal, were of a contrary opinion. They had a more realist view. If democracy led to the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of Egypt, they would prefer Mubarak. The Israelis thought the American neoconservatives hopelessly naïve.
Syria has been no better. While President Assad was busy killing his countrymen by the hundreds of thousands, the neoconservatives clamoured for his removal. They wanted America to provide massive military assistance to the so-called moderates opposed to his rule. However, these “moderates” were not necessarily moderate. Besides, it hardly helps either democracy promotion or American interests if weapons that America provided to these so-called “moderates” end up in the hands of the head-choppers of Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The problem with neoconservatism is therefore stark. Despite the view of the neoconservatives that the vast majority of people would far prefer a free democratic society than a dictatorship, when given a chance for the type of democracy that the neoconservatives have in mind, citizens of countries do not necessarily take it. Moreover, while the ideological position of believing you are right might be fine in theory, the empirical reality might be vastly different. One should not ignore what is patently obvious: neoconservatism is the God that failed. The neoconservatives need to be mugged by reality.
It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne
it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and
spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley
for a Silver Dish. It’s R.S.M. O’Grady says, it’s the soldier’s
best friend if you care for the working parts and let us be ‘av-
ing those springs released smartly in Company billets on wet
forenoons and clickerty-click and one up the spout and you
men must really cultivate the habit of treating this weapon with
the very greatest care and there should be a healthy rivalry
among you–it should be a matter of very proper pride and
Marry it man! Marry it!
Cherish her, she’s your very own.
Coax it man coax it–it’s delicately and ingeniously made
–it’s an instrument of precision–it costs us tax-payers,
money–I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny–talk to it–consider it as you would
a friend–and when you ground these arms she’s not a rooky’s
gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish.
You’ve known her hot and cold.
You would choose her from among many.
You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and
by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain,
above the lower sling-swivel–
but leave it under the oak.
Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on
all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck
like the Mariner’s white oblation.
You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood
It is not to be broken on the brown stone under the gracious
It is not to be hidden under your failing body.
Slung so, it troubles your painful crawling like a fugitive’s
David Jones was an artist and poet who served in the trenches as a Private soldier from 1915 until 1918, was wounded at The Battle of The Somme, and spent more time on active service than any of the other First World War poets. Although less well known now than Owen, Sassoon and others, he was regarded by Auden, Yeats, Pound and T.S. Eliot as the outstanding poet of the First World War.
Jones grew up in London and studied at Camberwell School of Art. His father was a printer’s overseer and originally came from Wales. From his early childhood, Jones saw himself as Welsh and developed an interest in Welsh history and literature. His poetry often draws on this and on the vernaculars of Cockney and Welsh hill farmers which Jones encountered in his regiment.
Jones began writing poetry more than ten years after the 1918 Armstice, publishing his first major work in 1937. He continued painting, drawing and writing poetry throughout his comparatively long life in between episodes of depression caused by what would now be called post traumatic stress.
In 1921 Jones converted to Roman Catholicism. He said that “the mass makes sense of everything” and much of his poetry is religious. Obviously, we at Shiraz wouldn’t agree, but that doesn’t detract from the power of his poetry.
Former Labour councillor and miners’ strike supporter Rev Richard Bashford
My friend, comrade and drinking companion Richard Bashford has died. He’d been in poor health for a long while, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. But it’s still a shock: one more old crony departed; one less pal to consort and jaw with.
Richard was a strange and fascinating character, having been ordained into the C of E and serving as the vicar of Winson Green (one of the most deprived areas of Birmingham) for many years in the 1970s and 80’s, until he was elected as Labour councillor for Quinton – another deprived part of Birmingham, but unlike Winson Green, predominantly white working class. The people there recognised him as a committed champion of their local concerns, and loved him for it. One of his campaigns involved driving racists out of the area, even though it was predominantly white in the first place.
Richard was an entertaining story-teller, especially about himself: he claimed to have been a member of the International Socialists in London in the late 1960s or early 70s and to have departed the organisation over some dispute or another, having poured a pint of beer over the local IS organiser’s head. By the time I got to know him in Birmingham in the early 1980’s, he was a leftist member of the Labour Party and widely known as the “Red Rev” of Winson Green. He’d also set up a Youth Training Scheme in Handsworth/Winson Green, called Greensprings: its aim was to use government money to bring training and employment opportunities to young people, many of whom were from the Afro Caribbean community, and who had been in trouble with the police. This imitative was remarkably successful and turned round many lives; it was also typical of Bashford: ever the opportunist, he decided to use government money in the cause of social justice.
One of Richard’s managers at Greensprings was an ex-Lucas shop steward called Vic Collard – himself an eccentric, opinionated former IS member. Richard, Vic and I – sometimes joined by renagade SWP’er Tina Roe (who added some glamour as well as intellectual rigour to the proceedings) – met virtually every Sunday lunchtime in the 1980’s in various Brum pubs to drink, discuss politics, argue and laugh. They were golden days. Vic died a couple of years ago (but not before recording his account of being a working class member of IS, published by Workers Liberty) and now Richard’s gone. I haven’t seen Tina for a while: the old friendships are being erased by mortality.
A last memory of “His Reverence” (as friends often referred to him):
During the great miners’ strike of 1984/5 Richard was actively involved in the Birmingham Trades Council Miners’ Support Committee and helped set up a public meeting in Handsworth. A couple of striking miners from Maerdy, South Wales, attended, one of whom spoke from the platform. The audience was mainly Afro-Caribbean and Asian, and their support was fantastic, with a generous collection taken at the end. After the meeting Bashford, myself, the two Maerdy boys and a driver crushed into a car, heading for a pub. The Maerdy boys – still excited by the meeting – started expressing themselves in somewhat fruity language, before realising that a Man Of The Cloth was present: “So sorry, your Reverence, we forgot you were here”, one of them bleated apologetically. Bashford bellowed, from the back seat, “Don’t be a jerk: I was in the Merchant Navy!” The Maerdy boys were polaxed. And – by the way – the word Bashford used wasn’t “jerk”.
This is genuinely moving: please read the family’s statement, and then the information about anti-Ahmadi prejudice in both Pakistan and the UK:
Asad Shah ‘met everyone with the utmost kindness’Credit: SWNS
Religion, colour and creed were irrelevant to the friendly shopkeeper (an Ahmadi Muslim) who died in an attack outside his store after wishing his customers happy Easter, his family has said.
In a moving tribute to 40-year-old Asad Shah, his family said they had been devastated by the loss of a “brilliant” man who recognised “that the differences between people are vastly outweighed by our similarities”:
Asad Shah family statement following death in Shawlands (released on behalf of the family by Police Scotland, 30 March 2016)
On Thursday evening (24th March), a beloved husband, son, brother and everyone’s friend, Asad Shah, was taken away from us by an incomprehensible act. We are devastated by this loss.
A person’s religion, ethnicity, race, gender or socioeconomic background never mattered to Asad. He met everyone with the utmost kindness and respect because those are just some of the many common threads that exist across every faith in our world. He was a brilliant man, recognising that the differences between people are vastly outweighed by our similarities. And he didn’t just talk about this, he lived it each and every day, in his beloved community of Shawlands and his country of Scotland.
If there was to be any consolation from this needless tragedy, it came in the form of the spontaneous and deeply moving response by the good people of Shawlands, Glasgow and beyond. As a family, we would like to express our deepest gratitude to all who have organised and participated in the street vigils, online petitions and messages. You have moved us beyond words and helped us start healing sooner than we thought possible. You were Asad’s family as much as we are and we will always remain with you.
One of our brightest lights has been extinguished but our love for all mankind and hope for a better world in which we can all live in peace and harmony, as so emphatically embodied by Asad, will endure and prevail. Asad left us a tremendous gift and we must continue to honour that gift by loving and taking care of one another.
We will not be making any further comments on this tragedy and ask everyone, especially the media, to allow us the privacy we need to grieve and heal away from the public eye.
“Patriotic and Tribal feelings belong to the squalling childhood of the human race, and become no more charming in their senescence. They are particularly unattractive when evinced by a superpower. But ironies of history may yet save us. English language and literature, oft-celebrated as one of the glories of “Western” civilisation, turn out to have even higher faculties than used to be claimed for them. In my country of birth the great new fictional practitioners have in their front rank names like Rushdie, Kureishi, Mo. This attainment on their part makes me oddly proud to be whatever I am, and convinces me that internationalism is the highest form of patriotism” – C Hitchens, ‘What Is Patriotism?’, The Nation, July 15/22, 1991.
Someone who for reasons best known to themselves, appears to love me very much, brought me ‘And Yet …’ for Christmas. This was, undoubtedly, the most welcome present I could have hoped for, containing as it does, the full panoply of Christopher Hitchens’ wit and wisdom on subjects as varied as Hillary Clinton, Hezbollah, Orwell’s “list” and … male body-waxing (hilarious, of course).
The publishers’ blurb is slightly misleading in describing this collection as being made up of “previously unpublished” material: in fact all these essays were first published the various publications (Slate, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, etc) to which Hitchens was a regular and prolific contributor. But it’s excellent to have them brought together and readily available in book form.
Inevitably, we start speculating on what the man would have to say about contemporary political developments, like the West’s betrayal of Afghanistan, the resurgence of neo-Stalinism and Putin-worship on sections of the “left”, or the rise of that piece of sub-human excrement calling itself Donald Trump; Hitch’s 2007 thoughts on the subject of Jerry Falwell give us a pretty good clue as to the latter:
2015 marked an important milestone in the history of physics: just over one hundred years ago, in November 1915, Albert Einstein wrote down the famous field equations of General Relativity. General Relativity is the theory that explains all gravitational phenomena we know (falling apples, orbiting planets, escaping galaxies…) and it survived one century of continuous tests of its validity. After 100 years it should be considered by now a classic textbook theory, but General Relativity remains young in spirit: its central idea, the fact that space and time are dynamical and influenced by the presence of matter, is still mind-boggling and difficult to accept as a well-tested fact of life.
Less well known, these days, is the fact that Einstein was a man of strongly-held political and philosophical views. What follows is an article by Carl Darton, first published in the US ‘Shachtmanite’ publication Labor Actionin 1950:
Albert Einstein as Scientist and Socialist
If your school-age son is somewhat better than clever in any field of science, you may have heard the expression: “He’s an Einstein.” It is indeed unprecedented that the name of a scientist working in highly specialized mathematical physics has become a by-word in the homes of his adopted land. This unique status of Albtrt Einstein rests not only on his scientific pre-eminence but also upon his keen interest in social and political affairs.
Dr. Einstein’s great scientific works—the Special Theory of Relativity (1906), The General Theory of Relativity (1915-20), and the extension of the General Theory to cover electromagnetic phenomena (1950)—can be understood only with the aid of tensor calculus. Obviously, only those versed in higher mathematics con begin to understand the technical phases of Einstein’s theories. But there are different levels of understanding in science and it is perfectly possible to choose a level of relativity theory which can be understood even by those with no special mathematical training. Einstein himself has done an excellent job of “popularizing” in his Relativity, The Special and General Theory. Also recommended is Leopold lnfeld’s Albert Einstein, His Work and Influence on our World (Charles Scribner, N Y, 1950).
On Capitalism and Jewish Nationalism Einstein has become almost as noted a philosopher as a scientist. His views appear to spring from these fundamental beliefs:
(1) “I believe . . . in . . . God who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself wim the fate and actions of men.”
(2) There is a spontaneous activity of the mind, altogether apart from experience, which can make contributions of the utmost value to natural philosophy.
(3) The simplest equations are most likely to be true, and “The aim of science is … a comprehension as complete as possible . . . and on the other hand the accomplishment of this aim by the use of a minimum of primary concepts and relations.”
Just as Einstein’s belief in “harmony of all being” leads him away from simple experience, deduction, and abstraction in scientific endeavor, so it also leads him toward a cooperative society, However, there is no General Theory dealing with social relations. In Why Socialism? (a chapter in his Out of My Later Years) Dr. Einstein investigates the difficulty of making general formulations of social phenomena.
He does indicate the “essence of the crisis of our time”: “The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset . . . but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even his economic existence. . . . Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” Further in this essay, written in 1949, Einstein assails capitalist production “for profit, not for use,” unemployment, inadequate wages, and the worship of acquisitive success.
Dr. Einstein has been active in recent years in two political movements; Zionist and One World. Although he grew up in a non-observant Jewish home and early rejected the concept of a personal God, he has accepted and retained the ethical teachings of Judaism. He supported the opening of Palestine to the dispersed Jews of Europe. On the issue of partition he stated: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than in the creation of a Jewish state. Apart from practical considerations, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power … I am afraid . . . of . . . the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks.”
The threat of another war concerns Albert Einstein constantly. His road to peace lies in “One World”—a supra-national government having the sole function of military security. National troops are to be replaced by international police and offensive weapons are to be outlawed. Einstein now advocates that the Western powers take the lead in the formation of this world government, leaving the door open at all times for Russia to join.
Is He Breaking with Russian Illusion?
These proposals for One World exposed Einstein to attack by four famous Russian scientists in November 1947. These Stalinist spokesmen rationalized their nationalist ambitions and denounced Einstein as a “virtual supporter of the schemes and ambitions of the bitterest foes of peace and international cooperation.” This attack brought to an end a period during which Dr. Einstein was noticeably non-critical of Stalinism and was used by their front movements.
Perhaps nothing shows more clearly the essentially Utopian nature of Einstein’s socialism than does this experience with Stalinism. The utopianism is rooted in the belief that planning is equivalent to socialism and not in the failure to recognize fhe economic factors undermining capitalist society. There are evidences, however, that this weakness is being corrected, since in the conclusion of Why Socialism?we read: “Nevertheless … it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires some extremely difficult socio-political problems.” Einstein has no answer for the further question: “How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”
Edmund Whittaker, a reviewer of the book Albert Enslein, Philosopher-Scientist, writes: “Some of the observational confirmations [to the General Theory of Relativity] do not appear to he so secure as they were thought to be a few years ago.” It is possible that Einstein may share the fate of other scientists of our era and outlive his most famous works. Already it has been questioned as to whether Einstein is one of the three men who understand Einstein best.
Nevertheless, it may well be his greatest contribution that he has foreshadowed the ideal citizen of the socialist tomorrow—a specialist in his vocational sphere, where there is no room for amateurs; and a serious participant in political life, where there should be no professionals in the sense that special interests and privileges are accrued.
This article appears on Eric Lee’s blog and the present issue of Solidarity. Please feel free to post comments there as well as below the line here.
By Eric Lee
There can be little doubt that the murderous ideology of Islamic State is a form of fascism. In discussing how the Left should react to it, it is therefore necessary to return to our sources, to learn how earlier generations of socialists understood – and fought – fascism.
In that fight, Trotsky was of course an inspiring and authoritative figure. As opposed to the Stalinists, who saw no difference between the Nazis and the Social Democrats (and indeed sometimes preferred the Nazis), Trotsky understood fascism to be a mortal danger to the working class.
And while Trotsky’s deconstruction of the Stalinist argument was brilliant, like most socialists of his time, he understood fascism as a form of bourgeois society, one in which one section of the ruling class crushed all others. The classical Marxist understanding of fascism, however, could not explain, and sometimes did not even try to explain, the tremendous appeal of fascism to the working class itself.
Which brings us to the brilliant Austrian Jewish psychologist Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich was one of Freud’s outstanding disciples, but in the 1920s he moved increasingly to the left, eventually joining the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). There he engaged in theoretical work in an attempt to bridge the gap between Marxism and Freudianism. By 1929, he was able to get the official KPD journal, Under the Banner of Marxism, to publish his essay “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis.”
Reich also moved beyond theory with field work in working class communities, setting up clinics, carrying out sex education, and on, in the course of which he created a mass movement of young people engaged in a new politics of sexual liberation.
Reich grasped that fascism had its basis not only in the economic contradictions of a decaying, over-ripe capitalism, but also in the psychology of the masses.
His 1933 book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, was an attempt to find out what made millions of workers who should have been a bulwark against fascism into its most fanatical supporters. Reich’s book was so outrageously controversial that it led to his expulsion from the KPD. A year later, he was kicked out of the International Psychoanalytical Association as well. It goes without saying that the Nazis too banned the book.
So what explained the appeal of fascism to people who would be its victims? Reich looked for what could make a child “apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense” and he found it in the family.
In particular, Reich linked the development of this kind of personality to the “suppression of the natural sexuality in the child”. He explained the lack of rebelliousness in such children – and later in adult life – by this. Sexual repression, he believed, “paralyses the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties.”
“In brief,” he wrote, “the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.”
This was the basis for authoritarian society. “At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family,” he wrote, and “this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.”
Reich’s expulsion from both the Communist and Psychoanalytical movements left him isolated, and over the remaining two decades of his life he drifted far away from both the Marxism and Freudianism which he had worked so hard to bridge.
But his work over the course of a decade made a real and enduring contribution to a socialist understanding of fascism and how to fight it. That contribution can teach us much about the sources of Islamo-fascism today and how to defeat it.
Vulgar Marxists (and Trotsky was not one of those) are quick to point to simplistic class analyses to explain the rise of groups like Islamic State. Imperialism and colonialism left a legacy of poverty and inequality, and it was from a sense of powerlessness and despair that Islamism arose. This argument has been somewhat undermined by the fact that so many of the more prominent terrorists (such as the 9/11 murderers) were educated, middle class Muslims who lived in the West. Even today, there is no evidence linking young Muslims who run off to Syria to join IS with a personal experience of poverty or even oppression.
Wilhelm Reich’s description of the patriarchal, authoritarian family as the incubator of fascism was correct in Germany in 1933 and it is correct today. There can be little doubt that the suppression of “sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child” is part of the reactionary character of most Muslim societies.
Muslim societies are obviously not the only sexually repressive societies in the world, which is why fascism can find roots in other places as well. But Islamism is today a particularly aggressive and expansionist variant of fascism, one which threatens the entire world.
If Reich’s analysis is correct, what can socialists do to defeat fascism? Obviously, it is not enough to simply propose “class against class” as the answer. This was the view of the German Communists and it failed miserably as millions of ordinary Germans either supported the Nazis or accepted their rule with barely a murmur of protest.
Instead, the Left should directly confront the sexually repressive character of Islamo-fascism and prioritise the fight on that level. That means that it should no longer be possible to say that our first task is building support for, say, workers organisations in Iran and that support for gay rights in that country is secondary.
Gay rights, women’s liberation, and sexual freedom are not by-products of the revolution that is coming to that part of the world – they are the revolution.
Because of Reich’s later decline, a result in part of his expulsion from the both the Left and the psychoanalytical movement, his works have been largely forgotten and ignored, certainly by socialists. This is unfortunate, because a book like The Mass Psychology of Fascism can contribute so much to our understanding of Islamism and how it will be defeated in the end.
What follows is a statement drawn up by myself. It is based in part upon the AWL’s statement in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I have not discussed it or “cleared” it with anyone. Critical comments are welcome -JD:
To massacre ordinary workers enjoying a drink, a meal, a concert or a sporting event after work, is a crime against humanity, full stop.
What cause could the Islamist killers have been serving when they massacred 130 or more people in Paris? Not “anti-imperialism” in any rational sense — whatever some people on sections of the left have argued in the past — but only rage against the modem, secular world and the (limited but real) freedom and equality it represents. Only on the basis of an utterly dehumanised, backward looking world-view could they have planned and carried out such a massacre. Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement at least as much as the capitalist ruling class – In fact, more so.
Modern capitalism includes profiteering, exploitation, and imperialism, but it also includes the elements of civilisation, sexual and racial equality, technology and culture that make it possible for us to build socialism out of it.
Lenin, the great Marxist advocate of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, long ago drew a dividing line between that socialist struggle and reactionary movements such as (in his day) “pan-Islamism” [in our day, Islamism]: “Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism.”
We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or even (unless we’re present) comfort the bereaved. What we can do is analyse the conditions that gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed; and keep clear critical understanding of the way that governments will respond. This must not be mistaken for any kind of attempt to excuse or minimise this barbarity or to use simplistic “blowback” arguments to suggest that it is simply a reaction to the crimes of “the west” or “imperialism.”
Immediately, the Paris massacre is not only a human disaster for the victims, their friends and families, but also a political disaster for all Muslims, refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe. The backlash against this Islamic-fundamentalist atrocity will inevitably provoke anti-refugee feeling and legislation, attacks on civil liberties and hostility towards all people perceived as “Muslims” in Europe: that, quite likely, was at least one of the intentions of the killers. The neo-fascists of Marine LePen’s Front National seem likely to make electoral gains as a result of this outrage.
The present chaos in the Middle East has given rise to the Islamic fascists of ISIS, and their inhuman, nihilist-cum-religious fundamentalist ideology.
Throughout the Middle East, the rational use of the region’s huge oil wealth, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and taunt others, is the socialist precondition for undercutting the Islamic reactionaries.
In Afghanistan, an economically-underdeveloped, mostly rural society was thrust into turmoil in the late 1970s. The PDP, a military-based party linked to the USSR, tried to modernise, with measures such as land reform and some equality for women, but from above, bureaucratically. Islamists became the ideologues of a landlord-led mass revolt.
In December 1979, seeing the PDP regime about to collapse, the USSR invaded. It spent eight years trying to subdue the peoples of Afghanistan with napalm and helicopter gunships. It was the USSR’s Vietnam.
The USSR’s war had the same sort of regressive effect on society in Afghanistan as the USA’s attempt to bomb Cambodia “back into the Stone Age”, as part of its war against the Vietnamese Stalinists, had on that country. In Cambodia the result was the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, which tried to empty the cities and abolish money; in Afghanistan, it has been the Islamic-fundamentalist regime of the Taliban. In Iraq the West’s bungled attempts to clear out first Saddam’s fascistic regime and then various Islamist reactionaries, and introduce bourgeois democracy from above, have been instrumental in creating ISIS.
Western governments will now make a show of retaliation and retribution. They will not and cannot mend the conditions that gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which they themselves (together with their Arab ruling class allies) helped to shape. Ordinary working people who live in war-torn states and regions will, as ever, be the victims.
Civil rights will come under attack and the efforts of the European Union to establish a relatively humane response to the refugee crisis will be set back and, quite possibly, destroyed.
These blows at civil rights will do far more to hamper the labour movement, the only force which can remake the world so as to end such atrocities, than to stop the killers.
Public opinion will lurch towards xenophobia. Basic democratic truths must be recalled: not all Middle Eastern people are Muslims, most Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists, most of those who are Islamic-fundamentalist in their religious views do not support Islamic fundamentalist militarism. To seek collective punishment against Muslims or Arabs, or anyone else, is wrong and inhuman.
The first, and still the most-suffering, victims of Islamic fundamentalist militarism are the people, mostly Muslim, of the countries and regions where the lslamists are powerful.
The only way to defeat the Islamists is by the action of the working class and the labour movement in such countries, aided by our solidarity.
Refugees seeking asylum in Europe do not in any way share blame for this massacre. In fact, many of them are refugees because they are fleeing Islamic-fundamentalist governments and forces like ISIS. To increase the squeeze on already-wretched refugees would be macabre and perverse “revenge”.
We must remake the world. We must remake it on the basis of the solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality which are as much part of human nature as the rage, hatred and despair which must have motivated the Paris mass-murderers.
We must create social structures which nurture solidarity, democracy and equality, in place of those which drive towards exploitation, cut-throat competition and acquisitiveness and a spirit of everything-for-profit.
The organised working class, the labour movement, embodies the core and the active force of the drive for solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality within present-day society. It embodies it more or less consistently, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far we have been able to mobilise ourselves, assert ourselves, broaden our ranks, and emancipate ourselves from the capitalist society around us.
Our job, as socialists, is to maximise the self-mobilisation, self-assertion, broadening and self-emancipation of the organised working class.
We must support the heroic Kurdish forces who are fighting and defeating ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq, opposed by the Turkish government. We must demand that our government – and all western governments – support the Kurds with weapons and, if requested, military backup: but we will oppose all moves by the governments of the big powers to make spectacular retaliation or to restrict civil rights or target minorities or refugees.
Bell begins his review with this, which should give some pause for reflection,
The newspaper Action française habitually referred to Léon Blum, France’s Socialist leader, as the ‘warlike Hebrew’ and the ‘circumcised Narbonnais’ (he represented a constituency in Narbonne). On 13 February 1936, Blum was being driven away from the National Assembly when he encountered a group of ultra-right-wing militants who had gathered at the intersection of the rue de l’Université and the boulevard Saint-Germain for the funeral procession of Jacques Bainville, one of the founders of Action française, a reactionary political movement as well as a newspaper. Glimpsing Blum through the car windows, the militants began shouting: ‘Kill Blum!’, ‘Shoot Blum!’ They forced his car to stop and began rocking it back and forth. Blum’s friend Germaine Monnet, sitting with him in the back, tried to shield him with her body. Her husband, Georges, who had been driving, ran to look for police. But one of the militants managed to tear a fender off the car, used it to smash the rear window, and then beat Blum repeatedly over the head. Only the arrival of two policemen saved his life. They dragged him to a nearby building, where the concierge gave him first aid. The next day pictures of Blum, his head heavily bandaged, appeared in newspapers around the world.
We halt there.
To internationalist socialists Blum is above all known not for his Jewish identity – despite the book – but for his socialist humanist republicanism.
Blum defended French democratic republicanism, from the Dreyfus affair onwards. He was profoundly affected by the “synthesis” of socialism, including the Marxist view of class struggle, with democratic republicanism, that marked the life and work of one of our greatest martyrs, JeanJaurès, assassinated in 1914 by a sympathiser of the far-right, for his opposition to the outbreak of the Great War. Blum did not, however, play a part in the anti-War left.
That is the context in which we would take the shouts of “kill Blum”. Political, not ethnic.
Blum was a leading figure amongst the minority of the French Socialists, the SFIO (Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière), who opposed what became in the 1920s the French Communist Party, the PCF. He was one of those who opposed affiliating the party to the Third International at the Congrès de Tours (SFIO).
This is the crucial objection from the ‘reformist’ (but at this point, still Marxist) democratic socialists to the Third International – the Leninist one.
You are right to declare that the whole party press, central or local, should be in the hands of pure communists and pure communist doctrine. You are certainly right to submit the works published by the Party to a kind of censorship. All that is logical. You want an entirely homogeneous party, a party in which there is no longer free thought, no longer different tendencies: you are therefore right to act as you have done. This results – I am going to prove it to you – from your revolutionary conception itself. But you will understand that envisioning that situation, considering it, making the comparison of what will be tomorrow with what was yesterday, we all had the same reaction of fright, of recoil, and that we said: is that the Party that we have known? No! The party that we knew was the appeal to all workers, while the one they want to found is the creation of little disciplined vanguards, homogeneous, subjected to a strict structure of command – their numbers scarcely matter, you will find that in the theses – but all kept under control, and ready for prompt and decisive action. Well, in that respect as in the others, we remain of the Party as it was yesterday, and we do not accept the new party that they want to make.
To show how radical Blum was at this point, this is how he defended the dictatorship of the proletariat,
Dictatorship exercised by the Party, yes, but by a Party organized like ours, and not like yours. Dictatorship exercised by a Party based on the popular will and popular liberty, on the will of the masses, in sum, an impersonal dictatorship of the proletariat. But not a dictatorship exercised by a centralized party, where all authority rises from one level to the next and ends up by being concentrated in the hands of a secret Committee. … Just as the dictatorship should be impersonal, it should be, we hold, temporary, provisional. … But if, on the contrary, one sees the conquest of power as a goal, if one imagines (in opposition to the whole Marxist conception of history) that it is the only method for preparing that transformation, that neither capitalist evolution nor our own work of propaganda could have any effect, if as a result too wide a gap and an almost infinite period of time must be inserted between taking power as the precondition, and revolutionary transformation as the goal, then we cease to be in agreement.
Bear this in mind: these words are memorised almost by heart by many on the left.
The minority, for which Blum spoke, opposed to the Third International, retained the name, French Section of the Workers’ International, was significant: it referred to a claim to continue the traditions of the Second International, of Marxist, if moderate and reformist, inspiration.
Blum offered social reform on this foundation. He led, during the Front Populaire (1936 -38) a government (as President du conseil) of socialists and radical-socialists, backed by communists from the ‘outside’ and a vast movement of factory occupations and protests, to implement some of them, on paid holidays, bargaining rights limiting the working week. He had great limitations – one that cannot be ignored is that his government did not give women the right to vote – and his role in not effectively helping the Spanish Republic remains a matter of controversy to this day. Indeed the absence of feminism – as well as a rigorous anti-colonialism (the FP “dissolved” the North African, l’Étoile nord-africaine of Messali Hadj – in the Front Populaire, is something which should cause a great deal of critical investigation.
The review in the LRB is about a book, and this is what he has to say specifically about it:
Birnbaum, a well-known historian and sociologist of French Jewry, has written a short biography that focuses on Blum’s identity as a Jew, as the series requires. It cannot substitute for the more substantial studies by Joel Colton, Ilan Greilsammer and Serge Berstein, but it’s lively, witty and draws effectively on Blum’s massive and eloquent correspondence. Arthur Goldhammer has, as usual, produced a lucid, engaging English text. Birnbaum seems to have written the book in some haste: he repeats facts and quotations, and makes a few historical slips – France was not a ‘largely peasant nation’ in 1936; Hitler did not annex the Sudetenland in the summer of 1938, before the Munich Agreement. The chapters proceed thematically, highlighting Blum the writer, Blum the socialist, Blum the lawyer, Blum the Zionist and so forth, which produces occasional confusion as Birnbaum leaps backwards and forwards in time. But overall, the book offers a knowledgeable and attractive portrait. If there is a serious criticism to be levelled at it, it doesn’t concern the portrait itself, so much as the way Birnbaum draws on it to make a broader argument about French Jewish identity.
But there are issues of much wider importance in that broader argument.
Bell makes two points about his legacy as described in Birnbaum’s book,
As Birnbaum himself repeatedly notes, despite his ‘quintessential’ Frenchness, Blum always expressed pride in his Jewish heritage, often in the highly racialised language of the day. ‘My Semite blood,’ he wrote as a young man, ‘has been preserved in its pure state. Honour me by acknowledging that it flows unmixed in my veins and that I am the untainted descendant of an unpolluted race.’ While he could speak disparagingly of Jewish ritual, he recognised and respected a Jewish ethical tradition. In 1899, in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, he insisted that ‘the Jew’s religion is justice. His Messiah is nothing other than a symbol of Eternal Justice.’ He went on to identify ‘the spirit of socialism’ with ‘the ancient spirit of the race’ and to comment: ‘It was not a lapse on the part of Providence that Marx and Lassalle were Jews.’ Blum, in short, thought the Jews could change the French Republic for the better by drawing on their own traditions to push it towards socialism.
This attempt to bring up Blum’s references to his Jewish background, even in terms more democratic than Disraeli’s novels, voiced above all by the character Sidonia, owes more to pre-1930s racial romanticism to racialism.
Does this prove Bell’s point that, “The republican model allows strikingly little space for what immigrant communities can contribute to a nation. Visitors to France can see at a glance just how much immigrants have brought to its music, literature, sport and even cuisine. But the republican model treats difference primarily as a threat to be exorcised in the name of an unbending, anachronistic ideal of civic equality. Even in the heyday of the Third Republic, many committed republicans recognised that different ethnic and religious groups could strengthen the republic.”
Yes it does: secularism is freedom for difference, not the imposition of homogeneity.
Blum could be rightly proud of his cultural heritage,as indeed in a ‘globalised’ world of migration many other people from different backgrounds should be, and are, within the democratic framework of secular equality.
There is little doubt that the spirit of nit-picking secularism can be as unable to deal with these backgrounds, as say, state multiculturalism, which treats ‘diversity’ as if this were a value in itself. If the first tends to be hyper-sensitive to, say, reactionary Islamic dress codes, the second abandons the issue entirely.
But there are far deeper problems than superficial insistence on Laïcité
The first is ‘Sovereigntist’ efforts to claim secularist universalism for French particularism. This is the rule amongst the supporters of the far-right Front National, historians and writers like Éric Zemmour bemoaning France’s ‘decline’ , though we should underline, not the novelist Houellebecq, who expresses disdain for things, not hate). There are those who call for all Muslims to be expelled from Europe, those to those milder nationalists of right and left who commemorate “le pays et les morts” (and not anybody else – a return to the culturalist (not to say, racial) themes of Action française to Maurice Barrès and to Charles Maurras. This is indeed “communalism”.
It is the major threat to French republicanism.
There is also the issue of anti-Semitism in France, woven into another kind of ‘communitarianism’. Alain Soral, his close friend the comedian Dieudonné, popular amongst young people from the banlieue and the more refined inheritors of the Marrausian tradition, the partisans of the Indigènes de la République, (including those associated in the English speaking world) rant at the “philosémitisme d’Etat” in France.
It takes all the effort of refined ‘discursive analysis’ from academics to ignore that at its heart this is a current which indulges in Jew baiting. The mind-set of these people was classically described by Sartre, “« Si le juif n’existait pas, l’antisémite l’inventerait.» (Réflexions sur la question juive 1946). They indeed spent an enormous amount of time ‘inventing’ the presence of Jews in politics, and giving them influence ‘behind the scenes’.
In words which might have been designed to pander to the world-view of the Indigènes, Bell cites Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist,
Blum ‘the first of a new type of state Jew interested in giving greater weight to democratic sentiment within the framework of a socialist project.’ One wonders, though, what Birnbaum might say about a French Muslim politician today justifying an ideological position by reference to Muslim tradition and ethics (or sharia law). Would he have quite so favourable an opinion? Or might he see the move as a ‘communitarian’ threat to ‘the unifying logic of the nation’ and to ‘French exceptionalism’? It is well past time to recognise that a nation can have many different unifying logics, and that a political model forged under the Third Republic fits the France of the Fifth Republic very badly.
Blum celebrated his Jewish heritage. It is hardly a secret. Nor is his post-war Zionism, or support for Israel, a stand shared in the immediate aftermath of the conflict by the USSR.
But did he become a man of the ‘state’ because he was a ‘Jew’, and does this aspect of his person matter politically – that is in terms of the state?
For us Léon Blum is only one of the sources of a generous humanist secularism, but a significant one. That he did not tackle issues like feminism, anti-colonialism, and a host of other issues, goes without saying. But it would be a great shame if his legacy was reduced to being a “State Jew”.
And it could equally be said that republican secularism has many strands, that it is being transformed by the views of secularists from North Africa, the threat of the Islamist genociders of Deash, the mounting oppression in Erdogan’s Turkey, backed by his Islamist AK party, and – no doubt – Israel’s evident failings. Every one of these cases shows that religious law is not any part of a “tradition” that socialists – believers in equality – would recognise.
The logic at work here binds us to our French sisters and brothers, binds internationalists across the globe, in the way that the Je Suis Charlie moment briefly melded our hearts and minds together.
That is perhaps the real ‘end’ of all exceptionalisms.
The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs died yesterday aged 82. I read his most famous book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For A Hat, a few years ago, but beyond that know little about him. According to the obit in today’s Guardian, he was criticised for writing “fairy-tales” in that his case histories lack the meticulous detail that contemporary science expects of practitioners. He was also accused of breaching patient confidentiality, although as far as I am aware, he took care to protect patients’ identities and certainly never used their real names in his writing.
What I do know about him is the sheer humanity he demonstrated in everything I’ve read by him, not least the very moving essay he wrote in the New York Times on learning of his terminal illness in February of this year:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”