From: Felix Stalder
Date: 2 January 2017
Subject: <nettime> John_Berger (5 November 1926 – 2 January 2017)
John Berger is dead. He died today, at the age of 90. Obits are surely
being written right now. However, Sally Potter’s birthday thoughts
from last November seem a more apt and personal way of remembering.
“Ways of Seeing was, together with Robert Hughes’ “Shock of the New”,
one of the first books about art I read as teenager. It stayed with me
As if as a testament to his continued relevance, the LA Review of
Books published today a long article on his theory of art.
That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s.
Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a
critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account
of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.
A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic,
because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but
failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:
A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last
analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power
to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why,
asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began
to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and
was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
H/t: Bruce R
Castro leads his victorious troops (photo: History Archive/Rex/Shutterstock)
Pablo Velasco and Sacha Ismail examine Castro’s legacy in an article written in early 2012, largely informed by Cuba Since The revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, by Sam Farber.
The 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro and his 26 July Movement to power was a bourgeois revolution which smashed Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, but replaced it with their own Bonapartist regime.
Half driven by US hostility and half by choice, this government opted to become a Stalinist state in 1961, adopting the model of the USSR and similar states.
Farber calls this a “bureaucratic system of state collectivism”, in which society’s economic surplus “is not extracted in the form of profits from individual enterprise, nor is it realised through the market. Instead, it is obtained as a surplus product of the nation as a whole. The surplus is appropriated directly, through the state’s control of the economy”. Cuban workers and peasants received their means of subsistence in the form of largely non-monetary rations — low cost or free food, housing, education, health and other welfare facilities. However the surplus product pumped out of the direct producers is controlled and allocated by the ruling bureaucracy — “without any institutional constraints by unions or any other independent popular organisations”.
Cuba’s achievements and failures “resemble those of the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam before these countries took the capitalist road”. Part of this was Cuba’s receipt of “massive Soviet aid from the early sixties to the end of the eighties… even the most conservative estimates would place it well above Cuba’s calculated losses from US economic aggression during that period”. Between 1960 and 1990, Cuba received about 65 billion dollars of Soviet aid on very favourable terms.
The “systematic repressive nature of the Soviet-type regimes made it politically difficult to build enduring oppositions within those societies”. In Cuba there was “certainly no lack of physical brutality… particularly during the first twenty years of their rule. There were thousands of executions, and there was large-scale imprisonment, throughout the revolutionary period, of tens of thousands of people under typically very poor living conditions and physical mistreatment.”
Who rules Cuba?
The state bureaucracy that developed out of the revolution is still in power.
The state owns the means of production and the bureaucracy “owns” and controls the state. The “one-party state” is in fact a no-party state, since the bureaucracy rules directly through the myriad of state and state-sponsored “mass” organisations.
The bureaucracy has privileged access to consumer goods through special stores, separate hospitals, recreational villas, and trips abroad. The armed forces and security services have their own medical facilities. Since the two-tier economy of hard currency and pesos was legally established in 1993, more conventional inequality has been unleashed.
The political ideal of the Cuban elite has been summed up by current head of state Raúl Castro as “monolithic unity” (2009). Although there is enforced mass participation in Cuba’s polity, there is a complete absence of democratic control. Cuba has had a variety of ruling institutions, but none function democratically. The Communist Party was formed in 1965 and has only had six congresses in over 50 years. The Popular Power assemblies were not established until 1976 and allow only vetted candidates to stand on their biography, with those “elected” able only to rubber stamp decisions taken elsewhere by the bureaucrats.
Cuba does not have the kind of impersonal rule of law and citizens’ rights against the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the state which exist in some bourgeois societies. This is evident in the crimes of “social dangerousness”, and “antisocial behaviour”, and the use of imprisonment, electric shock treatment and psychiatric institutions for opponents. Fidel Castro has admitted that there have been 15-20,000 political prisoners in Cuba and Cuba currently has 531 prisoners per 100,000 people, the fifth highest rate worldwide.
What about the workers?
The idea that Cuba is ruled by its workers is laughable. In 1959, the Cuban working class “was not socialist in any meaningful sense of the term, nor did it lend its own distinctive character to the Cuban revolution”. Fidel Castro himself has admitted as much on numerous occasions.
The working class was certainly not passive during Batista’s dictatorship. Despite the shackles of the state and business-gangster trade unionism, sugar workers, rail workers and bank workers fought militant reformist struggles around pay and conditions. The 26 July Movement had its own trade unionists who did organise successful strikes on a number of occasions after the rebel leadership landed in Cuba in 1956. But the general strike they called in April 1958 was a failure and workers’ action only an adjunct to the main, guerrilla warfare strategy for taking power. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: debate on antisemitism between Cathy Nugent of the AWL and Richard Angell of Progress
The following resolution was adopted at the recent conference of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty:
Antisemitism exists on the left.
This is not merely a question of the bigotries, chauvinisms, and prejudices which exist in society generally expressing themselves within the left, but essentially as aberrations within an otherwise progressive worldview. Rather, a number of ideas, positions, and analyses which have an antisemitic logic have become incorporated over a number of years into the “common sense” which predominates in some sections of the far left.
Contemporary left antisemitism combines older tropes of Jewish power (the politics August Bebel denounced in the 1890s as “the socialism of fools”) with a Stalinist-inspired “anti-Zionism”.
Some traditional antisemitic tropes and themes have become incorporated into certain ways of viewing Zionism and Israel.
Anti-Zionism and hostility to Israeli policies are not necessarily antisemitic. But most contemporary antisemitism expresses itself in the form of anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism, rather than as ‘traditional’ antisemitic racism.
Contemporary left antisemitism historically deracinates Zionism, blowing it out of all proportion. Zionism was a nationalist-separatist, and often romantic-utopian, movement that emerged in response to a real oppression and was given a mass character by the attempted genocide experienced by Europe’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. It was always politically variegated. The revolutionary socialist tradition with which Workers’ Liberty identifies was always anti-Zionist, but it was an anti-Zionism conditioned, and in some ways tempered, by an understanding of the material roots of that nationalist impulse. It was an anti-Zionism which found it good to have Zionist units in the Red Army, a Histadrut presence at international communist congresses, and steps by the Bolshevik workers’ state to create an autonomous Jewish “homeland” within the territory of the USSR, and which saw the Zionists who then mostly described themselves as left-wing as indeed a mistaken tendency within the left, rather than as a phalanx of the imperialist enemy.
The Stalinist propaganda campaigns of the 1950s onwards, in which “Zionism” was interchangeable with “imperialism”, “racism”, and even “fascism”, cast long shadows in sections of the contemporary far left, including some groups which consider themselves anti-Stalinist.
Those shadows lead to Jews with an instinctive though maybe critical identification with Israel being demonised as “Zionists” (with the word having the same connotations as “racists” or “fascists”); to complaints of antisemitism (short of gross neo-Nazi-type acts) being automatically dismissed as contrived gambits to deflect criticism of Israel; and to Israel being seen as an illegitimate ultra-imperialist state, which must be wiped off the map and whose population, therefore, in the immediate term, it is right to boycott and despise.
[For more on the historical background and context, see: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/26603]
While recognising left antisemitism as a real political phenomenon, we also recognise that allegations of antisemitism may sometimes be exaggerated, instrumentalised, or even fabricated for factional ends. This is true of any allegation of any bigotry or prejudice. That does not mean that the bigotry or prejudice is not real, or that the default response to any such allegation should be to question the motives of the plaintiff.
Moreover, there may be a distinctly antisemitic component in play when allegations of antisemitic speech or conduct are challenged as having been raised in bad faith and for an ulterior political motive. This was particularly visible in the controversies triggered by Livingstone and Walker.
Did the right wing ‘weaponise’ antisemitism in the Livingstone and Walker controversies? In one sense, no (in that some of them had a long record of raising the issue of antisemitism). In one sense, yes (in that they had an open goal and would have been fools not to have taken the opportunity). But such considerations have nothing in common with the way in which supporters of Walker (and Livingstone) raised the allegation of ‘weaponisation’, i.e. as a means to delegitimise all criticism of Walker (and, in some cases, of Livingstone as well).
We are for allegations of antisemitism, as with allegations of sexism, racism, etc., being investigated thoroughly, in a way that is sympathetic to the plaintiff and which affords all parties due process.
Our response is based on political education, debate, and discussion. We cannot challenge a prevailing common sense, and replace it with a better one, by means of bans and expulsions. That discussion must be conducted in an atmosphere of free speech, where activists in the movement are able to speak freely on sensitive issues such as Israel/Palestine, and those raising concerns around antisemitism are not accused of being Zionist provocateurs.
In the Labour Party, we argue for the implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti Report.
Some of the recommendations contained in the Chakrabati Report are vague, and the political rationale which underpins them is not always clear. A lot of the recommendations focus heavily on procedural matters. It would be surprising if the Report did not suffer from such limitations.
But the Report does begin to raise the political issues which we want to see discussed and provides a certain official ‘stamp of approval’ to opening up such discussions. In both the Labour Party and trade unions (especially Unite and the UCU, even though the latter is not an LP affiliate) we should therefore encourage the use of the Report as a starting point for promoting discussion about antisemitism and arguing for a new political common sense about antisemitism based on the following ideas:
A historical understanding of the roots of nationalist ideas within Jewish communities, and the impact of the history of the 20th century in shaping Jewish people’s consciousness.
Zionism should neither be placed beyond criticism nor demonised.
As we challenge the confusion on the left and in the broader labour movement about Zionism and Israel, and the antisemitic content of some critiques of Zionism and Israel, we will advance our own politics on the Israel/Palestine conflict, i.e.
Solidarity with the Palestinians against Israeli occupation; a two-state settlement in Israel/ Palestine; workers’ unity across the borders; solidarity not boycotts.
Amendment not voted on (i.e. it goes forward for further discussion)
Contemporary left anti-Semitism involves a process of signification that defines the Other somatically – i.e. it marks out a group of people in relation to Israeli Jewishness and/or Zionist Jewishness – and assigns this categorised group of bodies with negative characteristics and as giving rise to negative consequences. This Jewish Other is conflated with a particular and singular understanding of Israel and Zionism and a notion therein that the Jewish collective has uniquely world domineering and despotic power. Unlike traditional and historical anti-Semitism, contemporary left anti-Semitism considers it possible and necessary for individual Jews to break away from the negative characteristics and consequences of Israeli Jews and Zionist Jews by denouncing any affiliation to them and to Israel and Zionism.
With racism in general, both real and imagined physical and/or cultural characteristics have historically been, and continue to be, signified as an innate mark of nature and ‘race’. Similar to all other manifestations of racism, with contemporary left anti-Semitism it is not difference per se that matters but the identification of this difference as significant. In this sense, whether consciously or not, those engaged in contemporary left anti-Semitic discourse and practices are engaged in racist discourse and practices. The demand (often in disguise) that the Israeli Jewish nation-state must be undone because it is uniquely despotic (comparable only to fascist Germany and/or apartheid South Africa) – a judgement and a demand not made of any other nation-state – is racist. It is racist because real and imagined cultural characteristics have been and are signified as an innate mark of the nature of Israel and Zionism (and of the cultural ‘race’ of Jews associated with Israel and Zionism), which are deemed especially deplorable and negative in characteristics and consequences.
Much academic theorising about ‘race’, racism and capitalism since the 1960s in Britain and North America sources racism solely to colonialism, rather than also recognising racism’s co-constructed relationship with the rise of nationalism and the nation-state, and some of its pre-capitalist origins. The consequences of this colonial model of racism are: one, limited to no recognition of racism beyond what “white people” have done and do to “black people”; two, intellectually crediting the controversial notion that Zionism is an instance of racism (as “bad, white and rich Jews” oppress “good, poor and brown Arabs and Muslims”); and three, downplaying anti-Semitism.
And add at end:
The two states settlement on pre-1967 borders is the only consistently democratic and realistic resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The overwhelming majority of both the activist and academic Left have adopted various forms of one state / one shared space solutions on the basis that the ultimate question is one of Palestinian redress and justice and/or “facts on the ground” have made a meaningful two states settlement impossible. For many in this majority camp, their politics is well-meaning and borne from despair. We need to patiently and sharply reason and debate against the varied proposals for one state / one shared space – exposing and condemning the implicit logic to undo the Israeli Jewish nation-state – while nuancing our argument as not altogether diametrically opposed: since we are for two states so that one day we might see one shared cooperative space between Jewish and Arab workers democratically emerge.
John McTernan isn’t the only Labour person who gets published in the Telegraph:
By Sasha Ismail
Most Labour “moderates” must have expected a crushing Corbyn victory, but this result will surely have left many feeling bewildered. As a campaigner for Corbyn, let me explain what I think is happening and offer some advice.
To listen to some on Labour Right you’d think the party membership had lost their minds. This is ironic given the anti-Corbyn camp’s behaviour over the last year, and particularly the last three months. In any case, we’re far from mad; there is something deeper going on.
The movement which swept Corbyn to office, and has just crushed the attempt to remove him, is fundamentally a class movement. It reflects the deep frustration of various sections of Britain’s working population with the bland, technocratic political consensus which has served the interests of employers and the rich so well for thirty years, and spectacularly enriched them during the decade of “austerity”.
Yes, “Corbynism” is primarily based among big city-based and more formally educated workers (which is not necessarily the same as better-off workers – let alone the absurd idea that Corbyn’s support is a movement of the wealthy). But Labour MPs and the whole middle-to-upper-class social layer who make up the main cadres of the Labour Right cannot understand the anger and frustration which has given such drive to the new Labour Left because they have not suffered in the same way that even better-off workers have since the financial meltdown – from falling real wages, gutted public services, and a spiralling housing crisis.
And to those who didn’t share at all in the “boom years” before 2008 but at best trod water, suffering under New Labour’s regime of “flexible labour markets”, privatisation and burgeoning inequality, the Labour Right almost literally have nothing to say – except to pander to the attempts of nationalists to divide workers. Blairism wanted to exorcise the discourse of class from politics to better serve capitalism. But class reasserted itself with a vengeance, in various ways. In that sense, the Corbyn movement and the rise of Ukip have the same root. The latter represents a reactionary revolt against elite-consensus politics, the former the beginnings of a progressive one. There is a similar polarisation in many countries – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders being an obvious example – for similar reasons.
The Labour Right have numerous advantages, but so far they have failed to stifle the Corbyn movement precisely because it is a movement, whereas they are not. Their attacks on us remind Labour members and supporters precisely of what they hate about “New Labour”, reinforcing our determination and our numbers. That is why Momentum as a whole and its groups across the country have experienced such a remarkable surge of support and involvement since the coup. Owen Smith can talk Left, while Corbyn sounds all too moderate – but Smith “smells” like a man of the capitalist establishment, while Corbyn does not. Labour people are not stupid; we have a good sense of smell. And, at the end of the day, like it or not, antagonistic and clashing class interests do exist. As long as they do, labour movements will emerge and re-emerge, no matter how much they driven down (physically or ideologically).
Of course this won’t happen automatically. The Corbyn movement must conceive of itself as an attempt to revive the labour movement and make it a force in society once again. It needs to radically shake up the structures and culture of the Labour Party, rejecting the idea we can go back to the 2015-16 status quo – but conceive this not as an end in itself, but part of a drive to build a social movement which takes on the rich and helps workers and communities organise in their own interests.
Because make no mistake: even at a time of low strike figures and underlying low confidence among workers, there are plenty of struggles Labour can mobilise behind, help win, and help make the beginning of a wider movement. From newly unionised fast food workers and cleaners to growing housing struggles in working-class communities, from the Picturehouse cinema workers striking for the Living Wage to the junior doctors, the Labour Party needs to organise and act to justify its name. There is a new workers’ movement waiting to be born.
A reinstatement of class politics means reviving trade unions. It also means talking about the idea of workers’ representation – not just how we select our candidates for Parliament, for instance, but who they are. Why should Labour candidates be mainly Spads, highly paid lawyers, heads of think tanks and NGOs? Why shouldn’t they be train drivers, teachers, cleaners, fast food workers, social workers, posties, care workers? Why shouldn’t they be people with a record of trade union and community struggles?
All this requires us to challenge some of the fuzzier populist ideas among Corbyn supporters. A lot of Corbyn-supporters’ organisational thinking inadvertently mirrors a Blairite, media- and internet-driven version of “democracy” (cleansed of its more unpleasant aspects). A new model Labour Party can and should be much more ambitious about its use of new media, but more “online consultation” and policies cooked up in the leader’s office are not what we need – a structured democracy based on an active membership is. Most urgently, we need to deal with the party bureaucracy. If we don’t it will continue to act as a permanently organised factional machine to undermine Corbyn and trample the membership. A “clean slate” won’t do.
A democratically organised party, freed from its bureaucratic tethers, inspiring and mobilising hundreds of thousands of members and linked to a revived trade union movement, could become powerful, reach out to wide layers of society and win millions over to its ideas. It could finally create a force capable of bridging the divisions of origin, ethnicity and religion which the Right in various forms has so capably entrenched over the last two decades – a force allowing the majority to act unitedly in their own interests.
Potentially, it could go further and restore to the political agenda the unsettled aspiration of the old Labour Left – the task of replacing this society of inequality and exploitation with a new one based on meaningful democracy, collective ownership and sustainable provision for human need.
I don’t think I’m naive. Posing the question of socialism is a long way off. It will be a hard struggle even to transform Labour, oust the Tories and change society’s direction. But we need to begin the work now, not go on as we did before.
Let me finish with an appeal to the Labour “moderate” rank and file. You should be angry at your leaders. You should be angry at self-styled Labour loyalists who have done their best to wreck our party; at self-styled social democrats who have strained every muscle to defend unrestrained neo-liberalism and the interests of the rich. There is a place for you in a transformed Labour Party and labour movement, but not for the professional wreckers. Help us call them to account.
Sacha Ismail is a campaigner in Momentum’s Lewisham branch
Johnny Lewis reports from Unite’s policy conference:
The first big debate of Unite’s conference concerned Trident: conference was confronted with a number of motions, calling for scrapping Trident now and an Executive Statement which argued for opposition in principle to nuclear weapons but; “Unite does not and never will advocate or support any course of public policy which will put at risk jobs or communities. Although in favour of defence diversification “Until there is a government in office ready, willing and able to give cast-iron guarantees on the security of the skilled work and all employment involved, our priority must be to defend and secure our members’ employment”. This Statement was passed overwhelmingly and with it the motions calling for trident to be `scrapped now’ fell.
For the union leadership and the defence workers this debate was not really about trident but the very character of the union, it is fair to say this character was encapsulated in the Statement and in particular no support for policies which `… put at risk jobs or communities’. The resolutions opposing the Statement with their demand of ‘scrap now’ violated that idea of a union’s function. If such a resolution had been passed, while it would not have materially effected defence workers’ jobs, it would have signalled support for a policy which put jobs at risk, and the union would, to use the words of one of the speakers, have “abandoned us”.
Although victory for ‘scrap now’ would have had no material impact on jobs it would have had a very real impact on the union’s unity. Large numbers of defence workers would have left and at best joined the GMB (at worst joining Community or leaving the movement altogether), and who in their right mind could blame them? I don’t think those arguing to ‘scrap’ got the implications for the union – until McCluskey spelled it out in his closing remarks.
With one or two exceptions those opposing the Statement were white collar, from outside manufacturing and from London, while supporters of the Statement were largely manual workers from the industry and from outside of London. This division mirrors Brexit and has been observed within the Labour party. While it is clear the vast majority of the ‘scrap now’ support can be characterised as Corbynistas it is not possible to clearly pigeon hole those supporting the Statement except to say they saw themselves as trade unionists rather than political animals and a majority would not see themselves as Corbyn supporters.
The main problem for the ‘scrap now’ speakers was how to argue a position which if passed would have meant the union’s abandonment of the Trident workers. Unable or unwilling to confront this conundrum they ignored it, speaking in general terms and in equal measure about diversification and the need to support Corbyn – of course the most zealot Corbynistas where those outside the party.
Both these points were easily dealt with by the defence workers: on diversification they pointed out that the ‘scrap now’ advocates were substituting the potential to develop diversification which had been opened up by Corbyn’s victory with the present situation where there are no diversification blueprints and even if these existed the Tory Government is not going to implement them. The diversification argument existed simply as a prop to enable scarp now to avoid arguing there real position `scrap regardless’ of the impact on members or on the union.
The Corbyn argument was of a different order: here the ‘Marxists’ came into their own, and the broad sweep of history and grand strategies alighted on the shoulders of the Unite conference.
Their line of argument went something like this: Unite supports Corbyn; failure to support ‘scrap now’ would be a failure to support him and so give a hostage to Labour’s right. On the other hand supporting ‘scrap now’ would be a massive boost to Corbyn’s struggle in the party and by default the movement which has gathered around him. Needless to say, this missed the mark by some many miles.
If the Corbynistas are a broad socially liberal movement, the self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’ within it should want to move beyond liberalism and build a class-based movement which by definition must include the defence workers. Indeed, building a class movement will largely depend on how far the left wing of the Corbynistas can turn it outward and proselytize among workers such as those in the defence industry. The supposed ‘Marxists’ in this debate provided a master class in how not to build that movement. Most striking was the unintended consequence arising from combining ‘scrap now’ with the Corbyn struggle in the party: the effect was to reduce defence workers to pawns to be sacrificed in the great game that is the left vs right battle within the Party.
That approach illustrates the complete failure of these ‘Marxists’ to recognise the division between the economic and political, and within this division that unions are primarily economic entities. A consequence is these people continually push unions to adopt programmatic demands appropriate to a party rather than a union. In this instance asking conference to supress the union’s core function of defending member’s terms and conditions in pursuit of a political goal, the only possible result was to further repel the defence workers from the left and Corbyn.
The real tragedy in this vignette is that until now the only serious work undertaken on defence diversification has been that of defence industry workers. Now a Corbyn labour party can build on that work harnessing the workers in the industry, their unions and party to formulate diversification blueprints. This approach was central to the Statement:
“Unite commits to campaigning to secure a serious government approach to defence diversification… and urges the Labour Party to give the highest priority to this aspect in it considerations.”
We have then a platform which can not only develop diversification policies but also a process where defence workers will be exposed to the ideas of the left opening the possibility of winning them over to socialism.
Apart from the decisive victory the debate itself was well run and a joy to watch as the defence workers and McCluskey, provided the ‘Marxists’ with a lesson on what is a trade union and how it should function. I hope (but doubt) they will have learnt their lesson.
Reblogged with the permission of Camilla Bassi, of Anaemic On A Bike:
My interview in Jungle World on the British radical Left and Europe
Jungle World is a radical left-wing German weekly newspaper published in Berlin, which is known for its anti-nationalist and cosmopolitan politics.
The following is the original transcript of my forthcoming interview (out on Thursday 16th June 2016) in Jungle World, see http://jungle-world.com.
In your Blog you have criticized the position of the SWP and Lexit campaign. Can you briefly describe why a part of the British (radical) left is arguing for leaving the EU and why this is wrong in your opinion?
Dominant sections of the British Trotskyist Left, and surviving Stalinist currents, compose the Lexit campaign. The legacy of Stalinism largely explains why so-called Trotskyist organisations like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP) have effectively adopted a leftist nationalist position – a hangover from the Stalinist idea of “socialism in one country”. One further feature of the SWP’s and SP’s position is their warped calculation of ‘Britain out’: that conditions will be objectively better for the British working class because there will be a crisis in the ruling Conservative Party government. This is warped since the mainstream Brexit campaign, if it succeeds, will undoubtedly be a huge victory for the political Right (regardless of any reshuffle of its leaders). The hegemonic politics of ‘Britain out’ is anti-immigration, racist nationalism. There’s simply no way round this.
The Lexit campaign is mobilising the nation-state as a bulwark against the evils of neoliberal global capitalism. For sure, the EU is a bureaucratic and undemocratic capitalist club of bosses, which is hostile to immigrants and refugees. But as socialists we are not crudely anti-capitalist; we are not crudely anti-globalisation. We are for sublating the progressive elements of capitalism out of capitalism; we are for an alternative globalisation. As such, on the EU question, our political response should be: stay in and fight for a fully democratic workers’ Europe. This is congruent with the tradition of Marxism (from Marx and Engels, through to Gramsci, Lenin, and Trotsky): for a socialist “United States of Europe”. Capital seeks globalisation, it seeks to overcome national borders; let’s not forget that as capitalism’s gravediggers, so do we but on our own terms! It is incongruous and anti-dialectical to pose as internationalist and yet succumb to nationalism, which is what Lexit does.
The upcoming EU referendum has revived nationalist sentiment and postcolonial nostalgia. Is the rhetoric of independence related to the British colonialist history? Does the (radical) left have an answer to that? What is particularly “British” in this discourse and where do you see analogies with other European countries, where anti-EU populism, both left and right wing, grew in the past decade?
Since 1945 racist anti-immigration discourse in Britain has rarely referenced biological inferiority, rather immigrants have been racialised as the cause of the socio-economic problems of ordinary Britons. English/British nationalism is dependent upon the idea of ‘race’: “an island race” which is distinct and apart from Europe. This imagined community utilises the past supposed greatness of the British Empire. A present insecurity in the national psyche, fuelled by a politics of austerity and a scapegoating of ‘the Other’, drives a resurgence in the allegiance to the national psyche: ‘Britain was great, let’s make Britain great again’. Ironically the Lexit campaign, while ostensibly for open borders, totally blunts its ability to challenge this racist nationalism.
The British situation is also very much part of a contemporary and pervasive European trend of anti-EU populism and exclusivist and racist nationalism, which positions the nation-state as a rampart against the perils of globalisation. This is a populism that seeks to cement space and reverse time. This is a deeply reactionary throwback of which a potential disintegration of the EU would be a part.
What role does the refugee crisis play in the referendum campaign? On the one side the right wing fears the refugees, on the other side the left sees the EU as a system killing people who are seeking protection or a better life… Why is it possible for the left to agree with the the right and far right in this question?
Absolutely core to the mainstream Brexit campaign is an implicit and sometimes explicit racism and xenophobia to immigrants and refugees, specifically their racialisation as the cause of socio-economic woes, which leaves the government’s politics of austerity unquestioned. The primary argument of the Lexit campaign is that the EU is neoliberalism incarnate, which leaves our national government ‘off the hook’. Secondary arguments of Lexit follow: the EU is an enemy of immigrants and refugees, and a ‘Britain out’ vote will destabilise the government. It is not a case of the far Right and the far Left agreeing on the question of immigrants and refugees, but rather that both place blame on the EU and negate national bourgeois responsibility.
Let´s focus more on the left. Why does the British and European left rediscover nationalism right now? Is it only anti-EU-rhetoric or is there more about that?
Romantic anti-globalisation has long been a current on the Left. This includes the crass dichotomy of ‘local good’ and ‘global bad’. In this schema, the nation-state forms the context spatiality of ‘the local’ whereas the EU of ‘the global’. Karl Marx once said of reactionary, romantic anti-capitalists that, it is “as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill”. Add to this the legacy of Stalinism and its thesis of “socialism in one country” and one has a thoroughly muddled left-wing nationalism. Central to decent socialist politics is a commitment to a fully democratic, alternative globalisation, with international workers’ solidarity that brings down borders rather than erects or cements them: a global democratic union of localities that sublates the radical possibilities born from global capitalism – its infrastructure, wealth, resources, and gravediggers – out of capitalism into an equal and just society.
Who are the people that vote for leave? Can you characterise this group? Do working class interests play a role in the debate?
The key battle in amongst the working class in England and Wales (Scottish voters are, in the main, likely to vote to stay in the EU). The working class in England and Wales have traditionally voted for Labour, but in recent years have increasingly been attracted to far Right parties like UKIP. Why? This trend is a consequence of the Labour Party drifting rightwards under Tony Blair, the weakness and incompetence of the organised far Left, the defeats of the labour movement, and the mainstreaming of racist anti-immigration discourse. This sociological group will ultimately determine the vote.
In an open letter to Britain Slavoj Žižek writes: “The nation-state is not the right instrument to confront the refugee crisis, global warming, and other truly pressing issues. So instead of opposing Eurocrats on behalf of national interests, let’s try to form an all-European left.” Is that a possibility/solution? What do you think about new movements such as DiEm25 launched by Y. Varoufakis a couple of week ago, which not only are decidedly pro Europe but claim to make “another Europe” possible?
Both Žižek and Varoufakis are generally correct. A pan-European Left which can fight for another Europe, a workers’ Europe, is absolutely central for our class – locally and globally. Is it possible? Yes, absolutely: by mobilising connections through labour movement struggles, trade unions, political left organisations, and so on. The DiEM25 Manifesto is right to assert: “The EU will either be democratized or it will disintegrate!”
Leon Trotsky’s ‘method of analysis’ back in 1917 is as astute then as it is today: “If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.” What the EU has constructed is not something we want to blindly bulldoze, its disintegration through a tsunami of racist and xenophobic nationalisms would be a terrible reversal of historical progress. As cosmopolitan internationalists, we are for, echoing Trotsky, a “United States of Europe – without monarchies, standing armies and secret diplomacy”!
Moishe Postone, a Marxist writer based at the University of Chicago and author of Time, Labour, and Social Domination, and Critique du fétiche-capital: Le capitalisme, l’antisémitisme et la gauche, was in London in May, and spoke to Martin Thomas from Solidarity about anti-semitism on the left and reactionary anti-capitalism.
I don’t feel as if I know the ins and outs of the situation in the Labour Party, so part of what I say may not be completely accurate. First of all, there is an extremely unfortunate polarisation with regard to the relationship of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. It is a polarisation which makes political discourse very difficult. On the one hand, you have the Israeli Right, as, let’s say, exemplified by Netanyahu, who treat any criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. As far as I’m concerned, this is completely illegitimate.
Not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitic. There are too many people on the left, and I think it’s increasing, who argue that no form of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic: that anti-Zionism is anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism is something else. In the world of the metropolitan left, it is really quite remarkable that the left has almost nothing to say about Syria, had nothing to say about Saddam, has nothing to say about the fact that we are witnessing a complete crisis of the Arabic-speaking world. That crisis cannot simply be blamed on imperialism. There needs to be at least an attempt at serious analysis of why every single post-colonial Arab country is characterised by the secret police, and a secret police that would do the Stasi proud. Some of them were trained by the Stasi and the KGB, in fact.
The left seems to be unable to say anything about these issues. In a sense, and this is extremely hypothetical on my part, I think the more helpless the left feels conceptually on dealing with the world, the more it zeroes in on Israel-Palestine, because that seems to be clear: the last anti-colonial struggle.
There are some leftists who will not be happy for me to say this, but retrospectively one could say that the rise of the New Left globally implied a tacit recognition that the proletariat was not the revolutionary subject. I think that there was a move away from working-class politics. The new leftists had not only separated themselves from Communist Parties and social-democratic parties; even though they sympathised with the plight of workers, I think they were tacitly casting about for a new revolutionary subject. The colonised peoples fighting for freedom became the new revolutionary subject. I think that along with that there was a curious fusion, in part because of Vietnam, of the anti-colonial struggle and anti-Americanism.
One of the differences between the massive demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, is that for many — not all, but many — of those who fought against the Americans, in the 1960s, there was the idea of supporting a progressive revolution. The Americans, as the world’s imperial, but also conservative force, were hindering a positive historical development. So the demonstrations weren’t only against the Americans. They were also for the Vietnamese revolution — however one retrospectively evaluates that thinking as justified or not, and whether or not one thinks there should have been further criticism of the Vietnamese Communist Party. None of that existed in the massive demonstrations against the American invasion in Iraq. There were very few people who could on any level have regarded the Ba’ath regime under Saddam Hussein as representing anything progressive, and nobody talked that way. Anti-Americanism became coded as progressive. In a funny way, it is a remnant of the Cold War, spread among people who were actually not Cold Warriors.
Israel has become fused with America in the minds of many of these anti-imperialist leftists. An enormous amount of power is attributed to Israel which it actually doesn’t have. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are colleagues of mine at the University of Chicago, claim that the American invasion of Iraq was against American interests, but pushed by the Israelis. Of course, they never state what Israeli interests were. Really, as both those writers had connections to Washington, their book was a brief that the State Department should listen to them more than to the neo-cons that they did listen to. Israel is, in a sense, the manipulator, and Washington is sometimes just a stupid dolt which is manipulated by these incredibly clever Jews. And at that point the picture of Zionism is anti-semitic. Zionism There were leftwing critiques of Zionism from the very beginning, frequently by communist Jews. Zionism was criticised by the communists as a form of bourgeois nationalism.
That’s something completely different from the criticisms today. Trotsky, early in his life — I think he changed his views later on — referred to the Bundists as “sea-sick Zionists”. That critique had nothing to do with Palestine or the Palestinian people. It simply has to do with nationalism. The change may have happened in the 1930s, but one marker of it was the trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952, where the Stalinists tried the entire Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party. It was 14 people. Eleven were Jewish. These were old Communists. Many had fought in Spain. They were accused of being Zionists. If you read what “Zionists” meant, it was exactly what the fascists called “Jews” — a shadowy conspiracy, inimical to the health of the Volk, and working to undermine the government which was for the people. The Stalinists couldn’t use the word “Jewish” — this was only seven years after the war — so they used the word “Zionist”. That was one of the origins of a deeply anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism. It exploded after 1967. The USSR was furious that Israel had defeated its two major client states, and it began to suport the Palestinian movement. The anti-Semitic cartoons and statements coming out of the Soviet Union were pretty appalling. That’s where you got the idea that Zionism is Nazism — generated by the Soviet Union. And unfortunately, that Arab nationalists picked up on it is not surprising.
Carlos Latuff’s cartoon “Holocaust Remembrance Day”
The Western left started to pick up on that too. I think that was deeply unfortunate. I think anti-semitism is almost a litmus test for whether a movement is progressive or not. There are a lot of anti-capitalist movements that are not progressive. And I think that anti-Semitism is a marker. I think there is a great deal to criticise in Israeli policies, the Israeli occupation, certainly the present Israeli government. But political discussion cannot take place if the choice is between Netanyahu on the one hand, and a certain kind of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism on the other. Anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism is a world view. It is not prejudice against individual Jews. It can go with being perfectly civil, although I’ve been reading about the way some Jewish students are pilloried in terms of “you look Zionist”. Who could “look Zionist”? It means, “you look Jewish”.
I was struck by the UN Arab Human Development report of 2002, which was written by Arab scholars. It talked about the misère of the Arab-speaking world and its massive decline since the late 1970s. The decline was nearly as precipitous as that of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time other areas of what used to be called “the Third World”, have risen. It seems to me that it is not only the decline of the Arab-speaking world, but the rise of other parts, which makes an anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism more plausible. The power of the Jews! It is the Jews who are pulling everything down. This is only a little variant on the idea that the problem is all imperialism. Well, imperialism is very important, was important, was distorting. But after all the British were in India much longer than anyone was in Syria. Or in Iraq. But I know more serious analyses of India from the left than I do of the Ba’ath. I find that politically unfortunate, and when it becomes anti-Semitic, I find it a marker of a move towards a reactionary populism. Campuses On many campuses, the hostility has spread to all Jews. It has made many young Jews very confused and they identify more with Israel than they did.
It is creating a reaction. Many of them are naïve politically, and because Israel’s very existence is being called into question, they also frequently are uncritical in terms of what is going on in Israel-Palestine. When Israel under comes such attack – because it doesn’t feel like a political attack but an existential attack – there is very little discussion. There are campaigns such as BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel], which is basically dishonest. [Norman] Finkelstein picked up on this quite a while ago. Some people are confused, and BDS tries to promote the confusion. People think it is against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza period, but it is not. Because if it were, then it would not be a boycott of all Israeli academics, most of whom are very opposed to the settlements and Netanyahu. It is significant I think, that at the height of the Vietnam War, or the Iraq invasion, or other American adventures, there never was a call for a boycott of all American academics, ever.
The West takes the model of South Africa; many Palestinian militants think the model is Algeria; and there is no analogy. I don’t mean a moral analogy, I the mean analogy falls down because of demographic and political facts. There was in South Africa, only a small minority of white South Africans. There are as many Israeli Jews as there are Palestinians. So the Algerian or South African tactics are not going to work. But you have an extremely unfortunate marriage, as it were, between the Israeli right, which is becoming further and further right, and what I regard as the Palestinian right.
For me, the signal event was when [Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated [in 1995, by an Israeli right-winger]. The right-wing campaign against Rabin was appalling and vicious, and Netanyahu was at the head of that. After Rabin was assassinated, it was assumed that Labour would be swept into power on a sympathy vote. Instead a Palestinian group began a campaign of suicide bombs. That elected the first Netanyahu government [in 1996]. The two work hand in glove. Each side thinks that ultimately, in the long run, it is going to prevail. But in the meantime, politically, they are united. It is a united rightwing front.
By Camilla Bassi (at Anaemic On A Bike)
On Saturday 14th May 2016 I attended the Sheffield TUC’s “Europe IN or OUT? The Big Debate”. Maxine Bowler of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) was the main speaker on the top table for the ‘out’ position. In my contribution from the floor I began by stating my critique of the European Union as a neoliberal capitalist club, which is hostile to migrants and refugees. I reasoned that one can be a fierce critic of the status quo and bureaucracy of the European Union whilst recognising that the alternative actuality of ‘Britain out’, in the face of a deeply chauvinistic wave coalescing through the Brexit campaign, would be a reactionary throwback which will impede the struggle for working class liberation. I then referenced the Marxist tradition (by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and others) for a socialist “United States of Europe” – a tradition which has been problematically displaced by Stalinism. Maxine replied: “I am angry that someone has used Marx and Engels to defend the European Union!” So she missed my point. But much worse still, she woefully neglected an important history and compass for the present from supposedly her own tradition. As the debate proceeded, a member of the audience tentatively made a case for ‘Britain out’ on the basis of a need to curb immigration. Maxine responded by making a case for open borders. And herein lies the political incongruity of the Lexit campaign: arguing against a Fortress Europe and for an open Europe, while effectively retreating to (a left-wing) nationalism; arguing against the European Union and for an internationalism, while ineffectively challenging the forces and conditions of existence that are fuelling xenophobia, racism, parochialism, and nationalism. In the fantasy politics minds of its campaigners, Lexit is the subversion of Brexit, yet in reality it is merely an inversion. Moreover, given the tsunami of Brexit, Lexit’s attempt to capsize Brexit continuously fails as wave after wave capsize Lexit.
In the Social Worker article “Say no to Fortress Europe – vote leave on 23 June”, the organisation argues:
“the EU isn’t about bringing people together across borders. It’s about bringing together the ruling classes of some countries to compete against the ruling classes of other countries – partly by putting up borders. The EU makes it harder to travel into Europe from Africa, Asia and South America. To do so it promotes scapegoating myths that can then be turned against European migrants. So can its machinery of border control and repression. Building a racist Fortress Europe is central to the EU project. Bringing down that fortress is essential for any real internationalism or anti-racism. Some activists argue that the bigger enemy is “Fortress Britain”. But the two aren’t in competition. Britain’s rulers use the EU to police their own borders.”
If we leave the European Union, further still, if it disintegrates under a tsunami of chauvinistic nationalisms, then what are the conditions of existence to then fight for an open Europe? If we succumb to a form of left-wing nationalism amidst waves of racist, xenophobic English and British nationalism, then what are the conditions of existence for a future of workers’ solidarity across borders? Maxine and other SWP members at the Sheffield debate defined those who spelt out the highly probable consequences of ‘Britain out’ as promoting a “politics of despair”. Instead, they speculated, Boris would oust Cameron, the Tories would look like a joke, the masses would then take to the streets, and socialism would be victorious.
II. The Marxist tradition for a “United States of Europe”
Let’s start with the following historical context, as summated by Cathy Nugent in her article “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”: Read the rest of this entry »
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