“At least facetiousness is funny.”

So says Russell Brand:

Brand condemns some rather old problems, among them inequality and “political disillusion”: only then, with the same swiftness, to dismiss some relatively useful questions about how on earth they might be addressed. Which is rather to miss both the point and the long intellectual history to have spent time struggling with it.

Socialism makes the modest suggestion that welfare should not depend upon the charitable donations of the rich and religious to the deserving poor, a view that holds petty paternalism and charity as insults to human dignity – what Marx called the soothing of the heart-burned aristocrat. It’s why charges of hypocrisy are so ludicrous: “champagne socialism” is an attempt to vomit egalitarians out of public discourse with a pithy remark, alluding, apparently, to the miso soups and lattes over which they denounce the bourgeoisie. (I can only afford cava myself but we’ll let that pass.)

Is this really “hypocrisy”? Compare socialism with the sickly utopianism of so-called “compassionate capitalism”: a view – usually of the wealthy and often of the masochists whom they exploit – in which the accumulation of money by private individuals can only and inevitably operate to the benefit of wider society. It’s why the liberals who befriend this fatuous verdict are usually such chillingly dull specimens.

Now: whatever questions might be raised about the viability of economic rationalisation under socialism (usually envisaged as being without a monetary system), or the popular tyranny that any “revolution” would risk stirring, there’s at least a sense of commitment to this ideology. On the practical level, you might say, there’s the nationalisation of production; and more romantically there are distant visions of equality and internationalism. Neither scientific nor humanistic impulses can be separated from socialism.

Brand, on the other hand, has nothing to say on this tradition: he’s an anarchist of the most vacuous sort. It’s the political activism of weed and hedonism: he was arrested for public nudity in 2001 as though ventral modesty and complicity in child labour were inextricable allies. As a rule, anarchism doesn’t impress me; it’s a commitment to distaste rather than principle, the populism of idiocy and intellectual dishonesty plagued by the frivolous hypocrisy of which socialists have the right to be dismissive. In 1968, thousands marched through London demanding Harold Wilson take a moral lead in his foreign policy; while the Occupy Movement, four decades later, would say nothing beyond vaguely austere denunciations of capitalism and Wall Street suits somewhat overly overly-sharp for the primate species that we are.

If we don’t confront social crises, they’ll defeat us: it is not enough to complain about flooding in winter and then to stay silent when people march against building the flood gates in spring. And that is why Lenin and Brand should never be mentioned in the same sentence.

Goodness. How on earth did I become this left-wing?

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Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party

In 1939, in order to be excused from joining the war, Mussolini sent Hitler such a ludicrously long list of materials he needed that the Fuhrer simply waved them away. The hope was to jump in a few months later, win the war, and then claim the credit from the good old Berliner fascist.

I thought about that as I watched the horror on Ed Miliband’s face as he realised that he had, in fact, defeated the government on the matter of launching strikes against Assad; that rather than appearing to be the strong leader who had forced concession after concession from a war-monger, whom he could then criticise for his efforts while satisfying the undercurrent in his party longing for an intervention, he had forced Britain to abandon the principle of aiding the Syrians through military measures. He wanted to have his cake, eat it, and then serve up the excrement to the unsuspecting British public.

I have, as a consequence, left the Labour Party.

The Looming Legacy

“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty,” Clement Attlee told the Labour Party conference at Southport, in 1934. “We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country. We say we want to see put on the statute book something which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”

True to his word, Attlee visited the volunteer British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, in 1937, who conjured the “Major Attlee Company” in his honour. But the most inspiring moment was perhaps in 1939 when the Republican government in Spain was close to collapse, Barcelona nearly overrun; the British public, resting in that awkward winter between Chamberlain’s announcement of “Peace For Our Time” and Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia and Moravia, had less stomach for war than in two decades; and there was expected to be a general election in a years’ time. And in spite of all that weighing in on his political capital, Attlee stood at a podium in Whitechapel to unveil Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to raise funds for the Republican war effort. The goal was to persuade working-class Londoners, for whom the entry fee was only a pair of shoes, of the urgency facing their Spanish comrades.

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Clement Attlee unveiling Picasso’s “Guernica” at Whitechapel, 1939.

By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he had grasped perhaps a little too confidently Hitler’s commitment to an old man to a World Peace Conference under the chairing of Roosevelt. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.

In his will, Lansbury gently requested that his ashes be scattered at sea because “although I love England very dearly … I am a convinced internationalist.” Neither his idealism nor Attlee’s pragmatism compromised their humanitarian impulses, which had simply been schooled in different ways. Neither undermined the basic instinct that transcended the trivialities of national barriers, languages and economies. Though both saw that the better world could be much better realised as a webbed community, only Attlee understood what the Tory benches meant when they shouted, “Tell that to Hitler!”

The Wretching Legacy

Nostalgia isn’t any good for anyone. The historian betrays his discipline if it livens him up too much; I am not attempting to draw a bland parallel between the Republican government and the rebel forces fighting Assad. The civil wars in Spain and Syria both began as struggles for pluralism, morphing into proxy wars from foreign powers with the liberal democracies sitting idly by – but we will never know how the Spanish war may have evolved if Attlee had won parliament over to his cause of ending the “farce of non-intervention”, as he called it. Would the Republicans have won? Or is it possible that, had Britain and France sent troops to aid the Republicans, the Germans would have doubled their efforts and in so doing brought war to the allies and defeated them?

We can never know, of course, and these sorts of questions don’t tend to be especially fruitful. But counter-factuals aren’t wildly different to the speculations filling the columns of every wannabe “expert” on Syria right this second; we must not presume that simply because one believes bombing Assad will help the secularists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels and the millions of displaced civilians that he is right to do so, or that those who oppose the methods he proposes are isolationists or hysterical “anti-imperialists”.

I’m a bit of a puritan, you see – motive is everything. A right action performed for the wrong reason is morally frivolous; equally, I’ll forgive a mistake made by an honest man.

So after Cameron agreed to publish the legal case for war, and then the Joint Intelligence Committee’s evidence for Assad’s responsibility, and then to work through the UN as far as the Security Council would allow, and then for a second vote after the UN reported its findings, why still did Ed Miliband vote against the government?

Did he fear that strikes against Assad’s weren’t worth the civilians they might kill, or that we should find a more humane route of assisting the democrat rebels with the long-term prospect of bringing down another Baathist dictator? Was it the imminenscy of a jihadist bloodbath if he falls? Did Miliband, instead, call for open borders for Syrian refugees and billions of pounds of international aid to be sent to those who remained?

All of these positions would have been honourable, and though I might have disagreed with them would at least have been comforted by the prospect of a principled leader.

With this in mind, allow us to consult the reasons he emailed to party members:

  1. We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;
  2. There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;
  3. The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;
  4. There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;
  5. Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

The only man of importance still uncritically recycling Assad’s narrative, Vladimir Putin, holds a veto on the Security Council; I will not believe that a man who taught at Harvard cannot see the moral farce of a man selling tanks to its only non-Soviet ally, to kill children, advising on the principles of judicial legitimacy. As he well knows, no serious politician could bring this program into the Commons. Miliband has whipped his party into the stables of Moscow, by accident, and is now telling his passengers to enjoy the sights.

Not a single Labour MP voted with the government on Thursday. Not one. Their amendment failed; and so when the government’s motion was proposed to the house, it became a choice between the principle to support military intervention and to rule it out entirely. Ed Miliband grabbed his opportunity, and he reaped his rewards.

Unapologetic – and unhumbled – by his party’s victory over Cameron, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander appeared on the BBC to say:

If [Cameron] was now to return to the Commons, and say, “Well, actually, the President of the United States has decided to go to the Congress, I’ve changed my mind about what Parliament was saying and about what the British people were saying,” I think that would weigh very heavily on the ability for him to convince the public or parliament that his judgement was sound. [Emphasis mine.]

If the decision were a principled one, Alexander would not be invoking public opinion into the vindication of his leader’s decision; and it’s beginning to make sense that the Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis, would happen to be the architect of Miliband’s project for old-school Tory paternalism, “One Nation”.

And this when the need for international solidarity has never been so great. The working-class electorate in Britain is – as Marx defined it, at any rate – shrinking, and labour power passing overseas. This is especially true of the Arab world whose economies are based heavily on undercutting European manufacturing, leading to artificially depressed wages and living standards. In times of war, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering that now has pushed northern territories of Syria into the open embrace of clerical fascism. Instead, Labour does nothing.

There’s some hysteria out there that Miliband has allied himself with the isolationism of UKIP – but that is rather to miss the point. One can be a patriot and an internationalist, because it’s possible, as Orwell put it, to wish for the best for those who bring colour into your daily life but to contextualise them as one school of art among many. One cannot, however, be a populist and an internationalist, because the moment you put vote-counting before international solidarity then you cease to truly believe in the equality of nations, and instead leave it dependent on the arbitrary whims and fantasies of mob rule.

An Abdication From Giving A Shit

For once, Miliband has it right that the vote on Thursday is not an invitation for “soul-searching” (hopefully not to excuse himself from the doctor’s invitation to Syria). But what’s a party without its members?

Looking back it’s odd to think that it was Tony Benn’s speech at the Oxford Union last year – a man who has otherwise not said anything sensible for two decades – that confirmed my faith in the Labour Party. When asked why he stayed a member of a party so mutated by its “Thatcherite tendencies” he responded, in a tone of slightly self-righteous victim-hood, that Labour was nothing if not a coalition. The best that one could hope for was that those closest to sharing his views would lead the party forward.

But LabourList revealed the results of a rather telling poll on the day of the vote, one which deep down I knew I was losing as I voted:

And what reasons did the readership provide for this landslide hostility to punitive strikes?

81.8% of LabourList readers said that Labour should only support action backed by the UN (as opposed to Miliband’s position, which involves evidence presented to the UN and debate by the Security Council, but doesn’t imply support from Russia/China is needed for military action). Only 18.2% said that Labour should back action without the UN.

I wish the likes of MPs Tom Harris, Ben Bradshaw and Megg Mun all the best of luck, anamolies though they are: they recognised the importance to support Syrian civilians, whatever form that should take. But I cannot overcome the apathy to greet Putin, Assad, Nasrallah and Khamenei dining on Friday to celebrate Britain’s moral lethargy, Asma even on a diet (because of all the children she’s been eating).

It is regrettable, it is sad, but decisive: the Labour Party, whose worst leader was said to be the Ramsay MacDonald who still had the guts to abandon the Fabians when they refused to condemn the Boer War, has fallen to those Western narcissists who have stolen the name “socialist” and extracted its heart. It is a wicked twist of fate for those of us now reluctantly named “liberal interventionists” that Blair, who abolished Clause IV from Labour’s constitution, would appear to be the last internationalist of Labour leaders; that the stumbling Red Ed should choose party politics over the death of non-English speaking children, for whom he clearly shares no more affinity than the average Joe.

The deeply humanitarian principles of the party have either melted away or slipped into the manifesto: the would-be programme of a “grown up” political party. One has only to ask, I suppose, why it was able to last for so long.

And the gong has been struck; it is the sound of the disenchantment of socialism.


An Interview with Norman Geras

I just stumbled across this old interview with Norman Geras, I believe Professor Emeritus at Manchester University. His writing is one that I admire for its consistent depth and clarity, and his very humane form of Marxism.

A few paragraphs are especially interesting. On the validity (or otherwise) of the Marxist tradition:

You sometimes come across an assumption that this sort of simultaneous taking and leaving of various components of Marxist thought is not available to Marxists: as though either Marxism is a seamless whole or it is nothing. That is the very assumption, however, for which Marxists used to be criticized, as propounding a dogma. No one need accept it. I think of myself as being a liberal-minded kind of Marxist, in more than one sense of this qualifier.

On  the erroneous presumption that the starting point of all conflict is American hegemony:

The arguments concerning America’s global record, for all the truth they have, do not explain the crimes of September 11. If they did, it would be a mystery why so many other movements against injustice and oppression have not felt impelled to fly aircraft full of civilians into skyscrapers full of civilians, or carried out atrocities of comparable scope. Not only the Chilean movement in response to that other September 11 – of 1973 – but also the PAIGC and FRELIMO fighting Portuguese colonialism in Africa, and the ANC fighting apartheid, and the guerrillas of Fretilin in East Timor, waged long struggles without recourse to the mass murder of civilians. If one is sincerely interested in explanation, explanation which does not condone, the most that can be said is that in conditions of oppression and injustice hatreds are more likely to take root and vicious ideologies to feed off them. This is why people of progressive outlook have always argued that removing injustices and alleviating suffering are the best route to pacifying conflict. It has never spared us the necessity, however, of calling the more poisonous and deadly political tendencies which can emerge in circumstances of social crisis and despair by their proper names, and recognizing that they have to be fought. A clear parallel is fascism. It has been noted often enough that fascist movements prosper most in conditions of economic dislocation, insecurity, unemployment, loss of hope. But outside the disastrous example of Third-Period Comintern policy, socialists and democrats have not generally allowed this fact to obscure the character of fascism as a dangerous enemy of their own values and ideals.

Geras’ blog, which on Sunday passed its 10th anniversary, can be found here. Always brilliant for sport, philosophy, history, Marxism, literature, politics, film, music.


When Socialists Kiss and Make Up

(Again.)

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty

Workers’ Liberty – a small Trotskyist group, whose website can be found here – today sent out a letter to fellow far lefties. Out with the zealotry of working-class comradeship and treachery, they cry, and in with some good old-fashioned unity:

There are real differences between the different groupings on the left, about real and important issues. For the labour movement to be able to win socialism, we will need to thrash out those issues and develop a coherent strategy.

We need a framework which allows unity in action where we agree, and honest and serious debate where we disagree. The best way would be to establish a transitional organisation.

This would be a coalition of organisations and individuals, organised both nationally and in each locality, which worked together on advocating the main ideas of socialism, working-class struggle, democracy, and welfare provision; in support of working-class struggles; and in such campaigns as it could agree on (against bedroom tax? against cuts?), while also giving space to debate differences.

It would have a newspaper, a website, and leaflets, based on the ideas its components agreed on, but would allow for debates in the newspaper and website, and for groupings within it to publish their own journals and websites.

It would deliberately allow its components to continue their own special activities — some in the Labour Party, and some not; some in this campaign, some in that — but also provide for debate on those choices.

I like the AWL. One of my best friends is a member, and it’s always struck me as sincere, pragmatic and ultimately collective in its approach to socialism – a far distance from the organisational Stalinism of the SWP or the high-minded delusions of Richard Seymour’s splitter party.

Take Iraq. When Blair threw in his lot with Bush, the AWL said at the time what many people only feel justified in arguing with hindsight. They were critical of American motivations – with apparent correctness. But they were fully conscious of the dangers of immediate withdrawal. Had that myopic paranoia triumphed, it is perfectly possible that what now is engulfing Syria would then have spread through Iraq like cannabis plants in wildfire. The organisation frequently expressed support for Iraqi trade unionists – whose principle enemies first were Baathists and second were Islamists – while holding anti-American sentiment firmly in perspective.

Bring on the Socialist Workers Party, whose central platform is built upon advocating policies so ludicrous that no right-thinking government official would ever seek to enact them. This they then use to masquerade as truthers struggling by dusk against authoritarian imperialists. Rather than writing tirades against those who veto Iraqi peace with bombs they excuse them as symbols for desperation struggling against that apparent non-oxymoron of an occupying democracy. Their rationale appears to be that an enemy of America is an ally, no matter how flippant they are towards human life. All this as their Central Committee protects potential rapists from the terrors of bourgeois law.

But it requires a faithless pessimism to believe that this is in anyway reflective of the SWP’s membership base. The biggest far left organisation in Britain, it’s inevitable that young people sincere in their conviction in the failures of capitalism will be drawn to it. There is, after all, no logical reason why significant numbers of people would translate disgust with poverty into the dogma of anti-Americanism. Add to that Richard Seymour’s new party – International Socialism, whose name it shares with a party from a better age – that cries renewal while clinging desperately to its former insanity.

If all these parties came together in an open space, then I don’t think it would be an entirely removed dream that grassroots of, say, the SWP would see the awkwardness of their more irrational doctrines. Perhaps they’d see that it isn’t at all necessary to conflate left-wing with anti-establishment; that some socialists do not feel everything that is wrong with the world is due to Israel or Tony Blair.

It’s the sectarian’s faithful battle for hearts that in the end alienates so many. I couldn’t label myself a Marxist – but I’d have no trouble backing the sort of left unity organisation for which the AWL is hopeful. Socialist humanism was the general ideology of the New Left in the 1960s; but it was this very rejection of orthodox, dogmatic Marxism that prevented any party emerging from it. The intellectual sincerity of many of its proponents emasculated any popular potential they might have dared to win. What the AWL proposes is the best for which they might have hoped.

If it comes to anything, of course. It probably won’t.


Climate Change: What if we create a better world for nothing?

What if we create a better world for nothing?

This has been making its way around the internet for a few years now. It sums up my attitude towards the debate over greenhouse gases. Although one should never take scientific consensus as proof (take Copernicus), if in the modern age 97% of scientists agree that humans cause climate change, there’s not a lot of point denying it. But even if we’re wrong, what exactly have we lost?

(Image source.)


Does the Death Penalty Trivialise War?

It was at his 2004 State of the Union Address – in the midst of an ongoing hunt for those pesky WMDs – that George Bush declared:

I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime – a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted, and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of September 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States – and war is what they got.

Exaggerated – and I trepidly suggest fictitious – claims of a link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam aside, the language here is telling. “Justice” has always been the most obvious choice of populist rhetoric; its ambiguities are concealed by the universally agreeable passion it provokes. Central to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of a just war was its “just cause”: as soon as justice is given common definition both in statute and in the popular worldview then so many actions and institutions are legitimised.

And look at the delicate euphemism behind Bush’s speech: we will meet the challenge of “chaos and carnage” with our own, with more than “legal papers”. I keep trying but I can’t imagine Blair ever saying this. Both are devout Christians, so you might have thought such moral-stuffed language would come merrily; so it’s a cultural distinction. Specifically, the attitude towards capital punishment. Polls do occasionally show majorities or pluralities of Brits in favour of it for the most abominable crimes, but that’s never true of the political classes. The fact that it’s far more acceptable in America makes banging the drums a little easier, wouldn’t you say? It’s easier to imply that justice will be violent when “an eye for an eye” sits behind a constitution.

What was always so remarkable about the American revolution was how mob warfare did not become mob rule in triumph. Unlike France later on, America built its institutions around strict codes, establishing a state subservient to absolute laws that derived their authority from secular rather than religious morality. But I find the death penalty to be an excess of this. The constitution should never have been revered – since it took a civil war to drive out slavery – and the elimination of murder as a form of justice would I think improve it that little bit more. It makes war far harder to justify.

For example: people like myself, for whom it is contemptuous that a state might assume so great a moral authority than it can kill its citizens, find an anti-war position instinctive. To support the killing of the foreign “enemies” to which Bush alluded conflicts with the view that death should never be an instrument of justice. It’s sometimes made more bearable through talk of “collateral damage”, where death is recognised but it’s penciled in coolly without the shallow confidence. In other words, paradoxes have to be overcome before a war is supported, and so it makes it all the more important to weigh up reality against idealism; war would have to be a last resort, and it would have to be purely strategic. No gleeful yodeling at the death of an enemy, no talk of “justice”. Only pure, cold, calculated facts.

Or at least, one can hope.


The Voice of the Rain, by Walt Whitman

And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form’d, altogether changed, and
yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, wandering,
Reck’d or unreck’d, duly with love returns.)

I think this is a rather wonderful representation of Whitman’s, or indeed the ideal, humanism. To the chaos of conflict and the discord of psychology there is a kind of fellowship, the spirit of which does not need to be driven by divine forces; people can create and sustain one another like the earth upon which we live. I’d be tempted to say that the poem is powerful in a very literal sense too; the largest populations gather where the land can grow food, and so regions with decent rainfall, more than areas dry and arid. But as soon as the archetype of the African drinking toxic water out of thirst steps into view, that all falls apart.

Nevertheless, there’s a small amount of internationalism here: wrought from nature we’ve a duty to share in it equally. Relevant, I think, to my last post.