A Withering Right to Protest

The University of London, one of the only spots of student activism still worth the name, is to lose its Union; and to protest against it is to incur what can only adequately be described as intimidation:

University of London Union (ULU) President Michael Chessum was arrested today shortly after leaving a meeting with University of London management over the forced University takeover of the Union.

It is understood that the arrest is in response to the demonstration organised by ULU yesterday by hundreds of students demanding the Union remain student-led.

The National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC) wishes to reiterate its full support Michael Chessum and the campaign to defend ULU.

NCAFC also demands the immediate release of Michael Chessum, and for all charges against him to be dropped.

The moment that arrests are made, student careerists – who today form the balk of university politics today – will simply walk away; and “radicals” are not, by the implications of that silly word, in strong enough of a position to defend collective rights alone.

It’s a generation-old dictum that students are ordered to live by a paradox: they are ordered to act like adults but denied the rights to do so. If Britain is a democracy then it should not be disagreeable – to any public authority – to act as though it is.


A protest against the actions of the police has apparently escalated rather quickly:


It would be so nice if Oxford were a little less dull.


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.

Everyone Just Be Nice, Please

reaffirmation of the war on terror has Glenn Greenwald at it again:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation. This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.

The West is due its share of terrorism, then, because it alone is its cause. He is presumably confident that so long as we maintain our distance from Syria, its rebels will bring about a pleasant social democracy in which all religions, and their respective denominations, are accorded equal dignity before the law. It will also be our friend. Nor is there any real prospect of the fragmentation of the country’s territorial integrity, its confessional boundaries gross figments of the Western imagination.

I can’t wait.

Syrian Religious Divisions Map

Click for source.

All that troubles Greenwald are those acts against American citizens, which if he drops the masquerading morality might appear like an important geopolitical statement. Involving Western troops in other country’s business might anger its wasps.

It’s a shame the argument is blinded by its self-centred masochism. Not even Gandhi went so far. He was at least honest about the implications of his opposition to retaliation in what he said of the Jews:

If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war.

If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength.

Gandhi knew that the Jews couldn’t stop Hitler’s slaughter – but they could at least have their dignity while he went about it. He concluded it preferable for everyone to die in peace than for some to die in war. Thank God it was never his choice to make.

Pacifism is a noble outlook, but one inevitably coiled against the narcissism of its proponents. When I asked Tony Benn – President of the reactionary Stop the War Coalition – whether he thought there was anything we could do to help those suffering under the war, he responded that we shouldn’t get involved. I tried to phrase the question in such a way as to allow for, say, support for medical aid or the sponsoring of refugee camps (such people now including around a tenth the country’s population). Nothing. I can tell you that that’s not pacifism, nor even humanitarianism. Observers who believe that all wars are defined by Western involvement help to sustain them more than they will admit.

In any case, Greenwald’s next step – which for all I know he has already taken – is to treat Syria’s rising jihadists, a number of whom have already pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, like Western-funded straw men to which to set fire. Nothing else but a useless tautology punctured with conspiratorial claims about the motives of political oligarchs:

And then there’s the most intangible yet most significant cost: each year of endless war that passes further normalizes the endless rights erosions justified in its name. The second term of the Bush administration and first five years of the Obama presidency have been devoted to codifying and institutionalizing the vast and unchecked powers that are typically vested in leaders in the name of war. Those powers of secrecy, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and due-process-free assassination are not going anywhere. They are now permanent fixtures not only in the US political system but, worse, in American political culture.

War should obviously never be codified into a political norm. The contradictions between martial vigour and those institutions built in and for the narratives of peacetime are necessary to exempt war from the status quo – capital punishment or the breaching of national sovereignty, for example, should be illegal and trespassed only in the knowledge that it’s a temporary measure. For all the off-quoted hysteria surrounding dear Orwell, it’s inevitably true, as North Korea refuses to disprove, that totalitarian regimes are shaped by their commitment to perpetual warfare. It’s why Blair undermined a lot of the good he did on the international stage with his flippancy towards domestic civil liberties. War can never become ingrained into a democratic society.

Something, though, tells me that Greenwald doesn’t really believe his own voice. There’s something slimy in the way he throws financial arguments in with the moral ones. Desperate populism, drawing on everything and everyone. It’s insincerity at its most paranoid.

This is too much effort. Disentangling a truther’s rationale is like trying to fix a power cable with wool.

To summarise: driven amoral by populism.

When Socialists Kiss and Make Up


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.

Icons of Feminism

I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:

Syrian Woman Turned Revolutionary

Fadwa, 20 years old, widow with 3 children: “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.”

Amal, 30 years old, married, housewife with 3 children: “I’m sincere to God, that is all I need and want, the rest will come with time.”

White middle-class wankers of Marxist cliques have this tacit presumption – that they can be revolutionary at work and then go home to a Waitrose ready meal and Britain’s Got Talent. Hypocrisy is as old as it is everywhere pervasive.

This is, in fringe Western language, no less true of the orthodox communities in the Arab Spring. Aristotle saw the political community as the macrocosm of the household; he would have despaired to see far right Muslims protest for change on the street and then return to a family as stoic as footsteps on the surface of the moon. Or perhaps not. Anyway – what we can be certain of is that hunger for the vote is a far cry from cultural revolution. As we’re seeing in Egypt, and even more so in Iraq, those who were once oppressed are using their votes to settle sectarian scores and force others to live their nightmares. The activists – or whatever we wish to call them – are disproportionately male. They crave power in worlds public and private. For all the irritant definitions of any “patriarchy”, these political upheavals have left the fabric of masculinity unapologetically content.

In such a context I’m not entirely sure what the most enlightened response to these all-women fighting forces ought to be. No one is pleased with perpetual warfare, or for the disintegrated communities from which these women have formed new lives.

What these women represent is that no “patriarchy” is inevitable, I think. 20 year-old Fadwa tells us, “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.” Women are able to protect their families just as men can, and it emerges from the social wreckage that fascists have traditionally been best-equipped to exploit. We shouldn’t find this remarkable, but I suspect most would. The union of gun and child is so utterly disturbing that it smashes any conventions of effeminacy.

In one of Max Weber’s rare moments of concision he quipped that “the person who attempted to walk by constantly applying anatomical knowledge would be in danger of stumbling”. The nuance of ideology bows before the primacy of instinct. It’s why, whenever we race to term someone an “icon” to a movement, we should do only if they exemplify that to which his or her followers aspire. Veneration, after all, implies emulation; and to emulate an ideologue is to emulate their arguments. It’s ideological constipation. Not only does this abandon our critical reasoning of their deficiencies, leading to the most conformism of dogma, but it also assumes the perpetuity of resistance, and thereby a defeatism in which the individual strives for struggle rather than victory. An icon, in other words, should embody a movement’s dreams – not the movement itself.

Nelson Mandela is justly iconic for civil rights figures, black and white and every other gradient. Some Western liberals in the 20th century who considered themselves anti-racist did – much like those today who affirm that “Arab democrat” is a primitive paradox – argue that Mandela was a black man in a white man’s game. For them, anti-imperialism also meant anti-democracy in the most absurd phrases of cultural relativism. Obviously, that was a racist belief even if its conviction in opposition to colonial rule. The reason for Mandela’s iconic status, in other words, is that he represented democratic politics in promoting an equal share in this philosophy. If you think that’s self-evident then you’ve just proved my point – that an icon should be no more, and no less, than a tautology: a black man is born equal to a white person. The truest of truisms.

No less true of women, is it not? What the women in the women’s militia represent is that when the old rules fragment, socially as well as politically, sex is entirely irrelevant to a person’s potential. Inevitable biological differences aside, we’re left with that other obvious tautology that women are people like men and neither anything more nor less. Just as these women represent some of the most utterly desolate communities of Syria, so should an icon also be found from above. But who could possibly serve such a purpose?

I think it a lovely irony that in rejecting feminism Thatcher should have set in stone her legacy as a feminist icon – but before you send an armed guard to castrate this patronising male blogger, hear me out. Thatcher should have been thoroughly ashamed of her refusal to aid female Parliamentarians. Even today, only a quarter of our MPs are women. Now it’s in my humble opinion that you shouldn’t promote equality – and cut down sexism – by superficial politics like all-women short-lists. That will not solve gender gaps in salaries and leaves lad cultures unscathed, unabashed and altogether uncaring in their ignorant trance.

And yet – in many respects Maggie represented a lot to which the female feminist ought to aspire. By breaking their every convention she denied the existence of the ideal woman. She does not have to be liberal; she does not have to be working class; she does not have to be sympathetic to the vulnerable or pass maternalist charity to whomever beggar she greets. All of these are desirable, but they are just as desirable for a man as for a woman. Maggie neglected feminism because of her own success; with triumph ends ideology. Thatcher was a bitch – but so are an awful lot of men.

Mandela was not a black man in a white man’s game; Thatcher was no woman struggling through a man’s world; and the Syrian women do not believe in a conscious battle against any conceptual patriarchy. Take this final image:

On her head, in the place of the traditional woman’s headscarf, Em Joseph dons the keffiyeh of the Arab man. When Thatcher used her curious propensity to sexuality to navigate her way through her colleagues’ stubborn attitudes, she was accused of cheapening women’s activism and accepting male instincts. But was she? Or was she not, like Em, reminding people that conventions can be twisted by women just as much as they can be by men?

Whatever happens to these few Syrian women, I can only wish them the best of luck. Great icons – better than the self-indulgent paranoia of some radical feminists whose minds are like Shakespearean theatrics on steroids.

The Moral Collapse of Paper (and Radicalism)

I love farting in the Pope’s face. Go on, give in to temptation.

Remember the days of the printing press? When Gutenberg put together his model for printing in 1439 he was giving ordinary (literate) people a common voice. Radical ideas born in Germany were read in Bristol or as far as Portugal; a common network built on ideas led to mass support for reforming ideas across the continent. It was cheap. It was simple. And yet it spawned the greatest intellectual transformation Europe had ever seen.

During the 60s and 70s, the low price of paper onto which radical notes were printed met very successfully with student frugality. Excited pamphleteers stood on every busy street corner forcing sheets and booklets on the unsuspecting. The cheap words were electrified by their content, by their rather genuine idealism.

And then, there’s today. Sometimes you’ll still be harassed by a quirky socialist street vendor, but it’s rare. Usually the “radicals” can be found blogging behind their laptop screens or reading out long party manifestos at their Central Committee or regurgitating the depressing tedium of socioeconomic theories of the military-industrial complex. Or some such tack. I took a visit to the Oxford Radical Forum a few weeks ago, and there I picked up a very glossy Oxford Left Review (mimicking the New Left Review of Perry Anderson’s postwar generation without even a touch of irony), its articles as superficial as the paper on which they were printed. The trouble is that, as the likes of The Revolution Will Be Televised reminds us, subversion is now a trend, a fashion.

Am I extrapolating too much from this? Possibly. But it’s all definitely part of a wider decline in the sincerity of popular radicalism.

Annus Mirabilis, by Philip Larkin

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Whenever I moan about the tedious bureaucratic monstrosities that seem to have overwhelmed student radicalism, deep-down I feel a little self-indulgent and self-righteous. But this poem vindicates my beliefs a little: Larkin’s early life missed the sexual revolution, his forming years spent living the comparatively idle post-war existence. He reminds us of the cool irony that nostalgia can kindle in us; it’s not always about warming memories. I suppose that’s why it’s to be avoided (a la Midnight in Paris). We’re all guilty of it, we would-be radicals; although I’m slightly jealous for those who grabbed hold of the changing outlooks of the swinging sixties’, at the same time there are a pseudo-lefties in the SWP or the Respect Party who still think we’re living in the Cold War era.

The message, then, is: dream about the future, not the past.