Sunday, April 30, 2006

Christopher Hitchens on the Euston Manifesto

Good Trots find leaving ‘the party’ more traumatic than normal people find a bitter divorce. I should know, as I've got both T-shirts.

This is probably one of the psychological factors at work in Christopher Hitchens’ denunciation of the Stop the War Coalition - and by implication, his old flame the Socialist Workers’ Party - in this morning’s Sunday Times.

When I bump into the erstwhile Mrs Osler at drinks receptions from time to time, we usually manage some civilised conversation over the routinely ghastly wine. We then agree that we ‘simply must’ meet up for dinner some time. But we never do, of course.

However, Hitchens - who started out in journalism on Socialist Worker, and is pictured above - still seems to be carrying a little torch for his political ex somewhere in his heart. And he seems mighty angry that it has found a new partner in the shape of political Islam.

The first substantive point in the diatribe is an attack the official slogan of the March 2003 StWC demo, namely ‘No war on Iraq, freedom for Palestine’:

‘Nobody had actually ever proposed a war “on” Iraq. It had been argued, whether persuasively or not, that Iraq and the world would be improved by the advent of the post-Saddam Hussein era.’

Such chutzpah. For a start, the semantic quibble over a misplaced preposition somehow doesn‘t quite work. Neither does the political follow-through. The central case advanced for war three years ago was explicitly not the liberation of the Iraqi people.

Exporting democracy did not come into the equation until much later. The central planks of the apologists’ position were that the Saddam government possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that it supported al Qa’eda. For Hitchens to maintain otherwise is surely an instance of extraordinarily selective memory, if not outright bad faith.

Both contentions were questionable even at the time, as the ‘dodgy dossier’ affair underlined. A plagiarised PhD thesis is not a credible basis for going to war. Now we are in a position to make a definitive judgement, and neither the WMD or al Qa’eda claims stand up.

Hitchens and the pro-war left might wish to counter that Blair and Bush made an honest mistake here, although a journo as good as Hitch should surely be less credible than that. Most of the rest of the population think our rulers lied to us, and only started talking in terms of ‘liberation’ when they were rumbled. In short, this argument has been made anything but ‘persuasively’. Meanwhile, Hitchens continues:

‘There was already a war in Iraq, with Kurdish guerrillas battling the Ba’athist regime and Anglo-American airborne patrols enforcing a “no-fly zone” in order to prevent the renewal of the 1991 attempted genocide in the Kurdish north and the Shi’ite south … The war “for” and “over” and “in” Iraq, in other words, had been going on for some time and I, for one, had taken a side in it.’

Again, this is disingenuous. There is no logical connection between backing a guerilla insurgency against a vicious dictatorship and the full-scale invasion of Iraq by the world’s imperialist superpower. I supported the first. I did not support the second.

Of the points that follow, I agree with many. ‘Hands off Iraq - but freedom for Kurdistan’ would indeed have been a better slogan. But I still can’t see how any principled leftist could object to the demand for freedom for Palestine.

Of course, George Galloway is more deeply mired in nostalgia for Stalinism than the average East German old age pensioner, although large cheques from Saudi Arabia’s royal family make him rather better off than the majority of senior citizens in Dresden. Of course, Ramsey Clark is for whatever reason reduced to fellow-travelling with a particularly potty Stalinist sect.

It is to the immense discredit of the bulk of the far left that these individuals play the roles they do. But a consistent minority of anti-war socialists - a number in which I would include myself - have said these things many times before.

Hitchens makes no secret of enjoying the odd drop of the hard stuff while writing, and you can almost spot the level of alcohol consumption in each succeeding paragraph. Three-quarters of the way into the article, he was obviously nicely pickled.

So demo participants reiterated the ideological mantras of Ba’athism, we are told. Sorry? I was there, and didn’t see a single banner emblazoned with ‘one path, one destiny’, ‘one Arab nation with one eternal mission’ or even ‘the good military man is the good ba’athist’. Not one.

And the ‘tenth-rate theoreticians’ of the far left apparently believe al Qa’eda can stop global warming. You what? Citations, please? Got any serious sources here? Thought not. If only out of admiration for the Hitchens of old, I think we’ll just skip over these obviously ludicrous notions.

Finally, on to the money shot. Hitchens has been asked to sign the Euston Manifesto. The little tease won’t say if he is going to put out or not, but I reckons he’s the kind of girl that does do it on a second date at the latest. What’s the betting the EM crew are saving the Royal Assent until the public launch?

Local government elections

Andy Newman - who won 208 votes as the Socialist Unity candidate in Swindon North at the 2005 general election - offers a worthwhile analysis of the prospects for the left in the local government elections on Thursday:

'The three challenges for us are to somehow connect with the Labour Party’s electoral base, which is broadly to the left of the Labour Party itself; to create a natural pole of attraction for activists; and to create a credible vehicle to provide political representation for the trade unions.

'What is more, we have to be able to do this while still maintaining a creative dialogue with activists still in the Labour party.'

There's a full list of leftwing and Respect candidates here, courtesy of Socialist Unity Network.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Soul: Candi Staton

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I have spent the last three decades in the belief that Candi Staton is basically your bog standard production line disco diva. But of course, I hadn't heard any of her work save for 'Young hearts run free' and 'You got the love'.

Then, a few weeks back, the Paul Jones Show played one of the sides she recorded at Muscle Shoals in the seventies. I was completely blown away. So today I picked up a compilation of stuff from that period, on a 2004 CD entitled simply 'Candi Staton'. The sleeve is pictured left.

The album is a fat slab of highly danceable horn-driven and gospel-tinged southern soul at its absolute best. There are at least half a dozen standouts among its 23 cuts. And Staton's vocal performances are right up there with the Arethas and Ettas of this planet. I'm now sick as hell that I missed her recent UK appearances.

Given that Britain is a country where Corinne Bailey Rae passes for black music, I'm almost surprised she bothered paying us a visit.

16 point political scale

Partially fuelled by a thread at Stumbling and Mumbling - to which I added a few comments - Actually Existing comes up with a pretty funky 16-point scale on which anybody can rate their politics. Personally speaking, I'm a Pelagian Digger/Left-Hegelian Whig. But hey, that's just me. How about you?

Labour to lose Tower Hamlets council?

In the early eighties, I lived in pre-gentrification Wapping. Before all the warehouses were converted into million pound yuppie flats, this was London's low rent district par excellence.

You know the the sort of inner city place. About 98% working class, with a few students and struggling artists squatting the derelict council joints. Things just didn't get any scuzzier.

It was in Shadwell ward that I signed up to the Labour Party. On the day of the 1983 general election, myself and three Labour Student buddies got up at dawn, each did massive lines of amphetamine sulphate, and canvassed solidly from when the polls opened to when the polls closed.

Labour won both Tower Hamlets seats, natch. Home turf. But Thatcher got a thumping majority in the country. I'll never forget the next morning. Ever had a bad speed comedown and woken up to another four years of Tory rule? Pure hell.

At the municipal level, Labour were the absolutely dominant power in the borough. Although the authority has since then seen Liberal administrations, this part of East London should rightly be natural Labour territory. Not any more, according to the Daily Telegraph:

'In Tower Hamlets the loss of Oona King's Bethnal Green and Bow seat to George Galloway last year suggests that Respect could gain at least nine councillors in predominantly Muslim areas, and perhaps even the ward of Shadwell, solidly Labour since 1919.

'With the Lib Dems stirring in the north of the borough, and the Conservatives likely to take all six councillors for the Isle of Dogs, Labour will lose this borough in the heart of the East End after being assailed on three different fronts.'

If I still lived in Shadwell, I don't know if I could steel myself to vote for Respect. But I'm damn sure I wouldn't be voting New Labour.

(Hat tip: Dead Men Left)

Friday, April 28, 2006

Will sorts out Haloscan

Big thanks to that Eustonite Geordie bastard Will - who blogs at General Theory of Rubbish - for sorting out Haloscan comments on my html-illiterate behalf.

So let the new comments flow ...

Workers' Memorial Day

April 28 - this year as every other year since 1985 - is Workers' Memorial Day, an occasion the British labour movement really needs to mark more strongly than it usually does.

The event is designed to highlight the shocking death toll regulary seen in workplaces around the world. According to statistics from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions - almost certainly an underestimate - 200,000 workers per annum die on the job. Many more are injured, often seriously.

That is equivalent to an attack on the scale of 9/11, perpetrated against the working class every single week of every single year.

We are currently in the grip of a war on terrorism. But the idea of a war on negligent employers somehow doesn't make it onto the political radar screen. Bosses continue - quite literally - to get away with murder.

Unions in Britain have been pushing for adequate legislation on this one for around 40 years. The Zeebrugge and Piper Alpha tragedies of the Thatcher period served to put the issues into even sharper relief.

But most deaths occur in ones and twos. Even without any spectacular accidents, there were 2,157 workplace deaths in Britain in the five years to 2004.

Labour has promised to do something about the scandal ever since the early 1990s. Its 1997 manifesto promised legislation on corporate manslaughter. But subsequent delay and prevarication make the ban on foxhunting look the very model of alacrity.

Tentative proposals have been advanced several times, but still nothing has been done. Thankfully, there are recent reports that draft legislation is in the offing. About bloody time.

If company directors can be prosecuted for dodgy book-keeping, why not for negligence that leads to somebody's death? Or is the sanctity of accounting standards worth that much than a human life?

Scolari and football revolutionary defeatism

The BBC website carries a profile of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the likely new England coach, which includes the following fascinating little snippet:

'Scolari is by nature remarkably open. He will hold court on such subjects as the fact that he tells his players to commit fouls, his admiration for General Pinochet or his prejudice against homosexuals. '

Great. A thuggish military dictator-worshipping homophobe. But as I'm a revolutionary defeatist on football matters, his appointment will simply offer another reason to hope England lose.

The comments box is open ...

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Oliver Kamm and 'historical precedents'

Oliver Kamm continues his efforts to equate Respect and the BNP in his latest column for The Times. As ever, Clever Clogs buttresses his case with some historical precedents:

‘But there are also numerous instances where revolutionary politics have allied with extreme reaction and even fascism.

‘The 1920s and 1930s saw many cases: some French Socialists and Communists went beyond the view that the Versailles Treaty had treated Germany unfairly, and came out in support of Nazi Germany.

‘The Belgian Marxist Henri de Man exercised a powerful influence on Mussolini. A pro-Fascist organisation called the British People’s Party attracted support from socialists and peace campaigners in the late 1930s and 1940s.’

Decisive arguments? Not quite. Search long enough and you can find a historical precedent for just about anything whatsoever in politics.

For instance, one-time Labour cabinet minister Oswald Mosley - pictured above - founded the British Union of Fascists, easily the most powerful far right movement Britain has ever seen. To cap it all, 1970s Labour MP John Stonehouse defected to the hard right English National Party.

Twice, Oliver! It happened twice! Fascism is obviously inherent in Labourism. It is only logical to expect that Patricia Hewitt will soon establish her own private Blackshirt organisation.

There are indisputable ‘historical precedents’ for former Green Party politicians devoting their lives to arguing for the proposition that the world is secretly ruled by shape-shifting lizards from another dimension. That doesn't necessarily mean that Caroline Lucas is on the brink of quitting the European parliament to start proselytising for the same ideas as David Icke.

Erstwhile Communist Alfred Sherman ended up as an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and Roger Rosewell switched jobs from being industrial organiser of the International Socialists to speechwriter for Dame Shirley Porter.

But no one seriously contends that Stop the War Coalition figures such as the SWP’s Lindsey German or the CPGB’s Andrew Murray will one day end up at Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

Paul Foot was once a Liberal. As was Peter Hain. I've met former Tories and former SDP members now on the far left. I've heard of people with a youthful involvement in the National Front becoming Trots. People change their minds about politics. So what?

Mind you Oliver, there are even ‘historical precedents’ for soi disant ‘leftie’ journalists voting Tory. You, for starters.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Mark Oaten's missus tells all

And, in this week’s Hello! Magazine – or here if you are too much of a cheapskate to buy a copy - Mark Oaten's wife tells of her reaction on hearing of her Lib-Dem leadership contender hubby’s romps with gay prostitutes:

‘It was something almost too big for me to handle. [Snigger snigger - DO] I said an awful lot of horrible things to him at first. I took off my rings and threw them at him, and told him never to come back, and I hit him about three times.’

You fool, Belinda. He probably loved it. But imagine having to break that one to the old lady, fellas. Still, it's her fault. After all, if she’d only been willing to satisfy Mark’s, er, needs in the first place, he’d never have had to wander.

I suppose this gives me the opportunity to recount last week’s encounter in Budapest between Stroppybird and myself – both shamefully tipsy after lunchtime o’booze – and a canvasser for SZDSZ, the Hungarian liberal party.

Me: ‘You’re the Liberals, right? Are you like the Liberals in England?’

Canvasser: ‘Similar.’

Me: ‘Do you know Mark Oaten? He’s a bad man, a bad man. Rent boys poo in his mouth.’

Silence. Then we collapse into giggles.

The return of Maoism

The political crisis in Nepal has focused the attention of the western left on Maoism for the first time in decades.

It remains uncertain how much support the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has in the towns. But the insurgency has held most of the countryside for some time now.

What has been noticed rather less – although the trend was astutely identified by Victor Mallet in the Financial Times earlier this year – is the increased influence of Maoist currents across south Asia right now.

Naxalite groupings are now influential in a number of Indian states, from Bihar to West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. In the Philppines, the New People’s Army is also growing in strength.

Elsewhere, Maoism retains some sort of purchase in advanced countries like the USA, where Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party is among the larger far left groupings.

In Britain, it seems to have a growing foothold among radicalised Asian youth, something that speaks volumes about the failure of the main Trotskyist tendencies.

Good thing or bad thing? Well, some of the more excitable and enthusiastic sections of the far left blogosphere – notably that likeable young whippersnapper at Lenin’s Tomb, who is almost having wet dreams about the whole thing – are getting rather excited over all this. God knows, I probably would be too, if I were still in my early twenties. It’s, like, the revolution, man. The real deal.

It has been said that every generation of socialists makes more or less the same mistakes. And about the one advantage of being a washed-up middle-aged Trot is that you recognise some of those mistakes.

Automatic support for anybody that brandishes a Kalashnikov in the name of Marxism-Leninism is one of them. Plenty of such outfits simply talk the talk to provide ideological legitimation for running a glorified protection racket on the peasantry while stitching up the local drugs trade.

The risk in Nepal is a re-run of the Cambodia tragedy. The Year Zero politics of Brother Number One led to the deaths of between 1.5-2.1 million people, perhaps a quarter of the country’s population.

Will the CPN(M) go down that road? Most of the pundits seem to think not. But the real answer is, we don’t know yet.

Programatically the party is formally committed to an alliance with ‘progressive elements’ within the bourgeoisie as part of the struggle against fuedalism. Mmm, I wonder if they have considered signing the Euston Manifesto yet?

Nevertheless, both pragmatic and hardline factions coexist within the party. Only events will determine which side wins out. I’ll be taking a rain check on singing the CPN(M)’s praises until the picture is far, far clearer.

A communique from Oliver Kamm

This in my inbox this morning:

‘You wonder what autonomy is. It is well defined in this précis of the argument of Joseph Raz:

http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/oso/public/content/philosophy/0198248075/acprof-0198248075-chapter-14.html

‘Raz is a very important figure in modern jurisprudence.

‘I realised after our last exchange that you were not a great one for posting corrections to your mistakes, so I offer you this merely for your information, and hope it’s helpful.’


Thanks, Oliver. I wish I was clever like you.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

New Labour: losing it in the unions?

Yesterday Patricia Hewitt was booed and heckled as she addressed 1,000 Unison-organised healthworkers in Gateshead. Today there are reports that 20 trade unionists in Northern Ireland walked out on a speech by Peter Hain, the Blair cabinet's licensed maverick soft leftist.

This after RMT's move to back selected socialists against Labour in next month's council elections, and Unison's threat - admittedly now apparently in abeyance - not to canvass for Labour in the same contest.

Is it just me, or are there really signs that the mood in the labour movement is finally starting to turn?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Egypt: neither Mubarak nor the Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt is - second only to Iraq - the country where many current theoretical debates in the anglophone blogosphere play out in real life, with real consequences for tens of millions of real people.

It's also a country I can claim to know, at least a little, having visited it a couple of times on journalistic assignment.

Tonight we read that at least 22 people have died, with perhaps 150 injured, in a triple bomb attack in the resort town of Dahab. Although no group had claimed responsibility at the time of writing, the operation bears the familiar hallmarks of al Qa'eda inspiration.

One section of the far left - the one that sells papers uncritically hailing this brand of terrorism as 'the new anti-imperialist ideology' - will strike its usual posture of 'refusing to condemn' the atrocity, just as they refused to condemn 9/11.

Meanwhile, foreign policy realists will stress the need for continued support of the de facto dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. The US already does that big time. Egypt receives $2bn a year of American economic and military aid, more than anybody else save Israel.

Mubarak goes through the motions of holding elections, of course, albeit elections subject to ballot-rigging, intimidation, censorship and violence. Then he goes and jails the main opposition presidential candidate, simply for calling Mubarak a 'loser' at a campaign rally.

So much for US claims consistently to be promoting democracy in the Middle East. The hypocrisy of Washington's stance will be more than apparent to most politically-aware Arabs.

Surely the answer must be a free and fair vote, then? But there's a small snag here. There is little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood would walk any properly democratic contest. And as the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine underlines, many democrats don't like it when democracy produces the wrong results.

Will either the neoconservatives or the Euston Manifesto group have the courage of their convictions, and advocate putting their theoretical prescription to the test if the inevitable outcome is an anti-Israel Islamist regime in Cairo? We shall see.

And even if the likes of Ayman Nour could be built up into a serious contender, he would simply prove another corrupt third world bourgeois politician, interested chiefly in implementing neoliberal policies so long as they do not contradict the real imperative of lining the pockets of his family and associates.

The only consistent leftwing policy is to support the stuggles of Egyptian socialists as they seek to build themselves within the working class. I know of small groups bravely attempting to do just that, often in conditions of clandestinity and repression. Sadly, the dominant politics of the British left - in either SWP or Euston Manifesto variants - will be of no assistance to them whatsoever.

How leftwing is Oliver Kamm?

Let's return to theme of what it means to be rightwing or leftwing these days, following my quick post on the topic about a week ago.

It seems that Blairite blogger and Times columnist Oliver Kamm - pictured left - has rather taken umbrage at Peter Wilby's suggestion that, while claiming to be leftwing, he has no discernible leftwing views:

'I ... claim to be left-wing, for the straightforward reason that it's true ... I support economic redistribution (though on grounds of autonomy, not equality), progressive taxation and a welfare state of very roughly its current scope and size.'

Except those aren't necessarily leftwing views at all, are they, Oliver? Let's take redistribution, for instance. Another Oliver earlier this year came out in favour of redistribution. What's more, he explicitly backed the notion on grounds of equally and not 'autonomy', whatever that means.

The other Oliver's name is Oliver Letwin, and his job is co-ordinating policy for the Tory Party. No marks out of ten there then, Mr Kamm.

Nor is progressive taxation a particularly radical idea, either. All three mainstream UK parties favour it, with those oh-so-daring Lib Dems even arguing for a 50p band. True, shadow chancellor George Osborne has flirted with notion of an east European-style flat tax. But as Michael Portillo argues persuasively, that idea goes so strongly outside the consensus that it is highly unlikely ever to make official Tory policy.

The welfare state reached its current scope and size only after three decades of neoliberal rollback under successive Labour and Tory governments. No-one outside the free market fundamentalist right is calling for it to be drastically curtailed. And since when was uncritical support for the status quo regarded as radical, anyway?

It looks awfully like Wilby's assessment stands. So what, then, does being leftwing entail? Writing on this blog in another context, I expressed it like this:

'We want to end exploitation, oppression, injustice, inequality, poverty, hunger and violence. That is why we are the leftists.'

The only way we can get there is by getting rid of capitalism. Somehow, I don't see our friend OK signing up to a proposition like that.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Top neoconservative endorses the Euston Manifesto

William Kristol - editor of neocon house journal the Weekly Standard, pictured left - has been reading the Euston Manifesto, and finds in its favour:

'The signatories of the document are liberals and progressives. They make clear their commitment to domestic and economic policies with which we at The Weekly Standard heartily disagree. But in the fight against tyranny and terror, against secular dictatorships and Islamic jihadism, is it too much to hope that decent liberals and conservatives could make common cause? We think not, and we hope that this clarion call from overseas might contribute to a rebirth of political courage and moral clarity on the American left as well.'

Not unnaturally, some EM supporters have been displeased at this blog's repeated references to them as neocons and/or neoconverts. Obviously they'll point to the second sentence to butress their case that they are nothing of the kind.

So let's look at the rest of the paragraph. Revolutionary socialists also oppose tyranny and terror, dictatorships and jihadism, of course. Or should do, anyway. But that does not entail 'common cause' with a clique of Washington-based hard rightists that essentially advocate US military dominance of the entire planet, by any means necessary.

If I were an EMer, personally I'd feel that the thumbs up from Bill K was one endorsement I could live without. But who knows? Perhaps some of them will even wear it as a badge of honour. Such are the rewards of moral clarity.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Stand down Tony, stand down please

I remember exactly how elated I felt when I heard that Thatcher had quit. And that's exactly how I'll feel again when the long overdue resignation of the Right Honourable Anthony Charles Linton Blair is announced.

There was a time when I could never have imagined disliking any Labour politician as much as I hated the Tories. New Labour made that all too easy.

So I only wish this could be a spiteful, gloating, mean-spirited and vindictive post debating the best way for the left to put the boot into our seriously weakened prime minister, pictured left in a singularly bad choice of suit. It won't be, largely because our collective kicking power these days is more akin to fleece-lined Marks & Spencer carpet slippers than two highly polished steel toe-cap DMs.

The Campaign Group speaks for around 40 MPs. In theory, an organised bloc of that magnitude should be influential in a government with a majority of 67. It should be in a position to pull the plug on Blairism, and exercise a veto when it comes to deciding Blair's successor.

But so atrophied is internal democracy in the Labour Party that, as a factor in parliamentary politics, the Campaign Group's impact is negligible. Impotence in the sack these days can be rectified by a small quadrangular blue pill. But sadly there is no political equivalent to viagra.

Nor will the unions get much of a look in. Remember 1992, when a small group of general secretaries effectively called the succession for John Smith within 24 hours of Kinnock's departure?

At the time, their actions were criticised as anti-democratic. Maybe they were. But not half as anti-democratic as stitching up the leadership over dinner in an Islington restaurant, more than a decade in advance.

Many loyal Labour councillors - and they are effectively all that remains of the party's once-thriving activist base in many areas - fear meltdown in the local government elections on May 4. If that happens, it should significantly speed up Tony's departure.

One way or another, by summer the Blair family could find themselves with plenty more time to enjoy sunshine holidays with the Berlusconis.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Red Pepper

Why I don't support George Galloway and Respect

After having polemicised against the Euston Manifesto over the last week, I'd better make it crystal that I am not now and have never been a fan of George Galloway, either. It is this unique ability to piss off all sides equally that makes me such a popular fixture in leftwing journalism, I guess. This article originally appeared in the 6th November 2003 issue of Solidarity, published by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. I stand by it, despite the subsequent arrival of GG in parliament. I'll just add one footnote: it's interesting how both Respect and the EM are conceived as popular fronts. That's why they are both mistaken projects.

Revolutionary socialism in England signed its own suicide note last week, and it came in the unlikely shape of a billet-doux to George Galloway. The overwhelming majority of the far left south of the border has lined up behind a project that seeks not so much to put the working class in the saddle, as Orwell expressed it, but to put a £150,000-a-year Saudi-bankrolled crypto-tankie into Strasbourg. Bang goes the Trotskyist neighbourhood.

The expelled Labour MP has decided that he wants to stand in next year's euro-elections. And whatever sham exercises in 'consultation' take place within the Socialist Alliance over the next few months, the Socialist Workers' Party has decided that what George wants, George gets.

Although those of us within the Trot loop were well aware of what was going on, the formal announcement came at last Wednesday's 'British Politics at the Crossroads' rally in London. I haven't been to a political gathering at Friends Meeting House with such a palpable buzz about it since the Benn leadership rallies of more than 20 years ago. The venue, which holds 1,200 people, was completely full. Yet I left with a heavy heart.

At a stroke, almost a decade of hard work to bring together the revolutionary left behind a cohesive unity project somehow seemed to unravel in the course of a single evening. It will take years to recover from this setback, if indeed we ever do.

Some of the people pushing this course of action argue that this represents the best chance for a generation to escape from the 'left ghetto'. Isn't that what we all want? Well, tickets out of the left ghetto have always been available. But they have tended to be one way tickets. Ask any number of recent cabinet ministers.

To use a religious analogy - and given the likely inclusion of Muslim activists on the Galloway/SWP slate, that surely cannot be inadmissible - I am reminded of the Bible's account of the temptation of Christ by the Devil. All this can be yours, if only you bow down and worship me. It's just that this time Lucifer isn't even offering anything that is particularly worth having.

I don't suppose many people will much care, other than perhaps to snigger over the decision to line up our limited tanks behind Gorgeous George. Trotskyism tends to be about as popular with the rest of the left as a professional seal-clubber at an Animal Liberation Front convention. But I do. Passionately.

As a Trot, or sort of Trot, if only by dint of a misspent youth in the Fourth International, I have always defended the movement. The values that it stands for somehow always managed to outweigh its all-too-frequent sectarian stupidities. Call it, as the now disused political shorthand had it, the Vision Thing.

We want to end exploitation, oppression, injustice, inequality, poverty, hunger and violence. That is why we are the leftists. Communism is indelibly tainted by totalitarianism. And how many Labour MPs does it take to change a lightbulb? Reformism never changes anything, comrade.

Trotskyism's job is to inject the necessary corrective of socialism from below into the workers' movement, offering a Marxist strategy solidly centred on the self-activity of the working class as the agent of revolutionary social change. And if it doesn't do that, well, what's the bloody point?

After decades of isolation, the Scottish Socialist Party, and the LCR/LO bloc in France, have proven that it is possible to win significant support for such politics. But instead of following their example, the SWP has decided the English far left's job is simply to provide the activist backing for a bunch of political losers in next year's euro-elections.

The slate will probably be known as the 'Peace and Justice' ticket, and as Galloway makes clear on the al-Jazeera website, its politics will be sufficiently diffuse to appeal to liberals and conservatives. Environmental journo George Monbiot and Muslim activist Salma Yaqoob seem to have signed up for the ride.

Luckily, this time Gorgeous George will be unable to tap his more unsavoury buddies in the Middle East for the funds to underwrite the lost deposits, something that would be illegal under electoral law. Saudi businessmen are not usually noted for financing European socialists, although in George's case they have in the past made an exception.

It's not even that I'm hung up on Trotsky's textbook critique of thirties-style popular frontism that this exercise represents, writings that the more orthodox brethren of Workers' Power and the like are now certain to dust off. This is a different period, and different tactics are not necessarily wrong in principle. It's a tactical call. But it's a wrong tactical call.

A one-off electoral coalition led by a vicarious Arab nationalist, a Guardian columnist and a religious obscurantist on a second-rate pseudo-Green programme is hardly likely to prove that popular. Yet I guess 95% of the existing far left will be swept along. Are there really only a few hundred of us who can see what is happening? Again, I guess so. I've never felt more politically isolated.

I didn't take detailed notes of Galloway's speech. It is not even that there was much wrong with his critique of what New Labour is and what New Labour does. It's easy enough to find a far-left audience's clitoris simply by denouncing everything from top-up fees and foundation hospitals to police racism and, inevitably, the war on Iraq. Fine. But we can all make speeches like that.

Two aspects do stick in my mind. The first is his bizarre use of the chorus from the New Seekers' early seventies easy listening classic 'Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma' as some sort of leitmotif for the crimes of Blairism. If that's his taste in music, that alone is a good enough reason not to give the man your vote.

Second was the warmed-over old school Communist Party terminology Galloway employed, which to the trained ear reveals everything about the very manner in which he conceptualises political strategy. What was being launched that night, he told us, was 'a popular unity movement'. This would be made to bring together all 'progressive forces' because 'the people, united' will never be defeated. Cue uncritical applause. Cue standing ovations all round. Don't mention the r-word. And don't expect any criticism in next week's Socialist Worker, either.

Being a fairly humble sort of chap - no, really! - I earnestly tried to convince myself that I must be the one in the wrong. The infectious enthusiasm of almost everyone else in the crowd somehow just had to be right. Sadly I still haven't succeeded.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Kick over the statues

INTERNET CAFÉ, BUDAPEST: One of the popular tourist attractions in Budapest is Szoborpark, an open-air museum on the outskirts of the city that offers a new home for some of the statues erected here during the the Stalinist era.

Only a few were designed to immortalise the greats of the communist movement, such as Marx, Engels and Lenin. Other 'celebrate the eternal friendship of the peoples of Hungary and the Soviet Union' or commemorate sundry Hungarian bureaucrats - men and women I consider to have been an exploitative and oppressive ruling class.

These were the statues that got kicked over in 1956, as per the Redskins song. Most were rapidly reconstructed.

For the younger of the tourists that go to gawp at the display, they are historical artefacts as remote from present-day reality as the exhibits from ancient Egypt I saw on a trip to Cairo last year.

Indeed, the resemblance was more than passing. It is interesting just how little monuments to the greater glory of our rulers have changed in 3,000 years. I guess that flattering realist iconography is something of a constant.

But what also strikes me is that many on the left get nostalgic for some of this stuff. I bet I wasn't the only leftwing student in the early eighties to decorate the walls of my bedsits with Soviet propaganda posters. I still have framed portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin and the obligatory bust of the latter, souvenirs of a 1989 holiday to what was still the USSR. But that's strictly consenting adults in private stuff. Soviet retro chic even gets the occasional nod from street fashion to this day.

Much of the socialist movement gets things utterly wrong by maintaining the use of this kind of imagery for agitational purposes. Hammers and sickles still decorate many of our banners and the mastheads of some of our papers.

This is a PR disaster. For most workers, east and west, these are symbols of dictatorship, not liberty. The far left is going nowhere fast until it gets over this hang-up, ditches the graphic design of 100 years ago, and starts coming up with some persuasive new images that better represent our aspirations. It's just a shame we can't afford to hire a top ad agency to handle the make-over.

Just to underline the use the right still makes of Stalinism, this afternoon I am off to the Terror Museum, housed in the former headquarters of the Hungarian secret police. The exhibition was set up by the former right populist Fidesz government, precisely to politicise the past for the edification of younger voters. Clinging on to orthodox symbolism is the greatest propaganda gift we could possibly hand these bastards.

Euston Manifesto: what changed for Alan Johnson?

One of the four lead signatories of the Euston Manifesto is Alan Johnson, an academic and a former member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. From the style of some of the passages in the document – and as a journo, I’m quite good at literary detective stuff – I would guess that he wrote he large chunks of it.

Less than three years ago, Alan observed, in words I found inspirational at the time:

‘Perhaps there are good reasons to look again at the notion of working class politics. That notion was not always just a quasi-religious talisman to ward off awkward political realities (though it frequently was).

‘It was also, and can be again, the basis of a rational politics of hope. For it remains the case that the unique combination of interest, capacity, and social weight possessed by the global working class can still provide a foundation on which a rational and radical democratic politics and a viable strategy and tactics could be elaborated.’

Yet the funny thing is, the working class - as recently as 2003 the basis of a rational politics of hope - gets the barest of walk-on parts in the EM. They are reduced to yet another interest group that the popular frontist good guys promise to deliver some reforms. How quickly things change.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More on the Euston Manifesto

INTERNET CAFÉ, BUDAPEST: Shuggy continues the debate on that damn Euston Manifesto, and queries some of my objections to the initiative.

'And I'm left wondering if he finds nothing progressive in the co-operation of British socialists in the Labour Party and trades union movement that have in the 20th century co-operated on various occasions with liberals such as Manyard Keynes and Beveridge to create the welfare state and with the liberal FDR and the conservative Winston Churchill to defeat fascism in Europe.

'In contrast, and contra-Dave Osler, the achievements of those who have sought to retain the purity of the socialist faith in perpetual opposition have been insignificant historically with regards to the welfare of ordinary working people.'

These are traditional objections to revolutionary socialist politics, and were until recent decades, not without a great deal of weight. Those making them could point to the very real achievements of social democracy around the world. Welfare states. National health services. Powerful trade union movements, sometimes with board level representation and powers of co-determination.

Meanwhile, the far left remained - as it does to this day, admittedly - small and fragmented, incapable even of winning any real political implantation outside a handful of small third world countries.

So why not take the obvious pragmatic course, and work within parties like Britain's Labour Party to win real incremental progress, instead of dreaming about re-running 1917? And after all, look where that experiment ended ...

My answer would be this. The era in which that brand of politics prospered was made possible by a certain set of circumstances that are no longer there. Chiefly these were a 30-year boom in the world capitalist economy, and a fear of revolution on the part of the ruling classes that left them cornered into allowing reforms.

But that historical period ended in the mid-1970s. What we have witnessed since then is three decades of neoliberal permanent revolution, in which avaricious elites have returned to the offensive and pushed back many of the gains secured by the social democratic/liberal axis Shuggy feels so nostalgic for.

It's not that I scorn, belittle or find nothing progressive about what the earlier labour movement achieved. Far from it. It is just that I don't think it can be repeated now. And that is why popular front politics of the Euston Manifesto are doomed to prove spectacularly ineffective.

PS: There is one further obvious point I somehow missed when writing this post last night. The very parties that initially secured the basic gains of social democracy have betrayed the legacy of past generations, passing -as New Labour has effortlessly done - from reformism to counter-reformism.

In most countries, they are an integral part of the neoliberal project. In many countries, they are at its forefront. It is now only the Marxist formations - LO-LCR in France, Rifondazione in Italy, PDS-WASG in Germany, SSP in Scotland - that even defend the struggles of the past.

I hope that they will be able to lead new ones. Many Eustonites claimed to be inspired by Orwell. Therefore they should remember this: if there is hope, it lies with the proles.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Elections in Hungary

INTERNET CAFÉ, BUDAPEST A number of recent European general elections have been close-run things. Phil over at Marxsite considers the cases of Germany and Italy, and argues that much of this apparent apathy flows from the continuing convergence between mainstream left and mainstream right.

If politicians don't set out different stalls, the electorate can be forgiven for feeling it has no meaningful choice.

Phil could have added Hungary to his list. The first round ended up just over a week ago with incumbent former communists MSZP narrowly in the lead over Fidesz, a right-populist formation.

Fidesz leader Viktor Orban has shocked many by offering to withdraw his nomination for the prime minister's job in favour of Ibolya David of the MDF, providing that her smaller and more Thatcherite outfit agrees to form a coalition. He told a press conference last week:

'It's clear that we need the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to win this election. If the candidate for prime minister is an obstacle, we need to remove that obstacle.'

But there is a history of bad blood between Orban and David, and in addition, the MDF believes that the populist aspect of Fidesz's politics will stand in the way of the serious business of pushing through radical neoliberal measures.

So it's no deal, and the smart money is on MSZP holding on to office in alliance with its liberal coalition partner in the second round of voting next Sunday.

Fidesz has the support of most of the country's business community, and clearly has the better-funded campaign. Its posters outnumber MSZP's about three to one in the capital.

But to concur with Phil, this does not have the vibe of a country in the grip of election fever. I haven't seen any street campaigning, or a single person wearing party insignia. Life largely goes on as normal.

Alex Callinicos's family tree

They say Britain is so class divided that even the revolutionary left is controlled by public school boys. But such an ordinary middle-class upbringing is seemingly not enough to get you a top job in the Socialist Workers’ Party.

It’s not as widely appreciated as it should be that Alex Callinicos - pictured left - is not just the great-grandson of Lord Acton, but also related to European royalty. Check out thepeerage.com, scroll down until you find Dr Alexander Theodore Callinicos and then click on the link marked ‘pedigree’.

One reason his fully paid-up posh boy status isn’t more obvious is that the aristocratic connection is on his mother’s side. Alex’s father - a fighter in the Greek resistance to Nazi occupation - married the Hon. Aedgyth Bertha Frances Lyon-Dalberg-Acton. You can see a photograph of her, forming part of the National Portrait Gallery collection, here.

Aedgyth was the daughter of Sir Richard Maximilian Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, 2nd Baron Acton of Aldenham. And in turn, Sir Richard was the son of Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton of Aldenham - the great historian - and Maria Anna Ludmilla Euphrosina von und zu Arco auf Valley.

It is the von und zu Arco auf Valley family that have intermarried into various European royal families, presumably putting Prof C on some pretty upmarket Christmas card lists. For instance, the vuzAaV clan are related by intermarriage to His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent.

Incidentally, a certain Count Anton Arco auf Valley - presumably appearing somewhere on Alex's family tree - was a proto-Nazi who assassinated a prominent Bavarian Marxist leader after world war one. Read about that incident here.

Does any of this matter? Does it detract from Callinicos’s undoubted status as one of the world’s leading Marxist theorists? Not really. Good on him for deserting his class. But as the son of a railworker and a nurse, and grandson of a police constable on one side and a merchant seafarer turned steelworker on the other, I just can't resist a spot of inverse snobbery.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

'Left' and 'right': a meaningless distinction?

Over at the Liberal Review, Rob Knight picks up on the debate over the Euston Manifesto - including this blog's 'David Cameron test' - and uses it to make the familiar case that right and left are meaningless terms these days.

Not for me. It's an undeniable fact that the far left has received a thorough-going kicking over the past two decades. But that doesn't give anybody the right to tell me that my brand of politics no longer exists.

Some rightwingers are also proud to defend their creed. Knight links to my old sparring partner Iain Dale, who has a post called 'ten ways to spot a rightwinger'.

If I wasn't just about to jump in a cab heading for the airport, I'd be coming up with an equivalent list from the other side of the spectrum. Suggestions welcome in the comments.

Book review: 'After the neocons' by Francis Fukuyama

How ironic that Britain is only now developing its own indigenous neoconservative groupings - in the shape of the Henry Jackson Society and the Euston Manifesto - as the doctrine's sway is receding in its homeland.

And neoconservatism is declining in theoretical standing chiefly because it has been seen to fail in practice. The invasion of Iraq has patently not gone the way the Project for a New American Century thought it was going to go.

Leading neocon Francis Fukuyama tries to come to terms with this in After the neocons: America at the crossroads, and unlike some parts of the British centre-left, starts from a realistic rather than rose-tinted assessment of the situation on the ground following the fall of Saddam:

'By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, training ground and operational base for jihadist terrorists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at.'

The book is not quite a mea culpa. Fukuyama insists he was never foolish enough to back the war in the first place. But in classic Shirley Williams style, he insists that it is the party that has changed:

'I have concluded that neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something that I can no longer support.'

Instead, he tries to save neoconservatism from itself, proposing what he dubs 'realistic Wilsonianism' in its place. This boils down to a kinder, gentler neoconservatism, based on a foreign policy that concentrates onpromoting democracy by soft power rather than military hardware. It also takes pledges to work with, rather than against, international institutions.

Chapter two will be of particular interest to intellectual trend trainspotters, examining the roots of neoconservatism not just in the legacies of Leo Strauss and Max Shactman, but also in the work of Albert Wohlstetter and the groups around the magazines Public Interest and Weekly Standard. In particular, the Weekly Standard faction around William Kristol and Robert Kagan are fingered as the number one neocons advocates of war.

Fukuyama goes on to argue that political Islam is actually a displacement threat, appealing primarily to 'the same alienated individuals who in earlier generations would have gravitated to communism or fascism'. He also correctly observes:

'Western democracy will not be a short-term solution to the problem of terrorism. The September 11, Madrid, Amsterdam and London attackers lived in modern, democratic societies and were not alienated by the lack of democracy in the countries of their birth or ancestry.'

And against calls for a Muslim Luther, he points out again rightly that the Christian Luther did not preach liberalism and pluralism but intolerant religious fanaticism instead.

Where the Euston Manifesto seemingly appeal to the US to save the world for democracy, Fukuyama underlines the real limitations on its ability to do so.

'First, benevolent hegemony rests on a belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible. The idea that the United States behaves disinterestedly on the world stage is not widely believed because it is for the most the most part not true ...

'The second problem with benevolent hegemony is that it presupposes an extremely high level of competence on the part of the hegemonic power.'

That puts the matter rather politely. But 'nuff said, methinks. Finally, benevolent hegemony is impossible in domestic political terms. The US electorate just won't wear it. Together, the three points eloquently demolish a central tenet of neoconservatism in both its PNAC and Eustonite manifestations.

In short, Fukyama has moved on. It's sad to see Geras, Cohen and Johnson so hasty in trying to get on board an already sinking ship.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Euston Manifesto: the acid test

Honest question to signatories of the Euston Manifesto. What substantive political point would David Cameron find impossible to agree with? And if the answer is none, in what sense can your fine declaration meaningfully be described as left wing?

David Cameron and the New Conservatives

They’re fresh, they’re funky, they’re female-friendly - and the National Health Service is definitely safe in their hands.

Good evening Middle England. Will you please give a big round of applause for Cameron’s Conservatives.

The changes currently emanating from Conservative Campaign Headquarters necessitate a rethink across the political spectrum. It would be intellectually lazy for the left to exempt itself from the task.

Yet many responses will be lazy. The trouble is, a lot of us have spent our entire political lifetimes in the certain knowledge of what the Tories stand for. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, we knew the script off by heart. Labour was the mass party of the working class.

And the Conservatives? Well, the Conservatives were the class enemy, the political representatives of the bosses.

As a student, I wrote long essays proffering Gramscian analyses of the exact composition of the Thatcherite historic bloc.

As a journalist, I sustained a minor cottage industry in populist denunciations of the Tories as a bunch of reactionary, racist, homophobic, authoritarian, narrow-minded, anti-European, gin-and-Jag belt golf-club bigots. It was easy copy.

And now, all of a sudden, the Conservatives insist they are not the nasty party any more. Rhetorically, anyway, the current process of rebranding sees them outflanking New Labour from the left on some questions. That would have been unthinkable at any other time in British political history.

Thus we have Cameron’s promise to ‘stand up to big business’. Talk of that nature would be a sacking offence for a Labour frontbencher. Not even the average trade union general secretary comes out with soundbites along those lines these days.

The Tories don’t have a convenient symbolic equivalent to Clause Four readily to hand. But the merest hint that big business is anything less than an untrammelled force for universal benevolence comes as close as it gets to flatulence in church.

Cameron - pictured above - even goes on to claim that ‘there is such a thing as society’. Such a jibe was obviously aimed at Margaret Thatcher herself. Unbelievable heresy.

Consider also Oliver Letwin’s impeccably Croslandite commitment to redistribution of wealth:

‘Of course inequality matters. Of course it should be an aim to narrow the gap between rich and poor.’

The backstory here is that this is a gap that has grown since 1997, as the reportedly cerebral Letwin will be well aware.

Elsewhere, changes are coming thick and fast. There will be a policy commission on global poverty, complete with pensioned-off punk rocker Bob Geldof.

The editor of The Ecologist has been roped in to advise Cameron on environmental issues.
The new leader attacks gender differences in pay, and is demanding the selection of more women candidates.

Hell, the Tories are distancing themselves from some of their more odiously racist positions, and even appear finally to realise that the wilder theoretical constructs of neoliberalism are not necessarily applicable to the NHS.

At this rate, some of them might even be considered acceptable dinner party guests at polite north London home before too long. And not just in the hope that they’ll bring along a little something to dynamise the impact of the double espressos.

It’s been all talk so far, of course. It remains inconceivable that the Tories could ever sever ties with the bourgeoisie in the same fashion that New Labour has reduced its links with organised labour.

However, both parties increasingly seek to represent a broadly similar set of class interests.

But even while stressing Marxist ABCs here, it would be wrong to dismiss what the Tories are doing as no more than a change in the mood music for cynical vote-grubbing purposes.

Electoral politics can and do reflect demographic changes. New Labour is the living proof of that.

With even a partial follow-through from the hype, Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman and all the other alliterative archetypes of focus group legend may well switch sides once more. After all, aspirational cachet is traditionally a Conservative brand value.

Remember also that serious politicians do not lightly give speeches purposely designed to alienate core support.

Any more of this and Cameron could do for a whole cadre of ideologically-minded constituency activists what Kinnock did for their Labour equivalents in the 1980s. The far right is clearly hoping to recruit the outcasts.

Meanwhile, the electorate will be left with a political system based on three centrist parties, all divorced from any taint of class alignment, fighting a heavily nuanced battle centred on leadership personality and managerial competence issues.

Labour is still weighing up how to counter the change of tactics from the opposition. Probably the party is better off waiting until the confusion clears up.

Attempts to dismiss Cameron as ‘the same old same old’ are likely to miss the mark as widely as the Major government’s laughable initial efforts to brand Blair a closet socialist back in 1994 and 1995.

What is clear is that plenty of ground remains available for the political forces of the democratic left. Sadly, outside Scotland, it seems unable to take much advantage of the opening.

This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Red Pepper

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Anderson on the Euston Manifesto

Paul Anderson - my old boss at Tribune - has come up with a cracking summary of the Euston Manifesto ...

'Here's a version for people who don't like reading:

1. Islamists are tossers.
2. Stalinists are tossers.
3. Most Trots are tossers.
4. So are most Labour leftists.
5. And most anarchists.
6. And every variety of post-modernist.
7. Sign up if you're a leftie who agrees with these points. '

PS: Phil Edwards at Actually Existing offers a more serious critique of the document.

PPS: Also largely agree (unusually enough) with that young whippersnapper over at Lenin's Tomb and (as usual) with the even-older-than-me Mike Marqusee.

Des Smith: the first 'loans for lordships' arrest

Sky News viewers can see me discuss the arrest of Des Smith - pictured left - in the 'loans for lordships' affair at 4.30pm this afternoon. Personally I reckon The Sunday Times had him bang to rights.

Smith is a former New Labour advisor who serves on the council of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. President? Some bloke by the name of Lord Levy.

Why I won't be signing the Euston Manifesto

I won’t be signing the Euston Manifesto – subtitled ‘for a renewal of progressive politics’ – which is being heavily touted all over the centre-left blogosphere today. And those behind the statement presumably won’t be too worried about that.

But given that many of these people once kept a straight face when they referred to me as ‘comrade’, perhaps they’ll do me the courtesy of listening to my point of view on this one, without simply descending into vulgar abuse.

The authors seem to be fully aware of the precedents for what they are doing. Perhaps they seek consciously to emulate the May Day Manifesto of 1967, a pivotal document in the development of the New Left.

Yet the signatories don’t really say what they expect to come of their efforts. Maybe they are ambitious enough to hope that it will result in some sort of movement. In the current climate, I suspect the odds are against that outcome. But of course, that has never been a good reason not to do what one believes is politically right.

Some of those involved in this initiative I’d still classify as friends. Others share my background in the world of 1980s small-group far left politics. Some were in the same outfits. Others were bitter factional opponents in internecine disputes that in reality mattered little, even at the time.


In more recent years, the writings of these men and women have influenced my own ideas. On occasions, their articles have made me reconsider some of my own adherence to far left orthodoxy. Sometimes I’ve changed my mind as a result of what they wrote.

More often perhaps, they have helped me to clarify my positions by putting forward arguments that needed to be considered, even if I ultimately rejected them.

I agree with a lot of what the manifesto says, possibly even most of it. Some of the rejoinders to the idiocies of anti-imperialist reductionism are unanswerable. And yet I won’t be appending my name to it.

Perhaps the central issue for me is agency. Surely the key question for anybody producing political statements of this type is the matter of who will carry their manifesto out. Which social forces are capable of its implementation?

I’ve always interpreted Marxism in a libertarian way, trying to base myself centrally on the principle that the working class is the sole force capable of bringing about progressive social change.

In the past, the strictures of ‘democratic centralism’ meant that I often argued positions that offended against this yardstick. But as I’ve gained more and more political experience and confidence in my own opinions, I have realised its universal applicability.

The concept of the self-emancipation of the working class is a vision that today’s far left has almost entirely lost. The dominant trend – the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action, aided and abetted by a substantial minority of the Communist Party of Britain – now looks to other forces to win the class war for them.

That abandonment of socialist basics has already brought them into the embrace of various stripes of Middle Eastern dictator and political Islamists. While I hope the logic of the process can still be arrested, things are not looking good.

But the Euston Manifesto crowd have equally lost sight of what makes socialism different from liberalism with knobs on. So they style themselves ‘democrats and progressives’ seeking to ‘reach out beyond the socialist left to egalitarian liberals’ and even to the democratic right.

There are plenty of historical examples of others who have tried similar tactics, and the outcomes haven't been good ones, either. This is not the place to rehearse the standard Trotskyist critique of popular frontism. The authors will anyway know it off by heart.

In short, what I'm arguing is that their choice of agency appears to be the armed forces of capitalist states, imposing democracy at gunpoint. There are obviously parallels with an earlier generation of far leftists, which came to the reluctant conclusion after world war two that the Red Army was spreading some form of distorted socialism, and was therefore worthy of critical support.

The road the neoconverts have chosen will sooner or later lead them to fully-fledged neoconservatism. I'd have hoped for better from at least some of them.

Of course the Islamists are reactionary theocrats that should be opposed implacably by the thinking left. But so are the US imperialist ruling class. Both sides in this dispute are wrong.

In the current period of defeats, it is only too easy for socialists to give up on the socialist project. I guess about 98% of the British left have already done so. But without that, we really do have nothing.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

New Labour and prison privatisation

A report from Anne Owers - Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, pictured right - has blasted outsourcing major Serco for the 'particularly squalid' conditions at the privatised jail it runs in Doncaster:

'Many prisoners lacked pillows, adequate mattresses, toilet seats, working televisions, notice-boards and places to store belongings.

'Some cells, especially on the young prisoners' wing, were dirty and festooned with graffiti.


'These were examples of an institutional meanness which was also reflected in the practice of making prisoners pay to change the PIN phone numbers they needed to contact relatives, and in the fact that no unemployment pay was provided to those prisoners for whom no work was available.'

Serco, of course, is right up there with the likes of Capita in raking in huge profits from running what should be public services. Profits rose 22% last year to £77.9m.

I fully accept that prison ain't supposed to be fun. But does this country really want a prison system so ghastly that every year more than 100 people take their own lives in preference to finishing their sentences? What most inmates really need is educational opportunities and drug rehabilitation.

Once upon a time, comments like that would be enough to condemn anybody making them to outcast bleeding heart liberal status. Not any more. Even rightish Tory Edward Garnier, his party's prisons spokesman, is publicly speaking up for a more enlightened approach.

Not so New Labour. In opposition, of course, the party opposed prison privatisation resolutely. As home affairs spokesperson, Jack Straw declared it ‘morally unacceptable for the private sector to undertake the incarceration of those whom the state has decided need to be imprisoned’.

Straw had, he wrote in the Prison Officers’ Association journal, ‘a fundamental objection to prisons run by the private sector . . . We cannot break contracts that already exist. But we should certainly make no new ones, and within the existing budget, shall take back into the public sector the privatised prisons as soon as contractually possible.’

Within one month of becoming Home Secretary, Straw agreed to sign prison PFI contracts already in the pipeline. The following year, he began to sign new contracts.

So much for New Labour’s fundamental objections. Politicians break promises all the time …but rarely so brazenly and with such alacrity. Along with the many Tory ideas they have simply taken over, they now appear to believe that 'prison works'.

Iran: taking the nuclear option, part two

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, comprehensively trashes the case for a nuclear strike on Iran in today’s Financial Times:

‘The most dangerous delusion is that a conflict would be either small or quick. Destroying Iran's nuclear capacity would require numerous cruise missiles and aircraft.

'Iran would be sure to retaliate, using terrorist groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas and attacking US and British forces and interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would require the US to respond militarily against a larger set of targets inside Iran. What would begin as a limited strike would not remain limited for long.’

Nor are the economic consequences palatable for the West. Oil markets are already jittery on the back of speculation that the US might be contemplating such action.

There is little doubt that dropping a bunker buster on Iran would push oil prices above $100 a barrel, and that price could go even higher if Iran retaliated by either cutting oil exports or disrupting oil facilities elsewhere. The result? Global recession.

And here is probably Haass’s most convincing argument:

‘Using nuclear weapons to destroy hard-to-reach targets would contribute to, rather than diminish, the proliferation threat. It would weaken the taboo against nuclear use - a taboo that has gained strength over 60 years - and only increase the odds that others would obtain or use nuclear weapons to promote their objectives.’

Haass even rounds off with a strategy to tackle legitimate concern over the theocracy getting nukes itself. Allow Iran a token uranium enrichment programme, on the back of frequent intrusive inspections. Carrots could include ‘a range of economic benefits, security guarantees and political dialogue’, while the threat of a UN security council ban on investment in the Iranian oil and gas sector would constitute a useful stick. This approach would also boost the opportunities for country’s reformists to win a hearing.

It’s not an ideal solution. But then, this isn’t an ideal world. Until socialist ideas are once more a factor in world politics, there’s not much the left can sensibly say against it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The case for a national maximum wage

The average chief executive of a major US company made $6.05m last year, according to an annual survey conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting for The Wall Street Journal.

The figure - which includes salaries, bonuses, long-term incentive plans and share options - represents a rise of 15.8%, getting on for five times the 3.2% average rise in earnings for US employees as a whole.

I only mention this one because it's in the news right now. Similar surveys get conducted regularly in Britain, and predictably enough, regularly come to similar findings.

Top executives don't just make more than the prime minister. They make more than the entire cabinet put together. Yet there is no objective evidence performance is enhanced as a result. This is wholesale looting, without any commercial justification.

So how's this for a modest proposal? How about a cap on maximum wages at, say, ten times the average wage?

After all, intellectually speaking, there is not a great deal of difference between a minimum wage and a maximum wage. Both are a constraint on markets, both are a constraint on employers, and both attempt to place some kind of morally-derived boundary on the dynamics of the market for individual reward.

If there's a case for the floor, there's surely a case for a ceiling.

Mexico: is López Obrador the new Chávez?

Over at the Weekly Standard, the neocons are getting their knickers in a twist over the very real prospect that the popular former mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will win Mexico’s presidential elections in July.

Angel Jaramillo - described as ‘a Mexican journalist and political scientist based in New York City‘ argues thus:

'In a nutshell: López Obrador looks like an old-fashioned authoritarian leftist who will lean towards demagoguery à la Chávez.'

He says that like it’s a bad thing, of course. Sadly from where I‘m sitting, most serious newspaper coverage has López Obrador down as a nice, sensible Lula Lite-style type of politician, committed not only to peaceful coexistence with neoliberalism but full compliance with the demands of the markets, too.

To cite just one example, take a recent Financial Times interview with the felicitously-named Rogelio Ramírez de la O - yup, that’s what he’s called - who is likely to be finance minister in a López Obrador administration.

‘Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the leftwing challenge in Mexico’s presidential election, is stressing fiscal discipline and prudence along the lines of Brazil’s moderate leftwing leadership, according to the candidate’s top economic adviser.

‘“Fiscal discipline is a prerequisite for lowering the cost of funding debt and for keeping inflation low,” he said. “It is not our plan to increase government borrowing to any significant degree.”

‘Mr Ramírez de la O dismissed the notion of any similarity between [López Obrador and Chávez] as “insane”, and insisted it was essential “to distinguish electioneering on the campaign trail and communication to the markets once you are settled in”.'

There you have it. All talk, no trousers. Specifically, López Obrador isn’t going to change anything at the country’s central bank, while state oil company Pemex faces 'restructuring'.

As a Mexican, Jaramillo undoubtedly knows more about Mexican politics than I ever will. Even so, five will get him ten that the ruling classes of either Mexico or the US will not have much to worry about, whatever happens on July 2.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Iran: taking the nuclear option

A year or two back, it was already clear that the future of Iran hinged on two interlinked power struggles: that between the pragmatists and the neoconservatives in Washington, and that between the reformists and the hardliners in Tehran. Frighteningly, the bad guys have scored a double victory.

Khatemi failed in his quest to liberalise the Islamic Republic without undermining its theocratic basis, while re-establishing economic relations with the West to attract investment into the oil and gas sectors. The holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now in his place.

Over at the White House, Dubya has been re-elected. Now a couple of leading US publications report that Bush is planning a full-scale air campaign against Iran, possibly including tactical nuclear weapons against selected targets.

Here’s Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker:

‘Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups.’

In a similar vein, the Washington Post has this to say:

‘Although a land invasion is not contemplated, military officers are weighing alternatives ranging from a limited air strike aimed at key nuclear sites, to a more extensive bombing campaign designed to destroy an array of military and political targets.’

Both reports indicate that many senior officers consider such ideas crazy, and there are likely to be resignations over the issue.

Even looking at it purely from the narrow standpoint of the US national interest, the nay-sayers are almost certainly right. If the situation in Iraq right now doesn’t constitute a civil war, a nuclear strike against Iran would inflame the shia population to the point where it most certainly would.

Maybe it's all a cunning bluff on the part of Washington, of course. If so, it is a total betrayal of Iranian democrats. Such hawkish postures guarantee continued mass support for the regime, and that no one will listen to calls for reform.

It will be interesting to see what the pro-war left makes of this. Probably the dominant reaction at present is to dismiss Hersh as a fantasist. That hardly washes. He is one of the top journalists in the US, with a reputation to lose if he puts his by-line to complete twaddle.

Hersh has - they will inevitably point out - made earlier predictions that US bombs would start to fall on Iran. They didn't pan out. But that does not necessarily invalidate his reports. It is entirely possible that such plans were discussed, but a decision was subsequently taken not to proceed.

Were an attack to come about, exactly how would Hitchens, Harry’s Place, Aaronovitch and Cohen make the case that nukes are a legitimate weapon against ‘islamofascism’? Such is the radioactive road to liberation, I guess.

What about the British government response? Today’s Financial Times talks of a split between Blair and Straw on this issue.

Straw has repeatedly ruled out what literally is ‘the nuclear option’. On Sunday he commented: ‘There is no smoking gun, there is no casus belli … The idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts.’

But the FT adds that Blair has never overtly rejected the idea of nuking Tehran, and has even ‘shown signs of exasperation with Mr Straw’s cautious approach’.

Of course, Straw will be well aware of the need to pacify anti-war Labour MPs, a substantial minority of parliamentary Labour Party.

In a sense, Jack is right. Yes, a nuclear strike on Iran would be completely nuts. But the Bush administration is just about loopy enough to do it.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Brown against Blair: why?

Former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley has this to say about the ongoing rivalry between the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer:

'I've been in the Labour Party 50 years and it's 40-odd since I was elected to Parliament. I've never known a time when the in-fighting in the Labour Party was so bitter.'

Now, I was a member in the early 1980s, and recall the pitched battles between the Bennite/Trotskyist left - to which I was aligned in the period - and the old school right wing in an East End district Labour Party.

Certainly the atmosphere in many meetings was one most people would have found intimidating, although when you are a young bloke in your early twenties, you are sufficiently thick-skinned to take a bit of that.

I never actually saw any physical violence myself. I do recall once squaring up to a 'comrade' - ha bloody ha - for voting the wrong way, although the matter didn't come to blows. But rumours of thuggery on the part of both right and left, especially on Merseyside, were commonplace.

Although I quit the Labour Party in 1995, I find it hard to believe that things could possibly have reached the same pitch. Because at bottom, there is no real ideological cleavage between Blair and Brown.

The newspaper pundits pen endless frankly tedious columns pointing to this or that nuance, to differences of emphasis, to subtly distinct packaging. But the policies of both men boil down to neoliberalism at home and neoconservatism abroad.

Politics is not involved. Until somebody comes up with a better explanation, we can only believe that the Blair/Brown spat is little more than a two-way hissy fit over who get the top job, and thus gets to pick plum positions for his mates.

Can constituency activists - of which Labour has precious few left - really get worked up enough to feel passionately either way? If any current Labour Party members are reading this, please enlighten the rest of us in the comments box.

The fascist roots of Grupo Ferrovial

Spain’s Grupo Ferrovial has tabled a £8.75bn offer for BAA, the company that owns Britain’s top airports, including Heathrow and Stansted. BAA has rejected the bid as derisory, and Ferrovial is now deciding whether or not to go hostile.

But I was certainly intrigued by this snippet in the Guardian’s coverage of the story:

‘Ferrovial is controlled by a wealthy family which funds a charitable foundation dedicated to spreading the Spanish language and free market philosophy - an aim which has prompted tensions with the socialist government of José Luis Rodíguez Zapatero. The company negotiates with unions only where it is forced by law to do so.’

This seems worthy of further research and I’d be happy to hear from any readers that have got the skinny on these boys. Meanwhile, a quick half an hour of googling turns up some interesting information on the company, which trade unionists at BAA would do well to note.

Today. Ferrovial is a typical example of the sort of so-called free marketeer that makes a parasitic living pocketing larges amounts of subsidies by providing what should be public services anyway.

But its history marks it out as even further to the right. The company was started in 1952, when Spain was a fascist dictatorship, and it grew to prominence under Franco’s dictatorial government.

The founder, Rafael del Pino, became one of the richest men in the world, with an estimated fortune of $5bn. Given the corporatist nature of the Spanish economy during the Franco years, is inconceivable that he could have achieved that wealth without the closest collaboration with the projects of the regime.

According to its own website Ferrovial engaged in construction work for the armed forces from 1969 onwards. It also undertook work for the government of Libya, another dictatorship.

Nowadays Ferrovial is headed by del Pino’s son and namesake Rafael del Pino y Calvo-Sotelo - normally known as simply Rafael del Pino. Del Pino junior sits on the board of Circulo de Empresarios, a rightwing business organisation based in Madrid. I’m not sure whether or not this is the charitable foundation to which the Guardian alludes.

Given that del Pino junior was born in 1958, he is presumably too young to have had any significant political involvement under Franco. But it would be interesting to check the membership rolls of fascist youth organisations from the mid 1970s.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The semiology of revolutionary graffiti

The French have had hundreds of years experience in coining catchy revolutionary slogans. Their graffiti, like their wine, is arguably the best in the world. From Liberté, égalité, fraternité to Sous les pavés, la plage and Nous sommes le pouvoir ... how beautifully the catchphrases trip off the tongue.

In addition, France also does a nice line in postmodern philosophy. So here's an irresistable story that brings out both these essential aspects of the national character.

It all begins with a recent student occupation at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, where Jacques Derrida himself once taught.

Les flics eventually regain possession, and work commences on the thankless task of clearing up the empty pizza boxes, fag ends and beer cans. But one of the academics is suddenly enthralled:

'"I realised straight away that there were a number of extremely interesting things," said Béatrice Fraenkel, who teaches semiology. "They had managed to cover everything - walls, floors, ceilings - in writing."

'Some of the "artwork" is striking: across a clock the words "time is an invention of people incapable of love" had been scrawled.'

Mrs Fraenkel has taken 600 photographs and made 100 pages of notes, and assigned a team of sociology researchers to begin classifying the graffiti.

In 1983, I was one of the ringleaders of an occupation at City of London Polytechnic. If we'd have made a mess, the provost would have sued the student union for the cost of repainting the place. Trust the French to do things in style.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Stalinists versus the Stones

The Chinese government has asked the Rolling Stones not to play five tunes from their extensive 400-song repertoire during the current tour of China.

Not meeting with the approval of the Beijing authorities are Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Woman, Beast of Burden, Let's Spend the Night Together and Rough Justice.

So Street Fighting Man is still on the set list, I hope?

Mearsheimer and Walt versus Aaronovitch on the Israel Lobby

The issue of Zionist influence on US foreign policy is back in the spotlight, thanks to a recent controversial essay by two top level American academics in The London Review of Books.

I’ve just read The Israel Lobby, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I have to say I found it academically rigorous, fair minded, and way, way beyond any suspicion of anti-Jewish racism. This is patently not the work of two Protocols of the Elders of Zion-quoting fringe far right nut jobs.

The piece is essential reading, but if you want a taster, this paragraph probably puts their stance in summary:

‘ … the thrust of US policy in the [Middle East] region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.’

Mearsheimer and Walt go to some length to spell out the factual reasoning behind this claim, detailing at length the activities of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

And later:

‘Critics are also accused of holding Israel to an unfair standard or questioning its right to exist. But these are bogus charges too. Western critics of Israel hardly ever question its right to exist: they question its behaviour towards the Palestinians, as do Israelis themselves. Nor is Israel being judged unfairly. Israeli treatment of the Palestinians elicits criticism because it is contrary to widely accepted notions of human rights, to international law and to the principle of national self-determination. And it is hardly the only state that has faced sharp criticism on these grounds.’

The authors are not leftists, by any means. But surely few leftists would gainsay such an approach? One who would is former communist David Aaronovitch. You can read his contribution to the debate here.

The headline hints at the standard 'any criticism of Israel = anti-semitic conspiracy theory' argument. But hey, let's blame the sub-editors on that one, right?

Yet Aaronovitch's intro - which essentially boils down to taking the piss out of the titles of the professorships of Mearsheimer and Walt - strikes me as particularly weak.

Until somebody invents a big swinging dick-o-meter, there is no way of knowing whether or not elite academic posts at top US universities are more or less prestigious than, say, being a columnist on a Murdoch newspaper. But Mearsheimer in particular is one of the top names in international relations as a discipline. Aaronovitch really needs to do better than dissing him for obscurity.

Aaronovitch’s conclusion is equally unsatisfactory:

‘The problem with the Professors Mearsheimer and Walt is not that their arguments are silly or exaggerated, though many of them are. In a way I sympathise with their desire for redress, since there has been a cock-eyed failure in the US to understand the plight of the Palestinians. No, it’s what pornographers would call their “money-shot” that really offends. For, breaking into polemic, the professors finally claim that if the Lobby succeeds: “Israel will get a free hand with the Palestinians, and the US will do most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying.” Not the Jews.’

First, I don’t think Aaronovitch’s piece demonstrates the silly or exaggerated character of any part of the Mearsheimer/Walt case. Second, I’m not really sure what ‘really offends’ about the money shot. Mearsheimer and Walt are proponent of the so-called realist school of international relations. they accords primacy to what they see as the US national interest. By those lights, theirs is a legitimate critique. More explanation required, methinks.

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