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How Not to Hammer Hitchens

I HAVE little doubt that Christopher Hitchens is deserving of a swift kick up the bum for his peculiar and rather hysterical support for America’s war on Afghanistan. On the evidence of his article, "Christopher In Khaki", in What Next? No.21, it is much more doubtful that Dave Renton is the man we should trust to do the kicking. David seems overly fond of the scatter gun approach to criticism, just that sin of which he accuses Hitchens.

For example, David writes: "Describing the Islamic defeat of 1683, he [Hitchens] wrote: ’In our culture, the episode is often forgotten or downplayed, except by Catholic propagandists like Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.’ This last reference is puzzling. Why are these two alone praised? Is it Belloc’s arguments against the (’servile’) welfare state that appeal to Hitchens now or Belloc’s 1922 book calling (in the words of one, friendly, reviewer) for ’the elimination of the Jews’? There is something truly nauseating about an ‘anti-Nazi’ argument that could justify itself only with reference to the work of real, self-acknowledged fascists."

There are quite a few things wrong with this passage. Chesterton-Belloc are not singled out for praise in Hitchens’ text, merely acknowledged as the authors of a piece on the Muslim defeat at the gates of Vienna. All talk about the Servile State or the elimination of the Jews is quite inappropriate and is included only to add a nicely prejudicial colouration to David’s narrative.

Dave informs us that Hitchens has never failed to back our rulers "since Thatcher and Reagan came to power". Now Thatcher came to power in 1979 and I have a clear recollection of Chris Hitchens attacking her Falklands adventure, with some spirit, but then maybe, according to Dave Renton’s fractured logic, what he really wanted was for her to re-establish the crusader kingdom of Outremer.

It seems from his text that David met Hitchens for a full minute in 1999 but several of the references in the article suggest a close knowledge of his life. He apparently misses the "old Christopher Hitchens, lost to excess, alcohol and the seductive embrace of the system". I have often thought that I only just escaped the seductive embrace of the system by my puritanical eschewing of excess and alcohol, although I did know quite a few members of the SWP whose alcohol consumption was such that excess and seductive embraces were totally beyond their powers.

Finally, let’s just examine another of the prejudicial little squibs in "Christopher in Khaki": "The great chip on Peter Hitchens’ shoulder – or so they say – is his failure to live up to the charm of his extraordinary brother. The unkindest of former friends suggest that the great chip on Christopher’s shoulder was his inability to become a second Paul Foot ...." Though I cannot say whether Peter is jealous of Christopher, I can say that I knew Peter 30 years and more ago and he was charmless and talentless then, and ensuing decades have changed this not one whit. Christopher was a quite different kettle of fish, a stylish and original writer and an accomplished speaker with a great gift for conversation and conviviality. I find it difficult to believe that, even in the darker recesses of his mind, he wanted to be Paul Foot, but then I am not even certain, in the dark recesses of his mind, that Paul Foot wants to be Paul Foot.

Dave Renton is convinced, however, that Foot’s 40 years of subservience to the leadership of the SWP guarantees him a place among the elect. Well good luck to them – it’s a cosy, closed world, full of certainty and eventual disappointment. Chris Hitchens spent, perhaps, seven years in the International Socialists and a couple of decades or so writing articles and books from a left perspective, so naturally he is not part of the movement, although he was until 1999 sufficiently alright to be accorded a 60-second audience with Dave Renton.

I do not know where Chris Hitchens will finally come to rest. If he continues on his present course, and it is a well worn path along which many have gone before, then we will be able to say with certainty that he has left the movement that he adorned for so long.

Jim Higgins

Pan-Islamism and Marxism

I WAS interested to see that you published part of the speech made in November 1923 by Indonesian revolutionary Tan Malaka at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International ("Communism and Pan-Islamism", What Next? No.21). Although the speech is summarised in Helmut Gruber’s documentary collection Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern, as far as I’m aware only a garbled and heavily cut version has appeared in English before.

Tan Malaka takes issue with the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, drafted by Lenin for the Second Congress of the CI, which called for "Kampf gegen den Panislamismus". This formulation may well have been a tactical error, and was evidently used against the Communists in Java where the mass anti-colonial movement had developed under the leadership of Sarekat Islam. But it would be wrong to conclude that Lenin failed to understand that a progressive struggle against imperialism could take place under Islamic leadership. His article "The Awakening of Asia", from 1913, enthusiastically welcomed the fact that "the democratic movement is developing among the masses of Java, where a nationalist movement has arisen under the banner of Islam" (Collected Works, Vol.19, p.85).

No doubt as a result of Tan Malaka’s arguments, the Theses on the Eastern Question adopted at the CI’s Fourth Congress accepted that "in the Moslem countries, the national movement is guided in its early stages by the religious-political slogans of the Pan-Islamic movement" and went on to warn that the religious prejudices of the masses could be used against them by the imperialist powers. None of this was opposed to Tan Malaka’s analysis, and was certainly a more nuanced approach than that adopted at the Second Congress. (See A. Adler, ed, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, pp.410-11.)

The Theses on the Eastern Question predicted that as anti-colonial movements grew and matured they would lose their religious trappings and take on a directly political character. This, indeed, was what happened in Indonesia, where Sarekat Islam was displaced by Soekarno’s PNI. However, with the subsequent discrediting of secular leftist and nationalist parties, militant Islamism has once again emerged as a political force in the "third world". Of course, the specific organisational and ideological forms taken by Islamism differ widely and require a concrete analysis. It is undoubtedly the case that, with the end of the old colonial empires, the sort of mass democratic movement that Sarekat Islam represented in Lenin’s day, and which required the sort of political tactics advocated by Tan Malaka, is no longer typical. Nobody on the left, I imagine, is advocating entry work in al-Qaida.

Finally, if you want an example of a sectarian dismissal of the revolutionary potential of Islam, rather than criticising Lenin you would do better to look at the writings of Leon Trotsky, which some of your contributors appear to regard as holy scripture. In June 1924, months after the Fourth Congress had adjusted the Comintern’s line, Trotsky was still condemning Pan-Islamism as "one of the most reactionary trends in the entire world" (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol.1, p.26).

Dave Roberts

(An earlier translation of Tan Malaka’s speech can in fact be found in Hélčne Carrčre d’Encausse and Stuart R. Schram, eds, Marxism and Asia, 1969, pp.188-90 – ed.)

Workers and Direct Action: Still in Defence of Mayday

DESPITE MARTIN Sullivan’s criticisms ("Marxism, Rioting and Moralism", What Next? No.21), I stand by my remarks on Marxism and Mayday in the previous issue of the journal, for the following reasons.

Firstly, my claim that the Metropolitan Police aimed to terrorise people out of demonstrating was backed by several accounts of empirical instances of tactics being used – such as beating cyclists to the ground, baton-charging those already trapped in Oxford Street, and especially the remark that "there’s no point going on any more demos, is there?" – which are incompatible with Martin’s account of "smothering". That the barbaric repression on Mayday was less severe than the barbaric repression in Genoa is a matter of degree – similar to the relationship between, say, workers at Rover and those in an Indonesian sweatshop. Both groups of workers are victims of exploitation; similarly, both protests were subject to barbaric repression. The nature of the social relation is what is important – proportion is a secondary issue. There is, incidentally, a substantial difference between calling a protest "relatively peaceable" and saying it "passed off relatively peacefully", since the former refers only to protesters whereas the latter implies the police also acted peacefully.

I may, however, have misunderstood Martin’s use of the term "relative". Of course, the meaning of "relative" depends on points of comparison. I assumed Martin was comparing Mayday 2001 with other events and protests in Britain, especially Mayday 2000 (when property damage was greater and police violence, though substantial, was less).

Martin implicitly accuses me of inconsistency in my claims about "demonstrators intent on trashing shops". This is unfair, since the claims I made were in response to different points in his own article ("Marxism and Rioting", What Next? No.19). I didn’t say, for instance, that no protesters intended to damage (particular, targeted) shops – only that Martin was wrong to claim that the Oxford Street event was organised on the basis of "an explicit, publicly announced proposal to fight capitalism by looting shops". My claim that some protesters who would not otherwise have damaged property did so due to police provocation was empirically based, and entirely compatible with the claim that some Marxists try to dissuade some anarchists from damaging property. Nor are any of these incompatible with my claim that the issue of capitalist windows getting smashed is less important than the issue of working class heads getting smashed. Even if some people wanted to smash shop windows (which would be pretty hard anyway with them all boarded up – another reason the police repression must have been about more than "smothering"), this hardly justifies reference to a "plan for a publicity-generating riot" or "hooligans". Black Blocks, when they form, are extremely publicity-averse and try to prevent their actions being filmed; and even if their strategy is misguided, we should not pretend that they are acting mindlessly.

Martin is right that most workers are "not yet" fully anti-capitalist, and that it is important to try to, as he puts it, "advance" their "consciousness". This requires a dimension of educational and explanatory activity which is largely absent from anti-capitalism (and, sadly, also from the left). I fail to see how our actions can achieve this, however, since actions are not explanations, and those conditioned into conformist ways of thinking are quite capable of misrecognising any action. The implication of the idea that workers are not yet anti-capitalist is that Mayday was not wrong, but premature. If workers are not yet anti-capitalist, it is vital for socialists to try to persuade them to become anti-capitalist. This cannot be achieved if we denounce anti-capitalism because workers, at present, dislike it. Instead of persuading anti-capitalists to go along with workers’ conformity, we should persuade workers to become anti-capitalist. If Mayday is not wrong but premature, we should place great emphasis on explaining to workers why they should support it. Such an emphasis is incompatible with launching into polemics against it.

The problem is that many workers do think smashed windows are the most important issue about anti-capitalist protests – at least partly because the bourgeois media tells them so, and they believe it. If socialists write articles which reaffirm this perception, this strengthens the grip of bourgeois ideology. If, on the other hand, we support (however critically) whatever resistances arise to capitalism, and explain this support to workers, we may hasten the day when such events can no longer be repressed, and when workers no longer spit on their allies. In this context, it is crucial that we do what Martin attacks the left for doing – i.e. denouncing Livingstone’s views, which reinforce working class conformism, and keeping criticism of protest organisers and protesters in the context of comradely debate (not, as Martin urges, dissociation and condemnation). In Martin’s approach, workers get worked up about smashed windows, so we should too. But if we do, how can we ever overcome existing beliefs, and reach the stage where workers are anti-capitalist?

Hopefully, we will eventually reach this stage. In the meantime, we have to keep acting in some way. I am concerned that Martin’s prescriptions could lead to a "waiting for history" situation. Our aim, according to him, is to initiate a process leading eventually to workers becoming anti-capitalist. So presumably we should try to persuade them to think and act in anti-capitalist ways? No, because if we do this, they are out of touch with the remaining workers we have not yet convinced. So we end up trying to persuade workers to retain their existing beliefs and practices here and now, but in the name of eventually achieving something different by convincing other workers to retain their existing beliefs while hoping for something different. In this context, how do we ever know when workers are ready to fight back? And must we, in the meantime, passively accept everything capitalism throws at us?

Tactics such as those used on Mayday are not counter-productive and farcically ineffective in and of themselves (imagine if McDonald’s was never rebuilt). They are ineffective and counter-productive only because, and to the extent that, workers believe what bosses and their allies tell them. Workers do not see protesters’ actions on Mayday and react; they see what the media chooses to show, and their reactions are in response to this. The media and other pro-capitalist institutions can easily misrepresent most actions and events. The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike was portrayed in the media as pointless, the Labour Left was pilloried as "loony", the Russian Revolution is portrayed as a despotic coup, and so on. Workers’ reactions to media images no more undermine the legitimacy of anti-capitalist protests and make them counter-productive than they undermine the legitimacy of these other events and make them counter-productive. There is no point pandering to media prejudices: they only cover demonstrations if they have something to denounce (witness the non-coverage of the recent anti-war demos), and if they don’t have enemies to fight, they invent some. Instead, we need to persuade workers not to trust the bourgeois media. How can we persuade them of this if we ourselves confuse the effects of, and representations in, media discourse with actual events?

Martin writes as if Marxists are outside the working class, looking in. Otherwise, it would be inconceivable that he could see our own acts of self-emancipation as irrelevant to working class self-emancipation, or posit a "gulf between the protestors and the people", as if the former were outside the latter. Even if workers outside a struggle (Gothenburg, Miners’ Strike) do not unanimously support it, it can nevertheless be a heroic stand for working class self-emancipation by those workers who do participate. Participation in an event which unanimously asserts opposition to capitalism and briefly creates spaces liberated from capitalist control is an act of temporary self-emancipation which prefigures, and offers an image of and hope for, a permanent emancipation. It is certainly more of an actual step towards emancipation that "waiting for history", an approach which leaves us permanently trapped in an alienated world with no sight of an alternative.

Further, Martin’s picture of the effects of anti-capitalist events are too one-sided. So some local workers, riled up by media scaremongering and their own mythologies, spat on protesters in Gothenburg. Is this the whole picture? There are also numerous instances of workers helping anti-capitalists. Many locals in Genoa hung out their underclothes in a gesture of solidarity with protesters, after Berlusconi banned them from doing so. In Quebec, thousands of locals provided sleeping space and supplies for protesters. And if the protests are so unpopular, why have they grown so rapidly – from perhaps 20,000 in Prague to a least 200,000 in Genoa? Moreover, Martin’s account relies on the assumption that all workers oppose broken windows. What, then, of the thousands of mainly Asian working class youths who rose up against the police and local bosses in the summer? What of the man shown on film, after Gothenburg’s police shot live rounds at protesters, running out of the crowd and throwing a stone at their lines? Court proceedings against him reveal that he was not even a protester, but a worker who had been passing by, and who reacted – like many on Mayday, at Orgreave, etc – in anger against the police violence.

If "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself", then members of the working class should not simply sit around waiting for history. My use of this phrase from Marx was a direct response to Martin’s denouncement, on principle, of what he calls "anarchist-inspired ideas of ’direct action’". It was intended to show that direct action is and always has been a central part of Marxism. I stand by this claim. If we should not support direct action, what form of action should we support and engage in? The only alternative to adopting some kind of direct action (which is not limited to window-smashing and "stunts", but includes strikes, go-slows, some community campaigns, pickets, occupations, blockades, sit-downs etc) is to support indirect action: asking bosses and leaders nicely if they would be so kind as to deliver us a better world on a plate. This leads down the cul-de-sacs which have been so harmful to the left: asking capitalism nicely if it would kindly ignore its own laws of development and reform itself (social democracy), or installing a new, authoritarian set of leaders to impose a better system on behalf of the working class, while ordinary workers buckle down and do as they are told (Stalinism).

Finally, Martin accuses me of a "tone of moral superiority". Of this, he can find but one example (my use of the concept of character-structure). But look at his own language. His reply to me contains at least two moralising judgements, i.e. that I talk "hysterical nonsense" and lack a "sense of proportion". His original article included far more: "lumpen fringes", "short cut", "principled position", "quick to dissociate", "deluded", "indisciplined mob", "condemnation", "hooliganism", etc, etc. How is this not a tone of moral superiority? How does one avoid the conclusion that he feels superior to the "hooligans", that he stands above the "lumpen" masses, and that he has a quality of moral discipline which differentiates him from the "indisciplined mob"? How does one avoid a "tone of moral superiority" while "condemning" others, "dissociating" from them and labelling them as mad ("deluded", "hysterical") or congenitally incapable of reason ("sense of proportion")? Is one to conclude that the principles of Martin’s "principled position" are, for him, neither moral nor superior? Martin has chosen to structure his polemics in moral terms throughout.

Yet, to all this, I am not even supposed to reply with an innocuous remark about character-structure! My statement in this regard was not even a moral claim. It was a tentative psychological speculation, and it was presented as such. It was based on a developed empirically-based theory of mass psychology (of the early Wilhelm Reich), and was intended to draw Martin’s attention to the fact that his personal emotional reactions are socio-historical constructs which should be open to criticism (by himself and others), not a self-evident basis for political conclusions. Further, I stopped well short of accusing him of madness or unreason, as he accuses me and others. As for the rest of my essay, I use hardly one concept which is either moral or psychological; mostly, it was confined to empirical and logical points. Is the use of evidence to declare someone’s views to be mistaken an exercise in moralism according to Martin? In which case, aren’t Marxists – and for that matter, natural scientists – the worst moralists of all?

Andy Robinson

Correspondence welcomed. Please email us at whatnextmag@yahoo.co.uk or write to What Next? 24 Georgiana Street, London NW1 0EA.