Issue 279 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Searching for the realm of freedom
No more than a month ago I sat with a friend drinking coffee at the Hillel Cafe in Jerusalem. Today it is a shattered edifice, with bloodstains on the floor. Indeed, this was the first thought that crossed my mind after hearing the news about the horrific suicide attack that left another seven Israelis dead and 45 wounded. 'I could have been there,' I said to myself.
It is a frightening thought, one that has crossed the mind of many an Israeli, particularly since the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000--a period in which 244 suicide attacks have been carried out. Just as disturbing, though, is the thought that this bloody reality has been accepted by the Israeli public as part of their daily routine--so much so that the same people who are terrified to leave their homes now consider Israel's gory mode of existence as their karma, as if the political realm were in some odd way predetermined.
But politics, as the great Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt repeatedly stated, is the realm of freedom, where humans actually have the opportunity to begin something new through speech and deed. Even 'in the epochs of petrifaction and foreordained doom', she claimed, the faculty of freedom, 'which animates and inspires all human activities and is the hidden source of production of all great and beautiful things' usually remains intact.
What Israelis and Palestinians have been witnessing in the past few weeks is a concerted effort to destroy the road that might have led the two peoples out of a foreordained doom and into a new beginning. Notwithstanding the impression some people might have, this myopic effort has been led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, not only by Hamas. His strategy is one of pre-emptive strikes.
Approximately two months ago the different Palestinian factions decided to implement a houdna (ceasefire in Arabic) and to stop attacking Israeli targets. Despite the fact that numerous militant groups operate without a central command in the Occupied Territories, for almost a month and a half the houdna managed to hold up. While one assault was perpetrated in the West Bank by a small splinter group, the violence had subsided and it appeared as if serious negotiations would resume.
Then, as if out of the blue, the Israeli military invaded Askar refugee camp, killing four Palestinians, including two members of Izzeddin Al-Qassam, Hamas's military wing. The operation was a pre-emptive strike, the Israeli spokesman explained.
The Palestinians decided not to retaliate.
Less than a week later, on 14 August, Israeli troops entered Hebron and killed a member of Islamic Jihad. Another pre-emptive attack. Only this time the Palestinians did respond, and on 19 August a suicide bomber exploded inside a public bus. Israel, in turn, used its forces to carry out a series of extrajudicial executions, and now a month after the pre-emptive assault on Askar camp, the streets between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea are once again covered with blood.
Not unlike the settlement project, the Lebanon war, and extrajudicial executions, the separation wall should also be conceived as a pre-emptive attack. While Sharon declares that the wall is being built solely for security reasons, he neglects to say that it is not being erected on the 1967 borders, and is actually being used as an extremely effective mechanism to expropriate Palestinian land and create facts on the ground so as to pre-empt any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Its effect is not less violent than the assassinations and suicide bombings. Already in this early stage, the wall has infringed on the rights of more than 210,000 Palestinians, some of whom now live in ghettos between the wall and Israel.
The crux of the matter is that Sharon's pre-emptive logic undercuts all form of dialogue and negotiations. Its rule of thumb is violence, and then more violence, whether it manifests itself as a military attack or as an aggressive act of dispossession. So while it may seem that the bloody routine is in some way preordained, it is actually Sharon's pre-emptive zeal alongside Hamas's and Islamic Jihad's fundamentalism that has clouded the horizon and concealed, as Arendt might have said, the possibility for a better future.
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I thank Sarah Ensor for her review of Parecon: Life After Capitalism (September SR). It is hard enough writing about a whole alternative economy in 300 pages. I can't imagine trying to evaluate such an effort in 300 words. Yet I have only two brief comments.
The example of individuals vetoing a hire was meant for a very small firm where each person works in close proximity to all other people, so if you don't like me and I am hired to work with you, your days are ruined. Hiring for a large firm would be quite different, as we could simply be separated. Of course grounds for not hiring someone shouldn't be racist, sexist, etc. A desirable polity (parecon is only an economy) would presumably ensure such norms, as other descriptions in the book make evident.
But mostly these kinds of hiring details and other descriptions are presented only as possibilities. A given parecon might choose from an immense range of viable and worthy options like those we describe in the book, or might choose others quite different. All that is characteristic of parecons per se, is the defining institutions and norms within which countless diverse choices are undertaken. The defining features of parecon are workers' and consumers' councils rather than corporate boardrooms as sites of self managed rather than grossly hierarchical decision making, balanced job complexes rather than corporate divisions of labour, remuneration for effort and sacrifice rather than for property, power, or even output, and allocation by participatory planning rather than by markets (or central planning).
Finally, Ensor is right that the book Parecon doesn't address attaining a participatory economy beyond a relative few words, despite the fact that that is the paramount concern for those who advocate the vision, including myself. Other work does address matters of strategy, however. In this book, the question addressed is simply, what kind of economy do we want? Settling on what we want, we can then move on to refining our opposition to capitalism so that it leads to the future we desire.
The Stop the War Coalition is at a historical juncture and decisions made now will not only affect the development of our movement but could open up extremely exciting opportunities for the left.
There has been criticism of the coalition by some on the left who question the wisdom of working with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). They say the coalition is a popular front rather than a united front and invoke Trotsky to tell us we are wrong. Let's be sensible here--when the issues were being discussed in the 1930s the Spanish working class was facing a direct threat to its very existence from a fascist coup led by General Franco.
We face no such direct threat, no historical parallel can be drawn. What we are building is the broadest possible peace movement we can--something larger and more effective rather than smaller and purer.
Is the coalition a popular front? Yes. Is it right to work with MAB? Absolutely! The Islamic community in this country are suffering daily racist attacks. The government's war on terror is whipping up Islamophobia. Muslims are against the war. They are a natural and vital constituency for us to work with. You do not get anywhere by criticising someone's religion.
The coalition is now facing a serious question. We have built a movement powerful enough to challenge government but we cannot furnish a viable alternative to replace it. In the spring George Galloway wrote of how unrepresentative parliament is, how firefighters, teachers, nurses, trade unionists, people fighting to defend asylum seekers and the peace movement have no voice in Westminster.
The Labour Party was set up originally to put workers and trade unionists into parliament, to give voice to their issues. Labour went belly-up in the 1980s and New Labour, a Thatcherite conspiracy, took its place. Sadly, this process is irreversible. Old Labour is dead and working class people have been cruelly disenfranchised.
There are people on the left who are not interested in addressing this vital issue. They say they are revolutionaries and they are waiting for the revolution to happen. Well, I'm in my forties now, and I have hung round for 25 years awaiting this event. I've seen some historic battles such as the poll tax and the miners' strike but none have come close to revolution. Perhaps while we are awaiting this seismic event we could do something useful like address the need to put our people in parliament?
How dare we deny homeless people, unemployed people, people on low pay and pensioners a political party with real clout fighting for their interests both inside and outside parliament? How long must they wait?
Like many others I joined Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (SLP) when it was formed in 1996. Arthur offered us the dream of building a mass party capable of challenging New Labour for power. Unfortunately because of how the SLP was structured and its unwillingness to engage in a dialogue with other groups on the left that project sadly failed.
I believe that both the SLP and the Socialist Alliance have too small a social base to launch the kind of party that is necessary for this task. However, the coalition has a huge and representative base of support. We have shown we can mobilise hundreds of thousands and on occasions millions. We could build something much more than a peace movement.
I have a dream that one day the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German, John Rees and the SWP, Andrew Murray and the Communist Party, the Socialist Alliance, Arthur Scargill and his SLP, Tommy Sheridan and his Scottish Socialist Party, George Galloway and other MPs and new left trade unionists like Bob Crow and his RMT grasp this great opportunity to create that mass party.
It will require a lot of tolerance, pragmatism and compromise. Perhaps this is where the revolution lies, not waiting for some mythical armed insurrection of the working class, but a revolution within ourselves, to put aside our petty differences and work together in the interest of working people. Isn't this what we all came into politics for, to fight for our class? Isn't this why we built our own various parties? The truth is we can't do it on our own, but collectively we could.
Arthur Scargill said that socialists should always paint the vision of socialism splendid. So let's do a Martin Luther King and dream a little. Imagine what a wonderful government comprising the best people on the left could do for the people of this country? Imagine what a beacon of hope such a government would be for humanity, for the poor, the destitute and the hungry?
Such a government would at last put socialism back on the international agenda. Now wouldn't that be a real revolution!
Chair Merseyside Stop the War Coalition and SLP member (personal capacity)
The decision to send more British troops, and call up more reservists, to Iraq marks a significant deepening of the crisis generated by the occupation ('Blood, oil and lies, October SR). As well as evoking Vietnam, this issue will only add to the developing splits in the ruling class, now stuck between the dilemma of 'no retreat' and denial of 'mission creep'. They are unable to resolve this crisis of their own making, unless they make the Iraqis pay the price.
The anti-war movement must take up the specific issue of increasing troop numbers as a concrete campaigning issue. Firstly, in solidarity with the Iraqi people in ending the occupation. Secondly, because it's young working class men and women who are being sent to die in the deserts and streets of Iraq. Why? To further the interests of US and British multinationals. 'What's in it for us?' they might ask.
The current deployment of British troops is a continuation of 100 years of imperialist meddling and murder in the region. This is not the first time that British troops have occupied Basra and its oil refineries. And as always it's the 'poor that do the dying, the rich that do the lying'. Anti-war activists campaigning in Greater Manchester in predominantly working class areas, regularly meet people who have a son, brother or partner in the armed forces, and serving in Iraq. They are not happy.
They are influenced by general anti-war arguments that the war was 'about oil and US power', but equally they are pulled by the idea of 'serving queen and country' and consider that you are, to varying degrees, 'unpatriotic' and therefore undermining the support for 'our boys', and by implication their own relatives.
We have to take on these ideas from the left and bring these people into the anti-war camp. We need to deploy the argument, that the best support that can be given to their serving family members is to pull them out of Iraq, and harm's way. We should say that their family member should not be the one who pays the 'blood sacrifice' for the benefit of oil and capital.
By developing a strategy based on a class analysis, we can undermine the jingoism that is latent in the phrase 'supporting our boys'. If 'our boys' are so treasured, why are such a high proportion of ex-service personnel homeless? What about the hidden misery of those who suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome? More Falklands veterans have now committed suicide than acutally died in the conflict. If we raise these class arguments loud and confidently they will get through to the front line (e-mail makes that easier). Who knows what the impact could be?
How do we build a campaign around the concrete demands of No Occupation--Bring the Troops Back--No 'Blood Sacrifice' For Oil?
We could publish statements, signed by ex-service personnel and reservists, to raise the profile. The impact of demonstrations calling for troops out, with families of serving troops on them, would be politically potent, but just as important, and crucial, is the process by which they arrive.
This is a new and developing arena of struggle. Socialists cannot leave it uncontested. We have something to say and a historical experience to draw upon. The Bolsheviks excelled at fraternisation and barrack room agitation. It is applying the same principle on a small scale. Haven't revolutions been determined by when the rank and file of the military change sides?
By integrating the fight for troops out into the anti-war struggle, we can only deepen and develop the forces against Bush and Blair's occupation. Consider this: if Blair is, and is seen to be removed by the anti-war movement, it would isolate Bush even further, at home and abroad. It would be the most significant victory for the anti-war movement since Vietnam. It would forestall and challenge the 'war on terrorism'. It would further serve as a warning to other governments, and have an impact on the struggle in the Middle East and on the global stage.
We need to think through how we are going to 'break the chains of imperialism where the links are forged'. Blair is the 'weakest link' and it's time to throw him off the podium.
As Tony Cliff wrote from Jerusalem in 1945, in the concluding paragraph of 'The Middle East at the Crossroads', 'Only the overthrow of imperialism will enable the masses of the east to free themselves from economic and political subjugation and will free the English masses from the necessity of being cannon fodder for finance capital.' We are again at a crossroads.
Mubin Haq's review of Max Shachtman's Race and Revolution (June SR), recently released by Verso, is well informed and perceptive. Inexplicably, however, it fails to mention that the book is edited and introduced by Christopher Phelps. This omission needs to be corrected.
Phelps's extensive introduction is a major contribution in its own right to clarifying the theoretical issues of class, race and nation embedded in the 1933 Shachtman document. It explains the genesis of Shachtman's text, in relationship to the political controversies on the Negro Question within the early Left Opposition and between the Trotskyists and Stalinists. It provides a careful comparision of Shachtman's theoretical ideas and strategic prescriptions with those of his close collaborators CLR James and Leon Trotsky, as well as WEB Du Bois and other major left thinkers. It offers a balance sheet on Shachtman's historical and sociological analyses, in light of recent Marxist and radical scholarship. I recommend it highly.
The most striking thing about the Scottish Nationalist Pary (SNP) conference was how disconnected it seemed from what is going on in the world. Just a few days after the Brent East by-election, and with fresh opinion polls indicating Blair's deep unpopularity over the war, Iraq never made it onto the pre-conference agenda--it was squeezed out by issues such as securing the future of Scottish greyhound racing!
The conference was dominated by a leadership challenge that focused on the same debate that the SNP has been having for decades, characterised in the press as fundamentalists versus gradualists or moderates.
Essentially, there are those who want to concentrate all the campaigning energy of the SNP towards an independence referendum (fundamentalists), and those who believe that the SNP has to campaign on a range of issues in order to win public support, and then build towards winning people over to the nationalist cause (gradualists).
The leadership of the SNP are in the gradualist camp, arguing that they should continue to develop themselves as a respectable opposition party, proving through the Scottish Parliament that they are 'fit to govern'. In recent years this approach has led the SNP to present itself as a pro-market, business-friendly party, in clear imitation of its New Labour opponents.
This strategy has failed. In the May elections to the Scottish Parliament the SNP lost a quarter of its seats and 200,000 votes as disillusion with Labour translated into abstention or votes for more radical parties such as the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).
It is this failure that led a little-known activist from the 'fundamentalist' wing of the party to challenge John Swinney's leadership. However, those who call for an all-out campaign for independence are not necessarily more to the left. Indeed, under the old leader of the party, Alex Salmond, the SNP presented itself much more in the style of 'Old Labour', campaigning on key social issues, and the fundamentalists were just as critical of his gradualist approach, demanding that the SNP should stop arguing for a decent health service and concentrate on the national question instead.
The attitude towards independence does not provide a litmus test for left and right among nationalists, although some on the left, notably a section of the Scottish Socialist Party leadership, seem to believe this to be the case. They have argued for setting up an independence convention, encompassing all of the parties who support this policy, but mainly aimed at forming some sort of alliance with a section of the SNP.
In the end Swinney's leadership was endorsed by a massive majority and all the indications are that he will keep the SNP on its current Blairite and rightward trajectory, perhaps mentioning 'independence' more regularly to placate some of the fundamentalists in the ranks. He has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't want to have any association with the SSP, and it seems that most of the party activists are backing him.
Scotland is not an oppressed nation, and therefore Scottish workers do not readily draw nationalist conclusions when faced with attacks on their wages or working conditions, or in response to PFI schemes or poverty housing. Nationalism persists but there is a strong tradition of seeing capitalism from a class perspective. A detailed survey of polls in the journal Scottish Affairs concludes that independence only has a core support of between 7 and 10 percent. In recent years support for independence peaked in 1997, and has declined since then. The SNP leadership are aware that a third of their voters do not support independence, hence even they do not campaign on this as a central issue!
In the past nationalists have gained ground when Labour has failed to deliver on class issues. Yet today the SNP is abandoning even paying lip service to many of the socialist values that working class people agree and identify with. In such a situation it is hardly a surprise that the SSP is seen as a better alternative by a growing number of class-conscious workers.
In the May elections the SSP campaigned over the issues that really mattered to workers. Opposition to war was key, but so was support for striking firefighters and opposition to privatisation. It is these class issues which motivate workers to want to take action to fight against capitalism and New Labour--the problem with raising independence as a campaigning issue is that at best it is a diversion from the immediate struggles workers are facing, and at worst it can serve to strengthen nationalism and divide the working class.
Socialists are in favour of the break-up of the British state but they also have to point out that nationalists are not interested in challenging capitalism--big business in Scotland wants to pursue profits just as eagerly as it does everywhere else in the world. Independence by itself offers nothing to Scottish workers and the left should guard against raising demands that are important to some nationalist activists, but are of little concern to the mass of working people.
I enjoyed Sarah Ensor's review of the books about the Roman Empire (October SR) as it is said that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.
In 146 BC the legions of Rome destroyed the city of Carthage, because the Carthaginians were stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, in the form of an 'innumerable number of war elephants'. However, after the victory not a trace of these terrible creatures could be found.
Some of the tribunes of the plebs claimed the people had been tricked into the war, in order to 'satisfy the greed of the patrician class'. The Senate had another explanation for the missing elephants--they said the Carthaginians had eaten them all in order to promote dissension among the plebeians.
As Tony Blair's house of lies collapses on him, I wonder if he will claim that Saddam ate all of his weapons of mass destruction.