Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Alex Callinicos on Tariq Ali

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Alex Callinicos, chief intellectual guru of the Socialist Workers Party, and Tariq Ali, the flamboyant Pakistani writer, producer and veteran left-wing activist, have stood shoulder to shoulder since the 1990s in their opposition to the US. Callinicos contributed an article to Ali’s Masters of the Universe, a collection of essays fiercely condemning NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 (which, readers might be surprised to learn, was not quite so fierce in its condemnation of Milosevic’s mass terror against the Kosovo Albanian population); Ali signed Callinicos’s petition in support of Hezbollah last year; and the two, of course, joined forces in opposition to the Iraq war.

But it was not always this way. Before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the two were effectively on opposite sides of the barricades. Ali came from a Trotskyist background that viewed the East European regimes as ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerate’ workers’ states, and he himself was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and particularly to Gorbachev, writing a book about glasnost entitled Revolution from Above [with no question mark], published by Hutchinson in 1988 but today no longer in print. Callinicos and the SWP, by contrast, viewed the Soviet Union as an imperialist and ‘state capitalist’ power. They consequently supported what SWP blogger Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb has described as the ‘hideous logic of nationalist secessionism’ – i.e. they backed the secession of Lithuania and other republics from the Soviet federation. Ali was bitterly hostile to this secessionism and, in his play about Gorbachev, Moscow Gold, he portrayed the Lithuanians Callinicos supported as renascent Nazis. There was no love lost between the two. When Ali wrote his first novel, Redemption (Chatto and Windus, 1990), a satirical portrayal of the Trotskyist movement, he portrayed Callinicos as ‘Alex Mango’. You can read a flattering review of Redemption by former Trotskyist Louis Proyect, that discusses Ali’s portrayal of Callinicos, here (NB Proyect misspells Callinicos’s name as ‘Alec Callenicos’).

Ali wrote of his character Alex Mango: ‘His appetite was legendary. It was said that Alex used to disguise himself as a milkman and service most of North London in a day; but this was probably a vile slander spread by someone less well endowed with bottle. Someone like Nutty [Ali’s fictional portrayal of the SWP’s Chris Harman] who needed Alex but also loathed him. A sophisticated and cultured public speaker, Mango was responsible for winning over many young people to the Rocker [SWP] ranks. Few stayed long, but that was hardly Mango’s fault. Like a smartly dressed doorman outside the facade of an imposing-looking mansion, Mango bowed slightly and opened the door with a smile. It was only after the unwitting new recruit had passed through the revolving door that he or she realized that inside it there was no roof, no walls, no building, nothing but a cellarful of second-hand furniture, and beneath it the abyss.’ (Redemption, p. 189).

Callinicos didn’t find the book very funny. And he made this clear in his review of it, published in the SWP’s Socialist Worker Review, issue 136, November 1990. The review is unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, not on the ‘net.

Redemption is supposed to be a comic novel, but it’s as unfunny as its basic idea. Ali has always been a rather poor writer, wooden and pompous, and his style isn’t improved by this essay in fiction’, writes Callinicos. However, he goes on, ‘[t]he problem isn’t that it’s a bad novel (it would have been much more surprising if Ali had written a good one) but the horrifying revelation of its author’s personal and political degeneration that if offers.’

Callinicos takes particular exception to Ali’s portrayal of Trotskyist sexual morality: ‘Ali heaps on his characters – most of them former comrades of his from his time as a leading member of the British section of the Fourth International or fellow collaborators in New Left Review – with the most malicious slanders and innuendo. There isn’t a male character, with the exception of the only plausible and complex figure in the book, Einstein (Ernest Mandel), who doesn’t have the most vile, usually sexual, motives ascribed to him. It is hard to convey the sheer nastiness and pettiness of Ali’s malice.’ Callinicos accuses Ali of seeking ‘to offer a political justification for his scurrilous gossip by presenting it as a feminist critique of the far left. The book is dotted with various pasteboard women, all paragons of virtue and, I think, mainly invented (though one is based on a male original), to offer denunciations of the sexism of the Trotskyist movement. That done, Ali can get back to his rather nasty descriptions of bonking with a clear conscience.’

Redemption is, Callinicos concludes, a ‘grubby little novel’ that presents itself as a satire on the Trotskyist movement, but really says more about its author than its subject matter: ‘The entire book is a self-portrait, and the picture it paints is not a pretty one.’

I – Marko Attila Hoare of Greater Surbiton – have sometimes been accused of being too harsh in my polemics against members of the left, but I don’t think I’ve every been quite so rude about any of them as Callinicos was about Ali back in 1990.

Thursday, 15 November 2007 - Posted by | The Left | ,

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