Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The Miliband brothers and New Left Review

Readers will, I hope, forgive the name-dropping, but it isn’t every day that a childhood friend is one step away from becoming Labour leader, and two steps from becoming our next prime minister. I haven’t seen Ed or David Miliband for over twenty years, but at the age of around eleven and twelve, I used to meet up regularly with Ed to, ahem, exchange ZX Spectrum games, and I still remember the note of despair in his voice, when one of our laborious attempts to ‘back up’ a game proved unsuccessful. I saw less of David, who was older, but the last time we met made a vivid impression on me, when he was a rising star in Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party of the late 1980s. Kinnock was then desperately trying to modernise the Labour Party, thereby earning the hatred of left-wing hardliners, who viewed him as a traitor to socialism (‘Kneel’). I was one such Kinnock-hating hardliner; a teenage member of the Labour Party Young Socialists, which was dominanted by the Trotskyist ‘Militant’ tendency, with which I was then in sympathy. David turned up at a party, dressed immaculately in suit and tie, looking more like a business executive than the activist of a left-wing party, and I thought to myself, ‘He really has sold out’. I told him that I was feeling very disillusioned with the turn the Labour Party was taking. He knew exactly what I meant, but didn’t want to argue with me; ‘Faith !’, he urged me.

Of course, it was the people like David who turned out to be the revolutionary pioneers, and the people who stuck to the politics that I then adhered to who were the reactionaries. The Milibands’ parents Ralph and Marion, and my own parents, belonged to a broadly Marxist and ‘New Left’  intellectual and social circle, some of whose members were close to the journal New Left Review (NLR) and the publishing house Verso, or were members of the International Marxist Group, the British wing of the ‘Fourth International’ originally founded by Leon Trotsky. Other members of this circle included Tariq Ali, Susan Watkins, Robin Blackburn, Perry Anderson, the late Peter Gowan and others. Some of these people have evolved politically over the past quarter of a century, while others have not, but to the best of my knowledge, not one of their children – children like me, David and Ed – has remained true to that vision of politcs as it was in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

This is not surprising when you consider the respective achievements of those who did remain true to that vision of politics, and those who ‘sold out’ and moved toward the centre or moderate left. The New Labour revolution, of which David and Ed were pioneers, brought the UK the minimum wage; freedom of information; gay civil partnerships; peace in Northern Ireland; devolution in Scotland, Wales and London; a more multiethnic population through mass immigration; and in foreign affairs, humanitarian interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, at least three of which have been successful. By contrast, the only ‘achievement’ in the same period of the members of the New Left circle who remained hardline anti-capitalists and ‘anti-imperialists’ has been to contribute to the anti-war demonstrations over Iraq in the first half of the 2000s that, although large, dissipated after failing to prevent or halt the war, leaving nothing behind.

Shortly after the Kosovo war of 1999, I spoke with Tariq Ali and his partner Susan Watkins, the editor of NLR, who bemoaned David Miliband’s role in supporting the British intervention in Kosovo: ‘What would his father say ?’ Ali, Watkins and Perry Anderson – NLR‘s intellectual guru – have by contrast remained faithful to the politics of anti-capitalism and ‘anti-imperialism’, which has meant the publication by NLR and Verso of books and articles sympathetic to the regimes of Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-il. According to a Guardian editorial earlier this year celebrating NLR‘s fiftieth birthday, probably written by Seumas Milne, ‘Left-wing in an age in which prospects for the left are so bleak, serious in a celebrity culture and thoughtful in a time of instant opinions, the NLR remains a necessary publication.’ Necessary, perhaps, for ageing lefties of Milne’s type, who have an emotional need to convince themselves that the dead-end politics of yesteryear are still somehow ‘radical’. For what young person today honestly believes that Castro’s Cuban dictatorship is a harbinger of a better world, as opposed to a clapped-out anachronism ? 

What is most offensive about this brand of politics isn’t even its moral bankruptcy. It is the peculiar combination of intellectual bankruptcy and unwarranted arrogance. Ali, Anderson and co. simply haven’t had any original political ideas since the 1980s at best; they stopped evolving over two decades ago, yet still feel they represent the cutting-edge, radical alternative to the neo-liberal order. They are like old-age pensioners sitting on the park bench, muttering to one another about how the whole world has gone to pot, and how things were much better in the old days, and periodically shouting at teenagers that they didn’t fight in the War so that young people could go around dressed like that. Or like ageing baby-boomers who are still awestruck by how technologically advanced are their calculator digital-watches and portable cassette-players, with which they listen to the music of dangerous, anti-establishment bands like Wham and Duran Duran. The NLR is the political equivalent equivalent of a calculator watch; it is ‘new’ in the same way that the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea is ‘democratic’.

The Miliband brothers were born of Marxist parents at a time when radical left-wing politics still had some rationale; they took what was best in their parents’ politics and moved forward. Others have been left behind.

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Thursday, 20 May 2010 Posted by | Britain, The Left | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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 | , | 1 Comment