AGENT OF CHANGE

Mar 14

Tony Benn - a class traitor, in the very best sense of the expression

RIP Tony Benn - the kind of class traitor I like!

I have plenty of differences with Benn’s ideology, worldview, strategy and tactics, but that’s not really the point. When all is said and done, he was a principled, dedicated man with a loud voice, and he was on our side.

He was solid in support of the working class under attack from Thatcher and Blair. He was solid in support of Yugoslavia and Iraq (conducting an interview with Saddam in February 2003 was a very important and bold move). He despised racism. He was a great friend of Cuba and Venezuela (“The problem of human rights in Cuba is in Guantanamo Bay”). He refused to join in the slander campaign against Zimbabwe (“Britain is not the best qualified country to condemn Mugabe”). He was the first MP to table a motion condemning apartheid in South Africa. As Gerry Adams said earlier today, Benn was “an avid supporter of Irish freedom throughout his life”. He opposed the Falklands War. He stood for unilateral nuclear disarmament. He campaigned for Britain’s withdrawal from Ireland, the Common Market, and NATO. He called for Britain to recognise the PDPA government in Afghanistan. He loudly denounced the Labour Party’s sellout of the miners’ strike. Apparently his view of Mao Zedong was that “he will undoubtedly be regarded as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – figures of the 20th century”.

I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Bennite’, in the sense that I don’t share Tony Benn’s pacifist social-democratic viewpoint. But Tony Benn achieved something that others couldn’t (partly because his concessions to liberalism made his a slightly more acceptable voice), and that is to raise a progressive, pro-worker, anti-colonial narrative that actually had some impact on the broader population beyond tiny far-left circles. In the unfortunate context of a declining, inept, sectarian British left, this was no mean feat, and a job worth doing. There is a legitimate left critique to be made of Benn (not radical enough, not militant enough, caught up in Westminster concept of democracy, etc), but in terms of raising people’s consciousness and helping to create a movement for change, Tony Benn’s role was to move people from A to B. For those of us who are more radical, more militant, more consistent in our socialism and anti-imperialism, we should be working harder and better to move people from B to C to D, etc.

Mar 05

One year after his untimely death, Chávez’ work and his example will stay with us forever

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías breathed his last breath one year ago today. He was only 59. The untimely death of this brilliant human being was a sad loss for humanity, and leaves a gap which is very difficult to fill. One has to guard against hero worship and the Hollywood-style individualised version of history, but there’s no denying that certain people - through their strength of purpose, their understanding, their determination, their heroism, their leadership skills, their creative brilliance, their charisma, their devotion to the people - play an outstanding role.

Hugo Chávez was such a person. He worked ceaselessly in pursuit of his vision: for a socialist Venezuela; for a united and sovereign Latin America; and for a fair, multipolar world order free from imperialist domination. His vision was infectious, and served to inspire people around the world. He breathed life into a global revolutionary process that had been little in evidence since the upswing of the 1970s (Mozambique, Angola, Chile (1970-73), Guinea Bissau, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe). In the intervening period we saw the decline and fall of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, the rise of neoliberal economics, the spread of ‘structural adjustment’, the genocidal impact of HIV/AIDS, and a deep disillusionment among much of the left. The Bolivarian Revolution brought new hope. Who wouldn’t be inspired by the successes of a socialist-oriented programme that prioritised the needs of millions of ordinary people: the slum-dwellers, the workers, the peasants, the unemployed, the indigenous, the African, the disenfranchised - the type of people that politicians rarely thought about in this Washington-led ‘new world order’.

Furthermore, Chávez understood that countries do not exist in isolation and that the Bolivarian Revolution couldn’t survive alone in the face of the enemy to the north. Venezuela’s example and support has been decisive for the progressive governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Argentina. Chávez pursued the deepest of ties with socialist Cuba. He was a friend to the entire socialist and non-aligned world, from China to Zimbabwe, from South Africa to Belurus, from Iran to Brazil, from Syria to Vietnam. When it was deeply unfashionable to do so, he defended Libya and Syria from Nato-led regime change campaigns. In a world of cowardice and fickleness, he stood up and said: “I am not a coward, I am not fickle.”

His work and his example will stay with us forever. Work like Chávez!

Feb 21

Tariq Ali, Hugo Chávez and revolutionary internationalism

What did I think of Tariq Ali’s speech at the Chávez memorial event last night? Funny you should ask!

While I’ve been very critical of Tariq’s analysis before (most recently his demands that the “sectarian clique” headed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (a close friend of Hugo Chávez) be “pushed out”), I understand the reasoning for inviting him to give the lecture and I don’t object to it. Venezuela has nothing to gain by rejecting the enthusiastic support of influential intellectuals in the west, no matter how flawed they might be. If the event helps to raise solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution, this is a positive thing.

As for Tariq’s speech, well, there was plenty of good material: strong support for Venezuela, strong support for Ecuador and Bolivia, nice anecdotes, etc. If nothing else, the guy is very erudite and a good orator. But, taken as a whole, the lecture lacked cohesion, class analysis and anti-imperialist content. In essence it was a liberal tribute to a very nice man who did some very nice things. It elevated Chávez’ adherence to parliamentary democracy over his revolutionary role of drawing Latin America into a global movement against western hegemony. It reduced politics to the level of individual personalities, wistfully asking “When will the Arab world produce a Chávez?” whilst neglecting to mention the NATO-led wars against Chávez’ closest allies in the Arab world, Libya and Syria.

BRICS and the whole concept of multipolarity - so important to the new world that Chávez was part of building - didn’t get a mention. Tariq stated that China had “gone capitalist” and that its international stance was “non-ideological”, but didn’t mention that Venezuela has been the recipient of enormous soft loans from China that have been critical for sustaining the social programmes and infrastructure investment that we all celebrate; nor did he mention that Chávez was a great friend of China who visited that country six times during his presidency; or that China considers Venezuela and Cuba as its number one allies in Latin America.

Tariq correctly noted that Venezuela hadn’t made very big strides in terms of transferring ownership of the economy away from the capitalist elite, but then he contrasted Venezuela’s economic model with Brazil’s “Blairite neoliberal” path. Has neoliberalism become a word totally devoid of meaning, that it can be applied to a country like Brazil that has hugely successful social programmes, a high level of state involvement in the economy, decreasing levels of inequality, and which is strongly focused on raising people out of intense poverty? ‘Neoliberalism’ is supposed to mean something more than ‘capitalism’: it means giving complete free play to market forces; it means maximum freedom for the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor. Neither Brazil nor Venezuela fall into that category. They are in fact relatively similar in that they are both capitalist countries with ‘bourgeois democratic’ states, where the ruling party is progressive, pro-poor, socialist-oriented and aligned with the Global South. Brazil is relatively more cautious in its approach, Venezuela is relatively more radical, but the two are part of the same process.

And frankly, to ask “When will the Arab world produce a Chávez?” and not mention Gaddafi’s Libya (not even once!) seems more than a little bit distasteful. Chávez of course had the courage to take the high road and to stay loyal to his allies. His assessment of Gaddafi was: “We shall remember him our whole lives as a great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr.” Plus there are some very obvious parallels: both had their initial support base in the army; both used their countries’ enormous oil wealth to break the cycle of underdevelopment; both were non-Marxist but decidedly oriented to the left; both built elaborate social programmes to benefit the poor; both were big on anti-imperialist rhetoric; and both were strongly aligned with the forces of anti-imperialism worldwide. And there should be no doubt that the west has similar plans for Venezuela as it had for Libya.

All of these things - failure to mention Libya or Syria, the incorrect characterisation of Brazil, the avoidance of China/BRICS/multipolarity - point to the same problem in Tariq’s lecture (and in his general political worldview). Tariq sees Chávez and the rising Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia as isolated glimmers of hope, the first signs of what a post-Washington Consensus world could look like. But Chávez had a much wider, richer worldview, that saw Venezuela as part of a global movement challenging 500 years of colonialism and imperialism; a global movement that included China, Brazil, Russia, Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria, South Africa, Cuba, Belarus, Vietnam, Iran, Ecuador, Bolivia, DPRK, Nicaragua, Argentina and more. This understanding led Chávez to be totally consistent in his anti-imperialism. If unity is strength, then one can’t just stand by and watch the empire pick off our allies one by one. Hugo Chávez understood this. Tariq Ali does not.

Feb 20

If you’re against slavery, stand with the slaves

I watched 12 Years a Slave last night. Brilliant, brilliant movie. Harrowing and painful to watch, but unquestionably a masterpiece.

One character I found really interesting was the white field hand who picks cotton with the slaves. By any reasonable measure he is “working class”, but he feels his superiority and his relatively privileged position (for example not being whipped for bad work). He seems somewhat sympathetic to the slaves’ plight, and Solomon offers to pay him what little money he has saved up if he’ll post a letter on Solomon’s behalf. However, the field hand quickly betrays Solomon, giving the slavemaster a full account of what Solomon had asked him to do. Clearly, the field hand felt threatened by the idea of a black slave being able to read and write, and possibly winning his freedom; he couldn’t deal with the idea of a black man having more social status than him; and ultimately he felt more allegiance to the slavemaster than to the slave. Some years later, a Canadian carpenter (played by Brad Pitt) agrees to post a letter, and this leads to Solomon gaining his freedom.

This is an important challenge to the viewer. You’re forced to ask yourself: what would I have done in that situation? Would I have betrayed Solomon like the field hand did, or would I have risked my own freedom to help him? It’s one thing to be against slavery in principle, but would you stand with the slaves in practice?

It’s not a purely abstract question. There’s an obvious parallel with modern-day imperialism. With western imperialism and its local allies on the offensive in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Korea, CAR, Lebanon and elsewhere; with the ‘containment’ of China and Russia as the long-term geopolitical strategy, who do you stand with? Do you work to help Syria and Ukraine, for example, in their struggle against your ‘own’ imperialist ruling class? Or, when it comes down to it, do you give imperialism a helping hand, do you betray Syria and Ukraine, do you snitch on them, do you take part in demonising them, using their inadequacies as an excuse for your refusal to ally with them? And wouldn’t this be a bit like refusing to ally with slaves because, say, they exhibited sexist behaviour?

If you’re against slavery, stand with the slaves. If you’re against oppression, stand with the oppressed. If you’re against imperialism, stand with those ground down by - and fighting against - imperialism. Anything else is betrayal.

Feb 06

Don’t let ‘em fool ya! The roots of the west’s sour grapes over Russia

The ‘human rights concerns’ in relation to the Sochi Winter Olympics are painfully hypocritical, patronising and dishonest.

During the Atlanta Olympics (1996) and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (2002), did the BBC and WSJ worry about ‘human rights concerns’? The US has the largest prison population in the world, by a long way. It has political prisoners on death row. It discriminates in the most shocking way against its African, Latino and indigenous population. It is the world’s primary exporter of state terrorism. Utah (of which state Salt Lake City is the capital) is one of the few US states not to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

During the London Olympics (2012), did the BBC and WSJ worry about ‘human rights concerns’? These Olympics took place less than a year after the extrajudicial killing of Mark Duggan, in a context of rising police brutality, and in a situation where austerity measures are increasingly affecting people’s basic human rights. A few months previously, Britain had taken the lead in the illegal military destruction of the sovereign African nation of Libya, in the process denying tens of thousands of Libyans that most basic of human rights: the right to life. Britain maintains its colonial domination in the north of Ireland, Las Malvinas, Gibraltar and elsewhere. It has repressive anti-terrorism legislation which contains massive scope for abuse of power. As in the US, media is so totally dominated by corporate interests that “freedom of speech” is practically meaningless.

The US and Britain are not seriously concerned about free speech or gay rights in Russia. Their bitterness towards Russia is borne out of the fact that Russia is pursuing an independent policy that often runs counter to the interests of NATO/EU-led western imperialism. Russia has done more than any other state to help save Syria from imperialist-sponsored regime change. It is currently standing firm against EU/NATO subversion in Ukraine. It is providing refuge for Edward Snowden. It is getting closer and closer to China. It has excellent ties with all the usual ‘enemies’: Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Belarus, Zimbabwe, DPR Korea. THAT is the reason for the demonisation and the crocodile tears over freedom of speech.

And hey, it’s Bob Marley’s birthday. In the spirit of Bob: don’t let ‘em fool ya!

Jan 04

The best books I read in 2013

Best books I read in 2013, in no particular order. A lot of history (as usual!), esp South Africa, Cuba, Chile, Grenada and China. What you recommend me for 2014? (Tweet me: @agent_of_change)

Piero Gleijeses - Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa [Phenomenally well-researched book detailing the history of Cuba’s support to Africa]

Nelson Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom [Very moving, very timely, and an excellent overview history of S Africa liberation struggle]

Basil Davidson - Africa in History [Concise and excellent rough guide to African history, mainly of the last 2,000 years]

Janet Smith, Beauregard Tromp - Hani: A Life Too Short [A slightly patchy but useful biog of a great and much-missed human being]

John Carlin - Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation [Sort of anti-apartheid ‘lite’ but you get some insight into the depth of Mandela’s strategic genius]

Vladimir Shubin - ANC: A View from Moscow [Very detailed history of Soviet support for the S African liberation struggle. A must-read if you’re into that sort of thing!]

Victor Dreke - From the Escambray to the Congo [Extended interview with a leading Cuban revolutionary, Victor Dreke, who was Che’s second-in-command in Congo]

Isaac Saney - Cuba: A Revolution in Motion [Brilliant summary of the main aspects of the Cuban revolution. If you read only one book about Cuba, this is probably the one]

Vladimir Shubin - The Hot “Cold War” [Overview of the Soviet engagement with liberation struggles in Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa]

Joseph Hanlon - Mozambique: The Revolution under Fire [Really interesting book about the day-to-day struggles of trying to build socialism in the face of total underdevelopment and externally-organised ‘civil’ war]

Maximilian Forte - Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa [Important and hard-hitting look into how and why western imperialism (cheered on by much of the left) waged its nasty war against Green Libya]

Rebecca Karl - Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World [Short and sweet. Don’t agree with it all (by any means), but interesting and useful]

Israel Epstein - From Opium War To Liberation [A classic history of China, mid-19th century up until the 1949 revolution]

Tariq Ali - The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty [Not a massive fan of Tariq but this is useful for anyone studying 20th century India/Pakistan/Bangladesh]

Victor Figueroa-Clark - Salvador Allende: A Revolutionary Legacy [Concise but well-researched, credible and convincing political biography of Allende]

Joan Jara - An unfinished song: The life of Victor Jara [Really moving (like… tear-inducing) history of Victor’s life and compelling account of Chilean life during Unidad Popular and the coup]

Kate Clark - Chile in my Heart [Another very poignant personal account of life in Chile from the late 60s up to the mid 70s]

Chris Searle - Grenada Morning: A Memoir of the “Revo” [Excellent memoir documenting the author’s experiences leading the teacher training programme in revolutionary Grenada]

Hugh O’Shaughnessy - Grenada: Revolution, Invasion And Aftermath [Mainly good, fact-based history from O’Shaughnessy, who was an eye-witness to some of the unfortunate events in Grenada in October 1983]

Robert Palmer - Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta [If you like the blues, you’ll love this!]

Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Crime and Punishment [Didn’t get to much fiction in 2013, but this hefty volume was well worth the effort. Thought-provoking.]

A Sivanandan - When Memory Dies [A brilliantly-written and harrowing novel set across three generations in Sri Lanka]

Roger Keeran, Thomas Kenny - Socialism Betrayed: Behind The Collapse Of The Soviet Union [By no means perfect but very interesting and insightful look into the reasons behind the collapse of the USSR. IMHO they overstate some aspects and downplay others, but tbh it’s a very controversial issue!]

Dec 09

Zizek’s critique of Mandela: thanks but no thanks

This article in today’s Guardian is typical posturing coffee-shop-radical claptrap from Zizek. How wonderful to be a well-paid, well-respected European critical theorist and have the luxury of saying that all oppressed peoples’ attempts to create a new world - be it in South Africa, Cuba, Zimbabwe, China, Korea, the former Soviet Union, etc - have been worse than useless. How great to be able to totally ignore all objective factors (little things like, errr, IMPERIALISM, the collapse of the USSR, total US geopolitical dominance of the early 1990s, the global rise of neoliberalism, massive droughts, etc) and focus entirely on the subjective factor, ie “how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe”.

He tells us that life is just as bad for black South Africans now as it was under apartheid. Clearly he is not one of those dogmatic people who measures quality of life in terms of food security, housing, or the availability of clean running water, electricity and educational opportunities - all of which are MUCH better now for South Africans (not to say they are perfect, they obviously aren’t).

He says that “the rise of political and civil rights is counterbalanced by the growing insecurity, violence and crime”. This is a fundamentally racist point. Before 1994, whites had all the political and civil rights, and only blacks suffered from the extreme levels of insecurity, violence and crime. Now everybody has the political and civil rights, and whites have lost their automatic protection from violence and crime (well, it’s been a violent society ever since the whites turned up!).

"If we merely abolish the market (inclusive of market exploitation) without replacing it with a proper form of the communist organisation of production and exchange, domination returns with a vengeance, and with it direct exploitation." Great. And while we’re at it, how about we build a lovely utopia up in the clouds where the sun is always shining, people dance salsa day and night, and a bowl of marshmallows constitutes a nutritious meal? Socialism is born from capitalism, and it inherits many defects. Overcoming these and moving towards a sane, equal, prosperous society is the work of many generations. Furthermore, socialism is unable to develop freely in the era of imperialism, hence the number one priority being to end (or at least marginalise) imperialism. Tellingly, there’s not a single mention of imperialism in Zizek’s article.

And the parting shot: “We can safely surmise that, on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. Mandela’s universal glory is also a sign that he really didn’t disturb the global order of power.” Yeah… because imperialism was totally happy for apartheid to die, yes? The ruling classes of Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Spain and the US were more than happy for African countries to get their liberation, and that’s why they organised endless ‘civil’ wars, interventions and campaigns of destabilisation?

The fact is that there is still an international campaign of destabilisation against South Africa. SA’s main trading partner is China; it is the only African member of BRICS; it’s a significant military force; it has excellent state relations with Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Zambia (unlike in the apartheid days when it was occupying or waging war on those countries); it retains close ties with evil-communist-dictatorship Cuba. There are very few things the US and European ruling classes would like more than to see the ‘Democratic Alliance’ apartheid-nostalgia-brigade come to power in South Africa, and the barrage of ‘left’-sounding critiques of Mandela being printed in the mainstream press is in support of that aim. So the ‘strategy’ of this wonderful Marxist philosopher Zizek is to unite with the right against the not-quite-left-enough. Thanks but no thanks.

Dec 05

Celebrating a life fully lived: Rest in power brother Madiba

"It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.

"The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

"I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

Rest in power to one of the greatest revolutionaries and political strategists of our time, a hero of the ongoing global struggle against apartheid, colonialism, racism and imperialism. May his memory inspire us to struggle harder and live stronger. Tears of joy for a life fully lived.

Nov 17

Owen Jones calling for unity whilst refusing to unite against imperialism

Some months ago, Owen Jones called on the left “to unite against austerity”. He made a point which is actually fairly sensible:

"At the end of the day, we will always have different strategies and tactics. The most important thing is we all have unity where we can agree on an issue by issue basis … I welcome anyone, whatever strategy they have, as long as we can work together on that common aim which is building a broad coalition against austerity".

I basically agree with that. Whilst my overall politics are a (very) long way from the soft-left liberal types Jones wants to unite with (and indeed is), I think there’s a case for some kind of unity around issues where there’s a common objective and a struggle that could actually be won.

So imagine my surprise when Jones announced he was pulling out of a Stop the War event because one of the other invited speakers was Mother Agnes, a Catholic nun living in Syria, known as an activist for inter-communal peace. His basis for objecting to Mother Agnes was her alleged support for the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. You know… the guy leading the military/political struggle against a viciously sectarian uprising being fought with direct, proven support from the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan, and backed up with the odd bombing raid from Israel.

So. What happened to unity then, Owen? We’re supposed to unite with every social democratic twerp (including those like Gilbert Achcar who were cheerleaders for the ‘no-fly zone’ on Libya) around the issue of austerity, but, when it comes to putting an end to a cruel imperialist-fuelled conflict that has killed tens of thousands and ruined the lives of millions, there is no question of uniting with those that are on the ground actually trying to put a stop to the war?

What this position boils down to is: unite with anyone and everyone to get a few more crumbs for British workers, but don’t ask about where those crumbs come from. Enjoy your cosy life as an acclaimed London ‘radical’ and don’t worry about how it is funded by imperialism - a system whereby you directly benefit from Britain’s exploitation, plunder and incitement of conflict elsewhere in the world. Lenin had a good term for this phenomenon: social chauvinism.

Incidentally, would Jones have refused to share a platform with Hugo Chávez? Chávez was a much more consistent and vocal supporter of Bashar al-Assad than is Mother Agnes. Somehow I think Jones would have put his ‘principles’ to one side in that particular scenario, given a chance to boost his rep through hangin’ with Hugo.

I can only conclude that Owen Jones is a bit of a fraud and that his appeals for ‘unity’ should not be taken seriously.

Nov 11

How do anti-imperialists mark Remembrance Day?

What does 11 November mean to you? Obviously nobody wants to celebrate war and the loss of human life, but I think it’s important to recognise that people made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and indeed for the freedom of peoples everywhere. So, on this 38th anniversary of Angolan independence, let us all remember the 300,000 Angolan patriots that paid the ultimate price in the 16-year war against Portuguese rule. Their victory was an inspiration to all those who have suffered under half a millennium of vicious European colonialism. Long live free Angola! Viva MPLA! Death to colonialism!