John Spencer makes a good point about the absurdity of the idea of the queen serving as a constitutional safeguard for democracy (Letters, October 10). But then, of course, the point of the monarchy is - as was said (approximately) in 1641 and repeatedly between 1660 and 1688 - “No bishop, no king; no king, no property”: that is, the monarchy is a constitutional safeguard against democracy for the benefit of landowners, not a safeguard for democracy.
More generally, his letter responds, I think, to the headline and introduction to my September 26 article, ‘Judges, politics and democracy’, rather than to the body of the article. My starting point was not that the courts “can at any time be criticised as the ultimate protector of property rights”, though this is, of course, true.
I should add that the “property rights” which comrade Spencer correctly says are “entrenched behind a phalanx of statutes and international instruments” can be interpreted very broadly. This can be seen most clearly in AXA General Insurance v Lord Advocate (2011). Here, the House of Lords had in 2007 in Rothwell v Chemical and Insulating reached a decision on an issue of tort liability for asbestos exposure, which was plainly contrary to law, being contrary to a long line of precedents on limitation of actions in tort. Both the UK parliament (for England and Wales) and the Scots parliament, passed acts to reverse this mistake. In AXA General Insurance v Lord Advocate, the supreme court said that the Scots Act was in principle an interference with insurance companies’ ‘human rights’ to “peaceful enjoyment of their possessions” under the European Convention of Human Rights. But, though it was judicially reviewable on this ground, it fell within the ‘margin of appreciation’ under the ECHR. The argument that parliamentary reversal of a wrong judicial decision in a tort matter amounts to an interference with “peaceful enjoyment of their possessions” is to stretch “possessions” beyond any reasonable meaning, and hence was in itself to claim political sovereignty for the supreme court - even if they decided on this occasion not to exercise their sovereignty.
Rather, my article started from the point that in relation to this decision a significant part of rightwing opinion thought that the decision should be defended - in spite of its being one which invaded territory that has traditionally been purely political and non-judicially reviewable - on the ground that it gave the courts added political authority against a potential future leftwing Labour government.
The substance of my article did not amount to merely condemning the supreme court’s decision as political. Rather, I argued in the first place that socialists should oppose the existence of the prerogative power of prorogation altogether, and hence should not object to the supreme court striking down Johnson’s prorogation as unconstitutional.
Secondly, I stated that the reasoning of the supreme court - insofar as it argued that the prime minister had the power to prorogue, but had not given the court satisfactory reasons for doing so - was capable of being used to substitute the court’s view for parliament’s view in any case. That is, that the legal-conceptual device used to justify judicial review was too broad. I add that this is not a new point - it is an old objection to the 1969 House of Lords decision in Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission, made in Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest’s dissenting judgment in that case.
Having made this point, I went on to say that this overbroad decision-making, usurping political power, was not new, but had been used routinely against Labour local authorities: for example in the 1982 ‘Fares Fair’ case, Bromley LBC v Greater London Council, as well as in older cases (eg, Roberts v Hopwood in 1925 against Poplar council’s “eccentric socialist principle” of equal pay for men and women). I said that the use of this over-broad claim to judicial authority was less objectionable in relation to the prime minister exercising prerogative powers than it was and is in relation to local authorities: in relation to local authorities it necessarily undermines political democracy, but this is not true of judicial review of the use of prerogative powers.
I didn’t say this in my article, but it would be perfectly possible to give a narrower account of the justification for the judgment, and this is, in fact, present in the supreme court’s judgment: that is, that having regard to the context, and the length of the prorogation, the prorogation was an anti-democratic procedural manoeuvre.
I think it is arguable that we can legitimately ask of judges that they strike down such anti-democratic operations; as, for example, the German judiciary should have denounced chancellor Franz von Papen’s July 1932 ‘emergency powers’ decree taking over the Social Democratic government of Prussia. (They didn’t do so because of their rightwing and anti-constitutional bias, which had been displayed in differential leniency towards the far right throughout the Weimar Republic; but the SPD was unable, because of its own rule-of-law political commitments, actually to denounce the anti-constitutional conduct of the judges.)
At the same time, however, the underlying problem remains a political one. Suppose the German judiciary had denounced von Papen’s coup: it is likely that the German right would have acted against the courts. Where would they have found backing? The SPD needed to be willing to go to civil war in defence of political democracy against the far right - and they weren’t.
Analogously but at a lower level, Johnson can get away with ignoring the court, or reducing the powers of the court or of the speaker - if he can con parliament into backing a general election on his terms, and he wins a majority. He would then be able to pass an Indemnity Act excusing all past illegalities. The opposition are trapped by having failed to denounce referenda as anti-democratic devices to transfer power from elected representatives to the executive and/or the press barons; with the result that they cannot feel safe in voting no confidence and triggering a general election, because the Brexiteers - controlling three quarters of the Tory press - threaten them with a ‘people vs parliament’ and ‘judges - enemies of the people’ election. Indeed, they come close to threatening civil war, or at least personal violence against ‘treasonous’ MPs opposed to giving the Brexiteers a free hand to go for a no-deal Brexit.
The 19th century House of Commons would by now have been jailing ministers and editors under their inherent contempt powers, in order to defend parliamentary sovereignty. But current opposition MPs are not willing to go down that route of political struggle. In this situation, the judicial decision has to be met with ‘two cheers’ because it is part of a pattern of behaviour of Brexit opponents, who are failing to actually fight politically and trying to offload responsibility onto judicial and procedural operations.
Eddie Ford hits the nail on the head when he writes that communists must prepare for an “ugly, populist general election” (‘Playing the blame game’, October 10).
As an insightful Times journalist recently explained on Newsnight, Boris Johnson is preparing for a Brexit extension under the Benn Act and will then go to the country with the view to getting a large parliamentary majority in order to carry out a no-deal Brexit.
I am reminded of the famous story of the man who gets lost on his way to Norwich. He asks a farmer how to get there, who replies, ‘If I was going to Norwich, I wouldn’t start from here’. This is something the Tory Brexiteers have used to capture control of the Conservative Party and hence move UK politics to the right as part of their long-term plan to complete the Thatcher revolution, with the UK becoming an unofficial state of the USA. This will mean the removal of the last vestiges of the British welfare state, together with the final privatisation of the NHS and the introduction of a £45 fee to see one’s GP and charges of £100 a night for stays in hospital.
The left’s approach to Brexit has been a disaster - ranging from the Brexiteers of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Britain and Counterfire to the remainers of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century and Socialist Resistance. Only the CPGB, Socialist Appeal and the Socialist Equality Party, have had a correct position regarding Brexit, starting with an active boycott of the 2016 referendum and ending with a neutral position regarding leaving the European Union.
At the same time, it is not the job of communists, socialists and left Labourites to save the ruling class from their Brexit folly, even if this means the destruction of the car industry in Britain and a 30-mile queue of lorries on the M20 in Kent. Leaving the EU with (or, more likely, without) a deal is a modern-day example of the British ruling class shooting itself in the foot. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn is trying his best to save the ruling class from themselves.
As Eddie Ford explains, this will have disastrous consequences for Labour in the coming “ugly, populist general election”, based on “the people vs parliament”.
Tony Greenstein admits: “I know nothing of [Martin] Heidegger’s philosophy or indeed of philosophy in general! I adhere to Marx’s maxim that philosophers interpret the world, but the point is to change it. However, Heidegger is acknowledged by many people who are not ultra-reactionaries as having been brilliant in his field. I am in no position to judge one way or another, although I find it difficult to believe that there isn’t something rotten in a philosophy that allows its creator to join the Nazi Party and sing its praises” (Letters, October 10).
I will try to assist him. When my daughter, Ella, was 21, she wrote a piece, ‘Sartre and Marxism’, “in partial fulfilment of the Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy”:
“Just as Marx was taught and heavily influenced by Hegel, Sartre was a pupil of Heidegger and equally impressed by his philosophy. Whilst both Hegel and Heidegger might be categorised as ‘phenomenologist philosophers’, the underlying disharmony between these two philosophies marks them as intellectual rivals. Here we can identify the philosophical roots of the tension between Marx and Sartre and see it as grounded in the appreciation of the individual, as opposed to the collective.
“Indeed, Heidegger ‘consciously set his own thought in opposition to Hegel’s’, distrusting the tendency towards generalisation and particularly ‘system building’. Whilst Heidegger always insisted that Being was being-in-the-world, and never separate from it, he nevertheless endows the individual consciousness with special status of being able to disclose the outside world. Hegel and Marx give the individual no powers of disclosure; Marx regards his own philosophy as ‘nothing but an expression natural to a rebellious middle-class German Jew in the middle of the 19th century’, and Hegel would similarly see the individual is simply a product of the larger relationships in society.”
In Heidegger we see the genesis of truly modern ‘60s French’ philosophy, because Heidegger’s readings of Plato and Aristotle in his lectures of 1924-25 forged the modern existentialism so beloved of Sartre and his ilk. Hannah Arendt attended and here the early relationship between Zionism and Nazism began to blossom. By 1924 Heidegger was so thoroughly disgusted with capitalism itself, with its modern technology which upset his idealistic, rural norms, that he sought a way out from this nightmare. The German imperialist state had been humiliated when France invaded the Ruhr coalfields in 1923, because it could not pay the Versailles war reparations; hyperinflation had ruined the German middle class and working class. His rightwing, Catholic origins made the spectre of socialist revolution absolutely appalling; he sought an individual escape by studying - and substantially distorting - classic Greek philosophers, Aristotle in particular. Thus, he developed his irrationalism and his nihilism.
That Zionist-Nazi relationship ideologically survived the war and the holocaust for Arendt and other Zionists. She wrote to Heidegger in 1958 in relation to her book, The human condition: “You will see that the book has no dedication. If things had ever worked out properly between us, then I would have asked you if I could have dedicated the book to you. It grew right out of the first days in Marburg and so is in all respects indebted to you.” Martin Heidegger called Hannah Arendt “the passion of his life” despite his own well-documented Nazism and anti-Semitism - highlighted again by the release of his Black notebooks in 2014.
But perhaps his defenders are correct and there is no essential connection between his politics, which developed from rightwing, Catholic populism to fascism, and his philosophy. These include the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the structuralists, post-structuralists and deconstructionists, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida; and the postmodernists, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Not to mention his Jewish student lover, Hannah Arendt.
Seyla Benhabib, in The reluctant modernism of Hannah Arendt, shows us in the following analytic passage how it was possible for Heidegger to ignore the holocaust and the slaughter of World War II, why Arendt agreed with him and assisted in developing the modern ideology of Zionism, which “in the public realm” and “private sphere” justifies the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the state of Israel:
“The preceding chapters of this work have been concerned to analyse the existential roots of Arendt’s thought to document the ‘formative intellectual currents of her philosophy: namely the search for a political homeland for the Jewish people as well as German ‘Existenz philosophy’ of the 1920s - in particular the thought of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s readings of Plato and Aristotle in his lectures of 1924 and 1925 left indelible marks upon Arendt’s thinking, which she was all too ready to acknowledge … Arendt views the social realm as a threat to both the private and the public realm. In order to provide for the needs of everyone, it must invade the private sphere and, because it makes biological needs a public matter, it corrupts the realm of free action: there is no longer a realm free from necessity ...
“Without a doubt, and however one interprets it, Heidegger’s neglect of crucial features of Aristotle’s teaching of ethics and politics was a meaningful omission, and one that did not escape the notice of his best students, such as Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse, who, each in his or her own way, went on to revive the missing concept of ‘praxis’. Whereas Arendt reread Aristotle so as to reveal the ontological features of ethical and political action, thus gaining access to the notion of a ‘web of human affairs’, Marcuse (also Jewish) read Aristotle’s concept of praxis in Marxian terms as world-constitutive and historical labouring activity. If one way to judge a philosophical doctrine or interpretation in retrospect is the depth of readings and creative misreadings it can give rise to, then there is little question that Heidegger’s phenomenological appropriation of Aristotle remains one of the most significant chapters in the history of 20th century philosophy.”
So here we have the two conceptions of ‘praxis’ contrasted: Arendt’s subjective, individualist concerns with self, invading her ‘private sphere’. The ‘biological’ needs of the poor not to starve to death is now a ‘public matter’: ie, the welfare state feeds them, and this “corrupts the realm of free action” of the capitalists and wealthy professionals by taxing them to feed the Untermensch. And Marcuse, despite his political limitations, recognised revolutionary Marxism and activity as the real ‘praxis’ to fight this.
Heidegger stands in a line of a long list of anti-Marxist, anti-working class philosophical idealists. These anti-materialist, reactionary, idealist philosophers include Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schelling, Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and later disciples of Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. These emerged as a reaction not only to the ancient feudal regimes, but also represented the rising bourgeoisie after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, the ‘springtime of peoples’. 1848 bore an explicitly working class content; an uprising of the unemployed of Paris in particular. The ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ of the French Revolution had set in motion these forces via the radical enlightenment thinkers and doers, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Gracchus Babeuf, etc. The notion of freedom was redefined subjectively by the nihilists as an inner state that can be maintained despite the vicissitudes of political and social life. This was combined with a deep pessimism toward the ability of human agency to create a society of economic and social equality.
Nietzsche celebrated the defeat of the 1871 Paris Commune: “Hope is possible again! Our German mission isn’t over yet! I’m in better spirit than ever, for not yet everything has capitulated to Franco-Jewish levelling and ‘elegance’, and to the greedy instincts of Jetztzeit [‘now time’] ... Over and above the war between nations, that international hydra which suddenly raised its fearsome heads has alarmed us by heralding quite different battles to come.”
Contrarily Babeuf, guillotined by the reactionary Napoleonic Directory in May 1797, said: “The French Revolution was nothing but a precursor of another revolution - one that will be bigger, more solemn, and which will be the last.” This has terrified all reactionary philosophers and politicians alike ever since.
Heidegger expelled all Jews from his university and informed on them to the Nazis. He resigned as rector of Freiburg University in late April 1934, just two months before the Night of the Long Knives, having been tipped off that his close association with the leading victims-to-be made him a target too. The deNazification hearings at Freiburg University in 1945 found that he “made an essential contribution to the legitimation of this revolution in the eyes of educated Germans”. And that was his view of ‘freedom’; he was only banned from teaching at the third level until 1951. He should have been executed then.
We hope this gives Tony some insight on the necessity of self-declared ‘Marxists’ to have at least some appreciation on the importance of the history of philosophy and why “Philosophers interpret the world, but the point is to change it” does not mean we can leave the interpretation of the world to the thinkers and get away with naively finding it “difficult to believe that there isn’t something rotten in a philosophy that allows its creator to join the Nazi Party and sing its praises”. We hope this is not too “crude and mechanical” and that it assists him in understanding why Hannah Arendt and so “many people who are not ultra-reactionaries” loved Martin Heidegger and his Nazi philosophy so much, and why you simply cannot completely divorce philosophy from politics, even if there is not a 1:1 relationship.
If Heidegger was “brilliant in his field”, that field belonged to Adolf Hitler and not to Lenin and Trotsky.
It appears that Tony Greenstein has succumbed to a bad case of ‘Gary Lineker disease’: ie, a compulsive need to make pronouncements on that which one knows nothing about.
After sounding off at some length regarding the intellectual and political relationship between Arendt and Heidegger, he then informs us: “I know nothing of Heidegger’s philosophy or indeed of philosophy in general!” And this is the guy who terms Downing a “philistine”! Even Edmund Husserl found Heidegger’s writing’s opaque, so if anyone is compelled to approach Heidegger there is an excellent introduction by George Steiner, who bucks the trend of philosophical literature by writing compactly and clearly.
I felt sure that Tony Greenstein would respond to Gerry Downing’s letter of October 3 with something far more eloquent and erudite than I could manage, and sure enough he has. But I would like to add a couple of points.
I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem some time in the late 60s, but didn’t read any of her other works until after the break-up of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985-86, when I read The origins of totalitarianism. I read this along with many other books on sects, brainwashing and so on to try and get more insight into what I and my WRP comrades had been through. Arendt’s book has a section on totalitarian movements, which I read with special interest - and an inner ‘tick, tick, tick’ as I did so.
You don’t have to agree with everything that someone says or writes to find them interesting and I did find her stuff of interest. I went on to read On violence, On revolution and The human condition, along with online stuff by or about her. I found her thoughts on democracy in On revolution striking; to simplify, you only get to vote if you go to the meeting.
I reread Eichmann in Jerusalem after reading Eichmann: his life and crimes by the recently late David Cesarani, who, while being a Zionist, was also an honest academic. My tendency was to go more with Arendt than Cesarani, but, while he disagreed with her strongly, he was measured and polite.
Zionists mostly hate her guts. I don’t know if I’m right, but for a long time I’ve thought that this resulted to a large extent not only from her account of the Eichmann trial, but also because she put the holocaust into some sort of historical context, take it or leave it, before the Zionists were able to sacralise it. Her book was published in 1951 - long before Holocaust, the 1978 TV series, or Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985.
As Slavoj Žižek put it in a response to Lanzmann, “How can you say that the holocaust is unique if you’re not allowed to compare it with anything?” Her impertinence risks some fools thinking that the Zionists’ claim to full, absolute, ownership of the holocaust might be in doubt. And that after all the work that has gone into the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, along with all the other museums and memorials in the world. At least their most important visitors, like Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump, appreciate that the holocaust means that the Israeli government can do what it likes to the indigenous inhabitants of the country.
Over many decades I’ve read a lot on the holocaust, on World War II, on Israel - among lots of other things - and at first I noticed and later looked out for something a little surprising. Hannah Arendt is much cited, quoted, criticised in many of these works, so you can pick up many books and find her in the index. If the author is either an anti-Zionist or just a non-Zionist, then the commentary is at least quite respectful. If the author is a Zionist, then the comments are generally extremely oppositional and in some cases downright nasty - I did see an online comment some years ago about “that Nazi’s bitch” or words to that effect.
So critics of Hannah Arendt, especially the more virulent ones, tend to be Zionists, while those who show at least some respect tend not to be. Obviously this in not meant to imply that Gerry Downing is a Zionist, but just to point out that if Hannah Arendt was a Zionist then she was a very lonely one.
In response to Michael Roberts, let me point out that the commodity is a union of use-value and exchange-value - values are not material (‘Intangible, but not immaterial’, October 10). To propose a problematic around material goods versus knowledge goods is to fall into the error of (bourgeois) philosophy: the chasm between fact and value, empirical and abstract, material and ideal - indeed subject and object. The structure here is of a mirror – Immanuel Kant’s “starry heavens above and the moral universe within” (the imaginary of the individual).
Values are embodied and abstract - a piece of music is decoded as such by your mind/body, but ‘resides’ in a ‘score’ made up of symbols. This conundrum is resolved as ‘the social/symbolic’ rather than the individual/imaginary. So the commodity is the really existing ‘truth’, without need of further demonstration or words of bourgeois civilisation/culture - namely, the universe is and only is bounded by ‘what is empirical’ and ‘what is abstract’ - fact and value accidentally united in a man-made commodity - universal alienation.
Finally - rent or profit? Er, well, the ‘form’ of a sword is its function, but you ‘only pay’ for the ‘function’ which requires repeated labour, whereas, once the form is invented, it requires no further labour.
Just as pop stars and rock musicians hold huge resentment towards ‘pirated’ downloads of their old hit records, it seems that much the same phenomenon exists in the orbit of old-school Marxists - those who nowadays irately kick off in a badmouthing cascade towards any next-generation communist who sees a rejection of the atrocities of the Stalin era as nothing other than essential.
Essential, that is, not just for basic reasons of knowing the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong, but in order to mark out crystal-clear distance for the current stage of development of communism from all aspects of that treachery. A communism that proud and energetic next generations are determined to promote to working people as not only the primary, but as the one and only, prospect for securing a worthwhile future.
Surely nobody can have failed to notice how the past week’s developments brought to us the spectacle of John McDonnell being interviewed by Alastair Campbell for GQ magazine. I didn’t read the original interview myself, just summaries appearing in other media, but still it was possible to gather from that ‘lifestyle’ magazine (no doubt like all others managing to be simultaneously facile and pernicious), how the prominent member of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition allowed himself to be asked questions about whether either Jeremy Corbyn or he would “resign if Labour were to lose” the probably imminent next general election. McDonnell went further by declaring that the next leader of Labour “has got to be” a woman.
Can that man really be so naive? Can’t he recognise his eruption of undiluted anti-male sexism for what it is? And why on earth did he enter into such a cosy but chronically dangerous little situation in the first place? We had a basically honourable and decent-minded John McDonnell being interviewed by an intra-complicit Iraq war criminal, Alastair Campbell - an avidly willing provider of deadly, propagandistic lies for Blair then to sell to the British public. Then, adding insult to injury, McDonnell goes on to imply how womanhood bestows some sort of innate superiority over anything available from a man.