Alex’s greater friend
The SWP is clearly motivated by opportunist considerations, not least the fall-out from the Martin Smith rape scandal. We do not owe politeness to renegades, argues Paul Demarty
It was not too long ago that Socialist Workers Party international secretary, Alex Callinicos, was threatening to unleash lynch mobs against his factional opponents. Today, he seems a great deal more clubbable in attitude - at least when it comes to pro-imperialists, that is.
The SWP’s formal line on the Ukraine conflict is imperfect, but reasonably healthy. However, it views it as an ‘inter-imperialist’ conflict between Russia and a United States proxy. It therefore denounces the role of the US and Nato in provoking it all - demanding an end to the flow of arms, opposing no-fly zones and what have you. We could argue back and forth about ‘inter-imperialist’, but the important stuff is all there.
The trouble is the company the comrades keep. First we had Callinicos’s grovelling open letter to Paul Mason, the increasingly self-parodic ex-Trot journalist, whose decades of failed predictions have merely nudged him further to the right at every step. Callinicos even congratulated Mason on writing a book about fighting fascism, when precisely what the latter means by ‘fighting fascism’ is defending liberal norms against big baddies like Vladimir Putin. If there was anything admirable about the book, perhaps it would be Callinicos’s duty to agree with this man. We suspect, alas, that this is merely a typical outing for Mystic Mason’s crystal ball, and it will be quietly forgotten, when the course of events drags him elsewhere once again.
And now, in last week’s Socialist Worker, the trick is pulled again - this time with Gilbert Achcar as the object of Alex’s wooing. In both cases, comrade Callinicos politely implores the renegade in question to agree with some modest rebuke to their analysis.
Achcar, a long-time Mandelite of Lebanese extraction, has suffered the same collapse as his chosen international on matters of war and imperialism, and not long ago he provided Anti-Capitalist Resistance, the British Mandelite outfit, with a short ‘explainer’ on Russia’s war in Ukraine. In it he characterised the whole thing as a Russian war of aggression, ridiculed the idea that it was an ‘inter-imperialist’ war (because, after all, Ukraine is not an imperialist country) and supported delivery of “defensive” arms to Ukraine by the west. He opposed sanctions on the narrow basis that we cannot be sure they will only affect Russia’s military capacity, and not the living conditions of ordinary Russians (that is one way of putting it … ).1 Callinicos mentioned Achcar’s piece in one of his own, leading to the exchange of letters last week.
Achcar goes first, and really only reiterates his points, with a detour into ‘Leninology’: Callinicos’s ‘inter-imperialist war’ analysis does not hold, because only one combatant in the war is actively attempting to annex territory from the other; thus Lenin’s analysis of World War I is irrelevant. Far from being a revolutionary defeatist, Callinicos is guilty of the mysterious sin of “neo-campism”. Achcar ridicules the idea of inter-imperialist conflict taking the form of a small country fighting off an aggressive neighbour - he peculiarly cites the case of the Vietnam war:
… in Vietnam, the USSR - which, according to your political tradition, was a state-capitalist country - backed the Vietnamese against the US aggression. Did that make Vietnam an “inter-imperialist war”? Should revolutionary defeatism have been advocated by internationalists on both sides of that war? Certainly not, of course.2
Achcar’s distinction is merely a piece of casuistry. It is as if - after the invention of the firearm - someone were to pretend that its use by one country against another was not an act of war, since wars were fought by cavalry, infantry and archers. A proxy war is a war - a war between the sponsor of the proxy and its antagonist. The proxy country is a weapon. The fact that the weapon is a country does not make it any less a war.
Viewing the case of Vietnam through the right of self-defence is highly misleading. Of course, the states of North and South Vietnam resulted from the overthrow of colonial rule; but, from the beginning of the 1960s, one could quite easily make a pseudo-leftist argument that the key question was the aggression of the north and their guerrillas in the south, and fundamentally the expansionism of Stalinist totalitarianism. Indeed, the American Shachtmanites and suchlike did make this argument. The only secure inoculation against this was, precisely, ‘campism’. The struggle of Hanoi against Saigon was just, and the struggle of Saigon against Hanoi was not, because of the substantive politics at issue, of a deformed and militarised ‘socialism’ on one side and an American regime of quasi-colonial subjection on the other. It was, in other words, a function of the global arrangement of forces.
There is no ‘socialist camp’ today, of course, but the US is as it ever was, and blinding ourselves to its involvement in these situations will not do - and nor will treating vast arms shipments as the moral equivalent of humanitarian aid shipments. Asking the question as to whether the Ukrainians have the ‘right to resist’ is otiose: of course they do. However, Achcar is not in Ukraine, but London. The question for him is - does he recognise the right of the US and its closest allies to use Ukraine as a weapon against Russia, and therefore does he support an end to arms deliveries, the end of Nato, and so forth? Far from it - he supports arms shipments, and ‘opposes’ Nato in a purely Platonic fashion.
But this is not Achcar’s first offence; that would be, so far as we know, his support for a no-fly zone in Libya (which turned out just great …), and subsequently his support for US proxies in Syria (likewise), and on to the present day. His basic argument is always the same - how dare you lecture those in struggle as to whom they may turn to for support? But, Gilbert, we are not lecturing the oppressed masses of Libya or Syria or Ukraine - we are lecturing you. It is you who have failed in your duties, and made of yourself a pro-imperialist traitor.
But, really, our subject is not Achcar or his friends in ACR (Anxious Centrist Renegades, perhaps?). Callinicos’s response makes some of the same points we have above and, while his insistence on viewing the Ukraine crisis as an inter-imperialist war, rather than the result of imperialist encirclement of the global subordinate, Russia, does not exactly help his cause, it at least represents a break with the deliberate blindness to American intervention represented by Achcar, ACR, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and indeed Paul Mason.
The problem is really with the tone. “We have, you and I, quite a long tradition already of debates between us,” Achcar begins:
… our debate is conducted in the way it should be between Marxists: that is, in a comradely spirit and clear of the deliberate distortion and defamation that are alas all too frequent in the ranks of a large section of the left, still affected by the detestable legacy of Stalinism.
And Callinicos repays the compliment. “I’m delighted that you have chosen to respond to my article,” he writes. Achcar merely represents “a mistaken tendency on the radical left to focus exclusively on the struggle between Ukraine and Russian imperialism, ignoring the role played by the US and Nato.”
Such a simple mistake, and who amongst us has not made mistakes? But some of us have at least managed to avoid making so many mistakes, of such incomparable gravity, as Achcar, from Benghazi to Mariupol. Callinicos’s aim is “to demonstrate the relevance of the Marxist theory of imperialism to understanding the present appalling situation”; but is this its relevance? To illustrate a few innocent mistakes?
Surely not. Our two writers squabble over the significance of Lenin’s analyses of the various aspects of World War I. What is absent is the significance Lenin attributed to the differences in the Second International; that these were split issues that placed the pro-war elements of the different sides firmly outside the fold of principled revolutionaries. Not only that: it also placed outside the fold those who formally took an anti-war line, but sought to mend fences with the outright ‘defencists’. For Lenin, and the small forces beyond the Bolsheviks on the ‘Zimmerwald left’, the war was a split issue not only with the pro-war forces - whether rightwing or even historically leftwing, as with a figure like Alexander Parvus - but with the conciliators, the centrists, the Karl Kautskys, Ramsay MacDonalds and even Leon Trotskys of the international - the Callinicos equivalents of the early 20th century, in other words (though often of otherwise greater distinction than our comrade Alex).
This chummy, if slightly fractious, exchange could not be further from the fire-breathing polemics issued by Lenin and another authority cited by Callinicos, Rosa Luxemburg. For them the issue was an existential one for the very possibility of socialism in Europe and the wider world. Those stakes are bizarrely absent from this polite disagreement among friends. Why? We can hazard a couple of guesses. The first is that the SWP has thrown itself back into Stop the War Coalition work, having often taken a discreet distance since its split with former SWP top people John Rees and Lindsey German. In its typical way, the SWP achieves this reorientation by smoothing over its differences with the pervasive social pacifism of the STWC.
We might illustrate this ‘method’ by remarking on Callinicos’s wounded rejection of the charge of “neo-campism”. We will note only that, when the outlook of the StWC was more ‘campist’, one could easily enough find evidence of a certain Alex Callinicos prettifying the Iranian theocracy, to please his then allies. It was not until the split with Rees and German, and moreover the ‘green revolution’ of 2009, that this sort of thing receded from SWP politics - to the shock of many of its spokespeople, who were rather caught on the hoof.
Achcar is still an intellectual of some standing, and - despite his intellectual self-mutilation in the service of his new allegiances - an intelligent writer who it is worth taking seriously. He is also on the perennial long-list of potential speakers at the SWP’s Marxism festival. As for Paul Mason, his obsession with ‘fascism’ makes him an ideal candidate to speak on the platforms of Stand Up To Racism, which takes up much of the rest of the SWP’s energy. He is a far better-known figure than Achcar, though it is difficult to think of someone who has done less to deserve it; and so he offers a respectable veneer to the SWP’s daily grind.
The SWP is in need of such beards as Achcar and Mason at least in part due to its huge, self-inflicted injury of 2013-14, in which it calamitously mishandled allegations of rape against leading member Martin Smith, lost half its active membership and burned what reputation it had in the wider movement down to ashes. Its activities since then have been markedly timid and ‘respectable’ even by its own standards. For these reasons, we suspect, Callinicos is unwilling to come out fighting. He needs all the friends he can get.
But perhaps we are overthinking it; perhaps it really is merely a matter of the two men being, precisely, friends. They have a long history in the movement together. They have spoken from many of the same platforms. They are merely cautious about giving offence to each other. This is perfectly understandable from a human point of view. Callinicos, however, presumes to lead an organisation of self-styled revolutionaries; Achcar to guide another with his big thoughts. They have greater duties than the ones they owe each other.
As a philosopher by training, Callinicos will no doubt be familiar with the saying attributed to Plato: ‘Socrates is my friend, but my greater friend is the truth’.