Paul Cockshott writes of the term ‘policy’, as opposed to ‘demand’: “If you are an old Attlee or Benn-style social democrat, you are talking of what an elected government will do” (Letters, January 21).
I agree with the usage of ‘policy’ and especially ‘policy alternative’, but the additional usage of the word ‘demand’ serves to minimise any downturn in political support when bourgeois governments ‘steal’ from more leftwing platforms to secure their hold on power.
It would be very helpful if some ‘Marxists’ would respond to Jo Russell’s point that: “As far as I understand it - and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong - Marxism is a tool, a methodology for analysing, and drawing conclusions about, the reality of the material world; and from that, about how we can proceed to change ...”
This is well worth a reply because the CPGB attempts to unite “Marxists as Marxists” in a party which will transform the working class from “nothing” to “everything”. To unite only around a method of interpretation seems to contradict your position of wishing to unite the left around a few essential elements of a programme.
Some people may fully support those critical elements of a programme by their own careful analysis (or common sense), while the majority using Marxist methodology appear not to find them acceptable. Why wish to exclude sincere, thoughtful, working class individuals who may have good reason to see weaknesses and failings in the Marxist methodology? Is there a single individual in the CPGB who has any doubts that Marxism is the one and only acceptable way of thinking if the working class is to become “everything”?
In the Socialist Party, of which I’m a member, we superseded Campaign to Defeat Fees last year with the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign, which originated outside of us and has trade union backing (‘Sects and fronts go round in ever diminishing circles’, February 4). CDF still exists on paper but, like International Socialist Resistance, operationally it’s been folded entirely into YFJ.
So far we’re the only political party backing YFJ, but in communications with YFJ nationally it’s been made clear to me that we are supposed to broaden it as a campaign. In pursuit of this, we made overtures to the Young Greens (the Green Party’s youth organisation) to affiliate; this went as far as the Young Greens’ national committee, where things appear to have spluttered out, even though we’d offered them a seat on the steering committee. Their local youth organiser and I went over their platform and the YFJ platform together and we found absolutely no incompatibilities, so I can only suppose their de facto rejection comes from sectarianism.
We also tried to make similar arrangements locally with the Socialist Workers Party; they rejected our offer and instead took to their usual strategy of scheduling their own student events against ours. We’ve made contact with Cymru X, the Plaid Cymru youth organisation, at a low level, but nothing has developed from that so far other than their organiser’s signature on one of our petitions.
We’ve done one or two events jointly with the Communist Party of Britain, on a local level, but nothing has advanced nationally. I hope there’s some possibility of development there. Their youth work focuses more on further education, ours on higher education, so there is a natural synergy to be pursued.
The Socialist Labour Party has categorically refused to work jointly with us and my last reply from their youth organiser included the words, “Don’t waste my time with things like this again” with regard to a joint mobilisation for an anti-far-right demonstration.
My offers of joint work with the Young Communists shortly after I started doing work as an organiser received no reply. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty simply isn’t established in my area, so I can’t comment on them.
My point is that YFJ is making an effort to reach out to other groups on the left, but, as always, it takes at least two to tango and the positive response simply is not there. I’m getting vague indications from the Socialist Party centre now, worryingly, that this situation is to be accepted and YFJ is to become just another of the alphabet soup of student front groups for the left. For this to happen would be a disservice to the student community in general; but it would be a disservice not entirely of our making.
The publication of the audit into MPs expense claims provides further evidence of the failings of our parliamentary system of government. Sir Thomas Legg’s revelations have “brought parliament into disrepute”, said former Labour MP and Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist. “We need a system that does not allow sleaze, a system where elected representatives are fully accountable.”
In terms of expenses, MPs should behave as Dave Nellist did when he was an MP. He only took the average industrial wage, donating the rest of his salary back into the movement and to charity.
But there are many other reforms to the parliamentary system that are essential to restore public confidence. There needs to be a radical extension of democracy, including all representatives elected by proportional representation and subject to recall. Otherwise, political apathy will continue unabated and fewer people will vote, as the electorate grows even further apart from their political representatives.
I feel that your article ‘Why we should not call for jailing of Tony Blair’ (February 4) gave a simplistic response to those involved with the campaign to have Tony Blair arrested and, quite honestly, it also came across as being flippant in many areas.
Watching Blair rehash the old rhetoric at the Chilcot inquiry was like listening to a scratched record. We had to endure the same old garbage about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the link to al Qa’eda and the other allegations relating to human rights abuses, which quite frankly reminded me of the Iraqi Communist Party in the 1980s.
The reason why no WMD were found was quite simply because there were none to begin with. Had the left shown a consistency of support for the anti-sanctions movement during the 1990s, they would have known that after the Gulf War, Iraq’s purchasing power was put into the hands of the United Nations sanctions committee pursuant to resolution 661, which was based in New York, not Baghdad.
How was Saddam expected to build his arsenal of weapons when the 661 committee prevented items as basic as pencils from entering Iraq, simply because they contained graphite and, in the twisted logic of the US-UK, could “potentially be used for military purposes”? Did those opposed to Saddam fear that he would gas the Kurds with enriched baby powder milk or drop sanitary towels on the Marsh Arabs?
As for the allegations of human rights abuses, one of the main arguments used by those in favour of the occupation was that Saddam owned a human shredding machine that, it was claimed, he threw opponents into. This was even espoused by Blair’s human rights envoy to Iraq, Ann Clwyd MP. Just like the government’s claims about WMD and links to al Qa’eda, Ms Clwyd has failed to produce any evidence to back up her allegation.
The reliability of claims about the severity of human rights abuses is even more questionable when you consider some of the sources used to back up so-called ‘intelligence’. Most notable is that of the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, who, before taking up the mantle of being ‘against Saddam’, had brought down the Petra Bank in Jordan, having embezzled its funds and being sentenced, in abstentia, to 22 years’ hard labour.
After being given asylum in Britain after the Gulf War, as only the British would to criminals and fraudsters, Chalabi and many of his kind smelled an opportunity and joined the Iraqi opposition, with the financial backing of nearly every intelligence agency in the western world. In 1996, he even went on to become the joint director of the Indict campaign, alongside Ann Clwyd.
Let’s also not forget that it was the Kurdish people themselves who burnt down the Halabja monument in 2006, as people in the village were tired of politicians “cynically exploiting” the annual ceremony to those who died in the 1988 gas attack “while doing little to help local people during the rest of the year”. Does this sound familiar?
Whilst you simply state that abuses have “continued under the occupation”, for the Iraqi people the abuse is far more systematic than these simple words can muster. The mass murder of one million Iraqis, the creation of five million orphans and the destitution of millions of refugees, along with the forced unemployment of millions, under the banner of deBa’athification, is not even worthy of a trial at the Hague, but rather direct justice at the hands of the Iraqi people.
Mary Rizzo asks for an “online apology” and proof that she has published anti-Semitic posts on her Palestine Think Tank blog (Letters, February 4). Visit our site, she says; there is nothing anti-Semitic there.
Is Ms Rizzo denying that she posted Mark Weber’s racist rubbish on January 5? It is true the article is no longer there, since she removed it. Has she forgotten that someone called Katzenfreund sent comments to her blog on January 18, pointing out that Weber is a prominent member of a neo-Nazi-organisation.
She replied the same day: “... I did not read the comment, actually, am not that interested …, although others might want to read it. But, seeing as how this indeed serves as fodder for those who want to use it to smear me or others, and those who were interested already saw it and had their fun with it, I will take the content out.” But Ms Rizzo still has not explained why despite her ‘moderation’ she allowed in an article by a well-known neo-Nazi and then kept it up even after I had pointed it out to her well before the comment by Katzenfreund.
This is on a par with a series of similar ‘mistakes’, including her testimonial to the Radical Free Press website. Or maybe Mary has forgotten that she wrote on the Socialist Unity site: “The Radical Press presents thought-provoking and intelligent information and analysis. It is absolutely not anti-Semitic.” Shortly after even Mary was forced to admit that the site specialises in such delightful topics as Jewish banking cartels, Jewish media monopoly, the Jewish porn industry and, of course, Jews behind the Bolshevik revolution.
And she saw nothing wrong with Gilad Atzmon’s virulently anti-Semitic piece last June entitled ‘Tribal Marxism for dummies’, when Atzmon explained that “Jewish Marxism is very different from Marxism or socialism in general. While Marxism is a universal paradigm, its Jewish version is very different.”
Although this too has now been deleted, it is not because of its anti-Semitism, but because of a falling out over other matters with Atzmon. When Mary Rizzo got over her political infatuation with him and got rid of him as a co-editor of Palestine Think Tank, it occurred to me that she might also have begun to reject his racism and anti-Semitism. No such luck!
Since February 5, we, the residents at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, have been on a hunger strike involving over 84 women, who are protesting against the period of time spent in detention and the treatment they receive while being detained.
We are demanding the following:
- End the frustrations, the physical and mental torture at the centre.
- Allow enough time and make resources available to residents who need to fully present their cases.
- End all false allegations and misrepresentations by the UK Borders Agency regarding detainees in order to refuse bail or temporary admissions.
- Allow access to appropriate medical treatment and care, as in the community, and access to edible and well-cooked food, phones with good mobile connections, camera and recording facilities to back up cases.
- Stop the forceful removal and degrading system of deportation of detainees.
- Put the law into practice, including European rules governing standard of conditions of detention for migrants and asylum-seekers and the length of time in detention.
- Abolish detention for asylum-seeker and torture victims.
- Detention should be by a standard procedure prescribed by law, authorised by judicial authority and be subjected to periodic judicial reviews.
- End the detention of children and their mothers, rape survivors and other torture victims. End the detention of physically and mentally sick people and pregnant women.
- End the separation of children from their mothers, whether in detention or destitution.
- End the detention of women after serving time in prison.
- Abolish the fast-track system, in order to give asylum-seekers a fair chance with their application, while understanding the particular needs of victims of torture, and access to reliable legal representation which the fast-track system denies.
- End the repeat detention of women granted temporary admission, while reporting or signing after a short period out of detention.
- Set a maximum period of time allowed to detain women, which should be no longer than one month, while waiting a decision either from the UKBA or the courts.
There are alternatives to detention, as laid out by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in ‘The detention of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants in Europe’, adopted on January 28 2010.
Please send messages of solidarity to
Chris Knight’s three-page article, ‘Anti-Marxist myth of our time’ (February 4), misrepresents and attacks Chomsky’s inspirational theory of ‘generative grammar’ and his proposed ‘innate’ ‘language acquisition device’ (LAD) as a component of the human mind.
While it is true Chomsky’s work assumes it is possible to investigate language without taking ‘the meaning’ behind spoken words into account and equally true ongoing research has tended not to support Chomsky, Knight’s article, with its sub-title, “Noam Chomsky’s ‘scientific’ fairy tales about language and its origins”, and which repeatedly scoffs at Chomsky’s “fables” (“cosmic ray shower”, etc), not only fails to identify positive aspects of Chomsky’s work, but must persuade the naive reader that Chomsky is a moron, not really worthy of serious consideration. Chomsky makes it clear his fables are not meant to be taken literally; Chris Knight accepts that, but his constant repetition could be designed to ‘get the mud to stick’.
Chomsky’s theory was grounded in the phenomenal ability of very young children to understand and use the specific, highly articulated principles underlying the structure of language. The ‘universal grammar’ (applicable, in general terms, to all human languages) must, he argues, be hypothesised as biologically inherited from earlier generations. The human species is distinguished from all other creatures, not by the faculties of thought or ‘intelligence’, but by their capacity for language. The crucial characteristic Chomsky identifies regarding this development in childhood (of which Chris Knight makes no mention) is the almost immediate creativity associated with the infant’s language: by the age of five or six, children produce and understand an indefinitely large number of utterances they have not previously encountered; they are able to apply the appropriate grammatical rules from adult utterances to construct utterances they have never heard before.
Whatever may have been the cause/origin of ‘the language organ’ in some remote period of man’s evolutionary development, a fact to be accounted for is that all human beings make use of the same physiological ‘organ’ in speech. It is at least conceivable they are genetically programmed to do so; if all human languages are strikingly similar in structure, surely it is natural to ask why this should be the case. While all languages fulfil similar functions in their various societies, and would be expected to influence the language structures universally, many universal features are not readily explained in this way. Chomsky’s only conceivable explanation is the LAD facility.
Should Chomsky’s LAD be accepted as a working hypothesis (it was never suggested as anything else), language is ‘modularised’, but cognitive development is not of marginal importance, as Chris Knight suggests Chomsky would claim.
We can only hypothesise why Homo sapiens alone evolved language; it is indeed the only major dividing point between us and our near relatives, the apes, the chimpanzees. Our minds seem very similar - a few hours watching our cousins interacting with one another, playing games (even ‘let’s pretend’ games, as do human children) and telling lies (sign language studies) suggest that, had a hypothesised ‘mutation’ been shared with the chimps, they would have matched us intellectually.
Chomsky a counterrevolutionary? His theory of language and his political stance are not contradictory. As Chris Knight tells us, Noam Chomsky appeared on the public scene in 1959 with his review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957). Skinner is the leading representative of ‘behavioural psychology’, which tells us all human knowledge and belief, all patterns of thought and action are explainable as ‘habits’ acquired through ‘conditioning’, not qualitatively different from the process by which rats, in a ‘Skinner box’, learn to obtain food by pressing a bar.
Chomsky’s attack on radical behaviourism demonstrated the impressive panoply of scientific verbiage and statistics was simply a camouflage, covering an inability to explain the ‘creativeness’ of language as an outcome of ‘conditioning’. Look at any of Chomsky’s numerous books on ‘political’ topics and note the similar charge Chomsky makes against the ‘social scientists’, whose ‘expert’ advice is sought by big business and governments.
Chomsky’s political involvements have always been based on the conviction that human beings differ from animals and machines - a fundamental difference, always deserving respect.
What about the bonobo? It was not mentioned in Chris Knight’s article (‘Sex and the human revolution’, September 24). And, while we’re at it, Palau - dwarfed humans? Any ideas?
The obscene situation in Haiti seems to have befuddled many comrades on the left into making unduly benign assessments of the role of US troops. That such illusions persist with a bloody slaughter still in progress in Afghanistan and a bloodier one drawing to a close in Iraq, both at the hands of the US and its allies, is somewhat bewildering.
Yet it is not out of character for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, whose hysterically defensive tone (understatement of the year so far) has long ineptly served to conceal indefensible, incipiently pro-imperialist positions. So Dan Katz writes on the AWL website (www.workersliberty.org), under the title ‘Haiti, emergency aid and the left’, and does not seem to understand Haiti or emergency aid at all. “Notorious Stalinist hack” Seumas Milne is castigated for objecting to US obstruction of Cuban medical aid - but no actual counterargument is offered to Milne’s objection (except that there are US doctors on the ground - so no need to worry, then) beyond the aforementioned epithet and a predictable slew of others. Yes, the US has occupied Haiti for two decades; yes, international institutions dominated by the US caused its poverty.
Thankfully, the citizens of Haiti (and presumably Venezuela, Honduras, Cuba, Bolivia ...) can rest easy: “the US’s relationship to its backyard ... has changed radically from what it was even in the 1970s and 80s.” No more cold war means no more coups or assassinations. Except the US-backed, failed coup against Chávez in 2002. Or the ongoing (and quite real) attempts to destabilise Cuba. Or last year’s US-backed coup against left-drifting populist Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. Or, come to think of it, the deposition of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, a left-populist leader of ... er ... Haiti.
Apart from that, it’s all peaches and cream for sovereign political regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Katz, needless to say, doesn’t think any of these events worth mentioning. Why would he? The natural conclusion would be that Obama wants some political return on his $114 million.
At least the AWL doesn’t appear to have fully cohered around this delusional line. Leading member Tom Unterrainer expresses misgivings via the comments facility on its website (stopping short of a ‘troops out’ line, naturally). It is difficult to see, however, what more evidence one needs to abandon belief in the fundamentally different nature of Barack Obama - his every move has been that of a career politician. He has sent a further 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan and he hides behind the state machine rather than picking a fight with even his most rightwing opponents.
Some people have uncritically swallowed the scare pieces about marauding thugs in Haiti, which ultimately amount to a drearily familiar sub-colonial ideology about animalistic savages. In fact, Haitians started spontaneously defending their neighbourhoods from those few who did try to take advantage of the crisis. Just how necessary all these soldiers are is revealed in the fact that most of them are currently simply involved in hauling aid around. You don’t need an army to do that - so why has Obama sent one?
Jo Russell says that Marx and Engels’s committed opposition to reactionary ideas on humanity and nature (eg, Malthusianism) may no longer be valid in today’s world, in which the human population is significantly larger than in their time (Letters, February 4).
I would argue that their opposition to such reaction is still valid and that, in the case of their anti-Malthusianism at least, it is more valid now than ever before. We have never before in human history had a greater objective ability to provide a good standard of living to each human being on Earth. And yet the size of our population has never been greater. Marx and Engels have been proven right by history: there is no truth to the overpopulation scaremongering that has existed in bourgeois thought for two centuries and which exists as an integral part of eco-ideology today.
For Malthusians, it is not the way society is organised which is the problem - the problem is the existence of the masses themselves. One struggles to think of many positions more deeply conservative in their implications.
Marxism is indeed not a religion. It must always proceed from facts and be revised according to them. In this instance, however, the facts are very much on the side of Marxism’s original founders.
Tony Clark (Letters January 28) may agree with Ted Hankin that “such matters as resource depletion, peak oil and environmental degradation did not exist for classical Marxism”, but both are wrong. Agreed, it wasn’t oil but the forests of Britain and Ireland that were being destroyed to produce charcoal to smelt iron. Marx and Engels castigated capitalism for its robbery, its creation of “deserts” and warned about nature’s revenge (see Anti-Dühring).
By the 1860s the British bourgeoisie was debating ‘peak coal’ and what would happen to British manufacturing when it ran out. Marx wrote to Engels denouncing the “squandering” of ore, forests and coal. Unlike capitalists Marx and Engles never argued that the earth’s resources were unlimited or that all that mattered was the immediate future. Abundance for Marx and Engels had to be achieved within the natural limits of the earth’s resources. Both had a concept of humanity and the rest of nature that implied a relationship of mutual interdependence.
Malthus insisted that that there would never be enough food to feed the poor, so let them die. An attitude which directly influenced British government policies. Malthus was certainly convinced by the idea of resource depletion, even though it was actually the separation of the common people from the means of production, not inadequate food production, that causes starvation under capitalism. As is surely well known, both Marx and Engels extensively commented on the so-called problem of “overpopulation”. Indeed Malthus and his dreadful theory was a constantly recurring theme in many of their written works.
During Marx’s youth the decline in soil productivity was widely discussed by the bourgeoisie. Then came what might be called ‘peak bone’ and then ‘peak guano’. Marx, however, did not look for technical solutions. He wrote about the exploitation of the countryside by the town and the necessity of repairing the metabolic rift between humanity and nature (see Capital Vol 3). The invention of chemical fertilisers substituted for bones robbed from the old battlefields of Europe and Chilean and Peruvian bird shit. But in actual fact industrial agriculture and agro-business continue to widen still further the metabolic rift between humanity and nature.
Engels’ first book, The condition of the working class in England (1844), describes the disgusting environmental conditions in Manchester and their disastrous effects on working people. Marx lived in a London famous for its pea-soup fogs, everything was covered in soot and the Thames was a stinking, dead sewer fit only for rats. Marx certainly noticed this and produced many scathing comments about capital ruining both the worker and nature. Remember how difficult it was to find suitable army recruits in 1899 for the Boer War because the health of the population was so bad.
Peak oil isn’t unique: it is symptomatic of what capitalism does all the time. It uses up nature’s resources rapidly because it is driven by the need to accumulate for the sake of accumulation. The more efficient use of a resource makes it cheaper, leading to it being used more. A situation that might lead to relative depletion but also the search for substitutes and new technologies. Today it is nuclear energy, wind farms, shale oil and gas, bio-fuels, etc.
Price, not human well-being, decides what capitalists will choose to do. Price has caused capitalism problems since its inception, but it will not bring it to an end and make a green version of Stalinism popular, as comrade Clark seems to be saying. That requires conscious working class action and we will need an economic policy that works with nature, not against it. Not the neo-Malthusianism of neo-Stalinism.