Although I agree with perhaps 80% of Eddie Ford's article, I disagree with a very important 20% of it ('Mubarak unleashes thugs', February 3).
An important question for tactics and strategy has to be a realistic assessment of the actual strength of the workers at the present time. Whilst I would agree that ultimately the ideal solution has to be a revolutionary overthrow by the workers and their allies, the question is, are they in a position to achieve that currently, and if not what is the consequence of raising such a demand here and now? Marx's and Engels' assessment under similar circumstances was that it was not appropriate to call for an insurrection by the workers, but rather to focus on developing the workers' organisations, etc, to propagandise within the working class around the fact that the workers had different interests to those of the capitalists, and on that basis to argue for the workers to prepare to defend themselves.
I think this kind of algebraic formula is better than simply raising the demand for a workers' insurrection at the moment. We already see militia being established, we see city-wide committees being set up, and these form the basis of an alternative workers' state that can focus on defending the workers' interests. That has to go alongside the raising of economic demands, and the occupation of workplaces where the bosses threaten closure and so on, and conversion of these workplaces into worker co-ops.
On the basis of what appears to be the current balance of forces - ie, the inability at the moment of the workers to impose themselves on the movement (eg, we do not have widespread soviets, such as existed in 1917) - I also think it is wrong to raise demands about the make-up of any provisional government: only that socialists should have no part of it if it means working with the representatives of capital or other reactionaries. That leaves socialists free to criticise that government every time it acts against the interests of the masses, and facilitates the socialists gaining support on the back of it.
But I also believe that for now an 'orderly transition' is not just something that imperialism should welcome. Workers should welcome it too, because, although we should not support the scare tactics that Israel is using in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, it would be naive of socialists not to learn the lessons of Iran, about how quickly a mass movement in conditions of chaos can be hijacked by an organised 'radical' force. I do not think that we should adopt the attitude that a Muslim Brotherhood regime would be in some way a lesser evil than the current one. It would not - it could be much worse, and we should attempt to do what we can to avoid it.
I also disagree with the line of argument implicit in your article, which is that the policy of imperialism is determined by what is in the interests of Israel. That is to make the tail wag the dog. The policy of US imperialism towards Israel is dictated by the fact that it is its only reliable long-term ally in the region. Its approach to other regimes is conditioned by that. The US and imperialism in general are not governed by what is in the interests of Israel, but what is in the interests of capital. In that respect, I disagree with the other implicit, and indeed not so implicit, aspect of your argument, which is that imperialism is not sincerely in favour of the establishment of bourgeois democracy.
Your suggestion that bourgeois democratic Arab regimes would not be so compliant to the needs of capital is not born out elsewhere. I would argue that the development of bourgeois democracy in Brazil, for instance, has been massively in the interests of capital, as witnessed by the huge development of capitalism in that country. The same is true in many other countries in Latin America, and in Asia. Consequently, if bourgeois democratic regimes were established in Egypt and other Arab countries, this could also be massively in the interests of imperialism. Egypt is one of those countries identified as being in the 'second 11' of economies developing rapidly behind the 'BRICs' (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Indeed, it is that development and the contradictions it has thrown up which is partly behind the upsurge now. It is not at all clear that such regimes would pose any problems for the regional interests of imperialism. Yes, they might take a different attitude to Israel, but, as rapidly developing, economically significant bourgeois democracies, they could provide imperialism with a far better partner than Israel does now. That is probably one reason why Israel is so hostile to the development of bourgeois democracy in Egypt. It is also probably why Hamas takes a similar view, apparently preventing workers in Gaza from coming out in demonstrations in support of Egyptian workers.
I would like to give balance to the comments attributed to Glyn Harries in the article, 'Practical Hackney' (Weekly Worker January 27).
Firstly, as far as I am aware, Hackney Trades Union Council and Hackney Unites are supportive of the Hackney Alliance to Defend Public Services. Hackney TUC has publicised all of the alliance's meetings and events, and it is up to individual members of the TUC to join its campaigns as they see fit. Involvement with either does not preclude involvement in other campaigns. Secondly, it is not a matter of degrees of leftness, but rather differing ways of working. Hackney Unites has been in existence for longer than the current ConDem government. It was formed on the back of campaigns against the British National Party and aimed at addressing social justice in the borough on a community basis. (Perhaps this is where Glyn has got his impression of "Tory councillors" distributing leaflets, as we said at the time that anyone who was anti-BNP was welcome to join our campaign against them.)
The vital importance of holding territory in a protest is demonstrated by Tahrir Square. This has never happened in recent protests in the UK on a scale so big. So how about turning Hyde Park into Tahrir Square on March 26-27?
I hereby officially and with great ceremony launch the 'Stay 4 1 Day' campaign to occupy the north end of Hyde Park overnight on March 26. Since about 500,000 will already be there for the rally, it is already occupied space - all it needs is a refusal to leave.
Any aggressive response by the police to clear the park would immediately be compared to Tahrir Square. When the bureaucrats say, 'Go home' and 'Get into your coaches', they should be greeted by chants of 'Stay, stay, stay!' and the takeover of the stage. This would reach out to people from all over who want to do something a bit more radical than the TUC, but aren't as yet up for street battles.
Of course, some people can't stay all night but could come back early in the morning. The sight of London waking up to occupied territory on Sunday March 27 would be new and galvanising. People elsewhere could occupy territory in solidarity in their own town centres. People staying overnight could bring tents, food, blankets and whatever else will be needed. If there are enough of us, we might simultaneously occupy Parliament Square and other key locations.
Stay 4 1 Day would need to go viral on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter; it would need flyers, stickers, badges. It worked in Egypt; it could work here. More details are to be worked out but I'm floating it now in the Weekly Worker to see what people think.
Suspend your disbelief, comrades, and bring Tahrir Square to Hyde Park on March 26.
I'm sorry to say that, contrary to what Ben Lewis reports ('Keeping up the pressure', February 3), from the video displayed on The Guardian website the shout from a relatively small group of people following Aaron Porter away from the January 29 demonstration in Manchester, repeated quite frequently, was rather distinctly "You're a fucking Tory Jew", and not 'Tory too'. On one occasion there was "You're a filthy Tory Jew".
I don't think there were a lot of people shouting it, but certainly some people found it amusing, clever and enjoyable. I heard a discussion on the radio about the current acceptability amongst some people of the word 'Jew' as a general insult, similar to popular usage of 'gay'. It's just not enough to blame everything on the bad people of the media.
Perusing Ben Lewis's mildly interesting article on student protest, I was taken aback to read a reference to "even [my emphasis] old women and men waving their encouragement to demonstrators". Wow! Even the bus-pass generation making feeble arm movements of support. How inspiring!
Try replacing the word 'old' with 'black', 'Jewish', 'woman' or 'gay' to see just what offensive, patronising nonsense it is. Despite my advanced years I managed to walk at least part of the way on two student demos. I saw a great many people even older than myself taking part. Lots of us are retired lecturers and/or parents who are horrified and furious at what this corrupt government is doing to destroy educational opportunity. We may not be in the front line of the punch-ups, but we are with the students all the way.
And does the Weekly Worker, with its deep knowledge of the British labour movement, know that many of us are trade unionists? For example, the London UCU retired members branch has been present on all the main demos. Is this what the Weekly Worker means by a mass party - one where the older comrades stand on the sidelines and flap their arms?
Our comrade Chris Knight appears to have completely lost the plot in his apparently never-ending critique of Noam Chomsky's work in linguistics.
Before commenting specifically on his latest three-page tirade in the Weekly Worker, perhaps we could recapitulate Chomsky's contributions, beginning with his review of Fred Skinner's Verbal behaviour (1957). Based on many years of research in behavioural psychology, Skinner had stated: "... the basic processes of verbal behaviour were now well understood ... the methods could be extended to human behaviour without serious modification". In his review, Chomsky argued that, although Skinner's insights from laboratory research might be genuine, they could only be superficially applied to human behaviour; behavioural prediction of a complex organism (like the human body/mind) requires knowledge of the internal structure of that organism - we need to know how it processes information received.
The nature-nurture debate has remained a central question in psychology since its beginnings in ancient times. Skinner argued from the point of view of his 'learning theory', working on the assumption that a child learns language by "operant conditioning": whenever infant babbling produces a sound remotely resembling a word, the child engenders positive reinforcement (a smile?) from an adult. From this reinforcement the child 'learns' the word. (To be fair to Skinner, it's not quite as simple as that.)
The implicit assumption from Chris Knight is that Skinner might be on the right track here … 'language learning' is grounded on social interaction, nothing more. In fact, no child arrives in the world as a blank slate. It comes with a great number of innate reflexes, as every mother-to-be learns when attending her antenatal clinics. There are 'rooting' and 'sucking' reflexes: if the neonate is stroked on the cheek, it turns its head towards the stroke and will suck a proffered finger or nipple; the 'grasping' reflex, where a finger placed in its palm will be held (new-borns can usually support their own weight at birth!); the 'swimming' reflex, where an infant placed face down in water, automatically paddles and kicks in a swimming pattern (many readers will have seen them 'in action' on TV adverts!). Most of these reflexes will have disappeared by the age of four to six months. Incredibly, a neonate, just 36 hours old, can 'imitate' a smile or frown from a parent facing them. Just stop for a while and consider the implication of these instances regarding neonates' perception of the world and propensity to cope with it. We cannot as yet explain how these innate actions originate, but we can surely hypothesise that we inherit rather more than we might have anticipated.
Chomsky's starting point was an attempt to explore the child's amazing ability to learn language. Three factors require explanation: (1) the ability of infants to attend specifically to speech elements in preference to all the other noises in the environment; (2) the ability of the child to master the complex language system in less than four years, at a time when other intellectual achievements are severely limited; (3) in spite of the enormous amount of speech they hear, much of it from ungrammatical and/or imperfect environments, children can construct meaningful sentences themselves, many of which they will not have previously heard. Irrespective of which particular language experienced, children learn it with equal ease (at the age of one week they can distinguish one language from another!). Furthermore, babies born deaf 'babble' in sign language in exactly the same way as their hearing contemporaries 'play' with the sounds they make; surely explainable only in terms of maturational underpinning?
Chomsky's hypothesis to answer these astounding feats was to suggest children are "wired" with an innate hypothesis-making ability - a "language acquisition device". They instinctively 'know' language is rule-governed and make a series of hypotheses underlying the speech they hear around them. All children are born equipped to learn grammar - all know that languages have similar features, use consonants, vowels, syllables, subject-predicate, nouns, verbs … and children learn any language with equal ease. Given what we know of other biological, 'innate' abilities, I am mystified by the hostility of Chris Knight.
Knight objects to Chomsky's "fairy-tale hypotheses" for the ('primeval'?) origins of these abilities, unshared with other species. How did the language learning capacity come about for the human mammal? None of us knows the answer. But it seems reasonable to hypothesise that, in the distant past, our ancestors acquired an upright posture (and bipedalism), associated with a descending larynx (it is situated much higher in the apes), producing the ability to make discrete 'noises' required for the development of language. Probably, firstly, as a means of communication, eventually - as Trotsky's friend, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, believed - language became a 'tool' for our intellectual development. (He researched the 'use' youngsters make of language for their thinking - by talking to themselves to help them solve problems.)
Chris keeps reminding us that Chomsky has no idea how these physiological changes came about - and "plays around" with "rays from outer space" or Platonic "souls". Today's researchers, working in the field of machine intelligence (where most of language research takes place), long ago left behind any possibility of 'self' or 'soul' entities in any literal sense; but Chris Knight is determined to attack the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor on these theological grounds. Added to that, Chomsky keeps "changing his mind" (actually it has happened more frequently than Chris delineates), as if that, in itself, is a fault. That's what happens in real science, Chris!
My mind boggles at the thought that perhaps the day will come when Chris Knight decides to take Isaac Newton apart - another guy who kept modifying his views, combined with an obsession with theology. When he died, a third of Newton's books were works of a philosophical/theological nature - twice as many as any addressing the scientific questions for which he is most remembered. Elsewhere, 5,000 additional pages of handwritten notes were discovered, all relating to his attempts to 'decode the Bible' in order to discover the definitive date for the prophesied apocalypse. Although Isaac would not have been regarded as a 'Christian' by the church, then or now, he did believe the scriptures, whereas only Chris Knight regards Chomsky's "magic rays" as serious hypotheses.