I think Tony Greenstein’s indignant effusions (Letters, August 2) over my obituary for Alexander Cockburn (‘A radical for all seasons’, July 26) can be usefully divided into two parts:
1. Greenstein says that the online and print journal, Counterpunch, edited by Cockburn (until his death) and Jeffrey St Clair, has regularly published the writings of Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir, whom Greenstein claims are certifiable anti-Semites; and
2. From the above, Greenstein concludes that Cockburn was a reactionary conspiracy theorist and a racist; that my entire obituary is “utter garbage”, completely out of place in a revolutionary socialist newspaper; and that the Weekly Worker therefore owes its readers a “profound apology” for having printed it.
On the first point, Greenstein is absolutely right. I was not aware of Shamir at the time I wrote the obit, and was familiar with Atzmon only by way of his polemic against Moshé Machover, which I instantly dismissed as the pratings of a crank. I am in the habit of reading selectively from a wide assortment of material that appears in Counterpunch. Having looked into the matter more thoroughly as a result of Greenstein’s complaint, I can only conclude that these two writers are in the unmistakable territory of old-fashioned, anti-Semitic demonology.
Articles published under their by-line in Counterpunch often seem like rational political and social commentary, offering only hints of the primeval depths to which they descend in other writings. On his blog, Atzmon berates Machover for espousing “Judeo-Marxism” (in what country, by which political faction, was a similar epithet hurled in the 1920s and 30s?), because the latter thinks the answer to oppression by the Zionist state lies not in political Islam, but in mutual recognition of national rights by Israelis and Palestinians. In another article, Atzmon writes: “…we must begin to take the accusation that Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously” (‘On anti-Semitism’, March 20 2003, Gilad.co.uk, quoted on the Lenin’s Tomb website), and goes on elsewhere to speak of the Jewish bankers who helped finance many wars and at least one communist revolution (‘Zionism and other marginal thoughts’, October 4 2009; ‘Truth, history and integrity’, March 13 2010).
The above invective is tame in comparison to the rants on Shamir’s website. It approvingly features an article describing Shamir’s career by a self-professed rightwing Catholic, E Michael Jones, who writes: “Shamir … saw Jews not [like the contemporary Catholic Church - JC] as our ‘elder brothers’, but as St Paul saw them, which is to say, ‘as the enemy of mankind’.” Jones says that Shamir, a Russian-born Jew who converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church, “was reborn out of the Jewish culture of death”. He speaks of the “Jewish-American empire” and “Judeo-Mammonites”, who can only improve their fortunes at the expense of other peoples (‘A report from planet mammon’, undated, israelshamir.net). Shamir repeatedly states that whether the holocaust actually occurred is “irrelevant”; what counts is combating the contemporary holocaust narrative of Jewish victimhood, which is used to cement Zionist and western imperialist domination.
Atzmon and Shamir differ with Hitlerite anti-Semitism in that they don’t regard Jewishness as a racial category (both having been born Jewish themselves). Shamir argues that his rejection of racialist views acquits him of the charge of anti-Semitism. But both view Israeli crimes against Palestinians, and the conflicts Zionism has unleashed in the Middle East, not as a result of specific historical or political causes, but as a contemporary manifestation of the timeless essence of Judaism - a tribal exclusiveness integral to the Hebraic culture and religion. Such sentiments, in fact, reprise an anti-Semitism present in Europe centuries before it was buttressed by 19th century racial doctrines. Shamir embraces this classical Christian variety of Jew-hating. He thus sees the solution to the ‘Jewish problem’ not in the adoption of what he (echoing traditional Catholic reaction) calls a non-religious “Masonic identity”, but in the conversion of all Jews to Christianity.
In my opinion, the writings of lower-depth-dwellers like Atzmon and Shamir have no place in publications purporting to be of the left, whether or not their anti-Semitic views are propounded in any particular article they submit. Why Counterpunch continues to run their pieces is a question only the remaining editor, Jeffrey St Clair, can answer (which he has shown no inclination to do). It would seem that the journal’s notoriously lax editorial control cannot be invoked as an excuse, since Greenstein, for one, has explicitly brought the views of Atzmon and Shamir to its attention.
But Counterpunch is hardly alone in its indulgence of these authors. Time-worn anti-Semitic falsehoods have gained ground in the Middle East, and have long lurked about the fringes of the left and the Palestinian solidarity movement like some sinister computer virus, successfully infiltrating even the most apparently secure of sites. The Socialist Workers Party invited Atzmon to speak at one of its conferences; Shamir’s son is the official representative of Wikileaks in Sweden; a respected liberal scholar, John Mearsheimer, and a leftish journalist, Richard Falk, have written laudatory dust-jacket blurbs for Atzmon’s latest book, The wandering who?, which has been published by a leftwing press, Zero Books. The publication has occasioned a written protest by other authors whose works have appeared under that imprint, including Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour of the Lenin’s Tomb blog,
Such viruses seem to be flourishing amid the historical ignorance and mystified thinking that have grown exponentially since Marxism - which claims that the present can only be grasped in relation to the past - has fallen into disfavour. Too many younger activists know only of today’s Middle East of Palestinian victims and Zionist oppressors who never tire of invoking the holocaust to rationalise their crimes; the self-appointed western Jewish spokespersons they encounter are even more Islamophobic and fanatically Zionist than many Israelis. Pre-World War II Europe, where millions of Jews were socialists, and Jew-baiting was a staple of reaction, is for them as distant as China under the Ming emperors. In this knowledge gap, ancient hatreds revive in anti-imperialist guise.
Regarding the second part of comrade Greenstein’s argument, my differences concern the conclusions he draws from the sordid facts he does us the favour of bringing to light. From the string of pejoratives he directs at Counterpunch and the memory of Alexander Cockburn, one can only assume he thinks both are defined politically by their association with Atzmon and Shamir. As a well known anti-Zionist activist, Greenstein may indeed define his own politics mainly in relation to Israel and the Middle East, but to impose a standard by which he may reasonably be judged upon others with a different profile seems to me highly subjective.
Cockburn was not, as Greenstein has it, “part of [a] reactionary gaggle of conspiracy theorists”. In fact, he was a major debunker of the two conspiracy theories most popular in the US and beyond: those surrounding the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attack. Nor did Cockburn ever become a reactionary, a racist or an anti-Semite, despite his unconscionable decision to publish the writings of people to whom those descriptions apply. He remained throughout his career a person of decidedly leftwing views (albeit quirky ones in later years) and the magazine he edited was perhaps the country’s most popular venue for writers ranging from radical-liberal to socialist and anarchist. My obituary may have benefited from the inclusion of the blemish on Cockburn’s reputation to which Greenstein points. But nothing I wrote about him was wrong or misleading.
Neither I nor, in my opinion, the Weekly Worker owe readers an apology. People’s political lives, like the rest of reality, are never free of contradiction, but it is on balance, and not on the basis of one or two transgressions, that lives should be assessed.
Paul Smith is right that it is important to discuss whether capitalism is in decline or not. It is important also to discuss why so many on the left have always been obsessed with the view that it is an article of faith to proclaim that it is, and what this kind of catastrophism says about the state of demoralisation and decay within the left itself. A look at Trotsky’s writings in ‘Flood tide’ and ‘The curve of capitalist development’ shows he had no truck with such ideas, and argued that the ultra-lefts were completely wrong in believing that a period of sustained decline would push workers into revolution. It would have the opposite effect, he argued.
Unfortunately, Paul’s approach, whereby he provides no factual evidence to back up his claims that capitalism is in decline, and relies upon repeating 90-year-old dogma, both for that and generalisations based on it, rather than reasoned argument, do not advance such a debate very far. Yet, trying to respond to all of Paul’s misconceptions, misrepresentations and questioning of data is not something that can be quickly done without resorting to the same approach. Rather than take up more space in the pages of the Weekly Worker for that task, therefore, I have responded in more detail on my blog at http://boffyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/a-reply-to-paul-smith-part-1.html.
There is just one short response in relation to data I would make here. Paul says: “As far as I know, there is no statistical evidence that can distinguish between growth rates and capital accumulation.” I find such a comment bizarre, because there is no shortage of such data. The World Bank publishes data on global fixed capital formation. It shows that it rose from $7 trillion per annum in 2002, to $14 trillion in 2010! Paul also refers to having talked about the growth of derivatives, but does not seem to be aware that the value of derivatives are not included in data for GDP and so are irrelevant.
In the same issue, David Walters misrepresents my argument on at least two counts. Firstly, he chastises me for technological determinism. But I have not argued that technology will always, necessarily, provide a solution. My argument is rather that Tony Clark is wrong to discount the possibility - I would argue on the basis of evidence probability that it will on this occasion! Secondly, David is wrong to argue that coal replaced wood because it was cheaper. Essentially, David’s argument is Ricardian rather than Marxian. As I set out, when wood/charcoal was running out, coal was neither cheap nor abundant. Only surface coal was available, and transporting it to where it was needed was nigh on impossible. In the same way that Marx describes how Ricardo was wrong in his theory of rent, because capital can take poor-quality land and improve it to the extent that it becomes more fertile, more productive land than the best previously in cultivation, so capital investment in steam engines and mining technology meant that deep-mined coal became available. Investment in canals, and then railways, meant that it could be transported cheaply and efficiently. It was capital investment that made coal cheap, just as today it is making oil and gas cheaper.
On David’s point about energy density, the same argument can be made because how much energy per gram you get from any type of energy is again a function of how you use it! It should be noted, however, that gas is more energy-dense than oil. On nuclear, the point is that a precondition would be socialism to have any guarantee it could be used safely. The argument for workers’ control of nuclear falls for the reasons Trotsky set out in relation to it in general - ie, you can only have real workers’ control in a situation of dual power in society, a pre-revolutionary situation, where we would probably have more pressing things to attend to.
I would make one final point in respect of the technology, etc, which is in relation to the environment. Forty-odd years ago, when I was growing up, the environment was in a much worse condition than it is today. Every evening in the village where I lived the sky would go bright red and sulphur would fill your lungs, as they opened the coke ovens at the nearby gas works. Kilns belched dense black smoke, inefficient cars burnt oil and pumped out far more pollution than today, windows and brickwork were black with soot, and lungs must have had a similar coating. Rivers were dead, after decades of industrial pollution, and masses of land were filled with heavy metals as a consequence of industrial production.
Today most of that has gone. The air is relatively clean, the brickwork is being restored, country parks have replaced despoiled land and fish have returned to water courses. As Bjørn Lomborg has pointed out, all of those improvements have come about as a result of rapid economic development, which has made it possible to invest resources into it and more efficient, less polluting forms of energy and production.
Similar developments are happening elsewhere - for example, in parts of Africa, people are being helped to move away from inefficient and heavily polluting forms of energy, such as burning dung, into more efficient forms of energy, such as burning methane captured from the same dung!
Sleight of hand
David Walters (Letters, July 26) is right on point in his exposé of Moshé Machover’s sleight of hand and abrogation of basic Marxist principles concerning the right of self-determination for the subjugated people of Palestine.
Machover contends that there are “two national groups” - the Palestinian Arabs and a “Hebrew nation” - on whom he confers an “equal right” to self-determination (‘Standing the test of time’, July 19). His attempts to give this formula socialist content are risible, as seen in the abstract demand that joint “national” rights of the oppressor population and of the national population, whom they have subjugated, may ensue only after the magical creation of a pre-established “socialist regional union or federation of the Arab east”.
The realisation of a socialist revolution in the region cannot be abstracted from or counterposed to the democratic tasks of the revolution: the struggle for national self-determination of the oppressed. The Marxist and indeed Leninist principles of the right of self-determination for oppressed nationalities are turned, thereby, on their head: the Marxist call for self-determination has never placed an equal sign between the rights of the oppressed and their oppressors.
The settler populations of South Africa - dating back some 500 years - did not enjoy a right to self-determination in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, any more than did their counterparts in the cities and land of the Rhodesias, Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia. Why this indecent exceptionalism when it comes to Zionism and its Palestinian victims?
A similar sleight of hand is to be found in Machover’s claim that the call for an Arab Palestine represents “bourgeois nationalism”, let alone a “two-stage” Stalinist approach.
Permanent revolution does not counterpose the struggle for national liberation and the democratic tasks of the revolution to the realisation of social ownership by the mass of the working population. On the contrary, the necessity for social control over the means of production arises specifically from the struggle for self-determination. It is through national mobilisation of the dispossessed in the broadest struggle for sovereign rule that the necessity of social ownership by the working masses is posed.
The struggle for national liberation is neither stagist nor “bourgeois”, precisely because to achieve the former in the age of imperialism requires the basic fight for national rights of the oppressed to “grow over”, through the mobilisation of the working masses, into the call for social ownership of the means of production. That is the core of permanent revolution that comrade Machover caricatures in the course of abandoning it.
By predicating mechanically the national struggle for an Arab Palestine on a pre-existing regional socialist federation, Machover seeks to conceal the basic content of his advocacy: the liquidation of the national struggle and with it the reduction of the call for socialism not merely to an abstraction, but to an actual barrier to a principled struggle for the national self-determination and liberation of the oppressed - and, therefore, for socialism itself.
This form of ‘left’ Zionism reveals the fear of the oppressor population that those they have subjugated will visit upon them a comparable brutal abrogation of democratic rights that defined the ethnic cleansing and subjugation of the people of Palestine. In its essence, this is the unspoken fear of the bourgeoisie and of all exploiting groups. Machover’s call for “equal rights” for a “Hebrew nation” on the land of the oppressed Palestinian masses reduces itself to the demand for prior guarantees from the oppressed regarding the democratic rights of their former oppressors as citizens of a post-Zionist Palestinian nation.
These rights for all citizens arise precisely from the forms of struggle required to achieve national liberation: the constituent assembly and the conferring of citizenship upon all inhabitants independent of ethnic identity or religious affiliation. No, the formulations of comrade Machover have nothing in common with self-determination or its fulfilment and realisation in concomitant struggle for national liberation in a socialist region.
The call for a “Hebrew nation” in Palestine, and for postponing the struggle for Palestinian national rights until the magical emergence of a “socialist federation”, reduces itself, posturing aside, to the core sensibility of the oppressor nationality and of the bourgeoisie itself.
Sleight of hand
Sleight of hand
Mike Macnair (‘Imperialism, capitalism and war’, August 2) spends much effort pondering whether US warmongering is rationally irrational or irrationally rational, or so it seems. He tilts at many arguments along the way, and it is not usually clear whether these are his own Aunt Sallies or ones erected by unspecified “important sections of the left”. Those who claim that the US is concerned with the price and control of oil are somehow bracketed, without explanation, with those seeing Chinese victory in a progressive light.
The billions spent on unsuccessful war against the Taliban he presents as showing an irrational impulse, but it would not seem so from the standpoint of the arms producers, usually paid in dollars. Sure enough, capitalism is anarchic, made up of competing capitals and nation-states, but each actor has its own interests to promote.
The US produces 8.8% of world oil, but consumes 20.5% and has a definite interest in ensuring supplies are maintained and the producing regions are in friendly or amenable hands, hence intense lobbying over pipeline routes. The main oil- and gas-producing regions, from north Africa, through the Middle East and the Caspian basin, into western Siberia, are sparsely populated, politically volatile, contain many other vital resources as well as hydrocarbons, and sit between Europe and China. Direct control might not be the issue every time, but politics abhors a vacuum and fear that others might monopolise resources is a powerful rationale. Messrs Sykes and Picot knew what they were doing when they drew the straight lines on the map that became the boundaries of various states. It is precisely in this context that Mike’s description of a hierarchy of capitalists, with a “top dog” that must keep using its military advantage, has some merit. Even now, if it loses a war, others will pay.
Where I agree most with Mike is his last paragraph arguing that it is no use appealing to sections of the ruling class to ensure a “law-governed world order”. Instead, a successful anti-war campaign would be based on the working class. At the time of the Iraq war, I was involved with a few others in setting up a ‘No War but Class War’ campaign. It did not prosper; the prevailing mood was for ‘broad’ movements or activism for its own sake.
Many elements of the Stop the War Coalition were actively hostile to anything based on class or to serious discussion of principles. This is precisely what has to be challenged. Is it not time to break with the STWC and set up a campaign on a class basis?
When Alex Callinicos’s article on Syria referred to in ‘Where is the left?’ (Weekly Worker August 2) was published, I wrote a letter to Socialist Worker that was, of course, neither answered nor published.
I wrote that there was not just the ‘pro-’ and the ‘anti-imperialist’ position, but that the main question was the socio-economic and political character of the oppositional forces. I wrote that the opposition to the Ba’athist regime was, of course, legitimate, but that I had not yet read anything about what the oppositional forces, so much hailed by the SWP, offered as a programme for a post-Ba’athist Syria (apart from ‘democracy’, which nowadays is the battle cry for almost everyone except perhaps the jihadi groups).
I think that, by ignoring things such as the role of the proletarian vanguard party and the programme (or - in both cases - their absence), the SWP is guilty of a serious deviation towards movementism, a deviation which lies at the base of its wrong position on the Syrian mess, its unwillingness even to correctly report such problems as the growing influence of sectarian forces. The SWP ‘forgets’ that the working class is bound to become the battering ram for other class forces unless it is able to build its own vanguard and, while a generalisation of struggles is the basis for building such a vanguard, it is not a spontaneous development.
Socialist Worker, however, has never reported the coming into being of a proletarian vanguard organisation in Syria. It also could not claim that the revolt in Syria was built on previous proletarian struggles, as was at least partly the case in Egypt. So how could it expect any positive (for socialists, that is) outcome of what has happened there since spring 2011? And why should an amorphous, and therefore highly fragmented, opposition be able to topple a vicious and highly militarised regime such as Assad’s, and why should it be the - in our view - best parts of this movement to get help from those who have the means to help (the imperialists and the regional pro-imperialist reactionaries)?
The ones who get this help, of course, have a programme: namely to become bosses themselves (and maybe to slaughter as many ‘kufar’ (Alawites, Druze and Christians, as in Iraq) as they can. They wouldn’t need any more of a programme, since their Syria will perhaps be even more neoliberal than it is now - only with others filling their pockets and with the masses remaining as destitute as they are now.
It is remarkable that a ‘Marxist’ organisation such as the SWP doesn’t even care to discuss any of these problems.
40 years ago
In 1972 I was appointed clerk of Clay Cross parish council. In that same year the Heath government introduced the Housing Finance Act, which reorganised local government, abolished urban district councils and created a two-tier structure. There were district councils and metropolitan boroughs like Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, while county authorities were retained. Clay Cross parish was more like a town council: it employed, for instance, groundsmen, cemetery workers and staff at local social centres.
The Conservative government of Ted Heath was responsible for major class battles with miners, dockers and building workers and it now sought to take on recalcitrant Labour authorities. Clay Cross had a reputation as a militant council and was determined to resist the Tory attack on council tenants. The Housing Finance Act fixed the level of rents to be charged, requiring Labour authorities to raise rents. But Clay Cross had a very good relationship with its tenants and refused to comply, as did Conisbrough, Lambeth and Liverpool. Some of the councillors were miners - including Dennis Skinner, who was born in the town. His brothers, David and Graham, were also active politically: Graham was the local branch secretary of the National Union of Public Employees and David was a councillor alongside Dennis, until the latter became MP for Bolsover in 1970.
When the council refused to increase rents in line with the Housing Finance Act, a housing commissioner was sent in to take charge of the Clay Cross stock. The district auditor surcharged the 11 Labour councillors £635 each and they were disbarred from office. A ‘second 11’ of Labour councillors were elected in their place and they were also surcharged and disbarred. As a result of the surcharge they were declared bankrupt in 1975.
By the time I became clerk to the new parish council, Clay Cross Urban District Council was no more and most decisions were taken by the new North East Derbyshire District Council. I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party and it had been decided that I should join the local Labour Party in line with the ‘deep entry tactic’ also favoured by the Militant Tendency and other Trotskyists. Of course, some of the Labour councillors were supporters of ‘the Militant’ and I would cross swords with them - Militant had adapted to left reformism in the Labour Party while posturing as ‘Trotskyists’.
In opposition to the government’s pay freeze at the time, I recommended that the workforce employed by the parish council should be given a pay increase. I too was duly surcharged by the district auditor. There was no mention of my surcharge by those centrists in the Labour Party who had campaigned against similar treatment for the councillors. In the April 1974 elections Labour lost North East Derbyshire to the Ratepayers Alliance and I was duly dismissed. When I appealed to the local NUPE branch for support, there was no effort to organise the membership for strike action. Instead a claim for wrongful dismissal was submitted to the industrial tribunal office in Sheffield. A barrister called Steve Cohen represented me on behalf of the union’s solicitors at the tribunal. Despite the excellent case he made I inevitably lost.
During this period I was blacklisted by Aims of Industry and the Economic League, two Tory front organisations that warned employers of trade union militants and so-called ‘troublemakers’ like myself. This was confirmed to me by a journalist at The Observer who had seen my name on the blacklist. I was also witch-hunted in the centre pages of The Daily Telegraph and I remained unemployed for five years.
The lesson for me was that centrism, as represented by Militant, provided no answers to the concerted Tory attack. Instead of attempting to mobilise the working class through strikes and occupations to defend myself and those 22 Labour councillors, it preferred to go before the capitalist courts.
40 years ago
40 years ago
I don’t have time this week to reply in depth to comrade Peter Manson’s latest letter (August 2) in our exchange on sectarianism. But one point is, I think, critical.
The point I have been making all along is that sectarianism is not a matter of the interests of the small group (by which I have in my original article, and in every letter, meant its objective interests), but of its subjective choices. I am therefore pleased to see that Peter’s latest letter in effect accepts this point, when he refers to “separate and rival perceived interests”.