"For about two centuries (from Babeuf's 'community of equals' to the 1980s) the word 'communism' was the most important name of an Idea located in a field of emancipatory, or revolutionary politics” (Alain Badiou). Since the 1980s the term has lain dormant. Recently however there are signs of the Idea’s re-awakening. Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism is a fervent defence of the Idea as well as philosophy’s role within it. That being said the book consists less of an argument and more of an incitement to think. Springing from the first question—‘is it possible to be a young communist today without being either an ignoramus (of history) or an ingénue (of morality)?'—and assuming the reader’s answer to this question is ‘yes’; there follows a cascade of further questions posed by Bosteels and an assortment of contemporary critical thinkers he calls upon: What is the relation of the [eternal] idea of communism to its [contingent] history? Is communism synonymous with generic ideas of justice or the specific form of emancipation from capitalism? Can one be a communist without being a Marxist? What is the role of the State (if any) in a revolutionary process? What is the a role for the militant subject in such a process? Does communism have a specific endgame or does it really stand for a politics of insurrection? If so, where does this leave us in terms of particular organisations and concrete policies?
This is a book not to be digested, but to be periodically consulted, for many of these questions don’t have an answer; rather their resolution resides in their dialectical relation. Readers should be warned that Bosteels’ prose is at times (and as is characteristic of much of critical theory) exasperatingly opaque. If this book is to be read as a manual then it can be read as a guide as to how to ask critical and complex questions towards a simple and compelling idea without losing one’s militant fidelity both to the Idea and—here Bosteels should take note—its simplicity.
*Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist. See his work on NLP here.
Really this ought to be saved for Halloween, but for those leftists who complacently argue that our leaders need to be challenged more forcefully, this interview with former PM Tony Blair should make them a bit a more careful about what they wish for and a bit more grateful for the cosy, softly softly stlye, of Andrew Marr et al. It turns out though that Blair's biographer (obviously a fan of the horror genre) John Rentoul is evidently made of sterner stuff than the rest of us as he has written a glowing piece for the Independent extolling Blair's performance. Incidentally I strongly recommend readers to also have a look at Rentoul's impassioned and moving reaction to Tony Blair's resignation in 2007.
The video can't be embedded (as far as I can tell), but here is the link again. And here's a screenshot of what's in store:
We are always on the look out for good new progressive content here at NLP, so we were very pleased to see the launch of a new leftist review site - Review 31. Below is a brief interview with the editor Houman Barekat.
Can you tell our readers what Review 31 is and what kind of content you will be carrying?
Review 31 is an online literary magazine; we publish reviews of the latest non-fiction titles. The principal focus is on politics and history, as well as art & culture. It’s - broadly speaking - a politically progressive review.
Why do you think there is a need for a site like Review 31? What is it offering that you feel is lacking elsewhere?
I’m a huge fan of the London Review of Books. It’s elegant, topical and critically engaged. But the essay-length review can be problematic for online reading - my eyes just can’t take the glare for long enough to read 4,000 words in one sitting. So what I wanted to do was produce something that combined the intelligence and flair of the LRB with a format better suited to the internet age. I should emphasise that we’re not talking about soundbites - our reviews are between 800 and 1600 words long - just something slightly more compact. The design of the site is very user-friendly, very clean and easy on the eye.
I suppose the other thing that distinguishes us is the types of books that we’re choosing to highlight. We review titles from the major academic presses, of course, but we also look to give extra attention to the lists of the smaller independent presses. They’re publishing fresh, exciting books that often don’t get anything like the exposure they deserve.
What are your aims and hopes for the site?
In the medium term we hope to establish Review 31 as one of the leading online reviews. There are some other people doing a similar sort of thing - the Los Angeles Review of Books, edited by Tom Lutz, looks very promising. It’s currently in development - their site is in ‘preview mode’ but it already looks great.
It’s early days yet - we only launched three months ago. But the initial feedback from readers has been very positive. We’ve got a really interesting range of contributors - a good mix of scholars and journalists; some really excellent writers.
Houman Barekat is editor of Review 31 and co-editor, with Mike Gonzalez, of Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring (forthcoming from Pluto Press).
Is it antisemitic to accuse someone of being an "Israel firster"? For the past few weeks some of the most prominent American liberal commentators and Jeffrey Goldberg have been shouting at each other about this, after former AIPAC-er Josh Block orchestrated a smear campaign against two liberal think-tanks on the basis that writers associated with them had made use of the phrase. The political agenda behind the attacks was transparent: both the targeted organisations – the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters (MM) – have been prominent in pushing against US support for Israel's occupation and against an attack on Iran. But it provoked a minor split among liberal commentators, some of whom reacted by defending CAP and MM, and some of whom agreed that the phrase 'Israel Firster' is indeed "toxic".
The debate, which has now simmered down, is interesting mainly for what it reveals about where liberal American discourse on Israel is currently at, and where it might be going.
First, it is another indication of Israel's long-term secular decline in popularity among US liberals generally, and American Jews in particular. The fact that the debate is even happening indicates how far the ideological terrain has shifted. Fifteen years ago mainstream columnists would not have criticised Israel, and if they did would not have used the term "Israel Firsters" to do so, and if they had would not have been defended by other mainstream commentators. Times have changed.
The initial reaction to Block's smear further illustrates the point: usual suspects aside, it went nowhere. Even Lanny Davis, Block's business partner and himself a frequent apologist for Israel's occupation, criticised it, while two other prominent Washington think tanks threatened to sever ties with him, and Block was forced to stage a partial climbdown. Glenn Greenwald is right to note that "the only reason this has become such a problem for Block is because he made the over-reaching mistake of targeting an organization that is extremely well-connected". But more significant is that an establishment liberal organisation like CAP took such a critical line on Israel in the first place.
I say 'initial' reaction because, while MM dismissed the smears, CAP does appear to have censored its writers' criticism of Israel in the wake of the incident. This is presumably due mainly to CAP's association with the Democratic Party, which has an eye on the election and on Republican efforts to cast the Obama administration as hostile to Israel and/or Jews. But it also reflects the fact that even if criticism of Israel's occupation can no longer be credibly dismissed as 'antisemitic', "Israel Firster", with its resemblance to the charge of "dual loyalty" that has long dogged Jews, is more difficult to defend. A tactical corollary is that those commentators wishing to push back against attempts to police the discourse on Israel-Palestine ought not, perhaps, make their stand here.
Second, the debate prompts the question: is the spectre of "dual loyalty" being revived? This would be a significant development if so. Jews have historically been haunted by accusations of disloyalty, and American Jews have in the past been particularly careful to proclaim their loyalty to the US rather than Israel. Israel, in claiming to act in the name of Jews worldwide, threatened to give canards about Jewish 'dual loyalty' credibility, and as a result most American Jews for many decades distanced themselves from it. Norman Finkelstein's forthcoming book documents that before Israel became an American 'strategic asset' by crushing Nasser in 1967, most American Jewish elites – including those who advocated most vociferously for a US-Israeli alliance after '67 – were indifferent or actively hostile to it. More generally, "[fearful] of the 'dual loyalty' charge", American Jews have "drawn away from Israel whenever bilateral relations at the state level have been tenuous and drawn closer when they have overlapped".
If the current low-level grumbling among American elites about Israel's service or lack thereof to US interests escalates – and it may not – anti-Israel and anti-occupation sentiment could well be increasingly articulated in the language of 'national interests', and criticism of those who support US backing of Israel's occupation could increasingly take the form of accusations of dual loyalty or disloyalty to the US. This could in turn reinforce the abandonment of Israel by American Jews that is already underway.
On the substantive issue in dispute – the legitimacy of the phrase "Israel Firster" – both sides are wrong. Glenn Greenwald, MJ Rosenberg, Phil Weiss and Andrew Sullivan are correct to argue that there is nothing in principle antisemitic about accusing individuals of placing "Israel's" interests above "American" ones. Nor is it "gross" to point out that the American media's go-to guy on Israel-Palestine, Jeffrey Goldberg, served as a prison guard in the Israeli army. Amusingly, Goldberg now denies he was a prison guard, insisting that he was merely a "military policeman" and "counsellor" who took care of "the culinary, hygiene and medical needs of the prisoners". This is odd because in his memoir Goldberg explicitly says that he wasn't, whatever his formal job title, merely a counsellor:
"I was a 'prisoner counselor,' a job title that did not accurately reflect my duties in the related fields of discipline and punishment..." [Prisoners, p. 28]
Which seems fair enough, since counsellors don't generally assist in the abuse of prisoners, as Goldberg admits he did. Goldberg's strange denial appears to have convinced Ackerman, at least, which is encouraging insofar as it suggests that people who say they like Jeffrey Goldberg haveneverread Jeffrey Goldberg.
More importantly, if it is the case that people increasingly perceive US policy towards Israel to be a decisively shaped by de facto agents of the Israeli state, the issue should be subject to honest and frank debate. Silencing the above-ground conversation is likely to promote the less savoury lines of discussion within it.
All that said, "Israel Firsters" rhetoric is seriously problematic:
- It is not, contra Greenwald and Sullivan, "plainly true" that many prominent apologists for Israel are "Israel Firsters". As noted above, virtually all of these supposedly principled devotees of the Jewish state were completely silent on or else actively critical of Israel before it became a 'strategic asset' of the US establishment. As Finkelstein observes, after '67 Israel also effectively became "a 'strategic asset' of American Jews":
"[joining] the Zionist club was a prudent career move for Jewish communal leaders who could then play the role of key interlocutors between the U.S. and its strategic asset. Israel’s alleged existential vulnerability served as a useful pretext for politically ambitious Jews to champion American military power on which Israel’s survival supposedly hinged."
Charging these "Me Firsters" with principled loyalty to Israel drastically overestimates them. The record suggests that they are, as a rule, in it squarely for themselves. This confusion is significant, for example because a more realistic appreciation of the interests driving the Israel lobby and its sympathisers would draw attention to the ways in which support for Israeli militarism benefits and speaks to elite interests in the US, rather than just in Israel.
- The use of "Israel Firster", while not necessarily antisemitic, is not innocuous either. Accusations of "Israel Firster" do imply some ugly politics. "Israel Firster" is, after all, being opposed implicitly to "US Firster", with the tacit assumption that it is a Bad Thing to support a "foreign" state or people over one's "own". But why should that be so? If I am moved by images of famine in Somalia and decide to vote, in Britain, according to who I think would do the most to alleviate the effects and causes of that famine, am I being "dually loyal"? More to the point, if I am, is that a bad thing? It is particularly strange that liberals, who tend to take very seriously the idea that there are universal moral principles whose value transcends the claims of any particular state, would treat "dual loyalty" as a serious criticism.
I suspect Greenwald would reply that he rarely uses the term "Israel Firster", that his aim in this debate is to defend its legitimacy against accusations of antisemitism rather than to positively endorse it, and that when he does use it, it is either as a rhetorical device to highlight others' hypocrisy or as a normatively neutral description, rather than a criticism. In his case, this is generally true. But if we look at the emerging discourse more broadly, "Israel Firster" is typically used as a pejorative, which implies a set of assumptions that Sullivan, despite his dislike of the phrase, encapsulates quite well:
"[when] an American sides with a foreign government against his own president in a foreign country, what does one call that? Apart, that is, from disgusting."
The use of the term "Israel Firster" reflects a broader trend which chooses to frame opposition to Israeli policies, and US support for them, in terms of defending or protecting US "national interests", and which appears increasingly disposed to criticising apologists for Israeli occupation on the grounds that they are being disloyal to these "national interests", rather than on the grounds that they are enabling a profound injustice. I suspect that this in turn reflects an influx of liberals into the solidarity movement – in this sense the watering down and degeneration of the latter might well be a consequence of its own success – and a desire by some activists to align the movement, in an attempt to gain political influence, with those American elites who are concerned that Israel's occupation is harming US imperial interests (cf. Walt and Mearsheimer).
In either case, the strategy is dangerous. First, it relies on the gap among US elites over the wisdom of support for Israeli occupation widening, which may not happen to a sufficient degree. Second, its effect is to essentially whitewash the former. And third, it risks abandoning a principled opposition to Israel's occupation grounded in broadly appealing progressive values – it is wrong to demolish people's houses; it is wrong to torture children; it is wrong to shell schools and hospitals with white phosphorus; it is wrong to violently prevent a people from exercising self-determination in violation of international law; etc . – in favour of a critique based on parochial, unappealing and potentially quite vicious insinuations about people's – mainly Jews' – "loyalty". This isn't antisemitism. But it isn't the way to win the struggle, and nor should it be how we'd want to win it.
What was distinctive about the social movements that made 2011 the 'year of the protestor'? What links Occupy, the Arab revolts and the British student movement? Was 2011 the year the Hierarchy was defeated by the Network? Will the revolution be retweeted?
If you're interested in any or all of these questions, you're in luck.
Paul, the author of Meltdown and the best thing about BBC Newsnight, spent much of the past two years reporting from Spain, Greece, Wisconsin, London and elsewhere on the surge in popular protest as the effects of the financial crisis, and of the bailouts and austerity measures that followed, made themselves felt. Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere brings that remarkable reportage together and interprets the geographically disparate struggles as locally variant, but in crucial respects similar, responses to a common crisis: the collapse of the pre-2007 model of economic globalisation. If you're interested in thinking further about last year's really quite remarkable developments - the speed at which Occupy spread and its success in changing the political agenda, for example, was surely unprecedented in recent history - this is an excellent place to start.
On Thursday we'll stage two panels, one on Paul's book and the other on the Arab revolts, featuring Paul Mason, Ewa Jasiewicz, Mark Fisher, Dan Hancox, and other assorted luminaries:
Panel 1, 7-8.15pm:
An evening with Paul Mason and guests will start in the Purcell Room with a conversation between Paul, economist Costas Lapavitsas, journalist and union organiser Ewa Jasiewicz and author and theorist Mark Fisher. Katharine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian, will be chairing this discussion.
This part of the evening has sold out but can be screened into the foyer where Part 2 will take place.
Panel 2, 8.30-9.30pm:
The second session will involve two conversations, one focusing on protest and the other on the Arab Spring and women.
Talking about protest will be journalist Dan Hancox, author of Kettled Youth, writer James Butler and Mark Fisher. Chaired by writer and campaigner Eleanor Mae O'Hagan.
Meanwhile Paul Mason will be in conversation with academic Emma Dowling and journalist Rachel Shabi. Chaired by Bidisha, author of the forthcoming Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine
Note that the second panel is free, and while tickets for the first panel have sold out, you'll be able to watch it live via video link for free in the foyer next door.
To accompany the launch we'll also be running a series of articles and interviews here on NLP that respond to Paul's book, or which expand on some of the issues it raises. We'll kick off this week with a review of the book by NLP co-editor David Wearing and an in-depth interview with Paul himself. So keep your eyes peeled, and follow us on twitter and Facebook for updates.
A guest post by Ross Eventon, responding to this article on openDemocracy.
“The Taliban regime” contend David Held and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, scholars at the London School of Economics, “harboured Osama bin Laden while he planned and orchestrated the atrocities of 9/11.” The subsequent attack on Afghanistan began “with broad international support,” which “provided the campaign with initial legitimacy that was enshrined through United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1378, 1383, 1386, 1401.” Here ends their “discussion of the legal aspect of the war.”
No source is cited for the claim that Bin Laden orchestrated the September 11 attacks because, however reasonable such suspicions may be, no substantive evidence exists. Held and Ulrichsen see no need to consider why conventional forms of justice – apprehension of the suspect – were shunned, and why Taliban offers to hand over Bin Laden if evidence could be produced were flatly rejected, other than as an, albeit over-zealous, attempt at retribution. “The underpinnings of the ‘War on Terror’” can be explained solely through quotations of the then President Bush: ““we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.” This is a useful method of ascertaining the underlying determinants of foreign policy decisions, negating the need for any actual research or scholarship; although, given the state of the political sciences, blind acceptance of the proclamations of leadership may be the most fundamental aspect of what is called scholarship.
They authors quote Hew Strachan, who “questioned whether freedom could ever be a strategy in itself,” and warned that “the conflation of words like ‘war’ and ‘terror,’ and of ‘strategy’ and ‘policy’…contributes to the incoherence of the response that followed 9/11.” US foreign policy since 9/11 has been anything but incoherent, following conventional objectives thinly veiled in a familiar ideology.
The source for the claim of “broad international support” is not provided. An International Gallup Poll taken at the end of September 2001 found that respondents “strongly favored diplomatic-judicial measures over military action.” (cited in Noam Chomsky; Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.) The dates of the Security Council resolutions are also important. All are from at least a month after the initial bombing began on October 7th. Lacking a resolution, the bombing was an act of state terrorism designed, according to British Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, to punish Afghans “until they get their leadership changed.”
The initial strikes involved the use of cluster bombs on one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Cluster bombs are weapons that disproportionately affect children who tend to pick up the unexploded munitions. In September this year, Afghanistan was applauded by Human Rights Watch for signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning their use in the country, “despite heavy pressure from the US not to.” A month later, the US failed in a bid to push a new protocol through the UN that would sanction the use of cluster munitions made after 1980.
The attacks went ahead despite aid groups warning millions may die as a result of the restricted access for humanitarian supplies. By May 2001, the Guardian reported, “As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention.” None of this, of course, could even slightly tarnish the image of the “Right War,” that picture only being challenged now the US appears to be committing the greatest crime of all: losing.
Curiously, “NATO continues to bomb Afghanistan even after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.” (my emphasis) This may suggest the "War on Terror" has a separate agenda. Declassified documents recently revealed that on September 30 2001, the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote to Bush advising that he attempt to install a new regime in Afghanistan. Of the forthcoming attack, he wrote, "If the war does not significantly change the world's political map, the U.S. will not achieve its aim.” A year earlier, Rumsfeld co-authored a report along with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, arguing that, “[w]hile the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”
It is a “terrible irony,” conclude Held and Ulrichsen that “attempts to resist terrorist violence in the decade after 9/11 have ended up weakening the very structures of law and constraints on the use of force that have formed the cornerstone of the international system and bedrock of global security since 1945.” Aside from the act of international terrorism that laid the foundation for the invasion, “attempts to resist terrorist violence” also include the engagement in wars that, it was understood at the time, would increase the threat to domestic populations as well as the continuation of military aid that “encourages terrorist groups to attack Americans.” Afghans, Palestinians, Iraqis, Colombians and others enduring US backed “use of force” in the decade after 9/11 can testify further to the extent of these terrible ironies.
Ross Eventon is a writer and researcher based in Bogota, Colombia. He was previously the Samuel Rubin Young Fellow at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam where he focused on Afghanistan
"The key idea in this animated film was this: the pawns revolt against the 'ruling class' pieces, sweep them from the board and then dance an American square dance on the board. In the end, however, they start a new chess game, but this time the pawns are on the back row moving like Kings and bishops and the like, while the old aristocratic pieces occupy the pawn row and move like pawns. The message of the film was that the pawns failed to make a revolution because they thought it was sufficient to depose the old elite. They neglected to remove the board itself. The chessboard, then, was a metaphor for underlying social structure that generates 'the rules of the game'. A revolution, to be sustainable, has to transform that.
Now, this idea is not a uniquely Marxist idea. In a sense it is the foundational idea of much structurally oriented sociology: people fill “locations” in social structures — sometimes called roles — which impose constraints and opportunities on what they can chose to do. This doesn’t mean that human practices or activities are rigidly determined by roles. Intentions and choices still really matter. Agency matters. But such choice occurs in a setting of systematic (rather than haphazard) constraints.
The Marxist form of this general idea is to make a claim — a pretty bold one when you think about it — that the key to understanding this structural level of constraint is the nature of the economic structure in which people live, or even more precisely, the nature of the “mode of production”. In my little film there was no production, no economy. The chessboard was a completely open-ended metaphor for social structure. So it is in that sense that the film was not specifically based on a Marxist framework.
As for its inspiration, I think the film grew out of the concerns for radical, egalitarian social change that were part of the intellectual culture of the student movement, the American civil rights movement and Vietnam War era anti-war movement. I participated in various ways in these social movements of the 1960s and was very much caught up in the utopian aspirations of the times, but I also felt that the task of constructing emancipatory alternatives was more arduous than many people thought. It is not enough to attack the establishment and remove its players. Constructing an alternative is a task in its own right. And that is what the film tried to convey."
You can read my interview with Erik on the Occupy movement here.
There was a certain inevitability to the furore around Diane Abbot’s supposedly racist comment on Twitter – coming as it did in the wake of the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The right has always resented that the concept of ‘institutionalised racism’ was mainstreamed by the Macpherson inquiry. It destabilised the elite consensus that racism can be understood as nothing more than an individual pathology, stripped of any notion of social inequality and racial hierarchy. The denunciations of Diane Abbot as a racist are a reactionary counter-attack seeking to disguise the reality of white privilege.
As Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley note in The Crisis of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age:
To criticize ‘white European culture’ as imperialist is not the same as claiming that all migrants are wife-beaters, or homophobes. The first contention, however furiously it is debated, makes little impact on the everyday lives of whites occupying hegemonic and relatively privileged social positions. The second... has cumulative political power, requiring everyone ascribed to those groups to negotiate it in some form, and leading to the further demonization of large groups of people already diminished in power vis-à-vis the majority in the societies in which they live.
Only in a public domain debased by decades of neoliberalism, where debate is divorced from any notion of social or historical realities, could the absurd claims made against Abbott be seen as having any intellectual coherence.