The left’s international way forward


10:20 am - January 22nd 2011

by Jennifer O'Mahony    


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I am working my way through Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22, which is at turns infuriating and enlightening, and often very funny.

What struck me, however, more than any detail about Hitchens’ personal life, is the international solidarity of the movement of which he was a part in the late sixties and early seventies.

The International Socialists may have possessed this trait to a greater extent than other socialist and social democrat groups of the era, but I know from experience of talking with older leftists that it would not have been uncommon to hold meetings and protest against dictatorships in Greece and Portugal during this time, or to march against the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua.

There is a passage in which Hitchens visits Cuba as a sort of socialist show-and-tell, comparing methods and notes on revolutionary tactics.

In earlier incarnations of socialism, figures like George Orwell actively fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s, and in another section of Hitch-22 a member of Hitchens’ set is heard to encourage his comrades to fight alongside the Viet Cong.

In a short interview I did with the writer D.D. Guttenplan recently, he said to me that “the left has no historical memory”, a clear source of frustration to him. I do, on reflection, think this is true. How many of us would go and fight against the American and British armies in Afghanistan, for example?

This would be completely unthinkable to most, and might have something to do with the unpalatable nature of the Taleban just as much as the inconvenience of getting shot. I have yet to hear one single person tell me they are heading out to Kabul to the aid of the Afghan people, and this is because the issue of solidarity with the oppressed as a principle and solidarity with their politics, and their leaders, are two very different things. It makes more sense, most would argue, to organise and pressure from home than to strap on a gun and start shooting at soldiers.

Perhaps the only comparable example today to Orwell and International Brigades might be the Free Gaza Movement, for which young Europeans and Americans have been killed for their solidarity.

This exception for Palestine comes in part from the older International Solidarity Movement, the structure of whose organisation could be compelling for our own future. The Palestinian cause has only grown in the last thirty years, and retains strong international links that are decentralised but work together across linguistic and national barriers for a common cause. This structure is useful regardless of what you may think of the Palestinian Authority.

It may also be more applicable today in that socialists have taken on Palestine as a “cause” despite the lack of socialist credentials in their leaders. International Socialism magazine writes: “Hamas, needless to say, is not a socialist or working class organisation and it certainly does not offer a vision of universal human emancipation”.

The new movement must begin to make choices in the debate over international solidarity. Yes to Tunisia, because the recent overthrow was led by secularists, but no, perhaps, to Afghanistan, because the alternative is a theocracy? I want to open a debate on how we can widen the newly emboldened left to include those who have similar (not necessarily explicitly socialist) principles in their dealings with governments and corporations.

Another consideration might be the World Social Forum, which despite a promising start has now faded from media attention and lost some of its most powerful bases. As Geoffrey Pleyers states, “evidence of retreat is unmistakable”. This is partly the result of failure to change tactic, for example on international trade liberalisation, and partly because of the desire by some to keep the WSP a sounding board as opposed to a force for mobilisation.

As the old international solidarity broke down (in some cases for good reason), our disparate anti-capitalist, environmentalist, or socialist movements have become fragmented. The first decision that must be made is what the “left” now constitutes. Perhaps that name itself is now a redundant one. The aforementioned three splinters might be the founding triumvirate, but what about a family worried about their local library closing down. Are they in or are they out?

I intend this as a genuine question, and hope that whatever has been achieved in the last sixth months can be inclusive. We should start by building a pan-European movement against the onward march of austerity with those affected in France, Greece, and Italy, (Europe Uncut!) and start rebuilding the idea of internationalism as a force for change within an EU framework. If we join forces with French unions, Italian students, and Greek public sector workers, we could have a real mandate. We should take the strong, decentralised model of Free Gaza, and be wary of the pitfalls of getting stuck in one ideology, or losing momentum, as in the case of the World Social Forum.

Fostering dissent in the US is also a vital next step, as Republicans try to force cuts on the already battered middle and working classes. Groups like Platypus are keen to build links with the UK.

International solidarity could be key to a new movement that grows in strength where others have stalled in the last thirty years. With unfettered capitalism at its most discredited during that period, now is the time to get organised.

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About the author
Jennifer is a regular contributor to LC. She blogs here and is on Twitter here.
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Reader comments


Please, never, ever, equate the jihadist theocratic misogynist homophobic athoritarian lunatics in the Taleban with the socialist/communist/trade unionist anti-Franco forces in ’30s Spain ever again. Thanks.

Perhaps the only comparable example today to Orwell and International Brigades might be the Free Gaza Movement

What an utterly disgusting and offensive statement. The Free Gaza Movement supports fascistic Hamas and its allies.

This is a despicable insult to Orwell and the International Brigades.

We should start by building a pan-European movement against the onward march of austerity with those affected in France, Greece, and Italy, (Europe Uncut!) and start rebuilding the idea of internationalism as a force for change within an EU framework.

I’m not completely sure that working to empower the EU is a marvellous way to foster popular support…

Orwell and many other socialists supported the forces fighting against Franco despite the dreadful activities of the Stalinists in Spain; I and many others support the Palestinians in their fight against the Israeli state despite the dreadful nature of Hamas.

Bit of ‘I am outraged!!!, so i refuse to think’ above.

If an individual civilian goes to join a civil war in some other country, how the fuck could they possibly have any idea as to whether they would be joining the right side?

The International brigades got it right, so we count them as heroes. But as a social phenomenon, those who volunteered for the fascist cause were pretty much indistinguishable. As the kind of idealistic young person who would do that, all you have to go on before you make the call is what your elders tell you. And at that age, you don’t have any realistic way of knowing how much they are lying to you.

In the Cold war, it was pretty easy to pick a side – the side supported by the Soviets would always have a pre-made narrative, targeted at western liberals, explaining how they were the good guys. These days that doesn’t really exist, those movements that seek foreign volunteers generally ask in Arabic.

Take away message is that if military intervention is a questionable idea at best, individual military volunteerism is an outright stupid one.

I must concede that I find Hitchens broadly correct on most issues. His assesment of the current state of the left is pretty spot on imo. Iif you look at a few of his recent interviews – one with Paxman recently for instance, I seem to recall him expanding/reiterating his views from the book. Effectivly leveling the accusation that much of the left is no longer siding with the oppressed and far from being anything revolutionary is actually happy to support some of the most conservative theocratic movements in the world.

He also says something about the absense of an international socialist movement, how it effectivly died with the Soviet Union and that there simply isn’t a credible alternative to liberal democratic capitalism.

This is all very well, but the clearest way forward for the left (and certainly the party) is to adopt popular prejudices against muslims.

This is exactly the sort of populist stuff we need to win back our traditional supporters. The tabloids they read already warn them about these terrorist loving darkies and their rape gangs.All we have to do is jump on the bandwagon.

It will also help to put a lot of clear red water between us and the Condem who are arrogantly trying to challenge this healthy bigotry from their ivory towers.

Have you got a link to this interview with Guttenplan? Because I can make no sense of this:

In earlier incarnations of socialism, figures like George Orwell actively fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s, and in another section of Hitch-22 a member of Hitchens’ set is heard to encourage his comrades to fight alongside the Viet Cong.

In a short interview I did with the writer D.D. Guttenplan recently, he said to me that “the left has no historical memory”, a clear source of frustration to him. I do, on reflection, think this is true. How many of us would go and fight against the American and British armies in Afghanistan, for example?

I can only suppose that the historical memory thing makes sense in context because all I’m getting is industrial grade non-sequitur.

@6

“He also says something about the absense of an international socialist movement, how it effectivly died with the Soviet Union and that there simply isn’t a credible alternative to liberal democratic capitalism.”

Well if there is an international socialist movement I for one wouldn’t want it tied to the (thankfully dead and/or dying) remains of the Soviet Union.

The alternative to liberal democratic capitalism isn’t authoritarian bullshit from Russia or Jihai nonsense from Saudi Arabia (via Afghanistan) – it’s liberal democratic socialism and it has never been tried.

‘Europe uncut!’ sounds like a circumcision boast.

You need to do more work on this ‘what is left?’ question. David Harvy, Eric Hobsbawm, Slavoj Zizek. These are thinkers at least asking some interesting questions on the topic. Hitchens/Nick Cohen/Harry’s Place are the product of the decision that there is not an answer on capitalism – they are Orwell without the hope.

9 – not even in Sweden?

12. Jennifer O'Mahony

Hello. Whenever I wrote for LibCon I feel as though I have written 10 other articles than the one I actually wrote… responses:

@Mr S Pill Notice I don’t equate Orwell with the Taleban, a willful misreading, but rather point out that today’s wars (Afghanistan being an example) are much less easy to “take a side on” for the left, because of the unpalatable nature of their politics. This is extremely clear in the piece.

@BenSix, again, a misreading, I say within an EU framework… lobbying on an EU level is not the same as empowering the EU…

@Geofff – Hitchens, as we know, got a lot wrong in his later years. I’m trying to argue that this point is one of them.

I don’t quite understand, then (not trying to be dense, though perhaps I’m dense regardless!). Are you suggesting that the “left” try to get the EU to act as a legislative body or tries to provoke its individual governments into acting?

14. Jennifer O'Mahony

@BenSix – Do you object to the EU as an institution? If by lobbying for change at an EU level we are “empowering” it in the sense of “getting it to do stuff” then maybe that IS what I mean?

15. Jennifer O'Mahony

@BenSix – PLUS doing it at a “sovereign” level.

16. Jennifer O'Mahony

@BenSix also if that came off bitchy it wasn’t intended. If writing ain’t clear that’s my fault.

Speaking of Orwell and internationalism…

Because Kipling “identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for this as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialised countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something that they do not really wish to destroy. They have international aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases.”

If you want a Europe-wide campaign, you want a campaign within a sort of bourgeois fortress. People still die very often trying to get into Greece.

Groups like Platypus are keen to build links with the UK.

Yes but Platypus are a group of navel-gazing eccentrics. They have nothing to offer in terms of ideas, strategy, tactics, etc. We shouldn’t be looking towards small groups of American academics…

10
Totally agree with your post, since joining LC I seem to be constantly banging on about what is left and what is socialism, Hobsbawn is indeed a great thinker and writer.
And re the OP, we have had Thatcher land since the sixties and seventies even students are now totally engrossed in materialism and the ‘me first.’
Until we can, at least, change the prevailing consciousness of our time it’s pointless thinking about international action.
As for the EU, on balance I would say that in the long term it will be a benefit to socialist movements.

@Duncan

I am a founding member and an organizer for platypus, and I am not an academic. I have worked with labor organizations and activists of all stripes (even when I disagree with their politics) in Chicago, Detroit and New York. As a matter of fact we often turn off many academics for our political provocations. We certainly strive to organize activities on campuses because our project is in the first place a pedagogical project about the history of the Left. We are now establishing a chapter in Frankfurt with some German and British comrades.

Now, what the author of this article has called for might be beyond our means and desires at the moment, but we are certainly striving for the reconstitution of an international Left, of the kind that has not existed for at least the eight decades. Whether you like them or not we certainly have ideas, strategies, perhaps even tactics. We rather prioritize, however, ideas first, strategy second, and tactics last, for the present Left is all too devoid of good ideas and pregnant with bad tactics.

With regards to the navel-gazing we do also publish the Platypus Review, a monthly publication open to submissions from anyone interested in discussing the Left. You can fing editorial statement here: http://platypus1917.org/2007/11/01/platypus-review-editorial-statement-of-purpose .

@11

No. Sweden exists in a capitalist framework therefore it’ll always be merely eating away at the edges rather than starting from a new paradigm (for want of a better word).

@12

Fine, but I still question why you needed to put the two very different wars in the same sentence. Fighting fascism in Spain and fighting alongside religious idiots in Afghanistan are totally different things and shouldn’t be thrown around as comparable examples.

14 – Well, it depends on what you’d like it to do. If it’s determining national budgets at a supranational level I’d get a mite uncomfortable. (For all that matters, anyway.) If it’s just fostering international debate then, well, as whoever wishes.

And, no worries, not bitchy: my comment was a little terse. Blame someoneiswrongelitus.

“This is a despicable insult to Orwell and the International Brigades.”

Absolutely. Orwell and the International Brigades were more like the EDL on steroids, violent bigots with a hateful phobia directed against religious communities:

“…every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workman.

“I have yet to hear one single person tell me they are heading out to Kabul to the aid of the Afghan people”

Maybe you’re just not living in the right parts of the UK. Plenty of people have done exactly that, although not all of them agree on how the Afghan people should be aided. Some of them are British soldiers who have been told that infrastructure and education are the way to bring aid, others are people who think it’s their duty to help their Muslim brothers against the Crusader hordes. Try Catterick, Plymouth or Aldershot for the former, Dudley, Small Heath or London for the latter.

Maybe you’re just not living in the right parts of the UK.

I think she’s talking about “the left”. Not sure either of those groups are quite “Progressive London” types…

Laurie,

That’s nice. Do you tell all those activists you work with of your group’s theory about the coming, necessary extinction of the left and your grand Noah’s Ark style plan to survive it?

Weren’t Orwell and the International Brigades on opposite sides in Spain? Both were fighting fascism, but they were also fighting each other. It was a three-way fight not a two-way fight. The Stalinism that the International Brigade was fighting for represents no kind of positive alternative to fascism.

Similarly, the problem with groups like the Free Gaza Movement and the ISM is that they think that Israel-Palestine is a two-way fight, with goodies and baddies. They may not actively endorse Hamas (although many of their activists do use terms like “the resistance”) but they have no real critique of it.

However, I think Jennifer O is right about the lack of internationalism on today’s left. A few struggles have become reflexive left-wing ones (Palestine, Iraq) but there are horrific situations all over the world (far worse than Iraq and Palestine) on which the left remains utterly silent.

A few struggles have become reflexive left-wing ones (Palestine, Iraq) but there are horrific situations all over the world (far worse than Iraq and Palestine) on which the left remains utterly silent.

I’d accept – to some extent – that there’s no reason to put much more emphasis on Palestine than other human rights catastrophes but Iraq is clearly different as it’s our nation that helped cause the goddamn thing. If whatever’s standing of the Chinese left started to campaign ferociously about the occupation of Tibet would you look at them and think, “Parochial or what?”

^ But surely the issue is not whether one’s home nation was involved in the creation of an injustice – but more how one is able to improve the lives of the oppressed and disadvantaged. I can’t say I’ve seen any constructive messages coming from my recent (abeit fleeting) experience of anti-war protests.

I think the real issue is that the left loves to support issues which is believes (sometimes erronously) that the USA/UK are the cause of. The problem in Iraq was Saddam. The war was executed terribly, but at least part of the blame for that is the false pretense that it had to be carried out under. Perhaps the real problem is the protection state soverignty/UN provides.

I think many on the left would gain from adopting a more ‘human security’ viewpoint rather than picking a side when often neither side is great. I’m not sure who I’d prefer to live under – the CCP or the Dali Lama (hopefully not as a serf who had been naughty in my previous life).

29 -

…more how one is able to improve the lives of the oppressed and disadvantaged…

The evidence of history, recent or otherwise, suggests that a good first step is to do all we can to dissuade our governments from kicking off pre-emptive wars. One could almost call it a progressive solution!

I think many on the left would gain from adopting a more ‘human security’ viewpoint rather than picking a side when often neither side is great.

To oppose one side needn’t mean that you support another. It’s a false dichotomy.

@Duncan,

Close, I do tell them of the current not coming extinction of the Left, then, if the conversation goes right, I tell them that regardless of whether or not there was such thing as Noah’s ark that it is no model for our survival, since we are already living quite well in the flood (the crisis)… and maybe, I’ll add that I want a future that doesn’t look like Water World.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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  8. Naadir Jeewa

    Reading: The left’s international way forward: I am working my way through Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22, whic… http://bit.ly/esZfiP

  9. Jennifer O'Mahony

    The left's international way forward http://bit.ly/i2TIjR

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    The left’s international way forward | Liberal Conspiracy http://goo.gl/hYgpi





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