Back to the future with Doctor Who

I remember Prester John. You don’t remember Prester John, or if you do you probably won’t admit it. For the uninitiated, Prester John was a maniacal would-be world conqueror from the Dark Ages who somehow got hold of a time machine and transported himself to the 1960s, where he fought the Fantastic Four and the Mighty Thor – although sadly not at the same time. He had an evil eye, or perhaps a stellar rod, depending on which edition of the Handbook you’re reading. More recently a somewhat calmer Prester John has been playing a supporting role in the wonderful Cable & Deadpool, which is fine by me as it’s allowed Nicieza to have some fun with an almost forgotten character.

Which brings me to Doctor Who. The trouble with Who is that, while it works fine as Saturday-evening entertainment, it’s been terribly inconsistent in tone. Sometimes scary, sometimes moving, sometimes magnificently thrilling, sometimes silly to the point of panto. Sometimes all of the above within minutes of each other. By the way, I’m not as bovvered as some people about Catherine Tate. Sure, her acting style is broad, but then she’s standing next to Crazy Dave, whose increasingly manic chewing of scenery makes Tate look like Lena Olin.

So Doctor Who was on retro week. UNIT are back! Ah, those far-off days of Sergeant Benton, Captain Yates, Sarah Jane and the good old Brigadier… you can almost taste the Spangles. Today’s UNIT, however, is not the two-men-and-a-dog outfit of old. It’s a Serious Organisation, although what that means beyond a nice visual of lots of red-bereted soldiers yomping around, I’m not yet sure.

Upping the retro quotient, we had the eagerly anticipated return of the Sontarans. Now, I’ll admit that the Sontarans have never really done it for me. If you must revive classic aliens, my personal faves would be the Ice Warriors, who had that whole Noble Savage thing going on, as well as actually becoming more sympathetic with time. But the Sontarans are hugely popular with the Whovian fan base, and have the kudos of being seriously badass aliens who fought Tom Baker back in the day.

Not, I have to say, the most subtle creations in the canon. Rather stoutly built aliens of slightly porcine appearance and with the demeanour of a more than usually grumpy Regimental Sergeant Major. Best known for fighting massive intergalactic wars for no better reason than that they enjoy it. Possibly an inspiration for Douglas Adams’ Vogons. And here they are, invading Earth again to no obvious end – but then, that’s what Sontarans do.

There were a couple of nice little touches in Helen Raynor’s writing that I especially liked, and it’s worth remarking that she’s done some of the best of the revived Who. One was the teenage technology tycoon, straight out of the Revenge of the Nerds supporting cast, who aids an alien invasion through a mixture of egotism (the world isn’t big enough for my genius etc) and just thinking it would be cool. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine Bill Gates doing.

And I really, really loved the idea of the Sontarans dancing a haka before going into battle. This instantly makes them 100% more fun in my book. A well above average week.

Samantha has left the building

And so it’s farewell to Humph. Legendary jazzman, socialist, Etonian, comic genius and all-round good guy.

And not least, the man who proved that an avuncular old codger could tell the filthiest jokes before the watershed, and the Radio 4 audience would love him for it. As long as he told them really well, which Humph always did.

I hear that I’m Sorry… will not carry on without its irreplaceable chairman, and that’s as it should be. On the other hand, it will be repeated forever, and that’s also as it should be. Selah.

And next on Louis Balfour’s Jazz Club, it’s the Lennon Sisters with “Mr Clarinet Man”. Nice…

Down on the farm

I’m not usually a great one for going to demos in Dublin. The whole ritual of walking up and down O’Connell Street and then listening to longwinded speeches from the usual suspects just doesn’t have the appeal that it used to have. But, strange to say, I’m actually a little sorry that I missed the big farmers’ demo last week. Oddly enough, most of the Dublin left also seems to have missed this important event. Perhaps it’s just their knee-jerk view that the Irish farmer is an agent of Satan. Or maybe it’s because you can advance the class struggle much better by picketing beauty pageants…

It seems elementary to me that, if Peter Mandelson is hell-bent on destroying Irish agriculture in the name of the New European Empire, then he has to be opposed and any manifestation of the Irish farming class against Mandy is to be welcomed. And if that means lending support to a tougher Franco-Irish stance against the New Labour weasel’s antics in the WTO, then so be it. Even Fianna Fáil can sometimes move in the right direction, if there’s enough pressure behind them.

It may be a little unfashionable to say so, but I think it’s Economics 101 not to go about frittering away your natural resources but rather to use them for national development. Bear in mind that agriculture is still one of Ireland’s major industries. Hell, for a long time it was the only serious industry. Now remember that this was one of the basic political fault lines in the Revolutionary period. I’m grossly simplifying here, but basically the Cumann na nGaedheal programme was for Ireland to remain Britain’s market garden (the same sort of way that Bulgaria was the Soviet Union’s market garden) and hope for some trickle-down benefits. The original Fianna Fáil programme, for what little that’s worth now, was to establish self-sufficiency and then to plough the surplus into light industry. That’s what the Economic War was all about.

(Incidentally, the de Valera programme suggests itself as a possible path forward for underdeveloped countries today. In fact, Uncle Bob’s original programme for Zimbabwe was very similar. Unfortunately, it foundered on the corruption and brutality of the Mugabe regime, as well as the Brits reneging on their promise to buy out the white farmers.)

So we’re faced with a situation where the Mandelson position of today is actually a regression from the Cumann na nGaedheal position of the 1920s. Indeed, no politician with an actual mandate in Ireland (Mandy of course has no mandate anywhere) could contemplate putting forward proposals which, if the IFA is to be believed, could cost 50,000 rural jobs and the closure of a further 50,000 farms. For that reason I say, go farmers!

And this is not just an economic but also a cultural issue. Really, the two are inseparable. I’ve never been able to understand why so many Irish people who ordinarily have no time for the market are so laissez-faire about urbanisation, which they seem to regard as an unequivocally Good Thing. I don’t think so. Maybe this is an old Éire Nua streak in me coming out, but I don’t see it as Progress if half the population of Donegal has to move to Dublin. I think the depopulation and impoverishment of the West, combined with the unrestrained overdevelopment of Dublin, have a lot to do with why modern Ireland doesn’t work very well. And I don’t see why Ireland should aspire to the condition of Britain, where only about 2% of the population live on the land, and the countryside is divided up between multinational agribusiness on the one hand and the leisure needs of the upper and middle classes on the other.

No, we have an important and relatively successful economic sector here, not to mention a major natural resource. Any government with balls will be fighting tooth and nail to save it.

You will hurt your foot

With the tea brewing and Aunt Rosemary singing “Mambo Italiano”, I turn my attention to the linked questions of autonomy and substitutionism. This is an area where the legacy of Cliff turns out to be more than a little problematic.

To take autonomy first, let us go back to the closure of Women’s Voice. This turned out to be quite a traumatic affair. It’s not just that it was controversial within the party, it was even controversial in Cliff’s family. It also turned out to be the making of a bright young fulltimer fresh out of college, one L German. Lyndzee made her reputation by acting as Cliff’s battering ram on the issue, going on a tour of the branches to ensure they all voted the right way. Branches that voted the wrong way were rewarded with a return visit.

Now, even the defenders of Women’s Voice would have said it was problematic, lacked focus and needed a serious overhaul. But basically, it fell foul of the retreat to the bunker signalled by the downturn perspective. That the move against WV wasn’t about the specific problems of WV was signalled by the fate of the SWP Gay Group, who got a lesson in Machiavellian politics when they voted in favour of closing WV, only to be closed down themselves immediately afterwards. Flame also fell by the wayside about the same time, in what precise circumstances I do not recall.

Well, that could be argued to be fair enough, in terms of the period. An experiment was made and it didn’t work out. However, then you run into Cliff’s fondness for theorising his pragmatic decisions. In practice, WV had proved to be a road out of the party; therefore, a recurrence of that sort of thing could be avoided by taking a stance against autonomous organisation. And if this was an unfortunate tendency of Cliff’s, the second rank of the leadership were much more rigid in this position. Cliff, at least, was pragmatic enough to be able to reverse his positions when he got a sniff of an opportunity.

So there was a culture that grew up of defending (in a rather abstract way) minorities’ right to self-organisation while in practice aiming the vast bulk of one’s fire against “separatism”. And we might rhetorically support the Black Sections in the Labour Party, basically to embarrass Kinnock, but there was no question of having any analogue in the SWP.

Actually, this was for a long time a small but significant underlying difference between the SWP and the ISO. Since the ISO was based in the homeland of identity politics and had seen much of the New Left disappear into Jesse’s Rainbow, you might have expected them to be even tougher on the autonomy question. In fact, while their position was formally identical to the SWP’s, the stress was very different, based on an understanding that minorities would organise themselves no matter what clever white blokes had to say on the subject.

Now we come to substitutionism. Cliff, in his occasional Hundred Flowers moods, used to like to quote Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum that the mistakes of a real, living movement were worth more than the resolutions of the wisest Central Committee. You might say, would that Cliff had applied this piece of wisdom to his own practice. But then you have to set this alongside Cliff’s fondness of talking about how Lenin (the real one, not Seymour) would go over the heads of the Bolshevik CC and appeal directly to the class. It’s crucial to understanding Cliff’s self-image. Of course, this only works if you’re prepared to believe that Cliff really did have a mystical connection to the working class.

Albeit that I don’t believe the structures of the Cliff movement were ideal, given those structures there were clear advantages to having Cliff around. He was a tough taskmaster. Notwithstanding his indulgence of some notorious chancers, he usually had a keen nose for bullshit. And, despite a broad sectarian streak, he was essentially a pragmatic sectarian, quite willing to carry out dramatic u-turns (“bending the stick” in Cliffspeak) if he thought it would help build his organisation.

Now, it could be said that the Cliff movement after the departure of the Great Helmsman would lose some of Cliff’s less attractive idiosyncrasies. But it also lost his assets as well, and its real weaknesses have been harshly exposed in recent years. Most prominent among them is a Central Committee the core of which has been in office a very very long time – imagine if Gordon Brown’s cabinet was packed full of relics from the Callaghan government and you’ll get the idea. This visibly ageing leadership is not supplemented by fresh blood as it needs to be – every so often some wunderkind will be headhunted, but talent does not rise up through the ranks. Nor is there any mechanism for it to do so.

At this point we enter a chicken-and-egg discussion, but it can scarcely be gainsaid that the permanent leadership does not really trust the membership, at least not to the point of allowing them the latitude to make their own mistakes and learn from doing. And this is reinforced by a tendency to circulate in a rather small, incestuous world. Not to mention they guard their positions jealously – power in a small sect may not seem like much, but it can become addictive in a way that Alex Callinicos’ ancestor Lord Acton would have recognised. And so the CC sets itself up as the font of wisdom, and the poor membership are reduced to being little more than a stage army. Which can have some romantic appeal if you fancy being a sailor in a re-enactment of Battleship Potemkin, but scarcely makes for the sophisticated and assertive cadre that (as Harman underlined in Party and Class) would be necessary to hold the leadership to account.

Now, this has definite political consequences. If you, as a would-be revolutionary leadership, have contempt for your own members, then contempt for the class as a whole cannot be far behind. The result is an almost inevitable political sectarianism.

This is why I think the “Russian dolls” analogy used in Respect, although it describes something real, is not quite right. Maybe it’s better to start with Rees’ assertion that Respect was too important to be allowed to fail. If you’re building a broad party – and I leave open whether that’s what you want to do in the first place – the Marxist left has to consciously minoritise itself, and accept that things are going to happen that it doesn’t agree with. When you’ve got a multi-ethnic formation to handle, you also need some sensitivity on issues of self-determination and autonomy.

Now let’s say that the leadership treats its own cadre as a stage army. In this scenario, the members of a broad front are yet another rung down – a stooge army, perhaps? Since the front is too important to allow mistakes to be made, there will be a strong temptation to use your organisational muscle to make sure everything goes the right way. The trouble is, that makes people outside the magic circle feel excluded. It’s particularly difficult if you’ve a lot of militant Asian youth with energy to burn and who are up for a political discussion, if they get nothing to do except leaflet drops and barbecues while the clever white blokes make the decisions.

Not that I’m lauding spontaneity for the sake of spontaneity, you understand. If you leave politically raw youth to their own devices, they are sure to make mistakes. But I think it’s a sign of political maturity to allow them the space to make mistakes, to have faith that they’re capable of reflecting on what they’ve done and learning lessons, and above all for a tendency with very few concrete achievements to its name to have a sense of modesty about itself. That may mean that some middle-aged white blokes have to take a back seat, but it’s not like the rest wouldn’t do them some good.

The angry men

Moral outrage. It’s not one of the first things I always think about in terms of the Decent Left, but I do think it’s an essential part of their group psychology. Hence, I suppose, the appellation. They are the only decent people around, the only moral people, the only people capable of compassion, solidarity or empathy. That’s what they would like to think, anyway.

It’s a bit like Mr Tony Blair’s faith-based approach to governance. For Mr Tony, the fact that he lied about WMD in Iraq is neither here nor there. The fact that the invasion has turned out to be a disaster is neither here nor there. What’s important is that he acted with the best of intentions. It’s all about the purity of motives, you see.

On the other hand, it’s a bit like Peter Tatchell, who’s not actually part of the Decent Left – he draws the line at actually supporting foreign wars – but is pretty close to them. Peter’s strength, as has been pointed out before, is also his weakness. He can’t be aware of an oppressed minority without running a solidarity campaign, and he has enough nervous energy to keep thousands of these campaigns on the go. Most of them are entirely worthy, but many are so obscure that, while you’re happy Peter is doing something, you yourself would take some convincing to do more than sign a petition. But Peter believes that his hobbyhorse of the moment should be everyone else’s top priority. So he’ll launch a campaign for gay Tibetans, and about five minutes later (with jabbing finger in play) start demanding to know why the left isn’t mobilising for the gay Tibetans. Could it perhaps be their deeply ingrained homophobia? Eh? Eh?

Sometimes, as I said recently, it’s just the normal positivist response of getting extremely irate when confronted with scepticism. In philosophy, this has a lot to do with the perception that sceptics are simply destructive in their criticism, which has a lot of truth behind it.

But transpose that into an emotionally driven view of foreign affairs. It tends to lead to the Yes, Minister fallacy of “Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it.” But it also leads to a tendency to see one’s antagonists as being corrosive cynics devoid of humanity. This is what Daniel was saying on CiF the other day: if you put hard questions to Decents about what, in practical terms, the American and British armies could do to make things better in Zimbabwe or Darfur or Tibet or Chechnya, they don’t want to have that discussion. They just get red in the face and start shouting about Henry Kissinger and Douglas Hurd. You see, practical politics is a distraction from the important business of being outraged.

The obsessive vilification of Hurd, who left office a whole thirteen years ago, is interesting in itself. You’ll recall the rather embarrassing chapter of What’s Left? wherein Nick Cohen tries to prove that Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind are co-thinkers of Noam Chomsky, a proposition that might make sense in those rarefied circles where people think Marko Attila Hoare is a superhuman genius. But Hurd, whose political thought I am rather familiar with, is very far from being a peacenik, let alone a Chomskyite. Actually, he’s a rather run-of-the-mill Palmerstonian. Douglas doesn’t object to military action when it’s in the British national interest. He doesn’t even object to the projection of military power for humanitarian ends, if a sensible plan can be put forward that is likely to make things better rather than worse. What he is adamant about – and this enraged a lot of people over Bosnia – is that the British government shouldn’t be bounced into precipitate military adventures so as to make celebrities, do-gooders and campaigning journalists feel better.

Chomsky is another revealing target. I suspect most of the antipathy to Chomsky comes from his consistent application of the mote-and-beam principle, his insistence that you don’t win moral brownie points for loudly denouncing official enemies, and that it displays much more courage to take on your own rulers. Not to mention, the British journalist has much more chance of doing something about the abuses of the British government than those of the Chinese or Zimbabwean governments. But I also suspect that tone comes into this. Chomsky’s political writing, deriving in style from his academic writing, is cool, dry, dispassionate, often pedantic and often surprisingly sarcastic. This can be guaranteed to annoy people whose yardstick of morality is how very, very angry they are.

And, you know, there is a case for being cool and dispassionate. I think it says a lot that one of the great trailblazers of Decency has been the Dude, a man who’s always – even in his Trotskyist days – always played fast and loose with the facts, and relied on panache and rhetorical hotdogging to win arguments. This can be entertaining, up to a point (and the Dude passed that point long ago). But I do have a strong streak of empiricism in me, probably from that chemistry background, that doubts that emotion can be a real basis for good politics. Of course you bring values and beliefs to bear – but when anger (synthetic or otherwise) is your measure of virtue… well, you’re almost predestined to get bad policy resulting. And that’s even assuming that you get to the point of hard policy. Many of our Decents seem to prefer sticking at the stage of ostentatious displays of outrage.

Hands across the peace processes

There is something of an identikit aspect to peace processes, isn’t there? I mention this only as a result of reading the latest column from the compulsively readable Nebojša Malić at Even when I disagree with Nebojša, which is regularly, he always has something interesting to say.

So, the latest column derives from Nebojša’s recent visit to his native Bosnia, and his impressions of how the place has changed. For a start:

The war’s physical scars in Sarajevo have mostly healed. Several burned-out buildings still remain, but the rest have been repaired and renovated. The city actually looks better today than even in 1984, when it last received a facelift for the Winter Olympics. Old Austrian-era buildings, gone drab with soot and smog over the course of the 20th century, now sport light ochre, burgundy, beige and even green facades. Communist-built public housing in western parts of the city, once depressingly concrete-gray, now sports cheerful blues, greens, yellows and reds.

Yeah, our own urban regeneration is a bit like that. Nebojša continues:

And yet, only the buildings are cheerful. The people grumble. Work is scarce. Those who do work are sucked dry by a myriad of taxes and fees, levied to support a gargantuan bureaucracy. Bosnia-Herzegovina has more government officials per capita than anyplace else on the planet. And after paying all the local, provincial and entity taxes, Bosnians pay a crushing 17% VAT on everything they buy.

Hmm. Definitely something there for the peace studies curriculum. Go on…

Shiny stores filled with expensive goods line Sarajevo’s main streets, but there are few shoppers inside, and fewer buyers. The only burgeoning businesses are cafes, bars and eateries. There is never enough capital for entrepreneurs, but there is somehow always plenty of money for new mosques, or inflammatory war memorials.

Substitute murals for mosques, and you could almost be in Norn Iron. But what I like best is Nebojša’s description of the Bosnian parliament:

To make matters worse, occasional live TV coverage of the Parliament looks like a lowbrow reality show. Many of the legislators can’t string together a coherent sentence. Others communicate strictly through callous insults and outright slander. Diatribes and rants are common. There are a few honorable exceptions to the cesspool that is the Bosnian Parliament, but their presence only underscores the general rot.

Can we twin these guys with Stormont?

100 years ago

The late John Sullivan used to say that it was part of the human condition to want a life bigger, more colourful, more marvellous and more coherent than our own. That, John quipped, was why the Christians invented Jesus and the Trots invented Gerry Healy.

Now I don’t in the normal run of things spend a lot of time thinking about Gerry. He’s been dead almost twenty years, and even when he was alive he was never more than a marginal political figure. But he’s just been brought to mind by a perusal of the latest Private Eye, evidently in one of its “Democratiya with jokes” weeks and combining a ferocious Decency with the Eye’s famous penchant for fighting the battles of yesteryear.

So we come to the Eye’s continuing coverage of the London mayoral election, and this fortnight the line of attack against Ken Livingstone is, er, his relationship with Healy in the 1980s. This provides the opportunity to mention Gerry’s rather outré personal life, but there is more concentration on the “Libyan gold” story and, via the Labour Herald affair, implicating Ken in dealing with Gaddafi, at least by association.

Thing is, this stuff has all been in the public domain since at least 1985. Our Eye scribe might like to consult Nick Cohen, who for reasons that escape me devoted a full 16 pages of What’s Left? to the history of the WRP. (In fact, Nick was certainly aware of Ken’s connection to Healy back in 2004, when he endorsed Ken for mayor.) I’m also taken aback to learn that News Line ceased publication in late 1985. This will, I fear, come as a terrible blow to the affable old codger who sold me a News Line just a few months ago.

Skipping lightly over a dig at al-Jazeera for allegedly being not critical enough of Bob Mugabe, we arrive at a consideration of the Olympics and China, by a writer who evidently thinks the Olympics should be about the promotion of human rights. This leads into an attack on long-time Olympic supremo Juan Antonio Samaranch and his supposed fondness for the Beijing regime. This is explained by the reproduction of a photograph of Samaranch giving a fascist salute in his native Barcelona. The effect is only slightly dulled by the photo dating from 1974, when Franco was still in power. Anyway, were the Falange really that keen on Maoist China? I’m not sure.

It’s also nice to see occasional columnist ‘Ratbiter’, who brings to our attention the doings of that famous PR man of the Thatcher years, Lord Tim Bell. Bell, apparently, has been engaged to burnish the image of the government of Belarus. (Belarus being, as RB helpfully informs us, “Europe’s last dictatorship”, although Serbia might soon join it in that category should the voters not back the EU-approved candidates in the May election.) This comes as a profound shock to me. I had never dreamt that PR men burnished the public images of shady characters. Tut, tut. By the way, RB manages to bring in an attack on an even more contemporary villain than Tim Bell – er, the late VI Lenin. Gadzooks!

I suppose we should at least be grateful that the boys seem to have eased off on their tireless campaign to remove Douglas Hurd from the Foreign Office…

Meanwhile, on the books review pages, I am struck by the following:

There must be something in the water at the Observer, because its journalists seem unable to stop themselves producing copycat versions of each other’s books.

Last year columnist Nick Cohen published his What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, followed seven months later by Andrew Anthony’s stunningly similar tome, The Fallout: How A Guilty Liberal Lost His Innocence.

Given the Eye’s commendable enthusiasm for recycling, isn’t this a little harsh on poor old Clothes For Chaps?

Chuckle Brothers give way to Brothers Grim

And so it is that Peter Robinson gets his reward after 28 long years as deputy leader of the DUP – beat that, Gordon!

What does this mean in practice? Well, Robbo has been quick to signal a change in style. But that’s being interpreted in different ways. On the news last night we were hearing that Robbo was a “pragmatist” and his businesslike relationship with Biffo Cowen was being flagged up. Strange how everyone involved in the peace process eventually gets to be a pragmatist. And there’s probably some limited truth to that in that Robbo belongs to the urban sectarian wing of the DUP rather than the rural fundamentalist wing.

The big change will be in the optics. This means the departure of the jovial and gregarious Papa Doc, along with his almost paternal relationship with Martin McGuinness. In Big Ian’s place will come the perpetually glowering Robbo, to be augmented by his new deputy leader, the funereal Nigel Dodds. Chuckling will probably be off the agenda.

There isn’t likely to be a great deal of change in substance, at least in the short term. On the other hand, the less happy-clappy optics will pose some interesting questions for those in our body politic who’ve come to rely on the feelgood factor to see them through.

Tin Men discover Shangri-La

Sometimes the Irish left reminds me of nothing so much as the classic movie Tin Men. Surely you remember the stellar performances from Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as rival aluminum siding salesmen. Well, the SWP and the Socialist Party are a bit like that. Their day job may be purveying the ideological equivalent of aluminum siding, in subtly different brands indistinguishable to your average punter, but what they really enjoy is denouncing each other as liars, cheats and frauds. To be honest, sometimes it’s seeing the funny side that stops you getting altogether depressed.

Well, the brands may be similar to the naked eye, but that’s not to say they’re the same. You find the same sales paraphernalia of street stall, tabloid newspaper and petition, but a closer examination shows there are differences. Militant have always preferred to deal with bread-and-butter issues, preferably with a trade union connection. Often this shows them at their best, as with their current agitation around the completely worthy case of the sacked airport workers. The Swips, by contrast, get most excited around big international events.

To tell you the truth, I’ve been a little worried about the local Swips, as they seemed to have lost their spark of late. But last week none other than Swiss Toni himself was in town addressing the troops. I chose not to go, figuring that there were more fun things to do with my evening. For one thing, Kieran’s speaking style has always reminded me very much of Mike Banda, although he lacks Mike’s characteristic warmth and good humour. For another, he was speaking on the Crisis, which would be the same Crisis he’s been predicting for the last thirty years. All things considered, a nice cup of tea and some BA Robertson on the stereo seemed a better bet.

And lo, the Great White Chief seems to have invigorated his acolytes. On walking by Queens yesterday, my eye was caught by a large yellow poster bearing the legend “Free Tibet” and a photo of an oppressed Tibetan. On closer examination, this proved to be advertising a meeting under the rubric of “People Before Profit”, which is the Swips’ funny hat of choice at the moment. What this has to do with socialism or the class struggle is not immediately apparent – and the poster had no slogan other than “Free Tibet” – but I suppose it marks a return to the tried-and-true methodology of being the loudest advocates of whatever’s popular with the kids.

There may be a pitfall or two here. I hear that the Chinese community in Dublin are starting to organise counter-demonstrations. And I don’t know how many supporters of the Dalai Lama there are in the north of Ireland, but there are a hell of a lot of Chinese. Attracting Amnesty-type students is one thing, but do you really want to run the risk of attracting lots of angry Chinese?

On the other hand, these are the guys who not so long ago were running pro-hijab demonstrations outside the French embassy. The Swips’ love affair with the Muslims may have foundered on the rocks of factional politics in Respect, but could an alternative be presenting itself? Could Buddhism be the new Islam?

At Sparta as at Athens

Right, so I just wanted to make a few short comments on the question of autonomy and self-organisation. And what I’ve been thinking about in this regard is the great flowering of minority radicalism in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Everybody, of course, knows of the Black Panthers, the great trailblazers of this sort of self-organisation, and there’s an enormous amount could be (and has been) written about them. In some ways, though, I’m at least as interested in the groups that came after and which, in contrast to the rather inchoate politics of the Panthers, were a hugely important part of the New Communist Movement.

There were lots and lots of these groups about, but they’re very little known these days and, with the significant exception of Max Elbaum’s invaluable Revolution in the Air, there’s almost no accessible material on them. This is a pity, because there are all sorts of fascinating aspects to the movement that seem really odd to us now.

One might not have expected, for instance, the emergence of Red Guards in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a place that’s been in the news a lot over the last few days. Actually, from the outside, it would have seemed a deeply unlikely place to be a hotbed of radicalism. Much of the community was petty bourgeois (in the strict economic sense) and the leading figures in the community were extremely reactionary people, fiercely loyal to the Kuomintang. And yet, in the late 60s, a very large layer of Chinese youth became radicalised, partly under the influence of the Cultural Revolution and partly inspired by what the Panthers were doing to resist racism in Oakland. And, with the youth in motion, you found old-time Chinese communists, who had kept a very low profile for decades, coming out of the woodwork. And this combination of circumstances led to some fairly strong organisations and the revival of a tradition of militancy that had been almost forgotten.

And you had similar phenomena in other minority communities. And, what was most important, you had organisations that were not simply ethnic advocacy groups but openly identified themselves as part of the revolutionary left.

Now I’m not going to go in any detail into the history of these movements. I want to consider a few points about their strengths and weaknesses and why they failed in the end, after showing so much potential in their early years. This is where a lot of observers go in for the unattractive phenomenon of Marxist hindsight – you know, like in those books telling you what great things Lenin and Trotsky could have achieved had they only had Cliff or Grant around to advise them. Often the criticism says more about the critic than about the criticised – if you ever hear anyone saying that the problem with the Black Panthers was that they didn’t build a multiracial socialist party with a transitional programme and an orientation to the industrial working class, it’s a bit like criticising a fish for not having feathers.

In the end, the failures of the movements had a lot to do with a period, a fair bit to do with state repression and yes, their own mistakes were a significant factor. But we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume that we, the possessors of hindsight, are immune from making those mistakes.

There are three issues I’d like to point out.

The first is that minority radicals, in their great majority, were drawn to some variant of Third World Marxism. This is often held against them, but it’s quite understandable. Yes, cultural links might explain why Puerto Rican radicals might turn to Castroism, or Chinese (and Korean and Filipino) radicals to Maoism. Yes, the CPUSA’s tradition of antiracist work might explain the affinity of many Black militants to pre-1956 Stalinism. But it goes beyond that. The big attraction of these brands of Marxism was their practical involvement in the anti-colonial struggle. Which wasn’t just a matter of “Third World solidarity” or some theory of ethnic minorities as “internal colonies”. You literally couldn’t be a Chinese militant in San Francisco without opposing the Kuomintang, you couldn’t be a Puerto Rican militant in New York without having something to say about what was happening on the island. It’s sobering to realise how few minority radicals were attracted to Trotskyism, which after all is supposed to be the permanent revolution tendency and has an impressively sophisticated theoretical apparatus for dealing with racism and imperialism.

The second is the question of democracy. Let’s take the Black Panthers, who get cut a lot of slack in retrospect because of their cool image. You can talk about the various failings of the Panthers in terms of, say, the primitiveness of their politics, or their backward attitudes towards women, or how the movement became vulnerable to an influx of criminal elements. Most of the Panthers’ internal failings could have been dealt with had they been a democratic movement, but they weren’t. The internal regime of the BPP was one of total military centralism, combined with a compulsory personality cult of “Supreme Servant of the People” Huey Newton. Weirdly enough, although the more orthodox Maoist and neo-Stalinist groups continued to uphold the monolithic party as an ideal, their record in this respect was actually much better than that of the Panthers.

Finally, we have a history on the left of clever white blokes pontificating about whether or not minorities have the right to self-organise. This is really a moot point, not to say an entirely counter-productive discussion. History teaches us that minorities have a habit of self-organising without bothering to ask the permission of clever white blokes. That’s how it works in the real world, and that’s how it should be.

There are some rather transparent parallels for the present day, but I’ll leave them to yourselves for the time being.

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