The 1950s movie The Wild One is about a motorcycle “rebel” gang, led by Marlon Brando, invading a small American town and frightening the natives.
Someone asks the Brando character: “And what are you rebelling against?” Famously, he replies: “What’ve you got?”
The film was, for decades, banned in Britain. That may have been to protect impressionable British Marxists, especially the SWP, from mistaking the Brando character’s philosophy — whatever it is, I’m against it — for a serviceable political programme. It is now the core and only approach of the SWP.
Look at Chris Harman’s review of the new book on Mao Zedong (Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) in Socialist Worker of 18 June.
The book indicts Mao as an evil Stalin-scale mass murderer. Oh no, says Harman. Having provided a general criticism of Mao and Maoism — but with the edge of criticism blunted by the underlying idea that Mao was historically “necessary” in backward China — he continues in a way that will be drearily familiar to all who are acquainted with the present mindset of the SWP. In full apologetic mode he says:
“The weakest point about this book is its claim that Mao was uniquely evil and responsible for 70 million peacetime deaths”—”more than either Hitler or Stalin”.
What’s wrong with that claim? It’s unfair to Mao.
“All rulers in this barbaric capitalist world are prepared to see people die if it is necessary to achieve their goals of accumulating wealth or armaments.
“They endorse sanctions in Iraq, which killed half a million children in ten years. They happily blast apart cities such as Belgrade or Fallujah. And they preside over a system that sees 50,000 die in the Third World each day from poverty-related causes — which means more deaths in just four years than died under Mao’s brutal regime.”
That puts Mao, and Stalinism in history, into perspective, doesn’t it, comrade? Only the weak-spirited who do not, like Harman and his friends, “really” want to “tear the head off capitalism”, will complain about millions slaughtered by someone who clashes with Washington.
The accelerated political decline of the SWP has led its press in recent times to produce many other bizarre and freakish arguments for increasingly bizarre and freakish politics. Perhaps the strangest was the attempt of Socialist Worker in October 2001 (when it was edited by Chris Harman) to “explain away” the Taliban’s monstrous treatment of women.
“Taliban leaders feared that their soldiers would behave as some previous Mujahedeen groups had on taking a city. The war years had seen repeated abuse and rape of women. They said that forcing women into seclusion was a means of protecting them. Of course, it meant appalling oppression.”
They asked Socialist Worker readers to take the clerical-fascist Taliban’s stated intention — “protecting women” — at their own evaluation. And why not, you might reasonably ask.
The US and the British were attacking the Muslim fundamentalist Afghan regime (because it refused to give up those responsible for the 9/11 atrocity in New York). The SWP was against the British and American war (as indeed were Solidarity and the AWL).
So, of course, was the Taliban. So, as its contribution to the “anti-imperialist struggle”, the SWP did what it could to improve the “image” of, so to speak, its Afghan ally against Bush and Blair.
Not only was its US-British enemy’s enemy its friend, but the Taliban was a great deal better than Britain and the US said they were. Imperialist slander! The Taliban were “really” — though in an “appallingly oppressive” way — the protectors of Afghanistan’s women!
The SWP did similar work in defence of the fascistic Saddam regime in the run up to the 2003 US British invasion. They formed, and maintain, a long-term close partnership with George Galloway. Who is Galloway? A middle-of-the-road “soft left” Stalinist New Labour MP who, in front of BBC cameras recording the incident, had told the Iraqi fascistic dictator to his face how “courageous” and all-round wonderful he was.
And in 1999 when NATO planes attacked Serbia to force the Serbian regime to stop butchering and ethnic cleansing the people of its colony Kosova, the SWP sided whole-heartedly and uncritically with this regional imperialist power then engaged in attempted genocide against the Kosovar Albanians. The AWL by contrast refused to back either NATO or the butchering regional imperialists.
There too the SWP saw it as their political duty to defend and whitewash the regional imperialist, enemy of their imperialist enemy. Genocide? They had two responses to that: “Imperialist slander!” And: “it’s already happened, and nothing can be done about it, so back Serb ethnic imperialism against NATO!” (See Patrick Murphy’s report of their performance at the National Union of Teachers conference in 1999, Workers’ Liberty 55).
The SWP wasn’t always like that. For many years it had policies on such questions very like the politics of Solidarity now. It separated half a century ago from other groups in the Trotskyist tradition because the founders of the SWP, led by Tony Cliff, said that those others were insufficiently critical of Russia, China, North Korea and other Stalinist regimes.
The “orthodox Trotskyists” expelled Tony Cliff and his supporters for refusing to back North Korea in the Korean war of 1950-3. In turn Cliff accused the other Trotskyists of uncritically lining up with the Stalinist regimes in international politics out of an unbalanced hostility to the “market capitalist” imperialist regimes in Washington, London and Paris. As against that Cliff adopted the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”.
The group, then called Socialist Review, borrowed this slogan from an American organisation led by Max Shachtman, Hal Draper and others, the Workers’ Party, but they made it their own.
In the last 17 years — since, seven years into the Iran-Iraq war, the SWP suddenly came out in support of Iran because the Americans favoured Iraq — they have moved further and further away from such politics.
Everything has come to be determined for them not by what they are for — what they are now for no more than notionally: the interests of the working class — but by what they are against.
America and British hostility to a regime — the Taliban, Saddam’s, Milosevic’s, whatever — is now enough to win that regime the open support of the SWP, its press and whatever arguments, excuses, “explanations” for their clients, they can muster.
When they proclaimed their antagonism to both “Washington and Moscow”, in the same slogan they used to spell out what they were for — “international socialism”. If they were to sum up their politics of the past few years in similar slogans they would have been something like these: “Neither London nor Washington, but Kabul!” “Neither Washington nor Berlin, but Belgrade!” “Neither Washington nor London, but Baghdad!” And now? “Neither Washington nor London but the Sunni-supremacist and Shia-sectarian ‘resistance’ in Iraq”!
If a time machine could take them back to the Second World War, and if they were to employ their current approach to determining where they stood in that conflict, then logically they would side with Japan and Germany against their more powerful imperialist enemies, Britain, France and the USA which between them then, in their respective colonial empires controlled large swathes of the world. It was against that dominant carve-up that the German and Japanese imperialisms made war, demanding their “fair share”.
Back in 1940 the SWP current political practice would have lined them up with the Stalinist CP. During the 22 months of the Stalin-Hitler pact of peace and cooperation (up to June 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia), the CP made propaganda in Britain on behalf of Russia’s ally Germany. It denounced “the warlike imperialists”, Britain and France and branded them responsible for the war and all its evil consequences. It demanded they make peace with Stalin’s ally, the peace-loving Adolf Hitler.
More poignantly, perhaps, the playful time machine might deposit the leaders of the SWP back in 1950, when the SWP’s lineal ancestral predecessor group was first set up after a conflict with those Trotskyists who supported Stalinist North Korea in its war with the UN, American, Britain and others. Those powers had landed in Korea to defend the puppet regime in the southern half of the peninsula from Stalinist North Korea.
With their current politics, the SWP leaders would — standing in front of a mirror perhaps — join those from whom the SWP founders broke away in denouncing Cliff and his friends as the SWP denounces Solidarity and the AWL today — “capitulators to imperialism”, “agents of Washington”, etc.
Talented and ingenious writers of science fiction weave mind-boggling plots working out the details and implications of such transpositions and encounters as the present leaders of the SWP alighting from a time machine in 1950 to confront… themselves. With their present politics transposed to 1950, the SWP would have to support the Stalinists, including the USSR — by far the weaker of the contemporary imperialisms — against Washington-London and “NATO”!
What slogans would they counterpose to “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”? “Neither Washington nor London but Moscow, Pyongyang, and the International Anti-Imperialist Alliance!”
Five years back, when the SWP was doing mindless and shameful propaganda work for Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb regime as it started a drive to kill or “cleanse” the Albanian people of Kosova, — 90% of the population — Harman and his like seized on wild statements in the capitalist press comparing Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing with Hitler’s massacre of the Jews and used it to deflect discussion of the living political question into a pedant’s concern about whether Milosevic and Hitler really were “identical”.
And if they weren’t “identical”? What had that to do with one’s attitude to what Milosevic’s forces were actually doing in Kosova? Nothing at all! But the exaggerated equation with Hitler could be used to discredit press reports of Serb ethnic cleansing. By exonerating him from the charge that he was “a Hitler”, Milosevic could be presented in a better light.
Was Mao “uniquely evil”? Was he responsible for killing 70 million people, his subjects, in peacetime — more than Hitler or Stalin? Don’t be ridiculous! 70 million? Bah! A petty detail in the sweep of history!
Don’t you know, comrades that “all rulers in this barbaric capitalist world” are willing “to see people die” to gain their ends! Why pick on Mao? That is to whitewash the present Great Ones of our world, who are prepared to “see” people die!
Note the word “see”. It is used to obliterate the distinction between the workings of our vile capitalist system, under which millions needlessly die each year and the deliberate acts of a totalitarian state to kill its own subjects, by bullet, noose or planned starvation.
Capital does “preside over a system” under which millions needlessly die. We condemn the capitalists and their system. It is one reason why we are revolutionary socialists.
But to claim that the general workings of the system are the moral, political or logistical equivalent of what Hitler, Stalin and Mao deliberately did to tens of millions of people is to shed all the distinctions that enable us to make sense of the world. It is to be morally and politically colourblind.
It is to cease to know the difference between the casualties of the organically inhumane capitalist system which dominates our world, as humankind struggles to rise up out of our pre-history to rational control of society, on one side, and deliberate mass murder by a totalitarian state on the other.
To present the bombing of “Belgrade” — to compel the Serbian government to stop its attempted genocide in Kosova: the bombing stopped when the Serbian armies began to withdraw from Kosova — or Fallujah, as an alleged equivalent of deliberate totalitarian mass murder is no less bizarre.
In both these cases, Harman and the SWP were on one side in the war in question — with genocidal Serbian imperialism, and with the Sunni-supremacist-Islamists in Fallujah against the Iraqi secularists and the Iraqi labour movement.
Two consequences, pertinent to what we are discussing here, of the domination of Stalinism in much of the labour movement over most of the 20th century, are plainly and unmistakably identifiable in the SWP today.
The first is the separation of the two complementary and mutually-conditioning parts of the Marxist world outlook: the negative, the criticism of capitalism; and the positive, the democratic working-class alternative to capitalism.
Appropriating the Marxist critique of capitalism, the Stalinists confronted the capitalist system as forceful and just critics. But in place of capitalism they proposed to put not our working-class socialist alternative — democratic working-class power — but their own totalitarian system, of which the USSR was the pioneer.
The SWP performs exactly the same sort of operation today, divorcing criticism of advanced capitalism from the Marxist alternative to it, as well as muting Marxist, socialist, and secularist criticism of opponents of the USA and Britain.
The SWP indicts capitalism with a just and necessary ferocity. And in its place? Not “international socialism” but… the Taliban! Slobodan Milosevic! The Sunni-supremacist “resistance”! Iranian medievalist mullahs! Whatever the whirligig of history hurls up in some degree of antagonism to the capitalist great powers is, for these disoriented one-time Marxists, to be supported. To be whitewashed and prettied up. To be championed against what Britain and the USA may say against them, even when it is patently true. The much-misunderstood Taliban were, weren’t they, out to “protect” women.
The second aspect of Stalinism relevant to what we are discussing is, perhaps, only a sub-division of the first: it was the long-term systematic corruption and adulteration of all the key ideas of Marxism, of socialism, of politics and and even of logic itself. That too is dominant in Harman’s lucubrations on Mao.
The Stalinists perfected the technique which SWP scribblers like Harman use to obliterate the distinction between mass murder and the routine working of inhumane capitalism.“Freedom? But what is freedom, comrade?” the Stalinist would say, adding such typical potted wisdom as this: “The worker in the West has the freedom to starve! The workers in the USSR have freedom from such things. Therefore the worker in the USSR, really, dialectically, has more freedom.” Etc.
Mind-rotting conflation, purging of the real meaning of words, vandal destruction of important concepts, smart-ass apologist’s attempts to obscure important distinctions — that is what Harman offers when he equates the depredation of the workings of the capitalist market system with the depredations of Mao’s totalitarian state.
But shouldn’t socialist critics of this capitalist system focus on and emphasise present horrors? Isn’t it basic to our approach that we do not excuse the swinishness of today by harping back to the worse swinishness of yesterday; that we don’t excuse the swinishness at home by emphasising the worse swinishness abroad?
Yes, the main enemy is the enemy now, not the enemy of yesterday; the evil to focus on is the evil around you, not the evil of the past.
Of course! But it isn’t possible to fight the evils of today by indiscriminately equating them with all kinds of horrors of the past, by blurring the distinction between the effects of market capitalism and the indifference of its criminal rulers, and totalitarian mass murder.
You can’t do that without making yourself ridiculous to thinking people. Young people with only a hazy notion of history who accept what you say about capitalism now will, when they become better acquainted with the totalitarian horrors which a Harman glibly equates with the routine workings of capitalism, wind up deciding that maybe this system is not so bad after all.
And you can’t do what Harman does without to one degree or another becoming an apologist for the past evil.
You can’t equate the evil of one side in our world (advanced capitalism) with the worst horrors of the past, in order to blur, obscure, and seem to lessen the horrors of those, like Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban, or Serbian troops attempting genocide in Kosova, who clash with the USA or Britain, without becoming an apologist for the worse horrors.
Apologists for those horrors lose the moral right to go on about the horrors of market capitalism!