More debate on the Right of Return here.
Now Kumar deigns to argue rather than hurling stale abuse (Solidarity 465). Discussion is good.
The atmosphere on the ostensible left is heavily charged with heresy-hunting, trolling (which is only another name for gang mobbing and bulling), shouting-down, and drowning-out. There is little or no real political debate or dialogue.
That is what the internal life of the pseudo-Leninist sects has been for decades (the SWP, for instance, or, worse, the SP). It has now become the culture of Momentum.
Here malice does service for information, hostility is enough to establish guilt on whatever charge you can think of. Anything-goes demagogy smothers face and reasoned, truthful discussion.
The norms of good democratic justice are noticeably absent — such things as “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”; a requirement for proof to establish charges; the right to respond to the charges and to challenge the evidence offered for them.
Social media both are the vehicle, and provide the new model of discourse. There is it possible to spread opinions without knowledge, and rampant prejudice with no basis other than itself.
The Labour Party now operates a system modelled on the Red Queen in Alice, whose favourite expression was “off with her head”. People are summarily expelled without precise charges, without a hearing, without the right of self-defence.
In what you said about AWL on Sky News, Mr Kumar, you revealed yourself to be very much part of that culture. You pontificated about AWL without (it is plain in what you’ve written) knowing much about us. You seem at some points to be using, or close to using, the argument that since so much of the ostensible left says something about us, there must be truth to it. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, eh?
The differences between the AWL and the rest of the would-be radical left come under three headings:
1. The kind of organisation we are, one with open discussion and open, public political accounting.
2. That we look at the realities we encounter concretely, and try to analyse honestly. We avoid demagogy — try to avoid it, anyway. We believe that the prevalence of rampant and luxuriating demagogy, in the service of party machines and party leaders, rots and has rotted the thinking of the ostensible left.
3. Apart from who we are as an organisation and who we try to be, the formal political differences of AWL with the ostensible left are, surprisingly, not so many. But there are some, and important ones.
What are we arguing about? Backing the Palestinians or not?
No, Solidarity backs the Palestinians. And we back the Palestinian Authority’s call for a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. We think the Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish nations are entitled to the same rights and to equality.
So no, but also, in a peculiar way, yes. We back the Palestinians because two states in the only possible and just settlement. We judge and criticise Israel, in relation to that policy. It is strong enough, probably, to arrive at that settlement, and does not even try.
The difference between wanting Arab or Islamic armies (or bombs, or rockets) to conquer Israel, and advocating a democratic settlement, including the democratic right of peoples to self-determination, is, however, in practice no small one. Here we follow Lenin.
There are no bad people undeserving of rights, or who forfeit their right to self-determination because of bad things they have done, or are said to have done. Where there is national or communal conflict, we advocate mutual recognition of rights, and working-class agreement across the divide to fight oppressors on the one side and revenge-seeking chauvinists on the side of the oppressed.
Kumar and his co-thinkers do not “back” the real Palestinian people. They “back” “the Palestinians” as an “anti-imperialist”, Arab-nationalist or Islamist cipher, symbol, embodiment, representation.
Because he does that and we don’t, for him we have a “racist” indifference or hostility to the Palestinians and see the Hebrew nation as superior and its rights as more important.
A future historian will no doubt ask what it is in AWL, what we do and say and have done and said, that licenses certain people to call us “racists”. She or he will be astonished to find in the AWL’s record a long history of opposition to all forms of chauvinism and racism, and to all forms of nationalism except that of oppressed peoples fighting for national rights.
There is plenty of evidence of our involvement in anti-racist activities, of our taking initiatives, of our publishing anti-racist propaganda. Kumar refers to Enoch Powell on the 50th anniversary of his notorious “River of Blood” speech. The researcher will find in the files a small pamphlet we put out then. The pamphlet was aimed at Manchester dockworkers — we had two comrades there — and distributed in an atmosphere poisoned by the fact that London dockworkers had struck and marched in support of Powell.
The researcher wouldn’t necessarily find reason there to pronounce us especially virtuous, but will be even more mystified that anyone can have the gall to call us racists.
The researcher would have to look for the explanation not in what we do, say, and are, but in those who brand us racists. She or he would first establish that the reason for the charge against us now is that we refuse to support the idea that Israel and the Hebrew nation should be destroyed, and refuse to join in a “Jew-hunt” against “Zionists”, i.e. Jews who support Israel, though sometimes very critically.
That our refusal to join the Jew-hunt makes us an oddity on the left, so the researcher from a more enlightened age may think, says more about the kitsch left than about AWL.
The researcher will find a left that has allied closely with Islamic clerical fascists, the Muslim Brotherhood’s British wing, the Muslim Association of Britain. That left — some of it — rejoiced in the victory in Gaza of Hamas over the more secular Palestinian politicians.
It marched through London against the invasion of Iraq and the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2009, and simultaneously, in chants and placards, demanded an Arab or Islamic war on Israel.
It favoured Britain pulling out of the European quasi-federation, the European Union.
The researcher will see a “left” radically disoriented. She or he may conclude that the left at the end of the second decade of the 21st century is irrational about Middle Eastern politics and especially about Israel. That it is a lot more hostile to Israel than concerned for the Palestinians. It is not abashed to find itself in full cry after the people on whom the worst racist crime in history was inflicted, and not abashed either to do it in an international “anti-imperialist” bloc whose main battalions in the Arab world circulate old Nazi propaganda.
“Racism” nowadays is little more than an expletive, a political swear-word, a species of ideological terrorism. Israeli chauvinism, and even ordinary or tacit Israeli nationalism, are called “racism”.
But if “racism” is involved here, it is the “pro-Palestinians” of Kumar’s sort who are the “racists”. That is not a mere debating point.
Their position is that six million Palestinian “refugees” have all the relevant rights in the conflict between the Hebrew nation and the Arabs.
They have the right to “return”, collectively to repossess the territory. The right — with help! — to dismantle Israel, to force the Israeli Jewish nation to surrender self-determination, to incorporate those who survive the Arab-Islamic conquest as a religious minority in an Arab or Arab-Islamic state.
In reality, of the six million “refugees” perhaps 200,000 very old people are real refugees from the 1948 war. The rest are descendants, or descendants of descendants, of refugees.
Something like the same number of elderly Israeli Jews will survive today from those who were involved, as adults or children, in their 1948 war of defence against the invading armies of five Arab states, some of which declare their intention to “drive the Jews into the sea”.
For Kumar’s sort of anti-Zionists, the principle is that the sons and daughters, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of the Palestinians of 1948 have more rights in Israel than the parallel generations of Jews. The grandson, say, of a Palestinian refugee of 1948, has more — not the same, but more, more imperious — rights over Israel (the territory, the industry, the society, the amenities) than, say, the grandchildren of all the Israelis who for generations have lived in and built Israel.
Why? How? There is only one possible answer. They are descendants of certain people, facing the descendants of other people. Their “rights” in Israel come from their genes.
Does Kumar know another way of explaining this? How far across the generations does such a set of rights go? Is there any reason why genetic-political inheritance should cease one, two, or three generations on? Why stop at that point?
There are an awful lot of people in the world whose grandparents or great-grandparents were forced out of where they lived. Do they all have more rights in the land where their ancestors lived than those who live there now, and whose recent ancestors have lived there?
In my earlier article (Solidarity 464, bit.ly/ashok-k) I cited the 13 million Germans driven west at the end of World War 2, and the perhaps one-in-four living Germans who are their direct descendants. Why stop at that point in inheritance?
In Ireland the people in north-east Ulster displaced those previously living there, my ancestors, a mere three or four hundred years ago. Give north-east Ulster back to the Gaels and the Catholics!
Constantinople/ Istanbul, the world’s principal Greek city for many centuries until the 1920s? Give it back to the Greeks? The nearly one million Greeks driven out in 1914-23 by Turkey? Have they the “right of return” to reclaim Izmir (formerly Smyrna), for example? If not, why not?
So genes, if not “race”, are the test, then? And religion — the one true Islam? Yes. And membership of the Arab people, who are special people? Yes.
The common-sense distinction on refugee rights is between relatively recent and long ago. But if a general principle applies over two, three, four generations, why not go back further?
The governing idea here is that being a Palestinian Arab is inherently, genetically, more legitimate than being an Israeli Jew — that the land is inalienably, hereditarily, their land. The delegitimation of the Israeli Jews and their state, the idea that they are genetically an illegitimate people, is central.
What is it about Jews, or the Jews of Israel, that gives them no right where they and their families have lived for generations, or less rights than the Palestinian Arabs? (There were, of course, Jews in Palestine before any Zionist colonisation, and all through the ages).
An Arab chauvinist or a political Islamist would, if they felt free to be candid, have no difficulty in answering that question. How do you answer it?
If the case is not argued in terms of positive qualities inherent in Arabs or Muslims, it has to be argued in terms of bad qualities inherent in Jews. The argument from the Israeli Jews’ genes, or from their religion, is what it comes down to.
Leftists naturally side with the defeated and champion the rights of the weak and the oppressed. Images of Palestinian refugee camps properly create a bias of sympathy and indignation on their behalf.
Yet it is one of the great rules of Marxist socialism and Marxist internationalism that you do not necessarily accept the political program of oppressed people even when you are siding with them. I don’t know what weight Vladimir Lenin’s opinions have with you, but in his writings on the national and communal question he calls for “a struggle against the privileges and violence of the oppressing nation and no toleration of the striving for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation”. He was right!
The impulse to back the Palestinians was the central reason why AWL long ago thought a “democratic secular state” in all Palestine made most sense and offered the best settlement.
Over time we faced the hard fact that any such settlement would have to be enforced on an Israel that would have to be conquered first, and so the surviving Israeli Jews would surely not get equal rights in the state. It would not in fact be democratic and secular.
The political meaning of the “single democratic secular state” formula was to delegitimise Israel and to give a plausible democratic shine to a program of war and conquest by Arab (or Islamic) states.
Most people know that, though the German state was directly responsible, the Nazi slaughter of the Jews was not just a German affair. There was a worldwide aetiology of the Holocaust. The half-baked ideas of the neo-Darwinian eugenics movement were strongest in the USA, and strong in Weimar Germany, before the Nazis. No fewer than 33 US states (of 48, then) had laws in the first half of the 20th century for the compulsory sterilisation of people deemed unfit to breed.
The cranky geneticists fed into social prejudices and licensed a war on the poor, the weak, and the disabled. US immigration laws were reshaped between 1921 and 1924 to keep out “inferior” races, such as Asians, Italians, and... Jews. US politicians said explicitly what they were doing and why: the Jews should be kept out.
That corralled Europe’s Jews for the Nazis. The “civilised” world produced the conditions that made the Holocaust possible.
So also with the program of the “Palestinian refugees” repossessing Israel. There is an aetiology.
Leave aside the question of whether or not there is a Palestinian nation, distinct from a section of the Arab nation in Palestine, now or before 1948. There are some who question that. In my opinion, there is a distinct Palestinian Arab national or sub-national identity, forged in the last hundred years.
What is it about Palestinian-Arab nationalism that raises it above all other considerations and gives it priority over other nationalisms? What gives it such strength and power that second, third, and fourth descendants of those Arabs who lived in what is now Israel up to 1948 have greater rights in Israel’s territory than those who live there now, and whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents have lived and worked there?
Is it that the Germans or the Greeks do not want to “return” and the Palestinians do? Seven decades later, there are no displaced Germans, no refugee camps in Germany?
That brings us to the true aetiology of the “Palestinian refugee question”. It is not just the responsibility of the Israeli Jews of 1948 and subsequent generations.
It is also — at least also — the responsibility of the Arab states in which, for generations, the 1948 refugees and their descendants have lived.
600,000 Jews driven to Israel from Arab states in 1948 and the years after have been integrated, as have many other immigrants, for example, Jews from the Displaced Persons’ Camps in Europe, who were able to go to Israel when the state was set up.
That the Palestinian refugees and their descendants have not been so integrated in their host Arab countries is the responsibility of the rulers of those societies. One of the central reasons for that is the wish of those rulers to use the refugees as potent propaganda against Israel, and their unwillingness to solve the problem in any other way than as part of the destruction of Israel.
Massacres have been inflicted on the Palestinians by the Muslim Arabs of Jordan (“Black September”, 1970), the Christian Arabs of Lebanon (within areas controlled by the Israeli army, in 1982), and diverse Arab forces in Syria’s civil war.
The contrast with Germany is that a German “return” would have required victory in a major war against Russia, whereas the conquest and destruction of Israel seemed feasible for the vastly more populated and powerful Arab (and Islamic) states. That, not a better moral case, is what has made the difference between expelled Germans and the Palestinian Arabs.
Let me ask another question. In 2009 many thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of Tamils were butchered as the Sinhalese army completed its reconquest of the Tamil majority areas of the island (bit.ly/slank-09).
The island of Ceylon/Sri Lanka has had a long connection with the UK, and with the radical left, which once paid a lot of attention to the big avowedly-Trotskyist party there, the LSSP, before it went Sinhala-chauvinist and otherwise betrayed its original politics.
Papers here reported the news and soon forgot the subject, though horrors continued to be inflicted on the conquered Tamils. The Tamil demand for self-determination in the areas where they are the majority is democratically unanswerable.
Yet there have been almost no demonstrations organised by the left, very few accounts of life in the Tamil country. The Sinhala chauvinists have not even been scandalised. No-one has proposed boycotting Sri Lankan goods, or Sri Lankan businesses in the UK.
Why not? How many dead Tamils does it take to equal one dead Palestinian? How many dead Tamils would it take to rouse active indignation among the “destroy Israel” people here?
The point is not that the left is racist towards Tamils — it is not — but that it is hysterical about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is, hysterically hostile to Israel.
In relation to a people faced with an old-style colonial war of conquest, Marxists would not say: first tell us if you are fit to avoid colonial conquest, then we may oppose your invaders. AWL did not do that when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. We opposed the Russian invaders. But we did not mimic the politics of those fighting the Russians, or pretend that they were not thoroughgoing all-round reactionaries.
The measure of the irrationality of the kitsch left is that it has gone in for that mimicry and pretence with the forces of Islamic clerical fascism. Thus, that “left” backs and mimics the politics of Hamas, and rejects the Palestinian Authority policy of two states. That is a political choice. An astonishing choice.
The short answer to your question — if AWL are not racists, why is it that so many people on the left denounce us as racists? — is that you can’t answer that question until you examine the nature of that “left”.
There is, Mr Kumar, an alternative to your thinking here — that if so many call us racists, then we must be racists. Think things through for yourself. That is what AWL tries to do, and we check ourselves against what critics — to whom we give space in our press — throw against us. The method of going with the crowd, the consensus, the mob, is pitiable and likely to clog your political brain.
Karl Marx said what need to be said here, by quoting a medieval poet at the start of Capital volume 1: “Go your way and let the people talk”.
AWL has frequently been at odds with the kitsch left. We were the only organisation rooted in Orthodox Trotskyism that called for the Russians to get out of Afghanistan. We were very much in the minority. But were we thereby wrong? The Mandelite Fourth International, which took the opposite view, would not now argue that they were right and we were wrong.
You use “colonial settler state” to denote Israel. (What other “colonial settler states” do you have in mind?) You use an archetype to set up a priori condemnation. But the truth is always concrete.
Here, the history of Israel and of its interaction with the Palestinian Arabs is not one of a great power coming in to displace the existing population and grab the land as an outpost, but, in large part, of desperate survivors of the greatest racist massacre in history seeking refuge with the Jews already there.
You write that “settler colonialism is a form of racism”. It is true that in all conflicts between communities, defining people in or out of one’s “own” society, group, nationality, will be a very important part of the “project”. Socialists would certainly not advocate, promote, or defend that. We have to start, however, from the facts that result from history.
There is a continuum from partiality to rabid chauvinism and then to racism. There are no “left-wing” actual racists that I’ve ever heard of, though there may well be some strange cluster hiding out somewhere in the archipelago of the ostensible left. All left-wing antisemites I know of sincerely hate racism and antisemitism. They just don’t recognise the antisemitism they practise.
They hate the old fascist-antisemitic zoology, and such things as the Christian antisemitism of the Tsarist Black Hundreds and many others. They hate the raging antisemitism that engulfed the Stalinist organisations from 1949-53, even though inventions, lies, and constructions from then make up much of the received wisdom and pseudo-history of the contemporary Trotskisant kitsch-left.
It is part of the mental culture of the left to hate those things. They think their absolute anti-Zionism, and their advocacy of the conquest and destruction of Israel, is a form of “anti-imperialism” or “anti-racism”.
Their antisemitism consists in believing and repeating historical fairy stories about the history of Zionism, in systematically delegitimising Israel, in viciously biased accounts of how Zionists “negotiated” (guns to their heads) with antisemites, all the way back to an encounter of Theodore Herzl with the antisemitic Tsarist minister Von Plehve.
If you use the term “racism” loosely to mean a higher or lower part of a continuum on from chauvinism, rather than belief in some theory of superior and inferior races, then there is no shortage of socialist “racists”. There is even a case of a well-known socialist who subscribed to the zoology of the eugenicists, Jack London.
There have been socialists or communists who believed, tacitly or militantly, that black people were inferior to whites. Some socialists in South Africa in 1922 raised the slogan “Workers of the World Unite — For a White South Africa”.
The worst example of racism within the left, in the sense of belief in innate traits and bad “nature” in certain peoples, and extreme hostility to them, is the Stalinist anti-German propaganda during World War Two, and what they did at the end of the war.
The second most terrible “racist” crime of the 20th century was the vengeful driving-west of 13 million Germans at the end of the war, with the death of perhaps half a million of them. Russia controlled the territory from which they were driven, and it was done with the prior agreement of President Truman and prime minister Churchill.
It was prepared by over a decade of propaganda that Germans were warlike in some special degree — that they were inherently vicious, “Nazi” or Nazi-like.
I don’t know that that expression was ever used, but the Germans were an inherently “bad people”. Today, though no-one has used those terms, the Israelis are a “bad people”, a bad, historically illegitimate nation. The attitude that its people can and should be conquered and deprived of national rights, even where they have been the majority for generations, is the same attitude that led to the driving-out of 13 million Germans.
You misunderstand our attitude to peoples whose cultures we believe to be behind those of the more developed and more secular societies. Trotsky stated our attitude in the manifesto of the Communist International in 1920:
“The Socialist who aids directly or indirectly in perpetuating the privileged position of one nation at the expense of another, who accommodates himself to colonial slavery, who draws a line of distinction between races and colours in the matter of human rights... such a Socialist deserves to be branded with infamy, if not with a bullet, but in no case merits either a mandate or the confidence of the proletariat”.
And again in a polemic of 1932:
“What characterizes Bolshevism on the national question is that in its attitude toward oppressed nations, even the most backward, it considers them not only the object but also the subject of politics. Bolshevism does not confine itself to recognizing their ‘right’ to self-determination and to parliamentary protests against the trampling upon of this right.
Bolshevism penetrates into the midst of the oppressed nations; it raises them up against their oppressors; it ties up their struggle with the struggle of the proletariat in capitalist countries; it instructs the oppressed Chinese, Hindus, or Arabs in the art of insurrection and it assumes full responsibility for this work in the face of civilized executioners. Here only does Bolshevism begin, that is, revolutionary Marxism in action. Everything that does not step over this boundary remains centrism”.
But at the same time the left must assert its own political, cultural, anti-religious identity, and not mimic the dominant culture of such as political Islamists.
The hard fact, Mr Kumar, is that AWL has been the most consistently anti-imperialist and anti-racist organisation on the left. We have rejected and do reject all species of superior-inferior differentiation as between peoples and nations.
Recognition of the fact that the forces of the Afghan resistance to Russian colonial conquest were indescribably backward, centuries behind the west in habits of mind and culture, did not lead us to back the Russians. Every other Orthodox Trotskyist organisation in the world backed the Russians in their war, and some of them, the Socialist Party for instance, continued to back Russia through the decade of its colonial war.
You group issues on which AWL differentiates from the “common sense” of the left — Bosnia, Kosova, Iraq. The sad truth is that “left-wing common sense” today on many issues is neither left-wing nor possessed of sense, common or rare. How exactly did we differ?
Bosnia? We backed the right of the Muslims of Bosnia to defend themselves against the Serb Christian ethnic cleansers. We condemns the arms embargo that hindered them in defending themselves.
We were not alone on the left in that. The main “left” we differentiated from there was the SWP-UK, which took a lofty “plague on both houses” sectarian stand, refusing to defend the victims, who, as it happened, were Muslims,
Kosova? Kosova was a long-time colony of Serbia inhabited by ethnic Albanians. Apart from a decade or so when they were treated half-decently, they had been oppressed and ill-treated for most of a century.
In 1999 the very chauvinist and even “racist” Serbian state started a drive to kill or drive out the Kosova Albanians, 93% of Kosova’s population. NATO bombed Serbian cities until the Serbian state stopped trying to ethnically-cleanse Kosova of Albanians.
Throughout that war most of the ostensible left tried to create an “anti-war movement” — against NATO. The corollary of that approach to NATO was to side with a Serbia engaged in ethnic cleansing.
The NATO bombing was a crude and undiscriminating weapon. It was not our weapon. We gave no advance credence or confidence to NATO, far from it. But this was an international police action to stop genocide. An imperialist action, if you insist: but to campaign against NATO’s war was to say in effect “let Serbia get on with killing and driving out the people of Kosova”.
Mindless and paint-by-numbers “anti-imperialism” here lined up the left with the primitive ethno-imperialism of the Serbs.
In Britain the SWP made lying propaganda on behalf of Serbia. Others on the left, who unlike the SWP recognised the realities and opposed the ethnic cleansing, raised combined slogan: stop the bombing, and self-determination for Kosova.
The problem there was that if Serbia was not stopped, there would be no Kosova to exercise self-determination. The combination of slogans was irresponsible evasion.
AWL, at the very start, said “stop the bombing”, from reflex anti-NATO sentiment. Then we faced the realities and, without endorsing NATO, we refused thereafter to say anything which meant, implicitly: Let Serbia do as it likes in Kosova.
Thoughtless “anti-imperialism” led the left there to irresponsible evasion or even to explicit support (from the SWP-UK and its “children groups” in other countries) for Serbian imperialism. The truth is always concrete. The realities and possible lines of development in every situation have to be honestly defined.
Incidentally, the cases of Bosnia and Kosova — and of Afghanistan — show how preposterous it is to think that we are hostile to Muslim peoples, still less that we are instinctively or politically “racists” towards them.
If you want to call it “racism”, the “racists” here were those who backed or refused to condemn the Russians in Afghanistan, insisted that the Muslim Bosniacs should not be backed or defended, and who rather more than implicitly backed the great “racist” crime Serbia was committing in Kosova.
I repeat: we have a better, certainly a more consistent, record on these questions of anti-imperialism and anti-racism than most of our critics and slanderers.
Iraq? We opposed the US invasion and denounced the war-makers. Our differences with “the left” — the left whose judgements in Bosnia and Kosova had proved how clear-headed and principled they were — began afterwards. We condemned “the resistance” of Ba’thists, Sunni supremacists, and some Shia Islamists. We backed the more secularising people, the advocates of democracy (bourgeois democracy), and the renascent labour movement.
We refused to call for the invaders, who had shattered civil administration in Iraq, to compound the crime of invasion by an immediate and precipitate withdrawal, leaving the chaos they had created to work itself out in religious-sectarian civil war within which, as in Syria, the new labour movement would be wiped out.
Again, we rejected “paint-by-numbers” politics. We refused to call for specific action whose certain consequences we did not want, and which the renascent Iraqi labour movement did not want or call for.
There is a historical parallel. A Nazi resistance movement, calling themselves the Werewolves, existed for the first year or so after the occupation of Germany in 1945. Those socialists who called for the withdrawal of the occupying armies (or of the non-Stalinist armies) did not feel obliged to back the Werewolves against either the occupying forces or the anti-Nazi Germans who “collaborated” with the British and the Americans in creating a bourgeois-democratic Germany.
You cite me as saying that “much of the culturally backward Islamic world looks with green-eyed envy at the Western and sexually sinful countries”.
I actually wrote: “Political Islam... expresses the disappointments and frustrations of the mass of the people in the Islamic countries... Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies” ().
This brings us to a very important aspect of the contemporary would-be left. When I wrote those lines, I would have had in mind episodes from the history of Islam and the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Subconsciously I may have remembered Engels’ similar description, adapted in turn from the 14th century Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun (see footnote). In terms of images I may have had in mind the actor Herbert Lom in the film El Cid as a primitive Islamic-purist leader.
I applied the image to Christian country people besieging Dubrovnik in 1991. “Racism” would be to focus on alleged traits of specific peoples, nations, races. An argument which compares 20th century Christian Serbs with medieval (and some later) Arabs is not specific enough to be racist!
The idea that anything in what I wrote, or even in your paraphrase, is or might be “racist” could only occur to people whose brains have been rooted by demagogy — such people as the minuscule group of feeble political provocateurs who — seven years after it was published — started an agitation about the article in question.
A characteristic of the pseudo-left in its political dotage is a drive to stereotype language, to lay down in advance the terms and language of description, definition, and discussion.
In that culture, discussion of permissible and “impermissible” language has a built-in tendency to displace and block off substantive discussion of politics.
Anyone can play. Anyone who knows not much, or anything, of the substance, can scrutinise the language, and doesn’t have to find out about the substance. People who like to sound off can sound off. The self-righteous nincompoop can be a self-righteous nincompoop.
This is a characteristic of a would-be left that is too scared of the world around it, and of itself, to think. It is a major trait — both consequence and ongoing cause — in the decadence of the ostensible left.
Obviously there are words and terms that are offensive and should not be used, ever — the “n-word”, for a prime example. But a political world in which ideas are ruled out or in depending on how decorous the language is used to express them? That is one in which discussion of language can and frequently does displace discussion of things and ideas. That is a decadent political culture.
Take the term “backward”. That can be right or wrong in a given place, but it compares stages of development, and does not necessarily imply any idea that the “backwardness” is rooted in innate characteristics. People who use the term may want to imply that, but not all who use it think that.
Take the writer. I came to this country from the west of Ireland in the mid-1950s, at the age of 12. I believed that a priest muttering in Latin could and did change little lozenges of bread into “the body and blood” of Jesus Christ. The bread was not a mere symbol, but had become the real, literal “body and blood”, though by every test of sense and everyday reason it remained just a bit of bread. As an altar boy, a “server” of the priest working his miracle, I believed I had, four, six, seven, or occasionally ten times a week for three years, helped priests work that transformation.
Was I “backward”? Surely I was.
My father grew up believing that a priest, if you made him angry, “could put a pig’s head on you” — turn your living human head into the living head of a pig. By the time I knew him he mocked such ideas as “phisorogues”, senseless superstitions, but he had believed them.
Was he backward then? In relation to science, reason, culture?
I wouldn’t have liked to be called “backward” then. Far worse, though, that someone who called me backward would have been someone who told me that my beliefs were fine, just as good as the beliefs of science.
Yes, indeed, we are Leninists. We are Trotskyists, and “Bolshevik-Leninists”, as the early Trotskyists called themselves. We are proud of that.
We also know that such names tell you little nowadays. They are, to a high degree, historical categories. We try to continue the Marxism of the Trotskyists and the Leninists into our own time, and we honour them greatly.
Finally, I recommend you to read the AWL book The Left in Disarray.
Note: "A peculiar antithesis to this was the religious risings in the Mohammedan world, particularly in Africa. Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the "law." The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades". Engels, On the History of Early Christianity.