The Anti-War Left 100 Years Ago vs the Anti-War Left Today

Thanks to Ben Norton for permission to reprint his article. It’s spirit is spot on.

He concludes with the question: ” “Dialectics”? What’s that?”

One might also ask of today’s pseudo-left: “Internationalist solidarity”? What’s that?

* * * *

When confronted with the obscene violence of World War I 100 years ago, the strategy of the leaders of the internationalist Left was to oppose both bourgeois sides of the inter-imperialist conflict and instead advance the cause of proletarian internationalism.

Today, the strategy of much of the “internationalist” “Left” is to simply support the side that’s not the West in a kneejerk reaction and dub it “anti-imperialism.”

World War I caused a major split in the global Left. Many of the leading revolutionaries—those of whom are now some of the most celebrated figures in the history of socialism—opposed the war outright. Yet more than a few parties supported the war. This disagreement led to the dissolution of the Second International, and later to the failure of the German Revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Clara Zetkin formed Die Internationale—which later became the Spartacus League (not to be confused with the absurd Sparticist League of today), which in turn later became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD)—explicitly in order to oppose the pro-war Left, particularly the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which supported the war. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were imprisoned for their opposition to the war.

Lenin referred to the war as “the imperialist war” and condemned socialists who chose a side as “social-chauvinists.” US leftists steadfastly opposed the war, and Woodrow Wilson was even re-elected in 1916 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War”—although he reneged on his promises and plunged into the inter-imperialist violence.

If today’s “leftists” were alive then and endorsed the same logic they do now, they would have likely written off these leading leftist figures as “utopians” and “‘useful idiots’ of Western imperialism” and instead supported the Central Powers. After all, the Central Powers consisted of relatively eastern nations—the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Emirate of Jabal Shammar (in much of modern-day Saudi Arabia)—which were fighting the imperialist West—including the UK, France, the US, and more of the states in modern-day NATO.

Our day’s supposed anti-imperialists insist that we must defend the bourgeois, quasi-fascist regimes of Syria, Russia, and more against supposed “Western encroachment” (mimicking the “lesser evil” argument liberals love to wield to continuously re-elect neoliberal Democrats who were bought and sold on Wall Street on day one). Assad’s counterrevolutionary war of terrorism against his own population must be defended, they insist; Putin’s war in Ukraine must be supported, even though he himself is supported by and supports Europe’s neo-Nazi and other fascist groups.

This strange illogic leads to authoritarian “leftists” fighting in Ukraine literally side-by-side with Nazis, in defense of Russia. In 2015, a group of Spanish “communists” who returned from fighting on behalf of Russia in the war in Ukraine—which has left many thousands dead—were arrested. They had joined the pro-Russian so-called Donbass International Brigades (so named in a slanderous and ludicrous attempt to associate itself with the International Brigades from the Spanish Civil War). They received neither travel expenses nor a salary for their fighting. They proudly boasted that they fought aside both Nazis and “communists.”

“Half of them are communists and the other half are Nazis,” they explained. “We fought together, communists and Nazis alike … We all want the same: social justice and the liberation of Russia from the Ukrainian invasion.”

If today’s “leftists” are incapable of actually distinguishing leftists from fascists, one can only imagine their response to World War II. After all, the far-right, capitalist, racist tyranny of National “Socialism” presented itself as a “worker’s party.” Hitler exploited the popularity of socialism among the working class, in order to advance one of the most horrific campaigns of terror in human history. One can almost hear the same “leftists” today who claim “Actually, it was the rebels who gassed themselves, not Assad” saying, in the 1940s, “Actually, I think it was Jews who used the gas chambers against the Nazis.” “The allegations against the ‘legitimate government’ are just Western propaganda,” they would claim, in both cases.

Today’s “leftists” would have doubtless sided with the Ottoman Empire too in its crushing of the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt, disparaging it as a “Western-backed plot,” in the same manner in which they slander the Syrian Revolution now.

Just as many “leftists” today insist that Russia, Iran, and China are not actually imperialist powers because—although they are bourgeois capitalist nations engaging in imperial domination—their imperialism is not equivalent in magnitude to that of the world’s hegemon, the US, they would likely have supported the “lesser evil” of the Central Powers in WWI. (“Here’s a map of the world’s ubiquitous US military bases and here’s a map of Iran’s (lack of) military bases—see, proof Iran is not imperialist!” constitutes a common “anti-imperialist” argument today.)

Sure, the Central Powers may have been brutally oppressive bourgeois regimes—like those today of Assad, Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei, and more—but they were not the world’s leading imperialist powers, so they should have been defended. Muh “anti-imperialism”!

Today’s Left has absorbed the manichean, black-or-white Stalinist logic of the Cold War into their very beings.

“Dialectics”? What’s that?

Fascism and the Left (from Red Eureka Movement, November 1980)

… scratch a “Communist” and one quite often finds a fascist underneath.

(Note: I was personally on the other side, the wrong side, during the conflict described in this article. I opposed the Red Eureka Movement. I now regret not being open-minded and rebellious and instead clinging to the safety of dogma, a close social circle and the Party Line. We all have our dark years, I suppose. The thing is to face them and keep learning…).

* * * *

A major theme in left wing propaganda is opposition to fascism. Quite often relatively moderate opponents of the left are described as “fascists”.

Yet scratch a “Communist” and one quite often finds a fascist underneath.

The regime that began with the October Revolution is now a fascist dictatorship. In China too, since the defeat of the Cultural Revolution many revolutionaries have been executed and the right to speak out freely, hold great debates, put up big character posters and so on has been officially and formally repudiated.

The degeneration of Communist Parties in power is a separate problem calling for a separate analysis. But what about the degeneration of parties holding no power?

THE CPA (ML)

Our experiences with the “Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)” were sufficiently frightening to require some deep analysis. Almost any split is accompanied by outraged cries of “unfair” or “undemocratic” from the losing side, so it seemed undesirable to distract attention from the fundamental issues at stake by going into details of who done what to who. But another reason why we never got around to it was probably embarrassment at ever having been involved with such a sick group.

The bankruptcy of Australian nationalism as an ideology for communists is now pretty apparent, while the question of whether China has gone revisionist has been settled by open proclamations from the Chinese leadership themselves. Although Vanguard keeps coming out each week, the people behind it seem pretty discredited and there is little need to discredit them further.

In Adelaide the “Worker Student Alliance for Australian Independence” has disintegrated, along with its newspaper People’s Voice. In Melbourne the entire editorial collective of Independence Voice quit some time ago, there was no “Independence platform” at Mayday, the “Australian Independence Movement” is virtually defunct and supporters of this line have been completely routed in “Community Radio” 3CR. The Australia China Society is unable to defend the new regime in China and little has been heard from the CPA(ML) in the trade union movement either.

As a complete expression of E.F.Hill’s bankruptcy we have the suggestion in “Australian Communist”, that they want unity with us (previously described as “Soviet agents”). Hill has even signed an article proposing reunification with the CPA in “one Communist Party” (presumably because the Chinese revisionists, having recently re-united with their Italian and Yugoslav colleagues, also wish to re-establish relations with the CPA, leaving Hill out in the cold).

The thuggish behaviour of the CPA(ML) supporters in attempting to intimidate their opponents is well known. Both intellectual and physical thuggery, in 3CR and elsewhere, has become so notorious that the only “broad united front” they have been able to create has been that directed against themselves. They have also become notorious for openly preferring to ally themselves with various Nazis and other fascists against the Soviet Union rather than trying to unite the people, and especially the left, against Soviet imperialism on the basis of progressive principles. Their main political theme these days is the united front they claim to have with Malcolm Fraser,who nevertheless remains quite unaware of their existence. As for China, they openly say they would rather not talk about it, even though China was, and is, central to their whole political outlook.

These facts are mentioned, not to kick a dead horse, but to emphasise that the horse really is dead and to confirm that the additional facts about it cited below are genuine observations and not just part of some ongoing sectarian faction fight.

OTHERS TOO

The more or less open fascism of the CPA (ML) has resulted in that group being simply dismissed as “crazies”. But in fact they are only a more extreme expression of problems that exist, less overtly, throughout the left. Indeed it has been noticeable in 3CR for example, that the excuse of “keeping out the crazies”, has been used to justify appallingly manipulative and undemocratic behaviour (e.g. elected listener sponsor representatives voting against explicit directives from a large general meeting of listener sponsors). People who would be shocked and indignant about that in other contexts have made excuses for it when their own friends are doing it. Really how far is it from making excuses to acting in the same way?  And how far from there to ending up just like the “crazies” themselves?

Also the fact that China and the Chinese parrots are anti-Soviet (and Reagan, Thatcher, Fraser etc) has become an excuse to actually apologise for Soviet actions that would be called “fascist” if American was doing it.  Indeed many quite non-crazy “left liberals” have been prepared to go through the most amazing mental contortions to justify the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea or to minimise the significance of Soviet aggression elsewhere.  Rather than agree with “right-wingers” (like Churchill), they prefer to apologise for fascists (like Hitler).

Where was the left wing outrage (as distinct from concern) when Polish workers were being denied the elementary right to form free trade unions?  Why do “militants” in “left-wing” unions take delight in the same bureaucratic manoeuvres their opponents use to stay in power?  Why are splits in left wing groups so common and so nasty?

In Australia many other groups supposedly on the left have exhibited a personal intolerance comparable to the Chinese parrots, and also a comparable willingness to apologise for reactionary regimes in other countries, provided those regimes pay lip service to “anti-imperialist” principles. (Vietnam, Cuba, Iran, Libya… name a country that is suppressing some other country or trying to impose some medieval religion on its people and you will find a “left” group wildly enthusiastic about it.)  Scanning overseas “left” newspapers one gets the impression that narrow minded religious bigotry is pretty common, and even where it is not taken to extremes, it is still present.  No wonder so many on the “left” thought a fellow zealot like Khomeiny would be progressive for Iran.

The undemocratic tendencies of “Leninists” is a common theme in anti-Communist propaganda – from open representatives of the bourgeoisie, from Social Democrats, from Anarchists, from “Left” or “Council” Communists and what have you.  Nevertheless, attacks from our opponents should be taken seriously, and indeed have been taken seriously by the classic exponents of Marxism.

CHINESE FASCISM

This question was especially taken seriously in China and some of the material from the Chinese Cultural Revolution is very valuable for understanding the emergence of fascist tendencies among alleged “Communists”.

For example Mao Tsetung’s unpublished works, and the material criticizing Lin Piao (the “successor” who turned out to be a fascist). The Cultural Revolution was after all a direct struggle between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries who both purported to be part of the “left”. The concept of fighting bourgeois ideas disguised as “left” ideas was crucial to unleashing the 1960s upsurge and will be crucial again. It was necessary to challenge the “peace” ideas that were dominant in the left in the 1960s and it will be necessary to challenge the views that are dominant now – many of which are again crystallised in the eclectic mishmash of the “CPA”.

In the “gang of four’s” Peking University Journal of September 1, 1976 there is an important article on “The Bureaucrat Class and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”:

…We must further recognise the high concentration of political and economic powers under the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the bureaucrat class succeeded in usurping power and in its restorationist conspiracies throughout the country, then it would continue to flaunt the banner of socialism, take advantage of this high concentration of political and economic powers and turn the democratic centralism of the proletariat into the fascist centralism of the bureaucrat class.

In controlling and manipulating the means of production and the product of Labor, these bureaucrats will be far more powerful than any previous exploiting classes and their political representatives, than the slave owners and feudal rulers who claimed that “all land under the sun is my territory and all people on earth are my subjects”, and than the bureaucrats and financiers in capitalist countries…In a similar vein, the present day new tsars behave much worse than the old tsars…

(Translation from Selections from People’s Republic of China Magazines No 895, American Consulate General, Hong Kong. Reprinted in Study Notes No 6, Red Eureka Movement, August 1978)

This article also goes into the question of the transformation of authority into capital and capital into authority, which is relevant to an understanding of imperialism in the West as well as in the Soviet Union and China.

Western bourgeois democratic society is heading towards an acute crisis and upheaval as another Great Depression and a Third World War develop. The outcome can be Communist Revolution or some form of fascism or social-fascism. We could face a new ruling class more powerful than the present one. It largely depends on how clear the left is on what we are fighting for and what we are fighting against and how sharply we can draw the line against perpetuating the old system of exploitation in our own practice. If the left continues to whinge about capitalism, and even oppose it from a reactionary perspective then it cannot hope to inspire people to fight for something fundamentally different.

Indeed, just as one would have to defend the national independence that Western and Third World countries have already achieved, from Soviet “socialist” imperialism, one would also have to defend the achievements already won by the bourgeois democratic revolution from attack by alleged “socialists” who want to go backwards to a more oppressive society.

DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM

If the democratic centralism of the proletarian dictatorship can be easily transformed into the fascist centralism of the bureaucrat class in a developing socialist country, then what about democratic centralism in Leninist parties out of power? Is this an argument against democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship, as anarchists and others insist?

The answer to this argument is that there never can be a guarantee against proletarian dictatorship turning into its opposite, and Communists in power must always be prepared for transition to underground life as Communists in opposition to capitalist roaders in power. Likewise in Communist Parties generally – one must be prepared to rebel and to be expelled for rebelling.

But if there was no democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship then it would be quite impossible for the revolutionary ideas held only by a minority in capitalist and socialist society to be centralised and dominant and in that case the bourgeoisie holds power anyway. So weakening democratic centralism is not the answer. On the contrary, it needs to be strengthened to keep fascists out, on the same argument that the left cannot afford to be pacifist and must learn the use of arms if it doesn’t want warmongers to hold power.

Proletarian dictatorship means just that. It does not mean dictatorship over the proletariat by some bureaucrats. It means a political system in which the working class can really wield political power – something that can be achieved by workers councils led by a revolutionary party and cannot be achieved by parliamentary institutions or by milling around in confusion.

Democratic centralism also means just that. It does not mean the leadership imposing decisions on a reluctant membership. It means that the abstract “parliamentary” right which almost all organisations give their members to ultimately take decisions, is made real by conscious leadership of the decision making process to make it “from the masses, to the masses” and so make it actually work without manipulation or obstruction.

This article is not a plea for everybody to be more tolerant of everybody else. It is a call for sharper defence of our basic principles and less tolerance of attempts to undermine them. One cannot be a Communist if one is not first a democrat. The democratic revolutionaries of England, France and so on in earlier centuries had no hesitation about chopping off the heads of their aristocratic opponents and neither should we.

Fear of strengthening democratic centralism is really fear of struggle. Such fear is fully understandable in the present situation, and a lot better than blinkered complacency. But it must be overcome.

The quote from Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” in “the Personal is Political” (Discussion Bulletin No 9) rang a few bells and is worth repeating:

…..”Socialism” is pictured as a state of affairs in which our more vocal Socialists would feel thoroughly at home. This does great harm to the cause. The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs,and he gets ready to fight.

We should be ready to fight against the dictatorship of the prigs and to do this it is necessary to understand the transformation of Communists into prigs.

ARE WE DIFFERENT?

If we take Lin Piao for example, there is no doubt that he did make contributions to the Chinese revolution before emerging as an outright fascist. The superstitious Mao cult he built up in opposition to Mao had definite roots in China’s feudal past, but also struck a chord among Western “Maoists”.

Ted Hill now appears to be nothing more than a follower of Liu Shao-chi, then Lin Piao (as a major cult advocate) then Liu Shao-chi again, or whoever may hold power in China at any given moment. But some of his analyses of revisionism,parliamentarism and trade union politics in publications like “Looking Backward; Looking Forward” are still valuable and he once made a point of opposing sacred cows and stereotypes and supporting rebellion.

Things were drastically wrong with the CPA(ML) long before we parted company and people are entitled to ask how we got mixed up with them and why we should be regarded as any different. If we are to be any different then we must analyse the thin dividing line that appears to exist between being a Marxist-Leninist or “Maoist” on the one hand, and being a lunatic or a fascist on the other.

There is little need to “expose” the CPA(ML) leadership now in view of its obvious degeneration. But the roots of current fascist attitudes do need study, so the following facts are placed on the record for our own benefit rather than for the benefit of anyone still taken in by Hill.

SOME FACTS

  1. There never was anything remotely resembling democracy within the CPA(ML). This became obvious when concrete disagreements made it necessary to have a proper discussion and take a decision. But it should have been obvious even when people thought they were in agreement.
  2. As soon as a disagreement in principle was announced “through the proper channels” etcetera, the immediate response was to launch vituperative attacks on individuals – at first surreptitiously behind their backs and then openly in Vanguard.
  3. The very idea of discussing the differences was repudiated and “security” was abused to tell people that there had been a full democratic discussion, which they just didn’t happen to be part of.
  4. As a matter of fact it turned out that no Central Committee actually existed. One member of the Red Eureka Movement discovered that he was supposed to be a CC member after wanting to express his views to the CC. This must be some sort of record in the international communist movement!
  5. Other members of the Red Eureka Movement who were both on the Central Committee and knew it , were able to expose the lie that there had been some kind of Central Committee discussion about China and that documents expressing opposition had been circulated to the Central Committee etc.
  6. Individual party members had to go outside the “channels” to get any kind of discussion and then discovered that the “channels” didn’t really exist. Now others who accepted this are finding the same situation.

7.It was not a case of discussion being suppressed arbitrarily and decisions usurped, but of there being no provision whatever for seriously discussing and reversing a policy disagreed with.

  1. This situation which existed long before it came to a head was put up with by people who would rebel strongly against similar fascist practices in any other social institution.
  2. Many people on becoming aware of it, and seeing people branded as Soviet agents etcetera, took a cynical attitude that this was wrong but not a major question of principle requiring them to take a stand.
  3. Our initial reaction to all this shit was not to launch a public struggle as in the Cultural Revolution or in accord with our own experiences in the 1960s. Instead we had great hangups about “the party” and organised semi-conspiratorially.
  4. Despite being a very small group, since breaking with the CPA(ML) leadership we have not been able to resolve internal disagreements in a civilised, let alone comradely manner, but have had two further splits. While nowhere near as bad as Hill’s, these have also involved strange behaviour that would not be tolerated in most community organisations and should not be tolerated on the left. Moreover they have occurred in a situation where we are not leading any great revolutionary struggle and no pressing life or death decision was at stake.

LIFE WASN’T MEANT TO BE EASY!

We did not fully realise it at the time, but there was little alternative to the apparent extremism of Hill’s stand because there really wasn’t any possibility of a discussion. If he had agreed to a discussion, what could he possibly have said? And if the CPA(ML) did not follow China religiously, what else could it do? We cannot blame Hill for our own naivety.

We only realised how difficult most people find it to rebel and think for themselves once we had broken with Hill and company. “Stalinists without a country” was the contemptuous Trotskyist label, and there is something in it. It really is enormously easier to at least think you know what you’re doing when there is some “socialist motherland”backing you up. (Or a “Fourth International”, a “great leader” or some other crutch).

For non-revolutionaries its fairly easy to maintain a political position sustained by one or other of the reformist currents in mainstream bourgeois society. But in a non-revolutionary society and with no back up from a revolutionary society, it requires real effort to develop a revolutionary program. How much easer it would have been if we could have forgotten that we didn’t have such a program by simply pretending to ourselves that China, or Albania or somewhere was revolutionary and that supporting them would somehow produce a revolution here. Or by pretending that if we were all more dedicated, we would figure out where we were going while getting there.

Its interesting to note how even people with no attachment to Russia, China or Albania have managed to persuade themselves that Vietnam is still worth supporting and feel a deep and personal threat to their whole ideology when this is questioned. Or how people leaving REM because it hasn’t been getting anywhere who know perfectly well what’s wrong with the political line of the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), are nevertheless attracted by the reassuring certainty of that group’s proclamations.

“Idealism and metaphysics are the easiest things in the world, because people can talk as much nonsense as they like without basing it on objective reality or having it tested against reality. Materialism and dialectics, on the other hand, need effort. They must be based on and tested by objective reality. Unless one makes the effort, one is liable to slip into idealism and metaphysics.”(Mao Tsetung)

PRIESTS AND HORSES

Judging from overseas literature, the temptation of closed minded religious fanaticism is very strong in this situation. It provides a certainty that would otherwise be lacking and puts an end to all confusion,doubt,cynicism, liberalism and so on.

But this way out is the way out of the movement.It means joining the innumerable sects that are much better organised and disciplined than we are, and are able to get more done precisely because they do not have the “burden” of really having to think out a revolutionary line.

We did not hesitate to reject the “security” of blindly following China, Albania or anybody else so we should not regret the consequences.

One consequence is that we are in some respects more vulnerable to confusion, doubt, liberalism, cynicism and so on than other left groups that feel more confident about their (manifestly wrong!) lines. The reason horses are given blinkers is that it keeps them working away steadily without getting distracted by things they might see.Groups that have attached themselves to a foreign state, or that merely reflect a reformist current  in mainstream bourgeois ideology, have a secure basis for their activity and can work away at it for years after it has ceased to have any social relevance or has become purely reactionary.

The same can easily be true of “revolutionary” groups that feel secure, or pretend to feel secure in their “correct line”. They can whip up a great frenzy of activity, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Take a look at the Communist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA). On many points we would be in full agreement. They have a similar analysis of China and Albania to ours and they certainly do make a clear distinction between communist revolution and the bourgeois reformism advocated by most “revolutionaries”.

On international questions of very great significance they appear to have a fundamentally wrong analysis, But even more important, their whole approach to “correct line” politics seems alien. They are certainly not paralysed by liberalism like we are – but so what?

While confusion, doubt, liberalism, cynicism and so on persist we will remain unable to accomplish very much, including theoretical work:

“We must have faith in the masses and we must have faith in the Party. These are two cardinal principles. If we doubt these principles, we shall accomplish nothing.”(Mao Tsetung)

But the only basis for faith in the Party is confidence in the soundness of its analysis and line. Once we have grounds for such faith we will be able to accomplish something, but not before. (And of course once we do, we will again have the problem of blind faith and the potential for people to continue following a leadership that has proved itself worthy of confidence, long after it has ceased to play a progressive or revolutionary role. But then it would be at a higher stage of the spiral).

Demands that people pull themselves together, combat liberalism or what have you, will not solve the problem of lack of faith. This is an atheistic age and real communists are atheistic people. Our only God is the masses and the only basis for our faith is scientific analysis of reality.

The situation we are in calls urgently for working out where we are and where we are going. Without that , calls to press on more resolutely and with greater vigour will only result in people getting more lost.

CHIN UP, BACK STRAIGHT, EYES SHUT!

It is conservative, not revolutionary to promote “leadership”, “organisation”, “doing things”, “collective life” and so on without a clear perspective for liberating people from oppression. Defenders of the status quo habitually make such appeals and every organisation, revolutionary or not, naturally wants to be as effectively organised as possible (and most sewing circles and amateur theatrical societies are probably a lot better organised than REM). But it is quite wrong to see the organisational reflection of our confusion as the central problem instead of dealing with the confusion itself. (As for any who are not confused, they would have an even greater problem. Take off the blinkers!)

Communism is not the only ideology opposed to liberalism. Fascism opposes liberalism too. It is one thing to want to widen and deepen and ultimately transcend democracy by going beyond such mere forms as majority voting. It is quite another thing to declare that ones policies have proved their own correctness and deliberately exclude others from even a vote, let alone a real say, on the matter. Yet we have repeatedly experienced this kind of behaviour not just from enemies, but from comrades who probably really do want to be revolutionaries.

The fact that people like Lin Piao or Ted Hill could turn out to be fascists and that we could go along with a load of shit for a long time should alert us to the dangers. When people on the left start acting like people on the extreme right they must be pulled up sharply and told “You’re Ill” before the disease becomes incurable and before it spreads.

*******

Some left-wing poetry (and a little self-indulgence)

Poetry can be a powerful weapon against reactionaries. A while back I tried to recite some good left-wing poetry by Nazim Hikmet and put it on youtube:

Recital with images of Nazim Hikmet’s poem “Regarding Art”. Images include photos taken by Barry York in New York in May 2008. Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) was a poet, writer and communist who spent much of his adult life in prison or in exile. Music composed and performed (with apologies to any real musicians out there) by Barry York.

Excerpt from poem “On Living” by Nazim Hikmet (1948) recited by Barry York.

I also attempted some of my own – please excuse my self-indulgence!

This poem, inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, is an attack on the reactionary and conservative nature of pseudo-leftism. Footage used was filmed in New York by the writer – from a hotel room window on W42nd Street and elsewhere in May 2008.

The Future is Bright but the Road is Hard is a poem by Barry York. It reflects an optimistic view of the future, based on the writer’s appreciation of history and the revolutions that pushed it forward.

Alarmism is the problem, not science

Alarmism: the excessive or exaggerated alarm about a real or imagined threat.

* * *

Australia’s Chief Scientist says we’ve got five years to save the world from disastrous global warming. Who can argue with a Chief Scientist? Well, given that the Chief Scientist made that claim nearly five years ago, and there has not been disastrous warming but on the contrary no significant temperature increase for around 16 years, I’d say the answer is anyone who can read and think!

The then Chief Scientist, Prof Penny Sackett, made the remark in December 2009.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report says that the mean temperature of the planet has increased by 0.8 of a degree since the late nineteenth century. Therefore, the climate is warming. Moderately.

What then is with the continuation of exaggerated and alarmist claims and predictions? Why does the mainstream media generally give them so much publicity? (Rhetorical question, I know: the sensational headline sells papers and attracts viewers).

The IPCC’s most recent report accepts that there has been a pause or hiatus but does not see this as indicative of a reversal of the warming trend long-term.

The way to explain the pause is to allow scientific debate and argument, free of vilification. It may be that the increase of CO2 emissions to record levels and the lack of significant increase in warming do indeed point to a flaw in the original hypothesis that sees greenhouse gases caused by human industrial activity as the main driver of the warming since the 1880s. Or maybe not.

Perhaps there is something to be said for the new hypothesis that the heat is being absorbed by the oceans. This is plausible and testable; though according to a recent NASA study based on satellite observation and direct temperature measurement of the upper ocean (the deep ocean is difficult to measure, say the scientist authors): “The combination of satellite and direct temperature data gives us a glimpse of how much sea level rise is due to deep warming. The answer is – not much”.

* * *

Al Gore’s sci-fi ‘documentary’ ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was screened in just about every primary school, high school and town hall in Australia – and in many other countries too. Counterpoints were rarely, if ever, offered. But his iconic portrayal of huge tidal waves swamping Manhattan was utterly unscientific, mere alarmism. They find no basis in the IPCC assessments, which put sea level rises at 0.26-0.55 meters (10-22 inches) by 2100 under a low emissions scenario and 0.52-0.98 meters (20-39 inches) under a high emissions scenario. Is this really headline grabbing and catastrophic? Why can’t policies of adaptation be effective and the most practicable response?

The former Chief Scientist should feel embarrassed at what she said nearly five years ago.

Having said that, fossil fuels really are so C19th and C20th. But that still makes them more up-to-date than medieval windmills.

* * *

The left looks to the future. That’s what attracted me to it more than 40 years ago. You know, stuff like flying cars and holidays on the moon. Karl Marx meets the Jetsons. No, I mean it!

The problem is that pure research hardly happens any more because the needs of capital come first. There’s no profit in mucking around with ideas and experiments with no short- or medium-term marketable objective.

Change this system to one in which social need, fun and fantasy are the raison d’etre and who knows what humans will come up with?

* * * *

Marx, Murdoch and freedom of the press

“Censorship should be resisted in all its insidious forms. We should be vigilant of the gradual erosion of our freedom to know, to be informed, and make reasoned decisions in our society and in our democracy” – from ‘Smash fascism!’ leaflet, published by the Red Left group, Melbourne, 1970.

If you didn’t blink at the above quote, from the ‘Red Left’ group in 1970, then that’s because the sentiment expressed is precisely what you would expect from a ‘Red Left’ group in 1970. It is what those of us on the left actually believed back then. The quote, however, is not from a leaflet: the ‘Red Left’ group is fictitious. The words are those of Lachlan Murdoch in his 2014 ‘Keith Murdoch Oration’ in Melbourne.

Censoriousness is yet another indicator of the move to the Right in Australia’s political culture. In common with the C19th Prussian ruling class, who wanted to ban publication of anything offensive to religion or morality, in Australia the Labor Party, the Coalition and the Greens have been all for allowing the C21st bourgeois state to decide what is offensive in a publication and what isn’t. And, like the Prussian state, they supported a body to ensure that only ‘proper’ and ‘accurate’ content is published. In Australia, the previous government – with delightful Orwellian sensibility – called this the ‘Public Media Interest Advocate’ (PMIA). After all, the masses – you know, the “motive force of history” – cannot be trusted. Ah, what would they know?! Fortunately, the PMIA was defeated.

When individuals and groups self-identifying as ‘left-wing’ support censoriousness, the notion of a pseudo-left comes into play. Opposition to press freedom has nothing in common with Marxism or a Marxist-influenced Left.

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Fighting censorship

I first intentionally broke the law as a left-wing political activist in the late 1960s, when I was a student at high school. Armed with a bundle of copies of a banned pamphlet, which from memory was called either ‘US War Crimes in Vietnam’ or ‘North Vietnam: an eye-witness account’, I distributed the banned material to those among my fellow students whom I knew, or felt, were thinkers.

The pamphlet had been banned under the Obscene Publications Act (from memory) and I was worried about being caught and facing the embarrassment of arrest for distribution of ‘obscene literature’. To young blokes in their mid-teens, ‘obscene literature’ was something other than images of napalmed women and children.

I wasn’t caught, or punished, but the school principal spoke in generality at the next assembly about the importance of the law and the consequences of breaking it, even in situations where it may seem unjust. I wasn’t – and have never been – an anarchist, so I accepted the need for the law but also felt it was right to break it in this particular circumstance.

A couple of years later at university, I – and other young communists – expected, and DEMANDED, the right to freely distribute the pamphlets, leaflets, and off-set-printed newspapers that we were publishing at frenetic pace.

Within a short period of time, I came to identify with the Maoist rebels in Melbourne, and happily embraced that label. The main thing that appealed to me was the fact that Mao had declared “It is right to rebel!” at a time when Australia’s political leaders were either doing their best to crush dissent or contain it by telling us radicals to ‘use the proper channels for change’. During the Cultural Revolution in China, in the early period, hundreds of new newspapers were being published and expressing divergent and often antagonistic views. ‘Big character posters’ were pasted on walls, criticizing corrupt party officials and exposing bureaucrats who were holding things back.

Freedom to express one’s views means freedom to speak them, and also freedom to publish them. In the flair of our own youth ‘cultural revolution’ back then, I loved the slogans coming out of Paris in 1968. ‘Sous les paves, la plage’ (beneath the paving stones, the beach) is on the masthead of this blog, but I also relished others, including ‘Il est interdit d’interdire’ (It is forbidden to forbid).

Struggle against censorship was a big issue in Australia in the 1960s and the left played an important part in opposing it.

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‘Comrade’ Lachlan Murdoch – “Every citizen a journalist!”

In his oration, Lachlan Murdoch makes some important points. For instance, he understands how the new technologies have a liberating potential in the sense that everyone can be a publisher or a reporter:

“Journalists today file electronically, not just by email but through streaming live images through Skype or Facetime. Pictures taken seconds before can be seen in newsrooms half the world away. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed, Tumblr, Instagram, even Snapchat are used to amplify a story to devastating effect. These are tools available not only to journalists but to everyone with a mobile phone. Every journalist has these tools, yes, but also every soldier, every citizen, every teenager, taxi driver, mum, dad, troll, and yes, terrorist”.

“Every citizen a journalist!” – Sounds like something Mao might have said.

Murdoch jr also takes a very good line on the recent Australian security anti-terror proposals. He says: “Our current government is introducing legislation that includes jailing journalists for up to 10 years if they disclose information that relates to a “special intelligence operation.” This proscription lasts in perpetuity. Forever. Long after an operation is complete. And breaching it has no defined defences, despite such defences being well understood under Australian law”.

He provides important facts about the extent of the new “era of human communication” in which we all live:

“Of the 5 billion mobile phones in use today, 1.8 billion are smart phones, capable of publishing and receiving media. Currently smartphone sales are running at about 400 million units per quarter… Over 2 billion pieces of user-generated content are created every day. There are 277,000 tweets every minute. Ten per cent of the world’s images were recorded in the last six months. In fact, 90 per cent of the world’s digital data has been created in the last two years”.

It must be increasingly difficult being a dictator, trying to control a population. In the old days, they could send in goons to seize printing-presses. But today?

Lachlan Murdoch also points out that “the creation of the internet has not, in itself, made the world a better place. It cannot force any of us to be better human beings. But, through the knowledge it facilitates, the internet can help us to choose to be better. Choice is the nature of freedom. And knowledge is at the very root of free choice. It is also at the very core of our democracy”.

And through that knowledge and that choice, people like myself see the likelihood of a better future, one in which the big media empires will be redundant and ‘melt into air’.

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Karl Marx: the free press as the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul

Karl Marx’s first political activism was prompted by the issue of press censorship by the Prussian ruling class. He was a journalist from the 1840s to the 1860s and, as a supporter of the bourgeois democratic revolutions in Europe, he wrote eloquently about the need for freedom of the press. Marx had been editor of ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ and ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’, as well as European correspondent for the ‘New York Tribune’. He wrote nearly 500 articles for the latter.

The context for Marx’s campaign against press censorship was the decision taken by the Prussian cabinet in 1841 to extend the scope of the censorship law by decree. Under the decree, the state could censor anything critical of the “fundamental principles of religion and offensive to morality and good will”. It was long ago but, gee, there is resonance there with attacks on press freedom in the C21st, including in Australia. The term “offensive” certainly leaps out. And Marx responded as any good leftist should: “The censorship law”, he stated, “is not a law, it is a police measure”. And, moreover, “The censorship law is a law of suspicion against freedom”.

In 1843, Marx himself was censored when he wrote an article exposing the poverty among wine-farmers in the Mosel region. The ‘Rheinische Zeitung’ was banned and Marx was threatened with arrest. So, he did what any good revolutionary would do: he quickly married his fiance and fled to Paris.

For Marx, there could be no progress without freedom of the press. Comparing it to a beautiful woman, he declared that it “has its beauty… which one must have loved to be able to defend”. Censorship to Marx was an “illogical paradox” as the Prussian rulers and their ideologues argued that it was necessary in order to improve the quality of the press. Again, this has remarkable resonance with C21st press censorship. That a free press will sometimes produce lots of nonsense and much that is repugnant is true, but as Marx pointed out: “You can’t pluck the rose without its thorns!” How strange that some people and groups claiming to be left-wing today actually seem to believe that the state – the bourgeois state, I hasten to add – should be empowered to remove the thorns for our protection, as though we – the members of society – could not decide what is, or what isn’t, a thorn for ourselves. A Marxist-influenced left opposes press censorship.

Marx spent a fair bit of time fleeing different places but finally settled in London in 1849, one year after publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which he wrote with Frederick Engels. He died in London in 1883.

Among his rich legacy of revolutionary thought and writing are these words against press censorship; perhaps among the finest ever written on the topic:

“The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms material struggles into intellectual struggles and idealises their crude material form. It is a people’s frank confession to itself, and the redeeming power of confession is well known. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom. It is the spirit of the state, which can be delivered into every cottage, cheaper than coal gas. It is all-sided, ubiquitous, omniscient. It is the ideal world which always wells up out of the real world and flows back into it with ever greater spiritual riches and renews its soul.” (Censorship, Karl Marx 1842)

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Postscript: There is an article at The Drum about this, which argues the Murdoch print media supports the new ‘security laws’: Murdoch’s belated stand.

No such thing as a ‘watermelon’. Why the Green world outlook is not left-wing.

Andrew Bolt and John Pilger both agree that there is something ‘red’ about being Green. Bolt claims that the Greens include those who are really red – hence the ‘watermelon’ metaphor – while Pilger sees them as being on the side of progress and the left. Both are wrong and in this article, which I originally wrote for ‘On-Line Opinion’ in 2008, I explain why.

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In the political discourse around green issues, the world outlook associated with various green groups is portrayed as left wing. This is largely because the green world outlook generally opposes capitalism, its leaders frequently use the rhetoric of the Left, are promoted as being left wing by the mainstream media, and usually identify themselves as being of the Left.

Moreover, many green leaders and activists were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s and have genuinely left wing backgrounds. They see the green movement as a continuation of their previous left wing radicalism.

The measure of whether an outlook is on the Left needs to be assessed against criteria based on core values that have given meaning to the concept historically. Left wing traditions have never been green and, I would argue, the identification of the green outlook with left wing politics has only been possible over the past few decades because of the decline of the Left.

Contrary to what right wing commentators declare, the green movement is not the Left in new form but a product of its absence as a significant force in contemporary politics. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Green ideology has filled the vacuum created when the Left went into hibernation in the mid 1970s, after a spectacular rise during the second half of the previous decade.

What then are the core values that determine a left wing outlook, and what are the traditions of the Left in regard to nature and the non-synthetic environment?

The values of the Left are based on two interconnected qualities: opposition to oppression and tyranny (i.e., support for democracy and freedom); and enthusiastic support for material progress, for a world of (as we used to say in the communist party) “abundance for all”. These values have defined the Left since 1848, when Karl Marx issued the Communist Manifesto.

Marx, and the genuine Marxists, wanted to overthrow capitalism, not because it was supposedly bad for the natural environment, but because the key contradiction within it – between the social nature of production on one hand and private appropriation on the other – stood in the way of personal freedom for the workers and a real unleashing of the productive capacities of human beings.

Marx believed that wage slavery was based on exploitation and alienation, and that the workers should rise up and seize the means of production for their own ends rather than for the profit of the small group of owners. In a sense, Marx was a real supporter of “free enterprise”: but for the producers rather than the owners. There is nothing green at all in a Marxist position.

Marx’s comrade, Frederick Engels, compiled the booklet ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ precisely to defeat the influence of the “greenies” (i.e. utopians) of his time. Marx and Engels established a left wing tradition that fully embraced – indeed waxed lyrical about – modernity and the achievements of industrial capitalism.

Their opposition to capitalism, I repeat, was based on an analysis that saw it as retarding social and material progress. Their views on the relationship between progress and nature were consistent with the “Age of Reason” and the scientific revolution: nature, to the Left, has never been something with which to seek harmony and balance – let alone with which to live “sustainably”.

The classical Marxist view was expressed at the left wing lastsuperpower website in the following way:

The whole history of humanity is that we are a species that does not adapt its lifestyle to its environment but develops “unsustainably” in ways that require transforming our environment, our technological forces of production and our social relations of production. Our unsustainable development has already terraformed most of this planet so that it is no longer a “wilderness”, substituted “synthetic” for “natural” products for everything we live on (including ancient things like domesticated wheat and other food staples) and will go much further both intensively here and extensively across the universe and at the same time it has totally transformed the way we relate to each other and will continue to do so.

Throughout our history there have been progressives wanting to speed up the movement forward and reactionaries demanding that we should live within our means. These ideologies are closely connected with the fact that ruling classes fear the instability and threat to their domination that goes with changes undermining our old mode of life while oppressed classes always want more from life than what their exploiters think they should live on.

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According to Engels, the struggle for human liberation required the overcoming of the limitations placed on people by the natural environment. Science, technology, and politics were ways by which humans constantly created something new, rendering the old “unsustainable”.

It’s hard to imagine a more reactionary and conservative notion than “sustainability”, but it has permeated the psyche of the populations of the advanced industrial nations and has become a mantra. It is a buzzword, basically meaning let’s not take risks, let’s get cosy with nature rather than continue to transform it for our own benefit; as we have done since the harnessing of fire.

The green outlook’s opposition to capitalism does not qualify it as being on the Left because its opposition is to the industrial and social advances ushered in by capitalism. The greens look backwards to small-scale production, to a social system based on village/community life, to a society in which humans were more in touch with nature. This type of society has existed, prior to capitalism, during the feudal era. However, capitalism, as Marx enthusiastically asserted:

… has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kin. ( See: Karl Marx, Chapter 1, Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Support for turning back the clock to small-scale production based on village/community life found expression in Australia in the 1940s, with the publication of B. A. Santamaria’s ‘The Earth, Our Mother’. Santamaria was on the far right of politics and never renounced his support for Mussolini and the Italian fascists. It made sense that someone on the right would support such a backward social system, and bemoan the liberating consequences and direction of modernity because this was the tradition of the right.

Leftists are the ones who want to “overcome nature” rather than be submissive before it. We are the ones who want to reach for the stars!

To understand just how completely opposite to the left wing position Santamaria’s view was, and how completely opposite to the left wing view the green world outlook is today, one can consider Engels, writing in ‘Anti-Duhring’ (1877). Engels speculates about the radical consequences of man finally confronting the material conditions of existence, and understands humanity’s mastery of nature as the key to its social liberation: the leap from the “kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom”.

… for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, with full consciousness, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the humanity’s leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

Not surprisingly, there are left wingers around the world who speak out against the green outlook. Their views are rarely heard in the mainstream media but their critiques can be read at sites such as Spiked Online, and Strange Times (which archives of the old LastSuperpower site). Both are basically Marxist when it comes to the green issue. The UK-based editors of Spiked Online previously ran the journal ‘Living Marxism’. There are also occasional anti-green Marxist-influenced books, such as Austin Williams’ ‘Enemies of progress: the dangers of sustainability’ and David McMullen’s ‘Bright future’, but these receive minimal publicity in the mainstream compared to the voices of doom and gloom.

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Conclusion

OK, so there’s no left wing green tradition, and the greens are antithetical to left wing values. Who then are these green ideologues who are described as, and claim to be, left wingers?

To me, a new concept is needed to understand their politics and that concept is “pseudo-left”. The concept has been around for a few years now and has been used by public intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen. In Australia it was promoted at strangetimes/lastsuperpower. It is time for the “pseudo-left” descriptor to be taken up by many more people, so that the green outlook can be situated where it rightly belongs.

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What’s Left?

I became active on the left when I was in my mid-teens. The main issue, as I recall, was ‘capital punishment’. The Victorian State Government was determined to proceed with the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1966. I have vague memory of attending May Day rallies prior to that, with my dad, but it was around the age of 15 that my self-conscious direction moved to the left. Other issues were the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid in South Africa. The scenes from both countries on TV filled me with anger – not just at what was happening but at the hypocrisy of the societies that did nothing to stop it other than words. Within a year or two, the war in Vietnam came to dominate and I distributed banned literature at high school against the US and its allies in Vietnam. I had dabbled in some Marxist readings prior to going to university in 1969 and, caught up in the spirit of 1968, I was determined to be active at uni.

I couldn’t have imagined in 1969 that my activism, and embracing a Maoist position, would lead to several arrests on demonstrations, suspension from university, loss of my Education Department Studentship and in 1972 imprisonment for contempt of court at Pentridge Gaol with two comrades. 1972 was a bad year to be gaoled because the movement generally was in decline. It never recovered its spirit, or its politics. With some notable exceptions, people wandered off into the ALP or, like me, became nasty dogmatists akin to zombies mindlessly doing what they knew best; torn between feeling self-fulfilment but deeply frustrated at the same time, sensing, but not comprehending, what had gone wrong. Essentially, those of us who failed to keep thinking became ‘religious’. This remains a huge problem today, as so many adopt the ‘correct line’ on issues without any need to investigate first. They found the formula of Truth long ago; everything can be slotted into it. The resultant disconnect from reality is palpable – and bizarre.

The years 1968 to 1971 stand out, to me, as a time when the Left existed loudly and clearly, through struggle against authority outside and within the established Left. What passes for left-wing today strikes me as antithetical to the rebellious optimistic outlook we had back then, and antithetical to the desire to argue and debate and, most importantly, to oppose fascist regimes and stand in solidarity with those fighting them. Slogans such as “Not in my name” or “Hands of Syria” have nothing in common with the sadly evergreen “Smash Fascism!” An ‘Anti-imperialism’ that results in objective support for tyrannies that oppress people struggling for democracy is no different than the anti-imperialism of Mussolini and Gaddafi.

What’s Left? can be defined best by values and historical experience, and of course theory.

To me, key elements are:

– Support for Progress. I use a capital ‘P’ in order to stress that there is such a thing. It happens through human imagination, ingenuity and engineering. As Engels pointed out long ago, humans are distinguished from all other animals in that we can create what we can imagine. Harmony with Nature – Sustainability – have never been part of the left’s lexicon. Marxists believe in unleashing the productive forces through the further mastery of Nature and through freeing research and production from the social relations imposed by capital. This is the opposite of the ‘green’ world outlook.

– Internationalism: ‘they’ are ‘us’. Be ‘they’ oppressed people resisting a fascist regime in Syria or asylum seekers reaching our shores in unauthorised boats. Or ‘foreign workers’ arriving lawfully on special visae. In a globalising world, humanity is one, as never before.

– Democracy. The left understands that democracy has come about through struggles against ruling classes over centuries, resulting in rights such as universal suffrage. We take so much for granted in bourgeois democracies. It was 800 years ago that a king was forced to seal a charter with rebellious barons to agree to be subject to law and not above it. Yet today even in developed democracies, we still have to resist encroachments on liberty, be they in the form of Section 18C that allows the state to decide what is offensive or the new anti-terror security laws that open the way to a police state.

– Last but not least, the working out of a left-wing position has always come through struggle against its opposite: the pseudo-left position. This was true when I was first active in the Vietnam solidarity movement, when we struggled against the old Left Establishment that tried to constrain our youthful rebellion and to gear the movement to serve ALP electoral objectives, and it is true today, in the new century. To the media and to most people, the pseudo-left is ‘the Left’. Which explains why that kind of left is nothing more than an unpopular set of sects. I find the pseudo-left dull in its predictability and undialectical thinking. That is why I have used the terrific slogan from Paris 1968 as the sub-heading to my site: “Beneath the paving stones, the beach!” It was either going to be that one or “Reach for the stars!”

Feedback welcome.