Dead Men Left

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Johann Hari and his incoherent rant

Johann Hari has thoughtfully provided his readers with a handy resume of an article by David Aaronovitch, originally penned for the Guardian last year. Hari has updated it with a few of the tics and foibles he has claimed as his own, and it all provides the amusing spectacle of pro-war, pro-Blair Johann Hari trying to lay down the line to anti-war, anti-Blair left-wingers. It is, as such, hard to take seriously, though the magnitude of Hari’s smears leads me to try.

First up, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). Joint organisers of the great anti-war demonstrations, the Muslim Association of Britain has made the unwise move of being both vociferous and Muslim; and that, in these dangerous, post-9/11 times, can obviously only mean they are suicide bombers in waiting.

This is, of course, piffle; MAB are an integrationist organisation who tack to the left on some issues (redistributive taxation) and to the right on others (gay rights). I don’t agree with MAB on a whole number of questions, but I’m more than happy to march with them alongside many others who I also don’t agree with. They aren’t “fascists”, “Islamofascists” or some meaningless, Rick-like variation on this theme. If you’re out opposing a government hell-bent on launching a war, unity is important. This seems eminently reasonable. Such unity becomes a necessity when dealing with the war on terror’s immediate domestic victims.

Further, if I as a secular socialist want to win an argument with anti-war Muslims – pace, on one side, Blair and Bush, and on the other, the political Islamists – that the entire Clash of Civilisations thesis, however applied, is a myth, and that unity with secular forces is necessary to defeat Bush and Blair, I will only do it by respecting their autonomy.

The real political Islamists, those in the small but vociferous organisation Hizb’ut-Tahrir, campaigned against the Stop the War Coalition on the grounds that there were two types of “Western imperialism”: those imperialists, like Bush and Blair, who wanted to slaughter Muslims, and those imperialists, allegedly in the Coalition, who wished to culturally assimilate Muslims. To defeat that argument – and it is to the movement’s immense credit that it was overwhelmingly defeated – it was necessary to ask for unity only on the basis of opposing the war. From that point of maximum unity, further arguments could be won – about the participation of gay organisations, for example, all of which helped undermine the political Islamist argument.

Yet Hari seems to think the tactical alliance of the anti-war movement has transformed into a strategic coalition in Respect. He thinks MAB has joined Respect. He is curiously misinformed. MAB are not in Respect; they have never been in Respect; and, in the last national poll, in June 2004, they called for votes for Greens, Ken Livingstone and even the Liberal Democrats in preference to Respect candidates.

It is time, I think, that the mythology of the sinister MAB/Respect alliance was laid to rest. Individual members of MAB can join on the same basis as everyone else. That means agreeing to a programme which has the strongest and clearest policy on gay rights and a woman’s right to choose of any political organisation in Britain. Both policies were passed by large majorities at the last Respect conference: read them here. If they accept that, they can join. No doubt the fact that such a political programme can appeal to working-class Muslims, as it does in East London, causes some Islamophobic consternation – but they’re Muslims, they must be bigots – but that is the simple truth.

Beyond this minimum programme, I’m quite certain I don’t agree with everyone in Respect on every political question. From his comments regarding individual members of Respect, Hari evidently view this as a weakness. I view it as a healthy plurality.

What are those criticisms? Predictably, Hari retells a few tired old stories pertaining to George Galloway. Here’s one of them:

When the military staged an anti-democratic coup in Pakistan in 1999, Galloway wrote in his weekly column for the Tory newspaper the Mail on Sunday, “In poor third world countries like Pakistan, politics is too important to be left to petty squabbling politicians. Pakistan is always on the brink of breaking apart into its widely disparate components. Only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together... Democracy is a means, not an end in itself."

This is really quite amusing. Strip away his inimitable phrasing, allow for Hari’s selective editing, and Galloway’s position on Musharraf’s coup was damn near identical to that of the UK government at the time. Galloway was a loyal Labour Party member, loyally sticking to the party line. Hari may disagree with that party line, but these are hardly grounds to argue for a Labour vote. Still worse, whilst Galloway has been awarded a civilian honour for services to democracy in Pakistan, Blair has thanked the military dictator Hari apparently so despises for his “strong, courageous support” in the “war on terror”. Take your pick: Galloway merely wanted a country to avoid falling apart; Blair actively welcomes the strategic support of a dictator in committing an act of aggression.

Hari then rehashes his atrocious “review” of Galloway’s book, I’m Not the Only One. Lenin of Tomb infamy obliterated Hari’s hopeless mash of half-truths, misquotes, and outright falsifications shortly after it was first printed. Hari chooses just one near-slander this time round, claiming that Galloway ‘…even described Saddam’s genocide of the Kurds as “a civil war” that “involved massive violence on both sides.’ This description was applied by Galloway to the 1991 uprising, not (as Hari implies) Saddam’s earlier genocidal assault on the Kurds – a fact noted in Hari’s original piece. Galloway, for the record, was amongst the few Labour MPs protesting the Halabja attack at the time. For some reason, Hari fails both here and in his earlier “review” to inform us of the context, which – as Lenin says – is of Galloway’s support for the 1991 uprising and the overthrow of Saddam by the Iraqi people.

A few minor points: Galloway opposes capital punishment, and supports a woman’s right to choose. It is strange that journalists who we might presume have some concern for the truth have been unable to carry out the basic fact-checking that would have made this clear. (This evangelical Christian website inadvertently reveals Galloway’s commendably liberal voting record.)

On to Yvonne Ridley. It is only a decidedly ill-framed mind who can see Ridley’s comments on the Taliban as announcing her support for the regime. Expressions of empathy for one’s kidnappers are not unknown – Terry Waite and Brian Keenan have made similar remarks in the past, though I very much doubt that either support the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Palestine. I don’t support the Taliban, Yvonne Ridley does not support the Taliban, Respect does not support the Taliban. Hope that’s clear.

Finally, the SWP, a major player within Respect, at which point Hari entirely changes tack:

Nor is the SWP in any sense a democratic organisation. They aim to create a society modelled on Lenin’s Soviet Union – a bloodthirsty dictatorship that slaughtered democrats and liberals. They claim the Soviet Union only went awry with Stalin, and that Lenin provided a “model for the world”. Yet their hero Lenin set up Russia’s secret police and ordered countless executions and massacres. He argued that “the foundation of socialism calls for absolute and strict unity of will... How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one." As the academic Neil Harding has written, “Leninism would have found its Stalin sooner or later.”

For someone who becomes so upset by Stalinism, Hari accepts their interpretation of history: that Lenin lead to Stalin. Ignoring all historical experience, ignoring everything Lenin and Trotsky wrote on the subject of the revolution and its degeneration – bar a few lines, wrenched from context – Hari buys the Stalinist lie wholesale: that Stalin was the heir of the October Revolution, not its bloody murderer. (Those wanting to pursue this discussion could do worse than to glance at the excellent polemic on “What Is To Be Done?” from US socialist Hal Draper.)

Whatever your views on the SWP, however, it is clearly illogical for Hari to simultaneously claim that the SWP is necessarily anti-democratic, over-centralised, and thus imparts this character to Respect at the same time as criticising Respect for holding a plurality of views in the form of George Galloway, various left-wing Muslims and Yvonne Ridley.

Hari concludes:

The RESPECT Coalition might dupe some decent left-wing people, but Labour activists should not be mistaken: this is - to a significant degree - a party of the totalitarian-right.

I absolutely defy anyone – anyone at all – to search through Respect’s founding declaration, its conference resolutions, its public policy announcements and its campaigning activity over the year of its existence and draw that conclusion. It is ludicrous nonsense that only even approaches credibility when buttressed by an unsightly confection of half-truths and smears; but no doubt anti-war, anti-Blair Labour supporters will have more sense that to believe pro-war, pro-Blair Hari. Respect is a principled party of the left of which I am very proud to be a member.