Sunday 16 August 2015

The left-wing case against Corbyn: some links

I’ve become increasingly disheartened and frustrated at seeing friends and colleagues whom I like and respect falling for Corbynmania. However, rather than launch into yet another pointless dispute on Facebook or Twitter, I thought I’d put together a collection of some of the best arguments I’ve read for not electing Corbyn as Labour leader, and direct people here.

I’m no longer a Labour Party member, so I don’t really have a horse in this race. But I do care about the state of British politics, and I believe we need a credible and electable opposition party – rather than one lost in nostalgia for discredited policies that sent the party into the political wilderness for a decade, or one with a leader given to expressing solidarity with authoritarian and anti-democratic movements.

Since all of the authors cited below have impeccable left-wing credentials, perhaps their arguments will have greater power to persuade than mine. So here are links to four articles, with key quotations from each:
 First up, self-described ‘libertarian democratic socialist’ Paul Anderson:

Politicians’ records are open to scrutiny as never before – and they are able to get away with platitudinous nonsense and worse because the internet has created a populist noise that has made everyone a valued player and has thereby simultaneously devalued expertise and nuance. Corbyn’s record on foreign affairs is a case in point. The first thing to know about him is that he’s a boilerplate leftist with a Chomskyite thicko’s take on the world. American imperialism is the greatest evil in the world. Apartheid was the second-greatest evil – forget about Soviet totalitarianism – but now it’s Israel as US proxy in the Middle East. Nato expansion is the root of Russia’s current authoritarianism. It was a bit of a mistake to get rid of Gaddafi and at least Assad is secular and allows girls to go out in public. And, er, that’s it. 
Next, Nick Cohen, Observer columnist and author of What’s Left:

The tribune of the left, the indomitable defender of equality and decency, is also the greatest apologist for clerical fascism in the British parliament. Corbyn indulges radical Islam, and by extension  all that comes with it: the subjugation of women; the judicial murder of homosexuals in compliance with sharia law; the racism, most evident in its anti-Semitic conspiracy theories; the denial of democratic rights, the demand to create a global caliphate must bring; and the denial of religious freedom the sharia-prescribed death penalties for blasphemy and apostasy do bring with miserable regularity. Islamism is against everything the left pretends to believe in. But in Britain and elsewhere, leftists rather than conservatives are the first to defend it.

And here’s James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward:

The best case against Corbyn is not that he is a wild-eyed socialist, but [… ] he is remarkably good at proffering apologetics for dictatorship and tyranny. As well as Gaddafi, Corbyn has in recent years championed/made excuses for Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez, Russian gay-basher Vladimir Putin, the butcher of Bosnian Muslims Slobodan Milosevic and the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
 He has also worked for Iranian state broadcaster Press TV (home of Holocaust deniers and other cranks) and has referred to fascistic terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah as his "friends". […] The truth is that, however much a Corbyn-led Labour party might claim to be standing up for the most vulnerable, it will always and everywhere be willing to sacrifice the very people it ought to stick up for – the world's democrats, secularists, Jews, gays and women – on the ideological altar of anti-Americanism. This, as I will never tire of pointing out, ought to make Corbyn persona non grata for any principled person of the left.

Finally, an open letter to Corbyn from Alan Johnson (the Fathom editor and professor of politics, not the MP):

You represent a clear alternative to the suffocating consensus that says there is no alternative to neoliberalism: […] But you won’t get my vote. You won’t get it because Labour’s best traditions also include anti-fascism and internationalism while your support – to me, inexplicable and shameful –  for the fascistic and antisemitic forces of Hezbollah and Hamas flies in the face of those traditions. In particular, your full-throated cheer-leading for the vicious antisemitic Islamist Raed Salah is a deal-breaker. […] And it isn’t just a problem with Salah, is it? You said it was ‘my pleasure and my honour’ to host ‘our friends from Hezbollah and our friends from Hamas’ in the Commons. Really? Why do you not care that the Hamas Charter states that ‘Islam will obliterate Israel’ and enjoins all good Muslims to kill Jews, whom it blames for all the wars and revolutions in classic antisemitic fashion? […] I just do not understand how you can support so unthinkingly those political forces which oppose to their dying breath everything  – literally, everything – the labour movement has ever stood for: trade union rights, freedom of speech and organisation, women’s equality, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racism, the enlightenment, and reason. But as long as you do support those forces you will not get my vote.
Also recommended: these insights from Gary Kent, Rob Marchant and David Paxton.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Breaking my silence?

‘It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.' – Alice in Wonderland

I’ve always felt an affinity with French-Moroccan author Marcel Benabou, who wrote a book-length treatise on why he hadn’t written more books: Pourquoi je n'ai √©crit aucun de mes livres. In the same spirit, this is a blog post about why I haven’t written any blog posts recently – well, nowhere near as many as I used to write (only 20 posts in the past three years, whereas in 2009 alone I wrote more than 200).

My principal excuse for inactivity is that this is primarily a political blog – and my political beliefs are currently in a state of extreme flux. So what’s new, you may ask? Hasn’t this blog charted repeatedly (and probably tediously) my movement from youthful Tribunite Labour left-wingery, through Gramscian Marxism, to critical support for New Labour? Didn’t I once claim, in my normblog profile no less, that I started this blog ‘to help me work out what I think’? And wasn’t it precisely the experience of writing this blog that helped me to clarify the anti-totalitarian liberal-social-democratic politics that has characterised my thinking for most of the blog’s life?

Yes, but this feels different. The change in my political outlook feels more seismic this time. I’m reluctant to articulate the change too precisely, for fear that the sands may have shifted again in a few months, and I’ll have to recant any positions I espouse here. So how to characterise the change? Maybe it’s enough to say that these days I find myself reading Standpoint and The Spectator more frequently, and with more pleasure, than The New Statesman; that I tend to haunt websites such as Front Porch Republic and Ethika Politika; that having hero-worshipped Thomas Paine for years I’m much more sympathetic to his nemesis Edmund Burke; and that I now find Chestertonian distributism more attractive than any form of socialism. 

That last item is a partial clue as to why my views have changed. My re-engagement with religious faith in the past year or two has certainly made me more 'conservative' on some social issues, and while my re-awakened faith has helped to keep my passion for social justice alive, it has also made me more open to different ways of imagining and achieving it. But it’s not just about religion. Another way of describing the change in my politics is to say that my growing disillusionment with certain aspects of contemporary leftism – whether it be kneejerk anti-westernism in foreign affairs or ‘big state’ paternalism at home – has led over time to a questioning of the foundations of progressivism per se.

To put it another way, and please forgive this brief philosophical excursion by someone who’s by no means an expert in these matters: it’s partly about questioning the adequacy of the Enlightenment tradition. Like many others who have featured in my blogroll sidebar over the years, I began blogging partly out of a sense of alarm at the rising tide of irrationalism and moral relativism in contemporary political discourse, particularly on the Left – manifested in contorted attempts to ‘understand’ terrorism, a refusal to condemn misogyny and racism if espoused by non-westerners, and the abandonment of a sense of universal human rights. In this context, post-Rushdie, post-9/11 and post-Danish cartoons, it seemed important to rush to the barricades (or at least, the blogs) to defend the gains of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it became something of a badge of honour when, in a burst of tortuous illogicality, Madeleine Bunting (‘Our Maddy of the Sorrows’, to quote the late great Norm), one of the torchbearers for the anti-rationalists, condemned writers of our stripe as ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’.

But what if an appeal to Enlightenment principles is not enough to roll back the tide of postmodern relativism? And going further: what if the Enlightenment, rather than being the solution, was itself the genesis of the problem? On the first point: it could be argued that the Enlightenment, for all that it began as a critique of religious thinking, actually depended on unspoken but deeply shared religious foundations. For example, its defence of reason, liberty and progress was founded on certain assumptions – that history has a purpose, that every human life is of value – that are inexplicable outside a Judaeo-Christian worldview. It could also be argued that, as those shared religious assumptions have weakened in the last two centuries, so the Enlightenment principles that were (implicitly if not explicitly) founded on them have also been shaken. In a post-religious world, and in the postmodern marketplace of ideas, the principles of the Enlightenment appear no more and no less ‘universal’ than any others. Bunting is not alone in her critique: plenty of more serious postmodern thinkers have argued (spuriously, of course) that Enlightenment ideas are 'merely' a reflection of the interests of a particular group of privileged, white and probably imperialist men belonging to a particular (and particularly oppressive) society and culture.

Which bring us on to the second point: that the Enlightenment may actually share some of the blame for this descent into the slough of moral relativism. How so? Well, once again, I’m not a philosopher, but I was struck by this paragraph in Rodney Howsare’s brief introduction to the ideas of the modern Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:

For Kant, and the moderns in general, the notion that the unifying center of a thing really does appear in the individual thing was denied. When I see this particular tree, therefore, all I see is the appearance of this particular tree. If any generalisations are to be made about it, they will have to come from the side of the subject. This means that the classical transcendental properties of Being—unity, truth, goodness, and beauty—must no longer be conceived as properties of Being, but as characteristics attributed to Being from the side of universal subjectivity. All postmodernity has to do to achieve nihilism, it would seem, is to deny any universal subjectivity. Postmodernism is not so much an alternative to modernism as its reductio.

We’ve strayed somewhat from our discussion of the direction of contemporary politics. But what I take Howsare to be arguing is that it was the Enlightenment’s denial of transcendence and objectivity that paved the way for the postmodernist critique that eventually sank its claims to universality: in other words, Enlightenment thinkers sowed the seeds of their own destruction. This makes it increasingly difficult to ground a critique of the creeping relativism and irrationalism of much contemporary political thinking in a call for a return to Enlightenment principles. What is needed instead, perhaps, is a deeper kind of return: to a way of thinking grounded in a sense of the sacred and of an objective moral order. (I can imagine the objections already being tapped out on the keyboards of my more secular-minded readers...)

These are the kinds of issues I find myself wrestling with these days, as I struggle to find new foundations for my political thinking, and an alternative to the Enlightenment rationalism that has been the source of my politics for so long. I’m going to make a determined effort to use this blog, once again, as a vehicle for working out what I think. You may notice some changes – in the kinds of themes and issues I discuss, the sources I turn to, and the links that appear in my sidebar. If you were a fan of the ‘old’ Martin In The Margins, you may not find the new incarnation quite to your taste, in which case you should feel free to move on and I shan't be offended. But I rather hope you’ll stick around and share the next stage of the journey.

Friday 2 January 2015

Islamists and Stalinists: brothers under the skin?

It’s tempting to regard the atrocities committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as uniquely barbarous. I can't help thinking of the scores of young Yazidi women, torn from their families, raped, and forced to marry IS fighters, with no prospect of an end to their ordeal, and of the despair that they and their loved ones must experience. Surely this transcends anything perpetrated in the recent history of warfare? But then, over Christmas, reading Joachim Fest’s account of growing up in an anti-Nazi family in Germany during the Second World War, I came across this:

In those days almost every story ended with acts of violence of some kind. As the Red Army approached, my sisters had left their grammar school in the Neumark, east of Berlin, and returned to Berlin; they now learned that their classmates – all aged between twelve and fifteen – had been raped, transported and disappeared into the expanses of Russia. 

There are many similar accounts of atrocities by the ‘liberating’ Red Army in Anne Applebaum’s devastating book Iron Curtain. Perhaps we make too much of the peculiarly religious character of Islamic State’s reign of terror. The quotation from Fest, with its uncanny foreshadowing of recent events in the Middle East, is a reminder that religious and secular totalitarianisms have more in common than we sometimes think.