Monday, October 28, 2013

Socialism in an age of waiting III: What is to be done?

"Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf." - Solidarity As We See It
“‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons’, and, to your horror, it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!…" - Rosa Luxemburg's last testament
Young Marx
This is Part III of a three-part series, celebrating the late blog Socialism in An Age of Waiting. Part I is here; Part II is here.

What kind of socialism?

SIAW did not just articulate more or less exactly my position on the Middle Eastern focused geopolitics that defined the political cleavages of the mid-noughties. They also set out a very cogent critique of the actually-existing-left and its conception of socialism and how to get there, for which they were fiercely attacked by trad (or "pseudo", as they put it) leftists.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Socialism in an age of waiting II: Iraq

"Defence of man. Respect for man. Man must be given his rights, his security, his value. Without these, there is no Socialism. Without these all is false, bankrupt and spoiled... It must never be forgotten that a human being is a human being." - Victor Serge
This is part two of a three part series, on the mid-noughties blog Socialism in An Age of Waiting (SIAW). Part I is here.

Iraqi women voting in the first democratic elections, 2005
War in Iraq: imperialist adventure or act of liberation?

SIAW took a (heavily qualified) "pro-war" line on Iraq:
"intervention from outside is a much lesser evil than allowing the dictatorships to carry on regardless; and giving (we stress the adjectives) independent and critical support to such intervention is a much lesser evil than opposing it, and thus effectively helping to sustain dictators in power".
And, as 2004 ended:
"The basic point really is very simple - nothing that has happened since April 2003 alters it; it’s worth repeating as many times as it takes to go on pissing these idiots off; and peace and goodwill to all just doesn’t apply: those who opposed the liberation of Iraq effectively supported the continuation of the Ba’ath dictatorship indefinitely, into a future in which even 100,000 deaths would have been a mere fraction of the total killed - off camera, off screen, and therefore below the radars of people whose chief concern throughout has been, not the fate of Iraqis, but their own continuing membership of their shitty little mutual admiration societies, in which nobody ever admits mistakes, nobody ever shuts up and tries listening for once, and nobody notices how utterly out of touch they all are. Fuck the lot of them."
Their "fuck the lot of them" position meant that SIAW was regularly accused of being stooges for imperialism and other Stalinist epithets, or as Blairites and Bush apologists, by the Stop the War types, then led by the SWP. Their position was too subtle for the boneheads of the trad left to get:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Socialism in an age of waiting I
“If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, then production and wealth are only hollow myths ... The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laughter of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” - Simone de Beauvoir 
"A man can live, and keep his spirits up, in a tent under the rain, as my son and Narciso did. A man can sleep, and sleep well, in a stinking over-priced hovel next to the slaughter-house, as we did. He can cook his meals in a school, and work at cafes; for the Age of Waiting has begun... On our last postage stamps, disappointments and small betrayals rain by the score. Suddenly I become aware of a harsh revelation: that now we political refugees, we cornered revolutionaries, are utterly beaten, because certain of our comrades are no longer comrades, so demoralized and defeated are they to the quick of their hearts. - Victor Serge.
 Thinking about Norm has started me thinking about the blogging culture on the anti-totalitarian left of the early- and mid-noughties.

It is my great regret that Socialism in An Age of Waiting is not out still there, as this was the blog that inspired me to start blogging, and clarified a lot of questions about my politics. I have no idea who was behind this blog - apparently a group of three or so comrades, including one "P Traven", no.74 in the normblog profile series:
born in 1960 into a world he never made. His informal education started alongside formal schooling in Cambridge and London, moved to a new stage during six years spent in Japan, and is still continuing.
Fragments of it exist, scattered in the citations of other "old" blogs, like ancient shards awaiting an archaeologist's trowel. (Ironically, SIAW themselves once had a series picking over the corpses of some of the Dead Socialist Websites which litter the cyberspatial landscape, As Virtual Stoa noted, "it’s a sort of bloggers’ equivalent of the splendid passage on “The View from Futures Past”, which opens Mike Davis’s excellent City of Quartz.") I've gathered some together here, for posterity. The post is in three parts, this one introducing them, then a second focusing specifically on the Iraq war moment, the third moving on to wider issues of how we should conceive of socialism.

Socialism in An Age of Waiting

SIAW launched in December 2003, welcomed, of course, by Norman Geras. As Chris Baldwin put it: "It was a group blog run by a few ex-Trots in the early days of Decency. It was more intellectual and irritable than Harry's Place and they used to post images of Max Ernst paintings now and again for some reason."

The "early days of Decency" were of course also the early days of the internet, and specifically the early days of social media and user-generated content. That moment seems distant now, less than a decade later. Nick Cohen wrote in early 2005 (complete with typos), in a piece called "So this is blogging", which launched the Observer's blog, a forerunner of Guardian Unlimited:
Sits at keyboard. Looks for a moment at unfamiliar software interface. Starts typing. 
Over the past year, I've been astonished and delighted by the quality of British political blogs. What's happened reminds me of the punk explosion when I was a teenager. People are ignoring the established system and beating it at its own game. Obvioulsy, there's a great deal of dross, but what is heartening is how much original and intelligent journalism is coming from people entirely outside the media class, whose only chance of talking to the world would once have been confined to a few paragraphs on a letters' page or a few minutes on a radio phone-in. 
As I'm on the left I started out with Harry's Place, Normblog and Socialism in an Age of Waiting. But as my confidence has grown I find myself zooming all over the net and listening to people I would have crossed the street to avoid in the past. I've also realised with a feeling close to despair that if I write a lot of nonsense, it will be exposed and dissected. Blogs have raised the bar.
What kind of blog was SIAW? Darren (Inveresk Street Ingrate) wrote:
it invariably polarises its readers; either you froth at the mouth when reading it or cut and paste large swathes of it with the byline of: ‘I wish I wrote this . . . ’. Their blog is always readable and I’m always impressed with the breadth of their reading and their ability to easily turn their hand to literature, politics or art when blogging.
The title was taken from a quote from (above) Victor Serge, a man who had fought in the Russian revolutionary, been imprisoned by Stalin and exiled to Mexico. He was writing about the moment when, released from the Gulag, he was in Vichy France and in the shadow of deportation to the Nazi concentration camp. He was saved by Dwight MacDonald, a friend he had not yet met, who found him an exit route. MacDonald's letter, he wrote, seemed "to clasp my hand in the dark. I could hardly believe it. So then, let us hold on." Of course, few of us today in the liberal democratic overdeveloped world, even in a time of austerity, know nothing of the type of waiting Serge was talking about: a waiting between life and death. But, for socialists, knowing that we have been cornered and defeated, that our certain of our comrades are no longer our comrades, waiting, struggling without hope, is the sad reality of our politics.

An early post summed up SIAW's position:
"It seems to us that, whether as socialists, liberals, conservatives or “none of the above”, too many of those who comment either on politics, or on non-political matters from an avowedly political perspective, still approach each issue in terms of total acceptance or total rejection. It is as if you must be either pro or anti, progressive or reactionary, on-message or off, and must never admit to doubts, or hesitations, or second, third or fourth thoughts."
And here, still in the first month, they set out their stall:
"With what ends in view? Well, obviously, in the long term, the attainment of socialism – but let us spell it out as bluntly as possible (and if we could underline it in red we probably would): the only road to socialism lies through the completion of capitalist development.
Far from living in an era that is ripe for socialist or proletarian revolution, we are faced with a process of liberal or bourgeois revolution that is still not complete, even in those few economically advanced and politically powerful countries in which events labelled bourgeois revolutions have occurred. In particular, before we can talk reasonably and plausibly about even beginning to prepare for the seizure of power – by whom exactly? how exactly? – the following changes, which are already well under way, will surely have to have come much closer to completion.
[...] National liberation, which is the transition from the remaining forms of pre-capitalist domination, and from the various forms of non-democratic capitalist rule, to the universal establishment of bourgeois-democratic nation states, in which all residents enjoy the maximum of human rights and civil liberties attainable within capitalism. If Marxists do not collaborate, in whatever way they can, in at least promoting and supporting, and at most – while preserving the integrity and autonomy of their tradition – directly aiding, this transition, then there is simply no point in being a Marxist. It is the absence of bourgeois democracy from so many parts of the world, and the presence in its place of dictatorships, a few of them still claiming to be “Marxist”, that constitutes the largest single obstacle to any progress at all."
And another:
"The [UN] General Assembly is, of course, an assemblage of bourgeois governments, many of them dictatorships, all of them cynical to greater or lesser degrees. Its composition compels its members to horse-trade, obscenely, this people's rights and freedoms against that people's if it is to get through its business at all. The notorious elections of states such as Cuba and Libya to the Human Rights Commission have been among the wholly predictable results. The recent failure even to take seriously a proposal that referred to the right of Israeli children not to get blown up by fundamentalist fanatics, let alone pass it (as recounted, and rightly criticised, by Norm Geras...), was just one more case. The horse-trading is less robotically routine than it was during the Cold War, but it still goes on, making a mockery of the ideals that gullible bourgeois liberals still insist on praising the UN for upholding."
To be continued

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I miss you Norm

On Wednesday night, I was reading my six-year-old his bed time story: The Strange Bird by Adele Geras. It's a story we both love, but it's had a poignant edge for me these last months, since Adele Geras' husband Norman has been ill. I realised I'd not heard from Norm on Twitter for a little while, and I wondered how he was doing. I was terribly sad to hear on Friday morning that he had passed.

Like many people who are missing him, I never met Norm, but I feel he knew him well. I had read some of his work on Rosa Luxemburg and on philosophy and the Holocaust before I met him in the early noughties in the digital world, but it was through his blog that I came to know him. When I started blogging in 2005, his was one of the first two or three sites I linked to (along with Harry Hatchet, who remembers Norm here), and I was proud that Normblog was the first site to link to mine.

At that time for me, like many people missing Norm now, the off-line world had become a politically lonely place. So many of my fellow-leftists seemed impossible to communicate with any more, maddened by the war on terror, by Bush Derangement Syndrome, by Blair Derangement Syndrome. Among my leftist friends, the dominant modes of thinking seemed to be anti-Americanism (of the "chickens coming home to roost" variety), conspiracy theory, moral relativism, and a kind of anti-imperialism of fools that reduced all evil in the world to an effect of "Western" perfidy. Anti-racists started saying things that I found antisemitic.

In the on-line world, Norm helped create a community of people who remained committed to the values and analyses that had brought us to the left (internationalism, global justice, class analysis, universal rights, etc), while seeking to understand and fight these various disastrous pathologies. Finding this world was such a relief, and I have made close and enduring friendships from contacts made on-line as a result of that.

The Euston Manifesto in 2006, which Norm co-wrote, began to summarise our position (although I did not agree with all of it), and our on-line community became almost a movement. We were derided as apostates. ex-communicated from the left. The term "decent left" became an insult. Because of our internationalism, we were seen as hawks and "liberal imperialists". Being attacked as "neocons" (and "Ziocons") sometimes made us feel we had more in common with the real neocons than with the left. Some of us left the left altogether, or felt the left/right division no longer meant anything.

Norm did a lot to make this constellation in particular, and a wider trans-Atlantic blogging world too, into a genuine community. He reached out to people, directed readers to new blogs, was kind and generous in his comments. His "Normblog profile" series (I was proud to be no.235) was a good example of that.

His personal decency, civility, warmth and ethical intelligence are qualities that I have tried - so much less successfully - to cultivate. The clarity and concision of his analysis and his prose are qualities I couldn't hope to cultivate.

His active participation in various blog "memes" helped weave an intricate web of connections between us. (When he became ill, I gave an example of one meme, in which he responded generously but critically to a post of mine, making me think again, as he so often did.


There are too many lovely appreciations of Norm on the web to link to, but among the ones that have especially resonated for me are by Martin the MarginsBen Cohen, JP Pagano, Citizen SaneFlesh, Chris Brooke, Max DunbarNick Cohen. Engage has collected some of his greatest hits here, and Soupy is collating some of the obits.

The lovely Damian Counsell has collected some of the tributes here, and reading through them now, I keep seeing more reasons to miss him.

Damian's own tribute is particularly worth reading, although (and because) he comes from a different place from most of the rest of us politically, and because of his insight into why Norm's particular style of blogging mattered so much. Eve Garrard's piece, which responds to Damian's, is very good too. She says:
Damian, in his excellent piece about normblog, A Fine Site, explains why he admires Norm in spite of his Marxism, which Damian entirely rejects. To my considerable surprise, I no longer share this view. I’ll never be a Marxist myself, but I now think that Norm’s liberal and democratic form of Marxism was a powerful element in his distinctive moral stance, the stance which made him the splendid thinker, blogger, and comrade-in-arms whose loss so many of us are now mourning.
Eve is someone I've met (and instantly loved) in the real world. She doesn't have a blog of her own, but she wrote wonderful and important guestposts on Norm's site - another of the great services to us all that Normblog provided. As John-Paul concludes: "Norman Geras was a great man. We are all poorer for his loss."


I don't share Norm's love of cricket, and I only like some of the sorts of novels he liked. But his taste in music was impeccable. Emmylou Harris was one of our shared favourites, so I'll play her now.

Goodbye Norm.