Saturday, January 13, 2007

How much dissent should the left allow?

There's a couple of low level rows brewing on the left at the moment which Charlie Pottins had brought together in this angry post aimed squarely at what he sees as the left's hypocrisies.

The two rows in question are firstly over part of the left's response to Ruth Kelly's decision to send her child to a £15,000 a year school. Charlie quotes Respect MP George Galloway on the matter saying quite rightly and properly "Everyone wants the best for their child. What used to be a badge of honour for a Labour politician was that they wanted the best for everyone’s children. Ruth Kelly’s decision to withdraw her child from state education in Tower Hamlets undermines the life chances of other children in the borough whose parents cannot afford £15,000 a year to go private.

"It is a slap in the face for the hardworking teachers and dedicated support staff in east London who have an excellent record of including children with special needs into mainstream education. It will do nothing for the morale of staff and pupils at the outstanding Stephen Hawking special school in Tower Hamlets, who achieve miracles despite a lack of resources".

Excellent stuff I'm sure you'll agree. Except what Galloway fails to mention is that he supported leading Respect NC member Yvonne Ridley over her decision to send her child to a fee paying school. You can't have it both ways. You can't claim that Kelly (who doesn't call herself a socialist as far as I'm aware) is wrong to take this kind of decision and Ridley (who makes grand claims about her own radical credentials) is right to. It's my own opinion that Kelly is not a hypocrite - just right wing - whilst some on the left will use any stick to beat a dog.

Those who have raised this have come in from some vituperative attacks - but surely if the left is not holding itself to account then who will? Surely we need to be able to be critical of each other, as long as that criticism is warranted rather than some of the pointless sectarian bile that we all too often see on this end of the political spectrum.

Charlie also compares the UAF's call to sack BNP ballerina Simone Clarke with its defense of anti-semite Gilad Atzmon's appearance at the Cultures of Resistance festival (Atzmon is a Jazz musician who has regularly appeared on SWP sponsored platforms).

On this occasion the august publication Socialist Worker is to be congratulated for allowing dissent to creep into its letters page from no lesser personage as Michael Rosen. I do wonder whether it had been an ordinary Joe whether this letter would have got in at all - but all credit to them anyway. In his letter Rosen says that;

"I have to say I’m mightily dismayed that you have saxophonist Gilad Atzmon on board. He is someone who has frequently expressed racist ideas and surely we have always said that you can’t fight racism with racism? I fear that the racism he expresses is seen by some in the liberation movements as a racism that doesn’t matter as much.

"That’s to say, it’s said by some that racism towards peoples from countries oppressed and exploited by the West is the main racism we’re fighting, but a racism directed towards peoples seen as heavily implicated in the West’s oppression matters less. Thus, antisemitism in the 21st century is seen perhaps as “mistaken” within the liberation movement, much as we might say that going on about Rupert Murdoch being Australian is “mistaken”.

"This is a disastrous route to go down. Antisemitism imagines the removal or elimination of a group of people from the world system. All we have to ask ourselves is: 1) would eliminating that group change the system for the better? 2) what ghastly processes would a state create in order to do the removing and eliminating?

"I think Cultures of Resistance is making a great mistake taking Atzmon on board with them and this will undermine and weaken what we are all trying to do."

The replies are less than satisfactory. One letter essentially says that Atzmon claims not be racist and they had not seen him do anything racist so that's enough for them. But you don't need to look very far to find references to "world Jewry" the crimes of the "Jewish people" and repetitions of very old and evil lies. Check out Mark Elf for more detail. All this letter really tells us is the writers have chosen not to investigate the accusations. Seeing as a proper look at Atzmon's website itself will reveal all you need to know this is just unforgivable, even if he has retrospectively removed some of the more blood curdling claims.

The other response is from Lindsey German, someone I have a lot of time for. Her piece is more thoughtful and in other circumstances there would be little to disagree with. However, what it signally fails to do is answer Rosen's very legitimate concerns. It simply makes clear that she believes anti-semitism is not to be dismissed, although she does try to set up an interesting hierarchy of racisms by saying "We also have to recognise that in Europe today the main form of racism, taken up and propagated by governments and media, is against Muslims." This probably merits more discussion and thought.

What everyone on the left will agree with is that we make mistakes sometimes - that's inevitable - but it's how we deal with these mistakes that's important. I don't want to see Chris Bambury (Socialist Worker editor) lashing himself with birchtwigs whilst being paraded down the high street... hold on... bad example... anyway - you know what I mean, if we refuse to recognise problems due to pride or to save face then we're setting ourselves up for a fall. And the more we build a wall around ourselves, the more we create a situation where any criticism is seen as a sectarianism and machievelian plot of our "enemies" rather than something we might need to think about and address.

This tendency towards dogma is, I think, partly a product of the one true path Leninism model that a number of far left groups have promoted in the last fifty years and, I suppose, I'd like to see the end of it at some point - if only because I believe it would mean we'd start thinking a bit more before we open our mouths and stop turning a blind eye to some unforgivable behaviour just because it's politically convenient to do so.

16 comments:

AN said...

I think UAF has made a big mistake trying to get Simone Clarke sacked.

First of all, it has simply given great publicity to the BNP, and it also makes the left look undemocratic.

And Clarke herself seems a pleasant enough but none too bright young woman. She is obvioulsy not a facsist, and probably not even a racist given the fact she works almost entirely with foreigners.

Just let the poor woman dance.

Renegade Eye said...

There are so many other fish to fry. I'm agnostic about where someone sends their child to school.

For me I vote public school is best.

Renegade Eye said...

Let her dance, confront her elsewhere if need be.

badmatthew said...

I know a couple of people, who used to be in the SWP and actually left because they thought Respect was too right-wing. They've recently sent a child to an independent fee-paying school because they thought he was doing badly at his original school because it was simply and abysmally failing to deal with his special needs. He's doing a lot better now. This is the result of government failures about special needs education. To blame the individuals is simply moralistic. The issue about Ruth Kelly is that she is pretty centrally involved in the creation and implementation of these failing policies. This is what makes her a hypocrite, not how left-wing she is or isn't.

Galloway was right to criticise her. Should he have kept quiet because of Yvonne Ridley, or maybe said, 'yes, she's got a point..' I don't think Galloway is being hypocritical - on the link you provided I missed the Galloway defence of Ridley I thought you promised.

Ridley isn't a socialist, is she? She's part of Respect out of her anti-war and Islamic convictions. That's one of things about Respect, it's a coalition focused on anti-war politics, that seeks to take this coalition into a generalised opposition to New Labour. Yes, lots of flaws and I find it hard to argue against those who find them overwhelming; but I really do think that those who have sought to equate Kelly and Ridley have really got things badly out of proportion.

Ellee said...

I would think Simone knew exactly what she was doing when she joined the BNP, but her politics should be kept separate from her profession, we have to hold on to our freedom of expression.

badmatthew said...

Jim - your piece is badly titled, this discussion isn't about 'dissent' on the left. Simone Clarke isn't a dissenter, but someone who's moved from confusion to praising and joiing a far right party that is desperately trying to cover up its root fascism/Nazism with a veneer of respectability. I don't think we should let them get away with the pretence of respectability. So something has to be done, but what? The mistake of UAF was to mobilise so weakly. Good to see someone you know in a photo in The Guardian, but looking so isolated. And apparently outnumbered by BNP. And tokenistic during the performance. Looks like a desire for quick results without enough preparation: really needs an educational campaign that builds support.

Jim Jay said...

"Galloway was right to criticise her." well i agree. but respect can't have it both ways. the terms in which galloway criticises kelly would apply doubly to ridley who is part of a radical left party.

your right the link doesn't show galloway's defence - it just references the issue.

whether ridley is a socialist or not is a mine field - but she has on numerous occasions proclaimed her radical left politics and attacked labour for deserting its roots.

Title - the dissent i was refering to was the criticism from the left... although i can see how you thought i was refering to the bnp

however there is an interesting discussion to be had on what members of far right parties should and should not be allowed to do, and who is going to stop them.

are we genuinely saying that joining the bnp means you are immediately to lose your job etc? firstly that wont happen, secondly is that an effective way to stop the spread of fascism?

it seems like we (the left) have just made a high profile figure out of a low to medium profile one.

if the title had been to refer to dissenting from the left (in this case radically) it would still have had some merit because how should the left deal with those it violently disagrees with?

if we got in would we ban the bnp... and if so who else would we ban?

badmatthew said...

1.On the Kelly/Ridley issue I still say it is out of proportion to equate them. Kelly should be hounded because she was a olicy-maker, not because she took a particular parenting decision.

2. On the BNP. Having heard Griffiths on the radio this morning, partly on the back of this affair, I've got to say you are right about the protest giving the BNP publicity.

But on strategy and tactics: Well there are regular trade union campaigns against individuals in the BNP who would lose their jobs if successful.Are they the wrong approach?

But who's saying ban? I'm saying campaign. I'm from an age when we said don't have state bans of the NF because that'll just be used against us - as they were when the public order act stopped an NF march in Leeds in 1978(?), but also banned the annual May Day march.

a very public sociologist said...

I agree with AN. It really disappoints me when the left, or rather the bulk of it, line up behind the liberal establishment to denounce BNP members and supporters. I'm sorry, but socialist politics is not about persecuting people who hold reactionary view points. I thought our job was to challenge them *politically*.

I agree with what you say Jim about the 'one true path' approach to leftist politics. I for one am mystified why most of the left hide their internal discussions out of sight. True, I do think organisations should have the right to undertake debates in this way if they so wish it, but also it should be seen as an opportunity of drawing activists on the organisation's periphery into debate and dialogue.

When I was a cpgb'er the letter's web page on the WW was always the most viewed section of any issue. It also tends to be the part of the paper with the least amount of "gossip". Doesn't that suggest something?

AN said...

Matthew, the approach of hounding BNP members out of their jobs misses the point of how successful the BNP have been at distancing themselves in the public eye from HItlerism. they simply use it to their advantange blaming "political correcttness" from the metropolitan elite who don't understand/care about the very real problems of the working class.

With regard to Kelly/Ridley - you overlook the question of accountability to the party. No-one would make any issue of where Grace Ridley goes to scholl were it not for the fact that Ridley is a parliamnetary candidate for a party opposed to private education.


An individual may make a decision to take up private education, and perhaps in their individual circumstances they may be able to justoify it, but they should have the common sense not to run for public office on a platform of denying that choice to others.

AN said...

If Clarke cannot dance Gisselle, then should we also argue for the works of Ezra Pound, TS Elliott and Henry Williamson to be removed from library shelves?

AN said...

BTW - Galloway has never defended Ridley, that was left to John Rees at Respepct confernce.

Jim Jay said...

"Kelly should be hounded because she was a olicy-maker, not because she took a particular parenting decision." Yes, I agree. But on Ridley i agree with AN's point that it is about *party accountability*.

I think being a member of the BNP and being in a trade union are incompatible as part of the remit of a union is to unity ALL the workforce... something a racist cannot do - ballerinas on the other hand can dance even whilst impaired by politically dubious ideas.

Ban / campaign is a useful distinction I think BM.

Graeme McIver said...

Have to disagree with the comments on Atzmon. When you read the quotes from him on the website you quote http://www.socialistunitynetwork.co.uk/reports/giladsite.htm it's clear that they've changed the meaning of what he originally said by quoting half a sentence when you look at the original website. Nor does the article you quote refer to "the crimes of the Jewish people" as you quote it, it refers to the crimes of Sharon being committed in the name of the Jewish people. Describing a Jew as anti-Semite because he criticises Jewish culture and religion is strange to my thinking. Face it, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are three of the worst products of the human mind. We have to be clear that we are totally opposed to discrimination or action against people on the grounds of their religion. But this does not mean supporting their miserable beliefs or defending them from criticism.

Jim Jay said...

As a result of criticism I know Atzmon changed some of his site so it's quite likely extra para's have been added as caveats to particular sentances.

I strongly recommend reading Atzmon's piece The J word and consider what he is saying when he says things like "The J’s are the ultimate chameleons, they can be whatever they like as long as it serves as some expedient."

or

"when it was right to be a Socialist they [Jews] were right there in the forefront of the Bolshevik revolution, now when it is hard capitalism that sets the tone, you read about them in the Wall Street Journal, they are the new prophets from Manhattan. Life is never boring for ‘J’ people."

So they we have the Jewish Bankers and Jewish Bolsheviks as a double headed evil... where have I heard that before?

And there are plenty of other articles on his site that should give pause for thought.

Jim Jay said...

Also Atzmon has just written this in counterpunch where he states that "I would suggest here that it makes far more sense to regard Zionism as a tribal Jewish preservation project. In other words, Zionism could be easily interpreted as a Jewish global movement which has as its aim the prevention of assimilation."

and where he takes to task at length a friend of mine for wanting to retain her Jewish identity and although she is down the line anti-zionist describes her and ultra-zionists as "two different sides of the Zionist coin" because she does not wish to ditch her Jewish community - what are his motivations for this? Why does describing yourself as part of the Jewish community make you a zionist and complicit in the Israeli states actions - even if you oppose those actions vigourously and actively?

What is it about "world Jewry" (his words) that is the root of his problem with Jews?