Friday, 20 May 2016

Revolution from the Margins - Saluting Toussaint L'Ouverture

We're just under two months away from July 14, the official anniversary date of the French Revolution.  I honour the Revolution, with all its dialectical complexity.  As with most revolutions - even that Irish 'revolution' which we've been marking in this country recently - it was characterised by a bewildering variety of actions, sentiments, ideas, political theories and cultural forms. 

The French Revolution, and the radical Enlightenment which preceded it and which fed also into the American Revolution, produced echoes in many places, including Ireland.  But perhaps most notable and tumultuous of those echoes, or indeed parallel revolutions - a revolution within or at the edge of the Revolution - was the great San Domingo slave uprising, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture.  The most famous history of the slave revolt is CLR James's masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, a great text of 'postcolonialism' written long before Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak were even heard of.  Today is Toussaint's birthday, and it's marked by Verso with an excerpt from a volume of his writings, which I post here:

Happy Birthday Toussaint L'Ouverture



Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Notes on Anti-Semitism

The charge of 'anti-Semitism', the fear of being labelled 'anti-Semitic', the fear of somehow giving comfort to fascism and racism - these are the materials from which the current Israeli and Zionist push-back against the rising success and prominence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (approaching its 49th year) is made. 

To be labelled anti-Semitic - I've had it done to me, in the pages of the Irish Times, and it's not much fun - is, in the wake of the Holocaust, to be tarred with a very unpleasant, and potentially very dangerous, brush.  It's to be put beyond acceptable debate or discussion or conversation; to be seen as racist; to be seen as denying the humanity of the Jewish people, and so on.   For anyone who wishes to take part in public discussion, who has an interest in the values traditionally associated with liberal Western culture and politics since the Enlightenment, such a label is deeply damaging and corrosive.  In Ireland, where the public and political culture is relatively sympathetic to Palestinian rights and where there is not a Zionist lobby of any significance, such a label is ugly and harmful.  In the United States, Britain or France, such a smear can destroy careers and shred reputations.

What these struggles over language, rhetoric and terminology represent is the sense that, in Foucault's famous words, 'discourse is the power to be seized', that the way that understanding of the contest between Zionism and Israel, on the one hand, and the movements for Palestinian liberation, on the other, is framed is crucial to the way that contest will take shape.  So, of course, we see the term 'anti-Semitism' thrown around discussions of Israel and of Zionism on an all-too regular basis.  Yet the very power of the charge of anti-Semitism has led to its overuse, and to the significant evacuation of much precision from the term.  If the activities of Einsatzrgruppen in the Ukraine in the summer of 1941 are held to be the measure of the position of a handful of people manning a protest outside an Israeli Embassy in a European capital, and vice versa, then, clearly, we're on very confused moral (not to mention historical or philosophical) terrain.
Nevertheless, this has not stopped Israeli and Zionist attempts precisely to equate 'anti-Zionism' (opposition to and critique of a political ideology which underpins the activities of a state) with 'anti-Semitism' (essentialising hostility to all Jews everywhere merely for the alleged sin of being Jewish).  The most recent iteration of this in the Anglophone world has been the effort in Britain to damage the Labour Party and particularly the left of the Labour Party, by attacking Ken Livingstone, and by extension Jeremy Corbyn, for their 'anti-Zionism'.

Here are three articles to help us negotiate this morass, taken from the Verso website:

Yitzhak Laor is an Israeli writer and radical.  His essay 'Tears of Zion', published in the New Left Review some years ago, is a devastating attack on the 'liberal' Israeli 'left', as embodied in persons such as the novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman, beloved of the Irish Times and the Dalkey Book Festival.  Here he is on the Corbyn/Livingstone affair:

Corbyn and Israel: Concept and Reality

Tariq Ali, still streetfighting and still correct:

And Alain Badiou, redoubtable French philosopher of the radical Left:


Sunday, 15 May 2016

An-Nakba - the meaning of disaster

Today, May 15, is Nakba Day, the day that Palestinians name for the 'catastrophe' that overtook them in the late 1940s.  For Israelis, it's Independence Day, the day the new 'Jewish state' of Israel was declared in 1948.

For Israel, 'independence' (from Britain?  from the United Nations?) has consisted in becoming the predominant military power, and in some respects economic power, in the region.  Israel does not have the oil wealth of the Gulf princedoms, but it appears to have a real economy: a highly educated multilingual workforce developing formidable export industries in high technology that sell sophisticated machinery all over the world.

For the Palestinians, the 'catastrophe' has not stopped since the armistice of 1949.  Various attacks and punishments of refugees in Gaza and Egypt in the 1950s led up to the Suez War, where Israel, in alliance with France and Britain, assaulted Egypt and took over the Canal zone.  Much greater harm was initiated in 1967, when Israel conquered the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  Another 250,000 Palestinians were uprooted, and the last vestiges of historical Palestine disappeared into Israeli control.  Settlement construction started slowly in the 1970s, accelerating with the arrival of Likud in government in 1977.  Ever since, the Nakba has continued, albeit more slowly - one roadblock, one demolished farmhouse, one life blighted, one baby lost, one olive tree stolen at a time.  The Israeli upward-curving story of economic and political expansion has been matched by the downward-curving Palestinian story of slow but unending dispossession.

The paradox is that Israeli 'independence' is built on, among other things, continued remittances of funding to Israel by Zionist Jews elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States; and on the largest single aid programme in the world - the American programme of approximately $3 billion per annum in loans and military aid to Israel, which has been in place for decades.   So much for the independence of the Jewish state celebrated today.
Here is some reading to mark this grimmest of days for Palestinians - the online Resources of the Institute of Palestine Studies, and this superb collection of articles and information on the Nakba:
The Nakba - In The Words of Palestinians | The Institute for Palestine Studies



Thursday, 12 May 2016

Where is our James Connolly?

One hundred years ago today, the greatest leftist leader Ireland has produced was tied into a chair in the Breakers' Yard at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and executed by soldiers of the British Army.

James Connolly was a remarkable man by any measure: a former member of the British Army himself, he was a party founder, a union organiser, a fiery orator, a gifted polemicist, and an international Marxist revolutionary.  Though one must recognise the qualities of the other 1916 leaders, Connolly stands out head-and-shoulders above them, for the sheer force and power of his combination of intelligence, commitment, courage, writing and action.  Alas, of course, his death after the Rising deprived the Irish workers of a leader of tremendous grit and ability in a time of extraordinary agitation and ferment.  It's a truism of Irish history that the great Dublin Lock-Out of 1913 was a climactic battle between employers and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union.   The drama and suffering of the Lock-Out was indeed exceptional, and the ITGWU weakened by its defeat.  Yet the years 1917-1923, as demonstrated so powerfully by Conor Kostick in his wonderful book Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy in Ireland, witnessed an even greater, more creative and in many ways more radical flowering of labour agitation, with general strikes in Limerick and Belfast, and over one hundred soviets declared all over Ireland.   Better led and organised, these movements and forces might have shaped the emergent Ireland in all sorts of interesting ways.

Connolly spent the years 1903-1910 in America, active with the Socialist Labor Party, and then with the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as 'the Wobblies').  These years were crucial to his political development.   Here is a link to an article I've just published on the excellent Jacobin website, on Connolly's American years.  Warm thanks for their help in preparing this go to Bhaskar Sunkara, and Bashir Abu-Manneh.