The article that follows was written just before the news broke of the murderous assault on the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamist terrorists. It is hoped that this column will be able to return to that event and consider its consequences and wider significance in the next posting of TPJ Magazine.
Any claim to express a view “from the left” is not as straightforward as it may appear. What is to be understood by ‘the left’? According to the tenets of the mainstream media in Britain, “the left” encompasses the Labour Party, some representatives of liberal opinion and possibly sections of the trade union movement. Anyone and anything beyond those boundaries is usually referred to pejoratively as belonging to the ‘far left’ or the ‘hard left’, terms intended to convey a sense of being outside the realm of ‘normal’ democratic discourse and not really to be taken seriously. Except, that is, if ‘the far left’ starts winning widespread support in which case they are deemed to pose a threat to democracy. For example, it is becoming increasingly common for much of the mainstream media in Europe to treat the leftist opposition party, Syriza, which at the time of writing looks likely to win the upcoming national election in Greece, in this way. For the conservative, liberal and social democratic mainstream in Britain and continental Europe it is axiomatic that parties and movements of the left that reject the neo-liberal capitalist system and work for its replacement by a fundamentally different system, are at best woolly-headed dreamers and at worst, especially if they look likely to be voted into power, a dangerous threat that must be defeated at all costs. This is the way that the ‘Troika’ of the European Central Bank, the European Union and the IMF, together with all the governments of the EU are gearing up to stop Syriza from winning a democratic election.
The defenders of the “austerity” status quo that has driven the people of countries such as Greece and Spain to levels of unemployment and impoverishment not experienced since the end of the Second World War claim that the continuation of such draconian measures is the only way to economic recovery. This calls to mind the often quoted comment sometimes attributed to Einstein, that the definition of true insanity is doing the same thing over and over again with the same result, but expecting a different one. It might have been expected that the financial crash of 2008, followed by the longest recession since the 1930s might have resulted in the abandonment of the disastrous neoliberal economic policies that had been largely responsible for precipitating the crisis in the first place. Critical economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, from a standpoint situated solidly within the Keynesian tradition of social democracy, argued persuasively against austerity as a way out of recession and postulated an alternative course to economic recovery and greater social equality. They have been totally ignored by the political elites who have chosen instead to press on with the neoliberal agenda that has so signally failed to produce the kind of recovery its practitioners promised it would.
The British celebrity and anarchist, Russell Brand, is quoted in the commercial promotion for his book Revolution as saying that “those who think that the system works, work for the system.” Making allowances for the hyperbole, there is a serious point here. The “view from the left” that will inform what follows starts with the premise that there will be no long term solution to the political, economic and environmental problems confronting the world’s peoples as we enter 2015, unless and until the dominant global system of finance monopoly capitalism is brought to an end. While it does not follow that every crisis and every conflict in the world can be directly linked to monopoly capitalist globalisation, it is the case that growing poverty, intensifying inequalities, escalating religious and ethnic conflicts, economic super-exploitation of third world peoples and ecological despoliation are all ultimately consequences of imperialism and trans-national corporate capitalism. Either this system is ended and consigned to history, or it will destroy the planet. It is not good enough to say that “mankind”, or “humankind” may destroy the planet. It is the prevailing dysfunctional economic system that threatens to do that and it is the responsibility of the peoples of the world to stop it from happening. From this radical left perspective we can make a few observations about some critical issues that have been smouldering for years and others that have reached a critical juncture more recently.
The rise of Islamism since 1979
The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 was a seminal event in the emergence of militant Islamist movements in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. The1953 coup, backed by the CIA and Britain, overthrew the secular left-leaning nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh who had dared to nationalize the country’s British owned oil industry. This led to the 25 year long absolutist rule of the US-sponsored Shah, Reza Palavi, who restored the oil industry to US and British ownership. The 1979 revolution unleashed a torrent of pent-up popular opposition to US imperialism, which, lacking a sufficiently strong leftist leadership, united behind the deeply reactionary theocratic populism of the Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) only intensified Iranian hostility to the United States.
The 1980s were the last decade of the Soviet Union and the European socialist states associated with it. These were also the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. From 1979 -1989 the Soviet Union was engaged in a bitter war in Afghanistan in support of a secular leftist regime which lacked widespread popular support. The opposition to the Soviets was spearheaded by the Islamist Mujahedeen, financed and armed by the United States and China through Pakistan. This was the training ground for Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda . The Mujahedeen, protégés of the US and its allies, were also the forerunners of today’s Taliban. They took power in Afghanistan two years after the Soviets left. A few years later, the Taliban, now in control, stamped their hallmark on Kabul by castrating the former leftist leader, Najibullah, and hanging him in the street.
Thus, the United States, its Western allies and China all played a part in creating the Frankenstein’s monster of Sunni Islamist terrorism. The latest incarnation of this monstrosity, ISIS, has outdone al Qaeda in the extremity of its barbarism. But the source of all these fascistic movements is the deeply reactionary Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam emanating from the oil-rich Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia .
Now the chickens are coming home to roost in Afghanistan and the Middle East. 20015 is very likely to see the Taliban back in power in the former while ISIS continues to rampage over parts of northern Syria and Iraq, burning, pillaging, and slaughtering its many unarmed ethnic and heretical enemies with weapons supplied by the US and surrendered by its incompetent protégés the Iraqi army. Thus, they hope to establish the new Caliphate, replacing whatever seeds of modern enlightenment may have sprouted over past centuries, with the solace of unquestioning religious obedience; forward to the Dark Ages. If ISIS is to be defeated in Iraq and Syria it will not be by a renewed US and British military intervention in Iraq which is precisely what destroyed the country’s infrastructure and unleashed the ethnic conflicts in the first place. It can only be done by the internal forces of those countries united in non-sectarian popular movements opposed to both ISIS and other sectarian Islamist groups and to Western intervention. The creation of such popular forces should be the objective of all those in the Middle East and beyond determined to achieve genuine independence.
By the end of January 2015 a general election will have taken place in Greece. All the indications are that it will be won by Syriza, a radical left wing party that, since the onset of the economic crisis several years ago, has grown from very small beginnings to be the leading party in the country according to every opinion poll. It is now recognized by the prime minister, Antonis Samaras, that Syriza is likely to top the poll in the election and be in a position to form a government. Should this happen, it will be a sensational result. It will be the first time in Europe that a radical left, Marxist oriented party has won an election. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s the US and its allies did everything within their very considerable power to prevent Communist parties coming to power in elections in France and Italy. It was essential during the Cold War to perpetuate the myth that radical left wing parties were unelectable and could only achieve power through violence. Henry Kissinger notoriously said in the early 1970s, that if the people of Chile were foolish enough to elect a Marxist (Salvador Allende) to the presidency, they would have to take the consequences. They did and were made to pay the price with the coup of 9/11 1973 and the long dictatorship of General Pinochet.
If Syriza wins this election it will be a cause for rejoicing, not only for working people in Greece, but throughout Europe. The party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, is committed to repudiate the draconian conditions of the EU/IMF bail-out conditions which have led to the impoverishment of three million Greeks and 25% unemployment . If Syriza forms a government and stands firm on this commitment, the whole situation in Europe will change. For the first time the ruling elites will be thrown onto the defensive. There could be a knock-on effect throughout the year. In Spain, a similar movement, Podemos, also pledged to reject austerity, will receive a tremendous boost and, particularly in those countries in Western Europe such as Italy, Portugal and Ireland that have suffered most from the recession, the consequences could be profound. The prospects for real change look more promising than they have for a long time.
The British Election
There is no such prospect on the horizon here. Nevertheless, the forthcoming election in May offers much food for thought. The country has never been this close to an election before with so little idea how it may turn out. There is widespread public disillusionment with Westminster politics and this affects all the mainstream parties. The Tories have not won an election since 1992 and have only been able to govern for the past five years in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There is also widespread public cynicism about professional politicians, Tory, Labour and Lib Dem. The country has been subjected to five years of austerity and everyone knows that it is likely to continue for at least another five years whichever party is able to lead a government after the election. There has been a consistent media campaign directed against the labour leader, Ed Miliband, who is no radical. Most mass circulation newspapers in Britain are solidly pro-Tory. But this has not succeeded in boosting the popularity of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron or his party. It is widely predicted that the election will produce another “hung parliament” – one where no party has an overall majority and therefore whichever party has most parliamentary seats will need to enter into arrangements with others in order to form a government. Such an outcome seems likely. Should it turn out that way, it is possible to predict one possible denouement that could overturn the whole United Kingdom applecart. Not likely, but possible, and perhaps from a left point of view, desirable. It would go like this:
The UK parliament elects 650 members. The present government has a working majority of 75 composed of a coalition of 303 Tories and 56 Liberal Democrats. For the purposes of calculating the majority some elected members (speaker, deputy speakers) are not included. Sinn Fein refuse to take their Westminster seats. On the basis of one reasonable calculation of what the distribution of seats could be after the next election, allowing for a smaller Tory and labour representation than in 2010 and a much smaller Lib Dem representation, but a larger number of Green, SNP and UKIP members, Labour, with fewer seats than the Tories, would still be able in alliance with several other parties to muster the support of between 330 and 335 MPs assuming that they could rely on the Liberal Democrats. This would depend on establishing working relations with up to seven different parties. Such a government would be inherently unstable and unlikely to survive the year.
An alternative outcome would depend on the Tories winning more seats but still being considerably short of an overall majority and therefore dependent on establishing the same kind of working relations with others. As it is extremely unlikely that the Lib Dems will retain even half their present number of MPs (56) and that UKIP may do much better, a minority Tory government would have to rely on UKIP and the Democratic Unionists for a majority. But this would ensure that there would have to be a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, something that Cameron has already, albeit reluctantly, committed to. Such a commitment could well plunge the UK into a constitutional crisis. UKIP has no support in Scotland and the SNP, probably supported by most Scots, is against withdrawal from the EU. The SNP could make the issue the grounds for a repeat referendum on Independence. It would be difficult for Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, who has agitated long and hard for the UK to leave the EU, to argue that Scotland, where his party has no support, should not be allowed to leave the UK. Interesting times may lie ahead.