23 January 2005

PESSIMISM OF THE WILL

I was going to post at length on Eric Hobsbawm's extraordinarily downbeat piece on the global prospects for democracy in yesterday's Guardian (click here), and might yet do so, but in the meantime David Aaronovitch in today's Observer (click here) has pretty much said what I was going to say:
"He dismissed the notion that democracy was applicable everywhere 'in a standardised (western) form', that it could succeed everywhere, or that it could 'bring peace, rather than sow disorder'. The conditions for democracy, he wrote, were rare. Then came the historian's judgment. Spreading democracy 'aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989'. Far better, it was implied, not to do it.

"This is a dismal prospect. Where once socialism could be spread, now not even democracy either can or should be. But would it really have been better, as Eric half implies, had the Habsburg Empire survived the First World War, or had the Ukraine continued to be part of a Russian hegemony after 1989? What are we supposed to do with such an analysis?"
Apart from anything else, Hobsbawm's argument is very bad history. Even the most cursory glance at Europe in the past 30 years shows democracy taking vigorous root in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1970s and most of the former Soviet satellite states of east-central Europe after 1989. Yes, there was a bloody war in former Yugoslavia and the fate of the successor states to the Soviet Union itself has been mixed. Yes, western democracy is neither perfect nor a panacea for every ill. But the balance sheet, as the French Stalinist leader Georges Marchais once said of something else, is overall positive. Like Aaronovitch, I'm sceptical about US presidents spouting about democracy and freedom while denying it in practice. And I don't think that the west should adopt a policy of attempting to impose democracy by force of arms. But I'd rather have an American administration banging on about changing the world for the better than one retreating into Realpolitik weasel words about the complexity of every situation and the impossibility of ever improving anything. Remember Bosnia and Rwanda?

21 January 2005

19 January 2005

TROTSKYISM TODAY - 2

My thanks to the comrades from Socialism in the Age of Waiting (click here) for alerting me to the existence of this) — a collection of articles on British left politics by the late Jim Higgins (obituary here), including many of the pieces he wrote for the Spectator in the 1970s. Enjoy!

THE ELECTION IS IRAQ'S BEST HOPE

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, January 21 2005

No one knows for certain what will happen in next week’s election in Iraq — but it is already clear that it will leave a lot to be desired as an exercise in democracy, particularly in the Sunni Arab areas of the country where the insurgency against the occupation is centred.

No election that takes place under military occupation by a foreign power can be truly free. Nor can any election conducted amid a substantial armed insurgency. Most of the 80-plus parties and alliances running for office in Iraq have refused to name most of their candidates because of death threats from the insurgents. The main Sunni Arab partner in interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s government, the Iraqi Islamic Party, is boycotting the poll, which it said should have been postponed. It appears increasingly likely that the insurgency will make it impossible for polling stations to open in many Sunni Arab areas — and in those where polling can take place there is every chance that a mixture of intimidation by the insurgents and sympathy with them will result in a very low turnout.

So is the poll an utter fraud? Rather a large number of western leftists and liberals seem to think so. But, as ever, some of them deserve to be taken seriously and some most definitely do not.

The least credible in Britain are the assorted Trotskyists and Stalinists who — along with various Islamists — make up the bulk of the Stop the War Coalition and George Galloway’s Respect party. The Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Britain and the rest decided early on that Iraq was best left to a bloody civil war because that would most damage Yankee imperialism — which they oppose as their first, last and only political function.

Now they want the Iraqi election to be a complete disaster — and stuff the consequences for the long-suffering people of Iraq. They declare their support for the insurgents in Iraq, whom they describe as the “resistance”, a seal of approval that evokes the heroic struggles against the Nazis in Europe in the 1940s.

The fact that the Iraqi “resistance” today comprises the most reactionary elements of Islamism and the most psychotic diehards from Saddam Hussein’s quasi-fascist regime has passed them by — or rather, they have deliberately ignored it. They have also conveniently failed to recognise that the “resistance” in the past few months has turned from targeting the American military to targeting civilians.

The implications of this brain-dead anti-imperialism have been long apparent to anyone who follows the Leninists’ antics. But they became horribly clear a fortnight ago with the murder of Hadi Salih, the international secretary of the the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and a prominent member of the Iraqi Communist Party, who was tortured and killed for the “crime” of opting to work through the electoral process (on an anti-occupation ticket). The leaders of Stop the War took an age to issue a weasel-worded condemnation of the murder of a man whose comrades Galloway recently described as “quislings”. Pass the sick bag.

***

Other western critics of the Iraqi election are not defeatists: they are merely pessimists who doubt it will produce a legitimate government or stop what appears to be a drift to civil war. And it is indeed difficult to see how the election will give the Sunni Arabs proper representation or quickly bring the insurgency to an end.

But, flawed as it is, it remains Iraq’s best hope. The Sunni Arabs account for roughly 20 per cent of the Iraqi people. Roughly the same proportion of Iraqis are Kurds, and 50 per cent are Shia. And in Kurdish and Shia areas there is a vigorous election campaign going on — and every indication that there will be massive and enthusiastic participation on January 30.

Of course, the Kurds and the Shias have selfish reasons for voting. The Kurds see the election as a means of guaranteeing themselves substantial autonomy from Baghdad. And the Shias see it as the means — at last — of ending the Sunni Arab minority’s near-monopoly of state power, a feature of every Iraqi regime from the Ottoman era to Saddam Hussein.

What, though, is wrong with that? These people constitute the majority of Iraqis — and democracy is by definition majority rule. A Shia-dominated Iraqi government with overwhelming electoral support from everywhere but the Sunni Arab areas would be infinitely more legitimate than the current interim administration. Who knows, if it managed simultaneously to reassure the Sunnis that their rights would be respected and to persuade the Americans to announce a timetable for leaving, it might even have enough clout to end the insurgency.

11 January 2005

IRAQ SOLIDARITY - 2

I've never been big on petitions, but this one, demanding a response from the pro-"resistance" left in the UK on the assassination of the leading Iraqi trade unionist Hadi Salih – is worth signing. Click here and endorse. And after you've done that, check out John Lloyd's piece on the same site (click here).

6 January 2005

IRAQ SOLIDARITY - 1

The Labour Friends of Iraq website (click here) reports that Hadi Salih, international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, was murdered at his home in Baghdad last night. The assassination says everything that needs to be said about the nature of the "resistance" so admired by George Galloway and others of the "anti-imperialist" left. More here.

5 January 2005

LABOUR STILL NEEDS TACTICAL VOTING

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, January 5 2005

There seems to be a growing consensus both in the Labour Party and among the left-of-centre commentocracy that tactical voting against the Tories — a crucially important factor in the 1997 and 2001 general elections — is a thing of the past.

Of course, the reasons the Labour stalwarts and the liberal columnists take this line are very different. For the commentators, the crucial thing is that they believe the government is so disliked that hardly anyone whose first preference is Lib Dem would dream of voting Labour now — and they detect a trend of anti-Labour tactical voting.

For the Labour people, at least the ones I’ve spoken to, what has happened to render anti-Tory tactical voting obsolete is that the Liberal Democrats have declared war on Labour in its urban heartlands in the past couple of years, which makes it imperative that Labour fights back vigorously.

I can see the sense in both points of view. The pundits are surely right that Labour is going to find it much more difficult than in 1997 or 2001 to persuade Lib Dem supporters to vote Labour this time, for all sorts of reasons, the most important of them the Iraq war (though I’m sceptical about the claim that disaffection with Labour is at such a pitch that protest voting will become widespread). And after the Brent East, Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South by-elections and the 2003 and 2004 local elections, it’s perfectly understandable for Labour to decide to face up to the Lib Dems in seats it holds.

But — you could tell that was coming, couldn’t you? — this is not the whole story.

On one hand, the fact that it’s going to be much more difficult for Labour to persuade Lib Dem supporters to vote for its candidates in seats it holds doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try. Indeed, given how important tactical voting against the Tories was in 1997 and 2001, it would be utterly idiotic for Labour to give up on Lib Dem tactical voters. It still needs them — just as much as it needs to persuade its core voters not to vote in protest for the Lib Dems or Respect or anyone else.

This means that Labour cannot afford go too negative on Charles Kennedy and his pals. It has to make it clear that, whatever differences it has had with the Lib Dems on the war, both parties are essentially on the centre-left. And it needs to offer something tangible to liberal opinion to keep the Lib Dem tactical Labour voter’s juices flowing: my choice would be an elected second chamber. In most places with Labour MPs, the message should be no more negative than “Vote Lib Dem and you’ll let the Tory in”.

On the other hand, it remains an incontrovertible fact that the Lib Dems — for all their rhetoric to the contrary — are not realistically targeting many Labour seats. They are in second place in 31 of the Tories’ 100 most marginal seats but second to Labour in only seven of its 100 most marginal. For the Lib Dems to increase their representation in the Commons, they need to beat Tories, and for that they need Labour supporters to vote tactically for their candidates. They also need Labour tactical voters to retain many seats they now hold, most of them in the south where the Tories are their main challengers.

This, however, is where it gets really complicated, because the Lib Dems are rather less interested in getting 20 or so extra MPs than in holding the balance of power in a hung parliament — and for that they need either a giant advance (which isn’t very likely, though you never know) or for the Tories to take a lot of Labour seats but not enough to win a majority. Which means that the Lib Dems, as well as needing Labour tactical votes, also — pay attention at the back! — now have an interest in their supporters voting tactically for the Tories in Labour-held seats where the Tories are second.

So what should Labour supporters do in Tory-held seats where the Lib Dems are the closest challengers or Lib Dem seats where the Tory came second in 2001? They could decide to vote for sure-fire Labour losers to scupper Kennedy’s dream of holding the balance of power — but that would merely improve the chances of the Tories winning a parliamentary majority.

Sorry, folks, but I still think that is the worst possible outcome at the next election — and the best way of avoiding it is to vote tactically against the Tories again. So vote Labour wherever there is a sitting Labour MP or a Labour came second to a Tory in 2001 — and vote Lib Dem wherever there is a sitting Lib Dem MP or the Lib Dem came second to a Tory in 2001. Nothing else makes the remotest sense.

* * *

Finally, on a completely unrelated subject, I’ve spent more time than I should over the holiday writing and editing entries on Wikipedia (click here and follow the instructions), the free online encylopedia — because I discovered rather a large number of entries on the left in Britain, particularly those on the mainstream Labour left, were well below par. I’ve had a go at the worst I’ve come across, but there’s a lot more to be done. Tribune and Gauche readers, get in there. It’s fun.