Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Point of departure: Robin Cook and the politics of socialism from above.

Three words will always be associated, for better or for worse, with the name of Robin Cook - 'Ethical', 'Foreign' and 'Policy'. Of course, what Cook apparently actually argued for in 1997 was an 'ethical dimension' to foreign policy, one where human rights would be a central priority, but that is now by-the-by. He became Foreign Secretary after a record of principled opposition to nuclear weapons and the Tory policy of 'Arms to Iraq'.

Hopes were high, but were quickly dashed. One of the first demonstrations I ever went on was a lobby of Labour Party conference in 1998. I distinctly remember carrying a placard 'Solidarity with East Timor - Arms Sales [to Indonesia] = Blood on Blair's hands'. The profits of the likes of British Aerospace came before those people unfortunate enough to suffering under Suharto's dictatorship.

The next year, things got worse. 1999 was the year that 'humanitarianism' adopted a 'military dimension', as Clinton and Blair decided to use the plight of Kosovan Albanians under Milosovic as a pretext for bombing the people of Serbia. Of course, the British Government cared so much about the Kosovan refugees that we took only one twentieth of the amount of refugees taken by Germany, and those we did take were soon deported back out of Britain to return to homes bombed out and covered with depleted uranium. Yet the mass media echoed the idea that Milosovic was a 'fascist' and so once again we went to war.

Throughout this time, of course, the Blair regime had been at war with the Iraqi people - a hidden war of bombing them to enforce 'no fly zones' and also throttling them to death through (United Nations) sanctions. If you suffer from withdrawal symptoms for Bill Clinton (a rare condition, I know), remember the one million Iraqi people killed throughout the 1990s by these genocidal sanctions - 500,000 of them children. That's about ten times the amount killed so far by George Bush - or at least twice the amount killed by him and his dad, George Bush senior, put together.

Cook of course famously resigned from the Blair regime before the war on Iraq 'proper' began, and became of the most eloquent critics of 'The War Against Terrorism'(TWAT)(now rebranded as the 'Struggle Against Violent Extremism'(SAVE)) - to his credit. But lets not forget what he was doing while Foreign Secretary. Blair's wars did not start in 2001 or 2003 - they began in 1997.

Two things in particular need to be noted here. Firstly, as anyone who as much as glanced at Mark Curtis's excellent book, Web of Deceit, will know, this all fits into a far older pattern of British imperialism, allied to American power, dating from the end of the Second World War. Cook's belief that he could make a difference to this well entrenched military-industrial complex with a few choice words shows enormous naiveity bordering on the irrational. Yet it was the logical route to follow for someone who believed that the British state could act in an 'ethical' fashion if only the right people were 'in charge'.

The second thing to note is that the dictatorships in Indonesia and Serbia were not toppled by military action waged by the West (who had previously propped up said dictatorships) - but by revolution from below - by the ordinary people of those countries themselves rising up together in an unstoppable movement for democracy. This happened in Indonesia in 1998, and Serbia in 2000. Those revolutions were not expected or planned by the West - they were spontaneous outbreaks of real democracy. For the Blair regime, the people of countries such as Serbia were regarded as at best 'victims' - at worst racist nationalists - but never as agents of change in their own right. That is why they 'needed' to be bombed, so they could be 'saved'.

The real tragedy is this. As a young socialist intellectual, Robin Cook had a choice. For someone his age, who undoubtedly became radicalised politically by the events of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the US Civil Rights movement, 1968 and all that, that choice was brilliantly set out in a 1966 pamphlet by American Marxist Hal Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism.

Draper noted that 'there have always been different ‘kinds of socialism,’ and they have customarily been divided into reformist or revolutionary, peaceful or violent, democratic or authoritarian, etc. These divisions exist, but the underlying division is something else. Throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between socialism-from-above and socialism-from-below.

'What unites the many different forms of socialism-from-above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of socialism-from-below is its view that socialism can be realised only through the self-emancipation of activised masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized ‘from below’ in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history. ‘The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’: this is the first sentence in the rules written for the First International by Marx, and this is the first principle of his life work.'

Draper concluded by noting that 'the fact is that the choice between socialism-from-above and socialism-from-below is, for the intellectual, basically a moral choice, whereas for the working masses who have no social alternative it is a matter of necessity. The intellectual may have the option of ‘joining the establishment’ where the worker does not; the same option holds also for labour leaders, who, as they rise out of their class, likewise confront a choice that did not exist before. The pressure of conformity to the mores of the ruling class, the pressure for bourgeoisification, is stronger in proportion as personal and organisational ties with the ranks below become weak. It is not hard for an intellectual or bureaucratized official to convince himself that permeation of and adaptation to the existing power is the smart way to do it, when (as it happens) it also permits sharing in the perquisites of influence and affluence.'

Cook took the road of 'socialism-from-above', and by the time of his death, even though a leading critic of the war, was unwilling to return to the politics of building a mass movement against militarism - something he had done in the early 1980s as part of the Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament. He had become 'bourgeoisified'. At a time when the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq is a matter of urgency, the loss of someone like Robin Cook is a blow to everyone in the anti-war movement. We should not, however, forget the ideal of an 'ethical foreign policy' as something to aim for. But surely we should be more realistic and pragmatic than Robin Cook when it comes to the question of how to get such a policy? A real ethical foreign policy will not come from some well meaning socialist Labour MP (are there any still left?) climbing up the greasy pole of power to deliver us from evil - it can only come from below, from ordinary people, us, ourselves, building up the links between each other internationally, and together struggling for peace, equality and social justice.

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