Wednesday, 16 August 2017

All Power to the Soviets! - China Mieville on the October Revolution

All too slowly, this year, I have been making my way through alternating readings on the Irish, and the Russian, revolutions.  Not all the material I have worked through has been 'radical' - no amount of huffing and puffing by Colm Toibin is going to convince me that Roy Foster's Vivid Faces is a text whose radicality matches that of some of its subjects.  But Foster, though he often condescends to his 'revolutionary generation', is learned and brings together wonderful material from memoirs, diaries, letters, and other documents by participants in the turbulent events in Ireland in the 1912-1923 era.  I have read Emmet O'Connor's short biography of Larkin, and Clair Wills's excellent account of the General Post Office both during the 1916 Rising and in its commemoration long afterwards.  I am currently reading Charles Townsend's history of the Rising.  And I have intermixed this Irish material with accounts of the events of 1917 in Russia - a short history of the Revolution by Trotskyist Neil Faulkner; John Reed's often electrifying, sometimes bewildering Ten Days That Shook The World, and Sheila Fitzpatrick's short but authoritative history.  Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin awaits my attention, and I've read back into the nineteenth century via Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers: hardly a radical account of Tsarist Russia, but a hint of intellectual background.

The book I anticipate most eagerly - friends will know that much of my life is lived within the imagined aura of books anticipated eagerly: alas, not always an indicator that said books will actually be read! - is China Mieville's October.  I confess I had never heard of Mieville until his name appeared in the Verso catalogue I get a couple of times a year with my New Left Review.  And so I have learned that he is a renowned science-fiction novelist, and a Marxist theorist of some capacity.   A writer of many talents.   Wonderful that he should turn those talents to give a fine narrative history of the Revolution.  Here he is in discussion with Eric Blanc, no mean writer himself:

October and Its Relevance: A Discussion with China Miéville


'To Live Free, or Die' - Remembering the Black Jacobins

Two days ago, we passed the anniversary of the start of the great slave revolt and revolution of Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, as we now call it, in 1791.   To mark this tremendous moment - one of the cruxes in anti-colonial history when 'European' ideas and values were turned most powerfully against European power - Verso published an extraordinary document addressed by Toussaint L'Ouverture and his comrades to the French colonial assembly.  In the wake of Charlotteville, I post here an earlier iteration of the idea that 'black lives matter'.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Face Down In His Own Bullshit - The Overdue Demise of Kevin Myers

Back around 1990, within a few months of each other, I purchased two excellent collections of journalism.  The first was Corruptions of Empire: for me, Alexander Cockburn's finest book.  The second was Prepared for the Worst, a brilliant collection of essays and reports by Christopher Hitchens.   These writers  both seemed to combine a number of talents - great wit, acerbic humour, strong leftwing sensibilities, wide reading, and a willingness ruthlessly to cut down and eviscerate the cant of power.  At this time, they both were writing for The Nation, a fine liberal-left magazine in America, and they offered vivid commentary on the American political scene that went way beyond the numbing boilerplate of mainstream 'analysis'.  The fact that neither was American - Hitchens was English, and Cockburn was Anglo-Irish/Scots and carried an Irish passport - seemed to allow them particular insight on political machinations inside and beyond the Washington Beltway.  And lastly they both were utterly fearless.

I admired and read them both, avidly and with the greatest pleasure.  I showed my mother Cockburn's hilarious account of being visited at his public school by his father Claud, who appeared without any socks and who spun a wonderful story of how he'd lost them to a vengeful Sikh who had shared his couchette on the train north, and she read the tale again and again.  A girlfriend and I hooted with laughter as we read 'Booze and Fags', a brilliant review by Hitchens of books about tobacco and hooch in the London Review.  Through them both, I learned of figures such as Israel Shahak, maybe the most courageous and cogent Israeli dissenting intellectual in the history of the Jewish State.  Hitchens wrote superb forensic essays on Conor Cruise O'Brien, and a tremendous defence of Chomsky.  Cockburn told tales of cooking meat on a griddle placed over the engine of one of his enormous vintage American automobiles, which allowed him to drive to a friend's barbecue and arrive with his contribution to the party ready to be enjoyed.  They both wrote excoriating critiques of the 1970s and 1980s generation of neoconservatives - Irving Kristol and the odious Norman Podhoretz.  And they both mercilessly exposed the sentimentality and moral blindness of American 'liberals' - such as Martin Peretz, 'editor in chief' of The New Republic - when it came to Israel in Lebanon and in the Territories.   My convictions in regard to Palestine were decisively changed by Cockburn and Hitchens, well before I read Edward Said.

They knew each other and were presumed to be friends. But one noticed a certain imbalance - Hitchens was fond of referring to his friendship with Cockburn, and dedicated one of his books to Patrick Cockburn's son, Henry.  But Cockburn barely ever referred to Hitchens in his writing.

Something went wrong for Hitchens.  Most obviously, 9/11 happened, and he developed a passionate revulsion against what he called 'Islamo-fascism'.  I think he invented the term.  Not that he'd ever been remotely sentimental about the Gulf princelings and their cruel regimes - he wrote an excellent essay on 'Tilting Towards Iraq' for the New Left Review just as the 1991 Gulf War was about to start, which exposed the ambivalences of the Bush Snr. regime vis-a-vis the Saddam Hussein government.  But after 9/11, Hitchens found himself in conflict with the American left, which he considered blinded by its hatred for the US government to the extent that it was prepared, if not to blame the government for what had happened, then to obsess over American involvement with Wahhabi conservatism and the jihad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan to the exclusion of all else.  For Hitchens, this led to a break with his colleagues at The Nation and he quit the magazine.  But he found a new berth in an unlikely place: Vanity Fair, which was and is a magazine predicated on good writing on the political and social mores of the middle ground - very far from Hitchens's Trotskyist origins in England indeed.  It was a mutually serviceable relationship: Vanity Fair allowed, or encouraged, Hitchens to become a celebrity like those whose activities it often covered.   His leftwing history and his foreign and war correspondent credentials allowed Vanity Fair a thrilling whiff of cordite.   Hitchens seemed to spend more and more time attacking former friends (including, particularly nastily, Edward Said shortly before Said's death), and championing the coming invasion of Iraq.  He puffed up colleagues and allies on the Arab left, such as Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, for their opposition to Saddam.  He hobnobbed with Paul Wolfowitz and other members of the Bush administration.

Cockburn, as this blog has noted elsewhere, had meanwhile taken a much braver course. He, too, had left The Nation, but he had moved away from power and institutional prominence, to live in northern California and to set up and run with Jeff St Clair the excellent Counterpunch website and magazine.   But Hitchens had become, as I say, a celebrity, close to power and bathing in its approval.  Hitchens had been seduced by the very blandishments of Babylon which he had once worked so cleverly to expose. He was now a 'contrarian', not a leftist. He took Orwell increasingly as his model, and saw his task as uncovering the idiocies, the delusions, and the malfeasance of the left.  But the difference was that when Orwell carved out his niche, Stalinist totalitarianism was a real and brutal feature of European and global politics.  By the time Hitchens became a Vanity Fair celebrity contrarian, Stalinism had collapsed and disappeared.  Hitchens's 'contrarianism' seemed a cynical betrayal of left dissent which served only to buttress the temples and redoubts of American capital and neo-imperialism.

Years ago, at the moment in Hitchens's career when he was starting to write in favour of atheism, the Gate Theatre in Dublin hosted a debate between him and John Waters. I hadn't the heart to go along to see it - not only because this discussion holds no interest for me, but also because it was obvious that what was going to transpire was not a 'debate' but a slaughter - the clumsy and earnest Waters was never going to lay a glove on the witty and battle-hardened Hitchens.  No Irish journalist has been as sparklingly brilliant as Hitchens or Cockburn, though some made that claim for Kevin Myers, for a while. Not any more.

Myers, apparently, had been a left-leaning student in UCD when it was based at Earlsfort Terrace in the late Sixties.  He reported on the war in Northern Ireland, and later from Lebanon when Israel invaded that country in 1978 and then again in 1982.  But what made Myers's career was his long stint at the Irish Times in the 'Irishman's Diary' column.  He gradually turned this platform into a stage where he took down cant of all sorts.  But increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s, the Hitchens turn could be noticed. Myers had always subscribed to the Conor Cruise O'Brien understanding of Ulster - that its struggle was one between a flawed but legitimate state and a virulently Catholic-nationalist gangsterism.  Now he turned this focus on the agonies of the overdogs onto his more everyday targets - feminism, Islam, Sinn Fein, the bien pensants of southern Irish life.  Increasingly, he wrapped about himself the mantle of the marginalised, the weak, the heretic.  His writing became more and more enamoured of itself.  The libidinal pleasures of style (for his admirers, at least) compensated more and more for the lack of argument and the paucity of evidence.   His targets became more outrageous - single mothers, 'illegitimate' children, black people.  He could never see Israel as anything other than a bastion of liberal values surrounded by a seething morass of Muslim fanatics.

Myers's reputation at the Irish Times was in decline after a column where he called the children of single mothers 'bastards', and he eventually left to go to the Irish Independent.  Since then he has moved on to several other media outlets.  Now he has been dropped by the Irish edition of The Sunday Times for a column where, in 'discussing' the imbalance in pay  between men and women at the BBC, he suggested that two female journalists at the station had made it onto the list of 'most highly paid staff' due to their Jewish tendency towards self-promotion and financial shrewdness.   It's notable that though Myers combined chauvinism and anti-Jewish stereotype in a noxious mix, it was the anti-Semitic trope that sunk him, and that was recognised in Britain much faster than in Ireland. In Ireland, he has been supported by the Jewish Council, and at least one former colleague at the Irish Times.   He has, in fact, been given extraordinary space in which he can plaintively apologise for his reprocessing of old anti-Semitic clichés and proclaim that his career is over and that he now lacks all means to keep himself.

Back in 2003, the English critic and intellectual historian Stefan Collini wrote a wonderful essay on Hitchens's aspiration to be the Orwell of his generation.  Collini, writing more in sorrow than in anger, notes that Hitchens was becoming more and more like the 'bloke moyen sensuel' of the English 1950s.  Rather than writing like the international left where he had his origins, or like the sophisticates of New England where he now was working, Hitchens increasingly sounded far too comfortable in a conservative sense of his Englishness, like Kingsley Amis, 'pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic', or like Philip Larkin 'farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants'.  Collini suggests that such English nativists 'would be good company for a while, but their brand of bar-saloon finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism'.  Hitchens dedicated his book on Orwell to Robert Conquest, 'founder of the united front against bullshit', but Collini, comparing Hitchens to a foxhunter, fears that he will end up unhorsed and 'face down in his own bullshit'.

In truth, it's hard to have any sympathy for Kevin Myers, who has been a prominent and therefore one presumes well-paid journalist for decades, with plenty of time to make provision for his eventual retirement.  He has abused the platforms which he has benefited by, coming to assume them by right rather than understanding them as a privilege constantly to be earned.  He has spewed misogynistic bile for many years, and the support he has won from the Jewish Council of Ireland is likely to be as much predicated on his support for Israel as anything else. Neither he nor his Irish interlocutors seem to understand that his anti-Semitic remarks and his now proclaimed philo-Semitism are actually reverse faces of the same coin.   Myers, wannabe contrarian, has never been as good a hunter as Hitchens was at his best or as Cockburn was throughout his career.  He has too often pursued timid and vulnerable prey, unwilling to take on boys of his own size.  Now he lies face down in his own bullshit, and we should leave him to suffer it.

    ‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit: Christopher Hitchens, Englishman