Wednesday, 21 January 2009

"The Islamist", A Review

I read Ed Husain's book on Islamism in Britain at a particularly interesting time. The Israeli attack on Gaza had just ceased, and Husain's anti-Islamist think-tank has just been awarded a million pounds of government money. So what insights exactly are we paying for?

Husain's story begins in the East End of London during the Balkan Wars. Against the will of their parents, young Muslim men and women are creating radical Islamist groups fuelled by their frustration at massacres of Muslims in Bosnia. These groups, it turns out, are based on fantasies comparable to old Communist Party fantasies about the Soviet Union. Bearers of "true Islam" emanating from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan all come to London and find small crowds of Britons willing to listen to their messages and give their political backing to varying utopian visions of the Islamic state.

Husain's picture of the East End is worth noting. The only people willing to listen to and engage with angsty teenage Muslims are political Islamist or Trotskyite groups. The Socialist Workers Party pops up again and again as the only part of the scenery able and willing to challenge political Islamism by providing other solutions. As Husain's dad rages when he finds his son involved in extremist politics, "If you want politics, join the Labour Party", but apart from canvassing at election times, they aren't there.

One particularly appealing aspect of his analysis is an ongoing narrative about the history of different political Islamist factions. They are often based around particular ethnicities, but they have histories of splits and infighting to rival the British far-left: like the British far-left, they have developed their own political language and there is always a jockeying for position as different groups try to benefit from different issues by provocative grandstanding. But this world is a far tinier one than the British far-left. Husain knew the 7/7 bombers and knew most of the other active political Islamists in London at that time.

When he decides to split with the movement and teach English in Syria and then Saudi Arabia, the book changes noticeably in register, tone and opinion. Syria appears in the book as a good place to be: a place visited by British wannabe political Islamists who find that the locals don't really share their enthusiasm for jihad. Saudi Arabia, however, is a different story. The Saudis fund one of the three main strands of British Islamism highlighted in the book, but Husain's visit leads him to realise just how much of the liberal political atmosphere in Britain he has taken for granted. It also leads to several instances of more-than-casual racism, where Husain (himself a Bengali) damns the idea of an Islamic state because "[t]he racist reality of the Arab psyche would never accept black and white people as equal".

Ultimately the picture Husain paints is of a Britain where some young Muslims have created a political movement out of frustration and angst, have found funding from external sources to be no problem at all, and have created Leninist organisations mimicking the Trotskyites they competed with (a note here: Husain calls Hizb ut-Tahrir a "cell" organisation, but it has a clear hierarchy as described elsewhere in the book). Since many of these are gang-like (Hizb was certainly gang-like when it was still at SOAS) you get competition for turf. There is secrecy and hatred stirred up at non-Muslims ("kuffars") and attempts at creating 'party lines' so that all members know which lines to say and when. A surprising amount of "Islamic" material turns out to be Marx, Rousseau, Nietzche and Heidegger in disguise.

As history turns full circle, we need to show that it isn't only politicised Muslims who care about the slaughter of Muslims in Gaza. Husain gives his befriending of a self-described "liberal" American girl as his turning-point away from extremism. Bosnia radicalised him: Gaza may have radicalised thousands more, but it is only because Muslims felt alone in opposing the Bosnian killings that radicalisation felt like a reasonable option. I wonder what this foundation will do to prevent that.

Update: Better informed opinions can be found here and here.

Monday, 19 January 2009

What is to be done: a roadmap for left ascendency? (Part One)

A few different discussions have led me to write this post, which is intended to start a conversation on the left rather than to end one.

Jon Cruddas apparently suggested that John McDonnell and the LRC might be planning a break from the Labour Party. Luke Akehurst has suggested that the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group (of which John will be the parliamentary convenor) might be associated with this idea. The left came out in force to point out the folly of the Cruddas claim - quite rightly.

But, of course, a group put forward a motion more-or-less to that effect to the last LRC Conference, and even some of those who opposed that motion have posited some vague, future moment of departure as something that could one day happen, when a left - fatigued by despondency or realism - might try and find a new home outside a Labour Party that was now entirely unreclaimable or unwinnable.

As an optimist, I find such talk unfortunate, to say the least. After all, we are not - despite what some may say - in a weaker position, as a Labour left, than we were 10, 15, even 20 years ago. Now is a time to build and assert ourselves, not to contemplate final defeat.

But - on that point - I was issued a challenge (in the comments). It is fair enough. If I wish to pursue the argument that the left should be fundamentally committed to Labour Party activism, that all socialists should join us and that we can gain a position of leadership and dominance in that party, I have to at least give a few pointers as to how such a thing could be done.

The roadmap:

  • Although the publication route is something of a cliche, it also has an important role to play. The LRC needs a publication - whether we revisit the discussions about making Briefing 'LRC Briefing' or produce something new, this is an important development. But just producing it is irrelevant: Briefing already exists and is hardly hostile to our position. The point is DISTRIBUTION. The LRC has the following affliliated unions: ASLEF, BFAWU, CWU, FBU, NUM, RMT along with a whole range of union regions and branches, socialist organisations (e.g. the Socialist Education Association) and local Trades Councils. At the same time every CLP receives at least one copy of Progress magazine, and that is possible because the magazine is heavily subsidised by a wide range of trade unions and trade union advertising - including some unions affiliated to the LRC. As such, Progress is now part of the fabric of the party, while the LRC is still seen as 'other' or - in some places - is not heard of at all (except in those areas where LRC regional groups are doing excellent work spreading the message, more of which anon...) So we don't only need a publication, we need our union comrades to help us get a monthly publication to every CLP in the country. The LNMF project will also be invaluable in this area. Another way forward could be using Membersnet to get an LRC briefing sheet out to a wide range of party activists who we currently don't reach.

  • We need to engage with the party at every level and in every way, however frustrating or mortifying it might be! Student members - get to Labour Students events, national and local (take over your student club if you can - it's quite easy to do!); young members - get along to Young Labour events, national and local. All of us, get to the regional conferences and policy forums. I know we won't achieve much, but we need to be seen - we need to be heard - we need to provide some leadership because there's a whole lot of people there who will follow. The last time I went to a regional policy forum I was hugely encouraged by the support that I received for the arguments I was putting across. At the time, the LRC was in its infancy and there were no regional organisations - but there are now; those regional conferences/policy forums are prime recruiting grounds. Compass leaflets were being greedily gobbled up at the last one I went to - that was because there was no alternative; people were very receptive to our arguments. Let's get stalls; let's get fringe sessions: national, regional and local. We've got to look outwards. If we're organising at these things it will give others a reason to go.

  • We must pick two or three campaigns and go at them all-guns-blazing. Indeed we should BE them. I would recommend at least one international campaign (I know the LNMF are looking at 'G20' which is a good idea) and at least one domestic campaign (welfare reform is a key one). We then lead those campaigns and do so in a welcoming, inclusive way; invite people from Compass and elsewhere to speak on our platforms, etc. - challenge them to do likewise.

  • Big public meetings. The Bevanites used the 'Brains Trust' meeting as their key organising method outside parliament. We can do better; so let's do it. Most CLPs would love a few high profile speakers on their programmes. Let's get a group of leading LRC speakers together - parliamentarians, trade unionists, 'celebrities', etc. - and offer them - severally or together - to address open meetings across the country. We could get going with that at the earliest opportunity, offering to launch local election campaigns, etc. and play our own part in revitalising CLPs into the bargain.

  • Create a national network - using email, face-to-face, our publication and blogs/LNMF, etc. Encourage as many BLPs, CLPs, etc. as possible to affiliate to their regional LRC group alongside individual members. Ensure alongside the discussion and policy meetings, there are doorstepping, leafleting, campaigning meetings, both on our campaigns and for Labour campaigns, especially elections. This is an essential part of ensuring that people - even those who will never see entirely eye-to-eye with us - see the LRC as an essential part of the fabric of the Labour Party and movement.

  • Engage in ensuring some serious labour representation: encourage left-wingers to take CLP positions, stand for council and stand for parliamentary seats. Gather the names and CVs of left aspiring candidates, share them with our affiliated unions (particularly those that are also affiliated to the Labour Party); keep track of all the selections and communicate with promising candidates; put them in touch with union branches and any LRC contacts in the area. Few selections are left for the next election. By this time for the election after, we need there to be an idea abroad that LRC approval is one of the best ways to get selected.

  • Aim for the moral high ground and keep it. It's easy to react - I do it all the time. I fly off the handle on some blog comment and the next thing you know it's 'lefties are so sectarian, lefties are so rude, lefties don't want to build bridges', etc. We need to point out why people are wrong, but we should do it in a comradely manner. In all these areas that I have outlined we should be scrupulously democratic, even if the actions of others are as corrupt as hell and it means we sometimes lose. Most people in the Labour Party are decent and will be turned off the leadership if they try and fix things and keep us out and will be attracted to us if we are transparent, comradely and upfront. Labour members tend to rally around if they see people are being unfairly treated - Ken Livingstone, Walter Wolfgang, etc. - unless those doing the unfair treating are able to put a convincing case out that we're bad, secretive, duplicitous, etc.

  • While we need to reinvigorate the internal democracy of the party, we should do this from the bottom up, for the most part: organise strongly and well at branch and CLP level and speak loudly enough that our voices have to be listened to. We should help democratising campaigns, but we shouldn't seem to be obsessed with process and minutiae. The best times to highlight democratising campaigns will be when there are clear victims of the lack of democracy (see above point) when we can have a broad church rally around the idea; we should never be talking about part seven of clause 6 of section 3 (etc, etc.) when everybody else is talking about welfare, banks or Gaza.

All of this is possible. It's bloody difficult, but the logic of much recent Labour left activity has been moving in this direction (which is - I stress - quite the opposite direction from that predicted by Jon Cruddas or Luke Akehurst: engagement rather than detachment).

Of course I understand two likely reactions to this:

One: it's pie in the sky; Labour's grassroots have been decimated and demoralised; people on the left who've never been in Labour (young people, primarily) won't go for this and they'll stay outside.

Two: why? What is it about the Labour Party that would make today's socialists see it as their natural home.

The answer to the first question is relatively simple: it's a plan, and it's better than yours. Even a decimated, demoralised Labour grassroots has more potential in one city than any 'new workers party' (or other ideas of that nature) has in the whole country. Some people won't take a leap in the dark and they'll stay outside. I suspect most of them will join the swell in the fullness of time, but if they don't they don't. None of what I've suggested here is contrary or runs contradictory to the idea of working with the non-Labour left on many campaigns and issues, of continuing to engage with the Convention of the Left, etc, etc.

The second question is, of course, much harder. It's not a difficult personal question: as a socialist teenager it never occurred to me not to join the Labour Party (though the left was not really any stronger then than today - and I think that's a point we need to bear in mind). I felt I was inheriting a great Labour dissenting socialist tradition that had always existed in a Labour Party whose mainstream always represented something rather different; a tradition that was at times more powerful than at others, that had periods of ascendency, that would have them again. Now, much as I dislike the whole concept of great leaders - preferring a bottom-up concept of democracy - I cannot escape the fact that encountering the ideas, speeches and passion of Tony Benn did a lot to establish the idea with me that Labour was my obvious home. There was a man eloquently expressing what I felt; bashing the dreadful Tories, but bashing the timidity and duplicity on his own side too. He got me listening, and then I started hearing Jeremy Corbyn and later Alan Simpson, later still John McDonnell, etc, etc. And that was the Labour Party for me, not Kinnock or Blair (though I couldn't ignore that they too were another version of 'real Labour').

So, in a funny way, John McDonnell speaking with such passion about Heathrow the other day, and grabbing the mace, though it was - of course - about Heathrow (as well as broader issues of both parliamentary sovereignty, executive dominance and climate change) can - as part of a broader tapestry - be like Tony Benn's speech on pit closures; a voice to encourage, to rally, to inspire. A different, alternative voice of Labour.

Please start conversing - I realise I've been controversial here, but it's an incredibly important discussion which we really need to have.