Ten Questions for Tariq Ali
The interview below was conducted via email by Selim Nadi as part of his research on theoretical and political exchanges between the French and German radical left during the era of decolonization, between 1945 and 1975.
How did you politicize yourself? In particular, what was the process that made you such a leading figure in the anti-imperialist camp (especially during the Vietnam war)?
It wasn’t exactly a self-politicization. I was born in Lahore, grew up in that city, went to school and university, and didn’t move to Britain until October 1963. My class locations were contradictory: the larger family were feudal, but my parents had broken loose on many levels and become members of the Indian Communist Party and later, after Partition, its weak Pakistani offshoot. In other words, I grew up in a communist milieu, and mixed, from a very young age, with the intellectuals, poets and journalists of the left, as well as peasant and trade union leaders who were always welcome in our house. My first recorded attendance of a meeting is when I was almost 6 years old. There was a large May Day meeting in Lahore in 1949, as the Eighth Route Army and other guerrilla detachments, triumphant against the Japanese occupiers and the corrupted and brutal nationalists of the KMT, were converging on Beijing. The main chant in Lahore was “Friends, we will take the Chinese Road.”
Six years later, after a long siege, Ho Chi Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp (contemptuously described by the occupying French as a “bush general”) won the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, sending a tsunami of joy throughout Asia and laying the basis for the ultimate liberation of Vietnam. I remember a distant relation, a totally apolitical film director, naming his son, who was born on the day of the French surrender, Ho Chi Minh. There was the beginning of a student movement against the military dictatorship that had taken over Pakistan in October 1958, and we had clandestine discussion groups reading Marx and Lenin on the campus. All public political activity was banned. Trade unions, political parties, and demonstrations were disallowed. When the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by a joint Belgian-CIA task force in 1961, I called a meeting on the Government College (University) campus. We denounced the murder of Lumumba. Emotions were high and I said we can’t just stay here. Let’s march through the streets to the Governor’s residence. And we did. The first public demo against the dictatorship. On the way back, emboldened by our success, a few slogans were shouted against the dictatorship at home. Nothing happened. The government was taken totally by surprise. Within six months of this, the big student demonstrations against “reforms” in the curriculum erupted in Lahore. So I wasn’t exactly a novice when I arrived in Britain.
Why did you join the International Marxist Group? In what way did Trotskyism appear to be more relevant to you that, let’s say, Maoism?
At university I was active in the Socialist Group that functioned inside the Labour Club. The Communist Club had some interesting people (Bob Rowthorn and Sheila Rowbotham, among others), the tiny Trotskyist groups hawked their wares at events but were mainly active in the Labour Club. They were the International Socialism current and the Socialist Labour League. Some of my friends were in the IS (Ian Birchall for one), one or two in the SLL, but I was not attracted to them theoretically or politically. The IS were nice English people who had little idea of what was happening on other continents or preferred to misread events to fit into their theories. They had no time for the Chinese Revolution or the ongoing Vietnamese battles at that time and had remained neutral during the Korean War. It was strikes and the tenant struggles in Britain that were important for them and their significance was grossly exaggerated. Apart from being provincial, they were extremely economistic in their approach. The SLL insisted there had been no revolution in Cuba. To a political activist fresh from Asia this approach, to put it mildly, seemed bizarre. For me the single most important struggle was that of the Vietnamese people led by the Communist Party against the latest imperialist power (the United States) determined to crush them.
The International Marxist Group was smaller than the others but attached globally to a current that was internationalist to its very core. Solidarity with Vietnam became the central focus of this Fourth International (there were three others in existence as well) and that appealed to me greatly. Theoretically I was drawn to this group after reading Isaac Deutscher’s magisterial trilogy on the life of Trotsky. It was an important bridge for me. I read Trotsky’s My Life, which read like a classic Russian novel (my father’s library in Lahore had all the Russian classics and I devoured them eagerly in my teens). Then The Revolution Betrayed, in which he insisted that the Soviet Union was a society in transition and either it would move forward to a new form of socialist democracy or revert to capitalism. In any case, its existence had to be defended against imperialist assaults.
It was Ernest Mandel who effectively recruited me to the FI after the big demo and conference in Berlin in February 1968. Of course he exaggerated the size and influence of the IMG, which its own leaders at the time, Pat Jordan and Ernie Tate, never did. I joined on my return from Berlin, and participated in helping build the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. In 1966-67 I had visited North Vietnam as a investigator of war crimes on behalf of the International War Crimes Tribunal, set-up on the initiative of Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, and seen the effects of war and experienced US bombing sorties myself. It was a searing experience. An education you could never get from books.
What was the importance of Maoism to that time in Britain? Did Britain have political groups like the Kommunistischen Bund (Germany) or Gauche Prolétarienne (France)?
Maoism was very weak in Britain. There were a few small groups, but slightly nutty and posed no attraction for me or for too many other people. There was no Maoist current as in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Norway. Why? There wasn’t much space for them on the far-left. Britain had never produced a mass Communist Party (working-class politics was hegemonized for the entire 20th century by Labour) and hence the far left offshoots remained relatively small when compared to the continent.
One could add that because of the predominance of various Trotskyisms, the Marxist intelligentsia that developed in Britain had very few illusions regarding the Soviet Union, and after 1956, the CP lost most of its intellectuals, some of whom joined far-left sects. This meant that there was no equivalent here of “new philosophers” or ex-leftists becoming total renegades and anti-communists of the most vulgar sort. France, in particular, is paying the price for that defection. Many of my French comrades and friends from the JCR/LCR days were reluctant to accept the scale of the intellectual defeat in France, even though they were confronted with its consequences in their own priorities. There were instances of this in the Anglo world as well, of course, but not on the scale of France, Germany, Italy, Japan.
Do you accept the comparison with Rudi Dutschke, concerning the political role you played in Germany and in Great Britain?
It wasn’t just Dutschke but Daniel Cohn-Bendit as well. With Dutschke I shared a great deal and we became friends. With Dany it was different. He was a left-wing anarchist and very critical of the JCR (the only person he respected from the FI was Daniel Bensaïd) and the FI. The road from his positions in 1968 to becoming a Green defender of neoliberalism and imperialist wars…well what is there to say? Dutschke, had he lived and decided to join the Greens, would have (I think) led them in a very different direction and might even have left them once they became respected bourgeois politicians. Who knows?
To what extent can one speak about a “student international” concerning the 1960s and ‘70s? Did you have serious political contact with other countries?
It did exist but not institutionally. In 1968 I was close to the German and US SDS groups before they went in very different directions. Maoism, Baader-Meinhof, the Weathermen….I remember arguing with Ulrike Meinhof at the Republican Club in Berlin in 1968. She was not what she became but moving in that direction, and when I argued with her she said: “You cannot understand what our fathers and uncles did during the Third Reich and they’re still here in important positions, doing the same sort of things for the Americans.”
It’s worth remembering that the Baader-Meinhof current, as opposed to those who carried out the acts, was pretty large. If I remember correctly, 25 percent of the population of West Germany was sympathetic to their cause. Interesting that the three big leftist terrorist groups emerged in former fascist states: The Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Japan.
While it still was part of the SPD. the German SDS was engaged to support the Algerian Revolution (1954 – 1962), but this Student Group became very important in its opposition to the Vietnam War. What is your analysis regarding the relevance of the German SDS at that time?
It was the main radical group at the time and solidly internationalist, especially on Algeria, Vietnam AND Palestine.
Concerning the 1960s and 70s, what are the main differences that you see between the British, the French and the German Left?
I’ve already spelled some of this out. The main difference was that in France, there was the PCF, a solid working-class organization with a network of newspapers and magazines, and sympathetic publishing houses (political and cultural) that dominated the French Left until the late ‘60s. Its heroic role in the resistance to Hitler when the French bourgeoisie and its parties capitulated to Berlin and set up Vichy is what won it this prestige and transformed it into a major force in French politics for good and, as in 1968, for bad. Its attitude to the colonial question was, to put it at its mildest, extremely ambiguous. On Algeria and Vietnam, during the early stages of those struggles, it always advised caution unless Moscow willed otherwise. Many intellectuals and activists who combated this approach were vigorously denounced in its press, but in opposition to it and from its inside there emerged the internationalist JCR/LCR current, the best in France. The space created by the PCF allowed a range of journals, debates and discussions and activities that the Party could not control or crush.
This was very different from Britain and Germany. In the latter country, the KPD was treated as an enemy organization because of the existence of the DDR, and the DDR itself did not exactly inspire young activists in the ‘60s. Dutschke, a refugee from the DDR, understood it better than most and without being anti-communist, he explained its structural and political defects as Rudolf Bahro did many years later. When we marched to the Wall in 1968 carrying banners of Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and others, the confusion on the face of the East German border guards was visible.
How do you explain the huge difference in the attitude between the French and the British Left concerning colonialism and the racial issue?
There was not such a huge difference in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There is now. I think the treason of the French left intelligentsia from the late ‘70s onwards, and the role they played in the media networks and society at large coincided in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the collapse of the PCF and the Communist world in general. Important figures from the Lambertist current of world Trotskyism ended up as SP pinups, and [Lionel] Jospin cynically whispered in Alain Krivine’s ear: “We always said we would take power before you.” What is most striking today is the gulf between the far-left groups and the non-white population of France. When the people of the banlieues fight, they do it on their own. The three outsider intellectuals that they respect are Edwy Plenel, Emmanuel Todd, and Alain Gresh. Do we need to ask why?
For me, a real sign of degeneration of the old LCR current was its refusal to understand that Islamophobia is a huge problem in Europe and especially in France. The decision of many secular (even atheist) French women of Muslim origin to wear the hijab is linked to this phenomenon. Racism is widespread in the French Republic and its prison system. Despite French involvement in a number of wars in West Africa and the Arab world, there is nothing resembling an anti-war, anti-imperialist current in the country.
This is in marked difference to Britain where, despite its many weaknesses, most of the far-left and left social democrats and Communists has been in the leadership of anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements, which is one reason these movements still exist. Until he was elected Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn was Chair of the Stop the War Coalition. When I read reports of the total disintegration of the LCR current, I think of the past and am saddened, but then I think of their utter sectarianism in the present and I’m indifferent
What role did the black movements in the U.S. play in Europe during these years (1960s/70s)? To what extent where you aware of what was happening in the U.S.?
We were very aware of what was happening in the black movements because many black U.S. soldiers had turned against the war and some young black people were fleeing the draft so that they wouldn’t fight in Vietnam. As Mohammed Ali famously said, “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger’.” Two black GIs spoke at the big Vietnam demonstration in Berlin in February 1968 and were cheered by the large crowd when they chanted: “I ain’t going to Vietnam because Vietnam is where I am; Hell no! I ain’t gonna go.”
The black uprisings that hit several US cities that summer of 1968 were very much linked to Vietnam. Black ex-GI snipers played an important part. When I was still at university, I had met Malcolm X and spoken with him for a few hours. That tutorial on US politics educated me more than anything else at the time.
Does Trotskyism still have a relevance to you today? If yes, what is its relevance?
Trotsky does, and Marx and Lenin and others, but TrotskyISM has little, if any, relevance. It emerged as an important footnote to Stalinism (and I have absolutely no regrets that I was in the FI from 1968—1981), but since the latter collapsed and took big parties down (PCI, PCF) the TrotskyIST groups have disintegrated.
The task ahead is to understand the political, to never give up in the battle against capitalism, to defend the democratic gains won by movements (workers and women) to enhance representation, but these are bad times, as we see all over the world. We are so desperate that sometimes we grasp at straws. I am currently working on a long essay on Lenin that Verso will publish next year. For me today, the interest in Marx’s writings is very positive (except when it becomes Marxology or borders on religion), but Lenin is almost forgotten and some of his ideas remain extremely valuable. The Left needs them in its armory if it is to move forward. You cannot fully grasp the functioning of capitalism if you ignore Marx and you cannot understand politics, the political, its autonomy, without reading Lenin. Official politics is little more than “concentrated economics,” and who can doubt after the 2008 crash that the state is primarily the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.