Slobbo, Rwanda and the Surreal

Chris Burford cburford at
Sun Oct 8 05:50:49 PDT 2000

At 12:37 07/10/00 -0400, Leo wrote:

>There is something incredibly, bizarrely surreal about these discussions, and
>I am beginning to think that by engaging in them, as if there was a serious,
>thoughtful position (in defense of Slobbo, in excuse of Rwandan genocide, and
>so on) we are debating, we give them a credence we should not.

I recognise Leo as coming from a broadly coherent Gramscian perspective which I myself regard as flexible and relevant to the political challenges that exist in developed capitalist societies.

Although his contributions often display considerable impatience with debate with opponents, I would suggest to him that in the five or more years of marxist or left mailing lists, there has been a long term trend towards more reasoned contributions, more engaged with actual political reality. The tiny sects stridently trying to rally the next five people to the only true nucleus for the building of the vanguard world revolutionary party, increasingly have been unable to keep up with relevant debate.

Jim Heartfield I see as contributing a unique position in these lists, as an intelligent ingenious critique of all existing things. His contributions are often arresting and startling but IMO not clearly orientated towards actually existing political trends. The ideological basis seems to me to be an extreme radical application of human rights approaches that ends up as a sort of elitist intellectual anarchism, but perhaps I am overinfluenced by the style of Living Marxism, or LM, when it was in circulation. (I say all this not to try to denounce Jim, or challenge him to refute a characterisation which he no doubt rejects, but to try to sketch some sort of place for him in the complex ecology of marxism space.)

So I would argue that Jim is unique. The gap of comprehension that Leo indicates about the list or lists in general is the result of more general issues.

In left lists dominated by subscribers from the USA, there is bound to be a strong tradition, stemming from resistance to the Vietnam war, against any aggression and interference by US hegemonism. In short hand and speed-reading, opposing the US is automatically likely to be an authentic position.

This IMO obscures the inevitability of the emergence of global government, and the fact that the imperialist powers will usually take initiatives in their own hegemonic interests, but they may appeal to higher ideals that have some concrete reality.

I think it is essential to take a dialectical position to all these concrete issues. Thus I would strongly oppose British intereference in Zimbabwe at present, despite some human rights abuses by Mugabe. On the other hand I would argue that British involvement in Sierra Leone at this stage is imperialist but is broadly progressive, in particular the steps to control the global trade in diamonds. Such arguments can easily get drowned out by the strong and sincere left opposition to any overseas actions by US or British imperialism.

Recognising a role to defend human rights internationally creates many contradictions in a world in which many left wingers, including myself, wish to oppose neo-liberalism, because the politics and the economics are at first sight bedfellows. We need a more sophisticated understanding of the interaction of these struggles and the ability to distinguish which side is progressive in any one situation.

Lastly I think it is clear that the strong left position from the US of opposing all interference by its own imperialism dulls sincere contributors to the need also to oppose fascist tendencies in all countries. The point is not that Serbian nationalism was as great a danger as Hitler, but that the fight against fascism cannot wait to start until the first 50,000 are already dead. Indeed the Nazi's only started killing Jews in any significant numbers in 1941. The validity of anti-fascism stands or falls in political situations pre-dating that by many years.

A full ideological understanding of this requires an understanding of the importance of defending democratic rights as part of the struggle for socialism but of trying to extend them to social human rights in which people are not seen as atomised individuals, but as parts of socio-economic communities, in which economic questions affect rights as much as narrow legal definitions do.

Nor in the effort to oppose ones own imperialism should leftists fail to address the problem that fascism may emerge with a left face as well as a right face. In the turmoil of post socialist societies in eastern Europe that is a particular danger. For example I regard the quietness of western left-wingers about the brutal suppression of the Chechens as ominous and a mark of political inability to criticise the appeasement face of western imperialism as vigorously as the aggressive face of western imperialism.

Anyway I would urge Leo to take a longer view of internet exchanges and not to be thrown off balance by inevitable frustrations.

Chris Burford


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