Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 30, 2004

On Tariq Ali’s Support for John Kerry

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:46 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on October 30, 2004

Apparently Tariq Ali is on some kind of tour in the USA right now. In a radio interview with Doug Henwood on Oct. 28, he stated that he is advising his audiences to turn out the vote for John Kerry next Tuesday. He also used this interview as an opportunity to mock Ralph Nader and his supporters and once again, as he did in his last interview with Henwood, to speak as an emissary of the Third World. In this capacity, he assured his listeners that the Third World demands a vote for Kerry on Nov. 2nd.

For those on Marxmail who have never stumbled across the name Tariq Ali before, a few words of introduction might be in order. Ali was one of a group of intellectuals who joined the British section of the Fourth International in the late 1960s. Along with Robin Blackburn, Perry Anderson and other luminaries around the New Left Review, they were impressed with the late Belgian economist and Trotskyist leader Ernest Mandel. As the 1960s radicalization began to ebb, all of them abandoned organized revolutionary politics and devoted themselves to academic or literary careers. Although they never disavowed Marxism, there has been a certain softening of ideology–a kind of intellectual middle-age spread so to speak.

For those of us who are accustomed to the firebrand image of Tariq Ali in his youth (his memoir was titled “Street Fighting Man”), this turn toward mealy-mouthed Democratic Party opportunism after the fashion of Earl Browder will come as a disappointment. However, it does not come out of the blue. Several years ago, Perry Anderson of the New Left Review announced that the journal would be dispensing with illusory prospects about revolution and focus on controversies within the academy, although he didn’t exactly put it in these terms (I do, however). Boris Kargalitsky wrote an angry attack on this turn, describing Perry Anderson as a “sophisticated British gentleman, [who] sits in his cosy office at no. 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse of the left project.”

In an elegant but patronizing reply to Kargalitsky, Tariq Ali conveyed the same mood of resignation that Perry Anderson must have felt: “The collapse of all systemic alternatives is plainly visible. Seattle was extremely invigorating, but neither that nor the strike-wave in France amounts to a fundamental change in the situation. To exaggerate will only increase the despair.”

Fortunately, 9/11 and the war in Iraq have brought Ali to his senses. For the past three years, he has written some very good books and articles about imperialist war that obviously mark a retreat from the navel-gazing perspective put forward by fellow editor Perry Anderson. Unfortunately, what Ali has not recovered is a sense of the imperative for a revolutionary movement that can finally stop the imperialist war-makers in their tracks. Such hopes are obviously not realistic in a time of diminished expectations.

Although the entire interview with Ali can be listened to in streaming audio at http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html#041028, the most relevant passage is available in text, courtesy of Doug Henwood who posted it to his mailing list as part of an ongoing effort to drum up support for John Kerry. For somebody like Henwood, who in unguarded moments still professes admiration for Karl Marx (but not Lenin), it is vitally important to line up expert witnesses like Tariq Ali, who still has some socialist credentials in his capacity as NLR editor. For the activist Marxist left, such credentials of course do not carry much weight.

It is also worth pointing out that Henwood and Ali might strike one as radical versions of Kerry campaign strategist Bob Shrum trying to woo undecided voters in the 11th hour. Does anybody really think anything that Tariq Ali says on Pacifica radio at this late stage of the game will persuade somebody to vote for Kerry rather than Nader? If anything, leftists are even more decided than the average citizen. In reality what Henwood and Ali are about is knocking down challenges now and in the future to the sort of electoral TINA that has been constructed for us. More about that shortly.

Meanwhile, here’s the relevant Henwood-Ali exchange:

DH: You’ve said, on this show among other places, that it’s important that Bush lose, which in practical terms means that Kerry must win. Whenever you say these sorts of things you hear people say he’s no better, maybe worse, than Bush. How do you sort that out?

Tariq Ali: I know. The last time I gave an interview to you on this show I got a lot of rude emails, especially from the United States, but from nowhere else. I got very good emails from Venezuela saying “we saw that interview of yours with Henwood and it’s very good you said that.” This is what I constantly say when I’m in this country to people on the left, look, you have a responsibility to the rest of the world as well. This is no time to fool around. Do not mimic the imperial rulers of your country and think exclusively about yourselves and your own interests, whatever these may be. Just look at the situation globally and ask yourselves this: how would a defeat for George W. Bush be seen in the rest of the world? On this, Doug, I am 100% confident that from the Atlantic to the Urals, through Latin America, in Africa, in the Arab world, this defeat would be seen as a victory. Now, the response to that comes, “Yeah, but Kerry would do the same thing,” but that’s not the point. The point is Bush decided on this war, Bush took this country to war, the neocons and their supporters devised lies which they haven’t been able to deliver that this was a war of liberation. It’s been a complete and total disaster. Should Bush be punished for going to war or not? If you say “yes,” then you have to punish him, and the best way to punish him is to remove him from office. Then you come to Kerry.

As I said, pressure should be put on Kerry from Day One. If he carries on with the war, attack him. But the position would be clear: we removed Bush because he went to war, and if you carry on with the war, then you could be removed as well. You won’t serve a second term either. I honestly can’t see any argument against this. People who say, “Are you advocating a vote for Kerry, you sellout,” my response is, are you seriously advocating that Bush should stay in power? Because that’s the alternative. There’s no third party. There’s no Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party winning a million votes and being locked up for ten years as a result. He’s not around. Nader, quite honestly, he’s a joke figure at the present time. The narcissism is astounding when you hear him speak. There’s no understanding of tactics on a national scale. It’s a tactical question, but it’s an important tactical question. To say that Bush shouldn’t be defeated is to underestimate the loss of Iraqi lives and the loss of American lives in this conflict…. You have to vote against Bush, which means behaving politically and maturely and voting for Kerry.

To put it bluntly, Tariq Ali is urging a vote for the Democrats because he thinks that There Is No Alternative. In his own words: “Because that’s the alternative. There’s no third party. There’s no Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party winning a million votes and being locked up for ten years as a result.”

Ali seems to have forgotten that Nader received 2,882,955 votes in 2000, which was 2.74% of the total vote. While Debs won 6 percent of the vote in 1912, his first campaign in 1900 yielded a paltry 87,814 votes. If Nader had the support of the Greens and the liberal intelligentsia in 2004, it is entirely possible that his support among the broader population would have been even larger, especially in light of the elimination of Howard Dean as an antiwar candidate. Instead, people such as Doug Henwood, Micah Sifry, Norman Solomon and Medea Benjamin have used their intellectual and moral authority to stampede anybody who would listen into voting for a candidate who pledges to win the war in Iraq.

In a more fundamental sense, Ali’s problem is this. He has become so far removed from the world of practical politics that he cannot think strategically, at least in terms of what Marxists should do. For Ali, there is no grasp of transition. We are stuck in mutually exclusive static states. Today and for the foreseeable future obviously, we have awful Republican Party candidates and Democrats who are not so awful. In order to prevent the more awful candidate from taking power, we have to insure the victory of the less awful. Since somebody like Ralph Nader will obviously never be able to win a majority vote, he can only succeed in stealing votes from the less awful candidate.

Missing entirely from this schema is a prescription for how radical alternatives, especially on the electoral front, can be created. You are stuck with the minimalist here-and-now and a maximalist outcome far down the road when American workers arise from their slumber and become willing to cast a vote for a contemporary version of Eugene V. Debs. However, for Marxists the only question worth addressing is how to get from the current stage of politics to something more advanced. As James P. Cannon (the founder of American Trotskyism and just the sort of figure derided in Tariq Ali’s satire on Trotskyism titled “Redemption”) once put it, “The art of politics is knowing what to do next.”


  1. hi Louis,

    couldn’t agree more with your analysis – I’m in London about 2 weeks ago Tariq debated Julian Stallabrass who has just written a book on art and globalisation, he was overwhelmingly depressing and negative in his analysis of the contemporary situation, and when challenged by younger revolutionary activists like myself and others, comes across with this incredibly patronising posh ‘seen it all before’ attitude. But your right he has little sense of strategy or it would seem contradiction and dialectics, when talking about the use of the Che image he just emphasised it’s recuperation not the fact that young people involved in the anti-capitalist movement wear it as a potent symbol of rebellion and revolution! You can just imagine him ticking them off for being so romantic and silly!


    Comment by noel — November 18, 2004 @ 11:39 am

  2. Ali spoke at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on October 21. He gave an energetic and broad overview of Iraq’s history, the current state of the occupation, etc. to a large-ish audience consisting mainly of local activists I’ve seen at anti-war demonstrations in 2003 and faculty in the liberal arts and sciences. He gave very oblique but surprisingly well-received recommendations to vote for Kerry.

    In the question and answer period at the end of his talk, I pointed out how much of the early work – that is, before the initial hostilities – in the American anti-war movement was done by groups who were at least heavily affiliated with the sectarian left, International ANSWER and Not In Our Name. I asked if he saw this fact as any indication of any particular usefulness of the sectarian left in opposing the Iraq war from within the US. He gave subtle nods to my statement, then quickly took the opportunity to point out how ANSWER and NION exemplified the problems of the sectarian left, in that once the movement strayed away from their preferred message and strategy, they simply didn’t know how to handle it; and so we have fewer demonstrations, etc. today.

    — Undergraduate at UIUC

    Comment by Anonymous — November 25, 2004 @ 10:27 am

  3. For Louis a promotion and a new job title, Freelance Forensic Historian.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 4, 2017 @ 12:04 am

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