‘New hope for left-wing crusader’

Tariq Ali interviewed by Geoff Cumming for the New Zealand Herald, March 19 2011

Revolution is in the air, again. Veterans of the 60s protest movement in the West and the democratic uprisings which fractured the Soviet Union are toasting the amazing scenes in the Middle East, where protests against dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia ignited a fuse which promises to spread through the Arab world.

Reactionary forces – ranging from brutal repression in Gaddafi’s Libya to US-sanctioned Saudi troops in Bahrain – may stamp out dissent for now but, if the groundswell is genuine, for how long?

“It’s not over yet,” says Tariq Ali, the 60s militant-socialist turned writer, historian, film-maker and political commentator.

“The first round has gone to the people but who knows how many other rounds there are to go?”

The London-based Pakistani is here to deliver this year’s Sir Douglas Robb lectures at Auckland University. Ali’s presence is something of a coup for the university thanks to the flourishing of people-power in North Africa. The three lectures (the first was on Thursday night, the second is on Monday) dwell on current themes ranging from China’s rise and the future of American imperialism to what the Arab reawakening may mean for the region’s jihadist groups.

In person, the urbane 67-year-old seems far from the long-haired firebrand of legend who was vilified by British tabloids at the height of Vietnam War protests in London in 1968. He was dogged by Special Branch, racially abused and narrowly escaped beatings – and not just from right-wingers.

“The British were very backward in those days. They weren’t used to people from ex-colonies coming and telling them what to do.

“I was told to go back to Asia. I said: ‘But you were in my country for 150 years, I’ve only been here five minutes’.”

The mane and droopy moustache were trimmed and the hair long ago turned a distinguished grey but, when Ali speaks, the language is as fearless as ever. Gaddafi is a “crazy dictator who has killed and bombed his own people”. In Egypt, the Pentagon has “more or less put the Army in power”.

The short-term prognosis for democracy in the Arab world is not promising. If Gaddafi regains control, it may encourage other dictators to ramp up repression, he says.

While the Obama administration has been very tough on Gaddafi, it makes no criticism of Saudi Arabia whose ruling family is “just as bad as Gaddafi” Ali says.

“There’s Saudi Arabia sending soldiers to Bahrain, obviously with US support. It’s that attitude which makes the US a laughing stock in the Arab world.”

The uprisings have made the US, Britain and France very nervous, he says, worried for the dictatorships they prop up.

“It’s almost as if they believed their own rubbish propaganda that Arabs and Muslims are not interested in democracy.”

He says the opposite is the case.

“There’s everything to hope for really. They’re the most encouraging developments in the Arab world since the 1960s and 70s and it’s now spreading to parts of Europe, with big demonstrations taking place in Zagreb [in Croatia].”

Of course, he’s seen the ripple effect before – famously in ’68 when, in the vanguard of demonstrations in London, he had connections to left-wing movements in Berlin and Paris. The Vietnam War was the catalyst for protest, but there were allied motivations: inequality and rebellion against political orthodoxy and repression.

The clamour for change was infectious. In the US, the civil rights movement drew strength from campus protests against the war. There were student uprisings in Argentina, Pakistan and Italy. In Czechoslovakia, democratic moves were quelled by Soviet tanks.

He says this year’s uprisings have similar roots to the events of ’68 – “people’s desire to liberate themselves, for self-emancipation”. But the better comparison is to the democracy campaigns which swept Europe in 1848. The ’68 protests ultimately fizzled.

For change to last, key ingredients must be present – chiefly a constitution which is voted for, which enshrines democracy and guarantees basic rights including work, shelter and education. He points to South America – Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador – as a model for others.

As the struggle for democracy in the Third World takes centre stage, Ali sees huge irony in the apathy and consensus politics which have an iron grip in most western countries. He says western democracy has become a dictatorship of capitalism.

“I call it the hollowing out of democracy: whether you are Labour or Tory, centre left or centre right, Bush or Obama – it doesn’t make any difference at all.”

His latest book, The Obama Syndrome, argues that – far from the promise of a sea change in US foreign policy – the Obama Administration has been a case of more of the same.

He includes New Zealand among the compliant democracies, from Labour’s embrace of neo-liberal economics in the 1980s to our continuing allegiance to the US. As the promo for his second lecture notes, New Zealand remains a loyal satrap (subordinate) of the US. We should, he says, be embracing China more fully.

“New Zealand and to an extent Australia are countries which refuse to accept their geography. They remain vassal states, first with Britain then with the United States. To me it’s bizarre that New Zealand and Australia don’t have their own flags.”

The region escaped the worst of the global recession because of China’s economic strength rather than US ties.

“I think the compulsory second language in Australia and New Zealand should be Chinese.

“New Zealand may have a free trade agreement with China but there’s no doubt who determines New Zealand foreign policy. For New Zealand to have troops being killed in Afghanistan – what does that have to do with New Zealand?”

China’s emergence – and what it means politically and economically – is the theme of Ali’s third lecture, next Wednesday. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say he does not foresee it following in US footsteps as an imperialist power.

“What China proves is that capitalism does very well without democracy, thank you very much.”

The other malaise of western democracies – apathy – is also linked to the entwinement of capitalism and state.

“People have a feeling that protest is useless because they’ve been defeated. Millions came out against the Iraq war – the largest demonstrations in history had no effect on the ruling elites at all. They went to war, they told lies, they got away with those lies.”

As a consequence, protest has become limited to small groups on the left. “We have a political structure that’s not vulnerable to protest and mass actions. Instead, western society has become characterised by mass consumerism, mass apathy and an obsession with celebrity. People are drowning in it.”

But Ali agrees there’s a cyclical nature to the struggle between socialism and capitalism, between radicalism and reactionism – and capitalism’s excess may prove its weakness. Rising western living standards are, he says, founded on a house of cards.

“One reason people seem better off is they live off debt. Household debt in most of the western world has reached amazing levels. Three European countries – Iceland, Ireland and Greece – would have collapsed if they hadn’t been bailed out by the European community. Others are teetering.”

Therein lies hope that the west could learn from the uprisings in the Arab world. “Who knows, it may spread to western countries if the sticking plaster they have put on the [financial] crisis breaks.

“There’s been a big march in Wisconsin defending trade union rights …”

Staying true to his beliefs

You might conclude Ali’s star was charted from day one. His mother, the daughter of a leading conservative politician, joined the Communist Party the year he was born.

His grandmother, though far from a fellow traveller, knitted him a white sweater with a red hammer and sickle. His father was editor of the left-wing The Pakistan Times, the country’s biggest circulation newspaper, until the military coup in 1949. Their home was a shrine to Stalin.

What’s interesting about Ali is that he has remained consistent in his beliefs, despite long winters when his Marxist-socialist ideals appeared buried beneath the consumerist juggernaut of western capitalism.

The prolific writer, film-maker and father of three lives in artsy Highgate but retains his socialist ideals. “The world has changed but I’ve not abandoned my beliefs.”

Close friends include Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson from the 60s protest movement, whom he joined on the editorial board of New Left Review, which celebrated 50 years last year and which his partner, Susan Watkins, edits. But he remains bemused by how so many who stormed the barricades in the 60s went on to swell the capitalist ranks.

“I have lost some very close friends who went to the other side and just became part of the zeitgeist. To hear people you thought you knew become so hardcore in defending the war in Iraq, or the bombing of this or that …read more