The Prophet Alarmed

Against the Current, No. 177, July/August 2015

Alan Wald

The Extreme Center: A Warning
By Tariq Ali
London and New York: Verso, 2015, 200 pages, $10.17 paper (40% off).

A CHARISMATIC ACTIVIST, writer and speaker, British-Pakistani Marxist Tariq Ali stands out as an observant decoder of political trends and a passionate believer in the cross-pollination of ideas within the Left.

For half a century, Ali has been the kind of forward-looking thinker to whom reflective militants in many countries turn for assistance in ascertaining what the “orientation” should be when the political waters are murky. When necessary, he is willing to say to us what we don’t want to hear.

In 1969 Ali published The New Revolutionaries: A Handbook of the International Radical Left, with strategic writings by Regis Debray and 15 others. His own contribution, “The Extra-Parliamentary Opposition,” begins with the statement of a bedrock conviction that he has never relinquished: “It is now abundantly clear that the problems which arise from the functioning of modern or neo-capitalism cannot be solved within the existing social structures.” (67)

The conclusion, appropriately, is tactical: “the different revolutionary tendencies and factions should group together to set up a formal Extra-Parliamentary Opposition and give some sense of a socialist direction to the movement.” (78) This was good advice for the time, and not just for Britain.

Nonetheless, the next decade passed with little progress. The Left grew stronger but never approached the qualitative breakthrough for which many of us yearned and labored. By 1981 Ali sensed that the very revolutionary tendencies and factions he sought to strengthen, including the variety of Trotskyism with which he was aligned, were becoming locked into a sectarian course that would probably take them the way of the Dodo.

At that point he accepted an invitation to join the chapter of the British Labour Party in Hornsby, concluding that there are periods when moving forward means leaving some things behind.

Ali then counseled other radicals to join his effort to link party leader Tony Benn’s emerging Left-reformist current with extra-parliamentary forces. But the support for Benn’s campaign to displace incumbent Dennis Healey as Deputy Leader of the party was ultimately too weak, and Ali was quickly expelled from the party for his Marxism by the National Executive Committee.

With the ferment in the party dissipated, Ali became the organizationally unaffiliated activist he remains to this day. Yet his post-1970s evolution stands as a counterpoint to many of his contemporaries. Scores of these fellow militants made the Long March from the streets to the faculty lounge, while Ali endured as the intrepid rebel.

A person of authentic compassion, he is unable to stand still when atrocities happen and ethical boundaries are overstepped, although his historical eye is usually concentrated on the long-term costs of intervention by the West. He is a creative artist as well as thinker; the spirit of poetry — which he first heard in public readings as a child in Lahore — permeates his perception of everyday life.

Gifted with a remarkable eye for the way that daily routine conceals the absurd, Tariq Ali lives outside the propaganda bubble of the West’s air-conditioned nightmare of imperial domination. Even as he upholds a scorn for the ex-radicals who have come to the conclusion that capitalism can reform itself, and pulls no punches about the calculus of economic self-interest, he resists the temptations of sanctimoniousness.

What is more, over the decades he progressively evolved as a writer of myriad gifts, eloquent and thought-provoking, authoring several books about Pakistan and India, editing collections about the fate of the USSR and the war in the Balkans, and producing numerous articles in New Left Review and other Left-leaning publications, not to mention a half dozen novels and scripts for the stage and screen.

9/11 and After, A Warning

With the advent of the new millennium, Ali turned his limitless energy to crafting a sequence of political volumes addressing current events from an internationalist and historical perspective: The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002), Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq (2003), Rough Magic: Bombs, Bagdad, London, Terror (2005), Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope (2008), Protocols of the Elder of Sodom and Other Essays (2009), The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2009), and The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (2010).

These are principally efforts to guide us through a landscape haunted by the horrors of endless Western aggression as well as its vile caricatures of the cultures of adversaries. Challenging the assumptions of imperial (chiefly free market) as well as religious fundamentalists, he develops clarifying interpretative frameworks with a critical language allowing us to take the measure of what the times demand.

Fighting mostly with his pen, he has played a notable part in abetting the exposure of the ideological pretensions of the elites and their intellectual allies for the lies that they are.

In a few of these earlier books there are warnings about the perils of false promises, chiefly his 2003 argument about the consequences of the US occupation of Iraq and his 2010 prediction that the failures of president Obama’s policies were likely to pave the way for a Republican surge.

Yet The Extreme Center: A Warning is distinguished by a new tone of greater indignation and less amusement. This is first signaled by its stark and simple cover art of a red florescent danger sign, standing in contrast to earlier satirical representations on Ali’s book jackets of antagonistic world leaders as interchangeable, uppity insurgents as merry pirates, and an Iraqi child urinating on a U.S. occupying soldier.

Never before has this longtime admirer of Isaac Deutscher — the Jewish-Polish biographer of Leon Trotsky who wrote The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet Outcast — addressed the public sphere with the sibylline alarm to be found in this 200-page book. The “extreme center” is his term for the dangerous consensus of all major political parties of the West to best serve the needs of the market.

Ali’s muscular urgency springs from his analysis of a trifecta of objective conditions: the unabated catastrophe induced by the West’s imperialism and drive toward privatization; the turning of the major opposition parties of the Left against their own past social programs following the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall; and most immediately, “the symbiosis of big money and minimalist politics [that] has reached unprecedented heights” (42) as an entire generation of Labour, social democratic, and Liberal Democratic Party leaders commit political suicide in a mad rush toward the trough of a self-enrichment.

In fact, a 10-page section called “The Trough” names the names of English beneficiaries of this new largesse enabled by their coming to power. (Ali holds that this is actually the material basis of the politics of the extreme center, and he has surely hit upon a trove of hypocrisy providing infinite source material.)

The introduction to The Extreme Center starts with a heartfelt declaration, “we live in a volatile world and passivity is not an option” (19), and ends with a plea that we return to the streets: “the hollowing out of democracy is not a process than can be addressed by parliamentary decree alone. It requires mass mobilizations, popular assemblies, to create new movements and parties.” (15)

Ali, Chomsky and the ‘68ers

The closest living U.S. approximation we have to Tariq Ali is Noam Chomsky, likewise a brainy and sarcastic writer. Both are companionable authors, good company on the page, even though their books are packed with encyclopedic ambitions. (I have a small writer’s crush on both, and on Deutscher as well.)

Luckily, for those who have witnessed the bitter fruits of demands by Leftists for political homogeneity, both are sufficiently sovereign thinkers who are free to ruffle even the reddest of feathers now and then.

In 2014, some of the self-appointed bien-pensant types went apoplectic when Chomsky disputed the efficacy of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and Ali insisted that mass uprisings for democratic rights (as in the Arab spring and Syria) do not constitute social revolutions when a transfer of class power is absent.

More often than not, their compasses point in the direction of the next step toward clarifying what is to be done in our efforts to challenge what look like insuperable odds. Chomsky is closer to the universal embodiment of the intellectual morally shaming the powers-that-be by confronting them with ideals and truth; this aspiration was made explicit in his 1967 essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.”

Ali is more the rough-and-tumble partisan of the have-nots and targets of imperialism; his 1987 autobiography is aptly titled Street Fighting Years. The Extreme Center is proof that at age 71 Ali still remains more than ready for some good old-style bare-knuckle capitalist-bashing.

This requires that his prose not always be well-mannered. The private financing of the public sector is described as “rape,” the authoritarian structural reforms of the European Central Bank are dubbed “sado-monetarism,” and the euphemistic speech of “the new capitalist order” is compared to the way in which “language was altered and subverted during the Third Reich.” (148, 107, 149).

The rulers of England and the United States (Barack Obama, David Cameron, etc.) are “immured in exclusive bunkers accessible only to bankers and businessmen, servile media folk, their own advisors and sycophants of various types. They live in a half-real, half-fake world of money, statistics, and focus groups….They refuse to step down and talk to the people whose worlds they have destroyed.” (4)

Calling Margaret Thatcher “an old crone” (21) seems gratuitous, but often his sarcasm is gentle, as in this comment on former Far Left activist Alan Milburn turned British Health Secretary: “What we do know is that when he sold out he did so in style, bidding to outdo even [Tony] Blair and [Peter] Mandelson in their appreciation of neoliberal politics and big money.” (47)

To underscore the intransigence sitting beneath such mockery, he meaningfully concludes his book by linking his own 2015 warning with a 1913 warning from Lenin that a condition for revolutionary upheaval is that “the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way.” (191)

The variance between Chomsky and Ali is partly their 15-year age difference and Ali’s instinctive literary flair (he knows just when and how to insert lines from the Scottish poet Robert Burns and novelist Sir Walter Scott).

Then there is his impressive training as the editor of Far Left newspapers (Black Dwarf, Red Mole, Socialist Challenge) and some 13 years in the leadership of a revolutionary Marxist organization in England, the International Marxist Group, and internationally, the Fourth International. (Personal note: Ali and I simultaneously joined this movement in 1968; when we met in person at the London office of Socialist Challenge in 1978, we were still both “organized.”)

For reasons that some future comparative historian will have to explain, the soil that nurtured the U.S. Left has failed to produce truly comparable types of rough-and-ready public intellectuals. For Ali, the experience with Trotskyism was a constructive political learning process; if it is possible to appropriate such an ideology in the 21st century for retooling and upgrading, Ali may be one to do it.

In the United States, many veterans of radical movements in the 1960s-70s (where admittedly it was Maoism that held sway) ascended to prominence as writers in large-circulation or prestigious publications through a regression to Left social democracy at best. And after 9/11, their trend increasingly suggests a retrofitted Cold War liberalism. Where has all the once-inspiring audacity of the ’68ers gone?

Degeneration and Alternatives

In The Extreme Center, Ali gives more than just a pungent and entertaining smack-down of corruption in British politics. His six chapters comprise an odd structure; they are perhaps derived from shorter essays and talks that he has repurposed and placed side-by-side in a mini-essay format. But they cohere in a well-orchestrated case, and he uses his narrative gifts to make his argument flow as in a swelling symphonic movement.

He starts close to home with a contrast between the degeneration of English politics (“English Questions”) and the new hopes that have arisen in Scotland (“Scottish Answers”), due to the pro-independence movement. Then he surveys Europe (“Natopolis”) and the U.S. Empire (“The Starship Enterprise”).

After all the bad tidings reported, one might expect a dispiriting conclusion, but his finale called “Alternatives” is stimulated by recent developments in the Latin American Left and the appearance of the radical parties Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

The book is rounded off with an irreverent poem by longtime revolutionary socialist Ian Birchall, “The Seven Ages of a New Labour MP.”

Squeezing massive amounts of history into the cramped format of a small book requires certain shortcuts, but Ali keeps a focus on the ever-evolving relationship between the corruption of democracy (a process he calls “Americanization” on page 3) and the promise of alternative futures to be found in recently-emerging social movements.

To be sure, he has some droll fun tweaking the noses of leaders of the Extreme Center, not the least of whom are David and Ed Miliband, sons of Ali’s old comrade and fierce Marxist sociologist Ralph Miliband: “Both had risen rapidly, as senior epigones to Blair and [Gordon] Brown respectively….both were parachuted into safe working class constituencies in the North.” (40)

But I find considerable strengths on display in his recapitulations of the histories shaping the present moment — whether it is that of the National Health Service (NHS) and the British Broadcasting Company (where Ali relies heavily on interviews), the evolution of NATO, the history of Scottish nationalism, or the sequence of events by which Britain evolved from “a semi-vassal state to the United States in 1945” to “full vassal status in 1980.” (124)

Yes, he boils down some hard truths into catchy phrases, but that is partly the role of the clear-eyed speaker of unpleasant truths — and perhaps especially helpful to unblurring history in our era of dwindling attention spans.

Ali’s arguments for proposals such as mass action for the UK parliament to pass the NHS Reinstatement Bill might not always strike the reader as bombshell material, but in choosing to succinctly review matters such the rise and fall of public health care services, or New Labour’s betrayal of the Scottish parliament, Ali displays an enviable grasp of the role that memory and denial play in shaping a people’s sense of themselves.

Part of the extreme center’s construction of an alternate political reality to facilitate its dominance has been the process of rewriting histories through distortion and self-delusion, not only tied to the undiluted malignancy of privatization but concerning other discreditable episodes of the past.

Despite the signs of new resistance, such as a political ferment in Scotland that may conceivably spill over to England, Ali turns a skeptical eye on “left-liberals and fellow travellers” who claim that the “all-powerful Empire…is now on the wane.” His concern is that such false optimism will lead people “to abandon effective opposition.” (125)

In words that are likely to become red meat for his antagonists on the Left, he declares: “We are not even close to the twilight years of the American imperium.” (12) Ali knows that we must be prepared to face a long war; neither Europe nor anywhere else is simply one giant tinderbox awaiting the spark of insurrection.

Radical Hope and Caution

We have in this book much admirable political scaffolding, although certain aspects are still unfleshed by particulars. In particular, once elections are won by Left insurgents (as happened in Venezuela and Greece, and may be on the agenda in Spain), how can radicals achieve an interactive relationship between the government they formally control and the population?

The specifics of how one constructs new political organs that will be internally democratic and successfully mobilize masses to keep on the pressure to “fight the power” (the economic ruling elite at home and abroad, the military, the Far Right) and actually transform capitalist structures (insuring that even nationalizations are not simply top-down) are simply not explored.

Ali is on the mark, however, in keeping his predictions cautious. Obviously the Latin American movements are still playing themselves out, and the “new politics of the Left” to be found in the Scottish, Greek, and Spanish rebellions have only just emerged.

We know too well the dangers of ill-preparedness and naiveté about the darkly insinuating world of counter-revolutionary measures and coups, but no help comes from radicals who place the bar for success so high for these young movements that they are bound to disappoint and be prematurely written off as traitors to the workers’ cause.

Missteps are not always the result of hidden agendas and nefarious intentions, but also grow out of the excruciating exigencies of the moment. Much of our duty must be to act in solidarity, if simply to give the insurgents some breathing space and prevent them from being crushed.

Ali’s basic geostrategic instincts strike me as sound. I especially admire his pluralistic interpretative framework, necessary to confront a still open-ended present rather than succumbing to seamless dreams of an end to history or continuing to smoke the crack pipe of adherence to one’s sectarian version of the only true revolutionary program.

He brandishes his Marxist principles on his sleeve, but he is appropriately allergic to those who rely on the rhetoric of orthodoxy as comfort food — would-be Lenins, Trotskys, and Castros writ small (very small). Sometimes one can’t share a common narrative even with those adhering to a similar vocabulary.

More than just a political machine, Ali still understands, as he did 50 years ago, that the joy of revolutionary activism can be found in an ethos of total contestation of late capitalism, a defiance aimed at recapturing the lifeworld (Edmund Husserl) that has been profoundly alienated by commodity production.
A man of a thousand revolutionary parts — did I also mention standup comic, travel writer, and mensch with a streak of pranksterism? — Tariq Ali exploits all these talents to make The Extreme Center a powerful work of coruscating social criticism, a warning that must be heard as well as understood.

July-August 2015, ATC 177