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SOURCE: Addy, Premen. “State of Faith.” New Statesman 106, no. 2731 (22 July 1983): 24.
[In the following review, Addy credits Ali for his overview of the geopolitics of India in Can Pakistan Survive?, but faults him for not going beyond the “commonly held perceptions of the Left” in the book.]
The creation of Pakistan was for its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a triumph of will and tactical acumen. For the Muslims of the subcontinent, whose cherished homeland this was to be, its consequences were fraught with tragedy. Jinnah had fondly hoped to build the new state in his own image: liberal, cosmopolitan, secular. But, as Tariq Ali observes [in Can Pakistan Survive?], it was a house built on sand. With Islam as its raison d'être, the country's ruling class consisted mainly of an unholy crew of Punjabi landlords and bureaucrats, a Punjabi-dominated military and a middle-class refugee element from Uttar Pradesh in India who had first voiced the idea of a promised land, only to lose out to the military-bureaucratic rump for whom any prospect of sharing office was an anathema.
The subject masses, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pathan, Baluchi, and the majority Bengalis separated from the rest by 1,000 miles of Indian territory, resisted all attempts, to chasten them into a common Islamic shape. Conflicting national, social, political and economic currents joined to fuel an explosive Bengali uprising in 1971, leading to the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.
In perhaps the strongest part of this book, Tariq Ali discusses the civilian interlude of Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto which followed this débâcle. The new Prime Minister's quicksilver intelligence was anchored to few moral constraints. He could be in turn coarse and charming, a man of the crowd and an aristocrat; but, like most demagogues, was prone to trim his sails to the prevailing wind. He appeased the Shah abroad and the mullahs at home in a desperate bid to retain power. However, every concession to his Islamic clerics emboldened them to ask for more. In the end they got in General Zia the obscurantist of their dreams and Bhutto paid for his weakness with his life.
As with Bhutto, so also with Jinnah. Recalling Lenin's observation that Shaw was a good man fallen among Fabians, Tariq Ali gives the impression that the Quaid-i-Azam was similarly placed in the Muslim League. Whatever Jinnah's early or inner distastes for mass politics he became a past master at manipulating these for his own ends. The ruthless methods by which he destroyed the Unionist inter-communal party of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjab would have done credit to a Tammany Hall mobster. Pirs and mullahs were pressed into service in the 1946 provincial elections. Their price inevitably was to be confessional politics in a confessional state. For Jinnah to have expected otherwise was a delusion.
Tariq Ali stresses correctly the contributions of the other players in the tragedy of India's partition: British deviousness, Congress obduracy, Hindu fanaticism and communist stupidity. In conclusion, a lot is said about the geopolitics of the region and the pressures facing Pakistan from Iran and Afghanistan without adding significantly to the commonly held perceptions of the Left. A deeper exploration of India's position and confidence would surely have been more fruitful.
The ties between India and the Soviet Union constitute one expression of this confidence. They are a fact of life and a stable one at that in a highly unstable world. However severe the buffetings from China and America, Indian foreign policy has proved exceptionally durable. Wisely, Tariq Ali refrains from prophesying a quick end to Zia's regime. Short of a military adventure it could be with us for some years yet. But go it will, eventually.
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SOURCE: Crawley, William. Review of Can Pakistan Survive?, by Tariq Ali. Asian Affairs 15, no. 1 (February 1984): 87-8.
[In the following review, Crawley outlines Ali's major thematic concerns in Can Pakistan Survive?]
Theorists of the left have been few in number in Pakistan and very limited in their influence. [In Can Pakistan Survive?] Tariq Ali writes from the position of one who though well known internationally is an outsider in his country's politics. He is equivocal about the validity and viability of Pakistan as a state. He dissects the political solutions and experiments which have been tried over the past thirty-five years, from the “military-bureaucratic” partnership culminating in President Ayub Khan's regime, through the “populism” of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the “martial law with an Islamic face” practised by President Zia ul Haq. He pays particular attention to the Pakistani left, whose weakness and ineffectiveness he traces back to the errors of the Indian Communist Party both before and after independence in following the Moscow line too closely. By 1954 the communist party in both West and East Pakistan had been banned and its former members submerged in other parties. With the break-up of the two wings in 1971 the party reemerged in Bangladesh but not in the western half. Tariq Ali answers his own question “Can Pakistan Survive?” with a tentative and heavily qualified yes, the condition being that it must undergo a social transformation. Somewhat curiously for a Marxist, he believes that the mass mobilisation which he regards as the essential catalyst for such a transformation, can best be achieved in alliance with the regional sub-nationalities which are so evident in the politics of both Pakistan and India today. Tariq Ali's ideal is a federation of South Asian States, but he recognises that it seems far-fetched. He does not underestimate the power of a modern state to defend itself in the face of internal dissent, and he rejects terrorism (as practised in Pakistan by the so called “Al-Zulfiqar' organisation), as a viable policy. He sees Pakistan's future as a prey to superpower influences and the undertow of events in neighbouring Iran and Afghanistan. As a view from the left this tract poses some pertinent questions, and despite the polemics it illuminates the dilemmas which successive Pakistan governments have faced.
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SOURCE: Murray, Nicholas. Review of Who's Afraid of Margaret Thatcher?, by Tariq Ali. New Statesman 108, no. 2794 (5 October 1984): 33.
[In the following review, Murray provides a favorable assessment of Ali's introduction to Who's Afraid of Margaret Thatcher?]
This short book [Who's Afraid of Margaret Thatcher?] consists of two long conversations which took place at County Hall in June 1983 and April 1984 between the two red horned and tailed demons whom Steve Bell delineates on the cover. It is an essential sequel to the unpolitical Citizen Ken and a must for all Livingstone-fanciers.
Tariq Ali's trenchant introduction aims its fairground rifle at a row of targets including the ‘pink professors’ (Crick and Hobsbawm), the ‘fashion conscious editors of Marxism Today’ who have done for radical chic what the Princess of Wales has done for parturition, the ‘charade’ of the block vote and (for the provenance of these talks is the Olympian New Left Review) the massed vices of Labourism.
The interview format is peculiarly well suited to the episodic and anecdotal temper of Ken Livingstone's political intelligence. He is explicit about his lack of any theoretical apparatus and at the end of his introduction Uncle Tariq leans over and administers a gentle slap on the wrist to young Ken for this (‘Yet, I'm afraid, he will have to plough through some of the socialist classics sooner or later.’)
What Livingstone does possess, of course, is an abundant political chutzpah. He has made socialism popular, deflected the arrows of media malignity and charmed the pants off us. What comes across most forcefully in these conversations is his optimism that we will see another Labour Government in 1987 or 1988, that it will be qualitatively different from its predecessors and that people can be won back in large numbers to the socialist cause. Given the self-flagellating gloom that prevails in many parts of the Labour movement this buoyancy is refreshing.
Livingstone, who joined the Labour Party in 1968, when other socialists were leaving it in droves—a fact that bemuses Tariq Ali—is decidedly a child of the mille neuf soixante huit, both in his laid-back manner and in his receptivity to the new politics of feminism and anti-racism. He is not in the old corporatist mould of hidebound Labour politicians—what Tariq Ali, in a witty coinage, calls the ‘Stabians’ (product of a collision between ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Fabian’, describing those right-wing authoritarians in the upper reaches of the Labour Party who go about in horror of the grassroots).
Above all, he believes in the need for rebirth in the Party, ‘basically refounding the Labour Party’, which will come about as much from recognising what people outside it are demanding as from internal debate: ‘This means us changing.’ It is a tonic to hear a prominent Labour politician talking in this way. If this book does not go straight to the top of the alternative best seller lists in City Limits then I'm a member of Labour Solidarity.
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SOURCE: Ahmed, Akbar S. Review of Can Pakistan Survive?, by Tariq Ali. Journal of Asian Studies 44, no. 1 (November 1984): 239-41.
[In the following review, Ahmed criticizes Can Pakistan Survive?, calling the work simplistic, polemical, and “marred in general by non sequiturs and by exaggeration.”]
Tariq Ali, the professional polemical student leader long resident in England, has written a polemical book [Can Pakistan Survive?]. The title, subtitle, and photograph on the jacket (Pakistan in flames) may be termed “sensational.” The question in the title has been asked since 1947; the subtitle is premature.
Tariq's view of South Asian political history is simplistic. Pakistan was a mistake: “Pakistan was an irrationality, a product of imperialist penetration of the subcontinent—its interior was diseased from birth—an experiment doomed to failure” (p. 145). It is a position held by most Indian leaders. Tariq's villains are black and his heroes are white. In the former category he includes the judiciary, the army, the civil service, and the journalists of Pakistan. In the latter category are the small group of Pakistani leftists. No one can deny that Pakistan has numerous problems. It has hostile neighbors; it has had serious ethnic divisions (in Bengal in 1971 and in Sind in 1984); there is tension between fundamentalists and other Muslims; the problem of martial law is chronic. But this book offers neither perceptive analysis nor solution.
In places the text reads like an official Party tract. The Pakistan army leaders come from the “kulak gentry of the Punjab and Frontier” (p. 65) and the “semi-fascist” clergy is “lumpen” (p. 187). What relieves the monotony of the Party prose are the flashes of temper and contempt for Pakistan (the “Islamic banana republic” [p. 161]) and Pakistanis (Jinnah was “elitist” [p. 27], inconsistent [p. 33], and did not understand communalist politics [p. 39]). Ayub Khan and his generals, like Azam Khan, were “bland and insipid”—their intellectual pastime was the Reader's Digest (p. 66); Yahya Khan was “a dim and slothful alcoholic” (p. 96). Zia is “Machiavellean” (p. 136). Tariq's contempt for the army generals almost reaches hysteria; “The fools!” he exclaims of them (p. 192).
But Tariq's special wrath is reserved for the Jamaat-i-Islami, “closely linked to Saudi Arabia and the United States, the closest thing in Pakistan to a fascist party” (p. 139). Tariq argues that “Islam is regarded by its fanatics as a complete and total code of life” (p. 184). It may surprise Tariq to learn that not only “fanatics” believe in Islam. Islam as a sociological and cultural force enjoys deep support in Pakistan society at every level. Islam may be interpreted in a thousand different ways, but its importance is an undisputed fact of life in Pakistan.
Islam is not Tariq's only villain. He singles out China and the United States as well. In a flight of emotion he argues that acquiring F-16s “might encourage Islamabad to embark on an adventure vis-à-vis its powerful Eastern neighbour” (p. 190). A statement that even Indira Gandhi may not be able to pull off with conviction.
The argument of the book is marred in general by non sequiturs and by exaggeration. Tariq writes that Dawn published Ayub Khan's photograph sixty-nine times in one issue in order to humor him; in his next sentence, he argues that this action illustrates how the bureaucracy was isolated from the people (p. 76). He charges with no evidence that ten thousand Pakistani prostitutes were dispatched to the Gulf States by the United Bank to earn foreign currency (p. 125). Baluch women, according to Tariq, were raped systematically by members of the Pakistan army (p. 121). He notes, again with exaggeration, that “for all Pakistan's women, life itself is a prison” (p. 161), “the Islamic code having reduced them to ciphers and objects” (ibid.).
Tariq's most basic conclusion, that because Pakistanis may be fed up with General Zia-ul-Haq they have rejected Pakistan, is seriously awry. On the contrary, the sense of insecurity felt by Pakistanis has induced them to rally around unpopular leaders. And what is the alternative? Since 1947, an entire generation to whom India is another country has grown up in Pakistan.
Tariq argues that the rulers of Pakistan—like Ayub Khan—were sustained from abroad; one may well apply the same arguments to Tariq. He is a creature of the British press. He obviously fills a need to have an ageless student leader providing sensationalism and journalistic coups. Although advertised as A Pelican Original, there is little that is original in this book.
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SOURCE: Masani, Zareer. “Tensions.” New Statesman 109, no. 2815 (1 March 1985): 29-30.
[In the following excerpt, Masani notes the lack of new research and serious analysis in An Indian Dynasty.]
The lives of India's modern Caesars have already been the subject of copious biography; and Tariq Ali relies almost wholly on the work of his predecessors. But was there any point in a tedious repetition of the story if there was nothing new to add? There was certainly room for a study of the making of the dynasty and of the political culture that legitimised it. But that would have required new research and some serious analysis, neither of which appear in this hastily improvised dog's breakfast [An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family].
Tariq Ali implies that the dynasty owes its fortunes to founding-father Jawaharlal, whose achievements take up more than half the book. But his long-winded and discursive account of the nationalist movement misses out the most interesting part of the story—how the Congress Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost (as Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were sometimes affectionately known) assured the younger Nehru's political succession. Tariq Ali does not seem to know that when Jawaharlal took over as Congress President in 1929, his father, the outgoing president, had been pulling strings for him behind the scenes. He also misses the importance of Nehru's alliance with Gandhi in scuttling Subhas Bose, his main challenger for the nationalist succession.
Tariq Ali rightly suggests that the dynasty proper came into being in recent years, with Mrs Gandhi's blatant promotion of her sons. Yet his final section on the Brothers Gandhi, which should by this logic have been the core of the book, is astonishingly thin. There is no attempt to analyse the ingredients of populist leadership in India or to explain why a politically mature electorate, which so decisively rejected Mrs Gandhi's dynasticism in 1977, succumbed to it in 1980 and 1984.
Instead of including digressions on the dacoit queen, Phoolan Devi, surely he would have done better to examine the non-dynastic charisma of Opposition leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan or ‘J. P.’, heir to the mantle of Mahatma Gandhi, whose popular crusade brought down Mrs Gandhi's emergency regime. In a book which has several factual errors, the most serious is the misinformation about J. P.'s career, which leads to the suggestion that he was a pro-Hindu leader who adopted ‘Bonapartist airs’.
Tariq Ali's neglect of alternative leadership creates the misleading impression that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is India's natural form of government. Indeed, his account of recent events, such as the storming of the Sikh Golden Temple and the massacre of Sikhs after Mrs Gandhi's assassination, reads alarmingly like an apologia for the dynasts.
What this book ignores is the complex political and social context of Indian dynasticism—the importance of caste and kinship networks, the strength of communal Hindu sentiment, the decline of parliamentary government, the centralising technocracy of business élites and the alienation of a cynical electorate. Apart from a throw-away reference to ‘lumpen-feudalism’, Tariq Ali does not address these issues. Instead, relying on the most banal Western stereotype of Third World politics, he blames the ‘low level of culture’ in the Indian countryside, and a ‘belief in all sorts of religious individuals’.
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SOURCE: Pal, Pratapaditya. “An Indian Dynasty.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 May 1985): 7.
[In the following review, Pal contends that although An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family “was written and produced in less than six months, it is well documented, generally accurate and very readable.”]
Thirty years ago, the non-aligned movement was born in an obscure town called Bandung in Indonesia. The chief architects of that conference were four remarkable men of this century: Tito of Yugoslavia, Chou en Lai of China, Nasser of Egypt and Nehru of India. Tito and Chou were rulers of communist governments; Nasser had come to power through military rather than democratic means; only Nehru was the freely elected leader of what was then—and still is—the largest democracy in the world. All four men died some time ago, and neither in the communist countries nor in partially democratic Egypt has any of the descendants of Tito, Chou or Nasser staked a claim to their country's political leadership as their birth-right. Ironically, only in the world's largest “democracy” has there been a perpetuation of dynastic rule for 34 years of its 37-year existence.
Tariq Ali's book [An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family] narrates the strange saga of perhaps the most extraordinary dynasty of modern times. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was the first prime minister of independent India from 1947 until 1964. Except for a brief interregnum of a few months, he was succeeded by his only daughter Indira (1917-1984), who ruled longer than her father and, like him, died with her boots on, though not of natural cause but by bullets. Within a few hours after her assassination on Oct. 31, 1984, she was succeeded by her only surviving son, Rajiv Gandhi (1944-), whose claim to the throne at the time was based solely on heredity rather than merit or political experience. It must be pointed out that Indira and Rajiv Gandhi have only a surname in common with Mahatma Gandhi, who led India into freedom and was assassinated in 1948. Indira Nehru's husband Feroze Gandhi, who predeceased her by many years, was a Parsi (a non-Hindu minority who are descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India many centuries ago), while the Mahatma was a Gujarati Hindu. The two were not even remotely related, contrary to what most Americans think.
The book is undoubtedly timely, for India has been much on the American mind, thanks to unfortunate events that the mass media have reveled in reporting (the Sikh problem, the storming of their Golden Temple in Amritsar and consequent assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the even more tragic man-made catastrophe at Bhopal) and thanks as well to such cultural events in this country as David Lean's (rather than E. M. Forster's!) A Passage to India and the much touted PBS soap opera about the Indian jewel in the British crown. Indeed, as the book's American publisher's news release admits, it was commissioned by Ali's British publisher immediately after Mrs. Gandhi's death no doubt to cash in on the current India craze.
Considering that the book was written and produced in less than six months, it is well documented, generally accurate and very readable. A few minor errors are surprising though not crucial. Prayag is certainly much older than AD 600, and Alexander was not “stopped by the Indian ruler Chandra Gupta (sic), not far from Allahabad.” Much less excusable is the statement that “Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan are monarchies of a sort.” Surely, Ali knows that the ruler of Sikkim was shamelessly dethroned three years ago by the very Mrs. Gandhi who has been characterized as the “Empress of India” in the heading of the book's fourth chapter. As a matter of fact, it is somewhat surprising that Ali ignores this ignominious episode in Mrs. Gandhi's political career.
Nevertheless, the author has deftly sketched the political portraits of four generations of Nehrus against the background of India's turbulent history of almost the entire 20th Century and has tried, on the whole, to be objective and impartial in his assessments and comments, by no means an easy task when reviewing one's own time. One must also admire Ali's restraint, for as Salman Rushdie, the author of Midnight's Children, writes in an incisive introductory essay to the book, “It has often seemed that the story of the Nehrus and the Gandhis has provided more engrossing material than anything in the cinemas or television, a real dynasty better than ‘Dynasty,’ a Delhi to rival ‘Dallas.’”
Ali could easily have given us more titillating accounts of Nehru's apparent loveless marriage to a bride chosen by his patrician father, or of his later “affair” with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India. He could have written at greater length about Kamala Nehru's attachment to a much younger, witty and entertaining Feroze Gandhi who later married her daughter. He could have probed further into the reasons why Indira Gandhi “did not like but loved Feroze” and yet abandoned him to devote herself entirely to her father. Hardly the appropriate behavior of an Indian wife, and yet she was exalted by the populace as a goddess! Her strange and obsessive devotion to her sons, her paranoid fear of losing power, her dependence on astrology, her paradoxical insecurity despite enormous popular support, her arrogance and her ruthlessness—all these make her one of the most intriguing and fascinating personalities in history. One can also ask why in a country of 700 million people (roughly 200 million of whom are literate) no other family in two generations has produced a single political personality to challenge the Nehrus.
Ali's emphasis has been more on the political rather than on the personal lives of his heroes and villains; actions and decisions are explained in political terms rather than with psychological insight. The personalities, therefore, seem somewhat dehumanized. Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading, for it clearly demonstrates the insidiously corruptive game of power, in which ultimately there are no winners.
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SOURCE: Naipaul, Shiva. “Family Affair.” New Republic 192, no. 21 (27 May 1985): 26-30.
[In the following review, Naipaul discusses Ali's perception of and attitude toward twentieth-century Indian politics in An Indian Dynasty.]
No one interested in the 20th-century history of the Indian subcontinent can contemplate its dramas without the accompanying sensations of disquiet and distaste—even, on occasion, of outright revulsion. The plot, beginning with the struggles of the nationalist movement, is a complex and devious one, a spider's web of often incompatible ideals (Gandhi and Nehru may have been guru and disciple, but they also represented quite different images of Indian destiny), of hostile interests and confusions of motive. Toward the end, which we might say for the sake of convenience comes with the coronation of Rajiv Gandhi, the ideals have disappeared altogether. All that survives are the interests, which have become more naked, and the emotions to which they give rise, which have become more crude. How did it happen that the Gandhi-Nehru legacy decayed into the shabbiest idolatry of family? How was it that India—a country, despite all its poverty and squalor, with a substantial industrial base, powerful armed forces, a sophisticated civil service, a well-educated middle class—how was it that India maneuvered itself into the voodoo politics of Mama and Baby Docs?
I shall take a scene or two from what now passes for political life in India. Toward the end of 1983, Tariq Ali (in England those who still remember the intoxicating days of student revolt will also remember Tariq Ali, who achieved prominence as a radical president of the Oxford Union) was present at a session of the All India Congress Committee, one of the manifestations of the ruling party. It should have been a glittering occasion. Present were emissaries from East Germany, Tanzania, France, the Soviet Union. Indira Gandhi and her heir apparent, Rajiv, presided. Rajiv, so far as our information goes, had been perfectly content piloting the aircraft of Indian Airlines, the internal carrier. There is no reason to doubt that he would have gone on doing so but for the sudden death, in 1980, of his younger brother Sanjay. Cruelly robbed of one heir apparent, Indira Gandhi reached out for the only other available. It takes years of training, I am told, to qualify as an airline pilot. But it seems that nothing of the sort is required to become the leader of 800 million Indians.
“The Congress session,” Tariq Ali tells us [in The Indian Dynasty], “was a one-family show … Sitting on the floor of the wooden platform were Indira Gandhi and Rajiv, surrounded by provincial leaders. In the audience were ‘delegates’ from Congress branches in the country as a whole. ‘Delegate’ is perhaps a euphemism. They seemed like people picked up on the street and promised a good time. … Some of them were constantly being rescued from police, cells and brothels.” They chanted slogans (“‘Who is the leader of our nation?’” “‘Rajiv Gandhi!’”) when called on to do so by their cheerleaders. Only Indira and Rajiv could command their attention and deference. When other speakers tried to address them, the rabble grew noisily restive and drifted away from the hall in droves. Mindful of the presence of her distinguished overseas guests, the prime minister was vexed, becoming especially so when it was the turn of her most prominent guest (a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) to speak. In desperation, she rose to her feet. “‘Look here,’” she appealed, resorting to the privacy of Hindi, “‘… it looks very bad for foreigners when you all leave after I've spoken. Sit down! You near the door, sit down! … ’”
It is possible that Tariq Ali has embellished the scene, that he has exaggerated the infantilism. Nevertheless, his description rings true. It is of a piece with the essentially personal and devotional nature of political allegiance in India. Indira Gandhi ought not to have been so discountenanced by the behavior of her admirers. She had raised no objections when it was proclaimed that “India is Indira and Indira is India.” If that were indeed so, why should time be wasted listening to anyone else? Congress, as a party, was pure facade; no more than a front organization for Indira Gandhi and her family. Everybody knew that.
Politics as such—the battle of parties, the conflict of ideologies—had virtually ceased to exist. In that debased atmosphere a quarrel between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law automatically acquired vibrant public significance. After the death of Sanjay, it came to light that his widow, Maneka—never too enamored of her brother-in-law Rajiv and his Italian wife—was reacting badly to her sudden eclipse and the rapid elevation of her rivals. Whether the disaffected Maneka was expelled, or expelled herself, from the house of the Gandhis remains obscure. However it was, she lost her resident status. Not everybody who falls out with her mother-in-law responds to the challenge by forming a political party. Maneka did. One morning 800 million Indians woke up to discover that their political choice had been enriched by the birth of the Rashtriya Sanjay Manch—the National Sanjay Organization.
Her party, Maneka declared; would fight for socialism, democracy, and secularism; a trinity of aspiration, as Tariq Ali remarks, not usually associated with Sanjay Gandhi. Maneka fought an election against Rajiv. Socialism, democracy, and secularism featured little in her campaign. Tariq Ali sums it up well. “Maneka's main angle at the political rallies was to present herself to the poor peasants as a wronged widow, cast out on to the streets by a tyrannical mother-in-law and under the cold eyes of her late husband's cruel elder brother and his foreign wife.”
Politically, India seems to have gone full circle, to have regressed to the shallow but deadly intricacies of the Moghul court on the eve of the British conquest. Is it too fanciful to suggest that one can already discern the dim outlines of future civil wars? The dramatis personae exist—one doesn't have to invent them. Maneka has her little princeling, Feroze; and Rajiv has his Rahul. The dynasticism that, to some, has seemed a blessing, offering India stability and continuity, could become a rather messy business if the claimants to the inheritance continue to multiply. Whatever its successes under the benign guidance of “Captain Rajiv,” the intrinsically capricious character of the dynastic principle will ultimately subvert the too cheaply acquired illusions of stability and continuity. It is a papering over of the cracks that have developed in the foundations of Nehru's “secular” state. Today India may embrace the civilized Rajiv; but only yesterday it was recoiling in terror from Sanjay and the demons he had threatened to unleash.
Yet, when we turn our attention away from the Congress Party, when we survey the Indian landscape in search of an alternative, what do we see? We see factionalized Marxist sects not obviously anointed with any conviction of their revolutionary destiny; narrowly based “chauvinist” movements like the Sikh Akali Dal (Party of Immortals) in the Punjab; in the “anti-Aryan” south, regional alliances with a purely regional appeal. And we see too, through a polluted mist, those discredited, disgruntled gerontocrats, the Congress “Old Guard,” maneuvered into the borderlands by the palace coup Indira Gandhi had engineered in 1969 to secure her ascendancy after the death of the ephemeral Lal Bahadur Shastri.
These, roughly speaking, were the men who, in 1977, were to be given a second chance by the Indian people, emerging triumphant from the post-emergency general election, which had swept away Indira and Sanjay. The failure of their jerry-built Janata (People) coalition went deeper than mere popular disenchantment with the disconcerting eccentricities of a urine-drinking prime minister; went deeper than the gross corruption that accompanied the urine-drinking—Indians, after all, were inured to corruption; went deeper, even, than the absurdities: the minister of health, for example, didn't believe in modern medical practices. Mutilated by the cutthroat ambitions of the leading protagonists who shamelessly warred with each other, the coalition vandalized the fragile fabric of Indian democracy. Its sordid, self-inflicted suttee prepared the way not only for the return of Indira Gandhi and the feared Sanjay, but signaled a surrender to the dynastic principle. If Nehruian democracy was to be raped, who better to do the ravishing than the descendants of Nehru? They might even do it with some style. And maybe some sort of rape had always been inevitable. How do you govern and hold together a country that defies the very idea of nationality? Nearly 40 years after the coming of independence and the secular state, the most fundamental questions persist.
“What is Mother India?” Jawaharlal Nehru had asked one of his audiences some years before the attainment of independence. His listeners, until that moment ebullient, fell uneasily silent. In India nearly everything conspires toward fragmentation. The challenge to the unity of India comes not from without but from within. The specific evolutions of history, religion, language, castes, subcastes, sub-subcastes—nearly everything tends to divisiveness. In the poorest and most squalid of villages, communities will isolate themselves from one another. Some years ago, while traveling in Maharashtra, I visited such a village. It was a stricken place, barely able to coax one crop of rice a year from the stony soil, inhabited by low-caste Hindus and Untouchables. Not many years before, the Untouchables had converted en masse to Buddhism; others seek salvation by embracing Christianity or Islam.
Conversion had made little difference to their condition. Relations between the two groups in the village were no less strained than they had been formerly. The “Buddhists”—to take just a couple of examples—could not draw water from the same well as the Hindus and had to locate their huts at a discreet distance. They were all, Hindu and Buddhist alike, hopelessly destitute, hopelessly separate—and all citizens of the Indian republic. In any of the neighboring villages, these same low-caste Hindus might find themselves similarly discommoded and reviled by those adjudged their superiors. In India, degradation and sublimity are subject to the most delicate shadings. Caste maintains and defines a sense of self that might otherwise disintegrate into nothingness. It is contagious, infiltrating its sensibilities even where it is formally denied. Neither Indian Christianity nor Islam—nor Buddhism—has been immune to the infection. Add to caste the other major lines of fracture randomly listed, and the question “What does Mother India mean to you?” assumes alarmingly chaotic implications. When meditated upon, the “India” invoked by nationalist favor begins to lose its solidity, melting away into spectral abstraction. Hence, perhaps, the silence that fell when Nehru asked his question.
There is another equally pertinent version of the question. What did Mother India mean to Jawaharlal Nehru? One way of trying to answer this is to consider the background of the man. The Nehrus, interestingly enough, had their ancestral roots in Kashmir, a region peripheral to the main currents of Indian life and, with its Moslem majority, still squabbled over by India and Pakistan. It is possible that this inherited marginality allowed Nehru to distance himself from the constrictions of the subcontinent's cellular mosaic and to see a “whole” where a whole may never have existed; or, at nay rate, not existed in the sense premised by nationalist fervor.
Although he never actually lived there—the Nehrus migrated to Delhi in the early 18th century—the picture-book romance of Kashmir, its snows, its lakes, its flowered meadows, did always remain with him, coloring his dreams. How subliminally un-Indian the images bequeathed by Kashmir! It smuggled into his perceptions the poetic license to which the privileged quasi-outsider is always vulnerable. Jawaharlal himself was born in Allahabad, a city on the confluence of the sacred rivers, Ganges and Yamuna. The Nehrus, Brahmans of impeccable quality, were aristocrats. British India, one imagines, could have furnished few better examples of adaptation and assimilation.
Motilal Nehru (Jawaharlal's father), a prosperous lawyer, an ostentatious Anglophile, lived in the grand Victorian manner. One of his son's earliest memories is of his father, warmed by claret, laughing resonantly at the dinner table. Motilal's house, with its terraces, columns, and cupolas, its rose garden, swimming pool, and croquet lawn—splendors picked out at night by flood-lighting—reflected its owner's worldly ease. India in its living reality Jawaharlal would discover only in his maturity. His childhood was sheltered, Motilal hiring an English tutor (albeit a somewhat unconventional one—he was a theosophist) for his son. For his daughters he acquired English governesses. Later, Jawaharlal was sent to Harrow, thus sharing an alma mater with Winston Churchill, the great enemy of Indian independence. But Anglophilia couldn't provide perfect protection. At Harrow Nehru experienced the first twinges of colonial unease and anxiety. “I was never an exact fit,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Always I had a feeling that I was not one of them.” In due course he went on to Cambridge, where he read geology, chemistry, and botany.
Imperial life continued on its measured way. Motilal was delighted when he was summoned to attend the durbar of the visiting king-emperor, George V. This event took place in Delhi in 1911. He ordered his clothes for the occasion from London. The future prime minister of India rose with a matter-of-fact aplomb to the demands made on him. “I suppose,” he wrote to his father from Cambridge, “you want the ordinary levee dress with sword and everything complete. … The shoes for the court dress will be made at Knighton's and the gloves at Travelette's. … Heath's man has managed to fish out your old measures and cast, and he will shape your hats accordingly.”
Motilal remained sufficiently Indian, nevertheless, to want to seek out a suitable bride for his son. Jawaharlal, in response to the threat, fished out his own up-to-date notions on love and marriage. “There is not an atom of romance,” he countered, “in the way you are searching out girls for me … the very idea is extremely unromantic.” Motilal, though, had his way in the end. On his return to India, Jawaharlal married the Kashmiri Brahman girl who had been found for him. He was 26; she was 16. Somehow his romantic modernity survived this setback. Its ardors and commitments were transferred to the nationalist battlefield, to his vision of India reborn.
The Nehrus, through all the later generations—Motilal's, Jawaharlal's, Indira's—have been Janus-headed: simultaneously martyrs to the nationalist crusade (the youthful Indira was detained by the British during World War II) and fairly typical embodiments of the colonial yearning for “cosmopolitan” sophistications, the victims and the beneficiaries of what nowadays is called cultural imperialism. I do not mean to suggest that these tendencies are necessarily discordant. On the contrary. It is no accident that Toussaint L'Ouverture was a pampered house slave. Revolutions are more often than not the stepchildren of underprivileged cognoscenti. They are the ones who most keenly feel the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is always terrible to realize you are not “one of them.” Cultural imperialism is no bad thing. Many of us could do with more rather than less of it. The Nehrus have had few inhibitions about it. The sicklier members of the family were in and out of Swiss and American sanatoriums. Indira—Tariq Ali tells us that her favorite city was Florence—was patchily educated in Swiss and English boarding schools, and spent a couple of inconclusive years at one of Oxford's women's colleges. At a time when it was difficult for Indian students to travel abroad, Indira insisted that her sons should be exceptions. “I couldn't care less what people say,” she remarked, “I thought it was necessary for my boys to go to England.”
Westernism—“phoreigness,” as the Indian satirists put it—can assume many disguises. In Indira Gandhi, Nehruian modernity betrays degenerative symptoms. That an English education—and this, note, nearly a generation after the coming of independence—should still be a “necessity” for her boys is disturbing: Westernism is slipping into a crude devotion to the phoreign. With Sanjay it slipped further down the scale of values, expressing itself in an obsession with motorcars, tall buildings with lots of glass, wild ecological fantasies of a verdant India, and a savage contempt for his poverty-stunned countrymen. Rajiv (his wife, incidentally, is Italian) has softened the Sanjayite crassness and talks, instead, of the computer revolution. “Oh,” said one of his close advisers, a fellow Cambridge graduate, to an interviewer, “we were the Beatles generation.” A century ago his equivalents in Calcutta would have been discussing Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Only in Jawaharlal Nehru, conspicuously the most erudite, cultured, and gifted of the clan, did the emphatic Westernizing strain in the Nehrus escape caricature and bear its noblest fruit.
The fruit was a noble one. Yet it has soured and grown bitter. Nehru's romanticism coexisted with a no less powerful rationalism. In fact, the two were linked: dependent on each other, present in each other. His rational romanticism—or, one could say, romantic rationalism—imposed on India the ideal of the secular, non-communal state. This might indeed, in some distant future, be a desirable consummation. But given the circumstances, few documents are further removed from the human realities they are supposed to regulate than the constitution of the Republic of India. “Communalism” has become a byword for all that is bad in India, associated with religious obscurantism, caste degradation, and warfare, and the riots and massacres that arise as a consequence. It resurrects, in particular, all the horrors of Partition, of mobs of Moslems, Sikhs, and Hindus gathering at railway stations with sword and knife and gun to let loose their blood-lust on the refugee trains transporting the displaced populations.
I do not for a moment gloss over these darknesses. But what is called communalism is not merely the sum of its assorted delinquencies—as Tariq Ali's flawless, textbook socialism would make it out to be. Nehru, unlike Tariq Ali, sensed the arduous and improbable nature of the task he had set himself and imposed on the country. When André Malraux asked this “un-English English gentlemen” (the characterization is Malraux's) what had been his greatest difficulty since independence, Nehru mentioned, first of all, “the creation of a just state by just means.” He paused, then added more concretely: “Perhaps too creating a secular state in a religious country.”
Communalism, for better or worse, articulates the Indian diversity. Looking down on it from Olympian heights we might wish that it had been otherwise. But it is a brute fact and, however hard we try, there is no running away from it. The Marxists might murmur about false consciousness; but consciousness, false or otherwise, remains consciousness. The divisions and distinctions and traditions bred by centuries of evolution cannot be wished away. The paradox, such as it is, is this. Communalism, while articulating Indian diversity, also expresses the unity of India. Not, obviously, the kind of unity presupposed or required by the “secular” state, but those broader unities characteristic of an old and intricate civilization. The old argument about the unity of India comes down to that. India does exist; India is a unity. Its existence and its unity, however, belong to a more ancient order of things. Rome began as a state and, as its power increased, became a civilization. India, more slowly, more undirectedly, accumulated a civilization and never quite managed to create the patterns of a consistent, self-conscious statehood. Those, like Tariq Ali, who would abolish “communalism” by waving the magic wand of class war and revolution, are, in effect, asking India to abolish itself. That is rather a lot to expect.
For Tariq Ali, despite his irreproachable radicalism, is also one of the victims and beneficiaries of cultural imperialism. How effortlessly he writes about “peasant spontaneity,” “class demands” and all the rest. When Indira Gandhi's Parsi husband is said to come from a “petit bourgeois” background, one is overwhelmed by genuine distraction. Marx's man doesn't hesitate to fish out alien measures and casts. Motilal had at least taken the trouble of having his unique dimensions ascertained.
Is there a more fashionable cause around today than the pursuit of “identity”? All along the way, the secular ideal has had to make concessions to the Indian reality in its various guises. The carving out of states on the basis of language is a major example. So is the “positive discrimination” practiced on behalf of the Untouchables. By what sleight of hand does it become “chauvinist”—not to say fascist!—for the Hindus of Hindustan to proclaim themselves as such? The secular Indian state, so wary of its minorities, so wracked by the defection of Pakistan, has sacrificed Hindustan as a notion, has refused to accord it legitimacy. Only in the machinations of back-room political calculation and intrigue is it accorded weight. Forced into the shadows, is it any wonder that so many of its manifestations surface out of its murkier depths? Tariq Ali, as the following outburst will reveal, is not in a position to offer remedies. “The continued strength of religion in the modern world,” he informs us with schoolboy intensity, “is the most telling indictment of this century. … The members of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States are all firm believers in Christianity.”
Nehru, that un-English English gentleman, was more subtle. In his will he requested that a portion of his ashes be consigned to the Ganges—although, ever mindful of his famous agnosticism, he was careful to disown any apostasy on his part. “The Ganga,” he wrote,
… is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories. … She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization. … I am conscious that I too, like all of us, am a link in that unbroken chain which goes back to the dawn of history. … That chain I would not break, for I treasure it and seek inspiration from it.
The reinstatement of Hindustan—and I am not advocating the rebirth of some archaic, unhistorical dreamworld composed of Gandhian self-regulating village republics: no one, including the Hindu, is exempt from the necessities and tribulations of change—might conceivably restore to stationary Hinduism the burden of movement, the burden of moral and intellectual responsibility, which, in part because of secularism, it has relinquished. In that restoration might lie the resolutions that secularism—now even more weakened by the dynastic cult based on the Nehrus—has so far failed to provide.
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SOURCE: Fountain, Nigel. “Summer's Here and the Time Is Right.” New Statesman 114, no. 2954 (6 November 1987): 28-9.
[In the following review, Fountain describes Ali as an “informative, funny, and illuminating writer,” lauding his prose in Street Fighting Years.]
Is it the right title? Mick Jagger joined the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign marchers as they moved on Grosvenor Square in March 1968 and, hey presto, two months later, out popped ‘Street Fighting Man’ and thus, I suppose, the cue for the title of Tariq Ali's autobiography [Street Fighting Years]. Yet brooding on his entertaining reminiscences of those times my mind slipped to a 1964 waxing by the West Coast's Beach Boys, who reported that they were getting tired of going down the same old strip and were going to find a new place where the kids were hip. There isn't really very much fighting in Street Fighting Years, but boy, Ali can—and does—say he Got Around.
Indeed, the only restriction on his movement seems to have been the attention of the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan. The risk of losing his residency in Britain deterred the author from joining the action on the Paris barricades in May 1968. ‘To have missed Paris that spring,’ he writes, ‘was unforgiveable.’
Well, up to a point; Lenin missed February 1917 so had the whole show rerun with a new script in October, and Mao had the good fortune to miss the Shanghai massacre in 1927. History, when it gets round to checking its files, will probably absolve Ali for his absence.
He can be an informative, funny, and illuminating writer. His description of childhood and adolescence in the hybrid state of Pakistan in the 1950s and early '60s is fascinating. The state floated between the Empire's legacy and the arrival of American imperialism, and was rooted in uncertain military rule. His upper-class family floated between memories of partition, faith in Stalin and uncertainty about the new world, and new colonial uprisings.
That experience, I guess, provides him with a breadth of vision and a sympathy with struggle across the globe singularly lacking from most other British socialists. But what it doesn't free him from is an often exasperating inability to take the piss out of himself. When not ruminating on the Beach Boys, my reference point turned to those military memoirs so beloved of the Sunday Times during Ali's—and my—childhood. Had it been the memoirs of Major-General Sir Tariq Ali MC, DSO I would not have been greatly surprised.
Having arrived in England, and Oxford University in the early '60s, we find him rapidly assuming command of the Oxford Union before a posting under Julian Critchley at Michael Heseltine's Town magazine. By then the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and its ubiquitous organiser Ralph Schoenman was on hand to provide him with field service in Prague, Hanoi and Bolivia. Much of this, too, is fascinating, including the information that his access to an imprisoned Régis Debray in Bolivia was obtained via a deftly forged credential from Town complete with a bogus signature from Heseltine. Should the Tory in better times rub shoulders with the now born-again rightist Debray in some vulgar act of diplomacy they might pause to think of the man who first brought them into peripheral contact in Che Guevara's mountain graveyard all those years ago.
Pausing is not really Ali's style. News from Vietnam demanded ‘immediate responses’; arrival in Berlin meant immediate briefings from German SDS leaders; he would go ‘straight from the LSE’ to top level discussions on distribution of the Black Dwarf. Throughout, ‘politics had to remain in command’.
But what politics? Talking on the 1960s underground recently Germaine Greer noted that everybody thought that the revolution—whatever that might be—was going to be easy. On the one hand Ali's travels wised him up to the violence, the horror, the tenacity that parts of those radical movements of the times were confronting and displaying. Yet his travels were those of a member of the upper classes won to radicalism, and despite the Trotskyism he had espoused by 1968—or possibly because of it—the workers remain largely offstage in a world of Tynans, Sartres and Schoenmans, with the odd eccentric aristocrat thrown in. It had practical implications: while the media ritualistically identified Ali as the ‘leader’ of the VSC, the International Socialists beavered away within its structures and picked up for their cause what recruits there were to be found.
Which, as the tide of revolution ebbed, left Tariq Ali—together, it should be said, with plenty of others—marooned on a sectarian sandbank shouting vainly for a pick-up from the Labour boat he had correctly rejected back in the days of Che. There are still heroic guerrillas, but no Debrays bother to write about them, and the radicalism has gone out of chic.
It hasn't, however, gone out of Ali, as in the closing pages of the book he details some of the legion lost to the right, and those like Clive Goodwin—the inspiration behind the Black Dwarf and much that was good in '60s London left politics—who just died. Gone are the theses from the Fourth International that concluded his 1970s 1968 and After, and gone too is the author from the now dormant—or extinct?—International Marxist Group, its always feeble British arm. But he fortunately has forgotten nothing, and learned some things along the way.
I was never much of a reader of Town. ‘Marxism Today,’ Ali suggests, ‘… celebrates bourgeois existence far more forcefully than Town ever did.’ Which would, he concludes, disqualify Critchley as a potential MT apparatchik. An interesting thesis. One way and another a job on Town seems to have been a guarantee of a one-way ticket to political oblivion. But that is a conclusion that its one-time proprietor, and Ali its erstwhile drama critic, would doubtless and perhaps accurately contest. ‘History has not yet given us her final verdict on the century that is approaching its end,’ says the author. No, but the bloody jury's been out long enough.
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SOURCE: Irwin, Robert. “The Poet and the Infidel.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4491 (28 April 1989): 456.
[In the following review, Irwin compliments Iranian Nights, calling the play humorous and thought-provoking.]
“‘Why it's Ali Baba!’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. ‘It's dear old Ali Baba … And the Sultan's Groom turned upside-down by the Genii; there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I'm glad of it. What business had he to be married to the Princess!’” [In Iranian Nights] Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, depressed and challenged by book-burnings, clenched-fisted mobs, death threats, fire-bombings and holy gangsterism, have found both solace and inspiration in the same source which the repenting Scrooge turned to, The Arabian Nights. The curtain opens on a stage set drawn from Dulac. The Caliph, a gaudily got-up Rumpelstiltskin played by Nabil Shaban, is waiting for the next story from Scheherezade (Fiona Victory), but her story-telling role is often usurped by Omar Khayyam (Paul Bhattacharjee). Together, Omar and the Caliph act out the story of a poet from an infidel isle who, sentenced to death for blasphemy, travels east to meet his judge, the Imam, in an attempt to save his life by talking (the Scheherezade tactic). He talks a lot, but the tactic does not work for him. Then Scheherezade relates an authentic story from the Nights, that of “The Qadi Yusuf with Harun al-Rashid and Queen Zubeidah”.
Finally, the scene switches to Bradford and the Caliph and the poet are reincarnated as father and son, first and second generation immigrants. The father argues for assimilation against his son who, as “just a soldier of Islam”, believes that the propagation of fear can be a way of propagating the Faith.
Iranian Nights is very loosely structured. It is really a rigged debate in which the Imam has few of the good lines (though Shaban delivers them with impeccable timing when he gets them). Some may feel that the Imam does not deserve good lines, and the authors are inclined to see the sentencing of Salman Rushdie as a corrupt political tactic, an aspect of the Realpolitik of the mullahs. Similarly, they interpret the Bradford Muslims' response to Satanic Verses as a social phenomenon, Islamic pride as an assertion of immigrant identity. There may be some truth in all this, but it may be that, in taking these lines, the authors are failing to engage fully with the otherworldly intransigence and intelligence of fundamentalist rigour. Moreover, the subtlety of censorship's fellow travellers in this country deserves fiercer scrutiny.
It was a good idea to draw on older and pleasanter representatives of Islamic culture, the medieval poets, al-Ma'ari and Umar Khayyam, as well as the anonymous contributors to The Arabian Nights, in order to demonstrate that bigotry has always had its critics within Islam itself. Very short, running for under an hour, Iranian Nights is still a comic night out, provoking and enjoyable. Its run at the Royal Court is not 1001 nights, but only nine. However, those interested (and that ought to be everyone), will be able to see it on Channel Four shortly.
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SOURCE: Kagarlitsky, Boris. “The Truth about Perestroika.” Nation 248, no. 22 (5 June 1989): 765-67.
[In the following review, Kagarlitsky compares Ali's Revolution from Above to Anthony Barnett's Soviet Freedom.]
The Soviet Union is too important to be left to Sovietologists. This precept is central to Revolution from Above, by Tariq Ali, but it could just as easily be applied to Soviet Freedom, by Anthony Barnett, which was published in London six months earlier. The two books almost beg for comparison. Both authors are radicals; neither had studied Soviet society before. Tariq Ali had edited a very interesting collection of materials on Stalinism, but as a British socialist he was interested in the overall theoretical and international aspects of the problem. Meanwhile, in these books both Ali and Barnett are mainly concerned with nothing less than the everyday political life of my country.
Who in the West could have imagined something like this five or six years ago? When many authors of books about the Soviet Union touched on politics, they set about describing the functioning of various official agencies or providing biographies of Politburo members. The study of politics came down to Kremlinology. Few people would have applied the phrase “political struggle” to the Soviet Union. The Western reader had an image of a hopelessly conservative and drearily bureaucratic society in which nothing happened for decades. All the greater, then, was the perplexity and ecstasy when new events started to occur and the process of reform charged ahead with dizzying speed.
Paradoxically, the more convinced the public in the West was that our society was hopelessly conservative, the more inclined it was to euphoria and wholly unrestrained exaggeration of the radicalism of any proclaimed Soviet reforms once it became clear that those were not fictions. People called it not liberalization but liberation. Every official decree was inevitably declared revolutionary, bold and progressive. Today even the censored official Soviet press sometimes offers more sober and critical analyses of current policy than the majority of serious Western publications. Misconceptions beget misconceptions. The Western public may have traded dark glasses for rose-tinted ones, but neither the right nor the left has come close to an understanding of the complex and possibly tragic processes under way in the Soviet Union.
Yet, good always comes out of bad. If not for the current universal fascination with the Soviet Union, probably neither Barnett nor Ali would have undertaken to travel around this “enigmatic country.” Another thing in common is that both authors' interest in the country was piqued by perestroika. Further, as socialists, they inevitably connect the prospects for reform in the Soviet Union with the political struggle in the West. Ten or twenty years ago reference to the “Soviet experiment” only strengthened the arguments of the right by showing the uselessness of “socialist experiments.” But now socialists can take pleasure in the news from Moscow. However it is happening, in the homeland of Stalinism they've begun to talk about socialism with a human face.
In this case Sovietology holds the losing hand. Didn't people representing this science present a generalized and schematic view of the Soviet Union in the West for many long years? Of course, Western authors have written many substantial books, especially on Soviet history (the works of Stephen F. Cohen, Moishe Levin and Alec Nove have had a great influence on Western historians). But the mass-produced works of dozens of rank-and-file Sovietologists of the 1970s and the “expert” newspaper commentaries are not likely to be of much interest now. It's not surprising that people like Barnett and Ali wanted to spend time in the Soviet Union themselves, to see everything with their own eyes and then share what they saw.
Of course, they don't rely solely on their own impressions. From the very first pages of their books it is clear that these authors—careful readers of Moscow News and The Guardian—examine news reports that may go unnoticed by other authors. Unfortunately, the limited circulation of Moscow News makes it nearly as inaccessible to the average Soviet reader as The Guardian or The Nation, and many events that I witnessed were strikingly different from the way they were depicted in even the most liberal issues of Moscow News or Ogonyok. But in the end these are the journals that are used to judge the development of glasnost in the Soviet Union, since in a society traditionally based on monopoly and centralism the monopoly on liberalism is guarded with particular zeal. Although Barnett and Ali are dependent on official sources of information, they aren't any more so than the average Soviet citizen. This makes their view of Soviet society sufficiently objective, albeit not always sufficiently analytical.
Barnett's Soviet Freedom is written impressionistically. Short chapters are devoted to a single event, personal observation or serious political issue. The descriptions of hotels or street scenes are given almost as much space as discussions of strikes and nascent worker activism. Ali tries to be more systematic in Revolution from Above, tracking the sources of events, citing social interests and the ideological orientation of the opposing sides. But he cannot resist sharing his personal impressions either. Both authors characteristically find a similarity between what they saw in the West in the 1960s and what is going on in Soviet society today. Such comparisons appear more and more often in Western literature. (I can't help but gloat that when I first noted this in the pages of the New Left Review in 1987, I was assailed for confusing desire with reality.)
Barnett's view of events is the view of an intellectual who made contacts with Moscow intellectuals. Ali's view is primarily that of an activist who likewise found people similar to himself in Moscow—and in unexpectedly great numbers. There were rallies on Pushkin Square in the summer of 1988, run-ins with the militia, heated discussions about the salvation of humanity and the fate of socialism. A clear tendency toward anarchy and a keen need for discipline, the Leninist phraseology of liberals and the authoritarian leanings of the champions of universal liberation—this is hardly new for someone who lived through 1968. But it in no way repeats what has already occurred. Events are moving at a different pace and the stakes are far higher. In April 1989 the young men and women at Tbilisi University personally experienced the difference between the Latin Quarter and Prospekt Rustavelli. The rapidly growing bitterness, the increasingly difficult situation in the economy, the skeptical and self-critical analysis of left ideologists—all have little in common with the lovely European dream of 1968. There is no time at Moscow University to write beautiful slogans about love and revolution on the walls. The blood spilled in Sumgait and Tbilisi is clearly not the last. People speak of revenge more often at rallies, and movement activists know that no one guarantees their safety. Discussions of “revolution from above” and “Soviet freedom” are likely to be regarded as bitter irony. Both revolution and freedom still lie ahead—in the best of circumstances.
That Ali's book was published six months after Barnett's is its main advantage. Both authors are most concerned with the formulation of a civil society and the growth of political identity, but Ali clearly had more material. The Nineteenth Communist Party Conference took place in the interim between the publication of these two books in Britain. The election of delegates, which was conducted by purely bureaucratic methods, set off a powerful movement of protest in various parts of the country. Huge crowds of demonstrators appeared on the streets of Kuibyshev and Yaroslavl. Mass meetings were held in Omsk and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. In the non-Russian republics a situation that had already been quite tense quickly grew worse.
The public upsurge of the summer of 1988 gave rise to the People's Front movement. In the Baltic republics the movement has been primarily national in character, while in Moscow, Leningrad and the Russian provinces the People's Front has appeared as a coalition of the democratic left.
All of these events are reflected in Ali's account. As a Marxist, however, he doesn't limit himself to listing facts but rather tries to give a historical explanation for them. The heroes of the book are not simply people demonstrating in the streets of Moscow (heroes such as movement activists Mikhail Maliutin or Andrei Babushkin, who are still not very well known in the West). The author of Revolution from Above cites representatives of various ideological trends: left radicals, liberals, technocrats, conservatives and neo-Stalinists. He tries to give the reader a sense of the body of these people's ideas and how they took shape. In this sense Ali's book is a valuable traveler's guide to the ideological labyrinth of perestroika.
Barnett's work is to some extent already out-of-date. This isn't his fault—events have progressed too rapidly. Barnett gives the Western reader a sense of the Moscow political and cultural atmosphere in 1987, Tariq Ali writes about 1988—and here we are in 1989.
Unfortunately, only some of the two British travelers' predictions and conclusions have been borne out by the unfolding events. Although they are trying to get away from the clichés of Sovietology, they don't always succeed, often becoming captives of the very myths they wish to refute. Neither author believes in the myth of the totally controlled and completely centralized Soviet society, for instance. But their sense of the transformations conducted from above is to a large degree a continuation of this myth of Sovietology, which has merely been modified to suit the new circumstances. Instead of seeing an elemental, spontaneous process completely out of control, the vortex of a crisis, they still believe in the wisdom of reform. They are ready to blame conservative forces when transformations are not successful, without considering that the changes were, from the outset, a profoundly conservative attempt to re-establish control over an economy and society that was slipping out of control. They mistakenly identify the core of the unfolding changes as radical reform, though these changes had been predetermined by the urgency and tragic crisis gripping the country.
In reality, there has been no comprehensive reform in the economy or even in the political system. Everyone who has studied the legislation passed and political decisions made from 1986 to 1989 is amazed above all by how little has been accomplished. Many new documents are far from liberal. The law on elections and the decrees on special military units, on rallies and on demonstrations have made Soviet legislation much worse than it was even during the Brezhnev years. Stories on the failures of economic reform have become commonplace in the official press. The most astounding thing about perestroika is how much is changing in society despite the total failure of initiatives of reform from above. The greatest sensation of the spring 1989 elections was not the successes of the left in Moscow—where one of the coordinators of the People's Front, Sergei Stankevich, was unexpectedly turned into a key figure in the progressive deputy bloc—but the landslide defeat of official candidates in Leningrad, candidates who had no competition in elections conducted by the old rules!
As Western observers continue to extol wise reforms, we see that the complete failure of moderate reform attempts has opened the way to uncontrolled elemental processes. What do we have, a prerevolutionary situation or a prereactionary period? It may very well be both.
The course of events makes us delay our optimistic predictions. The Western public, which has begun to believe in these new myths of Sovietology, has another disappointment in store. But pessimistic prophesies would probably not be trusted, and in any case the country will never be the same again. The British travelers Barnett and Ali sensed this on the streets of Moscow. I can confirm that the same has been felt in Irkutsk, Sverdlovsk, Kiev and many other cities, at every end of this enormous land. The question of whether the reforms are irreversible is a question of whether people are willing to fight for their freedom. We saw that they were when 35,000 Muscovites responded to the appeal of the People's Front in March by attending a rally for the radical political leader Boris Yeltsin and the candidates of the “progressive bloc.”
Perhaps my most vivid impression of those days was the work of the group organizing the rally. The young people wearing the Front's blue armbands were able to maintain order in the crowd, pass out fliers and listen to the speakers. These people don't believe a single word without thinking it over, but they are willing to fight for what they believe in. They already know what freedom is and they won't give up their rights. Because they can no longer live any other way.
You ask where the guarantees of irreversible democratization are? One is in these people.
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SOURCE: Singer, Daniel. “The Intelligentsia and Soviet Change.” Monthly Review 41, no. 5 (October 1989): 61-4.
[In the following excerpt, Singer applauds the thought-provoking nature of Ali's Revolution from Above.]
Tariq Ali is no Sovietologist. Born in Pakistan, educated at Oxford, he was one of the leaders of the protest movement in Britain in the 1960s and has been a prominent figure of the New Left ever since. Because he is essentially an activist and not a Kremlinologist, the author conveys the feeling that history is here in the making, that the Soviet Union is at the very beginning of a period of monumental change. A stranger, a visitor, he manages to pass on to the reader the excitement of a country where serious periodicals sell like hot cakes, where books, films, plays are political events, where people simultaneously discover their past and the art of political debate.
The purpose of the book [Revolution from Above] is polemical, and it is aimed at the western left. The author proclaims himself the champion of this “revolution from above.” Naturally he too would have preferred to see a mass movement from below. “That would have been very nice, but it didn't happen that way,” he remarks rather rhetorically, attacking left-wing skeptics for their over-critical attitude toward the Gorbachev experiment. While agreeing that one should never quarrel with history or sulk because the red mole is not digging in the expected fashion, I am not quite convinced that to welcome perestroika one must somehow identify with the Soviet leadership.
Indeed, in this lively book its Marxist author does not really deal much with social forces. Admittedly, the social analysis of the Soviet Union is not very easy, but its absence leads to ambiguous conclusions. Tariq Ali, whose heart is on the left, instinctively rejects, say, the proposition of a Nikolai Shmelev that “everything that is effective is moral,” or Tatyana Zaslavskaya's tendency to confuse payment according to productivity with social justice. Yet to what extent do they represent the views of a professional intelligentsia defending its own interests against those of the nomenklatura? And what is the position of Gorbachev, or of Yeltsin for that matter, in the unfolding struggle between the managers and the apparatchiks? Ali aptly points out that Gorbachev “has to effectively dismantle a gigantic bureaucratic apparatus, and he wants to do this with the agreement of those whose privileges will be swept overboard.” But whose interests does he represent? To say “the reformist wing of the Soviet elite” does not quite answer the question.
To dig deeper one would have to take a position on Gorbachev's own stand on equality, his distorted emphasis on the slogan “to each according to his labor” as the Marxist gospel. One would have to analyze further what the author calls “socially-controlled marketization.” Granted that Soviet citizens have every reason to be mad as consumers or that a “mixed economy” is inevitable during a long period of transition, the real problems are the direction in which the economy is moving, the inner logic of the system, and its proposed property relations. It is in this context that one should also examine the reentry into a world capitalist market of an economy which still has a much lower level of productivity.
Ultimately it all comes down to Rosa Luxemburg's famous argument about the superiority of an erring mass movement over an infallible central committee. To seek signs of a movement from below should not be interpreted as teaching Russians lessons. It is a natural consequence of a certain conception of socialism based on the growing political consciousness of the masses. This attitude in no way neglects the importance of changes from above. Yet, in the last analysis, Tariq Ali himself welcomes Gorbachev and his perestroika because they are likely to, indeed because they have already, set the masses in motion. But does it necessarily mean that one should “establish direct contacts with official bodies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe”? (To say that the overwhelming majority of Soviet socialists are in the CPSU does not mean that they are a majority in the party.)
What I have said above attests to the author's achievement. His purpose is to provoke, and in this he clearly succeeds. His book deserves to be read by all Western leftists interested in the fate of the Soviet Union, which should be a pleonasm. Whether one agrees with him or not, his chapters raise all the issues the left must tackle: the resistance of bureaucracy, market and planning in a single state, the relevance of memory, the power to be granted to the soviets, and, finally, Russia's relations with the outside world. Besides, the book is topical despite the furious pace of events. It ends with a plea for Lenin's mummified body to be removed from the mausoleum. As I write these lines, in June 1989, the same proposal made by writer Yuri Karyakin at the Moscow Congress of People's Deputies has provoked passion throughout the Soviet Union.
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SOURCE: Rumens, Carol. “The Perestroika Pageant.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4566 (5 October 1990): 1069.
[In the following review, Rumens calls Moscow Gold “gripping,” and lauds the play for its bold, contrasting scenes and innovative stage construction.]
Three hours' worth of perestroika for beginners ought to be boring. While alive to the broader issues at stake in Moscow, Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton add little to the arguments already sketched for us elsewhere in the media and, some neat one-liners notwithstanding, their language is often as clichéd. Yet Moscow Gold is gripping. Dramatically as well as visually it evokes the bold, ad hoc style of Constructivism, its sharply contrasted scenes as immediate as a series of revolutionary posters brought to life. Borrowing from many genres, Ali and Brenton vindicate the risk-taking that is their avowed dramatic policy—and also part of the real-life drama of perestroika. Unlike Gorbachev's reconstruction, though, this one is a triumph of collaboration.
Stefanos Lazaridis's set is dominated by the Politburo's enormous, circular, scarlet table-cum-dais, which springs trap-doors to allow the oppressed to burst forth at suitable moments—an effective use of symbolism, enhanced by the large downward-pointing finger of Stalin's semi-visible statue. Meyerhold is the presiding genius, and the earthy spirit of the circus is conjured by the revolving stage, bespattered with Cyrillic letters suggesting an astrological chart of the heavens, and the trapeze-like seats hanging above, variously occupied by TASS reporters, Lenin's ghost and Reagan's stargazer. Bill Connor's score matches the pastiche, now suggesting a Shostakovich symphony, now a Kurt Weill cabaret, and effectively using snatches of the Song of the Volga Boatmen to create a new litany of accusing serfdom. The director Barry Kyle keeps all this diversity moving along fast.
The play shifts into naturalistic gear for a subplot which, filled out, would have made a fine drama in itself. Zoya (Paola Dionisotti), one of a salty trio of Kremlin women-cleaners, learns that her youngest son has been killed in Afghanistan, and forces Grisha, her husband, to confess to Boris, the remaining son, the real nature of his activities in Dzerzhinsky Square. Grisha (Joseph O'Connor) is an old Bolshevik and an “honest” secret policeman, responsible for making the copy of the anti-Stalin poem which sent Mandelstam to his death. When he recites this poem, the moment carries unexpected dramatic conviction. Boris's later metamorphoses, first into a radical anti-perestroishchik (this hints at Lenin's own political conversion following the execution of his brother), then into a would-be émigré, needs, however, more space to make its impact. Later, the writers miss another opportunity in their suggestion that Lithuanian nationalists are simply folk-singing racist idiots.
They seize on that gift of history to the dramatist, the antagonism between Gorbachev the puritan, and Yeltsin, the natural cavalier. It seems almost as much a matter of chemistry as ideology that the two men cannot fail to oppose one another: their single handshake, initiated by the tenderer-hearted Yeltsin, swiftly deteriorates into a bout of arm-wrestling. The ideological opposition, of course, provides some fiery confrontation, and Gorbachev's commitment to the “third way” of humane socialism against Yeltsin's demand for the full bourgeois-capitalist works are given a force and clarity which often seem absent from the leader's attitudes in reality.
Both David Calder (Gorbachev) and Russell Dixon (Yeltsin) are convincing to the last gesture. Clive Merrison's sardonic Lenin is an equally fine performance, though perhaps a less credibly written character, surely presented as a better democrat than he in fact was.
Of the relatively small cast of villains, the ghastly puppet that Richard Earthy creates from Ceausescu's ghost has a whiff of evil. The heroine is clearly Raisa (Sarah Kestelman) with her worldly good sense and humour (“I'm just a simple Soviet girl who does for Misha”). Misha himself, though often the tormented hero, is not excessively idealized. The play's collective hero is the people. The Perestroika Pageant, a revolving parade of opinionated Muslims, Jews, gangsters, punks, loony nationalists, is the set-piece that stays longest in the memory. The picture of teeming, many coloured life is undercut by a sense of desperation. The ravenous hunger for both the bread and the circuses of the West is strongly captured. The East Berliners' cry of “we want” reminds us of what perestroika at heart is about.
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SOURCE: Widgery, David. “Berty Khan's Revenge.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 122 (12 October 1990): 42-3.
[In the following review, Widgery offers a mixed assessment of Redemption, contending that too much of the novel “smacks of an adolescent desire to violate the orthodoxies the author once staunchly propounded.”]
Comic novels about the left, like Ethyl Mannin's Comrade, O Comrade, about the 1945 split in the Anarchist Federation of Britain, have a habit of not being very funny. The wittiest accounts are, like Claude Cockburn's true. Tariq Ali's qualifications as the Evelyn Waugh of Trotskyism are debatable, though his publisher, whose idiosyncratic list's only theme is desperation for a bestseller, feels that some sort of intellectual bodice-ripper might prove profitable consolation for us distressed '68ers to curl up with.
Ali used to issue severe tomes with relentlessly red and black typography and titles like The Stalinist Legacy. Redemption is served up with plenty of serifs, an Orozco detail and the inscription “a novel”, just in case you thought it was a watering can. And T Ali's vanguard role in the leadership of the Fourth International is suppressed in the blurb, where he is described as “a writer and film-maker”. But the only people this romp will please are the readers of the Daily Mail (glad that another escapee from bourgeois norms is safely re-domesticated) and the juvenile left, whose knowledge of Trotskyism has been gleaned from Julie, rather than Ian, Burchill. The uninitiated wouldn't see the point and those who do know their AFL from their FLN will want something a bit more sophisticated than this mildly amusing Marxisant campus novel whose Rushdiesque Ambition doesn't quite come off.
The Trot-plot is simple and the characters, despite the publisher's disclaimer, bear a great deal of resemblance to actual persons. Ezra Einstein (Ernest Mandel), the polymathic genius of world Trotskyism, aware that the century is ending on “an ironic crescendo”, calls a conference on the future of the revolutionary left with the aid of his ex-comrades, Kominsky (Alaine Krivine) and Diabolo (Michael Pablo). It is attended by his arch rivals: Jim Rock (Tony Cliff); Jed Burroughs (Ted Grant); Francois Pelletier (Pierre Frank); the editor of the NLJ, Jemima Wilcox (NLR, Robin Blackburn); Laura Shaw (Vanessa Redgrave), bearing the embalmed corpse of Frank Hood (Gerry Healey); and Uncle Terry Contraband and all (Gery Lawless).
Einstein, mystically affected by breastfeeding the baby newly delivered by his child-bride encountered during the Brazilian election campaign for Lula (Lula), devastates the conference by proposing mass entryism into the great world religions. The only person missing is, let's say, Berty Khan, the moustachioed ex-Trot bon viveur, who makes a living by feeding his notes from a radical youth through a series of word-processors and is filming the conference for the Channel 4 series, Expletive Deleted (ex-Trots love a laugh … as long as it's not at their own expense).
There are many in-jokes, some delightfully and fatwa-earningly tasteless, concerning Hood-Healey's dildo, Burroughs-Grant's repressed homosexual crush on Norman Tebbit and the movement's early fund-raising activities in a politically OK bordello. Some of the intellectual parodies are brilliant: the faxed critique of Einstein's theses on the East German working class sent by Ricky Lysagh (Perry Anderson) from Papua New Guinea (Los Angeles) is exquisite because it is political rather than just fun-poking. The more fabulous and audacious the book becomes (with Trotsky himself scandalously reincarnated up to tricks with Frida Kahlo), the more interesting it gets. When Ali's imagination really goes wild he is superb, with sex changes, Mother Courage on acid and a KGB encyclopaedia of Trotskyana, whose compilers plead for transfer to Novosibirsk.
But too much of Redemption smacks of an adolescent desire to violate the orthodoxies the author once staunchly propounded. This becomes a repudiation not just of the dishonesties of doctrinaire Trotskyism's various love affairs with leaders great and small (long overdue), but also of the left itself. Commitment to Marxism is portrayed as ridiculous (which small groups with big ideas can always be), ineffectual (which it is not), and inherently destructive intellectually.
Beneath the knockabout, Ali clearly feels that Einstein-Mandel could have been an influential figure if only he had not squandered his talent on political organisation. And Alex Mango (Paul Foot) is attacked as an inevitable and cynical corruptor of youthful idealism because he remains a member of an organised group. Given this defeatism, it is not so implausible that socialists who managed to persuade themselves that the east European states were somehow, underneath it all, based on socialist economic relations (which includes most of the traditional Labour left, the CPGB and most ortho-Trots) now enter a bona-fide church.
Thank God things are not turning out quite like this. Indeed, it is a tribute to the turbulent times we live in that Ali's jocular pessimism already seems dated. Just as Moscow Gold mirrors the Gorbachev obsession prevalent among western socialists when the Soviet Premier appeared to be singlehandedly transcending Russia's impasse, Redemption reflects late eighties capitalist triumphalism, when it seemed possible that western capitalism would effortlessly swallow eastern Europe in its inexorable expansion. Those of us who droned on about imperialist wars and economic recession then certainly looked fair game for parody. But in the nineties, it looks more and more as if Alex Mango, Sugar Brink and Nutty Shardman will have the last laugh.
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SOURCE: Kincaid, Paul. “Iron Curtain Call.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4571 (9 November 1990): 1214.
[In the following review, Kincaid derides Ali's prose in Redemption, noting several weaknesses in the plot and stating that the book “is a comedy, but humour is less in evidence than silly portentousness.”]
Far from the promised redemption, this crude first novel [Redemption] smacks of revenge. The various factions of Trotskyism, for which Tariq Ali was such a vocal and visible spokesman during the 1960s, are here mercilessly ridiculed as invariably brutish, ignorant and sexually perverse. Most of the factions appear to consist of no more than a handful of louts whose sole purpose in life is to do down rival factions and produce a newspaper detailing the tedious utterances of their leader. Those utterances, furthermore, are couched only in empty jargon; so that a sexual rejection is the cue for “vigorous polemic”, and one character is described thus: “the rapist side of the Cuckoo was amply fulfilled in the politico-organizational sphere”. Some of this, undoubtedly, is intended as satire; unfortunately the idiom is used so unvaryingly throughout the narrative that it seems Ali is unable to distance himself from the vocabulary, beliefs and attitudes he is supposedly parodying.
Redemption is a comedy, but humour is less in evidence than silly portentousness. The story concerns a Congress of Trotskyists staged in the first months of 1990 to consider a response to the events in Eastern Europe. There is never any sense that the rhetoricians respond to world events in any way that relates to their words; and since the book relies so heavily on gimmicks (a prosthetic metal penis which speaks, a seventy-five-year-old man who breast-feeds his own baby), neither is there any sense that any of it matters. It is a timely book, certainly, but everything seems to have been jettisoned in the cause of speed. We might charitably suppose that it is a shared ideology which makes every character indistinguishable from the rest, but it is inexcusable that Paris, London, New York and Mexico City should be presented as if they were identical. The sentence structure is irredeemable.
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SOURCE: Evans, Jr., Alfred. “Gorbachev's Unfinished Revolution.” Problems of Communication 40, nos. 1-2 (January-April 1991): 133-43.
[In the following excerpt, Evans praises certain portions of Revolution from Above, but faults others, asserting that the book ignores many complexities of the Soviet political arena.]
[Revolution from Above,] by Tariq Ali is similar to the on-the-scene reporting of well-informed political journalists in Western and Asian democracies. A series of topical essays on Soviet politics in 1987 and 1988, the book is based largely on extensive interviews with well-placed Soviet sources. Ali expresses the enthusiasm of one who is caught up in the excitement of increasing political openness and intellectual honesty in the USSR under Gorbachev, and sees in perestroyka and glasnost the prospect for the revitalization of the socialist idea.
Ali describes political processes in the USSR as characterized by increasingly open debates among those defending contending positions, and by ever more open appeals by political leaders for support from a wide range of groups in the population. Also, although he is aware of each leader's desire to maximize his power, he attributes leaders' policy positions primarily to their objectives for Soviet society and their affinity for the interests both of groups of citizens and of officials in authoritative institutions.
Ali sees the reforms since 1985 as creating a basic conflict between reformers, led by Gorbachev and supported most ardently by intellectuals, on the one hand, and conservative mid- and lower-level party and state apparatchiki, whose apprehensions were expressed by Yegor Ligachev, on the other. However, this dichotomous view overlooks much of the complexity of the contemporary Soviet political spectrum. For example, Ali does not attempt to assimilate his description of Boris Yel'tsin's divergence from Gorbachev after October 1987 to his classification of supporters and opponents of reform.
Ali correctly observes that the 19th Conference of the CPSU in the summer of 1988 “represented a political stalemate and a compromise” (p. 56), and it may be added today that the stalemate that became evident on that occasion has persisted to the present, posing ever greater problems for the functioning of the Soviet system. He is also on target in reporting that the process of change opened up under Gorbachev is so deeply rooted “that halting the process now and standing still would create an enormous backlash,” and that what has already taken place in the USSR “is merely the beginning of a process,” or “the opening shots of what might be a long battle” (pp. 205, 218). Although Ali's analysis is optimistic, he reaches no definite conclusion about the prospects for the success of reform in the Soviet Union.
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SOURCE: Hashmi, Alamgir. Review of Redemption, by Tariq Ali. World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 210-11.
[In the following review, Hashmi outlines the major themes of Redemption.]
Tariq Ali comes to fiction from a respectable writing career in politics, history, biography, and, most recently, stage drama with a sharp focus on the contemporary world. On Christmas Eve 1989, in Paris, [in Redemption,] as the seventy-year-old Trotskyist patriarch Ezra Einstein watches on TV a Ceauşescu executioner make the sign of the cross, he seems even to forget the bliss of his late married life, he whose “fingers had rested more often on the keys and body of his antique writing aid [his fifty-five-year-old typewriter] than on the more intimate sections of the female anatomy.” He issues a letter forthwith to convene a congress to discuss the world situation following the collapse of the East European regimes and the changes in the Soviet Union. As the oppressed classes have generally failed to be responsive to their program, the brigade considers changing its methods. Ezra himself proposes “that we go into these religions and fight to establish a connection between Heaven and Earth,” because “one of the weaknesses of Marxism and all other isms descended from it has been a lack of understanding of ethics, morality, and, dare I say it, spirituality.”
The possibility of redemption, however, is always considered tongue-in-cheek, and the gloom caused by the collapse of the Alternative System is beaten out with wit and banter. Although the new challenges include the formation of a new goulash religion called Christ-lamasonism and moving into the Catholic Church itself, the world congress falls short of evolving any workable theme or strategy; but there is a plenitude of jokes born of an earthy realism, as most matters are thought worthy of being “sorted out through friendly negotiations under the quilt.”
While the larger issues of ideas and society are far from being resolved, solace and even blessedness (with a real halo over Ezra's infant daughter's head) are found in the formation of positive personal relations and private worlds. Ali's novel itself [Redemption] is a detached commentary on the enterprise. Dissentient comrade Cathy Fox refuses to attend the congress or join the excavation of Trotsky's grave in Mexico in search of some documents, but she views the dying ideological world with hope: “Something will be reborn … but how and when and in what shape it is impossible to predict. The whole world has to be remade.” The New Life Journal is cited as derriding Kundera's sexist and nihilistic attitudes, and Maya, Ezra's wife, notes (in “The Chapter of Learning and Forgetting”—an obvious parody) her own reservations about the new cult novelist. The entries cited from the Encyclopedia Trotskyana and the narrator's comments together make up a hilarious text which is mock-learning and police work at the same time. This clever device also provides for a latter-day dramatic aside and a metafictional source of both fact and its factitious extensions. The lie about the existence of the Trotsky letters turns out to be a truth, even if their contents are different from those presumed and announced. Although the Movement and its saints must all be seen without their robes, as well as frequently without their undergarments, all the gains are in achieving true humanity of character, with Ezra preaching plain morals and finding his peace amid his family, earnestly if comically lactating and feeding Ho, his baby. The ending, with Maya reading Ezra's journal written for Ho's tenth birthday, contains a poem, an exhortation ascribed to Goethe in which Ali, with all his riotous energy and wit, has found the right note with which to cure a cynical world: “Build it again, / Great Child of the Earth, / Build it again / With a finer worth / In thine own bosom build it on high! / Take up thy life once more: / Run the race again! / High and clear / Let a lovelier strain / Ring out than ever before!”
Beneath the poetic fancy, the narrative suggests screen adaptations and a simpler field-sequential of events. Surely, if Goethe and Trotsky gang up together in the “Bandung File” (BBC's Channel 4 program which Tariq Ali produced for several years), a redemption will become inevitable.
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SOURCE: Irwin, Robert. Review of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, by Tariq Ali. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4648 (1 May 1992): 20.
[In the following review, Irwin discusses Ali's utilization of exposition and metaphors, faulting what he deems to be Ali's lack of imagination in Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.]
“We are living in the most difficult period of our history. We have not had such serious problems since Tarik and Musa first occupied these lands. And you know how long ago that was, do you not?”
Yazid nodded. “In our first century and their eighth.”
Tariq Ali's second novel [Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree], a work of historical fiction, is about the misfortunes of a family of Moors living in the province of Granada in 1500, eight years after the region had been conquered by the Spanish Catholic armies of Ferdinand and Isabella. It is the sort of historical novel in which people like to talk history (“We destroyed two great empires. Everything fell into our lap. We kept the Arab lands and Persia and parts of Byzantium. Elsewhere it was difficult, wasn't it? Look at us. We have been in al-Andalus for seven hundred years …”) and debate such matters as women's rights, the problems of minority communities, the evils of book burning, and the origins of Western imperialism.
Tariq Ali prefers telling to showing and much of his narrative in Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is conveyed through flashback and reminiscence. A man may enter “the deepest recesses of his memory”, while a woman may be “assailed by memories of her own youth”. Elsewhere, another character contemplates “the layers of guilt which still lay congealed somewhere in his mind”, and another finds that the “cellars of his memory were overflowing”. The author is fond of metaphors, particularly confused ones. “Bishop and sceptic, for a moment they remained motionless, facing each other. They had once belonged to the same sunken civilisation, but the universe which each inhabited had been separated by an invisible sea.” The dialogue is decorated with duff proverbs, like “The broken glass has no saviours” and “Only a blind man dares to shit on the roof and thinks he cannot be seen!”.
This is the sort of book where the good are very good indeed. Not only is Zuhayr, the hero, a brave fighter and very handsome, he is also a good committee man and a fine speech-maker: he will mature into a well-respected guerrilla leader, an early Islamic precursor of Zapata and Che Guevara. The Grand Inquisitor, by contrast, is hook-nosed, cold-hearted, greedy, fanatical, and very cynical. His eyes burn and he sneers and snarls a lot. He seems to have stepped out of the pages of a much earlier novel by, Ouida, say, or Talbot Mundy.
There are a number of minor anachronisms. But the chief anachronism stems from a failure of imagination on the part of the author. Having failed to imagine that religious belief can ever be a serious option, Tariq Ali has reclassified all its manifestations. Religion, here, is either the marker of a politically disadvantaged minority community, or it serves as a convenient ideological cover for exploitation and imperialism. So, oddly for a novel which is set in one of the great ages of faith and which deals with the clash between Christianity and Islam, profound spiritual experience plays little or no part in the lives of the protagonists.
As I struggled towards the end of the book, it began to cross my mind that perhaps I was missing the joke and that Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree was intended to be a parody, a sort of Cold Comfort Farm in fancy dress. However, I regretfully conclude that this is not the case, and despite the unconscious comedy, the novel is hard going. As one of the characters in this desperately earnest work remarks, “All that is left … is for us to be inquisitioned. Yes! And to the very marrow of our sorry bones!”
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SOURCE: Ahmed, Akbar. “The Moors Murdered.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 203 (22 May 1992): 39-40.
[In the following review, Ahmed provides an overview of Ali's life and career, tracing his development as an author through Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.]
A review of Tariq Ali's new novel [Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree] requires a review of the author. In the 1960s, when he emerged as a student star in Oxford, I admired him, in common with most Pakistani undergraduates in England then, for his rebellious energy and boldness. He appeared to capture the mood of his generation.
When he became President of the Oxford Union, the press was predicting that he would become prime minister of Pakistan. Although another Union president, Benazir Bhutto, did assume that office, Tariq never really had a chance. In Pakistani politics it matters who you are, and Benazir's father had been prime minister.
In one important sense, Tariq's career has been downhill ever since. Too much was expected of him, and because of that his life remains a disappointment. He compensated by remaining in the public eye through his writing and media appearances. The range of his interests was boundless: from the Nehru dynasty to Genghis Khan to a bawdy satirical novel, Redemption. But his ideas tended to be inflexible. Even the name he chose for his television company, Bandung, reflected an idea of third-world unity which, attractive in its time, was nonetheless rooted in his youth.
Not accepted by the academics for his serious writing, Tariq turned to television journalism. Here his energy and flair made an impact. Over this trajectory we see him moving from his earlier Marxist student position to the more complex stance of a media figure in Mrs Thatcher's Britain. In his success he appeared to parody the very culture he denounced.
Tariq's novel about Muslims in Spain is commercially correct, because 1992 is the 500th anniversary of the fall of Granada. And Muslim Spain is important because it challenges many assumptions Europeans have of themselves. On the one hand, it is an example of a harmonious, plural society with public libraries, baths and parks, ordered by Muslims who are today powerless and unwelcome. On the other, it is a society abruptly terminated by Christians. The stanchions were set in place for the European religious and racial persecution that followed. Notions of a “final solution” thus find a resonance in history.
While tapping the market, Tariq could also be discovering his cultural roots. Muslim Spain—and especially Andalusia—is irresistible as a source of fascination to Muslims. I felt its melancholic and romantic attraction when I visited Andalusia as an undergraduate, and later called it the “Andalus syndrome” in my book Discovering Islam.
Perhaps Tariq is now responding to the Andalus syndrome. This is mnemonically appropriate. The first victorious Muslim general in Spain was also called Tariq, and Gibraltar commemorates his name: a derivation of Jabal-al-Tariq, or the Rock of Tariq. Clearly, there is much in the learning and culture of the Muslims of Spain that he admires. Those who expect a Marxist diatribe about decadent sultans and harems will be disappointed. Even the title is suggestive of romantic novelists such as M M Kaye, author of Shadow of the Moon.
For a writer, Andalusia is a rich treasure chest and anyone may dip in to pick up a bauble or two. Tariq tells us the story of a Muslim family after the fall of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella. Young Yazid, the favourite, is at its centre. His father, Umar, is pressed by his uncle Miguel, a Christian convert and now Bishop of Cordoba, to convert and thus save the family's property and also to give his 17-year-old daughter, Hind, in marriage to Miguel's son. Hind, however, is determined to marry the man of her choice. Yazid's brother prefers death to becoming a Catholic.
These were dangerous times for Muslims. Juan, the village carpenter, has carved a chess set for the tenth birthday of Yazid. The black queen is a savage caricature of Isabella while the white sultan resembles Yazid's great-grandfather, a Moorish knight.
The novel begins with a book-burning. The Christians have gathered all the books in the private libraries of the town and are preparing to burn them. Here is a nod to our own age, with the roles reversed. Its end is a tear-jerker. Yazid is killed by Cortes, who goes on to plunder America. In the epilogue, 20 years after the story ends, Cortes arrives in the city of Tenochtitlan where Montezuma is king. The death of Muslim Spain is thus linked to the birth of America.
The story moves well and quickly and the prose is restrained. Tariq's quest for authenticity is admirable, but few people will recognise Qurtuba (Cordoba), Gharnata (Granada) or Dimashk (Damascus). What is the reader to make of Gharnatinos, who sound like a new pop group? Although he uses the word “Moors” in the author's notes, scholars now prefer Arab or Muslim. Indeed, the word Moriscos, little Moors—describing Muslims who remained after the fall of Granada—is considered derogatory.
The novel reflects the Andalus syndrome and will strike a chord in Tariq's own community in Britain, from which he has remained generally isolated. Others were also isolated, such as his friend Salman Rushdie (he, too, is writing a novel set in Muslim Spain). Representing élite Asian families and education (mainly at Oxbridge), this group formed an almost self-consciously “superior” class, distinct from their compatriots in Bradford and Birmingham. In their work—cynical, ironic, irreverent—they reflected British literary taste. The anger against Satanic Verses also reflected anger against them. Iranian Nights, which Tariq co-authored with Howard Brenton, depicted Muslims as cardboard characters, fanatic, corrupt and hypocritical. It did not help.
In the past, Tariq's work lacked the qualities of introspection, self-criticism and compassion. The bluster and theorising prevented him from hearing “the still, sad music of humanity”. This novel suggests he may be moving towards a new maturity. If that is so, it is to be welcomed.
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SOURCE: Chaudhuri, Amit. “Here Is a Little Family.” London Review of Books 14, no. 13 (9 July 1992): 18-19.
[In the following excerpt, Chaudhuri maintains that Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is “a strangely refreshing work in that it gives us a warm and indulgent picture of a certain section of Islamic life.”]
Tariq Ali's novel [Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree] is about a noble family of great renown in Moorish Spain. The lives and culture of this family and its retainers are on the edge of extinction: either they must convert from Islam to Christianity, or die at the hands of the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella. The emotions, conflicts and shifts in this novel are no more complex and layered than those to be found in the exhilarating lyrics of an Arab song about love or heroism, but it is a strangely refreshing work in that it gives us a warm and indulgent picture of a certain section of Islamic life. Though it is set in Medieval times, it serves as a corrective to some of our images of the contemporary Muslim world, and reminds us, for instance, that its culture is made up not only of men with machine-guns in their hands and chequered handkerchiefs on their heads, but of sprawling, extended families, meeting-places, kitchens with their own aroma and cuisine, weddings, and a large number of personable and clear-headed women. On the brink of imminent destruction, courtships continue in the novel, pledges are made, long-winded arguments about politics and tiresomely inexhaustible family anecdotes fill the hours, as they no doubt do even now in Lebanon. It is all a little like peacetime, till one sees these figures from a distance and realises that they have gathered, in that innocent and communal fashion, upon a precipice. Some of the characters are extremely talkative, even boring, but one forgives them because one knows they are to be silenced for ever. Their verbosity has to be seen in the context of the silence out of which it has arisen and to which it will soon return, and of a culture which feels passionately wronged, but often lacks the right words to say the right things. There is a cook in this story, a dwarf, who makes ‘heavenly delights’ for the noble family from ‘secret recipes’ that only he knows. History has completely wiped out that family and their village by the end of the novel: only the dwarf survives, with the secret recipe, which is part of the unwritten history of a people, still in his head.
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SOURCE: Allen, Douglas. Review of Revolution from Above, by Tariq Ali. Southern Humanities Review 29 (fall 1992): 361-63.
[In the following review, Allen examines the central issues discussed in Revolution from Above.]
Since he came to Oxford University from Pakistan and became one of the radical leaders of the 1960s, Tariq Ali has been a prominent figure on the British Left. His books include Can Pakistan Survive?, An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family, and Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties. His orientation can best be described as that of an independent, democratic, anti-Stalinist Marxist/socialist: very familiar with the classical socialist writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and others and strongly influenced by the writings of Deutscher, Trotsky, and Mandel (i.e., a strong, but not uncritical, Trotskyist influence).
The subtitle of the book [Revolution from Above] aptly describes its central question: Where is the Soviet Union going? During the post-Stalinist period of the mid-fifties, Khrushchev opened many gates for political and cultural revelations and changes, but he had to retreat under pressure from the bureaucracy and was finally deposed. The conservative Brezhnev period was marked by bureaucratic retrenchment, “mafiocracy” and corruption, and finally stagnation. Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, and we entered the turbulent period of perestroika and glasnost.
Tariq Ali visited the Soviet Union in 1985 and twice during 1988. Much of this book tries to make sense of where the Soviet Union is going by analyzing the Gorbachev period, from changes inaugurated at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February 1986 through the remarkable Nineteenth Party Conference of June 1988, at which there was a public show of dissent and issues were openly debated for perhaps the first time since the 1920s.
The title, Revolution from Above, gets at the extraordinary potential but also the dangers that can undermine the struggle for radical change. This revolution, marking the beginnings of a long and unpredictable process, started from above: from Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev, Boris Yeltsin, and other party reformers and politicians. It includes Yuri Afanasiev, Rector of the Moscow State Institute of Historical Archives, and other reformist scholars; the playwright Mikhail Shatrov and other writers and filmmakers; Boris Kagarlitsky and other socialist dissidents struggling for perestroika.
Such a movement for radical change faces a powerful, entrenched, conservative bureaucracy, with many braking mechanisms in place and determined to defend its power and privileges. Gorbachev is the leader of those in favor of democratization, but he also wants to avoid a head-on clash with the party hierarchy, the bureaucratic apparatus, and the military.
Time and again Tariq Ali maintains that the leaders of the “revolution from above” will not succeed unless there develops a “revolution from below”: working class soviets (councils) and other democratic mass forces, ensuring that reformers not become bogged down or deposed by the bureaucracy, and backing them and joining them in struggles against the entrenched forces resisting systematic change.
Revolution from Above presents a wide range of topics, starting with the cultural, economic, and political situation in the late 1980s. It also provides valuable background information and penetrating insights into the key issues and struggles defining Soviet history for seven decades after the October 1917 revolution. It is commonplace to read publications in the United States and the West attacking the Stalinist and Brezhnevite Soviet system. What is unusual is that Tariq Ali's attacks on the Soviet system come from the Left. For him, Soviet history, at least since the late 1920s, does not prove the failure of socialism; Stalinism is in fact a crime against socialism, a betrayal and liquidation of a progressive, democratic socialist potential.
As a critic from the Left, Tariq Ali offers startling observations and analyses rarely appearing in Western publications. For example, in describing and analyzing “the new renaissance” in politics and culture since April 1985, he contends that discussion and debate in influential Soviet newspapers and magazines is “far higher and [more] intense that anything in the West.” In exploring whether democracy is possible in the USSR, Tariq Ali argues that perestroika could lead to a new soviet democracy, recapturing some of the original impulse of the Revolution, a “higher model of democracy which combines substantial equality and participatory rights with the procedures of democratic choice.”
Tariq Ali is not uncritically romantic or utopian about Soviet history and future prospects. He follows his study of “the new renaissance” with a counterbalancing chapter on “Who's Afraid of Boris Yeltsin? The Resistance of the Bureaucracy.” When this book was completed, Yeltsin, greatly admired by Tariq Ali, had been removed as Moscow Party leader and had not made his remarkable comeback, resulting in his 1991 election as President of the Russian Republic.
Chapter three provides extensive historical background and contemporary analysis of the Soviet economy, including the crisis of past centralized autarchic planning and why democratization and a socialist emancipatory program are essential social mechanisms for any successful socialist planning and development. The next chapter focuses on key individuals and struggles in Soviet history and argues that many of Trotsky's main ideas converge with the new reformism in the Soviet Union today. This is followed by a study of the earlier destruction and present potential for the revival of democratic soviet power. A chapter beginning “The Soviet Union is far too important to be left to the Sovietologists” surveys the leading American Kremlinologists during the Cold War and how their ideologically-based “totalitarian theories” were used to shape public opinion and policy-making. This is followed by a chapter on foreign policy which explores the place of the Soviet Union in the world and a concluding chapter which analyzes disturbing national and ethnic questions and conflicts within the country.
Revolution from Above is a provocative and challenging book. It is full of important but little-known information and surprising insights. It combines historical perspective with contemporary material, including documents and interviews with political and cultural figures and scholars at the heart of contemporary debates in the Soviet Union. Tariq Ali's attitude can be described as hopeful, apprehensive, and cautiously optimistic in the long run.
One wonders how developments since 1988 might have altered some of Tariq Ali's formulations. For example, he certainly acknowledges and analyzes the fundamental crises of the economy of the Soviet Union, but the more recent lack of successful reforms, widespread corruption, sense of anarchy, and extreme rapid economic deterioration have been staggering. Or, to provide a second significant example, Tariq Ali certainly differentiates between Gorbachev, who wants to avoid open conflict, and Yeltsin, who wants to confront pressing problems directly, often going outside the normal structures of power. But he considers both Gorbachev and Yeltsin as leaders in the same struggle for a progressive, democratic, socialist, pluralistic society. More recent tensions, splits, and even open hostility between the two leaders might have affected Tariq Ali's analysis of the Soviet reform process. Probably Tariq Ali's basic historical, political, economic, and cultural analysis remains unchanged, but he might be more apprehensive, more cautious, and less optimistic about Soviet revolutionary prospects at least in the short run.
Reviewer's Note: This review was completed in May 1991. Although Tariq Ali points to the tendencies that led to the attempted conservative coup against Gorbachev and deteriorating conditions in the Soviet Union, he obviously did not anticipate the consequences of the rapid economic and political collapse of late 1991: the complete dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the overthrow of Gorbachev, the dominance of Yeltsin, the strength of ethnic and regional separatist movements, and a very uncertain and dangerous future. In this regard, the struggles for a progressive, democratic, socialist, pluralistic society, with which Tariq Ali identifies, came too little and too late to overcome the deep-rooted historical and structural weaknesses of the Soviet Union, but they may have considerable significance for future struggles throughout the world.
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SOURCE: Caulfield, Carl. “Moscow Gold and Reassessing History.” Modern Drama 36, no. 4 (December 1993): 490-98.
[In the following essay, Caulfied analyzes the role of history in Moscow Gold.]
The Revolution has shifted the theatre of our critical operations. We must review our tactics.1
Moscow Gold is Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali's second theatrical collaboration, after their satirical, metaphorical response in 1989 to the Rushdie affair in Iranian Nights. Moscow Gold dramatizes what its authors see as a need for a reassessment of Soviet history and Communist ideologies, but the play can also be seen as revealing a state of crisis in Howard Brenton's overview of world history and his earlier views on historical progression. Prior to the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Brenton believed that Western Europe was on the verge of a political renaissance, an inevitable historical movement towards a more “communistic” society. As he stated in 1986: “It began with the Paris Commune in 1871. The Russian Revolution, whether you regard it with hope, hope betrayed, or with horror, has changed world history forever.”2 The “second Renaissance” Brenton describes is a transmutation from mercantile capitalism to a “communistic world view.”3 This “huge conviction” of Brenton's has been the source of his “utopian” plays, particularly Greenland (1989), and informs much of his work. In many ways, Brenton's development as a dramatist has been towards forging a drama that shows characters involved in a dialectical struggle with history, to show characters “trying to deal with history.” His characters, he has said, “suddenly find themselves with a torch in their hands which they realize is world history.”4 He often shows his characters (unaware that history is moving) struggling from the “micro” level of everyday living towards what he has described as a “macro-overview of history” or the “grand historical vision.” To Brenton, this “historical vision” is the consciousness of a faith in a rational, communistic future. In many ways Brenton's work attempted to promote an historical enlightenment, in which individuals connect with “history” and gain a vision of the future. As he has described his characters: “But millions do not have that vision, confidence and heroism, and some are traumatised by defeat. It is they whom I write about. […] I try to dramatise them coming to life, gaining visions, confidence and courage in their own way. If the Left convinces and wins people like them, the British revolution will be unstoppable.”5
Throughout his career, Brenton has worked collaboratively with writers such as David Hare, Tunde Ikoli, and Tony Howard. Tariq Ali's role in Moscow Gold was to provide historical knowledge with Brenton as dramatist. In the play, there are traces of ideas from Ali's book on the USSR and the view that reform began as “a movement from above,” a “revolution” within the Soviet elite.6
Moscow Gold took a year to research, including a visit to Moscow for Brenton. The play was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre on 20 September 1990, directed by Barry Kyle. It was an opportunity for Brenton to make use of a large space and to return to an epic form of drama, which he'd developed at the National Theatre with plays such as Weapons of Happiness (1972), The Romans in Britain (1980), and Pravda (1985), the last co-written with David Hare. To deal with the massive scope of their subject—the changes in the former Soviet Union since glasnost and perestroika—Brenton and Ali decided that they must extend the non-naturalistic, panoramic approach used in Iranian Nights: “The only model we had was the work of the great Soviet theatrical genius Vsevelod Meyerhold. He attempted a theatre of great breadth, trenchant but nimble-footed, which was not documentary, but ‘living history,’ played out upon the stage at many levels of meaning with many techniques.”7 The visual design of the play, according to Barry Kyle, was intended to emphasize that it was not “photographic realism,” as reflected in the circus-like sets of Stefanos Lazaridis.8 Inevitably, through evoking the memory of Meyerhold productions such as Mystery-Bouffe and The Magnanimous Cuckold, the authors foregrounded as many difficulties as similarities. Like Mystery-Bouffe, performed a year after the October Revolution, Moscow Gold, performed a year after glasnost, tried to show not only life that's real, but “life transformed by the theatre into a spectacle.”9 The difference between the two lies in the dynamic of Meyerhold creating a form appropriate for Mayakovsky's play, while Brenton and Ali are imposing their conception of the same form seventy years later. “Quoting” Meyerholdian techniques in a play about glasnost may merely be a means of problematizing a contemporary audience's awareness of the historical situation depicted. It does, however, indicate a shift in Brenton's approach to dramatizing history; whereas previously he appeared more clearly aligned to a Marxist epic theatre, as defined by Brecht, the conventions adopted for Moscow Gold imply that these are no longer adequate. Meyerhold's notion of the theatre of the grotesque is not too far removed from Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt: “Is it not the task of the grotesque in the theatre to preserve this ambivalent attitude in the spectator by switching the course of the action with strokes of contrast? The basis of the grotesque is the artist's constant desire to switch the spectator from the plane he has just reached to another which is totally unseen.”10 Meyerhold's theories do allow greater dramaturgical latitude than Brecht's and seem particularly suited to a writer of Brenton's temperament, with his predilection for exaggeration, caricature, and disrupting the spectacle. In Moscow Gold, however, the authors run the risk of trivializing aspects of Soviet history, such as Stalinism, and turning the play into an empty spectacle.11
Moscow Gold is, according to the authors, a “song of history as it is, not as it should be and, apart from one utopian lapse, not as we would like it to be.”12 In a poem, Brenton describes Moscow as “this continent of old dreads,” and the first Act of Moscow Gold certainly creates this sense of a place haunted by the past.13
Act One (subtitled “Before the Wall”) attempts to give a historical backdrop to events which led up to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It begins with the image of the huge oval table of the Politburo, behind which sits Lenin with fist raised. Then the audience witnesses a pageant of the Revolution of 1917. The spectacle reflects the violent movement of the revolution, while the choreographed sequences show the sense of fluidity and purpose behind the tides of history. “TROTSKY consigns the enemies of the Revolution to the dustbin of history” and “LENIN establishes some order in the chaotic dance.”14 This sequence flows into a funeral dirge and Sailors carry Lenin off, as if he were in a coffin. The image of the dead Lenin is ambiguous for a 1990s audience, which has witnessed his denigration as an icon of the revolution. Moreover, historically, the death of Lenin ushered in the reign of Stalin, but the spectacle simplifies much recent historical reassessment of the revolution, which questions the notion of a spontaneous explosion in 1917.15
As the pageant ends, three women, Zoya, Katya, and Lena, move forward. The three cleaning women are reminiscent of the three women in Brenton's Thirteenth Night in that they represent the people, struggling towards enlightenment after the dark years underground. As Brenton said of Thirteenth Night: “The three ‘free spirits’ in the play, the three ‘witches’, were unidentifiable to the author when he was writing the play. Now, suddenly, there seem to be millions of them in the Soviet Union, climbing up to the clean air from the underground bunker where the tyrant's body rots, to quote the final image of Jack Beaty's dream …’16 Zoya, who ages before the audience as the play jumps forward to 1982, gives voice to the feeling that she is beginning to wake from the nightmare of Soviet history. “What did I come from? The years of hopes and fears. Civil war. Famine. The Terror. Hitler. […] And now all that's left … is the mess, and we clean it up every day” (2). In this sense, the three women are cleaning up the rubble of history in the Politburo, where so much history has been made. The presence of the oval table suggests that this is the only constant in Russian history; the leaders come and go, but the table remains, symbol of indomitable power.
The 1982 Politburo assemble, “most of them looking old and sick” (2). The spectacle of these old, powerful men shambling towards the oval table suggests that the Soviet leaders are decaying under the weight of an oppressive history and an old, dead ideology. The Stalinist inheritance, says Gorbachev (who is apart from the main group) is: “Dust, dust, poverty and dust” (4).
The notion that history lurks in every corner of Moscow is dramatized through Zoya and her family. Zoya has received news that her son Andrushka has been killed during the Afghanistan war, another victim of decisions made behind the oval table. In her grief, Zoya attacks the capitulation of her husband, Grisha, who has been a secret policeman for fifty years (23). Her other son Boris knows nothing about this and realizes that the family has been living a lie. The suggestion here is that the real history has been buried and stored secretly, guarded by policemen like Grisha. Boris thought that his father worked at the Mayakovsky museum, whereas, in actuality, Grisha's job has been to torture dissidents and “enemies of the state.” Grisha has witnessed the deaths of Meyerhold and Osip Mandelstaum, who symbolize those who speak out against oppression as well as being “historians” who record the suffering and tyranny of the age. Grisha is able to recall Osip Mandelstaum's Stalin poem, which Stalin attempted to obliterate, revealing Brenton's belief that history suppressed will rise up and haunt the future (an idea explored in 1990 in his play about Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess, H.I.D (Hess Is Dead)). Certainly, in the era of perestroika (as Ali and Brenton found), much of the hidden history of what happened to dissenters and so-called “dissidents” is becoming known. Grisha evokes some of the tragedies of Soviet history in the hope that his son Boris will understand his predicament. He tells Boris that individual morality seemed irrelevant: “But morality never entered into it. We had lost a few million during the First World War. Then came the civil war. Millions more died. People were tired. They wanted stability.” (24). The speech gives a sense of how the tragic history of the Soviet Union itself tended to dwarf the individual and engender fatalism. Yet, Moscow Gold never really uses history in an enlightening way, other than in this scene. Although the scene is somewhat contrived, with its self-conscious references to artists and the Mayakovsky museum (which Brenton visited), the situation illustrates the peculiar dilemma that many Soviet families would find themselves in. It is interesting to compare this to Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest (1989), which follows the everyday lives of two families before and after the revolution in Romania. Because totalitarianism seeps into the heart of people's private lives, it is much more illuminating to witness the details of how those lives are conducted, as they often reflect more forcefully the effects of the State. In the original production of Mad Forest, for example, at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, many family scenes were like silent tableaux, suggesting the fear of freedom of expression. Unfortunately, in Moscow Gold, the writers never really explore the impact of historical events on individual and family lives.
In Ali and Brenton's perception, Gorbachev is shown as following on from Lenin and the aims of the 1917 revolution.17 This is dramatically portrayed with Gorbachev in communion with the ghost of Lenin, who is seen as a detached joker, suspended in mid-air, as though enjoying his Godlike perspective on Gorbachev's dilemma. (In the Barry Kyle production, both Gorbachev and Lenin were suspended in mid-air.) It is Lenin who pushes Gorbachev to complete his revolution, which he interprets as rebuilding Socialism. But Brenton and Ali do not address or challenge the revisionist interpretations of Lenin and his legacy to present-day Russia.18 History is often evoked in Moscow Gold, but never analysed. Lenin suggests that everything was poisoned in 1917 by the First World War. “Then the well of Soviet socialism itself was contaminated,” he says (62). Yet these comments are never explored or any reasons given why this vast country slid into Stalinism. There is an ellipsis of controversial issues—such as, say, Lenin's creation of the Cheka or War Communism—under Bolshevik rule. As far back as the 1920s, Bertrand Russell criticized the Bolsheviks for their “harsh and dictatorial spirit” and predicted Stalinism.19 The play does not rise to the challenge of glasnost or fulfil its own claims: to reassess history.
After his conversation with Lenin, Gorbachev is shown more readily accepting the changes and the new currents of historical change. Yet Gorbachev is in conflict with both those who hold historical flow in check and those who want to break away from Socialist tradition (such as Boris Yeltsin) and move radically towards a capitalist economy. Gorbachev argues with Marxist hardliners within his own Politburo, but also in Germany he faces the intransigence of Egon Krenz and Erich Honecker. “You froze history in your country,” Gorbachev tells them (45). The squabbles between Honecker, Krenz, and Gorbachev are shown to be irrelevant to the flow of history in any case as these scenes are juxtaposed with the destruction of the Berlin Wall. (The dramatic spectacle, actors tearing holes in the wall, made of paper, and jumping through, inevitably pales in comparison with the tremendous excitement of the real event.)
The “perestroika” pageant, beginning Act Two, is a complete contrast to the “Revolution pageant.” It is “chaotic, unfocused, bad tempered” (47), suggesting that the myriad problems—economic, social, racial—that had been hidden for so many years under Stalinism suddenly erupt. Ali and Brenton give voices to disparate groups, which include Azerbaijan Muslims, Baltic folklorists, miners, and Russian fascists. Yet this speedy evocation betrays some of the flaws in Moscow Gold in their attempt at evoking the breadth of Russia.20 According to Barry Kyle, Moscow Gold attempted to go beyond mere “descriptive journalism” and thus make it possible for “these events to be understood.”21 After the spectacle of the first act, the audience need analysis of the issues raised. And while the play certainly suggests the overwhelming sense of the myriad problems assailing Gorbachev, the playwrights do not follow through these issues, and it is perhaps this fragmentary evocation of complex problems that left Nick Curtis with “the feeling that perhaps the problems of the USSR aren't such a big deal after all.”22
The exorcism of the Stalinist inheritance is given much more symbolic meaning through the representation of the Ceauşescus. The play shows some of the darker undercurrents working against “perestroika” (before the failed military coup), particularly through the hard-liners within the Politburo. The old guard is presented with “the corpse of NIKOLAI CEAUŞESCU dangling between them” (71). They appear as puppets of history, as though manipulated by the dead ghost of Stalin and speaking in a dead language.
Gorbachev is shown still attempting to make sense of history and apply the notion that history is scientific. “Why is our destiny so impenetrable? The point of government is to know what you are doing. To do that, you need to know what will happen. That is why history must be a science” (58).
From this point of view, the Marxist historical materialist view of history is shown to be in a state of crisis. The notion of a “scientific” Socialism (the term used by Engels), which could predict historical development, is in doubt.
Gorbachev is seen as advancing the goals of Alexander Dubcek, which would be to bring about the potential of the Prague Spring before it was crushed by Soviet tanks. Gorbachev recognizes that the present is too riddled with ghosts and problems, but looks forward to “twenty years” in the future. “It's a sad business, making history under circumstances out of your control,” he says (69).
Ali and Brenton voice alternative views about Gorbachev's creation of a “third way” in the Soviet Union in the future. Boris, who decides to leave Russia to teach Russian literature in Florence, considers a Russia in ten years' time which has degenerated into a “second Brazil” with shanty towns and “Gimcrack economics” (77). Boris Yeltsin voices his idea of a Russian Utopia where the country becomes “The California of Europe” (82). Of course, this is not the Utopia imagined by Gorbachev, or indeed by the authors of Moscow Gold. The play ends by putting forward three alternatives for the future of Gorbachev's “perestroika.” The first ending is pessimistic in that Gorbachev is assassinated by three gangsters, with the logical consequence a return of power for the old guard. The second is optimistic, with the authors allowing themselves a “Utopian lapse.” It is set in a future (unspecified) Russia where Gorbachev has rebuilt his Socialist state and decides to send aid to Washington, a complete turn-around of the present situation. The third “utopian” ending sees history as a logical progression from the 1917 revolution. Writing in 1936, Karl Mannheim associated “man's will to shape history” and understand it with the utopian mentality. Inevitably, the utopian mentality is connected to a sense of history as progress; progress not only in history, but concurrently in human potential.23 The endings reveal the authors' ambiguity about history and progress, but show them still clinging desperately to ideology. The ambiguity is a recognition (however partial) by the authors that history cannot easily be viewed as part of a progression when it is so obviously in a state of flux. As Brenton and Ali point out: “The changes in the East have transformed world politics. Uncertainty has replaced the tried and tested formulas of both Right and Left. The nettle we had to grasp, as socialist writers, was that there are no longer easy ideological solutions.”24 This recognition has yet to lead to a reassessment by Brenton of his often simplistic and over-optimistic historical schema and his belief that society is moving towards a “second renaissance.”
In many ways, Moscow Gold reveals similar problems to those of Iranian Nights in that the authors have failed to digest contemporary history and analyse its complexities in a convincing way. As Michael Billington concluded: “Theatre cannot compete with history.”25 If drama is to compete with “living history,” it needs to go much further in deepening understanding of its issues than what can already be gleaned from the media.
Events in Russia since the production—including the failed coup, the resignation of Gorbachev as party leader, the banning of the Communist Party, the dissolution of the Soviet Union—again further underline the unpredictability of history and the difficulty of prophesying any “utopias.” Boris Yeltsin's ascendancy over a year ago has brought about a government struggling to create a free market in a country riddled with massive inflation, corruption, unemployment, and ethnic conflict after seven decades of authoritarian rule. In its historical and dramatic inadequacies, Moscow Gold reflects a continuing need for the British Left to rise to the challenge of glasnost and move beyond naïve and schematic Marxist analytical frameworks.
V. Mayakovsky, “Who Has Lef Got His Teeth Into?” (1923), in Plays/Articles/Essays, vol. 3, (Moscow, 1987), 172.
Howard Brenton, Preface to Brenton Plays: One, (London, 1986), xiv.
Howard Brenton, “Address given at the University of New South Wales,” Sydney, Australia, 23 May 1984.
Howard Brenton, Preface, (London, 1986), xv.
Tariq Ali, Revolution from Above: Where is the Soviet Union Going? (London, 1988), xii.
Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali, “Explanatory Note,” in Moscow Gold (London, 1990). All page references will be to this edition.
Martin Esslin, “Barry Kyle Talks about Moscow Gold: Contemporary History Stages,” Plays International (October 1990), 10-11.
See prologue to 2nd ed. of Mystery-Bouffe, contained in James M. Symons's Meyerhold's Theatre of the Grotesque: The Post-Revolutionary Productions, 1920-1932 (Coral Gables, 1971), 52.
Edward Braun, ed., Meyerhold on Theatre (London, 1969), 139.
This is especially disappointing given that Tariq Ali edited The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on Twentieth-Century World Politics (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1984).
Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali, “Explanatory Note,” vi.
Howard Brenton, Sore Throats and Sonnets of Love and Opposition (London, 1979), 45.
Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali, Moscow Gold, 1.
See, for example, Richard Pipes's The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, (New York, 1990), which argues that there is no “clear beginning or neat end” (xxi) to the revolutionary movement. Also see Edward Acton's Rethinking the Russian Revolution (London, 1990).
Howard Brenton, Preface to Brenton Plays: Two (London, 1989), xi.
Ali's book sees Gorbachev as revitalizing the Socialist project along Leninist lines. See Revolution from Above, 100. Ali never raises the suggestion that Gorbachev's invocation of Lenin may well have been a political tactic to signal to the old guard that reform was merely a return to the original aims of the Party.
Richard Pipes's chapter on “The Red Terror,” for example, in The Russian Revolution (789-840), examines Lenin's responsibility for the terror and the regime that Stalin inherited.
Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (London, 1920), 170. In the book, Russell professes a belief in Communism, but “not Bolshevism” and his critique in the early 1920s might suggest a way for Ali and Brenton to argue from their ideological position while confronting the issues of the late 1980s/early 1990s.
The Chernobyl Man, for example, seems an unfortunate creation for dealing with the tragedy of Chernobyl. He is “heavily sun-tanned” and dressed in shabby country clothes. Yet, the presentation seems somewhat fey, as Chernobyl Man sings: “Ring a ring o' roses, pocket full o' posies, it's blown up, it's blown up, we all fall down” (56). The character is on stage briefly and states what is already known about the effects of radiation. There is a sense that the authors are not following through the implications of the issue.
Esslin, “Barry Kyle Talks about Moscow Gold,” 10-11.
Nick Curtis, Plays and Players (November 1990), 27.
Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (London, 1936; reprinted 1966). See chapter on “The Utopian Mentality.”
Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, “Explanatory Note,” viii.
Michael Billington, “All That Glitters Hides Gold,” Guardian (28 September 1990), 44.
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SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher. “Acts of Violence in Grosvenor Square.” London Review of Books 20, no. 11 (4 June 1998): 14-15.
[In the following excerpt, Hitchens contends that Ali provides a vivid portrayal of the 1960s world climate in 1968: Marching in the Streets.]
I was just beginning to write about 1968 when I learned of the death in New Orleans of Ron Ridenhour, the GI who exposed the massacre at My Lai. He was only 52, which means that he was in his early twenties when, as a helicopter gunner in the area, he learned of the murder of nearly 660 Vietnamese civilians. This was not some panicky ‘collateral damage’ firefight: the men of Charlie Company took a long time to dishonour and dismember the women, round up and despatch the children and make the rest of the villagers lie down in ditches while they walked up and down shooting them. Not one of the allegedly ‘searing’ films about the war—not Apocalypse Now, not Full Metal Jacket or Platoon—has dared to show anything remotely like the truth of this and many other similar episodes, more evocative of Poland or the Ukraine in 1941. And the thing of it was, as Ron pointed out, that it was ‘an act of policy, not an individual aberration. Above My Lai that day were helicopters filled with the entire command staff of the brigade, division and task force.’
A few weeks ago, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, the state finally got round to recognising the only physical hero of the story, a decent guy named Hugh Thompson who saw what was going on, landed his helicopter between Lieutenant Calley's killing-squads and the remnant of the inhabitants, called for back-up and drew his sidearm. His citation had taken thirty years to come through. It was intended as part of the famous ‘healing process’ which never seems quite to achieve ‘closure’.
Ron wasn't interested in any stupid healing process. He wanted justice to be done, and it never was. A single especially befouled culprit, the above-mentioned Calley, was eventually court-martialled and served a brief period of house-arrest before being exonerated by Nixon. The superiors, both immediate and remote, got clean away. A canny young military lawyer near the scene, Colin Powell by name, founded a lifelong reputation for promise and initiative by arranging to have the papers mixed up at the office of the Judge-Advocate General.
I once asked Ron Ridenhour what had led him to risk everything by compiling his own report on the extermination at My Lai and sending it to Congress. He told me that, poor white boy as he was (he left school at 14 and was drafted without protest), he had been in basic training when, in the hut one night, a group of good ol' boys had decided to have some fun with the only black soldier in the detail. The scheme was to castrate him. Nobody was more astonished than Ron to hear his own voice coming across the darkened bunks. ‘“If you want to get to him, you've got to come through me.” I'd've been dead if I hadn't been white and poor like them, but they gave up.’ Later, when his troopship called in at Hawaii en route for Saigon, he went ashore and bought a book about Vietnam by the late Bernard Fall. ‘Shit, this is what I'm getting into.’
A revolutionary moment requires both extraordinary times and extraordinary people, and Ron Ridenhour, despite his laconic attitude, was one of the latter. He wouldn't have denied, however, that there was ‘something in the air’ in those days. It was getting to the point where you couldn't shove black people around so easily, or invade any country that took your fancy. There were people who wouldn't take it, and even people in the press and in the academy who were prepared to make an issue of that. (Though this can be underestimated: it took more than a year for the My Lai story to get into print—in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) Nonetheless, the climacteric that was 1968 had been building for some time. What fused it into critical mass, and provided its most indelible slogans and imagery, was undoubtedly the correspondence between the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, both of them American and both of them therefore, in a time when ‘global village’ was a new cliché, universal in scope and appeal and reach.
Something has to be done to rescue that time from the obfuscations that have descended over it and to fend off the sneers and jeers that now attach so easily. Some people, of course, take a kind of pleasure in repudiating their own past. Some, whether they wish to or not, live long enough to become negations or caricatures. Or indeed partial confirmations: I am thinking of Lionel Jospin, now chief minister of France and in those days a member of an unusually dogmatic trotskisant group; a groupuscule, indeed, and perhaps an excellent school for the inflexible later canons of neo-liberalism. Robert Lowell once said that he was glad not to have been a revolutionary when young, because it prevented him from becoming a reactionary bore in his old age. I see the point: the fact remains that in mid-life and in 1968 he acted eloquently and well, as a citizen of the republic of Emerson and Whitman should when the state is intoxicated with injustice and war. ‘Retrospectives’ which emphasise flowers, beads, dope and simplistic anarchism tend to leave him out, as they also omit the Ron Ridenhours.
I didn't really lift a finger to stop the colonial bloodbath in Vietnam which was, let it never be forgotten, prosecuted by liberal Democrats and robotically supported by an Old Labour Government. I did give some blood for the Vietcong, at a Blackfriars monastery which had been swept into enthusiasm by the mood of the time. (‘Brother, your blood group is a rare AB. Do you think you might possibly make it two pints?’ ‘No.’) I invited Eduardo Mondlane, the soon-to-be assassinated leader of the rebels in Mozambique, to my rooms, and helped organise a public meeting where he hailed the Vietnamese revolution for presaging the defeat of Salazarism in both Africa and Portugal, which indeed it did. I undertook a little work in helping American draft resisters in Oxford, thereby earning my first but not last file held by creepy people nobody had voted for. I went out with the brush and the poster-paint. And I took part in a good-sized punch-up outside the American Embassy in London, thus disproving (as a pamphlet of the time pointed out) Lady Bracknell's piercing words in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.’
The My Lai massacre had taken place the day before: we weren't to know that but it did seem very important to us that, half a world away, the Vietnamese might get to hear about this riot and somehow, I don't know, take heart. Mike Rosen, who was arrested and roughed up along with one or two other people who might be embarrassed if I printed their names today, wrote a rather fine agitprop poem making this simple point. It was a beautiful spring day and as one looked up from the big heaving, horse-battered, clod-throwing tussle around the Roosevelt memorial one could see the reflection of binoculars and spy-glasses as various members of the ruling class, foregathered on the roofs of North Audley Street, strove to catch the mood of the nation's supposedly insurgent youth. The editor of the Daily Telegraph the next morning published some sort of ‘I was there’ piece in which he got all the slogans wrong, perhaps from listening through an ear-trumpet. One of the fun things that year was to monitor the hopeless efforts of a rattled establishment to ‘keep up’. At Oxford the authorities had a solemn discussion about covering the medieval cobbles with tarmac, lest there be a nuit des barricades, and in the PPE examination papers an anxious and ‘with-it’ question asked for elucidation of the sage ‘Herbert Maracuse’. That was good for a chuckle. But it wasn't all doddering and quavering: Home Secretary Callaghan, that red-faced beadle, knew his stern duty. All the Fleet Street rags, the day after Grosvenor Square, printed a leering pic of a girl demonstrator in the grip of several stout bobbies, her skirt round her waist while one especially beefy constable administered a spanking. (For all I know, this is one of the many triggers that may have set Paul Johnson off.)
Tariq Ali was the moving spirit of that rally and this book [1968: Marching in the Streets]—which includes the spanking picture—brings it all back with exquisite vividness. It's hard to recall what a hate-figure he was in those days. I had a friend, a moustachioed Parsee Marxist named Jairus Banaji, who was forever getting picked up and smacked around by the forces of law and order just for the sake of appearances, as you might say. But then, 1968 was also the year when, also to the gloat and awe and wonder of the Tory press, London dockers marched to Westminster in support of Enoch Powell. Seeing the Kenyan High Commissioner entering the precincts of Parliament, they bellowed ‘Go back to Jamaica’ and were much admired in the suburbs for their John Bull spirit. The Communist Party, which was strong on the docks in those times and had the famous Jack Dash as its hate-figure, took the day off and later tried to organise a conciliatory East End meeting addressed by the concerned priesthood. But this is to get ahead of the story somewhat.
Like most such ‘years’, 1968 began a few months early. Premonitory rumbles, in my memory, include the American-inspired military coup in Greece on 21 April 1967, which seemed to challenge the endlessly reiterated notion of reliable ideological ‘convergence’ between Western European political forces (and also allowed us a second look at the ‘defensive posture’ of Nato). One would have to add the hunting down, by CIA men and the agents of a brutal dictatorship, of Che Guevara in Bolivia in October 1967, in which the local Communist Party also played a complaisant part. And, in quite another key, I recall the death at about that time of Isaac Deutscher, who had done so much in the early years of the teach-in movement to remind the young that ‘the end of ideology’ was itself an ideological construct, and that there still existed factors such as class and power. (When he spoke at the main event in Berkeley, the Communists tried to keep his appearance until last and then cut off the microphone.)
There's a kaleidoscopic feel to the pages of the Ali-Watkins volume. Turn the pages in a hurry and you go from the Tet offensive in Vietnam to the strikes in Poland to the murder of Dr King and the ghetto insurrection, getting no time to take breath for les évènements in France and the shooting of Robert Kennedy. Then comes the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the drama in the streets at the Chicago Democratic Convention, the butchery at the Mexico Olympics and the brave (now seemingly almost quixotic) We Shall Overcome moments of the first citizens' movement in Ulster. Some of these produced imperishable vignettes: microcosmic glimpses that were better recollected in tranquillity. I remember Terry Barrett, a Tilbury docker, giving a brilliant rasping reply to the racists from a May Day platform, and the workers at the Berliet plant outside Paris rearranging the letters of their company logo to read Liberté, and Mayor Daley being lip-read by the cameras as he shouted across the Convention floor at the composed, dignified figure of Senator Abraham Ribicoff: ‘Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch. Fuck you. Go home.’ I also remember Dr Frantisek Kriegel, the only member of the Czechoslovak leadership who refused to sign the humiliating post-invasion document. He was a veteran of the International Brigades, the Chinese revolution and the wartime resistance, and is often left out of the record (including, though not for this reason, of the Ali-Watkins book) because he put the signers to shame and also because he was attempting to save the honour of socialism.
Not entirely with hindsight, one can now identify the significance of 1968 as being perhaps the critical year in that Death of Communism that is now such a commonplace. Some of my best friends in those days, as well as some of my worst enemies, were members of the Communist Party. It was very striking to be able to observe, in both cases, to what a huge extent a year of crisis and opportunity exposed them to awkwardness, put them on the defensive, found them stammering and unprepared. Their international fraternity of parties had become so contorted and congested by past lies and compromises and reversals that they yearned mainly for a quiet life. Thus: the spring developments in Prague could not be accepted in their entirely even by the reform supporters, because they contained a frontal challenge to ‘the leading role of the Party’. But the prospect of a Warsaw Pact fraternal intervention would compromise at one stroke the careful edifice of peace campaigns and ‘broad fronts’ through which the Party had ingratiatingly tried, with some success, to keep in with the Labour Left and the trade-union apparat, I used to read the Morning Star (which had changed its name from the Daily Worker to become, as one comrade put it, a version of the Daily Employee) attentively. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign was denounced, because the Soviet Union ostensibly put its faith in the good offices of U Thant. Enoch Powell was to be challenged by a bureaucratic fiat: prosecution under the incitement clause of the Race Relations Act. The Jew-baiting of the Polish authorities in the ‘anti-Zionist’ purge in Warsaw in March 1968 was to be discussed only in a whisper. Most revealing of all, the stony and mediocre nomenklatura of the French Communist Party (those ‘crapules Staliniennes’, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit invigoratingly termed them) exerted their entire negative weight in order to abort the anti-Gaullist upheaval in France. We know now what we knew then: the Soviet Union had given the PCF a direct instruction to become ‘the party of order’. In a recent edition of the Paris magazine L'Evènement du Jeudi, one can read the testimony of Yuri Dobrynin, former fixer at the Soviet Embassy in Paris, who recalls in round terms: ‘La ligne dictée par Moscou était précise: pas toucher à de Gaulle.’ Thus, when the General returned in mid-rebellion from a fraternal visit to Ceausescu's Romania, and disappeared to Germany to consult with his military caste and agreed to release the Algerian war-criminals Raoul Salan and Jacques Soustelle as part of the deal, he had a porte-parole from the Kremlin in his pocket. The Fifth Republic with its cynical and fluctuating anti-Americanism didn't have long to run in fact, but George Marchais and Jacques Duclos and the others weren't to know that, any more than they did when they became the ‘party of order’ once more and supported the ‘normalisation’ of Czechoslovakia a few months later. Somewhere between those two moments, the remaining breath fled the body of monolithic Communism, which continued to decompose steadily in ways that some soixante-huitards found relatively easy to follow. (I was to have arguments with truly believing Communists only once more, among certain American pro-Sandinistas in the late Eighties, but by then it was like dealing with the squeaks emitted long ago from a dead planet. The real laugh came when dealing with the neo-conservatives who needed the illusion of an unsleeping and keenly ideological foe.)
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SOURCE: Ferraro, Julian. Review of Fear of Mirrors, by Tariq Ali. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4970 (3 July 1998): 20.
[In the following review, Ferraro praises Fear of Mirrors for its examination of characters who serve political ideals, but faults the novel for its trite conclusion and “wooden” dialogue.]
Fear of Mirrors, Tariq Ali's third work of fiction, is a political novel. The book's narrative spans the twentieth century, from the last years of the Austrian Empire to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany. Its central character, Professor Vladimir Meyer, is an East German Communist, a former dissident, who has been dismissed from his university post by the “Westies”. Politically and emotionally estranged from his son, Karl, and abandoned by his wife, Helge, he tries to make sense of his own history and that of his country. The novel unfolds in a series of accounts, from various perspectives, of the present and the past, which are framed by the device of Vlady's attempt at a family history for his son. Moving fluidly between significant historical moments, this tells the interconnected stories of Vlady, of his mother, Gertrude, and his supposed father, Ludwik, a Soviet master-spy and the recruiter of Kim Philby. Vlady's account has a clear (and worthwhile) political agenda: “What I want … is to rescue the people in this story from the grip of those whose only interest in the past is to justify their version of the present.”
Towards the beginning of the novel, Vlady recommends Alfred Döblin's Marxist epics of the 1940s to Karl, who is rapidly rising in the Social Democratic Party of the new Germany. The terms in which he does so might serve as an artistic manifesto for Fear of Mirrors itself:
The subject of a novel is reality unchained, reality that confronts the reader completely independently of some firmly fixed course of events. It is the reader's task to judge not the author's! To speak of a novel is to speak of layering, of piling in heaps, of wallowing, of pushing and shoving.
At one point in Döblin's A People Betrayed: November 1918: A German Revolution, one of the characters is described in the following terms: “It seems to me that a man like you, who has long seen things so clearly, who stands in the midst of life, that such a man can explain to us what the world looks like now.” Dispensing with all Döblin's ironies, Tariq Ali makes use of his own characters, such as Ludwik, who “moved in the thought-channels of his century”, as a means of launching the sophisticated political discourse that distinguishes his book.
Fear of Mirrors is at its best in its examination of the painful and morally doubtful consequences of the compromises forced on those who live their lives in the service of political ideals, charting as it does the movement from utopian world revolution to Stalinist terror to the unsatisfactory realities of post-Communist Europe. Ali tells an intellectually and emotionally engaging story—even a reasonably gripping one, though the final twists in the tale are predictable. Other aspects of the writing betray a leaden touch. The dialogue is either turgid with political analysis or wooden to the point of bathos (“‘It's all over, Vlady! Unlike the phoenix, your DDR will never rise again. And I'm glad.’ Vlady smiled. ‘So am I, but what has any of that to do with Marxism?’”), and the trite conclusion provided by the final scenes seriously undermines the bleak complexities of the rest of the book.
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SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “Playing at Politics.” New Statesman 27, no. 4411 (13 November 1998): 36.
[In the following review, Kellaway discusses the tone and pacing of Ugly Rumours.]
There is a madwoman in the cellar of No 10 Downing Street. Her name is Margaret Thatcher. Her triple-stringed pearls are intact but her twin-set suit, though tightly buttoned, is adrift with cobwebs. She needs dusting but does not know it. She is, in Sylvia Syms' entertaining portrayal of her, a merry but slightly sinister ghost. She still sees herself as the most influential person in the country. She carries about her person a “Thatcher extractor”, a sort of portable Hoover designed to suck socialism out of the body. It seems to work on Tony Blair—and she is pleased with him.
Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali have done wisely to include Thatcher in their satire of new Labour, Ugly Rumours. For Blair does not lend himself to biting comedy quite as naturally as Thatcher has always done. The problem is that in life Blair resembles a moderately talented actor who has been badly directed (think of his awful over-emphatic rendition of Corinthians 14 at Diana's funeral; he made it sound as though he were trying to sell love as party policy).
In this production, Blair is played by a moderately talented actor (Neil Mullarkey) but at least he has been well directed by Christopher Morahan and Stephen Rayne. Tony-Boy, as he is known, has a habitual look of aggrieved naivety. He is someone who wants others to agree with him at any cost. (“Let's just agree to agree. I love agreements.”) He shows a child's bafflement when crossed. He slaps the word “new” on everything, even referring to the “new future”. I laughed aloud at Blair's re-write of Churchill's “fight them on the beaches” speech which includes the revision: “We must go down to the beaches with some fluffy towels.” But Tony-Boy is, elsewhere, more depressing than amusing. He is nothing like so much fun as Mrs Thatcher.
More sport is to be had with Cherie Blair (brilliantly played by Carla Mendonca), otherwise known as Cherry-Pop. She dangles in the play like her sparkling but pointless New Age pendant, practising her painful smile and making brittle remarks about life as an “ordinary” QC. She has enough intelligence to suspect that Tony is being spoilt by power.
Much more powerful than Blair or his wife, though, and competing even with Thatcher are two PR girls: Polly Mendacity (Jaye Griffiths) and Charlie Ferrago (Carla Mendonca again). Charlie looks after Gordon Brown (known here as Gordon Macduff); Polly minds Blair. The women, dressed in black, behave with the mindless energy of a pair of over-keen aerobics instructors. I tired of them quickly. They are sadly necessary to the story but are wrapping without substance. Bunny Christie's design is a more interesting, slick package: the screen at the back of his set an inescapable reminder of television's role in politics.
Gordon Brown/Macduff (Gordon Kennedy) is steeped in quasi-Shakespearean quotes so far that should he wade no more returning were as tedious as to go o'er. He is mainly in the grip of a Hamlet fantasy: his “father” is the late John Smith (Tony Selby), who keeps appearing to tell him that he finds new Labour's policies (and Brown's last Budget) “horrible, horrible, most horrible”.
Rupert Murdoch (Tony Selby again) is nastily and amusingly rendered as the reluctant, foul-mouthed God with a toy koala bear on his knee and a map of the world in front of him. He is boorish, domineering and, it is dismally clear, made of much stronger stuff than any of the politicians with whom he plays. Richard Branson is also wonderfully rendered as “Biggles”, borne aloft by red balloons and boasting fatuously that his company is “always moving”.
The production is always moving, too, the structure of the play sees to that: it is organised into sound—or sight—bites. The structure is appropriate to the play's bleak vision of a world where politics is debilitated by technology (we are definitely in the digital age here). The writing is properly aggressive and, as the PR girls would say, “on-message”. But there is an obvious difficulty about satirising blandness that Ali and Brenton never quite overcome. In a programme note we are told that “the play takes place in a very real world”. Not so. This is a very unreal world that weirdly excludes ordinary people and their problems. But that, presumably, is the point.
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SOURCE: Williams, Ranti. “The Heart of a Warrior.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4992 (4 December 1998): 23.
[In the following review, Williams asserts that The Book of Saladin vividly depicts the sweep of history, but fails to develop its characters adequately.]
Saladin is one of the few figures to have emerged from the bloody, brutal history of the Crusades with any measure of dignity. Legend and history concur in presenting the Kurdish warrior who led the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem in 1198 as a man whose integrity and compassion more than matched his sense of religious destiny and military skills. [In The Book of Saladin,] Tariq Ali's fictional account of Saladin does not attempt to sully history's portrait of this liberal Muslim hero. Instead, it attempts to add to the conventional view of this humane, generous leader a sense of indecision and loneliness by presenting the contradictions at the heart of the great man.
The historical Saladin was the first Muslim leader to see the recapture of Jerusalem as part of a greater jihad. Ali's Saladin, despite an eventual sense of religious destiny, has a history of youthful scepticism—much is made of his failure to visit Mecca, which is seen as a conscious youthful decision, then a constant adult regret. Similarly, despite the historical Saladin's reputation for clever military strategy, Ali's version is strangely indecisive, poignantly susceptible to the opinions of those around him. Finally, Ali transforms the historical Saladin, the habitual frequenter of his large harem, into a man who, even in middle age, nurses the broken heart inflicted on him by an adolescent rejection. For all these attempts to make Saladin a more complex human being, Ali's Saladin does not live on the page and simply serves to prove that a mass of contradictions does not a character make.
The novel is in the form of a fictional memoir dictated by Saladin to Ibn Yakub, a Jewish scribe who talks to family and friends to gain a fuller picture of his subject. Of the fictional characters Ali creates to support his stellar historical cast, Ibn Yakub is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best realized. Even as he is chronicling the lives and histories of the great and good, the humble scribe is fighting his own battles of wounded pride and bitterness occasioned by his wife's adultery. After a time, however, Ali seems to lose interest in his fictional alter ego, and so do we.
The other imagined characters in the novel do not fare anywhere near as well as the narrator. Ali points out in his introduction that “Women are a subject on which medieval history is usually silent”. To remedy the historical balance, he creates two particularly spirited member of Saladin's harem—Jamila and Halima. Jamila, the more attractive of the two, is as radical in her religious philosophy (she is a sceptic) as she is in her sexual orientation (she is a lesbian). But the problem with Ali's portrayal of life beyond battles and councils of war is that his women and eunuchs, rather like his constant references to homosexual practice, all seem part of a worthy educational exercise. His efforts to portray those marginalized by history are commendable, but this should not have kept him from making them something more than ciphers or symbols. Considering the vibrancy of the period and culture chosen, The Book of Saladin is surprisingly flat. Ibn Yakub's uninspired style and a dialogue laden with platitudes do not help; neither does a strange lack of any sense of the passage of time.
Unlike Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy, which conveys Alexander's military genius and personal vulnerability, The Book of Saladin manages the grand historical sweep with a fair amount of colour and incident, but the core of the novel, where character should be, is empty.
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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of Fear of Mirrors, by Tariq Ali. World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 219.
[In the following review, King offers a negative assessment of Fear of Mirrors, calling the work confusing, poorly written, and clichéd.]
Fear of Mirrors belongs to a literary subgenre that has not been fashionable during recent decades. Like many political novels, it attempts a grand story and has an epic feel resulting from the characters' involvement in major historical events. Tariq Ali tells of the rise and fall of communism as experienced by some Central European Jews who, rebelling against their enclosed society and against violent persecutions, were early communists. The novel moves back and forth between characters and places and times as several generations of family, friends, and lovers devote themselves to the revolution, become disillusioned, are betrayed and exterminated, or want to learn about, explain, or justify the past.
The story takes place against such events as Lenin's distrust of Stalin, Stalin's gaining control of the Communist Party, the failure of the revolution in Germany, the shift in the party line from global revolution to defense of the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, the many purges, the way those who knew of Stalin's crimes hid them either from fear or because of the need first to defeat fascism, the fate of reform movements, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of Germany. Fictional characters are mixed with well-known public figures, including known spies. As in many political novels the movement is from hopes to disillusionments; a constant theme is betrayal, either from fear of others and the truth, personal weakness, lies, or for political reasons. Husbands are betrayed by their wives, children by their mothers, and all are betrayed by their dream of a future of social justice.
Most of the novel takes the form of a long letter concerning family history from a father to his son in which he tries to explain the generations who gave their lives and killed others for a now lost cause. The novel curiously ends happily with several reunions, forgiveness, and even the suggestion that some form of Marxism is likely to be a major force once more as global capitalism is unable to be a solve the world's economic and social problems. Ali implies that communism was a noble experiment which went off the track because of Stalin. While he sees his characters as deluded, they have no other alternatives. Although ambiguity is rather mechanically worked into the comments characters make about Marxism, there is not a good word in the book for anything noncommunist. There is none of the considered criticism of communism often found in Europe, where, after examining what Marxism had produced around the world, many intellectuals feel that the faults were inherent in the theory and utopianism.
Ali is a well-known editor and author of New Left political publications, but Fear of Mirrors is a badly written novel. There is hardly a paragraph without clichés, political jargon, textbook political summaries, unbelievable dialogue, inappropriate diction, heavy-handed explanations. The characters seldom are credible as presented. The structure of the novel is overelaborate, confusing, and requires rereading. The characters blur into one another. Drama is faked by ellipses and revelations. While there is the power that comes from a crude version of a thriller, Ali has shown that the distinction between creative and other forms of writing still holds true.
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SOURCE: Jakeman, Jane. “Novel of the Week.” New Statesman 128, no. 4418 (8 January 1999): 55.
[In the following review, Jakeman maintains that The Book of Saladin is a fulfilling read, utilizing “sparse prose” filled with exotic settings in order to create a realistic portrait of the sultan.]
[The Book of Saladin] is a work of fiction based on a historical character who has attained quasi-mythical status in both east and west. To the Muslim world, he is a rallying cry, an almost superhuman conqueror, an utterly virtuous religious figure as the commander of a holy war, leading the charge onward at sword point as the famous equestrian statue at Damascus. To the Christian world, he has long been the redeeming light in a world perceived generally as obscure and cruel: the rare courtly opponent surrounded by oriental darkness and wiles.
It was this western version of the Saladin legend that enabled the 19th century to create the concept of a superior warrior breed, wielders of damascened weapons as described in Lane-Poole's Art of the Saracens. Saracens, not Muslims or Arabs or Kurds. By splitting off certain aspects of Islamic history, it was possible for the west to appreciate a refined aristocratic culture unconnected with the inconvenient real peoples in the Muslim world. The Saladin myth was a powerful one that still informed Eden's aristocratic viewpoint in the Suez crisis, when he clearly could not believe that an ordinary little city clerk like Nasser, holding a pen instead of a sword and dressed in trousers instead of chain mail, could be an acceptable Arab leader.
We are used to the Saladin legend told from the Christian point of view, a set iconography of encounters between east and west glamourised by writers from Sir Walter Scott to Graham Shelby, a version that has sided with the Crusaders except for the occasional excursion to concede Saladin's chivalry. This version has been ultimately derived from the western chronicles. Historians who would have been shamed not to read Greek and Latin sources in the original had no compunctions over ignoring the Arab accounts. Sir Steven Runciman, the definitive modern western historian of the Crusades and a master of Byzantine Greek, did not think it necessary to learn Arabic.
It is illuminating, then, to have the Saladin story told by a writer who has immersed himself in the other side. Tariq Ali's novel creates an authentic-seeming court, full of intrigue, dominated by a man who is charismatic yet not a hero of romance, a rather hesitant limping figure, a sultan whose preferred diet is soup and beans.
The life of Saladin is recounted by a Jewish chronicler, Ibn Yakub, an attractive figure whose own story is told in the intervals. The narrative is partly dictated by the sultan himself, partly by others such as the elderly scholar Imad al-Din, and the fascinating figure of Maimonides hovers in the background. The innocent Ibn Yakub is thrown into a dangerous world of shifting alliances, deceptive appearances and military calculation.
As well as the great scenes—the defeat of the Crusaders at Hattin, the encounter with Reynald of Chatillon, the taking of Jerusalem—this is the private life of the sultan, with lively characters who will not be treated as ciphers and a good deal of humour and directness of speech. In Saladin's entourage are strong and intelligent women, the Sultana Jamila and her female lover, and their story is interwoven with that of the sultan's public life. It may be controversial to assign such dominance to the women in a harem, but these are characters in a convincing story with a reality beyond that of historical cliché.
This is a satisfying novel, told, despite its exotic settings, in sparse prose carrying a ring of authenticity reminiscent at times of Naguib Mahfouz. The book deals in complex and subtle people who question the nature of the relationship between body and soul and ponder the purposes of war, not in easy stereotypes or generalisations, even in an area which has traditionally been replete with them. It gives a feeling of how it must have been to be in the company of a great but harried genius and also paints a pluralistic and tolerant Islam, a world of philosophical inquiry as well as military prowess. Saladin's despair of perpetuating such a world and his anguish over lack of Muslim unity, as his life moves towards its conclusion, are moving. “The sultan often asks himself if this bad dream will ever end or is it our fate as the inhabitants of an area which gave birth to Moses, Jesus and Mohammed to be always at war.”
It is here, perhaps, that one senses in the author the sadness of a radical who has seen the failure of ideals in his own lifetime. If this novel offers little comfort for the Crusader side of the story, its dense and multi-faceted explorations are also a plea against all religious bigotry.
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SOURCE: Raine, Nina. “Three Men and a Manifesto.” New Statesman 129, no. 4483 (24 April 2000): 43-4.
[In the following review, Raine discusses the collaboration between Ali, Howard Brenton, and Andy de la Tour and the resulting play Snogging Ken.]
Somewhere in Highgate, north London, three men are sitting round a kitchen table writing a play about the London mayoral election. One of them frets. One of them soothes. And one of them complains about ugly sentences. They are Andy de la Tour, Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton respectively.
I sit on the sofa, next to a pink book entitled Socialism and Democracy, an Arsenal scarf and a cap which claims that “Skateboarding is not a Crime”. We are in Ali's freezing cold kitchen. He doesn't switch on the central heating. There is silence, broken only by the soft plink of the laptop in front of de la Tour. Ali watches him. Suddenly he speaks.
“Andy—you're not happy.”
“No—it's just that, well, I've lost the mouse again.”
Brenton gets up to investigate. He looks like a great dour farmer, but when his mouth opens, a surprising finicky chirrup comes out.
“If you had a nipple, this wouldn't happen, you know. I have a nipple. I love them.”
They have almost finished Snogging Ken. It has taken them one week. By the time this piece is printed, the play, a late-night show using the restaurant set of Pinter's Celebration, will already have opened at the Almeida Theatre in London.
Ali and Brenton have collaborated before, with Moscow Gold (about Mikhail Gorbachev's struggle for power), Iranian Nights (the fatwah), and Ugly Rumours (the friction between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown). Last May, Andy de la Tour joined them to write Collateral Damage (the bombing of the Balkans). The last three are “Instant History Plays”. Brenton is eager to maintain a distinction between “proper” plays, which he still writes, and the “disposable theatre” of their alliance, Stigma, which trades in “annoyers”—“specifically political knockabout”.
But don't these annoyers relate to the agitprop of the Seventies, and the angry political plays that Brenton, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, and David Edgar were writing? I quote Hare: “Our aggression stems … from a basic contempt for people who go to the theatre.” Brenton bursts out laughing.
“When did David say that?”
“That was 28 years ago!” He chuckles wistfully. “Oh, in those days, we were terribly … well, we were … John Osborne said we were very hairy-armpitted.”
This trio don't take themselves so seriously nowadays. But they still share the same left-wing politics. They all went on the same marches. And they still feel, Brenton says, that theatre “should be bright and outrageous and hot”. But they are older, more relaxed, more jovial. This new play displays their fundamental benevolence. Ali says: “It's a sort of joy, really. It's a celebration of Ken—we're delighted that he's decided to stand as mayor.”
However, there is definitely a sense of duty as well as pleasure. These are men of conscience who are politically passionate enough to write the plays that everyone else lazily leaves to them. While others kept mum, they wrote Iranian Nights. Ali says: “People were just genuinely scared to speak up about it at that moment.” Brenton chimes in: “We were trying to do a job—disperse the fear.” Snogging Ken is another job they feel ought to be done—a satire on the absurdities of the mayoral election. “Unfortunately, nobody else is going to write it and put it on,” says de la Tour, “so I suppose we've got to do it.”
Collaboration helps. To write the play on your own, de la Tour reflects, “would be a totally miserable experience”. They can enjoy improvising it as a triumvirate. “The process is speeded up. The fundamental principle of democracy is that you need an odd number,” says de la Tour. In other words, two people continually gang up against a third.
A morning with them, and it's comically clear how each personality contributes. Take a scene in which two Blair babes—one naive, the other knowing—plot Ken's downfall. Brenton, the natural playwright, is the only one who worries about character, continually glossing lines. “Pandora's tetchy here, isn't she? She's saying …” And he is leery of speeches. “Thing is, she's running on a bit, couldn't we break it with a Lola line?” He also objects to de la Tour's liberal use of exclamation and question marks. “I mean, Andy, you've got double question marks in here. What is all this? And then all these exclamation marks. Take them out.”
“I thought some of them read quite well. In fact, one of them was yours.”
“Take them all out.”
They are ruthless with each other. Brenton's own weakness is for the poetic turn of phrase. As the computer crashes once more, he murmurs, “the Alzheimer's of technology”. The others are aware of his foible. When he reaches the line “Flash bulbs in front of flash restaurants”, Ali asks suspiciously: “What's all this? A bit of Brenton poetry?”
“Any fucking poetry—out of the door, mate,” says de la Tour.
The contemporary nature of their subject is both a pleasure and a problem. The Guardian criticised Collateral Damage. Do we really want the theatre to rehearse the same argument we've been having all day? Don't we go to the theatre to escape current affairs? Not necessarily. When Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter was performed in Iran, under the Shah, the Iranian audiences immediately identified with a situation where enigmatic orders arrived from a mysterious power above. They allegorised the play to fit their own political situation. But Pinter is a special case. His plays, such as Mountain Language or One for the Road, though undeniably political, are deliberately set in a non-specific no-man's-land, and therefore they are endlessly relevant. The very specificity that guarantees the relevance of Stigma plays makes them perishable.
However, the authors aren't worried about the afterlife of the play. Let it die. Their real worry is that their parodic predictions could be fulfilled before the curtain even goes up. But topicality, as Ali admits, is “what gives the whole thing a buzz, if you can comment on something that's going on, that isn't even finished—and put it on stage to intervene in that process.”
They turn their attention back to a particularly stubborn gag—a homophobe's vision of Ken orchestrating gay marriages.
Standing there, chain of office round his neck …
… Oscar Wilde in his hand—instead of the Bible.
dE la Tour:
Too wordy and not funny.
In some robe? We need visual comedy.
dE la Tour:
A priest's robe?
No—a made-up robe. Like a druid.
(Worried) Why is a dirty raincoat particularly gay?
Who was the gay saint?
Some kind of pink robe, perhaps.
(De Profundis) … no, they won't get it.
(Brightly) A pink dressing-gown!
Problem is—what's the joke? There is no joke.
(Lets his glasses drop from his forehead onto his nose) I think we've wasted too much time on gay marriage. (He sighs) Let's move on.
Disposable theatre. By the yard. I loved it. Maybe someone should write a play about it.
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SOURCE: Mahawatte, Royce. “At the Summer Palace.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5083 (1 September 2000): 11.
[In the following review, Mahawatte contends that although The Stone Woman is “rich, erudite and admirable,” it tries to achieve too much and fails on a number of levels.]
The Stone Woman, the third instalment in Tariq Ali's Islamic Quartet, owes a great deal to the nineteenth-century tradition of humanistic drama within historical debate. Although the novel is rich, erudite and admirable, it is overambitious in its aims and uneven in its achievements. Set near Istanbul at the end of the nineteenth century, the novel centres on the conflicts experienced by a noble Ottoman family, and in particular the stroke-afflicted patriarch, Iskander Pasha. Family members, young and old, arrive at the seaside palace to see the paralysed pasha, and they reflect on the past and prepare to face a new future. The slowly recuperating pasha seeks reasons for the demise of his empire and his heritage, and finds himself engaged in conversations with his family and with a visiting German baron. The pasha is unable to reconcile his feelings and past behaviour towards his modern children, especially his strong-willed daughter, Nilofer. The younger generation are caught between the dark world of decaying aristocrats and the dawning future ahead, yet they lament the loss of a time when their lives were less complicated. Not far from the palace is an arrangement of stones which resembles a female form, and the narrative is interleaved with the confessions of different family members who tell what has happened to them to this silent witness. We find that personal history differs markedly from common knowledge.
This Chekhov-like scenario of intense emotion within a creaking social structure constructs a rich picture of history and the way we think about history. We are presented with different explanations and interpretations of cultural decline, from the theoretical and the dynastic down to the plainly wrong and prejudiced. Uncle Memed, Halil and the Baron come to blows over the links between the Ottomans and the Florentines, and although the Baron wins the match thanks to his dreadful pedantry, Memed's abject boredom and Halil's pursuit of exact context, however, win the higher ground.
The voices of the young spice up the world of ideas. The intimate first-person confessions of Nilofer, the Circassian maid, Selim, and the Paris journals of the young pasha are difficult to place. On one level, they are a homage to the different literary perspectives and textures found in the nineteenth-century novel. They also show that the way we interpret both the past and present is subjective and prone to change. Unfortunately, these parts, with their lyrical love-scenes, render the whole uneven. The fact that we are furnished with chapter summaries only encourages the reader to ignore the intellectual discussion in favour of chapters entitled “Nilofer tells the Stone Woman that Selim has stroked her breasts in the moonlight and that she is falling in love with him”. It is difficult to tell whether the youthful chapters are a metaphor for the freedom found in a time of cultural change or a need to feed the current delight in lavish settings and racy moments. Ali's female characters take full advantage of cultural instability, and their rebellion is a sexual one, not only in what they do, but most strikingly in what they feel. At times, it seems that Nilofer's sexual psychology has been teleported into her straight from the pages of Marilyn French. That is not to say that going against your parent's wishes, running away with a visiting school inspector and enjoying moonlit sex are recent inventions, but Nilofer's confessions seem a little wishful and oddly dated.
Such historical transparency is not necessarily a criticism, but it seems at odds with the impressive precision found elsewhere in the work. For this reason, although well constructed, The Stone Woman reads like a model answer in post-colonial novel writing, complete with liberal readings of history, feminist characterization and nineteenth-century pastiche. It is poetic and subtle in style and yet fragmented and difficult to engage with. However beautiful and evocative, the historical and the human do not couple in this novel, and we are left with a union that is a little forced.
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SOURCE: Hopkin, James. “Turkish Delight.” New Statesman 13, no. 662 (11 September 2000): 56.
[In the following review, Hopkin argues that The Stone Woman is a captivating and complex novel.]
The third novel in a planned quarter charting the tensions between Islam and Christianity, Tariq Ali's The Stone Woman sets up the Pasha family from Istanbul as a microcosm of the Ottoman empire at the end of the 19th century. Drawing on a rich tradition of mythmaking and storytelling, Ali creates an enchanting, sometimes harrowing, fable of a family whose stability and harmony, like the empire to which they belong, is largely predicated on undisclosed information and recycled myths.
Ali teases out these secrets with the grace and guile of a natural storyteller. A weathered sculpture of a pagan goddess—“the repository of all our hidden pain”—becomes the focal point for those concealing difficult truths. Each character approaches her and confesses a story (of forbidden love, real fathers, desires beyond the codes of Islam). Each riveting disclosure has its own voice, but they are all a little wise, sad and humane.
When not in confessional mode, the novel is narrated by Nilofer, returning from an exile imposed on her when she married a Greek. Determined to prevent the household from dictating the course of her life, Nilofer meets Selim, a young barber, and they begin a romance that Ali invigorates with many touches of tenderness. Eventually, Nilofer marries the barber—which would once have been scandalous—and, by having his child, she signals her will to disregard anachronistic codes and expectations.
Yet the novel does not operate solely on an allegorical level. As you might expect from a writer who is also a historian, there are many discussions of politics, philosophy and the past; and for a family whose status quo has been maintained by endless stories from the glory days of the Ottoman empire, there is also plenty of mischief-making. It is here that Ali's gently tweaking revisionism comes in. Nilofer's brother, the cynical Salman, challenges tales of Memed the Great's heroism by pointing out that Memed acted brutally towards his own family. Impatient with the rituals of Istanbul life, Salman also bemoans how “the empire has been irreparably decadent for three hundred years”.
Most of the political discourse is saved for family friends, Memed and the Baron. They talk of the empire's decline in relation to the Russians, the Austrians and Bismarck's Germany. They call for a rational approach and for modernisation during a time of radical change that has turned “many ordinary people into madmen and assassins”. In effect, the Baron is a mouthpiece for the author's not always subtle historicising; there are details of defeats suffered, territory lost and speculation on what might have been.
The Baron's numerous debates allow Ali to offer conflicting opinions on the demise of the Ottoman empire, and to convey the uncertainty of the times through the clamour of competing voices. As Memed and the Baron argue the veracities of Islamic history, there is talk of the army deposing the sultan and establishing a republic. Salman, however, like his sister, is in favour not of wars, but of planning against “tradition and obscurantism at home”.
It is this intertwining of political, religious and national posturing with simple tales of family life and love (suicide, madness, defiance) that makes The Stone Woman so captivating.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1789
SOURCE: Huggler, Justin. “I Prefer to Be an Ottoman.” London Review of Books 22, no. 23 (30 November 2000): 35.
[In the following review, Huggler explores the major thematic concerns of The Stone Woman.]
No country in the Islamic world has embraced the West as eagerly as Turkey has, which makes it an intriguing setting for the third novel in Tariq Ali's Islamic Quartet: a series of snapshots of the great historic collisions between the two cultures, taken from the Eastern point of view, The Stone Woman is set as the 19th century draws to a close. With the Ottoman Empire in terminal decline, Ali sends the members of a wealthy and aristocratic Turkish family hurrying to the bedside of the patriarch, Iskander Pasha, who has had a stroke. As he slowly recovers, the family, their friends and servants debate whether their country, ‘the sick man of Europe’, can get better too.
At first sight it seems that Ali has set out to write an Eastern Magic Mountain, if only in the sense that his characters, withdrawn from the world, discuss the historic events taking place around them. As the narrator, Nilofer, Iskander Pasha's daughter, puts it: ‘Outside in the world a great deal was going on Rebellions were being plotted. Resistance was being prepared. Sultans and Emperors were becoming uneasy. History was being made. Here, in the beautiful fragrant gardens … all that seemed very remote.’ But this is a little disingenuous: Ali's characters are not detached from the outside world. Iskander Pasha's country retreat teems with intrigue. There is a political murder. The Young Turks, plotting a nationalist revolution against the Ottoman Sultan, hold one of their secret meetings in the house. Even Ataturk makes a brief appearance. He is not named, but simply referred to as a ‘young officer from Salonika’. The previous novel in the Quartet, The Book of Saladin, was a panegyric to the formidable Kurdish general who turned the Crusaders out of Jerusalem. The Stone Woman, by contrast, is the story of forgotten people who lived through great changes, and shaped them unwittingly.
It is to the The Stone Woman's advantage that it is not primarily concerned with the great men of history. One of The Book of Saladin's weaknesses was its stock characters: the heroic, self-denying general; the irreverent but faithful old retainer; the comically self-important academic. The characterisation in The Stone Woman is subtler: Mariam, for example, the cruel wife of Nilofer's brother Salman, has a fear of emotional commitment which is traced back to her abandonment by her mother, while Iskander Pasha himself, strict and puritanical in the eyes of his family, but a drinker and womaniser during his time as Ambassador to Paris, has the classic split personality of the Islamic patriarch (one brilliantly explored in Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy). Ali's explanation for this lies in Iskander Pasha's past, however. We learn that he was once a dervish, a Sufi mystic who believed that God could be found through sensual ecstasy, and that it was the death of his first, Sufi wife which turned him into such a solemn figure.
Not all the characters in the novel are so well developed—in fact, some are hardly developed at all. Ali has ‘stuffed The Stone Woman with more characters than he can handle. Nilofer's half-sister Zeynep, for instance, has so little to do that Ali has to pack her off to Istanbul to get rid of her. And, even with his stronger characters, his control slips from time to time. Some of the dialogue is unconvincing: what is said is interesting enough, but people just don't talk this way. ‘I am starved of information concerning your life’ seems an extraordinary turn of phrase for a mother comforting her weeping daughter. More alarming, the characters do not react realistically to dramatic events. Nilofer may no longer be in love with her first husband. Dmitri, but when he is murdered, you would expect her to feel horror or pity—or at least guilt at her own lack of feeling—but she has recovered her poise within a few paragraphs. When a spy is discovered at a Young Turks' meeting and dragged off to be murdered, the characters are unmoved. ‘Poor man,’ the old German tutor comments—which seems something of an understatement.
As the title implies, The Stone Woman is a novel about women, history's (and Islam's) most forgotten figures. This is a world of arranged marriages, where it is taken for granted that although a man can have several wives, a woman can have only one husband. On the other hand, Ali knows that women weren't, as the myth has it, entirely powerless. The aristocratic Nilofer is at a considerable advantage in her relationship with her first husband, the Greek school-teacher Dmitri, who is decidedly middle-class, and a member of a subject people, while the Young Turk Selim, Nilofer's second husband, is a strong supporter of women's rights. Interestingly, abolishing the veil is the only one of his stated aims that still troubles modern Turkey. The irony is that Ali has set out to explore difficult historical and cultural issues through the accessible medium of fiction, but his writing is at its best when he is dealing with these complex factual matters.
The Stone Woman herself, the statue of an ancient goddess, is a narrative device intended to compensate for the limitations of a first-person narrator. For centuries, the women on Iskander Pasha's country estate have told their secrets to the statue in the dead of night—which allows Ali to break away from Nilofer's narrative and reveal the thoughts of other characters. But it is an unnecessary device. The characters' secrets are more interesting when they're modulated via an unreliable narrator. Nilofer herself is convinced that the reason her Greek husband is willing to die at the hands of Turkish nationalists is that she no longer loves him, despite the fact that he has written to her that it is a ‘political act’.
In a sense, the two reasons are inextricable: Ali's characters represent the dilemma facing the dying Ottoman Empire. The family's old tutor is German (Germany was the major European influence on the Ottoman Empire in its last years) and is having an affair with the intellectual of the family, Uncle Memed, which is used to symbolise the meeting of East and West, Iskander Pasha's split personality serves much the same function. He was Ambassador in Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870, when Napoleon III was overthrown; and as Nilofer reads his diaries from that time it is made clear that drastic change is now underway in Ottoman Turkey. ‘Only the French could topple their king in these circumstances,’ Iskander writes. ‘How I envy them this capacity.’ Turkey soon enough would do the same. As the Western powers set about carving up the Ottoman Empire, confining the Turks to a small area of barren steppe, Ataturk, the ‘young officer from Salonika’, forced the Sultan from power and set up the Turkish Republic.
A seemingly inconsequential exchange between Nilofer and her second husband shows how infatuated the Ottoman Turks of the novel are with the West—and how much the Islamic world has changed since the 12th century, in which Ali's last novel was set. Selim tells Nilofer that he dreams of becoming a photographer: she is astonished. ‘Is it that you could not imagine a future for me other than that dictated by my past and my origins?’ Selim asks. ‘Do you think only Italians can be photographers? This new art is beyond the reach of a poor boy from Anatolia?’ This is a far cry from the world of The Book of Saladin, where the Westerners are ‘barbarians’, to be converted or despised, not the masters of new technologies to be emulated. Both the first and second novels in the Quartet dealt with high points of Islamic civilisation (the first was set in the Arab Caliphate of Cordoba). In The Stone Woman the last of the great Muslim empires has been reduced to ‘a poor boy from Anatolia’, peering in at the window of the West's camera shop.
The novel may look forward to the rise of the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, but the Empire in its time had represented much more than Turkey, and its collapse meant the end of a united Islam's challenge to Western hegemony: there would no longer be a caliph, a successor to the Prophet Mohammed. The Stone Woman shows the last Islamic empire in its death throes, its rulers desperate to forge a new state in emulation of the West. This is often seen today as a triumph of the allegedly Western values of democracy and human rights, but Ali does not see it that way. When Nilofer and Selim debate the form of a new Turkish state, she tells her husband: ‘I have no desire to be described as Turkish. I prefer to be an Ottoman.’ It is not just that Turkishness is ‘soulless’, as Nilofer petulantly puts it. Her mother's family is Jewish, and whereas the Ottoman Empire was a political concept that embraced many ethnicities and all three religions ‘of the Book’, the Turkish national movement aimed to build a Western state around a single ethnic nation: Muslim Turks. Ali's portrayal of the Ottoman Empire is a little rosy, but it is essentially accurate.
‘What of the Greeks who do not wish to leave Istanbul or Izmir?’ Nilofer asks. ‘You will either force them to be Turks or drive them into the sea?’ When her son asks if his father Dmitri's killers will be punished when the Sultan is overthrown, one of Nilofer's brothers tells him the truth. The men who murdered his father because he was Greek are the very ones who are planning the brave new Turkish world. Even more chilling is the case of Petrossian, the family servant, an Armenian. Petrossian tells the Stone Woman that his sister's house has been set on fire in an attempt to drive the Armenians out of her village. He says that Nilofer's brother Halil, an Ottoman general, used to prevent this sort of thing, but can no longer do so. The old multiethnic state is crumbling—and more than a million Armenians will be systematically massacred by the Turks during the First World War.
There is one last twist in the novel's great debate—and an unexpected one. At the end of this serious novel of assassinations and ethnic cleansing, Ali introduces a genuinely comic character: Iskander Pasha's brother Kemal, a shipping magnate. Kemal claims that he ‘could fly the Japanese flag’ on his ships, ‘if I wished’—national identity is not of much importance to an international businessman.
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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of The Book of Saladin, by Tariq Ali. World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000): 245.
[In the following review, King surveys the strengths and weaknesses of The Book of Saladin.]
Tariq Ali is not only a journalist and filmmaker; he is also an old-fashioned novelist who likes to write large books on important issues and big themes. The Book of Saladin is the second novel in an intended quartet treating the confrontation between Islam and Christianity. The first novel, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, concerned the fall of Islam in Spain. The Book of Saladin is the story of the rise of Sultan Yusuf Salah al-Din's family and how Salah al-Din united the twelfth-century Islamic world for the liberation of Jerusalem from the Crusaders. The conquest and reconquest of Jerusalem has been the subject of many epics, although seldom seen through Islamic eyes.
This is very much a postcolonial book, one in which the Europeans not only invade a foreign land but are also barbarians with filthy habits, defilers of holy places, liars, and killers of women and children and especially of Jews. This is a novel shaped by modern sensibilities as well as facts. It is intended as an allegory for the next Islamic liberation of Jerusalem; Ali's introductory “Explanatory Note” alludes to its application to the present. The implications are that Arab leaders should stop quarreling among themselves; they must unite behind a single authority, or one ruler must have the single-mindedness, virtue, cunning, strength, and patience to bring about unification. (Ali is a politician, not a moralist.) The novel is also designed to show that the peoples of the region, such as the Jews, Copts, and other “people of the book,” share a common culture, and tolerance, and were united behind Saladin's liberation of Jerusalem. Is Ali suggesting that while Western Christianity and European Jews (and the state of Israel) are alien to the region, those who have in the past lived under Islamic regimes should be accepted as brothers?
One of the main (invented) characters in the novel is Isaac Ibn Yakub, a Jewish scribe recommended to Saladin by Rabbi Musa Ibn Maymun (the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides). Yakub becomes the Sultan's historian, entrusted by him to write the real history of his life and times in contrast to the literary pufferies of his official secretary and Islamic scholars. Eventually Yakub becomes part of Saladin's inner circle, even, toward the end of the book, his advisor. We are often reminded that Christians persecute Jews because of the Crucifixion. Other invented characters include two beautiful, intelligent women who provide the love story within the novel. One is a skeptic, a lesbian, raised by her father on the rationalism of the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (whose work is considered heretical by those who hold religious power). She seduces and educates the other woman, who has lost her true love and been made part of the harem. Besides lesbians in the harem, homosexuality is shown to have been commonplace at the time, although Ali's characters tolerate it more as amusing than as an alternative life-style.
Ali's prose can be careless; there are sentences that do not mean what he intends, and the narration can sound like a political editorial or a textbook summary. There are other flaws that make the novel feel like a middlebrow Book of the Month Club choice from the 1940s or 1950s; but once you get used to its clumsiness, it has the excitement of an old Hollywood epic.
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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of The Stone Woman, by Tariq Ali. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 111.
[In the following review, King pans The Stone Woman, contending that Ali is not a “natural novelist” and that he lacks the ability to realistically tell a story.]
The Stone Woman is the third installment in Tariq Ali's “Islamic Quartet.” Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1999) concerned the collapse of Muslim Spain with the fall of Granada; The Book of Saladin (1998; see WLT 74:1, p. 245) told of the events leading to the reconquest of Jerusalem from the Crusaders; this new novel is a family saga set at a country home outside Istanbul at the end of the nineteenth century. The family has served the Sultan for centuries but now is critical of the clergy and awaits the end of the Empire and the birth of a new society that can compete with Europe. Some members of the family are part of an army plot to overthrow the Sultan and install a secular government. The conspirators, however, cannot agree on the relationship of Turkish nationalism to the many minorities that are part of the Ottoman Empire. (A Greek son-in-law has been killed by nationalists in a version of ethnic cleansing.)
The summer house was built as a place of exile for a former favorite and storyteller who was banished after criticizing the Sultan. Another member of the family was an eccentric who implicitly criticized the Sultan by pretending to be him and administering justice where it had otherwise been corrupted. The present generation feels cramped, impotent, like characters in a Chekhov play, and desires larger lives. As we learn about its members' lives and those of their elders, the truth is that despite the appearance of conventionality, their lives have been rich, even romantic.
Ali is not a natural novelist. It is difficult to take seriously such remarks as: “Salman is very depressed by the fact that the Empire has been irreparably decadent for three hundred years.” His own politics can be seen in such lines as “What your philosophers call progress, my dear Baron, has created an inner drought in human beings … no solidarity between human beings. No belief in common except to survive and get rich.” This is a novel in which “Uncle Memed cleared his throat. Salman smiled. Halil played nervously with his moustache.”
Although his novels have impressive historical frames, Ali lacks the talent for making characters and conversations interesting, for dramatic excitement, suspense, and climax, for painting a lively imitation of life. His novels are galleries of stories: “My father assumed the broad and exaggerated tone of a village storyteller. ‘As was his wont, the Sultan sent for … ’” The characters confess most of their intimate life to the Stone Woman of the title, a rock which might be an ancient pagan monument. While Ali aims for a manner close to the period and place of his fiction, he lacks the ear to make it work.
Although hoping to dispel clichés about Islam, Ali is likely to reinforce stereotypes. That the Sultan, having chosen an heir, had his other children killed to prevent factions, I knew; I did not know that they were strangled with a silken cord so that common hands did not touch them. In each novel Ali has characters make pointed references to Islam as being the most tolerant religion in the world, especially toward Jews. Many readers will assume that the portrait of “Jo the Ugly,” an American Jew with an immense pitted nose, is motivated by something other than tolerance: “He takes after his mother's brothers who are shysters and rogues, growing rich by robbing their own people”; “Who knows but the next hundred years might well be the years of people like Jo the Ugly.”
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SOURCE: Ali, Tariq, and David Barsamian. “Tariq Ali.” Progressive 66, no. 1 (January 2002): 31-4.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in November 2001, Ali discusses the relationship between the United States and Pakistan as well as the worldwide war on terrorism.]
Tariq Ali was born in 1943 in Lahore, in what was then British-controlled India. He was educated in Pakistan and then at Oxford. His opposition to the military dictatorship in Pakistan during the 1960s led to permanent exile in Britain. He was active in the anti-war movement in Europe during the late 1960s.
Ali is a longstanding editor of New Left Review and has written more than a dozen books on history and politics. His forthcoming book is The Clash of Fundamentalism: Crusades, Jihad, and Modernity. He also has been working on two sets of novels. Three novels of the “Islamic Quintet” have been published by Verso: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin, and The Stone Woman. They portray Islamic civilization in a way that he says “run counter to the standard views.” His “Fall of Communism” trilogy has seen the publication of Redemption and Fear of Mirrors. Ali's creative output extends to scripts for stage and screen. A short play of his on Iraq was recently performed at Cooper Union in New York. A veritable “all 'rounder,” as they say in South Asia, he is currently working on an opera on Ayatollah Khomeini.
In late October, he was detained at the Munich airport. “The inspector's eyes fell on a slim volume in German that had been given to me by a local publisher,” he said. “It was still wrapped in cellophane. In a state of some excitement, the inspector rushed it over to an armed policeman. The offending book was an essay by Karl Marx, On Suicide.” Ali said he was rudely instructed to repack his bag, minus the book, and was then taken to police headquarters at the airport. The arresting officer, Ali added, “gave me a triumphant smile and said, ‘After September 11, you can't travel with books like this.’ At this point, my patience evaporated.”
Ali demanded to call the mayor of Munich, who had earlier interviewed him on the current crisis at a public event in the city. The threat of the call was sufficient, and Ali was allowed to continue on his journey.
Ali lives in London, and I spoke with him in late November by phone.
[Barsamian]: A Pakistani general once told you, “Pakistan was the condom that the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan. We've served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet.” That was in the 1980s, when the United States and Pakistan funded and armed the mujahedeen to defeat the godless Soviet Union. Is the United States again using Pakistan as a condom?
[Ali]: I think the Americans fished out the same condom but found it had too many holes in it. So they supplied a new one, and they've gone in again. But this time they couldn't go in with the Pakistani army, since the Pakistani army created the Taliban and propelled it to victory. It could hardly be expected to kill its own offspring. The U.S. forced the Pakistani army to withdraw its support, which it did, reluctantly. But it had to. Once Pakistani support was withdrawn from the Taliban, they collapsed like a house of cards, though one hardline faction will probably carry on in the mountains for a bit.
Most Americans may not know the history of Pakistani-U.S. support for the Taliban. In a talk you gave in late September, you said, “People are taught to forget history.” What did you have in mind there?
In the West, since the collapse of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, the one discipline both the official and unofficial cultures have united in casting aside has been history. It's somehow as if history has become too subversive. The past has too much knowledge embedded in it, and therefore it's best to forget it and start anew. But as everyone is discovering, you can't do this to history; it refuses to go away. If you try to suppress it, it reemerges in horrific fashion. That's essentially what's been going on.
It's a total failure of the Western imagination that the only enemy they can see is Adolf Hitler. This is something that actually started during the Suez War of 1956, what I call the first oil war. Gamal Abdal Nasser, the nationalist leader of Egypt, was described by British Prime Minister Anthony Eden as an Egyptian Hitler. Then it carried on like that. Saddam Hussein became Hitler when he was no longer a friend of the West. Then Milosevic became Hitler. Now Al Qaeda and the Taliban are portrayed as fascists. The implication strongly is that Osama bin Laden is a Hitler, even though he has no state power at all. It's just grotesque if you seriously think about it. In reality, the only player in this game who was soft on the Nazis was King Zahir Shah, who then sat on the Afghan throne. He hoped they would defeat the British in India, and he, having collaborated, might share part of the spoils!
But the reason they can get away with it is that history has been totally downplayed. We have populations now in the West with a very short memory span. One reason for this short memory span is that television over the last fifteen years has seen a big decline in the coverage of the rest of the world. History, when they do it, is ancient history, and they sensationalize even that. Contemporary history is virtually ignored on television. If you see what passes as the news on the networks in the United States, there's virtually no coverage of the rest of the world, not even of neighboring countries like Mexico or neighboring continents like Latin America. It's essentially a very provincial culture, and that breeds ignorance. This ignorance is very useful in times of war because you can whip up a rapid rage in ill-informed populations and go to war against almost any country. That is a very frightening process.
Contrast the last wars of the twentieth century with the first war of the twenty-first century.
One difference is that the previous wars were genuinely fought by coalition. The United States was the dominant power in these coalitions, but it had to get other people on its side. In both the Gulf War and in Kosovo, the U.S. had to get the agreement of other people in these alliances before it moved forward. The war in Afghanistan, the first war of the twenty-first century, shows the United States doing what it wants to do, not caring about who it antagonizes, not caring about the effects on neighboring regions. I don't think it's too bothered with what happens afterwards, otherwise it would be more worried about the Northern Alliance. The U.S. is telling the Northern Alliance to kill Taliban prisoners. It's totally a breach of all the known conventions of war. Western television networks aren't showing this, but Arab networks are showing how prisoners are being killed and what's being done to them. Instead, we're shown scenes that are deliberately created for the Western media: a few women without the veil, a woman reading the news on Kabul television, and 150 people cheering.
All these wars are similar in the way ideology is being used. It's the ideology of so-called humanitarian intervention. We don't want to do this, but we're doing this for the sake of the people who live there. This is, of course, a terrible sleight of hand because all sorts of people live there, and, by and large, they do it to help one faction and not the other. In the case of Afghanistan, they didn't even make that pretense. It was essentially a crude war of revenge designed largely to appease the U.S. public. In Canada in mid-November, I was debating Charles Krauthammer, and I said it was a war of revenge and he said, “Yeah, it was, so what?” The more hardline people, who are also more realistic, just accept this.
And the United States has perfected the manipulation. The media plays a very big, big role.
In what way?
During the Gulf War, journalists used to challenge government news managers and insisted they wouldn't just accept the official version of events. It seems that with the war in the Balkans and now this, journalists have accepted the official version. Journalists go to press briefings at the Ministry of Defense in London or the Pentagon in Washington, and no critical questions are posed at all. It's just a news-gathering operation, and the fact that the news is being given by governments who are waging war doesn't seem to worry many journalists too much.
The task does really devolve to alternative networks of information and education. The Internet has been an invaluable acquisition. I wonder how we would do without it. Information can be sent from one country to the other within the space of minutes, crossing channels, crossing oceans, crossing continents. But still, we can't compete with the might and power and wealth of those who dominate, control, and own the means of the production of information today. These are the five or six large companies that control and own the media, publishing houses, and the cinema.
Tony Blair has occupied center stage in the war on terrorism. In many ways he is even more visible than Bush. What accounts for Blair's enthusiasm for the war?
Blair does it to get attention. He does it to posture and prance around on the world stage, pretending that he is the leader of a big imperial power when, in fact, he's the leader of a medium-sized country in Northern Europe.
I think Clinton certainly liked using him. But the Bush Administration doesn't take him that seriously.
Noam Chomsky points out that Britain did not bomb Boston and New York, where major IRA supporters and financial networks are located.
I think Noam's right. But to just even raise the point goes to show that Britain isn't an imperial power and the United States is. The United States is now The Empire. There isn't an empire; there's The Empire, and that empire is the United States. It's very interesting that this war is not being fought by the NATO high command. NATO has been totally marginalized. The “coalition against terrorism” means the United States. It does not wish anyone else to interfere with its strategy. When the Germans offered 2,000 soldiers, Rumsfeld said we never asked for them. Quite amazing to say this in public.
In a recent article, you cited a poem by the tenth-century secular Arab poet al-Maarri:
And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek, Of wind is flying through the court of state; “Here,” it proclaims, “there dwelt a potentate, Who would not hear the sobbing of the weak.”
Talk about “the sobbing of the weak.”
The sobbing of the weak today is the sobbing of the victims of neoliberal policies. They consist of billions of people all over the world. These are the people who leave their countries. These are the people who cling onto the belly of a plane leaving Africa for Europe, not caring if they are killed in the process, and many of them are. This desperation is the result of globalization. The question is, will the weak be able to organize themselves to bring about changes or not? Will the weak develop an internal strength and a political strength to ever challenge the rulers that be? These are the questions posed by the world in which we live. People are increasingly beginning to feel that democracy itself is being destroyed by this latest phase of globalization and that politics doesn't matter because it changes nothing. This is a very dangerous situation on the global level, because when this happens, then you also see acts of terrorism. Terrorism emanates from weakness, not strength. It is the sign of despair.
Dear old al-Maarri was a great skeptic poet. He wrote a parody of the Koran, and his friends would tease him and say, “al-Maarri, but no one says your Koran.” And he said, “Yes, but give me time. Give me time. If people recite it for twenty years it will become as popular as the other one.” It was a good moment in Islam when people were actually challenging authority at every level. Very different from the world we live in now, incidentally.
And in this world, the United States is projecting a long war on terrorism. They're talking about it lasting for ten or fifteen years, and involving up to sixty countries. The Bush Administration reminds us almost on a daily basis that the war on terrorism is still in its earliest stages. What are the implications of that?
The main implication is a remapping of the world in line with American policy and American interests. Natural resources are limited, and the United States wants to make sure that its own population is kept supplied. The principle effect of this will be for the United States to control large parts of the oil which the world possesses. There are some people who say this war was fought because of oil. I honestly don't believe it. But that doesn't mean once they have sorted out the first phase of it, the war won't be used to assert or reassert U.S. economic hegemony in the region.
They want to do it in the Middle East, as well. A big problem in the Middle East is that the Iraqi state and Syrian state are potential threats to Israel just by the very fact they exist. Iraq also sits on a great deal of oil, and as that cutthroat Kissinger once said, “Why should we let the Arabs have the oil?” Since Israel is the central ally of the United States in the region, the U.S. would like to weaken the potential opposition. Attacking Iraq, and possibly even Syria, is one way to do that. This is a policy fraught with danger for those who carry it out because it totally excludes the reaction of ordinary people. Could there be mass explosions? And if there are, then you will see countries like Saudi Arabia going under. No one would weep if the royal family were overthrown, but they would probably if it were replaced by a U.S. protectorate or a U.S. colonial-type administration, or the U.S. disguised as the U.N. Other corrupt sheikdoms, like the United Arab Emirates, would crumble, as well. Then what will the U.S. do? Have the Israelis acting as guardians of oil in the whole region? That will mean a permanent guerrilla warfare. Or will they have American and European troops guarding these regions? That, too, would mean limited guerrilla warfare. The only way they'll be able to rule is by killing large numbers of people who live there.
What about Iraq?
If they attack Iraq in the next phase, it could create big problems for them. I'm sure that in Europe the anti-war movement would just mushroom. The Arab world could really explode. That is what their close allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt are telling them: Do not attack Iraq. The coalition will break up, and even Turkey is saying that it will not be party to an attack on Iraq. Probably the plan is to create an independent state in a corner of Iraq, and then use that as a base to destroy Saddam Hussein. If they go down that route, the world then becomes a very unpredictable and very dangerous place. The one thing that it will not do is curb terrorism. It will increase terrorism, because the more governments you destroy, the more the people will seek revenge.
After flirting with neoisolationism, the U.S. is now deciding it wants to run the world. The U.S. should come out openly and say to the world, “We are the only imperial power, and we're going to rule you, and if you don't like it you can lump it.” American imperialism has always been the imperialism that has been frightened of speaking its name. Now it's beginning to do so. In a way, it's better. We know where we kneel.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147
SOURCE: Hume, Mick. “Expect Blowback.” New Statesman 131, no. 4587 (13 May 2002): 50-1.
[In the following review, Hume compares and contrasts The Clash of Fundamentalisms with Gilles Kepel's Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.]
Like some dreadful progressive rock album of the 1970s, Tariq Ali's new book [The Clash of Fundamentalisms] seems likely to become better known for its cover than its contents. The cover is intended to illustrate what the author calls “the clash of fundamentalisms” by depicting George W Bush as a mullah and Osama Bin Laden as a US president. It succeeds only in illustrating, unintentionally, this messy book's own identity crisis, caught as it is between Ali's original plan for a history of Islam and his post-11 September attempt to tack on a theory of everything.
Declaring that he wants to “explain why much of the world doesn't see the [US] Empire as ‘good’”, Ali outlines how the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were celebrated not only in the Arab world, but from Latin America to China. He does not mention the rabidly anti-American response from many of his friends on the liberal left in the west, who suggested that the US, and Wall Street in particular, had more or less got what it deserved—as if the office workers and firefighters killed in the twin towers had personally been starving Iraqi babies. This was the left-wing version of the same western self-loathing expressed by right-wing US evangelists, who claimed that 11 September was God's revenge on America for tolerating homosexuality and abortion.
Because nobody has claimed the attacks on America for a specific political cause, everybody has felt free to invent their own interpretation. Ali implies that, as the US is a “veteran imperialist power”, this must have been a blow against imperialism. “The subjects of THE Empire had struck back”, he says in awe, and this confirmed the “universal truth that … slaves and peasants do not always obey their masters”.
Let us leave aside the question of whether some disaffected Saudi-born rich kids living and studying in western cities qualify as imperial subjects, slaves or peasants. Ali is saying that even if 11 September cannot be seen as a force for good, it was at least aimed against “the mother of all fundamentalisms: American imperialism”. And he warns everybody in the west that, unless we make the world a more fair and equal place, we can expect further “blowback”.
Ali has some interesting things to say about the history of Islam, but his central thesis about the present seems badly out of date. He claims that America's “war on terrorism” is simply a continuation of what the “Empire” has done over the past two centuries; the only thing to have changed is that the collapse of communism has deprived opponents of imperialism of a political alternative. So, he suggests, the world is trapped in “the clash between [an Islamic] religious fundamentalism … and an [American] imperial fundamentalism determined to ‘discipline the world’”.
In truth, reactions to 11 September have revealed a shortage of fundamental beliefs in both Washington and the Muslim world. Most people have demonstrated a distinct reluctance to stand up and fight for what are supposed to be their core principles. The few who do want to fight—the zealots of al-Qaeda, or the Israeli hard-liners—are marked by their isolation.
The traditional left might have lost its convictions in the post-cold-war world, but the leaders of the west also find it hard to maintain their old imperial certainty. Far from pursuing a fundamentalist crusade, Bush and Tony Blair have emphasised, time and again, that they are not fighting a war against Islam—which has served only to raise further questions about what they are fighting for.
There is a newly defensive mentality within the western camp, far removed from America's past belief in its own manifest destiny. The arm's-length conduct of the war in Afghanistan—bombing everything from a great height, coupled with a reluctance to gather intelligence on the ground—is shaped by the same uncertainty. Not that this makes it any less dangerous for those on the receiving end.
How do events in the Muslim world today fit into Ali's rigid framework of a clash of fundamentalisms? In a powerful new book, Jihad, the French professor Gilles Kepel argues that 11 September marked a new low for the fortunes of Islamic fundamentalism. “In spite of what hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath,” he concludes, “the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might.”
Kepel traces the rise of Islamist movements, through the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the victory of the Afghan mujahedin over the Soviet Union a decade later, and the dead-end into which they had turned by the mid-1990s, from Algeria to Iran, and Malaysia to Indonesia. Kepel identifies 11 September as a desperate provocation, designed to bring the military might of America down on Afghanistan and to rally the Muslim world to the cause of Bin Laden and the Taliban. In the event, however, it only demonstrated the incoherence of the few violent fundamentalists and their isolation from any wider Islamist movement. Why did the Muslim world fail to heed the call to jihad? “To begin with,” Kepel writes, “no one has formally claimed responsibility for September 11, or articulated its purpose … apart from a desire to inflict damage on the United States, the goals of that cause remain vague.”
Since 11 September, an informal global coalition has emerged, uniting everybody who hates western consumer society, from Islamic fundamentalists in the east to the anti-capitalist protesters and poets, whom Ali lauds, in the west. Although some aims of this coalition may appear progressive—for example, solidarity with the Palestinians—the sentiment behind it expresses a reactionary loss of faith in modern society and its achievements, and a conspiratorial view of capitalism.
In the end, Ali seems unable to come to terms with the changes of the present because he is trapped in his own idealised past, as a student activist who came to prominence through the protests against the Vietnam war. He imagines that US foreign policy is essentially, the same today as it was in the 1960s—missing, ironically, the impact that defeat in Vietnam had on the imperial mindset.
Ali even claims that the anti-Vietnam movement marked “the high tide of American democracy”. We might recall that America staged the world's first national democratic revolution, and abolished slavery after a bitter civil war. But for Ali, it seems that democracy peaked in an era when Americans elected Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger by a landslide over the anti-war movement's candidate. Presumably, he means that the Vietnam years marked the high tide of Tariq Ali, and he appears to have been waiting for it to come in again ever since.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2535
SOURCE: Sennett, Richard. “They Mean Well.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5175 (7 June 2002): 6-8.
[In the following review, Sennett compares and contrasts the central arguments of The Clash of Fundamentalisms with Fred Halliday's Two Hours That Shook the World.]
What did the United States learn from September 11? The massacre has hardened the unilateralist arteries of the Government; many old scores from another era, such as isolating Cuba and North Korea or punishing Iran, are being settled today in the name of fighting terrorism. The American people remain angry, but many are increasingly bewildered by the world beyond America's borders. The plaint of ordinary Americans, “Why do they hate us?” may be naive, but it is well-meaning and deserves honest answers.
People who could do so have largely failed to provide these answers. Print journalists are reporting government spin as hard fact. The airwaves are filled with such shows as The Military Diaries, produced by R. J. Cutler, aiming to provide “militainment”. American and British propaganda films from the Second World put out “Military Diaries” to explain to soldiers where they were going, what they would do there and why they were doing it. “Militainment”, by contrast, focuses on feelings; The Military Diaries focus on what soldiers are eating, what music they are listening to, and how long it has been since they have had sex.
An unconscious elitism among the American press partly explains why they believe the people would be bored by something better. But, as the eminent television broadcaster Dan Rather has recently observed, his colleagues also fear the taint of seeming “un-American”. In this, journalism reflects a more general collapse of the American Left after September 11.
In the first aftermath of the attack, discussions of the negative effects of American power may well have seemed mistimed. The reading public closed ranks against Susan Sontag, who immediately after the bombings, in a trenchant, brief New Yorker piece, connected American might to the murderous rage coming from abroad. The political scientist Chalmers Johnson, a sober and conservative analyst, was frequently vilified by people who had not read his book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (reviewed in the TLS on July 27, 2001), as though he believed the infamous proposition, that “America had it coming”. But the critical trauma continues: analyses of the irrationality of Islamic fundamentalism flourish, while discussions of the worldwide effects of American power remain timid.
The American Left has some cause to worry about proving itself a loyal opposition. An unease about seeming un-American can be traced partly to the Vietnam War, and before that to McCarthyism. The public at large recovered from the McCarthyite trauma more quickly than did intellectuals, for whom complicity—witting or unwitting—with a foreign, totalitarian power was a lasting, unresolvable issue. My generation still bears one domestic scar from the Vietnam era which will not heal; most young men in universities had the means to avoid military service, which meant that the poor and under-educated did the fighting abroad in our stead. These stains on the civic honour of the Left have diminished the capacity of certain elements to speak to others in good faith.
A more general impediment to reasoned critical debate about America's own role in our current troubles consists of the crossed destinies of American identity and religion. A majority of Americans believe in the physical existence of Hell, a large minority of Christians that they have personally come in contact with the Holy Ghost. This deep-seated religiosity has led Americans to support generously faith-based hospitals, schools and charity. Religion cements civil society, as government does not.
An inseparable faith in God and Country might seem to determine everything that Americans hold dear in the larger world. But the picture is more complicated. The general public from the September massacre onwards has drawn a firm line between Islam as such and terrorism—as, to his great credit, has the American President; one recent poll indicates that more than 70 per cent of the American public rejects the crude proposition that faith in Islam “leads to violent behavior”. Attitudes towards Israel show a similar complexity. Many right-wing Americans, exemplified by the Revd Billy Graham (whose recorded conversations with President Nixon about the Jewish “stranglehold” on the US have recently been released), are both anti-Semites at home and stalwart defenders of Israel abroad. American Jews harbour far more mixed attitudes towards Israel itself than the pronouncements of our own religious leaders suggest, fearing that the passions of Jewish fundamentalists pose a threat to the long-term viability of Israel.
Still, Tariq Ali is right to entitle his new book The Clash of Fundamentalisms, as a way of naming the poles defining the current conflict, though I don't think he has rightly understood the American fundamentals of God and Country. The scion of an elite, secular, left-leaning Pakistani family, now a novelist and filmmaker working in London, Tariq Ali charts his own critical engagement with Islam and the forces of rigidity within it. The book comes in four parts: a broad-brush overview of the Islamic Enlightenment and its demise; more fine-painted inquiries into the relation between oil economics and religious movements in the Middle East; then politics and religion in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir; and finally, a short, sharp critique of the ways in which American foreign policy has disoriented the Islamic world.
The Clash of Fundamentalisms is urbane, highly intelligent and vividly written. One hopes this fine study will earn no fatwa; though he has remained secular, Ali is acutely conscious of how Islam can provide a sense of dignity and purpose for the poor. He presents the Koran as a set of propositions which have been worked out in different historical ways through the invention of institutions rather than the inspiration of individuals; what we term “fundamentalism” represents in part a reaction to the global breakdown of just those institutions which sustained the poor in the past.
But the other culture in the culture clash he depicts is made of very different ingredients. The American fundamentalism of God and Country is not simply clothing for global rule; it represents a religious experience which divides self and world, with few fixed, commanding institutions in between. From its Puritan origins, the contemporary historian Frances Fitzgerald has observed, American religious sentiment has been deeply personal and inward-turning. If the Puritan “City on a Hill” seemed constantly threatened by moral infection, crises of faith menaced individuals more than neighbourhoods within the divine city; personal conscience rather than church bureaucracies were the focus of belief.
Now, as at the beginning, the urgings of conscience can speak anywhere—to the Puritan wandering in the forest, and now to people listening to religious radio while driving. This personalizing of faith is why, for instance, many Americans who believe they have had personal contact with the Divine are led to that connection by analysing their own behaviour rather than through study of the Bible. When William James analysed the phenomenon of religious conversion a century ago, he thought the American inflection of becoming “twice-born” lay in the desire to transform oneself rather than in conformity to Truth. This is our fundamentalism, the fundamentalism of the person.
Fitzgerald promotes the study of foreign policy, as policy reflects directly this intensely personal religious vision. The religious logic of America's missile shield, for instance, she and her school trace to the City's fear of personal infection from without: moral violation has no raison d'état; thus, North Korea's nuclear powers loom larger in the consciousness of threat than does Russia's arsenal. Islamic fundamentalism, conceived as surrender of individual conscience to group rule, is particularly alien; adherence to dogmatic command runs exactly counter to the experience of inner transformation which ought to cut one free from the shackles of custom and institutions. Indeed, in nineteenth-century America, nativist Protestants questioned the “slavish” Catholicism of immigrants in terms eerily resonant of discussions about foreign fundamentalists today.
Of course, a real world exists “out there” (a revealing bit of American slang), and at moments of crisis, as in the two world wars, people have eventually responded to it. Nor is fundamentalism of the person simply egoistic individualism; it can lead to a genuine regard for others, but on distinctively American terms.
How this turn outwards now works in the minds of intellectuals becomes clear in a manifesto called “What We're Fighting For”, written by David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute for American Values, and signed by otherwise strong critics of American society such as the philosophers Jean Bethke Elstain and Michael Walzer, the social scientists Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam. (The complete text is available on the Web at http://www.propositionsonline.com/html/fighting_for.html) This manifesto is not simple flag-waving, nor do Blankenhorn and his signatories preach “an eye for an eye”. Their aim is to show that there are times when waging war is not only morally permitted, but morally necessary, as a response to calamitous acts of violence, hatred and injustice. This is one of those times.
To justify their position, they invoke those “American values [which] do not belong only to America, but are in fact the shared inheritance of humankind”. They invoke an American version of religious faith as the most important of these values. While they recognize that “no religious tradition is spotless”, still they reject what the manifesto calls “ideological secularism”. (A footnote explains that they accept separating Church and State but are against “seeing the world based on rejection of religion or hostility to religion”.) What they affirm is that religious faith is “an important dimension of personhood”, and indeed the manifesto concentrates on defining its own authorial voice; while religion, like patriotism, might seem to imply a surrender or effacement of self, here the emphasis falls on “who we are”.
What the manifesto does not clarify is how faith “as an important dimension of personhood” would lead to including North Korea in President Bush's “axis of evil”. The document does not evaluate the ethics of actual American strategy in the Afghan region; rather, it insists on the sheer fact of moral agency. I can well understand waging war to destroy the madman Saddam Hussein's stock of biological and chemical weapons, but I cannot understand what my own personhood has to do with it.
The logic of “What We're Fighting For” consists in moving from “I believe” to “I am loyal to American values” to the conclusion that “waging war … is morally necessary”. Absent from this logic, relegated to the limbo of secularism, is the conviction that we might discover normative ethical principles in the concrete relations of human beings to one another—admittedly an arduous economic, sociological and political task. The logic of faith surmounts all these stubborn particularities. “What We're Fighting For”, despite its nuances and humanity, thus justifies Tariq Ali in calling the present moment a clash of fundamentalisms.
In making this criticism, I intend no comment on the faith of the authors of the manifesto. What is wrong is that the manifesto does little to illuminate the ethics appropriate to a superpower. Fred Halliday's Two Hours That Shook the World takes that issue on by setting out America's past complicity with its current moral enemies. Halliday, a British expert both on the Afghan region and the Middle East, is no knee-jerk anti-American. He sees real justice in the American campaign against Iraq a decade ago, though no divine justice involved; it was Saddam's chemical and biological arsenal which justified the war. He is equally hard on the Islamic elites; like Tariq Ali, he believes their renunciation of institutional responsibility for their peoples has helped create those economic and social conditions in which redemptive fundamentalism flourishes.
Time constraints of production make for a certain difficulty with this book. Though just published in the United States, it came out in Britain only a few months after the September massacre; the collection of Halliday's varied writings over many years is not entirely unified in focus. But an uncomfortable truth pervades the whole work. Halliday makes clear American complicity in the past with those who are now threats to its security—not complicity with evil but complicity with bad. “Strategic anti-Muslimism” is a policy he roots in the politics of oil, particularly the oil crisis of 1973, and in the end-game America played against the Soviet empire. Like any realpolitik practice, “strategic anti-Muslimism” has waxed and waned depending on circumstances, which a decade ago made the United States covertly Taleban-friendly. In a chapter on the internal politics of Saudi Arabia, Halliday examines America's laxity about the duplicities of the ruling family, elements of which have funded organizations that have in turn funded terrorism. An ethical foreign policy would, at the minimum, admit where and when one set of values is inevitably compromised by another.
At the heart of the book lies a more positive, and simple, ethical vision, in the masterful analysis that Halliday makes of terrorism perceived “from above” versus “from below”. To recast his argument crudely, he distinguishes “terrorism”, as a threat to the security of secure peoples, from “terrifying”, the threat of power from above to those below. In this context, each major religion contains provision for discussion of just war, the conditions under which it is legitimate to use force, and of what kind of force it is legitimate to use.
For this reason, Halliday argues, the crude “identification of ‘Islam’ with ‘terrorism’ is a misuse of the latter term for polemical political purposes. … [It] confines discussion of terrorism only to Muslim states.” The signers of “What We're Fighting For” do not dispute this—in principle. But they are not attentive to the sense in which those beyond the American pale might be terrified of its might, and the irrational consequences which follow, at the extreme, from hatred of one's own impotence.
It might be objected that there is no balm in Halliday's plain speaking for the families of the victims of September 11. Or again, that he asks too much in asking a people to be self-critical about its own strength. But he and Tariq Ali pose, in quite different ways, an urgent question: how can the integrity of secular politics be affirmed? The US, like most other Western democracies, has seen the legitimacy of the political process as well as of politicians nose-dive in the last generation. Cynicism about political ethics leaves only two options: retreat into spectacle—which could be called the Berlusconi Way, in which the spectacles of “militainment” would fit all too comfortably; or appeal to religion as a guide to politics.
The self-standing integrity of politics is a particularly urgent one for American intellectuals. Stained partly by histories of bad faith, and partly by an unconscious elitism, we too have ceased to be credible, critical, citizen voices for our own people. To regain that legitimacy by appealing to religious sentiment, by tapping into religious “personhood”, is only to declare that intellectuals, too, are good Americans. Fred Halliday makes the straightforward point that American power has aroused “global inequality and global rancour”. To which “What We're Fighting For”, replies: we mean well. This amounts to a retreat from politics; it simply will not do.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1792
SOURCE: Arnove, Anthony. “Islam's Divided Crescent.” Nation 275, no. 2 (8 July 2002): 25-6.
[In the following review, Arnove offers a generally positive assessment of The Clash of Fundamentalisms, but argues that the work would have been stronger if Ali had proposed alternatives to modern Islamism.]
On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September 11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York Times ran an intriguing headline. “Forget the Past: It's a War Unlike Any Other,” it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting that “Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is virtually bereft of targets.” It was a poor headline for an article that began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree of resonance.
History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about the role of the United States in the world. And once the “war on terrorism” actually started, those who tried to speak about a context for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.
In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's much-discussed “clash of civilizations” thesis, Pakistani writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such organized historical amnesia—“the routine disinformation or no-information that prevails today”—and of speaking forthrightly about many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as well as within what he calls the House of Islam. “The virtual outlawing of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy to farce,” Ali puts it in one chapter, “A short course history of US imperialism.” In such a situation, “everything is either oversimplified or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility.”
Whereas Huntington's “clash of civilizations” thesis posits a cultural conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as “perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people,” Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He rejects Huntington's identification of the West with “human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy,” and he reminds us of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the Islamic world itself.
Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in Afghanistan, the broader “war on terrorism” now being fought on numerous fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left Review and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The Clash of Fundamentalisms he surveys a range of regional and historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons, geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.
Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking—defending against religious orthodoxy in favor of “the freedom to think freely and rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination”—Ali has a sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of Fundamentalisms he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and inconsistent references included in this volume.
Ali writes here of his “instinctive” atheism during his upbringing in Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon, born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a merchant caravan and traveled widely, “coming into contact with Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe.” Ali writes that “Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs and the need to impose a set of common rules,” thus creating an impulse toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important element of Islam's appeal.
Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter; some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather than a revealed document. “The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries,” Ali argues. But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. “What do the Islamists offer?” Ali asks rhetorically: “A route to a past which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed.”
Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a response to “the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on a global scale.” Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism in the Third World. These failures—his examples include Egypt and Syria—were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that “all the other exit routes have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American imperialism.”
Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the country “was still awash with factional violence,” while “veterans of the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia.” The factional instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention, created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.
To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan; in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US “friends” such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.
Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves, setting out his differences with the advocates of “humanitarian intervention.” Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually motivated by traditional “reasons of state.” Where other people see closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain to be pursued.
Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, “Letter to a young Muslim,” Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he notes, “no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even pretends that it wishes to change anything significant”? What might a radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the horrors of the Soviet Union?
Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union were “striving for a superior social and economic system” is to give those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.
Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too much continuity to the one before September 11.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
SOURCE: Powell, Sara. Review of The Clash of Fundamentalisms, by Tariq Ali. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 21, no. 8 (November 2002): 102.
[In the following review, Powell praises The Clash of Fundamentalisms, calling the work “a must read.”]
There's an old saying that you can't judge a book by its cover. With Tariq Ali's latest offering, however, many people do. You can't miss it: a picture of George Bush in Osama bin Laden's beard and turban, against a blood red background. As we have taken it to conferences throughout the summer, the cover has sold a lot of books, and generated even more double takes. (The back cover shows Bin Laden in a Bush suit and tie behind a presidential podium.)
But it's the interior of a book that counts, and what is enclosed between Bush and Bin Laden is a treasure that both men—and you—should read. Written in response to the terror attack on the U.S. in September of last year. Ali's Clash of Fundamentalisms is a refutation of Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, arguing instead that rival fundamentalisms—Islamism on one side, imperialism on the other—are the forces directing much of the world today. Both, Ali argues, must be opposed. To facilitate such opposition, he provides the historical context in which modern Islamism and U.S. imperialism arose.
Ranging widely throughout history to paint the background of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., parts of this book may be redundant for some readers, but those who could learn nothing from it are few. Ali offers the reader a concise history of Islam: its origins, its remarkable expansion throughout most of Asia and part of Europe, Islamic dissenters, the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire and its decline that was concomitant with a massive rise in the power of the West, women in Islam, Wahhabism, and the role Islam (whether religious or political) played in the separation of Pakistan from India. That separation and its fall-out—the birth of Bangladesh and crisis over Kashmir incorporate elements of the background of U.S. imperialism with regard to Asia. As the recipient of U.S. aid while fighting the Soviet Union, and the recipient of U.S. wrath when ostensibly sheltering the 9/11 attackers, Afghanistan and its brief modern history also are addressed in the book.
Notably, Ali includes the rise of Zionism and the disastrous effects of its imposition on Palestinians and on the Arab world as a whole—particularly with regard to Arab/Muslim relations with the U.S.—as yet another area in which U.S. imperialism toward Asia plays a significant role. Reflecting Ali's leftist political roots, a common theme of U.S. ideological, political, economic and imperial conflicts with the U.S.S.R. runs throughout his commentary. While obviously not comprehensive. Ali's choice of topics reflects those most necessary to understand both the basic precepts of Islam and the roots of Islamism, as well as the formation of Western attitudes toward the Arab and Muslim worlds.
As the 9/11 attacks were most certainly carried out by Islamists, whether or not Bin Laden had anything to do with them (which Ali argues has not been proven), U.S. imperialism toward the Arab and Muslim worlds are Ali's chief concern. Nonetheless, he does provide a brief look at imperialist tendencies toward the rest of the world, starting with the earliest displacements of native Americans and running through the Korean and Vietnamese wars, as well as secretive forays into Latin American and African politics.
Ali concludes with thoughts on both the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. and on Islam. He rejects the notion that the former was an historical event of singular significance, arguing instead that it was a mere pinprick in the catalogue of atrocities humans have perpetrated against each other—including atrocities perpetrated by the U.S.—and that it would eventually be seen as such. Its real significance, Ali argues, is that 19 Muslim hijackers felt strongly enough about the U.S. to commit suicide in order to make the political statement of striking a blow at the U.S., and that the U.S. must address the question of why. Such a question leads Ali to his concluding remarks regarding Islam. In the chapter “Letter to a Young Muslim,” excerpted in the London Review of Books, Ali argues that Islam is overdue for a reformation of the kind Christianity underwent in the 16th century in order to prevent it reliving old battles.
Despite the density of information contained in Clash of Fundamentalisms (and occasional oblique references as the result of assumptions of knowledge on the author's part) Ali's narrative style—especially the charming autobiographical tidbits that personalize and humanize the history he writes—makes the book fun to read. The important and timely issues Ali addresses speak to those concerned about the present precarious state of the world. An appendix on the Arab-Israeli war, from a 1967 interview with Isaac Deutscher conducted by Alexander Cockburn, Tom Wengraf, and Peter Wollen in The New Left Review, and an index, round out the usefulness of the book as a text.
For those concerned for the state of humanity or bewildered by Sept. 11, for students of politics, history, and international relationships, for Muslims, Arabs, and Americans, and for fans of Tariq Ali's work, this book is a must read.