Saints and OGRES

Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Sat Mar 18 01:41:23 MST 1995


The reason a few weeks back I commented that Ralph had not
introduced himself was because I thought that he was probably not
just an e-mail isolate, living his head out on the internet, but
was rooted in some sort of black politics and was black himself.
His post when he referred to the woman at the quick food stall
smiling at him was striking even though I doubted his interpretation
that that it was she who was needing to hide her despair. I guess
that through years of non-internet communication Ralph is taken by
people who know him for what he is: a larger than life character,
exasperating, and for some lovable. The fact that he is probably black,
though teasing us about this for the moment, of course makes the problem
far far worse for a list that almost certainly consists largely of
white people with a large helping of liberal ideals and anxieties.

So let me first thank Ralph for drawing to my attention CLR James. Last
Saturday I bought "Modern Politics", a series of  6 lectures delivered in
1960 at the Trinidad Public Library, in fine rhythmic spoken English,
covering a sweep from Ancient Greece to the Hungarian uprising. They are
witty, penetrating and *extremely* civilised. I started to feel ashamed that
I had known so little of this man who had lived so long in this country.
One thing that had perhaps put me off was his interest in cricket, which
for me is the game of the imperial English middle classes. But as I read
him I found myself searching for the name of another Trinidadian, who
impressed me in a way that shone through the filter of the
English imperialist press, for his dignity, humanity and morality in a way
that was most confusing as a boy, since my father told me that we had
already given the vote to too many people in the world. Only on dipping back
into the preface I saw that Eric Williams was an old friend of CLR James,
until a painful political break, that these lectures in fact marked.

Whatever the politics it was the same dignity, the same moral authority,
and superior civization that was shown by many of the first generation
post colonial leaders. I remember the same feeling about Nehru, as a boy.
More recently, amazingly, the most fascist-spirited, most cynical tabloid
in Britain, last year wrote in its editorial, dead pan,
"Goodness and reason shine out from Mandela like a beacon."

So what is happening in the group dynamics of this e-mail list, that Ralph
who declares himself to admire this most civilised man above all, presents
himself as an OGRE, and declares himself ready, but presumably no-one
has ever taken him seriously enough for him to hold any political power,
to think in terms of exterminating large swathes of political opponents.

Of course, we are meant to assume, it is a joke. But what is the mind-set?
It seems to me somehow relevant in an unconscious psychological way, that
while there is a discussion going on in theoretical language about the
degree of association between Marxism and Stalinism, that when all the
over-determined factors are accounted for, there is still the mind-set of
the person at the top of a political system who says one evening - enough
is enough, that's it, we will deport the Crimean Tartars to somewhere way
they can cool off (ho ho). And it happens.

Ralph in a teasing way when he first came into the list in December,
indicated how much enjoyment he got out of Marx's demolition of the Young
Hegelians, and, how for him this was similar to what he would like to do
to all the academic intellectuals who make his life a misery. He has chosen
to settle in a list, most of whose subscribers are likely to be academic as
the introductory notes imply. He has failed to notice that most of them
in fact are possibly to some extent themselves wanting to get relief from
the limitations of their academic environment, and he is prepared to make
no compromise to the fact that his style of handling conflict may be
totally unfamiliar to new subscribers, from say the feminisist movement or
the green movement, with whom cross links might usefully be explored. This
despite the fact that, allowing for the limitations of discussion in
the 1960's even a cursory reading of CLR James, suggests to me that James
was extremely interested in these personal and democratic issues and
regarded them as an essential feature of the intensifying social crisis
of the capitalist mode of production.

At first sight Ralph's political idiom could at best be taken as a joke and
exists at the level of perhaps drinking companions. He presents himself
as larger than life, and expects people to laugh. No political movement
even beginning to think of campaigning for a reform, let alone a
revolution, could build up any power, that is any momentum of shared ideas,
with that degree of intolerance of differing opinion. Would you elect
him to your Central Committee (always assuming you still believe in
Central Committees) ?

But just possibly I wonder if Ralph was connected with or interested in
Grenada, where very committed black socialists, of great bravery, handled
internal differences with a degree of destructive violence that  gave the
US carte blanche for an imperialist invasion.

It is weird that  Ralph, while at a theoretical level contributing to
exchanges about Marx and Hegelianism, actually also through some strange
alchemy of group dynamics across the internet, has got himself to be the
symbol of the intolerant side of Marx, and the murderous side of Stalinism.

Ralph in his own words now finds, like Justin found in an intensifying
tangle a couple of months ago, "I now exemplify the root of all evil".
And that includes for someone as politically hostile to Stalin as Ralph is,
"stalinist repression".

I think also Ralph has come to embody on this list Marxist despair, and
the extraordinary violence of his language requires such a connection to be
made. Because if the conscious working class is now weaker than Marx
predicted, and is unlikely to take power through revolutionary force, it has
to seek allies among those hopelessly vacillating elements like greens,
feminists, social democrats, left wing academic intellectuals; or give
up. Ralph has decided to give up, and perhaps to go out, in style.

It is very instructive for everyone. The bad side of marxism is something
we cannot split off. If we are to discuss how contradictions among the
people were so mishandled in Stalin's day, we have to be prepared to
discuss how contradictions among the people are to be handled by us now,
in socialist groups and in our own heads.

I think there is also a question of containing violence because it is
very destructive. And the enemy has more destructive power than we have.
What for example of the irony of circulating information about how to stop
the right wing censoring internet and shutting down lists like this, if
over a period of time people cannot voluntarily come to a compromise about
how this list runs itself. It is not fair to imagine that Jon can take
decisions to solve this problem on his own.

I know nothing of any private communications that Ralph speculates are
taking place. But if they are taking place someone must have raised in some
form or another the question of a democratic vote about Ralph's
participation. Like other people who are stepping in, I hope Ralph can
reflect further on what he is doing. But I think whatever decisions may
come about, I think it may help if all other readers try to avoid being
caught in the powerful symbolic polarisation that Ralph has presented.

Much as I would like this list to contribute to discussing how we undermine
the neo-classical ideology of the World Bank and the IMF, which is killing
far more people than Ralph could, I also believe that for Marxism to be
relevant there must be a connection between the personal and the political.

I would like to quote from a passage by a minor English author, which I
have only alluded to in the past, EM Forster, who had the good grace to
have a deeply troubled middle class conscience at the height of the
British Empire, and whose Passage to India first conveyed to me at the age
of 16 that something was massively wrong at a global level. It is in fact
from Howard's End, written in the Edwardian heyday, and with a typical
Forsterian self-mocking style, semi-mystical, semi-ridiculous:

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.... Only connect, and the
beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will
die."

Chris Burford, London




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