Friday, May 29, 2009

St Paul and the imperative of group orthodoxy/infallibility

Tying together rather neatly two themes canvassed on this blog recently - intra-left sectarianism and the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo - I came across this passage in Goytisolo's memoirs recently which I found quite thought-provoking:

The obsession of Communist parties and revolutionary groups with labelling those who differ from them as "lackeys of imperialism" or "agents of the Pentagon" does not date back, as I thought for a time, to the particular historical conditions in which the Marxist and non-Marxist working class movements were shaped and structured before the victory of the Bolshevik revolution: it is a response to a series of social and psychological factors that, as I would be shown by a reading of Blanco White, have their roots through the centuries in notions of orthodoxy, absolutism and infallibility - the fruits of Saint Paul rather than Marx - firmly anchored in human nature. "Individuals organized professionally in an orthodox body will resist and sanction with every means any attempt to dissolve the vital principle behind their union. And as a consistent political body, an orthodox Church will easily realize that nothing binds groups of humans together better than their opposition to the rest...Hence the fact that condemnation of the latter is the real essence of orthodoxy."* A rigidly hierarchical party will thus have recourse, as Blanco prophesies, to the simple expedient of marking out those who are not in communion with them with some vile or sectarian label...

The future designation as "intellectual bourgeois agents," "shameless pseudoleftists," and "minor agents of capitalism" bestowed by the great Cuban leader in 1971 on Sartre and a group of writers politically aligned with him would again confirm the deep-rootedness of the old custom, but I was not then surprised or upset. My involvement in the political world in my first years of hardened self-exile had revealed the abuses of such a mechanism ad nauseam and I was, you might say, inoculated against such terror.

*See Obra inglesa de Blanco White (Buenos Aires, 1972), 256-263

- Forbidden Territory: the Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo 1931-1956 (trans. Peter Bush) pp. 203-4

While not necessarily subscribing to the idea that there exists such a thing as abstract "human nature", I think that Goytisolo's observations do contain a real kernel of insight in terms of the way in which inner and intra-group dynamics play out on the political left (as well as in society generally).

While the labels may vary (the Maoists' favorite pejorative being "revisionist" or "objectively counter-revolutionary", the Trotskyists - my own tradition - preferring instead "bourgeois intellectual" or "cliquist") the underlying phenomenon is the same - the need to believe that the project we are all engaged in is objectively vital and representing more than just our own subjective hopes or desires, hence no questioning of its validity can be countenanced.

I remember being puzzled some months ago when reading in the New York Review of Books about a recent work by the French neo-marxist philosopher Alain Badiou entitled "St Paul: the Foundation of Universalism". At the time I wondered why on earth the doyenne of the French New Left would be interested in such an esoteric subject, however upon reflection Badiou's characterisation of St Paul as the Christian equivalent to Lenin does make a great deal of sense.

While I admit I haven't read more than the introduction to Badiou's book (such is the impenetrable nature of his prose - like that of French academics in general), his basic contention appears to be that St Paul's role in the history of the Christian church was to place it upon a "universalist" foundation overcoming the various frontiers of language and legal jurisdiction and in so doing creating a new community that transcended the pre-existing multitude of fractured identities (perhaps analogous to the state of the world under global capitalism today).

However quite clearly St Paul's "universalism" is primarily a vehicle to further the propagation of an idea that in its origins and epistemological status is purely subjective i.e. Christianity.

What we can see therefore is that the impulse to "universalise" ideologies or belief-systems often stems from the need to compensate for their tenuous hold on empirical reality (perhaps that is why the Healyites and their latter-day successors the World Socialist Website make such a big deal about the "science" of dialectics - a concept towards which I have always felt fairly dubious)!

This is not necessarily to say that the political ideology of Marxism is only a subjective whim or has no objective basis (although Goytisolo would probably beg to differ) - rather it suggests to me that those political groups within the Marxist left which are the least secure in their foundations are often the most shrill in their denunciations of others (the obvious religious corollary of the WSWS would be the Christian fundamentalists).

In this way I think it is possible to conclude that those groups which feel the need to rationalise the departure of members from their ranks as proving that they have succumbed to defeatism/alien class forces/the devil etc reveal no more than their own intrinsic weakness and insecurity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mario Benedetti: la soledad también puede ser una llama

Mario Benedetti, one of the most important (and universally loved) Latin American poets of the 20th century, died in Monetevideo on Sunday aged 88.

Besides his literary output, Benedetti was heavily involved in promoting leftist causes and was an historic leader of the 28th March Movement (the electoral wing of the revolutionary Tupamaros) - as a result of which he was forced into exile after the Uruguayan military took power in 1973.

Below is a clip from the 1992 Argentine film El lado oscuro del corazón (which I already discussed on this blog a few weeks ago), containing two poems by Benedetti - No te salves (Don't save yourself) and Corazón coraza (Armour-plated heart) - the latter read (in German) by Benedetti himself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The truly remarkable capacity of the left for self-destruction

The trainwreck involving my former comrades in the Victoria University branch of the Workers Party that is currently playing out on indymedia and in the pages of the student newspaper Salient is certainly a depressing spectacle - except of course for the denizens of the right wing political blogosphere who predictably enough are taking enormous pleasure from the whole debacle.

I don't propose to comment on any of the specific concrete issues here, as if I wanted that kind of pointless aggravation I wouldn't have needed to resign from active membership of the Workers Party back at the start of the year. All I can really say about the cycle of charges and counter-charges following on from the decision to expel VUWSA president Jasmine Freemantle from the WP is that neither side comes out looking particularly good.

However, I would like to venture some observations about what I see as the underlying causes driving this kind of self-destructive behavior on the left, which is by no means unique to the WP.

Firstly, as I've previously noted on this blog, for a variety of reasons New Zealand society at the moment is characterised by levels of class consciousness and struggle so low as to be almost non-existent. As such, any political organisation (whether revolutionary or reformist) that seeks to appeal to notions of collective solidarity or common interest and build mass support is likely to come up against the fairly solid and impassable barrier of public indifference and apathy.

This phenomenon of protracted political downturn has been responded to by left-wing organisations in this country during the past decade or two in a number of ways -

1. Hyper-activism - trying to galvanise the masses through sheer subjective willpower. Often accompanied by a watering down of political programs in order to boost the chances of generating "broad" appeal.

2. Sectarianism - a conservative strategy based on maintaining the apparatus of a political party or propaganda group with its own distinctive confessional statement of ideas and principles, which supposedly embodies the true interests of workers or "the residual memory of the class" despite the current absence of any working class political constituency.

3. Colonising the student- and trade-union bureaucracy - moving in to fill the void left by the political and organisational collapse of social democracy, in the hope that this will facilitate access to a wider political audience.

During my 10+ years of involvement in left politics, all of the organisations I have belonged to have incorporated at various times one or more of these strategic approaches.

On the face of things, all of these strategies have a certain logic to them. However, I would argue that the very phenomenon of political and social isolation which they seek to overcome in the end dooms all of these projects to failure.

The isolation of the left means that all of these groups are lacking in human resources and especially politically-experienced cadre, with the result that when (for instance) the left succeeds in capturing positions in trade unions or students' associations often their representatives are not equipped to competently discharge their responsibilities. In addition, simply by taking these positions the left do not overcome their isolation since for the most part the various collective "mass organisations" are in reality only paper tigers with very little participation from the rank-and-file.

Meanwhile, those who take the alternative route of hyper-activism soon burn-out and disillusion their members when the various "grassroots" campaigns fail to capture the popular imagination, while the proponents of the sectarian approach also lose members for simple lack of a compelling reason for anyone to stay (and hardly inspire many new members to join!).

Common to all of these strategies in my experience is the frustration that members inevitably feel at their continual political isolation. Often this leads individuals to increasingly rely on the organisation as a kind of social network and refuge. Unfortunately when some of these social networks or relationships break down, this can cause the organisation itself to become dysfunctional and for personal differences to be converted into political ones.

Thus we have petty personal squabbles blown-up into full-blown polemics, with the lines of battle determined by the ever-shifting bond of personal loyalties rather than any rational criteria.

Ultimately, there comes a point for most members (as there did for me) when these negative consequences flowing from trying to maintain a political organisation (with all the implicit additional requirements of a common program, publications etc) in a period of protracted political downturn simply outweigh all of the benefits (real or hypothetical).

At this point I think it is necessary to stand back and assess whether in fact it is worth it to dive back immediately into the political maelstrom, or whether it is better instead to await the coming in of a more propitious tide (i.e. a significant shift in the relation of social forces) before doing so.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Count Julian's revenge

Count Julian by Juan Goytisolo (trans. Helen Lane)

(continued from previous post)

While each nation has had its legendary betrayers in history - the Athenians had Alcibiades, the Romans Coriolanus - arguably none was as spectacularly successful as the Spanish Count Julian.

Count Julian the novel consists of a series of interwoven experiences, childhood memories, dreams and drug-fueled hallucinations of a Spanish exile living in Tangiers who looking across the Straits of Gibraltar that separate him from his homeland is filled with an overwhelming sense of loathing, such that he imagines himself as the great betrayer - Count Julian himself - leading the Arab army of invasion to the sack of Christian Spain.

Goytisolo prefaces the novel with the following quotation from Luis García de Valdeavellano's Historia de Espana:

In their struggle against the Byzantines and the Berbers, the Arab chieftains had greatly extended their African dominions, and as early as the year 682 Uqba had reached the shores of the Atlantic, but he was unable to occupy Tangier, for he was forced to turn back toward the Atlas Mountains by a mysterious person whom the Moslem historians almost always refer to as Ulyan, although his real name was probably Julian, or perhaps Urban or Ulbán or Bulian. Soon thereafter he became a legendary figure known as "Count Julian". We are not certain whether he was a Berber, a Visigoth, or a Byzantine; as a "count" he may have been the ruler of the fortress of Septem, once part of the Visigoth kingdom; or he may have been an exarch or a governor ruling in the name of the Byzantine Empire: or as appears more likely, he may have been a Berber who was the lord and master of the Catholic tribe of Gomera...

Goytisolo's style takes some getting used to - he avoids the use of full stops and paragraph breaks so that the text appears as one neverending stream-of-consciousness, a kind of Latin Ulysses. The task of the translator Helen Lane in handling this work is therefore one that cannot be underestimated.

Many of Goytisolo's own personal experiences are blended into the narrative - mainly scenes of human cruelty from his childhood spent in 1940s Francoist Spain which also resurface in his memoirs. However despite sharing many aspects of his personality and background (up to and including his self-imposed exile in Morocco) with Goytisolo, the nameless protagonist represents an extension beyond Goytisolo the writer. For example as our exiled Spaniard delights in fantasies of sexual violence perpetrated by the Arab armies he imagines overrunning Spain, it is clear that he is channeling the Marquis de Sade, while at other points in the narrative he seems in equal parts José de Espronceda and Miguel de Cervantes.

The protagonist desires the complete destruction of Spain - physical, political, linguistic and literary. He imagines a variety of ways in which this destructive intent can be encompassed - ranging from the fanciful (ordering the removal from the Spanish language of all words of Arabic etymology) to the truly bizarre (contracting rabies and donating his blood to be used in Spanish hospitals).

He fulminates not only against the Francoist dictatorship but the entire Spanish weltanschauung, symbolised for him by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (who we are reminded Nietzsche called "the torreador of virtue) and who our protagonist imagines was not born in Corduba as the historical accounts maintain (which would open him up to the suspicion that he was not of "pura sangre") but rather in the very heart of Castille, in the village of Madrigal de las Altas Torres - the birthplace of Queen Isabella "the Catholic" located in the Sierra de Gredos mountains.

The weary fatalism that he perceives in the Spanish collective psyche is further underlined by the frequent jibes at the figure of Platero, the donkey in the poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez who exhibited an enormous capacity for blind, trusting faith (a positive quality for Jiménez, obviously not so for the protagonist who imagines meeting the inoffensive creature and slitting its throat with a knife).

Elsewhere in the novel the Spanish obsession with racial purity is represented by the continuous praising of the Castillian ibex or capra hispanica by Don Álvaro Peranzules (an obvious caricature of General Franco). Yet the protagonist also feels nothing but contempt for the erstwhile progressive Spanish intellectuals, the partisans of racio-vitalismo and heirs of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset who claim to oppose Franco:

at literary gatherings and cocktail parties, in arty cafés and elegant salons, men of letters are carefully tending the flame of the brightly glowing Torch of Generations: sons, grandsons, great-grandsons of the giants of '98, bards celebrating the immutable flora of the steppes, the Hispanic essence that has stood the test of centuries: statues who do not yet have a pedestal, but are already masters of the art of tauromachic pedestal...

Of course, these same intellectuals during the Spanish Civil War delighted in stoking the fires of patriotic nationalism against the colonial Moroccan troops used by General Franco and the Nationalists - demonising the alien other instead of seeing them as a people oppressed by Spanish imperialism who could potentially won to the Republican cause.

However in the final analysis Count Julian is not just a Spanish story but a universal one - as the protagonist tells us:

one's homeland is the mother of all vices: in order to be cured of it as rapidly and completely as possible, the best remedy is selling it, betraying it: selling it?: for a mess of potage or for all of Peru, for a great deal or for almost nothing: to whom?: to the highest bidder: or giving it, as a gift filled with poison, to someone who knows nothing about it and does not care to know anything: a rich man or a poor one, a man who is indifferent or one hopelessly in love: for one simple but sufficient reason: the pleasure of betraying...what homeland?: all of them: those of the past, the present, and the future...selling one's homeland into bondage, an endless chain of unending crime, permanent and active betrayal...

It is this fundamentally irrational yet somehow heroic (or anti-heroic?) sentiment which I think makes Count Julian such a powerful work - worthy of comparison with Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great or Milton's Paradise Lost.

Together these works could form the basis perhaps for a course to be taken in conjunction with all the papers on nationalism and "nation-building" that currently infest our institutions of higher learning, to be entitled "Anti-Patriotism 101".

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Juan Goytisolo: the journey into exile

...Castillian in Catalonia, Frenchified in Spain, Spanish in France, a Latin in North America, nesrani in Morocco, and a Moor everywhere, as a result of my wanderings, I would become a writer not claimed by anybody, alien and opposed to groupings and categories...outside the bounds of abstract ideologies, systems, or entities always characterised by their self-sufficiency and circularity.

- Coto Vedado/Forbidden Territory: The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo 1931-1956
(trans. Peter Bush)

In the course of my literary perambulations (see previous post) I recently discovered the work of the Catalan-Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, a writer whose name it seems is hardly known in the Anglophone world despite the existence of several excellent English-language translations of his novels.

Goytisolo is a fascinating figure, in that while he has chosen to spend almost his entire adult life living outside of Spain much of his literary work is characterised by a near-total obsession with the land of his birth. Despite living in Morocco, he also still manages to write a regular column for the newspaper El País (for whom he worked as a war correspondent during the 1990s in Bosnia and Chechnya).

Goytisolo is a man of contradictions - he grew up in Barcelona during the 1930s and 40s in an impoverished bourgeois household whose forebears had been the owners of vast sugar plantations (and hundreds of slaves!) in Cuba. Goytisolo's father was a strong Catholic and ardent supporter of General Francisco Franco, however the revelation that his mother's death in 1938 had been due to a Nationalist bombing raid alienated Goytisolo from his father (who had suppressed the truth and always blamed his wife's death on "the Reds").

An additional factor impelling Goytisolo's journey towards exile was his alienation from Spanish culture and the Spanish language, a reaction provoked as Goytisolo says in his memoirs by "the ignorant, small-minded priests" (the Jesuits) who educated him. As a result, he did not even read Cervantes until he was in his late 20s.

In 1956 Goytisolo went into voluntary exile in Paris, France and was soon associated with the leading cultural and literary figures of the French Communist Party. He also became an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution, but after a number of visits there he became disillusioned with the Castro regime. In his memoirs he tells of giving a speech at a secondary school in Havana as the invited guest of the Cuban poet Navarro Luna, arriving just as some girls were being publicly censured in front of the entire assembly for being lesbians. Goytisolo describes the overwhelming feeling of hypocrisy he felt as he went onto the platform to give his address

...I, that juan goytisolo suddenly ashamed of his role, of the unbridgeable abyss opened at a stroke between reality and words, overwhelmed by the tumultuous applause for the imposter who has usurped his name...

Goytisolo was discovering at around the same time that he himself was a homosexual, although despite finally confessing as much to his partner Monique Lange in 1965 they maintained an "open relationship" and even later married.

Goytisolo published a number of novels throughout the 1950s and 60s to a modest level of critical acclaim, while at the same time working for the French publishing house Gallimard (in the course of which he came to befriend writers such as the Mexican Carlos Fuentes and the Cuban Cabrera Infante). However, it was with his Álvaro Mendiola trilogy (published between 1966-1975) that he really made his name. The second book of that trilogy in particular - Reivindicación del Conde don Julián (published in English as "Count Julian") - stands (albeit a little ironically as we shall see!) as a masterpiece of Spanish literature and the ultimate condensation of Goytisolo's personal, philosophical and political thought.

To be continued...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Other Count Julian

Tariq the conqueror of al-Andalus laying his conquests at the feet of the Umayyad viceroy

It is funny how sometimes a line or fragment of a poem can lead you off on the most circuitous yet interesting of intellectual tangents.

I had this experience a couple of years ago when I was reading the through some of the Civil War poetry of Antonio Machado - the Spanish modernist writer and contemporary of Unamuno and Azorín - and came across a sonnet entitled "A Otro Conde Don Julian" ("to the other Count Julian").

The poem itself, which is far inferior to Machado's earlier works such as those found in his collection Campos de Castilla (Lands of Castile) and of primarily propagandistic rather than literary significance, held little interest to me - but the title, which casts the nationalist leader General Franco in the role of the arch-betrayer of Spanish history Count Julian of Ceuta held a strange fascination.

My knowledge of the half legendary, half historical figure of Count Julian was derived from my early-adolescent reading of Walter Scott's "The Vision of Don Roderick" which with Scott's customary poetic licence recounts the story of the last Visigothic King of Spain and his defeat at the hands of the Moorish invaders (Sir Walter Scott, along with the Romances of King Arthur and Charlemagne, informed most of my 12-year-old world view).

In the poetic account of the fall of Visigothic Spain, King Roderic is betrayed by Count Julian, the governor of the Christian outpost of Ceuta which lies on the North African coastline at the closest point to the Spanish shore (the Romans knew it as the city of Septem). The reasons suggested for Julian's betrayal are many and varied - some say it was because Roderic raped one of Julian's daughters who was a hostage at the Visigothic Court in Toledo, others that Julian was the protector of the sons of the previous Visigothic King Wittiza, whom Roderic was suspected of assassinating.

More recently, historians have suggested that Julian may have been a Byzantine Greek official who had only entered into a temporary alliance with the Visigoths after the fall of Carthage to the Umayyads in 695-698 and the departure of the last Roman troops. Given the fact that the Umayyads proved to be considerably more tolerant towards other religions and denominations than the formerly Arian Visigothic rulers (who with the zeal of recent converts to the one true faith were continually trying to prove their Catholic bona fides to the Pope by violently persecuting Jews and heretics) it is not inconceivable that Julian's decision to enter into an alliance with Musa ibn-Nusair, the Umayyad governor of the newly conquered Maghreb provinces was motivated simply by enlightened self-interest.

Whichever of these scenarios is correct, what is uncontested is that in the year 711 Julian provided the fleet which transported the Berber Umayyad general Tariq ibn-Ziyad and his troops across the narrow straits to the landing place which now bears Tariq's name - the Rock of Gibraltrar (from the Arabic "Jabal Tariq"), echoing the invasion of Republican Spain by General Franco at the head of the Army of Morocco in August 1936, some 1200 years later.

After the defeat of Roderic at the Battle of Gaudalete and the establishment of Umayyad rule in Spain, Julian was rewarded for his "act of treachery" with extensive lands and titles.

These then were some of the literary and historical associations that Antonio Machado's piece of Civil War propaganda rekindled in my head, leading me to look up again the story of the Fall of Visigothic Spain and in the course of this process to discover the work of a remarkable man - also an exile estranged from the political and religious order of Christian Spain, a modern day Count Julian living in Morocco - the novelist Juan Goytisolo.

To be continued...