Tariq Ali's "Redemption"
Tariq Ali's "Redemption" is a minor comic masterpiece that features thinly disguised Trotskyist leaders getting together for an emergency world congress to discuss the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and related events. Written in 1990, the novel reflects the crisis of "existing socialism". It also reflects the crisis of "existing Trotskyism", a crisis that Ali takes pains to point out is recognized by none of these latter-day Trotskys.
The congress is the brainstorm of Ezra Einstein, who nobody will have trouble identifying immediately as Ernest Mandel. "In his own person Ezra Einstein combined some of the qualities of a Old Testament prophet with the defects of a New Testament apostle, whose task was to interpret the words of the saviours in changing conditions." In view of the developing situation in Eastern Europe, Einstein calls for an emergency World Congress in January 1990 "to discuss the changes necessary in our own theory and practice."
Ali takes the artistic license to imagine a situation in which Einstein sends invitations to all of his allies and enemies in the Trotskyist galaxy, including arch-rival Frank Hood, the leader of the "Hoodlums" in England. Hood, of course, is Gerry Healy. "At meetings of the Hoodlum Politbureau, the blood often rushed to his bald head and suffused the entire top part of his body. This was a sure sign that he was about to rant and rave. When he picked his nose, the other Hoodlums tried as unobtrusively as possible to remove all bottles within easy reach. The nose-picking was always a prelude to breaking a milk or a beer bottle and brandishing it suggestively before the face of a petrified colleague, usually a wimpish professor from the academy who was only to delighted to accept a proletarian rebuke."
The American SWP becomes the Proletarian International Socialist Party of American Workers, better known to the public as PISPAW. The PISPAW leader is one Jim Noble, who ex-SWP'ers like myself can take delight in recognizing immediately as the infamous Jack Barnes. Noble, like the character he is based on, is a detestable sort. "Noble was pacing up and down in his room. He was in a foul mood. Everything had been going wrong lately. Only the previous week, three PISPAW members who were all due for pretty big inheritances when the reached twenty-one had resigned and left the organization." (I'm only glad I left the SWP before Barnes got his hands on my millions.)
Another invited Trotskyist is Jed Burrows, leader of the English group nicknamed the Burrowers League because of its proclivity to deep entry work in the Labor Party. (Ted Grant of the Militant Tendency!) Burrows convenes a meeting of the Shadow-Shadow Cabinet to discuss Einstein/Mandel's invitation. This cabinet was the "High Command which would seize power when Labour failed the nation for the tenth time and the working class moved rapidly from a General Strike to an immediate insurrection, splitting, in the process, the police, army, navy and air force."
Burrows' bitter rival is fellow invitee Jimmy Rock, leader of the State Capitalist tendency in England. The resident intellectual of the Rockers is one Alex Mango, i.e. Alec Callenicos. "Mango, an extremely talented polemicist, made sure that he preserved his best material for the national press and the literary journals. He was the leading representative of Rockism with a human face, and his own features were extremely pleasing, even thought the hair which covered his forehead and came down to his shoulders was by now completely grey. This only enhanced his attractiveness to the young middle-class housewives in the north-western districts of the capital. His appetites were legendary. It was said that Alex used to disguise himself as a milkman and service most of North London in a day; but this was probably a vile slander spread with somebody less well endowed with bottle."
This gallery of clowns finally make their way to Paris for the emergency world congress. Each one has a plan to maximize his own sect's personal interest out of the affair. In public they are all smiles and diplomacy. In private among their minions they conspire like cartoon versions of Macbeth.
The important political point that Ali is making about the shortcomings of all of these sect leaders is that none of them has a clue how to react to the collapse of the bureaucracy, except to say "Now it is our time." They feel vindicated that "Stalinism" has collapsed but lack the self-awareness to understand the reason for their own collapse.
Noble, leader of the American PISPAW, has seen his own organization shrink from thousands to a tiny sect but can not understand why. Those who remain and who are comfortable in the claustrophobic milieu of this party have a mind-set similar to the FBI agents who continue to infiltrate their organization.
Ali comments, "Whereas US and allied intelligence agencies infiltrate armed-struggle organizations by providing people who are expert in the use of weapons and who, for that reason, are rarely turned down by the guerrilla groups, the priorities for placing informers inside the sects are different. In fact the more monolithic the sect, the more authoritarian the regime, the more worshipped the supreme leader, the easier it is for an operative to enter and work his or her way to the top. All she had to do is work hard, pay generous financial dues, and inform on dissidents and anti-leadership elements, and promotion is not long delayed. The behavioral pattern of rising inside the FBI or a sect like PISPAW was not dissimilar. The language and goals were, of course, polar opposites, but the methods of organization shared a great deal in common."
It becomes the job of Ezra Einstein to set a new course for the world Trotskyist movement after the collapse of "Stalinism", and in his opening address to the congress, he tells a stunned audience that the answer is in a new orientation to organized religion. He points to the growth of a Church-inspired Solidarity in Poland, the largest working- class mobilization independent of the bureaucracy, accepting the leadership of the priests Wojtyla and Gemp. This is the road the Trotskyists should travel. Einstein spells out his plans:
"What then is to be done? The answer is obvious. We must move into the churches, the mosques, the synagogues, the temples, and provide leadership. Our training is impeccable. Within ten years I can predict we would have at least three or four cardinals, two ayatollahs, dozens of rabbis, and some of the smaller Churches like the Methodists in parts of Britain could be totally under our control."
After an initial shock over the proposal, the Trotskyist movement buys into the new approach. As you would expect the new orientation produces fissures almost immediately. A group that includes PISPAW's Jim Noble decides that a better approach would be to form a new religion entirely and the splitters own way.
Their new religion would be a synthesis of Freemasonry, Islam, Christianity, and Trotskyism as practiced by the members of PISPAW, the Burrowers and the Rockers. "The new creed would have its own places of worship, its own Holy Book, its rituals, its sacrifices and its evangelists. Its priests and priestesses would speak in the name of the Creator and accept Jesus and Mohammed as the two great ancient Prophets, but would challenge the legitimacy of both the Christian saints and Mohammed's successors. In their place the new religion, Chrislamasonism, would create its own hierarchy of Popular Saints which would include some of the great figures of history, Hegel being an obvious example."
Ali knows the stupidity and arrogance of the Trotskyist movement >from the inside, having spent some years as the leader of the Mandelista group in England. Ali had the good sense to leave this movement in the 1970s and make the best use of his talents. He became a novelist and a producer for BBC. While he is unstinting in his bitter satire of this misbegotten movement, there is another element of the novel that demonstrates the serious concerns of Ali and his political milieu during 1990.
This milieu of successful, left-leaning, highly educated writers and intellectuals reacted to the 1990 events with a high degree of consternation. They had been politically trained to expect socialist democracy in the Soviet bloc, but instead of that they got the spectacle of a pro-capitalist Solidarity in Poland and free market initiatives throughout Eastern Europe being led by former "anti-Stalinist" intellectuals like Havel. Trotsky had predicted that capitalism would be resisted violently in the workers states, but the opposite was taking place. Workers and bureaucrats alike seemed to jumping on board the neoliberal express.
I recall the Socialist Scholars Conference in NYC at that time. A panel discussion on events in Eastern Europe included prominent Social Democrat Barbara Ehrenreich. She opined that it would be "elitist" for the left to reject the consumerism of the working-class of Poland, Hungary and elsewhere. If it took the free market to deliver these goods, then the job of socialists would be to tame the free market and make the transition to it as painless as possible.
This confidence in the market was short-sighted. In a few years, Communists were being re-elected to office across Eastern Europe, Daniel Ortega stands a chance of being the new President of Nicaragua and even Castro's Cuba remains standing as a monument to "existing socialism". In all of these places, however, the socialists are making concessions to the market.
The expectations of people like Ali and Ehrenreich was that the Gorbachevist perspective would hold true. All of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union would become social democratic: bland but beneficient. The reality has turned out a lot different. The former Soviet Russia starts to look more and more like Brazil each day, rather than Sweden.
The value of Ali's book is that it provides the definitive satirical deathblow to a movement that has become ossified and irrelevant. Those of us who are convinced that the free market can not deliver the goods will have to continue our discussion outside the framework of Trotskyism, Chrislamasonism, or any other dogma. This list happily describes new initiatives in that direction even as we are pestered from time to time by characters who seem lifted out of the pages of Ali's novel.