A Conversation With Tariq Ali (part 1)

As anti-imperialists the world over celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Vietnamese victory over American force of arms, Charles Demers of Seven Oaks spoke with essayist, novelist, film-maker, author, playwright and anti-war activist Tariq Ali. Unlike a number of those with whom he opposed the war in Vietnam – are you listening, Christopher Hitchens? – Ali has maintained a clear- headed and always-relevant analysis of imperialism that has carried him over into Britain’s (and the world’s) present-day opposition to Washington’s drive to war with. everybody.

Charles Demers: Reading your autobiography of the 1960s, Street Fighting Years, today’s young activists can be forgiven for feeling as though we missed the heyday of the anti-war movement. But do you see the movement today as having any advantages over the movement against the war in Vietnam?

Tariq Ali: Well, I would hate for any young activist today to think that we all had it good in the sixties and what exists now is crap – that’s not the case actually. The sixties in North America were pretty different to what was going on in Europe. It’s true that in Europe, and other parts of the world – Mexico City, Pakistan – you did have movements that went way beyond anti-war. I mean in France the students triggered off a general strike of ten million workers. You had a strike wave in Italy. In Portugal, you had a revolutionary overthrow of a fifty-year-old dictatorship. So these things happened, and that’s a different experience from North America.

The main point I make is that the image you have of the sixties in the United States in particular, of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, that is unacceptable. It was political, it was a very political epoch. And I would say the big difference between then and now is the following: that activists in the sixties and seventies actually believed that they could change the world, that they could bring about basic social transformations in the ways in which societies were working. That I think is gone. But you know that’s because we live in a completely different epoch.

In terms of the scale of mobilizations to try and stop the Iraq War, the pre- mobilizations before the war, there was nothing quite like that ever, not only in the sixties but in human history. They were the largest mobilizations to take place, but then they disappeared. And I think that the reason for that is that the overwhelming majority of people who came out and marched on February 15 [2003] were people who were not from the Left. They were ordinary, average citizens who didn’t believe what the politicians were telling them, didn’t believe Bush or Blair, and felt that by demonstrating their anger against this war – they actually believed they could stop it.

And when they couldn’t stop it, and the war went ahead, and Iraq was occupied, then they lost heart and stayed indoors. They, in many cases, began to get active in other milieus – I’m mainly talking about Europe now.

And in Spain they brought about a big defeat of a right-wing government. And the Spanish government that was elected withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq.

In Italy that could happen very rapidly, as well.

And even Blair, though there’s no opposition in Britain as such, Blair could be dented in the elections that are due on May 5, and his majority could be reduced. If it’s reduced by just 20 or 30 seats he’ll just laugh, but if it’s reduced by 60 or 70 seats then I think the anti-war movement will be totally justified in claiming a victory. The war is playing very big in the British election campaign. Even though the Conservatives supported Labour even they are now beginning to say ‘We were lied to,’ whereas the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish nationalists, the Welsh nationalists and the far left RESPECT group are constantly attacking Blair on the war, and it’s playing big in the newspapers and television as well. So it’s a very interesting election campaign and we will see what happens. I mean, the British electoral system is incredibly undemocratic, so you can ne! ver totally register what people are feeling, because it’s a first past the post system. But we will see.

Demers: One of the developments we’ve seen in Vancouver is the passing of the Cold War peace movement, which was couched in pretty apolitical terms and nuclear disarmament, motherhood issues, and we’ve actually seen an accepted discussion of U.S. Empire and imperialism. Part of that is just that the war machine is so scattered, in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, that an analysis of imperialism has been necessary to oppose this war. Is this something you’re seeing in a lot of the cities you’re visiting?

Ali: Yes, this is pretty universal actually. I travel all over the world and these questions come up everywhere: What are the aims of this Empire? Can it succeed? How long can it last? All these questions are coming up and being discussed and debated quite vigorously all over the world. I remember now, we used to discuss imperialism endlessly in the sixties and seventies. You know, the big question posed by an American radical was ‘Who will bring the mother down?’ And the reply we used to give was ‘the Vietnamese will bring the mother down.’ They got close to it.

But the question today is slightly different, but nonetheless it’s an interesting question. The United States is the only Empire in the world today, and no one is strong enough to challenge it militarily. But it could overstretch itself, and then it will start pulling out, but that doesn’t mean it will collapse; I think we have to be very clear about that. And you know the American Empire has always tried to find local relays to do the business for them. They only intervene when there’s no other way. And then they usually go in and put in a regime which supports them and pull out again. And I think that is what they will try and do in Haiti and Iraq, but I don’t think it’s going to work in either country. In Haiti, they removed a popularly elected leader, and in Iraq the bulk of the population wants them out. The room for maneuver is limited in these two places, but they’ve got away with it elsewhere.

Demers: At the time of the Vietnam War the greatest threat to the American Empire, outside of the immediate Southeast Asian war-zone, were the revolutions of Latin America. And today that seems to the case again, that the threat to the U.S. Empire, outside of the immediate field of battle in the Middle East, is coming from Latin America.

Ali: Well, I think that I would go further than that. I would say that after the Cuban Revolution, there was a long, long wait in Latin America. And, in fact, if one is being ruthless and hard-headed – which I think we should always be in analyzing political realities – one would have to say that after the Cuban Revolution the United States went on a counter-revolutionary offensive and crushed all the possibilities in country after country.

Military coups in Brazil, Chile, Argentina; the Cuban Revolution really scared the living daylights out of them. And had it not been for the existence of the Soviet Union, for all its problems, they would have taken Cuba back. There’s no question about it. The only thing that stopped them was that the Russians backed the Cubans in putting missiles there, so they had to negotiate. But they certainly intervened in every other Latin American country to stop any developments. And that’s why the guerrilla movements didn’t have a chance. They were like kids going out to fight and confronting a giant Empire. Che’s struggle in Bolivia – which I write about in Street Fighting Years because I was there at the time – was a futile struggle, completely isolated.

So the situation in Latin America today at the beginning of the 21st century is much more positive than it ever was in the sixties and seventies, and people have got to understand that. You’ve got social movements – and when I say social movements, I don’t mean NGOs, I mean genuine big social movements – in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico. And you have in Venezuela now the victory of the Bolivarian movement, which totally destroys, in my opinion, all of these foolish theories, which I call theories of virtual reality, the virtual reality world of [John] Holloway and his gang, which said we don’t take power, we can change the world without taking power. I mean I have never heard a more vacuous slogan being coined by an academic, and it’s ideal in the academic world, because there you can never take power, and you can write all sorts of nonsense and it’s taken seriously because you have captive audiences of students.

But in the real world, it’s a joke. The Bolivarians have now completely destroyed that myth, but what they’ve done in Venezuela is started a process. That’s how we should see it, it’s not a finished process, they didn’t come with preconceived assumptions. They took power, popular power, elected by the masses, and slowly they continue to transform that society.

And the transformation could reach a level where any return to the status quo ante will be impossible. The oligarchy has been defeated three times now, and Chavez is now using the oil monies openly to transform the social landscape of that country: health, education, land, all these are happening and this is the first time in the history of that country that the poor have some future. So it’s extremely positive, and this is an example for the whole of Latin America. The fact that at some of the sessions of the World Social Forum the masses were chanting ‘Chavez Si, Lula No’ and Chavez stopped them because it was a diplomatic problem, and he said ‘no, I know Lula wants to do good and when he does we must help him.’

But, you know, the models are obvious. Either you take on capitalism or you don’t. If you don’t take on capitalism then you do what the IMF and World Bank tells you. It’s a global problem. Lula decided to go that route. This is a guy with enormous prestige, a workers’ leader who basically once he came to power lost it, decided that was the way he was going to go. And his cabinet includes many former leftists. His minister of finance is a former Trotskyist. These guys when they turn they really turn, you know. Because all the dogma which they had when they were on the Left, that dogma then becomes transferred to defending the new, the converts to capitalism. ‘This is the only route, we’ve got to do it, and we’ve got to be ruthless.’

So that’s essentially what we’re seeing. But in my opinion the whole continent of Latin America is seething, it’s in revolt, much more than it ever was when Che was alive. In Bolivia today you have a gigantic social movement where there are pictures of Che Guevara everywhere. There never were when he was alive. The people were indifferent. The Bolivian peasants were indifferent when Che was killed. They didn’t care. Then, subsequently, 5, 10 years later, they began to understand ‘this guy was fighting for us.’

Slowly his pictures began to appear and now they are everywhere. You know, people have a memory, they don’t forget. It’s interesting, the situation there is much better than it ever was, in my opinion.

Demers: You mentioned the World Bank, and I just wanted to ask you about the appointment of the war-monger Paul Wolfowitz as the head of the World Bank.

Do you see that as a potential crisis of opportunity, making clear the links between the machinations of war-making and capitalism?

Ali: It’s good they’ve appointed Wolfowitz. I don’t feel that upset about it. It’s all out in the open now. You know, what’s the big problem, Robert McNamara used to head the World Bank and then in his dotage sort of said ‘oh, I did too many awful things.’ Maybe Wolfowitz will in forty years time, but I doubt it, because he’s made of much sterner stuff. I think what Wolfowitz needs, though, is a strong PR officer. There will be two problems with Wolfowitz. One, because of who he is, there will be permanent security problems for him. I mean the head of the World Bank has to go around meeting people all the time, you know, put on a show of doing something. But he’s a security problem. I mean from his own point of view he needs to be guarded all the time.

So he needs a PR officer who can write his speeches, justify the unjustifiable. And I would suggest strongly that he employs his close friend and comrade Christopher Hitchens to act as his public face. I think Christopher would be very good at that.


Charles Demers is an anti-war activist and founding editor of Seven Oaks Magazine (www.SevenOaksMag.com).


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