Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

David Aaronovitch Interview

In Guest Feature, T. Chinnick on August 8, 2016 at 11:58 am

by Tyler Chinnick

{on-line special – full un-edited article in one piece, rather than split across two issues as in the print edition}

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for the Times and Jewish Chronicle (formerly The Independent and The Guardian). He is a winner of the Orwell Prize, chairman of the free speech organisation ‘Index on Censorship’ and author of ‘Voodoo Histories’ (about conspiracy theories). His new book ‘Party Animals’ examining his communist upbringing was published earlier this year. I caught up with David as he was padding up what he assured me was one of the steepest hills in London.

I think of you in the same bracket as people like Christopher Hitchens and Claire Fox who started out on the revolutionary left (Aaronovitch was a member of the Communist Party until 1987) and have migrated over the years to a point now where you’re post-political almost. Do you still consider yourself on the left?

[Laughter] Post-political?! I most certainly am not. And Hitchens wouldn’t consider himself as post-political.

I don’t think of myself as post-political and nor do I think of myself as a kind of classic journeyer from the far left over to the right. Some of the things that were actually the most important things to me politically when I was younger are still the most important things to me politically so I’m loathe to accept that classification.

And if it’s true that the kind-of people who regard themselves as being the cup-bearers for the left would not regard me as being of their number but to a certain extent I don’t care what they think.

You mentioned in the talk at the Hay festival that Internationalism is still one of your guiding principles are there any other principles that guide your politics?

Internationalism, inter-dependency, co-responsibility, feminism.

Without wanting to engage in any cheap psychologism it’s not difficult to see why a movement like feminism might have appealed to the young Aaronovitch. His parent’s relationship was not a happy one due mainly to his father’s serial infidelity. Painful enough at the best of times but to a mother who prized loyalty above everything else, almost unbearable. She coped with it by lying to herself, even in her own diary.

What about enlightenment values?

Yeah, actually, enlightenment is more important to me now than it was then because I didn’t really understand it as a concept, so in that sense I suppose you can say that is a kind of shift. You know gradually I’ve become much more militant in favour of freedom of expression, freedom of speech as the things that underline our capacity to be the people, to be the societies that we want to be. To take an example, I’ve become far more aware of the importance of say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 than I would have been as a young communist.

Some people feel that those kind of values are under threat now in a way that they haven’t been in a while – would you share that fear?

In places, yes. After the fall of the Berlin wall we had a kind of view about the progress toward the acceptance of by-and-large the value of Western liberal democracy and I think for ten, fifteen years you could see that. So by the time we got to 2010 the number of democracies in the world had increased exponentially, through Latin America and so on and that’s still by-and-large been the direction of travel but there’s the substantial kick-back: Putinisation in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, various other countries. We waited for a long time for a significant reform movement in Iran that has never really been successful, that has always been suppressed.

I was thinking specifically about here at home. With elements of the left cosying up and forming alliances with people who they may never have done so in the past.

No that’s true, and that’s irritating. But that’s kind of, quite a parochial concern in a way. I mean I do see that among certain sections of the left. A kind of relativism, an unthinking, a certain, basically a ‘find the underdog’ and whoever the underdog is, adopt their views – makes no sense. It depends on who the underdog is and what their views are whether you want to do that. So you can find people who are very strong say on women’s rights in the rest of society but that believe, effectively in withholding their solidarity from, let’s say Muslim women who are claiming the same rights – well, that’s not very impressive.

How has university and particularly student politics and freedom of speech on campus changed since you were there in the 70’s?

Well there were always people who, if you like, were keen to constrain the dangers of other people’s speech. Mostly they tended to be on the left and mostly the target tended to be people on the far-right and in a sense given that we were still only 30 years on from the Second World War and so on and we had a real problem of significant and violent racism – you could understand that even if it was slightly misplaced. But there were always people who tried to extend it then. So for example when I was a student leader you had a problem of some Trotskyists saying ‘well we have no platform for racists, the UN has just declared Zionism is racist, therefore we can have no platform for Zionists. And the Union of Jewish Students supports Israel which is a Zionist thing to do therefore we better ban them from speaking’! Some actually made that argument. It was always easily defeated but since then you’ve got a completely different thing that’s come in which is kind-of a degree of sensitivity, often hyper-sensitivity on behalf of someone else saying ‘we can’t bear to have these things said in this area because the speech itself constitutes an attack’ – almost as if it were a physical attack. This is not just restriction on speech it almost becomes a form of thought control.

Actually I’m beginning to think that we might have nipped the worst part of it in the bud now in Britain, if not in America. I think the Student Unions and others got the message that this is not the way to go. So I’m half-hoping that the problem will become less not more.

You opposed the Vietnam War when you were a student but you supported the Iraq war. What’s the difference?

There’s no similarity between them at all. The problem was that Saddam Hussein – was to all intents and purposes – was a fascist, ran a fascist regime by incredible violence, absolutely staggering violence and to effectively, in the end defend him from attack had nothing to do with the Vietnam war. But people will pose it in the way that they think it’s the same thing. The Vietnam war was, in a way, the arse-end of de-colonialisation, the Americans got hooked into because of the problems of the Cold War and their idea that almost anything was better than allowing countries to become communist. Saddam was a completely different kettle of fish.

What do your think attracts people to conspiracy theories?

As I said in ‘Voodoo Histories’ they’re better stories, they’re less complicated in some ways, they can give complete answers rather than the incomplete, unsatisfactory answers of real life.

So it has the attractiveness of a thriller is part of it and then the other part of it is the explanation for one’s own defeat, so, the kind of conspiracy theories which the Republicans threw at Clinton after they [The Republicans] lost the White House. ‘How could it possibly be”, they said to themselves “ that these Democrats who we hate so much have won more votes than we have, well, it must be jiggery-pokery because anything else has an explanation that lies in our unattractiveness and of course we don’t think we are.

Do you think we’re more susceptible to conspiracy theories now than we were because with the internet they have a viral quality that they didn’t in the past?

I think conspiracy theories get formed quicker and go round the world quicker but I don’t necessarily think that we’re more susceptible to them. I mean the anti-semitic conspiracy theories were incredibly widespread in Europe in the period after the first world war, ridiculously so. And they were probably more widely believed than any similar such conspiracy theories now. And of course once people have got them into their head it was hard to debunk them because you didn’t have a mechanism for reaching all those people who believed these things

Why do you think Communism was so socially conservative in practice?

Right at the beginning of the British Communist Party, interestingly, there was a puritan strain in that part of it was composed of temperance campaigners believe it or not. Then of course you had this notion of sacrifice for the working class and giving up everything to politics and to organisation, it’s quite a puritanical stance … so you had this strange combination of bohemianism i.e. we’re changing the world, everything is turned upside down and puritanism, everything for the sake of the class and so on and they sat in a kind of odd way. Now, at first after the Russian Revolution you had this explosion of experimental theatre, experimental art as all the artists think ‘well now we’ve thrown off the old shackles’ etc but the whole business gets very, very serious, you know about fighting off invaders, fighting off the counter-revolutionaries etc then the puritans gradually take over and what they say is actually your art should be entirely subject and your life should be entirely subject to the needs of the political moment. Now that becomes a very, very conservative position because it says it’s much less interested in experimentation now it’s much, much more interested in directing everything.

And I suppose the Party in Britain would have just been taking their lead from Russia?

To a certain extent but even to a quite late degree in the British Communist party you had the Bohemians, people who didn’t fit into the normal weft of Western life. I’ll give you a good example. You know the spy Guy Burgess, being a sort-of active gay guy in an era when that was frowned upon. You can quite easily see that some of his decision to oppose his country had something to do with his homosexuality. I’m not saying by the way by any means that homosexuals are traitors but what I am saying is that sometimes if you find yourself going up against everyone else you look for other affiliations.

And I suppose that would also explain why there were a disproportionate number of Jewish people in the Russian revolution?

Well precisely so. It does, and so a lot of forward thinking people or very imaginative people joined the revolutionary movement. But when that movement becomes a consolidation of power and then faces an existential crisis you know you’ve got an actual country there that you’re running then in that case it appealed to an innate conservatism. And so for instance Russian textbooks on anatomy for school would miss out the reproductive organs altogether, just wouldn’t mention them. Like Ken and barbie dolls really. When you got to that bit they were all gone. Not very helpful.

Among many things ‘Party Animals’ is a potted history of the major developments in Soviet history and how the CPGB, it’s leadership and members reacted to them. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the invasion of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) and perhaps most problematic of all to a communist the 20th party congress at which Khrushchev revealed the truth about the Stalinist show trials and purges.

Did you ever talk to your parents about the revelations made by Khrushchev?

Thing is I didn’t have to talk to them about it because those had happened when I was a toddler, even younger than that and so by the time I would have been asking them questions about it it was already in the historical background. By the time I was in the party myself I – this sounds awful – but I didn’t care about their attitudes toward stuff was. I was not sufficiently enamoured of them to want to discover it.

Why did you decide to join the party?

Because I believed that the party was a good organisation that did the right things for people around the world and I wanted to be part of that.

But there were – and there still are – lots of Socialist and Communist groupings why the Communist Party?

Oh, I didn’t know that. I mean I knew there was the Labour party but I didn’t know there were all the other ones. I didn’t really know of the others until I went to college.

Though he says he was dimly aware of other left-wing parties he mistakenly thought that is was all more-or-less the same thing. He was soon disabused of that notion by a Trotskyist heartbreaker who slapped him across the face on discovering that in addition to joining her Trotskyist group he had also joined a Stalinist organisation. “She hated me” he recalls, the dismay still alive in his voice, “for being the wrong breed of leftist!”

Why did you decide to leave the party and how was that greeted by your family and former comrades?

I was already by then working in the media for five years. So I’d stopped really being politically active in any huge activist sense because it was incompatible with reporting on things to make yourself too much a part of them. In my house which I was sharing with other people we would put up things to do with help for the miners during the miners strike. I can remember writing things that were very sympathetic to the striking miners, if not to their leadership, but in terms of the party itself I’d more or less gone already. I mean I couldn’t really see myself the point of the Communist party already by ’87. I thought I would be better expressed probably in the Labour party. Also after I’d left being President of the National Union of Students I was just really politicked-out. I’d been an activist ever since I was a toddler. I’d been on countless demonstrations, I’d sold the bloody Morning Star on the student union steps almost every week for four years or something like that, I’d done my bit, I’d spoken on demos, been on demos, been arrested at demos etc. I’d just had enough of it.

All through my student life I was too political and I’d never really had any fun. I’d had some political fun but not really any other kind of fun. As it happens I’m not really a night-clubber or anything like that so it mattered less than to some people.

So you weren’t into night-clubbing and you didn’t particularly like Elvis Presley when you were younger and you’re disparaging about the drug culture … How did you rebel then – did you rebel at all?

I rebelled against my parents by taking myself out of the house and not going to anything with them, not going on holiday with them and so on. I mean it didn’t seem necessary to rebel more than that.

You weren’t tempted to become a Tory?

[Laughter] No! God no! I was not. That was the bloody last thing … [More laughter]. It’s extraordinary enough that I’m a Times columnist that’s kind of testing the limits without being a Tory. But if it seriously got to the point where I thought that the only way to keep a Corbyn government out was to vote Tory then that would be intellectually the right thing to do but it would be an incredible wrench. I mean I’ve never voted Tory in my life!

I was brought up thinking by and large that Tories were essentially devilish creatures and of course I’ve met quite a lot of Tories since and have discovered that some of them are quite personable. But I’ve never been even remotely tempted to be one.

What would your Dad make of Corbyn?

I think my mother would have been emotionally attracted to Corbyn on a very simple basis which is that he is the closest thing standing to what we used to stand for. My Dad was an autodidact, he taught himself Marxism and then economics. And one of my Dad’s favourite words was rigour – the idea that you must subject everything to rigorous work and rigorous analysis, you had to know all the facts and then you had to analyse them and that was really, really important to him. Say for instance you wanted to talk about the working class you had to have a definition of what the working class was, who is in the working class, how do they come to be the working class and when you say ‘the working class movement’ who are you actually talking about – which forces, in what kind of alliance, how would you get them together and how would they work and so on. I am pretty sure that he would have looked at Corbyn and thought this is an absolute bloody shambles, this is just not serious. And Corbyn has asked himself none of those sorts of questions, has no kind of intellectual interest in them as far as anybody can see and therefore is fundamentally unserious and therefore can’t lead anybody. I’m pretty sure that that’s what my father would have thought although I must say it’s very convenient for me thinking that that’s what he would think.

Do Labour/the left have an anti-semitism (AS) problem and if so how much, if any, is the fault of Jeremy Corbyn? The accusation is that he’s brought people into the party who would have been outside it otherwise.

I’m with my father in this respect really, which is I’m always interested in the question of what we mean by the words that we use – what do we mean by AS? I don’t regard it as anti-semitic per se to say ‘I don’t think Jews should go and live in a place called Israel and therefore I’m not a Zionist.’ I’m slightly more worried about people who of all things want to be anti-Zionist because that means that they’re against one particular form of national self-expression but not against any of the others but I don’t think they do that because they have a prejudice against Jews particularly.

So the anti-semitic tropes we’re talking about are the ones that are a transference to the word Zionist or the idea of Israel that are the old prejudiced perceptions about Jews. That they are incredibly and disproportionately financially successful and crafty and that they influence people by nefarious means, not open means to get their way. These would have been tropes that were highly recognisable to far-right people. And actually some of them come from far-right people so you now get this bizarre business that’s this cross-tweeting between Corbynistas – and I don’t mean people who are close to Corbyn particularly though some of them might be – and some sections of the far right, they just simply can’t tell the difference. They both claim to be for Palestinian rights above everything and that’s partly why all this has a particular salience really. It comes from this super-notion of the jewish lobby, or the Israeli lobby, or the Zionist lobby and so on you are essentially picking up on an anti-semitic trope which has gone down the centuries. That Jews are particularly tribal and close and manipulative. And I think that has infected sections of the Labour party or activists within the Labour party and I think it is a problem that the Labour Party now has.

The other aspect of this of course is that some of these attitudes are absolutely routine among some sections of the Muslim community. They’re just simply what Imam’s teach about Jews arriving out of the Koran and with no contradictory experience i.e. with no experience of actual Jews themselves to compare this against it is what an awful lot of people in the Muslim community including Muslim members of Labour believe – it’s what they’ve imbibed actually, which is even worse. In other words that’s almost the default position before you get to anything else.

Do you think there is any hope for socialism?

Now you remember what I said about my Dad – what’s your definition of socialism?

Let’s say Clause 4 the “democratic ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”

Let’s dig down into that a little bit. If we replace private ownership and private profit with democratic control as an economic mechanism – so think about it, who is exercising the democratic control and where are they exercising it – what are we talking about there? Who’s doing what?

I’ve always been taken with Jean Jaures notion that for, say nationalised industries a third of the board would be elected by the government, a third by the workers in that industry and a third by the electorate.

The thing is people don’t want to spend their time electing and in a lot of meetings and they won’t run these companies particularly well and whenever this has been tried it’s not worked.

The question is what the optimum level of involvement in action is. When I was a student activist, Trot’s put an incredible amount of emphasis on the idea of direct democracy. They thought that if you were at a meeting the vote you took was ten times better than any vote you took if you weren’t at a meeting by virtue of having participated in the discussion and so on. I kind-of half thought that was true for a while but I just don’t any more. I don’t think you get good decisions that way and I don’t think it really works. In the sense that we’re talking about that kind of socialism, democratic control over the means of production etc. – I think it’s very good that you put it like that because you took the question seriously and attempted to create a definition which you’re probably aware is not what Corbynistas do. What they generally say is ‘oh well, we’re just going to do better things for everybody and life will be better for everybody’. And wave a vague stick at it. So you at least tie it to a proposition – even if it’s a proposition that we can then say once we’ve dealt with it won’t work.

By the time I was in the mid 80’s, late 80’s, I just didn’t believe anything like that would work. That’s not to say that capitalist system isn’t open to huge levels of reform, I mean after all the whole business of regulation, which has grown and grown and grown because we all know that you cannot simply leave it to the profit principle to decide how society is completely organised and who in the end absolutely gets what. It has to be mediated and how it’s mediated is always an open question but to set an arbitrary point about mediation and to say that this side of this point is socialism and this side isn’t when you haven’t fundamentally altered the system is I think a bit of a confidence trick.

Who do you think will win in November in the American election?

Hillary Clinton will win. And I’m saying that largely because I don’t really want to be on the planet if that’s not the case.

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