Sunday, January 21, 2007


Now I’m not much of a philosopher but I’ve been having this problem with ideology lately. I mean: what the hell am I?

I’m not a socialist because I don’t think you can run an entire economy like the Department of Public Works without rendering reality a greywash’d yawn stuffed full of a million unnecessary forms.

On the other hand I don’t think that just ‘cause you’re born rich you should have carte blanche access to the best education and career paths. And, let’s face it, that’s exactly where this country’s heading. The argument comes: well if you’re poor and smart you can get a scholarship.

Why should you have to? Why should some Toorak dumbass become a barrister just ‘cause her/his daddy/mummy was and so on back to viscosity? My view: if you have the brains to be nothing but a bull-wanker then be a bull-wanker regardless your place on the social register.

And more: if you’re rich and you get a rare disease you have access to the best medical care. If you’re poor, then sorry your policy doesn’t cover it - kindly fuck off and drop dead. Why? How is that justice?

So in that respect I am a ‘socialist’.

But wait. If I want to start up some kind of business I really don’t see why I have to get permission to do so from some state authority. Sure if I’m feeding people or delivering their babies there are standards to be met. But what if I’m just offering to ghost-write their life stories. Is that anyone’s business save that of me and my client?

Hell no.

Maybe I’m a capitalist.

So I started taking some online tests. I mean that’s gotta be reliable yeah? These days they have this nifty new map structure. One such, the political compass, rightly asserts that:

The old one-dimensional categories of 'right' and 'left', established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today's complex political landscape. For example, who are the 'conservatives' in today's Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher ?

Furthermore in Stalin’s day were his rigid supporters conservatives? After all Stalinism was the status quo. So were those opposed to him ‘left-wing’?

It’s a funny old world.

People and systems don’t fit neatly into categories. And as the site asks: “how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi?”

The quiz presents you with a map divided by two axes. Along one is the standard left-right economic criteria: government control, intervention, moderation, laissez-faire. The other axis regards personal freedoms: free speech, sex, etc. I guess we can call these the capitalist-socialist axis and the authoritarian-libertarian axis.

In the centre territory there is a circle representing the intersection. On some political tests this central territory is labelled ‘centrist’ on those sites obviously pushing a libertarian barge this territory is labelled ‘statist’.

Questions differed from test to test but I pretty consistently scored on the libertarian side and slightly to the left of the capitalist-socialist axis. I’ve been classified a moderate, liberal or left libertarian.

This would alter depending on the questions some of which were specific to another country (eg the US), some of which were irritating either/or scenarios. My favourite in this latter category is:

What do you think is more important?

A/ Controlling inflation.
B/Controlling unemployment.

Well as they’re inter-related aspects of the economic cycle they’re both important. High inflation leads to high unemployment which ‘cause no-one’s got nothing to spend tends to bring prices and wages down so then they get jobs and start spending and the prices go up and around we go again. And of course that's only the way it works in Grade 10 economics textbooks.

How ‘bout option C: Thinking one’s important and the other isn’t, is dumb. There was no such option C.

Another example of this is on the Liberal Democratic Party’s site. Question two of the ‘social’ side of the test asks:

2) What should the governments role be with regards to issues of sex such as prostitution, pornography, sexual orientation etc?

a. There should be no laws with regards to issues relating to sex
b. Pornography, prostitution and sexual choice should be allowed and slightly regulated
c. Some pornography, prostitution and sexual choice should be allowed, but slightly discouraged
d. Some pornography and sexual choice should be allowed, but discouraged
e. There should be strict laws banning prostitution and pornography and controlling sexual choice.

Okay I picked option b. But that’s not exactly what I meant. Pornography, prostitution and consenting sexual choice are different things. In the case of the latter, it’s the business of lovers who’s loving the government and everyone else butts out.

Pornography? Well some people don’t like it and some do. Therefore I believe that you should be able to get it if you want it but you should likewise be able to avoid it if so inclined. That’s one aspect for regulation there are others: no kids, no chainsaws.

In the case of prostitution you are dealing with an industry that can and does become very ugly if unregulated. So, whilst I’m inclined to let business be business, in the case of prostitution and other industries where the absence of regulation is disastrous I think maybe um... some rules.

But the point is given multiple choice answers to decide your politics is an over-simplistic guide to ideological (read doctrine driven) thinking. I'm, therefore I believe a, b, and c are good and x, y, and z are bad - always no matter what. This way of thinking, or avoiding thinking, is something I'm deeply allergic to. Just writing about makes me feel itchy.

You can tell you're slipping into this trap when you answer every question in reference to someone who never really had a job: Marx said this, Hayek said that, Chomsky said so and so but Foucault says blah blah blah and Nietzsche etc. Not to impune the work of these gentlemen but remember:


So the test, or mode of tests is not exactly bullet-proof. I’m not trashing it just saying you can take a much more nuanced stand on something particularly if you know whereof you speak. And remember: mostly you don't - there are questions that baffle. The first question on the aforementioned quiz relates to how much government control of what percentage GDP. There was no option X: How the fuck would I know?

Still it's really useful to be able to summarise my myriad and oft contradictory thoughts with two words. When I go to parties and people ask my politics I can say I’m a left libertarian.


Now no-one will like me.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Politics is war fought by other means.

I remember this oft quoted axiom (from Prussian general and strategist Carl von Clausewitz) being cited by one of my more intimidating university lecturers in conversation with a colleague of mine at a book launch one Friday afternoon. The colleague had had the misfortune to involve herself in campus politics during a rather savage era and had that bitter emptiness that often ensues. War, the lecturer continued, is easy to make. It’s peace that’s difficult.

Difficult indeed. How difficult? Here we are the world at the brink of a possibly global catastrophe caused by of all things religion. Who’d have thought in this most secular, technological and humanist of ages that the medieval mentalities that prevailed for almost a millennia prior to the dawning of the modern era would reassert themselves in such a fierce and uncompromising manner.

Of course it’s really about territory. When the layers of self-righteousness are removed all wars are about territory (and/or resources). In this case the so-called Holy Land has once again taken centre stage. This article does not pretend to offer magical solutions. There are none. The agreed upon solution – the two state idea - is generally thought to be right one but the parties involved will not stop shooting and bombing each other long enough to give it a chance. When there is a calm moment someone finds a way to sabotage it and snatch conflict from the jaws of peaceful co-existence.

This article seeks instead to illustrate the obtuse attitudes that are pervasive when it comes to this conflict. My way of doing this is to examine the variety of things said regarding the film Munich.

I chose this film for three reasons.

First: the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of eleven Israeli athletes, the film’s starting point, is generally regarded as the watershed in which the Israel/Palestine conflict morphed from conventional territorial conflict to that form of barbaric guerrilla warfare known as ‘terrorism’.

Secondly the film is by a Zionist liberal Jew: Steven Spielberg who made it in an attempt to bring understanding to the terrible cycle of bloodshed and thereby contribute to bringing the whole nasty business to an end.

Third: I haven’t seen it and therefore don’t have an opinion as to the film’s impartiality nor it’s success or failure in accomplishing what it sets out to do. The film for my purpose is not important. What is interesting is the fact that so many mutually exclusive points-of-view have been expressed about it.

For the purposes of this article the term Zionist denotes any person who supports the existence of Israel regardless of their political stance otherwise. Pro-Palestinians are likewise persons who tend to side with the Palestinians.

Are these people watching the same film?
Let's start with Messrs. Massad and Krauthammer:

Charles Krauthammer complains in The Washington Post that the“ … Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given — with the concision of the gifted cinematic craftsman — texture, humanity, depth, history.” (Krauthammer “Munich, The Travesty”,Washington Post Friday, January 13, 2006; Page A21).

Alternatively Joseph Massad argues that “Spielberg … humanizes Israeli terrorists in Munich but expectedly not the Palestinian terrorists who are portrayed as having no conscience. It seems that unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinians shoot but do not cry! (Massad, “Munich or Making Baclava” cited in The Electronic Intifada, 3 February 2006).

Krauthammer says the Palestinians are humanized. Massad says they are dehumanised. Who’s right?

It seems on both sides of the debate there is a problem with the portrayal of the humanity of the ‘other’. Most writers argue either that Munich doesn’t take sides or it takes the wrong side. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, says that “by choosing a story set in 1972, Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism. In Spielberg’s Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis. There is, above all, no evil.” (Brooks “What Munich Left Out” New York Times Dec 11 2005).

On the other side As’ad AbuKhalil thinks that Munich “could easily have been a paid Israeli advertisement for its killing machine. In fact, it could be a recruitment movie for Israeli killing squads. It is a celebration of Israeli murder of Palestinians. When Israelis kill, it is always moral, and always careful, and always on target.” (AbuKhalil “Munich: Spielberg’s lies and cover-ups” For AbuKhalil there is evil, Munich promotes it.

These people are so divided they are incapable of seeing the same film. The film is filtered through an extensive prejudgement process before the thinking starts.

On the blog the writer a self-proclaimed psychotherapist and admirer of Freud, Jung and Adler compares Munich to Hirschbiegel’s The Downfall, a film that depicts Hitler’s last days in the bunker. The blogger objects to this film because it attempts “to portray Adolph Hitler in a human, albeit flawed, light.” Somehow this strategy is supposed to let the German people off the hook for letting the bastard take over.

Having seen that film and corresponding documentaries covering the same subject I have to say the film is a pretty good portrayal of what was happening in that place at that time. That is that supporters of the maniac Nazi command were confronted with the irrefutable truth that these people were ultra-selfish death worshipping psychos. But yes Hitler in The Downfall is human. Hitler in real life was human. Unpleasant but a fact nonetheless. Terrorists and assassins likewise are also human.

But this is the problem that the writer has. For him “Munich attempts to give credibility to a failed, destructive and evil society and indeed, what is an evil and failed culture.” It is not simply terrorists and/or their acts that are evil but the entire society itself. Palestinian Arabs are evil, their culture and society is evil.

So for Zionists Munich fails because it fails to grasp the inherent evil perpetrated on the Jewish people by Arab terrorism. However on the pro-Palestinian side as mentioned Munich fails for exactly the opposite reason. According to Canadian writer/filmmaker Julian Samuel Munich is racist the way D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is racist: “Palestinians have become [for Spielberg] what blacks were for Griffith: Dark, threatening creatures to be eliminated with extreme prejudice.” (As cited on

I must add that it’s misleading to infer that all the Zionists I canvassed were critical of the film. Heather Robinson believes that “Munich depicts civilized, decent men who can–and do–give the terrorists what they have coming.” (Robinson "What’s Right With Munich" 8/2/06). The overwhelming majority however, did.

Palestine and Israel: Morally Equivalent?
Many on both sides find fault with the film not for its partisan stance but it’s moral equivalency Colin Andersen on the same website argues that in regards to the Israel/Palestine conflict “we’re dealing not with a level playing field, but another variation of the clash between a European colonial-settler movement, in this case Zionism, on the one hand, and an indigenous non-European people, the Palestinian Arabs, on the other.” (Andersen "Munich and moral equivalence", 2/2/06 )

For Andersen the evil is Israeli (read European imperialist) aggression. He calls the Palestinians indigenous but makes no mention of the fact that Jews occupied that territory until Vespasian came along. Nor does he explain how a people who have been displaced, marginalised, enslaved and nearly slaughtered by various European states can be described as agents for European imperialism. Kate Wright argues the same way from the opposite direction. Her article includes a catalogue of associations between Nazism and the Arab world that predate the establishment of Israel and concludes “Spielberg seems convinced by moral relativism, the position that there is no comprehensive moral truth or truth value, that only personal subjective morality, deriving from social convention is truly authentic”. Ms. Wright doesn't consider the possibility that the advocacy of peace can be a cornerstone of moral truth.

And let's not forget: love thy enemy. Who said that? Jewish lad I believe.

Both Wright and Andersen have the same problem with Munich; it, they think, equates the Palestinian and Israeli position each as morally equal and they are not. Mr. Andersen believes it obvious that the Palestinians occupy the moral high ground and Ms. Wright believes the opposite!

So Zionists in general condemn the film because either it’s pro-Palestinian or it sits on the fence. Those pro-Palestinian condemn the film likewise as either an advertisement for Israeli aggression or again because it sits on the fence. What does this demonstrate?

Well as someone who pays some attention to Middle East ‘developments’ it demonstrates the hopelessness of the situation is due to the utter refusal of both parties to understand that the other side might have some justification for their beefs and furthermore the use of violence will precipitate return fire.
On those rare occasions when I see advocates of Palestine and Israel on the same show stating their case the result is always the same. Confronted by draconian measures against Palestinian civilians the Israeli spokesperson will change the subject to Hamas and suicide bombers. Asked about suicide bombers and the anti-Semitic stance of organizations like Hamas the Palestinian always changes the subject to Israeli policy.

It’s always their fault.

Each side believes the only way forward is for the other side to relinquish its stand and take sides with the enemy against the militant parts of their own people. This situation is exacerbated because the unreason is infectious. Throughout the Western world one cannot discuss the subject without someone frothing at the mouth: a situation made painfully obvious in the Munich discourse.

Consider the partisan historical analysis brought into play.

The aforementioned Ms. Wright for example cites Jerusalem’s “Grand Mufti … inciting violence against Jews through the 1920s, and as Nazism spread through Europe, Jews fled to Palestine.” And the Arab’s “next move … to make overtures to Adolf Hitler”. But she makes no mention of Likud’s overtures to the Nazi high command in the same period to give them client sovereignty over Israel.

Many pro-Palestinian writers cite the Lillehammer affair in which the Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki was shot whilst on holiday in Norway because he was mistaken for a PLO operative. They are outraged at the death of an innocent civilian but do not comment on the morality of shooting Olympic athletes.

David Brooks criticises Spielberg for choosing to portray an events that took place in the early 70s because then one avoids the anti-Semitism of modern Arab organizations like Hamas. He fails to mention that that is because these organizations were not anti-Semitic at the time. Until relatively recently there was a clear distinction made between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which is now sadly forever smudged. He fails also to ponder whether anti-Semitism would be such a feature of contemporary thinking in the Muslim world if Israel’s actions had been different. Indeed by declaring anti-Semitism the Middle-East's "core poison" he is inferring that Arabs are primarily motivated by Nazi ideology. The legitimacy of Palestinian objections is discarded.

The racial politics of Europe are not the racial politics of the Middle East. Arab leaders like Anwar Sadat admired Hitler in the 1930s not so much for his racial theology but because he stood up to the British Empire which controlled Egypt at the time. Sadat also admired Ghandi whose philosophy was mutually exclusive with Nazism. The Holocaust denials and anti-Semitic diatribes of many in the Muslim world might be the very unfortunate result of the simple dictum: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This has become tragically comic with events like Iran's holocaust denial conference attended and addressed by characters like KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke.

Moral relativism again? No, the opposite of moral relativism. Each side is attempting to assert moral absolutism. Iran has conducted a holocaust denial conference in order to undermine Israel's claims to legitimacy. From the other side comes the assertion that the Arab world consists of, in the words of a recent blogsphere commentator, "fascist monsters". Around and around it goes. According to the pro-Israel camp the Palestinians and their alllies are Nazis, according to the pro-Palestine camp it's the Israelis who are the Nazis. If I was visiting Earth from outer space I'd think the whole situation laughable. But I'm human and humans are killing other humans. It's not funny.

I'm not sure questions of moral relativism are constructive. If one excludes the mandate of God one is left with a case of ironic historical tragedy. Jewish people, persecuted in Europe, try to escape this by setting up a country in their traditional homeland. Can one who was not tortured maniacally by the Nazis during the 30s and 40s sit in judgement on the people who migrated to Palestine determined to find refuge from persecution?

I cannot and do not.

However there were people living there and the results are that they have been marginalised and oppressed within their own country. The notion that Palestinians can simply become citizens of one of the neighbouring Arab countries has been rendered nonsense. Most such countries have consistently refused to grant the Palestinians citizenship.

In this case the either/or scenario is simply wrong. The establishment of Israel cannot simply be written off as another case of European colonialism. The problem in the first place was that Jewish people were not accepted as European. Neither can the Palestinians be expected to pay the price for the Holocaust. They were not there, they didn’t do it regardless of whatever contact Hitler may have had with Arab leaders.

Evil deeds may have resulted (by and upon both sides) but one cannot write one side off as completely and irretrievably reprehensible. If that were the case it would be easy. I suspect the reason for so much selective myopia is probably that people want a clear cut case and the simplest way to accomplish that is simply to ignore the wrongs wrought by ‘our’ side and amplify those of the ‘other’ whilst simultaneously ignoring whatever good case one’s enemies might have and emphasising one’s own righteousness.

The reactions to Munich amply demonstrate these phenomena. There were of course praises for the film’s brutal honesty. Mostly these came from writers of the disinterested liberal sort. Persons with no connection to the conflict. But one commentary did give me reason to believe that perhaps peace is not impossible.

Karim Elsahy contemplates the reason for the fighting:

“people on my side are fighting for what they lost. Fighting for a home, a land, and self determination”. [But the] “same goes for the Israelis. If I were a Jew I probably would have been just as adamant about Israel. A chance to live under their own rule after millennia of Diaspora and persecution?”

“What if we (the Arabs and the Jews) were the ones that didn’t get it? Securely wrapped in the confidence of our own self-virtue what if we are the ignorant. What if there really is nothing worth fighting for.” (Elsahy Munich 12/1/06)

Well maybe Spielberg got thru to someone after all.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I recently watched a completely uninspiring video teacher’s aide in which two dreary, yet earnest looking persons discussed To Kill A Mockingbird in that phlegmatic secondary school manner which puts people off Shakespeare for life: it’s boring but for reasons I can’t explain you need to know it. There was the man and the woman: and like all good lefties he gave the ‘Marxist’ reading, she: the ‘feminist’ one.

These “Marxist” and “feminist” reading consisted of not particularly acute observations of gender/class relationships in Depression era Maycomb, Alabama - as presented in To Kill A Mockingbird. For example: the distinction between the deserving/undeserving poor (The Cunninghams and the Ewells respectively) being grounded in the fact that the former did not receive welfare whilst the latter did. The ‘Marxist’ made a big deal of this as if the whole point of Harper Lee’s book was a propaganda exercise for critics of the welfare state.

Why these and the equally uninspiring ‘feminist’ observations should be labeled as such is beyond me. Perhaps left-wing teachers are convinced that they will fill their pupils with radical notions and thus change the world. They seem to have forgotten the natural antipathy of adolescence to their elders’ beliefs. If they truly want to make them leftist radicals they’d be better off preaching Milton Friedman.

It is precisely these labels that will make ‘left-wing’ education such a target for the Howard government this year. The conservative forces (watch Andrew Bolt) will expend much typeface getting hysterical over radicals programming our kids with propaganda. The fact that much of the intellectual work that might fit under the terms Marxist and feminist might be worthwhile will be ignored. That work in fact will be stigmatized regardless of quality.

The right will target the Humanities academy as it has developed over the last fifty years or so. Largely emerging from Marx inspired work by the Frankfurt School and British academics like Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and Stuart Hall, intellectuals coming from a background in literature who turned their attention to cultural changes precipitated by twentieth century technologies and the resultant mass entertainment industries. The result is the widespread replacement of such phenomena as the study of literature with Cultural Studies. This new interdisciplinary intellectual phenomena examines cultural practices, artifacts and institutions within a social context especially as they relate to power structures.

Whilst I am not per se opposed to this, (I am in many ways a product of Cultural Studies), I do have to admit that various critics of Cultural Studies have a point. The obligation to view cultural products exclusively as political manifestations runs risks. Ideology can replace quality. As long as someone produces something consistent with a nice left-wing point of view it’s deemed good regardless of its sloppiness or distortions. The suspicion of hierarchies of quality – that is that some things are better than others – leads to a plebian stew that equates, to paraphrase Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Hamlet with the White Pages.

I’m not arguing here that one should not be permitted to seriously examine ‘trash’ culture. What is trash? Shakespeare himself was dismissed for many years as the Jacobian equivalent of pulp fiction. And Raymond Chandler actually did write pulp fiction. Equating great works of literature, however, with transient, utilitarian publications in the name of equality goes too far. Moreover it fails to achieve anything like social equality. It simply defies common sense and makes one look foolish. It also evades the sublime and essential quality of the arts – the transmission of the meaning. The readings of To Kill A Mockingbird described above dealt extensively with various social aspects of the novel but failed at any point to deal with it as a beautiful book despite the fact that the presenters obviously loved it!!

Currently there’s a tendency to evaluate literature (by example) not according to ‘old-fashioned’ standards like literary excellence or historical insight but according to individual notions of what constitutes ‘ideological soundness’. My favourite illustrative anecdote comes from some years back when Jane Hardman-Brown an English secondary school teacher made the news refusing to take her students to a performance of Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that it was ‘heterosexist’. Ms. Hardman-Brown might want to read the play a few times and figure out what’s going on between Romeo and Mercutio before she makes those sorts of conclusions. She also might want to confront the fact that most people are heterosexual.

This is the sort of easy target that ideological standards of scholarship will inevitably set up. Naturally people will argue with me that Ms. Hardman-Brown’s actions are not typical. Perhaps not. But they are a substantial phenomena of the modern arts academy. To question cultural attitudes to homosexuality or anything else is a good thing, (funnily the To Kill A Mockingbird crew fail to mention Truman Capote or Harper Lee’s sexuality) but activist enthusiasm does not give educators carte blanche to inflict their counter-bigotries on students. Educators have responsibilities, and in that role those responsibilities are primary.

To disregard Shakespeare as heterosexism (he was bi dear) is akin in my mind to a Biology teacher teaching Genesis instead of Darwin. I should know my Biology teacher attempted to do just such a thing, supported by the (Christian fundamentalist) principle who seemed to believe that conformity was more important than learning. He succeeded. During his tenure uniform wearing became mandatory and the grade average plummeted.

All that said I support the basic precept of cultural studies: to mix ‘literary study of culture with anthropological studies. I merely believe that rigorous standards should replace wooly thinking pretending to aspire to some kind of dining room radicalism. The phenomena whereby the Humanities takes in the whole culture and not its most precious artifacts is itself a radical shift. In order to make it work it’s best (I feel) to jettison ‘leftist’ doctrine in favour of free enquiry unencumbered by ideological defaults but evaluated according to standards of excellence in research and elucidation.

Thus the challenge from the right might turn out to be a good thing ultimately. Often people are at their best under adversity. The Howard government, wily as it is, will not blatantly declare the (bad) lefty Humanities academy out to be replaced by (good) right-wing types, although this is what they intend to do. They will simply assert that criticisms launched at cultural studies by various forces (think Harold Bloom and Alan Sokal for starters) and try and stain anyone and everyone in their sights with same rhetorical brush: lunatic, dogmatic, trendy etc.

That the ideological default standards tend to have effects within the politics of Universities ensure that there will be plenty of people to sling labels at. Naturally the right will want quality scholarship stained as well. It is the quality stuff that threatens after all. Andrew Bolt frequently attacks Robert Manne not because his work is bad but contrawise.

The Humanities academy having sustained criticism and economic rationalist attacks for the past 25 years or so will not go down without a fight. Cultural studies has brought the humanities out of the ivory tower and into streets, homes and office buildings. It is potentially much more relevant now than it was in the days when it's basic purview was discussions about Wordsworth, Montaigne, Descartes and Rembrandt.

Still change’s gonna come ‘round. One positive outcome of such might be the promotion of clear and precise standards of expression. This will hard on anyone who's adopted Judith Butler as a style-guide but a boon to any intellectual who wishes to share her (or his) ideas with a general public. Anyone who has no ideas and uses postmodern obfuscation to disguise the fact is in trouble. However in the end the right might find their sortie backfires. Threats might force Arts intellectuals to do two things: seek out a market for their ideas and write in a style accessible to a popular audience. This is already happening but assaults from conservatives will amplify the trend and thus spread the ‘radical’ ideas out to a world thirsty for ways to express why precisely it is that things suck.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Late last year whilst participating for fun in the blogwars I had the great fortune to spar in a debate re. the legacy of General Auguste Pinochet. This issue prompted three posts from the blogger and pages of cyberpaper crammed to the brim with insulting tête-à-têtes between left and right-wing readers.

Although the blogger (crafty devil) did not actually come out and say anything himself re. Pinochet, he quoted long stretches of other writers’ work which implied that Pinochet wasn’t such a bad guy. The rationale for this argument was two pronged: first Pinochet wasn’t so bad because his predecessor Salvador Allende was much worse and second: Chilé was an economic shambles before the General put things right.

The blogger never went so far as to endorse any redemption of Pinochet but simply stated that he may deserve less condemnation than previously thought. This was a red flag to drooling leftists who howled for blood and walked right into a trap designed to make them look like doctrine driven robotic idiots.

Mission accomplished.

The blogger had a field week with the issue and his supporters had great fun putting the boot in. The final post on the subject challenged the left to make a counter-argument without “vilifying, making wild accusations, misrepresenting or lying?” (A good one coming from him.) He largely tagged many of the critical posts with ‘fail’. Rightly so. He didn’t however bother to acknowledge the many posts that actually managed to rise to his challenge. Nor did he correct his supporters when they were guilty of vilification, misrepresentation or just plain stupidity.

What became apparent during the debate was the way in which the term “Marxist” is being transformed into something bearing similar connotative qualities to ‘Nazi.’ For example consider this quote from the Michael Radu piece cited in the Pinochet blog:

"But while leftists choose to remember Allende as a beneficent democrat, history provides little support for this view. ... On the contrary, Allende’s regime was so radically Marxist that its most “moderate” element was the Communist Party."

The inference here is that Marxism is inherently anti-democratic, always and without exception.

This had been a notable thread in the blog running back a few months. The same week as the first Pinochet post there was another in which journalists from The Age were implicitly vilified as “Marx-quoters” as if to cite the man was an indication of criminal tendency.

This opposition to Marx, not just philosophically but morally is curious. To listen to some, reading Marx is akin to viewing child pornography: an inherently immoral act, something intrinsically tainting. I am reminded of an ultra-conservative and sartorially-challenged National Party Club President in my student days proudly declaring that he’d managed to avoid Marx in the five years it took him to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Asian politics. I thought he’d managed to stunt his own education: how much can you know about Chinese politics if you avoid Marx and Marx-related topics? He believed he’d come through Satan’s lair and emerged pure.

This kind of group think, dangerous in itself, bears exacerbating resemblance to the bleating of people today who call themselves Marxists and try to prove it by spending week-ends at dreary lectures on various topics relating to Left-wing history as distorted by the senior members of their Romantic Revolutionary Social Clubs. You can always see this kind of thing plastered over spare urban spaces in the form of photocopied simulacra of constructivist styles. One recent example being the hysterically inane: How Marx Became a Marxist.

This is of course why the word Marxist has become so useless. Most ‘Marxists’ have never read a word. They’ve been to a talk in which some dumbed down version of a pamphlet bearing slogans quoted from a stupid book of dogmatic verse has been badly delivered and, having run out of haircuts with which to annoy their parents, they become ‘Marxists’. Marxism here is part religion part sub-cultural fad. The Goth look for geeks.

But these are irrellevant here. Here we're discussing Marx's use intellectually and pedagocially.

The argument against Marx will be based on one thing: the anti-democratic nature and economic failure of Marx-inspired states. That Marx himself is not responsible for this and likely would have disapproved of them is one of those historical complexities that simple minds are determined to ignore. The argument for Marx will always be met by emotive anecdotes from the Soviet Union. Funnily enough China, which boasts a market economy and a totalitarian state, will probably be overstepped.

The reason Marx is ultimately demonized is that despite him being often wrong he’s often right. A quick scan of various Marx quotes will demonstrate this:

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force."

This is something that Rupert Murdoch (once a self-professed Marxist) would rather not make it into the daily papers. One day he’ll buy Fairfax out and make it so. The reason he’d rather we didn’t read it is because it’s true. The reason that he stands a fair shot of eradicating Marx from all but the most obscure cultural corridors is the same.

Then there’s my favourite:

"that peculiar disease, a disease that, since 1848, has raged over the whole continent, "Parliamentary Idiocy,"--that fetters those whom it infects to an imaginary world, and robs them of all sense, all remembrance, all understanding of the rude outside world."

Parliamentary Idiocy. I don’t care who you vote for, you just gotta love that phrase. And it’s perfectly true. Anyone who’s disappeared up the fundament of intense political activity, emerged to tell the tale and is honest with themselves will admit the truth of it. Regardless the author, this concept most definitely should be taught in schools: part of the strengthening of democracy via the cultivation of a healthily skeptical citizenry.

The facts of capitalism are built into the system. You don’t need Marx to breed discontent with the system just a long stretch of unemployment. What Marx adds is analysis. Consider:

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all nations into civilization."

Is this not a description of globalization? I’m amused by the ‘anti-globalization movement’, particularly the ‘Marxist’ elements. If they’d actually read him they’d understand that this globalization phenomena is part of the capitalist process: that the global bourgeoisie will give rise to the global proletariat. That is to a world of working people who, unfettered by cultural divisions associated with 'nation' etc, will come to understand themselves primarily as a class with common interests.

I can’t say for certain that this will happen but if I was a Marxist I wouldn’t be wasting my time protesting globalization. I’d be fostering international links within the Labour movement.

I’m not a Marxist. I’m loathe to put myself in any category that follows a name with the letters i..s..t. To treat any individual as the oracle of everything is stupid and lazy. I don’t mean this to describe all work inspired by Marx or others. Eric Hobsbawn is an historian whose method and subject matter are ‘Marxist’. His work is excellent. But one of the reasons for this excellence is that he does not lose sight of his obligations as an historian whilst deploying Marx’s principles in writing it. He does not fail to see the history for the theory.

The fact is like it or not Karl Marx is part of the intellectual history of the world. And like it or not he made contributions. The irony that his ideas would fuel the Soviet nightmare (one of history’s most oppressive states) is one example of the ironies that history is stuffed to the brim with. Marx’s most unfortunate phrase: the dictatorship of the proletariat was a romantic slogan chasing an ideal in which the lower classes would prevail. The Soviet Union might have declared itself to be the dictatorship of the proletariat but only became the dictatorship of a proletarian namely one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili better known as Joseph Stalin.

To blame the iniquities of Marxist states entirely on Stalin would be a bit much. Stalin after all opposed the Communist revolution in China led by Mao Zedong who would transform into quite a killer himself. Stalin can’t be blamed for Chinese massacres, the ideology must itself be held accountable. It is accountable because it was a political philosophy that justified the concentration of absolute power in the hands of the few or the one. Any ideology that does so will bear the same results. But Marx himself is not accountable for twentieth century totalitarianism. He wasn’t there. There is a distinction to be made between his writings, the intellectual quasi-faiths that these inspired and the nasty business ensuing.

Marxism as it developed during the twentieth century bears a tenuous relationship to what Marx wrote. Nietzsche by comparison was much lauded by Nazis and other psychopaths for his ideas about the superman, master vs. slave cultures etc. That Nietzsche himself would’ve been appalled by the Nazis is evident to anyone who’s read him with any understanding. His discourse on the master and slave mentalities in The Genealogy of Morals is a direct contradiction of the master race perversion that Nazi intellectuals eventually made of it. This is now understood. Marx however is still demonized.

The reasons for this I suspect is that Marx is still relevant despite declarations to the contrary. After all he was the first to crystallize a theory of history based on class struggle. With this, as with other things, I believe he was over-simplistic. But he did outline the view that human society had developed along certain lines underpinned by an economic mode, that the social structure enabled by that economy was based on a class hierarchy which afforded a leisurely life to the ruling class and that significant (fundamental) change in the political structure of society was only possible after the economic mode had first advanced.

Marx was a fundamental materialist in this respect. He believed that ideas, culture, art and all the rest were a product of the economic structure. Ideas don’t change things, economics and class struggle do. There is argument to support this view. After all serious notions of a society founded on equality have existed at least since fourteenth century France but the political shift from a society ruled by an hereditary class (feudalism) to modern democracy was underwritten by the organic development of the capitalist system. Only after the merchant class had made itself the engine of society could it then demand political power.

An overly simplistic view, but the simplicity of his views does not discredit them. It is part of their value. Stripping phenomena down to bare essentials is very useful particularly if you are casting something in a new light. The error occurs when you rigidly adhere to the simplicity and then try to apply reality to it and not the reverse.

Marx’s materialism has been challenged notably by Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Marx’s ideas have themselves precipitated change in the development of Marxist states, another delicious irony. The Marxist states arose from backward and feudal societies thus contradicting Marx’s proposed itinerary of societal development: slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist, communist. Most of the Marxist states paid lip service to his theory whilst leap-frogging one or two stages of his theoretical development or at least attempting to.

Again I’m not a Marxist. I don’t endorse Marx’s claims to social prophecy. However I do believe that human society, in a shaky two-steps-forward, one-step-back, fall-down-drunk and stagger-up-again kind of a way, does get better. I believe we can and will do better than we are now. This will not happen by applying the implied theories of one man to everything from factory organization to skateboarding but it will likewise not occur if we censor ideas either.

Thus my argument is more akin to Voltaire than Marxist I am for the free exchange of ideas. For that to occur an idea cannot be censured simply because it’s by such-and-such. It must be considered on merit according to facts and relevance regardless the name on the title page. Much of what Marx had to say about capitalism and class society is as true today as it was when he wrote it. A lot of it is wrong. In that respect he’s just like myriad other thinkers throughout the ages. This is not an excuse to demonize him or exclude him from his rightful place in canon of thought.