Tariq Ali on Desert Island Discs

What a coincidence. I just picked up Redemption from Barkingside Library. Redemption is Tariq Ali’s comic masterpiece satirising a number of identifiable characters from the British Left including Ernest Mandel and Gerry Healy – at the moment the Eastern Bloc fell apart. Funny, deftly written, and its smartest, most dignified characters are women (though mostly invented, according to Alex ‘Mango’ Callinicos, to provide a veneer of legitimising feminist critique). The book is now 18 years old.

On Desert Island Discs (Listen Again for one week only) Tariq himself reveals himself to be two of the things I find least appealing in a political activist – a proud, self-defining anti-establishmentarian and underdoggist. He was also stung into fairly high-pitched denial of Kirsty Young’s observation that he is in and of the establishment. Indeed, he couldn’t have written Redemption with so much insight had he not been at the very centre of the British Left.

Underdoggists don’t ask about the values and aspirations of the person or group they support. Whether the underdog is an adorable little under-chihuahua or a lethal under-scorpion doesn’t matter – what matters is an even fight. Weak=good. Strong=bad.

And strong equalling bad, anti-establishmentarians don’t ask about the values and aspirations of the establishment they oppose. It doesn’t matter about the character of the establishment, or what is in the wings waiting to move into the void left by a broken-up establishment – whatever the establishment it’s something to kick against. Anti-establishmentarianism is nothing more than destructive, incapable of building an alternative society.

By this mixed-up reasoning Stop the War Coalition invites Hesbollah’s Ibrahim Moussawi onto their platform.

Better to depersonalise things. Support rights and oppose those parts of establishments that interfere with the rights you support. Stand against the ethnicly-motivated rape, expulsion and murder of the Fur from Darfu and support UN intervention. Stand for the rights of Tibetans to self-determination and command of the natural resources in their land. Oppose war on Iraq because there were worse players waiting to fill Saddam’s shoes, or because you predicted that the cost in human life is too high, not because (one of Tariq’s discs was Tom Lehrer’s Send in the Marines) you think that every military intervention the US undertakes is wrong by definition. Stand for the Iraqis who stand for human rights and equal role in building a state regardless of religious denomination, not for some nebulous idea of ‘sovereign Iraqi people’ against ‘Western occupiers’. Stand for Palestinians whose idea of self-determination doesn’t involve cancelling out Israel’s.

Recent pieces on Tariq Ali from Marko Attila Hoare and the AWL.


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