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Friday, October 06, 2006

Tariq Ali's Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties


“One of the aims of [British PM Tony Blair’s] government is propaganda against us, propaganda for the war ... The way to stop the flow of recruits into small terrorist organisations, some of them religious organisations, is not by dropping bombs, is not by invading countries, by destroying cities, but by beginning to tackle the political problems. Now if you’re a citizen of any country, double standards occur. [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon has nuclear weapons but he is part of the ‘war against terror’. Saddam might have nuclear weapons in three or four years’ time but he has to be bombed now.”

Tariq Ali said this at a London demonstration against the war on Iraq, before the “coalition of the willing” — US President George Bush, Blair and Australian PM John Howard — started their bloody invasion and occupation.

For some people on the left, Ali is beyond the pale for not supporting the Respect campaign in the recent British elections and, horror of horrors, for calling for a vote for the Liberal Democrats. Yet it was Ali who was among the first to speak out after the London bombings, saying they were a direct result of Blair’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Ali’s interviews with Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian, now transcribed into a book, and his last two classics Crisis of Fundamentalism and Bush in Babylon, show how essential Ali’s work is to understanding imperialism in the 21st century.

In his reprinting of Street Fighting Years, which has been out of print for 10 years, one can see the formation of his politics and his activist involvement in the earth-shaking events of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The individuals Ali has met range from revolutionary US black rights leader Malcom X to British fascist Enoch Powell, both of whom he met while studying at Oxford.

This new version of Tariq’s 1987 book includes the 1971 interview that he and Robin Blackburn conducted with John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the British socialist magazine Red Mole. There is even a picture of John Lennon selling Red Mole at a London Vietnam anti-war march. When I first became a socialist in mid-1975, I was going through the bound volumes of Direct Action, the predecessor to Green Left Weekly, and saw an issue with John and Yoko on the front cover. The same picture of John and Yoko appears in the new edition of Street Fighting Years — An Autobiography of the Sixties.

Another aspect of the new edition is a collection of photographs, including pictures of Ali with Malcom X at Oxford; in Vietnam in 1965 B; in Bolivia where Che Guevara was fighting his final guerrilla campaign; protesting against South Africa’s Apartheid system with British actress Vanessa Redgrave by his side; political gatherings with Ernest Mandel, Edward Said, Robin Blackburn, Tamara Deutscher, Stuart Hall; and a 2003 London march of high school students against the Iraq War with his daughter Aisha.

The lengthy introduction to this new edition includes headings such as “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam”, “100,000 funerals for the Iraqis who were killed in the March 2003 invasion of their country”, “Vulture capitalism”, and “Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Palestine”. Ali defends Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and he pays homage to Palestinian writer Edward Said and British socialist and journalist Paul Foot, who both passed away in the last 12 months.

Ali pays tribute to those who have stood by their ideals and shows contempt for those who have sold out and made their peace with capitalism — such as Regis Debray who was in Bolivia with Che and in the 1980s “toured Third World countries as an unofficial ambassador. He had become a pompous and shifty functionary of the French state. A friend who met him in Paris in May 1982 wrote that ‘he was plump from banquets at the Palace, possibly also power’.”

Street Fighting Years is a racy, well-written historical work that is inspiring and an essential read for political activists in today’s world. Ali dedicates his book to Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel, “who always believed that the real meaning of life lay in conscious participation in the making of history”. The same can be said of Tariq Ali.

From Green Left Weekly, November 16, 2005.

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