Notes From the Margins…

On Writing and Silence

  • December 18, 2016
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A loyal follower of this blog and Internet friend asked me last week why I haven’t blogged much recently, so I thought I should explain to those who are interested. There are three main reasons.  In the first place, I’ve been extraordinarily busy.  I’ve been writing two books, one of which required a lot of rewriting.  I’ve also been helping to organize the One Day Without Us campaign, which really has eaten into my working day, particularly in October, when it was almost impossible to do anything else.

Secondly, so many horrific,depressing – and complex things have happened this year that I have felt unable to keep up with them or say anything meaningful about them in the time that I have had.

My inability to speak out about Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen and so many other things is also related to an ongoing personal political crisis that I have yet to resolve.  In November last year, one of the people who criticized my ‘international brigades’ post asked me why I kept writing things.  I told him I wrote because there wasn’t any choice for me.  It’s what I do and what I’ve always done.   At the same time I’ve always asked myself what value writing has – not just mine – but any writing.  What does it do?  What does it achieve?

One of my favourite writers is the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus ‘ the master of venomous ridicule’, as Stefan Zweig once called him.  Kraus’s venom and his ridicule sometimes bordered on the misanthropic – not a position I’ve ever wanted to find myself in – but he wrote with real brilliance about the nationalist insanity of World War II, in his essays and also in his sprawling play The Last Days of Humanity.   In an essay on the outbreak of World War I, Kraus said that essentially that the world had become so corrupt and debased to the point that language itself had not meaning and therefore the only thing writers could do was step forward and say nothing at all.

Of course he didn’t do that – he was a writer after all.   But one writer who did retreat into silence was Isaac Babel.  Estranged from Stalinist literary culture and from Stalin himself, he decided to write nothing and say nothing.  In Stalinist Russia that wasn’t good enough of course.  Silence was a political position, because it wasn’t support for the regime.  Because Babel didn’t loudly proclaim the revolution and its inane cult of socialist realism, he was objectively counter-revolutionary and that’s why he was eventually shot, in effect, for saying nothing.

My own temporary silence on this blog owes more to Kraus than to Babel.  It isn’t that I consider silence a statement, but lately I have just not been able to find the words with which to respond to the depraved lunacy and collective stupidity that is sweeping my country and the Western world lately.

And that isn’t all.   I’ve always thought of myself as on the left and of the left and I still do, but there’s so little I admire or respect about the British left right now it’s really hard to feel I ‘belong ‘ to it. On one level I never did . I didn’t call my blog ‘notes from the margins’ for nothing. If I had any use as a writer writing about politics, it was from that marginal critical position, which didn’t pin me to any established party or network or make the representative of anything.

That changed somewhat when Stop the War began posting my pieces – something that I was ok with until I found myself accused of ‘representing’ positions that I didn’t have.   But 2016 has been a kind of critical rupture for me, following the debacle of last November w/ the ‘international brigades’ fiasco and the almost complete abandonment of critical faculties by sections of the left back then – which still continues albeit in trickles – , not to mention Stop the War’s cowardly abandonment of myself and Chris Floyd.

Then there was Brexit,and it’s little wannabe sister Lexit, propagating the cynical/opportunist and downright foolish idea that a no vote was somehow ‘progressive’ – coupled with a refusal to recognise the racism unleashed and legitimised by it, and a willingness to effectively throw some three million EU citizens under the Brexit bus in the vague hope that something good might turn up out of the mess for the left, or the working class or the revolution.

Let me make it absolutely clear – a left that behaves like this and thinks like this, no matter how cleverly, is not a movement that I feel anything in common with or want to ‘belong’ to, or speak for or speak to.   There really aren’t any words to express how disgusted I am by this and how shameful I find it.

And now we have McDonnell, McCluskey and Lewis coming from the soft left promising to ‘listen to concerns’ about immigration, when they should be challenging them.

And then there is the left and Syria. It isn’t just the ‘revolutionary’ posturing by people who would never go anywhere near a Syrian battlefield, many of whom are busy picking up MAs and PhDs while spouting platitudes about armed struggle.Or the  vicious insults if you don’t accept their starry-eyed vision of the Syrian revolution. Fascist bag carrier. Truther. Ghouta denialist. Assad supporter. Piece of shit. ISIS lover – I’ve heard it all from these great humanitarians over the last few years.

It isn’t just the certainty about things that are not always certain. Or the jostling for a morally superior position, using Syria as an excuse to pursue old sectarian vendettas in a new form. There are also the  leftists who talk about Assad as if he were the good guy in this, and a representative of the ‘axis of resistance’ etc, and now t’s all Israel’s fault etc

To me the Syrian war is an unmitigated horror. Is that the ‘correct’ line? Is it enough? No. Do I know the ‘truth’ about Syria?  No.   But I find it astounding that Syria has suddenly become a test of how left or how moral or how revolutionary you are. I do not accept that we ‘have blood on our hands’ for Aleppo and not for Yemen, or South Sudan, or Mosul, or Gaza.

Why does the ‘left’ play games like this? Why, when faced with wars, do  so many leftists believe that you always have to support one side or the other? Suppose you don’t think any of the sides are ‘good’?

In the end I don’t know  why the left behaves like this, but like I said, I don’t admire or respect it (hey don’t worry, i know the feeling’s mutual), and it’s made it very difficult for me to write blog posts or even facebook posts – except on racism and migration.

The thing is, for much of my life I felt that the left were the good guys – regardless of the many historical crimes that some leftist regimes have carried out, and that the left, with all its contradictions, still offered answers to the various scourges of militarism, racism, war, poverty and social justice that it was incumbent on my generation to try and solve.

Now I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m not even sure the left, especially the ‘revolutionary’ left has any future at all except as a subculture – and a forum to attack anyone who isn’t Marxist enough for it or as revolutionary as they think they should be.

In fact I’m not really that sure about anything right now, and that’s why I haven’t written very much on this blog.   That doesn’t I’m going to retreat into silence or withdraw from the world. It doesn’t mean that I intend to follow the Nick Cohen route.

I have no intention of shutting down the Infernal Machine permanently.  After all,  I might have Karl Kraus whispering in one ear, but I also have Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s great poem Bol! [Speak} next to my desk, which declares quite rightly:

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ‘Cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

So I wish you all a peaceful ending to this year of lunacy, and I look forward to seeing you all again  in 2017, ready to wage the many struggles that still have to be waged.

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  1. Nik

    19th Dec 2016 - 11:00 am

    Really hope to see the Infernal Machine kickstarted back into full action in 2017. Nevertheless I completely understand your frustration. But as a british writer you should see your alienation from parts of the left as a good omen. Usually means that you are on to something..

    See you next year, Matt!!

  2. Richard Carter

    20th Dec 2016 - 11:02 pm

    Nik’s right: at times like this we need your comments more than ever. I know it’s discouraging, but don’t be put off, Matt, and keep up your brilliant work.

    All the best, Richard

  3. Steve Merrell

    21st Dec 2016 - 7:58 pm

    Don’t give up Matt, I have exactly the same doubts about the perceived left. You are, have and hopefully always will be the voice of reasonI turn to. You are needed more than ever to articulate what lots.of us feel.but cannot adequately put into words. You give me hope.

  4. Simon Duckett

    22nd Dec 2016 - 11:32 am

    Lots to agree with and lots to disagree with but the passion shines through as always. A genuine question for you: if you are estranged from ‘the left’, however we describe it and whatever we may think of its arguments and debates, now and historically, do you see yourself as ‘part’ of anything else? In other words, what alternative is there to this battered, yet-to-be-successful old warhorse that somehow manages to keep standing despite the tremendous odds stacked against it – the many frustrations notwithstanding?

    Btw, I had been wondering where you had got to myself. All the very best to you and I hope you have a good christmas – however you define it! 🙂

    • Matt

      22nd Dec 2016 - 11:57 am

      Hi Simon. Nice to hear from you. No I don’t really see myself as part of anything else – you mean an either/or choice between ‘left’ and ‘right’. I’m stuck with the left and the left is stuck with me. I certainly don’t see myself as part of the revolutionary left. I feel that this is a dead horse, frankly. I don’t see ‘ revolution’ as the solution. I’m not sure I ever did actually. I guess I would also add that the current crisis of humanity, as Zygmund Baumann describes it,is so serious that it will require all kinds of unlikely alliances between different groups/ideologies and perspectives if we are to stand even the slightest chance of getting out of it. I hope you have a good Christmas too, and thanks for your interest.

      • Matt

        22nd Dec 2016 - 11:58 am

        Thanks Steve, and to Richard and Nik too. I didn’t write this post in order to invite these responses, but I’m very touched by them nonetheless and I assure you I have no intention of giving up!

      • Simon Duckett

        22nd Dec 2016 - 1:06 pm

        Good to hear. I meant the left, revolutionary or otherwise. I certainly don’t adhere to narrow definitions, there’s to much to do. I have my philosophy shared with some but by no means most on the left. There are many overlaps as well. Which ideas and approaches are more or less useful remains to be seen. So, for example, I fully support Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts in the Labour Party as far as they can possibly go whilst at the same time wondering how far that will be and what else may need to be done. I believe that approach is the most useful and ensures that we continue to have constructive discussions with people from different left traditions. Idealistic perhaps, but then what is the left without idealism. And optimism. I look forward to your next post whenever you feel able to write it 🙂

  5. Tuvia Fogel

    22nd Dec 2016 - 1:12 pm

    Ten years ago you wrote that Bat Ye’or’s EURABIA was a ‘preposterous conspiracy theory’, so you’ll forgive me for assuming that what muted your blog was simply.. embarrassment. But no, like all die-hard lefties, admitting that you were wrong is beyond your intellectual capabilities. You will probably submit to Allah while proclaiming it the progressive thing to do.

    • Matt

      22nd Dec 2016 - 5:36 pm

      Nice to get a Christmas cracker joke to open early, cecause that is what this is. I might get things wrong, but Bat Ye’or will never be one of them. An out and out bigoted fruitcake, and I will never feel any embarrassment about anything I’ve ever said about her. As for ‘submit to Allah’ – if I were you I would feel embarrassed for saying such an incredibly stupid thing and actually believing that it was cutting and witty.

  6. John Gray

    22nd Dec 2016 - 1:51 pm

    Matt, I’ve only just read this – stranded in Heathrow en route to Ireland and another with 6 hours to go! I agree with the others’ comments – you must continue to write as we need to hear voices like yours particularly at this moment. I see myself still very much part of the left (non-aligned) – there is nowhere else for me and at times I do get very frustrated, but as Edward Upward put it, for many of us there is ‘no home but the struggle’. And we have to do that in our own way. For me it’s mainly in my academic work and my teaching, but the important thing is to do it.

    Re McCluskey, I was misled completely by the way in which the Guardian reported this. They’ve had to remove the story apparently as it was a complete misrepresentation of his position.

    Season’s greetings and looking forward to reading you again in the new year!


    • Matt

      22nd Dec 2016 - 5:40 pm

      Thanks John. Very kind of you. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not going away. I don’t agree about McCluskey though. His statements – to me – make it clear that he accepts voters’ ‘concerns’ about migration and free movement and is not prepared to challenge them. All best to you. Glad to know you’re not giving up. Me neither!

  7. MDA

    31st Dec 2016 - 11:48 am

    I missed this post so I would like to add that you must keep writing. It may be that I find you saying what I am often thinking that makes me think so, but I also feel that there are probably many others who also think like this. At the moment we don’t really know who to turn to. I dislike the old 20th century left-right binary system. Life and opinions are much more complex than that, and accepting being categorised is one way towards dogma and rigidity of thinking. All politics is in flux, and while it might seem that one side is more confused, disorganised and divided than the other, the truth is that what seemed a spectrum with two peaks has now become a many spiked monster. I earnestly hope that some sense and cooperation can emerge from it that will present a way to work towards a better world together. Reading your articles gives me hope that there are people out there who I have something in common with. I value that greatly.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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