Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Van Jones and America's New McCarthyism

One of the biggest differences between the political cultures of Britain and the US must be attitudes to past radicalism.

In Britain, it's perfectly possible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, to start his political career selling Black Dwarf outside Edinburgh Waverley station. We know that 'Dr' John Reid, the former Home Secretary, was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, that Blairite 'moderniser' Alan Milburn worked in the left-wing bookshop Days of Hope (nicknamed Haze of Dope) on Tyneside, that 'Lord' Peter Mandelson was once a member of the Young Communist League and that former Transport Minister Stephen Byers used to be a Militant Tendency supporter. Despite attempts by Daily Mail journalist Peter Hitchens (himself a former member of the SWP) to import a more enraged response from across the Atlantic, any loathing most people feel for these Labour politicians tends to be for what have done in power, not what they did on the far fringes of it.

The same certainly isn't true over in the birthplace of McCarthyism. Usually there is so much going on that it's hard to keep on top of the fine points of US politics, which is why I didn't realised that Anthony 'Van' Jones had become Obama's "green jobs tsar" until he was forced to resign for derogatory comments made about Republicans who, led by Fox News's incredibly strange Glenn Beck, have attacked Jones as a 'Marxist'. After some digging around, they also found his name on a 2004 petition, which calls for congressional hearings into whether high-level government officials had allowed the September 11 attacks to occur. In this resignation letter, Jones responded by condemning the 'vicious smear attacks' against him and has told his friend Arrianna Huffington of the liberal 'Huffington Post' that he made a mistake and "doesn't believe that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks or allowed the attacks to happen".

Whatever Van Jones' views on the 9/11 'truther' movement, there is no doubt that he was once a radical and a socialist, one whose views I broadly agreed with. At least, that was still the case a decade ago, when I remember sitting and talking politics with him outside a cafe on Dray Walk, just off of Brick Lane.

Van was over in London as part of a delegation from the San Francisco based Ella Baker Center, whose members stayed in Newham and spent a fortnight meeting and debating with activists from Newham Monitoring Project. As well as sharing our experiences with our American friends and hearing about their work with the Bay Area PoliceWatch and the campaign for justice for Aaron Williams, we spent some time debating a project called 'Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement' (STORM), which Van had helped to found.

I think it's fair to say that east London activists who were already deeply disillusioned by the antics of the British left were also very sceptical about the merits of another vanguard 'cadre' organisation that seemed primarily interested in political education. But we were certainly clear where our visitors stood: all, including Van, saw themselves as revolutionary Marxists. Nevertheless, I remember thinking at the time that Van Jones probably had bigger ambitions: he had already been awarded a Reebok Human Rights Award, a commendation whose corporate sponsorship I recall giving him a hard time about over lunch in Brick Lane.

And so it proved - by the time he was appointed as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, he had received a bunch of awards, become a 'Blue-Green' and embraced something called 'eco-capitalism', which favours free-market solutions to achieve environmental gains. Van Jones has obviously travelled a long way from his anti-capitalist roots over the last ten years and maybe the label 'Marxist' is now something he sees as a smear - certainly, his profile on the Ella Baker Center website avoids any mention of his more radical past. In that respect, he's not that different from many former leftwingers.

But where past associations have seldom hindered politicians (of both the left and right) in the UK, the atmosphere in the US since Obama was elected is now so poisonous that the Republican lunatic-right are effectively in control of their party's opposition to the Democrats. As Joe Klein has suggested in Time magazine, "the intensity of this is getting pretty scary...and dangerous", to the extent that "we are heading toward a cliff and the usual brakes of civil discourse are not working. Indeed, the Republicans have the pedal to the metal".

It has been a long time since the word 'communist' had such power to exclude and intimidate progressives from mainstream political discourse, but the current climate in the US, aided in part by the timidity of the Democrats, seems to be changing and growing ever more divisive. And as a result, even if we Brits may think Marxism is just an idea, a misguided one perhaps but not something to necessarily be embarrassed about, it looks like Van Jones' experience in the 'land of liberty and freedom' may only be the beginning.

1 Comment:

HarpyMarx said...

Oh, there have been plenty of former leftie labour types (who later embraced New Labour) who sold Labour Briefing....

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