Mr Pilger & the revolution

John Pilger has made this film, which focuses on Venezuela but expands to cover Latin America at large and the region’s bloody relationship with the empire to the North. In many ways it’s a very good film. It’s long for a documentary – about 93 minutes – but, in the words of so many TV eds who believe we all have the need for speed, pacey. And I’m afraid I don’t think it’s so fantastic. It’s not enough, today, for someone as experienced as Pilger to make a documentary about Chavez which is so uncritical. As I’ve said on the Lenin’s Tomb blog, the European Left (a crude reduction, forgive me) do the Venezuelan people no good by supporting Chavez without being prepared to criticise him too. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen too many national liberation movements go sour, go corrupt, go brutal, and go – shall we say – to bed with the wrong people. It’s all about power, innit. I’m in favour of Chavez, and certainly in favour of his struggle to stand up to the US empire, however we (abroad, particularly those of us living in the wishy-washy West) risk being shown up to be extremely naive if we support him hook, line and sinker. Pilger makes one slightly small attempt to challenge Chavez, but no more. That’s in a programme of 93 minutes. Why not query him further? Press the man’s buttons? What was Pilger so worried about? I’m not saying he should have tried to set him up, merely to ask him proper questions. Because if Chavez is not called to account by the very people who sympathise with him – including well-known investigative journalists – he will slowly start to forget that he is a representative of many people, and start to think he’s the only one with the answer. And that will be disastrous.

I like to remember what V.S. Naipaul wrote, very critically, of Gail Benson and her relationship (whatever that was) with Trinidadian Michael Abdul Malik (Michael X). He implied that she was one of those who continue to simplify the world and reduce other men—not only the Negro—to a cause, the people who substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern, the revolutionaries who visit centers of revolution with return air tickets, the hippies, the people who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own, all those people who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security.’


14 thoughts on “Mr Pilger & the revolution

  1. Good point, of course. Are you aware of the debate within Venezuela, which I suppose can be summed up as “socialism from below” or “socialism from Chavez” ?
    There’s something about it here and also here

  2. Hi Lara,

    Apologies for not getting in touch this week. My head exploded (hopefully productively).

    Ah I see someone has got in before me with the appropriate socialist worker articles.

    My own feeling is that whilst the lessons of the 1970’s and 80’s need to be remembered, its also important to stress the differences in the political situation.

    One difference is that the program of social transformation is considerably less ambitious then the various third world revolutions of the 1970’s. One feature of the second wave of radical nationalist regimes to achieve independence in Africa is that they came to power in the decade when the old state capitalist path of development was increasingly unviable. Quite how viable such a path ever was in the circumstances of post-colonial Africa might itself be considered a moot question (Pete Binn’s wrote an interesting article about Nicaragua in the 1980’s which raised some of these points).

    What we seem to be faced with today is a variety of social movements, and on rare occassions, political figures achieving power, who mantain connections associated with older movements but rarely reproduce identical features. Whilst I’m all in favour of criticism, it makes me cautious about simply recycling the older style criticisms, not because criticism as such is not valid, but because there is a danger of the criticism reproducing an analyses which might no longer hold.

    Thus I was recently involved in an argument between people who thought Chavez was a revolutionary and should therefore be supported and someone who thought he merely represented a mass militant reformism and therefore was nothing much to get excited about. I found this kind of polarised discussion silly. I was very excited by the existence of a mass militant reformism and thought that anybody who wasn’t should’nt call themselves a revolutionary.

    To scent social changes of these kinds (present elsewhere in the world as well) is a heady thing, and ought to be celebrated. Of course there ought to be discussions about the nature of what is happening, and one ought to be clear about the nature of these movements, their strengths, limitations etc. Such a position is dependent on relationships which go beyond mere reportage which will tend to produce either uncritical celebration or (usually) equally uncritical condemnation.

    Some who argue that the left today fail to be critical are more upset by the failure to reproduce that analyses then they are by the absence of criticism (there is in fact quite a lot on the left). So, to give one example, aside from the debates on Venezuela, there was considerable (and very well informed) debate about Hezbollah in Lebanon in the pages of Socialist Worker, surely the newspaper that is the real target of most established writers who complain about these tendencies on the ‘left’ (one of the more pleasent experiances for an old timer like me over the last 6 or 7 years was rising to the position of being the ‘left’ that is frequently berated for this or that in the mainstream press. I routinely hug myself in delight when I come across this stuff for reasons which might confuse younger people).

    Essentially there is an argument about the ambiguous position of Hezbollah on Neo-Liberalism, and the ways in which this has strengethened the Status Quo and allowed the State to reassert its authority in the wake of their quite incredible exposure following the Israeli invasion.

    This argument involved very detailed debates about Hezbollah’s politics and their limitations. However what some people want is a criticism based on the events of the Iranian Revolution, not an analyses based on the events of the 21st century in Beirut. So this discussion is interpreted as an absence of criticism.

    I have to admit, watching Pilgers documentry, to have been quite stunned by the footage of the coup and the mass mobilisations that followed (I’m one of those sad people who had not watched the revolution will not be televised). My over-riding sense was of quite how demented the ‘mainstream’ actually is, and how worthless almost all journalism is now in this country.

    The balenced view is increasingly untenable and ridiculous it seems to me. However I’m certainly not against quite ruthless criticism. For me this is compatible with disbelieving even the smallest criticism in the wall to wall lies which comprise liberal opinion these days.

    Oh, I’d just add that one source of great puzzlement to me is why VS is still alive. It seems a bit of an affront really.

  3. Ilestre – thanks for this. I’ve looked at the SWP pieces; and in fact, I should also have mentioned in the post this piece here – – which is in the Great Britain Communist Party’s rag, and, I think, one of the best pieces I’ve read on Venezuela here, in the UK. I’d be interested to know what you think of it. It’s on page 8. (If you click on Venezuela at the bottom of this post, you’ll also see another piece, with some interesting responses from a blogger in Venezuela).

    JohnG,I’ve never had such a long response on my blog. You deserve some kind of prize. Very nice to hear from you (but still would be nice to see you, in the pool or not…!).
    I see what you say, and I take your point about changing circumstances, although I’m not sure that the way men (for it is largely men only, still) respond to power has changed very much in the last 30 or 40 years, or even the last 1000 years. I don’t see why the debate has to be polarised (either) between those who love and those who hate, those who are in favour and those who are against. What I am very warey of is being accused of a neoliberal position (ha ha!) simply for wanting to look a bit closer at Chavez. I’m also very aware of how easy it is to make your mind up about a country without actually going there, or better still living there. It’s amazing how much we spout off (myself included) about places we don’t know. Then we go there, and our jaws drop. And it’s easy here, to have a theory, a position, and find the facts to fill it. When you’re living in a place, working in a place, you see what is really happening: it’s an altogether different experience.

    As for the mainstream media: I quite agree. And yes, it’s amazing how the liberal journalists are actually, often, lazy downright liars. I’ve worked at the Beeb and I’ve seen it in action. It’s appalling. So I wouldn’t defend any of that for a minute. But I still don’t think that means one can’t or shouldn’t be critical: we must. And yes, you are right about the SWP. I don’t always think it’s a great paper, but sometimes it has some very good stuff in it. Agreed.
    Finally, the stuff on the coup in Venezuela is not – I believe – Pilger’s. There were two Irish journalists out in Venezuela at the time, and they covered the entire thing in a very interesting documentary called… called… I can’t remember its bloody name. I’ll find out and let you know: it’s got what Pilger had and much much more.
    (and please advise: how do I cope with the attacks I fear I might get on the Tomb for my comments on Pilger’s film?!)

  4. Ah. How embarrassing. Once again, I ridicule myself on air. You said it yourself: the Revolution will not be televised. It’s worth seeing.

  5. Oh sorry, serial post. I think VS’s way of writing about the left fits very neatly with Jameson’s diagnosis of Conrad in ‘The political Unconcious’. Its a world weary cynicism about ideology which is itself deeply ideological.

    I’m not at all surprised that he is these days a fervent supporter of fascist movements in South Asia. There was a lovely piece written on him by a poet in Bombay in the late 1960’s.

  6. Of course I am the liberal acceptable face of the SWP. But following your intervention on the Tomb and (perhaps most seriously) the reference to that dreadful rag run by the CPGB, I am afraid there is….nothing whatsoever I can do to help you.

    I will of course write privately to Lenin suggesting that immolation was a bit ‘OTT’ and couldn’t he find some other method, to which there will be much good natured joshing about my ‘softness’. In the end someone will buy me a pint and I’ll say ‘she really wasn’t a bad sort you know’, and one of the team will say ‘I know, I know’.

    After one or two it will all seem a bit unreal anyway. Men and Power etc.

    Just had a far more sinister discussion with my supervisor and I’ll have to see about this meeting up business. If I emerge at some point I’ll let you know.

  7. The rag might be crap, but the piece is good. read it you old softie, you.

    And er, I’m afraid, I like Naipaul’s writing, in general. REmember the writer’s mantra:
    There is no author, only text.
    There is no author, only text.
    There is no author, only text.

  8. Do read the piece I sent. I think you’d enjoy it. I think there are interesting things in Naipul. But in the end I think the critical sensibility is aesthetically as well as politically flawed. Part of the problem is that the subjectivity he explores with such finess is a rather petty one. In that way his personality becomes the text.

  9. Anonymous, which piece? I don’t know who you are, and therefore which piece? Or am I going senile!

  10. Synchronicity: I was watching the film as this post came into my feed reader.

    Not knowing an awful lot about Latin America, I found the film a bit romanticized. Hugo’s discourse against the empire is certainly valid. Still, what he represents is still top-down, and is bound to create injustices simply because of the way authority works, not necessarily because of evil people.

    Having said that, it is something to work with. The local government scene is such a happy sight.

  11. I suppose the question I have would revolve around how we create movements that are not ‘top down’. I do find Chavez an enigma in some ways. When he talked about the way in which his life was saved by the popular classes I must admit I was quite moved by it, largely because I’ve always been fascinated by charecters like this (I was more moved by those phone calls to the radio stations though, the terrible despair that ‘our children’ would have to live with ‘these corrupt people’ for the rest of their lives, as well as the footage of people taking to the streets, and the shock of the odious elite, way too comfortable and secure for my liking).

    When I was arguing with some other leftists about this, I thought it a mistake to either be cynical about this, or on the other hand to imagine that because Chavez ‘really meant it’ this solved all problems. It does’nt. One doesn’t need to be a cynic to understand potential difficulties. Thus one parrallel is the Portuegese revolution of 1975.

    I can remember meeting people who had visited Portugal at the time, and been swept away by the atmosphere (I’m sure Lara would have a very different perspective on those events). Pilots announcing to passengers arriving that Portugal was a revolutionary state and that therefore there were no PassPort controls, no immigration etc. Tales of the Bullrings filled to overflowing whilst some octegenarian from the Communist Party made his appearence.

    Whatever he said forever lost to history because the crowds simply yelled ‘Viva, Viva’ for seven straight hours in the pouring rain, what the speaker represented to them being far more important then what he actually had to say (what he represented probably being much more impressive then what he actually was).

    The sense of a vast social turbulence conveyed to me by comrades who were in Portugal at the time never left me. I think if one is not excited or moved by this one might as well pack ones bag and go home. One reason for excitement is that we have not seen scenes of this kind for a very long time, anywhere.

    This probably accounts for Pilgers style, a man who would simply not exist if it was not for those upheavels of the 70’s, and whose formulism, were it exists, is as much a product of the long drought of experiances of this kind as anything else: it may account for an element of romanticisation now).

    If one looks at what happened to that Revolution its not at all the case that it was bought down by authoritarianism (at least not of the kind that those schooled in the failures and disapointments of African politics might fear). Rather what happened was a restoration of the normal authoritarian routines of capitalism through the unlikely agency of formal democratic mechanisms.

    Venezuela is a very different situation because the rule of capital is not under challenge at all. The State has been captured by forces not morgaged to the peculiarly venal old ruling class, which has been politically defensterated. But it still exists economically as was very clear from the documentry.

    The dangers in this situation don’t come from Chavez in my view. They come from the possibility that a top down model might breed a false sense of complacency about the situation and the possible vitality of the animals whose vile hate propaganda continues to be pumped out night after night, day after day.

    Is it possible to have the combination of formal political control by the mass of the population on the one hand, and private capital in the control of these creatures on the other? This is the situation Chavez is attempting to mantain, and he’s militant and genuine about mantaining it. The argument I’ve heard is that because of the State’s control of Oil resources this counterbalences non-State capital and its powers of mobilisation, thus making Venezuala an exception.

    I’m not sure about this, but also I have to be honest and say that I have no confident prognosis about what the future holds.

    I do think though, that Naipaul’s ruminations about imaginary leftists reducing people to movements (a considerable insult it seems to me to the times he was writing about) have very little in the way of insight on this matter. Its worth thinking about the possibility that Naipaul’s reflections on Black Nationalism are no more sensitive or insightful then those who think the protesters at Heathrow were self indulgent silly billies (wags finger after a bit too much bells at the end of the day).

  12. I think it would be hard for anyone not to be moved by the phone calls to local radio stations and, yes, the terrible despair of parents who fear for their childrens’ futures at the hands of the odiously corrupt, greedy and heartless elite.

    Why does it move you? It is human suffering isn’t it? The tearful mothers appalled by the control they almost had, and then lost – or rather, had ripped from them. You say you were ‘moved’. We’re talking about your emotions, no? Likewise, with the Portuguese revolution – oh, and no, I don’t have a different perspective, and the fact you think I might really makes me wonder how inarticulate I am (or how presumptuous you are!) – yes, an incredible brief moment (and momentum) in history. The masses do it. It works, briefly. I too know people, friends, Portuguese friends, who were there, who were active in organising the Carnation revolution. An incredible ‘social turbulence’, yes.

    Whether we have not seen scenes of this kind… I’m less clear.What about Mandela leaving prison? The ‘end’ of the Angolan war in 2002 led to some pretty extraordinary scenes too. Both these examples were very different to what happened in Portugal though…

    But comparisons aside, what you are talking about is your own emotion and the emotion conveyed to you by your comrades. Likewise the ‘element of romanticisation’ in Pilger’s film… is of this nature. The people finally gaining power over their own lives. Who could fail to be moved by this?

    But I’m not sure where that line of thought takes one.

    There would be some who would speak the same way about the death of bloody Diana. They were moved. So what!? More important, though, is that it is a very similar set of emotions that you talk about which allow others (like me) to express caution (less cynicism, John, than caution) about what is taking place in Venezuela. And yet, to do so, I am told, is to fall into the trap of softy liberalism. I’m thinking here of the debate on Lenin’s Tomb (Lenin: a political moderate and humanitarian) and the argument as to whether violence (though Lenin says terror) must/can/should ever be used in a struggle e.g. Pastine liberation. Of course it must. OF course. Vital. And it was vital in S Africa.

    However, this becomes a much harder question to grapple with once you have been in the thick of that violence: seen it, watched what it does, felt it and feared that you would die of it yourself. It is all fine to hold debates based on brilliant theoretical knowledge and years of study, but, IMHO, without the experiential, the very personal experience, the theory starts to lack strength. I wish it didn’t. But that’s neither here nor there. Go and sit in a town while it’s being blown up, or travel in trucks of refugees burning because of an ambush, and then try to tell people it’s worth it in the end for x,y, z struggle. For them – in that moment – those friends and relatives who lost: the struggle ceases to have meaning. The struggle no longer matters.

    And so it is senseless to hold these discussions about the struggle for liberation – about freedom – if one is not also prepared to look death in the face too.

    I don’t have a grudge with Chavez. On the contrary, I’m behind him all the way. However, I do, like Amr Gharbeia, above, have a distrust of the way authority works, or the way power works. And in this case, the fact that Amr is speaking from Egypt, where he is a target of the authorities himself, I take what he says perhaps a wee bit more seriously than those of us sitting in the (current) safety of London.

    And I certainly don’t think those of us who went to Heathrow were self-indulgent silly billies. We were there. And that is why I trust my instinct on violence: I’ve been there, in it. That really means nothing, does it? That experience has informed me that it ain’t half so black and white as many would like to make out.

    As for Naipaul… I must read that piece you sent me.

  13. Oh, I don’t know. Just had long debate with my Greek and Chilean neighbours: he utterly pro, she more lukewarm on Chavez. And I found myself defending him heart and soul.

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