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Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie. Photo: Hillel Steinberg / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0, license linked below article

Following the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie, Kevin Ovenden discusses the clash of fundamentalisms at the heart of the global system and how the left should respond

"The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters"

That version of Antonio Gramsci's aphorism comes to mind on hearing about the near fatal stabbing of Salman Rushdie.

The promise of the globalising 1990s was that there would be equitable progress and the triumph of universal reason against particular reaction. The ostensible global obstacle to progress - the Soviet Union and its system - was shattered. All the old prejudices were thus simply hangovers from the past and would be dissolved in the advance of contemporary capitalism.

So who in 1989 could imagine that the carnival of reaction then over Rushdie's Satanic Verses - and it was a carnival with various actors on different sides - would be deepened over three decades later? And it is far deeper today than then, in every aspect.

Who thought that what socialist author Tariq Ali later called "a clash of fundamentalisms" would move beyond the ideological and the geopolitical fringe into the heart of the global system? That was what the Trump election victory in the US encapsulated in 2016.

The post-9/11 Bush administration had already heralded it. So it would be too easy to relegate the murderous stabbing of Salman Rushdie to the supposedly pre-modern and "uncivilised" hinterlands of our world. (Cue deployment of the adjective "medieval" as if the Holocaust and other 20th century and modern barbarities were the work of a 14th century Holy Inquisition speaking the church Latin of the Middle Ages.)

No. The attack on Salman Rushdie is as much a part of a single world system as all the other barbarities and irrational surges we see today. A vast range: from a murdered Nigerian stallholder in Italy to anti-Muslim pogroms in India; through authoritarian tightening of the state in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia; to the prime minister of Hungary denouncing "race-mixing"; and on to three Greek cabinet ministers with histories of Hitlerite antisemitism now pardoned because they unconditionally support Israel's brutalisation of the Palestinians.

That and more leaves two central things for those of us on the left, in my opinion. The first is a renewed commitment to resisting reaction on the only sure basis it can be defeated. That is the fundamental transformation of our societies and world. (That is a "fundamentalism" worth holding to.) It means the movement of millions, even if millions are not yet moving sufficiently in that direction.

It means refusing the mantra we get at times like this to condemn only and not to understand. The great rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza was right to insist that above denunciation, anger or even laughter we always have to understand if we are to change things.

And doing so will be the product of an anti-systemic struggle, not of a pro-system rallying to hypocritical calls for action against false and reactionary, pseudo-antisystem trends. For this is the system: the stabbing of a famous author in upstate New York. It is not happening up river in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness over a century ago. No invasion or drone strike will end this. They will make it worse.

Second, to engage in the collective discussion and deliberations so as to navigate a path through all these dangerous forces.

One of those forces, the biggest one in fact, is the urbane, capitalist elite who will seek to utilise the very outcomes of this crisis of the human condition in order to pursue their interests however much it leads to the collapse of civilisation. And we know this on account of the trillions of investments into new fossil fuel exploitation undertaken by companies that burnish their green and renewable credentials. The best that can be said about these vampires, as Marx liked to call them, is that their blood-sucking is involuntary and built-in to their condition.

There is no justification for the murder attempt on Salman Rushdie. Nor is that in turn any just cause for deepening the drive to war with Iran or for the rising anti-Muslim racism that characterises western capitalism and its extensions. Have we learnt nothing from the last 30 years?

Many lessons have been learnt, in my view. It is urgent to come together on the radical left and try to give them direct political effect. This is no time for pettiness or the narcissism of small difference.

We need a bigger, better anti-systemic left. One that can help the many collective struggles that are emerging - from Indian farmers, to Amazon wage slaves - to achieve their own immediate goals and in so doing make more real an alternative to this failing system.

One that can speak truth to power when there is, as today, so much cant. To stop the forces of reaction in our own states and countries seizing upon moments like this to pursue a course that leads to even more destruction. People such as Liz Truss in Britain should have a modicum of sense of shame so as not to dare utter the name Rushdie in public.

It is not simple or direct. But this is the practical thing that the left can do in the face of the horror in New York State.

It doesn't have the frisson of making cheap political points. It doesn't have the falsity of promising some immediate solution out of the barrel of a gun or predator drone. It does, however, speak truth.

The US state assassinated the leader of Al Qaida this month. We were told that it marked a big step forward for world peace, within and between states, and a "blow to terrorism".

And then a major figure of world literature is almost assassinated this week - in the US.

So another three-decade cycle like the last? Or bringing that firmly to an end?

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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