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Reply to Chris Williams on the nature of sin

(Chris's piece can be found at the end of this)

At the end of his reply to my reply to his reply to my piece on the
International Compensation Commission, Chris Williams says he is working for
something which he calls 'international solidarity'. This came as something
of a surprise for me because the rest of his piece seemed to be arguing for
the freedom and irresponsibility of the individual. Behind it one could
almost sense the presence of the words: 'there is no such thing as society'.
Certainly, Chris Williams was arguing that there is no such thing as
Britain, no such thing as Iraq, no such thing as Serbia. If he cannot feel
any sense of solidarity with his fellow Britons, any sense that he shares
with them some sort of common destiny, it is difficult to know how he can
feel any sense of solidarity with the world as a whole.

Or perhaps he only feels solidarity with good people throughout the world,
or at least with people he can think of as being innocent, the victims, the
refugees, the workers? Certainly not with those who have political opinions,
or who fulfil economic functions, he doesn't like  Hayekians, Zionists,
arms manufacturers, 'murdering feudal bastards' and the like, whom he
characterises en bloc as 'scum' before going on to inform us that he's
'never really got off on this morality-based approach'.

The position I am arguing is an attempt to overcome this habit (which we all
have. I have it too) of dividing the world sharply into good people and evil
people. If I think of people like Saddam Hussein or Robin Cook as being
'evil men' (or even 'scum'), then I am defining myself as a good person in
opposition to them (and also disregarding the words of my Lord and God and
Saviour Jesus Christ: 'Judge not lest ye be judged'). But if I think of them
as being 'sinners' then immediately I recognise what we have in common. And
that seems to me to be the only basis on which it would be possible to have
a real sense of 'international solidarity.'

I take the view that 'evil' in the world is usually a consequence of some
sort of necessity. That is why I continue to have a great deal of time for
Marxism as a means of understanding the operations of the world. I have
always liked the expression of Engels to the effect that slavery only became
morally intolerable when it ceased to be economically necessary. I'm not at
all sure that that is true in its historical detail but I think it is true
in its overall principle. Similarly, I have long been quite clear in my mind
that had I been an 'Aryan' German living in Germany in the 1930s  had I
experienced what Germany (oh, there I go again! Germany!) experienced in the
1920s, I would most probably have been a Nazi  unless I had already become
a convinced and 'fanatical' Communist. I have a deep suspicion of anyone who
is incapable of understanding that. I certainly think their capacity for
'international solidarity', which implies at the very least some ability to
understand and sympathise with the different historical experiences of
different peoples, must be very limited.

I suppose we are all glad that the Nazis lost the war. John Smith's "The
Straight Line Connecting World War Two to Iraq", one of the most precious
documents to have come my way through the CASI list, gives some indications
as to how we (that is, the good people, the anti-fascists. We are all
anti-fascists now, are we not?) won that war. We won it by outdoing the
Nazis in brutality, and that took some doing. But could it have been done
any other way? That is the sort of consideration which leads me to say that
'our' (the good people, the anti-fascists') hands are drenched in blood.

And I gave the example of the present Palestinian conflict. Palestinians are
being shot as they attempt to invade Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
It doesn't take much to imagine what would happen if they actually succeeded
in getting their hands on the settlers ... But international solidarity
certainly obliges us to understand their feelings  which I continue to call
the feelings of 'the Palestinians' even though I know that there are
Palestinians who do not share them, or who only share them a little bit, or
who are doing quite well out of the Oslo agreement and are afraid that their
little comfortable lifestyle might be threatened by all the trouble.
International solidarity also obliges us to recognise that after what
happened to them in Europe, the European Jews (some of whom had imagined
themselves to be something other than Jews, to be free, atomised
individuals, before Hitler appeared on the scene) felt they had to have a
state of their own, whatever it might take to get it.

'International solidarity' obliges us to refuse the division of the world
into good people and bad people. It might indeed oblige us to sit down in
despair on an ashpit (especially if, unlike Job, we were unable to say "I
know that my Redeemer liveth". Job's life, incidentally, wasn't that futile,
since it has managed to engage the imagination of a very large slice of
mankind for over two thousand years). Chris Williams may be right to think
that we need to nurture certain illusions if we wish to be effective in the
world. But if we are concerned with understanding the world rather than (or
perhaps prior to) changing it, then we are obliged to recognise that there
is a logic at work in it, and in ourselves, and in the interaction between
the two (the world and ourselves) which corresponds more or less to the
Christian notion of 'sin'. For the moment I can't think of another word
which will cover this essential reality; even though I know that the concept
of sin doesn't have much meaning for those people who don't believe in God,
people who think consciousness is the eventual consequence of a process of
cooling down after a big explosion.

However, if Chris is right in his estimation of the number of people to whom
the word 'sin' makes sense (70% he thinks. I think he is being generous)
then it is clearly a useful word to use in propaganda  especially at a time
when political leaders such as Mr Blair, not to mention our masters in
Washington, make much of their Christian convictions. And that touches a
general point. Which is that CASI should be able to accommodate the language
of a very wide variety of differing world views. CASI is a single issue
pressure group, not a political party or a school of philosophy (to use a
general term that embraces both religious and non-religious philosophies).
Consequently each of us should feel free to use the language that
corresponds to our own world views. The debate between the world views is
very interesting and is a temptation that I for one, like Chris, find all
but irresistible, but it is not the business of CASI.

Before finishing, I would like to mop up a few stray points on the subject
of our various responsibilities. Chris Williams thinks it is a dangerous
overstatement, of the sort that discredits our overall case, when I say that
all European governments are implicated in the sin that is being committed
against the people of Iraq. But if I know that my neighbour is beating his
wife and raping his children and do not even protest against it then surely
I am, shall we say, at fault (and yes, I know: this is the argument that has
been used to justify the interventions in the Balkans and in the Gulf). I
have not heard that the governments of Sweden or Malta have protested very
vigorously on the sanctions issue, even though it is something that is being
done in their name since they are, after all, members of the UN. And it
requires their active participation. They too are refusing to import dates
grown in Iraq.

Chris Williams may be right to take me to task for 'sneering' at the smaller
parties in the UK. But my main point is that the British culture in which we
all share because there IS such a thing as society, has generated no
substantial opposition to the government policy of murdering a million
people. It is worth noting, if only because it helps us to understand what
is often presented as a mystery: how could the people in Nazi dominated
Europe have failed to protest against the treatment of the Jews? The fact
that Chris Williams doesn't really know what the policy of the small parties
is confirms my point. They may have a very sound policy, but it (the
systematic murder of around a million people) is not at the top of their

Chris accuses me of contradicting myself when I reproach Mr Cook et al for
'not dissociating themselves from the past'. There seems to be a bit missing
from his argument here but I assume it goes something like this; had Cook et
al dissociated themselves then (he thinks I think) they could have redeemed
themselves, a privilege I deny to lesser mortals. No. As it happens I don't
believe that human beings, even those who work for HMG, are capable of
redeeming themselves. But obviously there is a difference between declaring
that such and such a sin is bad (even though the effects of it are still
operative within me) and declaring that it is good, which is what Messrs
Cook and Blair have done.

With regard to the Lib Dems' resolution against sanctions, I too welcome it.
The point I was making was exactly the same as the point Chris is making. It
isn't the absolute argument that will win against sanctions but what I
called the weasel argument (which will accompany the force of material
circumstances, or necessity). Actually as I said some time ago in my 'Note
on strategy', it is the Arab world, particularly 'Saddam's neighbours', the
people on whose behalf, so the story goes, the evil is being done, who could
do most to stop it, and we can only hope that that is what is happening at
the present time (the country which could have done most, and done itself a
lot of good at the same time, is Kuwait ...)

Why then should we bother with the absolute argument? In my view it is
because human nature is made that way. We open up all the time to 'the
absolute', which is transcendent to practical activity. We need it, as the
hart needs the running brook. For myself that absolute is 'eternal
life'(most definitely not the rule of the saints on earth); for Chris it is
'libertarian socialism' (which I think is just another variant of the rule
of the saints on earth, with all the immense opportunities for evil that
that implies). Pie in the sky for me; fun in the future for Chris.

Peter Brooke


Reply to Pbrooke:

* Correction - I may have been wrong about the SNP. Salmond opposed Desert
Fox - but do they oppose sanctions? I can't find evidence. Anyone?

Peter talked about the 'sins' of a society. I don't hold with this 'sins'
stuff: and I think a large part of the difference between Peter and myself
(which I am about to set out at great length) is down to the fact that I'm a
I don't feel personally guilty about sanctions, or about many other crimes
going on this minute around the globe. To take all the guilt in the world
onto my shoulders would render me powerless to act. I even shield myself
from a lot of knowledge about Iraq because it would probably drive me to
despair rather than to renewed activity: no solution. The thing to do is not
to reach any kind of mystical identity with the victims, or to save my own
soul. It's to solve the problem. So, no, I don't feel guilty.
As well as the 'sins and guilt' issue, I think that I also differ from Peter
in my view of what the best 'unit of suffering' is. Because I'm also an
anarchist, I don't like to talk about the objective existence of nations
with measurable experiences. Peter writes about 'Britain's experience' in
the second world war. But 'the British' didn't have an experience. Nor did
'Serbia'. 'Iraq's' not having one, either. For some Britons (think about the
bocage, Burma, Coventry) WW2 was every bit as horrifying as what many Iraqis
have been through in the last 20 years. Some Iraqis (many, but not all,
within the Ba'ath Party) are doing very well indeed at the moment. I do not
think that I can apply average standards of suffering to 'a society'. I'm
forced to talk in terms of 'Iraq' because that's how the sanctions operate,
but this is the definition that my enemies' acts force me to repeat: not one
that I should consider as objectively true. And even within geographically
defined 'Iraq', there's not a unity. If the south and centre had the
sanctions regime of the north, for instance, I would expect mortality in
those areas to have been substantially lower.
Peter then moves into overstatement. How can 'all European governments' be
responsible for a policy that some of them have had absolutely no hand in
formulating and implementing. Sweden? Malta? We need to get our facts right
in this argument, or our credibility suffers. Everyone - please do me a
favour and point out any factual errors in what I write.
I disagree  . . . er . . . 'vigorously' with Peter's assessment that the
attitudes of 'minor parties' are 'belated and half-hearted'. Let's take the
Scottish Socialist Party as an example. It's minor (only has 1 MSP) and
hasn't been in existence long. Yet its progenitor organisations have always
been against imperialism. If Peter expects me to join him in sneering at its
stand, then he has a long wait ahead of him. Last year I marched through
London against sanctions. Lots of people from minor parties were there. The
mainstream was totally absent. Yes, Dalyell is an honest man (when I was in
the Labour Party I used to vote for him in NEC elections for precisely this
reason, despite the fact that I disagree with him *spectacularly* on most
policy issues) but why is he any more honest than Tommy Sheridan or any
member of the Green Party? Answer - he isn't.
I do not hold a brief for the LibDems, I disagree with their foreign policy,
and I have an inherent mistrust for anyone whose real surname is probably
'the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo'. Still, their announcement that they
oppose sanctions is welcome. Along with the Chicago Tribune - and many many
other institutions whom we must convince, if we are to end sanctions this
side of a world revolution - they are not particularly nice people. They
have some reprehensible views. So what? Who cares about 'virtue'? What
matters is results. As long as they helping to end sanctions on Iraq, they
could be doing it to win souls for the church of Satan as far as I'm
concerned. It ain't the way that you do it, it's what you do, as the Fun Boy
Three and Bananarama didn't say.
When sanctions collapse, in a couple of years time, it will be because there
is highly disparate coalition of interests and organisations ranged against
them. Hayekians will oppose any interference with free trade. Foreign Office
and State Dept Arabists will oppose them on the basis that they are
undermining their cosy relationships with murdering feudal bastards.
Intelligent Zionists will oppose them because they are worried that if the
double standard gets yet more obvious, they might suffer a backlash.
Lobbyists for manufacturers of spy satellites and precision weapons will
oppose them on the grounds that their hardware can do the same job for less
money. V-P Cheney will oppose them because his old mates in the oil services
industry will make giant profits on the rebuilding contracts.
All these people are scum, and we all know that. So what? As long as they do
the business, people will stop dying, which is something that I care about.
This, I think, takes us back to the question of faith, or lack of it. I
don't have any, so I don't care about motives on anything other than a
tactical level; it is after all generally useful to know what peoples'
motives are in order to figure out the best way to change their minds. But
aside from that, results, measured materially, aren't the most important
thing, they're the only thing.
There are two alternatives to 'working with bastards': the first is to wait
for some kind of spiritual awakening and the rule of the saints on the
earth; the second is to work for a world libertarian socialist (I'd settle
for an anarcho-syndicalist one, though - I'm not choosy) revolution that
will overthrow all these evil governments. Sometimes I put a bit of work
into trying to accelerate the revolution, but it's not something I think can
arrive in the next decade (more's the pity).
As for the blood that drenches the hands (so Peter writes) of everyone
living in state whose government supports sanctions, I disagree there, too.
As far as I'm concerned, there is an equation for us all: have we done
enough to offset the personal benefit we get from the imperialist world in
which we live? I might well be guilty of this - I am a notorious lazy
hedonist. But is John? Is Dave? Mil? Colin? Seb? Felicity? From the dealings
I've had with these people I've reached the conclusion that they, along with
many others, have put in far more than enough hours to offset any possible
material benefit they get from living in an imperialist country. I am
unlikely to change my mind on this issue.
There is also the issue of 'sins' verses 'crimes'. Peter is right in
pointing out that 'crime' is breach of a man-made law. But I still prefer it
to 'sin', which implies breach of a God-made law. This is rhetoric that
about 30% of us in the UK will automatically discount, because we don't
believe that there is a God. 'Crimes' is still consistent. There are all
sorts of things that I consider to be crimes, though the law of the land
does not. As a human, I can make laws (though I can't enforce them very
well) and define things as crimes. So I do. Perhaps here we might be able to
compromise (as Peter apparently does in his title) on references to 'evil',
which I imagine we can mainly agree on.
Peter then appears to contradict himself with the issue of the
responsibility of Cook et al. He holds them personally responsible for not
dissociating themselves from the past. If redemption is possible on this
basis for people who continue to work for HMG, surely it's possible for us
to reduce the level of responsibility we personally bear by dissociating
ourselves from the past. Has Peter ever heard of the slogan 'Not in my
name', which is a fave in peacenik circles?
I'll not respond to the anti-Marxist comments - this is a different kind of
rant altogether!
Now, (and here is where many of you lot who are nodding along with me might
stop nodding), I've never really got off on this morality-based approach. I
think that there are limits to the amount of people it can mobilise,
precisely because it bases itself on a spiritual process: recognition of
sin, responsibility for sin, renunciation, and symbolic dissociation.
Historically, evangelists in the UK have never managed to hold onto more
than 10% of the population for long. They have a better record in the US, so
it might be a viable tactic there. But here? Hmm....
Evangelists have won here in the past - they abolished slavery. They did so
by successfully labelling it as something that was chiefly done by nasty
other people: something that 'we' - the people they were talking to at the
time - could dissociate ourselves from the consequences of so long as we
joined the movement to abolish it. More recently, socially committed
Christians have tried the same thing with the Jubilee 2000 project. This
also has tended to say 'these specific named people are guilty of not doing
something about it' rather than 'we are all guilty'. Of course, Jubilee 2000
hasn't worked yet either. But really, I'd be happy to line up alongside
people advocating all sorts of distinctions of personal guilt (or its lack)
provided that the line ends up being wide enough that it can't be ignored.
As for 'penitence', where's the good in that? As the motto of Leicester
Secular Society goes: 'Hands that help are better than lips that pray'. Job,
conscious of his sinful nature did sod all on the ashpit except feel sorry
for himself and praise the Lord. Peter, of course, does a lot more than
that, for which I am grateful, but I don't think his world-view is
necessary, or even necessarily helpful in the struggle for a better world.
for international solidarity

Chris Williams

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