Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Francis Wheen Gets Paranoid

Francis Wheen is a British journalist best known for his biography of Karl Marx. His latest book, Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia documents the madness of the 1970s from Watergate to the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group. As a collection of anecdotes it’s a highly entertaining read, but it’s far too rambling to provide any serious analysis.

Wheen describes the wheeling and dealing of the Nixon administration in great detail. Right down to what he was drinking when during each terrible decision he made and what movies he was watching (he was watching Patton when he made the decision to bomb Cambodia). This covers not only Watergate, but COINTELPRO and Nixon’s support for Pinochet’s coup in Chile.

Over in Britain, he gives similar details to MI5 spies who were convinced that Prime Minister was a KGB spy and Wilson’s own belief that he was being spied on by the KGB. Over in China Mao Tse-Tung and his allies regularly plotted against each other during the cultural revolution.

With the rise of these conspiracies there was also a rise in conspiracy theories, ranging from the Kennedy assassination to the Illuminati. The book covers those also stretches out to cover the rise in “urban guerilla” movements in Latin America and Europe, new age guru Uri Gellar, and writer Frederick Forsyth leading a failed coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea as “research” for his novel The Dogs of War.

Keeping up with the “art imitating life” theme, Wheen describes how cinema becomes dominated by conspiracy-themed movies like Chinatown and The Parallax View. Wheen also tries to argue that Jaws is a conspiracy-themed movie, but his arguments are found wanting. He also includes a list of pretty much every reference to Nixon in popular culture, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Futurama.

It’s all remarkably entertaining. But when he tries to explain why all this happened, his only explanation is “it was the ’70s”. Even when he’s describing events that happened in the ’60s.

Paranoia and Extremism

One unfortunate aspect of the book is Wheen’s tendency to equate insanity and paranoia with political extremism, with Nixon on the right and Mao on the left. And yet his anecdotes about the moderate Harold Wilson contradict those arguments. When Wheen looks at the far left he focuses on “urban guerilla” organizations like the Tupamaros in Uruguay and the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany.

He correctly points out that these terrorist groups had little to do with Marxism, including a great bit where he points out that that Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla is closer to the Boy Scout manual than anything Marx ever wrote.

But he stops short of actually providing a Marxist analysis of terrorism, preferring to blame it on general “extremism” and, of course, the fact that it was the ’70s.

Lenin described terrorists as “liberals with bombs”. Liberals believe that fundamental change can be secured by replacing a few politicians, while terrorists believe that assassinating said politicians can destabilize the system. Genuine Marxists on the other hand, believe that fundamental change requires mass action by the working class not shuffling of individuals.

As such many terrorists and ultra-leftists tend to rapidly switch over to liberalism and reformism, skipping legitimate Marxism. For instance, Wheen gives the example of Joschka Fischer who went from uncritical support for the PLO as a ’70s radical to uncritical support for Israel as Germany’s Foreign Minister in the ’00s. But Wheen considers this to be a good thing.

After the failure French general strike of May 1968, many European radicals lost faith in the ability of the working class to change society and moved on to more individualistic views. This included reformism, post-modernism and, in some cases urban guerillaism. Wheen doesn’t recognize this process and just attacks the radicals for being too radical. In doing so, he’s also writing off the power of the working class to change society, making the same mistake as the urban guerillas themselves.


In Britain, urban guerillaism never really took hold, so Wheen focuses on three Trotskyist groups: the Socialist Labour League (SLL), the International Socialists (IS) and the International Marxist Group (IMG).

He makes legitimate criticism of these groups, but blames their problems on their Trotskyism and general radicalism. But the problems he describes comes from those groups opportunistically supporting whatever ideas were fashionable at the time. As such they tended to rapidly switch between ultra-leftism and liberalism, but Wheen chooses to only acknowledge their ultra-leftism.

He points out, for instance, that the IS gave uncritical support to the IRA, but doesn’t point out that they also supported the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland in the first place.

Conspicuous in its absence in Wheen’s attack on British Trotskyist groups is the most successful British Trotskyist organization, the Militant Tendency, sister organization to Socialist Alternative. Perhaps this is because Militant doesn’t fit into Wheen’s scheme. Militant never supported any form of urban guerillaism, including the IRA and, in fact, openly condemned terrorism. In Northern Ireland itself, fought for class unity across the ethnic divisions.

The lack of any mention of the Militant Tendency is also conspicuous when Wheen claims that Trotskyism faded out in Britain after the ’70s. But from 1983-87, the Militant Tendency led the Liverpool City Council that fought Thatcher’s austerity measures.

Reductive Analysis

Wheen claims that, in writing the book, he wanted to debunk the reductive candy-coated portrayal of the 1970s as the “age of disco” and show the decade for what it really was. However, his portrayal of the 1970s as being riddled with paranoia, coups and terrorism is every bit as reductive.

The 1970s may have been the decade of Watergate but it was also the decade of the Portuguese revolution and similar uprisings in Greece and Spain. These revolutions overthrew the fascist regimes in those countries and established democracy. They had the potential to be full-scale socialist revolutions, but those possibilities were squandered by the leaders of the revolutions.

Wheen only makes a passing reference to the Portuguese revolution and it’s only as a stepping stone linking Swedish pop group ABBA to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The revolutions in Greece and Spain get no mention at all.

Richard Nixon may have presided over Watergate and the coup in Chile, but it was also under his administration that we got abortion rights, an end to war in Vietnam, the Environmental Protection Agency, welfare, workplace safety standards, and much more progressive achievements than Clinton, Bush or Obama ever carried out. This is not because Nixon was a great guy but because he was faced with a massive upheaval from below that is not currently taking place.

He concludes with a chapter entitled “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again”, which warns the reader that the ’70s are coming back:
Reading about the Seventies, you may sometimes have a similar hallucinatory sensation; but when you look up and gaze out at the twenty-first century you may experience something even more unsettling – flickering glimpses of déjà vu.
The cynical manipulation of Bush and Blair during the Iraq war would certainly constitute unsettling glimpses of déjà vu. But in the context of the rise in class struggle in Greece, Spain and Portugal, the potential ’70s revival is a positive thing. Perhaps Francis Wheen could stand to be a little bit less paranoid.

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