Tariq Ali’s Pirates of the Caribbean

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Mon, 13/11/2006 - 00:01,

Review of Tariq Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pluto 2006

Tariq Ali is a prominent man of the left who long ago gave up on the working class movement and on socialism. As he expresses it in this book, it is no longer possible to be “a man of 1917” (p.3)

His “street fighting years” far behind him, he has become a cheerleader for just about any force opposed to neoliberalism. Hence in this book Ahmadinejad, Muqtada Al-Sadr, Hassan Nasrallah and other “resistance” fighters all get favourable name-checks. (p.32)

Ali once said that he was influenced by Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel and Leon Trotsky – in that order. His current heroes - and the subjects of this book - are Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales. Their significance for him is clear - in that order. (In a perverse reference, he refers to Castro as the “Old Man”, an epithet usually reserved for Trotsky).

Ali defines the three Latin American heads of state as the new pirates of the Caribbean – though landlocked Bolivians might be surprised by his topographical cretinism. He believes that they represent a new social democratic current in opposition to neoliberalism and are the great hope of an alternative in the present. (p.ix, p.139)

He does this by a familiar slight of hand. First he rightly points to the monsters in Miami, the elite escualidos in Caracas and the old powers in Bolivia, and concludes that they are worse than his three subjects. But then he rubs out any mention of the workers of Latin America, presumably because he thinks they can’t recognise one set of enemies without leaping into bed with another. Thus the book contains no discussion of the Stalinist control of Cuban workers, or the disputes between Chavistas and trade union militants in Venezuela, nor the criticisms of Morales by the social movements in Bolivia. All this is omitted, the better to tell the ripping yarn.

Why pirates? What Ali has in mind are the mythical heroes of the past, what he describes as those “marine heroes, the scourge of tyrants and avarice, and the brave asserters of liberty”. (p.ix-x) He seems to forget that pirates were also privateers, slave traders and often just plain brigands.

However the characterisation has its virtues. Pirates were often contrary to the established powers, but were incapable of constructing a more progressive alternative. They lived outside society’s dominant social order, sometimes working for the powers-that-be, but mainly they pleased themselves. Such populism certainly unites Castro, Chávez and Morales.

The 19-year-old Frederick Engels once wrote a fictional essay A Pirate Tale (1837), but was rather more discerning about the nature of piracy. The hero Leon joins a Greek pirate band in order to take revenge on a Turkish pirate who murdered his father. When they find the murderer, Leon fights him but is killed – and abandoned by his erstwhile allies.

But the young Leon had been warned not to trust pirates. Engels has the captain of Leon’s band tell him: “Doubtless you think us honest traders? We are no such thing! Have a look at our cannon, both exposed and concealed, our ammunition, our armoury, and you will easily see that we carry on such trading merely as a guise.”

Whatever his early literary shortcomings, the young Engels was well on the way to understanding a lesson he taught the working class many times - don’t ally with the enemy of your enemy. This is lesson Latin American workers will have to learn the hard way, if they accept Ali’s rosy picture of Castro, Chávez and Morales.

Readers won’t find redemption in Tariq Ali’s musings on Latin America, but merely what we’ve come to expect from him – ugly rumours.

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