Bolshy Talks to Tatchell

Submitted by Anon on 16 June, 2005 - 11:32

Peter Tatchell is a human rights activist who is a member of the Green Party and the gay rights group OutRage! He is particularly well-known for his criticism of homophobic reggae artists and the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, who he has twice tried to Citizen's Arrest.

**What was it that first made you decide to become politically active?

My first campaign involved opposition to the death penalty in my home city of Melbourne, Australia. It was in 1965, I was aged 13 and I read a newspaper report about a prisoner who had escaped from prison and allegedly shot a warder dead.
This guy was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to death.

I felt very angry that –possibly- an innocent man was going to be hung and I got involved in the campaign to try and stop his execution. We failed, but 30 years later an enquiry found that the fatal bullet couldn't have been fired by the prisoner.

That whole experience was very radicalising – from that moment on I never trusted the police, judges or the government. It was absolutely sickening the way that the state government in a naked appeal to law-and-order mentality hung a man who was almost certainly innocent. That was the moment I first began to question who the state serves.

**The anti-war movement made many people question Blair's authority and American imperialism – obvious targets for the Left. But left-wing groups in general haven't been able to channel that mass resentment into something constructive. Why do you think this is?

One big problem is the lack of a clear, credible Left alternative. While there's lots of left-wing groups, but there's no really strong, consistent, well-organised Left alternative. Parties like Respect have gathered significant support, but still relatively minor in terms of the whole political scene.

They've also been compromised by their lack of consistency. When people on the Left say that women's rights and gay rights are not "shibboleths", that sends out a message that they are equivocal on fundamental social and human rights. That ambiguity's not going to inspire people.


**In the election campaign, both the government and RESPECT's programmes reflected that they realised that there were more 'Muslim voters' than people who prioritised gay rights. Have you been disappointed that much of the Left has abandoned many social rights issues?

It appears that the Socialist Workers' Party and RESPECT have given up all hope on the white working class and reorientated their agenda around disenfranchised Muslim communities – "the great hope for radical, revolutionary struggle".

I agree that the just demands of those communities should be addressed, but not to the exclusion of the human rights of women and gay people.

I'd also say that the way large sections of the Left have abandoned the white working class has left that community vulnerable to the BNP. Unless we deal with issues like unemployment, bad housing, and so on, the BNP is set to grow.

**Doesn't it simply represent the degeneration of a large section of the Left, that many care nothing for the workers' movement – it's just about anti-Americanism and attracting Muslim voters?

The Stop the War Coalition is driven by a rabid anti-Americanism, not a love or a passion for the Iraqi people.

They seek to oppose a Western agenda in Iraq rather than to listen to what Iraqi left-wingers and democrats are saying.


**You've suggested that socialists should support the Green Party as the largest Left challenge to New Labour. But given that the Greens didn't come near winning a seat in the General Election, why should socialists support a party which isn't going anywhere anyway, and which they have fundamental disagreements with?

Every successful left-wing movement throughout history has been broad-based and involved alliances. It's brought into the left-wing movement lots of people with diverse backgrounds. It's often done so on a quite minimalist programme. Go back to the Bolsheviks – "Peace, bread and land" - it's a very simple idea.

The big problem with the Left in this country is that it's so fractured and fragmented. The old adage still rings true – "unity is strength". If everyone on the Left could work together in a single party and we could find a way of working out, or even accepting, our differences, then the combined, unified, collective strength of the Left would be much greater.

**Of course that's the ideal scenario, but you've said specifically that socialists should support the Green Party. In the Greens' manifesto, it says that "real economic progress involves encouraging more local, smaller business". While that's left-wing in the sense that it's anti-corporate, saying that we should encourage small business is unacceptable to socialists, isn't it?

You have to acknowledge that left-wing movements succeed when they draw in millions of people, and that means accepting people who don't necessarily accept your entire Left agenda.

I'd say that the Greens represent the most credible and viable Left alternative. In terms of all the left-wing forces, they have the strongest and most credible record when it comes to winning votes and winning seats – not at Westminster, but in the European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, London assembly and at local level. If more people on the Left were in the Greens they would be even stronger, and would move further to the Left.

**On the same argument, there's a lot missing from the RESPECT programme, yet electorally they proved reasonably successful. Obviously, as a significant proponent of gay rights, you wouldn't be a fan of the RESPECT project. But if you're saying we have to accept some differences to build a bigger Left, is that compromise justifiable?

I think some compromises are acceptable and some are not. When it comes to issues of fundamental human rights, I don't think there can be any compromise. When it comes to the exact process by which we get from where we are now to a socialist society, I think we can progress bit by bit as long as we're going in the right direction.


**So why do you think the Greens could bring us closer to socialism?

I'm the first to admit that the Greens are imperfect. But there's never in history been a perfect political party. We have to deal with the real world, not in order to put a damper on the struggle, but to find a way of progressing it.

I don't just look at the Greens from an electoral movement, but I see great potential to create a broader Green movement – I'd like to see the party have a direct action arm. We need a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action.

If we insist on purity, there's a big danger we end up very pure but very small. There has to be some compromise between keeping true to our principles, but at the same time making Left ideas part of a mass movement..

**But at the London Mayoral elections in 2000, you stood as an independent against both the Socialist Alliance and the Green Party. So don't you think that damaged unity, wanting to stand yourself, separate from such groups?

In retrospect, yes.

But the Greens have moved left-ward quite a lot since 2000. They weren't as left-wing then as they are now.The trajectory of the Green party is to shift in a more radical direction.

**Yet the Greens have made a big deal of the fact that the UN didn't authorise the war. Don't you think that kind of argument should be on the backburner, since using that as a reason you identify yourselves with the LibDems' position, rather than a radical stance?

I agree. That would have been a better, or stronger, position to take.

But in my campaigns in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe, struggling against the Mugabe dictatorship, I often use the argument that Mugabe has violated international law. Not because I think that's the one and only issue, but because it's a way to expose the illegality and tyranny of his regime - since even when it comes to basic humanitarian norms, like the laws against torture, the Mugabe regime flouts them at will.


What I think Peter needs to recognise is that, while it's of course true that the Left shouldn't compromise on fundamental human rights issues, it's not only that which is key to our programme.

As socialists, we can't accept the continuation of capitalism. The divide between the Greens and socialists isn't a question of a 'different path to socialism' – the Greens' attitude of encouraging small business helps to promote the idea that the system is reformable, and that we don't need to get rid of the ultimate problem of capitalism.

The Greens aren't a socialist party - they may be moderately left-wing, but for people who want to cahnge our society, the reforms which such a party can offer are nowhere near enough - we need a mass socialist party, not a compromise like this.

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