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Mike Marqusee’s life was steeped in the politics of social justice. At a massive anti-war protest in Washington DC in 1969, he wrote, ‘I was 16 but already a veteran of three years of anti-war protest’. Mike was fascinated by a whole range of historical characters who he admired, and wrote books on two of the great cultural icons of the 60s Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali. He remembered being electrified by Ali’s underdog boxing victory (as Cassius Clay) in 1964:
It was my first taste of one of sport’s most delicious pleasures: the upset victory of the underdog, and with it, the overturning of hierarchies and the confounding of experts. On that night in Miami, fifty years ago, the sporting upset portended greater upsets in wider fields. It was one of those rare moments when the boundaries of the possible are suddenly transformed and a new horizon becomes visible.
Mike had a great love of sport, especially cricket, but this piece really brings out the connection between sport and politics for him. He also loved characters who stood out against orthodoxy, including orthodoxy of the left. It draws him towards Dylan, in what is consistently one of the most-read articles on the Red Pepper website:
Ex-radicals usually ascribe their evolution to the inevitable giving-way of rebellious youth to responsible maturity. Dylan reversed the polarity. For him, the retreat from politics was a retreat from stale categories and second-hand attitudes…. He was urging the young people of the sixties to reject categories inherited from the past and define their own terms. For Dylan, youth itself – that vast new social demographic – had become the touchstone of authenticity. A tremendously empowering notion for the generation whom it first infected, but also, as it turned out, a cul-de-sac, and less of a revolutionary posture than it seemed at the time.
Mike’s portraits are far from confined to 60s figures, however. In particular, he brought alive figures from another period of rapid change that gave birth to modern politics – the French Revolution. Tom Paine was a favourite subject because:
Leninists and liberals alike have squeezed Paine into the dubious category of ‘bourgeois democrat’. But the democratic thrust that he embodied, that drove him forward, that fuelled his writing, cannot be so easily delimited. Whatever else he may have been, Paine was and remained a committed ‘revolutionary’, in theory and practice. He sought not just to ameliorate but to overturn the existing order. His restless egalitarian spirit could not be contained. It flowed from the political into the religious and economic realms.
Mike didn’t just write but was a committed activist. At the time of Tony Benn’s death he wrote of himself as an ‘unrepentant Bennite’:
I was one of many in those years inspired by Benn to become active in the Labour party and to this day I regard myself as an unrepentant Bennite, early 80s vintage: what we tried to do, under Tony’s leadership, was to reshape the party from the bottom up, to make it an effective instrument of working class representation. And while we failed to do that, we came close enough to scare the hell out of the British ruling class, who put huge resources into destroying Benn and the Bennite movement. His courage in those days, under ceaseless attack from the media and the leaders of his own party, was exemplary, and enabled many others to stand their ground under pressure.
Mike always believed that an electoral left force was vital and he hated the ego and factionalism on the left. When I first heard of him, he was heavily involved in the Socialist Alliance and later supported Left Unity:
For me, there is no alternative to a long haul of a different kind: the creation of a new left electoral force as a complement to grassroots movements and campaigns. The longer we postpone undertaking this task, the greater the costs – to the unrepresented and to democracy itself. …I’m well aware of how daunting this challenge is. I wish I could convince myself that the whole task was avoidable. But I can’t. The continuing and mounting costs of not having a viable electoral instrument are too great.
He was also an early activist in the anti-war movement, and after the endless questioning of ‘what had we achieved’, evaluated that movement in the most beautiful and thought-provoking terms:
We don’t know and we can’t know which protest, leaflet, meeting, occupation, activity will ‘make a difference’. We are always the underdog, we are always contending against power, and therefore the likelihood is that we will fail. But no success can be achieved unless we risk that failure. Otherwise when possibilities for success arise they pass by unrealised…
In evaluating our political efforts, we have to jettison neoliberalism’s stark demarcation between success and failure, which erases everything in between and, even worse, denies any combination of the two. In the politics of social justice, unmixed success and unmitigated failure are rare. Every successful revolution or major reform has had unintended consequences, created new problems, fallen short of its goals. In politics, failures contain the seeds of successes, just as successes conceal the roots of failure.
… to engage in the politics of social change we have to be brave enough to fail. Science advances through failure; every successful experiment is made possible only by a host of failed ones. In human evolution, failure – incapacities, shortcomings – led to compensation and innovation.
There are worse things than failure.
For Mike, the struggle for truth was vital. He saw loyalty to an individual when they were wrong as a huge problem that had dogged the left. Recently he opposed the decision of some in the anti-war movement to refuse to condemn Russian imperialism:
It is perfectly possible to challenge Western imperialism without justifying the Russian variety. Making your own government the immediate focus of campaigning does not entail ignoring the rest of the picture. Yes, Western imperialism poses more dangers to more people, globally, but that does not make Russian imperialism any more acceptable or Ukraine’s right to self-determination any less urgent…. We won’t be able to offer an alternative to this hall of mirrors by matching one double standard with another. It’s always a corrupting practice, as a left wing version of realpolitik takes the place of a politics of solidarity.
He also tried to learn politics from all of his experiences – his love of sport, art and indeed his cancer. Mike ferociously changed attitudes towards cancer:
The stress on cancer patients’ ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’ implies that if you can’t ‘conquer’ your cancer, there’s something wrong with you, some weakness or flaw. If your cancer progresses rapidly, is it your fault? Does it reflect some failure of willpower? In blaming the victim, the ideology attached to cancer mirrors the bootstrap individualism of the neoliberal order, in which ‘failure’ and ‘success’ become the ultimate duality, dished out according to individual merit, and the poor are poor because of their own weaknesses.
…The biggest single boon for people living with cancer would be the elimination of inequalities in health care…The ‘war on cancer’ is as misconceived as the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘war on drugs’. ….And that requires not a top-down military strategy, with its win-or-lose approach, but greater access to information, wider participation in decision-making (across hierarchies and disciplines) and empowerment of the patient.
He told of how cuts and privatisation to the NHS were affecting him – and the majority of people in Britain – and took particular aim at the root causes of suffering, such as the Big Pharma companies:
In effect, companies like Celgene are hostage-takers: pay the ransom, they demand, or someone dies. The ruthlessness is breathtaking but is accepted as a corporate behavioural norm. What makes it more arch is that the hostage-taker claims to be on the side of the hostages. Though I’m one of those being held hostage by Big Pharma, I’ve experienced no trace of Stockholm Syndrome. On the contrary, I resent the way my illness, my vulnerability, has been exploited, used by a group of self-serving parasites to gouge the public purse.
In a better country, in a better world, Mike would have been a household name. He had a wonderful way of expressing what was a sophisticated analysis – far in access of the vast majority of pundits who darken our TV screens and newspaper pages. His activism for a united left party should have made him a renowned political figure. As it is, the tributes that have poured in from across the left and the media show that he was a real inspiration to many of us. He will be sorely missed by a movement that can ill afford such losses.