Tariq Ali on Galeano, the Left, and making space for big ideas

Internationally known left-wing writer and scholar Tariq Ali was in Toronto last night. Two back-to-back speaking events were hosted by the Toronto Public Library as part of the On civil society series. He first talked about his favourite writer Eduardo Galeano, and then about the Left more broadly. Both talks were sold out, the second even requiring an overflow room.

Tariq Ali on Galeano, the Left, and making space for big ideas
Page content

Ali recalled his early encounters with Eduardo Galeano at a time when he was younger, in Chile. Galeano is a well-known Uruguayan author of Open Veins of Latin America and many other works. “We missed Galeano’s voice when he died, no one has replaced him,” says Ali.

Although Galeano often overstated his lack of education, and despite his sentiments later in life painting Open Veins of Latin America as rushed and amateur, Ali reminded the audience that the poetic style of the book renders it accessible to anyone who chooses to read it. Indeed, it remains a pillar of Latin American literature and political economy popularly sold throughout Latin America in kiosks alongside guilty-pleasure mystery novels.

On Trump and the Extreme Right

Discussing the United States, Ali warned that the likelihood of Trump’s electoral success could very well extend to a second term should centrist politics remain the only alternative: “The failure of the extreme centre has given way to the far right. The white supremacist strain in the Republican Party has always been there, but it is much more vocal and visible today.”

He cautioned against dealing with the right-wing by relying solely on name-slinging since it isn’t sufficient to debunk the basis of their arguments. Ali recalled the importance of teach-ins during other periods of history – such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars and the struggle for Civil Rights – where the Left needed to win key arguments: “The State tends to be on their side, and will not be kind to the Left. Trying to do good by shutting down debates never works. We should demonstrate if they are given a platform, but it doesn’t work when we shut them down. We should instead invite them to debate and we should win the argument.”

Ali stressed that social movements not explicitly connected to class-based issues will find it difficult to morph into larger movements: “What is divisive is dogmatism and the failure to understand that the only way movements can be successful is by getting out of their own ghettos.”

He recalled a particularly vibrant chant at a pro-immigration rally he once attended in Toronto as an example of movement building.

/Unemployment and inflation/ /Are not caused by immigration!/ /Bullshit—come off it!/ The enemy is profit!

Giving space to big ideas

Ali focused some of his remarks on challenging the idea that young people are disconnected from any movement and uninvolved in politics. “In the UK, when there was a political insurrection of young people, they propelled Corbyn to power in the Labour Party which we all thought was impossible.”

At the time, Corbyn was appearing in public talking about rail nationalization, free post-secondary education, abolishing student loans and halting the further privatization of health care—all ideas that hadn’t been said in Britain in decades. Ali emphasized: “The memory loss imposed by neoliberalism has meant that people have forgotten that some of these things existed. Until a major shift comes, at least let’s create some space where some of these ideas can be discussed.”

Ali is unconvinced that a fundamental change has occurred in the way young people engage with politics, and that people—both young and old—will read a book or the newspaper if it’s good. Ali concluded his remarks by saying: “Neoliberalism has created a society in which the difference between the rich and the poor are unimaginable—that reality still exists today.”

Tariq Ali’s discussion was live-streamed in the main lobby of the Toronto Reference Library, with crowds of people walking by, going about their Friday evening activities in one of Toronto’s busiest public spaces. At a time when Toronto is struggling with the not-so-progressive city council we hoped for, and a Premier that is effectively cancelling all gains made in the last two years, Ali’s speech gave space to left-wing ideas that are much welcome.

Read more