Definable Traces in the Atmosphere,
Mike Marquesse, OR Books
Mike Marqusee was an anti-Zionist Jewish American socialist activist, poet, journalist, pamphleteer, novelist and author who wrote about cricket with more grace and insight than just about anyone in his adopted country of England. When he died of bone cancer in 2015 memorial meetings were held in Islington and India, where Marquesee's columns in The Hindu had gained him a devoted readership.
"Losing Mike", The Nation's sports editor Dave Zirin wrote, "is like losing several pints of blood". In Delhi, friends reminisced about the "cold intellectual commitment" that made it possible for Marqusee to clarify complex political phenomena through his luminous ruminations on cricket. In London, a backbench Labour member of the British parliament recalled a woman stopping him as he cycled home on a cold and wet night to inquire about Marqusee's health a month before his death. The MP, who first met Marqusee as a young campaigner in north London in the 1960s, remembered the American as an "inspiration to the disparate group of youth who enjoyed zany evenings" with him at the local pub; the friendly acquaintance lubricated by drink and conversation matured over the decades into a loyal friendship cemented by mutual affection and fidelity to socialism.
And six months after Marqusee's premature departure, his obscure intellectual comrade, notorious throughout his parliamentary career for principled rebellion, was abruptly lofted into the office of the leader of the opposition in a race he had entered with 100/1 odds. In one of his first major events as leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute to his intellectual mentor by reading from an anthology of his poems to a captive audience in London. Definable Traces in the Atmosphere is a title borrowed from a poem from that collection, and the writings gathered here by Liz Davies, a distinguished lawyer and Marqussee's partner of more than 25 years, are a testament to the vigour, virtuosity and range of their late author's intellect.
There are sparkling essays on Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan – subjects, respectively, of Marqusee's Redemption Song (1999) and Chimes of Freedom (2003) – that rescue them from the claims of the state and place them at the centre of radical political traditions. Marqusee's encomium for his hero Tom Paine – "prime menace and demon, the carrier of the dreaded French disease" in the eyes of the British establishment – does not yield to the view adopted by most biographers that his years in France were tragic; they were, Marqusee insists with the certainty of a romantic separated by centuries from the revolutionary horrors to which Paine was exposed in Paris, heroic.
He repudiates the conservatism of Paine’s intellectual bête noire Edmund Burke with a stirring case for utopia. “Utopias provide a perspective from which the assumed limitations of the present can be scrutinised, from which familiar social arrangements are exposed as unjust, irrational or superfluous”, Marqusee writes. “You can’t chart the surface of the earth, compute distances or even locate where you are without reference to a point of elevation – a mountain top, a star or satellite. Without utopias we enjoy only a restricted view of our own nature and capacities. We cannot know who we are.”
The London riots of 2011 prompt him to revisit William Blake's London – "a psyche, a city of the mind" – to argue for its inclusive spirit: "A London of free labourers, in which individual and collective creativity flourish together, a city thriving off the dialectic of the one and the many."
Davies has included a lovely memoir of her late partner’s first visit to India in the 1970s, a tour that forever changed his life. Cricket was the preferred lens through which he examined the subcontinent’s history and politics, and there is plenty of elegant, and some elegiac, writing about his beloved game. “People are urged to see the triumphs of the Indian elite … as the country’s triumphs”, Marqusee writes at the advent of the Indian Premier League. “Status by proxy is offered as a substitute for real empowerment.”
For a Jewish intellectual who opposed Israel with the same intensity and passion that many Muslim Indian nationalists opposed the creation of Pakistan, Marqusee could be disappointingly anodyne in his appraisal of the intra-sub-continental politics of South Asia. The hardened convictions that informed his view of what was just and unjust dissolved, when confronted with the India-Pakistan rivalry, into untypically politically polite banalities about peace. How could India have arrived at a synthesis, one wishes Marqusee had asked, with the antithesis of its composite nationalism? Maybe the question is obsolete in the age of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-supremacist rule; but his reluctance to defend India’s secular nationalism, pre-Modi, from external sectarian adversaries – along the lines, say, of his defence of pluralistic societies from the particularistic claims of Zionism – is emblematic of that enduring intellectual vice of the left of which Marqusee was such a towering figure: its failure to condemn ethno-religious nationalism in all its forms.
Moving away from India, Marqusee’s diary entries from his 1997 campaign to re-elect Corbyn to parliament are full of astringent observations about the direction of Labour under Tony Blair. From his deep anxieties about Blairism to his fierce opposition to the Iraq war, Marqusee has been thoroughly vindicated by history. But perhaps even he would struggle, were he alive, with the rapid turn of events that have placed his old comrade, unapologetically brandishing ideas and beliefs that first brought them together, on the threshold of power. Still, it’s a tragedy that Marqusee isn’t around to savour the moment.