Robert Fisk gave a lecture a couple of years ago at the University of Auckland's Law School, in a little hall where visiting academics and nervous postgraduate students normally deliver papers on the intricacies of corporate tax regulations or nineteenth century maritime conventions to steadily thinning audiences.
On the day of Fisk's appearance the hall was packed, so that members of the audience had to sit in the aisles or stand near the doors. With his sunburnt, sweating face screwed up in agitation, Fisk spoke in his loud, occasionally hoarse voice for over an hour, yet nobody left the hall. What Fisk offered was not an argument or a narrative, but rather a series of images - burnt-out tanks in the Iraqi desert, the rubble of downtown Beirut after an Israeli bombing raid, a child with a bomb strapped to his back like a schoolbag - which were at once shocking and instantly familiar. We recognised the images not only from the footage we'd seen on Al Jazeera, CNN and the rest of the twenty-four hour news stations, but also from the prodigous body of superbly impressionistic journalism which Fisk has produced during decades of service in the Middle East.
When members of the audience finally asked the famous journalist a few questions - about the state of Middle Eastern politics, the vicissitudes of American foreign policy, and the notion of a just war, amongst other subjects - his answers were unexpectedly short and banal. Europeans are in the Middel East because they have a colonial mindset, Fisk declared. The West is fond of oil. George Bush did bad things because he was, well, a bad man. There is a lot of evil in the world.
There was a peculiar sense, though, that what Fisk actually said to his audience was irrelevant. What was important was where he had been, what he had seen, who he had met. Fisk had interviewed Osama bin Laen, had rode into a war zone on an Iranian tank, had walked through Beirut as bombs fell around him. To an audience of mostly young people from tranquil New Zealand, Fisk represented an exotic world of war, high stakes diplomacy, and revolution. Fisk represented history.
Over the past week Tariq Ali has been delivering a series of lectures at the University of Auckland, and drawing very large crowds. Like Robert Fisk, Ali has been a witness to a series of political and military storms over the past four decades. But where Fisk likes to do his reporting from the back of a jeep, and is more comfortable in a bullet proof vest than a dinner jacket, Ali is a suave figure who seems, these days at least, as comfortable in a research library as on the frontlines.
Fisk is a relentlessly brave and precise documentor of the bloody particulars of Middle East conflicts, but he has little besides rhetoric and hunches to fall back on when he is confronted with the problem of generalising his experiences. Ali, on the other hand, is at home with synthesis and summary. Where Fisk's prose describes tank movements and artillery barrages, the long articles Ali has written on a series of Middle Eastern and Asian nations for the New Left Review and the London Review of Books in recent years describe the movement of capital and the eddy and flow of ideologies. Ali was a supporter of Trotskyist outfit the International Secretariat of the Fourth International back in the 1970s, when its intellectual godfather was the Belgian polymath Ernest Mandel, and the influence of Mandel's lapidarian brand of Marxism can still be seen in his work.
Ali is probably the most radical thinker to be chosen to deliver the annual Douglas Robb series of lectures at Auckland university since his friend EP Thompson
back in 1988, and it is especially pleasing to know that Stuart McCutcheon, the unctuous vice-chancellor of the university, has had to navigate his way through crowds of workers protesting against union-bashing policies on his way to this year's lectures.