Platform One

Norman Geras deals with some of the more basic attacks.

Published less than a week ago, the Euston Manifesto has elicited a huge volume of comment. I’ve read a lot of this and skim-read more. Even with the best will in the world, it would be impossible to deal with all the lines of criticism. But I’d like to do my part in responding to some of them that are recurrent. So, starting from the bottom, here goes.

Much of the comment on the manifesto has been, to put it generously, pathetic; and, though this part of it doesn’t actually merit a response, it is worth registering just how much there has been like that. Schematically: (1) ‘Ha ha, they met in a pub.’ (2) ‘Tee hee, they named it after a station.’ (3) Some other generic flip but contentless remark. (4) ‘These people are deadbeats’; or [from some of the sadder members of the blogosphere] one or another version of ‘They are bad people.’

Such stuff, while it’s not worth answering, is worth registering—as the symptom of what might be considered an anomaly. Widely characterized by its critics as containing banal generalities and political pieties, its criticisms of a section of the left dismissed as applying to nobody much beyond the SWP and Respect, the Euston Manifesto does seem to have got a lot of people rather agitated. Funny that—such a no-account document generating so much electronic noise. It’s always possible, I suppose, that the noise merely derives from the fact that, even though the manifesto is of no account, there are plenty of people who have nothing better to do with their time than to spend it on saying so. Still, they’re bothered enough to do that. Shame.

Stepping away from the playpen now, though not too far from it, let us look at one or two lines of criticism which at least give the appearance of containing an argument.

D.D. Guttenplan introduces a long tirade against the manifesto with the statement: ‘the real problem with the document is that every word in it is a lie’. Such restraint—only every word? Let’s look at the quality of the argument supporting this modest charge. Guttenplan takes it as a mark of our not being ‘really interested in economic questions’ that we (of the manifesto) ‘leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality’. Terrible that, no? Because the Euston Manifesto Group consists of people who, sharing a number of positions, are also of different opinions on some issues, and because we don’t claim to have the answer to every difficult question in our hip-pockets, we’re not interested in such questions. But, then again, maybe we are, and this is a brief manifesto setting out common positions and leaving other things open for discussion. Comment is free and so is reading; it is one of the advantages of life within a liberal society that you need read and engage with no more of criticism of this quality than you feel inclined to.

Then there has been the theme that, since the Eustonians and supporting signatories include well-known journalists like Nick Cohen, John Lloyd and Francis Wheen, the claim that our broad viewpoint has been under-represented in the liberal media is silly. Speaking loosely, it requires only a single half-asleep brain cell to deal with this point. The under-representation claim is a general one about the coverage by the relevant media of some major issues of political division within left and liberal opinion in recent times. It is, as such, an empirical claim, and to cite two or three names doesn’t begin to resolve it. It may, of course, be a false claim. But to show that it is false, you need material relevant to establishing proportions. To take just one obvious ‘region’ of the media spaces we’re talking about: on several of the blogs that were behind the drafting of the manifesto it has been argued – extensively, in detail and some would doubtless say ad nauseam – that the comments and opinion pages of the major liberal newspaper in this country have been dominated by people advocating the kind of viewpoints of which the manifesto is critical. If this assessment is wrong, then the counter-argument can be made – in detail and with counter-evidence. But I’m not aware that it has been. In any event, this isn’t an all-or-nothing issue; it’s one about more and less. If it is to be discussed, that can be done in a serious way – as ‘Nyah, nyah: Nick Cohen, John Lloyd etc’ is not.

Moving on now to more serious issues, one of the most serious, because it is a flat-out misrepresentation of what the manifesto and the group supporting it are about, is the suggestion by many that this is a pro-war document. That is how it was billed on the front page of the New Statesman, even though the paper’s editor explicitly noted that several people associated with the manifesto opposed the Iraq war. The suggestion traduces either the integrity or the intelligence of some of the signatories: as if Michael Walzer, and as if Alan Johnson and Shalom Lappin – these two both amongst the first four names on the document – might not quite have grasped what they thought about the war, or might have been confused about the import of the manifesto paragraph that begins so:

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change.

That is a clear statement, and it accurately characterizes the nature of the group that agreed the document containing it. This group is made up both of people who supported the war and of people who opposed it—and who (both lots of them) recognize that there were compelling reasons on both sides of the argument, compelling reasons for and against the war.

It is puzzling why anyone should want to obscure this simple registration of fact about the Euston Manifesto Group’s composition, but here at any rate is a hypothesis. The view that the group and its manifesto are (really, in essence) pro-war harmonizes with the allegation that its criticisms don’t have any application beyond a tiny segment of the far (or the ‘stopper’) left. Ours would then be, you see, a simple vision: we are for the war; and we present the rest of the left as apologist-type stoppers. That looks rather less plausible if some amongst us themselves opposed the war and they, together with those of us who supported the war, share many common positions nonetheless. It could be, in this case, that our criticism is of some of the modes of opposition to the war, certain sorts of arguments and political priorities and evasions within it, and not of all anti-war criticism and argument as such. It could be this… because in fact it is. I will speak here only for my own blog and not all the others supporting the manifesto; but I have been arguing about these matters since late July 2003, and I can document having said repeatedly that there were morally creditable forms of opposition to the Iraq war, as well as some rather less creditable ones.

For the rest here, the notion that the criticisms we make of the anti-war left have no application beyond the SWP and Respect is laughable. For more than three years, and week after week, the liberal press in this country has carried, in quantity, pieces by journalists, writers, academics, actors and sundry other kinds of folk voicing every one of the wrong-headed tropes which the manifesto identifies. This is a matter now of public record. It has been documented—extensively and in detail—on many of the blogs as well as in the press itself. Of course, anyone is entitled to deny that that body of opinion is of genuinely large extent within the liberal-left. The denial would carry weight if it had ever been backed by similarly detailed and argued rebuttals of the evidence some of us have tried to assemble, evidence that the body of opinion in question is indeed of significant and worrying extent.

Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester

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