Platform Two

Norman Geras answers two criticisms by modern historian Marc Mulholland.

Marc Mulholland finds most of the Euston Manifesto ‘very agreeable’, and he thinks also that it is ‘insipid silly stuff’. Well, he’s perfectly entitled to that combination of judgements. And he’s more than entitled, he’s actually right, to say:

The Manifesto must aspire to some seriousness if it wishes to be taken seriously.

Each may judge its level of seriousness for herself or himself. Marc seems not to find it substantial enough to take seriously, but he’s put up four posts about it in as many days, after his blog was free of any observation about anything at all in the seven months before that.

No matter. Unlike some of the more feeble and/or sneering objections to the manifesto, such as I sampled on Platform one, there are two types of question raised by Marc that merit a considered response.

1. The first is his criticism that the Euston Manifesto has ‘no sense of systematic strategic orientation’; it offers no ‘clear-sighted road-map’. He thinks we fall down on the issue of agency:

Classic manifestos identify a historic force (class, nation, the free-born or whatever) and pledge allegiance to it.

This is of a piece with the unfavourable comparison he draws between what he styles the ‘bourgeois Marxism’ of George Bush and his neo-con supporters, and the failure by us Eustonians to make our case in historical materialist terms. We see pluralist democracies as the privileged agents of progressive change, Marc says, but have no very clear conception of why they, rather than other societal forces — ‘national communities, market-orientated civil societies or class alliance configurations’ — should play that role.

Speaking for myself here (not necessarily therefore for other members of the Euston Manifesto Group), I’d say Marc was twice right and once wrong in this. He’s right that the manifesto is not a Marxist document. But it wasn’t intended to be. While some of its supporters are Marxists, many aren’t. Why, in aiming to delineate the common ground between us, would we produce a document based on assumptions that aren’t shared across the group? Marc is also right that the manifesto contains no clear road-map, possessed of a well-defined historical agent of change standing at the beginning of the designated road. Again, it makes no claim to; that wasn’t its ambition. We set out to draw up a schedule of common values and commitments, sketch some positions on the political issues of the day, positions that broadly unite us and that we think are important. If that doesn’t suffice to make the document we’ve produced a bona fide manifesto, then you can just re-title it in your mind the ‘Euston Discussion Document’. That is what it is: a focus for like-minded people, a way of initiating debate about some of the matters that exercise us.

So, while Marc is right there, I don’t myself regard his being right as damaging to the Euston Manifesto when judged against the aims of those who produced it. Where he is wrong is in the suggestion that our (for him, ill-formed) conception of agency privileges pluralist democracies. We say — because we believe — that these democracies are preferable to various types of tyranny. (We also make reference to their shortcomings.) Nothing in the manifesto commits its signatories to the view that it is these democracies, the state institutions themselves, that are either the sole or the primary instrumentality of changing the world for the better, to the exclusion of wider class forces, social movements, political organizations or campaigns and so forth. The manifesto — sorry, discussion document — doesn’t say this about agency, because it doesn’t say anything much about it. Is that a gap? Yes. Nothing prevents others from beginning to fill it in a constructive way, assuming they themselves have persuasive ideas of their own about it.

2. I can deal more briefly with the other question Marc raises. In the most recent of his four posts, he takes issue with the Euston document for this formulation:

[I]f the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue.

Marc takes this to mean that there would be an obligation of intervention whatever the consequences — including catastrophic (and presumably nuclear) war — in any country where rights violations by the state were ‘appalling’. Two simple points: (a) This is a brief document, stating what it states in a compressed way. Pretty much everything in it requires further specification. In this case, the requirement would be for a set of criteria spelling out the operative meaning of ‘appalling’ — the conditions in which interventions of this kind are justified and the conditions in which they aren’t. It is not reasonable to expect that a view about a complex matter set out in just a few lines should have the precision and detail of a legal document. (b) Even apart from that, Marc takes ‘duty’ here to mean something like ‘absolute duty irrespective of all other considerations or consequences’. Few, if any, duties are like this. A person has filial duties, for example. But if she fails on some occasion to make an expected visit to her mother because to do so would involve some massive disbenefit to herself or others, it doesn’t show there was no filial duty, only that this is one among other moral considerations; it is a prima facie obligation rather than an absolute one. Just so, the international community can be held to have a prima facie duty to intervene against genocide or other cases of very large-scale human rights violation, without this entailing that nothing else, not even a potential nuclear catastrophe, has a bearing on the issue.

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

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