Platform Four

Norman Geras answers a socialist critique from members of the blogging collective Socialism In An Age Of Waiting.

Like other supporters of the Euston Manifesto I welcome the ‘friendly and constructive way’ in which the bloggers now standardly known as SIAW have engaged with that document, even while feeling unable to sign it. They raise a number of critical points. Here I’d like to respond to just one. It’s in their first numbered paragraph—though their points 2 and 3 are very much in the same neck of the woods. SIAW write:

Either the Euston Group is “drawing a line between those forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and such currents as have lately shown themselves rather too flexible in relation to these values”—which surely implies that the group itself is in and of the left—or it’s taking part in “a realignment of progressive, democratic opinion”, “making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not” and “reaching beyond the socialist Left to include egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment”. It can’t coherently and effectively do both.

The first thing I want to say about this is that if there is any inconsistency between the two aims of the manifesto SIAW here highlight, it is not because the Euston Manifesto Group stumbled into it without thinking; it is not an oversight or an accident. It was self-conscious and deliberate, a standpoint agreed at our first meeting and reaffirmed at the last one before we went public with the document. As reflects this genesis, the thing is stated there right upfront, first paragraph. To put the point baldly, the manifesto isn’t, and it wasn’t intended to be, a specifically ‘socialist’ manifesto in the meaning of that word SIAW would be prepared to endorse (hence the ‘leaving open’ of economic forms, with which they take issue in their point 3); it was, on the other hand, meant to be a document that socialists could get behind, in common with others who don’t define themselves politically in the same way but who see themselves as occupying some common ground. I repeat, this was self-conscious and deliberate; I don’t even have to qualify that statement as being personal to me, since although there are differences of emphasis on the matter amongst Eustonians, it was something that was actually discussed and decided. If it’s an incoherence therefore, it’s incoherence by formal decision.

But I’d like to see the argument why it is an incoherence, and I don’t think SIAW supply one. It is a matter of simple observation that socialists who are also democrats share important values with democrats who aren’t socialists. Likewise, socialists who think liberalism contains resources, intellectual and normative, that some currents within the socialist tradition haven’t shown themselves to appreciate fully or even at all, can see eye to eye on certain things with liberals not persuaded by socialist economic models. There are egalitarian liberals as well as inegalitarian ones, so some broad value of equality can be held in common across the relevant line here, even if the meaning of equality itself will inevitably be a subject of further debate. And there are all kinds of issues—racism, sexism, attitudes to free speech and censorship, environmental questions, etc.—where people who are socialists and liberals or radicals who are not can have common positions or close ones. It doesn’t just go without saying why it is incoherent for socialists to make common cause with democrats, liberals and others at the same time as wanting to differentiate themselves from those on the left whose commitments to liberal and democratic values seem less than robust.

SIAW do themselves allow ‘occasional, temporary collaboration with non-socialists on specific issues’. But this seems for them, by implication, to be the limit of what is acceptable or politically safe. I would say for my own part that since September 11 2001, it is not just a matter of specific issues, nor of something occasional. Across a range of vitally important political questions today—questions to do with war and peace, humanitarian intervention, terrorism and the fight against it, America’s role in the world, attitudes of indulgence on the left towards regimes and practices that shouldn’t be indulged—there is the basis for a common fight that at once unites a part of the left with people who are not of the left and divides it from others who are.

I will even say—and here I do not claim to speak for anyone else—that if I have to choose between a liberal who is also a democrat but not a socialist, and a socialist of illiberal outlook with a frail, or worse than frail, attachment to democracy, then I’ll be with the former. Every time.

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

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