Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters

Norman Geras questions the modesty of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s modest proposal.

‘They should come out as imperialist and proud of it’, and ‘There is a progressive tradition of support for colonialism, which the Euston manifesto group could champion’ — this is the way Wheatcroft’s article announces itself. The content doesn’t disappoint: he reminds readers that ‘Mill, Macaulay and even Marx made approving noises about British rule in India’ on the way to his intended conclusion: ‘Maybe the Euston group should be less nervous of “leftist colonisers” as a term of abuse.’ It’s a nice piece of wizardry, and ‘dialectical’ at that. Wheatcroft turns the core principles of the Euston Manifesto upside down.

Many of the manifesto’s signatories supported the war in Iraq (though others of them didn’t), and before that military intervention in Afghanistan, and before that the same in Kosovo. On imperialist-type grounds? Why, no.

Imperial: ‘of, relating to, befitting, or suggestive of an empire or an emperor’.

Imperialism: ‘a policy of extending control or authority over foreign entities as a means of acquisition and/or maintenance of empires.’

The support for the aforementioned interventions by the people Wheatcroft is talking about was based on human rights and just war considerations, not on empire-building ones. Indeed, the very principles informing that support rule out support for imperialism, even a putatively ‘progressive’ imperialism. Self-determination and political independence for all peoples is one of the basic rights we Eustonians defend.

B.3 of the Euston Manifesto: ‘We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone.’

21 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government…’

Chapter 1, Article 1.2 of the UN Charter: ‘… respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’.

There’s a difference between an imperial project that seeks to build an empire ruled by a superpower, and an internationalist politics that regards human rights as universal and inviolable — and, beyond a certain threshold of human suffering, as rendering the claim to national sovereignty forfeit and justifying outside intervention.

For the rest, it’s true that we in the Euston Manifesto Group don’t begin, as some others on the left do, from the idea that everything America does is bad; and it’s true that we don’t regard being ‘anti-imperialist’ in this sense as a sensible way of aligning oneself in the world; and we do think that pluralist democracies are better forms of polity than tyrannical and totalitarian ones, and that liberal political and social cultures are better than illiberal ones. If that all adds up to being imperialist, then we’re guilty as charged and indeed proud. But it doesn’t. So thanks, Geoffrey, but no thanks.

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

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