Tag Archives: The Englightenment

Platform Fourteen

In his response to a piece in Red Pepper — online here — Norman Geras explains, yet again, that the EM is not a “pro-war” document.

In the latest issue of Red Pepper, there is a critique of the Euston Manifesto by David Beetham and Pat Devine — both old friends of mine. Their article is also available online at ZNet. I respond here to a single theme connecting a number of the points David and Pat make early on in their article. Later posts will deal with other points.

One preliminary. Above the ZNet version of their article, the Euston Manifesto is billed as being ‘by a group of left-leaning journalists and others who backed the Iraq war’. Red Pepper has it more accurately, indicating that most of the group behind the manifesto backed the war.

But if the manifesto is presented at ZNet with this error of fact, it is an error that is faithful to what David and Pat have written. For it is the impression the two of them convey in this remarkable opening passage:

They [the manifesto’s authors] purport to defend the ‘authentic values’ of the left against those who opposed the war on Iraq and oppose the continuing occupation, asserting that we operate double standards by supporting forces hostile to our values.

While this is certainly true of some of those who opposed the war, it is a travesty as a characterisation of the overwhelming majority of those in the anti-war movement. The values that the manifesto espouses are historically, and remain today, those that the democratic left has always advocated and struggled for, and the attempt to appropriate them by this group for their own purposes is deeply offensive to the wide spectrum of those on the left who have been working for them all their lives.

The Manifesto Group’s attempt to draw a line between those who support the values of the Enlightenment, of modernity, of the Age of Revolutions, against those who do not, or are prepared to compromise them, is wholly spurious. The suggestion that the differences that exist are over values, or indeed over whether there are universal values, is to overemphasise the influence of post-modern relativism and is a diversion.

I call the passage remarkable not because of the way it turns the manifesto into a criticism of ‘those who opposed the war’ — those who opposed the war, period. For although this is a mischaracterization, the claim is by now unremarkable, having been made rather often since the manifesto was published in mid-April. Against it I will merely say yet one more time that the text of the manifesto is perfectly clear on this matter — ‘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… etc’ — and that several of its original signatories (including Michael Walzer) opposed the Iraq war. It continues to be a surprising piece of carelessness that neither the text itself nor this fact about the signatories gives pause to those criticizing the manifesto as a pro-war document. But it is a mischaracterization that has ceased to be remarkable.

What makes the above passage remarkable is its further claim that we of the Euston Manifesto Group have appropriated for our own purposes the values ‘the democratic left has always advocated and struggled for’ — as if we regarded these values as exclusive to ourselves. This charge is based on precisely nothing. In the manifesto we treat the central values we want to see upheld as being the common inheritance of the left: speaking of them (in the Preamble) as the left’s ‘authentic values’; and (at B 15) as ‘the inheritance of us all’. We do, indeed, criticize others on the left for compromising these values; but when we do, we say, for example, ‘currents that have lately etc’, and ‘those left-liberal voices today’, and ‘much self-proclaimed progressive opinion’, and ‘too many on the Left’. None of these is a totalizing judgement. None of them either says or implies that supporters of the Euston Manifesto extend the criticisms to the entirety of the left save only ourselves. As I’ve put this once before, if the cap doesn’t fit, no need to wear it. The group who produced the Euston Manifesto is a tiny number of people, and the idea that we would lay exclusive claim to a commitment to values such as pluralist democracy, human rights, equality, freedom of opinion and so forth, is preposterous. People sometimes do, of course, make preposterous claims, but you need a bit of evidence to establish persuasively that that is what they have done if you think they have. In the present case Pat and David don’t even gesture towards any evidence, let alone provide it.

Note the symmetry here, however. Just as we are supposed to be claiming that it is ‘against those who opposed the war’ (without any further qualification) that we defend the values we defend, so we are supposed to have tried to appropriate these values for ourselves in a way that would exclude the rest of the democratic left. The effect in the two cases is to turn a criticism directed against specific tendencies of argument and apologia, against some currents of opinion on the liberal-left, against documented cases of individual advocacy, into a blanket condemnation of opposition to the war as such and the entirety of the liberal-left.

Read on and you will see that pretty much the same thing is repeated here:

The manifesto also accuses the anti-war movement of anti-Americanism and suggests that criticism of Israel’s racist treatment of the occupied Palestinian people is often a cover for anti-semitism. Once again, this misses the point. While there undoubtedly exists blanket anti-Americanism and some resurgence of anti-semitism, the real issue is not that of being pro or anti America or Israel, but recognition of the differences that exist within countries and the decision as to which internal forces the democratic left should support in terms of its values.

You need perhaps to read that twice to see what its logical structure is. The passage tells you that the Eustonians miss the point because… there is another point. But this is an elementary logical error, since it’s possible for there to be more than one point at any given time. If, as David and Pat allow, blanket anti-Americanism does exist and there has been some resurgence of anti-Semitism, why wouldn’t it be to the point to combat both the one and the other? In its best traditions, the left has always stood against prejudice and bigotry, and there seems every reason for it to continue doing that. Countries do, of course, contain different internal forces, to be supported or opposed (as appropriate) by people on the democratic left. But that is a real issue, rather than the real issue, if the latter phrase is meant to convey that anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism have no serious purchase anywhere today.

And this really is the crux of the matter. On each of these points, David and Pat seemingly agree with supporters of the Euston Manifesto that the criticisms the manifesto makes have some application. They evidently think, though, that their application is marginal. And we don’t think it is. We think there is significant evidence, which we have done our share over the last three years to assemble, for our view. But in any case that — a judgement about the spread, the extent, of certain contemporary themes of political argument — is something there can be serious discussion about. Nothing is gained towards such a discussion, however, by seeking to diminish the significance and extent of what we for our part criticize, via the suggestion that we present it as rampant, omnipresent — and then knocking this down. Nothing is gained by the several fictions that the Euston Manifesto stands against opposition to the Iraq war as such, or that it lays claim to democratic and universalist values to the exclusion of everyone else on the liberal-left, or (by implication) that we treat every criticism of Israel and of US foreign policy as instances of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism respectively.

Finally, it is by the same impulse to diminish, that Pat and David say that we Eustonians ‘overemphasise the influence of post-modern relativism’ — as if post-modern relativism exhausted the reasons for the differences over values that the manifesto talks about. We think that cultural relativism plays some part in these differences (see B3). But that is all we’ve ever said. We also point to other sources of them, like double standards and a simplistic ‘anti-imperialism’.

When people on the Western left make excuses for suicide terrorism, when others — some of them, writers of world renown — treat the contemporary US as comparable with Nazi Germany, when some of those who opposed the Iraq war cannot bring themselves to comprehend what considerations might have impelled others to support it, when it is not uncommon for the crimes committed by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib to be seen as overshadowing what happened in that same place during Saddam Hussein’s rule, when well-known left or liberal journalists tell you that democracy may not be for everybody or that an attachment to the legacy of the Enlightenment is a form of Islamophobia — this is not all due to cultural relativism, much less to postmodernism (though some of it may be). But it does betoken a difference of some kind over values, notwithstanding Pat and David’s view that the attempt to argue so is ‘wholly spurious’.

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