Writing in this newspaper [three] weeks ago, Daniel Finkelstein gave the Euston Manifesto — a document calling for a progressive realignment and which I had a large part in drafting — a mixed review. “Really very good,” he said. “I agree with its sentiments; I think it well written and timely.”
But he also described it as “a gigantic waste of time and energy”. How so? Because, even though it challenges ideas widely held on the Left, the aim of those who produced it is “to save the Left from itself” and that isn’t worth the bother.
There are two things that may be said in response to this. The first is that even for someone who doesn’t regard the Left as the best place to be politically, a more rather than a less healthy Left is surely to be desired.
Finkelstein thinks the manifesto’s “clear statement of principles has been wasted on people who do not agree and never will”. But in politics you don’t know how many will agree with what you have to say until you’ve said it, and there are already signs that what we’ve said in the manifesto — holding firm to democratic principles and universal human rights, not making excuses for tyranny or terrorism, opposing anti-Americanism and not selling short the liberal tradition of freedom of ideas — has found a welcome from a section of left-liberal opinion. How far this will go remains to be seen, of course, but except from a very narrowly partisan view it has to be better for the wellbeing of the polity that those on the “other side” from you are attached to principles of a better rather than a worse kind.
Secondly, for those of us who haven’t given up on the Left, there is more reason still why we shouldn’t want to see democratic and universalist values made light of. We see these values as linked to others that have always been the special concern of the Left. No one else can be relied on to defend them.
Finkelstein writes that the “task of persuading the Left is also unnecessary”: for if the Euston Manifesto had been published by rightwingers, support for it on the Right would have been overwhelming. But that isn’t true of some of the manifesto’s positions — for example, its embrace of broadly egalitarian principles and of trade unions as the “bedrock organisations for the defence of workers’ interests”, and its defence (in Shalom Lappin’s words) of “the integrity of the public domain against the onslaught of privatisation and expropriation that has resulted from the dogmatic pursuit of neoliberal ideas”. Some conservative voices have, in welcoming the manifesto, expressed clear reservations about these aspects of it.
Still, Finkelstein is right about the people on the Left “who do not agree and never will”. For all those leftists who have responded positively to the manifesto there are at least as many who have been dismissive. What is interesting about much of this reaction is the themes it typically combines. In so far as the manifesto says anything true (so critics have said), it deals in well-meaning platitudes; and in so far as we are critical of others on the Left, our criticisms apply to only a small number of people on the very far Left. And yet despite this, the manifesto at once brought down upon itself a hostility from many that it is fair to describe as warm. Why? The document named nobody in particular in identifying some lamentable patterns of argument, evasion and apologia. If the cap doesn’t fit, no need to wear it. I would suggest that at least one of the reasons for the antipathy is that the cap fits rather more heads than just those of the Socialist Workers Party.
If this weren’t so, why is it now as common as it is to hear people on the liberal Left damning universal principles as “arrogant”, “imperialist” or (sotto voce) “Islamophobic”? The attachment to these principles — to democracy, freedom, equality — used to be standard on the Left. But in the opinion pages of the liberal press it has become routine to find journalists and others of would-be progressive outlook telling us that democracy, or liberalism, or Enlightenment values, all possibly suitable in the West, may not be so in other cultural contexts. The right to speak freely — entirely freely, barring only incitement to hatred or violence — is also frequently put in question in the face of religious sensibilities clamorously asserted.
“Understanding” noises about terrorist atrocities — in London or Madrid, but especially Tel Aviv and Haifa — as having their roots in poverty, oppression and injustice are equally common, though these voices are at a loss to explain why there have been movements in the past fighting these evils that didn’t resort to randomly blowing up civilians. Well-known writers — mature people, veterans of the Left — see their way to endorsing the Iraqi so-called resistance despite its murderous methods, or give out lightminded comparisons between the US under George Bush’s leadership and Nazi Germany. That there are such themes being aired by people on the broad liberal Left is a matter of record. It has been documented and criticised repeatedly. Presumably the newspapers carrying comment of this kind wouldn’t be doing so if such comment weren’t finding comfortable accommodation with their readers.
The Euston Manifesto is a response to these political tendencies, and as such is very much on target. That is why it has aroused the interest it has, hostile interest included. We are happy to be restating some important if indeed obvious truths, in not giving up on the future of the Left.