Observations from a strange planet
D D GuttenplanApril 17, 2006 01:16 PM http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/dd_guttenplan/2006/04/no_sects_pleaseyoure_british.htmlMy old friend and sometime sparring partner Mike Marqusee does a brilliant job of analyzing the many factual errors and logical fallacies awaiting credulous readers of the Euston Manifesto but the real problem with the document is that every word in it is a lie. "Political honesty and straightforwardness are a primary obligation for us," they promise, but fail to tell the truth about their priorities, personnel, or political trajectory. Purporting to herald "a renewal of progressive politics" the Euston Manifesto is actually an invitation to collective political suicide.Let's start by looking at what the Euston manifesti really care about. Despite their supposed identification with "the left," the "democrats and progressives" of the Euston group aren't really interested in economic questions. They're in favour of "broader social and economic equality all round," (so who isn't?) but "leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality". Nor are they terribly exercised about environmental degradation or the depredations of global capital. Indeed globalisation - under the odd label "global economic development-as-freedom" - makes the manifesti practically burst into song: "Development can bring growth in life expectancy and in the enjoyment of life, easing burdensome labour and shortening the working day. It can bring freedom to youth, possibilities of exploration to those of middle years, and security to old age. It enlarges horizons and the opportunities for travel, and helps make strangers into friends."The manifesti remain equally relaxed about other matters of traditional concern on the left (exploitation, colonialism, imperialism, militarism). They do "emphasise the duty that genuine democrats must have to respect for the historical truth," but only when the truths aren't too inconvenient. Any attention to the role of these same writers in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq is dismissed as "picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention". Similarly, the manifesto contains a forthright, and unexceptionable, statement in favour of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but no inkling that the "legitimate rights and interests of one side in the dispute" were, as a matter of historical fact, gained at the expense of the other side.And here we come to the first of the many hidden agendas hiding behind the manifesto's windy platitudes: the insulation of Israel and the de-legitimization of its critics on the left through accusations of anti-semitism. As a Jew I know perfectly well that anti-Semitism is not just a historical artefact - or a prejudice found only on the right. Back in 2002 I wrote: "Something is happening. I've had more conversations about anti-semitism here in the past six months than in the previous six years ..." Still, you would expect anyone claiming to argue from the left to maintain a sense of proportion, to point out, for example, that in both degree and kind Islamophobia is a far more dangerous, and widespread, prejudice in modern Britain. Mainly, though, any group genuinely committed to "human rights for all" wouldn't just content itself with condemning those who "exploit the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people ... and conceal prejudice against the Jewish people behind the formula of 'anti-Zionism'" without giving some sense of what those legitimate grievances might be and how they might be redressed. Yet for the manifesti those grievances - and the Palestinians themselves - are subordinated to worries about anti-semitism.The only menace the manifesti find equally abhorrent is anti-Americanism. When it comes to social justice, welfare provision, feminism, or gay rights these progressives are "partisans ... not zealots". But when it comes to America and its role in the world the tune suddenly changes to "Which Side Are You On," - and Euston is on America's team. Now I am an American citizen, and would even describe myself as a patriot. I stand up before baseball games and belt out The Star Spangled Banner with gusto. Still, it is a strange sort of left indeed that salutes my country's "strong democracy," "noble tradition" and "vibrant culture" without noticing that for those on the receiving end of our values in say, Central America or Southeast Asia, the American dream looked more like a nightmare. How is it that Latin America, like Africa, Asia - indeed the entire world outside Britain, the U.S., and the Middle East - go entirely unremarked in this manifesto dedicated to "a new internationalism"?So who are these people? At first glance the Euston Manifesto looks like a coalition between two groups. Some of the signers are well-known - even distinguished - advocates for Israel. Anthony Julius, for example, has never previously shown a penchant for sectarian struggle (or much enthusiasm for the left in general, for that matter). Others come out of Engage, originally formed to oppose the Association of University Teachers' boycott of Israel, now a self-appointed scourge of anti-semitism on the left. As it happens I also thought the AUT boycott was a bad idea. But where Engage saw cause for celebration when the boycott was repealed, I saw "a victory for an already overweening, powerful pro-Israel lobby whose aggressive policing of acceptable opinion has done more to poison intellectual debate on Israel and Palestine than a dozen boycott motions". On the Engage website, as in the Euston Manifesto, the Palestinians and their cause get lip service, while real passion is reserved for attacking the left and publishing screeds exposing "how anti-Zionism lays the basis for open anti-semitism".The right-wing of the coalition are our old friends the laptop bombardiers: the blogger Norman Geras, Nick Cohen (bravely waging a one-man campaign against the mainstream media's "under representation" of the pro-war left from atop his columns in the Observer and the Evening Standard), the equally shy and retiring Francis Wheen and their American fellow-travellers Paul Berman and Michael Walzer. (You'll have to venture off-line if you want to read Edward Said's surgical filleting of Walzer's Israeli exceptionalism, "Michael Walzer's Exodus and Revolution: a Canaanite Reading," in Blaming the Victims, pp. 161-178. For those with a taste for irony the collection, sadly as pertinent today as it was in 1988, is edited by Said and Christopher Hitchens - whose absence from the Euston manifesti is itself worth remarking.)The problem here is not that they were wrong about the war - or even the arrogant assumption that those mistakes entitle them to lecture those of us who were less deluded about the aims and competence of American power. The anti-war coalition had its own problems (it was the Nation's mention that some sections of the September 2002 march here trailed "a whiff of anti-semitism" and my own discomfort with the Socialist Workers party's manipulation of the Stop the War Coalition that, in the bad old days of 2003, brought a not very fraternal rebuke from Marqusee). Besides, there really is a pro-war left - or at least an anti-Saddam Hussein left - who genuinely deserve our respect and solidarity, if not blanket agreement. Kanan Makiya may have been naïve about his new friends in the CIA, but he is a brave man. Braver still are the campaigners of the Iraqi Communist party (some of whom we were cheered to see marching in London in 2002 under the banner "No to War; No to Saddam Dictatorship"). Nor would anyone familiar with the tragic history of Iraq's Kurds fault them for seizing what may be their last chance for self-determination.No, the problem with the laptop bombardiers is that they have no base aside from the blogosphere, no patience (unlike the SWP) for the hard work of building a mass movement and (unlike Marqusee) no genuine faith in democracy. Fervently but irrelevantly denouncing the "crimes of Stalinism" (though definitely one of history's major nogood-niks, Uncle Joe is neither a clear nor a present danger in Britain) they leap over the error of trying to build "socialism in one country" in favour of building "a new left" in one pub.If this uninhibited exhibition of the narcissism of small differences sounds familiar, that may be, as we vulgar Marxists like to say, no accident. Because what ultimately excites the manifesti is "drawing a line between the forces of the left that remain true to their authentic values, and currents that have lately shown themselves rather too flexible about these values." Drawing lines is what the joy of sects is all about.Look at the New Statesman's introduction to the Euston Manifesto and you see an alliance between anti-anti-Zionists and anti-anti-imperialists. But look at the Manifesto group's own home page and you'll notice one name curiously absent from the Staggers version: Alan Johnson. A reader in Social Science at Edge Hill, Johnson, like Engage director Jane Ashworth (another of the manifesti) is a veteran of the Alliance for Worker's Liberty, a Trostskyist groupuscule. Johnson's particular interest is the "Third Camp," a tendency associated with the late Hal Draper, a brilliant polemicist but politically marginal character who set up his own third camp on the wilder shores of American Trotskyism. During the Cold War Third Camp-ers scrupulously avoided becoming either apologists for Stalin or cheerleaders for American imperialism. But Draper's latter day acolytes are not so fastidious.What makes sectarians like Johnson dangerous, however, is not the content of their politics but the form: the obsessive pursuit of ideological purity, achieved mainly through repeated "splitting" of any group or coalition foolish enough to attempt to find common ground. Max Schactman, who was Draper's own guru, split his way from the American Communist party to the inner councils of the Reagan administration (Schactman and Irving Kristol were the intellectual godfathers of American neo-conservatism). Hence the Euston Manifesto's manifest zeal for hurling anathemas at the rest of the left (like those of us who stand ever ready to subordinate "the entire progressive agenda" to "a blanket and simplistic 'anti-imperialism'").By now you may be wondering what all this Trivial Pursuit (US baby-boomer edition) has to do with the British left. Good question. So take another look at that Manifesto website and this time notice the background art in the masthead. Those cursives and serifs come not from Richard Overton's An Arrow Against all Tyrants, or John Lilburne, Gerard Winstanley or even a transatlantic radical like Tom Paine, but, as every American schoolboy knows, from our Declaration of Independence. The final deception is that despite its debut on the pages of your own New Statesman, and its supposed humble origins "at a pub near Euston Station" this project, whose politics and personalities have been shaped far more by the crew at Dissent magazine (and which shares Dissent founder Irving Howe's fixation on the mote in the eyes of the left rather than the beam blinding American foreign policy) than anything native to these shores, really ought to be stamped Made in the USA. For connoisseurs of such matters the whole Euston Manifesto is an extended version of a move first catalogued by the late Andrew Kopkind as the "mush shift" - an attempt by liberals to deflect rightwing accusations of muddle-headedness onto the left.All of this matters because in addition to a history, and an analysis, politics also has a trajectory which can be presumed, if not predicted. Back in 1939, in the interregnum between the Nazi-Soviet pact and Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, a group of American leftists met to try and chart an independent course. The attempt was noble, but as the radical journalist IF Stone, who was part of the group, noted at the time, doomed by their delusion that events can be "affected by memorandum". By the 1950s roughly a third of the group had left political life altogether, with the remainder divided between those who'd become, however reluctantly, collaborators with McCarthyism and those who continued to resist. Nor is there any mystery about where Schactman ended up: a Faustian figure colluding with CIA in Central American while pushing his allies in the US Labour movement into backing Nixon and Johnson over Vietnam.Britain is, still, a free country, and if the manifesti want to follow the US cavalry of rightwing social democracy down a dead end I will of course defend their right to do so. But shouldn't the British left really be free to make its own history - and its own mistakes?
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