The bell tolls for thee

The left today looks like a church approaching schism, with warring camps each trying to claim orthodoxy while, at the same time, bitchslapping each other at the ladies’ tea. They each think they’re taking over and saving the congregation but, of course, they’re only destroying it. As in all such feuds, the causes, hostilities, and history may be deep, but there’s always one visible issue that becomes the overly simplified demarkation between one side and the other. In my last church, it was Sunday-school scheduling. In the left today, that issue is, of course Iraq. Because of that one issue alone, I’ve had the self-proclaimed orthodox of the left in the U.S. declare that I couldn’t possibly be liberal no matter what I say on any other issue.

I see this happening in the U.K., played out on Comment is Free over the issuance of the Euston Manifesto by “a new democratic progressive alliance.” I said that all in all, I liked it and wished we had an American version. To my surprise, even at Kos, it has enthusiasts, including azizhp, who blogged: “This is what I’ve been waiting for, for a long time…. It is the new American majority — it is Purple Politics. It is universal in a way that being just a Democrat or just a Republican can not be. It is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.” Once it’s found that some right-wing** bloggers were also complimentary, I expect azizhp to be drummed out of the korps.

In the U.K., the bitchslapping and sline-drawing has begun. Mike Marqusee snipes at the manifesto calling it a “remarkably pompous, vague and prolix declaration.” He then proceeds to try to be on both sides of every issue:

One of the problems with the “line” they wish to draw is that it obliterates the existence of much of the actual left: which is diverse and predominantly anti-authoritarian. Huge numbers of people found no difficulty in opposing the war and the regime of Saddam Hussein; they didn’t hesitate to condemn either the atrocities of 9/11 or those committed by the US, the UK and Israel; they want an end to the occupation but do not support actions that target Iraqi civilians.

I’ve complained before that the left has been turning itself into the party against. Here we see a blunt expression of that. But I would ask how you can be opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime and then opposed to getting rid of him; what are you for, then? How would you solve that problem? And are you now creating equivalencies betweeen al-Quaeda and the US and UK and Israel … but not the Palestinians? Neat trick, that. And if you want to end the occupation yet you oppose harm to Iraqi civilians, how do you propose to keep them safe in the mayhem that will ensue? It sounds so good to be against. It’s so hard to be for.

Marqusee continues:

The manifesto authors are indignant at the attempt to explain, to make intelligible, that atrocity [September 11] — an effort they they seem to regard as the original sin of the anti-war left. But here they succumb to the irrationality they decry in others. All social and political acts and movements must be subject to explanation and analysis. The left’s tradition in relation to fascism and racism has precisely been one of explanation, not mere demonisation.

Huh? The left didn’t try to emphathize with Nazis and racists; it fought them.

It’s particularly fun to see Marqusee strain into a yoga position over the anti-Americanism the manifesto decries:

One of the left sins that the manifesto fulminates against is what they dub “anti-Americanism”. They even go so far as to remind us that “The United States of America is a great country and nation” – as empty a phrase as there is in our language. Of course, when they argue that US foreign policy “does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people” they’re right. But this lecture is redundant for an anti-war movement profoundly influenced by dissident US culture and one of whose major components is in fact the vast anti-war constituency among US citizens. It’s simply not enough to say, as the manifesto does, that the US has “its problems and failings” like other nations. The US’s military and economic power shapes the fates of billions outside its borders, and that in itself is an injustice. The US claims and exercises prerogatives it denies to all other nations. It is at the centre of a system of global inequality – and the manifesto’s refusal even to address the question of US and western power is as gross an error as anything committed by the Stalinists.

So you’re not anti-American. You simply believe that we are at the heart of global inequality and to defend us is an act of Stalinism.

And, as in all church fights, we have to end with the bitchslap:

Finally, it’s very hard to feel sorry for the authors when they complain about the opprobrium and “excommunication” they have suffered at the hands of the left. Over the last few years, they’ve dished out the bile and the misrepresentation pretty lavishly in their own columns and blogs. Frankly, their vision of the world is a self-serving fantasy. Which won’t stop it getting far more publicity and being taken far more seriously than it deserves.

John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman, where the manifesto appeared, next pulls out the old saw: demanding self-criticism over Iraq (neat old Maoist trick):

These self-styled progressives should now surely admit that, whatever the theory underpinning humanitarian intervention, on its execution in Iraq they got it spectacularly wrong in just about every respect – to the long-term detriment o f the internationalist cause they profess to espouse and which we, in the broadest sense, support.

Repent! I’ve heard that, too, in church, usually regarding gays. I left that church, too.

But on the other side, John Lloyd, defends teh ousting of Saddam Hussein as a progressive action:

A view that the war was a mistake is a perfectly rational and arguable one. What has, however, been horrifying to see has been the disappearance, or even non-appearance, of any consideration of the nature of the regime of Saddam Hussein that was destroyed by the invasion. That which had been a prime object of left politics – the removal of dictatorship, made more urgent in Iraq’s case by the mass murderous and sadistic character of the Saddam regime – has dropped from consideration, or is given only formal recognition. What had once been an imperative – an expression, and where possible more than an expression of solidarity with the suffering under such a dictatorship – has been vitiated by the main aim of much of left politics: a cultivation of anti-Americanism….

The depth of the difference between those who adhere to this view, and those of us who see the decision to confront Saddam as the right one (if overdue) now forces an explicit recognition of two broad camps on the left. The first has developed a critique of western (especially US and UK) foreign policy, the records of the Blair and Bush governments, the war on terrorism and many other issues which is uncompromisingly hostile, regarding above all the British and American administrations as irredeemably imperialist and reactionary. We see in some of their actions – specifically in their willingness to confront tyrannous and murderous regimes – a progressive approach, which should be supported – even as other elements in their policies, including many of the decisions taken (or not taken) to prosecute the war in Iraq were wrong, even disastrously so….

The Euston Manifesto is, as Geras and Cohen wrote, an attempt to establish a political pole – for those who stand by an agenda composed of the values of democracy, human rights, solidarity with peoples fighting against tyranny, poverty and oppression, against those for whom the entire progressive agenda has been subordinated to a blanket and simplistic “anti-imperialism”.

This comes under the headline: “Time to part. The pro-war left needs to go its own way, and oppose those who subordinate progressive values to simplistic ‘anti-imperialism’.”

And so there we have the schism. We liberals are so busy warring with each other over the war and over who is orthodox, we are once again in danger of losing not only the next election but our princples. That’s why I applauded the Euston Manifesto, for it at least tried to return to a set of principles. But that’s not what’s being argued now.

This reminded me of the column by BBC correspondent Justin Webb, who argued that the left has also lost its message and its medium.

Forget about red vs. blue states. The real division today is within the left. And if we’re not careful, the last members of the church will end up leaving in disgust and we’ll see the church taken over by the megachurch across the highway.

** Note that Austin Bay burped at my use of “right-wing” to link to him. And a fun exchange ensued that leaves us both liberal. See that here.

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  • W. James Au

    Peter Beinart of the New Republic has just written something like an American version of that manifesto, *The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again*. Check out the interview with him, lots of interesting points:

  • It sounds so good to be against. It’s so hard to be for.

    I liked that quote a lot, because for me, the problem is not division, but how we conduct politics. I often think that if those of us on the Right appreciate what the Left is for, and that those on the Left appreciate what the Right is for that we’ll still disagree, but we’ll be able to talk to each other far better.

  • Franky

    When the Republicans are at each others throats over immigration and the pro-war movement is also struggling to maintain their unity as the full horror of the disaster in Iraq becomes more and more obvious, I can’t say I’m surprised that you write a piece proclaiming the disarray in the left. That’s not to say there aren’t splits in the left, but it just goes to confirm why you’re every right-wingers go to “liberal”.

    You think it’s a high-school clique thing when people like me come here to tell you that you’re no liberal – it’s not, it’s quite simply that you label yourself a term that has no bearing on your beliefs.

    When I read some of your comments, I struggle to even blieve that you yourself consider yourself left-wing. You don’t think we live in a globe of inequality?

    Unfortunately, when you critique the response to the manifesto your misunderstanding of the left becomes more than apparent.

    “The left’s tradition in relation to fascism and racism has precisely been one of explanation, not mere demonisation.

    Huh? The left didn’t try to emphathize with Nazis and racists; it fought them.”

    He’s talking here about white voters in the UK who have voted for nazis. And what would be the pro-war’s response to them? bomb those counties in london and north of england that vote for nazis?

    You complain about the comparison with Stalinism, then you write in response to a solid argument asking that you hold yourself accountable for your support of this doomed endeavor, and you compare that to religious homophobes.

    The Euston manifesto is a vacuous document that sets out nothing new for the left to review, it’s a group of people’s goodbye letter to the left, joining the other illustrious thinks such as Roger L. Simon. I’m neither pleased nor saddened by their departure. The correct way to view them would be the same way the republicans viewed me if i joined that party and demanded they accomodate me.

  • BenJCarter

    Thanks for that. It gives me hope. I love the USA, and have been appalled at the lack of respect so many prominent Americans show for this great idea that is the United States of America.

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  • AST

    The left aren’t anti-authoritarian. They just want to be the ones in authority. They’d be perfectly happy running the ship of state ashore as long as it was them or the U.N. at the helm.

  • JeremyR

    The left actually had no problem with Hitler’s National Socialism until he broke his pact with Stalin…it didn’t fight Nazism, it gave birth to it. (And then after the war it re-wrote history by trying to equate National Socialism as “right wing”. Oh yeah, the government controlling all corporations and banning guns and all that is really right wing…)

  • jkrank

    It appears that the Leftists commenting at the Guardian are more than willing to leave regardless of the consequences, and take issue with “leaving” not being an acceptable answer. It is acceptable, because the only good Iraqui is a dead Iraqui…to them.

    Indeed, they acknowledge that it will be slaugher and death for the freed Iraqui citizens if the Left’s wishes are met. Interestingly, they also declare themselves completely free of responsibility for the bloodbath they believe will occur if their wishes are met. Most stunningly, they are pre-emptively blaming those who do not wish to leave for the consequences leaving will bring. If that is not the definition of anti-intellectualism, then nothing is.

    Furthermore, they are eager to attack the US, moreso than they are to do anything good for the Iraquis and their elected government. They expect and are by action declaring that they want Iraq to become a bloodbath so that they can use the corpses as a way to blame the US, whose elected leadership–as well as the elected leadership of the Iraquis–wants to stay and avoid such horrors. This is astounding; because it is so transparently evil. Angling for genocide is the sort of thing they’d say the US (which is their steadfast opposition) would do.

    Which begs the question, what do ‘liberals’ who are not these monsters want to do with their compatriots? “Heal the schism?” Compromise? (ok, we demand a pull out and get the bloodbath, but we won’t blame the US, deal?) Good luck reasoning with avowed anti-intellectual anti-Americans who acknowledge their goal is “death to the Iraquis!”, but understand that you’ll lose…not by your lack of goodness, but because their rejection of it.

  • The Euston Manifesto has one glaring problem. Economics.

    It is based on the socialist model. Which has proven consistiently to be a failure in both its hard and soft forms.

    I could see a system that accepts capitalist primacy with a small safety net to encouragerisk taking. Any thing else just strangles forward progress.

  • Here is a bit I sent Norm on socialism. He acknowledged it but as yet has not had time for a full reply.


    Nice bit of work.

    Still the adherence to socialism seems to me similar to Einstein’s rejection of quantum mechanics. True socialism is a much prettier economic theory than capitalism. The problem is it doesn’t work.

    Marx understood the problem well. Capitalism is necessary to create the capital that socialism intends to re-distribute. Full socialism will only be possible when capitalism is no longer profitable.

    In the mean time the greater the inequality the faster the progress to socialism.

    In other words all real socialists should be as much as possible free market capitalists. The less capitalism is hindered by socialist policies the more
    wealth there will be at some future point.

    It is very difficult to sacrifice today for tomorrow. Especially for socialists.

    BTW if you really want to make poverty history read DeSoto. He says that the problem is government not money. I have a short introduction to DeSoto with links here:


    As you know DeSoto is from Peru. His basic premise is that poor people are poor because they are shut out of the property system. It is not property that is bad but the lack of it.

    M. Simon

  • Socialism can “work” with respect to so-called Intellectual Property — copies can be given to all. Not cars, not houses; not even jobs. But for digital data, to “each according to their desires” is technologically feasible.

    Where Euston is weak is in the peaceful part of economices — capitalism is a peaceful, voluntary economic system. People, in unequal relations to each other, make peaceful, voluntary agreements with each other. This “free”, unrestricted, trade is how utility wealth increases.

    Most Socialism replaces the peaceful agreements with involuntary force. The Left is happy to force those who disagree to obey their “church” — ask Larry Summers if he really left Harvard voluntarily.

    Good job on looking at this, Jeff.

  • Schisms are common things. I see no reason to say that the left is any closer to schism than the right. We need a discussion of the difference between Republicans and Neo-Conservative Republicans. Is holding onto power by allowing neo-conservatives to control the way to represent the interests of the people? A schism or beak up of the neo-conservatives from other Republicans is just as likely as a split between leftist factions.

  • Mark Hunter,

    The Republicans will not schism until the left as we know it is gone.

    At that point I expect to see a libertarian and cultural conservative right.

  • Steve Sergeant

    Both the far left and the far right are purple people eaters. But in the long run, green is the color that really matters for our survival, but it’s ignored because it’s really not easy being green.

  • RonP

    the “left” in its current manifestation is gripped at best by a kind of low-grade narcissism and and at worst by the paradox of total self love and loathing. it hates to be reminded of events like 9/11 because they point out to us the need to be vigilant against those that violently reject the liberal western state and all the gifts it bestows. while the left (like our enemies) is all to willing to access these resources it at the same time spits on them. much of this, i believe, stems from magical thinking about how the world should work. the islamofascists are really no different than the organizations like the symbionese liberation army, the red brigades, michigan militia, or the baader meinhof gang, they like al quda are upper middle class kids who just want to be loved, who just want to tell daddy to F off but want his “love” at the same time. they also harbor the fantasy that their actions will cause the stupid masses to rise up against their oppressors. the hardcore Kos kids harbor a similiar fantasy. the fantasy is that they live in a police state, that amerika is the root of all evil and that somehow the nutters blowing up children, soldiers, civilians are freedom fighters seeking to smash the US hegemony. the question that i have is this: when it all comes to pass and the fantasy is realized will they go to their execution quietly?

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  • Responding to Mark John Hunter, the neocons have already split off from their party of origin. They were the most positive, energetic and serious minded of the Democrats. But the Democrats have thrown off people who think seriously about advancing liberty all over the world and replaced them with yippies, peaceniks, victimization tribalists, unreformed communists, and other utopians. It became a movement in 1972, with McGovern. During the 70’s the left didn’t realize how off base they had become because Nixon was so venal and cynical that it made them look good. But time took its toll on the Democrats. 30 years of wallowing without a rudder have left the Democratic party battered and poised for disaster.

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  • Davebo

    Jeff, surely you weren’t serious with this question?

    But I would ask how you can be opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime and then opposed to getting rid of him; what are you for, then?

    Apparantly the concept of cost/benefit analysis wasn’t taught in media critic school.

    How can one be supportive of a missile defense system, yet be opposed to budgeting 1 trillion dollars per year for it’s development?

    What I smell here is a veiled attempt to invoke the “you’d rather have Saddam back in power” meme that is so idiotic that you aren’t willing to come right out and say it. But what choice do you have? You made your position on the Iraq war very clear prior to military action. You now stand along with Beinart and many others desperately trying to maintain some high ground on the issue despite the facts readily available which were admittedly not as easy to ascertain at the time and act as a bit of mitigation for your prior positions.

    An honest person would accept the new facts as they appear. You seem unwilling to do so. So therefore, why would anyone take you seriously now?

    There’s a huge debate to be had about the advantages/disadvantages of the 24 hour news media phenomenom. That would seem to be a subject you might be well versed in.

    Perhaps you should switch to that and leave the debate over the merits of pre-emptive war to those who, though they may have miscalculated in the past, at least recognize the error.

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