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.