Accommodating to the Status Quo
A Critique of the Euston Manifesto
NE of the more intriguing aspects of political life over the last few years has been the rise of the so-called ‘decent left’. Its adherents can be found in various places, as columnists in daily newspapers and weekly and monthly magazines, running websites such as the theoretical journal Democratiya and the muck-raking Harry’s Place, and in think-tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society.
The ideas of the ‘decent left’ — a self-applied term adapted somewhat disingenuously from George Orwell’s writings — are encapsulated in the Euston Manifesto. Launched in 2006 and rather arbitrarily named after the London railway terminus near to the pub where it was drawn up, largely by the academic Norman Geras and journalist Nick Cohen, it is a combination of liberal statements that are uncontroversial and with which few people would disagree (in fact, the sections on equality are part of Western ruling-class official discourse these days), a few mild criticisms of the Western ruling classes, and a big rant against the far left. It has been endorsed by a broad range of individuals largely but not exclusively on what might be called the ‘soft left’. Some, like Francis Wheen and Cohen himself, have always been known as left-leaning radicals. On the other hand, Geras, along with Jane Ashworth, John Strawson, Quintin Hoare, Alan Johnson and John Lloyd, were at one point or another in far-left groups. Ashworth and Jon Pike are prominent in Engage, a pro-Israel website that spends much of its time attacking anti-Zionists.
What unites them here, and what makes this document so much a manifesto for the ‘decent left’, however, is a strong dislike of the far left. It is this deep antipathy that runs clearly through the manifesto like, as it were, a red thread, even though, as we shall see, some of the ideas which the Eustonites put in our mouths are barely recognisable to this writer.
The Eustonites’ Friends
It is often said that one can tell a man by the company he keeps, and the Euston Manifesto is no exception here. It has been praised by a wide range of people who would normally have little to do with anyone calling himself a socialist. This is not a fortuitous crossing of paths. Here’s Bill Kristol, a veteran US right-winger, and fierce critic of socialism: ‘It articulates 15 principles reminiscent of the much-missed liberal anti-totalitarianism of the early Cold War period.’ Kristol should know; his father was a leading example of a previous generation of Eustonites, moving from left-wing politics in the 1940s to an early manifestation of neo-conservatism. He no doubt can see the parallels. And here’s Christopher Hitchens: ‘I have been flattered by an invitation to sign it, and I probably will, but if I agree it will be the most conservative document that I have ever initialled.’ Hitchens, as everyone knows, has moved a very long way from his socialist roots, and is to all intents and purposes a neo-conservative in his current politics (even if his past has yet to catch up).
The columnist Daniel Finkelstein gives us a clue to its appeal:
I had to come to terms with it myself, after years of thinking myself part of the Left, and it was difficult to do and took me a long time. But it is now more than 15 years since I realised that the Left’s failure to treat all forms of totalitarianism as if they were the same was not going to change. The Right has its failings, Lord knows that it does. But it is a better ally in the cause that the Euston Manifesto champions. It is as simple as that.
Here we have someone claiming to be left-wing but is clearly orienting to the right. Finkelstein’s admission is revealing, and says a lot about the Manifesto itself. The Manifesto symbolises an orientation to the right. A tell-tale phrase is the statement that ‘we reject the notion that there are no opponents on the left’ and that ‘we reject, similarly, the idea that there can be no opening to ideas and individuals to our right’. Apart from the fact that I can’t recall anyone saying that there were ‘no opponents on the left’ (with Tankies and Gerry Healy’s lot around, how could one say that?), it is clear, seeing that the Manifesto spends much of its time attacking the left (or what it thinks the left to be), what the Eustonites are saying is: ‘We intend to orient ourselves to ideas and individuals to our right.’
And that is why Kristol and Hitchens praise a document that claims to stand on the left. Not because of a transitory coincidence on this or that issue, but because they recognise that it represents a big retreat on the part of left-wingers, from transforming society in a socialist direction to accepting liberal democracy as the best we’ll ever have, along with a few improvements here and there. All in all, it’s the ‘end of history’ repeated, but from Professor Geras rather from Professor Fukuyama.
The Eustonites ‘propose… a fresh political alignment’. But we have been here before. One precedent that immediately comes to mind is Encounter, a magazine that first appeared during the Cold War. Published by the Congress for Cultural Freedom and funded indirectly by the CIA, its contributors were often ex-leftists who still thought themselves as a bit radical, but who, in the Cold War, far from dissociating themselves from both imperialism and Stalinism, sided with the former, covering their capitulation with a fig-leaf of opposition to discrimination and poverty. Some were anti-Stalinist left-wingers who had given up on the idea of the working class being able to liberate society, and gradually came to accept bourgeois democracy as the most that could be hoped for. For them, Stalinism changed from being the product of a revolution gone bad to being the inevitable product of trying to go beyond capitalism. It became the main and indeed sole enemy. For ex-Stalinists at the time, they just changed their allegiance from one god (Stalin) to another (capitalism), and their fear of devils changed accordingly. For all of them, any of their (mild) criticisms of capitalism were heavily outnumbered by stern denunciations of totalitarianism and those deemed to support it.
Another precursor was the British social democratic theoretician Evan Durbin. His book The Politics of Democratic Socialism (London, 1940) was a fanatical defence of liberal democracy, positing that anyone who opposes liberal democracy, either from a Marxist or fascist direction, had placed himself outwith the political pale and was to be treated accordingly. Although the Eustonites do not go this far (at least as yet), their denunciations of the far left have the odour of excommunication about them.
The resemblance of the Eustonites to the Encounter brigade is striking in several areas, not least their attitude towards the USA, the Middle East and the ‘War on Terror’. Railing against what it sees as ‘the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking’, the Manifesto declares:
The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions.
Of course, the Eustonites ‘are aware of its problems and failings’, and even admit that ‘US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones’ — note how it states ‘has often opposed’ rather than ‘often opposes’, as if its anti-democratic activities are a thing of the past — but this is really a whitewashing of the world’s leading capitalist power. Black voters in Florida would look askance at the idea of ‘a strong democracy’; for every example of ‘a noble tradition’ of a fight against oppression and for equality there have been ignoble traditions of institutional racial discrimination and anti-working-class legislation and actions. For every inspiring example of political, social and cultural manifestations emerging from within the USA, one can more than match an example of disgraceful ruling-class chicanery both within and outwith the country’s borders. By talking of ‘a great country and nation’ with just a few blemishes, the Eustonites are eliding over the massive class-based gulfs and huge social injustices in the USA, and letting the rapacious US ruling class off the hook.
When it comes to Israel and Palestine, the Manifesto says: ‘We recognise the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution.’ Why the insistence of ‘a two-state solution’, one may ask, why make it obligatory? Why not within a single secular, democratic state in which all the inhabitants will enjoy equal national and religious rights? A clue may rest in the next sentence: ‘There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.’ That’s right, ‘the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute’. This may be a result of poor drafting, perhaps it should read ‘the legitimate rights and interests of either one of the sides to the dispute’. Yet one cannot help thinking that the Manifesto means just what it says, and the ‘one of the sides to the dispute’ is the right of the Israeli state to continue to define itself as a ‘Jewish state’, with all the discrimination that flows directly from that. That the Manifesto has gained the approval of the Engage people suggests that this is so.
The Eustonites try to tar the far left with accusations of anti-Semitism:
‘Anti-Zionism’ has now developed to a point where supposed organisations of the Left are willing to entertain openly anti-Semitic speakers and to form alliances with anti-Semitic groups.
The first factor is presumably a reference to speakers at anti-war events co-sponsored by certain left-wing groups and Muslim organisations, although no evidence is given. There have been incidents when dubious Islamicist orators appeared on platforms at demonstrations, and it must be emphasised that this is by no means acceptable to many on the far left. As for the ‘alliances with anti-Semitic groups’, again no evidence is given. There have been some opportunist links made with Islamicist individuals and organisations, particularly by Respect, and, once again, many left-wingers are unhappy with this. However, although I have heard rumours, I do not have direct proof of anti-Semitism on the part of these Islamicists. Taking the seriousness of the Manifesto’s accusation into consideration, one might think that some concrete proof of this would be necessary before such a categorical statement be made.
The Manifesto continues:
Amongst educated and affluent people are to be found individuals unembarrassed to claim that the Iraq war was fought on behalf of Jewish interests, or to make other ‘polite’ and subtle allusions to the harmful effect of Jewish influence in international or national politics — remarks of a kind that for more than 50 years after the Holocaust no one would have been able to make without publicly disgracing themselves.
Setting aside the peculiar and very snobbish idea that affluence somehow bestows intelligence and good manners upon a person, the Eustonites are silent about the reasons for the growing prevalence of such statements about the power of the ‘Jewish Lobby’. Unlike the old-fashioned anti-Semitism with its fairy tales (however lethal the acts that they can sustain), the modern talk of ‘Jewish influence’ has a material root in the very real crimes of Israeli governments and the arrogant manner in which they deport themselves, the uncritical manner in which Israel lobbyists and Zionist spokesmen support the Israeli state, irrespective of its misdemeanours, in true fellow-travelling style, and the manner in which Zionists associate the Jewish people as a whole with Israel. Can we be surprised that amongst politically naive and ignorant people (however ‘affluent’ they may be) such feelings of disquiet become muddied with the remnants of old-fashioned anti-Semitism? Nowhere does the Manifesto mention the role of the actions of Israel and its lobbyists in the rise of anti-Jewish sentiments, and this is a disgraceful omission. Equally disgraceful is the Manifesto’s refusal to admit not only that it is not on the far left that such statements will be heard, but it is also on the far left that one will find powerful and consistent polemics against the very idea of the ‘Jewish Lobby’. Moreover, from my observations, the far left does recognise its responsibility in ensuring that its criticisms of Zionism remain free of any taint of anti-Jewish sentiments.
Another indication of the Eustonites’ trajectory can be ascertained by the Manifesto’s intemperate blast at Amnesty International for its comments on the Guantánamo prison camp, a ‘grotesque public comparison of Guantánamo with the Gulag…, the legislative measures taken by the US and other liberal democracies in the War on Terror constitute a greater attack on human rights principles and values than anything we have seen in the last 50 years’. Of course, the ‘violation of basic human rights standards’ at Guantánamo ‘must be roundly condemned’, but Amnesty International is really going too far.
So what did Amnesty International actually say? Here is its statement:
Guantánamo has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law. If Guantánamo evokes images of Soviet repression, ‘ghost detainees’ — or the incommunicado detention of unregistered detainees — bring back the practice of ‘disappearances’ so popular with Latin American dictators in the past. According to US official sources there could be over 100 ghost detainees held by the US. In 2004 thousands of people were held by the US in Iraq, hundreds in Afghanistan and undisclosed numbers in undisclosed locations. AI is calling on the US Administration to ‘close Guantánamo and disclose the rest’. What we mean by this is: either release the prisoners or charge and prosecute them with due process.
That is hardly deserving of the Eustonites’ violent condemnation, which is heavily redolent of the furious criticisms of Amnesty International in the US right-wing press. Again, this coincidence of views cannot be accidental.
Creating a Straw Man
The Eustonites do not hesitate in creating a straw man in order to wage an unwarranted attack upon their rivals on the left:
We repudiate the way of thinking according to which the events of 11 September 2001 were America’s deserved comeuppance, or ‘understandable’ in the light of legitimate grievances resulting from US foreign policy. What was done on that day was an act of mass murder, motivated by odious fundamentalist beliefs and redeemed by nothing whatsoever. No evasive formula can hide that.
This is another example of the very sneakiness of the Manifesto. Who exactly on the left has said that the attacks were ‘America’s deserved comeuppance’? Let’s have some evidence. After all, to cite the Manifesto: ‘Political honesty and straightforwardness are a primary obligation for us.’
What the Eustonites are trying to do here is to imply that those who consider that the attacks on 11 September 2001, and other examples of Islamicist terrorism, are a response to Western policies towards the Middle East and Islamic countries are effectively endorsing those attacks. The handicraft of Geras is clear here. Writing in the Guardian on 21 July 2005, he considered that those — like this writer — who state that the British involvement in the war against Iraq was a prime factor behind the suicide bombings in London two weeks previously are essentially apologists for the bombers, irrespective of the fact that we uniformly condemned the attacks. Just like Tony Blair (and unlike practically everyone else), the Eustonites patently refuse to consider that one can strongly condemn these atrocities whilst considering that they were a response — an appalling, misguided and unjustified response, but a response nonetheless — to imperialist policies. Indeed, not only do the British security services consider the bombings a response to foreign policy, so did the spokesman for the bombers himself. New Labour’s foreign policy has greatly increased the danger of Islamicist terror in Britain. One cannot say for sure that had Blair not become involved in the Iraq war, the Islamicist terrorists would not have struck in Britain, but his enthusiastic involvement made them a distinct possibility, if not an inevitability.
Merely to say that these atrocities were a product of ‘odious fundamentalist beliefs’ dodges the question. The Manifesto makes not the slightest attempt to analyse the rise of these beliefs amongst young Muslims in the metropolitan countries. One must ask why these ideas have obtained a hearing, not only in the advanced Western countries, but also in the world at large. Hard-line Islamicist movements, including terrorist ones, were sponsored by Western governments against secular nationalist movements and regimes in the Middle East and Islamic world. I remember 20 years back seeing official British government press packs praising Afghan Mujahuddin as if they were the French Maquis. Certain hard-line Islamic regimes are fêted by Western governments; did not a royal entourage from Saudi Arabia — the very source of funding for much intolerant Islamic preaching propaganda in Britain — visit these shores on a state visit just a few months back? Long-running Western policies towards the Middle East and the Islamic world, and the continued matter of Palestine and Israel, have, thanks to the decline of left-wing and secular nationalist politics in those areas, led to a situation in which resistance has often become based upon Islamicism, and sometimes extreme variants at that. The ham-fisted US response to the attacks on 11 September 2001 under the guise of the ‘War on Terror’ have given a second wind to such movements and ideas, and poorly drawn-up and badly-implemented anti-terrorism legislation in various countries also helps to drive young Muslims towards extreme Islamicism.
It is not surprising in Western countries, when taking into account the weakness of the left, the growing disillusion amongst the population with the political process and the inability of liberal democratic parties to promote a meaningful challenge to inequality and poverty, combined with the overseas issues outline above, that young Muslims who are becoming politically radicalised have been adopting the ideas and practice of hard-line Islamicism, with a few going to dreadful extremes. Unless these issues are properly confronted, the appeal of Islamicism will continue to grow.
The Disaster in Iraq
On Iraq, the Manifesto admits that there were disagreements amongst its sponsors over the US invasion. It continues:
We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognise its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.
But who exactly are the forces trying to take Iraq in a democratic direction? The US-led occupation authorities with their military and mercenary forces that are completely unaccountable to Iraqi people and institutions, and their blatant disregard of the Iraqi government when it makes the occasional decision which they dislike, and the big-power corporate looting of the Iraqi economy? The sundry US puppets who use the rhetoric of democracy to keep in with their paymasters in their hopes of making it as the new Iraqi élite? The various sectarian militias with whom the occupiers have struck deals? Or the working-class organisations trying to cut an existence between the violence and corruption of the occupiers and the rising tide of religious thuggery?
There were various reasons for opposing the invasion, but let us concentrate upon the question of democracy. Could any intelligent person, when taking into consideration the record of the USA in destroying left-wing and even liberal regimes and movements in Third World states and backing reactionary, undemocratic ones, take seriously Bush’s statements about bringing democracy to the Middle East? The astonishing thing with the pro-war left is how seriously it took the chatter of US official spokesmen and their British assistants about democracy, and, as we have seen already, the Eustonites side-step this reality by stating that ‘US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones’, as if it no longer does so.
The material basis for liberal democracy does not exist in Iraq. For it to have any real substance, there has to be a stable economy and a stable society. The deliberate dismantling of the Baathist party–state apparatus and the corporate looting of the Iraqi economy through privatisation could not create the basis for liberal democracy, and indeed did the opposite by imploding a comparatively efficient and modern society, notwithstanding the distortions resulting from the grotesque Saddam personality cult and the problems caused by Western sanctions. In the vacuum left by the smashing of that apparatus, it was inevitable that popular power would rapidly fall into the hands of family-based or religious bodies, and that any parliamentary institutions erected by the occupiers would have but a shadow existence. Iraq has no functioning official government; Nouri al-Maliki’s administration has little authority beyond the fortifications of the Green Zone, and, like his predecessor, he only enjoys his position by the grace of the occupying forces.
The manner in which the invasion and occupation was planned and implemented was guaranteed to result not in a liberal democratic regime, or even the semi-democracy of the Turkish or Egyptian varieties, but a social collapse. This is not any post festum conclusion, but was pretty clear at the start. And, unlike Geras, who has recently concluded that Bush’s adventure in Iraq was perhaps not a particularly good idea, various people did point this out from the very start. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the utter ineffectiveness of al-Maliki’s government and the de facto day-to-day running of the country by unelected and unaccountable cliques and militias will lead to the discrediting of the idea of liberal democracy in Iraq.
Certainly, left-wingers should not, as some unfortunately do, give a carte blanche to an undifferentiated ‘resistance’ that is in part mired in vicious sectarian feuds; and support should be given to those forces trying to defend the working class against both the occupation forces and their puppets on the one hand, and sectarian groups on the other. Such forces cannot look to the occupiers for help. Should a militant working-class movement emerge out of the rubble in Iraq, does anyone think that the US authorities would happily let it, say, promote a militant fight against the US-backed corporations for better conditions, let alone attempt to take control of the oil refineries? The past record of US and British imperialism strongly suggests otherwise, and the Iraqi puppet authorities have recently used Ba’athist-era laws against striking oil workers without being criticised by the occupying powers.
As for the Manifesto’s rejection of, as it dismissively puts it, ‘picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention’ in Iraq, this is not a dead issue, precisely because one of the main planks of the Manifesto, and one of the most contentious factors, is the call for ‘humanitarian intervention’:
Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the ‘common life’ of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a ‘responsibility to protect’.
It is interesting that the Eustonites blithely use the term ‘the international community’, a code-word for the big powers, and chiefly the USA, which is the state most involved in intervening outwith its borders. The calls for ‘humanitarian intervention’ became popular amongst certain radicals during the wars ensuing from the collapse of Yugoslavia, and was in this instance almost always a call for the big powers to take military action against Serb forces (they were a lot less vocal when it came to Serbs being victimised, as in the Krajina or in Kosovo once the Albanian nationalists took over, which indicates that there is a certain limit to those whom they feel are justified in receiving ‘protection’).
What the call for ‘humanitarian intervention’ means is the demand that the big powers launch a military attack upon whoever is felt to be transgressing the norms of civilised behaviour. It effectively ties radicals to the military-diplomatic manoeuvres and interests of imperialism, as, no matter how much the Eustonites and their ilk may call, the ruling classes of the big powers will not go to the trouble of involving their armed forces unless there are some tangible gains. So our interventionists end up loudly calling for an imperialist attack, and cheering one should it actually take place. Our radicals thus become the propagandists for Western militarism, seeing the hard end of the state — after all, even in a liberal democracy, the armed forces are effectively totalitarian organisations — as the vanguard for progress and democracy. Logically, considering that quite a few countries — Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, to name just a few — regularly mistreat their citizens, the Eustonites should be campaigning for ‘humanitarian intervention’ against them. Indeed, one might accuse them of a certain reluctance to put the full consequences of their programme into practice in their not campaigning for Western intervention against such countries.
Moreover, it is well worth ‘picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention’ in Iraq, as but shortly after the launch of the Manifesto it was clear that Bush and his sinister crew were building for a military assault upon Iran — the Israeli attack upon Hezbollah in Lebanon appears to have been a Washington-inspired attempt to provoke Syria and/or Iran into responding, thus providing an excuse for the USA to steam in. Although Teheran and Damascus refused to rise to the bait, and it seems that there is some opposition within the US military to an attack on Iran, such adventures cannot be ruled out so long as Bush remains in the White House. Prominent neo-cons openly advocate bombing Iran. One would hope, in the light of the utter disaster of Bush’s adventure in Iraq, that nobody in Britain, except those clinging to a Blairite foreign policy, would endorse any such action. But one cannot be sure.
The Threat to Democracy
The Manifesto then takes on the question of democracy. It declares:
We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.
One of the fundamental institutions guaranteeing democracy, it says, are trade unions. Now that is not a contentious point on the left. But let us look at it within the context of opponents of democracy mentioned in the Manifesto. It sets out its opposition to the ‘widespread’ phenomenon of ‘terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology’, which ‘threatens democratic values’, and takes a poke at people who ‘make light of the differences’ between liberal democracies and dictatorships. Now it is true that left-wing groups, especially Stalinist factions, have touted for undemocratic regimes, and that is not to the left’s credit. But let us now consider who in Western countries pose the major threat to democratic rights.
The Eustonites fail to recognise that in Britain and the USA, democratic rights are not in danger on account of some left-wingers’ regard for dictatorships or their attempts to chat up mullahs, or by Muslim terrorists or the ravings of sundry noisy but marginal religious figures, but because they are being directly attacked by the British and US governments’ anti-democratic, anti-civil-liberty legislation brought in as part of their ‘War on Terror’. This is no freak event. The whole history of liberal democracy is one in which the working class has had to fight the bourgeoisie tooth and nail to enjoy its benefits, and in which the bourgeoisie has not only opposed our fight for democracy, but has consistently attempted to wrest it back from us, as we see with Bush and Blair and now Brown, using all manner of dubious excuses for so doing.
The main threat facing our democratic rights in Britain is posed by our rulers. It is they who are trying to restrict our democratic rights, and who have already severely restricted trade union rights. The Manifesto talks about defending trade union rights, but is silent about who is attacking them. Blair and Brown have left the bulk of the Tories’ anti-union legislation securely in place. Privatisation, PFI and PPP deals so beloved by Blair and especially Brown eliminate the albeit very limited influence people have over public services — what do the Eustonites say about that, or, more broadly, about the general lack of democratic control over the economy as a whole? Nothing; the question is ducked: ‘We leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality…’
And when it comes to broader social policy, we can read:
The benefits of large-scale development through the expansion of global trade ought to be distributed as widely as possible in order to serve the social and economic interests of workers, farmers and consumers in all countries.
Yet the Manifesto is silent about New Labour’s continuing implementation of Thatcherite policies, with all the ensuing social problems. The Euston Manifesto is quite useless when it comes to fighting for the interests of working-class people in Britain today.
On a broader scale, the existence of liberal democracies in many parts of the world today is predicated upon relative economic and social stability; should this falter, then we would see the big powers backing military coups and repression in the time-dishonoured manner. The big powers, and especially the USA, can never be seen as guarantors of democracy. Democratic rights are never safe in their hands. It is quite remarkable to have to state such a basic political truism, but then the Eustonites really do find themselves looking to the big powers as the saviours of humanity.
The question poses itself: why precisely now have the Eustonites launched their Manifesto? It cannot be because they are in fear of a resurgent wave of revolutionary politics. The left as a whole is probably weaker today than at any time during the last three decades or more. The impact of the far left is tiny, notwithstanding some sizeable anti-war demonstrations and the election of a handful of Respect councillors.
There is plenty that is wrong with the far left. But these problems did not start with Respect’s dalliances with sundry dubious Islamic individuals and organisations. Over the decades sections of the far left have adapted to various anti-democratic and anti-working-class forces in an attempt to overcome isolation or to gain an ally against the ruling class. Left-wing groups have long engaged in all manner of squalid petty manoeuvres, and one need not dwell for long upon their internal regimes to recognise their manipulative and undemocratic nature. This is both demoralising, as it corrupts the fight for socialism, and self-defeating, as it has deterred many people from engaging with the left and demoralised many people who did get involved.
Is the retreat represented by the Euston Manifesto a result of repulsion from the these factors? It is possible that the specific standpoint of the Socialist Workers Party over the past few years until late last year, with its Respect project, its promotion of the chronic opportunist George Galloway and its willingness to work almost uncritically with certain Muslim groups, may have been the immediate trigger for the drawing up and launch of the Manifesto. Nevertheless, the left today is no more corrupt and opportunistic than it was, for example, when the International Marxist Group (to which Geras once belonged) and other groups adapted to all manner of anti-working-class forces back in the 1960s. The worst aspects of personal corruption on the far left were exposed and eradicated with the implosion of the Workers Revolutionary Party two decades back.
No, what the Manifesto represents is a major retreat on the part of certain left-wing intellectuals from wanting to change the world to tinkering with it in the hopes that some improvements may be had. It’s back to Encounter. Not a few of those who wrote in that magazine half a century back once hoped that the exploitation, violence and irrationality of capitalism would be replaced by the equality, peacefulness and rationality of socialism. The former revolutionaries around the Euston Manifesto today and Encounter half a century ago share the same trajectory: giving up on hopes of social transformation; linking up with those hoping at best for the amelioration of the worst aspects of capitalism; aiming their main blows at those to their left.
This drift is best exemplified by the recent political evolution of the prominent Eustonite Alan Johnson. Only a few years back Johnson clearly described himself as a Marxist and saw Stalinism as an abject distortion of Marxism, now he asserts that ‘a modest, chastened progressive politics can draw most from the social democratic idea’, without any recognition that social democracy has to all intents and purposes decayed into Blairism–Brownism, which not only has no perspective of social transformation, but has accepted capitalism as it stands, that is to say, is no longer even reformist. Then comes the clincher:
Marxism opens the door to totalitarianism. That is not to say ‘Marx was a totalitarian’ or ‘Marxists are totalitarians’. But whatever the subjective intentions and desires, in the theory the door-opening is going on.
This could come straight from the pages of Encounter. I guess that Johnson will now have to correct his biography-in-progress of the US Marxist Hal Draper, from praising him as a proponent of human liberation to having him objectively opening the door to totalitarianism. And, whilst Johnson insists that we Marxists merely open the door to totalitarianism, I can imagine the less fastidious elements of the ‘decent left’ being considerably less delicate in their criticisms of us. One can foresee a situation in which, branded as apologists for totalitarian regimes and movements, and as actual harbingers of totalitarianism itself, we become the most dangerous of enemies for the ‘decent left’, however weak we may be.
It is no accident that the Euston Manifesto says nothing about socialism — how can it when it is predicated upon an orientation towards non-socialist political forces? — and, as we have seen, it deliberately leaves unanswered the fundamental question of the economic basis of society. At a time when capitalism clearly cannot overcome poverty and inequality, and when bizarre religious movements constitute one of the major responses to such social problems, is it not imperative for people who claim to stand on the left to declare openly that a democratic transformative form of socialism is the only possible positive counter to capitalism? Yet it is at this precise moment that a concerted attempt is being made to do something quite different.
The Eustonites aim almost all their fire to their left, condemning what they see as the left’s dalliances with anti-democratic forces, and in so doing effectively lumping in everyone to their left in that basket. A lot of people on the left are in fact quite happy to oppose the ruling class without lining up with assorted mullahs, sundry nationalists and all sorts of other anti-working-class forces. There is plenty of scope for socialists to oppose imperialism without giving a carte blanche to Islamicism or other non-socialist outlooks, just as there was a space for genuine socialists 50 years ago to promote genuine freedom between the opposing millstones of imperialism and Stalinism.
There are real problems with the left’s traditions, not least in respect of the question of the relationship of socialism and democracy, and it is one of many issues that we must critically assess if we are to make any progress in proposing a positive alternative to capitalism. However, just like the Encounter socialists half a century ago, those behind the Euston Manifesto are not attempting to provide any meaningful alternative to capitalism. Quite the opposite: they are moving in an entirely different direction. Far from providing a positive course to challenge the status quo, the Euston Manifesto is outlining an approach for a broad ideological and institutional capitulation to it.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the Euston Manifesto is named after the least prepossessing railway terminus in London, a drab 1960s concrete shed with all the charm of a backyard coal bunker. Just up the road is St Pancras, a brilliant example of Victorian architecture and engineering prowess, which has recently been tastefully refurbished for the Channel Tunnel traffic. And just as Johnson, Wheen, Geras & Co hark back to the postwar mediocrity of Encounter, we prefer to refer to the inspired works of the Victorian Marx, and apply them, suitably refreshed and updated, to the problems facing us in the twenty-first century.