Do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?

Like Dave, I’ve got a lot of time for some of the signatories to the Euston Manifesto. And, like Dave, there is no way in Hell I’m supporting it.

The problems start in item 1, which yokes together “We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures” with “We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.” In other words, we value democracy as it has been achieved. I have no problem with defending those relics of past practices which offer resources for a better future – I might mention jury trial, I might mention English apples – but this is very different from championing the institutions of actually-existing liberal, pluralist democracies. Democracy, if you’re a socialist (or any other form of radical), is a goal to strive for, not a state already achieved. Taking up the cudgels for one relatively undemocratic status quo against another is a mug’s game.

Item 2 is meaningless. No, really:

We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

Being democrats, we don’t like undemocratic regimes; however, some other people who purport to be democrats make apologies for them. Well, more fool them; we already know that we‘re democrats, so what does it matter what some other self-styled democrats think? Unless we’re meant to take this together with item 1: we like Actually Existing Democracies (whatever their faults), and we don’t have any truck with Non-Democracies… And what is this about indulgent understanding and apologetic explanation? Are we being asked to “condemn a little more and understand a little less” (John Major said that)? Or are the Eustoners happy for us to attempt to understand and explain, just as long as all our explanations are based on the proposition that the bad men hate us because we’re good?

Item 3 is even worse. Headed ‘Human rights for all’, it reads – at least, the business end of it reads:

We reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.

What on earth is this about? Given two sets of human rights abuses, one perpetrated by a nation state which is denounced as an official enemy and one by a state which is treated with kid gloves, are the Eustonites seriously proposing that the latter should not receive more attention? From the Left? Imperial favour is capricious, God knows – Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were both men we could do business with, in their time – but the idea that it’s not appropriate to draw attention to the crimes of the current favourite is grotesque. There are only so many campaigning hours in the day, and they’re better employed pushing at closed doors than those that are already open. Taken literally, this ‘Item’ would be profoundly demobilising: it would make it impossible to criticise any abuse committed by governments ‘closer to home’ (presumably meaning Britain, the US and, oh, say, for example, Israel) unless and until a particular abuse was demonstrably the worst thing in the world. (Of course, this is not to say that it’s appropriate to excuse or minimise abuses carried out by the current official enemy, either by massaging the figures or by reflexively pairing any abuse with one carried out by our side.)

Item 4 (Equality) is broadly OK, but: “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”: why, exactly? What are ‘we’ united on that is more fundamental – or more urgent – than the question of socialism vs capitalism?

Item 5: oh good heavens. “We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation.”; “Globalization must mean global social integration and a commitment to social justice.” Economic development-as-freedom, indeed. (Something to do with Amartya Sen, apparently – see the comments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that.) This all sounds good, but, given the conspicuous absence of escape clauses – conditions under which the Eustonians would not support globalisation – I can’t help feeling that this clause is summed up in the first six words quoted above. (Up to the first hyphen.)

Item 6: we like America. No, really, we like America. Some Americans are really quite nice. And they do make good TV. Have you seen the Sopranos? Because, you see in the current season – no, I won’t spoil it for you. But really, America’s great. They say they’re great, and they’re kind of wrong about that, but you know, in a way they’re kind of right. Because of the whole democratic institutions thing, obviously, but that’s just item 1 again. What’s really special about America – well, you know Curb Your Enthusiasm? It’s great, isn’t it? That one where… never mind. America, anyway. It’s great. And those people who hate America, what’s that about? They’re just wrong, aren’t they? Yeah, that’s what I thought. They’re just wrong.

Item 7: Palestine. Ah yes, but Israel. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. We can’t have a settlement that the Palestinians don’t like, but that also means that we can’t have a settlement that the Israelis don’t like, because that wouldn’t be fair. Palestine: Israel. Israel: Palestine. You see my point? It’s a tough one, isn’t it?

Item 8: racism. Racism is bad. Which means anti-semitism is bad. Which means that anti-Zionism is bad. Not all anti-Zionism, obviously, but some of it. We’ll let you know.

Item 9: terrorism. Terrorism is bad. We don’t believe anybody on the Left has ever said this before. We’re not very keen on state terror either, by the way. But terrorism is bad. Always. Never mind defining it, you know terrorism when you see it, don’t you? Well then.

Item 10: Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the “common life” of all peoples. Sovereignty doesn’t exist when the sovereign state in question is really really bad, m’kay? This isn’t just a matter of saying that, in certain extreme cases, it may be appropriate to violate international law (Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Ratko Mladic) but that international law should be rewritten pre-emptively to legalise all such interventions, and any such interventions that might take place in future. To say this is a dangerous doctrine is putting it mildly. This is the business end of items 1 and 3, and it’s got a nasty smell.

Item 11: Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms. Conversely, we pay attention to liberal and conservative voices and ideas if they contribute to strengthening democratic norms and practices and to the battle for human progress. What’s alarming here is what isn’t said. To the extent that democracy is part of a radical project, all this can be taken for granted: a left-winger who makes common cause with ‘anti-democratic forces’ has ceased to be a left-winger and can be denounced in those terms; liberals and conservatives who favour democracy, perhaps despite themselves, are favouring the Left and can be endorsed, or at least co-opted. But I sense this isn’t quite what the Eustonists mean. ‘Democracy’ here is being used in the right-Hegelian (item 1) sense, not the left-Hegelian (Marxist) sense: you are either for us or against us, and if you’re against us we don’t care whether you’re on the Left or not. (Come to think of it, if you’re for us we don’t care if you’re on the Left or not, either.)

Item 12: Historical truth. Right with you there, chaps. From Johnstone on Srebrenica to Clark on the joys of shopping in Belgrade, there are parts of the Left which have talked a great deal of garbage, in my personal opinion. But I’m not sure how much point there is in taking a stand for ‘truth’ – at least, not without specifying in much more detail who you’re taking a stand against and why. (See also item 3.)

Item 13: Freedom of ideas, including the freedom to criticise religion[s]. Seems fair enough, actually.

Item 14: Open source. Well, yes, but what exactly is this doing here?

Item 15: ‘A precious heritage’. Defies summary.

We reject fear of modernity, fear of freedom, irrationalism, the subordination of women; and we reaffirm the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness. These inspirational ideas were made the inheritance of us all by the social-democratic, egalitarian, feminist and anti-colonial transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — by the pursuit of social justice, the provision of welfare, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all men and women. None should be left out, none left behind. We are partisans of these values. But we are not zealots. For we embrace also the values of free enquiry, open dialogue and creative doubt, of care in judgement and a sense of the intractabilities of the world. We stand against all claims to a total — unquestionable or unquestioning — truth.

We’re talking about the E-word, aren’t we? And it’s all fair enough, but I have to ask (again) who they’re defining themselves against – and why they don’t say so.

In summary (if you want commentary on the Elaborations you’ll have to write it yourself) this is essentially a rallying-cry in support of ‘democracy’ as defined by Tony Blair and George W. Bush, ‘humanitarian intervention’ and all. God knows, the Left has some alarmingly wrong-headed elements, and has had for some time – during the Kosovo campaign a friend of mine canvassed the possibility of a new ‘new Left’, breaking with some of the tendencies rejected by the Eusteenies (and some of the people, more than likely). But to build a new Left you have to be on the Left to start with – and the Euston Manifesto isn’t.

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10 Comments

  1. Simon
    Posted 14 April 2006 at 10:32 | Permalink | Reply

    economic development-as-freedom

    Nicked from Sen, obviously, though Sen’s book didn’t much lend itself to partisan sloganeering unless you only paid attention to the title. Alan ‘not the minister’ Johnson has invoked it before, in one of his lengthy Harry’s Place posts, so I guess it comes from him.

  2. emerson
    Posted 14 April 2006 at 20:48 | Permalink | Reply

    Your comments on Article 6 are a bit crap. Especially as so many people, esp in the UK, are so US-centric with their foreign policy opinions.

    Also, Article 10 is where the rubber meets the road, and to simply say it has a bad odour is worse than useless. The world need rules that reflect human rights. Like it or not international human rights law has driven calls for State sovereignty to be less than absolute, indeed the growth in international human rights law has increased calls for the use of force in Somalia, former Yugoslavia, East Timor, West Africa etc. The changing nature of sovereignty is one of the biggest questions going. How can rules be formulated so sovereignty is not abused by tyrants, or humanitarian intervention by abused by governments with other agendas.

    Plus, you didn’t come close to exlaining how the Euston Manifesto is not on the “Left”. Just not the “Left” you’re on I conclude.

  3. Phil
    Posted 14 April 2006 at 21:37 | Permalink | Reply

    I ridiculed Item 6 because I think it’s ridiculous. Arguments in favour of the USA – or any other country – have no place in a statement of radical principle. If the authors are American patriots, fine, but let’s keep their patriotism out of the way while we talk about politics. (The fact that most of the authors are British only makes this stuff less appropriate.)

    As for Item 10, I said a bit more than that I think it stinks. I’m fine with sovereignty being absolute in international law; I’m also fine with some interventions which violate national sovereignty, and are thus strictly speaking illegal. The point is that their illegality is a count against them, which needs to be outweighed by serious arguments in favour (the obvious example is Vietnam’s deposition of Pol Pot). Saying that there are conditions under which such interventions won’t be illegal would be a standing invitation to ‘humanitarian’ aggression.

    As for whether or not it’s on the Left, see items 1, 4, 10 and 11.

  4. Chris Lightfoot
    Posted 15 April 2006 at 00:38 | Permalink | Reply

    Item 9 is either very carefully, or very carelessly, written: “We are opposed to all forms of terrorism. The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime under international law and all recognized codes of warfare, and it cannot be justified by the argument that it is done in a cause that is just.”

    No definition of ‘terrorism’ is offered: the word ‘terrorism’ is simply juxtaposed with ‘deliberate targeting of civilians’. Should we assume that that’s what the manifestoers mean by ‘terrorism’? If so, what do they mean by ‘deliberate’? Since they’re pro-this-war-now types, I presume that ‘deliberately targeting civilians’ does not include (let’s say) ‘blowing up infrastructure used both by civilians and the military, with the inevitable result that civilians die’. That leads to a very slippery slope indeed, I think.

  5. quarsan
    Posted 15 April 2006 at 07:37 | Permalink | Reply

    on Blairwatch I added some thoughts on why point 2 is just hogwash.

    What we have found in the ‘bloggers 4 labour’ bunch who came up with the manifesto is their absolute intolerance of anyone who disagrees with them. Here’s an example:
    “Might this manifesto have been so carefully drafted that it’s difficult for open-minded people to actually disagree with it, as a basis for future discussion?”. After all, it was intended to be cross-party, and only the most extreme should really have had difficulties with it. Well, if indeed the group does now have a mortal enemy, it’s looking to be the afore-mentioned web-dwelling nay-sayers, who may shelter under the “Left” banner, but who have nothing worthwhile to offer.

    And then there’s the quality of the writing itself, dense, virtually unreadable and as full of jargon and cliche as it is with self love.

  6. Phil
    Posted 15 April 2006 at 13:46 | Permalink | Reply

    Chris – I gave them the benefit of the doubt re: state terror, & was initially surprised to see Mike Marqusee arguing that they hadn’t mentioned it. But mention it they don’t; apart from that carefully-worded sentence, the ‘item’ in question seems to relate to terrorism, defined pretty much as our governments define it. Very, very slippery.

    Quarsan – thanks; I think I went too easy on Item 2.

  7. Neil Harding
    Posted 17 April 2006 at 05:48 | Permalink | Reply

    It’s possible to be in the Labour party, be a Blairite and still disagree with the ‘bloggers4labour’ types.

    The whole thing does come across as a bit arrogant. A cliquey bunch of self-important hacks meeting in a pub. (I know some of them myself so it pains me to put that).

    I really don’t want to criticise them for outlining their ideas and I get their point about some on the left compromising principles just because they are anti-US, but the Eustonites are blind to their own prejudice. It just seems like a pro-terrorism (as long as it’s by the US state) rant to me, which is why I couldn’t support it.

  8. StuartA
    Posted 18 April 2006 at 16:22 | Permalink | Reply

    It’s good to see a detailed dismantling of the preposterous Euston Manifesto. I’m surprised that between them they couldn’t produce something a little less superficial. In case you’re interested, I have a different take on it at my own blog.

  9. Louis Proyect
    Posted 18 April 2006 at 20:23 | Permalink | Reply

    Euston
    Critique

  10. Phil
    Posted 19 April 2006 at 07:42 | Permalink | Reply

    Cheers, Louis. Thanks for that, Neil – I think the tone of the EM would have put my back up even if I hadn’t disagree with the content almost immediately.

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