Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Response to "Why I Support the Euston Manifesto"

A response from Robert Bollard of LeftWrites on my post of "Why I Support the Euston Manifesto". I will reply shortly.

Reply to Pommygranate
Robert Bollard at 5:08 pm on Tuesday, April 3, 2007

As promised, I’ve drafted a reply to Pommygranate’s document. It may seem a bit long considering the relatively modest length of Pommygranate’s original post. It may also seem to many that the Euston crowd have been so thoroughly discredited that this is a wasted effort. Such an assumption would, I think, be overly triumphalist. It’s true that their support of the invasion of Iraq is no longer tenable and they are now frantically scurrying to find formulas to extricate themselves from that debacle. Their arguments are, however, still being recycled with regard to Afghanistan and have more traction in that case. The argument has not been won and still needs to be made.

Pommygranate’s document contains two separate arguments which deserve to be treated separately. The first is a paean to the capitalist market as a force for good:

China’s relaxation of rules preventing private ownership, India’s shedding of its bureaucratic culture and Eastern Europe’s transformation from sclerotic socialist societies into dynamic capitalist tigers has pulled over 600 million people out of abject poverty. Case closed.

The second is an attempt to address the substance of the Euston position which, as Pommygranate admits, is agnostic on the question of the market. In fact, of course, the signatories of Euston predominantly desire to be understood, in Hitchen’s notorious phrase, as "decent men [and presumably women] of the left". Apostasy, however fashionable it may be, is never even, and there are some who would squirm at too ready an embrace of the magic of the hidden hand, while others, like Pommygranate himself, would consider the market "a force for good", and attempt to mingle their affection for the market with some sort of pale social democracy or else adhere to that old oxymoron once beloved by Eurocommunists, "Market Socialism".

I will confine myself, however to dealing with the substance of the Euston position as that was the original point of having this debate. There is value in reasserting the exploitative and crisis-prone nature of capitalism, not to mention its destructive power which trashes countries and planets alike. But that is a mere codicil to the main argument, which is about Iraq, Islam and the left – about empire and its apologists.

The first line of Pommygranate’s attack, as he attempts to summarise the Euston document, is upon the alleged cultural relativism of the left. Apparently we are keen to defend gays and women but abandon our principles when faced with misogyny and homophobia amongst Muslims. What is the evidence for this alleged relativism? He doesn’t really attempt to provide any. The closest he gets is an oblique reference to that old hobby horse of shock jocks and tabloid journalists, political correctness in our schools:

There are those (especially in our schools) that argue that all cultures are equal, that we mustn’t view other societies through our biased Western prisms.

One is tempted to invert this question and ask Pommygranate whether he thinks cultures are unequal. He clearly does. He thinks western culture is superior. But which western culture is superior? Is it the culture of Jimmy Swaggart, of Ian Paisley, of the redneck torturers of Abu Graib and their sinister Ivy League bosses. I suspect he means the west of Mozart and Robespierre. The Euston crew are very keen on the enlightenment. So am I. But the gains made by that 18th Century movement are always liable to attack as long as capitalism rules the planet. Exploitation + competition = capitalism. Exploitation + competition also = gangsterism. Gangsters sometimes like culture. There is a good scene from The Untouchables of Al Capone watching an operatic aria with tears streaming down his face. They like the bottom line more though, and the main culture associated with them is one of ruthless violence. The Twentieth Century gave us fascism and Two World Wars. The Twentieth First Century has opened with the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the utter immiseration of the rest of the population. Are Afghani women free from the threat of acid as a result? I very much doubt it. One set of big time gangsters has trashed the operation of a set of very nasty small time thugs. When gangsters fight, innocent bystanders tend to die, and the fact that one set of gangsters loses is no compensation for the fact that another (usually the biggest and nastiest) set of gangsters wins.

And while this has happened in the Middle East, here in the metropole – in America and Europe and Australia – a wave of virulent Islamophobia has built to accompany the phosphorus bombs and the cluster bombs exploding in the distance. Forgive us on the indecent left if we are not interested in engaging in a polemic with a handful of obscurantist clerics. When young Jewish anarchists in the East End of London, back in the 1890s, stood outside synagogues waving rashers of bacon at their orthodox elders this may have been an unwise provocation, but it was understandable. It is impossible to imagine those same anarchist Jews in Germany in the 1930s doing the same thing. Is this distinction cultural relativism? I think not. It is merely an indication that we on the indecent left know how to smell a pogrom in the air. We will battle power before we kick the oppressed for their "backwardness".

Cultural relativism is a view, most often associated with some branches of anthropology, that judgments should not be made about any elements of a particular culture from someone outside that culture. So, in the extreme formulation, we should be happy to tolerate slavery or ritual murder, bound feet or genital mutilation. The problem, of course, for such a view is when criticism of such practices emerges from within a culture. At what point, for instance, did it become permissible for a westerner to criticise bound feet in China? Was it when a handful of western educated Chinese intellectuals criticised it? Was it after the 1911 revolution gave that handful a mass audience? Was it when the mass of Chinese workers and peasants began to take up, in an admittedly confused and tumultuous way, elements of such criticisms to legitimise their struggles against economic grievances during the revolutionary upsurges of the 1920s?

The answer is, of course, that cultures are not homogenous. That is the mistake that cultural relativists make. It is a danger for a certain sort of anthropologist, who views a culture as a pristine artifact to be measured and described, rather than a contradictory set of traditions that are always developing, always open to change, riven by class differences and other pressures. It is also – a point that is relevant to this argument – the mistake made by Huntingdon with his "Clash of Civilisations" myth. Huntington is not a part of the Euston crowd. But he shares much of their approach – in particular a fascination with certain cultural phenomenon and a tendency towards ahistorical caricature in which cultures, or "civilizations", are defined by certain ideological patterns which are set in stone. The Crusades morph into the War Against Terror. Muslims are prone to tyranny, Christians are open to democracy and dissent.

"The left" (and make it clear here that I am only interested in defending the tradition in which I stand – Classical Marxism) is not cultural relativist. But nor does it see culture as the most important thing – as the determining element in societies’ development. Culture reflects what is happening in the engine room of history – the class struggle. When Huntington or Cohen or Hitchens visit the Kasbah they can see the veils on the women and hear the cry of the muezzin, but they cannot smell the oil. Culture is a reflection of class relations. It is, in the Classical Marxist terminology "superstructure". As Marx himself put it in his famous comment on religion:

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

The criticism of religion, without the criticism of oppression is, therefore, a pointless activity.
What, then, does all this mean for the attitude "decent men and women of the left" should take to the misogyny of the Taliban or of Sheik Hilali or (and let’s be fair about this) of the Saudi Royals?

Do we agree with it? Of course not. How then do we combat it?

Well, it’s a bit of a no-brainer that the replacement of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by a regime run by a different group of Islamic fundamentalists whose only clear distinction from the Taliban is that they have a predilection for rape is probably not helpful.

More generally, it helps to have an understanding of the complexities of Muslim societies. One of the problems in dealing with the Euston signatories is their failure to even attempt an historical understanding of the development of the culture they are so quick to condemn and caricature. They share this failure with Huntington, though at least he made a token effort at an historical overview – with a brief historical survey of the relations between Europe and the Islamic world. In doing so he was concerned to emphasise both the continuity of conflict and its religious character. He therefore tended to segue straight from the Crusades and the conflicts between Hapsburgs and Ottomans through the colonial period to the rise of fundamentalism. In doing so he conveniently ignored the crucial de-colonising decades of the 1940s and the 1950s.[1] These were decades in which there was plenty of conflict between the Western colonial powers and the population of the Middle East, but conflict that serves Huntington’s theoretical purpose not at all. This is because this was a period in which the politics of the Middle East, at both elite and mass level was dominated by secular political currents, in particular Nasserite Nationalism and Stalinism. Apart from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (itself an oppressed minority current) Islamicist ideas and forces were largely irrelevant in this period.[2]

In The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington did allude briefly to this period, under the headings of "Kemalism" and "Reformism". Kemalists (the term of course refers to the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Attaturk):

Embrace both modernisation and Westernisation. This response is based on the assumptions that modernisation is desirable and necessary, that the indigenous culture is incompatible with modernisation and must be abandoned or abolished, and that society must fully Westernise in order to successfully modernise.[3]

Reformism, by contrast, he defined as the partial or total rejection of Westernisation (cultural borrowing from the West) combined with an embrace of modernisation (economic and technological development). There is one other response that Huntington outlined – "Rejectionism" which, as its name implies rejects both Westernisation and modernisation.
What is missing from this analysis is an understanding of the possibility of a further distinction within the category of "Westernisation" – between "culture" in general and political culture in particular. The historic figure of Mohamed Mossadeq in Iran in the early 1950s is a good example of this distinction. Mossadeq was a nationalist in both the political and the cultural sense. He wished to construct an economically viable nation state along Western lines and symbolised this desire (among other things) by wearing archaic Persian dress.[4] He was immensely popular but lacked an organised base, relying instead upon the support of the Tudeh Party, the party of Iranian Communism, which was the largest and most influential political party in Iran at the time.[5] Clearly atheist Communism was more successful in Iran in the early 1950s than in the secular, Western U.S.! Mossadeq was overthrown and replaced by the Shah in a coup in 1953 which Huntington himself describes as being organised by "Kermit Roosevelt and a few CIA operatives".[6] Ten years later an uncannily similar scenario in Iraq removed the nationalist Qasim from power and nullified the influence of the Iraqi Communist Party (on which his regime had largely leant) in favour of the Ba’ath Party.[7]

So much for Huntington. It may seem strange that I have spent time on attacking a figure unaligned to Euston. I focused upon his thesis partly because it has so many parallels with the orientalist caricature of Middle Eastern culture presented by so many of the Euston mob, but because his caricature has some substance which can be unpicked and usefully argued with. The Euston mob, for the most part, are journalists who argue by anecdote and labels – of which the term "Islamofascist" is the most common. This term is useful because it implies that Islam, or a section thereof, has morphed into a form of fascism. That invokes the memory of the "good war" and the Popular Front where much of the left supported an imperial war in the name of the fight against fascism.

The problem is that no attempt is made to analyse the political forces that are thus labeled and to draw a proper comparison with the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. (Incidentally, the only direct political connection between any political force in the Middle East and classical fascism is the Lebanese Falangists who were formed by an admirer of Mussolini, named after Franco’s Falange and who committed the infamous pogrom of Sabra and Shatila in 1982 under the watchful eye of one Ariel Sharon).

The term "fascism" has little explanatory relevance to what is a much more complex variety of political phenomenon. The Shia theocracy of Iran, the radical nationalists of Hezbollah and Hamas, the Muslim brotherhood, the Wahabist fundamentalists of the Taliban who were schooled in Saudi-funded madrassas – are not Hitler and Mussolini. They are not about to conquer the world – merely to resist the conquest of their world. They are a throwback to the earliest anti-colonial resistance in the late 19th Century which looked backwards rather than forwards. Reactionary? Yes. But then so was Nana Sahib. Were Marx and many of the better figures in 19th Century liberalism wrong then to support the Indian Mutiny?

Saddam Hussein was an entirely secular figure – nor was he a fascist but a run of the mill dictator. He began his life as an assassin on hire to MI5, and spent most of his career, including the bits where he committed his worst crimes, as a loyal US puppet. The Northern Alliance are a bunch of fundamentalists who speak Uzbekh rather than Pushtu and who therefore escaped education in Wahabist madrassas in Pakistan and were not in as good a position to forge an alliance with Al Qaeda – something that proved fortunate for them post 9/11. They have more interest in raping women (a penchant which helps explain the growth in popularity of the Taliban when the NA were last in power in the ‘90s) than in making them wear burqas. But they are "our" reactionary, authoritarian, misogynist bastards and that, for the Euston Mob is, apparently, enough to make installing them in power a campaign comparable to the ousting of Hitler.

What then of cultural relativism? Is the left guilty of thinking that because imperialism is doing nasty things to Muslims that therefore we should stop criticising Islamism?

The easy answer (and a valid one) is to ask how anyone can be more upset about a burqa or niqab or about bearded men in Pakistan burning effigies of racist Danish newspaper editors than about the death of 655,000+ Iraqis, about rendition and GITMO and the legitimization of torture. But the argument is not just about priorities. It is not simply that there are bigger crimes being committed by the people the Euston Crowd have cheered on than by the people they wish to condemn. The point is that the big crime generated the lesser. Islamiscism was, as I argued above in my comments on Huntingdon above, a reaction to imperialism. It is a reaction that has gained force due to the failure of secular political currents to effectively resist imperialism. It is also a political force that has at times been deliberately aided by the west as a counterbalance to radical nationalism and Stalinism. The Saudi regime is a creation of British imperialism that they passed on to the US as a useful puppet. Wahabism, the Saudi royal family’s pet version of Islam was once confined to an obscure corner of the Arabian peninsula. It is now the state religion of the biggest power in the Middle East – and America’s most loyal ally. (That would be the Wahabism, btw, that inspires the Taliban and Al Queda.)

To return to Marx’s analogy: religion is the opium of the masses. Our response then to the smoking of opium is not to attack the smokers but the dealers, and the alienating and degraded social conditions that provide the dealers with their market. When the dealers ooze hypocrisy, attack the victims of their crime for their filthy habit we condemn them. We are not soft on drugs. We are hard in our opposition to the causes of addiction.

Pommygranate’s next main bugbear is anti-Americanism. He approvingly quotes Colin Powell:

Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women Into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.

He then goes on to tut tut:

This lack of imperial ambition, though, has not prevented sections of the Left from declaring it the Evil Empire.

The Powell quote is interesting. I wonder if Pommygranate is aware of Powell’s military career. He was, as many people know, a Vietnam veteran. He was in fact a divisional commander in 1968. His division in that year included a certain Lieutenant Calley who gained a certain notoriety at a place called My Lai. Powell distinguished himself by his active complicity in the cover up of that massacre. But, of course, it doesn’t matter, because those silly villagers had no reason to be upset at being massacred. America never annexed their paddy fields. The inhabitants of Hanoi and Haiphong had no reason to be upset about the Christmas bombings of 1972. The US never annexed a square meter of North Vietnamese soil. They were only visiting – with bombs.

I personally have no particular animus against American culture – I don’t even worry about American "cultural imperialism", though I would be disappointed indeed if the AFL was replaced by gridiron.

But, what if I did? What would be the problem? Those poor oppressed Americans. You’ve got to feel for them. They did so much for the people of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, of Iraq in 1963, of the Dominican Republic in 1965, of Cambodia in 1970, of Chile in 1973 of Grenada in 1982…And they never annexed a single square centimeter of land! What disinterest!

America is many things. It is the vibrant culture of jazz and rock and roll. It is Hollywood: great, good, bad and abysmal. It is immigrants and nativists, New York and Kansas, Oregon and California, the IWW and the Rockefellers. There is no more point in being anti-American than there is in being anti-British, anti-French, anti-Spanish, anti- Byzantine, anti-Roman, anti-Persian or anti-Akkadian. But there is every point in being anti-imperial. And if some critics confuse the culture of the metropole with the crime of the empire, who can blame them – especially when those crimes are reflected in the cultural products of the said metropole.

I finish then with a reply to the quote that Pommygranate finishes with, from Nick Cohen:

If you really did only oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not because of anti-Americanism, or insularity, or indifference, but because you thought that as heinous as it was, any attempt to overthrow Baathism by military means would only make matters worse – why were your hearts not heavy with the knowledge of this hideous choice?

What was this hideous choice? There was a hideous regime and worse consequences. Should our hearts have been heavy?


1. Because the regime was a creation of the forces that wanted to destroy it. Its "hideous" nature was no more than a shadow of the greater hideousness of the forces that were ranged against it. The Godfather was sufficiently annoyed with his local henchman that he wanted to swat him flat.

2. Because the means by which the Godfather chose to chastise his henchmen made the crimes of said henchmen pale in comparison.

3. Because, in the end, it’s the Godfather who’s the problem innit?

I would say in turn to Comrade Cohen and his mates. If you really supported the invasion of Iraq because you thought that it would somehow make things better for ordinary Iraqis didn’t you pause to wonder:

1. If a regime within which the bloke who covered up the My Lai massacre was the biggest and woosiest liberal was the best bet for a decent outcome.
2. Whether a concern for "the bedrock organizations for the defence of workers’ interests" is consistent with allowing the most reactionary Republican administration in decades to reconstruct a country.
3. Whether any of you knew anything about Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, or, for that matter, the entire history of the Vietnam War.

More importantly, do any of you ever take a virtual mental tour of Fallujah, down streets filled with the detritus of bombing, past the sites where phosphorus bombs burned the flesh of those too old or too poor to flee the "free-fire zone"? Do you ever pause to consider the choice you made, to praise the frat boy and his corporate minders, to laud the imperial venture of a state (and I choose that term carefully, not "America", but its rulers) that has a track record in murderous intervention second to none, to eliminate their own vicious creation in the name of "democracy". Does the number 655,000 make you pause? What number does it have to reach before you do more than say "ok I was wrong about Iraq, but those Islamofascists are rally nasty and in Afghanistan…"?

Why are your hearts not heavy from making such an appalling fucking choice?

[1] Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations", Foreign Affairs. Summer 1993, v72, n3, p22(28).
[2] Yahya Armajani, Middle East Past and Present, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1970, pp.350-1
[3] Huntington, Op. Cit., p.73
[4] Donald N. Wilber, Iran Past and Present., Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1976, p.352-4
[5] Yahya Arjamani, Op. Cit., p.354
[6] Huntington, Op. Cit. p.86
[7] Yahya Arjamani, Op. Cit., p.396-7