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To the Euston Station: A Dialogue with Norm Geras

Late last summer I engaged in an email-based exchange with Norm Geras, a professor of Government at the University of Manchester and a prolific Marxist intellectual with one of the most widely read blogs in the UK. Like Oliver Kamm … Read More

By / March 9, 2007

Late last summer I engaged in an email-based exchange with Norm Geras, a professor of Government at the University of Manchester and a prolific Marxist intellectual with one of the most widely read blogs in the UK. Like Oliver Kamm and Nick Cohen, author of the new polemic What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, Norm has made a name for himself as a leading spokesman for leftists with no truck for what passes for “left” politics in Britain these days. Along with Cohen, he drafted the Euston Manifesto, a declaration of progressive principles for the post-9/11 era. An explanation of what’s in the often misunderstood (and more willfully misinterpreted) document follows in the pair of letters below, but suffice it to say that Euston has been the source of no little controversy and ridicule in the UK, while remaining something of a little-mentioned curio on this side of the Atlantic. As a signatory, and an avid reader of the Euston blogs (of which my own, Snarksmith, is one), I was most interested to hear what Norm thought about the Left in the United States, which he had just visited for the first time prior to this discussion, and where Euston and its supports might go from here.

To: Norm Geras From: Michael Weiss Subject: Self-Evident Truths As the New Radicalism?

Dear Norm,

Not that such a friendly exchange about the state of the modern Left should begin with a loyalty oath, but I should probably admit upfront that I am both a signatory of the Euston Manifesto and an avid reader of normblog. Before we get into things, I'd like to give our readers some background on what Euston is as well as the motivation for drafting it.

The goal of the manifesto, named for the area in London in which it was conceived and composed, is straightforward enough. It demands pluralism and democracy for all peoples. It denounces reactionary regimes no matter in what former colonial outpost they inhabit or under what confession they claim to govern – no confession being preferable, as the guiding principles of 1776 are reaffirmed in the manifesto.

Egalitarianism is given as the ideal mode of political economy, yet Euston has a non-exclusive membership policy, which would allow like-thinking conservatives and libertarians to add their names.

An unequivocal respect for human rights, including a firm opposition to the enslavement of women and the murder of homosexuals under sharia law, is also enshrined.

And though the crimes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay as well as the practice of "rendition" are justly abominated, Euston deplores the double bookkeeping of much of the Left, which uses these incidents to eclipse the horrors of Ba'athism or jihadism, or to draw moral equivalence between George Bush and Tony Blair on one side, and genocidal dictators on the other.

A point that has been repeatedly distorted by the media is that Euston is "pro-war" when in fact it takes no position on the wisdom of regime change in Iraq. However, as regime change is a fait accompli, the document is firmly in favor of the budding democratic – and, indeed, socialist and trade unionist – elements there. It has no truck with the jihadist and Saddamist "insurgency" looking to hobble the formation of a postwar democratic state.

(If I may go out on a limb and address the realities in Iraq a year after Euston was written: an incipient civil war between religious sects is no reason to abandon the foregoing commitments to human rights and secular and progressive principles.)

So where did this all come from? And why are such self-evident propositions suddenly in need of a new covenant?

Though polarities on the Left had been widening during the crises of Bosnia and Kosovo, 9/11 really marked the point at which they became irreconcilable. Independent leftists, mainly in the UK, found themselves strangers in the same land with former comrades who were now nodding along with the slogans of theocracy and fascism.

The effusions from some quarters are now notorious and the stuff of verbal and mental cliché: 9/11, in one frigid formulation, represented America's "chickens coming home to roost." Slightly more generous in syntax is what you refer to as the "yes-butter" argument: "Yes, the attack on the World Trade Center was awful, but hadn't decades of U.S. foreign policy lit the fuse?"

As you've noted, this rhetoric failed on two separate levels because not only did it apply to the victims in Lower Manhattan, it also applied to victims of other man-made nightmares around the globe, from the desaparecidos of Pinochet's Chile to the Tutsis of Rwanda to the black Muslims of Darfur…What are they to make of such blithe treatment of human suffering? Is there no universal outrage against mass murder? (As somebody who’s looked into the Holocaust, and also criticized leftist scholarship on the subject, you seemed particularly well poised to demand an answer to this question.)

Christopher Hitchens has remarked that the Left’s automatic response to such a world-upending – and worldview-shattering – event recalled the line from The 18th Brumaire, the one about how acquiring a new language can be a tricky business because the inclination is to translate everything back into the native tongue. In politics, this inclination can be lethal.

This is why outspoken intellectuals like Tariq Ali openly compare the "resistance" in Afghanistan and Iraq to the guiding lights behind the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences – footnote assemblies to mainstream historians, perhaps, but to radicals with long memories, the most esteemed antiwar gatherings of the World War I generation. (And what might Trotsky, who later had Hitler pegged, have made of al-Qaeda? His phrase to describe the origins of Nazism, "undigested barbarism," sounds about right.)

Actually, Ali isn't alone in dipping into the archives of 20th-century revolutionism to account for the ongoing war against Islamism. I've found another example of more recent vintage, one which I think you’ll enjoy. Here is Terry Eagleton writing in The Guardian last year:

“Ordinary, non-political suicides are those whose lives have come to feel worthless to them, and who accordingly need a quick way out. Martyrs are more or less the opposite. People like Rosa Luxemburg or Steve Biko give up what they see as precious (their lives) for an even more valuable cause. They die not because they see death as desirable in itself, but in the name of a more abundant life all round. “Suicide bombers also die in the name of a better life for others; it is just that, unlike martyrs, they take others with them in the process. The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it…" [Italics added.]

So we have reached the point where a well-regarded Marxist literary theorist can mention Rosa Luxemburg in the same breath as suicide-bombers in Jerusalem and Baghdad. And their mutual objectives – "justice and freedom" – differ only quantitatively in terms of a willingness to sacrifice… Can you actually hear the chorus of "The Internationale" fade into absolute silence?

As a reconciled Marxist, you've argued very elegantly that the Left both deserves credit for past accomplishments and bears a responsibility for past failures. Many socialists, of factions too diverse and many to mention here, fought and died combating Stalinism, a pathology they were able to diagnose earlier than anyone else. But precisely what allowed them to diagnose it – that it was a recognizable distortion of their own system – also added a responsibility to remain self-critical and ever vigilant of future distortions.

As late as 1994 you observed in the New Left Review that Marxism

"will continue as a programme of research, a tradition of enquiry, and take a more modest place in the democratic cultures it finds, with all those still fighting under darkening skies for a world for everyone. It will contribute what it can to strengthening those cultures and that fight, as one voice amongst many in a coalition wider than the working class, if not as wide or shapeless as mere 'discourse' would imply. And it will know that the horizon really is open. There have already been, goodness knows, more than enough defeats, and the infamies continue to pile, irredeemable, on one another. But there is no guarantee of a final victory."

Is the Euston Manifesto, then, an attempt to split the difference between old principles and new historical conditions, a way of returning to the heritage of noble radicalism rather than abandoning that heritage altogether? I wonder if your enduring optimism for the materialist conception of history is not your saving grace after all, especially when those claiming to march under the red banner of socialism have grown so jaded about their roots as to also swath themselves in the green flag of jihad.

One vindication of the dialectic, however grim.

Thank you, Norm. Eagerly awaiting your reply.

Best, Michael

To: Michael Weiss From: Norm Geras Subject: A General, Abstract Argument, But Also Necessary

Dear Michael,

Thanks for yours and for inviting me to take part in this exchange.

I'll start with your question about the Euston Manifesto. Did we conceive it as a return to the “heritage of noble radicalism”? I hesitate to answer that in the affirmative or to present the manifesto in any other grandiose terms, and this is for one simple reason.

When we first mooted producing such a document, we had a rather more modest aim: to define a few positions common amongst us (a group of bloggers and others), positions that we see as a legitimate part of contemporary left-liberal discourse but at odds with much else in that neck of the political woods. So much written about the manifesto since it was published has been so far wide of the mark that those of us who know of what we speak in this matter have a responsibility to try to keep things firmly on the ground.

On this score let me just briefly say that I take encouragement from the fact that, of the unfriendly responses to the Euston Manifesto, I've yet to see anything that we Eustonians would have trouble answering. Leaving aside willful misconstruals of what we were saying, and angry but more or less self-refuting denials that this had any purchase on the state of would-be “progressive” opinion today, there was a common observation of the manifesto's being very abstract and general. Yes, it is. So what?

Its generalities are ones that needed reaffirming; and they were a starting point for further discussion and further work, as we clearly stated. Some other criticisms were offered in a positive spirit and we replied to these as well as to representative examples of the more negative – and fancifully inventive – ones.

All that said, we were obviously wanting to insist on the importance of certain principles of liberalism and of the left that we feel have been lately subordinated to other less salubrious objectives. Yet I still prefer to pass as regards “noble.” We were just making a necessary argument, is all.

Turning to your question about the materialist conception of history, I don't think you can read the Euston Manifesto in that light. Remember that even though I had the principal part in drafting it, I did so on behalf of a group, only some of whom (as I knew) were of Marxist formation and commitment. So I didn't write it as a Marxist document, and that is clear from the whole shape of it.

“Splitting the difference” maybe makes some sense, therefore, in this context, in that the document looks for what Marxists, other kinds of socialist, social democrats, democrats period, and liberals, can defend in common amidst the political divisions rending the world today.

Even as far as I, personally, am concerned, I'd be hesitant to draw too strong a link between a general endorsement of historical materialism, such as I affirm, and any very particular political alignment. Despite the much spoken of “unity of theory and practice” within the Marxist tradition, I've never much been persuaded that you can move in a straightforward, linear way from a person's theoretical beliefs to their political views; and the last five years would have disabused me of that notion if I had been persuaded of it.

Not to belabor the point, but who could have anticipated that one day – in the last few months, in fact – organizations of the left of unambiguously Marxist lineage would be marching alongside reactionary religious fanatics and proclaiming their oneness with an outfit (Hizbollah) that openly proclaims its hatred of Jews and has no qualms about terrorist murder? Unthinkable, no? But having now to be thought. As Primo Levi observed out of a more terrible experience, everything happens.

Yes, in so far as the materialist conception of history and the commitment to rational analysis of social and economic forces that it depends upon don't sit well beside anti-modernist and obscurantist ideological impulses, one wouldn't expect the sort of alliances I've just spoken of, or the wider indulgence towards anti-democratic movements there now is on the Western left: the excuse-making or just lack of enthusiasm for speaking plainly against them. For myself, the central theoretical tenets of Marxism would seem like a sufficient defensive armory against such tendencies.

But then there's a cheap kind of “sociologism” of grievance around these days, which though in no way specifically Marxist since you can read and hear it everywhere where the well-meaning folk of the global dinner party are gathered, is easily derivable from a crudified historical materialism. It says: oh yes, they are terrorists, or at any rate “terrorists,” and this isn't ideal; but it is caused by grievances resulting from US foreign policy and from capitalist imperialism, and that is the overriding evil of our world, eclipsing, relativizing, every case of tyranny, mass murder, genocide – for, when all is said and done, these things can be traced back, reduced, to that.

As a Marxist I've never believed, naturally, that Marxism itself leads inevitably to such simplification. But like every other large body of ideas it is open to it.

Leftists and liberals today are faced with a serious challenge, part of the same challenge that menaces democratic societies overall. In those circumstances, an exclusivist insistence on one particular doctrinal heritage is not to the point. It isn't to the point anyway for other reasons. We need all the moral and intellectual resources we can muster, to defend moral and political achievements that were historically hard won.

Best, Norm

To: Norm Geras From: Michael Weiss Subject: The Herd of Independent Minds

Dear Norm, Thanks for your reply, and for setting me right on the lineaments of your political past and how they apply to the present. My interest in this direction was chiefly historical and perhaps a touch romantic.

The most inspired kind of socialism to which I’ve been drawn, as if to a rare bottle of wine that long ago peaked, is the eccentric, unorthodox kind: Firmly anti-totalitarian, internationalist, and cosmopolitan; probably Trotskyist, and very probably found in the yellowed pages of the old Partisan Reviews. (Harold Rosenberg’s celebrated formulation of the New York intellectuals as a “herd of independent minds” always struck me as being almost as affectionate as it was sarcastic.) So if in some sense Euston is a necessary departure from this tradition rather than an update of it, I suppose that this just heightens the urgency and relevance.

Still, the left wouldn’t be the left without an exhausting faction fight and, as you point out, Euston has not been without its critics, many of whom scream from the hilltops about just how meaningless it all is. Quite a few are misinformed as to the content of what they’re rebuking (who really reads such tracts anymore?) while others are just peevish about being called out by former comrades.

But one fraternal admonition I’ve seen is that the manifesto makes self-evident propositions seem as if they had just been invented. Let’s see, now: no brooking the erasure of art and culture, the enslavement of women, the cult of death, the drawing of moral equivalence between venal democratic statesmen and genocidal dictators, rampant Jew-hatred, and all sorts of strangulating medieval tendencies… This is getting back to basics in a major way. I mean you can even download Voltaire these days.

So why can’t a true left-liberal struggle be waged without even countenancing the sinister fools who believe that there is something redeemable about Osama bin Laden and his aims? Can’t these people just be dismissed?

I suppose to some extent they can. But then, just when you think that the merits of the Enlightenment are a foregone conclusion, and that arguments against the failures of Bush and Blair can resume in earnest, you encounter such an intellectual and moral degeneracy among those claiming to uphold solemn “progressive” principles. Then you see the size of their cheering sections and you’re chilled to the bone.

Ramsey Clark does pro bono work for mass murdering monsters yet he rallies thousands to the streets of Manhattan simply by mouthing the term “antiwar.” George Galloway openly declares solidarity with Saddam Hussein, steals from the people of Iraq through the oil-for-food racket, yet still he enjoys a seat in British parliament.

And even a few sane and admirable liberals like Tim Garton Ash and Ian Buruma wrinkle their nostrils at what they view as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Enlightenment fundamentalism.” (Having just gone through her autobiography and read her generous accounts of Muslim rites and rituals, I fail to see how this comparison holds up even as a clever act of rhetorical jujitsu. No bona fide fundamentalist pays any compliment, be it aesthetic or moral, to what she opposes.)

At the more esoteric level, nasty endorsements of fascists get buried in droning academism but are no less nasty for that fact. I realize that I’ve picked on him already, but this recent paint-by-number scrawl from Tariq Ali can’t be ignored, if for no other reason than its use of the oldest, most hackneyed meteorological imagery: “A radical wind is blowing from the alleys and shacks of the latter-day wretched of the earth, surrounded by the fabulous wealth of petroleum.”

Who are the valiant figures feeling the warm currents of change at their backs, you ask? Muqtada, Haniya, Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad. Oh my.

So I do think Euston serves a purpose beyond congratulating its backers for noticing the obvious. However, for all the hue and cry one hears about it in the British press, there has been a corresponding absence of discussion in the U.S. You linked to a Dissent essay in your letter, and it’s true that Michael Walzer and Paul Berman (both Euston signatories) are mainly responsible for the stateside advent of a “decent” left.

But as someone who covers the blogosphere for Slate, I can attest that there has been radio silence on this subject on my side of the Atlantic – ironic, when you consider that the manifesto was the product of cyberspace, the first realm that is literally “without borders” and thus ideal for promulgating internationalist doctrines.

Wells of Yank ink have instead been spilled on behalf of the so-called “netroots” movement founded by the DailyKos crowd, which is now as much a part of the cynical Washington establishment said to have first forced it into existence.

Why, then, are all Eustonians situated in Albion? For the uninitiated I would point to the following catalogue of online worthies: Harry’s Place, Drink-Soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War, Butterflies and Wheels [which has an Anglo-American editorship, but this is a rare exception], Bloggers 4 Labour, Labour Friends of Iraq, Little Atoms, and Alan Johnson’s excellent new literary journal Democratiya.

It’s on these sites that one will find frequent reference to some of the noble traditions of radicalism of which you modestly decline inheritance. There’s ample space here for May Day reminders alongside more pressing alarms about the congruence between sharia-minded clerics and the Socialist Workers Party of London. And doesn’t Euston more or less grant its geographical limitations by pledging itself again fashionable anti-Americanism?

My country’s politics of consensus and Europe’s fondness for political polarities have long been mutually unintelligible. Even “New” Labour is much farther to the left than the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” to quote Howard Dean. While “Trotskyists” in Bethnal Green and Bow today may not resemble pale shades of their former ideological selves, the adherence to the old nomenclature at least indicates some sense of revolutionary discipleship. In New York and Chicago, such is not the case (even when mass transit strikes are led by a union official with the provocative name of “Toussaint.”)

The joke had already grown stale in the sixties, when young American radicals who went around paying lip service to Marxism hadn’t actually read a single word of Marx. Now, not even the lip service is paid. It’s all just a mishmash of improvisational activism.

Funny, though, that Euston’s logic is indecipherable to precisely those groups that claim to represent the plights of the industrial working-class, the socially alienated, and the indigent at home and in the third world – all without a “doctrinal heritage” to take up. You alluded to some gooey late-nineties theoretical excesses: postmodernism, post-colonial studies, etc. No wonder you’re talking in tongues when you say that the great existential crisis of the new millennium has nothing to do with Halliburton’s last fiscal quarter…

This is what I was trying to get at before: Euston may have a wide purview but it does seem to attract a disproportionate following among those of classical Marxist and social democratic orientations. Netroots culls from the ranks of disaffected liberals (even some Republican conservatives) and pretty much everyone and anyone of the “Anybody But Bush” mentality.

So what’s the next step in swaying my compatriots, Norm? And what to be made of the fact that the only ones taking positive notice of Euston on these shores are the – gasp! –neocons of the Weekly Standard?

Best, Michael

To: Michael Weiss From: Norm Geras Subject: Forget "Decent Left"

Dear Michael,

From the day it was published, I've been in no doubt whatever that the Euston Manifesto served a purpose. In fact from well before that, otherwise it wouldn't have been written. But the very vehemence of the reaction to the manifesto, and the combination of that vehemence with the charge that it was full of well-meaning generalities, reinforced the conviction that certain things which should be well enough known by now on the left, but evidently aren't, needed to be said.

Who can doubt this when it happens in Britain that emphasizing the enduring importance of Enlightenment values can bring down upon those who do so the charge of Islamophobia? Just like that. You care about freedom of speech and opinion, principles of secularism, pluralism, democracy, and you argue for the superiority of these principles vis-à-vis any closed religious truth? Same deal: it's Western arrogance. And this in newspapers and on websites firmly confident of their own left-liberal credentials.

The response to the Euston Manifesto may well have been more muted in the US than it was in this country, but that's surely understandable. The group that produced it was based in the UK and the initial press coverage was concentrated here. Nonetheless, despite its initially modest ambitions, there was reaction to the manifesto in other countries too – in Australia, Canada, Italy and elsewhere. The document is now in translation in eleven languages. And it did get a significant number of signatories from the US, though I can't say exactly how many. One initiative from a group of US signatories has come to fruition with the joint statement 'American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto' (see also here).

I say all this not to exaggerate the reach of the manifesto but just so as not to overlook what movement there has been. The standpoint it represents within the left is far from being dominant, so it's as well to register everything positive that there is. Beyond this I don't have anything useful to add on the imbalance you draw attention to between the US and the UK.

I'd like to say in this connection, though here I speak only for myself (other Eustonians may see it differently), that I don't hold with the label “decent left.” I don't claim it and I don't use it. I'm aware in saying this that the phrase originates with Michael Walzer, and I don't have any quarrel with his stated intention in introducing it: looking for a politics at once “intelligent, responsible [and] morally nuanced,” and free of the more lamentable impulses displayed by sections of the left in the aftermath of September 11 2001.

Many of these were indecent, no question about it. But I prefer to argue against, and where appropriate to label, particular tendencies, forms of argument, exercises in apologia and what have you, without generally laying claim to and denying to others the moral status of “decency.” The category isn't much used as a claim, and I'm happy to abandon it to those by whom it is much used, but pejoratively: a small group in the British blogosphere, dismissive of Euston Manifesto politics and its authors and supporters. “Anti-Decents,” as it were, yet they are endlessly drawn back to the critique of “Decentism,” as if they have something stuck in their eye.

As for your question about the next step, I'm not confident enough in my knowledge of US conditions to venture anything very bold, but one thing I can say follows from what the Euston Manifesto group is and what it isn't. It isn't a political party or organization, and neither is it a political movement. We've been very clear about this from the beginning. The manifesto stated a broad political position, which those of us who produced it hoped might serve as a rallying point.

So the best thing you can do in the US is the same thing that we have to do here: help to make the argument, to continue the conversation. The future of the manifesto depends on this, on our elaborating on the positions already stated, making clearer things that aren't sufficiently clear, being more specific where so far we may have been too general and abstract, trying to answer some of the tough questions that are posed to liberals and people on the democratic left today.

Best, Norm

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