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Mutiny on the Manifesto

First it was the sight of leftist organizations and middle class liberals marching in “peace” parades alongside Islamic thugs calling for the murder of apostates. Then there were the formerly progressive gazettes like The Nation and The Guardian championing corpse-mutilating theocrats like Muqtada al-Sadr and the suicide bombing “resistance” in Iraq. And the coup de grace: London’s Labor party mayor Ken Livingstone graciously welcoming Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a cleric who called for the murder of gays and Jews. Amidst this moral and ideological muddle, a group of graying British Marxists and ex-Communists huddled together in a London pub in May of 2005 and began crafting a manifesto for the 21st century left. Enough was enough.

For nearly a year the group – made up of bloggers like “Harry Hatchet” from Harry’s Place, and leftist academics like the Marxist political philosopher Norman Geras and the Democratiya editor Alan Johnson met regularly to debate the past and future of progressive politics. In April 2006, the group unveiled a common statement of principles called the Euston Manifesto, named after the scruffy area where they assembled, and published it in the New Statesman and the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog. The manifesto was a seemingly uncontroversial document aiming to reassert classic liberal values: democracy over dictatorship, freedom of speech over censorship, and the need to advocate for the oppressed and the impoverished.

It quickly became one of the most debated left-wing political doctrines in decades, with nearly every British newspaper and journal opining on it, and thousands of people from around the world signing it. But now the unfolding human disaster in postwar Iraq threatens to smother the infant movement in its crib. Many Eustonites who supported the war have grown desperate to dissociate themselves from their former position, leading some to not only reconsider the strategic soundness of the war, but also to demean the humanist principles upon which the manifesto was based. Such petty factionalism will ensure that when the next Bush is elected, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

Signers of the manifesto included Michael Walzer, the editor of Dissent; Michael Ignatieff, the human rights activist and now Canadian member of parliament; Daniel Bell, the famed New York intellectual and Harvard sociologist; Paul Berman, the historian of European radicalism; and Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. Ignatieff, Berman and Wieseltier supported the Iraq war with optimism, while Walzer assailed it as a foolhardy and potentially catastrophic adventure.

What the signers shared, however, was the desire to see some good come of a post-Saddam Iraq and for the most targeted enemies of the regime – secular socialists, trade unionists, Kurdish politicians – to stake their claim at self-determination. All Eustonites shared a commitment to human rights, regardless of the hemisphere in which they were being violated: Are the victims of Robert Mugabe any less piteous because Mugabe once fought against British colonialism? They denounced the reflexive anti-Americanism that constitutes an ideology for figures like Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, a tendency that is also wedded to the notion that Israel is the most criminal nation on the planet.

Euston was an attempt to end the polarization that’s infected the left since the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed the movement of its sense of historical direction. Without a coherent strategy, liberalism devolved into a balkanized nightmare where liberal precepts were lost to the pressure of radical imperatives. It was a time for unity.

That time was short lived. In the August 5th issue of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Ignatieff represented his support for the intervention as the product of foolish “emotion” for the suffering of the Kurds and Shia of Iraq. But opposition to the slaughter of minorities is no frivolous emotion; it is an essential and non-negotiable feature of leftist politics. Ignatieff is entitled to change his mind, but he should have the self-respect not to mischaracterize his former position and thus suggest there were no compelling reasons for ending a genocidal fascist dictatorship.

Of all those who once backed the war but then recanted, surely none has matched the shamelessness of British journalist Johann Hari, who today denounces Euston with all the hysterical and slanderous zeal of a penitent heretic seeking to return to Holy Mother Church.

Hari’s “eulogy for the pro-war left” was published in the Independent newspaper as an expanded version of his blunt hatchet job for Dissent magazine on the book What’s Left: How the Liberals Lost Their Way, written by the Observer columnist and Euston Manifesto co-author Nick Cohen.

What’s Left is a bitterly candid history of the left’s penchant for betraying its own ideals when they matter most. It’s a tale that begins not with the nutbags of the ANSWER coalition or the Socialist Workers' Party, or the RESPECT Party ghoul George Galloway, but with Communists who allied with Hitler during his notorious pact with Stalin, a period rightly termed the “midnight of the century.” From here, the left’s plunge into desuetude became easy: Cohen chronicles the radical chic of the sixties and seventies, when celebrities like the Redgraves were in thrall to the “Trotskyist” cult leader Gerry Healy, and when New Left icons like Sartre and Foucault cheered theocratic reactionaries like the Ayatollah Khomeini and sport-killing rebels like Che Guevara.

Today, with the rise of various schools of postmodern theory, a politics of improvisation prevails. Anything goes on the left, including doing the rancid public relations work of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. To glance at some of the slogans of antiwar marches – “Hands Off Iraq” neatly conflated a people with its enslaver – is to see how such fringe thinking has penetrated the liberal mainstream.

Hari’s unlettered and willful misreading of Cohen’s book has been well documented by Euston bloggers, most notably by Oliver Kamm (see here and here) and Norman Geras. But the essence of Hari’s efforts to discredit the Euston Manifesto is his claim that the document is explicitly pro-war.

Here is what the Euston Manifesto actually says about Iraq: “The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against.” One of the figures conspicuously in the “against” camp was Michael Walzer, Hari’s own editor at Dissent! For his part, Cohen supported the military overthrow of the Ba’ath on human rights grounds, but rejected what he called the “false bill of goods” with which the White House and Downing Street sought to scare their constituencies into battle.

Of course, it’s not enough for Cohen to air these concerns and regrets; he should now acknowledge that they eclipse all other arguments about the legitimacy of deposing Saddam, as if the failure to uncover WMD erased Halabja and the invasions of Iran and Kuwait clean from the books. Hari’s use of historical tragedy for factional point-scoring is a hoary leftist tactic, and also the greatest tribute he could pay to shrieking conservatives like David Horowitz, who think that the left is too compromised by its past defeats to muster any late-breaking courage in the current struggle for civilization. Euston remains the best hope to prove them both wrong.

The editors of Jewcy are of diverse politics, and like the authors of the Euston Manifesto, we held a range of opinions on the Iraq war, from complete skepticism, to guarded support based on humanitarian calculations, to enthusiastic support for the prospect of bringing democratic government to the Middle East. Yet we signed the manifesto because we are all committed to anti-fascism, internationalism, and solidarity with democratic dissidents living in fear and tyranny. The fact that such positions are so controversial in today’s political landscape is proof enough of Euston’s relevance.

Cohen’s most chilling prophecy, brought to reality by his cheapest heckler, is that once the mainstream left runs out of banner enemies, what then? Tony Blair is gone. George W. Bush is on his way out. With fewer and fewer bugbears to assail, the left will have to face real monsters sooner or later, and when it does, it will find that all of its old casuistries and excuses have come to dust.

Our first priority must be a declaration of common cause with the victims of religious or state totalitarianism. Jewcy is with the authors of Euston in making that declaration, and we don’t believe that anyone who remains silent on the issue can be properly called a person of the left.

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Michael Weiss reviewed What's Left for the New York Post when it was published stateside.

He also conducted a Jewcy dialogue last summer with the Euston Manifesto's co-author Norm Geras.

Hari and Cohen have been going at it in the latest issue of Dissent.

Daily Shvitz guest editor Mr. Eugenides thought Hari's critique was "interesting and thoughtful," though he's in broad sympathy with the Euston left.

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