Can there be a new "New Left"? Some members of the Left believe there can be -- and that is why they have created the Euston Manifesto, a new document that makes an attempt to tie the Left with the traditions and institutions of liberal, pluralist democracy and rejects the anti-Americanism that now permeates much of the Left.
To discuss the Euston Manifesto with us today are two of its signers:
Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus at the University of Manchester. He has written books on Marx, Richard Rorty, and the Holocaust. He blogs at http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/
Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer, New Statesman and London Evening Standard . Cruel Britannia, a collection of his journalism, was published by Verso in 1999. Faber & Faber published Pretty Straight Guys, a history of Britain under Tony Blair, in 2003. He is finishing a book on what on earth has happened to the liberal-Left, which will be published by 4th Estate in February, 2007. www.nickcohen.net.
Joining us also is David Horowitz, Frontpage’s founder and editor-in-chief. His most recent books are The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics and Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left.
FP: Norman Geras, Nick Cohen and David Horowitz, welcome to our Frontpage discussion.
Mr. Geras and Mr. Choen, I'd like to speak to you today about the Euston Manifesto and what it means about the state of the Left. But let's first begin with a bit of a background about the both of you. Can you kindly tell us a bit about yourselves? What are your backgrounds? What brought you to the Left and what is it now that is making you break with certain realms of the Left?
Geras: Thank you for inviting me.
I was born and grew up in Rhodesia, as it then was. I came to England in 1962 to study, and stayed. My professional career, since 1967, has been as an academic. I don't find it that easy to say what brought me to the Left. Perhaps growing up in a country where the majority black population was subservient to a small white minority highlighted the meaning of social injustice. In any case, it is this - matters of justice, the hope of a better world – that has motivated my belonging to the Left. When I first became interested in politics, my father was an important influence, pointing me towards socialist literature.
I don't really accept 'breaking with' in your question here. Drawing a line against certain ideas and tendencies on the Left, yes - as spelled out in the Euston Manifesto itself. But these are not things I have had to break with: making excuses for the murder of civilians, undervaluing liberal freedoms and protections or the norms and procedures of a pluralist democratic society, uttering relativist evasions with regard to basic human rights, closing ones eyes to the need for solidarity with people suffering under tyrannical regimes, and so forth. I've long been persuaded, as a socialist, of the values that parts of the Left disgrace.
There's some pre-history to where I now am politically - from the Falklands War through the first Gulf War and the NATO intervention in Kosovo. In all of these cases I did not accept the 'anti-war' left position. But a watershed for me was 9/11. The reaction to it by parts of the Left I found shameful and sickening. I knew for a certainty from that point that people on the Left who felt similarly had to speak out against the kind of thinking that inspired it. In the time since then - partly in connection with the Iraq war - we have come to see that it wasn't just a one-off response or an erratic one.
FP: Thank you Mr. Geras.
Cohen: I'm from the North of England from a Left-wing family. Being on the Left used to feel natural to me. I always thought that conservatives were somehow wicked. I still do to an extent, the pull of the tribe is very strong.
I am a journalist and author. I have spent all of my career in the national press here working for liberal-Left newspapers and magazines -- the Independent, the Observer and the New Statesman.
Unlike Norman, I do feel there has been a big break with the past. Why did I think the Left was a centre of goodness while the Right was essentially wicked? Anyone who knows the history of the 20th century knows that is a nonsensical idea. If you had put me on the spot a few years ago and asked me to explain myself, I would have mumbled words to the effect that, whatever its other crimes and follies, the Left had always opposed fascistic ideas and regimes and offered support to their victims. That simply isn't true any longer.
The failure to support democratic movements in Iraq has nullified what claims the Left had to a monopoly of virtue. There are good reasons for the failure, which we may get to.
But the truth is that if Iranian feminists or an Iraqi socialists or a Chinese trade unionists appeal to help to liberal-minded people in the rich world who profess to share their values, the likelihood is that they will be met with indifference or spite.
FP: Thank you Mr. Geras and Mr Cohen.
Both of you imply that the Left has only just recently started betraying some kind of noble tradition that it once had – in terms of supposedly supporting some kind of noble values and democracy etc.
Mr. Cohen does this less, but his sentence “That simply isn’t true any longer” (my emphasis) about the Left once having supposedly opposed fascistic ideas and regimes and offered support to their victims is the crucial indicator of this assumption.
The Left has a long, depressing, ugly and blood-stained record of worshipping the most vile and barbaric tyrannies of the 20th century, including Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam and Castro’s Cuba.
What exactly do you find so new in the Left’s behavior in this terror war?
Geras: You're wanting me to answer for the record of the whole left, but I'm not obliged to do that – no more than a pro-capitalist but democratically-minded conservative is obliged to answer for every movement or episode on the right - racist organizations, say, or a torturing military junta that came out of a coup against a democratically elected government.
I didn't suddenly learn about the crimes of Stalinism or Maoism or Pol Pot yesterday or today. It was part of my political formation as a socialist that I knew about these things, and opposed and condemned them. In taking my distance from the apologetic reaction of a part of the left to 9/11, I have drawn the parallel between that reaction and just some of those earlier experiences.
So when you say that I 'imply that the Left has only just recently started betraying some kind of noble tradition'... well, no I don't imply that. I've been on the Left all my adult life, but the Left I've been on was already aware that it wasn't all 'noble tradition'.
My reference points, therefore, aren't yours. I am dismayed to see leftists of my own generation who precisely do know this earlier history of apologia and excuse-making for political criminality, and know the price that was paid for it, now making excuses for terrorist movements and aligning themselves ambiguously, or worse than ambiguously, between people struggling for democracy and the murderous forces that oppose them.
I also don't accept your one-sided presentation of the Left. Leftists in Europe fought and died in the struggle against Nazism and fascism; they went to Spain to oppose Franco in the civil war; all over the world socialists have fought for basic rights for working people; they have protested and argued and marched in solidarity with those struggling against colonial oppression; they worked in the movement for civil rights; and, yes, some of them spoke out against the crimes being committed in the name of socialism and did so even as those crimes were happening. And so forth.
If we're to speak about the Euston Manifesto, we won't usefully get there via a perspective on the history of the Left - yours, Jamie - not shared by those who produced it.
FP: I am not sure how a pro-capitalist and a democratically-minded conservative is obliged to answer for people who are part of some racist organization or a torturing military junta.
But if you are on the Left, are you not part of an ideology that holds that human redemption, accompanied by human equality and a classless society, is possible and that it can be engendered through social engineering? Is not a member of the Left therefore somewhat accountable to, and complicit with, what the socialist ideal has spawned in its earthly incarnations?
Cohen: What I find telling is that 9/11 people on the Left have been offering excuses for movements which are fascistic and that is new, or at least very rare. Islamism obviously is imperialist, sexist, homophobic, theocratic -- in short, everything liberals have been against since the Enlightenment. The precedents for Saddam's ethnic extermination campaigns against 'impure' races are clear enough, or ought to be. The fact that not just on the far Left here but in the liberal mainstream people no longer regard acting as apologists for such forces as taboo does, I think, herald a disintegration of old assumptions. Friends of mine blame it on Bush. He's such a terrible president that he sent liberal opinion into a berserker rage which will pass when he's gone. I hope it will, but I'm not sure.
As for your "But if you are on the Left, are you not part of an ideology that holds that human redemption, accompanied by human equality and a classless society, is possible and that it can be engendered through social engineering?"
No one on the Left apart from Communists believes in a classless society and there are hardly any Communists left. If I were to advocate higher taxes on he American rich and propose using the proceeds to, say, improve the lamentable quality of public schools would you seriously argue that I was taking the first steps on the road to the Gulag?
FP: After everything that the Western Left has perpetrated in the 20th Century, including the facilitation of the bloodbath in Indochina after forcing an American withdrawal from Vietnam, that you would represent the Left with a reference to an effort in a free society to improve the quality of public schools . . . . leaves me somewhat speechless.
Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s killing fields were spawned by the notion of the possibility of earthly redemption. Those who believe that earthly redemption is possible and work towards such a reality, having learned nothing from the past, are complicit in the earthly incarnations of their ideal.
I remained somewhat puzzled as to what is so complicated about this.
But we can return to this theme later.
Overall, it is highly admirable to see members of the Left such as yourselves standing up for a moral and decent position in our current terror war. Kindly tell us the key points of the Euston Manifesto, who the signers are, and what you expect to accomplish with it.
Geras: I for my part am somewhat puzzled as to why you think that, in talking about the Euston Manifesto, we must answer for those who believe in "the possibility of earthly redemption". I don't think I've ever believed in the possibility of earthly redemption; and for something like a decade and a half now anyone reading my work will have been able to see this clearly.
I'm also puzzled as to why you find it easy to make distinctions within the right - as between 'a pro-capitalist and... democratically-minded conservative' on the one hand, and "racist organization(s) or a torturing military junta" on the other - while having difficulty allowing that there could be people on the left not complicit in the crimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
But moving on to your question about the Euston Manifesto, I think the easiest way of responding on what its key points are is by giving a brief excerpt from something Nick and I wrote to introduce it. We said:
"We [the Euston Manifesto Group] value the traditions and institutions of the liberal, pluralist democracies, and we decline to make excuses for, to indulgently 'understand', reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy. We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal.
Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context. The manifesto speaks of our attachment to egalitarianism in all domains.
"We reject the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal thinking. We support the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There are paragraphs [in the manifesto] opposing racism and identifying the resurgence of anti-Semitism; on terrorism and against the excuses made for it; on humanitarian intervention when states violate the common life of their peoples in appalling ways.
"We argue that breaking with the tradition of left apologetics for anti-democratic forces and regimes is long overdue; that there is a duty of respect for the historical truth; and that it is more than ever necessary to affirm that, within the usual constraints against incitement, people must be at liberty to criticize beliefs - including religious beliefs – that others cherish."
The original group of signatories of the manifesto consists of bloggers, academics, journalists, writers and others. In the first instance what we aim to achieve with the document is to establish a position round which people of similar views might rally, and which can become a focus for debate. To some extent this has already happened since the manifesto was published.
FP: I think a member of the Left might have to answer for those who believe in “the possibility of earthly redemption” because up until this very moment, even after the “New” Left, the Left is still to shed itself of its totalitarian stripes. Why?
Just the fact that the Euston Manifesto is even necessary says something about the Left, no?
Could it possibly be that the Left has been totalitarian throughout its history not because its leaders and members perverted its basic ideas, but because something might be flawed with the ideas themselves?
In any case, the principles of the Euston Manifesto Group are admirable, noble and to be praised. As members of the Left, you promote pluralism, reject anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and reactionary regimes, and break with the tradition of left apologetics for anti-democratic forces and regimes – which you maintain is long overdue.
To be honest, as someone who spent many years in academia, and was therefore surrounded -- and suffocated -- by the Left, I could not even imagine the leftist milieus I know digesting these concepts. Anyone that did accept them would be blacklisted by the Left with which I am familiar.
Mr. Cohen, tell us more about the Manifesto and why you think it is that the circumstances within the Left made it necessary.
Can a Left that is pro-American, pro-Israel and anti-Islamist even remain a “Left” in our understanding of the word/label?
For instance, what is your stance on capitalism?
Cohen: Dear Jamie, you say you have spent many years in academia, my advice is to get out before your thinking deteriorates any further. Naturally, I accept that being surrounded by a bunch of post-modern theorists is enough to drive the most level-headed men and women quite mad, but your comments show in miniature why America is losing.
Here you are up against a psychopathic totalitarian ideology. You ought to have the sympathy of democrats around the world. But if you, like the Bush administration, refuse to understand that there are different currents in democratic thinking and say with no self-consciousness of what a fool you sound that 'the Left has been totalitarian throughout its history' you alienate your potential allies. Democracy is a little more than one notion of the free market from America, which in practice America follows more in theory than in practice. Now get a grip and read some history.
FP: Thank you Mr. Cohen, David Horowitz is going to join us now. Mr. Horowitz, welcome to the discussion.
Horowitz: Thank you Jamie. Greetings gentlemen. First of all I'd like to acknowledge your courage in issuing this manifesto. The leftists you are challenging do not take kindly to deviations like this, and they will undoubtedly make you pay a price for taking this stand on principle. My hat is off to you.
You are quite right to regard the failure of the left to support democracy in Iraq as a disgrace to the traditions which the left claims as its own. And you are also right that there is an honorable tradition in the left of those who have stood up against the tyrannies created in its name, and who have given their lives opposing those tyrannies. Stalin filled many graves with these brave souls. The question is this. Looking over the history of the left since 1917, this opposition to leftist tyranny from within the left has been confined to a very small segment of its ranks, and a politically insignificant one at that. I think what Jamie was asking was whether that in itself says something about the left itself. Another way to put this question is to ask: what do you think you can accomplish with this appeal to a left that historically has never responded to such appeals to principle in a politically significant way?
Of course if you want to define the left broadly to include say Tony Blair, then the opposition to leftwing tyranny and the support for the liberation of Iraq has been much larger and obviously is politically significant. But broadening the scope of the left this way drains the term of important meaning. I think this is what Jamie had in mind when he asked about your attitude towards capitalism. If you had Blair social democrats in mind in writing the Manifesto, you would hardly need a manifesto. You would just be Blair Laborites. And if this is the case, Blair has already provided all the manifesto you need. Obviously you have in mind a left with more rigorously conceived social agendas, and a narrower sense of political heritage.
So the first question is this: Why do you think the Euston Manifesto will have any significance within the left that subscribes to programs of social transformation and identifies with traditions like Marxism -- a left that is not simply the Labor Party or the Democratic Party? Second, what keeps you in this left at all, why do you still feel the need to make it part of your political identity? Why not recognize that it is never -- in its significant mass -- going to be anything more than it has been? Why not just turn your back on it, join the big crowd out there that shares your values and doesn't need manifestos and get on with your political lives without a "movement"?
Here's another way of putting this question: The only thing that appears to unify and motivate the progressive left today is its hatred of the bourgeois democratic West and its global "hegemony." It has no positive values or program that can evidently be separated from this cause. That seems to be the clear meaning of its response en masse to 9/11. Except for a small minority of intellectuals who have no political influence. Do you disagree with this conclusion? On what grounds?
Geras: David, I don't think it took great courage to issue the Euston Manifesto. That there are people on the left who haven't taken kindly to it is true, but then the same people haven't taken kindly to many of the positions that Nick and I were arguing for before the manifesto was produced. The 'price' they exact for not thinking what they do doesn't especially trouble me, whereas thinking what they do would.
I don't believe it will be productive for me to pursue further the questions the two of you are asking that are based on superimposing your understanding of what the left has historically been on mine or Nick Cohen's. I've already said why I don't accept that view of it. You seem to have no difficulty with the notion of a right composed of different political currents or "types" - that is the clear implication of knowing the difference between a democratically-minded conservative and a racist or a fascist - but when it comes to the left you squeeze down, and squeeze out, people of democratic outlook as if the space between Stalin and Pol Pot, on the one hand, and Tony Blair, on the other, was all but empty. It isn't - and never has been.
As of now, it's impossible to say what the long-term significance of the Euston Manifesto will be. But it wasn't envisaged as starting a "movement", as you imply - merely as providing a rallying point, in the first instance, for leftists and liberals with similar commitments to those articulated in the document. Why bother? Why not just turn my back on the left? Adapting something else I wrote recently, two reasons.
First, even for someone who doesn't regard the left as the best place to be politically, a more rather than a less healthy Left is surely to be desired. In politics you don't know how many will agree with what you have to say until you've said it, and there are already signs that what we've said in the Euston Manifesto - about holding firm to democratic principles and universal human rights, about not making excuses for tyranny or terrorism, about opposing anti-Americanism and not selling short the liberal tradition of freedom of ideas - has found a welcome from a section of left-liberal opinion. How far this will go remains to be seen, but except from a very narrowly partisan view, it has to be better for public debate and the well-being of the polity, that those on the "other side" from you are attached to principles of a better rather than a worse kind.
Second, for those of us who haven't given up on the left, there is more reason still why we shouldn't want to see democratic and universalist values made light of. We see these values as linked to others which have always been the special concern of the left. No one else can be relied on to defend them. Daniel Finkelstein wrote in The (London) Times that the "task of persuading the Left is... unnecessary": for if the Euston Manifesto had been published by rightwingers, support for it on the Right would have been overwhelming. But that isn't true of some of the manifesto's positions - for example, its embrace of broadly egalitarian principles and of trade unions as the "bedrock organizations for the defence of workers' interests", and its defence (in Shalom Lappin's words) of "the integrity of the public domain against the onslaught of privatization and expropriation that has resulted from the dogmatic pursuit of neo-liberal ideas". Some conservative voices have, in welcoming the manifesto, expressed clear reservations about these aspects of it.
Horowitz: Your refusal to answer my question as to why you choose to belong to a movement in which the views you represent have been consistently marginal for a hundred years suggests that your commitment to the left has a religious rather than a rational basis. Your “explanation” rests on drawing a parallel between the left as a spectrum of views and the right as a similar spectrum. But this claim cannot be sustained in the face of the historical record, at least in the English-speaking world, which has given mankind constitutional and liberal democracy, and has led the fight against Communist and fascist and Islamo-fascist totalitarianisms.
For a hundred years, 95% of the English-speaking left (or thereabouts) has supported totalitarian regimes and causes and – of equal importance -- has been at war with liberal democracies, the only real world forces opposed to those totalitarian regimes and causes (“anti-anti-Communism”).
Over the same period, 95% of English-speaking conservatives have supported actually existing democracies and opposed totalitarian regimes. Even if the figure of Tory fascists was larger than 5% in the 1930s, when the moment of decision came, the Tory Party rejected Moseleyism and produced in Churchill the leader of anti-fascist Britain. In sum, ideological and de facto supporters of totalitarian movements and regimes are marginal to conservatism in the English-speaking world. The reverse is true for the left: its vast majority has supported totalitarianism and been engaged in a political hundred years war against liberal democracy.
There is a reason for this -- which was pointed out by Kolakowski thirty years ago and by Hayek before that. Conservatism and leftism are not parallel ideologies, but distinctive ways of looking at the world itself. Unlike conservatism, which is based on a commitment to actually existing social institutions that work, the left’s outlook is based on an ideological program that is shaped not by an appreciation of real world institutions but by an imagined (and in my view imaginary) future. This program for the future is based, in turn, on a totalitarian idea: social justice. Social justice presumes a social entity which can distribute social goods equitably. This social entity is necessarily a state power. Consequently social justice requires the domination of civil society by the state and the restriction of individual liberty generally and as matter of course. The more “social justice,” the less liberty. By contrast, the American Founders recognized that there is an inherent conflict between liberty and equality, or liberty and “social justice.” In sum, the passion for social justice is a totalitarian passion and it is not surprising, therefore, that the left (to the left of Tony Blair) has been throughout its history a totalitarian force. Leftwing anti-totalitarians, like yourself, have always been extremely marginal.
It is true that you perform a valuable service as critics of the totalitarian left “from within” so to speak. But that cannot be the reason you are there. So, to return to the question you have left unanswered: Why – after a hundred years of relentless disappointment (and I would say regression at the present historical juncture) do you think this would change?
Cohen: Ok. Let's look at the last 100 years. If I were to go back to 1906 and meet a couple of angry right-wing New Yorkers, a little like yourselves, but better dressed, and describe the future to them, I would be able to say that in 2006 all men and women would have the vote; all the empires, including the American empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific would have vanished; it would be impossible for an openly racist or sexist candidate to win a democratic election; all Western states, including the United States, would spend a large proportion of gross domestic product on welfare; there would be rights for groups you -- as angry New York Right-wingers -- would never have thought about, such as homosexuals and the disabled; everyone, including Republicans, would talk in the language of human rights; it would be impermissible for any Western army to commit crimes against humanity...I could go on.
My point is that you would have felt that history would be moving against you while your contemporaries on The Nation of 1906 would be delighted. The 20th century was a left wing century. I do, however, think that Iraq raises the question of whether there is any creativity left on the Left or whether it has won all it can reasonably expect to win and is sinking into a sour misanthropy. Maybe it's just Bush and they'll snap out of it when he's gone. But there are no guarantees.
Horowitz: Well, I guess through leftist lenses every good thing looks red. You have not so subtly shifted the issue from supporting totalitarianism to supporting issues debated within a democratic social order: property qualifications for the vote, women’s participation in the political process and civil rights. This was not the issue I raised. The issue I raised was the left’s historical war against bourgeois democracies as such. This war goes back to the Jacobins, as you well know. Ninety-five percent of the left which you still want to be part of has fought a two-hundred year war against western “bourgeois” democracies. Why would you want to be part of that?
Even on these matters of debate within democratic societies you have a pretty one-sided view of matters. More Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Acts than Democrats, to take one example. Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to invite a black man to the White House. Booker T. Washington was himself a conservative. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. The Populists, on the other hand, were racists. The other issues raise by are equally complex, and there’s no point in arguing them because they’re irrelevant to the issue at hand.
The Twentieth Century was indeed a leftwing century, between the Mussolini socialists and the Lenin socialists and the Hitler socialists it wasn’t a pretty sight.
This is the way an argument develops when you stray from the point – all heat and no light. The question to you was this: you are democrats and reformers. Why aren’t you simply Blair Laborites? Why write a manifesto appeal to the left which long ago joined the dark side? Why be part of a movement that is revolutionary and totalitarian in nature? Why feel polarized against people like us who are also democrats and reformers?
Geras: If I want an exchange with someone who tells me that my commitments have “a religious rather than a rational basis,” and puts the word “explanation” in scare-quotes to refer to a view I've expressed, I can drop into some rabid comments box somewhere. But I have better ways of spending my time.
There seems to have been a misunderstanding in the setting up of this exchange. I took it that it was to be about the Euston Manifesto, but so far it's been about answering to FP's views on the history of the left. I've already indicated that I don't share these and I've indicated why. We should move on.
As for these latest remarks, David, once again I don't accept your account of things - in particular your claim that the entire historical credit for constitutional and liberal democracy is due to conservatives. As if labour movements had had nothing to do with the rights and freedoms won for ordinary people within these democracies; ditto movements for civil rights; ditto what has been achieved through the struggles of women. As if all the people who were part of these movements had been conservatives.
The claim, too, that social justice is a totalitarian idea is unpersuasive (to put this gently). There are totalitarian versions of the idea; and then there are other versions. Some of those very democracies that you commend are in part what they are today through having adapted in face of movements for social justice. Labour legislation regulating conditions of employment, public health provision, welfare programmes, public education, the acceptance of differences in sexuality, none of this has anything to do with totalitarianism.
Horowitz: I apologize for putting the word “explanation” between quotes. It was careless of me, not mean-spirited, however. I just wanted to indicate that I didn’t think your explanation on that particular point explained anything. My comment on the religious nature of your commitment to the left was elicited because of your refusal to answer the question I put to you, as to why you insist on engaging – in comradely fashion – a left that has demonstrated over and over again its totalitarian commitments.
We featured your manifesto but since we don’t believe it will have more than a marginal life in the left -- because of the nature of the left as demonstrated during its two hundred year history. It is impervious to appeals like yours. The death of the “new” left should have shown you that.
I don’t believe I said – and I certainly don’t believe – that the entire historical credit for the creation of constitutional and liberal democracies belongs to conservatives. Tom Paine was a radical and no one would deny that he made a major contribution to American democracy (and I don’t have to wait to read Hitchen’s book to know that). I have never said the left has not been an important part of the movement towards greater freedoms and more humane conditions within a framework of ordered liberty. My point was that this framework of ordered liberty has itself been historically defended by conservatives but attacked by the left as oppressive, reactionary and worthy of destruction.
What I said was that conservatives were pragmatists and that at least on this continent they have been committed to conserving constitutional democracy and (relatively) limited government, while the left has been committed to a war against all actually existing constitutional, liberal, democracies. That is a very different proposition than say that the left has made no contribution to the struggle for civil rights or social welfare (although it was Bismarck who invented the welfare state).
I’m asking you to step outside the vision of the left, as an academic exercise, and look at the historical experience we have been through, and then assess your commitment to this movement as a cause. Because that is how I read your manifesto – it is a commitment to reforming a cause, which I believe (as someone who has seen more than one Euston Manifesto come and go) is doomed to repeat its catastrophic failures.
The quest for an impossible future is what creates the radical left, and the name of that idea these days is “social justice.” Sure, you can define social justice as a mild social reform, a little more equity, a little more fairness, and you can define socialism as a matter of the heart as Irving Howe sort of did before he died. But in practice, by identifying with a historical left which is now in its political mass pressing Britain and America to leave Iraq to the terrorists (just as it pressed America to leave Vietnam and Cambodia to the Communists) you are giving a meaning to the term social justice which is quite radical. The defeat of the West would be the defeat of all possible social obstacles to a totalitarian future.
Paradoxically, this is the very reason I applaud what you are doing, which is challenging the leftist front against the democratic West. But my question to you is (and was): Why aren’t you simply Blair Laborites? What is the need for a manifesto if you are just part of the post-Thatcher social democratic movement that has assimilated to the modern world?
Perhaps you do believe in radical social change, and perhaps this is what we should have been discussing. If so, I would welcome the opportunity.
As for social justice, I think Hayek had pretty much the last word on this matter. There is no such thing as “society” which can distribute or withhold justice. In a market system the distribution of social rewards is not determined by “society,” but by impersonal exchanges that are beyond any global human comprehension. The call for social justice –for “equality of condition” is, therefore, inevitably a call to deliver into the hands of a small political elite the power to decide what everyone else “deserves” and should get. Since the implementation of a program to implement “social justice” requires the obliteration of the lines separating the private from the social, it is in fact a totalitarian agenda.
Hayek began as a socialist as you know. Leszek Kolakowski, a new leftist, made the same point about the socialist project at a conference at Oxford in 1973 originally called “What Is Wrong With the Socialist Idea?” What was wrong in his view was the fact that the quest for equality creates a new elite class that must decide on who gets equality at what pace. The quest for social unity – “community” in the lexicon of most socialists – is a quest to obliterate the autonomy of the private sphere. All redistributionist agendas move in a similar direction. So I think this is an idea you should consider more seriously than you are apparently have.
You are mostly right that “Labour legislation regulating conditions of employment, public health provision, welfare programmes, public education, the acceptance of differences in sexuality, none of this has anything to do with totalitarianism.” But that’s what Tony Blair thinks, and a conservative like me thinks too. So why define yourself in a tradition which does have a lot to do with totalitarianism?
Cohen: I have never been a part of the totalitarian Left, and I'm not at all clear why you say that I have with such confidence. Suppose I were to assert that you were a part of the Nazi or Ku Klux Klan tradition, and you were to reply that you were no such thing. Suppose I were to insist that you were on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, to display a near total ignorance of all the democratic strands on the American Right and to keep repeating the same charge without substantiation or modification.
I suspect you would feel you were debating with a man who was ever so slightly unhinged and give up.
I give up.
Geras: It looks as if we're pretty well done here. I have just a few points in response to David's last two contributions.
Hitler wasn't a socialist; he was a deadly enemy of every type of socialism and of all independent organizations of the worker's movement.
I'm not a Blair Labourite, to answer your direct question with a direct answer, because I'm a socialist and Tony Blair isn't.
For the rest, in your latest responses you simply recycle the same thought from which both you and Jamie started: namely, that the left is a kind of monolith of badnesses of various kinds, and it's puzzling why we should want to be "part" of this, be "engaging" with it, be "identifying" with it. The thing becomes easier to grasp once you see that, like the right, the left is not in fact a monolith; there is variety within it and there always has been.
I have no problem with belonging to it, even while "drawing a line" - as it says in the preamble to the Euston Manifesto – against certain tendencies that compromise and disgrace its most basic values. There is also a pluralist tradition within the left, of which Rosa Luxemburg was one exemplar. Once you recognize this, the paradox you think you see in our standpoint evaporates.
Horowitz: We have reached an impasse. My point was that insofar as socialists like you are pluralist, seeking mild reforms and supporting the war against Islamo-fascism you are entirely and – as the historical record shows -- inevitably marginal to the left itself. I never said that the left is a “monolith of badness” – in fact I have praised both of you, your admirable manifesto and the little movement it has inspired for standing up for the values that the vast majority of leftists claim to support but don’t. If you were willing to acknowledge that, maybe you would see why the issues Jamie and I raised are important. I thank you both for participating in this exchange. Perhaps it has been useful to others.
FP: Nick Cohen, Norman Geras and David Horowitz, thank you for taking the time out for this dialogue.
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