Left On The Euston Platform

The ‘Euston Manifesto’, published in April by a group of left-leaning journalists and others who backed the Iraq war, has attracted much media attention.

Given the degree of journalistic attention accorded to the ‘Euston Manifesto’ when it first appeared, it is appropriate to offer a considered response to what its authors claim to be the basis for a ‘fresh political alignment’ of the progressive left. They purport to defend the ‘authentic values’ of the left against those who opposed the war on Iraq and oppose the continuing occupation, asserting that we operate double standards by supporting forces hostile to our values.

While this is certainly true of some of those who opposed the war, it is a travesty as a characterisation of the overwhelming majority of those in the anti-war movement. The values that the manifesto espouses are historically, and remain today, those that the democratic left has always advocated and struggled for, and the attempt to appropriate them by this group for their own purposes is deeply offensive to the wide spectrum of those on the left who have been working for them all their lives.

The Manifesto Group’s attempt to draw a line between those who support the values of the Enlightenment, of modernity, of the Age of Revolutions, against those who do not, or are prepared to compromise them, is wholly spurious.  The suggestion that the differences that exist are over values, or indeed over whether there are universal values, is to overemphasise the influence of post-modern relativism and is a diversion. The real difference between the group and the democratic left is over analysis – the analysis of the structures of power in today’s global society and of what follows from that analysis for the implementation of the values to which all on the democratic left subscribe.

The manifesto also accuses the anti-war movement of anti-Americanism and suggests that criticism of Israel’s racist treatment of the occupied Palestinian people is often a cover for anti-semitism. Once again, this misses the point. While there undoubtedly exists blanket anti-Americanism and some resurgence of anti-semitism, the real issue is not that of being pro or anti America or Israel, but recognition of the differences that exist within countries and the decision as to which internal forces the democratic left should support in terms of its values.

In the US and Israel, as in Iraq, there are progressive and reactionary forces. The democratic Left has a long history of supporting the former, and this has usually meant opposing the policies of the dominant power structures and governments in these countries. The same is true in Britain, of course, where our main responsibility is to defend the hard won democratic gains of centuries of struggle and oppose our government’s support for reactionary forces in other countries.

Equality and global capitalism

The Euston Manifesto supports ‘broader social and economic equality all round’; stands for ‘global economic development-as-freedom’; argues that ‘global markets and free trade must not be allowed to serve the interests of a small corporate elite’, and that ‘global development must be pursued in a manner consistent with environmentally sustainable growth’; and then goes on to oppose anti-Americanism, albeit noting in passing that ‘US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported
regressive and authoritarian ones’. 

This just will not do. The dynamic of global capitalism, with US corporations at its centre, is the main generator of global inequality and environmental degradation. US global economic dominance will not last forever, with China and India changing the balance of global economic power, but since the collapse of the Soviet system it has been decisive in shaping the rules that govern global economic relations in terms of the Washington consensus.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, dominated by the US, together with the World Trade Organisation, have imposed a ruthless regime of privatisation and deregulation on developing countries, creating untold inequality, poverty and human misery. Supported by British governments, they have also sought to impose the same Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism on Europe’s social market economies. And of course, the present US government has been the biggest obstacle to reaching international agreement on measures to contain global warming, having relentlessly opposed the Kyoto agreement, while at the same time undermining the institutions for environmental protection within the US that have been built up as a result of more than a century’s campaigning by US environmentalists.

All this cannot be dismissed simply as the US’s ‘problems and failings’. These policies and effects are the direct outcome of the present stage of development of US capitalism and what has been called the ‘new imperialism’. When added to the long record of US intervention in other countries to destabilise or overthrow progressive governments that threaten the sway of capital, and support for reactionary and authoritarian regimes that safeguard the interests of both US capital and local elites, it is hardly surprising that we are currently witnessing unprecedented worldwide opposition to US policies.

This opposition may sometimes be expressed as simple anti-Americanism, but more generally on the left it is to the policies of the dominant power of the US economic-military complex and the fundamentalist Christian and other conservative constituencies that support them. And it sits alongside support and admiration for the enormous and growing US anti-war movement and all the other US movements that have fought the reactionary policies of their government over the years.

Democracy and international law

The Euston Manifesto puts support for democracy as its first principle. Yet it overlooks the fundamental division within the democratic left over whether it is appropriate or practical to attempt to impose democracy on a country unilaterally by armed invasion and military occupation, as in Iraq. At issue here is not any disagreement about the evils of Saddam’s regime, or about hopes for a democratic evolution in Iraq. Rather, it is about recognising that any such evolution has been fatally undermined by the attempt to impose it by military force – and by a US administration that has been seeking to extend its own political and military hegemony in doing so.

There is fairly general agreement among scholars of democratisation that imposing democracy through full-scale military invasion is a deeply contradictory project. This is in view of the state collapse, inter-communal divisions, armed resistance and widespread insecurity that it predictably brings in its wake. In the case of Iraq the project was made even more contradictory by the US administration’s flawed version of democracy, and its imposition as part of a grandiose plan to restructure the Middle East in US interests.

Democracy for the neo-cons means privatisation plus elections – and in that order, as we now clearly see. It was also imposed by a country with a historical record of armed intervention in third world countries showing scant regard for the civilian populations, of which the destruction of Falluja has been only the most recent example. To have entrusted delivery of the universal principles of democracy and human rights to the authors of such a project, as the signatories of the Euston Manifesto did, was the height of naivety.

The signatories also profess to be internationalist and to seek ‘the reform of international law’. Yet you do not reform international law by breaking it unilaterally, as was done by the invasion of Iraq.

National sovereignty is a property of peoples, not merely of states, and the anti-colonial struggles reinforced its centrality in international law. There is a developing international consensus emerging around the criteria under which a country’s sovereignty might legitimately be overridden by force – considerations such as ‘to prevent an overwhelming humanitarian crisis’, ‘as a last resort’, ‘with rightful intention’, ‘with lawful authority’, ‘respecting proportionality’ – none of which were met by the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, or are adequately addressed in the vague pieties of the Euston Manifesto.

Democracy in the UK

Finally, no one concerned with democracy can ignore the deformation in our own system, which was involved in the lies told about the weapons of mass destruction, about the reasons for going to war and about the time when the decision was actually taken. No one has been effectively held accountable for these lies, or for the government’s collusion in the war crime of the destruction of Falluja and the systematic disregard for civilian casualties in Iraq.

As citizens of a democracy our first responsibility is to speak out at the evils perpetrated by our own government in our name, regardless of whether they are lesser or greater than those committed elsewhere. The idea permeating the Euston Manifesto that the progressive left should achieve unity by ignoring these cannot be taken seriously.



Leave a comment