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Euston.... We Have a Problem

Euston.... We Have a Problem
May 24, 2006

Tomorrow night at a church in London, there will be a gathering of several hundred people to celebrate the launch of "The Euston Manifesto" -- a short document in which one sector of the British and American left declares itself to be in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.

The Eustonians also support open-source software. (I have read the document a few times now but am still not sure how that one got in there. It seems like an afterthought.)

More to the point, the Eustonians promise not to ask too many questions -- nor any really embarrassing ones -- about how we got into Iraq. The important thing, now, is that it all end well. Which is to say, that the occupation help build a new Iraq: a place of secular, pluralist democracy, where people do not blow each other up for the glory of Allah.

Suppose that a civic-minded person -- a secular humanist, let's say, and one fond of Linux -- takes a closer look at the manifesto. Such a reader will expect the document to discuss the question of means and ends. This might be addressed on the ethical plane, at some level of abstraction. Or it might be handled with a wonky attention to policy detail. In any case, the presumed reader (who is nothing if not well-meaning) will certainly want to know how Eustonian principles are to be realized in the real world. In the case of Iraq, for example, there is the problem of getting from the absolutely disastrous status quo to the brilliant future, so hailed.

Many of the signatories of the manifesto are, or until recently were, some variety or other of Marxist. Its main author, for example, is Norman Geras, a professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester. His work includes Literature of Revolution, a volume of astute essays on Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. (Full disclosure: Geras and I once belonged to the same worldwide revolutionary socialist organization, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and probably both choke up a little when singing “The Red Flag”).

Surely, then, the Euston Manifesto will bear at least some resemblance to the one written by a certain unemployed German doctor of philosophy in 1848? That is, it can be expected to provide a long-term strategic conception of how the world reached its current situation (“The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggles”). And it will identify the forces in society that have emerged to transform it (“Workers of the world unite!”). And from this rigorous conceptual structure, the document can then deduce some appropriate shorter-term tactics. In The Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels pointed to universal suffrage and a progressive income tax as mighty strides forward towards the destruction of capitalism.

OK, so the proposals might not work out as planned.... Hindsight is 20-20. But a manifesto -- to be worth anyone’s time, let alone signature -- will, of course, be concrete. At the event in London tomorrow night, the comrades will rally. Surely they would never settle for broad and bland appeals to high ideals, rendered in language slightly less inspiring than the Cub Scout oath?

Well, judge for yourself. “The Euston Manifesto” was actually unveiled in April, when it was first published online. It is has an official Web site. The inspiration for it had come during a meeting at a pub near the Euston stop on the London Underground. (Hence the name.) The document has been debated and denounced at great and redundant length in the left-wing blogosphere. So the fact that the event this week in London is being described by the Eustonians as a “launch” is puzzling, at least at first. But when you realize what a rhetorical drubbing the manifesto has taken, the need for a public gathering is easier to understand. The Eustonians want to show that their heads are bloody but unbowed, etc.

The most cogent arguments against the manifesto have already been made. In April, Marc Mulholand, a historian who is a fellow at Oxford University, presented a series of pointed criticisms at his blog that seemed to take the Eustonian principles more seriously than the manifesto itself did. “Why should we expect pluralist states to foster the spread of democratic government?” he asked. “How can we audit their contribution to this universal ideal? What mechanisms ensure the coincidence of state real politick and liberal internationalism?”

And D.D. Guttenplan -- the London correspondent for “The Nation” and producer of a documentary called Edward Said: The Last Interview -- weighed in with an article in The Guardian accusing the Eustonians of, in effect, staging a historical reenactment of battle scenes from the Cold War.

In passing, Guttenplan wrote of the manifesto that “every word in it is a lie” – a bit of hyperbole with historical overtones probably lost on his British readers. (In a memorable denunciation -- and one that prompted a lawsuit -- of sometime Communist sympathizer Lillian Hellman’s work, Mary McCarthy said: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”) Guttenplan tells me that he now considers his remark “a bit intemperate” yet still calls the manifesto “that bastard child of senescent sociology and the laptop bombardiers.”

Mulholand performed a kind of immanent critique of the Eustonians’ liberal-humanitarian proclamations. That is, he held their rhetoric up against their concepts -- and found the manifesto wanting no matter how you looked at it.

For Guttenplan, the manifesto makes more sense as a case of political bait-and-switch. “The political glue holding these folks together,” he told me, “was a kind of Zionism that dare not speak its name, in which anti-Semitism was the only racism worth getting excited about, and opposition to any kind of practical pressure on Israel or its UK supporters/defenders the only program that got these folks up from their laptops.  Personally I find that both sneaky and, as my late mother would say, bad for the Jews.” (Complex irony alert! Guttenplan himself is Jewish.)

The liberal-internationalist case for military intervention in Iraq has recently been hashed out at length -- and in all of its disconcertingly belated moral passion and geopolitical irrelevance -- by the contributors to A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, published last year by the University of California Press. The editor of that volume, Thomas Cushman, is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, and a member of the editorial board of the online journal Democratiya -- as is Norman Geras, who drafted the Euston Manifesto.

Many of the contributions to the book and the journal are intelligently argued. They are worth the attention even -- and perhaps especially -- of someone opposed to the war. For a whole wing of the left, of course, to admit that one’s opponents might be capable of arguments (rather than rationalizations) is already a sign of apostasy. But I’ll take my chances. After all, you can only listen to Noam Chomsky blame every problem in the world on American corporations just so many times. It’s good to stretch your mental legs every so often, and go wandering off to see how people think on the other side of the barricades.

That said, reading the Euston Manifesto has proven remarkably unrewarding -- even downright irritating. It is not a matter of profound disagreements. (I am, broadly speaking, in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.) But the Eustonians seem to be issuing blank moral checks for whatever excellent adventures George Bush and Tony Blair decide to undertake.

They call for supporting the reconstruction of Iraq “rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.” The systematic campaign of disinformation and phony diplomacy engineered over the course of two years preceding the invasion, then, is to be forgotten. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit call for intellectual irresponsibility. Or, for that matter, a less adequate metaphorical image. Anyone upset by “the rubble of the arguments over intervention” is definitely facing the wrong crater.

The Eustonians seem also perfectly indifferent to the cumulative damage being done to the very fiber of democracy itself. This summer’s issue of Bookforum contains a few poems by Guantanamo Bay detainees -- part of a much larger body confiscated by the military. As a lawyer for the detainees notes, a poem containing the line “Forgive me, my dear wife” was immediately classified as an attempt to communicate with the outside.

It is hard to imagine that this sort of thing really advances the Global War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling it now. But it is not without consequences. It destroys what it pretends to protect.

As I was musing over all of this, a friend pointed out a conspicuous absence from the list of signatories to the manifesto: Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. His book The Intellectuals and the Flag, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, defends the idea of left-wing American patriotism with a frank interest “in the necessary task of defeating the jihadist enemy.”

This would seem to put him in the Eustonian camp, yet he did not endorse the manifesto. Why not? I contacted him by e-mail to ask. “I recognize a shoddy piece of intellectual patchwork when I see one,” Gitlin responded.

He cites a passage referring to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as “a liberation of the Iraqi people." A fine thing, to be sure. The sight of a humiliated dictator is good for the soul. “But the resulting carnage is scarcely worthy of the term ‘liberation,’” Gitlin told me. “I'm leery of the euphemism.”

Humanitarian interventionism needs an element of realist calculation. “The duty of ‘intervention and rescue’ when a state commits appalling atrocities,” he continued, “must be tempered by a hard-headed assessment of what is attainable and what are the reasonably foreseeable results of intervention. The document is cavalier about the ease of riding to the rescue. So while I support the lion's and lioness's share of the document's principles, I find it disturbingly, well, utopian. It lacks a sense of the tragic. I have not foregone the forced innocence of the anti-American left only to sign up with another variety of rigid, forced innocence.”

But in the final analysis, there was something else bothersome about the manifesto -- something I couldn’t quite put a finger on, for a while. A vague dissatisfaction, a feeling of blurry inconsequentiality....

Then it suddenly came into focus: The manifesto did not seem like the product of a real movement, nor the founding document of a new organization – nor anything, really, but a proclamation of dissatisfaction by people in an Internet-based transatlantic social network.

I dropped Norman Geras a line, asking about the virtuality of the phenomenon. Aren’t the Eustonians doomed to a kind of perpetual and constitutive blogginess?

“It's true that the manifesto is not seen by us as the rallying point for a particular organization,” Geras wrote back. “But it is seen as a rallying point nonetheless - as a focus for debate on the liberal-left, and for initiatives that might follow from that. The focus for debate part has already happened: there's been an enormous response to the manifesto and not only on the internet, but with significant press coverage as well. The venue for the launch meeting had to be changed because we ran out of tickets so fast for the original venue. So this isn't just a ‘virtual’ affair.”

The question from Lenin’s pamphlet comes up: What is to be done? “I'm not going to try to predict where or how far it will go,” says Geras. “One step at a time. But we already have more than 1,500 signatories and that means a lot of people in touch with us and interested in what the manifesto is saying. After the launch, we'll see what we want to do next in the way of forums, conferences, campaigns.”

Perhaps frustration with the document is misplaced? Something better might yet emerge -- once well-meaning people see the limits of the good intentions they have endorsed. You never know. But for now, with only the text to go by, it is hard to shake a suspicion that the Euston Manifesto owes less to Marx than to MySpace.

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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