(Originally published on The Sharpener)
The Euston Manifesto, officially launched today, proclaims itself as a way forward for “the left” – and is again defended by one of its writers, blogger and Manchester University Professor Norman Geras, over on the Guardian’s website.
Fine – a laudable aim. The British left has needed a way forward ever since the gang of four split the Labour party, a problem only compounded by the fall of the Soviet Union and Tony Blair’s careful guidance of the party towards the centre ground. The British left has to seriously reconsider its approach to the promotion of socialist ideals, and to what parts of the old left-wing obsessions are likely to be acceptable to the electorate in this post-Thatcherite age of rampant capitalism.
Obsessing over the Iraq war achieves none of this. M’colleague Garry has covered one part of the problem, but there’s another, broader one: the Iraq war is an irrelevance to the left’s attempts to revitalise itself after a quarter of a century of what amounts to a repeated defeat of left-wing ideology in successive British elections. It is an irrelevance to what the drafters of the Euston Manifesto profess to be their main aim.
Was Ken Livingstone elected Mayor of London first time around because he’s a socialist? Bollocks – it’s because we all knew it would piss Tony Blair off, and the candidates from the other two main parties were crap. Was George Galloway elected at the last general election because he was a socialist? Likewise bollocks – that was about the Iraq war and the government’s response to terrorism, not his economic beliefs.
This is the real crisis of the British left, not Iraq: the irrelevance of socialism to the modern political system. On the economic front, the right has won, and the left has little chance of a resurgence.
So where to next? Is the launch of a manifesto seemingly based on the Bartlet Doctrine from the fictional West Wing President’s second inaugural address seriously the best the British left can come up with – a wishy-washy, well-meaning but utterly impractical belief in international humanitarian interventionism? What about domestic policy? What about left-wing strategies for helping the poor of THIS country, which used to be what the British left was supposed to be all about?
The Iraq war has happened, whether you agreed with it or not. None of its western instigators are going to face prosecution. So get over it already.
The current insurgency is not thanks to the illegality (or otherwise) of the war. It’s due to the instability that removing a dictator who ruled an articifically-constructed country packed with internal religious and ethnic tensions was bound to produce (even if not necessarily to quite these extremes). If anyone with power had listened to Lawrence of Arabia after the first world war we’d never have been in this mess.
Take away the presence of foreign armies, what is happening in Iraq now is what happened in Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. That was another artificial construct of a country held together through the fear of the state, and fear of the state alone. Once the power of the state was destroyed, in both Iraq and Yugoslavia the suppressed intenal tensions rose to the fore.
Whereas other former Soviet or dictator-run states managed a peaceful transition to post-dictatorship existence (notably Czechoslovakia, peacably dividing itself along cultural lines into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), in many others similar tensions to those of Iraq continue, from Ukraine’s (now apparently failed) Orange Revolution to east Germany’s resentment of the west of the country, the Baltic states’ ongoing difficulties in accepting their Russian minorites as their own to Spain’s post-Franco problems with the Basque seperatists, the partition of India after the British Empire withdrew to the continuing problems endemic in the ex-Soviet central Asian states, mostly held together purely through fear and force by post-communist dictatorships.
The thing that has to be accepted is that Iraq is filled with numerous different cultural identities, split on loosely geographical lines. The most obvious are Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish. The logical solution is to divide the country between the three, and create three new states – ignore the oil factor, that can be solved through negotiation or creating a loose alliance between the three along the lines of the devolved United Kingdom. The chaos and bloodshed of the partition of India could, under the supervision of an international force, be avoided – as long as all three groups were able to gain from the partition.
But when it comes to the ongoing arguments in the west – especially in Britain and America – even these incredibly vague generalisations seem continually to be ignored, with the whole debate over the situation in Iraq divided purely into “pro-war” and “anti-war” camps, both of which repeatedly misrepresent the other and assume that only their interpretation of events is correct.
Me? I don’t care for either. I didn’t support the war, nor did I oppose it. I simply realised that I didn’t know enough about an incredibly complex situation to form a viable opinon. I still don’t – largely thanks to having got thoroughly bored of the whole thing before the invasion officially started and having changed the channel whenever Iraq news has come on for at least the last two years – which is why I so rarely discuss the bloody thing.
What I do find incredibly irritating is when people from either side start generalising about people’s attitudes towards the Iraq situation. The Euston Manifesto is a prime case in point, in that it misses the point entirely – despite having been written by a bunch of people who are obviously intelligent and whose obsessions with Iraq means they know far more than I.
The point about the divisions on the left is not that there is a pro- and anti-war split. It is that the left as a whole has somehow lost the overarching socialist ideology which once held it together. Although there are still a few Marxians knocking around – including a few of the contributors to this site – the majority of the people who currently make up the left no longer have any real unifying political ideology.
The Euston Manifesto proclaims itself an attempt to provide a framework for this much-needed new left-wing ideology. But while Eustonite Oliver Kamm’s ideas of anti-Totalitarianism may – in the broad sense – be laudible, and while the Bartlet Doctrine may sound fine on TV, for any new codification of what it means to be left-wing in Britain in the early 21st century to be successful, it has to tackle issues in Britain, not in distant countries of which we know nothing.
After all, if anyone really cared as much about Iraq as the Eustonites seem to think, there’s surely no way in hell Labour would have been voted back into power a year ago. So why do they feel the need to bother? All they are doing is focussing on a single symptom of the left’s fragmentation, not the disease as a whole.