A speech by one of the founders of the Euston Manifesto, Norman Geras.
May 26, 2006
[The following is the text of my talk at last night’s Euston Manifesto launch.]
By one of those coincidences that don’t mean anything, 70 years ago today - and I mean to the very day - the poet T.S. Eliot paid a visit to a small hamlet in Cambridgeshire. He took the name of this place as the title for the fourth of his Four Quartets - ‘Little Gidding’. What has that got to do with the Euston Manifesto? Nothing, really.
But in the way of these things, I went back to the poem just to have a look, in case (you never know) I might find some other connection than merely the date. What I came back to there were these lines:
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from…
There you go ? that gives me somewhere to start from this evening. Because I want to talk about ends and beginnings in both a public and a personal sense.
The first of these: 9/11 - September 11, 2001. It is a day imprinted on the public memory - indelibly - because the crime committed in New York and Washington DC announced a terrible willingness, of which few previously had been aware: a willingness to use terror without limit for political ends; a terrorism, that is to say, unconstrained by any concern about the numbers of the innocent dead. That day was both an end and a beginning because it showed, and to many of us in an instant, that the world was now different, dangerously so, and in a way not amenable to simple-minded responses.
This brings me to a second end and beginning, and if I may get your indulgence for this, I will frame it in more personal terms. It happened in the days immediately following 9/11. Not just simple-minded, but cold, shameful, appalling responses to the crime that had been perpetrated, parading across the pages of the liberal and left press. You know the terms of it: blowback; comeuppance; yes, a crime of course but… But what? But a crime to be contextualized immediately, just in case you might be unaware that it wasn’t the first or the worst crime in human history.
This kind of stuff, I regret to say, was coming principally from a part of the left. And in those few days, 12, 13, 14 September 2001, it became clear to me that this part of the left wasn’t a part one should have anything - or anything more, depending on where you were at the time - to do with if the left was to have a worthwhile future and merit anybody’s support.
Anyone who’s ever belonged to anything, as we all have - a family, a group, a club, a movement - will know that this involves having some quarrels. If you’re part of the left then you have your quarrels; and having been a part of the left all my adult life, I’ve had my share. But some things you quarrel about. About other things you draw a line.
Over 9/11 I decided the time had come to draw a line. A left truly committed to democratic values doesn’t make excuses for terrorism, not at all, not ever. Terrorism is murder. There is no context that makes it OK. This is a simple principle - that you do not wantonly kill the innocent - embodied in the most basic moral codes of civilized existence, embodied in the rules of warfare and in international humanitarian law.
The left paid a heavy price for its fellow-travelling with - its justification and apologetics for - the mass crimes of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. For another generation to put its foot upon a similar path is not something any of us should look upon with indulgence. It’s the place to draw a line. You make an end and, if necessary, another beginning. The left has to be better that.
OK, now push the clock forward. It’s 2003. A number of people are blogging about the Iraq war. In my own case this starts in the summer of 2003, but others have already been going a while, and more others are getting into the conversation with each month that passes. There are bloggers of the left who support the war. How’s that possible? Support the war? From the left? Well, it’s possible because Saddam Hussein’s regime is a murderous tyranny - as it has been said, a torture chamber above ground, a mass grave below - responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people of that long suffering country.
Of course, it was also possible to oppose the war, even while knowing this - as did a number of the supporters of the Euston Manifesto. There were weighty considerations on both sides, and reasonable people could reasonably disagree about the prospects and the dangers, how things were likely to turn out, as well as about the alternatives to war and their likely consequences and dangers.
But there has been another discourse of opposition to the Iraq war, starting with the banners and slogans for that Saturday on 15 February 2003, from which one would never have known what kind of a place Saddam’s Iraq was. It has been a discourse of denial, evidenced by the numbers of those on the left unwilling to allow, or even comprehend, why others of us on the left supported the war; by a rancorous hostility towards the pro-war left; and, most seriously of all, by the lack of interest in initiatives of solidarity with the forces in Iraq battling for a democratic transformation of their country, itself part of a wider lack of enthusiasm for the success of this enterprise.
To those who now say that such criticisms levelled by the Euston Manifesto at a large part of the anti-war left are misdirected, applying only to a small number of people on the far left, I have two answers. (1) Not true. (There’s a more forceful way of putting that, but it violates the rules of public civility.) (2) That it isn’t true has been documented at length.
In any event, this takes us back to those shameful responses to 9/11 from which I started - because some of the themes of what I’m calling the discourse of denial in argument about the Iraq war are for their part shameful too: a tendency to go silent about, or at least to minimize, the horrors of Baathist Iraq; a manner of distributing blame for everything that has gone wrong in that country in such a way that the daily killing of civilians by so-called insurgents figures only as one of the lamentable consequences of coalition failure, and barely at all as the result of the actions of those who are directly responsible - as if they were merely a hive of bees stirred up and not people making choices; only the most grudging acknowledgement - if that - that millions of Iraqis voting for a different kind of future for themselves was a matter of some significance.
One has to draw a line. This is not the authentic voice of the left, and it is not a voice which any self-respecting liberal should be willing to own. It is a disgrace to the best aspirations of the progressive and democratic tradition.
So, some people - bloggers, the owners of other websites, trade unionists, other kinds of activists - come together last May. We know there are others out there who share our sense of non-belonging to the left-liberal consensus on such issues. We know because of the feedback we get. ‘Thank goodness, I found your blog. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who feels that this left doesn’t speak for me.’
We decide to produce a document setting out some general principles, some common positions. The Euston Manifesto steps out into the world. What it says I hope many of you now know, and I won’t try to rehearse it here.
But thank you all for coming this evening. We need to insist that there is a different tradition which socialists and democrats and liberals can speak out for. There’s been quite a chorus of voices these past few weeks saying that the Euston Manifesto is of no account - though a lot of those saying so seem rather animated about it. Well, we make no extravagant claims. It’s a beginning, that’s all.