---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2002 00:25:03 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Did the left lose the war?
Did the left lose the war?
by Andy Becket
Kabul fell in five weeks. The Islamic world has not erupted. So did the
left get it all wrong - and does it matter?
Guy Taylor is a political activist of great height and confidence.
He used to be an organiser for the Socialist Workers Party. Nowadays he is
a prominent member of Globalise Resistance, a loose network of British
anti-capitalists. Since it was set up last February, he has loomed at
demonstrations outside arms fairs and meetings of international leaders
with his appropriately cropped hair and small, intense glasses. He talks in
a clear, level voice, loud and relentless as a stand-up comedian, always
optimistic, never stuck for an argument, throwing in the odd joke but
without a flicker of self-doubt. In anti-capitalist circles, Taylor and his
organisation have become so ubiquitous some rival groups call them
Since September 11, however, Taylor has felt the need to adjust his
political behaviour in a small way. A few months before the attacks on
America, while taking part in the protests against last summer's European
Union summit in Gothenburg, he bought a new T-shirt. It said "terrorist"
across the front. He says he wasn't trying to look menacing - political
violence in his view "achieves very little" - but he thought the T-shirt
was a neat statement against the official tendency, then just becoming
apparent, to brand all anti-globalisation activists as potential bombers
and gunmen. He wore it on and off for the rest of the summer. Then, in
mid-September, it stopped feeling so clever.
He can't quite explain why. "It just seemed..." He
pauses. "Inappropriate?" He smiles a little. "You don't want to... pick
arguments... offend people unnecessarily." His office is in Mile End, after
all, not Hampstead. After several more pauses, enough time for him,
usually, to summarise the entire workings of contemporary capitalism, he
finally arrives at a position. "I just thought I should be a bit more
These are delicate times for the left, in Britain and elsewhere. First,
two of its traditional enemies, the Pentagon and New York's financial
district, were bloodily assaulted. Then, the leaders of this revolt against
American dominance of the world were revealed, almost certainly, to be
religious radicals of considerable ideological ambiguousness. Then the
traditional instruments of American oppression in the eyes of its critics -
bombing and the use of dubious allies - were deployed in response, with
apparent success. And a solid majority of the British public approved, as
did the great majority of left-of-centre politicians in Britain and abroad.
Immediately before September 11, the outlook had seemed reasonably
favourable for the left. Around the world, the long business boom of the
past decade seemed to be collapsing under the weight of its own
In America, George Bush's government of tycoons and missile enthusiasts had
just lost its senate majority and its momentum. In Britain, Tony Blair's
attempt to convert the Labour party and the public to free-market thinking
appeared to be struggling. Then there were the failings of Railtrack and
the Private Finance Initiative, the swelling profile of anti-corporate
protests since Seattle, the polemics against international trade and
sweatshops selling well in high street book shops, the apparent revival of
militancy in some unions - "Anglo-Saxon capitalism was in a state," says
Tariq Ali, the veteran leftwinger and critic of America. "Bush was
virtually on the floor. Now they've been able to cover it up. From every
progressive point of view, September 11 has been a disaster."
In November, an editorial in the British leftwing magazine Red Pepper spoke
of "a widespread feeling of powerlessness, even paralysis. The daily news
makes you want to retreat back under the sheets." In a new book rushed out
since the autumn's events, simply titled 9-11, Noam Chomsky, the dissident
American academic who is probably the biggest influence on modern
anti-capitalists, writes gloomily: "It is certainly a setback... Terrorist
atrocities are a gift to the harshest and most repressive elements on all
sides, and are sure to be exploited to accelerate the agenda of
militarisation, regimentation, reversal of social democratic programmes,
transfer of wealth to narrow sectors, and undermining democracy." Taylor
puts it more plainly: "Standing protesting outside Gap is a bloody strange
thing to do when civilians are being killed in Afghanistan."
Other people have been less polite. Within days of the deaths in New York
and Washington, anyone, it seemed, who had ever been publicly critical of
America or globalisation suddenly found themselves accused of complicity
with Osama bin Laden - and worse. In the British press alone, they have
been described as "defeatist" and "unpatriotic", "nihilist" and
"masochistic", and both "Stalinist" and "fascist"; as "a Prada-Meinhof
gang", "the handmaidens of Osama" and "an auxiliary to dictators"; as
"limp", "lofty", "wobbly", "heartless and stupid", and "worm-eaten by
Soviet propaganda"; as full of "loose talk", "wilful self-delusion" and
"intellectual decadence"; as a collection of "useful idiots", "dead-eyed
zombies", and "people who hate people".
The sheer fury and contempt of these sentiments has seemed to go beyond the
usual name-calling of British politics. "I've never felt anything like it,"
says one anti-globalisation commentator, who would prefer not to be named.
"The moment you put your head above the parapet, the pressure is just
extraordinary. It does knock the fight out of you a bit."
And this new hostility towards the left has come not just from the places
you might expect - the more warlike tabloids, the usual red-baiting
columnists, and the 10 Downing Street press office, which last month
published a list of journalists - including plenty from the Guardian - who
had got the war "wrong". It has come from well-known radicals such as the
journalist Christopher Hitchens, and the cabinet's token socialist, Clare
In early October, the left-leaning literary fortnightly the London Review
of Books published a selection of unexceptional remarks, by its own
standards, about America's global status. This provoked a blizzard of
hostile letters that has only recently abated. This evening, the prominent
left-of-centre think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, is
holding a public discussion about whether September 11 has made the left
Some of the energy has appeared to go out of recent anti-capitalist
protests. In Washington in late September, a demonstration intended to
rival Genoa and Seattle shrank to a few thousand people marching
tentatively for world peace. In Brighton in early October, a promised
blockade of the Labour party conference became a wet crowd herded around by
At Doha in Qatar in November, the World Trade Organisation was able to meet
almost unmolested, and America's trade representative was able to claim
that the summit had "removed the stain of Seattle". When the heads of state
of the EU met in Brussels last month, most newspapers gave the accompanying
protests barely a paragraph.
Tariq Ali sits at his kitchen table in Highgate in north London as a cold
drizzle spatters the windows. He has been opposing America and
international capital since the Vietnam war. He says a little wearily:
"September 11 and its aftermath have shown that the whole world is the
United States empire. The Americans just do what they want. The
intelligentsia all over Europe are pro-American now. They see the US as the
only emancipatory project in town."
Not completely convincingly, he argues that the "naked power" of America's
response to September 11, and its openly self-interested behaviour over
Star Wars and environmental questions in recent years, "is easier to deal
with". He sips his tea. "American imperialism has always been an
imperialism that doesn't dare to speak its name. Now all that crap is gone."
He is writing a book exploring the similarities between Bush and Bin Laden,
and their ambitions to impose their aggressive, religiously-based ideas on
the rest of the world. Between chapters he has left his desk to address
public meetings about the hypocrisies of Bush's widening, seemingly
relentless "war on terrorism". It sounds like hard work. "You just try and
raise morale," he says.
But then he adds something interesting. "The bulk of the people there,
about 70%, I'd say, have been between 18 and 25." He goes on: "The anti-war
movement in Britain is larger than anywhere except Italy." And, puzzlingly
for those who have been celebrating the demise of the left since September,
this appears to be the case.
At the first big British demonstration against the war in Afghanistan, in
London in mid-October, somewhere between 20,000 (the police's estimate) and
50,000 people (the organisers' estimate) marched from Hyde Park Corner to
Trafalgar Square. It was an unexpectedly warm day, but that did not
sufficiently explain why columns of demonstrators were still arriving in
the square over an hour after the speeches had begun. A confident coalition
was visibly forming around the fountains and statues: between sunburnt
students and respectable-looking young British Asians, well-dressed
Londoners in their 30s and wispy old ladies from CND.
On the next London march, on a much colder afternoon in November, the
organisers counted double the number of protesters. The police, as they
tend to, insisted that there were only 15,000, but the significance of both
demonstrations was clear by then: far more people than expected were
prepared to actively oppose a war that, according to the government and
most conventional wisdom, was so morally straightforward as to require
little debate. And this anti-war coalition looked remarkably like the
alliance that had been opposing globalisation prior to September 11.
At Globalise Resistance, the old computer that occupies about a quarter of
the office holds a list of 2,500 email addresses. Taylor assumed that when
his organisation came out against the war, at least "30 or 40" of these
people would cancel their subscriptions to Globalise Resistance. No one
broke ranks until mid-December, and no one else has done since. "Most
people have taken to this anti-war position like a duck to water," he says,
with a satisfied activist's grin.
If you look at the websites, magazines and flyers for events that the
modern left uses, it is easy to see why. Apologias for Bin Laden and
international terrorism are conspicuous by their absence.
Plenty of radical activities - Stop Esso Day, candlelit vigils for
asylum seekers, the Anarchist Walking Group ("exercise,
discussions, trespassing") - continue as normal, without
reference to September 11. And where the
events of that day
and their consequences are mentioned, they have been neatly slotted into
existing ways of thinking: the "war on terrorism" is "the military face of
globalisation", or "old imperial power and nothing new"; America's current
ability to win seemingly any war is the problem, not the solution; poor
countries continue to be pushed around by rich ones.
There is evidence, moreover, that such analyses meet with public approval.
Readers of the Big Issue recently chose Paul Marsden, the Labour MP who
defected to the Liberal Democrats over his opposition to the war, as their
"Hero of the Year" for 2001.
Talking now to the editor of Red Pepper, Hilary Wainwright, you get a sense
of someone recovering their ideological poise. She is dismissive of the
onslaught on the left: "Straw men have been set up. Hitchens, who is a
friend really, said the left was not sufficiently critical of September
11." She looks politely exasperated."The left has been attacking the
Taliban, and terrorism as the solution to anything, for ever."
But recent British history suggests that a blameless record on past foreign
policy questions may be no defence for leftwingers accused of dithering in
wartime. George Orwell began the modern tradition of abusing pacifists and
war sceptics during the second world war. In 1942, he wrote:"Pacifism is
objectively pro-Fascist." Orwell's argument was that Britain's enemies were
so politically and morally unattractive, in this instance, that the usual
function of the left to question and rebel had become inappropriate. That
Orwell was a famous leftwinger and usually a critic of governments has
given life to this patriotic logic ever since.
"During Suez, Nasser was Hitler," says Ali. "During the Falklands, Galtieri
was Hitler, then Saddam Hussein became Hitler, then Milosevic. Now it is
the Taliban and al-Qaida." In each case, the character of the regime
Britain has confronted has been used to justify the silencing of dissent.
And because the British left generally did support the second world war,
references to that conflict have always won over enough leftwingers during
these subsequent, less justifiable wars to give the impression that the
British left is split and in crisis. Hitchens is simply the latest radical
to want to sound like a tough but righteous Orwell.
In other ways, too, the British political landscape since September 11 is
actually quite a familiar one. As during the Gulf war and the Falklands,
there has been only hasty debate in Parliament about the conflict. A
feeling of inevitability has accompanied each military escalation. Yet the
proportion of the public opposed to each has held up at between a fifth and
a third. Meanwhile, the successes claimed by the soldiers and their
supporters have steadily come to seem more questionable, as news has
belatedly spread of mounting civilian casualties among the enemy dead, and
the realisation has slowly dawned that the leaders of Britain's latest
opponent may remain at large.
Perhaps what has been revealed in recent months has not been the inability
of the British left to think properly about terrorism, but the inability of
the British political system to weigh seriously the consequences of war."It
was ever thus," says Ali. "At the height of the Vietnam war, I think we got
50 or 60 MPs [out of over 600] to sign an early-day motion against it."
The leftwing Labour MP Alan Simpson, one of less than a dozen who voted
against the bombing of Afghanistan, sees the Commons' near-unanimity in
wartime as part of a wider "crisis of representation". Serious discussion
of the concerns of anti-globalisation protesters is just as absent, he
says. Yet he also sees a narrowness and lack of maturity in the latter,
which events since September have exposed. "They articulate a line of
thinking that says: 'Governments are all bastards. The political system
sucks.' That's right as far as it goes. But it retreats from the global to
the local. It doesn't really have an internationalism."
The anti-globalisation movement, you could say, has spent the past decade
or so developing a sophisticated critique of modern business - an economic
policy, if you like - but it has neglected to draw up a foreign policy, a
coherent set of proposals for how countries should operate and behave
towards each other. "Everyone's been very boned up on sustainability and
trade," says Wainwright, "but not the enormity and lawlessness of US
power." As a result, whenever war breaks out, and the activities of Nike
and Microsoft suddenly look less important than those of governments, which
had been assumed to be diminishing in authority, there is a measure of
disarray in anti-capitalist circles.
As the news first spread that the World Trade Centre had been attacked,
members of Globalise Resistance were taking part in a protest outside an
international arms fair in east London. Taylor says proudly: "We were
already attacking death and destruction." What he neglects to mention is
that, when a speaker at the rally announced what had just happened in New
York, there was some cheering in the crowd.
Other leftwing responses have backfired for opposite reasons. Many
opponents of American retaliation against Afghanistan placed a cautious,
pragmatic-sounding emphasis on the difficulties of a military campaign. But
predictions about battles are not best made by pacifism-inclined civilians,
and once the Taliban's "strongholds" started falling, it was difficult to
oppose the war on more fundamental grounds.
"The argument that the Americans would get bogged down in Afghanistan like
the Russians did was a cop-out really," says Peter Wilby, editor of the New
Statesman, who has opposed the war on principle. "The left should take its
position on whether a war is right or wrong, not on the type of terrain in
Suzanne Moore, the left-inclined Mail on Sunday columnist, wrote after the
first few weeks of bombing in Afghanistan: "War isn't working." A month
later, with a candour rare among her fellow sceptics, she confessed in
print: "The bombing ^A'worked' far more effectively than anyone
anticipated... I and others misjudged the situation."
"In retrospect," she says now, "I'm struck by how much we didn't know and
still don't know about the situation in Afghanistan. There's been a
progression since the Gulf war where we know less and less about how wars
are going." In this way, among others, the tightening control of the
western military over media access to its modern battlefields is a handy
way of disarming critics: reliable information about the progress of
military operations tends to emerge too late for anti-war commentators to
make safe judgments about their success or otherwise.
Yet many of those who predicted disaster in Afghanistan remain
unapologetic. "You have the most effect when you predict the worst," says
Mark Seddon, editor of the leftwing Labour party journal, Tribune, and a
member of the party's national executive committee. "There's a decent
pacifist tradition in Britain, but you need to reach out beyond that. I
know from going round various constituency meetings that there is a lot of
opposition to the war. There is a feeling that it could be protracted and,
who knows, it could well be."
Denis Healey, the former Labour defence secretary, and by no means an
automatic opponent of British military actions, shares Seddon's doubts. "I
was against the bombing of Afghanistan because it would kill more civilians
and create more terrorists, and it has done that." Does he mind the abuse
anti-war campaigners receive? He replies cheerfully: "I just say, 'Sod
'em'. Alistair [Campbell] is just doing his job. The easiest way to get
people is guilt by association. But I'm very much against Osama bin Laden."
Another problem, though, with this kind of military pessimism is that it is
difficult to distinguish it, at times, from that of war sceptics at the
opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Columnists in rightwing British
newspapers and magazines who objected to the war in Afghanistan for
containing a humanitarian element, or for being an initiative in which a
Labour government was involved, do not make comfortable bedfellows for
those who go on peace marches. "Any cause has good supporters and bad
supporters," says Healey. But it is questionable whether the coherence and
credibility of the left's view of the world is helped when it overlaps with
that of the left's natural enemies.
Wainwright says that lessons have been learned from all this turbulence.
Questions about the role of international law and the UN, which have been
gathering dust for decades as idealists of the left have moved on to
simpler, more easily-publicised topics such as the excesses of individual
companies, must be revived, she says. Simpson agrees. The anarchist disdain
for global institutions, which has been a major influence on modern
anti-capitalism, looks less smart now that America is threatening to act as
The anti-globalisation movement has been forced to grow up in another way,
too. "Some people," says Wainwright, "used to think that if religious
fundamentalists are anti-capitalist, then we don't need to challenge them."
Now, she and others on the British left are hoping that there will be a
proper, mutually critical engagement between the secular and religious
critics of modern business, and between those in the rich world and those
in the rest of the world.
The way such dissenters are treated by their respective police and
governments may help with this process. Before September, the use of state
violence and special prohibitions against anti-capitalist demonstrations -
a regular occurrence in the developing world - was already becoming more
common in wealthy, relatively liberal countries. Protesters were shot by
police during last year's riots in Genoa and Gothenburg. With ominously
vague "anti-terrorism" legislation recently passed in Britain and America,
the left may soon find out whether, as the Globalise Resistance slogan has
it,"clampdown makes us stronger".
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