17 February 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, February 20 2004

By far the most entertaining read of the year — OK, I know it’s only February — is Francis Wheen’s broadside against contemporary bullshit, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. I read it in one sitting last weekend and laughed a great deal.

Wheen, once of the New Statesman and the Guardian and still of Private Eye, has spent the best part of 25 years as a journalist amassing material on mountebanks of all kinds, and he puts it to devastating use. Religious fundamentalists, free-market economists, management gurus, New Labour strategists, deconstructionist intellectuals, internet visionaries — you name them, they all get richly deserved trashings.

Wheen is of the left: his previous books include sympathetic biographies of Tom Driberg, the Labour left-winger, and Karl Marx. But some of the best bits of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World are his debunkings of left charlatanry — in particular the willful failure of such “anti-imperialist” leftists as John Pilger and Noam Chomsky to recognise that everything the United States does is not by definition evil and that everyone who hates the United States is not by definition good.

Wheen is especially telling on two cases in the recent past when the “anti-imperialist” left lost the plot completely — its shameful opposition to western military intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and its conclusion after 9/11 that America had it coming because of its policies in the Middle East. “While expressing obligatory if perfunctory regret at Osama bin Laden’s methods,” writes Wheen of the latter, “many self-styled ‘progressives’ seemed to find his motives wholly explicable, and even reasonable.”

What’s particularly worrying about this current of leftist delusion is that it is so persistent. As Wheen points out, the belief that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” led large parts of the western left to view the Soviet Union as an ally and to suppress any criticism of it long after it became obvious to anyone open to reason that it was a brutal police state that had nothing in common with democratic socialism: even in the 1980s, you could find Labour MPs, senior trade unionists and left intellectuals who were as pro-Soviet as any 1930s communist.

More importantly for us today, over the past few months the “my enemy’s enemy” crew have found new friends in what they call the “resistance” in Iraq. No matter that the people attacking US forces and police stations and terrorising ordinary Iraqi citizens are either enthusiasts for the bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein or reactionary Islamists — they’re against the Yankee imperialists and so deserve our support.

As Pilger put it in an interview with an Australian magazine a few weeks back (click here for full interview): “We cannot afford to be choosy. While we abhor and condemn the continuing loss of innocent life in Iraq, we have no choice now but to support the resistance, for if the resistance fails, the ‘Bush gang’ will attack another country. If they succeed, a grievous blow will be suffered by the Bush gang.”

I used to have great respect for Pilger, who was a columnist on the New Statesman when I was deputy editor, and I still admire his early work on Cambodia and East Timor. But this line of “thinking” is beneath contempt. Pilger is right that victory for the Iraqi “resistance” would be a blow to the Bush administration. But it would also, more importantly, inevitably mean the imposition of yet another dictatorship, whether secular or theocratic, on the long-suffering Iraqi people — who have every right to be “choosy” — and an end to any hope of a free, decent, prosperous, democratic Iraq.

Sorry, but condemning the Iraqis to barbarism in order to cock a snook at US imperialism is in no sense “progressive”. Iraq needs peace and a sustainable civil society; and to get them the “resistance” must be defeated. The real danger is that the US will pull out of Iraq too soon, abandoning it to a bloody civil war.

I am not arguing that Bush was right to invade Iraq or that the Blair government was right to join in. The war was a massive gamble, and although one part of it came off spectacularly — Saddam was easily toppled and eventually captured — the US and Britain had not thought through what happened next. That was, to say the least, extraordinarily irresponsible.

But there is no way anyone can turn the clock back and stop the war: it happened, and everyone now has to live with the consequences. Having sold the war as necessary to prevent Saddam using weapons of mass destruction that have not yet materialised, Tony Blair has his own cynical reasons for wanting everyone to “move on” from the long-running argument about whether and how the war was justified. But he also happens to be right. The urgent question now is how Iraq can best be helped to emerge from the mess created by the war. And crude “anti-imperialism” is not the answer.