Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 23 2004
It's rare that I read a book and find myself in a mounting and increasingly uncontrollable rage. In fact, I can’t remember the last time it happened before last Wednesday.
But last week I was reading Scott Lucas’s new diatribe against George Orwell and the contemporary left-wing writers who supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century — and by the time I’d got two chapters into it my blood was boiling.
Lucas is an American academic, the professor of American and Canadian studies at the University of Birmingham, and a contributor to the New Statesman. Last year, he published a slim tome on Orwell, which rehashed the familiar and mendacious old Stalinist line that Orwell was not a real socialist (see Ian Williams's Tribune review here). He spiced up his argument with a denunciation of Orwell for handing over a list of communist fellow-travellers to a Foreign Office propaganda unit — in Lucas’s eyes an unforgivable act of treachery, even though Orwell was doing no more than advising a Labour government not to waste its time commissioning Stalinist apologists to write propaganda pamphlets against communism.
The Betrayal of Dissent picks up where the Orwell book left off. It starts by arguing that Orwell was a “policeman of the left”— mainly because of the list but also because he was rather rude in print about people with whom he disagreed. It then goes on to argue that several polemicists who have argued from a left or liberal position in support of military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq — in particular Christopher Hitchens, but also Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Johann Hari and various Americans who are less familiar this side of the pond — have taken the same role in stifling discussion of the rights and wrongs of the “war on terror”.
Now, I don’t agree with everything Hitchens, Cohen, Aaronovitch et al have written since 9/11. I was a reluctant rather than gung-ho supporter of the toppling of the Taliban by force, and I opposed the invasion of Iraq (though once it started I argued that the best thing would be for it to be successful and quick, and I believe that now the priority is to do everything in our power to ensure Iraq becomes a stable, civilised democracy, which means I am against an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces). The tone of the pro-war left — particularly of Hitchens and Aaronovitch — has often been intemperate and hectoring.
But I simply don’t recognise the picture Lucas paints as even a vague approximation of reality. Even if one accepts that Orwell handing over his list to the FO was “policing the left” (and I don’t, because it had absolutely no effect on the ability of the fellow-travellers he named to get their opinions into the public sphere) there is no evidence at all that the writers Lucas identifies as “policemen of the left” today have even gone so far as to advise that their opponents should not be published by government agencies, let alone that they have successfully stifled debate.
Indeed, even the most cursory reading of the left and liberal press in Britain and the US shows that proponents of an anti-interventionist position have at very least had a fair crack of the whip and in some cases — the Guardian and Independent are obvious examples — have dominated not only the comment pages but also reportage. Sure, there have been bloody great rows since 9/11 about just about every aspect of US policy, but knockabout argument is the stuff of democratic politics. Vigorous disagreement with your opponents is not the same thing as suppressing their views.
So what exactly is Lucas’s beef? In the end, I think, it comes down to a visceral antipathy, common to many on the left, to anyone who questions the notion that “the system” — the military-industrial complex, capitalism, imperialism, statism, call it what you will — can do nothing but wrong.
In this worldview, it is axiomatic that US intervention cannot be right, that all opposition to US imperialism is justified, that the mass media are mere propagandist tools of the ruling class — and that anyone who disagrees with these propositions can only be an agent of reaction.
Of course, political life would be much simpler if things were really like this. But they are not, and pretending they are is not only deluded but dangerous for the left. The notion that only unyielding total opposition to “the system” counts for anything is a recipe for an all-or-nothing oppositional left politics that can end only in defeat and disillusion.
The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century by Scott Lucas is published by Pluto Press. For more on Lucas, see Norman Geras's blog here and follow the links. And for a brilliant humorous take on the general argument I'm making, see Geras's post here.