16 January 2010


Paul Anderson, review of The Left at War by Michael Bérubé (New York University Press, £19.99), Tribune, 15 January 2010

“Whither the left?” books are an acquired taste, but once you’ve got it you can’t help yourself. My bookshelves are groaning with volumes, mostly deservedly long-forgotten, outlining how the left has got it wrong and what it must do next, the oldest of which go back to the French revolutionary era when the idea of a left-right divide in politics first took hold.

Whatever, the past year has not been a great one for the genre – at least in the Anglophone world. In the UK, the great debate, if that’s what it was, on the left’s response to 9/11 and the British government’s decision to join the US in invading Afghanistan and Iraq has become repetitive and boring. And it’s too early for polemical retrospectives on the New Labour years. (Who knows? They might not yet be over.) In the US, nearly all eyes are on Barack Obama, and it’s too soon to know what to think unless you made up your mind before he was elected.

Michael Bérubé, an academic who teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State University and is that rare thing in the US, a self-confessed social democrat, hasn’t much to say about Obama except that he hopes for the best. But he does have a take on Afghanistan and Iraq (and on Bosnia and Kosova) that goes beyond trotting out the old arguments for and against.

His line is that different parts of the left had (and have) radically different philosophies when it comes to the US and its allies using military force against rogue regimes that oppress their people and harbour or promote terrorists. There’s a “Manichean left” that says all intervention is evil imperialism (Noam Chomsky, John Pilger et al); a “liberal hawk” left – or maybe ex-left – that in the end backs any intervention against such regimes (Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen et al); and a “democratic left” that bases its judgments on evidence and international law, sometimes backing intervention and sometimes not.

Like me, Bérubé supported intervention in the Balkans and in Afghanistan but not in Iraq, and he sees himself as a spokesman for the “democratic left”. But although I’m coming from pretty much the same starting point, I’m not entirely convinced. A lot of what Bérubé says is on the money. His chapter on the “Manichean left” is a competent demolition of Chomsky and of the Leninist and anarchist anti-imperialist hard left, though it is far from comprehensive. He is incisive on the worst excesses of the “liberal hawks”. And his idea that knee-jerk counter-culturalism is an endemic problem on the left is spot-on.

But … well, he doesn’t get any of it quite right and then goes off on a tangent. He over-eggs the case against the war to topple Saddam (without, however, deploying one of the most important anti-intervention arguments, that, if Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction, it would have been irresponsibly risky taking on Saddam). Then he under-eggs the case for getting rid of Saddam, which was – yes, really – a lot stronger than he claims. And, after that, he brushes aside the argument, made by the anti-war signatories of the Euston Manifesto – remember that! – who said that once the invasion had happened it was stupid to continue wittering about whether it should have taken place in the first place. This isn’t an unprincipled position. In politics you always start from where you are.

The second half of the book is a let-down, all about how marvellous Stuart Hall, the guru of British cultural studies and of Marxism Today from the late 1970s until the 1990s, was and is, and how the left would be OK if only it re-read Hall’s work on Thatcherism and applied it to the present. I am a great admirer of Hall, and I think Bérubé is right to say (a) that there’s no point in fighting the last decade’s battles yet again and (b) that old-style hard leftism is the worst kind of dead-end.

But he could have put it better, and I have a horrible feeling that, in the UK at least, what he warns against is what’s going to be happening on the left for at least five years.

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