From Bob's archive: Between Burke and Paine in the twenty-first century

This post is from April 2008. It responds to two posts by close blog-comrades of that time. The comment thread is worth reading too. (Jura Watchmaker is Francis Sedgemore, then part of the much-missed "Drink-Soaked Trots" group blog.) I wrote a follow-up post here, and then some more later, mostly collected under this category. These posts probably represented peak Bobism. 


Marko Attila Hoare “It is no longer Left vs right, but pro-Western vs anti-Western

The broad picture Hoare paints here is right: a growing centrist consensus in the West around welfare capitalism (although this part of the picture might seem less accurate in America, where the welfare state is far from universally accepted); and strange, new and not always predictable alliances on the left and right.

His description of the anti-Westerners’ faux “anti-imperialism” is deadly accurate. His genealogy of its alliance with the far right is spot-on.

But here are a few tangents and quibbles.

1. I worry about all grand narratives of this sort. Can we ever talk about “the principal ideological divide”? Surely, there are many important divides, and trying to reduce the political world into a two- (or even three-dimensional) chart loses something.

2. I am not sure I recognise Hoare’s description of the old left-right battle lines: “redistribution of wealth, public vs private ownership, a planned economy vs the free market”. Firstly, this reduces the left to its social democratic version, leaving out more radical positions, such as Marxism.

In particular, it completely misses the libertarian left. Even at my most left-wing (ca.1994), I never advocated redistribution, planning or state ownership. Instead I believed in mutual aid and voluntary co-operation and a radically decentralised form of social ownership; I saw the Plan (whether the versions advocated by pro-Soviet fake-Marxists or the versions advocated by Keynesian and social democratic Western leftists) as state capitalism, just a more bureaucratic sort of exploitation, whether more brutal (the Soviet model) or gentler (the Old Labour model).

It also obscures the fact that the term “the right” has always been about something other than the free market: it has been about race and nation, blood and soil, conserving the old ways, family values.

3. But my most important quibble is that the West, whatever that is, has all too often not been the embodiment of the values Hoare describes here as “Western”: “he extension of the liberal-democratic order across the globe, through the politics of human rights, promotion of democracy, universal values and interventionism (not necessarily always military)”.

Most importantly, while the West was on the right side in the fights against fascism and Stalinism, its involvement in the third of what Hitchens calls the great questions of the twentieth century, colonialism, has tainted its claim to represent freedom and democracy.

While fighting totalitarianism in Europe, the Western powers unleashed horrific violence against people all over the world, from theBelgian Congo to extermination of the Herero and Namaqua, from the “late Victorian Holocausts” of Bengal to the Trail of Tears. Indeed, more recently, in the name of the fight against totalitarianism, the West has sponsored some of the most blood-thirsty regimes in history, including Saddam’s, Pol Pot’s, Pinochet’s and Stroessner’s; it bombed the people of Laos and Cambodia; it undermined democracy in Haiti, Guatemala and scores of other places where the voters supported leaders whose politics did not coincide with the interests of free trade.

Even leaving this legacy aside, imagining it is too far behind us to matter now (which would be wrong in any case), the West today continues to sponsor the most profound suffering. In its voracious hunger for diamonds, oil and coltan, in its ruthless promotion of the privatisation of basic utilities in the countries where the most vulnerable barely struggle to survive, in its imposition of structural adjustment policies, the West is not a beacon of hope for many.

Because of this, I would never want to be identified as primarily of the “pro-Western” camp. Surely there is a better term for militant support of human rights and democracy?

New Centrist pushes in the same direction, and I like his conclusion:
“I agree that it useful to analyze contemporary conlficts as between the forces supporting economic and political liberalization and those opposed to this opening. However, like Ignoblus, I am rather uncomfortable being lumped in with president George W. Bush. My political opponents on the radical left have often reduced my nuanced centrist position to that of neo-conservatism but there is no need for Hoare to fall into the same trap. After all, part of the appeal of the Euston Manifesto among self-described leftists was it provided an opportunity to be robustly anti-totalitarian (i.e. “decent”) without being right-wing or conservative. Hoare also ignores the existence of ultra-leftists, anarchists, and other self-styled revolutionaries who advocate a third perspective that is classically “anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” while also critical of Jihadist terrorism. I’m refering here to Three Way Fight, World War 4 Report, etc.
All in all, I find much affinity with what Hoare is writing on these issues and this diagram is a good first attempt at describing political alignments in the post September 11, 2001 era. I’m very interested in seeing Hoare and others develop these ideas further. For example, if muscular liberals are lumped in with neo-conservatives into some sort of political coalition, where does Hoare see the potential for political cleavages developing between these two groups?”

Given these lines of critique, it is good to turn to Peter Ryley’s review of Andrew Anthony’s Fall-Out. Riley criticises those who turn away from the left because of its lunacies (its anti-Westernism, in Hoare’s terms), but slip into a complacent bourgeois conservative liberalism as a result:
“those that are firmly anti-totalitarian but have little or no critique of domestic politics. They have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home.”
I love that phrase: Paines abroad but Burkes at home. A good example would be Nick Cohen’s justified hatred of Ken leading him to support Boris Johnson. Perhaps the support some of my comrades give to John McCain (1,2) falls into the same category: McCain may be Paine in Iraq, but he is Burke in the US.

The Jura Watchmaker, who takes up Ryley’s standard brilliantly, sees Alan Johnson’s position on the American primaries (already discussed on this blog) as more Burkeanism (unless I’m misunderstanding him). He also sees Hoare himself as an example of such Burkeanism. I wouldn’t go that far, but I see it as a danger.

Hoare concludes his piece with this:
"we have a left-right alliance of our own: the alliance of all honourable socialists, liberals and conservatives in defence of liberal-democratic values and our fellow democrats abroad.”
Ryley concludes his piece by identifying the counterweight to the new Burkeans on the decent left:
“There are humanist Marxists, left libertarians, social democrats, Old Labour diehards, those who would combine Marx with Mill, querulous liberals, and others who place human emancipation at the centre of an ecological understanding of the diversity of the natural world. It is where I feel most at home and where the more interesting, and idiosyncratic, writing is taking place.”
I think I’m happier amongst the second lot…


Waterloo Sunset said…
Just for the historical record, I think Hoare has rowed back from at least some of that position from what I recall?