Revisiting between Burke and Paine in the twenty-first century

Glad to see my recent post has sparked some debate, both on the comments thread and elsewhere. Peter expanded his argument here. Marko replied to my and Peter's comments here.

Marko makes an excellent case as to why he is not "Burke at home". He makes a very clear distinction between the politics of radical liberal democracy (Paine) and conservatism (Burke), which is important to hold on to. (I like his claiming of Charles James Fox as an alternative model to Burke.)

He also takes up my criticisms:
Bob from Brockley questions whether the West can be upheld as a positive model, given the murderous record of Western colonialism, and Western support for murderous dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Pinochet. As I made clear in my original article, the dichotomy ‘Western vs anti-Western’ cannot be projected back in time and equated with the Cold War divide between the Western and Communist blocs, let alone with the divide between the Western colonial powers and the colonised world. The ‘Western vs anti-Western’ dichotomy is a new one; the end of colonialism and of the Cold War has enabled both Western values and the Western alliance to assume a more unambiguously positive character that they did not possess before. As a historian of the Yugoslav Revolution, I can safely say I view the Communist-led sides in the Yugoslav, Greek and Albanian civil wars of the 1940s as the positive ones. I would not have supported the Americans in Vietnam or the Contras in Nicaragua. But these are yesterday’s wars that took place in yesterday’s world. I fear that Bob’s argument dangerously resembles the moral relativist one: that the geopolitical West is wrong today because it can never shed its guilt for past crimes. The ‘Western camp’ that I support is one that, as I made clear, embraces both former Cold Warriors and former Marxists, irrespective of whether they once held correct or incorrect views on Pinochet or Mao, the Contras or the Khmer Rouge. The point is where they are now, not where they were then.
I appreciate that 'the West' he is talking about is not exactly the Cold War West. I appreciate that the West has moved on from its high imperialist past and its Cold War past; I hope I am not still in the jungle fighting yesterday's wars, as some Stalinophile lefties are. I am glad that Marko has not become so "decent" as to side with the Cold War West in those historic wars, as Oliver Kamm, for example, has done in some cases: it is as important not to read today's anti-totalitarianism back on to yesterday's wars as it is not to read the Cold War into today's struggle.

But I believe that 'the West' continues to play a role that is not wholly positive, but, rather, plays a contradictory role.

It is the home of liberal democracy, which it has promoted elsewhere in some contexts. For this reason, the West is a beacon for democrats across the world. Western efforts at "exporting" democracy are A Good Thing.

But the West is also the heart of a global economic system that is bad for the world, that exploits and impoverishes peoples and the planet. The West in this latter sense must not be confused with the leading Western nations - as the faux "anti-imperialists" of the idiot left think, wrongly seeing neo-liberalism as a new imperialism. But the West in this latter sense is not A Good Thing. As Peter said, "political economy and the sharp inequalities... are NOT the 'root causes' of terrorism, but ARE of hunger, misery, environmental collapse and human despair."

While I am happy to ally myself with pro-Western people in the first sense, I am not happy to call myself pro-Western because of the second issue. Therefore, I cannot accept that the line between pro-Westerners and anti-Westerners is the principal line in politics today. The line between those who support the neo-liberal destruction of humanity and our habitat and those who oppose it is still - vitally - important.


The final issue is far more trivial.

New Centrist argues (and both Peter and Bob seem to agree):

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 referring here to Three Way Fight, World War 4 Report, etc.

In fact, the radical leftists of this kind appear on my diagram in the far left, equidistant between the pro-Western and anti-Western camps.
I didn't mean to suggest that Hoare's (extremely useful) diagram missed out the libertarian and Third Camp left. What I wanted to drew attention to was the problem in defining the 'old' Left/Right paradigm in terms of Plan v Market. Support for planning and state control was the (wrong) solution proposed by some opponents of an earlier phase of capitalism, but was never the only, or indeed, best one. To suggest it was creates a straw man of the the Old Left.

To conclude, I agree with Marko's point that "In practice, if you want to avoid irrelevance and oblivion, you have to take sides in the struggle that really matters." I agree that the struggle for democracy matters and we need to take sides on this. But I believe the struggle for social justice also matters, and we need to take sides on this too.

Other links: Simply Jews, Dodgeblogium.
Also read: this fantastic spoof at Decentpedia, as linked to by Marko.


Anonymous said…
It seems to me that Hoare's problem is what Marxists would call an idealist view of history: as if the only problem presented by the bad history of "the west" is the guilt it engenders. I have no interest in guilt, but the present-day relations between "the West" and the rest of the world (like some of the post-Seattle generation, I have tended to use "global north" and "global south" here) have a material basis in the very history that Hoare would have us discard.
Anonymous said…
I do not at all wish to discard or downplay the issue of the poverty and exploitation of the Third World under the global capitalist system, and Bob is right to draw attention to this issue.

I would argue, however, that the continued development of global capitalism, the growth and modernisation of Third World economies and the growth in awareness of the issue of Third World poverty here in the West are more likely to improve matters than any anti-capitalist or anti-Western movement. Alan Johnson has written on this:

Indeed, one of the most successful attempts at freeing a country from economic exploitation by the Western powers was carried out by the regime of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey in the 1920s. And Ataturk was, of course, a great Westerniser.

The end result of the liberation of Turkey from exploitation by the Western powers was that Turkey, as a fully independent state, joined NATO and became an ally of Britain and the US. Which is a good thing; I hope more countries follow the Turkish model.
Anonymous said…
I hope you don't mind me tying in comments to various of the posts on this issue in this one- it seemed sensible. It's well long. Maybe go get yourself a can of beer or summat.

I agree with you that Marko's explanation of why he's not Burke at home is a convincing one, at least on the details.

I took that more as a rhetorical device to illustrate that some people in this debate have largely given up on social change at home though.

I think that's one that holds a bit more weight with you, Marko.

Firstly, I appreciate you outlining some of your more radical views-

I support the abolition of the monarchy, a democratically elected second chamber, the disestablishment of the Church of England, the abolition of faith-based and private education and the complete secularisation of public life.

However, firstly, I'm not sure that any of those positions, aside from the abolition of private education (on which I concur) can really be said to be taking the side of the poor and disenfranchised as such. I'm not saying that your views on them are wrong- I broadly agree with them for the most part. Merely that they don't actually strike me as changes that would actually have a real impact on the lives of most people.

Secondly, if you actually look at the focus of your blog, I think it's hard to argue that you prefer to look at the lives of poor people in other countries then this one. Where are the posts on child poverty? On social mobility? On industrial action?

The third is probably the most important. I think it's legitimate to judge people by who they choose as their allies as well as their own political positions. That strikes me as valid- we'd all agree that criticising the SWP for their support of Hamas is correct, despite the ideological distinctions between the two. So who are Marko's chosen allies? I'm assuming that his view that the pro/anti western camps are have superceded the left and right as the relevant dialect means that it logically follows that any ideologies that Marko lists as pro western are his allies. Correct me if I've misread you on that Marko.

So we have muscular liberals, Neoconservatives, Blairites, Bush Republicans and Cameronites all on the same side as Marko. And if some of those ideologies pursue economic polices that increase social inequality, then I accept fully that they do so without Marko's support. But they're still his allies, regardless. And if some people end up homeless, it's still less relevant then the fact that those responsible are pro West.

If anything, I don't think Marko follows his argument through to his logical conclusion. If the litmus test for whom to stand alongside is this issue, then I see no grounds for excluding those who believe in the "clash of civilisations" theory. Or those who commit human rights violations at home. Pro/anti west is the important issue, after all.

It's interesting that Pinochet has been mentioned. Because with this ideological stance, you'd have to include him in the pro west camp- his foreign policy undoubtably was. And Marko comes near to this anyway:

The ‘Western camp’ that I support is one that, as I made clear, embraces both former Cold Warriors and former Marxists, irrespective of whether they once held correct or incorrect views on Pinochet or Mao, the Contras or the Khmer Rouge. The point is where they are now, not where they were then.

In the case of Mao, I know there has been some genuine repudiation of previous positions. I'm less convinced that's happened much with those that previously backed Pinochet. I'm happy to consider evidence to the contrary of course. But without that, what we have is an argument that we should, in essence, let bygones be bygones. And that previous support for Pinochet is no longer relevant. There is some black humour in someone who attacks "moral relativism" so much arguing that previous support for mass murderers isn't that important. Personally, I would consider any Stalinist who hasn't publically distanced themselves and apologised for their previous stance, to be an absolute political enemy. Is that your stance on Pinochet supporters, Marko?

Bob- On the working class struggle for enfranchisement: Again, I'm not sure if you can read MAH's ignorance of this from his post.

Yeah, that's fair I think. Aside from a small quibble that universal sufferage is a bit of a hot potato to use in defenses of liberal democracy, simply because of the involvement of Sylvia Pankhurst, I don't think there's the evidence there for that. I think it can be said that Marko is hostile to any notion of class politics-

But I think he understands the issue perfectly, he's just doesn't believe class based politics are a good thing:

All social classes and ethnic groups should be judged by the same standard; none has any inherent nobility greater than the others; all should be subject to criticism but defended when necessary.

Why should we worry more about the dustman then the duke?

Fine, Marko has a perfect right to that view. But for those who still do believe that there is a class struggle. And who take Maurice Cowling's statement that:

if there is a class war--and there is--it is important that it should be handled with subtlety and skill

as a statement of fact from the other side. Then I'm not sure what can be seen by allying ourselves with people who deny our reality. And who see issues of social justice as disposable shibboleths, to be sacrificed on the pro West altar. Or to put it another way:

We may have our internal differences over taxation or public ownership, as does the other side, but in each case, these are differences within the family.

Marko again, emphasis mine. I've never thought that the Iraq war was the litmus test so many on the left seem to think- that goes for both camps. Crafty from the IWCA was ambivalent. I don't really think anyone can make a good case for being either a Trot or a liberal. I do think this particular issue is though. If you see yourself as part of the class struggle left, you can't stand alongside those who deny the class struggle exists, while they ally themselves with the other side. Choose. Because...

Those who occupy the middle ground are either vacillating between the two sides, or have opted out of the struggle and are standing on the sidelines.

A seeming side effect of Marko's views is that he also seems to miss quite how little the likes of the SWP actually mention class when they're wearing their "anti-imperalist" hat.

To move onto the final point, Marko's statement that:

(In reality, to talk about ‘proletarian revolution’ or ‘world socialism’ or ‘anarchism’ today is no more ‘revolutionary’ than are the steam engine or the gramophone in today’s technological age)

is broadly correct I think. Have to say, I think Red Action did this issue better, but yeah, fair enough.

The churlish response would be to ask where Marko's pro West social movement is coming along. With Cohen etc. you've got a lot more access to the mainstream media then we have.

But that would be to make a (admittedly fun) cheap shot at the expense of the wider issue. It's undoubtably the case that the left, as a whole, hasn't had any real organic connection to the working class for decades. And we are in a situation where the Western working class is increasingly politically, economically and socially disenfranchised. Those factors are a dangerous combination. Both because the working class is very much on the defensive and much of the left are still pissing about shouting slogans. But also because it's the conditions that lead to opportunities for the likes of the BNP.

That needs seriously addressing. There's been some small shoots (the IWCA in particular). But I'm highly dubious denying the class struggle exists and trying to tie everything into the pro/anti West worldview is a step forward to the serious reconfiguration of the left I'm talking about. The left are already largely irrelevant to the working class- this compounds that problem.

Marko, I would be interested to know what you think of discussions along these lines in Class War. Or the IWCA. Or Red Action. Or Reclaim the Streets. Or Anti Fascist Action. I have no problem with critiques of the libertarian left, from outside or in, but I get a bit snarky when I get the impression that it's coming from someone who hasn't even looked at the Wiki yet. Surely you can understand that? Wouldn't you get a bit pissed off if I started waxing lyrical on the history of the former Yugoslavia, despite the fact I know very little on the subject.

I think your problem here is that you come very much from a last century left background- you've mentioned previously being close to the SWP etc. Understand that the libertarian left is not the same tradition. We have different values. And we have different problems.

Because at the moment, these kinds of comments:

in practice, if you want to avoid irrelevance and oblivion, you have to take sides in the struggle that really matters. And in that case, you can only be so left-wing, before you end up flipping round to the side of the far right.

merely suggest to me that you're making it up as you go along. A very good example of this is the statement from Class War on the War in Lebanon.

I certainly don't expect you to agree with it. But it's quite obviously a statement on the kind of issues you're talking about, which doesn't fall neatly into either of your categories. And I defy you to show how it's far right.

Because, quite honestly, when you describe us as

consigning themselves to political irrelevance and sectarian oblivion.

The feeling's entirely mutual. You aren't any more relevant to my political goals then I am to yours. Not because you aren't an anarchist- I've always allied with non anarchists for mutual goals. But because our stances are so far apart.

I want to try and make the libertarian left relevant to the class struggle, which I see as the central political issue for any progressive. You don't believe class is politically relevant.

I want radical social transformation. I want direct democracy in the economic, social and political spheres. You think liberal representative democracy is what we should aspire to achieve. I want to reshape, you want to remould.

Those aren't small sectarian differences. They preclude us from ever really being relevant to each other's politics. And a mutual disdain for the SWP is never going to cover that up. For what it's worth, I don't see you as an enemy. Merely pointless. And I'm sure you think the same of me.

Because in the end, it comes down to this. When given a choice between your 'realism':

Those who continue to talk about abolishing either capitalism or the welfare state are the political equivalent of flat-earthers.

And Orwell's:

I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.

I'm with George. I might never achieve the free society I dream of. But I'd rather fail then forgot the dream in the cold light of day. I kinda pity you. Genuinely.
bob said…
Thanks for that chunky intervention Waterloo Sunset. When I was at my most "left-wing", I totally rejected the term "left" for exactly the same reasons that the likes of Red Action, Class War and Aufheben rejected it: it is a term that described a clique of middle class metropolitan people whose politics consisted in the endless repitition of empty gestures that had little or no relevance to the lives of ordinary people. The left, I thought, was about mediating the relationship between the state and the working class, not about genuine emancipation.

I believed that the vacuum the left created when it stopped bothering with the day to day concerns of working people in their communities was filled through the 1990s by the BNP, which did take the time to knock on doors and find out what bothered people, and then articulated this in the public sphere. It was to fill this vacuum again that IWCA was created, which I took a very small rank and file role in.

Oddly, as I've swung back towards the political centre, I feel more warmly towards the left, and in particular towards the history of the anti-Stalinist left which is exemplified by that Orwell quote, and by the Fat Man's recent posts.

Marko, I am still convinced we are on the same side on both domestic as well as international politics. As far as I'm concerned, a blogger (unlike, say, a political party) doesn't have to parade a correct position on everything (on child poverty, on social mobility, on industrial action) to get the benefit of the doubt: one person has to think about where they can usefully intervene.

Reading your comment the question arose for me about whether Kemal Ataturk would fall into the pro-Western or anti-Western camp today? I still believe that the West then, and the West now, is too contradictory to place at the heart of one's political compass. The West in Ataturk's time was about both secular democracy and exploitation; the same is true now.
Anonymous said…
I'd broadly agree, though in the current context I think that vague calls for the nationalisation of industry are probably irrelevant (let alone worker's control). And talk of revolution is simply posturing.

That's where I think the IWCA approach is valuable. If we're serious about recompositing the left, the first step is to actually rebuild the trust that's been lost with the class and prove that we're effective class fighters for immediate sectional interests.

You're entirely right that the brutal truth is that the BNP have shown themselves to have more understanding of community politics then the bulk of the left. That was pointed out in the early 90's, reasonably forcefully. And the potential for BNP growth was also warned of. But was written off as "alarmist" at the time. And we're now paying for that.

I think we seem to be very close on this issue. That's not a complete surprise if you were involved in IWCA rank and file work. I wasn't directly involved once the organisation was set up (mostly due to geographical factors), but was part of the internal discussion within AFA surrounding the "Filling the Vacuum" strategy document. And that was obviously what lead to the launch of the IWCA.

With the benefit of hindsight, I'm unconvinced that AFA should have been disbanded as well- I think the two organisations had very different roles to play.
bob said…
WS - I completely agree about AFA. We scorned the SWP for winding up and then re-starting the ANL to follow the fair and foul winds of bourgeois public opinion: we knew the problem never went away. I had supported the turn to community politics long before Filling the Vacuum (and many AFA branches in the regions were already practising it), and was glad when AFA made the turn.

However, the way that the policy was implimented began to disturb me in 1999/2000. South London AFA wasn't strong enough to launch an IWCA branch, and included some recalcitrant "real AFA" elements who wanted to keep on the squaddist fight (they've gone on to Antifa). We were bused up to various places in North London to campaign with the IWCA against council stock transfers. I felt very uncomfortable with this, as I didn't know the estates and (although my partner and parents were all council house raised) I have never lived in a council house, so I felt a bit inauthentic. In fact, I felt a little like an SWP footsoldier in some completely un-organic front organization. Exactly the politics Red Action/AFA had been started as a break from.

I disengaged in early 2000, for personal reasons, intending to get back involved when the dust settled. When it did, I found AFA had been wound up, and no public explanation why this was.

This whole disenheartening experience was a key moment for me in my complete departure from the far left milieu, even if I still hold many of the same principles.

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