More on The Euston Manifesto

April 24, 2006

I signed The Euston Manifesto because I agreed with it. But I agreed with it because I am Old [-fashioned] Left. I agreed with it because I support its implicit call to reject the moral idiocy of the New Left, with its obfuscations and equivocations, its temporising on the new fascism represented by Islamic fundamentalists, its descent into reflexive and instinctual anti-Americanism, its refusal to treat honestly with the ghosts of its scores and scores of millions dead.

In his great essay Why I Write, George Orwell spoke about the ‘power of facing’: he realised, early in his life, that he had a power of facing unpleasant facts. It’s an unusual construction, and an unusual capacity. It connotes an ability to stare straight at something, and see what it really is. That sounds simple, but in an ideological age like ours is, it’s actually very difficult.

Today’s Left has lost this facility, if it ever possessed it. It sees unpleasant facts, yes (if pushed), but it stares straight past them: it doesn’t face them. It refuses to deal with them, to confront them, whilst at the same time positioning itself so as to deny that it actually ignores them. Its eternal moral alibi is ‘Yes, but…’. So we need The Euston Manifesto to re-confirm the Left’s moral base.

And — yet. Despite my admiration for the Manifesto and the intentions of its authors, I have some doubts. They seek to re-state the original purposes of the Left, its grand dream, derived from three hundred years of liberal tradition, and to re-constitute a New new Left, based on those undying principles.

But suppose there is no longer a need, or room for the Left — any Left, even theirs? Perhaps the age of the grand dream is over. Perhaps capitalism, all unwitting, has done most of the work for them.

Mr Freen over at Evil Pundit‘s has attacked the Manifesto from the Right (most criticisms I’ve seen have come from an aggrieved or aggravated Left). He makes the point, undeniably true, that the Manifesto is still socialist. It is utopian, and implicit in its program is the expectation that governments could, and should, try to make the world a better place, under-write its freedoms, not least in their corner of it, by executive fiat. If I understand him right, Mr Freen is arguing for a deeper freedom: he is saying, in effect: Government — get out of my face. Leave us alone; we can work things out for ourselves. All your dreams have turned out to be wet ones.

Maybe that’s true, and maybe the Manifesto is behind the true curve of the times, an exercise in nostalgia, an ache for an age that’s past. An elegy.

Despite that, or maybe because of it, I’m glad I signed it.

Update: Wise and useful words here from Norm Geras, one of the Manifesto’s founders, explaining the (deliberate) tension between the socialist and non-socialist elements of the Manifesto. Yet Socialism in an Age of Waiting, to whom he is responding, makes some powerful points, too. Many signatories, it seems, harbour reservations to one extent or another, as I do. But that in no way detracts from the force or necessity of the enterprise.

Further update: The controversy continues apace. Daniel Finklestein in The Times (yes, what a robotoid Mudochite he must be) remarks: a group of left-wing pundits and intellectuals wants to save the Left from itself — but why bother? It’s as hard to agree with that as it is to disagree. Still, this is the debate, and this is the time. This needed to happen.


  1. Rob, there are a lot of “maybes” and “perhapses” in your signing statement. From what you’ve said before, you obviously don’t agree with positive government action. So that calls into question whether you can really say “I agree with it”. I don’t think elegiac politics is particularly positive politics. But I think you’ve given us another bit of evidence that most of the signers are not left wing people (anymore) in any real sense, which means that the whole project is either mischievous or self-justificatory.

  2. “That sounds simple, but in an ideological age like ours is, it’s actually very difficult.”

    I wince when I hear such silliness. Can you tell me what age wasn’t ideological? Was it the age of papal infallibity, the dawn of industrialisation or 1953 at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon in Dubbo?

    Ideology is simply a way of viewing the world. There isn’t a man or woman who has ever lived who hasn’t had an ideology, nor could there be. Your failure to understand such a fact reveals something more serious than the simple ” power of facing unpleasant facts”.

    Eric Blair wouldn’t have tolerated such nonsense.

  3. Kim: What part of ‘I signed it because I agreed with it’ is there to not understand? The Manifesto is an attempt to re-inscribe the principles of liberal democracy in a contemporary debate that, at least on the left, has incraesingly lost sight of them. Those values are not exclusive to the left: as the founders say, they are not all from the left. They are trying to identify universal values that don’t belong either to left of right, but have emerged from the long, slow process of liberal democratisation.

    I only have relatively minor quibbles with the Manifesto itself. I have doubts about what it says about organisations like the UN, the WTO and the IMF, and, more broadly, about its commitment to internationalism, although article 10 is well framed.

    Whether the left has had its day and outlived its usefulness, well, that’s a bigger debate and one for another day.

    steve: You have a more benign view of ideology than I do. Ideology isn’t ideational, it’s (needless to say) ideological; that is, it articulates a set of political prescriptions for interpreting the world. It is inherently totalising, if not actually totalitarian. Very few people are ideologues, though many more are idealists.

    We live in an age of unprecedented ideology, where art, history literature and the general instruments of culture are filtered through an ideological prism. That is what the culture wars and the history wars — movements of resistance against the totalising instincts of ideology — are all about.

  4. Rob, that is utter nonsense. Ideology is a sociological and political science word with a distinct meaning. Every human is an ideological and political being by virtue of being human and living in a society. Whether the live and breath politics or hardly ever think about it is irrelevant.

    Let’s put it this way, someone may describe themselves as not interested in religion, yet they still inevitably fall into one of three categories, the faithful, the atheistic or the agnostic.

    Your problem is that you misunderstand the word ideology. What makes this all the more bizarre is that you then go on to invoke your very own dogmatic ideology of capitalist triumphalism.

  5. “Political ideology” would have spelled it out better, I guess, but I thought that implicit in what I wrote. If “ideology” means a world view — a network of interrelated beliefs, values or convictions — held by anyone, you’re right, it applies to everyone. But it seems to me the concept itself loses utility if it’s applied that broadly. Wikipedia is quite good on the term an its permutations.

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