Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Kamm and Cohen

Oliver Kamm gives a plug to Nick Cohen's new book – and it isn't out until February! Cohen is one of the most stimulating and entertaining journalists writing in the mainstream media, how can I wait? My pre-order is in.

This gives him the chance to comment on Cohen and to elaborate on his own theme that he wished "to document the convergence of a type of left-wing thinking with traditional conservative isolationism and reaction". I would wish to nuance this without substantially disagreeing. In fact, there is a strong liberal tradition, if not of isolationism, then of non-interference. It goes back to 1795 and Kant's essay, Perpetual Peace. His fifth preliminary article for the establishment of peace is that "No state shall violently interfere with the constitution and administration of another. For what can justify it so doing? … The erring state can much more serve as a warning by exemplifying the great evils which a nation draws down on itself through its own lawlessness". This position is perfectly represented by the columns of Simon Jenkins and it is very easy for it to morph into some form of conservative 'realism' and isolationism. This is not the view of this section of the left though. It is locked into an activism of a different kind.

I would argue that their confusion, and boy are they confused, is not down to the abandonment of internationalism or morality, nor a retreat into liberal non-interference or conservative isolationism, but rigid habits of thought. I grew up with the left through the late 1960s and 70s. There were three strands to the thinking of the time. First, there was the desperation of some to either believe that Stalinism was an aberration or simply that it did not really exist outside the fevered imagination of Cold War propagandists. Those that accepted the reality of Soviet oppression sometimes argued that all would have been well if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin or tried to find examples of Marxism that promised something more successful and humane. This search flirted with Maoism (unbelievable as it seems today) but eventually settled on Cuba. Secondly, there was the support for anti-colonial national liberation movements. But the dominant theme was a sense of moral outrage at the governments of the West. There was much to feel outraged about too, particularly in the unifying event for all three, the Vietnam War. Given the strength of the peace movement and a genuine hatred of the barbarities of modern warfare a position was forged.

However, it was not just the left that settled into an unquestioning ideological rigidity. I remember being in a motorway service station in 1978 and being swamped by coachloads of braying young fogies. They were the storm troopers of the coming Thatcher revolution travelling to London to demonstrate on the tenth anniversary of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. The irony of Tories gathering to celebrate "socialism with a human face" was not lost on me. But still the question that troubled me most was, "where was the left?" This was our cause not theirs. We had abandoned it, leaving liberty and anti-totalitarianism to the right.

Once locked into Manichean thinking there is a huge difficulty adjusting to the fact that the satanic power, which people have spent their life opposing, just might, this time, be on the side of the angels. This shows in the bewildering argument that somehow the actions of the United States in opposing Saddam are illegitimate because they supported him in the past. To correct an error does not seem to be a sin to me. The real problem is that the worldview of both left and right cannot easily accommodate to a situation where one side can behave despicably in one part of the world and honourably in another. Taking a position is easier than thinking. Neither can handle ambiguity.

This was the theme of an earlier email exchange between myself and Oliver Kamm in response to a piece of his on John Pilger. Pilger's career is an exemplar of the difficulties of political commentary based on a fixed position. He always writes with stylistic clarity and he can produce some incisive pieces, but he can go wildly wrong and is prone to vivid overstatement. This is what I wrote about his journalism on Cambodia:

Pilger is incapable of ambiguity and so the evil of one side is always set against the good of the other and his apologism for the Vietnamese Communists is consistent with his earlier writing on the Vietnam War. Where there are clear faults in a regime, they tend to be brushed aside with comments such as this on the Hun Sen government, "Authoritarian and at times brutal, yet by Cambodian standards extraordinarily stable" (New Statesman 17/04/2000). The really interesting, and highly ironic, point is that he exposed the horror of Cambodia at a time when the deposed Khmer Rouge were still being officially recognised as the legitimate government of Cambodia, held the Cambodian seat in the United Nations, and when Margaret Thatcher actually talked about dealing with "moderate" elements in that criminal movement. Pilger supported the Vietnamese intervention as it brought about the end of the mass slaughter and felt that the Vietnamese-installed government should be recognised. In those distant pre-Iraq days, here was Pilger acting as the advocate of humanitarian intervention and castigating its opponents for refusing to accept it for the very reasons that he opposed it in Iraq - that it came from the wrong side!

The trouble is that he is so locked into an anti-Western Manichean view that he could not express this as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Certainly, an oppressive Vietnamese post-Stalinism had considerable advantages over a psychotic, genocidal Maoism. But Pilger cannot say this. Instead he picked up on a wholly disreputable piece of Western realpolitik and used Cambodia as a stick to beat the West. As a result, he argued for an unconditional recognition of the installed Vietnamese regime rather than for the ending of the tacit, and scandalous, Western support for the Khmer Rouge and a democratic, internal settlement based on a Vietnamese withdrawal (with passing thanks for ending the horror).

This meant that once the Cambodian peace process was under way, rather than welcoming it, but rejecting the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge, he castigated the whole process itself. He wrote with typical inaccurate overstatement, "My own investigations in Cambodia recently suggest that the American imposed 'peace' has left Cambodia more divided, more ethnically volatile, more politically unstable and at greater risk to Khmer Rouge takeover than at any time since Pol Pot began his final push for power in the early 1970s." (New Statesman 21/7/95).

His earlier position, though flawed, can at least be recognised as humane and liberal. However, and this beautifully illustrates the perils of Manichaean anti-Western thought, by the time of the peace process he was slipping away into a whole-hearted support for the Vietnamese puppet regime in preference to a UN settlement. This prefigures his later career when he went on to commit the very sins which he condemned. He acted as an apologist for Serbian ethnic nationalism and, even worse, for the barbarism of the Iraqi 'resistance' - Khmer Rouges in the making. This need to take sides is the central flaw in his work. Rather than basing his emotional humanitarianism on consistently applied liberal values, he relies on support for whoever is currently opposing the West, a recipe for disaster.

When thinking or writing on this I am always reminded of Solzhenitsyn's prescient essay "Peace and Violence", where he argues that the proper role of a peace movement is to confront violence rather than condone it to prevent war. It is very symbolic of the times are that the only web references that I can find to it are on conservative sites.

(thanks to Mike Tyldesley for spotting my deliberate mistake - Simon called Peter - now corrected)

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