[Marxism] Pro-War Liberals not about to disappear writes Richard Seymour
jim.ferguson1917 at gmail.com
Wed Apr 1 16:29:14 MDT 2009
Debate and Comment
Humbling the hawks
The liberals that supported Bush's wars have been forced to recant,
but their ideology is not about to disappear, writes Richard Seymour
The pro-imperialist liberals, once vociferous and united in defence of
US wars, are in a mess. The invasion of Iraq, on which so many of them
waged their moral and intellectual credibility, has led to horrifying
Numerous defections to the anti-war camp have left interventionists
out in the cold. In their isolation they have degenerated into
spiteful Islamophobic rhetoric. In truth, this pathetic faction has
never looked less politically viable.
Many of these people backed George Bush in 2004 rather than tolerate
John Kerry's mild criticisms of the Iraq war. But by 2008 almost all
of them were supporting Barack Obama, a candidate who had opposed the
"liberation" of Iraq.
Christopher Hitchens, who never looked better than when being
waterboarded on assignment for the magazine Vanity Fair, spent more
than five years hounding opponents of the Iraq war as fascist
sympathisers and "capitulationists". It must have felt like a betrayal
for this newly minted American patriot to actually have to vote for
Or think of Michael Ignatieff who, in his bid to become leader of the
Canadian Liberals, was forced to recant his support for the Iraq war
and his justifications for torture. This is a man who once celebrated
the rise of a "humanitarian empire" and warned against the "dampening"
of "imperial ardour". His own ardour is now tragically spent.
As for the British liberals who organised themselves under the now
defunct Euston Manifesto, the alliance seems ever more tenuous. Its
co-founder, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, has veered toward the
He can now be found reproducing racist claims about African immigrants
spreading HIV, and indulging in bar room rants against
multiculturalism. Like his guru Hitchens, he increasingly resembles
the blimpish socialist turned Thatcherite Paul Johnson.
As sensible as it is to mock such people, however, it would be prudent
not to write off the ideas that they have articulated. Liberal
arguments for empire are not about to disappear, because they are as
old as liberalism itself.
Liberalism emerged as part of the same historical moment as
capitalism, colonialism, Atlantic slavery, and "race" theory. As such,
liberals developed a distinctive set of justifications for empire.
Their basic moral sanction for empire was that the conquered people
were in a backward state of development and that the colonies would
Thus, while the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill favoured
extending the franchise to the British working class, he maintained
that "despotism" was appropriate for "barbarians", "provided the end
be their improvement".
Such ideas were even articulated by some in the socialist and labour
movements when they began to develop in the 19th century.
British Fabians, who decisively shaped the Labour Party's colonial
policy, strongly supported empire. They argued against self-government
for "natives" on the grounds that parliamentary institutions were "as
useless to them as a dynamo to a Caribbean". Even Labour's radical
1919 election manifesto contained a clause exalting Britain's duty to
"the non-adult races".
In fact pro-colonial opinion was common throughout the Second
International alliance of socialist organisations at that time. Eduard
Bernstein, the German social democrat, asserted that the colonised
were "without exception better off" under colonial rule.
Arguments such as these fell into disrepute for a number of reasons.
First, the carnage of the First World War resulted in a massive
realignment of the left. The anti-imperialist position of the Russian
revolutionary Lenin and the Zimmerwald Left became the socialist
mainstream, while the 1917 Russian Revolution boosted the
Second, the US emerged as the dominant world power just as
decolonisation was underway. US statesmen wanted to forestall what
they called "premature independence", but could not openly say so.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 saw the revival of
earlier liberal arguments under the rubric of "humanitarian
intervention". The "war on terror" has given many commentators the
chance to openly call for empire.
There is a simple political reason why liberal arguments for
imperialism will tend to come to the fore – most people reject the
militaristic nationalism of the hard right. It is much easier to win
people to war if you can persuade them that humane and democratic
values are stake.
This means that however ridiculous and exhausted the current
generation of pro-war liberal sycophants appears to be, others will
arise to take their place.
And this is why the liberal hawks have found that they need Obama. The
paradox is that although he was elected on an anti-war vote, he
nevertheless represents the best chance for reconciling liberal
opinion with imperialism.
Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence Of Murder,
published by Verso and available from Bookmarks, the socialist
bookshop, for £16.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »
www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk to order. Richard also runs Lenin's Tomb –
go to » leninology.blogspot.com
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